- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Ben Kincaid drummed his fingers on the card table set up inside the Magic Valley Mystery Bookstore. When he arrived, the table had held twenty copies of his first book, Katching the Kindergarten Killer. And now, an hour and a half after the book-signing began, the table still held twenty copies of Katching the Kindergarten Killer.
The owner of the bookstore, Fred Franklin, sauntered over to Ben's table. He was stroking his pet, a large black and white tuxedo cat. "Slow day for autographs, huh?"
"I don't seem to be getting much traffic," Ben admitted. "Maybe if you put me in the back next to the café."
"Nice try. We don't have a café."
"You call yourself a bookstore and you don't even have a café?"
Fred smiled. "What can I say? Magic Valley isn't really in the mainstream." He picked up one of Ben's books. "So I gather this is nonfiction? True crime?"
He skimmed the summary on the dust jacket. "Mmm. Serial killer. Cut the heads and hands off his corpses. Pretty grisly stuff. Why'd you want to write about this?"
"I wrote about it because I lived it."
"You mean this really happened? Like, to you?"
"That's why I wrote it. I thought people might be interested in reading a firsthand account." He glanced at the unmoving door. "Guess I was wrong."
"Don't jump to any conclusions. It's early yet. Wait till people start getting off work. Folks aren't too used to book signings here in Magic Valley. I've been trying to get those publishers to send me an author for over a year, since I opened. And you're the first one I've gotten."
Lucky me, Ben thought. "It's been the same story every place I've gone. This is my eighth signing in six days. And every one of them has been dismal."
"Hey, at least your publisher is touring you. Most first-time authors don't get that." He stroked his cat, who responded by curling up against Fred's neck and pressing her wet nose against his cheek. "You should consider yourself lucky."
"If you say so."
"And it's gotta be better than practicing law, right? Every lawyer I know wishes he was doing something else."
Ben decided not to comment. "Nice cat you've got there. Think he'd like an autographed book?"
Fred laughed. "Margery isn't really the literary type. She's more the feed-me-stroke-me-get-out-of-my-way type."
"Sounds like my cat, Giselle."
"You an animal lover?"
"Well, the cat was a present from a friend. But yeah, actually, I am."
Fred looked up abruptly. "Oh, look, someone's coming in. Let me get out of the way." Fred skittered toward the back of the bookstore, cat in tow.
The woman who approached Ben's table was, in a word, bizarre. She was dressed in a helter-skelter, crazy-quilt fashion—wild bright colors, mismatched layers of clothing. Her steel-blond hair was just as wild; it jabbed out in straight lines like she'd just been electrocuted. She was inhumanly thin, almost skeletal—like something out of a grim Grimm fairy tale.
"Are you the author?" she asked.
"I am," Ben said, holding out his hand.
"Are you sure? You seem so young."
"Everyone says that."
"Except for the bald spot on the back of your head, of course."
"Of course." He picked up one of the books on the table. "Can I interest you in my new book?"
"Oh, I've already read it."
Ben did a double take. "You have?"
She grinned. "Don't act so surprised."
"Well, it's just—I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who's actually read my book before. Other than a close personal friend."
"Oh, I did. I read every word of it." She gazed deeply into his eyes. "And the whole time I read it, I couldn't help but think about you."
Ben coughed. "About—about me?"
She reached out and brushed his shoulder. "You were so brave. Chasing after the maniac the way you did."
"Well, I had to do something after that corpse turned up in my car. If I hadn't, they probably would've sent me up the river."
"And that horrible chase sixty feet up in the air—you must have nerves of steel."
"Actually, I was scared to death."
"It wasn't just the story you told. It was the way you told it. It was—inspirational." She took his hand and clasped it in both of hers. "I just wanted to hold the hand that penned all those magnificent words."
Ben cleared his throat. "Well ... that's very kind."
She did not release his hand. She inched closer to the table. "I felt such a magnetism when I read your book. I kept thinking, 'This man must be someone very special.'"
"Oh, not really."
"I kept thinking, 'This is the man I want to spend the rest of my life with. This is the man I want to father my children.'"
Ben's lips parted. "This is—you want—"
She sidled next to him at the table, her steel bristle hair tickling his cheek. "So, tell me, Ben. I can call you Ben, can't I?"
"Is there someone special in your life?"
"Uh ... yes. Yes, there is. Most definitely."
Her face fell. "There is?"
"Yes. Several people, actually."
"Well ... yes. There's my mother. And my sister."
"Silly. I mean like a girlfriend."
"I have some friends who are girls."
"You know what I mean."
"You want to know if I'm in a relationship?"
"I want to know if you're having sex. Because if you're not, have I got something special for you."
Ben's throat went dry. "I think perhaps you've made a mistake."
She wrapped her arms around him. "Don't fight it, Ben. This was meant to be."
Ben's face turned a bright crimson. "This was not—this is moving a bit too fast for me."
"Life is short. Why wait?"
"I really couldn't possibly—"
"When I read your book, I realized we had a connection, a bond that transcended the boundaries of time and space."
Ben scooted out of his chair. "I'm not prepared ..." He tried again. "I'm just here to sign books, you know?"
The woman appeared crestfallen. "Just to sign books?"
"I'm sorry, but—yeah."
She pulled her copy out of her purse and dropped it on the table. "I guess some bonds are stronger than others." She sighed. "Perhaps in our next lifetimes."
Ben opened the front of her book, relieved. "Who should I make this out to?"
He began to write. "'To Marjorie—'"
"'To Marjorie, whom I have always loved—'"
Ben paused. "'To Marjorie, whom I have always loved'?"
"'... in memory of that special night we shared, flesh to flesh, huddled close beneath the moonlight. I shall never forget you.'"
Ben applied his fountain pen to the title page. Why fight it? "... I shall never forget you." He signed the book and passed it back to its owner, then redirected his attention to a burly, bearded man making his way through the front door. He was carrying a jumbo-size banker's box, which, judging from the difficulty he was having carrying it, must be filled to the brim.
"Are you the author?"
Ben extended his hand, but the man still held the immense box. "I'm the one."
"Are you sure? You seem so young."
Ben sighed. "I have a very old portrait in my attic. Can I autograph a book for you?"
"Nah. I don't have time to read. I'm a writer."
"Ah. What have you written?"
"I'm glad you asked." The man dropped the weighty box on the end of Ben's table with a thundering thud. "I know you're probably very busy, but would you mind looking at my manuscript?"
"It's twenty-four hundred pages of rough first draft, but I know a competent editor could turn it into a masterpiece. So whaddaya say?"
The owner of the store had been right; after the sun set, traffic in the bookstore picked up. Ben had the pleasure of fielding a wide variety of comments and remarks:
"So, do you think you might ever write a serious book?"
"What's next, the Great American Novel?"
"My six-year-old here is also a writer."
"I've got a great idea for a book, but I'm just too damn busy to sit around typing all day long. Tell you what. I'll give you my idea, you do the writing, and we'll split the profits fifty- fifty."
"So, is this fiction? Or is it a novel?"
"I'm sorry, your name doesn't ring a bell. Have you done anything I should know about?"
"I don't mean to pry, but how much do you writers make? You don't have to give me any details. Just in round numbers. Six digits? Or seven?"
"Where do you get your ideas?"
Ben leaned back in his chair and smiled. "Cleveland."
When closing time finally rolled around, Fred reappeared, cat still in his arms. "Well, Mr. Kincaid, I want to thank you for coming out tonight to sign."
"It was my, um, pleasure."
"I'm going to give Margery here a can of Feline's Fancy. That's her favorite, you know."
Ben tickled the cat. "What a sweetie. Mind if I hold her?"
"Of course not." Fred transferred possession of the tabby to Ben's arms.
Ben stroked the cat's neck and back. She squirmed and rolled under his touch, loving every minute of it, purring loudly. "What a nice cat."
Fred grinned. "Actually, she's a monster."
"She's horrible. I can't sit still for a moment but that she starts rubbing her wet slimy nose all over me."
"That's what cats do."
"She gets cat hair all over the store."
"It's shedding season."
"She's always whining for attention or food or to be let in or out. Just drives me crazy."
Ben held the cat tightly in his hands. "I'm surprised you ever took her into your home."
"She was a gift from a friend. At least I thought she was a friend. And she's never been in my home. She stays at the store."
"Even at night? When no one's here?"
"I've tried to get friends to take her on, but no one's that stupid. Pound won't have her. Frankly, I'm out of ideas."
Ben held the cat close to his chest. "Well, in time, I'm sure the two of you will grow close and—"
"So tomorrow I'm taking her to the vet for the Big Needle."
Ben's muscles clenched up. "For what?"
"I'm having her put to sleep."
"But she's still young. She's in perfectly good health."
"She's driving me insane."
"Let me try to find someone!"
"I've been down that road before, and I know she'll be back in my lap again by lunch time."
"But you can't just kill her!"
Fred put a hand on his hip. "Hey, back off, chump. She's my cat and I can do anything I damn well please with her. Including putting her to sleep."
"I don't think the vet will—"
"I've already made the arrangements. Appointment's at ten in the morning. So I'll feed kitty her last meal, let her get a good night's sleep, and then ..." He pantomimed pushing the plunger on a syringe, then acted as if he'd just received an electric shock. "Bzzzzt!" Ben's lips moved wordlessly.
"Anyway, Kincaid, thanks again for coming to the store." He took the cat from Ben. "It's been great."
Ben stared blank-faced at the man. "Yeah. Great."
Even as ben crept down the alleyway, he couldn't believe he was doing it. This was the kind of escapade Christina would concoct; she would spend hours trying to talk him into it, until finally he relented. But now here he was out by himself, doing it on his own.
Damn. Whatever she had, it must be catching.
But how on earth could he face Clayton Langdell and the rest of the gang at the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Our Other-Than-Human Neighbors if he allowed this act of barbaric cruelty and species snobbery to take place? More to the point, how could he face Giselle? He had argued and argued with Fred, but nothing he had said had changed the man's mind. There was no other alternative. Ben normally wasn't one to meddle in other people's business, but some things were just wrong, and this was one of them. He had to do something.
Navigating the town had been easy, even for a stranger, even in the dead of night. Magic Valley was a small northwest Washington town nestled at the foot of Mount Crescent. It had fewer than ten thousand residents, and the cabdriver had given Ben a thorough tour on his way in. Downtown was laid out on five streets: Main Street, which coursed through the center of the town, and the four cross streets, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy—one for each assassinated president. Most of the residences were to the north, between Main and the Magic Valley National Forest, site of the logging operation that supported most of the town.
Ben tiptoed past a pawnshop, a drugstore, a dry goods store, and a grocery. Almost all the businesses had yellow ribbons tied to the door or a lamppost. What was that all about? he wondered. Well, that was something he could ask about tomorrow, after this Mission: Impossible escapade was behind him.
He crept down the steps that led to the basement entrance of the bookstore. He had checked the lock on his way out; it wasn't the worst he'd ever seen, but he didn't think he'd have much trouble getting past it. Long ago his friend Mike Morelli, Tulsa homicide cop, had made him an expert on lockpicking. And there was no sign of a security system.
He scanned the street above him in all directions. He saw two men standing on a streetcorner two blocks away. Even from this distance, he could see one of the men was huge, with muscles rippling out of his tank top and shoulder-length jet-black hair. The two were having an intense discussion about something. Ben couldn't imagine what anyone could want to talk about at this hour of the morning. After a few more minutes, both men disappeared down a side street.
Ben waited until everything was quiet. He whipped out the simple two-piece metal lockpick he had acquired at the pawnshop not far from his hotel. He pushed the thin metal brace up, holding the trigger piece out of the action. Then he probed the interior of the lock with the longer ridged piece, trying to trip the tumbler that would open the lock.
He heard a distinct popping noise, then tried the doorknob. It moved.
Ben drew in his breath. This was the critical moment. If he took the next step, he would be committed to this course of action. This absolutely positively illegal course of action.
Slowly he pushed the door open. There was no alarm—or none that he could hear, anyway. That at least was a relief.
He shuffled inside, feeling a sudden surge of adrenaline. He had taken the decisive step now; best to just get it over with.
He pulled his flashlight out of his coat pocket and swept it across the bookstore. The card table at which he had sat before was gone, and the largely unsold stock of his book had already been loaded into a cardboard box, ready to be shipped back to the publisher for credit.
He tiptoed down the nearest corridor, passing Agatha Christie's entire life's work, the Sue Grafton alphabet books, and the endless array of lawyer books, all of which appeared to have exactly the same cover.
In the far corner, he found his prey.
"Hello, Margery," Ben whispered, crouching down to the cat's level. "We're going to do a road-show reenactment of The Great Escape. And I'm playing Steve McQueen."
To his relief, the cat did not struggle, hiss, fight, claw, or otherwise express her objections. Ben shoved the flashlight into his jacket, then scooped Margery into his arms. He was almost back up and running when he heard the rhythmic click-click sound behind him.
He didn't have to be a detective to know he was not alone. And he didn't have to be a weapons expert to know he had just heard someone cock a shotgun.
"All right, mister." A cranky, nasal voice emerged from the darkness. "Turn around slow and easy. And keep your hands up in the air where I can see them."
Ben raised his hands. As he did so, Margery jumped down. She skittered across the floor, returned to her comfortable cushioned bed on the floor, snuggled her head into her paws, and closed her eyes. It would seem Margery knew when to abandon ship. "Ingrate," Ben murmured.
"All right," barked the voice in the darkness. "Keep your hands in the air and move!"CHAPTER 2
When at last the honorable Judge Tyrone J. Pickens entered his courtroom, he looked as if he was suffering the ill effects of a singularly hard night. Perhaps several hard nights. On closer examination, Ben thought, perhaps years of hard nights.
Pickens's craggy face was speckled and ruddy, his nose shiny. His black-rimmed glasses seemed to be in constant motion, on, then off, on, then off. His posture was slumped and his expression was grim. He looked as if he would rather be anywhere else on earth.
Of course, Ben could sympathize with that. He would also rather be anywhere else. But here he was standing in the Magic Valley county courthouse. Handcuffed to the sheriff.
Judge Pickens rifled through the papers on his desk. "Looks like we got us a breaking and entering, is that it?"
The woman up at the bench, who Ben gathered was the district attorney, nodded.
"Great," the judge murmured. "Just great. First good fishing day in months, and I've got me a goddamn breaking and entering. How many days to try this sucker?"
The bailiff standing dutifully to the judge's side cleared his throat. "This is just an arraignment, your honor."
Pickens's face brightened. "An arraignment? Hot damn. We can whip through this sucker in two minutes." He pointed his gavel in Ben's direction. "You the perp?"
Ben cleared his throat. "I'm the accused, yes, your honor."
"You got a lawyer?" He gave Ben the once-over. "No, I suppose you'll be wanting us to appoint one."
"Actually, I am a lawyer."
The judge did a double take. "You sure about that? You ain't exactly dressed for court."
"The sheriff didn't give me a chance to change before hauling me to the county jail."
"Oh, I get it. You're the perp and the lawyer."
Ben nodded. "That's it."
Excerpted from Dark Justice by William Bernhardt. Copyright © 1999 William Bernhardt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.