Dying to Please by Linda Howard

  “Then what's your theory on the guy in the picture?” Wester asked.

  “It's simple. They're working together. Has to be. She goes inside and gets all the information, the alarm codes, the keys, whatever is needed. I don't know how they'd decide when—I mean, she worked for Judge Roberts for almost three years, so why wait so long to off him? Then she's with the Lankfords only a little over a week and they get offed. Maybe it's whenever they need the money. Who knows? But she makes sure she has an alibi, and he waltzes in and does the job. They never even know he's in the house until he walks up on them and pulls the trigger. He has no known connection to the victims, so it's essentially a stranger killing, and they're damn hard to solve.”

  “Do you have an alarm system in your house?” Cahill asked.

  “Yeah, it's called a dog.”

  “Well, the victims would hear the killer come in. In both houses, whenever an outside door or window was opened, an alert is beeped. If you weren't expecting anyone to be there, you'd check it out, right? You wouldn't sit in your recliner and wait.”

  “Unless they thought it was Stevens.”

  “In the Lankfords' case, they knew she was gone until Tuesday morning.”

  Wester frowned. “You're saying in both cases the victims knew the killer.”

  “Looks like it to me.”

  “And the killer in both cases is the same guy.”

  They all looked at one another.

  “We're still missing something,” Ahern said. “Motive.”

  “I keep telling you, it's the money,” said Nolan.

  “And I keep telling you,” Cahill said impatiently, “the only way money makes sense is if Sarah is doing the killing.”

  “Or is having it done.”

  “But the victims knew the killer, who is very probably the man who made the calls from the pay phone. You yourself said her so-called partner wouldn't have any connection to the victims, so it can't be both ways. They either knew him, or they didn't. If they didn't know him, why did they let him in the house? Why did Judge Roberts sit down to talk to him? The killer was an acquaintance of both Roberts and the Lankfords.”

  “Well, shit.” Nolan frowned at the surface of the table, thinking hard.

  “So our guy is someone they knew in business, or moved in the same circles. My guess is business,” Cahill said. “Judge Roberts was in his mid-eighties, and he didn't do the party circuit. He had his circle of poker-playing cronies, and that was it. But he still had business concerns that he stayed on top of, and Sonny Lankford had more irons in the fire than a blacksmith.”

  “Looking at it that way, the motive may be money after all,” said Ahern. “We need to find out what business ventures or financial concerns they had in common, some deal that went bad but they came out of okay, while someone else lost his shirt.”

  “But then it would be sheer coincidence that Sarah Stevens happened to be working for both Roberts and the Lankfords when each was murdered,” Wester said. “That's bullshit. Coincidences like that don't happen.”

  “Maybe it's not as far-fetched as you'd think,” Ahern said, doodling furiously on his legal pad as he chased his thoughts. “How many people can afford a butler, especially one who makes in the range that Sarah Stevens makes? Not many. It would be a small circle, even in Mountain Brook. Most people here work like hell to pay the property taxes and their mortgages, and keep their kids in school. But these rich folks who can afford her, they probably all know one another, through business if not socially. They had to get rich somehow, didn't they? I say business dealings are the link.”

  “A lot of companies have had problems this past year. It's possible someone took a soaking and is holding a grudge about it.” Wester considered the scenario. So far, it made more sense than any other theory they'd considered. “Okay, I'll take this to the captain. We'll put out some statement that's vague enough it won't spook this guy. He's already killed three people, and he may have started liking it. We don't want any more bodies in this town.”

  He looked at Ahern. “You can release Miss Stevens, have someone collect some clothes for her and drive her to a motel. And, no, she can't stay at your house,” he said pointedly to Cahill. “I want you to stay away from her for the time being. The press is going to be all over us for turning her loose, and if one of those guys follows her and finds out she's living with a Mountain Brook detective, our collective asses will go up in flames. Is that clear?”

  Cahill saw the wisdom of Sarah's not living in his house. Staying away from her, though, wasn't in the cards. He had some major bridge repair to do, and he wasn't going to wait until they broke this case to do it. All day it had been burning in his gut, the way she'd cried when she said she needed him. She had walked in on a horror this morning, made all the worse by being a repeat of the scene with Judge Roberts. She'd been a walking basket case, and he hadn't gone to her, hadn't held her. She'd been alone all day, slowly rocking back and forth, hugging herself. Even worse, she knew he'd thought she was the killer.

  This wasn't merely doing his job; this was a lack of trust so gargantuan he didn't know if he'd be able to regain his lost ground. He'd die trying, though. If he had to crawl to her on his hands and knees, literally as well as figuratively, to get her forgiveness, then he'd wear out the knees in every pair of pants he owned if that was what it took.

  She was in a fragile state right now. He remembered that when the Judge was killed she hadn't been able to eat; today she certainly hadn't had anything since breakfast, which was at least a thousand years ago from the way he felt. They had offered her food, but she had refused it with a silent shake of her head. She was usually the strong one, the go-to person in a crisis, but now she needed someone to take care of her.

  The first order of business was to get her things from the bungalow and get her checked into a hotel under an assumed name so she could rest. Ahern would take care of that.

  There was no way in hell, though, that Cahill intended to let her leave without apologizing, for whatever good that would do.

  He walked down the short hall and opened the door to the interview room. She looked up, then quickly averted her gaze when she recognized him. She was still pale, her face drawn and her dark eyes dull. Coming so soon after the Judge's murder, this had knocked her flat.

  He stepped inside and closed the door. The ceiling-mounted camera wasn't on right now; they were private. If she wanted to slap his face, he'd take it. If she wanted to kick him in the balls, he guessed he'd take that, too. He'd take anything from her if she would forgive him afterward. But she didn't move, even when he crouched beside the chair so he could see her face.

  “Ahern is going to take you to a hotel so you can rest,” he said quietly. “We'll pick up your clothes and bring them to you. Let him check you in; you'll be under an assumed name, so the press can't find you.”

  “I'm not being arrested?” she asked, her voice thin and colorless.

  “Sarah . . . we know you didn't do it.”

  “Why? Did some evidence turn up today? You thought I was guilty this morning.” There was no accusation, no heat in the words, just a statement of fact. He felt as if she had put miles of mental distance between them, between herself and everyone else. It was the only way she could cope.

  “I was wrong,” he said simply. “I'm sorry. God, I can't tell you how sorry I am. The coincidence slapped me in the face, and all I could think was that you'd gone out last night after I left on the call.”

  “I understand.”

  The lack of inflection in her voice made him wince. “Do you forgive, too?”


  “Sarah—” He reached out, and she pulled back, her expression frantic.

  “Don't touch me.”

  He dropped his hand. “All right. For now. I know I fucked up big time, but I won't let you go. We think we're getting this thing figured out, and—”

  “It isn't up to you,” she interrupted.

  “What? What isn't up to me?

  “Letting me go. You don't have a choice.”

  There was a big black hole yawning at his feet, and he felt as if he were being sucked down into it. If he lost her—well, that wasn't going to happen. He refused to let it. Once she was over the initial shock, she would at least listen to him. Sarah was the most reasonable person he'd ever met. And if she wouldn't listen, then he didn't mind fighting dirty. He'd do whatever it took to keep her.

  “We'll talk later,” he said, stepping back to give her the space she needed right now.

  “There's no point.”

  “There's every point. I'll give you some room and time now, but don't ever think I've given up. Ever.”

  “You should,” she said, and went back to staring at the wall.

  Fifteen minutes later, Ahern hurried her out the back door and across the parking lot to his car. The print and television reporters camped out by the front saw them and the cameramen got some footage, but that was it. One enterprising guy jumped into his car and started to follow, but his way was blocked when a white Jaguar swung in front of him, and by the time he pulled into traffic, both the unmarked cop car and the white Jaguar had vanished from sight.


  TREVOR DENSMORE HAD NEVER BEEN MORE SHOCKED IN HIS life than when the news reports made it plain Sarah was being held as a suspect. This was terrible. How could they possibly . . . why, there wasn't a shred of evidence against her. Not a shred. How could there be? He'd been careless last night and left behind the shell casings, causing himself a moment of worry, but they could in no way be linked to Sarah. As for himself, all he had to do next was dispose of the pistol—after first filing off the registration number, of course. He hated taking care of such menial details himself, but he could hardly ask his secretary to handle it, now could he?

  The most important thing was to make certain Sarah was all right. She was so pale, in the news footage shown. She had discovered the bodies of both Judge Lowell Roberts, her previous employer, and the Lankfords, which suggested she was like the miscreants who set fires, then called in the report, pretending they had discovered it so they could deflect suspicion from themselves. The police were wise to such tactics, which he supposed explained why she was under suspicion, but, oh, dear . . . he'd done her such a terrible wrong.

  Not once had he considered that she would be the one who found the bodies. Not once. He should have realized it, because of course she was the most logical person to do so; she was conscientious, meaning she would be the first one on duty in the morning. The shocks he'd made her endure had to have been terrible. He couldn't think how he could have arranged for someone else to discover the bodies, but he could have thrown a blanket over them or something. People nowadays always had those throw things draped everywhere, like shawls for furniture; he detested such clutter himself. He could have used them, however, to spare Sarah a measure of shock.

  He was so distressed by his thoughtlessness that he had his secretary cancel his appointments and left his office early. What to do, what to do?

  The first order of business was to get her released, but how? He could scarcely call the police department and demand her release, not without explanations he didn't care to make. Then the brilliant idea occurred. It was risky, but worth the gamble if it freed Sarah.

  Even as efficient as he was, it still took him a few hours to accomplish the deed. Then, not knowing what else to do, he drove to city hall and parked in the parking lot of the nearby bank and waited. He didn't want to join the jackals who were lingering with their satellite-dish-equipped vans and videocameras, and, really, he had no idea how long it would be before the effects of his plan were discovered. But when Sarah was released, he intended to be there to offer his support.

  Why, in retrospect, things couldn't have worked out better. She would be upset, in need of a safe haven. He could give her that, and more . . . so much more.

  He had carefully chosen his vantage point, and when he needed to change the angle of vision to better see what was going on—it was so frustrating not to know exactly; he hated being kept in the dark like this—he would simply walk down the sidewalk as if he were going to the dry cleaners, or whatever.

  Luck was on his side, but then, it always was. He became more and more exasperated as he waited; the incompetent yokels, what was taking them so long? Just as he reached his limit and decided to go home—after all, no one would expect him to wait forever—he saw Sarah leave the police department by a side door at the back of the building. She was with a man, probably a detective, since he was escorting her across the narrow drive to the parking lot the police used. The news crews spotted them, of course, as they got into an unmarked city car of common lineage. One reporter ran to his car and jumped in, but Trevor timed things perfectly, smoothly swinging the Jaguar into traffic at just the right moment to block the reporter from pulling out. There was more traffic behind him, inadvertently performing the same blocking maneuver.

  Trevor kept his eye on the unmarked car as he followed, keeping at least one car between them. Really, he was getting very good at this.

  Where was he taking her? Back to the Lankfords' house? Surely not. But she had no other home. To a friend's home, then, or a hotel. The good news was that she obviously had not been arrested, just detained and questioned, and now they had decided they had no reason to hold her. He wasn't certain exactly how police procedure worked, but he did know that if she had been arrested, she would have been detained until a bond hearing, where bail would either be set or denied.

  All he had to do was follow to see where she was being taken; then he would decide how best to approach her. This time she would come to him. He was certain of it.

  “Do you have any preferences?” Detective Ahern asked her. “Which hotel, I mean.”

  “I don't care.”

  Ahern glanced at her, at a loss. He'd gone into the interview room thinking, like everyone else, that she was guilty. Her reactions during the interview, plus some logical thinking, had convinced him she wasn't. Normally he didn't concern himself much if someone was upset; in his line of work, it was to be expected, and unless they were hysterical and throwing punches or objects, he left them to handle things on their own. This was different, though; because of her connection to Cahill, she was one of theirs. This was more personal.

  “The lieutenant told Doc to stay away from you until things settle down. The press would go crazy if they found out you're living with him.”

  “I'm not,” she said flatly.

  He was about to step knee-deep in shit, he just knew it, but he plowed on. “So if Doc isn't around much, that's why. He wants to be. By the way, he's been arguing us into the ground all day about your innocence. He believes in you, Sarah. We're working our butts off to get this thing figured out, but he—”

  “Detective Ahern,” she said.


  “Shut up.” She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

  Now what?

  He was saved by a call coming in on his phone. Eyes widening, he listened in disbelief.

  “Shit!” he said explosively.

  She jerked upright, and he had the impression she had actually dozed off in those few seconds. “What?”

  “There's been another killing.” He stepped on the gas. “If you don't mind, I'm taking you to the Mountain Brook Inn. It's close by, and I need to get to the scene.”

  “That's fine.”

  He was agitated. “It sounds like the same MO, Sarah. We'll know more when we investigate, but if it is, you're totally clear. The press won't bother you.”

  “Why?” She shook her head. “Who?”

  “I don't know; I just have the address. But evidently the kill is recent, just a few hours old. You couldn't have done it.” His hands tightened on the steering wheel. “Shit. We have a maniac on our hands.”

  When they reached the inn, she said, “Just let me out in front. I'll check myself in.” She shrugged. “Now it doesn't matter if they k
now I'm here, does it? I may get some phone calls, but they won't be beating down my door.” With this latest development, she had gone from suspect to . . . what? Material witness? Incredibly unlucky?

  “Do me a favor,” Ahern said. “Use a false name anyway. Use ‘Geraldine Ahern,' that's my mother's name. That way we can find you.”

  “Okay,” she agreed. This wasn't something she cared about. Right now, nothing was. She just wanted to be alone, and she wanted to sleep.

  She got her purse and got out of the car. Before she closed the door, Ahern leaned over and said, “We'll have your clothes brought to you. Just sit tight.”

  She'd have to sit tight, she thought as she watched Ahern drive away, unless she called a taxi, because she didn't have a way of going anywhere. The TrailBlazer was still at the Lankfords' house.

  She was so exhausted that for long moments she simply stood there in the late afternoon warmth, trying to dissipate the chill that seemed to go all the way through to her bones. What would she do if the staff at the front desk refused to let her stay here? If they had been watching television today, her face and name would have been all over the news. They might even think she had escaped custody, though why she would then try to check into a nearby hotel was more than she could imagine.

  The events of the day crashed down on her, sapping what little strength she had left, swaying her on her feet. She closed her eyes, struggling for control.

  “Miss Stevens?” asked a softly hesitant voice. “Sarah?”

  Dazed, she opened her eyes and found herself staring at a man who looked familiar, though she couldn't quite place him. He stood a few feet from her, watching her with concern. She hadn't heard his footsteps, hadn't realized anyone was near.

  “Are you all right?” he asked shyly; and then she placed him. Saturday night. The party.

  “Mr. Densmore,” she said.

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