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Jack steered the squad car into the convenience store parking lot. "Okay, probie, fess up. How long without sleep now? A week?"
"More like three days." Hunter frowned, wishing he hadn't taken that extra shift so his buddy could be with his wife in the delivery room. "And I slept. Some."
"Uh-huh." Jack shifted into Park. "If you say so." He turned off the motor. "I have a hankering for one of those any-way-you-want-it sandwiches."
Hunter groaned. "You stood in line fifteen minutes last time you ordered one of those artery clog-gers."
Jack sang a verse of "If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time" as he got out of the cruiser, then leaned back in long enough to say, "You coming?"
"Better not. I have some stuff to enter into the computer." They sure loaded down the new guys on the force with the grunt work. He only hoped he could find enough hours in the day to do everything he had to, plus sleep and survive probation.
"Nah. I'm good, thanks."
"Okay, later," the older man said as he ambled away.
The store's ceiling-to-floor windows allowed Hunter to track Jack up and down the aisles, stacking junk food and Mountain Dew in his arms. If his partner wasn't more health conscious, he'd die of a heart attack long before he reached retirement. When Jack stood under the Order Here sign, Hunter swiveled the keyboard closer and fired up the reports software. How much junk had his own grandfather and fathernot to mention his uncles and brotherschoked down during their years in uniform, he wondered.
Yawning, he made note of the time two minutes after three then leaned against the headrest and closed his eyes. Jack didn't know it yet, he thought, grinning, but when he returned, he'd be on the receiving end of some ribbing for a change.
Frantic shouting and gunfire startled Hunter awake. The dashboard clock was the last thing he saw as he bolted out of the car: four minutes after three. He'd fallen dead asleep in just two minutes?
He grabbed his shoulder radio, talking as he crouch-walked toward the store's entrance. "C-four-two-one. We have a 10-10 at the farm store, 9164 Baltimore National Pike. Shots fired. Robbery in progress." Then he drew his weapon, took a deep breath and abruptly shouldered his way inside.
Big convex mirrors, hung in all four corners of the store, helped him take quick inventory: a male clerk cowering at the register, two womena bleach-blonde in her early sixties and a brunette of forty or sohuddled beside the ice-cream freezer, an overweight guy hunkered down near the coffeepots.
What was so important that they couldn't wait for the safety of daylight to shop?
A skinny wild-eyed male in a baggy ski mask leaped onto the counter, shouting and waving a 9 mm Glock. Hunter, who had managed to get inside and behind an endcap display of candy bars without being seen by the guy, recognized the weapon instantly because he was holding one just like it. Unless he'd miscounted, the guy had already fired four rounds .
"Empty the cash drawer!" the masked man snarled. "Do it now."
The terrified clerk didn't move fast enough, and the robber shot him. Hunter had to resist the urge to charge directly into the action. Just stick to the rule book, he told himself as the clerk collapsed to the floor, writhing in pain. The robber jumped down on the other side of the counter. While he was busy stuffing money, cigarettes and methamphetamine-based cold remedies into a ratty backpack, Hunter ducked behind a rotating rack of batteries. By the book, he reminded himself. Do it by the book "Jack," he whispered, creeping down the bread aisle. "Psst.Jack."
The dark-haired woman caught his eye, gave a barely discernible nod toward the dairy case. He could see a man's leg on the floor protruding out from behind it. Instantly, he recognized Jack's spit-shined department-issue black shoes, unmoving and pointing at the glaring overhead lights. Hunter's brain had barely had time to register he's dead when the brunette made a run for the door and another eardrum-splitting shot spun her around. Her gaze locked with Hunter's as she crumpled like a marionette whose strings had been cut. Her lips parted, formed the word help, but even before she hit the gray tiles, the vacant stare in her big unblinking eyes told him she was dead.
Hunter, who'd turned twenty-three on his last birthday, had just completed the sixth month of his eighteen-month probation. Did he have the experiencewas he man enoughto take out the gunman before he killed again? He saw Jack's motionless foot poking into the main aisle.
"This is for you," he muttered, steeling himself down on one knee. One of his partner's favorite expressions came to him: If I have to shoot somebody, I want them to stay shot. Hunter took aim at the robber, held his breath and squeezed off two rounds.
Half an hour later, amidst the crackle and hiss of radios and the rapid-fire questions of a gap-toothed detective, his heart was still hammering against his ribs.
"Three dead," said the grizzled sergeant, "counting the perp." Eyes on Hunter, he added, "Great shots, rookie. Bet he fell over like a tree, huh." He faced the suit. "You got somebody lined up to do notifications?"
Hunter didn't hear the answer, because his brain had seized on three dead. The woman, the perp He hung his head. And Jack.
The detective blew his breath out through his teeth and studied Hunter. "If we do things right, maybe it won't have a negative impact on your probation."
If he could find his voice, Hunter would have told him that his police career had ended the minute he closed his eyes in the car. Copshis brothers among themwould never let him forget he'd fallen asleep on the job. He would never let himself forget.
If he'd gone into the convenience store with Jack, the holdup probably wouldn't have gone down. Surely not even a strung-out thief was idiot enough to take on two armed cops.
His little nap cost his partner and a civilian their lives.
* * *
Fifteen Years Later
Brooke watched her father fall to his knees, sobbing. Heard her sister, Beth, wail as the surgeon said, "We did everything we could, but " Mom had only gone to the 24/7 store because they ran out of ice cream halfway through their straight-A girls' movie marathon. The young uniformed officer in the waiting room kept repeating, "Sorry. Sorry. Oh, my God, I'm sorry ."
It wasn't the young cop, she realized, groggily coming to, but the phone ringing.
Grabbing it, Brooke glanced at the bedside clock. Who but that idiot Donald would call at ten past three?
Still reeling from the haunting images of her recurring nightmare, she hauled herself out of bed and clicked Talk as she headed downstairs.
"Are you aware what time it is?" she whispered into the handset, determined not to wake her sleeping nephew.
There was a pause, and then an unfamiliar voice said, "I, uh. Sorry to disturb you, ma'am."
So it wasn't Donald after all. Now she wished she'd taken a second to put on her slippers, because the tiles felt like ice beneath her bare feet. Wished it had been Donald, because no one called at this hour with good news. Her thoughts went to her grandmother. Day before yesterday Deidre had been down on all fours giving Connor a piggyback ride, but at seventy-five
"I'm trying to reach Brooke O'Toole?"
"Right." He cleared his throat and then identified himself as a deputy sheriff of Monroe County. Before she had a chance to visualize the dot that marked Monroe County on a map of Florida, he explained how a Miami-bound charter flight had gone down in the Atlantic, just off Key West. There had been no survivors, he was sorry to say, and, as next of kin, she needed to give him her okay before he could release the bodies.
Brooke didn't hear much after no survivors. Her sister and brother-in-law had decided to end their island-hopping trip with visits to Ernest Hemingway's favorite haunts, including Sloppy Joe's saloon.
On Key West.
Heart pounding, Brooke squeezed her eyes shut. Before turning in for the night, she'd been online, checking her email. Wouldn't a story like that have popped up on her search engine's opening page?
Any minute now the deputy would realize his error and apologize for contacting the wrong Brooke O'Toole. Or she'd wake from this ghastly dream and eighteen-month-old Connor would still have his mom and dad, and she would still have her little sister, and Beth and Kent would come home tomorrow, exactly as planned.
"Ma'am? You still there?"
"Yes. Still here."
The deputy listed all the agencies that had participated in the searchFAA, Florida Fish and Wildlife, the sheriff's departmentand had cooperated to keep their findings from the media until after next-of-kin notifications had been made.
During her years as a nurse in Virginia Commonwealth University's shock-trauma unit, Brooke had learned that state troopers were normally assigned the sensitive task of informing relatives about tragedies. She was about to ask why the deputy had made this call instead of passing the information to the Maryland State Police when he told her that a Coast Guard diver had pulled a Ziploc bag out of the water. In it, he said, the authorities found passports, boarding passes and baggage claim tickets, a computer-generated itinerary that confirmed the Sheridans' names on the passenger manifest and the photograph of a young boy.
In the silence that followed, Brooke realized she'd been holding her breath. She exhaled. Swallowed, hard.
"It says 'Connor, 14 months' on the back of the picture," the deputy added. "And it was paper-clipped to a list of people to contact in the event that."
"In the event that something awful happened to Beth and Kent."
"I, uh. Well, yes, ma'am. In that event."
Brooke blinked back tears. She hadn't realized she'd said that out loud.
"I know it isn't much comfort," the man said, "but we can be reasonably certain no one suffered."
She shut her eyes. In other words, the impact had been such that they'd died instantly. Brooke leaned on a kitchen chair for support.
His voice cracked slightly as he asked for her email address. Was that because he was new at this "inform the families" job, or because of the grim nature of the task itself? "Is there anyone I can call for you, ma'am?"
"There's only my grandmother. But I'd like to break the news to her myself."
"Well then do you have a pen handy?"
Of course she had a pen handy, because her oh-soorganized sisterwho'd gone to all the trouble of tucking important documents into a waterproof baghad tied a dryerase marker to a string and taped it to the whiteboard beside the phone. Hands trembling, Brooke uncapped it.
He rattled off his home, office and cell phone numbers. "If you have any questions "
It seemed ludicrous to keep him on the line, but she couldn't hang up. Not yet. Things just can't end this way.
Brooke thought back to when she had helped Beth and Kent unload their suitcases at the terminal. Kent had reminded her where she could find Connor's pediatrician's number in the polka-dot address book beside the phone. Their favorite plumber and electrician were there, as well as Hunter's number.
Hunter Stone was one of their emergency contacts. She would never understand how that man had become close to Beth and Kent. For years it had been a wedge between the two sisters, and now Beth was gone, along with any chance to apologize.
"If you have any questions," the deputy repeated, "call me. Anytime."
And though it seemed ridiculous to thank him for calling, that was exactly what she did.
Connor's sleepy sigh whispered over the baby monitor as she hung up. The kitchen clock counted the seconds, and the muted chimes of the family room mantel clock signaled the quarter hour.
She noticed the notes she'd taken on the whiteboard as the deputy had explained everything she needed to do to bring Beth and Kent home. The black scrawl didn't look anything like her handwriting. Brooke turned off the overhead light.
A shaft of moonlight slanted through the windows, painting a silvery stripe across the room and illuminating the whiteboard.
Eyes burning, she slumped to the hardwood floor and drew her knees to her chest. She hid her face in the crook of one arm and let the tears fall.
When a stiff neck roused her, the kitchen clock read 4:05. Brooke stood at the kitchen sink and splashed cold water on her face. As she reached for a paper towel, she glanced out the window, where, in a tidy brick-lined flowerbed, the blue-gray light of dawn picked up the purple shoots of Beth's roses.
Farther out in the yard, she could just make out the yellow bucket swing Kent had hung for Connor.
Beyond that, the trio of birch trees Brooke had bought the couple as a housewarming gift had already begun to bud. She couldn't see them now, but she'd noticed yesterday.
She swallowed past the lump in her throat, remembering that when her mother was killed during a convenience store holdup, staying busy had helped.
Brooke started a pot of coffee. Threw a load of towels into the washing machine. Made her bed.
"Gram is right," she muttered, emptying the wastebaskets. "A trained monkey could perform monotonous household chores." It was still dark when she backed out the front door, fumbling with the garbage bag's red drawstrings.
"You're up and at 'em early ."
The voicedeep and vaguely familiarstartled her. She turned to find herself face-to-face with Hunter Stone.
Hunter Stone, who'd been asleep in his squad car when he should have been in the store, stopping the gunman who killed her mother. Hunter Stone, who'd spent a good part of the fifteen years since then trying to atone by playing big brother to Beth and best friend to Kent.
He held her gaze for a blink or twolong enough for her to read remorse on his face.
Hunter took the trash bag and jogged down the driveway, adding it to one of two metal cans with SHERIDAN on their sides.
He was wiping his hands on a white handkerchief when he returned to the porch. "Look," he said, tucking it in his back pocket, "I realize I'm the last person you want to see today of all days, but I wanted to ask if there's anything I can do."
Today of all days? So he'd heard about the crash? When she'd only just found out an hour ago? It meant his name wasn't just on her sister's emergency contacts list by the phone; it had also been with them while they'd traveled. He was just that important to them. In disbelief, she reached for the doorknob.
"Have you told Connor yet?"
She stopped but didn't look at him. "It's four-thirty in the morning."
He checked his wristwatch and did a double take. Seemed embarrassed. "Guess you have some tough decisions to make in the next few hours, huh?"
Starting with how to get you off this porch.
"I can take Connor off your hands while you make arrangements. He's used to me, so " Hunter shrugged. "But if you're more comfortable leaving him with Deidre, I could drive you wherever."
I'd sooner crawl.
But he was right. She needed to set up appointments with the bank, the funeral parlor, a lawyer who'd help her protect Connor's future. The nightmare had just begun.
"Do I smell coffee?"
Brooke couldn't believe her ears.
Hunter pinched the bridge of his nose. "I hope you won't take what I'm about to say the wrong way ."
Everything about him rubbed her the wrong way.
"I know you and Beth haven't exactly been on the best of terms lately"
She pressed her lips together.
"so I thought maybe I could bring you up to speed over a cup of coffee."
Fists balled at her sides, she willed herself not to react.
Obviously, he'd mistaken her silence for an invitation; Hunter made a beeline past her into the house and directly for the kitchen, to the cupboard where Beth kept the mugs. She slowly followed him. "You drink yours black, as I recall."
On the few occasions when they'd attended barbecues or birthday parties at Deidre's or at Beth and Kent's, she'd stayed as far away from Hunter as space would allow. And yet he knew how she liked her coffee. Was he aware she liked to cool it with ice? she wondered, opening the freezer.
If she dialed 911 and reported him as an intruder, would he leave quietly?
One of her grandfather's favorite maxims came to mind: keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Maybe during one of her sister's friendly sharing sessions with him, Beth had divulged something that would help Brooke find the will, so she'd know what sort of funeral to plan.
Beth was gone.