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A chill of foreboding stopped Jenny Tyler halfway up the sidewalk to the tidy bungalow. "Mr. Dolan must have gone away and forgotten to have his mail stopped," she told herself sturdily before climbing the wooden steps to the tiny porch.
The lace curtains at the window beside the door were shredded. Mail overflowed the wrought iron mailbox; circulars dangled from the hooks beneath it.
Just as she reached the top tread, the lace parted. She stepped sideways so quickly her foot slipped on a newspaper.
The cat's face pressed against the glass. Frantic blue eyes stared from a chocolate-furred face, and an almost human cry poured from the wide-open mouth.
Her stomach clenched, then relaxed so suddenly she wanted to wrap her arms around herself to hold it together. Something was terribly wrong. Lips scarcely moving, she murmured, "Not today, God. Please." She rubbed suddenly sweaty palm on the thigh of her linen slacks, mortified to discover that her hand shook.
Maybe he'd fallen. Accidents happened all the time, didn't they?
Over the past month, each time she passed this way the wiry little man had been puttering in his yard, shaking his head over the rabbit population's assault on his tulip bed, searching for signs of grubs amongst the emerging blades of grass and murmuring affectionately to his still bare-caned rose bushes, a habit which had endeared him to Jenny.
Since her daily walks were her only breaks from her easel, she'd looked forward to their brief chats. The elderly man's friendliness made her feel a part of the pleasant community--as much a part as she would allow herself to be. The members of the art league were the onlypeople she'd met, and she hadn't encouraged friendships outside of the monthly meetings.
The cat screamed again. Refusing to give in to apprehension, Jenny pressed the doorbell. When there was no answer, she pressed again, this time leaning forward to listen. Choc's agitated Siamese voice chattered from behind the door. In reply, she called, "Mr. Dolan? Are you there? It's Jenny Tyler. I'm here about the Summer Arts Festival."
She raised her hand, knocked on the door--and nearly fell inside as it swung open beneath her touch.
The chocolate point butted her ankles, a fierce purr shaking his body. Jenny knelt and stroked the cat's sleek back, horrified to his ribs beneath her fingers. "Where's Mr. Dolan, Choc?"
At the sound of her voice, Choc turned to run toward the rear of the house, looking back over his shoulder as if urging Jenny to follow. Worried little sounds punctuated his movements.
Jenny sniffed. The sweet, sickening odor pervading the stuffy house was unfamiliar, but she had an excellent imagination. Her stomach contracted into a queasy knot. "Why me, Lord?" she said, her voice sounding thin even to her own ears. After another moment's hesitation, she yielded to the demands of the determined cat.
"All right. Food comes first." She had a strong suspicion she needn't hurry to look for Mr. Dolan, so she scooped up the cat and headed for the kitchen.
Her apprehension grew when she saw the innards of the couch and two upholstered chairs strewn across the ripped carpeting of the small living room. Books, their covers torn off, mingled with crumpled papers scattered over the worn carpet. An old-fashioned whatnot hung crookedly over the couch, inexpensive figurines of animals clustered at the low ends of the off-kilter shelves.
Averting her eyes, Jenny passed through the room. If she pretended nothing was out of place, she could feed the cat, leave, and return to the sanctuary of her studio erasing whatever she'd seen here from her memory. She would make an anonymous phone call to the police, then forget the whole matter.
Sugar and cereal crunched beneath the soles of her leather sandals when she reached the kitchen. Spilled flour swirled across the green marble pattern of the counter top. The faucet over the double sink dripped steadily, its patter the only sound in the room. Every instinct told her to run, not get involved.
The stench was stronger in here. Her insides roiled again. She choked down the bile rising in her throat.
Clinging to the pattern of denial that had kept her sane for six years, she pushed aside a burst package of paper napkins on the counter, revealing canned cat food in a neat stack. "Here we go, Choc," she said in a voice she didn't recognize.
The cat wove around her ankles, purring. She popped the lid and emptied the can into the ceramic bowl on the mat beside the door. The water dish beside it was dry. "You poor baby. How long have you been without water?" As she twisted the handle of the faucet she realized where the animal had been drinking. Cat hairs and paw prints marred the interior of the sink.
Jenny watched him devour the contents of his dish, reminded of the house-proud little widower whose daily life had revolved around his garden and his pet, with television and newspapers filling his evenings.
But the sickish smell reminded her of ... "Oh, God." Mr. Dolan hadn't gone anywhere. "Why me? Why can't I just leave and pretend I was never here?" she demanded. Jenny took a deep breath without thinking. Her stomach heaved. "You can't spend the rest of your life hiding from trouble," she told herself.
She straightened, swallowed another wave of nausea, then set out in search of Mr. Dolan.
He lay on the floor of his ransacked bedroom. The pleasant little gentleman hadn't died peacefully. His arm was twisted at an unnatural angle; dried blood splattered his upper body and pooled around his head. Mattress filling had settled obscenely around his balding pate, giving the impression of a fuzzy halo. Jenny's mind tilted off balance.
Dropping the long manila envelope half full of Arts Festival donations, she fled. Horrible gagging sounds filled her ears as she staggered on trembling legs to the japonica bush beside the front steps. There, after a painful interlude, the sounds ceased.
An hour later, Jenny leaned against the headrest in the squad car, squeezed her eyes shut, then forced them wide open. She wished she could cry, but she had long ago given up on the myth concerning the healing power of tears. The scene imprinted on her brain made her nauseous all over again, but her stomach had nothing left to give.
"Excuse me, Ms. Tyler." The young officer who approached sounded uncomfortable about interrupting her misery.
"Yes?" She forced the acknowledgment through her dry throat.
"The coroner's given the okay to take away the body. When we're done searchin' and printin' we gotta seal up the house." He smiled weakly. "Ah ... would you be willing to take the cat home with you until we find out if there's family who wants him? He's in there screamin' somethin' awful. Won't let no one catch him." He sucked the scratch on the side of his hand.
Jenny remembered the confusion in Choc's eyes and nodded. She and the cat were friends. Then she remembered the sickening, stench that filled the house. "I ... I don't think I can go back in there."
"We've had the windows open, ma'am. It's lots better now." He looked over his shoulder at the sound of the door opening. The paramedics were coming out.
"I'll help you, ma'am. Looks like a nice little cat. He's just awful scared."
Jenny turned her head away from the sight of the plastic bag on the gurney. Her stomach contracted, and she willed herself not to be sick again. She had to get home, away from this. But inside the house was a little cat who needed comforting.
In the end, capturing the animal was easy. When Jenny entered, a cream-colored streak erupted from beneath the remains of the living room sofa and threw itself at her ankles. She scooped the animal into her arms, where he burrowed his head beneath the lapel of her blazer. She concentrated on the cat's terror, blocking out the memory of her discovery.
"There's a bunch of cat food and a bag of litter in the pantry. I'll bring 'em for you." Her escort's footsteps faded, only to be replaced by a heavier tread. Jenny looked up apprehensively as a tall, thin man with a paunch entered the room. His sagging features reminded her of an aging hunting dog.
"I'm Chief Pierce, Ms. Tyler. I know all this has been a pretty bad shock. I'd appreciate it you came down to the station to give us a formal statement tomorrow." He clutched the arts festival envelope beneath his arm. "Let me give you a lift home."
The chief's rumbling voice, combined with the warm, lithe body plastered against her, nearly broke Jenny's rigid control. She swallowed hard, fighting the hysteria that had been building since the moment she'd seen the tattered curtains. Soon after her marriage, nearly seven years earlier, she'd learned to disguise her true state of mind, and she reminded herself that the first officers to arrive at the scene had been as affected by the contents of the bedroom as she. One of the patrolmen had bent double behind the same bush which had received her lunch.
She managed a wan smile and a feeble attempt at humor. "I think I would have preferred to meet you in a speed trap."
Chief Pierce's gaze never left her while he called to the young officer to bring the cat supplies to his car. Heled her out the door. Jenny kept her features composed beneath his assessing gaze. Although she had lived in Donhaven since the end of January, she'd done her best to help the gossip grapevine overlook her, keeping to herself and staying as close as possible to her rented house a mile beyond the city limits.
She settled into the front seat of the cruiser, then waited until he'd backed the car into the street to ask, "How did Mr. Dolan die?"
"Looks like someone slit his throat," Pierce said bluntly.
Jenny shuddered. "Why?"
His eyes on the road, the Chief replied, "That's what we're paid to find out."
"How long has he been dead?"
"Doc Morrow'll know better after the autopsy. He guessed maybe a week."
"Will ... will my name have to be released to the press?" A local reporter had circulated through the crowd of neighbors who'd gathered, and Jenny wanted nothing to do with the press.
Pierce drove on in silence. As they nosed unto Jenny's driveway, he eyed her curiously, switched off the ignition and said, "Damn reporters will bug me until somethin' happens somewhere else. Then they'll move on. Unless, 'a course, we turn up a suspect right away. I'll do my best to keep you anonymous, but I can't make any promises."
Still clutching the cat, Jenny felt her eyes fill with tears. "My husband was murdered late last year. The publicity was ... difficult for me. One reason I came here is to live quietly." She saw no reason to tell him she was hiding until she verified that certain promises were being kept.
When Pierce's eyes narrowed, she realized her error. She shouldn't have mentioned how Trent died, but today's discovery had jolted her--her mind didn't seem to be working clearly. Surely no one could connect her mother's maiden name to Trent, or to the Travino family.
"I'll call you a 'concerned neighbor' when I talk to him. I should be able to keep the official log under lock and key," the chief said soothingly. He opened the cruiser door and scanned the front of her redwood and stone house. "Let me carry in this other stuff for you."
Swearing viciously, Gabe Daniels watched the paramedics drive away. He was too late. Again. Apparently, this time Winston DeWitt's escape was permanent.
Crime tape surrounded the ordinary yard and house. Earlier, a deputy had assisted a slight, blonde woman from the police car at the curb. "Sonovabitch!" He pounded the steering wheel of his rented Jeep Cherokee, venting his frustration.
Four years ago, he had traced DeWitt to a remote Iowa farm, only to discover that his bird had flown three hours earlier. A neighbor had seen DeWitt at his mailbox at midmorning that day, the last reported sighting of the larcenous CPA until three days ago, when a longtime Magnacorp employee had spotted him at a reservation desk at Port Columbus and heard him give his name as Carl Dolan and his residence as Donhaven, this remote, godforsaken town in southeastern Ohio.
He watched the skinny blonde broad enter the house, then exit minutes later clutching something to her chest. The cop with her treated her as if she owned the town. Sunlight glinted off his badge. Gold. Probably the chief. Whoever the skirt was, she was getting an official ride home. He checked his watch. Three-thirty. He'd give the chief an hour to get rid of his passenger. Then he'd present his credentials at headquarters.
That should give him plenty of time to find what passed for a motel in this backwater and phone in his report. Gabe ran his hand over the healthy growth of whiskers on his cheeks and scowled at his wrinkled silk trousers. His suit jacket looked no better. The way things were going, by the time he checked into the motel and called Sterling he probably wouldn't have time to shave and change clothes. He shrugged. His appearance didn't bother him nearly so much as the thought of his boss's reaction. "Sterling's going to shit a brick," he predicted.
Jenny emptied cat food into a china bowl while Choc paced the white tile floor. The little cat had clung to her throughout the short ride, then dogged her heels since they'd entered her house, viewing with disinterest the plastic dish pan of litter she'd positioned in the corner of the pantry. Food was obviously foremost in his thoughts.
She set his meal on the floor and filled a matching bowl with water. The violets painted on the thin china shimmered beneath the liquid as set it down. Jenny chuckled softly. "Quite a fancy table setting for a cat, but after what you've been through, you deserve it." While he ate, she stroked his sleek back, surprised to discover she received as much comfort as she gave. Caring for the animal's needs made the horror of the day recede. "You're safe with me, Choc. If no one claims you, I'll adopt you myself."
The cat purred appreciatively, a soothing sound that made Jenny realize she wanted nothing more than to curl into a fetal position and escape in sleep. Although it was only mid-afternoon, she scrambled an egg and forced herself to eat it and a slice of toast before heading upstairs to bed. Sleep would mask the fears lurking at the edges of her mind--at least until morning.
Although she slept as soon as her head hit the pillow, her mind wouldn't rest. Disturbing dreams jostled each other like birds at a feeder, returning in disconnected segments. Six hours later, Jenny awoke. She crawled out of bed, accepting the fact that dreamless sleep would be a long time returning--perhaps not until she felt safe, and anonymous, once more.
The cat lay curled in a knot at the corner of her bed. Before pulling a short terry robe over her sleep shirt, she smoothed his silky fur. "At least you can sleep soundly," she told him. When he made no response, Jenny went downstairs and poured herself some wine.
Goblet in hand, she wandered the room that spanned the back of the house, flicking switches until light erased every shadow. She paused at the windows overlooking the ravine below, visualizing exotic dangers in the dark and shadows, dangers she would willingly exchange for those that haunted her. Anything would be preferable to the memories awakened this afternoon.
Stars twinkled, oblivious to her distress; a sliver of moon rode the sky. She wished she could erase the vision of poor Mr. Dolan. Why had he been killed? What had the murderer been looking for? She was so immersed in thought that at first she missed the polite tapping at her front door. When the sound penetrated her consciousness, her wrist jerked, and the wine in the blue goblet she'd just raised to her lips sloshed down her chin.
Setting down the glass, Jenny pulled out a tissue and patted her skin. She looked at her watch. "It's nearly midnight! I didn't think anyone in this town stayed up this late," she murmured shakily as she crossed to the front door. For a moment, panic filled her, and she nearly stopped at the closet to retrieve the tote holding her Lady Smith. Common sense told her no one who was really a threat bother to knock. Flipping the outside light switch, she squinted through the peephole.
Chief Pierce stood on her front step. She released a breath she'd been unaware she was holding.
Unhooking the chain and freeing the dead bolt, Jenny swung the door wide open. "What happened?"
"Didn't mean to scare you, Ms. Tyler. It's just that somethin's turned up in the Dolan case, and this fella insisted on talking to you tonight. Since your lights were on..."
Jenny stiffened when her gaze lit on Chief Pierce's companion. Outwardly, he was everything she despised. The man looked as if he hadn't shaved in two days. Black, curling hair that appeared to have been finger-combed fell over his forehead, brushing equally dark eyebrows. Dark, deep-set eyes stared at her unblinkingly, making her throw up mind barriers. Why did she get the feeling he could read her thoughts?
Other women would surely find his harshly carved features compelling; Jenny found them overwhelmingly masculine, and she'd had enough of masculinity to last her a lifetime. Expensive tailoring couldn't conceal his powerful shoulders and chest, but the suit was a wrinkled mess, and his tie hung free of his unbuttoned shirt collar, which revealed black, curling hair.
His unwavering gaze remained fixed on her face throughout her inspection.
She forced herself to meet his intent stare for a heartbeat, then turned away. The sooner she spoke with him and the chief, the sooner she could rid herself of them. Dropping her hands to her sides in a gesture of surrender, Jenny motioned them inside. "I hope this won't take long. It's very late."
As they entered, Pierce apologized once again before explaining, "I had the dispatcher fax all the prints we found in Dolan's house to the National Crime Information Center in Washington as soon as we got back to the station."
Pierce continued talking while she closed the door and led the way to the back of the house. "Seems our corpse's name wasn't Dolan after all, but by the time we heard from them, we already had a pretty good idea about that. Gabe here had come in and identified the body."
Pointing to the lurid dust jacket of the police procedural on the coffee table, Jenny countered, "In books it takes forever to get identification from NCIC." She was sure a psychologist would impute some dark emotional flaw to her fascination with detective stories, particularly in view of her past.
"Yeah. Well, this was a fluke. You better take over, Gabe." He gestured toward his companion. "This is Gabe Daniels, Ms. Tyler. He troubleshoots for Sterling Thomas ... you know, the rich guy who's on television all the time tellin' the president what he ought to do."
Jenny didn't offer to shake hands. "What has this to do with me?" she demanded, her heart beating high in her throat.
Gabe resented the way she had pretended not to see him when she greeted the chief--as if he were dirt on her doorstep. He resented even more the way her blue-green gaze had ignored him ever since. Women usually reacted to him positively, but this one pretended he didn't exist, and he hadn't done anything to annoy her. Yet. The rebellious side of him decided that if the opportunity presented itself he might do just that, simply to even the score. He recognized the type. She was a tight-assed, scrawny blonde who spoke the same way as those snotty upper class babes who attended his grandfather's parties.
Reluctantly shelving his prejudices, Gabe reverted to training. "Nothing at all, Ms. Tyler. May we sit down?" At her nod, he sank into the plump pillows of the overstuffed couch. He knew better than anyone that he wore the same silk shirt he'd put on at five that morning; his beard had been rasping against the collar since lunch. He was also aware he looked like a thug, but that didn't explain the frost in the lady's eyes. What she thought of him didn't matter, he reminded himself.
"Sterling's been looking for your Mr. Dolan for years. His contact at NCIC scans all new prints and matches so he can let us know immediately if Dolan's prints turned up, dead or alive."
Frost edged her response. "How very convenient for Mr. Thomas to have such a connection."
Gabe himself was cynical about Sterling's high-level network, but Jenny's tone made the contact sound like a member of al-Qaeda. He said harshly, "Dolan wasn't really Dolan. He was Winston DeWitt, who worked as comptroller at Sterling Starjet, a division of Magnacorp. Five years ago the bastard embezzled three million dollars. He disappeared, turned up a year later, then got away from us again. Since you knew him, I thought you might be able to help, Ms. Tyler. Or is it Mrs.?" He stared at her hands.
The slender fingers of her right hand fumbled with her naked third finger, as if seeking succor from a band which was no longer there.
Jenny sat up straight and crossed her hands in her lap, looking directly at him for the first time since he'd arrived. "Ms. Tyler, if you please. My husband is gone and forgotten." She stopped, her eyes widening as if horrified by the impression her words might make, then continued. "As I told Chief Pierce earlier today, I didn't know Mr. Dolan ... DeWitt, well. I walk nearly every day, even in cold weather. He spent a great deal of time in his yard, and we visited over the fence."
She crossed her ankles precisely, as of she wore Ferragamos instead of scuffed terrycloth slippers. The movement drew Gabe's attention to the length of bare leg revealed by her knee-length robe. In spite of the fact that she looked at him as if he were a garden slug, he couldn't help noticing that Ms. Tyler's pins were first class. "Excuse me, ma'am. You knew him well enough to go into his house ... and you've brought his cat home."
"I've talked with his neighbors. They all say he kept to himself. None of them knew much about him, and no one had seen him this week. The Kiroski kid fed the cat while he was away for a few days last month, but the boy doesn't know zilch. Do you know where Dolan went on that trip, Ms. Tyler?"
"He never said. I didn't even know he'd left town ... he once told me he found everything he needed right here."
"Well, somebody put seventy-two thousand miles on his Taurus in three years. And he's the original owner. I ran a check."
"I wouldn't know. I've only lived here since January. He seemed like such a nice man ... a gentle man." She tugged the belt of her robe tight, as if she wished it were Gabe's necktie. "I simply discovered the body..." Her voice broke.
Gabe looked to Pierce for help. The police chief avoided eye contact. Gabe sighed. "I'd appreciate it if you'd think back over every conversation you had with him. He may have said something revealing ... something you don't realize might be helpful."
"Such as, 'By the way, I have three million dollars in an old pickle crock in the basement?' Or do you suspect I took the money when I found the body?"
"I didn't mean that, dammit." Gabe was tired and weary of bickering. Jenny Tyler, with her pure contralto and precise diction, her elegant profile and her little neck fragile beneath the tidy line of her blunt-cut blonde hair, made him want to emphasize his own roughness. He stood, well aware that his size was intimidating. "My job is to track down loose ends, and three million dollars definitely falls in that category. DeWitt screwed my boss, and Sterling's a man who doesn't like to get screwed unless he can enjoy it."
Jenny stood also. She tilted her head back until she looked into his eyes. Her fingers worried her ring finger, but her gaze was steady. "Poor Sterling Thomas. My heart bleeds for him."
She picked up the blue goblet from the table and drank from it defiantly before bargaining. "I'll help you by telling you what little, what very little, I recall about Dolan ... DeWitt ... whatever you call him. In return I want your promise that Mr. Thomas's influence erases my name from any publicly accessible report concerning the murder."
A little warning bell rang in Gabe's brain. "You got yourself a deal. Tomorrow?"
"That will do nicely. I have drawings that must be on their way to my publisher by noon. Will one o'clock be convenient?"