Checkdown - A Battle Red Blog Mystery (Chapter Twelve) (Edited)

The following is, from start to finish, a work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to persons alive and/or dead are purely coincidental, so please don't sue me (because I own nothing of value); unless, of course, it's a reference to someone here on BRB, in which case REALLY don't sue me.

Also, if you want to read Checkdown from the very beginning, there is a new section heading on Battle Red Blog called, oddly enough, "Checkdown." It can be found under the sections tab on the upper left hand side of the main page. Enjoy!

Chapter Twelve - Just When He Thought He Was Out...

Irony. That was the only word that popped into Scott's mind when he saw her standing in the doorway. He had spent untold hours trying to track down Julia Quinn earlier in the week and she had given him the slip. He thought he'd never get a chance to see her without risking additional broken bones, let alone question her. Cruel irony, he thought. Now that Nash's murder was a matter of public record, Julia had finally decided to crawl out of the woodwork.

Unlike the last time he had seen her, Julia looked like she would have fit in at any professional office building. She wore a flowing, low-cut purple dress which shimmered as she took another step into Scott's office. Dark circles surrounded her normally bright, emerald eyes. Scott wondered how long it had been since she'd slept.

"Are you going to make me stand here all day?" she asked impatiently.

Scott gestured toward the only seat in his minuscule office. As she sat, Diego craned his neck around the door jamb, gaping awkwardly at her. Julia covered the side of her face with her hand to avoid meeting his gaze.

Diego sent a pleading look at Scott, who glared stonily at him. Scott jerked his head toward the door, silently insisting Diego leave the room.

Subtlety had never been Diego's strongest suit.

"You don't have anything to drink, do you?"

Scott glanced at her uncertainly, and slowly replied, "No."

"That's too bad," she said softly as she made herself comfortable.

"What do you want, Ms. Quinn?" Scott asked coldly.

"You don't sound very happy to see me," she said coyly.

"You caught that, did you?"

Julia's face fell in an overdramatic manner, "That's not very nice."

Scott scoffed loudly, "You want to talk about nice? Let's start with you sending me on that wild goose chase earlier this week. And how about when your 'fiance' slugged me in the ribs. Wasn't that just so nice?" Scott said, nearly growling the word 'nice.'

She sat back in the little chair. Scott watched her with a look of disinterest bordering on outright contempt. Diego looked up and down the hall hoping someone would bring him a bag of popcorn.

"I know that we've had some...issues in the past--"

Scott interrupted with a loud bitter chuckle.

Julia closed her mouth and stared dumbfounded at Scott. She couldn't remember the last time anyone had spoken to her like that.

"I'm very busy, Ms. Quinn, so how about getting to the point," Scott said, folding his arms across his chest. "If you're looking for someone to represent your fiance, I don't do criminal cases."

It was a cheap shot to be sure. The article Flapjacks McClanahan had "written" set the city abuzz about Marcus Sheridan. The police were investigating and Scott knew it wouldn't take long before a warrant for his arrest was sworn out. It also had the effect that Scott had intended. Julia slumped down further in her chair. Her eyes looked moist as if she would start bawling at any minute.

"That was low."

Scott let out an aggravated sigh. "I'm going to ask you one more time before I call security. What do you want, Julia?"

"I...I..."

"What?"

"I need help."

Scott watched her warily, the way he would a nest of angry hornets. "Help with what?"

"Proving he didn't do it."

Scott shook his head in disbelief. "Come again?"

"You were 'investigating' Nash's murder, weren't you?" Julia asked, using air quotes around "investigating."

He knew what she meant by that, but chose to let it go.

"I assume you're still looking into his murder?"

There was a long pause. She doesn't know that Flapjacks took my story, he thought. "Nope," he said. He was surprised how easily it came out; he felt rather carefree about it, "And why should I? The case is as good as wrapped up. Flapjacks made damn sure of that."

"Flapjacks?"

"McClanahan."

Julia pursed her lips at the mention of his name. "I read his article."

Scott resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Scott had not read Flapjacks' version of his story, and the very thought of reading it made him sick to his stomach.

"It's got more holes than Marc's socks."

Scott smiled weakly hearing this. It also made him curious. He wondered if McClanahan had plugged the story in word-for-word, or if he made some changes to it in order to sell more papers. Scott couldn't decide which of these alternatives made him feel worse, so he chose to stop thinking about it entirely.

"Does it?" Scott asked, uninterested.

"Marc could never do such a thing. You have to believe me."

Scott's eyes grew wide. "Believe you? Are you serious? You lie to me, give me the runaround, then you have the nerve to ask me to believe you?"

Julia eyes flashed angrily at him. "Where do you get off lecturing me about lying, Mr. Investigator? Who the hell do you think you are?"

For a long moment, Julia and Scott exchanged angry glares in silence.

Diego shifted uneasily in the doorway, waiting for someone to fire the next shot. "Glad I'm missing my lunch for this. Better than watching my soap."

Julia and Scott shifted their attention, and their anger, toward Diego, who finally took the hint and skulked away. Once he was gone, they faced each other. Julia closed her eyes and let out a deep breath.

"I think we need to start over," Julia said. She flashed one of her devastating smiles.

Scott was having none of it. "No. Not really. You need my help to prove your precious fiance didn't kill Nash. But you're forgetting something. Even if I was still looking into it, why the hell would I want to help you?"

"Because I have what you want," she said, arching an eyebrow.

He blinked rapidly, trying to figure out what she meant. In that moment, he could feel the balance of power shift in the room, and not in his favor.

"W-which is?" he asked, frantically twirling his wedding ring around his finger.

"What really happened that night," Julia said, leaning toward him.

Scott's heart leaped into his throat.

Julia stood up and sat on the edge of his desk, edging closer to Scott. She was close enough that Scott could feel the warmth radiate from her body. "I can tell you everything you want to know about me and Nash," she purred.

"Everything?" Scott asked hoarsely.

She leaned over his desk until her chest was at eye level. His eyes trailed from her chest, up her neck, and to her mouth, which was now mere inches from Scott's ear. Without thinking, he moved his ear closer.

"Every. Thing," she whispered.

Instinctively, Scott loosened a tie that wasn't there as an icy tingle streaked down his spine. He finally understood how she had cast a spell over every guy that night at Trample. His heart raced like Trindon Holliday with a jet engine strapped to his back. His mind was awash with salacious thoughts about Julia, which he hurried to put out of his mind. He shifted nervously in his seat as he mulled over what she said. She was offering him the missing piece to the puzzle, the one thing that could have kept his investigation going. But why now? Why would she be so forthcoming now when she had spent most of the last week avoiding people, especially him?

"W-why me, though?" he asked, intrigued. He rummaged for a bottle of water he hoped had magically appeared in one of his desk drawers. He straightened in his seat, trying to regain his composure. "Why not go to McClanahan about it, or, I don't know, the police?"

Julia smiled an imperceptible smile. "They wouldn't believe me," she said. "They think I'd say anything to throw them off Marc's trail. And you know something, they're probably right."

"And I'm supposed to believe you because...," his voice trailed off.

Her smile disappeared. She hadn't expected him to resist this much. The sounds of phones ringing and fingers clattering on keyboards outside amplified the painful silence in his office.

"I...don't know," she said.

She got up off of his desk, smoothed out her dress, and took a couple of steps toward the door.

"Sorry to have bothered you," she said glumly.

Scott could hear the tears in her voice. He wanted to say something, but what?

"Wait," he said.

Julia froze in the doorway.

"What?" she choked out, her back still turned.

There was a long pause. His shoulders tensed and an odd, leaden feeling came over him, like a two-ton triangle weight landing square on his back.

"I just wanna know one thing."

She turned around and fixed Scott with a doleful stare. "What's that?"

"All the evidence I've seen points in Sheridan's direction. Why do you think he didn't do it?"

Julia smiled sadly. "Because he's not a killer. He might look big and scary on the outside. But inside, he's a big marshmallow. He wouldn't hurt a fly."

A sharp, biting pain came from Scott's ribs, as if laughing at this description of Marcus Sheridan.

"Wouldn't hurt a fly," Scott said ruefully, cupping the still tender ribs with his hand.

"Oh, right. Sorry about that," Julia said in a conciliatory tone. "He thought you were someone else."

"Someone else? Who?"

"I'll explain later. Just know that he was just trying to protect me."

"It worked," he said, letting out a long sigh. "You really think Sheridan's innocent, huh?"

The two-ton weight on Scott's back felt like it had just doubled in size.

"I do."

"And if I help you, you'll tell me everything I want to know about the night of the murder?"

Julia looked at the floor uneasily. "Ye-yes. Ev-everything."

Scott clapped his hands over his face and muttered, "I can't believe I'm buying into this," then looked up at Julia. "Okay, Ms. Quinn--"

"Julia."

"Julia...start talking. Leave nothing out."

Julia smiled gratefully at him.

Eight tons.

"Not just yet,"

He lowered his head down onto his desk and laughed bitterly. "Of course not. Why on earth did I think it would be that easy?"

"Before I tell you anything, I want you to talk to Marc first."

His ribs protested violently. "Why? So he can finish the job?"

"No," Julia said, dead serious. "I want you to hear his story first, why he couldn't have done it."

"Why me, though? Couldn't he tell the police?"

"He's not talking to the police. He's not talking at all."

"And what makes you think he'll talk to me? How do you know he won't just tear me limb from limb the moment I come within 10 feet of him?"

"I don't think that's likely."

"But how do you know?"

"Because there'll be metal bars between you two."

Scott's eyes grew to the size of dinner plates. "Come again?"

"He's in jail already."

"He what?"

"Turned himself in. His agent told him he should. Marc always listens to him."

"So after that, you'll tell me what happened?"

She nodded.

"Where's he being held at?"

"Harris County Jail, on Baker."

"Great," Scott said facetiously.

"So, are you driving, or am I?"

"I'll meet you there."

Half an hour later, Scott found himself standing in front of Harris County Jail. The building sprawled an entire city block, its walls were streaked with broad horizontal bands of brown and beige, reminding Scott of old-time prison uniforms. But what surprised Scott was the windows. Dozens of windows studded the prison's walls, including one corner which appeared to be nothing but glass.

"Looks like my old high school," he said humorlessly.

He walked into the building and followed the signs directing him to the visitation center. While the outside of the prison might have looked vaguely pleasant, wandering inside the facility was depressing. The hallways were a maze of concrete dotted with dull green steel doors. Scott wondered how anyone could stand to visit such a dreary place. He couldn't even think about what it must have been like for people on the other side. Scott came to the visitation center waiting room. It was just as miserable as the rest of the prison, but at least here there were benches with black padded seats where visitors could sit and whittle away the time by thinking up more uplifting things they could be doing instead, such as hanging themselves.

On one of these black benches sat Julia. Her shoulders slumped down low with her head in her hands.

"Julia?"

She sat up in her seat, looking thoroughly dejected.

"What's wrong?" Scott asked.

She pointed to a small sign next to a large booth surrounded by bulletproof glass.

Visiting Hours:

Monday - NO VISITS
Tuesday - 4 - 9 p.m.
Wednesday - 4 - 9 p.m.
Thursday - NO VISITS
Friday - NO VISITS
Saturday - 3:30 - 9 p.m.
Sunday - 3:30 - 9 p.m.

"They're closed," she said.

Scott frowned and read the rest of the signs. Several of them were framed around the booth's main window. As he read the last sign, an idea began to form in his head.

Next to the booth was a large red button with a small placard that read "Please ring for assistance."

Scott mashed the button. Several moments passed until a small frumpy woman wearing a prison guard uniform which looked like she had sprayed on.

"Can I help you?" she asked, wearing an expression on her face which screamed that helping him was the last thing she wanted to do.

Scott pointed at Julia. "We're here to see Marcus Sheridan."

"Can't you read that sign? No visitors today," the guard said, and was about to turn to walk away.

"Except for attorneys," Scott said, pointing at the sign.

The guard eyed him and blinked as if she had to think about it beforehand. "Fine, you can come in. She stays here," the guard said in clipped tones while pointing at Julia.

"No, I need her with me."

The guard looked at him dubiously.

"She's, uh, my assistant!"

"Whatever," the guard said. She leaned down over a microphone and Sheridan's name bellowed over the public address system. "It'll be a few minutes."

Scott mouthed a thank-you to the guard and went back to Julia.

"We probably won't have very long with him."

Julia nodded.

While they waited, Scott paced the floor, his eyes firmly fixed on the white tiles below.

"You're going to wear a hole out to the ground," Julia said.

Scott paused for a moment, glanced absently at her, and resumed pacing.

"Something's bothering you, I can tell," she said.

He shrugged as he stopped in place. "This is why I went into corporate law instead of criminal. Never liked prisons."

"Why not?"

He waited a long moment before replying. "Saw too many of them growing up. What's the saying, 'familiarity breeds contempt?' "

Julia opened her mouth as if to speak and quickly closed it. "Sorry," she said quietly.

The big green door opened suddenly and a burly man in his late 40s gestured for Julia and Scott to follow him. They did as he told. He led them to a small room. The walls and ceiling were little more than whitewashed concrete. The room itself was surrounded by several plexiglass plates which divided a dozen small desks with uncomfortable pedestal stools anchored in front of them.

Seated on the wrong side of the plexiglass was Marcus Sheridan in a bright orange jumpsuit. When he saw Scott and Julia walk in, he bore an eerie resemblance to the fiberglass bull that snorts fire and smoke at the beginning of Texans games.

Julia sat down delicately on the stool and picked up the old-fashioned receiver hanging on the side of the booth.

"What is he doing here?" Sheridan demanded.

"He's here to help, Marc," Julia said warmly. "He doesn't think you killed Nash either."

Scott shot a livid glare at Julia. "What are you doing putting words in my mouth?" he snarled under his breath.

Julia ignored him. "Tell him where you were that night, Marc. It's the only way to get you out of this," she pleaded.

Sheridan looked at Julia and his will to argue withered. He let out a quiet grown, "Put him on."

She handed the receiver to Scott, who sat down on the stool. He looked at Sheridan nervously. His ribs felt like they wanted to jump out of his body and go somewhere safer, like Syria.

"I don't know what you're doing here," Sheridan said malevolently.

Neither do I, thought Scott.

"But you better not lay one damn hand on her, y'hear?"

Scott gulped, "Marcus--"

Sheridan interrupted, " 'Marcus?' Are we sleeping together? You call me Mr. Sheridan."

Scott closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Mr. Sheridan," Scott said patiently, "you've got a massive pile of shit about to land smack on your head. The only one who can get you out of this is your own self. If you have an alibi, you need to tell someone; whether that's me or Julia or the cops, I don't care."

Sheridan looked thoughtfully at the desk for a moment.

"If you ever want to see the outside again, Sheridan. You're not gonna get a slap on the wrist. You're looking at murder charges. And this is Texas. They don't screw around with murderers here."

"You want an alibi?"

Scott nodded.

"Screw you, that's my alibi. And stay away from my woman or when I get out I'm gonna reach down your throat and pull out your damn liver!"

Scott pinched the bridge of his nose. "Why did I think this would go any other way?" he muttered.

"Guard! I'm done here," Sheridan bellowed and slammed down the receiver. Julia ran up to the plexiglass and shouted vainly for him to come back.

"That's it, I'm finished with this," Scott said irritably.

"You're what?!"

"He's not going to talk. To me or anybody. The only way he's going to get off, and I can't believe I'm actually about to say this, is to find the real killer. If there even is a real killer."

"How do we do that?"

"We?" asked Scott incredulously. "There's no we here. You asked me to talk to him, and I did. My work here is done."

"But--"

"But nothing," he shouted as he turned toward the door. "I'm losing my goddamn patience with this whole business, and you most of all."

Julia stared at him dumbfounded.

"If there's nothing else, Ms. Quinn," he said emphasizing the last two words, "then I'll be on my way."

Scott was half a step out the door when he heard it.

"Wait!"

He rolled his eyes, "God, what now?"

"I'll tell you everything. I mean it. Please, don't go."

"No more games, Julia. I mean it. Try and toy with me and I swear to God--"

"No more games. I promise," she said, raising her right hand.

"Okay," Scott said with no small amount of trepidation. "Start with when you met him at Trample."

Julia took a deep breath. "I went to Trample that night. The bar was crowded and I could feel every guy in the room staring at me. They always do--"

"Spare me the commentary," he said.

"Sorry. Anyway, I went there specifically because I knew Eliot would be there. He saw me from the VIP lounge above and the bouncer asked if I wanted to come up. So I did. I went upstairs and we're talking. Pretty soon I've got him where I want him and then we're interrupted by this guy."

"What guy?"

"This guy all dressed in black."

"Dressed in black? Can you describe him for me?"

"Yeah, kind of stocky, with a buzz-cut. I think he might have been Mexican, but I don't know. Eliot called him Carlos."

"Go on," Scott said, trying to remember everything she described to him.

"'Kay. Eliot didn't want to be there once he found out Carlos was downstairs. But he stopped him. Said they had some 'business to settle.' Before I knew it, we were running like hell downstairs and out to his car."

"And that's when you and he went to the motel?"

"Yeah," she said looking down at the floor.

"Why, though?"

"Why what?"

"Sleep with Nash? I've only been around you a short while and it's clear that you and Sheridan love each other. Hell, he punched me out just to protect you."

"Oh...it's a long story."

Scott turned toward the door again.

"Okay! Okay! A couple of weeks ago, I found out Marc had a fling with one of the cheerleaders. I was just evening the score."

"Why Nash, though?"

"Because I knew it'd drive him insane. They really do...did...hate each other."

"So you got to the motel..."

"We got to the motel and we're doing the kind of things you would expect at a cheap motel. After maybe 20 minutes, there's a loud banging at the door until it was kicked in."

"I think I know who it was. It was Sheridan, wasn't it?"

"No. Carlos."

"Carlos? The Carlos from the bar?"

She nodded. "Yeah. That's when I ran into the bathroom. I could hear them arguing. I even turned on the shower to drown it out but couldn't. I was terrified."

"Did you hear what they were fighting about?"

"No. It was all muffled, just a lot of loud noises. But it didn't last very long. Ten minutes later, Eliot opened the bathroom door and we...um..."

"Picked up where y'all left off?"

"...Yeah."

"Go on."

"Um...okay...he got up--"

Scott raised his hand up suddenly. "Not that part! You can skip past that."

Julia sighed. "Thank you. I come back over and I noticed there was a large envelope on the nightstand."

"An envelope? With what?"

She tilted her head. "How should I know? I don't go through other people's things!"

"Right. Sorry. Keep going."

"After we finished...you know...I went back into the bathroom to clean up. When I came back, he was out."

"Dead?"

She shook her head vigorously. "Asleep. Must have been worn out or something. I gathered up my things--"

"Except your hairbrush," Scott interrupted.

"Except the brush," she said mildly annoyed, "and left the room. He was alive when I left him there."

"And when did you leave, exactly?"

"Exactly?"

"You heard me."

"I don't remember. I wanna say around...2 a.m., maybe? I wanted to make sure Eliot was good and asleep when I left."

Scott remembered Flapjacks had mentioned the time of death was between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.

"You left at 2 a.m.. Where were you between then and 4 a.m.?"

"I went to my friend's house. Up in Jersey Village. You can ask her if you want."

"So that would put you at your sister's at around..."

"3 a.m."

He knew what it meant. Even under the best of circumstances, going to Jersey Village and coming back would have placed her firmly outside the window.

"I only have one more question for you, then."

"What's that?"

"What about the drugs on the nightstand? Whose were they?"

Julia furrowed her eyebrows. "What drugs?"

"I'm not in the mood for any of your games, Julia."

"I'm not playing any games. There were no drugs there the entire night," she said earnestly. "I don't do them. And everyone and his mother knows Eliot wouldn't touch them with a ten foot pole."

Scott felt the room wobble around him. Except it wasn't the room. It was the ominous sensation that the world had just shifted a little bit to the left.

"Th-thanks. I-I need to be going now."

He got into his car and sat there, staring into the far distance. Everything he thought he knew about the night of the murder was wrong. Sheridan had no idea that Julia was getting freaky with Nash. So that ruled out jealousy as a motive. And the envelope. There was no mention of any envelope in the news anywhere. What happened to it? What was in it? Was it worth killing over? But more importantly, neither of them brought drugs to their little party.

"Someone planted those drugs. Why?"

It was a stupid question. He knew why. The real question was: who wanted to frame Marcus Sheridan?

The phone rumbled in the passenger seat.

"Hello?"

"Hey, it's me,"

"Honey!" Scott exclaimed.

The leaden feeling Scott had been experiencing all day now weighed in at an even 16 tons.

"You okay? You sound like you've seen a ghost."

"Fine. Fine," Scott said.

"Um, okay. Listen, could you go and pick up some cereal on your way home? Charlie wanted to get to the prize in the last box and, well...I just spent the last 10 minutes cleaning up Tasty-Os off the floor."

"Uh-huh," Scott said.

"I'll...see you at home?"

"Yeah. Okay," Scott said.

"Love you," Claire added tenderly.

"M-me too."

He hung up. That damn promise. Why did Julia have to be right? Why couldn't it have been as open and shut as it looked? Instead, there was a whole lot of missing information, and a killer still at large. But all he could think about was the fresh hell that would rain down upon him if he broke his promise. He sorely wanted to keep that promise. He looked up at the rearview mirror and shrugged, looking at himself with a mixture of determination, fear, and sadness.

"She can never find out."

TO BE CONTINUED...

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