Dying to Please by Linda Howard

  “I worked out. Bought groceries.”

  “Is that all?”

  “I had a manicure.”

  “Where did you work out?”

  “The basement.”

  “The basement, where?”

  “Cahill's house.”

  On and on, establishing when and where she got the manicure, where she bought groceries, what time she was there. What did she do then? Cooked supper. Spaghetti. Had it ready when Cahill got home. Then he got a call and had to leave. He said he'd be gone for several hours.

  Rusty looked down at his notes. He had the exact time of the call to Cahill, as well as what time he'd arrived back home. He had the checkout time of the receipt for the ice cream. If she tried to screw with the timing, he'd know. “What did you do then?”

  “I cleaned up the kitchen, and watched television.”

  “Is that all you did?”

  “I went for ice cream.”

  “What time was this?”

  “I don't know. After eight.”

  “Where did you go?”

  She told him the name of the supermarket.

  “What time did you leave the supermarket?”

  “I don't know.”

  “Can you estimate how long you were there?”

  She lifted one shoulder. “Fifteen minutes.”

  “Where did you go when you left the supermarket?”

  “Back to Cahill's house.”

  “Was he there?”

  “Yes. He got back sooner than he'd expected.”

  “What time was this?”

  “I don't know. I didn't look at the time.”

  “Did you stop anywhere else between the supermarket and Detective Cahill's house?”


  “You said you bought groceries earlier in the day. Why didn't you buy the ice cream then?”

  “I wasn't craving it then.”

  “You had a sudden craving for ice cream?”


  “Do you crave ice cream very often?”

  “Once a month.”

  Rusty looked a little puzzled. “Why just once a month?”

  “Right before my menstrual period. I want ice cream then.”

  “Whoa,” Nolan said in Cahill's ear. “TMI.” Too much information. He didn't want to hear about menstrual cycles.

  Rusty looked a little nonplussed, too, as if he didn't know where to go with that information. Cahill kept his expression impassive as he watched. This was tough enough as it was, having his private life brought into an investigation. What was she thinking? What was going on behind those dark eyes?

  Hell, what did he know? When it came to women, he was evidently both blind and stupid; he was a detective, and it had still taken him over a year to realize Shannon was cheating on him. But it was one thing to be duped by a cheating wife, and another to so totally miss the boat with a killer. He'd had sex with this woman. Slept beside her. Laughed with her. He'd have bet his life that she was one of the straightest arrows he'd ever met, and he was having a tough time reconciling what he knew of her as a woman with the circumstances that said she might be a stone-cold killer.

  That was the bitch. Everything was circumstantial. The coincidences stretched beyond credulity, yet they didn't have a shred of physical evidence to tie her to the murders.

  “My wife craves chocolate,” Lieutenant Wester said. “I always know when she's going to start her period, because she's shoving Hershey's Kisses in her mouth like a squirrel stocking up for the winter.”

  “God, can't we talk about something else?” Nolan groaned.

  Rusty had her up to the time she arrived at the Lankford house. “What did you do then?”

  “I went to the main house to start the coffee.”

  “Did you notice anything unusual?”

  “The alarm wasn't set. It didn't beep when I unlocked the kitchen door and went in.”

  “Was that unusual?”

  “When I'm there, I always set the alarm. Mrs. Lankford sometimes forgets, though.”

  “So it wasn't unusual.”

  “Not really.”

  “What did you do then?”

  “I started the coffeemaker, then took the newspaper . . . I was taking the newspaper to the den. Mr. Lankford liked to read it there, while he watched the news. The lights were on,” she said, and her voice trailed away to nothing.

  “The lights?”

  “The hallway lights. They were on. And the lamps. They shouldn't have been on that early.”

  “Why not?”

  “I'm the only one up that early, and I had just gotten there.”

  “What did you think?”

  “I thought . . . I thought someone must be sick.”

  “Why did you think that?”

  “The smell. I noticed the smell.” She gripped her arms tightly, holding herself, and she began to rock a little, back and forth. The rocking was a sign of distress, the automatic attempt of the body to find comfort. Someone should be holding her, Cahill thought, his stomach knotting even tighter than it already was.

  “What smell was that?”

  She stared blankly at him, then abruptly stopped rocking and clapped a hand over her mouth. Rusty sprang for the trash can and got it to her just in time. She leaned over the can, retching violently, though nothing but fluid came up. Cahill clenched his teeth. She must not have eaten anything since breakfast, and that was hours ago. She kept retching, straining, even after her stomach was empty, and the sounds she made were painful to hear.

  “I'll get you a paper towel,” Rusty said, stepping to the door.

  Sarah remained bent over the trash can, her body occasionally heaving in spasm. The monitoring room was silent as they watched. Cahill fought the need to go to her, take care of her. He had to stay out of this. He had to let Rusty do his job.

  Rusty came back with a wet paper towel. Sarah took it with violently trembling hands, and washed her face. “I'm sorry,” she said in a muffled voice, then buried her face in her hands and began to weep in long, shuddering sobs that reminded Cahill of how she had wept after Judge Roberts was killed.

  God. He couldn't watch this. He got up and paced around the room, rubbing the back of his neck to ease the kinks.

  If she had done those killings, then she was the world's best actress, bar none. What he saw on the screen was a woman in shock and grieving. People sometimes reacted that way if they had killed in the heat of the moment, then realized with horror what they had done. Killers who coldly executed their victims with well-placed shots to the head didn't grieve for them afterward. The circumstances were so suspicious they stank to high heaven, but the details didn't fit. She didn't fit.

  She didn't fit. No matter what the circumstances were, she didn't fit. “She didn't do it,” he said softly, suddenly, completely certain. Okay, so he could be blind when it came to romantic shit, and he'd taken a hard kick in the chops because of it; as a cop, he saw very clearly, and she wasn't guilty.

  Lieutenant Wester gave him a sympathetic look. “Doc, you're sleeping with her. Don't let your little head do the thinking for your big head.”

  “You can mark it down,” Cahill said. “I know her. She couldn't have done it.”

  “You're too involved,” Nolan said. “Just let us do our jobs. If she didn't do it, we'll find out. And if she did do it, we'll find that out, too.”

  They all looked back at the monitor. Rusty had waited silently as the storm of weeping subsided, and now he asked softly, “Would you like something to drink? Coffee? Water? A Coke?”

  “Water,” she managed to say, her voice thick. “Thank you.”

  He got a cup of water for her, and Cahill turned to watch the screen again as she took a couple of sips, cautiously, as if she wasn't certain the water would stay down.

  “What happened after you noticed the smell?”

  The rocking started again, subtle and heartbreaking. “I . . . I almost ran. I remembered the smell. When the Judge was murdered, t
he smell was . . . was the same. I couldn't go in there. I wanted to run.”

  At least she was talking a little more, rather than answering the questions with monosyllables.

  “Did you run?”

  She shook her head. “I kept telling myself it was just that someone was sick. A stomach virus. It was my job to handle things, clean up any mess . . .” She trailed off again.

  “What did you do?”

  “I went to the door of the den and looked in. He was . . . lying there. His neck was bent.” Unconsciously she cocked her head to show the position Sonny Lankford had been in. Rusty waited to see if she would continue talking, but she lapsed into silence until prodded by another question.

  “What did you do then?”

  “I b-backed to the kitchen and tried to call nine-one-one. I wanted to call Cahill first. I wanted him there. But nine-one- one . . . the medics . . . maybe they could help. So I tried to call nine-one-one first.”

  “Tried to call?”

  “I couldn't—I was shaking so hard I hit the wrong buttons. The phone wouldn't work. I banged it down on the counter and it broke. The phone broke.”

  “You banged the phone down on the counter?”



  “It wouldn't work. It wouldn't work!”

  “Then what?”

  “I threw it.”

  Sarah was the most self-possessed person he knew, Cahill thought. If she had lost control to that extent, she had been hysterical. She was frightened, and hurting, and he hadn't so much as touched her hand when he'd gone to see her in the bungalow. No wonder she was hugging herself; someone needed to do it.

  “I needed another phone,” she said, for the first time speaking without being prompted by a question. “I couldn't think, couldn't remember where one was. I haven't worked there very long, and the house is complicated. I didn't want to hunt for a phone, because I didn't know where Mrs. Lankford was and I didn't want to find her, I didn't want to see her.” New tears streaked down her face. “So I went to my quarters, the bungalow. I know where the phone is in there. I didn't have to hunt for it. I called nine-one-one and they kept me on the line. I wanted to hang up, but they wouldn't let me. They kept me on the line.”

  “Why did you want to hang up?”

  “Cahill,” Sarah said, her voice wobbling, her eyes blind with tears. “I wanted to call Cahill. I needed him.”

  Cahill abruptly left the room. He went into the bathroom, locked the door, then bent over the toilet and vomited.


  IT TOOK A WHILE BEFORE SHE BEGAN THINKING COHERENTLY, logically, but Sarah had nothing but time on her hands. She sat alone in the interview room for long stretches of time, broken by periods when the detective with sandy hair and freckles would ask her a lot of questions. If she had to go to the bathroom, she was escorted. If she asked for something to drink, it was brought to her.

  She wondered if they would let her leave, if she tried. She hadn't been arrested, hadn't been handcuffed, she had come here voluntarily. Besides, she had no place else to go. She couldn't stay in the bungalow, she hadn't been able to think clearly enough to give instructions about gathering her clothes and other needed items so she could stay in a hotel again, and she certainly couldn't go to Cahill's house. When she did begin thinking again, that was the one fact that was glaringly obvious.

  He thought she was guilty. He thought she'd committed murder.

  He hadn't come near her earlier, at the bungalow, just stood there watching her with cold eyes. This wasn't like when the Judge was murdered; she had been under suspicion then, too, until he'd checked out her story, but it hadn't been personal. She'd understood. But now . . . he knew her now, as no one else had ever known her. Last night, except for when he'd gone on that call, she had been with him all night. They'd made love, several times. And yet he thought she had left the house soon after he did, driven to the Lankfords' house, shot both of them in the head, then stopped by the grocery store and bought ice cream on the way back to his house.

  She would have understood him doing his job. It would have hurt, but she'd have understood. She didn't understand him actually believing she was guilty.

  That cut, so deeply and cruelly she wasn't certain the wounds would ever heal. With one slash he'd severed the bonds between them, leaving her adrift. She felt like an astronaut whose safety line has snapped, only no one from the mother ship was making any effort to retrieve her. She was lost, floating farther and farther away, and she didn't much care.

  The grief she'd felt when the Judge was killed was nothing compared to this. It wasn't just over the violent death of the Lankfords, those friendly, down-to-earth people whom she'd liked very much; it was for the loss of Cahill as well, of the magic she'd thought they shared. She loved him, but he didn't, couldn't love her, because to really love someone you had to know that person, know what made her tick, how she was put together as a human being. Cahill obviously had no clue about her. If he had, he'd have come to her and said, “I know it looks bad, but I believe in you. I'm behind you.”

  Instead he'd looked at her as if she were dirt, and then he'd walked away.

  That wasn't love. He'd wanted to screw her, that was all. And, boy, had he ever.

  She understood now why he was so bitter and distrustful after finding out his wife had betrayed him. She didn't know if she'd ever be able to really trust anyone again, either. Her family, yes; she could rely on them through thick and thin, hell and high water, and every other applicable cliché. But anyone else? She didn't think so. The lessons learned hardest were the lessons learned best.

  In the meantime, she did something that was foreign to her nature: she endured. She had always been one of those people who, when something wasn't to their liking, didn't rest until they had wrestled, pummeled, and otherwise whipped whatever it was into a shape more to their liking. In this instance, however, there was nothing she could do. She couldn't change the past. Cahill had walked away from her when she needed him most, and no amount of wrestling or pummeling on her part would alter that.

  It was a funny type of love that talked marriage one day, and turned its back the next. So why wasn't she laughing?

  Instead she sat in the armless chair in the windowless little interview room, and let time wash around her. She was in no hurry. She had nothing to do, and nowhere to go.

  Lieutenant Wester rubbed his hand over his nearly bald head. “Okay,” he said wearily. “What do we have? Do we hold her, book her, or let her go?”

  Everyone was exhausted. The media was in an uproar, the mayor was in an uproar, city hall was in an uproar, and the citizens of Mountain Brook were frightened. Three of their number had been murdered in their homes in the past month, which would have been big news in any community but in Mountain Brook was horrifying. The murder victims had thought they were safe, with their security systems and walled estates, electric gates and floodlights. Instead they had been no safer than a young mother in a drug-ridden neighborhood, cowering with her children in the bathtub at night because the walls were too thin to stop the bullets that regularly whined through the streets.

  People paid a high price to live in Mountain Brook, with its crushing property tax. They paid through the nose for the astronomical real estate values, the excellent school system, the illusion of safety. The property taxes bought them a town without slums, and a police department that they expected to keep crime to a minimum, and solve the ones that did occur. When the people in multimillion-dollar homes lost that illusion of safety, they were vocal in their unhappiness. That made the mayor unhappy, which made the captain unhappy, et cetera, et cetera. The pressure was on the investigative division to produce results, or else.

  Rusty Ahern consulted the papers before him. “Okay. Here's what I think: We have three spent shell casings, which on preliminary testing appear to match the bullet that killed Judge Roberts. We don't have any viable fingerprints, in either case. We have no physical evidence other t
han the three shell casings, period. We also have no sign of forced entry at either location, indicating the victims knew the perp and opened the door. We have a busted lock on an interior door. Call-back on the Lankfords' phone went to a pay phone in the Galleria, the same pay phone that showed up as the last call to Judge Roberts. I don't know about you guys, but that right there leads me to think Miss Stevens didn't do either murder.”

  “How so?” Nolan asked. “I'm not following.”

  “She wouldn't have any reason to call ahead, to make certain the electric gates were open, or the victims were at home, or whatever,” Cahill said. “She had full access to both homes. All she had to do was go in, at any time.”

  “Right. And what would be the motive?” Ahern asked. “That's what's driving me crazy. Nothing was taken in the Roberts killing. Miss Stevens got a hefty chunk in his will, but that's in probate, it isn't as if you're handed a check as soon as the body's planted. And like you pointed out, Doc, she isn't hurting for money.”

  “That doesn't mean anything,” Nolan said. “Some people always want more. And don't forget that big diamond ring that's missing. A rock worth a quarter of a million will get a lot of people's attention. Plus some people are just fucking crazy.”

  Cahill held on to his temper. “But she isn't. She's as sane and even-tempered as anyone I've ever met, and, Nolan, if you say one more time she has me pussy-whipped, I'm going to feed you your teeth.” They'd been in each other's faces a couple of times already today. Both of them were tired and irritable, and Nolan had a habit of carrying teasing too far.

  “Let's cool it, guys,” Wester said. “Doc, what about that photo you came up with from the pay phone on the Roberts case? Has it been shown around the Lankfords' neighborhood?”

  “Not yet. We've been concentrating on Sarah.”

  “Well, get it out and circulate it. Since the last call to the Lankfords' came from the same pay phone, that guy has to be our man.”

  “But it still doesn't make sense,” Nolan argued. “Why kill Judge Roberts and not take anything, unless it was for the money in the will? So it's in probate; she'll get it eventually. Look at it this way: she works for Roberts and he gets popped. She goes to work for the Lankfords and they get popped. Does anybody else see a pattern here?”

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