|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.25(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:March 12, 1948
Place of Birth:Waco, Texas
Education:Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, Texas Christian University, 2008
Read an Excerpt
By Brown, Sandra
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2011 Brown, Sandra
All right reserved.
“There’s a man in the yard.”
The four-year-old came to stand at the corner of the kitchen table and gazed yearningly at the frosting her mother was applying to the top of the cupcake. “Can I have some, Mommy?”
“May I have some. When I’m done, you can lick the bowl.”
“You made chocolate.”
“Because chocolate is your favorite, and you’re my favorite girl,” she said, giving the child a wink. “And,” she added, drawing out the word, “I’ve got sprinkles to add as soon as I’m finished with the icing.”
Emily beamed, then her face puckered with concern. “He’s sick.”
“In the yard.”
Emily’s statements finally penetrated that innate mom-screen that filtered out unimportant chatter. “There’s really a man outside?” Honor placed the iced cupcake on the platter, returned the spatula to the bowl of frosting, and absently wiped her hands on a dishtowel as she stepped around the child.
“He’s lying down because he’s sick.”
Emily trailed her mother as she made her way from kitchen to living room. Honor looked through the front window, turning her head from one side to the other, but all she saw was the lawn of St. Augustine grass sloping gradually down to the dock.
Beyond the dock’s weathered wood planks the waters of the bayou moved indolently, a dragonfly skimming the surface and causing an occasional ripple. The stray cat, who refused to take Honor seriously when she told him that this was not his home, was stalking unseen prey in her bed of brightly colored zinnias.
“Em, there’s not—”
“By the bush with the white flowers,” Emily said stubbornly. “I saw him through the window in my room.”
Honor went to the door, unlocked it, slid the bolt, stepped out onto the porch, and looked in the direction of the rose of Sharon shrub.
And there he was, lying facedown, partially on his left side, his face turned away from her, his left arm outstretched above his head. He lay motionless. Honor didn’t even detect movement of his rib cage to indicate that he was breathing.
Quickly she turned and gently pushed Emily back through the door. “Sweetie, go into Mommy’s bedroom. My phone is on the nightstand. Bring it to me, please.” Not wanting to frighten her daughter, she kept her voice as calm as possible, but hurriedly took the steps down off the porch and ran across the dewy grass toward the prone figure.
When she got closer, she saw that his clothing was filthy, torn in places, and bloodstained. There were smears of blood on the exposed skin of his outstretched arm and hand. A clot of it had matted a whorl of dark hair on the crown of his head.
Honor knelt down and touched his shoulder. When he moaned, she exhaled with relief. “Sir? Can you hear me? You’re hurt. I’ll call for help.”
He sprang up so quickly she didn’t even have time to recoil, much less to defend herself. He struck with lightning speed and precision. His left hand shot out and closed around the back of her neck, while with his right hand he jammed the short, blunt barrel of a handgun into the slight depression where her ribs met. He aimed it upward and to the left, directly in line with her heart, which had ballooned with fright.
“Who else is here?”
Her vocal cords were frozen with fear; she couldn’t speak.
He squeezed the back of her neck and repeated with sinister emphasis, “Who else is here?”
It took several tries before she was able to stammer, “My… my dau—”
“Anybody besides the kid?”
She shook her head. Or tried. He had a death grip on the back of her neck. She could feel the pressure of each individual finger.
His blue eyes cut like lasers. “If you’re lying to me…”
He didn’t even have to complete the threat to coax a whimper from her. “I’m not lying. I swear. We’re alone. Don’t hurt us. My daughter… she’s only four years old. Don’t hurt her. I’ll do whatever you say, just don’t—”
Honor’s heart clenched, and she made a feeble squeaking sound, like that of a helplessly trapped animal. Because she still couldn’t turn her head, she shifted only her eyes toward Emily. She was several yards away, standing in her endearingly duck-kneed stance, blonde curls wreathing her sweet face, chubby toes peeking out from beneath the pink silk flower petals that decorated her sandals. She was clutching the cell phone, her expression apprehensive.
Honor was engulfed with love. She wondered if this would be the last time she would see Emily healthy and whole and untouched. The thought was so horrible, it brought tears to her eyes, which, for her child’s sake, she rapidly blinked away.
She didn’t realize her teeth were chattering until she tried to speak. She managed to say, “It’s okay, sweetheart.” Her eyes shifted back to the face of the man who was only a trigger pull away from blowing her heart to smithereens. Emily would be left alone, and terrified, and at his mercy.
Please. Honor’s eyes silently implored him. Then she whispered, “I beg you.”
Those hard, cold eyes magnetized hers as he gradually eased the pistol away from her. He lowered it to the ground, placing it behind his thigh where Emily couldn’t see it. But the implicit threat remained.
He removed his hand from around Honor’s neck and turned his head toward Emily. “Hi.”
He didn’t smile when he said it. Faint lines formed parentheses on either side of his mouth, but Honor didn’t think they had been grooved there by smiling.
Emily regarded him shyly and dug the toe of her sandal into the thick grass. “Hello.”
He extended his hand. “Give me the phone.”
She didn’t move, and when he snapped the fingers of his outstretched hand, she mumbled, “You didn’t say please.”
Please appeared to be a foreign concept to him. But after a moment, he said, “Please.”
Emily took a step toward him, then drew up short and looked at Honor, seeking permission. Although Honor’s lips were trembling almost uncontrollably, she managed to form a semblance of a smile. “It’s okay, sweetie. Give him the phone.”
Emily bashfully closed the distance between them. When she was within touching distance, she leaned far forward and dropped the phone into his palm.
His blood-smeared hand closed around it. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Are you gonna call Grandpa?”
His eyes shifted to Honor. “Grandpa?”
“He’s coming for supper tonight,” Emily announced happily.
Holding Honor’s stare, the man drawled, “Is that right?”
“Do you like pizza?”
“Pizza?” He looked back at Emily. “Yeah. Sure.”
“Mommy said I can have pizza for supper because it’s a party.”
“Huh.” He slid Honor’s cell phone into the front pocket of his dirty jeans, then encircled her biceps with his free hand and pulled her up as he stood. “Looks like I got here just in time, then. Let’s go inside. You can tell me all about tonight’s party.” Keeping a grip on Honor’s arm, he propelled her toward the house. Her legs were so shaky they barely supported her as she took those first few stumbling steps. Emily got distracted by the cat. She chased after him, calling, “Here, kitty,” as he slunk into a hedge on the far side of the yard.
As soon as Emily was out of earshot, Honor said, “I’ve got some money. Not much, a couple hundred dollars maybe. A few pieces of jewelry. You can take anything I own. Just please don’t hurt my daughter.”
And all the time she was babbling, she was scanning the yard in frantic search of something she could use as a weapon. The water hose wound up on its spool at the edge of the deck? The pot of geraniums on the bottom step? One of the bricks embedded in the ground, lining the flower bed?
She would never get to one of them in time, even if she could wrench herself from his grasp, which she knew from the strength of it would be difficult if not impossible. And in the process of a struggle, he would simply shoot her. Then he’d be left to do with Emily what he would. Thoughts of that brought bile to her throat.
“Where’s your boat?”
She turned her head and looked at him blankly.
Impatiently, he hitched his chin toward the empty dock. “Who’s got the boat out?”
“I don’t have a boat.”
“Don’t bullshit me.”
“I sold the boat when… A couple of years ago.”
He seemed to weigh her honesty, then asked, “Where’s your car?”
“Parked in front.”
“Keys in it?”
She hesitated, but when he increased the pressure of his grip, she shook her head. “Inside. On a wall hook by the kitchen door.”
He started up the steps of the porch, pushing her along in front of him. She felt the pistol bumping against her spine. She turned her head, about to call out to Emily, but he said, “Leave her for now.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Well, first…” he said, opening the door and pushing her inside ahead of him. “I’m going to make sure you aren’t lying to me about anyone else being here. And then… we’ll see.”
She could feel the tension in him as he propelled her from the empty living room then down the short hallway toward the bedrooms. “There’s no one here except Emily and me.”
He gave the door of Emily’s bedroom a push with the barrel of the pistol. The door swung open to a panorama of pink. No one was lying in wait. Still mistrustful, he crossed the room in two wide strides and yanked open the closet door. Satisfied that no one was hiding inside it, he gave Honor a shove back into the hall and toward the second bedroom.
As they approached, he growled close to her ear, “If there’s someone in here, I shoot you first. Got it?” He hesitated as though giving her a chance to change her claim that she was alone, but when she remained silent, he kicked the door open with the toe of his boot, sending it crashing against the adjacent wall.
Her bedroom looked ironically, almost mockingly, serene. Sunlight coming through the shutters painted stripes on the hardwood floor, the white quilted comforter, the pale gray walls. The ceiling fan caused dust motes to dance in the slanted beams of light.
He shoved her toward the closet and ordered her to open the door. He relaxed only marginally when he glanced into the connecting bathroom and discovered it also empty.
He faced her squarely. “Where’s your gun?”
“You have one somewhere.”
“No I don’t.”
His eyes narrowed.
“I swear,” she said.
“Which side of the bed do you sleep on?”
He didn’t repeat the question, just continued to stare at her until she pointed. “The right.”
Backing away from her, he moved to the nightstand on the right side of the bed and checked the drawer. Inside were a flashlight and a paperback novel but no lethal weapon. Then to her shock, he shoved the mattress, linens and all, off the bed far enough for him to search beneath it, finding nothing except the box spring.
He motioned with his chin for her to lead him from the room. They returned to the living room and went from there into the kitchen, where his eyes darted from point to point, taking it all in. His gaze lit on the wall hook with her car keys hanging from it.
When she saw his notice, she said, “Take the car. Just go.”
Ignoring that, he asked, “What’s in there?”
He went to that door and opened it. Washing machine and clothes dryer. Ironing board folded into a recession in the wall. A rack on which she dried her delicates, some of which were hanging there now. An array of lace in pastels. One black bra.
When he came back around, those Nordic eyes moved over her in a way that made her face turn hot even as her torso became cold and clammy with dread.
He took a step toward her; she took a corresponding step back, a normal response to mortal danger, which is what he posed to her. She didn’t delude herself into believing otherwise.
His entire aspect was menacing, starting with his chilling eyes and the pronounced bone structure of his face. He was tall and lean, but the skin on his arms was stretched over muscles that looked as taut as whipcord. The backs of his hands were bumpy with strong veins. His clothes and hair had snagged natural debris—twigs, sprigs of moss, small leaves. He seemed indifferent to all that, just as he did to the mud caked on his boots and the legs of his jeans. He smelled of the swamp, of sweat, of danger.
In the silence, she could hear his breathing. She could hear her own heartbeat. She was his sole focus, and that terrified her.
Overpowering him would be impossible, especially since one jerk of his index finger would fire a bullet straight into her. He stood between her and the drawer where butcher knives were stored. On the counter was the coffee pot, still half filled with this morning’s brew, still hot enough to scald him. But in order to reach either it or the knives, she would have to get past him, and that didn’t seem likely. She doubted she could outrun him, but even if she could make it beyond the door and escape, she wouldn’t leave Emily behind.
Reason or persuasion seemed the only options open to her.
“I’ve answered all your questions truthfully, haven’t I?” she said, her voice low and tremulous. “I’ve offered to give you my money and whatever valuables—”
“I don’t want your money.”
She motioned toward the bleeding scratches on his arms. “You’re hurt. Your head has been bleeding. I’ll… I’ll help you.”
“First aid?” He made a scoffing sound. “I don’t think so.”
“Then what… what do you want?”
“Put your hands behind your back.”
He took a couple of measured steps toward her.
She backed away. “Listen.” She licked her lips. “You don’t want to do this.”
“Put your hands behind your back,” he repeated, softly but with emphasis on each word.
“Please.” The word was spoken on a sob. “My little girl—”
“I’m not going to ask you again.” He took another step closer.
She backed away and came up against the wall behind her.
One last step brought him to within inches of her. “Do it.”
Her instinct was to fight him, to scratch and claw and kick in an effort to prevent, or at least to delay, what seemed to be the inevitable. But because she feared Emily’s fate if she didn’t comply with him, she did as ordered and clasped her hands together at the small of her back, sandwiching them between her and the wall.
He leaned in close. She turned her head aside, but he placed his hand beneath her chin and brought it back around.
Speaking in a whisper, he said, “You see how easy it would be for me to hurt you?”
She looked into his eyes and nodded numbly.
“Well, I won’t hurt you. I promise not to hurt you or your kid. But you gotta do everything I say. Okay? Have we got a deal?”
She might have derived some level of comfort from the promise, even if she didn’t believe it. But she suddenly realized who he was, and that sent a bolt of terror through her.
Breathlessly, she rasped, “You’re… You’re the man who shot all those people last night.”
Coburn. C-o-b-u-r-n. First name Lee, no known middle initial.”
Sergeant Fred Hawkins of the Tambour Police Department removed his hat and wiped sweat off his forehead. It had already gone greasy in the heat, and it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet. Mentally he cursed the heat index of coastal Louisiana. He’d lived here all his life, but one never got used to the sultry heat, and the older he got the more he minded it.
He was in a cell phone conversation with the sheriff of neighboring Terrebonne Parish, giving him the lowdown of last night’s mass murder. “Chances are that’s an alias, but it’s the name on his employee records and all that we have to go on at present. We lifted prints off his car… Yeah, that’s the damnedest thing. You’d think he would’ve sped away from the scene, but his car is still parked in the employee lot. Maybe he thought it would be spotted too easily. Or, I guess if you go and kill seven people in cold blood, you’re not thinking logically. Best we can tell, he fled the scene on foot.”
Fred paused to take a breath. “I’ve already put his prints into the national pipeline. I’m betting something will turn up. A guy like this has gotta have priors. Whatever we get on him will be passed along, but I’m not waiting on further info, so you shouldn’t either. Start looking for him A.S.A.P. You got my fax?… Good. Make copies and pass them out to your deputies for distribution.”
While the sheriff was assuring Fred of his department’s capacity for finding men at large, Fred nodded a greeting to his twin brother, Doral, who joined him where he was standing outside his patrol car.
It was parked on the shoulder of the two-lane state highway in a sliver of shade cast by a billboard sign advertising a gentleman’s club that was located near the New Orleans airport. Sixty-five miles to the exit. The coldest drinks. The hottest women. Totally nude.
All sounded good to Fred, but he forecast that it would be a while before he could seek entertainment. Not until Lee Coburn was accounted for.
“You heard right, Sheriff. Bloodiest crime scene I’ve ever had the misfortune of investigating. Full-scale execution. Sam Marset was shot in the back of the head at close range.”
The sheriff expressed his disgust over the viciousness of the crime, then signed off with his pledge to be in touch if the murderous psycho was spotted in his parish.
“Windbag could talk the horns off a billy goat,” Fred complained to his brother as he disconnected.
Doral extended him a Styrofoam cup. “You look like you could use a coffee.”
Impatiently Fred removed the lid from the cup and took a sip. His head jerked back in surprise.
Doral laughed. “Thought you could use a little pick-me-up, too.”
“We ain’t twins for nothing. Thanks.”
As Fred drank the liberally spiked coffee, he surveyed the line of patrol cars parked along the edge of the road. Dozens of uniformed officers from various agencies were milling around nearby, some talking on cell phones, others studying maps, most looking befuddled and intimidated by the job at hand.
“What a mess,” Doral said under his breath.
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“As city manager, I came out to offer any help that I or the City of Tambour can provide.”
“As lead investigator on the case, I appreciate the city’s support,” Fred said drolly. “Now that the official bullshit is out of the way, tell me where you think he ran to.”
“You’re the cop, not me.”
“But you’re the best tracker for miles around.”
“Since Eddie was killed, maybe.”
“Well, Eddie ain’t here, so you’re it. You’re part bloodhound, too. You could find a flea on a pissant.”
“Yeah, but fleas ain’t as slippery as this guy.”
Doral had arrived dressed not as a city official, but as a hunter, fully expecting that his twin would recruit him to join the manhunt. He took off his dozer cap and fanned his face with it as he gazed toward the edge of the woods where those involved in the search were gathering.
“That slipperiness of his has got me worried.” Fred would admit that only to his brother. “We gotta catch this son of a bitch, Doral.”
“Like right effing now.”
Fred chugged the rest of his bourbon-laced coffee and tossed the empty cup onto the driver’s seat of his car. “You ready?”
“If you’re waiting on me, you’re backing up.”
The two joined the rest of the search party. As its appointed organizer, Fred gave the command. Officers fanned out and began picking their way through the tall grass toward the tree line that demarcated the dense forest. Trainers unleashed their search dogs.
They were commencing the search here because a motorist who’d been changing a flat on the side of the road late last night had seen a man running into the woods. He hadn’t thought anything about it until the mass slaying at the Royale Trucking Company warehouse was reported on the local news this morning. The estimated time of the shooting had roughly corresponded with the time he’d seen an individual—whom he couldn’t describe because he’d been too far away—disappearing into the woods on foot and in a hurry. He’d called the Tambour Police Department.
It wasn’t much for Fred and the others to go on, but since they didn’t have any other leads, here they were, trying to pick up a trail that would lead them to the alleged mass murderer, one Lee Coburn.
Doral kept his head down, studying the ground. “Is Coburn familiar with this territory?”
“Don’t know. Could know it as good as he knows the back of his hand, or could be he’s never even seen a swamp.”
“His employee application said his residence before Tambour was Orange, Texas. But I checked the address and it’s bogus.”
“So nobody knows for sure where he came from.”
“Nobody to ask,” Fred said dryly. “His coworkers on the loading dock are dead.”
“But he’s been in Tambour for thirteen months. He had to know somebody.”
“Nobody’s come forward.”
“Nobody would, though, would they?”
“Guess not. After last night, who’d want to claim him as a friend?”
“Bartender? Waitress? Somebody he traded with?”
“Officers are canvassing. A checker at Rouse’s who’d rung up his groceries a few times said he was pleasant enough, but definitely not a friendly sort. Said he always paid in cash. We ran his Social Security number through. No credit cards came up, no debts. No account in any town bank. He cashed his paychecks at one of those places that do that for a percentage.”
“The man didn’t want to leave a paper trail.”
“And he didn’t.”
Doral asked if Coburn’s neighbors had been interviewed.
“By me personally,” Fred replied. “Everybody in the apartment complex knew him by sight. Women thought he was attractive in that certain kind of way.”
“What certain kind of way?”
“Wished they could fuck him, but considered him bad news.”
“That’s a ‘way’?”
“Of course that’s a ‘way.’ ”
“Who told you that?”
“It’s just something I know.” He nudged his twin in the ribs. “ ’Course I understand women better than you do.”
“Piss up my other leg.”
They shared a chuckle, then Fred turned serious again. “Men I talked to said they knew better than to mess with Coburn, which wasn’t a problem, because he came and went without even a nod for anybody.”
“None that anybody knew of.”
“None that anybody knew of.”
“You search his apartment?”
“Thoroughly. It’s a one-room efficiency on the east side of town, and not a damn thing in it to give us a clue. Work clothes in the closet. Chicken pot pies in the freezer. The man lived like a monk. One thumbed copy of Sports Illustrated on the coffee table. A TV, but no cable hookup. Nothing personal in the whole damn place. No notepad, calendar, address book. Zilch.”
“What about his phone?”
Fred had found a cell phone at the murder scene and had determined that it didn’t belong to any of the bullet-riddled bodies. “Recent calls, one to that lousy Chinese food place that delivers in town, and one came in to him from a telemarketer.”
“That’s it? Two calls?”
“In thirty-six hours.”
“Well, damn.” Doral swatted at a biting fly.
“We’re checking out the other calls in his log. See who the numbers belong to. But right now, we know nothing about Lee Coburn except that he’s out here somewhere, and that we’re gonna catch shit if we don’t find him.” Lowering his voice, Fred added, “And I’d just as soon return him in a body bag as in handcuffs. Best thing for us? We’d find his lifeless body floating in a bayou.”
“Townsfolk wouldn’t complain. Marset was highly thought of. Practically the freaking prince of Tambour.”
Sam Marset had been the owner of the Royale Trucking Company, president of the Rotary Club, an elder at St. Boniface Catholic Church, an Eagle Scout, a Mason. He had chaired various boards and was usually grand marshal of the town’s Mardi Gras parade. He had been a pillar of the community whom folks had admired and liked.
He was now a corpse with a bullet hole in his head, and, as if that one hadn’t been enough to kill him, another had been fired into his chest for extra measure. The other six shooting victims probably wouldn’t be missed much, but Marset’s murder had warranted a televised press conference earlier that morning. It had been covered by numerous community newspapers from the coastal region of the state, and all of the major New Orleans television stations were represented.
Fred had presided, flanked at the microphone by city officials, including his twin. The New Orleans P.D. had loaned Tambour police a sketch artist, who’d rendered a drawing of Coburn based on descriptions provided by neighbors: Caucasian male around six feet three inches tall, average weight, athletic build, black hair, blue eyes, thirty-four years of age according to his employee records.
Fred had concluded the press conference by filling television screens with the drawing and warning locals that Coburn was believed still to be in the area and should be considered armed and dangerous.
“You laid it on pretty thick,” Doral said now, referring to Fred’s closing remarks. “No matter how slippery Lee Coburn is, everybody’s going to be after his hide. I don’t think he has a prayer of escaping the area.”
Fred looked at his brother and raised one eyebrow. “You mean that honestly, or is that wishful thinking?”
Before Doral could reply, Fred’s cell phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID and smiled across at his brother. “Tom VanAllen. FBI to the rescue.”
Coburn gradually backed away from the woman, but even then, her fear of him was palpable. Good. He needed her to be afraid. Fear would inspire cooperation. “They’re searching for you,” she said.
“Behind every tree.”
“Police, state troopers, volunteers. Dogs.”
“I heard them yelping early this morning.”
“They’ll catch you.”
“They haven’t yet.”
“You should keep running.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Mrs. Gillette?”
Her expression became even more stark with fear, so the significance of his knowing her name hadn’t escaped her. He hadn’t randomly selected her house in which to take refuge. It—she—had been a destination.
“Mommy, the kitty went into the bushes and won’t come out.”
Coburn’s back was to the door, but he’d heard the little girl come in from outside, had heard the soles of her sandals slapping against the hardwood floor as she approached the kitchen. But he didn’t turn toward her. His gaze remained fixed on the kid’s mother.
Her face had turned as white as chalk. Her lips looked practically bloodless as her eyes sawed back and forth between him and the kid. But Coburn gave her credit for keeping her voice light and cheerful. “That’s what kitties do, Em. They hide.”
“The kitty doesn’t know you, so maybe he’s afraid.”
“Yes, it is. Very silly.” She shifted her gaze back to Coburn and added meaningfully, “He should know you won’t do anything.”
Okay, he wasn’t dense. He got the message. “If you do,” he said softly, “he’ll scratch, and it will hurt.” Holding her frightened stare, he slid the pistol into the waistband of his jeans and tugged the hem of his T-shirt over it, then turned around. The kid was staring up at him with blatant curiosity.
“Does your boo-boo hurt?”
She pointed to his head. He reached up and touched congealed blood. “No, it doesn’t hurt.”
He stepped around her as he crossed to the table. Ever since coming into the kitchen, his mouth had been watering from the aroma of freshly baked cake. He stripped away the paper cup of a cupcake and bit off half of it, then ravenously crammed the rest of it into his mouth and reached for another. He hadn’t eaten since noon yesterday, and he’d been slogging through the swamp all night. He was starving.
“You didn’t wash,” the kid said.
He swallowed the cupcake practically whole. “What?”
“You’re supposed to wash your hands before you eat.”
“Oh yeah?” He peeled the paper off the second cupcake and took a huge bite.
The kid nodded solemnly. “It’s the rule.”
He shot a look at the woman, who had moved up behind her daughter and placed protective hands on her shoulders. “I don’t always go by the rules,” he said. Keeping an eye on them, he went to the fridge, opened it, and took out a plastic bottle of milk. He thumbed off the cap and tilted the bottle toward his mouth, drinking from it in gulps.
“Mommy, he’s drinking from—”
“I know, darling. But it’s okay just this once. He’s very thirsty.”
The kid watched in fascination as he drank at least a third of the milk before stopping to take a breath. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and replaced the bottle in the fridge.
The kid wrinkled her nose. “Your clothes are dirty and stinky.”
“I fell in the creek.”
Her eyes widened. “On accident?”
“Did you have wings on?”
“Can you do a face float?”
Clueless, he looked at the mother. She said, “She learned to do a face float in swim class.”
“I still have to wear my wings,” the little girl said, “but I got a gold star on my fertisicate.”
Nervously, the mother turned her around and ushered her toward the doorway into the living room. “I think it’s time for Dora. Why don’t you go watch while I talk to… to our company.”
The child dug her heels in. “You said I could lick the bowl.”
The mother hesitated, then took a rubber spatula from the bowl of frosting and handed it down to her. She took it happily and said to him, “Don’t eat any more cupcakes. There s’pposed to be for the birthday party.” Then she skipped out of the room.
The woman turned to him, but said nothing until they heard the voice track of the TV show come on. Then, “How do you know my name?”
“You’re Eddie Gillette’s widow, right?” She merely stared at him. “It’s not that tough a question. Yes or no?”
“So, unless you’ve remarried…”
She shook her head.
“Then it stands to reason your name is Mrs. Gillette. What’s your first name?”
Honor? He’d never known anybody by that name. But then this was Louisiana. People had strange names, first and last. “Well, Honor, I don’t have to introduce myself, do I?”
“They said your name is Lee Collier.”
“Coburn. Pleased to meet you. Sit down.” He indicated a chair at the kitchen table.
She hesitated, then pulled the chair from beneath the table and slowly lowered herself into it.
He worked a cell phone out of the front pocket of his jeans and punched in a number, then hooked a chair leg with the toe of his boot and sat down across the table from her. He stared at her as he listened to the telephone on the other end ring.
She fidgeted in her seat. She clasped her hands together in her lap and looked away from him, then, almost defiantly, brought her gaze back to his and held it. She was scared half to death but trying not to show it. The lady had backbone, which was okay by him. He would much rather deal with a little moxie than bawling and begging.
When his call was answered by an automated voice mail recording, he swore beneath his breath, then waited for the ding and said, “You know who this is. All hell’s broke loose.”
As soon as he clicked off, she said, “You have an accomplice?”
“You could say.”
“Was he there during the… the shooting?”
He merely looked at her.
She wet her lips, pulled the lower one between her teeth. “They said on the news that seven people were killed.”
“That’s how many I counted.”
She crossed her arms over her middle and hugged her elbows. “Why did you kill them?”
“What are they saying on TV?”
“That you were a disgruntled employee.”
He shrugged. “You could call me disgruntled.”
“You didn’t like the trucking company?”
“No. Especially the boss.”
“Sam Marset. But the others were just shift workers, like you. Was it necessary to shoot them, too?”
“They were witnesses.”
His candor seemed to astonish and repel her. He watched a shudder pass through her. For a time, she remained quiet, simply staring at the tabletop.
Then slowly she raised her head and looked up at him. “How did you know my husband?”
“Actually I never had the pleasure. But I’ve heard about him.”
“Around Royale Trucking, his name pops up a lot.”
“He was born and raised in Tambour. Everybody knew Eddie and loved him.”
“You sure about that?”
Taken aback, she said, “Yes, I’m sure.”
“Among other things, he was a cop, right?”
“What do you mean by ‘among other things’?”
“Your husband, the late, great Eddie the cop, was in possession of something extremely valuable. I came here to get it.”
Before she could respond, the cell phone still in his pocket, hers, rang, startling them both. Coburn pulled it from his pocket. “Who’s Stanley?”
“Grandpa,” he said, thinking back to what the kid had said out in the yard.
“If I don’t answer—”
“Forget it.” He waited until the ringing stopped, then nodded toward the cupcakes. “Whose birthday is it?”
“Stan’s. He’s coming for dinner to celebrate.”
“What time? And I don’t advise you to lie to me.”
He glanced at the wall clock. That was almost eight hours from now. He hoped to have what he was after and be miles away from here by then. A lot depended on Eddie Gillette’s widow and how much she knew about her late husband’s extracurricular activities.
He could tell her fear of him was genuine. But her fear could be based on any number of reasons, one of them being that she wanted to protect what she had and was afraid of him taking it away from her.
Or she could be entirely innocent and afraid only of the danger he posed to her and her kid.
Apparently they lived alone out here in the boondocks. There hadn’t been a trace of a man in the house. So when a bloodstained stranger showed up and threatened the isolated widow with a pistol, she would naturally be afraid.
Although living singly didn’t necessarily equate to virtue, Coburn thought, reminding himself that he lived alone.
Looks could be deceiving, too. She looked innocent enough, especially in the getup she was wearing. The white T-shirt, blue jean shorts, and retro white Keds were as wholesome as home-baked cupcakes. Her blonde hair was in a loose ponytail. Her eyes were hazel, veering toward solid green. She had the scrubbed appearance of the classic all-American girl next door, except that Coburn had never lived next door to anybody who looked as good as she did.
Seeing the skimpy undies on the drying rack in the laundry room had made him realize how long it had been since he’d lain down with a woman. Looking at the soft mounds underneath Honor Gillette’s white T-shirt and her long, smooth legs made him aware of just how much he’d like to end that spell of abstinence.
She must have sensed the track of his thoughts, because when he lifted his gaze from her chest to her eyes, they were regarding him fearfully. Quickly she said, “You’re in a lot of trouble, and you’re only wasting time here. I can’t help you. Eddie didn’t own anything extremely valuable.” She raised her hands at her sides. “You can see for yourself how simply we live. When Eddie died, I had to sell his fishing boat just to make ends meet until I could return to teaching.”
“Public school. Second grade. The only thing Eddie left me was a modest life insurance policy that barely covered the cost of his funeral. He’d been with the police department only eight years, so the pension I receive each month isn’t much. It goes directly into Emily’s college fund. I support us on my salary, and there’s little left for extras.”
She paused to take a breath. “You’ve been misinformed, Mr. Coburn. Or you jumped to the wrong conclusion based on rumor. Eddie had nothing valuable and neither do I. If I did, I would gladly hand it over to you in order to protect Emily. I value her life more than anything I could ever own.”
He looked at her thoughtfully for several moments. “Nicely put, but I’m not convinced.” He stood up and reached for her, encircling her biceps again and hauling her up out of her chair. “Let’s start in the bedroom.”
His street name was Diego.
That’s all he’d ever been called, and, as far as he knew, that was the only name he had. His earliest memory was of a skinny black woman asking him to fetch her cigarettes, or her syringe, and then hurling abuse at him if he was too slow about it.
He didn’t know if she was his mother or not. She didn’t claim to be, but didn’t deny it the one time he’d asked her. He wasn’t black, not entirely. His name was Hispanic, but that didn’t necessarily signify his heritage. In a city of Creoles where mixed bloodlines were historical and commonplace, he was a mongrel.
The woman of his memory had operated a hair-braiding salon. The business was open only when she felt like it, which was seldom. If she needed quick cash, she gave blowjobs in the back room. When Diego was old enough, she sent him out to solicit clients off the streets. He lured in women with the promise of getting the tightest braids in New Orleans. To men, he hinted of other pleasures to be found beyond the glass bead curtain that separated the establishment from the gritty sidewalk.
One day he came in after scrounging for something to eat and found the woman dead on the floor of the filthy bathroom. He stayed until the stink of her got to be too much even for him, then he abandoned the place, leaving her bloated corpse to become somebody else’s problem. From that day on, he had fended for himself. His turf was an area of New Orleans where even angels feared to tread.
He was seventeen years old and wise beyond his years.
His eyes showed it as he looked at the readout on his vibrating cell phone. Private caller. Which translated to The Bookkeeper. He answered with a surly, “Yeah?”
“You sound upset, Diego.”
Pissed, more like it. “You should have used me to take care of Marset. But you didn’t. Now look at the mess you’ve got.”
“So you’ve heard about the warehouse and Lee Coburn?”
“I got a TV. Flat-screen.”
“Thanks to me.”
Diego let that pass without comment. The Bookkeeper didn’t need to know that their working relationship wasn’t exclusive. He did occasional jobs for other clients.
“Guns,” he said scornfully. “They’re noisy. Why shoot up the place? I would have taken out Marset silently, and you wouldn’t have a circus going on down there in Tambour.”
“I needed to send a message.”
Don’t fuck with me, or else. That was the message. Diego supposed that anyone who’d crossed The Bookkeeper, and had heard about the mass murder, was looking over his shoulder this morning. Despite the amateurish handling of Marset’s execution, no doubt it had been an effective wake-up call.
“They haven’t found Lee Coburn yet,” Diego said, almost as a gibe.
“No. I’m closely monitoring the search. I hope they find him dead, but if not, he’ll have to be taken out. And so will anyone he’s had contact with since leaving that warehouse.”
“That’s why you’re calling me.”
“It will be tricky to get close to someone in police custody.”
“I specialize in tricky. I can get close. I always do.”
“Which is why you’re the man for this job, should it become necessary. Your skills would have been wasted on Marset. I needed to make noise and leave a lot of blood. But now that it’s done, I want no loose ends.”
No loose ends. No mercy. The Bookkeeper’s mantra. Anybody who shied away from the wet work usually became the next victim.
A few weeks earlier, a Mexican kid had escaped the overloaded truck that was smuggling him into the States. He and a dozen others were destined for slavery of one type or another. The kid must’ve known what the future held for him. During a refueling stop, while the truck driver was paying for his gasoline, the kid got away.
Fortunately, a state trooper who was on The Bookkeeper’s payroll had found him hitchhiking on the westbound lane of the interstate. The trooper had hidden him and had been ordered to dispose of the problem. But he’d turned squeamish.
The Bookkeeper had contracted Diego to go in and do his dirty work for him. Then, a week after Diego killed the boy, The Bookkeeper hired him to take care of the driver whose carelessness had allowed the kid to escape, along with the trooper who had shown himself to be greedy but gutless.
No loose ends. No mercy. The Bookkeeper’s uncompromising policy instilled fear and inspired obedience.
But Diego wasn’t scared of anybody. So when The Bookkeeper asked him now, “Did you find the girl who got away from the massage parlor?” he replied in a flippant manner, “Last night.”
“She’s no longer a problem?”
“Only to the angels. Or the devil.”
“I’m not an idiot.”
“Diego, the only thing more annoying than an idiot is a smart-ass.”
Diego raised his middle finger at the phone.
“Someone else is calling in, so I must go. Be ready.”
Diego slid his hand into his pants pocket and fondled the straight razor for which he was famous. Although The Bookkeeper had already disconnected, Diego said, “I stay ready.”
Engrossed in her program, Emily gave Honor and Coburn no notice as they passed through the living room.
When they reached Honor’s bedroom, she jerked her arm free from his grip and rubbed her bruised biceps. “I don’t want to get shot, and I certainly wouldn’t risk Emily’s life or run away and leave her behind. The manhandling is unnecessary.”
“That’s for me to decide.” He nodded toward the computer on the writing desk. “Was that your husband’s computer?”
“We both used it.”
“Boot it up.”
“There’s nothing on it except my personal emails, school records of my students, and lesson plans for each month.”
He just stood there, looking dark and dangerous, until she went to the desk and sat down. It seemed to take an eternity for the computer to boot. She stared into the monitor, looking at the blurred reflection of herself, but all the while aware of him, standing close, emanating odors of the swamp, his body heat, and a distinct threat of violence.
From the corner of her eye, she looked at his hand. It was relaxed, resting against his thigh. Even so, she knew it could squeeze the life from her body if he put it around her throat. The thought of it wrapped around Emily’s sweet, soft neck made her ill.
“Thank you, Mr. Coburn,” she whispered.
Several seconds elapsed before he asked, “For what?”
“For not harming Emily.”
He didn’t say anything.
“And for keeping the pistol out of her sight. I appreciate that.”
Another few seconds ticked past. “Nothing to be gained by scaring the kid.” The computer asked for a password. Honor quickly typed hers in. It showed up as black dots in the box.
“Wait,” he said before she could hit Enter. “Backspace and type it again. Slowly this time.”
She pecked out the letters again.
“What does the r stand for?”
“H, r, Gillette. Not a very original password. Easy to guess.”
“I’ve got nothing to hide.”
He reached over her shoulder and began maneuvering the mouse. He navigated through her emails, even those that had been deleted, and all her documents, which contained nothing that would interest him unless he was in second grade.
At one point, she asked politely, “Would you like to sit down?”
He might be, but she wasn’t. He was leaning over her, occasionally making contact with her back and shoulder, his arm brushing hers as he scooted the mouse around.
Finally he was satisfied that the files he’d opened were useless to him. “Did Eddie have a password?”
“We used the same one, as well as the same email address.”
“I didn’t see any emails to or from him.”
“They’ve all been deleted.”
“They were taking up space on the computer.”
He didn’t say anything, but she felt a tug on her ponytail and realized that he was winding it around his fist. When he had a tight grip, he turned her head toward him. She closed her eyes, but she could feel the pressure of his gaze on the top of her head.
“Open your eyes.”
Given her recent thoughts on the strength of his hands, she did as he ordered because she was afraid not to. She was on eye level with his waist. The proximity of her face to his body, and the intimacy it suggested, was disconcerting, as she supposed he intended. He wanted there to be no doubt as to who was in charge.
But perhaps she could turn this to her advantage. Her nose was inches from the outline of the pistol beneath his T-shirt. Her hands were free. Could she—
No. Even before she had finished formulating the thought, she cast it aside. Eddie had taught her how to shoot a handgun, but she’d never been comfortable handling any firearm. She couldn’t secure the pistol and fire it before Coburn knocked it aside or yanked it from her. Any attempt to do so would only anger him. And then what? She didn’t hazard to guess.
Using her fisted ponytail as leverage, he tilted her head back until she was looking up into his face. “Why did you delete your husband’s emails?”
“He’s been gone for two years. Why would I keep them?”
“They could have had important information in them.”
“She says, sounding real sure about it.”
“I am,” she snapped. “Eddie wouldn’t have been so careless as to put important information in an email.”
He held her stare as though gauging the strength of her argument. “Do you do your banking on this computer?”
“Pay any accounts?”
She shook her head as much as his hold on her hair would allow. “Neither of us used it for personal business.”
“What about his work computer?”
“It belonged to the police department.”
“It wasn’t given to you?”
“No. I suppose another officer has use of it now.”
He studied her face for another long moment, and must have determined that she was telling the truth. He released her hair and backed away. Relieved, she stood up and moved away from him and toward the door. “I’m just going to check on Emily.”
“Stay where you are.”
His eyes made a sweep of the room and did a double take when something on top of the dresser grabbed his attention. He crossed quickly to the bureau and picked up the picture frame, then thrust it into her hands. “Who are these guys?”
“The oldest one is Stan.”
“Eddie’s father? He’s in awfully good shape for a man his age.”
“He works at it. That’s Eddie standing next to him.”
“The other two? Twins?”
“Fred and Doral Hawkins. Eddie’s best friends.” Smiling over the fond memory, she ran her fingers across the glass sealing the photograph. “They’d gone on an overnight fishing trip into the Gulf. When they put in the following afternoon, they posed on the pier with their catch and asked me to take this picture.”
“Is that the boat you sold?”
“No, that was Doral’s charter boat. Katrina took it. Now he’s our city manager. Fred is a policeman.”
He looked at her sharply, then tapped the glass inside the frame. “This guy’s a cop?”
“He and Eddie enrolled in the police academy together and graduated in the same class of new officers. He—” She broke off and looked away from him, but he caught her chin and jerked her head back to him.
“What?” he demanded.
She saw no point in hedging. “Fred is spearheading the manhunt for you.”
“How do you know?”
“He conducted a press conference this morning. He pledged your swift capture and justice for the seven men you killed. Allegedly.”
He absorbed that, then released her chin and took the frame from her. To her consternation, he turned it over and began folding back the metal tabs so he could remove the easel back.
“What are you doing?”
“What does it look like?”
He took it apart and, inside, found only what she knew he would: the photograph, a piece of stiff backing, and the glass. He stared hard at the photograph and checked the date printed on the back of it. “They seem like a real chummy quartet.”
“The three boys became friends in grade school. Stan practically raised the Hawkins twins along with Eddie. They’ve been a great help to us since he died. They’ve been especially attentive to Emily and me.”
“Yeah?” He gave her a slow once-over. “I’ll bet they have.”
She wanted to lash out at him for what his smirk insinuated. But she held her tongue, believing it was beneath her dignity to defend her morals to a man who was smeared with his victims’ blood. She did, however, take the photograph from him and return it and the pieces of the frame back to the top of her bureau.
“How’d he die?” he asked. “Eddie. What killed him?”
“It’s believed he swerved to miss hitting an animal, something. He lost control and went headlong into a tree.”
“He was by himself ?”
“Yes.” Again she looked wistfully at the photograph that had so perfectly captured her husband’s smiling face. “He was on his way home from work.”
“Where’s his stuff ?”
The question yanked her from the poignant reverie. “What?”
“His stuff. You’re bound to have kept his personal belongings.”
In light of their conversation, his wanting to go through Eddie’s effects was the height of insensitivity, and it offended her almost more than having been threatened with a pistol. She met his cold, unfeeling eyes head-on. “You’re a cruel son of a bitch.”
His eyes turned even more implacable. He took a step toward her. “I need to see his stuff. Either you hand it over to me, or I’ll tear your house apart looking for it.”
“Be my guest. But I’ll be damned before I’ll help you.”
“Oh, I doubt that.”
Catching his malevolent implication, her gaze swung beyond his shoulder toward the living room where Emily was still enjoying one of her favorite shows.
“Your kid is all right, Mrs. Gillette. She’ll stay all right so long as you don’t play games with me.”
“I’m not playing games.”
“So we understand each other, neither am I.”
He spoke softly, malevolently, and his point was made. Furious with him, and with herself for having to capitulate without putting up more of a fight, she said coolly, “It would be helpful if you told me what you’re looking for.”
“It would be helpful if you quit jerking me around.”
“No! I have no idea what you want or even what you’re talking about. Gold bars? Stock certificates? Precious stones? If I had something like that, don’t you think I would have liquidated it by now?”
“Do I look like I have a lot of cash at my disposal?”
“No. You don’t. But you wouldn’t make it obvious, because that would be stupid.”
“Stupid in what way?”
“If you were suddenly flush with cash, people would be on to you.”
“People? What people? On to me? I don’t understand.”
“I think you do.”
During this heated exchange, he’d been coming ever closer until now they were toe to toe. His sheer physicality made her feel trapped. It was hard not to move away from him, but she refused to dance that dance again. Besides, she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing how effective his intimidation tactics were.
“Now, for the last time,” he said, “where’s Eddie’s stuff ?”
She defied him with her glare, her upright posture, her sheer force of will. Telling him to go straight to hell was on the tip of her tongue.
But Emily giggled.
In her sweet, piping voice she addressed something to the characters on the program, then squealed in delight and clapped her hands.
Honor’s bravado evaporated. She lowered her defiant chin, and rather than telling him to go to hell, she said, “There’s a storage box under the bed.”
It wasn’t a long commute between Tom VanAllen’s home and the FBI’s field office in Lafayette. Often, he considered it not long enough. It was the only time of his day in which he could switch off and think of nothing more complicated than to stay in his lane and drive within the speed limit.
He wheeled into his driveway and acknowledged that his house looked a little tired and sad compared to others in the neighborhood. But when would he have time to do repairs or repaint when something as necessary as mowing the lawn was only done sporadically?
By the time he entered through the front door, those self-castigating thoughts had already been pushed aside by the urgency of the situation in Tambour.
Janice, having heard him come in, hurried into the entryway, cell phone in hand. “I was just about to call you to ask when you’d be home for lunch.”
“I didn’t come home to eat.” He took off his suit jacket and hung it on the hall tree. “That multiple murder in Tambour—”
“It’s all over the news. The guy hasn’t been caught yet?”
He shook his head. “I’ve got to go down there myself.”
“Why must you? You dispatched agents early this morning.”
Royale Trucking Company conducted interstate trade. When the carnage was discovered inside the warehouse, Tom, as agent in charge of the field office, had been notified. “It’s politic for me to review the situation in person. How’s Lanny today?”
“Like he is any other day.”
Tom pretended not to hear the bitterness underlying his wife’s voice as he headed down the central hallway toward the room at the back of the house where their thirteen-year-old son was confined.
In fact, where he and Janice were also confined. Sadly, this room was at the epicenter of their lives, their marriage, their future.
An aberrant accident in the birth canal had cut off their son’s oxygen and left him with severe brain damage. He didn’t speak, or walk, or even sit alone. His responses to any stimuli were limited to blinking his eyes, but only on occasion, and to making a guttural sound, the meaning of which neither Tom nor Janice would ever be able to interpret. They had no way of knowing if he even recognized them by sight, or sound, or touch.
“He’s soiled himself,” Tom said upon entering the room and being hit with the odor.
“I checked him five minutes ago,” Janice said defensively. “I changed the sheets on his bed this morning and—”
“That’s a two-person job. You should have waited for me to help you.”
“Well, that could have been a wait, couldn’t it?”
Quietly Tom said, “I had to leave earlier than usual this morning, Janice. I had no choice.”
She blew out a gust of air. “I know. I’m sorry. But after changing his bed, I had to do laundry. It’s not even lunchtime, and I’m exhausted.”
He stayed her as she moved toward the bed. “I’ll take care of this.”
“You’re in a hurry to get away.”
“Five minutes won’t matter. Will you fix me a sandwich, please? I’ll eat it on the way down to Tambour.”
After seeing to Lanny, he went into their bedroom and changed out of his suit and into outdoor clothes. Before day’s end, he would probably be called upon to join the manhunt. He had little or nothing to contribute to such an undertaking, but he would make the gesture of pitching in.
He dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved white shirt, and slipped on an old pair of sneakers, reminding himself to check the trunk of his car for the rubber boots he used to wear whenever he went fishing.
He used to do a lot of things he no longer did.
When he walked into the kitchen, Janice’s back was to him. She was preoccupied with making his sandwich so he studied her for several seconds without her being aware of it.
She hadn’t retained the prettiness that she’d had when they first met. The thirteen years since Lanny’s birth had taken a visible toll. Her movements were no longer graceful and fluid, but efficient and brisk, as though if she didn’t hurry up and accomplish the task at hand, she would lose the wherewithal to do it.
The slender young body she’d boasted had been whittled away and now she could be described as gaunt. Work and worry had etched lines around her eyes, and the lips that had always been on the verge of smiling were perpetually drawn with disappointment.
Tom didn’t blame her for these changes in her appearance. The changes in him were just as disagreeable. Unhappiness and hopelessness were stamped indelibly onto their faces. Worse, the changes weren’t only physical. Their love for each other had been drastically altered by the ongoing tragedy that their life together had become. The love he felt for Janice now was based more on pity than passion.
When first married, they’d shared an interest in jazz, movies, and Tuscan cooking. They’d planned to spend a summer in Italy attending cooking classes and drinking the regional vintages during sun-drenched afternoons.
That was just one of their dreams that had been shattered.
Every single day Tom asked himself how long they could go on in their present state. Something must change. Tom knew it. He figured Janice did, too. But neither wanted to be the first to wave a white flag on their commitment to their helpless son. Neither wanted to be the first to say, “I can’t do this any longer,” and suggest doing what they had pledged never to do, which was to place him in a special care facility.
The good ones were private and therefore costly. But the exorbitant expense was only one obstacle. Tom wasn’t certain what Janice’s reaction would be if he suggested they amend their original policy regarding Lanny’s care. He was afraid she would talk him out of it. And equally afraid that she wouldn’t.
Sensing his presence, she glanced over her shoulder. “Ham and cheese with brown mustard?”
She folded plastic wrap around the sandwich. “Do you plan to stay away overnight?”
“I can’t leave you alone with Lanny for that long.”
“I would manage.”
Tom shook his head. “I’ll come back. Fred Hawkins will share with me all his case notes.”
“You mean the oracle of the Tambour Police Department?”
Her sarcasm made him smile. She’d known the Hawkins twins from her last year of high school, when her father had decided to move “to the country” and had taken Janice out of the parochial academy in New Orleans and transferred her to the public school in Tambour. While the distance wasn’t that far, the two environments had been worlds apart.
Janice had experienced a reeling culture shock and had never quite forgiven her parents for uprooting her during that all-important senior year and transplanting her in “Bubbaville.” She considered everyone in Tambour a hick, starting with, and in particular, Fred Hawkins and his twin, Doral. It amazed her that one had become an officer of the law, the other a city official. Even by Tambour’s standards, the twins had exceeded her expectations of them.
“Everybody in Tambour wants the head of Sam Marset’s killer on a pike, and they’re breathing down Fred’s collar to get it,” Tom told her. “The coroner estimates time of death for all seven victims at around midnight, so Fred is”—he glanced at the clock on the microwave oven—“almost twelve hours into the investigation, and he doesn’t have any substantial leads.”
Excerpted from Lethal by Brown, Sandra Copyright © 2011 by Brown, Sandra. Excerpted by permission.
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