Crime reporter Britt Montero had to shoot a man to save her own life, and the memory of it is tormenting her. So when a major Hollywood actor strides into the newsroom, hoping to do research for the character he portrays, the seemingly cushy job is given to Britt in the hope that it will help her recover from her traumatic experience.
But the assignment turns out to be not so much fun: An obsessed madwoman stalks the star, and mysterious mishaps, accidents, and deaths push him and Britt closer together. Both are menaced by the stalker—or perhaps, by someone else who is determined to sabotage the film and murder its leading man . . .
“[An] irresistible series.” —Kirkus Reviews
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I could smell the gunpowder. The dream was that real.
The dark woods disappeared as I awoke gasping, heart pounding: no gleaming gun or spilled blood in the moonlight, only the startled green eyes of my cat, staring from the foot of my bed. My heartbeat slowed down as I sat up, forehead and underarms sticky. The digital face of my bedside clock glowed in the dark. Three A.M. Hours till dawn.
I have never wished time away. No one knows more how little there is. What the hell is happening to me? I wondered. And why now?
The paper had offered me time off after the shooting and the services of the company shrink. I had declined both. The best therapy for me was to continue covering my beat; I did not need corporate records linking me to a psychiatrist. Wouldn't that be a swell addition to my resume?
I switched on the police scanner, thankful for instant company, a cacophony of voices: strangers at computer screens dispatching the soldiers of the night to answer cries in the dark. I sat on the edge of my bed and listened, eavesdropping on men and women linked by radio, adrenaline, and a common purpose, the keepers of the peace on an unpeaceful planet.
Somebody had been stealing hookers' hearts — literally. Four so far, three in the Keys, then one in Miami. A Metro-Dade cop was checking out a man caught loitering near a drainage ditch where the last victim had been found a month ago. None of the missing organs had been recovered. What does he, or she, do with them? I wondered.
Detectives were on the way to the county jail, where two prisoners had been caught mining for gold — in the mouth of another inmate. They had removed two gold teeth and were prying a third loose when a guard interrupted.
There were several reports of shots fired in the Scott Project, no further reference.
High above it all, Air Rescue One throbbed toward the burn unit, its passenger a severely singed voodoo priest. His lit cigar had dropped into a bowl of gunpowder he was preparing for a ritual. And on the water, a Coast Guard rapid-response craft with portable pumps was racing to Government Cut to rescue two competing bait fishermen. They had rammed each other during a fight for a prime fishing spot. Their cries for help as they took on water were broadcast over Channel 16. Sea Tow had been dispatched.
Trouble on land, air, and sea — a routine night in Miami. I sighed, measuring the heartbeat of this uneasy city and its restless inhabitants. Domestic warfare raged in a million-dollar penthouse overlooking the Atlantic. The battle, in progress for hours, had escalated, according to sleepless condo neighbors. Household items and clothing were now cascading over the high-rise balcony.
Rotating my shoulders and rubbing the back of my stiff neck, I considered calling to complain that a dead man was disturbing my sleep.
I locked in on a northeast channel, curious heated exchanges between North Bay Village and Miami Beach police. They were fighting over a corpse. The object of their custody dispute was a late-night fisherman killed by a hit-and-run driver on the John F. Kennedy Bridge. Village cops had arrived first and determined that the accident had occurred on the Beach side of the span dividing the municipalities. Beach cops denied it. They pointed to shards of shattered headlight and a small chrome strip as proof that the point of impact had been on the Village side, and implied that somebody had dragged the body into their jurisdiction. Corpses generate voluminous paperwork. None of the cops wanted the task.
THE VICTIM NOBODY WANTS. My thoughts came printed in headline form, like poetry metered at so many beats per line. The next of kin was probably asleep somewhere out there, blissfully unaware that a stranger's knock at the door would soon change his or her life forever. Would hearts be broken? Dreams shattered?
Life is most often unfair. The man broken on the bridge, left like roadkill first by a motorist who was reckless or drunk, then by clock-watching cops eager to go home on time, probably did not deserve to die. Someone like him invariably turns out to be an honor student, a newlywed, or a good family man working two jobs to support aged parents. Unlike the man I killed. When it happened, I felt only relief and a sense of justice. No regrets. Why did he return to haunt me now?
What I did know was that there would be no more sleep for me this night. I stumbled barefoot to the kitchen to brew a pot of Cuban coffee. Billy Boots followed, and so did Bitsy, dragging her leash and scampering in circles around my feet, eager for adventure.
She is all I have ever inherited, a white toy poodle with the heart and history of a police dog. Most dogs want only to chew, rim, and dig. Bitsy yearned for sirens and pursuits in the night. She used to ride Miami's midnight streets in the shotgun seat of a squad car, smuggled aboard by her original owner, a policewoman killed during the riots.
After inhaling half a cup, I felt my eyes focus, settled in my favorite chair, and punched the third button on my speed dialer.
"Homicide," Sam Bliss answered. He is a middle-aged detective who has worked third shift for years.
"Hi, this is Britt. What's happening?"
"Jesus, girl. You ever sleep? Whatcha doing nosing around at this hour?"
"I'm always working. What's going on out there?"
"You know something I should?"
"Nope, just fishing."
"SOS, same ol' shit. Otherwise it's quiet." He dropped his voice. "Betcher just getting in. Hot date?"
"You wouldn't believe my love life." If I had one, I thought. "What's new in the Oliver case?"
"You heard." He sounded grim.
"No." He had arrested Angel Oliver, a twenty-six-year-old welfare mother, for the murder of her fifteen-month-old daughter, her eighth child. Cause of death: starvation. Baby Cynthia had never held a toy or seen a Christmas tree. She had lived her brief life in a cardboard carton. By the time a concerned neighbor alerted police, the baby was comatose. Rushed to a hospital, she died. She weighed six pounds.
"Let-'em-go Joe reduced it to manslaughter and set bond at twenty-five hundred."
"Did she post it?" I scribbled notes on the pad by the phone. Circuit Judge Joe Turrell believed in the basic goodness of human beings and the inalienable rights of the accused. The more heat he took for being too liberal, the more leniently he ruled. Had Joe been a woman, he would always be pregnant. The man could not say no. He was a defense attorney's dream.
"Yep. Get this, the father of her six oldest sued for custody two months ago. Nice guy. Works construction up in Orlando. Says she was neglecting his kids and misusing his support payments. His new wife wants to raise them, but a judge saw 'no reason to take the children from their mother.'"
"Guess he'll get 'em now."
"Don't count on it. Poor bastard came down over the weekend. His ex-mother-in-law kept the kids while Angel was in jail. Wouldn't even let him see them. He's gonna have to hire another lawyer and start from scratch."
"Somebody should start a spay-and-neuter program for unfit parents." I reached for my coffee cup. "That woman should be stopped before she has more babies."
"Too late. That's why Joe reduced her bond."
"Oh, no." I nearly strangled on the steaming brew.
"Yep. She's nearly four months along."
I began to feel better as we exchanged gripes and horror stories, bad-mouthing social services and the judiciary. Like liquid lightning, the caffeine had jump-started my brain cells.
I called the Surfside cops next, for the latest on their elusive cat burglar who prowled the dark to steal high-heeled shoes and fondle the toes of sleeping women.
"Definitely a foot fetish," the sergeant muttered indignantly. "Sickest thing I've ever seen."
Then I called Miami Beach, where investigators were now handling the hit-and-run on the bridge. I showered, downed more coffee, ate a strawberry Pop-Tart, and was painting my toenails primrose pink when the scanner emitted an emergency tone. I cocked my head to listen, tiny brush in hand, a glistening pearl-like drop of polish clinging to the tip. A shooting, possibly fatal, at the downtown Metrorail station. It was 5:15 A.M.
Just leaving homicide, Sam caught my call.
"You taking this one?" I asked.
"Looks like. My day starts when somebody else's ends." He groaned. "Supposed to take my youngest to school today. His mom's gonna be pissed off."
"Somebody else's day apparently got off to an even worse start." I wiggled my toes, hoping to dry the polish faster. "What is it?"
"Apparently a security guard. DOA."
"Anybody in custody?"
"Nope. I'm on the way. Gotta go."
"Was it a shootout?"
"Won't know till I get there," he said. Irritation crept into his voice. "Gimme a break. Call me later."
"I'll see you there."
"Sure," he said, without enthusiasm. "Looking forward to it."
I dressed hurriedly, trying not to smudge my wet toenails. Despite my rush I hesitated, closed the door, and returned to the bedroom. I slid the Smith & Wesson .38 from beneath the pillow next to mine. The weight was heavier and the blue steel colder than I remembered. This weapon, returned to me after the shooting investigation, saved my life. I should be grateful. Why, instead, did it make me sick to see it?
The front stoop was empty. Too early for the morning paper. My T-Bird chirped as I unlocked it with the remote. I slipped the gun into the glove compartment and snapped the door shut.
The faint promise of dawn smeared the eastern rim of a sapphire-blue horizon as I drove west, toward the dark across the causeway. The surface of Biscayne Bay mirrored Miami's sparkling skyline, reflecting a sight too beautiful to relate to what was ugly, brutal, and afoot on its streets.
Flashing lights splashed eerie shadows across pavement still adrift with the detritus of the night. Huddled groups of cops; medics packing up to leave. Sam Bliss stood out, tall, heavyset, and spreading around the middle. He wore his brown suit. Derisive colleagues called him the man with the blue suit and the brown suit. Ignoring them, he continued to alternate, brown suit one day, blue the next. Many homicide detectives spent their overtime on flashy cars and clothes, part of the image. Sam worked all the OT and every extra-duty job he could, but his wheels were compact and his wardrobe limited. His money supported a show-place home near Perrine, two acres amid orange and avocado groves, with a pool and a duck pond, a spread where his kids could ride horses and build tree houses. He was directing crime scene technicians at the moment.
The star around whom all the others revolved lay on his back in his own blood, staring sightless at puffy clouds drifting across a celestial-blue canvas. The new dawn had broken without him, pink and ethereal with shades of violet. A baby-faced young man, he looked startled that he had been suddenly cheated out of fifty years of life.
His blue uniform was neatly pressed, creases sharp. Shoes shiny. Holster empty. The killer was gone, along with the dead man's gun. An obscene round little mouth gaped open above his left eye, the bullet hole small and neat. The slug had exploded out the back of his head, taking a fist-sized chunk of skull with it. Bone and pinkish brain matter had splattered a stainless steel turnstile. A technician's small orange cone marked a single shell casing that lay on the pavement a few feet from the body. He had been shot only a block from police headquarters, just two minutes from America's finest trauma center, but nothing could have saved him.
"He was still gasping when we arrived," a paramedic said. His eyes were distant and he appeared oddly idle, lost without a patient to focus on. "But he shut down fast. Used the paddles on him but he flat-lined."
Soaring shadows and the flutter of wings drew my eyes skyward. The vultures had been back for months now, congregating downtown, cruising the hot-air currents, circling the spire of the old courthouse. Their small beady eyes missed nothing, nothing dead. Nature's cleanup crew. Had we not arrived first they would have swooped down to surround the fresh corpse.
A growing trickle of cars signaled morning traffic to come. The rising sun glinted off their glass and metal as sleepy motorists slowed to stare.
The corpse lay still, but his blood moved like something still alive, snaking relentlessly downhill, closer and closer to the knot of preoccupied cops focused on the official business of death. They cursed aloud as it inched precariously close, backing up and sidestepping to avoid soiling their shoes. Twenty feet long, the crimson ribbon glowed in the sun's first rays like a river seen from the air, continuing to widen and advance like some Blob in a horror film.
"Let's get this cleaned up!" bawled a short-tempered, unshaven Metrorail representative. "We need to expedite!" He wanted the body gone, the mess removed before rush hour. Sam dug in his heels, refusing to request the on-call medical examiner until the techs had finished. This would be the doctor's third scene this shift. A tourist had drowned in a Miami Beach hotel pool; then the fatal hit-and-run on the bridge.
Bliss pulled on rubber gloves and straddled the victim, once the doctor arrived. They emptied the contents of each pocket into separately labeled brown paper bags. Not much: A $1 Lotto ticket and a cheap wallet.
"Eleven bucks," he said, checking the billfold. The early morning glare exposed the weariness in his eyes. "No witnesses so far." He grimly scanned the block.
Other cops were canvassing among the street people. A young officer talked to one unkempt middle-aged man with ramrod-straight posture, several layers of clothes, and a tattered gym bag. We could hear his "Yes, sir, no, sir," responses to the cops' questions.
"Who called it in?" I asked Bliss.
"Anonymous, from a pay phone. We have to pull the tape."
"Guess it wasn't robbery, since he still had his watch and wallet. Think it was a personal grudge?"
Bliss paused. "Maybe it was robbery. Maybe his gun was all they wanted."
The thought was chilling.
The dead guard was Randall W. Fairborn, age twenty-two.
"Don't put it in the newspaper until we notify next of kin," Bliss warned. "The security company says it's his mother, in Georgia."
When I left, the Metrorail representative was arguing with the cops about the latest delay, the morgue wagon. The crew refused to rush breakfast for a passenger that would wait. They were at Denny's.
At Miami headquarters I sparred with Public Information Sergeant Danny Menendez, who refused me access to the taped 911 call that had reported the security guard's shooting.
"The homicide detective on the case has to hear it first and authorize its release," he said. He sipped his morning coffee and shook his head. His uniform shirt was crisp and starched, and he smelled of shaving lotion. He was right, of course, but I irritably insisted that the tape was public record, invoking the power of the paper's legal department.
He stiffly promised to pass my warning along to the chief and I flounced out. We usually get along pretty well. I was being a bitch, aware that my black mood would probably come back to bite me. It is not smart to antagonize the people I rely on for information.
I hit the Miami Beach and Metro-Dade police departments earlier than usual, yawning through stacks of overnight logs and computerized reports that strip away all heat and passion, reducing life-and-death events to cold, colorless codes on long gray printouts.
When I called from Metro-Dade headquarters to tell the day slot about the shooting Gloria, the city desk clerk, said, "I was just paging you. You'd better come on in. Fred wants you in his office, right away."
Uh-oh. What did our city editor want this early?
"I don't know, but it must be important. He's asked for you twice already."
Damn. What could be ...? Then I knew. Danny Menendez. That skanky weasel had complained about our skirmish. Ill-tempered cops jerk me around all the time, and I never snivel to their bosses. I hate crybabies.
Seething, I drove back to the office.
"How are you, Britt?" Fred Douglas's searching look made me squirm. Reporters were so much furniture to him. If we disappeared and the cops asked for our descriptions and what we were last seen wearing he would have no clue. What was this? In my dark mood, I was certainly in no condition for close scrutiny. I must look like hell, I thought. That was how I felt. Shoving my hair back off my face, I wished I had used a comb and lipstick before our meeting. Something odd lurked in Fred's eyes. I vowed payback for Danny Menendez.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Margin of Error"
Copyright © 1997 Edna Buchanan.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion 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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