Excerpt from One Texas Night
Murder didn't happen in this slice of Texas. In the twelve years since Grady Sloan had been an officer in the Fargate Police Department, the department hadn't handled a single homicide. Now, less than twenty-four hours into his tenure as interim police chief, Angela Petersen lay dead in the Tarrant County morgue awaiting an autopsy.
As he'd inspected the small brick home on the edge of town, no bold clues had jumped up at him saying, "I did it!" Only blood—a lot of it—splattered over the lace curtains, ruffled pillows, and feminine frills strewn about the living room. No muddy footprints had marred any of the pink carpeting. No bloody knife had lain close by with accusing fingerprints on its handle. No signs of forced entry had marked any of the doors or windows.
Nothing, except the strange woman. And the undecipherable drawing she'd held.
He'd have to use every ounce of his resourcefulness to crack the case.
A lot of fun that would be with the critical town council breathing down his back and watching his every move. After his fiasco with Jamie—his otherwise spotless record notwithstanding—they'd expect mistakes, and be more than ready to point fingers.
In three weeks, Fargate would host their annual Fall Festival. The council had planned Seth Mullins' retirement celebration and the announcement of his replacement as their crowning event.
That didn't leave Grady much time to prove the town council wrong. Or to get answers from the woman who claimed not to remember her name.
His office door blustered open.
"What took you so long?" Grady snapped at his sister. Tension had him strung tighter than sun-dried leather.
"Well, hello to you, too." Desiree Sloan dumped her briefcase and large leather purse on top of his desk, ignoring the pile of papers she scrambled in the process. Flyaway wisps of light brown hair escaped from the French braid that couldn't be more than half an hour old. While she removed the jacket of her bright red business suit, she juggled a cup of take-out coffee between her hands, sloshing drops onto the carpet. Good thing it was the color of industrial grime.
His sister was a brilliant psychologist, but grace had never been one of her attributes. She plowed through life like a scatterbrained bull in a china shop, but when it came to business, she focused single-mindedly as if in a ring facing a matador's cape. No one garnered more professional respect than Dr. Des. Which was why he'd sought her opinion this morning.
"I got here as fast as I could." She plopped into a chair, popped the loose cover from her cup of coffee and blew on the hot liquid. "You know I'm not a morning person." She leaned back into the chair and crossed one leg over the other. "So, what windmill's got your shorts in a torque this morning, brother dear? Vigilante cow-tipper? Mad donut snatcher at Mamie's?" She slapped one hand on the chair's armrest. Her blue-gray eyes twinkled. "No, don't tell me! Some low-down snake took off with the high school's royal blue street sign again."
"That's enough, Desiree. I'm not in the mood for your sass today."
"So it's Desiree, uh. I guess I'm really in trouble now."
He loved his sister to death, but she could push his buttons faster than anyone he knew. Her irreverent humor and light-heartedness had helped him through a lot of rough spots, but this wasn't going to be one of them.
"I didn't mean to snap." He threw his pen onto the blotter, then tipped back his chair until it leaned against the wall. "I've been up all night." He dragged his hands over his face and rubbed his burning eyes. "Someone murdered Angela Petersen."
"Oh, no!" Desiree jammed her cup onto the desk, staining his report with muddy-brown coffee. "Angie's mother must be beside herself. And the reverend. She was the apple of his eye. I'll have to stop by and make sure they're okay on my way to work. What happened?"
Grady plucked tissues from a box on the black metal credenza and mopped Desiree's mess. "Lena Strong called in late last night, saying she thought she heard someone screaming at the Petersens'. I thought it might just be the storm. The winds were pretty strong last night."
"I know. I think I lost some shingles."
He lobbed the sodden tissue into the wastebasket beside the desk. "Anyway, there was no answer when I got there, but the front door was ajar. I found her stabbed to death on the living room floor."
"God, Grady, how awful! Do you know who did it?"
"Angie had a voice like an angel's." Desiree shook her head slowly. "She was supposed to sing Seth's retirement song at the Fall Festival. It's going to be a grim affair now. What do you need me to do to help catch the scumbag who hurt Angie?"
Now that Desiree was here, Grady found himself hesitating. If she confirmed the woman truly suffered from amnesia, it would complicate his case to no end. He didn't have time for gentle proddings. He needed to solve a murder.
"We found a woman at the scene. When we tried to question her, she attacked us." Absently, he rubbed the bandage covering the bite mark on his left hand. "Now she claims she can't remember her name." He slipped the drawing they'd found in the woman's hand toward his sister. "She was holding this. Des, in all the years I've been a cop I've never had to deal with someone like her. Is it possible?"
"Amnesia?" Desiree half shrugged as she concentrated on the drawing. "It depends on a lot of things. If she suffered a trauma to the head, or if she was on drugs, or if she had a syndrome called 'complex partial seizures,' yeah, it'd be possible. It's hard to make a diagnosis with so little to go on."
"That's why I asked you here. I'm going to take her to the interview room. While I ask her some questions, I want you to watch from the one-way mirror. I need to know if she's faking."
Desiree ripped open her purse, then flipped through her agenda. Finger sliding down her calendar, she nodded. "I've got to make an appearance downtown Fort Worth in court this afternoon, but I don't have anything that can't wait this morning. What makes you think she's faking?"
"That's it, Des. I just don't know." He tipped the chair back again and crossed his arms over his chest. "Two years ago, I would have gone with my gut."
"And what does your gut say?" she prodded when he hesitated.
"It says she was at the right place at the wrong time. Now, I have to wonder." The chair snapped down. He leaned forward, placing both his forearms on the desk, fingers entwined, uncertainty riddling holes in his usual confidence. "I smelled liquor on her breath. The other officer didn't."
The woman hadn't answered his question. She hadn't blinked. She hadn't moved. She'd simply sat huddled on the ground at the back of the woodshed with the same unfazable glare in her eyes he'd seen much too often on his mother's face.
"And?" Desiree asked.
"The test came back with a count of zero. I mistook the smell of wet oak chips for alcohol, the glazed look in her eyes for drunkenness. I jumped to conclusions... because..."
"Of Jamie." Desiree's gaze softened. "Grady, why didn't you tell me you were still having problems?"
He looked away from his sister's too-knowing gaze. He would never dream of talking to anyone about his shortcomings, but Des had the knack of coaxing things out of him. Giving in was easier than going through one of her digging sessions. "I thought I'd gotten over it."
She placed her agenda on the desk, reached forward and covered his hands with hers. "You're good at what you do, Grady. Who knows how screwed up Aimee and I would've turned out without you." She squeezed his hands. "Not everybody's Jamie. And you're not some superhero. You can't save the whole world. Nobody even expects you to save this little corner of it. It's impossible. Stuff happens. And if you need someone to talk to, you know I'm always there. We've all got our talents. Yours is finding the truth. Mine is listening. Give the rest of us mere mortals a break, will you?" She grinned at him. "Besides, you know how much I love to meddle in everybody's business."
He looked at her over the protective barrier of his desk. "I'm still second-guessing myself."
"There's nothing wrong with being careful."
"Unless it gets in the way of the job. You know how much I want to take over the chief's seat."
She chuckled and nodded. "Can't imagine you working for Winnin' Wayne Dillon, either." She straightened her stance and put on her serious face. "Because we can't burden the town with a bootlicker like Wayne, let's work on your mystery woman. What else can you tell me about her?"
Grady tipped his chair back and drummed the heel of his boot against the metal leg, reflecting on his first glimpse of the woman. Her eyes, mystery dark, had seemed impenetrable and definitely glazed. Her white skin contrasted sharply with the long black hair stuck in wavy strands to her head and cheeks. Dry, with a little makeup, those high cheekbones, aristocratic nose, and elegant mouth, she could have passed for one of the society ladies whose smiling pictures plastered the "Life" section of the Fort Worth newspaper when they promoted one or the other of their do-gooder affairs. He'd learned to regret regal features like those. Yet something about her depthless eyes had drawn his attention again and again.
"She's good-looking," he said tersely, losing patience with himself over the attraction he had no right to feel. "And she says she can't remember anything. I think it's pure manure. But then I find her searching through the phone book as if she were trying to figure out who she was. There's something about her." He shook his head. "I don't know, Des...."
Desiree dropped her leather-bound agenda back into her purse and offered him a slow smile. "So which part are you hung up on, the 'good-looking' part, or the 'manure' part?"
She expected him to brush her off or argue with her, but too much was at stake. Murder wouldn't go unpunished in Fargate. Not on his watch. He'd find the culprit and bring him—or her—to face justice. "Both."
She shook her head and clucked her tongue. "You get too personally involved. It's your strength, Grady, but it's also your weakness. You're asking for trouble."