Checkdown - A Battle Red Blog Mystery (Chapter Fourteen)

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 Fourteen - Truth and Consequences


"Scott?"

There was no response; Scott continued staring down at the battered remains of Helena Belgreave as he delicately held the receipt pinched between his fingers.

"Scott!"

He shook his head, finally recognizing his own name, and turned toward Orlund.

"What?"

"We need to call the cops. Like yesterday."

Scott nodded. There was nothing either of them could do now for the poor housekeeper. Scott delicately folded the receipt back up and tucked it back into her pocket.

"Okay," Scott said blankly. "Since you found her, you should be the one to make the call."

Orlund nodded grimly.

He walked carefully toward the phone, making sure not to set foot in the bloody streak coming from the doorway. Scott watched as Orlund made the call.

"Ask for Detective Carlyle," Scott rasped.

As Orlund spoke, Scott could hear his tone drop precipitously, as if trying to hold himself together. When he turned to face Scott, he closed his eyes for a long moment and shook his head violently.

"You alright?"

Orlund waited half a beat before responding, "Yeah. Just dusty in here is all."

Scott opened his mouth to speak but thought better of it.

"It'll be a couple of minutes," he said.

"That's all I'll need," Scott replied, moving towards the door.

"You're leaving?"

"I'm probably the last person Carlyle wants to see about now."

Orlund glanced down at the floor, then at Belgreave, "I'll stick around until the cops show up. She deserves at least that much," he sighed. "Such a waste."

Scott's stomach turned somersaults inside him. "I'd stay, but Carlyle..."

Orlund raised a hand imperiously toward Scott, "Just go on and get," he said as he sat down on the edge of the bed. "You ain't got much time left to do it in besides."

Scott took a step past the threshold, looked back one more time at the dead housekeeper, and frowned before he left. As he darted past the motel's lobby, he could hear the distant whine of sirens closing in. He looked into the lobby where the troll desk manager threw up his hands in disgust when he heard the sirens.

By the time Scott reached the corner of the office, where he could safely call a cab, three police cars swarmed into the tiny parking lot. He could just see Carlyle jump out of the front passenger-side door. He wore the same look of vague irritation Scott had seen the other two times they had crossed paths.

Several minutes passed before the cab arrived. To say it was tiny would have been generous. Scott worried that clowns would pop out of the trunk at any minute. He crawled into the backseat, adjusted his posture so he wouldn't completely lose all feeling in his legs during the trip, and gave the cabbie directions to his house.

**********

Half an hour later, they pulled up to Scott's house. Scott managed to free himself from the car, thankful that he wouldn't have to resort to using a crowbar. The sky was clear, save for menacing black clouds that crept over the horizon.

He closed the door gently behind him. The sounds of children laughing filled the house, punctuated with the occasional shouting match. Scott followed the sounds to the dining room where he found Rachel coloring quietly, while Matt and Charlie fought imaginary pitched battles with their action figures. Claire beneath the door frame between the kitchen and the dining room and looked at Scott.

Scott caught her eye. She stared at him silently.

"Everything okay, honey?"

He caught a crayon as it was about to fall off the table. Claire remained quiet. Scott felt a knot growing in the back of his throat.

"Kids, go to your rooms," Claire said in a forced calm.

The kids' groans lasted all of three seconds, when Claire shot them an angry glare. They went upstairs quietly accusing each other of getting all of them into trouble.

She waited until she heard the third door slam shut upstairs.

"How was work?"

Scott paused a moment.

"Fine. Fine," he said, suddenly remembering the excuse he'd used earlier. "Someone screwed up a contract detail and needed me to come in and patch things up."

"Oh," Claire said, lifting her head in comprehension. "Nothing out of the ordinary happened?"

He shook his head. "Nope, just another day at the office."

She said nothing but kept her eyes plastered on his.

"You're sure?"

Scott gulped. "Yes," he said haltingly.

"I see. There's a message for you," she said, pointing at the phone.

Scott went over to the phone. The red light blinked slowly on the machine, indicating a new message. He held his finger over the button. He stopped. The kitchen felt as if it had frozen in time; the wind whistled through the tree branches outside were the only movement Scott could see.

"Go on," she said tonelessly. "Press it."

He pressed the play button.

"Scott, it's me."

His blood went cold. It was Julia.

"Sorry to call you at home but...I need you here, right now. It's important. Call me back. Bye."

He turned to Claire as the machine beeped. His eyes were wide with panic, his mouth gaping like a freshly caught bass. Claire stood there with her arms folded across her chest. The thin veneer of calm she had portrayed was fading with each passing second.

"So," she said sharply. "Who is she?"

Scott's eyes darted between the phone and his wife. "Who is she," he said, hoping to buy some time.

"Yes. Who?"

"She...um, she works for me! At the office. You know, filing papers and stuff."

She looked dubiously at him. "Weren't you just at the office? Why would she need you again?"

Shit, he thought. "Maybe there was something she missed?"

"You don't sound very sure," she said, her anger growing visible.

"There was something," he said excitedly, hoping she'd believe it.

"How do you really know her?"

Scott stood there numbly watching Claire as she realized what he wasn't saying.

"You're...sleeping with her, aren't you?"

The words were like an electric current through his body. "No," he said, almost involuntarily.

"Then who is she? Why can't you just answer that one question?"

"She's..." he paused.

Claire leaned closer, as if she couldn't hear what he had said, "She's...?"

He let out an exaggerated sigh. The knot in his throat now felt more like a noose tightening around his neck.

"Julia."

"What?"

"Her name. It's Julia. Her fiance is under arrest for murder."

"Why is she coming to you, though? That's not what you do."

"She thinks I can prove her fiance didn't kill--" he stopped and placed his hand over his mouth.

"Kill who?" Claire asked, anger rising in her voice.

Scott slumped his shoulders and closed his eyes. "Eliot Nash," he murmured.

"Eliot Nash," Claire said, spitting each word out. "I should have guessed. You're back on the case again, aren't you?"

He nodded grimly.

"You lied to me. Anything else you want to tell me? Sleeping with her?"

Scott shook his head vehemently. "No! I couldn't live with myself if I did."

She scoffed, "But you could live with lying to me? Putting our family at risk? Putting yourself at risk? That you could live with?"

"I wanted out. I did," he said pitifully. "But then--"

"I don't care! What? You didn't think I was serious? You thought I was kidding?"

"No," he said, sensing that the conversation was quickly circling the drain. "I just got caught up in it again. I couldn't help myself."

"I don't believe you. I mean, why should I? It's not like you're giving me much of a reason to!"

Claire turned and covered her face. He could hear the muffled sobs through her hands.

"Sweetheart..." he said as he reached over to touch her shoulder.

She jerked away from him violently, spun around, and snarled, "Don't touch me!"

Her face was flush and would have been burning hot to the touch, had Scott dared to do so.

He pulled his hand back meekly.

"You...you...liar."

He frowned. Seeing how badly he hurt her made him feel like he'd been punched in the gut by Sheridan again. As he scrambled to think of a way to fix the problem, another thought popped into mind.

"And what was I supposed to do? Sit on my hands?"

"Why not? It's not your problem."

"But it is my problem. Don't you see?

"No! I don't," she said, sounding like a petulant child. "Why should you care?"

"Because I can't let an innocent man go to jail!"

Claire blinked in stunned silence. Scott was silent as well, contemplating the statement he'd just blurted out.

"What if it were me?" Scott asked. "Huh? What if I were the one facing life in prison for a crime I didn't commit? If you knew someone out there could prove it, would you take 'no' for an answer?"

He could see the wheels turning in her head as she thought about it.

"You still lied to me," she said in a dark, quiet voice.

"I did lie. And I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. But it was the right thing to do."

Without another word, she turned, stormed upstairs, and slammed the bedroom door shut. The sound reverberated through the house, providing a final exclamation mark on the fight.

Scott pounded his fist on the counter, which made the phone rattle almost off its base. He studied the phone's display screen and the last number that had called. He copied the number on a strip of paper and went out to the car, slamming the front door so hard he could see the windows vibrate. Once in the car, he dialed the number into his cell phone.

"Hello," said a sweet yet rattled voice.

"How the hell did you get my number, Julia?"

"Scott? That you?"

"Yeah. How'd you get my number?"

"I looked it up online. Why?"

Scott rubbed his forehead with his free hand, and made a mental note to get an unlisted number the first chance he got.

"No reason. What's so important?"

"I'm being kept out of my house."

"Your friend's house?"

"No. My house. The police are searching it."

He groaned silently. "Give me the address."

Scott plugged the address into his GPS, stopped, and glanced through the windshield at his home. The clouds that had been on the horizon were oozing over the roof's edge. Seeing the house only reminded him of the fight he'd just had with Claire. He wanted to think of something else, anything else. He slid the key into the ignition but something inside prevented him from turning it. He wanted to fix it, to set things right. He shook his head. Saying anything else now would only make things worse.

He turned the key and pulled out of the driveway. What she needs right now, he thought, is a chance to cool off. It'll all blow over by tonight.

**********

Julia's house was situated at the tip of a long stretch of land that jutted out toward Seabrook on the other side of the water. The Spanish-tiled roof was the color of oxidized copper which contrasted strongly with the blackening skies and the churning tea-colored water beyond it. Behind the house, palm trees swayed precariously. The driveway was paved with cobble stones that led up to a colonnaded stoop. It reminded Scott of pictures he had seen of homes in the Greek Isles with their gleaming white walls. Unfortunately, he could get no closer than the end of the driveway to see more.

Standing in the way were several cars with flashing red and blue lights, a long stretch of yellow crime scene tape, and a handful of officers in rain slickers. Julia stood on the wrong side of the line and appeared to be having an animated discussion with one of the officers.

"Sorry ma'am," the officer said. "I'm afraid that's just not possible."

"It is freezing out here! I only want to get my coat!"

"And you can go inside. But once you do, you'll have to be put in handcuffs until we're done."

"But it's my house!"

"Is there a problem, Officer?" Scott asked.

"There is," Julia said before the policeman could get a word in. "I can't go into my own home for 10 seconds because they," she thrust a finger at the stoic officer, "think I'll try to destroy evidence or something."

"I assume y'all have a warrant?"

"Didn't need one. The owner of the house consented to the search."

Scott turned to Julia. "Owner?"

The officer continued, "Yeah, a Marcus Sheridan gave us the go-ahead."

Julia remained undaunted. "It's as much mine as it is his."

The rain began to dribble down sporadically. Scott stared up into the steel gray sky, as if surprised to feel the drops landing on his head.

"Look, can't you just go in, search her coat, and bring it out? C'mon. Don't be a dick."

The cop glared menacingly at Scott, folded up his arms, and didn't say another word.

At that moment, the sky opened up and brought down a torrent of rain on them. With the wind picking up and the unnatural chill in the air, each drop was like a shard of ice pelting Scott on the head. He took Julia's hand, motioned toward his car, and together they ran for shelter.

When they got in, Scott fired up the heater and shook his head like a dog trying to dry himself off. Julia came in soon after. As she did, Scott said a silent thanks to Winslow for giving him a chance to clean out his car. The house disappeared from view as the pouring rain splattered harmlessly on the windshield. The rain had not been kind to Julia. She looked like half her usual size. Her fiery red hair sopped limply in clumps, her clothes had become nearly translucent, and her pale skin shimmered from water which clung to it.

"Ugh. The nerve of that...that...man. Can you believe that?" Julia asked.

Scott wasn't listening. His mind was occupied on other things. Why would Sheridan consent to having his house searched? Usually, the people who consented to a search are the ones who had nothing to hide. Sheridan may not have killed Nash, but he wasn't exactly an innocent, either. He thought back to Daniel Murphy's testimony. What did he say about Sheridan?

"...I think he's dealing them, among other things..."

If Sheridan were dealing drugs, why would he let the cops search his house? Two theories came to mind. The first was that Sheridan was hiding whatever stash of drugs he had somewhere else and knew they wouldn't find anything there. But if that were true, Scott thought, the police would search everything that had his name signed to it--storage facilities, businesses, the works. If he refused to let them search any of those places, they'd be on it like Johnathan Joseph on a rookie receiver. That left the other theory: they wouldn't find anything because there was nothing there to find. After all, Murphy only suspected him of dealing. He never saw the inside of Sheridan's locker.

But they had to have found something there, he thought. If they didn't find something in his locker, they wouldn't have bothered searching his house. Would they?

Suddenly, a petite hand waved frenetically two inches away from his face.

"You there? Earth to Scott..."

Scott blinked rapidly and turned to Julia. "What?"

"You looked like you were off on another planet or something."

The rain continued rattling against the car. It was making Scott sleepy.

"Why'd you ask me to come here, Julia?"

Julia looked at him quizzically. "What do you mean?"

"You didn't drag me all the way from Sugar Land just to convince the cops to give you your coat. What am I doing here?"

Julia stared absently through the windshield. "Since I caught him with that cheerleader, I've been staying at my friend's house."

Scott nodded. "Not answering the question."

"My friend and her kids have been in Colorado since school let out. I've had that place all to myself; no Marc, no friends, no family, just me and my shadow."

"You're lonely," he said, feeling somewhat sympathetic.

She smiled sadly, "Yep. So I decided to come back here. If I was going to be by myself, I'd at least get to sleep in my own bed. But when I got here..."

"You couldn't go in without getting cuffed," he said matter-of-factly.

She sighed, "Yeah."

"That's when you called me," Scott said. "Your little call got me into some pretty deep shit, you know that?"

Julia shrank down in her seat. "I-I'm sorry. If you want, I could call an--"

"No! You've done enough as it is. Well, if that's all, then I'm sorry, but I need to get home and do some serious apologizing."

"Figures."

"Now what the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"You nearly abandoned me at the jail. And now you're running off again. I'm kinda getting used to being alone, forgotten and ignored by everybody."

"I am not at your beck and call, Julia. I have a life outside of this...this...whatever this is! And right now, I need to go home and fix it."

He reached across her and opened the door. The rain showed no signs of letting up.

"If you please," he said, gesturing for her to leave.

Julia closed the door and wiped her hand on her soaking wet jeans.

"I'll call that cop over here if you don't get out, Julia. I mean it."

"I...remembered something else from that night."

Scott blinked stupidly at her, "What?"

"Something Nash said that night. It came back to me as I was driving here."

He let the seat belt slide back to its original position. "How much do you remember?"

"Bits and pieces."

" 'Bits and pieces,' " he said gruffly. "Fine. I'll listen, but this better be good."

"Okay, you remember I said I ran for the bathroom when Carlos busted in?"

"Yeah..." he said dubiously.

"I could hear some pieces of their argument."

"Which 'pieces?' "

"Nash had said something like, 'This is a joke, right? I need way more than this.' "

"Way more than what?"

"Dunno. But then Carlos mumbled something, I couldn't hear that at all. Then Nash said something about not making any promises and, I quote, 'You want results, you got to pay me, 'los!' "

Scott immediately thought back to the envelope and the receipt he found on Belgreave's body. $75,000 was a hell of a payday, but for a football player it would've been a pittance. Carlos had clearly paid Nash for "results." But what kind of results? Why had he taken money at all? He was a Pro Bowl quarterback. It wasn't like he would've been hard up for cash. He couldn't help thinking that Sheridan, Nash, and Belgreave were all connected somehow; only he didn't know how.

"Anything else?"

"Sorry. That's all I can remember. If I think of anything else, I'll call you."

Scott's eyes went wide. "Not at my house phone you're not." He reached into the glove box, pulled out a small shred of paper, and wrote a number on it.

"This is my cell. If you're going to call, call it instead. Last thing I need is for my wife to hear your voice again."

"Right. I really am sorry about that."

He shrugged. "Can't be helped now. And I really do need to be getting home now. So if you don't mind..." his voice trailed off.

The rain had finally relented enough that Julia could see the house, and the throng of cops still milling around.

"Can't you just wait a few minutes? At least until the police leave?"

Julia looked like a stray puppy with her pleading eyes. He wanted to stop by a florist to pick up some flowers. He wanted to get home to make things right with Claire. But those sad green eyes...

"Only until the cops leave," he said.

The cops didn't finish their search until long into the night. Scott and Julia whiled the time away by making very awkward small talk.

As the last police car pulled away and the rain finally died down, Julia got out of Scott's car.

"Thank you," she said.

"For what?"

"Just sitting with me. I really needed the company."

"Oh. Um, you're welcome. Good night."

"G'night."

Scott looked at the clock. It was too late to see the florist, and the grocery store wouldn't have the sheer volume of flowers it would take to get back in Claire's good graces. On the way home, his mind was filled with thoughts of Claire. Would she still be upset when he got home? Would he have to sleep on the couch? Well, the second one wasn't much of a question; he knew he would be on the couch tonight. Oddly, this brought him comfort as he thought there was still a very good chance that he might end up sleeping on the porch with Hastings.

He pulled into the driveway late that evening. The lights looked as if they'd been off for quite some time. The crickets chirped noisily as Scott eased the key into the lock and turned it slowly to avoid waking anybody. When he closed the door behind him, he noticed the house was almost as cold on the inside as it was outside.

"Damn heater must've blown again," Scott said to nobody in particular. Hastings rubbed up against his leg.

"Didn't they feed you?"

Hastings meowed irritably.

He put food out for the cat and then went up the stairs toward the bedroom. If he was going to be on the couch, there would be only one way of finding out. He turned the corner from the stairway to the hall and didn't see any sheets or pillows in a heap outside the bedroom door.

Scott sighed in relief. He opened the door slowly, afraid to wake Claire. It was quiet in the bedroom. Way too quiet. The absence of gentle snoring resonated through the bedroom. He closed the door and went to the kids' rooms. They, too, were empty. He tromped back downstairs.

"Where the hell is everybody?"

He went into the kitchen and noticed a new message was flashing on the phone.

"Aw shit, not this again."

He mashed the play button.

"It's Claire. I'm--" there was a pause, "I think we need a bit of time apart. The kids are with me. We're okay, if you're worried. We're going to be staying in Corpus for a little while...at Mother's."

TO BE CONTINUED...

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