by Jenna Rae
For a long time, Captain Brenda Borelli has had it all—a devoted girlfriend, a dedicated partner, loyal friends, and a fulfilling career. Her world seemed perfect. But somehow it all fell apart. While she was busy investigating crimes, the things she valued most just slipped away.
When newly minted Officer Tami Sheraton is murdered by a corrupt cop, Brenda is unable to let the department close the case. She feels responsible for letting the rookie down and finds herself unsure of whom she can trust.
Soon she enlists the help of ex-girlfriend Tori and together they begin their own investigation. Just when the situation feels truly desperate, it only seems to get worse.
As if solving the murder isn’t enough, trying to figure out whether she wants to start over with her old lover—or explore the possibilities with a potential new one—might prove to be the most difficult task of all.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"The last couple of years have been tough. I find myself performing ongoing threat assessments as I read and watch the news. What does each policy change, each disturbing revelation, each breach of the public trust mean for our world, our country, our community, my family? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless, and I hate feeling that way. I started imagining how the same sorts of scary, disheartening changes we’re seeing on the global and national level would play out on a smaller scale.
Somehow this reminded me of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. In the play, there’s a struggle between old-fashioned Russian tradition and Western-influenced modernity. It seems to reflect the way my image of what America is or should be clashes with what it is becoming. There’s some strange circularity here: our idealized notion of American society conflicts with the pragmatic self-interest we find ourselves chafing under, in much the same way Russian society chafed under the emerging influence of capitalism. (Yes, I sit around comparing Russian lit to current sociopolitical trends. I’m just that cool.)
Out of this musing came The Third Eye. Briarwood is a charming town losing the battle to maintain its cohesiveness as private interests grind away at the social contract, and Brenda Borelli doesn’t know what to do. She has a place to focus her frustration and grief when a young rookie is murdered by her training officer. As Captain Borelli, Brenda feels responsible not only for Briarwood Police Department Officer Tami Sheraton’s tragic death but also for the corruption that appears to have led to it.
There’s something deeply satisfying about putting Brenda in a position to fight for the whole town against the greedy, the selfish, the shortsighted. What I particularly like about Brenda is that she knows she can’t save the world. She can’t fix her broken relationship or save her best friend’s wife or undo her mistakes or end crime or make things fair for everyone.
What she can do is try to make things a little better, and she dedicates herself entirely to doing so. She’s one small person working blind in an impossible situation, and I think that’s how a lot of us feel, especially now. I think of her as an absurdist hero. Things aren’t fair or reasonable, and it would be easy to turn a blind eye to what she can’t seem to change, but Brenda refuses to simply coast along in willfully blind complacency.
I root for Brenda. I want her to win, even though her victory won’t really change anything. I feel like her strength and courage and singlemindedness are emblematic of what most of us want to bring to the table. We don’t always know how to fight for what we believe in, but Brenda faces a clear choice. She’s willing to sacrifice everything to do what she believes is right, and I love her for that."
The Lesbian Review
Rae does a great job of keeping this story on track and unfolding at a good pace. I never felt like I was getting lost in the minutia of specific clues that took me off on a tangent and away from the heart of the mystery. There are a lot of moving parts to this narrative and at no time did I lose track of the characters and what their motives might be. I had fun reading this straightforward mystery in which the romance was definitely a subplot. I read so many romances each year it felt a little like a vacation spending some time with a story that didn’t involve awkward first dates or misunderstandings blown out of proportion.
Lesbian Reading Room
This is an excellent cop crime drama, great characters, engaging storyline and a real whodunnit until the last chapter. It soon becomes clear there is a cover-up, but who is behind it all remains a mystery. Really enjoyed this one. Would be a great start to a series.
Lex Kent’s Reviews - The mystery part was well written. While Rae decided to not write the story in first person, like many mystery writers do, you still feel very close to Brenda. You are right inside her head as she tries to put all the clues together. Writing this way you feel a part of the story instead of just watching from a distance. If you are a mystery fan I think you will enjoy this.
Rookie patrol officer Tami Sheraton fell back when the bullet hit her chest.
A tiny video camera secured to the frame of Sheraton’s eyeglasses watched tall, slender Sergeant Mark Donnelly saunter through the back exit of the liquor store with a paper sack in his left hand. His dark eyes widened and his fleshy mouth gaped in evident surprise. Donnelly drew his service weapon and spoke for six seconds. There was a blinding flash as he discharged his gun. The evening sky dropped and the audience gasped.
Captain Brenda Borelli blinked as the big screen went dark in the nearly silent auditorium. She swiveled ten degrees left to face her interrogator and answer his question.
“Yes, Commander, I did suggest Sheraton wear a hidden camera.”
Briarwood Police Department Senior Commander Marty Banks raised an eyebrow. He cleared his fleshy throat, an action that generally presaged a long lecture, and Brenda decided to forestall it.
“Not a serious suggestion. Obviously. It was a sarcastic off-the-cuff remark, not something I expected Officer Sheraton to actually do. She understood it was a joke. We laughed about it.”
Banks grunted and rolled his eyes. When no one seemed to respond to this, he cleared his throat again. He snatched up his dripping water bottle roughly enough to crinkle it.
While he chugged and choked, Brenda looked around the room as though gathering support. She chose her words with care. “I guess she thought about it and decided it wasn’t such a silly idea after all.”
“So you and Tami Sheraton were off alone somewhere, joking around, and you suggested something dangerous and thought nothing of it.” Recovered now, Banks shook his jowls. “Did you often have private conversations with this female junior officer? And where was this personal conversation, Captain Borelli? Did it take place inside your home, a restaurant, a bar? This was at a time when you were off duty, wasn’t it?”
Brenda kept her face blank, refusing to rise to the bait and wondering how Banks had advanced to the second-highest rank in the department. She watched the other members of the panel sit back, as though to distance themselves from Banks.
“As indicated in your briefing notes, Commander, I was walking into this building at approximately noon on Christmas Day. I wasn’t scheduled for duty but had some paperwork to catch up on, and I wanted to support my officers who were working the holiday. I brought sandwiches and cookies, just like I have on every major holiday for the last several years.”
Brenda waited a beat before continuing. None of the high-ranking bureaucrats ranged above her on their raised platform had been at work on Christmas Day, and everyone knew it.
“Sheraton approached me on the front steps to ask my advice on developing stronger observational skills and situational awareness. I suggested the usual things and warned it could take years to hone her craft. She was frustrated, so I kidded her, saying a camera might help. Sheraton laughed. It was obviously a joke.”
“I advised Sheraton to seek guidance from her training officer, Sergeant Mark Donnelly, and her station’s commanding officer, Captain John Vallejo. She assured me she would do so, and I followed up with Captain Vallejo and Sergeant Donnelly within the week to ensure she had.”
“And now Officer Sheraton is dead.” The stark statement came from the only female officer in the Briarwood department whose rank was higher than Brenda’s. Commander Victoria Paige Young widened her beautiful blue eyes and shook back her long golden hair. Brenda knew Tori had long been referred to as Commander Barbie by more than one senior officer, though no one dared say it in front of Brenda.
Elevated on the gleaming pecan dais with the other brass, Tori peered down at her ex with clear disdain. Brenda felt her spine stiffen. With what she hoped was invisible effort, she relaxed her shoulders and the muscles of her face.
“Yes, Commander.” Brenda waited a beat. “Of course, a few things happened in between.”
Tori blinked slowly and sat back, and Brenda sobered. Did Tori really think Brenda had misjudged the situation with Sheraton? Certainly she’d misjudged Tori.
Staring up at the glossy bureaucrat ensconced in a navy bespoke suit, Brenda had a hard time seeing the funny, smart, devoted lover with whom she’d shared nearly a decade. Brenda pushed her feelings aside to focus on the task at hand. She looked directly into the face of each of the big bosses one at a time.
“Tami Sheraton’s family, this department, and this city have lost a good person and a good officer. But my joke didn’t kill her. We only know the identity of her killer because she was wearing the hidden camera. The footage we just watched is from that camera.”
She took a long sip from the glass of water in front of her and kept them waiting an extra few seconds. “Mark Donnelly is still at large. I request the allocation of additional resources to the search for Sheraton’s killer, pursuant to the department’s longstanding focus on officer safety and on ensuring the highest professional standards within the department.”
Banks cleared his throat. “Captain Borelli, we are aware of our own policies. You’re the subject of this hearing because your carelessness may have been a contributing factor in the death of Officer Sheraton.” He caressed his tie, danced his stubby fingers through his thinning white hair and ran his gaze around the assembled officers who ringed the back of the large, plain chamber on the ground floor of the city’s new five-story building. “You’re hardly in a position to make requests of this department.”
“Commander Young. Commander Banks. Commander Olivares. Commander Jones. Commander Fulton. I won’t mention my twenty years of service to this department as a defense against your allegations of wrongdoing, though of course the only wrong I’ve done was to make a joke that the officer in question knew was a joke. Sheraton was a rookie who was focused on doing her most conscientious job. She took some initiative. In fact, she might have revisited the idea after she read this department’s newsletters, two of the most recent of which detailed how many departments around the state and the country are requiring their officers to wear body cameras, a practice we can debate the relative merits of at a later date.”
Based on the surprise painted on their faces, she guessed not one of the senior officers staring down at her had actually read any of the department’s newsletters or was aware of current operational trends in law enforcement. Bringing up the newsletters’ contents was her kill shot, and she could only hope she’d calculated its best use accurately.
As one, the brass section looked past her at the dozens of officers witnessing the hearing. Brenda noticed Tori’s small, nearly invisible smirk and knew she’d scored big. She decided to build on the strength of her position.
“One of our own killed one of our own. That’s the real issue here, the fact we allowed within our ranks a man who is corrupt, violent, dangerous, unethical, and a threat to our community and our department.”
Brenda noted the way Tori shifted her shoulders. She knew the hearing was essentially over then and Brenda had won the rhetorical battle. What this would cost her in the long political campaign that was her career in law enforcement, she’d find out later.
There was more yammering. Each senior officer had to make a long-winded statement that could be quoted by the press and by the public-relations contractor. Then a few midlevel officers had to follow the bad examples of their bosses and express outrage and smug superiority. The onslaught went on for well over an hour.
This barrage of verbiage was finally punctuated by a brief, conciliatory statement from Chief Walton, who had positioned himself halfway between her and the elevated senior officers as though he were a neutral party.
She thought for the umpteenth time that Chief Walton was, if nothing else, a brilliant tactician. It was he who’d suggested she wear a suit instead of her dress uniform and insisted the hearing should be open to the public. She strongly suspected he’d also notified key officers to ensure a wall of blue stood behind her in the hearing.
She sat quietly through that last hour. She kept her face blank, her back straight, her hands relaxed on the table in front of her. Things turned out about like she’d expected, with no authorization for further investigative resources and no censure of Brenda or anyone else.
As she finally made her exit, exchanging quick greetings with dozens of officers on the way out, she noticed a woman staring at her with wide, unblinking eyes. Struck by the intensity of the stranger’s gaze, Brenda returned the direct look for a long moment before the outsider turned away, disappearing in the crowd of officers and other onlookers.
The attractive newcomer—an elegant redhead with dark brown eyes—looked vaguely familiar, but Brenda couldn’t place her. Was she an officer from a neighboring department? A journalist? A victim? A politician? Clear eyes and skin, very good haircut, tailored suit and erect posture were the only impressions Brenda had formed in her brief perusal. Who was the staring stranger?
Adrenaline engendered by the very public scolding she’d just experienced pushed her speculation away, and she plowed as gracefully as she could through the crowd. She shook hands and patted shoulders and smiled without letting anyone engage her for more than a few seconds.
She nodded at Dan Miller, CEO of Briarwood Watchdogs, wearing a bland expression despite the question that ran through her mind at seeing him: why would the head of a private security company show up for a hearing like this one?
As always, he sported a black polo shirt and gray pants, gleaming combat boots, a movie-style holster and a variety of mail-order badges and insignia. A civilian would take him for a police officer or a soldier, which she supposed was the idea. He shaved his thinning hair and always looked like he was about to head into some mysterious battle with unknown nefarious evildoers. The extra thirty or so pounds he sported in his midsection and the ever-present sheen of sweat on his pate blew the lie, but he didn’t seem to know that.
Brenda eyed Miller as he approached, his mouth wide in a salesman’s smile and his hand outstretched. She knew he’d squeeze her hand much too hard, so she summoned an iron grip to counter his. After a few tense seconds he broke the hold and smiled as if in concession.
“Congratulations. Ready to get out from under yet?”
She laughed. “You never quit, do you?”
“I’m a success because I surround myself with the best people. You’re the best, so you bet I’m going to keep trying to get you on my team.”
“Why don’t you join us?” She countered with what she hoped was a friendly smile. “We could use someone with your leadership skills.”
He pursed his lips and nodded before answering. “Don’t think I haven’t considered it. I have a lot to offer. I could shake things up. But I’m my own man, Captain. I’m on the winning team. I’m always on the winning team. Don’t get left behind.”
“If I change my mind you’ll be the first to know.”
“That’s a maybe, and that’s better than a no. I’ll get you someday!”
He nodded as though they’d agreed to something, and she patted his arm as she murmured a goodbye and brushed past him.
“Thanks for coming, Padilla,” she said to a recently retired officer, shaking his cold, dry hand and continuing to move through the crowd.
A reporter clutched her arm, and she extricated herself with a wry smile and a brief squeeze of his arm. “Come on, Cal, don’t you guys at Channel Three have anything better to cover on a Friday night? It is football season, right?”
Tami Sheraton’s captain, John Vallejo, stood in the swirling mass of officers and spectators, somehow apart from everyone while surrounded by the crowd. He was in Brenda’s path, having apparently plotted her course and planted himself accordingly.
“John,” she said, coming to a stop. Her Central Division counterpart was in his early fifties. His salt-and-pepper curls looked as droopy as his posture was erect, and she saw weariness in his dark, hooded eyes. His curt nod gave her pause, and she peered at his closed expression. “This couldn’t have been any easier for you than it was for me.”
He shrugged and looked away. “The sooner we can all put this behind us, the better.”
“Agreed.” She noted the strain in his voice, not certain whether he blamed her for Sheraton’s death or whether he was feeling guilty himself. He was, after all, both Donnelly’s commanding officer and Sheraton’s.
As if reading her thoughts, he shook his head. “Donnelly—I still can’t believe it. He seemed like a regular guy, a decent guy.”
She murmured agreement and examined Vallejo more closely. He’d been smoking. She could smell it on him and knew how hard he’d worked fifteen years back to quit smoking when his second wife was pregnant with their first child. Or was it, she puzzled, his first wife and second child? It was getting harder to remember details like that.
She caught a whiff of booze in his sweat and was even more surprised by this. He had been sober for over twenty years. The strain of the situation was showing on her normally unflappable colleague, and she wasn’t sure how to offer comfort without seeming patronizing or political.
“I never thought you were responsible,” he offered, rubbing his chest as though it itched.
“Thanks. I never blamed you either, for what it’s worth.”
“Yeah. See you around.”
Vallejo suddenly turned away and shouldered a path through the crowd. Brenda frowned at his retreating back, but another young officer was already approaching, and she offered a quick handshake and wooden smile before moving on.
It took nearly ten minutes to work her way past the crowd and across the street to the looming parking garage. Finally alone in her ancient Caprice, she took a deep breath, glad the evening was behind her.
What did she fail to see? What should she have done differently? She wasn’t arrogant enough to think she should have been prescient, but she certainly wished she or someone had been able to see Donnelly was a bad apple.
She wondered whether the recent events showed as starkly on her as they did on her colleague. She’d seen Vallejo in a lot of ugly situations over the years and had never seen him look so brittle. Though she hoped otherwise, she knew she probably didn’t look much better.
At this thought she snorted. The circus was over and no one would be at home when she got there. What did it matter what she looked like?
As she sat in the cocoon of her car, Brenda peered over the garage’s perimeter wall and saw the crowd from the hearing was starting to spill out into the street. Loath to draw attention to herself by loitering in her assigned parking spot, she started home.
“Three hours completely wasted,” she fumed by Bluetooth to her retired former partner Jonas Peterson.
“They have to put on a show, Borelli. Whaddya expect?”
“I notice my old partner didn’t show up to support me.”
He snorted. “It’s not like you needed any help, Slick. And it sure as hell ain’t like my presence woulda helped you.”
She made a noncommittal sound. She’d never asked him to attend the hearing but had hoped he would show up. Sober, hopefully. But she couldn’t pursue this without pushing him away and didn’t want to give him a reason to disconnect.
Accept people as they are, she told herself. If she’d learned anything from the breakup with Tori, it was the necessity of accepting people as they were. She blew out hot air and tried to let go of her frustration and disappointment.
She tuned back in, and while Peterson shared his own stories of brass-coated misery, she wondered if she would end up like her old partner, with no life outside the department. She knew it would be easy to let that happen.
Like Peterson, she’d let the job swallow her hours and her years. Like Peterson, she’d lost the one person she’d expected to be with for the rest of her life. Like Peterson, she had failed to develop a support network outside the department. So far, she was batting a big, fat zero in work-life balance, just like her old partner. After setting up a lunchtime get-together for the following week, Brenda rang off feeling more alone rather than less.
If she and Tori hadn’t broken up months ago, they’d have had dinner before the hearing, strategizing and anticipating what might happen, and afterward gone over the evening’s events on the ride home. She’d have heard what Tori thought and could have talked about who said what, how it was said and why it mattered.
Of all the things she missed about Tori, it was their conversations she ached for most often. But there was no going back, and she knew she had to start really accepting the end of things between them.
“Acceptance,” she said aloud in the bubble of privacy provided by her car. “Acceptance, acceptance, acceptance.”
It was, as her best friend Andi kept insisting, time to move on. She would have to start dating again, she realized with a shudder. Later, she told herself. After Donnelly was caught, after Tami Sheraton’s death wasn’t hanging over her and staining every moment of each day. No matter what she did, no matter what punishment the judicial system ultimately doled out to Donnelly, Tami Sheraton was never going to be alive again.
“Let it go, Borelli,” she told herself, determined to find the necessary detachment. She needed to put her grief, anger, and guilt aside. Maudlin mulling was, she knew too well, a waste of her time and energy.
She headed to the coastal road and drove home the long way, letting the cool and quiet of the late January evening soothe her. She passed one of the newer condo complexes and sighed. Briarwood had been her home for two decades, and she’d once known every road and just about every family in town.
But in the last five or six years there’d been a huge influx of new people, drawn from the various reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area to quiet little Briarwood by its good schools, low crime rate and reasonably priced homes Its proximity to the Pacific Ocean made the small northern California city a very attractive option, and its relative peacefulness made the long drive to Bay Area employment centers a worthwhile trade-off for many.
Waves of newcomers tipped the scales until everything they’d come to Briarwood in search of was spoiled. A population swell strained the resources of the small community, overloading the place with too many kids, too few jobs and a series of sharp rises in home prices just before the country’s real estate bubble burst. Briarwood residents new and old lost their jobs and their homes.
Homeowners became renters as a wealthy few snapped up foreclosed homes at bargain prices, rented out the houses and charged tenants increasingly exorbitant rates. Crime increased, school test scores dropped and gang violence invaded the south side of town like disease in a weakened body.
Briarwood was still a nice place to live if you were middle class or upper class and had managed to keep your job or get a new one that paid several times more than minimum wage. But the shine had been scraped off the small city by poverty, uncertainty, and fear. Brenda felt guilty for her relative comfort. She also felt increasingly uneasy about the simmering unrest she sensed fomenting in the cauldron of widening economic disparity.
Where would it all end? How could a society survive with such weakness in its foundational elements? Brenda shook off the question and reminded herself she was not responsible for the fate of the world. All she could do was try to make Briarwood a little safer for a little longer. That would have to be enough.
Night hid Briarwood’s grime and graffiti. The tips of the rooftops and the redwoods and the waves were painted otherworldly blue by moonlight. She caught glimpses of the Pacific between condominium towers and hotels and rows of identical beige minimansions. Boats dotted the small harbor that made Briarwood an attractive tourist destination, and she recalled the days when there were only a few dozen boats scattered around the shallow bay.
She breathed in the cool, clean, salt-washed air and felt scrubbed. The sweet apple scent of the briar rosebushes that dotted nearly every yard and shopping center in the city balanced the crispness of the sea air and mostly covered the industrial and automotive smells.
She sniffed deeply as she drove along, drawn by the perfume of Briarwood to memories of her early days here, when she’d found this mix of clean, sweet air so irresistible. In the dark she could still be a young newcomer and Briarwood could still be a charming little village. It could still be the sweet small town named after a rose.
Over and over she saw the ugly, ubiquitous signs of Briarwood Watchdogs. Dan Miller’s private security company was the most successful venture in town. Its numerous signs, resplendent with fluorescent renditions of the city’s namesake flower, glowed proudly in front of at least half the homes she passed. They seemed to reflect a newer, more cynical world that thought a plastic flower was better than a real one and neighbors couldn’t trust each other.
Brenda wished she could always see Briarwood through the softening veil of obscurity and found herself wanting to do the same with regard to Tori. She pushed away this whimsical thought with a snort not unlike Peterson’s.
Her tension dropped as she unlocked the front door of the foursquare cottage she’d bought back when the northern part of Briarwood was still affordable. Like most of the older homes, it was surrounded by the sweet briar roses whose foliage perfumed the air with their apple scent.
Brenda yanked off the charcoal gray suit she hated, the one she used only for court, meetings, and hearings. She left a trail of sweat- and coffee-scented clothing on the way to the bedroom, the one part of the house she’d tried to strip of Tori’s presence, albeit half-heartedly.
In a fit of pique, she’d bagged up the bedding, a sumptuous suite of gold and silver threads and bold geometric shapes, and dropped it in a donation bin. She’d replaced it with a plain gray comforter and scratchy white sheets that would have been right at home in a detention center.
But the unlovely bedding was still surrounded by antique furniture, beautiful fixtures and warm gold paint a shade or two lighter than the gold Tori had picked for the living room and hall. The bedroom still glowed with the hominess Tori had brought with her, and Brenda wasn’t quite ready to ditch all of that.
Tori’s mark was all over her as well, Brenda realized as she sighted her reflection in her dresser’s mirror. Her short, dark curls were cut to look carelessly flattering by in-demand stylist Logan, to whom Tori had brought her a decade back. Though she couldn’t have said how he achieved simple elegance with her formerly unruly mop, she had to admit it looked more professional and a lot more attractive than when Brenda used to hack at it herself.
Her mascara and tinted lotion, now worn daily, had felt strange back when Tori had first suggested she wear them when testifying. After a while it had been a natural transition to putting on the minimal makeup every day, because the same strategy also worked when Brenda was interviewing victims and witnesses. Wearing the makeup made her seem more approachable, according to Tori. More importantly from Brenda’s point of view, doing so had made Tori coo about how beautiful her brown eyes were.
She was also in the habit of wearing the fancy Breitling watch Tori presented to her on their fifth anniversary, along with the diamond earrings Tori gave her several Christmas mornings back.
Upscale clothes, accessories, lingerie, and sundries had become the norm during her years with Tori, and she hadn’t let go of those luxuries. Nor did she particularly want to. The things Tori had given her had become part of Brenda.
Of course, Brenda had given gifts too, hadn’t she? Last week and again at the hearing, she’d noticed Tori wearing the vintage sapphire pendant and earrings Brenda had given her on their second anniversary. The Dior perfume, the Philippe watch, the Carven scarf—every time Brenda saw her, Tori was still sporting at least one of her gifts.
What did it mean that they both continued to don these presents? Was it simple pragmatism, or was there some unconscious desire on both their parts to retain the good pieces of the relationship? Did Tori want to get back together? Or was Brenda imagining things? If Tori ever did want to get back together what would Brenda say? She bit her lip.
Speculating about what she’d do if Tori wanted to rekindle their relationship when Tori had never indicated she wanted to do so was the height of ridiculousness. She knew that, but she’d caught herself indulging in such musing more and more. The phone rang, and she knew even before she looked that it was Tori.
“I know you think I went after you,” Tori blurted, jumping in without preamble as usual.
“Was that you being gentle?”
“Oh, come on, Bren, you know I couldn’t be seen as going soft on you or those vultures would’ve eaten you alive. Use your head for once. You could thank me, you know.”
“Don’t do me any more favors, huh?” Brenda snapped her mouth shut. She knew that Tori was right.
Everyone in that room seemed to know about their relationship, and the only reason she’d walked away relatively unscathed was that the other brass saw Tori as a vengeful dyke bitch out to screw her former lover. They’d let Brenda off out of spite for their barely tolerated only female commander. Tori had played them at least as well as she had, but Brenda wasn’t quite ready to acknowledge that.
She called me Bren, she thought. Tori hadn’t done that since their breakup, or rather several months before it. What could it mean that she did so now?
“Sorry,” she said. “You’re right.”
Tori inhaled sharply. “Oh.” She breathed in and out audibly. “Listen, I don’t know how to say this.”
Brenda heard a sound she recognized: Tori tapping her tongue on the roof of her mouth the way she always did when she was uncertain or distressed and briefly regretful about having given up smoking. Brenda had given her a flower every day for nearly six years as thanks for quitting. She’d only stopped after Tori had told her the daily flower had become less a gift and more a painful reminder of her having taken up smoking in the first place.
“Whatever it is, it’s probably best to just spit it out.” She spoke more sharply than she’d intended and grunted as if in apology.
“Yes. Of course. Spitting it out. A few hours ago Mark Donnelly’s body was found in a motel in West Sacramento, gunshot wound to the head. Could be suicide. Yolo County says it’s likely to be processed quickly. You weren’t going to be allowed into the investigation, obviously, but I imagine you were planning to look into it on your own. No need to any more. I just thought you should know.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Brenda sank onto the bed they’d once shared. “Any word on his co-conspirators?”
“Well, the department’s position is—or will be, as of five minutes after Yolo County’s statement tomorrow—Donnelly was working alone.”
“I know you think differently.” Tori made an indistinct, wordless sound. “I wish I could convince you to drop this. But I don’t think you will. You feel guilty about Tami’s death. You hold yourself responsible, even though you clearly weren’t. I imagine you think I shouldn’t ask you for any favors, Bren, but I want you to just walk away from this. Please.”
“Walk away?” She fought a rising note in her voice. She stilled herself, refusing to argue with Tori yet again.
“Listen.” Tori sighed heavily. “It’s late and I’m tired and so are you. This isn’t exactly the way I wanted to spend my Friday night either, you know? I just wanted to tell you about Donnelly.”
“Who was she?”
The question was an echo of the one Brenda had asked six months before, and she held her breath, unable to speak.
Tori jumped back in. “That woman you were making eyes at. After the hearing. You know who I’m talking about.”
“I don’t know. I-I mean,” Brenda stammered, “I know which woman you’re talking about, but I don’t know who she is. I just saw her staring at me and looked back. And what do you care anyway? You left, remember? You—whatever.”
“Yeah.” Tori huffed quietly. “Whatever.” And she was gone.
Brenda hated not getting the chance to go after Donnelly, but while the department might think the case was closed, she knew better. And if Tori thought Brenda was walking away from the case that had left young Tami Sheraton shot through the chest and bleeding to death in a rat-infested alley, she was crazy.