Excerpt From The Deadliest Denial
Hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear it. On the news and in the papers or from stories passed along by friends or family members. How someone, usually a woman, has been destroyed by a man she loved and trusted. Beaten sometimes. Humiliated, violated, ripped off, and betrayed.
And then there are the times it comes to murder.
But as we chew these stories over, we think of all the ways it might have been, could have been, probably was her fault. Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of examples, we make ourselves feel safer by pointing out the signs the woman missed – or stubbornly refused to recognize. Telling ourselves we would know better and we would be bold enough to face the truth, unlike the foolish creature whose sad fate made the news.
Afterwards, we turn back to our own lives, to the same bad habits, poor decisions, and fractured resolutions we stumble over almost daily. But that’s all right, we think, feeling superior in the knowledge that we may have our human foibles, but we didn’t fall victim to the worst.
As of this day, this moment, we have not yet partaken of the deadliest denial.
The worst day in Claire Winslow’s life started early, with a banging at the front door that began at five A.M.
Predictably, the three-legged sheltie Spence had brought home last year barked her fool head off, so Claire’s first impulse was to chase the brown-and-white hairball to the condo’s living room and stop the noise before it woke the neighbors.
Her second was to stare in horror at the door as a wave of dizziness broke over her and her body trembled like the most damaged of her patients at the rehabilitation center.
Spence was due home from his shift this morning. But her husband would never bother knocking. Instead, he would try to steal in silently – a real feat, considering Pogo’s joyful histrionics whenever she spotted her master returning to the fold. On those occasions when he managed to slip past their sleeping pet, he would remove his badge and holster, then rouse his wife of five years with kisses . . . and often something more. Or at least he’d done that up until his friend Dave Creighton’s death back in October.
When the hammering repeated, she let go of the wriggling sheltie and switched on the nearest lamp against the predawn gloom. Bursting into motion, Claire trotted back into her bedroom and grabbed her robe, her mind stumbling through the thought: If Spence’s dead, I’m not letting them tell me while I stand there in one of his old tee shirts.
If Spence’s dead . . . God, no.
She pulled the robe around her tighter and told Pogo, “If your dad’s just forgotten his keys, I’m going to chew his ears off.”
It would serve her husband right, too, for scaring her to death. Every cop knew his wife worried, even if it was the proverbial elephant in the living room they both tiptoed around, the big dread neither dared to speak of — especially in the past five months.
And now it’s gone and happened anyway, she thought as her feet, seemingly detached from her free will, carried her to the door and her traitorous hand fingered the deadbolt.
Pogo quieted, then crouched expectantly on her single foreleg, her body quivering with the need to either bark or wag, depending on who stood behind the still-closed door.
A memory tumbled through Claire’s mind: her husband’s reminder only last week that this was San Antonio and not her goddamned wide-spot-in-the-road-of-a-hometown and she’d end up dead as Dave if she didn’t watch herself. He’d been furious at the moment, but it was the absolute terror shining in his blue eyes that made her hesitate now, leaning forward to peer through the peephole, her lips moving in a silent prayer: Be Spence, be Spence, be Spence.
It wasn’t. With a cry, she fumbled through unlatching the chain and releasing the locks, then threw open the door and asked the two uniformed men, “Is he dead? Or in the hospital? Has someone shot my husband? Why are you here – tell me.”
Pogo lowered her crouch and whined plaintively at the pair. Though mismatched both in terms of uniform and appearance, the men stood shoulder to shoulder, their backs as straight as steel spikes and their hats held in their hands.
Claire’s gaze bored into the smaller and darker of the two, the newly-divorced sergeant she and Spence had had over for dinner just last Sunday. Claire had invited him out of sympathy, but she’d gotten the impression he had accepted to see how Spence was behaving around her. To make sure what was happening at work hadn’t leached into their home life.
Now, Raul Contreras shook his head before releasing a long breath through his nose. He looked hard at her, his deep-set brown gaze so sorrowful that she was reminded of the doctor who had told her, years before, that her sister Karen’s cancer had spread to the brain.
Claire’s pulse thumped wildly. She was going to die, she thought. Her heart was exploding in her chest. She wished for a split second that it would hurry up and take her.
“No,” Sergeant Contreras told her. “Spencer hasn’t been killed, and he’s not hurt either.”
At first, she simply stared, unable to move or speak or draw breath. Had she heard him right, or had her mind manufactured the words that she most needed?
Hoping for some clue, she looked to the taller man, whose tan uniform stood out in contrast to the dark blue of the San Antonio PD. His hair was thick and golden brown and long for law enforcement; his features were strong, his shoulders wide and heavily muscled, as if he’d spent his youth alternating between football fields and weight rooms.
But he hadn’t. Claire knew that because she knew him – a fact that shocked her. What was Joel Shepherd from her hometown doing here, at her front door?
“Spence isn’t dead?” she asked both men. She needed that confirmation more than she needed answers – or even air to breathe.
“He’s not dead,” Joel answered, his voice deeper than she remembered, his eyes a golder shade of green. But his expression remained as grim as the day they’d buried Karen – the girl he should have married instead of Lori Beth Walters, one of her sister’s classmates. “I swear it.”
Closing her eyes, Claire whispered, “Thank God. Thank God. Thank God.”
Anything else she could handle. Anything else she could survive.
But she didn’t understand that there were worse things. Possibilities too dark to fathom. Possibilities she first heard in the raw emotion of Sergeant Contreras’s and Joel Shepherd’s questions.
“May – may we come in?” her husband’s supervisor asked.
“Can we call someone to be with you?” Joel added, and for the first time she noticed he wore a sheriff’s badge, not a deputy’s, as he did the last time she had heard. “How ‘bout your daddy, maybe, or a friend?”
He was laying on the good old boy a little thicker, playing up the country lawman comfort in a way that jolted forks of fear through her midsection.
Shaking her head, Claire backed up, pausing only to snatch up the fifteen-pound dog and press her lower face into the thick warmth of Pogo’s fur.
All the better not to scream, Claire thought as the two men entered her living room. Joel closed the door softly, but he didn’t lock it. Perhaps he felt safe with his gun in its holster, or perhaps he realized, as Claire was beginning to, that the worst had come already.
“Why don’t you sit down?” Contreras asked her.
Lifting her chin from the dog’s warmth, Claire felt her temper boil to the surface. “And why don’t you quit patronizing me and tell me right out – where the hell is Spencer? Why are you two here instead of him?”
The sergeant took another deep breath. “Last night, your husband was arrested.”
“He’s bein’ held in Little Bee Creek, in the Buck County Jail,” Joel added. “My jail.”
Claire’s knees loosened, and the miniature collie yelped in surprise as she was dropped, then tucked her tail between her legs and hop-bounced to escape into the bedroom. Before Claire understood what was happening, the two men grabbed her arms and steered her to an armchair, where they planted her.
Shrugging off their hands, she cried, “That’s a lie. Why would you say such – such – Spence can’t be in Little BC. He was on patrol last night down by the River Walk. Right here in San Antonio.”
She saw the two men’s glances touch, saw how troubled both looked. When neither answered, she said, “Damn you. Damn you both – did my husband put you up to this? If this is some sick joke, it’s not funny.”
Joel sat on the sofa’s edge and angled his long legs in her direction. Those green-gold eyes skewered her, reminding her of the cougars rumored to have come back to Buck County. “This is serious, Claire, and so am I. You’re going to need somebody with you. Tell me now so I can call. And then we’ll explain it to you.”
She flipped her red-brown hair free of her robe’s collar. “All of it?”
When both men nodded solemnly, Claire relented. “Call my father. Please. He’s number two on my speed dial.”
Number one was the entry she really wanted. Spence’s number. If she could talk to him, he’d clear up this mistake in no time.
But Joel got up to call her father, then took the telephone into her bedroom and closed the door behind him. She tried to listen, but a buzzing in her ears overwhelmed the distant murmur of his voice.
“My dad’s a criminal attorney, and he lives in Little BC,” she told Sergeant Contreras. “He’ll know how to fix this. He’ll probably drive over to the jail and call us right back, tell us it’s not Spence in there. You’ve told me yourself, Spence is a really good cop. He wouldn’t be arrested.”
The sergeant took the spot where Joel had been seated and looked at her from beneath the shaggy overhang of his brows. Like his hair and his thick mustache, they were salted with white strands, the only clue the man had recently celebrated his fiftieth birthday.
“I know this is hard,” he said. “It’s damned hard for me, too, first losing Dave and now . . . The truth is, Claire, Spencer hasn’t been himself lately. You know that as well as I do.”
“He saw a twelve-year-old shoot down a fellow cop.” Claire heard the strain in her own voice, the bitterness that bubbled through her words – but there was nothing she could do to stop the torrent. “My husband watched his best friend die over a forty-nine-dollar video game.”
Mall security, who had called police once they caught the shoplifter, had brought him to their office, but they hadn’t searched his clothes for weapons. When the two uniforms came in, the kid had panicked, whipping a little .38 out from under his untucked shirt, killing Dave and wounding the store detective before Spence shot the boy dead.
“How can you expect him to snap right back like it was nothing?” Claire demanded. “Aside from losing a close friend, Spence loves kids. And now he’s killed one.”
There had been knee-jerk outrage in the Hispanic community, since the boy was Mexican and Dave, Spence, and the store detective all white, but the store’s video surveillance tape had cleared her husband of wrongdoing. Still, he’d asked Claire over and over – sometimes waking her up in the middle of the night – if there was anything, anything, he could have done to save either his friend or the kid. Every time, she’d told him no, then wrapped her arms around a body made unfamiliar by its tension.
“Spencer said he’d had enough time off, enough of counseling,” Contreras told her. “And I was keeping a careful eye on him, believe me.”
“Not careful enough, it sounds like. Not if he really did leave his patrol to drive over an hour to Buck County last night. I still don’t buy it.” She expected her husband’s big frame to fill the doorway any moment, expected to hear Pogo’s cheerful barking to see her master – the man who had once lifted her from a busy street, where he had found her matted and bone thin, with one front leg mangled from a run-in with a car.
“He didn’t work last night, Claire. He called in sick before his shift.”
The shock of it went through her, and she wanted to scream, Impossible. Would have screamed, if she could speak. Because she’d kissed Spence goodbye last night and watched him leave wearing his uniform, his badge . . . his gun.
“What did he do, Sergeant?” she asked in a small voice.
“We believe he killed a man in Little BC.”
She blinked in surprise at Joel Shepherd, who was standing in the bedroom doorway. Sheriff Shepherd. She hadn’t noticed him come back from calling her dad. But it was his words and not his presence that made her mouth go dry.
“No,” she told him, shaking her head. “Of course he didn’t do that. Why would Spence kill anyone up there? I mean, that’s where we have our –”
She clamped down on the thought. This couldn’t have anything to do with the Little BC property she and Spence had just purchased and the horse therapy center she had been planning, organizing, and raising funds for over the past two years. This had nothing to do with her dream –
The dream that Spence had asked her to put on hold in the days following Dave’s shooting.
She’d told him no, she couldn’t. She’d tried to make him understand that it was then or never, that if they didn’t close on the acreage before Mrs. Hajek moved into the nursing home, her heir would be sure to stop the sale. Already, her realtor nephew –who hadn’t bothered visiting his aunt in years – had accused Claire of taking advantage of a dying woman. If Mrs. Hajek herself hadn’t rallied and threatened to disinherit the grasping little snot, Claire was sure the whole thing would have ended up in court. And if the woman’s long-missing daughter, Gloria, had finally turned up . . .
“We aren’t sure what this is about,” Joel said as he crossed the room to stand beside her. “But we do know this. Adam Strickland wasn’t the only person –”
“Adam – Adam who?” The name struck her as familiar, but Claire couldn’t seem to place it.
“Adam Strickland,” Joel answered, pausing only to clear his throat, “wasn’t the only person your husband wanted dead. There was someone else, too.”
“Someone else?” She was still trying to make sense of this – or find the key that would unlock this awful nightmare and let her wake up in her bed.
From the bedroom, she heard her alarm go off, an alarm meant to begin her last day at the rehabilitation center, where she had worked for the past five years as an occupational therapist.
This is no dream, she told herself as Joel Shepherd knelt before her. No dream, the thought echoed as he took her ice-cold hand in his.
“It was you,” Joel told her. “Your husband, Spencer Winslow, was planning to kill you.”