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Where was she?
Palmer checked his cell phone for the fifteenth time in as many minutes. She was late. Again. He wanted to believe that it wasn't deliberate on her part, but the truth was Lola enjoyed keeping him waiting. No, scratch that. She liked to keep him twisting on the end of a meat hook. The woman knew she had him: heart, soul and gonads.
Palmer knew Lola was bad news the moment she sashayed into his office, but that hadn't kept him from falling hard and messy, like a jumper off the Empire State Building. She'd hired him to follow her husband, a well-to-do contractor named Samuel Quine, trying to get some dirt on him for a nice, juicy divorce settlement. It didn't take long. Quine was seeing someone on the sly, all right. They met at a motel on the outskirts of town twice a week. It was all very discreet and proper, in a suburban middle-class kind of way. Palmer was all too familiar with the pattern. After all, he'd spent a good chunk of his professional life taking incriminating photos of unfaithful husbands and wives sneaking in and out of hot-sheet joints. What he couldn't understand was why Quine needed to get it on the side when he was married to a woman as sexy as Lola.
Before Palmer could finish that train of thought, he was dazzled by the high beams from Lola's candy-apple red Trans Am as it pulled into the deserted parking lot, Bon Jovi pumping out of the speaker system. Palmer grimaced. Lola had dreadful taste. Except for him, of course. She shut off the engine, returning the lot to shadows and silence, but there was still enough illumination from the distant streetlights for him to see her slide out from behind the wheel of her car. She was dressed all in red, from the ribbon wrapped around her ash-blond ponytail to the stiletto-heeled designer shoes that matched her miniskirt. Her fingernails and lips glistened as if she'd painted them with fresh blood.
Palmer's anxiety and aggravation transformed itself into pure lust. It was like being high on a wondrous drug that made rational thought and common sense not only irrelevant, but completely impossible. He wondered if this was how male praying mantises felt during the mating dance.
"You got it?" Her voice was honey and whisky poured over crystal-clear ice. She raised her cornflower-blue eyes to his dark brown ones.
He nodded dumbly, his tongue turned into a useless wad of dry cotton. Palmer handed her a manila envelope full of pictures of Sam Quine and his mistress leaving their trysting place, as well as information detailing the days and times they kept their rendezvous.
Lola quickly scanned his notes, her mouth set into a predatory smirk. Palmer was startled by the cruelty he saw in her eyes, and then shamed by his instinctive revulsion. But he still couldn't shake the feeling that he'd just caught a true glimpse of the woman Sam Quine was married to.
"Lola, we need to talk."
"I'd like to stay and chat, Bill. I really would. But there's something I have to attend to." She opened the carmine designer purse that hung from her shapely white shoulder as she spoke.
"Lola, it's about us—"
"Now, where did I put that thing? Oh, here it is!"
"When will I get to see you again?"
Lola turned to face him, pulling a handgun from the tangled mess of cosmetics in her purse. "In hell," she replied, leveling the weapon at his chest.
Palmer stared in mute horror at the piece of blue steel pointed at his heart. He recognized the weapon as his own, supposedly locked in the desk at the office. He disliked guns, but his clients expected it of him. Damn you, Bogart.
"But, Lola ... I love you!"
Her painted lips pulled back into a grin that seemed to spread until it bisected her face. "That's sweet of you to say. I love you, too, Bill."
And then she shot him.
William Palmer woke in a puddle of sweat. Had he screamed? He listened to the other inmates in the city jail's infirmary, but all he heard were the usual snores and farts. He uncoiled his rigid shoulder and leg muscles. He'd recently taken to sleeping with his arms crossed, corpse-style, across his chest. He sat up, dabbing at the sweat rolling off his brow with the edge of the bed sheet. His hands trembled and he wanted a smoke really bad. Hell, he'd even settle for one of those shitty big-house cigarettes, made from Bugler tobacco and a page from the New Testament. Regular cancer sticks like Camels and Winstons were hard to get, much less his preferred brand: Sherman's.
That dream. That goddamned dream.
How long was it going to keep on? He'd been having the same dream ever since he woke up from his coma six weeks ago. The dreams varied widely, but they were essentially all the same: they involved him, Lola and his gun. Each dream ended with Lola opening fire. Sometimes the dreams were nonsensical, the way dreams normally are: he and Lola riding a merry-go-round in the middle of a forest, only to have her pull out the gun and shoot him. Others were so realistic he didn't know it was a dream until he was jerked back into consciousness: he and Lola naked in bed, screwing away, but then she pulls the gun out from under the pillow, blowing his brains out just as he reaches orgasm ...
Palmer squeezed his eyes shut, deliberately blocking the image. That one had been particularly bad. None of the dream-shootings were the real one, though. He guessed he should be grateful for small favors. It was bad enough remembering what had happened in the motel room without being condemned to relive it every night. His right hand absently massaged the scar on his chest that marked Lola's parting gift.
She'd called late, babbling that she needed his help. She said she had finally decided to confront her husband. She went to the motel to surprise him with his mistress, but things had gone wrong. They got into a fight and Quine had gone crazy, threatening to kill her. She was locked in the bathroom, fearing for her life. Within minutes of getting her call, Palmer was in his car and on his way to the motel.
The door was unlocked when he got there. He wasn't that worried about Lola's husband. Quine was heavier than Palmer, but he was fifteen years older and not in the best of shape. He knew how to handle himself in a fight. But he was unprepared for the sight of Sam Quine sprawled naked across the motel room's double bed, his brains splashed across the headboard and nightstand.
Palmer heard the bathroom door click open behind him. He turned in time to see Lola at the threshold, stark naked and holding a recently fired gun. His gun.
And then she fired.
Three weeks passed before he was able to stay conscious long enough to understand what was being said to and about him. Sometimes he wished he could return to the painless gray of twilight sleep and never come out. Anything would be better than the truth.
The whole thing was like a bad Mickey Spillane novel. It was typical of Lola, though.
The cops kept commencing on the half-baked nature of the scheme. Did she really think no one would question her version of what happened? Didn't she know that forensics could read the splatter pattern left by her husband's exploding head and triangulate the trajectory of the fatal bullet? Did she really think the police were that stupid? There was no way she could have pulled it off.
It didn't make any sense unless you knew her. Or thought you did. Lola had never been one to concern herself with consensual reality. If she told him that her husband was a brute, a cheat and a liar, then that's exactly what he was. That she refused to have sex with him for two years was unrelated to his infidelity. He was the one in the wrong, the one to be punished. If she told the police that she and her husband had gone to a certain motel to celebrate their anniversary, only to be the victims of an attempted robbery, then that's what happened. Who could possibly imagine otherwise? It never once crossed her pretty, sociopathic mind that she would ever be a suspect.
That Palmer had survived the bullet she'd pumped into him was another contingency she was unprepared for. She kept insisting that she'd wrested the gun from her husband's attacker and shot him in self-defense, but the police suspected Palmer's wounding had more to do with a falling out between illicit lovers. When they produced evidence of a previous relationship between her and the private detective, it proved too much for her. Finding herself, for the first time in her life, in a situation where her sex appeal could not free her from the consequences of her actions, Lola took the easy way out with a fifth of Everclear and a bottle of sleeping pills, but not before she penned a venomous farewell note, implicating Palmer in Quine's death.
'It was all his idea. I didn't want to go along with it,' she lied from beyond the grave.
What she really meant was that it was all his fault for not dying. If he'd died like she had planned, everything would have gone off the way it was supposed to. Funny how he was finally becoming adept at understanding Lola, now that it was too late to do him any good.
As soon as the doctors proclaimed him fit, he would go before the judge. As far as the District Attorney's office was concerned, it was a clear cut case of conspiracy to commit murder— it didn't matter who, in the end, actually pulled the trigger. His public defense attorney told him there wasn't much hope of avoiding prison.
Palmer craned his head so he could catch a glimpse of the sky through the heavily secured window over his bed. It was still dark out. He remembered his mother insisting, during the periodic hard times the family roller-coasted through, how "it's always darkest before the dawn." His mother was a good woman, bless her, but incapable of making a statement that wasn't cobbled together from clichés.
His father had been a great one for clichés as well. His only attempt at handing paternal wisdom had been a nose-to-nose yelling match, where he'd told the fifteen-year-old Palmer: "Boy, if you don't get your head outta your ass, you're gonna find yourself up shit creek without a paddle!"
"Somebody here to see you, Palmer," the orderly said.
Word had come through that morning that the doctors had okayed his transference from the medical ward of the jail. He was to be placed in the general population the next day. This had not come as welcome news.
"Is it my lawyer?"
"Beats me. The guy says he wants to talk to you." The orderly jerked his head toward the single door that lead in and out of the recovery ward. A man Palmer had never seen before was standing at the check-in desk, an expensive attaché case in one hand. "You wanna see him?"
There was no privacy in the infirmary, but the patient-inmates had the freedom to turn away visitors if they chose.
"Yeah, send him over."
Moments later the stranger stood at the foot of Palmer's bed. He was a middle-aged man dressed in an expensive silk suit. His skin was pallid, even by today's melanoma-conscious
standards. He looked like a man who spent a lot of time indoors.
"Mr. Palmer? Mr. William Palmer?"
"Yeah, that's me. Who wants to know?"
The stranger's mouth smiled, but his eyes did not join in. "My name is Renfield. And I believe I can be of some service to you, Mr. Palmer."
"That so? You a lawyer?" Palmer motioned him to take a seat in the metal folding chair next to the bed.
Renfield lowered himself into the seat. His movements were so rigid and stylized that he reminded Palmer of an animated mannequin. His mouth curled into another simulated smile. "Not exactly. I am a representative for a third party who has an interest in your case."
"Look, Mac, I don't know what it is you're getting at. Say what you have to say and get it over with, okay?'
"You are innocent, are you not? Of the crime they accuse you of, I mean. You did not murder, nor did you conspire to murder, Samuel Quine. Is that right?"
"You got it." Palmer wished he had a smoke. This pasty- faced suit was making him nervous.
"Would you care for a cigarette, Mr. Palmer?" Renfield asked, pulling a pack from his breast pocket. Palmer was surprised to see a flat, red-and-white case of Sherman's in his pale hand.
"Yeah, don't mind if I do." Palmer said as he eagerly accepted one of the thin, unfiltered cigarillos. Smoking was, theoretically, forbidden, not only inside the infirmary, but the jail itself. Then again, so were gangs and rape.
"Go ahead, take the pack."
"Uh, thanks." He stared at the pack of Shermans, and then back at Renfield's blandly smiling face. "How did you know I smoke this brand?"
"There is a lot we know about you, Mr. Palmer."
Palmer looked up from his cupped palms as he lit his cigarette. " 'We'?"
"I refer, of course, to my employer."
"Exactly who is this guy, and why is he interested in my well being?"
"That is not important, for now. What is important is that he can—and will, providing you agree to work for him—clear you of all charges. He can also get your Private Investigator's license reinstated."
"What is this, some kind of joke?" he frowned. "If so, it's not a real knee-slapper."
"Joke?" Renfield's brow creased. "I never joke, Mr. Palmer."
"Of course you don't. Okay, let me rephrase myself: Who sent you, and what am I to him that he's willing to pull those kind of strings? You're not with the Mafia, are you?"
"I assure you, Mr. Palmer, my employer has no need of such petty power brokers. All I need to know is whether you are amenable to certain terms of employment in exchange for your freedom." Again the smile-that-wasn't-a-smile.
Palmer shrugged. "If your boss can spring me like you said, I'll walk on my hands all the way to Timbuktu, if that's what he wants."
"I doubt that will be necessary. Then you accept my employer's offer?"
"That's what I said, didn't I?"
Renfield nodded and closed his eyes. "It is done," he said aloud in an odd voice. It sounded like a verbal signal. Palmer suddenly wondered if the creep was wired for sound. He felt the urge to grab the pasty little bastard and shake him by his lapels, but restrained himself.
Renfield stood up, carefully straightening the creases in his suit. "You will be hearing from us shortly. Good day, Mr. Palmer."
"Yeah. Sure. Hang loose, dude."
Palmer lay back in the bed, arms folded behind his head, puffing thoughtfully on his cigarette. Who the hell was this Renfield geek? He didn't like the whey-faced bastard, but if he was telling the truth ... Well, it wouldn't be the first time he had shaken hands with the Devil.
Twenty-four hours after his initial meeting with Renfield, Palmer was standing on the street outside the Criminal Justice Building, blinking at the late afternoon sun. It had been months since he'd last been outside. He was still a bit weak from the gunshot wound that had creased his heart, but, all in all, he felt pretty damn good. Freedom was an amazing tonic.
I'll be damned. The little wonk said he could do it, and whatever else he might be, he sure as hell isn't a liar.
Palmer hefted the plain canvas tote bag the prison quartermaster had given him before jettisoning him back onto the streets. Inside were what few possessions he could call his own, salvaged from his apartment by his erstwhile public defender before the landlord changed the lock. It was hardly the most auspicious of new beginnings. Palmer glanced at his wristwatch. He'd received a note from Renfield just prior to his release telling him to wait on the corner. But for what?
A Mercedes, black and shiny as a scarab, pulled up to the curb, its windows polarized against prying eyes. The rear passenger door opened and Renfield leaned halfway out, motioning for him to climb in. "You seem surprised, Mr. Palmer."
"Dazed is more like it. How did you do it?"
"Pull that trick with the DA's office? They said something about Lola's diary turning up?"
Renfield shrugged. "My employer is not without ... connections, Mr. Palmer. Besides, what does it matter, so long as you are cleared?"
Palmer wanted to press the issue, but there was something in the way the other man smiled that made him keep silent. Renfield may have saved him from a life in prison, but that didn't mean he had to like the guy. In fact, he felt uncomfortable simply sitting next to him. He couldn't help himself; there was something inherently loathsome about the guy that he couldn't quite peg.
Excerpted from In the Blood by Nancy A. Collins. Copyright © 2014 Nancy A. Collins. 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.
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Posted January 6, 2013