Emory followed a directional sign for the administrative offices to a long corridor. Just past a bathroom for each sex, he came to a windowless room. Adjacent to the room’s lone desk sat a table featuring neatly aligned rows of Algarotti Smoky Mountain Springs bottled water, a glass-door refrigerator chilling bottles of flavored water and a sign inviting visitors to take one. The desk was positioned to the right of the entrance to a smaller hallway that ended at a door. Seated at the desk was someone familiar.
“Hello,” Emory said to the man he had seen leaving the Algarotti house earlier.
The man closed the desk drawer he was rifling through and lifted a stolid face that softened when he saw Emory. “Hi again,” he replied with a flawless smile framed by mischievous lips. His pea coat was now unbuttoned, exposing a tight blue sweater molded over square pecs. He leaned back in the chair, interlocked his fingers over his chest and peered at Emory with eyes as sparkling green as the Southern Lights. “Are you following me?”
The stranger’s question and his assuredness knocked Emory’s demeanor off balance. “No,” he answered with more volume than intended. “No, I’m here to see Victor Algarotti.”
“So am I.” The man erected himself without using his hands and walked to the front of the desk to stand before Emory. Both six-foot-two, their eyes locked – an alignment that rattled Emory. “Jeff Woodard,” the man said as he extended his hand.
Emory shook his hand and told him his name. “What do you mean, you want to see him too? Is Victor not here?”
Before Jeff could explain, another man exited the nearby bathroom and approached them. A work badge hanging from his right collar informed them that his name was Scot Trousdale. In his late twenties or early thirties, Scot stood about five inches shorter than the other two men, but the wide back and thick shoulders pushing against the seams of his dress shirt gave him an imposing presence nonetheless. The curls of his dark brown hair twisted around cauliflower ears and an attractive face misshaped by more than a couple of punches. A fighter. Wrestling or MMA. Scot’s dull eyes looked at them from behind rimless glasses that slid down the wide bridge of his nose. “Gentlemen. Which one of you is Mr. Woodard?” he asked in a voice lighter than his looks would suggest.
“That would be me,” responded Jeff with a slight wave.
Scot pulled some papers from the printer at his desk, stapled them and handed them to Jeff. “To save time, Mr. Algarotti dictated all the information you’ll need to start your investigation. Oh wait.” He retrieved a picture of Britt from his top drawer and gave it to Jeff. “Here’s a picture.”
“Excuse me.” Emory glared at Jeff. “Who are you?”
Jeff smirked at him. “We met earlier.”
“I know we met earlier. Why are you receiving information about my victim?”
Jeff flashed his right palm. “Let’s not get possessive. I’m a private investigator—”
Scot looked over his glasses at Emory. “And who are you?”
“I’m Emory Rome from the TBI.”
Jeff taunted him by asking, “Do you have a badge?”
“Of course I do.” Emory retrieved his badge and showed it to both of them, eliciting a smile from Jeff.
Scot stared at Emory for a moment. “Have we met before?”
Emory answered, “I don’t believe so,” although he questioned if they had run into each other when he lived in Barter Ridge as a kid.
Scot seemed to register a sudden glimmer of realization, but if he did, he kept it to himself. “Hang on one second.” He went to his computer to print another copy of the document he had given Jeff. “Mr. Algarotti had me compile all the information you might need.” He stapled the papers and handed them to Emory. “Mr. Algarotti asked that no time be wasted before getting started.”
Emory glanced at the top page. “How thorough.”
“I don’t have another picture, though,” Scot told him. “Maybe you two could share it.”
Jeff snapped a picture of the photo with his phone. “I’ll text it to you. What’s your number?” After a silent second, he added, “It’s only fair. You already have mine.”
So it was his number. Emory shook his head. “I have my own picture.” He turned back to Scot to ask, “Where’s Victor’s office?”
“As I said, he asked that you – I guess both of you now – not waste time.”
“I need to talk to him,” insisted Emory.
“That won’t be necessary,” Scot countered. “Everything he would tell you is in the document I just gave you.”
Emory’s stern face matched the tone of his voice when he said, “It wasn’t a request.”
Without turning his head, Scot pointed his ink pen over his shoulder to the hallway behind him. “End of the hall.”
Emory walked past the desk, his footsteps echoed by Jeff’s. “Where are you going?” he asked the PI.
“I want to talk to him too.”
“I need to talk to him alone. This is a murder investigation.” Emory continued walking until Jeff grabbed his arm.
“This isn’t my first murder case.”
“Really? What others have you worked on? Who were the victims?”
Jeff counted on his fingers. “Lara Crawford, Zelda Princeton, Jill Valentino—”
“Why do all of your victims sound like video game characters? Look, I have no unsolved mysteries under my belt. I’m not going to let an amateur muddle up one of my investigations.”
“Muddle? Who says that outside a Christmas song? I got news for you. It’s our investigation, and I’m not going to muddle up anything.”
“What were you doing at his desk when I arrived?”
“It’s called investigating.” Jeff pointed toward Scot’s desk. “Dilbert there could be our killer.”
Emory continued to Victor’s closed office, telling Jeff, “Don’t follow me.”