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Dying to please, p.28

Dying to Please, page 28


Dying to Please

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  She couldn't work here. She hated to leave him in the lurch, but she didn't think she would be; she felt as if there was no real need for her here, or at least not a need she wanted to consider. Exhaustion and desperation had led her to a bad decision, but it wasn't a permanent one.

  “There,” he said, bringing the tea tray over to the table and setting it down. He placed a cup and saucer before her. “I hope you like it; it's a blend I get from England. The taste is a bit unusual, but I find it's quite addictive.”

  She sipped the tea; the taste was unusual, but not unpleasant. It was slightly more bitter than she was accustomed to, so she added a thin slice of lemon to adjust the taste.

  He was watching her with an eager, expectant expression, so she said, “It's very good.”

  He beamed. “I knew you'd like it.” He picked up his own cup, and she sipped again as she tried to think of the right words.

  After a few moments, she realized there were no right words, just honest ones. “Mr. Densmore, I've made a mistake.”

  He set down his cup, blinking at her. “How so, my dear?”

  “I should never have accepted your offer. I deeply appreciate it, but the decision was too hasty and there were several factors I didn't take into account. I can't tell you how very sorry I am, but I won't be able to take the position.”

  He blinked a little faster. “But you brought your luggage.”

  “I know. I'm sorry,” she repeated. “If I've inconvenienced you in any way, if you've made plans based on my presence, of course I'll see that through, and I wouldn't feel right, under these circumstances, accepting any salary for doing so. I haven't been thinking clearly, or I would never have made such a hasty decision.”

  In silence he drank his tea, his head down. Then he sighed. “You mustn't distress yourself; mistakes happen, and you've handled yourself with dignity. But, yes, I have made plans for the coming weekend, so if you wouldn't mind staying until then?”

  “Of course not. Is it a party?”

  There was a tiny pause. “Yes, you know the sort, reciprocation for the invitations I've received. Catered, of course. About fifty people.”

  She could handle that. Since this was already late on Wednesday afternoon, there should be a fair amount of work to keep her busy, getting ready for a party on such short notice. She only hoped he had a regular caterer who would accommodate him, even if it meant bringing in extra staff. If he didn't, she would have to move heaven and earth both to find a caterer at this late date.

  “I'll take care of everything,” she said.

  He sighed. “I really wish things could have worked out differently.”


  HE WAS VERY DISPLEASED WITH SARAH, THOUGH HE supposed he should make allowances for the upset she had suffered, part of which was his fault. He simply hadn't expected her to be so . . . flighty, though perhaps that was the wrong word. Indecisive. Yes, that was a better description.

  He couldn't really be angry with her, because it was so obvious she had suffered over the past day and a half, but he could definitely be displeased. Why, how could she even think of leaving here? Couldn't she see how perfect his house was for her, a fit, wonderful setting for her own crisp perfection? She wouldn't be leaving, of course; he couldn't allow that. He had fantasized about her taking care of him, but it was obvious that, for the time being at least, he would have to take care of her.

  Hmm. That must be what was wrong. Sarah wasn't herself. She was very pale, and the serene glow that had first attracted him was gone. He would keep her here and take care of her, and when she felt better, she would be more rational.

  Luckily he had planned for all exigencies. No, not luck at all: careful planning and attention to detail. That was the key to success, whether it was in business or in personal matters. He hadn't thought it likely Sarah would be unhappy here, but he had allowed for that remote possibility, and as a result he was now capable of handling it. If he had made any oversight, it was that he hadn't predicted this after seeing yesterday how obviously distraught she was. Soon she would feel much better, and there would be no more foolish talk about leaving.

  The printout from the phone company showed three calls to the Lankfords from that pay phone in the Galleria—on Sunday night. There had been a fourth call on Monday night, at roughly the same time as the murders. It was impossible to pinpoint a time of death without a witness; all they could get was a time frame. But it looked as if the killer had intended to go to the Lankfords' house on Sunday night. According to the youngest Lankford daughter, Merrill, who was in college in Tuscaloosa, her parents had driven down to have dinner with her that night and stayed until almost eleven. That had extended their lives by twenty-four hours, and given their daughter one last opportunity to see them.

  Cahill wished to hell they'd had this printout on Tuesday, because Sarah couldn't possibly have made those phone calls; she'd been with him every minute Sunday. He wished a lot of things, number one of which was that he'd never met his ex-wife and let her fuck with his mind. That was the final analysis: he'd let his experience with her affect him. No more. No matter what happened now, he would focus on the person concerned, and not filter everything through his memory of Shannon. He'd been emotionally free of her for two years, but for the first time he felt mentally free. She had no influence on him now.

  Those multiple phone calls opened up an avenue of opportunity that hadn't existed before. He'd gone back to the shop in the mall that had the camera with the best angle, and got the tape for Sunday and Monday nights. The angles were still piss-poor and none of the images were good, but it was the same man. Same hair, same body build, same style of dress.

  That was the bastard. That was the killer. There was no doubt in his mind now, or in anyone else's in the department.

  The problem was, no one seemed to recognize him. Granted, the stills taken from the tape and enlarged were poor quality, grainy, and never really showed his face. But you could get an impression of him, and still no one had said, “Hey, he reminds me of so-and-so.” The police needed a break, a stroke of fate, a miracle. They needed someone with an artist's eye who would note the line of the jaw, the way the ear was set, and make the connection to a live human being.

  Mrs. Wanetta didn't recognize the man, but she was so tranquilized she might not have known her own mother. None of their three grown children found anything familiar about him, so that eliminated the possibility of his being a friend of the family; same thing with the Lankford daughters. It had to be a business connection, but again, none of Jacob Wanetta's employees recognized the man in the photos.

  Somewhere, someone had to know this bastard.

  Leif Strickland, the department's resident electronic genius, stuck his head in the door. His eyes were wide with excitement, his hair sticking up where he'd run his hands through it. “Hey, Doc, come listen. I think I've got the son of a bitch on tape!”

  Everyone within hearing distance quickly crammed into his electronic lair. “This is from the Lankford answering machine,” Leif said. All answering machine tapes were seized as a matter of course; if the machines were digital, the whole thing was taken.

  “Don't tell me he left a message,” Cahill said.

  “No, not quite. See, the phone Mrs. Lankford was trying to use had one of those buttons for instant record, you know, like if who you're talking to starts threatening to kill you, you can, like, press this little button and bingo, it records on your answering machine. Now, she probably wasn't trying to record anything, she was trying to call for help, but she was nervous, right? She's grabbing at the phone, punching buttons she doesn't mean to punch. I listened to all the messages, but there was this one space with a funny noise on it. Not . . . I don't know, it just sounded funny. So I isolated it and ran it through some enhancement programs, and—”

  “For God's sake, we don't need to know how,” Cahill interrupted. “Let's listen to it.”

  Leif gave him the wounded look of a true techie dealing wit
h philistines who didn't appreciate the beauty of electronics. “Okay, here it is. It's not very plain, I need to enhance it some more, eliminate static—” He broke off as Cahill glared at him, and silently punched a button.

  Static, fumbling, the harsh rasp of panicked breathing. Then there was a soft sound, and a tiny whoosh and pop.

  “What was that?”

  “The sound at the last was the shot being fired,” Leif said matter-of-factly. “Silencer. But listen to it again, listen to what comes right before that.”

  They all listened again, and to Cahill it sounded like a voice.

  “He said something. The bastard said something. What was it? Can you isolate it?”

  “I'll work on it. Listen again, and you can make out the words.”

  There wasn't another sound in the room, not even breathing, as he replayed the tape one more time.

  How soft the voice was, how gentle. Cahill narrowed his eyes to slits, concentrating. “Something ‘girl.'”

  “Give the man a prize!” Leif crowed. “It's ‘bad girl.'” He played the tape again, and now that they all knew what they were listening for, it was understandable, and chilling.

  “Bad girl.” Almost an admonishing tone, tenderly scolding. Then the pop of the silenced bullet, and nothing else.

  They had an audible record of Merilyn Lankford's murder. If they could get an ID—when they got an ID—they'd be able to match voiceprints and put him at the scene.

  “Bingo,” Leif said cheerfully.

  “My dear, if you don't mind my saying so, you look as if you're at the end of your rope,” Mr. Densmore said gently. “You've been through an extraordinarily difficult experience. Lightning won't strike if you sit down and have another cup of tea, will it? Tea is a wonderful restorative. I'll brew a fresh pot,” he offered.

  She needed something to eat more than she needed tea, Sarah realized belatedly, trying to think when she had last eaten anything. It had to have been the soup she'd had with Mr. Densmore late yesterday afternoon, making it more than twenty-four hours since she'd had a meal.

  She had just served his dinner. Mr. Densmore's cook came in at three and prepared his evening meal; she had already come and gone by the time Sarah arrived. Obviously she had prepared only for Mr. Densmore, but that didn't matter. As soon as Sarah had Mr. Densmore fed and his dishes cleared away, she would find something to eat.

  He had hovered anxiously near her, making her uneasy, but now she realized he was afraid she might collapse. The thought broke through her depression and made her smile. “Mr. Densmore, has anyone ever told you how sweet you are?”

  His eyes widened, and he blushed. “Oh . . . my—well, no.”

  Sweet and lonely; she felt sorry for him, but not enough to stay in this ghastly house and provide him the companionship he so obviously needed. Still, maybe the caffeine in the tea would give her a boost, keep her going until she had an opportunity to eat.

  “Tea sounds wonderful,” she said, and he beamed at her.

  “Excellent! I know you'll feel a lot better.”

  He stood up from the table, and Sarah said hastily, “Please, finish your dinner first. I'll put on the tea.”

  “No, I'll do it. I'm very particular about my tea.”

  Since his tea appeared to be so important to him and his dinner was a cold one anyway, fresh chicken salad with pecans and red grapes—and because even if she didn't intend to take any pay for her stay here, this was his house and he was still the boss—she stopped protesting.

  He went into the kitchen and put the water on to heat, then returned to the dining room and sat down at the enormous chrome-and-glass table to finish his meal. With nothing to do until he finished, Sarah retreated to a corner. She had seldom felt so useless as she did here; she got the impression he didn't expect her to do any actual work, just . . . be there. The respite she craved wasn't here; there wasn't any peace, any calm, just boredom and a vague sense of uneasiness.

  She was so tired she could barely stand, and she had developed a raging headache, probably from not eating. It could also be caffeine deprivation, since she hadn't had her coffee that morning; if that was the case, the tea was doubly welcome. She might even have two cups.

  He finished just as the kettle in the kitchen began whistling. “Ah! The water's ready,” he said, just in case she couldn't hear that piercing noise. He strode into the kitchen, and Sarah busied herself collecting his dishes and carrying them through to rinse and put in the dishwasher.

  By the time she finished with that and a few other odds and ends, he was pouring the steeped tea into the cups. “There!” he said with satisfaction, carrying the tray through to the dining room. She was forced to follow him and, at his insistence, sit at the table.

  “Tell me,” he said as she sipped the hot, fragrant brew. “How did you decide to become a butler?”

  She could talk about her work, she thought with relief. “My father was a colonel in the Marines,” she said. “Growing up, I watched the stewards and how they handled all the functions, and it was fascinating. They knew protocol, they handled the guest lists, emergencies, they smoothed over any embarrassing moments . . . they're a marvel in action. I liked the way they were trained to handle anything.”

  “But obviously you weren't a steward in the military, were you?”

  “Oh, no, there's actually a school where you train as a butler.” He asked question after question, and she gratefully focused on answering him. Here at last was something her tired mind could latch on to, something that didn't require a lot of thought.

  Maybe it was just the giddiness that comes with extreme fatigue, but she began to feel . . . almost tipsy. Her head swam suddenly, and she clutched at the table. “Wow. Excuse me, Mr. Densmore. I'm dizzy all of a sudden. I haven't eaten today, and I think it's catching up with me.”

  He looked alarmed. “You haven't eaten? My dear, why didn't you say so? You shouldn't have been standing there waiting on me; you should be taking care of yourself. Here, you sit right there and I'll bring you something. What would you like?”

  She blinked at him, owl-like. How could she tell him what she'd like when she didn't know what was available here? Anyway, she wouldn't “like” anything; she would eat because she needed to, but the last thing she had really wanted was—

  “Ice cream,” she mumbled. The words were alarmingly hard to pronounce.

  “Ice cream?” He paused, blinking at her in that way of his. “I don't believe I have any ice cream. Would you like anything else?”

  “No,” she said, trying to explain. “Not what I want. Last thing I . . .” She lost the thread of what she was saying and stared at him, bewildered. Everything was beginning to slowly rotate around her, and she had the vague, surprising idea that she might be about to faint. She had never fainted before.

  He was beginning to move away from her, or seemed as if he was. She couldn't be certain, the way things were whirling. “Wait,” she said, trying to stand up, but her legs buckled under her.

  He rushed forward and grabbed her before she hit the floor, his grip surprisingly strong. “Don't worry,” she heard him say as her vision faded and her ears began to feel as if cotton were stuffed in them. “I'll take care of you.”


  THE FIRST THING SHE BECAME AWARE OF WAS A HEADACHE, a literal throbbing inside her skull. Oh, that's right . . . she'd gone to bed with a headache. She was in an uncomfortable position, but she was afraid to move, afraid the least twitch would set the hammers to pounding even harder than they already were. She was queasy, too, and she thought she might vomit. Something was wrong, but the fuzziness in her brain kept her from figuring out what.

  She tried to remember . . . something. Anything. For a sickening moment there was nothing there, no sense of place or time, just a horrifying lurch into the unknown. Then the texture of the fabric beneath her made sense, and she knew she was in bed. Yes, that made sense. She had a headache, and she was in bed. She remembered going . . . no, she
didn't remember going to bed. The last clear memory was . . . but that eluded her, too, and she stopped fighting for it, letting the darkness and oblivion claim her again.

  When next she woke, she thought she must have the flu. What else could account for this overwhelming sense of illness? She was seldom ill, even with the sniffles, but surely only something as serious as the flu could make her feel so sick. For the first time, she understood what people meant when they said they felt too sick to go to a doctor. There was no way she could get to a doctor; one would have to come to her.

  Something was tugging on her head. It was a gentle, rhythmic tugging, and instead of making her headache worse, it actually soothed it, as if the sensation dulled her perception of the throbbing.

  Her arms ached. She tried to move them and found she couldn't.

  Alarm pierced through the fogginess in her brain. She tried again to move her arms, with the same lack of result. “My arms,” she whimpered, and her voice sounded awful, so hoarse it was unrecognizable.

  “Poor dear,” a soft voice murmured. “You'll be all right. There, doesn't this feel good?”

  The rhythmic tugging continued, slow and easy, and after a moment she realized someone was brushing her hair.

  It did feel good, but she didn't want her hair brushed. She wanted to move her arms. Despite the headache, despite her queasy stomach, she shifted uneasily in the bed and found she couldn't move her legs, either.

  Panic, hard and bright, made her eyes flare open. Her vision swam with fuzzy images that didn't quite make sense. There was a man . . . but he wasn't Cahill, and that wasn't possible. Why was a man who wasn't Cahill brushing her hair?

  “I'll get you some water,” the soft voice crooned. “You'd like that, wouldn't you, dear? Nice, cold water will feel so good on your throat. You've been asleep for such a long time I've been worried about you.”

  A cool hand slipped behind her neck and lifted her head, and a glass was put against her lips. The cold water hit her mouth in a rush, soaking into parched tissues, loosening her tongue from the roof of her mouth. Her stomach heaved as she swallowed, but thank God she didn't vomit. She swallowed again, then again, before the glass was taken away.

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