Dollybigmomma is my beta lover and chapter savior.
I'm participating in the holiday count down, so check out Breath of Twilight's profile and follow it. The link is on my profile. I will warn you, some of those stories are freaky! I totally couldn't sleep after Graveyard Stroll.
Chapter 18 – Coming up Empty
I wanted to investigate James, but I had a feeling Bella would think I was overreacting or possibly get defensive, since she was always defending James as a harmless loyal patron. I decided to bypass the issue altogether and went to Angela for the answers. James had paid for things with a credit before, and I was sure if I had his full name and card information, that I'd be able to find out more on him.
When I told Angela what I was doing, she was more than happy to help. "Ever since the first time I met him, he's freaked me out. Bella was in the back room, and I was ready to run back there and hide out with her. He didn't say anything to me other than ask where Bella was. That's all he ever asks. He always wants to know where she is. She swears that he's never hurt her, but I know she's scared to be alone with him. Something's not right in that man's head, and our instincts are telling us to stay away from him. She's just too nice to do anything about it."
Angela's words didn't comfort me. His interest in Bella alone had me worried that he was working for my father. The men who worked for my father had to be greedy bastards or insane to actually take part in his debauchery. I was worried that James might have been both, and so I decided to possibly incur Bella's wrath and investigate him anyway.
The first report I received from my privately-hired investigator yielded some interesting facts. James Harmon had gone to college with Bella, and they had graduated at the same time. He'd moved to New York a week after we had. I would have been worried that she'd been followed by a stalker, but he'd had a job waiting for him when he arrived. He'd most likely planned to move here before I met Bella.
The next time James came into the store, I followed him to the back aisle to confront him with what I had found. I decided it was best if I did it casually in polite conversation. "Mr. James, Bella tells me you're her best customer. I'd like to thank you for that."
"It's not your place to thank me," he snapped.
"Did you know Bella before she moved to New York?" I asked.
He narrowed his eyes at me. "I consider Bella a friend, and if she has not divulged that personal information to you, I'm not going to go against her wishes."
"I was just trying to make conversation." My plan wasn't working. He wasn't divulging any incriminating information.
James shook his head at me, looking annoyed, and then he turned back to the bookshelf where he had been browsing. I stood there a moment longer, trying to come up with a way to get him to talk to me. I headed back to the front of the store, where Bella promptly put me to work moving a couple of boxes over by the shelves where they needed to be placed. When I was finished, I headed back to the counter, where I was sure Bella would be. She was there, but not alone.
She was giving James a polite smile. "This one looks good," she said holding up the graphic novel he had chosen.
"I'm looking forward to reading it. There's rumor of an unexpected twist at the end," he spoke easily, completely oblivious to her discomfort. I decided to make that work for me.
"Bella, did you know that you and James went to UW together? That's neat, isn't it? Did you guys know each other there?"
Bella looked at me shocked, furiously fighting tears. I wasn't exactly sure what I'd done, but it wasn't good.
"You're out of line," James snapped at me.
Bella's hand went to her mouth, and she ran upstairs crying. I felt like a complete jackass and realized that it was very possible James and Bella might have been friends before, and he was just waiting for her to remember him. It would explain why he constantly sought her out, hoping that she'd remember him. I knew I would have done the same. Unfortunately for James, he didn't have the same connection with Bella that I did.
James took a twenty out of his pocket and opened the till himself. He paid for his book, not taking any change. "You're an ass," were his parting words.
I found Bella upstairs, ready to brownnose. "Beautiful?"
"What the hell were you thinking? Why would you talk to James about my life? If you knew we'd gone to school together, why didn't you come to me? And how the hell did you know that, anyway?"
"He made you uneasy, Bella, so I had him looked into. That's how I knew he went to school with you. I don't like him making you feel uncomfortable."
"Well, you sure as hell made me feel uncomfortable just now. You were talking to him like I was interested in him, like we had common ground to relate on. What's wrong with you? Why would you do that? Are you trying to force me away? Do you want me to have had a deeper relationship with James?"
"No, never, I just wanted to get him talking. I thought if I could get him to speak with you comfortably, with us together, he'd clue us in as to why he acts the way he does." I tried to think of something to else to say, but she cut me off.
"I have to get ready to go, but I'm not through with you!" she shouted after she looked at the clock. She stormed out of the room and into the bathroom, not wanting to look at me anymore. I heard the shower kick on, and I flopped back on the bed. She was really mad. I heard the bell below signaling there was a customer. I hurried down the stairs, only to find the door closing and the store empty.
Rose came in shortly after that, and Bella was lost to the wedding planning mess. I had escaped her wrath for the moment.
That night in our bed, I explained how I was worried that James might have known her in school and had an agenda. The sad response she gave me made me feel horrible. "I don't think so, but I'm afraid that maybe I haven't remembered more than I thought. His odd behavior would make more sense, if he thought I knew him." She curled up on my chest and cried herself to sleep. I felt horrible for going about things the way I had.
My second report on James Harmon was more confusing. James had lived in the same apartment for the past seven years. It was only three blocks away from his work, but a forty-five minute train ride to Bella's store. It made no sense for him to travel so far, when I was sure there were several stores between there and his home.
I noted on a few occasions James had made references to a "graphic novel." I asked Angela about it, and she told me about the series that James read. Most of the series' sales were mail/online orders to be picked up from the store, because it was the only authorized place to get it in the tri-state area. James traveling forty-five minutes suddenly didn't seem so ridiculous. I myself had traveled far and waited in the rain for a piece of literature, so I couldn't begrudge him that.
I asked Jenks, my PI, to look more into James's relationships with those around him. Report number three was again disappointing. James worked as an accountant at the same company as his brother, Peter. They were both in accounting, and Jenks was pretty sure they had been making math jokes over lunch, but he didn't get them. "I'm okay with regular math, but the stuff they were laughing about had roots and integers. He seems nerdy, but normal. From what I gathered online about him, he's in a few comic book fan groups, and he plays a lot of online games. I'm pretty sure that's his social life. I do think the red-headed receptionist at his work has a thing for him, though. He hasn't noticed her yet."
"Have you talked to any other women who deal him? Do they feel uncomfortable around him?"
"He doesn't have any complaints launched against him at work, sexual harassment or otherwise. I did notice a few women step away from him. He has an issue with standing inside other people's personal space. He doesn't seem to notice. He might have some kind of mental issue that makes him good with math and bad with people. I tested it out. I stood closer than needed on the train he takes to work, and he didn't move away. It was like he didn't even notice I was there. The guy's weird, but I haven't found anything damning yet."
"Were you able to get into his apartment?" I knew it wasn't exactly legal, but I was sure if James was up to something, evidence of it would be there.
"I took some long-distance pictures. He seems fairly neat; besides the comics he's got laying around and a few empty plates by his gaming console, there was nothing out of place."
Report number four also shined no light on James. Jenks focused on his income, to make sure there weren't any payoffs from anyone. All we learned was that James received a steady paycheck twice a month and lived off it conservatively. He had a good-sized retirement nest egg that had grown steadily over the past seven years without any deposits of odd or unaccounted-for large sums of money. Jenks reported that James lived more modestly than his means. "With his income, he could vacation in foreign countries and drive fancy cars. From what I've found, he's only just recently gotten his passport."
"Recently?" I worried.
"Yeah, he and his brother turned in paperwork for them. From what I could see online, there's some sort of comic book conference in Japan that features the books they're into. They had a few flyers lying around. I'd bet money that's where they plan to go."
It was looking more and more like James was just an awkward nerd who made girls feel uncomfortable. He wouldn't be the first or the last guy who did that. I was glad I hadn't told Bella the full extent of the investigation, or she'd be yelling at me and rubbing it in my face that she was right. James might have creeped her out, but he was harmless, at least on paper.
"Do me a favor and hook him up with the redhead. Maybe if he's distracted by her, he won't have the time to come around and freak Bella out all the time."
Jenks laughed, "Will do."
We fell back into our normal routine. Emmett and I settled things with our U.S. contacts. Only one jewelry consigner was hesitant to sign with us, because it was our practice to have them acquire pieces and then see if we were interested in purchasing them. I eventually convinced them to inform our other contacts when a prospective piece that was out of their price range became available so it could still be acquired, with the promise of a small commission to them for the find.
I helped Bella in her store in my free time, while we planned our wedding together. I hadn't given my investigation of James much thought. Bella seemed a little more at ease with him, but I could have been mistaken. I knew she was worried that she had forgotten James and most likely felt bad about it.
I questioned my findings on him, until I realized he'd overheard a phone conversation with my mother.
"It doesn't matter. I plan to marry her either way," I defended my choice to my mother. She was back to pushing a prenuptial agreement at me.
"She took the money before."
"You don't know that. The money was never spent. It wouldn't make sense for her to take it."
"She most likely felt guilty for her betrayal."
"She didn't betray me! She didn't take your money, she doesn't want it. Have at it and offer her more and see where that gets you. I doubt you could make her disappear from my life."
"I know you want to be part of your daughter's life, Edward…" she tried to sympathize.
"Leave Elizabeth out of this, she has nothing to do with my relationship with Bella, or the supposed money."
James cleared his throat, alerting me to his presence, and when I looked at him, his hard glare and wild eyes let me know he had heard my half of the conversation. What I had said wouldn't have sounded good.
"If you harm one hair on Bella's head, you'll be sorry. Hurting her is not allowed on my watch, and she's always on my watch. She was then, and she is now. I won't let you hurt her again!"
He was gone before I could make sense of what he'd said. He was unsettling at the best of times, and now it seemed he was full-on mental. I called Jenks to follow James again. I didn't trust him to not have something up his sleeve.
It was the night before we were to leave for Scotland, and the night of my Bachelor party. All of our luggage was packed and already at the hotel so we could leave from there, since it was closer to the airport, our travel papers and important documents safely tucked away in the new designer laptop case Alice had gotten Bella for the trip. I received a call from Jenks letting me know that James was watching the store. I called him after the girls had left and was relieved when he told me that James hadn't followed them. I didn't know what he was up to, but I didn't like it. I gave Jenks the hotel address and asked him to keep an eye on the girls. James might not have been causing them trouble, but I didn't know if I could fully trust my mother to keep things from my father.
Emmett had a new obsession with hot wings and had ordered every flavor available. We also ordered a few different types of pizzas to be adventurous. I'd like to say I was surprised when Emmett pulled out a pornographic video and deemed it my "stripper," but I wasn't. I politely declined, and Jasper snatched it up and started laughing at the title. "The Librarian?" The catch line was there was more romance on the shelves than what was in the books.
"Really, Emmett?" I laughed, sadly amused.
"There are bookshelves, I thought you could use a few pointers," he made a few obscene hip thrusts.
"Please tell me you were not in on this ploy," I begged Jasper.
"No, I brought my own version of naked women." He held up the deck of cards we were to play poker with. There were scantily-clad women, some topless, featured on the cards, and the pack read, "Poker Hard Core." Emmett read the package and giggled at the innuendo.
"Bella knows about these," Jasper waved the deck. "They're the only deck I have, and she's played with them."
Emmett found his last comment hilarious and laughed louder.
"I'll take the cards, but not the movie," I compromised.
We were five hands in and half the food gone, when I smelled something, but couldn't identify it. "What's that?" I sniffed.
I looked around, trying to figure out where the smell was coming from.
"It smells like something's burning. Check the power strips," Jasper suggested. The three of us sniffed around the small apartment, looking for the smell. We followed it to the door that led to the shop downstairs. I grabbed the handle and burned my hand.
"The shop's on fire!" Smoke started to seep under the door, and I realized that we were in trouble. The sounds of popping and crackling became evident, and the building moaned.
"We have to get out of here!" Emmett was looking out the window and told us flames were shooting out of the store below.
"Help me with this!" Jasper was shoving on a huge loaded bookcase located on the back wall. I wanted to chasten him. Now was not the time to rearrange furniture.
The floor in the bedroom gave way, and we watched in horror as flames shot up through the hole.
"We have to move this now! It's the back door out!" Jasper yelled, shoving on the bookcase frantically. Emmett and I helped shove the heavy piece over, exposing an old, nearly-rotted door. The fire was climbing the walls quickly, and the room had caught as well. The three of us kicked at the door, having no spare time to find a key. Emmett reared back and barreled at it like a bull, finally busting through it, but he went tipping over the rail of an old rusted metal staircase, falling to the ground below. We rushed down to him, barely making it out of the building in time to avoid the flames shooting through the vacated doorway behind us.
Sirens were blaring, signally the fire department's arrival. Jasper and I helped Emmett around to the front of the building. I was sure his arm was fractured, and the three of us struggled to breathe, having inhaled too much smoke.
"Is anyone else in the building?" a fireman asked us.
We all shook our heads no. I was so thankful the girls had decided to spend the night away from home. An ambulance took the three of us to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation. Emmett's arm was indeed broken. We were lucky to have made it out alive. I didn't know how I was going to tell Bella that her shop was gone. It had been her home and her livelihood, and now it was destroyed. She would be heartbroken. I hoped I could find a way to make it up to her.