Dying to Please by Linda Howard


  Barbara and the rest of the family were convinced the killer was some ex-con from the Judge's past. After her first panicked assumption that her weirdo had done it, she had gone with logic and agreed with the others. Cahill didn't seem to be on the same page, though; he was concentrating more on her and the family. What had the cops found that he hadn't told?

  She knew she was innocent, and she knew the family was innocent. She had observed all of them over the past years, at holidays and on vacation, and one and all they had loved the Judge. He adored his children and grandchildren, and got on well with all of the in-laws. So what did Cahill know that she had missed?

  The room was warmer now, and she got out of bed, grimacing when she caught sight of herself in the dresser mirror. Her face was drawn and colorless, her eyes swollen. She felt weak and shaky, the result of almost twenty-four hours without much food. Four tiny bites of Danish and fruit didn't provide a lot of nourishment. She needed to eat something, even if she had to choke it down. Maybe she would go down to the hotel restaurant, later. For now, though, she put on another pot of coffee and turned on the television, then crawled back into bed. She needed to be distracted by something mindless more than she needed food.

  She had nothing to do. She was accustomed to there always being something to do. Her life was very organized for that reason, so every chore would be accomplished. She should be doing paperwork now, keeping track of the household expenses; she always did that on Thursdays.

  She could go buy some pajamas. She was close to three major shopping centers: Brookwood, the Summit, and the Galleria. But it was still raining, she was exhausted and groggy, and frankly she didn't give a damn whether or not she had pajamas to sleep in.

  She discovered that the Weather Channel was the most interesting program on at three-thirty in the afternoon. She turned off the television, turned off the bedside light, and pulled up the covers. As soon as she closed her eyes, though, she saw the Judge in his recliner, his head lolled to the side—and she smelled the odor. Hastily she sat up again and turned on the lamp.

  What was she thinking? She had just made a pot of coffee. She couldn't believe she'd put on the coffee, then gone back to bed. Nothing drastic would happen, of course, other than the coffee getting old and bitter. Neither she nor the Judge could stand old coffee—

  He always came into the kitchen early in the morning, not waiting for her to bring the coffee to him. They would stand there chatting, leisurely sipping and sharing what they both considered one of life's finest little pleasures.

  They would never share that first blissful cup of coffee again.

  Like a loop of film that never stopped running, she saw him again: his white head tilted to the side, that thin dark streak running down his neck. His hair was a little mussed, but in the dim light that was, at first, the only thing she noted that was different. His hands were relaxed on the arms of the recliner, the footrest was up, as if he had just dozed off.

  His hands were relaxed. The footrest was up.

  Sarah stared across the room, seeing nothing but the awful scene from the night before. She had the feeling of the ground tilting beneath her, as if she had stepped out of reality into quicksand.

  The footrest was up.

  He was in his recliner—actually reclining.

  The front door wasn't locked.

  But the front door was always locked. He locked it himself as soon as he came in from his afternoon walk. In all the time Sarah had worked for him, she couldn't remember him ever leaving the front door unlocked.

  What were the odds that the one time he did leave it unlocked, his killer walked in? Not very likely. Hell, the odds were astronomical against such a thing happening. He was very safety conscious, after the threats against him, and especially after the robbery.

  So he hadn't forgotten to lock the door; he had unlocked it. To let someone in?

  Why would he let a stranger come in? The answer was simple: He wouldn't.

  There was no sign of a struggle. No sign of forced entry—at least, none that Cahill had mentioned to her or the family, and she was certain he would have told them if there had been.

  The bottom dropped out of her stomach. It made sense, in an awful way. The Judge had let someone he knew into the house. They had gone into the library . . . to talk? He'd been sitting in his favorite chair, the big leather recliner; he was relaxed, the footrest in the up position. And this acquaintance had pulled a gun and shot him in the head.

  This was what Cahill had figured out, what he hadn't told them. Whoever the killer was, the Judge hadn't felt threatened. He had known his killer, felt comfortable and relaxed in his presence.

  She almost vomited, because that meant she likely knew him, too.

  CHAPTER 11

  HE FELT GOOD. HE'D FORGOTTEN HOW GOOD IT REALLY DID feel, to hold all that power in his own hands, to take charge of his own destiny. It had been . . . how long? Seven years? That was proof he was in control, that he wasn't one of those maniacs who were slaves to compulsion. In the almost thirty years since he had taken care of the problem of his father, this was only the third time he'd been forced to act. Four times, total, in almost thirty years.

  All in all, he felt justifiably proud of himself. Not many men could control themselves so well, not if they knew the rush, the sheer joy, of the act. Even more important, not many men were intelligent enough to get away with it.

  But the old man was out of the way now, and Sarah was free. Nothing stood in her way; she could come to him now.

  Cahill sat in his cubicle, slowly leafing through the files and bank statements retrieved from the fireproof safe in Sarah's closet. Finally he dumped everything in an oversized padded bag and sat back in his chair, rubbing his eyes. Holy shit. The woman wasn't hurting for money.

  Not that a hundred grand wasn't a lot of money, but she didn't need it. Must be nice, he thought, to be in a position where you didn't need a hundred grand. Some people would grab for everything they could get, and no amount would ever be enough, but people like that didn't devote themselves to training for a well-paying job, then devote themselves to the job and save like mad. No, people who were just out for the money would steal it, commit fraud, marry old people and then in an effort to kill them, fiddle with the multitude of drugs old people always seemed to take, but they wouldn't work for it.

  Sarah had evidently saved the vast majority of her salary from the time she started work. She'd invested it, and from what he could see she'd been smart about it. She hadn't gone heavily into tech stocks, and those she'd had she'd sold just as they started crashing, while she could still make some profit. She had blue-chip stocks, she had mutual funds, she had some workhorse stocks. She'd salted money away in a retirement fund, planning for the future. She had just turned thirty, and with everything added together she was knocking on the door of the millionaires' club.

  That was one smart woman.

  And being so smart, would she risk everything to add another hundred large to her account? Money was relative. If you were working a minimum-wage job and barely scraping by, with nothing left over for extras, then a hundred thousand was an enormous amount of money. He'd known mothers to kill their kids for a five-thousand-dollar insurance policy. But if you already had way over a hundred thousand, then in comparison it wasn't nearly as impressive. In this case, the risk outweighed the gain.

  So there went her possible motive.

  Good.

  “You got anything?” his lieutenant asked, pausing by his desk.

  “The butler didn't do it.”

  “I thought she was top of your list.”

  “The motive evaporated.”

  “Money? How does money evaporate?”

  “She has plenty of it. You know how much butlers make?”

  The lieutenant scratched his nose. “I gather it's more than we thought.”

  “She makes more than you and me combined.”

  “No shit!”

  “My thoughts exactly.” Cahill
shook his head. “She had everything to lose and, comparatively, not that much to gain. Not anything, when you consider that she earned more in a year working for him than she'll get in his will. She'd be better off with him still alive. So there goes the motive. Not only that, she thought the world of the old man.”

  The lieutenant was a good guy, and he trusted his investigators. “So what else do we have?”

  “Not much. The neighbors didn't see anything, and they all have alibis. The family all checks out, so far. Unless forensics turns up a smoking gun, this isn't looking good.”

  “It's been less than twenty-four hours.”

  But it was knocking hard on twenty-four hours, and if murders weren't solved quickly, they tended not to be solved at all.

  “What about the cons he received death threats from? Anything turned up on them?”

  “None of them are known to be in this area. One is currently a ward of the state, in the St. Clair facility, living off taxpayer money. One is in federal lockup. Only two are at large, and one of them is in Eugene, Oregon. The last known location of the last one was Chicago, in January.” Cahill flipped a photo onto his desk of a heavyset man with a mustache. “Carl Jarmond. I don't think it's him.”

  “But he's a possibility.”

  Cahill shook his head. “Would Judge Roberts have let this man in his house? I don't think so. Every outside door in that house has a peephole, so he didn't open the door blind. He knew whoever it was.”

  “What numbers were on call return and redial?”

  “I checked redial from every phone in the house. Nothing suspicious. The butler called her folks, and the phones the victim would have used showed calls to his banker, and another to an old friend of his—who also has an alibi. Call return was interesting. The phone in the library returned a call from a pay phone in the Galleria.”

  “Have you found out what time the call was made?”

  “We're working on getting a list of all calls, both in and out.”

  “No way of telling who made it, though.”

  Cahill shook his head. The time of the call would tell them some things, such as if it was made close to the time of the murder, but that was about it. The Galleria was a busy mall; unless you were green-haired, spike-collared, and wore a Bozo suit—or, alternatively, were naked—the chances were small anyone would pay much attention to you. The chances of getting a viable fingerprint from the phone were somewhere between zero and laughable. Video cameras from nearby stores trained on the store entrances might have caught something, though. That was worth checking. He said as much to the lieutenant.

  “Good idea, Doc.” He checked his watch. “Get started on that in the morning. For now, go home and get some sleep. You were up all night last night, and you haven't stopped today.”

  “I grabbed about three hours early this morning. I'm okay.” His training in the Army had taught him how to function with a lot less rest than that, and for a longer time. “But I think I will call it a day.” He definitely had something else to do, something he didn't think he could put off much longer. He might as well test the waters now.

  At eight o'clock that night, the Weather Channel was still on, and Sarah had watched the same weather fronts for almost five hours now. Nothing had changed. She still felt sick, mentally running through all the Judge's acquaintances, the neighbors, anyone whom he wouldn't hesitate to let into the house. The problem was, he knew a lot of people whom she didn't know. She knew his immediate circle of friends, the immediate neighbors and some of the others, but of course he had old school chums, friends in law practice, college buddies, whom she'd never met. But why would any of them want to kill him?

  The why of it was driving her crazy.

  If they only knew why, she thought, they could figure out who. Why would anyone want to kill him, other than someone he'd sentenced to prison? And if it was an ex-con, why would the Judge have let him in the house, sat down, and relaxed? He wouldn't have.

  Why?

  The phone rang and she grabbed it, glad for the distraction; maybe Barbara needed something done that would occupy her for a couple of hours.

  “Have you had supper yet?”

  She didn't need him to identify himself; Cahill's deep voice and abrupt tone was identification enough.

  “Supper?”

  “Or lunch?”

  “I slept through lunch, remember.”

  “Then let's go to Milo's and get a hamburger.”

  Sarah dragged her hand through her hair. She needed to eat, but her stomach was still tied in knots. She hesitated long enough that he said, “Sarah?”

  “I'm here. It's . . . I really don't feel like eating.”

  “Get ready anyway. I'll be there in ten minutes.” He hung up, and she stared at the phone in astonishment.

  Ten minutes!

  Despite her shakiness, in ten minutes she was dressed, had brushed her teeth and washed her face, and was dragging a brush through her hair when he knocked on the door.

  “You look like hell,” he said by way of greeting.

  “You're pretty, too,” she said coolly, stepping back to let him in. Just because she was dressed didn't mean she was going anywhere with him. After all, she hadn't had on any clothes at all when he called.

  He looked down at her bare feet. “Get your shoes on. Socks, too. The temperature's in the forties.”

  “I don't feel like eating,” she repeated.

  “Then you can watch me eat.”

  “Your charm is enormous.” Despite the sarcasm, despite everything, for the first time that day she found herself smiling. It wasn't much of a smile, but it was real. He was like a Sherman tank, without finesse, but packing a great deal of power.

  “Yeah, I know. It's exceeded only by the size of my—” He caught himself, flicking a quick glance at her. “—ego,” he finished, and she could have sworn color stained his cheekbones. Evidently cops weren't supposed to make risqué comments to suspects. He bent down and picked up her shoes, extending them to her. She got the impression he'd put them on her if she didn't do it herself.

  She sat down on the bed and put on her socks and shoes. “I assume you're hungry and you want to talk to me, so you're killing two birds with one stone.”

  He shrugged. “You can assume whatever you want.”

  Well, what on earth did that mean? As it happened, she wanted to talk to him, too, about her conclusions on the Judge's murder; she didn't mind watching him eat while they were talking.

  They stopped at the front desk for her to get the jacket being held for her there. It was her Berber fleece, and she gratefully pulled it on as they left the hotel. The rain had stopped, but very recently, because the trees were still dripping. The pavement was dark and shiny.

  Instead of the car he'd been driving earlier, he led her to a pickup truck, dark blue in color. The truck looked like something he'd drive, being short on fancy extras but with plenty of power. At least it had running boards, so she could get in without help. He opened the door for her and waited until she was settled in the seat before closing it and going around to his side.

  Milo's was a hamburger tradition in the Birmingham area, with what most locals swore was the best hamburger in the world, and the best iced tea. The hamburger didn't have all the fancy stuff, like lettuce and tomato and pickles—though you could get cheese on it if you wanted—but it did have a dark sauce that almost defied the taste buds to decipher what was in it. That was it. Double meat, chopped onions, and the sauce. The burgers dripped with sauce. People bought extra containers of the sauce. They dipped their spicy fries in it, they poured more on their burgers, they used it at home on their own grilled burgers.

  Needless to say, a Milo's hamburger was a messy affair. Even if her stomach had been cooperating, Sarah wouldn't have felt like dealing with the mess. When Cahill asked if she was sure she didn't want anything, she said, “I'm sure,” and went to a table against the wall to wait for him.

  When he joined her, he carried a tr
ay with two tall paper cups of iced tea, three hamburgers, and two orders of fries. The tray was also loaded with little paper cups full of ketchup and packets of salt. She stared at the bounty with disbelieving eyes. “You said you were hungry, but I thought you were talking normal, human hungry, not Koko the gorilla hungry.”

  He set the tray on the table and took the seat across from her. “Part of it is for you. I hope you like onions, because I do. Eat.” He put a cup of tea, a burger, and an order of fries in front of her.

  “What does the fact that you like onions have to do with whether or not I like onions?” she murmured, trying to convince her stomach to unknot. She really did need to eat, and normally she liked a Milo's as well as anyone else. She just wasn't certain she could swallow, or that any food would stay down even if she could.

  “In case I break down and kiss you, I wouldn't want to gross you out with onion breath.” Without looking up, he began salting his fries.

  Just like that, the world tilted on its axis. Sarah looked wildly around the restaurant, wondering if she had stepped into some alternate universe. “What did you say?” she asked faintly. Surely she had misheard him.

  “You heard me.” He glanced up, and snorted. “If you could see your face. You act as if a man's never been attracted to you before.”

  Okay, she'd risk a stomach in revolt. She had to do something to give herself time to adjust to this sudden shift. She plucked out a fry, dipped it in ketchup, and took a bite. The hot, spicy taste slapped her taste buds awake. She took her time chewing and swallowing, so she was then able to reply in an even tone. “Let's just say few men could have made it plainer than you that you aren't attracted.”

  “When I run scared, I do it right.” He unwrapped his first burger, doctored it with salt, and took a big bite.

  She took refuge in another french fry. After three or four of them, she decided she needed something bigger, so she unwrapped her burger. Dark sauce coated the waxed paper, dripped from between the two halves of bun. She took a bite—God, heaven—while she thought this through. His turnabout was too abrupt; there had to be something behind it. Ah, she had it.

 
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