Chapter 23

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A stab of melancholy shot through Barlow's core as he thought about his shared past with Pet. At the time, letting her go had seemed the right thing to do. Looking back, he now knew for sure it had been the biggest mistake of his life.

Nothing he could do about it now. She was married. What was her husband like? He hoped the man cherished her as much as he did. "I thought maybe you'd bring Charlie."

A facial tick crossed Pet's face as if she was troubled by the idea. "I didn't think tonight was going to be a social visit. We were supposed to be going over case details."

He could read her. Pet was upset he had brought Caroline. "I'm sorry. I didn't think you would mind Caroline tagging along."

She took a moment before responding. "It came as a surprise." She hesitated. "Barlow, don't you think maybe you're robbing the cradle? I mean, how much do you two really have in common?"

He didn't know how to answer.

Pet covered her mouth. "I'm sorry. It's really none of my business. The only important thing to me is that you're happy."

Barlow was satisfied with Caroline, but was he happy? He didn't like that disturbing thought and wanted to get off the topic. "What do you have to show me?"

Pet opened the small clutch she carried. She pulled two photos and passed them over.

Barlow studied them, holding them toward the light of the dim dining room. One photo showed a young man wearing a jacket and tie, like a school yearbook photo. The other photo showed two men, both angled toward the camera. Although grainy, he could still make out facial details. "What am I supposed to be seeing?"

"Do you notice any resemblance between the two photos?"

He looked closer. "Yeah. The yearbook photo is also one of the guys in the grainy photo."

"Do you recognize him?"

"No."

"It's Neil Mantener. Is that how you remember him when you pulled him from the car?"

"Not really. It could be him. It was dark. The guy was soaking wet, and I was scared. I can't remember that well; besides it was ten years ago."

She chuckled. "Relax, Barlow, this isn't an interrogation. I'm just asking."

Barlow felt a heavy hand come to rest on his shoulder. He turned and stared into the face of the big guy from the neighboring table.

The man removed his hand. "Excuse me. My first time here. Do you know where the bathrooms are?"

Pet pointed. "Over there on the other side of the bar. There's a short hallway."

"Thank you." The man walked away.

Barlow inspected the second photo, the one showing both men. "Where was this one taken?"

"Are you ready for this?" Pet paused for effect. "It's from a hidden camera in the security room of the convention center. It was taken hours before Neil Mantener's car crash. Those two men are the perpetrators."

Barlow could scarcely breathe. "That means—"

"—The cash you saw in the steamer trunk was real. You didn't imagine it."

He felt a great weight lift. Then another one dropped. "It proves nothing concerning whether or not my father stole the money or whether he did harm to Neil Mantener."

"Think about it, Barlow. There was an accomplice. Maybe you didn't see him. He could've taken the cash before your father got there."

"It was a big trunk. All that cash would've been heavy. How could the accomplice have gotten away without being seen? We both know our road has only one way in and out."

"I don't know. I don't have all the answers."

Barlow considered everything. "This is good work, Pet. How did you manage to put all this together? Why didn't law enforcement figure this out ten years ago?"

She detailed for him her meetings with former detective Custer Graham and Nate Grove, the convention center manager. "Without the cash linking the two cases, Neil Mantener's car crash looked like a random accident. There was no reason for anyone to suspect a connection."

It made sense. "Who is this second guy?"

"I don't know. I was hoping you might recognize him."

Barlow looked again. "As far as I know, I never met him. If he lived anywhere around our area, we would know him."

"Exactly my thoughts."

"Which means he's not a local."

"That would be my guess."

"You did great, Pet, I could kiss you."

His words had the desired effect. Her lips turned up into a smile. "I remember your kisses...and everything else that came after."

Barlow's heart rate accelerated. "I remember too. I'll never forget."

They held each other's gazes for a long moment. If the circumstances had been different...he needed to stop torturing himself. "So, where do we go from here?"

Pet leaned back in her chair, striking a sultry pose. "You mean your place or mine?"

He blushed, feeling flattered that she would still flirt with him. "What I meant was where do we go from here with the case?"

She grinned. "Did I just embarrass you?"

"Not at all."

"I think I did."

"Seriously, Pet, what's next?"

"We're at a dead end. Unless someone can recognize the second perpetrator, we know all there is to know."

"Show it all around. Put the photo in the newspapers. Get it on TV."

"Can't do that." She told him how the case was restricted and off-limits.

It angered him. "You mean someone is protecting this man?"

"I've already gone way out on a limb. I could lose my job." She leaned in. "But that doesn't mean you need to stop. Keep the photo. Show it around. If you get a hit, let me know."

He slipped the photo into his shirt pocket. When he looked at Pet, an empty feeling filled him. "I guess this is it."

She cocked her head. "What?"

Barlow swallowed. His throat felt dry. "This case was the reason for us to see each other again. I don't know when we'll get another opportunity."

Pet rested her arm on the table. "I'm happy we got this chance. You made me recall sweet memories, but Barlow, we can't easily undo what's been done. Our lives have changed. You're with Caroline now, and I'm...I'm—"

"—I know, you're married." This woman who completed him so fully was now out of reach. They could never be lovers again, and the ache in his chest made it clear it would be too painful for them to even remain friends.

 They could never be lovers again, and the ache in his chest made it clear it would be too painful for them to even remain friends

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Is anybody worried about "the big guy" who is lurking around?

We are now at the half-way point of the novel with twenty-two action packed chapters to go where Barlow and Pet grow ever closer, and the bad guys make their move to eradicate them. Thank you for sticking with the story and for your votes and comments.

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