Who was in all of those pictures in the hall?

More chapters from ToxiCity

A VG Serial: ToxiCity

Episode 61

Stone retraced his steps. The picture was a group shot of about a dozen people on a grassy field with a playground in the background. It was warm; no one wore coats. From the hair and sideburns on the men, the picture had to be at least thirty years old. He squinted at the title: Meadow City, 1978. But Matt wasn’t looking at the men. He pointed to a woman in the second row. She looked to be in her twenties. Dark hair, nice smile. Vaguely familiar.

“This woman—this girl—that’s Julie Romano.”

Stone froze.

Matt opened his backpack, dug out a copy of the Romano family, and passed it to Stone. The family photo showed an older, rounder face, but otherwise, it was the same smile, the same expression. Julie Romano.

Stone grabbed the photo off the wall. “Where’s Ricki?”

The receptionist pointed to a door at the end of the hall. Rufus Dorman, Ricki’s bodyguard, sat at a secretary’s station across from the door. Clutching the photo, Stone moved down the hall and threw open the door before Dorman could stop him.

Her office, large and airy, was dominated with a clear acrylic desk, bare except for an expensive looking pen set. Abstract prints on the walls, thick mauve carpeting, and a window with a spectacular view of LaSalle Street. Ricki was on the phone but fell silent when she saw Stone. “I’ll get back to you,” she said into the receiver and hung up.

“You’d better look at this,” Stone said.

“Good morning to you too, Sergeant,” she said. Rising from her chair, she began walking around her desk when Matt came in, with Dorman at his heels.

“I’m sorry, Miss Feldman,” Dorman said, his face full of anger. “They just –But Ricki wasn’t looking at Dorman. “Detective Singer,” She said. Her cheeks colored.

Matt’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “Good morning, Ricki.”

Stone, watching their reactions, stepped in front of Matt to block their view. “Ricki, who’s in all those photos in the hall?”

“My father liked to commemorate his projects with pictures of employees, contractors. You know, the people who made it all happen. He’d make a lot of copies and give them to everyone in the pictures.”

“I see.” Stone motioned to the photo of Romano. “Take a look at this. Do you know this woman?”

Ricki forced her eyes from Matt to the photo. She squinted, then shook her head.

“You sure?”

A look of irritation came over her. “I told you no.”

Stone raised his eyebrows. “So you did. That’s Julie Romano.”

“And Julie Romano is…”

“The dead woman Matt found in the dumpster.”

Ricki reeled back. She looked at Stone, then Matt. “Oh my god.” Her irritation vanished, replaced with a look of fear. Even Dorman sucked in a breath.

“I—I’m sorry. I didn’t…” Ricki swallowed. “What do you need from me?”

Stone glanced at Matt. His partner’s face was unreadable. Stone looked back at Ricki. “Her personnel file.”

She hesitated for a moment, then nodded at Stone. She headed across the room. At the door, she turned around. “Matt, will you give me a hand?”

Matt was already halfway across the room.

 ***

Matt followed Ricki into a room with stacks of file cabinets, a vending machine and shelves of office supplies. She bent over one of the cabinets and opened a drawer labeled “Personnel”. As she thumbed through the contents, Matt stood at the vending machine, watching her back, feeling awkward and clumsy.

“Why don’t they ever file things the way they should? How many times have I told them…” She threw a look over her shoulder. “Could you help me, please?”

Inside the drawer were file folders with brightly colored labels, but he couldn’t make out the words. She closed the drawer and opened another. This time he could see names, alphabetically arranged. As he drew closer, a whiff of perfume filled his nostrils. Sweet and tangy. Not the flowery stuff Georgia wore.

“Matt—I don’t …” She twisted around, and as she did, her hair brushed his cheek. Her voice trailed off. He noted how her jaw flexed when she swallowed. The way she blinked her eyes. The smile lines around her lips. He felt heat on his face and saw it on hers.

Her features softened, and she tilted her mouth up. He felt a dizzying wave of desire. He was aware of dangling on the precipice, about to dive into a dangerous ocean. Then he thought about Georgia. His eyes flicked away.

The silence thickened. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he lowered his head. He wasn’t sure what to expect. A slap, an insult, a curse? Instead, she flashed him the barest hint of a smile. He returned it, grateful she wasn’t angry. In fact, he thought he saw a glint in her eyes. A glint that spoke of triumph. He must be mistaken.

Bashert,” she said in a throaty whisper. “It’s just a matter of time.” Then she bent over the drawer. “Got it.” She pulled out a file.

Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.

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