Willie had been a private secretary for the last 15 years. She'd had several bosses during that time, the latest two she had taught how to do their job. In fact, she really didn't need to work under a boss; she knew the job inside out and managed a good percentage of the work on her own. The only reason Willie herself was not appointed manager was that she was a woman. The law being what it is, nobody would admit that openly, but Willie knew it was the case. There was no other earthly reason she would be overlooked for the position. She had the skills for the job, was intelligent and was tidy in appearance.
However, at 30, Willie was also of ripe childbearing age. No employer would put her in a position of high rank knowing it would only be a temporary job for her until she left work to have a baby. The new laws in New Zealand meant an employer would have to pay her a full wage for three months after she left the job, and they would also have to leave the position open for her should she wish to return to work after that three months leave.
It wasn't a hugely difficult job for the managers; they were simply figureheads of a company that managed the storage of client's personal effects. Several branches through the country all came under this one head office. Willie's boss took care of the paperwork for the insurance dealers.
There was generally a time difference between the replacements of managers; the latest had been a week before the new manager arrived. During that time, Willie had needed to sign several documents in order for personal effects to be stored. One of those documents had required the signature of both the manager and his lawyer.
To speed up the process, Willie had forged both signatures after having learnt them by heart, knowing that the new manager would replace the necessary document when he arrived. Signing the documents didn't really worry her; she had done the same thing many times before. The clients of the company did not have the time to wait until the newly appointed managers decided to arrive and begin their job. In her mind, she was simply facilitating the paperwork.
It had been easy enough to keep a copy of the prospective manager's signatures close to hand, they all came on the pre-forwarded job resumes for Willie to photocopy and file. It was an accepted part of the job for a secretary to sign on behalf of her manager, but it was not accepted to sign the manager's name, nor the company lawyer's name. It wasn't a huge criminal act really, though in itself forgery is illegal in New Zealand.
It became more serious when Willie began signing cheques with the new manager, Mr Duffield's signature. The payments were required in order to cover rent on the office building and the lease on the company BMW.
And even more serious when she began writing and signing cheques to pay for her own house mortgage payments and weekly groceries.
Now, she was running from the law. She had crossed half the length of the country, taking nothing with her except one full backpack, making good use of her thumb as she hitchhiked away from trouble.
Unfortunately, trouble had followed in the guise of an experienced bounty hunter. RJ Thomas, loner, had followed Willie every step of the way. Now, he leaned against the bar watching as she sipped her red wine. He'd watched her in the last bar, and the one before that, but she'd not seen him.
He decided the time had come to introduce himself to her.
"Howdy miss, let me buy you a refill," his Texan accent caught her attention immediately.
She looked up at him. Middle age hadn't yet spread to his belly. He was a tall, rugged, reasonably fit looking man. Deep crow's feet were etched beside his steel grey eyes.
She smiled, interested but wary, "Thanks."
"My name's RJ. Thomas," he said holding a darkly tanned hand towards her. "My friends and enemies alike call me RJ." Not that he had any friends, he thought to himself.
"Hello RJ, pleased to meet you," she shook his hand.
"And your name would be... ?"
Her eyes darted back up to his. Some unknown element had her answering honestly. "I'm Willie. Yes, I've heard all the jokes, feel free to add yours."
"Hey ma'am, I don't care what your name is. Drink up."
Willie looked at him suspiciously. Intuition told her there was something not quite open and aboveboard with RJ. She couldn't pinpoint it yet, but she would. She'd learnt the hard way about reading a man. She lifted her glass and finished the last mouthful as another was placed in front of her.
"You're not trying to get me drunk are you RJ?" she asked wryly.
"No ma'am, I'd just like you to feel relaxed in my company is all." His smile charmed but didn't quite disarm her. "Where are you from?"
"Oh, here and there," she avoided his probe. "You're a local are you?"
"No ma'am, I'm from the States. Texas. Just here for a short visit."
"Visiting friends RJ?"
"In a way ma'am. Where are you staying?"
"At the backpackers lodge down the road," it slipped out before she thought.
"Well, drink up dear. I'll walk you home. It's dark out and there's some unsavoury folks around at this time of night."
Minutes later they walked out the door together, the cold air fresh on their faces. The street lamps were on. A few people walked quickly past them, purposeful intentions etched on their faces.
Willie kept a furtive eye on the others in the street. She felt a little uneasy tonight. Heck, she'd felt uneasy every single night since she left the company. Intuition told her they would chase her until they'd found her. Then, who knew what would happen? She had a good idea she'd be tried and jailed for the forgery, no amount of mitigation would save her from that fate.
RJ took hold of her elbow when a couple of drunken louts staggered down the street toward them. She looked up at him thankful for his protection. She didn't know why but he was quickly growing on her. For a complete stranger to notice her loneliness and buy her a drink, and then to walk her home, well, it went without saying that kind of caring was a rarity in her life.
Her room at the Lodge was no bigger than her bathroom back home. It held the smallest double bed that had been manufactured, a bedside table, and one white chair upon which sat her backpack.
"I'd invite you inside if there was any room," she laughingly commented as she unlocked the door.
"No problem, I'll fit." He walked past her and stretched out on the bed. A little taken aback she moved to close the gawky '60s patterned curtains.
"Leave those," he said. "I like the moonlight coming in that way. Come and sit beside me." He patted the edge of the bed, having moved over as far as he could, there was still only a small amount of room left. If she sat beside him she'd more than likely end up on the teal-coloured felt carpet squares, and it wouldn't be a soft landing.
She chose instead to move the backpack from the chair and sat on it cross-legged waiting patiently for him to speak again.
He half closed his eyes, watching her, waiting until he saw her shoulders rise and lower in an almost exaggerated manner, then her eyes drifted closed. He wasn't sure why, but he felt drawn to her. Maybe it was her innocent appeal; she certainly didn't seem like the lawbreaker that he'd been led to believe. But he'd been caught out by that once before, he was not going to drop his caution with her. He knew he was physically attracted to her. Hell she filled out her tight jeans in all the right places. And that T-shirt she was wearing, well, she may as well not have been wearing it. Thinking along those lines had the ache in his groin springing to life. He stifled his groan as he reached across, grabbed her arm and gently pulled her onto the bed beside him.
She opened her eyes in confusion, only to find herself staring directly into his grey ones. The smile on his face held hers for an interminable time. Then, slowly, he moved until his warm lips covered hers.
They only made love once that night. He left soon after. Willie lay awake thinking until the sky lightened; then exhausted, she fell into a deep sleep not waking until pounding on her door interrupted her dream.
She awoke, not groggily, as most people do, but instantly and completely clear headed. She always woke that way, she had figured years ago that it was because she was a morning person. When at home, she got up in the small hours of the morning and went out walking for exercise before the sun had risen. She enjoyed that time of day the best. The clear fresh air together with the stillness of the early hours was enough to put her mind on a peaceful level. Willie was one grumpy woman if she didn't keep to her normal routine. Today was going to be no exception.
She climbed out of bed and opened the door. RJ walked right in and stretched out on the bed again.
"Go away RJ, it's late. I have to pack and leave." She moved off to the small room with its white washbasin and threw cold water over her face. Wiping it with the towel, she lent against the doorframe.
"I'm not going anywhere. I need to talk to you."
"At least let me get dressed then." She moved to the backpack and began taking out clean jeans.
"Leave those and come here Willie." His quiet demand caught her attention. She took the step towards him, letting him draw her down onto the bed beside him.
"Tell me Willie. Tell me why you're running."
She was startled that he'd read her mind so well.
"Please Willie. I know something has happened and I'd like to be able to help you if I can."
Willie sat with her back towards him. He stared at the straight barrier. He wanted badly to hold her close, to let her know that, for the second time in his life, he really did care. He wanted to be able to tell her his job, and that he'd prefer to believe her side of the story rather than what he'd already been told.
"I can't tell you." Her reply was barely a whisper.
Disappointment swam around in his mind. "It's okay dear. I can wait until you're ready to confide in me. I know you're unhappy. I know you're running and scared. I want you to know that I'm willing to listen and will help you if I can." His arms wrapped around her body pulling her down until they both lay snuggling. She turned toward him, her head rested against his denim shirt. A damp patch on his shirt stuck to his body as he held her close, listening to her quiet crying. He stroked her shoulder-length brown hair waiting until her sobs eased.
When she quietened, he tilted her chin with his fingertip. Her warm brown eyes were swollen and puffy from the tears she had shed. His heart hurt in his chest as he felt her pain. He looked deeply into her eyes as he spoke. "I am here for you."
Taking a long and slow breath, he watched as the emotions flitted across her face. She'd never be able to hide anything from him. He could read her easily.
"I am a criminal."
"In what way?"
"I forged signatures." Her eyes stared straight at the silver button on his shirt pocket.
"For what reason?" He figured now that she was talking, he'd get the entire story from her.
Her deep breath was audible. "I work as a secretary for a storage company. I've been waiting for a new manager to arrive. There were two documents to be signed and the clients were in a hurry to have their property stored. So, I signed both documents myself." She paused, flicking her eyes to his to gauge his reaction to her words. His face was completely blank of emotion; his thoughts though were sorting and matching up the information he already had.
"Well, I signed the documentation and sent it off by courier to the clients in the morning. I guess that they must have been watching and waiting for me.
"You see, I'd also signed company cheques to pay for my mortgage and groceries. I know it was wrong of me, but I couldn't help myself. I had the chequebook and knew the manager's signatures, it was a simple matter to write the payments and send them off.
"Anyway, mid afternoon arrived and so did a couple of cops." Willie pushed away from him and sat up, her back to him again.
"I saw them and panicked. I guessed the company discovered what I'd been doing. I didn't really mean any harm. I guess I was just tempted into doing it; I simply wanted to get my own life moving ahead and the job moving. I didn't realise the manager was the very person on the document. The one who wanted his furniture stored. The one who already had half his house lot enclosed in one of the lock-ups. I didn't realise then that he was the one about to start as my latest boss."
"What happened next, honey?"
She felt comforted by his use of the endearment and went on.
"I panicked. I rushed around packing whatever belongings I had in the office into my briefcase. I had to leave some things behind, but I wasn't thinking too straight. I picked up whatever I could grab quickly and let myself out the back door of the building. I ran for my car, jumped in and drove as fast as I could back to my apartment. I emptied my biscuit tin of my savings. I packed a few things into my backpack and left. I tried to start the car but it wouldn't go. I think the battery was dead. So I ran down to the main road and hitched. It wasn't too difficult to thumb rides. I hitchhiked my way around the country when I was younger. My first ride took me across the state. I didn't see a reason to stop then, I just took the next ride, and the next, until I found myself here yesterday."
"And you've stopped running now?"
"No, I just figured that a day or two here would give me a little time to think what to do next." She turned then and looked straight at him. "I suppose you're going to drag me to the nearest police station now."
"No, I'm not going to do that. But I do strongly suggest that you think about going to the police and telling your side of the story. You signed papers illegally and then panicked. You didn't know about the murder. And I'm sure that given time you'd be willing to pay the money back that you stole."
"Murder! What murder?"
"Duffield's murder. Travis E. Duffield Esquire to be precise." He watched carefully for her reaction.
"You're kidding, I hope."
"I'm deadly serious. Travis Duffield was murdered."
"Oh dear God! I can't believe it. When did he die? How was he murdered?"
"The police found him in his office. The one right next to yours."
"Just who are you? How do you know this?"
He had known these questions would come. He wasn't ready for the hurt look in her eyes as she flung the questions at him. It hit him hard then. Right at that moment he realised he loved her. He didn't want to hurt her; he wanted to protect her, to help her. He hadn't figured yet just how much he should tell her, but he had a feeling he wanted her to stick around in his life and he knew if there was any chance of that happening, then he'd better be out in the open with her.
"I've been hired to find you."
She jumped up off the edge of the bed, her eyes darting around the room. He thought she looked like a cornered doe. Sighing, he lifted himself off the bed. Placing himself between Willie and the door, he explained in a quiet manner so as not to frighten her more.
"It's okay Willie. I understand your side of the story. You had nothing to do with the murder. I had to question you about it like this so that I could get an honest reaction from you. I had a hunch that you didn't murder Duffield, but I needed to be certain."
"Who hired you?"
"What? Mr Duffield had a partner? I didn't know there were going to be two managers this time."
"No, Willie. Duffield's partner is his partner in crime. Mr Duffield is a smuggler of drugs. He was planning to use the furniture lock-up storage units as a place to store the drugs they were bringing into the state. In fact, he has already begun storing his latest stash of cocaine in the lockup you ticked for his use."
"Oh my God," Willie's jaw dropped as she sank down onto the bed. Shock had her mind spinning, her eyes wide open and staring directly at him. "I had no idea. You have to believe me. All I did was sign a couple of documents to hurry up the red tape so Mr Duffield's personal effects could be stored. I had no idea he was planning on drug smuggling."
"It's okay honey. I believe you." He sat beside her on the bed putting one arm around her and holding her trembling body tight against his.
"So they think I murdered him?"
"Yes, that's what they thought. The police came to ask you questions about the documents you'd signed. They walked into the wrong office and saw Duffield slumped over his desk. He'd been stabbed, but the knife wasn't there. They searched around the rest of the offices and found it, covered in blood."
She didn't want to know but had to ask. "Where did they find it?"
"On the desk in your office. You must have just left as he was being murdered. The murderer, a guy going by the name of Wilson, saw you leave and decided you were as good a candidate as any for a murder charge."
"It's so hard to believe. I had no idea of any of this. As far as I knew, Mr Duffield and his family were moving there having sold up their property in the States. He was going to be starting work only two days after I signed the documents. I thought it would be a simple matter of getting him to counter-sign me. I had no idea about the drugs. None at all. You have to believe me RJ." She grabbed his shirtfront and looked into his eyes. She found what she was looking for and let her hands drop back down into her lap.
"If you are working for Mr Duffield's partner, then why are you chasing me?"
"I was sent to find you to ensure you were set up for Duffield's murder."
"What?" Stunned, she stood and backed away from him.
"It's okay Willie. I'm not planning to set you up. But I needed to find you to make sure you were safe and far away from the drug smugglers."
"But wait, let me think a moment. You've followed me across the country at the instigation of making sure I am charged with Mr Duffield's murder by his drug smuggling partner, is that right?"
"Yes," he watched her question cross her face.
"But you're not going to turn me into the police. You're going to look after me and make sure that I stay alive?"
"What about the forgery of the documents and the cheques I wrote?"
"I think for now we'll concentrate on getting you into a safe place, then we'll think about the documents."
"What about Mr Duffield's murderer? Do we just say nothing and let the police work it out?" she asked.
"We can't do nothing about it. As far as the police are concerned, you are Duffield's murderer. As we both know you didn't do it, and we also know that it is better for you to stay away from the police at the moment, I guess we have to find the murderer ourselves, or at least some kind of evidence or proof that you didn't do it."
"Well that's easy. Just get the knife and take the fingerprints from it."
His wry look should have warned her. "That's been done already."
"And the fingerprints on the knife were yours."
She gasped. "How could that happen? I didn't touch a knife!"
"There's some real clever people out there in the drug smuggling world Willie. They can do anything. Getting your fingerprints would have been as easy as taking a copy of them off the last glass of iced water you had."
She stared in horrid fascination at her fingertips.
"RJ what am I going to do. I didn't murder Mr Duffield. I couldn't murder an ant let alone a human." Tears threatened to fall again.
"Well, first things first. I'm going to get you out of here and take you to a safe house. Now get yourself dressed and packed and let's leave."
RJ's original vehicle had been the main cause of disagreement with his mother for as long as he could remember. He'd finally decided earlier in the year that it was time to sell it, to pass it on to someone else who could build their own memories around it. He was sick to death of being reminded how his father had died.
The red corvette had reeked of drug smuggling. His father had known that and had accused him outright in his usual forthright manner. Duffield's partner, Henry Wilson, had heard the conversation between them and decided it was time to sort the old man out.
Wilson had gone out himself, jumped into the corvette and driven straight over the top of RJ's father as he'd left the building and walked to his car in the shopping car park. Nobody had witnessed the event, but RJ knew Wilson had killed him. Now, he was hoping he could nail Wilson, if not for his father's death, then for drug smuggling.
His mind switched back to Willie as he drove the yellow convertible towards the safe house. She sat quietly the whole drive. When they'd stopped at the diner for a bite to eat, she'd hardly spoken to him. He decided it was better that he left her to think about things. Soon enough, she'd begin firing questions at him again.
They arrived at the safe house. A summerhouse by the beach, which his family had owned for the last 20 years, it was bright and cheerfully painted. It was a house set in a place that would clearly show people arriving, should they have any unexpected visitors. The other beach houses would be unoccupied at this time of year.
She hardly looked at the house as they drove down the long open driveway towards it. She was intent on watching the waves as they crashed onto the rocks a short walk from the house. When he stopped the car, Willie pulled out her backpack and walked straight down to the edge of the beach. The only sounds were those of the waves and the seagulls as they squawked across the sky to each other. She stood there for ages, just looking and listening. Finally the cold wind penetrated the fog in her mind and she walked slowly back to the house.
RJ had opened the door for her; the house having been built on one level, she stepped from the ground directly into the house. Shaking the sand from her shoes, she pushed them off and followed him barefoot through the house to the bedroom.
"Whose house is this?"
"It belongs to my family. We don't come here as often as we'd all like, less so since Dad died. But it's a great place to come at this time of year for some peace and quiet. I'd almost forgotten it existed, I've not been here for years."
"It's lovely." She took the backpack and left it on top of the chair beside the little round table that stood under the window. "But I can't stay here forever. How can I help you find the real murderer if I'm stuck here so far away?"
"You'll be helping more than you can imagine. I have to keep you safe and this place is the only place in the world where I can guarantee that. I need you to stay alive so that I can catch Wilson and ensure he doesn't get out of jail for a very long time. He's a drug smuggler honey and a murderer and I want him put away forever."
"Can I ask you a question RJ?"
"Sure honey, you can ask me anything, you ought to know that much by now."
"What did you do when you worked for Mr Duffield and Wilson, I mean before your father's death?" She watched his face, waiting for his answer.
"I did whatever I was told to do."
"I want to know exactly what you did."