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Closer than Blood
By GREGG OLSEN
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Gregg Olsen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTacoma, Washington
It was close to midnight and Darius Fulton couldn't sleep. He found himself on the couch watching TV. He wasn't sure if it was the somewhat suspicious aioli he slathered on leftover crab cakes or the general malaise of his life. He was queasy and uneasy. He scrolled through the satellite guide. Hundreds of channels were listed there, but nothing was on. Nothing good, anyway. It was a cool spring night, the kind that made the inside of a historic North End Tacoma home chill down. Fast. Sometimes it felt like the walls were more colanderlike than solid. Outside, gusts shook the feathery tops of bright green pampas grass in front of his North Junett Street house, partially blocking the neighbors' view.
Oh, yes, the neighbors.
Darius had heard them arguing earlier in the evening. Since they'd moved in a year and a half ago, they seemed to never miss the opportunity to seize the attention of everyone within earshot and eyesight. New car. New landscaping. New this. New that. Darius had been divorced for more than a year and knew that his days of keeping up with anyone were long gone. At fifty-five, Darius was going to have to make do with the residual trappings of the life he'd once known. Before the jerk with the Porsche scooped up his wife and left him in the dust.
He hoisted himself up and went to the kitchen, where he poured himself a glass of wine, dropping an ice cube into the slightly amber liquid. He didn't care if ice cubes in wine was some grand faux pas. Hell, it was Chablis out of a box. He returned to the couch and restlessly flipped through the channels before settling on an Oprah broadcast that celebrated all the things he'd need to do to have his "best life."
My best life was five, no, ten years ago, he thought.
Another sip. A guzzle. Ice cubes collided with his teeth. And he hoped that sleep would come right then and there on the couch that he and Greta had picked out together. That was back then. Then, when she still loved him. Then, when he was climbing the corporate ladder with the vigor and grit of a man who knew that he'd have the world in his hands. Always. Forever.
He thought he heard a sound at the door, and just like that his pity-party-for-one was over.
His ex-wife's cat, Cyrus, scooted under the dining table in the other room. How he loved that cat. At times, he found himself talking to him as if he were his only friend, a feline confidant. It was as if the silver tabby understood every word. Darius hoped that Greta would allow him one little consolation in the bitterness of their split. He wanted to keep Cyrus.
"What was that, Cyrus? Too late for a visitor," he said.
The cat stayed put, but cocked its head in that knowing way that cats do.
When he heard the sound a second time, Darius looked at his mantel clock and determined that he had not misheard.
Next, the sound of a fist bumping the rippled windowpane on the front door.
The glass is a hundred years old! Be careful! he thought, Greta's admonition when he washed the windows coming to him.
Darius pried himself from the couch.
"Who'd be over at this hour?" he said, turning on the overhead lamp.
The glass door was smeared with red.
Jesus, what's happened?
He moved closer to get a better view. In that instance when reality is suppressed for a more plausible, a more acceptable scenario, he allowed himself to think that a bird might have lost its way in the dark, hitting the window and splattering blood. Yet at once it was obvious that there was too much red for that.
The bloody smear was a big red octopus on the center glass panel.
Or the shape of a human hand.
The underemployed, cat-loving executive turned the lock and swung the door open.
Wilting on the front steps was a woman in her nightgown. It must have been a white nightgown, but now it was red. She was lying there, shivering, making the kind of guttural sounds that people do as they fight for their last breath. He knew her. Tori Connelly lived in the Victorian across the street.
"Good God!" Darius said, dropping to his knees. "What happened to you?"
Tori curled in a defensive ball, lifted her damp head. Her hands were smeared with blood.
"Help," she said. "I need an ambulance."
"Of course," Darius said, his adrenaline pumping. "I'll call for one now."
"Not for me," she said. "My husband. Alex has been shot, too. We've both been shot. He needs help. Oh, God. Help me. Help him!"
"What happened?" Darius asked.
Her eyes were terror filled. "A man got in. Our security system is down. He got inside the house to rob us. He shot us. He shot Alex."
Darius bent down and pulled her inside. It was all happening so fast. He was slightly drunk from the crummy wine he'd consumed, and he knew it. He wasn't sure right then if he should go for his phone—charging in the kitchen—or get something to help stop Tori's bleeding.
"Are you going to call for help? I need help, too!" Tori said.
He slammed the door shut and turned the deadbolt. The SOB who'd shot his neighbor was out there. His heart pounded and he thought of getting his own gun. But Greta had a thing against guns, so the firearm that he'd bought for protection was in a lockbox in the carriage house. He couldn't get to it, even if he'd been under attack himself.
"Yeah, dialing now," he said.
Tori began crying loudly, loud enough to be heard by the 911 dispatcher.
Darius knelt next to her as he gave his address. He looked into the woman's fearful eyes. Her skin was white. Her eyes glazed over.
He pulled a knit throw from the sofa and pressed it into her bloody thigh.
"It's my neighbor, Tori Connelly. She's been shot. Her husband Alex Connelly's been shot, too."
The dispatcher confirmed the address and told Darius to stay calm.
"How's Ms. Connelly doing?"
"Not great," he said, his heart racing toward what he was sure would be a heart attack.
"What's her color? Can she speak?"
"She's pale, and, yes, she can talk. Please get someone here fast," he said.
"Are you applying pressure to the wound?"
"Yes, I think so. I'm doing my best."
"They're on the way. Stay with me," the dispatcher said.
"Stay with me," Tori echoed. "Please stay with me."
"I'm not going anywhere," Darius said, gently touching her shoulder. "Hang on. You'll be fine."
He wasn't sure if he was unintentionally lying or hoping for the best. With the spatter of blood drenching her nightgown, it was hard to say just what her chances were.
Chapter TwoSeattle, Washington
Lainie O'Neal awoke as the clock app on her iPhone rolled like an old-school digital alarm clock to 3:00 A.M. She drew in a breath and held it a moment before exhaling. It was an exercise that was supposed to return her to slumber. Once more. Please. Her eyes were wide open and the pinprick of light coming from the slit in the window shade found her like a searchlight's beam. Spring rain pelted the window.
Why now? Why can't I sleep? She took another breath. Something felt wrong. Lainie just couldn't get comfortable. She flipped the pillow over and over, on the hunt for the cool side. As if that would matter. Lainie shut her eyes with a decided force, almost a wincing action, which she knew was more than needed. Although the bedroom was chilly, she kicked her covers to the floor.
Whenever the first indication of insomnia hit her, as it had the night before, a twinge of panic came with it. She was never sure if the dreaded sleeplessness would last a night or a week. Maybe longer? She'd been through counseling. She'd seen a doctor. In fact, she'd seen two. Nothing worked. She sat up and threw her legs over the edge of the bed. She cradled her face in her hands.
Lainie knew the reason for her insomnia, and no counselor or doctor could quite grasp what was so obvious to her.
For the past several days, she'd been thinking about Tori. More than usual. It was as if her twin sister wouldn't let her sleep. It was as if the twin she hadn't seen for years had her hand on her shoulders, shaking Lainie as she tried to fall toward that desperate and dark space.
I'm not going to let you. You better listen to me.
She went to the medicine cabinet, took an Ambien, and looked inside the pill bottle.
Only one more.
She checked the date. She had a week more on the prescription. She'd have to resort to an over-the-counter sleep aid to get her through refill time.
She drank some water and set down the paper cup.
The mirror swung shut, and the haggard face that met her gaze belonged to another.
She shook her head, turned away, and looked back at the mirror.
She blinked. It was her own face.
Lainie steadied herself a moment.
She padded back to her tousled bed, hoping that the pill would work its magic and send her to the restful place she needed.
And not, she prayed, to the nightmares that visited her all too often.
Ten minutes later, the lid of darkness shut over her supine body.
* * *
Setting the stage was as crucial as it was easy. All one had to do was think like a crime scene investigator or a cop. Maybe a little like a nosy mother-in-law. The woman pondering that scenario had had a few of those to contend with, too. Ultimately, she knew that no detail was too frivolous. Even the mundane had to be considered, very carefully. The point of setting the stage was to ensure that she was in the final act.
The act that had her getting everything she ever wanted.
The plasma screen over the fireplace was playing The O'Reilly Factor. The man glued to the TV loved the political commentator's take on politics, business, and culture. He even drank from a "Culture Warrior" ceramic mug.
The woman considered the TV analyst an insufferable blowhard.
A chime from a grandfather clock sounded.
The woman felt the chill of the air from an open window as she stood nude behind the sofa.
"Babe, how about a piece of that pie?" he said, his eyes fixed on the screen.
"Right here," she said.
Yet there was no pie.
She put the barrel of the pistol to the back of his head and fired. Blood spurted like from a stomped-on ketchup packet. Specks of red dotted her glove-covered arm. There was likely more blood than she could see with the naked eye, but that was fine. She knew how to handle it. She'd planned for it. He gurgled a little, but it wasn't the sound of a man fighting for his life. That was over. It was the sound of air oozing from his trachea. He slumped over.
She made her way to the shower, which was already running. She pulled off the glove and set it inside a trash can lined with plastic. The water was ice cold by then. Even for her, it had taken considerable effort to summon the nerves to do what she had wanted to do.
Gunfire was messy.
Blowback is hell.
And only time will tell.
It was a kind of verse that she'd conjured that moment, and she allowed a smile to cross her lips as the icy water poured over her. She looked down at her legs, long, lovely. Flawless.
But not for long.
The water had gone from crimson to pink to clear, swirling down the drain between her painted toes. She turned off the shower and reached for a towel. As she patted her face dry she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror.
Still lovely. Still rich. Even more so at that very moment than she'd ever been in her life.
She poked her arms through the sleeves of a sheer white nightgown and let the filmy fabric tumble down her body. This was part of setting the stage. Her augmented breasts— not freakishly so, just enough to arouse a man when she needed to—would protrude only slightly. She'd act modest and embarrassed, but if the cops on the scene were under fifty, they'd be looking where they shouldn't.
A distraction. One of many.
She poured a plastic cup of bleach down the shower drain and ran the water while she counted to ten.
Taking the trash can liner that held the glove and the empty plastic bleach cup nestled inside, she hurried back into the living room and surveyed the scene. Exactly seven minutes had passed since she pulled the trigger, propelling the slug into her unsuspecting ... pie-wanting ... TV-watching ... husband. It was important to get on with it. The pool of blood around his head would congeal, and her story would not seem so plausible. She knocked the contents atop the coffee table to the floor. Using her hip, she pushed over a potted button fern. A trickle of black soil scattered over the rug. A drawer in a sideboard was pulled to the floor. Knives fell like gleaming Pixy Stix.
It looked like a struggle. Not much of one, but one that could have taken place in the moments that she'd later describe.
Next, she put on a second rubber kitchen glove—the long kind that ran from fingertips to elbow—and picked up the gun. She was grateful for all the things that money could buy just then. Pilates. Yoga. Tai chi. She'd taken all those courses with the other rich bitches. They never accepted her, but that didn't matter. She wasn't there to get to know them. She was there to limber up. She bent down and twisted her shoulder as she pointed the gun at her leg and fired.
She didn't cry out.
Instead, she bit her lip and started toward the door. She was no longer concerned about blood and where it fell. In the throes of her imagined escape, there could be blood anywhere. His or hers. She left the door open, and started to pick up the pace by the koi pond that had been a labor of love, apparently, of the previous owners. She didn't love anything or anyone. Except, of course, a brimming bank account. She bent down, her nightgown now more red than white. She'd missed her femoral artery, of course. But she hadn't expected that much blood.
Good thing Darius is still up, she thought, looking up the walkway of the property across the street. The violet light of a TV slashed through the manicured foliage framing the window.
She tucked the gun into the plastic bag, dropped in a three-pound lead weight, and deposited all of it between lily pads in the pond. She dropped the bag containing the gloves into the storm drain on the street—it was a risk, but one that she'd take.
Each time she moved her leg, she let out a yelp. Then a scream. Finally she turned on the tears.
One notch at a time.
She caught a glimpse of a figure between the house and the hedge, and she smiled.
Lainie's eyes fluttered, struggling to open, weary slits reacting to light they wanted to avoid. She looked at her phone. It was now 4:00 A.M. She felt the chill of the early morning air and pulled up the sheet. Groggy from the pill, she had a million things to do in the morning ... and she was going to look like hell. She reviewed her list as she tried to find her way back to slumber. Just fifteen minutes more. Only fifteen. There was an interview to conduct for an article she was writing for a blog, an overdue errand to the dry cleaner, and a ferry ride over to meet with the high school class reunion committee in Port Orchard. She exhaled, closed her eyes.
The dream shook her. They always did. Dark. Violent. Specific and ambiguous at the same time. They always led back to thoughts of her sister. Her heart pounded. She knew her dream had been a nightmare, but there was no way to analyze what it might have meant. If, that is, she was still the kind of woman who would do that sort of thing. She could not recall much about it ... except the gun, the figure running ... and the face that was hers when she looked in the mirror.
Police and ambulance sirens serve to warn others that danger is near. Stay away. Move aside. Let us through. Get the F out of here! In truth, the shriek of the siren only ensures that people will congregate toward the commotion. A siren is like a rising curtain and the switch on the panel of stage lights. There is no stopping the casual onlooker when the siren screams. People can't help themselves.
Everyone wants to see what the fuss is all about.
Everyone wants to see the show.
It was surely that way that cool spring night in Tacoma when Tori Connelly and her bloody nightgown arrived on the front porch of Darius Fulton's North Junett Street home. Without waiting for a second, Darius reacted with the instinct that comes with the injection of adrenaline into the bloodstream. He comforted her and dialed the police, who in turn called the paramedics.
Excerpted from Closer than Blood by GREGG OLSEN Copyright © 2011 by Gregg Olsen. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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