Authors: Sandra Brown
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense
the scream rent the air-conditioned silence of the
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
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
he noticed her the moment she stepped into the
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
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
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
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
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 Handing 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 busi-
ness 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
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
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
The bartenders were dispensing beer as fast as
they could, but they couldn't keep up with the de
mand. 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
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