Later on that day, Jessica woke up in Melanie’s bedroom. Judging from the shadows on the walls, it appeared as if sunset was not far off. She looked at a clock and found that it was nearly seven in the evening. She remembered being ordered to sleep at eleven that morning. Groggily, she sat up on one elbow and tried to wake up. But as it often was in these situations, it didn’t take long until she felt like she didn’t want to be awake anymore.
She was still dressed in the shirt that she had donned that morning after her shower. Feeling grossly underdressed, she rose from the bed and walked to the closet only to trip over a duffel bag.
She ungracefully fell flat on her face.
Jessica was so awesomely stunned that she just laid there for a few moments, unable to comprehend that she just tripped onto her face. It just made the day just that more wonderful.
Melanie burst into the room, a sponge in one hand and a spray bottle in the other. Her worried eyes scanned the room and widened when they found Jessica on the floor.
She exhaled and threw the spray bottle and sponge on her own bed. She helped Jessica to her feet. Jessica blinked when Melanie smoothed out her hair.
“You had a cowlick,” Melanie explained.
“Oh.” Jessica stepped away from her amending hands and toward the door. Melanie went to retrieve the spray bottle and the sponge. “Has anything happened since I went to sleep?”
If Jessica hadn’t had her back turned to Melanie when she had asked that question, she would have seen Melanie’s face pale. When Melanie didn’t reply promptly, Jessica turned around to face her.
At a loss for words, Melanie led Jessica out of her bedroom and into the living room. Jessica had the feeling that Melanie knew something she didn’t, but only sputtered when she tried to speak.
After Melanie had settled Jessica on the couch, she paused for a second as if she had something to say but could not say it.
“Melanie,” Jessica repeated. This time her voice was insistent. “Please don’t keep this from me. Tell me what it is.”
As if she were tearing off a stubborn band-aid, Melanie responded quickly, “Natasha has taken over the house.”
Natasha. The house. Jessica was dimly reminded of the palace that she had shared with Oswald before yesterday night’s events. The police had barred her from it, citing that it was a crime scene. That she understood, because the murder of her husband had been a crime. But now, Natasha had monopolized it? What was the sense in that?
“How?” Jessica said aloud. “I’m his legal wife. She can’t—”
“For the moment, she can.” Melanie swallowed and placed her cleaning supplies aside. “They can’t find the will, Jess. His most updated will before you gives Natasha power over everything. Adelaide doesn’t even get half. So now Natasha’s taken over everything, and she’s got a court order that bans you from the house even after the police are done with it.”
A long silence followed. Jessica’s face crumpled a little, then hardened again. Melanie was distantly relieved that Jessica still had some fire in her.
“That…that!” Jessica angrily banged the couch with a fist and growled. “She has no right to keep me from my home. I was his wife! I was his wife, dammit!” The exclamation ended with a sob, and Melanie sat down to comfort her friend.
Melanie felt her anger, and empathized with it. Natasha Finch was a greedy woman, and she never liked Jessica to begin with. Of course, Jessica was Oswald’s youngest and most beloved wife, and Natasha harbored ill feelings about that. Adelaide didn’t seem to feel one way or the other about Jessica since she and Oswald had parted ways amicably. The divorce from Natasha had left a nasty smear on Oswald’s reputation, primarily because she had the ultimate leverage: Elizabeth.
Melanie had pleaded with Elizabeth to reason with Natasha while Jessica was sleeping. No call had come from her yet.
At the moment, Melanie knew that Jessica had to get away from the situation, if that was at all possible. Inhaling, she suggested that they go get something to eat. Despite Jessica’s reluctance, Melanie insisted that food would be the best at the moment. She plotted possible outfits, adjoining accessories and so forth. It was then that Jessica dimly realized that duffel she had tripped over had been hers. All she had of her belongings.
“I’m not hungry,” Jessica repeated.
Melanie shook her head. “I don’t care. You need to eat, whether you like it or not.” She urged Jessica from the couch. “Come on now, and get some clothes on. You’re eating, even if I have to stuff it down your throat.”
* * *
They walked to the Moon Spot because it was close by. September was still comfortably cool, so Melanie and Jessica wore jeans and tank tops. The duo didn’t speak as they strolled along Gracia Row. Jessica glanced at her friend sidelong, then down at her feet. She was still reeling from Natasha’s latest stunt, so she didn’t know what to say. So she remained silent, letting the sounds of the Row flow over their quiet.
Melanie looked up and smiled when she spotted two familiar faces. “Gretchen! Samantha!”
Jessica turned as the two women came walking toward them. Samantha definitely led, her tall, lithe body clad in frayed jeans and a jade green top. On her feet were black boots that made her look tough and intimidating. Gretchen, meanwhile, was a little less brash, but certainly eye-popping in a lime-green striped-print hoodie over a lavender shirt and dark blue jeans. Her long black hair was pulled into pigtails tied with lime-green ribbons, and there was a lavender streak in her hair to match the lavender camisole she wore.
“Hey you two,” Gretchen greeted them. Samantha said nothing, just appeared slightly wary. She looked to Jessica.” You doing alright?”
Before Jessica could reply, Melanie remarked, “It’s probably not best to ask about that at the moment.”
While Gretchen just nodded, understanding, Samantha spoke. “We heard about the ex,” she said plainly. “She’s a stone-cold bitch.”
As Jessica’s eyes clouded over, Gretchen said jokingly, “We can find her and kick her snobby ass for you. Free of charge.”
“We’ll even tie her up and stuff her into a cabinet or something,” Samantha offered. “Just for kicks.”
Imagining Gretchen and Samantha beating the tidy and snooty Natasha up and stuffing her in a small, dark space made Jessica giggle.
She couldn’t stop herself before it was out in the air among them: the snort.
Jessica reddened, and stopped laughing.
There was an uncomfortable silence, then Melanie cleared her throat.
“Um, we’re about to go in the Moon Spot,” Melanie told Gretchen and Samantha. “You guys doing anything?”
“No,” Gretchen replied. “We were just about to go in ourselves. But Sam here forgot her money in the car, and she’s paying.”
“Lose another bet, did we?”
Samantha crossed her arms over her chest. “How the hell was I supposed to know that hair spray was flammable?”
Melanie choked back a laugh. Jessica covered her mouth to conceal a smile. “I don’t even want to know,” Melanie remarked, knowing Samantha, Gretchen, and their strange experiments all too well. She touched Jessica’s arm. “Let’s go get a booth.” She waved to Samantha and Gretchen. “See you two inside.”
They said their goodbyes, and Jessica sauntered to the restaurant with Melanie, a little glad she came out.
A shot rang out, shattering all peace and calm and mirth.
Things happened almost quicker than Jessica could blink. Somewhere, somebody screamed. The bullet pinged off of the lamppost near Jessica. Melanie, Gretchen, and Samantha dove for the ground. Jessica, immobilized with shock, was rooted in place. Her eyes shifted left, and she saw a dark-clad guy with a ponytail…and a gun.
Before she could move, another shot rang out, and someone was tackling her to the ground.
People scrambled for cover, for safety, turning Gracia Row into a melee. Jessica was aware of the feet pounding on concrete and the high-pitched keening of police sirens, as her eyes were closed. She could feel the beginnings of a nasty scrape on her elbow and a headache at the base of her skull. Gingerly, she lifted her lids and nearly gasped.
He was some inches taller than she was. Underneath the brim of the baseball cap that hadn’t come loose in the melee were sizzling green eyes full of fervor and concern. Feeling the discomfort of being flattened, Jessica placed a hand on the mysterious guy’s shoulder, preparing to push him off of her.
“Are you alright?” His voice was warm amid the cold, shrill sounds of bedlam around them. Smooth in the cacophony of noise. For one long moment, she didn’t know what to say or do because she was fascinated by this mystery man.
Suddenly, Melanie’s voice cut through the fog. “Jess!” she called frantically. “Jess, where are you?”
She got her wits back. “Thanks for saving my life,” Jessica said hurriedly, “but I have to go. My friends will be worried about me.”
He nodded, not willing to argue. That sort of confused her. She didn’t know why. “Yes, go, and let them protect you.” He glanced down at her right elbow. “And get someone to clean that up.”
Before Jessica could get his name or ask him how she knew him, he darted into the fray and disappeared. A police cruiser pulled up to the curb, followed then by others. Jessica stared off into space as an officer with short brown hair came up to her to make sure she was alright.
It took a quick shake to get Jessica out of her reverie. She blinked furiously, then the officer helped her to her feet smoothly. Her knees were still a little shaky from the last dregs of fear that hadn’t drained out of her system. It took a few moments before she could stand up straight. But even then, the officer led her to the cruiser and opened the door. Meanwhile, uniforms interviewed witnesses, took notes. The short-haired guy produced a blanket and a first-aid kit. Melanie rushed over after her elbow was wrapped and her bare shoulders covered.
Melanie placed warm hands on Jessica’s covered shoulders. “Are you okay?”
“She’s okay. Just a bit shocky,” the officer said. He turned to Jessica. “You ready to make a statement, darlin’?”
Melanie started to protest, but Jessica rose. “No, Mel, it’s okay. I…” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “I need to tell him what I saw, even if it doesn’t help.”
* * *
When Christopher Parker was upset or angry as an adolescent growing up on the streets of London, he went for his guitar.
Unfortunately, he lacked the possession of his stress reliever for the moment, so had to rely on the other man on the other side of his cell phone.
The line was secure, so he could curse his face blue and complain all he wanted. Which was what he did, in the front seat of his company car, a black Nissan 350Z. Jessica had been whisked back to Melanie’s apartment after the police questioned her, and under Chris’s watchful eye, no one followed.
“Calm down, mate,” said the voice on the other line. “Getting all worked up is not going to help matters. The good thing is that you were in the right place at the right time.”
Chris was not pacified by this. At this rate, it would probably take electric shock treatment to pacify him. “The bloody hell I was. And what if I wasn’t? Jessica would be in a pool of her own blood, and some fucking greedy masochist dipshit would be rolling in glory and greenbacks.”
“Duly noted, Chris.” His counterpart’s voice was still calm and smooth. “But the point is to remember that didn’t happen. And it would better for us if we knew exactly who would benefit from Jessica’s death.”
Chris reached behind the steering wheel and turned on the car. “Just about that whole fucking family. If Nicholas Groaden marries Elizabeth Keene, then he’s got a hand in the pot. Natasha Finch and Adelaide Meyer are both wealthy by marriage. He’s been giving them alimony for years. Who isn’t to say they both did this for the money? And his daughter? That bloke Groaden could be brainwashing her or some shit like that.”
There was a sigh after that particular statement. “We will keep those possibilities in mind. At the moment, we need to start with the situation at hand. Did you see anything strange before Jessica was shot at?”
Deflating some, Chris exhaled and pulled out into evening traffic. “No, I didn’t.” He shook his head. “I…I wasn’t watching well enough.”
“I don’t believe that. You had to have seen something, Chris. You’re sharper than that.”
Considering that, Chris paused thoughtfully. He remembered standing by the Moon Spot, his eye on Melanie, Jessica, and the two unknowns. The raven-haired one with the lavender streak got Jessica to smile…
Idiot. Don’t get personal. You’re a bloody buggering idiot if you do that. Shut it out. Keep to the facts. Okay. So then Melanie and Jessica were about to go into the Moon Spot when…
“A guy with a ponytail and an earring,” Chris murmured. “He came out from the alley, very smooth-like. If I had noticed him, then I would have shot at him.”
“Yes,” the voice prompted. “I told you you’d remember something. You’re not an idiot.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Johnny,” Chris said wryly. “But that means we have to move on Jessica soon. Whoever wants her dead probably is going to strike again.”
“And so,” the voice said, “we will work that into our plans. But for right now, we hang back and keep an eye on Jessica. We’d be failing if we didn’t.”
* * *
When they got to Melanie’s apartment sometime later, Jessica went for the hard liquor.
Melanie could only watch in shock as Jessica carried a shot glass and a bottle of whiskey she kept in the back of one of her cabinets for adventurous nights. The bottle was six months old, and still nearly full, if that said anything.
Jessica slammed the glass and the bottle on the coffee table. She uncapped the bottle and poured a little in the shot glass.
“Jessica,” Melanie began in disbelief, “what the hell are you doing?”
Jessica upended the shot glass in her mouth and swallowed. The expression on her face indicated that it was not easy going down.
“What does it look like?” Jessica snapped. “My husband’s dead, his greedy ex-wife is trying to keep me from my own house, and someone’s trying to kill me, too. So I’m gonna drink myself stupid.” She made the face again. “But I think I’ll go for something fruity.”
Melanie strode over to the coffee table and snatched the bottle up. Jessica stared up at her in indignation.
“You are not getting shit-faced,” Melanie told her.
“Damn right I am,” Jessica disagreed, and rose to take the bottle from her.
“No you’re not. And how the hell do you know those shots were for you? They could have been for anyone.” Jessica slumped down on the couch again. “Jessica, you really need to calm down—”
“The shooter saw me, okay?” Jessica interrupted. Melanie froze, brown eyes wide. Her mocha face was as pale as it could get. “He saw me, and then he shot at me.” Melanie lowered herself to the couch as her knees slowly gave out on her. “That second shot wasn’t close on accident. He was aiming for me. And he would have shot me if I hadn’t been tackled to the ground.”
Melanie sat there quietly, her mind whirring. Jessica could not read her mind, but she knew that the intelligent African-American woman was working it out in her head. And eventually she would come to the same conclusion that Jessica did.
The buzzer sounded, and Melanie distractedly rose from the couch and walked to the door. She left the whiskey and the shot glass.
Seeing opportunity in front of her, Jessica grabbed the bottle and uncapped it again. She poured a couple of fingers and recapped the bottle. She lifted the glass to down it in one swallow but a swift hand took it from her before she could.
She looked up in indignation and found Samantha Dunne standing over her. She downed the whiskey without as much as a wince.
“Damn, I needed that,” Samantha remarked thickly, and gave the shot glass back to Jessica.
Jessica stared at it incredulously, then back to Samantha. “And what about me?”
“We’ll get you a Cosmo later,” Samantha promised. She took a seat on Melanie’s loveseat and feigned confusion. “You are legal, aren’t you?”
Gretchen slapped her across the shoulder. “Sam, shut up. It’s been enough of a rough night without you teasing Jessica.” She sighed heavily and sat down next to Jessica. “You’ll have to excuse Samantha. Getting shot at brings out her sarcastic side.”
The buzzer sounded once again. This time, it was Megami.
As soon as Megami came through the doorway of the living room, she all but collapsed on Jessica’s lap. Jessica’s eyes went wide. Melanie re-entered the room and sighed in exasperation.
“Megami,” Melanie said in a scolding tone. “She’s intact. Will you back off?”
Megami and Jessica’s friendship hadn’t lasted as long as hers with Melanie, but the vivacious Megami had bonded faster with Jessica through their love of fashion. Melanie, who was a fervent feminist, would have been mortified at the thought of coveting a Gucci purse.
Megami sighed and sat on the couch instead. Her long black hair was mussed a bit, as if she had dressed in a hurry. Much to the others’ surprise, she placed her head in her hands.
“It’s been a stressful day,” Megami told everyone. “The police came by and talked to Miyori.” Jessica sat up straight at the sound of the name. “He was expecting it, but it still made him upset. I didn’t tell him about this.”
“He’s a suspect?” Melanie inquired.
Megami nodded. “They found out that Jessica dated him. You can follow their line of reasoning well enough.”
But Samantha’s eyes went a little huge. She knew who Miyori Arashi was, but not personally. “You mean Zsa Zsa Gabor over there dated the so-called Japanese Casanova Miyori Arashi?” Her breath whistled in through her teeth, and she shook her head in disbelief. Jessica gave her a glare for the Zsa Zsa comment. “I can’t imagine him wanting to get his pretty hands dirty to kill anyone. It’s not something I can call up in my head. Not from what I’ve seen of him.”
“He’s not a pretty boy,” Jessica insisted.
“Then maybe he did do it then.”
This time Megami leapt to his defense. “Miyori wouldn’t kill anyone.”
“So you say,” Samantha countered. “But we don’t know that, and the police don’t know that for sure. The only thing most of that department knows for sure is the location of the nearest Krispy Kreme.”
Melanie sighed at the sight of the mutinous expressions on Jessica’s and Megami’s faces. “So it’s presumed we can’t trust our local law enforcement.”
“So what am I supposed to do?” Jessica demanded, almost tearfully.
“You need a private dick,” Gretchen suggested.
The others agreed wordlessly, but Jessica blinked and went pale. “A private dick? Are you insane? My husband just died no more than twenty-four hours ago and you’re thinking of sex at a time like this?”
A long, deep silence followed that statement.
Samantha cleared her throat. “Um, Jessica? A private dick is another name for a private investigator.”
“Oh.” Jessica covered her hand with her mouth. “Okay. I guess. I’m sort of clueless at the moment.”
“Hey,” Gretchen said affably, “we’re all entitled to a blonde moment now and then.”
Samantha glared at her. The look Jessica gave her wasn’t so nice either. She promptly apologized.
“I honestly think we don’t need any help,” Megami declared, breaking the tense moment afterwards. “We can do this ourselves.”
Melanie raised an eyebrow. “Oh, so you take the possibility of getting killed lightly?”
Megami stood, arms crossed over her chest. She wasn’t quite as tall as Melanie, she held her ground. “No,” she answered. “But as it is, we might all get killed anyway. We’re in danger by association.” She flicked a glance at Jessica, who was perched on the edge on the couch, watching intently. “I’d rather be killed doing something than doing nothing.”
“Yeah, doing something stupid,” Melanie argued. “Incredibly stupid. Don’t you think if someone wants to kill us that we should go to the police or something?”
Considering that the police were stalled on the murder that started it all (and probably over a cheese Danish), the others looked quite reluctant to go to the local law enforcement.
“I’m up for doing something stupid,” Samantha declared. “It’s better than sitting here staring at each other.”