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Dying to please, p.23

Dying to Please, page 23

 

Dying to Please
 


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  She turned to punch in the code on the security panel and stopped when she realized it wasn't beeping the little warning that a door had been opened while the alarm was set. Frowning, she examined the lights. No wonder it hadn't beeped; the alarm wasn't set. Merilyn must have forgotten it. She and Sonny both were a bit lax about the house's security system, since the property was walled and gated. They figured if the outside property was secure, so was the house.

  She went into the kitchen and started the coffee, then carried the newspaper through the tangle of halls and rooms to Sonny's den, where he liked to read it while he caught the morning news. He didn't like to hurry, so he was usually awake and downstairs by six-thirty, giving him plenty of time for the newspaper and breakfast before he left for the office at eight-forty.

  The low-level lights were on in the hallway, as were the lamps. Come to think of it, the light over the front door had also been on. Sarah frowned, suddenly uneasy. Something was wrong; maybe one of them had gotten sick during the night, because she thought she smelled—

  The smell.

  Panic hit her like a tidal wave, sending her reeling back toward the kitchen. That smell! It couldn't mean what she thought; it was just that she associated the scent with something terrible. Anything similar brought back the nightmare. Either Sonny or Merilyn had a digestive virus, that was all. They had her cell phone number, they should have called, and she'd have come back immediately to handle things.

  She swallowed the bile in her throat. “Mr. Lankford?” she called. “Hello?”

  There wasn't an answer. The house was silent around her, except for the almost inaudible hum of electricity that said the house was wired and everything was working.

  “Hello,” she called again.

  She didn't have her pistol; it still hadn't been returned to her. Since she wasn't performing any bodyguard function for the Lankfords, she hadn't worried about it. The police department would eventually return it to her. Now, with every tiny hair on her body lifting in alarm, she wished she had it.

  She should retreat, maybe call Cahill and get him to come check out the house. But the house felt . . . empty, just as the Judge's house had felt—as if there was no life inside it.

  She eased down the hallway, then halted, gagging a little.

  The smell. That damn smell.

  I can't do this again. The thought burned through her mind. This couldn't be happening. Not again. She was imagining things. Maybe not the smell, but she was letting it panic her. She should find out what was wrong, who was sick. She should be calm, and take charge. That was part of her job, handling whatever crisis arose here.

  She took two more steps. The door to the den was maybe three more steps away. She forced herself to take those steps, practically throwing herself forward like someone who had finally worked up enough nerve to leap off a tower bungee-jumping. The odor had an almost oily quality to it, sticking to her throat, coating her tongue. She gagged again, and covered her nose and mouth with her hand as she looked inside the den.

  He was sprawled on the floor in a half-sitting position, his head and shoulders supported by the heavy coffee table. His head was bent at an unnatural angle, as if he hadn't had room to lie flat. The wound was . . .

  She didn't look for Merilyn. As she had done once before, she backed away, slowly, shaking, little mewling sounds coming from her throat. She was vaguely shocked at herself for making such sounds. They sounded so weak, and she was strong. She had always been strong.

  She didn't feel strong now. She wanted to run screaming from this house, find someplace safe and dark and cower inside it, until this horror was gone.

  She wanted . . . she wanted Cahill. Yes. When he was here, she wouldn't feel so helpless, so shaken. She had to call Cahill.

  She kept backing down the hall, and as she had once before, she found herself standing in the kitchen. She was shaking violently now, and she knew she was on the verge of hysteria.

  No. She wouldn't give in to it. Couldn't. There were things to be done, that all-important call to make.

  Not Cahill. Not first. The first call had to be 911. She had to do things right. Maybe Merilyn was still alive, maybe the medics could get here in time to save her, if she made the 911 call first.

  Her hand was shaking so hard she couldn't hit the right numbers on the keypad. She disconnected and tried again, with the same result. Weeping, cursing, she banged the phone against the counter. “Work, damn it! Work!”

  The phone came apart in her hand, plastic sections flying. She threw what was left of it against the wall. She needed another phone. She needed . . . another . . . damn . . . phone!

  She tried to think. Phones were all over this house, but where exactly? She hadn't worked here long enough for the knowledge to be automatic, not now when she could barely form a single coherent thought.

  And she couldn't hunt for one. She might find Merilyn instead.

  She couldn't think about it, couldn't think of that energetic, cheerful, good-hearted woman lying in a pool of blood somewhere. Concentrate. Find a phone.

  The bungalow. She knew where the phone was in there.

  She tried to run, but her legs wobbled beneath her and she staggered, falling to one knee on the courtyard pavers. She didn't notice any pain, but bounded up and staggered the rest of the way to the bungalow door.

  There was a phone just inside, in the living room. She grabbed it and started to jab at the buttons, but stopped herself and managed to drag in a few deep, shaky breaths. It was hard won, but she found a small measure of calm. She had to get herself under control; she was no good to anyone if she let herself fall apart.

  Her hands were still trembling, but she managed to push 911, and she waited.

  Cahill couldn't believe it. He fucking couldn't believe it. At first he thought he'd heard wrong, that the report was a hoax, or that the address was wrong. Something. For one murder to occur in Mountain Brook was unusual enough, but a double murder only a matter of weeks after the first one? And discovered by the same woman who had called in the first one? Un-fucking-believable.

  He had an icy feeling in the pit of his stomach, a cold hard knot of dread that had nothing to do with Sarah's safety—she'd called the murder in, so she was okay—and everything to do with being a cop. He was a damn good cop, combining experience, intuition, and a talent for analyzing cold hard facts without letting his emotions cloud the issue. Intuition was telling him now that this stretched coincidence way the hell too far.

  When he got to the house, the scene made the one at Judge Roberts's house look organized. Squad cars, unmarked cars, vans, medics, and a fire engine clogged the driveway and street, but at least they belonged. The curious, the sightseers, the media vans, the print reporters, all formed a crowd that had brought traffic to a grinding halt. Hell, there was even a helicopter overhead.

  He clipped his badge to his belt where it could be seen and waded through the clog of onlookers, ducking under the crime scene tape and asking the first uniform he came to, “Have you seen the lieutenant?”

  “He's inside.”

  “Thanks.”

  Sarah was somewhere inside, or in that little house behind the pool. He didn't search for her, though; he had to see the lieutenant first.

  The house was a warren; a big warren, but a warren nevertheless, as if the architect had been both schizophrenic and dyslexic. He finally found the lieutenant standing in a hallway peering inside a room, but not stepping inside and carefully not touching anything. The room would be the crime scene, then, or one of them.

  “I need to talk to you,” he said to the lieutenant, motioning his head to the side.

  “This is a fucking mess,” the lieutenant muttered under his breath, still staring inside the room. He looked tired, though the day had just begun. “Yeah, what is it?”

  “You may want to keep me clear of this case. Conflict of interest. I'm involved with Sarah Stevens.”

  “The butler?” Lieutenant Wester said sharply. “I
nvolved, how? You've been out a couple of times?”

  “We're practically living together.” That was an exaggeration, but not by much.

  “I thought she lives in that little house out back.”

  “That's her quarters when she's on duty. When she isn't, she's at my house.”

  “Shit.” The lieutenant rubbed his hand over his head. He didn't have much hair and what he did have he kept very short, so he wasn't disturbing anything. “How long has this been going on?”

  “Since she was dropped from the suspect list in the Roberts murder.”

  “Shit. I gotta tell you, Doc, I have a bad feeling about this. Maybe we cleared her too soon in the other case. What are the fucking odds, huh?” he asked in a furious whisper. “We don't have a murder here in years; then she comes to town and whoever she goes to work for gets popped in the head, clean shot, professional. The first guy left her a hundred grand in his will. A big diamond worth a quarter of a million is missing now, and, get this: She's the one who noticed, when she ID'd the woman's body. Coincidence, my ass. Coincidences like this don't happen. My gut says it isn't looking good for your girlfriend.”

  “Yeah,” Cahill said bleakly. “I know.”

  CHAPTER 23

  LIEUTENANT WESTER WAS IN A QUANDARY. HE NEEDED EVERY detective he had, but he didn't want to jeopardize the case by muddying the waters with a conflict of interest. The conflict came only if Cahill allowed emotion to get in the way of his job. He figured Cahill could do the job; Cahill knew he could. It would hurt, but he could do it. It was best, though, if he was assigned to something else.

  Cahill knew it was best, but it still pissed him off. Not that the lieutenant made the decision, but that there was a decision to be made at all. Cahill figured he should have been smarter than this; he'd missed something, somewhere. If Sarah had done all the killings—or had them done, he couldn't forget that possibility—then he'd screwed up by not following his initial thought, and two more people were dead.

  And if Sarah was innocent—a possibility that was looking more remote by the minute—then there was something colossally wrong. That thing with the pendant: had she picked up a stalker, or had she sent it to herself as a means of deflecting suspicion, if necessary?

  Maybe he wasn't on the case, but his brain was working anyway, sifting through all the possible scenarios.

  He asked permission to see her. Part of him wanted to make certain she was all right, but the cop part of him wanted to see how she looked, how she acted. Body language and physical responses said a lot.

  Sarah was in the bungalow, sitting on the sofa in the cozy living room while a medic put a dressing on her right knee and a patrol officer watched from the doorway. Her pants leg was torn, and Cahill could see the bloodstains, like rust, on her leg. Her face was paper white.

  “What happened?” he asked, standing back and watching.

  “She fell in the courtyard and hurt her knee,” the medic said matter-of-factly, taping a bandage over the bluish, oozing wound. “It'll be sore tomorrow,” he told Sarah.

  She nodded absently.

  “When did you fall?” Cahill asked her. “And how?”

  “I didn't fall.” Sarah's voice was so wispy it was almost transparent, and without inflection. She didn't look at him. “I wobbled and went down on one knee.”

  “When?” he repeated.

  She made a vague gesture. “When I was hunting for a telephone.”

  “Why were you hunting for a telephone?” From what he'd seen, there were telephones all through the house, including a shattered one in the kitchen.

  “To call. About—” She made another vague gesture, this time toward the house.

  “There are telephones in the house. Why did you come out here?”

  “I didn't know where she was. I didn't . . . want to see her.” She paused, and for the first time made eye contact. “But I saw her anyway. They asked me to identify her. I saw her anyway.”

  The symptoms of mental shock were very good, very convincing. Hell, maybe they were real. Her body language was consistent with shock, too, sitting motionless unless something was required of her, and then her movements were slow, sluggish. She was very pale. Makeup? Her pupils were dilated, too, but eyedrops could produce that effect.

  He hated what he was thinking, but he couldn't let himself be blinded. He might not be on the case, but that didn't mean his analysis couldn't be used.

  Another thought occurred: Had she developed a relationship with him as a means of deflecting suspicion, maybe, or keeping tabs on any progress with the Roberts killing? If so, she must have been congratulating herself on her success, because the Roberts case was going exactly nowhere.

  He wanted to keep questioning her, but it would be better if he backed off now, let the detectives assigned to the case ask the questions. Besides, there was something he needed to check.

  He nodded to the patrolman and stepped out of the bungalow, taking a deep breath of the fresh warm air. He sought out Lieutenant Wester again. “Do we have a rough time of death?”

  “The ME hasn't made a determination yet, but I saw the bodies myself and rigor is pretty far advanced. I'd say”—he rocked his hand—“twelve hours. In that neighborhood.”

  Fuck. That fell in the time span when he'd been out on call and she had made that sudden trip to the supermarket, even though she had bought groceries earlier in the day. The trip was nicely explained by a sudden, convenient craving for a banana split. Was she cold-blooded enough that she had come back here, killed two people, then stopped off for ice cream on the way back to his house? Or had she bought the ice cream as an excuse for being out? An alibi, so she could show him the receipt and say, “See? I was here. I couldn't have been there.”

  This was practically a mirror situation of the Roberts murder. She had no eyewitness alibi to definitely say she was somewhere else at the time of the killing, but she had the receipt from where she'd been shopping.

  On the other hand, she couldn't have known he'd be called out last night. She couldn't have planned anything ahead of time. Had she just been waiting, knowing he would eventually be called out at night, and when he did, she'd make her move? She wouldn't have been in any hurry; she could afford to wait for the right moment. After all, she was collecting that hefty salary, and if she had her eye on the missing yellow diamond ring, it wasn't going anywhere.

  She hadn't kept the receipt from the supermarket. He clearly remembered her putting the plastic bags and the receipt in the trash. If she was that sharp, that organized a killer, throwing away the receipt was a sloppy thing to do. Or a smart one. She could then say, “If I thought I'd need an alibi, why would I have thrown away the receipt?”

  God, this was driving him crazy. No matter what angle he came up with, a tiny shift put an entirely different light on the most significant, or insignificant, actions.

  He went home and went through his kitchen trash can. The plastic bags were right there, practically on top, with only the fruit peelings and empty yogurt container from breakfast on top of them. He pulled out the bags—there were two of them— straightened them out, and looked inside. There was the receipt, crumpled but nice and dry, without any smears.

  He looked at the time on it. Eight-fifty-seven. That was about the time he'd gotten home. Where had she been for the rest of the time he'd been gone?

  The interview room was small, utilitarian, nonthreatening, with a camera attached to the ceiling recording the interview.

  The detective, Rusty Ahern, was a good interviewer. He was about five-nine, with sandy hair and freckles and an open expression that invited confessions. Very nonthreatening, very sympathetic. No matter how neutral Cahill made his expression and his voice, he could never be as nonthreatening as Rusty. He was too big, and as Rusty himself had pointed out, “Your eyes always look like a shark's.” Rusty was particularly good with women; they trusted that Howdy Doody expression.

  Cahill, along with the lieutenant and two other detectives, wa
tched the interview on a monitor as it was recording. Sarah sat practically motionless, for the most part staring at nothing, as if she had shut down emotionally. Cahill remembered she'd acted the same after the first killing. A protective response, maybe? A way of distancing herself? Or a very good act?

  “Where were you last night?” Rusty asked gently.

  “Cahill's house.”

  “Detective Cahill?”

  “Yes.”

  “Why were you there?”

  “I spent the weekend with him.”

  “The entire weekend?”

  “Not Saturday. There was a party Saturday night. I worked.”

  “What time did you get to Detective Cahill's house? After the party on Saturday.”

  “Four o'clock?” she said, making it a question. “I don't remember exactly. Early. Before dawn.”

  “Why did you go so early in the morning?”

  “So we could be together.”

  Rusty didn't ask any questions about their relationship, thank God. He moved right on with establishing a time line. “Were you together all day Sunday?”

  “Yes.”

  “And you spent Sunday night with Detective Cahill?”

  “Yes.”

  “What about yesterday? Monday. When Detective Cahill went to work, what did you do?”

  “Damn, Rusty must think he's a lawyer,” Detective Nolan muttered. “Listen to those questions.”

  The questions were unusually detailed, step-by-step. Usually an interview was less structured, inviting the suspect to just talk. But Sarah wasn't chattering; she was answering only the questions asked, and most of those as briefly as possible. Since she wasn't volunteering information, Rusty was dragging it out of her.

 
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