“This is the last payment you’ll get from me!”
Charlotte Owens slammed the heavy padded envelope onto the scarred wooden desk in the musty warehouse and folded her arms across her chest. While she tried to appear calm, her heart beat a rhythm of fear.
Tammy leaned forward, her sparkling white teeth flashing against sinister dark eyes. Shaking her head, she scooped up the thick envelope and thumbed through the stack of bills. “I figure your secret is worth at least another hundred grand.”
“You’re crazy!” Charlotte shouted. “I don’t have that kind of money.”
“You’ll figure something out. I doubt your new fiancé would be too happy to discover that his bride-to-be is a former jailbird. What do you think that kind of scandal would do to his campaign?” She set Charlotte with a steely glare. “I want five thousand dollars by the end of the week or loverboy finds out the truth about his girlfriend’s secret past.”
“Only five thousand?” Charlotte mocked.
Tammy sneered. “Consider it the first of many installments,” she said, as she headed for the door. “Meet me at Jenny’s Restaurant for lunch on Friday,” she shouted over her shoulder. “And bring the cash in a wrapped box so it won’t draw suspicion.” She turned and smiled sweetly. “What could be more natural than bringing a gift to an old friend?”
If Tammy really thought she was stupid enough to fall for that, she had another thing coming. She’d bring the gift, all right. But it wouldn’t be what she expected.
She’d met Tammy Wilson two years ago while serving a prison term for theft. Once she saw the newspaper article announcing Charlotte’s upcoming engagement, Tammy had managed to track her down.
Charlotte was aware that her future husband would not enjoy the bad publicity if word got out about her prison record. She’d met Scott Aldrich at a political fundraiser where she had gone to pick pockets. Scott, a senatorial hopeful, had flirted with her from the start. After a whirlwind courtship, he had shocked her by asking for her hand in marriage. Charlotte’s life had finally taken a turn for the better, and she had no intention of letting Tammy ruin it.
She also knew that paying out these enormous blackmail sums would not make Tammy go away. Skeletons had a way of resurfacing. The only way Charlotte was going to get rid of the problem was to eliminate the source.
She had thought her days of deceit were behind her, but now she realized she would have to resort to her criminal past one final time before laying it to rest.
On her way home, Charlotte stopped at a shopping mall and purchased a blonde wig, a black leather mini-skirt and a tight knit sweater. A pair of black fishnet stockings and long black gloves topped of the unusual ensemble.
On Friday morning, Charlotte stuffed the items into the shopping bag, along with a vial of poison and a large decorative bow, and walked to a gas station minutes from the restaurant. In the restroom, she changed into the outlandish outfit, tied the bow around the empty wig box, and stuffed her street clothes into her large handbag. Then she walked to the restaurant.
“What are you trying to pull?” Tammy’s expression revealed surprise when Charlotte accepted the chair across from her in the dimly lit establishment.
Charlotte sat down and placed the bag at Tammy’s feet. “Do you think I want to be seen with you in a public place? Unlike you, I’ve managed to turn my life around. I don’t plan to let anything tarnish that image.”
Tammy relaxed and sipped from a glass of wine. “So you’re in disguise,” she whispered. “I can live with that. As long as you brought the cash.”
Charlotte pretended to peruse the menu, praying for the moment when she could slip the poison into Tammy’s drink.
The opportunity presented itself when Tammy turned to flag down a waiter for more wine. While she wasn’t looking, Charlotte emptied the vial of poison into her glass.
Minutes later, Tammy clutched her throat, her expression registering shock. Gasping for breath, she slammed her chair back, flailing her arms.
Charlotte grinned, then immediately feigned concern as she summoned assistance. “Someone help! Please!” she screamed, knowing that any attempt to revive her former prison roommate would be futile.
When a crowd of concerned patrons rushed to offer aid, Charlotte slipped away.
At the same gas station, she exchanged outfits, stuffed the black ensemble and wig into her purse, and walked home.
Two hours later, Charlotte opened her door to a man displaying a badge.
“I’m Charlotte Owens,” she responded, warily. “Can I help you?”
“Miss Owens, I’m Detective Larson. You’re wanted for questioning in the death of Tammy Wilson. You’ll need to come with me.”
Charlotte’s pulse raced but she kept her cool. There was no way they could place her at the scene. She’d gone to extreme measures to insure her anonymity.
“There’s been some mistake, Detective,” she responded calmly. “I don’t know anyone by that name.”
The officer didn’t flinch as he produced a sheet of official documentation. “We also have a warrant to search the premises for a black leather mini-skirt and matching accessories.”
Charlotte’s hand gripped the door as she felt the blood drain from her face. “How did you know?”
“It was the gift, Ma’am.”
Charlotte pulled her eyebrows together, wondering how an empty box could possibly offer any information. “The gift?”
“When we removed the gift box from the shopping bag, we found a credit card receipt. A trip to the department store confirmed that this afternoon you purchased an ensemble matching the one the restaurant diners said Miss Wilson’s lunch date was wearing.”
Officer Larsen smiled. “I’ll admit we haven’t figured out the motive yet, but we’re working on it. In the meantime, if we find that outfit, as I suspect we will, this case can be delivered to the jury all wrapped up.”