Cullen Matthews navigated through the driving rain, putting her day at the advertising agency far behind her. She was on her way home where Sara would be waiting for her. Sara, with her golden hair and bedroom blue eyes. Cullen’s heart skipped a beat just thinking about her.
Cullen had actually given up on love years before. She’d always wanted a relationship but had never managed to find just the right woman. Until Sara. She was everything Cullen wanted in a woman—strong, independent, successful. The fact that she was drop-dead gorgeous was simply icing on the cake.
Sara made her money helping entrepreneurs start businesses. She’d work for a while, make a chunk of change, then live off her earnings until someone else came along. She fascinated Cullen. Everything about Sara captivated Cullen’s interest.
Cullen parked in the garage and let herself in just as Sara came down the stairs to greet her. Cullen took one look and grew concerned as Sara’s nose was red, and her eyes didn’t look good.
“Baby? Are you okay? Have you been crying?”
Sara smiled warmly.
“I’m fine. I haven’t been crying at all.”
But she sounded nasally, and Cullen didn’t believe her.
“You look like Rudolph and you’re all stuffed up. How can you tell me you haven’t been crying?”
Sara exhaled heavily.
“Allergies,” she threw over her shoulder as she headed toward the kitchen. “Are you hungry? I made dinner.”
Cullen wasn’t in the mood to argue. Allergies? On a rainy day in November? She didn’t believe Sara, and this wasn’t the first time she’d noticed her all stuffed up. She wondered what she did to make her cry, but if Sara wouldn’t tell her, how could Cullen possibly make it better?
She cleared her mind as she followed Sara into the kitchen and sat at the kitchen table which had been set with a lovely vase with fresh flowers in its center.
“So what’s the occasion?” Cullen asked. “Why did you make dinner?”
“I had time and was bored. So I went to the store to get the ingredients to try a new recipe.”
Sara never cooked, so Cullen was delighted. They tended to either go out for dinner or order takeout much of the time. And while they could certainly afford that, it would be nice to have a home cooked meal.
“This looks delicious,” Cullen said as Sara set a plate full of casserole in front of her.
“I do hope you’ll enjoy it. Dig in.”
After the first bite, Cullen did her best not to gag. It was terrible, over seasoned and undercooked. She noticed Sara hadn’t served herself.
“Aren’t you eating?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Are you serious?”
“I am. I have no appetite. How is it?”
“It’s good.” Cullen forced herself to take some more bites since she didn’t want to hurt Sara’s feelings. Sara was her world, she made life worth living, and Cullen would do everything in her power to keep her happy.
“You sure you’re feeling okay?”
“I feel great. I’m going to use the restroom. I’ll be right back.”
Cullen watched as Sara made her way down the hallway.
She loved her curves and the way her hips swayed so seductively
as she walked. Cullen decided then and there to please Sara that night.
Sara was back and even more congested, and Cullen was worried but didn’t say anything. Something was definitely wrong, but she didn’t know what and certainly couldn’t force Sara to tell her if she wasn’t ready. She pushed back from the table.
“I’ve had enough,” she said. “I’ll go wash my plate and will meet you in the living room?”
“I’ll get your plate. You go relax.”
“But you cooked. I’d feel bad if you did the dishes as well.”
“Nonsense. You worked all day. I didn’t. You just help yourself to a beer and I’ll meet you in front of the TV.”
Cullen didn’t argue. A beer sounded good. Hell, anything to wash away the taste of that dinner would do. She turned on the television and watched reruns of her favorite cop show. She’d watched two episodes when she realized that Sara still wasn’t through washing her single plate from dinner.
Cullen went to the kitchen to check on her and get another beer. There were pots and pans all over the counter and Sara was on her hands and knees.
“What are you doing?” Cullen said.
“I decided to clean the cupboards.”
“Now? Couldn’t you wait until tomorrow or something?”
“Sorry.” Sara smiled up at Cullen. “The urge just hit me.”
“Would you like some help?” Cullen hoped she’d say no since she’d already worked hard that day and just wanted to relax.
“No, thanks. I’ll be through in a little bit.”
Cullen grabbed another beer and headed back to the couch. She shook her head in amazement and wondered where Sara got all her energy.
After two more episodes, Cullen was ready for bed. She was beat but had plans for Sara so went into the kitchen to get her.
“Hey, babe, let’s go to bed.”
Sara looked around the kitchen, which was still a disaster.
“I need to clean the place up. You go on to bed. I’ll be in shortly.”
“But I might fall asleep if you don’t come with me.”
“Then fall asleep. I’ll wake you when I come in.”
Cullen kissed her good night and climbed into bed. She fought to stay awake, but exhaustion won out. She woke some time later, alone, and checked her phone. It was after two. Where was Sara? She wandered down the hall and saw the light on in the study. Sara was bent over a table with puzzle pieces strewn over it.
“What are you doing?” Cullen wasn’t amused.
Sara spun and faced her.
“I couldn’t sleep. Puzzles relax me. You don’t mind, do you?”
She was acting weird again. It wasn’t the first time she’d stayed up later than Cullen. Cullen wondered if they had a problem. Why was Sara avoiding her bed? She exhaled.
“Whatever.” She turned off the light. “Just come to bed now please.”
Sara walked up and wrapped her arms around Cullen.
“Okay. I’ll try to sleep.”
They walked down the hall to the master bedroom. Cullen climbed into bed and started to doze, but something didn’t seem right. She opened her eyes to see Sara sitting up, eyes wide, staring at her phone.
“What are you doing?” Cullen asked.
“Just scrolling. I’m sorry, but I’m really not sleepy. Would you mind if I turned on the TV?”
Cullen tried to fall back asleep, but she was too tense. Why hadn’t Sara wanted to be in bed with her? Why wouldn’t she lie down with her? It wasn’t right. The anger that had seethed within gave way to fear. Maybe something really was wrong between them. She rolled over and faced Sara, whose eyes were wide and whose mouth was moving. Like she was grinding her teeth only multiplied a hundredfold.
“Are we okay?” Cullen was scared of the answer.
Sara looked genuinely surprised by the question.
“Of course we are, silly. Why would you even ask that?”
Cullen lay on her back and linked her hands behind her head.
“I don’t know. It just seems like more and more often you don’t want to come to bed with me. And now, when I finally do get you to bed, you won’t lie down. I like to hold you, and more, or have you forgotten?”
“Oh, Cullen. Sometimes I can’t sleep. It has nothing to do with you, honest. Now you get some sleep. You have to work tomorrow. We’ll talk more about it tomorrow evening.”
She gave Cullen a perfunctory peck on the lips. Not convinced, but knowing she needed her sleep, Cullen rolled back over and drifted off.
Cullen tried to wake Sara for a little morning fun, but she was dead to the world. She ran her hands all over Sara’s body, but was greeted with nothing but snores, loud and deep, like she had a cold. Cullen again worried about the stuffy red nose she’d been seeing lately. Still, if Sara said she was okay, Cullen had to believe her.
The day was long, but it was Friday and Cullen couldn’t wait to get home and start her weekend. She was hoping to spend the next day on the couch with Sara snuggled up against her watching football. She loved autumn for so many reasons, not the least of which was college football.
When the day finally ended, Cullen drove home. She smiled to herself. She really thought of Sara’s place as her home now. She wondered if they should sell their houses and buy one together. Maybe she’d broach that to Sara, but perhaps it was too soon. She didn’t know. Besides, it wasn’t something that had to be decided right then.
She pulled into the driveway and waited for the garage door to open. When it did, she noticed that Sara’s car wasn’t there. Cullen wondered where she could possibly be? Cullen was starving and had hoped Sara would agree to going out to dinner.
Cullen let herself in and was crossing the living room when she saw Sara sitting on the couch with a glass of wine.
“Well, hey there.” Cullen smiled and bent to kiss her.
“Hi you. How was your day?”
“Long. Slow. I couldn’t wait to get home to you. How was yours?”
“It was okay.”
“I was on my way to a meeting downtown when my car broke down,” Sara said.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Why didn’t you call me?”
“I didn’t want to disturb you. I called a friend, Robert, and he came and picked me up.”
“Where did you have your car towed to? What’s wrong with it? When will it be ready?”
“Jeez. What’s with the twenty questions?” Sara sounded defensive. What was up with that?
Sara left the room and walked to the kitchen with her empty wineglass. Cullen followed close behind.
“Pardon me for being concerned,” Cullen said.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap. It was just a horrible experience. Let’s talk about something else, okay?”
“Sure.” She took Sara’s glass from her and refilled it before helping herself to a beer. “Let’s talk about dinner. I’m starving. Where shall we go?”
Sara laughed and patted Cullen’s stomach.
“Food, food, food. I swear you have a one-track mind.”
“Au contraire. I have a two-track mind and I’d be easily convinced to put dinner off and head to bed for a while.”
Sara laughed again, this one from her belly.
“Okay. You’re right. You have mostly a one-track mind.”
They settled on the couch with their drinks. Cullen draped an arm over Sara’s shoulders.
“So which will it be? Sex or food?”
Before Sara could answer, there was a knock on the door.
“Who are you expecting?” Cullen asked.
“No one. What about you?”
“Not a soul. Sit tight. I’ll get rid of them.”
Cullen glanced through the peephole then backed away. It couldn’t be. She looked again. It sure looked like Julia Stansworth, the girl Cullen had crushed on hard all through high school. Sure, she was older now. Who wasn’t? But the blond hair and piercing blue eyes brought back tortured memories. Cullen opened the door.
“Cullen? Cullen Matthews? What are you doing here?”
“I belong here. I think the question is, what are you doing here?”
“You belong here?” Julia’s expression hardened. “As in you live here?”
“Sort of. Not exactly. How can I help you?”
Julia reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a leather wallet, opened it, and showed Cullen her badge.
“Actually, it’s Detective Stansworth and I’m here to speak with a Sara Donovan. Is she in?”
“What do you want with her?”
“Is she in?” Julia repeated.
“Sure, come on in.”
Cullen stood back and let Julia enter.
“Would you like something to drink?” Cullen said.
“This isn’t a social visit.”
“Fair enough. Have a seat and tell us why you’re here.”
Cullen glanced over at Sara who’d gone ashen. She quickly recovered, though.
“Yes, Detective,” Sara said. “How can we help you?”
“Tell me how you knew Donald Montague.”
“Who?” Sara asked.
Cullen looked between them. Julia’s eyes were hard now. She looked pissed.
“I’ve never heard of him,” Sara said.
“We both know you’re lying, so save us all a lot of time and tell me how you knew him.”
“Who’s Donald Montague?” Cullen asked.
“Ask your girlfriend.”
Cullen turned to Sara.
“Sara? Who is he?”
“I have no idea.”
Julia opened her briefcase.
“I thought you looked familiar when I saw you at the station this afternoon but couldn’t put my finger on why.”
“Wait,” Cullen said. “Station? What station?”
“We’ll talk about it later,” Sara said.
“No, I want to know now. And who is this Montague man and why is Julia asking you about him?”
“She didn’t tell you?” Julia’s eyes glimmered. “She was brought in for possession with intent to distribute and a DUI.”
“What?” Cullen felt like she’d been punched in the gut. What the hell was going on?
Sara sank back against the couch. Cullen stared at her in disbelief, but Sara wouldn’t meet her gaze.
“And Montague?” Cullen said.
“He was a two-bit coke dealer for some of the fraternities and sororities downtown,” Julia said.
“Did you supply him?” Cullen asked Sara.
“I’m telling you I’ve never heard of him.”
Julia handed Sara a folder she’d removed from her briefcase.
“Take a look at these.”
Sara opened the folder and went pale. Cullen walked over to see photos of Sara with some young guy.
“Is that Montague?” she asked.
“Yes,” Julia said. “And quite obviously Sara with him.”
“Quite obviously.” Cullen glared at Sara.
“I didn’t know his last name. I only knew him as Donnie.”
“Well, whatever you knew him as, he was being investigated for selling the cocaine that killed another college student. I’m sure you read about that, where the kid overdosed at the fraternity house?”
Cullen nodded. She remembered reading the story online.
“We were so close to getting him to finger his supplier and then he ends up dead. Coincidence?” Sarcasm dripped from Julia’s words.
“I didn’t kill him.” Sara sounded panicked.
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Julia said.
Cullen slowly backed away from Sara and lowered herself into the chair.
“Sara…” But she didn’t have the ability to put her thoughts into words. Sara was a drug dealer? And a murder suspect? It was all too much for her to absorb.
Julia stood over Sara.
“These pictures were taken right before he was shot,” she said.
“I didn’t shoot him.”
“No, you couldn’t have. The bullet came from the other direction. But someone snuck into his hospital room and finished him off. You had a lot to lose, Ms. Donovan.”
Sara shook her head violently.
“I didn’t. I had nothing to do with that.”
“Say I believe you,” Julia said. “Let’s just suppose for one crazy minute I think you’re telling the truth. If you didn’t do it, you know who did. I can help get your sentences lightened for the two charges you’re facing now if you help me.”
“I swear, I’d help you if I could, but I don’t know anything.”
Julia took the folder back from Sara and slid it back in her briefcase.
“You’re not making this any easier on yourself,” she said.
“Please. You have to believe me.”
“See? That’s just it. I don’t have to do any such thing.”
Julia headed back to downtown Portland to her bungalow just off Hawthorne. She had a lot on her mind. Donovan was guilty of something, that was certain. But just how innocent was Cullen? Julia had been shocked when she’d opened the door. Julia didn’t like the idea that someone she’d known since high school was involved with dealing drugs. But after talking to them together, Julia was fairly certain Cullen had been oblivious to Sara’s activities.
But had Sara actually killed Montague? Julia believed in her heart of hearts that she had. As she’d told them, either she’d done it or she knew who had. How was Julia going to prove one way or the other?
She drove past her exit and kept going until she came to the station. She locked herself in her office and began poring over the tapes from the night Montague died again. The hospital had handed over all the security footage, but none of it had been helpful. Still, she went over it again in hopes of seeing Sara.
Julia watched as their main suspect came into view. Whoever it was wore baggy sweatpants and an oversized hoodie. There was no way to discern the gender of the person on the film.
She froze the film and stared hard at it. How tall was the person on the film? How tall was Sara? She’d been sitting down the whole time Julia had been there, so she didn’t get an accurate height assessment. But she was leggy, very leggy, and sat up high on the couch. Julia guesstimated she was about five ten.
So how tall was the person she was looking at? About the same, she imagined. Now, more than ever, she was convinced Sara had been the mystery woman who was guilty of killing Montague. It was time to prove it.
The next morning, Julia drove back to Sara and Cullen’s house. She felt like a dog with a bone and she wasn’t about to let go. This time when she knocked on the door, it was Sara who answered. Sara, who in her bare feet looked to be exactly the height she’d calculated. She was wearing baggy sweats and looked like she hadn’t slept much. Her nose was red and her pupils dilated. She’d probably been snorting coke all night.
“Can I come in?” Julia said.
“I have more questions for you.”
“This really isn’t a good time.”
“Sorry for the inconvenience.” She couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice as she pushed her way inside.
Cullen came out then. She looked rough, but not like Sara. Cullen had apparently gotten some sleep the night before anyway.
“Good morning, Julia.” Cullen sounded like she was greeting an old friend. “Welcome back. To what do we owe the pleasure?”
Sara spun toward Cullen.
“How dare you? This woman is trying to ruin our lives and you greet her like some long-lost friend?”
“I’m just being civil. Now, come on, let’s all go to the living room.”
“You two enjoy your chat,” Sara said. She turned to her left and took the stairs two at a time.
“I take it she won’t be cooperating today?” Julia smiled at Cullen.
“I’ll wait her out.”
“You want to wait in the kitchen? There’s fresh coffee there.”
Julia was torn. Again, it wasn’t a social visit. But coffee with Cullen didn’t sound like a bad way to pass the time.
“Sure, coffee sounds good as I may be here a while.”
“You may indeed.”
Julia sat down and doctored the coffee Cullen set in front of her. She thought long and hard about her next words, but finally figured she’d better ask.
“So, Cullen, you seemed a little surprised to find out that Sara had been arrested yesterday.”
“Arrested, a drug dealer, and a suspect in a murder investigation. To say I was surprised is an understatement.”
“So you’re not into cocaine at all?” She held her breath. Why? She didn’t know, but knowing that Cullen was clean was somehow vitally important to her.
“Never done it myself. Never have and never will.”
“Good answer. How’d you get mixed up with Ms. Donovan anyway?”
“We used to eat dinner at the same Chinese restaurant. Like every Friday night. We’d each be there eating alone, and one night she asked if she could join me. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Julia absorbed the information as she sipped her coffee. She nodded slowly.
“And now?” she said.
“I mean, now that you know about her? Will you stay with her?”
“Look, Julia…is it okay if I call you Julia?”
“Thanks. I’m not happy to hear I’m involved with a drug dealer, but I truly believe she can get help for that.”
“And her involvement with the Montague murder?”
“Sara may have made some poor decisions, but I don’t believe she’s involved with murder.”
“Can’t believe? Or won’t?”
“Can’t. She’s a gentle soul. Trust me.”
“I wish I could.”
“And outside of a few pics of her with the victim, what other evidence do you have?”
“I’m working on that,” Julia said.
“Where did you get those pictures anyway? Have the cops been following Sara for a while?”
“No such thing. A sorority girl who had a crush on Montague was taking pictures of them that morning. She gave them to us as part of the investigation.” Cullen nodded but didn’t say anything. “Right after she took them, shots rang out and Montague crumpled to the ground. You want to know what your girlfriend did?”
“She jumped in her car and sped off. Didn’t check to see if he was okay or not, she just gunned it. Probably figured nobody would ever link the two of them.”
“Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings.”
“Yeah, as great as it is to see you after all this time, I’m not really enjoying seeing you.”
“I hear you,” Julia said. “I sure wish the circumstances were different.”
“As do I. You want me to see if I can get Sara to come downstairs now?”
“I’d appreciate that.”
Julia helped herself to another cup of coffee while she waited. And she pondered. If Cullen wasn’t involved in Sara’s coke dealing, what did she do? Did she have a decent job? Did she make good money? Or did Sara support her and Cullen just not care about where the money came from?
Cullen was back without Sara.
“No luck, huh?” Julia said.
Cullen shook her head.
“I’m really sorry.”
“I’d hate to have to get a warrant and search the house.”
“I think we’d hate that, too.”
“Yes. You definitely would.” She didn’t make a move to leave. She still had a cup of coffee and was really enjoying her time with Cullen. “Have a seat, Cullen. Let’s give her a little more time.”
“Are you sure?”
Cullen poured another cup of coffee and sat across from her at the table.
“So, what have you been doing with yourself, Cullen? I mean, outside of eating Chinese food and getting involved with criminals? What’s kept you busy all these years?”
“I work for an ad agency,” she said. “I’ve been with the Logan and Bremer agency for almost twenty years now.”
Julia breathed a sigh of relief. So Cullen was an upstanding citizen after all. Still, Julia would run a background check on her. She had to know for sure.
“Do you enjoy it?” Julia said.
“I love it. It’s a dream job. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“That’s great.” She grew serious. “You know, Cullen, if you know anything at all about the murder, you need to tell me or you’ll be an accessory.”
“I don’t know anything other than what I’ve read. I swear.”
Before Julia could respond, Sara came into the kitchen. Julia’s stomach turned at the sight of her. She had no use for criminals. No use whatsoever. Especially not murderers.
“I’m here,” Sara said. “What do you want?”
“Where were you on the afternoon of October twenty-seventh?”
“How should I know?”
Julia watched as Sara poured herself a glass of wine. She arched an eyebrow at Cullen.
“It’s a little early for wine, isn’t it?” Cullen said.
“It’s never too early if the cops are in my house.”
“Think hard,” Julia said. “Where were you?”
Sara sat at the table and stared into space. Julia assumed she was thinking, trying to remember, but after a few minutes, she interrupted her daydreaming.
“Hm? Oh yeah. I don’t know.”
“That’s not much of an alibi.”
“What day of the week was it?”
“I was probably with Cullen,” Sara said.
“Cullen?” Julia said. “I would imagine she’d have been at work.”
“I’m telling you. I don’t remember.”
“And I’m telling you to think harder. You better come up with an alibi and fast, for your own good.”
Julia stood and Cullen did the same.
“I’ll be back, Ms. Donovan. That’s a promise.”
Cullen walked Julia to the door.
“It was good to see you again,” Cullen said. “I mean…well, you know what I mean.”
“Right. If you can think of anything that might help either one of us, please call me.” Julia extended her hand and their fingers met when Cullen took the proffered business card. Maybe they stayed like that too long. Julia wasn’t sure. She extracted her hand, turned away, and got in her car.
Cullen went back into the house and found Sara filling her wineglass again.
“Are you going to drink the day away?” she said.
“What else should I do?”
“Talk to me.”
“Don’t be that way, Sara. You locked yourself in the office as soon as Julia left last night—”
“Julia? Julia? What is she? Your best friend or something?”
“Sorry. Detective Stansworth, whatever. You locked yourself away as soon as she left. I think you owe me an explanation.”
“Gee, let’s see… Maybe the fact that you were arrested yesterday and weren’t going to tell me?”
“I didn’t want you involved.”
“But I am,” Cullen said.
“Not in that part of my life you’re not, and I figured it was better that way.”
“Well, at least it explains why you didn’t call me when your car mysteriously broke down. How’d you get home from the police station?”
“My attorney, Robert, gave me a ride.”
“Fair enough. So you’re a coke dealer, huh? Do you do anything with entrepreneurs? Or is that all a big lie?”
“It’s my cover. I needed to have some way to explain my money to you.”
Cullen ran her hand through her hair and paced the kitchen.
“Wow. So this house, your car, anything you’ve bought me? All paid for by drug money, huh?”
“I make good money,” Sara said quietly.
“I guess you do. And what about that college kid?”
Sara’s eyes teared up.
“I had nothing to do with his death,” Sara said. “You’ve got to believe me.”
“I want to, Sara, I really do. But our whole relationship has been built on a lie. Where do those lies end? How can I trust you?”
“You can trust me. I’ve never lied to you.”
“Uh, coke dealer?”
“That was an omission.”
“Same difference. And your story of having a job?”
“A little white lie. I didn’t know how you’d feel about drugs. I still don’t know.”
Cullen stopped pacing and turned to stare at Sara.
“So, all those nights you wouldn’t come to bed? Last night? You were snorting coke all night?”
“I do have a bit of a habit. But I can quit if I need to, I promise.”
Cullen let out a long breath.
“God, this is just so much to try to take in.”
Sara got out of her seat and wrapped her arms around Cullen. Cullen didn’t return the gesture. She couldn’t.
“Just don’t.” She unwrapped Sara’s arms and took a step back.
“Don’t reject me, Cullen. Please don’t reject me. I need you now more than ever.”
Cullen collapsed into a chair at the table. Sara sat across from her.
“You saw that kid get shot,” Cullen said. “And you just left. He could have died.”
“I was scared. What if I got shot? How would you like that? I didn’t know who they were shooting at.”
The dangerous side of Sara’s job hit Cullen like a ton of bricks. There were wars between drug dealers. People tried to take out rival dealers on a regular basis. Was Sara in danger all the time?
“Did you really believe someone was shooting at you?” It was all too much to comprehend.
Sara broke eye contact and looked away.
“I didn’t know. How could I have known? And I sure as hell wasn’t going to hang around to find out.”
“Did you visit Montague in the hospital?”
“Is that your way of asking me if I killed him? And his name was Donnie, not Montague.”
“Donnie, Montague, whatever. The poor kid who’ll never live to see his full potential. Did you visit him in the hospital?”
“No, I thought about it, but figured I’d caused enough problems for the poor guy.”
Cullen nodded thoughtfully. Then she had another question.
“And when I read to you about the other kid? The one that OD’d at that frat party? You could have said something then.”
“What?” Sara said. “What did you want me to say? Oh, by the way, I’m ninety-nine percent sure I sold the coke that killed him? Is that what you wanted me to say?”
“I don’t know.” Cullen struggled not to raise her voice. “A little heads-up would have been nice. So the police went after Donnie?”
“Yep. Cops were crawling all over him. I provided him with my attorney and told him to keep his mouth shut, but he was getting scared and thinking of naming his source.”
Cullen felt a chill creep up her spine. So Sara definitely had a motive for wanting to kill the guy. But did she do it? She swore she didn’t, and Cullen tended to believe her. She had been honest when she told Julia she didn’t see Sara as a murderer. She wouldn’t hurt a fly, of that Cullen was certain.
“Let’s go get breakfast.” Cullen stood.
“I’m not hungry. I think I want to take a nap.”
“You do that. I’m going out. I need to think, to clear my head. I’ll be back.”
She got in her truck and drove to her favorite diner. It was after eleven by then, so she ordered a chili burger and sat sipping more coffee.
Cullen reached into the pocket of her jeans and slid out Julia’s card. She turned it over in her fingers. She had no more information. She had no reason to call her. She slid the card back in her pocket. She should hate Julia. Detective Stansworth. She should be angry at her for trying to pin a murder on Sara when Cullen knew she was innocent, so why wasn’t she? Why was she looking forward to seeing her again, regardless of the circumstances?
Monday morning arrived and Julia was in her office rereading every report she could find on the Montague shooting and subsequent murder. He’d been in the hospital for two days when he’d been killed. Whoever had done it had been smart. They’d adjusted his morphine IV so he overdosed. They’d gotten in, opened it up, and left before he flatlined to avoid any suspicion. And no one at the hospital remembered seeing anyone entering or leaving his room.
Did the person in the video have scrubs on under their sweats? Were they able to fit in? To look like they worked there? How the hell could no one have seen anything? She was frustrated beyond words. She needed to catch a break. And then she got an idea.
That afternoon, Julia drove back to the hospital armed with the photos she had of Sara. Now that she knew who she was and how she was associated with the young victim, she could show her picture to the different nurses and attendants. Surely someone had seen her that fateful afternoon.
She approached the nurses’ station on the sixth floor and showed her badge.
“What can we do for you, Detective?”
“I have some pictures of some suspects I’d like the nurses to look at. I’d like to know if anyone remembers seeing her here before.”
The nurse buzzed Julia in. Julia took out the photos and showed them to the nurses who were busy charting.
“Let me know if any of these women look familiar to any of you, please. Pass them around.”
Everyone took their time looking at the pictures, but one by one, they shook their heads.
“Isn’t this the boy that was murdered here?” a nurse asked.
“Yes, that’s him. And these are persons of interest, but that’s all I can say.”
“I wish I could help you, Detective, but they don’t look even remotely familiar.”
Damn. Julia had had such high hopes someone would remember seeing Sara.
She gathered the photos and went back to the station. She pulled up the video from the hospital again and froze it when she saw the person in sweats appear on the screen. The photos she had of Sara were mostly from the shoulders up as she was leaning on her open car door talking to Montague, but there was one full body pic, and she held it up next to the frozen frame. Try as she might, she couldn’t be sure it was Sara on the hospital video. Sure, it could have been her, but then, it could have been anybody.
How had someone been able to slip into the kid’s room unnoticed? Where had his family been? His friends? Anyone? How had he been left alone and how would someone have known he’d be by himself?
Unless someone sat in the waiting room watching the room. That had to have been what happened. But surely someone would have noticed that, right?
It wasn’t making any sense. She had other cases that needed her attention, but this was the one she wanted to solve. Montague was killed because he was about to finger his supplier. She would have bet her life on that. And now that she knew who that was, she just had to find a way to put two and two together. But how?
Cullen Matthews. Somehow she’d help nail Sara, Julia was certain. Maybe not intentionally, but if she could trip her up, she’d spill the beans. She grabbed her coat and drove downtown.
The ad agency of Logan and Bremer was on the corner of Southwest Fifth and Stark, in an old building that had been renovated on the inside while keeping the old façade from the eighteen hundreds.
She read the directory in the lobby to learn which floor she’d find Cullen on and rode the posh elevator with green leather up to the fifth floor. She walked up to the receptionist.
“I’m looking for Cullen Matthews. Is she in?”
“Is she expecting you?”
“No. I’m an old friend and I’m here to surprise her.” It wasn’t exactly a lie.
“I’m really sorry,” the receptionist said. “She’s in a meeting right now.”
Julia sat in a wingback chair in the reception area. It wasn’t uncomfortable, really, but it certainly wasn’t the most comfortable chair she’d ever sat in. It was bright blue to match the blue and red decor in the office. She slid her laptop out of its case and, glad her back was to the wall for confidentiality reasons, opened her files on Montague.
Sara had said she’d been with Cullen when Julia had originally asked her where she’d been. Had Cullen had that day off? Could Cullen provide Sara with a much-needed alibi? Julia shook her head. She was getting ahead of herself. Sara didn’t need an alibi. Not yet, anyway. Soon maybe. Hopefully.
Julia was lost in her studies of the hooded person from the hospital when she was interrupted.
“You wanted to see me?” There was no ignoring the chill in Cullen’s voice.
“Great to see you again, Cullen. Do you have an office or somewhere we can talk?”
“I have an office, but I don’t have much time. Come on back, but make it quick.”
“Will do.” Julia slid her laptop back into its case and followed Cullen down the hall to a large office. Cullen sat behind the mahogany desk and Julia took a chair across from her.
One wall of her office was covered in plaques and certificates.
“You look like you do good work,” Julia said.
“I’m one of the best.”
Julia arched an eyebrow. Had Cullen grown arrogant? Or was she simply confident? And why did it matter?
“What do you need?” Cullen said. “Or is this a social visit?”
“Unfortunately, no. This is a business visit.”
“Okay. What do you want from me?”
“I need to know, Cullen. Did you take October twenty-seventh off work? It was the Friday before Halloween. Did you get a head start on the holiday?”
Cullen leaned back in her chair and laced her fingers behind her head.
“That’s important, isn’t it?”
Julia stared at her for a minute.
“Very. And, again, I’ll remind you this is a murder investigation. Lying could make you an accessory.”
“Sara didn’t kill Donnie,” Cullen said.
“Montague. Yes, she knew him. No, she didn’t kill him.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I know her,” Cullen said. “I know her very well. She’s not a killer.”
“You didn’t know she was a coke dealer did you?”
Cullen shook her head slowly.
“No. I didn’t know that.”
“So you don’t really know what she’s capable of. Isn’t that the truth?”
“I know she couldn’t hurt, much less kill, another human being.”
Julia could appreciate Cullen’s loyalty, misguided though it was.
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“What was the date again?”
“No, I didn’t take it off. I love Halloween but didn’t request extra time off for the holiday.”
“So you don’t know where Sara was all that day, do you?”
Julia barely heard Cullen’s whispered answer. She started to stand.
“Wait,” Cullen said.
“What?” Julia sat back down. “I thought you didn’t have much time.”
“Julia, you have to believe me. Sara’s not the murderer.”
“She’s got the motive and the opportunity. She’s looking pretty good in my book.”
“Motive? What motive?”
“You know as well as I do,” Julia said. “Montague was going to finger Sara as his dealer. She couldn’t have that, so she killed him.”
“You can’t really believe that.”
“Yes, I can.”
Cullen thought back to Halloween weekend. She and Sara hadn’t been seeing each other very long. Some of Cullen’s friends were having a Halloween party Saturday night. Sara had suggested they go as a gangster and moll. She remembered meeting Sara for dinner at the House of Good Fortune that Friday night. How had Sara been? Had she been distant? Subdued?
All Cullen could remember was Sara’s excitement at having found the perfect costumes for the two of them. She’d eaten a normal dinner, so she clearly hadn’t been upset about anything. If she’d just killed someone, surely she’d have been remorseful. She’d have lost her appetite or something, right?
“I don’t know.” Cullen brought herself back to the present. “I saw her that night after work and she seemed normal. I can’t imagine she’d have wanted to meet for dinner if she’d just killed somebody.”
“Killers are cold-blooded creatures.”
“See? Sara’s warm, caring. Anything but cold-blooded.”
“Tell me about that night.”
“We had dinner then went back to my place. There’s nothing more to tell.”
“And the rest of the weekend?”
“I guess she seemed fine.”
“What did you do?” Julia said.
“Let’s see. I remember dressing in my double-breasted suit and fedora and picking her up. She was wearing a black flapper dress and looked adorable. We headed to a friend’s house for a party.” Cullen smiled at the memory.
“And at the party? How did she act?”
Cullen exhaled as she thought back.
“She was fine. She saw some people she knew. She would disappear with them for a while, then come back out to where I was hanging out on the porch. Um…then we went inside and danced for a while. She was all smiles, like she was really having fun.”
“Was there food? Did she still have her appetite? Or had guilt settled in?”
Cullen remembered the buffet that she’d enjoyed. Sara had said she wasn’t hungry. But Sara often wasn’t hungry, which Cullen now attributed to her coke habit.
“Cullen?” Julia prodded her.
“She didn’t eat. But for all I know, she might have been doing coke. I mean, that would make sense, right?”
“Sure, it would. Or she might have been dealing with guilt.”
Cullen reminisced some more about the end of the night, when she’d told Sara people would be asking her questions about her, and Sara had asked what she’d say. Cullen had told her she would tell them Sara was her new lady. Sara hadn’t responded right away. Why was that? She’d finally said that would be great, but it sure had taken her a while. Now Cullen wondered if Sara was thinking about protecting her. She shook her head. She was being ridiculous. Julia was planting illogical thoughts in her head.
“She sure wasn’t acting guilty,” Cullen said. “She seemed to be having fun. Honest, good, down-to-earth, innocent fun.”
“I think you’re blinded to the truth. How long have you two been seeing each other?”
“About five weeks or so.”
“So you don’t truly know her, do you?”
“I know her well enough.”
“Cullen, I’m asking you as a friend. Please be careful with Sara.”
“There’s nothing to be careful about. Thanks for trying to watch out for me, but I can handle my life. And my life includes Sara. She may be a coke fiend, but she is not a murderer. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do.”
“I’ll see myself out.”
Cullen couldn’t concentrate after Julia left. She tried to lose herself in her work but couldn’t do it. She didn’t need to be there. She needed to be with Sara. She called and Sara answered on the first ring.
“Hey, babe. How does Chinese for a late lunch sound?”
“Aren’t you working?”
“I think I’m going to take the afternoon off. You want to meet me?”
“I don’t have a car, remember? Why don’t you come pick me up?”
“I’ll be right there.”
Cullen disconnected and checked out for the afternoon. She got on I-5 which was a parking lot. Her stomach growled, and she told herself to be patient. She’d be home soon. It took forty-five minutes to go the twenty miles to Sara’s house, but she got there and found Sara sitting on the porch swing.
It was a beautiful sunny day in Bidwell. It was crisp but nice, and Sara looked beautiful sitting there in her jeans and black sweater. She came down the step and got in Cullen’s truck.
“You look amazing.” Cullen leaned over and kissed Sara.
“So do you. But then, you always do.”
“Thank you. You hungry?”
Cullen drove to the House of Good Fortune, but it didn’t look open. She parked her truck.
“You wait here. I’m going to go see what’s up.”
“Be careful, Cullen. That looks like police tape.”
Cullen walked up to the front door. It was indeed covered in police tape; crime scene, it said. She put her hands on the door so she could see inside and there were cops crawling all over the place.
“Back away,” a male voice said. “This is a crime scene.”
“So I see.” Cullen stepped back and turned to see a man who looked to be in his mid fifties with a pot belly and tight sport coat approaching. “What’s going on?”
“You ever been here before?”
“I come here all the time.”
The man handed her a card.
“I’m Detective Magnell. My partner Silverton and I are working the case. This place was big in drug trafficking. You mind if I ask you a few questions?”
Cullen felt a knot in the pit of her stomach. Drug trafficking? Was that why this was Sara’s favorite restaurant? She thought back to the odd fortune she’d gotten there one night about a week before she and Sara had started seeing each other. It had said, “The drop will be at Mayfields at seven o’clock on the tenth.”
Mayfields was a popular department store downtown. What sort of drop had they been talking about and, more importantly, who was the message for? Clearly, there had been some mix-up, she’d thought at the time. She remembered now that Sara had been waiting for a to-go order as well. Had the message been for her? Had it been about cocaine?
“Ma’am?” Magnell said. “You with me?”
“I’m sorry. Sure, I’ll answer any questions you have.”
“Have you ever seen any shady looking characters hanging around the place? Anybody who looked out of place?”
“What about suits? Overdressed people? I don’t mean just your regular Joe coming in after work, I mean, jewels, the works.”
Cullen shook her head.
“I never saw anyone who looked like that here. Everyone seemed so normal. And their food was delicious. Maybe you guys have made some mistake?”
“No mistake, ma’am. Now, can I get your information for my records?”
Cullen gave him her full name, address, and phone number. He thanked her for her time and she walked back out to where Sara waited. Cullen had so many questions she didn’t know where to start, but she knew she had to find out if Sara was involved.
“What’s going on?” Sara said. “Who were you talking to? Why the police tape?”
“Apparently, they were running drugs out of the restaurant. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
Sara turned in her seat so she faced Cullen.
“Of course not!”
“Okay. Just checking.”
“Cullen, not all drug dealers know each other.”
“I’m not saying they do. I’m just thinking you spend an awful lot of time here.”
“I love their food, and you spend a lot of time here, too, yet you don’t see me accusing you of being a drug runner.”
“I didn’t accuse you. I merely asked.”
“Whatever. You can’t blame me for being suspicious.”
“Look, I made a mistake. Can we please just put this behind us?”
Cullen didn’t answer. She wished she could move on but didn’t know if she honestly could.
“You know, I once got a weird fortune cookie from here. I wonder if I should tell the cops about it.”
“Weird? How so?”
“It said something about a drop. I wonder if it was referring to drugs. Wait here. I’ll go tell them.”
Sara grabbed her arm. Hard.
“I wouldn’t bother them. When did that happen?”
“A few weeks ago.”
“Then they probably know all about it. Come on, Cullen, let’s get out of here.”