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Cain and Abel
By Michelle Perry Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2005
All right reserved.
Chapter One If he looked up, she was as good as dead. Jessica was afraid to move, afraid to breathe, afraid he would hear her heart slamming into her chest from across the room.
How had Cole found her?
She watched him eat his hamburger and marveled at his casualness as he sipped his iced tea.
Was it possible that he didn't know?
It had taken five years for her to stop looking over her shoulder. Five years to reach the place where a ringing phone or a knock at the door didn't terrify her. The idea that he might've crossed her path again by mere chance staggered her.
But the late Mrs. Cole Ramsey, as she humorlessly considered herself, had never been much of a believer in chance.
Fear coiled in her stomach like a thick, cold serpent. She wiped her sweaty palms on her slacks and clutched her purse. As she gauged the distance between herself and the door, Jessica tried to suppress the whimper that rose in her throat. Her habit of always seeking a back table may have gotten her killed.
To get out, she'd have to walk right by him, and she didn't think she could do it. She looked around the room, searching for any means of escape, any help. Nothing. Then she glanced back at Cole and nearly screamed.
He was staring at her.
Her furiously pounding heart nearly skidded to a stop as his pale blue eyes locked on hers. Then Cole did something extraordinary, something that frightened her more than if he'd pulled a gun.
With a strangled cry, Jessica jumped up and toppled her chair. It banged against the gray marble floor like a gunshot. Conversation at the neighboring tables ceased, and the other customers seemed to fade away until there was nothing left but Cole and her and the ragged sound of her own breathing. Cole's smile flickered and died and was replaced by a look of confusion.
Was it possible he hadn't recognized her?
The thought seemed ridiculous, even though she'd tried to alter her appearance. Her long blond hair was now short and mousy brown; her green eyes were hidden beneath a pair of brown contact lenses. She no longer looked like Jessica Ramsey, the trophy wife of a wealthy businessman. She was Emily Jackson, a shy woman who worked at Mid-Tennessee Realty and hid behind thick bangs.
Cole looked over his shoulder, then back at her, as if trying to spot the cause of her distress.
Jessica's stomach lurched. He hadn't recognized her. She'd just blown it.
Cole wiped his mouth with a napkin and pushed away from the table.
Panic freed her feet, and Jessica sprinted past him.
Cole shouted something, but the roar of the pulse in her ears drowned it out. Propelling herself out the door, Jessica slammed into a beefy man in a business suit. His briefcase went flying as he staggered and nearly fell. It skidded off the sidewalk and landed underneath a nearby car. As the man scrambled for it, Jessica darted around him. She ignored his indignant cry as she scanned the street.
Where could she hide?
Jessica cursed herself for walking to lunch. Her car was five blocks away in the real estate office parking lot. It might as well have been on another planet.
The bell above the restaurant door chimed and blindly, she ran. Her low heels clicked against the pavement as she wove through the midday crowd, trying to put as many people between her and Cole as possible.
Jessica fell in with a group of shoppers crossing Duncan Street and tried to make herself disappear in the middle of them, but her terror wouldn't allow her to keep their relaxed pace for long. She broke from the pack and took a sharp left down a side street.
As Jessica leapt off the curb, her heel caught in a grate. She sprawled forward onto the asphalt and cried out as the rough surface bit into her palms and ripped through the knees of her slacks. Blood made her fingers slippery as she tried to work her heel free from the grate. The navy pump was wedged in tightly and, in her desperation, Jessica abandoned it. She yanked the other one off as well and raced off in her bare feet.
Her knees stung but she ran as hard and as far as she could before the familiar tightening started in her chest.
Oh God, not now!
A bout of coughing wracked her body. As Jessica stumbled into an alley, the warm, fragrant scent of fabric softener assaulted her. Stunned, she leaned against the gray slate of Michaelson's Laundromat.
Had she really run seven blocks?
The exhaust from the dryers pushed air through the vents on the side of the building. Lint particles danced in the warm air. They tickled her throat, and her coughing grew steadily worse. She had to get out of here, but she was too terrified to move. Terrified that Cole would seize her if she stepped into the open.
He was out there somewhere; Cole never gave up.
To her horror, she began to wheeze. The high-pitched hissing seemed obscenely loud in the enclosed space, and Jessica felt a flash of anger at her body's betrayal.
Pain stabbed through Jessica's knees as she hunkered behind a chipped, green garbage bin and fought for her next breath. She fumbled at her purse with stiffening fingers, leaving a sticky crimson smear across its shiny black surface. Her shaking hands nearly dropped the .38 as she jerked it out and laid it across her lap. She let her purse slip to the ground as she pulled out her inhaler, shook it and took the first puff. She held her breath for a seven count, waiting for the steroids to hit her bronchial tubes.
Maybe she had lost him. Maybe ...
Through the crack between the dumpster and the wall, Jessica watched Cole enter the alley. She dropped the inhaler in her lap and clutched the gun with both hands.
"I saw you run in here," he said casually, and walked right past her hiding place.
Jessica nearly lost her footing on a discarded bread wrapper when she lurched to her feet. Something clattered to the ground, and she realized an instant too late that it was her inhaler. For a split second, she took her eyes off Cole to watch it roll underneath the dumpster, and jerked her gaze back to him when she realized her mistake.
Oh God, she wasn't ready for this. Another stupid mistake like that and he'd kill her.
"Stay back!" she growled.
Cole raised his hands as Jessica trained the gun on him. She hated the way her hand trembled. She feared the man standing before her more than she did the devil himself. His handsome face was just a mask.
"Let me walk away," she managed.
Spots danced before her eyes as she tried to hold the gun steady.
"Easy!" he said, his blue eyes widening in alarm. "I'm not going to hurt you."
"No, you're ... not," she wheezed. "Not ... this time."
The look in those eyes surprised her, a mixture of confusion and compassion. Nothing like the icy blue gaze she expected. A coughing fit rendered Jessica momentarily helpless, and she lost her aim. Cole took a step toward her. She straightened her arm, pointing the gun at the center of his chest.
"You're bleeding," he said.
Involuntarily, she followed his gaze and stared down at the ragged knees of her slacks. Blood soaked through the tan fabric, and the sight of it made her dizzy. She forced back a wave of nausea.
"Put the gun down. I only want to talk. Can we do that?"
He sounded so calm, so innocent, but she hadn't forgotten the things he was capable of doing. Memories of the beatings, memories of psychological torture flooded her brain, and her finger tightened on the trigger.
Then she thought of Joe.
"Stay away from me," Jessica whispered, dismayed to hear that scared little girl voice she thought she'd left behind when she'd escaped from Cole.
How she hated that voice and the helplessness she felt right now.
Jessica backed out of the alley and onto the sidewalk. Bright sunlight flashed in her eyes, nearly blinding her as Cole took another step toward her.
"Stay back!" she hissed.
Intent on watching Cole, Jessica stumbled off the curb.
"Watch out!" Cole shouted, just before her world exploded in a cacophony of blaring horns and screeching brakes.
* * *
"Are you okay? Talk to me," a voice commanded.
Jessica looked up, struggling to see through the red haze that clouded her vision. Cole's face loomed above her, and she tried to scream, but all she could manage was a moan.
"Help is on the way. Hold on."
What was wrong with him? Why didn't he just kill her? Confusion warred with pain as she slipped in and out of consciousness. His hands moved behind her head, and Jessica closed her eyes, expecting him to snap her neck. She dared to take a glance at him and cried out when he eased his hands free.
Instead of striking her, he tugged his white T-shirt over his head and gently pressed it to her forehead to stanch the warm flow she felt streaming down her face.
The gun. Where was her gun?
It rested beside Cole's leg. Jessica glanced at it, then at Cole. Her desperation must have shown on her face, because his eyes widened. She lunged for the gun, but he was quicker. He jerked it away from her and tucked it in the back of his pants.
An elderly woman appeared in her peripheral vision. Jessica wanted to shout, "Run! Run before he kills you too!"
"I never saw her!" the woman cried as she knelt beside Jessica. "Is she okay?"
"She's going to be okay," Cole said, not looking at the woman, but staring into Jessica's eyes. "You're going to be okay," he repeated. His voice was quiet and calm and, amazingly, it almost lulled her.
She stared at his broad chest and frowned. Something was wrong, something was ...
"Where ... what happened to your tattoo?" she asked.
He lifted his eyebrows. "Tattoo?"
Jessica frowned again, and felt some minute shift of reality. The sudden, terrifying thought flashed across her mind that she was going crazy. Was this even real? Was he real?
"Cole?" she whispered.
A black curtain fell over her eyes before she heard his answer.
* * *
Alex stared down at her, stunned. How did this woman know his twin? Cole was two thousand miles away in Los Angeles. What was going on here?
An icy feeling gripped him as he watched her body jerk with ghostly, hitching breaths. This situation felt so desperately wrong. The terror he'd seen in her eyes unnerved him. Her asthma unnerved him. Who was this woman?
Alex thought about Jessica, and one of the last times he'd phoned her before her death. Caught up in one of her asthma attacks, she'd asked him to call back later, but her rattling gasps had scared him so badly that he'd insisted on staying on the line until he was sure she was okay. Until it was almost time for Cole to arrive home.
Could this woman be some relation?
Sirens screamed down the street and an ambulance screeched to a stop in front of them. The doors opened, and two paramedics scrambled to her side.
"What happened?" one of them asked, and the elderly woman started crying.
"She walked out in front of me. I never saw her."
Alex stared down at the bloody T-shirt he still pressed against her head and felt a little queasy.
"Excuse me," the other one said, and Alex scooted out of his way. He shakily climbed to his feet and watched them work on her. As his mind struggled to connect the dots, he remembered that she'd had a purse. He slipped through the gathering crowd and reentered the alley.
The black purse lay on its side beside the dumpster. Alex picked it up and poked through the contents. Nothing unusual. A roll of Lifesavers, a set of keys, an ink pen with Mid-Tennessee Realty imprinted on the side. Alex took out her billfold and flipped it open to her driver's license.
Tennessee license, number 78065624. Emily Jackson.
The name meant nothing to him, but he used her pen to write the number on the back of his hand. Jessica had mentioned a sister somewhere, but Alex couldn't recall her name. All the other plastic photo sleeves were empty, as were the credit card slots. The wallet contained a total of forty-seven dollars.
Alex stared long and hard at the DMV photo, then closed his eyes as he tried to compare that image with the mental picture he had of his late sister-in-law, which was dim, at best. Although they'd talked on the phone several times, he'd only seen her in person once, when he'd stood in that tiny room at St. Anthony's and stared down at her sedated form after her nervous breakdown.
He'd seen her wedding pictures, though, and that smiling image was the one that came most readily to his mind. Jessica Ramsey had been a knockout, a bronze California beauty with flowing blond hair and sparkling green eyes.
The pale, gaunt-faced brunette he'd just met, although pretty, showed none of that vitality. Her DMV photo was as grim and unforgiving as a mug shot. She looked tense, almost defiant. But yet there was something ... the line of her jaw, the curve of her cheek ... something that made him realize he couldn't let this go without knowing who she was and why she'd reacted to him like she had.
Alex tucked the billfold back into the purse and carried it out of the alley with him. The police had arrived. One uniformed officer stood close by, talking to the elderly lady, while the other spoke to the paramedics outside the ambulance. Alex walked up to the nearest one and tapped him on the shoulder.
"This is hers," he said, and handed him the purse.
"Ramsey, is that you?" the other barked, and Alex twisted his head to look at him. It took a moment before recognition dawned. Alex smiled.
"I don't believe it. Roger Milken. How've you been, man?" Alex strode over to him and held out a hand, but dropped it again when he saw the blood streaking his fingers.
Roger lifted an eyebrow. "Better than you, apparently."
"He's got a gun!" the younger one shouted, and it took Alex a moment to realize the kid meant him. The gun he'd stuck in the back of his pants.
"Easy, Jeffries. He's a cop." Milken looked at Alex. "Well, used to be a cop, same difference. We roomed together at the academy. Still a P.I., Ramsey?"
"Got a gun permit?"
"Yeah," Alex said, but for some reason, he didn't tell them that this gun wasn't his.
Milken gave his partner a bored shrug. "See, Jeffries. He's okay. So, what happened?"
Alex exhaled and shook his head. "I'm still not sure myself. I was eating lunch at that little place by the courthouse, with the red roof-"
"Polly's." Milken nodded. "Go on."
"-when I noticed a woman staring at me." He pointed at the ambulance. "That woman. Then she freaked out. I don't know what happened. She looked like she was going to have a stroke, then she flew out of there like a bat out of hell. I followed her, because I was a little worried. Then she-" Alex hesitated.
In that moment, he decided not to tell them about the gun, or his brother. Not yet. He didn't know Emily Jackson, or why she'd pulled a gun on him, but he felt responsible for her accident. Roger Milken was a good guy, but he was hard-nosed cop. Alex didn't want to cause this Jackson woman any more grief than he already had without giving her a chance to explain.
"She stumbled off the curb in front of a car," he finished.
"You don't know her? You're not working a case?"
Alex watched the ambulance pull away before replying, "I'm working a case, but nothing to do with her. Her license says her name is Emily Jackson, but I have no idea who that is."
Milken asked Alex several more questions, then nodded and snapped his notebook shut. "All right. Think that'll do it."
A mosquito landed on Alex's bare shoulder, and he swatted it with his ruined shirt.
Milken frowned. "Follow me."
Alex followed him to the squad car, and Milken popped the trunk. He extracted a powder blue bowling shirt and tossed it at Alex, who snagged it in mid-air. "It's semi-clean. Better than yours, anyway."
"You got a card?"
Alex extracted one from his wallet and handed it to him.
"I'll call if I need you. Next time you're around, holler at me. If I ain't working, I'll buy you a beer."
"Sounds good," Alex said, as he pulled the shirt over his head. He smiled and tugged at the loose material. "I see Shelia's still feeding you good."
Milken snorted. "Nah, man. She's barely feeding me at all. On some new diet kick. Protein and organic vegetables. Says if she's gonna diet, I'm gonna diet with her. Thank God for Dairy Queens and Pizza Huts."
Alex laughed, and waved as Milken got into his car and drove away. After checking the number on his hand to make sure he hadn't smeared it, Alex jogged back to the restaurant parking lot, where he unlocked his car and grabbed his cell phone out of the holder to call his office.
Excerpted from Cain and Abel by Michelle Perry Copyright © 2005 by Michelle Perry. Excerpted by permission.
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