Dying to Please by Linda Howard


  Her pistol had been taken, as well as the Judge's old service revolver that he kept locked in a display case. Cahill said they would be returned after the investigation was completed, meaning when it was determined whether or not either weapon had been used to commit the murder.

  It was obvious she was a suspect, if only because of proximity. She had unlimited access to the house, she had a pistol, and Cahill himself had seen how proficient she was with it. She could account for her whereabouts, if only by receipts and tickets, but most of all she had no motive, so she didn't worry about herself; she couldn't, not with the constant memory of the Judge's body playing like a silent movie in her mind.

  He had looked so frail in death, as if his spirit had kept one from realizing how heavily time had laid its hand on him. She was fiercely glad no one else had found him, that there'd been one last final moment between just the two of them, before strangers arrived and his body was taken over by them. The dead have no dignity, but she knew he would have hated having lost control of his bowels, hated his family seeing him like that. He would have hated her seeing him like that, too, but that was the least upsetting of all the possibilities.

  The escalator began spitting out people from the newly arrived plane; Barbara and her family were among the first. Barbara was a slim, pretty woman with attractive gray streaks in her short blond hair; she was red-eyed and pale, but holding together. She spotted Sarah while she was still on the escalator, and when she stepped off, she immediately crossed to her, and the two women embraced. Tears stung Sarah's eyes; all through this awful night she had desperately needed someone to hug her so she wouldn't feel so horribly alone.

  “Have you heard from Jon?” Barbara asked, pulling back and dabbing her eyes with a tattered tissue.

  “They left Mobile about two this morning, so they should get to the hotel at any time.”

  “I hope he's careful driving.”

  “I talked him into letting Julia drive.”

  “Bless you.” Barbara hugged her again. “You're still on top of things. Have the police found out anything?”

  Sarah shook her head. “I don't know. I'm not family, so they won't tell me anything.” Not that Cahill would tell her anything anyway, with her a suspect.

  “I knew one of those rotten bastards would get out of jail and come after him,” Barbara said tensely. “I knew it.”

  A fresh wave of guilt assailed Sarah. “I should have been there.”

  “Nonsense.” Barbara fiercely turned on her. “It was your off day; there was no reason for you to be there. You couldn't stay with him twenty-four hours a day. Probably the monster watched the house and saw you leave. If it's anyone's fault, it's mine, for not hiring a full-time guard service. It isn't your fault, and I won't let you even think it, do you hear?”

  Too late for that. Sarah thought it at least every five minutes. And what if, as she had thought in those first awful, stunned minutes, he'd been killed by the creep who had sent her the pendant? What if he'd actually come looking for her? Killing the Judge wasn't logical, but then people like that weren't logical, so why would their actions be? Knowing a weirdo was out there, she should have been at home instead of out trying to bait him into revealing himself.

  It wasn't until Cahill asked about the death threats that she realized that was the most likely answer. Logically she realized it, anyway; emotionally, she hadn't shaken that first impression.

  “It isn't your fault, either,” she said firmly. “It's the fault of the man who pulled the trigger, no one else. We have to remember that.” And she still should have been there. If it hadn't been for that double-damned pendant, she would have been.

  Dwight, Barbara's husband, was over at the carousel collecting their luggage, helped by nineteen-year-old Shaw. Blair, fifteen, stood by herself, looking miserable as only teenagers can. Her honey-blond hair had metallic blue streaks in it, and her left eyebrow now sported two gold hoops.

  “Wow,” Sarah said, moving to reach out and to hug the girl. “Two hoops. When did you get the other one?”

  “It's fake,” she said. “I wanted to make Granddaddy freak out the next time we saw him, but—but now I won't get the chance!” Her face crumpled, and she hurled herself against Sarah, burying her face in her shoulder. Her slender body shook with sobs.

  Barbara took charge of her daughter, taking her into her own arms and cuddling her as if she were still a toddler. Dwight and Shaw approached, loaded down with luggage and looking uncomfortable at the naked emotional display of the women. Barbara got Blair calmed down, and they all trundled out to Sarah's vehicle. Barbara got into the backseat with her kids, and Dwight buckled himself into the front passenger seat.

  “What time are Randall and Emily supposed to be here?” he asked.

  “Around eleven. He has a copy of the Judge's will in his safe deposit box, and his bank doesn't open until nine. He thought it might be needed.”

  Barbara rubbed her forehead. “I don't want to think about his will just now.”

  “There might be instructions for his funeral service,” Dwight said gently.

  “I still wish—” She sighed. “Never mind. Wishing won't accomplish anything.” She took a deep breath as Sarah began winding her way through the parking deck toward the exit. “Sarah, do you know when the police will let us into the house?”

  “It will probably be a few days, at least.” And she would have to arrange for the library to be cleaned before the family went in; she didn't want them seeing the scene the way it was now, with the blood splatters and smears. She would give anything if she hadn't seen it, if the past twelve hours had never happened. If she could go back, she would do things differently; instead of dawdling at the Summit, she would go home, and whoever the killer was, when he arrived, she would handle it, and the Judge would still be alive.

  But she couldn't go back. No one could.

  “The detective will be in touch with you at the hotel,” she said evenly. “Try to get some sleep, if you can.”

  “Will you be there? When the detective talks to us?” Barbara's voice wavered a little.

  “If you want me to be.” As desperately as she had needed to be hugged a little while ago, she just as desperately needed to be alone so she could release the pent-up grief and tears. She had held everything in, mostly from shock, but now the shock was wearing off and the awful reality was setting in.

  “Please. I'm so—I can't think clearly.”

  Sarah didn't know how clearly she was thinking herself, but if Barbara wanted her present, she'd be there. If Cahill gave them a few hours, at least she'd be able to take a shower and change clothes, maybe even grab a nap, have breakfast. As soon as she thought of food, her stomach heaved and her throat tightened. No food, then, not yet. Maybe tomorrow.

  Tomorrow. What was she supposed to do tomorrow? Whatever the family needed, she supposed. Whatever they didn't feel they could handle, she would do for them. And when the last service for them had been performed, then what?

  She wasn't ready. She had thought she'd have another couple of years, getting things ready to put her Plan in motion. She had thought the Judge would gradually become more frail, or perhaps a heart attack or stroke would take him, but that his death would be natural. She would still have grieved, they all would have, but there wouldn't be this tearing pain at a life cut short. No one had been ready for him to leave, not like that.

  She got the family settled in the hotel, and just as she was about to leave Jon and his family arrived. So she stayed, helping them, answering Jon's questions. Finding comfort in numbers, Barbara and Dwight and their kids joined them, and when Sarah finally left, they were all crowded into the suite's parlor, crying a little, but pulling together. Final arrangements would have to wait until Randall arrived, so they could all decide together, but Barbara already had out a sheet of the hotel stationery and was making a list of things that needed to be done.

  Barbara would be all right. She was hurting, but she was making a list. Th
at was the way women always coped, by doing what needed to be done.

  The day was overcast, and cooler than it had been lately. Sarah welcomed the brisk air on her face as she walked to the TrailBlazer. For the moment she had nothing to do, and it felt odd. Barbara had her cell phone number and her room number at the Mountain Brook Inn, and would call her when it was time to meet with Cahill. Sarah had, probably, a couple of hours to herself. She could take that shower.

  When she was finally in her room, the silence was almost overwhelming. For hours now she had been busy, surrounded by people, voices, lights. Even when she had been sitting and answering questions, she had been occupied. Now she was alone, and she had nothing to do for anyone else right now.

  Methodically she unpacked the few clothes she had with her, hung the dress in the bathroom to steam out wrinkles while she showered, then finally stepped under the warm, relaxing spray. And there, finally, she cried.

  She cried long and hard, crumpled against the side of the tub enclosure with her face buried in her hands and the water beating down on her head. The accumulation of hours of stress and grief tore at her. She wanted to destroy something, she wanted to hit and maim, she wanted . . . she wanted the Judge back, and that wasn't going to happen.

  Finally, nature took its course and the violent weeping subsided into dull acceptance. She finished showering, wrapped her wet hair in a thick hotel towel, and fell naked into bed. The room was dim and cool, she was exhausted, and she slept almost immediately.

  The phone woke her at ten o'clock. She fumbled for it, fighting to sound alert.

  “Hello, this is Sarah.”

  “Sarah, it's Barbara. Detective Cahill will be here at eleven. Can you make it by then?”

  “I'll be there,” she promised, already rolling out of bed.

  Her hair was a mess, still damp and tangled. She put on the small pot of hotel in-room coffee, then quickly blow-dried her hair and brushed her teeth. The coffee had finished brewing by then, so she grabbed a cup and sipped it while she returned to the bathroom and finished getting ready. There wasn't much to do; she didn't really care how she looked today, so she settled for moisturizer and a sheen of lip gloss, and let the rest go.

  She didn't have much choice in the way of clothing. One dress, and two of her everyday butler's outfits. She didn't even have a jacket, and she thought she would need one today. Her normal white shirt, black pants, and black vest would have to do. Maybe Cahill could arrange for someone to get more clothes for her, if she wasn't going to be allowed back in the house by at least tomorrow.

  The overcast was beginning to produce a light drizzle, and the chill went right through her on the short walk to her vehicle. The first thing she did after starting the engine was turn on the seat heater; the second was slide on sunglasses to cover her raw, swollen eyes.

  Normally the drive to the Wynfrey was a short one, ten to fifteen minutes, but an accident on 280 slowed her and she arrived at the Wynfrey at about five of. As luck would have it, Cahill was entering the lobby at the same time. “Why are you here?” he asked brusquely.

  “Because the family wanted me to be.” She was a little surprised at how hoarse her voice was.

  He nodded, then didn't speak again as they walked to the elevators. She was too tired and empty to say anything pertinent, or even not pertinent. Anything else he had to say to her would probably be more questions, so she was just as glad he refrained. To give him his due, he had to be as tired as she was, maybe more so.

  She slanted a quick glance at him. Somewhere along the line he'd showered and shaved, and changed clothes. If he was exhausted, he didn't show it. Maybe he'd grabbed some sleep, too.

  He was wearing a jacket and tie. The jacket reminded her that she was cold. “Could you have someone get a coat from the house for me?” she asked. “It doesn't matter which one.”

  He looked at her, a swift assessment that took in every detail. Maybe he noticed she was shivering. “I'll take care of it.”

  “Thanks.”

  The family was all gathered in Barbara's suite. Randall and Emily had arrived, and Sarah felt a moment of sharp guilt. She should have been here when they arrived, helped them get settled. Randall shook her hand, and reserved Emily hugged her, which made her eyes sting with tears again.

  Barbara, a hostess to the core, had arranged for a selection of fruit and cheese and pastries to be brought to the suite's parlor. Bottles of water and a fresh pot of coffee stood ready. Sarah asked what everyone wanted to drink, and quietly set about providing them with it. It was a knack she had, remembering how everyone requested his coffee, honed by the courses she'd taken in the school for butlers. Some butlers could do it in small groups of five or six, some needed to write it down, but for some reason in her brain the information was filed differently. When she was asked to describe Randall, for instance, she would say six feet tall, gray hair, hazel eyes, likes his coffee heavy with cream. Emily was five-seven, dark red hair helped along every two weeks by her hairdresser, brown eyes, two sugars, no cream.

  Cahill, she remembered from the endless cups of coffee he drank the night before, was as simple as it could get: black.

  When she gave him his requested cup of coffee, he nodded his thanks, then said, “Is it too bright in here for you?”

  She had forgotten she was still wearing her sunglasses. “Sorry,” she murmured, removing them. “I forgot.” Her red, swollen eyes were par for the course in this room.

  “Have you eaten anything?” Barbara asked, coming up to put her hand on Sarah's shoulder.

  “Not yet.”

  “Then sit down and eat. Now. If I can, you can.”

  At Barbara's insistence, she put some fruit and Danish on a small plate, then looked around for a seat. Barbara had requested the hotel bring in extra chairs to accommodate everyone; the families were grouped together, of course, leaving the only empty seat beside Cahill. She sat down, and under Barbara's eagle eye forked a small square of fresh pineapple and carried it to her mouth.

  She forced herself to chew, and the piece of pineapple began to expand. If she had been alone, she would have spit it out. Briefly she closed her eyes and fought the tightening of her throat. And she chewed.

  “Swallow,” Cahill said in a low tone that only she could hear.

  She tried. On the second try, the pineapple actually went down.

  Because eating was only common sense, she tackled that with the same determination she did everything else. While she listened to the family's questions and Cahill's matter-of-fact answers, she broke off tiny pieces of the Danish and concentrated on chewing and swallowing.

  Something about Cahill's presence was reassuring. Though she couldn't remember any murders in Mountain Brook in the almost three years she had lived here, he came across as a man who had seen violent death before and knew how to handle it, knew what needed to be done. His matter-of-factness pulled the family away from any highly emotional displays as they unconsciously emulated him. Even Sarah could find a measure of gratitude for his presence; while he was there, he was in charge. All she had to do was chew and swallow.

  She listened to his quiet, to-the-point questions about the death threats the Judge had received in the past. Barbara actually had a file on that, reminding Sarah of how much the daughter resembled the father in traits and mannerisms. She handed it over to Cahill, who looked through it, then glanced up. “May I keep this for a while?”

  “Yes, of course.” Barbara pressed her hands down hard on her knees. “It's so hard to ask this, but . . . where is Daddy? We need to make funeral arrangements.”

  “The coroner's office took charge of him,” Cahill said. “After an autopsy is performed, he'll be released to you.”

  Heads came up all over the room. “Autopsy?” Randall said. “Why is there an autopsy?”

  “It's automatic for a homicide. State law requires it.”

  “That's ridiculous,” Barbara said. “If you don't know why someone is dead, it makes sense, but Dad
dy was shot. The reason why he's dead is obvious.” Her voice trembled a bit on the word “dead,” but she quickly firmed it again.

  “The cause of death seems obvious, but sometimes a victim is shot or burned to hide the true cause, such as poison or strangulation.”

  “Does it really matter, at this point?” Julia asked.

  “The manner of death tells us things about the perpetrator. For instance, who would have access to a particular poison? Who was strong enough to strangle a man? I think the cause of death in your father's case is clear-cut, a gunshot wound, but the final decision is the medical examiner's.”

  “So when will we be able to . . . to get Daddy?”

  “I can't say for certain, ma'am, but tomorrow would be my best guess.”

  “Okay.” She pinched the bridge of her nose, then looked at her brothers. “This is Thursday. If he's released tomorrow, we can have the funeral service on either Sunday or Monday. What do you think?”

  “Sunday,” Randall said immediately. “That will make it easier for people to attend the service.”

  “I agree,” Jon put in.

  “Then Sunday it is.” She wrote that on her list.

  Cahill looked at Randall. “Mr. Roberts, you mentioned you have a copy of your father's will. Do you have it with you?”

  “Yes, it's in my briefcase.”

  “Do you know the contents?”

  “No, it's sealed. I mean, we all know the general contents, but not the specifics.”

  “May I see it, please?”

  Randall's eyebrows went up. “May I ask why?”

  “Sometimes inheritances play a part in motive.”

  Barbara sucked in a sharp breath. “Are you suggesting one of us killed our daddy?” All over the room, people were bristling.

  “No, ma'am; there's no evidence to suggest that. I'm just covering all bases. I don't want to overlook something that may help me solve the case.”

  Randall fetched the legal-size envelope. As he'd said, it was firmly sealed. Cahill glanced up for permission, Randall nodded, and with a firm motion he tore the flap open and pulled out the thick document.

 
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