Each female was around the same age: mid fifties, or maybe pushing a hundred and fifty. The number of surgical procedures staring over at her made it hard to tell.
They wore so much jewelry they could have sunk the Titanic before it ever hit that iceberg. Not a single lock of hair was out of place, their similar bobs cut and sprayed to withstand even tornados and hurricanes. Manicured nails left far too long. Makeup more of a mask than an accessory.
Oh, yes. They were definitely versions of her mother.
“Beat it before I decide to make examples out of you and carve my name into your faces,” she said, adding, “Now!” when they hesitated. And, yes, she flashed her switchblade. Never left home without it.
Two stood so swiftly their chairs skidded behind them. The third remained in her seat, her lips thinned in a mutinous line. “Our food hasn’t yet arrived, and I’m not leaving until—”
“She said now.” Hector tapped two fingers against the handle of the pyre-gun holstered under his arm, and the protestor joined the others. They lined up and marched away, most likely intending to call their husbands. Or attorneys.
Noelle stuffed her blade back in her pocket and claimed one of the vacant chairs, then motioned for Hector to do the same.
“I don’t care if they’re the law or not. Get rid of these miscreants,” Brenda snarled to the waiter. “They offend me.”
“Oh, good. Timmy,” Noelle said, reading his nametag. “I’m glad you’re here. We’ll have the eggs benedict, that plate of salmon, like the one over there, a bowl of lobster bisque, and some grapes. Do you have grapes today?”
“Excellent. And put a rush on my order.” She rubbed at her (very flat) stomach. “The baby’s hungry.”
“Of course, Miss Tremain.” Relieved, he rushed away.
He ignored her, continuing on.
Noelle propped her elbows on the tabletop. “Perhaps you didn’t know, but my family owns this place.”
Scowling—or, she would have scowled if her features weren’t frozen in a perpetual look of contempt—Brenda tossed her napkin on the table. She patted her too-pretty-to-be-her-natural-color silver bob. Her hazel eyes were more green than brown, her eyebrows thin and shaped into the perfect arch. “I’ll leave, then.”
As she made to rise, Noelle whipped out an arm and grabbed hold of her wrist, jerking her back down, unconcerned by any brittleness she might have in her bones. Or, you know, initiating contact with one of the undead. “You’ll stay there, or I’ll do more than carve my name in your face. I’ll bend you over the table and carve it in your fucking ass,” she said in a sweet tone of voice. She even smiled. “This is a murder investigation, and you will help us.”
Plastic-looking skin became chalk white. But when Brenda spoke, her voice was strong, dripping with vinegar. “Do you talk to your own mother with that filthy mouth?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. My mouth is a lot filthier when I talk to her.”
Hector’s lips quirked at the corners, his dimples revealed one moment, gone the next.
Noelle’s heart skipped a beat. Have to stop noticing things like that.
With her free hand, Brenda grabbed her napkin and slammed the material back into her lap. “Fine.” Fury must have been smoldering inside her, because her frail body vibrated like a volcano ready to erupt. “But this is the last time I shall ever visit this establishment.”
“Oh, no. Hector, do you have a tissue to mop up my tears?” Noelle released the woman and reclined in her seat.
“Please don’t forget to tell her I dropped the F-bomb, abused my family’s good name, and—I know this hasn’t happened yet, but it will—danced on the tables. I can have Timmy write everything down if you think you’ll forget.”
Hector spoke up for the first time since sitting down. “Talk about her like that again, and I’ll haul your ass into lockup on so many charges your attorney will be filing motions to dismiss for a year.”
Noelle’s eyes widened. He’d just defended her. Hardass Hector who let nothing and no one bother him had just defended her.
Damn it, he was giving her whiplash with his personality changes.
“Now then,” she said after clearing her throat. “What did Agent Smith ask you? And what were your answers?”
“Shouldn’t you know that already?” Brenda huffed.
A beat of silence, a shake of her silver head. “He asked if Bobby had mentioned what he’d been working on lately. I said no. He asked if Bobby was dating anyone. I said yes, a filthy piece of gold-digging trash. He asked if I knew where the girl was. I said yes, Bobby’s home, since they were living together. And that was it, the entire conversation.”
Details they’d already possessed, but now the murderer knew them, too. And Noelle was now confident the caller was the murderer, and edging toward confident that the sex ring was at the center of everything.
“You had dinner with Bobby the night of his murder,” Hector stated. “What did the two of you discuss? Besides your new daughter-in-law.”
“She is not my daughter-in-law.” Brenda lifted her wineglass, sipped. “But if you must know …”
“Nothing. First thing he did was introduce me to the girl, as if I would support his choice. As if I would accept her, an alien.”
Prejudiced bitch. Though Noelle had spent some time with Bobby, she’d had no idea his family-life was as harsh and unforgiving as hers. She could just imagine what the old bat had put Bobby through in his too-short life. The negative comments, the conditional love. If there had been any love at all.
Perhaps their mothers had been separated at birth. “Did Bobby mention where he met Margarete?” Hector asked.
“No.” An uncaring shrug. “But then, I didn’t care to know. I told him to marry that sweet Kerry Jones and finally give me a grandchild. He declined.”
“A travesty. I’m sure you would have been as maternal a grandmother as you were a mother,” Noelle said dryly.
“Yes,” Brenda said, deadpan, clearly unused to sarcasm.
“Did you hate your son?” Maybe she was asking for the case, or maybe she was asking because Brenda’s answer would mirror her own mother’s, and she was curious.
Another shrug. “I hated what he was doing with his life.”
Expected, but still disappointing. “Enough to kill him?”
“At times.” Brenda finished off her wine. “Does my answer surprise you? Well, it shouldn’t. He was an embarrassment, Miss Tremain, and he did the things he did just to strike at me.”
Yeah. That was why.
I won’t look at him. I won’t be thrilled about his ferocity.
Brenda paid him no heed. “I’m sure your own mother understands my predicament.”
“Bobby was in love with an otherworlder, Miz Marks. He wasn’t a murderer or a drug addict or a child molester.” She purposely omitted the part about his as yet unproven participation in otherworlder slavery. “What did you have to be embarrassed about?”
Haughty chin lifted, Brenda said, “A child is a reflection of his parents. So what did I have to be embarrassed about? Everything. But did I kill him? No. He cut me a check every month, paid my bills, whatever they happened to be. If I were capable of murder, I would have gotten rid of the alien.” As she spoke, a vein pulsed in her forehead.
Bitch was too kind a word for her.
“Now you have access to his entire fortune,” Hector said. “He left everything to you.”
A cruel smile flashed, the edges dripping with relish. “I know. And do you know the first thing I plan to do when his home is signed over to me? Take out the trash.”
The direction of Noelle’s thoughts changed. From forcing herself not to ponder Hector’s appeal to forcing herself not to kill the woman in front of her. “Speaking of the house, what time did you leave the night of your dinner?”
“And your home is within walking distance of Bobby’s?” Hector asked.
Afraid of the dark? Or of the thousands of people who would have loved to gut her and leave her bleeding on a sidewalk? Either way, Noelle knew Hector planned to check the security feed from the neighborhood and see if the timelines added up.
The waiter arrived with the tray of food Noelle had ordered, but before he could place a single plate on the table, she said, “Box it up for us, Timmy, and have it carried to our car.” No way she could spend another second with her mother’s doppelganger. Their questions had been answered. Time to bail.
“Oh, and add a couple slices of cheesecake to the order before putting everything on Mrs. Marks’s bill.”
Brenda hissed, tried to protest, but Timmy had already hurried off, the delicious-smelling goodies disappearing with him.
Noelle’s stomach rumbled as she pushed to her feet. Hector stood as well, and she moved to his side. Her four-inch heels made her taller than ever, but still he towered over her.
“Thanks for everything,” she said. One little slice across the woman’s throat wouldn’t be so bad, would it? “We really appreciate the conversation and the meal.”
The old bat was still floundering to form a protest as Noelle and Hector stalked away.
HECTOR HUNG UP THE phone and forked another bite of smoked salmon into his mouth. He chewed, all the while watching Noelle. Trying to pretend he wasn’t aroused by her, that he wasn’t remembering every detail he’d confessed about his past.
His desk created a barrier between them, the food she’d ordered stacked on top of his files, equipment, weapon case, weapon cleaning case, and spread out like a picnic.
“Who was that?” she asked. She looked around, clearly trying to decide what to pick, finally settled on the dessert, and lifted its box and a fork. She snuggled back in her chair, crossing her legs and revealing her shoes.
And hell, they were bondage lingerie for her feet. Open toed, with diamonds encrusted on the strap around her ankles. Her hair was unbound, flowing down her shoulders, and just a bit mussed.
That white blouse she wore V’d so deeply he was always surprised she didn’t flash him when she moved. He’d had her lithe body under him, had sucked on her pert little nipples.
“Hector,” she prompted. “My breasts adore the attention, but if you don’t stop staring, my ass will have to file a complaint. It deserves notice, too, you know.”
A flippant tone, but he detected a note of sadness. His gaze snapped up to her face as his cheeks heated. Can’t have her. You fucking can’t have her. But oh, the things she said. Her mouth aroused him as much as her body.
Her mouth … which she’d once wrapped around his cock …
Shit. He buckled down and concentrated on the case before his arms started acting up. “That was Mia. A few new developments. First, the pin you mentioned before, the one that wipes footprints. They found it.”
His chest constricted. “Second, the witness is now detoxed and has been questioned. He says he never saw the Arcadian’s face, that the otherworlder always had his back to him, but he helped with a sketch of the shooter and the guy who handed him the gun. Those are being emailed to us right now, as well as being run through the database.” Every criminal ID was stored there.
Suddenly all business, Noelle whipped out her phone, pressed a few buttons, and frowned. “Are you kidding me? The sketch of the shooter is a cartoon superhero.”
Hector pulled up the sketches on his computer screen. Shooter had blond, wind-blown hair, his face blurred out. And he wore a suit so embellished with muscle ridges and color, the witness had to have been smoking crack when he—
Yeah. Okay. He had been.
The second sketch showed a hard, harsh face. Dirty, grungy. Dark hair, high forehead. Narrow eyes. Nose with a bump in the center. Wide cheekbones, a square chin. The kind of face kids probably saw in their nightmares.
This one was usable, at least.
“Seems surreal, having evidence finally fall into our hands,” Noelle said. “Should we give the non-cartoon sketch to the media? Someone might recognize him.”
“I’d rather wait. I’m too afraid Shooter will cut and run. And if he runs, we won’t find him. He’s managed to hide this long without even trying. He puts any real effort into it, and our case is cold.”
“You’re thinking like a poor man. If Shooter is rich and powerful, and judging by those gold coin buttons on his superhero suit, I’d say he is, he won’t want to start over. He’s killed to protect his empire, or whatever it is, and he’ll kill again rather than leave.”
Hector didn’t take offense to her “poor man” comment. To her, he was poor. And she was right. “If Shooter is willing to kill again, he might just kill Bruiser the moment the sketch goes live to keep us from finding and questioning him.”
“True.” A moment passed as she pondered their options, her face scrunching adorably. “What about leaking word that we’ve got the witness? We can use him as bait as we talked about with Dallas and catch whoever comes for him red-handed.”