CAST INTO DOUBT
Recent Titles by Patricia MacDonald
STRANGER IN THE HOUSE
NO WAY HOME
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
MARRIED TO A STRANGER
STOLEN IN THE NIGHT
available from Severn House
This first world edition published 2010
in Great Britain and in 2011 in the USA by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9–15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
Trade paperback edition first published
in Great Britain and the USA 2011 by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD.
Copyright © 2010 by Patricia Bourgeau.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
MacDonald, Patricia J.
Cast into doubt.
1. Mothers of murder victims – Fiction. 2. Mothers and
Daughters – Fiction. 3. Family secrets – Fiction.
4. Suspense fiction.
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-6958-6 (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-306-9 (trade paper)
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-003-6 (e-book)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being
described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this
publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons
is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
To our ‘Mimi’, Mary L. Hackler
Special thanks to two Tonys: Tony Canesso for his help with this book, and Tony Cartano, for all his help these many years.
rajit Singh didn’t want any drama on his shift. He needed time to concentrate. So far, it had been a quiet night, and that was the way he preferred it. Drivers came and went, coming in to use the restrooms, and pay for their gas. Kids hung around drinking slurpees from the machine at the back of the store, and harried moms came in to pick up a quart of milk for breakfast, or some small bags of chips to toss into the kids’ lunches. Old people bought newspapers and poor people bought lottery tickets. Prajit used the in-between time to work on his studies. He was in medical school, and the work was grueling. He always had a textbook open under the counter. The venous systems, or the lobes of the brain, or grimace-inducing photos of virulent skin conditions were always peeking out from the shelf under the cash register. Prajit was a juggler of time and responsibilities and other people’s needs. He was so used to being exhausted and overburdened that it almost seemed normal to him now.
The door to the convenience store opened, and a young guy came in. Short hair, blue work shirt, angry expression. One of those white guys, born to the privilege of being an American male of Anglo-Saxon descent, who looked unhappy with the way the world was going these days. Prajit knew that he, with his brown skin and accented English, was probably seen by this guy as part of the problem. Prajit also knew, with a secret sense of satisfaction, that someday he would be a cardiologist or a urologist or a thoracic surgeon, and this guy would be sitting politely in his examining room, waiting for his help. Every time Prajit got discouraged, or fed up with the whole routine, he reminded himself of that. The customer approached the cash register and paid for his gas. Prajit thanked him politely. The guy grunted in reply, and then headed down the first aisle toward the back, where they kept the beer. Prajit went back to his reading. Tonight it was diseases of the gastrointestinal system. There was a lot to absorb, he thought.
All of sudden it began. The raised voices. As soon as he heard them, Prajit remembered the two kids he had seen slipping in earlier, hunched under their hoodies and watch caps, and speaking in whispers that occasionally became harsh, muffled laughter. They had headed down the beer aisle too. Prajit had forgotten they were there. He glanced up at the tilted mirror above the cold case and saw that the two kids and the straight arrow guy were getting into it.
Prajit’s heart sank. He didn’t need this tonight. It was late. All he wanted to do was to finish his shift and go home. Not that it would be peaceful there. His young wife, Ojaswini, and their baby seemed to have taken over the entire apartment with diapers and bottles and toys everywhere that the baby was even too young to play with. Prajit tried to stay sanguine. These were the difficult days. They wouldn’t last forever. One of these days the boy would be old enough for school, and Prajit would be a resident, working twenty-four seven in the hospital rather than in this twenty-four hour a day market. His nights as a clerk would be just a grim memory.
Prajit heard a shout, and looked up at the mirror. The straight arrow had shoved one of the kids out of his path, and he wasn’t going to get away with that. Not without a fight. Prajit came out from behind the counter. ‘Please, please,’ he called out. ‘If you wish to buy something, please bring your purchases up to the counter.’
His plea for civility was being drowned out by shouts and loud curses. Reluctantly, he started for the first aisle, hoping that he didn’t get into the middle of a melee. Why was it that people with nothing better to do than fight always ended up here, in this convenience store? He answered his own question. Mostly, he realized, because it was the only place open around here at night. The store belonged to a friend of his parents, a businessman who had come to the US with nothing, and ended up rich, just as all the stories of immigrants predicted was possible. Normally Prajit was grateful to have a job, especially since his boss was flexible with his schedule. He knew Prajit was going to medical school. He approved. But at the same time, he expected all his employees to work hard, guard the money, and keep the peace. Sometimes that was easier said than done.
Prajit turned the corner of the first aisle, his hands raised in a pleading gesture. ‘Gentlemen, please,’ he said. ‘Take your argument outside. If you wish to make a purchase . . .’
‘If you weesh to make a purchase,’ one of the punks mocked him in a singsong voice.
Prajit raised his hands in an attitude of surrender. ‘Please sir. Just bring your items to the counter. I don’t wish to have any problems.’
The thug was not as young as Prajit had first thought. He had a heavy shadow of a beard, and bright, angry eyes.
The white guy in the blue shirt turned on the punk. ‘You think you’re funny?’ he demanded. ‘This man here is just trying to make a living. He doesn’t get paid enough to deal with the likes of you. Why don’t you do us all a favor and beat it?’
Prajit was shocked and oddly warmed. He had misjudged the customer in the blue shirt. Here this man was defending him. Just when you thought you knew about people, it turned out you could be all wrong.
The guy in the blue shirt tried to push past the smaller of the hoodied thugs. The other one yelled a curse at him. The customer did not reply, but flipped his middle finger at them.
The bigger guy pulled a gun out from under his sweatshirt.
Prajit’s eyes widened. He instantly remembered the words of his employer. ‘If they have a gun, bow to the gun.’
‘Please fellows,’ Prajit pleaded. ‘Let’s calm down. I don’t want to have to call the police.’ The shorter, quieter one turned and looked him in the eyes. Too late, Prajit realized that he had made a mistake. Too late. His words stuck in his throat. ‘No, no,’ he tried to say. ‘I mean no offense . . . !’ And then, he heard the shot.
he sound of a noontime television anchor chirping about her upcoming guests drifted into the bathroom as Shelby Sloan leaned across the wide, marble-topped sink toward the mirror, applying her mascara. She had slept late, run some errands, and taken a spinning class at the gym. Now, she was showered and just about ready to depart. Shelby stared at her expertly made-up face critically. At forty-two, Shelby’s skin was radiant and unlined. Her thick, shiny blonde hair curved smoothly to her shoulders and remained one of her best features. In her twenties, when she was a single, working mother, barely able to buy groceries and pay the rent, she had always assumed that she would look like an old hag by the age of forty, but, despite years of work, night school, child-rearing and too little sleep, the passage of time had been kind to her appearance.
A knock at the front door of her condo startled her. She wasn’t expecting anyone.
Probably Jen, she thought, with a last minute question or two. Her best friend, an interior decorator named Jennifer Brandon, worked at home and lived on the same floor of the building as Shelby. She was going to water Shelby’s plants and take in the mail while Shelby was at Chloe’s. Both single, they spent a lot of time in one another’s company, by design or default, for an evening of wine and dinner. Shelby smoothed down her cashmere sweater over her pants. ‘Coming,’ she called out. She glanced at her watch. Chloe was a stickler for punctuality. She needed to get going.
Shelby opened the door to find Talia Winter, her older sister, standing there. Talia never bothered with pleasantries. ‘I’m on my lunch hour. I called Markson’s,’ she announced, naming the Philadelphia department store where Shelby was the chief women’s wear buyer. ‘They said you were on vacation.’
‘Yes, I am,’ said Shelby. ‘Today is the first day.’
‘You didn’t answer your phone.’
Shelby sighed and stepped aside. It was true that she often did not answer when she saw her sister’s name on the caller ID. Talia only called about one subject – their mother, Estelle. Talia still lived in the run-down family house in Northeast Philadelphia with their alcoholic mother, who had, six months ago, been diagnosed with end stage liver disease. She was not eligible for a transplant because she still refused to give up drinking. With no family or home of her own, Talia had spent her adult life catering to the needs of Estelle Winter – a woman who had been either disruptive or absent in their lives for as long as Shelby could remember.
Talia stalked past Shelby, went down the hall and stopped in the living room of Shelby’s spacious high rise apartment. She looked around critically and her gaze fell on an overnight bag that was packed and sitting on a gray suede chair.
‘Where are you going for your vacation?’ Talia demanded. She was fifty years old and looked sixty. Her short, sensible haircut was salt-and-pepper. She was dressed in her work clothes, a shapeless polyester pantsuit and plain blue shirt, probably purchased at Wal-Mart. Her unsophisticated appearance was deceiving. Talia ran the computer lab at Franklin University in Center City. She had a PhD and was considered to be an expert on artificial intelligence. Talia had always had a brilliant mind and an abysmal lack of social skills.
Shelby tried to keep her tone reasonable. ‘I told you. Chloe and Rob are going on a cruise. I am taking care of Jeremy while they’re gone.’
‘You need to come and see Mother,’ Talia said. ‘She’s getting worse by the day. She spends most of the time in bed now. Yesterday she didn’t recognize me.’
‘I’m sorry, Talia, but I can’t,’ said Shelby. ‘I told you about this months ago. I gave my daughter and her husband this cruise as a Christmas gift. They’ve been planning it for months. And I’ve been looking forward to spending this time with my grandson.’
‘I wouldn’t mind a vacation myself,’ said Talia pointedly.
‘So take one,’ said Shelby. ‘It would do you good.’
‘With mother this sick?’