susan c muller

 

excerpt of susan c muller's winter song

Winter Song
© Susan C. Muller

Chapter One

susan c muller's winter song

Sleet beat against the roof of the car in a syncopated rhythm with the windshield wipers, creating a tune only winter could sing. Bitter night air seeped inside through the rusted floorboard. The driver shivered, yet never lowered his guard, watching from the darkened lot.

Waiting for his target to appear.

Cars zipped by his secluded spot, but not the one he expected. His heart rate kicked up with each minute that passed. Could she have slipped by him, unnoticed? Scooted around the corner when he wasn't paying attention?

Impossible. He'd hardly blinked for the last half-hour.

An industrial-sized dumpster hid his car from curious eyes, but obstructed his view. He strained forward against the seat belt as if an extra two inches of visibility would make a difference.

Maybe if I took the belt off. His hand rested on the cold metal. No, there wouldn't be time to fasten it again. No driving infractions. A good rule he followed faithfully.

When her red BMW rounded the corner, she was speeding, but he'd been warned to expect that. His heart settled into a steady rhythm. Tha-thump. Tha-thump.

"Here she is," he called over his shoulder, the tremble in his voice betraying his excitement. "It's showtime." He switched on his lights and slipped into traffic, two car-lengths behind her.

His eyes flicked from the road to her car and back, constantly measuring distance, speed, witnesses. He crept up beside her. Two more feet and he'd be perfectly positioned.

The back window lowered with a soft whirr.

Without warning, she swerved into the next lane. What the hell?

He tried to copy her move, but his front wheel hit a patch of ice. The car fishtailed, forcing him to ease off the gas.

Had she seen the ice, was that why she'd switched lanes? Or had she spotted him? The open window? The barrel of the gun?

By the time he regained control of the car, it was too late. An SUV had pulled out of a parking lot and filled in the gap between them. Bile burned the back of his throat at the prospect of failure.

"What're you doing? We can still catch her." His back-seat passenger beat on the headrest. "You said it had to be tonight."

"Maybe, but not here. We'll have to wait until she's on her way home. Close that window before someone notices. " An open window in the middle of a sleet storm was an invitation to be remembered. He'd picked the shooter for his skill and intelligence, neither of which he was demonstrating tonight.

"This is where we planned for. We haven't scouted anywhere else." The whiney voice from the back seat caused the driver to clench his teeth.

"We've got an hour, we'll scout it now. As long as we complete the job tonight, what difference does it make which side of the freeway we're on?" He rolled his shoulders, trying to relax, but his muscles refused to cooperate. Working with a partner made every step more challenging.

One foolish mistake ten years ago and he was still dealing with the consequences.

#

"What the fuck is Bellaire PD doing in the middle of our crime scene?" Detective Noah Daugherty jumped out of the car and let his partner worry about parking.

A gust of frigid air slapped him in the face. He trudged down the icy street, resentment oozing from every pour. With the neighboring PD here, he'd have to play nice, pretend he cared what they thought. All the while, the evidence would be growing colder.

To hell with that. He was through pretending while bad guys got away. All he wanted was to keep busy and solve cases. Screw making friends.

He jammed his hands deep into his pockets and studied the dynamics of the group in front of him. In seconds, he knew who was in charge and who were the toadies.

susan c muller's winter song

"Good evening, officers. I'm Noah Daugherty, HPD Homicide." He fished around for the appropriate smile, pasted it on, and flashed his badge. "I'll take over now. You can get back to work. I'm sure the citizens of Bellaire would want you on the job, not standing out here in the cold." He purposely spoke to the youngest man, turning his back on the top dog.

"Now just one minute," the lead investigator sputtered from behind him. "This crime is in Bellaire. We don't need any interference from Houston."

Noah reached in his pocket and pulled out a stick of gum. He took his time, twisting toward the other man. "Are you sure? According to my calculations, her car crossed into Houston at least twenty feet before she was killed." He slipped the gum into his mouth and waited. Would the Bellaire detective fold, or was his night about to get more complicated?

Noah held his breath as the man glanced to the car and back again several times before answering. "She was shot approximately in front of the dry cleaners. Her car rolled to the intersection and the bumper may have kissed the Houston city limits, but the crime, the car, and the body are all in Bellaire."

The Bellaire detective's face grew redder with every word. He pulled his puny shoulders as high as they'd go and puffed out his chest. Noah sighed and pushed the gum to one side of his cheek. Great, a Napoleon complex. He took a step forward, towering over the smaller man.

"I don't know what they teach you in Bellaire, but in Houston, we learn exactly where our city limits are. On the west side of the freeway, the city limits are at this intersection. But for some unknown reason, on the east side they start a block back. That means the whole crime scene, from the first shot to when the car stopped, all belong to me."

The detective chewed on his lip and scratched his bald head. "You want it, buddy, you take it. We've got plenty to keep us busy." He spun on his heel and had his cell phone to his ear before Noah could answer.

Noah sucked in a deep breath. The raw air burned his lungs but couldn't dampen the moment. That's one for the win column. Seemed like confrontations with other officers was all the fun he had these days, and no matter how many cases he worked, he couldn't stay busy enough.

Footsteps on the icy roadway caused Noah to glance behind him as his partner approached, the frost on his breath almost obscuring his face.

"Started a fight and finished it before I could park the car. Thought you were going to wait for me." Conner Crawford was a hair under six feet and whip thin. Noah topped him by two inches and twenty-plus pounds, but Conner could hold his own in any situation and Noah never worried about his back with Conner around.

"No sense letting 'em get the drop on us. It was an argument that could have gone on for days. Now it's settled and we can get to work." Noah had never been good at politics. Lately, he just did what needed doing and let his partner clean up the mess.

Conner trailed behind Noah as they made a wide circle around the crime scene before approaching the vehicle. The stoplight overhead cycled to red, giving the area an eerie glow.

susan c muller's winter song

As they approached the car, Conner took a moment to mumble a private prayer. After six years of working together, Noah still didn't know if his partner prayed for the deceased or for his own abilities to offer justice. It seemed too personal to ask.

He just hoped the prayer covered him, too.

Noah leaned in the shattered window and studied the body. She'd once been a beautiful woman. Not anymore. "Looks like a single shot to the left temple. A through-and-through, judging by the amount of brain matter on the passenger seat." The coppery smell of blood filled the car and turned Noah's empty stomach. Or was it the sight of a woman whose life was snatched away much too early?

A thought pricked at his heart. Would anyone mourn for her?

He swallowed back the question. This wasn't the time to be sentimental. "We'll have to wait for the M.E. to give us official time of death, but this weather might skew the numbers. Looking at her, I say less than an hour. You checked with the responding officer on the way in. What'd he say?"

Conner pulled out his pocket spiral. "Fletcher over there," he pointed his chin at a motorcycle patrolman, "arrived at 8:17 and switched off the engine. Said he didn't want to take a chance the body would shift and she'd bump the accelerator. It's 9:00 now, so yeah, less than an hour. You want to question him about it?"

"Hell no. Much as I hate anyone messing with my crime scene, it takes a set of stainless steel cojones to ride a donor-cycle on a night like this. I'm not going to cross him."

"Wise choice. Personally, I planned to step back out of the way if you did. The DMV lists the car as belonging to Gary Hudson. Address a few blocks from here."

"Our vic doesn't look like a Gary." Noah ignored the honks and shouts as drivers objected to the cordoned-off street. Didn't anyone have respect for the dead anymore? These were probably the same people who blew past funeral processions, horns blaring.

"Big diamond, fancy car, trophy wife. Gary must be doing well for himself." Conner made more notes in his spiral.

"Yeah, but she's just wearing some kind of sweats."

"Yoga pants and top. See the emblem on her left shoulder? That means designer duds. I'll wager my left nut they cost more than your suit."

"I already own your left nut from our last case, and I sure as hell don't want the right one. Besides, this is a nice suit." Noah brushed dog hair off his jacket. He decided not to mention the pieces of crumbled liver treats in the pocket.

"It may be the best suit Men's Warehouse sells, but it's not a nice suit." Conner adjusted his perfectly fitting jacket. "This is a nice suit."

Noah eyed Conner's suit and groaned. What a waste of money. He owned one expensive suit and he'd worn it exactly twice: to one wedding and one funeral. He didn't plan to ever wear it again. Except maybe to his own funeral, but that was someone else's problem. For the moment, his only concern was a dead woman in a red car. "One bullet to the side of the head. That's a hell of a shot into a moving car. So was the shooter mobile or stationary?"

"No way the shooter stood beside the freeway. Anyone could have seen him. Must have been from a car."

Noah twisted to stare down the street. "You're right. The shooter would have been completely exposed. Not likely he was standing out there, waiting in ambush. We'll have to check anyway, but what are the odds?"

"About as good as the mayor inviting either of us to dinner."

That slim, huh?

"Could be road rage. A bright-red BMW sometimes hints at an aggressive driver. Doesn't take much to set some people off. Might be a good idea to check her driving record."

"Already on my list." Conned tapped his spiral.

He could always count on Conner. Best paper-jockey, detective, friend he'd ever had. "So was the shooter angry and trying to scare her, the bullet connecting by accident, or cold and calculating, pulling off a one-in-a-million shot?" Noah tried to breathe warmth onto his frozen fingers.

Conner scanned the area, measuring, angles, distance, visibility. "I'd call it more of a one-in-a-hundred shot, but as soon as we finish here, let's go talk to the husband."

Sure, because talking to a grieving husband is so much fun.

Noah turned his back. He'd seen enough. "Wonder if he's missed her yet? Maybe he isn't actually expecting her to return."

#

Brightly lit store fronts illuminated the parking lot, but left the street dark. Noah and Conner cased the area, their flashlights poking temporary holes in the gloom. Fragments of broken glass littered the pavement, marking the spot where the BMW was hit. The raised side of the freeway dropped down to meet the street with no curb. The slush beside the road had iced over and showed no sign of footprints. Noah squatted and poked at the slush with one finger. The ice gave way, sending his finger two inches into semi-frozen muck.

He motioned for a forensics tech. "Step in this ice, then time how long it takes to freeze over again. Does it freeze smooth or leave a footprint?"

The tech frowned, but Noah ignored him. The tech was dressed for this weather-parka, rubber boots, gloves-let him run the tests.

Conner joined him in the street. "Nothing's open for a block either direction on this side of the freeway. An ExxonMobil station is the first business open to the north. An Auto Zone stays open till nine to the south. I've told them both that nobody leaves till we talk to them. I suggest we start with the Exxon. They have hot coffee."

Noah stuffed his hands back in his pockets, fingering the crumbled dog treats, and spun toward the gas station. "Sounds like a plan. I need to get out of this cold soon, or I'm going to develop frostbite on parts of my body that I'm very fond of." Not that he'd had any use for that part lately. "If this weather keeps up, I may actually have to invest in a heavy coat."

susan c muller's winter song

"Weatherman says another seventy-two hours and we'll be back to normal, sunny and clear, just in time for the groundhog to see his shadow."

"Fuck the groundhog. He's just a big rat with good PR. What does he know?" Noah studied Conner under hooded eyes. "Why aren't you colder? Do you have on long underwear or something? Don't answer that. I don't think I want to know."

Conner gave a how-did-you-guess grin. "Toasty warm all the way down. Only problem was fastening my pants. I took a cue from when Jeannie first got pregnant. I stuck one of her hair bands through the button hole and looped it around the button for an extra couple of inches, then put a belt on top of it." His lips clamped shut as if he could move fast enough to prevent the words from escaping or suck them back in before they reached Noah's ears.

Well, shit. Now what?

Talking about Jeannie's pregnancy in front of him made Conner uncomfortable, but they had to get past it if they were going to keep working together. Noah cast around for something to say that would put his partner at ease. "Women. Pregnancy brings out the mama bear in all of them. I'm surprised she didn't put you in one of those knit hats with flaps hanging down over the ears and a puff ball on top. If you pull one of those out of your back pocket and put it on, I'm walking out of here right now."

"Nah. If she'd tried that, I would've refused. I still have some backbone left." Conner's voice eased as if the moment had never happened.

And Noah wished it hadn't, but if that's what it took to get his partner back, he'd gladly endure two minutes of discomfort.

The ExxonMobil station smelled of scorched coffee and wet clothes, but the attendant spoke English with an accent that wasn't too heavy to understand. "My last customer left at least fifteen minutes before all the commotion down the street. He paid cash, and no, that's not unusual. He's been in before. I think he's a waiter. He always has small bills. I had several customers shortly before that and I've got their credit card receipts ready for you. I know you'll want the surveillance video. I took it out when I heard the sirens. I've been expecting you." He held out a paper bag with the video and receipts.

Noah glanced at Conner. Was this guy for real? Witnesses were never this helpful. No point asking what he saw, the windows had fogged over, and the guy insisted he hadn't left the building. Noah handed him two cards. "Thanks for your help. Call me if you remember anything else. And if the waiter comes in, get his name and ask him to call."

He grabbed his coffee and faced Conner. "You take this side of the freeway, and I'll cross over and take the other side. I'll meet you back at Auto Zone."

Noah hiked across the feeder-road and through the underpass, cradling the Styrofoam cup in both hands for warmth, occasionally sipping a brew so foul, most would have tossed it away in disgust. He'd be willing to swear in court they had fished used oil filters out of the trash to do double duty in the coffee pot.

The air was so cold, it hurt to breathe. How did people live in climates where this was normal winter weather? At least this norther would pass in a few days. If it froze again this year, it wouldn't last long. He'd spent two winters in New York when he was young. It was exciting, but not anything he'd ever want to do again.

Forty-five minutes later, every shop inspected for occupants or security cameras, he joined his partner at the auto parts store. If he'd been cold before, he was frozen now. His feet were wet and his nose running. That heavy coat was sounding better and better. No, it would feel like a straitjacket inside of an hour.

The employees sat in the break room, fidgeting. Their shift was over, and one glance said they wanted out. Taking one person at a time, he and Conner interviewed all four workers. Three were in the back at the time of the shooting, leaving one at the counter, facing the street. Like the gas station attendant, he claimed the windows were too fogged to see anything.

Unless the security tape showed something, this was another dead end.

The wind had died down and the sleet stopped a few hours earlier, but the temperature had dropped several degrees by the time they left Auto Zone. Conner pulled his coat tighter and headed for the car, but Noah stopped him. "Take a look up and down this street, then check the other side and tell me if you notice any difference."

The two men trudged through the underpass to the west side of the feeder road. Conner didn't speak, but studied the businesses carefully. He even stood in the street and scrutinized the freeway before crossing back to the east side and checking it again.

"West side's a lot darker. None of the businesses have bright lights, and the nearest streetlight on the freeway is out. The pavement's dry next to that dumpster. Something kept the sleet off that spot. A car sure could hide there and wait unnoticed. Then pull out when the right vehicle came around the corner. And that's the route she'd probably have taken, according to the address on her drivers license."

The wind whipped Noah's hair and he raised his voice to be heard over the horns and shouts and sirens. "Then why the job on the east side? Auto Zone and ExxonMobil both have security cameras, and the bank has one on the ATM. All three of those places are brightly lit, and the strip center hasn't taken down their Christmas lights."

susan c muller's winter song

"Something happened. Another car came by, he couldn't make his shot, he got nervous. I don't know. But he got up his nerve and tried again on the east side without all the planning."

"Why didn't he try to catch up? What else is different?" Noah waited while Conner chewed on the problem. He didn't have to wait long.

"The city limits. It's too early to know for sure, but maybe he wanted to do it in Bellaire and didn't realize the line didn't run straight. Can't say I blame him. Without a Homicide department, Bellaire's no match for us."

Noah started for the car, breath-frost trailing behind him. "Don't fault Bellaire. Working a little of everything makes a well-rounded detective. They may not have as much specialized experience as we do, but they're sharp and have a smaller case load. But you're on the right track. I'll bet my left nut the perp wanted to do the job in Bellaire, and when we figure out why, we'll be a long way toward knowing who."

#

The Hudsons' home was only a few blocks from the crime scene but a world away from the noise and traffic of the freeway. Extensive outdoor lighting showed off a manicured lawn rolling up to a two story stucco eyesore that was big enough to hold Noah's house, yard and car with room left over to host a gala for three hundred of his closest friends.

The click of Conner's seatbelt unfastening pulled Noah from his study of the house. He put his hand on his partner's sleeve. "I'll give you back your left nut if he asks how to contact the victims' fund about paying for the funeral."

Conner gave an I'll-take-that-bet chuckle. "Your loss."

Noah removed his gum, wrapped it in paper and tossed it into the car's litter bag. "Let's go see what Gary has to say and where he thinks his wife is," he paused to check his watch, "at quarter till eleven on the nastiest night of the year."

He opened the car door and stopped, one foot on the pavement. "Fuck, I hate this part of the job." Notifying loved ones sucked. If they were taken by surprise, their grief was a kick in the gut. If they were involved, watching them pretend was ten times worse.

Conner clicked the key fob and grunted in agreement.

The yard may have been well lit, but the house was dark. An upstairs window glowed and the frosted glass in the front entrance showed a thin line of light seeping from under a closed door near the back of the house. No welcoming light had been left on for a returning wife. He wouldn't have wanted anyone he loved coming home to such an unfriendly place.

Conner stomped his feet on the mat and smoothed his hair. "How do you want to play this, grieving widower or prime suspect?"

The darkened house sent a be-on-your-toes warning down Noah's spine. "I'd like to get a feel for him first. Let's give him some rope. See if he makes a noose before we do the official notification business."

He rang the bell and waited. By the time he'd counted to ten, the light increased and footsteps sounded on a wooden floor. Hard-soled shoes, not slippers or bare feet. He glanced at Conner and raised his eyebrows. "Think he's expecting someone?" he mouthed.

The door flew open and a middle-aged man stood on the other side. He carried twenty extra pounds, and his hairline had retreated several inches. Otherwise, he looked in good shape for his age. He'd removed his suit coat and tie and rolled his sleeves part way up with a knife-edged crease, but could have been ready to leave for the office with three minutes' notice.

He stood in the doorway and stared at the two men. He didn't move or speak, only blinked several times.

"Mr. Hudson?" Noah waited a beat, but the man didn't answer. "I'm Detective Daugherty from the Houston Police Department, and this is my partner, Detective Crawford. May we come in?" He held his badge in his left hand, keeping his right hand loose and near his weapon.

The man shook his head as if clearing it. Noah had seen better acting at his niece's grade school play.

Another moment passed before the man stepped back and opened the door wider. "Of course, of course. I expected to see my wife, that's all. I thought she must have her hands full and couldn't open the door." His voice was too pleasant, too welcoming, too accepting.

Noah's bullshit antenna activated instantly.

He expected his wife to come in the front door? No one but trick-or-treaters and mourners had ever come to Noah's front door. If the bell rang, it wasn't someone he wanted to see.

The man led the way through the house, flipping on lights as he went, and stopping in an ornate room containing furniture Noah was afraid to sit on. "Make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen. I'll be right back."

Noah glanced at Conner and narrowed his eyes. He'd never knocked on anyone's door, day or night, who didn't ask why he was there before inviting him in.

There was no way Noah would ever be comfortable in that room, but he lowered himself into the sturdiest chair he could find. Conner shrugged and sat on a small sofa that had a curved back at one end and a seat extending another two feet with no back rest. He tried several different positions before giving up and taking the most uncomfortable looking chair Noah had ever seen.

susan c muller's winter song

At the far end of the room, a grand piano gleamed under multiple coats of furniture polish. A pang of guilt hit Noah as he thought of the old upright sitting in his living room, dusty and unused, with one temperamental key that he'd never gotten around to having repaired.

Was the victim the one who played? On tough days, did Hudson perch on that torturous sofa and let the notes of Clair de Lune wash away his cares? Did they sit on the piano bench, side by side, on Christmas Eve and sing carols while they waited until midnight to open their gifts?

Mr. Hudson returned, followed by a maid carrying an ornate silver tray containing china cups filled with coffee. Cream and sugar containers matched the flowered pattern of the cups. After the burnt sludge from the ExxonMobil station, it smelled like Heaven. The maid hovered as each man fixed his coffee, then she placed the tray on a piece of furniture Noah hadn't realized was a table and left the room.

Noah inhaled the rich brew and eyed the cup, worried he might crush the delicate porcelain if he gripped it too tightly. Where am I supposed to put my fingers? Not through that tiny handle.

"Now, what can I help you gentlemen with on such a cold night? I always like to assist the police whenever I can. Another donation? Buy some more vests? You could have just called. I would have had my secretary send a check." Mr. Hudson sat on the sofa Conner had vacated. He leaned back into the corner and stretched his legs down the cushion.

Smooth. He's already managed to tell us we're rubes while he's a wealthy sophisticate with connections in the department.

"We're here about your wife, Mr. Hudson." He glanced at his notes, as if he had to remind himself. "Crystal, isn't it?"

Hudson gave an exaggerated sigh. "What is it now? She didn't get another ticket, did she? I should have known better than to buy her a red car. It brings out the worst in her driving. She speeds, weaves in and out of traffic and thinks a yellow light means 'go faster.' Well, this time she'll have to attend one of those defensive driving classes. I'm not paying the ticket until she does."

Conner finished his coffee and set the cup on something that might have been a table. The room was warm, and Noah's feet were beginning to thaw. He unbuttoned his coat and glanced at Conner. Beads of sweat were breaking out on his forehead and he tugged at his shirt collar. Noah tried to hide a smile as he noticed the edge of Conner's long underwear peeking out from his pant leg.

"Where is your wife now, Mr. Hudson?" Noah kept his voice calm, casual. Just your normal everyday conversation with two detectives in the middle of the night, visiting.

"Lord only knows. She has different classes on different nights. I don't have any idea what tonight's is. Then she goes shopping or has drinks with whoever else is in that class. She gets bored at night because I'm so often working. Like tonight, I've been on a conference call to Japan. You have to be available when your customers are awake."

Good one, he slipped in his alibi before we even asked.

Enough of this pussyfooting around. "Mr. Hudson, I'm sorry to inform you a red BMW registered to you was damaged earlier this evening, and the woman driving was killed. We suspect it might have been your wife and we need someone to make a positive identification."

Hudson's eyes went wide, and his mouth formed an O shape. He set his coffee down with an exaggerated tremble, causing the cup to rattle and slosh coffee into the saucer. "You must be mistaken. Crystal liked to push the speed limit, sure, but the car has air bags and she always wore her seatbelt unless she was headed to a party and didn't want to wrinkle her dress."

Noah kept his eyes on Hudson. He hadn't even made an ID and he was already speaking of her in the past tense. "It wasn't a traffic accident, Mr. Hudson. Did your wife have any enemies that you know of?"

"Crystal? Heavens, no. She shopped, she lunched, she took classes. You think someone shot her because she played better tennis?"

Conner leaned forward in his chair. "Shot? Why do you say that? We never mentioned she was shot."

Hudson jerked toward Conner, knocking over his coffee cup. At least this time his surprise didn't look staged. "Well, you said enemies. It's hard to poison someone while they're driving. I naturally thought of a gun. Is that what happened? Did she cut someone off in traffic and they retaliated?"

Five minutes and the man had already accepted his wife's death, provided himself with an alibi and solved the crime.

"Why don't we try to get a positive ID before we speculate?" Noah stood and motioned Hudson to follow. He'd witnessed enough phony concern. "If you'll come with us, we'll drive you downtown and you can view the body."

"The body," Hudson said, a hiccup hiding in his voice. "That sounds so cold." For a moment, he actually seemed shaken.

Conner drove and Hudson sat in the back, staring silently at the floor. Noah twisted in his seat to face him, but any questions he asked went unanswered.

At the morgue, Noah led Hudson to the family viewing area. The room, which was kept ten degrees too cold in the summer, was now too hot and someone's attempt to cover the chemical odor with flowery deodorizer had failed miserably. Conner left in search of an aide to bring the body around.

The aide arrived and placed the body with the damaged half of her face away from the window. With all the blood washed away and her hair smoothed down, it was almost possible to believe she was sleeping.

susan c muller's winter song

If you didn't look too closely.

Hudson placed his hand on the window and leaned his forehead against the glass. Noah turned his head and let Conner do the observing. The scene was too familiar, the pain still too raw. Noah unconsciously twisted the gold band he now wore on his right hand.

"Is that your wife's body, Mr. Hudson?" Conner softened his voice, smoothing the sharp edges off the worst words in the world.

"Yes." Hudson swallowed deeply and spun toward the two detectives. "Do you have the son-of-a-bitch who did this?"

Noah put his arm around Hudson's shoulder and led him down the hall. "Not yet, sir. But we will."

On the surface, his words may have sounded reassuring, but there was no mistaking the underlying threat.

#

Noah mounted the steps silently, but as soon as he turned the lock, he was met with a cacophony of yipping and growling. A tiny Yorkshire terrier backed away from him while curling her lips and baring her teeth.

"Hi, honey, I'm home. Nice to see you, too." Noah said, tossing his keys on the kitchen table. He lowered himself onto the nearest chair. "You do realize I'm the one who feeds you, don't you? And the one who cleans up your mess and takes you for walks."

The dog fell silent but showed her teeth again when Noah reached out his hand.

"I swear, if you bite me one more time, you'll never see another doggy treat."

Noah sighed and pushed up from the chair. The dog watched from across the room as he opened a can of dog food and filled her dish. "If you'd eat the dry stuff I leave out, you wouldn't be so hungry when I get home. It's good stuff. You used to eat it all the time."

The dog eyed her food bowl, but didn't move toward it until Noah backed away. While she ate, Noah cleaned up the gifts she'd left on the kitchen floor and put out new papers. He didn't even notice the smell anymore. "You get worse every day. You used to tolerate me. Hell, you used to like me."

Once the dog finished eating, Noah scooped her up and held her in his lap. She stiffened but didn't snap at him. "What am I going to do with you, Sweet Pea? If I knew someplace to take you where you'd be happy, believe me I would. But no one really wants an angry, barking, biting dog."

Or an angry, grouchy man.

susan c muller's winter song

Sweet Pea wiggled free. Noah felt something warm on his leg and looked down to see a wet spot spreading down his slacks. What the fuck?

The day he was going to have to make the decision to put her down was getting closer, but so far he didn't have the heart to do it. Noah let Sweet Pea out and waited while she made a quick circle of the yard, squatted and hurried back inside. At least the cold weather was good for something.

As she scooted past him, he glanced into his empty house and thought of Crystal Hudson slumped against her seat belt. It was going to be another long night.

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