Authors: Maureen McKade
Tags: #Romance, #Romantic Suspense, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense
Arouse Suspicion by Maureen McKade
When police officer Paddy Hawkins is found dead in his bedroom with a revolver in his hand and a note on the nightstand, all the evidence points to suicide. Case closed--except to one man. Ex-Army Ranger Nick Sirocco was the last person to hear from Paddy. And the message that Paddy left him didn't sound like a man about to take his own life. To find out what happened to his friend, Nick will turn to the one woman he knows he can trust...
Ex-cop Danni Hawkins didn't buy that her father was murdered--until she heard his final message. Now, with Nick's help, she must uncover the tracks left behind by an elusive killer. She can't afford to let herself get distracted by the steamy attraction between her and Nick. But as their trail takes them deeper into the heart of corruption, Danni realizes the killer may be closer than she ever thought possible...
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Copyright © 2004 by Maureen Webster.
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
To RB for Gus.
To Natasha Kern for the awesome title.
To Cindy Hwang for going above and beyond. To Karen Fox, Paula Gill, Laura Hayden, Yvonne Jocks, Pam McCutcheon, Angel Smits, and Deb Stover for your encouragement to try something different, and for your laughter and critiques.
And always, to Alan for your love and support.
My heartfelt thanks.
"He stared at the man who had once been his friend but who now was a heartless mercenary on the wrong side. Longstreet couldn't afford to let their past friendship cloud his judgment or sway his resolve. He had a job to do, and he had never failed yet. He blanked his mind and snapped another magazine into his Glock, then took aim. The pistol barked—"
Nick Sirocco swore and held down the backspace button until the words vanished from the monitor, leaving behind nothing but a pristine white screen and an insolent flashing cursor. He rubbed his eyes and glanced at the digital clock radio precariously perched on a stack of papers and books. 3:20 P.M. Less than twenty-four hours to finish the damned manuscript, which was only half completed.
The phone rang, startling him. Nick poked under a pile of papers where the handset was supposed to be but wasn't. He growled a few choice words and tried to remember where he'd left it. He rolled back his chair from his cluttered desk and rose. His right knee cracked audibly. The joint proceeded to make a muted pop with each step.
Nothing like a couple of hundred parachute jumps to waste a guy's knees.
Fortunately, he didn't have to search long for the missing phone. Gus, his part golden Lab, part Irish setter mutt, came trotting down the hallway, the handset in her mouth. It rang a third time.
"Hand," Nick commanded, and Gus dropped it into his palm. "Good girl." As Nick wiped the doggy-drooled phone across his sweatpants, it shrilled impatiently again. He pushed a button. "Yeah."
"Hey, Nick, how's it going?"
The disgustingly cheerful voice of Steve Hardick, his agent, elicited a groan. "Why're you calling so late?"
"It's not even three-thirty."
"In New York it's after six," Nick reminded dryly as he walked back to his desk. "What's going on?"
In the pause that followed, Nick could almost hear the agent's smile fade. "Is the Longstreet book done?"
Nick squeezed the bridge of his nose and sighed. "Not yet."
"It's due the day after tomorrow, Nick. You've already had two extensions."
"It'll get there on time," Nick assured him. "I'll finish tonight and overnight express it tomorrow."
"It should've been done four weeks ago. You've been dicking around for two months. What's going on with you, anyhow?"
Nick bristled at Steve's nagging tone. He counted to ten to defuse his irritation. It didn't work. "I'm sick and tired of writing the same old thing: beer, bombs, and babes. Hell, Gus has more personality than Longstreet does."
Lying on the floor, the dog looked up at him and wagged her tail.
"Geezus, Nick, you knew this wasn't classic literature when you agreed to write for the line."
"Yeah, well, I needed the job back then, but after three years, it's gotten old. I feel like I'm writing the same frigging book over and over."
"Do you know how many men would give their left nut to write Travis Longstreet books?"
"I could've lived without that visual," Nick said dryly. He sank into his desk chair, the wheels squeaking as if punctuating his comment. "I want out, Steve."
"You're under contract for one more book."
"Get me out of it."
Steve's disbelieving snort came through loud and clear. "This is business, Nick, not some kid's game."
"Writing Longstreet books
a kid's game." Nick gripped the phone tighter. "Look, I've been working on something. A cop thriller."
Long silence met Nick's announcement.
"What do you know about cops?" Steve finally asked.
Nick leaned forward, his elbows braced on his thighs, and didn't bother to curb his enthusiasm. "I've been working with an old friend who's been a cop for nearly thirty-five years. He's been helping me out. It's good, Steve, really good."
Nick heard the tapping of a pen against the phone—a sure sign that Steve was thinking. However, the rat-a-tat-tat was annoying as hell.
"There haven't been many police thrillers to hit the lists since Wambaugh," Steve mused aloud. "So you think this book's good?"
"Yeah. And so does my friend." Nick held his breath, knowing he needed Steve's full support.
"What do you have done?"
Nick leaned back in his chair. "Just one chapter. I've been plotting and researching."
"Get the proposal to me by the end of the month. I'll take a look at it. Maybe your editor will make a trade."
"What d'you mean?"
"If Manny likes the idea, maybe I can get him to take this one instead of another Longstreet book. They have two other series writers who should be able to pick up the slack."
Nick sat up straight, excitement sending his pulse into overdrive. "You think?"
"If the story grabs him, Manny'll jump at the chance." Steve paused. "But you have to show him you aren't just another hack."
Nick bristled. "I'm a damned good writer."
"Hell, I know that, but you have to prove it to him. I want that proposal on my desk by the end of the month. And don't piss Manny off by being any later on this book. Day after tomorrow. His desk. No excuses." The line went dead.
Nick punched the Off button and stared at the phone. After writing seven action adventure books starring Travis Longstreet, Nick wanted to tackle something different, something more challenging than a character who shot epithets as accurately as he shot bullets. Two months ago Nick had asked Paddy Hawkins if he'd be willing to act as a consultant for the new book. Faced with a compulsory retirement, Paddy had welcomed the challenge and was just as excited as Nick about the project.
Who would've thought a smart-mouthed punk kid who Officer Hawkins had straightened out over fifteen years ago would be writing a cop book?
And now Nick's agent was willing to give him a shot at playing with the big boys. He grinned and considered calling Paddy with the news but decided to wait until tomorrow. Knowing Paddy, he'd want to go out and celebrate, and Nick had a book to finish.
He rose and settled the phone on its base, then turned off the ringer and muted the answering machine. He didn't need any distractions.
Eleven hours later, with the Longstreet manuscript completed, Nick shuffled off to bed, unaware of the blinking red light on the answering machine.
Five days later
Danni Hawkins juggled a Chinese take-out bag, her backpack, a jumbo iced tea, and two cans of soda as she tried to open the door to the office. Just when she succeeded in turning the knob, the tea tipped, splashing across her tan trousers and onto the cracked sidewalk in front of the door.
"Son of a—" Biting back the rest of her frustration, she righted the cup, stepped over the tea puddle, and entered the office of B. Marshal, Attorney at Law, and D. Hawkins, Private Investigator.
She scurried past Cathy Miller, who sat behind the reception desk, and down the hall to a small break room that doubled as a storage area. She slid her backpack onto a chair and deposited the white bag and the two colas on the Formica-topped chrome table, then stepped into the bathroom. As she tried to remove the brown stain from her pants, Cathy appeared in the doorway.
"Having some trouble?" the petite paralegal asked, her arms crossed.
"No," Danni shot back with as much sarcasm as she could inject into one word. She glanced at the spot and found it had only spread across the material. "Damn!" With more force than necessary, she flung the damp cloth into the chipped porcelain sink. "Is the one o'clock still on?"
"As far as I know. He hasn't called to cancel." Cathy's expression softened. "Are you sure you're up to this? You should've taken the whole week off."
"I'm fine." Danni regretted her sharp tone the moment she spoke. "I'm sorry. I have a lot on my mind." Afraid to meet Cathy's eyes, Danni slipped past her to return to the break room. "Hungry?" she asked with forced brightness. "I brought sesame chicken and General Tso's from Lucky Ling's."
"Does a pig like mud?"
Danni laughed, a rusty but welcome sound after the somberness of the past few days. "I brought enough for Beth, too."
"She had an appointment at twelve-thirty—the kid your father referred to her." Since Cathy worked for Beth and Danni, she knew both their schedules.
"The juvie who tried to fence a laptop?"
Cathy nodded. "He has two priors. Nothing serious, but the kid's almost eighteen, and the DA wants to try him as an adult."
Having been a cop for two years, Danni could easily imagine the type. Danni's father had spent much of his off-duty time combating the gangs' influences by working with streetwise teenage boys. His colleagues had respected him for his dedication and sacrifice.
It was too bad his daughter had fallen into the "sacrifice" category.
Danni and Cathy emptied the white take-out boxes onto two mismatched plates and nuked the first one in the microwave, which was perched on a stack of Xerox boxes.
Cathy stashed one of the colas in the fridge, then popped open the other over the sink. She held it away from her as it exploded and overflowed into the drain. "Did you shake this or what?"
"Not on purpose. Sorry," Danni answered absently as she watched the plate go round and round in the microwave.
A touch on her shoulder startled her back to the present.
"Why don't you take more time off?" Cathy asked gently. "After all, he was your
Danni's throat tightened, and she shook her head. As long as she stayed busy, she could pretend her father was still alive and that she might someday make him proud of her. "I have work to do. I'm already too far behind as it is."
Heavy silence compressed the room. Danni wished she could simply ignore the fact that her father had been buried yesterday with full police honors. Ignore the fact that he'd committed suicide. Ignore the fact that they'd been taking the first tentative steps toward rebuilding their father-daughter relationship.
Danni's stomach twisted, and suddenly the food didn't look nearly as appetizing as it had when she'd picked it up on her way to the office. "Maybe you were right," she murmured. "There's a lot to do."
"Have you gone to the house yet?" Cathy asked.
"The funeral director needed a suit to bury him in. Being a cop was his life, so I figured I'd just have him buried in his service uniform." Her eyes felt hot and scratchy, but there were no tears. There hadn't been, not when the bugler had played taps, and not when she'd walked away from the cemetery with a folded flag in her arms and her father's bronze casket sitting above the ground like some lonely sentry.
Cathy put her arm around Danni's shoulders and gave her a half hug. "Go home. I'll call your one o'clock and reschedule."
Danni was tempted, but she'd already been out of the office for four days. "I can't. I have to start tagging Warner this afternoon."
"Do it tomorrow."
"The sooner I can prove he's screwing around, the sooner we get paid."
Danni had opened her private investigator's business almost two years ago. Even though she split overhead costs with Beth, it was only in the past few months that Danni could afford to eat somewhere that didn't have plastic sporks or offer ketchup in pump dispensers.
The second plate of food finished reheating, and the two women sat down to eat. But the quiet gave Danni too much time to think. "How's Ashley doing?"
Cathy shrugged. "Fine, for an alien."
Danni tipped her head to the side in a mute question.
"Once she hit puberty, it's like she was taken over by a hostile alien," Cathy explained.
"You've been watching too many
reruns." Danni waved her fork and sent a lone grain of fried rice skittering across the tabletop. "You need to get out more."
"Look who's talking." Cathy grinned conspiratorially. "Hey, why don't we go clubbing this weekend? Ashley will be at her father's." Her smile faded. "That is, if you're up to it."
"Sure, why not?" But Danni couldn't meet Cathy's eyes. "I mean it's not like it's that much different now. I actually didn't see Dad that much before he—" Much to her embarrassment, her voice broke, and she cleared her throat. "Before he died."
"He was still your father."
An ember of anger sparked Danni's tongue. "Sometimes I wondered if
knew that. He was never around when—" Her rage vanished as swiftly as it had appeared. "It's not fair."
Cathy gave her forearm a gentle squeeze but wisely didn't offer any empty platitudes.
The phone rang, and Cathy hurried out to answer it. Danni tried to listen to the one-sided conversation but only heard snatches. She forced another forkful of General Tso's into her mouth, but even the spicy chicken—her favorite—didn't bring much enthusiasm to her taste buds.
Cathy's heels on the tiled floor alerted Danni to her return.
"Damn reporters," she muttered as she plopped down without her usual panache. "Bob Carlyle from KMCX wanted to interview you for the evening news." Her eyes flashed. "I told him where to go."
Cathy's protective zeal brought Danni a small measure of comfort. Cathy might be petite, but she was as fierce as a mama bear when it came to protecting her family and friends.
"Let me guess. He wanted to unravel the mystery of why a man with a distinguished record who came from a long line of cops would commit suicide," Danni guessed bitterly. "I've been getting calls from reporters at home. I'm actually surprised it took them this long to call here."
Shoving aside her melancholy thoughts, she glanced at her watch. She had five minutes before her appointment arrived. Cathy helped her clean the break room in record time and placed the leftovers in the antiquated refrigerator.
"Don't you have a change of clothes here?" Cathy asked, eyeing the prominent tea stain on Danni's trousers.
"I forgot to bring in another set after the SUV repo."
"Ahh," Cathy said knowingly. "He was the one who thought you were a carjacker."
Danni scowled. "Yeah, like he didn't hear me explain the three missed payments or how the bank sent me to repossess it." The bastard had played dirty, but Danni had some tricks up her sleeve, too. He had ended up in the hospital with a broken collarbone.