This was written for the GH Who Dun It series at the Liason Haven. Basically, I wrote a two-part short story where part one sets up the mystery (Scenes 1-9) and part two solves it (Scenes 10-21). This is an alternate universe that uses some character history, but not a lot so basically forget everything you know.
The arrest of Julian Jerome on charges of racketeering, conspiracy, and tax evasion sent shock waves through the tiny but influential art community in Port Charles, New York. Julian had wielded a great deal of power and influence over who moved from small showcases in the Jerome Gallery on Central Avenue to the internationally renowned branch in New York City.
Elizabeth Webber had been counting on Julian’s patronage to allow her the next spot in New York—she’d put in the time and the effort—she’d paid her dues. Two successful individual shows with a third only days away should have put her in line to move up in the world.
But with Julian’s firm guiding hand removed from the gallery—with the reputation of both galleries now in question—Elizabeth had to contend with his partners in the business, his sisters Olivia and Ava.
The Jerome siblings had been left a large fortune by their parents in a joint trust, and most major expenditures had to come to a vote—which usually meant Julian and Ava were struggling for their priorities and attempting to buy Olivia’s deciding vote. As long as Olivia could travel, wear the latest fashions, and obtain the latest designer drugs, Olivia was easily bribed.
But what Ava and Olivia would do in the wake of this news was not the first question Elizabeth asked herself as she watched her mentor and patron taken away in handcuffs that day in the gallery.
No, her first concern was if she’d been played for a fool.
Julian’s charges were also known as RICO charges, the number one charge levied against mobsters and gangsters, alike. Elizabeth ought to know—she’d been dating the number two man in the Port Charles organization for the last six months.
Until the moment Julian had been arrested, Elizabeth had never heard even a whisper that he was part of the mafia—that he held any connection to any organization. But if he did, there was little chance that the local boss, Sonny Corinthos, or his lieutenant, Jason Morgan did not know about it.
And she and Jason had met, after all, when he’d attended one of Julian’s group showcases with his younger sister, Emily on a night when Elizabeth’s work had been displayed.
Had he come to stake out the gallery? Had he attempted to use Elizabeth to get at her boss?
Troubled, Elizabeth rubbed her arms left bare by her sleeveless black dress and traded worried glances with the gallery’s manager, Maxie Jones.
When Julian was gone, and the gallery was cleared, Elizabeth looked at the blonde. “Did…did you know he was—”
“No!” Maxie declared, her blue eyes widening with shock. Her fingers trembling, she pushed strands of her white-blonde hair behind her ear. “Do you think Mac would have let me—” Her face paled. “Or maybe that’s exactly why he let me work here.”
Mac Scorpio, Maxie’s ex-stepfather and surrogate father, had been the commissioner of the Port Charles Police Department until a year ago when his contract had not been renewed and someone else had taken over the position.
Elizabeth chewed on her bottom lip and looked over the paintings on the wall—her third showcase had been scheduled to open in only two days. Was it canceled now? What happened next?
“Um…what you do think Jason knew about this?” Maxie asked. Her tone was hesitant, but her eyes were a bit more interested. Even when she was personally upset, Maxie always found the energy for gossip and scandal. “I mean, racketeering—”
“Oh, yeah, we’re going to be talking about this in some great detail,” Elizabeth muttered. “What about you? Spinelli is your…something, and he thinks Jason is some kind of Yoda.”
“Oh, listen, I am going to kick him so hard if he had any inkling I was working for Al Capone.” Maxie brightened. “I’m going to call and yell at him right now.”
Elizabeth’s phone vibrated, and she looked down at the text message notification. She sighed when she saw Jason’s name. She held the phone up, waited for it to recognize her face and unlock.
Jason’s message was short and simple. Are you okay?
She pursed her lips, listened as Maxie delivered a blistering diatribe with her own phone to her ear—whether it was to Spinelli himself or to Spinelli’s voicemail, Elizabeth wasn’t sure. Maxie rarely let anyone get a word in edgewise when she was pissed off.
It was one of the few things they had in common.
I don’t know. You tell me.
She was unsurprised when Jason called her almost immediately after her message sent. She contemplated not answering it, but…
The last six months had been good. Jason was a great boyfriend, and did she really think he was able to hide that kind of ulterior motive?
“I am a schmuck,” Elizabeth muttered. She answered his call. “Hey.”
“Hey. I got a notification about—Elizabeth, I know you’re asking yourself questions.”
“You know, as someone who worked with Julian,” Elizabeth retorted, “my phone is probably tapped. So maybe we should talk in person.”
There was a bit of silence and Jason’s tone was now strained. “I can’t right now. Tonight—”
“Yeah, I think you just answered my question. I’ll see you around.” She pressed the red button, ending her call.
“And you are never seeing me naked again, buddy!” Maxie ended her phone call and tossed it on the desk. “Honestly. He wouldn’t tell me anything. If there was nothing to tell, wouldn’t he have led with that?”
“You’d think,” Elizabeth murmured. She sighed and ignored Jason’s text message asking her to get together that night. “What do we do about the gallery?”
“Oh. Well, I’m manager, so I guess we just—” Maxie’s office line rang and they both jumped. Maxie blanched. “Hell, it’s the New York office. Which means it’s Ava. Pray for me, Webber. Light a candle.”
And with that, Maxie lifted the receiver and pressed to her ear.
Jason Morgan stared down at his cell phone. He didn’t believe in telepathy or any of that psychobabble, but right now, he found himself trying to will Elizabeth to text him something. Anything. Or to answer one of his phone calls.
But in the ten minutes since she’d hung up on him, he couldn’t get her back on the line.
“She’ll get over it, Jason.”
Jason looked up to find the dark eyes of his partner and best friend, Sonny Corinthos. Sonny looked mildly concerned but his interest level wasn’t really engaged. Jason had tried to keep his relationship with Elizabeth relatively separate from the rest of his life, so Sonny had only met her a handful of times/
Sonny didn’t trust women much anyway, so Jason’s love life was the least of his concerns.
“We have other things to worry about.” Sonny grimaced. “Like what I’m going to do about Ava. This investigation was supposed to target her. Not Julian. I thought we decided he was clean.” His partner glared at him. “I thought you decided he was clean.”
“I did,” Jason said with some irritation, “but clearly I was wrong, and now Elizabeth—”
“Your girlfriend can wait. She’s probably got her hands full anyway.” And with that, Sonny dismissed Jason, and turned his attention back to their business manager, Bernie Abrams.
He looked back at his phone. Still nothing. He could sit here in this office with Sonny and Bernie going over the reports from local bookies and clubs, but… “You don’t need me for any of this,” Jason said. He shoved himself to his feet. “I’ll check in later.”
Maxie’s phone call had lasted less than a minute—Ava Jerome’s assistant, Nelle Benson, had reported that effectively immediately, Ava would be working out of Port Charles and Olivia would be taking over the city branch.
The brittle, greedy blonde would be arriving in Port Charles the next day and no decisions should be made before then. Maxie had then been instructed to close the branch for the day. Shaken, the blonde had done to seek out her quasi-boyfriend, Damien Spinelli, while Elizabeth had gone to see her own best friend.
She found Robin Scorpio at General Hospital in the lab where she worked most of the time. Three months ago, Robin had been conducting research trials for cutting edge treatment of blood clots. Then the Jerome Foundation had cut their funding—Ava had convinced Olivia that their charitable foundation could be a way for Olivia to meet celebrities if they spent more money on events in New York City, and Julian had been outvoted.
Ava Jerome hated Port Charles and had waged a one-woman war for the last two years to destroy anything the Jerome family had built in the city. Especially if her brother cared about it.
With her research trials on hold waiting for a new funding source, Robin had been forced to return to her previous job as directory of the pathology lab. When Elizabeth called to commiserate about her terrible morning, Robin leapt at the chance to get away from routine blood screenings and the two made their way to the General Hospital cafeteria for some really poor coffee.
“I guess I’m going to have to see if the nursing program will take me back,” Elizabeth said glumly as she stirred in another packet of sugar. “Gram will be happy.”
“Hey, you don’t know anything,” Robin said. “Ava might decide to go ahead with the show—” But her tone was doubtful.
Elizabeth sighed. “Do you remember when she ran the gallery before Julian took over two years ago? I was lucky to get one spot in the showcases a few times a year.”
“No, I know. I mean, you’re probably right that the first thing she’ll do is cut anything her brother supports. Look at me.” Robin scowled. “And I was so close, Elizabeth. I just know I was on the brink of something really amazing.”
“I know.” Elizabeth propped her chin on her first. “And the worst thing is what Julian’s charged with.”
“I saw that it was related to racketeering,” Robin said, a bit delicately. “I imagine you’ve…asked yourself some questions.”
“Oh, I’ve asked myself a lot of questions.” She sipped the coffee—which was now too sweet. “For one thing, why did I get my first individual show case with Julian only after I started dating Jason? And why did Jason ask me out in the first place?”
“Hey, you know Jason doesn’t do that kind of thing,” Robin assured her. “I’ve known him my entire life—even after the accident, he didn’t screw around like that. He wouldn’t have dated you for six months if he was trying to use you against Julian.”
“He had to know Julian was involved in this kind of crap,” Elizabeth pointed out. “We both know what he does for a living. What Sonny does.”
“Jason let me work with Julian for months. He knew I was getting my hopes up that my next show would be in New York. He had to know—”
“But did he?” Robin pushed gently. “Elizabeth, have you even asked him any of this?”
“No.” Elizabeth looked away, stirred her coffee again. “He called me, but he wouldn’t come to see me. He was too busy with Sonny, probably. I mean, c’mon, Robin, how dumb am I supposed to be? One of them was using me.” She scowled. “And if that wasn’t enough to take, I’m going to have to deal with Ava and her whiny assistant.”
“Oh, hell, Nelle is coming back?” Robin rolled her eyes. “I am so not interested in dealing with that brat again. Happiest day of my life was when Ava and Julian switched places and cities. Maybe the case will fall apart, and she’ll go back to New York.”
“I think this is going to be our new normal.” Elizabeth got to her feet. “I’m going to stop by the coordinator’s office and see what hoops I’ll need to jump to get back in.”
“Don’t lose hope yet, Elizabeth. You’ve had some exposure—”
Elizabeth’s smile was sour. “Exposure no one is going to believe I earned on my own. I didn’t get any of it until I started dating Jason. And since it turns out my boss is in the mob…” She shrugged. “It was always a pipe dream, Robin. You wanted to cure aneurysms, I wanted to change the art world. Looks like Ava is going to ruin both our dreams.”
When Elizabeth arrived home that evening, she found Jason leaning against the wall next to her apartment. She slowed her steps as she approached the end of the hall and shifted the stack of paperwork in her arms.
“I’ll go if you want me to,” Jason said after they had stared at one another for a moment, “but you weren’t answering my phone calls.”
“I’ve been in overreact mode all day,” Elizabeth replied with a sigh. She handed her stack of paperwork to him to hold so she could dig into her purse for her keys. “Come in, I guess.”
He followed her into her small studio apartment. “I know you’re angry.”
“Angry would be nice.” She pulled a bottle of wine from her fridge and a glass from the shelf above her sink. She poured a full glass and sipped it for a moment. “I mean, I don’t even really know what to be angry about. Ava is coming back to the gallery—and to Port Charles—and let me tell you, she didn’t make friends the last time she lived here.”
“Ava?” Jason echoed. “Why would she give up New York—”
“Because she’s going to close this branch. This branch was Julian’s baby. She’s been trying to get him to sell it since they opened it.” Elizabeth shrugged and looked away. “So that’s me with no place to show my art, but hey, since I probably got the show because I’m sleeping with the mob—”
“What, you think because we don’t talk about what you do for a living I’m an idiot?” she demanded. She tossed back the last of her drink and immediately poured another. “I grew up in Port Charles. I knew who Frank Smith was before Sonny edged him out of the business. I knew who you were when you came into the gallery.”
Jason hesitated. “Elizabeth—”
“You know, before you showed up—I’d never gotten my own showcase. Never got any individual show. Julian only gave me one or two more spots than Ava had.” She stared at him, but her eyes were filled with misery evident even in the shadows of the small room—she’d only flipped on one small lamp near the sofa.
“But I start dating you, and suddenly, I’m on the fast track to New York. Two shows in six months, a third only days away—” She shook her head. “Was Julian working for Sonny? Was he a rival? What? What made you come to the gallery six months ago when the Jeromes have owned it for the last five years?”
“I can’t—” Jason pressed his lips together. “You know there are things I can’t talk about—”
“Because if you worked with him, then maybe you pulled some strings for me—”
“I didn’t—” Jason began, but she dismissed his protest with a sharp shake of her head.
“Then maybe Julian was trying to make me feel like I owed him something. Either way, someone was using me, and I don’t appreciate it.” She set the wine glass down with a thud. “Why can’t you tell me why you decided to come to the gallery six months ago?”
“Emily wanted me to go—”
“You can’t see art,” Elizabeth interrupted bluntly. “I thought it was a pick-up line at first, you know? You wanted me to explain my paintings to you. I thought it was foreplay—” She shook her head and now he saw the shimmer of tears in her ears.
“But she told me after we started dating that it must be hard for you because you have trouble with two-dimensional images, especially when it’s abstract. I never said anything because you don’t like to talk about your accident. But you don’t really get art. Tell me why you came that night.”
“I—” Jason hesitated again. “It doesn’t matter because it had nothing to do with asking you out. I wanted you—”
“I wish I could believe that, I really do.” She bit her lip, closed her eyes. Tears slid down her cheek. “But if Julian was involved in the mob, there’s no way you didn’t know it. You and Sonny know everything that happens in Port Charles. So, you knew I was working for someone in the mob and never said a word to me. And don’t you dare tell me this is something else I don’t get to know—”
“I know Sonny is your best friend, I get that. I get that there are secrets. I don’t care about them! But this is my life! This was my dream! And you let me believe for six months that I was going to be someone—that I was going to be an artist—”
He started around the counter towards her, but she backed up rapidly holding her hands out. “No, no. Don’t touch me. You let me believe I had talent. That I deserved everything I was being given. You knew he was dirty. And you didn’t tell me. Did you know charges were coming?”
Jason exhaled slowly. “Yes,” he said finally. Because he couldn’t stand lying to her.
She inhaled sharply. “You knew—you knew he was going to be arrested at the same time I was arranging my show—when I was planning—you knew Julian wouldn’t be here to send me to New York.”
“I—I didn’t know it was going to be Julian. We thought it would be Ava.”
Elizabeth closed her eyes. “But you knew the Jeromes were mixed up in crime and didn’t tell me.”
Because Sonny hadn’t wanted Ava Jerome to have a chance to prepare, to flee, and he’d been sure Elizabeth would warn her boss who would pass it on to Ava. And Jason had listened. Because it was business, and he hadn’t…understood what it might to do to her career. He didn’t really understand what Elizabeth did, only that she loved it.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell you—” he stopped, shook his head. It sounded lame even to him. Because today, tomorrow, next week—the charges had been coming—and he’d done nothing to prepare her.
“Get out,” she said flatly. “You’ve lied to me for six months. It doesn’t even matter if you asked me out for Sonny. Don’t tell me you haven’t used me — that you haven’t listened to every word I said about the Jeromes and told Sonny. It doesn’t matter if you were lying or not when you said you loved me.”
He swallowed hard. “What can I do to make this right?” he asked, forcing the words out. “Don’t—don’t ask me to leave. I do love you—”
“Love? You think you can do this to me and say love me?” Elizabeth demanded. “Sonny asked, and you just jumped right? You know, your sister warned me that Sonny comes first, but I don’t think I understood it. Sonny wanted you to go to the gallery, you did. Maybe he didn’t tell you to screw one of the artists, but hey, happy coincidence—”
“Don’t say it like that—it wasn’t like that!” Jason retorted angrily. “Sonny didn’t even know we were dating—” He closed his mouth and she nodded.
“Exactly.” She pointed both her index fingers at him. “Exactly. You knew he’d ask you for information, so you kept me a secret. But at some point, he found out. And he wanted to know what I said about Julian, and hey, it’s not like I thought you’d keep it to yourself. I didn’t know I had to invoke some sort of privilege.” Elizabeth sucked in a deep breath. “I’ve got a lot of paperwork to fill out if I’m going to beg my way back into the nursing program, so you can go.” Her eyes hardened. “And you can leave your key when you go.”
“Look, we can argue about this tomorrow or the next day, okay? I just—” Her lower lip trembled, and she bit down on it. “I can’t do it anymore today. Ava will be here tomorrow, and she’ll probably cancel my show first thing, so maybe after my dream is crushed, I’ll be able to find the energy for this. I can only deal with one disaster at a time.”
He waited for a moment, then nodded. “I’m going to go, but this isn’t over. I messed up. I’m sorry. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. Or—but we’ll talk about it, okay?”
But he took out his keychain and stared down at the silver key she’d given him only two months earlier. He left it on the counter.
Once a month from the time Julian Jerome had opened the family’s first gallery in New York twenty years earlier, the Jeromes invited local and unknown artists to participate in group showcases to give them some exposure, get feedback from art critics, to get their name on the map. They had continued this practice after Julian and Ava had opened the Port Charles branch.
Elizabeth had started submitting her work even as she pursued a career in nursing at her grandmother’s concerned suggestion. It had taken more than a year before she’d been accepted—but even then, Ava had never allowed her to show her work every month.
For two years, Elizabeth submitted every single month, hoping that it would be different this time. In twenty-four applications, Ava had only accepted her six times. Elizabeth kept trying, encouraged by the response of some of the critics and the fact that her work always sold.
Julian had taken over the gallery full-time three years into its existence, and Elizabeth saw some improvement. In the next twenty-four applications, Elizabeth was accepted fifteen times. She’d seen it as proof that she was on the right track.
And five months ago—after she and Jason had started dating, Julian had not only accepted one of her pieces, he’d asked her to do an entire showcase on her own. Two months later, she’d been given another individual show. She’d thought Jason was her good luck charm—that the tide was starting to turn. She was finally going to be a real artist, had dropped out of the nursing program a year away from completion, and she had met the man of her dreams.
Ava Jerome crushed that dream in the first ten minutes after she’d arrived.
The blonde swept into the gallery the day after her brother’s arrested dressed in a slim black pencil skirt, a white silk blouse, and elaborate white fur mink coat. Trailing behind her was a woman about Elizabeth’s age—a slim, strawberry blonde that Elizabeth remembered vividly as Janelle Benson, Ava’s devoted assistant.
And from the way Maxie’s eyes narrowed—she remembered Nelle as well. Nelle hadn’t made many friends in the single year she’d lived in Port Charles, and more than one woman had been happy to see the harpy split.
Ava drew off her designer black sunglasses and peered at Elizabeth curiously with her gunmetal-colored eyes. “Who’re you?” she demanded. “What’re you doing in my gallery?” She snapped her eyes to Maxie. “Friends on company time?”
Elizabeth lifted her chin. “Elizabeth Webber. I have a showcase in two days. Maxie and I have been meeting about the display of my work and the pieces I’ve chosen.”
Ava scowled, scanning the main room of the gallery, taking in the wall set aside for the showcase. Elizabeth and Maxie had already hung seven of the chosen pieces and had been debating the last three. “These are yours?” she demanded. “My brother gave you this show?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said, hesitating for a moment. “I also had the wall in February and April. This will be my third—”
“Pickings must be slim,” Ava murmured, and Nelle snickered behind her—maybe Ava claimed not to remember her, but Nelle obviously did. “Well, leave your address on the desk, and I’ll see that your pieces are returned to you.”
She’d been expecting this—told herself it would happen—but the cold, offhanded dismissal of her work cut through Elizabeth. Ava was a bitch, but she was a leading voice in the New York art world. No one got the spotlight unless Ava Jerome offered her stamp of approval.
Maxie flicked her a sympathetic glance, cleared her throat. “Elizabeth’s pieces do very well, Ms. Jerome. We always sell—”
“People like to hang pretty things on their wall. Landscapes, portraits of flowers. Pretty pictures will always sell,” Ava said to Maxie, not even bothering to acknowledge Elizabeth. “The Jeromes don’t do pretty. Were you sleeping with my brother? Is that why he gave you so much space?”
Her fists clenched at her side, Elizabeth fought back the scornful retort that bubbled up. “I’ll leave my address with Maxie—”
“No, give it to Nelle,” Ava murmured wandering down the length of the gallery wall. “She’ll be taking over as manager.”
Maxie drew in a sharp breath, and Elizabeth blinked rapidly. Maxie had worked at the gallery since it had opened, had fought and clawed her way up to the managerial position and had held it for the last year. “Ms. Jerome—”
“Two weeks of severance should be adequate.” Ava turned back to them. “We’ll be closing this branch next month, Ms. Jones, so really, I’m doing you a favor by firing you now. You can both go. Clean out your desk and be gone in the next fifteen minutes or I’ll be forced to have security remove you.”
Maxie just stared at her, her face pale, turning very nearly the shade of her white-blonde hair. “I—”
“Maxie…” Elizabeth murmured. She looked at the stunned younger woman. “I’ll help you get your things together.”
“But this isn’t—this isn’t right,” Maxie managed. “This isn’t fair.”
“Life’s not fair, darling. Anyone who says different is trying to sell you something,” Ava said. “Do I need to call security?”
“This is some grade A bullshit,” Patrick Drake announced as he watched his girlfriend Robin attempt to comfort her former step-cousin. “Why the hell did Julian have to get himself arrested?”
“I worked so hard. I did exactly what Mac said. I worked hard, I did everything I was asked to do, and that was supposed to mean I got ahead. What’s the point of working if one woman can ruin everything?” Maxie wailed.
Elizabeth nursed a glass of wine—it was barely noon, but Robin had pressed the drink into her friend’s hands, reminding her of their pact from their days as college roommates. Wine solved everything. “Ava Jerome is literally the worst,” she muttered.
“She’s the one who cut my funding,” Robin told Patrick. “She convinced her sister to cut funding when it came up for renewal.
Patrick’s dark eyes burned with anger. “The research that was supposed to save women like my mother.”
Remembering how broken he’d been when his mother had died of a brain aneurysm their freshman year at Port Charles University, Elizabeth leaned over, squeezed his hand. “I’m sorry, Patrick. I know how important that program was to you both.”
“Shrinking aneurysms is the only way to make the surgery safer,” Patrick muttered. He dragged his hands though his hair. Mattie Drake’s death had been the reason Robin had started her medical trials. “That woman gets off on damage. I mean, she doesn’t even like Port Charles. Why does she bother?”
“She’s the Antichrist,” Maxie declared. She sniffled, pressing a tissue to her nose. “Dillon texted me. She fired him and Spinelli, too. If she’s going to close the branch, fine. But why can’t we just have our last month? Why can’t Liz have her show? Why can’t Dillon and Spinelli run the website—” Her face crumpled into tears.
“On the bright side, if she closes the gallery,” Robin said, “there’s nothing holding the Jeromes to Port Charles. We can be rid of them.”
“Don’t forget the Metro Court,” Elizabeth said with a sigh. “When Carly and Jax got divorced—”
“He decided to stick it to Carly by selling to Ava.” Robin managed a half-smile. “I thought it was hysterical when he did it since Carly had an affair with Sonny while they were married—”
“And Sonny had broken up their first marriage with an affair with Ava. Karmic justice.” Patrick leaned back. “Hey, Liz. You’re dating the mob. Can’t they take care of Ava?”
“I made Jason give back my key.” She’d wanted him to argue the point—she saw that now. She’d told him leave, and he had. It wasn’t until he’d gone, leaving the key behind, that Elizabeth realized that she’d expected him to keep pushing.
Elizabeth looked at Maxie’s mottled red face. “How many times did my work get rejected for an individual showcase before I started dating Jason?”
“A couple of times, but you can’t possibly think—” Maxie pressed her lips together. “Julian loved the art. He thought you were so good, you know that. He didn’t do it because you were dating Jason—”
“The only person who knows for sure is Julian, and it’s not like I can ask him.” Elizabeth leaned back against the sofa, closed her eyes. “But yeah, if only Ava were in the mob, too, maybe we could have her fitted for cement shoes.”
“I know I took an oath to do no harm,” Robin said, wrapping an arm around Maxie’s shoulders, “but a world without Ava Jerome would be a better one.”
“Yeah, so go seduce Jason and make him do it,” Maxie muttered. “Use your sex appeal.”
Elizabeth snorted, and for some reason, the conversation made her giggle. She laughed until the tears slid down her cheeks.
“No more wine for you,” Patrick said, taking the glass from her. “Ava will do her damage, and she’ll leave. Someone will open another gallery, Liz. We’ll find the funding for the research,” he told Robin before looking at Maxie. “You’ll get another job.” He exhaled slowly. “I mean, we’re good people.”
“I think this is a sign that it’s time to grow up.” Elizabeth sighed. “Stop chasing fantasies. Be a real adult. Get a real job. Bobbie Spencer said that I can get back into the nursing program in the fall. So…” She shrugged.
“Elizabeth,” Robin said, but she had nothing else to say. Ava Jerome canceling her show in a Port Charles gallery would follow Elizabeth’s art career, and they both knew it.
Her dream was dead. It was time to stop pretending otherwise.
Ava’s trail of victims hadn’t only included her employees at the gallery. After firing the trio of employees who had been devoted to Julian and canceling Elizabeth’s show, she had visited the Metro Court—the hotel in which she controlled the majority share.
Her partner, Carly Corinthos-Jacks rushed over to her ex-husband’s home, only a few estates away from the Jeromes, her blue crackling with anger.
“You need to do something about your whore!”
Jason mildly glanced over his partner’s ex-wife and raised his brows. Ava hadn’t been Sonny’s…whatever…in nearly a decade, but Carly never did know how to let go of a grudge. Sonny had crashed and burned their first trip down the aisle by not only having an affair with Ava Jerome, but with a second woman, Samantha McCall. And then had ended up siring two children from the entire event.
Ava, Sam, and Carly had given birth to Sonny’s children within six months of each other—Sam’s daughter had passed away, while Ava’s daughter Avery and Carly’s son Morgan lived primarily with their mothers. As did Sonny’s other daughter, Kristina, also conceived while he and Carly had been separated, though it had been a different separation at an earlier time.
It was hard to keep Sonny’s romantic affairs straight, and usually Jason didn’t pay much attention. But this—this was about Ava Jerome, and Jason was keenly interested in minimizing the damage she had done to Elizabeth.
The fact that Jason himself was a large part of that damage had not escaped him, and he was almost to desperate to make part of it go away.
“Ava mentioned she’d be coming up this weekend,” Sonny mused, bringing a tumbler of bourbon to his mouth. “She was thinking about bringing Avery.”
“Oh, screw you,” Carly breathed. She jabbed her finger at Sonny. “This is your fault. You told Jax we were having an affair, he filed for divorce and sold his share of the hotel to her. You made this mess, you should fix it.”
“You’ve been co-existing with her fine for the last three years,” Sonny pointed out. “What’s everyone so pissed about—”
“Ava wants to be done with Port Charles,” Carly said, her teeth clenched. ‘She already fired all the employees at her gallery. And now she told me she’s selling her majority share to some developer who wants to make the hotel a condo building and push me out.”
“She fired the people at the gallery?” Jason demanded. “She’s closing it?”
Carly frowned at him, then nodded, as if she remembered. “Yeah, she was particularly happy about that. Said she canceled all the coming events and cut everyone loose. I forgot that—I guess Elizabeth—” She shook her head. “And Spinelli’s out of a legitimate job.” She turned back to Sonny. “And I’m about to be put onto the streets unless you do something.”
“What, exactly, do you want me to do?” Sonny said, exasperated. “She’s within her rights. You should have bought her out.”
“I didn’t—and still don’t—have the funds,” Carly hissed. “You screwed me, Sonny. Literally and figuratively. I told you it was a mistake, and you were such a child that you immediately blew up my marriage and now look where we are now—”
“I have to go,” Jason told Sonny.
His partner frowned. “We’re not done here, Jase—”
“I think Carly is going to keep you busy. I’ll call you.” Jason shoved away from the desk, closed the folder of accounting numbers. “This can keep.”
But Jason was already in the foyer and he could hear Carly start in again, demanding that Sonny do something about Ava Jerome as he walked out the door. He closed it on her threat that if he didn’t fix this problem, she would.
Elizabeth carefully set another of her rejected canvases into a rack in the corner of her tiny studio apartment. She had hoped to earn enough from her show this week to put a deposit on a real art studio with good lighting and space for her to work on several projects at once.
As it was, this space was not only her art studio but her living quarters and as such, her art had been relegated to a corner. She’d have to decide soon if she was going to keep these pieces or discard them altogether.
She slid her fingers lightly over the last canvas—the one she had been holding back for display only. Her first date with Jason had been spent on the back of his motorcycle as he sped through the hills of Port Charles rimming Lake Ontario.
The wind whipping past them as he took the turns just a bit too recklessly, the way it just drowned out everything else, the way she couldn’t think when she was on the bike—she’d fallen in love with the bike first, she could shamelessly admit.
She was officially re-enrolled in the nursing program at General Hospital, though she knew Robin thought Elizabeth was rushing into this. Maybe Julian would get the charges dismissed, throw Ava back into the lake where she belonged—lots of things could happen.
But even if that happened, Elizabeth would never be able to forget the doubt that had been created. Was she really good? Or had she been used by more powerful men for their own needs?
The knock on her metal door reverberated in the room, and Elizabeth sighed, getting to her feet. It was probably Maxie or Robin, coming over to commiserate.
Instead, it was Jason, illuminated only by the single light bulb that hung in the rundown hallway. He wore his usual leather jacket, a black t-shirt underneath and blue jeans. She’d always found it somewhat amusing that while he dressed like a rebel, somewhere in his brain, Jason Quartermaine’s proper nature had remained, tucking the shirt into the jeans.
She was too tired to argue, so she leaned against the door frame, her arms crossed. “Hey.”
“I heard Ava is closing the gallery,” Jason said, his expression pained. “Carly came by to yell at Sonny.”
“Well, I can’t really blame Carly.” Elizabeth waved a hand and he entered a little hesitantly. She closed the door and he stared at her corner of art—no doubt seeing the filled racks. After all, he’d helped her box up those pieces only days ago.
“I’m sorry. I never thought about what would happen if the Jeromes got into legal trouble. I didn’t think what happened to Ava would matter so much. I didn’t think—” He turned to her, looking uncertain and younger than he normally did. “I didn’t think about what it would do to the gallery here.”
“No, I guess you didn’t. Would you have warned me if you knew how much this would destroy my life?”
Jason hesitated. “I know you want me to say yes. I want to say yes. But I also know how much you liked and respected Julian.”
“Honesty is overrated,” Elizabeth muttered. She kicked off her heels and curled up on her uncomfortable and lumpy daybed. “I think I’d rather you lie to me. You think I would have told him?”
“Wouldn’t you have?” Jason asked, perching on the brown chair she’d found at a thrift store. “He gave you your break—”
“Did he do that because of you? Did you ask him to?” Elizabeth asked. “I thought you and Julian—I thought you were on good terms. I never knew there was anything wrong between you both—”
“Like I said, he wasn’t the target. We didn’t realize he was—we thought it was just Ava.” Jason paused. “And Julian and I never once talked about you. I can’t say what he thought, but I know I didn’t do anything.”
She nodded, accepted that. It was likely the truth, and she knew it wasn’t fair to hold Jason responsible for anything Julian had done on his ow, even it was difficult to let it go.
Elizabeth sighed. “Sonny has spent the last decade trying like hell to get full custody of Avery, so getting Ava swept up in RICO charges was his best bet.” She drew her knees up to her chest, peering at him. “Were you supposed to tell me Sonny was going after Ava?”
“No, but it doesn’t matter now.” Jason waited a long moment. “Sonny found out that the Jeromes were tangled up in some…shady businesses in New York, which is why he thought it was just about Ava. That was about eight months ago. He wasn’t sure about the gallery here because since he moved here, Julian’s been kind of…”
“Disconnected from New York.” Some of the pressure eased from her chest and her shoulders slumped. “So, he sent you.”
“He asked me to look into the gallery to see if it was clean. When Emily told me she was going, I offered to go with her. It was an easy way in.”
As if encouraged by the fact she hadn’t thrown him out yet, Jason moved to the daybed, but kept his jacket on. He sat at the other edge. “The gallery is clean, Elizabeth. It has nothing to do with the businesses in New York. That’s why we didn’t think Julian was involved. He loves that gallery.”
“Which is probably why Ava is closing it. She’s always wanted to destroy anything he loved.” Elizabeth gathered her courage by taking a deep breath. “When I told you about fights Julian had with Ava or any news from New York, did you tell Sonny?”
“I—” Jason’s face fell. “Yeah. I didn’t—”
“I never told you it was a secret, so why would you treat it that way?” Elizabeth swung her feet to the ground and shoved herself to her feet. “I get it, Jason. And I know that you prefer when I’m honest, right? You’re not good at lies and reading between the lines.”
“So, believe me, I get it. I never told you that what happened between us—my venting after a long day at work or sharing gossip—I never told you I wanted it kept between us. But of course, you didn’t tell me that any part of Julian’s life was under investigation. Because you may not have understood why it was an issue, but I sure as hell bet Sonny did.”
Jason grimaced. “Elizabeth—”
“He knows art. He knows the way the world works in New York. He grew up there with Julian and Ava, didn’t he? You think he doesn’t understand reputation? You don’t need to be an art critic to see that.” She padded into her tiny kitchen and pulled out an emergency bottle of her best wine—and even her best was pretty shitty because it had a twist cap.
“I guess I can drink to the fact that Sonny used us both.” Elizabeth raised her wine glass at him then sipped. “Great. Whatever. It doesn’t change anything. You didn’t ruin my life on purpose. Doesn’t change the fact that it happened. I’ll be getting rid of all that crap, so I can put a desk in here. A lot of studying in front of me for my nursing degree.”
“Elizabeth, there are other galleries—”
“Not in Port Charles. And no one will touch me now. Even if I dragged myself down to New York, you think that Ava Jerome isn’t going to tell people that her brother took pity on me? Or that Julian was using me to get to Sonny? You think Ava isn’t going to destroy my career before I even get there?”
He got to his feet and stared at her. “So that’s it. The last six months don’t matter? I love you. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen—”
“Are you still going to be friends with Sonny? He used you, Jason, and he didn’t care that everything in my life would be destroyed. He knew exactly what would happen to me if even one of the Jeromes got arrested. Maybe you get to plead ignorance, but he doesn’t. And he pumped you for information every time he saw you, didn’t he?” She sipped her wine. “But you know, it’s not even that.”
“Then what is it?” he demanded. “I know I was wrong. I’m sorry. I can’t go back in time—”
“Right now, when I look at you, it’s hard to remember that I love you. All I can see is that the one thing I ever wanted to do in my life is over.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “All I wanted to do was draw and paint. I never got along with my family because they couldn’t get it. Art was the one thing I had that made me feel like I had a place in this world.” She set her glass down on the counter and strode across the room.
“Elizabeth, I—” But he trailed off. There was nothing to say to that.
She slid one of the paintings out of the rack and turned to him. “This is yours. You should take it. Because otherwise it’s going into the trash tomorrow.”
Jason took the canvas she shoved at him almost without thinking. He swallowed hard, looked down at it. “You painted this after our first date.”
“It’s taking up space.” She found the slim crate that it had traveled in and leaned it against the edge of her artist’s table. “If you don’t want it—”
“I don’t have anywhere to put it,” Jason said slowly. He met her eyes. “You were supposed to keep it for me until I did.”
“Well, I can’t do it anymore.” She turned away, her heart pounding. She’d always thought—at least for the last few weeks—that she and Jason would hang The Wind together when they moved into together. Wasn’t that the next step? Wasn’t that where they’d been heading?
She sighed. “Damn it. This isn’t all of them. I knew—” She knelt down at her racks, her fingers tracing the empty spot where the last canvas had been stored. Elizabeth mentally flipped through the missing works and her breath seized. Oh, God.
Not that painting.
She pushed past Jason and shoved herself into her heels. “I have to go to the gallery.’
“Now?” Jason carefully set The Wind back down. “It’s after eight—isn’t it closed? No one will be there-”
“I don’t care. I have to—” Elizabeth dragged her hands through her hair. “Ava might throw it away and I can’t—”
“I thought you were throwing everything away tomorrow anyway,” Jason reminded her with a sarcastic edge to his voice that he so rarely used—she had almost forgotten he possessed the capability for sarcasm.
She turned to him, scowling. “Damn it, Jason. This isn’t the time for that—I—” She pressed a fist to her mouth. “I had two paintings that were for display. Not for sale. And that was the second. Okay? I’m sorry. I was hurt—”
Her voice broke, and as the tears slid down her cheeks, she felt his arms slide around her shoulders. “Hey, okay. We’ll go get it. We’ll get it tonight. Does Maxie still have a key?”
“I don’t know. I’ll—”
“I’ll call Spinelli and see if he can get it out of her. Otherwise you know Maxie will just want to come.” He pulled out his cell phone. “I can’t go back and change what I did or didn’t do, but this—I can fix this.”
She stared at him with an exasperated sigh, shaky from her tears. “That’s not going to make this okay.”
“No, but I can stop it from getting worse.”
It took another thirty minutes, but Spinelli managed to liberate Maxie’s gallery key from her purse while his sometimes girlfriend was in the restroom. He tossed it down from Maxie’s second-floor apartment into Jason’s waiting grasp.
“I hope she didn’t change the security,” Elizabeth murmured as they approached the gallery’s back door. “Julian gave me the code last month—”
“Don’t worry. I have—” Jason pulled out a little box that looked almost like a calculator. “If your code doesn’t work, this will turn off the alarm.”
Elizabeth stared at the box before blinking back up at him. “Do you just carry it around?”
“No, but I keep it with me in the car. I—” He hesitated. “I never know what Sonny’s going to ask me to do.”
“Right.” Elizabeth pressed the code into the box and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Stay here, I’ll be right back. I have a reason to be here,” she told him. “You don’t.” She put a hand on his chest. “Up until now, we haven’t committed a crime. Let’s keep it that way.”
Jason clearly wasn’t that thrilled at the idea of her going into the darkened gallery alone. “If you need me—”
‘You’ll be right here. I get it.” She started inside, then stopped. Elizabeth turned back to Jason, grabbed a fistful of his t-shirt and dragged him to her for a quick kiss. “I am still mad at you.”
She released him. “You’re going to be making this up to me for, like, years. Got it, buddy?”
He flashed her one of his rare wicked grins. “Looking forward to it.”
Elizabeth entered the gallery—edging her way carefully through the back storeroom and into the main show room. She walked across the room, and her heart clenched at the empty walls. Ava had worked quickly to strip this gorgeous room of all its color and vibrancy.
Her missing painting was nowhere to be found however and that made her frown. Where the hell could Ava have put it?
There was a sound from behind her, and she whirled around, squinting in the darkness, the room only lit by the moonlight through the windows.
Shit, what if Ava was back there? Well, she wanted her painting, and what was the worst Ava could do to her?
She opened the door to the offices and grimaced when she saw the thin line of light from underneath Julian’s office door.
Elizabeth cleared her throat and knocked lightly on the door. “Ava. It’s, uh, Elizabeth Webber. One of my pieces is—”
With her fingertips, she pushed the ajar door open and just stared.
The color red looked like it was everywhere—staining the cream-colored walls, the plush cream carpet laying over the mahogany floor.
At the center of that carpet, in a pool of blood so large that no one could have survived it—
Ava Jerome lay curled on her side, one arm flung out, the other covering her face. A thick wooden handle knife was still lodged in her abdomen—the blouse and skirt she’d worn that morning soaked in crimson.
Ava was dead. Murdered. Blood. “Help,” she managed to say, but the word was weak and disappeared into the air.
Her purse. Where was her—God, she’d left it in the SUV—she needed her phone to call the police—
With Jason in the alleyway. God. She couldn’t think. Ava was dead. There was so much blood.
Elizabeth drew in a shaky breath, closed her eyes, tried to gather herself. She had to do something. She had to help—
Was Ava dead?
Elizabeth stepped forward, her heart pounding so hard it was nearly in her throat—she inched around the desk until Ava’s body came into view. Her chest didn’t rise, her eyes were open…. staring at nothing. And the blood looked dark. Drying.
Okay, Ava was dead. Murdered. Stabbed to death.
Elizabeth spun on her heel and ran.
She rushed back through the gallery, her heels clacking against the hardwood floor until she all but fell against the back door in the storage room. She yanked it open and almost tumbled down to the asphalt street.
Jason caught her before she hit the ground. “Whoa! Are you okay? What happened—”
“You have to go—” Elizabeth grabbed fistfuls of his shirt, her eyes wild as he dragged her upright. “You have to go. She’s dead.”
“Who’s—” Jason pressed his lips together. “Is it Ava?”
“Stabbed—knife—blood everywhere. You have to go. You—” She was crying—why was she crying—she didn’t even like Ava— “I need my phone. I have to—I have to call 911 but you can’t be here.”
“I’m not leaving you—”
“You have to. I can—I can explain why I’m here, but everyone knows Sonny hates Ava. You can’t—” Elizabeth dragged in another deep breath. “Jason—”
“Come with me, we’ll call in a—”
“I’ll be questioned. I don’t want to lie—Jason, you have to go. Please. I know you didn’t do this, and the PCPD is always looking—”
“Okay, okay.” He cradled her face in his hands and kissed her hard. “Okay. But you call me the minute the cops let you go, got it?”
Jason strode quickly to the SUV and returned with her clutch. He hesitated before handing it to her as if reconsidering. “Elizabeth—”
“I can do this.” Elizabeth took out her phone. “Go—I don’t know how long it will take—”
Jason grimaced, touched her cheek, then went back to his car. When his taillights were at the end of the alley, Elizabeth dialed 911.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
She didn’t even have to feign the panic and distress. “I’m at the Jerome Gallery on Central Avenue and there’s—I just found Ava Jerome in the back office. She’s dead.”
“Ma’am are you sure—”
Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut, but the vision of Ava’s glassy eyes would never leave. “I’m sure.”
The gallery with empty white walls.
The place was teeming with uniforms and members of the forensics units at the Port Charles Department, and just outside the door to the back offices, a slender, short brunette in a sleeveless pale purple dress that fell just above her knees stood, biting her nails.
Tear stains on her cheek.
Interesting. Dante hadn’t thought anyone liked Ava Jerome enough to cry for her.
He flashed his badge as he approached. “Miss Webber, right?”
Elizabeth Webber looked at him, her blue eyes unfocused, glazed. Then they cleared. “Detective—I—I know you.”
“I dated Lulu Spencer around the same time you were seeing her brother.” He put a hand under her elbow. “Let’s go over here. Sit down. You can tell me what’s going on.”
“I—” Elizabeth gingerly sat the edge of a white sofa, almost as if she were ready to flee. “I—I found her. Dead.”
“I got that from the 911 call.” Dante drew out a notepad and stubby pencil. “I can’t help but notice that these walls are empty. And that the FBI arrested Julian Jerome two days ago. Was the gallery closing?”
“Um. Yes.” She drew in a deep shuddering breath. “Yes. Ava runs the family gallery in the New York, and Julian runs it here. Um, she used to work here. A few years ago, they traded.”
“Do you know why?”
“I—” Elizabeth stared at him, her brow furrowed. “No. I wasn’t—I wasn’t really—um, Julian ran group showcases one night a month. You, ah, had to apply. I—I was only getting in a few times, so I wasn’t really around.” She chewed on her bottom lip. “Ava arrived and told us the gallery was closing. She fired everyone.”
“You were here when she delivered that news?”
“Yeah. I was—” Elizabeth shook her head. “I was supposed to have a showing here. Tomorrow. My—my third. But Ava fired the staff and she packed up my work. That’s why I came by tonight. She…one of my pieces was missing.”
“Maybe it was sold,” Dante said.
“Oh. It was marked for display only.” With a shaky hand, Elizabeth tucked her hair behind her ears. “I came by to see if it was still here.”
“After dark?” Dante said, his brows raised. “When no staff was here? We checked with the security company, Miss Webber. Other than Ava Jerome signing in three hours ago, you are the only person to come in. You have the code?”
“I do,” Elizabeth said faintly. “Julian gave it to me when I had my second show. So I could come and go with my work and arrange it—I didn’t—”
“You came here when you knew the gallery was closed and that Ava was shutting it down permanently.” Dante raised his brows. “That’s trespassing, Miss Webber. Must be a pretty important painting.”
“Can you tell me what painting it is? So we can keep an eye out for it?”
“It’s—” Her pale skin seemed almost translucent now. “It’s a park scene. In the winter. A…bench. And, um, a red shoe on the ground.”
Dante waited for her to go on, but she stopped there. They could revisit that later. “So, you came here tonight. Did you wait until dark—”
“No, Ava only had my pieces delivered around seven tonight. I unpacked them and realized it wasn’t there. So, I came to the gallery. I don’t know exactly when—it was just after nine.” Her hands were shaking, so she clasped them in her lap, the knuckles of her hands white. “I put in the code. I came in—and I couldn’t see the painting. I—I went towards the offices—and then I saw the door was ajar.”
Her voice trembling, Elizabeth continued. “I went into the office and she was just…there…lying on her side…I could see the blood—I didn’t—I didn’t check for a pulse. I was going to but then—I just—I realized she wasn’t breathing and the blood looked dark and her eyes—” Her voice broke. “Her eyes looked wrong.”
Dante could understand that, nodded. “You came alone?”
“What?” Elizabeth blinked at him. “Yes.”
“How did you get here?” he asked gently. The pupils in her eyes widened, but she kept her face still.
“I—I took the bus. I—don’t drive.”
“You were expecting to take a painting home on public transportation?”
“I—I didn’t think about it. I was just—I was upset that it was missing.” She rose to her feet. “I don’t know what else I can tell you.”
“Where were you earlier today? Between five and seven when you said your work was delivered to your address?”
“I—I was at my studio. Alone.” Elizabeth blinked at him again. “I think—I think I talked to Emily Quartermaine on the phone.”
“Okay.” Dante motioned for a uniform to join them. “Beaudry, can you take Miss Webber to the station?”
“What—why—” Elizabeth’s mouth opened. Her hands fluttered up to her chest. “Why—”
“Book her on charges of trespassing,” he told the uniform. He looked back at Elizabeth. “You’re lying to me,” he said gently. “So, either I can arrest you for trespassing, or you can tell me how you got here.”
She shook her head. “I’m not—I’m not lying.”
“Okay. Take her in, Beaudry.”
Sonny frowned, got to his feet. “What’s wrong?”
“Elizabeth just found Ava Jerome’s body at the gallery,” Jason said, thrusting a finger in Sonny’s direction. “Stabbed to death in her office. You wanted Ava out of your life. Carly wanted Ava gone. What did you do?”
“Nothing.” Sonny shook his head. “What—what happened? I thought you and Elizabeth weren’t talking—”
“Ava didn’t send all of her work back—she was missing something. So, I drove Elizabeth to the gallery, and she went in alone. She found her—”
“And the police already let you go?”
“No.” Jason hesitated, shook his head. “No, Elizabeth didn’t think I should be there. So—” He swallowed. “I left her before she called the police.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Sonny repeated. “You left Elizabeth—I thought you drove her.” He squinted. “Didn’t Ava pretty much destroy Elizabeth’s art career? And…how was she supposed to explain being found at the gallery in the first place?”
Jason stared at Sonny half a second as the adrenaline started to wear off and he swore under his breath. He reached into the inside pocket of his leather jacket. “Damn it. I should have made her leave. Let Ava be found by someone else—”
“The PCPD is going to jump at the chance to wrap this up fast,” Sonny warned him. “And Elizabeth might have delivered herself up on a silver platter.”
Jason scowled at him as his attorney picked up on the other end. “Justus? Hey. Can you head to at the PCPD? No, it’s not me. It’s Elizabeth.”
He remembered Maxie as a fast-talking pain in the ass who never—ever—shut her mouth. So, when he knocked on her door at ten-thirty that evening, he was already bracing himself for the noise.
He hadn’t returned to the PCPD to question Elizabeth Webber. There was little point in doing so. He wasn’t sure exactly what the artist was hiding, but he was positive that by the time he arrived, she would have called an attorney. Likely, that attorney would be Justus Ward who would have her released before Dante could open his mouth for the first question.
He found it very unlikely that Elizabeth had killed Ava Jerome, but he wanted the woman to know he knew she was lying and arresting her seemed the best way to accomplish that goal.
“Dante?” Maxie peered at him with confusion. She grabbed the ends of her pink robe and drew them closed over her tank top and sleep shorts. “What’re you doing here?”
“I need to ask you some questions about Ava Jerome.”
“Oh. God, did she say I stole something? Because I didn’t. She is literally the worst person in the history of the world.” Maxie flung the door open and stalked back into her apartment, collapsing on her bright pink sofa. “You tell her that I wouldn’t take one nickel from her if she begged m—”
“Hard to tell her anything now that she’s dead.” Dante closed the door. “Elizabeth Webber found her about—” He checked his watch. “Forty minutes ago.”
“Dead.” Maxie stared at him, her blue eyes huge in her face. “How—what—Elizabeth…?” She shook her head. “I don’t—I don’t understand.”
“She was stabbed to death around six this evening.” Dante studied her. “With a letter opener from her desk. Someone stabbed her and left her to bleed to death on the floor. Took about an hour, but she’s dead.”
Maxie just blinked. “I don’t—What?”
“Did you pack up Elizabeth Webber’s art pieces today? So that they could be sent back to her?”
The blonde grasped her throat, blinked again. “Um. No. No, I didn’t. Ava—she fired the entire staff yesterday—me, Dillon, and Spinelli.”
“Yeah, I remember that they’d worked for the gallery. What did they do again?”
“Spinelli did website coding and security.” Maxie took a deep breath, some color flooding her cheeks again. “Dillon did a little of everything. He—he was—some of his photography was in the showcases, and he sometimes did photos of art pieces to sell online. He…wanted Julian to invest in his film projects.”
“Did he?” Dante asked. When Maxie tipped her head, her eyes squinting in confusion, he continued. “Did Julian ever invest?”
“Oh. No, I mean, maybe eventually. But the Jerome money was usually pretty tight. Um, Julian had to get Ava and Olivia’s permission to spend from the trust on anything outside the gallery. Ava and Julian almost never agree, so usually they’re trying to buy Olivia’s vote.” Maxie took a deep breath, closed her eyes. “Ava’s really dead.”
Maxie exhaled slowly. “Around six, I was with Dillon and Spinelli. We were making dinner at Dillon’s place, trying to figure out what to do next.” When Dante raised his eyebrows, she shrugged. “I figure you’d be asking me that next. You know, I didn’t grow up with Mac for nothing.”
“Fair enough.” Dante nodded, checked his notes. “You’ve worked at the gallery since it opened?”
“Yeah. I was a receptionist for Ava. She ran it originally because Julian was in charge of the New York Branch. Ava hated it here. Even though it made it easier for her and Sonny to share custody of Avery, she spent her entire two years trying to convince Olivia to vote in favor of closing the place. I guess Julian got tired of her complaining. Next thing I knew, they were switching places and Julian was promoting me.”
“Not at first. I moved into event planning—the receptions and stuff. But then I recommended Spinelli and Dillon, and I guess Julian thought I was doing good, so last year, I got promoted to manager.” Maxie bit her lip. “Why…can I ask how Elizabeth found her? I mean, why was she there so late?”
“Apparently, whoever packed Elizabeth’s pieces didn’t pack them all, and she came to the gallery to find the missing one.” Dante raised his brows. “She had access to a security code?”
“Oh. Yeah. Julian really liked her work. I remember when she was submitting to the group showcases—he always thought she was gonna hit her stride, and then six months ago, I guess he thought she had. He planned on her next show—after this third one—being in New York.”
“But Ava canceled her show—why would Julian think she’d agree to show Elizabeth’s work in New York?”
“I don’t know,” Maxie admitted. “I figured Julian had bought Olivia’s vote. Olivia’s pretty easy to buy off, and she’s closer to Julian anyway. So yeah, Julian gave Liz a security code.” Maxie bit her lip. “She wouldn’t have—”
“Thanks, Maxie.” Dante went to the front door. “Don’t leave town.”
He felt like an idiot now for letting her talk him into leaving her behind at the gallery. It had made sense at the time—he didn’t want to be found at the crime of scene of a woman whom his boss loathed and had destroyed his girlfriend’s art career. He hadn’t really thought about what it would look like for Elizabeth to be there—she spent so much time at the gallery and she had a good reason for being there.
A sedan pulled up to the front of her building, and Jason sighed in relief—it was his attorney’s car—and he could see Elizabeth stepping out of the passenger side door. Justus Ward, his cousin and lawyer, hustled out of the driver’s side, then walked Elizabeth to the front door of her building.
Jason opened his own car door and caught up with the two of them as they stepped into the small lobby of her building with a security door that led into the rest of the residential space.
“Jason!” Elizabeth turned, and he pulled her to him in a rough but tight embrace. “Thank you for calling Justus—”
“Fast work, too. I was able to get there almost as soon as she did,” his cousin said idly. He leaned against the far wall of the lobby. “Abandoning the damsel in her time of distress doesn’t seem like you.” Jason scowled at him, and Justus grinned.
“I’m not a damsel,” Elizabeth muttered. She pulled away from Jason. “I forgot you drove me there, and Dante wanted to know how I got there. I didn’t tell him—”
“You should have—”
“It doesn’t matter. I didn’t kill her, so it doesn’t matter how I got there. A lot of people hated Ava.”
“That is true,” Justus said. He straightened. “I don’t think they’ll come after for you the trespassing charges. You were given a security code, and Julian still remains nominally in charge. You had a good reason for being there. Falconieri just wanted you to know he knew you were lying. Don’t lie about anything else, and we’ll be good.” He clapped Jason on the back of the shoulder and exited the building.
Elizabeth buzzed into the building and Jason followed her up two flight of stairs, then into her studio. “I wish I felt as confident as Justus does,” she said with a sigh. She flicked on her lamp.
“I should have stayed—”
“It would have complicated things. I wish I’d thought of how I got there. I only got tripped up because I didn’t expect—” Elizabeth shook her head. “I didn’t think anyone would care about that. I had to think of the answer. But if you’d been found there, Jason, you know that Taggert would have gotten involved—”
“You think he’s not going to get involved now?”
Elizabeth sighed, crossed to her fridge and pulled out her bottle of wine. She stared at it—it was nearly empty. “I think I’ve been drinking too much since Julian got arrested.”
She set it on the counter and turned back to him. “I don’t know what you want me to say. Ava’s dead. Someone murdered her. There’s not a single person in this city that wouldn’t have liked to see her gone. Let’s start with the minor suspects. Spinelli is out of a legitimate job which is going to make filing his taxes harder—”
“This isn’t funny—”
“—Robin had her research study canceled when she was on the verge of a medical breakthrough which really pissed off Patrick since his mother died. Dillon is out of a job, too, and no way to fund his film projects. Maxie has been fired. Carly and Ava battled every five minutes over the Metro Court, and Sonny has been trying to shove Ava out of his life since he was dumb enough to sleep with her.” Elizabeth shrugged, poured her wine. “Then again, I found the body, and Ava destroyed my art career. So, I guess I’ve got an extra tick in the suspect column.”
He studied her for a long moment, exhaled slowly, and walked behind the counter. “I’m not going to let Taggert or anyone else at the PCPD go after you.”
“I wish I’d listened to you,” she murmured. She squeezed her eyes shut. “We should have left. Called it in somewhere else. Waited for someone else to find her.”
“Hey.” Jason ran his hands up and down her bare arms, his fingertips sliding across her soft skin. She opened her eyes. “You didn’t do this. And Justus is the best lawyer in the city.”
“Sonny is still walking the streets, so I guess that’s true.” Elizabeth chewed on her bottom her lip, then let her head fall against his chest. “Let’s just hope someone left fingerprints on the knife or there’s some other evidence.”
“We’ll get through this, and if not…” He tipped her chin up so she met his eyes. “Thanks to Sonny, we have property in several countries without extradition treaties. But that’s not going to happen.”
“Well, I’ll just have to let you and Justus be the confident ones right now because I can’t seem to find the energy.”
She finished putting away the returned paintings, trying hard not to think about her missing artwork. She couldn’t understand how it had been lost—it had been hanging on the wall next to The Wind, and that had been returned to her safely.
Had Ava liked it? Maybe she had set it aside, intending to buy it. Or show it in New York. It seemed unlike her, but that was the only way Elizabeth could explain its absence to herself.
She frowned when her intercom buzzed, and she got to her feet to press the button. “Yeah?”
“Miss Webber, it’s Detective Falconieri. I’m standing here with your lawyer. I’d like to ask you a few more questions.”
She sighed and buzzed them up. “Okay.” At least Dante had called Justus for her—he must be familiar with Jason and Sonny, who never even looked at a cop without an attorney present.
A few minutes later, Justus and the detective entered. Elizabeth offered both of them something to drink, and it was declined.
“You said last night that you went to the gallery because you were missing a painting,” Dante said, without much of a preamble. He held up a photo on his phone, and Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “Is this it?”
“Oh. Yeah.” Elizabeth took the phone from him to zoom in and study it more critically. “Yeah. Where did you find it?”
“In a rack of artwork Nelle Benson told us was designated for New York.”
“Oh.” Elizabeth felt her lips curve. “Ava liked it then. Maybe she was changing her mind about my work. She probably never even thought about me, personally, you know. It was never personal with her, actually. If Julian supported you, Ava hated you. It was about him. Not you.” She held the phone out to Dante, but he didn’t take it.
“Nelle told us that she didn’t know where that painting had come from. She’d never seen it before. And she said it wasn’t yours. That she packed all of your things herself and nothing was missing.”
Elizabeth looked at Justus who was frowning at the detective. “I don’t—” She looked back at the phone, zoomed in again.
There was a damaged section of the painting—something had been smeared at the bottom. “My…signature…” Elizabeth swallowed hard. “It’s gone.”
“I know. Nelle couldn’t explain that.”
“How did you know to ask Elizabeth this particular painting?” Justus asked, taking the phone and examining the piece himself. “Did she give you a description?”
“Elizabeth have me a brief one last night, and Dillon Quartermaine was happy to give me photos of all your work he’d prepared for the website.” Dante took his phone and slid forward a few times until he came to another photo. He held it out to her. It was her painting—this time with her signature intact.
“Why—this doesn’t make any sense.” Elizabeth looked at Justus. “Why would Nelle lie?”
“It’s possible Nelle didn’t know. Ava might have taken this off the wall before Nelle packed things up.” Dante shrugged. “You seemed pretty upset about this painting last night. Enough to go to the gallery after dark instead of waiting until the morning.
“Oh, come on, Detective. You can’t think this is a motive for her,” Justus said with a surprised laugh. “Her ownership is obviously easily proven. You did it within a few hours. Elizabeth would have been able to do go straight to Dillon—”
“All I know is that Miss Webber was desperate to get this painting back. You said it had been marked for display only. Why?” Dante asked.
“Because I didn’t want to sell it—” Elizabeth answered before Justus could stop her. He held up a hand and she closed her mouth.
“Have you investigated Nelle Benson?” Justus asked. “It seems to me that she may have been doing something nefarious with this painting. She packed the paintings herself, she told you. Perhaps Ava caught her stealing.”
“I’m trying to find out how important this painting is, Miss Webber. If it was important enough to break into the gallery—”
“With a security code given to her by the gallery’s legal owner,” Justus interjected.
“You’re asking me if this painting was important enough to me that I would kill Ava for trying to steal it, for damaging it.” Elizabeth looked at Justus who hesitated but nodded for her to continue. “Look, it’s hard to explain. This was the first time I put anything up for display only, but Julian encouraged me to hold some pieces back—to show off my best work and not sell it. One of the paintings—”
She crossed the room to lift The Wind onto an easel. “This is one of the paintings I didn’t want to sell. It’s called The Wind.”
Dante pursed his lips, studied it for a long moment. “Because it’s what scenery would look like from the back of a motorcycle. I’ve met Jason Morgan,” he added when Elizabeth frowned at him. “It’s good. That’s the Ferris wheel, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Um. The other painting—the one I wanted back—you’re not wrong that it’s important. But it’s because I didn’t want anyone to pay money for it. Because it’s—” She chewed on her lip. “It’s kind of a memory that I don’t really like. A really bad time in my life. And painting it was like therapy. Julian argued with me about displaying it. He thought it would get a good price—or that it would make a really good splash in New York. But I just didn’t want to know what someone would pay for it. I don’t know. It sounds stupid.”
“No, I think I understand.” Dante tilted his head. “So, you would have been angry if Ava had tried to sell it behind your back?”
“I can’t imagine that’s what she was trying to do. She—or someone—removed my signature. Which is kind of silly. Because Justus is right. Not only did Dillon have photography with the signature on it, but I have sketches of it. Maxie helped me hang it up. Jason helped me pack it. He doesn’t really understand art, but he could have told you he saw it here.”
“So, whatever someone was doing with this painting wouldn’t have made you angry?” Dante asked, with brows raised.
“Angry, yeah. I guess. But enough to kill someone?” Elizabeth sighed. “It would have been a pain to fix the damage done to the signature, but I could have restored it. To be honest, Detective, the reason I painted that moment of my life was to put all that anger and pain out of my head. I told you, it was therapy. The last thing I would have done was kill someone over it.” She tilted her head. “Do you have any other questions?”
Dante fought the urge to roll his eyes. “To be honest, sir, there is nothing tying Elizabeth Webber or anyone else to this crime. No fingerprints, no forensics—”
“You have her at the scene of the crime—”
“Two hours after Ava was murdered.”
“She was trying to steal a painting—”
“I honestly think someone was trying to set her up. Not only do I not believe she would have killed someone over this painting—Justus Ward will destroy that motive in about five minutes—”
“She destroyed this woman’s career-”
“There are very few people who knew Ava Jerome who aren’t happy to see her gone,” Dante told him. “First of all, Justus Ward will argue that all Ava did was cancel a show. It’d be on you to prove that it destroyed her career. Second, she also fired three other people, threatened to put Carly Jacks out of business—and that’s just who she pissed off the day she was murdered. The people who didn’t want to kill Ava were her daughters and Nelle Benson. Everyone else is a suspect.”
Durant’s scowl deepened. “What about proving Morgan was at the gallery that night? That’s who drove the Webber woman there. We can get her for obstruction—”
“No way in hell Morgan pulls a hit with his girlfriend on the scene. He’s not an idiot. I can’t prove he was there, but I’m sure he was.” Dante shrugged. “It’s a crap case. It’d be easier to find people who didn’t hate Ava Jerome. And you’ll never find a jury who will convict on this evidence.”
“We should arrest her anyway,” Durant said. He shoved himself to his feet. “Throw her in jail. Get her bond revoked. Turn her against Corinthos and Morgan—”
Dante narrowed his eyes. “Forget that Justus Ward would never let her make a deal on bullshit evidence—you try to get Elizabeth Webber on these charges, I will resign and offer myself to testify in her defense.”
“You, Falconieri, are a giant pain in my ass!” Durant snarled. “Get out of my office.”
Jason tossed his pencil down and turned his full attention to his partner. “We haven’t heard anything since Falconieri talked to Elizabeth the day after it all happened—that was two weeks ago—”
“Yeah, well, the DA has been keeping his cards close to the chest on this one, and the PCPD has been locked down. Trying to get information out of them has been next to impossible.” Sonny exhaled slowly. “Durant wanted to arrest Elizabeth last week.”
Jason scowled and stood. “That’s bullshit, Sonny. He only wants her so he can go after me or you. She didn’t do this—”
“I know that. Word is that Falconieri refused to ask for the warrant, and when Durant threatened to do it anyway—he had to back down. No one is sure exactly what happened, but my source at the DA says it looks like the case is going to end up in the cold pile. They’re still working it, but they’ve got too many suspects and no forensic evidence.”
Jason rubbed his chest, feeling some of the pressure of the last two weeks finally ease. “At least there’s that.” He studied Sonny for a long moment. “You didn’t have me do it, but I know you’ve wanted Ava out of your life for a long time.”
Sonny squinted at him. “You really think I would have my daughter’s mother stabbed to death and left to bleed out on the floor, then let your girl twist in the wind over it? Damn it—”
“You didn’t mind letting Elizabeth twist in the wind when we thought Ava Jerome was going to be arrested. I didn’t think it would screw up the gallery here, but you must have known it would damage the gallery’s reputation and her career along with it.”
“That’s not—” his partner sputtered. “That’s not remotely the same thing! Elizabeth’s work is incredible, and she damn well knows it. She would have been fine! It might have even driven up the prices on her work! Not telling her the Jeromes were dirty is not the same thing as letting her get hauled in on murder charges—you can’t really think—”
“I don’t know, Sonny. When you want something, other people don’t seem to matter.” Jason sat back down to return to his work.
“Well, that’s—not entirely wrong, but I see I have some damage control to do.” Sonny rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I screwed Elizabeth over in all of this. She didn’t matter to me. But I know she matters to you, and that should have been enough.”
“I’m going to ask her to marry me,” Jason said quietly as he picked up his pencil to finish making his notes. “And if comes down to you or her, it’s always going to be her.”
“Julian’s lawyer told me that he’s pretty sure all the charges are gonna be dismissed next week at the hearing,” Maxie said, bubbling over with excitement. She sipped her champagne and leaned her head against Spinelli’s shoulder. “He’s gonna go back to New York and I get to keep the gallery here.”
“I knew you’d prevail, Maximista.” Spinelli kissed the top of her hair, careful not to dislodge the carefully arranged curls. “Nothing keeps you down for long.”
“He’s pretty sure Ava framed him for the RICO charges anyway,” Maxie continued. “Seems like it. I’m glad the bitch is dead, but you know…I wonder…”
She studied Jason and Elizabeth standing across the room. Elizabeth was beaming while Jason shifted uncomfortably in his blazer. Maybe it was the clothes—Jason hated dressing up—or maybe it was the fact that they were talking to Jason’s grandfather who he didn’t really get along with much.
“I wonder if we’ll ever find out what happened to Ava.” Maxie said. She looked at her other best friend, Dillon Quartermaine who had joined them.
“Does anyone really care?” Dillon asked with a shrug. He lifted his wine to his lips. “I mean, isn’t the world a better place?”
“I just hate not knowing stuff,” Maxie huffed. “Plus, I want to know who basically saved us all. We should throw them a parade.”
Jason grimaced as he followed Elizabeth out onto the back patio where a bar had been set up and a jazz trio played music near a dance floor. Maxie had made this more than just a show opening—it had morphed into the kind of party where everyone in Port Charles society wanted to be seen. Not only had all of Elizabeth’s pieces been sold already, but three other artists on displayed had sold out as well.
“They’re not as bad as they used to be,” Jason admitted. “But we’re still not going to Thanksgiving with them.”
“Oh, God, no.” She wrinkled her nose and accepted the martini that the bartender handed her. “We go see your family for Thanksgiving, my parents will find out and want us to go to them for Christmas just to compete.”
She sighed and turned her attention to the couples dancing to the music. “I really thought my career was going down in flames. Robin and Patrick are already making fun of me because I had to drop out of the program again. Gram thinks I’m a lost cause.” She bit her lip. “You heard Julian is probably going to get his charges dismissed and move to New York, right?”
“Sonny agrees with him. It’s pretty clear Ava set him up.” Jason shrugged. “Makes you wonder if Julian was the one—”
“I don’t want to think about it, honestly. Anyway, he, um, wrote me, you know.” She met his eyes. “He wants me to come to New York. He thinks it would be good for me to move there. At least for a year or so to get my name out there.”
“Yeah?” Jason nodded. “That sounds like he believes in you. You still think he was using you to get to Sonny?”
“No, I guess I let myself forget all the encouragement he gave me those last six months—” Elizabeth scowled. “Did you hear the part about me moving to New York?”
“I did.” Jason tipped his head. “Where should we go? Manhattan? Or do you want to find a place in Brooklyn?”
Elizabeth blinked at him. “You—you want to come with me?”
Jason looked faintly insulted. “You’re not asking me to?”
“I never—” She licked her lips, her heart racing. “I never thought it was an option. You—you work for Sonny—”
“I can still work for Sonny in New York.” He tucked a piece of hair behind her ears. “I asked you to marry me last week, Elizabeth. This is your dream. I know what New York means to you. What I do for Sonny is just a job. A life with you? That’s my dream.”
Elizabeth grinned, wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her lips to his. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Sonny turned to find Dante Falconieri standing in the doorway of his terrace. “Did anyone see you?”
“Nah. Max is done for the night.” The detective stepped forward, accepted the tumbler of bourbon Sonny gave him. “And I came in the back way.”
“Good, good.” Sonny turned to the view that his terrace gave him—Greystone was tucked away in the hills of Port Charles, and downtown laid out in the slight valley below them, a sprinkling of sparkling lights.
“I wasn’t invited to the opening,” Sonny said after a long moment. “Jason is still pretty angry at me, and he didn’t want me messing up Elizabeth’s night.”
“Well, he’s not wrong.” Dante leaned over the railing and was quiet for a long moment. “It’s been six weeks since Ava’s murder. No leads. Jordan has officially deemed it inactive. Another month, it goes down to the cold storage.”
“Pretty quick, isn’t it?”
“No one really cares who killed Ava Jerome.” Dante smiled. “I called Ma, and she told me that they thought about holding a party in Bensonhurst. I guess Ava wasn’t well-liked back home.”
Sonny sipped his bourbon. “your mother had more reason than most to hate her.”
“So did you.” Dante straightened. “Ma told me something I didn’t know before.”
Sonny turned to him. “Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah. Did you think I’d take you in if I knew everything about your history with Ava?” Dante snorted. “You know better than that. The only reason we get away with any of this is if we don’t get seen in public together. I arrest you and I got a lot of reporters looking at my background. How long do you think before they’d find out you and ma were going together when she got pregnant?”
Sonny shrugged. “You’re the one who wants this kept secret. I get it. I’m proud of you, you know. Me and your mother. You took the straight and narrow path.” He managed a half smile as he looked out over Port Charles. “You remind me of your aunt.”
“Yeah, that’s the thing Ma never told me. That Ava and Connie went to Princeton together. They were roommates.”
“Made sense at the time. They were friends. Interested in the same kind of career.” Sonny exhaled slowly. “And when Connie died, Ava was next in line for the internship at Couture.”
“Except Aunt Connie didn’t just die, did she, Pops? She was murdered. Stabbed to death. Left bleeding on the floor.”
“Yeah.” Sonny said, his voice roughed. “Yeah. She was.”
“Off the record,” Dante said. “Did you kill Ava Jerome? Or have it done?”
Sonny looked at him. “You know, I didn’t believe Ava killed Connie. Until Avery was three years old, and Ava and I were battling over custody issues. She brought up Connie, and I just—there was a look in her eye. I knew she’d done it.”
“Ma always believed it.” Dante tapped his fingers. “Probably why I didn’t try so hard to find out who killed her. I believe in the law, but I believe in justice more. Off the record,” he repeated.
“I thought about it.” Sonny said with a sigh. “But Avery…I’d never be able to look my little girl in the eye if I killed her mother, so no, I didn’t kill Ava. Or have it done.”
“But you know who did it.”
“I don’t know for sure,” Sonny admitted. He turned to his son. “But yeah, when I found out how she died—stabbed to death. Left to die on the floor—I only told one person about Connie. And she hated Ava almost more than anyone else.”
The Jeromes were finally out of her life.
Upon Ava’s death, her shares had been divided between Ava’s daughters, Kiki and Avery. Kiki had immediately given control to Carly, and Sonny had eventually also signed over proxy of Avery’s shares.
This hotel was hers again. Just the way it was supposed to be—the way it had been before Carly had lost her damn mind, slept with her ex-husband, and destroyed her marriage. Sonny had always had a way of ruining Carly’s life.
Her penthouse door creaked open, and Carly turned. She was unsurprised by her late-night visitor—she had been expecting this for nearly six weeks.
Nelle Benson closed the door quietly behind her and joined Carly at the window. “A friend from the PCPD told me that the case has been shelved. It should go cold.” Her amber eyes were lit with unholy glee. “I did just what you asked.”
“Did you?” Carly pursed her lips. “You didn’t do a good job of framing Elizabeth Webber. She was never even arrested. You were supposed to make sure she got blamed.” And with Elizabeth arrested, Jason would get her out of the country, deserting Sonny.
She wanted to break Sonny into pieces like he’d done to her so many times. Make him think of his precious Connie by having Ava stabbed to death, and his best friend’s girlfriend blamed for it. It would be the start of Carly’s war against Sonny Corinthos.
“I—” Nelle pressed her thin lips together, narrowed her eyes. “I did. She discovered the body. I tried to steal her painting. She—That was supposed to be extra. That wasn’t the deal.”
Carly shrugged a shoulder. “That’s not how I remember it.”
“You—you said if I did this—this was the last thing I had to do—” Nelle clenched her jaw. “I got the job with Ava and told you everything—you were always able to stay ahead of her—a-and I killed her. Just like you wanted. It’s your turn—”
“To do what, Nelle?” Carly smirked. “You really think I’m going to tell anyone how we really know each other? God, what would my kids think—”
“I’m your kid!” Nelle shrieked. “I’m your daughter!”
Carly started to laugh at her—and laughed so hard she didn’t notice when the thin thread tethering Nelle to reality snapped.
Nelle, the baby she’d abandoned into foster care when Carly was a teenager, screamed and shoved her so suddenly that traces of laughter still lined Carly’s face even as she crashed through the window, the glass shattering beneath her back.
There was just enough time for Nelle to see amusement transform into shock and fear before Carly plummeted twenty floors below to her death.
“I hope you’re still laughing in hell,” Nelle hissed to the mother who had refused to acknowledge her. She slipped out of the penthouse before Carly’s children, sleeping upstairs, woke up to investigate the sounds.
A few seconds later, someone on the ground started to scream.