Authors: Lynette Eason
Tags: #FIC042060, #FIC042040, #FIC027110
Serena gave Dominic a wary look and said, “Sounds kind of like setting up a trap for Jillian to walk into.”
Dominic rubbed a hand down the side of his face. “Maybe, but we were hoping it would be a trap for the guy who had Alexia kidnapped. Not for Jillian.”
Still unsure about that whole plan, she said, “And you think I can help?”
“Alexia said you were the last one to talk to Jillian. Everything that happened to Alexia has something to do with Jillian. We just need to figure out what.”
“Jillian called me a couple of months ago,” Serena admitted, “but she didn't say much. Asked a few questions, then said she was coming home.”
“But she didn't say when?”
“No. She said she had a few things to take care of first.”
“You said she asked you questions. I need to know what those were.” He gestured to Leslie. “After you get her taken care of, will you meet me for a cup of coffee?”
Dominic asking her out. She'd dreamed of this day since she was twelve. Only it wasn't a date. Not really. “I might be able to do that.” Proud of the cool tone she managed to achieve, Serena motioned for help to get Leslie into the back of the vehicle.
Dominic offered his assistance once again and together they got Leslie situated and the doors shut after her.
Serena pulled off her gloves and disposed of them in the hazardous waste bag. She finally turned and got a good look at Dominic Allen. He still looked as good as he had the last time she'd seen him. She'd been fourteen, he'd been seventeen.
His red hair and emerald green eyes still made her heart flutter. “Give me a couple of hours to get things wrapped up.”
Dominic slipped her a card. “My cell number is on here. I'll be waiting.”
Standing next to his car, one hand on the open door, the other wrapped around his keys, Dominic paused and watched the very competent Serena speak to the coroner. At five feet nine, she looked exotic with her olive skin, flashing blue eyes, and straight black hair. Right now, she wore it pulled up into a ponytail, but he could envision it flowing around her shoulders.
He blinked and shook his head, remembering the feel of her skin as she'd taken the card from his hand. Her fingers had scraped his palm and his heart had trembled at the contact.
Weird. Very weird. But intriguing. She'd been his kid sister's best friend all through grade school, middle school, and high school. Because of his father's penchant for alcohol and swinging fists, Serena had only been over to the Allen household occasionally.
And he had to admit he'd noticed she was a cute kid, then a pretty preteen. And he also had to admit if she'd been older, he'd have been interested. Then everything had fallen apart and he'd fled, doing his best to leave his memories behind him.
Only now he had a feeling Serena would play a prominent role in his thoughts, and it was a feeling he wasn't sure he was comfortable with.
Serena could very easily become a distraction for him and that was something he couldn't afford right now.
Then she turned and gave him a small wave.
And he decided maybe he could live with one distraction.
Dominic slid into his car and cranked it. He wondered how long he'd have to wait before Serena called him.
The game was off to a rocking good start. Excitement boiled as the killer stood amongst the masses, back behind the newly placed yellow tape, taking delight in the chaos caused by the discovery of Leslie. Leslie hadn't wanted to play the game right. She'd cheated and stolen the fun. When the toys broke or weren't fun anymore, they had to be thrown away and replaced with a new one.
Replacing Leslie would be a challenge.
The killer shifted, twisting fingers that had gently washed Leslie's hair only hours before.
Already, anticipation for the next name burned inside.
Another call would come.
Two more names would be whispered.
Who would it be? Excitement at the unknown churned even as impatience escalated. Who?
Eenie meenie miney moe.
“She received the package in the mail last week.”
“What's in it?” Senator Frank Hoffman tensed as he awaited the answer. He'd been desperate to get his hands on the package they'd discovered was en route.
A brief moment of silence echoed over the line. “I don't know, she beat me to it. When she signed for it, all I had time to see was the return address from California. I checked out the name on the package and had a buddy of mine in law enforcement do a facial scan. Investigative Reporter Julie Carson is definitely Jillian Carter.” He paused. “And now she's disappeared again. I think the PI I put on her spooked her somehow. He can't find a sign of her anywhere.”
Frank slammed his fist onto the desk. His coffee sloshed over the side of his mug. Ignoring it, he leaned forward, fingers gripping the phone he had jammed to his ear.
“We found her, only to lose her? I thought you said you had this covered.”
“I do.” The voice never changed in pitch or tone, but Frank still shivered. He might think he was calling the shots, but he had to admitâif only to himselfâthat the person on the other end scared him a little. The voice continued, “I've found someone to take care of the problem. When the time is right, the problem will be resolved.”
“What kind of someone?”
“Someone who knows exactly what needs to be done and will do it without hesitation.”
“Does Serena know she's a target?”
Another pause. “She may suspect something after the break-in.”
“Break-in? What break-in? Did you have something to do with it?”
“I did. We failed to find what we were looking for.”
Frank grunted. “We seem to be having a lot of that lately.”
“Serena has a gun and knows how to use it. The guy I hired to get the package is now in a coma in the hospital. Fortunately, his prints aren't in the system.”
Fear shot through Frank. “Can he be traced back to you in any way?” If he could, he could be traced to Frank.
“What makes you so sure?”
Frank paused, and regained control. “We need to get her out of the picture, to stay out of her house to give us time to search it. And then when we find what we're looking for, get rid of her.”
“I know. And I've got it covered.” Satisfaction sounded in the voice and Frank felt slightly better. Slightly.
“And how are you going to accomplish that?” he asked.
“I've already set things in motion.” A light chuckle graced the line. “It's amazing how contacts you once wished buried forever can come back to save your skin.”
Well, that was good to know. Maybe.
“I want to know what's in that package.” Frank forced calm into his tone. “It could lead us to Jillian.” Or it could land him in prison.
“I'm working on it.”
MONDAY, 11:45 A.M.
Serena straightened and stretched, her back aching, her thoughts whirling. She examined the gunshot wound one more time, content that her findings were correct. “The gunshot in her shoulder didn't kill her. Slowed her down and hurt like crazy, I'm sure, but it didn't kill her. The one to the forehead did the trick.”
Paul Hamilton, her assistant, nodded his agreement. Serena made the Y-cut and they started on the organs. Serena talked as she worked, recording her findings to be sure she didn't forget anything when it came time to write the report.
Paul took the liver from her. He would weigh it, record it, and then move on to the next organ.
They worked in a practiced synchronized harmony that came with doing this many times. When she finished with the internal exam, she did another external one on Leslie's legs. As she did, her thoughts went to the man she'd shot in the head and who now lay in a coma four floors above her.
The 9-1-1 call had confirmed the fact that Serena had acted in self-defense. No action would be taken against her. However, she wanted the man to wake up and tell her why he'd targeted her. It was no random break-in. He'd called Serena by name.
“You okay?” Paul asked.
She glanced at the handsome young man in his late twenties. His dark hair set off his light blue eyes, and the dimple in his left cheek had charmed just about every woman he'd come into contact with at the hospital.
Serena found him to be a top-notch assistant who'd also become a friend in the year that they'd worked together. At first she thought he might have some romantic feelings toward her, but when she didn't encourage him, he backed off and now seemed content with a good friendship. “I'm fine. Just thinking.”
“About the man you shot?” His dimple flashed at her.
She lifted a brow. “You're getting pretty good at that mind reading stuff.”
He grinned, his blue eyes twinkling. “It's called spending a lot of time with someone and getting to know her.”
“Hmm. I suppose.”
“Ready for me yet?”
Paul jumped and Serena gasped, startled at the sudden question that came from behind her. She whirled to see Dorie standing in the doorway.
Dorie laughed, then sobered. “Oops, sorry, didn't mean to sneak up on y'all.”
Heart still thumping with the adrenaline surge, Serena placed a hand on her chest and gulped. “It's all right. We're just about finished here.”
Dorie King, the morgue janitor, was about fifty pounds overweight, but she moved her pear-shaped body easily, never seeming to tire while she worked. The woman could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty with straight auburn, chin-length hair, and dark brown eyes.
Even though Dorie was a recent hire, Serena had come to appreciate her unique sense of humor and cheery outlook on life. Working a swing shift wasn't easy, but Serena had never heard the woman complain.
Which was a miracle in itself considering what she had to clean up sometimes.
“Can you tell me about her?” Dorie asked, pointing to Leslie.
And Dorie had an insatiable curiosity about all of Serena's patients, as she hoped one day to have Serena's job. A fact Dorie had told her with gleeful satisfaction. Then laughed. “Well, not your job, but I do want to be a medical examiner one day. What better way to get there than from the ground up?”
So Serena did her best to teach Dorie every chance she got.
Looking at the clock, she gasped. There would be no time for teaching today. “Oh Dorie, excuse me, I'm sorry, but I have something I have to do today. Paul can fill you in if he has time.” No names would be mentioned and nothing about the crime. When she taught, she kept to the facts of the autopsy. And Dorie knew better than to ask for anything more.
Paul clicked his tongue with regret. “Sorry, Dorie, I'm off to a dentist appointment.”
Dorie shrugged. “Oh well, maybe next time.”
“You bet.” Paul smiled as he shrugged out of his lab coat.
A knock sounded on the door and Serena turned to see a man in a blue business suit, matching tie, and black loafers.
She asked, “Can I help you?” Then she frowned. “How did you get in?”
He shuffled his feet a bit, then looked at Leslie still stretched out on the table. Serena felt unease slide up her spine. Glad she'd covered Leslie to her shoulders, she looked at Paul and Dorie, who stared at the intruder.
“Sir?” Serena questioned.
“Um, yes, I'm sorry.” He blinked his gaze away from Leslie, then focused on Dorie and Paul. His eyes narrowed as he seemed to shake off whatever had distracted him and said, “I saw it on the news. About Leslie. I wanted to come see her. Come see if it was true.”
Compassion stirred. Had this been Leslie's boyfriend? “I'm sorry. We usually use the viewing room. I just finished up her autopsy.”
“How did she die?”
Serena's uneasiness returned. “Again, I'm sorry, but unless you're family, I really can't reveal anything about her death or medical information.”
“It's all right.” He shook his head. “She was shot, wasn't she?”
“I believe that information was on the news.”
He nodded. “Along with the picture of her laid out on the park bench holding a gift.”
Serena winced. “Yes. I didn't realize that made it on the news.” She remembered the media trucks that had pulled up and her anger at their intrusion. She was still mad about that.
Again, his gaze bounced between Serena and Leslie, then back to Dorie and Paul. Serena said, “I think it's best if you contact Leslie's family about anything you'd like to know about her.”
He backed toward the door. “Yes. Yes, I'll do that.”
“Sir? I didn't catch your name.”
But he was gone.
She looked at Paul and Dorie. “That was weird.”
Dorie shuddered and blinked. “Definitely. We really need to talk to security about this. He shouldn't have been allowed down here.”
“He probably said he was family or something and got one of the orderlies to let him in.” Serena pursed her lips and then glanced at the clock again. She nearly shrieked as she snatched her cell phone to dial Dominic's number. It rang once.
“I wondered if you'd forgotten me.” Dominic's deep voice rumbled in her ear.
“Um .Â .Â . wellÂ .Â .Â .”
His laughter followed. “I get it. I lose track of time too when I'm involved in work.”
“Sorry.” She knew she sounded sheepish. And she was. She hadn't meant to forget him. Normally, she set her phone alarm to remind
her when she had an appointment. “I can meet you now. You have someplace in mind?”
“The Java Stop?”
“That's around the corner from here. I can walk over there in just a few minutes.” The hospital morgue was in the basement of Palmetto Hospital in downtown Columbia.
She hung up. Slipping off her lab coat, she made a mental note to call Rick Shelton on her way to meet Dominic. She really wanted to know what was in that package. She grabbed her purse, then opened a desk drawer and pulled out an envelope that held a special gift for the girls' home she volunteered for. She smiled as she thought of the surprise and joy the check would bring to those who needed it.
“Want me to mail that for you?” Paul asked.
“No, that's okay. I need stamps anyway. But thanks.” She would stop at the post office on her way back from lunch. “See you later, Dorie,” she called. She waved to Paul, who was gathering his stuff to leave.
He waved back. “Bye.”
Slipping her phone from her pocket, she dialed Rick's direct number as she walked down the hall.
Voice mail picked up and Serena left a message for Rick to call her.
Pushing through the heavy glass doors, she exited the hospital and made her way to the sidewalk, busy with the lunchtime crowd. People passed her, walking shoulder to shoulder, jostling, nudging. “Excuse me's” and “sorry's” abounded. She moved toward the outer edge of the crowd and stuffed the envelope into her purse.
Horns honked, cars roared past. The smell of exhaust burned her nose.
The cafÃ© was just ahead.
A tug on her purse, then a hard hit to her right shoulder made her cry out as she stumbled on the edge of the curb, twisting her right ankle.
Her purse slid from her shoulder and she felt herself falling, falling.
As though in slow motion.
Right into the path of an oncoming city bus.
Brakes screamed, voices cried out.
Serena felt panic choke her as she did the only thing she could think to do.
Scrambling on all fours, the asphalt scraped her palms, tore at her knees through the fabric of her pants.
Wind rushed past her as the bus missed her by a mere inch.
Horns blared, tires squealed. And Serena came to a trembling halt in front of another car that managed to stop centimeters from her.
“Are you all right?”
“Can you stand?”
The voices echoed in her ears. She couldn't speak, couldn't move, couldn't stop shaking.
In the back of her mind, she registered the symptoms.
A hand slid under her arm and gently helped her to her feet. She winced at the stinging pain lancing through her hands and knees and right ankle, but miraculously enough, she decided she was otherwise unhurt.
Grateful for the helping hand, she limped her way back to the sidewalk.
Her rescuer turned concerned eyes on her. “I think someone tried to steal your purse but dropped it when you didn't let go right away. Are you all right?”
“I think so. Thanks.” She took the purse from him and winced at the sting in her hands.
He left and people continued on their way.
Serena stood still, leaning against the building until the worst
of the trembling ceased. People once again hurried past, anxious to get to wherever they needed to be.
Her head snapped up to see Dominic pushing his way through the crowd, heading toward her, the frown on his face communicating his concern.
Reaching her, he stopped and looked down. At her hands. She hadn't realized she'd been holding them palms up. Gently, he grasped her wrists for a closer look. “What happened? I saw all the commotion out here and thought I'd find out what was going on.”
Offering a slight shrug and a shaky grimace that she hoped passed for a smile, Serena said, “You might say someone just tried to throw me under a bus.”
Dominic had the crazy urge to offer comfort. “What do you mean?”
She shook her head, but the fear remained in those blue eyes.
He pulled her into his arms, wishing he could always be close enough to help.
Mild shock ran through him when she didn't protest.
For a good minute, they stood huddled up against the side of the building, her face buried against the crook between his neck and shoulder. The scent of her shampoo wafted up and he inhaled. Then he got himself together and wrapped a hand around her upper arm. Clearing his throat, he said, “Come on, let's go to the cafÃ© and you can get cleaned up a little bit.” He paused. “Or would you rather I take you home?”
“No.” Her voice sounded husky. “I'll be okay. Let's go to the cafÃ©. You're right, I can clean up there. I want to hear what you have to say about Jillian.”
A few minutes later, Serena came out of the restroom, limping slightly, favoring her right ankle. She had wet paper towels pressed
to her hands. “I think the bleeding is stopped.” She bit her lip and frowned in disgust. “And I tore a hole in my best pair of pants.”
He looked. “Ouch. Are you sure you don't want to go home?”
“And do what?” Another slight lift of her shoulders and she said, “I took some ibuprofenâthat should kick in soon.” She slid into the seat opposite him.
The waitress came over and they placed their order. Then Dominic asked, “So what did you mean, someone tried to throw you under a bus?”
“I'm not sure exactly what happened. One minute, I was going with the flow of the crowd, the next, I felt someone tug on my purse, then a hard shove against my shoulder. I fell into traffic and looked up to see a bus heading my way. I rolled andâ” she swallowedâ“somehow made it out of the way in one piece.”
A shudder racked her and Dominic felt his protective instincts kick in. “You could have been killed.”
“Believe me, the thought had crossed my mind,” she said softly.
He frowned. “And you don't think it was an accident.”
Their coffee and food arrived. She sighed. “I don't know what to think.”
Dominic picked up his cup and took a sip. “Well, if it's not an accident, then that means you have someone who wants to hurt you.”
She fiddled with her fork, then her napkin, then picked up her water and took a gulp. “It's possible, I suppose.”
“You have some enemies?”