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"What do I have to do to prove to you people my sister was murdered!?"
Rage, barely held in check, sparked eloquently from the woman's eyes. And a gorgeous pair of eyes they were, the young police sergeant noted as Abie Singleton continued her tirade against the Houston Police Department. He also noted the woman's eyes were but a small part of a most tempting whole.
Chagrined with himself for allowing such inappropriate thoughts to interfere with his work, he forced his attention back to where it belonged, to her words and away from her tempting physical attractions. She deserved to have her concerns treated seriously, and he was determined to do just that, forgetting for the moment the attraction he felt for her as a woman.
Sergeant David Reardon sympathized with the lady, but what could he do? The Department already ruled on the issue of her sister's death, and unless she came up with new evidence, there was absolutely nothing he could do for her. Damn, he hated these scenes.
"You don't understand! Nettie never took drugs." She rose abruptly from her chair, her eyes darting about the room as if somewhere within its confines she could find the answers to questions that tormented her very soul. She suddenly turned her gaze back to him, pinning him with a hard stare. "And you aren't getting away with labeling her death a suicide, either." Her voice resonated with defiance.
David sighed. This was the part of the job he hated the most -- dealing with grieving families. Damn! Why didn't people think of their loved ones before they went off and did stupid things that were sure to cause grief? Unfortunately, this lady was not making hisjob any easier.
"I'm sorry, Miss Singleton. I know how difficult this must be for you, but there's not one shred of evidence to suggest your sister died of anything but a drug overdose."
David understood the myriad of emotions with which she must deal -- shock, anger, grief and, of course, denial. It was all too obvious that this visit to the Houston Police Department was all part of her denial. She wanted them to make everything all right again. Since they couldn't bring her sister back to life, they could at least take away the onus of how she died.
She wanted the Department to tell the world her sister died a saint, but they couldn't. They couldn't change one single, painful portion of the nightmare. Or, as he was certain she believed, they wouldn't, which made the entire Houston Police Department villains, himself included.
"Is this some sort of game you people play?" she asked, frustration giving her voice a sharp edge. "I must have talked to six people before ending up here... passed from one officer to another. And after all that, what do I get? Nothing but another stone wall that's too damn dense to open up and let in a little sanity and logic. What exactly do I have to do to get someone around here to listen to me?"
"I am listening, Miss Singleton. That's why the lieutenant asked me to talk with you. Believe me, we do want to help. But you must understand, we simply cannot reopen the investigation without something concrete to go on."
She lowered herself back down onto the chair she'd vacated only moments before. Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly then shook her head in obvious disbelief. David felt himself respond to the hopeless expression in her eyes.
"Okay, just answer one question for me and I promise to go away and stop bothering you. Why would an intelligent, emotionally well balanced woman take drugs if she knew they would kill her?"
"We see people doing just that every day of the week."
"But what about people who have suffered with congenital heart conditions all their lives? People who know that for them, experimenting with drugs means almost certain death?"
"Your sister had a bad heart? I don't recall there being any mention of a heart condition in the report."
A frown creased his brow as he reached for the file.
David glanced through its contents, which were surprisingly sparse. He read the initial report filed by the responding officer, which indicated drugs were present at the scene. He then skimmed through the autopsy and toxicology reports. Following the reports were transcribed interviews with the woman's husband and a few members of the staff who worked at the hotel where the body had been found. Skimming through the Medical Examiner's reports, he noted that the examining physician had not considered a diseased heart to be of sufficient importance to deserve mention.
David's temper flared at the thought the autopsy might have been botched. He could only suppose after finding narcotics in the room and the initial appearance of the deceased's body, the Coroner felt satisfied with concentrating on the drugs.
Glancing up from the report, he found himself gazing directly into Abie Singleton's eyes. He saw a flash of recognition in their depths, as if she had read his mind. If that were true, she suspect, as did he, that the Coroner had done a lousy job.
Although he personally had no control over the Coroner's office, a stab of remorse drove through him hard and swift. It was followed immediately by an overwhelming need to help ease the woman's torment. But what could he do? Though the investigation may have been handled poorly, there was still nothing in the file to justify reopening the case.
Abie slumped back in the chair, her body assuming a pose of total frustration. David returned the file to his desk, then directed his attention back to the victim's sister. He paused for a moment, letting his gaze rest on her as he tried to find just the right words.
Damn, he liked what he saw! Far more than was prudent, given the circumstances. He suspected she'd chosen her outfit thinking the skirt and blouse would give her a business like, no-nonsense appearance. He understood the philosophy, but noted the attempt failed entirely. From his point of view, rather than detracting from her clean cut good looks, the outfit created the opposite effect. On her the combination was devastating. The beige skirt, though not particularly short, revealed shapely long legs and trim ankles. The peach colored silky blouse, rather than hiding her feminine curves, accented them delightfully. As she leaned forward, a glimpse of white lace at the deepest apex of the neckline teased him. He caught himself wishing he could see more.
Long silky ash-blond hair and soft brown eyes lent her an air of vulnerability that reached out to him. He saw pain in those eyes, and a desperate need for someone to listen and to believe.
"I really am sorry about your sister's death, Miss Singleton, believe me I am. But Homicide's found nothing that would lead them to suspect the cause of death was anything other than an accidental or self-induced overdose of alcohol and drugs. Although her heart condition isn't mentioned in the report, it's still not enough to override Homicide's conclusion."
"I simply refuse to accept that, Sergeant. My sister was never careless with her health and I'm certain she wasn't suicidal."
Though he was beginning to realize nothing he said would change the woman's mind, he still felt obligated to try.
"It's often hard for the family to accept, but these things happen all the time. Sometimes a woman sees middle age approaching and she panics. Maybe her husband doesn't have much time for her anymore. She gets bored and decides to try something new, something exciting, to put a little spark in her life. Someone tells her a little 'coke' is just what she needs. She tries it and she likes what it does for her, so she tries some more."
Abie's jaws tightened even further, a feat he wouldn't have deemed possible had he not seen it with his own eyes.
"Jeanette wouldn't have done that."
"Believe me, I've seen it happen time and again. Decent, otherwise law abiding citizens, caught in a chemical trap."
"Right, that's exactly what you said when I first came through the door. I didn't accept your theory then and I don't accept it now. Nothing you say will make me change my mind."
She rose from the chair, glaring at him, frustration and anger radiating from her with such intensity he felt he could reach out and touch it.
"I'm through asking for help. From now on I'm demanding that someone with authority listen to what I have to say, and I'm not taking 'no' for an answer!"
David sighed, knowing she was only wasting her time and her energies. No matter who she talked to in the Houston Police Department, the answer would be the same -- sorry, but the case is closed.
"Jeanette would never have done something so stupid. Someone at that disgusting club slipped a drug into her drink. I'd bet money on it. Maybe it was supposed to be a joke or meant for someone else, I don't know. But whatever the case, I've got a gut feeling someone from the Adonis Cave is at the bottom of this."
Angie felt her heart do a little skip, then begin to beat rapidly. For the very first time since entering the room, she felt she had the sergeant's complete attention. Had she finally said something that caught his attention?
The sergeant's body stiffened for a moment, then he reached again for the file on his desk. A mask slipped over his face, hiding his thoughts from her prying eyes, yet at the same moment his gaze never left hers. She felt trapped by the intensity of his gaze. It was a peculiar sensation, one she wasn't sure she felt comfortable with. In spite of the chill his hard gaze sent racing up her spine, Abie's hopes flared. Maybe she'd finally sparked his interest by mentioning the male strip club her sister had recently been frequenting.
"You say your sister hung out at the Adonis Cave? There's nothing here in the report about that either!" He slapped the report back down on the desk.
"Probably because the police officers who investigated her death didn't talk to the right people." She raised her chin in defiance as she responded to his cryptic observation. "As far as I know, they only questioned her husband and the people at the hotel where her body was found. None of them would have known about it. From what I've seen, I'd say this investigation was far from thorough."
Civil servants! she thought, her anger mounting. Always ready to take the path of least resistance. They'd been only too happy to label Jeanette's death an overdose or suicide and forget it. All nice and neat. Well, they weren't going to get away with labeling her sister a druggie. She'd make damn sure of that!
"Miss Singleton, if you don't mind, I'd like to go over what we already know about the facts of your sister's death with you one more time." His tone was conciliatory, almost apologetic. "Perhaps you can help me fill in a few of the blanks. Why don't you sit down and relax while I look at this a little closer."
Abie hesitated for a moment, then returned to her chair, all the while keeping her eyes on him as he read through the report once again. A slight furrow appeared on his brow as he gazed at the pages before him, as if he saw something he hadn't noticed before.
She felt her hopes rise, but was wary of allowing herself to put much faith in the young sergeant. She'd been disappointed too often already. Just because he was drop-dead good looking didn't mean he was any more capable in his profession than any of the other incompetents she had been dealing with ever since she had entered the police building.
Okay, maybe "incompetents" wasn't exactly the word she should be using, she acknowledged grudgingly to herself. Most of the Department might be competent enough, but where was their compassion? Was it impossible for any of them to really care about what happened to Jeanette?
She cleared her throat to speak, reluctant to break the silence that filled the room, yet determined to not be intimidated by it.
"I wonder if I might be allowed to read the report myself, Sergeant? I was very close to my sister. I might see something everyone else has missed."
"I don't see why not," he answered as he handed her the file. "Most of it's routine fill-in-the box stuff. The part you'll be most interested in is down here," he flipped the first sheet over and pointed to the middle of the second page.
He leaned over to point out the section of the report he thought relevant, bringing their bodies closer than Abie liked. She noted his spicy, masculine scented aftershave seemed somehow out of kilter with the otherwise sterile atmosphere of the room. It gave the scene a sense of intimacy she was completely unprepared for.
A flush of heat raced through her as she tried to ignore her body's unexpected response to his nearness. Rather than subsiding, the heat continued to build, coating her body with a fine film of sweat.
Totally disconcerted, she had to force herself to listen as he read from the report, "Subject, Mrs. Jeanette Wilkins, was found dead in her hotel room at the Holiday Inn by a member of the housekeeping staff at eleven-fifteen on the morning of June third. Subject victim registered under her own name. Nobody at the hotel remembered seeing Mrs. Wilkins after she registered. There were no telephone calls to or from her room."
Pointing to another section of the report, he added, "The Medical Examiner gives the cause of death as a 'lethal combination of cocaine and alcohol' most likely self-induced, with the death occurring sometime between ten p.m. and two a.m."
A poignant silence filled the room, broken only by the sound of Sergeant Reardon closing the file and stepping away from Abie's side.
Returning the file to his desk, he turned to her and asked, "Just what exactly makes you think Mrs. Wilkins' death had anything to do with the Adonis Cave?"
He crossed his arms and casually leaned against the desk. His smile was polite yet offered Abie little encouragement.
The pose emphasized a very well developed physique. For a fraction of an instant Abie caught herself wondering what he might look like with no shirt. Were the muscles that stretched the fabric of his shirt to tantalizing limits as well defined as she suspected?
She felt the rush of heat rising once again, bringing a flush to her face. Where in the world did such inappropriate thoughts come from? All right, the man was attractive, but so what? She'd seen good looking men before -- better looking than this guy!
Stress, she decided. It had to be the stress.
"You were going to tell me what makes you think someone at the Adonis Cave might have been involved."
His deep, warm voice urged her to reply, inviting her confidence. Something inside her responded to his urging. For the first time since entering police headquarters, she felt that maybe, just maybe, someone was willing to listen to reason.
"Jeanette seldom ever drank anything stronger than diet cola. That is, until she started going to that vile place. Her heart condition was serious and she'd learned early in life not to take chances. But when she started going to the Adonis Cave she changed."
"In what way?" he coaxed.
"At first the changes seemed positive. I hadn't seen her so happy in a long time. She was dressing better, wearing make-up for the first time in ages. She even started wearing the flashy jewelry her husband gave her.
"That should have alerted me that something was going on because she'd never given a whit for those jewels before. She always said Bill would rather spend money on jewelry than time with her, so she never wore them. She considered them more of a cop-out on his part than a gesture of his love. Then, all of a sudden, she's wearing them like some sort of flag."
Abie thought she saw a glimmer of interest spark in Reardon's eye, but he remained silent, letting her continue.
"She radiated happiness. Before she confided in me about the club, I'd thought maybe she and Bill had gone to one of those marriage encounter things you read about and were on a second honeymoon."
At the mention of Jeanette's husband, Abie noted a glimmer of interest in the sergeant's eyes.
"Tell me, how did her husband feel about his wife going to a male strip club?" he interrupted.
"I doubt he knew about it. She only went there when he was out of town."
"Do you think either of them had been contemplating divorce?"
"Oh, no. I'm sure they still cared for one another. I think their marriage just got into a rut and Jeanette was using the club to shake things up a bit," she replied.
"You see, Bill's vice president of an oil field service company, in charge of international sales. As you can imagine, traveling has always been a large part of the job. And lately, with the oil industry being the way it is, when he was in town he was often too busy to spend much time with Jeanette. But there'd never been talk of a divorce."
"And how long had she been frequenting the Adonis Cave?"
"As far as I know, only a few weeks. At least she never mentioned it to me until a couple of months ago."
The sergeant pushed himself away from the desk and began pacing the small room. Abie couldn't help noticing he moved with the natural grace of an athlete, the light fabric of his slacks outlining powerful thigh muscles. He stopped mid-stride then turned to face her, a speculative gleam in his eye.
"Have you gone there yourself? You know, to check out the action?"
Anger rose, quick and hot. How arrogant of him to assume just because her sister was a regular customer, she too would frequent such a sleazy club!
"Not hardly," she answered, sarcasm dripping from her voice. "The idea of watching sweaty, gyrating men take their clothes off in front of a mob of screaming women is not my idea of a good time."
"Then what gives you the idea someone at the club had anything to do with her death?"
A wave of embarrassing heat swept through Abie, spreading quickly from her neck up to her face as she recalled her sister's shocking confessions. She could just imagine how obvious her discomfort must be, but how could she tell this man the intimate details Jeanette had revealed to her?
"We, uh, talked about things... You know, private things... secrets between sisters. Jeanette never expected me to repeat what she told me."
Abie shifted uneasily in her chair. It was one thing to petition the police to reopen her sister's case, but quite another to tell all the sordid details of Jeanette's clandestine affair with a sleazy male stripper.
"Miss Singleton, I realize this is difficult for you, but believe me, there's very little you could tell me I haven't heard a million times before."
The sergeant's voice was quietly reassuring. The compassion she read in his eyes surprised her. She would give anything to keep Jeanette's secret, but she realized secrecy was no longer an option.
Dropping her gaze to the floor, she answered, "She told me she was having an affair with one of the dancers."
"Which of the dancers was she involved with?" She could hear the burgeoning interest in his voice.
"She never actually mentioned his name, but then I never asked. I was so sure it was just a passing phase that I felt the less I knew about him the better.
"You used the word 'affair,' by that do you mean they'd become intimate?" he asked, his voice registering absolutely no emotion, suggesting such behavior was more the norm than otherwise.
"Yes,... I believe... you could say they had," she replied haltingly.
Oh, why had she brought up all this ugliness? She felt like a traitor, repeating her sister's intimate secrets.
"To your knowledge, did he ever ask her for money? Maybe suggest she buy him expensive gifts?"
Abie realized if there was evidence her sister's lover had taken advantage of her, the sergeant would take her theory of Jeanette's death more seriously. It would be an open door to further the investigation. But try as she might, nothing came to mind.
Using the patience he had cultivated during his years on the police force, David waited silently, allowing Abie all the time she needed to answer his question. He watched her as her mind dwelled on past conversations with her deceased sister. He willed her to remember something, anything, he could use in an investigation. But the longer she tried, the more certain he was she would not be able to give him anything substantial.
Her loyalty touched him. Sometimes he felt as if the old fashioned moralities such as loyalty to one's kin had vanished. Seeing such a noble emotion in action was like taking a breath of pure, sweet air after spending a lifetime dealing with society's sewage.
And, if he was being completely honest with himself, he had to admit her clean, healthy beauty nearly took his breath away. Barely a trace of make-up graced the face of an angel. No heavy eye make-up detracted from her velvety brown eyes. The lightest touch of pale peach lipstick accented finely sculpted, very kissable, lips.
He noted with a flush of pleasure she wore no ring. But married or not, the lady was strictly off limits. Though he accepted the fact, he couldn't keep a scowl from creasing his brow at the thought that it would be professional suicide if he were to pursue the desires she awakened in him.
Damn! He'd give a month's pay for some evidence, any evidence, warranting further investigation of the case. Otherwise, what possible excuse could he use to see her again?
Her lips compressed slightly as she shook her head slowly. "No, I can't remember her ever saying anything like that."
"You're sure she never mentioned the name of the dancer she was seeing?"
"I'm certain. From what she said, her lover was just as anxious as she to keep the affair secret." Her expressive eyes reflected her frustration. Without her having to say so, he knew she finally realized she didn't have enough evidence to justify his reopening her sister's file. He hated to see such hopelessness reflected in those beautiful eyes.
"Thank you for coming in, Miss Singleton," he said softly, stifling a sad sigh. He reached out to shake her hand. "I realize how difficult this experience has been for you. I just wish there was something I could do to help, but unfortunately the evidence doesn't warrant our reopening your sister's case at this time. If you can think of anything else, the dancer's name, any threats he may have made, any demands for money, please give me a call."
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a business card. He scribbled a number on the back of it, then handed it to her.
"Don't hesitate to call me if you remember anything you think might be relevant," he urged. "If you can't locate me here at the station, then please feel free to call me at the number on the back."
She accepted his hand, giving it a no-nonsense shake. Turning to leave, she failed to see the expression of compassion in the man's eyes. Fuming with frustration, she was barely able to control the urge to slam the door behind her as she exited the room.
Copyright © 1998 by Maralee Lowder