“You killed her?”
Marcus’s question was more a resigned observation. Surely he knew me better than that. We’ve been friends since we were children.
“Why…?” I followed his gaze to the bloody dagger in my hand. “What?”
I yelped, dropped the dagger, and quickly stepped backwards a pace or two. The knife stuck, point first, in the glossed wood of the ballroom floor—a gory sentinel of death.
“That’s why.” Marcus explained, needlessly.
I looked down at Ilayah.
No, not Ilayah, it was only a corpse. A corpse with so many wounds the killer had to have been insane. Only a lunatic would strike so ruthlessly, so often. The stink of blood and excrement suddenly struck me, my stomach turned, the world became a distant hum in the back of my mind—
“Rellik Amai, listen to me! Focus dammit!”
Instinctively I looked up. People only used my full name when they were mad at me. Like my father, when he’d skinned my butt with the hawthorn because I’d refused to learn the Koran and turned to Christianity. Somewhere, in the room behind Marcus, I could hear one of the convention attendee’s noisily contaminate the crime scene. The acrid scent of vomit drifted towards me. I guess this was more suspense, murder and mystery than they’d bargained for.
I stared at Marcus. I felt cold, sticky. I didn’t need to look to know I was covered in blood. Having prosecuted plenty of murder trials I knew this situation looked bad. Worse still, people would discover my secret. Even in my innocence revealing that secret would destroy my career, my political aspirations.
“Rellik,” Marcus sounded softer, soothing. “Step backwards a little more. Go to the edge of the room and walk around to us, here, at the door.”
This wasn’t real, I argued, though my body did as Marcus said, allowing me little control over its movements. It seemed even stranger walking past empty tables spotted with tiny specks of blood. Yesterday they’d been people here, talking and listening as I’d given a workshop on prosecution techniques. There couldn’t have been a murder here this morning. I couldn’t have been involved.
The stains on the pristine white cloth argued against me. Thomas, my partner in the DA’s office, watched horrified as I walked closer. This could destroy him too. All of my colleagues would suffer if I fell from the legal pedestal I practiced on. Except Ilayah, of course, I thought numbly. The dead wouldn’t pay the price.
“I didn’t do it,” I told Marcus when I was close enough for only him to hear. “I just…found her. Someone told me to come…”
More people arrived. One swarthy policeman quietly taped off the rooms and some of the hallways. Other uniformed officers ushered everyone back, away from the stink and the blood. My God! How easy it must be to take someone’s life!
I felt weak, dark. When my senses returned Marcus and another man were holding me steady. Thoughts sloshed about in my mind like molten caramel.
Emergency staff pushed their way in, two firemen tramped over to the body. I’m not sure why. Even I could tell Ilayah was dead.
“Minters, please escort Mr. Amai to the Kentucky room, and wait with him until I can get there.”
“Sir.” One of the uniformed officers answered, coming over to stand beside me. Thankfully I didn’t have to undergo the ignominy of being handcuffed.
“We’ll have a chat about this then,” Marcus added.
“Someone’s set me up,” I told him again. “They’re trying to stop me running for Mayor. Oh, God. What about Adrienne? Someone’s got to tell her what’s going on.”
“I’ll find someone to tell your wife,” Marcus pushed me towards Minters. “For now stay in the Kentucky room. It will be safer for you.”
“At least send me coffee,” I retorted. “Or I’ll die.”
“Someone already has.”
I don’t think he expected me to hear that.
The ornately carved wooden clock read ten-thirty by the time Minters had me in the Kentucky room. It was little more than a large office, sporting a long oval table with a dozen or so chairs arranged around it. The owners of the Belle Vue hotel must have donated it free, panicking over the bad press the murder would bring. Then again, maybe the ghoulish interest people held about death would increase their custom for a while.
I didn’t know. I didn’t care. What I did notice was the rolling camera of the local cable news group as it followed me amidst the passing hotel patronage. And the strident voice of the newscaster as she gave her report. Words like murder, Chief Prosecutor and running for mayor, had cut like acid through the mingling crowd’s murmur. Even if, no when, they found the real killer it wouldn’t matter. My political career will have fizzled like a damp sparkler.
It made me feel bitter, and the coffee taste sour. I couldn’t tell you what time Marcus came into the room. I didn’t care. He sat in a chair opposite me as I stared blankly into a cold, untouched cup of coffee.
“Rellik, what do you know about Stuart Lenzt?”
The question startled me, set a familiar twist in my stomach. “Ilayah’s boyfriend?” I couldn’t help the sneer that marred my voice. “Drug addict, alcoholic, good for nothing waster? Why? I imagine he’s blaming me for this.”
Marcus shrugged, making me notice for the first time several manilla files he’d placed on the table before him.
“Still looking for him,” Marcus told me. “Did Ilayah talk about him?”
“Talk about him? Ha, I practically knew him better than my brother, the bozo.”
“She talked about him that much?” Marcus seemed surprised. “He was almost ten years older than her.”
“Oh, she had it bad for him,” I agreed. “He played it to the max, used her parents hatred of him to make her stick with him. Master manipulator, definitely. He was a control freak nut and knew how to use her.”
“You ever met him?”
I looked at Marcus, and nearly had to laugh.
“Trick question, old friend?” I asked. He answered with a quiet smile of his own. “I would imagine the entire guest list of the hotel know that I’ve met him. The bastard accosted me on the glass elevator yesterday morning. Demanded money, the crook.”
“Money?” Marcus sat forward a little. “Did he say what he needed it for?”
“Oh yes, not that I believed him.”
I shook my head at the absurdity of it. “Wanted it for the same reason Ilayah asked last week. Ilayah’s family would never agree to their marriage and she wanted money to elope to Florida, the idiot. Ilayah doesn’t…didn’t understand he was only after her money.”
I felt a moment of surrealism, a flood of shock, loss. Ilayah, my secretary, was gone. A thought struck me with certainty.
“He did it, didn’t he?”
An unreadable mask fell over Marcus’s features. “We are investigating all suspects,” he said.
Flipping open another folder he took a small plastic bag and passed it to me. A yellow Post-It note was inside. The words, “Ten O’clock. Oklahoma ballroom. Be there,” scrawled on it.
“Yes,” I nodded, relieved. “That was the note someone slipped under my door this morning. I lost it.”
“We found it in the ballroom,” Marcus took the evidence back, slipping it safely into the file. “We’re having it checked out, it looks like Stuart’s writing. Did Ilayah ever talk about Stuart’s military service?”
“Some,” I nodded, trying to piece the evidence together. Stuart must have given me the note, he wanted me down in the ballroom. Did he mean to kill me for refusing to give him money? Did Ilayah find out about his plans and try to stop him, dying in my stead? “He served in Afghanistan for a while, air force I think. No, marines. I think it was marines. I’m sorry,” I smiled weakly at Marcus. “I tended to tune out when Ilayah began talking about The Wart.”
“The Wart?” Marcus chuckled.
“Old and ugly,” I told him. “That’s what we all called him in the office, except Ilayah, that is.”
Marcus looked at his watch.
“I’ve got to go and talk to a few people, you’ll probably be safer staying here if you don’t want to involve the press. Is there anything I can get you?”
“I need to talk to Wilke, privately,” I looked purposely at Minter. “I suspect I’ve already been suspended from work. I need to pass over my cases to him. Some of it is confidential.” I paused, watching Marcus’s uncertainty. “Unless, of course, you think I need to employ a defense lawyer?”
Marcus’s posture changed as he suddenly relaxed.
“Of course you don’t.” He stood. “I’ll see if I can find Wilke and let him know.”
The twenty-seven minute wait for Thomas to appear was nerve wrenching. Yet when he opened the door, and Minter stepped out, I felt such a rush of love and relief I nearly rushed over to hug him—until he looked at me.
His eyes, normally so full of passion directed a gaze of such chilling intensity it crippled me.
“Tom?” I asked, not sure why he was treating me so harshly.
“You didn’t need to kill her,” he whispered as he sat down and I reached for him. He spoke again, his voice a caress, a counterpoise to the fact he refused to hold my hand. “There were other ways to deal with her.”
“What!” I pulled my hands back across the table. Tom’s words bit even deeper than the thinly veiled accusations of the local press. “You think I did it? You!”
Tom held up his hands, palms out. “I don’t know what to think. Ever since Ilayah and The Wart started blackmailing us you’ve been…strange.”
“Of course I’ve been strange,” I snapped, wishing he would hold me, kiss me, yell—anything but this scalding chill. “If she’d told the press we were gay, what kind of life would we have? What kind of jobs would two disgraced public prosecutors take. Not to mention my wife…”
“So you killed her.” Tom’s voice was flat, as dull as beaten pewter.
With those words I knew we were finished—and it broke my heart. He wouldn’t trust me now, I could never trust him to trust me again.
Pain mutated to anger.
“Get out of here,” I told him. “I didn’t kill her, not that it matters. If you don’t believe me, no one else will.”
“Rel?” For the first time his voice cracked, but I was too hurt to listen.
“Just go, Tom. Just go.”
I stared at the knife. The blood and fragments of flesh still clung to its hilt and blade.
“Standard marine issue,” Marcus watched me carefully. I felt sick. “Have you seen this knife before today?”
“I…I don’t know.” I admitted.
I didn’t look up, but I could feel Marcus stiffen.
“You don’t know?” he asked. “That means you might have?”
I shuddered. “Marcus, I—“ I stopped, unable to say the words that would condemn myself.
Marcus watched me, silently solidifying my guilt.
“Marcus,” I couldn’t help it, I had to speak. Had to break this awful impasse. “God, please, don’t tell anyone.” I glanced at Minter, seemingly oblivious to the world, yet absorbing every word.
“If it goes to court Rell, there’s nothing I can do.”
“Dammit, Marcus, I’m gay! If anyone finds out…”
I stopped, forcing myself to calm down. I’d spread my hands on the table, palm down. Small rings of sweat damped the tablecloth.
“Do you understand?” I pleaded.
Marcus appeared to deflate, as if he was tired of carrying the world. Then that implacable mask shuttered over him again.
“I won’t say anything,” he said, “unless it goes to court.”
It was, I knew, all I could ask.
“So where might you have seen the knife?”
“The knife?” I thought back to yesterday. The stink of greed. “A quarter of a million dollars.”
Marcus, for once, looked genuinely shocked.
“That’s what it cost me, Marcus. To try and keep his slimy mouth shut.”
“Stuart Lentz knew?”
“Of course he did,” the bitterness I felt bled into my words. “Ilayah walked in on us one day. She told him. She told him everything.”
I saw that lift in Marcus’s eyebrows, knew he’d work out who my lover was. Thankfully he didn’t ask me. Some confidences you just didn’t break, even if you wanted to hurt the selfish bastard.
“So why did you go to Ilayah’s apartment yesterday? She was here wasn’t she?”
“How did…? Never mind.” Marcus, of course, would know everything. “That’s when I paid him. Paid the filth to leave our lives and vanish. He had a knife with him then. Showing it off, thinking he could scare me. As if death could hurt me as much as ruining my reputation would. The scumbag.”
“He’s vanished, you know,” Marcus said. “No sign of his car, none of his things at Ilayah’s place. His own apartment looks like he left in a hurry.”
“Go ahead, blame me for that too,” I picked at a blood stained cuff. “Looks like he’s destroyed my life already, what’s one more murder charge going to do?”
Marcus sighed. The first genuine sigh he’d given.
“Go to your room, Rell, wash up but make sure you give your clothes to Minter, we’ll need to have them examined. Then go home. It’s pretty obvious who we’re looking for. And make sure you sort things out with Adrienne. You’ll need her if you want to continue running for mayor.”
I didn’t move, couldn’t, as Marcus stood and left the room. Minters, smiling for the first time since I’d seen him, relaxed. I was stunned, frozen to the seat, until my mind finally registered what Marcus had said.
I looked at Minter, for the first time understanding I was still covered in a dead girl’s blood.
“I think I’d better…” I tugged at my shirt.
He nodded. “I think you should too.”
Minter waited until I’d put my clothes into a large evidence bag, and passed it to him. After that I was left alone to shower in peace, the hot water purging the filth but not the memories, from my body. Under the noisy stream of steaming water I never heard the hotel door open.
My blood ran like ice at the voice. Carefully I stepped out of the shower, catching a glimpse of the old lust in Tom’s eyes before I wrapped a towel around me.
“What do you want, Tom?”
“I just, just wanted to apologize. I was a bit of an ass. But my job it’s—“
“You expect me to fall into your lap after that?” I asked. Tom nodded, albeit sheepishly. “Go home Tom, leave me alone.”
“We’re over Tom, finished. Just. Go. Home.”
I hung up the phone. It had been good talking to Gillia, now that she was speaking to me again. In the silence I walked over to the window, gazed out at the milling San Francisco life below. I’d moved here seven months ago from D.C., renting this apartment and fleeing the scathing coverage of an anti-gay press—losing my job, my family and my home. At least the gay rights groups around here gave me a decent living as an attorney.
“How is your daughter?” Marcus asked.
“Great,” I told him, glad that he’d taken time to fly across the country to visit. “She’s pregnant. Looks like I’m going to be a grandfather.”
He stood, walking towards me, the morning sun slanting across his figure. He was a damned attractive man.
“This really is a nice place you have,” he said, leaning on the windowsill the sunlight glistening off his chest, the hair still a little damp from his shower. “Not bad for a quarter of a million dollars.”
My chest tightened with irritation. “You promised not to mention that.”
“I’m sorry, I guess I’ll always be the policeman. Where is Stuart now, I wonder?”
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “They’ll never find the body.”
“That’s great.” He smiled—then kissed me in a way which made my toes curls, before breaking away, breathless. “Our plan actually worked…”