By Sandra Brown
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Deadline
Also by Sandra Brown
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The Reverend Jackson Wilde had been shot in the head, the heart, and the testicles. Right off Cassidy figured that was a significant clue.
"Hell of a mess."
The medical examiner's remark was an understatement, Cassidy thought. He guessed the murder weapon was a .38 snub-nose revolver, fired at close range. Hollow-tip bullets. The perpetrator had definitely wanted to blow the victim away. Tissue was splattered on the headboard and sheets. The mattress was saturated with blood that pooled beneath the body, which, beyond the devastating damage from the bullets, hadn't been butchered or dismembered. Grisly as it was, Cassidy had seen much worse.
What made this murder scene particularly messy was the identity of the victim. Cassidy had heard the startling news bulletin over his car radio while fighting morning rush-hour traffic. He'd immediately executed an illegal U-turn even though he had no business rushing to the scene without authorization. The policemen who had cordoned off the Fairmont Hotel recognized him and automatically assumed that he was officially representing the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office. None had questioned his appearance in the seventh floor San Louis suite that was crowded with investigators who were likely to destroy evidence in their eagerness to collect it.
Cassidy approached the medical examiner. "What do you think, Elvie?"
Dr. Elvira Dupuis was stout, gray-haired and butchy. Her sex life was constant grist for the gossip mills, but none of the conveyors spoke from firsthand experience. Elvie was liked by few and despised by most. No one, however, disputed her competence.
Cassidy loved having her on the stand if she was a witness for the prosecution. He could count on her answers to be forthright and unequivocal. When she took the oath on the Bible, she looked sincere. She always had a profound impact on jurors.
In response to his question, the middle-aged pathologist pushed her eyeglasses more squarely onto her square face. "My initial guess is that the head wound got him. The bullet destroyed most of his gray matter. Chest wound looks a little too far to the right to have burst the heart, although I can't rule it out as the mortal wound until I've cracked his chest. The shot to his balls probably wouldn't have killed him, not instantly anyway." She looked up at the assistant D.A. and grinned mischievously. "But it sure as hell would've thrown a wrench into his love life."
Cassidy winced with empathy. "Wonder which shot was fired first."
"My guess would be the head."
"The chest wound, if it didn't kill him, would have immobilized him."
"His lungs would have flooded. And?"
"And if somebody had shot me in the crotch, I'd have reflexively tried to protect the area."
"Dying with a death grip around your balls?"
"Something like that."
She shook her head. "Wilde's arms were at his sides. No sign of a struggle or adverse reaction of any kind. I'd guess he felt perfectly at ease with whoever offed him. He might have even been asleep. He didn't see it coming."
"Victims rarely do," Cassidy muttered. "What time would you guess it happened?"
She lifted the corpse's right hand and revolved it around the wrist joint, testing the rigidity. "Midnight. Maybe before." Dropping the hand back onto the sheet, she asked, "Can I have him now?"
Cassidy gave the brutalized body a final once-over. "Be my guest."
"I'll see that you get a copy of the autopsy report as soon as I'm finished. Don't call and start bugging me for it before I'm through or it'll only take longer."
Dr. Dupuis had assumed that he would be prosecuting the case. He didn't qualify his involvement at this point. It was only a matter of time. He would have this case.
Moving aside to give the forensic crew room to maneuver, Cassidy conducted a visual investigation of the hotel bedroom. The articles on the nightstand had already been dusted for prints. A fine, black film clung to everything. Various items were being carefully placed in separate plastic bags and labeled. Robbery could be ruled out as a motive. Among the articles on the nightstand was a Rolex wristwatch.
A police photographer was taking pictures. Another policeman wearing surgical gloves was on his hands and knees, examining the carpet for fibers.
"Has any press been allowed in yet?"
"Nope," the officer on his knees replied.
"Keep them out as long as possible and hold all vital info close to your chest. Our office will prepare a statement later in the day when we know the facts."
The officer acknowledged the instructions with a nod.
Leaving the policemen to do their jobs, Cassidy wandered into the parlor of the suite. Opaque drapes had been drawn across the two walls of windows, making the room appear dim and gloomy in spite of its pastel and white decor. Huddled in the corner of a peach velvet sofa was a young woman, her head bent, her face buried in her hands. She was sobbing uncontrollably. A young man sat beside her. He looked nervous, even frightened, as he tried in vain to console her.
They were being questioned by an NOPD homicide detective. Howard Glenn had been in the department for more than twenty years, although he was a rogue and not particularly liked by his colleagues. His appearance didn't attract companions or solicit friendships. He was dingy and disheveled, he chain-smoked unfiltered Camels, and overall he looked like he belonged in a 1940s film noire. But he was well respected throughout the local law-enforcement community for his dogged method of investigation.
As he approached, Glenn glanced up and said, "Hey, Cassidy. You got here quick. Crowder send you?"
Anthony Crowder was the district attorney of Orleans Parish, Cassidy's boss. He sidestepped the question and nodded down to the couple on the sofa. "Who're they?"
"Don't you watch TV?"
"Not religious programs. Never saw his show."
Glenn turned his head and said out the side of his mouth so that only Cassidy could hear, "Too bad. He's been canceled."
Cassidy glanced over his shoulder into the bedroom where Elvie Dupuis was overseeing the transference of the bagged body from the bed to the gurney. "He damn sure has."
"This is the evangelist's wife, Ariel Wilde," Glenn informed him. "And his son, Joshua."
The young man looked up at Cassidy. Cassidy stuck out his right hand. "Assistant District Attorney Cassidy."
Joshua Wilde shook hands with him. His grip was firm enough, but his hands were soft, smooth, and well tended, not a working man's hands. He had expressive brown eyes and ash-brown hair worn long and wavy on top. He was good-looking, on the verge of pretty. Born a century or two earlier on another continent, he would have frequented fashionable salons and dabbled in writing romantic poetry. Cassidy doubted that he'd ever thrown a baseball, camped out, or played shirts and skins with the guys.
His voice was as southern and cultured as a cask of Jack Daniels. "Find the monster who did this to my father, Mr. Cassidy."
"I intend to."
"And bring him to swift justice."
"Him? Are you sure it was a man who killed your father, Mr. Wilde?"
Joshua Wilde was flustered. "Not at all. I only meant… I used the masculine pronoun in a generic sense."
"Then it could have been a woman."
Until now, the widow had failed to acknowledge the introduction while weeping into a shredding Kleenex. Suddenly Ariel Wilde tossed her pale, straight hair over her shoulders and fixed Cassidy with a wild, fanatic gaze. Her complexion had no more color than the white plaster lamp on the end table, but she had beautiful blue eyes enhanced by extraordinarily long lashes and the shimmer of fresh tears.
"Is that how you solve murder cases, Mr…. what was it again?"
"Do you solve crimes by playing word games?"
"You're no better than this detective." She sneered contemptuously at Howard Glenn. "Instead of going after the killer, he's been questioning Josh and me."
Cassidy exchanged a telling glance with Glenn. The detective shrugged, tacitly granting Cassidy permission to intervene. "Before we can 'go after the killer,' Mrs. Wilde," he explained, "we have to learn exactly what happened to your husband."
She gestured toward the blood-soaked bed in the next room and shrieked, "Isn't it obvious what happened?"
"Well we don't know what happened," she wailed theatrically before cramming the Kleenex against her colorless lips. "If we'd known he was going to be murdered last night, do you think we would have left Jackson alone in the suite?"
"The two of you left Reverend Wilde alone last night? Where were you?" Cassidy sat down on the edge of the adjacent loveseat. He took a good look at the woman and her stepson. They both looked to be in their late twenties.
"We were in my suite. Rehearsing," Josh replied.
"Mrs. Wilde sings at all their crusade services and on the television program," Glenn provided. "Mr. Wilde here plays the piano."
Tidy of Jackson Wilde to keep his ministry a family enterprise, Cassidy thought. He already had a jaundiced view of television preachers and had seen nothing so far to dispel the stereotype. He asked, "Where is your suite, Mr. Wilde?"
"Down the hall. Daddy had reserved all the rooms on this floor."
"That's customary. It guarantees our privacy. Daddy's followers often go to any lengths to get near him. He loved people, but he needed rest and privacy between services. He and Ariel stayed in this suite. I took the next largest one so a practice piano could be moved into it."
Cassidy turned to the newly widowed woman. "This suite has two bedrooms. Why weren't you sleeping with your husband?"
Mrs. Wilde responded with a sniff of disdain. "He's already asked me about that," she said, shooting another disparaging glance toward Detective Glenn. "I came in late last night and didn't want to disturb Jackson's rest. He was exhausted, so I slept in the other bedroom."
"What time did you come in?"
"I didn't notice."
Cassidy looked at Josh inquisitively. "Did you notice what time it was when she left your room?"
"I'm afraid not. Late."
For the time being, Cassidy let it pass. "Did you speak with your husband when you came in, Mrs. Wilde?"
"Went in and kissed him good night?"
"No. I used the door opening directly into my bedroom from the hall. I should have checked on him," she said weepily. "But I thought he was sleeping peacefully."
Cassidy glanced up at Glenn and with a stern look warned him not to make the obvious quip. Instead the detective said, "Unfortunately, Mrs. Wilde didn't discover her husband's body until this morning."
"When he didn't respond to his wake-up call," she said, her voice cracking. She used the wadded Kleenex tissue to blot beneath her nose. "To think he was in there… dead all that time… while I was sleeping in the next room."
Swooning, she collapsed against her stepson. He placed his arm around her shoulders and spoke softly into her hair.
"Guess that's all for now." Cassidy stood.
Glenn followed him to the door. "Smells like yesterday's fish heads, doesn't it?"
"Oh, I don't know," Cassidy said. "It's almost too pat to be a lie."
Glenn made an unappealing snorting sound as he fished for a fresh Camel in the crumpled pack he took from his shirt pocket. "You're shittin' me, right? It's plain to see. They've got the hots for each other and bumped off the preacher to get him out of their way."
"Could be," Cassidy said noncommittally. "Maybe not."
Glenn eyed him shrewdly as he lit his cigarette. "A smart boy like you didn't fall for those pretty blue eyes, did you, Cassidy? And all that crying? Hell, before you got here, they were praying out loud together." He sucked deeply on the Camel. "Surely you don't believe they're telling the truth?"
"Sure I believe them." As Cassidy went through the door, he glanced over his shoulder and added, "About as far as I can piss through a hurricane."
He rode the elevator down alone, and it opened onto pandemonium. The lobby of the Fairmont Hotel was a city block long. Ordinarily, it was a paragon of stately refinement and luxury, with its matte black walls, red velvet furniture, and gold leaf accents—a grand old dame of a hotel. But this morning it was teeming with frustrated, angry people. Police were trying to ignore the aggressive media reporters who were in hot pursuit of the facts surrounding the astonishing murder of Jackson Wilde. Hotel guests who earlier had been rounded up by police and questioned in the ballroom were now being systematically dismissed; they appeared reluctant to leave, however, before venting their outrage. Hotel staff were being questioned while also trying to placate their disgruntled clientele.
Cassidy elbowed his way through the noisy crowd. He overheard one woman with a Midwestern twang surmising that a psychopath was loose in the hotel and that they were all doomed to be slaughtered in their beds.
A man was shouting at the top of his voice that "they" were going to hear about this, although it was unclear who "they" were.
Disciples of the Reverend Jackson Wilde, upon hearing of their leader's demise, had contributed to the confusion by congregating in the lobby and making it a temporary shrine. They were weeping copiously and noisily, holding spontaneous prayer meetings, singing hymns, and invoking the Almighty's wrath on the one who had slain the televangelist.
As he made his way toward the University Street entrance, Cassidy tried to avoid the local media, but to no avail. The reporters surrounded him.
"Mr. Cassidy, did you see—"
"Mr. Cassidy, was he—"
He maneuvered his way through them, dodging the cameras, deflecting extended microphones, and prudently declining to say anything until District Attorney Crowder placed him in charge of prosecuting Wilde's murder case.
Assuming Crowder would.
No, there could be no assumption to it. He must.
Cassidy wanted this case so badly he could taste it. Moreover, he needed it.
Yasmine strutted through the automatic doors at New Orleans International Airport. A redcap, dwarfed by her extraordinary height and dazzled by her legs beneath the short leather miniskirt, trudged behind her carting two suitcases.
At the sound of a car horn, Yasmine spotted Claire's LeBaron parked at the curb as scheduled. Her suitcases were stowed inside the trunk, which Claire unlocked from the dashboard, the redcap was tipped, and Yasmine slid into the passenger seat with a flash of brown thighs and a waft of gardenia perfume.
"Good morning," Claire said. "How was your flight?"
"Can you believe it about Jackson Wilde?"
Claire Laurent glanced over her left shoulder, then daringly pulled into the erratic flow of traffic made hazardous by buses, taxis, and courtesy vans picking up and depositing airline passengers. "What's he done this time?"
"You haven't heard?" Yasmine gasped. "Jesus, Claire, what have you been doing this morning?"
"Going over invoices and… Why?"
"You didn't see any TV news? Listen to the radio?" Jasmine noticed that a cassette was playing in the car.
"I've deliberately avoided newscasts all week. I didn't want Mama to catch Jackson Wilde taking potshots at us while he's in town. By the way, we received another invitation to debate him, which I declined."
Yasmine continued to gape at her best friend and business associate. "You really don't know."
"What?" Claire asked with a laugh. "Is French Silk under attack again? What did he say this time, that we're going to burn in eternal hell? That I'd better clean up my act or else? That I'm corrupting the morals of America with my pornographic displays of the human body?"
Yasmine removed the large, dark sunglasses she wore when she didn't want to be recognized and looked at Claire with the tiger eyes that for a decade had graced the covers of countless fashion magazines. "The Reverend Jackson Wilde won't be saying anything about you anymore, Claire. He won't be badmouthing French Silk or our catalog. He won't be doin' nuthin', honey," she said, lapsing into the black lingo of her childhood. "The man has been silenced forever. The man is dead."
"Dead?" Claire braked hard, pitching them forward.
"Deader'n a doornail, as my mama used to say."
Claire stared at her, whey-faced and incredulous, and repeated, "Dead?"
"Apparently he preached one sermon too many. He pissed off someone enough to kill him."
Claire nervously wet her lips. "You mean he was murdered?"
A furious driver gave a blast of his horn. Another made an obscene gesture as he steered around them and sped past. Claire forced her foot off the brake pedal and back onto the accelerator. The car lurched.
"What's the matter with you? I thought you'd be applauding. Do you want me to drive?"
"No. No, I'm fine."
"You don't look fine. In fact you look like shit."
"I had a rough night."
Claire shook her head. "Some bad dreams that have been keeping me awake."
"Dreams about what?"
"Never mind. Yasmine, you're sure about Jackson Wilde?"
"I heard it in the airport while I was waiting for my luggage. They had a TV on in the Avis booth. People were crowded around it. I asked somebody what was going on, expecting something like the Challenger explosion. This man says, 'That television preacher done got hisself shot last night.' And since I have a voodoo doll in the image of one particular television preacher, my interest was naturally piqued. I shoved my way closer to the set and heard the news for myself."
"Was he killed at the Fairmont?"
Yasmine looked at her curiously. "How'd you know that?"
"I heard that's where he was staying. From Andre."
"Andre. I forgot about him. Bet he's having conniptions this morning." Before Yasmine could comment further on their mutual friend, Claire asked another question.
"Who discovered the body?"
"His wife. She found him this morning in his bed with three bullet holes in him."
"My God. What time did she find him?"
"Time? Hell, I don't know. They didn't say. What difference does it make?" Yasmine took off her head scarf and shook loose the long, full Afro for which she was famous. From her oversized handbag she retrieved several bangles and slid them over her slender hands. Next, she put on gigantic disk earrings. With no more than these few cosmetic changes, the image of the most successful ethnic model since Iman began to emerge.
"Have they arrested anyone yet?"
"Nope." Yasmine applied coral gloss to her lips with a fine-tipped brush. After dusting her cheeks with blush, she viewed her exquisite face from all angles in the visor mirror.
Rush hour was over, but as always there was heavy traffic on the expressway. Claire weaved through it with the ease of experience and familiarity. She had lived in New Orleans all her life. Since Yasmine now divided her time between New Orleans and New York, Claire usually picked her up at the airport.
"Did the killer leave clues? Did they find the murder weapon?"
Impatiently Yasmine flipped the visor back into place. "It was like a news bulletin, you know? The details were sketchy. The reporters were after some guy from the D.A.'s office to make a statement, but he didn't say zip. What's with the twenty questions?"
"I can't believe he's dead." Claire hesitated before saying the last word, as though she couldn't bring herself to utter it. "He preached at the Superdome last night."
"They showed film of that on the news story. There he was on the TV screen, face red, white hair bristling, screaming about fire and brimstone. He pleaded with every American to get down on his knees and beg for redemption." Yasmine's sleek brows drew together. "How could the Lord hear anybody else's prayers with Wilde yelling so loud?" She shrugged. "I'm glad he's finally been shut up. Now he's out of our hair."
Claire sharply cut her eyes toward Yasmine. "You shouldn't say that."
"Why not? That's how I feel. I'm sure as hell not going to burst into tears and pretend to mourn his passing." She made a scoffing sound. "They should give the one who plugged him a medal for ridding this country of a pest."
The Reverend Jackson Wilde had used his television program as a forum for his crusade against pornography. He had adopted this issue as his special mission, pledging to eradicate obscenity from America. His fiery sermons had whipped thousands of his followers into a frenzy. Consequently, artists, writers, and others in the creative arts were being virulently and personally attacked, having their work banned and in some instances vandalized.
Many viewed the televangelist's crusade as a threat much more severe than the prohibition of peddling dirty magazines. They considered it an endangerment of rights granted by the First Amendment. The legal definitions as to what was obscene and what wasn't was unclear, and since the U.S. Supreme Court had been unsuccessful in establishing definite guidelines, Wilde's opponents naturally protested using his narrow opinion as the standard by which material was measured.
Warfare had been declared. In cities and towns, battles were being waged in movie theaters, bookstores, libraries, and museums. Those opposing Reverend Wilde found themselves lumped together and labeled "nonbelieving heathens." They were promoted as this era's heretics, witches, and pagans, anathema to every true believer.
Because the catalog for the lingerie line French Silk had fallen under Jackson Wilde's censure, Claire, as its creator, had been thrust into the unwelcome limelight. For months he'd lambasted the catalog, grouping it with hard core pornographic magazines. Yasmine had agreed with Claire's assertion that they should ignore Wilde and his ridiculous accusations rather than try to defend what neither felt needed defending.
But Wilde wasn't easily ignored. When his sermons failed to provoke the response he wanted—a televised debate—he'd used his pulpit to attack Yasmine and Claire personally, citing them as lewd, lascivious, contemporary Jezebels. His sermons against them had heated up even more when, a week earlier, he'd brought his crusade to New Orleans, home of French Silk. Yasmine had been in New York taking care of other business interests, so Claire had had to bear the brunt of Wilde's vicious insults.
That's why Yasmine was baffled by Claire's reaction to the news of his death. French Silk was Claire's brainchild. It had been her conception. Her business acumen, vivid imagination, and instinct for what the women of America wanted had made the mail-order business a stunning success. For Yasmine herself, it had prolonged a waning career. It had been her salvation, although even Claire didn't realize to what extent.
Now the bastard who had threatened to end all that was dead. To her way of thinking, it was cause for celebration.
Claire, however, saw it differently. "Since Wilde had labeled us his enemies, and considering that he was murdered, I don't think we should be heard gloating over his death."
"I've been accused of a lot of things, Claire, but never of being two-faced. I don't mince words. What I feel, I say. You were bred in a hothouse of gentility, while I was scraping and clawing to survive in Harlem. Me, I come on like gangbusters, while you barely flutter the air when you move. I've got a mouth as wide as the Lincoln Tunnel. Your voice would melt butter.
"But there's a limit to even your patience, Claire Louise Laurent. This preacher man was on your ass for almost a year, since the first time he trashed French Silk's catalog from his gilded pulpit. It was like having your baby publicly spanked for being a wicked child.
"You've withstood his narrow-minded censure with a poise and grace that did your southern heritage proud, but truthfully now, deep down, aren't you glad the pious son of a bitch is dead?"
Claire stared vacantly beyond her hood ornament. "Yes," she said quietly, slowly. "Deep down, I'm glad the son of a bitch is dead."
"Hmm. Well, maybe you'd better follow your own advice and think of something else to tell them."
"Them?" Claire snapped out of her trance, and Yasmine directed her attention to the next block. Several TV vans with satellite dishes were parked along Peters Street in front of French Silk. Reporters and video cameramen were milling around them.
"Damn!" Claire muttered. "I don't want to be involved in this."
"Well, brace yourself, baby," Yasmine said. "You were one of Jackson Wilde's favorite targets. Whether you want to be or not, you're involved up to your eyebrows."
"You've failed to get convictions on your last three cases."
Cassidy had expected that argument. Even so, the criticism stung. Rather than showing his agitation, he assumed a self-confident air. "We knew going in that those three cases were weak, Tony. In each one, all the defense attorneys had to do was say, 'Prove it.' I did the best I could with what little evidence I had, and you damn well know that."
District Attorney Anthony Crowder crossed his stubby, hairy hands over his vest and leaned back in his leather desk chair. "This conversation is premature. The police haven't even made an arrest yet. It might be months before they do."
Cassidy stubbornly shook his head. "I want to work alongside them on the investigation to make certain something vital doesn't slip through the cracks."
"Then I'll have the police commissioner on my back for your butting in on what should be a matter strictly for his department."
"I'm glad you mentioned the P.C. You're buddies. Have a talk with him. See if you can get Howard Glenn on the Wilde case."
"He was first on the scene, and he's good. The best."
"Don't worry about me overstepping my bounds. I'll exercise all my powers of diplomacy."
"You don't have any powers of diplomacy," the district attorney reminded him. "Since you joined this office five years ago, you've done some good work, but generally speaking you've been a pain in the butt."
- On Sale
- Nov 19, 2013
- Page Count
- 544 pages
- Grand Central Publishing