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I look at them expectantly as I swing the door open, but add a tinge of annoyance to my voice. “Can I help you?”

The male cop, who has dark receding hair and a slight belly, pulls a badge I now see firmly clasped to his belt and holds it up to me. “Mr. North…I’m Detective Paul DeLatemer with the Sausalito PD.”

My gaze lands hard on the badge he holds up and then I pinch my eyebrows inward. A pained expression takes over my face. I go on the offense and blurt out, “Something’s happened to JT, hasn’t it?”

This throws the cop off, as I’d hoped, and he turns to look at his partner, who shoots him a look of wary surprise before she turns to me. She also holds up a badge and says, “I’m Detective Amber Denning and yes…something’s happened. May we come in?”

I appear stunned for a moment, and then remember my manners, my voice sounding high pitched as I step back and wave them hurriedly in the door. “Yes, I’m sorry…please come in.”

They step into the foyer and I close the door behind them.

“Sela,” I call out, letting a touch of fear coat my words as I turn toward the living room. She pops up from the couch, as we’d discussed, and looks confused for a moment to see the detectives standing there. It’s an amazing piece of acting if I do say so myself.

Her throat is covered by a lightweight turtleneck she put on, because if we were going through with this whole charade of denial to the police, then they couldn’t see the bruises on her throat. Sure, they could have been from a fall or even a sex choking game that got out of hand, but it was best for there not to be any notice or questions about it. Doesn’t mean I didn’t take pictures with my cellphone though, which I downloaded into an encrypted file on my computer. Just in case we needed the proof later.

Sela’s worried gaze flies to mine and I croak, “They’re here about JT.”

“Oh no,” she whispers, hand flying to her mouth to cover it.

She looks so worried for the man who raped her, I almost burst into a spontaneous round of applause. I hold my hand out to her, and she scurries toward me in a move of solidarity and support. My arm goes around her waist and we both turn to face the detective with worried expectation.

Both of them look at us in empathy for the impending bad news they’re going to deliver, but I don’t have a doubt in the world they’re scrutinizing every word out of our mouth and every bit of body language we’re conveying.

“Can we sit down?” Detective Denning says. Her voice is crisp and forged with authority. She may be young, but I can tell she’s a professional when it comes to awkward situations.

“Of course,” I say as I gesture to the dining room table.

Denning takes the end chair, which I find to be a subtle indication that she’s the partner in charge, despite being the younger of the two and a minority as a black female. DeLatemer takes the seat to her right, on the far side of the table, while Sela and I sit to her left.

I scrub my hands over my face, back through my hair, and then huff out a sigh filled with regret and fear as I pin a direct look at Detective Denning. “How bad is he?”

“Excuse me?” she responds.

“JT,” I say with a touch of frustration. “How bad did they beat him up this time?”

I don’t need any heightened sense of awareness to know I’ve shocked the cops sitting at my dining room table, and I can tell that the direction of their early investigation may have just gotten a little more interesting at this tidbit. Sela and I had a quick but unanimous decision on how we were going to handle the cops when they showed up.

We could either wait for the bad news to be delivered and hope our manufactured reactions of grief for a dearly departed friend and business colleague would be genuine enough to fool them, or we could go on the offensive and lace enough truth into the story that it would throw the scent off of us.

“Mr. North,” Detective DeLatemer says from across the table in a gentle voice. My eyes slide over to him and I stare at him with a look of dread because I can hear it in his tone that he’s getting ready to drop a bomb on two poor unsuspecting people. “Your partner, Jonathon Townsend…I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but he’s dead.”

Sela lets out a gasp of horror and her hand comes to my shoulder to grip me in comfort. I make a choking sound and slump down in my chair where I mutter, “No…they wouldn’t have killed him…”

My voice trails off…my eyes lower to the dark teak wood and I clasp my hands together tightly. I can feel the heavy stares of both detectives as they take in my reaction.

Perfectly on cue, Sela’s fingers dig into my shoulder and she says, “It’s not your fault, Beck.”

“I’m sorry,” Detective Denning says, her voice still firm and in control, but there is an edge of confusion that gives me heart she’s buying our hasty act. “But what’s not your fault?”

My eyes snap up to hers and I try to mix in some shades of self-loathing when I tell her the parts of the story I believe to be pertinent. “JT got into some gambling trouble. Owed four million dollars to someone in Vegas. They want to collect and they paid him a visit on Sunday. Beat him up pretty badly. He called me from the hospital—”

“Which hospital?” DeLatemer interrupts me as he pulls a small pad of paper from the breast pocket of his dress shirt along with a pen. He clicks it once and starts scribbling.

“Marin General in Greenbrae,” I supply helpfully.

“And he was beaten up?” Denning asks.

I nod effusively. “Yeah…bad. He didn’t tell me what happened at first. Just wanted me to take him home, but then he eventually told me about owing the money.”

“Who did he owe the money to?” DeLatemer asks as he looks up from his writing.

I shrug. “He didn’t say. Just that he owed the money for a gambling debt and that they threatened to kill him if he didn’t pay up.”

“They give him a deadline?”

I nod at DeLatemer. “Three days, I think he said.”

“And you weren’t worried about that?” Detective Denning asks, and I turn my gaze to her. Her expression is cool, perhaps even a bit doubtful.

“Of course I was worried about it,” I snap at her, maybe with too much force, because Sela’s fingers dig down into my muscles in warning.

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