Chapter One The Scrutiny



Thomas sat at the foot of his bed, trading his shoes for more comfortable sneakers. With everything that had happened at Crestman University that day, he was worried that someone had seen him and Jude in Nina Perdy’s dorm room at the time of her death.

The campus had been busy at that time of day, but he hadn’t noticed anyone around the dorm when they confronted her about running away from them. Still, the chances that someone was passing by or looking out their window while they had arrived and left couldn’t be denied. All he could do now was hope for the best and that no one would come knocking on his door.

As he came downstairs, footsteps outside his door caught his attention, and a familiar knock followed. Caroline and Ella had their own special knock to announce their arrival, so he already had a good idea who was standing on the other side when he looked out.

Caroline was there looking impatient and glanced over her shoulder as he answered the door.

“Hey,” he said, surprised to see her. “I figured you would still be at the lab at this hour.”

She walked inside, rushing past him, and he could tell by her energy that she was anxious about something. “I cut out early. I had to tell you.”

The excitement and worry in her eyes made him wonder if there was something going on with Alex. Had they heard about him being on campus at the time of the death? Had she come to warn him?

“Tell me what?” he asked, feeling a lump form in his throat.

“You’ll never believe this,” she said, pacing the room. “There was another death today at Crestman. Well, it was at the dorms, but still. It was one of the students, a young girl. So, we’ll need to intercept as quickly as possible and see if we can’t get a blood sample from the medical examiner. I can call Wesley and see if they brought her there.”

“That won’t be necessary,” he said, trying to get her to calm down. He turned away from her, still seeing Nina Perdy’s final moments replaying in his mind.

“What do you mean?” she asked, tossing her bag in the usual chair by the door. “It has to be connected, right? They said it was a young girl, she was found in her dorm, and apparently, it was unexpected, just like the others.”

“How did you hear about it?” he asked.

“I saw the news report. Isn’t it crazy? How many times is this going to happen?”

And more important than that, how many more times would it happen without anyone doing anything about it? He hoped that maybe this time would be different.

It didn’t matter. They had to stay far from it from now on. “I don’t know. But look. We’re not going to have to get involved this time. So, don’t worry anymore about it.” He hoped that she would take his word for it, but he should have known better.

Caroline gave him a confused look. “Thomas, are you feeling well? You’re the one who was telling me that we had to do everything to figure out what’s going on, and now it happens again, and suddenly, you are not interested?”

“Can’t you just trust me this once?” He turned and walked into the kitchen.

Caroline followed him, throwing her hands in the air as if she was growing angry. “No, I’m sorry. I’m too nosy to just let this go. I want answers. What is going on?”

He took a beer from the fridge and offered her one, which she quickly waved away.

“Tell me!” she shouted.

“Okay, fine, I’ll tell you. But you’re not going to like it, and I’m not proud of it, so reserve your judgment until I’m finished.” He didn’t know how much to tell her but decided the truth was always better.

“Okay.” The look of fear and worry in her eyes was starting to grow.

“I was there when Nina Perdy took the drug this morning.”

Confusion clouded her expression. “What? How in the world did that happen? Why did you let her take it?”

He held out his hands in a halting gesture. “Hold on and let me explain.”

He waited for her to nod in agreement before he continued. “We went to the university to try and talk to her.”

“We? You and Jude?” Her eyes widened. “Oh, I should have known. Jude is back in town for five minutes, and he’s already got you doing stupid things.”

“It’s not his fault.” He wasn’t going to let her put all the blame on Jude. He was responsible, too, and felt terrible because of it.

“Don’t take up for him,” she said, pointing her finger at him accusingly. “You always did that. You were always so protective.”

He couldn’t even argue that. He had been protective of him back in the day. That was what brothers did for each other. They had each other’s back, and since Jude saved his life, the least he could do was keep people from judging him too harshly. “This time, I’m not protecting him. I was just as much to blame. In fact, more, because it was my idea to go down there.” He had thought about that all morning since it happened. If he hadn’t been so eager to go down and confront the girl, maybe she would still be alive. The only thing that saved his conscience was knowing that she would have taken it eventually anyway.

“Your mistake was bringing him along.” Caroline pegged him with a hard look. “He ruins everything.”

She really hated him. And there wasn’t going to be any changing that. “That’s not true. Just listen.” She was growing more and more unreasonable about the subject, and he could see her attitude in her expression. “Do you want to know or not?” he finally asked.

“Whatever,” she said, looking like she had just lost faith in him.

“I found Nina Perdy’s name in Jonathan’s contacts. I was hoping she could tell me something about the study group. So when we got down there, I asked Molly to help me find her. When she did, the girl ran.”

“She ran from you?”

“Like a shot,” he said.

“Can you blame her? Two grown apes come in to ask her questions.” She rolled her eyes and sighed. “Jesus, Thomas.”

He could see how that might have scared the girl, but he had tried to avoid it. “That’s why I had Molly help me find her. Anyway, we didn’t have time to ask her anything before she bolted. She ducked out of the library, and Molly told us that she was probably in her dorm. So, Jude and I went to find her.”

“Completely inappropriate,” she mumbled under her breath. “You should have taken the hint.”

“You’re right, but we needed answers.” He had been operating with blinders on. The only thing he could think about was finding Ella’s killer. “By the time we got there, she had already taken the drug. She didn’t want us to find it. She thought she would be in trouble.”

Caroline covered her mouth. “She had the pill at her dorm?”

“Yes. It took effect while we were talking to her, and she started to convulse. I’m not sure she realized that’s what would happen. But it did, and it didn’t take long.”

“That sounds like what happened to Ella,” she said, letting out a heavy breath.

“Yeah, I think that’s what happened to Jenna Brighton and Sam Howard as well.

“Oh no.” Caroline was taking it about as well as he’d expected.

He nodded. “Yeah, and she died right there in front of us.” He could still see the poor girl gasping for air. “I tried to help her. I wanted to, but we had to get out of there.”

“You left her?” She closed her eyes and shook her head as if she couldn’t stand to look at him anymore. And he didn’t blame her.

“There wasn’t anything we could do, Caroline. Not to mention how it would look. Do you think I should have stuck around and prompted an investigation into what I’ve been doing, including giving you things to analyze for me?”

“Okay, so maybe you did the right thing.”

“No, I didn’t.” He wasn’t going to try and tell himself that. There was no use lying to himself when he knew damned well what he did. “But I did the right thing for us. I know that, and I feel terrible about it. But it is what it is. I can’t change that now.”

“All of that, and you didn’t even get to talk to her.”

“We did, though. She mentioned the Alice girl as well, and so that’s who I have to find. She seems to be the one person everyone has in common.”

“Thomas, this is serious. What if someone saw you and Jude at the dorm? You could lose your job. There could be an investigation. They might blame you.”

“I didn’t see anyone around,” he said. “So, I can’t dwell on that. What I do have to do is find Alice and see why someone is giving the students these drugs.”

“Well, we have to talk to Alex and tell him what’s going on, at least what he needs to know. I’m sure he’ll understand, and we can take our lumps, but at the very least, it will spin something off, and they will have to investigate it.”

He realized he hadn’t told her that there was no investigation, and according to Alex, her sister had committed suicide.

“About that, there’s something else I have to tell you.”

“Why do I have the feeling this is going to be worse?”

“Because it is. I already spoke to Alex about what they were going to do, and he told me there was no case. The local DA feels that what they have where Ella is concerned was evidence of a suicide.”

“But she was drugged,” she said and her whole demeanor changed to one of defeat.

“Yeah, I know that, and so do you, but they say there is no proof of anyone else tampering with her drink, so they believe that she made the deadly cocktail herself.”

Caroline sat down at the table. “How could this be? I don’t understand.”

“I know. It’s disheartening. And I’m sick of it. But if no one else is going to look into these cases and prove there is something bigger and more menacing at hand, we have to.”

“You know the risks. You could lose everything. I could lose everything.” He had never seen her look so defeated.

“I know. But it’s worth it to me. I don’t care what they to do me.”

“You had better care. Ella wouldn’t want this. She wouldn’t want you to risk everything.”

“I’m hoping that this latest death will wake them up. But I’m not holding my breath. They’re not going to do anything, so I have to. You can either stay out of my way or help me. Either way, it’s up to you, and I won’t blame you if you want to stay away from this. Whatever you choose, you’re still family to me.”

As much as he wanted and needed her help, Ella would have wanted him to take care of her sister first and foremost. So, he knew the ultimate decision had to be hers.

Caroline took a deep breath. “I want to help,” she said. “But I’m scared.”

“I’d be lying if I tried to tell you otherwise. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s your final chance to back out. And just so you know, Jude is going to help. I know you hate him, but I hope you can understand and at least get along as best as you can.”

She nodded. “Count me in.”

“Good,” he said, letting go of a heavy sigh. “Stay for dinner. I need your help.”

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