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Authors: Sandra Brown

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense

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BOOK: The Alibi
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hotel guests and employees. People automatically resented

being questioned because it implied guilt, so it

would be an unpleasant and tiresome task. And

Smilow, they knew from experience, was an unrelenting

and merciless taskmaster.

He now turned to Dr. Madison again. "Can you get

this done quickly?"

"A couple of days."

"Monday?"

"It'll mean my weekend's shot to hell."

"So's mine," Smilow said unapologetically. "I

want toxicology, everything."

"You always do," Madison said with a good-natured

smile. "I'll do my best."

"You always do."

After the body had been removed, Smilow addressed

one of the CSU techs. "How is it?"

"It's in our favor that the hotel is new. Not that

many fingerprints, so most of them will probably be

Pettijohn's."

"Or the perp's."

"I wouldn't count on that," the technician said,

frowning. "It's as clean a site as I've ever seen."

When the suite was empty, Smilow walked

through it himself. He personally checked everything,

opening every drawer, checking the closet and

the built-in safe, looking between the mattresses, underneath

the bed, inside the bathroom medicine cabinet,

the tank of the toilet, looking for anything that

Lute Pettijohn might have left behind that hinted at

his killer's identity.

The sum total of Smilow's find was a Gideon

Bible and the Charleston telephone directory. He

found nothing personal belonging to Lute Pettijohn, no date book, receipts, tickets, scribbled notes, food

wrappers, nothing.

Smilow counted two bottles of scotch missing

from the minibar, but only one glass had been used,

unless the murderer had been smart enough to take

the one he'd used with him when he left. But Smilow

learned after checking with housekeeping that the

standard number of highball glasses stocked in a suite

was four, and three clean ones remained.

As crime scenes go, it was virtually sterile--except

for the bloodstain on the sitting room carpet.

"Detective?"

Smilow, who'd been thoughtfully staring at the

blood-soaked carpet, raised his head.

The officer standing in the open doorway hitched

his thumb toward the corridor. "She insisted on coming

in."

"She?"

"Me." A woman nudged aside the patrol officer as

though he were of no significance whatsoever, removed

the crime scene tape from the doorway, and

stepped inside. Quick, dark eyes swept the room.

When she saw the dark bloodstain, she expelled a

breath of disappointment and disgust. "Madison has

already got the body? Damn!"

Smilow, crooking his arm in order to read the face

of his wristwatch, said, "Congratulations, Steffi.

You've broken your own speed record."

CHAPTER 3

 

I thought you might be waiting on the husband and

kids."

"When?"

"When you came into the pavilion."

"Oh."

She didn't take Hammond's bait, but only continued

licking her ice-cream bar. Not until the wooden

stick was clean did she say, "Is that your way of asking

if I'm married?"

He made a pained face. "And here I thought I was

being so subtle."

"Thanks for the chocolate nut bar."

"Is that your way of avoiding an answer?"

Laughing, they approached a set of uneven

wooden steps leading down to a pier. The platform

stood about three feet above the surface of the water

and was about ten yards square. Water lapped gently

against the pilings beneath the weathered planks.

Wooden benches formed the perimeter, their backs

serving as a safety railing. Hammond took her ice-cream

stick and wrapper and discarded them along

with his in a trash can, then motioned her toward one

of the benches.

At each corner of the deck was a light pole, but the

bulbs were dim and unobtrusive. Clear Christmas

lights like those on the ceiling of the pavilion had

been strung between the light poles. They softened

the rusticity, making the ordinary, unattractive pier a

romantic setting.

The breeze was soft, but strong enough to give one

a fighting chance against mosquitoes. Frogs croaked

in the dense undergrowth lining the riverbank. Cicadas

sang from the low-hanging, moss-strewn

branches of the sheltering live oak trees.

"Nice out here," Hammond remarked.

"Hmm. I'm surprised no one else has discovered

it."

"I reserved it so we could have it all to ourselves."

She laughed. They had laughed a lot in the last

couple hours while sampling the high-caloric fares of

the food vendors and walking aimlessly from booth

to booth. They had admired home-canned peaches

and string beans, got a lesson on the latest in workout

equipment, and tried out the cushioned seats of high-tech

tractors. He had won a miniature teddy bear for

her at a baseball toss. She had declined to try on a

wig, although the saleswoman had been very persuasive.

They had taken a ride on the Ferris wheel. When

their car stopped at the summit and swayed precariously,

Hammond had felt downright giddy. It was one

of the most carefree moments he could remember

since . . .

He couldn't remember a more carefree moment.

The tethers that kept him grounded so securely-- people, work, obligations--seemed to have been

snipped. For a few minutes he had been floating free.

He had felt free to enjoy the thrill of being suspended

high above the fairgrounds. Free to enjoy a lightheartedness

he rarely experienced anymore. Free to

enjoy the company of a woman he had met less than

two hours ago.

Spontaneously he turned to her now and asked, "Are you married?"

She laughed and ducked her head even as she

shook it. "So much for subtlety."

"Subtlety wasn't doing it for me."

"No, I'm not married. Are you?"

"No." Then, "Whew! I'm glad we got that clarified."

Raising her head, she looked across at him, smiling.

"So am I."

Then they stopped smiling and just looked at each

other. The stare stretched into seconds, then moments,

long, still, quiet moments on the outside, but

clamorous where emotions were housed.

For Hammond it was one of those once-in a lifetime if you're-lucky

moments. The kind that even

the most talented movie directors and actors can't

quite capture on film. The kind of connecting moment

that poets and songwriters try to describe in

their compositions, but never quite nail. Up till now,

Hammond had been under the misconception that

they'd done a fair job of it. Only now did he realize

how miserably they had failed.

How could one, anyone, describe the instant when

it all comes together? How to describe that burst of

clarity when one knows that his life has only just now

begun, that everything that's happened before was rot

compared to this, and that nothing will ever be the

same again? The elusive answers to all the questions

ceased to matter, and he realized that the only truth he

really needed to know was right here, right now. This

moment.

He had never felt like this in his life.

Nobody had ever felt like this.

He was still rocking on the top car of the Ferris

wheel and he never wanted to come down.

Just as he said, "Will you dance with me again?"

she said, "I really need to go."

"Go?" "Dance?"

They spoke at the same time again, but Hammond

overrode her. "Dance with me again. I wasn't in top

form last time, what with the Marine Corps watching

my every step."

She turned her head and looked in the direction of

the parking lot on the far side of the fairgrounds.

He didn't want to press her. Any attempt at coercion

probably would send her running. But he couldn't let

her go. Not yet. "Please?"

Her expression full of uncertainty, she looked back

at him, then gave him a small smile. "All right. One

dance."

They stood up. She started for the steps, but he

reached for her hand and brought her around.

"What's wrong with here?"

She pulled in a breath, released it slowly, shakily.

"Nothing, I guess."

He hadn't touched her since their last dance, short

of placing his hand lightly on the small of her back to

guide her around a bottleneck in the crowd. He'd offered

her his hand when they stepped into and out of

the Ferris wheel car. They'd been elbow to elbow and

hip to hip for the duration of the ride. But other than

those few exceptions, he had curbed every temptation

to touch her, not wanting to scare her off, or come

across as a creep, or insult her.

Now he pulled her forward gently, but firmly, until

they were standing toe to toe. Then he curved his arm

around her waist and drew her close. Closer than before.

Against him. She went hesitantly, but she didn't

try to angle away. She raised her arm to his shoulder.

He felt the imprint of her hand at the base of his neck.

The band had called it a night. Music was now

being provided by a DJ who had been playing a variety

ranging from Creedence Clearwater to Streisand.

Because it was growing late and the mood of the

dancers had turned more mellow, he was playing

slower songs.

 

Hammond recognized the tune, but couldn't name

the singer or the song currently coming from the

pavilion. It didn't matter. The ballad was slow and

sweet and romantic. At first he tried to get his feet to

execute the sequence of steps that he had learned as a

youth reluctantly attending cotillions his mother

roped him into. But the longer he held her, the more

impossible it became to concentrate on anything except

her.

One song segued into another, but they never

missed a beat, despite her agreeing to only one dance.

In fact, neither noticed when the music changed.

Their eyes and minds were locked on each other.

He brought their clasped hands up to his chest and

pressed hers palm down, then covered it with his. She

tipped her head forward and down until her forehead

was resting on his collarbone. He rubbed his cheek

against her hair. He felt rather than actually heard the

small sound of want that vibrated in her throat. His

own desire echoed it.

Their feet shuffled to a decreasing tempo until

eventually they stopped moving altogether. They

were still except for the strands of her hair that the

breeze brushed against his face. The heat emanating

from every point of contact seemed to forge them together.

Hammond dipped his head for the kiss that he

believed was inevitable.

"I must go." She broke away and turned abruptly

toward the bench where she'd left her handbag and

cardigan.

For several seconds he was too stunned to react.

After taking up her things, she made to move past

him with a rushed, "Thanks for everything. It was

lovely. Truly."

"Wait a minute."

She eluded his touch and quickly went up the

steps, tripping once in her haste. "I have to go."

"Why now?"

"I can't. . . can't do this."

 

She tossed the words over her shoulder as she hurriedly

made her way toward the parking area. She

followed the string of pennants, avoiding the midway,

the pavilion, and the waning activity in the

booths. Some of the attractions already had closed.

Exhibitioners were tearing down their booths and

packing up their arts and crafts. Families loaded

down with souvenirs and prizes trudged toward their

vans. The noises weren't so joyful or so loud as earlier.

The music in the pavilion now sounded more forlorn

than romantic.

Hammond stayed even with her. "I don't understand."

"What's not to understand? I've told you I must

go. That's all there is to it."

"I don't believe that." Desperate to detain her, he

reached for her arm. She stopped, took several deep

breaths, and turned to face him, although she didn't

look at him directly.

"I had a lovely time." She spoke in a flat voice

with little inflection, as though these were lines she

had memorized. "But now the evening is over and I

have to leave."

"But--"

"I don't owe you an explanation. I don't owe you

anything." Her eyes made brief contact with his before

skittering away again. "Now please, don't try

and stop me again."

Hammond released her arm and stepped back,

raising his hands as though in surrender.

"Goodbye," was all she said before turning away

from him and picking her way over the rough ground

toward the designated parking area.

 

Stefanie Mundell tossed Smilow the keys to her

Acura. "You drive while I change." They had left the

hotel by the East Bay Street entrance and were moving

briskly down the sidewalk, which was congested

not only with the usual Saturday night crowd, but

BOOK: The Alibi
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