Caroline led the way up the steps to her room at Vivian’s, Tupper in tow. He grumbled as he wrestled a banker’s box full of files through the door behind her, tripping over the clothing strewn on the floor.
“Dining room table,” she said, kicking aside dirty laundry to make a path before heading to the kitchen. The fridge was in as much disarray as the rest of the apartment, but she found two beers at the back. Kimberly’s favorite, she thought, shoving one back while rummaging for something her stodgy partner would prefer. She pulled the cork on the wine bottle and passed it under her nose. Better. Now, if she could just find a clean glass.
Tupper was already settled in a chair when she returned, the box lid tossed aside and stacks of files lining the antique table so out of place in the otherwise sparsely decorated room. He traded a stack of papers for the glass of wine and she pulled them across the table, cracking open her can of beer as she slid onto a chair.
They sorted in silence, exchanging files as they went, all the while scribbling notes that passed between them without comment. Caroline glanced at the dusty CD player on the sideboard, but thought better of it. For all she would have liked a bit of background music, the sound would have destroyed the groove they had long before established. Besides, Tupper hated The Dancing Pigs.
For almost an hour the only sound was that of shuffling papers and the scratching of pencils. When a tap came at the door, Caroline lifted her head, unsure if what she’d heard was simply the groans of the old building. Again, a knock, more insistent that the first. She left Tupper hunched over documents and went to investigate.
She stopped with her hand on the doorknob. After the events of the previous month, she was still skittish. She didn’t want to admit it, but how else was she supposed to react to having been drugged, abducted, and forced to clear her name against a pair of overzealous FBI agents—not to mention and the federal prosecutor that had wanted to pin everything on her. Doula Breech’s smile and casual wave still grated on her nerves. Still, the real killer had been caught, the mole in the FBI exposed, and the charges dropped. She even thought that one of the FBI agents, Steve Braxton, might prove to be a new contact in the FBI as Tupper’s former team took promotions and transfers. She did not have to be afraid. Why, then, was she?
A third knock shook Caroline from her reverie. She swung open the solid oak door to reveal her landlady, Vivian. The old woman began to speak then, as she seemed to notice Tupper in the other room, seemed to think better of it. Caroline glanced at Tupper, but he was intent on files, oblivious to the interruption.
“Caroline…” Vivian began, and then cleared her throat before continuing. “Caroline, you forgot didn’t you?”
Caroline blinked at the statement, struggling to process the message. The doctors claimed that the drugs she’d been injected with had cleared her system, but she still felt a bit off – as if the drugs had permanently affected her psyche. Tupper said she needed to get back to work. Maybe he was right.
“So much has happened to you, dear. Of course you forgot.” Again Vivian’s eyes darted from her to Tupper and back.
Something was clearly wrong. Caroline was reasonably sure she had not forgotten anything, but her aged landlady’s behavior was a clue she couldn’t miss. They had known one another too long not to develop the unspoken language of friends. She leaned into the dialogue, the improv triggering a comfortable part of her past. A part she could embrace.
“The Scotch and Wine tasting,” Vivian prompted. “It’s tonight.”
“Is it?” Caroline asked, still mystified by the old woman’s deception.
“Yes, it is and… well, you promised to go as my able-bodied escort.” Vivian’s fingers wiggled, as she seemed to resist the urge to touch her cane leaning against the doorjamb.
Caroline’s confusion didn’t abate, but she played along. “Oh… yes. I’ve been so busy with cold case files…”
She ushered Vivian in, thankful when her landlady did nothing more than tut a few times about the mess, the product of a month of being a shut in. The cane, she noticed, was left behind.
Tupper looked up from his spread of paper as they entered the dining room. His eyes narrowed at the distraction. “Hi, Vivian. Is something the matter?”
Caroline held back a cringe. Tupper was one of the few people that could see through her attempt at deception. She doubted Vivian would be any more successful, but her landlady was already in motion.
“I have a committee charity event tonight,” the old woman said, manicured fingers tapping on the table. “Caroline promised to go. You don’t mind do you? It’s a prior commitment. Two hours at best.”
Tupper’s gaze shifted from Vivian’s earnest face to Caroline, then back. Then he looked at the paper, folders, and sticky notes all over the table. With a grunt, he swept it all into the banker’s box on the floor in a single motion. His eyes locked with Caroline’s. “No, no, I understand. A commitment is a commitment. What art gallery are you two young ladies going to be at?”
Vivian’s eyes, blue as her sapphire brooch, gleamed. She smiled brightly as she jerked a thumb over her shoulder and Caroline curbed her laughter at the display of uncouth behavior so beneath the septuagenarian socialite. “Hosting this here shindig at my humble abode. The two of us have some preparations before the guests start to arrive, and Caroline promised to help, didn’t you dear?”
“I can’t believe I forgot that was tonight,” Caroline lied, projecting her best chagrined expression for Tupper’s behalf. If Vivian was being this mysterious, something was going on, and she obviously needed Caroline’s help. Tupper would have to wait until later for an explanation—or not if whatever mischief the old woman was up to violated his strict moral code. “I’m so sorry, Tupper. I can come over to your apartment afterward and we can finish this up…”
“Just call me when your event has concluded,” Tupper told her as he fitted the lid to the box and folded the cardboard wings of the top into the handle cutout. “We can finish reviewing these cases tomorrow. At the office.”
At the office. Clearly, Caroline was expected to report to the office of Tupper Investigations in the morning, instead of continuing her self-imposed isolation.
“Stubby will be happy to see you,” Tupper told her as he lugged the box to door.
“Sure, Tupper,” Caroline told him, watching him go. He cocked an eyebrow at her, but gave no other indication that he suspected anything other than a forgetful Caroline and her eccentric friend and landlady.
By the time he reached the sidewalk, Tupper already had his phone tucked between his ear and his shoulder. A moment later, he was in his car and Caroline turned to Vivian. Before she could ask, her landlady motioned her back into the apartment, a finger to her lips. Caroline sighed. What was this all about? She locked the front door, then followed Vivian to the terrace.
“Tupper went that way,” she said, pointing in the opposite direction to which the old woman was looking.
“You can come out now.”
Caroline spun around when one of the large potted plants on the terrace moved, and out stepped a figure dressed in a black hoodie and sunglasses. The mysterious figure moved closer and lowered their hood. When they took away the dark glasses, Caroline recognized Christian Parsons, the stage magician she and Kimberly had helped out of a bind a little over a year prior.
“So this is the ‘Scotch’ that you meant,” she told her landlady. “I never would have guessed. Christian… How did you get in here? Vivian?”
Vivian smiled. “He came looking for you only moments before you showed up with Tupper. Well, I’ll leave the two of you alone to chat.”
Caroline turned back to the young man they had nicked named “Robbin’ Hoodie.” “I thought you were supposed to be upstate in a work release program. When did you get released?”
A cocky half-smile slid away from his round cheeks and he squirmed under her critical gaze. That was explanation enough. The telltale bruising under one brown eye only drove it home. It didn’t take years of being a detective to see other indications that he had been in a fight or manhandled by persons unknown.
“Well, come on, we shouldn’t be standing out here.”
Christian followed her into the apartment and sat on the sofa, shifting one way and then the other, toes tapping nervously. He scrubbed at his light brown hair until it was a wild mess on the top of his head. “I g-guess it was short notice… I’m… I’m sorry, but I didn’t know who else to turn to.” He fiddled with the drawstring of his hoodie until Caroline coughed. “Oh. Um. Sorry.”
She waited until Christian folded his hands neatly in his lap before speaking. “I’m surprised you were able to make it down here with an anklet.”
The color rose on the kid’s fair face as he pulled up his left pant leg and showed that where a monitoring anklet was supposed to be, only revealed a tattoo of a smiley face with Xs for eyes and a red tongue sticking out. She had never understood why anyone would want a tattoo. Caroline groaned as she stood up. Bad. Very, very bad. And he knew it. She paced, rubbing her hands together. “This complicates things. We need to talk to Tupper. He can help…”
Christian leapt off the sofa, arms waving. “No! No, no no! No Feds… I mean, uh, I know he was nice to help me out last year, but I… uh… No. You don’t understand what’s at stake, Caroline. These men…”
Caroline flashed a palm at him and he sat back down, silent. She left him for a moment to retrieve her beer from the dining room. Finding it empty, she moved on to the refrigerator for another. Make that two, she thought.
They sipped at the artisanal brews for a few moments in silence before Christian got up and wandered about the apartment as if looking for a distraction. He stopped at the table and set down his beer, reaching to pick up a folder that must have fallen to the floor when Tupper had collected everything earlier. He gasped, the coloring draining from his pale face all over again. He shook the folder at her.
“You know… And… And you let me talk to you? This isn’t a set up is it?”
“A set up? What are you talking about?” She took the folder from him. They had received the case just that morning and Tupper had wanted to do some work on it. A gang wanted for bank and museum robberies had had three big hits already that month. No one had been able to catch them. She looked down at the grainy surveillance photo and gasped. “That’s you? I haven’t had a chance to look this over. I didn’t…”
She dropped the folder on the table when he bolted toward the door. Her petite frame couldn’t stop him if he really wanted to get out, but she trusted that her reputation would. She dodged in front of him, blocking the way. She grabbed her smartphone off the counter and slid her thumb across the screen to unlock it. “You need to tell me what’s going on and you need to tell me right now, Christian—unless you want me to call Tupper. Well? Do you want my help or not?”
The look of desperation faded from Christian’s face after a moment and his shoulders sagged. “Okay,” he said, frowning. “But you gotta promise me no Feds.”
Caroline was reluctant to lie to Tupper again, but maybe once she had the story, she could convince Christian to turn himself in. She’d done it before. The kid had a good heart, and the nature of the crimes spelled out in the file weren’t his style. As terrified as he looked, she could only assume he had been coerced into the gang. Caroline knew from experience how that worked. She led him to the table where earlier she and Tupper had worked in companionable silence. This time, she switched on the music. Christian seemed to relax.
“I promise that if you tell me the whole truth, I’ll do what I can,” she told him, retrieving their beers. “Now… how are you involved in this case?”