When Melanie and Jessica arrived at Melanie’s apartment, Melanie had to fight off reporters and threaten many heinous acts in order to get inside. After the clamor was done, Melanie solemnly led her friend up to the elevator. Melanie yawned as she pulled out the keys to her apartment. Fatigue was descending. The coffee was not working anymore.
Once they were in her apartment, Melanie ordered Jessica into the shower and out of the little black dress she’d been wearing since last night. Melanie waited in the kitchen for Jessica to return, leaning against the counter with a mug of tea. She sipped, mind whirling, and wished for serenity and sleep. One would not come without the other.
While in the shower, Jessica took advantage of her privacy to finally let her emotions loose. As water dripped down her face, tears mingled with it. She thought of her husband, their moments together, both private and public. She remembered the last fight they’d had over Miyori Arashi and him storming into Belvidere’s like an angry bull, nearly flattening the young Japanese model.
Could he have done this? Jessica mused, mind fuzzy with fatigue and sadness. No, Miyori Arashi had a temper, but he was very controlled individual. He had understood Oswald’s jealousy. He told her so. He was her friend; he wouldn’t lie to her to save his life. And he wasn’t capable of killing another.
Or was he?
Mixed up beyond comprehension, Jessica sank to the floor of the bathtub and sat, knees up to her chest, forehead on her knees. She didn’t know who did this to the man she loved, but she was going to find out. The police had their investigation, yes, but she would have her own. She knew that justice had to be served that way.
But she felt so shocked, so lost. She wanted so badly to keep that promise, but she wasn’t sure where she’d find the strength. She was so…tired. She wanted to sleep the nightmare away until she had Oswald back.
When the water turned cold enough to shock Jessica from her despondent thoughts, she turned the taps off and reached out for the towel Melanie had left for her. She dried off and grabbed another for her hair. When she emerged from the bathroom, the cool air raised goosebumps on her skin and she dressed hurriedly to ward off the chill. Melanie had left out a night shirt and some underwear that she hadn’t worn yet. That being done, Jessica drifted to the living room, and Melanie emerged from the kitchen.
“You ought to sleep,” Melanie said when Jessica plopped down on the couch.
Jessica shook her head. “I can’t sleep.”
“You haven’t tried.” Melanie came closer and offered her a mug of tea. “I would be much happier if you tried.” She peered at Jessica. “You look like you need to sleep, Jessica. I’ve got some Benadryl in my medicine cabinet. Non-habit forming.”
Jessica shook her head wordlessly and sipped her tea. When the buzzer sounded, Melanie groaned. Jessica nursed her tea and pulled the blanket a little tighter around her legs. Melanie left the room to go answer the door.
Melanie appeared again, followed by three young women. The first Jessica recognized as Megami Takumi Hill, Miyori Arashi’s roommate and Melanie’s friend. The spiky-haired blonde and her raven-haired, wide-eyed counterpart were unfamiliar. Though the raven-haired woman did seem to wiggle something from her tired brain…
“We came as soon as we heard,” the blonde was saying. “I figured since you worked for him, you would have found out by now. I hope we’re not…” She trailed off when she saw Jessica sitting on the couch, brown eyes luminous. Suddenly, the well for words dried up.
“If you’re going to talk about me,” Jessica began, “you might as well say it in front of me. It would be better than spreading a rumor.”
The blonde’s deep cornflower blue eyes cooled. The raven-haired woman placed a hand on her arm. “Sam,” she murmured, and the blonde turned away some. The raven-haired woman turned to Jessica. “We’re sorry to bother you. We could come back later.”
Melanie was about to usher them away, but Jessica raised a hand. “No, it’s okay.” She sighed. “I think I need to be around people right now.”
With a big sigh, Megami collapsed to the couch next to Jessica. “Well, you know we’re here for you.” She took the blonde’s free hand. “Do you need anything?”
In a tremulous voice, Jessica responded, “My husband.” Megami placed her dark head on Jessica’s shoulder as tears melted her brown eyes. The spiky-haired blonde looked distinctly uncomfortable. The raven-haired woman swallowed a lump in her throat.
“Oh, Jess.” Megami sniffled. She was a sympathetic crier. “I’m so sorry. This is so sad…”
“I think we should go,” the raven-haired woman repeated. “This is not a good time for us to be here.” But she stepped forward, looking solemn. “We’re sorry for your loss.”
Jessica nodded wordlessly. Melanie placed her hand on the raven-haired woman’s shoulder. “Thanks for coming, Gretchen, Samantha. I appreciate your concern.”
“Well…” Samantha still looked distinctly uneasy. “That’s what friends are for.”
The duo said goodbye to Melanie, and she followed them to the door to let them out. Megami patted Jessica’s hand reassuringly as the seconds ticked by. Jessica’s eyebrows furrowed as her over-taxed mind worked against her will.
A thought flashed through the cobwebs in Jessica’s head and her head came up from resting on Megami’s.
“Wait.” Samantha and Gretchen paused, and turned. A long moment passed as she assessed Gretchen’s face. “Did you know my husband?”
Gretchen’s face shifted. She shook her head. “No, I didn’t. I mean, not personally. Everyone knew of him.” She frowned. “Did you think I knew him?”
Examining Gretchen’s face, Jessica shook her head. “For a moment, but I’m just tired. I really must get some sleep.”
* * *
Several miles away, between Gracia and Los Angeles, a tall raven-haired woman parked a black sports car in front of a large house.
When she stepped out of the car, a cloud of freesia and insolence, someone came and parked the car in a safer place. She rang the doorbell as if she were visiting a friend’s home. She stared forward and endured a retina scan. She waited to speak until after she was greeted.
“Welcome to Tricorn Palace, Miss Thomas,” an automated voice droned.
“Thank you,” she said, and her voice further confirmed her identity. The doors opened, and she stepped inside.
In the grand foyer of the so-called Tricorn Palace, the black-clad majordomo in front of the polished wood staircase greeted her with a silent nod. The woman made her way down the hall past the stairs to the secret door that would take her where she needed to be. At work.
She placed her hand on the wall. This time, she waited through a fingerprint scan, and when it was complete, the wall slid away to display a flight of stairs. Once she had descended the stairs, she came to a room completely in black.
The black room had three occupants, all men. She felt the stares of her partners with a growing sense of irritation. The other man, as she knew from experience, was in the chair that was at the moment not facing her. She could not tell how he felt, but she could tell that her two associates were somber.
She came up between her two associates’ chairs and stood silently for a moment. She did not take her chair.
The leather chair behind the grand desk swiveled around, its occupant solemn as well. Fingers entwined, the man nodded to her chair, and she finally took it.
“I am sure that the three of you have heard about the death of Oswald Keene this morning,” the man began. He took the time to stare at them, in their eyes, equally. The measuring look assured him that his agents were still strong at heart, but disappointed. He was not overly surprised, but he was not one to coddle. Work was to be done.
“We still have the task of protecting his widow,” he continued, watching the trio consider that, weigh possibilities. “Even though we essentially have failed at what we set out to do, we still have to ensure the survival of Jessica Simpson Keene.” His black-eyed gaze shifted to the woman. “I understand you made contact last night before the incident.” The way he looked at her only allowed her to answer in the affirmative, nothing more. “And I also understand you confronted his killer.”
“I had an unfortunate encounter with Keene’s murderer,” she confirmed. “At the time, I was confined to a tight black dress and heels, so I could not catch him.”
“Or her,” the one on her left supplied.
“It was a male,” she said pointedly. Her brown-eyed partner slightly backed away. “I could smell cologne, but I couldn’t place it.”
“Give it time, sugar lump,” said the one on her right. “You’ll figure it out. You like to figure us blokes out.”
She sent a glare to her right that would have melted glass. Her green-eyed partner just looked at her serenely. She wanted to maim him.
“Calm down,” the man said, and her anger cooled. Slightly. “But that does give us an unexpected advantage in this scenario. We have some way of identification, even if it is superficial.”
“I will make use of it, Arashi-sama,” the woman assured him.
“You had better.” Arashi turned to her brown-eyed counterpart. “I believe it’s time for you to make contact with Mrs. Keene. She needs to meet you, and trust you in order for this to work.”
He nodded, considering. “How should I introduce myself?”
There was a slight pause, then the woman spoke. “Introduce yourself as my husband. Or married at least. You don’t want to seem like you’re trying to make a move on her. That will turn her off.”
Arashi nodded. “That is a good point. Use that tactic.” He sat back in his chair. “You have three days. Longer than that, and there’s a chance that something bad might happen to Mrs. Keene.” He tilted his chin up in a gesture that meant business. “And that is something we do not want.”