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"What do you mean you don't want me to cover sports?" Blake Nickels demanded in surprise. "I'm a sports reporter, Tom. And a damn good one, too."
"And at one time you were a hell of a news reporter, too," Tom Edwards reminded him as he searched his desk drawers for a stick of gum. He was in the process of giving up smoking after twenty years, and he scowled when he could find nothing but a eucalyptus cough drop to fight his craving. "In fact," he continued as he popped the foul tasting candy into his mouth, "the way I remember it, you won several national awards."
"That was before," he growled.
He didn't have to explain before whatthey both knew. Once Blake had been one of the hottest crime reporters in New York City. Then an informant had given him some information that had ended up costing the snitch his life. Devastated, he'd packed up his toys and gotten out of the game, moving from the notoriety he'd earned in New York to the obscurity of covering sports in a town in New Mexico that was no bigger than a pimple on the map. That had been eight years ago. As far as Tom knew, Blake hadn't gone within a hundred miles of a police scanner since.
Which made what he had to ask him all the more difficult. Wishing he had a cigarette, Tom pushed himself to his feet to restlessly prowl the confines of his office. "Lynn Phillips took maternity leave four months early this morning on the advice of her doctor," he said grimly. "If she doesn't get complete bed rest, she could lose the baby."
On the job for only two days, Blake racked his brain for a face to put with the name. "Phillips. The crime beat, right? Oh, no, you don't!"
"Now, Blake, don't go flying off the handle. Just give me a chance to explain"
"You crafty son of a bitch, there's nothing to explain. I can read you like a book. I know you, remember?"
They'd been best friends since grade schoolthere wasn't anything that one didn't know about the other, including how the other's mind worked. "You called me up offering my own column on the sports page just to get me over here, didn't you?" Blake demanded, jumping to his feet to glare at Tom. "It was all just a trick."
"You were thinking about leaving Lordsburg anyway. You said so yourself. Ever since Trina ran off with that truck driver and married him when you weren't looking"
"Leave Trina the hell out of this," he growled. "The woman's name is no longer in my vocabulary."
"Fine," Tom agreed. "Then what about Pop? With your parents going off to France for a year, you know you were worried sick about him being here in San Antonio all by himself. By accepting my job offer, you killed two birds with one stoneyou got away from that woman in Lordsburg and you could come home to watch over your grandfather until your parents get back. Instead of yelling at me, you ought to be thanking me, you old goat. I did you a favor."
"Favor?" Blake choked. If he hadn't been so irritated, he would have laughed. Leave it to Tom to twist things so he looked like a choirboy. "You call manipulating me to get me on the payroll, then assigning me to the crime beat a favor? If you'd mentioned what you were planning at the beginning, I never would have left New Mexico."
"I wasn't planning anything. I wasn't," he insisted when Blake merely lifted a dark brow at him. "Oh, I knew Lynn was pregnant, of course, and that she'd be leaving eventually, but I expected to have another four months to fill the position if I couldn't talk you into it. Dammit, Blake, take it, will you? At least for a little while until I can hire somebody else? You're the only one I've got on staff who can give Sabrina Jones some competition."
Blake might not have known Lynn Phillips and most of the rest of the Times staff, but he'd only been in town one day when he'd read Sabrina Jones's bylined story on the front page of the San Antonio Daily Record, the other major paper in town. She was good, dammit. Good enough to be writing for any major newspaper in the country, which was, no doubt, why Tom was worried. The Times and Daily Record were in a knock-down-drag-out, no-holds-barred subscription war right now, and the Times was going to get its butt kicked without someone who could give the Jones woman a run for her money.
"I'm out of practice," he hedged. "It's been eight years since I've done that beat."
"I don't care if it's been a hundred. You're the best damn reporter I've ever known. That includes sports, crimehell, even the obits. The second you catch the scent of a story, you'll be off and running, just like old times. It'll be great."
His expression shuttered, Blake couldn't share his enthusiasm. He wanted to tell him that he didn't care how many murders and sex crimes he covered, it would never be like old times again, but he was afraid Tom was right. He'd really enjoyed covering sports, but nothing had ever challenged him like crime. It was like an addiction that had called to something in his bloodhe'd thrived on it. And in the process, he'd lost his objectivity and become obsessed with getting the story. Nothing else had mattered. And because of that single-mindedness, a man had lost his life.
A man who had trusted him, Blake remembered grimly. A man who had seen something he shouldn't have and who should have gone to the police for protection. Blake had sworn not to reveal his identity and he'd stuck by that, but it hadn't done any good. The day after the story hit the paper, the informant had turned up dead, supposedly killed from asphyxiation due to running his car in a closed garage. The police had ruled it a suicide and let it go. Blake had known better. The prominent businessman the informant had exposed as the brains behind an extensive money-laundering and drug-smuggling operation had obviously gotten to him and shut him up for good.
Almost a decade had passed since then, but just thinking about it brought it all back like it was yesterday. He couldn't go through that again. He couldn't put someone at risk just because of a damn story. It wasn't worth it.
So what are you going to do, Nickels? You quit the job in Lordsburg. Remember? You can go back, of course. But what about Pop?
His grandfather, eighty-three and forgetful at times, had no business living alone. Blake could try to convince him to go to New Mexico with him, but the old man could be as stubborn as a mule when he wanted to be. And if he wouldn't go to Paris for a year with Blake's parents, he sure wasn't going to leave his home and everything familiar in San Antonio for Lordsburg.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Blake had no choice but to accept the inevitable. "All right." He sighed. "I'll take over for Lynn. For now," he stressed when his friend grinned broadly. "So don't go getting any ideas that this is permanent. As soon as you can hire someone to replace Lynn, I'm going back to sports. I mean it, Tom. I see that gleam in your eyeI know what you're up to. You're hoping that once I get a taste of hard news again, you won't be able to pry me away from it with a crowbar, but that's not going to happen. I'm a sports writer, dammit."
Not sure if he was trying to convince him or himself, Tom only grinned. Blake might think he could walk away from investigative reporting twice in a lifetime, but Tom knew better. One good story. That's all it would take for Blake to be hooked.
The woman was youngmid-twentiespretty, and dead.
Arriving at the murder scene only seconds after the cops themselves, Sabrina got her first look at the victim at the same time that the two officers did. Her eyes wide open, a look of horror etched in her pale, stone-cold face, the dead woman lay just inside the open front door of her house and appeared to have been there all night. Dressed in a lacy white nightgown and negligee stained with her own blood, she'd been shot in the heart, probably seconds after she'd opened the door.
"Jesus," Andy Thompson, the younger of the two cops and a rookie, muttered. "She looks like she was waiting for a lover."
"If that's who popped her, then she was a lousy judge of men," his partner, Victor Rodriguez, said flatly. "I'll call the ME and Detective Kelly. This one's got his name written all over it."
He turned and only just then became aware of Sabrina's presence. An old friend, he scowled disapprovingly. "What the heck do you think you're doing in here, Sabrina? This is a crime scene."
Not the least bit intimidated, she flashed her dimples at him. "No kidding? Then I guess that's why I'm here. C'mon, Vic, gimme a break. Let me look around. I'll be out of here before Kelly arrives, I swear."
"That's what you said the last time, and I got a royal chewing out for it." Blocking her path, he refused to let her peer around his broad shoulders and shooed her outside instead. "You know the rules, Sabrina. You want the particulars, you wait till the detective gets here. He'll tell you everything he thinks you need to know."
"You're all heart, Rodriguez," she grumbled as he escorted her well out into the yard, then blockaded the crime scene with yellow police tape to keep her and the curious out. "Kelly won't tell me squat until he's good and ready, and you know it."
"Wah, wah!" he said, grinning as he mimicked a baby's cry. "Quit your crying, Jones. You'll get your story. You always do."
"That's because I'm good at what I do," she called after him as he turned and disappeared back inside. And because she didn't stand around and wait for someone to hand her a story on a platter.
Her hands on her hips, she surveyed the neighborhood. Quiet and moderately affluent, with neatly trimmed yards and houses that would easily sell for a hundred grand or more, it wasn't the type of place where you expected a shooting, let alone a murder. From the small, unobtrusive signs in the front yards, it was obvious that most of the homes had security systems, including the victim's. Yet a woman had been killedshot, no lessand no one had noticed anything unusual during the night.
Wondering how that could have happened, she headed for the house next door. When Kelly got there, he wouldn't like it that she'd snooped around before his men had a chance to question possible witnesses. But then again, she thought, mischief flashing in her brown eyes, it wouldn't be the first time she'd skirted the rules to get a story. Kelly had to be used to it by now.
Her chances of finding anyone at home at eleven o'clock in the morning on a weekday were slim to none, so she wasn't surprised when no one answered at the first four doors she knocked on. On the fifth, she got lucky.
The man who opened the door to the house directly across the street from the victim's was thin and balding, with a face full of wrinkles and piercing blue eyes that were as sharp as a hawk's. Peering over the top of his bifocals at her, he scowled in annoyance. "If you're selling something door-to-door, lady, you didn't pick a very good day for it. There's been a murder across the street, and any second now this whole block's going to be crawling with police."
"I know, sir. I'm a reporter. Sabrina Jones, with the Daily Record. I was wondering if I might ask you a few questions?"
"I didn't see jack squat," he retorted. "Just her body lying in the doorway when I came outside to get my paper this morning. I take the Times."
Sabrina bit back a smile. Readers, as loyal as fans to their favorite pro team, always seemed to be under the mistaken impression that they couldn't talk to her if they didn't read the Record. "It's a good paper," she said easily, her brown eyes twinkling. "But so is the Daily Record. Did you know the victim?"
His gaze drifting back to the still figure now draped in a yellow plastic sheet, he nodded somberly. "Her name was Tanya Bishop. She was a sweet girl. And smart. A legal secretary. From what I heard, she made good money, but she didn't blow it. She socked it away and bought that house, and she wasn't even thirty yet."
His loyalty to the Times forgotten in his need to talk about the victim, he reminisced about her at length while Sabrina jotted down notes and an image of Tanya Bishop formed in her mind. A young professional woman who was responsible and hardworking, she wasn't the type to make enemies. She didn't drink or smoke or party till all hours of the night. And she was dead just like Charlene McClintock.
Barely two weeks ago, Charlene had also been found dead. Like Tanya, she'd been young, pretty and professional. Everyone who had known her had loved her. Yet someone had shot her in the heart just like Tanya Bishop. The similarities between the two murders was not lost on her.
"Were you home all night, Mr.?"
"Dexter," he replied automatically. "Monroe Dexter. Yeah, I was home. And let me tell you, nobody sleeps lighter than I do. A shift in the wind will wake me up, but I didn't hear anything last night." Emotion suddenly clogging his throat, he swallowed. "What I want to know is how the hell somebody could kill that poor girl without making a sound."
Sabrina was wondering the same thing. After thanking Mr. Dexter for his help, she questioned the two other neighbors that were home, but apparently no one had heard anything during the night, not even a dog barking, or noticed any visitors at the Bishop house. Which was damn odd, Sabrina thought, on a street where the homeowners had formed a neighborhood watch to watch over each other.
Questions buzzing like bees in her brain, she headed back to the crime scene to see if the police had found any more answers than she had. As she crossed Tanya Bishop's front yard, she saw that Detective Kelly and the medical examiner had arrived and were in deep conversation as they examined the body. Anxious to catch what they were saying, she hurried forward and never saw the man who deliberately stepped in front of her until she plowed into him.