By Sandra Brown
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"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."
- On Sale
- Sep 20, 2011
- Page Count
- 624 pages
- Grand Central Publishing