A most wonderful, merry, fizzy, chocolatey, indulgent and love-filled day to you all! Keeping in the spirit of giving and indulgence, please find the full story of my Christmas Romance/Mystery novella All Ye Faithful, below. I’ve been posting it in sections over the last 12 days, my very own 12 days of Christmas, and it has been wonderful receiving all the feedback and support.
But I’m well aware some people prefer the whole hog! So please find the full story in one post below.
If you’d rather read it in sections, click here for the 1st Day of Christmas. Or on the links below.
Merry reading, everyone!
**Please note, All Ye Faithful is an LGBT romance, M/M to be precise, and contains some strong language and adult content, so may not be to everyone’s taste. If this is not your thing please scoot along to my All Publications, Short Fiction and Flash Fiction pages for other things that might be more to your taste**
All Ye Faithful – Part 1
James Solomon knew it was unprofessional, even unethical, to be grateful for the murder of a high-profile businessman the day before Christmas Eve. But even his robust professional pride couldn’t put a dent in the relief he felt when the call came through.
He climbed out of the rented car outside Benson Industries HQ and shivered in the brisk sea breeze that brought with it the smell of salt and iodine. Gibson slammed the passenger door with a sigh. Her blonde brows were drawn together in a mix of annoyance and exasperation. A woman in a sheriff’s uniform stood near the doors finished a call on her cell and hurried over to meet them.
“Agents. Thanks for coming so quickly.”
“That’s no problem, Sheriff,” Gibson replied, face now professionally blank. “The sooner we start the better. Sheriff Coyle, right?”
“That’s right,” the middle-aged woman said, her smile doing nothing to warm the pale set of her face.
“Agent Gibson,” Gibson said, shaking the other woman’s hand then, indicating James, “Agent Solomon. We’ve had the incident reports, but can you fill us in in your own words?”
“Sure. Follow me,” Sheriff Coyle said, voice sounding a bit steadier. She proceeded them to the wide, glass entrance and swiped a card through a reader. The doors hissed open and James followed her and Gibson in, grateful to be out of the early morning chill. The corridor was long and brightly lit. The reception desk was empty. The black eyes of cameras were the only ones watching them. “The vic is Derek Benson, fifty-five years old. Born here in Winton then got a job with the FDA in Maryland after college. Struck out on his own age thirty, now he’s the owner, CEO, director, you name it, of Benson Industries. It’s a specialist pharmaceutical company. Started off real small-time, deals with local drug store chains and the like, but they’re pulling in some pretty big business these days. Benson was found in his office this morning by the janitor, shot three times in chest.”
“Time of death?” Gibson asked, tapping notes into her phone with a long, manicured finger.
“Our ME is putting it around nine pm last night, though he says he can be more accurate after the post mortem.”
“And you said the security camera footage is missing?” Gibson said, eyeing another camera as they strode past.
“That’s right,” said the sheriff, almost guiltily. “They’ve got too many feeds for storing on hard drives. The security system backs everything onto disk. The disks from eight pm last night to three this morning have been taken.”
“No online backup?” James asked, not hopefully.
Coyle shook her head. “I don’t think Benson trusts the Cloud and all that. A bit old fashioned with some of his thinking, I’m hearing. They’re dusting the Security Room where the disks were kept for prints now.”
“Did Benson often work late?” Gibson asked. James pulled all the reports up on his own phone and skimmed them as the elevator hummed up to the seventh floor, re-absorbing the information alongside Coyle’s commentary.
“Word is he put a lot of hours in, sure. But there was some kind of presentation evening on last night. All the heads of department and senior staff were here. Plus some of the lab rats were working late on a deadline.”
“Lab rats?” James asked as Coyle stepped off the elevator onto a level that was all glass walls and spacious offices with big desks and bold, minimalist furniture.
“The technicians,” she said, glancing this way and that as if wary of what might be hiding in the maze of glass. “We have a list of everyone that was in the building at the time from the swipe, though so far no one saw anyone leave the conference room or the labs.”
“How many people are we talking?” asked Gibson warily.
Coyle pulled a battered notepad from a back pocket, flipped through it. “Thirty one.”
“That’s a lot of people with opportunity,” Gibson muttered.
“One of them was his wife,” Coyle added, flicking through her notes. “Rachel Benson.”
“His wife was at his business meeting?”
Coyle nodded. “She’s a senior partner in the firm. She delivered one of the presentations.”
“At what time?”
“Pretty much the exact time they reckon he was shot,” Coyle said. “Sorry.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want it to be too easy,” Gibson muttered.
“What did you think of the victim?” James asked, watching the sheriff closely.
“Me?” she said, brow creased. “I didn’t know him.”
“But you knew of him,” James pressed. “Big company. Small town.”
Coyle gave him a nervous glance then looked away. “He did stuff for some local charities. Donated to some nature conservation causes and the homeless action, that kind of thing.”
“But?” James prompted, seeing a slight tightness in her face.
Coyle looked uncomfortable. “He hired most of his staff from out-of-town. They don’t live here, they don’t contribute to the economy, and they can get the locals backs up. Snobbish, some say. Elitist.”
“Is that what you think too?”
“I don’t have much contact with them,” Coyle hedged. “And I don’t listen to gossip. But I do know a lot of money comes through this building and not much of it feeds back into Winton. We’ve started interviewing,” she added, turning a corner. “Managed to get a few of the folks from the meeting in early this morning, including the wife. But we’re still trying to get hold of most of them.”
“What do you make of the wife?”
Coyle looked at James like she was trying to figure out if he was testing her. “Reserved.”
“She’s not upset?”
“Oh, she’s upset,” Coyle said. “But she’s not the sort to go to pieces in front of the likes of me.”
“The report said murder weapon was his own gun?” James then asked, carefully logging the last reply away for further consideration.
“Sure looks that way. He kept it in his desk.” Coyle stopped at one of the glass doors where a uniformed officer, looking a little green, stood to attention. Through the wide glass walls, James could see the body of Derek Benson slumped in his large, designer office chair. Blood was splattered up the window behind him, looking like red rain suspended in the grey, December sky. The crime scene photographer was taking close-ups of the bullet wounds whilst his partner, who looked old enough to have been the scene technician at the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, was bent over the black, glass desk, sweeping for prints as delicately as if he were applying makeup.
“We don’t get much murder here,” Coyle murmured as if in explanation, her eyes on the corpse. “Winton’s a peaceful spot. We get some drugs, some drunk and disorderly, a bit of fraud. But stuff like this?” She shook her head.
“A big company shoe-horned into a small community,” James ventured, watching both officers’ faces. “Can cause friction.”
Coyle raised her eyebrows. “Big companies are fine. But BI’s too big. And only likely to get bigger.”
“Oh yes?” Gibson prompted, pulling on some gloves and pushing open the door.
“That’s what people are saying this presentation evening was about,” Coyle said, hanging back near the door as Gibson bent over the body. “They’re striking a deal with some sort of international distributer for their newest antiviral.”
“Do you know which distributer?” James asked, examining the stark art hanging on the interior wall.
Coyle frowned at her notepad, ruffling the pages. “It’s in here somewhere. I’m sure it went in the report.”
“It did,” Gibson replied firmly, giving James a hard look. “Loadstone Inc.”
Coyle smiled a relieved smile and Gibson went back to scrutinizing the crumpled form of Derek Benson. James examined him over her shoulder. His chin was on his chest. A rope of blood-speckled saliva hung from a corner of his lined mouth. His skin was yellow-grey and James knew that if he’d tried to move him he would be stiff with the rigor of someone dead nearly twelve hours. His eyes were closed. His hands, hairless and manicured, rested in his lap. His brows were heavy and dark. His hair, thinning, was iron grey, though still almost black at the nape. He wore an expensive suit and a dark, conservative tie. Blood soaked his shirtfront and pooled under the chair.
The gun was on the floor by the desk. A desk drawer on his right stood wide open. James bent and peered at the small keypad on the drawer front.
“It has a lock, but not a complex one,” he said.
“And there’s no signs of a struggle,” Gibson replied surveying the rest of the tidy office.
James nodded. “Someone he knew. Someone he trusted too, or at least someone he wasn’t afraid of, or he’d have been standing.”
“But that could be any one of the thirty one people in the building last night,” Gibson said sourly. She stood with her hands on hips, glaring at the corpse like it had done her personal harm. Which, in a way, James reasoned, it had. “The question is, did he get the gun out himself, or did the killer?”
“Business expansion,” James said, tilting the computer monitor to face him. “Not always a popular move.”
“But why was he here?” Gibson murmured. “Big-deal presentation evening in the conference room, the future of his company in the balance?”
“And he’s sat in his office on a whole other floor,” James affirmed. “Writing an email to Personnel.” He gestured at the screen. Gibson came to his elbow and bent to examine the open, unsent email with Contract Termination typed into the subject line and a blinking cursor in the blank form.
Gibson was quiet a moment. James stepped to a set of black vinyl bookshelves and scanned the titles. Business management, chemistry, biology, academic journals and government studies on pharmaceuticals, and several battered volumes on natural history and the history of Winton and the surrounding area.
“I think we have all we need,” Gibson said to Coyle, who was stood by the door watching them with an expectant air. “The ME can take him away now.”
Coyle nodded and stepped back out into the corridor, dialing a number on her cell.
“How about you stop making digs at the local law enforcement, Agent?” Gibson scolded softly.
“If they slip up this early on, it’ll end in roadblocks,” he returned, watching Coyle through the glass. “And we need to establish local feeling about the situation.”
“Consider it established,” Gibson said wearily. “Are you getting anything on this guy?”
“He loved his town,” James murmured, looking around the office again. “But I think he loved his company more.”
“His company grossed several million last year,” Gibson said, moving to the door. “I can see why he had a soft spot for it.” Coyle was just hanging up the phone when they rejoined her. “Ok, Sheriff. Please continue to round up the employees from last night. We’ll question them here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said. “Most of them will be turning up to work at eight anyways.”
“Good,” said Gibson, looking at her watch. James could see her repressing a sigh. “Tell them they can only have the building back when we’re done. That’ll get them through the door.”
Coyle nodded and hurried off.
“We’re doing the interviews here?” James questioned.
“One,” Gibson said, holding up a finger and moving back toward the elevator, “it could get the killer twitchy and we might get a hit early, which means I can be back in time for my husband’s Christmas Eve punch evening tomorrow. And two,” she said, stabbing the elevator button with more force than was necessary. “Getting everyone across town to the Winton Police Station with its single interview room and stone-age wifi will add hours to the whole damn circus. I’m not paid enough to be here at this time of year any longer than necessary.”
James didn’t comment. He set up his interview station in the room he was offered by another local police officer, put the digital recorder on the desk, pulled out a new, leather-bound notepad and went through the early reports on his phone for the third time as the clock ticked towards eight am.
He frowned when his personal phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out, saw the number and cut the call. Shortly after, a police officer ushered in a tall woman in a business suit looking flustered and annoyed. James could already see a queue of similarly well-dressed and irritated people lining up outside. He flipped open his notebook, indicated the chair opposite, and began.
Three hours and seven interviews later and James was hoarse, tired and frustrated as he flipped through his interview notes which revealed absolutely nothing. Benson was generally liked. Everyone was quietly hopefully that the deal with Loadstone Inc would be good for the company, and, James figured, for their own wallets. No one knew why Benson had chosen not to attend the presentation evening.
James waited for the next candidate wearily, tapping his pen on the desk. When the door remained shut, he checked the corridor. It was empty but for a few local police officers attempting to calm two loudly-protesting members of Benson Industries’ senior management who were still waiting to be seen and extremely unhappy about it. He sighed, was about to call them in, then spotted a vending machine further down the hall and his blood sung out for caffeine.
He slipped away while their backs were turned, punched in his selection and received an ominously greasy coffee. He glanced back, saw the impatient employees being shown into Gibson’s interview room and took the opportunity to step out a side entrance that had been propped open by the Crime Scene team for quicker access and escaped into the open air. He found himself on a concrete walkway at the back of the building. There was a bench against the wall and cigarette butts littered the floor. He took a seat with a sigh and sipped the coffee. It was revolting, but hot and the caffeine began poking holes in his fatigue.
The land rolled steeply away from the back of the building, down to the sea. A couple of gulls, looking brighter than jewels against the low, grey sky, wheeled in the salty breeze. He took a moment to just breathe the smell and feel the chill on his skin.
It was so quiet, so unlike the city which was, he felt, at its worst this time of year. Added to the usual roar of traffic, blare of sirens and thunder of planes was the incessant Christmas music blasting from every storefront and pouring forth from every cab radio. It was all gaudy lights and swarming crowds scrambling for the tacky, overpriced products piled in storefront windows.
He found himself closing his eyes a moment, letting himself enjoy the cold, blessedly-quiet sea air, when his phone buzzed again. He swore, pulled it out, stared at the screen for a long moment, then answered.
“There you are,” came the irritated, high-pitched voice. “You avoiding me, James?”
“I’m working, Angelina.”
“The day before Christmas Eve?”
“Yes,” James said, controlling his tone with an effort. “I’m afraid the murderer didn’t consider their timing.”
Angelina huffed down the line. “This is the third year running, James.”
“I know that – ”
“Dad’s starting to think you’re doing it on purpose.”
James swallowed his first response, kneading the bridge of his nose. “It’s the job.”
“Bull,” she snapped and James winced. It took a lot to make his sister even half-swear. “Even the FBI get Christmas off occasionally.”
“I’m the only one in the unit without a family.” James argued. “It’s only fair – ”
“You have a family, James.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Dad’s not getting any younger you know.”
She sighed again, sounding defeated. “He misses you.”
James didn’t reply.
“Yes he does,” she retorted in response to what he didn’t say. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you both lately. I know he said some dumb stuff about Glen, but you know what he’s like. Mum wouldn’t want you to – ”
“Angelina,” he put in, firmly. “I’ve got to go. I’m interviewing.”
“Of course you are.” Her disappointment was harder to hear than her anger. “Well, I’ll tape Ryan and Jackson opening their presents, shall I?”
“Yes,” he said. “Please.”
A pause. “Stay safe,” she said, but in a way that made it clear she might love him, but was still mad, and hung up. He rested his head against the bare brick and stared at the sky, waiting for the flush of shame to ebb.
“Bad day, huh?”
James looked up, startled. A young man in a lab coat was stood by the door, giving him a sympathetic look through thin-framed glasses.
“Working day,” he replied noncommittally.
The younger man smiled, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his faded jeans and offering them. When James waved them away he gestured at the bench. “Mind if I…?”
James did mind, but couldn’t think of a professional way to refuse. He glanced back at the door, knowing he should get back. But it was so quiet out here.
He shifted over to allow the young man to sit. James picked up the slight sent of good coffee and herbal shampoo. He blinked and shifted further away as the man lit a cigarette with a silver zippo. The thick smell of tobacco smoke filled the air, thankfully masking the other, more appealing scents, and the wisps wove about his head like snow clouds before whipping away in the breeze.
“You’re one of the FBI agents, huh?”
“Agent Solomon,” he confirmed, not meeting the curious look.
“Poor old man Benson,” the other murmured after a pause, smoke wreathing from his lips. “I can’t believe it. Shot, huh?”
“Man.” The young man shook his head. James examined him out the corner of his eye. He had long, caramel-colored hair pulled into a loose tail that hung down his back. What looked like home-cut bangs framed his fine-boned face and fell in his eyes. James noticed with a start that the eyes were the most startling pale green he had ever seen, the colour of bottle glass or young leaves. “It’s unbelievable,” he continued. “Shit like this just doesn’t happen round here.”
“So I believe,” James said, looking away.
“It’ll be sex or money, right?”
“Murder.” The young man had an almost impish grin on his face. “It’s always about sex or money, right? Or both?”
“We’re pursuing several lines of inquiry.”
He laughed, a bright sound at odds with the grey morning.
“I’m sorry, and you are?” James said with a spark of irritation.
“Leo,” the other held out his hand, unaffected by or not noticing his tone. “Leo Hannah.”
“And what’s you’re connection to the victim, Mr Hannah?”
“Just Leo,” he insisted, dropping his hand when James didn’t take it. “I work here. Lab rat,” he added, tugging on the lapel of his white coat.
“And what exactly do you do?”
“Uh, well,” he scratched his forehead with a thumbnail. “I’d have to look at my email signature to give you the proper title. But basically, I look in microscopes and play with the scanning machines.”
James watched as the younger man took another deep draw in his cigarette. Under the lab coat he wore a loose t-shirt and low-slung jeans. There were battered sneakers on his feet. His hands were long-fingered and fine, with a number of tiny scars and work-hardened pads. His face was boy-like, the green eyes large and fringed with thick lashes, making him look younger than James reasoned he must be. His look and manner both seemed easy, unguarded, in stark contrast to everyone James had interviewed that morning. He entertained a half-notion for a long moment then heard himself asking, “Did you know Mr Benson well?”
Hannah snorted smoke out through his nose. “Nah. He’s the one with the shiny office on the seventh floor and I work in the basement, you get me?” he threw James another disarming smile. “But I do know you’ve got your work cut out for you.”
“How so?” James asked carefully.
“Well,” Hannah said, raising one eyebrow. “I’ve only been here a year, but even I know you either loved the boss man, or you hated him.”
“Your colleagues have not ventured the same opinion,” James said carefully.
Hannah snorted again. “Top brass? No, they wouldn’t.”
Hannah rubbed his thumb against his fingers just under James’s nose. James caught again the subtle scent of herbs and coffee and closed his throat. “Dollar dollar, yeah?”
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to explain.”
The other’s mouth turned up at the corner. He looked at James closely, like he was a slightly diverting article in a usually-boring newspaper. James resisted the urge to break eye contact. “Top brass want to be in the top pocket of whoever takes over, right?”
“Well,” he shrugged like it was obvious. “Until they know who’s gonna take over, everyone’s gonna play it cool, right? Especially with the cops. Then you can tell the new boss what a good job you did saving the company’s face.”
“And saving its face doesn’t concern you?”
He narrowed his ivy-green eyes momentarily. “I think catching who did it concerns me more.”
“That’s good,” James replied and pulled out his notebook. “So you would say the senior management had a wide range of feelings about Mr Benson?”
“That’s a very college-educated way of putting it, but yeah,” Hannah replied. “You only had to see him in a room with his department heads to see they either worshiped the ground is size tens trod on, or wanted to slip a land mine under them. He’s…was…too old-school for some, I think. Had principles.”
“Strong ones,” Hannah replied. “Demanded loyalty, you know. And respect.”
“These heads of department. That would be Horatio Torez, June Michaels and Harold Boon?”
“Yeah, those guys. Super top-brass.”
“Could you be more specific about their relationship with Benson?”
Hannah looked out over the sea. “Not really. We don’t exactly share the same break room. I can only tell you what I guess, you know, the impressions I got in meetings and stuff.”
“And what were those impressions?”
He hesitated the barest moment, then continued. “Michaels and Boon always looked like it was only the size of their pay checks stopping them from beating Benson’s head against the table. Whereas Torez, well…”
“Yes?” James prompted.
“Let’s just say I’ve never seen a guy so into another guy that wasn’t into him back.”
James took a moment to untangle that. “Torez is gay?”
The green eyes slid his way again. James tried to figure out what was going on in the appraising look. “Both ways, I think. But he keeps it on the hush-hush. He was in the military, you know.”
James hadn’t known. He made a note. “How do you know about his orientation?”
Hannah shrugged again and James wondered if it was a little too easily. “I know someone he dated for a while.”
“Happily married for years, I believe. To a woman, I mean. Rachel? You must have that in your files.”
“But they were close? Torez and Benson?”
“Hell yeah. Torez is into that whole respect thing, too. And big on chains-of-command. Benson was like his commanding officer and a father figure all rolled into one, I guess? Torez had a pretty rough upbringing. That’s not a secret. I put it all this in my statement, by the way. For the lady cop.”
James cocked an eyebrow. “‘Lady cop’?”
“The pretty one. Older, but still got it. Blonde.”
“You mean Agent Gibson?”
“Sure, that sounds right,” he said, grinning again. “She took it all down. Although…”
“What is it?”
“I didn’t mention it before because…well, there’s no proof. That’s what you guys want, right? Evidence? Proof?”
“What do you have?”
“Just a feeling, really.”
“A feeling there’s been, something, I dunno…something funny between Torez and the old man recently.”
“Yeah. Sassy said she’s heard they’ve had beef, though no one knows what about.”
“Sallyann Andrews. One of the mail runners,” Hannah explained. “She hears everything that goes on. Likes to pass it on, too.”
“So she heard a rumor. What makes you think it’s true?”
Hannah contemplated the sea for a long moment, brow creased slightly. “Torez came down to the lab last week for a meeting. He sure looked like a man with a weight on his mind.”
“When did Sassy first mention hearing about this disagreement?”
“Uh, few weeks ago? A month? I’d have to check my IM history to be sure.”
“If you could do that, and give me a call,” James replied, pulling a business card from his pocket.
“Sure, happy to…James?”
“Agent Solomon is fine.”
“Sure thing,” Hannah smiled again, wider. James wondered if there was a glint in his eye or if it was just his dry spell playing with his radar. “And hit me up if you need anything while you’re here, yeah? I know this town pretty well. You got my number on file, right?”
James examined his face a long time but couldn’t make anything of the boyish guilelessness. “We do.”
“Seriously,” Hannah added, his smile dropping. “Anything I can do to help. I liked Benson. I didn’t know him well, but he gave me a shot, you know. When no one else would. Kinda feel like I owe the old man.”
James stood, pocketing his notebook and checking his watch. “Thank you for your cooperation.”
“Sure thing. Oh and, Agent?”
Hannah nodded to the paper cup in his hand, still half-filled with lukewarm dregs. “If you want a decent coffee, there’s a place on the seafront. Arbuckles. That shit’ll knock your socks off. Tell ‘em Leo sent you.” His smile made his eyes shine like stained glass in the sunshine. James hurriedly suppressed the thought just as Gibson appeared at the side door, looking harried.
“There you are,” she said, glance sliding to Hannah who raised a hand in greeting as he dragged on his second cigarette. She nodded politely then gestured James to follow her in.
“What is it?” he asked as he stepped back inside.
“I want you in on this one,” she said, pacing back toward the interview rooms.
“Who is it?” James asked as he followed.
“Renford Muntz. The janitor.”
“The one that found the body?”
“You think he’s good for it?”
“I don’t know. I can’t tell if he’s guilty or just hates cops. Keep your eyes open. Mr Muntz,” Gibson’s tone stiffened with politeness as she opened the door. Renford Muntz sat hunched at the table, chewing on a splitting thumbnail. His deep-set eyes flicked up as they entered, then dropped again to the table top. “This is my colleague Agent Solomon. If you don’t mind, I would like to go through your statement again with him present.”
“Why?” the man rasped without looking up.
“He’s a good judge of character. If you truly have nothing to hide, he’s a good guy to have on your side.”
The man huffed, spitting out a gnawed piece of nail. James studied him as he took a seat next to Gibson. Muntz’s dark, wiry hair stuck up in all directions like he’d been running his hands through it. His skin was sallow and his stained coverall strained at the seams as he bent his large frame over the table. There were bags under his eyes and dirt under his fingernails. His jaw moved constantly and he blinked more than James would consider normal.
“So tell me again how you found Mr Benson.”
“For Agent Solomon’s benefit. Please.”
He sighed a large sigh. James watched him tugging at the ragged thumbnail with stiff fingers. “Like I said, I came in at four like always,” he grumbled. “I do the top floors first cos those stuck-up assholes don’t want me around once they start pretending to work.”
“You do what, exactly? Cleaning?”
“No, there’s a cleaning crew for that, ain’t there?” he grouched. “But it’s my job to make sure everything’s in order and that they done their job right.”
“Ok, so you were inspecting the senior management’s offices,” Gibson continued without inflection. “Then what?”
“I saw him through the glass. I called the police.”
“Your swipe card confirms you arriving at three-fifty-five am, Mr Muntz. The call to the sheriff didn’t come through until four-twenty-five. Did it really take you half an hour to get up to the seventh floor, see Mr Benson had been attacked and call the police?”
“I did some other offices first, didn’t I?” he snapped, shifting in his chair. “And when I got to his, I didn’t see the blood at first. Thought he was sleeping.”
“Do you know where the disks from the security system are kept, Mr Muntz?” James asked.
He shrugged, staring hard at his fingers. “Sure. Security Room. First floor.”
“The disks with all the footage from last night are missing.”
“Killer musta taken them,” he scowled at James.
“Mr Benson was in the process of writing an email when he died,” Gibson said. “To Personnel. Do you know anything about that?”
“No. Why should I?”
Gibson paused. James watched Muntz. Sweat began to shine on his forehead. “A number of your colleagues mentioned you and Mr Benson have had a few disagreements recently. About your behaviour towards your colleagues, among other things.”
“Lying bastards.” Muntz’s hands twitched then were still again.
“It’s not true, then?”
“Course it’s not.”
“Why do you think they would say so?”
“Cos they’ve all got it in for me, that’s why.”
“Who specifically, Mr Muntz?” James asked.
“All of them,” he spat. “Everyone. They all want to see me out on the street.”
“Does that include Horatio Torez?” James ventured.
Muntz stared at him a moment, mouth slightly open. James could feel Gibson’s questioning glance but kept his eyes on Muntz. The heavyset man blinked and scowled heavily. “Sure, him. All of them.”
“Why did they all have such strong feelings about you?” Gibson asked, voice carefully level.
Muntz shifted his bulk in the creaking chair. “I don’t know, do I? I’m different, I guess.”
“How are you different?”
“I ain’t rich, for one,” he snarled. “And they think I’m not smart. But I am. I knew what they said. I knew what they thought. They think I’m dumber than shit, but they don’t know half the stuff I know about this place. They don’t know what I could do, given the money and the right chances. I been here years. Known Mr Benson longer than any of them too. Jealous, that’s what they are. Every one of them.”
“Who do you think would want to hurt Mr Benson, Renford?” James said, watching the ruddy face carefully.
The bloodshot eyes weighed him up a long time. A corner of the mouth twitched within the bristled depths of his beard. “How should I know?”
“You just said you knew the company better than anyone,” James remarked. “Don’t you have any idea?”
The big man leant forward on the table. “You want my guess?”
“One of the heads. Yeah, one of those guys.”
“The heads of department?”
“Yeah, That idiot Boon or that stuck up bitch Michaels.”
“And why would they want Mr Benson dead?” James said, leaning his elbows on the plastic tabletop to mimic the other, watching the twitching, sweat-sheened face closely.
“They hated him, that’s why.”
“Lots of people hate other people, Renford. It doesn’t mean they kill them.”
“This big deal,” he snapped, “means big changes, right?”
“I imagine so.”
Well, they’d get more money if they were in charge instead of him, right?”
“Yes, I imagine that’s right,” James said smoothly, pretending to look at his notes. “So one of them will take over the company now? Get all the benefits from the expansion for themselves?”
“Course. It’s always about money, ain’t it?”
“Most of the time,” James agreed.
“Just Boon and Michaels?” James asked lightly. “You don’t think Torez would have wanted the same thing?”
The man swallowed thickly, looked at the table. “No.”
“Why not?” Gibson prompted when the man offered no more.
“I dunno,” he said, slamming a fist on the table. “Just no, ok?”
All Ye Faithful – Part 2
“I’m liking Muntz for this one,” Gibson said as she steered the rented car out of the parking lot of Benson Industries and onto the narrow road winding downhill to the town. “His swipe has him in the building the same time as the rest of them. Doing his rounds, he says. Though why he’d do them at eight pm then again at four I don’t know.”
“Did he have an explanation?”
“Not a coherent one,” Gibson said. “He knows where the security disks are kept and word amongst the senior management is that Benson had had enough of his attitude and was about to fire him.”
“He certainly ticks all the boxes,” James murmured as he flicked through the files in his lap.
“You don’t think it’s him?”
James pursed his lips, opening a folder to reveal a polaroid of Leo Hannah, green eyes smiling even though his expression was neutral for the file photo. “You interviewed Leo Hannah, right?” he asked after a pause.
“Leo Hannah?” Gibson frowned.
“Lab technician. Youngish. Long hair.”
She cast James a sideways glance from under her smart, blonde bangs. “Your friend from the smoking area? Yes, I did.”
“He mention anything about Horatio Torez and Benson having a falling out?”
Gibson paused as she overtook a slow-moving truck. “Not that I recall. He was one of the only ones forthcoming about how the heads of department and Benson felt about each other, but he only said Torez and Benson were a close-knit team. Why?”
James examined the photo a moment longer, then moved it over to read the personnel profile underneath. “He confirmed the two were close, but only until recently. He said something had got between them.”
“He didn’t know.”
“And he told you this in your little unofficial interview session on the bench, did he?”
James frowned. “It’s not like that.”
James swallowed his first response. “He came out for a smoke, Lisa. I didn’t ask him to talk…he just talked.”
“And told you stuff he didn’t put in his official statement?”
James closed the file. “I don’t think he meant to. But, yeah.”
Gibson took a breath, gave him a cool look then looked back at the road. “No one else has mentioned anything happening between Torez and Benson. I interviewed Torez myself. The man is crushed.”
Gibson nodded. “I had to offer tissues. And I’d say he’s not a man that cries easily. Buzzcut and built like a tank.”
“I still think we should dig a bit deeper.”
“What, and leave off looking into Muntz?”
“We can do both.”
“Not in my time frame we can’t,” Gibson insisted.
“Boss – ”
“James,” she cut him off. “I know you’re still hurting. And I get it, I really do. I’ve been there. But we can’t go off-script just because a cute guy whispered something intriguing in your ear.”
“That’s not – ” James started to protest, but his partner cut him off.
“Not for you, I’m sure,” she said firmly, giving him a long look. “But I want you to be careful. It sounds to me that this Hannah has a personal ax to grind with Horatio Torez and perhaps sensed that you’re vulnerable right now.”
James took a moment to marshal his reaction, then decided there was no professional way to respond.
Gibson looked at him and sighed as she adjusted her hands on the wheel. “I’m sorry. Maybe I’m completely off-base. But we have a real suspect in Muntz, we have a hell of a lot of checks and transcribing to do before we can pull together enough for an arrest and I want to get on a plane tomorrow. I have to prioritize. I’m sorry.”
“No problem, boss,” James said, relieved his voice was level. “Whatever you say.”
All Ye Faithful – Part 3
James kneaded his temples as the headache began to gather strength. He reached for his mug, found it was empty and put it back down on the desk with a thump. The hotel room light was a dull yellow, making his head throb worse than the fatigue. He leant back from the desk littered with papers, digital recorders, laptop and both his cell phones and saw that the sky beyond the window was now pitch black. The sterile hotel suite and his hollow-eyed exhaustion reflected back at him in the empty glass.
He stood, his muscles creaking from being bent over the desk for hours and wandered to the window, stretching his shoulders and arms. When he put his hand up to shade the glass, he was startled to see Winton lit up like a festive scene from a holiday card. The hotel overlooked the curve of the bay, and the seafront of the town ranged out along its edge like a string of Christmas lights. People ambled along the front, drifting in and out of the string of shops, bars and restaurants like they’d never hurried anywhere in their lives. The signs over the storefronts were all family or local names. He didn’t spot a single Starbucks or McDonalds. Artificial Christmas trees placed at intervals on the seafront wall glittered with white and blue lights. They swayed slightly in the breeze off the dark sea, which was invisible beyond the curving wall. Somewhere nearby he could hear someone playing Christmas carols on an old piano.
“Ok. Thanks,” Gibson ended her call with a loud sigh that jerked James back into the room. She was slumped in her chair and rubbing her tired face. “I’m starved. Let’s break for dinner.”
“Sure. Then I’ll try and reach the ME’s office again.”
“We’ll call in in the morning,” Gibson said, waving a hand dismissively. “Going in person should light a fire under them.”
James hesitated. “I know how badly you want to leave tomorrow. If we don’t have enough to bag Muntz…”
“Yes?” Gibson prompted cautiously.
James tried for a reassuring smile. “You should go anyway. I don’t mind holding the fort on my own.”
She raised her eyebrows. “You’d stay out here, on the edge of nowhere, all on your own?”
He shrugged one shoulder. “I can write up the reports and continued checks easily enough from the hotel.”
“On Christmas day?”
“Sure. Tell the chief the investigation is ongoing, but you should be with your kids.”
Her face warmed, but her smile was a little sad. “Your family’s out west, right?”
“My dad is. And my sister’s family, yes. I wouldn’t get back there in time anyway. Makes no difference working Christmas day here rather than back at base.”
Her eyes were warm. “That’s extremely generous of you, James. I appreciate the offer. But let’s continue to work under the assumption that Renford Muntz will be the one cooped up for Christmas and not you, ok?”
“Sure,” he said, with a half-smile and grabbed his coat. “I’m going to go for a walk and come back fresh.”
“You do that,” Gibson replied, perusing the room-service menu with a slight frown. “Make sure to eat, Agent.”
The brisk, salty air was threaded through with a hundred sweet and savory smells from the restaurants, but James’s stomach was too tightly knotted to consider food. His mind sloughed between Muntz, to the gun to the drawer and, inevitably, back to Hannah. At which point, he shook his head and forced it back along more clinical lines.
People bundled in warm coats and long scarves brushed past him, all warm smiles and intimate conversations. The thousand points of colored light from the various Christmas decorations winked and flashed in the night air like multi-colored stars. The second time he found himself stopping to look and hearing his sister’s disappointed voice in his head, he turned his back on the front and ventured out onto a rickety wooden pier that stretched over the sea like an ancient gangplank, blessedly dark and deserted.
He came to the end and took a deep breath of the cold air, finally feeling it begin to soothe his frustrated mind. The smells were salt, iodine and the fresh snap of incoming snow. He looked up but the stars were completely blanketed in thick cloud. The hushed slosh and suck of the waves lapping at the pier was the only sound audible over the soft sighing of the wind in his ears.
“Agent Solomon?” James jumped. He span, his hand going to his gun. Leo Hannah raised his hands. “Whoa there, cowboy. We met this morning, remember?”
“I remember,” James said, dropping his hand and swallowing his embarrassment. “How can I help you, Mr Hannah?”
His light laugh accompanied his step forward. James searched the dark for his face, but it was too shadowy. “I don’t need any help. I’m just out for a walk. Like you.”
James swallowed, repressing firmly the memory of the vivid eyes he knew were hidden in the shadows. “I guess so.”
“Had a long day, huh?”
“What makes you say that?”
“Your shoulders are up round your ears. I can feel the tension from here.”
“I’m fine,” he insisted and turned his back, willing the younger man to go away.
“You wanna clear your head? I know a great place.”
“Mr Hannah – ”
“Jesus, man. That was my dad. Call me Leo, ok?”
James swallowed. “Leo. I’m not your friend. I’m investigating the murder of your boss…”
His low chuckle was close to James’s left ear. He could smell peppermint and cigarettes. “I’m just offering to help, Solomon. Not suck you off.” James stiffened, grateful the dark hid the blood rushing to his face. “Come on, man, loosen up will you? I don’t bite.”
James looked over his shoulder. Hannah was stood half a step behind him, hands in the pockets of an oversized overcoat, silhouetted against the festive backdrop of seafront lights. When he turned to head back down the pier, James followed after only hesitating a few heartbeats.
About halfway back to the seafront, Hannah turned and swung his leg over the railing. James was just about to shout a warning when the shadows shifted and he saw the frame and rungs of a ladder leading down into the dark.
“Come on,” Hannah called. “It’ll be worth scuffing your suit, I swear.”
James hesitated again. The wind tugged at his hair. The sea sighed and rolled below. Hannah called again from somewhere out of sight and James muttered to himself and climbed over. The wood of the ladder was old and slippery. He swore to himself when his hands and feet nearly lost their purchase twice. He stepped off onto spongey sand whilst muttering more curses, then bent over to try and brush wood slime from his pant legs.
“Over here, quick,” came Hannah’s eager voice.
Everything was shifting shadows and breaths of sea air. The sounds of the town were expunged by the soft sound of the waves kissing the sand. James peered into the darkness and picked out the slim shape of Hannah at the waterline. He joined him, shoulders hunched against the biting wind.
“What am I looking at exactly?”
“Out there. Look,” Hannah was nodding out to sea.
James turned just as the moon came out from behind the cloud. It looked bigger than James had ever seen it, hanging over the water like a white lantern, rounder and brighter than a disk of snowy ice in the sunshine. Its light gilded the tops of the waves in silver. They seemed to stretch on forever, glinting and rolling in an endless dance of air and water.
“It’s beautiful,” he agreed.
“Ain’t it just?” Hannah said softly. James glanced at him. His eyelashes and hair were threaded with silver moonlight. There was a soft smile on his mouth. His eyes were shining and far away.
“It’s comforting, right?” he said. “It’s so empty and full all at once. It just…I don’t know. Helps you not-think, I guess.”
James tore his eyes away from Hannah’s moonlit profile to look back over the sea just as the cloud started to swallow the moon back into darkness.
“Yeah,” James replied carefully. “I guess I do. Why are you doing this?” he added after a moment of silence.
Hannah didn’t answer for a while. James tried to read his face in the dark, but the last of the moon’s light was fading as cloud blanketed the sky.
“You looked lost.”
He shrugged. “On the bench. On the pier. You just looked like you could use an ally, that’s all.”
“I’m an FBI agent. I have a whole team of allies.”
Hannah was quiet again. James glanced back toward the seafront, knowing he should leave. Knowing, just as certainly, that he didn’t want to.
“You eaten?” Hannah suddenly.
“I – ” James began.
“I know somewhere does best buffalo wings north of Texas.”
“Sure you can,” Hannah said, sand shushing as he turned on his heel to head back toward the ladder. “Even FBI agents have to eat.”
A dozen protests rose to his lips, but James found himself not voicing any of them. He hurried after Hannah, climbed the ladder and followed the younger man back to the glowing seafront.
All Ye Faithful – Part 4
“Will you relax, Solomon? You look like someone’s about to take a shot at you.”
James shifted on the faded leather of the booth. Buck’s Bar was busy with people eating, drinking and laughing. Waiting staff wearing Santa hats wove between the tables, skillfully balancing trays of drinks and food above the heads of the milling crowd. Countrified Christmas music drifted from hidden speakers and the air was thick with the smells of beer and barbecue.
“I shouldn’t be here.”
Hannah grinned. “Why not? You don’t like wings?”
James glowered then looked away. He glanced at the door and had just made up his mind to leave when an oriental waitress appeared at their booth, blocking his exit.
“Well hey there, Leo,” she piped in a beautiful accent before her eyes raked over James. “Who’s tall, dark and handsome?”
James flushed. Hannah spoke with a knowing smile, not taking his eyes of James. “Mitzy, this is James. We’ll both have the special. And bring us a couple of beers too, huh?”
“Sure thing, hun,” she said, jotting it down on her pad and sauntering away.
“You come here a lot then,” James observed as another of the service staff winked at Leo as he hurried past.
Hannah laughed. “They sure don’t teach you pick-up lines at the academy, huh?”
James bridled. “That wasn’t – ”
“Will you relax,” Hannah laughed, patting him on the forearm. “I’m yanking your chain, ok?”
“Why?” James countered, instantly regretting the petulant tone, but Hannah only smiled wider.
“You don’t want your chain yanking, don’t make it so irresistible.”
James shifted on his seat again, which Hannah watched with bright amusement dancing in his eyes.
“Yes, I come here a lot,” he continued in an almost-placating tone. “They have live music on a Wednesday. I like to listen to the bands. And the food’s amazing.”
Mitzy returned with their beers. She and Hannah exchanged a few words in another language and James blinked.
“You speak Mandarin?” he said after she left.
“Only a little,” Hannah hedged, taking a long drink of his beer. “Spent a year in Hong Kong after dropping out of high school. Mitzy’s mom owns the Chinese restaurant I live over. I get free noodles for being polite. What about you? You British? I can’t figure it out.”
“My mother was British,” James murmured, swirling his beer in his glass and wincing internally at the inevitable kick of pain.
“Suddenly it all starts to make sense.”
“Why you’re so pent-up. Even for a cop.”
“I’m not – ”
“Sure you are,” Hannah said. “But don’t worry, you make it seem cute.”
James was more irritated by the flush of warmth these words generated than by the words themselves. He took a large swallow of beer to cover his embarrassment. He felt the alcohol swirl in his empty stomach and start to buzz in his veins. He checked his phone, hoping Gibson had tried to call to give him an excuse to leave, but the screen was black. Then Mitzy was back with a tray crowded with baskets of Buffalo wings and fries.
“So what made you want to join the FBI?” Hannah asked around a large, impolite mouthful.
“My father was the leading agent in his field,” James said, a little stiffly, as he prized the meat away from one of the wings. The flesh was tender, the coating crispy and perfectly seasoned. His stomach growled in appreciation as he tried to remember the last time he’d eaten anything other than microwave meals or take-out.
“That’s not an answer.”
Hannah was grinning. There was sauce smeared on his cheek. “Come on, man. I’m interested.”
“Why?” James asked carefully.
Hannah shrugged his slim shoulders in another easy movement. “You’re interesting.”
James searched his face, but couldn’t decipher anything beyond innocent curiosity. He swallowed more beer in an effort to suppress the butterflies that had started swing-dancing in his gut and carefully schooled his voice before answering “Ok so it’s what he wanted, I guess. But I’m good at it.”
Hannah examined him a long moment. James had the unnerving sensation of the green eyes looking right through him. “I’m sure you are. So what happens next?”
James swallowed hard. “With what?”
“With the case,” Hannah urged.
“I can’t talk about that.”
“Come on, man,” he cajoled, leaning over the table so his bangs fell in his eyes. “I don’t need details. I just wanna know how it compares to all the tv shows.”
“It’s a lot less glamourous. It’s mostly admin.”
“Come on, then, Agent Solomon,” Hannah grinned. “Dazzle me with your administrative prowess.”
James suppressed a smile with an effort, drank more beer and looked away from the gleaming eyes in an attempt to keep his thoughts straight. “Tomorrow will be spent in meetings with the ME and forensics. Hopefully, after that, we’ll have enough evidence for an arrest. If not, it’s another day of writing up reports and further background research.”
“Another day?” a delicate line appeared between Hannah’s fair eyebrows. “Christmas day?”
“You’re working Christmas day?”
“I work whenever there’s work to be done.”
“Well that sucks. Your partner too?”
James kept his eyes on his food. “Agent Gibson’s flying home tomorrow night. She’ll be back on Sunday.”
“Why can’t you do that too?”
“I choose to work.”
“Come on, man.” Hannah looked earnestly into his face. “You have family. I know you do. No one looks like you did on the phone this morning unless they were talking to family.”
“They’re in California. I wouldn’t get there and back in time.”
“Sure you could, at a push.”
James made an impatient noise. “Our supervisors need progress reports. I volunteered to stay.”
Hannah leant back in the seat with his eyebrows raised. “Well. Cute and noble. You genetically engineered or something?”
James didn’t answer and set about finishing his food in a way he hoped didn’t look like he was hurrying. Hannah finished his a little slower, keeping the conversation going with observations on the music, the people and gossip about the town. James nodded at intervals, pretending he was only politely interested.
It seemed to take an age, but finally the meal was done and Hannah insisted on paying the check. James felt the heady mix of relief and disappointment swirl through him as he pulled on his coat and headed for the door.
Hannah kept up the meaningless, easy chit-chat until they were back out in the freezing night air, when he paused.
“Thanks,” James ventured awkwardly into the silence.
“Hey James,” Hannah said, in a voice that had James regarding him warily. “You see that balcony?” he nodded over James’s shoulder. James looked toward a Chinese restaurant further down the seafront with a second-floor balcony crammed with dead pot plants and fairy lights. “That’s my apartment. You get to it up some stairs round the back of the Golden Dragon.”
“Mr Hannah…” James started, but Hannah cut him off again.
“Seriously, man.” He laid a warm hand on his arm, his face solemn. “Do all the report writing you want Christmas morning. I’ll be sleeping in anyway. Have a nice coffee, stream the queen’s speech or whatever you do, and you report like a motherfucking report-writing demon. But when you’re done, come over.”
“Come on, man. What could it hurt?”
“Mr Hannah,” James said formally, stepping far enough away that Hannah dropped his hand. “You’re a witness in a murder investigation.”
Hannah snorted. “Witness? I didn’t see anything.”
“It’s unprofessional. I’m sorry.” He found he really was.
“Well,” Hannah tilted his head. “I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”
James sighed and took another step away.
“Come on, dude,” Hannah insisted, stepping after him. “It’s no big deal. A few beers, some music. I’ll cook.”
“I really can’t – ”
Hannah stopped him with a hand on his chest and looked him intently in the eye. “No one should be on their own in a hotel on Christmas day. Not even a cop.”
James chewed on the inside of his cheek. He tore his eyes away with an effort and stared out over the endless dark of the rolling sea.
“Look, man,” Hannah said, even softer still. “Did it ever occur to you that I might not want to be alone either? You’d be doing me a favor. Really.”
James lifted his eyes. A soft, encouraging smile warmed the other’s boyish face. James’s chest tightened. He sighed in an attempt to disguise his discomfort. “I’ll think about it, ok? Now, I have to go.”
Hannah nodded and stepped back out of his way. James hurried back towards his hotel, feeling Hannah’s eyes on him the whole way and roundly reprimanding himself for being more stupid than a horny teenager.
It’s all ok, he told himself. I’m not going over. I just had dinner. Just dinner. Nothing to stress about.
It was a long time before he fell asleep that night.
All Ye Faithful – Part 5
Gibson’s temper got more and more frayed as Christmas Eve wore on and the local ME and forensics departments dragged their feet and argued they needed more time to complete their analyses. When Gibson put her foot down and finally demanded they give her what they had so far, her mood was not improved by the fact that no finger prints apart from the victim’s were on the gun and that the fingerprints of pretty much every employee who had access to both his office and the Security Room were all over both locations.
The ME confirmed Benson was shot at close range at around nine pm on the 22nd December, most likely with the gun they found at the scene, but the ballistics department were closed for the holidays and she’d have to wait for any concrete conclusions.
The personnel department at Benson Industries stated that they had had no formal or informal notice that Derek Benson had been planning to fire Renford Muntz, or anyone else. Another round of fraught interviews with the victim’s heads of department and wife revealed nothing that they hadn’t already known. No one knew why Benson had not joined them for the presentation evening. They were unaware of any strong feelings anywhere in the company either for or against the company’s expansion. Boon and Michaels steadfastly stuck to their previous statements and whilst they reiterated that they were more than willing to assist the investigation in any way they could, they were beginning to get impatient with the apparent lack of progress.
When it was time for Torez’s secondary interview, James mentally prepared himself to be objective. But when the tall man entered the tiny interview room at Winton Police Station, he couldn’t help but find himself examining the impressive man closely.
Hoartio Torez was a dark, handsome man in his early forties. His skin was a warm nut-brown. His Hispanic eyes were wide and classically dark. James could see the heaviness of expression that Hannah had mentioned, but whether it was anything other than that of a man grieving for a friend and colleague, James couldn’t be sure. His black hair, which he kept buzzed military-short, was just starting to grey at the temples. He sat on the cheap plastic chair with the quiet confidence of the rich and powerful, but James wondered if there was a slight tension in the ramrod-straight posture.
James watched him as Gibson repeated the questions she’d asked of everyone else twice already that day. His answers were automatic, smooth and no more helpful than any of the others’ had ben.
“There’s been some mention of a recent falling out between you and Derek Benson,” James put into a lull in the interview before he’d even realized he’d decided to do it. Gibson’s warning look bored into him but he kept his attention on Torez.
“A ‘falling out’?” Torez repeated. His eyes flickered. His face settled into stoic bemusement, but for a moment James was sure he’d caught a twitch of surprise.
“A degree of coolness between you has been noted by your colleagues.”
Torez’s mild expression suddenly creased into dark animosity. “Which colleagues, exactly?”
“Please just answer the question, Mr Torez,” James responded.
“I will, once I have been told plainly what it is you’re implying, Agent Solomon.”
“I’m not implying anything,” James said, keeping his face blank. “I simply want to know if there’s any truth to the rumor that you had a recent disagreement with your boss.”
Torez’s expression darkened further and Gibson’s with it. “I’m here as a courtesy, and because I want to help catch whoever killed a very dear friend of mine. I have waived my right to an attorney as, having done nothing wrong, I saw no need of one. Do I need to reconsider?”
“No, Mr Torez,” Gibson cut in smoothly. “I apologize for any perceived slight. Agent Solomon is just trying to ensure you are eliminated from the inquiry.”
Torez listened to Gibson, but his black eyes never moved from James’s face. “Fine. I will answer the question. No, I had not recently fallen out with Derek. We were close. Have been for years. He was like a father to me. And I would never hurt him. Ever. Satisfied, Agent Solomon?”
“Did you learn to shoot in the military, Mr Torez?”
His jaw bulged with indignation. “Yes. Of course I did.”
“Did you know your boss kept a gun in his desk?”
“Ok, that’s enough,” Gibson cut in. James held the other man’s heavy look whilst Gibson thanked Torez and dismissed him. He left with his back straighter than ever and a dark look over his shoulder.
“What the hell, Solomon?” Gibson hissed when the door has shut. “What did I say – ”
“It was a legitimate lead,” he argued, without meeting her eye.
“It was an off-hand suggestion from a stranger who wasn’t even on record.”
“If it comes out later,” James insisted, “that we’d heard about this argument, and hadn’t asked about it – ”
“There was no argument,” Gibson insisted. “Not a single other person has mentioned it, including Sallyann Andrews. Torez is a rich, powerful man, Solomon. His lawyer probably makes more in an hour than we do in a week.”
James allowed himself a half-smile. “You’re not afraid of lawyers, Gibson.”
She tilted her chin. “True. But I am afraid of the battering your career would get if the chief found out you were showing preferential treatment to good-looking witnesses in murder investigations.”
James’s blood ran cold a second. “I’m not – ”
“Relax,” Gibson said, gathering her things. “I know you’re not that stupid. But never underestimate the viciousness of a Misconduct Review, ok?”
James nodded stiffly, hoping his face wasn’t flushing as hotly as it felt, and finished gathering up their recording equipment.
The background check into Renford Muntz came through when they were swallowing lunch in a diner next to the police station. It revealed nothing more sinister than a string of unpaid parking fines that had resulted in his car being repossessed five years ago. He’d never bought another one. Gibson had him brought in for a follow-up interview like everyone else, though James could tell she wasn’t hopeful. He brought a pro-bono lawyer with him and refused to say anything further at the lawyer’s firm recommendation.
“I’ll write it up,” James said when they were back at the hotel and Gibson had just ended her third call to the forensics office with a string of colorful oaths. “The chief will understand we can’t move on so little. Ballistics may come back with something after the holiday.”
“I want a warrant for Muntz’s trailer,” Gibson grated, punching another number into her cell. “Dammit, I’ll get one out of that old fool of a judge, even if I have to crash his goddam Christmas party myself.”
“Lisa, your plane leaves in an hour.”
“We leave this another day, it’s another day Muntz has to destroy the evidence.”
“If Muntz is clever enough to take the disks to cover his tracks, he’s clever enough to have destroyed them already,” James reasoned.
Lisa looked at him from under her eyebrows. “You sound like you don’t think he’s clever enough for either.”
James held his tongue.
“Muntz is our man, Solomon,” Gibson insisted. “We just need to get something more than circumstantial evidence.”
“We’re not going to get anything until after the holiday,” he replied, gently.
Gibson sighed and slumped in a chair. She looked at the clock on the wall, chewing her lip.
“Go, Lisa. I got this.”
Gibson gave him a wan look. “I feel bad.”
“About leaving before an arrest. About leaving at all. About you not leaving.”
“It’s not, really is it?” she said, pocketing her phone and starting to gather her papers. “None of it’s fine.”
“Well, I’m fine,” James insisted.
“You are? Really?” she said, a hopeful, plaintive note in her voice that was so out of character James had to suppress an amused smile.
“Yes,” he said, standing and helping her gather her stuff into her briefcase. “I swear, ok? Give me a day to get some of the reports organized and I’ll email our progress over to the chief tomorrow. I’ll copy you in, though you’re under strict instructions not to read anything until after Christmas day, ok?”
“Who’s the boss here again?” she said, but her smile was grateful, warming her tired eyes.
“You are, ma’am,” James said. “Now do as you’re told and go home, already.”
Gibson laughed softly, shaking her head. “Ok, ok. I give in. I’m going, I’m going. Just…James?”
She sighed, paused in the act of pulling on her coat to give him a stern look. “Don’t work too hard, you hear me? And ring your family tomorrow, ok?”
“Sure,” James promised unfaithfully. “I will.”
She eyed him in a way that told him she wasn’t fooled for a minute, but glanced at the clock again and hurriedly grabbed her stuff and bustled out, issuing orders as she went. He nodded along to them all and saw her to the door.
It was quiet in the suite without her. He looked around at the cluttered desks, flickering TV showing some sort of Christmas special on mute and scatterings of empty take-out cartons and sighed.
He turned the TV off and returned to the reports with a weary determination, boosted only by the thought of picking up more coffee from Arbuckles as a reward once he’d made some headway. He refused to think about how much the smell reminded him of Hannah and steadfastly focussed on the laptop.
All Ye Faithful – Part 6
Christmas day dawned with white skies, a strong, crisp breeze off the slate-grey ocean and painfully cheerful expressions on the faces of the on-duty hotel staff. James thanked them for his room-service breakfast, tipped them heavily and scratched his stubbled chin wearily as he stared at the blinking cursor that flickered at the end of his progress report.
He rubbed his eyes. He’d been up past midnight and it was now not even nine, but he went through everything carefully, agonized over the fact that all they had was well-documented circumstantial evidence, then sighed and emailed the report off. He spent another couple of hours compiling the digital evidence files, firing emails off to chase up various departments in anticipation of them returning to work the following day, then moved around the room, slotting all the hard-copy into manila folders scattered across the hotel suite like a snowfall. It was next to silent in the room. If it hadn’t been for the faint, distant sound of Christmas music drifting from somewhere in the depths of the hotel, it could literally be any other day.
He caught sight of his reflection in the bathroom and winced. His black hair stuck up at all angles. His blue eyes were dull with fatigue.
He allowed himself a very long, very hot shower then shaved carefully, more to make himself feel better than for any real reason he allowed himself to acknowledge. Then he padded back out into the empty suite, turned on the TV, scowled at the dreadful Christmas movies playing on pretty much every channel, and turned it back off again.
He relented and went to the window. The seafront was vitally deserted but for one elderly couple walking arm-in-arm along the pier. Their heads were bent together as they walked. The gulls wheeled overhead. The sun shone brightly in the cut-glass sky. All the storefronts were shuttered, their signs dark.
He glanced at the clock. It had just gone eleven-thirty. He ran a hand through his hair then looked further along the seafront to where he could just make out the darkened front of the Golden Dragon restaurant. He stared at it a long time. Pacing to the closet, he stopped himself with his hand on his jeans and stepped back, shaking himself. He sat down on the edge of the bed and lifted the room’s phone to order room service for lunch. He paused with the receiver in his hand, staring at the wall.
“What is wrong with you?” he muttered and started dialing. The ringing tone droned in his ear. He looked around at the empty and soulless room and slowly replaced the receiver. He had dressed and left the room before he’d really allowed himself to think about what he was doing.
He found a liquor store just about to close and stopped to pick up a bottle of wine. He scolded himself for the umpteenth time when he caught himself agonizing over the best wine to pick, grabbed a mid-range Pinot Noir, paid, and left the store. He felt more self-conscious than he ever remembered feeling pacing down the seafront. Reason told him no one was watching him, and even if they were, there was no reason any resident of Winton would care about a stranger walking alone along the seafront on Christmas day. But his skin still crawled the whole way.
He found the Golden Dragon, found the staircase at the back that lead to a door on the second floor. He shifted from one foot to another for an embarrassing amount of time. His palms started to sweat. Finally he pressed the buzzer.
He waited. A long moment then pressed it again. Still nothing.
He blinked, momentarily overwhelmed at the strength of his disappointment. Only his already-bruised dignity stopped him from hammering on the door. He took a breath, then, telling himself it was for the best, turned to leave.
He was half way down the stairs when Hannah, bundled up in hisold, faded coat and home-knit scarf turned the corner and started to climb up. Strands of his caramel hair had been swept free of his loose braid and his cheeks were stung pink by the cold wind. He was clutching grocery bags. A cigarette hung out a corner of his mouth, jumping up and down as he muttered to himself. He started when he saw James. The cigarette dropped to the floor. Only a moment’s skillful scrambling stopped the bags from suffering the same fate.
“Christ, you made me jump.”
“Sorry,” James said, dumbly. He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. He couldn’t think of anything else to say. Luckily, Hannah had no such problem.
“So you actually came.” His smile was broad and his eyes bright behind his glasses.
“Sure,” James ventured awkwardly.
“Well, you know, Merry Christmas and all that, man. Come on,” he said, jostling past him up the stairs. “Let’s get inside. I’m fucking freezing.”
“Where have you been?” James asked as Hannah juggled groceries and keys.
“It occurred to me that on the million-to-one shot you actually showed, I better get some food in,” he laughed, unlocking the door and shouldering it open.
“The store was open?”
“No,” Hannah replied, dumping the bags on a counter in the small kitchen beyond. “I banged on the shop door. Old Ms Murgatroyd likes me, luckily. She let me grab a few things. I gave her a holiday tip.” He started unpacking bread, meat and instant stuffing and gravy mixes from the paper bags. James shifted awkwardly by the door, looking round the small, cluttered but clean kitchen. The cupboards were covered in stickers and music posters. A surprising array of cooking utensils were ranged on hooks along the wall. A block of good chef’s knives stood by the stove.
“So how’s the case going? You make that arrest?”
“Bummer,” Hannah said distractedly as he shoved boxes into cupboards. “You speak to Torez?”
James winced inwardly, the reminder of the reality of the situation kicking him in the stomach. “Yeah, we did.”
James tried to figure out if there was anything more in the tone than idle curiosity. “I can’t talk to you about an ongoing investigation.”
Hannah looked at him keenly. “He denied it didn’t he? Course he did. And I bet no-one else made a peep either?”
James looked away, his throat tight and his reason yelling at him to get out while he still could.
“Course they didn’t,” Hannah murmured as though talking to himself and carried on unpacking groceries. “No one’s gonna tread on the future-boss’s toes.”
James started. “Torez is taking over the company?”
“That was the word in the cafeteria yesterday. Guess Benson must have left some instructions. Hey, you brought wine?” James blinked. Hannah was beaming at him, holding out his hand. James, relieved at the change in subject, handed the bottle over self-consciously. Hannah peered at the label through his glasses. “Looks fancy.”
“Not really,” James hedged. “I’m not sure what you were planning.”
“Oh, nothing gourmet I’m afraid,” Hannah breezed to the refrigerator and started packing away beer bottles. “Murgatroyd’s ain’t exactly the farmers’ markets. Here,” he cracked open a bottle of beer and held it out.
James glanced at the clock on the wall, saw it had just gone twelve.
“Come on,” Hannah goaded. “It’s Christmas.”
James smiled and took the beer and drank a mouthful. “Thank you.”
“Go on through,” he said, packing more stuff into the refrigerator. “Make yourself at home. I won’t be long.”
James drank more beer, willing it to drown the guilt that swirled with the newly-returned butterflies in his belly, and moved through to the living room. It was small and stuffed with comfortable, mismatched and well-used furniture. The couch in front of the large tv was swathed in colorful blankets. Posters and prints crowded the faded wallpaper. One wall was made up of sliding glass doors, slightly misted with condensation. They opened out onto the cluttered balcony that looked over the stretching, iron-colored ocean. A door off to the right lead onto a hall which James assumed lead to bedroom and bathroom.
He was about to move over to the sliding doors when his eye was caught by a turntable in the corner. It sat next to a set of shelves stuffed to bursting with vinyl records. More were stacked on the floor and leaning against the table legs. James flipped through them, quietly amazed. Black Sabbath, Motorhead and Iron Maiden sat on the same shelf as Elton John’s greatest hits, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. They were lovingly cared for, each in its own protective plastic wallet. He stopped at a slightly battered copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. He stared at the cream cover in amazement.
“Ah, you know that one huh?” Hannah had appeared at his elbow, beaming at the record with something like paternal pride
“An original 1977 pressing? Sure is,” he said, taking the record from James’s hands and slipping it out of the sleeve with practiced ease. “Picked it up at a yard sale for 99 cents, if you can believe it.”
He lifted the lid of the record player, lovingly placed the vinyl disk on the platter, turned the mechanism on and gently touched the needle to the record. Lindsey Buckingham’s upbeat tones filled the room from a number of well-positioned speakers and James felt his heart skip about.
“You like this album?” Hannah ventured, searching his face.
James hurriedly schooled his expression. He cleared his throat with a swallow of beer. “My mum used to play it a lot.”
“You mom has good taste,” Hannah smiled, bottle-green eyes so warm they were like sun-warmed grass. “Here. Sorry I don’t have wine glasses.” He lifted a large tumbler half-filled with the Pinot Noir. James put his beer down and took it, clinked it against Hannah’s when he held it up.
“Cheers. That’s right, yeah?”
James nodded. “Cheers.”
Hannah smiled widely and snipped. He looked into his glass with raised eyebrows. “It’s nice.”
“You sound surprised.”
His mouth twitched. “Don’t drink much wine. Have a seat. Enjoy the tunes. You hungry? Cops are always hungry, right?”
James winced, the word reminding him that he really shouldn’t be there, but Hannah had already returned to the kitchen and didn’t see. His voice was raised as he sang along, relatively skillfully, to Second Hand News. James made himself move to the couch. It was as comfortable as it looked. The room was warm, the wine was, indeed, good and the familiar music was filling him with something pleasant and comforting that he found it increasingly hard to fight.
The smell of cooking turkey soon filtered through from the kitchen and his stomach rumbled. He swallowed more wine then jumped as his phone vibrated in his pocket. He swore, pulled it out and saw Angelina’s number on the screen. He chewed on the inside of his cheek, looked back toward the kitchen and put the phone back in his pocket.
He leaned back into the cushions, reading the back of the Rumours album sleeve as he sipped his wine and quietly decided to let himself not think about anything for a while. Just for once. Just for one day.
“Ta-da,” announced Hannah a little while later, coming into the living room brandishing mismatched plates of towering turkey, stuffing and gravy sandwiches. “I bet it’s not quite what your mom makes, but it’ll do the job.”
“It looks great, thanks, this is really…great.” James smiled as he took the plate Hannah offered him with a smile that, if anything, got even wider. The other man dropped himself onto the couch and took a wolfish bite of his sandwich, holding out his tumbler.
“Merry Christmas, James.”
“Merry Christmas,” James said, clinking his glass and taking a deep swallow. “Thank you for having me.”
Hannah waved away his gratitude. “My pleasure, dude. Believe me, eating and drinking alone is fine, but when that’s all you do the other 364 days of the year, it’s nice to have a change.”
“You live alone then?” James asked, somewhat redundantly, as he looked round the tiny apartment.
“Since Evelyn died, yeah.”
He grinned around a mouthful of food. “My goldfish. Won her at the carnival.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
Hannah laughed, then coughed, cleared his throat with more wine. “You bastard. I loved that fish.”
They finished their food with more small talk that James found alarmingly easy. Maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the music or just the day, but he finally couldn’t stop himself admitting that he was entranced with Hannah. Even just the way he moved when pouring more wine held him spellbound. He was so easy in his own skin he had what James could only call grace, moving his body like a musician playing a favored instrument. His humor was always ready and his cynicism shot through with sincerity, taking out the sting from his many barbed comments.
To his surprise, James found himself laughing along, giving almost as good as he got and warming to the exchanges as they finished the last of the wine and moved back onto beer.
“I knew you were funny,” Hannah said, wiping his eyes as he recovered from a particularly raucous bought of laughter. “I knew it. I could see it in your face.”
“Is that right?”
He nodded, swallowing beer. “I said to myself, there’s a funny guy buried under all those layers of repression. You hid it, but I could see it, clear as day.”
“You could, huh?”
“Sure. There’s a glint you see. Right in the eyes. Mischief. Adventure. Humor. It’s buried deep, but it’s there.”
“I think I must funnier than I mean to be,” James said, looking away suddenly.
“You can’t tell me there’s not a single aspect of yourself you don’t have under rigid control, Agent James Solomon,” Hannah teased and James could sense the sideways look.
James swallowed more beer. He opened his mouth to form an answer when his phone buzzed again. Hannah watched him ignoring it with a wry expression. The album played out and scratched softly as the needle swayed around the center of the record.
“You should answer it,” Hannah said in a very different voice. James pulled out his phone. Angelina had rung off, but her two missed calls glowed on the screen. “Go on,” he urged. “Ring them back. It’s Christmas day, right?”
James stared at the phone screen, twirling the beer bottle in his other hand.
“What’s the problem? You don’t like them?”
“It’s not that,” James replied, not looking up. “It’s just Dad and I….we…”
“You don’t get on?”
James looked up, found the green eyes on him. “No, we get on. Usually. We just…there’s been some…tension, recently.”
James held his gaze, swallowed, heard himself answer. “Because of my ex.”
Hannah nodded understandingly. “Did your pa reckon he was too good for you? Or not good enough?”
James smothered his reaction to the realization that Hannah knew he was gay and quickly clamped down on worrying about what that implied. “Not good enough,” he managed.
“And you don’t agree?” Hannah propped his chin up on his hand.
“I don’t know,” James admitted. “My ex, he was…I love him. Loved him.”
“You broke up,” Hannah pointed out after a long moment spent searching his face. “Something weren’t right. Right?”
James stared into his drink.
“Right?” urged Hannah, a little more firmly.
“I guess,” he admitted.
“Go on,” Hannah shoved gently at his shoulder. “Give your family a ring. They just wanna know you’re ok.”
“You’re confident in your advice for someone who doesn’t know them. Or me, for that matter.”
Hannah chuckled softly. “All families are messed up, right? I just know nice guys tend to have nice families, even if they are messed up at the same time.”
“Is that so?” James asked, smiling.
“Sure it’s so,” he replied, gesturing at the balcony. “Go on. Go give them a call. I’ll find some more music.”
James paused, then moved out onto the balcony and rang Angelina’s number.
“James! About time too,” she scolded, but her tone was light. “Merry Christmas, little brother.”
“Merry Christmas, Angelina. How is everyone?”
“Good,” she piped and James could hear high-pitched laughter in the background. “The boys love their supa-soakers. Though I think you bought them just to piss me off.”
“What, I can’t do both?”
“Alright, funny guy. How’s your day?”
“Fine,” he replied. He chewed on his thoughts a long moment whilst listening to his sister warn her sons about using water pistols in the house. “Is Dad there?” he asked in the next available lull.
“Yeah, yeah he is,” she said, her voice warm with approval. “I’ll pass you on. But first, tell me you’re ok right?”
“Yes, I’m ok.”
“No, I’m done for the day.”
“You on your own?”
James looked back over his shoulder to where he could see Hannah mumbling to himself as he flicked through records. “No, I’m with a friend.”
“A friend? Who?”
“No one you know.”
“You don’t know anyone out there either.”
“I am capable of making friends, Angelina,” he admonished gently.
“I know that,” she returned. “Just…girl or boy?”
“And why does that matter?”
“You know why it matters,” she replied in a lowered voice. When he didn’t reply straight away, she added, “I’m just watching out for you, James.”
“A boy,” James replied. “But relax, ok? He’s local and…I think he’s lonely. We’re just keeping each other company. Besides, he’s probably straight.”
“I haven’t asked. It’s not important. We’re just having a meal.”
“You’re an adult, James. You can do what you want. It’s just…”
She sighed. “I know it’s been nearly a year, but I still think you’re in a vulnerable place right now.”
James swallowed the flare of annoyance with an effort. “I had a break-up, Angelina. Not open heart surgery.”
“I know, I know,” she said. “But…it was hard, I know that.”
“Yes. Yes it was. Is. But that doesn’t mean I can’t look out for myself.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I trust you to know what you’re doing.”
He wished she didn’t sound quite so much like she was trying to convince herself as well as him. “Is Dad there?”
“Sure,” she said and she sounded like she was smiling again. “Here. Dad? Dad, it’s James.”
James scuffed his feet on the salt-stained boards of the balcony as his dad came on the line. The familiar deep voice had its lately just-as-familiar stiffness to it. James looked to Hannah, who was squinting at a record sleeve with his glasses pushed askew into his hair, and made himself be patient. They exchanged pleasantries, for Angelina’s sake if nothing else. He kept his voice and comments neutral and was rewarded with a softening in his father’s tone as he asked after his work.
“It’s going as well as it can in a small town like this,” he murmured.
His father grunted. “Yeah, I remember small town operations. Just let them know who’s boss and they’ll soon fall into line.” A moment of silence. “And you? You…ok?”
“I’m good,” he replied, turning to see Hannah now watching him with a smile.
“I knew you would be. What did I tell you, boy?” his father went on, voice hardening. “That Glen character. He was no good. I told you, didn’t I? Right from the beginning, I said so. Messed you around from the start, that one. If a man don’t understand himself ain’t no way he’s gonna understand a partner.”
The familiar heat rose in James’s chest, but he took a breath and damped it down. “Sure, Dad. But…let’s not talk about it today, huh?”
A pause. “Yeah. Ok. You eating properly?”
James smiled as he recognized as his father sidestepping an apology. “Yeah. I had fresh turkey sandwiches today.”
“Good. You need to keep some meat on your bones in this line of work.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I know you know, son.” Another pause. “Good luck with the investigation. Be safe, yeah?”
“Sure, Dad,” James replied. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, son.”
“See?” Hannah said his he returned indoors. “What I tell ya? You feel good now, right? And the sky didn’t fall and the sea didn’t boil.”
“Yes, you made your point.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Hannah dropped himself back down on the couch, leant over and opened two more beers that stood on the coffee table. Some soft, low music threaded in the air. A crooner. Elvis, maybe. James closed the sliding door on the cold outdoors and gingerly took his seat on the couch, trying to untangle the feelings swirling with the alcohol in his veins.
“You’re thinking too much again,” Hannah said, examining him. “You get this little line,” he pointed between his eyebrows. “Just here.”
“I’m just wondering…what’s happening here…” James said it carefully, but he still regretted it the moment the words left his mouth.
Hannah’s face was unreadable. “Christmas.”
Hannah put his head on one side. “That’s not enough?”
“That’s not what I meant – ”
“Relax, James. We’re just two people making each other happy for the day.”
“I make you happy?” James ventured, fighting the warmth blossoming in his chest and losing.
“Sure you do,” Hannah smiled warmly, shifting a little closer on the couch. “You can’t tell?”
“I don’t know,” James said, reaching for his beer. “I’m not as well-practiced as I should be, I guess.”
“In what? Making people happy?”
“I guess so.”
Hannah laughed. “You’re really something, you know that?”
“That’s good to hear. I think.”
Hannah laughed again, softer this time, and turned the volume on the music down with a remote control. It faded to a soft, background sway.
“So, you gonna call your own family?” James ventured cautiously. “I’ll give you some privacy, if you want.”
“Uh…” Hannah’s smile lost some of its humor. “I don’t exactly have any.”
“Well,” he shrugged, looking awkward for the first time since James had met him. “I got a half-brother somewhere upstate, from my dad’s first marriage. I only met him once.”
“And your dad?”
“My folks were killed in a car crash when I was sixteen.”
“I’m sorry,” James stumbled.
“Don’t sweat it,” he replied, grabbing his cigarettes from the coffee table. “It was a long time ago.”
James watched him light a cigarette in silence, groping for a way fix whatever it was he’d broken. “Tell me about them.”
Hannah raised his eyebrows. “My folks?”
“Sure,” James prodded gently. “Were you close?”
“Well, yeah, I guess,” Hannah said, guardedly. “They were my folks.”
“No one’s every asked you about them before?” James guessed, watching the other’s face closely.
Hannah blinked. Smoke drifted in slow tendrils from his nose. “No, they haven’t.”
“What were their names?”
His mouth twitched. “Jack and Jill.”
He chuckled softly. “No, really. Jack and Jill Hannah. They got hell for it all the time.”
“I can guess. They liked music, right?”
The green eyes narrowed. “You psychoanalyzing me now, Agent Solomon?”
“No. Just interested.”
Hannah blew out a long puff of smoke. “Yeah, they liked music. Half my collection was theirs. Dad was always in some small-time band or other. Mom sang in the church choir. What about your mom? She like music in general, or just Fleetwood Mac?”
James breathed in through the painful jerk of emotion. “She liked a lot of 70s stuff. ELO, Queen, that sort of thing.”
“She died last year. Cancer.”
“Oh shit. Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” James said, peeling the label off his beer bottle.
“You miss her?”
“Yeah. I do. I know Dad misses her too, though he’s not the best at expressing it. You miss your parents, right? That’s how it works.”
Hannah’s smile was wistful as he reached over and stubbed out the cigarette in an overfilled ashtray on the coffee table. “Yeah. Yeah it is.”
They sat in silence for a moment, drinking more beer and listening to the soft music.
“You shouldn’t smoke you know,” James heard himself murmur.
“I do lots of things I shouldn’t,” Hannah replied with a long look from under his lashes. Without breaking eye contact, he removed his glasses, folded them and laid them on the table. James swallowed. His heart fluttered behind his ribs like a caged bird. He couldn’t take his eyes of Hannah’s mouth. The alcohol thrummed in his veins and swirled through his mind. One of Elvis’s soulful love songs wreathed in the air with the lingering smell of Hannah’s cigarette.
James put his beer down and shifted along the couch. Hannah didn’t move closer, but he didn’t move back. Something flickered in the ocean-green depths of his eyes. They sat, faces close together, breathing hard and saying nothing. James could feel the warmth of body-heat in the air between them. James maintained long afterward that nothing would have happened if Hannah hadn’t glanced at his lips. But that was all it took to have James’s resolve whisking away like smoke in the wind.
He leant over and captured Hannah’s mouth with his own. He tasted like beer, peppermint and cigarettes. His mouth was warm and eager. He made a sound deep in his throat that had James’s blood racing to his head and his groin all at once. The kiss deepened. Hannah pulled him closer. He leant back into the cushions, pulling James with him. He shifted so James could rest his weight along the lithe length of his body.
Lightning coursed through him. His body seized up. He pulled back, panting. “I…I’m sorry,” he stammered, scrambling back.
“I’m not,” Hannah returned, cheeks flushed, eyes dark with arousal.
“I can’t,” James stuttered, standing and trying to adjust his suddenly-restrictive jeans. “I really can’t. I gotta go.”
James ignored the protests, grabbed his coat from the back of a kitchen chair and rattled the locked apartment door. He swore, looking around blindly for the key. Hannah was leaning in the living room doorway with his arms crossed, watching him with something between amusement and exasperation on his face.
“Unlock the door, please.”
Hannah mouth twitched.
“Please, Leo,” he begged. “I need to go.”
“Ok,” Leo answered, raising his hands in surrender and padding across the kitchen. “If you’re sure.”
Elvis’s voice lifted from the other room, Shall I stay? Would it be a sin? If I can’t help falling in love…
Leo continued his slow approach with a knowing smile on his face. James backed up against the door. Leo stood a mere inch away, face turned up, eyes heavy, lips slightly parted. He slowly lifted his keys off a hook by the door.
Like the river flows surely to the sea, darling so it goes, some things are meant to be…
Leo reached past James and put the key in the lock, turning it slowly. It clicked. James couldn’t move. Leo’s warmth was so close. Too close. James’s blood coursed through him like fire. His lungs were filled with the clean smell of his hair and skin.
The younger man took another long moment to search his face, then leant in and kissed him, tentatively to start, then more insistently when James didn’t pull away. He pressed the whole length of his slim body against his. James dropped his coat and gathered Leo to him, kissing him hungrily. He tasted so alive. His body was firm, responsive. His hands slipped under James’s shirt.
James growled and lifted Leo onto the edge of the kitchen counter and pressed into him, swallowing the delicious noises he made as James increased the pressure between them. A pan clattered to the floor. James pulled at Leo’s t-shirt, desperate to get more, get closer.
Leo pulled it over his head, grinning and started to unbutton James’s shirt. James pulled at it impatiently, shouldering out of it and dropping it to the floor. He kissed the supple skin of Leo’s neck, drinking in the heat of his pulse and the faint minty taste of his skin. The younger man’s work-hardened hands skimmed his shoulders and down his arms, leaving a trail of heat.
“You know, I do have a bed,” he said between hitched breaths. James claimed his mouth again and all conscious thought fell away like a wall of sand meeting the oncoming tide.
All Ye Faithful – Part 7
James drifted awake to pale sunlight on his face, the sound of gulls calling on the morning air and a warm arm thrown over his waist. He blinked. His eyes were gritty, his mouth dry and sour with the aftertaste of too much beer. The empty bottles slowly came into focus on the bedside table. Many, many empty bottles.
He slowly became aware of the warm body pressed against his back and the warm, steady breath shifting the hair at the base of his neck. He waited for the black, dark pit of guilt to open up and swallow him whole. But it didn’t come. In its place floated the heated, blood-stirring memories of the night before: the taste of Leo’s mouth, the sound of his voice as he panted his name, the strong grip of his nimble hands and smell of his heated skin. James allowed himself one long, indulgent minute of reliving it before making himself reach for his phone to check the time. He pressed the screen but it stayed dark. He pressed again. Nothing.
Swearing softly, he craned his neck and realized he’d had the presence of mind at some point during the evening to plug the charger into the phone, but had neglected to plug the charger into a wall socket. He shifted gently, Leo murmuring a sleepy protest, as he scanned around for a clock. James spotted a digital alarm clock on Leo’s side of the bed and swore again, this time louder.
“Where’s the fire?” Leo grumbled as James pulled himself from the warmth of the bed, skin goose-pimpling in the cold morning air, and started rooting through the scattered clothes for his underwear.
“I’m sorry,” James said, meaning it. “Gibson’s plane landed a half hour ago.”
“Gibson shmipson,” Leo yawned, leaning for a cigarette packet on the bedside table and lighting one. “You get to eat breakfast, don’t you?”
“I’m sorry,” James said again, regret flushing through him as he took in how amazing Leo looked sleep-rumpled, with long hair tangled on the pillow and heavy green eyes burning with low heat as he watched him dress. “Really. But I should have been outta here hours ago.”
“Naughty boy,” he said around another large yawn. “Grab yourself a coffee on the way out.”
“I will. Thanks.”
Leo leant forward and caught his shirt as he buckled his belt.
“Leo,” he warned as the young man pulled him down, grabbed his collar and pulled his face to his. He set James’s blood on fire with another of those long, lingering kisses that had stopped him leaving half a dozen times the night before, then broke away, smiling sleepily.
“You’ll call me, right?”
James swallowed, not sure how to handle the feeling that suddenly swelled his chest. “Yeah. Yeah, of course I will.”
Leo nodded, satisfied, stubbed out his half-smoked cigarette and hunkered back down into the covers.
“You have a good day, Agent Solomon. Go kick some criminal butt.”
James finished dressing with a broad grin. He paused in the doorway. “Thanks,” he said. “For yesterday. For everything.”
“Sure,” Leo replied, not opening his eyes, but mouth quirking in a half-smile. “Glad to be of service.”
James shut the bedroom door softly behind him. He moved through to the kitchen and started the coffee machine as he waited for his phone to charge.
He was just pouring the rich-smelling Arbuckles roast into a take-out mug when the screen flickered to life.
“Fuck,” he cursed as the seven missed calls and two voicemails flashed on the screen. He slurped the too-hot coffee hurriedly as he queued up the voicemails.
“Hey there, Agent Solomon,” came the rather querulous voice of Sheriff Coyle. “There’s been a development. Can you ring me back as soon as you can?” The computerized voice stated the message had been left a seven that morning.
“Solomon, where the hell are you?” barked Gibson’s voice on the second voicemail. “I’ve rung the room and both your cells. Return my call the second you get this, or God help me it’s your ass.” That message had been left at eight-thirty, the second Gibson would have stepped off the plane. James swore again, swallowed more coffee, then hurried from the apartment and down the rickety stairs.
Gibson picked up on the second ring. “Solomon. Where the hell are you?”
“Sorry, boss. I got tied up. What’s up?”
“Rendford Muntz is dead.”
James froze in the alley that lead back to the seafront. “What?”
“Shot. Sassy Andrews called it in. Poor kid found him this morning. Sheriff Coyle looks as if she’s about to have an aneurysm. Get here, quickly.”
“Muntz’s trailer. Ten minutes, Solomon.”
James got there in eight. The entrance to the small clearing in the tress off the main road out of town was taped off and crowded with patrol cars, the coroner’s van and an ambulance. The same green-faced officer that had stood outside Benson’s office lifted the tape for him. CSIs, forensics and local police officers swarmed everywhere. The door to the rickety, rust-dappled trailer hung open and James could see the flashing of a camera lighting up the cluttered interior.
He hurried to join Gibson who was off to one side talking in low tones with a grim-looking Sheriff Coyle, their breath misting and mingling in the frigid air.
“There you are,” Gibson said, but she looked more relieved than angry. She frowned slightly as she took in his rumbled shirt and jeans but visibly wiped the expression away. “I’m not even gonna ask.”
“What happened?” James said, eyeing the trailer.
“Young Sassy Andrews came by this morning,” Coyle said, nodding to where a young woman with hair bleached almost white and mascara running in rivers down her face sat on the back step of the ambulance, wrapped in a blanket and being comforted by a police woman. “She found the trailer door hanging open and…well…come see for yourself.”
Sheriff Coyle proceeded them to the trailer and gestured for James to go in. The smell of old blood was thick in the chill air. He stepped up into the cramped, crowded space. Magazines, plastic cutlery, old tools and clothes were scattered all over the floor. All the cupboards were open, their contents spilled onto the counters and floor. What was left of Muntz was sprawled, half-hanging out of a chair at the far end under the window. A double-barreled shotgun lay on the floor by his feet. Most of his face and head was spattered in a thick, glutinous spray all up the shattered window behind him.
James swallowed, took it all in then stepped back out into the fresh air.
“ME reckons he’s been dead since late yesterday morning,” Gibson said, walking a little apart from the CSIs. “Apparently, it’s his gun. We found a thousand dollars in cash in a tin in the bathroom.”
“You think someone paid him to off Benson?” Coyle ventured. “Then killed him to keep him quiet?”
“No,” Gibson shook her head. “It’s a lot of money to be in a tin in a bathroom, but not enough for even someone like Muntz to murder someone for.”
“Besides, they left it behind,” James said. “They didn’t care about us finding the money. They were looking for something else.”
“Sheriff!” A young officer called from behind the trailer. They hurried round to a small yard area scattered with rusting deckchairs and a picnic table. The officer was poking round in an old oil can that had been used as a fire pit. With his gloved hand he lifted the warped remains of a compact disk from the ash. James peered in and saw more twists of melted plastic scattered amongst the cold ashes. He scanned the rest of the area and froze solid when he saw fresh cigarette butts in an ashtray on one the picnic table.
“A thousand dollars,” Gibson was musing. “Sounds like the amount you might pay someone to swipe some security disks for you, huh?”
James nodded stiffly, tearing his eyes from the ashtray.
“Well, looks like I owe you an apology, Solomon,” Gibson said, watching the policeman bag the remains of the disks. “Muntz wasn’t our guy.”
“It’s the same person that killed Benson?” Coyle said, shadowed eyes flicking to the blood-spattered window of the trailer.
“Two employees of the same company shot within a few days of each other? Can’t be a coincidence.” Gibson raised her eyebrows then looked at James questioningly. He quickly schooled his expression. Coyle looked between them both with a hesitant frown. “Let’s talk to Sassy,” Gibson said, still watching him. “Then we can let her go home.”
Coyle nodded and led the way back to the ambulance. Before they reached it, Gibson took his elbow and pulled him to one side. “What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing,” he insisted, hoping she couldn’t hear the lie. “I was up late, that’s all.”
She eyed him narrowly then crunched over the frosty ground to the ambulance.
“Sassy? Sassy Andrews?” Gibson’s tone was soft. The young girl sniffed hugely and looked up at them. “I’m Agent Lisa Gibson. I just want to go over what happened this morning, if you’re up to it? Then Sheriff Coyle is going to take you home, ok?”
She nodded again, sniffing and wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “I ain’t never seen no one dead before,” she said, her voice thick. “Poor Renny. And just after poor Mr Benson too. Do you know who did it?”
“We’ll find them,” Gibson went on calmly. “But to do so, we just need to ask you a few questions.”
“Sure,” she said. “Ok.”
“What time did you get here this morning?” Gibson asked. James got out his notepad and blinked to try and stop it swimming in and out of focus.
“About six-thirty,” Sassy croaked. “We’re getting double-time for the early shifts cleaning at the Sundown Motel this weekend. But I came here first cos we had tons of food left over from Christmas and Mom knows poor Renny is out here on his own. I was just gonna leave the parcel on the steps.” Her face creased up again as she fought tears.
“It’s ok Sassy, you’re doing great,” Gibson said softly. “Just tell us what you saw.”
“The door was hanging open. I could smell something…something weird.” She choked, covered her mouth. “It was him, wasn’t it? His blood?”
“What happened next?” Gibson prodded gently.
She gulped air. “I stepped in, saw his trailer had been turned over, then saw him…”
“Take your time.”
She swallowed a few times, took a deep breath. “Saw him with his head blown off. I screamed, I ran back to the road and rang the police. Then I just…I just sat on the side of the road until Sheriff Coyle arrived. I don’t know how long…”
“I got here about ten to seven,” Coyle confirmed. “Sassy was sat just there,” she indicated the small rise at the side of the road. “I secured the scene then tried to call Agent Solomon.” Her eyes flicked to him.
“I’m sorry,” James said, willing his voice to be steady. “My phone didn’t charge last night. Sassy, I’m Agent Solomon,” he said in as gentle a tone as he could manage. “Did you often bring Mr Muntz food parcels?”
She blinked at him a few times. “Sometimes. My mom taught him at school. She knows he’s not the best at looking after himself.” She stopped, swallowed. “He wasn’t the best, I mean.”
James nodded as he jotted notes with a shaking hand. “Do you have any idea who might have wanted to hurt him?”
Sassy looked between all three of them, looking worried.
“It’s ok, Sassy,” Coyle said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Anything you know could be helpful. You’re not going to get in trouble.”
“I know plenty of people didn’t like him,” she said tearfully. “He was weird, you know. And sometimes loud or angry, if you pushed his buttons. But he never hurt anyone. Never. My mom always said he was a misunderstood soul.”
“You work at Benson Industries with Mr Muntz, right?”
“That’s right. I help with the mail, when I’m not cleaning at the Sundown. You think it’s the same person that shot Mr Benson?”
“It’s possible,” James said flatly, feeling Gibson’s eyes on him. “Do you have any idea who might want them both out of the picture?”
She shook her head again, staring at the floor. “No. I don’t understand who would do such a thing.”
“Can I confirm you really didn’t hear of anyone who might have had a falling out with Mr Benson recently?” he asked after a pause, his pulse fluttering in his throat and wrists.
Her brow creased. “Like who?”
James looked up at Agent Gibson who hesitated then gave him an infinitesimal nod. James looked back into Sassy’s tear-stained face. “Like one of his heads of department? Horatio Torez, perhaps?”
Sassy’s eyes widened. “Mr Torez? No, that’s dumb.”
“There’s been no disagreement that you’re aware of?” James pushed.
“Mr Torez was super-close with Mr Benson. He’s a good guy. He says hi and everything, not like all the others. He calls me Miss Andrews.” The corner of a wet smile turned up the side of her mouth.
“When we first questioned him, Renford was very quick to state that Mr Torez shouldn’t be suspected,” James went on, carefully controlling his voice. “And it now looks like someone has paid him a good deal of money for something. It makes me wonder if Mr Muntz knew that Mr Torez might have had a reason – ”
“They had no argument,” she insisted. “I don’t know about any money, but Mr Torez would never fight with Mr Benson. And he sure-fire wouldn’t hurt him. Who told you he did? Oh,” her face crumpled in an angry grimace. “Yeah, sure. I can guess who.”
“Who?” Gibson asked, her eyes keen.
“It was that jerk, Leo Hannah wasn’t it?” she growled. “Can’t trust his word. Can’t trust him as far as you could throw him.”
James’s stomach churned. He felt Gibson watching him and harnessed every effort to keep his face blank. “Why can’t he be trusted, Sassy?” he asked.
“He has it in for Torez, that’s why. Ever since Torez finished with him.”
James’s knuckles started to ache with the tightness with which he held his notepad.
“Hannah and Torez were in a relationship?” Gibson asked carefully.
Sassy snorted. “I wouldn’t say ‘relationship’.”
“But they were…involved?”
Sassy winced slightly, looked away. “They were banging, if that’s what you mean. Anyone with eyes could see that.” She tilted her chin. “But Mr Torez isn’t even a homo. But Leo, I don’t know. He managed to make him think he was.”
“So the relationship ended?”
“Yeah. A couple of months ago. Mr Benson told Mr Torez to end it,” Sassy said in a hard voice. “He knew Leo Hannah was bad news. But they didn’t fight over it. Mr Torez knew Mr Benson was right.”
“How do you know that, Sassy?” Gibson’s voice was muffled in James’s suddenly roaring ears.
“Mr Torez told me, of course,” she said, straightening her small frame. “He talks to me lots, you know.”
James swallowed. His throat was tight. The hangover turned sourly over in his gut. His head began to throb.
“Thank you, Sassy,” Gibson said. “You’ve been very helpful. Sheriff Coyle, you can take Sassy home now. James,” she grabbed his elbow and pulled him to one side. “What the hell is wrong with you? You look like you’re about to throw up.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, voice rasping, not meeting her eye. “I guess I drank too much yesterday.”
“That’s not like you.
“We’ll get you some coffee, there’s a long day ahead. Thank God, a break at last,” she added in a more upbeat voice, surveying the bustling scene.
“You think Hannah killed Benson over the break up?” James’s voice sounded thin in his own ears.
“Why else would he be pointing us at a decorated ex-military officer off-the-record? He gets the person who caused the break up and the ex out of the way in one go.”
James took a deep breath to try and steady himself. It didn’t work.
“But, yeah, wow,” Gibson continued, shaking her head. “Two men dead because a guy dumped him? And one of them iced on Christmas day? Wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of this kid.”
“Yeah,” James managed.
“Hannah smokes, right?”
“Make sure you bag those butts by the fire pit,” she called to the officer depositing evidence bags in a box by the forensics van.
“So we’re arresting him?” James forced out.
Gibson pressed her lips together. “No. We don’t have enough for that yet. But we’ll bring him in for questioning. Besides, we arrest him, he’ll lawyer up. We might get more out of him on his own.”
“I don’t know, if he’s smart enough to plan all this,” James didn’t recognize his own voice. “He’s smart enough not to talk.”
“Is that what’s got you looking so green?” Gibson asked, in a more gentle tone. “Him leading you on about Torez?” James swallowed, searching her face but could only see sincere concern. She sighed. “Don’t feel bad, James. Sounds like this guy is an Olympic-level manipulator. Especially of men. Hell, he persuaded both his victims to hand over the weapon he killed them with. You got off lightly, I’d say. But we’ll get him, don’t worry.”
All Ye Faithful – Part 8
The rest of the morning passed in a blur. James drank mug after mug of coffee but couldn’t manage more of a bit of the one of pastries Gibson bought them for breakfast. He helped her prepare for the interview in a daze. His phone rang twice. He didn’t dare look at the number.
His palms were sweating as he paced down the narrow corridor to Winton PD’s interview room. Through the window in the door, he saw Leo, slouched forward in the chair, elbows on the table and forehead propped up on a fist. His other hand was clenched on the tabletop and he kept crossing and uncrossing his legs. James concentrated on trying to read his body language for signs of guilt, but all he could see was the long limbs he knew the feel of and the face and mouth he had tasted the day before.
He took a steadying breath, turned the handle and went in.
“About time,” Leo snapped, looking up. “Someone tell me…James?” His fine-boned face went slack with the surprise. “You know there are easier ways to get a second date, right?”
“Mr Hannah,” Gibson said in a flat voice as she stepped into the room. “I’m Agent Gibson. We met a couple of days ago?”
“I remember,” Leo replied guardedly whilst still looking at James. “What exactly is going on here?”
“We were hoping you’d answer a few questions for us,” Gibson said, pulling out a chair and sitting, placing a manila folder on the table and folding her hands over it. James took the other seat, pulling out his notepad and a digital recorder whilst not looking the other man in the face.
“I don’t know exactly what else I can tell you, ma’am.”
“We appreciate your co-operation all the same,” Gibson said flatly, hitting the power button on the recorder. “First of all, Mr Hannah. Can you tell us how well you know Renford Muntz?”
“Renny?” his eyebrows twitched. He slid a searching look James’s way then, apparently not finding what he was looking for, looked back at Gibson. “Not well.”
“But you’re on first-name terms?”
He shrugged. “I see him in the smoking area. We say hi, that’s it. Why?”
“He’s dead,” Gibson said after a long pause.
Leo’s face fell. “What?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Leo shifted again, visibly searching for words. “How?” he finally asked.
Gibson looked James’s way. “Shot,” James managed, keeping his voice level. “With his own shotgun.”
Leo blinked at him.
“Did you know he owned a shotgun, Mr. Hannah?” Gibson continued.
“Well, sure, he talked about it,” Leo went on, sounding strained. “He liked to get all macho, you know. But I figured he was bullshitting.”
“You met the guy, right? No one in their right mind would give a nutjob like that a gun license.”
“It was unlicensed.”
“Oh.” Leo slid James another questioning look but James kept his face blank.
“Where were you between the hours of eleven forty-five and twelve forty-five yesterday, Mr Hannah?” Gibson continued.
Leo’s brow clouded. “What, wait, hold on. You think I did this?”
“Just answer the question, please.”
“Why in seven blue hells would I want to kill Renny Muntz?”
Gibson toyed with her pen, regarding Leo watchfully. “Looks like whoever shot your boss paid Muntz to swipe the security disks from the night of the murder. Muntz either was keeping the disks as leverage for more money, or the killer just doesn’t like loose ends.”
“So now I’m supposed to have killed the old man too?” Leo’s outrage was tinged with panic. James made himself try and read if it was innocent or guilty panic, but his objectivity stayed out of reach.
“That’s what we’re trying to find out, Mr Hannah,” Gibson said.
“Good Christ.” Leo leant his head forward and clutched his hair. “Why me?”
“We have a witness who says Mr Benson instructed Horatio Torez to end his relationship with you.”
Leo looked up, mouth hanging open. “You…what?”
“Is it true?” Gibson asked coolly.
Leo looked between them, alarm brightening his green eyes. He opened his mouth, closed it again, then started again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No,” Hannah said firmly.
“Very well. We’ll leave that for now. Please just confirm where you were between eleven forty-five and twelve forty-five yesterday.”
“Yesterday? Christmas day?”
“Yes.” Gibson’s face was hard.
Leo turned his dazed look on James. James swallowed, concentrated all his effort on not blinking.
“You believe this too?” Leo asked in a low voice.
Gibson looked between them with narrowed eyes. “Mr. Hannah, please answer the question. This is the third time I’ve had to ask.”
“Shit.” Leo ran a hand through his hair. “Eleven forty-five?” He frowned heavily at the table top. “I dunno. I guess that was when I was banging on the door of Ms Murgatroyd’s store.”
James held his breath.
“I was having a friend over for the day,” Leo said slowly, deliberately, focused on Gibson. “But I’d forgotten to get food in.”
“You planned to have a friend for Christmas, and forgot to buy the food?”
“Sue me. I’m not very organized.”
Gibson put her head on one side and James could see her examining Leo closely like he’d seen her do with dozens of suspects before. This was the first time that it had made his skin prickle. “Ok,” she said in her most reasonable tone. “So you banged on the door to the store. Did Ms Murgatroyd answer?”
“Sure did. She’s a nice lady.”
“And she can confirm this?”
Leo’s face hardened. “I’m sure she could.”
“What happened then?”
“I got my groceries then headed back to my apartment,” Leo said in the same careful tone that suggested to James someone forcing down rising agitation.
“What time did you reach your apartment?”
“Jesus, I dunno. I was in the store 5 minutes? Then it’s a couple of minutes’ walk back.”
“So you got back to the apartment at five to twelve?”
Hannah spread his hands. “Sure, I guess.”
“And then that what did you do?”
Hannah blinked at Gibson for a long time. James clutched his pen with aching fingers. “It was Christmas,” he said finally. “I ate. I drank. I listened to some records. I went to bed.”
“You didn’t leave your apartment again?”
“Were you alone? Or did your friend show?”
What remained of the color in Leo’s face drained away. A flush of dread rode up James’s spine.
“He showed,” Leo said eventually.
“And who is he?” Gibson asked.
James watch Leo go rigid. The muscles in his throat moved as he swallowed. James’s own throat had closed over completely.
“Who?” Gibson demanded. Leo finally looked at James. His eyes were wide. “Mr Hannah,” Gibson insisted, impatience creeping into her tone, “if you don’t give us your friend’s name, we can’t verify your story.”
James felt the sweat start out down his back. Leo held his gaze, eyes pleading. James clenched his fist so tight the fingernails dug painfully into his palm.
“James?” Leo’s voice cracked. “Go on. Tell her.”
Gibson frowned then she stared, first at Leo, then at James. Her eyes widened in horror. A second that lasted an eternity passed then she reached over and slammed the recorder off.
“Agent Solomon. Out. This second.”
James couldn’t move. He was rooted to the chair. The blood rushed in his ears making it sound like the building was cashing down around him. All he could see was Leo’s distraught expression.
“James,” Gibson hissed, wrenching the door open. “Now.”
James followed her in a daze. Her small frame was rigid with fury as she stormed down the corridor. Police officers stepped out of the way with surprised expressions. She opened the door of the first empty office she found and waved him in, slamming the door behind them.
“What the fuck, Solomon?” she hissed, brown eyes ablaze. “Tell me you didn’t spend Christmas day with our chief suspect. Tell me now.”
James felt sick. He sank onto the edge of a desk. “It’s true.”
Her hand went to her forehead. “What the fuck were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t thinking.”
“Not with anything above your belt buckle, you weren’t,” she snapped, then her face fell. “Jesus, you didn’t sleep with him, did you? Christ, tell me you didn’t sleep with him.”
James took a shuddering breath and dropped his gaze to the floor. She swore bitterly and leant heavily on a chair. James made himself sit still, even though the pressure building in his head made it feel like it was about to explode.
“Christ, James,” Gibson’s voice, when she finally spoke again, was strained. “At the very least you were having sex with a witness. Now it looks like you were having sex with a murderer who is now using you as an alibi. Do you have any idea the level of the shit you’re in? A Misconduct Review is the least of your worries.”
“I’m sorry,” he ground out, gripping the edge of the desk with bruising force. “I have no excuse. I just…he’s…” he shook his head violently. “I’m sorry.”
Gibson searched his face with a mixture of exasperation and despair on her own. “This is not you, James Solomon. You don’t do shit like this.”
“I know,” he said grimly.
“What’s this kid got that worth risking everything for?” He kneaded his temples, the pressure pulsing there like thunder. “Ok,” she said, finally, when he didn’t answer. “Think timeline. Let’s see if we can’t get something useful out of this shit-storm. What time did you arrive at his apartment?”
“Twelve,” James intoned.
“And he was there? Tell me he was there.”
James swallowed again. “He wasn’t.”
“Shit.” She paced around the small office, gripping her hands together. “So he’s lying about the timing?”
James scowled at the floor. “I don’t get the impression he’s reliable with timekeeping. But yes, he could just be lying. Though it would be pretty dumb to lie when I was there too.”
“Or he expects you to lie for him,” she said with a penetrating look. Seeing James’s stricken expression she held up a hand. “We’ll park that. Just tell me what happened.”
“I got there at twelve. I rang the bell. There was no answer. I stood outside the door for a while…”
“You stood outside the door?”
“How long for?”
“About five minutes.”
“That’s a lot of debating,” Gibson dropped herself into a chair, kneading the bridge of her nose.
“There was a lot to debate.”
“Too fucking right there was. If only you’d debated a bit longer maybe you’d’ve made the sensible, none-career-ending decision.”
“Ok, you debated,” Gibson motioned him to carry on. “What happened next?”
“I went to leave and he came up the stairs.”
“So this was twelve-oh-five, yes?”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I checked my watch a lot during the debate.”
Gibson leant back in the seat and stared at the ceiling. “Ok, so we have his movements from twelve-oh-five. That’s still at least twenty minutes of the kill-window he’s unaccounted for, since it’s only a few minutes’ drive from the trailer to Winton seafront.”
“He doesn’t have a car.”
“Oh really?” Two high spots of color flushed on Gibson’s cheeks. “Something else you gleaned from your little unofficial interrogation session, right?”
James shifted, dropping his gaze again to the floor.
“Ok, no car,” she consented in a more reasonable tone. “But it’s at most a fifteen minute walk. That means he still has 5 minutes in which he could have shot Muntz.”
“He was carrying groceries.”
James swallowed, tried again. “He was carrying groceries. Paper bags. They had the Murgatroyd Store logo stamped on them.”
Gibson’s look bored into him. He made himself meet the look and hold it, even as he felt his stomach slowly fill with cement.
“You better pray to whatever gods you believe in that that store has surveillance footage of that kid buying your booze and condoms, Agent Solomon.” James winced. Gibson pushed herself up out of the chair with a strained air. The anger was gone from her face, leaving bitter disappointment behind. She sighed and, finally, her expression softened. Slightly. “You know I have to hold him, right?”
“Ok. Go back to the hotel. Bury yourself in paperwork. We’ll finish the interview in the morning when everyone’s had a chance to cool off. And I’ve had a chance to decide what to do about this.”
James’s throat was tight. He couldn’t think of anything to say. He left without looking back.
All Ye Faithful – Part 9
James stared at the dark wall with his pulse throbbing in his ears and temples. The muffled sounds of other guests moving around in the room next door had long since silenced. The air was still and smelled of clean sheets and hotel nothingness. He checked his phone again and saw it had gone one in the morning. He turned onto his back, staring up at the shadowy ceiling, but his mind still raced and his muscles ached with tension.
He sat up, rubbing his forehead and swearing into the silence. He sat fighting himself for two long minutes. Then he pushed back the covers, dressed and left the room. Not even as he walked up the stairs to entrance of the Winton Police Station did he admit to himself what he was doing there. After showing his badge the duty sergeant showed him through to the cells with a raised eyebrow but no comment. He unlocked Leo’s cell. James stepped in and the door closed and clicked behind him.
The light was on. Leo was sat on the hard bench, leaning against the wall. There were dark shadows under his eyes and the lively green of his eyes had dulled to stagnant colour of pond water. “What the hell do you want?”
That was the question, James thought bitterly. He opened his mouth to speak, couldn’t find anything waiting to be said, rubbed his mouth and stared at the floor. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Gee, I really feel for you.”
“Leo – ”
“Go away, James.”
“I wanted to speak to you.”
“Well that makes one of us.”
“Leo,” he started again, daring to take a step closer.
“I’m not helping you with his one,” Leo snapped. “You’re supposed to feel guilty. That’s what happens when you screw someone over.”
“I screwed you over?”
“Literally hours after you finished screwing me. Guess you wanted to make a complete job of it, huh?”
“They found your damn cigarettes at the trailer. There’s five minutes of the kill window you’ve got no alibi for.”
“Check with the fucking store – ”
“You were at the store eleven fifty-three to twelve-oh-two,” James said in a low voice. “That still leaves eight minutes.”
“And that’s enough time to have shot Renny and got back to town?” his face was crumpled in a mix of annoyance and exasperation James desperately wanted to believe was genuine.
“What am I supposed to think, Leo?” he said, voice tinged with anguish. “I’m a cop. You had motive, means and opportunity and you’re using me as your cover.”
“I didn’t kill anyone, you idiot,” Leo stood, face flushing hot with anger. “What the hell do you think I am?”
“You led me on.”
“I what?” his green eyes blazed.
“All that shit about Torez’s argument with Benson – ”James stopped himself and took a breath to steady himself. “You need to tell the truth, Leo. You’re only going to make it worse for yourself by holding out like this.”
“The truth about what?”
“About what you did Christmas morning,” James pushed, keeping his tone without inflection with an effort.
Leo’s fists clenched then unclenched. He chewed on the inside of his cheek, then transferred his glare to the wall. “Ok, I was there. But earlier. Breakfast time.”
“You were at Muntz’s trailer Christmas morning?” James said, feeling his heart sink. “Why?”
“The guy’s on his own,” Leo snapped. “It was Christmas day. I went to say hi. We had coffee, smoked a few cigarettes. But then I left. He was alive. He was fine.”
“You told me you’d be sleeping in.”
“I didn’t plan it, James. I never plan anything. I was making breakfast and I remembered Renny said his brother wasn’t going to make it down to him this year. I literally just went over to say hi. He never mentioned any disks, money or anything. He never mentioned Benson at all.”
“Didn’t you think that was odd? Your boss murdered two days before and it didn’t come up in conversation?”
“I didn’t think about it,” Leo insisted, spreading his hands. “He’s an Elvis fan. We talk about Elvis. It’s the only thing we ever talk about.”
“Was there anything odd about him that morning?”
Leo shrugged. “He’s an odd guy.”
“Anything specific? Did he seem preoccupied? Did he say he was expecting someone?”
Leo made an impatient noise. “No. I don’t know. I don’t know him, James. I don’t know anyone.” He blinked, like the admission had startled him.
James chewed on the silence a moment. “What time did you leave?”
“I don’t know. Eleven thirty?”
“You need to be sure.”
“Eleven thirty then, Christ.”
“This isn’t a joke, Leo.”
“Am I fucking laughing?” His face was taut. “It was eleven thirty. I looked at my phone and realized I’d stayed too long and needed to get the groceries.”
“Did you see anyone coming? Any cars, or anyone walking up the road?”
James rubbed his forehead. “Why didn’t you tell Gibson all this?’
“She didn’t give me the chance. She only asked about eleven forty-five onwards. I was in the store…at least, I thought I was in the store. And then with you, if you care to recall.” His voice was edged like a knife. “I didn’t fucking kill anyone.”
James stared at the wall, mind still racing, palms itching. He tried to decide if he was making the situation better or worse. He tried to remember when he’d lost the ability to know the difference.
“You’re in trouble aren’t you? For yesterday?”
James looked up, startled by the change in his tone. Leo’s usually-animated mouth was a flat line, but his eyes were again regarding James in that penetrating, level way that made him feel he could see directly into the darkest corners of himself.
“Not nearly as much trouble as you.”
“Jesus, James. Someone shows you they’re into you and your only explanation is that they’re using you as an alibi for a murder?” Leo shook his head, staring at him in disbelief. “What the hell happened to you, man?”
James’s skin flushed hot then cold. He had his hand raised ready to knock on the door and summon the duty sergeant when Leo took a step closer, a desperate look transforming his face.
“Come on, James. I couldn’t have done these things. I had no reason – ”
“Torez is your reason.” The venom in his tone caused Leo to blink, then his brow darkened.
“Is that what this is about? You’re jealous?”
“No,” James interjected quickly. “It’s about you using me as an alibi for killing someone.”
Leo’s eyes flashed. “For the last fucking time, I had no reason to kill anyone. Benson didn’t care about Torez screwing a co-worker, you moron. He cared about Torez screwing his wife.”
Leo folded his arms. “Yeah, that’s right. Torez and Rachel Benson were at it behind Benson’s back. Started right after we broke up. That’s why they fought. You didn’t know that? Aren’t you supposed to be a detective?”
“You were sleeping with him, dammit,” James cried, unable to hold back the surge of feeling. “And you never said. You lied.”
“I didn’t lie – ”
“You know what,” James interrupted. “You’re right. I am an idiot. An idiot to ever think you ever wanted anything other than to use me.”
“That’s not true,” Leo protested. The hurt in his tone flared James’s temper hotter.
“So, implicating your ex in a murder? What was that? The selfless act of a concerned citizen?”
“I didn’t – ”
“Don’t lie,” James cut in, taking a step closer to him. They were inches apart. Leo’s eyes widened. The anxiety in them coupled with the mixed smells of tobacco and peppermint made James have to fight to remain in control. “Don’t lie any more, Leo. Please.”
“Ok,” the other said, swallowing. “Ok, maybe, in the beginning, in the smoking area…” He looked away and had the grace to blush. “Maybe then it was just about getting you to look into Torez. But not for the reasons you think. And everything after that? The beach, dinner at Buck’s? Christmas? That was nothing to do with Benson or Torez, you five-star moron.”
“Then what was it about?” James growled.
His fine brows raised. “You seriously that obtuse?”
“Obtuse?” James stiffened.
“It was because I liked you, dickhead.”
James swallowed. “I don’t believe you,” he murmured, desperately searching the other’s face for…he didn’t even know what.
A low heat flickered in Leo’s eyes. “Shit like yesterday doesn’t just happen. At least not to me.”
“That’s not what others are saying.”
“What?” he scowled, the heat extinguished quicker than a candle dropped into water. “You mean the car crash that was me and Ray?”
“Horatio? Torez. It was a disaster. He’s a disaster. He’s more repressed than you.”
James glared in return. “If it was that bad, why’d you let it go on?”
“Why is that even remotely your business?”
“Because I’m the agent trying to establish whether you murdered two people over this man.”
Leo chewed his lip a long moment. “I thought he liked me.”
“So you’d put up with a car crash of a boyfriend just because he said he liked you? And you think I’m messed up?”
Leo frowned again. “I didn’t know it could be good, ok? The guys I’ve been with…” he made an impatient noise. “Men that are into me always tend to be escaping something. Or escaping themselves.” He gave James a long, heavy look. James let out a long, shaking breath, staring at the floor hard. He wished his pulse would calm so he could think straight. “James, look at me.” He hesitated then met those impossibly green eyes, now wide, alight with a mixture of desperation and hurt. “You must know I didn’t do this. I thought you got me better than that.”
“I fucked you. That’s different.”
Leo’s face creased with rage. He raised a fist. James tensed but the blow never came. James watch Leo fight his arm back down by his side. “If I didn’t already know how long that would land me in here for, I’d’ve done it.”
James grimaced at the sudden sour taste on his tongue. The shame was hot on his face, the anger at the shame burned fiercer in his belly. “You need to confess,” James forced out of his tight throat.
“Go screw yourself.”
James left, feeling ten times worse than when he’d arrived and went to find an all-night diner, bar, anything open, knowing there was no chance of any sleep.
All Ye Faithful – Part 10
“Lord above, you look like hell,” Gibson said as she examined him in doorway to the office she’d borrowed from Sheriff Coyle. James stepped in and quietly shut the door. He stood looking at her for a long moment, trying to figure out how to start explaining.
She looked at him keenly. “What’s happened now?”
James swallowed. “I went to see Leo…Hannah last night.”
Gibson’s face fell. “You did what?”
James straightened his shoulders. “I thought I could get him to confess.”
“How, exactly?” she said, getting slowly to her feet. “And, please, spare me any anatomical details.”
James flushed. “I thought I could get him to cooperate,” he swallowed the bitter taste and continued. “But he’s still denying it. Although he did confirm that he was at Muntz’s trailer on Saturday morning.”
“Forensics have confirmed that for us,” Gibson said tightly. “But I’ll admit that him saying so makes things easier. If only your sway over him extended to getting him to admit to the two murders as well then some good might have come out of this.” She started gathering the papers and files from the desk, now looking more exhausted than angry. “Let’s go get this done.”
She moved to brush passed him then paused. She looked him dead in the eye. “Help me solve this, James, whoever is guilty,” she said pointedly, “and it can only help your case when it comes to your review.”
James’s stomach clenched. “Yes, ma’am.”
She nodded, gave him a small and what he hoped was meant to be a reassuring smile, then proceeded him back to the interview room.
“Good morning, Mr Hannah,” she said without inflection as she pushed the door open. Leo was sat at the table, looking pale and tired, dull anger burning in the backs of his eyes. He scowled at her as she entered. “I trust you found the facilities agreeable?”
“Had to knock a star of my rating because of unwelcome visitors,” he muttered, levelling a look at James that went right through him like a knife of ice.
“I understand you’ve waived your right to an attorney this morning,” Gibson continued smoothly as she took a seat and activated the recorder. James sat stiffly next to her and pulled out his notepad, more to keep his hands busy than anything.
“You still haven’t charged me,” Leo said with a cool look at them both. “Which means you have nothing more on me than cigarette butts and, I’m guessing, a whiny statement from Sassy Andrews? Who, by the way, has a crush on Horatio Torez powerful enough to burn a hole in his pants. Did you know that?”
James shifted, glanced at Gibson, but she was wearing her mask.
Leo leant forward, the greyness of his exhaustion under-lit by a spark of self-assurance that had James’s stomach knotting in a confusing tumble of hope and despair. “So, by my reckoning,” he went on with a glance at the clock on the wall, “you’ve got two hours to get me to admit to double murder, or I get to walk out of here and never have to see either of your faces ever again.”
Gibson gave a sigh and laid one of the files on the table, laying her hand flat on top of it. “This file contains the forensic reports placing you at Muntz’s trailer. It also contains the records of your fingerprints on the door handle of the trailer and Mr Benson’s office.”
“But not on either of the guns?” he said with a a crooked smile. “So I was smart enough to wear gloves to kill them, but not smart enough to wear them coming in and out of the crime scenes?”
“We also have the statements of your fellow lab technicians who all state you were working at separate workstations the night of Benson’s death. No one can one-hundred-percent attest you being in the lab the whole evening.”
“I can’t one-hundred-percent attest to any of them being there all night either.”
Gibson gave him another level look. “Lastly, the file contains your criminal record, Mr Hannah. Drugs charges. Antisocial behavior. Assault.”
Leo’s face fell. James looked away, taking a long slow breath in an attempt to control the reactions burning in his chest.
“That was all years ago.”
“In our line of business, we find that, sadly, people rarely change their criminal tendencies.”
“Criminal tendencies?” Leo bit out. “I was seventeen. My folks were dead. I went of the rails for a few years, ok? Who wouldn’t?”
“You need to be straight with us, Leo,” James heard his own voice like it was coming from far away. “Arguing won’t help anything.”
“Have you spoken to Horatio and Rachel?” he growled. “Has anyone even asked them a single fucking question?”
“Both Mr Torez and Mrs Benson have been interviewed along with everyone else,” Gibson continued in her level, business-like tone. “Witnesses confirm they were both at the presentation evening at the time Mr Benson was murdered. The only evidence we have against them is your word. And given your personal history with Mr Torez, it can hardly be said to be reliable.”
“Torez is a tool,” Leo said in a hard voice. “He’s a user and he’s an asshole and, yeah, I’m pissed about the way he treated me. But that is not what this is about.”
“Then what is this about, Mr Hannah?”
Leo had gone very still. He was looking at Gibson but James wasn’t sure he was seeing her at all.
James hesitated, steeled himself, then leant forward on the table so that Leo met his eyes. “Leo, tell us. If it’s really not personal, tell us why you’re so convinced Torez has something to do with this.”
Leo stared at him but didn’t answer. Gibson sighed and opened her mouth, but Leo spoke.
“I saw him, ok?” he snapped.
“You saw him what?” James said after a breathless moment.
“I saw him sneak out of that meeting. And sneak back again about ten minutes later.”
Gibson’s mask had slipped. “What time?”
“How did you see this?”
Leo slumped in his chair. “I hacked the surveillance camera feed from my workstation computer.”
“You did what?” Gibson’s said, startled.
“That meeting concerned all of us, ok? Renny, Bruce, even Sassy, for all she’s a bigoted hick. BI hooking up with Loadstone Inc. affects all of us, not just the fat cats with the big offices. More so, even. We’re the ones that will be out of a job if they start outsourcing the lab work. It was total bullshit we weren’t allowed to attend. And on top of that, Benson had made it known he wasn’t attending either.”
“Yeah,” Leo said with a sour look. “Bet none of the senior management mentioned that, huh? Too busy covering their own asses.”
“How did you hear of it?” Gibson pressed.
“Sassy, of course. She heard him going off on one to the department heads. He’d been researching Loadstone. Found some things he wasn’t so hot about.”
“I don’t know,” Leo pushed the file on the table back towards Gibson like it offended him. “Sassy ain’t exactly versed in business lingo, you get me? She just hears Benson say that he’d found out some stuff that was making him re-think the deal. He made a big song and dance about not-attending the meeting and using the time researching his own presentation for for the shareholders.”
“Forgive me, Mr Hannah,” Gibson said in a tone that wasn’t sorry at all, “but Miss Andrews gave us the very distinct impression that she is not fond of you on a personal level.” Leo snorted but Gibson continued. “I’m finding it hard to believe she would tell you anything. Especially as she’s already denied telling you about this disagreement between Torez and Benson you constantly allude to.”
“You’re right, Sassy don’t talk to me,” he acknowledged. “She talks to the room in general. To anyone who’ll listen. Or pretends to listen. Bruce pretends to listen because he’s got the hots for her.”
“Bruce Manning? The lab manager?”
“Yeah. We’re a hotbed of scandal, ain’t we?” He shot James a sharp look. “But now shit’s hit the fan, of course goddamn Sassy has zipped her lips. But, yeah, I knew anything could happen at that presentation evening and I wanted to know. I hacked the live camera stream from the conference room.”
“And?” James pressed.
Leo met him in the eye. “I saw Torez leave halfway through one of the presentations. He ducked out the fire exit. He was gone about ten minutes then he slipped back in.”
“And how come none of the other attendees reported this?” Gibson said, unconvinced.
“He was in the army. He knows how to move without drawing attention,” Leo returned. “Besides, his chair was at the back. On the end. The only person facing him was the one giving the presentation.”
“And who was that?”
Leo gave James another long, frank look. “Rachel Benson.”
Gibson went still. James watched her intently.
“Did you record this footage?” she eventually asked.
“No,” Leo said, with bitter regret that James couldn’t believe was feigned.
“And why didn’t you mention this in your very first statement, instead of manipulating my colleague in the underhand way you did?”
“I didn’t manipulate anyone,” Leo said. He kept his eyes on his hands. “I never meant to, anyway.” He flicked James a drawn look then dropped his gaze again. “I didn’t mention it because…I was scared, ok?”
Leo gave her a bitter smile. “I tried to point you at Torez in a roundabout way because if anyone found out I was hacking into that meeting, I wouldn’t have had to wait for any business expansion, I’d’ve been out on my ass that very second.”
“So you lied to the FBI rather than lose your job?” Gibson stated.
“Look, lady. I’m the best analyst Benson Industries has, but I’ve got no fancy qualifications or degrees. It’s all self-taught and, as you can see, I don’t exactly have a glowing resume. I lose this job, I got nothing. Literally, nothing. Do you know what it’s like to have nothing?”
Gibson shifted but didn’t break eye contact.
“Didn’t think so. Well I have. And I’ll fight like a bitch before I have to go back to that again.” He made an angry noise, pushed his long hair back from his face and closed his eyes with a sigh. “Look, I admit, I’m selfish, I’m a flake and I make bad decisions.” He opened his eyes, looked at them both. “But I’m not a liar. And I’m sure as hell not a murderer.”
Gibson tapped her pen on the table a few times. She regarded Leo for a long, heavy moment. James watched her rather than look Leo in the eye. Eventually, she glanced at the clock and leaned over and deactivated the recorder. She met James’s eye and nodded at the door. He followed her out into the corridor with his head buzzing.
“No confession,” she murmured, glaring at the door.
“Do you believe him? About Torez leaving the meeting?”
“Do you?” She gave him a long look.
James swallowed and looked away. “I don’t know.”
“Dammit, James. This is what you’re good at.”
“He’s different…” He stopped and took a steadying breath. “I have trouble reading him. He…he can…”
“Get in your head?” Gibson ventured, but her tone was gentle.
James rubbed his eyes.
Gibson surprised him by putting a hand on his shoulder. “It’s ok, James. It’s gonna be ok.” He searched her face, wishing he could believe her. She heaved a sigh, looking at the nearest clock. “We can’t keep him. Our case is still too thin. Dammit all, I really thought he’d talk.”
“I’ll call Samar Deol at Information Services,” James said robotically. “Get him to go through Benson’s computer. See if he really was objecting to the expansion.”
“Get him to check Hannah’s systems too,” Gibson said. “If he really was sat in the lab hacking the surveillance feed of the meeting, maybe there’ll be a trace of it and we can at least rule him out.”
“And rule Torez in?” James ventured carefully.
Gibson chewed on the silence a long moment, staring at the interview room door. “Maybe. If we can find anything more to pin to him other than his angry ex-boyfriend’s say-so.”
“Otherwise we’re back to square one,” James put in.
“Hannah’s not off the hook,” Gibson said firmly. “It could all be an act. Being on your own since sixteen gives you some pretty formidable selfdefense mechanisms.”
James swallowed his response.
“But we need more evidence,” Gibson continued, eyeing him closely. “And we’re wasting time standing here talking.”
“Shall I release him?”
“No,” Gibson said, face hardening. “Let him stew for the last hour we can legally hold him. At the very least, he needs to learn respect for authority. I’ll instruct Sheriff Coyle to release him when his time’s up.” She strode away, calling over her shoulder. “Find me some evidence, James. I’m off to light a fire under the ballistics department.”
All Ye Faithful – Part 11
James buried himself in reviewing forensic reports, statements and making phone calls to Information Services and Sheriff Coyle’s office to chase up all outstanding interviews and background checks. Gibson’s words about the review echoed in his ears, but a grey, cloying fog continually attempted to swamp his thoughts and muddy his usually-instinctive lines of reasoning.
He caught himself staring into space, mind see-sawing between visions of Hannah, head thrown back, skin flushed with heat and eyes dark with desire and the sight of him sat in the cell, hollow-eyed, pale and furiously hurting. He shook his head, turned his attention back to his laptop, but the screen blurred in front of him. He rubbed his eyes, tried again, but the letters of the reports had ceased to mean anything.
He made an impatient noise, grabbed his coat and left, telling himself some fresh air would help clear his head. Without even realizing where he was heading, he found himself on the wind-whipped pier and climbing down the ladder to the small fingernail of deserted beach that lay between the sea walls and the endless rolling ocean. He looked around, vaguely surprised to find where he was, and heaved several deep lungfuls of the brisk, iodine-scented air. The waves washed against the sand. The gunmetal-grey ocean stretched to the white horizon. The flop and hiss of the water bounced off the tall sea walls and drowned out the noise of the town. He moved down to the waterline, gazing out to the cloud-wreathed sky arching over the mass of roiling water and willed it to soothe him like it had before.
The confusion in his head slowly faded to background noise, leaving one, insistent suggestion behind. He blinked a couple of times, but it didn’t go away. He swallowed, pulled out his phone, hesitated, then dialed.
The ringing tone buzzed in his ear. The wind lifted then dropped then lifted again, ruffling his hair and stinging his cheeks. He felt his heart sink when the phone continued to ring then, finally, he answered.
There was a pause. “What’s wrong?”
James took a moment to allow himself a smile. “What makes you think anything’s wrong?”
“I can hear it. You hurt?”
James swallowed. “No, not hurt,” he lied.
“Then what is it?”
James paused. “I screwed up, Dad. Big time.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “What happened?”
James chewed on his lip until his dad prompted him again then heard himself explaining everything. He kept his voice level and attempted to keep the facts salient and the emotion in check, though it got harder the more he revealed.
“And now…” He stopped, cleared his throat and continued. “And now I just don’t know. All I can think about is what we did. What I did. What he might have done and…and I don’t know. I never don’t-know, Dad. It’s sometimes harder to prove who did it than who didn’t…but it’s never been this hard to just know.”
“Jimmy…” His dad’s usually hard voice held an gentle undercurrent of reassurance which surprised him more than anything. “Pause for breathe a second, ok? Just a second.”
James took another shuddering breath. “Ok.”
“Ok.” He paced the sand as he listened to his father gathering his thoughts. “Ok,” he said again, finally. “First of all, put aside the fact that you like this guy – ”
There was sound over the line that might have been a snort or might have been a laugh. “You wouldn’t risk your career over just anyone, Jim. Whatever you’ve made yourself think, you really aren’t that stupid. But anyway, try and forget that for a sec.”
James swallowed, looking round at the endless sea and spreading sand, then closed his eyes. “Ok. Ok, I’m trying.”
“Now,” his dad went on. “Look inside. Deep inside.”
“Do you think he did it?”
James didn’t answer.
“Come on, Jimmy. You’re a good cop. Deep down…do you think this boy has killed these people?”
James stared out to sea. He could suddenly smell cigarette smoke and peppermint. He remembered the taste of Leo’s skin, the easy warmth of his smile, his impossibly-colored but clear eyes and the honest, responsive nature of his body. He remembered the soft music, the worn but clean sheets of his bed, the sound of his voice as he breathed his name in his ear and the way he’d looked afterwards, glowing with sated warmth and smiling at him like he was a completely unexpected but not unwelcome Christmas surprise.
“No. No, I don’t think he did.”
“You’ve got good instincts, son,” his dad said. “Trust them.”
“How do I know I’m not just wanting him to be innocent? Like…really, really wanting?”
“Because you just know,” his dad concluded. “Which means someone else did it, right? Find the someone else. Problem solved.”
“But the Misconduct Review…”
Another noise that sounded like a vocal grimace of sympathy. “Leave the review to take care of itself, Jimmy. You’re a good agent. And a good man. That’s what counts, whatever happens next.”
James smiled tiredly. “Thanks Dad. I…” he struggled for words. “Thanks.”
“No problem, son. Now, hang up and get on with it.”
He was still smiling as he cut the call. His roiling insides had settled. His head was clearer. He walked back to the ladder, scrolling through the contacts on his work phone and rrang Information Services.
“Solomon,” the clipped, accented voice sounded in his ear. “What’s up?”
“Anything on the Benson systems yet?”
A noisy sigh. “I only got the cloned systems two hours ago, James.”
“You’ve worked magic in less time than that, Samar.”
“Ok, flattery will get you everywhere.” James heard the smile in the older man’s voice and the sound of furiously clicking keys. “I haven’t got through all the CEO’s stuff yet. But I’ve pretty much finished with the lab tech’s systems.”
James froze at the bottom of the ladder. “And?”
A pause. “Nothing, sorry. Nothing you wouldn’t expect of a twenty-six year old male’s work computer, anyway.”
“Well, his browsing history is a bit daring for a work system. But he knows his stuff. There’s hardly any traceable remnants of the caches left.”
“What about evidence of him hacking the security cameras?”
A pause. “There’s no trace. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” Samar added. “But it’s not the sort of process that leaves a footprint. It was a live stream and he didn’t record it. And he would have probably used a security network, which his standard login wouldn’t have access to, but if he’s any kind of programmer, he’ll know how to set up dupe logins.”
James ran a hand through his hair, staring down at his sand-encrusted shoes. “So we’ve got nothing to prove or disprove his story?”
James pressed a knuckle to his lips for a long moment. He stared out to sea. He could hear his dad’s words in his head. Samar drew a breath to speak again when he got in first. “I want you to check into Horatio Torez’s records again.”
“Again? The man hasn’t had so much as a library fine in the last ten years.”
“Look further back,” James insisted, remembering the hot, angry black of the man’s eyes. “He was in the army. Check his duty records.”
“You got a warrant for that?”
“I can’t get a warrant. I have no evidence. It’s just a feeling…”
“You can’t check the armed forces’ duty records because of a feeling.”
“Please, Samar. It’s a strong feeling. Besides, anyone asks, you did it under my orders. I’m going down anyway, it won’t make any difference.”
There was a thoughtful pause on the other end of the line then he heard the clicking of keys resume. “Ok. As it’s you. And as you swear on your ass you’ll take the rap for any fallout?”
“I swear,” James said drily.
“Ok. Give me a second.”
James paced, fighting impatience. He strode between the pier legs, scuffing dried seaweed with his feet, releasing waves of salty, stagnant smells and firmly clamped down on the swelling bubble of uncertainty that threatened to engulf his chest as the silence stretched on.
“Oh,” Samar murmured a minute later. “Oh. Well, would you look at that.”
“What? What is it?”
“Sergeant Horatio José Torez was dishonorably discharged from the United States Army in 2003.”
James stopped pacing. “Can you see details?”
“He was court-martialed for Threatening Behavior and Misconduct Towards a Superior Officer.”
James’s heart jumped. “Any more detail that that?”
“Sorry, no. Not without actively hacking military court files, which even your doomed ass couldn’t save me from,” Samar muttered. “But as he was discharged rather than thrown in prison I would guess that either the prosecution didn’t have enough evidence, or the officer dropped the charges.”
James stared at the sea-rusted iron struts, mind whirling. He started back for the ladder at a run. “Thanks Samar. I owe you.”
“You sure do. That better be worth it.”
James climbed the ladder so quickly his heart was pumping and his muscles burning by the time his feet hit the salt-rimed boards of the pier. He didn’t wait to catch his breath before ringing Gibson and racing back down towards the seafront.
“Solomon. Ballistics are still stonewalling me. Tell me you’ve got something?”
“I’ve got something.”
“Torez was dishonorably discharged from the army fourteen years ago. Looks like he either hurt someone, or threatened to. Someone of superior rank.”
He could hear Gibson’s mind turning over. “Where did you get this information, agent?”
James winced. “You’ll have deniability if I don’t till you, ma’am. But I think it’s worth asking him directly about.”
“James – ”
“He’s got prior tendency to challenge authority figures. Violently.”
“You saw the way he looked in that interview room,” James insisted, weaving between pedestrians and heading toward the hotel. “And Hannah saw him leave the presentation evening. There’s a very good chance he was having an affair with the victim’s wife. We can’t afford to ignore this.”
Gibson was silent almost for the same amount of time it took James to reach the hotel parking lot. “James, I understand what you’re saying. But think. We can’t approach him and his lawyer with illegally-obtained intelligence.”
James paused before getting in the car, taking a moment to fight back frustration. “I’ll talk to him, boss. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
“You do have something to lose, Agent,” Gibson added with a surprising amount of emotion. “We both do. I won’t let you hammer another nail in the coffin of your career – ”
James hung up with a guilty flush of heat prickling his shoulder blades and climbed into the car.
No one answered the door of Torez’s fine, red-brick townhouse. He paced the covered porch impatiently, shading his eyes and peering in the windows, but the blinds were drawn. The man’s Chrysler and Porsche were both in the driveway, but there was no light in any windows.
“He’s not in, young man.” James turned and saw an elderly couple just leaving the house next door. He recognized them as the couple he’d seen strolling the pier on Christmas day. “He left about twenty minutes ago,” the man continued with a helpful smile.
James pulled out his badge and hurried over. The old couple looked at his badge, grey eyebrows rising in unified surprise.
“Would you mind answering a couple of questions Mr and Mrs…?”
“Pine. No, of course not. Is Mr Torez in trouble?” the woman’s small eyes shone with excitement.
“Do you know Mr Torez well?” James said.
“Oh, not very well I’m afraid,” the man said apologetically. “People don’t know their neighbors these days, do they?”
“Is there anything at all you can tell me about him? His habits? Whether he’s caused any trouble?”
“Oh no, no trouble,” the woman insisted with a warm smile. “But I think he works a lot. We keep very different hours. We don’t see him much.”
“You ever see anyone else here? Anyone visiting?”
The old man’s face crumpled slightly. He looked to his wife for guidance. She had a knowing smile on her lined face.
“Oh yes,” she said significantly. “He had a young friend for a while. Polite young man. Handsome. Used to call once or twice a week.” She looked around then lowered her voice. “I think it was Mr Torez’s boyfriend.”
James swallowed, pretended to jot a note. “Anyone else?”
“Well, yes,” the man put in eagerly. “Seems he has a girlfriend now. Or, rather lady-friend. She’s older. Older than him, I mean.”
“Oh, yes,” the woman added eagerly. “Very well-dressed lady. Doesn’t smile, though.”
“It was her that picked him up, actually. Not long ago.”
James examined their eager faces for a moment, then pulled up Rachel Benson’s file photo on his phone. “Is this her?”
“Yes,” the old man beamed. “That’s her. Has she done something?”
“Thank you for your help,” James said and hurried back to his car, ignoring the flurry of questions they sent after him. He climbed in and was just about to ring Gibson when the phone bleeped with an incoming picture message. His heart jerked when he recognized Leo’s number. It bleeped again as another came in. Then another. James frowned, enlarged the pictures. His mouth went dry.
He cued speaker phone through the car’s Bluetooth system as he reversed out of Torez’s driveway.
“Come on, come on,” he urged as it rang and rang.
“Agent Solomon,” Gibson eventually came on the line, voice sheet-iron stiff. “I do not appreciate – ”
“Gibson. We’ve got a problem.”
“What?” she said, voice suddenly alert.
“What about him?”
“I think he’s done something…unwise.”
She swore. “He’s only been released three hours. What the hell has he managed to do already?”
“He’s at the victim’s house.”
“How do you know?”
“Torez isn’t home. I was just leaving when Hannah started sending me pictures. He’s outside the drawing room window of Benson’s house. Torez and the widow are inside.”
“Torez and Rachel Benson?” There was a heavy silence on the other end of the phone. “What are they doing?”
“Arguing, possibly? And…more. I’ve just had confirmation from neighbors that she’s been visiting Torez’s house, too.”
Gibson swore again. “The goddamn kid’s gonna get himself hurt.”
“I’m heading out there now.”
“I’ll meet you there. I’m calling the sheriffs for backup.” She disconnected.
“Call Leo,” he ordered. A ringing tone filled the car. “Pick up,” he growled, but it went to voicemail. He tried again as he swung the car back out onto the main road, but this time it went straight to the answerphone without even ringing. He tore down the small, wooded road, overtaking what little traffic there was at speed. Flashing lights glimmered in his mirror as police car pulled up behind him. Sheriff Coyle killed the siren and dimmed the lights and accelerated to keep up.
He turned off the main road onto a side road sharply enough to have the tires screeching, then turned again onto the drive of the Benson’s house with another sharp jerk. They were just pulling up to the front door when a black saloon car zoomed past in the other direction.
“That was Torez,” Gibson said as she clambered out the passenger side of Coyle’s car.
“Was Hannah with him?” James asked, craning his neck to look down the drive.
Gibson shook her head. “He was alone. Do a perimeter circuit of the house, meet me inside. Coyle, wait by the door. Make sure no one leaves.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Coyle said, following on Gibson’s heels and taking up position by the open front door, drawing her gun.
Gibson knocked loudly. “Mrs Benson? Mrs Benson, it’s the FBI.”
James hurried down the side of the house. He found the drawing room window. There were fresh sneaker prints in the flowerbed under the window. He trailed round the entire house, scouring several large bushes and trees, but found no one.
He hurried through the front door and down the luxuriously carpeted hall to the drawing room where Mrs Gibson stood, rigid with emotion. Her expensive mascara was smudged around her eyes but she tilted her chin in defiance, shooting a sharp look at him as he joined Gibson on the designer rug.
“What the hell do you both mean, racing into my home like this?” Her voice was brittle.
“You are still stating that you are here alone, ma’am?” Gibson asked.
“Of course I am.”
“We saw Mr Torez leaving in rather a hurry.”
Mrs Benson narrowed her eyes. “My business partner stopped by to ask me to sign some forms about my husband. He could see it was distressing me so he left.”
Gibson gave James a significant look and he loaded Hannah’s pictures. “This doesn’t look like a business meeting to me, Mrs Benson.”
Her eyes widened at the phone screen, then burned hot. “How dare you. You spied on me? I shall have you in court.”
“Mrs Benson, you have to understand hiding your affair with your husband’s business partner does not look good.”
“My personal business is just that. Personal.”
“It’s also a motive for murder, Mrs Benson.”
Her expensively-maintained eyebrows drew down in a furious glare. “That rodent Leonardo Hannah killed my husband. You arrested him yourselves.”
Gibson shook her head. “We never charged him, ma’am. He was released a short while ago. Have you seen him?”
Her nose wrinkled disgust. “Here? Of course not.”
“She’s lying,” James stated, staring hard at her face.
“How dare you,” she said again but James thrust the phone under her nose again.
“These were sent by him. He was out that window,” he jabbed his finger towards the large, velvet-draped windows near the door. “You didn’t see him?”
“And how, pray tell,” Mrs Benson said in icy tones, “did a murder suspect come to have your phone number, Agent Solomon?”
“Where is he?” James demanded, but Gibson stepped between them.
“Mrs Benson,” she said coolly. “Our evidence of your affair, coupled with evidence that you lied about seeing Mr Torez in the conference room at the time of the murder, is putting us in a pretty strong position to charge you as an accessory to both your husband’s murder and that of Renford Muntz.”
“This is outrageous,” she spluttered, giving James a particularly disgusted look. “There is no such evidence.”
“Because you paid Renford Muntz to destroy it, you mean?” James’s voice was hard.
“This is slander and harassment,” she cried. “I shall have both your badges for this.”
“I’ll be sure and wrap it in a Tiffany’s box for you,” Gibson drawled. “But first, you need to tell us where Mr Torez has gone.”
“How should I know where he’s gone?”
“I think you know perfectly well.” Gibson’s gaze was penetrating. James shifted impatiently, keeping his hands by his sides and watching a surge of emotions swirl though the widow’s ice-blue eyes.
“I want you to leave my house,” Rachel Benson said, her voice catching.
“It’s over, Rachel,” Gibson stated, crossing her arms. “You’re making it worse by lying. And if Mr Torez is about to do something stupid to that boy, helping us stop him is in both your best interests.”
Mrs Benson’s eyes flashed. She gave James a long, assessing look. “He got to you too, didn’t he?” she hissed. “The whore. What the hell is it about that boy that has perfectly rational men losing their all their senses over him?”
“Are you saying Mr Torez reacted when he saw Mr Hannah at the window?” James pressed.
“He didn’t see…we didn’t see…he wasn’t here.”
“Mrs Benson,” Gibson said in a dangerously low voice. “Tell us where Horatio Torez is, or we’ll be charging you with kidnapping and attempted murder on top of everything else.”
She clenched her fists, looked between them both. A single hot, angry tear squeezed from her eye. She swiped at it angrily.
“Help yourself, Rachel,” Gibson said. “Tell us where he’s taken him.”
Rachel swallowed thickly. “He didn’t say where he was taking him.”
James’s stomach clenched. “Where do you think he’s taken him?”
Mrs Benson sent him a poisonous look. “I don’t know. Somewhere quiet to finish the job.”
James was already running back to the car, Gibson hot on his heels. Gibson shouted to Sheriff Coyle to arrest Mrs Benson as she passed, then pulled out her cellphone.
“I need an APB on a vehicle…”
The rest of her orders went unheard as James flung himself into the car and started the engine. She shouted something after him but he was already speeding down the drive. The black car was long gone, but James tore down the road toward Winton, scouring every lay-by and side road for any sign of it. The second time Gibson’s number flashed up on his phone he activated speaker phone.
“James, don’t be stupid. Let the local PD handle it.”
“I can’t let him get killed,” he snapped.
“This isn’t our fault.”
“We should have believed him,” he growled. “I should have believed him.”
“Getting yourself killed won’t help anyone, Agent Solomon.”
“You know where he’s gone?” James said, hearing something in her tone.
“Lisa, please,” he grated out.
A noisy sigh. “His car was spotted taking the turning toward Benson Industries HQ,” she said. “But James – ”
James cut the call and increased his speed.
Another car swerved and hooted angrily as he tore into the parking lot of Benson Industries. He spotted Torez’s car, parked sideways across two spaces, the trunk and driver’s door wide open. There was a battered sneaker on the floor of the trunk. An overweight man in a security guard’s uniform stood scratching his head and peering at it.
“Where’d they go?” he demanded of the security guard.
The middle-aged man straightened, looking startled. “Who are you?”
“FBI,” James ground out. “Where did they go?”
“Where did who – ”
“The men from this car,” James growled, restraining himself from grabbing the other man with an effort.
The guard, face slack with fear, shook his head so his jowls wobbled. “I…I didn’t see.”
“No, I was just doing my perimeter patrol,” he said. “Saw the car. There was no one in it.”
James swore, scoured the parking lot, but there was no one else around. There were lights on in some of the building’s windows and he could see staff moving around, but no one seemed to be acting out of the ordinary. He looked around at the dense surrounding woodland with a cold, sinking feeling in his insides. He could hear sirens in the distance, but they were still too far away.
He rubbed his mouth, glanced up to the sky and froze. An access door to the building’s roof stood open. He took off at a run, the security guard’s startled questions whipping away in the wind. A woman in a suit was just swiping herself out of the front entrance as he arrived. He pushed her out the way and ran in, ignoring her squawked protest.
“Have you seen two men come through here?”
The wide-eyed receptionist blinked at him. “Two men?”
“Yes. Horatio Torez and Leo Hannah.” She stared at him opening and closing her mouth a few times. “Have you seen them?”
“Yes,” she said. “They just came by. Is something wrong?”
He swore. “How do you get to the roof? Quick.”
“Sir, I don’t – ”
He thrust his badge at her and repeated the question. She pointed down the hall and he ran. He skidded round a corner found a door onto the access stairs ajar. He took them three at a time, his heart hammering, sweat sticking his shirt to his skin. He got to the top and slowed, approaching the open door to the roof cautiously and drawing his gun, willing his noisy breathing to calm. He put his face to the gap, gun ready, and strained his ears.
“Jump. You know you want to.” James could just make out Torez’s slightly accented voice, muted by distance and the wind. He pushed the door open and stepped out, keeping his back to the wall and edging slowly toward the sound.
“And how do you figure that?” James’s knees almost buckled with relief at the sound of Leo’s voice, a little shaky, but otherwise strong.
“The cops think it’s all you,” Torez replied. James stopped himself running out into the open with an effort, forcing himself to approach slowly, assessing, checking the field. He reached the edge of the wall that housed the access stairs and peered slowly round the corner. Leo was stood near the railings at the roof’s edge. His clothes were rumpled, his hair loose and blowing in the wind. There was blood from a cut on his lip smeared across his chin, but otherwise he looked unharmed. His eyes were fixed on Torez who stood about ten feet away, black eyes burning. He held a gun clenched in a white-knuckled grip, its barrel levelled at Leo’s face. “You’ll go to prison,” he said with a nasty smile. “Do you know what prison will be like for someone like you?”
“Someone like me?” Leo drawled.
“Your pretty face won’t help you in there. They’ll rip you to shreds.”
James muttered curses, keeping himself still with an effort, trying to decide if he could get into position and take Torez down before he fired at Leo. His palms were sweaty. He forced himself to wait. He needed Torez’s attention off his target.
“They know, Ray,” Leo said, audibly controlling his voice with an effort. “They know I saw you leave the meeting. If I get splattered across the parking lot, they’ll figure it was you.”
“I’ll be the business man in the good suit and the thousand-dollar-an-hour lawyer,” Torez took a step closer. “You’ll be the high-school-drop-out screw-up who jumped from a roof rather than face the consequences of his actions.”
“You’re crazy,” Leo grated and James winced. “They know I had no reason to kill the old man.”
Torez barked a sharp laugh. “They took Benson’s computer this morning. They’ll find the emails.”
Torez took another tiny step closer. Leo took a step back and James swore, looking around the flat, empty rooftop for any extra cover. “The ones from Derek telling me to break it off with you. They’ll find my humble, noble replies and eventual acquiescence.”
“That’s bullshit. There were no emails.”
“You’re not the only one with IT skills, Leo. And I’ve ensured little Miss Andrews has spread it far and wide. It’s as good as fact.”
“All this,” Leo cried, beginning to sound desperate. “All this, for what? The company? Rachel? What?”
Torez bristled. “I’m owed it.”
“How’s that, Ray?”
“I fought for this country. I bled for it. It owes me.”
“It owes you money? Power? A shiny corner office?”
“Fucking respect,” Torez ground out. “Something you have absolutely no understanding of.”
“And Benson?” Hannah pressed, shifting closer to the railings, keeping his hands out at his sides. “He didn’t give you enough respect, was that it?”
“He was going to fire me,” Torez said, voice high and shaky. “Fire me. Over what?”
“I dunno, maybe having your rebound screw with his wife?”
“He didn’t know,” Torez growled. “The blind old fool. Even if he had, he wouldn’t care. He’s never cared about Rachel. He didn’t understand things worth valuing when he looked it in the face. I recognize people worth my time.”
“You shot him. Then shot Renny.”
Torez’s face twisted. “All these years I’ve worked for him, day and night, holidays and weekends. I’ve taken his side in board meetings. Took out competitors, engineered the best deals. I fought for his damn company. Then he told me I was out by text. Text.” His teeth clenched. “I just wanted to talk. But he didn’t even stand up. He just sat there and said my career was over.” His sudden grin was like a knife wound. “He got the gun out. To frighten me. He didn’t know what it’s like to stare down gun barrels. I know. I know.”
“And now I know,” Leo said with gritted teeth. “Is that what you wanted?”
His white smile, sharper than a paper cut in his handsome, taut face, pulled tighter. “It’s over, Leo. End it. Let it end.”
“And then what?” Leo shouted. James saw his eyes moisten, his face white with fear. “You and Rachel take over the company and get all the money and get married and start popping out babies?”
“That’s not your concern.”
“Does she know you sleep with men?” Leo cried and James swore, shifted himself ready to dive.
“I do not sleep with men,” Torez bit out, gun trembling in his hand.
“Sorry, pal,” Leo retorted. “Sergeant Major Lawson? The guy you beat to shit for breaking it off? Deffo a guy. Oh, and last time I checked, I have a dick too.”
“You’re not a man,” Torez sneered. “You’re a waste of breath. A nothing. You’re not even human.”
“And Rachel thinks that too, yeah? That I’m just a nothing, not someone you said you were falling in love with?” A tear worked its way free of his panic-filled eyes and slid down his face to mingle with the blood on his jaw.
“She knows you’re a manipulative, self-absorbed weakling who messes with people’s heads.”
Leo’s chest heaved. His jaw was so tight James could see the muscles in his throat standing out like cords. Torez was smiling, taking another step closer, flicking the barrel of his gun toward the railings.
“Finish it, Leo. Just let it all go. You know you want it over. You’ve told me so, once.”
When Leo looked over his shoulder at the edge of the roof for a long, considered moment, James sprang out from behind the wall before conscious thought could stop him.
“Drop the weapon!”
Torez gaped at him for a startled moment, but recovered instantly and fired at him. James swore and ducked behind the wall. Brick dust showered down. Torez fired again and again. He heard Leo yell and his blood ran cold. He scrambled to the edge of his cover. Leo was further along the railings, crawling backwards whilst Torez looked frantically from him to James. He raised the gun aimed at Leo. James fired.
The shot grazed Torez’s right arm. He yelled, dropped the gun and grabbed the wound.
“Horatio Torez,” James said, pacing forward, keeping his gun trained on the older man. “You are under arrest for – ”
A wild look overtook the other man’s face. He let out a roar and flung his huge frame forward. James fired but he was moving too fast. They collided, knocking the air clean out of James’s lungs. The gun flew from his hand. James was trained, but Torez was ex-military, thick with muscle and next to unhinged. He rained down blows, connecting with his gut, his arms, his shoulders. James fought most of them off but the older man managed to land blow to the side of his head, making his ears ring and his vision blur.
The other man’s weight on him shifted and there was a scrape of metal on concrete as Torez grabbed James’s dropped gun.
The noise of a shot piercing the air ripped everything apart. Torez screamed with pain and fury and rolled off James. James blinked up at the white, swirling sky, tasting copper. Over the roaring in his ears he heard the sound of sirens and screeching tires.
He sat up, his muscles screaming in protest. Torez lay on the concrete, writhing, cursing in a weak, bubbling voice and clutching at a wound blooming blood in his shoulder. Leo stood a few feet away, face ashen and Torez’s gun shaking in his hands. James tried to go to him, but his chest refused to pull in air. He got to his knees, wincing. Leo dropped the gun and sank heavily onto the concrete. James crawled toward him.
“Leo. Leo, look at me.”
The younger man’s eyes were wide and fixed on Torez. His chest heaved and sweat shone on his forehead.
“Leo, it’s ok. Just breathe, it’s ok.” He reached out, arm shaking, and put a hand to Leo’s face. His skin was cold to touch. He tried to turn his face towards him but the younger man was frozen, staring, his swollen lips white under the smeared blood and blossoming bruises. “Solomon!” called Gibson as she ran out onto the roof, taking in the scene with one furious glance tinged with obvious, angry relief. “Christ Almighty, what’s happened?”
Sheriff Coyle hurried out after Gibson, followed closely by more police officers and paramedics in yellow coats. The police quickly secured the dropped guns and the roof access door. The paramedics rushed straight for Torez who still lay, moaning and bleeding all over the concrete.
“Here, I need a medic here,” James waved frantically, keeping a hold on Leo’s shoulder like he could keep him stable by holding on tightly enough. The second paramedic glanced at the gurgling Torez, then at James’s insistent gestures and hurried over. She knelt by Leo and shined a light in his unresponsive eyes.
“He’s going into shock,” she murmured, opening her case and pulling out a foil blanket. “Please, step back, sir.”
James obeyed. He felt Gibson’s strong grip on his elbow helping him to his feet.
He shook his head, unable to take his eyes of Leo as the paramedic wrapped him in the blanket and attempted to get a response from him as she checked his bruised mouth.
“He’s ok, James,” Gibson murmured softly, pulling him back gently. “Let them look after him. Come on. You need to get checked out yourself.”
“I’m fine,” he croaked.
“You’re bleeding,” she insisted.
James reached up a shaking hand and touched the warm stickiness at his still-ringing ear. His fingers came away bloody.
“Come with me to the ambulance, Agent Solomon. That’s an order.”
He allowed her to lead him away, but didn’t look away from Leo until the wall obscured him from view.
All Ye Faithful – Part 12
If anything, the night was even colder than the last few. James was grateful for the bustling heat of Buck’s Bar. He nursed his half-drunk beer, ceaselessly scanning the crowded room. A man dressed as Elvis with an acoustic guitar sang Winter Wonderland on the small, festively-lit stage by the bar. The people gathered closest laughed, swayed and sung along.
James continued watching the door, trying not to shift too much in his seat, willing his still-sore muscles to relax. He was just about to admit defeat, finish his beer and leave, heart like a lead weight in his chest, when Leo stepped in. He was bundled in his worn, unsightly coat, a scarf the color of the sea wound round his neck. There were snowflakes caught in his hair and eyelashes, already melting in the heat of the room. His bruised mouth was uncharacteristically grim and James felt a renewed rush of guilt.
Leo’s green eyes scanned the bar as he began to unwind his scarf. His eyes landed on James and he froze. They stared at each other a long moment before Leo turned and strode back out into the night. James swore, abandoned his beer and hurried after him, wrestling his way through the throng of people. By the time he was out on the seafront, Leo was nowhere to be seen. James grumbled bitterly, looking this way and that amongst the crowds of people wandering through the softly-falling snow. His heart gave a jerk when he caught the sight of caramel-colored hair disappearing from view down some steps in the sea wall.
James hurried after him, calling his name, catching up just as he stepped off the stairs onto the snow-drifted sand.
“Are you not even going to give me the chance to apologize?”
Leo paused with his back to him. “At last count, Agent Solomon, the numbers revealed I owe you precisely dick. I mean, I can demand a recount, but I’m pretty confident of the result will be the same.”
“Do you always use sarcasm when you’re feeling vulnerable?” James said, taking a tentative step closer. “Or is that just with me?”
“Are you always this much of an asshole?” Leo said, turning flashing eyes on him.
“No. Not always,” James said softly, attempting a smile. When Leo didn’t move he dared to get a little closer. The snow-laden wind lifted the strands of hair that hung around his face, making them sway gently. His eyes were dull, his usually-mobile mouth set in unfriendly lines. James tasted guilt like copper on his tongue and fought the urge to touch him. “Let me buy you a drink?” he asked. “Maybe tip some numbers in my favor?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
James fought down despair. He forced himself to focus on Leo’s eyes and not the bitter tone of his words. He searched their green depths for the spark of hope he prayed he wasn’t just imagining. “Not kidding. No.”
Leo’s face creased up. “You can’t do this to me, James. You just can’t.”
“Do what?” James asked softly.
Leo made a noise and looked back over the sea. Elvis’s distant, echoing voice drifted to them on the wind, O Come All Ye Faithful, joyful and triumphant. Leo took a shuddering breath, blinked furiously. “You can’t pretend like it’s ok.” He looked at him. “It’s not ok, James.”
James swallowed heavily. His limbs felt heavy. “It’s not, is it?”
Leo shook his head. “I’ve been treated like shit my whole life. I’m pretty good at spotting it.”
James bit his tongue a moment and carefully schooled his voice. “I’m sorry, Leo. It doesn’t make it ok. But I want you to know I’m sorry.”
“Oh, I know you’re sorry,” Leo responded. “You’re a nice guy. Of course you’re sorry. That’s what makes it so much worse.”
Leo’s look was fierce. “You’re decent. A little repressed and a little anal. But a good guy.” Leo took a breath. “And still you thought the worst about me. You couldn’t believe – ”
“Leo – ” James started, feeling the words like a kick in the belly.
“It’s not you, James,” he interrupted. “It’s me. I’m the mess, I’m…” He shook his head angrily, turned his back. His shoulders shook in the misshapen coat. “I’m bad news.”
James hesitated then stepped up behind him. He put a hesitant hand on his shoulder. Leo stiffened. He didn’t turn. But James kept the hand there and when he didn’t shrug it off, he stepped closer and slowly eased the smaller man back into his arms. Leo didn’t resist. After a breathless moment, James felt him slump, but he didn’t remove his hands from his pockets and he didn’t lean against him.
They stood there for a long time. James made himself stay quiet. He made himself be grateful just to be holding him, to be able to smell him again, to be able to offer what reassurance he could with his arms if his words weren’t going to be enough.
“It’s my fault,” Leo murmured a long time later, his breath misting in the frigid air.
“What’s your fault?” he asked gently.
“Benson. Renny.” He choked. “Everything.”
James paused, tilting his head slightly to press his mouth against the fragrant hair. “And how’s that?” he murmured.
He felt the younger man take a long, shuddering breath. “I broke up with him.”
James paused, pulled back slowly. “You broke up with him?”
Leo nodded. “Ray was such a sweet guy to begin with, James. You gotta understand that. Fun. A little paranoid about people finding out…I think being gay in the army was hard. And what he told me about his parents was…” he felt more than saw him wince. “Yeah. They were…old-fashioned. But, you know. He was fun, to start with.” He paused. James heard him swallow. “But then he started to get weird.”
James felt him start to shiver and pressed himself closer, careful not to hold too tight. Leo paused, then lifted a gloved hand and laid it on James’s arm. His fingers tightened. James took the opportunity to wind his other arm around the smaller man’s waist. Leo glanced over his shoulder, then looked away again and continued.
“He wanted to see me but didn’t want to see me. He started turning up at my apartment drunk, like he had to get the courage up to come over. He flew off the handle for no reason. He would either not return my messages or would spend the whole afternoon getting on my case for not paying him enough attention. I had to end it.”
“So, what?” James asked softly. “You think he did all this to get back at you?”
“No,” Leo replied, shaking his head. “Not specifically. But to prove something to himself? Maybe.”
“You think you breaking up with him made him start up an affair with the boss’s wife and hatch and elaborate, murderous plan to take over the business?”
He felt Leo shrug. “Well, when you put it like that, it sounds a little ridiculous.”
“That’s because it is. It’s not your fault.”
Leo pulled away and James let him go, feeling the cold air rush between them. “You don’t know him,” he said softly. “He’s controlling. He’s defensive. He didn’t like it when I teased him. He really didn’t like it when I tried to take the lead in bed.” He touched his bruised lip unconsciously, froze then dropped his hand. “He also told me about his last ex…a guy from the army.” His eyes were far away and slightly frightened. “He was so mad whenever he spoke about him. So angry. Still.” He shook his head. “I should have known ending things would send him over some kind of edge.”
James stared into the swirling snow a moment. “My ex, Glen. He left me for a woman. His own ex, in fact.”
Leo’s brow creased slightly. “Oh?”
James nodded. “Yeah. We were happy, too. Really happy. I made him laugh. We owned a house, a dog,” James smiled crookedly. “Everything. But then he decided one day he really did want what his family had been telling him for years that he wanted. A ‘normal’ marriage. A family. He even took the dog. They’ve got a kid on the way now. ”
Leo examined his face carefully. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I’m just telling you…the stuff that makes up who a person really is…what drives them, what they want…half the time they don’t even know what it is themselves. The other half they’re usually fighting it. No one else stands a chance,” James sighed and met Leo’s questioning gaze with a frank look of his own. “You weren’t to know what he’d do.”
Leo chewed on the inside of his cheek. He stared out to sea again for a long moment then slowly turned. He took a step closer and James held his breath. He tilted his face to look up into James’s, green eyes flicking between his own.
“Did any psychotic killers attempt to throw your ex off a roof during your relationship?”
“Then I think I’m one up.”
“So this is a competition now?”
“If it is, I’m winning.” He looked away. “Or losing, depending on how you look at it.”
James let the cold wind sigh between them a moment, then reached into his pocket.
“I’ve got something for you.” Leo frowned at the piece of paper he held out. “Our Information Services turned up this letter on Benson’s hard drive. There were several versions of it. Looks like he’s been working on it for a few weeks. I’m not sure if this was his final version, but it was meant for you.”
“Me?” His frown deepened. “What was Benson writing to me for?”
“Read it and find out.”
Leo eyed the letter like it would bite. “I…don’t want to.”
“It’s important – ”
“Tell me what it’s about,” Leo cut in, looking at him hard.
James searched his face. “You have some idea then?”
“No,” Leo replied after a shaky pause.
James examined him a moment longer then drew a breath. “It looks like Benson knew your parents. A long time ago. He’s your half-brother’s step dad,” James watched the other’s face, a hard mask, though the eyes flickered. “He married your dad’s ex-wife not long after they broke up. Seems they were all in a band together, back in the 70s,” James added with a corner of a reassuring smile.
“I don’t understand,” Leo said in a small voice.
James glanced at the letter. “Benson says that your dad was a good man, but had a way of…leaving things behind. Through no real fault of his own. Your dad had been drinking, yes? The night of the car accident?”
Leo’s face went whiter than the snow that swirled in the air.
James continued hurriedly. “Sounds like Benson was fond of him, though sad about the pain he sometimes caused without meaning to.”
Leo’s eyes were wide, frosted with barely-contained feeling. His lips were pressed together. “Why would he tell me all this?” he forced out.
“He wanted to tell you that you have a job for life at Benson Industries,” James said, holding the letter out again. “He left strict instructions behind. Boon and Michaels now have joint management, and a contract that says your job is safe for as long as you need it.”
Leo’s gloved fingers took the piece of paper tentatively. It whipped about in the wind. He grabbed it firmly with both hands, skimmed it with a tight expression, then stuffed inside his coat. He swiped at his face with his sleeve, muttering.
“Did you know?”
Leo shook his head “No. At least…no, I didn’t know. There was something about the way he looked at me, when I first got hired,” his eyes were far away. “I couldn’t figure it out. But he gave me a job. I didn’t question it.” He frowned slightly. “I’ve had a couple of voicemails from Frank since last week. My brother. I haven’t listened to them.”
“He’ll be coming to town for the funeral,” James ventured. “You should get in touch. Benson probably told him everything.”
Leo raised his eyes to look at James, realization dawning on his face. “Benson wasn’t going to fire Ray because of Rachel. He was going to fire him because of me. Because of the way he treated me.”
“Benson cared about you,” James said, taking a step closer to him.
“Why didn’t he say anything?” Leo asked, staring into the swirling snow.
“My guess? He didn’t want the shareholders finding out about his rock’n’roll past.”
Leo didn’t look up. He carried on staring into the middle-distance, tiny, white flakes catching in his hair and melting on his lips. James looked at him for a long moment, then reached out and took his chin gently in his fingers. Being careful to avoid the bruises, he turned Leo’s face toward his own. After a moment, he finally focused on James, closed his mouth and swallowed.
“You’re beautiful, you know,” James murmured breathily.
Leo’s brow creased. “Hey?”
“I don’t think anyone’s ever made you understand that before.”
“James,” he said in a tight voice, but James cut him off by kissing him. Leo stiffened momentarily. But then, after a breathless pause, he began to respond. Hesitantly at first, almost guiltily. James could taste the coppery sharpness of the cut in his lip, the cigarette he’d just finished, the whisky he must have drunk before coming out. The kissed deepened. James breathed him in. Leo stepped closer, pressing into him and gripping his shoulders tight, before stepping back, shaking his head.
“No. No, I won’t do it again.”
Leo was pressing the back of his gloved hand to his mouth like he could wipe the kiss away. “Fall for you, you asshole.”
James’s chest fluttered. His blood raced warm under his skin and he smiled. “I promise I will never accuse you of murder again.”
“You think it’s funny?”
James felt cold chase away the warmth. He shook his head. “No. Sorry. It’s not funny. I just…” he ground his teeth, made himself speak. “I didn’t mistrust you, Leo. I realize that now. Not at any point did I think you did it. I just couldn’t trust myself around you. My instincts were all over the place. It…frightened me.” He made himself stay where he was, even though he wanted to touch him again so badly that it hurt. “I’ve never felt that way before. Not with Glen. Not with anyone.”
Leo dropped his hand. He looked James up and down, gaze finally returning to his face. “I didn’t plan on hurting anyone,” he said softly.
“You haven’t,” James insisted. “People have hurt you. Many people, by the sound of it. Including me. But I, for one, world like to try and make up what I can.”
Leo shook his head, like he didn’t want to believe. “What the hell are you still doing here, anyway?” he snapped. “They flew Torez outta here on Monday.”
“I had to give you the letter. And besides, I wanted to check out the live music you were telling me about,” he said, glancing back up toward the stairs.
“Try another one, James.”
James sighed. “I’m on suspension.”
Leo’s eyes narrowed. “Suspension?”
James gave another lop-sided smile. “Misconduct Review. I fraternized with a witness.”
“‘Fraternized?’” A corner of Leo’s mouth turned up. “That’s the dictionary definition, is it?”
“It’s the FBI’s definition,” James said with a shrug. “It’s not mine.”
“So what’s yours?” Leo asked softly, looking at him searchingly.
By way of an answer, he drew him closer with a hand on his arm. This time he came willingly. This time, after the barest hesitation, Leo kissed him, hungrily, deeply, his hands tilting James’s head down to his own, like he was afraid he’d pull away. James didn’t pull away until the need to breathe had his head spinning more than the kiss.
Leo laughed softly. It lit a fire in James’s belly to see his mouth reclaiming its smile. “This is wrong. I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m not that fucking stupid,” he said, but he was still smiling.
“Does it feel wrong?”
“You don’t even live here.”
James shrugged. “There’s a field office in Middletown. Only an hour away. I suspect I’ll be busted down to desk jockey after all this anyway.”
“And you’re ok with that?” Leo asked disbelievingly.
“I think I could be,” James murmured leaning in again, but Leo pulled back.
“No. You’d resent it. You’d resent me.”
“You know I’m only in the FBI cos Dad was, don’t you?”
“Oh, come on. You figured that out pretty much straight away.”
Leo looked at him suspiciously. “Did I?”
“Sure you did. You had me pegged by the end of that very first conversation.” James smiled. “You’d’ve made an amazing cop yourself.”
Leo snorted. “And have to wear a suit? And follow a bunch of stupid rules?”
“We don’t all wear suits,” James reasoned, reaching out a hand. “And we don’t all follow the rules either.”
Leo eyed the hand a long time then looked back up at his face. “Why?” he asked, his voice cracking slightly like he was making himself say it. “Why me?”
James dropped his hand but didn’t drop his eyes from the other’s intense, searching look. “You’re faithful to who you are. Who you really are. Even when it costs you.” Leo frowned and opened his mouth but James cut him off. “Things like Christmas day doesn’t just happen to me either. There’s something here, Leo. I want to find out what it is.”
Leo glanced back up toward the brightly-lit seafront. The wind picked up and brought the performer’s voice wafting toward them.
Well, it’s Christmas time pretty baby, and the snow is falling on the ground.
He went back to examining James for a long time, before a slow smile spread over his bruised mouth. “I think you may finally be being honest with me, James Solomon.”
James smiled back. “I can’t hide things from you. I’ve realized that now. But, more importantly, I’ve realized I don’t want to.”
Leo put his head on one side, a boyish light gathering strength in his eyes. “Ok James,” he said in a voice James had never heard him use before. “I’ll let you buy me that drink. But the jury’s still out, I’m warning you now.”
“I’m good with juries,” James said, leading the way back to the stairs. “I think they’ll come down on my side.”
“You’re very confident for a guy who’s just asked out a guy he had thrown in prison for 24 hours.”
“That was Gibson.”
Leo snorted. “You didn’t stop her.”
James turned on the steps and took Leo’s face in his hands. “Let me have those 24 hours,” he murmured. “Before you make up your mind.”
“That’s all you think it’ll take?”
“That’s all it took for you win me.”
“Yeah but that was Christmas day,” Leo said with a sardonic look. “People think and feel all sorts of dumb shit on Christmas day.”
“I’m still feeling it.”
A corner of Leo’s mouth turned up. “Ok, Agent Solomon. You’ve got one day. Make it good.”