A prostitute lies strangled in a seedy French Quarter hotel room. Miles away, in a rambling plantation house on the sultry shores of Lake Ponchartrain, popular late-night radio host Dr. Samantha Leeds receives a threatening crank call. All in a day's work for a celebrity. Who would think to link the two?
Then Another. . .
A second hooker's corpse turns up. Samantha's ominous caller persists, along with a mysterious claiming to be a woman from her past--a woman who's been dead for years. With Detective Rick Bentz convinced that the serial killer prowling the shadowy streets of New Orleans is somebody close to Samantha, she doesn't dare trust anyone. Especially not Ty Wheeler, her seductive new neighbor who seems to know more about her than a stranger should.
. . .And Another
Somebody has discovered Samantha's darkest secret. Somebody is convinced that lives must be sacrificed to pay for her sins. So far, the victims have been strangers. But as a cunning, cold-blooded killer grows bolder, Samantha wonders in dread if she will be the next to die. . .
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By Lisa Jackson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2001 Susan Lisa Jackson
All rights reserved.
There's no place like home, there's no place like home.
Now, click the heels of those ruby slippers three times and ...
"That'll be thirty-seven dollars," the cab driver muttered, breaking into Samantha's thoughts. He pulled the cab around the circular drive and as close to the front door as possible while she dug deep into her jacket pocket for her money clip.
"Would you mind taking the bags inside?" she asked.
The driver, twisting his head to get a better view from the front seat, slanted her a curious look. His eyes were dark. Suspicious. As if he expected some kind of come-on. Finally, he lifted a big shoulder. "If that's what you want."
"It is." Using one crutch, she crawled out of the cab into the sultry Louisiana night. A fine, steamy mist shrouded the live oaks surrounding her rambling old house in this unique community tucked along the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, a few miles west of New Orleans. God, it was good to be home.
Some vacations were dreams, others were nightmares. This one had been worse than a nightmare, it had been an out-and-out disaster.
But at least she knew she would never become Mrs. David Ross. That would have been a mistake.
A heavy breeze riffled through the clumps of Spanish moss dripping from ancient, gnarled branches. The flagstones of the front walk, slick with rain, shimmered in the frail illumination cast from the porch light. Wet weeds that had the nerve to poke through the cracked mortar tickled the bare toe of her injured leg as she hitched her way over the uneven stones. Sweat ran down her spine. Barely July, and the Louisiana heat closed in on her. Gritting her teeth, she hobbled up steps to the broad porch that skirted the front door and swept around all sides of her lakefront cottage. Wind chimes tinkled out their lonely tune. She propped her crutch on the arm of the porch swing, then found her spare key tucked in the cobwebs behind the shutter of one window. Quickly, she unlocked the door. As the cab driver lugged her bags, she flipped on a switch. Immediately the foyer was illuminated, two-hundred-year-old hardwood gleaming with a fine patina, the air inside the ancient house stagnant, hot and still.
The driver dropped her three bags near the hall tree, then retrieved her crutch.
"Thanks." She handed him forty-five dollars and was rewarded with a satisfied grunt and a quick nod of his head.
"Welcome back." Dark eyes flashed from beneath the bill of his Saints cap. "Have a good one."
"I'll try." Shutting the door behind him, she pocketed her house key and called over her shoulder, "Honey, I'm home." No response.
Just the soft ticking of the clock over the mantel and the drone of the refrigerator from the kitchen. She flipped on the switch for the overhead fan, another for the air-conditioning.
"Aw, come on ..." she called into the darkened rooms. "You're not mad because I left you here all alone, are you? You know, that's so typically male."
Finding the spare set of keys in the pantry, she waited, listening for the distinctive click of ID tags or the light tread of paws upon the floor. Instead she heard a soft meow and then Charon slunk out of the shadows. Pupils dilated, his eyes were as dark as his inky coat, just a tiny ring of gold visible. "Don't tell me, now you're going to play hard to get," she accused as he eased around the edge of the foyer, feigning disinterest, his tail twitching. "Oh, yeah, you're a real cool dude." She laughed, and he sauntered closer, doing a few quick turns around her ankles and rubbing up against the fiberglass shell surrounding her left calf and foot.
"Like the cast? Compliments of that fiasco in Mexico," she said, plucking his near-liquid body from the floor and holding him close to her chest as she scratched his chin. Charon, a stray she'd named after the ferryman in Dante's Inferno, began to purr instantly, his aloof routine forgotten, his wet nose brushing the underside of her chin. "So what went on here while I was away, huh? Did Melanie take good care of you? No?" Smiling, she carried the feline into the den and cracked a window, waiting for the house to cool.
She set Charon on the bookcase, where he slunk through her tomes on psychology and her stacks of paperbacks, then hopped onto the desk where her mail had been stacked neatly, sorted carefully by envelopes, junk mail, magazines and newspapers. Melanie, Sam's assistant, who had not only watched the house and seen to Charon while Samantha was vacationing, but had commandeered her radio show as well, was nothing if not efficient.
Samantha pulled out the desk chair and plopped onto the familiar seat. She glanced around the room. It felt different somehow, but she didn't know why. Maybe it was just because she'd been gone so long, over two weeks. Or maybe it was because she was jet-lagged and a little on edge. Though the flight hadn't been that long, she'd spent too many hours without sleep in the past few days, and the trip had been emotionally draining.
Ever since touching down in Mexico two weeks earlier, things had started to go awry. Not only had she and David had the same old fight about her giving up her job and moving back to Houston, but there had also been the boating "accident" that had dumped both her and her purse into the shallows of the Pacific. She'd ended up with a sprained ankle and no ID — the purse had never been located. It had been a nightmare trying to get out of the country, and when she'd finally persuaded the authorities to let her back into the USA, she'd been sporting this god-awful, bulky cast.
"These things happen," David had said with a shrug, as they'd finally boarded the 737. He'd offered her a smile and a lift of his eyebrows as if to say, Hey, there's nothing we can do about it now. We're in a foreign country. He'd been right, of course, but it didn't help her bad mood and suspicion that the fishing-boat captain had been drunk or under the influence of some other drug and that somehow her purse, along with a couple of others in the tour group, had been found by local divers, the credit cards, cash and other items of value now being used or pawned up and down the west coast of Mexico. According to the captain, the tiny fishing boat had lurched, avoiding a rock — for God's sake. It seemed implausible. A stupid mistake from a captain who daily patrolled the waters off Mazatlán. Samantha hadn't bought it and had wanted some kind of compensation, at the very least an apology for crying out loud. Instead she'd landed in a tiny hospital with an elderly doctor, an expatriate American who looked as if he should have retired in the seventies. He probably had, or been run out of the States for malpractice.
"Sour grapes, Dr. Sam," she chastised herself, as Charon settled into his favorite spot on the window ledge. He stared through the watery glass, his eyes following something in the darkness. Probably a squirrel. Samantha looked through the panes and saw nothing but the dark shadows of the night.
She pushed the play button on her answering machine while grabbing her letter opener and slicing through the first envelope — a bill. No doubt the first of many. The recorder went through a series of beeps and clicks before playing.
The first call was a hangup.
She tossed the bill onto the table.
The second was a solicitor asking if she needed auto-glass repair.
Better yet. She thought of her red Mustang convertible, couldn't wait to get it on the road again. But she didn't need a new windshield. "No thanks," she said tearing into several letters — offers of credit cards, requests for contributions to worthy causes, the sewer bill.
Finally a voice.
"Hey, Sam, it's Dad." Sam smiled. "I forgot you were out of town ... You give me a call when you get back home, okay?"
"Will do," Sam said as she scanned her most recent Visa bill and was grateful that she'd called Melanie who had assured her that she would cancel all her credit cards immediately.
Two more hangups and then she heard her boss's voice boom from the recorder. "Sam, I know you're probably not home yet," Eleanor said, "but call me the minute, the minute you get in. And don't give me any crap about you not going to work because of your leg, that's just not cutting it with me. I got your message from the hospital, but unless you're hooked to an IV and a heart monitor and strapped to a hospital bed, I want you back at the station pronto. You got that? Melanie's doing a decent enough job, I mean it, but since you've been gone, ratings have slipped and Trish LaBelle over at WNAB is picking up your market share ... not good, Sammie, definitely not good. Your listeners want you, girl, and they aren't in the mood to accept any substitutes, no matter how good they might be. So don't you go bringin' me some note from a hunk of a doctor, y'hear? Uh-uh. You all haul your ass down to the station. Okay, I'll get off my soap box now. But call me. A-S-A-P."
"Hear that, Charon? I am loved after all," she said absently to the cat, then felt the skin on the back of her neck prickle. Some noise, some shift in the atmosphere, some intangible thing caught her attention.
The cat sat on the sill, his body frozen except for the barely perceptible twitching of his tail. "You see something?" she asked, trying to shake off the feeling. She dropped the rest of the mail and moved to the window, searching the darkness through the steamy drizzle on the windowpanes.
The live oaks stood like bearded sentinels, unmoving dark shapes guarding her two-hundred-year-old house.
Sam's heart nearly stopped.
Was that the wind in the branches, the house settling, or someone shifting their weight on the porch? Her throat went dry.
Stop it, Sam, you're jumping at shadows. There's nothing sinister here. This is your home. But she'd only lived here three months, and after she'd moved in, she'd learned the history of the house from a gossipy old neighbor across the street. According to Mrs. Killingsworth, the reason the old home had been on the market so long and Sam had gotten it far under its market value was that the woman who had previously owned the place had been murdered here — the object of an enraged boyfriend's vengeance.
"So what's that got to do with you?" she said now, rubbing her arms as if she were chilled. She didn't believe in ghosts, curses or the supernatural.
The recorder spun. "Hi, Sam." Melanie's voice. Samantha relaxed a bit. "Hope you had a good trip. I called the credit-card companies, as you asked, and left the mail on the desk, but you've probably found it by now. Charon was a pill while you were gone. Really out of sorts. Even sprayed on the piano, but I cleaned it up. And the hair balls. Gross. Anyway, I bought you a quart of milk and some of those fancy French vanilla coffee beans you like. They're both in the fridge. Sorry to hear about your leg. What a bummer. Some romantic getaway, huh? See you at the station, or you can call if you need anything."
Sam hobbled back to her chair. She was imagining things. Nothing had changed. She glanced at the picture of David on her desk. Tall and athletic, with gray eyes and a square jaw. Good-looking. Executive vice president and director of sales for Regal Hotels, she'd been reminded more often than not. A man with a future and a quick, if cutting, sense of humor. A catch, as her mother would have said had Beth Matheson still been alive.
Oh, Mom, I still miss you. Sam's gaze moved from the five-by-seven of David to a faded color portrait of her own family, both smiling parents flanking her in her cap and gown at graduation from UCLA. Her older brother, Peter, stood just behind her father's shoulder, frowning, looking away from the camera, not even bothering to remove his sunglasses, as if making a statement that he didn't want to be there, wasn't interested in sharing any of Sam's glory as her parents beamed beside her. Beth had believed in marriage and would want to see her daughter with an ambitious man; successful David Ross would have been just such a man.
And a man with a dark side.
Too much like Jeremy Leeds. Her ex.
She sliced open another piece of junk mail and wondered why she was always drawn to control freaks?
"Hey, Sam. Dad again," her father's voice said. "I'm worried about you. Haven't heard anything since you called from Mexico trying to get out of the country. I assume you made it ... hope so. So, how're you getting along with the leg? Call me."
"I will, Dad. Promise."
Several other calls came through with well-wishes for her recovery. She listened to each as she continued opening the bills. Celia, her friend who taught first grade in Napa Valley; Linda, a college roommate who had settled with her cop husband in Oregon; Arla, a friend she'd kept in touch with since grade school. They all seemed to have gotten the word that she'd been hurt, and they all wanted her to call back.
"It's great to be popular," she muttered to the cat, as the receptionist for her dentist called to remind her of her six-month cleaning. The next call was from the Boucher Center, where she did volunteer work, reminding her that her next session was the following Monday.
She reached for the final envelope — plain, white, legal-sized. No return address. Her name typed on a computer label. With a slit the envelope opened, and the single page dropped onto the desk.
Her blood froze.
She stared at a picture of herself. A publicity shot she'd had taken several years ago. It had been copied, then mutilated. Her dark red hair swung around a face with high cheekbones, pointed chin and sexy, nearly naughty smile, but where there had once been mischievous green eyes with thick eyelashes there were only jagged-edged holes as if whoever had cut them out was in a hurry. Across her peach-tinged lips was a single word scribbled in red pencil:
"Oh, God." She pushed herself away from the desk, repelled. For a second she couldn't breathe.
She heard a scraping sound on the porch.
As if someone had been watching through the window and was hurrying away. Footsteps.
"Oh, no, you don't," she said, whipping around in her chair and stumbling to the window only to look out at the dark, lonely night. The tick of the clock was barely audible over the beating of her heart, and as she stared through the steamy glass, the recorder played the next message.
"I know what you did," a male voice whispered in a low, sexy tone.
Sam spun around and glared at the machine with its flashing red light.
"And you're not going to get away with it." The voice wasn't harsh, not at all. In fact it was seductive, nearly caressing, as if the caller knew her personally. Sam's skin crawled. "You're going to have to pay for your sins."
Charon hissed and jumped from the sill.
The recorder clicked off and went silent. The house seemed to close in on her, the shadowy corners of the walls, darkening. Was it her imagination, or did she hear footsteps running across the yard?
She took in several deep breaths, then, using her crutch, checked all the locks on the doors and the latches on the windows. It's a prank, she told herself, nothing sinister. In her line of work she was a quasi celebrity, one who invited the public to contact her, to help them with their problems, to get to know her. As a radio psychologist she dealt with people's problems and phobias every night while she was on the air. And this wasn't the first time that her private life had been violated; it wouldn't be the last. She thought about calling the police or David or someone, but the last thing she wanted to appear to be was a hysterical, paranoid woman. Especially to herself.
She was a professional.
A doctor of psychology.
She didn't want to risk public disdain. Not again.
Her heart thundered, and she slowly let out her breath. She'd have to call the police whether she wanted to or not. But not yet. Not tonight. She double-checked all the locks and told herself to remain calm, go upstairs, read a book and tomorrow, in the morning light, reassess what had happened to her. There was just no reason to panic. Right? No one would seriously want to do her harm.
Excerpted from Hot Blooded by Lisa Jackson. Copyright © 2001 Susan Lisa Jackson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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