In The Victim's Shadow

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Chapter 32

Detective Dan Steele thumbed through the stack of reports on his desk. It was well past eight o’clock, and his wife had already called three times demanding to know when he would be home.

“Jason’s got the flu, Tammy’s got the ‘love bug’ and won’t stop crying, and Justin got hit in the eye with a basketball and has a shiner the size of Cleveland!” she had screamed into the phone.

“And you’re so good at all that stuff. You’re a terrific mom,” he tried to soothe. After all, isn’t that why they’d agreed she would be a stay-at-home-mom? He was starting to rethink that decision. If she was going to expect him to run home every time she felt overwhelmed by the kids’ problems, then perhaps it was about time she got a job, so she could share in the financial responsibilities as well. Then maybe they could afford to go out once in a while. That would probably solve all her problems.

He promised to be home to help as soon as he could and hung up the phone. He stared at the phone and groaned. Why couldn’t she handle it herself? What was the big deal? He had a lot more serious matters to deal with than a few little mishaps at home. Then he felt guilty. “Only three more to go,” he said as he pushed another completed report aside and hurriedly pulled the next report in front of him. It was the worst part of the job. He wished the department would hire report writers, whose sole job was to follow police officers around, taking in the important information they could later put in report form. He laughed at his stupidity. As if that would ever happen. The department was already laying off officers because of the budget crisis. He bent his head and grumbled aloud.

His partner, Monty, laughed. “For a six-pack and two tickets to the game, I’ll do those for you.” He nodded at the stack of folders.

Dan considered it. Then he remembered his wife’s ranting last night. “I took Tammy for her orthodontic consult today. Can you believe they charge $ 5,000.00 for those things? It’s highway robbery if you ask me.” Only Dan had not asked her. Orthodontists had to make a living, too. He got that.

He calculated how many hours he would have to work to pay for the heap of metal. “No thanks, Monty. I’ll do them myself.”

They took turns doing the reports. One week Monty would do them, one week Dan would. As luck would have it, there always seemed to be a lot more crime on Dan’s week.

Monty stood and strode to the door. When he got to the doorway, he turned around. Seeing Dan slumped over a stack of files tugged at his heart. He watched for a moment, looked at his watch, and sighed. “For crying out loud,” he said, and went back to his desk, grabbing a file on his way. “You owe me one.”

Dan smiled and chuckled. “Softie.”

“Yeah, well, I just don’t want to hear you bitch about Justine tomorrow.”

Dan laughed and bent back over his file.

They worked in silence. They were just finishing the last two reports when Juan from forensics walked into the room. Dan gave him a cursory glance and went back to his file. “We got a hit on one of those prints from that lawyer’s apartment.”

“Not my case,” Dan said, his head still down. The last thing he needed was for Justine to bitch at him for staying late to help on someone else’s case.

“The match is. It’s an oldie.”

Dan’s heart stopped then pounded loudly in his ears. His hands stilled. Without looking up, without daring to hope, he asked, “How old?”

“About twenty-seven years.”

Dan pulled open his desk drawer and yanked out the file. “This one?”

Everyone in the department knew about the case—knew how important it was to him. Juan grinned. “Maybe.”

“Don’t play around with me, Juan. I’ll hang you by your toes and maim you for life.”

“Take it easy. I’m just having fun.” Dan did not smile. “Okay, okay. Yeah, it’s the one.”

Dan was on his feet in an instant, snatching the report from his hand. “I’ll be damned,” he said, grinning. He took out his cell, pushed a speed dial number and panted into the phone. “Dad, you’re never going to believe it, we got a break on the Winter’s case—Yeah, I know—I’m calling right now, or at least I will be when I hang up—Yeah, okay.”

Monty laughed. “You finally get a break on a case you’ve been obsessing about your entire career and the first person you call is your dad?”

“It was his case.” He grinned. “You should have heard him. I’ll be lucky if I can keep him out of it.”

“Where did you say this print was lifted?” Dan asked.

Juan said, “One of Billy Martin’s cases, some lawyer up on snob hill. Apparently, someone slashed her boyfriend’s tires, and when Billy was investigating, they told him about some missing items from her apartment. Billy had the CSIs dust for prints. This guy’s print popped right up.”

“Which lawyer?” he asked. As he paged through the file, Juan handed him, his face went pale. He waved the file at Juan. “This is the witness. The little girl watched that bastard shoot her mother.”

“No shitting. Small world,” Juan said. He turned and strode from the room, whistling as he did.

“Are you going to call Martin?” Monty asked.

Dan nodded. “I guess I should.” He looked up Billy Martin’s phone number in the office directory. He picked up the phone and dialed the home number. “Hey, Martin, this is Dan Steele, homicide.”

“Homicide? What can I do for you? I was just helping my wife put the kid to bed.”

A stab of guilt hit him in the stomach. He’d promised Justine he’d be home by now. She’d probably already tucked all four kids into bed. If he didn’t watch it, he was going to lose her. “Forensics got a hit on a print from a case you’re working. It appears it’s linked to one of my old homicides, Amber Winters.”

“Who?”

“Winters.” He looked again at the report Juan had handed him. “You took the call from John Wheaton—slashed tires, stolen necklace, ringing any bells?”

“No shit? What’s the chance? Oh, hey, hang on a minute, my cell’s going off.” He left the phone, returned a moment later, panting urgently. “You’re not going to believe this, but someone tried to cut a slice from John Wheaton. He’s in surgery as we speak. Looks like your killer’s back.”

“I’ll meet you there.” He slammed down the phone. “Come on, Monty, we’re going to the hospital.”

***

Katherine chewed her nails. Her father sat on one side of her, Beth on the other. “What is taking so long?” Katherine asked.

Beth pulled down Katherine’s hands, grasping them in her own. “It takes time,” she said.

Katherine stood, paced to the nurses’ desk. When the nurse didn’t look up right away, Katherine cleared her throat. The nurse looked up and smiled. “Any word?” Katherine asked.

She shook her head. “Sorry, not yet.”

Katherine sighed, walked down the hallway a little, walked back, and stood in front of her father. “Daddy, isn’t there something you can do?”

Peter stood and pulled her against him. “I know it’s hard to wait.”

They heard the sound of footsteps and turned. Two men in suits came down the hallway. They stopped in front of them. “We just heard about John,” Dan said. He extended his hand to Peter. “It’s nice to see you again, Mr. Winters. I wish it were under better circumstances. Is there any word?”

“No.”

“Detective Steele, why did they call you?” Katherine asked. “You work homicide. Is John—”

“No,” he quickly interrupted. “At least not that I know.”

She nodded. “That’s right. You and John have become friends. I forgot.”

He indicated the man standing beside him. “Do you know Officer Martin?”

Katherine looked at him. He looked familiar, but she could not place him. She started to shake her head.

“We met briefly at your apartment, Ms. Winters. Someone slashed Mr. Wheaton’s tires, and I was taking a report.”

She nodded. “Oh, yes. I remember.”

“The reason I’m here,” Dan said, “is because we got a match on the prints the CSIs collected.”

“From my apartment?” Katherine asked. “I don’t understand.”

Dan took a deep breath. He looked from Katherine to Peter, then back to Katherine. “They match the print left on the coloring book you were holding on the day your mother died.”

Katherine gasped. The room began to spin. Peter grabbed hold, and the two sat down, supporting one another. Katherine felt a fresh wave of tears envelop her. Peter fought back his emotion, trying to be strong for his daughter.

Beth pushed a handkerchief into Katherine’s hand and wrapped her arms around both Katherine and Peter.

The two police officers stood and waited, shifting uncomfortably. Finally, Dan said, “Can you think of any reason the man who killed your mother would be in your apartment?”

Katherine shook her head. “I can’t think of anyone right now, except for John.”

“Has there been anyone new in your apartment over the past several months?”

“I don’t know,” Katherine said. “I suppose it could be maintenance. They always have a lot of turnover. Those guys seem to come and go so fast I don’t even try to get to know them.” She took a deep breath, placed both hands on either side of her head, rubbing her temples. “I seem to remember someone from human resources calling me a few months back. Someone showed up for work but didn’t have his paperwork signed. They couldn’t get hold of Daddy, so they called me. I don’t remember any other details.”

Peter took a card out of his wallet and handed it to Dan. “You can call Charmaine. She runs the Personnel Department. She’ll give you all the particulars.”

He nodded. “I don’t know that it connects, but no stone unturned, as they say.”

Peter nodded.

“Do you know anyone who would want to hurt Mr. Wheaton?” Officer Martin asked. “He’s a lawyer, right? Perhaps a client didn’t like the outcome of his trial.”

Katherine shook her head. “John deals in corporate law. He helps out the rest of us once in a while, but if anyone had a tangle with their lawyer, it wouldn’t be John they would come after. They’d go after the lead counsel.”

“What about a bad business deal? Money is a big motive.”

She shook her head again. “I can’t imagine anyone willing to risk a murder conviction over a bad business deal.”

“You’d be surprised,” Dan said.

She sighed and sank back in her chair. She still wore her dinner gown, now covered in John’s blood, and her shoes were still missing. Her hair had come loose, falling around her face in strands, but still she looked beautiful. Dan stared at her, and the longer he did, the more he saw the little girl in the newspaper article clipped to the inside of the file.

Peter sat down again and pulled her back, close to him. She laid her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes.

Dan was the first to hear the doctor approach. He cleared his throat. “The doctor’s here.”

Katherine and Peter sat bolt upright and were on their feet in seconds.

Dr. Shellman stood in front of them both. He nodded his head. “He’s out of surgery. We were able to repair the damage with some difficulty. The next several hours are going to be crucial, but I think he’s going to be okay.”

Katherine sighed in relief, closed her eyes, and began muttering some silent prayer.

“There were ten superficial cuts, and one deep one that just missed his lung,” he continued. “Another ten minutes and he would have bled to death. He’s lucky someone found him when they did.”

“May I see him?”

He pondered the question for a moment and then nodded. “He’s still in recovery, but I can bring you back there.” He looked at the two police officers. “I assume you’re cops?” They nodded. “He won’t be able to talk for several hours.”

Dan nodded. “Do you think he saw who it was?”

“It’s hard to say. The knife went in through the back, but he could have seen it coming and tried to run away.”

“Thank you, doctor,” Peter said.

Dr. Shellman walked back through the door. Katherine turned to Peter and Beth. “I’ll understand if you want to go home.”

“No, Kitten,” Peter said. “I’ll wait right here for you.”

“Beth, you should go home to Timmy.”

“Austin picked him up from the sitter’s house. He’s spending the night. I’ll just keep your dad company.”

She nodded and walked through the door Dr. Shellman had entered moments before. She could hear the whirs and beeps of all the machines and cringed. There was a reason she chose law and not medicine.

A nurse directed her toward John’s bed. A small gasp escaped when she saw how fragile he looked. “Don’t let all the tubes frighten you,” the nurse said. Her voice was tender and filled with empathy, somewhat easing Katherine’s panic. “You just let us know if you need anything.” Katherine nodded.

He was, as the doctor had said, asleep. She pulled up a chair and sat down beside him. Reaching out, she took his hand in hers and cradled it against her cheek. “I love you,” she said. “I don’t know why someone would want to do this to you, but I’m going to find out,” her voice cried with determination. “You are going to get better, John, and I’m going to walk down that aisle and become your wife. So don’t think you’re getting out of it.” She laughed nervously. She felt his hand stir. “John, can you hear me?”

He weakly squeezed her hand. She thought she saw a faint smile touch his lips. She pushed the call button for the nurse, who was there in seconds flat.

“He’s waking up,” she said.

The nurse checked his vitals. “Good and strong,” she said.

Katherine smiled at John. “Did you hear that, John? You’re strong.”

He mumbled something and Katherine leaned closer to hear. “Chad,” he whispered.

“Chad did this to you?”

John nodded. Anger flashed across Katherine’s face. “Why?” she asked. “Why is he doing this to us?”

John shook his head.

She laid her head down next to his. He was weak but managed to raise his hand and place it on top of her head. They stayed that way for a while as the sounds of the hospital drifted away into Katherine’s dreams.

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