Suzanne Dietz, co-owner of the Cackleberry Club Café, is visiting her fiancé, Dr. Sam Hazelet, when a masked gunman bursts into the emergency room. He shoots two people and would probably have done more damage had Suzanne not brained him with a thermos full of chili. Still, the gunman manages to escape.
Now the ladies of the Cackleberry Club are determined to find the killer before he finds them.
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Suzanne caught a strobing red blip in her rearview mirror and hoped it wasn't an ambulance.
The siren let out a piercing whoop whoop as she hastily pulled her car to the side of the road and watched the emergency vehicle steam by.
Another patient for Sam.
Suzanne Dietz was engaged to Dr. Sam Hazelet who, at this very moment, was probably on the radio having a tense talk with one of the EMTs.
So much for bringing Sam a late Sunday supper of chili and cornbread.
What had felt like a languid spring evening now seemed infused with tension. And Suzanne fervently hoped that, whatever unlucky soul was strapped to the gurney in that ambulance, they weren't pumping out their last pint of blood or gasping a final breath.
Suzanne lifted her hands from the steering wheel momentarily and breathed out.
Okay. It's still better to stick to my original plan. Sooner or later Sam's going to be hungry.
Suzanne was a tick past forty with ash blond hair, a practically flawless complexion, and just a hint of crow's feet at the corner of her eyes. Character lines, that's what she told herself when she washed off her makeup and studied herself in the magnifying mirror. Those tiny lines helped make her oval face more interesting, right? On the other hand, slathering on gobs of moisturizer might keep them in a holding pattern for as long as humanly possible.
The rest of Suzanne was fairly streamlined. If she lived in New York instead of small town Kindred, she could have probably passed for one of those real-people, middle-aged TV models who were enjoying a brief renaissance in this age of supposed non-ageism. Suzanne was always polished, engaged, and upbeat, though she generally stuck to a casual wardrobe of white cotton shirts knotted at the waist of her faded blue jeans.
Her first husband, Walter, had died four years ago. And now-through some fabulous miracle, probably brought about by fairies and unicorns-she found herself engaged to Sam Hazelet, the town doctor. Engaged and soon-to-be-married. Very soon, as they'd already reserved the backyard patio of Kopell's Restaurant.
A gentle wave of euphoria swept over Suzanne as she turned into the hospital parking lot, for she understood how lucky she was to have found love a second time. Smiling, humming along with the radio now-Adele was singing "Set Fire to the Rain"-she ignored the visitor parking spots in front and pulled all the way around to the back of the building, to the ER entrance. That's where she'd find Sam. And hopefully, if he wasn't up to his ears in X-rays, CBCs, and EEGs, they'd have a few minutes alone together. And she could deliver his dinner. Along with a long, lingering kiss.
The small ER waiting room was empty tonight. Lights were dimmed, chairs empty, magazines arranged just so on low tables. It was a place that felt quiet and hushed. Where everyone walked around in crepe-soled shoes and there was just a tinge of antiseptic in the air.
"Hey, Ginny," Suzanne said as she walked up to the desk. "You're working late."
"I was supposed to leave fifteen minutes ago, but then we got a call. Ambulance just came in, family's on the way." Ginny Harris was fifty-something with a swirl of gray hair and a kind face. Her glasses hung on a silver beaded chain and she wore a blue polka dot dress. She looked like everybody's favorite aunt and, in her free time, worked as a docent at the Kindred Library.
"The ambulance passed me as I was driving in. Is it bad?" Suzanne asked.
"Car crash. Victim has a possible broken pelvis."
Suzanne made a commiserating face. "Sounds nasty."
"But he'll live. They mostly do." Ginny lifted a hand and pointed at Suzanne's wicker picnic hamper. "What wonderful treat did you bring Dr. Sam tonight?"
"Chili and corn bread. But it sounds like it might be some time before-"
Suzanne's words were cut short by an ear-piercing scream followed by a piteous cry and the thunderous sound of breaking glass. A lot of breaking glass.
"What . . .?" Suzanne said, turning her head in the direction of the outrageous, unnerving cacophony of noise.
And there, loping toward her down the hospital corridor, was an armed man. He wore a matte black jumpsuit of some kind and was brandishing a shiny black pistol.
Like a Navy Seal, was Suzanne's first thought. Like one of the guys who stormed that compound in Abbottabad and killed Osama bin Laden. She watched, feeling as though she was helplessly trapped in a slow-motion dream sequence, as the man strode toward them. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ginny's hand moving slowly, inching over to try and press the panic button on her console.
"Don't!" the man shouted at Ginny. He was right there in front of them now, his dark eyes pinpricks of intensity above his gray half mask. His breathing sounded a little uneven, betraying his stress. But the hand that pointed the gun at them never wavered.
As shocked as Suzanne was, she fought hard to steady herself and try to take it all in, to memorize as many details as she possibly could. The man wore a fabric mask, like a cold-weather mask that covered the lower half of his face. He wore a jumpsuit with zippers and snaps. And shiny black boots. He carried a duffel bag that bulged at the seams.
"Don't either of you move." The gunman's voice was low and threatening as he reached across the front desk, grabbed the console, and ripped it from its moorings. Panic button dead, lights gone dim, and thick gray wires dangling, he tossed it to the floor.
Robbing a hospital? Suzanne thought. Then it dawned on her. Drugs. He just hit the pharmacy and he's got a bunch of drugs stuffed in that bag.
The sound of running footsteps caused them all to turn and look. It was the night guard, rushing toward them, a look of sheer terror on his hangdog face.
"Hands up!" the gunman snapped.
The guard, a sixty-something ex-police dispatcher named Harold Spooner, who'd never been on patrol, had never confronted real danger, ignored the command and fumbled for the gun on his hip.
The gunman lifted his gun and shot Spooner as casually as if he were shooting rats at the dump. Spooner's hands flew up and he let loose a high-pitched gurgling sound. Then he spun around in a complete three-sixty circle and fell flat on his face. Dead.
"No!" Ginny screamed. Horrified by the wanton murder of Spooner, she jumped to her feet, causing her chair to flip over backward. At the same time, Suzanne scrambled around the reception desk, ducked low, and tried to pull herself into a tight ball.
Improbably, another shot rang out and Suzanne glanced up just in time to see Ginny grimace, then collapse forward onto her desk. Ginny's eyes rolled back in her head and her face blanched white as a glut of blood burst from her left shoulder.
Dear Lord, he shot Ginny, too?
Anger exploded in Suzanne's brain like a white-hot flame. Suddenly everything was needle sharp-the spattered blood, the smell of cordite, the savagery of the attacks. That's when Suzanne clicked into hyperdrive and she grabbed her thermos full of chili. She popped up from behind the desk, and, like a street fighter hurling a Molotov cocktail, threw it hard at the gunman. Her aim was good and true and she struck him squarely in the forehead. The lid blew off the thermos on impact and a geyser of hot, spicy chili erupted, splattering the gunman in his face and spewing gobs of red goop everywhere!
Staggering momentarily, the gunman gasped and wiped frantically at his face. Suzanne saw his lips moving, cursing her. His eyes were filled with rage as he cast a frantic, wild glance at her. Then he took off like a broken field runner, dripping chili-his feet practically slipping in the thick, red stuff-as he ran through the motion-activated door and out into the parking lot.
"Help!" Suzanne shouted. "Two people shot!" She heard footsteps pounding in her direction as she ripped off the scarf that was tied loosely around her neck. Kneeling down, she bunched up her scarf and fought to stanch the flow of blood pouring from Ginny's shoulder. When two nurses appeared from around the corner, she shouted, "Gunman! He shot Ginny and Harold Spooner."
As another half dozen nurses and med techs rushed in to care for the two victims, Suzanne launched herself out the door and into the parking lot.
An avenging angel, she was feverish to catch a glimpse of the fleeing gunman. Or at least his vehicle.
But as she stood in the middle of the parking lot, arms askew, slowly spinning in a circle, she saw . . . nothing.
Where had this mysterious gunman disappeared to? There was no getaway car speeding away, no motorbike, no lone runner cutting through the stubble of the nearby alfalfa field. Nothing to see but a sliver of moon dangling in a blue-black sky, nothing to hear but the drone of something mechanical up on the roof.
Red stuff was still spattered everywhere. In the hallway, on the front desk, the rubber floor mats, waiting room chairs, six-month-old magazines, the windows, and even the curtains. Some of it was blood, most of it was chili con carne.
Ginny would live, it turned out. She'd sustained a flesh wound in her right shoulder. But Harold Spooner had been hit center of mass, directly in his heart. Sam, who'd come running out with the rest of them, had tried his best. But after frantic efforts that included pumping multiple bags of blood into Spooner, he shook his head sadly and said the hapless guard was probably dead before he hit the floor.
Five minutes after that, Sheriff Roy Doogie arrived.
"What the hell happened?" Doogie demanded. He'd gotten the emergency call over his car radio and come blasting in with Deputy Eddie Driscoll right behind him. "It looks like a bloody massacre in here." He gazed in Suzanne's direction. "You saw it all go down?"
Suzanne nodded. "Most of it. Except for the part where the pharmacy got robbed."
"Going for the drugs," Driscoll said.
"How many people shot?" Doogie wore a khaki uniform with a gold SHERIFF badge on his chest and a Smokey Bear hat set straight on. He was a large man, broad in the shoulders and jiggly in the hips, with steel-gray rattlesnake eyes that took everything in. Doogie was no pushover. He knew his job and did it well.
"Two people shot," Suzanne said. "The security guard and the desk clerk. The security guard . . . Harold Spooner, you know Harold . . . is dead. He wouldn't give up his weapon. I guess he thought he could get a jump on the gunman, but he wasn't fast enough."
"And the desk clerk?" Doogie asked.
"Ginny Harris was hit in the shoulder, but Sam says she's gonna be okay. Just a flesh wound. He called it a through and through."
"Still, this place resembles a war zone. That stuff over there . . ." Doogie gestured at the rubber mat near the door. "Looks as if somebody's guts exploded."
"That's mostly chili," Suzanne said.
Doogie turned a crooked gaze on her. "Whuh?"
"Chili con carne. I brought it for Sam's dinner tonight. But I ended up throwing a thermos full of it at the gunman's head."
"Quick thinking, huh?" Deputy Driscoll said it with almost, but not quite, a chuckle.
"Not quick enough," Suzanne said. "And, in hindsight, not much of a weapon."
"Where are the shooting victims now?" Doogie asked.
"Ginny's still in the ER with Sam. But Harold . . ." Suzanne shook her head. "The morgue I guess."
Doogie holstered his pistol. "Oh jeez." He took off his hat and ran a hand through his cap of graying hair, riffling it gently. He suddenly looked older than his fifty-two years. He cocked an eye at Suzanne. "But you witnessed it all? The whole enchilada? Break it down for me, tell me what happened."
"I was standing at the front desk, talking to Ginny, when we heard these horrible crashing and smashing sounds. Like doors being battered down and windows blown out. Then this guy, dressed all in black like some kind of commando, came running down the hall."
"A commando?" Doogie looked skeptical.
"That's how he was dressed, in a kind of jumpsuit, like maybe a paratrooper would wear," Suzanne said. "It struck me that maybe he had some sort of military training or background."
"What makes you say that?"
"From the way the gunman handled himself. He was extremely menacing yet fairly cool under pressure. Until I thunked him with the thermos that is."
"So he shot Ginny . . . why?"
"Because she tried to call for help."
"You're lucky he didn't shoot you, too," Doogie said. He rocked back on his heels. "What else can you tell me about him? I mean, it sounds like you were practically face to face with the guy, right?"
"He was wearing a mask." Suzanne said. "And, I think, carrying the stolen drugs in a duffel bag."
"So this guy suddenly appears, shoots Spooner and Ginny, and then runs out."
"And disappeared," Suzanne said. "Like, poof. No car, no motorbike, not even a skateboard."
"I can hardly believe that," Deputy Driscoll said. He'd been standing there, listening carefully to Suzanne's conversation with Doogie. "He must have had a car or bike or something."
"Accomplice," Doogie said. He looked around once more, then said to Deputy Driscoll, "Eddie, you grab the camera and forensics kit out of my cruiser. I'm gonna have a look at that pharmacy office. What's left of it anyway." He stood there, hands on hips, and blew out a glut of air. "Just what I need. Those truck hijackings and now this happy crap."
While Doogie shot photos, Deputy Driscoll got busy stringing up bright yellow crime scene tape. DO NOT CROSS, the tape read. Though all the damage had already been done and the blood already spilled.
Another deputy showed up, Deputy Robertson, who asked Suzanne a few more questions, then set about taking prints. He focused on the damaged console and the pharmacy office. Doogie and Driscoll pulled out their notebooks and began the long process of interviewing the hospital's night crew.
Suzanne, meanwhile, snuck back into the ER to find Sam. He'd already finished with Ginny as well as the nurse who'd been accosted in the pharmacy. Her name was Birdie Simmons and she was sitting on an examination table as another nurse placed two butterfly tapes over her right eye. Birdie looked scared to death and was clutching a floral tote bag as if her life depended on it. She looked like she couldn't wait to go home, although Suzanne knew that Doogie would want to go over every step of the robbery with her.