e set this up pretty quickly,” Margery said. “Do you think we have time for you to explain what happened?” Nick and Margery were sitting in the offices of Buckley Arbitration, waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. The office was one immense room with a long, mahogany conference table stretching down the center. Several of the chairs were equipped with manacles for securing dangerous suspects. The manacles on the other chairs were purely for decoration. Overhead, three cameras recorded the proceedings.
He checked his watch. “It looks like we have a few minutes. But first, you’ll be interested to hear that I have a video recording of your husband’s interrogation. He admits to having an affair with Jessica Campbell. If you want the video file, it’ll cost you ten grand.”
“Fine,” Margery said bitterly. With a couple of clicks on her transmitter, she made a deposit in Nick’s bank account. “I can get rid of him and that damn restaurant by the end of the month. Several of those giant box stores want the land the restaurant is on; it should go for about three million at auction.”
“Scunner Consulting wanted some information on the restaurant,” he explained, “anything they could use to shut the place down. So, Reid Mason found a contact on the inside. This contact told him about Renée and her ex-boyfriend, Clayton West. Mason sent his pilot/henchman, Donald Canard, to buy Renée’s spare set of keys from West. Canard broke into Renée’s apartment, but she caught him and threw him out. She was unhurt, but too scared to return to work.”
“So, Donald didn’t kill her.”
“That’s right. The killer was on the inside, someone who had worked at the restaurant long enough to know about Renée’s relationship with Clayton, someone who knew that the security cameras were fakes. The restaurant looked like the perfect place to dispose of the body, what with the lax security, people eating the evidence, and whatnot.”
“Did you ever find out who was funding Scunner Consulting?”
“A woman named Gabrielle Fairbanks. It doesn’t look like she was involved with the killings, so I didn’t invite her to testify.” More to the point, he wanted to avoid another attempt on his life. There was a lot of security at the trial, but that might not have stopped someone as determined as Gabrielle. “And here’s our killer now.”
Two security patrolmen entered the room, dragging a handcuffed Jessica Campbell between them. “I didn’t do anything!” she squealed, struggling violently. “I’m innocent! You’ve got nothing on me! Nothing!” The patrolmen locked her to a chair, taking a seat on either side.
Next through the door was Todd Sweeney, followed by Gordon Dunmore and the rest of the restaurant staff. In murder cases, it was common for coworkers to be called in as character witnesses. A woman in an orange pantsuit strolled in, a sharkskin briefcase under her arm. “Good afternoon, everyone. I am Arbitrator Green, and I will be judging the case today. Are all the parties involved present and signed in?”
“Yes,” Todd replied. “Everyone is here. I am Todd Sweeney, this is my wife Margery, and over there is Gordon Dunmore.”
At these words, the two security patrolmen bolted from their chairs and drew their laser stunners. “Gordon Dunmore,” the taller one said, “you are under arrest for the murders of Renée Flockhart and Clayton West. According to your contract with your insurance company, we have the right to hold you for up to a week until your case is evaluated by an independent arbitrator.”
The patrolmen handcuffed Gordon and pulled him to the door. “It wasn’t me!” he protested. “It was Jessica! I have proof!” Arbitrator Green released Jessica from the chair and excused herself from the room, heading for her next case.
“Thanks again for your help, Jessica,” Nick said. “Arrests are so much easier when you have the suspect cornered in a high-security building like this. Otherwise, they tend to run and you have to do the whole high speed chase thing, call in the helicopter with the skycam and electron bolt cannon, alert the evening news, place bets on when they’ll get caught… It’s just a big mess.”
“No problem,” she replied, rubbing her wrists. “I’m always looking for acting jobs. This was pretty fun!”
“You are an actress?” Todd asked. “You never told me that.”
“Yep!” Jessica chirped. “I even wrote a play: Momma’s Boy, a romantic comedy based on Oedipus Rex…”
A scream came from the hall, followed closely by a loud crash. The security patrolmen stumbled back into the courtroom, one bleeding profusely from the neck, the other holding his hand over what would soon be a black eye. “Dunmore attacked us,” the bleeding man groaned. “He headbutted Frank and bit a chunk out of my neck! Before we could stop him, he ran down the hall and jumped through a window.”
Nick’s face went through several expressions, trying to decide if shock, amazement, or confusion was more appropriate. It settled on rage. “I can’t believe this! I went through weeks of work to find the killer, and you let him escape!”
“What do you think this is, a movie? He jumped through a window! He’s in the middle of the street, bleeding to death.”
An ambulance carried Gordon to the emergency room. The doctors sealed his wounds with artificial skin and transferred him to the high-security wing of the hospital to await his trial. Unfortunately, the adult section was full, so they were forced to place him in the high-security pediatrics ward. Nick made sure there were several guards in place, both inside and outside of his room, before going home to catch up on lost sleep.
When Nick returned to his apartment, he found a note pinned to the door. He carried it inside to his kitchen table and poured himself a cup of coffee.
When I first started working at Little Brother’s, you were one of my favorite regulars. I tried for so long to be your friend, but you always held me at a distance. But when I got the trans from the hospital, they told me your file had me listed as your emergency contact. Your only contact. You don’t have anyone else in your life, but you still treat me this way? Why?
When they told me you almost died, I realized something: I don’t know what my life would be like if you weren’t around, and I never want to find out. Every time your work takes you out of town, I miss you terribly. But, at the same time, I feel like I never really got to know you.
Sometimes I feel like I should quit trying. Are we ever going to have the chance to grow closer? Between the drugs and the murderers and people flinging large pieces of furniture at you, I find it hard to believe you’ll always be around. If you don’t leave me, someone will take you away. The worst part is, you just don’t even care.
He placed his transmitter on the table and drummed his fingers. His coffee cup slowly gathered a collection of cigarette butts and ash. A beam of sunlight dropped in through the window, walked across the table, slid down to the floor, and faded away.
His transmitter bleeped and Jessica’s head appeared in the air. In the darkened room, she was the only light. “Nick, how are you? I know you’re probably busy catching crooks and all, but…”
“What the hell do you want?” He reached for his coffee but, remembering that he had turned it into an ashtray, pushed it away.
She didn’t seem to notice his anger. “Now that my little… flirtation… with Todd has come out into the open, I’m not exactly welcome around him anymore. So I’m free to see other people. Aren’t you the lucky one?”
“Why me? Don’t you know what a horrible person I am?”
“Look, I’ll level with you. When I thought you were just a writer, I only flirted with you to make Todd jealous. But now that I know you’re a manhunter, you seem so much more… exciting. Aside from the occasional murder, being a waitress is pretty damn dull. I need someone dangerous to bring a little life into my world.”
“Oh, I’m dangerous, baby. Dangerous like a fork in the eye. …Jessica, I’m flattered, but I’m not in the mood to talk.”
“That’s fine with me. If you come over, we can do everything but.”
He told himself he wasn’t driving to her place. He told himself he was only going out to get something to eat. That was it. But the car always drove where it wanted to go. An hour later, he found himself across the street from the college campus.
Jessica was a good woman. She didn’t make too many demands.