Cold Around the Heart, p.1Michael Prescott
Cold Around the Heart
By Michael Prescott
Copyright 2013 by Douglas Borton
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The road gets dimmer and dimmer;
Sometimes you can hardly see;
But it’s fight, man to man,
And do all you can,
For you know you can never be free.
—Bonnie Parker, “The Trail’s End” (1933)
The blood trail was easy to follow in the deep white snow.
Her quarry was leaking badly now, but still making pretty good time. She could have caught up with him easily enough, but because he was armed, she was holding back, staying close to the trees, offering him no clear sightline. She didn’t know how handy he was with that crossbow, and she didn’t want to find out.
He was a bow hunter, and he’d been stalking deer until she began stalking him. On this snowy weekday the Barrens were empty; she had seen no other hunters, had seen no one at all. She and her prey were alone in a chalk-white forest, watched only by the trees.
He couldn’t help leaving tracks, of course—deep ragged pockmarks in the hills of snow where his boots clomped down. But the scarlet thread of blood was easier to see in the failing daylight. She only hoped she finished things before dark. Using a flashlight would make her an easy target.
Really, the job should have been over by now. Had it gone as planned, she would be back in town, sipping cocoa at the Main Street Diner and thawing out after her exposure to the January chill. But because he had the bow, she hadn’t wanted to get too close. She’d tried a kill shot from a distance, crouching in a blind, her target hovering over the gun sight. With a long gun she would have made the shot, but with the pistol it proved too great a challenge. She nicked him in the shoulder on her first try, got him in the leg as he was scrambling away.
She wouldn’t have thought a man with two slugs in him could get very far, especially when one of the rounds had lamed him. But the will to survive was a remarkable thing. For more than an hour she’d chased him through the Barrens as the winter sun became a pale smear of saffron in the western sky. She had seen him raise a cell phone to his ear a couple of times, but she couldn’t get a signal out here and she was betting he couldn’t, either.
He was slowing now, his reserves of energy giving out.
She wondered if he’d gone bow hunting often. She wondered if he had killed many deer, and if so, if he had tracked the wounded animals, following their blood spoor. Probably. Karma was a stone-cold bitch sometimes.
The sun was a blister on the horizon when she found him in a clearing. He lay on his back in the deep powder like a man trying to make a snow angel. The crossbow was by his side, but his hand wasn’t on it.
She couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. She approached slowly. When she was a yard away, she saw his eyelids flicker as a puff of breath drifted clear of his mouth.
She put her foot on the bow and eased it sidewise, out of his reach. Then she just stood there, looking down. She knew he was seeing her only in silhouette, a wild-haired apparition limned by the dying sun.
“Help me,” he said in a sandpaper rasp.
She shook her head. “Sorry.”
It was a lie. She wasn’t sorry.
He tried to make sense of what was happening to him. His pupils darted, frantic, in the frozen mask of his face.
“Who are you?” he asked at last.
“My name’s Parker. Jacob Hart hired me.”
That ought to make things reasonably clear. She watched as comprehension widened his eyes.
“I’ll pay you more,” he said. “I’ll pay double. I’ll pay anything.”
“You got one thing right, buddy. You’ll pay.”
She steadied the pistol, targeting his heart.
From this distance she couldn’t miss.
On Tuesday, August 21, Bonnie Parker hung a sign on her office door that read GONE FISHING. It was no joke. She had a rod and reel in her car, a beat-up but still serviceable Jeep Wrangler she’d purchased secondhand six years ago at the start of her career. She drove the Jeep to a lake on the edge of town and sat on the grass in the shadow of a looming radio tower that broadcast death metal music to the greater Millstone County listening public. For five uninterrupted hours she lounged with her back against the tree, the pole in her hands and a line in the water. She got no bites. It didn’t matter. She hated cleaning fish. If she’d caught one, she would have thrown it back.
People who didn’t know her sometimes asked why she lived in a small town on the Jersey shore, where the only action after midnight was the checkout counter at the twenty-four-hour A&P. They pegged her as a city gal, but the truth was, she’d spent enough time in cities during her teenage years, crawling like a flea in the mangy underbelly of urban life. But didn’t she miss the excitement? She told them she got enough excitement in her job. I’m a PI, she would add, invariably clarifying, a private investigator. If necessary she could supply them with edited and sanitized anecdotes, complete with funny endings.
Truth was, not all her cases had funny endings, and not all of them could be sanitized. And she was much more than an ordinary PI. But people didn’t need to know about that.
By six o’clock she was drowsy after a long day of doing nothing. She reeled in her line, packed up her gear, and steered the Jeep into town, or what there was of it.
The downtown strip of Brighton Cove was four blocks of gift shops, eateries, and real estate offices. There was a consignment shop where she bought hats, and a sporting goods store where she bought ammo. One of the more unprepossessing buildings housed her detective agency, which she’d named Last Resort—an anteroom with two ratty garage-sale chairs, and an office with a scuffed-up desk, a mildewed sofa, and a window overlooking her parking space in the side alley.
She didn’t look out that window very much anymore. Not after what happened last March. She’d thought the passage of time and the change of seasons would bring closure, but the summer was nearly over and, for her, nothing had closed.
On days when she wasn’t working, her habits were obsessively regular. Sure, it would be safer to vary her routine and keep potential enemies off balance, but she kind of enjoyed daring fate. Besides, if a bad guy had her number, she was probably screwed no matter what she did. So it would have been no surprise to anybody that at precisely six fifteen PM she parked at the curb outside the Main Street Diner.
The little coffee shop boasted a menu every bit as imaginative as its name. Cheeseburgers and pies were the staples, but every evening a chalkboard tented beside the door advertised the dinner special. Tonight’s special was scallops. There were other offerings on the menu, but she didn’t look at them. She always had the special. She was so predictable that Lizbeth, the waitress, didn’t even bother to take her order anymore.
Lizbeth let her seat herself at her usual spot, a corner table by the window with a view of the entrance and a wall at her back, and then delivered Bonnie’s usual summertime drink, pink lemonade. She would have preferred a Jack ‘n’ Coke, but liquor licenses were hard to come by in Jersey
At the table she took off her hat, a cute little Panama number. She felt strongly that everybody should have a thing. Her thing was hats. There was no deep reason behind it. She just liked hats.
She sipped her drink, gazing into the pink depths of her glass. When she looked up, she saw Dan Maguire in the doorway. He strode up to her table and set his hands on the chair across from hers.
“Seat’s taken,” she said.
“I don’t see anybody using it.”
“Wow, I just can’t put one over on you, can I?”
He sat. “Sometimes, Parker, I get the feeling you don’t want me around.”
“Nobody wants you around, Dan. Something on your mind?”
“You’re always on my mind.”
“Didn’t Willie Nelson sing about that?”
“I dunno. Did he?”
Brighton Cove’s chief of police was not a music buff, evidently. “He did. But I’m guessing he meant it in a romantic context. Unless he was thinking about the IRS.”
“Yeah, old Willie is a tax cheat, isn’t he? But I guess there are worse things to be. Aren’t there?”
“How should I know? I’ve led a very sheltered life.”
“Not sheltered enough. You don’t fool me, Parker. People look at you with your sweet little cheerleader face. They don’t think you’re dirty. But you are dirty, and we both know it.”
“You’re way off, Dan.”
“Yeah. I was never a cheerleader. I played field hockey.”
“And you played dirty, I’ll bet.” His smug smile was nauseating.
She brushed a blond wisp off her forehead. “You know, sometimes I almost get the impression you don’t like me.”
“I don’t like it when people break the rules in my town.”
“So it’s your town now? You’ve been chief for less than a year and already you’re acting like you founded the damn place.”
“I’m paid to keep order. That means keeping a lid on crime.”
“Biggest crime in this jerkwater burg is a flock of geese jaywalking across South Street.”
“It’s a gaggle of geese. And you’re wrong. We get crime here. Just last night there was a break-in at Starkey’s.”
The sporting goods store. “What’d they take, a bat and a Wiffle ball?”
“I get it. You don’t respect the law.”
“That’s not it, Dan. I just don’t respect you.”
“That mouth of yours will get you in trouble someday.”
She shrugged. “I like trouble.”
His fingertips drummed the tabletop. She wondered if he stayed up late thinking of new ways to be irritating. “So,” he asked, “where were you that night in March, anyway?”
Usually she didn’t bother to hide her feelings, but she could be inscrutable when she wanted to be. She used her poker face now. “You really want to have this conversation again?”
“The case is still open. And it has your stink all over it.”
“I wasn’t aware I had a stink.”
“I can nose you out a mile away.”
“Guess I’d better change my deodorant.”
Dan Maguire was forty years old, but his hard, squinty eyes reminded her of her grandfather, a dogged, wiry, sunbaked brown nut of a man who’d worn himself out with physical labor in a lifelong struggle against poverty. She’d known her Pop-Pop only glancingly; her upbringing was too chaotic to allow time with relatives, and he died when she was ten. But she remembered the day when he took her aside and said he saw himself in her—the same tenacity and determination. The words scared her, because she didn’t want to be like him, hard and unfeeling. But he’d been right, hadn’t he? He had seen who and what she was.
“Parker? You still with me, or did you find someplace better to be?”
“Anywhere away from you would be a better place, Dan. It would pretty much have to be.”
“You’re not winning me over with your charm.”
“I’d have to be a snake charmer to do that.”
“Now that’s just unfair. I’m not the one who’s cold-blooded.” He smirked at his own cleverness. He did that a lot. It was just one of his many appealing traits.
She sighed, bored with him. “Did you have something you wanted to say to me?”
“Where were you that night?” he repeated, persistent as a dog working a bone.
Lizbeth arrived with a plate of scallops. Bonnie let it cool in front of her.
“Maybe we should be talking in the company of my lawyer,” she said.
“You haven’t got a lawyer.”
“I could get one.”
“No need. This is just an informal chat.”
“Aimed at putting me behind bars.”
“You wouldn’t necessarily do time. Not if you could convince a jury it was self-defense. So ... where were you that night?”
“Curled up reading a good book?”
“It wasn’t that good.”
“No one to vouch for your whereabouts. No one to back up your alibi.”
“Why would I need an alibi?”
“Why indeed?” He let a pause hang between them before asking, “Know who I ran into today?”
“I don’t give a rat’s little pink dick who you ran into.”
“Mrs. Gillian Hart. Small world, huh?”
“Small town, anyway.”
“She was at Granger’s Farm, buying a wreath.”
“Little early for Christmas.”
“A wreath for a grave.”
“I asked her about you.”
“Kinda figured you’d already done that.”
“Sure. But I asked again. Thought her memory might be better.”
“Nah, she still doesn’t know you from Adam.”
“Funny thing, though. In a town this small you’d think everybody would know everybody.”
“Mrs. Hart and I travel in different circles.”
“Yeah, I’m sure that’s true. She would have no reason to come in contact with you, unless she required your services.”
“And she told you she didn’t.”
“I’ve found that people who require your services often forget they know you when official inquiries are made.”
“If they forget, how do you know they ever hired me in the first place?”
“Someone does. You make a living, don’t you?”
“That’s not a crime.”
“Depends on how you go about doing it. Of course, lately business hasn’t been so good, I guess.”
“It’s not bad. Despite your best efforts.”
“My efforts?” His puzzlement was badly feigned.
“I know you’re behind it, Dan. It has your stink all over it. Malicious gossip is potentially actionable, you know.”
“Geez, Parker, it’s not like I’m trying to run you out of town or anything. Not like I think you’d be better off relocating out of state. It’s not like that at all.”
“Good to know.”
“I want you to stay close so I can nail you.”
“What does your wife think of that ambition?”
“I know Gillian’s lying. I know her husband hired you. And I know you killed him.”
Bonnie fixed her gaze on him. Her eyes were deep blue and she knew how to use them. Her stare could unsettle most men, but Dan just sat there and took it. “If I killed her husband, wouldn’t she want to cooperate with you and help put me away?”
“There might be reasons she doesn’t want to cross you. You’re a killer, after all. Bonnie Parker, gun for hire.” He studied her with ostentatious interest. “That’s an interesting name you’v
“Never heard of her.”
“Sure you have. You’re named after a notorious criminal.”
“My dad liked outlaws.”
“Then you’ve done him proud, haven’t you?”
She sipped her lemonade. “Keep riding me, Dan.”
He leaned across the table. “It suits you, too. You’re just like her—a pure sociopath. A person incapable of normal human emotion.”
“I know what a sociopath is.”
“That’s because you are one,” he said triumphantly. Yes, it was quite the devious verbal trap he’d lured her into.
“You’re so full of shit, Dan.”
“I don’t think so. I’ve got your number. You’re a freak of nature, like a serial killer.”
“Serial killers are all played out. I like to stay ahead of the trends.”
“I’ve met mobsters, made men—there are one or two in this town. I’ve known gangbangers who’d open fire on a crowd in a drive-by.”
“Nice class of people you associate with. Goombahs and street lice. It suits you.”
“My point is, they’re nothing compared to you. They’ve got some humanity—at least a spark. I look into your eyes, I don’t see any spark at all.”
“Maybe you just don’t light my fire.”
“I don’t think there’s a fire to be lit. I think, on top of everything else, you’re a sexless, frigid bitch.”
“Ooh, that’s really hitting below the belt.”
“I’m watching you, Parker. I’m watching all the time.”
“You didn’t happen to see where I left my earrings, did you? I’ve been looking everywhere.”
His hands curled into fists. “I’m going to get you. It’ll take time, as all worthwhile things do. But I will get you.”
“Good luck with that.”
“All it takes is one slip. You’ll get careless and spill something to a friend. The friend will talk. And that’ll be that.”
“I don’t have any friends.”
“Well, isn’t that sad? Guess you scared them all away.”
“What’s scary about me?” She let the question dangle unanswered, then jerked forward. “Boo!”
He flinched—couldn’t help himself—and she laughed.
“Who’s looking sad now?” she asked.
“Screw you, Parker.”
“Yeah, you wish, buddy boy. In your friggin’ dreams.”
He got up, peeved at his inability to rattle her. Before leaving, he took one more shot. “Ever visited the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Union?”
Cold Around the Heart by Michael Prescott / Thrillers & Crime have rating 2.8 out of 5 / Based on39 votes