Chapter 3

Jasper

James was a good sport about hiring Seth, especially considering I had forgotten to call him to cancel our ferret-viewing trip; it wasn't as if he owed me a favor or anything. His good nature was a huge relief. I can pretty much take care of myself but that does not mean I want to court trouble from the kind of folks James counts as 'friends'.

Several days have passed and I've been feeling pretty satisfied with myself about the way I resolved the whole job fubar for Seth. That being said, just thinking about his partnership suggestion is still enough to provoke me to profanity, though. The kid's plenty likable, that's not the problem. I've always been a solo act and it's too late to teach this old dog new tricks. Besides, I'm certain that the constant chatter would drive me to violence and equally certain he would never be able to dial it back enough to mollify me.

The vibration coming from my desk reminds me that I haven't returned my phone to my pocket. Noting the number as James' I assume he is calling to thank me again for bringing Seth into his life.

Sometimes my imagination only proves how truly oblivious I am.

The force of James' words nearly blasts the phone away from my ear.

"God damn it, Jasper, if you're having issues with our friendship you need to tell me to my face instead of treating me like a bad blind date."

Oblivious and seriously confused.

"James," I reply calmly. After all, one of us needs to keep a cool head. "What's got your feathers in a ruffle this morning?"

Chuckling at my own lame joke, I cross the room to examine the coffee pot, killing time while James catches his breath. Still just as broken as yesterday. Damned cheap electronics.

"You tell me what!" he sputters, his volume rising like the mercury in August. "What kind of irresponsible child did you talk me into hiring?"

I bite my tongue, allowing the 'talk me into' comment to just slide on by. Instead, I growl in a steel-cold voice, "What'd he do, James?"

"He's gone, that's what! Little shit works for me for a week, jabbering worse than my macaws the whole time he's here, then up and tells me he quits. Quits! Tells me he can't work the hours I expect because it's interfering with his school schedule. What the hell, Jasper?"

Exactly what I want to know. What. The. Hell.

I assure James that this was the last thing I had expected to happen, that Seth seemed like such a stable young man, blah, blah, blah. I have no idea how I manage to calm him down and pry him off the phone but I do. I later recall Seth's name and some choice language taking on several novel combinations.

As I'm scrolling through my recent calls list to find his number, I get an incoming call.

Speak of the devil and he'll call your cell.

Hissing without fanfare into the phone, I explode, "Seth, if you know what's good for you, you'll start talking now and make it really good. I just got off the phone with your very pissed-off ex-boss."

"Uh, yeah… I had to quit Ventura's but that's not what's really important right now..."

I cut him off with a snarl, "Listen, kid, I'll decide what's important…"

Seth raises his voice and cuts me off by shouting, "The University is accusing Eddie of stealing inventory."

Will you get a load of this? He's talking over me?

Kid's got more nerve than I gave him credit for.

The blood is pounding in my ears with such force that I only hear sound without words. I finally am able to discern 'Eddie', 'accused' and 'stealing'.

Shit. What're the odds? Looking like this Eddie kid must be some kind of magnet for trouble.

"Sucks to be him, huh? Now, what in blue blazes possessed you to…?"

Refusing to be distracted, Seth insists, "Jasper, we've got to do something to help him."

"We don't have to do anything and I keep telling you there is no 'we'. And cut the calling me by my first name crap, huh? Only my friends get do that and my friends don't say thanks for the favor by throwing it back in my face!" Cigar; lighting a stogie will settle my ass down. "Where is Eddie now?"

"Uh, I'm with him at the lab. He called me when they started the random questioneric. He's a real mess."

"Listen; tell him to be cooperative but say as little as possible. They're not arresting him or anything, are they?"

"No…nothing like that. Just a few auditors copying hard drives so far. Well? Are you coming down here or what?"

"No! Seth, I'm not. I just started an estate investigation and have people to see today. As if that's not enough, I'm finding myself chin deep in hostility, dealing with an angry man that, until now, I have been taking great care not to piss off. Besides, It sounds like all they're doing down there is gathering evidence and asking questions. Call me back if they start sounding like they're going to charge him with something."

"He told me not to bother you." Seth's tone telegraphs his clear disappointment in me.

Pfft. No skin off my nose what he thinks.

The surprise is how much this bothers me.

I had barely disconnected with Seth before a second call rings through.

Alice.

"Morning, precious" has barely left my lips before I'm pummeled by the most gut-wrenching sound of my life.

"Jasper…."

I'm out the door in nothing flat.

Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in.

~~**~~

Alice answers the door when I arrive at the boy's apartment. Flinging herself like a cannonball into my arms, I'm nearly knocked off-balance by the force of her sobbing form. Under different circumstance, I'd be making football lineman jokes right about now.

"This is all so horrible, Jasper! I thought this was all behind us. We can't afford a lawyer, what are we going to do? He's always been such a good boy, too! How could he have gotten himself in such awful trouble? This is going to kill our mother. She has always been so proud of him, the first Masen to go to college. We thought he was going to have such a bright future."

Hiding my smirk behind my very real concern, I silently appreciate the lungpower necessary for Alice to have said all of that in one breath

Alice is even more distraught than the first time I met her. Problem is, holding her warm, soft curves so tightly against me is an acute reminder me that my red-blooded male body has a one-track mind. Combine that with the thoughts I was having about her breath control and we have a recipe for bad timing. Trying to put a little space between us to give the Big Guy some air, I walk her backward a few steps while looking desperately for a Kleenex. Eventually I decide a little snot on my shirt isn't going to hurt me.

"I'm so glad you're here." She sighs in contentment against my chest. "I know you'll think of something."

Wow; no pressure there.

Alice looks at me with an air of utterly unshakable confidence. I'm almost horrified that she's depending on me that much.

There's always a first time.

The cavalry - in the form of the boys - chooses that moment to arrive, saving me from the need to address her misplaced hope. At least for now.

Following them into the place, I am immediately surprised at what greets me. The décor is garden-variety college boy with its early-marriage decorating scheme and snarky posters. The clean factor, however, is what's so remarkable. Boys this age, whether at college or on their own, live like pigs nearly all the time and seldom seem to have heard the word 'Clorox'. My mother would have swooped in with a white glove and given this place her stamp of approval. There was not a dust bunny or carpet stain to be found.

It's all I need to convince me of Eddie's innocence, whatever the University's eventual accusations may be. I've been in this business long enough to know that no one this tidy and worried about appearances is a thief. I'd be willing to bet that the person who keeps this place spic and span is too anal retentive to have an overdue library book.

Alice has seated herself in a worn, overstuffed recliner while the boys move about the apartment restlessly. I lodge myself on the arm of Alice's chair, hoping my presence will have a calming effect so she can finally stop crying.

Yeah, the chair arm is good; near enough to remind me how enticing she smells, just far enough away to keep the Big Guy in check.

Seth settles wordlessly on the couch. Even he is subdued.

Eddie flits from kitchen to bathroom and back to the living area.

After too many minutes spent watching him bounce back and forth like a mechanical duck in a shooting gallery, I break the silence to take charge. I am determined to at least try to live up to Alice's faith in me.

"Okay, Eddie. Start from the beginning and tell me what happened."

By now, Eddie is pacing in the small living area, too agitated to sit down. His hand alternates between raking through his hair compulsively and rubbing the back of his neck. He is the picture dictionary entry for kinetic worry.

Looks like high-strung when upset runs deep in this family.

Eddie starts speaking right away in a hollow, tight voice, sounding more like he's describing something he witnessed rather than lived through.

"Heidi called to say Dr. King needed to see me right away. I thought maybe I was going to get my job back. I get there and sit down and then these two people I don't even know come in and start asking crazy questions. I couldn't even think straight when they started asking me to identify my laptop, my work area, anything in the lab that belonged to me. It felt like there was a hurricane in my ears, the room got warm and my mouth tasted like the bottom of a garbage can. By the time I snapped out of it, they had stopped looking at me all together and were arguing with each other about how I 'was sure acting guilty'. When I told them I was going to vomit one of them actually followed me into the bathroom. That was when I called Seth and everything else is a blur until he got there."

Seth whistles, perking up a little, "It's a good thing I was just over in the Humanities Building."

I point a finger at Eddie and caution, "Hold that thought."

Then I round on Seth, rising until I stand over him with my best moment-of-truth face, warning, "Now is not the time to continue our discussion from earlier but don't think for a minute that I'm done with you. What were you doing on campus? I thought you told me you were on academic suspension."

Seth looks up at me with a confused frown. "I am."

Making sure he understands how deadly serious I am, I continue, "Then what was this shit you told James about your school schedule?"

Looking immensely relieved, Seth dismisses me with a wave. "Oh, that. I'm auditing two courses so I can challenge them when we get this crap all squared away. Big Book of Duh, Jasper. I have a career at stake here. I can't afford to just not go to school."

Alice breaks in gently, having watched in wide-eyed silence until now. "We were fortunate Seth was on campus today. Eddie needed to know he had somebody on his side in all of this."

Willing to concede that point for the moment, I move on. "Fine, but Seth used to work there, too. Did they have the same questions for you, Seth?"

"No and that was what was so weird. They kind of ignored me as if they weren't interested in me at all. I kept it cool as ice and did some quick thinking, though. I knew it would be big time important for our investigation to have me on the scene like that and I needed to get as much information as I could. The auditors wouldn't talk to me at all but I tried to make sure Heidi was okay so I could keep her talking as long as I could."

I start to correct Seth about the 'our investigation' comment but catch Alice's eye as my mouth swings open. It swings shut so quickly my teeth click.

Oh, yeah. Faith

Edward gives Seth a look that can only be described as testy. "I'll just bet you were a big comfort."

"Hey, I kept it strictly professional, dude. She was upset and we needed deets. Heidi told me that the Provost's office had called Dr. King yesterday then showed up without warning this morning. She was pretty freaked out about the whole thing."

Unsurprised, I reason, "I would guess so. She probably had to answer some pretty rough questions herself if they were asking questions about inventory."

Seth gives me a confused look, "A few, but mostly she was worried about Eddie."

Now I am surprised. "That doesn't make any sense to me. Wouldn't inventory be an Admin responsibility? What does any of this have to do with you, anyway, Eddie? It almost sounds like they're singling you out."

Eddie groans and collapses like a blown-out tire onto the couch, dropping his head between his knees like he might pass out.

"I managed the inventory." His voice rises from between his knees, a wheezy squeaky version of his normal tenor.

It's Alice's turn now. "Why would you do that? I thought you were a lab assistant."

Eddie just continues to groan, as if he can't force out anything more than sound.

It isn't long before Seth looks like he's going to burst. "Eddie had a hella crush on Heidi from the minute she was hired. He set up a SQL database, thinking if he made life easier for her it would catch her attention plus he'd have something to spark some conversation."

"But she had so much trouble doing simple Boolean queries that I took it over for her." By now, Eddie's voice sounds muffled more by humiliation than nausea.

"So, was she, um, at least grateful?" It's sounding like a case of 'no good deed goes unpunished' to me.

"She baked me some oatmeal cookies. Not exactly what I was hoping for."

Alice picks this time to philosophize, "That's okay, hon. She doesn't deserve you, anyway."

Seth snorts disgustedly, "It probably would have helped if you'd actually asked her out. You can't expect her to be a mind-reader."

"I was getting around to it. I didn't want Heidi to think that I had expectations for her gratitude." Eddie retorts in self-defense.

Praying that he'd give me an answer I could work with, I ask the obvious next question, squinting against the answer, "How long ago did this happen?"

"10 months ago."

"No…it's been at least a year," Seth contradicts immediately.

"I'm certain it's only been 10 months." Eddie's tone is decidedly frosty now. I guess he's recovered somewhat.

"It was a year ago because it was right after Spring Break. You still hadn't done anything about that New Year's resolution you made to start getting out and meeting some ladies. You said you were tired of watching me and Paul dating while you spent your school breaks alone…"

I'm starting to feel a little sorry for Eddie.

While Heckle and Jeckle bicker, I try to add up the facts.

"Do you two have anything else you want to tell me about where the jizz you were selling really went? I need to know that you've told me everything."

Seth and Eddie exchange looks, silently testifying that neither one has anything to hide.

Eddie is the one who answers, his face as earnest and open as a toddler's. "You already know everything we know. Paul grabbed me before I could figure out what the Montoyas would want with all that spunk."

Jeez, he looks like he's never told a lie in his life.

I begin making a list of all of the people I was going to need to interview. It was getting longer by the minute.

The four of us talk for the next hour or so about the types of inventory housed at the lab, the inventory cycles mandated by the University as well as any other related topic I could get the boys to discuss. About an hour into the discussion, Eddie mentions something that makes me sit up and take notice like a freaking bloodhound.

"Paul helped me with the last quarterly report. He knew enough SQL that I only had to show him how the data was related and he did everything else. Counting, recording and printing. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to have such a good friend."

Helluva guy. He was some kind of friend, all right. Speaking to Paul goes straight to the top of my list.

Taking that as my cue to leave, I slap my hands against my thighs.

"Looks like that's where I'm off to next. Eddie, I need you to type out anything that has to do with inventory, your computer systems and anyone who has even had a glimpse at those systems since you've been working there. Do it right now and don't leave anything out. If Seth so much as sneezed on the keyboard one day, I want to see that in your report. Email it to me when you're done."

Seth mumbles a swift excuse about "shit to do" and ducks out the door before I can corner him. I let him go. I can always track him down via cell if necessary.

I walk Alice to her car, having decided that she was going to try to go back to work before meeting Eddie at their Mom's house to bring her up to speed. I say a swift prayer of thanks that my presence will not be required for that meeting.

Seth

I had snapped pretty damn quick that I needed to make myself scarce before Jasper had a chance to corner me. So, as my Botany prof used to say, I hurried to make like a tree and leaf.

Thing is…I don't really have anywhere to go. I'd already had to blow off my classes for the day so I don't have anywhere to be for the rest of the day.

When my stomach does a loud rumba, I figure a snack is in order.

Riding my bike to the 7-Eleven scores me a combo deal of M&M's and Red Bull. Not exactly the grub you'd see a detective in a paperback eating but chocolate and caffeine are going to be nonnegotiable if I am to take on the shitstorm Eddie is in.

Once I've pacified my stomach I feel human again. Patting my belly with a contented sigh, I recognize immediate benefits from the caffeine acuity. I need to train myself to think like a detective. What would Jasper do next?

Have a cigar?

Somehow, I don't think Eddie would want me to expose myself to emphysema and esophageal cancer just to prove my friendship for his scrawny ass.

Trying to think like Jasper does the trick, though. It's high time I face the thing I've been avoiding all afternoon.

I'm going to need to see my stepsister.

And that means a call to Mom to get her number.

Sure, I could have gone to visit Bella at work but that was not a stellar idea under the current circumstances. My Mom is usually pretty great…but she's going to be totally Mom on the phone and that mess is never quick.

~~**~~

Sure as shit, it takes 30 seconds to get the number and another 25 minutes to finish the call. I know – if I called her more often she wouldn't feel like she needs to give me everything she's got when I do get around to calling. What do they say about good intentions and the road to hell? Yeah…they must have been thinking about me.

Finally, finally I get my text sent:

Bella, must c u stat. very urgent. 30 min Bean Bar. Seth

It takes fifteen minutes but at least she comes through.

You better be buying.

~~**~~

No surprise that I'm at the coffee shop before Bella.

Asking for Bella's number had triggered my Mom's nag reflex so I got the full rant about what a shame it is that we're both at the same university and never talk, that I need to make time for family, that she brought me up better than this…ugh. I totes respect my Mom, though, and I gave her back a mega-dose of "I promise to do better".

It helps that she's right.

Thing is, neither Bella nor I feel that familial thing. Just because our parents decided to make a family does not make me her brother. She's four years older and was leaving for college by the time our folks hooked up, so she wasn't so keen on bonding with the teenage geekboy. It's not as if we despise each other or anything. I guess it's more accurate to say we haven't taken the time to get to know each other.

Up until today that had pretty much worked for both of us.

I remind myself that, seeing as how I just pulled Bella out of work, it would behoove me to be on my best behavior. Inspiration hits; cookies make everything better, right? I add chocolate chip cookies to my mocha order.

Chocolate and caffeine, baby.

Bella walks in just as I find a table, allowing a chance for a quick hug before sitting down.

Mom would be so proud.

Then she gives me this expectant look when I don't start talking right away.

I don't usually have problems finding what to say.

"Umm, thanks for dropping everything to meet me."

"You said it was important and you've never done that before." She shrugs dismissively. She's trying here, too. "I can't be gone too long, though."

"Phew! Damn, this is hard. Bella, I need a favor and I probably have no right to ask but you're the only one who can help."

She nods her head quietly, her face concentrating on our conversation. It reminds me what a good person she really is. Reminds me why I'm here.

Bella works in the Finance Department at the university. The Internal Audit section of the Finance Department, to be exact.

"Ok, I'll get to the point. It has to do with your job, actually. What do you know about the audit your department just started for my lab?"

Her eyes go wide in surprise as she draws a sharp breath, "I forgot that you work at the Reproductive Lab," then narrow to pinpoints as her anger turns bottle rocket. "I can't talk to you about that. Even worse, I can't believe you pulled me out of work for that!"

Aw, hell…I couldn't have fucked this up worse if I had tried.

Bella thinks I'm trying to use her for information.

Throwing her napkin to the table, she gets in my face, "You've grown a pair of big brass ones, Seth, to ask me to risk my job for you."

Grabbing her arm as she rises to leave earns me an icy light-saber glare that makes me fear for my hand like I'm Luke Skywalker.

"I didn't mean it to sound like that. I wouldn't ask you to do something like that. Just sit down and lower your voice, please?"

She sits with a little huff, obviously still skeptical about my motives. "Okay, so if it's not what I think, tell me. What is it you want exactly?"

"I know I don't have the right to ask you to tell me anything that could get you in trouble." She snorts in agreement, which I pointedly ignore. "My roommate, Eddie Masen, is the guy the University seems to think is behind their missing stuff. I know him like a brother, Bella. Better than I know you and you better believe that I would never believe it for a minute if someone accused you of something as wrong as this."

Taking a sip from her mocha, she gives me a sideways look. "The guys in the office are saying that the lab already fired him for something else and he's lucky they haven't pressed charges for that. What makes you so sure this investigation isn't part of the same mess?"

"Because I was with him every step of the way in the shit that got him fired. Bella, I lost my job, too. But making a stupid, stupid mistake in one area does not make you guilty of everything else automatically."

"Aw, Seth. You're not working any more?"

"Yeah, I am. I can't tell you too much 'cause I don't want to put you in danger or anything but I'm going to start an undercover gig working on Eddie's case tomorrow. My partner was really impressed with how I solved Eddie's kidnapping."

Bella interrupts me, making a stop sign with her palm. "You're going to tell me what happened with the lab job before you say anything else."

When I hesitate, she gives me the eyebrow of judgment. "You asked for this meeting and you want my help. If you're not going to trust me with the whole story, I think we're done here."

Rolling my eyes, I launch into a quick and dirty explanation. "Three of us were selling extra, um, animal body fluid instead of trashing it. The deal went south, Eddie was kidnapped and the guy who did it, who was our 3rd partner, went to jail for it."

Well, that just ratchets the judgment up another notch. "And you don't see any connection between 'selling' and 'stolen'?"

"No. What we were selling was for pets, not profit." I can't take her 'Are you really that naïve' look so I hurry to add, "Yes, we were making money but the stuff we took was junk, pardon the pun, nobody wanted any more. It's not the same at all."

"Seth, stop trying to make it sound pretty and get to the point. What are you talking about exactly?"

I really didn't want to have this discussion right now. "We were selling ferret…spunk to people we thought were using it for breeding. So you're right, okay? I don't know for sure that this crap is not all connected because I don't know where the stuff missing from the lab went. But I do know Eddie didn't steal anything."

Rolling her head in a circle as if she's trying to work out knots, Bella closes her eyes with a meditative sigh. "God, Seth, this is such a clusterfuck. At the very least, you and your roommate seem to have a very loose definition of 'stealing'."

That only makes me more desperate, "I live and breathe alongside Eddie every day. I know the whole story about why the auditors are looking at him for this and I promise you he's being set up. No doubt stuff has been jacked from our lab, but it wasn't Eddie who did it any more than it was me."

Bella seems to consider this for a minute before searching my eyes thoughtfully. "I guess if I took the time to see you once in a while I'd already know your roomie. So, why did you ask me to tell you what I know?"

I groan, "I didn't think about how you'd take it; I was just trying to bring up the subject and was having a hard enough time. You know how words just spill before my brain can approve 'em."

She gives me an indulgent little smile and I start to think that everything's going to work out. "I just need generics, Bella. Whatever you think you can tell me without causing problems for yourself. If that's nothing, maybe ever, then I can live with that. It will make me feel better to know that Eddie has someone on the inside keeping an eye out for him. I swear to you, there's something dead wrong going on here. I couldn't live with myself without knowing that I've done everything I can to keep my bud from going to jail for something he didn't do."

Bella breaks off a piece of a cookie, seeming to ponder everything I've said so far. I know her well enough to give her room to think. I'm just grateful she's still sitting here.

"Ok, Seth," she looks me full in the face with complete seriousness. "I can't promise you anything and I'm taking you at your word that you don't expect anything, either. I don't think it would be wrong to tell you that it looks like the guys in the office aren't sure what they have yet. It's not as if they tell me all about their investigations, anyway. I don't always know details about the audits they're performing. If I find out something that I think you should know and that I can safely share with you, I'll text you to meet me."

"Got it; don't call you, you'll call me." I'm eager to show her how much I appreciate her help. I stand then, aware that I've kept her too long already.

We hug again and Bella kisses my cheek. Before she reaches the door, Bella turns to face me again.

"Oh, and Seth?"

"Yeah?"

"You know you can call me for other things, too, right?"

My grin must be huge 'cause my cheeks feel stretched tighter than canvas.

"Yeah. I'll keep that in mind."

I promise myself to call her later in the week just to shoot the shit. Checking the time on my cell, I'm pleased to see that it's only 3:30. Plenty of time to get across town to start Phase II of the investigation.