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Elena Jarvis is an officer committed to her duty at the Los Santos, Texas, department of Crimes Against Persons. Not that anyone is helping her, though—not when her ex-husband is in the next room, her boss treats her like a little girl, and her partner thinks women should not leave the kitchen. Elena always knew there would be obstacles in her job, she just figured they would come from the criminals. It was a punishment from God, declared Boris Potemkin’s fair-weather widow, but it was not a thunderbolt that cut ...
Elena Jarvis is an officer committed to her duty at the Los Santos, Texas, department of Crimes Against Persons. Not that anyone is helping her, though—not when her ex-husband is in the next room, her boss treats her like a little girl, and her partner thinks women should not leave the kitchen. Elena always knew there would be obstacles in her job, she just figured they would come from the criminals. It was a punishment from God, declared Boris Potemkin’s fair-weather widow, but it was not a thunderbolt that cut Boris down, it was a bullet, and from the look of it, the bullet was not divine. As the investigation intensifies, Elena soon discovers there have been several recent deaths in the same neighborhood and someone is having just a bit too much fun making widows. But the suspects are not your typical thugs—they are women in black. Elena has her work cut out for her as she scrambles to solve the case before the killer strikes again.
Monday, September 27, 2:23 P.M.
Boris Potemkin was a short, paunchy man with powerful shoulders, ropy arms, and large, heavily veined hands. Gray hair bristled off his head in untidy clumps. Although the temperature in his house felt like the hot blast of air from an open oven, he wore a raveling gray sleeveless cardigan sweater over a long-sleeved denim shirt, as well as tan cotton work pants and carpet slippers. And he was scowling.
Medicare and Boris' A.A.R.P. policy weren't covering the expenses of his wife's broken hip—damn her! He sat in a creaking rocker, studying the brochure for a health insurance supplement, which he had saved from the Sunday paper. He had just reached the clause on exclusion of preexisting conditions and muttered, "Bastards," when he heard discreet knocking from the back of the house. He shuffled through the living room to the kitchen.
"What are you doing here?" he asked sourly as he unlatched the screen. Then he shuffled back toward his rocker, leaving the visitor to follow. Once in the living room, he turned to repeat his question. He had only one surprised second to feel the cool pressure of steel against his forehead.
"This is for Dimitra," said the visitor, and Boris fell, dead before his body hit the floor. He didn't hear the shot.
The visitor scanned the hands and wrists of the body for jewelry, then went to the desk, removed a small Christmas cookie tin brightly decorated with green holly leaves and red berries, checked the contents, and left, the screen door swinging softly closed on the silent house. Less than three minutes had passed from knock to departure.CHAPTER 2
Monday, September 27, 5:02 P.M.
The day Boris Potemkin died, Los Santos Crimes Against Persons Detective Elena Jarvis was feeling particularly cheerful as she drove home in five o'clock traffic. The sky was bright blue, the temperature a comfortable eighty-eight degrees—comfortable when she considered how many hundred-degree days they'd had that summer. The mountains that rose in stark brown peaks dividing the east and west sides of the city held a fading remembrance of green from the August rains, but the air was desert-dry again. Just the way Elena liked it.
Smiling, she brushed a strand of black hair away from one high cheekbone, tucking it back into the heavy French braid lying against her neck. It had been a good day, two cases closed, lots of laughs. Leo, her partner, had rushed home from their eight-to-four shift to impregnate his wife. He'd had a call over the police radio that morning with a message from Concepcion. "I'm ovulating," was what it said—to every Los Santos cop on the road. "What am I supposed to do?" he'd complained to Elena. "Drive home for a quick one while you wait outside in the car?"
"I could hang out in your kitchen. Have a cup of coffee."
"Yeah, right. I gotta talk to that woman. She didn't have to tell the dispatcher."
"You want to be a daddy, you have to make some sacrifices," Elena had replied. Leo had a low sperm count. He and Concepcion were trying the rhythm method in reverse. Probably right about now.
In a burst of exuberance, Elena had blown the insurance money she received from the Mafia vandalism of her living room on a state-of-the-art drip irrigation system, which now rattled pleasantly in the bed of her pickup. Elena liked greenery in her yard, but the summer water bills were killing her, not to mention getting up before sunrise and out after sunset because of water rationing. With this new apparatus, designed in Israel to provide the most growing stuff for the least moisture, she could stop financing Los Santos Water Utilities. Maybe she'd dig the first trench tonight.
She turned onto her street and spotted a new Chevrolet pickup in her driveway. Frank! She'd finally caught him. She wheeled in, cutting off his escape route and sprinted around the side of the house to the back door. Open! And she'd had the doors locked, the security system armed. How did he do it? She had house and car alarms, barred windows—the whole enchilada. Well, her ex-husband was through sneaking into her house and shifting the furniture, through reparking her truck so she couldn't find it. She'd cuff him and haul his ass down to jail.
She drew her revolver from the shoulder holster under her loose linen jacket, easing the kitchen door open, whirling inside with the gun in a two-handed grip, leveled at—her mother. "Mom?"
"That's not exactly the welcome I expected," said Harmony Waite Portillo, who was sitting on a yellow and green Mexican ladderback chair, sipping tea and talking to Dimitra Potemkin, one of Elena's elderly neighbors. Dimitra occupied the fold-down seat of her walker. She was recovering from a broken hip, poor woman.
Elena smiled at her neighbor, then said to her mother, "I thought Frank was in here. He's not, is he?" She looked around. Given her ex-husband's sneaky nature, he might be lurking in the pantry among the staples and cleaning supplies.
"He left after he let me into the house and moved the loom in for me," Harmony replied.
"He has a key?" Elena scowled and holstered her revolver. "That does it. I'm getting a restraining order."
"Have a cup of tea, dear. It's very calming."
After leaning down to kiss her mother, Elena sank into a chair while Harmony poured a cup of the herbal tea she compounded herself. "It's wonderful to see you, Mom, but how come you're here?"
"I'm here to do something about your living room, Elena," said Harmony, voice crisp with disapproval.
Elena's conscience blipped. The living room had been vandalized in late May, and not only had she failed to refurnish, she'd just spent the money on pipes, hoses, and timers. She should have known that disaster area would be preying on her mother's mind. Disasters reminded Elena of her ex, which reminded her of the unidentified pickup in her driveway. "Whose truck is that out front?"
"Mine," said Harmony. "I won it at the Penitentes raffle."
"Come on! When did they start giving away trucks?"
"Well, I guess a raffle is more socially acceptable than a crucifixion," said Elena, grinning. Dimitra's mouth dropped open.
"Now, Elena, you know the Penitente Brotherhood doesn't do that anymore. Your father wouldn't allow it. In fact, he claims they never did."
Still grinning, Elena settled back in her chair. Having her mother in the kitchen was almost as good as being home in Chimayo, a small New Mexico town in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. "How are you, Dimitra?" Elena asked. "Hip giving you any trouble?"
"I'm better," said the old lady, "but Boris is dead. That's what I came to tell you."
"Oh, Dimitra, I'm so sorry." Elena put down her cup and leaned forward to clasp her neighbor's hand in sympathy. "I hadn't heard."
"No reason you should. He was fine when I left at noon—mean as ever."
"He died today?"
"I came right over when I found him."
"You mean he's—" What had seemed sad, but not unexpected, given Boris' age, was taking on a bizarre twist.
Dimitra's head bobbed, every corkscrew curl bouncing like a little aluminum Slinky. "Dead on the floor," she affirmed. "I guess God finally decided to kill him. High time too. That zloy stareek."
"You mean he's been dead while we were sitting here talking?" asked Harmony, blue eyes wide.
"Dead as an icon," Dimitra affirmed. "Not likely he's gone anywhere. I thought you'd know what to do, Elena, you being a policeman."
"How come you didn't call 911?" asked Elena.
"Oh, Boris hid my glasses again, and I can't seem to remember telephone numbers anymore."
"I'll go right over." What if old Boris were alive and in need of a doctor?
"The door's open," said Dimitra. "Was when I got home, still is. I don't know what that zloy stareek did with the key. He never lets me have one."
"I'll follow with Dimitra," Harmony offered.
Elena nodded and sprinted out the screen door, then paused and turned back. "What does that mean, Dimitra? Zoy streak?"
Dimitra thought a minute. "Mean old bastard."
"I see." Elena tried not to stare at her newly widowed neighbor. "Lock up, Mom," she called over her shoulder. How long since Dimitra Potemkin got home and found Boris? And why hadn't she mentioned his death to Harmony? Well, Dimitra had been a little odd and a lot absentminded since she broke her hip. Poor woman, this would be a great blow to her. Or maybe not. She'd called him "the mean old bastard" twice. Elena had never realized Dimitra didn't like her husband.
Across the street and three doors down, Elena dashed up the Potemkins' cracked sidewalk, through the wooden gate and across the small, weedy courtyard. As Dimitra had said, the door was unlocked. Elena turned the knob and burst in, then stopped short. Boris was indeed on the floor. She bent for a closer look. And he was indeed dead. There was a bullet hole in his forehead.CHAPTER 3
Monday, September 27, 5:30 P.M.
So as not to contaminate the crime scene with her own fingerprints, Elena got a pair of latex gloves from her purse and put them on before she called headquarters. The detective from her squad on the twelve-to-eight shift was away from his desk, so she contacted Leo Weizell at home, then Identification and Records, explaining in each case that she was first officer on the scene because the murder had been committed on her block. Finally she notified the office of the medical examiner.
By that time Dimitra was trundling her walker through the courtyard, Harmony beside her. Elena hurried to the front door. "Listen, Mom," she said, "I have to secure the scene."
"I'm sure, dear, with you here, we'll be perfectly secure. I can see the gun under your jacket."
"Secure the scene, Mom, not us."
"Oh. Well, I won't touch anything. Here, Dimitra, let me help you get that walker over the sill."
"Mom." Harmony backed into Elena in the effort to help Dimitra, who was muttering, "I don't need any help." Elena sighed. Since the widow had already been here, there was no reason to keep her out, and Elena despaired of talking her mother into leaving.
Dimitra looked down at Boris. "If he fell over and hit his forehead, he'd die face down instead of on his back, which proves—"
"Dimitra, he was—"
"—struck down by God," finished the old lady. "You think it was a bolt of lightning?"
"It was a bullet," said Elena, "and as far as I know, God doesn't use guns to mete out divine retribution."
"Grandmother Portillo is always saying that God works in mysterious ways," said Harmony.
"Yeah, well, if God's at work here, it'll sure hurt my chances of making an arrest." Before they could debate the matter, Leo arrived and met Harmony, to whom he said, "Wow, Mrs. Portillo, you're even more of a babe than Elena."
To which Harmony responded, "Well, aren't you sweet?"
Dimitra said, "You need to put on some weight, young man." Leo was over six feet and probably didn't weigh more than one hundred and sixty. Elena figured a lot of that weight was muscle he'd developed pursuing his hobbies, tap dancing and, more recently, trying to get Concepcion pregnant. Elena had always considered sex great exercise, not that she'd had any lately.
"Who's she?" asked Charlie Solis as the I.D. & R. team crowded in.
"My mother," said Elena.
"It's all right, Officer," said Harmony. "I'm not sitting down. I'm not touching anything. I do understand about securing the crime scene. My husband's the sheriff in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico."
Charlie's mouth quirked. "Well, we appreciate your cooperation, ma'am, but unless you're a witness, maybe you could leave."
"No, I couldn't," said Harmony. "I'm here to console the widow."
Dimitra was sitting in the seat of her walker, staring balefully at the body of her husband. "I don't care what you say. God killed him."
"What was that?" asked Charlie.
"Mom, Dimitra, why don't you sit out in the courtyard?" Elena suggested.
"It might be cooler," Harmony admitted. "It's at least ninety-five in here."
"That's because Boris won't turn on the air conditioner Lance bought me," said Dimitra. "Boris deserved to be struck down by God!"
Leo was scribbling notes. Elena figured that if Dimitra wanted to get herself arrested for murder, she was going about it just right. "What time was it when you found him, Dimitra?" asked Elena.
"I don't know. Margaret Forrest dropped me off after the bridge game, and there he was, so I started out for your house. Then, let's see, I stopped to chat with Gloria Ledesma. About how hard the weather is on the flowers. All the rain in August, and now it's bone-dry again. Flood or drought. That's Los Santos."
Elena wouldn't have equated Los Santos' eight-inch average annual rainfall with flood, but they had suffered a wet August, comparatively speaking. "Then you're not sure when you got home? Did you say you stopped to talk between here and my house after you found Boris?"
"Yes. With Mrs. Ledesma."
"Did you tell her about Boris?"
"I don't think so."
Elena and Leo exchanged glances. Then Leo said, "When did you last see your husband alive, Mrs. Potemkin?"
"Before the bridge game. I had to make him lunch. You'd think the man could make his own. He didn't break his hip. But, oh no, I have to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner just the way I always did."
"I guess we can ask this Margaret when she dropped Mrs. Potemkin off," Leo murmured to Elena.
Dimitra Potemkin's head bobbed. "Margaret will know. She's good with numbers. Remembers every card that's been played. Now, me—I don't play bridge that often."
"Oh? How did you happen to be playing this afternoon, ma'am?" asked Leo.
"Lydia Beeman had something else to do. That group plays every day."
"Where?" asked Elena.
"The Socorro Heights Senior Citizens Center. Your mother's going to give us weaving demonstrations."
Elena glanced at Harmony, who nodded enthusiastically. That meant Dimitra had been arranging for a weaving demonstration while her husband was lying dead on the living-room carpet, unreported. "Who made up the foursome, Dimitra?"
"Margaret, Emily Marks, and Portia Lemay."
Before they could ask another question, Onofre Calderon, the medical examiner, bounced in. "Got another croaker for me?" he said to Elena.
She frowned at him and nodded her head toward Dimitra. "This is the widow, Mrs. Potemkin."
"Afternoon, ma'am. Sorry for your loss."
"If you had known him, you wouldn't say that," muttered Dimitra.
Nodding solemnly, as if widows always took spousal death that way, Onofre went over to examine the corpse. "Right between the eyes at pretty close range," he said. "Maybe a 9 mm." Calderon lifted the head, looking for an exit wound. "Slug's still in there. He must have had some tough skull."
"He has a metal plate in his head," said Dimitra. "Once we went to visit my family, and Boris set off every metal detector between here and New York City. Used that as an excuse to keep me from going back. Boris was a real zloy stareek," she muttered, then added, "That means bad-tempered old man. In Russian."
Flash bulbs were popping, fingerprint powder being spread over the house. "Look at the mess you're making," Dimitra protested. "Are you going to clean up afterward?" "Ma'am, would you have telephone numbers and addresses for those ladies you played bridge with?" Leo asked.
"No," said Dimitra.
"For heaven's sake," said Harmony. "Why don't you stop pestering this poor woman. She's just lost her husband."
"Mom!" warned Elena.
"You can be sure that your father wouldn't handle things so unfeelingly," Harmony said to Elena. "Dimitra, you must come down to the house and have dinner with us. In fact, maybe you'd like to stay the night."
Dimitra shook her head energetically. "I'm not leaving my house a target for thieves."
"No sign of a break-in here," said one of the I.D. & R. men. "He must have let the shooter in."
"There'll have to be an autopsy, ma'am," said Onofre Calderon. "I know the family sometimes objects, but—"
"Do whatever you want," said Dimitra. "But you'll find it was God that killed him."
"Was there a gun in the house, ma'am?" asked Leo.
"Boris had one. Stole it from a German corpse during the war."
"Do you know what kind it was?"
"How would I know that?" retorted Dimitra, surprised.
Excerpted from Widows' Watch by Nancy Herndon. Copyright © 1995 Nancy Herndon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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