“Turn on your local news.” Mark’s usual calm and collected voice conveyed enough panic that Alex didn’t question his command. He hurried out to the lobby of his office building where they kept a television streaming all day on a national news channel to entertain the guests waiting to meet with an agent. He used the remote to scroll to a local station and his jaw dropped at the headline of the breaking news story.
“Environmental activist, Abe Nader found murdered near his home on Hightower Street.”
“No…” Alex collapsed into a nearby chair. “How could they?”
“I need to make a second call to my contact at the Bureau,” Mark said. “The situation has escalated, and they need to be involved immediately.”
“Okay,” Alex answered. “I want to listen to the rest of the story anyway. Talk to you later.” Alex touched the screen on his phone to end the call with Mark and sat watching the story unfold on the television.
Yellow caution tape surrounded the scene of the crime preventing reporters from gaining close access, but Alex could see in the background that Abe was found on a property with two solar arrays. Whoever had done this was sending a clear message to the community: this is what happens to people who dig too deep.
Alex was glad he and Krystina had taken the time to make all the copies needed, and to save the evidence on three separate thumb drives. Anyone doing extensive research in the next few days would be under tremendous scrutiny.
“Krystina,” Alex whispered. Was she safe? Was she afraid? He jumped from the chair and hurried back to his office. Grabbing his car keys and sport coat, Alex hurriedly told his secretary he was heading to the county building, which was only a few blocks away.
Alex screeched to a halt in the county courthouse parking lot and hurried inside before remembering the metal detector. Any metal he was wearing or carrying would have to be removed prior to walking into the building. When he wasn’t in a hurry, this was no big deal. But when he was hurrying to get to a person he cared about, the process was tedious and intrusive.
He emptied his pockets of change, slipped off his watch then stepped through the metal detector, which promptly started beeping, announcing to everyone in the lobby that he was in violation. He realized his belt buckle had probably set off the detector and slipped that from around his waist. He felt like he was stripping in front of the courthouse patrons. After successfully stepping through the machine, he stared at the floor in embarrassment while redressing.
Once he’d finally passed the rigorous inspection by the security guard, he hurried down the hall to the now-familiar register of deeds office where he burst in the door to see Krystina’s worried expression. Her shoulders slumped in relief and she hurried from her desk.
“I can’t believe Abe’s been murdered,” she said, tucking herself into his arms. “He was just in my office a few days ago.”
“Really?” Alex pulled back and looked down at her creased brow. “You didn’t tell me he’d been here recently.”
“Oh? Well, he was looking for the same thing you were looking for,” Krystina said.
“I’m surprised you didn’t mention that.” Alex felt a frown pull at his mouth.
“I was distracted by your handsome face,” she said, reaching a hand up to touch his cheek.
“Distracted…” Alex whispered, taking a step back. That’s exactly how he’d felt since the time he first met Krystina two days ago. Distracted. Almost purposely distracted. Was she in on the scandal? He tried to shake off the thought. “How many times has Abe been into your office?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Many times. He liked to use the computers here at my office because the people who run the county GIS can tell who logs into the system and where they are, what IP address they’re using, that kind of thing.”
“Why did he want to access the GIS?” Alex glanced over at one of the computers here in Krystina’s office, which were available for use by the public.
“The online Geographic Information System shows who owns a particular property as well as the tax information, classification, school district, that kind of thing.”
“Why would he want to know all that?” Alex asked.
“He was mostly using the aerial photos on the base maps, trying to confirm and back up his ground truthing.”
“And he couldn’t do all that from home?”
“He swore they knew every time he logged onto the system. He insisted he was being stalked and trailed and harassed,” Krystina said. “Guess he was right.”
“Who is ‘they’?” Alex held up air quotes.
“I don’t know?” Krystina shrugged. “Whoever was harassing him?”
“Are we in danger from having done all this research?” Alex asked.
“Nah”—she waved her hand dismissively— “You’re working with me. You should be fine.”
“Are you… in on it?”
“In on what?” Her innocent blue eyes were almost too innocent.
Puzzle pieces fell into place in rapid succession and Alex took another step backwards, toward the door to Krystina’s office. She had been tongue-tied when he first met her, startled that he was standing in her office. She was all too willing to help him, as if working with him would throw him off her trail. She had perfect access to every property record in the county and knew more about the tax records than anyone else.
She was the perfect point of contact for everyone else involved in the cover-up. And he had fallen right into her charms. What a sucker he’d been.
“I need to… to take off,” Alex stuttered, reaching for the door handle.
“Where are you going?” she asked, nervous panic in her words.
Wouldn’t you like to know? Alex thought. “I just, ya know, have something I gotta do.”
“Can I come with you? I don’t want to be alone right now.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be working?”
“I can take the rest of the afternoon off,” she said.
Just like that. She was making things too easy. The guilt was written all over her face. The message was clear. He was next. Abe Nader was a warning.
“Alex? Are you okay?” Krystina asked, taking another step closer. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Maybe I’m coming down with something,” he said, his stomach clenching in panic. “I’ll call you later, okay?”
Alex didn’t wait for her to answer, just took off running down the hall toward the exit door where the intrusive metal detector tried to keep the bad guys out. Stupid machine didn’t realize the bad guys were already on the inside.
He nodded to the security guard as he pushed open the heavy door and pulled his cell phone from his pocket while hurrying toward his car.
“Your Highness, I think Krystina’s one of them.”