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Chapter One, Shades of Gold

Order from Amazon Order from Barnes & Nobel Bev Henderson lifted her gaze from the sprawled body as Mary Jean Langford wearily explained how she killed her estranged husband.

Keeping his voice low, Sergeant Kevin Blackwell asked, “Mary Jean, did you understand the part about not being required to say anything unless you have a lawyer present?”

The woman’s voice was devoid of emotion. She spoke as one who knew emotion would not affect the situation. “Doesn’t much matter, does it? He had it coming, and you know it. Did anybody really think that piece of paper would keep him away?”

Bev sighed, straightened from her kneeling position, and crossed three steps to the kitchen table where Mary Jean had apparently been sitting since she left the butcher knife in her husband’s chest and called the police. The table, like the rest of the furniture in the house, was the kind you bought at discount stores: maple wood veneer over particleboard with four wooden chairs. Oblong yellow plastic placemats and a salt and pepper shaker set in the shape of ducks were meant to bring whimsy to a room that hadn’t been updated since the 1970s. Little sunlight came through the single window over the sink or the glass pane of the back door that led onto an enclosed porch with torn screen panels. Calling the house a fixer-upper would be making liberal use of the term.

“What Sergeant Blackwell means, ma’am, is that we’ll have to go through all this at the station, and you’ll have an opportunity to have a lawyer meet you there. He’ll take you on down and get things started.”

Mary Jean seemed to focus for the first time since Bev entered the house. Her hollow-cheeked face showed years beyond the thirty-something that would be annotated on the report. Her gaze slowly took in the shattered dishes, spilled coffee grounds, and pooled blood on the cracked, scrubbed linoleum. “I shouldn’t leave the house this much a mess,” she said. “If you give me an hour, I can have it cleaned up.”

“We can’t do that, ma’am,” Bev said, with more patience than she would ordinarily. Gus Langford had been a mean bastard, and his death wasn’t likely to upset anyone. He’d been out of jail less than three weeks and violated a restraining order so it was possible the district attorney’s office would accept self-defense. On the other hand, there were no signs that he had a weapon, although at six-foot three and pushing 260 pounds, his size ought to be considered life-threatening. The problem was that Mary Jean had evidently stabbed him before he could beat her again, and it was hard to tell if she’d tried to escape.

“Can I call Betty Jean and have her come over later? After you’re done, I mean?” Mary Jean heaved to her feet, her face averted from the body.

“Take her to the station,” Bev instructed Kevin. “Les is there. He can finish the interview.” She spoke slowly to Mary Jean, once again wondering why women couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see violence in men like Gus Langford before it was too late. “Ma’am, we’ll let you call your sister after you’ve decided whether you want to call a lawyer. It’ll take us another couple of hours here.”

A spark of indignation lit Mary Jean’s watery green eyes as she swung her head to look at the body. “You got any way to make sure I don’t get the same lawyer that defended that son of a bitch last time?”

“Good point, ma’am,” Bev said. “We’ll remind the public defender’s office of the case.” She inclined her head toward the door, and Kevin took Mary Jean’s unresisting arm instead of putting handcuffs on. Bev almost corrected him, but she assumed his reason for stretching procedures was the same as hers for insisting Mary Jean call a lawyer instead of processing an easy confession.

Mary Jean’s younger brother, Percy Crosby, had played football with Kevin and Bev’s older brother. Percy, the one member of the team with genuine talent; the one who might have been able to use football as a possible way up from a family that had nothing else to offer. Percy, who shouldered responsibility for a mother and two sisters at too early an age when their father disappeared one day with what scarce money they had. Percy, the promising junior at college, rumors building for Heisman Trophy consideration—dead on a practice field in August heat. The culprit had been a hidden heart defect, a genetic injustice that defeated the boy’s determination. Bev watched Mary Jean disappear through the front door. She’d finally shown a bit of the same spirit that had driven Percy when she testified against Gus and initiated divorce proceedings. If the DA wanted to prosecute her, he should at least be open to a deal. There were times when having her boyfriend as an assistant district attorney mixed their professional and personal lives together even though she made an effort to avoid it. While Bev wouldn’t ask Kyle to intervene with his boss on Mary Jean’s behalf, she could certainly stress her opinion about what a scumbag, lowlife, piece of shit Gus had been.

She snapped open her phone, called Les at the office, and filled him in, then shifted her attention to objectively record details of the scene. She wanted to walk through the motions of an escalating argument, hoping Mary Jean’s version of the truth was close enough to support her story. She wanted to believe that Gus had arrived uninvited, drunk, and making threats. She didn’t want to discover that a recently remembered insurance policy had prompted Mary Jean to lure Gus to the house in order to murder him.

It was close to quitting time when Bev returned to the office, shift change duties already in progress. Her partner, Les Martin, was in Chief Taylor’s office, the Chief waving a lit cigarette. His scowl was no worse than usual, and Les didn’t appear to be getting his butt chewed. The Chief’s bulk was centered in his chair, not hunched forward. As she tried to slip past the Chief’s office, he did his get in here gesture with his free hand.

Les was in the comfortably worn leather chair to the left of the oak desk that bore burned spots, coffee stains, and assorted damage from the Chief’s tenure. Bev’s suggestion that they update the Chief’s office when they had renovated the rest of the station had gotten her thrown out of the room. Rather than take the other chair remaining in the room, a lumpy upholstered piece, she attempted the head and torso in the door trick. “If this is about Mrs. Langford, I haven’t . . .”

“Doubt there’ll be anything special about it,” the Chief cut her off. “Sit, so I don’t have to go through this twice.” He took a long drag from the cigarette and blew the kind of smoke ring that only comes from practice. His brown eyes were almost bored, no piercing anger whatever this particular subject was. Lines around his mouth were etched deeply from frowning to perpetuate his image as a hard-nosed boss. “Nelson called from the mayor’s office. There’ll be some goddamn press release in the morning, but it looks as if we’re about to be invaded.”

Bev cut a glance to Les who shrugged. He was as calm as the Chief was acerbic; slender to the Chief’s powerful presence. “Getting excited takes too much energy at my age,” he’d told Bev after he first transferred from Tallahassee. “I’ve worked for shouters before—at least Chief Taylor is a stand-up guy.”

 If invasion was imminent, they hadn’t bothered with a news broadcast.

“Hollywood is coming our way,” the Chief elaborated. “The onslaught will begin within a week or two.” He fished another cigarette from the pack on his desk, lit it from the dying one, and grimaced. “A movie, oh goody, we’re going to have a movie filmed.”

“I gather you’ve been through this before,” Les said carefully.

“Hell, yes. Back when you were riding a tricycle,” he said pointing at Bev. “You ask your dad about it. Christ Almighty, it was a science fiction, body-snatching-aliens thing. This place was a fucking zoo for weeks, and I’m not talking about the aliens they came up with. Come to think of it, they were probably the best part.”

“What exactly was the problem? It must bring a lot of money into town.” Bev was trying to shift gears from the Langford place.

Chief Taylor rubbed a thick, calloused hand briskly across his mostly bald head, his signal of severe frustration. “Yeah, the money is good, but you can’t believe the bullshit attitude these people come in with. We had drunken starlets jumping naked off boats, different sections of town shut down for hours at a time while shots were set up, triple or better the number of bar fights, and God knows how many girls got knocked up by guys swearing they could get them screen tests. We had every cop on overtime, and by the time they got the hell out of here, I was sorry the aliens hadn’t won.”

“Maybe it will be different this time,” Bev suggested. “Do you know what they’re filming?”

“Talk at the Corner Café this morning was an action movie with that guy, that guy, the one who was in Deadly Days,” Les said, tugging at his ear lobe trying to remember the name.

“Matthew Marlow?” Bev wasn’t a big fan, but he was on the latest list of Hollywood’s ten sexist stars. Having him strolling the streets might be interesting.

Les extinguished her brief fantasy. “No, not that big; one of the other ones.”

“It doesn’t make any difference,” the Chief said as the telephone rang. “Trust me, we’re going to wish they’d never heard of this place by the end of it.” He reached for the receiver and shooed them away.

“You know how the Chief likes to carry on,” Bev said to Les’ back as they escaped to their office. “I can’t imagine it will be that bad. What happened with Mrs. Langford?”

Bev hadn’t given him many details. She knew that Les, with his blue eyes that rarely showed emotion and a face that reflected an understanding of human failings, would have picked up on Kevin’s treatment of Mary Jean. “Kevin filled me in, and we got her processed. It took longer to track down a lawyer than I was expecting, and he asked if she could make her official statement tomorrow morning. I didn’t think waiting until then would hurt. Hard to know how it will play out, but the lady didn’t strike me as much of a menace to society. ” Les sat on the corner of his desk and looked at the wall clock. “Blanche wanted me home a bit early tonight—our oldest son and his family are coming down from Gainesville for a few days. I took extra vitamins this morning to see if I can build up enough strength to horseplay with the kids.”

“Sure, you go ahead,” Bev said. “See you in the morning.” She retrieved a Diet Coke from the dinged, but serviceable refrigerator, dropped into her chair, and pulled up e-mail. The only one she cared about was from Kyle suggesting they meet at the Macaw at six-thirtyish. That meant he wanted a chance to change out of his suit.

Bev decided not to open what was no doubt the latest edict from Nelson Davis, the new deputy chief of police. The odds were against it having any value and in favor of it pissing her off, or at least irritating the hell out of her. They’d been without a deputy for practically a year due to potential budget cuts, and when they plowed through that obstacle, the mayor had somehow persuaded Chief Taylor to at least give Nelson a try. Bev remembered the discussion she’d been trapped in one afternoon.

“Would you listen to me for Christ’s sake? The man’s never walked a beat in his life—not a day on patrol. He’s a goddamn pencil pusher.” Chief Taylor’s face had been contorted in contempt, the telephone receiver gripped tightly. “Don’t now, Claude me.  I know the job is mostly administrative, and I’m plenty aware that you think a more business-like approach to this office would be in order. I am also goddamn aware of who his father-in-law is.”

The Chief’s expression segued into skepticism as he listened to the mayor’s pitch. “My proposed budget with no cuts and my unfunded requirements given priority sounds like a better deal.”

He stabbed his finger at Bev in a don’t-you-dare-leave directive. Great, nothing like being a party to the Chief’s bargaining. He was no doubt trying to teach her a lesson about political maneuvering.

“Okay, fund the top three, and, as far as I’m concerned, he comes on probation. Yes, I’ll give him a goddamn fair chance. Yeah, you, too.” Chief Taylor chuckled grimly and turned to Bev. “And you had better not give me any grief about this either.”

“Me? I haven’t said a word,” Bev protested. Jesus, as if she had asked to be involved.

“Not yet, you haven’t,” he growled. “Now get the hell out of my office.

Bev would have naturally assumed that Chief Taylor was overacting, except that Taliah Fanning, the administrative assistant who would work closely with the new deputy, showed her his résumé, highlighting it with a vividly red fingernail.

“A master’s degree in urban planning? Tell me what good that does on a police force.” Taliah, who was quick to laugh and as full of sass as anyone Bev knew, did not look as if she was excited about the front-running candidate.

Bev scanned the document, trying for a middle ground. “Well, he’s spent a lot of time in major cities. He was in Newark and Baltimore. Maybe they liked them to be more well rounded than just having a criminal justice background.”

“Uh-huh, and you can bet your next paycheck he wouldn’t be coming to a little place like Verde Key if he wasn’t trailing after his wife. You’re not going to tell me it’s a coincidence that Catherine Lorraine Davis, former Miss Florida, is supposed to be taking over head of public relations for her daddy’s firm. They ran that article last week.”

Bev acquiesced. “Can’t say that I paid attention to that one, but don’t you tell me you think you can’t handle him.”

Taliah sniffed, a lack of warmth in her dark brown eyes. “Oh, I’ll manage him all right. All I’m saying is, he’s got that prissy kind of face that means no sense of humor and a love of rule books. You mark my word.”

It hadn’t taken long for Taliah’s accurate prediction to become indisputable, although Nelson Davis wasn’t completely without merit. He seemed to thrive on bureaucratic crap that drove other people crazy. He took meetings, made appearances, and embraced mounds of minutia that had built up in the absence of a deputy. He had yet, however, to learn anything about members of the force and was far more concerned with the timeliness of their reports than whether or not they had a good shift. What he did know was the name of every member of the town’s hierarchy and major contributors to the mayor’s campaign.

Bev clicked off her e-mail for out-of-sight-out-of-mind relief and did a slow neck roll to the left, then the right. She didn’t want to dwell on the Langford case nor was she in the mood to contemplate the deputy police chief. If she left now, she could run by her apartment before she met Kyle. She’d been careful at the crime scene, but studying a dead body, examining blood splatter patterns, and discussing probable sequence of events with the medical examiner left her feeling grubby. She could take a quick shower, swap from pants suit and loafers into comfortable jeans and sneakers, and brush her hair out of the braid she wore coiled to the back of her head. Unless Kyle wanted to fire up his grill, they could either stay at the Scarlet Macaw for dinner, go somewhere else, or do take out. It was the kind of evening where she didn’t want to deal with cooking and cleaning up.