Hector bent down and pried at the tile. Took some finessing, and a few hard jerks, but he finally got the piece to lift. A cubby. With a small handheld resting in the center. Hello, pretty lady.
Excitement rushed through him as he carefully placed the device in his tool box.
Upstairs, he found the media room. With two rumpled blankets on the couch, the area looked like a favorite. And one Marks had recently used to entertain a guest. The TV hadn’t been turned off, and a daytime soap played across the screen.
Marks had been single, and there were no reports of him dating anyone. Four guest bedrooms, empty and sparkling. Then he found the master bedroom. The king-size bed was unmade, both sides clearly well used, judging by the indentations in the mattress. But unassailable proof that Marks had entertained a woman? The clothes hanging in the closet alongside his.
Dresses, both formal and casual. Sparkly shirts, and jeans with swirling designs stitched up the sides. The wearer had been more than an overnight guest. She’d stayed. Often. Maybe even lived here, though he’d caught no other sign of her. Only one way to find out the identity of his mystery girl, then. Hector set his toolbox down, straightened. DNA testing on her dirty clothing.
Behind him, he heard the quietest rustle of footsteps.
Palming the pyre holstered under his arm in less than a second, Hector spun around and aimed. A female had been approaching him with a vase lifted over her head. She swung it at him, missed as he jumped out of the way. Gasping as her momentum twisted her, she tried to catch herself and launch at him a second time.
“Not another move or I shoot.” Only his reflexes had saved her from being shot the first go-round.
She froze in place. He could have pulled the trigger anyway, but he didn’t. He was too curious, wanted answers now rather than later.
She was a Rakan, he realized as he considered her. A rare species that hardly ever ventured to earth. She possessed long golden hair, golden eyes, golden skin, and besides Noelle, was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
His mystery girl, he would guess.
“Put the vase down,” he instructed calmly. She’d meant to brain him, no question.
Nervous, she licked her lips. Even her tongue was golden. Glittery tears filled her eyes as she stuttered out, “P—please, do not h—hurt. This is my home. Y—you must leave.” Heavy accent. He’d bet she hadn’t been here long.
“Put the vase down,” he repeated, more harshly this time. “I don’t want to shoot you, but I will. And if I shoot you, you’ll be helpless. Do you understand what that means?” He could do anything he wanted to her.
Slowly she obeyed, sitting the “weapon” on the floor. When she straightened, a tremor shook her entire body and the tears broke free of the dam, cascading down her cheeks.
He arched a brow. “To Bobby Marks?” There’d been no wife on file. But then, a marriage to an otherworlder wouldn’t exactly be legal. And Margarete’s claim explained why Marks had stopped dating. Also explained why he’d never taken Margarete out in public.
Not everyone was pro-otherworlder. And as Rakans were hunted, often de-skinned and cut into pieces for their gold, Marks wouldn’t have wanted to put her continued health in jeopardy.
“Y—yes. Bobby.” She nodded, her hair dancing around her delicate shoulders. Dressed in a flowing ice-blue sheath, she appeared as innocent and truthful as an angel.
Wouldn’t take him long to learn whether the image was true or false. “I want you to walk over to the bed and sit down,” he said, and a sob parted her lips. Damn it. He had to be more careful with his phrasing. Bed most often equated to rape in this situation. “I’m not going to hurt you unless you challenge me. I’m an AIR agent, and I’m going to ask you some questions. That’s all. When you’re sitting, I’ll lower my gun.”
Hesitantly she obeyed, the tears flowing continuously now. As promised, he lowered the gun. Surprise filled her golden eyes. Keeping his gaze on her, he crouched in front of the toolbox and flipped the voice recorder on. Then he straightened, squared his shoulders.
She watched him, nervously rocking back and forth.
First things first. The part of the job he most loathed. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, Margarete, but Bobby Marks was murdered last night.”
“What?” The surprise gradually mutated into horror. “No. No! I saw him only yesterday.”
Hector remained quiet, giving her time to absorb the news. First she spouted a few more denials about how he couldn’t possibly be dead, then she cried, then she settled as shock took hold and numbed her out. Reactions he knew very well. He’d done the same thing when he learned about his brother.
“When was the last time you saw him?” he asked.
“What time exactly?” “I don’t know. Maybe …” She glanced at the clock resting on the nightstand, as if that would help. “Around nine p.m. I think.”
Keeping his tone gentle, easy, he said, “What had he done before that?”
Teardrops caught in her lashes, and she had to blink rapidly to clear her line of vision. “Dinner with me and his mother. He finally introduced me to her.”
Good. They were getting somewhere. “How did that go?”
Her chin trembled. “I do not want to talk about this.”
Words he’d said to Noelle only yesterday. “I know, but you must. I need to find his killer, and you can help me.”
Several minutes passed before she collected herself enough to say, “He always made me hide when someone came over, but that hurt me, and he knew it, so he invited his mother over. When he told her, she screamed. I have never heard words as vile as the ones she used. He told me to go to our room and wait for him to come and get me. I did, but he never came.”
So. The mother had just gotten a bit of bad news. Well, bad news according to her. She’d been upset. Motive for murder? Maybe, but that didn’t explain what the witness had seen and heard.
Still. Hector definitely needed to question Ms. Brenda Marks. She was now a suspect, plain and simple. With her money, she could have easily hired out.
Margarete shook her head. “I do not know. That was the last time I saw him.”
“You didn’t call him? Talk to him on the phone?”
“You didn’t call anyone? Not even to report him missing?”
“No,” she shouted, suddenly angry. “I trust no one on this planet besides Bobby. He told me people would injure me if they discovered me.”
She drew her arms around her middle, as if battling an abrupt waft of cold. “Why do you want to know? How can that help you with his … with his … ?”
“You’d be surprised by what helps,” was all he said. Her gaze darted away. “He came to my planet. We fell in love. He brought me here.”
She was lying, Hector thought. The words sounded rehearsed, as if she were repeating something she’d been told. Plus, Bobby would have had to gain permission to go off planet, and he hadn’t. Hector had already checked, per standard procedure.
He could take her in, lock her up in AIR for his suspicion alone, but he didn’t want her logged into the system. Wasn’t that he lacked trust—although he did—but he hadn’t forgotten how those girls had disappeared from the hospital last year, an Arcadian suspected of taking them. And with an Arcadian involved in Marks’s murder … no chances.
Besides, taking her from her home, her familiar surroundings, would be unnecessarily cruel. Whatever had happened, she had loved Bobby Marks.
Wouldn’t hurt to garner her trust, either. She’d tell him anything he wanted to know if he could just make her trust him. “We think your husband was trying to gather evidence for a crime someone committed. Did he tell you anything about that?”
The color faded from her face, leaving her with a sickly ashen pallor. “N—no. I know nothing about that.”
Abject fear. Okay. Definitely the right path. “Nothing at all?” Men would tell a woman anything during pillow talk. At least, he supposed. Look at everything he’d revealed to Noelle. Deeply personal stuff he’d never shared with any other person in all the years of his life.
This time, Margarete’s chin was trembling too intensely for her to reply. She violently shook her head.
You’ll tell me yet. “I don’t want you to leave New Chicago,” he told her. “I might have more questions for you, and you need to be available. If you leave, I’ll hunt you down, and you won’t like the results.”
Threatening a frightened female who’d just lost her husband was far worse than cruel. He couldn’t let himself care about that, though. Results mattered right now. Nothing else. And she would learn to trust him despite his strong-arm tactics. She would have to.
“I will not leave,” she whispered brokenly.
“Good. But just in case you’re tempted …” He withdrew a syringe from the toolkit and closed the distance. She shrank back, but he grabbed her arm only long enough to inject the contents. “I’m sorry for the sting.” He released her, stepped back. “That’s an isotope tracker. A few clicks of a button, and I’ll be able to find you.”
Rather than snip at him, she nodded in understanding.
Won’t feel guilty. He’d come back tomorrow. And the next day. Until she spilled. Asking her follow-up questions, little things to get her talking. She’d learn that he could be relied on to protect her. That he was dedicated to helping vindicate her husband and put his killer away.
And maybe … maybe he’d send Noelle over. Maybe Margarete just needed another female. Although Noelle was a ball buster and likely to offend. And threaten. And shout.
A pang in his chest. A rush of sensation through his body. You’re doing it again. Thinking about her. Reacting to her.
“I need to do a little work around this room,” he said, “but I want you to remain where you are, okay?”
He dusted the dresser drawers for prints, took a couple pictures of the closet, even one of Margarete, and she did as promised. She never moved from the bed. The thing with AIR, you didn’t always need a warrant for stuff. Otherworlders did not have the same rights as humans.
When he finished, he placed a holocard on the nightstand. A small black button that she had only to press for a blue screen to crystallize overhead, his picture, name, and number glowing. “This has my cell number. You call me if you remember anything about that night that you haven’t told me. Anything at all.”
A nod as she just kind of folded into herself. The numbness must be wearing off, grief taking over.
Hector packed up and took off, leaving the same way he’d come.
RATHER THAN DRIVE BACK to AIR HQ and type up his thoughts, Hector picked up two coffees, black, downloaded a copy of every newspaper being offered that morning, and programmed his car to head to the business district.
There was something he had to do—something he shouldn’t do. A cold, callous crime, but also a public service, and one he would relish.
Took him half an hour to complete the task, and when he settled back inside his car, his knuckles were cracked and bleeding inside his gloves, but he was smiling. Time to get back to work. He programmed Dallas’s address into the console and was soon winding down the road, the scenery more dreary than before. Thick gray clouds concealed the sun. Mist rose from the ground, and acidic dew scented the air, seeping into the car through the vents.
The car’s sensors took care of the slowing, stopping, and turning, allowing him to lean back in his seat and close his eyes. Finally he could give in to thoughts about Noelle, if only to at last exorcise her from his mind.
After he’d left her place, he’d gone home, but he hadn’t gotten any sleep, had tossed and turned, his body on fire for more of her. For everything.
Of course, even now he hungered for her.
Temptation, man. He’d known it was more dangerous than his arms. Once you tasted the forbidden fruit, you would always crave more. Yet still he’d gone inside her house. Stopped in her bedroom, transfixed by her bed, wondering if she’d ever lain there and pleasured herself while thinking about him.
The way she’d looked at him while he’d hovered over her, as if he were a slab of ribs and she was dying of starvation, had melted any remaining resistance.
Yet now, even though Noelle’s honey was branded into his every cell, even though he could still feel her nipples rasping against his chest as he ground his erection against her, could still see her face soften as he tongued her to orgasm, even though he would never forget the way she’d sucked him off so perfectly, she was free to date anyone she wanted.
He hadn’t asked for exclusivity, and she hadn’t either. Just a dinner date.
He’d never before been on a date. Not with Kira, not really. Not with anyone. Would he know how to make small talk? Hell, would Noelle even want to see him tonight?
Would she ask someone else out?
Great. Now Hector wanted to fucking murder any man who even thought about her.
He was a mess. This was one of the many reasons he’s always avoided relationships. Already he was jealous and possessive. Like arousal, those emotions weren’t good for him. He’d just … he’d never craved a woman like he craved Noelle.
He wanted her like he wanted air to breathe, and not having her now, now, damn it, now hurt.