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"You're crazy if you think I'm just gonna let you drive home after you almost fainted right here in front of me and Brad." Samson's face was a picture of exasperation.
Danilo Melendez, owner of the auto-parts-and-accessories giant Machine Melendez, spat a curse in his native tongue. "Bradley saw no need to call the paramedics before he left. You, however, are acting like a mother hen and I'm fine!"
"Pop, you almost"
Raising both hands in a defensive gesture, Sam stifled his reference to his father's reaction. "Maybe you'd like to tell me what's so special about Martino Viejo?"
Dan's expression appeared vicious as he observed his eldest son. "Have you no respect for the dead?"
"Pop, you know that's not"
"I won't have you question my concern for another human beingan employee at that. Am I understood?"
Sam looked down at the invisible pattern he traced into the top of his pine desk. "Who was he, Pop?" Sam rolled his eyes as Danilo began to rattle off a profile that he himself could have gotten from the Melendez HR department.
Following the brief rundown into Martino Viejo's career with Machine Melendez, Dan bade his son a good-afternoon and made a hasty departure from the ranch. Sam made no argument and simply placed a call to the home of his assistant, June Elliott.
"Did you know him?" Sam was asking once he'd greeted the woman and engaged in a few moments of idle chatter. Sam couldn't decide whether he was pleased to have the information or peeved over the fact that the recent murder victim had such an impressive employment reputation and had flown completely below his radar.
"Sounds like he was a golden boy." Sam settled back into his desk chair when June took the time to breathe amid her rave review.
"Well, the community-relations department was very lucky to have him. All the programs he helped implement " She sighed. "He did such fine work helping to acclimate MM employees who were also new to the country. He was even instrumental in working with area organizations where focus was on single momseducating them, preparing them for the workforce, providing child care "
"Hell." Sam propped one elbow on the desk chair and massaged his forehead. "Junehe's dead."
"What?" The woman's already soft voice had taken on an even softer current. "Was this connected to all the others ? Of course it was," she answered herself.
Sam's expression remained grim but he appreciated his assistant's quick mind.
"What's happening, Sam? Are we going to have to dismiss all of our immigrant workers in order to protect them?"
"I don't think we'll have to go that far, June." At least I hope we won't. Sam groaned inwardly. "Can you get me the names of all the newest immigrant employees?"
"I'll get right on it."
"And, June? Keep as much of a lid on this as you can, all right?"
"I understand." June's words came through the line following a brief silence.
"I'm sure the cops'll be round there soon enough. With any luck we'll have the chance to formally address the crowd before that."
"Does your father know?"
"He does. He's not a happy man." Or a well man. Sam made yet another silent observation but shook it off. "I appreciate this, June."
"Take care, Sam."
Once the call with June ended, Sam went right ahead and made contact with his brothers. During the conference call with Paolo and Lugo Melendez, he broke the news about Martino Viejo.
"Does Pop know?" Lugo asked.
"Yeah " Sam swiveled his chair to take in the massive rear expanse of his ranch several miles outside Houston. "He wouldn't even let me talk to him about it. We need to check out this Viejobeyond his job responsibilities. Maybe everything Pop wouldn't tell me is wrapped up in this guy."
"You think it's wise to go behind Pop's back on this, Sam?" Paolo decided to play devil's advocate.
Sam had no desire to tangle with Danilo. "The cops are damn well gonna find somethin'. Pop knows it. I could see it on his face when Brad told us about Viejo. If all this could damage Pop or the business, we need to do all we can to get ahead of it."
"So what's our next move?" Lugo asked.
"I've got June pullin' all the files for the new immigrant employees. Maybe we can find some kind of connection the cops haven't stumbled onto yet."
"They're not idiots, Sam." Again Paolo played the advocate. "They already found out all the vics shared the same address."
"An address nobody can find," Lugo reminded his big brother.
"It's the only real clue they have. I still hope it'll lead somewherepun intended," Sam said.
Lugo sighed. "I pray it's anywhere except back to us."
"Amen," Paolo muttered.
"Chances are it'll all lead back to us." Sam took his turn at playing devil's advocate. "What are you sayin'?"
"You know exactly what, Pow. Papa didn't make his money by bein' Texas's most upstanding citizen. We all know he's got skeletons in his closet."
"Then what do we do when it leads back to us?" Lugo queried.
"Pray." Sam's voice sounded monotone and grim. "Pray it doesn't ruin us all."
Paul Tristam entered his boss's office carefully, as if he expected something to be thrown at his head. Avra had been even more demanding than usual. The funny thing was he didn't think her mood had anything to do with the Ross Review.
He'd brought in a tray laden with her favorite tea and Danish. His plan was to relax her while trying to probe into what was going on with her. From the corner of his eye, he saw her across the room on the sofa. Papers of all shapes, sizes and colors were spread about her. His voice of reason told him to set the tray down and go. He only half listened. He set down the tray and then crossed the room to her.
Encouraged by the absent reply, Paul expelled the breath he'd been holding. "Need help?"
"Yeah." She shoved aside a page and dragged all ten fingers through the hoard of short, unruly onyx curls atop her head. "'Cause I must be out of my mind wastin' so much time on this mess." For good measure she swiped a few papers from the coffee table.
"I'm sorry." She groaned the words while holding her head in her hands.
A frown crossed Paul's sun-kissed features. Now he knew for sure that something heavy was going on.
"Thanks for the tea, Paul. Why don't you go ahead and take off for the night?"
"Avra, are you sure everything's all right?"
She had to laugh, knowing she was making her assistant more nervous than usual.
"I promise everything's fine. I'm just trying to prove something to myself." She tugged on the cuff of her pin-striped shirt and cast a woeful look toward the strewn papers. "I'm pretty sure it's a lost cause."
"And it's something you need to handle alone."
"Yeah." She nodded and looked up at him with a weary smile.
Paul reached out to squeeze her shoulder. "I'll leave you to it, then."
"Thanks, hon." She patted the hand on her shoulder.
Alone in her office once more, Avra left the whirlwind of papers and went to help herself to a cup of the fragrant tea. There she debated over taking her own advice.
She brought the mug to her mouth but didn't sip. Instead she studied the mess she'd made in the office living area. Huffing, she set down the cup and went to tidy up. While gathering papers, she took another look at the oddly shaped page that had warranted a closer glance. Actually, it was a number scrawled between two sentences: 14918.
"What the hell are you?" Avra tried to make sense of the numbers again, thinking that they had something to do with the sentences they had been written between.
Unfortunately it seemed that the note was written as an afterthought. It had nothing to do with the paragraph that was part of the story on the John Holloway suicide. Sitting cross-legged in the middle of the papers, she thought about what she'd told Paul about it all being a lost cause.
"14918." She muttered the numbers again before slapping the page to her thigh. "Dammit to hell," she cursed, at last completely discouraged.
* * *
"Carson always suspected there was someone else on this besides him. I should have listened to him." Shane Arroyo said his words tightly into the receiver.
"This was important." The voice on the other end of the phone line sounded grated, crackling through a poor connection. "You know as well as anyone that your brother was disturbed."
"And now he's dead."
"We're sorry, Shane, but this is bigger than all of us."
"Would you have taken my brother out had the cops not beat you to it?"
"I know you're on the edge, Shane." The voice sounded soothing, patient. "It couldn't have been easy having to ID Carson's body, so I'll just forget your implications."
Shane's mouth tightened.
"Your brother didn't die for nothing. The Melen-dezes will pay for what they did to your familyfor what they've done to so many families."
"You'll have as much to lose as the Melendezes when all of this comes out."
"But it still must come out." The voice acknowledged Shane's prediction. "It's gone on too long and Dan's making no move to stop it."
"But his sons"
"I can't risk them moving in and playing heroes. That's not in the plan and would not be in our best interest. The timetable will have to be upped in light of your brother's passing. Do you understand?"
Shane nodded before offering verbal confirmation. "I understand."
The call ended shortly afterward.
* * *
"Sorry, Daddy," Avra was saying when she walked into Basil Ross's office after applying a quick knock to the door. "Miss Doris wasn't at her desk." She cited the man's assistant, Doris Shipman.
"Come on in here, miss." Basil's affectionate name for his eldest child seemed to vibrate in the spacious room with its rich maple paneling, plush carpeting and floor-to-ceiling windows. He met Avra in the middle of the office where he plied her with a kiss, hug and his own apology.
Surprise filtered through her vibrant brown eyes.
Basil tucked her into his side and squeezed. "I've been pretty closed off for a while."
"Well, a lot's happened." It was the opening she'd been hoping for. "Some good." She made a pretense of straightening her father's tie. "Khouri's getting married."
A broad grin illuminated Basil's handsome face. "I can't tell you how pleased I am by that and by the girl he's chosen."
"Yeah, the weirdo finally lucked out. Setha's a real catch." Avra smiled over her combination playful insult and genuine compliment. Still, the ease of her expression began to show signs of weariness.
"There's been a lot of the not so good, too." She tugged Basil with her to lean against the edge of the desk. "These murders I know it has to hurt seeing such a good friend dealing with drama like this."
Basil left the desk at his daughter's mention of the murders targeting the employees of Machine Melendez, the company founded by one of his oldest friends.
Avra watched her father pacing the room and she knew where his mind was. Good. She wanted to keep it there.
"You'll be happy to know David and Noah are taking your suggestionto follow the money," Avra tacked on when Basil looked her way. "They might break this thing before the police." She laughed slightly referring to the Ross Review reporters assigned to the MM murders story.
"Have they found anything?" Basil watched his daughter closely.
"No." She focused on one of the small lavender buttons lining the front of her cap-sleeved blouse. "They've got lots of loose pieces, though. With any luck they'll put 'em together soon enough." She let her eyes drift downward then. "I've been putting together a few links of my own." She noticed that her father had returned to his pacing. "I've been going through Wade's old notes."
The pacing stopped.
"Whatever for?" He sounded incredulous.
"I think maybe Carson Arroyo had gripes with the Melendezes and the Rosses. Whatever it was, I'm betting it had something to do with his dad's so-called suicide. Wade was working on that story in conjunction with John Holloway's obit just before he died."
Basil shook his head, obviously confused.
"Carson Arroyo was John Holloway's son. Hollo-way was the Melendez employee who apparently killed himself after being fired."
Basil returned to his seat, slowly easing down to the corner. "How do you know this?"
"Actually, it was Khouri and Setha who made the connection." Avra faced her dad across the desk. She waited for the man's reaction. "Do the police know?"
She'd found what she'd come in search of. "It all came out when Carson was killed." She nodded. "Maybe the cops can start putting it all together. In the meantime" she slid off the desk and tugged on the hem of the satin blouse hanging outside her slacks "I'm gonna do my part and dig some more. Maybe I can find a key to this mess."
"I don't want you involved." The tightness of Basil's voice matched his expression to perfection. "You have your own work to see to."
"Oh, Daddy, it won't interfere"
"I said stay out of it."
"Why?" Ever outspoken, she voiced the query with a frown.
Basil leaned forward. "Because I said so."
"You're skating on the thinnest piece of ice now, miss."
Understanding the warning, Avra barely nodded. She left the office soon after.