To Die For by Linda Howard

  “Do you need a medic?” one of the men asked.

  I shook my head. “I’ll be okay, but I’d be grateful if one of you would get me something to drink from the refrigerator in the break room.” I pointed in the general direction. “It’s back there, past my office. There should be a soft drink, or a bottle of sweet tea.”

  Officer Vyskosigh started in that direction, but one of the other men said, “Wait. I want to check that entrance.”

  So off he went, and Vyskosigh remained where he was. The other newcomer sat down beside me. I didn’t like his shoes. I had a good view of them, since I was still bent over. They were black wingtips, the shoe equivalent of a polyester housedress. I’m sure there are really good quality black wingtips out there, but the style is awful. I don’t know why men like them. Anyway, this guy’s wingtips were wet, with water actually beaded on them. The hems of his pants legs were damp, too.

  “I’m Detective Forester,” he began.

  Cautiously I raised my head a little, and held out my right hand. “I’m Blair Mallory.” I almost said, Pleased to meet you, which of course I wasn’t, at least not under these circumstances.

  Like Officer Barstow, he took my hand and gave it one brief shake. I might not have liked his shoes, but he had a nice handshake, neither too tight nor too limp. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he shakes hands. “Ma’am, can you tell me what went on here tonight?”

  He had manners, too. I eased into an upright position. The red-stained plastic gloves were nowhere in sight, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I launched into a replay of what I’d told Officers Barstow and Spangler; the other man returned with a bottle of sweet tea and even twisted the cap off for me before handing it over. I interrupted myself long enough to say thank you and take a long swallow of the cold tea, then resumed the tale.

  When I was finished, Detective Forester introduced the other man—Detective MacInnes—and we did the social thing again. Detective MacInnes pulled one of the visitors’ chairs around so that he was sitting at an angle to me. He was a tad older than Detective Forester, a little heavier, with graying hair and a heavy beard shadow. But though he looked chunky, I got the impression he was solid rather than soft.

  “When you unlocked the back door and stepped out, why didn’t the person you saw with Ms. Goodwin see you?” he asked.

  “I turned off the hall light when I opened the door.”

  “How can you see what you’re doing, if you turn off the light?”

  “It’s kind of a simultaneous thing,” I said. “I guess sometimes the light is still on for a split second when I open the door, and sometimes it isn’t. Tonight, I locked the dead bolt after my last employee left, because I stayed late and I don’t want just anyone walking in. So, my keys are in my right hand, and I used my left to unlock the dead bolt and open the door while I’m turning out the lights with the edge of my hand.” I made a downward motion with my right hand, showing him how I did it. You have something in your hands, that’s how you do it. Everyone does it that way. If you have hands, that is, and most people do, right? Some people don’t, and I guess they use whatever they can, but I obviously had hands—Never mind. It’s that mental dance thing again. I took a deep breath and brought my mind back to order. “It depends on the exact timing, but the odds are that half the time there aren’t any lights on when I open the door. Want me to show you?”

  “Maybe later,” Detective MacInnes said. “What happened after you opened the door?”

  “I stepped out, locked the door, and turned around. That’s when I saw the Mustang.”

  “You didn’t see it before?”

  “No. My car is right in front of the door, plus when I step out, I’m already turning back to lock it.”

  He asked question after question, nitpicking details, and I answered patiently. I told him how I’d hit the ground when I heard the shot, and showed him the dirt stains on my clothes. That was also when I noticed that I’d skinned the palm of my left hand. I wish someone would explain to me how something I hadn’t even noticed before began stinging like hell the moment I did notice it. I frowned at my palm, and picked at the loosened skin. “I need to wash my hands,” I said, interrupting the endless questions.

  Both detectives looked at me with cop eyes. “Not yet,” MacInnes finally said. “I’d like to get this interview finished.”

  Okay, fine. I understood. Nicole was dead, we’d had an altercation earlier in the day, and I was the only one there. They had to cover all bases, and on the face of things I was first base, so they were covering me.

  I suddenly thought of my cell phone. “Oh, I meant to tell you; I was in the middle of dialing nine-one-one when I heard the shot and hit the dirt, and I dropped my cell phone. I felt around but couldn’t find it. Could you have someone check around my car? It has to be there.”

  MacInnes nodded to Vyskosigh, and the officer took himself off, flashlight in hand. He returned just a few moments later with my cell phone, which he gave to Detective MacInnes. “It was lying facedown under the car,” he said.

  The detective looked at the little screen on the phone. When you start to make a call, the screen lights up, but it doesn’t stay lit; after thirty seconds or so—and I’m guessing, because, while I might time the arrival of cops, I haven’t yet timed the light on my cell phone—the screen goes dark, but if you’ve actually pressed any numbers, they stay on the screen. Sitting in my well-lit reception area, the numbers would be visible even without the backlighting.

  I was tired, I was shaken up, and I was sick at the thought of Nicole being shot basically right in front of me. I wanted them to hurry up and get past first base—me—and move on so I could go somewhere private and cry. So I said, “I know I’m the only one here and all you have is my word that things happened the way I said, but isn’t there something you can do to speed this up? A lie detector test, maybe?” That wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had, because I felt as if my heart were trying to run the Kentucky Derby, which is bound to screw up a polygraph. I tried to think of something else to distract the detectives, in case they decided that, yeah, a polygraph administered on the spot might be just the ticket. I don’t know if they do things like that, but I didn’t want to take the chance. Besides, I’ve watched cop shows on television, and I know they have ways of proving if someone has fired a gun. “Or how about one of those thingie tests?”

  Detective MacInnes sucked in one cheek, which made his face look lopsided. “ ‘Thingie test’?” he asked in a careful tone of voice.

  “You know. On my hands. So you can tell if I’ve fired a gun.”

  “Ohhh,” he said knowingly, nodding his head and shooting a quick, quelling glance at his partner, who had made a muffled noise. “That thingie test. You mean for gunpowder residue?”

  “That’s it,” I said. Yes, I know they were trying hard not to laugh at me, but sometimes the dumb-blond stereotype has its uses. The less threatening I could appear, the better.

  Well, Detective MacInnes took me at my word. A crime scene technician came with a tackle box full of stuff, and did an Instant Shooter I.D. test, rubbing my palms with fiberglass swabs, then putting the swabs in some chemical that was supposed to change colors if I had any gunpowder on my hands. I didn’t. I had expected them to spray my hands with something and hold them under a black light, but when I asked the technician, he said that was old hat. You learn something new every day.

  Not that MacInnes and Forester relaxed procedure in any way after that. They kept asking questions—could I see the man’s features, tell what make of car he was driving, and so forth—while my car, the entire building, and adjacent properties were diligently searched, and only after they turned up nothing in the way of wet clothing did they conclude the interview, without even telling me not to leave town.

  I knew Nicole had been shot at close range, because I had seen the man standing with her. Since she was lying beside her car at the far end of the parking lot, in the rain, and since I was the only
completely dry person there—which was why they had looked for wet clothing, to make certain I hadn’t changed clothes—I therefore had not been out in the rain and couldn’t have done the deed myself. There were no wet prints other than those made by the officers coming in the front door; the back entrance was dry. My shoes were dry. My hands were dirty—indicating I hadn’t washed them—and my clothes were soiled. My cell phone had been under the car, with the 9-1 clearly visible in the window to show I had started to dial 911. In short, what they saw jibed with what I said, which is always a good thing.

  I escaped to the bathroom, where I took care of a pressing problem, then washed my hands. The skinned patch on my palm was stinging, so then I went into my office and took out my first-aid kit. I squirted some antibiotic salve on the scrape, then covered it with a giant-size adhesive bandage.

  I thought about calling Mom, just in case someone had heard something on their police scanner and called her, which would scare her and Dad to death, but figured it would be smarter to first ask the detectives if making calls was okay. I went to my office door and looked out, but they were busy and I didn’t interrupt.

  Frankly, my butt was dragging. I was exhausted. The rain was pouring down and the sound made me even more tired, while the flashing lights outside gave me a headache. The cops looked tired, too, and miserably wet despite their rain gear. The best thing I could do, I decided, was make coffee. What cop didn’t like coffee?

  I like flavored coffees, and always kept a variety of flavors in my office for my personal use, but in my experience men aren’t very adventurous when it comes to coffee—at least, southern men aren’t. A man from Seattle might not turn a hair at chocolate-almond-flavored coffee, or raspberry chocolate, but southern men generally want their coffee to taste like coffee and nothing else. I keep a nice, smooth breakfast blend for those with Y chromosomes, so I got it out of my supply cabinet and began scooping it into a paper filter. Then I added a dash of salt, which counteracts the natural bitterness of coffee, and just for good measure added one scoop of my chocolate-almond. That wouldn’t be enough for them to taste, but would give the brew an added mellowness.

  My coffeemaker is one of those two-pot Bunn machines that makes an entire pot of coffee in about two minutes flat. No, I haven’t timed it, but I can go pee while it’s making and it’ll be finished when I am, which means it’s pretty damn fast.

  I put one pot under the spout and used the other pot to pour in the water. While the coffee was making, I got out a supply of polystyrene coffee cups, creamer, sugar, red plastic stirrers, and arranged them beside the coffeemaker.

  Very shortly Detective Forester followed his nose into my office, his sharp gaze noting the coffeemaker as soon as he entered.

  “I just made a fresh pot of coffee,” I said as I sipped from my own cup, which was a nice cheerful yellow with the words “FORGIVE YOUR ENEMIES—IT MESSES WITH THEIR HEADS” emblazoned in purple around the bottom. Polystyrene is hell on lipstick, so I always use a real pottery cup—not that I had on any lipstick, but that’s beside the point. “Would you like some?”

  “Has a cat got a tail?” he asked rhetorically, moving toward the pot.

  “Depends on whether or not it’s a Manx.”


  “Then, yes, the cat has a tail. Barring any unfortunate accidents, that is.”

  He was smiling as he poured himself a cup. Cops must use telepathy to pass along the word that there’s fresh coffee in the vicinity, because within minutes there was a steady stream of both uniformed and plainclothes peacekeepers coming to my door. I put the first pot on the warmer on top, and began making a second pot. Soon I was switching pots again, and the third batch of coffee was brewing.

  Making coffee kept me busy, and made the night a little less miserable for the cops. I actually got to drink a second cup myself. I probably wouldn’t be able to sleep that night anyway, so why not?

  I asked Detective MacInnes if I could I call my mom, and he didn’t say no, he just said he’d appreciate it if I waited a while, because if he knew mothers, she’d come rushing down and he’d like to get the crime scene wrapped up first. Put like that—he was a man who understood mothers, all right—I just sat at my desk and sipped my coffee and tried to stop the trembling that kept seizing me at unexpected moments.

  I should have called Mom anyway, so she could rush down and take care of me. The night had been bad enough already, right? Well, it got worse.



  I should have known he’d show up. He was, after all, a lieutenant with the police department, and in a fairly small town like ours—sixty-odd thousand people—murders weren’t an everyday occurrence. Probably most of the cops on duty were there, and a good many who weren’t.

  I heard his voice before I saw him, and even after two years I recognized the deep timbre, the slight briskness that said he hadn’t spent his entire life in the south. It had been two years since I’d last seen the back of his head as he walked away from me without so much as a “Have a nice life,” and still I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach as if I were riding a Ferris wheel and just beginning the downward arc. Two damn years—and still my heartbeat speeded up.

  At least I was still in my office when I heard his voice; he was just outside the door talking to a knot of cops, so I had a moment to prepare myself before he saw me.

  Yes, we had a history, Lieutenant J. W. Bloodsworth and I. Two years ago, we had dated—three times, to be exact. His promotion to lieutenant was fairly recent, no more than a year ago, so then he’d been Sergeant Bloodsworth.

  Have you ever met someone and every instinct, every hormone, sat up and took notice and whispered in your ear, “Oh, my God, this is it, this is the real thing, grab him and do it NOW!”? That was the way it had been from the first hello. The chemistry between us was incredible. From the moment we met—we were introduced by his mother, who belonged to Great Bods at the time—my heart literally fluttered whenever I saw him, and maybe his didn’t flutter, but he zeroed his attention in on me the way guys do when they see something they really really want, whether it’s a woman or a big-screen plasma TV, and there was that flare of heightened awareness between us that made me feel slightly electrified.

  In retrospect, I’m sure a bug feels just the same way as it flies into a zapper.

  Our first date passed in a blur of anticipation. Our first kiss was explosive. The only thing that kept me from sleeping with him on the first date was: (A) it’s so tacky, and (B) I wasn’t on birth control pills. I hate to say it, but (A) was almost more compelling than (B), because my rioting hormones were screeching, “Yes! I want to have his baby!”

  Stupid hormones. They should at least wait and see how things turn out before doing their mating dance.

  Our second date was even more intense. The kissing became heavy making out, with most of our clothes off. See (B) above for my reason for stopping, even though he produced a condom. I don’t trust condoms because when Jason and I were engaged, one shredded on him and I sweated bullets for two weeks until my period came right on schedule. My wedding gown was ready for the final fitting, and Mom would have blown a gasket if my waistline had started expanding. Normally I don’t worry about Mom’s gaskets, because she can handle just about anything, but planning a big wedding will stress out even a woman with ironclad nerves.

  So, no condoms for me, except for entertainment purposes; you know what I mean. I fully intended to go on birth control pills as soon as I got my next period, though, because I could see into my future and a naked Jefferson Wyatt Bloodsworth figured very large in it . . . very large, indeed. I just hoped I could hold out long enough for the pills to take effect.

  On our third date, it was as if he’d been taken over by the Pod people. He was inattentive, restless, constantly checking his watch as if he couldn’t get away from me fast enough. He ended the date with an obviously reluctant peck on the lips, and walked away without saying he’d call—which woul
d have been a lie, because he didn’t—or that he’d had a good time, or anything. And that was the last I’d seen of him, the bastard.

  I was furious with him, and two years hadn’t done anything to dilute my fury. How could he have walked away from something that promised to be so special? And if he hadn’t felt the same way I did, then he’d had no business taking off my clothes. Yes, I know that’s what guys do, and God bless them for it, but when you get out of the teenage years, you expect something else to go along with the lust, for the shallowness of a puddle to have deepened into at least . . . a deeper puddle, I guess. If he had walked away because I’d twice stopped him from consummation, then I was better off without him. I certainly hadn’t called him later to ask what was wrong, because I was so angry I wasn’t certain I could control myself. I intended to call him when I was calmer.

  Flash forward two years. I still hadn’t called.

  That was my state of mind when he walked into my office in Great Bods, all six feet two inches of him. He was wearing his dark hair just a little longer, but his green eyes were just the same: observant, sharp with intelligence, hard with the hardness that cops have to acquire or get a different job. That hard cop gaze raked over me, and appeared to sharpen even more.

  I wasn’t happy to see him. I wanted to kick his shins, and I might have if I hadn’t been pretty sure he’d arrest me for assaulting a police officer, so I did the only thing any self-respecting woman would do: I pretended not to recognize him.

  “Blair,” he said, coming over to stand way too close. “Are you all right?”

  What did he care? I gave him a startled, faintly alarmed look, like the one women get when some strange man is getting too close and too familiar, and discreetly hitched my chair just an inch away from him. “Uh . . . yes, I’m fine,” I said warily, then subtly changed my expression to one of puzzlement as I stared at him, as if I half-recognized his face but couldn’t pull a name out of my memory banks to match it.

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