Do I even need to say how fast I got out of there? Of course I don’t. Just like I don’t need to mention that not even a bunch of middle-aged naked babes were enough to scare me into giving up-not when Darcy Coleman had already mentioned prisoners who were more trouble than most, ones who might have hated him enough to frame Jefferson Lamar.
Making sure I was nowhere near where I could catch so much as a glimpse of those women in all their crone-like glory, I hung around the sports complex until I saw a couple of them (back in their robes, thank goodness) heading for their cars. Before Darcy was in the parking lot, I was already closing in on her.
“Did we make you uncomfortable?” She unlocked the trunk of her sea green Prius and deposited the candles and her books inside. “That wasn’t our intention, you know. We’re simply celebrating our femininity. You take it for granted when you’re young.” She shot me a sidelong glance. “But someday you’ll realize that there’s more to being a woman than just being sexy and adorable.” She banged the trunk shut. “Wisdom is a good thing.”
“Which is why I want to find out more about those prisoners you said might have had it in for Jefferson Lamar. Once I have their names, I’ll be smarter, right? And wisdom-”
Darcy laughed. “Thank goodness you’re not one of my students. You’d be trouble in class.”
“I always was.” I left out the part about how it wasn’t because I’d ever challenged my professors to see things in a different light. “You said you’d give me names.”
“I never did.” She unlocked her car and opened the driver’s door so it would cool off inside before she climbed in. “But… well… maybe I can help you.”
It was exactly what I was hoping she’d say, and I was ready for her. I already had a notebook in my hands and I clicked open a pen.
“The first one that comes to mind is Mack Raphael, of course,” she said. “But that’s just because I see him on TV all the time.” I guess my next question was evident in my huh expression because she went right on. “You know, Bad Dog Raphael, he owns a used car lot in Cleveland somewhere. He’s in his own commercials. You must have seen them. Seems like every time I turn on the TV, they’re running one.”
Now that she mentioned it, that did sound familiar. “This Bad Dog guy, he used to be a prisoner?”
“One of the worst. I don’t remember details, but I think he was at Central State because of aggravated assault or something like that. Something violent. It wasn’t his first offense, either. It’s funny, really. Every time I see one of those commercials, I find myself thinking about Warden Lamar. He was a big believer in rehabilitation, and if Bad Dog owns his own successful business… well, maybe the warden was right. Maybe prisoners really can turn their lives around. Maybe it’s Warden Lamar’s influence from beyond the grave…” She laughed like she wished it were possible, and for a nanosecond, I thought of telling her it actually was. She didn’t give me a chance.
“Anyway,” Darcy continued, “at the time I had to deal with Mack Raphael, he was one nasty guy with attitude to spare. He came to the office once for a disciplinary hearing and asked me if I wanted to duck into the men’s room for a quickie. Can you believe the nerve?” She shivered at the memory.
“Raphael had gang connections, in and out of the prison, and even though Warden Lamar could never prove anything for certain, he suspected Bad Dog was running drugs from the inside. You know, sending orders out to his gang through visitors, making calls to arrange drug buys, even smuggling the stuff in and distributing it in the prison. Bad Dog was smart, but Warden Lamar was smarter. Once he clamped down on Raphael and started monitoring visits and phone calls, it must have hurt business, because Bad Dog freaked. Warden Lamar didn’t need more proof than that. He knew he’d closed Mack Raphael down.”
“Which must have pissed this Bad Dog guy off.”
“Then you think he was the one who-”
“Oh, he wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot. I was thinking about it. You know, while I was picking up the candles and putting everything in order back at the clearing. There were other prisoners who were mad at the world and wanted to take out their anger on the warden. Take Teddy Johnson, for example, though I don’t think it’s possible he could have framed Warden Lamar.”
I wrote down the name right under Mack Raphael’s. “Tell me about him, anyway,” I said, and when Darcy looked at me, I sparkled. “Wisdom. It will help me gain wisdom.”
I had a feeling she was sorry that she ever mentioned it. She sighed. “Teddy had a temper. He was in the warden’s office regularly, and once, he actually went across the desk at Warden Lamar. Needed four guards to haul him off.”
“Then you think Teddy might have-”
She shook her head. “No, like I said, he couldn’t have done it. Teddy ended up getting shanked in the cafeteria line. He died right there on the floor. But that was long before Warden Lamar was accused of killing Vera. Had to be, because I was still at the prison then. So, no. Teddy was already dead by the time Warden Lamar was arrested. He couldn’t have been the one who framed him.” She was so sure, I crossed Teddy off the list.
“I thought of Rodney Beers, too, but…” Again, she shook her head and again, I felt my hopes rise, then fall flat. “No way it could have been Rodney. At least not the way I see it. He was in Central State at the time of the warden’s arrest, and I hear he was one of the guys who cheered the loudest when he heard the news. But one of the guards I kept in touch with told me that Rodney found religion a few years later. As part of his repentance, he confessed to every crime he ever committed, including a couple murders.”
“But he never said a word about framing Jefferson Lamar.”
“You’re quick.” She smiled. “Maybe you’re already on your way to finding wisdom.”
I tapped my pen against the notepad. “So if we eliminate Teddy and this Rodney character, that leaves Bad Dog-”
“And Reno Bob Oates!” Her eyes lit. “I’d forgotten all about him. Good old, Reno! He once held up a bank and said he had a bomb. The cops never did find one, but Bob, he had them convinced. Held everyone in the bank hostage for a couple days. Bob was a colorful guy with a larger-than-life personality and a record as long as my arm. He had a beef with the system. Bob always had a beef with somebody or something. Anyway, the whole bank robbery turned into a media circus, and Bob became something of a celebrity with the prison groupies. A lot of people thought he was charming. I can’t say I agree. Bob had a vicious side. Rumor had it he slit a guy’s throat over a card game out in Nevada. That’s how he got his nickname.”
Thinking back, she tipped her head. “Bob really enjoying being in the spotlight, and believe it or not, a number of reporters from magazines and newspapers came to interview him at Central State. Three cheers for Warden Lamar: he saw that the more publicity Bob got, the more glamorous the whole life-of-crime thing looked to kids. He put a stop to it. No more interviews. No more phone calls from fans. Bob promised he’d get even. I was there when he said it. He swore Warden Lamar would regret what he’d done to him to his dying day. I can’t say if the warden did or not. I do know that I heard just recently that Bob is out of prison, living up in Cleveland somewhere.”
“Then you think Reno Bob could have-”
“I can’t say. Not really.” Darcy got her car keys out of the pocket of her purple robe. “This is all just me thinking out loud. And it all happened so long ago, I might not even be getting the details right. None of it proves a thing.”
“No. Of course not. But at least it gives me a place to start.”
“Start? You’re not going to-” She wasn’t wearing shoes, and Darcy was shorter than me to begin with. She backed up and gave me a long, deliberate look. “You don’t know these people,” she said. “And don’t tell me once you do, you’ll gain wisdom. That’s not the kind of wisdom anyone with a brain is looking for. Yes, like Warden Lamar, I do believe criminals can be rehabilitated. I hope every single one I’ve ever met is living a fulfilling, productive life. But I’m not stupid, and just from talking to you, I don’t think you are, either. If you start poking your nose where it doesn’t belong and asking questions about these guys and their lives and their crimes, it’s likely you’re going to annoy somebody. And these people can be dangerous.”
“Which is exactly why I’m not going anywhere near any of them. I promise.” I smiled when I said this, the better to fool her into believing me and myself into ignoring the shiver of fear that snaked up my spine when she talked about bombs and drug running and guys with prison records that made my dad’s pale by comparison. “I’m just looking for the truth,” I assured her.
“The truth?” Darcy grunted a laugh. “The only truth you’ll ever find is in here,” she said, pressing one hand to her heart. “And once you find that… well, you won’t need to search for wisdom anymore. You’ll have all you’ll ever need.”
Whatever that meant.
Just for the record, Quinn is a mighty good kisser. Not that I’m into comparisons or anything, but I’ve been kissed by a lot of guys in my time, and I know what’s what when it comes to good and not-so-good and mind-blowing /knee-melting/wow.
Quinn rates right up there with the best, and at that very moment, I could pretty much prove it because his arms were around me, his mouth was on mine, and my toes were tingling.
The rest of me was all set to go along for the ride when something over his shoulder caught my eye.
“Bad Dog…” Sounding all rough and tough, the voice thundered through the room. “Good cars!” It finished the slogan on a gentler, happier note.
I shot up in bed. “It’s the Bad Dog used-car commercial!”
Quinn had been snuggled up nice and close, his bare chest against mine, and when I sat up, he was forced to roll to one side. He looked over his shoulder at the TV we’d flicked on when we came into my bedroom so he could catch the score of the Indians game. “You’re watching a used-car commercial? We’ve been in bed for-”
“Shhh!” I put out one hand to keep him from talking and waited for Mack Raphael to appear. He was a good-looking, middle-aged guy with thick, dark hair and a scar over his left eye that made him look interesting and dangerous all at the same time. He wore an expensive suit with a dark T-shirt underneath.
“Need a car? Credit bad? You don’t think Bad Dog Raphael is going to let that stop him, do you? I won’t let anything stand between you and reliable transportation. Come on in to Bad Dog’s Big Car Nation.”
The shot switched to Raphael outside on his lot, waving in perfect unison with a mechanical dog that sat in a car on top of a twenty-foot pole. It was a big, ugly, laughing bulldog with a serious overbite. “We’ll get you the car you need at a price you can afford. After all, I might be a bad dog.” He growled. “But I sure do have good cars.”
The scene switched to the baseball game, and yeah, I should have gone back to doing what I’d been doing before the commercial started. But honest, I couldn’t help myself. I had my very own expert on criminals right there in bed with me, and it was too good of an opportunity to let pass.
I flopped back against my pillow. “Do you suppose people know he’s an ex-con?” I asked.
Right before he dropped onto the pillow next to mine, a muscle twitched at the base of Quinn’s jaw. “Sorry you’re so bored.”
I wasn’t, and it wasn’t fair for him to make that kind of snap judgment. I sat up again, just long enough to fluff my pillow. “You’re the one who wanted to see the score of the game.”
“And I saw it, and the Indians are winning for a change, so as far as I’m concerned, we could really turn the TV-”
“There.” The remote was closest to me so I grabbed it and turned off the TV. “Happy?”
“Apparently happier than you.”
I flipped to my left side so that I could glare at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Good.” I didn’t like his sourpuss expression, so if he was any other guy, I would have told him to get dressed and get out of there. But this was Quinn, and remember what I said about what a good kisser he was? He did a whole lot of things really well, and I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity to have him demonstrate. I scooted closer and skimmed a finger over his collar bone. “Now that we’re both happy, can we get back to doing what we were doing?”
He turned on his right side and propped his head on one hand. “Sure, right after you explain what’s so special about Bad Dog Raphael. And while you’re at it, you might want to tell me how you know he’s an ex-con.”
Just in case Quinn was good at reading through lies-and since it was what he did for a living, I would bet on it-I flopped back against my pillow again. “I’m not interested. Not in Bad Dog.”
“Then you must be buying a car.”
“And buying a car is more important than-”
“Of course not!” I gave my pillow a punch to emphasize my point. “I just thought if I was looking for information… about cars… you know… that somebody like Bad Dog might be able to help me, and-”
“No way. You’re not going anywhere near that guy.”
Quinn isn’t the caveman type, so I wasn’t prepared for what sounded too much like an ultimatum. “Why not?” I asked, meeting challenge for challenge. “Bad Dog says he’s got reliable transportation and good cars for good prices. He must know what he’s talking about. He’s got all those commercials.”
“And as you’ve already pointed out, he’s got a record.”
“Which doesn’t automatically make him a bad guy. There are some people who believe that criminals can be rehabilitated, you know. Even ones who’ve been in prison.”
Quinn’s laugh fell right in the middle of the I-can’t-believe-how-stupid-you-are meter. “You’re naive.”
He sat up and shoved a curl of inky hair off his forehead. “So now we’re going to fight about some scumbag of an ex-con? That’s just crazy.”
“For one thing, we’re not fighting. For another, what’s just crazy is you making a big deal out of the fact that I asked a simple question about a guy I saw on TV. I wondered if people knew he was an ex-con, that’s all. I wondered if he might not be a good businessman, anyway, and if he was, I wondered what he could tell me about-”
“A guy like that can’t tell you anything about anything, and if you were as smart as you pretend to be, you wouldn’t even think he could.”
“So now you’re saying I’m not smart.” That was enough to give me all the excuse I needed to slide out of bed. It was a hot, sticky night, but my emerald green satin wrap was nearby, and I slipped it on. “Maybe Mack Raphael is a bad guy. Guess what? I don’t care. Not really. But I don’t have to sit here and listen to you tell me who I can and can’t talk to. And I don’t have to put up with you telling me I’m stupid, either.”
“Raphael is a bad guy. Don’t you get it?” I noticed that Quinn concentrated on that part of our discussion and completely ignored the part about how smart I was-or wasn’t. “We’re certain he’s dealing drugs out of that car dealership of his, but nobody can prove it, and we can’t pin anything on him, and it’s driving everybody on the force nuts because if we could, we might be able to get the shit he sells off the street.”
It was as impassioned as I’d ever seen Quinn (well, as impassioned as I’d ever seen him about his job), and in spite of my anger, I felt a stab of admiration. Did I regret bringing up Raphael’s name? Not a chance! In fact, I saw this as the perfect opportunity to ease back into the subject.
One leg tucked under me, I sat back down on the bed. “I didn’t know that,” I admitted. “He sounds pretty bad. Like the kind of guy who might murder somebody.”
Quinn sat up, swung his legs over the side of the bed, reached for his boxers, and tugged them on. “It’s obvious you’ve got other things on your mind. Other than me, I mean. Maybe we’ll just chalk this one up to a night that wasn’t meant to be.”
What was more important to me, the sex or the information?
At that point, I wasn’t sure, I only knew I saw the chance for both slipping away. I rounded the bed so I could stand closer to Quinn. “You’re jumping to conclusions,” I said, then scrambled to make that sound a little less argumentative because, of course, he was jumping to conclusions, and he didn’t look happy when I pointed it out. “I’m just expressing ordinary curiosity, that’s all. I just wondered if a guy who’s as scummy as Bad Dog might be the kind of guy who would kill somebody, and then, you know, then maybe he’d pin the murder on someone else.”
Quinn’s gaze snapped to my dresser where I’d left the thick file that contained the original notes regarding the Jefferson Lamar case. He’d given it to me at dinner that night, and I hadn’t had time to look through it yet. Apparently, though, Quinn had.
“Raphael had nothing to do with what happened to Jefferson Lamar,” he said. “I don’t know why you’d even think that. Raphael’s name isn’t even mentioned in the file.”
“Which doesn’t mean-”
“It means plenty.” When he’d taken his pants off, he’d draped them over a chair, and he put them back on and zipped them, then did up his belt. “Jefferson Lamar was convicted back in 1985. Raphael was no more than a punk kid then.”
“Punk kids have been known to kill people.”
“All too true.” Quinn slipped into his shirt. “But I just happened to be talking to one of my buddies from the Narcotic’s Unit today. He mentioned Raphael. We talked about the guy and what’s going on at that used-car lot of his. I’m familiar with his background, Pepper. If Raphael killed Vera Blaine, he would have had to be a Houdini. He was locked up at Central State at the time. Satisfied now?”
I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the Lamar case or the fact that now that he was dressed, it was obvious our night was going to end early, and not on the note either of us had expected. When Quinn walked out of my bedroom, I followed him. As long as I’d already killed the mood, I might as well go for broke.
“Raphael could have arranged for someone else to kill Vera Blaine for him,” I told Quinn once we were out in the living room. “You know, a hit. Or a contract killing. Or whatever it is they call it on TV. And you did say Central State, right? That’s the prison where Jefferson Lamar was the warden.”
He was just about to grab his shoulder holster and sling it on when he stopped cold. “Are you even listening to yourself?” he asked, and the look he gave me was so steely, I nearly backed down. Nearly. “You can’t get mixed up with a guy like Mack Raphael just because you’re trying to get information for some silly TV contest. If you think you can, you’re crazy.”
“I’m not getting mixed up with him. I’m not getting mixed up with anybody. I’m just looking for information, and if Raphael can give it to me-”
“Even if Mack Raphael could give you every bit of information you’ve ever wanted and if he served it up on a silver platter, I’d still say the same thing. Don’t talk to him. In fact, while I’m trying to talk some sense into you, let me add that you shouldn’t even go near him. Or think about him for that matter.”
“Why, because he’s a good-looking guy?”
Quinn’s jaw tensed. “How about because he’s a hardened criminal?”
“But if he knows something about how Vera Blaine died-”
“If he does or if he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. Number one, because it’s none of your business. And number two, because you’re never going to find out, anyway.”
“Because you think I’m not smart enough.”
“Because I know people who cross Mack Raphael tend to end up dead.”
“Oh.” Reality check. I chewed on my bottom lip, wondering how I could find out more and not set Quinn off again. He didn’t give me a chance. Instead, he walked to the door and pulled it open.
Before he stepped out into the hallway, he turned to me. “Mind your own business,” he said.
“This is my business. Sort of.”
His hand still on the doorknob, he gave me one last chance to come clean. “Level with me.”
Only I couldn’t, could I?
I was still trying to find the words to explain when Quinn walked away.