“I didn’t kill Jamie Valentine,” Roxanne Ackerman said for what seemed like the millionth time in the past twenty-four hours. The simple phrase had become her mantra, the only thing anchoring her in the reality she now faced. First degree murder.
The hefty sheriff adjusted the wad of tobacco in his mouth and spat in a Dixie cup stuffed with a paper towel.
“I’m a reporter, not a murderer.”
His sharp gaze dragged over her. His eyes had a languid, hound-dog quality, but Roxanne knew he hadn’t missed a single detail of her appearance: well-worn Doc Marten combat boots, faded cut-offs, and a Chicago Cubs baseball jersey.
He spat again. “You don’t look like any reporter I ever seen.”
“Check my purse. My press pass is in there.”
He checked his watch instead.
“I didn’t even know that guy.”
The sheriff snorted. “I spent three tours of duty in ‘Nam, little lady. You don’t have to know a man before you kill him.” He hoisted his patented leather gun belt and smiled with a lazy superiority that made Roxanne want to scream. In truth, everything that had happened to her since she had taken a wrong turn and entered Mayberry aka, Jefferson County, Tennessee, made her want to scream. Right down to the name of the town. What kind of town had a name with the word “county” in it, anyway?
Roxanne picked up the phone that sat on the table and wishfully pressed the receiver to her ear.
“Won’t do you no good. The phone lines are still down. Lester Voyles was trimming up that big post oak in his front yard and took out the telephone pole right along with it.”
Roxanne slammed down the receiver, ignoring the fact that there was no one she could call anyway. The only person she knew who could cough up fifteen percent of her hundred thousand dollar bond was her father. She’d call the Pope and the President before she’d ask the great Joseph St. John for the money.
She could call Jonas, but the last thing she wanted to do was involve him in another one of her “situations.” It seemed as if he had devoted his entire life to bailing her out of trouble of one kind or another. But never murder.
“Your lawyer will be here in few minutes.” The sound of the iron door closing behind the sheriff punctuated his casual statement.
Roxanne folded her arms on the table and laid her head down. Great. Another Jefferson County attorney. Just what she needed to make her day complete. She doubted this counselor would be any easier to deal with than the prosecutor had been. The state’s attorney had a major comb-over, an ill-fitting polyester suit, and a sleazy smile. Roxanne almost cried when he asked that she be denied bond. But with the amount as high as she received, what was the difference?
She mentally prepared herself to meet her lawyer. According to the sheriff, Malcolm B. Daniels IV was “the best damned attorney the county had to offer.” Like that was saying anything. She hoped he was good, because…well, that particular hope was all she had left. If Daniels was anything like the clowns she had met so far…she could only hope the uniform at the state penitentiary was a flattering color. But it was probably orange. She looked terrible in orange.
With the way her luck was running, Daniels most likely conducted business shirtless, wearing stained overalls and manure-caked boots. He probably gave his closing argument with a piece of hay dangling from the corner of his mouth. And he would be so senile that it would be a miracle if he could even remember her name, much less why they were in court. She needed to face the facts right now. She was going to jail for a very, very, very long time.
She lifted her head and met warm, brown eyes.
The man who had entered her cell was young—figuratively speaking—around thirtysix or thirtyseven and totally gorgeous in a cleancut, conservative sort of way. His thick hair was auburn, his skin tanned a golden brown by the Southern sun. A pair of wirerimmed glasses sat on the bridge of his slightly crooked, though totally Roman nose and seemed to tie together his suspenderwearing, red-paisleypowertieandcrispwhiteshirt image of a politician.
“I’m Malcolm Daniels.”
She shook her head. Her hearing must be slipping away, along with what remained of her sanity.
When she didn’t reply, he continued. “Your counsel.”
Her hope gushed like cheap champagne, and it was a chore to keep her mouth from hanging open. Malcolm Daniels the attorney—her attorney—was handsome, young, and well-dressed. She was saved!
He pulled out the wooden chair opposite her, then sat. “Is something wrong, Miss Ackerman?”
“You’re…you’re wearing a suit.”
“I beg your pardon?” He opened his briefcase and pulled out a yellow legal pad.
A nervous laugh escaped Roxanne. “I’m sorry. Of course you’re wearing a suit. If you weren’t, you’d be naked.” She shook her head. “I mean…you’re not what I expected.”
He turned those incredible brown eyes on her again. “And what did you expect?”
She shrugged. “Someone older.”
“About two hundred and fifty.”
He smiled, and Roxanne noticed he had dimples. Her savior had dimples. And freckles. Tons of charming freckles. “I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
She wasn’t disappointed. Not in the least.
Daniels clicked his pen into the “ready” position. “Would you like to tell me why we’re here today?”
“Omigod,” she said on the rush of relief. Finally someone to listen to her. And he wore a tie and spoke in complete sentences. “You wouldn’t believe.”
“Try me. How about you start at the beginning?”
“Yesterday morning, when I first pulled in to Jefferson County, my car overheated. So I stopped to let Gomer take a look at it.”
“Gomer? Oh, you mean Arley. At the Gas and Stop.”
Roxanne nodded. “We were discussing my car repairs when Deputy Fife pulled up.”
“Deputy Dennis Harlow?”
“He arrests me for murder—murder—and if that’s not bad enough, Sheriff Dillon took my stash of chocolate as state’s evidence!”
“Marshall Dillon?” Daniels shook his head and frowned. “Did we change television programs?”
“Well, Andy Griffith he’s not.”
Daniels scribbled on his legal pad. “I’ll see what I can do about getting your personal effects back. Now the sheriff’s report states that the murder weapon, a .357 Magnum, was found in the floorboard of your car. Is this correct?”
His question took her off guard. She blinked twice. “Well, yeah. But—”
“And you’ve been fingerprinted, and your prints match those on the gun?”
“Do you understand the charges that have been filed against you?”
“‘Yeah, but’ what?”
Roxanne sighed. “I understand there are a lot of them.”
He pulled the police report from his briefcase and read the charges aloud as if he were reciting a Mafia grocery list. “Resisting arrest. Illegal possession of a firearm. Illegal use of a hand gun. Carrying a concealed weapon. Assault with attempt to commit a felony. Assault with a deadly weapon. Attempt to kill a peace officer. And first-degree murder.” His eyes met hers over the top of the paper. “Did I leave out anything?”
“Yes,” she replied in an artificially sweetened tone. “I’ve worn white shoes after Labor Day.”
Daniels didn’t answer. Instead, he made notes on his legal pad.
“Uhum…you didn’t write that down, did you?” She hoped not. This far south, wearing white after Labor Day was probably a capital offense. “Because… I was just kidding. I don’t usually wear anything but these.” She extended one leg and pointed to her chunky black boot. “Bad ankles, you know.”
He looked at said ankle, her leg and then up, and for a moment their eyes held. Roxanne felt the unwelcome, unplanned, and totally unexpected sizzle of awareness.
“As your attorney, I must advise you of the merits of taking a plea bargain.”
Now that ruined the moment. Her foot hit the concrete floor with a thud. “Are you kidding me?”
He shot her a look that said he never kidded about anything. “It could mean the difference between the death penalty and twenty years without parole.”
This was not going well. She had thought she was saved, but it seemed as if an orange jumpsuit was still in her future. “Are you trying to make me feel better? Because if you are, it’s not working.”
“You have to understand your legal position, Miss Ackerman. The gun that shot and killed James Valentine was found in your car—”
“At the very least, I expected my lawyer to believe me, but I can see that I expected too much.”
“—covered with your fingerprints.”
“Of course my fingerprints were on it! I found the friggin’ thing!”
“Miss Ackerman.” Daniels removed his glasses, then calmly wiped them clean with his handkerchief. God, the man actually carried a handkerchief. “Yelling at me is not going to get you out of jail any quicker than cooperating.”
“Yeah? Well, yelling at you feels better than cooperating. I thought you were supposed to help me.”
He took his time re-adjusting his glasses before he met her gaze. “I will.”
“Then do it.”
“Do you want to talk about the charges?”
“What’s there to talk about?” Roxanne leaned back in the hard, wooden chair. “Okay…the resisting arrest is true, but the gun was not concealed; I was holding it. And I didn’t shoot at the deputy; I dropped the gun—after he told me to—and it went off.”
“Deputy Harlow thought you were threatening him.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I hope he doesn’t get paid to think.”
“Miss Ackerman.” Her attorney’s tone held a beat of warning. “Sarcasm is not the answer.”
“Listen, counselor, I take a wrong turn off the interstate and the next thing I know, I’m arrested for murder. Now you tell me I’m on my way to the big house for twenty years. Pardon me if I find it difficult to adhere to inmate etiquette. I’m a little stressed right now.”
A moment of tense silence stretched between them.
“What brought you to Jefferson County, Miss Ackerman?” Daniels’ tone was quiet, near solemn.
“I got lost.”
He quirked one rusty brow.
“Surely you don’t think I’d come here on purpose.”
“It’s happened before.”
“Not this time. I was on my way to Memphis for the anniversary of Elvis’ death. Somewhere around the state line, I spilled orange soda on my map. My car started smoking and now here I am, lost in the Twilight Zone.”
“Listen carefully, Daniels,” she said before he could finish. “I. Did. Not. Kill. Jamie. Valentine.”
“I want to believe you.”
“I don’t care what you want to believe. I didn’t kill anyone. I came to Tennessee to cover a story about a bunch of fat men who enjoy dressing up like a dead rock star—not to kill anybody.”
“If you didn’t kill Valentine, how did the murder weapon get in your car?”
“I don’t know.”
“Roxanne…May I call you Roxanne?” He waited for her nod before he continued. “Roxanne, a jury will not accept that.”
There was something about the way he said her name, like it had three syllables, that sent a tingling feeling skimmering down her spine. Or was it just a touch of scoliosis from sleeping on the lumpy jail mattress?
“You’re the attorney. Make them.”
Daniels dropped his gaze and shifted through the file labeled Ackerman, Roxanne L. “Tell me everything that has happened since you entered Jefferson County.”
Roxanne took a deep breath and propped her elbows on the table in front of her. “Mabel started to smoke just this side of the county line, so I pulled into the Gas and Stop to let her cool down.”
Daniels looked confused, but Roxanne didn’t take the time to explain. Besides, her car wasn’t going to be on trial; she was.
“Since I hadn’t had a break all night, I went to the rest room.”
“Did you lock…Mabel?”
Roxanne shook her head. “Smoke was pouring out from underneath the hood. I didn’t think anyone would be stupid enough to steal her. Besides, she’s a rag top. If someone wants in, it takes one swipe of a switchblade.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, you’re in Tennessee, not Chicago. Things like that don’t happen around here.”
“Sure,” Roxanne said. “A man can be murdered with his own handgun, but no one would dare cut a rag top to steal a car.”
He ignored that. “Did you leave your car alone any time other than when you went to the restroom?”
“I went inside when the attendant called about the part to fix my car.”
“Was there any one else at the Gas and Stop while you were there?”
“We need witnesses.” He paused. “Someone could have planted that gun in your car. You’re positive there was no one else at the Gas and Stop?”
“Just the deputy, but he was never alone with Mabel. Wait. Yes, there was someone else. When I pulled into the station, there was a blue Caddy next to the pumps. It sped away as I came out of the bathroom.” Roxanne sat back in her chair, a satisfied smile stretching across her lips. “The case is solved. All we have to do is find the owner of the Caddy, and we’ll find the murderer.”
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Malcolm leaned back, away from his all too alluring client. “Thank you, Nancy Drew. However the identity of Jamie Valentine’s murderer is not my problem. But, as you’ve so thoughtfully pointed out, clearing you of the charge is.”
The sheriff had warned him that Roxanne Ackerman was a Yankee, smartmouthed and angry. Gus just forgot to tell Malcolm that she was attractive. And intelligent. And headstrong. However, her theory on who planted the gun in her car and consequently who murdered Jamie Valentine had one major downfall: Truman Silverstone owned the Cadillac. No matter how strangely his adoptive father had been acting lately, Malcolm could no more believe the man guilty of murder than he could believe either of them could swim to Mars.
“Let’s back up a little bit,” Malcolm suggested. “When did you first get into town?”
“Yesterday morning. About eight a.m.”
“Perfect. The coroner speculates that Valentine was shot late Wednesday night, before you arrived in Jefferson County. Where were you Wednesday?”
She sighed, and he had to consciously concentrate on the words she said rather than the rise and fall of the Cubbies logo on her shirt. “I was covering a dinner party at the mayor’s mansion.”
“Great. A party means plenty of witnesses to establish your alibi. What time did you leave the party?”
“Around ten o’clock.”
“Then where did you go?”
She shrugged. “I left for Memphis.”
Malcolm studied her over the rim of his glasses. “You didn’t go back by your apartment to get some things? Stop and get a bite to eat? Anything like that?”
She shook her head and her dark, fuzzy braid swung from side to side. “I already had a bag packed. And Mabel was gassed up and ready to go.”
“You spent the night driving.”
“Did anyone see you leave the party?”
“I talked to my editor just before I pulled out.”
“Where can I reach her?”
“I can give you his cell number, but it may be hard to reach him. He’s in Little Rock with a velvet portrait of Elvis that cries when ‘Love Me Tender’ is played.”
Malcolm dropped his ink pen. “Just what kind of publication do you work for?”
She beamed him a bright smile. “I write for I Spy magazine. Ever hear of it?”
Malcolm nodded and recaptured his pen. I Spy was a disreputable rag that people like him—people with a future in the public eye—avoided at all costs.
“I thought you said you had been invited to the mayor’s dinner party.”
She smiled again, that same extra-wattage flash of teeth that had probably opened backdoors all over Chicago. “I said I was at the party. I never said I had been invited.”
“Right. Now about your editor…”
She shook her head. “You can’t call him unless you have a cell phone, which for some reason no one in this godforsaken town seems to have.”
“Why is that?”
“How should I know? Everyone in the free world has a cell but the fine citizens of Jefferson County, Tennessee.”
“Why can’t I call?”
“Oh… some fellow named Lester took out a very important telephone pole with a chainsaw.”
“You mean he’s done this before?”
Malcolm shrugged. “Once or twice.”
“And you guys have me locked up.” Roxanne shook her head. “I’d rather not call Newland if I don’t have to.”
Malcolm nodded. Even for a rag like I Spy getting arrested for murder wouldn’t bode well for job security.
“So what are we going to do?” she asked.
“I won’t lie to you. Your defense is shaky.”
“There you go trying to make me feel better again.”
Her words were mocking, but the hand that rose to tuck back a wayward curl of dark hair trembled. She was scared. She was full of tough talk and sarcasm, but underneath it all, she was afraid. Malcolm found himself wanting to protect her. No, defend her. Not protect her. He was here to defend her, nothing more.
“I didn’t say it was hopeless, just shaky. Now, it’s nearly five hundred miles from Chicago to Tennessee. I presume you stopped for gas along on the way?”
“Yeah, some little station around Carbondale.”
“Did you get a receipt?”
She nodded. “It’s on Mabel’s front seat.”
“What about a GSR test?”
She raised her brows in question.
“Gun Shot Residue test. Did Deputy Harlow swab your hands after he arrested you and brought you back to the station?”
“So that’s what it was for. What does that do?”
“It’ll prove that you didn’t fire the gun that killed Jamie Valentine.”
“Sweet. I oughta be out of here in no time.”
Malcolm shook his head. “I hate to disappoint you, but it takes a week to ten days to get those results back from the lab in Nashville.”
“Not sweet.” She flopped back in her chair, a defeated slump pulling on her shoulders.
He stood and walked toward the door of the cell, trying to put more distance between them, trying to come up with a defense to free her, and needing all the while for her to remain in jail for as long as possible. It was his job to get the charges dropped, and as soon as that happened he was personally escorting her to the county line.
“Are you leaving?”
“I’m going to see if I can find that receipt. If we’re lucky, the clerk will remember you. Then I’m going to talk with the judge, maybe we can work something out about the charges. Can I get you anything?”
She sighed, an I-thought-you’d-never-ask sigh. “A candy bar. Something King Size and chocolate.”
Malcolm bit back a smile. Evidently his new client had a sweet tooth. “I’ll see what I can do. Just wait right here.”
She looked pointedly at the iron bars that surrounded her. “I didn’t think I had a choice.”
The metallic sound of imprisonment followed Malcolm down the short corridor. Deputy Dennis re-locked the cell and for the time being, Roxanne Louise Ackerman wasn’t going anywhere. The thought should have been comforting, but it wasn’t. Malcolm didn’t want her in the Jefferson County Jail. He didn’t want her in Jefferson County period. She was too potentially dangerous. One article printed in that rag she worked for, and he could kiss a lifetime of carefully laid plans goodbye. Right now, the jailhouse was the safest place for her. At least, as far as he and Truman were concerned.
Malcolm didn’t believe for a minute that Roxanne had anything to do with the murder of Jamie Valentine, nor did he believe that she was lost. She came to Jefferson County for a story, and it had nothing to do with the King of Rock and Roll. She was nearly a hundred miles east of Memphis. No one got that “lost” on accident.
The Silverstones were the Kennedys of the South, and Malcolm had a sinking suspicion that the sexy reporter had come to dig up some dirt. His background was blemish-free, but with his bid for the US Senate next year, he knew he couldn’t be too careful. After all, if her editor could cover a weeping portrait of Elvis, who said her story had to be true? As long as she was incarcerated, Malcolm could keep an eye on her. But the sheriff couldn’t hold her in jail until Malcolm could find out what was bothering Truman, and if it had anything to do with the reporter’s appearance.
And if she made bond, who knew what would happen.
“What’s the scoop on her, Malcolm, my boy?”
At the sheriff’s words, he turned, for the first time aware that he had been standing in the narrow gray hallway, staring into space. “She says she didn’t do it.”
The sheriff hoisted up his ever-slipping gun belt and smiled his grimacing, ex-Marine smile. “They all say that.”
“She also said that you took away her personal effects.”
“Just following the books.”
“Now that’s a first. Why all this sudden interest in procedure? Could it be because she’s a Yankee?”
The budding law of Jefferson County and the arresting officer of Roxanne Ackerman, Deputy Dennis Harlow, sauntered up. He was tall and thin and eager. Too eager. “County manual page eight, section ten, paragraph four. ‘All personal items should be taken from the prisoner and held on the authority of the county until the release of said prisoner.’”
Malcolm ignored the young man and instead focused his attention on the sheriff. “Gus, give me her things. Namely her chocolate. I have a feeling she’ll be much easier to deal with after a dose of sugar.”
“‘Personal items will be returned to the prisoner at the time of their release,’” Deputy Dennis quoted. “County manual page eight, section ten, paragraph five.”
Sheriff Harlow smiled with apparent pride at his son’s knowledge of the law. “That was one big bag of candy. I’d be careful if I were you, Malcolm. Never trust a woman who eats too many sweets.”
Malcolm tried to keep an impassive face over the sheriff’s twisted philosophy. Mrs. Harlow had left with a traveling salesman when Dennis was only two. Since then, Gus had been giving advice and telling anyone within earshot what kind of woman not to trust. “I’m going upstairs to talk to Hurley. When I come back down, I want that candy.”
The sheriff continued to smile. “By the by, I saw Davies at the bait shop. He and the judge are headin’ up to Missouri this afternoon. He said you could call him Monday if you want to talk about a plea bargain, but he won’t be in until then.”
“I can’t call him. The phone lines are down.”
“Awh, they’ll have those back up in no time.”
And as soon as they did, Roxanne could post bail. Then she’d be free to roam Jefferson County, digging up things that might be better left buried.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Malcolm muttered to himself. “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”