Some days you’re the windshield, some days you’re the bug.
Other days, you’re the girl wading thigh-deep in frigid swamp water trying to talk a koala out of a cypress tree.
Well, if you’re me, anyway.
My name is Grace Wilde, and I am the dog, cat, elephant, and at the moment, koala whisperer.
I waded closer to the base of the tree and squinted up.
Percy, the koala, sat in the crook of one of the bare branches. He was still soaked from his frantic swim to reach the tallest tree in the area. Wet is not a good look for a koala. The tufts of fur on his ears drooped and the rest of his gray and white coat was clumped and matted. In addition to looking pitiful, the poor little guy was confused, agitated, and in a pretty foul mood.
I couldn’t blame him.
He’d been on his way to his new home in Orlando when disaster struck. The transport vehicle was involved in an accident on I-95 that left the driver with a concussion and an injured leg. During the crash, the van’s rear doors and the koala’s cage had popped open. Thankfully, Percy had chosen to run away from the six lanes of speeding traffic and flee into the adjacent swamp.
Someone called 911. Kai Duncan, whom I’ve been dating and who happens to be a sergeant with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, called me. I, in turn, had called reinforcements. And here we were . . .
“What do you think, Grace?”
The question came from my friend and colleague, Sonja Brown.
Sonja was an animal behaviorist with a big heart and had great instincts. Like the rest of the would-be rescuers gathered around us, she was willing to drop everything to go on a mission to find a rogue koala. Unlike the other volunteers, Sonja knew my secret.
I can communicate with animals.
Some would say I’m psychic, some would use the term telepath. A few too many would call me crazy, a freak, or both, which means I tend to be a selective sharer.
I looked at Sonja. She stood in the murky water a few feet to my right and wore an expression of calm concern on her lovely, dark face.
So far, I’d coaxed, cajoled, and visualized a eucalyptus utopia.
Percy wasn’t interested.
He wanted someone he called Teddy, and that was that.
I motioned Sonja closer. She slogged slowly to where I stood.
“What was the driver’s name?”
“Mark somebody. Why?”
I lowered my voice so the other rescuers wouldn’t hear.
“He keeps asking for Teddy.”
“Teddy, huh?” She looked up at the koala. “Even if we figure out who Teddy is, it would take a while for them to get here, right?”
I nodded, understanding what she meant. Though I hadn’t sensed any physical trauma from the koala, I couldn’t be sure and we couldn’t take any chances.
Drawing in a lungful of marshy air, I focused my thoughts and tried again to persuade Percy to come down the tree.
Hungry? I pulled the image of eucalyptus leaves to the front of my mind and offered it to the koala.
Teddy! Was the response.
I don’t know who Teddy is! The frustrated thought came out a little more forceful than I’d intended.
To my surprise, instead of being startled, the koala answered with a series of sensations and images. The feel of soft fur. Bright, black eyes, a velvet nose.
“I’ve got it,” I said.
I splashed over to where we’d set Percy’s transport cage, got on my hands and knees and started digging through the contents. Eucalyptus, eucalyptus, a little more eucalyptus . . . I found a baby blanket and, buried in a corner, a stuffed bear.
• • •
“Even though I’ve seen you do your stuff before, I’m always impressed,” Sonja said twenty minutes later as we walked to the construction site where we, and the other volunteers, had parked.
I shrugged and shifted my gaze to the people around us. I had always been uncomfortable with compliments and especially so when it came to my ability.
Having only recently told a handful of people, I was still getting used to talking about it openly. Doing so within earshot of those who didn’t know made me feel exposed.
I cast a meaningful look in the direction of the other volunteers.
“What?” She followed my glance, stopped, planted her hands on her hips, and stared at me in silent challenge.
“I’m not ready to tell everyone I meet what I can do, okay?” I whispered.
“Did I say anything about your ability? No, I did not. I didn’t use the word telepathy or psychic or anything like that, did I?” She didn’t wait for my answer. “No, what I did was pay you a compliment. The proper response to which should be: ‘Thank you, Sonja.’”
She waited expectantly.
I huffed out a breath. “Thank you, Sonja.”
“See? Was that so hard? Grace, honey, listen. I understand your reluctance to open up to people. Even though I don’t agree with it, I understand.”
“You sound like Emma.”
My sister had been encouraging me to let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, for years. I’d resisted. Mostly out of fear.
“I know what happened with that idiot old boyfriend of yours, but by now you must’ve learned that there are plenty of people who will accept what you can do. Not without question, maybe. But they’ll at least give you a chance. Speaking of chances . . .” She looked over my shoulder and smiled.
I glanced back to see who she was talking about and felt a smile tug at the corners of my mouth as well.
“I’ve been trying to call you,” Kai said.
“I left my phone in Bluebell.” I motioned to where my vintage, light blue Suburban was parked.
Kai nodded a quick greeting to Sonja and said to me, “I need to talk to you. Privately.”
Sonja gave me a wink, we said our good-byes, and I turned back to Kai. “What’s up?”
He waited for my friend to be out of earshot before he started to answer. “Did you talk to—” He broke off at the sound of tires crunching over the oyster-shell parking lot. Kai went still, then shifted his weight, turning his body slightly to cast a clandestine glance over his shoulder.
“Shit,” he muttered.
“What is it?” I asked, leaning to peer around him and see who had driven into the parking area. Kai moved to block my line of sight.
I gazed a question into his troubled face.
“Listen, I don’t have time to explain.” His words were punctuated by the slam of a door and footsteps on the loose shells. “The woman walking toward us is a cop. She’s going to want to ask you questions. Don’t panic, no matter what she says.”
Here’s the thing—when someone tells you not to panic, what’s the first thing you do? Yep. I swallowed hard against the sudden tendrils of fear tightening around my throat.
The footsteps crunched closer.
“You’re going to have to stall,” he said, lowering his voice. “Redirect. But whatever you do, don’t tell her anything about Emma.”
“Emma?” The tendrils grew into thorny vines at the mention of my sister’s name. My heart rate surged, pounding in my chest almost painfully.
“You don’t know anything. I don’t know anything. I’m just here to take you to a late lunch. Okay?”
“Now, smile and ask me where we’re going to eat,” he murmured.
I bared my teeth—it was the best I could do in that moment—and said, “So, what are you hungry for?” just as the woman reached us.
The first thing I noticed when I shifted my attention to her was the flame-red color of her hair. Natural, if the freckles dusting her nose and cheeks were any indication. Her hair was cut short and, along with her heart-shaped face and petite frame, made me think of Neverland and pixies.
She didn’t look at all scary, which was more unnerving than if I’d turned to see the Blair Witch.
Kai shrugged at me, still pretending not to have noticed her.
“It’s up to you. I was—” He stopped and turned, a look of surprise on his face. “Detective Boyle, what are you doing here?”
She gave him an unfriendly look. I admit my understanding of people is limited, but I know the stink eye when I see it. Whoever this woman was, she didn’t like Kai.
“Oh, I’m sure you know, Sergeant Duncan.”
“I don’t, actually,” Kai said, his tone so honest and forthcoming, I almost believed him.
She turned to me and her features softened. “Grace Wilde?”
Her tone was much warmer, almost apologetic, when she said, “I have a few questions for you if you have a moment.”
I felt Kai reach over to clasp my hand in his. Though we’d been dating, in the few times we’d gone out he’d never held my hand.
The sensation of his warm, rough palm pressed to mine should have sent a happy flutter through me. All I felt was dread.
I could sense Kai trying to tell me something through his steady grip.
Get ready to run?
“Sure,” I said.
“Great. Would you mind coming with me?”
“Like this?” I motioned to my stained clothes. “I should probably head home and change before—”
She waved my comment away and said, “You were going to lunch, right?”
“Drive-through,” I said with a shrug. “Bluebell is used to the dirt.”
“Bluebell.” I pointed.
“Well,” Detective Boyle said after eyeing my old, enormous SUV, “I’m sure we can manage.”
“What’s all this about, Detective?” I asked.
“We’ll explain once we get to the sheriff’s office.”
“Why don’t you explain now?” I felt Kai’s hand tighten in mine so I tacked on a “please.”
“I have questions about your sister, Emma.”
“Emma? Is she okay?”
“She’s not hurt.”
That wasn’t the same thing as being okay, but relief poured over me anyway. I blew out a sigh and said, “I’m not sure I understand why you want to talk to me about Emma.”
“She’s just been arrested.”
“Arrested? For what?”
My ride to the Police Memorial Building had given me the one thing I’d needed. Time.
I’d learned at a young age to keep a firm grasp on my emotions.
The more control I had, the better equipped I was to handle the raw flood of feelings from an injured or frightened animal.
Sometimes, there’s an overlap between the animal’s emotions and my own. That’s when things get tricky. But usually, given enough time, I can project an aura of calm even in the middle of the storm.
More recently, I’d been learning meditation techniques, which I put into practice to center my thoughts during the thirty-minute drive and brief waiting period in the interview room. Ironically, I seemed to be better at focusing my mind when under acute stress than under normal circumstances.
Consequently, when Detective Boyle entered the small room and sat across from me, I was able to remain composed when I asked, “Where’s my sister?”
“She’s speaking to another detective right now.”
“When can I see her?”
“Soon. But we need some information first.”
“You said my sister’s been arrested for murder. Of who? When?”
“Before we can get to all that, there are a few things we need cleared up. Grace, I know you want to help us and we want to help your sister. Being honest is the best course.”
“Okay.” I nodded as if that was my intention. “But you should know this, Detective. Whatever you think Emma’s done, you’re wrong. My sister could never kill anyone.”
Even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t true. Technically, Emma was more than capable of killing someone. She had a black belt in aikido and had trained in other martial arts, even practiced some MMA and street-style fighting.
My sister was, quite frankly, a badass. But murder?
“If that’s the case,” Detective Boyle said with reassuring friendliness, “we’ll figure it out. First, we have some questions, okay?”
I nodded. I knew this was all an act. She was playing the good cop, but her warm tone and pixie looks didn’t fool me. I’d seen the look she’d given Kai. There was a bad cop, hard and cold as frozen granite behind the disarming smile. I was going to be ready for her.
“You live with your sister, correct?”
I thought about Kai’s warning and decided telling her my living arrangements couldn’t be that incriminating. I might even be able to stall.
“My old landlady booted us after she bought a new pair of glasses and got a good look at Moss.”
“My dog, Moss. He’s big and scary-looking, so we ended up at my sister’s place on the beach.”
“Moss and I. It’s only temporary, though. I’ve actually been house hunting. Have you ever done that? It’s kind of stressful.”
Detective Boyle made a noncommittal sound, then moved on to her next question. “Did you see your sister this morning?”
I shrugged. “I see Emma just about every morning. She makes me coffee, which is really nice because she doesn’t even drink coffee. Emma likes green tea. Do you?”
“Me either. Tastes like dirt, if you ask me.”
She nodded amiably, though I could see she was not pleased by my rambling answers.
“Speaking of which, I’m a little thirsty,” I said. “Could I trouble you for some water?”
She rose, stepped to the door, poked her head out, and then returned. I’d hoped for a longer reprieve from the questioning but the water request had taken all of five seconds and she plowed on as soon as her rump hit the chair.
“So, you saw your sister this morning. What time was that?”
“Gosh, I don’t really remember.” I looked up at the ceiling, pretending to think about it, and noticed an inverted dome, which I knew shielded a camera. I wondered who was on the other end watching. Kai? Probably not. My only other real contact in the JSO was Detective Jake Nocera. A gruff, tough, homicide detective, Jake was a Yankee transplant and one of my few friends. Would that exclude him from the case as well?
I got my answer a moment later when the door opened and Jake ambled in holding a paper cup in one beefy hand. Not looking at me, he set the cup on the table, turned, and walked out the door. Something about that made my heart sink.
I picked up the cup and took a sip.
“Thanks,” I said to Detective Boyle.
“Sure. Can you remember what time you saw your sister this morning?”
I shook my head. “Like I said, I love my coffee. I can’t really think straight until I have at least one cup.”
“Do you remember when you left or if she left before you?”
“I got an emergency call to go deal with a situation off 95. But you know that—you guys came and picked me up there.”
“You know Detective Nocera, don’t you?”
Kai had told me not to answer questions about Emma; he hadn’t said anything about Jake—or himself, for that matter. So I figured I was in the clear.
“He’s told me he doesn’t know your sister very well.”
“Which is why he’s still on this case.” She waited a beat, then added, “He vouched for you. I think you should know that.” She let the silence stretch out between us as she studied me.
I didn’t know what to say, so I kept my mouth shut.
“So.” She leaned in, eyes locking on mine. “Why are you playing with me?”
“Playing with you?”
“You’re not answering my questions.”
I started to weave an elaborate line of BS but thought better of it, deciding a partial truth was the best bet.
“Look, Detective, this situation is . . .” I paused, searching for the right word. “It’s surreal. Quite honestly, it’s freaking me out. When I get upset or nervous I either babble like an idiot or clam up completely. As I believe the second option is not what you’re hoping for, I’ve been doing my best to answer your questions.”
I was lying, but only about the last part.
“You’re doing your best?”
I nodded. I was doing my best—to misdirect, deflect, and stall. Though I still wasn’t sure why. Kai’s warning had fallen pretty short in the clarity department.
“But it’s hard,” I said. “I’m worried about my sister and I’m afraid I’ll say something that will give you the wrong idea.”
“Nothing. There’s nothing I can tell you that will help because, I promise you,” I said, looking her dead in the eye, “my sister would never kill anyone.”
“Even her ex-husband?”
“Her—” I stopped as the words sank in. Drawing in a slow breath, I tried to will the color to remain in my face. “Tony Ortega is dead?”
“He is. And your sister was caught standing over his body—minutes after his death.”
She waited for a response. I exercised my right to remain silent. I was pretty sure anything I had to say about Ortega could be used against me. Especially since the first thing that popped into my head was, He probably deserved it.
Boyle amped up her stare, honing it to a hard point. I could almost feel it pressing into me. I’d been right about the cold, granite cop under the pixie dust.
Luckily, as a woman who faced apex predators on a regular basis, I was not easily intimidated. People can try to posture and pretend, but very few can beat me in a stare-down.
The look in her eyes made one thing clear: She would no longer be playing nice.
Worked for me. I had always been more of a runs-with-scissors than a plays-well-with-others kind of a girl.
“You knew Anthony Ortega.”
She glared at me for a long moment, waiting for me to elaborate.
“He was married to my sister, of course I knew him.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
I shook my head with a shrug. “I’m not sure.”
I thought about it. I knew I’d seen him a few weeks before he and Emma divorced, right before he’d put her in the hospital. “I haven’t seen him in years.”
“Not at all?”
“No. Not at all.”
“But he has contacted you.”
I shook my head, though I knew where she was going with her question. “He won the bid for my services at a silent auction last weekend, but I’ve had no contact with him.”
She angled her head to study me.
“You say your services. You mean as an”—she opened the file in front of her for the first time—“animal behaviorist?”
“It’s the only thing I do.”
“Aren’t you also a veterinarian?”
“I keep my license current, but I don’t have a practice.”
“Sometimes it helps to be able to treat or quarantine an animal in the field.”
“Right. You helped with the Richardson murder a few months ago.”
“The dog—a Doberman, wasn’t it? Had to be put down after you’d given the okay for it to be adopted.”
“Yes.” Actually, the Doberman in question was alive and well and living with a certain surly detective I knew. I’d fudged on the papers, and Jake had gotten a great dog who was only vicious when murderers were attacking people he cared about.
Detective Boyle was trying to goad me by questioning my skills, but she was barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. People had been questioning my skills for years, and I was not easily goaded.
“Quite a mistake,” she added.
“Everyone makes them.”
“Detective Nocera tells me you’re very good at your job, despite your mistakes. But I’m having a hard time understanding why Anthony Ortega would need to hire an animal behaviorist.”
“Hmm . . .” I tried to sound thoughtful but was pretty sure my restraint was starting to slip and let some sarcasm through. Kai had advised me to stall and redirect, but I was reaching my limit. “Typically, people need me to help with animal behavior.”
“Even people who don’t own an animal?”
I should have been surprised but I wasn’t. Tony Ortega had never been what I’d call pet-friendly.
“No. That would be unusual.”
I flashed her a smile. “Just when I thought we weren’t going to see eye to eye.” Yep, definitely letting loose with the sarcasm.
She ignored my comment. “You must have some idea what he wanted.”
I shook my head. Actually, I’d suspected Ortega had wanted to weasel back into Emma’s life and was using me to do it. Learning he didn’t own a pet seemed to confirm that theory.
“Sorry, Detective. I have no clue.”
“Because you and your sister have no contact with him, correct?”
Part of me wanted to tell her what a raging asshole Ortega was. A total narcissist and someone I wouldn’t want to hang around with even if he hadn’t beaten my sister so badly she’d been almost unrecognizable when I’d seen her lying in the hospital bed.
The image of that moment filled my mind. Emma’s beautiful face so swollen and bruised it looked like a horrible, bloated mask.
The truth was, I was glad Ortega was dead. But I kept that to myself and said, “We didn’t have anything to talk about.”
“So, all the times he called you in the last few days . . .” She paused to consult her notes. “Thirteen times according to your phone records—you never spoke to him?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“You were avoiding him?”
“We didn’t get along.”
I had a feeling she knew the answer. But I wasn’t about to take the bait. Telling her Ortega was abusive to my sister until she escaped their marriage sounded too much like a motive for murder.
I shrugged, looked her in the eyes, and said, “Ever just meet somebody who rubs you the wrong way? You just can’t help it. You don’t like them, right off the bat?”
She kept her gaze steady on mine and smiled ever so slightly. “You know, every once in a while, I sure do.”
“Well then, we seem to have reached an understanding.” I stood, gave her a departing nod, and walked out into the corridor.
Marching over to the double doors leading into the homicide unit, I pulled one open and spotted Jake already striding toward me. He’d probably been watching my interview with Boyle on one of the wall-mounted monitors.
Though I thought he knew me well enough to predict what I wanted, I stopped and, with a very calm voice, said, “I’d like to see my sister. Please.”
Jake’s jowly face was made more dour by the stern, downward tilt of his mouth. He glowered at me, then glowered a little harder, finally ticking his chin up in a quick nod.
“Come on,” he growled, leading me through the room to a solid wood door exactly like the one I’d left. “I’ll tell Boyle we’ll learn more if we let you two talk.”
“Because you’ll be listening?”
He gave me a what-do-you-think? look before unlocking the door and swinging it open.
Emma sat at the table on the far side of the tiny, gray room. Not a hair out of place, not a smudge in her lightly applied makeup, she looked like she always did—polished and elegant. At least she would have if she hadn’t been sporting an ill-fitting muddy green shirt with the word INMATE printed over the left pocket. The corner of her lips quirked up into a wry half smile when she saw my face.
“I know.” She cast a disparaging glance at the shirt. “This is not my color.”
Her flippant comment made me want to sigh with a mixture of relief and exasperation. I wasn’t sure what I would’ve done if I’d walked in to find her crying and terrified.
Blithe, irreverent Emma I can handle. Scared, helpless Emma is not something I processed well.
A flash of memory hit me again: my sister’s bruised and battered face, tears leaking from the corners of her swollen eyes as she recounted what Ortega had done to her.
And, again, I was glad the man was dead.
“You’re worried about your clothes?” I asked, lowering into the plastic chair across from her.
“Not really. Though they did take my favorite pair of Gucci boots . . . which I sincerely hope to get back unscathed.” She directed the last comment to the camera bubble over our heads.
“I’m kidding. They’re my second-favorite pair of Gucci boots.” She grinned.
“Where’s Wes?” I asked, referring to our friend and attorney Wes Roberts.
“On his way and ready to spit nails.”
“Good.” Wes lived in Savannah now but still practiced in Florida. He was a great lawyer. I felt a wave of optimism wash over my worry. The sensation lasted about half a second.
“Listen,” she said, her face growing serious, “there’s something I need you to do for me.”
I had a feeling I knew what she was going to ask.
“Don’t worry. I’ll call Mom and Dad,” I told her with as much stoic nonchalance as I could muster.
She shook her head. “It’s not that. You wouldn’t get through to them, remember?”
Relief hit me hard enough to force a grateful breath from my lungs. I slumped back in the chair. “Right. They’re in Big Bend.”
Our parents had called when they’d reached the national park the day before to say they’d be out of cell range for a few days. They’d been traveling the country in their RV, having a ball. I didn’t want to be the one to ruin it. Nor did I want to unleash our mother on the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
Mom’s an ex-teacher. She has that “teacher’s voice” thing, and she wouldn’t hesitate to use it.
“By the time they’re back to civilization this will all be handled,” Emma said. “But that’s not what I need to talk to you about.”
“You have to promise that you’ll do it.”
“Even though Wes is on his way, I’m going to be stuck her a while, so I need you to take care of a party tonight.”
“It won’t be a big deal.”
“But—” Nothing about handling social situations was easy for me. My sister, on the other hand, was an events coordinator and a very good one.
That didn’t change the obvious, which I felt obligated to point out.
Straightening, I leaned forward and said, “Em, don’t you think you should be more worried about being arrested for murder than a party?”
“Murder? Is that what they told you?”
“Yes. They said a witness saw you at the crime scene lurking over Tony’s dead body.”
“Lurking, was I?” She shook her head slowly, eyes bright with amusement. Before I could ask her to let me in on the joke, she said, “You know the cops are under no obligation to tell you the truth, right?”
I blinked at her while that sank in. “Wait. So all this stuff about Tony being dead and you being there—”
“All true,” she said. “I did go to speak to Tony. When I went in, I found him in the office very much dead.”
“Em, why would you go to his house?” I had a sinking feeling I knew. “This is about the auction, isn’t it?”
“I went to return his money and explain that he was not to contact you again. Which, in hindsight, was stupid.”
“Yes it was. You should have let Wes deal with Tony.” Wes had handled my sister’s divorce and made it clear Ortega was never to have contact with our family again.
“Like I said, hindsight.” She lifted a shoulder.
I leaned forward. “You went inside?”
“The door was open, and by open I mean standing open.” She spread her arms in a combo, this-wide and what-was-I-supposed-to-do? gesture.
My lips parted as I gaped at my sister.
“What? It was my house, once.”
I shut my mouth, then opened it again but Emma cut me off before I could speak.
“Don’t,” she said.
“Say whatever it is you’re thinking about saying.”
She hit me with a pointed look and I wasn’t sure if my sister was warning me to keep my trap shut because she didn’t want to hear any flak or as a reminder that we were being observed.
Probably both. She would get an earful from Wes when he got here and the bigger deal I made about her interacting with Ortega, the more weight the police would give it.
I could think of a dozen questions to ask her, but ended up going with one the cops knew the answer to.
“So, what are you in here for if not murder?”
“They charged me with trespassing.”
“Yep. Even though the door was open and I knew the owner, going inside was trespassing. At least that’s what they tell me.”
“Probably. Wes will sort it out, but not in time for the party tonight.”
“Listen. Everything you need is on my laptop in my briefcase at home.”
“It’s important, Grace. I have a friend, well, you know Kevin.”
“Aikido Kevin?” I asked, thinking of the tall guy who sometimes joined us in my sister’s private dojo for class.
Emma nodded. “His brother, Tyler, was just diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. He’s an artist, and though the cancer is treatable, his insurance doesn’t cover it.”
“And the party is to raise money for his medical bills?”
“Sort of. Tyler will be teaching guests how to paint one of his original designs.”
“Like an art class?”
Emma shook her head. “It’s a painting party. We serve champagne then heavy hors d’oeuvres, everyone paints, there are breaks so there’s time to chat and have a glass of wine. Tyler’s work will be on display and many of the guests own galleries or are influential in the art scene. We’re hoping to get him a gallery show from this event.”
I blinked at her.
“It’s easy. All you have to do is welcome the guests, introduce Tyler, then make sure everyone is having a good time.”
I could feel my eyes bulging out as she spoke.
“Grace? Are you breathing?”
My sister canted her head and studied me. “Okay. On second thought, I have a better idea. I know the events coordinator for the Ritz. Call the hotel and ask for Kendall. She owes me a favor.”
“What do I say?”
“Tell her you’re my sister and you need help with an event. She’ll likely be busy but that’s the nature of the party business. Kendall’s good. She’ll be able to get the ball rolling once you get her the file.”
“On my laptop. It’s labeled ‘Painting Party’ with the date. You’ll see it. Transfer it to the yellow flash drive—it’s in the zipper pocket of my briefcase. Okay?”
“The flash what?”
“You know, a portable USB stick.”
“Right—the little rectangle thingy.”
“Make sure you use the yellow one.”
“Yellow USB stick. Got it.”
“Get the file to Kendall and she’ll handle it.”
“So, I won’t have to go to the party?”
“That will be up to Kendall. Just follow her lead, do what she says, and you’ll be fine. Trust me.”
I hit the first snag before I made it out of the sheriff’s office. Jake informed me that he and Detective Boyle would be coming to the condo to take possession of Emma’s computers. I tried to explain to Jake that I needed one of her work files but he just shook his head.
I thought I could get around it by beating them home, until I realized they were my ride back to Bluebell. I assumed they would drop me off in the lot and follow me home.
Sometimes I hated being right.
After depositing me next to my SUV, they waited, then escorted me all the way back to my sister’s beachfront condo. I muttered a quick plea to the heavens that I’d be able to copy the file before they took Emma’s stuff. Or, even better, that Wes would somehow get Emma out of the pokey in time for the party.
I looked at the dashboard clock as I pulled into the condo’s parking lot. It was after four, which didn’t give me much hope. I was going to need that file.
Maybe they would let me print a copy of it?
With a bit of renewed hope, I climbed out of Bluebell and turned to the detectives.
“Emma asked me to fill in for her tonight at an event she’s supposed to be handling. I need the file from her computer.”
“We can’t let you have access to the computer,” Detective Boyle said. “It’s being taken into evidence.”
“I understand. But I really need the information on that file. Maybe I can print it? Or, hell, you can read it to me and I’ll take notes.”
“I can’t allow that, Miss Wilde. I’m sorry,” she said, not sounding at all sorry.
“Look, she ain’t askin’ for much.” Jake tried to intercede but Boyle was having none of it.
“She’s asking to violate chain of custody.”
He made a derisive noise. “Come on, Boyle . . .”
She ignored his intended meaning and motioned toward the condo building. “After you, Detective Nocera.”
In that moment, I kind of wanted to strangle Detective Boyle. Actually, I knew a tiger who owed me a favor . . . Maybe a good maiming would teach her to be a little less obdurate.
The look on my face must have been broadcasting my feelings loud and clear because Jake stepped toward me and said, “Let’s go, Grace.”
I followed him to the building and up the stairs. Detective Boyle stayed close on my heels until we reached the top.
“Where’s Yamada?” she asked, looking around.
I assumed she was talking about Charlie Yamada, an investigator with the Jacksonville CSU. He was one of Kai’s friends and, apparently, his replacement on this case.
“He’s supposed to be here,” Jake said.
With a scowl, Boyle pulled her phone out of her pocket and paced away from us.
As soon as she was out of earshot Jake asked, “What about your dog?”
“Moss? What about him?”
“Don’t you need to put ’im up?”
“You afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”
“Nope.” He cast a meaningful glance toward Detective Boyle, who had ended her phone call and was on her way to join us.
Being slow on the uptake, it took me a second to realize Jake was trying to give me the time I needed to snag the file off Emma’s computer before it was confiscated.
“Um . . .” I turned my attention to Detective Boyle and said, “I need a minute to get my dog.”
“Why?” she asked.
I could feel Moss’s presence on the other side of the door. Roused from a nap by the sound of my key in the lock, he was ready for dinner and a potty break.
“He’s cranky,” I said, at the same time urging Moss to bark. He growled in protest, not in the mood for games.
Hungry, he told me, then added a howl for emphasis.
Not what I was aiming for but, whatever works.
Boyle took a step away from the door. “That sounded like a wolf.”
“Yes it did. No wonder you’re a detective.”
“You can’t keep wolves in Florida,” she said.
“Actually, you can. Florida Fish and Wildlife categorizes wolves as a Class II animal and thus legal to own. Though, to be honest, most people probably shouldn’t.”
“And you’re the exception?”
Jake snorted at that, earning a quick glare from Boyle.
Unlike Jake, Boyle had no idea how much of an exception I was, and I had no desire to enlighten her.
“Yep. Even so, Moss can get ornery. So I’d like to go in and put him in another room so you can get what you need and leave in one piece. He’s only part wolf, but he doesn’t like strangers.”
It was all a load of hooey.
Moss can be a willful and stubborn beast, even a bit territorial around some people, namely Kai, but he was never vicious. The exception being when in the presence of sociopaths and people who mean me harm.
In truth, Moss would wag his tail in greeting, give the two visitors a quick once-over before demanding to go out and be given food. But I needed to buy time and I was willing to resort to slander to get it.
Boyle’s eyes narrowed. “You have two minutes.”
It took me three. First, I had to contend with Voodoo, our new kitten and resident nutcase who’d begun to climb my bare leg as soon as I stood still long enough.
“Okay, crazy.” I scooped her up and held her in the crook of my arm, letting her bat and play with a strand of ponytail that had fallen over my shoulder.
Most of my time, however, was spent blocking Moss’s insistent nudges as I placed Emma’s briefcase on the kitchen counter, pulled out her laptop, and began searching for the yellow flash drive.
I know, buddy. I urged him to be patient.
“Hang on,” I muttered.
“Stop that,” I whispered as I fished around the pockets of the briefcase for the USB stick.
“Got it.” I smiled when I spotted the bright yellow rectangle.
Out! Moss insisted.
Just a second. “Hey!” My dog shoved his head under my forearm, causing the flash drive I’d been trying to plug into the laptop to go flying from my hand. I heard it bounce off something in the kitchen behind me as it skittered off to who knew where.
When I turned and scanned the room, the thing was out of sight.
I started to look for it when a trio of knocks sounded on the front door. Loud and authoritative.
No time. I decided to send myself an e-mail with the file as an attachment. Charlie or whoever checked over Emma’s mail would see what I’d done but I couldn’t worry about that now.
A few keystrokes and mental reprimands to my canine later, I was turning off the laptop and had just shut the lid when the front door opened and Detective Boyle came striding into view.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
I tried to took innocent when I turned to her. Holding Voodoo up in one hand, I said, “Had to grab this little girl. Moss is very protective.”
To emphasize my point, I kept a firm grip on Moss’s collar. Not that I could have kept him from doing something if he’d wanted to—my dog outweighs me by at least twenty pounds—but I was still trying to make him seem dangerous.
“I was just trying to find his leash,” I added.
“Really? Does it look like this?” She held up Moss’s leash, which she must have spotted on the foyer table as she walked in.
“That’s it! Thanks. He really has to pee.”
I took the leash from her as Moss and I passed, then paused when Charlie Yamada stepped through the front door.
He didn’t seem to notice Detective Boyle’s disapproving look when he greeted me with a smile and said, turning his full attention to Moss, “Hey. So this is the famous wolf-dog?”
“Yep. Moss this is Charlie. Charlie, Moss.” I patted my dog and clipped on his leash.
“Wow,” Charlie said, his face alight with admiration. “He’s beautiful.”
Moss, beautiful. Moss agreed with a slow swish of his tail.
“Thanks,” I said, ignoring my dog’s self-affirmation.
A lot of people would be apprehensive around a dog like Moss. Not Charlie. When we’d met, I’d learned Charlie was a big dog person. Meaning he liked dogs a lot and big ones even more.
“Can I pet him?” he asked, finally tearing his eyes off Moss to look at me hopefully.
“Yamada,” Boyle snapped. “You’re not here to play with the dog.”
“Right. Sorry, Detective.”
“Here,” I said, handing him Voodoo, who had started squirming against my grip. “Can you hold her a minute so she doesn’t try to escape when we go out?”
I didn’t wait for Boyle’s veto, just turned and slipped out the door.
Moss watered his favorite bush with relief and we were back inside in less than a minute. We came back in to find Charlie standing right where he’d been, still holding Voodoo, who was trying to wriggle up the short sleeve of his polo shirt.
“Thanks,” I said, taking back the kitten, who promptly hung a claw in Charlie’s shirt and squeaked out a plaintive meow at being removed from her new “toy.”
No, I tried to scold her mentally while I untangled her kitty claw from Charlie’s sleeve.
Voodoo voiced her complaint again. Ignoring me entirely.
I distracted her by pulling out the Saint Francis medal I always wore from where it hung under my shirt and dangled it in the kitten’s line of sight. She lunged for the pendant and I captured her against my chest.
“Sorry,” I said to the room at large.
Charlie was grinning at the kitten, who really is a rather adorable black fluff-ball.
Boyle, on the other hand, was looking at Voodoo like she was something that belonged in a toilet bowl.
Jake had ignored us and, holding up my sister’s laptop, stepped from the kitchen.
“I’ve got this. Yamada, you need help with the other computer?”
“I’m on it. Just might need you to get the door.” He looked at me. “Grace?”
It took me a second to realize he was asking where he could find Emma’s office.
“It’s this way.” I led them down the hall, pausing to deposit Voodoo and Moss in my bedroom as we passed.
I opened the door to my sister’s office and clicked on the light.
Like evil laser scanners in a sci-fi flick, Detective Boyle’s gaze tracked over every inch of the room when we entered. She shot a glance at Charlie, then nodded at my sister’s sleek, new iMac.
Taking his cue, Charlie unhooked the computer and carried it out of the room. Jake followed to manage the door and I was left alone with Boyle, who continued her perusal until her focus homed in on the large antique wardrobe Emma used to stash her gift-wrapping supplies and other random clutter best kept out of sight.
She squinted at it as if wishing she had X-ray vision.
“It leads to Narnia,” I told her, deadpan.
Boyle didn’t react for a moment, and when she finally turned to me, her eyes were hard, her mouth pressed into a thin, closed-lipped smile. “Cute.”
“Thanks. I’ll be here all week.”
“You and your sister seem to find this amusing. I don’t.”
“You’re wrong, Boyle.”
Jake’s large form filled the doorway.
“We’re done here,” he said, though I couldn’t be sure whom he was addressing. I hadn’t taken my eyes off Boyle long enough to notice anything more than Jake’s dark shape materialize in my periphery.
We filed out of the room and I led the way to the front door, holding it open as the detectives passed.
Jake paused and turned to me before following Boyle down the stairs. “You okay?”
“Look,” he said, keeping his voice low. “I know Boyle seems—”
“Like a constipated Chihuahua with hemorrhoids?” I supplied.
His lips twitched with humor at the description. “Call her what you want. She’s a hard-ass, true enough, but she’s a good cop. Let us run this down. If Emma’s got nothin’ to hide, you got nothin’ to worry about.”
My sister had recently upgraded to the newest iPhone, insisting I take her old one. It was a huge improvement over the prehistoric Nokia I’d been using, but after a month, I still had almost no clue how to use it apart from a couple of apps, making phone calls, and snapping the occasional photo.
Emma had always enjoyed taking advantage of my techneptitude, as she called it, by programming “fitting” ring tones for different people.
Sometimes, I longed for my phone to emit a simple ring, but that didn’t stop me from lunging for it when it began playing the familiar salsa tune she’d programmed for Wes.
“You want the good news or bad news?”
“There’s bad news?”
“I’m pulling off of I-95 onto Union Street now. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, the only bail bondsman I’ve been able to get in contact with is asking for cash and it’s Sunday.”
“So, Emma’s stuck in jail.”
“Just for the night.”
“Crap. That means I’ll have to do this party gig.”
“That’s one of the things I love about you, Grace, always thinking of others,” he teased.
“At least I got the file before they took Emma’s stuff.”
“Before who took Emma’s stuff?”
“The cops—” I had a sudden sinking feeling.
“Grace, tell me they had a warrant.”
“I don’t—I just assumed . . . Did I screw up?”
There was a brief pause. “No. But the cops have if they think they’re going to get away with conducting an illegal search before I get to town.”
“Jake told me if Emma had nothing to hide I shouldn’t worry.”
“He’s right. You shouldn’t. Warrant or no warrant, I’ll handle it,” he promised before hanging up.
I knew he would, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to throttle Jake.
A glance at the clock told me throttling would have to wait. I needed to get in touch with this Kendall chick if I didn’t want to be hosting a painting party by myself. The thought brought on a wave of queasiness.
Social occasions made me uncomfortable. Being the person responsible for a social occasion was going to require a bottle of Pepto-Bismol and, quite possibly, a few cc’s of bear tranquilizer.
I took a fortifying breath, looked up the Ritz-Carlton, and dialed the number listed for special events.
“I’m sorry, it’s Kendall’s day off,” the woman told me, making my stomach clinch.
“Is there any way you can get a message to her? It’s kind of urgent. My sister, Emma, has an event scheduled for tonight and she can’t”—my insides burbled—“make it.”
“Emma? You mean Emma from E Squared?” The woman’s words got noticeably higher when she said the name of my sister’s company.
“The one and only.”
“Oh!” The woman let out an excited gasp. “We just love Emma. She’s such a doll. Everything’s okay?”
We? Who was we?
“Just a scheduling conflict,” I said.
“Well, let me see if I can get ahold of Kendall for you. What’s your number?”
I gave it to her and made a beeline for my bathroom to find the Pink Stuff. I took a giant, chalky swig and was thinking about locating the bear tranquilizer—I had a vial of it, by the way—when my phone rang.
“Hi, I’m trying to reach Grace Wilde.”
“That’s me. You’re Emma’s sister?”
I confirmed and explained that Emma needed someone to oversee a painting party that night.
“I know it’s incredibly short notice,” I said, setting down the Pepto long enough to look up the file on my computer’s e-mail. “But if there’s any way you can help, I’m not”—my insides squirmed and let, out a long, gurgling groan—“good at this sort of thing. I have the file you need.”
“Well, then we should be able to come up with something. Where and when?”
“Hang on.” I started scanning the file and winced. Many of the details were followed with notations done in Emma’s personal shorthand. I was one of the few people who, given enough time, could decipher it. Which was probably one of the reasons she’d asked for my help. At least the host’s contact information was easy to identify, displayed at the top of the page. “At someone’s house in the Omni plantation.” I gave her the address. “Seven thirty.”
“Why don’t we meet there at six?”
I looked at the clock. I’d make it, if I hauled my cookies out of the house within the next fifteen minutes.
“Sounds like a plan.”
Not wanting to lug my laptop with me, I opted to print the file, hitting the icon and waiting to hear the printer start up before I jumped in the shower. No time to do more than strip and rinse, I clipped my hair on the top of my head, jumped in and out of the shower, and froze when I realized I had no idea what to wear.
My sister often dressed the part when doing themed events. She had a closet filled with costumes and accessories ranging from punk to Southern belle. I knew a hoop skirt would not do for a painting party but beyond that, I was lost.
I tried to call Wes for advice, but got his voice mail.
“Crap, crap, crap.”
I ran to my sister’s bedroom, flipped on the light as I stepped into her closet, and pivoted in a semicircle, hoping inspiration would strike.
Instead, I wondered, Why me? Out of all the people Emma could have asked—
“She didn’t ask them,” I said, cutting off the internal whining. “And you are not going to mess up because you don’t know what to wear. So think.”
Focusing on the clothes, I let out a long breath and thought.
“Paint, painting . . .”
People wore smocks when they painted, right? What the heck was a smock, anyway?
“I’ve got it.”
With an about-face, I hit the lights and rushed back to my room. My dad had given me one of his old, long-sleeved button-down work shirts to wear when I’d volunteered to help him paint the shed before my parents sold the house.
“It’s here, somewhere,” I muttered as I rifled through the bottom drawer of my dresser.
I held the shirt up like a prize. Moss, who was lounging on the floor nearby, lifted his head and blinked, unimpressed with the wrinkled, yellow-and-white-spattered garment.
“Do you have a better idea?” I asked, but my dog had already returned to his nap.
“Didn’t think so.” I shrugged off the canine critique and buttoned the voluminous shirt over a pair of dark jeans, stepped into my favorite duck boots, and was ready.
Shoving the bottle of Pepto into my purse, I hurried to the office and snatched up the pages I’d printed.
I did a double take. The ink had come out a lovely shade of fuchsia. Grinding my teeth, I folded the pages in half and stuck them in my purse next to the matching bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
Rolling up the shirt’s giant sleeves, I rushed out the door and galloped down the stairs. I had cranked Bluebell and was pulling out of the condo’s lot almost on time.