Dying to Please by Linda Howard

  The rain continued the next day, heavier and colder. The medical examiner released Judge Roberts's body to his family and they began the task of making the final arrangements. Sarah handled placing the obituary in the newspapers, and she put herself completely at the disposal of the family.

  She drove them to the funeral home they'd chosen, to deal with casket selection and the financial matters. The Judge had wanted to be buried beside his wife, had even bought a double tombstone when she died with his name already chiseled on it, so at least they didn't have to deal with that decision. Selecting a casket, however, shattered them. Randall and Jon held together, but they seemed incapable of making a decision; they kept looking to Barbara, and Barbara began silently crying.

  Sarah stepped out of the background and gave Barbara a hug. “I know,” she murmured in sympathy. “But it has to be done.”

  Barbara turned to her, eyes blinded by tears. “Which one do you like?”

  The question floored her. Stunned, Sarah looked around at the caskets, and at Randall and Jon. They were both watching her now with a sort of desperate plea in their expressions. It couldn't be plainer that they couldn't handle this.

  Sarah took a deep breath. “I like the bronze one.” It was expensive, but they could easily afford it, and they would feel better thinking they'd bought the best for their father.

  “I like that one best, too,” Randall said quickly.

  Barbara blotted her eyes. “The bronze?” she asked, her voice quivering. She looked at it. “It's very nice, isn't it?”

  “The best,” the funeral director put in. After all, business was business.

  “I like the color.” Barbara took a deep breath and turned to Sarah again. “I think you're right. We'll take the bronze.”

  From there they visited a florist to order flowers. The service would be at two o'clock on Sunday, at the huge church the Judge had attended. Sarah had already gotten rooms for the rest of Randall's family, who were driving down that day, Friday, after work and school. Visitation for friends would be at the funeral home on Saturday night, and before that, there was shopping to be done.

  Sarah had had the presence of mind to request a charcoal suit and black pumps from her closet, but she needed panty hose and a few other small items. Barbara decided the clothes she'd brought wouldn't do at all, and Blair tearfully confided she didn't even own any dark clothes. Julia, Jon's wife, also decided she needed something different. Only Emily had come fully prepared.

  The most logical thing to do was to begin at the Galleria, since it was attached to the hotel, but Blair had already roamed the mall from end to end, both stories, and wasn't satisfied with anything. Barbara did find some shoes she liked at Parisian, and Sarah quickly picked up the items she needed, including several black umbrellas, since it appeared they would be going back out in the rain after all.

  By evening, they had exhausted the contents of the Summit, Brookwood, and Sarah had driven them to all the exclusive boutiques that she knew of in the area. Barbara finally settled on a stylish black suit with a long, slim skirt, which, given the weather forecast, was a good idea. Blair selected a black skirt that ended just above her knees, and a slim-fitting, short jacket in eggplant; she had removed the ring from her eyebrow and washed the colored streaks from her hair. Funerals were serious business, both emotionally and fashionwise. Julia had been much more decisive than the other two, making her selection, a navy blue dress with a matching tunic jacket, at the first department store they visited in the Summit.

  Sarah's feet were so tired she was almost limping by the time she herded her charges back to the hotel. The rain had fallen unceasingly all day long, making shopping even more difficult, as they'd had to juggle umbrellas along with everything else. Her shoes were wet, her pants were damp, and despite the Berber jacket she was cold. All she wanted to do was take a hot shower and sit down with her feet elevated. Her cell phone hadn't rung all day long, and there were no messages waiting for her when she reached the inn. Maybe, she thought, she could rest now.

  The room phone rang as she was peeling off her damp socks. She groaned and flopped back on the bed, considering not answering it. But it might be one of the family, so she picked it up on the sixth ring.

  “Ms. Stevens, this is Greg Holbrook with the News. I'd like to interview you about the tragic murder—”

  “I'm not giving interviews,” she said firmly. “Good-bye.” She disconnected, then immediately rang the front desk and asked for a different room, booked under a false name. The next hour was spent handling that and getting her things switched to a room four doors down. She should have thought of the press before and taken those same precautions.

  Her new room was cold, having been empty all day. She turned the heat on full blast, and when the chill was gone, began stripping for that hot shower that she needed desperately now. Right on cue, her cell phone rang.

  At least this wasn't likely to be the press. But if it was someone in the Judge's family, then it meant something had come up she needed to handle.

  “Where are you?” Cahill demanded irritably. “The front desk said you'd checked out.”

  “Bless them,” she said with deep gratitude. “A reporter called my room, so I changed rooms and booked it under a different name.”

  “Good. Have you had supper?”

  “I've eaten today, if that's what you're asking.”

  “It isn't. I'm asking specifically about supper.”

  “Then, no, I haven't, and you couldn't blow me out of this room with dynamite. I took three of the ladies shopping. My feet hurt, I'm cold, and I want a hot shower. Period.”

  “Poor baby,” he said, and she could tell he was smiling. “What's your room number?”

  “I'm not telling. I don't want company.”

  “I give a great foot massage.”

  The thought of having her feet massaged almost made her moan. She had the presence of mind, though, to say, “I'll take a rain check. I'm exhausted, and dealing with you takes a lot of energy. I'm not up to it tonight.”

  “That's probably the best kiss-off I've ever had. Okay, I'll see you tomorrow. Sleep tight.”

  “Tomorrow?” Tomorrow was Saturday. She had . . . nothing to do. The realization was so strange as to be disorienting. Her Saturdays were always busy. If she took her half day on Saturday, then the mornings were spent getting the Judge's day arranged and everything taken care of. If she didn't take her half day on Saturday, that was because something was going on that required her supervision. Either way, Saturdays were busy days.

  “I'll be working,” Cahill said. “Checking out some things. But I'll see you tomorrow night at the funeral home.”

  That should be safe enough.

  “When will we be able to get into the house?”

  “Maybe Sunday. I think we've about done everything we can there.”

  “Will you let me know ahead of time? I want to have the library cleaned before the family sees it.”

  “Of course,” he said gently, and repeated, “Sleep tight,” before hanging up.

  The day of the funeral dawned clear and cold, with a wind that sliced through jackets. This was probably winter's last hurrah, Sarah thought—blackberry winter, the cool spell that came right after the blackberry bushes had bloomed. Indeed, the forecast called for a fast warming trend. On Monday the temperature was supposed to reach sixty-two; on Tuesday, seventy-five. By week's end it was forecast to be in the low eighties.

  At the family's insistence she sat with them in church. Cahill sat somewhere behind her; he'd said hello when he came in, briefly touched her hand, then pulled back to the fringes to watch. She wasn't certain exactly what he was watching for, but no detail escaped his attention.

  In her mind, she said good-bye to the Judge. She could almost feel his spirit hovering nearby, perhaps taking leave of his loved ones. Her lips trembled as she remembered all the funny things he'd said, the twinkle in his eyes, the joy he'd had in life. Losing him was like losing
a grandfather, and there would always be a tiny gap in her heart, in her life, that only he could fill.

  The church was filled to overflowing. His old friends were devastated by his loss, and they all looked more frail than they had just a few days before, as if some of their spirit was gone, too. The air was heavy with the scent of flowers, roses and carnations and mums, and hothouse gardenias with their hauntingly sweet smell. There couldn't be many flowers left in Birmingham, Sarah thought, looking at the huge wall of floral offerings behind the casket.

  Southern funerals were maudlin and ultimately comforting, with their ceremony and tradition. Because the Judge was a war veteran, his VFW chapter posted an honor guard. During the funeral procession to the cemetery, all traffic they met stopped, with most people turning on their headlights in sympathy and pulling off the highway if they could. Police cars blocked intersections for the procession to go through unimpeded. Sarah had always been amused by the traffic etiquette for a funeral, but today, now that she was in the procession, she was grateful for the consideration.

  There was an additional brief service at the grave; then the family pulled back and the somber work of burial began. After the grave was filled in and covered with the huge array of flowers, Barbara and Blair each selected a perfect rose from one of the arrangements for a keepsake. Randall and Jon looked uncomfortable, as if they, too, wanted a rose; but they were men, so they stood back rather than admit to such sentimentality. Their wives, though, exchanged glances with Barbara and made their own floral selections.

  Normally there was food served after a funeral, at the bereaved's home. With the Judge's house still off-limits—and having guests there in the house where he had been murdered didn't seem right, anyway—one of his friends had offered the hospitality of his house. Many of the funeral attendees trooped off for food, drink, and reminiscing, but Sarah slipped away to her SUV. A couple of reporters were in the crowd, and she wanted to get away before they could buttonhole her.

  Cahill caught up with her as she got behind the steering wheel. “You can arrange for those cleaners,” he said. “I'll hold the family off until tomorrow, give you time to take care of things.”

  “Thanks.” Now that the funeral was over, she was at a loss. There was nothing else to do, other than handle the cleaning. “Is it okay if I get some of my stuff out?” She was thinking specifically of her laptop, so she could begin updating her résumé.

  He looked surprised. “You can stay there, if you want.”

  She shuddered at the thought. “Not now. Not until the library is cleaned.”

  He nodded in understanding, and gave her a card. “This firm specializes in hard-to-remove stains.” Meaning blood, and brain matter.

  She glanced at the name. “Thank you. I'll call them first thing in the morning.”

  “You can call now; that second number is the guy's home phone. They're geared for emergencies.”

  That couldn't be a great job, cleaning up after murders. On the other hand, someone had to do it, and in cases like this it was best to hand the chore off to professionals. She knew she couldn't bear tackling the job herself, even though she was trained to handle all types of stain removal.

  “Will you be all right?” Cahill asked, blue eyes very clear and direct as he studied her tired face. He shifted so his shoulders blocked the open door, giving them the illusion of privacy. “I have some things to do, but if you need company, I'll—”

  “No.” She touched his hand, then swiftly withdrew because just that brief touch was sharp temptation. “Thanks, but I'm okay. I have some things to take care of, too.”

  “I'll call you tomorrow, then.” He leaned into the SUV and kissed her on the cheek. “Keep your cell phone on so I don't have to hunt you down.”

  “Are you planning to arrest me?”

  “We still need to discuss some things, make some decisions. I'll take you into custody if I have to.” He walked away, and she stared at his broad back, tiny shivers prickling her spine.

  If she intended to run, she needed to do it soon. Very soon.


  CAHILL HATED SURVEILLANCE VIDEOTAPES. THE ANGLES WERE weird, the quality was very iffy, and mostly they were boring. They were also invaluable if anything interesting happened within the camera's range. So far, he hadn't found anything interesting.

  The pay phones in the Galleria were located all through the mall, some of them close to the parking decks, some of them around the escalators. The one from which Judge Roberts had been called was near one of the escalators. If the gods had been smiling on him, the Galleria would have had surveillance cameras aimed at the huge main concourse; no such luck. He'd had to settle for the stores near that particular pay phone. The security cameras aimed at the store entrances were the only ones that could possibly pick up the traffic at that pay phone.

  Most of them were complete washouts. The angle was wrong; one camera had malfunctioned and showed nothing new on the tape for a couple of weeks, which told Cahill how often it was checked. Most surveillance tapes ran on loops; if you didn't get to them before the loop was completed, they would begin taping over whatever was at the beginning. Wait too long, and everything in the desired time period was gone.

  The best part about them was that they were timed and dated. He had the exact time of the call made to Judge Roberts, so he didn't have to watch each entire tape. Allowing for discrepancies in the timers, he began fifteen minutes before the targeted time, and watched for fifteen minutes afterward. That was half an hour on each tape, taking note of the people who walked past the store entrances, comparing them to the next tape, and the next one. He finally hit paydirt: a man in a light-colored suit used that particular phone and the digital time on the tape put it within two minutes of what the telephone company said was the time of the call. Cahill continued watching, and no one else used that phone for at least five minutes. The next user was a young girl in baggy jeans and huge, clunky boots.

  Bingo. The man in the light-colored suit was the most likely suspect.

  That was the good news. The bad news was that the angle was awful, and showed only the lower two-thirds of the body.

  Back to all the other tapes, trying to catch a glimpse of a man wearing a light-colored suit as he walked past the stores on his way to that phone.

  Finally he came up with an image, blurred, the face turned away, but at least he had something. When the picture was enhanced, maybe they would be able to pick out something that would lead them to the guy. Maybe Sarah or one of the family would recognize him.

  “Sarah, please, stay,” Barbara said, leaning over to take both of Sarah's hands in hers. They were in the suite's parlor, alone, amazingly. “The house will have to be closed up and sold, and none of us can spare the time right now. We talked it over, and all of us are strapped for time. There's so much to be done with the legal aspects, Blair is still in school, Randall's granddaughter has to have open-heart surgery—we need you. Your salary will be the same.”

  Sarah squeezed Barbara's hands. “Of course I'll stay. You don't have to convince me. I'll be here as long as you need me.”

  “You've been a godsend; you have no idea. If you hadn't been here, I don't think I could have coped.” Barbara was tired, her face drawn with grief, but she was dry-eyed.

  “Do you have any idea how long—”

  “At least a month, maybe more. We have to settle his affairs, his personal effects have to be packed, things put in storage. We don't want the house to sit empty until it sells; houses deteriorate so fast without someone living in them. It may sell immediately, but it may not.”

  A house on Briarwood, in the old-money section? Some people would be reluctant to buy a house in which a murder had occurred, but the location and the house itself would probably overcome that. Sarah would be surprised if it was on the market for a full month before someone snapped it up. This was a perfect interim situation for her: she could afford to take her time looking for a new position anyway, but this way sh
e wouldn't have to dip into her savings. She wouldn't have to pack in a rush, but could do that gradually, too. Instead of an abrupt uprooting, she could ease into a new job, new quarters, new responsibilities.

  “I assume you want the grounds kept up, and the house cleaners in on a regular basis.”

  “Oh, of course; the house will be much easier to sell if it's looking well kept. It's so difficult to think of selling it,” Barbara said, her voice trailing away. “He lived there almost fifty years. I grew up there. It's a wonderful old house, full of memories, and he took such good care of it. Mother designed it, you know. It's her dream house.”

  “Is there no way you could keep it in the family?”

  “I don't think so. None of us want to move back here, and of course the estate taxes are horrendous, even divided three ways. The house will have to be sold to help pay them. None of us can afford to keep the house and pay that much additional tax. I know Daddy would have liked for one of us to have it, but the way things are—” She shrugged helplessly, and moved on to another topic.

  “When the police let us into the house tomorrow, Randall and Jon and I are going to select some mementos. Daddy left directions for the main things, of course, but there are some smaller items that we want. Randall and Jon can take their selections home with them, since they're driving, but would you box mine up and ship them to me?”

  Sarah got out the small pad that was always in her bag, and made a note. “Do you want me to arrange a meal there tomorrow? Leona will be more than happy to prepare any meal you like.”

  Barbara hesitated, then shook her head. “I don't know exactly what time we'll be there, or how long it will take us to go through things. I don't even know how many of us will be there.”

  “I can arrange something,” Sarah said. “A big pot of soup, and sandwiches, if nothing else.”

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