Claire Gaston’s amber hair rode flat against her head, giving the impression she’d just climbed out of bed. Any make-up had worn away too, yet she still looked closer to forty than her real age—which I knew from her file was fifty-three. In any case, Claire was twenty years my senior, had spent a day and a night in the clink, and still looked better than I did after a comfortable night of sleep and a shower.
We picked up telephone handsets on either side of an opaque window in the jail’s visitation room, and I tried to ascertain whether she regarded me with hope or just curiosity.
“I’m Emily Locke,” I said, “part of your defense team.” I smiled, trying to convey that I withheld judgment, even though I wasn’t sure that was true. “Sorry about the circumstances.”
She leaned forward and rested her elbows on a countertop that extended away from the dividing window. Richard Cole, the private investigator I worked for, often said that it was a good practice to mirror a subject’s body language during interviews, so I did. My forearms ended up in something sticky.
“Are you the investigator my lawyer hired?” “I’m that investigator’s lackey.”
She tipped her chin up but didn’t speak.
“Hope you don’t mind.” I pulled a folded paper from my purse. “I brought a list of things to clarify. My boss is painfully deficient with specifics.”
“What every woman looks for in an investigator.” “Actually, he’s very good. We just work differently.”
Claire surveyed the tiny countertop on her side of the glass and brushed invisible debris onto the floor. “Ask away.”
“Let’s start with your kids.”
She inhaled and seemed to hold the breath. “They’re all I think about.”
“Who’s keeping them?”
“My parents.” Her gaze fell. “Even though they’re too old to be caring for kids.” She traced imaginary shapes on the countertop with neatly manicured fingers that reminded me of my best friend Jeannie’s hands. “You probably know I’m in the middle of a divorce.”
She glanced up long enough to see me nod.
“Daniel’s not their father. My second husband, Ruben, moved back to Argentina last year. Our custody fight was…I’m ashamed of it. And now with me here—” she looked around our tiny, divided cubicle— “he’ll come back and take them away, I know it. I didn’t kill Wendell Platt. You have to help me prove it before Ruben swoops in and disappears with the boys.”
“It would help me to understand what’s going on with Daniel.”
Claire leaned back and crossed her arms. Richard would have said I’d put her on the defensive.
“What does he have to do with this?”
I cupped my chin in my hands and watched her for a moment, trying to figure out if she was angry. “Police are reconstructing your day on Thursday, trying to figure out where you went and what you did before Dr. Platt’s murder. I hear you and Daniel had quite a fight.”
She straightened and opened her mouth to argue, but I raised a hand and continued. “We’ve all said things we didn’t mean, don’t worry. The trouble’s that the police want to interview Daniel but can’t find him. You were the last person to see him and witnesses say you were enraged. It doesn’t help to have extra suspicion directed at you.”
“No one can find Daniel?”
I shook my head. “Know where he might be?” She shook her head in return.
“Why the divorce?”
Her shoulders relaxed, like she was resigned to surrender her privacy as well as her marriage.
“Neither of us could be faithful.”
My stomach flip-flopped, but I stayed quiet. Richard said sometimes people will volunteer extra information if you give them a chance.
This didn’t turn out to be true for Claire. After a few moments, I asked her to continue.
“It’s complicated,” she said. “For years we’ve talked about parting ways. Last month I finally filed.”
“What was your relationship with Platt?”
Claire shook her head, more to herself than to me, and screwed her face into a queer sort of smile that could only be described as sarcastic. I was considering how to rephrase when she surged toward the glass and banged it with her fist, sending me back in my chair so violently its legs scraped the linoleum.
“I’ve never met Wendell fucking Platt!”
All I could do was try to control my breathing. “Never met him,” she said. “No one believes me.”
She settled back into her chair and I tried to convince myself that the person in front of me was the same woman from thirty seconds ago.
“He was murdered in his home,” I said. “Your fingerprints were at the scene.”
“Worse, honey. They were on the weapon.”
Perhaps reading my incredulity, she added, “Don’t tell me.
Your boss left that out.”
“How do you explain your prints on the weapon?”
She squinted at me and the vibe I got was borderline venom- ous. “That’s what I’m paying you to do.”
I pressed my fingertips to my temples. “If you never met him, I assume you were never in his house?”
She combed her fingers through her hair so severely I thought she might yank out a fistful of highlights. “I already told all this to Mick Young.”
The name elicited a visceral adrenaline surge—the kind brought on when something’s wildly wrong.
I made a point to keep my tone calm. “You’re represented by Brighton and Young?”
She looked at me quizzically. “Of course.”
That explained why Richard had been sketchy about her case. His omissions made me look like an idiot, so now I was doubly miffed. But nothing good would come of showing that to the client, so I pushed it aside and put on my best professional show. “I apologize for the lack of communication in my office,” I said. “Your case is important to me and I want to get the facts straight.
Please tell me about Thursday, starting from the beginning.” She regarded me for a drawn out interval and I felt the discomfort of being on the receiving end of a silent stare. “Do you have kids, Emily?” she finally asked.
If she did kill Platt, I certainly didn’t want her to know about Annette.
But then she added, more gently. “I need to know. Please.” “Why does that matter?”
“Because I didn’t kill anyone. And if Young can’t prove I’m innocent, my kids will go to a man who shouldn’t have them. Ruben isn’t capable of putting the boys’ needs in front of his own. It’s terrifying to imagine and hard to explain to someone who’s not a parent.”
Her fears resonated with me, but I wasn’t ready to share that. “Tell me about Thursday.”
She tucked her hair behind an ear and edged forward, resting a forearm on the little countertop again. I promised myself I wouldn’t flinch if she had another outburst.
“Thursday I got a tip about a dog and went to check it out.” Before I could ask, she added, “I’m in an animal rescue group.”
Claire seemed more likely to wear an animal than rescue one. I wondered what else about her I might have misjudged.
“When I got to the address, something was off.”
I tried to conjure the image of Claire skulking into bad neighborhoods, retrieving mutts. Pet rescuing sounded like a dirty, hands-on job, ill-suited for her.
“Most of our rescues are from poor, rundown areas. The address for this dog was in the Heights.”
That was weird. Houston Heights, better known as simply the “Heights,” was a quaint, historical community in north central Houston. Noted for meticulously maintained period architecture and its artist community, it didn’t seem the place one would expect neglected pets.
“I knocked, but no one answered the door.”
I wondered what she might have said if someone had. Hi. I heard you’re mean to your dog so I’m here to take it away?
“I looked through the windows and didn’t see anyone so I went around back. There was one of those wooden privacy fences. I went through the gate. It wasn’t the backyard of someone who can’t afford to feed a dog, believe me. But I thought there was a hurt animal inside so I had to check anyway.”
“You broke in?”
“I didn’t have to. The back door was open a smidge. I knocked and shouted inside, but no one answered. I whistled for a dog, but none came. I should have stopped there.”
You should have stopped at the gate.
“But I went into the kitchen and called for the dog again.
When I didn’t see signs of one, I left.”
“That’s why your prints were at the scene.”
“Front door, back door, and windows.” She considered. “And countertops, I guess.”
“They ID’d you pretty fast. You have a record?”
Claire shook her head. “When my boys were little, I worked at their elementary school. They fingerprinted everyone they hired.”
That made sense. She’d still be in the system.
“So what do you think happened? You think Platt was already dead in the house when you showed up?”
“I think it happened after I left.”
“Because I don’t think he had a dog.” “What?”
“Somebody went to a lot of trouble set me up.”
I thought of my friend Jeannie again. She’d have loved the element of scandal.
Claire continued. “I got summoned to a rescue and when I got there, there were no signs of a dog—no poop in the backyard, no bowls on the floor. My fingerprints were on the inside and outside of the house and even on the screwdriver lodged in his trachea—a tool that came from my own garage.”
Inwardly, I winced. The bit about the screwdriver was news to me, but I didn’t dare show it.
“So I asked myself…who hates me enough to go to all the trouble? Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of folks would leave me off their dinner party lists, but it would take real hate to pin something like this on a person. And I keep coming back to Diana King.”
“Who’s she?” I’d been tailing Socialite Diana around Houston for two days, but Claire didn’t know that. “What’s your relationship with her?”
Claire pursed her lips and gazed upward as she considered how to answer.
“The better question is what’s my relationship with her husband.” I blinked. “Oh.”
“Chris did a lot for me last year. We developed a comfortable rapport that developed into friendship and eventually,” she shrugged, “an affair.”
I leaned forward again, into the same sticky residue I’d forgotten was on the damn counter. “What does that mean, ‘did a lot for you’?”
She touched her nose and forehead, then counted silently on her fingers. “Nose, brow, boobs, thighs, ass.”
“He was my surgeon.”
I nodded, buying myself a moment to let the new information gel.
“So you think Diana King has framed you for a murder as revenge for your affair with her husband.”
“Why not just kill you?”
Claire moved her mouth into a peculiar combination of a pout and a snarl. I got the impression she’d never considered the question. She shook her head by way of response.
“Do you know a reason Diana King would want Platt dead?” “No.”
“Then I agree with you. This set-up was an awful lot of trouble and risky too. Maybe we should think about who else wanted Platt dead and you in trouble.”
“It was Diana.” “I’m only saying—”
“That tip about the dog came on an anonymous note in my gym locker. I belong to a private club. It’d be hard for anyone but a member to leave a note that way.”
Her mind was made up. “You still have the note?”
She shook her head. “The police asked me that too. I remember putting it on my kitchen counter, but after that, who knows. Maybe the cleaning lady tossed it.”
After a bit, I thanked her for her time and left.
Claire’s interview raised more questions than it answered and my mind was busy sorting and filing critical pieces. One nugget had me hot for an explanation, and it had nothing to do with finding Platt’s killer. I dropped into the driver’s seat of my now hundred-and-twenty degree car and headed for Richard’s office so we could talk about Mick Young.