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Julie Chilton wiped damp palms against her skirt and took a deep breath. When she spoke, her voice wavered as her vocal cords struggled with the words. "There's something I have to tell you," she said.
Her boss, Professor James Killigrew, gestured at the chair on the far side of his glass desk. "You look upset, Julie. Please, sit down."
He was a tall man with a scholarly look enhanced by glasses and tweed jackets. His high forehead ended in a shock of wild white hair but it was his voice, above all, that commanded attention. Like a fine wine holds nuances of sun, fruit and earth, his voice held intonations of wisdom, confidence and curiosity. No wonder he was so successful at supplementing his political science professor's salary with speaking engagements or that television news shows sought his on-air commentary.
That's the part of his life Julie had been hired to manage and she loved her job. Well, she had until two weeks ago .
"I don't know where to start," she confessed.
He folded his hands together and smiled encouragement. She would have given practically anything if she could have avoided this moment, but there was no choice. Stop stalling.
"Two weeks ago a man sat down next to me on the bus during my commute home," she began. "He showed me some identification and then started talking, his voice so soft I had to strain to hear. It was clear he knew who I was and who I worked for."
"A bus? How prosaic. And what did he say?"
"He said he was a federal agent heading a special department devoted to investigating racketeering."
Killigrew's white eyebrows shot up his forehead.
"He showed me identification and everything. Then he told me well, he said you were under investigation."
Killigrew's eyes widened. "Me?"
"Yes, sir. And he said because of my part in the business side of your career, I would be vulnerable for prosecution as well. Unless"
Killigrew flattened his hands on the desktop and leaned forward. "Unless what?"
"Unless I helped him."
"Helped him what?" he said, his voice as cold as liquid nitrogen.
Julie cringed. "With his investigation. He wanted details about your upcoming trip next month, the one to Seattle. All I was supposed to do was pass along your itinerary and report incoming calls originating from there."
"And you agreed?" he said, obviously aghast. "You did this?"
Miserable, Julie nodded. "I know everything you do is on the up-and-up, Professor Killigrew," she explained. "I felt certain the agent would find that out for himself if I cooperated." She took another deep breath and added, "Okay, honestly, I was afraid your reputation would be destroyed if even a whisper of this got out, so if it could be disproven quietly, that would be best. On the flip side, what if I was wrong, what if you'd done what he said? I'd wind up in jail. And that's the ugly, selfish truth."
The next part was the hardest to admit and it required another steadying breath. "This morning, I looked in your private notebook and found a photograph."
"You looked in my notebook," he repeated, glancing down at the slender volume sitting beside his computer. He was a little old-school that way, keeping private reminders in written form and taking them with him. But this morning he'd left the book on his desk when he went to teach a class and she'd taken the opportunity to look in it.
Lot of good it had done her. Not only was his handwriting hard to decipher, but he also seemed to use some kind of shorthand code and he doodled. How many rectangles with red and yellow chevrons did one man need to draw? She hadn't even gotten to July, the month in question, when a photograph had fallen out from between the pages. One glance at that, and she'd stopped dead in her tracks.
Now she slid it out of her pocket and across the desk toward James Killigrew.
The photo was of four men in a sea of many people. They didn't even look like they were together. One was full face on, one turned to the side, another seemed to be in motion and a fourth had his mouth open as though speaking to someone off camera. One was Killigrew, two were people Julie didn't recognize and the fourth was the man who had introduced himself to her as Special Agent Roger Trill.
As her boss stared at the photo, Julie continued on. "Trill told me he'd never met you. Obviously, that's a lie.
That photo was taken earlier this year. See, you still had a beard. You shaved it off after Washington, D.C., you know where you spoke to a bunch of people about"
"I know what I spoke about," he said coldly.
Julie swallowed. "Yes, of course you do. I called Trill's office to ask why he'd lied to me and to tell him I wasn't cooperating anymore and in fact was going to warn you about him, and that's when I found out the department he claimed to run doesn't even exist. Sir, he used me to get to you for some unexplained reason."
"Am I supposed to be grateful for this eleventh-hour spurt of candor?" Killigrew asked as he put the photo back in the book and then folded the book into the inside pocket of his tweed jacket.
"No," she said softly. "Of course not. I betrayed your trust and for that I'm sincerely sorry. In my defense, it all seemed to make sense at the time, but now I see it doesn't. I had to tell you so you could protect yourself. I'd give anything if I'd used my head to begin with."
"Are you insinuating you believe this man's story even after you know he used you?"
"No, sir, no, but he must have had some agenda and it couldn't be a good one if he went about it this way." She had to fight the urge to lower her gaze in shame.
"Yes, you're right," he finally said. "I did need to know, mostly about the kind of woman I employ. At the very least, you are incredibly naive. The words used to describe you after that are considerably less flattering." He stood and stared down at her, his dark eyes burning. "I expect you to be out of this office within the hour."
She took a steadying breath, a protest dying on her lips. "I'll do whatever you ask. Can you just tell me who that man really is?"
"I don't have the slightest idea," he said firmly. "Now, get out." She didn't argue.
Within a half hour, she'd dumped the contents of her desk drawer into a cardboard box and carted it outside. Not stopping for even a backward glance, she walked down the busy sidewalk wrapped in a bubble of invisibility. She'd felt this way once before in her life, a year or so ago, when she'd come face-to-face with the fact that her marriage was over.
But she wasn't in Montana anymore, she was in Portland, Oregon. Instead of high mountains and cattle trails, she now walked the city streets of the Pacific Northwest. Different climate and situation, same desolate feelings of failure and guilt.
Why had she trusted Roger Trill?
Her bus stop was up ahead and she approached it with leaden feet, pausing at the edge of a cluster of other waiting people, standing next to a woman wearing a purple scarf.
The brisk wind that blew up the gorge and over the river tangled Julie's long hair. Almost dizzy with regret, she closed her eyes until she sensed the shift of the crowd and opened them in time to find the bus approaching.
The push came from nowhere, a shove in the middle of her back that sent her catapulting into the street. The box flew from her arms as she fell and the collective gasp of the onlookers mingled with the screech of air brakes as the noise of traffic faded away.
She hit first on her knees, then her hands, her forehead banging against the pavement, coming to rest with her right cheek smashed against the road. Huge tires filled her vision. Diesel fumes scorched her throat. It was too late.
Hands grabbed her, yanked her, pulled her. The bus doors squealed open and a driver exploded from within. "What the hell?" he shouted. "You trying to kill yourself, jumping out in front of my bus like that? You crazy, lady?"
Things were fuzzy. People were picking up her belongings and putting them back in the box and it seemed unreal. Somehow she'd ended up sitting on the curb, stomach rolling, head throbbing, knees and hands embedded with gravel while her unruly hair whipped around her head.
A policeman knelt down beside her. He was in his thirties with piercing blue eyes and a fuzz of brown hair. His smile was movie star quality as he tried to reassure her.
She wasn't even sure how he got there or when. He introduced himself as Officer Yates and talked to her about a psych evaluation which wasn't surprising considering the bus driver was still telling anyone who would listen that she'd jumped in front of him.
She shook her head which made her want to throw up. "No," she said. "I was pushed."
She said it in a whisper. The policeman looked up and around and so did she. Some of the crowd had dispersed. A few remained, including the woman in the purple scarf.
The policeman questioned each of them. What had they seen or heard? Very little, it seemed. He took names and numbers. The last person he approached was the woman in the purple scarf. "I heard what she said," the woman said, nodding at Julie. "She might be right."
Officer Yates wrote on a pad. "You saw something?"
"Yes. A man in a black hoodie thing. He was standing behind her. I saw his hand come out of the pouch on the front. Now that I think about it, he might have pushed her."
"Did you see his face?"
"No. He was wearing sunglasses, that's all I can tell you."
"Young, old? Short, tall? Thin, heavy build?"
"I couldn't say about age. I'm old enough almost everyone looks young. His sunglasses were big and had those orange lenses that you don't see much anymore. He was just a medium-size guy. Oh, and he wore a silver watch."
"Do you remember anything else about the watch?"
"No, just that it was silver."
"And what did this guy do after the accident?"
"I don't know. I wasn't watching him. We were all watching her, you see. I thought for sure she was a goner. It wasn't until she was safe that I wondered about what I'd seen, but by then the man in the hoodie was gone."
The officer told the woman he'd be in touch, then he ushered Julie into his car and drove her to the emergency room where a nurse used tweezers to pick asphalt from the abrasions on her hands and knees. Next came ointments, bandages and a tetanus shot. She was asked a few questions about how many fingers the doctor held in front of her face and who was president of the United States, then she was released.
The policeman had waited for her. "I'd like you to come look at some mug shots if you're up to it," he said.
Julie blinked in confusion. "Mug shots?"
"We have a few troublemakers working this district.
Lately they've been distracting women and stealing their pocketbooks."
"And you think that's what happened to me?"
"I think it's a possibility. Maybe someone got a little too enthusiastic and pushed too hard. Then when they saw what happened to you, they were afraid to take the handbag because everyone was watching. I'll ask the other people at the stop to come down and give it a go, too. I don't suppose you can add anything to the description the older woman gave?"
"I was preoccupied," Julie mumbled. "I wasn't really paying attention."
"Well, you can do it tomorrow if you'd rather. We might get lucky."
"Might as well get it over with," Julie said.
He drove her back downtown where she carted her pitiful box of desk contents upstairs to a desk where he produced two books of mug shots and asked if she'd like something hot to drink. Julie requested coffee and he left to get it for her as she started what she suspected would be the pointless process of looking through the books. She'd been way too focused on her own problems to notice anyone but the lady in the purple scarf.
She looked around the room, wishing that the coffee would arrive as her head had begun to pound and some of the pictures in the book even blurred. Officer Yates must have gotten sidetracked.
She rubbed her temples as two men came into view walking down the hallway that ran on the other side of the interior windows. They stopped more or less across from her. Their body language caught her attention and shading her eyes, she looked at them surreptitiously through the gaps between her fingers. Whatever they were talking about had at least one of them pretty upset. She could hear a raised voice.
The man closest to her was of dark complexion and built like a linebacker. He was the one doing most of the talking, punctuating his sentences with jabs of a finger. The other man was shorter with an average build, sharp features, colorless eyes and thin lips. He wore a badge on his belt and it showed because he'd pushed his jacket aside to bury his hands in his trouser pockets.
In a world gone topsy-turvy, she recognized Roger Trill and he carried the same badge Officer Yates had shown her.
What was he doing here?
He glanced up as though sensing someone staring at him. She'd dropped her hand in surprise and their gazes locked. He appeared as shocked to see her as she was to see him.
He instantly interrupted his fellow officer and moved quickly down the hall toward the door leading into this office. Julie looked around frantically. Part of her wanted to stand her ground and demand to know what game he was playing. Another part of her, the part that relied on instinct, said get away. Now!
There was a second exit at the far end of the room. She grabbed her handbag from the floor and took off toward that door, scooting past people as fast as she dared, waiting for one of them to stop her. She looked back only once to see if Trill or whoever he really was, had followed. He was behind her, all right, his face set in a grim frown. She glimpsed the glint of silver on his wrist as he pushed a chair out of the way. His face was rigid with fury .