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Authors: Maggie Shayne

Darker Than Midnight (9 page)

BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
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“Hey, Parker, you want some more coffee? Honey?”

“Yeah, how about it, sweetie pie?”

Parker's face reddened, and he turned to stomp off to his desk as if he had something pressing awaiting him there.

Rolling her eyes, Frankie led Jax into her office and closed the door. There was a smaller desk set up in the corner with a blotter, a cup full of pencils and pens, and a Blackberry Police Department coffee mug with a blue ribbon fastened to the handle.

“Aw, heck. Is that for me?”

“Sure is,” Frankie said. “That's your desk. At least, until you move on over to this one.” She patted her own desk. “And to answer your earlier question, when we needed to make arrests, we'd call the county boys in. We'd get the paperwork, they'd get to hold the prisoners. It sounds complicated, but we had got it running like clockwork. Still, having a holding cell of our own is nice. And Kurt was right about one thing—we very rarely have to make any arrests.”

There was a tap on the door, then it opened and Rosie poked her head through. “Got a call, Chief.”

Frankie lifted her brows and waited, and Jax felt herself tense, just as she always did on the job when a call came her way.

“Purdy says someone just snatched some fruit from his produce section, and took off without paying.”

Jax blinked. Frankie nodded. “And what did this dangerous felon make off with?”

“An orange and a bunch of grapes, near as he could figure.”

Frankie nodded and smiled at Jax. “Welcome to high crime in Blackberry,” she said, her eyes twinkling. Then, to Rosie, “Description?”

“Male. Couldn't see his face. He was wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt with some kind of bright orange logo on the front.”

Jax felt her own smile freeze in place and slowly die. Damn, she hoped the stranger went back by her place, so he would find the offerings she'd left and not feel compelled to steal. Apparently, he wasn't very good at it. An orange and some grapes? Freaking pathetic.

“Suggestions, Lieutenant Jackson?” Frankie asked.

“Maybe the store's security camera got him on tape?” she said.

“Nope. No security cams around here, except at the bank and post office.” She nodded to Rosie. “Why don't you send Kurt over to take a report? He needs something to get his mind off his hurt feelings.”

“Sure thing, Chief.” Rosie backed out of the office.

Frankie sighed. “May as well get comfortable,” she told Jax. “We'll take a look at the notices from the state police, and the county, and then we'll head on over to the coffee shop.”

“But there's coffee here,” Jax said.

“Ah, but we don't go for coffee. We go for gossip. Best way
to keep your finger on the pulse of this town. The good old grapevine—Blackberry's lifeblood flows through it.”

“I can see I've got to get used to a whole new way of working, huh?”

“You'll pick it up in no time, Jax.” The telephone on her desk rang, and Frankie reached for it. Her smile faded about three seconds into the phone call. Her face seemed to pale, as she scribbled notes. When she hung up she was already on her feet.

“What have we got?” Jax asked, getting to her feet, as well.

“Trouble. Come with me.” She went out of her office. “Rosie, there will be a fax coming through any minute. I'm gonna want a dozen copies, pronto.”

“On it,” Rosie said, and even as she spoke, the fax machine beside her desk was ringing and churning to life.

Matthews and Campanelli came over from their desks. Kurt Parker had apparently already gone to check out the great produce heist.

“Michael Corbett escaped from the state hospital last night,” Frankie said. “Killed an orderly in the process.”

“Holy shit,” Matthews muttered. “They think he'll head here?”

“He'd be stupid to come here,” Frankie said. “But we need to be ready, just in case.”

“Wait, someone needs to bring me up to speed,” Jax said. “Who is this Corbett? Is he dangerous?”

With a heavy sigh, Frankie turned to her. “Hell, I didn't want to dump all this on you your first night in town and maybe scare you off. But…well, I already told you the house—your house—has a history.”

“You said a whole wing was destroyed in a fire, and a woman was killed.” A little shiver ran up her spine, but Jax shook it off. She was a cop. Those kinds of shivers had no place in her life. And yet she kept thinking about the odd white shape she'd glimpsed outside, and Kurt Parker's words about
the place spooking people. And the cold spot on one side of the house that never seemed to get warm.

“The house belonged to the Corbetts, and the fire was arson,” Frankie said. “Corbett was found on the lawn with a gas can at his feet. His wife died in the fire—was pregnant at the time, too. Corbett claimed he couldn't remember a thing, and he had some history of blackouts to back it up and a top-notch shrink on his side. The D.A. accepted an insanity plea and shipped him off to the state hospital, where everyone expected him to spend the rest of his life.”

Jax lifted her brows. “I thought you said nothing bad ever happened here?”

“I may have exaggerated just a tad. Hell, I've only given you the digest version. Rosie, dig out those old files so Jax can get caught up. Got that fax yet?”

“Got it.” Rosie handed the faxed sheet to Frankie, who looked at it and shook her head sadly. “That's our man. Shame, crying shame. He was a cop once. A damn good one, as I understand it.” She passed the sheet to Jax. “We'll get some posters up around town, keep a keen eye out for him.”

Jax barely heard her. Instead, she stared down at the face of the man who had spent the night in her house. The man who had saved her life at the risk of his own, who had wept in her arms and then slipped away before she woke. The man who, even now, might be finding the food and clothing she had provided for him.

Clothing—that belonged to her father, who was an ex-con and couldn't afford to be tied to an escaped killer. God, what the hell had she done?

Her first day on the job, and already she was guilty of aiding and abetting an escaped criminal. That wasn't going to earn her any points. She wouldn't be surprised if Frankie withdrew the job offer when she found out. Jax knew that in her place, that's what she would do.

She couldn't believe she'd done it. She'd helped a murderer—one who'd got off on an insanity plea—much like the man accused of murdering her own sister had nearly done twelve years ago.

And maybe that was why. Not that she believed in fate, or karma or any of that hokey new age garbage. But damn, at the very least, the universe had one sick sense of humor.

* * *

He wasn't doing well.

His feet scuffed through the dusting of snow along the winding road's shoulder. He knew he was leaving a distinct trail, but doubted anyone was following it. The cold seemed to knife straight through to his bones. He
ached
with it.

He'd expected to feel better by now. To be starting to feel strong again after a good night's sleep, in a warm, dry place. But he wasn't feeling strong. He was shaky. His head felt heavy and cotton filled, and he was having trouble convincing his feet to pick up off the pavement. His chest hurt, too, ached and burned. And every now and then a full body shiver racked him from head to toe.

Taking the grapes from his pocket, he ate them as he walked. When there was nothing left but the spiny stem, he tossed it, and took out the orange. But he couldn't manage to get a start on peeling it. His fingers were thick and stiff. No dexterity, very little hand-eye coordination.

He closed his eyes, giving up on the orange and dropping it into the pocket of his borrowed hoodie. Then he looked up to gauge how far he'd come, and found himself standing in front of his house—or her house. The place where he'd spent the night.

River lowered his head, shaking it slowly even as the specter of that fireplace rose up to tempt him to come inside. “No,” he muttered. “I'm not dragging some stranger into my messed-up life.”

He took another step, intending to walk right by the place. But then he saw the ice chest on the porch and hesitated. What the hell?

He moved closer, wondering if the woman could have deliberately left it outside for him to discover, but he found that hard to believe. More likely it was bait of some kind. Surely, by now they'd figured out the dead man in his hospital room wasn't him. Surely, they would have alerted the authorities in this small town, and the word was out. Maybe by now she'd heard about him, and gone to Chief Parker to tell her about the stranger who'd spent the night under her roof. The cooler, left on her porch, could easily be meant to lure him in. They might be waiting, even now. He had no desire to deal with
those
officers again. They were less than gentle, those hometown boys in the Blackberry PD. At least, the one he'd dealt with back then.

His stomach growled and churned. He needed food. His body was at war with his brain. Hell, if he didn't get physically up and running again, this entire mission was no more than one big waste of time.

He crouched in the trees across the street, watched the place for a while. Eventually an electric company truck rolled up. Men went around to the back, messed with the box mounted to the side of the house. They left again. Her power had been turned on.

He waited longer, kept watching the place. No movement. No sign of anyone nearby. Swallowing hard, he came out of his cover, and started moving across the street. He was slow, clumsy and wary. He told himself to turn and run at the first sign of a trap, but doubted he'd be able to outrun anyone. And then he heard a low, deep growl, and froze in his tracks.

The woman had a dog? He didn't remember a dog from last night.

The growling grew louder, and he saw the animal's large
head emerge from underneath the broken boards in the porch. It barked at him once, twice, three times. River went stiff, looking around for people to come running, cops with guns drawn, at the dog's summons, but none came. Maybe it wasn't a trap, after all.

The dog came the rest of the way out; the barking ceased. It looked at him, growling deep, stepping forward, hesitant, wary.

River frowned, eyeing the skinny animal, the way his stomach seemed concave, and the familiar markings on his face. “Rex?” he whispered. Then louder. “Rex, boy? Is it you?”

The dog went still, head tipping to one side. It whined once.

“Rex, it's me. God, boy, you look as bad I must. Come here. Come here, Rex.”

Tail wagging slightly, the dog came closer, wary and pausing between steps. River knelt down, right there in the road, and held out a hand. The German shepherd moved nearer, sniffing at him. Then, suddenly, the dog burst into a loud chorus of barks and jumped on him, paws to his chest knocking him flat on his back, tongue licking his face and neck.

River smiled. It hurt, pulling at facial muscles that hadn't been used in months. Burying his hands in Rex's fur, he hugged the dog, and wondered why he was feeling so damn emotional. It was an animal.

But he knew. Rex was a piece of his old life. The life he'd had before everything had been taken from him. The life he'd thought had been entirely obliterated. Rex remained. And if he did, then there was hope.

River pushed the dog off him, and then used his old friend to help pull himself to his feet. Keeping one hand on the animal, he moved across the road and into the driveway, trying to walk in the nicely plowed spots, where he wouldn't leave obvious footprints. He went up onto the porch, then turned, realizing Rex was no longer beside him. The dog sat at the bottom of the steps. Too wary, perhaps, to come closer.

“It's okay, pal. I'm pretty sure there's no one around. Come on.” He slapped his hand against his thigh. Rex came up the steps and onto the porch, where he proceeded to explore and sniff the length and breadth, with special attention to the corners and the empty dog food dish that still held a few telltale crumbs.

She'd fed his dog.

River moved to the cooler, lifting the lid up and peering inside. “And now she's feeding me,” he muttered.

Tupperware dishes lined the thing. He found one full of homemade rolls, and couldn't stop himself from taking one. He bit into it, then felt Rex's eyes on him, and saw the dog watching intently as he chewed.

“Okay, one for you, too, boy,” he said, tossing the dog a roll.

Rex caught it and ate it eagerly, tail wagging, while River examined the other containers. One held a stew, thick with gravy, vegetables and meat. Impossible to eat that, really, without utensils. The next dish he opened held cold fried chicken.

“God, Rex, I think I've died and gone to heaven.” He took out two pieces of the chicken and, forgetting his caution, sat right there on the porch to eat them. But before he got more than a bite off the second drumstick, his stomach was protesting. It had been too long. He just couldn't hold food the way he would have liked to. Couldn't do this meal justice.

BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
7.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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