Fatal Errorby Colleen Thompson
When a woman’s husband disappears with all of her money, she turns to his brother—who is also her former lover—to help track down the missing man and prove to the authorities she is not a murderer.See more details below
When a woman’s husband disappears with all of her money, she turns to his brother—who is also her former lover—to help track down the missing man and prove to the authorities she is not a murderer.
- Dorchester Publishing Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 4.12(w) x 6.74(h) x 0.97(d)
Read an Excerpt
By Colleen Thompson
Copyright © 2004
All right reserved.
When Susan took her seat at one of the barbecue joint's
tables, the rancher parents of one of her ex-students stood up
and walked out of the place. But not before the graying
redhead who had been one of her high school's most fervent
volunteers shot her a world-class go-to-hell look. And not
before the pain of it had the chance to seep into Susan's
She ought to be used to it by now: the dark looks and the
whispers, the speculation about whether she was getting away
with murder. Somehow, though, it never ceased to shock her;
it never ceased to hurt.
As the Harrises' pick-up left the parking lot, Susan made out
a dust devil working its way across the arid valley. When the
smoky plume resolved itself into a motorcycle, her breath
caught in her throat.
Let him help me out of family loyalty or guilt over his
brother's bad behavior or, I don't care, even that one night
we've tried so long to forget. Just let him say he'll do it.
Not the most orthodox of prayers, she knew, but maybe she'd
earn points for desperation. She had a perfect right to
worry, because after an hour-long bounce from Clementine
across a ranch road that saw more lizards, tumbleweeds, and
roadrunners than car traffic, Luke was bound to be long on
sweat and short on temper.
Worse yet, he wasa Maddox, the last person she should trust.
"You take that box and turn it in to the ..." Her mom had
leaned on her walker, searching her mind for the elusive word.
Frustration glittered in her brown eyes before she wrestled
the damaged speech center of her brain into obedience. "To
the sheriff, like you ought to. You give it to one of them
Maddoxes, he'll just make - just make you more trouble. Or
haven't you learned yet?"
Susan had learned, all right. A person learned a hell of a
lot when her husband of six years ran off with the local
banker's wife, a fortune in false loans, and God knows how
much stolen from the family business.
But the toughest lessons in the world couldn't keep her from
concluding that her husband's brother was her and her mother's
only chance. Even if he'd be furious once he learned she'd
lied to get him to drive out to a third-rate barbeque joint at
the intersection of the ranch road that connected Clementine,
the county seat, with busy Highway 90.
Susan might be in a foul mood herself - she'd spent most of
the eight months since Brian vanished mad as hell - but she
wasn't stupid. If ever there was a time to play nice, this
Despite her resolution, when all six-feet, four inches of Luke
blew through the front door, his expression did nothing to
ease the tension knotted in her stomach. With his helmet
tucked beneath his arm and his dark hair damp with sweat, he
strode directly toward her, a scowl plastered across his face.
A puff of dust rose from his jeans with every step.
After pulling off his sunglasses, he glared down at her,
clearly not fooled by her red lipstick or the wide-brimmed hat
that hid her shoulder-length brown hair. But then, even
seated, Susan couldn't hide her athletic, six-foot frame.
"That's your red Jeep parked outside, right? The one you
called about?" His tone warned he already knew the answer.
"Tires look fine to me."
Luke sat down, drained half the glass of tea the waitress had
poured, then said, "Now tell me why you lied to get me here.
It's sure as hell not for the service."
"I picked this place because it's private," she explained.
"No one from Clementine ever darkens the door."
No one except the Harrises, anyway. But at least they hadn't
seen her here with Luke.
"Why all the secrecy?" he asked. "Surely, you aren't that
intimidated by my mother."
Her laughter sounded brittle.
"Maybe not yours," she lied, realizing she was stalling. "But
mine scares me half to death."
Her mother was so adamant on the subject, Susan had had to say
that she was going to the sheriff. She couldn't recall the
last day she had played so fast and loose with truth.
"How is Maggie?" Luke asked.
Real interest softened his expression, and she couldn't help
feeling grateful. Since Brian's disappearance, Susan had
almost forgotten what it felt like to see eyes that didn't
teem with unvoiced questions.
Could you have done it? Did you?
Friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents of her students
might look directly at her, but Susan knew they were seeing
her picture in the paper. Right next to the missing Jessica
Beecher, Brian, and the photo of her husband's burned-out car
still smoldering in a remote arroyo in the desert.
She still couldn't believe the jerk had been heartless enough
to create such a cruel diversion.
"Mom's doing so much better," she told Luke. "The therapy's
made a big difference, with her speech especially. But she's
still weak on her right side, and mentally - well, let's just
say I can't see her living on her own."
"So you two are roommates now?"
"Yeah, can you believe it? After all the grief I gave her
raising me, now I get to be the responsible party. But it's
been good for me, having someone to look after. It takes my
mind off everything. Well," she said with a shrug, "that's a
lie, but it does give me someone to pretend for."
A span of silence stretched between them as she searched his
gaze. No suspicion there, thank God, only troubled
Luke's voice jarred Susan out of the unpleasant thoughts.
"Let's get to the point. Why'd you really bring me all the
way out here?"
Her stomach crawled into her throat, but she forced the truth
out past it. A truth she'd been keeping from her mother for a
week. "The superintendent called me. He said - he said the
board's decided to terminate my teaching contract."
The panic that had been building burst out in an unstoppable
torrent. "I can't let them do this. If I can't teach this
fall, I'll have to leave town to look for work and pack my mom
off to my sister's. And you know Carol. She'll park Mom in
some California nursing home the minute she gets inconvenient.
And God, Luke, that would kill her. Mom's lived around
Clementine her whole life. Her friends are here, and all her
memories. I'm not about to let those bast-"
"Hold on. Let's back up a minute," Luke said. "Why would
they fire you?"
"He says parents have been calling, saying they don't trust me
with their kids. He says I've become a 'distraction to the
learning process.'" Her laughter made a harsh sound. "It's
funny. The last time Dr. Winthrop called, it was to tell me
I'd been named the district's teacher of the year. Spineless
"What I don't get is why would anyone complain?" Luke said.
"Brian's alive - hell, two witnesses saw him and Jessica
Beecher at that New Mexico gas station a couple of days after
the sheriff found his car. And didn't Jessica leave some kind
of message on her answering machine?"
"A story that was buried on page seven. But I don't think it
would matter anyway. It was that first article that did it."
Her throat ached with the anger she had swallowed back. "No
one's forgotten those pictures - especially the ones of the
deputies hauling evidence out of my house. And I'm sure
they've all been talking about what that ass Ramirez said."
Every word of the deputy's quote was seared into her memory:
"Susan Maddox claims she was hiking out around the national
park the day her husband disappeared, but so far, we've found
no witnesses to verify her story."
Her story, as if she'd made up the whole thing - and if her
photos, stamped with the date, weren't evidence enough, what
would be? She decided on the spot she'd make room for Manuel
Ramirez's picture next to Brian's on her dartboard.
"But the sheriff cleared you the next day," Luke argued. "He
said neither you nor Hal Beecher was a suspect."
Their conversation stopped as the waitress brought them their
Luke stood, and for one heart-stopping moment, Susan was
certain he was walking out the door. Instead, he snagged a
ketchup bottle from another table and came back to hand it to
"Here you go," he said, his fingers brushing hers as he
withdrew them. "I think we've seen the last of our waitress
for a while."
Susan couldn't answer. She was too stunned by the impulse
that had nearly driven her to grasp his hand and hold it. If
she'd been quick and bold enough, would he have held hers
What was happening to her? He'd barely swept his fingers past
hers, and worse yet, he was Brian's brother. Not the boy
she'd known back in high school, the troublemaker whose
reputation for tinkering under the hoods of fast cars and
faster girls had scared her into refusing him each time he'd
asked her out. Until that one time, when he'd talked her into
sneaking out for that ride in his convertible at night. The
night the yucca blossoms had perfumed a star-drunk sky ...
the night she'd been fool enough to let him charm her out of
her virginity. The next day, she'd been grounded for two
weeks after Carol squealed that she'd seen the two of them by
Susan's locker "leaning way too close." If Carol had known
the whole of it, Susan figured she would still be grounded
Even as it was, by the time she'd managed to escape her mother
and sister's scrutiny, Luke had gone on to bigger and better
B-cups - as if their time together hadn't meant a thing to
him. Certainly, neither of them had brought up the incident
"So what do you need?" Luke was asking. "A good lawyer?
Seems to me you could sue the hell out of Dr. Winthrop and the
whole damned school board for that matter. They can't just
fire a good teacher because a few hysterical parents
Her trembling hand found its way inside her purse and pulled
out a box about the size of a standard paperback.
This was what she'd come for, the long shot she was betting
could save her. As she passed it to Luke, tightness gripped
her chest, and perspiration boiled to the surface. Swallowing
back her emotions, she tugged at the creeping hemline of her
denim skirt, then crossed her bare legs to unstick them from
the vinyl seat.
"Last night, I found this," Susan told him. "And I'm hoping - praying,
really - that it might hold some answers."
Luke took it from her and glanced down at the packaging. "A
hard drive? Brian's?" At her nod, he added, "I thought the
sheriff's department confiscated his computer."
"They didn't get this part."
He raised his brows, an unmistakable invitation to explain.
"Our hard drive went belly-up about two weeks before Brian
disappeared. He was really upset about it, said he had a
bunch of tax stuff stored there he didn't want to spend the
next three months inputting."
Luke muttered, "I told him he needed a good backup routine.
Some people never learn their lesson."
"Brian and half the computing world." Including her, thought
Susan, though she certainly knew better.
"I shouldn't gripe. It's the same half that keeps a lot of us
tech guys in business."
"He wanted it fixed right away," said Susan, "so he drove the
computer all the way to an electronics superstore in El Paso.
The guy ended up selling him a new drive. Said he couldn't
fix the old one."
"Typical superstore geek move," Luke said. "Installing a new
hard drive's a lot simpler than trying to restore lost
information - if the guy knew how. Real data recovery
specialists charge thousands, and they don't guarantee a
"Afterwards," she said, "he gave Brian the box with the
warranty information inside. I was packing away some of
Brian's stuff when it fell off the top shelf of his closet. I
picked it up and noticed the old drive was in there too. Then
I got to thinking, maybe there's a chance that someone with
your background could fix it, find a way into Brian's e-mail
and financial records -"
Luke laid the box back on the table, outside the range of
crumbs. And used the tops of his fingernails to slide it back
"The state has experts trained to do that. You don't want me
"Why not?" The pitch of her voice climbed with her rising
panic. "I know you're really good, with all those industry
awards. You've been in high tech almost all your li -"
"Exactly," Luke said. "And I'm Brian's brother. Assuming I
could get anything out of this old hard drive - and that's a
huge assumption - the information would be tainted. Do you
know how easy it would be for someone like me to falsify
"But you wouldn't. And what would it matter anyway, if
something in those files helped me track down Brian?"
He shook his head. "I want Brian back here just as much as
you do. I want to hear from him what the hell he was
thinking, and then I want to see the bastard pay."
"After we show everyone he's alive, we can -"
"No. I don't want him paying with some chickenshit family
scolding that'll end up with my mom selling off the ranch to
bail him out. I don't even want him paying with a good
ass-kicking, which I would happily dispense. Brian needs to
go to jail for what he's done. He's screwed up a lot of
lives, and for once, he's going to have to face the music."
Resentment burned in Luke's expression, and Susan could guess
the reason. How many times had she heard Virginia Maddox
dismiss his job as "monkeying around with those fool
contraptions" or call him "a tumbleweed, hardly better than
oilfield trash" for his frequent job changes within the
volatile technology sector? From personal experience, Susan
knew that Brian had the market cornered on the rare commodity
of that old bat's approval, but how much worse would it have
been had Virginia Maddox been her mother?
Hot as the day was, she shuddered at the thought.
"You're going to have to take this to the sheriff," Luke said.
"I can't understand why you didn't in the first place."
"The man's been in office since Sam Houston was in grade
school," she erupted. "It would take me hours to explain to
Hector Abbott exactly what a hard drive is. Luke, you have to
help me, please. There's isn't time to play this game by
their rules anymore. I'm already going to lose the house - Beecher
has no choice but to foreclose - but once my
paycheck's gone, I won't even be able to keep up the rent on
Luke didn't touch the box. "Take it in to Hector. This is
his investigation, not ours. But if you need some money -"
This time, she was the one who stood and stared him down. "I
don't need your damned money. Luke Maddox, I need you."
Excerpted from Fatal Error
by Colleen Thompson
Copyright © 2004 by Colleen Thompson .
Excerpted by permission.
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.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >