The Detective's Dilemma
The crash of something hitting the floor jerked her awake.
Sarah lay for a moment, listening, wondering what might have fallen, but not yet alarmed enough to drag herself out of bed and investigate.
An even louder thunk shook the house. She jolted upright in bed. Something had hit the floor again--something heavy. She reached for the bedside clock and pressed the button to illuminate the face. One-thirty. Vince might still be up. Maybe he’d bumped into something. She hoped it was nothing worse. She kept telling him to follow the doctor’s orders and lose weight. At fifty-three, he already had heart problems.
The thought of him lying on the floor after a heart attack or stroke goaded her up and out of bed.
She snagged her robe off the chair and rushed out of her bedroom. A light shone at the opposite end of the hall that ran nearly the entire length of the house. In the past year, Vince had been having more trouble sleeping and often stayed in his study, working or watching television into the early hours of the morning.
The door to the room stood open, but she didn’t see him at first when she rushed in. Papers lay scattered across the floor, drawers hung open from the desk, and one sat on its side on the floor as well.
“Over here. I--” His voice wavered and broke.
She spotted him on the far side of the room from the door. He was on his feet and two men flanked him. Hoods concealed their features, and they both wore dark, nondescript clothes. Each held a gun, one pointed at Vince’s head, the other turned in her direction.
Sarah froze. Her breath stuck in her throat, and her stomach clenched into a tight knot. “What--? What’s going on? Vince?”
His normally florid complexion had a gray cast, and his shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry, my dear. These gentlemen have--”
“Shut up,” one of the two ordered.
She didn’t realize there was a third man in the room until he stood beside her. Sarah backed away, but he grabbed her arm and held her in place. He squeezed the arm so tightly it hurt when she tried to wrench it away.
“Shut up.” He lifted her arm from her side to chest height and pushed his gun into her right palm. Strong, square, latex-gloved hands flanked hers, holding her fingers around the gun’s butt, pointing it toward Vince.
When she didn’t put her index finger on the trigger, he tried to jam it into position.
She wriggled and twisted, but he kept such tight hold on her, she couldn’t get free. Her stomach churned.
“What are you--?”
The hand on hers squeezed, pulling backward on the finger just touching the gun’s trigger, then tugged again and again. Three shots exploded in rapid succession, one blast right after the other. The recoil pushed her back against the assailant’s body, but he held her steady so that all three bullets found their target.
Vince jerked after each shot. Red splotches exploded on his stomach, his shoulder, and the side of his face. At a distance of no more than eight feet, even the assailant’s shaky aim hadn’t missed.
The echoes of the shots rang in her ears and shivered through her body. Her own screams blended with them as she scratched at her captor’s sleeve with her free hand, struggling to get loose. A frenzy of panic robbed her of all clear thought and reason. The man let go and shoved her forward. She dropped the gun, stumbled to her knees, and dove across the room, expecting the impact of a bullet any second.
She scrambled behind Vince’s desk and waited, her breath heaving in and out on harsh pants, but no one came for her. Footsteps retreated down the hall and a door slammed. Then quiet reigned, broken only by a low, rattling groan, which she heard even over the continued ringing in her ears.
As she crawled across the floor to Vince, her hand landed on a sticky spot, one of several spreading patches of blood staining the pale gray carpet.
He lay on his side.
He opened his eyes. “Sarah? You’re…?”
“I’m okay.” The words came out on a sob. “I need to-- Oh my God! Hold on. I need to call 911.”
“Wait. Need to…tell you. You have the key. You--”
He gasped on a series of shallow breaths and then closed his eyes and lay still.
She shook him. A sob tried to push its way out of her tight throat. “Vince!”
No response. She crawled back through the mushy blood-soaked spots on the carpet to the desk, where she levered herself up and grabbed the phone. Her hands trembled so badly she misdialed the first time. By the time the operator asked how she could help, Sarah could barely speak. Nausea roiled her stomach and waves of cold rushed up and down her spine. When words finally came, they poured out in an incoherent rush.
“Be calm, ma’am,” the voice on the other end implored.
Sarah was beyond listening. She slid down the side of the desk, the phone receiver cradled in her trembling hands, until she heard the sirens approaching.
* * * *
Detective Jay Christianson surveyed the crime scene from just inside the door of the room. On the far side of a spacious office, the body of a bald, heavy-set man rested in a pool of red that soaked the plush carpet beneath and around him. The victim wore a navy polo shirt, khakis, and loafers. Blood spattered the far wall in two main blotches with sprays of smaller drops surrounding them. The smaller patches had started to dry to a rusty brown at the edges while more heavily drenched areas remained fresh and dark red. Dark spots disfigured the gold brocade drapes of the nearest window. A gun--the murder weapon, he presumed--lay on the floor to his left, near an immense desk of dark wood. A couple of overturned drawers lay beside it and papers littered much of the floor. He wrinkled his nose. A faint tang of gunpowder still hung in the air, beneath the nauseating smell that suggested one of the bullets had ripped an intestine.
The combination of money and violence guaranteed this case a high profile. Looked like he wouldn’t be getting any sleep tonight. “Messy,” he said.
Jay’s partner, Sam Hennesy, shook his head. “Yeah.”
While the evidence specialists took photographs and videotaped, the medical examiner waited his turn, along with the detectives.
The first cop on the scene stood at the side of the room, his complexion a bit green, but his eyes steady and serious. He was young, but he’d done the right things and was holding together. He’d do.
“You want to talk to the girlfriend while we wait?” Sam asked.
Jay didn’t take his gaze off the body. “Where is she?”
“Next room,” the young officer said.
“She saw the crime?” Jay asked. “She said so?”
“More than that. She said she did it. She shot him, but she said she was forced to. It’s…bizarre.” The officer shrugged.
“Go write it up. Right now, please,” Sam said. “Her exact words to you.”
The cop nodded. He led them to the next room down the hall, some kind of den, and then left without shutting the door. A young woman huddled in a chair. She was barefoot, with long, tangled dark hair, wearing a blood-stained robe. She looked young, early to mid-twenties maybe, pale, shaky, and very attractive, even with her hair a mess and no makeup on her tear-streaked face. Her dark eyes, wide but glazed, tracked them as they crossed the room.
“Ma’am?” Sam said.
Her eyes widened and her gaze focused on Sam. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
Jay glanced at Sam, who nodded.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry,” Sam said.
She drew in a sharp breath, and a single tear slid down her cheek. She wiped it away, leaving a pink smudge, and looked up at them, her glance moving from one to the other. “You’re police officers?”
“Detectives, ma’am,” Sam said. He introduced himself and then Jay. “And you are?”
“Are you a relative of the deceased?”
“Vince. His name was Vince. No.”
“You live here?”
She nodded. “I’m his-- Was his…companion.”
“Companion? What does that mean?” Jay asked.
She looked up at him and shrugged but didn’t say anything.
She’s either in shock, none too intelligent, or very clever indeed. Jay’s mental antennae began to vibrate. She’s certainly pretty and knows it.
His hormones knew it, too. Even though she might well be a murderer. Christ. He suppressed the surge of anger along with the message from his groin.
As he met her gaze, though, something else inside him responded. She looked dazed, confused, and helpless. The stupid, gallant part of him that had failed to rescue Theresa woke, suggesting he had another opportunity to rescue someone in need.
No way. He wouldn’t go there again. Not in this lifetime. He needed to focus on the case.