They say money and murder go together like biscuits and gravy, but Julianne Dawson thought her family was different. Even if they are the wealthiest family in Durham, North Carolina, she can't believe someone close to her could've killed her beloved Aunt Binnie.
Detective Howie Berry is determined to find the murderer. But the more he gets to know Julianne, the more he's drawn to her. She's not just the town's golden girlshe's smart and incredibly tough. Howie can't get involved, though, since the next clue he uncovers could tear her family apart. He'll protect Julianne at any cost except the truth.
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Detective Howie Berry expected two things if he happened to be in his office on a Wednesday morning at 11:00 a.m. First, the weather radio would beep and a scratchy voice would sound out a test. Second, the all clear would be immediately followed by a phone call. Any bustle in the room would haltas if by magic, which the superstitious cops claimed not to believe inand Howie would strain to hear the words of another scratchy, hard-to-understand female voice.
"Chicago," the woman would say. Or Detroit or Los Angeles or Houston or Fargo, Emporia, Elko, Walla Walla or any other of the thousands of cities and towns around the contiguous United States. Mrs. Somerset always limited herself to the contiguous forty-eight states for no reason Howie was able to figure. The guys all said it was because her crazy couldn't cross oceans and didn't have a passport to get into Canada. Howie was kinderwhich was one of the reasons Mrs. Winston Somerset called his direct line. He always just figured there were enough unsolved mysteries in the lower forty-eight to keep the old lady busy without her crossing international borders.
The story at police headquarters was that Mrs. Somerset had been calling a Durham homicide detective every week for thirty years, since the day after her murdered husband was buried, to divulge a clue to a random homicide. About seven years ago, some foolish and overly helpful public librarian had taught her how to use the internet, and she'd expanded her reach from the crime reports in the News & Observer and Herald-Sun to whatever wild story she came across in the crazy depths of the World Wide Web.
Not valid in Alaska and Hawaii.
Taking Mrs. Somerset's calls had become his responsibility three years ago. Punishment, his sergeant had said, for being an idiot.
Last week's phone call had been unusual. Howie hadn't been in the office for it, but she'd left a message. "Durham," she'd said to the voice mail. The order of her words and the flat tone of her voice was no different than if he'd answered the phone. "Computers risk everything for money. Could the devil be a family member?" And then she'd hung up.
It wasn't the cryptic nature of her call that had been odd. All her calls included a town, a brief, often obtuse, description of a crime and a clue almost calculated to send any homicide detective driving to Butner for voluntary admission into the mental hospital. It was always something obscure and almostalmostintriguing enough to invite a curious detective to call back and ask for more information. But Howie never followed up with her. Not that he doubted the crimes, necessarily. Hell, he'd only stopped double-checking them two years ago, which meant he'd been a fool for a whole year. It was just that he wasn't convinced even Mrs. Somerset knew what her clues were supposed to mean. And he never passed on the tips. No one in the Durham Police Department ever had. People called in random crime tips all the time, either for revenge or because of mistaken identity or in the hopes of a reward. Or for some other reason entirely. Mrs. Somerset's tips fell into the category of "other."
What made last week's call unusual was that it hadn't been about a murder. As far as Howie knew, Mrs. Somerset had only ever given tips on murders. And since Durham's city limits abutted the Research Triangle Park, where corporate headquarters for multinational countries traded in computers and money, it wasn't even clear she was referring to a crime.
That minor variation in her routine, combined with the vague reference to family, had almost been enough for Howie to call her back and ask how she was doing. He'd done that several times over the past three yearswhen the crime she was calling about had clearly upset her and pushed her even further off her rocker than she normally was.
Because, though Howie thought it was rude to say so, he did agree with the rest of the unit Mrs. Somerset was her own special kind of crazy. For all he knew, she called Raleigh on Monday, Chapel Hill on Tuesday, Greensboro on Thursday and Charlotte on Friday. Or maybe she'd used her high-speed internet for research on more than just murders and was on a first-name basis with a detective in Atlanta or San Francisco or Buffalo. She may even have a rotation of times. Las Vegas at ten. Portland at seven. But it was always Durham at eleven and always on Wednesdays. And never his cell number, despite the fact that he'd given her the number two years ago, when one of her calls had upset her enough that she'd cried into the phone. In the past three years, Mrs. Somerset had never once messed up due to a time change, snowstorm or hurricane. Sometimes, like last week, there was a younger woman's voice in the background, asking Mrs. Somerset to promise to make this call the last. Yet never once had Howie heard Mrs. Somerset acknowledge that request.
But she was polite when he got her to talk about something other than the week's clue. And the murder of her husband had never been solved, so he sympathized with her dedication. Apparently, after her husband's murder, she'd tried to offer a reward for tips leading to an arrest, but not a single person had called the station.
Which was unfortunate because, given what little Howie knew about her husband's murder, he would've bet that a month into the investigation, with no leads, the department would have investigated any call, even one from someone like Mrs. Somerset, even the one time when she had claimed to be getting the information from her cat.
On this particular Wednesday, Howie turned his attention to his phone the instant the static-filled weather-check message ended. Even though it didn't ring immediately, he didn't start another task. Mrs. Somerset may not have a knack for solving crimes, but she sure as hell seemed to know when an interruption would send his entire Wednesday veering off course.
After five minutes spent flipping through the News & Observer, which he subscribed to for the crossword puzzle he never had time to work on, Howie began to worry. Ten minutes after eleven, he was contemplating the shit he would get from both dispatch and patrol if he sent someone to knock on Mrs. Somerset's door.
When the phone finally rang, almost thirty minutes after eleven, Mrs. Somerset was not on the other end of the line.
Howie blessed the watch commander as he stopped his car at the outer edge of the f lashing lights. By the looks of the uncontrolled arm-waving visible from down the street, Al had gotten here before him and black uniforms had already formed a perimeter around Mrs. Somerset's house. Judging by the curse words coming from cars being redirected on Washington, Al had made the perimeter as large as they could feasibly secure. Howie found the scribe, reported in and stepped onto grass bright with the summer sun and a recent rain. This front lawn, and many others in this neighborhood, was now a crime scene.
The neighbors in this area of Durham wouldn't crowd around the tape, but the urgent tasks they found to keep them busy on their front lawnsand get them yelled at by a uniformallowed them to gawk just the same. Two of the neighbors outright stood on their front stoop and all but ate popcorn while they watched.
An older woman he didn't recognize sat on an Adirondack chair in the shadow of Mrs. Somerset's magnolia tree, her head in her lap and blue-rinsed curls collapsed about her ears. A bored schnauzer sprawled out on the lawn at the woman's left. A shiny steel bowl was at her right, and the hand of young Officer Rodriguez on her shoulder. As Howie approached, movement across the street caught his eye. The across-theway neighbor, a middle-aged woman wearing a black T-shirt with a giant orange kitten on the front and tan pants with an elastic waist, walked across the street carrying a glass of what appeared to be tea, and sweet tea mostly likely. Mrs. Carr, Howie remembered from the last time he'd stopped in at Mrs. Somerset's after a particularly lurid phone conversation with her. Mrs. Somerset had called in with clues about a mass shooting for which the perpetrator had already been arrested. The shooting had happened at a political rally and five people had died. Mrs. Somerset usually limited her visions to strictly clean murders, maybe muddied by a robbery or two.
That had been eighteen months ago and at the time Mrs. Somerset had also called Mrs. Carr with the information. Mrs. Bernadette Carrshe wasn't old enough to sign letters "Mrs. Larry Carr," though neither was she young enough to introduce herself as simply Bernadettehad rushed over to her neighbor's house and spiked Mrs. Somerset's tea with a heavy dose of brandy. By the time Howie had gotten there, Mrs. Somerset was too tipsy to explain what had happened to suddenly make mass shootings the focus of her attention.
Today Mrs. Carr crossed the lawn, gave what appeared to be a biscuit to the dog then held out a glass to the woman in the chair. He couldn't hear what Mrs. Carr was saying to the older woman, though he could imagine her admonishments by the way the older woman stiffened. A year and a half ago, Mrs. Carr had been telling Mrs. Somerset to get hold of herself, drink some tea and fix her hair when Howie had walked in.
Rodriguez saw him approach and was fixin' to leave her charge when Howie waved her off. By the time he got there, Mrs. Carr was asking the older neighbor what she had seen. The woman opened her mouth, her eyes went wide and then she dropped her face back between her knees, her arms held out in some odd prayer.
"Ma'am," Howie said, resting his hand lightly on her shoulder, half-afraid she would collapse if he put any more weight on her. "Officer Rodriguez will stay with you, give you time to collect yourself before a detective comes by to ask you what happened." He said the words to the woman, with a reassuring squeeze of her shoulder, but he looked at Mrs. Carr.
Mrs. Carr twitched her lip, cracking her coral lipstick. She'd heard and understood. Yet even if she hadn't, Rodriguez would make sure no one talked to the woman unless that person had a detective's badge. The woman's story would become less and less useful the more it was filtered through other people's opinions. Opinions were like assholes, everyone had one, and by the time the shit exited, anything valuable was gone. Preserved in the trauma of whatever this woman and her schnauzer had seen might be a clue that solved Mrs. Somerset's murder.
"Do you need a paramedic?" he asked.
"No," the old woman said into her legs, though Howie heard her well enough. "Just a little faint is all."
"I'm sure Mrs. Carr would be happy to get you more tea if you need, or a glass of water."
Mrs. Carr twitched her lips again; she would need to reapply her lipstick if she kept that up. The tea had been her excuse to come over to the older woman, and she had no interest in relinquishing her role as comforterbetter known as gossip. But she was a good Southern woman and hospitality had been bred into her right along with the accent. "Of course, hon. All you have to do is ask."
Howie patted the woman on the shoulder again, smiled at Rodriguez and headed across the lawn to check in with Al and document his conversation with Mrs. Carr. Finally he stepped through the front door into Mrs. Somerset's house, where Kia, another homicide detective, stood, looking around.
Mrs. Somerset's husband had left her a lot of money when he died, though she still lived in the same relatively modest house. Her entryway furniture tended toward the old-fashioned and out of style, but it was clean and welcoming. None of the curls in the wrought iron table had any dust.
There were no doilies on the arms of the sofa that he could see through the arch, no plastic floor covering on the carpet up the stairs and both the entry and the living room appeared to have been recently painted. The first time Howie had entered this house, he'd been surprised there hadn't been a wall of conspiracies like something out of Homeland or that movie with Russell Crowe about the schizophrenic mathematician. Whatever kind of house a crazy lady who called the police station every week with clues was supposed to live in, it wasn't this kind. But if police work taught a man anything, it was that crazy came in all shapes, and it didn't care how much money a person had.
"Nice job handling the old ladies," Kia said, a smile in her tone. "They oughta put you in charge of all the old-white-lady murders."
Howie rolled his eyes. Kia was a great detective and the joker of the unit. "You're just pissed I didn't ask you for assistance."
"Nah, I know when to sit back and watch a master at work."
Kia was a short, delicate African-American woman from a family that had been in Durham since before the Civil War and had been cops for what felt like almost as long, even though the police department hadn't been desegregated until Mayor Evans a little over fifty years ago. Her fine bone structure hid an ability to stare down punks and drug dealers, a talent she said she'd gotten the old-fashioned wayby staring down five older brothers across the dinner table. While Howie could be TV-detective tough when necessary, between the round glasses and his floppy, wavy hair, old women generally treated him like a favored grandson, stopping just short of pinching his cheeks. Which had its advantageswith people at work all day, retired folks were the only ones who say saw anything.
Not that Kia was bad at dealing with the older crowd. She had plenty of formidable experience. Her grandfather had been one of Durham's first African-American cops and her father was also a department legend. Her mother was no slouch, either. The first time Howie had met Mrs. Alston, he'd felt stripped down to his briefs, with every flaw scrutinized. He was pretty sure Kia had married the first man to show up at the Alston house for a date and keep his spine straight under the inspection. Her husband was a soft-spoken accountant at Duke University who'd played football at North Carolina Central University and stood taller than his height implied.
By unspoken accord, Howie and Kia slowed down under the arch between the entry and the living room to get a better sense of their surroundings.
"Clean," Kia said. "A little OCD?"
"Cleaning service, I think." Mrs. Somerset had never struck him as nutty in any way other than her phone calls. Her grief had kept too tight a hold on her mind to allow any other neurosis in.
"Think it will make the job easier or harder?"
Howie shrugged. "Depends more on the perp than the victim's cleaning service. It doesn't matter that the spotless surfaces make for perfect fingerprints if the guy didn't leave any."
They turned their attention from the living room to the sunny dining room at their left and Howie's next words froze in his throat, choking off any conversation between him and Kia. Neither of them took a step. Howie's feet were as rooted to the floor as his eyes were to the scene before him.
Kia regained her composure first. "Fingerprints won't be our first problem."