Malcomb Curtis had chosen to meet Rosemaria at the Starbucks on Beverly Boulevard in Beverly Hills. She found a parking space nearby and walked up the street toward the coffee shop. She recognized Curtis from the photo Waite had sent her. He was seated at a table outside, sipping his coffee. Osborne must have described her to him because he gave her a short wave when he saw her.
“I was given your description, and you match it perfectly,” he said, confirming her thoughts.
She smiled and shook his hand as he stood up.
Curtis was single, in his late thirties, and around 5' 11". He had piercing blue eyes and hair cut like a Marine. Indeed, he had been in the Marines for two decades. Rosemaria knew all this because she had asked Waite to check him out thoroughly, down to what boxer shorts he liked to wear. Considering what she was about to ask him, she figured she’d better know everything about the man.
“What can I get you?” he asked.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Sure I do.”
“All right then. How about a soy decaf mocha, small?”
After he went inside, she wondered how best to approach him. He was a loner. Never been married. Maybe he liked it that way. He must be a considerate type of person to come all the way from Ohio to bury a niece he barely knew existed. That was a good sign.
He came back out, handed her the mocha, and sat down. “Sergeant Osborne told me the same people who murdered Maria might be after two friends of yours. I’m not sure why you want to talk to me.”
Rosemaria set her coffee on the table. “First of all, I have to tell you, I’m so sorry that your niece died at such a young age and in such a terrible way.”
“How were you related to her?”
“Maria is—was—my sister Meredith’s daughter. Her father was married to Meredith for about two minutes before he took off for parts unknown. I joined the Marines when I was nineteen to get out of Youngstown. When you’re dirt poor like we were, you either end up in jail or dead. Maybe it’s not so bad now. I don’t get back there much.”
“Where’s Meredith now?”
“I have no idea. Meredith left Maria with my mother’s sister when she was ten. My aunt died five years later, and Maria took off. If I had known Maria had come out here and was doing what she was doing, I would have flown out and dragged her back to Ohio whether she wanted to or not.”
“You can’t blame yourself for what happened.”
“I can, and I do. She’s my one and only niece. I retired last year after a back injury would have made me deskbound. I should have looked her up then. My fault.” His composure slipped only slightly but enough for Rosemaria to see he was carrying plenty of guilt, with layers of protection covering it up.
“There is a reason I asked to meet with you.”
“I figured there was.”
“There are two other girls who used to be in Maria’s occupation. Their lives are in mortal danger from the same people who murdered Maria. The people who want to kill them have powerful connections, and they seem able to track down the girls, wherever they are. We need to move them somewhere they’ll be safe until we can find the people responsible for Maria’s murder and lock them up.”
Curtis mulled this over. “Why not put them in witness protection?”
“We want to keep the feds out of this as much as possible. We’re afraid if the FBI takes over, and if these people have the connections in DC we think they have, the whole thing will be covered up. We can’t trust them, and we don’t trust them with the girls.”
Curtis whistled softly through his lips. “They don’t have family?”
“Maryanne has an aunt in Albuquerque. Tiffany has no one.”
“That’s their names?”
“Yeah. Right now, they’re safe in an unoccupied condo that belongs to a cop, but I want them far away from here.”
“I’m a single man, living alone.”
“Well, to tell you the truth, I did check you out, so I know that. Everything I found out about you assures me there is no one else I know who would do a better job protecting the girls.”
Curtis looked off into the distance, taking it all in. “I guess you need me to tell you right away.”
“Before you leave, yes.”
He waited another minute. “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Relief washed over Rosemaria. “Thank you.”
He gazed at her intently. “Life sure does take a lot of strange twists and turns, doesn’t it?”
He had the kind of gaze that made her feel like he could read her mind. “I’m a walking example of that,” Rosemaria said.
They both sipped their coffee in silence for a few moments.
“I’m very grateful to you for doing this.”
“They’ll be safe with me.”
“We can discuss all the particulars before you fly out on Friday. And I’ll see you at Maria’s funeral tomorrow.”
“It’s nice of you to come.”
“She didn’t get what she deserved when she was alive. The least I can do is give her my respects in death.” She looked at her watch. “I need to go visit someone in the hospital. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
They both stood. His blue eyes met hers. His face softened for the first time. “Thank you for giving me a second chance.”
Rosemaria’s breath caught in her throat. She didn’t know how to respond. She managed to say, “You’re welcome,” then turned to leave but changed her mind. “This isn’t something that was made public, but Maria had my business card in her purse. It was crumpled up as if it had been there a long time. It was from four years ago, when I was working in Hollywood. I used to pass them out all the time. Someone gave it to her, but she chose not to call. I wish she had.”
He looked at her kindly. “We’re making up for it now.”
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