By Sandra Brown
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Deadline
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"Nice place you've got here."
"I like it." Ignoring the snide and trite remark, Wick dumped the pot of boiled shrimp into a colander that had never seen the inside of a Williams-Sonoma store. It was white plastic, stained brown. He didn't remember how he'd come by it, but he figured it had been left behind by a previous occupant of the rental house, which his friend obviously found lacking.
After the hot water had drained through, he set the colander in the center of the table, grabbed a roll of paper towels, and offered his guest another beer. He uncapped two bottles of Red Stripe, straddled the chair across the table from Oren Wesley, and said, "Dig in."
Oren conscientiously ripped a paper towel from the roll and spread it over his lap. Wick was on his third shrimp before Oren got around to selecting one. They peeled and ate in silence, sharing a bowl of cocktail sauce for dipping. Oren was careful not to get his white French cuffs in the horseradish-laced red stuff. Wick slurped carelessly and licked his fingers, fully aware that his sloppy table manners annoyed his fastidious friend.
They dropped the shrimp shells onto the newspaper that Wick had spread over the table, not to protect its hopelessly scarred surface but to keep cleanup to a minimum. The ceiling fan fluttered the corners of this makeshift tablecloth and stirred the spicy aroma of the shrimp boil into the sultry coastal air.
After a time, Oren remarked, "Pretty good."
Wick shrugged. "A no-brainer."
"Buy it fresh off the boat soon as it docks. The skipper gives me a discount."
"Decent of him."
"Not at all. We made a deal."
"What's your end of it?"
"To stay away from his sister."
Wick noshed into another plump shrimp and tossed the shell onto the growing heap. He grinned across at Oren, knowing that his friend was trying to decide whether or not he was telling the truth. He was a bullshit artist of renown, and even his best friend couldn't always distinguish his truth from his fiction.
He tore a paper towel from the roll and wiped his hands and mouth. "Is that all you can think of to talk about, Oren? The price of shrimp? You drove all the way down here for that?"
Oren avoided looking at him as he belched silently behind his fist. "Let me help you clean up."
"Leave it. Bring your beer."
A dirty table wasn't going to make much difference to the condition of Wick's house—which barely qualified as such. It was a three-room shack that looked like it would succumb to any Gulf breeze above five knots. It was shelter from the elements—barely. The roof leaked when it rained. The air conditioner was a window unit that was so insufficient Wick rarely bothered turning it on. He rented the place by the week, paid in advance. So far he'd written the slumlord sixty-one checks.
The screen door squeaked on its corroded hinges as they moved through it onto the rear deck. Nothing fancy—the plank surface was rough, wide enough only to accommodate two metal lawn chairs of vintage fifties style. Salt air had eaten through numerous coats of paint, the last being a sickly pea green. Wick took the glider. Oren looked dubiously at the rusty seat of the stationary chair.
"It won't bite," Wick said. "Might stain your suit britches, but I promise that the view'll be worth a dry-cleaning bill."
Oren sat down gingerly, and in a few minutes Wick's promise was fulfilled. The western horizon became striated with vivid color ranging from bloodred to brilliant orange. Purple thunderheads on the horizon looked like rolling hills rimmed with gold.
"Something, isn't it?" Wick said. "Now tell me who's crazy."
"I never thought you were crazy, Wick."
"Just a little nutty for shucking it all and moving down here."
"Not even nutty. Irresponsible, maybe."
Wick's easy smile congealed.
Noticing, Oren said, "Go ahead and get pissed. I don't care. You need to hear it."
"Well, fine. Thank you. Now I've heard it. How're Grace and the girls?"
"Steph made cheerleader. Laura started her periods."
"Congratulations or condolences?"
Oren smiled. "I'll accept either. Grace said to give you a kiss from her." Looking at Wick's stubble, he added, "I'll pass if you don't mind."
"I'd rather you did. But give her a kiss from me."
"Happy to oblige."
For several minutes they sipped their beers and watched the colors of the sunset deepen. Neither broke the silence, yet each was mindful of it, mindful of all that was going unsaid.
Eventually Oren spoke. "Wick…"
"How do you know until you've heard me out?"
"Why would you want to ruin a perfectly beautiful sunset? To say nothing of a good Jamaican beer."
Wick's lunge from the glider caused it to rock crazily and noisily before it resettled. Standing at the edge of the weathered deck, tanned toes curling over the edge of it, he tilted back his beer and finished it in one long swallow, then tossed the empty bottle into the fifty-gallon oil drum that served as his garbage can. The clatter spooked a couple of gulls who'd been scavenging on the hard-packed sand. Wick envied their ability to take flight.
He and Oren had a history that dated back many years, to even before Wick had joined the Fort Worth Police Department. Oren was older by several years, and Wick conceded that he was definitely the wiser. He had a stable temperament, which often had defused Wick's more volatile one. Oren's approach was methodical. Wick's was impulsive. Oren was devoted to his wife and children. Wick was a bachelor who Oren claimed had the sexual proclivities of an alley cat.
In spite of these differences, and possibly because of them, Wick Threadgill and Oren Wesley had made excellent partners. They had been one of the few biracial partnerships on the FWPD. Together they had shared dangerous situations, countless laughs, a few triumphs, several disappointments—and a heartache from which neither would ever fully recover.
When Oren had called last night after months of separation, Wick was glad to hear from him. He had hoped that Oren was coming to talk over old times, better times. That hope was dashed the moment Oren arrived and got out of his car. It was a polished pair of wing tips, not flip-flops or sneakers, that had made deep impressions in the Galveston sand. Oren wasn't dressed for fishing or beachcombing, not even for kicking back here on the deck with an Astros game on the radio and cold beer in the fridge.
He had arrived dressed for business. Buttoned down and belted up, bureaucracy personified. Even as they shook hands Wick had recognized his friend's game face and knew with certainty and disappointment that this was not a social visit.
He was equally certain that whatever it was that Oren had come to say, he didn't want to hear it.
"You weren't fired, Wick."
"No, I'm taking an 'indefinite leave of absence.' "
"That was your choice."
"You needed time to cool off and get it together."
"Why didn't the suits just fire me? Make it easier on everybody?"
"They're smarter than you are."
Wick came around. "Is that right?"
"They know, everybody who knows you knows, that you were born for this kinda work."
"This kinda work?" He snorted. "Shoveling shit, you mean? If I cleaned out stables for a living, I wouldn't have to do as much of it as I did in the FWPD."
"Most of that shit you brought on yourself."
Wick snapped the rubber band he habitually wore around his wrist. He disliked being reminded of that time and of the case that had caused him to criticize his superiors vociferously about the inefficiency of the justice system in general and the FWPD in particular. "They let that gangbanger cop a plea."
"Because they couldn't get him for murder, Wick. They knew it and the DA knew it. He's in for six."
"He'll be out in less than two. And he'll do it again. Somebody else will die. You can count on it. And all because our department and the DA's office went limp-dick when it came to a violation of the little shit's rights."
"Because you used brute force when you arrested him." Lowering his voice, Oren added, "But your problem with the department wasn't about that case and you know it."
"Oren," Wick said threateningly.
"The mistake that—"
"Fuck this," Wick muttered. He crossed the deck in two long strides. The screen door slapped shut behind him.
Oren followed him back into the kitchen. "I didn't come to rehash all that."
"Could've fooled me."
"Will you stop stomping around for a minute and let me talk to you? You'll want to see this."
"Wrong. What I want is another beer." He removed one from the refrigerator and pried off the top with a bottle opener. He left the metal cap where it landed on the wavy linoleum floor.
Oren retrieved a folder he'd brought with him and extended it to Wick, who ignored it. But his retreat out the back door was halted when his bare foot came down hard on the sharp teeth of the bottle cap. Cursing, he kicked the offender across the floor and dropped down into one of the chrome-legged dining chairs. The shrimp shells were beginning to stink.
He propped his foot on his opposite knee and appraised the damage. There was a deep impression of the bottle cap on the ball of his foot, but it hadn't broken the skin.
Showing no sympathy whatsoever, Oren sat down across from him. "Officially I'm not here. Understood? This is a complex situation. It has to be handled delicately."
"Something wrong with your hearing, Oren?"
"I know you'll be as intrigued as I am."
"Don't forget to pick up your jacket on your way out."
Oren removed several eight-by-ten black-and-white photographs from the folder. He held one up so that Wick couldn't avoid looking at it. After a moment, he showed him another.
Wick stared at the photo, then met Oren's eyes above it. "Did they get any shots of her with her clothes on?"
"You know Thigpen. He took these for grins."
Wick snorted acknowledgment of the mentioned detective.
"In Thigpen's defense, our stakeout house gives us a clear view into her bedroom."
"Still no excuse for these. Unless she's an exhibitionist and knew she was being watched."
"She isn't and she doesn't."
"What's her story?"
Oren grinned. "You're dying to know, aren't you?"
When Wick had surrendered his badge a little more than a year earlier, he had turned his back not only on his police career, but on the whole criminal justice system. To him it was like a cumbersome vehicle stuck in the mud. It spun its big wheels and made a lot of aggressive noise—freedom, justice, and the American way—but it got nowhere.
Law enforcement personnel had been robbed of their motivation by bureaucrats and politicians who quaked at the thought of public disapproval. Consequently the whole concept of justice was mired in futility.
And if you were the poor dumb schmuck who believed in it, who got behind it, put your shoulder to it, and pushed with all your might to set the gears in motion, to catch the bad guys and see them punished for their crimes, all you got in return was mud slung in your face.
But, in spite of himself, Wick's natural curiosity kicked in. Oren hadn't shown him these pictures for prurient purposes. Oren wasn't a Neanderthal like Thigpen and had better things to do with his time than to gawk at photographs of half-naked women. Besides, Grace would throttle him if he did.
No, Oren had a reason for driving all the way from Fort Worth to Galveston and, in spite of himself, Wick wanted to know what it was. He was intrigued, just as Oren—damn him—had guessed he would be.
He reached for the remainder of the photographs and shuffled through them quickly, then more slowly, studying each one. The woman had been photographed in the driver's seat of a late-model Jeep wagon; walking across what appeared to be a large parking lot; inside her kitchen and her bedroom, blissfully unaware that her privacy was being invaded by binoculars and telephoto lenses in the hands of a slob like Thigpen.
Most of the bedroom shots were grainy and slightly out of focus. But clear enough. "What's her alleged crime? Interstate transportation of stolen Victoria's Secret merchandise?"
"Uh-huh," Oren said, shaking his head. "That's all you get until you agree to go back with me."
Wick tossed the photographs in Oren's general direction. "Then you made the drive for nothing." He tugged again at the rubber band on his wrist, painfully popping it against his skin.
"You'll want to be in on this one, Wick."
"Not a chance in hell."
"I'm not asking for a long-term commitment, or a return to the department. Just this one case."
"I need your help."
"Is that your final answer?"
Wick picked up his fresh beer, took a large swallow, then belched loudly.
Despite the smelly shrimp shells, Oren leaned forward across the table. "It's a murder case. Made the news."
"I don't watch the news or read the papers."
"Must not. Because if you had, you'd have sped straight to Fort Worth and saved me this trip."
Wick couldn't stop himself from asking "Why's that?"
"Popular doctor gets popped in the parking lot of Tarrant General."
"Catchy, Oren. Are you quoting the headline?"
"Nope. I'm giving you the sum total of what we know about this homicide. The crime is five days old and that's all we've got."
"Not my problem."
"The perp did the killing within yards of a potential eyewitness but wasn't seen. Wasn't heard. As silent as vapor. Invisible. And he didn't leave a trace, Wick." Oren lowered his voice to a whisper. "Not a fucking trace."
Wick searched his former partner's dark eyes. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. "Lozada?"
Settling back in his chair, Oren smiled complacently.
Dr. Rennie Newton stepped off the elevator and approached the central nurses' station. The nurse at the desk, who was usually talkative, was noticeably subdued. "Good evening, Dr. Newton."
The nurse took in the black dress under Rennie's lab coat. "The funeral today?"
Rennie nodded. "I didn't take time to change afterward."
"Was it a nice service?"
"Well, as funerals go, yes. There was a large turnout."
"Dr. Howell was so well liked. And he'd just gotten that promotion. It's too awful."
"I agree. Awful."
The nurse's eyes filled with tears. "We—everybody on this floor—we saw him nearly every day. We can't believe it."
Nor could Rennie. Five days ago her colleague Lee Howell had died. Given his age, a sudden death from cardiac arrest or an accident would have been hard to accept. But Lee had been murdered in cold blood. Everyone who knew him was still reeling from the shock of his death as well as from the violent way he'd died. She almost expected him to pop out from behind a door and cry "Just kidding!"
But his murder wasn't one of the lousy practical jokes for which Lee Howell was famous. She had seen his sealed, flower-banked coffin at the church altar this morning. She had heard the emotional eulogies delivered by family members and friends. She had seen Myrna and his son weeping inconsolably in the front pew, making his death and the permanence of it jarringly real and even more difficult to accept.
"It will take time for all of us to absorb the shock," Rennie said in a tone both quiet and conclusive.
But the nurse wasn't ready to let the subject drop. "I heard the police had questioned everybody who was at Dr. Howell's party that night."
Rennie studied the patient charts that had been passed to her during the conversation and didn't address the implied question underlying the nurse's statement.
"Dr. Howell was always joking, wasn't he?" The nurse giggled as though remembering something funny. "And you and he fought like cats and dogs."
"We didn't fight," Rennie said, correcting her. "Occasionally we quarreled. There's a difference."
"I remember some of those quarrels getting pretty rowdy."
"We made good sparring partners," she said, smiling sadly.
She had performed two operations that morning before the funeral. Considering the circumstances, she could have justified rescheduling today's surgeries and closing her office this afternoon. But she was already in a time crunch due to a recent, unavoidable ten-day absence from the hospital, which had proved to be an awful inconvenience to her and her patients.
Taking another day off so soon after her return would have been unfair to those patients whose surgeries had been postponed once already. It would have placed her further behind and created yet another logjam in her scrupulously organized calendar. So she had elected to perform the operations and keep the appointments in her office. Lee would have understood.
Seeing the post-op patients was her last official duty of this long, emotionally draining, exhausting day, and she was ready to put an end to it. Closing the topic of her colleague's demise and funeral, she inquired about Mr. Tolar, whose esophageal hernia she had repaired that morning.
"Still groggy, but he's doing very well."
Taking the charts with her, Rennie entered the surgical recovery room. Mrs. Tolar was taking advantage of the five-minute visitation period that was permitted a family member once each hour. Rennie joined her at the patient's bedside. "Hello, Mrs. Tolar. I hear he's still sleepy."
"During my last visit he came awake long enough to ask me the time."
"A common question. The light in here never changes. It's disorienting."
The woman touched her husband's cheek. "He's sleeping through this visit."
"That's the best thing for him. No surprises on his chart," Rennie told her as she scanned the information. "Blood pressure is good." She closed the metal cover on the chart. "In a couple of weeks he'll feel like a new man. No more sleeping at a slant."
She noticed how dubiously the woman was gazing at her husband and added, "He's doing great, Mrs. Tolar. Everyone looks a little ragged fresh out of surgery. He'll look a thousand percent better tomorrow, although he'll be so grumpy and sore you'll wish he was anesthetized again."
"Grumpiness I can take, so long as he's not suffering anymore." Turning to Rennie, she lowered her voice to a confidential pitch. "I guess it's okay to tell you this now."
Rennie tilted her head inquisitively.
"He was skeptical when his internist referred him to you. He didn't know what to make of a lady surgeon."
Rennie laughed softly. "I hope I earned his confidence."
"Oh, you did. On the very first visit to your office you had him convinced you knew your stuff."
"I'm pleased to hear that."
"Although he said you were too pretty to be hiding behind a surgeon's mask."
"When he wakes up, I must remember to thank him."
The two women exchanged smiles, then Mrs. Tolar's expression turned somber. "I heard about Dr. Howell. Did you know him well?"
"Very well. We'd been colleagues for several years. I considered him a friend."
"I'm so sorry."
"Thank you. He'll be missed." Not wishing to have another conversation about the funeral, she returned the topic to the patient. "He's so out of it he won't really know whether or not you're here tonight, Mrs. Tolar. Try to get some rest while you can. Save your energy for when you take him home."
"One more visit, then I'll be leaving."
"I'll see you tomorrow."
Rennie moved to her next patient. No one was standing vigil at her bedside. The elderly woman was a charity case. She resided in a state-funded nursing facility. According to her patient history she had no family beyond one brother who lived in Alaska. The septuagenarian was doing well, but even after reviewing her vitals Rennie stayed with her.
She believed that charity went beyond waiving her fee. In fact, waiving her fee was the least of it. She held the woman's hand and stroked her forehead, hoping that on a subconscious level her elderly patient was comforted by her presence, her touch. Eventually, convinced that the small amount of time she'd given the woman would make a difference, she left her to the nurses' care.
"I'm not on call tonight," she told the nurse at the desk as she returned the charts. "But page me if either of these patients takes a downward turn."
"Certainly, Dr. Newton. Have you had dinner?"
"Pardon me for saying so, but you look done in."
She smiled wanly. "It's been a long day. And a very sad one."
"I recommend a cheeseburger, double fries, a glass of wine, and a bubble bath."
"If I can keep my eyes open that long."
She said her good night and made her way toward the elevator. As she waited for it, she ground both fists into the small of her back and stretched. Being away, and for a reason not of her own making, had cost her more than time and inconvenience. Her pacing was still off. She wasn't yet back into the rhythm of the hospital. It wasn't always a regular rhythm, but at least it was a familiar one.
And just as she was beginning to get back into the swing of things, Lee Howell had been murdered on the parking lot she traversed each time she came to the hospital.
While she was still stunned from that blow, more unpleasantness had followed. Along with everyone who'd been at the Howell's house that night, she had been questioned by the police. It had been a routine interrogation, textbook in nature. Nevertheless, it had left her shaken.
Today she had seen Lee Howell buried. She would never quarrel with him again over something as important as OR scheduling or something as petty as whole milk versus skim. She would never laugh at one of his stupid jokes.
Taking all that had happened into account, it was an understatement to say that the past three weeks had amounted to a major upheaval in her routine.
This was no small thing. Dr. Rennie Newton adhered to rhythms and routine with fanatical self-discipline.
* * *
Her house was a ten-minute drive from the hospital. Most young professionals lived in newer, more fashionable neighborhoods of Fort Worth. Rennie could have afforded to live anywhere, but she preferred this older, well-established neighborhood.
Not only was its location convenient to the hospital, but she liked the narrow, tree-lined brick streets, which had been laid decades ago and remained a quaint feature of the neighborhood. The mature landscaping didn't look as though it had been installed yesterday. Most of the houses had been built prior to World War II, giving them an aura of permanence and solidity that she favored. Her house had been quaintly described as a bungalow. Having only five rooms, it was perfect for a single, which she was, and which she would remain.
The house had been renovated twice, and she had put it through a third remodeling and modernization before she moved in. The stucco exterior was dove gray with white trim. The front door was cranberry red with a shiny brass knocker and kick plate. In the flower beds, white and red impatiens bloomed beneath shrubbery with dark, waxy foliage. Sprawling trees shaded the lawn against even the harshest sun. She paid dearly for a professional service to keep the yard meticulously groomed and maintained.
She turned into the driveway and used her automatic garage-door opener, one of her innovations. She closed the garage door behind her and let herself in through the connecting kitchen door. It wasn't quite dusk yet, so the small room was bathed in the golden light of a setting sun that filtered through the large sycamore trees in her backyard.
She had forgone the suggested cheeseburger and fries, but since she wasn't on call tonight she poured herself a glass of Chardonnay and carried it with her into the living room—where she almost dropped it.
A crystal vase of red roses stood on her living-room coffee table.
Five dozen perfect buds on the brink of blossoming open. They looked velvety to the touch. Fragrant. Expensive. The cut crystal vase was also extraordinary beautiful. Its myriad facets sparkled as only pricey crystal can and splashed miniature rainbows onto the walls.
When Rennie had recovered from her initial shock, she set her wineglass on the coffee table and searched among the roses and greenery for an enclosure card. She didn't find one.
"What the hell?"
It wasn't her birthday, and even if it were, no one would know it. She didn't celebrate an anniversary of any kind with anyone. Were the roses meant to convey condolence? She had worked with Lee Howell every day for years, but receiving flowers on the day of his funeral was hardly warranted or even appropriate given their professional relationship.
A grateful patient? Possibly, but unlikely. Who among them would know her home address? Her office address was the one listed in the telephone directory. If a patient had been so moved by gratitude, the roses would have gone either there or to the hospital.
Only a handful of friends knew where she lived. She never entertained at home. She returned social obligations by hosting dinner or Sunday brunch in a restaurant. She had many colleagues and acquaintances, but no friendships close enough to merit an extravagant bouquet of roses. No family. No boyfriend. No ex- or wanna-be boyfriends.
Who would be sending her flowers? An even more unsettling question was how the bouquet had come to be inside her house.
Before calling her next-door neighbor, she took a fortifying sip of wine.
The chatty widower had tried to become a chummy confidant soon after Rennie moved in, but as tactfully as possible she had discouraged his unannounced drop-overs until he finally got the message. They remained friendly, however, and the older gentleman was always pleased when Rennie took a moment to visit with him across their shared azalea hedge.
Probably because he was lonely and bored, he kept his finger on the pulse of the neighborhood and made everyone's business his own. If you wanted to know anything about anyone, Mr. Williams was your man.
"Hi, it's Rennie."
"Hey, Rennie, good to hear from you. How was the funeral?"
A few days ago he had waylaid her when she went out to get her newspaper. He had plied her with questions regarding the murder and seemed disappointed when she didn't impart the gory details. "It was a very moving service." In the hope of preventing more questions, she barely took a breath between sentences. "Mr. Williams, the reason I called—"
"Are the police any closer to catching the killer?"
"I wouldn't know."
"Weren't you questioned?"
"Everyone who was at Dr. Howell's house that night was asked for possible leads. To the best of my knowledge nobody had anything to offer." Instead of relaxing her, the wine was giving her a headache. "Mr. Williams, did I receive a delivery today?"
"Not that I know of. Were you expecting one?"
- On Sale
- Oct 31, 2017
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Grand Central Publishing