Dirty Money – Liliana Hart

Nina Walsh’s head was killing her. Her body jerked as the air conditioner kicked on, and the white Priscillas swayed in the kitchen window. The gray light of dawn was just peaking over the windowsill and bathing the kitchen in a soft glow. She hadn’t realized she’d been sitting in the dark. The white tile was cold against her legs, and she looked around, trying to make sense of how she’d gotten on the floor. “Stupid,” she said, wiping hot tears from her cheeks with trembling hands. Crying only made things worse. If she wasn’t so selfish, she would just do what Roy asked the first time, and then he wouldn’t get so angry. He was under so much pressure, and she needed to do a better job of understanding how important his work was to the community. He was a hero, and all he wanted was a neat and orderly home and a wife who didn’t nag. It wasn’t too much to ask. It was her fault. She never should have asked him about the woman in Nottingham. But when the woman—she’d said her name was Gina—called and demanded money for a baby she said was Roy’s, what else was she supposed to do but ask him about it? Where was the money going to come from? He’d already spent what she’d gotten from her husband’s life insurance policy. Nina gingerly touched the raised, heated skin on her cheek.

He’d been so angry, calling her a busybody and Gina a lying slut. Nina knew the woman wasn’t lying, and for a brief moment, she’d felt hope that maybe Roy would leave her for his mistress. Hatred had blazed in his eyes when he’d struck her, and she thought surely this time he’d kill her. But he’d drawn up some self-control from somewhere and slammed out of the kitchen, giving her a reprieve. At least for the next twenty-four hours. Ten days a month she had twenty-four hours all to herself. It had been her saving grace. She had a feeling his mistress wouldn’t fare quite as well as Nina had that morning. The woman hadn’t given her name or address, and she’d been on the verge of hysteria, otherwise Nina would’ve called the police and given an anonymous tip. But there was nothing she could do, and if he killed that woman…it would be her fault.

But she couldn’t call the police. Roy had always told her the police would never believe her. Even if they had proof, they wouldn’t arrest him. Not that Roy ever left proof. He was good about not leaving bruises. He knew where and how to hit, pinch, or squeeze. The breakfast dishes lay broken in front of her. A half-eaten bowl of oatmeal, a plate of toast, and the butter crock. The earthenware had been her grandmother’s. It was good and strong—made to last—but it hadn’t been made to withstand Roy Walsh’s temper.

She gathered up the pieces, and a pang of remorse went through her as shards of happy memories went into the trash. Her mother and grandmother were no longer alive, and the pieces were no longer replaceable. Her thoughts drifted to her first husband as she finished cleaning up the kitchen. Daryl had been a good man. A hard worker, a good husband and father. But Roy would’ve seen his kindness as weakness. Men were supposed to be tough. To provide for and lead their wives however they saw fit. Roy had once told her that Daryl chose not to fight against the cancer that had invaded his body. He’d said it was because death was a better alternative than having her as a wife.

But she knew that wasn’t true. She and Daryl had been happy. They’d had a good marriage, and she missed him terribly. She wasn’t trying hard enough with Roy. He was different, and she just had to accept that. “Stupid,” she said again. At least her daughter had been grown and out of the house before she’d married Roy. Of course, Hailey and Roy never got along. Roy said she and Daryl had been too soft on Hailey. He said she was a disrespectful and willful child.

But Nina had seen the sorrow and condemnation in Hailey’s eyes the first time she’d noticed a bruise on her cheek. There’d been so many harsh words between them, and Nina had defended her husband. Hailey just didn’t understand how marriage worked. Nina’s marriage to Daryl hadn’t been all roses. They’d had their share of ups and downs. But you stick it out. No matter what. But Hailey had called her a fool and told her she wouldn’t stick around to watch her die a slow death. She’d already had to do that once. That had been three years ago.

They hadn’t seen each other face to face since then, only a few brief phone calls that Nina had instigated. As far as she knew, Hailey was still living in Richmond. At least that’s where her packages were postmarked from. She wiped down the counters with a sponge, and then placed it precisely at the back of the sink. The kitchen was spotless. The floors gleamed and the stainless-steel appliances were so polished she could see her reflection in the refrigerator door. She grimaced at the sight of herself. Daryl had called her beautiful, even though she knew she was nothing special to look at. Her eyes were too big and her top lip was fuller than her bottom one. She was too thin and too short, and her nose was slightly crooked from when she’d broken it ice-skating as a teenager.

Daryl had made her feel beautiful. But Roy…Roy made her feel old and tired. She was only forty-four, but she might as well have been twice that. Maybe if she’d bothered to put on makeup and fix up her hair. Or if she hadn’t let herself get so thin or could do something about the dark circles under her eyes. Maybe then he wouldn’t have gone to that woman in Nottingham. If she was honest, she didn’t mind him taking his attentions elsewhere. It had been months since Roy had come to her bed, and she’d been glad of it. There was nothing pleasurable in her marriage bed. Nina lifted a piece of her mousy brown hair and then dropped it so it fell limp against her shoulders.

It had always been too fine and thin to hold a curl. Her dark brown eyes hadn’t shown signs of life in so long she no longer recognized the woman in the reflection. His handprint was still visible on her cheek. This one wouldn’t leave a bruise. He’d gotten better at using an open hand instead of a fist or the back of his hand. The swelling would go down after a cold pack and a hot shower. She opened the bottom freezer. Sandwiched neatly between the lined rows of steaks for Roy and her frozen meals were several ice packs. It barely even registered anymore why she’d need so many. Some days were worse than others.

The dull throbbing in her temples and at the base of her neck would eventually go away, but the headache was worse than usual. She’d have to take something for the pain if she wanted to get anything done today. Lying down would be the fastest way to deal with it, but it would throw her completely off schedule. Nina left the kitchen and wandered through the house like a ghost, trailing her fingers lightly along the banister as she went up to the bedroom. The room was bright and sunny —cheerful—and the bed had already been made with military precision. The linen sheets had been freshly pressed the day before and she could smell the faint scent of lemons from when she’d polished the furniture earlier in the week. Everything was exactly in its place. It had to be. She had laundry and ironing to do, so she couldn’t dawdle the day away, but she knew if she didn’t take care of the headache now, she’d end up in bed for a day or two, and that would really make Roy angry. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, and she chalked it up to exhaustion and the headache.

She missed her daughter, and right at that moment, she would’ve given anything in the world to hold her in her arms. She longed to feel the touch of anyone who could comfort her, or not cause pain. Her cell phone was plugged in and sitting on the nightstand by her side of the bed, and she went to it quickly, before she could talk herself out of it. Maybe hearing Hailey’s voice would be just the cure she was looking for. But the ringing eventually went to voicemail, so she hung up without leaving a message. “Sorry, baby,” she whispered, but there was no one to hear her. She decided to take the pills and run a bath instead of giving in to sleep. Maybe twenty minutes in the tub would set her to rights. It was habit to check each room she entered to make sure it was perfect, and the bathroom was no different. Thick white towels hung on the towel bar with even precision, and the mirrors sparkled.

The white rugs on the floor were straight and the one in front of the shower was still damp from when Roy had gotten out. He provided a good living for them, and it was important she show him how grateful she was by keeping things as perfect as they could be. But she always seemed to fall short of perfection. She turned on the hot water in the tub and went to the linen closet to dig out the box Hailey had sent her for Christmas. She’d only peeked inside to see what was in it, and then she’d immediately hidden it at the top of the closet so Roy wouldn’t throw it away. She’d learned that lesson the hard way. A small stool sat at the bottom of the closet, and she used it to climb up and get the box. There was a light coating of dust across the top, making her frown. She opened it and saw the cellophane-wrapped basket with the label from the little apothecary in town on top. This made her frown even harder, because Hailey would’ve had to drive from Richmond to Bloody Mary to purchase it.

And she’d still chosen to send it in the mail instead of dropping it by in person. Nina pulled the basket from the box and unwrapped it, revealing the homemade bath salts, lotions, and scented oils. The pounding in her head was almost unbearable, so she turned on the hot water and poured in a good amount of the bath salts. The sweet scent of vanilla billowed up and permeated the bathroom. Her bathrobe hung on the hook and her towel sat folded on the stool within easy reach, so she disrobed and immediately put her clothes in the hamper. She put one foot in the tub. “Dammit.” And then she looked up to make sure no one had overheard her. She stepped back out of the tub and moved to the mirrored medicine cabinet. Inside was a tiny tin of pain relievers.

It was a new box, still wrapped in the plastic seal and stamped with the same label from the apothecary as the basket her daughter had given her. The tin was wrapped tight, and her hands trembled as she struggled to open it. When she finally managed to get the seal off and the lid open, several of the pills spilled out, bouncing off the vanity. She didn’t bother chasing them down. Not yet. Though seeing the red and white capsules littered like candy across the floor made her anxious. She ignored them and took two of the capsules left in the tin, tossing the pills into her mouth. Then she turned on the sink and leaned over to drink from the faucet. There were times death seemed like an eternity, but in Nina’s case, death came in an instant. D CHAPTER ONE eath was an old friend.

There were those who feared death, who tried to defy it with diets and the newest exercise trends. Or by using creams and serums that erased lines, so the skin-deep lies that faced them in the mirror each morning were more palatable to look at. I had a different view of death. There was no escaping it, no denying it, and no running from it. In a world more and more divided by race, religion, and politics, it was the one thing everyone could agree upon. Eventually, through no choice of our own, we’d exhale our last breath and that would be that. I’ve spent my whole life around death. Even as a child I had a morbid curiosity of the process. Which my therapist says is perfectly normal given that I come from a long line of morticians. I’m thinking the other three thousand residents in Bloody Mary might have a different opinion.

When I was a child, most people stared at me with stricken horror as if I were the Grim Reaper himself. I was…different. Small for my age and gaunt with it. Sunken cheeks, eyes too large for my face, and my head was usually stuck in a book so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. But Bloody Mary’s cautious fascination with me might have had more to do with the fact that I’d told old Mr. Miller that my parents would see him laid out on their slab when he’d wrongly accused me of stealing a pack of gum from his grocery store. How was I supposed to know he’d drop dead from a heart attack less than a week later? Nevertheless, the incident gave me something of a reputation. My name is J.J. Graves, and death is my living.

I sat in a hard plastic chair in a small, curtained-off cubicle in the ICU at Augusta General. The beeps from machines were a familiar sound, and the smells of antiseptic overpowered the less pleasant odors of urine, blood, and vomit. I hunkered down in my chair and crossed my arms under my breasts, wishing I’d thought to bring something more substantial than the thin T-shirt and jeans I’d put on that morning. I didn’t miss the numbing cold of the hospital. It was easy to ignore the bone-numbing chill when you were running from patient to patient on a twenty-four-hour shift. Adrenaline and coffee made great internal heaters. I’d spent several years during my residency going up and down these halls or crashing on a gurney in a dark room when things slowed down. I didn’t miss it. I much preferred the dead to the living, but in this case, I was relieved that death had been cheated for another day. I stood up and stretched, and then checked all of the drip feeds hooked up to Ben Carver’s body.

“Your wife is going to be pissed you interrupted her spa weekend,” I said in a soft voice. I’d stopped cursing a while back, but pissed was on the list of words I wasn’t sure qualified as cursing. I brushed the hair off his forehead. “If you wanted attention there are better ways of going about it. Posting the pictures of you at Jack’s bachelor party on social media would be a good start.” There were few people I could call close friends. Part of that was because I’d never felt comfortable trusting others with the dark parts of my life, of which there were many. The other part was because I was a genuinely private person, and if I was honest, I just didn’t like people all that much. I wasn’t the kind of person who made life happen. Jack was that kind of person.

He came into a room and commanded it. People were drawn to him—paid attention to him. I did my best to blend into any wall I came into contact with. I was an expert at hiding. It still amazed me that we were married. I could never hide when I worked at the hospital. Patients and families had questions and needed reassurances. But in my lab, in the basement of the funeral home, I could hide for hours. For days. The dead needed me.

And in a weird way, I needed them. I twisted the wedding band on my finger and then leaned down to kiss Carver on the forehead. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “Don’t give up. We need you here.” A tear had escaped, and I wiped it away hastily and then wiped my hand on my jeans. I went back to my chair and pulled it up closer to the side of the bed. Carver was a brilliant analyst for the FBI. I wasn’t exactly sure what his official title was, but his security clearance was high, he had connections everywhere, and he worked miracles with computers—specifically, his computer Miranda—which had gone missing at the time of his accident. He’d been staying with us for the weekend, helping us solve the murder of Rosalyn McGowen, a longtime resident of Bloody Mary who had been ousted as Madam Scandal.

She’d been publishing the King George Tattle for months, spilling all of the salacious gossip the county had to offer. Which turned out to be quite a bit. But her identity had been discovered and her life ended because of it. It seemed like weeks ago, but it had only been less than twenty-four hours since we’d made the arrests and filed all the reports. But there was no sense of closure. Not really. My father was still out there somewhere, and he’d haunt me until we tracked him down and put him behind bars where he belonged. Our relationship was…complicated. I’d been under the impression that my parents had both died after my dad had lost control of his car and gone over a cliff in the Poconos. It hadn’t been long after that the FBI had raided my home, looking for every scrap of information they could find on my parents.

I’d also had my life put under a microscope and was questioned for days on end. There’d been no time to grieve. It had just been chaos. Apparently, my parents had been using their funeral home to smuggle all matter of things from overseas. They’d been working under a government contract—though which government was never made clear to me—and soldiers who’d been killed were transported to Bloody Mary, Virginia, for preparation, meaning my parents removed the contraband from inside them, and then shipped them on their way. Jack and I had found proof of my parents’ extracurricular activities in an underground bunker in my backyard. The FBI had missed it in their many searches of the property, and I wish every day that I had too. Inside had been a goldmine. There’d been boxes of cash and passports, files and flash drives, including a box that had my name on it. Nothing like finding out your parents stole you as a newborn from your biological parents.

A couple who were probably fairly normal and didn’t kill people. And let’s not forget about the remains of the man who had a bullet-sized hole in his forehead. Finding that bunker had not been a good day for me. And then my dad showed up, back from the dead, and expected me to greet him with…well, to be honest, I don’t know how he expected me to greet him. It’s not like we’d ever been close. But needless to say, we didn’t hug it out. Unfortunately for my dad, he didn’t return from the dead before I’d discovered the bunker and removed the body and files. Unfortunately for me, he’s had a lot more practice at being a horrible person, so he was able to steal everything from Jack’s safe where it had all been locked up. Our only saving grace had been the handful of flash drives Jack had given to Carver. Carver had been keeping the information from his superiors.

No one could know what we had until we could find out who else was dirty—and that included the FBI. The whole operation was too big for my parents to be the only ones involved. If I wasn’t his daughter, we’d probably all be dead by now. Believe me, I’ve asked myself more than once why being his daughter kept me alive. Not for some misguided familial connection, that was for sure. But there had to be a reason, and I had a feeling that his patience was running thin. He needed those flash drives, and he needed them now. I knew it was Malachi who’d been driving the black SUV that had run Carver off the road. My dad wouldn’t think or care about the fact that Carver had a wife, three small daughters, and one more on the way. Malachi only cared about himself, his survival, and whom he could manipulate to make things go his way.

The truth was, Carver’s chance of survival wasn’t all that great. When Jack and I arrived at the scene, Carver was already on a gurney and being precariously lifted up the steep ravine where the car had run off the road. The paramedics said he’d flat lined twice on the way to the hospital. Carver’s skin was as white as the sterile sheets he was lying on, and there was a large white bandage on the side of his sandy blond head. The only thing that had stopped the SUV from going into the Potomac was a tree. Unfortunately, the tree hadn’t been very yielding. Ben’s nose was broken from the airbag, and someone had sewn a straight row of stitches into his forehead, closing the jagged gash there. The smooth, somewhat childlike face was going to be scarred forever. I’d stolen a look at his chart once he’d come out of surgery and been brought into ICU. Other than obvious contusions and abrasions, he’d had some internal bleeding, and a broken rib had punctured his lung, causing it to collapse.

His collarbone and leg had been broken in multiple places, and his pelvis had been crushed. The surgeons had gotten Carver stabilized and stopped the bleeding, but he had a lot of surgeries ahead of him. It was going to be a long and painful road to recovery. My phone buzzed and I dug in my bag until I found it. Jack’s face was on the screen, and I didn’t hesitate to answer. It had been hours since I’d heard from him. “Any luck finding the computer?” I asked by way of greeting. “None,” he answered. “But I didn’t have much hope. I don’t know how, but Malachi knows we gave those flash drives to Ben.

He knows the computer was the key to deciphering his encryptions.” “But he didn’t know I’d asked for the flash drives back.” “I’m thinking he’s got surveillance on the house. He might have listening devices set up as well. I would if I were him.” “Or maybe Carver’s accident is the perfect distraction to get us out of the house so he can do another search,” I said. “He won’t find them,” Jack said. “And the house is being watched while we’re gone. Inside and out.” “Where are you?” I asked.

“Down in the parking lot. I just talked to Michelle again and she was able to catch an earlier flight. She should land around two, and I’ve got a couple of guys going to pick her up and deliver her to the hospital safely. See you in a few.” Jack hung up, and I took a relieved breath. There was something about being a cop’s wife that was vastly different from being the best friend or lover of a cop. I’d been all three, and the moment I’d said, “I do,” I’d felt the weight of what that meant. I paid extra attention when he dressed in the mornings and strapped on his weapon and badge. I noticed the slightest changes in expression or the way he carried himself if he had a rough day. And I worried.

Worried like I never had in my life. Maybe that was because I’d never had anyone to worry about on such a deep level. Jack had always been my friend, and we’d been through a lot together—including him being shot three times while on a SWAT raid in DC—but we were connected on a level now that I didn’t realize was possible for two people to achieve. I’d never known true intimacy or what it meant to become one with another person until Jack. But there was a price to pay for that kind of love, and I realized every day that one of us might be taken away from the other. It left a hole inside me I couldn’t bear to think about. Jack had been sheriff of King George County for a handful of years, but just because he was in charge didn’t mean he had it easy. The budget and resources were small for a county our size, and his cops didn’t get a lot of chances to investigate or see the kinds of things cops in the city did. Not that he was complaining. There were worse problems to have than teenagers partying in the fields, breaking up the occasional barroom brawl, or getting livestock out of the road.

But things had changed in our small, sleepy county over the last year. I used to worry about keeping the funeral home in the black, but I’d had more business than I wanted recently. People had lost their minds. Maybe it was the economy, or politics, or toxins floating in the air. Who knows? But people were shorter of temper, shorter of tolerance, and the vast ways of killing their neighbors seemed to be endless. The increase in violent crime was just one of the many things that bothered Jack, though crime was still low compared to other counties our size. The truth was, there would always be evil in the world. Just like there would always be good. The battle between the two went back to Adam and Eve, and to think we’d somehow change it thousands of years later was naïve. So it was best to suit up, fight, and protect.

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