Summer Storm © Susan C. Muller
Warm water bubbled against the back of Madlyn Gwinn's neck. Dammit, Wade. You lowered the temperature again. This was supposed to be a hot tub, not a tepid bath.
The July night was hotter than the water.
She reached behind her for the bottle of expensive cabernet, refilled her glass, and placed the empty container on the pebbled decking.
Another little soldier bites the dust.
The warmth of the wine combined with the gurgling of the water made her drowsy. Or was it the Xanax? Didn't matter. This was the best she'd felt all day.
A constant stream of worriers, complainers, nitpickers, and fear mongers trooped into her office every day. They fretted about this. They were concerned about that. But none of them turned down the money and walked away.
Ungrateful parasites, feeding off her hard work.
The air jets slowed and the bubbles stopped. She reached over and slapped the timer again. A third twenty minute sequence wouldn't hurt. Not at this temperature.
The unending array of fireworks last night had lit up the sky with an ostentatious display of fake patriotism and sent her indoors before she'd had time to relax. Crack. Boom. Bam. Over and over. All night long. Not to mention the continual clamoring of every dog in the neighborhood.
Especially that yippy little monster next door.
Even inside, the noise set her teeth on edge and kept her up until dawn.
Didn't those people have to work?
Why did they put up with such a blatant waste of their tax dollars?
She eased lower into the water until the back of her head rested on the lip of the spa and her feet touched the facing seat. She locked her knees. This position would prevent her from slipping under if she fell asleep. And she needed sleep more than she needed the wine.
Well, as much, anyway.
Wade had asked if her conscience contributed to her insomnia. The fool. Another one who didn't turn down the money. No, her conscience was fine.
The stress of holding everything together with her fingernails was all that kept her mind swirling until dawn. Given time, the wine, the Xanax, and the soothing water took care of that.
Down the street, some kid set off a string of leftover fireworks with a pop, pop, pop. Nearby, a dog voiced his objections, but the Xanax was working. She closed her eyes and let the warm water do its work.
Tonight she would sleep.
Her eyes half opened at the sound of footsteps. How long had the air jets been off? That must be Wade, coming to bring her inside.
Her eyes closed and the corners of her mouth eased. Not a smile, but no longer a frown as she waited for his voice.
He did love her.
Detective Noah Daugherty tried to avoid looking at the body still floating in the lukewarm water. God, he hated drowning cases. "When can you give me a time of death?"
The M.E. didn't bother to look up. "You'll get it when you get it. The condition she's in, I won't know until after the autopsy. Even then, it'll be a crap shoot. I'll have to work backwards from the time she last ate and unless she went out to dinner in public…"
Yeah, yeah. Asking the only person known to be with her when she died was like asking the fox to show you how he got into the hen house. "Can you at least tell me if it's a homicide?"
Eyes warm as snowcapped mountains pinned him from under a shock of white hair. "You know better than to ask me that, Detective. This isn't the only suspicious death the city of Houston's had in the last twenty-four hours. As I said—"
"I know, I'll get it when I get it."
Noah forced himself to study the body. Hard to tell with all the bloating, but her driver's license listed her as forty-six. Much too young to die, although neither of his parents made it past forty.
A shiver ran down his spine. If he lived four more years, and that was a big if, he'd be older than his parents ever were. That didn't seem fair.
But then, nothing in his life had ever been fair. Not dealing with the murder of his father. Not dropping out of Julliard to take care of his dying mother. Not raising his sister alone a year later. Not losing his wife when their life together was just beginning.
Time for a mental head slap. This was a murder investigation, not a pity party.
He pivoted and searched the increasingly crowded patio for his partner, Conner Crawford. The July sun bounced off the pastel stucco walls of the four-story townhome and the reflection from the water in the Olympic-sized swimming pool glared into Noah's eyes, giving him a horrendous headache.
Or had he reached his quota of dead bodies for the month? The year? His attitude had certainly changed since his own errors in judgment had forced his partner to shoot a kidnapper in the back as he drew down on Noah.
Some mistakes were hard to forgive. Especially your own.
His eyes landed on his partner's familiar profile. Conner had found a slice of shade under a red and gold striped umbrella. He sat at a wrought iron table making notes in his ever-present memo pad.
The textured decking around the pool was great for avoiding falls, but hell to stand on for an extended period of time. Noah eased himself onto the comfortable chair facing his partner. "You solved it yet?"
Conner blew out a deep breath and sagged against the cushions. "The only good piece of news is that the pool guy threw up in the landscaping instead of the hot tub."
"What about hubby?" Noah consulted his notes. "Wade, isn't it? What does he have to say for himself?"
"Had no idea anything had happened to his wife until the pool guy beat on the door, screaming."
"Where the hell did he think she was all night and this morning?" Rich people. The more time he spent around them, the less he understood them.
"Can you believe it? They didn't just sleep in separate rooms, they slept on separate floors."
"By George, I think we have our first clue. Nothing says happy marriage like sleeping in separate areas of the house." It couldn't be that easy, could it? Sure, statistics said the husband was the most likely suspect, but Noah tried to keep an open mind. At least longer than the first hour.
Every marriage was unique. After twelve years in the department, Noah was well aware of that, but even with crazy hours and midnight call-outs, no force on earth could have kept him from sleeping next to Betsy. Only in the last few weeks had he stopped spraying her perfume on the pillow next to his head.
Conner finished his log of personnel present at the crime scene and the time they arrived. He glanced at Noah. The wheels turning in his partner's mind were almost visible as he drew a sketch of the area.
The two of them were as much alike as they were different. Noah topped him by a good two inches and twenty pounds, with hair and eyes a couple of shades darker than his own. They tended to come at a problem from opposite directions—Conner plodding from point A to point B while Noah let his gut point him in the right direction—yet they usually ended in the same place if for different reasons. This made them not only close friends, but excellent partners.
"Ready to knock on some doors?" he asked when Noah set his pen down.
"Might as well. I haven't had my fill of crass materialism for the day."
He couldn't argue with Noah on that. As he looked around the gated enclave, each townhome was bigger, more elaborate than the next. These weren't the homes of your everyday, garden variety millionaires. These people had money.
He and Noah stepped out the front door and looked both directions. Silence. They were practically in the shadow of the Galleria and only a block off San Felipe, yet the traffic noises were muffled by extensive landscaping. "All this green space and not a kid out playing."
"You're joking, right? These people don't send their kids out to play. The older ones are in private school and hired nannies have taken the younger ones to some type of organized activity."
With Jeannie due in less than a month, was that what he had to look forward to, play dates and baby yoga and someone else watching every milestone? When Jeannie first became pregnant, she insisted she wanted to start back to teaching in September. As she'd grown larger and larger each day, she hadn't mentioned it again.
Noah's prediction was right. At the first house they checked, only the maid was home, a middle-aged woman wearing a salmon-colored smock. She held a mop in one hand and a freshly groomed Shih Tzu in the other. Conner had trouble telling them apart except that one barked and the other looked wet.
"Sorry, I only come in four days a week, so I wasn't here last night. The Mister has gone to work, and Missus had one of her luncheons today. Simone, the nanny, took Master James to school. She'll take the baby out somewhere and bring her home in time for lunch and a nap."
"Are there any windows that look down on the Gwinn's yard next door?"
"Is that their name, Gwinn? The only window on that side is upstairs in the bathroom, and it's made out of frosted glass. You can't see through it and it doesn't open. I don't think you could see anything through the fence, either."
No, the fence was eight feet high and solid stucco. No price was too high for complete seclusion.
"I'd like to check out that window if you don't mind. May we come in?" Conner believed her, but never marked anything closed until he'd seen for himself.
The maid twisted the edge of her shirt around one roughened hand. "I'm not comfortable with that. The Missus will be home by three. Come back then."
He'd had doors shut in his face before, but they weren't usually two-story carved mahogany with gold inlay and worth more than his entire house.
"Well, that was fun. Shall we try another one?" Noah grinned, but his partner didn't seem to find humor in the situation. They both trudged to the mansion on the other side.
The lady of the house was in, but even less welcoming than the maid with the dog and mop. "I can only give you five minutes. I'm presiding over a murder trial in an hour. I suppose I shouldn't worry. It's not like they can start without me, but I demand punctuality in my courtroom so I try to set a good example."
That wasn't all she demanded. Noah had never testified before her, but he knew others who had and they'd quaked in their boots. She was sometimes known as Hard Ass Hargity. But not to her face.
Noah was only half through explaining why they had knocked on her door when the judge held up her hand in a stop motion. "I'm sorry, Detectives. Last night I worked on court filings in my office on the far side of the house until past midnight, after that I went to bed. I'm not in the habit of wasting my days—or nights—spying through windows at my neighbors. I did not see or hear anything unusual except a few leftover fireworks and dogs barking, something that has been going on all week. If I did have any ideas or suspicions, which I don't, they would be hearsay and inadmissible. Now, if you'll excuse me, I can't help you and I need to get to court."
He and Conner were out the door and standing on the sidewalk before he had time to protest.
Two more houses, two more closed doors. Noah would give anything to kick something-a pinecone, a tin can, a twig-but nothing was out of place on these manicured lawns. He swung to face Conner, disgust bubbling up from somewhere deep inside like a Yellowstone geyser ready to erupt. He'd rather interview drug dealers any day. At least they were honest about their dishonesty. "I'd like to do some real police work before this day is over. Let's leave the grunt work to the uniforms. See how the upper class like having a squad car parked in front of their house."
"What'd you have in mind?"
"I want a list of every resident, visitor, and serviceperson who came in or out of that gate between noon yesterday and ten o'clock this morning. Plus a copy of that video," he nodded toward a camera set discreetly in a tree beside the entrance, "before someone has time to erase or copy over it."
"Might not be that easy. You know how these people guard their privacy. I put a call in to the security company when we first got here. The owner insisted we show him a warrant."
Noah muttered a few choice profanities but they didn't make him feel any better. Conner rolled his eyes. The choirboy.
"I've got Earl Sparks working on drawing up the warrant. It should be ready by the time we reach the office."
A smile struggled to break through and Noah decided not to fight it. As soon as he did, his headache subsided. Why let some miserable moneyed misers ruin his day? "I wouldn't wish a blow to the head like Earl got last spring on anybody, but having him on desk duty is like having our own private secretary."
"It would be if he could spell. I don't know if that concussion jumbled something in his brain or if he was always phonetically challenged, but I have to proofread everything he prepares."
"I think he always had a problem. I remember a case we worked on when he sent a warrant to a judge explaining how we chased a guy because he was running from the scene wearing a bloody shirt. Only he left the r out of shirt. The judge demanded we take the suspect to the hospital immediately to check for internal injuries."
Conner shot him a good try look. "That's an old story and I've heard it about everyone on the squad, even you, but I'll double-check the warrant before I send it in, just in case."
Maybe that story was one of those urban legends. That didn't mean Earl knew how to spell or could type. "Before we leave, let's go back to the crime scene and check the perimeter. I'd like a good look at that fence."
"The pool guy and the lawn company enter the backyard through a gate on the side, but it's kept locked at all times and requires a passcode to open. The pool cleaner swears it was locked when he got here this morning. So, if this does turn out to be murder, how did the perp get to her?"
"He opened the back door and tiptoed out to off his wife before heading up to bed, a wealthy widower?" A twinge of guilt tapped Noah on the shoulder. Did he hate all rich people or did Wade Gwinn just rub him the wrong way when he met them at the door wearing silk pajamas?
"Very possibly, but if so, we'll need to prove it. Or at least prove no one else could have gotten in. Which, I assume, is why you want to check the perimeter."
Noah stomped across the flagstone entry toward the Gwinn condo. "Yeah. Sometimes it sucks to actually have to do your job instead of simply calling the boss and telling him who you think did it."
The day hadn't cooled any, but Noah and Conner stood on the grass rather than the pool decking, so the heat didn't reflect up their bodies. Instead, it bounced off the stucco fence. The glare was like a spotlight boring into Noah's eyes.
Hidden in a far corner, behind a storage shed that was itself masked by ornate landscaping, a plastic post stood two feet above ground. The post and the shed were both further camouflaged by being painted the same color as the fence.
Noah kicked the post. "What the hell is this?"
"Cable box, I think."
"It looks like a giant condom."
Conner tilted his head. "It does, kind of. Think somebody balanced on top of that to get in or out?"
Noah put a hand on Conner's shoulder and hefted himself on top of the post. The curved top only left room for the ball of one foot. He grabbed the fence for support as he wobbled unsteadily. "I'm six two. I can see over this wall, but barely. Not sure I could muscle my way onto it, and if I did, then what? There's nothing back here I can see."
He pushed off the wall and jumped down, landing awkwardly. Pain encircled his ankle as he fought to maintain his balance. The palms of his hands stung and showed red, pockmarked spots from gripping the rough stucco wall. "No one came over this fence without something to climb on and walking down the street carrying a ladder at midnight is a little suspicious."
Conner gave the storage shed a shake. "This isn't sturdy enough to use and doesn't offer any footholds. Let's go out and see if there's any way to get in from the other side."
By the time they followed the fence around the outside of the complex, Noah was dripping with sweat. He could taste the salt when he licked his lips. The heat had traveled through his sport coat, making his skin feel like cheese left too long under the broiler.
He glanced at his partner. Conner looked cool as ever. How did the guy do that? He must have an ice bag in his pants. There wasn't any other explanation.
A park ran along one side of the enclave. The smell of fresh cut grass was at odds with the sound of freeway traffic two blocks away. Leafy trees lowered the temperature by fifteen degrees. Swings, slides, and plastic tunnels waited for nonexistent children to play, but it was a wrought iron bench that called to Noah. Ten minutes sitting in the shade and he'd be a new man.
But he'd never admit that to Conner.
He crossed behind the bench. "How much do you think this thing weighs?"
Conner lifted one end by the arm rest. "Not that bad. One person could probably move it."
Noah bent his knees and hefted the bench. It banged him on the shin. He changed his grip and lifted it again. It banged him on the other shin. Shit. There had to be a better way. Between his ankle, his palms, and his shins, he'd be lucky to make it home in one piece.
Conner used one hand to lift the right end of the bench. He swung it toward the fence and moved to the left side, doing the same thing. "Sometimes finesse works better than brute strength."
The back of the bench was a foot and a half higher than the cable post. Once it was in place next to the wall, Conner climbed up and peered over. "It's like you said. I suppose I could make it up onto the wall, but I'd have to jump down eight feet into these people's yard, hope they don't own a dog, cross to the other side, somehow climb that fence, jump down, cross that yard and do it again before I got to the Gwinn's."
"What about walking down the top of the wall?"
"Maybe if you were a tightrope walker. The wall's less than three inches wide. Your foot would hang off on each side. You'd have to travel half the length of a football field and trees droop over in some spots. In the dark? No way. Crawling would be worse. This stucco stuff kills your hands."
Yeah. Tell me about it.
Conner brushed the pink-tinged stucco dust off his hands, but a gritty residue remained on his pants. "Let's see if we can work our way directly behind the Gwinns' place."
That plan sounded good, but ten minutes of walking took them to the front of a company specializing in outdoor statuary, antique benches, and lawn ornaments. The business was surrounded by a sturdy chain link fence topped with curls of razor wire. A sign warned the area was protected by guard dogs. The sight of a horse trough-sized water bowl, half-gnawed T-bones, and several impressively large piles of dog poo removed any doubt.
"No one got into the Gwinns' backyard unless it was through the front gate. Let's head to the office. You can see if your warrants came through." Noah was ready to be finished with the Gwinns and their affluent neighbors for the day.
"What's on your agenda while I battle Lady Justice?"
"We can't do anything more on this case until we know if it was murder, suicide, or accident. Meanwhile, we have two others we need to work on plus one coming to trial next week. I want another shot at talking to the girlfriend in the Redden homicide. She admits to being drunk the night in question. I don't think she has any idea if Junior slipped out while she slept. She just doesn't want to believe someone she loves could kill his own parents."
"Would you? Imagine trying to close your eyes at night knowing the person next to you was capable of cold-blooded murder."
The partners stepped up their pace and circled back to their motor pool car. A beat-up Nissan Sentra, its once red paint faded pink, was parked on the curb beside the entrance gate. At the sight of the two detectives, the driver hopped out, waving a memo book similar to the one Conner kept. "Detective, a moment, please. May I have a word with you?"
The man's clothes looked like he'd slept in them. Only his face showed more wrinkles, as if someone had wadded up the newspaper he worked for and straightened it out again.
"Step on it. That's R.J. Perry from the Chronicle. How did he find us? The bosses won't like this." Noah hated TV reporters with a passion most people reserved for IRS agents. Their perfect hair and gleaming white teeth made you look like a slob and they edited what you said into something unrecognizable to fit their story.
But newspaper reporters were worse. They actually dug for that nugget of truth you were trying to hold back. And like a dog with a tug-toy, they never let go. This was compounded by the fact their news cycle lasted longer than fifteen minutes.
Conner double-tapped the key, unlocking both doors. Noah slipped inside and his headache returned with a vengeance. After several hours of sitting in the Texas sun, the interior was like entering Hell. Literal Hell. With fire and brimstone and Satan laughing at Noah's attempt to fasten his seatbelt without blistering his fingers on the metal buckle.
"Oouuchh," Conner groaned as he grabbed the scalding steering wheel and pulled away from the curb.
Noah flipped the AC to high, but it blew in steamy air from outside which wasn't any help. By silent mutual consent, they drove the first several blocks with the windows down until a trickle of cooler air seeped through the vents. It smelled like rancid cooking oil, but lowered the temperature inside a few precious degrees.
"Let's drop this mother off at the motor pool and I'll drive Lola out to the trailer park to see if I can break Junior Redden's alibi." His love affair with his truck had suffered a serious setback when she was nearly totaled in April, but her heat and air conditioning worked with a flip of a switch and she smelled like Heaven compared to the wreck they were driving.
"You think the girlfriend will be there this time of day?" Conner eased across two lanes of traffic into the station parking lot.
"I don't know, but if I call ahead to check, she definitely won't be."
Noah slipped out of the hunk-of-junk motor pool loaner and into Lola. She was hot when he opened the door, but comfortable before he was out of the parking garage. He turned the fan to high and aimed the vents toward his face. His headache disappeared immediately. Yep, she still had it, repairs or not.
Driving east away from the downtown area and the Travis Street headquarters, the sky was an unending expanse of blue, broken only by a lone contrail left by an invisible jet, high above the city. A feeling of kinship swept over Noah at the thought of the unseen pilot. Both of them speeding along, cocooned in a metal tube, with plenty of backup, but basically alone, shouldering heavy responsibility.
Shit. He'd let his guard down and the black dog of despair was nipping at his heels again. It was the damn Gwinn case. He tried not to jump to conclusions, but six weeks short of one year since Betsy died and he still had trouble dealing with a husband who didn't cherish his wife while he had the chance.
But he wasn't really alone. He had a warm, if tiny, body waiting at home and he had family: his sister, Rachelle, and his two nieces, Emma and Iris. Not to mention Conner and Jeannie and their soon-to-be baby.
He shook his head, trying to dislodge those thoughts like a mutt shaking off water after a rain storm. Action. That was the only cure when the cursed dark cloud got too close. He needed to close as many cases as possible before Conner took off on family leave.
A light flipped on inside his head. That was the problem, not the Gwinn case. The thought of Conner and the life waiting for him. A life denied Noah because some son-of-a-bitch long-haul trucker decided he could drive eighteen hours without taking a rest. That a deadline was more important than a life. Two lives.
How old would their baby be if Betsy had lived? Three months?
Not walking, he knew that much, but sitting up, teething? Would he be bitching about lack of sleep like he'd heard other new parents do? Or realize how fortunate he was?
What did it matter the cause? The answer was the same. Get busy. Break Junior Redden's alibi. Then, God help Wade Gwinn if he discovered the guy had killed his wife.