Excerpt: A Case of You

 

Chapter One

 

Even with her back to him, Noah Stewart knew he’d never laid eyes on the woman he caught plundering his file cabinet. He paused on the threshold of his office and listened to ten fingers furtively clawing through his patient records.

No question, this lady wasn’t local. Everything about her screamed city. For one thing, Pratte, Vermont, had never seen hair like that. Long chestnut curls boinging willy-nilly from under a scrunched linen hat. He wondered if she meant it to look like that—the hat and the hair. His eyes didn’t linger long on her head, though. From this angle as she bent over the files, there were more interesting things to look at. Like that round little bottom giving a delicious shape to her long, gauzy summer dress.

He leaned a shoulder on the doorframe and crossed his arms over the ever-present stethoscope hanging from his neck. He knew if he turned that instrument to his own chest, he’d hear the steady heart rate of a calm man.

Calm, hell, he was downright serene. No stampeding blood pressure, no adrenaline rush.

No Ray.

It had been ten years since he’d salvaged his sanity by learning the tricks that let him pull in the reins whenever the thing inside him wanted out. At this point those breathing and mind-set techniques were hardwired in, an automatic response to stressful situations—like watching a stranger rifle his file cabinet. He didn’t even have to think about them.

When he had to think about them, he was in trouble.

She was scouring the M’s. For the third time. Frustration squeezed a low oath from her throat.

“Try Z,” he advised, and had the satisfaction of seeing her jump. The startled glance she threw his way turned into a classic double take. Whatever she was expecting Dr. Noah Stewart to look like, he clearly didn’t fit the bill. She gave him a cursory once-over as if sizing up an adversary. He detected something else just then, and wondered if he imagined the flicker of interest in her soft brown eyes, immediately squelched.

For his part, he knew his own carefully controlled features wouldn’t betray him. His command over his emotions was too well honed. He was capable of recognizing his instinctive response to this stranger’s enticing bottom and wide, sexy mouth without letting it interfere with rational thought.

“Zimmerman,” he clarified. “Etta Zimmerman.”

Her frown revealed equal parts suspicion and befuddlement. She started to shake her head.

“Trust me.”

She stared at him a long moment, then closed the file drawer and pulled open the one under it, squatting to locate Zimmerman, Etta. The long skirt of her oatmeal-colored dress puddled on the threadbare Oriental carpet.

He watched her back stiffen, heard her breath catch. Still squatting, she pivoted toward him, a folder clutched in her fingers.

Merino, Joanne.

She didn’t ask how he knew. Just wagged the folder. “Zimmerman?”

Noah pushed off the doorframe and closed the door, then crossed the room to slump into the cracked green leather chair behind his desk. “Alice—” He cocked his head toward the door. “That’s the pit bull you had to slip past to get in here. Alice always files Etta’s boarders under her name because she figures they’re transients.”

His visitor was on her feet once more. “Transient? Joanne lived in Pratte for nearly a year, Dr. Stewart.” She opened the folder and started flipping pages.

“I never said it made sense. One of Etta’s ‘guests,’ as she calls them, has been with her for thirty-four years.” He shrugged and steepled his fingers. “That’s Alice.”

“I suppose that’s the sort of thing irascible old ladies are expected to do in quaint little tourist traps like this,” she muttered, scanning the pages. “Excuse me, I mean sleepy little hamlets, complete with kindly country doctors. You’ve even got the gestures down.” She flicked a glance at his steepled fingers, which he was rhythmically flexing.

The fingers froze midflex.

“You’ll have to shake the southern accent, though,” she said, “and cultivate something a little more New England.”

Noah regarded his own wavy reflection in the glass doors of the bookcase across the room and found it all too easy to see a thirtyish poseur with short blond hair, a faded blue denim shirt, and a bendable Bullwinkle the Moose figure clinging to his stethoscope. He yanked off the stethoscope and tossed it onto his desk blotter.

“Just for the record, Kit, there’s more to Pratte than the handful of tourists we manage to attract. This is a vital small town with a sense of history, an unspoiled corner of Americana.”

It took a few moments for his use of her name to sink in. When it did, her eyes widened, then narrowed to lock with his. “Someone in this unspoiled corner of Americana murdered my best friend, Noah.” She redirected her attention to the file.

“Looking for anything in particular?” he asked.

“Cause of death.”

“Didn’t Jo’s dad tell you? I called him when I got the toxicology report from the ME. I thought it might be better coming from me than Chief Jordon.” He held out his hand. “Give me the folder, Kit.”

She flipped a page and stopped dead, staring. She’d found it. “God. Curare,” she whispered.

He rose and pulled the folder out of her hands, then sat and nodded toward the green leather club chair in front of his desk. “Sit. Maybe I can clarify some of this.” He checked his watch. “I have a few minutes before the après-lunch crowd descends.”

She sank into the chair, slowly. “Sal told me what you said, but I just couldn’t…” She swallowed, suddenly pale. Seeing it in black and white seemed to have a sobering effect. “Curare. Isn’t that the stuff primitive tribes use to off each other?”

He nodded. “South American Indians have used it for centuries. The Macusi tribe, for one, and the Zaparos, from around the Curaray River, hence the name. The deadly plant extract is mixed with appetizing stuff like ants and snake fangs. Then they dip a blow dart—or an arrow or spear, whatever—into the poison and shoot it at the enemy. Or dinner on the hoof. The ‘flying death,’ they call it.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to slip it into someone’s food?”

“Curare’s harmless when ingested. Has to be injected to kill.”

“How does it work?”

He hesitated. The horror of Joanne Merino’s last minutes was seared into the dark corners of his mind. At the most unexpected moments it emerged to taunt him. Indict him. He had no desire to coax the memory out of its hidey-hole. Or to share it with Kit.

Nevertheless, he sensed her need to put a face to this thing that had taken her friend, if not to the killer himself—to get a handle on the why and how if not the who.

He cleared his throat. “Curare is a neuromuscular blocking agent. The victim suffocates. The muscles of the chest and diaphragm—that is, the muscles necessary for respiration—are paralyzed.”

She drew in a long, slow breath. He could imagine the scenario playing itself out behind her wide, haunted eyes. “Did she suffer?”

He wanted to say, Don’t do this to yourself. His reluctance to answer had to be painfully eloquent, yet she met his eyes unwaveringly. And waited.

“Yes,” he said. “But for a very short time.”

Still she waited.

He made himself continue. “Curare poisoning causes chest pain, extreme shortness of breath, and cyanosis—a bluish-gray cast to the skin. The pulse rate drops. The drug doesn’t affect the brain and central nervous system, so the victim…”

No. Not “the victim.” It was Jo. Beautiful, tormented Jo. More vital, more goddamn alive, than anyone he’d ever known.

In his mind’s eye he saw her lying where she’d fallen on a bed of pachysandra behind a stand of paper birches. The ground cover was torn up, having taken the brunt of her thrashing in the few moments before the paralysis had claimed her extremities. And still she’d struggled for life. He could have told her it was futile.

Ray had come out then and watched her, too. Noah had never felt his presence so strongly.

“Jo was aware the entire time,” he said, and added, “but it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes.”

She was silent for a full minute, staring through him. “The flying death,” she whispered at last. Her face crumpled just before she lowered it. She made no sound, but her shoulders shook with silent sobs.

Almost immediately she straightened her spine and wiped her eyes with her fingertips. The face she raised was flushed with grief but rigidly composed.

Noah slowly lowered himself into his chair, with no recollection of having risen.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I thought I was done with all that.”

“No need to apologize.” The words sounded ridiculously formal to his own ears.

“So. You know who I am,” she said. “Joanne must’ve mentioned me.”

“You were very special to her.”

Kit leaned back in the chair. She looked weary as hell. “We were like sisters. God knows Jo needed a sister. She was the only female in a house full of men.”

“A widowed father on disability and two shiftless younger brothers, Frankie and Sal Junior,” he said.

Her eyebrows rose. The hint of a smile around the eyes. “That’s right.”

“Whereas you, Kathleen Roarke—Kit to your friends—are the only child of a single mother. Not exactly Mom of the Year. You ran away and moved in with Jo and her family when you were thirteen.”

The smile was history. “You and she got to be bosom pals, I see.”

He shrugged and met her hard, assessing gaze. Clearly she was wondering what else he knew about her. “It’s the end of June,” he said. “School just let out in Chicago, where you teach pampered kids in a snotty private school. Sixth grade, is it?”

“Fifth.”

“Tell you the truth, I was half expecting to bump into you about now.”

“Ransacking your office files?”

He shrugged again. “You’re a pal of Joanne Merino’s. Anything’s possible.”

That earned a wry smile, quickly squelched. “Let me assure you, breaking and entering wasn’t on the agenda when I got into town this morning. I just flew out to go through Jo’s things and have them sent to her dad and—” she flicked a glance toward a huge leather shoulder bag she’d dumped near the file cabinet “—you know, take care of everything. I couldn’t get away till school was out. And Jo’s father—”

“I know. He’s wheelchair-bound. And one of her brothers is doing three years at Joliet, isn’t he?”

“Sal Junior. He’s even worse at breaking and entering than I am. And Frankie… well, no one knows where Frankie is. Which, if you knew Frankie, is a blessing.”

He laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back. “So. What happened in the two or three hours since your plane landed to turn you to a life of crime?”

“Tom Jordon.”

Pratte’s illustrious chief of police. He should have guessed.

“I went to see him first thing,” she said. “It’s been ten days since Jo died. A week and a half. Do you know what that nitwit told me?”

“Something along the lines of ‘You just leave this nasty business to us, ma’am, don’t worry your pretty little head about it’?”

Her expression told him he wasn’t far off. “The same moronic, condescending runaround I got when I called him last week. He’s got no suspects. Nothing. Zip. What the hell has he been doing for ten days?”

“Interviewing everyone who was at the party, for one thing. You know it happened at the town treasurer’s annual garden party?”

Kit nodded.

“And following up on whatever leads he may have gotten, I suppose.”

“Well, he won’t tell me a damn thing. If there’s anything to tell.”

He leaned forward and started to steeple his fingers, then thought better of it. “And you figured the rest of Pratte is probably just as moronic and condescending, and if you wanted to find out anything—” he tapped the folder “—you’d have to dig it up yourself.”

“Can you blame me?” She leaned forward, too, and something in the set of her shoulders gave him pause. “So tell me, Dr. Stewart. How do you come to know so much about curare?”

He held her unflinching gaze for a long moment while mentally flaying himself for his renegade tongue. He wasn’t usually so careless. “What happened to ‘Noah’?” He flashed his most engaging grin.

The lady was immune to his high-wattage charm. “Whatever. How do you know about the Zapata Indians and all that?”

“Zaparos.” He dropped his eyes to fiddle with a pen on his desk. “I researched it when Jo’s toxicology came back. It’s not the sort of thing one sees every day.”

“Unless you’re a doctor.”

He looked at her.

“Curare is used in medicine, isn’t it?”

“Well, derivatives, yes, like Norcuron, generally in anesthesiology. To literally stop a patient’s breathing so a surgeon can work near the lungs. Or to relax the muscles and reduce the amount of other anesthetics needed. That sort of thing. A respirator takes over, naturally.”

“Then it’s available in hospitals.”

“Depends on what you mean by ‘available.’ It’s kept in the hospital pharmacy. It’s not like your basic psychopath can just waltz in and borrow some.”

He could almost see the gears turning in her mind. A damn quick mind, if he was any judge.

“You were there,” she said. “At the party, I mean. You signed the death certificate.”

“I was with Joanne when she died, yes. I didn’t know what I was dealing with at the time. It looked like cardiac arrest. Or pulmonary embolism perhaps. But it didn’t make sense.”

“A young woman with no history of heart disease.”

“Exactly. It wasn’t until the autopsy that they found the needle mark.”

“Where was it?”

“Her right hip. It was a tiny puncture, and the ME probably wouldn’t have even noticed it except there was a little bruising around the area.”

“Were you there? At the autopsy?”

“Yes.” That had been rough.

“Did they find the syringe?”

“No, but the police didn’t even search the grounds or begin questioning the guests till after the autopsy. Remember, at first it was assumed to be natural causes.”

“Did you get to the party before Jo?”

He forced himself to look her in the eye. “No, after.”

“Oh.” Kit tucked an errant reddish-brown curl under her hat. He could almost hear the whirring and clicking of synapses as she located a mental compartment for this tidbit, fitting it in with everything else she knew about the circumstances of Jo’s death. Which he hoped wasn’t all that much. “Why?” he asked, knowing the answer.

She shrugged. “I just, you know, wanted to find out who she arrived with.”

Liar. “Sorry.”

“I don’t suppose you noticed if she was hanging out with anyone in particular at the party?”

“Nope. Just kind of circulating, like everyone else.”

She pulled Jo’s file closer and scanned the long list of office visits.

“Most of her problems were psychosomatic, brought on by stress and emotional factors,” he said. “The standard therapies weren’t too successful, but then again, Jo wasn’t very diligent about following them. And she wouldn’t even consider psychotherapy, so eventually I broached the subject of nonmedical alternatives.”

“Like what?”

“Yoga, TM, biofeedback.”

Her head snapped up. “Transcendental meditation? Joanne?

He smiled. “I know. I couldn’t quite picture it either, but I figured I’d give it a shot.”

“What was her response?”

“Well, if there’s anything to laugh therapy, her response was very healthy.”

“I could’ve told you not to waste your breath.” Her finger trailed down the chart. “May second, May fifteenth, May nineteenth. Ulcer, spastic colon, migraine. She’s had the migraines for years, but the rest is news to me. Good God. Three visits in the first two weeks of June, for the same things that plagued her in May. Ah, plus a touch of menstrual irregularity to keep things lively.”

“There are things we talked about that didn’t make it into the chart,” he said.

“Such as…?”

“Unexplained bouts of weeping. Recurrent nightmares.”

“What did she have nightmares about?”

The same thing I do. “She didn’t say.”

“Any idea what had her so worked up?” she asked.

“I thought you might know.”

An ingenuous half smile. “You did?”

Well, he’d lobbed that one out there, but she clearly had no intention of catching the thing and running with it. She let her gaze drift to her surroundings. If Pratte was an unspoiled corner of Americana, his office was one of its dust bunnies, freeze-dried in the sixties. Dark paneling, ponderous furniture, the requisite Norman Rockwell print.

While she perused the room, he perused her. Absently she adjusted the V neckline of her dress, his eyes following the movements of her graceful fingers. The dress was modest enough, but the supple fabric draped her high, softly rounded breasts in a way that made it hard to tear his gaze away. He didn’t think she was aware of the effect.

Her eyes found him once more, alight with frank assessment. He liked the fact that Kit took no pains to hide her curiosity. He liked Kit, in fact, and was grateful for the mental discipline that enabled him to acknowledge his attraction with strict detachment, his hard-won emotional shields firmly in place.

“Your sign outside said family practice. You the only show in town?” she asked.

“I’m it. I do everything around here from setting bones to delivering babies.”

“How long have you been in Pratte?”

“Two and a half years. The last MD left four years before that. In the interim the nearest doctor was a half hour away on dry roads. And he’s a famous drunk—reeks of cheap wine, so Alice informs me. If you were sick, it was either him or the emergency room at Wescott Community Hospital, even farther away.”

“Not much of a choice when Junior’s running a temperature of a hundred and four. The town must’ve been tickled pink when you came along.”

“It works out well for all of us.”

She squinted at a point on the wall above his head. “You got your medical degree from Emory, I see. Is that where you’re from? Georgia?”

He nodded. “Roswell.”

“Well, I’m not going to ask how you found yourself with a family practice in the Black Hole of Vermont,” she said, rising. “I’m sure it’s a hellishly long and tedious story, and unless my ears deceive me, your waiting room is full.”

Noah restrained a smile. Suddenly it was easy to imagine this woman growing up with Joanne Merino, and holding her own. How had Jo put it? They’d raised each other. Absently she brushed another curly tendril of hair off her forehead, and it flopped back. Noah’s fingers itched to lift the strand and tuck it back under her silly hat. He could almost feel the silk of it sliding between his fingers.

She lifted her cumbersome bag, slinging the strap over her head, bandolier style. He rose to see her out.

Her steps slowed as she approached the doorway. She eyed him hesitantly. “Just one more thing. Joanne was involved with someone here in Pratte. That’s all I know. I don’t know his name. I was hoping you might.”

“You think I keep track of who my patients are dating?”

She stiffened and faced him fully. “Why wouldn’t she tell you? She told you about her kid brother stamping license plates in Joliet. She told you about my worthless mother, for God’s sake!” She squeezed her eyes shut and dragged in a ragged breath. “Look. I’d just like to find out everything I can about her life here.”

“Kit. Listen to me.” Noah put his hands on her shoulders—a mistake. She twisted abruptly, shaking him off, her eyes flashing dangerously. He knew he was coming off as a condescending jerk. On a frustrated sigh he stuffed the offending hands in his back jeans pockets and said, “You came to Pratte to collect Jo’s things. Do that. Do it and go home.”

“No.” Her voice was flat, brittle. She looked away for long moments. “I can’t, Noah,” she whispered at last. “I can’t. I need to… I don’t know. Tie up the loose aids. For Jo. For my own peace of mind.” She faced him again, her expression so candid, so raw and wounded, Noah had to turn away to steady his shields against her.

He scrubbed at his jaw. Cleared his throat. “I know what you think of Tom Jordon, and I’m not about to defend his methods, or his personality. But he has been in the business a long time—”

“Maybe too long.”

“Leave all this to him, Kit. I know you’re hurting now—”

“Don’t! Don’t give me that ‘I know what you’re going through’ crap. You sound like Jordon.” Pure bulldog tenacity underlined the grief in her features, lending starch to her delicate jawline. He didn’t want to admire her, but dammit, how could he not?

She pulled in a deep breath, composing herself. “You don’t know me, Noah. You may have known Jo, she may have told you all about her old pal Kit, but you don’t know me. Not if you think I can walk away from this.” The last word was punctuated with a sharp yank on her shoulder bag.

With jerky motions she unlatched the bag and extracted a sealed brown cardboard carton, about the size of a shoe box but stumpier. She placed it in his hands. It was heavier than it looked.

“That’s all that’s left.” Her voice cracked. “I stopped by the funeral home after I saw Chief Jordon.”

Noah understood then. He knew that if he opened this box, he’d find a metal canister containing Jo’s ashes. Just the way they packaged it at the crematory. Neat and tidy.

A sharp knock on the door startled them both. “Noah? The natives are getting restless,” came a gravelly voice from the other side.

“I’ll be right there, Alice,” he called. When he turned back to Kit, he read the plea in her eyes.

“Help me, Noah. I need an ally here in Pratte. Someone who knows these people.” Her voice became a whisper, her eyes searching his. “You cared about Jo. I can tell.”

“I don’t know what I can do for you, Kit. What anyone can do at this point except the police.”

“The police!” The starch was back. “If Jordon had anything on the ball, don’t you think he would’ve contacted me at the beginning of the investigation instead of my having to call him? Wouldn’t he have asked if I knew anything, if Jo might’ve told me anything that could give them a lead?”

“Did she?”

She hesitated only an instant. “Yes.”

He waited for details he already knew. She stared back impassively. So much for putting her trust in the kindly country doctor. He knew if this bright, resourceful woman chose to stay in Pratte and pursue the circumstances of her friend’s death, she’d leave Tom Jordon’s lumbering investigation in the dust.

And then, God help him, he might have to stop her. “This information, whatever it is, did you share it with Chief Jordon?” he asked.

“What do you think? I cast my pearls before that swine, and look where it got me.”

“Well.” He aimed for a tone of finality. “That’s all you can do for now, Kit. Go home. I’ll personally keep track of Tom’s progress and let you know when there’s anything to know. That’s a promise.”

“Thanks, but that’s just not good enough.” She took the box from him.

“Does this mean you’ll be staying?”

“I guess it does.” Gently, almost lovingly, she tucked the box into her shoulder bag. “There’s no one back home who needs me as much as Jo does.”

Noah had no choice. If he couldn’t dissuade Kit from staying and nosing around Pratte, he had to closely monitor her activities. And the danger she represented.

“All right,” he said, forcing a smile. “Don’t make a move without me. I’ll do everything I can to help.”

Kit’s shoulders sagged in relief. Her face lit in a broad smile that transformed her features and made his breath snag in his throat. God, she was beautiful. It was the first time he’d seen her smile. Really smile.

He wanted to tell her he didn’t deserve that smile, didn’t deserve the naked gratitude in those beautiful brown eyes. A cold, hard weight settled in his chest as he asked himself, What have I become? What has Ray made me?

Impulsively she grabbed his hand in both of hers and squeezed it, her eyes misty as she beamed up at him. “Thank you, Noah,” she whispered. “Thank you.”


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