Dying to Please by Linda Howard

  When she went back to the living room, she noticed that her curtains were open. She jerked them together, her heart pounding. Was he out there? Was he watching?


  NOTHING ELSE HAPPENED. THERE WERE NO PHONE CALLS, no more gifts, and if anyone had followed her, she hadn't spotted him. Once she thought someone might be following her, but if he was, he wasn't very good at it, and a white Jaguar wasn't the best car for following anyone, anyway; it was too noticeable. Before long the white Jaguar wasn't anywhere in sight in her rearview mirror, swallowed up by the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Probably it was someone who also lived in Mountain Brook, who just happened to be driving the same route for a while.

  She heard from her mom, and Noel had called, so he was okay for the time being. Daniel still hadn't checked in since he left, but they would have heard if anything had happened to him, so everything was fine on the home front. Jennifer was thinking about having another child, her third, but her husband, Farrell, wasn't enthusiastic; he was perfectly happy with their two sons. Knowing Jennifer, Sarah made a mental bet she'd have another nephew—or a niece—within the year.

  Just talking to her mom had made her feel better. Everything was normal at home, and that was what she needed to know. Everything seemed to be normal here, too, except for the existence of that pendant; whenever she looked at it, she was reminded that something wasn't right, that there was someone out there who thought it was okay to send an expensive gift to a woman he didn't know.

  On her half-day off, on Saturday this particular week, she had her hair trimmed, got a manicure, then went to a movie. All the while she studied the people and traffic around her, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing. The same face didn't turn up at two different locations, no one followed her. She thought it was too soon to relax, but she did feel marginally better when she returned home.

  Wednesday, her next off day, was much the same. No one followed her as she went to her karate class or kick-boxing workout. She spent a long time at the pistol range, just because it made her feel better, then went shopping at the Summit; that also made her feel better. There was just something about a new outfit that was good for the soul.

  She browsed the bookstore for an hour, ate supper in one of the restaurants, then went to another movie. She liked movies and saw a new one at least every couple of weeks, but in the back of her mind she knew she was making it easy for anyone to approach her if he wanted. If he was still out there, she wanted to know who he was, what he looked like. She couldn't go through life worried that every man she saw might be him; she wanted a face on him, so he wasn't just a vague, threatening shape in her mind. Let him sit down next to her; let him approach her.

  But she sat alone in the darkened theater, and no one spoke or even brushed against her when the movie was over and she made her way out of the theater, or even in the parking lot as she walked to her truck.

  Everything looked normal at home when she drove up. The front-porch lights were on, the security lights were on, and she could see a light in the Judge's upstairs bedroom. The digital clock in the dashboard said it was almost ten o'clock, so he was probably getting ready for bed.

  She parked in her usual place under the portico, and let herself in through the back door. After locking it, she began a quick tour of the house, as usual, to make certain everything was locked up. As she went toward the front of the house, she heard the television from the Judge's library, and a glance in that direction showed light spilling into the dim hallway. He must still be up, then.

  The big double front doors weren't locked, which was unusual. She turned the dead bolt, then headed back to check the doors in the sunroom.

  It wasn't like the Judge to leave the lights on upstairs; he automatically turned off the switch every time he left a room, even if he would be returning soon. She paused at the back staircase, a tiny frisson of unease prickling her spine. Maybe he had just gone upstairs for a moment and was coming back down to watch the ten o'clock news. She couldn't hear anything from upstairs, but then she wouldn't with the television in his library on.

  She went to the open door of the library and peeked in. One lamp was on, the way he liked it when he watched television. He sat in his leather recliner, as usual, his head tipped to the side. He must have fallen asleep watching television.

  But why was the upstairs light on?

  Then she noticed the smell. It was difficult to identify, combining what smelled like feces with . . . something else. Her nose wrinkling, all her instincts suddenly on alert—was he ill, had he had a stroke or something?—she stepped farther into the room.

  Seeing him from a different angle, she froze.

  No. Oh, no.

  There were dark spots and splotches sprayed across the room, and even in the dimness she could tell that some of the splotches had matter in them. She swallowed hard, standing still and listening for the intruder. She could hear the clock ticking, hear the thumping of her heartbeat, but there was no one else near . . . unless he was upstairs.

  She wanted to go to the Judge. She wanted to straighten his neck, wipe the blood from his neck where it had trickled down from the small, neat wound in the side of his head. She wanted to cover . . . cover the gaping hole on the other side of his head where his skull was missing. She wanted to weep, to scream, to fly upstairs and search for his killer—a search-and-destroy mission, because no way would she let him live another minute, if she found him.

  She didn't do any of those things. Instead she backed out of the library, careful not to touch anything else in case she smeared a fingerprint, and retraced her steps to the kitchen, where she had left her purse on the island. She had dropped her cell phone in it, not seeing a need to have the phone in her pocket when she was here, at home.

  She'd been wrong.

  She retrieved her pistol, too, and wedged her back into a corner so she couldn't be jumped from behind, in case he was still in the house. Her hands were shaking as she turned on the phone and waited for the service to connect. It seemed like ages, though probably only the normal few seconds passed, before the phone showed it was in service. She punched 911, and waited for the answer.


  She wanted to close her eyes, but she didn't dare. She tried to speak, but no sound came out.

  “Nine-one-one. Hello?”

  She swallowed, and managed a thin sound. “This is . . . this is Twenty-seven-thirteen Briarwood. My employer has been shot. He's dead.”

  Unlike the first time Cahill had been here, the house was blazing with lights. The drive, the street, even the sidewalk was clogged with vehicles, most of them with flashing lights. Crime scene tape kept the neighbors at bay, and this was momentous enough that this time they had forgotten it wasn't genteel to gawk; all the houses on the street were lit, and people gathered beyond the line of tape, whispering to one another. An officer was filming the crowd, because a lot of times a murderer would wait around to watch the show.

  The news vans from the city's television stations were pulling up, and Cahill ducked under the line before anyone could grab him.

  The front door was closed, guarded by a uniformed officer who nodded at him and opened it to let him inside. The crime scene people were already at work, carefully dusting and cataloging and photographing. The EMT personnel were waiting, because there was obviously nothing they could do now. There was no life to be saved, no injuries to be treated, just a body to be transported.

  A murder in Mountain Brook was big news. The last one had been . . . what, five years ago? When the murder victim was a retired federal judge, the news was even bigger. The pressure on this case would be intense.

  “Who called it in?” he asked, though of course he knew.

  “The butler. She's in that room there.” The officer nodded toward a room to the left.

  It was a breakfast room, he guessed it was called, with the kitchen connected to it. She sat at the table, a cup of coffee clasped between her hands. She was
pale and still, staring at the tablecloth.

  She wasn't in her pajamas this time. She wore street clothes, and she still had on lipstick. He said, “Is your car out back?”

  She nodded without looking up. “It's parked under the portico.” Her voice was thin, toneless.

  “What kind is it?”

  “A TrailBlazer.” There was no interest, no curiosity in her voice.

  He went through the kitchen and found the back door in a hallway. The SUV was just outside. He placed his hand on the hood; still warm.

  He went back inside and on the way through the kitchen, stopped to pour himself a cup of coffee. The pot was almost full, so she had evidently poured herself a cup, sat down, then forgotten to drink it.

  She was still sitting exactly as he'd left her. He took the luke-warm coffee from her unresisting hands, dumped it down the sink in the kitchen, and poured another cup.

  He set it in front of her. “Drink it.”

  She obediently took a sip.

  He sat down at the table, to her right, and took out his notebook and pen. “Tell me what happened.” That was an open-ended question, not pointing her in any particular direction.

  “It's Wednesday,” she said, still in that thin tone.

  “Yes, it is.”

  “It's my day off. I did the usual things—”

  “Which are?”

  “My karate class, kick-boxing, the pistol range.”

  “What time was this?” She told him; he made a careful note of all the times and asked where she took the classes. He'd check them out, make certain she was where she said she was when she said she was. “What then?”

  “I went to the Summit, went shopping.”

  “Did you buy anything?”

  “An outfit at Parisian's, a couple of books.”

  “Did you notice the time?”

  “Between four and five, I think. The time will be on the sales receipts.” She still hadn't looked up, though she did take another sip of coffee.

  “Did you come home then?”

  She gave a tiny shake of her head. “No, I ate dinner out. At the . . . I can't remember the name. There at the Summit. The Italian place. I should have come home then, I usually do, but tonight I went to a movie.”

  “Why should you have come home?”

  “Because then I would have been here. It wouldn't have happened if I'd been here.”

  “What movie did you see?”

  This time she did look up, her eyes blank. “I can't remember.” She dug in her jeans pocket and pulled out half of a computer-printed ticket. “This one.”

  He noted the movie, and the time. “I've thought of seeing that one myself. Was it any good?” He kept his tone casual, easy.

  “It was okay. I went so he'd have a chance to approach me, if he was watching.”

  “What?” She had lost him on that one. “Who?”

  “I don't know. The man who sent me the pendant.”

  “Okay, right.” He'd get into that later. “What time did you get home?”

  “Almost ten. The Judge's bedroom light was on. He usually goes to bed about ten, though sometimes he'll watch the news first.”

  “Does he have a television in his bedroom?”

  “No.” Her lips quivered. “He said bedrooms were for sleeping.”

  “So he watched TV in . . . ?”

  “The library. Where I found him.”

  “Let's backtrack a little. What did you do when you got home?” He sipped his coffee, and she followed suit.

  “I began checking to make sure the doors were locked. I always do, before I go to bed. The front door wasn't,” she said. “Locked, that is. That was unusual, for it not to be locked. I could hear the television on, and I wondered why the light was on upstairs when he was still in the library.”

  “What did you do?”

  “I went to the library door and looked in. He was in his recliner, his head tilted as if he'd fallen asleep.”

  He waited, not wanting to direct her now.

  “I noticed the smell,” she said faintly. He knew what smell she was talking about. “And I thought he might have had a stroke, or heart attack, and soiled himself. Just one lamp was on, so the light wasn't good; but when I stepped inside, the angle was different and I saw the . . . the blood. And the other side of his head. The splatters . . .” Her voice trailed off.

  “I was afraid he was still in the house. Upstairs. That's why the light was on. I thought about going up there . . .” Again she trailed off.

  “I hope you didn't.”

  “No. But I wanted to,” she whispered. “I wanted to catch him. Instead I came back to the kitchen and got my pistol and cell phone, and stood in the corner while I called nine-one-one.”

  “Where's your pistol now?”

  “In my purse. I put it there when the first car arrived.”

  “May I see it?”

  “It's on the cooking island.”

  “Would you get it for me, please?”

  She got up and went into the kitchen, moving like a zombie. He followed and watched as she retrieved the pistol. It was holstered, and when he checked the clip he saw that it was full. “I always reload after I've been to the range,” she said, rubbing her forehead.

  She hadn't cleaned it—not yet, though he bet she did on a regular basis—and the smell of burnt gunpowder still clung to it. The ballistics wouldn't match, he knew; she was too smart to make a mistake like that. He didn't think she had killed the old guy, but he couldn't afford to totally dismiss the possibility. People were most often killed by those closest to them, so until she could be ruled out as a suspect, she was definitely on his short list.

  She watched him, her face expressionless, her eyes blank. She was totally closed in on herself; some people handled stress that way, by almost shutting down.

  “Let's go sit down again,” he suggested, and she obeyed. “Have you had any more gifts in the mail, or strange phone calls?”

  “No, just that one gift. Nothing else. I did think someone was following me once, but he wasn't.”

  “Are you certain?”

  “He turned off. And he was in a white Jaguar. You don't follow people in a white Jaguar.”

  “Not unless that's the only car you have.” But if someone could afford a Jaguar, he could almost certainly afford some other kind of car, too. Jaguars were just too noticeable.

  So she probably wasn't being stalked. That was the first thing she had thought of, though, when she came inside and found Judge Roberts's body. “You mentioned before that Judge Roberts had received death threats. Do you know anything about them?”

  “His family will have the details. I know the basics, but it all happened before I came to work for him. His family—God, I have to call them.”

  “We'll notify the family,” he said, gentling his voice, because she suddenly looked shattered at the idea. “Do you have their names and numbers?”

  “Yes, of course.” She rubbed her forehead again. “He has two sons and one daughter.” She gave him their names and numbers, then lapsed into silence, staring at the tablecloth again.

  “I'll be back in a minute,” he said, and got up. He wanted to check out the scene in the library himself and look through the rest of the house.

  He was almost to the door when she asked, “Was he upstairs?”

  He stopped. “No one else was in the house when the patrolmen checked.” He already knew that from the report he'd received in transit.

  “He didn't climb out an upstairs window, or something?”

  “There wasn't any sign of anyone in the house. No open windows, nothing out of place.” He couldn't tell her any more than that.

  “I hope he wasn't upstairs,” she said, almost to herself. “I hope I didn't let him get away. I should have gone up. I should have checked.”

  “No, you shouldn't—”

  “I'd have killed him,” she said flatly.


MOTIONALLY DRAINED when she met Barbara and her family at the Birmingham airport at six the next morning. She waited downstairs in the luggage claim area, a cup of coffee in her hand. She had no idea how much coffee she'd had since finding the Judge's body, but she was absolutely certain caffeine was all that was keeping her going.

  She hadn't slept; there hadn't been an opportunity to, even if she had been inclined. Cahill had kept coming back to her with questions, and she'd had so much else to do she hadn't had a spare minute. People had to be notified; the police department had taken care of the family, but she had called Leona and awakened her with the devastating news, rather than let her hear it on the early morning news. Then the calls from the family had started coming in, to such an extent that several times she had been on both the cordless phone and her cell phone.

  Arrangements had to be made to house the family. Randall and his wife, Emily, had three children, all of whom were married with children of their own. Since they all lived in the Huntsville area, which was an easy drive, only Randall and Emily were coming down to stay until after the funeral, but everyone—three children and their spouses, plus four grandchildren—would be staying the night before the funeral.

  Jon and his wife, Julia, lived in Mobile. They had two children, one married and one single. All of them were coming up to stay for the duration. Barbara and Dwight and their two children lived in Dallas, and they were all staying until it was over. That meant Sarah had to arrange accommodations for eleven people, including herself, in the middle of the night, available for early check-in . . . very early check-in. She would worry about the rest of Randall's family after the funeral arrangements were made.

  She had booked them all into the Wynfrey. They would probably be eating at odd hours, so they needed somewhere with room service, plus the teenagers would be able to distract themselves in the attached Galleria. She herself had taken a room at the Mountain Brook Inn. It had come as a shock to realize she wouldn't be allowed to stay in the house, or even gather her own clothing. She had given a list of what she needed to Cahill, and he had arranged for someone to collect the items for her.

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