Excerpt: A Burning Touch
Book 3: Hot City Nights Series
Detective Lieutenant James Keegan stood outside the glass door of his tiny office, studying the woman seated on the little metal chair in front of his desk. When his aunt Bridey had taught him how to do this, she’d called it “sizing up the mark.” Years later, when Professor Mayhew had taught him the same skills for use in criminal investigation, he’d called it “visual preanalysis of the interviewee.”
Whatever you called it, it amounted to the same thing, a cataloging of the subject’s features and actions in order to pinpoint various characteristics. In Aunt Bridey’s case, the characteristics she looked for were wealth and gullibility. Professor Mayhew had expanded this list to include trustworthiness, cooperativeness, secretiveness—anything that might help or hinder the police detective in his work.
By Jamie’s estimation, the woman waiting for him was thirty to thirty-five years of age. She had chin-length black hair, pale skin, a slender frame, and looked to be of medium height. She wore faded blue jeans, but that was the only color on her body. Her turtleneck, boots and shoulder bag were black, as were the Ray-Ban sunglasses that hid her eyes from view and the dyed shearling coat hung on the corner rack. She even had on black leather gloves, although it was just early November, and a mild day at that.
Also, she’d been indoors for almost an hour, so why the gloves? Or the sunglasses? People communicated with their hands and eyes. To cover them up like that was an unmistakable signal: Leave me alone.
The signal was echoed in her posture—legs tightly crossed, arms wrapped around her torso. Ditto the all-black attire, as if a spot of color might draw too much attention to her. But if she wanted to be left alone, why’d she come here, of all places?
Well, that was his job, right? To find out.
He opened the door and set the cups down on his desk. “Good morning. Sorry you had to wait so long.”
She nodded stiffly without altering her wary posture. He wondered where all that tension was coming from.
He extended his hand. She glanced at it, then at his face—damn, he wished he could see her eyes—and then at the foam cups.
“Is one of those for me?” she asked softly.
After a moment, he lowered his hand. He gave her one of the cups, thinking police station coffee was unlikely to improve her mood any. She accepted it without removing her gloves, her other arm still hugging her mid-section. Her voice was soft, with a cultured accent that pegged her as an educated northeasterner.
He took off his trench coat and hung it on the rack next to hers. “Sugar? Cream? Well, not cream exactly, but we’ve got some kind of white powder that turns this stuff gray, if you want.”
“Black is fine.”
Should have known. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. “I’m James Keegan.”
“Yes, I know, Lieutenant.”
She raised her cup to her mouth and blew on the hot coffee. Her lips were the only part of her face he could get a good look at, so maybe that’s why he zeroed in on them. They were perfectly shaped, like the painted lips on a porcelain doll. If she had lipstick on, it was one of those dreary lip-colored shades. He wondered why women spent good money for colors that didn’t look like anything, when for the same price, they could have a nice three-alarm red.
Seating himself behind his desk, he took a sip of his own coffee, and winced. Damn. Should have blown on it.
He pulled his little blue spiral notebook out of the inside pocket of his suit jacket. “The usual thing would be for you to tell me your name now. It’s a custom we earthlings have.”
A slight pause. He saw her swallow hard. “Jane, uh…”
A faint wash of pink colored her cheeks.
With quiet authority he said, “If you give me a false name, I’ll know it before the words are out of your mouth. Miss… Mrs.”
He sat back and allowed himself a small smile. “Mrs. Doctor.”
Ah. Her mouth twitched, just for a second there. “Dr. Cook,” she said in a resigned tone. “India Cook.”
He plucked a ballpoint from the cracked Donut Hut coffee mug that served as his pencil jar and wrote India Cook and the date on top of the first clean page in the notebook. “I don’t suppose you’d make up a name like that. What kind of doctor are you?”
She frowned at the notebook. “Do you have to write everything—”
“Absolutely. Now, would you mind answering my—”
“I’m a veterinarian. I specialize in cats.”
“Really?” He wrote it down. “I hate cats.”
“That probably means you’ve got something to hide.”
He squinted into her sunglasses. “Excuse me?”
“A fear of cats—”
“I didn’t say I feared them.”
“—often indicates that a person secretly—”
“Speaking of hiding things, Dr. Cook, would you mind losing the shades?” She stiffened slightly. He gestured toward her sunglasses with his pen and said, “Take them off. Please. I like to see a person’s eyes when I talk to them.”
She hesitated just long enough to make him really curious. He began to wonder if she had a black eye–or maybe some kind of disfigurement. It was possible, what with the way she hid behind those glasses. A vague sense of guilt and trepidation gripped him as she lowered her head and slowly—very slowly—reached up, slid the glasses off, and settled them on top of her head. When she looked up and met his gaze, his breath caught in his chest.
Her eyes were… He’d never seen anything like them. They were incredibly striking, a heart-stopping coppery brown fringed with sooty lashes. Slightly heavy-lidded, they tilted up just a bit at the corners. Eyebrows like black brush strokes arched dramatically above them, disappearing into her bangs.
God, she was beautiful, sensationally beautiful. He hadn’t realized, he’d had no idea. With those shades on, you couldn’t tell, but now…
Was that why she wore them? So men wouldn’t swallow their tongues every time they laid eyes on her? So they wouldn’t gawk at her… the way he was gawking?
Suddenly self-conscious, he cleared his throat and looked away, realizing he’d maintained eye contact just a tad longer than Professor Mayhew—or Aunt Bridey—would have thought advisable.
“Thank you,” he murmured. To cover his awkwardness, he bent his head over his notebook and wrote for a few seconds, then silently read it back to himself: Most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.
Get a grip, Keegan. He flipped that page over to expose a fresh one, then looked back up at India Cook and smiled in a way that he hoped would strike her as cordially professional.
She blinked, then returned his smile—for about a nanosecond—and then dropped her gaze. Noticing her coffee cup as if for the first time, she raised it to her mouth and took a sip, then glanced back at Jamie, and away again.
She was blushing.
This was getting interesting.
Too interesting. He had a job to do, and here he was exchanging flirtatious body language with a semi-spooky cat doctor who may or may not be here to provide him with information about a series of arson attacks that was seemingly both unpreventable and unsolvable.
Go for the no-nonsense approach, Keegan. Pretend she’s… He smiled to himself. Pretend she’s old Sylvie Hazelett.
He looked her straight in the eye, then abruptly looked away.
She wasn’t Sylvie.
“Lieutenant?” Little lines of puzzlement formed between her brows.
“Don’t you want to know why I’m here?”
“Of course. I was just waiting for you to… feel comfortable enough to…” Jeez, Keegan. This is embarrassing! “I mean, I wanted you to feel… that is, if you have any information… about… anything…”
With one hand she nervously fingered the collar of her turtleneck. “I have information about a crime.”
“A crime?” Maybe she did know something about the note. He fumbled in his desk drawer, came up with his little digital recorder, and set it for voice actuation. “Good. Great.”
When he looked back up, he saw that her gaze was riveted on the recorder positioned in the middle of his desk. Her pupils contracted to tiny black pinpoints, making her eyes glow like newly minted pennies. Something had upset her, and you didn’t have to be Einstein to know what it was.
“Look,” he began, “I need to record this—”
“Then I need to leave.” She set her coffee cup on his desk and stood up.
“What? You can’t just—”
“Are you going to try to keep me here against my will?” She snatched her coat off the rack and turned toward the door.
He stood and circled the desk. “Wait a minute. You can’t leave.”
He closed his hands over her shoulders just as she grabbed the doorknob. She gasped and flinched, then stumbled back into a corner, holding her coat in front of her like a shield. Jamie instantly raised his hands in a placating gesture, noting how her eyes registered a flicker of fear before she managed to compose her features.
Keegan, you idiot! Something had happened to her, something bad. No woman reacted this way to being touched unless she’d been victimized. Had she been assaulted? Raped? Was that why she was here? Mentally beating himself up for his lack of insight, he backed slowly away from her and opened the door.
“There,” he said soothingly. “You can leave any time you want. I won’t try to keep you here, and I won’t touch you again. I promise.” Often in an interview or interrogation situation he had to feign sincerity; this time it was all for real. He felt ashamed, incompetent.
“Would you rather discuss this with a woman detective?” he asked.
Her eyebrows rose fractionally. “That won’t be necessary.”
Good. He wanted the opportunity to redeem himself. From the bottom of his heart, his only desire was for her to feel safe with him, to confide what had happened to her, to let him help her. He felt an almost personal interest in coming to her aid—curious, given that he’d just met her.
Returning to sit behind his desk, he motioned to her chair. “Please stay, then. You can put your sunglasses back on if you want.”
She looked toward the door for a moment, then reached up and pulled the shades down over her eyes. Keeping the coat bundled in front of her, she sat down.
Jamie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It would be a miracle if he could reestablish trust with her now, but he had to try. “Can you tell me… what happened?” With his notebook in his lap, he swiveled his chair around so that he’d be looking at the wall, and not directly at her. That should help.
“All right.” He could hear the hesitation in her voice, and his heart went out to her. He kept his gaze averted. “It was a week ago that I noticed a new cat out back. I have this shed in back of my house, and when the weather started to get cold, I put a heater in there for the stray cats I feed. Anyway, I noticed a new one, a black-and-white shorthair. It looked like a tom, but I couldn’t get close, because every time I approached the shed, all the cats would scatter.”
Cats? Wondering where all this was leading, Jamie said, “Let’s back up for a second, if you don’t mind. Your house, where is it? Do you live in town?”
“On the outskirts,” she said. “About a quarter mile from the roadhouse.”
He glanced at her sharply. “Little Eddie’s? The place that burned down last week?”
“Yes. My house is number four Crescent Lake Road.”
He wrote down the address. “Have you lived there long?” he asked, thinking he would have noticed her before this if she had. Mansfield was a small city. He knew almost all of its residents by sight, if not by name.
“I moved in on the first of September,” she said. “It was my father’s house. I grew up in it. He died last spring, and left it to me.”
He snapped his fingers, awareness dawning. “You’re Henry Cook’s daughter!” She nodded. Henry had defended a fair share of the bad guys Jamie had apprehended during his decade on the Mansfield police force, but that wasn’t why Jamie had hated the man. The problem was Cook’s personality. He’d been one of those self-righteous, my-way-is-the-only-way types who’d always kind of made the hair on the back of Jamie’s neck stand up. When he’d died, Jamie hadn’t mourned him.
But his daughter probably had. “My condolences,” he said.
He consulted his notebook. “So you moved here two months ago. Where’d you live before that?”
“New York for the past three years.” She hesitated. “Newport, Rhode Island, before that. During most of the year, that is. We traveled a lot, and we had homes elsewhere.”
We. It hadn’t even occurred to him that she might be married. His gaze automatically sought out her left hand, but her wedding ring, if she wore one, was hidden under the glove. The disappointment he felt stunned him. My God, he’d only met this woman, and here he was, jealous as a schoolboy of some husband from Newport, Rhode Island, with “homes elsewhere.”
He noticed how her gaze followed his to her left hand. “I’m divorced,” she said.
He brightened. “Ah.” For God’s sake, Keegan. “I’m sorry.”
He stifled a smile and said, “Go on about the cat, if you would.”
She fiddled with the strap of her shoulder bag. “After a while I noticed that he seemed to have a slight limp. Finally, yesterday, I managed to catch him. I brought him into the examining room—I practice out of my house—and discovered that all four paws and part of his right rear leg were burned. I dressed the burns and started him on antibiotics.”
Jamie stopped writing and turned to look at her. “Burns.” She nodded. “Are you sure? I mean, they were old wounds by that point—”
“Phoenix showed up a week ago, right after the road-house burned down.”
“You call him Phoenix?”
She nodded. “Because he rose from the ashes. His fur was singed. He even smelled vaguely of kerosene. He was there at Little Eddie’s when it burned, I’m sure of it.”
“So this is what you came here to tell me about?” She nodded. So. She hadn’t been assaulted, after all. Not recently, that is; from her skittishness about being touched, he’d bet there’d been some kind of victimization in her past. A lamentable situation—and all too common—but one which had nothing to do with the arson case. And that’s what all his faculties had to be concentrated on right now.
She took a deep breath. “But there’s more.”
“I’d prefer… I’d prefer if you didn’t write down the rest of this.” To his surprise, she lifted her hand and slipped off her sunglasses, then looked him in the eye, imploringly. God, she was gorgeous. “Please,” she continued. “It was hard enough for me to come here. I kept thinking someone would recognize me, and find out…”
“Find out what?”
A pained look settled over her beautiful features. “I don’t want to be the town freak, that’s all. I just want to tell you what I know and then walk out of here and be left alone. That’s all I want—just to be left alone—but I’m afraid if people find out what I’m going to tell you…”
“Dr. Cook. India.” He adopted an expression of frank sincerity. If it was part of his detective’s bag of tricks and not quite the genuine article… well, it wouldn’t be the first time he’d had to play a part to gain a subject’s trust. He just wished he didn’t have to employ such artifice with this particular subject.
He stole a glance at the voice-activated tape recorder lying on the middle of his desk and saw the little red Record light go on as he said, “If you don’t want me to take notes, I won’t take notes.” He deliberately closed up his notebook and returned it to his inside pocket. “Why don’t you tell me what you came here to tell me? It’s only the two of us.”
She looked him right in the eye and actually bit her lip. He noticed her fingers twisted together in her lap and felt unnervingly like the big bad wolf. “Please promise me you won’t think I’m crazy.”
He smiled indulgently. “I won’t think you’re crazy.”
After a moment’s hesitation, she said, “I… sense things. I get… readings, if you will, off of people and animals, even inanimate objects. Psychic readings.”
He just stared at her, his expression carefully neutral, although he felt as if he’d been kicked in the stomach. Psychic, for God’s sake. She was telling him she read minds. Crazy? He wished he thought she was crazy.
Crazy, he could handle. Crazy, he could understand, work with, even sympathize with. But psychic? She had to be kidding.
She was, in a way, he supposed. Wasn’t lying a kind of bastard cousin to kidding?
Why her? Why India Cook, of all people, with her ethereal eyes and her air of mystery and fragility? He’d found her deliciously intriguing. He thought back to Bridey and remembered the way she would reinvent herself for her more important scams, adopting a new persona carefully designed to push that particular sucker’s buttons. Of course he’d found India Cook intriguing. He’d been meant to. She knew exactly what she was doing, this one, and she did it very, very well.