Police Lieutenant Phoebe MacNamara found her calling at an early age when an unstable man broke into her family's home, trapping and terrorizing them for hours. Now she's Savannah 's top hostage negotiator, defusing powderkeg situations with a talent for knowing when to give in-and when to jump in and take action. It's satisfying work-and sometimes those skills come in handy at home dealing with her agoraphobic mother, still traumatized by the break-in after all these years, and her precocious seven-year-old, Carly.

It's exactly that heady combination of steely courage and sensitivity that first attracts Duncan Swift to Phoebe. After observing her coax one of his employees down from a roof ledge, he is committed to keeping this intriguing, take-charge woman in his life. She's used to working solo, but Phoebe's discovering that no amount of negotiation can keep Duncan at arm's length.

And when she's grabbed by a man who throws a hood over her head and brutally assaults her-in her own precinct house-Phoebe can't help but be deeply shaken. Then threatening messages show up on her doorstep, and she's not just alarmed but frustrated. How do you go face-to-face with an opponent who refuses to look you in the eye?

Now, with Duncan backing her up every step of the way, she must establish contact with the faceless tormentor who is determined to make her a hostage to fear… before she becomes the final showdown.

Nora Roberts

High Noon

Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin'.


Chapter 1

Jumping to your death was a crappy way to spend St. Patrick's Day. Being called in on your day off to talk someone out of jumping to his death on St. Patrick's Day wasn't exactly green beer and bagpipes. Phoebe weaved and dodged her way through the crowds of Savannahians and tourists thronging streets and sidewalks in celebration.

Captain David McVee thought ahead, she noted. Even with a badge, it would've taken precious time and miserable effort to get through the barricades and mobs of people in her car. But a couple blocks east of Jones, the revelry thinned, and the booming music was only a throb and echo.

The uniformed officer waited as ordered. His gaze skimmed over her face, down to the badge she'd hooked on the pocket of her khakis. Cropped pants, sandals, shamrock-green T-shirt under a linen jacket, Phoebe thought. Not the professional look she worked to foster on the job.

But what could you do? She was supposed to be standing on the terrace of MacNamara House, with her family, drinking lemonade and watching the parade.

"Lieutenant MacNamara?"

"That's right. Let's move." She slid in, flipping out her phone with one hand, dragging the seat belt on with the other. "Captain, I'm en route. Fill me in."

The siren screamed as the driver punched the gas. Phoebe yanked out her notebook, taking cursory notes.

Joseph (Joe) Ryder, suicidal. Jumper with gun. Twenty-seven, white, married! separated. Bartender fired. No known religious affiliation. No family on scene. WHY? Wife left, fired from job (sports bar), gambling debts.

No criminal, no previous suicide attempt on record. Subject alternately weepy/belligerent. No shots fired.

"Okay." Phoebe let out a breath. She'd get to know Joe much better very soon. "Who's talking to him?"

"He's got his cell phone on him. The first on scene wasn't able to engage. Guy just kept clicking off. We've got his employer here-former employer, who's also his landlord. The subject's been talking to him off and on, but there's no progress."


"I'd barely gotten here when I pulled you in. I didn't want to throw too many people at him."

"All right. My ETA's five minutes." She glanced at the driver, got a nod of affirmation. "Keep him alive for me."

Inside Joe Ryder's fourth-floor apartment, sweat rolled down Duncan Swift's back. A guy he knew, a guy he'd had beers with, joked with, had pissed with, for God's sake, in adjoining urinals, was sitting on the ledge of the roof overhead with a gun in his hand.

Because I fired him, Duncan thought. Because I gave him thirty days to get out of the apartment. Because I didn't pay attention. Now, it was a very strong possibility that Joe was going to put a bullet in his own ear or take a header off the roof. Maybe both.

Not exactly the kind of entertainment the crowds expected on St. Patrick's Day. Not that it was keeping them away. The cops had barri caded the block, but from the window Duncan could see people pressed against the barriers, faces turned up.

He wondered if Joe was wearing green.

"Come on, Joe, we'll work it out." How many times, Duncan asked himself, would he have to repeat that same phrase the cop kept circling in his notebook. "Just put the gun down and come inside."

"You fucking fired me!"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm sorry, Joe, I was pissed off." You stole from me, you stupid dick, Duncan thought. You screwed up, stole from me. You took a damn swing at me. "I didn't realize how upset you were, or what was going on. You come inside and we'll work it out."

"You know Lori left me."

" I…" No, not I, Duncan remembered. His head was pulsing with the mother of all headaches, but he struggled to remember the instructions Captain McVee had given him. "You must've been feeling upset."

Joe's answer was to start sobbing again. "Just keep him talking," Dave murmured.

Duncan listened to Joe's sobbing complaints, tried to repeat key phrases as he'd been directed.

The redhead shot into the room like a sleek bullet. She shrugged out of a light jacket while she talked to the captain, then shrugged into a bulletproof vest. All her movements lightning quick.

Duncan couldn't hear what they were saying. And he couldn't take his eyes off her.

Purpose was the first term that came to his mind. Then energy.

Then sexy, though the third was mixed into the first two in equal portions. She shook her head, looked toward Duncan -long, cool stare with cat-green eyes.

"It's got to be face-to-face, Captain. You knew that when you pulled me in."

"You can try to bring him in via the phone first."

"Been tried." She studied the man currently making soothing noises over the subject's weeping. Former employer and landlord, she deduced. Young for it, she mused. Very cute guy who looked as if he was trying hard not to panic.

"He needs a face. He needs personal contact. Is that the employer?"

"Duncan Swift, owns the bar street level of the building. He called the nine-one-one after the subject contacted him and said he was going off the roof. He's-Swift's-been on scene since."

"All right. You're the commander on this one, but I'm the negotiator. I need to go up. Let's see how the subject feels about that."

She walked over to Duncan, gestured for him to pass her the phone. "Joe? This is Phoebe. I'm with the police department. How you doing out there, Joe?"


"I want to make sure you're okay. You hot out there, Joe? Sun's pretty strong today. I'm going to ask Duncan to get us a couple bottles of cold water. I'd like to bring them up, talk to you up there."

"I've got a gun!"

"I hear that. If I come up with a cold drink for you, are you going to shoot me, Joe?"

"No," he said after a long moment. "No, shit. Why would I do that? I don't even know you."

"I'll bring you out a bottle of water. Just me, Joe. I want you to promise you won't jump or fire that gun now. Will you promise to let me come on out, bring you a bottle of water?"

"Rather have a beer."

The wistful tone in his voice gave her a little edge. "What kind of beer would you like?"

"Got Harp in the bottle in the fridge."

"One cold beer coming up." She walked to the refrigerator, found there was little else but beer. Even as she took one out, Duncan moved beside her to open it. She nodded, pulled out the single Coke, popped the top. "I'm coming on up with the beer, all right?"

"Yeah, a beer'd be good."

"Joe?" Her voice was as cool as the bottles in her hand as one of the cops fitted her with a wire, removed her weapon. "Are you going to commit suicide?"

"That's the plan."

"Well now, if that's your plan, I don't know as it's a good one."

She followed one of the uniforms out of the apartment, then up the stairs to the roof.

"Got nothing better to do."

"Nothing better? You sound like you're feeling pretty low. I'm at the roof door now, Joe. Is it all right if I come on out?"

"Yeah, yeah, I said so, didn't I?"

She'd been right about the sun. It was strong enough to bounce off the roof like a hot red ball. She looked to her immediate left, and saw him.

He was wearing nothing but what looked like black boxers. Sandyhaired guy with fair skin-and that skin had already turned a painfully bright pink. He squinted at her out of eyes swollen from crying. "I guess I should've brought out some sunscreen along with the beer." She held the bottle up so he could see it. "You're getting toasted out here, Joe."

"Don't matter."

"I'd sure appreciate it if you'd put that gun down, Joe, so I could bring you your beer."

He shook his head. "You might try something."

"I promise not to try anything if you put the gun down while I bring you the beer. All I want to do is talk, Joe, you and me. Talking's thirsty work out here in the sun."

With his feet dangling over the roof ledge, he lowered the gun, laid it in his lap. "Just put it down there, then step back."

"All right." She kept her eyes on his as she walked over. She could smell him, sweat and despair; she could see the misery in his bloodshot brown eyes. She set the bottle down carefully on the ledge, stepped back. "Okay?"

"You try anything, I'm going off."

"I understand. What happened to make you feel so low?"

He picked up the beer and, closing his hand over the gun again, took a long pull. "Why'd they send you out here?"

"They didn't send me, I came. It's what I do."

"What? You a shrink or something?" He snorted on the idea, drank again.

"Not exactly. I talk to people, especially people in trouble, or who think they are. What happened to make you think you're in trouble, Joe?"

"I'm a fuck-up, that's all."

"What makes you think you're a fuck-up?"

"Wife walked out on me. We hadn't even been married six months and she walks. She told me she would, over and over. If I started betting again, she was out the door. I didn't listen; I didn't believe her."

"It sounds like that makes you feel awful sad."

"Best thing in my life, and I screw it up. I thought I could scorejust a couple of good scores and that would be it. Didn't work out." He shrugged. "Never does."

"It's not enough to die for, Joe. It's hard, and it's painful when someone you love walks away. But dying means you can't ever make it right. What's your wife's name?"

"Lori," he mumbled as tears filled his eyes again.

"I don't think you want to hurt Lori. How do you think she'll feel if you do this?".

"Why should she care?"

"She cared enough to marry you. Do you mind if I sit here?" She tapped the ledge a few feet away from him. When he shrugged, she eased a hip onto it, sipped her drink. "I think we can figure this out, Joe. Figure out how to get you help, how to get you and Lori help. You sound like you want to find a way to fix things."

"Lost my job."

"That's hard. What kind of work did you do?"

"Tending bar. Sports bar down below. Lori, she didn't want me to work in a sports bar, but I told her I could handle it. But I didn't. Couldn't. Started making bets on the side. And when I started losing, I shorted the till so Lori wouldn't find out. Bet more, lose more, steal more. Got caught, got fired. Behind on the rent, too."

He picked up the gun, turned it in his hand. Phoebe braced, and fought back the instinct to duck and cover. "What's the point? I got nothing."

"I understand how you might feel that way right now. But the fact is, Joe, there are plenty of chances left. Everybody deserves more than one of them. If you kill yourself, it's just done. It's just over all the way. No coming back, no making it up to Lori, or to yourself. How would you make it up to her if you got the chance?"

"I don't know." He looked out over the city. "I can hear music. Must be from the parade."

"There's something to live for. What kind of music do you like?"

Inside the apartment, Duncan turned to Dave. "Music? What kind of music does he like? What the hell is she doing?"

"Keeping him talking. She's talking him down. He's telling her."

Dave nodded toward the speaker. "As long as he's talking about Coldplay he's not going off the roof."

Duncan listened as they talked music for the next ten minutes, a conversation he might've heard in any bar or restaurant in the city. When he pictured Joe on the roof, it seemed surreal. When he pictured the redhead with her cat eyes and tight little body holding what smacked of small talk with a mostly naked, armed, suicidal bartender, it seemed impossible.

"Do you think I should call Lori?" Joe asked wistfully.

"Is that what you want to do?" She already knew they'd tried to reach Joe's estranged wife, without success.

"I want to tell her I'm sorry."

"That's good, telling her you're sorry. But you know what works better with women-and I know as I am one. Showing her. We believe it when you show us. You can show me right now if you give me the gun."

"I figured on shooting myself before I jumped. Or maybe on the way down."

"Look at me, Joe." When he turned his head, she kept her eyes straight on his. "Is that how you're going to show her you're sorry? By making it so she has to bury you, so she has to grieve? Are you punishing her?"

"No!" His face, his voice, registered shock at the idea. "It's my fault. It's all my fault."

"All your fault? I never believe anything is all one person's fault. But let's fix it. Let's find the way you can make it up to her."

"Phoebe, I owe almost five thousand gambling."

"Five thousand's hard. It sounds like it scares you to owe that much. I understand what it is to have money problems hanging over your head. Do you want Lori to have to pay your debt?"

"No. If I'm dead, nobody pays."

"Nobody? But she's your wife. She's your legal wife." Phoebe doubted there was any legal liability, but she could see the idea of it strike Joe. "She could be responsible for your debts."

"God. Oh God."

"I think I know how to help you with this, Joe. Joe? You know your boss is inside. He's inside there because he's worried about you."

"He's okay. Dune's a good guy. I screwed him. Stole from him. I don't blame him for firing me."

"I hear you say that, and know you understand you're responsible for your mistakes. You're a responsible person, and you want to fix those mistakes. Dune's a good guy, you tell me, then I'm going to believe he understands that, too. I'll talk to him for you if you want. I'm good at talking. If he'll give you an extension on paying back the money, that would help, wouldn't it?"

"I… I don't know."

"I'll talk to him for you."

"He's a nice guy. I stole from him."

"You were feeling desperate and scared, and you made a mistake. I sense you're sorry for that."

"I am sorry."

"I'll talk to him for you," she repeated. "You need to give me the gun, and come back off the ledge. You don't want to hurt Lori."

"I don't, but-"

"If you could talk to Lori right now, what would you say?"

" I… I guess that I don't know how it got this far, and I'm sorry. I love her. I don't want to lose her."

"If you don't want to lose her, if you love her, you have to give me the gun and come back off the ledge. Otherwise, Joe, all you're leaving her with is grief and blame."

"It's not her fault."

Phoebe eased off the ledge, held out a hand. "You're right, Joe. You're absolutely right. Now, show her."

He stared at the gun, stared as Phoebe slowly reached out to take it.

It was slippery with his sweat as she flipped on the safety, secured it in her belt. "Come on off the ledge, Joe."

"What's going to happen?"

"Come on off the ledge and I'll explain it. I won't lie to you." Once again, she offered her hand. Shouldn't, she knew. Negotiators could be pulled off by a jumper. But she kept her eyes on his, then clasped her fingers tight on his hand.

When his feet touched the roof, he simply slid down to the floor to sob again. She went with him, draped her arm around him, and shook her head fiercely at the cops who came through the door.

"It's going to be all right. Joe, you're going to have to go with the police. You're going to need to have an evaluation. But it's going to be all right."

"I'm sorry."

"I know you are. Now you come on with me. Come on with me now." She helped him up, took his weight as they walked to the door. "Let's get you some clothes on. No cuffs," she snapped. "Joe, one of the officers is going to go get you a shirt, some pants, shoes. Is that all right?"

When he nodded, she gestured one of the officers toward the bedroom. "Am I going to jail?"

"For a little while. But we're going to get started on that help right away."

"Will you call Lori? If she'd come I could… I could show her I'm sorry."

"I sure will. I want that sunburn treated, and he needs some water in him."

Joe kept his eyes downcast as he pulled on jeans. "Sorry, man," he mumbled to Duncan.

"Don't worry about it. Listen, I'll get you a lawyer." Duncan looked blankly at Phoebe. "Should I?"

"That would be between you and Joe. You hang in there." She gave Joe's arm a light squeeze.

He was led out, a cop on either arm. "Nice job, Lieutenant."

Phoebe pulled out the gun, opened it. "One bullet. He was never going to shoot anyone but himself, and the odds are fifty-fifty he'd have done that." She handed the gun to her captain. "You figured he needed to talk to a woman."

"It leaned that way for me," Dave agreed.

"All in all, looks like you were right. Somebody needs to track down his wife. I'll talk to her if she balks at seeing him." She swiped at her sweaty brow. "Is there any water in this place?"

Duncan held out a bottle. "I had some brought up."

"Appreciate it." She drank deep as she studied him. Rich, dense brown hair, tousled around an angular face with a good, strong mouth and soft blue eyes that were currently pinched with worry. "Are you pressing charges?"

"For what?"

"For what he nipped out of the till."

"No." Duncan lowered himself to the arm of a chair. Closed his eyes. "Christ, no."

"How much was it?"

"A couple thousand, a little more, I guess. It doesn't matter."

"It does. He needs to pay it back, for his own self-respect. If you want to help him, you'll work that out."

"Sure. Fine."

"You're the landlord, too?"

"Yeah. Sort of."

Phoebe lifted her brows. "Aren't you the busy one? Can you manage to float the rent another month?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah."


"Look… all I got was Phoebe."

"MacNamara. Lieutenant MacNamara."

"I like Joe. I don't want him to go to jail."

A good guy, Joe had said. He'd likely been right on that one. "I appreciate that, but there are consequences. Paying them will help him.

He was crying for help, and now he'll get it. If you know where he owes the five thousand, he needs to make that right, too."

"I didn't know he was gambling."

This time she let out a short laugh. "You own a sports bar, but don't know there's gambling going on in it?"

His back went up. His gut was already in knots, and now his back went up. "Hey, listen, Slam Dune's a friendly place, not a mob den. I didn't know he had a problem, or he wouldn't have been working the stick there. Some of this was my fault, but-"

"No. No." She held up a hand, rubbed the cold bottle over her damp forehead. "I'm hot, I'm irritable. And none of this was your fault. I apologize. Circumstances put him out there on that ledge, and he's responsible for those circumstances and the choices he made. Do you know where to find his wife?"

"I expect she's at the parade like everyone else in Savannah, except us."

"Do you know where she's living?"

"Not exactly, but I gave your captain a couple numbers. Friends of theirs."

"We'll find her. Are you going to be all right now?"

"Well, I'm not going to go up on the roof and jump." He let out a long sigh, shook his head. "Can I buy you a drink, Phoebe?"

She held up the bottle of water. "You already did."

"I could do better."

Hmm, a quick flicker of charm now, she noted. "This'll be fine. You should go on home, Mr. Swift."

" Duncan."

"Mmm-hmm." She gave him a fleeting smile, then picked up her discarded jacket.

"Hey, Phoebe." He made a bead for the door when she walked out. "Can I call you if I feel suicidal?"

"Try the hotline," she called back without looking around. "Odds are they'll talk you down."

He moved to the rail to look down at her. Purpose, he thought again. He could acquire a strong taste for a woman with purpose.

Then he sat on the step, pulled out his phone. He called his closest friend-who was also his lawyer-to sweet-talk him into representing a suicidal bartender with a gambling addiction.

From the second-floor balcony, Phoebe watched the green sheepdog prance. He seemed pretty damn proud of himself, matching his steps to the fife and drum played by a trio of leprechauns.

Joe was alive, and while she'd missed the curtain, she was right where she wanted to be for the second act.

Not such a crappy way to spend St. Patrick's Day after all.

Beside her, Phoebe's seven-year-old daughter bounced in her bright green sneakers. Carly had campaigned long and hard for those shoes, Phoebe recalled, whittling away at any and all resistance to the price or impracticality.

She wore them with green cropped pants with tiny dark pink dots, and a green shirt with pink piping-also a long and arduous campaign by the pint-sized fashion diva. But Phoebe had to admit, the kid looked unbelievably sweet.

Carly's sunset red hair came down from her grandmother, through her mother. The curls came from her grandmother, too-skipping a generation there, as Phoebe's was straight as a stick. The brilliant and bright blue eyes were from Essie as well. The middle generation, as Phoebe often thought of herself, settled for green.

All three had the pale, pale redhead's complexion, but Carly had inherited the dimples Phoebe had longed for as a child, and the pretty mouth with its dip deep in the top lip.

There were times Phoebe looked at her mother and her daughter, and through the impossible waves of love wondered how she could be the bridge between two such perfectly matched points.

Phoebe brushed a hand over Carly's shoulder, then bent to press a kiss on those wild red curls. In answer to the gesture, Carly shot out a mile-wide grin that showed the gap of two missing front teeth.

"Best seat in the house." From behind them, one short stride outside the door, Essie beamed.

"Did you see the dog, Gran?"

"I sure did."

Phoebe's brother turned to their mother. "You want a seat, Mama?"

"No, sweetie." Essie waved Carter off. "I'm just fine."

"You can come up to the rail again, Gran. I'll hold your hand the whole time. It's just like the courtyard."

"That's right. That's right." But Essie's smile was strained as she crossed the short distance to the rail.

"You can see better from here," Carly began. "Here comes another marching band! Isn't it great, Gran? Look how high they're stepping." See how she soothes her Gran, Phoebe thought. How her little hand holds tight to give support. And Carter, look at him, moving to Mama's other side, running a hand down her back even as he points to the crowd.

Phoebe knew what her mother saw when she looked at Carter. Having a child of her own, she understood exactly that hard and stunning love. But it would be doubled for her, Phoebe thought. Mama had only to look at Carter, at the rich brown hair, those warm hazel eyes, the shape of his chin, his nose, his mouth, and she would see the husband she'd lost so young. And all the might-have-beens that died with him. "Fresh lemonade!" Ava wheeled a cart to the doorway. "With plenty of mint so we've got the green."

"Ava, you didn't have to go to all that trouble."

"I certainly did." Ava laughed at Phoebe and flipped back her sassy swing of blond hair. At forty-three, Ava Vestry Dover remained the most beautiful woman of Phoebe's acquaintance. And perhaps the kindest. When Ava lifted the pitcher, Phoebe hurried over. "No, I'll pour and serve. You go on and watch awhile. Mama'll feel better with you standing with her," Phoebe added quietly.

With a nod, Ava walked over, touched Essie on the shoulder, then moved to stand on Carly's other side.

There was her family, Phoebe thought. True, Ava's son was off in New York in college, and Carter's pretty wife was working, but this was the foundation, the bedrock. Without them, she wasn't sure she wouldn't just float off like a dust mote.

She poured lemonade, passed around the glasses, then stood beside Carter. Leaned her head on his shoulder. "I'm sorry Josie can't be here."

"Me, too. She'll be here for dinner if she can."

Her baby brother, she thought, a married man. "You two ought to stay the night, avoid the holiday traffic and the insanity of revelry."

"We like the insanity of revelry, but I'll see if she'd rather. Remember the first time we stood up here and watched the parade? That first spring after Reuben."

"I remember."

"Everything was so bright and loud and foolish. Everyone was so happy. I believe even Cousin Bess cracked a smile or two." Probably just indigestion, Phoebe thought, with lingering bitterness. "I felt, really felt, maybe everything would be all right. That he wasn't going to break out and come for us, wasn't going to kill us in our sleep. Christmas didn't do that for me, not that first year, or my birthday. But standing here all those years ago, I thought maybe everything was going to be all right after all."

"And it was."

She took his hand so they were linked, right down the line of the rail.

Chapter 2

Cleaned up and hung over, Duncan sat at his kitchen counter brooding over his laptop and a cup of black coffee. He'd meant to keep it to a couple of beers, hanging with some of the regulars at Slam Dunc before heading off to catch the music, another beer or two at Swifty's, his Irish pub.

When you owned bars, he'd learned, you were smart to stay sober.

He might bend that rule of thumb a little on St. Patrick's Day or New Year's Eve. But he knew how to coast through a long night with a couple of beers.

It hadn't been celebration that put the Jameson's with a bump of Harp back into his hand too many times. It had been sheer relief. Joe wasn't a smear on the sidewalk outside the bar.

I'll drink to that.

And it was better to be hungover due to good news than hungover due to bad. You still felt like shit, Duncan admitted as the horns and pipes throbbed in his abused head, but you knew it would wear off.

What he needed to do was get out of the house. Take a walk. Or a nap in the hammock. Then figure out what to do next. He'd been figuring out what to do next for the past seven years. And he liked it.

He frowned at the laptop another moment, then shook his head. If he tried to work now, even pretend to work, his head would probably explode.

Instead, he carried his coffee out to the back veranda. The mourning doves were cooing, bobbing heads as they pecked along the ground under the bird feeder. Too fat and lazy, Duncan thought, to bother to fly up into it. Rather take leavings. A lot of people were the same.

His gardens were thriving, and he liked knowing he'd put a little of his own sweat and effort into them. He considered walking through them now, winding his way under the live oaks and the thick spiderwebs of moss to the dock. Take a sail maybe, cruise the river.

Damn pretty morning for it, if you paid attention. One of those sparkling clear, hint-of-a-breeze mornings you'd wish you'd prized come July.

Or he could just go down and sit on the dock, look out toward the salt flats and watch the sun play on them. Take the coffee down and just sit and do nothing on a pretty spring morning-a damn good deal.

And what was Joe doing this fine morning? Sitting in a cell? A padded room? What was the redhead up to?

It was no use pretending it was just an ordinary day in the life when he couldn't get yesterday out of his head. No point thinking he wanted to sit on the pier nursing a hangover and pretending everything was just fine and dandy.

So he went up the back steps to his bedroom, hunted out clean jeans and a shirt that didn't look like it had been slept in. Then he pulled his wallet, keys and other pocket paraphernalia out of the jeans he had slept in after he'd dragged his half-drunken ass to bed.

At least he'd been smart enough to take a cab, he reminded himself as he scooped his fingers through his shaggy mass of brown hair. Maybe he should wear a suit. Should he wear a suit?


He decided a suit was a kind of showing off when worn to visit a for mer employee in Joe's current situation. Besides, he didn't feel like wearing a damn suit.

Still, the redhead might like suits, and since he had every intention of tracking her down, a suit could play to his advantage.

Hell with it.

He started out, jogged down the sweeping curve of the main staircase, across the polished sea of white tiles of the grand foyer. When he opened one of the arching double doors, he saw the little red Jag zip down the last curve of his drive.

The man who folded himself out of it was wearing a suit, and it was sure to be Italian-as would be the shoes. Phineas T. Hector could manage to look perfectly groomed after mud wrestling in a hurricane.

Duncan hooked his thumbs in his front pockets and watched Phin stroll. He never looked to be in any particular hurry, Duncan mused, but that mind of his was always running on high speed.

He looked like a lawyer, Duncan supposed, and a high-dollar one. Which was exactly what he was now. When they'd first met-had it been ten years now?-Phin had barely been able to afford the cab fare to court, much less an Armani suit.

Now he wore it like he'd been born to, the pale gray an excellent choice against his dark skin, his gym-hammered body. Sun flashed off his dark glasses as he paused at the base of the white steps to study Duncan.

"You look a little rough there, friend of mine."

"Feeling the same."

"Imagine so after the amount of adult beverages you poured into your sorry self last night."

"Felt good at the time. What're you doing out here?"

"Keeping our appointment."

"We had one of those?"

Phin only shook his head as he climbed the stairs. "I should've known you wouldn't remember. You were too busy drinking Irish and singing 'Danny Boy.'"

"I did not sing 'Danny Boy.'" Please, God.

"Can't say for sure. All those Irish tunes sound the same to me. You heading out?"

"I was. I guess we should go inside."

"Out here's fine." Phin settled down on the long white glider, laid his arms out over its back. "You still thinking of selling this place?"

"I don't know. Maybe." Duncan looked around-gardens, trees, pits of shade, green, green grass. He could never decide how he felt about the place from one day to the next. "Probably. Eventually."

"Sure is a spot. Away from the action, though."

"I've had enough action. Did I ask you to come out here, Phin? I'm blurry."

"You asked if I'd check in with Suicide Joe this morning, then come out to report to you. After I agreed, you embraced me and gave me a sloppy kiss. I believe there's now a rumor going around that my wife is our beard."

Duncan considered a moment. "Did I at least kiss her, too?"

"You did. You want to hear about Joe?"

Duncan jingled the keys in his pocket. "I was about to drive into the city, check in on him."

"I can save you the trip. He's doing better than I expected considering the shape he was in yesterday when I first saw him."

"Was his wife-"

"She was there," Phin interrupted. "She was pretty damn pissed, but she was there. He's got a violent sunburn, which they're treating, and I've approved, as his attorney, the court-appointed psychiatrist. As you're not pressing any charges, he's not going to do any serious time. He'll get help, which is what you wanted."

"Yeah." So why did he feel so guilty?

"If you hire him again, Dune, I'll kick your ass."

"You can't kick my ass." Duncan gave him a slow and crooked grin. "You don't fight dirty enough, black boy."

"I'll make an exception. He'll get help. His wife will take him back or she won't. But you've already gone beyond what most would, and you hired him the best counsel in Savannah."

"Better be, for what you charge," Duncan mumbled.

Phin only grinned. "Got yourself to blame for that. Well, I'm going to head back and overcharge a few other clients."

"What about the redhead?"

"What redhead?" Tipping down his sunglasses, Phin frowned at Duncan over them. "There were a couple of blondes and one delicious brunette trying to move on you last night, but you were too busy brooding into your beer to intercept the passes."

"No, not last night. The redhead. Phoebe MacNamara. Lieutenant Phoebe MacNamara. God." On a long, exaggerated sigh, Duncan patted his heart. "Just saying that gets my juices up, so I believe I'll repeat myself. Lieutenant Phoebe MacNamara."

Phin rolled his eyes up to the white ceiling of the covered veranda. "You're a case, Swift, God knows. What are you going to do with a cop?"

"I can think of all kinds of things. She's got green eyes, and that snug little body. And she went out on that roof. Guy's sitting out on the ledge with a gun, a guy she's never met in her life, but she goes out."

"And you find that attractive?"

"I find it fascinating. And hot. You met her, right? What did you think?"

"I found her brisk and to the point, well bred and canny. And in possession of an excellent ass."

"I got her stuck in my head. Well, I think I ought to go see her, try to figure out why. You can give me a ride in, I need to pick up my car anyway."

After running a two-hour training session, Phoebe sat down at her desk. Her hair was pulled back, rolled at the nape of her neck, mostly to keep it out of her way. In addition, she thought-hoped-the style lent her some authority. A lot of the cops she trained-the male ones-didn't start out taking a woman very seriously.

They all took her seriously by the end, or they were out on their ass. She might have had an inside man in Dave to help crack the door open for her in the department. But she'd shoved the door wide, and earned her rank, her position.

Now, due to that rank and position, she had a pile of paperwork to push through. And she had to spend the afternoon in court, testifying on the circumstances of a domestic dispute that had gone south into a hostage situation.

After that, she needed to come back and finish up what she could. And after that, she needed to go by the market.

And after things settled down at home, she needed to hit the books, to prep for a lecture she was due to give on crisis negotiation.

Somewhere in there she needed to squeeze out time to balance her checkbook-long overdue-and see if there was any way she could afford a new car without robbing a bank.

She opened the first file, and got down to managing her little corner of the Savannah-Chatham PD.


"Mmm?" She acknowledged Sykes, one of the negotiators in her unit, without looking up.

"Guy out here wants to see you. Duncan Swift."

"Hmm?" This time she looked up with a frown. She looked through the window of her office, saw Duncan studying the squad room as if it were a foreign planet.

She thought of her workload, of the time crunch, and nearly passed him off. Then his gaze shifted, met hers. And he smiled.

"Ah well." She pushed up from her desk, stepped out to the doorway of her office. "Mr. Swift?"

He had a damn effective smile, she decided. Something about it said it was easy and often used. And his eyes, soft and dusky blue, looked right at you. In her experience a lot of people weren't comfortable making that solid eye contact. But this man let you know he wasn't just looking at you, he was thinking about you while he did.

"You're busy. You look busy," he said when he reached her. "You want me to come back when you're not?"

"If what you came by for can wait about a decade, that's fine."

"I'd rather it didn't."

"Then come on in."

"Wow. It's sort of like on TV, but not exactly. Do you get weirded out sitting here where everybody can see what you're doing all day?"

"If I do, I can always pull the blinds."

He hooked his thumbs in the front pockets of worn jeans. There were long legs in those jeans, she noted.

"Bet you hardly ever do."

"I spoke with the attorney you hired on Joe's behalf. He seems very competent."

"And then some. So… I wanted to ask you if I should visit Suicide Joe-"

"Excuse me? Suicide Joe?"

"Sorry, we got to calling him that last night. It stuck in my head. Should I visit him, or is it better for him if I step back?"

"What do you want to do?"

"I don't know. It's not like we were pals or anything. But yesterday's loop keeps running through my head."

"It's more to the point what's running through his."

"Yeah. Yeah. I had this dream."

"Did you?"

"I was the one sitting out on the ledge in my underwear."

"Boxers or briefs?"

It made him laugh. "Boxers. Anyway, I was sitting on the ledge and you were sitting there with me."

"Are you feeling suicidal?"

"Not a bit."

"It's called transference. You're putting yourself in his place. It was a traumatic experience, for you as well as Joe, even though it ended well."

"Have you ever had one that didn't?"


He nodded, and didn't ask for details. "What do you call me having you stuck in my mind? Wishful thinking?"

"That would depend on what you're wishing for."

"I started to Google you."

She sat back now, raised her eyebrows.

"I thought, sure it's a shortcut, a curiosity-satisfying one. But sometimes you want to go the long way around. You get to find out about somebody from the source, maybe over some type of food or drink. And if you're wondering, yes, I'm hitting on you."

"I'm a trained observer. I don't have to wonder when I know. I appreciate the honesty, and the interest, but-"

"Don't say 'but,' not right off the bat." He bent down, picked up a hairpin that must have fallen out of her hair earlier, handed it to her. "You could consider it a public service. I'm the public. We could exchange life stories over that some sort of food and drink. You could name the time and the place. We don't like what we hear, what's the harm?"

She dropped the hairpin in with her paper clips. "Now you're negotiating."

"I'm pretty good at it. I could just buy you a drink. That's whatthirty minutes? A lot of people spend more time than that picking out a pair of shoes. Half an hour after you're finished work, or off-duty, whatever you call it."

"I can't tonight. I have plans."

"Any night in the foreseeable future you don't have plans?"

"Plenty of them." She swiveled gently back and forth in her chair, studying him. Why did he have to be so cute, and so appealing? She really didn't have time for any of this. "Tomorrow night, nine to ninethirty. I'll meet you at your bar."

"Perfect. Which bar?"

"Excuse me?"

"You don't want to go to Dune's-weird after yesterday, and it's loud and full of guys arguing over sports. Swifty's."

"You own Swifty's?"

"Sort of. You've been there?"


His brows drew together. "You didn't like it."

"Actually, I did. I didn't like my companion."

"If you want to pick somewhere else-"

"Swifty's is fine. Nine o'clock. You can spend part of the thirty minutes explaining how you 'sort of own a couple of bars and an apartment building."

He used the smile again when she rose to signal his time was up. "Don't change your mind."

"I rarely do."

"Good to know. See you tomorrow, Phoebe."

A mistake, she told herself when she watched him walk away. It was probably a mistake to make any sort of a date with a lanky, charming man with soft blue eyes, especially one who had those little tugs going on in her belly when he smiled at her.

Still, it was only half an hour, only a drink.

And it had been a long time since she'd carved out half an hour to make a mistake with a man.

Phoebe dragged into the house just after seven with a bag of groceries, a loaded briefcase and a serious case of frazzled nerves. The car she wasn't at all sure she could replace had limped to a shuddering halt a block from the station house.

The cost of having it towed would eat a greedy chunk of the monthly budget. The cost of having it repaired made the possibility of bank robbery more palatable.

She dumped her briefcase just inside the door, then stood staring around the elegant and beautiful foyer. The house, for all its grandeur, cost her nothing. And though nothing was a relative term, she knew even if it were possible to move, she couldn't afford it, on any terms. It was ridiculous to live in a damn mansion and not know how to manage to pay to repair an eight-year-old Ford Taurus.

Surrounded by antiques, by art, by silver and crystal, by beauty and grace-none of which she could sell, hock or trade. To live in what could be construed as luxury, and have a tension headache over a goddamn car.

Leaning back against the door, she shut her eyes long enough to remind herself to be grateful. There was a roof over her head, over her family's head. There always would be.

As long as she followed the rules laid down by a dead woman. She straightened, buried the anxiety deep enough so it wouldn't show on her face. Then she carried the grocery bag through the house to the kitchen.

There they were. Her girls. Carly at the kitchen table, tongue caught in her teeth as she struggled over homework. Mama and Ava at the stove putting finishing touches on dinner. Phoebe knew the rule of thumb was that two women couldn't share a kitchen, but these two managed just that.

And the room smelled of herbs and greens and females. "I told y'all not to hold dinner for me."

As Phoebe stepped in, all three heads turned. "Mama! I'm almost done with my spelling."

"There's my girl." Setting the bag on the counter as she went,

Phoebe walked over to give Carly a smacking kiss. "Bet you're hungry."

"We wanted to wait for you."

" 'Course we waited." Essie moved close to rub a hand down Phoebe's arm. "You all right, baby girl? You must be so tired, having the car go out like that."

"I wanted to take out my gun and shoot it, but I'm over it now."

"How'd you get home?"

"I took the CAT, which is what I'll be doing until the car's fixed."

"You can use mine," Ava told her, but Phoebe shook her head. "I'd feel better knowing there's a car available here at home. Don't worry. What's for dinner? I'm starving."

"You go on and wash up." Essie waved her away. "Then sit right down at the table. Everything's ready, so you go on."

"Don't mind if I do." She winked at Carly before slipping out to the powder room off the parlor.

More to be grateful for, she reminded herself. There were dozens of tasks and chores she didn't have to heap on her plate because her mother was there, because Ava was there. A thousand little worries she could brush aside. She wasn't going to let herself get twisted inside out over something as annoying as transportation.

She studied her face in the mirror as she dried her hands. She looked tired, and tight, she admitted. There would surely be lines on her face in the morning that hadn't been there yesterday if she didn't relax a little.

And at thirty-three, there would be lines sneaking in anyway. Just a fact of life.

But she was having a big glass of wine with dinner regardless.

It did relax her, as did the pretty food prepared by hands other than her own, the soft light, the easy music of female voices.

She listened to Carly talk about her school day, and her mother talk about the book she was reading.

"You're so quiet, Phoebe. Are you just tired out?"

"A little," she said to Ava. "Mostly I'm just listening."

"Because we can't keep quiet for five minutes. Tell us something good that happened today."

It was an old game, one her mother had played with them as long as Phoebe could remember. Whenever something hard or sad or irritating happened, Essie would ask them to tell her something good.

"Well, let's see. The training session went well."

"Doesn't count."

"Then I guess satisfying the prosecutor with my testimony in court this afternoon doesn't count either."

"Something good that happened to you," Essie reminded her. "That's the rule."

"All right. She's so strict," Phoebe said to make Carly grin. "I don't know if it's good, but it's different. I had a good-looking man come into my office."

"It only counts if he asked you out to dinner," Ava began, then gaped at Phoebe's expression. "You have a date?"

"Well, for God's sake, don't say it as if we've just discovered a new species."

"It's practically as rare. Who-"

"And it's not a date. Not really. The suicide I talked down yesterday? This is the man who he used to work for. He just wants to have a drink."

"Ava said it had to be dinner to count," Carly reminded her.

"He brought up dinner, we negotiated it to drinks. Just half an hour tomorrow." She tapped Carly's nose. "After your bedtime."

"Is he cute?" Ava demanded.

The wine and the company had done its job. Phoebe flashed a grin. "Really cute. But I'm just meeting him for one drink. Over and out."

"Dating isn't a terminal disease."

"Listen to who's talking." Phoebe forked up a bite of chicken and looked at her mother. "And listen to who's not. Mama?"

"I was just thinking how nice it would be if you had somebody to go out to dinner with, to the movies, to take walks with." She laid a hand over Phoebe's. "Only time there's a man's voice in this house is when Carter's over, or a repairman comes in. What's this really cute man do?"

"I'm not entirely sure, not altogether sure." She sipped more wine.

"I guess I'll find out tomorrow."

Whenever she was home and could manage it, Phoebe liked to tuck Carly into bed. With her little girl at seven and counting, Phoebe knew the tucking-in stage wouldn't last much longer. So she prized it.

"Past your bedtime, my cutie." Phoebe bent to kiss the tip of Carly's nose.

"Just a little bit past. Can I stay up until any-o'clock on Friday night?"

"Hmm." Phoebe brushed her hand over Carly's curls. "Any-o'clock could be arranged. Let's see how you do on your Friday spelling test." Bright-eyed with the idea, Carly pushed to sitting, gave a butt bounce. "If I get a hundred, can we rent a DVD, have popcorn and stay up till any-o'clock?"

"That's a lot of reward." Gently, firmly, Phoebe put the heel of her hand to Carly's forehead and nudged her back down. "You have an arithmetic test on Friday, too, don't you?"

Carly's gaze went to her Barbie sheets. "Maybe. It's harder than spelling."

"I always thought so, too. But if you do well on both your tests, we have a deal on the DVD, the popcorn and the any-o'clock. You get some sleep now, so your brain's ready to study tomorrow."

"Mama?" Carly said when Phoebe turned off the bedside lamp. "Yes, baby."

"Do you miss Roy?"

Not Daddy, Phoebe thought. Not Dad, not even-very often-my father. It was a pitiful commentary. Phoebe sat on the side of the bed, stroked her fingers over Carly's cheek. "Do you?"

"I asked you. "

"So you did." And honesty was a linchpin of her relationship with her little girl. "No, sweetie, I don't."



"It's okay. I don't miss him either, and it's okay. I was just wondering because of what Gran said at dinner about having somebody to take walks with and stuff."

"I can take walks with you."

Carly's pretty mouth curved. "We could take a walk on Saturday. A long walk. Down to River Street."

On to the ploy, Phoebe narrowed her eyes. "We are not going shopping."

"Looking isn't shopping. We can just look and not buy anything."

"That's what you always say. And River Street'll be jammed with tourists on Saturday."

"Maybe we should just go to the mall then."

"You're tricky, kid, but you can't win this one. No shopping this weekend. And no talking your grandmama into buying you something online either."

Now Carly rolled her eyes. "Okay."

With a laugh, Phoebe snuggled down for a major hug. "Boy, oh boy, I sure do love you into little, bitty pieces."

"I sure do love you. Mama, if I get A's on my next three spelling tests, can I-"

"Negotiations are closed for the night, and so, Carly Anne MacNamara, are you."

She tapped a finger to her lips as she rose. And when she went out, she left the door open a couple of inches so the hallway light slanted in, the way her baby liked it.

She needed to get her work started. There was a good two hours of it waiting for her. But instead of angling toward her home office, Phoebe veered off toward her mother's sitting room.

Essie was there, as she was most evenings, crocheting.

"Got an order for a christening gown," Essie said, looking up with a smile as her fingers continued to ply thread and hook.

Phoebe moved over, sat in the pretty little tapestry chair that matched the one her mother used. "You do such beautiful work."

"I enjoy it. Satisfying. I know it doesn't bring in a lot of money, Phoebe, but-"

"Satisfying's most important. The people who buy your work, why, they're buying heirlooms. They're lucky. Mama, Carly asked about Roy."

"Oh?" Essie's hands stilled now. "Is she upset?"

"No. Not at all. She wanted to know if I miss him. I told her the truth, that I don't, and I have to hope that was the right thing."

"I think it was, if you're asking me." Concern filled Essie's eyes. "We've had us some lousy luck with men, haven't we, baby girl?"

"Oh yeah." Leaning back, Phoebe let her gaze wander to the ceiling, the beautiful plaster work of an old, grand home. "I'm wondering if I shouldn't cancel this sort-of date I've got tomorrow."

"Why would you do that?"

"We're doing all right, aren't we? Carly's happy. You've got your satisfying work, I've got mine. Ava's content-though I do wish she and Dave would stop pretending, now that they're both single, that they're not attracted to each other. So, why mix anything else in with having drinks in some pub with a man I don't even know?"

"Because you're a lovely young woman, with so much of her life ahead of her. You've got to step out of this henhouse sometimes. Which may sound silly, coming from me, but it's true." Essie's hands started moving again. "The last thing I want is for you to start boxing yourself in, holing up in this place we've made here. You have that drink and that conversation tomorrow with this good-looking man. That's an order."

Amused, Phoebe angled her head. "So it's do what you say, not what you do?"

"Exactly. Mother's privilege."

"I guess I will, then." She rose, walked to the door, turned back. "Mama? No online shopping for Carly this weekend."

"Oh?" The single syllable resounded disappointment. "Mother's privilege," Phoebe echoed, then headed off to work.

Chapter 3

Phoebe took her place at the front of the room. She had twenty-five cops in this training session, a mix of uniforms and plainclothes of varying ranks.

A good portion of them, she knew, didn't want to be there.

"Today, I'm going to talk about the tactical role of the negotiator in a crisis or hostage situation. First, are there any questions regarding yesterday's session?"

A hand shot up. Phoebe swallowed her instinctive annoyance. Officer Arnold Meeks, third-generation cop. Bullheaded, belligerent and bigoted, in Phoebe's opinion, with a thick layer of macho over it. "Officer Meeks?"

"Yes, ma'am." His smile usually started out as a smirk, and often stayed there. "You talked down a jumper the other day, St. Patrick's Day?" "That's correct."

"Well, ma'am, I was interested in some of the particulars, seeing as we're in this training session with you. Now, I was curious, as it appears you broke some of the rules of negotiation during this incident. Unless being FBI-trained, as you are, things are different for you. Is that the case?"

Her early federal training would always rub some of the rank and file the wrong way. They'd just have to live with it. "Which rules did I break, Officer Meeks?"

"Well, ma'am-"

"You can use my rank, Officer, as I do yours."

She watched annoyance flicker over his face. "The subject was armed, but you engaged him face-to-face, without cover."

"That's correct. It's also correct that a negotiator should avoid, if possible, any face-to-face with an armed subject. However, circumstances may call for it, and we'll be covering that area of crisis situation in the role-playing sessions in the second half of this course."


"I'm getting to that. In my opinion, the incident on St. Patrick's

Day called for a face-to-face. In point of fact, most jumpers respond better to this method. The subject had no history of violent behavior, and had not fired the weapon. In a situation such as the one on St. Patrick's

Day, I, as negotiator, had to assess and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of going face-to-face. In my opinion, the advantages far outweighed the risks. As we've already covered the other considerations regarding face-to-face in a previous session-"

"Ma'am-Lieutenant," Arnie corrected, with just enough hesitation to make sure she knew it was deliberate. "Is it also correct you provided the subject with alcohol?"

I bet you have a really little dick, Phoebe thought, but nodded. "I provided the subject, at his request, with a beer. Providing alcohol to a subject during negotiations is not encouraged, but neither is it forbidden. This tack would be up to the negotiator, his or her sense of the situation and evaluation of the subject."

"Get him drunk enough, maybe he'd just fall off the roof." Arnie's comment got a few snickers. Phoebe inclined her head, let them die off.

"Next time you're on a ledge, Officer, I'll remember you get drunk off one beer and bring you a nice Coca-Cola instead."

That got more than snickers, and noting the angry red wash over Arnie's face, Phoebe cut through them. "As I've said, repeatedly, while there are guidelines for negotiations, the negotiator must be flexible, be able to evaluate, to think on his or her feet."

"But you agree providing alcohol or drugs is risky?"

"Certainly. My gauge in this case was it was low risk. The subject did not demand alcohol; he very politely asked if he might have a beer. Bringing him one gave him something he wanted, and allowed him some control, allowed him to exchange that beer for his word not to use his weapon on me, to allow me to come out and speak with him. Just you wait," she ordered Arnie before he could open his smirking mouth again.

Then she paused to make certain her tone would be calm and cool.

"The preservation of life is and always will be the primary goal of negotiation. Everything, absolutely everything else, is secondary to that.

Therefore, in this instance-as every single instance is different-I elected a face-to-face, elected to provide the subject with a single beer because I believed those choices would assist me in talking him down. As he's alive, as there were no injuries, as the weapon he held was never discharged but given to me by him, I believe-in this instance-my choices were the correct ones."

"You also used a third-party intermediary."

Now Phoebe smiled, sweet Southern sugar. "Officer Meeks, it appears you have several questions and problems with this particular incident and my handling of it. I wonder if you'd be more satisfied if the subject had just jumped."

"Seeing as he was only sitting up four stories, he'd only have a couple broken bones if he had. Unless he shot you and himself beforehand."

"There's an interesting train of thought. Disbelieving a subject is serious about suicide, or could indeed cause his own death."

Casually, she reached up to secure a stray wisp of hair that had escaped from its pins. And kept her voice just as casual. "I was acquainted with a negotiator who had this train of thought over a jumper who was about twelve feet off the ground, unarmed. Mostly being a nuisance, from my acquaintance's point of view, one that was keeping him from doing more important things with his valuable time. And he allowed that opinion to show. The subject jumped, headfirst, crushing his skull on the sidewalk. He was very dead, Officer Meeks.

"Anybody know why this nuisance ended up with a toe tag?"

"Negotiator screwed it up," someone called out.

"That's right. The negotiator screwed it up by forgetting the prime directive: Preserve human life.

"If you have any more questions or comments about the incident, please feel free to write them up for me. But for right now? We're moving on."

"I'd like to-"

"Officer." The temper Phoebe rarely set free strained on the leash.

"You may be mistaken about who is running this session. I am. You may also be confused about the order of rank here. I am your superior."

"It seems to me, ma'am, that you don't want to address your questionable decisions during a crisis negotiation."

"It seems to me, boy, that you are unable to take no for an answer, by a woman who happens to outrank you, and that you're both rigid in your thinking and argumentative in attitude. These are very, very poor qualities in a negotiator. I'll so note to your captain, and hope that we'll be relieved of each other before much longer. Now, I want you to close your mouth and open your ears. That's an order, Officer Meeks. If you choose to ignore it, I'll write you up for insubordination here and now.


His face had gone an angry red, and his eyes spoke furious volumes. But he nodded curtly.

"That's fine. Now, tactics, teamwork and the negotiator's role."

The minute the session was over, Phoebe headed straight for the women's room. She didn't beat her head against the wall, though she considered it. Instead, she turned to the mirror, gripped the sink below it. "Arnold Meeks has a dick the size and width of a baby carrot, and his smirky, insulting, juvenile behavior is a pathetic attempt to compensate for his pinkie-sized weenie."

She nodded, relaxed her shoulders. Then dropped her head when she heard a toilet flush. How stupid could she be to mouth off to the mirror without checking the stalls first?

Phoebe knew the woman who stepped out, but that didn't negate the mortification. Detective Liz Alberta was a solid cop, a strong-willed brunette who worked in sex crimes.



Liz ran water in the sink, turned her own face right and left as if checking her reflection. "Arnie Meeks is a fuckhead," she said casually. "Oh." Phoebe sighed. "Well."

"He tells tits-and-ass jokes in the break room. I like a good joke same as the rest, and boys will be boys and all that. But I took some exception, and made my exception known after he told me the majority of rapes are bogus, pulling out the old chestnut about how a woman can run faster with her skirt up than a man can with his pants down."

"The fuckhead said that?"

"Oh yes, he did. And I filed a complaint on him. He isn't a fan of mine." Liz fluffed at her short, dark hair. "And I dislike him right down to the tip of that teeny weenie of his." She offered a sunny smile as she dried her hands. "Lieutenant."

"Detective," Phoebe returned as Liz tossed the paper towel into the bin and strolled out.

She didn't like it, but she went to Dave. As was her habit, she jogged up the two flights of stairs from the lecture area to her own section. He was striding out of his office, swinging on his jacket as she popped out the stairway door.

"Oh, you're heading out."

"I've got a meeting. Problem?"

"Maybe. I'll come back."

He glanced at his watch. "I can give you two minutes." He jerked a thumb, stepped back into his office. And said nothing when Phoebe closed the door behind her.

He was still so much the same as the day she'd first met him. A little gray dashed his temples, and those lines people called character in a man and age in a woman fanned out from his eyes. But those eyes were still clear and blue and, for her, drenched in quiet wisdom.

"I don't like having to do this, because for one thing, it means I've failed. But I'm asking you to consider removing Officer Arnold Meeks from my training sessions."


"I can't teach him anything. And, in fact, may be prejudicing him against any of the basic tactics and guidelines in the field."

Dave leaned back against his desk, a gesture that told her she'd get more than the two minutes now if she needed them. "Is he stupid?"

"No, sir, but he is small-minded. In my opinion."

"His father's still on the job. He's a son of a bitch."

Phoebe relaxed fractionally. "I'm shocked and amazed to hear that."

"I want all officers assigned to the sessions to complete them. You can relate your opinions of Officer Meeks, in this area, in your evaluation.

I want all of them to get through it, Phoebe. You know as well as

I do that at least some of what you teach them will work its way in, even into small minds."

"I dressed him down in the session."

"Did he deserve it?"

"And then some. But he's only going to be pissed off at me now, and even less likely to listen."

"Minimize the damage and move on." He gave her a pat on the shoulder. "I'm going to be late."

"Minimize the damage," Phoebe muttered, but reached up to straighten Dave's tie.

He smiled at her. "You're the best I've ever worked with. You remember that, and handle small-minded Meeks."

"Yes, sir, Captain."

She walked out with him, and when she peeled off, spotted Arnie loitering with a couple other cops outside her squad room. Her belly might have clenched, but her face was serene as she walked up to him. "Officer Meeks, the captain wishes all assigned officers to complete the negotiator training. I'll expect to see you Monday morning, as scheduled. Is that understood?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Now I'm sure the three of you have more important things to do than stand around here. Go on and do it."

"Yes, ma'am," he repeated, in a tone that had her hackles rising. Minimize the damage, she reminded herself. "I expect we can both learn something from these sessions."

She couldn't hear what he said when she walked away; the words were low and indistinguishable. But she heard the snickers clearly enough. She let it go. A woman who'd pushed through Quantico, who'd slogged through police training, through negotiation training, sexually outnumbered ten to one, had heard snickers before.

She also knew when eyes were trained on her ass, and while it might infuriate her, Phoebe reminded herself to pick her battles. And that she had a damn fine ass.

When she entered her office, saw the message from the mechanic, she understood she had bigger problems than a smart-mouthed cop and ass ogling.

Her car was going to cost seven hundred and fifty-nine nonnegotiable dollars.

"Ah, hell."

Giving up, Phoebe laid her head down on her desk for a moment of pure self-pity.

She caught the bus home, and the moment she was inside deeply regretted the prospect of going out again. Even the idea of going out again the bus ride, sitting in a bar making small talk, only to ride yet another bus only to get back to square one-seemed overwhelmingly stupid.

She should dig up Duncan's number, cancel. Agreeing to the thirtyminute drink had been a moment of weakness anyway-that damn dimple. Hadn't she thought of a dozen other things she could do with thirty minutes on the ride home?

A bubble bath. Yoga. Give herself a facial. Clean out the junk drawer in her desk.

All were a better use of her time. But a deal was a deal.

Carly sprinted into the foyer to take a flying leap into Phoebe's arms. No outside irritations could stand up against a Carly hug.

"You've been in Gran's perfume." To make Carly giggle she sniffed elaborately at her daughter's neck.

"She let me have a spritz. Dinner's all ready, and I finished my homework." Leaning back, Carly beamed into her mother's face. "You get to be excused from doing the dishes tonight."

"Wow. How come I rate?"

"So you can get ready for your date. Come on!" Wiggling down, Carly took Phoebe's hand to drag her toward the dining room. "Gran thinks you should wear your blue sweater, and Ava thinks the white blouse that ties in the back. But I think you should wear your green dress."

"The green dress isn't really the thing for a quick evening meeting."

"But you look so pretty in it."

"She should save it," Ava commented as Carly dragged Phoebe in. "For when he takes her out to dinner. Sit right down, it's all ready. We wanted to give you plenty of time to primp."

"It's a drink. It's only a drink in an Irish pub."

Ava set her hands on her hips. "Excuse me? Tonight you represent every dateless woman in this city, every woman who's about to sit down to a lonely meal of Weight Watchers pasta primavera she's just nuked in the microwave. Every woman who'll get into bed tonight with a book or reruns of Sex and the City as her only companion. You," she said, pointing her finger at Phoebe, "are our shining hope."

"Oh God."

Essie patted Phoebe's shoulder before she sat down. "But no pressure." She didn't want to be a shining hope. But she got on the bus. She had to refuse Ava's offer of her car three times, and disappoint Carly by choosing a black sweater and jeans over the green dress. But she put on the earrings her daughter picked out, and redid her makeup.

Life, Phoebe knew, was full of compromises.

She got a wolf whistle from Johnnie Porter-all of fifteen and full of sass-as he circled her on his bike.

"You sure look pretty tonight, Miz MacNamara. Got a hot date?"

Now she worried she looked as if she were expecting a hot date. "Why, thank you, Johnnie, but no. I'm off to catch a CAT."

"You going somewhere, you can just hop on here with me." He popped a little show-off wheelie. "I'll give you a ride."

"That's neighborly of you, but I believe I'll stick with the bus. How's your mama?"

"Oh, she's fine. She's got Aunt Susie over." Johnnie rolled his eyes elaborately on his next circle. "Talking about my cousin Juliet's wedding. So I lit out. Sure you don't want to boost on up on my handlebars?"

How a fifteen-year-old boy could turn that into a sexual innuendo was puzzling. "I'm sure."

"See you later, then."

Off to find some trouble, Phoebe thought with a shake of her head as he zipped down the wide sidewalk. God help the neighborhood when he was old enough to drive.

It was just cool enough she was grateful for the sweater as she walked from the bus stop along East River Street. Plenty of others enjoyed the evening and the stroll, wandering in or out of restaurants and clubs, pausing to window-shop or just gaze out over the water.

So many couples, she thought, hand in hand, taking in that balmy air. Mama had a point, she supposed. It was nice-could be nice-to have someone to hold hands with on a pretty spring evening.

And it was better, given her personal situation, not to think about that sort of thing. Especially when she was about to have a drink with a very cute man.

She had plenty of hands to hold. So many, in fact, that a solitary walk along the river was a rare indulgence. Take the moment, she advised herself and, because she had a few minutes, slowed her pace, turned toward the water, and enjoyed the indulgence.

And see, she mused, she wasn't the only one on her own. She saw a man, solitary as she, standing spread-legged in a pool of shadow and watching the water. The bill of his ball cap angled low over his face while a pair of cameras were strapped bandolier style over his dark windbreaker.

Not everyone was a couple.

Maybe she would bring Carly down for a long walk on Saturday, she thought as she tipped her head back, let the breeze take her hair. The kid got such a charge out of wandering around down here, looking at everything, at everyone.

They'd have to set the rules first. Lunch, yes. Fabulous prizes, no. Not with her car currently hostage at the mechanic's.

Probably a smarter idea to make that a nice walk through one of the parks away from retail outlets.

They'd work it out.

Gauging the time, she turned away from the water and didn't notice the solitary man lift and aim one of the cameras in her direction.

At Swifty's a shamrock dotted the i in the name on the sign. The stained glass panel in the door was a rather beautiful Celtic knot design. The doorknob was brass, and the outside walls were done in a dull stucco yellow, a shade she remembered seeing in postcards of Irish villages. Hanging pots dripped with airy flowers and green, green vines. Little details, she thought. The man paid attention to little details. When she stepped inside, it was as she remembered from her single previous visit. A big, burly bar set the tone. This was not the venue for airy ferns and apple martinis. But if you wanted a pint, or a glass of Irish, conversation and music, belly right up.

Leather booths were deep and cushy, the tables dark, polished wood. Shadow and sparkle played from the colored glass shades of hanging lamps, while a red-eyed turf fire simmered in a quaint little stone hearth. The mood was warm welcome.

At one of the booths, its table loaded with drinks, sat the musicians.

A girl with a shock of red-tipped black hair sawed a bow over the fiddle strings with a speed and energy that made the movement as blurry as the music was clear. A man old enough to be her grandfather pumped out rhythm on a small accordion. A young man with hair so pale it reminded Phoebe of angels' wings piped out the tune, while yet another set down his pint glass, picked up his fiddle, and slid seamlessly into the song.

Happy, Phoebe thought. Happy music, happy chatter under it. Cheery lights and color, with clever little touches sprinkled through.

Old tankards, a bowen drum, bits of pottery she imagined came from Ireland, an Irish harp, old Guinness signs.

"There you are, and right on time."

Even as she turned toward him, Duncan had her hand in his. That smile of his, she realized, it had a way of making her forget she didn't really want to be there.

"I like your place," she told him. "I like the music."

"Sessions nightly. I've got us a table." He led her to the one in front of the quiet fire where she could sink down on the cozy little love seat. Take the moment, Phoebe thought again. "Best seat in the house."

"What can I get you?"

"Glass of Harp, thanks."

"Give me a minute." He moved over to the bar, spoke to the girl running the near end. A moment later he came back with a glass of golden beer.

"Nothing for you?"

"I've got a Guinness in the works." Those soft blue eyes zeroed straight in on hers. "So how are you?"

"Well enough. How about you?"

"Let me answer that by asking if you've got a stopwatch on me."

"Sorry, left it in my other purse."

"Then I'm good. I just want to get this out of the way, so it doesn't keep distracting me. I really like the way you look."

"Thanks. I'm okay with it myself most of the time."

"See, I've had you stuck." He tapped a finger to his temple, then paused to flash a smile at the waitress who brought over his pint of Guinness. "Thanks, P.J."

"You bet." The waitress set a bowl of pretzels on the table, gave Duncan a wink, Phoebe a quick once-over, then carted her tray off to another table.

"Well, sldinte. " He tapped his glass to Phoebe's, sipped. "So, I kept asking myself were you stuck in there just because of Suicide Joe or because I thought you were hot. Which was my second thought when I saw you, and was probably inappropriate given the circumstances." She sipped more slowly, watching him. That tiny dimple that flickered at the corner of his mouth when he grinned just drew the eye like a magnet. "Your second thought."

"Yeah, the first was sort of: Thank God she's going to fix this."

"Do you always have that kind of confidence in total strangers?"

"No. Maybe. I'll think about it." He angled so their knees bumped companionably with a little whoosh of denim against denim. "It's just

I looked at you and it struck me you were someone who knew what to do, knew what you were doing-a really hot woman who knew what to do. So I wanted to see you again, maybe figure out how come you're stuck. I know you're smart-also a plus-not only because of what you do, but hey, Lieutenant, and you seem young for that."

"I'm thirty-three. Not so young."

"Thirty-three? Me, too. When's your birthday?" "August."

"November. Older woman." He shook his head. "Now I'm sunk. Older women are so sexy."

It made her laugh as she tucked up her legs, shifted a little toward him. "You're a funny guy."

"Sometimes. But with serious and sensitive sides, if you're counting points."


"There's always a point system in this kind of situation. He's clean. She has breasts. Points added. He has a stupid laugh, she hates sports, points subtracted."

"How'm I doing?"

"I'm not sure I'm going to be able to add that high without my calculator." "Clever, too. Points for you." She sipped at her beer, studied him.

He had a little scar, a thin, diagonal slash through his left eyebrow.

"Still, it's risky to assume I'm smart and competent-if those are included in the final total-with so little actual data."

"I'm a good judge of people. On-the-job training."

"Owning bars?"

"Before that. I tended bar and drove a cab. Two professions where you're guaranteed to see all types of people, and where you get to peg them pretty quick."

"A cab-driving bartender."

"Or bartending cabdriver, depending." He reached over, tucked her hair behind her ear, gave the dangling silver at her lobe a little tap. The gesture was so casual and smooth, she wondered at her own quick jolt of intimacy.

"Easy to juggle hours on both sides," he continued, "and I figured I'd sock away enough to open myself a sport's bar."

"And so you did, fulfilling the American dream."

"Not even close-well, the American dream part-but I didn't earn the ready to open Slam Dune riding the stick or driving a hack."

"How then? Robbing banks, dealing drugs, selling your body?"

"All viable options, but no. I won the lottery."

"Get out. Really?" Delighted, fascinated, she lifted her glass in toast before stretching out a hand for a pretzel.

"Yeah, just a fluke. Or, you know, destiny, again depending. I picked up a ticket now and then. Actually, hardly ever. Then one day I went in for a six-pack of Corona, sprang for a ticket."

"Did you pick the numbers or go with the computer?"

"My pick. Age, cab number-which was depressing since I hadn't planned to still be hacking-six for the six-pack. Just that random, and… jackpot. You know how you hear people say if they ever win, or even when they do, how they're going to keep right on working, living pretty much like they have been?"


"What's wrong with them?"

She laughed again, snagged another pretzel. "Obviously, you retired as a cab-driving bartender."

"Bet your ass. Got my sports bar. Very cool. Only funny thing, and

I may lose man points here, but I figured out after a few months I actually didn't want to be in a bar every night of my life."

She glanced around Swifty's, where the music had gone slow and dreamy. "Yet you have two. And here you are."

"Yet. I sold half interest in Dune's to this guy I know. Well, almost half. Figured, hey, Irish pub."

"Hence Swifty's."


"No travel, no flashy car?"

"Some travel, some flash. Anyway, how did you-"

"Oh no, the question begs to be asked." She wagged a finger at him. "It's rude, but it has to be asked. How much?"

"A hundred and thirty-eight million."

She choked on her pretzel, holding up a hand when he tapped her on the back. "Jesus Christ."

"Yeah, that's what I said. You want another beer?"

She shook her head, gaped at him. "You won a hundred and thirtyeight million dollars on a lottery ticket?"

"Yeah, go figure. Best six-pack I ever bought. It got a lot of play at the time. You didn't hear about it?"

" I… " She was still struggling to absorb. "I don't know. When?"

"Seven years ago last February."

"Well." She puffed out a breath, pushed a hand through her hair. Million replayed through her mind. "Seven years ago last February I was busy giving birth."

"Hard to keep up with current events. You got a kid? What variety?"

"A girl. Carly." She saw his gaze shift down to her left hand. "Divorced." "Okay. Lot ofjuggling, single parent, high-octane career. I bet you've got excellent hand-eye coordination."

"It takes practice." Millions, she thought. Millions stacked on top of millions, yet here he was, nursing a Guinness in a nice little pub in Savannah, looking like an average guy. Well, an average guy with a really cute dimple and a sexy little scar, a killer smile. But still. "Why aren't you living on an island in the South Pacific?"

"I like Savannah. No point in being really rich if you can't live where you like. How long have you been a cop?"

"Um." She felt blindsided. The cute, funny guy was now a cute, funny multimillionaire. "I, ah, started with the FBI right out of college, then-"

"You were with the FBI? Like Clarice Starling? Like Silence ofthe Lambs} Or Dana Scully-another hot redhead, by the way. Special Agent MacNamara?" He let out a long, exaggerated breath. "You really are hot."

"Due to this, that and the other thing, I decided to shift to the Savannah-Chatham PD. Hostage and crisis negotiator."

"Hostage?" Those dreamy eyes of his sharpened. "Like if a guy barricades himself in some office building with innocent bystanders and wants ten mil, or the release of all prisoners with brown eyes, you're the one he's talking to?"

"If it's in Savannah, chances are good."

"How do you know what to say? What not to say?"

"Negotiators are trained, and have experience in law enforcement. What?" she said when he shook his head.

"No. You have to know. Training, sure, experience, sure, but you have to know."

Odd, she thought, that he'd understand that when there were copsArnie Meeks sprang to mind-who didn't. And never would. "You hope you know. And you have to listen, not just hear. And listening to you, here's what I know. You live in Savannah because there wouldn't be enough to do on that island in the South Pacific, or enough people to do it with. You don't discount the sheer luck of buying a winning ticket along with a six-pack, but neither do you discount that sometimes things are simply meant. Telling me about the money wasn't bragging, it was just fact-and fun. Now, the way I reacted to it mattered, in as much as if I'd suddenly put moves on you, we'd end this evening having sex, which would also be fun. But I'd no longer be stuck in your mind."

"Something else I really like," he commented. "A woman who does what she's good at, and is good at what she does. If Suicide Joe was still working for me, I'd give the son of a bitch a raise."

She had to smile, and by God, she was charmed right down to the balls of her feet. But… "That's quite a bit for one drink," she decided. "Now I've got to get on home."

"You love your kid-that's first and last. Your eyes lit up when you said her name. The divorce still bothers you on some level. I don't know which, not yet. Your work isn't a career, it's a vocation. Cab-driving bartender," he said. "I know how to listen, too."

"Yes, indeed. That's quite a bit, on both sides, for one drink." He rose when she did. "I'll walk you to your car."

"It'll be a hike. It's in the shop. I'm catching a CAT."

"Jeez. I'll drive you. Don't be stupid, 'cause you're not." He took her arm with one hand, signaled a goodbye to the bar with the other on the way to the door.

"You're the second man who's offered me a ride tonight."

"Oh yeah?"

"The first involved hopping onto the handlebars of his bike. As I told him, I don't mind the bus."

"Take you just as long to walk to the bus stop as it will for us to walk to the lot down here. And I can promise you a smoother ride home." He glanced down at her. "Nice night for a drive."

"I'm only up on Jones."

"One of my favorite streets in the city." He strolled now, sliding his hand down her arm to link it with hers. "So's this one."

And here she was after all, Phoebe thought, half of a couple wandering on River Street, hand in hand. His was warm, the palm hard and wide. The sort of hand, she imagined, that could wrench the top off a pickle jar, catch a fly ball or cup a woman's breast with equal ease. His legs were long, his stride loose and lazy. A man, Phoebe judged, who knew how to take his time when he wanted to.

"Nice night for a walk, too, especially along the river," he commented. "I have to get home."

"So you said. Not cold, are you?"


He walked into the lot, hailing the attendant. "How you doing there, Lester?"

"Doing what comes, boss. Evening, ma'am."

A bill passed from hand to hand so smoothly Phoebe nearly missed it. Then she was standing, staring at a gleaming white Porsche. "No handlebars." Duncan shrugged, grinned, then opened the door for her.

"I'm forced to admit this will be better than the bus-or Johnnie Porter's Schwinn."

"You like cars?"

"If you'd asked me that a couple hours ago, I'd have given you several reasons why cars and I are on nonspeaking terms currently." She brushed a hand over the side of the buttery leather seat. "But I like this one just fine."

"Me, too."

He didn't drive like a maniac, which she'd half-expected, and had to admit had half-hoped. He did drive, however, like a man who knew the city the way she knew her own bedroom-every nook and cranny.

She gave him the address and let herself enjoy the sort of ride she'd never imagined experiencing. When he pulled up in front of her house, she let out a long sigh. "Very nice. Thank you."

"My pleasure." He got out, skirting the hood to take her hand again on the sidewalk. "Great house."

"It is, yes." There it was, she thought, rosy brick, white trim, tall windows, graceful terraces.

Hers, whether she liked it or not. "Family home, family duty. Long story."

"Why don't you tell me about it over dinner tomorrow night?" Something in her actively yearned when she turned toward him. "Oh, Duncan, you're awfully cute, and you're rich, and you've got a very sexy car. I'm just not in a position to start a relationship."

"Are you in a position to eat dinner?"

She laughed, shook her head as he walked with her up to the parlor level. "Several nights a week, depending."

"You're a public servant. I'm the public. Have dinner with me tomorrow night. Or pick another activity, another day. I'll work around it."

"I have a date with my daughter tomorrow night. Saturday, dinner, as long as it's understood this can't go anywhere."


He leaned in. It was smooth, but she saw the move. Still, it felt fussy and foolish to stop it. So she let his lips brush over hers. Sweet, she thought.

Then his hands ran down from her shoulders to her wrists, his mouth moved on hers. And she couldn't think at all. Deep, penetrating warmth, quick, hard flutters, a leap and gallop of pulse.

She felt it, all of it, as her body seemed to let out a breath too long held.

Her head actually spun before he eased back, and she was left staring, staring into his eyes. She said, "Oh, well, damn it."

He flashed that grin at her. "I'll pick you up at seven. 'Night, Phoebe."

"Yeah, 'night." She managed to unlock the door, and when she glanced back, he was standing on the sidewalk, still grinning at her. "Good night," she said again.

Inside, she locked up, turned off the porch light. And wondered what the hell she'd gotten herself into.

Chapter 4

She'd no more than reached the top of the stairs when her mother and Ava slipped out of the TV room with big, expectant smiles.

"So?" Essie began. "How was it?"

"It was fine. It was a drink." If she'd been wearing socks, Phoebe thought as she aimed for her bedroom, they'd have blown clear across Jones Street during that good-night kiss.

Behind her back, Essie and Ava exchanged a look, then headed off in pursuit.

"Well, what's he like? What did you talk about? Come on, Phoebs."

Ava clasped her hands together as if in prayer. "Give us dateless wonders the scoop."

"We had a beer in his very nice pub. I enjoyed it. I'm going to work out."

Another look was exchanged when Phoebe went to her dresser to pull out yoga pants and a sports bra.

"What'd you talk about?"

Phoebe glanced at her mother in the mirror, shrugged. She began to strip and change. She'd lived among women too long to worry about nudity. "This and that. He used to tend bar and drive a cab."

"Hmm. So he's enterprising, isn't he?"

"You could say."

"Where does he live?" Ava pressed. "In the city?"

"I didn't ask."

"Well, for goodness sake." Essie cast her eyes to the ceiling. "Why not?"

"It didn't come up." Phoebe reached in the little silver trinket box on her dresser for a tie, whipped her hair back into a tail.

"What about his people?" Essie demanded. "Who are his family, his-"

"That didn't come up either. I sort of got distracted."

"Because he was charming," Essie decided.

"He was-is-very charming. But I was distracted, considerably, when he told me he won the lottery several years ago, to the tune of a hundred and thirty-eight million."

She sailed out on that, automatically peeking in to check on Carly before moving to the stairs and up to the third floor.

She'd commandeered what had once been a maid's room for a little home gym. An indulgence on her part, Phoebe knew, but it also saved a health club fee and meant she could get an hour in early in the morning or at night, after Carly was in bed.

Work kept her away from home enough without adding gym time to it.

She'd sprung for an elliptical machine, a few free weights, and even a small TV to play exercise tapes. Carly often practiced her gymnastics while she worked out, so that was the big benefit of more motherdaughter time. Her mother and Ava used the equipment, so it paid for itself.

In the end it wasn't only more convenient but more economical. At least that's how she'd justified the expense.

Phoebe smiled to herself as she set the machine and climbed on. Her mother and Ava were already at the doorway, gaping.

"Did you say million?" Essie demanded. "I did."

"I remember that, I remember something about that." Ava laid a hand on her heart. "Millionaire cabdriver. That's what they called him. Local boy. Single ticket. Oh my God! That's him?"

"In the flesh."

"Well. God. I think I'm going to sit down." Essie did so, right on the floor. "That's not just rich, not even just wealthy. I don't know what it is."

"Lucky?" Phoebe suggested.

"And then some." Ava joined Essie on the floor. "He bought you a beer."

Amused, Phoebe kicked her warm-up to the next level. "Yeah. And pretzels. Then he drove me home in his Porsche."

"Is he slick?" Essie's brows drew together, and the frown line Phoebe had inherited instead of dimples creased between them. "That much money, he's likely slick."

"He's not. Smooth," Phoebe decided after a moment. "He's pretty damn smooth, but I have a feeling that's innate. He talked me into having dinner with him Saturday night."

"You're dating a millionaire." Ava nudged Essie with her elbow. "Our little girl's dating a millionaire."

Because the idea made her nervous, Phoebe bumped the resistance up another notch-on the machine, and in her. "I don't know about dating. I'm not interested in dating anybody. It's too damn much trouble. What are you going to wear, what are you going to talk about? Is he going to want to have sex-and there I say: Duh. Are you going to want to have sex, which actually does require some thought and consideration." "Dinner," Ava reminded her. "Saturday night."

"Yeah, well, he's smooth," Phoebe muttered. "He's pretty damn smooth."

The scene was a little storefront operation. Jasper C. Hughes, Attorney at Law. The intelligence Phoebe had indicated that Hughes, one Tracey Percell and an armed individual named William Gradey were barricaded inside.

The tactical team continued setting up outer and inner perimeters. Phoebe grabbed her ready box and headed for the first on scene. She was already unhappy knowing it was Arnie Meeks.


Arnie wore dark glasses, but she could feel the derision in his eyes as he stared down at her. "Guy's got two hostages. Witnesses heard gunfire. When I arrived, the subject yelled out that if anybody tried to come in, he'd kill them both." Phoebe waited a beat. "That's it?"

Arnie shrugged. "Subject claims the lawyer cheated him out of six thousand dollars and he wants it back."

"Where's the log, Officer?"

The way his lips curled, Phoebe wondered if he practiced the sarcastic look in the mirror.

"I've been trying to keep this asshole from killing two people. I haven't had time for a log."

"At what time was gunfire heard?"

"Approximately nine A.M."

"Nine?" She could feel both temper and fear knot up inside her.

"Nearly two hours ago, and you've just decided to send for a negotiator?"

"I have the situation under control."

"You're relieved. You-" She pointed to another uniformed cop as she pulled a log sheet out of her ready kit. "Everything gets written down. Time, activity, who says what and when." She took out a notebook.

Arnie grabbed her arm. "You can't just walk in here and take over."

"Yes, I can." She wrenched free. "The captain's on his way, and Commander Harrison is in charge of Tactical. Meanwhile, I'm in charge here, as negotiator. Get the hostage-taker on the phone," she ordered the cop she'd drafted as second negotiator.

"I'm the one keeping this from blowing up."

"Is that so?" She whipped around to Arnie. "Have you spoken to either hostage? Have you ascertained that they're still alive? If they've been harmed? If anyone requires medical attention? Where is your situation board? Your log? What progress have you made toward ending this situation without loss of life in the damn near two hours before you deigned to call this in?"

She grabbed the phone, checked her notebook where she'd already written down names.

"I don't want to talk to you!" The voice that answered screamed with emotion and fury. "I said I'm through talking to you."

"Mr. Gradey? This is Phoebe MacNamara. I'm a negotiator with the police department. You'll be talking to me now. You sound upset. Is everyone all right in there, Mr. Gradey? Does anyone have medical problems I should know about?"

"Everything's gone to hell. It's all gone to hell."

"Let's try to work all this out. Is it all right if I call you William? Is that what people call you?"

"I'm through talking!"

"I'm here to help." She heard it in his voice, he was through talking and poised to act. "Does anyone need anything in there? Medical attention? Water? Maybe something to eat."

"I needed my money."

"You need your money. Why don't you tell me about that, Mr. Gradey? Let me see if I can help you with that." She wrote down used past.tense.

"I said it all already. Nobody listened."

"Nobody listened to you. You sound angry about that. I understand, and I apologize if you feel your problem wasn't given attention. But I'm listening, Mr. Gradey, I'm listening to you now. I want to help you resolve all this."

"It's too late. It's over."

She heard the gunshot in her head a second before it blasted the air. She'd heard it in his voice.

The lawyer had a mild concussion, some bumps and bruises. The secretary was hysterical but unharmed. William Gradey was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

"Nice negotiating," Arnie said from behind her.

She turned, very slowly, until her eyes burned into his. "You arrogant son of a bitch."

"He took himself out while you were on the line. Not me." With his trademark smirk in place, Arnie swaggered off.

She forced herself not to go after him, not now, not now when her rage was so full and sharp and deep she could-would-do something she'd regret later.

It would wait for later. She promised herself that later she would deal with Officer Arnold Meeks. For now, Phoebe stood and watched Crime Scene walk in and out of the building. A hand dropped on her shoulder.

"Nothing more for you to do here," Dave said to her.

"I never had a chance with him. A minute, maybe two. It was over before I got here. I couldn't bring it back."


She shook her head. "Not now, please. I want to debrief the hostages, and take statements from any witnesses." She turned around. "I want all debriefing and statements recorded, and I want you to witness them."

"You and I both know sometimes things go south."

"What I don't know is if this one had to." The rage wanted to make her tremble. She refused. "I'm going to find out. The hostages are en route to the hospital, but the woman didn't seem to be hurt. She can talk. I'd like you to go with me, now, talk to her."

"All right. You may want to talk to the counselor. When you lose one-"

"I didn't lose him, and that I know." She bit off the words, so they both knew how close she was to snapping. "I never had him."

She didn't speak on the way to the hospital, and Dave didn't push. In the silence, she stared out the window and outlined the questions she'd ask, the tone she would take, to build the foundation for what she needed to prove.

Tracey Percell rested on a gurney in the ER's exam room. She was young, Phoebe noted, barely old enough to drink. A well-endowed young blonde who needed her roots done.

Red-rimmed, swollen eyes were weepy yet as she gnawed on her thumbnail.

"He shot himself. He shot himself right in front of us."

"You had a horrible experience. It may help you to talk about it, and it would certainly help us. Do you think you could do that, Tracey?"

"Okay. I hyperventilated, they said. Passed out. They said I should lie down awhile, but he didn't hurt me. I'm really lucky he didn't hurt me. He punched Jasper, and he stuck the gun right in his face. And-"

"You must've been scared." Phoebe sat beside the bed, patted Tracey's hand before she took out her tape recorder. "Is it all right if I record what we talk about?"

"Sure. They said they were going to call my boyfriend. Brad? My boyfriend Brad's going to come."

"That's good. If he doesn't come before we leave, I'll check on Brad myself. How's that?"

"Thanks. Thanks." Tracey stopped biting her thumbnail as if the mere thought of having her boyfriend come was enough to settle her. "I feel so weird. Like I watched a scary movie, but I was in it."

"I know. But it's over now. You work for Mr. Hughes?"

"Uh-huh. I'm a legal secretary. It's not much, but it's okay."

"And you went to work today, just like usual."

"I go in to open the office at, like, ten to nine. Jasper got in at the same time today. Lots of times he's later, but we got there right before nine today. We'd barely opened when he came in. Mr. Gradey. He pushed right in the door and punched Jasper in the face. Knocked him down. I screamed because he had the gun. He looked crazy." Tracey's eyes watered again as she snatched out two tissues from the box nested on her lap. "He looked just crazy."

"What happened then?"

"He said for me to get up and lock the door. He said he'd shoot

Jasper dead if I tried to run. He had the gun right to his head, and I was scared; I just did what he said. He said for us to push the desk in front of the door, and when we didn't move fast enough, I guess, he shot the gun."

"He shot at you?"

"No. He shot it into the floor, put a hole in the carpet. I guess I screamed again, and I was crying. He said to shut the hell up and do what he said. So we did. Then he hit Jasper again and started yelling that he wanted his money. His six thousand five hundred twenty-eight dollars and thirty-six cents. Every penny." She started on her thumbnail again. "Um, I guess you could say Jasper sort of talked him out of the money, for, you know, expenses and costs for this suit. And, um, the suit didn't really go anywhere."

"He was a client?"

"Well, I guess Jasper didn't really put him on the books. So to speak." Her gaze skidded away. "I don't know all the particulars, really." "We'll get to that later."

"Okay. It'd be better if you asked Jasper about all that anyway. Jasper told him he didn't have the money, and he said Jasper better get it or else. They were talking about going to the bank, then the cop came."

"The first officer arrived on scene at that time."

"Well, yeah. Sort of. You could hear the sirens, and Mr. Gradey made me go with him to the window and peek through the blinds. Mr. Gradey yelled out something like: 'Get the hell away. You try to come in and I'll kill everybody.' How he had two people in there and a gun, and he'd use it. Gradey told me to yell out, too, so I did, like, please, he means it."

She knuckled her eyes. "Gosh."

"You must've been scared."

"Oh my God, ma'am, I've never been so scared in my whole life."

"Did Mr. Gradey hurt you then?"

"No. No. He made me lie down on the floor, on my stomach. Jasper, too. Then the cop, I guess he had one of those what-do-you-call-it? Bullhorns? He called out how he was Officer Arnold Meeks, and how Mr. Gradey was to put down his weapon and come out with his hands up. Right quick, too, he said, like he meant business. And Mr. Gradey, he just yelled back he was William Gradey and we could all go to hell unless he got his six thousand five hundred twenty-eight dollars and thirty-six cents back.

"Then they just yelled at each other awhile."

"Yelled at each other?"

"Yelled and cursed at each other for I don't know how long. Mr. Gradey wanted to know where the cop was, where the law was when Jasper stole his money. And the cop's like, 'I'm not concerned with your money, and you better get your ass out here, boy, with your hands up.'" Phoebe glanced at Dave. "How did Mr. Gradey react to that?"

"He got really pissed, you know, 'specially when the policeman said how Mr. Gradey didn't have the balls to shoot us. Honest to God, I thought he'd do it then and there just to prove the cop wrong. I couldn't stop crying."

"You heard the policeman say that?"

"Yes, ma'am. Only he didn't say Mr. Gradey didn't have the balls, he said 'you asshole.'"

Phoebe looked at Dave as Tracey began to shred one of her tissues into bits of fluff. "And so Mr. Gradey, he told the cop to come on in and get him, and he'd shoot him, and us, too. How he needed his money. He had to sell his car, and he didn't have anywhere to live, and the cop's saying he'll be living in a cell and won't need a car. After a while, it seemed like a long while, more cops came.

"Do you think Brad's here yet?"

"I'll go find out in just a minute. What happened next, Tracey?"

"Well, Mr. Gradey, he got more upset. I thought, I really thought he was just going to shoot us and get it over with. I started crying again, loud I guess. He told me not to worry, it wasn't my fault. Cops and lawyers, he said. It was cops and lawyers, and they always fucked over regular people. I think… "

"What do you think?" Phoebe prompted.

"I think he was going to let me go on out. I just got the feeling. Me, not Jasper. 'Cause he asked if he let me go out, would I tell the cops about the money, and I said I would. Sure I would. Then the phone rang. That cop Meeks yelled for Jasper to answer. 'Pick up the phone, you son of a bitch.'"

Tracey let out a sigh. "I know it sounds stupid, but that policeman scared me about as much as Mr. Gradey and the gun." She swiped at her eyes. "I wish he'd just shut up. I wish he had because I think Mr. Gradey was going to let me go, and maybe he wouldn't've shot himself in the head right in front of me. I don't know."

"Okay, Tracey. All right now," Phoebe soothed as Tracey began to sob.

"It was so awful to see. He said how I could sit up when he was asking me if I'd tell the police about the money. So I was sitting there on the floor when the phone rang and all. I couldn't hear what the other guy said, but I was watching Mr. Gradey. I was watching and thinking if he lets me go, I'm never coming back to this office. I'll go back, take some more business courses, get me a better job. Mr. Gradey didn't say much, but he looked sad. Scared. Sad and scared like I was, and he hung up the phone. Next time it rang, I didn't think he was going to answer. Then he looked at me and said how he was going to put it on speaker so I could see how y'all treated people like us. So I could see how we didn't have a chance. There was a woman on this time. It was you," Tracey said after a moment. "Sure, it was you. So you know what happened next."

"Yes. I know what happened next."

Phoebe waited until they were outside, away from people, in the balm of spring air. "He incited the suicide. He risked the lives of two hostages with his posturing. He ignored procedure, trampled over every guideline of negotiation. And for what?"

"Not every police officer has negotiation skills, or understands how to handle a hostage situation from that standpoint."

She rounded on it, couldn't stop herself. "Goddamn it, Dave. Are you defending him? Are you, for one second, defending what he did?"

"No." Dave held up a hand. "And I'm not going to argue with you, Phoebe. Not when you're right. Officer Meeks will be debriefed."

"I'll be debriefing him. It's my purview," she said before Dave could deny.

"And you and Arnie Meeks already have considerable friction. You were on the line with the subject when he terminated."

"If I don't debrief Meeks, it undermines my authority. He didn't call it in for nearly two hours. Right there, he's earned a rip. This isn't a matter of him having a problem with me. It's a matter of him being a problem, with a badge."

"You be careful it doesn't smell like payback."

"A man's dead. There's no paying it back."

Phoebe took her time, in fact took the rest of the long day, to gather statements, information, to write up her notes and complete the incident report.

Then she called Arnie into her office. "I'm going off shift," he told her. "Close the door. Sit down."

"I'm on eight-to-fours. I go past four, I put in the OT." But he swaggered over, took a seat. Lifted his jaw at the recorder on her desk. "What's this?"

"This conversation is being recorded for your protection, and mine."

"Maybe I need my delegate."

"If you want your delegate present, you're free to call him." Deliberately, she nudged the phone across the desk toward him. "Be my guest."

Arnie shrugged. "You got five minutes before I start clocking OT."

"At oh-nine-eleven this morning you responded to reports of gunfire at the offices of Jasper C. Hughes, Attorney at Law. Is that correct?"

"That's right."

"You responded to this location, running hot, approached the building in question. At that time, an individual inside the premises informed you he was armed, with two hostages. Is this correct?"

"If you're going to go through the whole report, we're wasting time."

"Did you call for backup or for a negotiation team at that time?"

"No. I had it handled. Until you got there."

"You identified yourself as a police officer, via bullhorn."

"I took cover, as procedure, and ID'd myself, sure. I told the guy to put down the gun, to come out. He refused."

Phoebe sat back. "You're right. We're wasting time. The reports are here, including witness statements, statements from both hostages, statements from the officers who arrived on scene subsequently. Which include the fact that you did not follow procedure, did not call for a negotiation team, did not follow any of the guidelines in hostage negotiation and instead threatened and berated the hostage-taker into an agitated state."

"Guy shoots up an office, he's already in an agitated state."

"And there, you're correct. You never tried to talk him down." Though her eyes flashed fury, her voice stayed flat, cold, utterly calm. "You told him you didn't care, you told him he was going to jail."

He sent her that tight, smirking smile. "Not supposed to lie in negotiations." "You're going to want to wipe that smirk off your face, Officer. You pushed and you pushed." She snatched up a page from a report. "'Officer Meeks then engaged the subject via telephone and advised the subject he'd be better offjust putting the gun to his head and pulling the trigger.'"

"Reverse psychology. It was under control until you got on the line. Hostages made it out, didn't they? No loss of life."

"There were three people in that office. Only two walked out."

"Only two mattered."

"In your opinion, yes, which I assume is why you felt entitled to call the hostage-taker a worthless fuck. Although I see nothing in the report that indicates the hostages mattered to you. You never asked for or ascertained their condition, and took actions that endangered their wellbeing including telling the armed hostage-taker he didn't have the balls to shoot the hostages."

"You want to blame somebody for your screwup, ma'am-"

"My actions will hold up, Officer, I promise you. Yours, on the other hand, don't. You're suspended for thirty days."

He came up out of the chair. "Bullshit."

"The incident will be investigated, as will your actions during it. Meanwhile, you are ordered to report to the departmental psychiatrist for an evaluation within the next seventy-two hours."

The ugly red spread over his face, as it had in the lecture room. "You're not running over me this way."

"You're free to protest the suspension, but I can tell you you'll find Captain McVee, who has copies of all statements, in agreement with my decision."

"He'd agree to flap his wings like a chicken seeing as you're blowing him."

She got slowly to her feet. "What did you say to me?"

"You think it's some secret you're sitting here because you let McVee bang you? We'll see who's fucking suspended when I'm done with you. Bitch."

"You're suspended, thirty days, and the tag for insubordination is going in your jacket. You're going to want to get out of here, Officer, before you make it worse."

He stepped to her desk, planted his hands on it, leaned forward. "It's going to get worse, for you. That's a promise."

She felt the clutch in her throat. "You're dismissed. Badge and weapon, Officer."

His hand moved to his sidearm, his fingers danced over it, and Phoebe saw something in his eyes that told her he was more than just an arrogant son of a bitch.

The quick rap on the door had her fighting not to jolt. Sykes poked his head in. "Sorry to interrupt. I need a minute, Lieutenant, when you've got one."

"I've got one. Officer Meeks? I gave you an order."

He undipped his weapon, tossed it and his badge onto her desk.

When he turned and stalked out, Phoebe allowed herself one shuddering breath.

"You okay, LT?"

"Yes. Yes. What do you need?"

"Nothing. Things looked a little heated in here, that's all."

"Okay. Yeah. Thanks." She wanted to sink down in her chair, made herself stand. "Detective? You've been around here a long time."

"Twelve years."

"Hear a lot of the gossip, the buzz?"


"Detective, is it common belief that Captain McVee and I have a sexual relationship?"

He looked so stunned that her stomach instantly smoothed. "Jesus, Lieutenant, no." Sykes closed the door behind him. "Did that asshole say that?"

"Yeah. Let's leave it inside here, please. Let's leave the whole thing inside this office."

"If that's what you want." Sykes nodded down at Arnie's badge and gun. "I'll say one more thing I'd like to stay in this office. It doesn't break my heart to see that. You interested in my opinion, between you and me?"

"I am. Yeah, I'm interested."

"He'd never have had those in the first place without family connections. Guy's a loose cannon, boss. You watch your back."

"I'll be doing just that. Thank you. Thanks, Bull."

Sykes twinkled a little at her use of his nickname. He started for the door, stopped with his hand on the knob. "I guess some of us think of you as the captain's favorite niece. There were grumbles when you came in from the feds and took over here. Some of them were mine. Grumbling stopped pretty quick, from most. You're a good boss, Lieutenant.

That's what counts around here."


When he went out, she let herself sit. Let herself shake.

Chapter 5

What didn't suck, Phoebe decided, was to come home after a viciously bad day and find two dozen stargazer lilies waiting for her. Essie had arranged them into quite a show in Cousin Bess's big Waterford vase, culling out a trio from the field for Phoebe's bedroom.

"You can have the whole lot up in your room, of course, but I thought-"

"No, this is fine. This is lovely." Phoebe leaned over for a sniff of them where they stood elegant and splashy on the piecrust table in the family parlor. "We can all enjoy them here."

"I didn't read the note." Essie handed it over. "And I have to admit, it was a bitter war of conscience and curiosity. Even though I know who sent them."

"I suppose he did. Well." Phoebe tapped the little envelope on her palm.

"Oh, for God's sake, Phoebe, read it!" Ava stood behind Carly, rubbing the girl's shoulders. "We're dying here. I considered wrestling your mama to the ground for that note."

Phoebe supposed when a man sent flowers to a house with four females, he sent them to all. She opened the envelope, and read.

"'See you Saturday. Duncan.'"

"That's it?" Disappointment dragged through Ava's voice. "Not much of a poet, is he?"

"I'd say he's letting the flowers speak for themselves," Essie corrected. "That's poetical enough."

"Mama, is he your boyfriend?"

"He's just someone I'm going to have dinner with tomorrow," Phoebe told Carly.

"'Cause Sherrilynn's big sister has a boyfriend, and he makes her cry all the time. She lays across the bed in her room and cries all the time, Sherrilynn says."

"And I bet Sherrilynn's big sister enjoys every minute of it." Phoebe reached down to cup Carly's face. "I'm not much of a crier myself."

"You cried when you called Roy last time."

A mother could never hide tears from a child, and a mother who thought she could was delusional. "Not so very much. I'm going to go up and change. I heard a rumor it's pizza night around here."

"And DVD and popcorn night!"

"I heard that, too. I want to go take off my work, and put on my play."

Upstairs, Phoebe sat on the side of the bed. Could a mother ever really protect her child from her mistakes, or the ripples from them that spread all through a life?

Weren't they in this house now because of a single event from more than twenty years before? Weren't they all who they were, with their lives tangled together under this roof, because of that steamy summer night when she was twelve? Decisions she made, actions she took, even words she spoke would affect her daughter forever. Just as her mother's had affected her.

Mama had done her best, Phoebe thought. But trusting a man with herself, with her children, had changed the course of their world. And she remembered it all, every movement, every moment, as if it were yesterday.

The room was a box of heat, stained with the grease of his sweat. He'd begun to swig whiskey straight from the bottle of Wild Turkey Mama kept up high in the kitchen cupboard, so the stench of whiskey added another smear to the trapped air.

Phoebe hoped he'd drink enough to pass out before he used the.45 clutched in his free hand that he'd taken to waving around like a mean little boy with a pointy stick.

Put your eye out, you're not careful.

He'd already fired off a few rounds, but just to kill lamps or bric-abrac and put holes in the walls. He'd held it to Mama's head, too, screaming and cursing as he'd dragged her across the floor by her long red hair. But he hadn't shot Mama, not yet, or made good on his threats to put a bullet in Phoebe's little brother Carter, or Phoebe herself.

But he could, he could, and he made sure they knew he would if they gave him any goddamn lip. So fear lived in the box, too, a terrible, helpless fear that hung in the trapped air like blackflies.

Though all the shades were drawn or the curtains pulled tight over the windows, she knew the police were outside. He talked to them on the phone, Reuben did. She wished she knew what they were saying to him because he mostly calmed down afterward.

If she knew, for sure, what they said to calm him, maybe she could say it, too, in the in-between times he got tired of talking to them and hung up the phone and before he stirred himself up hot again and they had to try to cool him off, one more time.

He called the person on the other end of the phone Dave, as if they were friends, and once he'd gone on a long ramble about fishing. Now, he'd gone back to pacing and drinking and cursing. The terrible in-between time. Phoebe no longer flinched when he swung the barrel of the gun toward the sofa where she and Carter huddled.

She was too tired to flinch.

He'd broken in just after supper, when the sun had still been up. It had been down a long time now. So long, she thought maybe it would be coming up again before long.

Reuben had shot the pretty little clock with the mother-of-pearl face that had been a wedding present to Mama and Daddy, where it sat on the dropleaf table, so Phoebe couldn't be sure how many hours had passed since its death at five minutes past seven.

Mama loved that clock. Phoebe knew that's why Reuben had killed it, because Mama set such store by that sweet little clock.

When the phone rang again, he slammed the bottle on the little table and snatched it up.

"Dave, you son of a bitch, I said I want the electric turned back on. Don't you fucking tell me you're working on it."

He waved the gun, and Phoebe heard Carter suck in his breath. She rubbed a hand over the point of his knee to keep him still, to keep him quiet.

As much store as Mama set by the little clock, she set a lot more by Carter. Reuben knew that, too. So hurting Carter was bound to be somewhere on Reuben's list of things to do.

"Don't you fucking tell me we're going to work this out. You're not in here sweating like a goddamn pig, using goddamn oil lamps. You get the air back on in here, and right quick, and the lights, or I'm going to hurt one of these kids. Essie, get your skinny, worthless ass over here and tell him I mean what I say. Now!"

Phoebe watched as her mother pushed out of the chair he'd ordered her to sit in. Her face looked haggard in the lamplight, her eyes stunned as a trapped rabbit. When she was close enough to take the phone, he hooked an arm around her throat, pressed the barrel of the gun to her temple.

Beside Phoebe, Carter braced to leap. Phoebe gripped his hand, hard, shook her head, to keep him on the couch. "Don't." She barely breathed the word. "He'll hurt her if you try."

"Tell him I mean what I say!"

Essie kept her eyes straight ahead. "He means what he says."

"Tell him what I'm doing now."

Tears slid down her cheeks, bumping into the dried blood from the cut his fist had ripped there earlier. "He's holding a gun to my head. My children are sitting together on the sofa. They're frightened. Please, do what he wants."

"You should've done what I wanted, Essie." He closed his hand over her breast, squeezed. "You should've kept doing what I wanted, then none of this would be happening. I told you you'd be sorry, didn't I?"

"Yes, Reuben, you told me."

"You hear that, Dave? It's her fault. Whatever happens in here, it's her fault. I was to put a bullet in her useless brain right now, it's her own damn fault."

"Mr. Reuben?" Phoebe heard her own voice, calm as a spring morning. It felt like it came from someone else, someone whose heart wasn't punching like fists into her throat. But Reuben's hard eyes tracked over and latched onto her.

"I ask you to talk, little bitch?"

"No, sir. I just thought maybe you were getting hungry. Maybe you want me to make you a sandwich. We've got some nice ham." Phoebe didn't-couldn't-allow herself to look at her mother. She felt her mama's fear rising like a flood, and if she looked at it head-on she might drown in it.

"You figure if you fix me a sandwich, I won't shoot your whore of a mother in the head?"

"I don't know. But we got some nice ham, and some potato salad." She wasn't going to cry, Phoebe realized. It surprised her there weren't any tears pushing against that hammering heart. But there was fury in there, bubbling with the nerves in her belly. "I made the potato salad myself. It's good."

"Go on then, take that lamp with you. Don't think I can't see you in there. You try anything stupid, I'm going to shoot your baby brother in the balls."

"Yes, sir." She rose, lifted the little oil lamp. "Mr. Reuben? Can I use the bathroom first, please? I really have to go."

"Jesus Christ. Cross your legs and hold it."

"I've been holding it, Mr. Reuben. If I could just use the bathroom, real quick, I'd make you a nice plate of food." She cast her eyes down. "I could leave the door open. Please?"

"You better piss fast. I don't like how long you take, I'll start breaking your mama's fingers."

"I'll be fast." She hurried toward the bathroom right off the living room.

She put the lamp on the back of the toilet, then, yanking down her pants, prayed that nerves and simple embarrassment wouldn't clamp her bladder shut. She shot a quick glance at the window over the tub. Too small, she knew, for her to wiggle out of. Carter could probably make it. If she could convince Reuben to let Carter use the bathroom, she'd tell Carter to try to get out.

She hopped up, flushing with one hand, reaching up to ease open the medicine cabinet with the other. "Yes, sir!" she called back when Reuben shouted at her to hurry the hell up.

She grabbed the little bottle of her mother's Valium from the top shelf, stuffed it into her pocket.

When Phoebe came out, Reuben shoved her mother so that Essie went sprawling toward the sofa. "You there, Dave? I'm going to have me a little bite to eat. If the electric isn't on by the time I finish, I'm going to play eenie meenie miny mo and kill one of these kids. You go make that sandwich, Phoebe. And don't be stingy with the potato salad."

It was a shotgun house, and small with it. Phoebe made sure she stayed in his line of sight as she took the ham and the salad out of the refrigerator.

She could hear him talking to Dave, and struggled to keep her hands steady while she got out a plate and a saucer. A million dollars? Now he wanted a million dollars and a Cadillac, along with a free pass over the state line. Stupid as he was mean, Phoebe decided. Using the big blue bowl of potato salad as cover, she dumped pills on the saucer. Using her mother's pestle, she crushed them as best she could. She dumped a generous scoop of potato salad on the pills, mixed them together.

She slathered mustard on two pieces of bread, slapped some ham and slices of American cheese between them. Maybe if she could get a knife out of the drawer, maybe

"What's taking so fucking long?"

Phoebe's head jerked up. He'd put down the phone-she hadn't been paying close enough attention-and with the gun jammed under Carter's chin, was halfway to the kitchen doorway.

"I'm sorry. I just have to get you a fork for the potato salad." Palming the pill bottle, she turned, yanked open the flatware drawer. She let the bottle drop in as she reached down for a fork. "You want some lemonade, Mr. Reuben? Mama made it fresh just-"

"Get that food out here, girl, and quick."

She snatched up the plate. It was easy to let the fear show, to let it mask everything else. Seeing the gun under Carter's jaw overwhelmed even her rage. Her hands shook so the plate bobbed up and down. When he smiled, she understood their fear was part of what he wanted. Giving it to him cost her nothing.

"Put that plate by the phone there, and go sit your skinny ass down on the sofa."

She did exactly as she was told, but before Phoebe could sit, Reuben lifted his leg to give Carter a solid boot on the ass that sent the boy pitching forward. Essie leaped up, stopping only when Phoebe blocked her way, shot her a fierce look.

Phoebe walked over to pull Carter up herself. "Hush, Carter! Mr. Reuben doesn't want to hear all that crying while he's trying to eat."

"Got some sense." With a nod, Reuben sat, laid the gun across his lap. He picked up the fork with one hand, the phone with the other. "Don't know where you came by it with that worthless whore who raised you. Where's that electric, Dave?" he said into the phone, and took a forkful of potato salad.

While Carter sniffled in their mother's arms, Phoebe watched Reuben eat. Had she put enough pills in? Enough to make him pass out? The liquor he washed down the food with would help, wouldn't it? Maybe it would kill him. She'd read about things like that, pills and liquor. Maybe the son of a bitch would just die.

She leaned down, whispered into Carter's ear. Her brother shook his head, so she pinched him, hard. "You do just what I say, or I'll slap you stupid."

"Shut the hell up over there! Did I tell you to talk?"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Reuben. I was just telling him not to cry. He's gotta pee, too. Can he just go use the bathroom, Mr. Reuben? I'm sorry, Mr. Reuben, but it'll be an awful mess if he wets his pants. It'll only take him a minute."

"Christ's sake! G'wan, then."

Phoebe closed her hand over Carter's, squeezed viciously. "Go on, Carter. Do what you're told."

Knuckling his eyes, Carter pushed off the sofa and dragged his heels into the bathroom.

"Mr. Reuben?"

Mama hissed at her to stay quiet, but Phoebe ignored her. Carter could get out. If Reuben didn't think about him for a few minutes, Carter could get out.

"Do you think if I asked that man to turn on the electric, he would?

It's so hot. Maybe if I asked him, if I told him we're all so hot, he'd turn it on?"

"Hear that, Dave?" Reuben kicked back in his chair and grinned.

His glassy eyes drooped. "Got a kid wants to negotiate with you. Sure, what the fuck. Come on over here."

When Phoebe stood in front of him, Reuben passed her the phone. And pressed the gun to her belly. "Tell him what I'm doing first." Sweat snaked a slow, fat line down her back. Why didn't the pills work? Had Carter wriggled out the window?

"Mister? He's got the gun at my stomach, and I'm awful scared.

We're so hot. No, we're not hurt, but we're so hot it's going to make us sick. If we could just have the air-conditioning back on, maybe we could sleep, 'cept we're so scared I guess we'd need a bunch of sleeping pills or something. Please, mister, would you please turn on the electricity? "And, sir?" She gripped the phone tighter when Reuben reached for it. When he shrugged, leaned back, the wave of relief was like giddiness. "Could you please give him the money and the car he wants? He's been real nice to us since I gave him the potato salad I made myself. He even let me go to the bathroom first. We're all just so tired we might just pass out any minute, you know?"

Reuben held out a hand for the phone, then gave her a nasty little poke with the gun to move her back. "Hear that, Dave? This girl here, she wants the electric back on. Wants me to have the money and that Caddy. Hell no, I didn't let them get anything to eat, and I won't till that electric's back on. Fact, I'm gonna go eenie meenie right now and… Where's that boy? Where is that little shit?"

"Mr. Reuben, he's right… " Phoebe shot out her arm as if to point and knocked over the bottle of Wild Turkey. "Oh, I'm sorry! I'm sorry. I'll clean it right up. I'll-"

She went down, pain searing over her face as the back of his hand slammed against her cheek. "Stupid bitch!" He lurched up, staggered. Phoebe looked straight into the barrel of the gun.

Like the wrath of God, Essie leaped off the couch and onto his back. He bucked; she bit. Her nails scraped like razors down his face as they both screamed, both cursed. Phoebe scrambled back in a crab walk, barely avoiding a bullet as Reuben went down to his knees under Essie's assault.

"Help us! Help us now!" Phoebe shouted until her lungs burned.

She grabbed the bottle, prepared to whale in, but Reuben went down, flat on his face. Weeping, screaming, Essie continued to pound him with her fists, even when the door burst open. Even when men rushed in with guns.

"Don't shoot us. Don't shoot us." Weeping, Phoebe crawled to her mother.

Things slowed down to a dream, it seemed like. And in the dream people walked her through water where voices echoed and the lights hurt her eyes. Once, she fell asleep, and did dream. But the dream was so scary she pushed herself awake again.

Mama had to have X-rays of her face to make sure her cheekbone wasn't broken, and stitches to close the gash. Phoebe sat in the little room in the hospital. She didn't want to lie down, didn't want to sleep again and fall back into the dream where the gun exploded, and the bullet-like a live thing-hunted her down and killed her.

Carter slept curled up in a ball on the narrow bed. His fists were clenched, and off and on his body twitched like a horse's did when flies landed on it.

Doctors and nurses and police came in and out, and asked questions. When they did, she wanted them to go away. When they went away, she wished they'd come back so she wasn't alone.

But there'd been water to drink, to wash the grit that had coated her throat. And then icy Coca-Cola, straight from the bottle.

She wanted her mother. She wanted Mama so bad it hurt worse than Reuben's hand across her face.

When a man came in with a big McDonald's takeout bag, the smell of burgers and fries had her stomach jittering with sudden and acute hunger.

He smiled at her, glanced at Carter, then came over to sit beside Phoebe on the bed. "Thought you might be hungry. Don't know about you, but I'd rather skip the hospital food. I'm Dave."

She knew she stared, knew it was rude. But she'd expected Dave to be old-older anyway. He looked barely older than the high school boys Phoebe liked to sigh over in secret. His hair was a light brown with a lot of curl to it, his eyes shades lighter and blue. He wore a dark blue shirt, open at the collar. And he smelled just a little sweaty.

He held out his hand, but when Phoebe offered hers, he didn't shake it. He held it, firm, just the way his eyes held hers. "I'm really happy to meet you, Phoebe. Really happy to see you."

"I'm glad to meet you, too."

Then she did what she hadn't done in all the hours inside the hot little house, in all the time she'd waited while her brother slept. She cried.

Dave sat, held her hand. He didn't say a thing. At one point he got up, dug up a box of tissues and put them in her lap. When her tears slowed, he pulled the Quarter Pounders and fries out of the bag. "My mama," Phoebe began.

"She's going to be fine. I checked on her, and I asked if I could have a little time with you before they took you and your brother to her, or brought her to you. Looks like he could use some sleep anyway."

"I guess."

"I know you were scared, but you were smart, too, and you were brave."

"I wasn't brave. I was mad." She picked up the burger, bit in. Her stomach clenched as if deciding whether or not it would accept the food. Then it relaxed again. "Carter was brave for climbing out the window."

"He said you told him to, that you said you'd slap him stupid if he didn't do it."

She flushed a little because she was forbidden to hit her brother.

Even though there were occasions she judged he'd earned it enough for her to break the rule.

"I guess I did."


"Reuben would've hurt him. He'd've hurt him bad before he hurt me, or even Mama again. Because he's the baby, and Reuben knows Mama loves him more than anything."

"You'd already put the pills in the food before you told Carter to climb out the window."

"I should've put more in. I wasn't sure how many. You knew what I was trying to tell you, right away." She picked up a fry. "I felt better when I was talking to you."

"It was smart of you to find a way to tell me you put something in his food. It bought me just a little more time."

"How come you didn't turn the electric back on? He got so mad about that."

"Well, you know how you talked him into letting you go to the bathroom before you fixed his food? It's kind of like that. You try to get something back, like an exchange. Fact was, I was about to when we spotted Carter climbing out the window. I wanted to keep Reuben talking-or let you talk-while we got Carter to safety and figured out the new situation. Did you knock over the bottle to distract him, so he'd be mad at you and forget about Carter?"

"I figured he'd hit me, but I didn't know he'd get that mad. I think he'd have shot me if Mama hadn't jumped on him. I should've given him more pills, is what. Then it wouldn't have taken so long for him to pass out. Mama wouldn't've had the pills if it wasn't for him. That's irony." She smiled a little when Dave laughed. "I learned about irony in English class. She got the pills because he made her so upset and nervous. He pretended to be nice when he met her, when they started going out. But he started picking on her, and us, and pushing his weight around. He slapped her once, right across the face."

"She had a restraining order on him."

Phoebe nodded. "She told him she wouldn't see him anymore and to go away. But he kept coming around, or going to her work. Following her in his car. I think more than that, but she wouldn't tell me. He came to the house one night, too, drunk, and she called the police. They made him go away, but that's all they did."

"I'm sorry we didn't do more."

"They told her she could get that restraining order, so she did. I don't see how it helped her any."

"No. I'm sorry about that, too. It seems to me, Phoebe, your mother did everything right, everything she could do to protect herself and her family."

Phoebe stared down at the paper napkin balled in her fist. "Why didn't he just go away when she said she didn't want him?"

"I don't know."

It wasn't the answer she wanted, Phoebe decided. Worse, it was kin to a lie. She hated when grown-ups lied because they didn't think you could understand.

Phoebe ate more fries and shook her head. "Maybe you don't know exactly, but you sort of do. You just think I won't understand 'cause I'm only twelve-almost twelve. But I understand lots of things."

He studied her another moment, as if he could read something on her face like the words in a book. "Okay, I do sort of know, or I have an opinion. I think he's mean, he's a bully, and he didn't like the idea of anyone telling him what to do, or what he could have, especially a woman like your mother. So he tried to scare her and intimidate her, and he got madder and madder because it wasn't working the way he wanted. I think he wanted to hurt her, to show her he was the boss, and it got out of hand, even for him."

Phoebe ate another fry. "I think he's a son of a bitch."

"Yeah, that, too. Now he's going to be a son of a bitch in jail, for a long time."

She thought about this as she sucked on the Coke he'd brought her. "On TV, they usually shoot the bad guy. The SWAT team shoots him."

"I like it better when nobody gets shot. What you did in there? It helped it work out so nobody died. Dying's a short end, Phoebe. I know you're tired, and you want to see your mother." He stood, then pulled a card out of his pocket. "I want you to know you can call me anytime.

You need to talk about all this again, or ask questions, or you need help with anything, you just call me."

She took the card and read: Detective David McVee. "Carter, too? And Mama?"

"Absolutely. Anything, Phoebe, anytime."

"Okay, thanks. Thanks for the burger and fries."

"My pleasure, that's a fact." This time when he offered his hand, he shook hers. "You take care of yourself, and your family."

"I will."

When he left, Phoebe put his card in her pocket. She rolled up the takeout bag to help keep the food Dave had brought for Carter warm, shoved the trash in the waste bin.

She crossed to the window to look out. The sun had come up. She didn't know when dawn had broken or how long it had been light. But she knew the dark hours were over.

When the door opened and her mother stood there, her arms open wide, Phoebe all but flew into them.

"Mama, Mama, Mama."

"My sweet girl. My baby girl."

"Your face. Mama-"

"It's all right. I'm all right."

How could it be all right with that line of stitches running down her mother's lovely cheek, marring her soft, soft skin? When her sparkling blue eyes were dull and the bruising crawled out around them?

But Essie put her hands on Phoebe's shoulders. "It's nothing. We're safe, we're all safe. That's everything. Oh God, Phoebe, I'm so sorry."

"Not you. Not you." Tears spilled again as Essie brushed kisses over the bruise on Phoebe's jaw. "Mama, it wasn't your fault. Dave even said so."

"I let Reuben into our lives. I opened the door to him. That much, at least, is my fault." She stepped away to walk over, to lean over Carter and rest her cheek on his head. "God, God, if anything had happened to you, to either of you, I don't know what I'd do. You got him out," she murmured. "You got Carter out of the house. It's more than I did."

"No, Mama-"

"I'll never look at you quite the same way again, Phoebe." Essie straightened. "I'll always look at you and see my little girl, my own baby girl, but now, every time I look at you, I'll see a hero."

"You beat him down to the floor," Phoebe reminded her. "I guess you're a hero, too."

"Maybe at the end of it. Well, I hate to wake him up, but I don't want to stay in this hospital anymore."

"Can we go home now?"

Essie brushed a hand over Carter's hair, faced her daughter again. "We're never going back there. I never want to go inside that place again. I'm sorry. I'd never feel safe."

"But where can we go?"

"We're going to stay with Cousin Bess. I called her, and she said we're to come."

"To the big house?" The idea of it had Phoebe's eyes opening wide. "But you and Cousin Bess don't hardly speak. You don't even like her."

"This morning, she's my favorite person in the world, save you and Carter. And we're going to be grateful to her, Phoebe, for opening her home to us when we need it."

"She didn't open it to us when Daddy died, or when-"

"Now she is." Essie snapped out the words. "And we're grateful to her. It's what we have to do."

"For now?"

"It's what we have to do," Essie repeated.

They rode to Cousin Bess's in a police car while Carter wolfed down the cold burger and fries, gulped down the Coke. They circled the park with the fountain sparkling in the air. The grand old house was rosy brick and soft white trim; it was lush with green lawn and tended flowers and draping trees.

It was a world away from the tiny shotgun house where Phoebe had lived for more than eight of her twelve years.

She noted her mother's back was poker straight as they climbed up the stone steps to the front door, so she stiffened hers as well. Mama rang the bell like company would, rather than family. The woman who answered the door was young and bright and beautiful. She made Phoebe think of a movie star with her golden fall of hair and slender build.

There was sympathy on her face as she held out her hands to Essie.

"Mrs. MacNamara, I'm Ava Vestry, Ms. MacNamara's personal assistant. Come in, come in. Your rooms are all ready for you. You must be exhausted, so I'll take you right up. Or if you'd rather have some breakfast, or some tea?"

"They don't need anyone fussing over them."

Cousin Bess made the announcement from the curve of the grand stairs. She stood, dressed in a crow-black dress, her thin face pinched with disapproval. Her hair was as gray as a Brillo pad with odd wings of black at either temple.

Now, as always, the first glimpse of her father's cousin made Phoebe think of the mean Almira Gulch, come to stuff Toto in her basket. Wicked old witch.

"Thank you for taking us in, Cousin Bess," Mama said in the same quiet voice she'd used when Reuben had a gun to her head.

"Doesn't surprise me you got yourself into a mess. The three of you are to wash, thoroughly, before you sit at my table or lie on my sheets."

"I'll see to it, Ms. MacNamara." Ava turned her beautiful, compassionate smile onto Phoebe, then Carter. "Maybe the children are hungry.

Maybe after their bath, I could ask the cook to make pancakes or-" Apparently the idea of more food after the horrors of the night, the burger, the fries, the ride in a police car, was too much for Carter's stomach. It tossed up the Quarter Pounder right there on Cousin Bess's antique Aubusson carpet.

Mortified, exhausted, Phoebe just closed her eyes. Maybe she hadn't been shot and killed, but she was sure her life was over.

Mama had tended Cousin Bess's house for twenty years now, scrubbing, polishing, arranging. She'd served that demanding old woman until the day she died.

Through those two decades, the house had become Essie's worldnot just her home, or even her sanctuary. Her entire world. And what was outside it, her fears. It had been nearly a decade since Essie had gone beyond its terraces, its courtyard.

Reuben's death in prison hadn't broken those locks for her, Phoebe thought as she rose to put her gun in the lockbox on the top shelf of her closet. The bitter end to Cousin Bess's bitter life hadn't thrown the doors open for her.

In fact, it seemed to Phoebe those events had simply added more and stronger locks.

If Cousin Bess had done the right thing, the kind thing and-fat chance-passed the house to her mother instead of shackling Phoebe to it, would things have been different? Better? Would her mother be able to walk out of the house, stroll over to the park, pop in and visit a neighbor?

They'd never know.

Where would she herself be now if not for that night? Would she have married Roy? Would she have found a way to keep her marriage together, to give her daughter the father she deserved?

She'd never know that either.

So they'd have the lilies in the parlor, order pizza, and settle in together for a Friday night at home.

And Phoebe would go out to dinner Saturday-just this once. There was too much in her life already that needed tending without adding a man to it.

She'd cried when she spoke to Roy last, yes, she had. But those tears had mostly been anger. She'd shed most of the sorrow and disappointment long before, when Carly had been only a baby.

Too much that needed tending, Phoebe thought again as she changed. She glanced at the blush pink lilies in the cobalt-blue vase on her dresser. Flowers were lovely. But blooms faded and died.

Chapter 6

Still, flowers and an evening of girl movies smoothed out a lot of edges. At the end of the marathon, Phoebe carried her sleeping daughter to bed. Any-o'clock made it to just past midnight this time.

Twenty minutes later, Phoebe was as deeply asleep as her daughter. The sound of the doorbell had her bolting straight up in bed. She rolled out, glancing at the bedside clock-three-fifteen-before snatching up her robe. She was already at the steps and starting down when

Essie and Ava came out of their rooms.

"Was that the doorbell?" Essie clutched her robe closed at the neck, and her knuckles were white. "At this hour?"

"Probably just kids fooling around. You stay up here with Carly, okay? In case it woke her."

"Don't open the door. Don't-"

"Don't worry, Mama."

That twenty-year-old fear, Phoebe knew, was always waiting to push off from the bottom of the dark pool toward the surface.

"I'll go with you. Probably just a couple half-drunk teenagers playing pranks," Ava said before Phoebe could object.

No point in making it bigger than it was, Phoebe decided, and let

Ava walk down with her. "She'll be upset the rest of the night," Phoebe murmured.

"I'll see she takes a sleeping pill if she needs it. Stupid kids." Phoebe peered through the pattern of textured glass on the panel of the front door and saw nothing. They'd run off, she thought, likely laughing hysterically as kids would over waking up a household. But when she rose to her toes to study the veranda more carefully, she saw it.

"Go on up, Ava, tell Mama it was nothing. Just kids being a nuisance."

"What is it?" Ava clutched at Phoebe's arm. "Is there something out there?"

"Go on up and tell Mama. I don't want her scared. Tell her I'm just getting a glass of water while I'm down here."

"What is it? I'll go up and get Steven's baseball bat. Don't you open that door until-"

"Ava, nobody's out there, but I need to open this door, and I can't until you go up and tell Mama everything's fine. She's working herself up into a state by now. You know she is."

"Damn it." Loyalty to Essie overrode the rest. "I'm coming right back."

Phoebe waited until Ava was up the stairs before she unlocked the door. She scanned the street-right, left, across-but her gut told her whoever had rung the bell was gone. She had only to crouch down to pick up what lay on the doorstep. Then she shut the door and relocked it before carrying it into the kitchen to set it on the table.

The doll had bright red hair. It had probably been long hair once but had been crudely hacked off. Whoever had done it had stripped it, bound its hands with clothesline, affixed a square of duct tape across its mouth. Red paint was splattered and smeared over the doll to simulate blood.

"Oh my God, Phoebe!"

Phoebe held up a hand, continued to study the doll. "Carly? Mama?"

"Carly slept through it. I told Essie it was nothing, and you were staying down just a little while in case those kids came back so you could give them a scare and a piece of your mind."


"That horrible thing." Ava laid the ball bat she'd snatched out of her son's closet on the table beside it.

"Honey, why don't you get me the camera from the server drawer? I want to take some pictures for my files."

"But shouldn't you call the police?"

"Ava, you're always forgetting I am the police."


"I'll be taking it in, but I want my own pictures. Don't worry, whoever did this isn't coming back tonight. He delivered the message. And don't tell Mama about this," Phoebe added as she went into the tool drawer for a measuring tape. "Not yet."

"Of course I won't tell her. Phoebe, I wish you'd call Dave. I wish you'd call Dave right now and tell him someone put this thing that's meant to be you right on the doorstep."

"I'm not going to wake Dave at this hour. There's nothing he can do." Phoebe rubbed a hand on Ava's arm as she walked back to the table. "But I'll talk to him about it, I promise. Get me that camera now, all right?"

She measured, took pictures, then double bagged the doll in plastic, tucked it into a shopping bag and stowed it in the foyer closet.

Essie called out softly as Phoebe passed her bedroom door. "Honey? Everything all right?"

"It's fine." Phoebe stopped in Essie's doorway. Her mother looked so young and vulnerable in the big old bed. "Excitement's over for the night. You going to be able to get back to sleep?"

"I think so. Kids pulling pranks. What are you going to do?"

"Don't let them know it bothered you. 'Night, Mama."

In her bedroom, Phoebe set the alarm for six. She'd take the doll into the precinct, file a report, be home again before anyone knew she'd gone out. She'd ask Sykes to look into it. He was solid and smart. If the doll could be traced, he'd trace it.

Nobody, nobody was going to upset her family.

As she lay sleepless in the dark, already knowing she wouldn't need the alarm, she wondered where Arnie Meeks had been at three-fifteen. It had been enough to see the lights come on in her fancy house. Flash, flash, flash. Enough to see that before he'd bolted into the park, into the trees. Into the dark.

But it had been even better-a nice bonus-to see her open the door and pick up her little present. Worth the time, worth the trouble, yeah, to see her come out for his gift.

Just some foreplay, bitch, he thought as he drove home. Just a little tickle before the main event.

He wasn't nearly finished with Phoebe MacNamara.

She'd have canceled the date if it wouldn't have made the incident the night before too important. And if canceling wouldn't have meant answering a dozen questions from her mother, and even from Carly.

She'd already answered her share that morning as it had taken her longer than she'd hoped to deliver the evidence, make a report, get home again on the damn CAT. At least she'd had the foresight to wear sweats so she could use the excuse-simply lie, Phoebe admitted-and say she'd gone for an early run in the park.

Then, of course, Carly had walked her feet off during the afternoon. The battle of wills over the purchase of the "cutest" outfit had tried her patience so that she and her daughter were not on the best of terms when they'd returned home-Carly to sulk in her room and Phoebe to escape to the courtyard chaise with a broad-brimmed hat on her head.

Now she had to go out to dinner, she thought, as, after refusing all opinions, she pulled out her all-purpose black dress. If it was good enough for weddings, funerals and the occasional cocktail party, it was good enough for a dinner date.

The fashionista gene had skipped a generation, she decided with some irritation, along with the curls and dimples.

She started to put her hair up, but fiddling with it made her think of the rudely shorn hair on the doll. She left it down. And while she knew her family would have preferred a little time to grill her dateand for Phoebe to make an entrance down the stairs-she made sure she was in the parlor well before seven.

And at the door first when the bell rang. "Hello, Duncan."

"First let me say: Wow. Then, hello, Phoebe."

She stepped back, raised her eyebrows at the nosegay of pink rosebuds he carried. "You already sent me flowers, which are gorgeous, by the way."

"Glad you liked them. This isn't for you." He glanced around the foyer. "I like your house."

"We do, too."

"Phoebe, aren't you going to invite the man past the foyer, introduce him?" Essie stepped out of the parlor, aimed a smile at Duncan. "I'm Essie MacNamara, Phoebe's mother."

"Ma'am." He took the hand she offered. "It sounds like a line, but has to be said anyway. I can see where Phoebe gets her impressive looks."

"Thank you. I'm pleased it had to be said. Come on into the parlor.

My son and his wife aren't here, but I'll introduce you to the rest of the family. Ava, this is Phoebe's friend Duncan."

"I'm so pleased to meet you."

"Phoebe didn't mention so many beauties in the family. She did mention you." He smiled over at Carly. "I went for pink." He held out the flowers.

"Isn't that sweet!" Essie had already melted. "Carly, this is Mr.

Swift. And I believe those are your first roses from a gentleman caller." The sulky child tumbled into a coy female. "They're mine?"

"Unless you hate pink."

"I like pink." She flushed nearly the color of the buds she took from him. "Thank you. Gran, can I pick a vase for them myself? Can I?"

"Of course you can. Mr. Swift, can I offer you something to drink?"

"Duncan. I-"

"We should go," Phoebe interrupted. "The dazzle in here's getting blinding." She picked up a jacket from the back of a chair. "I won't be late."

"Ouch," Duncan said. 84 I

Ignoring him, Phoebe bent to kiss Carly's cheek. "Behave."

"You enjoy yourselves," Essie said. "And Duncan, you be sure to come back."

"Thanks. Next time I'll have to bring a meadow. Nice to meet you all."

Phoebe knew very well there were three faces plastered to the parlor window when Duncan opened the car door for her. She sent him a thoughtful look, then slipped inside.

She sent him the same look when he got behind the wheel. "Are you trying to clear the path by charming my daughter?"

"Absolutely. Now that I know about your mother and Ava, I'll work on them."

"Now I have to decide whether to appreciate your honesty or be insulted by it."

"Let me know when you make up your mind. Meanwhile, do you hate boats?"


"Because if you hate boats I need to make an adjustment. So, do you?"

"No, I don't hate boats."

"Good." He nipped out a cell phone, punched a number. "Duncan. We're on the way. Good. Great. Thanks." He clicked it closed. "Your daughter looks like your mother. The dimples missed you."

"To my great sadness."

"How's Ava related?"

"Not by blood, but she's still family."

He nodded in a way that told her he understood completely. "And you have an older brother."

"Younger. Carter's younger."

"Okay. Do he and his wife live in that great house with you, too?"

"No, they have their own place. What made you think to bring Carly roses?"

"Ah… Well, I don't know much about seven-year-old girls, and didn't know if this specific one went for dolls or footballs. There was also the possibility you're one of those sugar Nazis, so that eliminared the candy route. Figured I sent you flowers, and she'd probably get a kick out of getting some, too. Is there a problem?"

"No. No. I'm complicating it, and it was a sweet gesture. She'll never forget it. A girl doesn't forget the first time a man gives her flowers."

"I don't have to marry her or anything, do I?"

"Not for another twenty years."

After he'd parked, Phoebe assumed they were going to one of the restaurants along River Street. Something with a view, she supposed, even alfresco dining, which made her glad for the jacket.

Instead he led her to the pier, past a few boats, and to a graceful, gleaming white sailboat. There was a table on deck under a white cloth. Tea lights under a little dome in the center.

"This would be yours."

"If you hated boats, we were going for pizza, and this relationship would probably have ended with the last pepperoni."

"Fortunately for me I like boats. I had pizza last night."

She let him help her on board, adjusted to the sway. As first dates went, though she supposed technically this was their second, it had a lot of potential.

"Do you do a lot of sailing?"

"I live over on Whitfield Island."

"Ah." That answered that. She walked to the rail, looked across the river. "Did you always live on Whitfield?"

"No. Didn't plan to." He took a bottle of champagne from the ice bucket, began to work out the cork. "It just sort of happened and I got to like it."

"Like winning the lottery."

"More or less."

She turned at the sound of the cork popping.

"So this part?" he began. "It's the showing-off part. The boat, champagne, fancy food-which is under the table in a warming bin. But it's also because I thought it would be nice to eat out on the water, just you and me."

"The showing-off part's a bull's-eye. The just-you-and-me part is problematic. Not for dinner, but as a concept."

He poured the wine. "Because?"

She leaned back against the rail, wallowing in the breeze and the sway. "I have layers of complications."

"Single parent, complex career."

"Yes." She took the wine. "And more."

"Such as?"

"Long stories."

"So you said before. I'm not in any hurry."

"All right, let's just start this way. I loved my ex-husband when I married him."

He leaned back with her. "Always a good plan."

"I thought so. I loved him very much, even though I knew, I understood going in, we weren't on equal terms."

"I don't get it."

"He didn't love me very much. He couldn't. He just isn't built for it."

"Sounds like excuses."

"No. No. Easier if they were. He was never abusive, never-to my knowledge-unfaithful. But he couldn't put his whole self into the marriage. I was sure I could fix that, I could work with that. Then I got pregnant. He wasn't upset or angry. After Carly was born… There was just nothing," she said after a moment. "No connection, no bond, no curiosity. He coasted, we coasted for nearly a year that way. Then he told me he wanted out. He was sorry, but it just wasn't what he was looking for. He decided he wanted to travel. Roy's like that. Impulsive. He married me on impulse, agreed to start a family on one. Neither really satisfied him, so, on to the next."

He tucked her hair behind her ear again, just that casual swirl of finger around the curve. "Does Carly ever see him?"

"No. Really no. And actually handles the situation better than I do. That's only one complication."

"Okay, give me another."

"My mother's agoraphobic. She hasn't been out of that house in ten years. She can't."

"She didn't seem-"

"Crazy?" Phoebe interrupted. "She's not."

"I wasn't going to say crazy, hair-trigger. I was going to say nervous around strangers. Such as me."

"It's not the same thing. In the house, she's fine. She understands and feels safe inside the house."

"It must be rough on her." He ran the back of his hand down Phoebe's arm. "And you."

"We deal with it. She fought it a long time, about as long as she hasn't been able to fight it. She fought it for me and my brother. So now Carter and I-and Ava and Carly-deal with it."

"You've got some rough stuff." He turned, shifted so he was facing her, so his free hand rested on the rail by her elbow.

So she could feel him, the pull of him as their eyes met and held.

"But I don't understand what it has to do with you and me as a concept." Right that minute, she was trying to understand it herself. "My family and my work take nearly all my time, all my energy."

"You may be laboring under the mistaken impression I'm highmaintenance." He took her glass, moved back to the bottle. He topped hers off, then his own. When he went back to her, he leaned in first, laid his lips on hers. "Got a zing going there."

Oh, God, yeah. "Zings are easy."

"Have to start somewhere. I like here. Sexy redhead, beautiful night, bubbles in the wine. Hungry?"

"More than I like."

He smiled. "Why don't you sit down? There's supposed to be some sort of cold lobster deal in the cold box inside. I'll go get it. You can tell me some more long stories while we eat."

She wasn't going to tell him anything else about her life, her family. Keep it light, she decided. All on the surface. But he had a way, and somehow between the lobster salad and the medallions of beef, she let him in.

"I wonder how a girl from Savannah aims for the FBI and trains to talk people off ledges, for instance, then circles back to the local police. Did you play cops with your Barbies?"

"I didn't much like Barbies, really. All that blond hair, those big breasts."

"Which is why I loved them." He laughed when she only blinked at him. "What? You figure Malibu Barbie isn't going to start a ten-yearold boy thinking?"

"I do now. Unfortunately."

"So if it wasn't Barbies, what started you on the road? G.I. Joe?"

"Joe's a soldier. It was Dave McVee."

"Dave McVee? I must've missed him during my action-figure stage."

"He's a person and, though he's a hero, has never been a toy-that I'm aware of."

"Ah." He refilled their glasses and enjoyed the way the lights played over that porcelain skin, those clever cat's eyes. "High-school crush? First love?"

"Neither. Hero, first and last. He saved us."

When she said nothing more, Duncan shook his head. "You know you can't leave it there."

"No, I suppose I can't. My father was killed when my mother was pregnant with Carter. My younger brother."

"That's rough." He laid his hand over hers. "Seriously rough. How old were you?"

"Four, nearly five. I remember him, a little. But I remember more it broke something in Mama that took a long time to heal, and it never healed all the way. I know now, being a trained observer who's educated in psychology, that his death likely laid the groundwork for her agoraphobia. She had to go out to work, had to haul us around. No choice at all. But for years she kept mostly to herself."

"She had a choice," Duncan disagreed. "She chose to do what needed to be done to take care of her family."

"Yes, you're right. And she did take care. Then she met this man.

She met Reuben. He'd come by, fix things for her. Little household things. I could see, being a girl of almost twelve, the flirt was on between them. It was odd, but my father'd been gone a long time, and it was nice, too, to see her get all flushed and foolish."

"You wanted her to be happy."

"I did. He was nice to us, at first Reuben was awful nice to us. Playing catch with Carter out in the yard, bringing us candy, taking Mama out to the movies and such."

"But he didn't stay nice. I can hear it," Duncan said when she looked at him. "I can hear it in your voice."

"No, he didn't stay nice. They'd slept together. I'm not sure how I knew it, even then. But she opened herself up enough, after all those years, to be with him that way."

"And that's when it changed?"

"Yeah. He got possessive, proprietary, critical. He'd pick on us, all three of us really, but make it like a joke. Carter, especially Carter got the digs. Boy couldn't find his ass with both hands, ha ha ha. A man never grew balls reading books. And so on. He started coming over every night, expecting Mama to have dinner hot on the table, shoo us off so he could grope her. She wouldn't, and he'd get pissy. Started drinking a lot. I expect he always did, but he drank more at the house than he had at first.

"And this is terrible dinner conversation."

"I'd like to hear the rest. My father drank more than his share, so I know what it's like. Finish it off."

"All right. One day he came by when Mama was still at work. It was just Carter and me. He'd been drinking, and he popped open another beer, then a second one and pushed it at Carter. Told him it was time he learned to drink like a man. Carter didn't want it. God, he was only seven. Carter told him to go away, leave him alone, and Reuben smacked him, right in the face, for sass. Well, I sassed him then, you can believe it."

The old rage bubbled straight up. "I told him to get the hell out of our house, to keep his fat hands off my brother. Well, he smacked me, too. And that's when Mama came in. I'll tell you something, Duncan, up to that point I loved her. She worked so hard, she did her best. But

I never thought she had any backbone. Not until she walked in and saw me and Carter on the floor and that son of a bitch standing over us taking off his belt."

She paused a moment, took a sip of wine. "He was going to use it on us, going to teach us a lesson. Mama lit into him like ball lightning. Of course, he was twice her size, and drunk, so he knocked her clear across the room. She was screaming at him to get out, to stay away from her babies, and I told Carter to run, to run to the neighbor's, call the police.

When I was sure he'd gotten far enough away, I started screaming, too, saying the police were coming. Reuben called me and Mama names I wasn't yet acquainted with, but he went."

"You kept your head." His hand gripped hers on the table now, a solid link. "You were smart."

"I was scared. I wanted the police because the police are supposed to help. They came, and they talked to my mother. I don't want to say they talked her out of filing charges, but they didn't encourage it. They took his name, said they'd go talk to him. They probably did. I don't know all that happened, just some. I know he went by her work, apologized to her. I know he came by the house with flowers, but she wouldn't let him in. I'd see him sitting outside in his car, just sitting there watching the house. And once, at least once that I saw, he grabbed her when she was outside, tried to pull her into his car. I called the police again then, and some of the neighbors came out, so he took off again. And Mama, she took out a restraining order. That's what they told her she should do."

"They didn't arrest him."

"I think they may have put him in holding for a few hours, and they gave him a stern talking-to. So a few nights later, he got liquored up, got his gun, and he broke into the house. He hit Mama so hard she still has a little scar here." Phoebe traced her fingers over her cheek. "He held the gun to her head, and he told me and Carter to go around, lock all the doors, the windows, close the curtains. We were all going to sit ourselves down, have a long talk.

"He kept us in there almost twelve hours. The police came, after a couple hours, I think. Reuben shot a few holes in the wall for sport, and the neighbors called the police. He yelled out he'd kill us all if they tried coming in. The brats first. Pretty soon, the police shut off the power. It was August, it was hot. Then Dave got him on the phone and kept him talking."

"He talked him into letting you go?"

"He kept him talking. That's the first rule. As long as Reuben was talking to Dave, he wasn't killing us. He would have; I could see it. Carter and me. Maybe not Mama because he'd gotten it into his head she belonged to him. But Dave got him talking about fishing. A long conversation about fishing, and kept us alive. But after a while, Reuben got himself worked up again. He was going to hurt Carter, I could feel it. So I distracted him, the way Dave had with the fishing. Between one thing and another, I got into the bathroom, unlocked the window in there, and I told Carter-bullied Carter-into going in first chance, getting out that way."

"You got your brother out," Duncan murmured.

"Reuben had a serious hard-on for Carter. He was going to hurt him." She told him then about fixing the meal, the sleeping pills. And of sitting in the hospital while they stitched up her mother's face, talking to Dave.

"He kept my family alive."

"And you got them out. Twelve years old."

"I wouldn't have had a family to get out if it hadn't been for Dave.

We moved into Cousin Bess's house after that, the house on Jones Street. Dave kept in touch. Lots of longer stories in all of that, but Dave talked to me about hostage and crisis negotiation. He thought I'd have a knack for it, and the perspective of what it's like on the other side. I wanted to please him, and it sounded exciting. So I trained, and I found out he was right. I have a knack for it."

She lifted her glass, half toast. "It's no lottery ticket, but it put me where I am."

"What happened to Reuben?"

"He died in prison. Pissed someone off enough for that someone to shove a shiv into him multiple times. As a moral woman, as an officer of the law, I'm obliged to deplore that sort of thing. I went out and bought a bottle of champagne, not quite up to these standards, but a very decent bottle. I enjoyed every drop of it."

"Glad to hear it." He gave her hand a quick squeeze. "You've had an interesting life, Phoebe."


"Well, you can't claim to have lived in the rut of routine." She laughed. "No, I don't suppose I can."

"I've got some insight now on why I saw that purpose in you when you walked into Suicide Joe's apartment. And you have the sexiest green eyes."

She watched him with them as she sipped her champagne. "If you think because I've bared my soul, more or less, and have had several glasses of this lovely champagne, I'm going to slide down into the cabin and have wild sex with you, you're mistaken."

"Can we negotiate? Any other kind of sex a possibility?"

"I don't think so, but thanks all the same."

"How about a walk along the river where I can kiss you in the moonlight?"

"We can start with the walk."

He rose, took her hand. And as she came to her feet, he simply cupped the back of her neck to draw her mouth to his.

Warm lips and cool air, a hard body and a gentle touch. She gave in, gave up to the moment. Her fingers twined with his and curled tight as she leaned in for more.

He could feel the strength of her under the soft, soft skin. It was that, he knew, that had pulled at him from the first moment. Those contrasts, those complexities. There was nothing simple, nothing ordinary about her.

Yet he thought this could be simple-this one thing-this slowly building heat between them.

So the long, long kiss spun out, hinting of a spark that might flash at any moment, while the deck swayed gently under their feet, and the air blew soft over the water.

She brought her hand to his chest, kept it there a moment as his heart thumped beneath her palm. Then she used it to ease him back. "Someone else has quite a knack," she commented.

"I've been practicing religiously since I was twelve." He brought the hand on his chest up, to rub his lips over the knuckles. "I've developed a few variations, if you'd like me to demonstrate."

"I think that was enough of a demonstration for right now. We discussed a walk."

"Probably best to save the variations. I'm not sure you're ready."

"Oh really? Don't think you can use that kind of maneuver on me. I'm a cop."

He stepped off, onto the pier, held out a hand for hers. "Variation Seven's been known to cause temporary unconsciousness."

"That's a straight dare." She stepped from boat to dock. "And I haven't taken a dare since I was seven. We're walking, Mr. Swift."

"Can't blame a guy for trying."

As they walked, she angled her head to study his face. "Variation Seven?"

"I'm required by law to give the previous warning before use. Now that you've been warned, I'm in the clear."

"I'll keep that in mind."

Her laugh floated over the water. And her face, bright with it, filled the field glasses.

He dug into the takeout bag for his fries as he watched her, watched them. And he considered how quick and easy it would be if he had that face of hers in the crosshairs of a rifle scope.


Too quick, too easy.

But before much longer, she wouldn't be laughing.

Chapter 7

At her desk Monday morning, Phoebe attacked paperwork, returned calls, then squeezed out time to go over her plans for the upcoming training session.

It might have been kicking Arnie Meeks when he was down-and absent-but she wanted to lay out the protocol, procedure and psychology of the first responder's actions.

Sets the tone, she thought. Arnie had sure as hell set the tone for the Gradey incident. What happened, why it happened, would be strong points made in training, and would illustrate, she hoped, why there were guidelines.

She added a copy of her own report to the day's packet, added it along with logs and tapes and transcripts from other incidents. She got to her feet when Dave came into her office. "Captain."

"Need a minute."

"Sure, I've got a few before a training session. Want coffee?"

"No, thanks." When he shut the door behind him, the muscles between her shoulder blades tightened.


"Could be. I got a call from Sergeant Meeks, Arnold Meeks's father. He's making noises about filing a complaint against you."


"The unwarranted suspension of his son. Also there was some mention of a legal suit for slander, defamation. He wants a sit-down with you, me and his son's rep."

"I'm available for that, at any time. I instructed Arnie he was free to contact his delegate at the time of his suspension. And," she added, "that's on the record."

"You're going to stand by the thirty-day rip?"

"I am. He violated every guideline. He goaded Gradey, a hostagetaker, into suicide, and he's lucky Gradey didn't kill the hostages, too. You read the report, Captain, including the witness statementscivilian and law enforcement."

"Yeah, I did." Wearily, Dave rubbed the back of his neck. "He couldn't have screwed it up more if he'd set out to."

"I'm not sure he didn't. That's not colored by personal dislike," she continued when Dave frowned. "He's a power-tripper, and he's bigoted, sexist and rash. He shouldn't be a cop."

"Phoebe, that kind of stand, the bias in it, isn't going to help hold up your end of this."

"It's not bias, it's fact. And, I believe, the psych eval will bear me out. Dave, he put that mutilated doll outside my house."

Dave shoved his hands into his pockets, and inside the pockets they curled into fists. "I'm not going to contradict you on that, but you're going to want to be careful about making that accusation to anyone but me. You're going to need more to-"

"He called me a bitch to my face, that's not counting the number of times he's called me one behind my back. He stood just about where you're standing now and threatened me. He has no respect for my authority, and, in fact, only contempt for me."

"Do you think I don't want him out?" Dave tossed back, and for the first time he let some of the anger, some of the frustration show. "Out of this squad, out of the department? I've got no cause to put him off the job, not at this point. And, Phoebe, sitting behind that desk means you have to demand respect for your authority."

"And so I have," she said evenly. "Thirty days may give him time to consider that. Captain, he stood in this office and accused me of being behind this desk because I've performed sexual acts with you."

Dave stared at her a moment. "Son of a bitch. Son of a bitch." He sucked in a breath. "Were there any witnesses to those accusations?"

"No, and I'd turned off the recorder before he made them. But he made them. Very specifically. Which indicates he has as much contempt for you as for me. Moreover, I believe he was about to make a move on me-physically. Detective Sykes interrupted. I don't like playing it this way. I don't like spreading this kind of crap around, but the fact is, I think Arnold Meeks is dangerous. So ask Sykes about it."

"I'll do that. I'm going to schedule that sit-down for this afternoon. Make sure you're clear for it."

"Yes, sir."

"Do you want to file sexual harassment charges?"

"Not at this time. I'll stand with the insubordination."

He nodded, turned toward the door. "You may want to contact your own rep." He glanced back. "The Meekses have some muscle in the department, connections, history. Keep your ass covered, Phoebe, because even if we're able to take this asshole down, he could do some damage."

"I will. Dave? I'm sorry I had to pull you into it this way, this personal way."

"You didn't," Dave said shortly. "He did."

Trouble, she thought when she was alone again. Trouble was coming. Well, she'd dealt with trouble before. When the morning session was finished, she'd make some time to review Meeks's jacket, the statements from the Gradey incident and her own personal report of her altercation with Meeks in her office.

Through the glass wall of her office, she saw Dave was already gesturing Sykes toward the break room. A private talk. Her captain's protective instincts were up, and she was sorry, damn sorry, she'd had to incite them.

But she was damned if Meeks was going to endanger lives, threaten her, upset her family, then pull out his departmental pedigree as a shield.

She didn't care who his father was.

And right now, she reminded herself, she needed to put this aside and get downstairs. She swung by the PAA on the way through the squad room. "I'm in the conference room for the next ninety minutes."

"Oh, okay. Lieutenant?" Annie Utz, the squad's public administrative assistant, sent Phoebe a quick, nervous smile. "I, ah, may have to take a day off later in the week for some, um, personal business."

"All right. If you can let me know ahead of time, that'd be good. We'll see the desk is covered."

"Um… um… Lieutenant?" The smile wavered around the edges.

"I know I'm still new and all. But I like working here. I hope I'm doing a good job."

"You're doing fine." Wouldn't hurt to tone down the makeup and buy the next size up in your shirt, Phoebe thought, but the work itself wasn't a problem.

"Um… I brought in pralines today. Homemade." She held up a covered paper plate. "Maybe you'd like one."

"After the session."

"You're taking the stairs, right? The way you run up and down those stairs instead of taking the elevator, sugar sure won't hurt you."

"My fondness for sugar is why I run up and down the stairs."

She hurried out before Annie could make her any later. With the opening of her lecture winding through her mind, she pushed through the door, started the jog down the stairway.

Her car had to be ready today, she remembered. Had to. She'd call the mechanic during the break and

She barely saw the flash of movement, had no time to react much less reach her weapon as the attack slammed her against the stairwell wall. Pain burst along with an explosion of fear when her head rammed hard against the concrete. And her vision hazed with red.

Seconds, it took only the few seconds when her instincts were screamingfight and the stun from the blow buckled her knees for tape to slap over her mouth, for her arms to be wrenched back.

Struggling, dizzy from the blow, she tried to bring her heel down, missed the mark. Then she was blind from the hood yanked over her head. Her scream muffled to nothing against the tape as she pitched forward from a violent shove. Shock and pain radiated as her body hit the landing, rolled. She tasted blood, and through the thunder of her own gasps, heard her attacker laugh. Praying for a miracle, she kicked out. And when hands closed around her throat, she thrashed.

Not this way, she couldn't die this way. Unable to look into the eyes of who killed her. Who took her away from her baby.

Her body bucked, her legs pushed and kicked while her lungs wept for air. When the pressure released, she gasped and gulped it in only to fight to scream it out again when she felt a knife, the point of a knife, cutting through her clothes, and the quick, horrible sting of that point slicking carelessly into her flesh. Hands-gloved hands, part of her mind registered-squeezed her breasts.

It couldn't be happening. Attack and rape a cop in her own precinct? It was madness. But her kicks and struggles didn't stop his hands from tearing, from touching, from pushing roughly between her legs. And she hated herself from the sobs and pleas that babbled behind the tape. Hated that they made him laugh, that they gave him power.

"Don't worry." He whispered it, the first words he'd spoken. "I don't fuck your kind."

Fresh pain erupted from the blow to her face. She teetered toward unconsciousness, almost welcomed it. Dimly she heard, thought she heard, footsteps.

Someone coming. Please, God. But no, no, leaving. He was leaving. Leaving her alive. She moaned. Everything wept, everything wept with pain. But survival, that primal need to survive, was stronger. She was afraid to roll, to try to get to her knees, to her feet. How close was she to the stairs, how close to a nasty, perhaps fatal, fall?

The cuffs he'd snapped on her bit brutally into her flesh, weighed down by her own body. The need to see-escape, survive-was greater than the need for relief. She hunched her shoulders, turned her head right and left, inching tortuously forward as she tested the ground with her feet. Slowly, keeping a vicious grip on panic, she worked the hood up her face until her chin was clear, her mouth, her nose. Then blessedly her eyes.

And those eyes wheeled around. She could see spots and smears of her own blood on the wall of the stairwell where her head had hit, just as she could taste it in her throat.

But she could see the door below. She had to reach that door, get down the short flight of steps to that door. To survival.

Now she rolled, and her gasp went to a keening as she pushed to her knees. Tattered strips of her shirt and skirt hung on her. The rags of the rest were scattered on the stairs.

He'd left her naked, humiliated, bound. But he'd left her alive.

She used the wall to brace herself, used her trembling legs to push, push, until she could stand, leaning back on the wall. Giddiness and nausea rolled through her, and she prayed she could hold off both until she reached help.

Even as the voice inside her head screamed to hurry, hurry, he could come back, she made herself step carefully down, back to the wall for safety. At the bottom, with her body quivering with fear and exhaustion, she had to find the strength to turn, to grip the door handle with her clammy hands and pull.

She fell through the doorway, into the corridor. Shuddering, she began to crawl.

Someone shouted. She heard it like some dim bell through a fog. And, spent, she collapsed.

She wasn't out long, the pain wouldn't allow it, but when she groped back, she was on her side and the rawness around her mouth told her someone had ripped the tape away.

"Get a blanket. Give me your damn jacket, and somebody get a key that'll open these cuffs. You're all right, Lieutenant. It's Liz Alberta. Do you hear me? You're going to be all right."

Liz? Phoebe stared into grim brown eyes. Detective Elizabeth Alberta. Yes, yes, she knew that name, she knew those eyes. "The stairwell." Her voice was a raw wheeze. "He got me in the stairwell."

"A couple of guys are already in there, checking it out. Don't worry. Paramedics are coming. Lieutenant." Liz leaned closer. "Were you raped?" ioo I

"No. No, he just…" Phoebe closed her eyes. "No. How bad am I hurt?"

"I don't know yet."

"My weapon." Phoebe's eyes flew open. "God, my weapon. I couldn't get to it in time. Did he get my piece?"

"I don't know yet."

"Hold on, Lieutenant. I'm going to get these cuffs off." Phoebe didn't know who spoke from behind her, kept her eyes trained on Liz. "I need you to take my statement. I want you to take it." "That's what I'm going to do."

Phoebe couldn't stop the sharp indrawn breath as the cuffs slipped off, or bite back the whimper when she moved her arms. "I don't think they're broken. I don't think anything's broken." She clutched the jacket to her breasts even as someone wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. "Can you help me sit up?"

"Maybe you should stay down until-"

There was a rush of footsteps, and a shout. Then Dave was kneeling beside her. "What happened? Who did this?"

"I didn't see him. He caught me in the stairwell. He put something over my head." Tears slid down her cheeks to sting the abraded skin. "I think he got my weapon."

"I'm going to get her statement, Captain, if that's clear with you. I'll go with the lieutenant to the hospital and get her statement."

"Yes." But he gripped Phoebe's hand as if he couldn't bear to let go. "Don't call my family. Captain, please don't call them."

He gave her hand a squeeze, pushed to his feet. "I want this building searched, floor by floor. This is red status. Nobody comes in or out without a search. I want the whereabouts of every cop and civilian in this building accounted for."

"It wasn't a civilian, Captain." Phoebe spoke quietly as his furious face turned toward her. "It was one of us."

It all blurred, but Phoebe counted that as a blessing. The paramedics, the ambulance, the ER. There were a lot of voices, a lot of movement, more pain. Then less, blessedly less. She let herself drift while people poked and prodded, lifted. While cuts and scrapes were treated, she kept her eyes closed. When pieces of her were X-rayed, she shut down her mind.

There would be tears, she knew. There would probably be floods of them, but they could wait.

Liz stepped into the exam room. "They said you wanted to talk to me now."

"Yeah." Phoebe sat on the exam table. Her ribs ached, that rottedtooth throb she already knew would give her trouble for days if not weeks. But the sling around her arm eased the pain in her shoulder. "Mild concussion, bruised ribs, sprained shoulder."

Liz stepped closer. "Nasty cut on your forehead and a shiner coming on. Split lip. Your jaw's swollen. Son of a bitch did some work on you."

"He didn't kill me, there's that."

"Always a plus. Your captain was in. He left after the docs gave him your status. I'm to tell you he'll come back to take you home when you're ready."

"It's better if he stays at the house, finds… I don't know what there'll be to find. I was coming down from my office to the conference room for my training session. That's habitual. I use the stairs habitually." "Claustrophobia? "

"No, vanity. I don't always have time to work out, so I go for the stairs instead of the elevator. He was waiting for me."

"You said you didn't see him."

"No." Cautiously, Phoebe touched her fingers to her face, just under her eye. She'd never had a black eye before, never appreciated how much it hurt. "I was going down pretty fast, and I caught just a blur of movement out of the corner of my eye-on the right. Thanks."

She took the ice bag Liz offered, laid it gently on the side of her face. "He had me before I could even turn my head, before I could reach for my weapon. He knew what he was doing. Disabled me immediately with the blow to the head. Rapped me face-first into the wall, stunned me. Taped my mouth and cuffed me quick. He's used cuffs before. Anticipated my defensive moves, such as they were, and had the hood on me, or whatever it was."

"Laundry bag. It's in evidence. You're thinking you should have been quicker, fought harder. Don't."

"I didn't get a single lick in. I realize, intellectually, that I was stunned, physically outmatched, and still… My weapon?"

"It hasn't been recovered."

The look between them held for a long moment. It was a hard blow when a cop was disarmed. It was a harder one when the cop was female. "No one's going to blame you for that, Lieutenant. Not under these circumstances."

"Some will. You know it, I know it. He knows it. That's why he took it."

"Some are idiots. Did you get an idea of height? Build?"

"Not of height. He shoved me and I went down. But he was strong. He choked me at first…" Her fingers traced over the bruises on her throat, and she remembered the feel of those hands cutting off her air. "Choked me when I was down, put his hands around my throat and choked me. He had big hands. Big, strong hands. He wore gloves. I f e l't… I felt gloves-thin, probably latex-when he groped me. And a knife, maybe scissors, but I think a knife to cut through my clothes."

"He touched you."

"He…" Facts, Phoebe ordered herself. Think of them as facts. "He squeezed my breasts. He pulled my nipples, hard. He laughed. Just kind of a wheezing laugh, like he was real tickled and trying to hold it back. He pushed his hand- Shit. Oh shit."

Anticipating, Liz grabbed a bedpan, shoved it under Phoebe's face. Held it steady while Phoebe was sick.

Sheet white under the bruises, Phoebe leaned back. "God. God. Sorry."

"Just take a breath, take your time. Here." Picking up the plastic cup and straw on the table, Liz offered it. "Drink some water."

"Okay. Thanks. I'm okay. He put his fingers inside me. Rammed them in. It wasn't sexual. He just wanted to hurt me, humiliate me. Then, I think he leaned down because his voice was close to my ear. He whispered. 'Don't worry. I don't fuck your kind.' Then he hit me in the face. And he left me there."

"Do you have a gauge how long the attack went on?"

"It seemed like forever, but probably two, maybe three minutes. No more than that. He had his plan in place, and he executed it efficiently. It probably took me longer to get the hood off and get down to the door. Altogether, it was probably six or seven minutes."

"Okay. Did he say anything else? Anything at all?"

"No, he only spoke that one time."

"Did you notice anything else about him. A scent?"

"No. Wait." Phoebe closed her eyes again. "Baby powder. I smelled baby powder."

"How about his voice? Would you recognize it again?"

"I don't know. We're trained to pay attention to details, but I was so scared, and the blood was pounding in my head, and the hood. He was local," she said suddenly. "There was enough of an accent that he sounded like a local."

"Have you had trouble with anyone? Anyone you think would want to hurt you?"

"You know I have. We may not work the same division, but we work in the same house. You know I have."

"Do you think it was him? You think it was Arnie Meeks who attacked you?"

"Yes, I do. I can't prove it, but yes, I think it was. I reported an incident on Saturday morning."

"What incident?"

She told Liz about the doll.

"I'll touch base with Detective Sykes on that. And I'll make some discreet inquiries as to Meeks's whereabouts this morning."

"I appreciate it."

"You weren't raped, Lieutenant, but you were violated sexually. If you want to talk to a rape counselor, I know a good one."

"No, but thanks. You're good at what you do, Detective. I appreciate you being the one to take my statement, to be here."

"I'll be following up. I promise you."

"For now, can you steal me some scrubs so I can get out of here?"

"Why don't I call someone for you. If you don't want the captain, someone else. Have them bring you some clothes, take you home?"

Phoebe shook her head. "I don't want to go home until after I've had my breakdown, which is going to come along pretty soon now."

"Anyone else I can call for you?"

"Actually… " Phoebe touched her fingertips to the trio of butterfly bandages that closed the wound on her forehead. "There's a friend, if he's around."

The old building had potential. Of course its current owner was giving the deal what Duncan thought of as the pitch-and-wish. He let that play in one side of his brain while the other side played with the possibilities. The warehouse was currently a dump, and no question about it. But it could be transformed into very decent apartments-close enough to the plants and the docks to fill up with blue-collar families. Reasonable space for a reasonable rent. Well off the tourist track, of course, well apart from the green elegance of the historic district. But toss maybe a bakery or a coffee shop on the first floor, a deli or a small family restaurant, and you'd get a return on your investment. Eventually.

Good thing he wasn't in a hurry for it.

The rank and file of the city needed good, safe housing as well as the rest. He should know. He'd been one of them most of his life.

Phin stood with the owner, shaking his head as Duncan wandered. That was Phin's fine skill, in Duncan's opinion. Just putting on that dour, disapproving look could lasso the pitch-and-wish and yank it back toward reality.

The guy wanted the moon for the dilapidation, figuring he had a bright gold fish on the line. Duncan didn't mind being thought of as a fish, especially since he'd already set his maximum offer at a couple of asteroids.

When his cell phone rang, he was studying a trio of broken windows. He kept studying them while he pulled it out. "Yeah, this is

Duncan. What? When? How?"

He turned when Phin, obviously hearing the alarm in his tone, crossed the pocked concrete floor to him. "Where? Okay, all right," he said a moment later. "I'm on my way. I have to go." Already heading for the doors, Duncan shoved the phone into his pocket.

"Mr. Swift," the owner began.

"Personal emergency. Do what you do," he said to Phin and rushed outside to his car.

A dozen horrific images flashed and burned into his mind as he set the car racing toward the hospital. The woman who'd identified herself as Detective

Alberta said Phoebe was being released, he reminded himself. She couldn't be that badly hurt if they were releasing her from the hospital. Then again, the detective had been very brief. Coplike, Duncan thought in annoyance as he was forced to brake for a red light.

She hadn't said how; she hadn't said how bad. And when was this fucking light going to turn green?

Maybe she'd been shot. Jesus, Jesus.

He peeled out when the light changed. He threaded his way through traffic, then chewed his way through more. Years of hacking had taught him how to get from point to point fast-or how to get there round about and pad the fare.

He swung into the parking lot, cursing bitterly as he searched for a space. By the time he found one and was running for the ER doors, he'd worked himself up into a frantic mix of nerves and temper.

He'd have run right by her if not for the hair. The beacon of red caught his eye, had him stopping, spinning back around.

She sat with the other wounded and the sick in the waiting area. She wore pale blue scrubs. Her arm was in a sling, and her face-her fascinating face-was bruised and battered.

"Oh, Jesus, Phoebe." He crouched down in front of her, took her hand in both of his. "How bad are you hurt?"

"Ambulatory." She nearly managed to smile. "Not so bad. You just popped into my head as someone to call. I shouldn't have."

"Don't be stupid. What happened?"

"Duncan… Since I did call, and you did come, I need to go somewhere for a couple hours, so I can fall apart and put myself back together again before I go home. Can you just take me somewhere quiet for a couple of hours? Big favor, I know, but-"

"Sure I can. Are you sure you can walk?"

"Yeah." When she started to rise, he slid an arm around her waist, drew her up with the care of a man lifting a fragile work of art. "Lean on me."

"I already did, calling you out here." And God, it was a relief to put a little weight on someone else. "I didn't even think you might be busy with something."

"Me? Idle rich." He dug out his sunglasses as she winced and turned her face away from the glare. "Put these on. That's a hell of a shiner you got coming up. What's the other guy look like?"

This time she couldn't manage the smile. "I wish I knew."

It could wait, he told himself. The questions could wait until he got her inside, got her settled. Got her tea or something. He helped her into the car, hooked her seat belt himself. "Lets put you back a little." He eased the seat back. "How's that?"

"It's good. It's fine."

"Did they give you anything for the pain?" he asked when he got behind the wheel, and she tapped the purse Liz had brought to the hospital with her.

"Good drugs. Got some in me right now. I'm just going to close my eyes if you don't mind."

"Go ahead. Try to relax, rest."

She didn't sleep. He could see her hand fist. It might relax for a moment or two, but then it would fist again as if she was determined to hold something tight inside it.

Bandages bound her wrists, and baffled him. If she'd been in an accident, why hadn't she contacted her family? And what sort of accident injured both wrists, bruised up the face and caused enough injury otherwise to have a woman walk as though her bones were brittle glass?

So it hadn't been an accident.

As other options began to circle in his mind, he shut them down. No point in speculating, not when speculation-where were her clothes?sent him into a minefield of possibilities.

He gave her silence. He'd hauled enough passengers in his time to know what people wanted. Chat, debate, information, quiet. Phoebe wanted silence.

She barely moved but for that restless hand-into-fist over that span of bridge from mainland to island, as he passed the marshes and creeks and drove through the green tunnels of arching trees.

Only when he slowed for the last turn, eased to a stop, did she stir and open her eyes.

He'd gone for grand with the house, leaning on traditional elegance and adding bits of quirk with the widow's walk that topped it like a crown. Oaks draped with moss fanned around it, strong accents for the soft blue with its delicate white trim. Gardens-azaleas just ready to pop and burst-flowed out and about in a casual way that turned the grand into charming.

Pots and baskets of mixed flowers decked veranda and terrace along with gliders and generous chairs that invited visitors to sit awhile, relax, have a cool drink.

"It's beautiful."

"Yeah, it's growing on me." He got out, came around to her. "Let me give you a hand."

"Thanks." She leaned into him. "Really. Thank you, Duncan."

"No problem." He led her to the steps, up to the veranda to the door with its Celtic knot in stained glass.

"How long have you lived here?"

"I guess about five years now. Mostly. I figured I'd sell it, b u't… long story." He gave her a quick smile as he unlocked and opened the door.

Golden light basked over rich colors, a wealth of space sweetened by curves from the elegant staircase, the wide archways. She moved beside him, stiffly, across the foyer into the parlor. There the atrium doors opened to a terrace, and beyond that more gardens danced, centered by an arbor where wisteria climbed and twined in a riot of beauty.

A piano angled to face the front windows, while chairs and divans in soft grays to offset the strong burgundy of the walls sat in groups. There was art on the walls, and she had an impression of marsh and river, Georgia dreamscapes along with a mix of antiques and the odd touch of a fat ceramic pig.

When he would have led her to a seat, she stepped away, crossed to the glass doors.

"I like your gardens."

"Me, too. I got into that kind of thing when I moved out here."

"I imagine so. It seems a lot of house for one man."

"Yeah. That's why I figured to sell it. But I actually use most of the place."

"Did you…" She rested her forehead against the glass, closed her eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. We're coming to the falling-apart portion of the program."

"It's all right." He laid a hand on her back and, feeling her shake, knew they'd hit the eye of the storm. "You go right ahead."

He gathered her in when she turned to him, gathered her up when she began to sob. He carried her to the divan, then sat with her cradled in his arms. And he held her there while the storm raged through.

Chapter 8

Tears didn't shame her, not tears that needed to be shed. She was grateful as they poured out, as they washed the worst of the fear and sickness away, that he wasn't the kind of man who offered awkward pats and told a woman not to cry.

He only offered shelter and let her weep.

When the shaking eased and the tears slowed, he brushed a light kiss over her bruised temple. "Any better?"

"Yes." She drew a long breath, and when she let it out, felt her system steady. "God, yes."

"Here's what we're going to do. I'm going to go fix you something to drink, then you're going to tell me what happened." He lifted her face until their eyes met. "Then we'll figure out what comes next."


"I don't have a thing… a handkerchief."

"I've got tissues in my bag."

"Good, then…" He shifted her, sat her down beside him. "If you need, you know, the bathroom? There's one that way and to the right." no I

"Good idea."

When he left her, she sat for a moment, drawing back the reserves. She got achingly to her feet, picked up the purse he'd left on the coffee table, then made her way under graceful arches, over polished floors to the powder room.

The first glimpse of her face in the long oval mirror had her moaning as much in vanity as distress. Her eyes were puffy and red, with the right one sporting an ugly mottle of bruises, accented by the hard black smear of gathering blood under it.

Her jaw was another swollen cloudburst, her bottom lip about double in size and split. The butterfly bandages on her forehead closed the jagged gash, and stood out starkly against the raw, scraped skin. "This isn't a beauty contest, Phoebe, so get over yourself. But God, God, could you look any worse?"

And when she took this face home, she was going to scare everyone half stupid.

Nothing to be done about that, nothing, she reminded herself, and carefully dabbed cold water over her face.

In short order, she discovered that even the elemental task of peeing with a bruised hip and an arm in a sling was an exercise in discomfort and frustration. That tidying herself up brought everything to a dull throb under the layer of medication.

And vanity or no vanity, she was already sick and tired of looking as if she'd run headlong into a brick wall.

Plus, she hated hobbling. As she hobbled her way back into the parlor, Duncan set a tray on the coffee table.

"I don't know what they gave you in the ER, so I figured alcohol was off the menu. You got tea-and my personal remedy for a black eye, and so on, a bag of frozen peas."

She stopped. "You made tea."

"You don't like tea?"

"Of course I do. You made tea, and in a pretty teapot, on a tray. And brought me frozen peas." She held up her good hand. "My emotions are all over the board yet. I'm getting weepy because somebody made me tea in a pot, and thought to offer me frozen peas."

"Good thing I didn't bake cookies."

She picked up the bag of peas, held it to the side of her face that suffered the most damage. "Can you?"

"I have no idea. Anyway, I wasn't sure if you'd be able to chew anything yet. How's that jaw?"

She walked, slowly, to the divan, sat again. "You want me stoic, or you want the truth?"

"I'll take the truth."

"It fucking hurts, that's how it is. I think there might be one square inch of my body that doesn't fucking hurt. And that makes you smile?" He kept smiling. "That you're hurting, no. That you're pissed off about it, yes. Good to see your temper's in working order." He sat beside her, poured out the tea. "Tell me what happened, Phoebe."

"I got jumped in the stairwell at work."

"Jumped? Who?"

"I didn't see him, so I can't say for sure. He was waiting for me," she began, and told him.

He didn't interrupt, but when she spoke of her assailant tearing her clothes, Duncan pushed off the couch. As she had when she'd first entered the room, he walked to the doors, stared out.

And she stopped speaking.

"Go on," he said with his back to her. "I just can't sit right now."

He listened, and he stared through the glass. He didn't see the wild wisteria or the winding trails of the side garden. He saw a dim stairwell, he saw Phoebe hurt and helpless, struggling while some faceless bastard tore at her, pawed at her, terrorized her.

There had to be payment, Duncan thought. He believed strongly in payment.

"You know who it was," he said when she'd finished. "I didn't see him."

Duncan turned now. His face was cool and blank so that the blue of his eyes burned all the stronger against it. "You know who it was."

"I have a strong suspicion. Suspicion isn't proof."

"That's the cop talking. What about the person?"

"I know who did it, and I'm going to find a way to prove it. Do you think I would take this? Do you think that's who I am?" She held up a hand as if stopping herself.

"No, go on. A good pissing rage is as healing as a good cry."

"He hurt me. That fucking bastard. He hurt and humiliated me. He made me think he'd kill me and leave my baby an orphan and my mother, my family grieving. He left me to crawl away naked, to crawl with most of my clothes torn away where I work, where I have to go every day and face the people who saw what he could do to me. And do you know why?"

"No. Why?"

"Because he couldn't stand taking orders from me. He couldn't stand having authority, female authority especially, disciplining him and setting out the consequences for his actions."

"Are you telling me another cop did this to you?"

Shocked that so much had spewed out of her, she pulled herself back. "I have strong suspicions."

"What's his name?"

The woman inside, the one who had been hurt and humiliated, warmed just a little at the tone. The tone that said, very clearly, I'll handle this. But she shook her head. "Don't get out the white charger,

Duncan. This'll be dealt with. He'll be dealt with. It's now my mission in life to make sure of it. And having this time, this place to… well, to be, it's helped more than I can tell you."

"Well, that's fine and good for you, and glad to be of assistance. But that's not much help for me when I'm in the mood to pound somebody's face in like it was rotten wood, then twist his useless dick off and feed it to the dog I keep thinking about getting."

"No," Phoebe said after a long moment. "No, I don't guess it is. I'm going to confess that I find myself surprisingly comforted, and just a little aroused, by the sentiment."

"I don't know what this is yet, this you-and-me thing. I didn't figure

I had to think about it all that much as yet. So putting that asidewhatever this is or isn't here, you should know my natural inclination, and you go right ahead and consider it sexist or outdated or whatever the hell you like-my natural inclination when some cowardly son of a bitch beats on a woman is to get out that goddamn white charger and kick some ass."

He could, she realized. She'd let that one slip by her. But looking at him now, with that hot rage burning straight through the cold fury, she understood there was a great deal more to him than charm and luck. "Okay, I hear your natural inclination is to defend and to act, and you sound-"

"Don't pull that negotiator crap out on me."

"That would be my natural inclination," she returned. "My next is to say I don't need protection, but given the circumstances, that would be a stupid thing to say. Most of my life I've been the one protecting and defending, and that goes back long before I had a badge. I'm not quite sure how to react when someone wants to protect and defend me." He walked over to her, hesitated, then leaned down. "I'm going to be careful about this, but you let me know if it hurts." And he laid his lips, very gently, on hers.

"It doesn't."

He kissed her again before straightening. "You've got a week."


"You got a week to complete your current mission in life. Then I get a name, and I help myself."

"If that's some sort of ultimatum-"

"It's not, not at all. It's just fact." Sitting on the coffee table across from her, he took the peas she'd lowered, turned the bag over, and put the cooler side against her swollen jaw. "I already know it was a cop, and one you had to slap back for something. I expect I could have a name inside an hour. But you have a week to do it your way."

"You think because you have money-"

"No, Phoebe, I know because I have money." Gently, he lifted her hands, in turn, touched his lips to her bandaged wrists, comforting even as he laid down the law. "It oils the wheels, and that's just another fact. You're smart, and you've got that purpose that just sets me off. I'm betting you'll have this bastard frying inside that week. If not, well, my turn."

"Your turn? This is a police matter, and it has nothing to do with turns. That's grade school."

He smiled at her, just enough to have the dimple flickering. "You know, you look like hell right now."

"Excuse me?"

"What I'm saying is, you look pretty damn awful, your face all banged up that way. Even with the Grey's Anatomy thing going with the scrubs, you look like hell. So, why it should be I can look at you right now and still be attracted right down to the soles of my feet is a goddamn puzzle. But I am."

Torn in a dozen directions, she dumped the frozen peas on the tea tray. "What the hell does that have to do with this?"

"Nothing. It just popped into my head. Want some more tea? And yeah," he added when she just stared at him, "that's a change of subject. Your mind's made up; mine is, too. So what's the point of arguing about it when neither of us is going to budge on the issue? And you can't be feeling your best, so I don't feel right fighting with you."

"No, I don't want any more tea, thanks. And you're right, I'm not feeling my best, but it's important that you understand there's a wide difference between retribution and the law."

"We'll have to debate that some other time, when you're back at full power. You want to take a whirlpool? Hot water, jets? It might help with some of the aches."

Another thing she'd let slip by, she thought, was the man had a head like a rock. "That's a nice offer, but no. I'm going to need to get home." And the thought of that had her looking down at herself. "God."

"Do you want to call them first? Prepare them?"

"No. No, then they'd just worry until I got there. I'm putting you out again, Duncan, having you drive me all the way back."

"So, you'll owe me."

He helped her out to the car. Even the short walk wore her out, so she just sat, out of breath, while he strapped her in.

Carly would be coming in from school any minute, she thought as he drove toward home. Mama would be finishing up taking her Internet orders for the day, or boxing up completed pieces to go out in the mail in the morning. Ava, likely home from errands, would be fussing around in the kitchen.

Just an easy Monday afternoon. And she was about to shatter it. "Who plays the piano?"

"Nobody. I sort of do. Just by ear. I always thought a piano added class to a room."

"Cousin Bess insisted Carter and I take lessons. I got the mechanics of it; Carter got the heart." She let her head fall back. "I wish this part was over. The shocking them, the explaining it all again part. I wish it was over."

"I can explain what happened for you, if you want."

"I have to do it. Where's your family, Duncan?" It occurred to her that nowhere in the rooms she'd been in in the grand house had she seen any photos of family.

"Here and there."

"Long story?"

"Epic. We'll save it for another time."

Her cell phone rang, and with some effort she reached for her purse and pulled it out. "This is Phoebe. Yes, Dave, I'm all right, I'm better. No, I'm on my way home now. I've been with a friend. Could be worse." She listened awhile. "I understand. I'll be in tomorrow to- Sir. Captain. Dave." She let out a frustrated breath. "Two days then. Three. Yes, sir, thank you. And I'd like the sit-down rescheduled for Thursday, if possible. I appreciate that. I will. Yes, I will. Bye."

"Okay?" Duncan asked.

"Not entirely, but better than it could've been. He was going to order me to take medical leave for two weeks."

"The bastard."

She let out a laugh, then sucked air as it pinged her ribs. "I'd go crazy sitting home having Mama and Ava fuss over me for two weeks. He knows that. I'll heal better if I'm working, and it makes a statement where a statement needs to be made. He knows that, too. He was probably after the three or four days all along. He's a sneaky son of a bitch."

"Sounds like somebody I'd like."

"Probably. He got away with my weapon."

"What? Captain Dave?"

"No. No, not the captain. Sorry, this whole thing's scrambled my brain so I can't seem to think in a straight line."

The cop who'd hurt her, Duncan realized. And since she was busy brooding over it, he gave her room.

Just as he gave her room to be agitated as they approached Jones Street. "Want a bourbon and a cigarette first?"

"Don't think I wouldn't. I'm about to take on multiple hysterical females." She prepared herself with deep breaths as he drove down the brick-paved street. "Oh God. That just caps it."

"What?" Duncan shot her a glance, saw her fit on a stoic smile. Then saw the man who'd been strolling along in the dappled sunlight break into a run.

"Phoebe! Phoebe, what happened?" The man wrenched the door open, reached down. "My God, what happened to you? Who are you?" He threw the words at Duncan like stones. "What the hell did you do to my sister?"

"Carter, stop! Stop. He didn't do a thing but help me."

"Who hurt you? Where is he?"

People strolled along Jones-residents and tourists-and now, Phoebe noted, any number of those strollers had stopped to stare at the beat-up woman and the two men on either side of a flashy white Porsche.

"You can stop shouting on a public street like a lunatic. Let's go inside."

"They're good questions." Duncan came around to the passenger seat. "I'd like the answers, too. I'm Duncan. She's got a lot of tender spots. We'll need to be careful-"

"I can take care of her."

"Carter, stop it. Do you want to add to the extremely crappy day I've had by being rude to a friend? I apologize for my ill-mannered brother, Duncan."

"No problem."

"Oh God, there's Miz Tiffany and that ridiculous dog heading over from the park. I can't deal with that. Carter, for the love of God, don't make me deal with that. Help me get inside."

"Easy does it," Duncan advised, and caught a glimpse of a woman, well past a certain age, with a blond bubble of hair, being led by a tiny, apparently hairless dog wearing a polka-dot tie. "She hasn't seen you yet. I'd be ill mannered, too, by the way, in your place," he told Carter as they got Phoebe to the sidewalk. "Still, under any circumstances, when I bring a woman home, I take her to the door."

Resigned to it, Phoebe allowed herself to be flanked, then all but carried up the steps. And with the overture complete, she thought, Here comes the show.

When the door opened, Essie was already on her way down the hall. "I thought I heard you shouting, Carter. I… Phoebe! Oh my God." She went white as paste, swayed.

"Let me go," Phoebe murmured, then hurried forward. "Mama. I'm all right, Mama. Breathe for me. I'm all right, I'm home. Carter, go get her some water."

"No, no." Still ghostly pale, Essie lifted a hand to Phoebe's cheek. "Baby girl."

"I'm all right."

"Your face. Reuben-"

"Is dead, Mama. You know that."

"Yes. Yes. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Oh, Phoebe. What happened? Your face, your arm. Ava!"

She'd snapped back, Phoebe noted. Still white as a sheet, but she'd snapped back.

Ava rushed out from the back of the house. And there was, for the next several minutes, a mass of confusion, voices, movement, tears. Duncan closed the front door, stood back. He'd always figured if you can't help, stay out of the way.

"All right, stop now."

He could hear Phoebe's voice, very calm, very firm, through the melee. She repeated the same order, once, then twice. And on the third, the words snapped out-a kind of verbal slap to the face-and shocked her family into silence.

"I'll explain everything, but right now I want everybody to just stop talking at once. I've been banged up, which is obvious, and all this badgering isn't helping. Now-"


As the verbal slap had shut down the hysteria, so did the single, quivering word stop what Duncan assumed might have been an irritated rant. Phoebe turned toward the little girl who stood holding a bright red ball.

"I'm all right, Carly. I know I don't look it, but I am. I will be. I got hurt, but I'm okay."

"Mama." The ball went bouncing away as Carly ran forward to grab Phoebe, to press her face against her mother's waist. From his vantage point, Duncan saw the ripple of pain, and the way it leached all color out of Phoebe's cheeks.

"Hey, sorry. I know this is a bad time, but, you know, I think

Phoebe needs to lie down." He moved forward as he spoke and simply lifted Phoebe off her feet. "Carly, maybe you could show me where your mama's bedroom is."

"It's upstairs."

"I can walk. Duncan, I can walk."

"Sure, but hey, I already got you. Miz MacNamara? They gave Phoebe some medication. I think it might be time for her to take it, if she had some water."

"Of course, of course."

"I'll get it." Ava touched Essie's arm. "You go up with Phoebe. I'll get the water, and some ice. Carter, help me get some ice for Phoebe."

"I'm going up to fix the bed. I'm going right up to get it ready."

Essie dashed up the stairs.

"Did you fall?" Carry's voice still shook as she walked up beside Duncan, with her fingers closed over the hem of the scrubs.

"That was part of it. I had a bad fall, and I had to go to the hospital. They fixed me up and let me come home. You know they don't let you go home if you're not fixed enough. Right?"

"Is your arm broken?"

"No. It's just hurt, so it's in this sling for a while so I don't bump it around."

"How come you didn't catch her when she fell?" Carly demanded of Duncan.

"I wish I could have. I wasn't there when she fell."

He carried Phoebe into the bedroom where Essie had already turned down the spread, fluffed the pillows. "Just lay her right on down. Thank you so much, Duncan. Phoebe, I'm sorry, I just lost my head."

"It's all right, Mama. Everything's going to be all right."

"Of course it is." Though her lips quivered visibly, Essie sent Carly a big smile. "We're going to take good care of your mama, aren't we? She needs some medicine now."

"It's in my purse. I-"

"Right here." Duncan set it on the bed.

"You're good with details," Phoebe commented.

"Wouldn't you like to go down and sit in the parlor, Duncan?" Essie began. "Carter, he'll fix you a drink. And…" She rubbed her fingers on her temple. "And you'll stay for dinner. You'll stay for dinner, of course."

"That's nice of you, but I'll leave y'all to tend to Phoebe. I hope I can have a rain check."

"You're welcome anytime. Anytime at all. I'll walk you down."

"You stay right here." He gave Essie's shoulder a pat before he looked down at Phoebe. "That goes for you, too."

"I think I'm going to do just that. Duncan-"

"We'll talk later."

As he left, Carter bounded up the stairs. Carter stopped, gripping a pair of ice bags. "Sorry about jumping on you out there."

"Forget it. Natural."

"Do you know who punched my sister in the face? I took enough fists in the face to know what the results look like," he said when Duncan lifted his brows.

"I don't know who hurt her, but I'm going to find out."

"When you do-if it's before I do-I want to know."


"Carter MacNamara." Carter shifted ice bags, held out a hand.

"Duncan Swift. See you around."

Duncan let himself out, glanced up toward the bedroom window as he walked to his car. Gorgeous house, he thought, and just full of problems. He had enough experience with problems to know they came in all flavors and varieties.

Just as he knew, without question, that whatever the problems, Phoebe was the glue that held the family together.

Gift or burden? he wondered. And decided it was probably a good chunk of both.

A smart man would drive away from the gorgeous house with its va riety of problems. Drive away and keep on going. That's what a smart man would do.

Then again, Duncan thought, there were times it was more interesting, and certainly more rewarding, just to be dumb.

He ended up at a bar. The after-work crowd wouldn't flood into Slam Dune for nearly an hour, so despite the multiple flat screens rolling out ESPN, and the scatter of customers playing pool or air hockey, Duncan figured it was quiet enough for a meeting.

Anyway, he wanted a beer, and felt after the afternoon he'd put in, he'd earned it. He kept an eye out for Phin, and when he saw his friend come in, Duncan signaled the bar.

"Already ordered you a Corona, and some nachos." Phin slid into the booth. "Left me hanging today."

"I know, I'm sorry. Couldn't be helped. What do you figure?"

Phin puffed out his cheeks. "Jake, who you also left hanging as he got there two minutes after you split, did a walk-through. He's going to work up a detailed estimate of what it'll cost you to do what you want with the building. But his eyeball opinion? You're going to have to sink minimum of one-point-five into it, over and above the cost."


Phin leaned back as the nachos slid between them and the waiter set the Corona with its slice of lime on the table. "You ever look back, wonder how we got to be sitting here talking about a million and a half dollars like it was pocket change?"

"How much did that suit cost?"

Phin grinned, picked up his beer. "Fine-looking suit, isn't it?"

"Dude, you're my fashion god. Figure two for the overhaul; let's not be pikers. Add in what I'll pay that squirrel for the property."

"Does look like a squirrel," Phin commented.

"Maybe he'll take some of the buy money and spring for a decent toupee. Anyhow… Got a pen?"

Phin took a Mont Blanc out of his inside jacket pocket. "Why don't you ever have a damn pen?"

"Where am I going to put it? And you always have one." Duncan scribbled figures on a napkin.

And that said it all, Phin thought. The man might look like your average guy-the worn jeans, the untucked, rolled-up-at-the-sleeves shirt, the hair begging for a trim. He might come across to most as an extraordinarily lucky guy who happened to pick the right numbers at the right time. Appearances didn't mean dick when it came to Duncan Swift.

He'd use that borrowed pen and a napkin to figure out cost runs, overlay, buffer, outlay and potential income. He'd do it while eating nachos and drinking a beer, and by the time he was done, he'd have his projected cost and future returns figured as close to the mark as any fleet of accountants.

The man had a knack, Phin decided as he-with care-transferred some loaded nachos from platter to plate. "Where'd you take off to?"

"That's something I want to talk to you about. Or more specifically, with your lovely wife."

"Loo's in court."

Duncan glanced up, over, and smiled. "Not now, she's not."

She wore a conservative blue suit that managed to showcase her mile-long legs. Her sexy curls were tamed back into a clip so that her sharp cheekbones, deep brown eyes, wide mouth were subtly framed. Her skin was the color of rich caramel.

Duncan always wondered how any judge or jury could look at that face and not give her whatever she wanted.

Duncan slid out of the booth, wrapped his arms around her and spoke into her ear just loud enough for Phin to hear. "Dump him. I'll buy you Fiji."

She had a big, strong laugh, and let it rip. "Can I just keep him to play with when you're busy?"

"Give me back my wife."

"Not done with her." Taking his time with it, Duncan gave her a long, dramatic kiss. "That'll hold me. Thanks for coming, Loo."

"Thought you were in court."

"I was." She sat next to Phin, nuzzled her lips to his. "Prosecution asked for a recess. I've got them on the ropes. Now, which of you handsome men is going to buy me a martini?"

"Being shaken even as we speak. One minute. Here's what we'll offer the squirrel and here's where we top off." Duncan pushed the napkin over to Phin. "Okay?"

Phin glanced at the figures, shrugged. "It's your money."

"Yeah. Isn't that a kick in the ass?" Duncan picked up his beer. He knew Phin and Loo would be holding hands under the table. They had the thing, the it, whatever that it was that locked people together and kept them damn happy about it.

"Y'all want something more than nachos?" Duncan asked them.

"Just that martini. As our gorgeous and brilliant offspring is spending the night with her cousin, I'm going to have this fine-looking man take me out to dinner."

"Are you?"

"I am, but not until I've had that drink and am finished playing footsie with my lover here." Loo winked at Duncan. "So, baby doll, what can I do for you?"

Duncan said nothing for a moment, then grinned. "Sorry, my mind went in all sorts of interesting directions." He listened to that terrific laugh of hers again. "It's about something that happened to a friend of mine today, and my curiosity over what gets done to the guy who did it when he gets caught."

"Criminal or civil?"

"It's pretty fucking criminal."

Loo raised her eyebrows at the tone, then accepted the martini she was served. She took the first, slow sip. "Should this individual be charged and indicted, I take it you'd object if I or my firm represent him."

"I can't tell you what to do, but I figured you'd know the ins and outs of what he might try to pull, legally, when they get him."

"Not if, but when." She broke off a minute corner of a chip. "Okay, tell me what this man allegedly did."

"Before I tell you what he did, I'd better tell you, he's a cop."

"Oh. Well. Shit." Loo blew out a breath, drank again. "Tell me."

Interesting. From his seat at the bar, he nursed a beer, ate some cheese fries and pretended to be interested in the reports on March Madness that dominated the near screen.

He had a perfect view of the booth where Phoebe's screw-buddy sat with the duded-up black couple. Interesting, damn interesting-and fortunate that he himself had been watching the house on Jones when the fancy car pulled up.

Phoebe hadn't been looking so good.

He had to smother a laugh he knew might draw attention his way. No sir, the redheaded bitch hadn't been looking her best.

She was going to be looking worse before it was over. But for now, he'd take a little time, a little trouble, to find who Mr. Fancy Car and his friends were.

You never knew who might be useful.

Chapter 9

With one ear cocked toward Phoebe's room, Essie carefully folded the white-on-white bedspread with its stylized pattern of lovebirds. The intricate stitching had kept her mind calm, as it tended to.

She often thought that being productive-and creative with it, if she could brag a bit-held a firm rein on her mind and refused to allow it to wander into those places where panic waited.

It was good work, she could think that, and the bride who received it as a wedding gift would have something unique and special, something that could be passed on for generations.

She arranged the dark silver tissue. Even that, the fussing with the finished product, the meticulous packaging of it, helped keep her hands busy and her mind steady.

Because she didn't want to be afraid every time Phoebe went out of the house, didn't want to whittle her family's world down to walls, as she'd whittled her own. She couldn't allow herself to let that fear in, to let it take over. It snuck up, she knew, inch by inch, stealing little spaces, little movements.

First it might set your heart thumping, it might shut your lungs down in the grocery store, right there in Produce while you're surrounded by tomatoes and snap beans and romaine lettuce with Muzak playing "Moon River" until you want to scream.

Until you had to run, just leave your cart there, half full of groceries, and run.

It might be the dry cleaner's next, or the bank where the teller knew you by name and always asked about your children. It might sneak up then, dropping rock after rock after rock on your chest until you were buried alive.

Your ears ringing, the sweat pouring.

You let it win all those little spaces, all those little movements, until it had them all. Until it owned everything outside the walls.

She could still go out on the terraces, into the courtyard, but that was getting harder and harder. If it wasn't for Carly, Essie didn't think she could push herself even that far. The day was coming, she could feel it sliding closer, when she wouldn't be able to sit on the veranda and read a book with her precious little girl.

And who was to say she was wrong? Essie thought as she put the pretty oval sticker with her initials on the folded tissue to close it in place.

Terrible things happened in the world outside the walls. Hard, frightening and terrible things happened every minute of every day, on the streets and the sidewalks, at the market and the dry cleaner's.

Part of her wanted to pull her family inside those walls, lock the doors, bar the windows. Inside, she wished she could keep them inside, where everyone would be safe, where nothing terrible could happen to any of them, ever.

And she knew that was her illness whispering, trying to sneak in a little closer.

She lay the card that detailed instructions for the care of the lovebird spread, then closed the bright silver box.

While she gift-wrapped the box as the customer had ordered, she was calmer. Her gaze strayed to the windows now and then, but that was just a check, just a peek at what might be out there. She was pleased it was raining. She loved rainy days when it seemed so cozy and snug and right to be inside the house, all tucked in like the lovebirds in the silver box.

By the time she had the gift cushioned in its shipping box, sealed and labeled, she was humming.

She carried it out, pausing to peek into Phoebe's room, and smiling when she saw her baby girl sleeping. Sleep and rest and quiet, that's what her baby needed to heal. When she woke from her nap, Essie decided she'd bring Phoebe up a tea tray, a nice little snack, and sit with her the way she had so many years ago when her daughter had been down with a cold or a touch of flu.

She was halfway down the steps with the big box when the doorbell rang. The jolt shot through her like a bullet, driving her right down, legs folding, heart slamming, to sit on the steps with her arms wrapped around the box as if it would shield her.

And she could have wept, could have dropped her head down on the box and wept at the instant and uncontrollable terror.

The door was locked, and could stay locked if she needed it to. No one in, no one out. All the pretty birds inside the silver box.

How could she explain to anyone, anyone, the grip of the sudden, strangling fear, the way it set the little white scar on her cheek throbbing like a fresh wound? But the bell would ring again if she didn't answer-hear that, it's ringing again. It would wake Phoebe, and she needed to sleep.

Who was going to protect her baby if she ran away and hid?

So she was not going to cower on the steps; she was not going to allow herself to fear opening the front door, even if she was unable to walk out of it.

She got up, made herself walk to the door, though she did continue to clutch the box in front of her. And the relief made her feel foolish, and a little ashamed, when she saw Duncan on the other side.

Such a nice boy, Essie thought as she took a moment, just one moment more, to get her breath back. A solid, well-mannered young man who'd carried her hurt baby girl up to bed.

There was nothing to be afraid of.

Shifting the box, Essie unlocked the door and beamed a smile.

"Duncan! How nice of you to come by. Look at you, all that rain and no umbrella! Come in the house."

"Let me take that for you."

"No, that's all right. I'm just going to set it down here." She turned as she did, hoped he couldn't see her hands still shaking. "I've got a pickup scheduled for it. How about some coffee?"

"Don't trouble. Hey." He took her hands, so she knew he had seen. "Are you all right?"

"I'm a little on edge, that's all. Foolish."

"Not foolish at all, not after what happened. I've been jumpy myself." No, Essie thought, no, he hadn't. He wasn't the type to jolt at sounds and shadows. But it was sweet of him to say otherwise. "Don't tell Phoebe I said so, but it calms my nerves having a big, strong man in the house."

"Someone else here?" he said and made her laugh. "Secret's safe. I just stopped by to see how the patient's doing."

"She had a restless night." Essie took his arm, steered him into the parlor. "But she's sleeping now. Sit down and keep me company, won't you? Ava's at the flower shop. She works there a couple, three days a week when they can use her. My daughter-in-law's going to come by later. Josie's a nurse, a private-duty nurse. She took a look at Phoebe yesterday, and she's going to stop in later, with Carter, after his classes. And you know why I'm talking so much?"

"Are you?"

"Duncan, I'm so embarrassed by the way I acted yesterday."

"You shouldn't be. You had a shock."

"And I didn't handle it well."

"Essie, you ought to give yourself a break." He saw surprise cross over her face, as if she'd never thought of any such thing. "What've you been up to today?"

"Keeping busy, pestering Phoebe with food on trays until I imagine she wants to knock me over the head with them. I finished a project and made half a dozen lists I don't need."

Little tickled his interest more than the word project. Duncan stretched out his legs, prepared for a cozy chat. "What's the project?"

"Oh, I do needlework." Essie waved a hand toward the foyer, where the shipping box waited for pickup. "Finished up a bedspread-wedding gift-last night."

"Who's getting married?"

"Oh, a sometime customer of mine's goddaughter. I sell some of my pieces locally and over the Internet here and there."

"No kidding?" Enterprising projects doubled the interest. "You've got a cottage industry?"

"More like a sitting-room interest," she said with a laugh. "It's just a way to pay for my hobby, earn a little pin money."

While he sat, at ease, his mind calculated: handmade. Customized. One of a kind. "What kind of needlework?"

"I crochet. My mother taught me, her mother taught her. It was a keen disappointment I could never get Phoebe to sit still long enough to teach her. But Carly's getting a hand at it."

He scanned the room, homed in on the deep blue throw with its pattern of showy pink cabbage roses. Rising, he moved over to pick up an edge, study it.

Oh yeah, add in intricate and unique. "Is this your work?"

"It is."

"It's nice. It's really nice. Looks like something maybe your grandma made over lots of quiet nights, then passed down to you."

Pleasure shone like sunshine on Essie's face. "Why, isn't that the best of compliments?"

"So, what, do you make specific pieces from, like, what, patterns, or tailor to clients?"

"Oh, it depends. Why don't I get you that coffee?"

"I've got to head out in a minute. Have you ever thought of… Hey." It was the way his face lit up that had Essie pursing her lips, even before she turned and saw Phoebe in the parlor doorway.

"Now, what are you doing up and coming downstairs by yourself?" In full scold, Essie hurried over to her daughter's side. "Didn't I put that bell right on your nightstand so you could ring if you wanted anything?"

"I needed to get out of that bed. I'm not going to lie there Cousin Bessing it all damn day."

Duncan saw the look, the quick flash of maternal disapproval before Essie turned back to him. "You'll have to excuse her, Duncan. Feeling poorly brings out the sass in her. I'll go make us that coffee."

"Mama." Phoebe brushed a hand over Essie's arm. "Sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you."

"You get a pass on that, due to being hurt. Talk to Duncan awhile. He's come out on this rainy day just to see how you're feeling." Phoebe only frowned at him as her mother left the room. "Yes, I know I look worse than I did yesterday."

"Then I don't have to mention it. Do you feel worse?"

"Some parts of me do. Including my temper." She glanced back toward the foyer, sighed. "Being fussed over makes me irritable."

"I'll try to restrain myself, then. And I should probably take these back." He picked up the shopping bag he'd brought in. "As it hits on two points-not wanting to lie around, and being fussed over. I assume bringing by a gift is fussing."

"Depends on the gift. Oh, sit down, Duncan. I'm irritating myself with my bad mood."

"I really have to go. I have a couple of things." He held up the bag, shook it lightly. "You want?"

"How do I know when I don't know what's in it?" She limped her way over, peered into the bag. "DVDs? God, there must be two dozen."

"I like to read or watch movies when I'm laid up. And I thought reading might be tough with the bum wing, so I went for movies.

Chick flicks. I lean toward the oeuvre of The Three Stooges, but figured it would be wasted around here."

"You figured correctly."

"I don't know if you go for that type or if you like slasher films or watching stuff blow up, but I figured in a household of four women, this was the best bet."

"I like chick flicks, and slasher films and watching things blow up." Intrigued, she poked in the bag. "Since when is The Blues Brothers a chick flick?"

"It's not, I just happen to like it. It's the only one I picked out, actually. Marcie at the video store handled the rest. She assured me that they're all appropriate for a kid Carly's age, unless her mother's a real tight-ass. She didn't say tight-ass," he added, when Phoebe narrowed her eyes at him. "I inferred."

"It's very thoughtful of you. And Marcie. And when these help stave off screaming boredom, I'll think of you."

"That's the plan. I have to go. Tell your mother I said goodbye." He touched his lips to her forehead beside the bandages. "Take a dose of Jake and Elwood and call me in the morning."

"If I don't walk you to the door, I'll have to lie to my mother and say I did." She set the bag down to lead him out. "I appreciate the movies, and everything else you did-and didn't do. Such as comment on my bed hair and foul disposition."

"Good. Then when you're feeling up to it, you can pay me back and have dinner with me again."

"Are you bribing me with DVDs?"

"Sure. But I think my discretion over hair and mood earns even more points." Since it pleased him to see her lips curve up in a quick smile, he lowered his for a little taste. "I'll see you later."

He opened the door just as a woman jogged up the steps. "Hey," he said.

"Hey back. Lieutenant."

"Detective. Detective Liz Alberta, Duncan Swift."

"Oh yeah, we spoke on the phone." He held out a hand. "Nice to meet you, and I'll get out of your way. Talk to you later, Phoebe." Liz turned, studied Duncan as he dashed out and through the rain.

As she lowered her umbrella she raised her eyebrows at Phoebe. "Nice." The tone, the look, told Phoebe that Liz referred to the exit view. "Oh yeah, it certainly is. Come in out of the wet."

"Thanks. I didn't think I'd find you up and around today."

"If I don't get back to work soon, I'm going to go straight out of my mind." She took Liz's umbrella, slid it into the porcelain umbrella stand.

"Bad patient?"

"The worst. Are you here for a follow-up?"

"If you can handle it."

"I can." Phoebe gestured toward the parlor. "Anything I should know?"

"Your weapon hasn't been recovered, but I did bring you this." She pulled an evidence bag out of her satchel. Inside was Phoebe's badge. "It was found at the base of the stairs, where we assume your attacker tossed it. No prints but yours."

"He wore gloves," Phoebe murmured. "Yes, so you said."

Her badge would have been hooked to the waistband of her skirt, Phoebe thought. He'd cut her skirt to pieces, shoved his hand up under what he'd left of it to… She shook her head. No point, none, in putting herself back there. "Sorry. Please, sit down."

"How's the shoulder?"

"I tell myself it could be worse. It could. It could all be worse." "Lieutenant-"

"Just make it Phoebe. This may be an official follow-up, but we're not in the house."

"Okay, Phoebe. You and I both know that sometimes the emotional injuries take a lot longer to heal than the physical ones."

Knowing and experiencing were two different things. "I'm working on that."

"All right."

"He set me up. Arnie Meeks set me up and he took me down." Before Liz could respond, Essie wheeled in a cart. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize you had other company. Duncan?"

"He had to go. Mama, this is Detective Alberta. My mother, Essie MacNamara."

"You took care of my daughter when she was hurt yesterday. Thank you."

"You're welcome. It's good to meet you, Mrs. MacNamara."

"I hope you'll have coffee, and some of this cake." Essie set cups, saucers, plates on the coffee table as she spoke. "I just have a few things to see to in the kitchen." She lifted the tray holding the pot, the creamer, the sugar. "Y'all just let me know if you need anything else."

"Thank you, Mama."

"Detective Alberta, you don't mind pouring, do you?"

"No, ma'am." Falling in, Liz picked up the coffeepot, poured out the cups. She shot a glance over as Essie slipped out of the room. "I thought carts like that were just for movies and fancy hotels."

"Sometimes this house feels like a little of both. You're going to tell me that you're actively investigating, but don't have any solid evidence implicating Officer Arnold Meeks at this time."

"I am, and I don't. I spoke with him. He was in the building and was smart enough not to deny it. He claims he was getting a few items out of his locker at the time of the attack."

"This was payback, Liz."

She looked out the window as her mother had earlier, but instead of being comforted by the rain, felt trapped by it. Trapped inside when there were things to do.

"I've bumped up against a few other cops, that's just the way it is.

But no one recently, and never anyone to the extent Meeks and I rammed heads. I slapped him back, I suspended him, I recommended a psych eval. He wanted to kick my ass then and there, and in fact considered drawing on me. I saw it in his eyes, in his body language. As did

Sykes, who interrupted for that reason."

"Yeah, I spoke with Detective Sykes, and he concurs that he sensed trouble from Meeks that day in your office. 'Sensed' isn't going to be enough. I've got nothing that places him in that stairway. In the building, yes, with a grudge against you, yes. He's called in his delegate, and he's got his father's considerable weight behind him. If you can give me more, if you remember anything, any detail."

"I gave you everything."

"Let's go over it again. Not just from the attack, but from when you left the house that morning."

Phoebe knew how it worked. Every repetition of the story could add another detail, and another detail might turn the investigation.

She went through it. Heading out to catch the bus as her car was in for repairs. She'd borrowed the MP3 player Ava liked to use when she gardened, and had tried to convince herself the bus was more relaxing, maybe more efficient than driving herself.

She detoured for coffee before taking the to-go cup into work.

"Did you notice anything? Anyone? Get the sense you were followed?"

"No. I can't say I wasn't. I wasn't tuned for that, but I didn't have any sense of it either. I went straight up to my office, started paperwork." She went through it, the officers and detectives she'd spoken with, the movements. Routine, routine, routine, she thought. Just another Monday morning.

"After my conversation with the captain, I started down."

"You always take the stairs."

"Yes. It's habitual."

"Did you stop, talk to anyone?"

"No… Yes. I stopped by my PAA's desk to tell her I was going down to the session. Wait." Phoebe set down her coffee, sat back, closed her eyes. She pulled it back into her head, the running image of herself striding out of her office, across the squad room.

"She held me up there for a minute, asked me some questions, nothing necessary-especially since she'd know I was running close to the clock. I didn't think anything about it at the time, except for being a little annoyed because I was cutting it close, and because she already knew-or should have-that I had the session waiting on me."

"Who's your PAA?" Liz asked as she pulled out her notebook.

"Annie Utz. I've only had her a few months. She stalled me." As she thought back, tried to bring it into focus, Phoebe closed her eyes. "I think she was stalling me, just a minute or two. Then she said something about how I'd be taking the stairs down, like always."

Phoebe opened her eyes, and now they were fierce with fury. "She was signaling him, by radio or phone. Son of a bitch, she was letting him know I was on my way."

"Do you know if Arnie Meeks and your PAA have a personal relationship?"

"No. She's new, like I said, only a couple of months on the desk. Sharp-looking, single, friendly. Maybe a little on the flirty side, but nothing over the line. She was nervous, a little nervous yesterday. I was in a hurry so I didn't pay attention. I didn't think of her, of that quick conversation again until now."

"I'll talk to her."

"No. No, we will. I'm going in with you."

"Lieutenant. Phoebe-"

"Put yourself in my place."

Liz drew a deep breath. "Do you need any help getting dressed?" Phoebe was struggling, sweating and cursing her way into a shirt when Essie steamed into the room. "Just what do you think you're doing?"

"Trying to get into this goddamn shirt. I have to go with Detective Alberta."

"You're not to go anywhere but back to bed, Phoebe Katherine MacNamara."

"I should be back within an hour."

"Don't make me drag your stubborn self into that bed, Phoebe."

"Mama, for God's sake." Frustrated and starting to ache again, Phoebe dropped her arm. "Will you help me button this stupid shirt?"

"No. I said you're not going anywhere."

"And I said I am. There's a lead on my case, and I-"

"You are not a case. You're my child."

Out of breath, Phoebe cradled her bad arm. And through her own anger and annoyance saw the warning glints of panic in her mother's eyes. "Mama… All right, let's both calm down."

"I'll calm down when you get your beat-up self back into bed where you belong." Marching over, Essie flung back the bedclothes. "Right this minute! I'm not-"

"Mama, listen to me. My arm will heal, the rest of me will heal on the outside. We know how it is on the inside though, you and me. We know. So you understand when I tell you I'm not going to heal until the person who did this to me is held accountable."

"There are other people who can see that he's held accountable."

"I know you feel that way. I know you have to. Understand that I feel this way. That I have to. I can't live afraid, Mama, I just can't."

"That's not what I want, that's not what I'm asking you."

"But I am afraid. And I close my eyes and I'm back in that stairwell."

"Oh, baby." Tears swam as Essie hurried over to stroke her daughter's face.

"Part of me's going to stay afraid, and I'm going to keep finding myself trapped in that stairwell, until I do this. Help me with this shirt. Please."

Though her eyes were damp, Essie studied Phoebe's face and saw clearly enough. "I don't want you to live the way I do. I don't want you to be afraid."

"I know that."

Slowly, her eyes on Phoebe's, Essie buttoned the shirt. "Do you have to go so far the other way?"

"I guess I do. I'm sorry."

"Phoebe." Gently, Essie eased Phoebe's arm back into the sling. Then she brushed at Phoebe's hair with her fingertips. "When you get back, you're going straight to bed."

"Yes, ma'am."

"And you're going to eat all the dinner I bring up to you."

"Every bite." Phoebe kissed Essie's cheek where the little white scar rode under carefully applied makeup. "Thank you."

When Phoebe came back into the parlor with Essie at her side, Liz looked from one to the other. "Ah… your PAA called in sick this morning. I have her home address."

"We'll try her there."

"Detective? I don't care if she does outrank you, you take good care of my baby girl-and see she gets home."

"I'll do that, Mrs. MacNamara. Thank you for the coffee." Liz waited until they were outside to open her umbrella, and to speak again. "I don't care if you do outrank me, I take the lead on this."

"No argument. Friendly, flirty and efficient, that's how I'd describe her. Mid-twenties. I think she likes being around cops-likes the buzz. Thanks," she added when Liz opened the car door for her. "How bad do I look?" Phoebe asked when Liz got behind the wheel.

"Not quite bad enough to scare small children."

"Let her see me first. My gut says he didn't tell her he was going to hurt me. Scare me, maybe, or just plead his case." Despite the rainy day, Phoebe slipped on her sunglasses. "But I don't think she'd have gone along if she knew he intended to hurt me. She calls in sick the day after. She's probably scared, guilty, wondering what happened. The way cop shops work, she's heard a few variations. She sees me first, she's already going to start cracking."

Annie looked sick when she opened the door to her apartment. Against the cotton-candy pink of her pajamas, her face was white and drawn. Her eyes popped wide when she saw Phoebe. Stumbling back, she stuttered out Phoebe's name.

"Annie Utz? I'm Detective Alberta. Can we come in?"


"Thanks." Liz pushed the door all the way open so Phoebe could walk in ahead of her. In the background a couple of soap opera actors argued bitterly over someone named Jasmine.

"Lieutenant MacNamara needs to sit down. She's hurt pretty bad."

" I… I have a head cold. I'm probably contagious."

"We'll risk it. You heard about what happened to Lieutenant MacNamara, didn't you?"

"Yes. I mean, I guess I did. I'm so sorry, Lieutenant. You should be home, resting."

"Annie… Mind if we turn this off?" Without waiting for permission, Liz picked up the remote and ended the threatening tirade of a shirtless blond hunk. "I'm looking into what happened to the lieutenant. You were the last one to speak to her before she was attacked."

" I… I don't know."

"You don't know that she stopped by your desk on her way out, on her way downstairs?"

"I mean, yes, sure. You said you were going downstairs for the training session." When she addressed Phoebe, Annie's gaze trained several inches over Phoebe's good shoulder.

"What time was that?"

"Just before ten. Just a few minutes before ten."

"You were aware the lieutenant intended to take the stairs down?"

"Everyone knows Lieutenant MacNamara uses the stairs." Annie tugged on a heart-shaped button on her pajamas. "I really don't feel well. I'm sorry."

"Lieutenant MacNamara doesn't feel very well either. Do you, Lieutenant?"

"No." Her sunglasses were back in her bag, where she'd tucked them on entering the building. Phoebe knew the bruised eyes, the scrapes, the bandages were a shocking and painful sight. Just as she knew how to wait, how to use the silence as a lever to pry Annie's eyes to hers. "He pushed me down, after he'd cuffed my hands behind me so I couldn't break my own fall."

Her gaze steady on Annie's tearful one, Phoebe lifted her hands to show her bandaged wrists. "After he'd taped my mouth, put a hood over my head." She brushed the hair back from her forehead so the livid bruises showed more clearly. "After he'd smashed my face into the wall." Tears spilled, plump drops on pale cheeks. "I… I heard it was really just a bad accident. I heard that you fell. That you fell down the stairs."

"Was it an accident his fist rammed into her face?" Liz demanded. "That the cuffs snapped over her wrists?" She pulled up Phoebe's arm, gestured to the wrists. "Did her clothes accidentally rip off her body so she had to crawl, half naked, for help?"

"Things get exaggerated. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I don't feel well. Can you go? Can you just go?"

"Did he tell you he just wanted to talk to me, Annie?" Phoebe kept her voice low, the tone even. "Just talk to me in private? Maybe scare me just a little, or push his point just a little, since I was being so unfair? I was being unfair to him, wasn't I? Did he tell you that when he asked you to signal him I was heading down?"

"I don't know what you mean. I didn't do anything. If you fell-"

"I didn't fall. Look at me, Annie!" Phoebe snapped the words out so that Annie jumped, then hunched her shoulders. "You know I didn't fall. That's why you're sitting here, sick, scared, trying to convince yourself it was an accident. He told you that. He told you it was an accident and I-what?-lied to save face? I made up the attack so I wouldn't be embarrassed about falling?"

"How long have you been sleeping with Officer Arnold Meeks, Annie?" Liz demanded.

"I didn't! We didn't. Not really. I didn't mean anything. I didn't do anything." As the dam broke, Annie snatched up tissues from a flow ered box of Kleenex and buried her face in them. "He said it was an accident, that you were going to make things up, maybe to try to get him in trouble. He told me how you came on to him, and then-"

"Officer Meeks told you Lieutenant MacNamara approached him sexually?"

"He turned her down, and she's been trying to ruin his reputation ever since." Lowering the tissues, Annie turned a pleading face toward Liz. "He'd file sexual harassment charges, but he's embarrassed to, and his wife's not giving him any support at home. Plus she's sleeping with Captain McVee, so what good would it do?"

"He told you all this, and you swallowed it?" Liz shook her head from side to side. "Maybe that's excusable, maybe not. Maybe you thought, really thought, you were just doing Arnie a favor. Maybe you didn't want to believe he was lying to you, again and again and again, leading you on. But you know he lied to you now, don't you, Annie? You can't look at Lieutenant MacNamara and believe what he told you."

"I don't know. I don't know."

"How about some pictures?" Liz pulled some out of her satchel.

"There's the lieutenant's blood in the stairwell. Oh, here, here's her clothes that accidentally tore off her body. How about the laundry bag he pulled over her head? Here's a good one, of her blood on the cuffs he snapped on her. That's some accident."

"Oh God." The tissue shield went up again. "Oh God."

"What kind of person does this, Annie? Maybe the kind of person who's thinking about doing it to you, or doing worse. Because you're the one who can tie him to it."

"I didn't know. I didn't know." Annie sobbed, yanked more tissues from the box. "I didn't do anything wrong. He just needed a few minutes to talk to her, to show he wasn't going to be intimidated. That's all. I only called his number, let the phone ring twice. That was the signal. It's all I did. I didn't know."

"But you know now. You're going to have to get dressed and come with me."

"Are you arresting me? Oh God, am I under arrest?"

"Not yet. If you get dressed and come in now, give a true statement tell the truth, Annie-I'll talk to the DA for you. He lied to you. I believe you when you said he lied."

"So do I." Phoebe kept her fury banked and spoke soothingly. "I believe you, Annie."

"I'm so sorry, Lieutenant. I'm really sorry."

"Yes, I'm sure you are."

Liz looked over at Phoebe. "I'll drop you back home and take it from here."

Chapter 10

"I want to be there. I need to be there."

Dave leaned back in his desk chair, continued to scan Phoebe's face. "First, it's not my call. Second, this is Liz Alberta's case. You're the victim. If you have trouble remembering that, I can have a mirror brought in."

She knew how she looked. A couple of days meant some of the bruising was turning from black to sickly yellow and storm-cloud purple. Her jaw and eye were angry watercolors. Still, the worst of it was decently hidden under her clothes.

"The victim needs it. I need to sit in that room, look Arnold Meeks in the eye so he knows I'm not afraid of him."

"Aren't you?"

"Enough that I need to show him, and myself, that I'm not going to be. You and I know how the pathology works. How it is for someone who's held against their will, threatened or injured in a situation beyond their control."

"This isn't identifying an attacker in a lineup, Phoebe. Or facing the attacker in court."

"It's just more proactive. My mother faced Reuben in court. She got up on the stand to testify while he was only feet away from her, and I know that was nearly as terrifying for her as being trapped in that house with him all those hours. But she did it, and still she's trapped." All the affection and understanding he felt was there to read on his face. "You're not your mother."

"No, b u't…" Phoebe fisted a hand on her heart. "I feel her fear, and I don't want it living inside me. How can I do what I need to do if it finds a place to live in me? So this victim needs it."

"Observation," he began, though they both knew he was losing ground.

"Isn't enough." She shook her head. "Face-to-face, and this time I know he won't be controlling the situation. The cop wants to be in that room with him because I may be able to help Liz get a confession out of him. I was there. Victim, witness, police officer. Makes me a triple threat."

"And still doesn't make it my call. It's up to Detective Alberta, her captain and the DA. The DA," Dave continued before she could speak, "who fishes with Arnie's daddy."

"Whoever he fishes with, Parnell's always struck me as solid. Do you really think he'll ease off an investigation of an attack on a police officer because he's buddied up with the father of a suspect?"

"It's a lot of who-you-know in Savannah, Phoebe, just like anywhere else. But I'll agree, Parnell's solid. Meeks is bringing his delegate and a lawyer in with him. Annie Utz is lawyered, too."

"All the more reason for me to give Liz-Detective Alberta-some backup-someone well invested who doesn't give a damn who Arnie's daddy drowns worms with. And I'll tell you something else. Having two women question him, put pressure on him?"

She wandered the office as she spoke now, because she could feel it, she could see it. She could all but taste it. "Oh, Arnie's not going to like that one little bit. He'll make a mistake. He'll end up leading with his ego, especially if I'm in there. Not your call, Captain, but you could make one. You could reach out to Detective Alberta's captain or her lieutenant, ask that I get a seat."

"I'll make a call, but I'm not making any promises."

"Any worthwhile negotiator's careful with his promises." She touched a hand to his shoulder. "The call's enough. Thank you."

"If you buy a ticket into the interrogation, have to deal with him that way, I might not have done you any favor. How's your family handling this?"

"It shook them up. My mother… you know how it is."

"I do. Would me coming by help things or add to them?"

"Mama always feels better after a visit from you. We all do. Why don't you come to Sunday dinner?"

He kicked back in his chair. "Would that mean sugar-glazed ham?"

"It could be arranged. Thanks for this."

"Phoebe…" Straightening again, he cleared his throat. "I want to say I regret there's been any speculation or gossip inside the department regarding an inappropriate relationship between us."

"Such as me giving you bj's in your office."

"Oh, Jesus." The tips of his ears went pink, as she knew they did when he was mortally embarrassed. "I'm old enough to be your father."

"First, you'd have been a very precocious fifteen to have pulled that one off. Second, since when does age factor into inappropriate sexual behavior? Neither of us is responsible for the speculation of small, ugly minds."

He picked up a ballpoint pen, clicked it a few times. "I opened you up for this when I asked you to take the desk in this department."

"You gave me an opportunity-which I grabbed-to do the work I'm good at. Am I qualified for the desk?"

"You know you are."

"There you are, then."

"Meeks, junior and/or senior, may push this into IAB."

"And we can both stand up to that, should that happen. Don't worry about me in this."

But he did. Even as he lifted the phone to put in the call she'd asked for, he worried.

Phoebe had a moment alone in Observation, studying Arnie Meeks through the two-way mirror. He looked careless, she decided. Carelessly confident. A kind of screw-you posture of a man who believes whatever he's done isn't going to stick to him.

He'd know he was being watched, or could be watched at any time. He didn't give a damn, Phoebe concluded.

And when she imagined his hands on her, his fingers inside her, her stomach rolled.

She gave too much of a damn.

"Lieutenant." Liz stepped in with a tall, reed-thin brunette. "ADA Monica Witt, Lieutenant Phoebe MacNamara."

"Lieutenant." Monica shook hands with Phoebe. "How are you feeling?"

"Better, thanks. I take it you'll be prosecuting the case."

"If you can make one. We have Annie Utz's statement, and her phone, which shows an outgoing call at nine fifty-eight. We can't tie that to Arnold Meeks. The number called was to a toss-away phone, untraceable. We don't have any physical evidence linking Meeks to the attack."

"You have motive. You have opportunity, and a pattern of insubordinate and threatening behavior."

"My boss wants more than that to charge a police officer with assault and battery, with sexual assault on a fellow officer. Get me more, and I'll charge him."

Two men stepped in. Phoebe recognized Liz's lieutenant, nodded in acknowledgment. Just as she recognized, through the strong family resemblance, Arnie Meeks's father.

He was thicker than his son through the chest, stronger along the jawline, harder in the eyes. But there was no mistaking the relationship. Just as there was no mistaking the insulted anger that pumped off him despite his ramrod posture.

"Lieutenant Anthony and Sergeant Meeks will also be observing."

"We'll get started." Liz walked to the door, held it open as Phoebe followed.

"When my boy's clear of this," Sergeant Meeks said as he shifted to block Phoebe's path, "and his suspension lifted, this won't be over for you, Lieutenant MacNamara."

"Sergeant, you're here as a courtesy." Anthony laid a hand on his arm. "Don't abuse that courtesy."

Phoebe moved around him to the door of the interrogation room. "Like father," she said under her breath.

"Shake it off," Liz advised. "I take the lead on this."

"We've been this round before."

"Just a friendly reminder." Opening the door, she walked in.

He didn't spare Liz so much as a look, Phoebe noted. His eyes aimed straight for her, held.

"Boys." Liz smiled easily, with a nod toward the trio at the table.

She set the recorder, fed in the data, read Arnie his rights. "You understand all that, Officer Meeks?"

"I've given the Miranda enough times, I better."

"That's a yes?"

"Yeah, I understand my rights. Shouldn't you be in bed somewhere with an ice pack and some Darvon?" he asked Phoebe.


Arnie shrugged off the quiet warning from his attorney.

"I'm surprised by your concern, Arnie," Liz began. "The way I hear it, you're not Lieutenant MacNamara's biggest fan."

"I don't think much of her as a cop. Then again, she's not much of one seeing as all she does is talk."

"We'll save your definition of 'much of a cop' for later, if it's all the same to you." Smooth as top cream, Liz kept an easy smile on her face. "The two of you-meaning you and Lieutenant MacNamara-have had a couple of set-tos recently. Is that true?"

"My client stipulates that he and Lieutenant MacNamara hold opposing viewpoints and professional styles. Those are hardly motives for a physical attack on her person. The lack of evidence-"

"We're talking here," Liz said. "Just getting things out on the table. Arnie, you don't much like Lieutenant MacNamara. Is that fair to say?" Arnie kept his smirk aimed at Phoebe. "Yeah, that's fair."

"Did you have occasion to call Lieutenant MacNamara a bitch?"

"I call them as I see them."

"So, she's a bitch?" At Arnie's shrug, Liz nodded. "And you have no particular problem calling a superior officer a bitch? No problem threatening her when she took disciplinary action?"

"There's only Lieutenant MacNamara's word on this alleged threat," the lawyer interrupted.

"That, and…" Liz flipped through her file. "The statements of two detectives who observed your client in the lieutenant's office behaving in what they believed was a threatening manner."

"Their beliefs aren't fact."

"Arnie, do you remember why you were in Lieutenant MacNamara's office on Thursday last?"

"Sure I do. She was covering her ass after she screwed up a hostage negotiation by suspending me."

"Really?" Liz turned round eyes on Phoebe. "My goodness, if that was the case, who could blame you for calling her a bitch? Why don't we pull out a few statements and reports on that negotiation-at which you were the first responder-just to get the overview? Hmmm. FR did not call for backup. FR did not begin a log… Ah, here's a good one. FR antagonized the HT with threats. I like this one, too: Officer Meeks hampered and attempted to block Lieutenant MacNamara's contact with the HT."

Arnie rocked back in his chair, balanced on its back legs, rocked up again. "She can write anything she wants. Doesn't mean that's how it went down."

"Actually, all those examples are from witnesses-civilian and law enforcement. Well now, reading all this, it looks like you screwed things up there, Arnie."

"I had the situation under control until she pushed into it."

"So, you just needed a little more time to resolve the matter, and she didn't give it to you." Lips pursed, Liz nodded. "The guy blows his brains out, and you get the rap. Then, the bitch suspends you. I'd be pissed, too. Hard to blame you for wanting to pay her back."

Arnie smiled, shoved his hand at his lawyer before the lawyer could speak. "Just shut up. She's insulting me thinking she can bait me into saying something stupid. What about you?" he said to Phoebe. "Nothing to say for a change?"

"I was just sitting here wondering how your wife feels about all this. How she feels about you diddling with Annie Utz, for instance."

The smirk twisted his lips. "Annie's cute, and thick as a brick. I flirted, I admit it. Every guy in the squad did. But when she came on to me, when she wanted to take it past a wink, I set her straight. Got her feelings hurt, so I guess she figured to pay me back with this wild story. Or you pushed her to lie."

Phoebe looked over at Liz. "The man's surrounded by liars and bitches. It's a wonder he gets through the day."

"I don't know how he gets out of bed in the morning. So Annie's lying when she states you and she had a sexual relationship?"

He grinned widely, shook his finger. "I never had sex with that woman."

"Cute," Liz acknowledged. "And really adorable when you consider Annie states that relationship was limited to oral sex. A blurry line, I grant you. She 'came on' to you, that's what you said, and that's funny, too. In her statement she uses that same phrase. You told her Lieutenant MacNamara came on to you. And when you, being the moral, upstanding type, turned her down, she got her feelings hurt and looked for payback. My God, man, the women just make your life a living hell. I have to tell you, I'm actively restraining myself from coming on to you right now."

"Keep it up, Detective," the lawyer warned, "and this interview is over."

"Just going with what seems to be a pattern. You were in the building Monday morning between nine and ten A.M., Officer?"

"That's right. I had some things I wanted out of my locker."

"It took you an hour to get some things out of your locker?"

"I hung around. I'm a cop," he said with some irritation. "This is my house. I'm supposed to be here. I'm supposed to be doing the job. And I would be if it wasn't for her and the stick up her ass."

"Now she's a bitch with a stick up her ass who came on to you."

"I call them like I see them, remember?"

"But it was Annie who said Lieutenant MacNamara came on to you." Liz smiled pleasantly when annoyance crossed Arnie's face. "I think you're getting your excuses and lies mixed up here. But it's easy to see why. It's hard to tell one bitch from the other, isn't it? We're all pretty much the same. You didn't need to see Phoebe's face when you punched your fist into it. You didn't need to hear her scream or cry or curse you when you shoved her down, ripped her clothes to shreds. Of course, it didn't take any balls to do that, not when her hands were cuffed. I guess one man's payback is another man's cowardice."

"I'm man enough."

"Man enough to use one woman to ambush another." The sugary tone was a thing of the past now as Liz whipped out the words. "Man enough to lie in wait like a snake in the grass. And the only way you could put your hands on her was to cuff her, to knock her down. That's the only way you could get her naked and put hands on her."

"I was never in that stairway," Arnie shot back. "I never touched her. I got better things to do with my time. I sure got better things to do with my fingers." He flipped the middle one at Phoebe.

"She never said anything about fingers," Phoebe said quietly. "She said hands."

He sat back. "Hands, fingers. Same thing."

"It's really not." There was a hot ball jammed between her belly and her heart, hard and hot. She needed it to break apart and dissolve.

The victim needed it, she thought, to kill the fear.

"You rammed them inside me. You son of a bitch." She surged to her feet, ignoring the lawyer's objections as she leaned across the table. "You smelled like baby powder, just like you do now. Under the sweat. Because you're starting to sweat, Arnie. Do you remember what you said to me?"

"Can't remember something I didn't say. I wasn't there."

"You said you didn't fuck my kind. I figure you didn't use your dick because it's too small to make an impression. Your kind can't get it up half the time anyway."

"Too bad you didn't break your neck in the fall."

"This interview's over," the lawyer announced.

"You should've pushed me harder. Maybe if I'd broken something, you'd have gotten a decent boner."

"I should've kicked you down the damn stairs."

She eased back, nodded as that hard, hot ball began to dissolve. "Your mistake."

"I said, this interview is over."

"That's fine." Liz rose. "We'll just move right along, then. Officer Meeks, you're under arrest."

Phoebe went straight to her office, closed herself in, and did something she rarely did. She lowered and closed her blinds. Carefully, she sat behind her desk.

Everything seemed to be throbbing at once. Emotional upheaval, stress, she told herself. All of it pushing the physical discomfort up several notches. She couldn't take a pill, not here. They made her sleepy and fuzzy-headed, so she settled for four Motrin. And watched her hands shake on the bottle.

Yeah, the ball was dissolving, she thought, and there was a price to pay for it.

She didn't answer the knock on her door, and thought only, Go away. Give me five damn minutes.

But the door opened, and Liz stepped in. "Sorry. How you holding up?"

"Got the shakes."

"You didn't have them in there, when it counted."

"He looked at me, he looked me right in the eye. He was glad he hurt me. He only wished he'd hurt me more."

"And that's what did him," Liz pointed out. "I don't care how coached he is by his lawyer, it's going to show. He can't resist, he can't control it. When this goes to trial-"

"It's not going to trial, Liz. We both know that."

Liz walked around the desk, sat on the edge. "Okay, yeah. They'll make a deal. The department, the DA, nobody's going to want a public trial, and the publicity that goes with it. And even with what happened in interrogation, the case is a little shaky. Strong enough so Arnie's lawyer knows to take a deal when it's offered. He's going to lose his badge, Phoebe, and he's going to be disgraced. Is that going to be enough for you?"

"It'll have to be. I appreciate all you did."

"You pulled plenty of the weight."

"Hey," Phoebe said when Liz got up. "I know this nice bar-Irish pub on River Street. I'd like to buy you a drink. I need a few days' grace on it, until my vanity lets me go out in public."

"Sure, just let me know. Take care, Phoebe."

Down in Holding, Arnie paced his cell. They'd arrested him, booked him. Goddamn useless lawyer.

Goddamn bitches screwed it all up. Assault, battery, sexual molestation. Railroading him, that's what they were doing, all because that cunt couldn't handle a few bruises she'd damn well earned.

It wouldn't stick. No possible way they could make it stick. He whipped around when the door slid open, and bit back the words that wanted to spew out only because his father shook his head when he came in.

So Arnie held them in until the guard stepped away.

"They can't make this bullshit stick," Arnie began. "She's not going to get away with locking me up like this, with embarrassing me in front of my fellow officers. That bitch-"

"Sit down. Shut up."

Arnie sat, but he couldn't shut up. "You see how they put a girl

ADA on it? Circle the fucking wagons. What's Chuck thinking, for God's sake?" Arnie demanded, speaking of the DA. "Why didn't he just kick this in the first place?"

"He's getting the arraignment pushed up, and he's going to recommend ROR."

"Well, Jesus, that's just great." In disgust Arnie threw his hands up. "I get charged for this bullshit, but released on my own recogni zance, and that makes it okay? Fuck that, Pa. I could lose my badge. You need to reach out to IAB, get an investigation on MacNamara. You know McVee's dipping his wick in that. You know that's why I'm in here."

Mouth tight, Sergeant Meeks stared down at his son. "You're in here because you couldn't keep your mouth shut, just like now. I'm going to ask you one time. Just you and me. I'm going to ask this one time, and I want the truth. You lie, I'll see it. I see it, and I walk out of here, and that's the last I'll do for you."

Anger faded away into shock, and the first trickle of fear. "Christ, Pa."

"Did you do this thing? You look at me, Arnie. Did you do this?"

"Don't you lucking lie."

"She suspended me. She used me as a goat. You taught me to stand up for myself, not to take shit off anyone. If you got to kick an ass, you kick it."

Meeks stared. "Did I teach you to use your fists on a woman, boy? Did I teach you that?"

"She wouldn't get off my back. She-" He broke off, eyes watering, burning, when his father's hand slapped across his face.

"Did I teach you to jump a superior officer from behind, like a coward? I taught you to be a man, goddamn it, not to hide in some stairwell and beat on a woman. You're a disgrace to me, to the family name, to the job."

"They come at you, you come back harder. That's what you taught me. That's what I did."

"You don't see the difference, there's nothing I can say." Wearily, Meeks got to his feet. "I'll use what I've got to fix this for you, the best

I can. You're my son, so I'll do it for you, for your mother, for my grandson. But you're done on the job, Arnie. If I could fix that, I wouldn't.

You're done."

"Then how are you going to hold your head up, if you don't have your son following you on the job?"

"I don't know. I'll get you out of this, the best I can. After that, I don't know."

"I only did what I thought you'd do."

"If I believed that, I'd feel sicker than I do now." Meeks walked over to the cell door, set his jaw. "On the gate!" he called, then left his son.

By Sunday, Phoebe decided to ditch the sling. She was tired of it, tired of the meds, tired of the bruises.

And she had to admit she was tired of having to fight back the need to whine and complain so that she could ease her family back into routine.

Still, she felt better when she stepped out of the shower, especially if she avoided any glimpse of herself in the mirror. She managed to get her robe on without too much of a struggle, and decided she'd probably not only last through Sunday dinner, but maybe even make it until the crazy hour of ten o'clock that night before her energy just drained out like water from a sieve.

She walked into her bedroom just as her sister-in-law walked through the door. "Knock, knock," Josie said with a big smile. "How's the patient today?"

"I've crossed myself off the disabled list, thanks."

"I'll be the judge of that. Let her drop."

"Come on, Josie."

Josie's smile only widened. She was barely five-two, weighed in at maybe one-ten fully dressed, and behind that angelic smile was a hardass that would make Nurse Ratched tremble.

"Drop the robe, sweets, or I'll tell your mother."

"That's mean."

"I am mean."

"Don't I know. I'm going to run away to Atlanta, get myself an apartment and leave no forwarding address." But Phoebe dropped the robe.

Sympathy shone in Josie's big brown eyes, but her voice was brisk. "Bruising's fading. The hip looks a lot better. That shoulder has to be painful yet."

"It's coming along."

"How's the range of motion?"

"I'm still grateful I've got some front-hook bras, but it's improving." Josie took Phoebe's hands, turned them over. If truth be told, those injuries hurt her heart more than the rest. "Wrist lacerations look pretty good."

"Bitching sore if you want the truth. Can I regain my modesty now?" Josie picked up the robe, helped Phoebe into it. "Any trouble with your vision in that eye?"

"No, it's clear. And before you ask, the headaches are fewer and less intense. I can poke at my jaw without feeling like I've drilled a spike through it and into my brain. All in all, not too bad."

"You're healing well. Helps that you're young and in excellent physical shape."

"I knew those damn Pilates were good for something. You didn't have to come by to check on me, Jo."

"You get the bonus round because I came early so Ava can teach me to bake lemon meringue pie. Which you know she's making because it's Dave's favorite. Why doesn't she just jump that man and get the ball rolling?"

"I wish I knew." Phoebe moved to her dresser for underwear. "In all these years it's the first time they've both been free at the same time. His divorce has been final for almost two years now. But they're both still playing just friends."

"We could set them up on a blind date. You know, you tell him you've got somebody, and I tell her, and we don't tell either the somebodies are each other. And then-"

"We both get our butts burned for meddling."

Josie pouted. "That's what Carter said when I tried the idea out on him. Well, I'm giving them six months more, then I'm risking my butt. Want me to help you get dressed?"

"I can handle it."

"Just between us now?" Josie watched Phoebe's range of motion as Phoebe eased into a shirt, and judged it improved. "How are you doing otherwise?"

"Okay. I know the symptoms of posttraumatic stress. I've had some unpleasant dreams. It's natural."

"It's also natural for stress to bottle up when you feel obligated to keep it inside and not upset the family."

"If I need to spew, I have my ways. Don't worry. I'm back on the job full-time next week. That helps me."

"Okay. Call if you need me."

To prove to herself as well as her family that things were approaching normal, Phoebe dressed with some care. The bold blue color of the shirt cheered her up enough to nudge her into taking some time with makeup. Then more time as she realized if she just kept blending, the bruises went from a shout to a murmur.

By the time she got downstairs, the kitchen was full of women cooking. It didn't hurt her feelings at all to be banished out to the courtyard and the sunshine with Carter and Carly.

"Mama!" Carly flew across the bricks. "I kicked Uncle Carter's butt at jacks."

"That's my girl."

"It's a sissy game."

"He says that when he loses," Carly announced. "Do you want to play the champ?"

"I don't think I'm up to sitting on the ground yet, baby. Give me another week, and we'll see whose butt gets kicked. You better practice."

"I'm going in for a drink, okay? Whipping Uncle Carter was thirsty work."


Carly grinned at her uncle and ran for the door. With a sigh, Phoebe sat on the circular bench around the courtyard's little fountain.

Here, she could not only see Ava's roses but smell them. She could hear the birds sing, and admire the tenacity of the thyme and chamomile that spread between the cracks of the pavers, the sweet faces of the violas that danced around a copper birdbath.

Here, with the brick walls and wrought-iron gates, Ava had created a personal sanctuary where shade dappled through moss onto benches and tea olives perfumed the air.

"God! It feels good to sit outside."

"Josie give you the thumbs-up?"

"Yeah, yeah."

He sat, slipped an arm around Phoebe's shoulders. "We get to worry about you. It's part of the package."

She leaned her head on his shoulder. "We all had a scare. It's over now."

"I remember how long it took me to get over being scared."

"Carter, you were just a little guy."

"That doesn't matter, and you know it. You looked after me. And you stood between me and Cousin Bess for years after."

"Old bitch. Which is mean and ungrateful, however true, when we're sitting here in her pretty courtyard while other people are baking pies and ham in the kitchen."

"It's Ava's courtyard," Carter said, and made Phoebe smile.

"Yes, it is. And really, even during the tyrant's reign, it was Ava's. Do you ever think how she was younger than we are now when she started working here? Barely twenty-two, wasn't she? And to have the spine to stick it out, to stand up to Cousin Bess."

"You had it at twelve," Carter reminded her. "And you're still looking after us. She knew you'd stay because Mama has to. She could've left Mama the house, after all Mama did for her, but she put it on you, with strings. Locked you in here."

There was no point in denying the truth, every word of truth. And still, it was too lovely a day for bitter old memories. "Locked me in this beautiful house, where my daughter thrives. It's not what we can call a sacrifice."

"It is. It always was. You let me walk away."

She took a firm grip on his hand. "Not very far. I don't think I could stand it if you went very far away."

He smiled, pressed his lips to her hair. "I'd miss you too much. But I'll tell you one thing, Phoebs, I never knew how much I needed to move out of this house until I did it. You never really had a chance."

"I had my time away." College, Quantico, my disaster of a marriage. "I'm happy to be back. I especially like being able to sit out here while three other women put Sunday dinner together."

"That's only because you're a lousy cook."

"Lousy's an exaggeration. I'm an unreliable cook."

"No, you're reliably lousy."

She laughed and poked him in the ribs. "You burn even the thought of food, so you're one to talk."

"That's why they invented takeout and delivery. You won't need to cook if you play your cards right with the rich guy. He's probably got a couple of chefs on staff."

"Listen to you." She gave him another, zestier poke. "Playing my cards. Plus, I don't think he actually has a staff." She frowned over that a moment. She didn't think he had one, but really, how would she know?

"I see he sent more flowers. Looked like a few thousand of them in the parlor."

"A couple dozen lilacs." That smelled so, so lovely. "He seems to be a man who likes to make gestures."

"I got the look from Josie when she saw them." Hissing out a breath, Carter narrowed his eyes at the kitchen windows. "Guys who make gestures make other guys make gestures, and now I'm going to have to remember to bring home flowers next week like I thought of it myself."

"You ought to think of it yourself. I have no sympathy for you."

"I brought her home her favorite panini and a cheap bottle of wine just a few days ago, and I ought to get credit for it. But I'm outdone by some forest of lilacs."

"You used the cheap wine to get lucky."

He grinned. "'Course I did. Well, megabucks aside, and having only met him once, I already like him more than I did Roy."

"You never liked Roy at all, so that's not saying much."

He shifted, pointed in that smug, brotherly way. "And who was right?"

She rolled her eyes. "You were. Shut up. Besides, I got the grand prize out of the bastard." She looked over as the door slammed open and Carly raced out.

"Mama! Uncle Dave's here!"

The minute he stepped out, the instant Phoebe saw his face, she knew. She kept her own blank as she pushed to her feet. "Carter, I want to talk to Dave just a minute. Can you take Carly in, keep her occupied?"

"Sure. Hey, Dave."

They didn't shake as many men did, or do the one-armed, backslapping man hug as others did. They hugged, Phoebe thought; as always it made her smile. It was a good, strong embrace; it was father to son. "You'll have to excuse me and Carly. I have to reestablish my dominance and whoop her at WWE SmackDown."

"As if!" Hooting with challenge, Carly raced back inside the house. "You look better," Dave began.

"So I'm told. Over and over. What happened?"

"They made a deal. I wanted to tell you in person. Phoebe, there was a lot of pressure from the brass on this, from the DA's office-"

"It doesn't matter." She sat again, needed to sit again. "What did they give him?"

"He's off the job, immediately. No benefits. He pleads guilty to simple assault-"

"Simple assault," she repeated. She'd prepared herself, and still she was stunned.

"It carries one-to-three, suspended. He'll get probation. He'll be required to take anger management and serve twenty hours' community service."

"Does he have to write on the blackboard a hundred times: 'I promise to be a good boy'?"

"I'm sorry, Phoebe." He crouched in front of her, laid a hand on her knee. "It's a bad deal. They want to put it away. You don't have to put it away. If you decide to file civil charges against him, I'll stand behind you on it. And I won't be the only one in the department who does."

"I can't put my family through that. Honestly, I don't know if I could put myself through it." She closed her eyes and reminded herself that not all deals were fair, not all deals settled the score. "He did what he did. Everyone who counts knows it." She let out a long breath before looking Dave in the eye again. "He can't be a cop anymore. The rest, it's not important. He's off the job, and that's what's right. That's what's needed. I'm okay with it."

"Then you're a better man than I, kid."

"No. I'm pissed. I'm seriously pissed, but I can live with it. We're going to eat sugar-glazed ham and lemon meringue pie. And Arnie Meeks? He's going to be eating disgrace for a very long time." She nodded. "Yeah. I can live with that."


Oh, to be torn 'twixt love an' duty.


Chapter 11

Even after a handful of years, Duncan found meetings weird.

The whole business-suited, proposal/pitch/report, Danish-and-coffee and thanks-for-your-time elements of them. Then there were the politics, and the pecking orders.

Maybe that was why he didn't have an actual office. There was no escaping the meeting to his mind if a man had an office. Plus an office meant you had to staff it with people who had to be given particular assignments on a regular basis. If you happened to be the boss, that meant you had to come up with those assignments, and probably read reams of reports on the assignments before, during and afterward. And you'd damn well have to have more meetings regarding the assignments. Vicious cycle.

An office involved desks, and giving people titles. Who actually decided on titles? What made, say, an executive assistant different from an administrative assistant? And should it be the Vice President of Marketing and Sales, or the Vice President of Sales and Marketing? Things like that would keep him up at night.

Phineas nagged him off and on about the office thing, but so far he'd been able to slip and slide around it.

He liked meeting with people in one of the bars, or a restaurant. Or if it was absolutely necessary, in Phin's office, which was, in Duncan's opinion, meeting central. Going somewhere that wasn't essentially or absolutely his own place not only kept things looser, but he'd found those he met with tended to be more up-front and outspoken over a beer in a pub than they might be over glasses of spring water in a boardroom. He'd found, too, that it was often more interesting, certainly more telling, to go to the prospective meeter. Sitting in their homes, their place of business, their studio, whatever, generally made them more comfortable. It gave him a leg up on getting what he wanted or needed or hoped for if the other party was comfortable in their own space. Following that philosophy, he'd buzzed from a breakfast meeting at a cafe downtown to a funky little theater in Southside, then wound his way to a sadly neglected house in the Victorian section.

In each case, he felt he'd gotten more accomplished, and had a better time of it, than if he'd summoned all the parties involved in all the prospective projects into some stuffy office where he'd be stuck behind a desk wanting to pull a Suicide Joe and jump out the window anyway. As he made the turn onto Jones, he hoped the same would hold true for what he'd deemed his last meeting of the day.

He'd considered timing it differently, doing a kind of drop-by when Phoebe would be home. But that seemed just a little underhanded. Which was a valid strategy, true, but he figured she'd cop to it.

He parked, began the pretty stroll under arching trees.

He wanted to see her-and not just for the quick just-dropping-intosee-how-you're-doing visits he'd limited himself to for the last two weeks. Biding time, he mused. And maybe there was a little gameplaying in there, too. She didn't know what to make of him, and he didn't mind that.

He didn't always know what to make of himself, and didn't mind that either.

One thing he did know was that she'd had a major trauma, and she was working her way through it. There wasn't any point in pushing her into a date, or rushing her into bed at a time when she was shaky on her pins.

He had plans. He liked to make plans, nearly as much as he liked adjusting, shifting and altogether changing them from conception to completion.

He had plans for Phoebe.

But right now, he had plans for something else altogether.

Before he turned up the walk to MacNamara House he spotted the woman with the strange little dog across the brick road. Today's doggy bow tie was red-and-white-striped, to match the wide-brimmed hat the lady had perched on her head. It set off, he supposed, her blindingly white suit and red sneakers.

The little dog currently sniffed happily, by all appearances, at the butt of a puffy pink poodle held on the end of a gold leash by an enormously fat black man in a blue seersucker suit.

The scrawny lady and the huge man chatted away under the shade of a live oak even as the hairless dog struggled mightily to hump the pink poodle.

God, Duncan thought, he loved Savannah.

He rang the bell, admired the pots and baskets of flowers on the veranda while he waited. It was Ava, he remembered, who had the gardening talent. He wondered if he could talk her into…

"Hey." He offered Essie a smile when she opened the door. "Got time for a bad penny?"

"You're no bad penny, and I've always got time for young handsome men."

They'd progressed over his occasional visits to cheek-kissing. He bussed hers now, caught the subtle scent of her perfume.

What was it like, he wondered, to get up every day, dress and groom, knowing you'd never go out the door?

"How'd you know I was baking cookies?" she asked him, so his smile spread to a grin.

"What kind?"

"Chocolate chip."

"Come on, really? All the way from scratch? Good thing I came by so you'd have a taste tester."

"Let's get you started on that. Phoebe won't be home for a couple hours yet," she added as she led the way back. "Ava, she's running errands. She'll be swinging by school to pick Carly up after play practice.

Our Carly's one of the wicked stepsisters in Cinderella. She loves getting to be mean and bossy."

"I was a frog once. Not the turn-into-a-prince kind. Just a frog. I had to belch on cue. It was a shining moment in my life."

She laughed, shooed him toward the kitchen table. "I bet your mama was so proud."

He said nothing to that. What could he say? Instead he sniffed the air. "Smells like heaven in here."

"I got some still warm from the oven. You want coffee or milk with them?"

"Cookies and milk? I'd suffer through school again if I could come home after to you and cookies and milk."

Pleased, she pinked up. "You're a charmer, aren't you? What've you been out and about doing today?"

"Talking to people, mostly. And actually, I was hoping to finish up that part of the day talking to you. There's this property I was looking at. It's in the Victorian District, not far from a piece of the campus. Savannah College of Art and Design?"

"You don't say." She could barely remember what was outside the house and where it was set. All of that, the streets and buildings and open spaces, were a jumbled maze of squares and lines in her mind. "What kind of property?"

"Kind of a mess, actually. Like one of those Victorian ladies who fell on extremely hard times. You can still see the elegance under the neglect." He picked up a cookie, bit in. Then forgot everything in pure sensory pleasure.

"Oh God. Marry me."

She didn't laugh this time. She giggled. "If a woman can have you for a cookie, I'm surprised the bakeries all over the state of Georgia aren't working overtime." She reached across him, picked up one herself. And her eyes twinkled. "But they are damned good cookies."

"If I beg, will you give me some to take home? How can I settle for Chips Ahoy! now?"

"I believe we can spare some for you."

She moved to the stove to take out a tray, slide in the one she'd prepared.

"I lost my train of thought in cookie nirvana. This sad house off campus."

"Mmm-hmm. You're thinking of buying it and fixing it up."

He followed warm cookie with cold milk, and figured that was the sum total of heaven on earth. "That kind of depends on you." Puzzlement lifted her eyebrows as she turned away from the stove. "On me?"

"I'm thinking of buying it and fixing it up, yeah. What I've got in mind is a shop. Now… " He gestured with the last bite of the first cookie before popping it into his mouth. "I know what you're thinking."

"You couldn't possibly. I'm too confused to be thinking anything."

"Okay, what some might think is, hell, Savannah's got a million shops already. It does, no doubt about it. But people love to shop. No doubt about that either. Right?"

"I… I do. I love browsing the Internet shops."

"Sure." He picked up another cookie. "So I'm thinking, location being near the campus, Art and Design. Why not art, crafts. Okay," he said before she could speak. "We've already got plenty of shops and galleries. Artsy, crafty."

" I… suppose."

"Even the style I'm thinking, which would be upscale, isn't new, particularly. Boutiquey. Boutiquesque? You know what I'm saying?"

"Almost." She shook her head, laughed again. "Duncan, if you're using me for a sounding board here, I'm flattered. But I don't know anything about real estate and location and boutiquey shops out there. I don't go out there."

"You know about art and craft." Okay, he was having a third cookie, even if it made him sick. "About creating it. About selling it."

"You mean my crocheting." She waved a hand at him. "That's just a paying hobby. It's just something I stumbled into."

"Okay. How about stumbling my way? I've got this idea. Don't you love getting ideas? I always got ideas, but I couldn't do anything with most of them. Now I can. It's a rush, let me tell you."

"So I can see."

"The idea is arts and crafts by Savannahians. Products created only in Savannah. Only Savannah," he repeated, narrowing his eyes. "Might be a good name for it. I should write that down. Savannah arts and crafts," he continued as he dug out his cell phone, cued up his memo function. "Created by Savannahians, displayed and sold in a gorgeous two-story wooden house that symbolizes Savannah. It's got this great porch, or it will be great. I know this guy who does amazing furniture. Tongue and groove. And this woman who does amazing things with wrought iron. So we could… getting ahead of myself," he said when he noted she was just staring at him.

"You want to carry some of my crocheting in your shop?"

"Essie, I want to carry buckets of it, trunkloads of it. I want to have it spread all through the place. What do you call them-doilies?-on tables, throws on the sofas. You said you did bedspreads, right? How about tablecloths, like that? And clothes. Sweaters, scarves."

"Well, yes, b u't… "

"See, we'd have rooms set up. Just like a home. Bedrooms, dining room, parlors. So we'd display your work that way. For sale, sure, but also part of the ambience, you know? Baby stuff in the nursery, scarves, sweaters in the wardrobes. You could keep doing your own Internet sales if you want. But we could take care of that for you, expand it."

"My head is actually spinning." She laid her hand on one side of it as if to keep it centered. "Why do you think I could do all that?"

"You are doing it. You'd just keep doing it-except for the boxing and shipping, depending on how you want to handle it. Here, come with me a minute." He grabbed her hand as he pushed back from the table, pulled her into the dining room.

"What do you call that?"

She frowned at the long runner she'd designed in soft pastels for the dining room table. "A runner."

"A runner. Got it. So, if you were to make one just like that and sell it, what would you charge?"

"Oh, well." She had to calculate. She'd made one very similar for a client once, and several shorter ones for others over the years. She gauged the price as best she could without a calculator.

Duncan nodded, did some rapid calculations of his own. "I could give you fifteen percent more than that, and still make a decent profit." Her cheeks went white, then flushed warm pink. "Fifteen percent more?" She grabbed an end of the runner. "You want it now? I'll box it right up for you."

He grinned. "You keep that one, and start thinking about making more. And whatever else you've a mind to make. I'm going to need some time to get this up and running, but I guarantee we'll be rocking by the Christmas shopping season." He held out a hand. "Partner?" Duncan considered it a really good day if by seven, regardless of what had come before, there was pizza and beer on the veranda.

He'd lit candles, as much to discourage the bugs as to add some light. His bare feet were propped on the padded wicker hassock. He'd left the TV on in the living room, angling himself so he could watch some basketball action through the window if he wanted. Or just listen to the play-by-play and stare off into the soft dark.

He'd had enough of people for the day. As sociable as he was, he hoarded his alone time. And he liked to listen to the sounds of the game, but he just simply loved the sounds of the night.

The quiet swooshing of air through the trees, the hum of insects, the incessant music of peepers entertained him. It was a good spotveranda, chair and hassock-and the best time of day to figure things out. Or to let them go.

He'd been tempted to hang out in Essie's kitchen until Phoebe came in from work. So why hadn't he? Hang around too much, he decided, and become a fixture. Or an annoyance. It was all a matter of balance, to his way of thinking. And intriguing the woman in question so maybe she was just a little off hers.

Besides, every time he saw her, he wanted to grab her. Considering what she'd been through, he didn't think she was at the grabbing stage yet.

He finished off a slice of pizza, contemplated another. Then glanced over at the sound of a car. His brows lifted when he realized the car wasn't passing by but heading in.

He didn't recognize it, but he recognized the woman who stepped out of it. And this, he thought, was a better way to end the day than pizza and beer.

"Hey, Phoebe."

"Duncan." She pushed at her hair as she walked to the veranda. "I was at the bridge before it occurred to me you probably weren't here, and then it was too late not to keep going. But here you are anyway."

"I'm here a lot. I mostly live here."

"So you've said."

"Want some pizza? A beer?"

"No, and no. Thank you."

The formal tone had him lifting his eyebrows again. "How about a chair?"

"I'm fine, thanks. I want to ask what you're doing with my mother." Okay. "Well, I asked her to marry me, but she avoided giving me an answer. I don't think she took me seriously so I settled for the cookies."

"I'm wondering how seriously you take her, or yourself."

"Why don't you tell me why you're pissed at me, and we'll go from there?"

"I'm not pissed. I'm concerned."

Bullshit, he thought. He knew a pissed-off woman when she was standing on his veranda ready to chew holes in him. "About?"

"My mother's bursting with excitement over this business you talked to her about."

"You don't want her to be excited?"

"I don't want her to be disappointed, or disillusioned or hurt."

His voice was as cool as his neglected beer. "Which would be the natural consequence of excitement over the project we discussed. Which, as I recall," he added, "doesn't involve you."

"My mother's state of mind very much involves me. You can't come in there talking about some store you're thinking of opening in some house you're thinking of buying, and how she's going to be a part of it. It's your business how you do business-"

"Thank you very much."

"But," Phoebe ground out. "You got her all worked up, making plans, making designs, talking about how she'll be able to help more with the expenses. What happens to all that if you change your mind, or it doesn't come through, or you just find something more interesting to play with?"

"Why would I change my mind?"

"Aren't you the one who opened a sports bar, then sold it?"

"Sold a piece of it," he corrected.

"Then a pub. And I don't know what else." Which was the crux of it. She didn't know, and he was taking her mother into territory she hadn't mapped out. "You bounce, and that's fine for you, Duncan, that's just fine. It's not fine for my mother. She doesn't bounce."

"Let me sort this out. In your opinion, I'm irresponsible and unreliable."

"No. No." She let out a sigh as the leading edge of her temper dulled down to the core of worry. "You're casual, Duncan, and it's part of your appeal. You can afford to be casual, and not just because of the money. No one depends on you, so you can do what you like, come and go as you please."

"Is that casual or careless?"

"I say what I mean, and I said casual. I don't think you're careless. But my mother's fragile, and-"

"Your mother's amazing. You know, I told her once she ought to give herself a break, but the fact is, you ought to give her one. Do you think because she can't go out of that house, she's less than amazing?"

"No. Damn it, no." Because the conversation, such as it was, had gotten out of her hands, Phoebe dragged them through her hair and tried to get back to center. "But she does. She's been hurt and pushed and shoved into the corner so many times."

"I'm not going to do any of those things to Essie."

"Not on purpose. I don't mean that. But what if, for whatever reason, you don't buy that house, then-"

"I bought it today."

That stopped her. That put a hitch in her stride, Duncan thought.

He said nothing more, just picked up his beer, watched her as he tipped back the bottle.

"All right, you bought the house. But what if you find it isn't cost effective to fix it up? Or what if-"

"Jesus. What if the voices tell me to put on fairy wings and fly to

Cuba? You can 'what if till next Tuesday; it doesn't mean a damn. I finish what I start, goddamn it. I'm not stupid."

"You're not stupid. I never said or meant you were." But someone had, someone that mattered. "It's just that this all came out of the blue, and for my mother it's huge. I'm trying to point out the variables, and I'm trying to understand why you'd involve her in this. I can't understand what you're doing. I can't understand what you want. From her.

From me."

"Tied those two together," he muttered, and pushed to his feet. "Must want something from you, so I use her. Let's answer this first. You want to know what I want from you?"

"Yes. Let's start there."

He grabbed her before the last word was all the way out. The hell with biding time. He was too pissed off to bide anything. He had his mouth on hers, showing her what he wanted, taking what he wanted with an impatient anger he rarely let free.

Hunger pushed and shoved at temper until his mouth ravaged hers.

Her back pressed back against the porch column, and her hands were trapped between his body and hers. Every muscle in her body quivered. But not in protest, not in fear. There was a difference between fear and thrill, and she understood it now.

When he broke off, there was such heat in his eyes.

"You got that now?" he demanded. "We're clear on that point?"



It was her move now. All hers. Her hands were free so she hooked one arm around his neck, yanked his mouth back to hers. She would have chained her arms around him if her injured shoulder had allowed. When he pressed her against the column again, she nipped at his lip, rocked her hips against his.

She let the pleasure flood her after months and months of sexual drought. The feel of his hands on her breasts, the feel of the night air on her skin when his busy fingers undid her shirt, unhooked her bra. The glorious sensation that rolled through her and escaped on a purring moan.

She went wet and needy, arching to his hands and his mouth, quivering, quivering when he tugged at the button of her waistband.

Here, standing right here, she wanted to be taken without thought, without care, without boundaries. Desperate, she reached for him. And the shock of pain in her shoulder had her crying out.

He jerked back as if she'd punched him. "Christ. Christ."

"It's all right. I moved wrong, that's all. Don't-"

But he held up a hand, turned away. He paced up, he paced down. Stopped and took a long, long gulp of his warming beer.

"You're hurt. You're still hurt. Jesus." And, setting the beer down again, he scrubbed his hands over his face.

"It's not that bad. Really."

"You're still hurt. And I'm not going to bang you against the post like… Okay, okay, another minute here."

He paced up and down again. "You pissed me off. No real excuse but I'm taking it."

"No excuses necessary as it was obviously mutual."

"Regardless. Anyway, that should answer the question, which I'm still trying to exactly remember as all the blood's drained out of my head. The second had to do with…" He'd turned to face her again, and just stared.

She stood, leaning back against the post, shirt open, hair tumbled, cheeks flushed.

"Wow. Seriously. Hold on," he said when she glanced down, then began to button up. "Would you not do that for just another minute. Maybe two? Since I'm not allowed to touch, it seems only fair I be able to look. You've got this really terrific body. It's all just… just exactly right. And the way you're standing there, and this light, and…

Okay, yeah, you better close up shop there. That's about all I can handle."

"You're a strange man, Duncan."

"I've heard that. I want you, and it's keeping me up at night. I don't mind that so much, even though I like to sleep. But some things rate insomnia. You're one of them."

"Thank you. I think."

"But to get back to the rest. I think the point's just been made that I don't need to use Essie to get to you. And you know what? You should think more of her than that. More of me, too, and more of yourself."

"You're right. You're absolutely right, and I'm absolutely wrong. I hate that. My excuse, since we're using them, is I love her so much."

"I get that. You're lucky to have her."

Phoebe raked a hand through her hair. He meant that, exactly that, she realized. He saw her mother, and saw the value of the woman she was. "I know it. People, a lot of people, look at the situation and think she's some sort of burden. You don't. And I'm sorry for the way I handled this."

"I would be, too, except I got my hands on your breasts." She laughed. "Want that beer now?"

"Better not, I'm driving. Duncan, please don't take this the wrong way. I see the bars-you tended bar. And I could see if you bought a cab company, or a car service or some such thing. Maybe you have, I don't know, and that's part of it. I don't know how you do this sort of thing. And I don't know what you could possibly know about running a retail craft boutique."

"We'll find out, plus I wouldn't actually be running it. I've got somebody in mind for that. And you're thinking, hell, he can afford to lose a couple hundred thousand here or there."

"No, actually, I was thinking you'll probably find a way to make it work. I'm thinking I was scared because I came home to find my mother happy, bubbling with it."

"She was happy when she started with Reuben."

Now Phoebe pressed her fingers to her eyes. "Obviously I didn't connect those dots for myself before I came haring out here and laid into you."

"Hair trigger," he said, without heat.

"About some things, obviously. Now that I've connected those dots-or you have for me-I'm thinking if you hadn't had this idea I can't understand, exactly, my mother wouldn't have a chance to try something exciting."

"I wouldn't have made the offer if I didn't believe I could sell the sheer hell out of her work."

"Which, if I hadn't flown off, I'd have come around to on my own rather than driving out here to jump all over you. Which I don't regret because you got to get your hands on my breasts."

He smiled slowly. "How long before they think you'll be a hundred percent?"

She reached up with her good arm to touch his hair. She liked how it always looked as if he'd just taken a wild ride in that fancy car of his. "I'll get a note from my private duty nurse clearing me for physical activity."

"Works for me. Meanwhile, how about going out with me Sunday? Sunday-afternoon barbecue at a friend's. It'd be a chance to get to know each other, dynamics with others, before we lose ourselves in wild, sweaty sex."

"All right. Why not?"

"I'll pick you up about two."

"Two. I need to get home." She rose to her toes, kissed him, softly, slowly, on either cheek. "I hope I keep you up tonight."

He watched her walk away, flick a killer smile over her shoulder. And decided the odds were heavily in favor of insomnia.

As her car drove away, he went back to sit, to prop his feet on the padded hassock. Eating cold pizza, drinking warm beer, he thought it had been a hell of an interesting day.

Chapter 12

The call came through at seven fifty-eight. The kid was smart, very smart. He hadn't panicked, hadn't tried to play the hero. He'd used his head, and his legs, dashing away from the bungalow in Gordonston, hopping fences between the pretty backyards back to his own house, to the phone. And to nine-one-one.

He'd given names, the address, the situation. En route to Savannah's east side, Phoebe listened to the replay of the emergency call and thought the boy had the makings of a good cop.

He's got them sitting around the kitchen table. Mr. Brinker does. Mrs.

Brinker, Jessie, Aaron, even the baby. Urn, Penny, in her high chair. He's got a gun. I think he's got two guns. Jessie's crying. Jesus, you gotta do something. She had more information. It came rolling in as she and Sykes sped toward the pretty neighborhood. Stuart Brinker, age forty-three, associate professor. Father of three-Jessica, sixteen, Aaron, twelve, and Penelope, two. Recently separated from his wife of eighteen years, Katherine, thirty-nine, art teacher.

Twenty minutes after the nine-one-one, Phoebe walked through the barricade forming the outer perimeter. The media was already doing stand-ups outside the barricades. There were some shouts in her direction from reporters. Phoebe ignored them, signaled to one of the uniforms. "Lieutenant MacNamara and Detective Sykes, negotiators. What's the situation?"

"Four hostages, three minor children. HT's got them in the living room now." He gestured toward the tidy white bungalow with azaleas blooming pink and white in the front yard. "Curtains closed on all the windows there. We can't get a visual. HT's got a couple of handguns.

No shots fired. First responder's been talking to him off and on. The word I get is the guy's really polite, but isn't doing a lot of communicating at this point. Kid who called it in's over there with his mother."

Phoebe glanced over, saw the gangly teenage boy sitting on the ground, head in his hands. A woman sat beside him, her arm hooked firmly over his shoulder, her face pale as wax.


"Yeah, I've got him."

Phoebe moved on toward communications, and the edge of the inner perimeter, as Sykes walked to the boy. "Lieutenant MacNamara, negotiator."

Information came fast now. Tactical had the house surrounded, the near neighbors evacuated. Sharpshooters were moving into positions. "He won't talk much," the first responder told her. "I've been trying to keep the line open with him. He sounds tired. Sad, not angry. He and the wife are separated-her idea, he says. Last time I got him to talk, he thanked me for calling before hanging up."

"Okay, stand by." She studied the log, the situation board, then pulled out her notebook as she picked up the phone. "Let's get him back on."

He answered on the third ring, and his voice was brutally weary. "Please, is this necessary? I want some time with my family. Some quiet, uninterrupted time."

"Mr. Brinker? This is Phoebe MacNamara. I'm a negotiator with the Savannah-Chatham Police Department. I'd like to help. How is everyone in there? Everybody okay?"

"We're fine, thank you. Now please, leave us alone."

"Mr. Brinker, I understand you want to be with your family. You sound as if you love them very much."

"Of course I do. I love my family. Families need to be together."

"You want your family to be together, I understand. Why don't you bring them out now? All of you together. I'd like you to put your weapons down now, Mr. Brinker, and come out with your family."

"I can't do that. I'm very sorry."

"Can you tell me why not?"

"This is my house. This is the only way we can be together. I thought about this carefully."

Planned out, not impulse, she thought as she made notes. Not anger but sorrow. "You sound tired."

"I am. I'm very tired. I've done my best, but it's never quite good enough. It's exhausting to never be quite good enough."

"I'm sure you've done your best. It's hard, don't you think, to make important decisions when you're tired and upset? You sound tired and upset. I'd like to help you, Mr. Brinker. I'd like to help you work this all out so you can make the right decision for your family."

"I painted this living room. Kate picked the color. I didn't like it too yellow-and we argued. Remember, Kate? We fought over the yellow paint right there in the Home Depot, and she won. So I painted it.

And she was right. It's sunny in here. She was right."

Living Room, Phoebe wrote on her pad, circling it. "You did the painting. I'm terrible at painting. Can't get the cutting-in part. Have you and your family lived here long?"

"Ten years. It's a good place to raise children. That's what we thought. Good neighborhood, good schools. We need a bigger house, but…"

"Your family's grown." Family, family, family, Phoebe told herself. Focus on family. "How many children do you have?"

"Three. We have three. We didn't plan on Penny. We couldn't really afford…"

"Penny's your youngest, then? How old is Penny?"

"Two, Penny's two."

Phoebe heard an excited child's voice call: "Daddy!"

"Is that her I hear?" Now she heard a choked sob from Brinker and kept talking. "She sounds very sweet. I have a little girl. She's seven, and I just wonder where the years went. I love her more than anything. She sure keeps me busy, though. I imagine your family keeps you very busy."

"I've done my best. I don't know why it's not enough. If I'd gotten the full professorship, we could afford a bigger house."

"You sound discouraged. It must be hard. You have an older daughter, is that right? Jessie, and then a boy in the middle, Aaron. Your wife, Kate, and you must be very proud. Still, it's a lot of work. I understand that. A lot of worry."

"I needed that professorship. I needed tenure. I needed Kate to understand."

The use of past tense, and the despair, set off alarms. "Tell me what you need Kate to understand, Mr. Brinker."

"That I can't do any more than I can do, or be more than I can be. But it's not enough. I'm the husband, I'm the father. I'm supposed to make it work. But things fall apart; the center cannot hold."

"That's Yeats, isn't it?" She closed her eyes, hoping she hadn't made a mistake.

There was a beat of silence. "Yes. You know Yeats?"

"Some. And I think sometimes that's true, things do fall apart, or seem to. The center can't always hold it all. But I also think things can be rebuilt, or reformed, and the center shored up again to hold it all differently. What do you think?"

"Once it falls, it's not the same."

"Not the same, but still there."

"My family's fallen apart."

"But they're still there, Mr. Brinker, and I hear how much you love them, every one of them. I don't believe you want to hurt them. Or that you want to hurt them by hurting yourself. You're the father."

"Weekend father. Perish instead of publish."

"I hear you're discouraged, and you're sad. But you're not ready to stop trying. You and Kate, eighteen years together, and those beautiful children you've made together. You don't want to stop trying. You love them too much."

"She doesn't want me anymore. What's the point? We made it all together. I thought we should end it all together. Here, in our home. The five of us, going together."

Thought we should. This time his use of past tense told her they might be turning a corner. "The five of you need to come out together, Mr. Brinker. Your children sound frightened. I can hear them crying now. You and your wife are their parents, you and your wife are responsible for keeping them safe and well."

"I don't know what to do anymore."

"Look at your children, Mr. Brinker, look at your wife. I don't believe anything's more precious to you. You don't want to hurt them. You can make the center hold. Look at the yellow walls. You gave them that sunny room, even when you weren't sure it would work. Put the guns down now, Mr. Brinker. Put them down, and bring your family out. You said you'd done your best. I believe you. Now, I believe you'll do your best again, and put the guns down. Bring your wife and your babies out."

"What's going to happen? I don't know what's going to happen."

"We're going to help you. You and your family. Will you come out with your family now? It's the right thing to do for them."

"I don't want to go into the black without them."

"You don't need to go into the black at all. Will you put the guns down, please?"

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"I know. Can you listen to me now, Mr. Brinker?"

"Yes. Yes."

"Put the guns down. Please put them down and step away from them. Will you do that?"

"Yes. All right. I'm sorry."

She wrote Coming out. Surrendering. Signaled that message to Tactical command. "It's going to be all right. Did you put the guns down?"

"Yes. I put them on the shelf. High, where Penny can't reach them."

"That was the right thing to do. I want you to come to the front door. You and your family. Don't be afraid. No one's going to hurt you. I need you to keep your hands up, just so everyone can see you did the right thing and put the guns down. There'll be police outside, but no one's going to hurt you. Do you understand?"

"I can't think."

"It's all right. Will you bring your family out, please?"

" I… I can't keep my hands up and talk on the phone."

Phoebe closed her eyes, took a breath. "That's fine. Why don't you give the phone to Kate now? And you can all come outside together."

"All right. Kate? You need to take this call."

"God. God." The woman's voice wrenched out the words. "We're coming out. He doesn't have a gun. Please, please, don't shoot. Don't hurt him. Don't hurt him."

"No one's going to hurt him. No one's going to get hurt today." When they came out, what struck Phoebe right to the bone was the sound of the little girl crying for her daddy.

In what had become his workroom, he drank cold, sweet tea with a small sprig of fresh mint and watched the media coverage of the crisis in Gordonston.

He hoped they'd all die.

He didn't care about the Brinkers-they meant nothing to him one way or the other. But if that whining college guy put bullets in his family, then himself, Phoebe would take a hell of a hit.

That would be worth the airtime.

Then again, if she took too hard a hit, he might not get the chance to pay her back, his way.

Bitch would probably slide out of it anyway, even if she fucked up and the idiot put a bullet in the brain of the fat-cheeked toddler whose picture they'd shown on screen half a dozen times already.

She wouldn't take the blame for it, no matter how much she'd earned it.

With the tea, he sat down at his workbench. He'd heard the call come through on his police scanner while he was finishing up breakfast. It had given him a hell of a lift. Guy, wife, three kids. A bloodbath like that would get lots of attention.

He'd been right, and on his workroom TV, he watched while the local station preempted the Today show with live at-the-scene coverage.

And he'd seen Phoebe stride by the cameras, ignoring reporters in that superior, I'm-so-fucking-important way of hers.

He'd thought about putting a bullet in her brain. Oh, he'd thought about it, even dreamed about it, just the way he figured Mr. College Professor was thinking about putting one into his whole stupid family. But that was too easy. That was too quick. Bang! And it's over.

He had a much better plan.

He kept the TV on while he worked. Usually, he had the spare scanner on down here, and maybe the radio. Television was too distracting when he was working. But he considered this an exception.

His lips thinned as the reporter on screen announced the Brinker family had come out, safe and sound, that the asshole surrendered peacefully.

"Pulled that one off, didn't you?" he muttered to himself as he turned screws. "Yeah, that one was easy. Didn't have to break a sweat, did you? Nice family, nice neighborhood. Just some stupid shit looking for some attention. You got them out just fine, didn't you? Phoebe. " He had to stop, put his tools down, because the anger, the rage, made his hands shake. He wanted a cigarette. Actually yearned for one. But he'd made himself quit. It was a matter of willpower, and practicality. He didn't need crutches. He couldn't afford to need crutches. He couldn't even afford the rage. Cold blood, he reminded himself. Cool head. When payback came, he'd need those, and a strong body, a clear purpose.

So he closed his eyes and willed everything inside him to slow, to still.

It was her voice that had his eyes opening again, had them burning toward the TV.

"Stuart Brinker surrendered peacefully. His wife and their children weren't harmed."

"Lieutenant MacNamara, as hostage negotiator, how did you convince Professor Brinker to surrender to the police?"

"I listened."

The glass flew across the room, shattered against the set before he realized it had left his hand. Amber rain dripped down over Phoebe's face.

Have to work on that, he told himself. Have to work on that control. Won't get the job done flying off the handle. No sir. But he smiled as the rivulets of tea slid down Phoebe's face. He imagined them red, long thin rivers of blood.

Because it pleased him, he was able to pick up his tools again with a steady hand.

He went back to work on the timer.

"It got to me. Some of them do, more than others."

After shift, Phoebe sat with Liz over a couple of glasses of wine in Swifty's. It was too early for music, so the booth was a quiet corner, an island to sink into and unwind.

"How so?"

Phoebe started to speak, then shook her head. "I didn't mean to talk shop. We should talk shoes or something."

"I bought this pair a couple weeks ago? Pumps, leopard-skin design.

I don't know what I was thinking. Where am I going to wear leopardskin pumps? Anyway, we'll get to that. Tell me about the incident. I know how it is," Liz went on. "I talk to a lot of rape victims, to a lot of kids who've been sexually abused. And sometimes it gets to you more than others. You get it out, or it roots. So?"

"The kids. You have to try not to think about them as kids. Just hostages. But…"

"They're kids."

"Yeah. And in this case, part of the key to talking him down. He loved them. You could hear it."

"And the question is, how do you hold what you love at gunpoint?"

"Because you're broken. Something was broken inside him. He wasn't mad, there wasn't any rage in him. It wasn't payback or punishment. It can be more volatile when it's not about payback. Maybe that's part of what got to me, too. I hear this guy, I hear him standing on the edge of an abyss. And he doesn't believe he can come back from it-that he deserves to."

"Why take the family, too?"

"He's nothing without them. They're essential to who he is. He doesn't want to die without them. So…" She lifted her wine. "Altogether now." She drank, blew out a breath. "He's been depressed for more than a year, and things have been slipping away from him. Career, marriage, both on pretty shaky ground. Wife wants a bigger house, oldest daughter wants a car of her own, he gets thumbs-down on the full professorship. Stuff you handle or fight about. But he just sank down, and kept sinking. The wife's so busy taking care of the kids and the house because he's barely able to get out of bed. She gets fed up, kicks him out. 'Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.' He couldn't hold it."

"You gave them a chance to try again."

"Yeah. Well. Nobody died. You listen good."

"Part of what we both do is listen." Liz tapped her glass to Phoebe's. "And we'd better be good."

"Did you always want to be a cop?"

"I wanted to be a rock-and-roll star."

"Who didn't?"

Liz laughed. "I was actually in a band for a couple of years when I was in college."

"No kidding? What did you do?"

"I got pipes, sister." Liz wagged her thumb at her throat. "And I was crazy in love with the lead guitar. We had plans. The kind you make at twenty and aren't ever going anywhere. Big, splashy plans. Which we made when we weren't screwing like bunnies."

"College." Phoebe sighed. "Those were the days. What happened to Lead Guitar?"

"He dumped me. No, that's not fair, or accurate. He backed away, rapidly. I got raped."

"I'm sorry."

"My turn to make the beer run. There was a place just a couple blocks from where we were living. Party time, all the time. You know?"

"Yeah, I know."

"I was in the parking lot when they jumped me. Two of them, laughing like loons. Seriously high. They dragged me into the back of a van, took turns with me while a third one drove. Then they switched off so he could have a go. I don't know how many times, because I zoned out after the first round. Then they just tossed me out on the side of the road. Cruiser picked me up. I was just stumbling along, clothes torn and bloody, in shock, hysterical. The whole ball. And the cops spotted me." She drank to wet her throat. "Well. They got them, all three of them. I paid attention, until I had to go under. I paid attention. I had descriptions, and I made all three of those motherfuckers in lineup. Hardest thing I ever did, to stand there and look at them through that glass. And Lead Guitar? He couldn't handle it. Couldn't look at me, couldn't touch me, couldn't be with me. Too much for his head, he said. I didn't want to be a rock-and-roll star anymore."

"How long they get? The motherfuckers?"

"They're still in." Liz smiled for the first time. "Stupid bastards took me across the state line into South Carolina. Raped me in two states, had coke in the van, all three had sheets, two were on parole. Anyway, I gave up the band and turned to the glamorous world of law enforcement."

"Music's loss, our gain."

"Okay, shop's closed. Tell me about the guy with the great ass. You two an item?"

"We seem to be something, but I'm not sure what." Thoughtfully, Phoebe propped an elbow on the table, nested her chin in her palm. "I'm out of practice. Kid, job, raw spots from failed marriage. He's so damn cute."

"I noticed. How's the sex?"

Phoebe snorted out a surprised laugh. "You get right to it."

"Healthy sex is one of life's great entertainments. Take it from somebody who sees too much of the other kind. But if you don't want to share-"

"Actually." She hadn't made time for a female friend of her own age in too long. Now, Phoebe leaned forward, lowered her voice. "The other n i g h't…"

She gave a condensed version of her visit to Duncan's house.

"He stopped? You're about to go for the gold right out on the veranda-which, let me insert, is very sexy-and he stops?"

"Thirty seconds more, that's all it would've taken." Phoebe did a test roll of her bad shoulder. "If I hadn't moved the wrong way… what?"

"Romantic and sexy. I mean, God, how many guys are going to shut it down at that point?"

"I'm going to need a note from my sister-in-law to close the deal. Private duty nurse."

"Can I have him when you're done? No, seriously, Phoebe, when you two get that next thirty seconds, it's going to be memorable."

"I'm thinking. Listen, I've got to get home. My kid. But the next time, we'll explore your sex life."

"At the moment, we could do that over a bag of peanuts in the break room. Maybe Cute Guy has a friend."

"I'll ask."

"I'm available."

Phoebe got out of the car just as Lorelei Tiffany clipped up with her incredibly silly dog. Tonight's leash was candy pink, to coordinate with

Mrs. Tiffany's ensemble-heels, pillbox hat, waist-cinching jacket and thigh-gripping capris.

"Evening, Miz Tiffany. How are you and Maximillian Dufree?"

"We're going to have ourselves a nice stroll in the park." Mrs. Tiffany tipped down her rhinestone-studded glasses to peer at Phoebe. "You just getting home?"

"Yes, ma'am. I'm running a little later than usual today."

"Got your car back, I see."

"I did. For now. I'm afraid I'm going to have to give it a decent burial soon."

"My uncle Lucius once buried an entire Cadillac DeVille, complete with passengers, in a soybean field outside of Macon. So they say."

"Hmmm, that must've been some job."

"That was Uncle Lucius for you. He never quibbled about getting his hands dirty. I saw you on TV today."

"Oh? There was some trouble over in Gordonston."

"Crazy man going to murder his whole family in a three-bedroom bungalow. I saw it. You're going to be on TV, honey, you need to dress for it. Bright colors do the trick, and more blusher. You don't want to look all washed-out and dull on the TV, now do you?"

Oddly, Phoebe felt washed-out and dull standing there on the wide sidewalk while Maximillian Dufree peed lavishly on the trunk of the near live oak. "I guess not, but I wasn't expecting to be on TV."

"Expect the unexpected." Mrs. Tiffany wagged her elaborately ringed index finger. "You remember that, and always carry your blusher, you'll do fine. You get yourself on TV like that, you might just catch yourself a husband. A man likes a woman with pink in her cheeks. And a nice, soft bosom."

"I'll keep that in mind. You and Maximillian Dufree have a nice walk now."

As Phoebe started up the walk to what she considered the relative sanity of home, she heard Mrs. Tiffany trill out with a "And good evening to you!"

She glanced back, saw the man strolling by. He tapped the brim of his ball cap toward Mrs. Tiffany. He wore a camera strapped crossways over his dark windbreaker and resting at his hip. A tourist, Phoebe thought idly, though there was something vaguely familiar about him. Since he was a man, Mrs. Tiffany had to put her flirt on.

Amused, Phoebe continued up the steps. She didn't see him pivot, raise the camera, frame her in. When something tickled at the base of her spine, she glanced back. But he was strolling casually away. She could hear him whistle as he walked, something slow and sad and as vaguely familiar as he'd been himself.

She couldn't say why the sound of it gave her a chill.

Chapter 13

She would not feel guilty because she was doing something outside the house and family on a Sunday evening. She would not feel guilty. It was a litany Phoebe repeated off and on through the day, starting when Carly bounced into her bed for Sunday Morning Snuggles.

Snuggle they did so Phoebe snuck kisses and sniffs of her daughter's soft curly hair, deliciously shampooed the night before. Cuddled up, she got the lowdown on Sherrilynn's brother Tear-so named because he always seemed to be on one-sawing off the heads of two of Sherrilynn's Barbies with his daddy's penknife before he was caught and suitably punished.

Heads on the same pillow, nose to nose, they expressed their mutual horror over the crime.

What had she ever done to earn such a perfect, precious child?

Phoebe wondered. How could she not spend every free moment of every day with this incredible little girl?

Of course, later that morning when she and Carly bumped heads over Carly's desperate need for the purple butterfly sandals she'd seen in one of her grandmother's catalogues, Phoebe wondered how she could dare risk letting this pint-sized shoe hog out of her sight for ten minutes.

She would not feel guilty.

And wasn't Carly going off to a backyard picnic birthday party at her current best friend in the entire world Poppy's house? And wasn't Ava already set to drop her off, then pick her up, bookending her own trip to a flower show?

And Mama? Well, Mama was so busy designing new patterns, organizing her threads and yarns, she'd barely notice if Phoebe jetted off for a weekend trip to Antigua.

There was nothing to feel guilty about.

But she suffered twinges of it nonetheless as she brushed Carly's lovely bright hair, helped pick out the absolutely perfect hair clips. She fought against those twinges while she approved Carly's choice-after numerous rejections-ofjust the right outfit.

They tugged again while she stood on the front veranda, waving to Ava and her fashionable little girl as they drove off for their Sunday outings.

Inside, she hunted up her mother, only to find Essie on her sittingroom computer, laughing away as she clattered on the keyboard.

Chat room, Phoebe thought. The agoraphobic's constant friend.

Still, Phoebe leaned against the doorjamb, watching as her mother's fingers flew and her eyes sparkled with humor.

This was one of her safe conduits to the outside world, after all. Neighbors still dropped by, or old friends paid calls. Now and then

Essie would have a group of women over for tea, and God knew she always enjoyed it if she or Ava planned a cocktail or dinner party.

People came. Of course they came. The South loved their eccentrics, and to many in Savannah who knew the MacNamaras, Essie's condition was no more than a charming little eccentricity.

Essie MacNamara? they might say. She was Essie Carter before she married Benedict MacNamara. Married up, too, and only to be widowed before she was thirty. Just a tragedy! She hasn't stepped one foot outside ofMacNamara House on Jones in ten years or more, bless her heart. She comes out on the veranda sometimes, and she's still as pretty as a picture. And so slim.

Of course, they'd never weathered one of Mama's panic attacks, or watched her struggle just to find the courage to step out on that veranda. They hadn't seen her weep with gratitude when her future daughter-inlaw asked if she and Carter could have the wedding at the house.

God bless Josie, Phoebe thought. And hell, God bless the Internet while she was at it. If her mother couldn't go out into the world, at least the world could come to her through her computer.

"Hey, sweetie pie." Essie's fingers stilled as she spotted Phoebe. "You need something?"

"No. No, I was just poking in to let you know I'm going up to work out, then I'm going to get ready to go out."

Essie's dimples deepened with her smile. "With Duncan."

"To a barbecue at one of his friend's."

"You have a good time, and don't forget the flowers you put in the spare fridge now."

"I won't."

"And wear the green sundress," Essie called out as Phoebe turned. "Show off those nice shoulders. God knows you work hard enough on them."

Phoebe glanced back. "Should I wear more blush, too, so I can catch me a husband?"

"What's that?"

"Nothing. I'll check back with you before I go."

She escaped to her little gym, and a solid sweaty hour.

Later in the shower, she wondered if she'd been using exercise over the past months as a substitute for sex. She'd definitely kicked it up a few notches in the past six months.

Eight months, she corrected, rinsing shampoo out of her hair. Or was it ten?

"Well,Jesus, had it actually been a year since she'd had sex? Shoving at her dripping hair, she began to obsessively backtrack and count. Ava's son's friend's neighbor Wilson-Ava had arranged the date, pushed for it until Phoebe caved. He'd turned out to be very nice, Phoebe remembered. Kind of sweet with his shy smile and little goatee. He liked country music and football, and had been on the tail end of a divorce. They'd enjoyed each other's company enough to date a few times, and she'd slept with him twice. It had been, she recalled, nice. The same way he'd been nice.

And then he'd reconciled with his wife. That was nice, too, really. She'd heard they'd had a baby since…

Wait a minute, wait one damn minute. She snapped off the shower, grabbed a towel. Wrapping it around her, she put the congenial, wishyouall-the-best breakup with the very nice Wilson into the context of time, of season, of date.

Shortly after New Year's, she remembered. She'd slept with him on New Year's Eve, then again a few nights later. New Year's of last year, she realized with a jolt.

"My God! I haven't had sex in fifteen months." She stepped over to the mirror, wiped the fog away so she could stare at her own face. "I'm thirty-three years old and I haven't had sex in fifteen months. What's wrong with me?"

She pressed a hand on her belly. What if everything was rusted in there? It didn't matter if she knew better, intellectually, it was still a horrible and scary thought.

And what if she had sex with Duncan, and it was so good she started skipping the workouts (which surely were a substitute for sex)? She'd get out of shape, become flabby and lazy.

Then he probably wouldn't be attracted to her anymore. Hadn't he commented on her body? Hadn't he? So when her body went soft and flabby, he wouldn't want to have sex with her, which would send her back to Pilates with a vengeance.

It would cycle over and over, until she died with rusted plumbing and six-pack abs.

Jesus, she needed therapy.

Amused at herself, she wrapped her hair in a towel before she deliberately reached for her best, special-occasion-only body cream. Cycle or not, it was time to break the fifteen-month deadlock.

Not just with anyone, she reminded herself. She wasn't a slut-all too obviously. She avoided giving or receiving any signals from other cops, from criminalists, from prosecutors. Date or sleep with someone associated with the job, everyone on the job knew about it. That severely limited the field of play for her.

And it was true she'd been the one to make the first move toward bed with nice Wilson. But she'd liked him, enjoyed going out with him. Besides, before that New Year's Eve she hadn't been with a man for…

No, no, no. She wasn't going to count back again and make herself crazy.

She was picky, that's all-and good for her, right? She was picky about whom she dated, and a whole lot pickier about whom she slept with. She had pride, she had her values, and most important, she had a daughter to consider.

Yet here she was obsessing about sex while getting ready for a simple Sunday barbecue. Pitiful.

She took another long, searching look at herself in the mirror. Pitiful or not, she was going to use a little extra blush. And wear the damn green dress.

She took longer than usual to put herself together. Not as long as it took Carly, the Fashion Princess, to primp for a backyard picnic, but longer than her usual routine. Her first reward for the effort was the beaming smile her mother sent her when Phoebe stopped by Essie's sitting room.

Essie had switched from chat room to sketching, but stopped when Phoebe did a flourishing turn in the doorway. "Well?"

"Oh, Phoebe, you look a picture!"

"Not too much?"

"Honey, it's a simple dress, and just perfect for a Sunday barbecue. It's how it looks on you that snaps. You look all fresh and sexy at the same time."

"Exactly the combination I was shooting for. Duncan's going to be here in a few minutes, I expect. I'm going down to get those flowers. Anything you need before I leave?"

"Not a thing. You have a good time, now."

"I will. I'll be back before Carly's bedtime, but-"

"If you're not, I think Ava and I know how to tuck her up. I don't want you watching the clock."

She wouldn't, Phoebe promised herself. She'd just let it all unfold at its own time and pace. She'd enjoy herself, and enjoy knowing she looked fresh and sexy in a green sundress that showed off her arms and back. She'd worked hard enough on them.

She went down, and out to the summer kitchen. In Cousin Bess's day it had been used routinely. For the lavish parties she enjoyed throwing, for canning, for preparation of simple meals on hot nights. They used it more sporadically now, but the second refrigerator was handy for storing extra cold drinks. Phoebe took out the butter-yellow daisies she'd picked up as a hostess gift.

It was going to be a pretty evening, she decided, and turned to admire the flowers of the courtyard Ava had labored over.

"Well, my God!" She stared, openmouthed, at the dead rat at the bottom of the steps.

She had to bury revulsion to step down for a closer look. No doubt it was dead, but it didn't look mauled, as she'd expected. As she imagined it would if some cat had caught it, then gotten bored enough to dump it in the courtyard like some nasty neighbor's gift.

If she'd had to guess at cause of death, she'd have voted for the sharp spring of a trap, right across the neck. The idea made her shudder as she stepped back again.

Some kids, she thought, playing a particularly unpleasant prank, tossing a dead rat over the wall.

She went back inside, dug up a shoe box, got the broom. And, stomach rolling with disgust, managed to sweep and nudge the corpse inside. She wasn't ashamed to look away with her eyes half-closed as she put on the lid, or to hold the box at arm's length to carry it to the trash can.

Shuddering, shuddering, she backpedaled from the trash can, then turned to dash inside. She scrubbed her hands like a surgeon before an operation, all the while telling herself not to be an idiot. She hadn't touched the awful thing.

She had herself nearly settled down when the doorbell rang. The quick, appreciative grin on Duncan's face did the rest of the job. "Hello, gorgeous."

"Hello back."

"Those for me?"

She tucked the flowers in the crook of her arm as she closed the door behind her. "They certainly are not. They're for our hostess. Or host. You never said which it was."

"Hostess. How's that shoulder?"

"It's coming right along, thank you." She sent him a knowing look. "I'm about ready to start arm wrestling again."

"I knew this guy when I was tending bar. Russian guy, arms looked like toothpicks. Nobody could take him down. I don't think he ever paid for a drink." He opened the car door for her. "You smell great, by the way."

"I really do." She laughed, slid in. When he got in, she shifted toward him. "Now tell me about this friend of yours who's going to be feeding me."

"Best person I know. She's great. You'll like her. Actually, she's the mother of my best friend, who also happens to be my lawyer."

"You're best friends with your lawyer? That's refreshing."

"I met Phin when I was driving a cab. Nobody hails a cab in Savannah, which you'd know since you live here. It was just one of those things. I was heading back to the line at the Hilton, just dropped off a fare. Raining cats that day. He spotted me, I spotted him. He waved me down. Heading to the courthouse, big hurry. Later, I found out he was this struggling young associate, and they'd called him to bring some papers down. Anyway, I get him there, and he pulls out his wallet. Which is empty."


"He's mortified. Sometimes fares try to scam you that way, pull some sob story, whatever. But I've got a good gauge and this guy is seriously embarrassed. He's apologizing all over himself, scribbling down my name and the cab number from the license, swearing on his mother's life he's going to come down to the cab company with the fare and a big tip. Yeah, yeah, yeah."

"A likely story," Phoebe commented, enjoying herself.

"I spring him, figure I'll never see him again. No way is this guy going to haul down to the cab company over an eight-dollar fare."


"Yeah, but. I'm clocking out that night, and he comes in. Gives me twenty. First, I'm floored he'd bother to come in, and second, twenty for an eight-dollar run's over the top. And I tell him, dude, ten's enough, thanks. But he won't back off the twenty. So I say fine, let's go have a couple of beers on the other ten. And we did."

"And you've been friends ever since."


"I'd say that story shows a bit of what you're both made of." She glanced around as he began to drive through the pretty, residential streets of Midtown. "I grew up down this way-well, started growing up down this way. We had a nice little house on the other side of Columbus Drive."

"Good memories or bad?"

"Oh, both. But I've always liked the area, the mix of styles in the houses, kids everywhere."

He pulled into the already crowded drive of a lovely craftsman-style home, with its big front yard tidily mowed and edged with flower beds. "Me, too," he said.

He came around the car to take her hand. She heard the shouts and shrieks of children, the motorized thunder of a lawn mower. She smelled peonies, and meat cooking on someone's backyard grill. She'd grown up like this, she thought, for the first little while. Then everything, everything had changed.

The screen door opened with a happy slam. The woman who stepped out onto the big front porch was hugely pregnant, with skin the color of semisweet chocolate and hair in a glossy profusion of dreads. A boy dashed out behind her, scabs riding both knees. "Dune,

Dune, Dune!" He shouted it as he streaked like a little bullet down the walk. "Catch!" And flew.

Obviously an old hand at the game, Duncan caught the boy in midair, then flipped him upside down. "The strange creature you see below is Ellis."

"How do you do, Ellis?"

"Hi! Do it again, Dune."

"Ellis Tyler, you let Duncan get in the house before you start jumping all over him."

The boy might've been upside down, but he managed a dramatic eye-roll. "Yes'm." When Duncan flipped him to his feet, he grinned.

"We got cherry pie. Come on in, Dune. Come on! You can come, too, ma'am." With that he made his dash back into the house.

"My son likes to be the welcoming committee. You must be

Phoebe. I'm Celia. I hope you came hungry." She tipped her face up for Duncan's kiss. "I know you did."

"How many cherry pies?" Duncan asked.

"Just you wait. Duncan's here!" she shouted as she scooted them inside.

There was an army of them, Phoebe realized, in all shapes and sizes. Babies, toddlers, gangly teens, and an ancient old man they called Uncle Walter, men, women, and all the noise that went with them.

Most were congregated in the backyard, sprawled in chairs, on the grass, chasing kids, pushing them on the bright red swing set. A couple of men stood by the grill, watching it smoke with all the pleasure and delight they might have shown were it a centerfold.

By Phoebe's estimate five generations were represented here, but the center of power, the magnetic north, was obviously the woman who stood supervising as younger family members hauled two picnic tables together to form one long space.

She was comfortably round in the way that made Phoebe imagine every child would want to crawl into her lap, would want to rest their head on her breast for comfort. Her handsome face with its deep-set eyes, strong nose and mouth, was capped off by a puffball of ebony curls. Both hands fisted on her generous hips, and when a big yellow dog streaked by after the blur of a gray-striped cat, she threw back her head and laughed so her whole body shook with it.

Then she turned toward the ancient old man, her hands moving. It took Phoebe a moment to realize she wasn't merely gesturing but signing. The old man wheezed out a laugh, signed back.

Duncan's arm draped around Phoebe's shoulder, and when she glanced up to smile at him, she saw he was looking over at the laughing woman. On his face, deep in those soft blue eyes of his, was absolute and unconditional love.

It struck her suddenly, and with a little curl of terror, that this was a moment. Not just a backyard barbecue.

She had to fight the urge to streak away like the cat when Duncan led her forward. "Ma Bee."

Bee took hold of him first, her big arms going around him, pulling him into a hard, full hug. When she pulled him back, she patted his face with both hands. "You're still skinny, and you're still white."

"You're still the love of my life."

She gave that full-body laugh, but her eyes were tender on his face. Then they shifted, turning speculative, to Phoebe.

"Ma Bee, this is Phoebe MacNamara. Phoebe, Beatrice Hector."

"It's wonderful to meet you, Mrs. Hector. Thank you for having me today."

"Somebody's ma raised her right." She winked at Duncan. "You're welcome here," she told Phoebe. "You brought me daisies? I've got a fondness for daisies, thank you." She took them, cradled them. "They've got such happy faces. Tisha? You take these daisies in for me, and get that blue glass vase Arnette gave me last Mother's Day. It's in the rightside cupboard under the big server. That blue vase is just what these daisies want."

Bee made introductions as one of the teenage girls came over for the flowers. Phoebe got a polite if measuring look-Duncan a wistful one. "Uncle Walter here's been deaf since he got hurt in the Korean

War," Bee explained, and signed Phoebe's name for him. And snickered when he signed back. "Says you're prettier than the last one this skinny white boy brought by."

With a smile, Phoebe gave the sign for thanks. "It's one of the few I know," she said as Bee pursed her lips. "Hello, goodbye, thanks."

"You decide you need to converse with him, he can read lips if you talk straight to him, and slow. Mostly, he's going to sleep anyway. And this here's my daughter-in-law, my second boy Phin's wife. Loo-"

"I know you," Phoebe and Loo said together. "Lieutenant MacNamara."

"Louise Hector, for the defense. Small world."

"Seems like, and previously we've been on opposite sides of it. Welcome to Ma's."

"Since you're acquainted, you get Phoebe what she drinks, and in troduce her round the rest of the way." Bee lifted her chin toward the picnic tables. "We've got to get food out on the tables here." Excellent, Phoebe thought, busywork. Just the thing to ease herself into the social. "Is there something I can do to help?"

"Guests don't haul out the dishes. That's for family. Duncan, we need some more chairs."

"Yes, ma'am. Get you ladies a drink first?"

"We'll take care of it," Loo told him, and led Phoebe away. "What do you drink?"

All right, alcohol, another way to ease into the social. "What's handy?"

Phoebe ended up with a plastic cup of chilled chardonnay, and so many names in her head she tried to alphabetize them to keep them straight.

"I didn't put the Phoebe Duncan talked about together with the lieutenant from the Hostage and Crisis Unit." Loo glanced over as they crossed the lawn edged with cheery flower beds and chunky shrubs. "I'm sorry to hear you were hurt a couple weeks ago."

"I'm doing fine now."

"Well, you look fine. Love the dress. Let me introduce you to the grill masters. Phoebe MacNamara, my brother-in-law Zachary, and my husband, Phineas. Phoebe's a cop, so watch yourselves."

"Off duty." Phoebe lifted the wine cup as she shifted to avoid the smoke billowing from the grill.

"Can you fix speeding tickets?" Zachary asked, and had Phin punching him in the arm.

"Pay him no mind."

"I'm not kidding. Tisha's had two since the first of the year."

Zachary sent Phoebe a wide grin. "After you eat my chicken, we'll talk about it. You'll be softened up."

"Your chicken?"

"Boy, you couldn't boil the egg this chicken started out as. That right, Loo?"

"I take the Fifth."

"Couple a city lawyers," Zachary said to Phoebe, wagging his thumb between them.

"The lawyer with the empty wallet," Phoebe said.

"You will never live that down." Loo belted out a laugh, did a shoulder and hip wiggle as she wagged a finger at her husband. "Deadbeat."

"I thought the story illustrated his innate sense of honor," Phoebe put in, and had Phin flashing his teeth.

"I like her. Leave her here. You"-he pointed at his wife-"can go."

"Mom!" A girl sprinted over. Curly tails sprung out over both ears. "Hero won't come down out of the tree! Make him come down."

"He'll come down when he's ready. Say how do you do to Miz MacNamara, Livvy."

"How do you do."

"Just fine, and how about you?"

"The cat won't come down."

"They like being up high," Phoebe told her. "Why?"

"So they can feel superior to the rest of us."

"But Willy said he was going to fall and break his neck."

"Oh now, Livvy, you know he just said that to get a rise out of you." Loo gave her daughter's pigtail a tug. "You wait till this chicken's on the table. That cat'll come down quick enough. You go on and wash up, 'cause it's almost time to eat."

"Are you sure he likes it up there?" the child asked Phoebe. "Absolutely." She watched Livvy run off. "How old is she?"

"She'll be seven next June."

"I have a little girl, just seven."

"Boy!" Ma Bee's voice boomed over the yard. "You going to finish up that chicken anytime today?"

"It's coming, Ma," the men called back together, and began to heap it onto a platter.

There was potato salad and black-eyed peas, collards and red beans, corn bread and cole slaw. She lost track of the platters and bowls, and how many were passed to her. Arguments-mostly good-natured-and jokes jumped and jostled around the table as frequently as the food. Many went over her head-family history, which appeared in several cases to include Duncan. Kids whined or complained, mostly about one another. Babies were passed like the bowls and platters, from hand to hand.

Nothing like her family, Phoebe thought, the tidy number of them, the overwhelming female tone of even the most casual meal in MacNamara House. Poor Carter, she thought, forever unnumbered. There'd never been an old man at one of their courtyard picnics to be fussed over until he dozed in his chair, or a couple of sparking-eyed little boys dueling with ears of corn.

A bit out of her depth, Phoebe chatted with Celia about her children-she already had two-and the one yet to come. She shared a smile with Livvy as the high-climbing feline inched his way down the tree to come beg at the table.

At one point Duncan and Phin debated heatedly about basketball, the sort that involved the jabbing of forks for emphasis and the slinging around of uncomplimentary names. As they insulted each other's brains, manhood, everyone else ignored them.

Not just friends, Phoebe realized as the insults reached the point of absurd. Brothers. Whatever their backgrounds, upbringings, skin color, they were brothers. Nobody ragged on each other that way unless they were siblings-of the blood, or of the heart.

She was having a Sunday barbecue with Duncan's family. Not just a moment, Phoebe realized. A monumental moment.

"Are you kin to Miss Elizabeth MacNamara, lived on Jones Street?" Phoebe jolted out of her thoughts to meet Bee's steady eyes. "Yes. She was my father's cousin. Did you know her?"

"I knew who she was."

Because the tone translated Bee's unfavorable opinion of Bess MacNamara, Phoebe's shoulders tensed. There were any number of people in Savannah who enjoyed painting all family members with the same sticky brush.

"I used to clean for Miz Tidebar on Jones," Bee continued, "until she passed, about, oh, a dozen years ago now."

"I didn't know Mrs. Tidebar, except by name."

"I wouldn't think. She and Miz MacNamara Did Not Speak." The phrase came out in capital letters.

"Yes, I recall a feud. Something about a garden club committee." Which was an old rift before she'd come to MacNamara House. As age had only ripened it, no one who lived under Cousin Bess's roof was permitted to speak or associate with the Tidebars.

"Miz Tiffany? She had her own people to clean, but I did for her now and then when she had a party or just needed another hand. She still living?"

"She is." And Phoebe relaxed again. The odd and delightful Mrs. Tiffany was much safer ground. "And as colorfully as ever."

"Was on her fourth husband when I did for her."

"She's had one more since, and I believe is currently on the prowl for number six."

"She always kept her name, didn't she? Tiffany, no matter how many she hooked down the aisle."

"Her second husband's name," Phoebe explained. "She stuck with that, however many came after, as she likes the sparkle of it. Or so she says." Bee's lips twitched. "Your cousin, as I recall, didn't have much truck with Miz Tiffany."

"Cousin Bess didn't have much truck with anyone. She was a… difficult woman."

"We are what we are. I'd see your mama now and again, enough to say how do you do, when I did for Miz Tidebar. You favor her."

"Some. My daughter more. Carly's the image of her grandmother."

"She must be a pretty girl. You tell your mama Bee Hector sends her best."

"I will. I think she'll enjoy the connection. She's very fond of Duncan."

"We're fond of him around here, too." Bee leaned in a little while the men continued to argue. "What're you going to do with that boy?"

"Duncan?" Maybe it was the wine, the steady beam from Bee's eyes, but Phoebe said what first came to mind. "I'm still deciding what I'm going to let him do with me."

Bee's laugh was an explosion of mirth. Her thick finger tapped Phoebe's shoulder. "He's brought other pretty girls around here."

"I expect he has."

"But he hasn't brought any of them around for my approval before today."

"Oh." Phoebe decided she could use another sip of wine. "Did I pass the audition?"

Bee smiled easily, then she thumped her hands on the table. "Y'all want pie and ice cream, we have to clear this table." Under the general scramble, Bee looked back at Phoebe. "Why don't you grab some of these dishes, haul them into the kitchen."

And that, Phoebe decided, made her by way of family.

She ended the evening necking with Duncan at her own front door. "I can't ask you in." More brain cells fried when he changed the angle of the kiss, spun it out. "Which, mmm, is a euphemism for not being able to go up to my room and get each other naked."

"When?" His hands glided up her, torturing them both. "Where?"

" I… I don't know. I'm not being difficult or coy. I hate that word.

Carly. My mother." She waved a hand toward the house. "It's all so complicated." "Have dinner with me. My place."

Her bones turned to mush as his lips trailed down her neck. Dinner at his place, now that was definitely code for sex.

Thank God.

"You're going to cook?"

"No, I want you to live. I'm going to order pizza."

"I like pizza fine."


" I… I can't tomorrow. I have to-" She should think it through, of course. Be practical, be cautious. "Tuesday. Tuesday night. I'll drive over after shift. As long as-"

"There isn't somebody on a ledge, or holding hostages. I get it. Tuesday." He leaned back. "What do you like on your pizza?"

"Surprise me."

"Planning to. Night, Phoebe."

"Okay. Wait." She threw her arms around his neck again, dove headlong into the kiss until the need inside her edged toward actual pain. "Okay."

She went straight inside before she did something insane like pull his clothes off, then almost dreamily wound her way upstairs. The man could kiss her into a steamy puddle of lust. And, she had to admit, though she was eager for Tuesday night, this anticipation, this notquiteyet bumped up the pulse and warmed the belly.

If she'd felt this damn near giddy before over a man, she couldn't remember it-or him. That was saying something.

She heard the TV in the family room, and Carly's laughter. Not quite bedtime, she thought. And she wanted a moment, just a moment or two by herself before she took what must have been a dopey smile into the family room.

Because it was a pretty night, she opened her window. Soon enough, she thought, every window and door would be shut tight to hold in the air-conditioning and block out the steamy heat of Savannah in summer. She decided to change out of the sundress into her sleep clothes before joining her girls.

She was stripped down to her underwear when she heard the whistling. It drifted through the open window, brought a quick chill to her skin.

That tune. That same tune. The man with the camera.

It came to her, the memory, the image of the man standing alone on River Street. But it couldn't be the same man, could it? Compelled, she grabbed her robe, pulled it on. By the time she got to the terrace doors, wrenched them open to go out to look, the whistling had stopped.

No one strolled down the wide white sidewalk of Jones Street.

Chapter 14

Female voices-they always reminded Phoebe of happy birds chirped and trilled out of the kitchen as she headed in for coffee. Since she could hear Carly's voice, a kind of quick piping, she marveled a bit. That wasn't the usual Monday morning routine.

The kid liked school, she really did, but she rarely liked it on Monday morning.

But when she stepped into the fashion show, Phoebe understood why her little girl was in the happiest of moods. Nothing like a new sweater-or a new article of any kind of clothing-to put a smile on Carly's face.

The one she was currently modeling like a finalist on Project Runway was a pale, almost fragile blue. It looked like it was made from clouds, Phoebe thought, the way it simply wisped over shoulders and arms, swirled at the waist.

Doing a practiced pivot, Carly spotted her mother. "Look, Mama! Look what Gran made me!"

"It's gorgeous." Phoebe trailed a fingertip down one sleeve. Itfelt like a cloud. "You spoil her, Mama."

"My job to. But it's a sample. It's what I call market advertising. I'm going to do a few in adult sizes, but thought I'd start out small."

"Gran said she could make me a purse to match."

"Might as well surrender," Ava said under her breath as she handed Phoebe coffee. "You can't beat the two of them. How about a hot breakfast?"

"No, thanks. I'll just grab some toast."

"How about one of these instead?" Ava held out a basket filled with muffins. "I just made them this morning."

Phoebe took one, bit in. "And I talk about Carly getting spoiled.

Carly, let's get some breakfast into you now. I'll drop you off at school on my way to work."

"We're supposed to drive Poppy and Sherrilynn today, too."

"Right. I knew that." Somewhere, in the back of her mind. "I can haul them if it'd be easier for you," Ava offered.

"No, it's fine. Ah, listen, I was thinking about going out to dinner with Duncan tomorrow night, if that's not a problem."

Phoebe watched Ava and Essie exchange smug looks behind Carly's back as the girl dumped Frosted Flakes into a bowl.


"Nothing." Essie offered the most innocent of smiles. "Of course it's not a problem. Not at all. Ava, I believe you owe me five dollars."

"You bet on…" Phoebe made herself zip it up because Carly's eyes were on her, and full of speculation.

"Is he your boyfriend now?"

"I'm too old for boyfriends."

"My third best friend Celene's mother has two boyfriends. Celene heard her say how she juggles them so the left hand isn't sure what the right hand's doing."

"Sooner or later your two hands get together and you end up with bruised knuckles. And that is not to be repeated," Phoebe added. "I'm just going out to dinner with a friend." And having sex, she thought. Probably a lot of really great sex.

Should she buy condoms? Surely he'd have condoms. God, something else to worry about.

"I miss going out to dinner," Ava commented. "Just someone to sit across from for a couple hours, making conversation. You going fancy?"

"Ah, no." Should she buy new underwear? "Just pizza or something."

"That's nice. It's friendly."

"I like pizza." Carly piped up, with a look of anticipation. Guilt, guilt, guilt. Great. Just let me get this horniness out of my system first and I'll make it up to you, baby. "Well…"

"We have our regularly scheduled pizza night," Essie reminded her. That smug smile stayed in place as Essie picked up the pitcher ofjuice, poured a little more into Carly's glass.

And just when Phoebe was thinking, Nice save, Mama, Essie threw a curve ball. "You ought to ask Duncan over to dinner one night soon, Phoebe."

"Oh… I-"

"A nice family dinner. From what you said when you got home last night, he took you to his family. Now, you should reciprocate. Why don't you ask him what night's good for him?"

"I guess I could." Complicated, complicated. Why did it have to be complicated? Couldn't a grown woman just have a simple affair? The answer, of course, was no. Not with a daughter, a mother and an honorary older sister living in the same house.

"Finish that up now, Carly, we don't want to be late. Oh, I meant to ask. Does anyone know if someone news moved into the neighborhood?"

"Lissette and Morgan Frye's daughter Mirri's come for a visit which rumor has is a euphemism for leaving her no-good husband after she found out he was learning more from his mixed doubles partner at the club than a strong backhand." Ava topped off Phoebe's coffee. "Oh, and Delly Porter's hired herself a French au pair to run herd on those twins of hers. God help the mademoiselle."

"What's Delly going to do?" Essie wondered. "Is she going back to work?"

"She says having the au pair will give her children a cultural influ ence, and give her more time for her volunteer work. What she volunteers for, as everyone knows, is shopping five days out of six."

"No, I meant a man. Is there a new man in the neighborhood?"

"Looking to juggle after all?" Ava said with a laugh.

"I am not." Amused, Phoebe shook her head. "I thought I saw a new face around, that's all." But she hadn't really seen his face, Phoebe thought now. "A whistler-not wolf whistler, tune whistler. What is that tune? It keeps sticking in my head but I can't quite place it."

As soon as she started to hum, Essie broke in. ". You know how I love my old movies. That's the theme from with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. God, what a beauty she was. And him-now that was some handsome man. 'Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin','" she sang in her light, pretty voice.

"Right, right. That's the one. Funny sort of song to whistle. Well." With at least that mystery solved, she shelved the rest. "Carly, get a move on now."

The minute they were in the car, Phoebe turned to Carly. "Does it bother you that I'm going out with Duncan? With anyone, really?"

"No. But if you're too old for boyfriends, why are you?"

That one bit you on the ass, didn't it? "I just mean boyfriend's kind of a silly term for a grown woman." A divorced woman with a child, Phoebe thought. "Just friend's more sensible, I guess."

"Celene's mother sort of brags about her boyfriends. She used to have three, but-"

"I'm not Celene's mother. And I don't know as I approve of her talking about her boyfriends so much around you."

"She mostly talks about them to her girlfriends, and Celene hears her. Then we talk about it."

"Oh." Phoebe blew out a breath as she began to drive. "Does it upset Celene that her mother goes out like that?"

"She likes the babysitter. Terri's fifteen and they do makeovers and watch TV. And the boyfriends sometimes bring Celene presents, and sometimes they take her places. Like one took her to Six Flags."

"I can hear your thinking," Phoebe said with a laugh. "You're such a little mercenary."

It wasn't the first time Carly had heard the word, so she grinned, too. "But if you don't ask for a present, and don't say would you please, please, take me to Six Flags, it's not mercenary. Is it? I mean, Gran always says when somebody gives you something, you should thank them and make them pleased they gave it. Even if you don't like it. That's manners."

"You're a tricky one, Carly Anne. Slippery as an eel. You make me proud."

Phoebe returned from a suicide threat that had amounted to a sad and pathetic bid for attention to find Sykes waving her away from the squad room.

"Just a heads-up, LT. You got the rat squad in your office."

"IAB's in my office?"

"One of them. Got here about five minutes ago."

"Thanks." She should have known it was coming. Had known, she corrected. But it didn't make it any less distasteful.

Lieutenant Blackman from IAB was a salt-and-pepper-headed fifty. He had a sloping belly, a ruddy complexion and thin, dry hands.

"I'm sorry, Lieutenant, to keep you waiting. Did we have an appointment for this afternoon?"

"You didn't keep me waiting. I thought we could have a conversation here rather than a formal interview, at this point. If you'd rather the latter, we can arrange that."

Like a fashionable suit, the Southern-woman polite slipped onto Phoebe. It generally served her well. "I don't know if I'd rather the latter until I have a better idea what conversation you'd like to have."

"Regarding statements and accusations made against you by Officer Arnold Meeks."

"Arnold Meeks is no longer a police officer, as you well know."

"He was when he made the statements and accusations, as you well know. I hope you're recovering from your injuries."

"I am, thank you. Lieutenant Blackman, if we're going to be having this informal conversation, would you like some coffee?"

"No, thanks. I'm fine. Prior to the attack on your person, you suspended Officer Arnold Meeks?"

"I did."

"And your reasons for taking this step?"

"Are outlined, perfectly clearly, in the file." She plastered a cooperative smile on her face. "Do you need a copy?"

"I have one."

Hard-ass, Phoebe thought, but kept the smile as she tipped her head. "Well then."

"Officer Meeks disputed your reasons for his suspension." Phoebe leaned back, dropped the smile, sharpened her tone. "We both know he attacked me, that he lay in wait and assaulted me. We both know a deal was cut. And I suspect we both know Arnold Meeks has some significant problems with authority-particularly when it's female authority-anger management and control. Why are you pushing this?" Blackman's dark eyes stayed pinned on hers. "He made serious accusations against you and the captain of this division."

Her temper wanted to leap and bite. And that, Phoebe knew, would only add fuel to a fire that needed to be stamped out quickly. "Yes, he did. He made some of them right here in this office, to my face."

"You have a personal relationship with Captain David McVee, do you not?"

"I certainly do. I have a personal and platonic relationship with the captain, whom I've known and respected for more than twenty years. If you've looked into this matter, into me, then you know the circumstances of how I came to know Captain McVee."

"You left the FBI to work in his division."

"I did, for a variety of reasons. None of which are unseemly or against departmental regulations. I've worked in this division for nearly seven years, without a single mark on my record. I believe my reputation and certainly the captain's are above reproach. Certainly from accusations made by a disgraced police officer whose answer to being disciplined was to beat the hell out of me."

Blackman puffed out his cheeks, the first sign Phoebe had seen that he felt anything at all. "I understand you'd find this conversation, the need for it, distasteful, Lieutenant."

"Distasteful? Lieutenant Blackman, as a police officer and as a woman, I find the need for this conversation deplorable."

"So noted. The officer in question also contends that you made inappropriate sexual advances to him, and used your authority over him to intimidate in a sexual context."

"So I've heard." And enough, Phoebe thought, was damn well enough. "I never made sexual advances of any kind toward Arnold Meeks. You can take his word or you can take mine. I wonder how much pressure the 'officer in question's' father and/or grandfather might be putting on IAB to pursue this matter."

"Complaints were filed against you, and Captain McVee."

"You ought to consider the source of those complaints. You ought to consider the fact that Captain McVee has served this department and this city for more than twenty-five years, and doesn't deserve even the hint of a smear on his record by the pointing linger of a son of a bitch like Arnold Meeks."


"I'm not finished. I want you to put that in your report of this conversation. I want you to put in your report that in my professional and personal opinion, Arnold Meeks is a lying son of a bitch who's trying to cover his disgraceful and criminal behavior by damaging the reputation of a good man, and a good cop."

She shoved to her feet. "Now I want you out of my office. I have work to do. If you want another conversation with me, it will be a formal one, and my delegate will be present."

"Up to you."

"Yes, it certainly is. Good afternoon, Lieutenant Blackman."

It took Phoebe only about forty-five seconds to admit she was just too pissed, too insulted to sit there doing paperwork. Even the pretense of doing paperwork wasn't possible.

She grabbed her purse, strode out of the office, through the speculative, and sympathetic, glances of the squad. "Lost time," she said to the new PAA. "I'll be an hour."

She had to walk. She knew herself and understood air and exercise were two vital components to cooling herself off. She walked fast, before she said or did anything she'd regret later, straight out of the building. Out of the cop, she thought to herself.

She could have chosen an easier career. Psychology, psychiatry.

Hadn't she considered both? But no, through all the years, all the schooling, all the choices, she'd kept circling back to this.

She knew it had given her mother more than anyone's share of sleepless nights. God knew it wasn't the best choice for a single mother with a child who needed her. It hadn't been the smart choice, really. She had a family to support, and could have done so with more style charging for fifty-minute hours instead of putting in countless nights on the job. And for what? For what? To be accused by a man who brutalized her? To be questioned by her own over those accusations before the last bruises had completely faded?

She'd swallowed what in her heart was no more than a slap on the wrist of the man who'd used his fists on her. She'd accepted the politics of it, the face-saving, and to be honest had some small seed of relief inside her that she wouldn't be called on to sit in court and replay what he had done to her.

But this? She didn't know if she could swallow this.

And where were her choices now? Phoebe asked herself as she turned into the relative cool of Chippewa Square. She could give the department the finger, walk away. And toss away a dozen years of training and work-good work, she reminded herself.

She could demand a full and formal investigation, and blast the ugliness into the air for those who enjoyed such things to snatch at like ribbons on balloons. Or she could remember that sometimes pride was less important than doing what had to be done.

She dropped down on a bench-the one Forrest Gump had sat on, waiting for a bus.

"Box of chocolates, my ass," she muttered.

But she was calmer. It was good, she decided, that she'd said what she wanted to say to that rat-bastard Blackman when she hadn't been calm. Good that she'd stood up, showed him she wouldn't let herself be walked over by IAB, by politics, by any old-boy network or variation thereof.

Let him poke and prod around. She had nothing to hide.

She'd go back to work, because that's what she did. And really, it wasn't just the only choice she had. It was what she wanted.

But for the next five minutes, she was going to sit here-just like

Forrest-and watch the world go by. As screwed up as it was, it was still her world.

Phoebe glanced over as a woman sat on the bench beside her, then did a quick double take. A sassy white sun hat shaded the gorgeous curling auburn hair. Delicate, just ripened peach tinted the wide, expressive mouth. The long legs were set off in a filmy white sundress and given some jazz with the strappy high-heeled sandals.

Hollywood often came to Savannah, and still it wasn't a usual thing to have Julia Roberts cozy up on a park bench alongside you. Especially when Julia had a prominent Adam's apple and really big hands.

"I hope you don't mind me joining you." The voice was lazy, liquid Savannah, and on the contralto end of the scale. "These shoes are just killing me."

"Not at all. Fabulous shoes, by the way."

"Why, thank you so much!" The four-inch heels lifted, turned side to side, and showed off peach-tipped toes. "Saw them at Jezebel's, and I couldn't resist them. I know better than to go in that place, as I have such a weakness. But there they were, right in the window, and I couldn't live without them."

Phoebe had to smile, and think of Carly. Her daughter would understand the sentiment perfectly.

"But they are not made for walking more than five steps. I'm not her." Phoebe's companion tipped down fashionable sunglasses. "Lots of people mistake us, as Julia and I share certain qualities."

"You certainly do."

"And she is a married lady with those adorable children. While I am still on the market." With a wink, the woman extended her hand. "Marvella Starr."

"Phoebe MacNamara."

"I do believe I've seen you around here, Phoebe-that gorgeous hair of yours. I take a turn around the park most every day. It's near the police station, you know."

"Yes, I do."

"I do love a man in uniform. And the mounted unit, they patrol the park. A man in uniform on a horse." On a lusty sigh, Marvella leaned back, waved a hand over her heart. "I am helpless. I work at Chez Vous. You ever been to Chez Vous, honey?"

"I haven't."

"Oh, you should come on by some night, catch the show. Being in the theater, I do tend to sleep in most days, but I like to stroll on through the park in the afternoon, get my policeman fix." She dug into her peach-toned hobo bag, took out a lemon drop. "Candy?"


Companionably, they sucked on lemon drops, and Phoebe felt better than she had all day.

"You live around here, too?" Marvella asked.

"No, actually, I work around here. At the police station. I'm a cop."

"Now you shut up!" Marvella poked her in the arm. "Is that the truth? I want to see your gun."

Amused, Phoebe folded back her jacket to expose the weapon and badge on her hip. And had Marvella whistling in delight.

"Pretty thing like you, I'd never have guessed it. But I guess we both know how appearances are deceiving-and it's what's inside the cover that counts."

"Yes, we both know that."

"You know any men in uniform who might be interested in a date with a woman of my particular style?"

"If they aren't it's their loss."

"Aren't you the sweet one!"

"If I come across any, I'll send them over to Chez Vous. I bet you can take it from there."

"Oh, that's a solid truth, Phoebe. That's a solid truth."

While she sat, he took pictures. It was such a bonus! He'd never expected to see her walking along, into the square, out again. But here she was, eyes shaded by sunglasses. He wished he could see them. But it was still a bonus. He'd only been scouting around, and lo and behold, here came Phoebe.

Walking fast-fast as a Yankee-legs striding, hips swinging. Hot under the collar, he was sure of it. And the idea of her anger, her upset, gave him a nice little thrill.

He wondered if she'd liked the little present he'd left for her. It was too bad, really too bad, he hadn't been able to stick around, to wait, to position himself to see how she reacted when she found the dead rat. Still, they were going to have time, plenty of time to get to know each other again. To see each other. Eye to eye.

He didn't know what the hell she and the queer were blabbing on about, but the interlude gave him time for more pictures. And with her running her mouth, she wasn't going to make him.

When she rose, walked away, he blew a kiss at her back. "See you soon, sweetheart."

Dave waited until it was nearly the end of shift to summon her. He was on the phone when she stepped into his office, and he held up a finger. "That was my take, yes. I appreciate it. I'll get back to you."

He hung up, swiveled a little right, a little left as he studied Phoebe's face. "This'll only take a minute. You probably want to get home."

"Monday night's homework session is often a study of temper and despair. By Friday, we have the hang of it again, only to fall victim to the tradition of two days of vacation. Is there a problem, Captain?"

"I know IAB's spoken with you."


"And I know you're pissed off."


"It's not going to go anywhere, Phoebe. It's got nowhere to go. But the Meekses have friends in the department, and at City Hall. It's important to them to save face to some extent."

"While your face and mine take the punch," she tossed back.

"I'm sorry that insult's been added to injury. I expect you'll handle it."

"I considered flipping them the bird and going into business as a therapist. Maybe marriage counseling." She watched his lips quirk. "But considering my own track record in that area, I rejected it and mused on the more entertaining notion of going to a voodoo practitioner and buying a curse. I'm still weighing the pros and cons of that."

"Let me know which way you decide. It's smoke, Phoebe. You know that."

"Smoke can leave stains and smears. And it kills. Haven't you been paying attention to the surgeon general?"

"Sergeant Meeks pulled some strings. He's got his son a job as a security guard. That's a hard comedown for a man like Arnie. It's a hard comedown for his father to see what I have no doubt he considered his legacy broken into very ugly bits. He's getting some of his own back." He swiveled again when she said nothing. "As long as you hold your line, he won't even get that. Go on home, put this away. It's bad enough you're about to face the multiplication tables or the hell of long division."

No point in argument or debate, she thought, especially since he was right. All she had to do was hold the line. "Monday is, invariably, vocabulary. Carly has such a damn good one it annoys her to be told what words to learn. What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to finish up here, go home and have a beer with my Hungry-Man dinner."

"Come on to dinner. You-" She stopped, felt both temper and grief rise up when she saw the expression on his face. "Is that how it has to be? Because of this insulting stupidity? We can't be friends now?"

"Of course we're friends. Nothing changes that, and nothing ever could. But it's best, for the moment, that I stick with my Hungry-Man.

Let the smoke clear, Phoebe. When it does, I promise you it's not going to leave a stain on either of us."

"I'm thinking more seriously about finding that voodoo queen."

He smiled at her, in that calm, patient way she loved, she depended on. "We do good work here. We're going to keep right on doing it. And speaking of that, you did good work at the college today."

"It was bogus. Report was the coed had barricaded herself in the dorm with a knife, a rifle and a bottle of pills. When I talked her out, what she had was manicure scissors, an unloaded twenty-two and a bottle of goddamn Turns."

"It could have been a loaded gun, a bowie knife and a bottle of barbs. You know that. You talked her out, that's what counts. Go on home."

Some days, she thought as she walked out to her car, it felt like it counted more than others.

It was odd, wasn't it, Ava decided, for the man her friend was seeingwas in fact having dinner with that very night-to ask to see her?

She wasn't sure why she'd agreed to meet him. Maybe it was curiosity, or manners, or that easy charm of his. Likely all of that, she admitted as she walked to Whitaker Street.

She'd decided not to drive. Parking could be such a nightmare, and besides, you couldn't window-shop in a car, could you? Or not safely in any case.

And she did love to window-shop. Between her and Essie, she supposed they'd completely corrupted Carly.

Anyway, it wasn't all that far. And Savannah was just gorgeous in April.

She loved Savannah. She loved MacNamara House-and deep in the core, it had been home more than anywhere else. Of course, she'd loved her pretty little house in West Chatham. Picture-perfect life, or so she'd thought. With a successful husband, a delightful little boy. Even the requisite golden retriever.

But there'd been nothing perfect about it, and what a hard blow that had been. Serial adultery wasn't pretty-especially for the blind wife who'd missed all the signals, all the signs until they slapped hard into her face.

So it had been back to MacNamara House. Minus the husband and the dog. She did miss the dog, she thought with some amusement. And she was grateful she'd had a place to go, a place where her son could thrive, where she could be useful.

And if she still wished, occasionally, that the cheating bastard would die in some fiery car wreck, she'd mellowed considerably from the days she'd actively prayed for him to be decapitated by a runaway train. That was progress.

She was lost in her own thoughts and nearly walked right by the house.

"Hey! Ava!"

She stopped, glanced over, and there was Duncan coming down the steps of some poor old house left to ruin.

Talk about window-shopping, she thought with pure female appreciation. It was hardly a wonder Phoebe was taking a lot of looks at this particular piece of merchandise. Rangy build, tousled hair, killer smile. Though she hadn't proven herself the best judge of men, she was betting this one lived up to his packaging.

"Sorry. I was daydreaming. Oh my. Is this the place you bought? The place you told Essie about?"

"Yeah." He looked back at it as a man might a beloved old aunt. "She needs some help."

"Yes, she certainly does."

Boards blinded half the windows while the front veranda sagged like an old pair ofjowls. The paint-what was left of it-curled off the wood in a sickly yellow.

"You have your work cut out for you," she commented.

"That's half the fun. And I kind of wanted to talk to you about that."

"About what?"

"Come on up a little. The steps are fine." He took her hand, drew her up. "Structurally it's in pretty good shape. Some this, some that. But mostly it's cosmetic."

"It's going to take a lot of Max Factor, Duncan."

"Max… right, right. Got it. Yeah, it needs a lot of makeup, but

I've got ideas about that. One of them's about curb appeal, you could say. Your place-MacNamara House?-it's got excellent curb appeal. I hear you do all the gardening around there."

"Most of it." She pulled a bottle of water out of her purse, offered it. "You carry water in your purse?"

"I could open a small sundry shop with what I carry in my purse. I have no idea how you men get along with just pockets. Would you like it? I have two."

"No. Thanks. I'm good. Ah… gardening. Your gardening."

"Mmm." Taking a sip of water, Ava noted the tangled mess of the front lawn, and the viciously healthy bindweed that dominated. "Essie putters a little. Phoebe barely has time to do more than yank a few weeds now and then. I enjoy it most, so I do the most."

"I like to garden."

"Do you?" Now she looked at him with a smile.

"Found it out when I started fooling around with the house I-the house I live in. I'm not too bad. You're a whole lot better. So I thought maybe you might be able to help me out here."


"I'm thinking we'll have to start pretty much from scratch. Mostly what's here has gone woody, or it's dead, except for the weeds, of course. They need a good killing. We'd want some new foundation plants for sure and something splashy. Maybe a dwarf blooming somethinglittle weeper maybe-on the side there. A trailing vine up the trellis." Baffled, Ava studied the sorrowful house. "What trellis?"

"The one I think we should put up. Or an arbor. I got a fondness for arbors." Imagining, he jiggled the change in his pockets. "Then there's pots and window boxes. A lot of big-and let's go splashy again-pots and window boxes. And there's a space around the back? It's small, and I'm thinking a little patio with a pretty little table and chairs, that kind of thing. Needs a couple of beds to frame it in. Potted trees, so on so on. So, think you can help me out?"

"I'm confused. You want me to help you landscape this place?"

"I'm looking to hire you to landscape this place."

Because the breath stuck in her throat, Ava took a long drink to clear it. "Duncan… Why would you think I could take on a project like this? I'm not a landscaper. I just do some gardening."

He did a little gardening, Duncan thought. What Ava did was what Essie did with hook and yarn. She created art. "I don't want a landscaper here, exactly. Nothing against them, not a thing. I want something homey, but a little dramatic. Individual. I like what you've done to the Jones Street place. That's what I'm looking for here. I've got pictures." He pulled a folder from a briefcase on the steps, pushed them at her. "Of the house, the grounds-such as they are, the verandas, so on. And I worked up some of the basic ideas I have in mind. Not set in stone, but ideas. And the budget I was thinking of."

Curiosity got the best of her, so she opened the folder, paged through until she got to the budget. "I'm going to sit down here on these steps."

"Okay." He sat down with her. He did love sitting on a step or a stoop in the city and just watching life go by. So he was content enough to do just that as she was silent for several moments.

"Duncan, I think you must be an awfully sweet man, but you may have a mental problem." When he laughed, she shook her head. "You don't offer a major project like this to someone who isn't proven."

"Well, major's relative. I have a major project elsewhere, which maybe we'll talk about some other time. I want this to look like a home." He wanted the life that went by to see it as one. "That's how I see what you've done. I know something about gardening, and-" She snorted, jabbed a finger. "Tell me half a dozen of the plants you've seen at MacNamara house."

"Well, you've got that one urn thing on the veranda with heliotrope and that dark red phlox, with the lobelia and the sweet alyssum." He moved on to another pot, on to the shrubs and beds in the front.

She studied him now, her eyes narrowed behind shaded lenses. "Did you write all that down?"

"I notice things, especially if they interest me. You could think about it. I've got a couple weeks before I have to lock this in. Maybe you'll come up with some ideas, and we can kick them around. I could…" He glanced at his watch, winced. "But I've gotta get on. Phoebe's coming for dinner in a couple hours so I've got to…"

"Get on," Ava murmured. "I think I'll just sit here a bit longer, if that's all right with you."

"Sure, poke around." He rose, turned and studied the house again. "I'd really like to bring her back. Just give it some thought, all right?"

"I'll give it some thought."

She sat, after he'd gotten into his car and pulled away. She sat, thinking he must be a crazy man. Then she stood, studied the house, walked carefully around the sagging veranda.

She thought of the yard she'd had in that tidy subdivision in West Chatham. How she'd loved turning it into a showpiece. How she'd hauled soil, fertilizer, peat moss. How she'd dug, and planted, and sweated and weeded. Making her home, she remembered. Making it picture perfect, without a clue that there was a snake in her garden. Not a clue that she'd have to walk away from the dreamscape she'd imagined and worked so hard to create.

Wouldn't it be something if she could do this? If she could scrape away all the dead, all the ugly, and make something beautiful here? For no reason other than the beauty.

Yes, she decided. It was something to think about.

Chapter 15

She'd nearly talked herself out of going to Duncan's. Which, of course, would be insane. She wanted to go. She really, really wanted to finish what they'd started on his veranda a few nights before.

But Sensible Phoebe elected to debate with Needy Phoebe-and damn her, had made some very valid points on the way home from work, during the change-for-date process and even now on the drive to the island portion of the evening.

They should get to know each other better. He was, no question, an appealing, interesting man. But what was the rush? Wouldn't it be more rational-read: safer-to have a few more dates in public venues before haring off to his house when and where the end result was inevitable? She could argue with that, and did. She liked him, she enjoyed him, she was strongly attracted to him physically. She was thirty-three.

But really, what did she know about him-under the surface of things? For all she knew he might be the type who used that affability of his like a weapon and knocked susceptible females over on a weekly basis. He could be the male version of Celene's mother, busily juggling. Did she want to be one of his balls in the air?

What the hell difference did it make? Couldn't she date a mancouldn't she sleep with a man-without demanding or expecting absolute exclusivity? She deserved some fun and some companionship and some goddamn sex-in her personal life. So shut the hell up.

He meddled. At least it could be construed as meddling by someone with her twin antennae of cynicism and suspicion humming. An outlet for her mother's needlework, a gardening job for Ava. What was next? Would he offer to buy a shoe store for Carly?

Of course that was ridiculous. It was overreacting. It was overprotective. Certainly neither her mother nor Ava considered the opportunities offered meddling. And it wasn't as if they weren't particularly skilled at the arts and crafts he'd provided a channel for.

The problem was she could twist his actions, this relationship, the entire mass of it all into any of several forms. If she were going to be obsessive and picky about it. Instead ofjust taking a chance, enjoying the moment.

Besides, she was too close to his house now to turn back like some nervous idiot and bolt for home.

They'd talk, they'd simply talk about what was going on, about what this business with Ava was really about. They'd eat some pizza, maybe drink some wine, and have a mature, adult conversation about where-if anywhere-they might be going.

If Sensible Phoebe wasn't satisfied with that, she could get the hell out of the car and walk home.

It occurred to her as she turned into Duncan's drive that the first time she'd seen his house she'd been traumatized. The second time it had been after dusk. Seeing it now, in full light, with all her wits about her, was a different experience.

It was gorgeous, all those tall windows with the carved white trim against the pale, beachy blue of the wood. The sweep of terraces and verandas. And, of course, the sturdy elegance of the portico with its white columns. Where they'd very nearly taken an action that would have turned her recent debate to dust.

The charm of that widow's walk where she could easily imagine standing to look out at marsh and salt flat, at garden, at river. And, of course, the gardens. The heaps and flows, the spikes and trails. She had to concede the man knew gardens, or hired a fleet of people who did. Which was one and the same, really. A man didn't have to dig and plant, to prune and weed, to appreciate the power of a lovely landscape.

The result was a gorgeous little slice of island living, sun and shade, bloom and fragrance, green and color all swirling around a house that managed to be grand and homey at the same time.

It took vision, she supposed, to pull that off.

She strolled along the walk, enjoying the dreamy, romantic sensation, and hoped they'd have that wine, that pizza and conversation, out on the veranda with the warm, moist air and those heady fragrances stirred up by the breeze.

He opened the door before she reached it, stood framed by that white trim, watching her walk toward him.

"I feel like I should be wearing a flowing white gown," she called out, "and a wide-brimmed hat-like this dead-ringer-for-Julia-Roberts transvestite I had a nice chat with yesterday. Only my hat should be trimmed with violets, I think-tucked into the band, and ribbons trailing."

"You look pretty perfect just the way you are, even if you aren'tfar as I know-a transvestite."

"She might've been a transsexual. I didn't like to ask on so short an acquaintance."

"Either way. I like the dress."

"Thanks." It might have been something she often hauled out for PTA meetings, but at the moment the simple cotton felt pretty perfect. "You've had a busy day."

"It's all relative." He held out a hand to take hers, to bring her inside.

She didn't see it coming. So much, she'd think later, for instinctscop or woman. But right at that moment, with her back up against the door and his mouth hot on hers, thinking wasn't part of the equation. She might've put her hands on his shoulders in a gesture of whoa there, wait a minute pal, but they slid right up until her arms were locked around his neck.

And waiting was done.

His hands dove into her hair, skimmed over her shoulders, molded down her body with such purpose and skill that any idea ofwhoa went straight out the window, and kept on flying.

Sensible Phoebe didn't have a prayer.

He smelted so good, and felt even better-hard and tough and male. With her mouth under assault and her blood flashing from comfortably warm to desperately hot, her body ruled the moment.

He might have stopped-if she'd pulled out a gun and held it to his head, he might've stopped. But he heard, in some dim part of his brain, her purse hit the floor with a single hard thump.

Then she locked around him, those strong bare arms, and her teeth nipped and gnawed on his bottom lip. She moaned; she quivered. And her scent seemed to rise from light, teasing invitation to will-snapping opiate.

He slid her dress up, up, up those gorgeous legs, ran his hand over warm flesh, over the thin lacy bit that covered her. Under it.

Not warm here, but hot. Hot and wet and open. Her hips pumped, pressed, and she came on a low, feral groan that shot straight to his belly. Her fingers dug in, a hard bite on his shoulders.

Then they were pushing between their bodies, tugging at the button of his fly.

Now, now, now. Right this minute. Oh God! She didn't know if she said it out loud or just thought it. The sensations careening inside her flew too fast, too high for any kind of resisrance, any hope of sanity. She wasn't entirely sure she could survive another ten seconds if he wasn't inside her.

And when he was, when he drove into her, she didn't give a damn about survival.

Fast, right on the edge of violent, thrust after thrust. It filled up places she'd forgotten had been empty, fired up places she'd forgotten had gone cool. It was an onslaught, and thank God for it.

Nothing strapped down now, nothing sensible. He had her arms over her head, wrists cuffed with his hand, her skirt hiked to her waist.

He battered her against the front door until the orgasm simply shredded her to pieces.

And with his own release his breath was ragged in her ear. He braced her against the door. She realized when her head cleared a little it was as much to keep his own balance as to hold her up.

"Thanks," she managed.

"It was at least fifty percent my pleasure."

When she wheezed out a laugh, he eased back, studying her face as he brushed her hair aside. "I had a different order of business in mind. Initially."

She could nearly focus again, and oh God, she loved the color of his eyes. "Order of business."

"You know, a couple of adult beverages on the veranda, or walking around the gardens. Some dinner with conversation. Then I realized I'd just be thinking about sex through all that, which would spoil my appetite." He ran a hand up her leg as he spoke, had her quivering once more.

And gently smoothed her skirts back into place. "That's one thing," he continued, "but I believed you might very well be in the same frame of mind. Here I'd be having you over for dinner and spoiling your appetite. That's no way to treat a guest."

"I see. So am I to understand we just had at each other against your front door because you didn't want to be rude?"

He grinned at her. "Absolutely. Only reason. Steady yet?"

"I think so."

He stepped back, glanced down. Bending he picked up her ripped panties. He said, "Oops."

She laughed. "I don't know why I bothered to put on good underwear."

"They were momentarily appreciated. I could lend you a pair of boxers."

"I'll pass on that, thanks all the same. I'll just use the bathroom for a minute."

"Yeah, sure. Listen, Phoebe… " Absently he stuffed the torn panties in his back pocket. "Included in that original order of business was my intention to suit up a bit more formally."

She stared at him, a quizzical smile on her face. Then it sank in, the smile dropped away to a look of stunned realization. "Oh. Oh, God."

"I stopped thinking," he began. "I'm-"

"It was mutual, as much me as you." Stunned, she rubbed the space between her breasts where her heart gave a couple of hard knocks. "I take the pill, but-"

"But," he said with a nod. "I can only tell you I'm habitually a hell of a lot more careful. We can exchange blood tests if you're worried. I can tell you, too, that's the first time that front door's been used in such an interesting manner. I may have it bronzed, but meanwhile, I'm sorry, and I'm willing to sacrifice a vial of blood if it gives you peace of mind."

"Let's just say we'll be more careful from this point."


She picked up the purse she'd dropped. "I'll be back in a minute."

She got a good look at herself in the bathroom mirror. Flushed, the sleepy cat-that-gulped-a pint-of-cream eyes, hair tumbled. All well and good, she thought. And God knew it had been good. But she wasn't allowed to be that reckless, and couldn't be again. Next date, she promised herself, there would be condoms in her purse.

When she came out he wasn't in the foyer, or the front parlor. She called out his name as she started to wander, then followed the answer to a room off the kitchen. Party room, she decided. A grand old bar, lots of cushy seating, framed posters of what she saw were reproductions of old magazine ads. All deco and stylized.

There was a card table that looked to be an antique like the bar, and display cabinets filled with this and that. Some of the this, she noted with amusement, were Pez dispensers.

"The gentlemen's club," she said.

"Sort of." He came around the bar with two glasses of wine. "Hungry?"

"I think you already took care of that."

His grin was quick and pleased. "That's good because I called in for the pizza, but I told them to bring it around in about an hour. Thought you might like to have a drink outside, maybe in the garden. Watch the sun go down."

"That's exactly what I'd like."

She went with him through a set of French doors onto the back ve randa. And there, scanning, she took a sip of wine. "Nice-the wine," she qualified. "The rest? It's like a little piece of fairyland, isn't it?"

"Lots of secret places. I got carried away with it once I really started."

"So… " She stepped down, crossed the patio. "Why aren't you hiring whoever designed and created this to design and create the gardens you want at this shop you're planning?"

"You talked to Ava."

"She's terrified and thrilled in equal measure."

"Well, here's the thing. This? I sort of designed some of it. Not really designed, but fiddled around. I had help, and it's kind of evolved and shifted and changed its original layout."

"Whatever the original, this suits you." Phoebe turned a slow circle. "Fanciful, as I said, and its lack of formality enhances the charm." He was looking at her now, only at her. "You standing in it enhances the charm."

She made a mock curtsy. "Aren't you gallant?"

"If I were, I'd have come up with something romantic about blooms or blossoms."

"You did fine. As to Ava?"

"Yeah, Ava, and the place. I don't think I'm going to have time to fiddle so much with that project, and I didn't really want the team sensibility. I wanted a woman's, a woman who understands a house like that one, an area like that one, and knows how to, well, lay the landscape, to put in the flourishes and the color so people walking or driving by will say, 'That's Savannah right there.' I like what she's done with the house on Jones."

He pushed through an ornate iron gate. Phoebe saw instantly what he'd meant about secrets. It was a little island on the island, one of tranquillity and whispers, with its little pool with floating lilies, its fanciful statue of a winged fairy.

She walked over to a small curved bench of white marble, sat. "Not just a good deed?"

"I don't mind good deeds or suspicious minds, as yours tends to be. But I don't mind profiting by being a good judge and picking people for projects they're suited for."

"Ever pick the wrong person?"

"A few times. I don't think Ava's one of them."

"She won't be. She had this house in West Chatham when she was married, and she created the most amazing gardens. She even got written up in Southern Homes… You knew that, didn't you?"

His dimple flicked on. "I might've come across something."

"Smarter than you look, and that's a pure compliment."

"You, too." He leaned over, kissed her breezily. "Want to walk around a bit, maybe down to the pier?"

"Yes, I'd like that."

Bricked paths, arbors and trellises, copper urns going soft and green, and pretty music as the evening breeze stirred hanging glass and wind chimes.

The sun was sinking, turning the marsh into shimmering colors. From the pier she could see other homes, other gardens, and what she thought was a young boy sitting on the edge of a pier with his line in the water.

"Do you ever do that? Fish off here?"

"I'm a crappy fisherman. Rather just sit here with a beer and let someone else drown the worms."

She turned around, noted how far they'd walked. "The grounds are more extensive than I realized." And there, she noted, were the sparkling waters of a swimming pool. "A lot to maintain. I'm still having a hard time seeing you as the country gentleman. How about that long story on how you ended up here?"

"It's not all that interesting."

"Not all that interesting to you, or potentially to me?"

"Probably either."

"Now, of course, my curiosity is piqued and, unquenched, will depend on imagination to satisfy. Such as you built it for a womanunrequited love, heartbreak-who left you for another man."

"Not that far off."

She sobered instantly. "I'm sorry, bad joke. We should start back to the house, don't you think? I'd hate to miss the pizza boy. I'd love to eat on the veranda, or in the garden," she continued as they walked up the pier. "Wouldn't-"

"I built it for my mother."

"Oh." She heard the echoes of deep unhappiness in his voice, but said nothing else.

"I guess that's not the beginning of the story. My mother was seventeen when she had me. What we could call a very big oops. My father was barely older. For whatever reason they-or she-decided to go through with the pregnancy, get married. I'm grateful, obviously, about the first part of that decision, but the married part probably wasn't the smartest move on either of their parts. They fought all the time-the time they were together. He was lazy, she was a bitch, he drank too much, she kept a crappy house. Fun and games at the Swifts'."

"It's difficult for a child to grow up with that kind of friction."

"Yeah, well, the thing is they were both right. He was lazy and drank too much. She was a bitch and kept a crappy house. I was ten when he took off. He'd taken off a few times before-so had she. But this time he didn't come back."

"Are you saying you never saw him again?"

"Not for a lot of years. Man, she was pissed. Paid him back by going out a lot, doing what she wanted for a change. More than half the time

I wondered if she even knew I was there. So to remind her I was, I got into as much trouble as possible. Fighting mostly. I was the neighborhood badass for five years running."

Saying nothing, she lifted her hand, traced a fingertip down the scar through his eyebrow.

"Yeah, battle scar. No big."

"It intrigued me when I first saw you. Scar here, little dimple right here." She tapped the corner of his mouth. "Opposite ends. You've got some opposite ends in you, Duncan. What happened in year six? How did you lose your title as neighborhood badass?"

"You're a smart one. I targeted this kid who was a lot tougher than he looked. He didn't kick my ass, but boy, did we kick each other's."

"And ended up the best of friends," Phoebe concluded. "Isn't that the manly cliche?"

"I hate being predictable, but close enough. While we're pounding each other bloody, and I'm wondering if my badass title is about to be stripped away, the kid's father comes along. Big guy, yanked us apart.

We're going to do that shit, we're going to put the gloves on and do it like men. Kid's father used to box for a living. No wonder Jake almost kicked my ass."

"And who won the title in the ring?"

"Neither. We never got around to the gloves. Jake's father dragged me to their place, cleaned us both up at the kitchen sink while his wife fixed me an ice bag and a glass of lemonade. Bored yet? I told you it was long."

"Not even close to bored."

"Well, you're going to need another glass of wine for the rest." He took her glass. Phoebe leaned back against the rail and waited until he came back with refills.

"Where was I?"

"At Jake's kitchen table drinking lemonade."

"And getting a whale of a talking-to. First time anybody-not including teachers, who didn't count in those days for me-ever gave me one. It occurred to me at this time that being the neighborhood badass was getting me punched in the face on a regular basis. And what was the point? She never said a damn thing about it when I came home bloody anyway. So I gave up the belt of my championship reign."

"You were what, about fifteen?"


"Young for an epiphany, but I understand youthful epiphanies." He shifted to look into her eyes. "Guess you would."

"So we have the common ground of that. I moved into MacNamara House after mine, which is another story for another day. What did you do after you retired from badassing?"

"I got a job, thinking that might be the way to please her-my mother-and it would be less painful than bare knuckles."

"A wise choice." But he'd never pleased her, Phoebe thought, she could hear it in his voice. "What kind ofjob?"

"I bused tables, gave her half of what I made every week. That was fine. Didn't change anything between us, but it was fine. I started to think that's just the way things were for people like us. Single parent, scraping by. She just didn't have time to pay attention."

He was quiet for a few moments while a whip-poor-will began its twilight call. "Of course, being a single parent, you know that's not the case."

"I know it shouldn't be."

"When I was eighteen she told me I had to get my own place, so I did. Time passed, and one day I picked up a fare whose wallet was empty. One thing led to another and I met his family. No father-he died when Phin was a kid-but the result was the same. There was no father there, but the mother, oh, you best believe she paid attention." Phoebe thought of Ma Bee-big hands, steady eyes. "Even when you wished she didn't."

"Even. She had a brood of kids, but she paid attention. To me, too.

So I saw it wasn't just the way it is. It was easier to believe that, or want to. But it was not the way it is.

"That'd be the pizza." He pushed off the rail. "I'll be a minute. If it's Teto, he likes to talk."

"All right."

She sipped her wine, looked out at the gardens now that the first stars were popping out. He'd thought the house, the gardens, the beauty here would make his mother, at last, pay attention. Phoebe already saw that, and that it hadn't worked.

Why did he stay? she wondered. Wasn't it painful?

He came back with a pizza box, a pair of plates riding the top, napkins tucked between.

"I'll set it up. Will you finish telling me?"

"I guess we can fast-forward to hitting the jackpot."

He lit candles as she set the plates and napkins on a wicker table. "Local boy makes way good, just because he bought a six-pack and a lottery ticket. Had a hell of a celebration. I think I was solid drunk for two days. First sober thing I did was go over to Ma Bee's. I bought this funny little brass bottle, like a genie bottle. I told her to rub it, to make three wishes. I was going to grant all three."

"Aren't you the cutest thing?" Phoebe said softly, then sat at the table.

"I thought I was pretty damn clever. She said that was all right, she'd make three wishes. The first was that I wouldn't piss this money away being an idiot and forgetting I had some brains. The second was that I take this opportunity, this gift, and make something of myself. I guess I looked like a balloon that had its air pricked out, because she laughed and laughed, and she gave me a slap on the arm. She told me if I needed to give her something, if I needed to do that to be happy, she'd like a pair of red shoes with heels and open toes. Size nine. Wouldn't she be some sight going to church Sundays in those red shoes?"

"You must love her beyond measure."

"I do. And mostly I tried to keep my word, too, all the wishes. The red shoes were easy. Not being an idiot's more problematic. People come out of the woodwork. That's the way it is, and passing out money, it can make you feel important. Until-like getting fists punched into your face-you start to realize it's just fucking stupid."

"And you're not. You're not the least bit stupid."

"I had my moments." He slid pizza onto her plate, then onto his. "I bought this land for my mother, had the house built. I used to hear her say, if she could just get out of the goddamn city. I could do that for her, and wouldn't that make me important to her? I gave her money in the meantime, of course. Got her out of that apartment and into a pretty little house while this one was being built. My old man turned up, as bad pennies do. I wasn't quite as gullible there. I gave him twenty-five thousand, all he was smart enough to ask for. But I had Phin draw up an agreement. He couldn't come at me for more. He wouldn't get it, and if he tried I could sue him for harassment, and other legal mumbo. It probably wouldn't hold up, but my father wasn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier, so he took the twenty-five and went away again."

"It must have hurt you."

"Should have," Duncan said after a moment. "It really didn't." He ate pizza, drank wine. "I brought my mother out here when the house was nearly finished, when it was easy to see what it was going to be. I told her it was for her. I'd furnish it any way she liked. She'd never have to work again.

"She walked around the empty rooms. She asked me why the hell I thought she'd ever live out here, in a house big as a barn. I said she just didn't see how it would be yet. I was going to get her a housekeeper, a cook, whatever she wanted. She turned around, looked at me. 'You want to give me what I want? Buy me a house in Vegas, and give me a stake of fifty thousand. That's what I want.'

"I didn't do it, not then. I kept thinking she'd change her mind, once she saw the house finished. I brought her out here again when it was-badgered her into it. The gardens were in, and I'd furnished a few of the rooms, so she'd get a real sense of it."

Gently, Phoebe touched his hand. "But it wasn't what she wanted."

"No, it wasn't. She wanted the house in Vegas and fifty K. I bargained. Live here for six months, and if you don't change your mind, I'll buy you a house wherever you want and give you a hundred thousand.

She took the deal, and six months later called me out here. She was already packed. She had the number of a realtor she'd been working with, and had the house already picked out. I could take care of buying the house, and send her a check at Caesars in the meantime. I decided it was time to stop, metaphorically, taking that fist in the face. I had Phin draw up another agreement, then I went out to Vegas, did the deal, gave her the papers, which she signed without a blink. She took the check, and that was that."

"How long ago?"

"Going on five years now. She got a job serving drinks, ended up catching the eye of some high roller. He paid to track down the old man, get a legal divorce. They got married two years ago."

"And you live here."

"Seemed a shame to waste this place. Figured I'd sell it, but it kind of grew on me. And it was a point, too. Point being sometimes you don't get what you want, and it doesn't matter if it's fair or not. So you better find something else."

It was amazing, really, she realized. One evening had satisfied her sensible and her lustful parts. She'd not only had stupendous sex, not only gotten to know him better, but had come to understand him.

"I don't have to tell you she didn't deserve you."

"No. She might've deserved the badass in training, but she didn't deserve who I figured out to be-with a little help from my friends."

"Did you buy that house for Ma Bee, the one where we were on Sunday?"

"All the kids-which includes me-went together on that three years ago. She'd take it, you see, from all of us, from the family, but she wouldn't have taken it from any single one of us. If you see the difference."

"Yes, I do. And what about Jake? What happened to him?"

"He does the contracting, when I pick up a place. His father went into construction after he got out of the ring, a few years before my own fateful day with them. Jake went into the business. He's good at it."

"I bet he is." Obligingly, she plopped another slice of pizza on his plate. "You have a way of picking them."

"I do." He laid a hand over hers. "With a few disappointing exceptions, I have a hell of a way of picking them."

Chapter 16

The air was full of sounds, the peeps, the clicks, the whirls of night, when Duncan walked her to her car. "So… what do you think about taking a sail some evening?"

"I think that would be very nice-some evening. It's a little hard for me to miss too many evenings at home. Added to that, you've been lucky so far that I haven't gotten called in before or during one of the evenings."

She turned, leaned back against the car. "You're complicating things for yourself, dating not only a cop but a single parent."

"Complications are interesting, especially when you figure out how to work them around the simple." He leaned down to kiss her. "Some evening."

"All right." She reached for the car door, turned back to follow impulse. "Why don't you come over for dinner this week? It wouldn't be without its complications, but my mother's already fallen for you."

"Yeah? Well, if I didn't get anywhere with you, I figured to hit on her next." He tucked Phoebe's hair behind her ear, gave the little gold hoop she wore a tap. "She makes a hell of a cookie."

"She certainly does. Thursday work? It would give them enough time to fuss appropriately for company, and not give them quite enough time to drive me crazy with the details of it."

"I can do Thursday."

She angled her head. "You don't have a book to check? Appointments to consider?"

"I can do Thursday," he repeated, and this time when he kissed her, he turned up the dial until heat balled in her belly.

"Well." She rubbed her lips together. "Well, I'd better go before I decide staying's an option. Because it isn't," she said, nudging him back when he started to speak. "Thursday. Six o'clock." She laughed as she slid into the car. "It's a school night."

"As long as I don't have to do any homework. You drive safe,

Phoebe. And you should wait until you're home before you think about me. Otherwise you'll get all stirred up, maybe drive off the road."

She drove away laughing-just, she imagined-as he'd intended. Still, she'd just have to risk getting herself stirred up, because he'd given her plenty to think about.

He was fun, interesting and easy on the eyes. He was good in bedor against the door. It occurred to her that while she couldn't claim a wide swath of sexual experience, hers wasn't narrow either. And she'd been married for a few years in there.

But she'd never had an experience to match the one Duncan had greeted her with that night.

He had an easygoing way, but he wasn't careless. Roy had been her experience with careless, and it was one she was determined never to repeat.

He hadn't flipped off his friends when he made his fortune. Phin was his lawyer, Jake his contractor. He remembered his friends. Loyalty was a vital element to her.

Easygoing and loyal he might be, but he wasn't what she thought of as a golden retriever kind of man. Too many layers, too much direction. One of the layers was old hurts. How had he managed to bury that? She knew a lot about old hurts, and just how hard they were to keep down in the cellar of things. He didn't wear his wounds as a point of pride, and many did. He might brood over them from time to time, and she appreciated a good brood herself. But he didn't appear to let those old wounds, those old scars run his life.

On that score, he was probably doing better than she was.

Did the money help? Of course it did. Let's be serious. But she had a feeling he'd have gotten on well enough without it. She suspected the money had opened him to ambition. Or at least had made him realize he had ambitions and could start to act on them.

She'd always had ambitions, many of them very specific. And had made good on most. She doubted she could stay interested in a man for very long, regardless of how good he was against the door, if he didn't have goals and purposes.

But really, how much did she know about Duncan's goals and purposes? Bars, a shop in the planning stages. Considering the depth of the well, those were fairly small drops. What else did he do? What else did he want? Where else was he going?

And there she was, she thought with a sigh, picking things apart. Pinching folds of the cloth and trying to make it form into a shape she liked or could work with.

It was a quality that made her a good negotiator, she admitted, and one that probably had a lot to do with her crappy-until recentlylove life.

So why not just go with it? Just let it flow instead of trying to direct the stream? Not the easiest thing for her to do, but she could work on it.

He'd come to dinner on Thursday. Maybe they'd take that evening sail sometime soon. They'd see each other, enjoy each other and, please, God, have more really good sex. And just see.

Just see.

When she pulled up in front of the house, she doubted she could feel much better. She'd peek in on Carly, who had better be fast asleep, then maybe she'd take a pitcher of tea upstairs and see if she could have a little girl time with her mother and Ava.

Humming, she locked the car, started across the sidewalk.

And nearly jumped out of her shoes. She barely managed to muffle her own squeal-and squeal was the only word for it. Cop or not, she was still a damn girl. Any girl might squeal when she saw a two-foot snake draped across her front steps.

Probably rubber, she told herself as she thumped a hand on her heart to get it going again. Probably one of the neighborhood boys playing a nasty boy prank on the houseful of females.

That smart-aleck Johnnie Porter around the corner on Abercornthis was right up his alley. They were going to have words, she and Johnnie were. Some very stern words the first thing in…

Not rubber, she realized as she edged closer. Not some play snake from the toy shop. It was real, nearly as thick as her wrist, and though she wasn't in a position to take its pulse or call the coroner, it appeared to be very dead.

Maybe it was just sleeping.

Standing a foot back now, she dragged a hand through her hair, kept her eyes on the snake in case it moved. Dead or alive, she couldn't just leave it there. Dead it was, well, unsightly and just plain awful. Alive, it might wake up and slither off, anywhere. Even inside the house. The very idea of that had her dashing back to her car. Her head swiveled back and forth between the snake and the trunk she popped.

She actively wished she was wearing her weapon, though she wasn't entirely sure, should it make a slither for it, she was keen-eyed or steadyhanded enough to hit it.

"Going to the firing range," she muttered as she grabbed her umbrella out of the trunk. "Going to the range, get some practice in. I've neglected that. Oh God, oh hell. I so seriously don't want to do this." And what choice was there? Run to a neighbor, yank out her cell phone and call Carter. Come get the dead or sleeping snake off the front steps, would you? Thanks so much. God. God.

She kept swallowing as she inched forward, then with eyes squeezed half shut, poked at the snake with the tip of her umbrella.

The squeal almost got the better of her this time. She jumped back, heart cartwheeling. It lay still, the ugly black thing. After two more pokes, she officially pronounced it dead.

"All right, all right now. Just do it. Don't think about it. J u's't… Oh, oh, oh!"

She slipped the end of the umbrella under the body, fighting to keep her arms steady enough to balance the limp droop of it. She dropped it twice, cursing each time and dancing back as if she'd stepped on hot coals. Fireplace tongs would be better, she realized, but if she went into the house to get them, she might just stay there.

She managed to get it around to the side gate and through to the courtyard. By now she was queazy, and little bubbles of hysterical laughter kept rising in her throat. She dumped it all, snake and the nearly brand-new umbrella, into the trash. Slammed down the lid.

There was probably an ordinance against putting a dead reptile, uncovered, unsecured, in a trash can. But just screw that, she decided.

She'd done all she was doing.

She'd call the waste management company. She'd bribe the trashman. She'd offer him sexual favors.

She backed away from the trash can. Her legs carried her as far as the steps of the back veranda, where she just let herself drop. Damn cat. She was going to find out whose damn cat was running loose, killing things and leaving their corpses on her property.

Though where some cat had flushed out a snake that size in the city of Savannah, she couldn't say. No, it was some idiot kid, that's what it was. Johnnie Porter or his ilk.

No longer in the mood for iced tea or girl talk, she rose, intending to go up and straight to bed.

She heard the whistling when she reached the door, and this time the chill arrowed straight to her belly.

He about busted a gut! He couldn't think of the last time anything had struck him so funny, until actual tears were streaming from his eyes. He'd had to wipe them more than once to keep his vision clear through the long night-vision lens of the camera.

Goddamn, the way she'd jumped! Had to damn near piss herself.

His ribs ached from keeping the laughter down to a snickering, bodyshaking snort instead of a belly-busting guffaw.

He'd expected her to take a wild leap over it, but hell, had to say she was made of sterner stuff. It only made it funnier and more interesting.

It had been a piece of good luck to come across that black snake, and to realize after giving its head a good solid smash with a shovel that he could use it. But, he could admit now, he hadn't known it would tickle him so to watch her deal with it.

He bet she didn't sleep half the night, and when she did, she'd dream of snakes.

Him? He was going home to print out the pictures, have himself another laugh. Then he was going to sleep like a baby.

She didn't sleep well. And there were enough scenarios and possibilities running around in her head that she gave it up shortly after dawn and called Carter.

When Josie answered, Phoebe launched into apologies, got a grunt in return. Then Carter's sleepy voice came on the line.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I should've waited until a decent hour to call."

"Too late."

"Well, I'm sorry, but I need you to come over here and look at something for me."

"What is it? A mermaid? A three-headed fish? The new Jaguar you bought me out of sisterly love and devotion? Because otherwise? Zzzzzzz."

"Don't you make snoring noises at me, Carter. I need you to get your ass out of that bed, put on some clothes and come over here. Right now. I don't want to wake up anyone else in the house, so you come around by the courtyard, you hear?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Bossy and bitchy. There better be coffee."

He'd come. He'd grumble about it but he'd come. So she dressed quickly then tiptoed down to make coffee. She had two mugs in hand when she slipped outside to wait for him.

There'd been two thunderstorms in the night-she'd heard them both. The stones in the courtyard were still wet from the rain that had pounded down in those quick and violent intervals. There was a haze in the air, the pretty kind that would burn off within an hour or two and leave everything sparkling.

She sipped her coffee and watched drops of water drip, drip from the burgundy leaves of the little weeping peach Ava had planted the year before.

She heard Carter's feet on the path to the gate, and was opening the heavy cast iron before he reached it.

His hair was sleep-tossed, his eyes still heavy. He wore sweats and a Savannah U T-shirt with a pair of ancient running shoes. A knight in the shiniest of armor couldn't have looked better to her.

He scowled, grabbed the coffee. "Where's the damn body?" he demanded. "In the trash can."

He choked on his first swallow of coffee. "What?"

"That one there." She pointed, keeping her distance.

"You kill somebody, Phoebs? Want me to help you bury him out here in Ava's garden?"

She just pointed again. With a shrug, he yanked off the lid. The coffee sloshed over the rim of his mug as he jolted, and that gave her some satisfaction. But then he just reached right in, even as she gargled out a sound of disgust, and pulled the dead snake out.


"Oh please, do you have to-" She yelped, pinwheeled back as he turned, grinning, to wag the snake at her. "Stop that! Damn it, Carter."

"Irresistible. Damn big guy to come sliding down Jones Street and into Ava's garden."

"I didn't find it in the garden. Would you stop playing with that thing? I found it on the front steps, already dead."

"Huh." He turned the snake's head around as if to converse with it. "What were doing there, big guy?"

"I thought maybe a cat killed it. There was a dead rat in the courtyard not long ago. A cat… But it's so damn big, I started thinking that it might be hard for a cat to take on a snake that big. Or maybe not. But why the hell would this damn cat be leaving dead things around the house? So then I thought-"

"Only way a cat killed this big boy is if the cat could swing a twobyfour." He wiggled the head of the snake at Phoebe. "Cat might chew it up some, but it sure couldn't crush the head flat as a pancake."

"Yeah." She let out a breath. "Yeah, I thought it might be more something like that." She kicked at the box she'd brought out. "Would you please put that ugly dead thing in there, then back in the can? And don't you touch me or anything until you wash your hands."

He dumped it into the box. "You said you found it on the steps out front?"

"Yeah." He wasn't grinning now. A little more satisfaction, she decided. "I got home about eleven last night, and-"

"From where?"

"I was on a date, if you have to know everything."

"With the lottery guy."

"His name is Duncan, and yes. In any case, that thing was draped right over the steps. Which means someone put it there."

"Some dumbass kid."

"Johnnie, you know Johnnie Porter around the corner? He's top of my list for that."

"You want me to talk to him?"

"No, I'll do that. I couldn't bring myself to go into that can and look at the damn thing again up close."

"That's what brothers are for." He dumped the box, closed the lid, then turned to her with evil in his smile. "Poor little Phoebe."

"Don't you dare touch me with your dead-snake hands. I mean it."

"I just want to pat my sister, to give her comfort in her time of-"

"You put one finger on me, your balls'll be tickling your tonsils." Defensively, she put up her dukes. "You know I can take you."

"Haven't put that to the test for a while. I've been working out."

"Oh, come in and wash up. You get points for riding to the rescue, and at this hour."

She led the way in, then leaned on the counter while he washed his hands at the sink. "Carter, there's this other possibility running in my brain. The one where it wasn't some dumbass kid like Johnnie Porter around the corner."

He glanced at her. "You're thinking asshole instead of dumbass."

"That's right. Just nasty pranks, nothing life-threatening, but's't i l l… And there was this other nasty business," she said, thinking of the doll. "I'll be talking to Johnnie, but I've got this… uncomfortable sensa tion, we'll call it. So I was wondering if you'd mind walking by the house, maybe after classes, just for a while. You don't have to come in, I know how that is. You stop by, that's it for a couple hours. But if you could just detour by here when I'm not around, I'd be easier."

"You know I will. Honey, if you're really worried-"

"Uncomfortable sensation," she corrected. "Not yet up to really worried. I guess I'm remembering…"

"The things Reuben used to do." Mouth tight now, Carter dried his hands. "Letting the air out of the tires on the car, spraying that poison on the flowers Mama planted outside the house."

Phoebe rubbed his arm. The remembering was always harder on

Carter. "Yeah. Mean little things. If it is Arnie Meeks doing this, I expect he'll get tired of it soon enough."

"Or he'll escalate." He touched her now, a skim of fingertips under her eyes where the bruises had faded away. "He could come after you again, Phoebe."

"He's not the type for the direct approach, and believe me, Carter, he won't take me by surprise again. I'm not defenseless like Mama was."

"No, you made sure not to be, and still, this guy put you in the hospital."

"He won't do it again." Now she gave his arm a squeeze. "That's pure promise." She shook her head before he could say anything else. "Mama's coming. You went out for a run, all right? Just stopped by for coffee. If she hears about this she loses the courtyard."

Knowing she was right, he nodded, and made the effort to clear the grim from his face as his mother came into the kitchen.

"Well, look at this! Both my babies!"

The doll had been a dead end. The make and model had been discontinued three years earlier, and no shop in Savannah or the outlying malls carried it still. There was eBay, of course, flea markets, yard sales, all manner of other venues. And as it was hardly a matter of life and death, it didn't rate the time, effort and budget of the police department to try to track it down.

Johnnie Porter was unduly suspected as it turned out he was spending the entire week, along with the rest of his class, at outdoor school. There were other young troublesome boys, certainly, but none sprang to mind. And she couldn't think of any reason one-including Johnnie-would target her house twice. Only her house, from what she gathered by making casual inquiries among her neighbors.

So she made it a point to take a long walk around the square and into the park after shift, to keep her ears pricked for anyone whistling a mournful tune. That night she set up her own surveillance post inside her terrace doors, in case anyone decided to drop off another gift.

She sat and rocked, field glasses in her lap, and felt a little like old

Mrs. Sampson on Gaston Street, who sat and rocked and watched everything and everyone from her front parlor window.

If the uncomfortable sensation bumped up a notch, she'd request a radio car do a couple of drive-bys at night, maybe once or twice during the day. The house had a good alarm system, something Cousin Bess had insisted on. She was the one who usually armed it at night, making that last round of the house when everyone was in bed.

Another thing Cousin Bess had insisted on.

People are no damn good, not a one ofthem. That had been Cousin Bess's opinion. But you're blood, so you'll have to do.

Mama hadn't been good enough, of course, Phoebe remembered. Except to fetch and carry and clean and slave in exchange for the roof over her head, and the heads of her children.

Carter had been almost beneath Cousin Bess's contempt-almost.

His nightmares and night terrors in the months following Reuben was a sign to Cousin Bess of weak and diluted blood-from Mama's side, naturally. A true MacNamara would never blubber in his sleep, even at the age of seven.

But Phoebe herself had been another matter. If she'd defended

Carter or hadn't been able to keep the sass from ripping off her tongue, Cousin Bess had approved. At least this one has a spine.

So there'd been piano lessons she hadn't wanted and was a miserable failure at, dance lessons she'd actually enjoyed. Art and music appreciation, trips to the right shops, the right salons, even an odd and dazling week in Paris. Culminating in the dreaded and stupefyingly boring debutante ball.

She'd agreed to that only by bargaining with Cousin Bess over the guaranteed payment of Carter's college education when the time came. It had been worth one night of her life to secure four years of his.

Of course Cousin Bess had disapproved, vehemently, of Phoebe joining the FBI. Hadn't cared to have Phoebe train up north, so far out of her grip. But strangely enough had thoroughly approved of Roy.

And still, there'd been no mistaking that smirk of satisfaction when Phoebe came back to MacNamara House, with a baby and no husband.

"No surprise you couldn't hold onto a man like that when you're running after some career. A woman's got two choices: husband or career."

"That's nonsense. And my job had nothing to do with why my marriage is over."

She was dying. Phoebe could see it; she could smell it. In the weeks since she'd last visited, Cousin Bess had shrunk down to bone thinly covered by loose flesh. Only her eyes remained alive, and bitter. "Married you for this house. Can't blame him for that. Marrying for property makes good sense."

"I don't want this house."

"You have it, or will. That's the way it's going to be. I put this house around you years ago. I put it around your crybaby brother and your weak-spirited mother."

"Be careful." Phoebe stepped closer to the bed. "Very careful how you speak about my family."

"Yours." Even poking a finger seemed to weaken her. "Not mine. You're my only blood at this point, and this house stays with my blood. I've made the arrangements."


Cousin Bess's dry lips twisted into a smile. It seemed to Phoebe her flesh was simply melting off the bone. That's how the Wicked Witch had met her end. Melting. Melting.

"You're thinking you can make yours, too. After I'm in the ground.

You're thinking that won't be long. You're right about the second part. I haven't got long."

"I'm sorry." Whatever their differences, Phoebe felt a pang. "I know you have pain. Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Still have that soft spot yet. Give it time and it'll harden up. The house comes to you. Don't think you can give it to your mother or your brother. I've fixed it so you can't. I've got the money put away for maintaining it. You'll get that from the lawyers. Held in trust, so don't think you can just be grabbing it with both hands. It's only for the house. That's made clear."

"I don't want your money either."

"Lucky for you then, because you won't get a dime. None of you.

The house gets it all. On your death, it passes to your issue. If, only if, you abide by the terms. You'll live here now, miss, if you want your mother under this roof. You'll be in residence. There's no turning it into one of those bed-and-breakfasts or retail spaces or museums. It's a house, and it's where you'll live from here out."

Not a gun to her head, Phoebe thought, not a knife to her throat.

No, no, Cousin Bess was too wily for those obvious weapons. Instead, she held those whom Phoebe loved over her heart.

"I don't need your house, your money or your approval. Understand me. I can and will support and house my child as I see fit. Not as you decree it."

"You will, or your mother goes today. Out of this house. Out of the house she hasn't been able to get the guts up to leave in years now. You think I don't know? I'll have her out within the hour, kicking, screaming. Imagine she'll need a padded room for a while, don't you?"

"Why would you do this to her? She's done nothing but tend to you. She's washed and bathed and emptied your slop for months now. Never once, in all of her life, has she caused you or anyone any harm."

"Might have been more respected if she had. I wouldn't be doing it. You would. The only way she stays in this house is if you do. You walk out of it, she's carried out of it. I took her in, took all of you in. I can put you out."

"So you always said."

"This time," Cousin Bess said with a thin smile, "it's permanent."

Phoebe woke with a quick jolt. Had she heard whistling? Had she heard it or imagined it?

She trained the field glasses on the street, toward the park, and saw nothing.

She rubbed her eyes, rubbed her neck.

Cousin Bess. How long had she lasted after that deathbed visit?

Weeks more. Hard, miserable weeks, most of which she'd been delusional or drugged into sleep.

But long enough for Phoebe to learn-from the lawyers, from the trusts and wills and documents-that some things aren't negotiable. She hadn't been able to have another lucid conversation with the old woman.

And here she was, years later, sitting in the house, looking out. As it appeared she always would be.

Chapter 17

Razz Johnson had something to prove. And he was gonna prove it today. The Lords figured they could come on his turf? Screw with his boys? They figured their way into the ground. They gonna come over to the west side, paint their shit right on his doorstep? Uh-uh. They were gonna learn some respect.

Right now his brother was in the hospital, and maybe he'd die.

They got the bullets out of his guts those motherfuckers put in him when his man led the force to Lords' turf for some goddamn retribution.

But T-Bone had ordered Razz to stay back, 'cause he hadn't reached the high level for warfare. Maybe, maybe if he'd been there, his brother wouldn't be lying in that hospital, maybe dying.

Razz knew what he had to do. Eye for an eye.

He drove along Hitch Street, enemy territory. He'd stolen the car, and he had his blue ball cap, part of his gang uniform, on the seat. If any of the Lords were hanging on the street, he didn't want them making him as Posse. Not yet. Not until he was ready.

He was fucking going covert.

He'd beaten his way into the gang. Even though his brother was high-ranking, he'd had to prove himself. He was a demon in a fight, fists and feet. He just didn't give up.

He had a talent for boosting cars, could be trusted on drug deals as he didn't care to use the shit. But so far he'd gotten shaky at the idea of guns and knives.

T-Bone said he couldn't shoot worth dick, and that was another why on leaving him back last night.

But there was a.45 semiautomatic, with the first round already racked, under the cap on the seat. And Razz wasn't shaking now. He was going to put that round right between the eyes of the one who shot his brother. Anybody got in his way, well, he'd put a bullet in them, too. What they called collateral damage.

He was going in, in the daylight, and he was going in wearing his colors. And if he didn't come back out again, well, that's the way it was. He was sixteen.

He pulled up across from the liquor store. He knew Clip used its back room for his "office." He hung out there, did some deals, talked his trash, got bj's from bitches trying to get raped into the gang.

He'd go 'round the back, that's what he'd do. Take out any guards if there were guards to take. Then through the door. Bullet between the bastard's eyeballs.

T-Bone was going to be proud. T-Bone was going to have the will to live when he heard he'd been avenged.

He put on his cap, proudly tipping it to the right. Under the long tail of his blue jersey he hitched the.45 in the waistband of his pants. It weighed like a cannon as he climbed out of the stolen car.

His high-tops were blue with yellow stripes. The bandanna hanging out of his back pocket was bright, bold yellow. The colors announced him as west side, as Posse, and such was his rage, his grief, his righteousness, he strutted in them across Hitch.

He was ready. He was so goddamn ready to do some damage. To do some death.

Maybe it showed on his face. He tried to make it show. His lips peeled back in a snarling grin, a surge of power, as he saw a group of women on a stoop glance his way, then rush inside.

Yeah, bitches. Better run. Better hide.

As he swaggered down the short alleyway around the liquor store, he drew the gun from his waistband. And he told himself the tremor in his hand was thrill, not fear. He put T-Bone's face, the way it had looked in the hospital, in his mind.

Already dead even if the machine was breathing for him. And their mama, sitting by the bed, holding her Bible and crying. Not saying nothing, not moving, just sitting with tears running down.

Those images pushed him around the corner, ripped a cry out of his throat as his finger quivered on the trigger.

But the back door was unguarded.

His heart thumped in his ears. It was all he could hear as he crossed the heat-softened tar and scrabbling weeds. He wiped the back of his hand over his mouth where sweat had beaded. For T-Bone, he thought, then kicked viciously at the door until it fell open.

The gun went off like a live thing jumping in his hand. He didn't feel his finger make the pull. It just seemed to explode on its own, blasting a hole in the wall a foot above the dented metal desk. There was no one behind it, no one to take that bullet between the eyes.

His arm shook as he lowered the gun, as he stared at the empty space, the empty room. They'd call him a fool now, and laugh. That would make T-Bone a fool, and that couldn't be.

He had to do something. Something big.

When the inner door opened and the man stepped up, he knew what it was he had to do.

"HT's name is Charles Johnson, street name Razz." Detective Ricks from the Gang Unit filled Phoebe in. "Shots were fired, no reported injuries. He's got four people in there."

"What does he want?"

"Blood. There was a gun battle last night-west side Posse-the HT's gang, and east side Lords. HT's older brother took three bullets. He's critical. This Razz wants us to find the guy he claims did it. One Jerome Clip Sagget. We send Sagget in, he'll send the hostages out."

"How old is he?"

"Sixteen. No violent knocks on his record. Petty shit up till now. Older brother's a different matter. Serious badass."

"Okay." Phoebe studied the board, the log. At the table of the diner set up for communications, she opened her kit. "He's been talking to you?"

"Playing the same tune, but yeah. He's in the first stage. Give me what I want or there'll be hell to pay. He set a deadline, it's coming up in twenty."

"All right." She picked up the phone. He answered on the first ring. "You got that motherfucker?"

"Razz, this is Phoebe MacNamara. I'm a negotiator with the police."

"Fuck you, bitch."

There was fury in the voice, but there was fear under it. "You sound angry. I understand that. I have a brother, too."

"You think I give rat shit about your brother? You best be bringing in the motherfucker shot him, or I'm doing one of these assholes in here."

"We're trying to work on that, Razz. For right now, can you tell me, is everyone all right in there? Does anyone need medical attention?"

"Gonna need it. Gonna need a goddamn body bag, is what." His voice pitched up and down with terror and rage.

"You haven't hurt anyone yet, Razz, is that right? So far we're trying to find a way to make this right for everyone."

"Not gonna be right until I put a bullet in that Clip's brain. When that's done, it's all done."

"I hear that you want to punish the person you believe hurt your brother."

"I know what he did. My family told me. You think my family's liars?"

"Are you saying your family saw what happened to T-Bone?"

"Fucking right. Two more of 'em shot up, but T-Bone, he's next to dead. And the fucker did it to him's gonna face me. You bring him here, you hear what I'm saying? You bring him here or somebody dies." Family =Gang, she wrote on her pad. Pride amp; revenge. "You want us to find this man and bring him to you, so you can punish him yourself."

"How many times I got to say it?"

"I don't want to misunderstand you, Razz. I'm trying to understand what those people in there have to do with your brother being hurt. Do you think they were involved?"

"Don't mean a thing."

"They don't mean anything?"

"Collateral damage. I'll put a bullet in one right now, you don't think I mean what I say."

"I know you mean what you say, Razz. I need you to understand, Razz, that if you hurt anyone in there, we're not going to be able to work this out, not going to be able to try to get you what you want. I'm trying to contact the hospital, too. To contact the doctors who're taking care of your brother. I thought you might want to know how he's doing. Have you seen him today?"

She guided him into talking about his brother, through the first deadline. Hero worship. Absolute loyalty. When he spoke of his mother crying by his brother's bed, she nudged more out of him. No other sibs, no father in the picture.

Find the mother now! she scribbled on a piece of paper, and pushed it into Ricks's hand.

"Y'all getting hungry in there, Razz? I can send in some sandwiches."

"I got plenty of beer and chips. You think I'm stupid? You think I don't watch TV? Nobody comes in here, nobody but Clip."

"No one's coming in unless you okay it."

"Maybe I won't kill these assholes. Maybe I will. But they gonna be lying facedown in their own piss before long. I'm tired of talking to you. You got something else to say, you call back and tell me you've got that motherfucker."

When he broke the connection, Phoebe eased back. "Any progress locating this Clip?"

"He's gone under. We've got people on it."

"If we can tell the HT that Sagget's in custody, that he's being held, that may open a door. I want to know the minute he's found."

She glanced at the white-faced clock on the wall. Four forty-five. Odds were she was going to be late for dinner.

Duncan was pretty pleased with himself when he rang the bell on Jones Street. He was even more pleased when Essie answered it and the big smile broke across her face.

"Oh my goodness! Who's back there?"

He spoke from behind an enormous basket of red poppies. "Three guesses. Any place special you want these?"

"Just set them down right here until we figure that out. Aren't they beautiful! Come right into the parlor. You're right on time. Wine, too?"

"I don't often get invited to have dinner with four beautiful women. It's an occasion for me."

"For us, too." She took the wine, gestured. "You haven't met my daughter-in-law, have you? Josie, this is Duncan Swift."

"Make that five beautiful women. Nice to meet you."

"Fifth one's spoken for," Carter said as he carried in a tray of canapes. Carly was right behind him with a second, smaller tray. "How's it going, Duncan?"

"Going good. Hey, Carly."

"Mama's going to be late. She's working."

"I guess that happens. Looks like enough food in here to hold me awhile. Oh, I got you something."

Her gaze arrowed straight to the little pink gift bag he held. "A present?"

"A token for one of my hostesses."

"Thank you very much," she said with formal politeness under her grandmother's eagle eye. Then squealed with delight when she pulled out the hair tie. It looked like a bouquet-purple and white violets with a filmy trail of white ribbons.

"It's beautiful! I love it. Thank you!" Formality forgotten, Carly threw her arms around Duncan's waist, then danced back. "Can I go put it on? Gran, please, can I go put it on right now?"

"Run on then."

Carly made the dash, stopping once to toss Duncan a big smile over her shoulder.

"Aren't you the clever one?" Essie commented. "So they say."

By six-fifteen, Phoebe called home again and told Ava not to hold dinner on her account. Even if things resolved in the best possible way, there was no point in holding everyone else up while she dealt with the paperwork and debriefings.

She downed iced coffee, grateful someone had the foresight to make use of the diner's kitchen. Across from her sat Opal Johnson, Razz's mother. It had taken some time to track her down as she'd left her older son's bedside to sit on a bench outside the hospital and pray for his life.

Now she was here, in a diner filled with cops, struggling for her other child.

Progress had been made. Though he still refused to come out or release any hostages, Phoebe heard the changes in his voice, in his words.

His resolve was weakening. "He's going to jail, isn't he?"

"He'll be alive," Phoebe said. "He hasn't hurt anyone yet."

Opal stared blindly out the diner's window. She was stick thin, her dark face splotched from hours of weeping, her eyes exhausted from worry. "I did my best. I did all I knew. Work two jobs, made those boys go to school, to church. But my Franklin, he just goes his own way. And he took Charlie right along with him. Posse." She spat the word out. "I couldn't hold off against that."

"Mrs. Johnson, we're going to do everything we can to get your son out safe. To get everyone out safe, so he has another chance."

"They think it makes them men." Her hopeless eyes met Phoebe's. "The gangs, the drugs, the killing. They think it makes them men."

"I'm going to talk to him again now." Phoebe reached across the four-top, laid a hand briefly on Opal's. "All right?"

"You got any kids, miss?"

"Phoebe, and yes. I have a daughter. She's seven."

"Children rip the heart right out of you. And it lies there all bruised and battered, still beating for them. No matter what."

"Let's get him out safe." Phoebe started to make contact again, paused when Ricks rushed in.

"We've got Sagget in custody. Charges of possession-drugs and firearms. Took a gun from the apartment where he was hiding, matches the caliber of the weapon that shot Franklin Johnson. We'll run ballistics."

"Okay. This is good." Phoebe looked back into Opal's eyes. "This is very good. I'll need you to help me with this, Mrs. Johnson. The person who shot your son, who shot Charlie's brother, is under arrest. He's going to be punished. We need to convince Charlie that it's enough, for now it's enough, and he should come out. All right, now."

She called the liquor store. There was more fatigue than defiance in his voice now. Another good sign. "Razz, I have some good news."

"My brother wake up?"

"Your bother's condition hasn't changed and that means he hasn't gotten worse. He's strong, isn't he?"

"Nobody stronger."

"So that's good. I want to tell you that Clip's been taken into custody."

"You got that rat bastard motherfucker?"

"Don't you use that language to this lady!" Opal snapped the words. "Don't you speak that filth, you hear me."

"He put bullets in T-Bone. I'll call him what he is, to anybody."

Phoebe held up a hand, easing it downward before Opal could speak again. "Your mother's very upset, Razz. She's worried about you and T-Bone now. But I think we have a way to make this all right, for everyone. The police have charged Clip, and he's in jail right now. He-"

"You bring that sumbitch to me!"

"I know you want to see him. I can arrange that. If you put the gun down and come out, I'm going to arrange to have you taken to where he's being held. So you can see him behind bars."

"I want to see him in the ground. Gonna put him there."

"You sound tired, Razz. It's been a long day, for everyone. I want to tell you that they found a gun with Clip, the same kind of gun that shot your brother. They're running tests right now. If the tests show it was the one used to hurt your brother, they'll be charging him with attempted murder. Do you know how long he could be behind those bars? For years and years. Maybe the rest of his life. If my brother'd been hurt like this, I'd want the person responsible to pay for a long time. A very long time."

I "He'll burn in hell."

"I think Georgia State's a kind of hell, too. Razz, they told me he was hiding. Hiding. I wonder what his gang will think when they find out he was hiding away."

"You fucking with me?"

"I told you not to use that language! She's telling you the pure truth. I was right here, wasn't I right here when they came in and told her? That boy who shot your brother's in jail. Now come out of there, you hear?" Opal began to weep again. "Come out of there because I can't watch another boy of mine bleeding."

"Don't cry, Mama. I want to make him bleed, like T-Bone's bleeding."

"Prison's worse than bleeding," Phoebe said. "For a man like Clip?

And now he's got no face left, no rep. Proved himself a coward. A coward who'll spend years paying for what he did. Your mother needs you,

Razz. She needs you to put down the gun and come out. To show you're not a coward. You've got the balls to walk out of there."

"You'll take me to see that bastard? See him in the cage? That's a solid?"

"It is. My word on it."

"I'm going to jail, same as him. That's not right."

"Not the same as him, not the same at all. You haven't hurt anyone yet, Razz. Not a single soul. That makes all the difference. If you come out, just the way I tell you, that's going to make a difference, too."

"How do I come out?"

"You put the gun down." Phoebe gave the signal, making certain the surrender was relayed to Tactical. "You don't want to have a gun on you when you come out. All right?"

"You got guns out there?"

"Yeah, there are going to be guns out here. I don't want you to worry. You'll put your hands up, where everyone can see, and you walk straight out the front door. You come out by yourself, you're no coward, right? You come straight out the front, with your hands high in the air. Will you do that?"

"All right. I'm coming out. I'm hanging up."

"I'll see you outside, Razz."

Phoebe cut off the phone, stood. "Let's go get your boy." She took

Opal's arm and led her toward the door of the diner. "Listen now, they're going to have guns on him when he comes out. They're going to move on him, get him on the ground and cuff him. That has to be." Phoebe scanned some of the windows and rooftops, spotted Tactical. Until Razz was out and in custody, she couldn't risk taking his mother too close to the inner perimeter. "I need you to wait here with this officer for just a few minutes. I'm going to come back and get you, and I'm going to see that you're taken to where Charlie will be."

"Thank you, for everything you did. Thank you."

Phoebe moved quickly, angling so she'd have a view of the front of the liquor store. When she saw the door open, saw the boy step forward, hands high, she let out a long breath of relief.

The gunfire was a stunning blast. For an instant she simply froze, simply stared as Charlie's body jerked, danced, fell. She heard herself screaming as she rushed forward, as dozens of cops dove for cover. Someone shoved her down. With the breath knocked out of her she heard the screams from inside the store, and the shouts of: "Shots fired! Shots fired!" zinging around her.

It was beautiful! And so pathetically easy. All you had to do was slip and slide and know how to look like you belonged. Not so hard to find a good position, hold up, wait things out.

All that time she'd spent talking that asshole out. Wasted, wasn't it, bitch?

Stupid fucker deserved to die. Gangs were a blight on the city.

He could have put some bullets in her, too. Easy-peasy. But this was better. This accomplished something and kept it all rolling.

He hadn't known, really hadn't guessed, how much fun this would all be. Why end it too soon?

He'd left the gun, done some more slipping and sliding. Easy-peasy again, tucking the ID away, melting into the panicked crowd, then easing away in the confusion.

But not before he watched Phoebe scramble up, run toward the others at the door of the crap-shit liquor store and drop down beside the dead kid.

'Cause that kid was stone dead, and don't you mistake it.

Press was going to love this, he thought as he made his way west to where he'd left his car. Going to eat it up like Cheez Whiz on a cracker. Lieutenant Bitch MacNamara had talked the asshole out all right.

And straight into a hail of bullets.

He was going to pick himself up a six-pack and some takeout, go home. And watch the news.

When Phoebe got home she heard the voices in the parlor. Dinner long over, she thought. Dishes done and put away.

Coffee and brandy served in the parlor-the Wedgwood pot, the

Baccarat decanter and snifters.

All on loan from the tight-fisted estate of Elizabeth MacNamara. She wanted to go straight up the stairs, crawl into bed. Or under it. But it couldn't be done. Just one more thing that couldn't be done. So she walked to the doorway.

Carter was telling some story-she could tell by the way his hands were moving. He had such good stories. She knew he hoped to become a writer, and that he worked at it when he could. But teaching ate up most of his time.

Beside him Josie rolled her eyes, but she was laughing while she did. It was so sweet, the way they loved each other. Still so fresh and sweet.

There was Mama, looking so happy. Just peaceful and happy, her world full of people who made her so. And Ava perched on the arm of Mama's chair, sipping coffee from one of those lovely Wedgwood cups. Her little girl, sitting on the sofa beside Duncan. And oh my goodness, what was that look on Carly's face when she smiled up at him? Her baby was having her first crush by the looks of things.

And didn't he seem just right at home, Mr. Duncan Swift, sprawled back, all relaxed and easy, sending her little girl winks like the two of them were in on a big secret.

How many blocks from here was Hitch Street?

How could that distance have an entire world between them?

It was Duncan who saw her first. A quick light in his eyes, then an equally quick fade into concern. Was she so transparent?

He rose, came to her. "Are you all right?"

"No. I'm not hurt, but I'm not all right. I'm sorry I missed dinner," she said in a voice that carried into the room.

"Mama, we had the best time! And Duncan said… " Carly's words faded away as she dashed over. Phoebe saw her bright blue eyes latch on to the blood on her pants.

She'd had a spare shirt in her locker, but she'd had to come home with the blood-Charles Johnson's blood-on her pants.

"It's not mine. I'm not hurt, not at all. But I need such a hug from you right now. I need such a big, enormous Carly hug right this minute." She crouched and squeezed tight as Carly wrapped around her. She stayed crouched. She had her child tonight, right here, safe and sweet in her arms. Others didn't.

She leaned back, kissed both of Carly's cheeks. Then, straightening, she looked at her mother. Essie stood, face pale, hands linked tight. "Nothing happened to me, that's first. Look at me, Mama. Nothing happened to me. Nothing. All right?"

"All right."

"Carter, pour Mama some of that lemonade there. You sit down, Mama. I'm going to say I know you think I share too much of what I do, what there is, with Carly. I'm sorry we don't agree on the boundaries of that. Well. I think I could use something stronger than lemonade right off."

"I'm going to get you some wine, and some food." Ava walked to her, squeezed her arm. "You ought to sit down, too."

"I ought to. I will. I want to change these pants first. I'm going to be right back," she said to Carly.

Duncan glanced over ait Essie as Phoebe went out. "Essie, I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to go up with her."

He didn't wait for permission, but caught up to Phoebe on the steps.

"I'm just going to change my pants."

"I'm not looking to grab a quickie while you do. You look exhausted."

"It was a bad day. Very bad. I can't talk about it yet. I only want to talk about it once."

"I'm just going to be here, you don't have to talk."

In her room, she pulled out a pair of cotton pants. She stripped off the blood-smeared trousers, tossed them in the hamper. "Mama will likely perform some miracle of science and get that poor boy's blood out of those." She pressed her hand between her eyes as the grief swamped her. But before Duncan could take her into his arms, she stepped back, shook her head.

"No, no comforting hugs just yet. And no tears. If I have to cry, it'll wait until later. My mother's worried. She'll stay worried until I get back down."

"Let's go back, then."

He went down with her. Ava had already set a plate on a tray, had a glass of wine waiting.

"It'll be on the news," she began. "Probably has been. There was a situation over on Hitch Street. Gang-related. Hostages. The boy was sixteen. Just sixteen, grieving, so angry, so misguided. It took time to talk him down, but I did, I talked him down, and told him it would be all right. So he came out, just the way I told him. Unarmed, hands up high. And someone shot him. They shot him while he stood with his hands up, when he was surrendering. His mother was there, close enough I think she must have seen it happen."

"Is he going to be all right?" Carly asked.

"No, honey. He died." Before I got to him, Phoebe thought. "But why did they shoot him?"

"I don't know." She stroked Carly's hair, then bent down to kiss it.

"I just don't. We don't know why or who. Not yet. There'll be talk, on the TV about it. I wanted you-all of you-to know what happened."

"I wish it hadn't happened."

"Oh, baby, so do I."

Carly snuggled up. "You'll feel better if you eat. That's what you say."

"It is what I say." Deliberately she speared something on her plate.

It didn't matter what, she couldn't taste it. But she ate it with a little flourish. "And as usual, I'm right. Now, everybody should stop worrying and tell me what you did for fun tonight."

"Uncle Carter and Duncan played a duelette."

"A duelette?"

"That's what Uncle Carter called it. On the piano. That was fun. And Aunt Josie told the joke about the chicken."

"Not that again."

"I liked it." Duncan worked up a smile. He saw what she was doing, needed to do. Get everyone back to normal.

"And Duncan said you and me could go on his sailboat on Saturday if you said we could. So can we? Please? I've never been on a sailboat before. Ever."

"You're obviously a neglected and abused child. I suppose we probably could do that."


"But right now it seems to be somewhat past someone's bedtime."

"But we have company."

"And a polite, self-sacrificing child, too. How'd I get so lucky? Now, say good night, and I'll be up in a couple minutes."

Carly dragged her feet all around the room, stalled, looked beseechingly toward the other adults for intervention. She circled her way around to Duncan, sighed heavily. "I wish I didn't have to go to bed, but thank you for coming to dinner."

"Thank you for having me. We've got a date on Saturday, right?" The sulks flew away. "Okay. 'Night."

The minute she was gone, Phoebe set down her fork. "I'd better get on." Duncan rose.

There were polite protests, mutual thanks, cheek kisses and handshakes. "I'll walk you out."

It felt so good to step outside, into the air. To take a breath of it. "I'm sorry I brought home something that tainted the evening."

"Don't think of it like that." He draped an arm around her shoulders as they walked down to his car. "Hard for you."

"It was awful." She indulged herself a moment, turning into him, holding on. "I don't know that I'll ever get it all the way out of my head. Maybe I shouldn't. I don't know how it could've happened. Some people are already saying it was us who did it. We're saying we suspect it was one of the members of the rival gang. We found the gun. AK-47. It wasn't one of ours. They riddled that boy. In seconds. One of the hostages inside was hit. He'll be okay, b u't… " She sucked in a breath, drew back. "That's not for here."

"It's for wherever you need it to be."

"I need to keep as much as I can away from here." She glanced back toward the house. "Whenever I can. So… about Saturday."

"I'll pick you and Carly up about ten. How's that?"

"It's nice of you to offer her such a treat. I don't want you to feel obliged to-"

"Don't." He tapped a finger to her lips. "Don't do that. And the fact is, you might as well know, if things don't work out with you and me, and Essie turns me down, I figure I can wait about, what, fifteen years, for the kid."

"Twenty. Minimum."

"Hard-ass." He tipped her face back. "Still, that oughta be some motivation for you, seeing I've got multiple choices here." He kissed her, long, very long, very soft.

"I'll see you Saturday."

"Saturday. I'll pack a few gallons of sunscreen for us redheads." She waved him off, stood there a while. And after a while walked over and sat on the front steps. She needed to go in, of course, needed to go tuck Carly into bed, keep an eye on Mama, just in case. But she sat awhile longer.

Carter came out. Saying nothing, he sat beside her, took her hand. Together, they sat awhile longer yet.

Chapter 18

Phoebe wasn't wrong about the media storm. It raged across the television screens, the newspaper headlines, the Internet. In death, Charlie Johnson became a symbol of gang violence, racism, police corruption and incompetence-depending on which side you were on at any given time.

She fielded dozens of calls from reporters, and for the first time in her career received death threats.

And she once again found herself interviewed by IAB.

"How you holding up?" Dave studied her as she drew lines down the condensation of her glass of iced tea. He'd pulled her out for a quick lunch.

"I keep seeing him coming out, hands up. Just that one second when

I thought: Good job, Phoebe. High five. Then the sound of the gun, the way his body jerked like a puppet. Just one more second, really, for it all to go to hell."

"You did a good job." He shook his head at her expression. "You did. Let's just get that on the table."

"Crisis negotiators are part of a team, Dave. Who taught me that? The team failed that boy, and the hostages. It failed everyone."

"Something broke down; we're still not sure what. Your end of it didn't. Regardless," he continued, "a boy died, a hostage was injured.

No member of the tactical team fired their weapon. The weapon fired and discovered wasn't ours. And regardless," he repeated, "the failure's on us. Someone got through, or was overlooked, during the evac of the area."

"There was more violence on both the east and west sides last night," she pointed out. "More shootings. They're using that boy to justify killing. The media and the mouthpieces are using him, whittling it down or blowing it up-I'm not sure which applies-to race.

To white against black. And I don't know that you can say race has nothing to do with it, because it's certainly one of the elements that play into gangs. But I don't believe Charles Johnson was shot because of his skin color. And I don't believe he deserves to have his death pushed into that."

She said nothing while the sandwiches they'd ordered were served. "Franklin Johnson died this morning."

"I know."

"Opal Johnson's lost both her sons. Her children are dead. The first, that's not on us, at least not on the surface. We found and arrested the man who killed him. Would we have done so as quickly, even at all, if Charlie hadn't gone into that liquor store yesterday? I don't know the answer. That troubles me."

"I don't know it either, but I do the best job I can. So do you. We save who we can, Phoebe, one crisis at a time."

"Maybe." She picked up one of the chips that came with her sandwich, broke it into pieces. "I told him it was going to be all right. If he came out, it would be all right."

"You didn't make a mistake. It should have been all right. He should be in custody now, with his public defender working to cut a deal with the prosecutor. The mistake was in Tactical, and we'll find it. Every minute of the incident is going to be investigated. Every move, every order. Meanwhile, there's the anger of the community, the public relations nightmare and the very real problem of keeping this from boiling over into riots and burning. You'll be giving a press conference this afternoon, along with the tactical commander. You'll each read a brief statement and answer questions. It'll be short, and it's necessary."

"And it provides a visual. I'm a white woman, the commander's a black man." She lifted a hand before he could speak. "I'm not discounting the fact that the visual doesn't matter nearly as much as the statements. I'll do my part. What time?"


She nodded. "All right. That'll give me time to go over to Hitch. I want to see the crime scenes. Both of them."

She stood at the window where the shots had been fired, verified now by the crime-scene investigative team. It was a narrow window, casement style, on the second floor of a building diagonal from the liquor store.

According to the reports, the fifteen-unit apartment building had been evacuated, and SWAT team members stationed on the roof and on the third floor. As it was within the inner perimeter, no civilians should have been in or around the building.

But it wouldn't be the first time a perimeter had been compromised. The sniper would have had a decent view and angle from there, Phoebe judged. Better on the roof, better on the third floor, but decent from here.

Especially if the intent was to take down an unarmed man who would step into clear view. Oh yeah, not so hard to hit the target when the target was standing still, hands in the air. All that body mass just open and waiting to be riddled.

"Tenant's a Reeanna Curtis, single." Detective Sykes spoke from behind her. "Two kids, boy age five, girl age three. No criminal. They were outside the barricade at the time of the shooting. Witnesses verify.

Her boyfriend was at work at the time. Also verified."

Phoebe nodded. "I read her statement. She said a cop came to the door, ordered her out, hustled them along. Cops swarming through the building, according to her, and all over the place outside. She got out with her kids, straight to her sister's place a few blocks over.

"She doesn't remember if she locked the door. Can't clearly remember if she even closed the door. Said it all happened so fast, and she was scared."

"Somebody else is getting hustled out," Sykes speculated, "but doesn't want to miss the show. Dips in here."

"Armed?" Phoebe turned back. "Whoever came in, unless we suspect the single mother with two preschoolers kept an AK- 47 in the broom closet, he came in loaded. And if it wasn't target specific, why not take out a big bunch of cops?"

"There are Lords members in the building, plenty more in this block. They'll all get a close look."

Didn't make Charlie any less dead, Phoebe thought. Then pulled herself in. It wasn't about that any longer, that was done. Now it was about fixing what had gone wrong.

"How did the shooter know Charles Johnson, specifically, was inside?" Phoebe wandered the cramped, cluttered apartment.

"Maybe not specific. Just a Posse was inside."

"All right, how did he know that? Did he see Charlie go in-he was wearing his colors. Timeline puts him inside for nearly ten minutes before the first response. And that came quick because one of the tenants in the building next door to the liquor store called in gunfire. She states she saw him crossing the street a few minutes before the first shot."

"Shooter sees him, or the word flies around. Gets the weapon, then gets lucky and finds a solid sniper spot."

"Let's find out if they've pulled the LUDs from this apartment this building. See if any calls were made out of here after it was supposed to be cleared. Cell phones are more likely, but you never know."

She stepped to the window in a small bedroom obviously shared by the children. From that angle she could see the diner where she'd sat at a four-top, talking Charlie down, and out. "I wonder how many gang members could resist taking out cops. Resist until the specific target's out-or taken out, yeah, I can see that. But why not try to take a few cops out, too, once you open up? More blood, more confusion, more goddamn points, come to that. But the only other hit is a stray that injured one of the hostages inside. That's just odd, isn't it?"

He pursed his lips. "That's a puzzle. Any reason to think it wasn't gang retribution?"

"I'll let you know."

She did her own runs on the tenants of the building, and filled her briefcase with files for the trip home. She made certain she was home before dark.

Phoebe wanted all her family tucked inside before sundown, in case the rumblings in the city turned to a roar. In case those blocks between Jones and Hitch weren't enough to hold back the flood if it came.

She broke her own hard-and-fast rule, and though she put her weapon up on the high shelf in her closet, she kept it unlocked and loaded. Once Carly was settled for the night, Phoebe checked the locks, the alarms, then settled at her own desk. She kept the TV on low, in case of a bulletin, and began reading through the logs, the reports, the witness statements.

When her cell phone rang, she answered it absently, her mind on the diagram of the apartment building on Hitch. "Phoebe MacNamara."

"Duncan Swift. Hiya, cutie."

The idea of being called "cutie" when she was surrounded by ballistics, diagrams and various crime-scene reports made her smile. "Hello,


"Just checking to make sure I still have a crew for tomorrow."

"I think you'd best use the term 'crew' loosely, but yes, we're on for that. Carly would give me the silent treatment until her eighteenth birthday if I pulled out of this."

"Silent treatment's a formidable weapon. It makes me beg every time."

"Good to know."

"And stupid to admit. Anyway, I was meeting with Phin earlier today, and ended up asking his gang to come along tomorrow. That all right with you?"

"Absolutely. Carly'll be thrilled to have someone her age around.

She loves me, but I will bore her after a bit." She leaned back from the work, rising to walk to the terrace windows. "It sounds more like a party. I could use a party, I think."

"Figured you had a rough one. I caught you on TV this afternoon. Is it shallow of me to say you looked hot?"

She laughed. "Yes, and thank you. It's a god-awful mess, Duncan. God-awful."

"Why don't I come over for a bit? I'll be shallow again, sneak up to your room and distract you with heroic sex."

She had one silly and delightful fantasy image of him scaling the wall to her terrace. "Oh God, that sounds amazing. But no. Are you home? On the island?"

"Yeah, I had some stuff, so I'm here. But I've dealt with a good chunk of the stuff, and the rest can wait. If heroic sex is out, we can just neck like teenagers in the parlor, or watch a bad movie."

"I'd love to do any of that. Possibly all of that. But I don't want you coming into the city, not tonight. Things are bubbling tonight. You're good where you are, should they boil over." She disengaged the alarm on her zone so she could step out onto her terrace. "It's warm tonight. Not hot but warm, and that's good. Heat can set these things off."

"How about if I tell you besides looking hot, you handled yourself really well in that press conference? Anybody looking at you during it who didn't see you cared had to be blind."

"A lot of this kind of thing is about blindness. And could I be any more depressing?"

"What are you wearing?" he asked after a beat. "What?"

"I'm cheering you up with phone sex. What are you wearing?"

"Oh. Hmmm." She looked down at her cotton pants and tank. That would never do. "Oh, nothing much, just this little black slip I picked up in a vintage shop."

"Nice. Anything under it?"

"Just a few dabs of perfume… here and there."

"Very nice."

"How about you? What are you wearing?"


"Jeans. Just jeans, those washed-a-few-hundred-times Levi's. Riding low on the hips with the waistband button carelessly open."

"My God. You must be psychic."

With a sound of amusement, she sat down. For the first time in twenty-four hours her stomach wasn't knotted. "Oh my, these straps just keep falling off my shoulders. Those would be my delicately scented creamy white shoulders. I probably shouldn't be out here dressed like this, leaning over the railing. Why, my soft yet firm breasts might-oops-spill right out. What would the neighbors think?"

"You're a killer, Phoebe."

"Honey, I'm just getting started."

In the morning, it was easy to put the work away, to tuck it into a corner of her mind. Death and sadness, Phoebe supposed, had a way of making those who brushed up against them appreciate a blue-skied, sunny day, and the excited chatter of a child.

And Carly's first sight of the boat said it all.

"It's big! And it's pretty! This is going to be the best time ever."

"Then we better get started," Duncan decided.

"But where are the sails? You said it was a sailboat."

"They're rolled up right now. We'll hoist 'em once we're clear." He clambered on, then held out a hand for the girl. "Here you go. Welcome aboard."

"Can I look at stuff?"


"But don't touch," Phoebe called out as she came aboard. "It is big, and it is pretty. And I realized I should have asked if you really know how to handle this thing."

"I've only capsized her four times. Kidding. I always wanted to sail. Used to come down here and watch the boats. So when I decided to get a boat, I took lessons-and a course-as I didn't want to drown after achieving a lifelong dream. Still, the kids need to wear PFDs. Personal flotation devices. So will Biff."

"Who's Biff?"

"That would be Biff." Duncan pointed.

Phoebe spotted Phin, his wife and his little girl coming down the dock. Lumbering on a leash ahead of them was a stubby-legged, homely faced bulldog.

"Phin's dog. He figured a bulldog would lend an air of dignity. Which, you could say, he does if you discount the drool." Obviously an old sea hand, Biffjumped aboard, then wiggled his butt until Duncan hunkered down to rub him all over.

"What a perfect day for this. I'm going to do as much of absolutely nothing as possible." Loo stretched. "Hi, Phoebe. I hope you'll be joining me."

"I'll be glad to. Hi, Phin. Hi, Livvy."

"Puppy!" Carly scrambled on deck from the cabin below and all but tackled Biff. "Oh, he's so cute! What's his name? Mama, can't we get a puppy?"

"She's painfully shy," Phoebe announced. "I hope you'll pardon her."

"He's Biff." Not quite as outgoing as Carly, Livvy clung to her mother's hand. "He likes his belly rubbed."

Carly beamed and obliged the now ecstatic Biff. "There're beds downstairs and tables, and a kitchen and a bathroom and everything. Do you want to see?"

"I've seen it before."

"Let's go see it again. With Biff."

Livvy looked up at her mother. "I guess so."

"Those are pretty shoes," Carly said as they started down. "Maybe I can try them on. You can try mine on, too.

It was an experience, Phoebe thought, to motor away from the dock, steam and slip through the water with the little girls fused together at the stern, and the not-so-dignified dog sitting on the starboard bench with his funny face lifted to the air.

But it was nothing to the moment when the white sails rose and filled with wind. Like the dog, Phoebe lifted her face.

"Mimosas," Loo announced, and offered a glass as she sat beside Phoebe.

"Oh God. This must be heaven. Are we going to have to jib or hoist or some other salty term?"

"Only if the spirit moves. Phin doesn't know what the hell he's doing unless Duncan tells him, but he likes to pretend he does." She smiled over at the men. "But he's game. Me, I tried to talk Dune into a motorboat-cabin cruiser. But he just had to have sails." She drew in a long breath, stretched out incredibly long legs. "Hard to argue at times like this."

"You've known him a long time."

"Known him, been crazy about him. So if you screw with him, I'll find a way to hurt you. Other than that, we'll be fine."

"Do people often screw with him?"

"Not many, not often. He's got excellent radar. There was a woman a few years back cruised under that radar. Butter wouldn't melt." Loo sipped her mimosa. "I couldn't stand her. But Dune, he was fond, and she was clever with her hard-luck stories. She got a few thousand out of him before she blipped for him."

"What did he do about her?"

Loo flicked her middle finger against her thumb. "He's an easygoing sort, but he has a low tolerance for lies."

"Are you warning me, Loo?"

"Irritated. Good. Makes me like you more, which I already do. And

I like your little girl. I saw your press conference yesterday." Loo lifted her eyebrows as Phoebe's face went cool and blank. "Let me start off saying things aren't black and white for me. First, I'm a lawyer, so I live in the gray. Second, that man up there with mine is family-and I do believe he's white. And last, I thought you handled yourself very well in what's a very difficult, even delicate situation. That's all I wanted to say about that. Those are pretty shoes," Loo commented with a nod toward Phoebe's sandals. "Maybe I could try them on."

With a laugh, Phoebe relaxed and enjoyed the ride.

They had lunch on the lake, and splashed and swam in it. Carly was given the thrill of her life with a turn at the tiller.

"Having fun?" Duncan asked when Phoebe joined him at the bow. "It's going down as the best day of my life in recent memory."

"We can extend it. Cruise over to my place. We can wear Carly out, tuck her up somewhere, tuck ourselves up somewhere else."

"What about Biff and company?"

"I'll just toss them all overboard." He leaned down to kiss her laughing mouth. "Say the word."

"The word is I like your friends too much to toss them."

"I was afraid of that."

"But I will be inviting you in for drinks in the courtyard when you escort us home."

"I'll be accepting. Listen… " He cupped his hand at the back of her neck and let his kiss shimmer out.

"What?" Phoebe managed. "Not a thing."

"Why do people close their eyes when they kiss?" Carly demanded, and Phoebe turned to see her daughter studying her with considerable interest.

"I don't know." Duncan frowned thoughtfully. "Let's try it the other way." Eyes open and amused, he pulled Phoebe back for another kiss. "It's good that way, too."

"Mama says she's too old for boyfriends."


"What do you think?" Duncan asked, interrupting Phoebe's protest. "I think if you're going to be taking her on dates and kissing her all the time, you should be her boyfriend. And Ava told Grandma it's good Mama's getting some romance because-"

"Carly go get yourself one of those cookies, or something else to put in your mouth."

"You said I had enough cookies."

"I changed my mind."

"That's about enough snickering over there," Phoebe said, waving a hand toward Phin and Loo. And over here, too," she added to Duncan. "Are we having some romance?" he asked her. He grabbed her, dropped her into a romance-novel dip. "Let's have some more." Phin's wolf whistle joined, the buzzing in her ears before she could struggle her way up again. "I think that's about all the romance I can handle in a public forum. I'm going to go have another cookie." Romance, she thought after she'd given Duncan a final kiss good night. That was more complicated than an affair, no question about it. But it was foolish to pretend a romance wasn't what she was having. And enjoying.

So she wasn't going to pick it apart or second-guess it. She was just going to keep enjoying it for as long as it lasted.

She undressed, thinking how wonderful a shower would feel after a day on the water. When her phone rang, she half-expected it would be Duncan, calling her minutes after he left to tell her something to make her laugh.

The display on the Caller ID had her stomach sinking. "Hello, Roy." Less than ten minutes later she was stalking downstairs and grabbing a half gallon of cookie dough ice cream from the freezer.

Essie walked in as Phoebe scooped it straight out of the carton and into her mouth. "Oh! You had a fight with Duncan."

"I didn't have a fight with Duncan. I didn't have a fight with anyone. I wanted some damn ice cream."

"Mind that tone," Essie warned with steel in her voice. "You only eat ice cream that way when you're upset. Duncan's barely out the door, so-"

"I said I didn't have a fight with Duncan. Duncan's not the center of my universe. I don't make men the center of my universe and I'm not about to…" She heard herself, could nearly see the nasty edge to the words slicing out like little shards of broken glass.

"I'm sorry. I am upset." She dropped down at the table, dug out more ice cream. "I haven't got enough of this in me yet to calm down or get good and sick, and not take it out on someone else."

Essie walked to the drawer, got out another spoon. She sat, spooned some ice cream out of the carton for herself. "What happened?"

"Roy called. He's getting married again."

"Oh." Essie took a second, bigger spoonful. "To anyone we know? So we know where to send our condolences?"

"Thanks, Mama. He's getting married to someone named Mizzy. Can you believe that? She's twenty-four."

"A bimbo, no doubt about it. Poor thing."

"The bimbo comes from money, and they're moving to Cannes, or maybe it was Marseilles. My ears started ringing by that point. Her family has interests there he's going to help run. And he tells me all this as he doesn't want my panties in a twist if the next couple child support checks are a bit late. Due to changing his location and banking and so on."

"He's always been timely with that anyway."

"Yes, because it's an automatic withdrawal from his account, so he doesn't even have to think of it. Of her." It wasn't rage anymore in her voice, on her face. It was grief. "He never even asked about her, Mama. He never asked how she was, never thought to suggest he might tell his daughter himself, or invite her to the wedding."

"She wouldn't go. And, baby girl, you wouldn't like it if she did."

"That's beside the point. It is. And I know I'm getting upset over something that isn't any different than it was, really. Except the son of a bitch is marrying someone almost ten years younger than me, named Mizzy, and his daughter isn't even an afterthought."

"What was it my grandmother used to say? A skunk doesn't change its stink. It's a little crude, but it fits. His life's about as deep as a puddle of spit-and that's crude, too. She won't care, Phoebe. Roy isn't so much as a bump against Carly's heart. You shouldn't let him be one against yours."

"You're right. I know you're right. She never had enough of him to miss any of it."

"But you did."

"I had the illusion." Phoebe scraped more ice cream from carton to spoon, studied it. Ate it. "Maybe that's worse. He can't help being what he is. Even if what he is is a goddamn skunk. Thanks."

Roy wasn't worth even her anger, Phoebe told herself as she went upstairs to shower. But the phone call had reminded her why romance was a slippery slope. Better, much better, to keep it all up front, keep it all simple. So no one got hurt.

It might be time to slow things down just a little with Duncan.

She'd already made another date with him while the dream of the day had been on her. But that was fine. She'd just explain to him that she wasn't looking for anything more than friendship, companionship and sex.

What man could argue with that?

Chapter 19

By her request, Phoebe received notification when Charles Johnson's body was cleared for release. Noting the information, she contacted the funeral home regarding viewings.

Controversy and public debate aside, she needed to pay her respects. She could do so discreetly, and briefly. It meant canceling her date with Duncan, but that might be for the best.

A little cooling-off time there, she decided. A little stop-and-thinkitthrough.

She made the call, and though it was cowardly, felt a trickle of relief when she got his voice mail.

"Duncan, it's Phoebe. I have to cancel tonight, sorry. Something came… " Not fair, she reminded herself. He'd done nothing to deserve the "something came up" brush-off. "Actually, they're holding a viewing for Charlie Johnson tonight, and I need to go. So I'll need a rain check. We'll talk later, all right? I'm just about on my way to a meeting."

Ass-covering was de rigueur, and Phoebe couldn't fault the department for going into circle-the-wagon mode. Or, she supposed, for looking for a reasonable scapegoat. She was fully prepared to defend her own actions and methods, if and when. She sat through the meeting with the crisis team, the chief and the representatives from IAB.

Questions were asked and answered. Her log was displayed, the situation tape replayed. She listened to her voice, to Commander Harrison's, to Charlie's and Opal's, to the relays between her or the second negotiator and command, from command to members of the tactical team.

"Lieutenant MacNamara clearly related the information that the

HT agreed to surrender, was coming out unarmed. That information was received and acknowledged." The chief lifted his hands. "There was no breakdown in communications. The tactical commander did not give the go, and the shots were not fired by any authorized member of the department."

He paused. "The shots were fired from a weapon-recovered-not issued to any member of the crisis team, from a position where no member of said team was posted. Known members of the rival gang live in the building from where the shots issued, other known or suspected members reside inside the perimeter set during the crisis. These are facts. But there's another. The perimeter was breached. And from that fact come more questions. Who and how and when? The breech opens the department up to criticism and speculation, and potentially to civil suits."

"The who is being investigated," Harrison began. He was a toughlooking man of considerable presence, with a deep basso designed for giving orders. "Every known gang member of the Lords and the Posse is being interrogated. It's a long process, sir."

"The how?" The chief looked directly at the tactical commander. "The building was cleared in a floor-by-floor sweep." Harrison got to his feet, stepped over to the diagram. "A three-man team entered the building here. Civilians were evacuated and moved outside the barricades. While this location wasn't optimum for coverage of the hostage scene, members were posted on the roof and at this third-floor post. Other members were posted in the building directly south, as this location afforded the best visual of the liquor store from the front. Others were posted here, to cover the back. Here, the sides.

"Each building was cleared, or thought to be cleared, and the perimeters set and posted. There were disturbances here and here during the negotiations. Heckling and threats from some onlookers. And here, a physical altercation between local residents."

He straightened stiffly as he turned. "It's possible that someone slipped through during the incendiary first stage. More likely, in my opinion, someone already inside the building slipped into the vacated apartment and set up his sniper's nest. The team's objective was to get civilians to safety quickly. It's not possible in these circumstances to spread the team thin enough to check every closet, under every bed. If someone was determined to evade detection, they could and would."

"Someone armed with an AK-47?"

Harrison's mouth tightened. "Yes, sir, as was the case."

"Chief." Phoebe caught Dave's frown when she interrupted. "You said the questions were how, who, when. Respectfully, I think a vital question is why. We can speculate, given the gang violence, the weapon used, the fact that its serial number was filed off, a member-or sympathizerof the east side Lords is responsible. But I've been back to the scene, and I stood in the window where those shots were fired. I've looked at the diagrams, read the reports, replayed the corns."

"As have I," the chief reminded her.

"Then you're aware, sir, there were dozens of police officers and personnel outside at any given time during those hours. Officers and personnel in the open from the angle of the sniper's nest. Yet none of them was fired on. When Johnson was shot, not a single police officer was hit. Nearly every bullet went into Charles Johnson. I believe any of our tactical team would agree that's some damn fine shooting."

"Knew what he was doing," Harrison agreed, meeting Phoebe's questioning glance.

"As a negotiator, as someone who studies and deals with human behavior, I have to say it's also some superior control.

"Why kill Charles Johnson?" she continued. "He was low rung in the Posse."

"He'd made a stink on their turf," the chief pointed out. "He was demanding their captain be brought to him. It's disrespect."

"Agreed. Agreed. So maybe one or more of them would try to take him down, try to make an example of him. But if one of them was already in the building, or otherwise breached it-armed-it also strikes as solid forethought. Planning, sir, not just a lucky opportunity."

"A conspiracy theory, Lieutenant?"

She could hear the weariness in the chiefs voice. He was more politician than cop, Phoebe knew-and politicians don't care for conspiracies.

"Just speculation that there are other possibilities. Johnson may have been set up, goaded into going there. Someone outside either gang may have seen this incident as an opportunity to create chaos and dissent. Or-"

She broke off when the chief raised a hand. "Lieutenant, we're trying to defuse a powder keg, not add fuel. There are a lot of questions to be answered. For now, the most important apply to our own responsibility. The logs, transcripts, statements and corns show that you upheld yours. Now." He turned back to the crisis commander. "When the gunfire occurred… "

After the meeting, Phoebe went down to the firing range to work off some frustration. She set the target, put on her ear protectors and fired a clip.

Then could only sigh at her scores. She set again, fired again. "You've always been a crappy shot."

Reviewing her grouping on the target, ear protectors lowered,

Phoebe shrugged at Dave. "Extremely crappy. I don't practice enough."

"A good negotiator's rarely going to have to draw, much less discharge, a weapon. Not when she listens and talks as well as you do.

Which is why-since you do-I wonder what you were doing up there in that meeting."

"Asking questions like someone taught me. Trying to make sure the focus isn't so narrow we miss what may be outside the blinders. I don't understand what happened out there, and I can't just swallow the easy solution."

"Has it occurred to you that you don't understand, and you can't swallow, because you did what you were supposed to do? You talked him down, talked him out. And you still lost him. You've been doing this long enough to know what an impact losing one has."

As he spoke, he set himself up with a fresh target. Once he'd fired his clip, he and Phoebe studied his results together. "You're a crappy shot, too."

"Yeah, but you're still crappier. How have you been sleeping?"

"Spotty. I know the signs, Dave. And yes, I have some of the classicsI feel let down, stressed, restless, irritable. But I know it, and I know why. What I don't know is why that boy's dead. That's the reason I spoke up in the meeting."

"Phoebe, the chief isn't what we'd call a creative thinker. He's more politician than cop-"

"I thought the same thing when we were up there. I guess we share more than crappy shooting."

He let out a half laugh, rubbed her shoulder. "Well, believe me, he's more concerned now with public relations and the possibility of civil liability than why a sixteen-year-old gangbanger's dead."

"You have ambitions for me." She loaded another clip. "I know that, too, Dave. I appreciate it."

"If I've got a legacy, it's you and Carter." Someone fired down the line, and the sound was harsh in contrast to his quiet voice. "When I'm ready to turn in my papers, I want to know you're taking my desk." He'd wanted children; his wife hadn't. Though he'd never told her, Phoebe knew it because she knew him. So she and Carter were his. "You're worried if I speak up too often and don't say what the brass wants to hear, I'm shooting myself in the foot. Which is something I believe I could manage in the literal sense as it's fairly close range."

"The chief wants this put to bed. If he has to sacrifice Harrison in the public arena, he will. He'd sacrifice you, but there're no grounds. The simple fact is, Phoebe, logic and circumstances strongly support the idea that this was gang-related. A crime of opportunity and turf. That's the drum that's going to be beat."

"Maybe someone should listen to what's under the drum." She lifted her weapon again and fired.

Stupid, Phoebe thought later. Stupid to push and prod where the only result was going to be annoyance to all parties. Politics and public relations were going to play this out, she reminded herself as she changed into a gray suit-black seemed too presumptuous somehow.

She had nothing to add to the mix that wasn't already on record. Except for a few minutes before she'd taken over negotiations, and that horrible aftermath, she'd been inside the diner.

Nobody liked a Monday-morning quarterback, she told herself.

She would go to Charles Johnson's viewing, then she would have to put it away. No comment, she promised herself, unless the department directed otherwise. What more did she have to say, in any case?

She pinned her hair back. Nothing would sober the color, she mused, but the style seemed more respectful than loose.

She stepped into the family parlor. Her mother was crocheting in front of the TV, and Carly was sprawled on the floor paging through a picture book. Puppies, Phoebe realized with a little sink in the belly. "I'm heading out now. I shouldn't be more than an hour."

"Mama! Wait, Mama, look! Aren't they cute?"

Carly scrambled up to hold out the book. The page was full of irresistible balls of fur and adorability. "They are, sweetie. They couldn't be cuter. But they also need to be fed and watered and walked, and cleaned up after, and trained, and-"

"But you said someday we could get a puppy."

"I said maybe someday." And only after she'd been worn down to a nub by pleading glances from those big blue eyes. "And I'm just not sure it's someday yet. I can't talk about it now because I have to go. And this isn't going to be just my decision. I'm at work all day and you're in school, so I need to discuss this with Gran and Ava before we get close to thinking about it. Where is Ava?"

"Book club." Essie gave Phoebe a puzzled look. "She mentioned it at dinner."

"Oh, of course she did. Slipped my mind." No, Phoebe admitted.

She hadn't heard a word anyone had said at dinner. Apparently she hadn't just stopped active listening but listening at all. Time to pull it back together. "You be good for Gran." Phoebe bent to kiss the top of Carly's head. "I'll be back before long."

As she walked out she heard Carly using her slyest, most sugarcoated tone. "Gran, you like puppies, don't you?"

It should've been funny. She wished she could see it as funny. But all she could think about as she headed downstairs was that Carly was going to manipulate the other two adults in the house until they ended up with some shoe-chewing, puddle-making, middle-of-the-nightwhimpering canine.

She liked dogs, damn it. But she just wasn't ready to take on another responsibility.

She knew Ava planned to take her son on a trip out West this summer. She deserved it, absolutely. And it meant ten days where there was no one around to run to the store, the bank, the dry cleaner's, to haul Carly, to do all the endless errands.

She already had an active seven-year-old and an agoraphobic to tend to. Phoebe didn't think it made her a heartless monster not to want to add a puppy to the mix.

But, of course, she felt like one, so when she opened the front door to go out, her scowl was already full-blown.

Duncan came up the last step to the portico. "That's timing."

"What are you doing here? You didn't get my message? I'm sorry, but-"

"No, I got it. I'm going with you."

"To the funeral home?" Shaking her head, she closed the door firmly behind her. "No, you're not. Why should you? You didn't know him."

"I know you, and you shouldn't go alone. Why should you?"

"I'm perfectly capable."

"A reason you could, but not why you should. If it irritates you so much to have me along, you'll just have to pretend I'm not there. You don't go into something like this by yourself. That's stupid, and you're not."

Phoebe yanked out her sunglasses, shoved them on. "Simple competence and responsibility aren't stupidity, thank you very much."

"Okay." Hair trigger, he thought again. Why did he like that about her? "Do you want to stand out here debating the issue, or do you want to go do this thing?"

"I'm not going to drive up to this poor boy's viewing in a Porsche and walk in with some rich guy in Armani."

"First." He stepped aside, gestured. There was a black sedan of some sort at the curb. "Second, this is Hugo Boss, or maybe Calvin Klein. I can't keep that sort of thing straight-so now that I think about it, it may be Armani. And I may be rich but I grew up not two spits from where that kid spent his short sixteen years. Not in a mansion on Jones. So don't call the pot, honey."

She stared a moment, then shook her head. "A few minutes ago something that should've made me laugh just couldn't. Now this just strikes me as funny. Or maybe it's just ridiculous."

She reached forward, flipped back the side of his jacket to find the label. "I was right about the designer. Never test the mother of a minifashionista."

"Points for you."

"No, for you." Irritable and let down, she thought. Yes, she knew the signs. "Thanks for coming to go with me. I was keeping the mad on the front burner so I wouldn't feel too much of the sad. And I neglected to remember one thing."

"Which one thing?"

"This isn't about me." She stepped down. "So, you've got a shiny black sedan. Sort of dignified."

"I thought about bringing the pickup, but that seemed wrong. And the SUV's just too big." He shrugged as he opened the car door. "I'm a guy. I have cars. It's what we do."

"As I have a car that is well on its way to becoming a heap, I appreciate being able to go in one of your manly fleet." She put a hand on his over the door handle. "I'm used to going alone, and I suppose that leads me to think I should. But I don't always want to, and I also appreciate you figuring that out before I did."

Because she looked as if she needed it, Duncan leaned down to touch his lips to hers. "I'm making a study of figuring you out."

The funeral home was small, the parking lot already crowded with cars and people. Phoebe saw reporters on the edge of the property. Some were doing interviews, others trying to hunt them up.

"Probably another way in," Duncan commented.

Avoiding the press was priority one, so she'd already prepared for it. "There's a side door, I checked. I thought I'd slip in and out that way. Five minutes. There'll be representatives from the department here.

That's SOP on a homicide-and in this case, it's image, too. I'm not officially here."

"Got it." He found a place on the street, then glanced down at her heels. "Can you hike a block in those?"

"I'm a girl. It's what we do."

When they were on the sidewalk and he took her hand, she looked up at him. And for the second time since she'd met him, Phoebe thought, Oh, well. Damn.


"Nothing. Nothing." She looked away again.

Hell of a time for her heart to start thumping, she decided, hell of a time for it to trip and fall. They were on their way to pay their respects to the mother of a dead boy. And she stumbled face-first into love.

It made no sense at all. "Sure you want to do this?"

She knew she didn't. If she couldn't face the idea of training a puppy, how the hell was she supposed to deal with falling in love? But, of course, since he couldn't read her mind, he wasn't speaking of the big, long drop she'd just taken.

"I want to do it, for Charlie and his mother. And I guess part is about me. I need the ritual of it. I don't do well when I'm mad and sad, and I'm having a hard time putting either, or both, of those feelings away for very long."

Slipping into the side door was simple enough. But before Phoebe could congratulate herself on avoiding the gauntlet out front, she found herself faced with another inside.

A group of people clustered in and around a small parlor to the side of the main viewing room. The squeak of the door had heads turning. Conversations stopped instantly.

They weren't the only white faces, Phoebe noted. A few were scattered in. But her face had been on television. She saw recognition in some of the stares aimed her way, and resentment in others.

The crowd parted for a tall man, or maybe it parted for the anger pumping off him. "You got no place here. You get the hell out before-"

"You don't speak for me." Opal pushed forward. She looked a decade older than she had in the diner, with her eyes sunken dark in her face as if they'd never find light again. "You don't speak for my boy or for me."

"This here's for family. It's for neighborhood."

"You going to speak to me of family now, my brother? Where was my family when I needed them? You were up in Charlotte. You weren't here in the neighborhood. You don't speak for me." She drew herself up. "Lieutenant MacNamara."

"Mrs. Johnson, I'm sorry to intrude. I wanted to pay my respects to you and Charlie. I won't stay."

"Lieutenant MacNamara." Opal stepped forward and embraced Phoebe. "Thank you for coming here," she said quietly. "Thank you for not forgetting."

Emotion flooded Phoebe's throat, stung her eyes, ached in her heart. "I won't ever forget."

"Would you come with me, please?" Clutching Phoebe's hand, Opal turned. The man who'd spoken stood barring the way. "Don't you shame me. Don't you shame me so that this is the last time I look at your face."

"Your sons are dead, Opal."

"My sons are dead. And I have something to say." She walked through the crowd of mourners to the front door.

Her fingers twined in Phoebe's trembling ones. "Opal-"

"I've been afraid of so many things," Opal said. "Most all my life.

Maybe, I'd been braver things'd be different. I don't know, and it's hard not to question God's will. But I'm going to do this one thing, this one thing. And maybe, maybe, I won't be so afraid."

When she stepped out the front door with Phoebe, reporters shouted out, cameras whirled. Priority one, she thought, had been thoroughly breached. But there was a woman who'd lost her sons, who was clinging to her, who didn't give a damn about protocol.

"I got something to say." Opal's voice cracked, and her hand tightened like a vise on Phoebe's.

"Y'all been calling my home, and my mother's home. Calling where

I work. I told you I wanted my privacy, but you won't give it. I got such sorrow in me, and I asked you to respect my grief. But you come 'round my house, my mama's, you call on the telephone. Say you want me to tell you what I got inside me, what I think, what I feel. And some of you? You offer me money to talk to you."

Questions boomed out. Didyou… Have you… How didyou… Opal's arm shook as if with a spasm as she turned those dark, sunken eyes on Phoebe. "Lieutenant MacNamara."

"Let's go back inside, Opal," Phoebe murmured. "I'll take you back inside, to your family."

"Stand here with me, please. Would you stand here with me so I can do this?"

Opal closed her eyes, then lifted her voice over the storm. "I've got something to say here, something to say for free, and you'll just hush if you want to hear it. My sons are dead."

In the silence that followed, Phoebe heard Opal's indrawn sob. "My boys are dead. Both killed. Guns and bullets took their bodies, but it was something else took 'em before that. They had no hope. They had a fever of anger and hate and blame, but no hope to cool it. I wish I could've given them that, but I couldn't get it into them.

"You want me to blame somebody. You want to see me point my finger, to scream and cry and curse. You won't. You want me to blame the gangs? They got part of it. The police? They got part. Then so do I got part, and my own dead babies, they got part. There's plenty of blame to spread around. I don't care for that. Doesn't matter about that." She pulled a tissue from her pocket to mop her tears. "I know this woman standing beside me talked to my boy, and listened to my boy. For hours. And when that terrible thing happened that took my boy away so I can't ever have him again? She ran toward him. Didn't matter to her who was to blame. She ran to him to try to help. And when I could see again, when I could see, what I saw was her holding my son. And that's what matters.

"Now I got nothing more to say."