The Shelter of His Arms (Harlequin Heartwarming) (2 page)

BOOK: The Shelter of His Arms (Harlequin Heartwarming)
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After taking a second to psyche himself up, he focused on Celeste Langley. “Steve Parker is your brother?”

“Yes...my half brother, actually.” She paused for a beat, then said, “What’s happened to him?”

“I’m afraid he was murdered last night. I’m sorry.”

Her eyes filled with tears, and even though she managed to blink them back she suddenly seemed so fragile that Travis’s heart went out to her.

That wasn’t good, he told himself. He made a point of staying as detached as he could from cases. It went a long way toward helping him maintain his sanity. But, sometimes, keeping his emotions completely in check was tough.

“I’m sorry,” he said again.

When Celeste nodded, he could tell she was trying hard not to let her tears escape.

After giving herself a few seconds, she focused on him again and said, “How did it happen?”

“He was shot. In his apartment. If it makes things easier, he died instantly.”

“I...thank you for telling me that. And...who did it? Do you have any idea?”

“Not yet. We were hoping you’d be able to help us with that. Thought you might know if he had any enemies, or if there’s been recent trouble in his life.”

She slowly shook her head. “If Steve was having problems he didn’t mention them to me. We didn’t have the sort of relationship that...we weren’t very close.”

“He’d listed you as his next of kin,” Hank Ballantyne said.

“Well, yes, I’m...I
was
the closest relative he had in the city. But...” Celeste paused. Even at the best of times, it was hard to explain that she barely knew her own brother.

“Steve’s father was my mother’s first husband,” she continued. “After they’d divorced and she married my father, before I was even born, Steve went to live with his father. So he wasn’t around much while I was growing up. And since he was fifteen years older than me...”

“I understand,” Travis Quinn said, sounding so much as if he truly did that she tried to smile at him.

It didn’t feel like much of a smile, but it was the best she could manage.

Then Hank Ballantyne was saying, “Ms. Langley, it’s possible your brother had a female visitor shortly before he was killed. So just for the sake of elimination, I have to ask if you were in his apartment last night.”

“No. I haven’t been in his apartment since...not since our mother’s birthday, back in March. And I wasn’t anywhere last night. I mean, I was right here. Working.”

“On a Saturday night?”

“Yes. I’m a freelance editor, and I have a deadline looming.”

The detective nodded. “Okay, then getting back to your brother, when was the last time you saw him?”

“A few weeks ago. Our mother died in July, and after her service we decided we wanted to work on building more of a relationship. Neither of us had other siblings, so... Well, we had dinner together around the start of September and were going to make it a monthly date, but now...I...would you excuse me for a minute?”

She pushed herself up and headed to the bathroom, her tears making good their escape before she reached it.

Normally, she wasn’t a crier. Her father had come from stiff-upper-lip English stock, and she’d learned early to conceal her emotions—especially from strangers. But first her mother’s death, and now learning that Steve’s life had been cut short, too...

They might not have been close, but that didn’t mean she’d had no feelings for him. And the thought of someone murdering him had her completely torn up inside.

Leaning against the closed door, she stood with her eyes shut until she’d more or less regained her composure. Once she had, she splashed cold water on her face, wondering whether those detectives figured she was a basket case—then trying not to think she really might be.

Telling herself she was simply into emotional overload, she checked her image in the mirror and combed her fingers through her hair.

She looked as awful as she felt, as if she needed a month’s sleep. But before she could try to get even one night’s she was going to have to finish talking to those detectives.

Squaring her shoulders, she opened the bathroom door and walked back to the living room.

“I’m sorry,” she said, pausing in the doorway. “My self-control is usually better.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Travis Quinn said. “It’s awful news to get hit with. And we won’t bother you anymore while you’re so upset. But if you’d just tell us one more thing?”

She nodded.

“With your mother and brother dying so close in time... Detective Ballantyne and I were wondering if there could be any connection between their deaths. So if you’d just explain how your mother died?”

That was hard to talk about, but she managed to say, “She was struck by a car. On Madison. The driver’d run a light and kept on going after he hit her. As far as I know, they haven’t caught him.”

Both detectives mumbled sympathetic responses, then rose.

“We’ll want to talk to you again,” Travis Quinn said. “Can we reach you here during the day?”

“Usually. Now and then, there’s some reason for me to be at a publisher’s. But I normally work here.”

He nodded, then took a card from his pocket and handed it to her. “My cell phone’s always on. If you think of anything that might help us with your brother’s case, anything at all...”

“Yes,” she whispered. “Of course.”

* * *

“J
UST
WHAT
WE
FIGURED
,” Travis said after he and Hank had left Celeste Langley’s apartment and were heading down the stairs. “There’s not a chance in the world she’d ever murder anyone.”

“Oh?” His partner shot him a questioning look. “You’re sure about that?”

“You’re not?”

“How tall would you say she is?”

“Five-five? Five-six?”

“Right. Average height. Wearing heels, she’d be maybe five-eight. And don’t forget that Parker let his killer in. It was someone he trusted, someone he’d never have expected to shoot him.”

“It wasn’t her,” Travis said firmly.

Hank shrugged. “I’d have liked a chance to check her closet for a gray trench coat. And a big black purse.”

“A gray trench coat and a big black purse. Oh, yeah, I bet there aren’t more than two or three women in the entire city who’d have both those items.”

“Your sarcasm could use work,” Hank told him. “Besides, our wit said it might have been a briefcase. And an editor would have a briefcase. Right?”

Travis ignored the question, but he was wishing he’d asked Celeste if anyone could corroborate her statement about being at home last night.

It hadn’t been the time or place for that, though. The department didn’t run sensitivity courses so their detectives would inform a woman that her brother had been murdered in one breath and make her feel like a suspect in the next.

Still, he’d sure like to know if she had anyone to back up her alibi.

He waited until they were getting into the car before he said, “You don’t
really
think she could have done it.”

Hank pulled his door shut, then looked across the front seat. “Well, she’s blond, thirty years old, and I’d say the word
stylish
fits her. Then we’ve got the mother dying so recently—in an
accident.
If it turns out that Ms. Langley had anything to gain from those two deaths...”

“Hank, you’re—”

“You know what else I think?”

“What?”

“That you liked her.”

“I didn’t
like
her!”

“No?” Hank did a poor job of concealing a grin. “Travis, how many people have we interviewed together?”

“I don’t keep count.”

“But it’s got to be thousands, right?”

“Yeah, I guess. And your point is?”

“That I’ve never seen you react to any of them the way you reacted to her.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?
How
did I react?”

“As if you liked her,” Hank said, no longer even trying to hide his grin.

“I felt sorry for her,” Travis muttered, starting the engine. “That was all.”

“Sure. If you say so.”

Pulling away from the curb, he told himself to just let the subject drop.

Celeste Langley was an attractive woman, no doubt about it. But recognizing that was worlds away from being interested in her.

He wasn’t in the market for a woman. And even if he was, he’d
never
get involved with a suspect—whether she was an improbable one or not.

CHAPTER TWO

Monday, October 4, 8:36 a.m.

F
OR
THE
TENTH
TIME
in the past half hour, Celeste picked up the card Travis Quinn had given her and checked the number of his cell phone.

Not that she needed to. By this point, she’d looked at it often enough that she had it memorized. Yet she wasn’t sure she should call him this early. Or even at all.

Normally, she wasn’t indecisive. But she’d had another sleepless night—lying awake unable to stop thinking about Steve and her mother. And it had left her so wrung out that she just couldn’t stop vacillating.

Part of her brain was telling her not to impose on the man. Besides which, she hated the sense that there was no one she could turn to except a virtual stranger. On the other hand, none of her friends would have the answers to her questions.

Bryce would. Or if he didn’t, he could get them.

She forced away those thoughts. Her estranged husband was the last person on earth she’d ask for help. Which really left only one option.

Telling herself she’d make the call brief, she reached for the cordless and pressed in Travis Quinn’s number.

“Quinn,” he answered on the second ring.

After taking a deep breath, she said, “Detective Quinn, it’s Celeste Langley. I hope this isn’t too early to bother you, but—”

“You’re not bothering me and it isn’t too early. What can I do for you?”

There was concern in his deep voice. It made her feel a little less anxious.

“Well, I didn’t think of it while you were here last night, but...I should be doing something about Steve’s death and I’m not sure what.” Oh, man, she was sounding like an imbecile.

“There are the funeral arrangements to look after,” she continued. “And I’ll call the other relatives. But what about his friends?

“I met the ones who came to the service for our mother, and if I had his address book, I’m sure I’d recognize at least some of their names.”

“You don’t have to worry about contacting them. Detective Ballantyne and I will look after it. We have to talk to his friends, anyway—see what they know that might help. But can you recall even one of the names?”

“Yes. Gary Cooper. It stuck in my mind because of the movie star.”

“Good. We’ll start with him and he can tell us who else we should talk to. We’ll inform your brother’s regular patients, as well.”

“And he was seeing a woman. You’ll be sure to contact her?”

There was a momentary pause before Travis Quinn said, “What’s her name?”

“Jill Flores. She was at my mother’s service, too. I should have mentioned her last night when you said you thought Steve had had a female visitor. But my mind just wasn’t working right.”

“No, of course not. You were in shock.”

“I...yes, I guess. But...even if you call the others, don’t you think I should talk to Jill?”

“No, you shouldn’t do anything. Really. Leave it all to us.”

She heard the quiet sound of pages being turned, then Travis Quinn, said, “Yes, she’s in his book. We’ll get to her today. As for the funeral, you could make some tentative arrangements if you feel up to it. But until the autopsy’s been done...”

The autopsy. Her stomach felt queasy. “When will that be?” she made herself ask.

“I’m afraid I don’t know. Not for at least a few days, maybe even a week or so. Things are always backed up.”

She closed her eyes, but that didn’t stop her from imagining Steve’s body lying inside a drawer in a cold, impersonal morgue.

“Ms. Langley?” Travis Quinn said when the silence lengthened. “Was there anything else you wanted to ask about?”

If there had been, the questions had entirely escaped from her head, so she said, “No, that was all.”

“Well, as I mentioned last night, we’ll be talking to you again. But if there’s anything else in the meantime, don’t hesitate.”

“Thank you,” she murmured. “Bye.”

“Bye.”

As she clicked off, Snoops turned from watching the sparrows outside and fixed her with a green-eyed stare.

“He seems very nice,” she told him.

* * *

T
HE
ICE
MAN
started the file printing, then let his thoughts drift back to last night’s conversation.

“Hello. I got your number from Giovanni,” the caller had said. “I was looking for...an exterminator. He told me you’re one of the best.”

“I’m
the
best.” He smiled, liking that he’d had the chance to use that line again. It was a good one.

“Ah, I see,” his caller had continued. “And he said you aren’t
too
expensive.”

“Depends on how tough the job is.”

“It shouldn’t be hard.”

“Well, you tell me who and I’ll check things out. Call me again. Let’s say tomorrow night. If you like my price we’ll get together.”

“Good. But there’s one other thing. You couldn’t do it just any time at all. I’d have to let you know when.”

“You talking
exactly
when?”

“No, there’d be a couple of days’ time frame. I just don’t know
which
days yet.”

“Okay, not a problem.”

“Fine. Then you want to check out a woman named Celeste Langley. She lives on West Seventy-fourth.”

Celeste Langley.
The Ice Man silently repeated the name he’d already grown familiar with, then glanced at the computer screen—thinking that modern technology was making his job easier all the time.

Used to be, he’d sometimes spend days just learning what he needed to know about a target. Now he could find out a lot of it on the internet.

Of course, that meant getting into the right databases. Ones with detailed information about people. And most of them were supposedly restricted. But if you knew what you were doing, privacy was a thing of the past.

He reached for the page his printer was spitting out and skimmed the facts again.

Celeste Langley. Thirty. Born and raised right here in Manhattan. Both parents dead. Separated from her husband. No car. Lived alone and worked out of her apartment.

That was going to bump his price up some.

A job was easier when the target had a regular pattern. Went out to work same time each morning and came home same time each night. Then you could just pick a place along the route.

Someone who worked at home, though... That might mean having to waste her in her apartment, and he didn’t much like inside jobs.

Oh, he did them now and then, but more could go wrong. So maybe he should have a look at her place before he decided on his price.

He glanced at the address again. West Seventy-fourth.

It would be one of those old brownstones. Three stories. Not many apartments in the building. No doorman.

After thinking things over, he decided it shouldn’t present much of a problem. So he wouldn’t bother checking it out just yet. He didn’t like to put too much work into something until he had the money in his pocket.

* * *

I
T
WAS
A
FEW
MINUTES
past four-thirty when Travis and Hank arrived at the NYPD crime labs for their meeting with Saban Mustac—head of the crime-scene team assigned to Dr. Steve Parker’s place.

The techs had finished up early this morning, then he and Hank had done their own search through the apartment.

After that, they’d interviewed some of Parker’s neighbors. They’d also seen Gary Cooper and gotten a list of Parker’s other friends.

Overall, they had a lot to go on now, which had Travis feeling far better about the case.

Most victims know their killers. That was rule number one in Homicide. And since Parker had let his murderer in, the rule undoubtedly applied. So after they finished with Saban, they’d get back to interviewing people. Starting with Jill Flores.

By this point, their team had established that none of the other residents in Parker’s building had had a blond female visitor on Saturday evening. Which left little doubt that their mystery woman had been there to see him. And if Flores fit the description...

Travis glanced at Hank as they stepped onto an elevator, thinking back to Celeste Langley’s call. When he’d told Hank about it, the first thing he’d asked was what Jill Flores looked like. And Travis had been really embarrassed at having to admit he didn’t know.

He should never have forgotten to ask something so basic. And he found the reason he had very unsettling. Because the reason was Celeste Langley.

The instant he’d heard her voice his brain had gone fuzzy around the edges—something he couldn’t recall ever happening with
any
other woman, let alone one on a suspect list.

The elevator reached six and stopped. As they started down the hall, he began wondering, yet again, whether Hank
seriously
figured Celeste could be their killer.

Tempted as he was to ask, he didn’t. One round of Hank’s “You like her” routine had been enough.

He hated it when his partner picked up on something faster than he did, which was exactly what had happened in this situation. He’d realized that even before Celeste had called.

After all, if he’d actually merely felt sorry for her last night, he’d hardly have woken up with her on his mind this morning.

When they reached Saban’s cubbyhole of an office, the man was on the phone. He waved them in and cut his call short, then flipped open a folder, muttering, “Let’s see, what have I got for you so far?”

Once he’d glanced at the notes, he focused on them.

“Okay, we lasered the vic for prints and fibers but came up empty. The door handles were nothing but smudges. There were a couple of prints other than Parker’s in the kitchen, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. My read is that the shooter came in, did his thing and left. Didn’t stay a second longer than he had to.

“We bagged a fair amount of trace evidence from the apartment—including a few hairs that obviously weren’t the vic’s. Plus, there’s everything we vacuumed up. I’ve sent it all for analysis, so now it’s a question of waiting to see what the lab boys make of it.”

“What color are those hairs?” Hank asked.

“Blond.”

“How long?”

Saban glanced at his notes again. “Four to five inches.”

“Longer than your average male’s,” Hank said.

“Uh-huh. And the angles said the perp wasn’t real tall. So maybe the he was a she. You’ve got a female suspect?”

“Two possibles.”

Two. Then Hank
did
seriously think Celeste might have done it.

Travis checked his watch, telling himself that could well change when they talked to Jill Flores. Hey, maybe they’d
really
luck out. Maybe, when they told her why they’d come to see her, she’d admit she was their killer.

Of course, that was way too much to realistically hope for. But he and Hank were so overdue for a gimme of a case that you never knew.

* * *

C
ELESTE
SPOONED
OUT
Snoops’s dinner, then stood gazing into the open fridge, trying to decide what she’d make for herself.

She really had no appetite, but—

Her phone began to ring, delaying the need for a decision. When she picked up, Bryce’s voice greeted her.

She swallowed hard. She had no appetite for talking to him, either.

“Celeste, Nancy called to tell me about Steve. And I just wanted you to know how sorry I am.”

“Thanks,” she murmured, guiltily thinking she should have called him herself. But when Aunt Nancy had offered to do it, she’d gratefully accepted.

She didn’t like phoning Bryce at his office, because since they’d separated, his assistant always managed to make her feel as if she’d picked the worst possible moment.

And she liked calling him at home even less. The few times she’d had to—for one reason or another—his live-in girlfriend had answered.

“You’ve been having a bad time of it lately,” he said.

“It hasn’t been the greatest, but I’m coping.”

“Good. You know...I hadn’t talked to Steve since your mother’s service. And, of course, we were never close. But...something really strange happened on Saturday evening.”

When Bryce paused, she gave him the “Oh?” he was waiting for.

“Donna’s in a play, so she was at the theater,” he continued. “And I was home alone, catching up on some work. And...I got this feeling I just couldn’t shake. One of those vague feelings that something’s wrong, you know?”

“Uh-huh.” Bryce was prone to vague feelings about all sorts of things.

“And something certainly
was
wrong.”

She realized he expected a comment about his being psychic, but she simply wasn’t in the mood to humor him any further.

“So,” he continued when she said nothing, “you’ll let me know when the service will be?”

“Bryce, you don’t have to come.”

“I feel I should. Unless it would upset you to see me.”

“No, it wouldn’t upset me, but—”

“Good. Then let me know. And if there’s anything I can do in the meantime...”

“Thanks, but I don’t think there will be. I made most of the arrangements today, so it’s just a question of how soon the...”

“Autopsy?” he said.

“Yes,” she murmured, certain she’d never hear that word again without thinking of Steve.

* * *

A
S
THEY
NEARED
Jill Flores’s door, Travis suggested that Hank do the talking.

It was easier to concentrate on reactions and body language when you didn’t have to think about the questions you were asking. And if Flores turned out to be blond, he didn’t want to miss a thing.

Hank knocked. A few seconds later, a woman inside the apartment said, “Yes?”

“Ms. Flores? Police detectives.” Hank held his ID up to the peephole.

The door opened—and Travis wondered if they would be lucky this time around.

She was closer to forty than thirty. But their witness had only seen the back of the woman in the hall. And Flores was “stylish,” with short blond hair that was a shade or two darker than Celeste’s.

BOOK: The Shelter of His Arms (Harlequin Heartwarming)
4.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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