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Alan Cameron's day began, as it all too often did, with a body. Three of them, actually. They came that way sometimes, in bunches.
It was now past noon, and one of those cases, that of seventeen-year-old Juan Miguel Alviera—whose badly beaten and bullet-riddled body had been found in an alley between a couple of abandoned cars—had been turned over to the Gang Unit. The other two, Walter and Louise Marchetti—found in their own bed by a concerned neighbor, both victims of single gunshot wounds to the head—had tentatively been ruled a murder-suicide, pending the autopsy results. All that was left of that one was filling out the report, which Alan was going to have to take care of himself, since his partner, Carl Taketa, was currently enjoying the pleasures of Cancún with his new bride, Alicia.
Like most cops, Alan hated paperwork. Making this seem to him like a good time to grab some lunch.
He logged off, indulged in a quick stretch and was reaching for his jacket when he heard a soft throat-clearing followed by a hesitant, "Excuse me—are you Detective Cameron?"
He swiveled in his chair, eyebrows politely raised. "I am."
The woman was standing a short distance away between two unoccupied cubicles, looking as though she'd rather be anywhere else but where she was. Not uncommon, in his experience, for people who came looking to speak to a homicide detective.
"How can I help you?" he asked in the mild but authoritative manner in which cops are expected to address presumably law-abiding members of the public, all the while taking in every detail of the woman's appearance and demeanor.
Tall, slim and fit but not all that young. Late thirties to early forties, probably, and keeps herself in good shape with regular trips to the gym, or maybe the tennis court.
Definitely not physical labor—her manicure's too perfect, skin too good. Obviously uses sunscreen…
Attractive, definitely. Vivid blue eyes fringed with lashes that were thick enough to be suspect but which he was almost certain were real. Elizabeth Taylor eyes, he thought to himself. Straight, glossy dark brown hair in an up-to-date style and cut that had set her back some serious coin. It was only the woman's rather angular features that, in his opinion, kept her from being drop-dead gorgeous. And, also in his opinion, made her infinitely more interesting.
Well-dressed, well-kept, competent-looking—not the sort of person he was used to seeing in his job on a regular basis, for sure.
"I'm not sure," she said, but approached now with steady steps, as if she'd come to a difficult decision. "Are you the person I should speak to about a—I guess you would call it a cold case?"
Alan's pulse kicked up a notch; there wasn't a homicide detective alive who didn't dream of closing a cold case. Hiding his interest behind a polite, "I can help you with that," he swiveled back to his computer and placed his hand on the mouse. "Which case are we talking about?"
She made a small gesture with her hand, and he glanced at her in time to catch the last of an expression as it flitted across those austere features, too quickly for him to read. "No—no, it's none of the ones on your Web site. I did check, but…well, for one thing, your list doesn't go back far enough. This would have been before I was born—in the 60's, probably." She closed her eyes and took a steadying breath. "No, this is…something else."
"Uh-huh." He tilted his chair back and waited. Then straightened up and belatedly added, with a dip of his head toward the chair beside his desk, "Why don't you have a seat, Ms.…"
"Merrill. Lindsey Merrill." She took the invitation, but perched on the chair rather than sat in it, shifting her shoulder bag into her lap and clutching it as if she were walking alone on a mean street.
And this time, with his gaze focused on her face, he caught the look of…what? Vexation? Embarrassment? Okay, yeah, but with a touch of fear, too. Maybe. There and then, as before, too quickly gone for him to be certain.
"The thing is," she said on a soft exhalation, "I'm not sure it's any kind of case, cold or otherwise. I'm not even sure it actually happened." Her deep blue gaze slid sideways to meet his, reluctantly, it seemed to him. "I don't want to waste your time."
"You're not." He kept his tone genial, his posture relaxed, hoping to put her at ease, at the same time wondering whether he'd be as patient if she wasn't an attractive, single—he surmised, from the absence of rings on her left hand—classy-looking woman. "Why don't you tell me what makes you think it might be a case, then let me decide if my time's being wasted or not."
"Trust me," she said dryly, "I know exactly what you're going to think. And I will say 'I told you so.'"
The little flash of humor was a surprise, and he found himself answering her wry smile with one of his own. "Okay, I guess we'll see, won't we?" He gave her an encouraging nod, and when she still seemed to hesitate, added another gentle nudge. "You say this happened before you were born? So, you must have either heard or read about it. I assume we're talking about a homicide?" She nodded. "Okay, so, let's start with that."
Another hiss of exhaled breath; obviously, this was the big hurdle for her. She gathered her courage, then: "This is something my mother told me."
"My mother has Alzheimer's."
She waited through about two beats of his silence, then said gently, "See? I told you so."
"Okay." He cleared his throat, straightened and swiveled toward her, frowning. "Let me get this straight. Your mother has Alzheimer's, and yet, something she told you made you think you should talk to a police homicide detective. Must be a pretty compelling story. So, I'm listening."
For a moment, she just looked at him, and he saw a fierce shine of tears come into her eyes. Her hands tightened on the straps of her purse. "It's crazy. It's impossible. I know it is. But…she's so upset. She truly believes this happened, and she won't leave it alone. I had to promise her. She made me promise I'd talk to the police. What could I do?"
The anguish in her face was hard to look at. The tear shimmer in those movie-star eyes made him feel slightly dizzy. "I understand," he said, his nod nudging her on.
"She claims—" She cleared her throat, then continued in a choked voice, "My mother claims that my father, Richard Merrill, the man she's been happily married to for forty-five years, is not her husband. She claims he killed her real husband—murdered him—and tried to kill her as well. Not only that—" her voice rose dangerously "—she says she had another child. A little boy. She says—" she finished it, almost in a whisper "—his name was Jimmy."
And that, Lindsey Merrill, is the part you can't dismiss out of hand.
The thought came to Alan in a flash of the insight that made him—he was not being immodest, it was a fact—good at what he did. Along with the realization that he wasn't going to be able to dismiss it, any more than she could. Not out of hand. Not without looking into it.
His name was Jimmy.
Funny about that one little detail. It changed everything. The rest could easily be chalked up to Alzheimer's paranoia, but not that. Alzheimer's was supposed to be about forgetting things, not remembering.
He definitely wanted to hear more about this, but right now, tense and wired as this woman was, he had a feeling he was going to have to pick and pry every detail out of her. And his stomach was starting to growl.
"Have you eaten?" he asked abruptly.
She looked startled, then dismayed. "Oh—oh, I'm sorry. I should have realized." She popped up off the chair, still clutching her purse. "I won't take—"
"No, no—" He'd already risen, too, and was shrugging into his jacket. "I'm not brushing you off. I do need to eat, though, and I thought, if you haven't had lunch either, we could grab a bite while you tell me your story. We could go to the cafeteria here, but it can be noisy during lunch hour. You like sushi?" He flashed her his most charming smile, hoping again to put her at ease.
Again, without much success. She just looked at him. Opened her mouth, closed it and gave her head a little shake.
"What? Come on, I thought all women liked sushi."
"Oh, I do," she said with the same touch of dry humor he'd glimpsed before, as she obeyed his gesture and preceded him through the maze of cubicles. "I'm just amazed you do."
"Don't let the tough-guy image fool you," he said, and was rewarded with a soft laugh. It appeared his plan to get her to relax might be working after all.
As they waited for the elevator, she gave him a measuring look and said, "You're not from here originally, are you?"
He gave her back the look, and was surprised to discover he liked the fact that she was almost tall enough to look him in the eye. That it stimulated him in a way he couldn't quite figure out—and very little stimulated him these days, in any way. "Nah," he said, "grew up in Philly. I'd guess you're a native, though, right?"
She nodded. "San Diegan born and raised." She gave a sigh that seemed almost regretful. "I had the perfect childhood. I really did. That's what makes all of this so…hard."
The elevator dinged as she said the last word. It had the effect of underlining it, although she hadn't, and in fact, as she finished, her voice had dropped to barely a whisper.
A dozen things sprang into Alan's head, questions he could have asked, remarks he could have made, gentle reminders that Alzheimer's was notorious for robbing people of the best parts of themselves. He didn't say any of them, but waited for her to precede him, then followed her into the elevator.
There were a couple of other people already in the elevator, probably having come from the cafeteria on the seventh floor. The four of them rode down in the kind of awkward silence that seems to be the norm in elevators, most people being unwilling to share even whispered conversations with total strangers. The other couple got off and the silence became even more strained.
What am I doing here? Lindsey thought. His eyes are so hard…he's not going to believe a word of this.
Alone in an elevator with a police detective, instead of feeling safe, Lindsey felt trapped; her thoughts chased each other through her mind like rabbits desperately searching for a hole in the fence.
I should never have come!
But she had, against her better judgment, and now she was stuck. Even though Detective Cameron was probably only being polite about listening to her story, she knew she couldn't just change her mind now and decide she didn't have a case for him after all. He was a homicide cop, and she'd mentioned a possible murder. Of course he was going to insist on hearing the whole awful, miserable story. Then he would say something kind—a little patronizing, no doubt—about it almost certainly being the Alzheimer's talking, and he was truly sorry about her mother, but unless she had something more concrete to give him…
The elevator bumped to a stop and the doors opened onto the street-level lobby.
"There's a sushi place a couple blocks from here," the detective said, once more politely waiting for her to exit ahead of him. He glanced down at her low-heeled sandals. "If you don't mind walking."
"No, not at all," Lindsey said, and was seized by a sense of unreality. None of this was what she'd expected. He wasn't what she'd expected, not that she'd ever personally met a homicide detective before, so how would she know what to expect? He seemed nice, and yet, she felt uneasy in his company. He'd be judging her, she was sure of it. She could feel him observing her, scrutinizing her facial expressions and body language. Weighing every word she spoke. Looking for inconsistencies and hidden agendas. Of course she had none, nothing whatsoever to hide, no reason to evade or lie. And yet, she felt tense and uncomfortable.
Maybe, she thought, it's his eyes. Hard, yes, but not cold. Penetrating…perceptive, too. And weary. They see a lot, those steely blue eyes. And, I think, have seen way too much of death and violence and ugliness already.
"You're a long way from Philadelphia," she said when they were outside, walking in the seventy-degree early November sunshine, a light breeze from the ocean lifting her hair away from her face. "What on earth brought you to San Diego?" And she knew she was only postponing what was coming, the questions he would inevitably ask.
For the moment, at least, he didn't seem to mind. He gave an easygoing chuckle, but when she glanced at him she noticed the laughter didn't reach as far as those eyes.
"The marines, actually."
"Ah. You were stationed at Camp Pendleton?"
"Did some training there." He said it dismissively, and she wondered what kind of training it might have been. He seemed hard enough, tough enough, to make some sort of Special Forces experience seem a reasonable assumption. Then he looked at her and smiled, and the tough-guy image wavered and softened. "Hard to beat the weather. Philly can get ugly in the wintertime."
She smiled back at him, and they walked briskly for a block or so before she asked, "Still…it was your home. Do you miss it? Do you still have family there?"
He shook his head. "No—on both counts." And his face had closed and hardened again, so she didn't ask the follow-up questions that were buzzing around in her mind. Are you married? Do you have children? Siblings? Are your parents still alive?
It was none of her business. He was a police homicide detective with a gun on his hip, someone she never would have imagined she would find herself walking and talking with in the normal course of her uneventful life.
So hard to believe, even now, that this was happening.
To her—Lindsey Diana Merrill. Once, briefly, she'd been Lindsey Merrill-Hyde, but that had been another lifetime and seemed almost like a dream, now. She was Lindsey Merrill, only child of Richard and Susan Merrill, successful businesswoman, owner of her own insurance agency, competent, content, secure in who she was and where she belonged.