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Killing Her Softly
By BEVERLY BARTON
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Beverly Beaver
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJim Norton figured it was going to rain. His arthritic knees were giving him fits and had all afternoon. But what could an ex-jock, who'd had bones broken, muscles strained and ligaments torn, expect when he hit forty? His ex-wife had once dubbed him her six-million-dollar man because he had so many artificial body parts.
Jim groaned. The last thing he wanted on his mind tonight was Mary Lee. Their marriage had ended six years ago. It was past time he got over her.
"What are you grunting about?" Chad George asked. "Pissed because Inspector Purser assigned us this case right before you were scheduled to go on vacation?"
"Nah, nothing like that. I didn't have any special plans. Mary Lee nixed my idea of taking Kevin camping for a week. I can always reschedule my time off. Besides, Purser knows when to send in the best the homicide division has to offer."
"Gee, thanks, Jim. I had no idea you thought so highly of me."
"Go fuck yourself, Boy George."
Chad's face turned beet red, a close match to his wavy auburn hair that he kept cut military short.
"I'm getting damn sick and tired of the jokes about my being pretty enough to be a girl," Chad said. "What do I have to do to get you and the other guys to ease up on the ribbing-run my face through a windshield or let some knife-happy perp slice-and-dice my rosy cheeks?"
Jim chuckled. "The only reason we dish it out is because you can't take it. Act like you don't give a shit and it'll stop soon enough."
Chad harrumphed as he turned their black Ford Taurus onto Galloway Drive. "I'd like to believe that."
Jim had been partnered with the darling of the department on a string of cases these past three months since Chad's former partner, Bill Delmar, retired. Jim couldn't fault the kid on his professionalism. But on a personal basis, newly promoted Sergeant Chad George could be a pain in the ass. He was often a bit too cocky and always a bit too sensitive. Hell, at twenty-eight, the guy should have wised-up. A police officer, especially one in the homicide department, wouldn't last long if he didn't learn to distance himself from the job just enough so that the intensity of murder and mayhem didn't bleed over into every aspect of his life. It was no secret to anyone who knew him that Chad lived and breathed his job. Odds were he'd make lieutenant in a few years and just keep moving right on up. Of course, it didn't hurt that he had his own personal angel-none other than Congressman Harte, who was Chad's uncle-by-marriage.
Jim had been a lot like Chad at his age-minus the angel-but he figured there was no point in telling the boy to do as he said and not as he'd done. Ten years ago, Jim hadn't listened to older and wiser men on the force who'd tried to warn him. If he had listened, maybe his former partner would still be alive. Maybe he and Mary Lee would still be married. And maybe he'd get to see his son whenever he was off duty and not just on alternate weekends and a couple of holidays a year.
"It's not every day there's a homicide in Chickasaw Gardens," Chad said.
Jim glanced out the window, visually skimming over mansion after mansion in this old, well-established Memphis neighborhood, where homes often sold for somewhere between one and two million dollars. And in Tennessee, million-dollar houses were far from the norm for the average citizen.
"Who'd they send out from the Central Precinct?" Jim asked.
"A couple of one-man cars. Don't know the officers' names."
Within minutes, they reached the address they'd been given when they were dispatched from downtown. Two white police cars, trimmed in red and blue, a black Chevy Trailblazer, an ambulance and a small group of curious neighbors blocked their path. Chad parked behind one of the two police vehicles. The minute they emerged from the sedan, they made their way up the sidewalk to the two-story brick traditional shaded by large oak trees. Curious stares and a hum of murmurs followed them. Jim scanned the area, left and right, forward and backward. He noted a sleek, silver Porsche convertible parked in the driveway.
A young uniformed officer stood outside the front door, nervous sweat dampening his face on this cool spring night. Chad approached, identified himself and Jim, and then turned to the crowd.
"Folks, I'm going to have to ask that y'all leave the yard. Your presence here could very well compromise our crime scene."
A loud grumble rose from several in the group, but to-a-person they moved hurriedly out into the street.
Jim noted the embarrassed look on the young policeman's face. His name tag read Jarnigan. "The ME already here?" Jim thought he recognized Udell White's SUV parked behind the police cars.
"Yes, sir. He arrived just a few minutes ago," Officer Jarnigan replied, then swallowed hard.
Chad zeroed in on Jarnigan, who Jim figured was fresh out of John D. Holt. If he was a rookie that would explain his nervousness. Sometimes it seemed like only yesterday that he had graduated from the Academy. He'd been young and stupid enough to think he could conquer the world. He should have known better. After all, his dream of turning pro had been dashed when an injury his senior year at UT had ended his football career. After his body had been refurbished through a series of operations, he had been able to function normally, at least enough to meet the force's physical requirements. After losing out on a pro career and making a ton of personal and professional mistakes, Jim didn't have big plans anymore. He just took each day one at a time.
"What other officer responded to the call?" Chad asked.
"Del Treacy. He's inside with the ME." Jarnigan's voice trembled.
Jim gave Chad a back-off glance, then stepped up on the porch where Jarnigan stood, guarding the open front door, and put his hand on the man's shoulder. "Take it easy, son. We're all on the same team here."
"This your first murder case?"
"Yes, sir." Jarnigan sighed deeply.
Jim turned to Chad. "Why don't you go out there and get the names of the curious and find out if they know anything about what happened. I'll take over here."
Chad bristled. Too bad. Jim still outranked him. He probably should have sent Jarnigan to interview the bystanders instead of ordering his partner to do the job. But it was liable to be a long night and a little bit of Chad went a long way. He figured he'd better separate himself from the cocky kid as much as possible so he didn't lose his cool with the department's darling boy.
"Yeah, sure." Chad grunted, then headed down the sidewalk.
Jim pulled out a notepad and pen from his inside coat pocket, then asked Jarnigan, "What time did y'all arrive on the scene?"
Jim made a note of the time, then jotted down the address, the approximate temperature and weather conditions. Sixty-three degrees. Cool, clear, stars in the sky. "Tell me what y'all found when you arrived."
"Uh ... er ... the guy who'd called 911 met us at the door." Jarnigan glanced over his shoulder. "Del's got him inside. In the living room."
"He said he found the victim when he arrived. They ... er ... they had a late date. He said she was already dead when he got here."
Jim nodded as he glanced around, taking note of the specifics of the old brick house. One door-a double door at the front. Four long, narrow windows. All four shut tight.
"I'm going inside," Jim said. "You stay out here and help Sergeant George. And don't let him intimidate you."
"No sir. I mean, yes sir, I won't."
Jim entered the large marble-floored foyer and eyed the sweeping staircase leading to the second floor. A crystal chandelier glistened brightly overhead. A set of double pocket doors to the left were closed, but the matching set to the right were open, revealing the twenty-by-twenty living room. Hardwood floors. Fireplace. No fire. Intricately carved wooden mantel. Traditional decorating, probably created by an outrageously expensive interior designer.
A stocky, black-uniformed officer stood talking to a man wearing an expensive dark suit, a white shirt and a red tie. When Jim approached the entrance to the living room, both men glanced at him.
"Officer Treacy, I'm Lieutenant Norton. Homicide."
"Who's this you've got with you?"
The tall, broad-shouldered man turned all the way around and faced Jim. Wavy black hair and dark eyes, bronze skin and handsome Hispanic features. Good-looking devil, Jim thought. Not a pretty boy like Chad. Just damn impressive.
"I'm Quinn Cortez." The man's black eyes narrowed as his gaze met Jim's. "I'm the one who found Ms. Vanderley's body."
The muscles in Quinn's belly tightened as he studied the homicide detective. The guy looked vaguely familiar. Rugged features. Short brown hair. Somewhere between thirty-five and forty. Quinn never forgot a face. He'd said his name was Norton. His identity didn't come to Quinn immediately, but it would. Lieutenant Norton was a couple inches taller than Quinn, well-muscled and lean, with a world-weary look in his pensive blue eyes that hinted of pain, both physical and emotional.
"The Quinn Cortez?" Norton asked, his hard face emotionless.
Quinn grunted. "Yeah, I'm the Quinn Cortez."
"You just won that McBryar case over in Nashville," Norton said. "What brought you to Memphis tonight?"
"Lulu-Ms. Vanderley called earlier and invited me. Our get-together was supposed to be a celebration."
"Want to take me, step-by-step, through what happened from the minute you drove up in the driveway until the officers showed up?"
"Sure." Quinn knew the routine. Being a criminal lawyer, he had cultivated friendships with as well as made enemies of numerous lawmen in a number of states, where pro hac vice rules allowed him to practice outside his home state of Texas.
"That your Porsche parked in the drive?" Norton asked.
Quinn nodded. Was Norton one of those men who would automatically dislike Quinn because he was rich and famous? He'd run into his share of green-with-envy yo-yos who had tried to give him a hard time, but they'd all learned they couldn't intimidate Quinn Cortez, nor could they scare him. But he'd never been in a situation such as this, had never been a suspect in a murder case. And he knew as well as he knew his own name that since he had found Lulu's body and the two of them had been lovers, he would immediately top the police's persons-of-interest list.
"I got here around ten-thirty," Quinn said. "I parked, got out, walked to the door and let myself in with the key Lulu kept hidden beneath the doormat." When Norton squinted and frowned, Quinn nodded. "Yeah, I know it wasn't very smart of her to keep a key in such an obvious place, but Lulu was like that. She enjoyed flirting with danger."
"Did she now?"
"Hell, yes. Why else would she have lived the way she did? In case you don't know anything about Lulu, let me tell you that the lady liked her thrills. She was into skydiving, mountain climbing, deep-sea diving and she had run through as many bad boys as possible since she turned fifteen."
"You've known the lady that long-since she was fifteen?" Norton asked.
Quinn shook his head. "No, but she liked to brag, and her friends who've known her for years verified what otherwise I would have thought were tall tales."
"So, Cortez, were you just one more bad boy to Ms. Vanderley or were you somebody special?"
Quinn shrugged. "I've never given it much thought, but I suppose I was just one more in a long line. Lulu and I are-were-a lot alike. Neither of us was into serious relationships."
"You were lovers?" Norton asked.
"Yeah," Quinn replied. "On and off. It wasn't an exclusive relationship by any means."
"Before tonight, when was the last time you saw Ms. Vanderley?"
"About six weeks ago. She drove up to Nashville and stayed a couple of days."
"Hmm ... Okay, pick up with when you arrived tonight and let yourself into the house."
"I walked inside and called Lulu's name, but she didn't respond, so I went down the hall and straight to her bedroom. I assumed she was in there waiting for me."
"The master bedroom is downstairs?"
"And was she in the bedroom?"
"Yes. She was lying on the bed, flat on her back, wearing a black teddy and ... well, at first I thought she was asleep." Quinn clenched his teeth. Lulu had looked lovely lying there, her eyes closed, her body resting in a languid pose. He'd bent down over her, intending to kiss her. But the minute he touched her shoulder and she didn't even flinch, he'd known she wasn't simply sleeping, even though she'd still felt warm to the touch. At that same time, he'd smelled the stench of death and had noticed, there in the dim candlelight, the waxy, translucent look of her skin. "She was dead. Probably an hour or less at the time I found her. Rigor mortis hadn't set in and her body was still warm."
Quinn could tell by the quiet, contemplative way the lieutenant was studying him that the guy would probably wind up hauling his ass down to headquarters for further questioning. There was only one way out of this mess and that was complete cooperation. Tell the police the truth and prove he hadn't harmed a hair on Lulu's pretty little head.
But could he prove he didn't kill Lulu? He had no alibi for the time of her death-he'd been en route from Nashville and had stopped for a quick nap when he'd gotten so groggy he couldn't keep his eyes open. He'd pulled off Interstate 40 somewhere between Nashville and Jackson and had slept for well over an hour and a half.
Norton glared at Quinn. "Considering you and Ms. Vanderley were lovers, you don't seem too torn up about her death."
"I'm not the emotional type. I don't fall apart in a crisis. If I did, I wouldn't be the Quinn Cortez. But I'm not a completely heartless bastard." Quinn looked Norton right in the eyes. "I cared about Lulu, as a friend. And as a lover. If I could change what happened to her, I would. But all I can do-all any of us can do now-is determine how she died. And if she was murdered, find the person responsible."
Norton eyed Quinn skeptically.
"And no, lieutenant, I didn't kill her. I had absolutely no motive."
Before Norton had a chance to respond, a man of probably fifty, with a receding hairline and a potbelly hanging over his belt, came into the room.
"That you, Jim?" the man asked.
Norton turned and nodded. "Yeah, it's me. What have you got for us, Udell? Suicide? Accident? Murder?"
Jim Norton. Jim Norton. Quinn repeated the name several times and suddenly a light clicked on inside his brain.
Excerpted from Killing Her Softly by BEVERLY BARTON Copyright © 2005 by Beverly Beaver. Excerpted by permission.
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