Don’t get too excited. Probably nothing. Just a rag.
Cautiously she reached into the basket, picked up the wad of navy blue cloth and shook it out. It was the shirt Claire had worn the day she had stopped by the cottage to warn her that Marilyn still wanted Gabe.
There did not appear to be anything wrong with the garment. No rips or holes that would have explained how it had come to be relegated to the rag pile. Could have fallen out of the laundry hamper by accident, she thought.
She flipped the shirt around to examine the back.
The smear of dried red paint on the right cuff made her go cold.
“Oh, damn,” she whispered.
She had come here this morning on the off chance that she might get some answers. Be careful what you wish for.
“How are you doing in here?” Claire came to stand in the doorway of the laundry room. “Need more boxes? I’ve got some—”
She broke off at the sight of the navy blue shirt dangling from Lillian’s fingers. Her eyes went to the paint-stained cuff.
“It was you who trashed my studio.” Lillian put the shirt down on the washer. “I knew there had to be some evidence somewhere. It’s almost impossible to work with a lot of paint and not get some on your clothes.”
The blood drained from Claire’s face. She swallowed twice before she managed to speak.
“You can’t prove anything,” she stammered. “You can’t prove a damn thing, do you hear me?”
“Probably not. Unless, of course, you kept the VPX 5000. But I’m sure you had enough sense to ditch it. Did you throw it into the bay? That’s what I did with my client files.”
Claire eyes filled with tears. She seemed to collapse in on herself.
“There was no need to injure Arizona,” Lillian said. “She had nothing to do with this. Do you realize what might have happened if you had hit her even a little bit harder? She’s an elderly woman, Claire. You could have killed her.”
“I didn’t want to do it but I had no choice.”
“No choice? What are you talking about. No one made you hit her and steal her camera.”
“I had to get the camera.” Claire’s hands knotted into fists at her sides. “Don’t you understand? She had pictures.”
“Pictures of you breaking into my cottage?”
“I didn’t see her until I left. I had parked my car in the woods nearby. But when I started to drive away, I saw her truck parked on the opposite side of the road. She wasn’t in it so I knew she was probably nearby conducting her idiotic surveillance rounds. I was afraid she might have spotted me coming out of your cottage.”
“For heaven’s sake, Claire, you know as well as I do that it wouldn’t have mattered if she had noticed you in the vicinity of the cottage. No one ever pays any attention to A.Z.’s claims and theories. Everyone knows she’s a little weird.”
“When she came out of the woods a short time later she was carrying that damn camera. I panicked. Of course, no one would have listened if she had claimed to see me near your cottage on the day a break-in was reported. Everyone knows she’s paranoid about people who work at the institute. But they sure as hell would have paid attention if she had produced some time-and-date-stamped photos of me coming out the back door of your place with a tire iron in my hand.”
“You followed her home, waiting for an opportunity to take the VPX 5000 from her, didn’t you? She knew that she was being tailed.”
“I watched her for a while but I realized that sooner or later she would go back to that fortress. I got there ahead of her, hid the car in the trees and waited on her back porch behind the woodshed.”
“You planned to attack her.”
“No.” Claire wiped away her tears with the back of her hand. “I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. I couldn’t think straight. I guess I had some vague idea of catching her off guard when she went into the house. I just wanted to get that camera.”
“But something made her walk around the porch to check the rear door. You saw your chance, grabbed the plant stand and hit her.”
“I didn’t mean to put her into the hospital.” Claire’s voice rose on an anguished wail. “You have to believe me. I just wanted to knock her down. Make her drop the camera.”
“You gave her a concussion, Claire. You could have killed her.”
“I told you, I never meant to hurt her.” Claire sniffed. “What’s more, you can’t prove that I took the camera. Just your word against mine.”
“Sure.” Lillian leaned back against the dryer and gripped the white metal edge on either side. “And since its just us girls talking here, I’ve got some questions. What gave you the idea of going after my client files in the first place? Did you come up with it all on your own or was it something Anderson said?”
Rage infused Claire’s face. She turned a shade of red that rivaled the paint on the shirt.
“Flint. I heard that bastard tell Marilyn about your files the day he came to see her at the institute. He actually bragged about them to her. He used them to talk his way into my job . Promised her he could get them for her.”
“Got to give credit where it’s due. Marilyn is no fool. She understood the value of those files immediately.”
“Did Anderson tell her he planned to steal them?”
“Of course not. He just said he was working an angle to get them. Told her not to worry. He’d handle all the details.”
“Where were you when they had that conversation?”
“I was packing up my desk in the adjoining office. Marilyn closed the door but I simply switched on the recording system.” Claire smiled bitterly. “That was one of my jobs, you know. Recording Marilyn’s meetings and conversations with important people. She plans to publish her memoirs someday.”
“Later you decided to see if you could find my client files before Flint got to them, right?”
Claire shrugged. “He said they were on your computer. Sounded easy enough. I could have used them the same way Flint planned to use them.”
“To buy your way into another job?”
“Yes. The data on your high-end clients would be worth a fortune to any candidate in the Northwest.”
Tears welled in Claire’s eyes again. “But I couldn’t find your computer when I broke into the cottage.
And there was Arizona with her damned camera when I came out. Everything went wrong. All that risk for nothing. It’s not fair.”