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By Sandra Brown
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The sensational murder of powerful tycoon Lute Pettijohn has rocked Charleston. Prosecutor Hammond Cross sees his chance to become the city’s next district attorney . . . but only if he can put a killer behind bars.
Hammond’s investigation turns up more than one person who wants Pettijohn dead. But when the prime suspect turns out to be a mysterious woman who holds a secret that could shatter Hammond’s ambitions, he faces a moral dilemma and a haunting question: Was he set up to be the perfect alibi?
Table of Contents
A Preview of Friction
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The scream rent the air-conditioned silence of the hotel corridor.
Having entered the suite only seconds earlier, the chambermaid stumbled from the room crying for help, sobbing, and randomly banging on the doors of other guest rooms. Later, her supervisor would chastise her for this hysterical reaction, but at that point in time she was in the throes of hysteria.
Unfortunately for her, few guests were in their rooms that afternoon. Most were out enjoying the unique charms of Charleston's historic district. But finally she managed to rouse one guest, a man from Michigan, who, wilted from the unaccustomed heat, had returned to his room to take a nap.
Though groggy from being abruptly awakened, he immediately determined that only a major catastrophe could cause the level of panic the chambermaid was experiencing. Before he could even make sense of her blubbering, he called the front desk and alerted hotel personnel to an emergency on the top floor.
Two Charleston policemen, whose beat included the newly opened Charles Towne Plaza, promptly responded to the summons. A flustered hotel security guard led them to the penthouse suite, where the maid had gone in for early turndown service, only to find that it wouldn't be needed. The occupant was sprawled on the suite's parlor floor, dead.
The police officer knelt down near the body. "Holy… that looks like—"
"It's him all right," said his partner in an equally awestruck voice. "Is this gonna stir up a shitstorm or what?"
He noticed her the moment she stepped into the pavilion.
Even in a crowd of other women dressed, for the most part, in skimpy summer clothing, she was definitely a standout. Surprisingly, she was alone.
As she paused to get her bearings, her gaze stopped briefly on the dais, where the band was performing, before moving to the dance floor, then to the haphazard arrangement of chairs and tables surrounding it. Spotting a vacant table, she moved to it and sat down.
The pavilion was round in shape, about thirty yards in diameter. Although it was an open-air structure with a conical roof, the underside of which was strung with clear Christmas lights, the pitched ceiling trapped the noise inside, making the din incredible.
What the band lacked in musical talent they made up for with volume, obviously of the opinion that decibels would make their missed notes less discernible. They did, however, play with raucous enthusiasm and showmanship. On the keyboard and guitar, the musicians seemed to be pounding the notes out of their instruments. The harmonica player's braided beard bounced with every jerking motion of his head. As the fiddler sawed his bow across the strings, he danced an energetic jig that showed off his yellow cowboy boots. The drummer seemed to know only one cadence, but he applied himself to it with verve.
The crowd didn't seem to mind the discordant sound. For that matter, neither did Hammond Cross. Ironically, the racket of the county fair was somehow soothing. He absorbed the noise—the squeals coming from the midway, catcalls from rowdy teenage boys at the top of the Ferris wheel, the crying of babies grown tired, the bells and whistles and horns, the shouts and laughter inherent to a carnival.
Going to a county fair hadn't been on his agenda today. Although there had probably been some advance publicity about it in the local newspaper and on TV, it had escaped his notice.
He'd happened on the fair by accident about a half hour outside of Charleston. What had compelled him to stop, he would never know. It wasn't like he was an avid carnival-goer. His parents certainly had never taken him to one. They had avoided general-public attractions like this at all costs. Not exactly their crowd. Not their kind of people.
Ordinarily Hammond probably would have avoided it, too. Not because he was a snob, but because he worked such long, hard hours, he was selfish with his leisure time and selective about how he spent it. A round of golf, a couple hours of fishing, a movie, a quiet dinner at a good restaurant. But a county fair? That wouldn't have topped his list of pleasurable pursuits.
But this afternoon in particular the crowd and the noise appealed to him. Left alone, he only would have brooded over his troubles. He would have reflected himself into despondency, and who needed that on one of the few remaining weekends of the summer?
So when his highway speed was reduced to a crawl and he got trapped in the traffic inching into the temporary parking lot—actually a cow pasture turned parking lot by an enterprising farmer—he had remained in line with the other cars and vans and SUVs.
He paid two bucks to the tobacco-chewing youth who was collecting for the farmer and was fortunate enough to find a spot for his car beneath a shade tree. Before getting out, he removed his suit jacket and tie, and rolled up his shirtsleeves. As he picked his way carefully around cow patties, he wished for blue jeans and boots instead of dress slacks and loafers, but already he felt his spirits rising. Nobody here knew him. He didn't have to talk to anyone if he didn't want to. There were no obligations to be met, no meetings to attend, no telephone messages to return. Out here he wasn't a professional, or a colleague. Or a son. Tension, anger, and the weight of responsibility began to melt off him. The sense of freedom was heady.
The fairgrounds were demarcated by a plastic rope strung with multicolored pennants that hung still and limp in the heat. The dense air was redolent with the tantalizing aromas of cooking food—junk food. From a distance, the music didn't sound half bad. Hammond was immediately glad he had stopped. He needed this… isolation.
Because despite the people streaming through the turnstile, he was, in a very real sense, isolated. Being absorbed by a large, noisy crowd suddenly seemed preferable to spending a solitary evening in his cabin, which had been his original plan upon leaving Charleston.
The band had played two songs since the auburn-haired woman had sat down across the pavilion from where he was seated. Hammond had continued to watch her, and to speculate. Most likely she was waiting for someone to join her, probably a husband and assorted children. She appeared to be not quite as old as he, maybe early thirties. About the age of the carpool-driving set. Cub Scout den mothers. PTA officers. The homemakers concerned with DPT booster shots, orthodontia, and getting their laundry whites white and their colors bright. What he knew of such women he had learned from TV commercials, but she seemed to fit that general demographic.
Except that she was a little too… too… edgy.
She didn't look like a mother of young children who was enjoying a few minutes' respite while Daddy took the kids for a ride on the carousel. She didn't have the cool, competent air of his acquaintances' wives who were members of Junior League and other civic clubs, who went to salad luncheons and hosted birthday parties for their kids and dinner parties for their husbands' business associates, and who played golf or tennis at their respective country clubs once or twice a week between their aerobics classes and Bible study circles.
She didn't have the soft, settled body of a woman who had borne two or three offspring, either. Her figure was compact and athletic. She had good—no, great—legs that were muscled, sleek, and tan, shown off by a short skirt and low-heeled sandals. Her sleeveless top had a scooped neck, like a tank top, and a matching cardigan which had been knotted loosely around her neck before she had removed it. The outfit was smart and chic, a cut above what most of this shorts-and-sneakers crowd was wearing.
Her handbag, which she'd placed on the table, was big enough only for a key ring, a tissue, and possibly a lipstick, but nowhere near large enough for a young mother whose purse was packed with bottled water and Handi Wipes and natural snacks and enough equipment to survive days in the wilderness should an emergency situation arise.
Hammond had an analytical mind. Deductive reasoning was his forte. So he concluded, with what he felt was a fair degree of accuracy, that it was unlikely this woman was a mom.
That did not mean that she wasn't married, or otherwise attached, and waiting to be joined by a significant other, whoever he might be and whatever the nature of their relationship. She could be a woman devoted to a career. A mover and a shaker in the business community. A successful salesperson. A savvy entrepreneur. A stockbroker. A loan officer.
Sipping his beer, which was growing tepid in the heat, Hammond continued to stare at her with interest.
Then suddenly he realized that his stare was being returned.
When their eyes met, his heart lurched, perhaps from embarrassment for having been caught staring. But he didn't look away. Despite the dancers that passed between them, intermittently blocking their line of sight, they maintained eye contact for several seconds.
Then she abruptly broke it, as though she might also be embarrassed for having picked him out of the crowd. Chagrined over having such a juvenile reaction to something as insignificant as making eye contact, Hammond relinquished his table to two couples who'd been hovering nearby waiting for one to become available. He weaved his way through the press of people toward the temporary bar. It had been set up during the fair to accommodate the thirsty dancers.
It was a popular spot. Personnel from the various military bases in the area were standing three deep at the bar. Even if not in uniform, they were identifiable by their sheared heads. They were drinking, scoping out the girls, weighing their chances of getting lucky, wagering on who would and who wouldn't, playing one-upmanship.
The bartenders were dispensing beer as fast as they could, but they couldn't keep up with the demand. Hammond tried several times to flag one's attention but finally gave up and decided to wait until the crowd had thinned out before ordering another.
Feeling a little less pathetic than he had no doubt looked sitting alone at his table, he glanced across the dance floor toward her table. His spirits drooped. Three men now occupied the extra chairs at her table. In fact, the wide shoulders of one were blocking her from Hammond's view. The trio weren't in uniform, but judging by the severity of their haircuts and their cockiness he guessed they were marines.
Well, he wasn't surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised.
She was too good-looking to be alone on a Saturday night. She'd been merely biding her time until her date showed up.
Even if she had come to the fair alone, she wouldn't have remained dateless for long. Not at a meat market like this. An unattached serviceman with a weekend pass had the instincts and singlemindedness of a shark. He had one purpose in mind, and that was to secure a female companion for the evening. Even without trying, this one would have attracted attention.
Not that he had been thinking about picking her up, Hammond told himself. He was too old for that. He wouldn't regress to a frat-rat mentality, for crying out loud. Besides, it really wouldn't be proper, would it? He wasn't exactly committed, but he wasn't exactly uncommitted, either.
Suddenly she stood up, grabbed her cardigan, slung the strap of her small purse over her shoulder, and turned to leave. Instantly the three men seated with her were on their feet, crowding around her. One, who appeared to be hammered, placed his arm across her shoulders and lowered his face close to hers. Hammond could see his lips moving; whatever he was saying to her made his companions laugh uproariously.
She didn't think it was funny. She averted her head, and it appeared to Hammond that she was trying to extricate herself from an awkward situation without causing a scene. She took the serviceman's arm and removed it from around her neck and, smiling stiffly, said something to him before once again turning as though to leave.
Not to be put off, and goaded by his two friends, the spurned one went after her. When he reached for her arm and pulled her around again, Hammond acted.
Later, he didn't remember crossing the dance floor, although he must have practically plowed his way through the couples now swaying to a slow dance, because within seconds he was reaching between two of the muscle-bound, hard-bellied marines, shoving the persistent one aside, and hearing himself say, "Sorry about that, honey. I ran into Norm Blanchard and you know how that son-of-a-gun can talk. Lucky for me, they're playing our song."
Curving his arm around her waist, he drew her out with him onto the dance floor.
"You got my instructions?"
"Yes, sir, Detective. No one else comes in, no one leaves. We've sealed off all the exits."
"That includes everybody. No exceptions."
Having made his orders emphatic, Detective Rory Smilow nodded to the uniformed officer and entered the Charles Towne Plaza through the hotel's main doors. The staircase had been touted by numerous design magazines to be an architectural triumph. Already it had become the signature feature of the new complex. Epitomizing southern hospitality, two arms of wide steps swept up from the lobby floor. They seemed to be embracing the incredible crystal chandelier, before merging forty feet above the lobby to form the second-story gallery.
On both levels of the lobby policemen were mingling with hotel guests and employees, all of whom had heard by now that there had been what appeared to be a murder on the fifth floor.
Nothing created this kind of expectant atmosphere like a killing, Smilow thought as he assessed the scene.
Sunburned, perspiring, camera-toting tourists milled around, asking questions of anyone in authority, talking among themselves, speculating on the identity of the victim and what had provoked the murder.
In his well-tailored suit and French cuff shirt, Smilow was conspicuously overdressed. Despite the sweltering heat outside, his clothing was fresh and dry, not even moist. An irritated subordinate had once asked beneath his breath if Smilow ever sweated. "Hell, no," a fellow policeman had replied. "Everybody knows that aliens don't have sweat glands."
Smilow moved purposefully toward the bank of elevators. The officer he'd spoken with at the entrance must have communicated his arrival because another officer was standing in the elevator, holding the door open for him. Without acknowledging the courtesy, Smilow stepped in.
"Shine holding up, Mr. Smilow?"
Smilow turned. "Oh yeah, Smitty. Thanks."
The man everyone knew only by his first name operated three shoeshine chairs in an alcove off the hotel lobby. For decades he had been a fixture at another hotel downtown. Recently he had been lured to the Charles Towne Plaza, and his clientele had followed him. Even from out-of-towners he received excellent tips because Smitty knew more than the hotel concierge about what to do, and where to go, and where to find whatever you were looking for in Charleston.
Rory Smilow was one of Smitty's regulars. Ordinarily he would have paused to exchange pleasantries, but he was in a hurry now and actually resented being detained. Curtly he said, "Catch you later, Smitty." The elevator doors slid closed.
He and the uniformed cop rode up to the top floor in silence. Smilow never fraternized with fellow officers, not even those of equal ranking, but certainly not with those of lower rank. He never initiated conversation unless it pertained to a case he was working on. Men in the department who were fearless enough to try chitchatting with him soon discovered that such attempts were futile. His bearing discouraged comradeship. Even his natty appearance was as effective as concertina wire when it came to approachability.
When the elevator doors opened on the fifth floor, Smilow experienced a thrill he recognized. He had visited countless murder scenes, some rather tame and unspectacular, others remarkably grisly. Some were forgettable and routine. Others he would remember forever, either because of the imaginative flair of the killer, the strange surroundings in which the body had been discovered, the bizarre method of execution, the uniqueness of the weapon, or the age and circumstance of the victim.
But his first visit to a crime scene never failed to give him a rush of adrenaline, which he refused to be ashamed of. This was what he had been born to do. He relished his work.
When he stepped out of the elevator, the conversation among the plainclothes officers in the hallway subsided. Respectfully, or fearfully, they stepped aside for him as he made his way to the open door of the hotel suite where a man had died today.
He made note of the room number, then peered inside. He was glad to see that the seven officers comprising the Crime Scene Unit were already there, going about their various duties.
Satisfied that they were doing a thorough job, he turned back to the three detectives who'd been dispatched by the Criminal Investigation Division. One who'd been smoking a cigarette hastily crushed it out in a smoking stand. Smilow treated him to a cold, unblinking stare. "I hope that sand didn't contain a crucial piece of evidence, Collins."
The detective stuffed his hands into his pockets like a third-grader who'd been reprimanded for not washing after using the rest room.
"Listen up," Smilow said, addressing the group at large. He never raised his voice. He never had to. "I will not tolerate a single mistake. If there's any contamination of this crime scene, if there's the slightest breach of proper procedure, if the merest speck of evidence is overlooked or compromised by someone's carelessness, the offender's ass will be shredded. By me. Personally."
He made eye contact with each man. Then he said, "Okay, let's go." As they filed into the room they pulled on plastic gloves. Each man had a specific task; each went to it, treading lightly, touching nothing that they weren't supposed to.
Smilow approached the two officers who had been first on the scene. Without preamble, he asked, "Did you touch him?"
"The door was standing open when we got here. The maid who found him had left it open. The hotel security guard might have touched it. We asked, he said no, but…" He raised his shoulders in a shrug.
"Telephone?" Smilow asked.
"No, sir. I used my cellular. But again, the security guy might have used it before we got here."
"Who have you talked to so far?"
"Only him. He's the one who called us."
"And what did he say?"
"That a chambermaid found the body." He indicated the corpse. "Just like this. Face down, two gunshot wounds in his back beneath the left shoulder blade."
"Have you questioned the maid?"
"Tried. She's carryin' on so bad we didn't get much out of her. Besides, she's foreign. Don't know where she's from," the cop replied to Smilow's inquiring raised eyebrow. "Can't tell by the accent. She just keeps saying over and over, 'Dead man,' and boo-hooing into her hankie. Scared her shitless."
"Did you feel for a pulse?"
The officer glanced at his partner, who spoke for the first time. "I did. Just to make sure he was dead."
"So you did touch him."
"Well, yeah. But only for that."
"I take it you didn't feel one."
"A pulse?" The cop shook his head. "No. He was dead. No doubt."
Up to this point, Smilow had ignored the body. Now he moved toward it. "Anybody heard from the M.E.?"
"On his way."
The answer registered with Smilow, but he was intently gazing at the dead man. Until he saw it with his own eyes, he had been unable to believe that the reported murder victim was none other than Lute Pettijohn. A local celebrity of sorts, a man of renown, Pettijohn was, among other things, CEO of the development company that had converted the derelict cotton warehouse into the spectacular new Charles Towne Plaza.
He had also been Rory Smilow's brother-in-law.
She said, "Thank you."
Hammond replied, "You're welcome."
"It was becoming a sticky situation."
"I'm just glad that my ruse worked. If it hadn't, I'd have three of the few and the proud after me."
"I commend your bravery."
"Or stupidity. They could have whipped my ass."
She smiled at that, and when she did, Hammond was doubly glad he had acted on his idiotic, chivalrous impulse to rescue her. He had been attracted to her the moment he spotted her, but seeing her from across the dance floor was nothing compared to the up-close and unrestricted view. She averted her eyes from his intense stare to gaze at a nonspecific point beyond his shoulder. She was cool under pressure. No doubt of that.
"What about your friend?" she asked.
"Mr. Blanchard. Norm, wasn't it?"
"Oh," he said, laughing softly. "Never heard of him."
"You made him up?"
"Yep, and I have no idea where the name came from. It just popped into my head."
"I had to say something plausible. Something to make it look like we were together. Familiar. Something that would, at the very least, get you out on the dance floor with me."
"You could have simply asked me to dance."
"Yeah, but that would have been boring. It also would have left an opening for you to turn me down."
"Well, thank you again."
"You're welcome again." He shuffled her around another couple. "Are you from around here?"
"I grew up in Tennessee," she said. "Near Nashville."
"Good music, too."
Brilliant conversation, Cross, he thought. Scintillating.
She didn't even honor the last inane statement with a response, and he didn't blame her. If he kept this up, she'd be out of here before the song ended. He maneuvered them around another couple who were executing an intricate turn, then, in a deadpan voice, he asked the lamest of all lame pick-up lines. "Do you come here often?"
She caught the joke and smiled the smile that might reduce him to a total fool if he wasn't careful. "Actually, I haven't been to a fair like this since I was a teenager."
"Me, too. I remember going to one with some buddies. We must've been about fifteen and were on a quest to buy beer."
"That was your last one?"
"No. I went to another with a date. I took her into the House of Fright specifically for the purpose of making out."
"And how successful was that?"
"It went about like the attempt to buy beer. God knows I tried. But I always seemed to be with the one girl who…" His voice trailed off when he felt her tense up.
"They don't give up easily, do they?"
Sure enough, the trio of troopers were standing just beyond the edge of the dance floor, nursing fresh beers and glowering at them.
"Well, if they were quick to surrender, our national security would be at risk." Giving the young men a smug smile, he tightened his arm around her waist and waltzed past them.
"You don't have to protect me," she said. "I could have handled the situation myself."
"I'm sure you could have. Fending off unwanted male attention is a skill every attractive woman must acquire. But you're also a lady who was reluctant to cause a scene."
She gazed up at him. "Very perceptive."
"So, since it's a done deal, we had just as well enjoy the dance, hadn't we?"
But agreeing to continue the dance didn't reduce her tension. She wasn't exactly taking hasty glances over her shoulder, but Hammond sensed that she wanted to.
Which left him wondering what she would do when this dance ended. He expected a brush-off. A polite one, but a brush-off just the same. Fortunately the band was playing a sad, syrupy ballad. The singer's voice was unrefined and tinny, but he knew the words to all the verses. As far as Hammond was concerned, the longer the dance lasted, the better.
His partner fit him well. The top of her head was even with his chin. He hadn't breached the imaginary boundary she had set between them the moment he pulled her into his arms, although the thought of holding her flush against him was tantalizing.
For the time being he was okay with this, with having the inside of his forearm resting on the narrow small of her back, her hand—absent a wedding ring—resting on his shoulder, their feet staggered as they moved in time to the slow dance.
Occasionally their thighs made glancing contact and he experienced a fluttering of lust, but it was controllable. He had a bird's-eye view down the scooped neckline of her top but was gentleman enough not to look. His imagination, however, was running rampant, flitting here and there, ricocheting off the walls of his mind like a horsefly made crazy by the heat.
Her voice drew Hammond from his daze. When he realized what she had said, he looked around and saw that the marines were no longer there. In fact, the song had ended, the musicians were laying down their instruments, and the bandleader was asking everybody to "stay right where you're at" and promising they would return with more music after taking a short break. Other couples were making their way back to tables or heading for the bar.
She had lowered her arms to her sides. Hammond, realizing that his arm was still around her, had no choice but to release her. When he did, she stepped back, away from him. "Well… never let it be said that chivalry is dead."
He grinned. "But if dragon-slaying ever comes back into vogue, forget it."
Smiling, she stuck out her hand. "I appreciate what you did."
"My pleasure. Thanks for the dance." He shook her hand. She turned to go. "Uh…" Hammond plunged through the crowd behind her.
When they reached the perimeter of the raised pavilion, he stepped to the ground, then took her hand to assist her down, an unnecessary and courtly gesture since it was no more than a foot and a half below. He fell into step with her. "Can I buy you a beer?"
"No, thank you."
"The corn on the cob smells good."
She smiled, but shook her head no.
- On Sale
- Oct 27, 2015
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Grand Central Publishing