SILENT NIGHT STAKEOUT
Jeremy Decker sat in the driver’s seat of the parked car, hands clenched on the steering wheel, and tried to fight the fear gripping his body.
The feeling was nothing new. It seemed like he’d spent the last year being afraid, ever since the night the police had arrested him. He still remembered the shock and terror of those moments when they’d slapped the cuffs on and dragged him away. The first days after the arrest had been nerve-racking because he hadn’t known what would happen next. Then there’d been all the long months in jail when he’d been scared to sleep, scared to turn his back on anyone, scared that he’d never see the outside again.
But never in his life had he been as scared as he was right now.
Outside, the temperature was almost zero, a thick layer of snow on the ground, the wind blowing gusts of it across the deserted street. He knew the cold had to be seeping into the vehicle more and more every moment he sat there. White puffs of air appeared in front of his face with every breath he took. He barely felt it, unable to feel anything but the fear holding him in place.
He didn’t make a move to restart the engine and turn on the heat. It would only delay what he needed to do. He needed to push the door open. He needed to get out of the car and walk into the office building where his lawyer was waiting for him. He needed to get help.
He needed to tell.
Just the thought of it made him swallow hard, his lungs tightening painfully in his chest. The idea was terrifying, no matter how much he knew he had to do it. Ms. Garrett would know what to do. She’d fought hard for him, done everything she could for him, gotten him out of jail.
Now, though, he couldn’t help but wish she hadn’t fought so hard, had left him there, where it suddenly seemed so much safer.
Lost in his thoughts, he barely had time to react to the sound of the back door being wrenched open before someone slid into the seat behind him.
He jerked his head up to meet the intruder’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He felt no surprise at what he saw. There was only the fear, rising another notch to outright horror.
“Does she know? Did you tell her?”
He somehow managed to make his throat move, to force out the sound. “No.”
“But you were going to, weren’t you?”
There was no point in lying. He was sure the answer was written all across his face. He couldn’t keep it from his eyes as they stared back at those in the mirror.
Staring at those eyes, he never saw the knife. He only felt it, the pain sharp and swift and agonizing against his neck. His mouth fell open in shock, in terror. He couldn’t move, couldn’t find the power to utter a single word.
He could only stare into those eyes as they stared back, grim and determined.
Before he realized it, he felt it, the cold, in a way he hadn’t before. It poured into his body, insistent and unrelenting, filling him down to the bone. Until he could feel nothing else.
Cold. So cold.
And then he felt nothing at all.
“Tell me you’re not still at the office.”
Bracing the phone between her ear and shoulder, Regina Garrett smiled at the dismay in her friend’s voice. “I answered the phone here, didn’t I?”
“You’re supposed to be on vacation!”
“And I will be, just as soon as I see one last client.” A client who was already more than an hour late, she noted with another glance at the clock. Jeremy Decker had practically begged her to see him, so if anything, she would have expected him to be early. But an hour after their designated meeting time, he had yet to appear. She wasn’t sure whether to be concerned or annoyed, though annoyance was starting to win out.
“There’s always one more client with you,” Cheryl said. “That’s the reason you haven’t had a vacation in three years.”
Four, Regina thought, not about to correct Cheryl when she was already in mid-lecture. The last thing her friend needed was more reason to get riled up.
“Not this year. This really is the last client. My calendar is cleared for the next three weeks, my bags are packed and tomorrow morning I’ll be on a plane.”
“Uh huh. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“I booked the flight and the hotel long ago, and both are nonrefundable. I’m going.”
“I guess that’s something. You might be a workaholic, but I’ve never known you to throw away money like that.” Sounding slightly mollified, Cheryl sighed. “Christmas in the Caribbean. I really envy you.”
“You wouldn’t miss Christmas with your family for anything,” Regina pointed out.
“I know, but I wouldn’t mind exchanging all this snow and ice for a sunny beach. The tropics will sure be a big change from Chicago.”
“You’ve got that right. It’ll be nice to get some actual sun in December.” It would be even nicer to have the kind of Christmas Cheryl had in store for her, with her kids and husband and multitude of assorted relatives, all squeezed together in a house that wasn’t really made to accommodate so many people. But they would make do, and be happy, laughing and eating and loving, just enjoying being together.
Regina swallowed the pang of envy as she pictured it. Ever since her mother’s death, she’d been alone for the holidays. There was no other family left, and unlike Cheryl and pretty much every one of her friends, she was still single. Meeting the right man wasn’t easy in her line of work. As a criminal defense attorney with her own small practice, she worked long hours, and bad guys were more likely to cross her path than good ones. And given how she spent her days, it was even more important to her that any man she spend her nights with be a good one, someone real and honorable and true. Sadly, such men seemed to be a rare breed, or if not, all the ones out there were already taken.
She knew Cheryl would have invited her to spend Christmas with her family. She had a dozen other friends who would have done the same if she hadn’t told them her plans. Though her friends would have gone out of their way to make her feel nothing but welcome, she still would have felt like an intruder, the pathetic interloper piggybacking on somebody else’s Christmas, somebody else’s family.
But not this year. This Christmas she was going to sit on a beach and do her best to forget about work and the holidays, with nothing on her schedule but enjoying the sun and having hot island men serve her drinks with little umbrellas in them. If that was the closest she was going to get to meeting a good man this year, then so be it.
But first she needed to deal with her one last, incredibly late client, she thought with another check of the clock.
On the phone, Cheryl continued to prattle on about Regina’s island getaway and her own holiday plans, with nothing more than Regina’s automatic murmurs of agreement in response. That was Cheryl, perfectly capable of having a conversation with herself.
Finally, Regina had to interject, “You know, I think my client’s here. I should go.”
“Yes, you should,” Cheryl said sternly. “You know I’ll call back in a little while to make sure you’re gone.”
“I won’t be here.”
“Good. If I really don’t talk to you again, you be sure and call me the minute you get back. I want to hear all the details.”
“I promise,” Regina said with a smile. “Merry Christmas, Cher.”
With a wistful sigh, Regina replaced the phone. Around her, the empty office was heavy with silence and shadows, the lights in the outer room already shut off to conserve power. She’d sent her assistant home to her own family hours ago. It was well after seven o’clock and she suspected there was no one left in the entire building.
Not for the first time, she wondered why Jeremy could possibly need to see her so badly. She’d tried to get him to tell her on the phone, but he’d only said that he needed to talk to her. She’d done her best to tell him it would have to wait until the new year, but he’d been so insistent she’d finally relented and named the meeting time that had passed well over an hour ago.
As far as she knew, his case was closed. He’d been arrested early in the year for burglary after being caught in the middle of the night outside a home on the North Side. A friend in the public defender’s office had called her about the case, knowing she had the time and resources to serve him better than they could and that it was the type of pro bono case she was likely to take. Jeremy Decker was a young man with an otherwise spotless record who’d needed help. And she’d done her best to help him, working long months to have the charges dropped and him released in time to spend Christmas with his sister, who’d just given birth a few months ago to a niece Jeremy had never seen.
He’d only been released a few days ago. She couldn’t imagine he’d managed to get in any new trouble since then, and his old trouble had already been resolved.
Reaching for the phone, she called the number for the house Jeremy shared with his sister. Again, there was no answer, not even a machine or voice mail. If he had a cell phone, she didn’t have the number.
When the clock hit two hours past the agreed-upon meeting time, Regina finally decided she’d waited long enough. Whatever Jeremy wanted, it couldn’t have been as urgent as he’d said if he couldn’t make their meeting or call with an explanation. She’d given him enough of her time. Besides, she didn’t know what more she could do for him. As far as she was concerned, her work on his case was done.
She quickly moved through the office, making sure everything was shut down and closed up tight, then retrieved her briefcase and headed for the door. Minutes later she was pulling out of the parking garage beneath the building, her mind already turning to the last few tasks she had to accomplish before her flight in the morning. As soon as her tires hit the slush on the street, her anticipation for those tropical beaches kicked up another level. It really would be nice to get away.
She was only a few yards from the building when her headlights swept over a familiar car parked on the opposite side of the street in front of her. She automatically eased off the accelerator, all thoughts of her vacation evaporating. It was Jeremy’s car, or at least a dead ringer for the one she knew he owned. Apparently he was here after all. Had she just missed him on her way out of the building?
She slowed to a crawl as she neared the vehicle. The street was dark, night having fallen hours ago, but there was enough light from the nearest streetlamp that she could make out a figure sitting in the driver’s seat.
She waited for him to roll down the window or acknowledge her in any way.
Pulling over to the curb, she climbed out of the car and checked both ways before crossing the street to Jeremy’s vehicle. There was still no motion inside. She leaned down toward the window, already raising her closed hand to tap on the glass.
The first thing she saw was the blood. There was so much of it that half the front seat seemed to be smeared with redness. Most of it was centered on the figure sitting there. Her eyes slowly trailed upward from the blood coating the person’s chest, past the awful gash on his throat, already knowing what she’d find before she saw his face.
Jeremy Decker stared straight ahead, the emptiness in his eyes showing he was dead even if she hadn’t seen all that blood. His mouth gaped as open as his throat, and shoved between his lips was what appeared to be a red handkerchief.
Reeling back in horror, Regina struggled to pull in a breath. Over the years she’d seen the grisliest of crime scene photos, but not once had she ever seen a murdered body in the flesh. To have the victim be somebody she knew made it even worse.
Jeremy. She’d seen him just days ago. Happy and excited, and most important, alive, eager to meet his niece.
Regina hurried back to her car for her cell phone, trying to choke back the sadness and regret that threatened to overwhelm her. Just moments ago, she’d been annoyed with him for being late, sitting in the safety of her office while someone did this to him right outside.
It appeared Jeremy Decker had the best excuse for lateness there was.
Copyright © 2010 by Kerry Connor. All Rights Reserved.
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.