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Courtney Glass whipped into the gravel lot and cursed the man toad who'd invited her here. This was August. Texas. It was ninety-nine degrees outside, and any halfway sane person was holed up in an air-conditioned building right now, not parked at a deserted hike-and-bike trail, hoping to score after lunch.
Did he think this was romantic? Spontaneous, maybe? Despite the Ivy League diploma, John David Alvin could be a real idiot.
Courtney huffed out a breath and flipped down the vanity mirror. Idiot or not, she wanted to look good. Looking good was the best revenge, especially when it came to ex-boyfriends.
But the Beauty Gods weren't smiling on her today. The humidity had turned her hair limp, and her makeup was practically melting off. She dug through her purse, seeking inspiration but finding little. She blotted her forehead with a tissue and fluffed her hair. She started to put on lipstick, then decided to hell with it. Who cared if she impressed David? He was the last person she wanted to see right now. She shouldn't even be here, really, but his insistent messages were driving her crazy. They needed to hash this thing out, once and for all.
A flash of movement in the rearview mirror caught her eye. He was here. She watched the black Porsche Cayenne glide up alongside her. He'd traded in the red Carrera, apparently, which shouldn't have come as a surprise. Suddenly nervous, she cast a glance around her Buick Skylark, a hulking testament to the emptiness of her bank account. Courtney could work wonders with drugstore cosmetics, and she was a bloodhound for treasures in a thrift shop, but this car was beyond help. Until she climbed out of credit card debt, she was stuck in a '98 clunker with a temperamental AC. She turned up the power now and adjusted the vents.
David sat in his SUV, but didn't get out. Courtney could feel his gaze on her while she cleared clutter off the front seat. She refused to make eye contact. This was his meeting, and he was going to have to come to her. She didn't relish the thought of talking to him in her heap, but she wasn't stupid enough to give up her home field advantage by getting into his Porsche.
From the corner of her eye, she saw him exit the car and fist his hands on his hips. She set her chin. She could match wills with him any day of the week. Sweat beaded between her breasts as she waited, silently, gazing through the windshield at the dragonflies playing in the sunshine.
Finally the Buick's door squeaked open, and he slid into the passenger seat. He wore a crisp white shirt with monogrammed cuffs, a red power tie, and his usual dark pants. In an instant, the Skylark smelled like Drakkar Noir.
Courtney looked at him with disgust as she rolled down her window.
"Well, what?" she shot back. "You called me."
"I most certainly did not."
"Text message. Whatever." God, he was such a prick. Just smelling him again made her want to retch.
He gave her an annoyed look. "I don't have time for this shit. This is bordering on harassment."
Suddenly the back door jerked open. Courtney turned around and found herself face-to-face with a black ski mask.
The man pulled a gun out of his pants and pointed it at David's nose. "Gimme your phone."
All the breath whooshed out of Courtney's lungs. She gaped at the gray eyes glaring out from holes in the mask.
He jabbed the gun at David's neck. "Now, asshole!"
She glanced at her ex-boyfriend. His arrogance had morphed into fear, and he wasn't moving. Do it! She tried to tell him mentally, but he was frozen. At last, he braced a hand on the dashboard and jammed the other into his front pocket.
She cast a panicked look outside. No one. This was unreal. It was the middle of the day. Granted, it was hotter than hell outside, but there had to be someone --
The barrel swung toward her, and her stomach dropped out.
She stared at the twisting pink mouth and tried to process the words. Hers, too. Her phone. He wanted her phone. Did he want her money, also? Her phone was in her purse, along with her Mace.
David tossed his phone at the guy, and it landed with a clatter on the back floorboard. The man scooped it up and shoved it in the pocket of his tracksuit.
Then the masked head turned toward her. "Now, or I'll blow his fucking brains out."
David went pale. He sent her a desperate look. "Hurry, Courtney!"
Her purse was near her feet. On the floor. And her Mace was in there. She dragged the bag into her lap and thrust her hand inside. She groped for the tube of pepper spray but couldn't find it amid all the junk she lugged around. I can't die yet. There's so much I haven't done.
"Now!" The eyes watching her through the cutouts squinted.
Her clammy fingers closed around the phone, and she pulled it free. She held it out to him.
Time stretched out as the phone hovered there in her trembling hand. He reached for it. He wore tight black gloves, and she knew -- with sudden certainty -- this was going to end badly.
He squeezed her wrist, and the phone dropped to the floor. He didn't let go her hand.
"Take my wallet," David said, yanking it loose from his back pocket. "Take whatever you want."
Courtney watched, transfixed, as the black-gloved hand pried open her fingers. Did he want her ring? The cheap silver trinket from Santa Fe?
"I've got cash." David's voice hitched. "I've got a Rolex."
The pistol slapped into her palm. The thick black fingers squeezed her hand around the grip. Suddenly she realized what was happening. She tried to yank her arm away, but couldn't.
"No!" she shrieked, pulling her arm until her shoulder burned.
David's gaze met hers.
Their bodies jerked in unison. Surprise flickered in his eyes as red bloomed on his white shirt. He sagged sideways, thunking his head against the windshield.
Courtney's ears rang. A high-pitched noise rasped in and out of her throat as she stared at the gun in her hand. The gloved fingers closed around hers again, and she thrashed sideways, trying to wrench her arm away.
"No!" She used her free hand to punch at the ski mask as hard as she could. Her whole arm reverberated from theblow.
The windshield exploded. Screaming, she hunched down in her seat. Her gaze landed on her purse, wedged between her leg and the door. The Mace was there, peeking out from inside the bag. Her right hand was being crushed as the man forced her unwilling fingers around the grip. With her left, she grabbed the Mace. Her wrist twisted painfully. The gun barrel turned toward her.
Her thumb found the top of the vial. A stream shot out, straight at the ugly pink mouth in the hole of the mask.
She crashed backward into the steering wheel as her arm was released. Curses and moans filled the car as she clawed frantically at the door latch. The door popped open, and she pitched sideways onto the gravel. She tasted dust and jerked her legs free from the car. She glanced back over her shoulder and saw David slumped against the dashboard.
The back door squeaked open.
She scrambled to her feet and ran.
Nathan Devereaux fed a few quarters into the hospital vending machine and ordered up some lunch. His tour had started at 2:00 this morning, and he'd been running for fourteen hours straight on nothing but coffee.
"Want anything?" He glanced over his shoulder at his partner, who stood on the other side of the waiting room. The guy was peering through the miniblinds at the traffic on North Lamar. Either he didn't hear the question, or he was being an asshole. Nathan had known Will Hodges less than forty-eight hours, but his money was on the latter.
The guy's gaze shot up. "Yeah?"
"You want anything?"
Asshole it was. Nathan fished his Mars Bar from the vending machine and wandered toward the hallway, hoping to see the forensic artist they were waiting on. No sign of her. It had been nearly an hour, and the door to Room 632 was still shut, meaning that she was still in there interviewing his witness for the suspect sketch.
Nathan ripped open his lunch. On days like this, he really felt his age. He hadn't even hit forty yet, but ten years as a homicide detective and a steady diet of junk food hadn't exactly kept him in peak condition. He still looked good enough to get his share of come-ons at bars, but his energy wasn't what it used to be.
He watched his new partner from across the room. The kid looked like he could bench-press a VW. He probably ate protein shakes for breakfast and made it to the gym six times a week.
Give him a year.
Nathan chomped into his candy bar and glanced at his watch.
He turned around at the familiar voice. Fiona Glass stood in the doorway holding her battered leather art case and a sheet of paper. She wore a conservative beige pantsuit and had her reddish-blond hair pulled neatly back in a headband.
Nathan crossed the room to take the sketch she held out to him. One look at it had his gut twisting.
"A profile? That's all she saw?"
"She says he grabbed her from behind and the only real glimpse she got was when he fled the scene."
Nathan heard the edge in her voice and glanced up. "What's the deal?"
She darted her gaze around the waiting room, as if to make sure no one else could overhear. She paused briefly on Hodges, and Nathan knew she didn't trust him yet. Fiona was slow to warm up to people, and Hodges had been with Austin PD less than a week.
"What's the problem?" Nathan prompted.
"Everything." She nodded at the drawing. "What does that look like to you?"
"I don't know. Black male. Twenty-five. Average features."
"And his expression?"
He stared down at the picture. She had drawn it in charcoal on a sheet of thick gray art paper. He could smell the fixative on it, which meant the witness had declared it finished.
Nathan studied the face of the man who had attacked a prominent judge and her husband in their carport shortly after midnight. "He looks bored," Nathan stated.
He met Fiona's gaze and remembered why he loved working with her. She had the eye of an artist, but she thought like a detective.
"He robbed two people at gunpoint and shot one of them in the face," she said. "I'd expect to see aggression, nerves, panic. Anything but boredom."
"You think we got a false alligator?"
"The angle bothers me, too," she continued, avoiding the question. Nathan knew why. The witness was a municipal judge. If Nathan suggested she might be lying about who shot her husband, the result would be a virtual shit storm.
"The angle. You mean because it's a profile?"
"It's very rare to get only a side view, particularly the right side."
Nathan frowned at the drawing. "You're saying it should have been a left-side profile?"
She shrugged. "No, it's just more common."
Nathan glanced over at Hodges. He still stood beside the window, but apparently he'd been paying attention. "What's that?"
"If a witness only sees a profile, it's usually the getaway driver," Hodges said.
Wow, an entire sentence. Nathan glanced at Fiona. She was staring at his new partner again, looking impressed now, but still distrustful.
She turned back to Nathan. "So based on the interview, and the information provided, and the information not provided, I'd say your witness has a credibility problem."
Just what he needed. A well-respected judge with a credibility problem. He couldn't wait to run this up the flagpole.
He decided to play devil's advocate. "What about her injuries? She claims she was knocked to the ground, and she's got a concussion to back that up."
"I don't know who knocked her to the ground," Fiona said. "It could have been someone she knew."
Nathan's head started to pound. He had to unravel this murder case, deal with the politics, and train a rookie detective all at the same time. This case was going to suck.
Fiona took out a manila envelope, slid the drawing inside, and handed it to him. The sketch was eight inches by fourteen, just the right size to fit in his case file. She paid attention to details like that.
"Call me if you need anything else." She turned to Hodges. "Welcome to Austin. It was nice meeting you."
She disappeared into an elevator, and Nathan looked at Hodges, who was still standing on the other side of the room.
"You get all that?"
He gave a slight nod.
"You agree with her?"
Another nod. Not much of a talker, this guy. It was going to be a party teaching him to elicit a confession.
A buzz sounded, and Nathan reached for the phone clipped to his hip, just beneath his side holster. "Devereaux."
"We've got a Code 37 at Zilker Park."
"I'm at Seton Hospital on the Goodwin interview. Give it to Webb."
"He's still in court. You and Hodges are it."
Could this day get any worse? Nathan pulled out his notepad and jotted down a few details before hanging up. Then he made a call and arranged for a uniform to hightail it over, just in case the Honorable Judge Goodwin decided to check herself out of the hospital. Finally, he turned to his partner.
"We got a shooting at Zilker." He lobbed the rest of his stale candy bar into a trash can. "I'm driving."
Ten minutes later, they were in an unmarked unit en route to Austin's largest park. Hodges had said nothing since leaving the hospital. Nathan slid a glance at him. His short haircut reminded Nathan he'd been in the military not so long ago. He decided to make more of an effort.
"You ever work homicide before now?"
"Well, there's three rules once we get to the scene: Don't touch anything. Don't touch anything. And don't fucking touch anything."
Hodges kept his eyes trained on the road.
"And you can pretty much bet that the least competent jackass we got wearing a badge is going to be the first responder. It never fails. And it's been that kind of day."
Nathan swung onto Barton Springs Road, the four-lane street that cut straight through the park. He could already see the congestion up ahead, where a uniform had diverted traffic away from the parking lot serving the hike-and-bike trail that paralleled Town Lake. Nathan off-roaded it for a few hundred feet and then flashed his ID at the guy manning the blockade. He started to move the wooden barrier, but Nathan swerved around it and saved him the trouble. The narrow road wound down closer to the water and ended at a gravel parking lot surrounded by dense foliage.
Nathan jogged here sometimes and knew the area well. Typically, this lot would be filling up right now, despite the oppressive heat. But the only cars parked here today were police units, a crime-scene van, and a silent yellow ambulance. No news crews yet, but it wouldn't take long. Nathan pulled up beside the ambulance and waved at a paramedic he knew vaguely.
They parked and made their way over to the crime scene, which had already been taped off. Inside the cordoned-off area, on a tree-shaded patch of gravel, sat a blue Buick Skylark and a black Porsche Cayenne. Both vehicles faced a thicket of mesquite and mulberry bushes. The Cayenne's doors were closed. The two doors on the Buick's left side stood open, and a photographer knelt between them now, taking a picture.
Nathan approached the dour policewoman standing beside the sawhorse that marked the crime scene's southeast corner. He'd been right about the jackass thing.
He nodded. "Brenda."
She nodded back, then squinted at Hodges.
"This is Will Hodges," Nathan said. "He just came on board."
"Victim's name is John David Alvin," she announced proudly. "Age forty-two. Six-eighty-nine Sunset Cove."
"You rifled his wallet?"
Her face fell. "Uh, no. I just -- "
"Never move the victim."
"I didn't. His wallet's sitting open right there on the floor. I saw his ID through the window."
Nathan took the clipboard she held out to him and scrawled his name and badge number on the crime-scene log -- which consisted of a torn slip of paper. Hodges followed suit, and they both ducked under the tape.
John Alvin. The name rang a bell, but Nathan didn't know why. Alvin. Alvin. Where had he heard that name before?
He walked up behind the photographer and peered inside the Buick. The smell of fresh death wafted out from the roasting car, and a swarm of flies was already busy. Sometimes Nathan longed for a job in Minnesota. Or Vancouver. Anyplace where it took insects longer than twelve seconds to go to work on a corpse.
"Hey, Bart." Nathan crouched down beside him. The photographer's olfactory nerves had gone numb already, and he was snapping away with his camera, oblivious to the smell. Nathan needed a minute.
"Close range," Bart said. "I'd say about one meter."
Nathan ducked his head lower to get a better angle. He could just barely make out the face....
John David Alvin. Attorney-at-law. Nathan had met the man back in January.
"Shit," he muttered, standing up. He was getting a very bad feeling about this. He walked around to the back of the vehicle and looked at the tag.
"We have a witness, Detective. Says she was in the car with the victim when he was shot."
His feeling went from bad to very bad. He turned around to face the patrol officer, who stood flushed and dripping in the late-afternoon sun. He was fair-skinned and overweight, and the pits of his uniform were soaked through.
"In the car?" Nathan asked.
"Yep. Sounds like a robbery."
"Where is she?"
The officer nodded toward a unit parked on the fareastern edge of the lot. The back door of the car was open, and a woman sat there, barefoot, her elbows propped on her knees, her head buried in her hands.
"What?" Hodges walked up and his gaze followed Nathan's to the car. The witness waiting to be interviewed had long black hair streaked with vibrant red. She was hunched over her knees and looked to be massaging her temples. Nathan couldn't see her face.
But he didn't need to. He took one look at those milelong legs and knew exactly who she was.
"Shit," he repeated, too thrown off even to curse creatively.
"Who is she?"
He glanced at Hodges. "You know the artist you just met?"
"The suit at the hospital?"
"What about her?"
"Brace yourself," Nathan told him. "You're about to meet her sister."
Copyright © 2009 by Laura Griffin