Excerpt ~ The Warning Sign

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Prologue

 

     Twenty-three perfect hits and no questions asked. The Valenti job had seemed flawless too.

     Anger crept up Neville Rede’s neck like a rash. Anyone could whack a guy. Give a sixteen-year-old a Glock and a couple hundred dollars and you’ve got yourself a hitter.

     But to engineer an accident takes an artist. And the Valenti job was a work of art.

     A bloody Sistine Chapel.

     Until the deaf girl turned up.

     Neville leaned on the cold metal rail and looked down at the Orange line platform. His nose twitched. The air in the T station was always a stale fug of diesel fumes and too many bodies in a confined space, not all of them terribly clean. A good-sized crowd was beginning to gather for the outbound subway train.

     A flat smile tugged at Neville’s lips. Picking the right location was the first task in the art of an accident.

     Irritation fizzed along his spine. This was a waste of his talents. Unfortunately, it was his fault. He drew a deep breath and shook off the anger. There was nothing personal about what he was about to do. This was about pride of workmanship.

     He’d been careless. He had to clean it up.

     A hit was like a tapestry, his mentor always said. Leave a loose thread and sooner or later someone would notice and give it a tug. The entire work could unravel. He’d left something dangling in an otherwise perfect job.

     Neville scanned the commuters below. There she was, right on time, her scarlet trench a dash of color among the blacks and grays. Whoever said redheads couldn’t wear that shade had never seen Sara Kelley on a rainy day. Even though her figure was a little too round for high fashion, she was still the best looking bitch he’d ever off.

     A tingle of desire rippled through him. He tamped it down. He wasn’t some freak with a fetish. He was a professional.

     But he understood the compulsion.

     It wasn’t dominance or some other kind of kinky sex that drove him. It was the connection with his victims, that delicious moment when the soon-to-be dead recognized Neville as the harbinger of the great dark.

     Even in this crowd, he hoped to see that glint of terror-filled awe in Sara Kelley’s green eyes before the spray of blood and crunch of bone and squeal of the train’s emergency brakes.

     In that slice of a moment, Neville would feel like God Almighty.

     “Outbound train approaching,” a computer-generated voice squawked. “All trains terminate at Oak Grove Station.”

     “And some commuters terminate sooner,” he murmured.

     Sara Kelley shifted her weight, edging closer to the yellow caution line.

     The air stirred in anticipation of the coming train. Neville descended the stairs, his tread silent.

     Even if she wasn’t deaf, she’d never hear me coming, he thought, pleased by the symmetry. This was art, after all.

     Time to tie up his little loose thread. Permanently.

 

 Chapter 1

 One week earlier          

     Sara Kelley stomped on the accelerator, but her car died again. The guy behind her glued his palm to the horn.

     “Yeah, right,” she said to the jerk in her rear view mirror. “Like that’ll get us moving.”

     He blared his displeasure in another long blast.

     Sara’s right hearing aid whined. The air conditioning had made her car over-heat in this pile-up so she’d turned it off and rolled down the windows. Boston didn’t get too many 90 degree days with matching humidity, but this was one of them. The heavy air made her hearing aid batteries short out intermittently. Sara slipped off her right one and stowed it in the empty cup holder. She didn’t want to risk losing it. The darn things were so expensive. The horn’s blast faded to a tolerable level.

     She started her car and goosed it forward, almost rear-ending the white cargo van ahead of her. The honker started a rap-beat on his horn again.

     Rather than flip him a gesture that wasn’t listed in the American Sign Language manual, she slipped off her other hearing aid too. Sometimes, it was a blessing to be able to tune out the world around her. Sara sank into a soft hum of unintelligible sound, the white-noise of her uncorrected hearing.  

     Profound loss, her audiologist described it.

     “Not always.” Sara eyed the guy in the mirror. A bead of sweat ran down her spine as she craned her neck out the window.

     Must be an accident on the Zakim Bridge.

     She’d ducked out of her last class a little early in order to meet with a new speech pathologist. Not that her summer school students minded. A sub was always easier on them than ‘Ms. Kelley the Hun.’ Sara wouldn’t use her impairment as an excuse not to excel. She wouldn’t let them either.

     Now she’d be late for her appointment, if she made it at all. The check engine light blinked menacingly.

     In the side mirror of the van ahead of her she caught a glimpse of the driver’s square jaw and thin-lipped mouth. A cell phone was plastered to his cheek. He was talking a blue streak.

     Sara wasn’t going anywhere, so she decided to practice her speechreading.

     It might be a little rude. Almost like eavesdropping. Since she had some measure of hearing, about 60% of normal with the aids, she didn’t rely entirely on speechreading. She worked hard to stay ahead of her Deaf students in this area.

     So who would it hurt if she ‘listened’ in?

     She stared intently at the mouth in the mirror.

     “ . . .how you want . . . very well, I’ll do . . .”

     Sara wished he’d hold still. His mouth moved in and out of the mirror’s range.

     “ . . . a professional . . . If I . . . the job . . .”

     The tanned, male arm propped on the driver’s side door slipped inside the van and the window scrolled up. The man’s mouth disappeared entirely.

     Sara sighed and inched her car forward, crowding the lines on the pavement to get a better view.

     White cargo van. No lettering on the back. Probably in a service business, lawn care or something, trying to negotiate with a new client.

     The bottom half of his face came into sharp focus in the mirror.

     “No, no. . . . there’ll be no mistakes,” the lips formed. “If you require an accident, you . . . an accident.”

     What on earth is he talking about?

     “Once . . . funds deposited . . .,” the lips said, “Valenti . . . dead.”

     Sara blinked hard. Surely she was mistaken. Several words look relatively the same if a speechreader was forced to focus just on someone’s mouth with no auditory or context cues. And there were times when he spoke so fast, she missed a number of words completely. Some of the usual markers were off. She wondered if he had an accent. British maybe.

     His lips pressed into a hard line for a moment, then started moving again.

     “. . . your call,” she thought he said. “Fine . . . tonight.”

     Traffic started moving. The van surged forward and slid into the left lane to inch around the accident that caused the bottleneck in the first place. That might be why she thought she read the word. She must’ve made errors in the rest of the conversation as well.

     But what if she hadn’t?

     Sara tried to squeeze in behind the van, but an electric blue Honda rushed forward to keep her from easing into the lane. She only managed to see the last couple of digits on the plate.

     She flipped on her turn signal and babied her Taurus toward the left lane, still straining to read more of the swiftly disappearing number. The car behind her plowed into her rear bumper with a sickening thud.

     Her head snapped back and then forward, narrowly missing a knock on the steering wheel. When she looked up, the white van was long gone.

     “Great, just great,” she mumbled while she put her hearing aids back in. They crackled with static, but she’d need them to deal with the man who was already climbing out of his car, mouth running and arms flailing.

     ‘Valenti . . . dead,’ the lips in the van had said.

     She pulled her registration and insurance information from the glove compartment. The other driver stomped toward her vehicle. Once he realized she was hearing-impaired he’d probably fall all over himself trying to be nicer.

     Pity the poor deaf girl.

     He could keep it for someone who needed it. If he was going to be mad, she wished he’d stay mad. The rear-end collision was his fault anyway.

     She pawed through her purse and realized she’d left her cell phone at home. She should be texting the police right now.

     Over more than just her fender-bender.

     Sixty-seven. The only numbers she could see before the van pulled away. Lot of good that’ll do. I can’t even be sure it was a Massachusetts plate.

     She shook her head in disgust. How many times had Matt complained about how unreliable eye witnesses were? He’d be ashamed of her.

     At least it’ll be for a different reason this time.

~

     Sara pushed through the brass-studded door of Clear Speech Associates hoping the practice was running behind on their clients as well. She introduced herself to the receptionist with an apology for her lateness.

     “I’m sorry, Ms. Kelley.” The woman had been well trained, looking straight at Sara and speaking slowly and distinctly. Some people thought they had to shout in order for her to understand them. All they had to do was face her squarely and not mumble. “Dr. Tanaki has left for the day. If you like, his intern is still here. He may be able to help you.”

     “Fine.” Sara forced herself to return the woman’s smile. She’d short-changed her students by skipping out early, let the humidity do a number on her hearing aids, speechread one side of a very disturbing conversation, and got rear-ended so she could waste her time with an intern.

     She decided she must have misread the guy in the cargo van. Not being able to rely on her speechreading made her irritable. There was nothing so frustrating as misunderstanding someone. She knew it shouldn’t matter, but it bothered her beyond measure.

     It made her feel…less somehow.

     The receptionist led her into one of the small rooms in the back and left her with the promise that Dr. Tanaki’s intern would be with her shortly.

     The room smelled of the lemon-scented oil used to keep the rich patina of the old oak wainscoting bright. The Clear Speech office was in a historic building, a crenellated monstrosity with brickwork that would cost the earth to duplicate today. Circa 1871, according to the brass plate beneath the sepia-toned photograph of the brownstone hanging on the wall. In the photo, the imposing edifice was shown surrounded by open fields. Now it stood cheek-by-jowl with its neighbors on the crowded Back Bay street.

     Everything changes.

     “Guess I should cross-stitch that on a pillow,” Sara murmured.

     A light tap on her shoulder interrupted her thoughts. She turned to look up into an open, even-featured male face. His sandy blond hair was slightly disheveled and his eyes were the color of the waves off Cape Anne on a summer day.

     “Cross-stitch what on a pillow?”

     He flashed a smile at her, waiting for her reply. She resisted naming the ache lodged in her chest.

     Everything changes.

     Sara wasn’t ready to recount the upheavals of the last three years to a total stranger, even a friendly, good-looking stranger. He didn’t need to hear about the way her life had been squeezed into a narrow space just like the old building now wedged between its neighbors, pressed so tight sometimes it was hard to breathe.

     So she said the two little words every hearing-impaired person hates most from a hearing one. The words that mean ‘Communicating with you is too much trouble.’

   “Never mind.”

     He seemed not to be offended. “Please have a seat then, Ms. Kelley and we’ll get started. I’m Ryan Knight.”

     He pulled a pair of designer frames from his shirt pocket and slipped them on before glancing at her chart. Lean and broad-shouldered, he was already terminally attractive. The glasses raised his IQ about 20 points.

     “I’ll do your initial assessment,” he said. “Then next time, you can work with Dr. Tanaki.”

     “That’ll be fine, Dr. Knight.” Hot or not, he still wasn’t the highly recommended pathologist she’d hoped to work with.

     “I haven’t finished my doctorate yet. Call me Ryan.” He hooked an ankle over his knee and jotted a quick note on the pad resting on his khaki-clad thigh. “From the quality of your speech, I’m assuming your loss was post-lingual.”

     Long after she learned to speak, thank God.

     “Summer of my sophomore year in college,” she said. “Meningitis.”

     He nodded, acknowledging the cause of her impairment without pity. His demeanor was text-book clinical—approachable, but detached.

     He studied her records and his pale eyebrows shot up. “According to the chart your audiologist sent, you stayed on at Boston College and graduated with honors.”

     “You seem surprised.” Sara bristled slightly. The college bent over backward to accommodate her. She was allowed to copy lecture notes from another student. She used internet chat rooms to participate in class discussions. BC offered to provide an interpreter, but she resisted learning ASL at first, making do with her hearing aids and speechreading and lots of independent study. She was a good student. She adjusted.

     What she didn’t adjust to was the isolation her impairment forced on her.

     “My hearing loss didn’t affect my intelligence.” Maybe he wasn’t as smart as those glasses made him look. “Deaf doesn’t mean dumb, you know.”

     He frowned. “I meant no insult. I’m just surprised you didn’t decide to transfer to Gallaudet. Their academic program rivals any hearing university.”

     “I couldn’t sign well enough,” she admitted. Even now, she lacked the grace and fluidity that characterized the signing of those who were Deaf from birth. ASL wasn’t her first language. She still thought in English and signed with a hearing accent.

     He nodded again. “So you hear too well for the Deaf culture and not well enough for the hearing.”

     Sara flinched. No one had ever put her situation so baldly before, but he was right. She straddled two worlds, not quite comfortable with either of them. She felt the tension keenly, but never expected anyone else to realize what she struggled with on a daily basis. Ryan Knight had cut to the heart of her life within ten minutes of their meeting.

     What else might he see with those ocean-blue eyes of his?

     “Exactly,” she said. “My impairment puts those who can hear on edge and the Deaf resent me for thinking I have an impairment.”

     Her stomach fluttered. She was grateful that he understood. At the same time, she felt unduly exposed, as if he’d accidentally seen her naked.

     “Your speech is excellent,” he said. “What can we help you with?”

     “I know I’m understandable,” she said. “What I want is to speak well enough that my impairment isn’t obvious. I’m afraid I’m losing my natural inflection.”

     It was easy to forget to change pitch when she was concentrating so hard on making sure she formed her words correctly. She wanted to pass as hearing, to blend back into the world she was born to.

     “We can help you with that,” he assured her. “But it’s not really necessary. You communicate quite clearly for—”

     “For a Deaf person,” she finished for him.

     “I wasn’t going to say that. I was going to say ‘for conversational purposes.’ If you want to embark on a public speaking career, we might work on a thing or two.” He leaned toward her. “What is it you really want?”

     She blinked in surprise. He was speech pathologist, not a priest. This was no time for true confessions. She settled for something he might be able to help her with.

     “I want people to listen to what I say, not how well I’m saying it for someone who’s Deaf. I don’t want my impairment to be the first thing someone notices about me.”

     He cocked his head at her. “My vision isn’t perfect unless I wear glasses. Is that the first thing you notice about me?”

     She couldn’t admit the first thing she’d noticed was his startling blue eyes, whether they were behind lenses or not.

     “No, but—”

     “But what?” he said. “Without my glasses, you could say I’m impaired.”

     “There’s a difference,” she said. “You don’t have to explain to me how I can help you see better. Your glasses do that. Even with my hearing aids, I have a loss. That’s why every time I meet someone new, I have to tell them how they need to speak to me if they want me to understand them. I’m so sick of it.”

       He was silent for a few moments.

       “I see your point,” he said. “You seem to speechread very well.”

       “Not nearly well enough.” Sara thought about the man in the white van. She mangled that reading so badly, she half-convinced herself he was a mob hit man taking on a contract, for pity’s sake. Obviously, she watched way too many re-runs of The Sopranos.

       She pushed the white van and the man in it out of her mind as Ryan Knight started leading her through a vocal exercise.

~

       Sara stepped out of the bathroom with a towel turbaned around her head. She slipped on her nightgown, enjoying the feel of fresh cotton sliding over clean skin.

      “Where’s that dog? Lulu, time to go to bed!” she called, putting two fingers to her larynx to assess changes in pitch and volume. Ryan had shown her the vibrations were much different from high to low, loud to soft. Once he learned she had a hearing-ear dog, he encouraged her to practice talking to Lulu.

       Her furry companion crawled out from under the bed skirt, stretching and yawning. She’d already put herself to bed.

       “Silly girl.” Sara scooped up the little dog and put her on the foot of the bed. Lulu looked like a dust mop with feet, but she was trained to alert Sara to a knock at the door or a fire warning. The dog woke Sara each morning when her alarm clock buzzed and pranced in circles when a text came in on the cell phone or TTY, a landline for the hearing-impaired. But mostly, Lulu was good company and that was important.

       Now that Sara was single again.

       Her wedding ring was still on the sterling holder she kept on the bedside table. It was decent of Matthew to insist she keep it. The diamond was a little over a full carat and of good quality. If she had a rough patch, she could always sell it, he’d said.

       Rough patch. Is that what he’d call it? Didn’t he know there were some things money wouldn’t fix?

     She picked up the ring and the stone caught the glow of her lamp. The refracted light danced across the ceiling, splintered into hundreds of little prisms.

     Kind of like her marriage.

     “Do not go there,” Sara ordered herself as she put the ring back in its place. She should probably take it down to the bank and put it in the safe deposit box. But she wasn’t quite ready not to see it anymore.

     “I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Ryan Knight though,” she told her dog.

     Professional ethics put her off-limits to him, she was sure. It also made him safe. She could indulge in a harmless little fantasy about a hot guy with no expectation of anything else.

     It was easier not to have expectations.

     She turned out her light, piled into bed and flicked on the small bedroom TV. Closed captions scrolled across the bottom of the evening news. It was a good way to work on her speechreading since the captions helped her catch up if she missed something.

     An earthquake in Sumatra, new electronic voting machines for the coming election, a hole-in-one at a local golf course. Sara settled deeper into her pillows. She was almost ready to call it a night when the talking head announced a breaking story. His lips formed a name she recognized.

     She sat bolt upright.

     This just in. A body was recovered from the Mystic River this evening. The coroner has identified the deceased as Anthony Valenti, an associate professor in mathematics at MIT.

     The Mystic River. Sara walked Lulu along the footpath skirting the river every morning.

     Valenti’s half-submerged vehicle was found in the river by a jogger. Based on skid marks near the scene, police believe Mr. Valenti lost control of his car and ran it off the road. In other news, the Boston Red Sox—

     Sara turned off the TV and stared into the darkness.

     Anthony Valenti didn’t lose control. He didn’t run his car into the water. His death was made to look like an accident, just like the lips in the white van had promised.

     She was a better speechreader than she thought.

     With unsteady hands, she picked up her cell and began texting. At the very least, she could tell the police that Anthony Valenti’s death was no accident.

     She just wished the only homicide detective she knew wasn’t also her ex.

 

Chapter 2

     Morning at the station house smelled of stale cigarettes. The coffee was so strong Matt always claimed it could carry a mug across the table by itself. Sara nodded to the officers she recognized as she made her way through the squad room. They returned her smile, but her ex was one of their own.

     None of them had been on her side during the divorce.

     She hoped he’d get this over with quickly. It was so hard to see him.

     The door to his office was ajar, so she peered in. Matt was sitting behind his desk. An invisible hand squeezed her heart. His gaze was focused on the papers before him, his dark hair falling forward over his brow. Sara’s hand still itched to reach up and ease it back into place for him.

     She started to push the door open, then jerked to a stop when she realized he wasn’t alone. A woman leaned into Sara’s field of vision and fastened her mouth on Matthew’s.

     Brittany.

     Heat crept up Sara’s neck and threatened to leak out her ears. She was here to do her civic duty, not be subjected to the bimbette who destroyed her marriage. She cleared her throat.

     Brittany straightened and turned, her cat-slant gaze raking Sara. “Oh! She’s here.”

   “Hello, Sara.” Matthew rose to his feet as Sara pushed the door open and entered his office.

     Brittany reached over with a tissue and wiped a little of her peach lipstick from Matthew’s lower lip. “Wrong color for you, baby.”

     She bared her teeth at Sara. No one would mistake the expression for a smile. Then she flounced out in a long-legged stride.

     A frown pleated Matthew’s brow.

     Trouble in paradise?

     “I didn’t see a ring,” Sara said. “Guess you haven’t made an honest woman of her yet.”

     “Sara—”

     “I’m sorry. That was rude,” she said before he could throw up his fences. “I didn’t come here for a fight.”

       Matthew mumbled something and waved a hand toward the only other chair in the room.

       He forgot he was supposed to face her straight on when he spoke to her. How had she missed that warning sign? She should have known their marriage was in trouble when he first started forgetting things like that. She read his body language and sat anyway.

       There were dark smudges under his eyes and a tightness at the corners of his mouth that hadn’t been there the last time Sara saw him. He seemed down.

       Or maybe she was just hoping he was miserable. It was hard to tell.

       He held her gaze for several heartbeats. “You look good, Sara. How’ve you been?”

       No, she would not be sucked in by his puppy-dog brown eyes.

       “Fine. Busy. Look, can we just get this over with? I sent you a detailed text.”

       A muscle ticked along his jaw line. He didn’t like being brushed off.

       Well, join the club, pal.

       “Your text was pretty thorough, but I have a couple of questions. First, where were you when you speechread this conversation?”

       He slow-walked her through the whole thing, encouraging her to repeat verbatim as much as she could remember of the disturbing exchange. She described the van and gave him the numbers from the plate.

       “How about the guy?” he asked. “Would you know him again if you saw him?”

       She shook her head. “I only saw him in the mirror and then only part of his face.”

       “Race?”

       “White, I think,” she said. “His arm was pretty tan. Maybe Hispanic. I just don’t know.”

       “You’re trying too hard.” Matt wrote something on the page in front of him. “Usually your first impression is the right one.”

       Her first impression of Matthew certainly turned out to be wrong. He was going to love her till they were both dust, but her hearing loss changed all that. They stopped talking. They grew apart.

      Or maybe it had nothing to do with my impairment. Maybe it was just Brittany’s skinny little butt.

       “Facial hair?” he asked, as if it didn’t still hurt for her to breathe the same air as him.

       How did he do that? Just go through the motions as if they didn’t have all that history together? Did some people have a toggle in their hearts that let them turn their emotions on and off like a light switch?

       “Sara?”

       She gave herself a mental shake. “No. No facial hair. I’m sorry. I wish I could give you more.”

       Or less. She wished there was a switch in her heart.

       “I know how you hate it when eye-witnesses can’t be more specific.”

       “Don’t worry about it.” He jotted another couple lines and slid the paper into a manila folder. “This is all just for form’s sake anyway. The coroner has already ruled death by drowning in the Valenti case.”

       “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t murder. Wasn’t there some evidence of a struggle?

       “There was a bruise on the guy’s forehead. But his tox report shows plenty of alcohol. We figure he drove his car into the river, made it out in the shallow water and slipped. Valenti banged his forehead on the car door and into the drink he went. There was a dent and blood smear on the car. Never knew what hit him.” Matthew shoved the folder to the corner of his desk. “This is going down as an accident. Case closed.”

       “But don’t you see?” Sara leaned forward. “That’s just what the guy in the van said. Valenti’s death was meant to look accidental.”

       “Haven’t you told me more than once that speechreading is not an exact science?”

       “Yes, but—”

       “Look, I ran your text past my captain but he’s not convinced,” Matthew said. “Not when the coroner says otherwise. Maybe if you’d called it in before the accident happened…”

       “I know I should have.” Didn’t he know she spent most of her days fighting the urge to call him? Sara fisted her hands in her lap. “But the man said Valenti’s name. Doesn’t it seem odd that I speechread the name and then he dies?”

       “You’re sure he said Valenti?”

       “Positive.” She was now.    

       His lips pressed together in a tight line.

       “If your mind’s already made up, why did you ask me to come down here?”

       “Maybe I just wanted to see you, Sara.”

       She put a hand over her eyes. No, she could not do this. The scab was just starting to form on her heart. She couldn’t pick it now.

       “Matthew, please don’t.”

       When she took her hand down, he was still looking at her. The word around the station was that Matthew Kelley could force a confession just by staring at a suspect.

       Well, he wasn’t going to get one from her. She had nothing to confess.

       But he seemed to be sending her a message with his intent gaze. There was a sadness in him. Loss, regret, it was difficult to catalog his expression. Part of her wanted to comfort him. Part drew back in self-preservation.

     Self-preservation won.

     “I haven’t asked much from you lately, but I’m asking now. I need you to believe me about this,” she said. “I know what I saw.”

     “I’ll see what I can do.” Matthew rose and came around to her side of the desk, hitching one thigh on the corner. He folded his arms across his chest. “Don’t say anything about this. Not to anyone. If you’re right, the guy who did this is dangerous. If he learns we’re onto him, we certainly don’t want him learning who tipped us.”

       A claw ripped down her spine. She hadn’t thought about that.

       Accidents could happen to anyone.

~

        Brittany sat in the Dunkin Donuts across from the station, waiting for ‘perfect-little-Miss-Martyr-Sara’ to come out. Matthew had said it wouldn’t take long, but his ex-wife had been in there half an hour already.

     That was longer than it took Matt to make love to her lately. By about twenty minutes.

     When Brittany first lured him to her bed, she knew he was married. It made him such an attractive target. Part of the challenge.

     More fun.

     She hadn’t counted on him being married to Mother Teresa. The way Sara milked her deafness made Brittany want to puke. Why couldn’t she just be another boring wife who wouldn’t go down on her husband?

     Instead, Sara was the perfect injured party and Matthew was feeling guilty about injuring her more. Brittany couldn’t remember the last time they’d hit a club or gone to a movie or done anything remotely fun.

     He wasn’t even all that good in bed any more.

     But Matthew was hot in a naughty-and-nice, choir boyish sort of way. Back when they used to go clubbing, Brittany liked the way other women looked at him and then at her, as if acknowledging she’d bagged a good one.

     It was high time he coughed up a ring. Brittany still liked to party, but she was older than Matt by a couple of years and she didn’t have a 401K. She had a great body, if she did say so herself, but her rack wasn’t going to last forever. She was smart enough to know that while she was a good lay—she’d been known to bring men to their knees—she wasn’t perfectly pretty enough in the Barbie-doll sort of way to catch the eye of serious money. Besides, she grew up in Southie. Where would she meet serious money anyway? It was time to hedge her bets.

     Cops had good pensions.

     And odd hours.

     That could work if she got too bored. And if Matthew happened to get killed in the line of duty, well, a widow stood a good chance at getting a hefty settlement from the city.

     Besides, she’d always looked good in black.

     She drummed her French-manicured nails on the counter. Sara still hadn’t come out of the station. Brittany had managed to read that text from Sara on Matthew’s cell phone while he was in the shower, but she hadn’t been quick enough to delete it that morning.

     So the martyr was claiming to be a murder witness now. How convenient. Probably just an excuse to worm her way back into Matthew’s life.

     Like I’m going to let that happen.

     A ringtone sounded at the next table. The guy dug into his pants and came out with an iPhone, the theme from Rocky blaring.

     “No, boss, I got nothing,” he complained loudly. “What can I tell you? It’s a slow news day.”

     A reporter.

     Matt said they were always sniffing around, hoping for a murder to sell their papers—the gooey-er the better. Brittany tossed the guy a jaundiced glance. Poor schmuck was probably stuck with the police beat when he wanted to be in city hall where the real crime was.

     “What? You want I should make up the news like that New York Times reporter?” he said. “Maybe they’ll give me a Pulitzer, too!”

     An awful idea buzzed around Brittany’s brain and settled on her shoulder. No, she really shouldn’t.

     “I’m tellin’ you, it was nothing. Just an accidental drowning,” he said, not trying to disguise his disappointment.

     Brittany caught sight of Sara finally coming out of the station. Matthew followed her out and walked her to her banged-up car. He totally didn’t need to do that. When Sara got in and drove away, Matt just stood there, watching until she was out of sight.

     That did it. Her mind was made up and it would serve the little bitch right.

     Of course, Matt would have a fit if he found out.

     She’d just have to make sure he didn’t.

     When the reporter jammed his phone back into his pocket, Brittany turned and smiled at him. She leaned forward just enough to give him a good look at her perky girls.

     “I couldn’t help overhearing that you write for the paper,” she said twirling a lock of her blond hair around her forefinger. She’d been told the blue streaks in it made her look even hotter. She might go purple next time. Or pink.

     “Yeah, so?”

     “Looking for a story, babe?”

     “Always.”

     “If you promise to protect me as your source, I’ve got a lead for you.” She arched her back. Men’s eyes usually glazed over when she did that.

     “Is it a good one?” The reporter’s gaze strayed from her face to her tits and couldn’t seem to find its way home.

     “Better than good.” Brittany ran her tongue over her bottom lip. “It’s killer.”

 

Chapter 3

 

     The rear-end collision had damaged more than Sara’s bumper. The shock wave had reverberated through the entire frame of her old Taurus while protecting her in the driver’s seat. The designers in Detroit should be proud.

     “Might take a week to fix,” the man at the dealership had said. “Longer, if we have trouble getting parts.”

     Sara had argued that she could still drive it, but when the mechanic pointed out that the tires were rubbing on the wheel wells each time she made a turn, she agreed to leave her aging Taurus with them.

     So now she was stuck riding the crowded T home after school.

     It was more green to take public transportation, but she loved driving her own car. It made her feel normal. It was one freedom her impairment hadn’t taken from her.

     And honestly, she hated the subway. The screech of the train wheels at each station stop was like an ice pick in her ears. Her hearing aids whined in protest. Jostled and pressed upon by strangers, claustrophobia sometimes made her light-headed.

     Like now.

     Sara hadn’t been able to find a seat, so she clutched a pole near one of the doors. She tried not to make eye contact with anyone. The last thing she wanted was to start a conversation with someone she didn’t know. It was too hard to explain her requirements over the clack of the wheels.

     A masculine hand closed over the pole above hers. He wasn’t touching her. By subway standards, she supposed he was being polite enough. But she felt his heat and sensed his body mere inches away.

     This was insane. Didn’t the designers of these things realize normal people needed at least eighteen inches of space around themselves to feel comfortable?

     The subway car barreled toward a station and then screamed to a halt. Sara was thrown forward by the train’s momentum and then back by its sudden stop. She lost her balance and fell into the man behind her. A teenager had just vacated a seat to make a hasty exit from the train and the man plopped into it, pulling Sara onto his lap to keep her from landing on the filthy floor.

     “I’m so sorry,” Sara said, trying to untangle herself. Her cheeks burned. She couldn’t bear to look at him.

     “That’s all right. Glad I could help.” The familiar masculine voice rumbled by her ear. “Sara Kelley, isn’t it?”

     She stopped squirming and turned to look up into the face of Ryan Knight. He flashed a brilliant smile.

     The train jerked forward, pulling out of the station. He tightened his grip around her waist to keep her from sliding off his lap and landing in a wad of something that looked like gray bubble gum.

     Sara hoped it was gum.

     “Thank you, Mr. Knight.”

     “Ryan,” he corrected. “That wasn’t your stop, I hope.”

     “No, I’m the next one.”

     “Me, too.”

     He still hadn’t released his hold on her, so she glanced down at his arm and then threw him a pointed look. He took the hint.

     “Here, take the seat.”

     Ryan eased her off his lap and held her elbow to steady her while she settled back into the spot he’d just left. He reached up to grasp the overhead rail as the subway car swayed around a turn.

     “I haven’t seen you on this train before,” he said.

     “I don’t usually take the T,” she explained. “Too crowded.”

     He shot her a teasing grin. “Not to mention the riffraff you bump into, huh?”

     Was he flirting with her?

     Sara hadn’t gone out with anyone since her divorce. Even before then, it had been so long since she dated anyone besides Matthew. She couldn’t be sure if Ryan was merely being pleasant or if he was . . . interested.

       But one thing was certain. The detached clinician was gone. Ryan Knight had shed his professional demeanor along with his jacket and tie.

     “Me, I never drive in the city if I can help it,” he said. “That traffic’s a killer.”

     Tell me about it. Only one vehicle length separated her from a professional hit man just yesterday.

     “So do you drive at all?” she asked.

     “Sure, when I want to get away,” he said. “I’ve got a 1965 T-bird convertible. It’s great for driving up to Maine.”

     Yeah, and my other car is a Maserati. As if someone with classic wheels like a T-bird was going to waste his time on the subway.

     The train pulled into her station and she and Ryan spilled out of the railcar with rest of the commuters.

     ‘Where do you live?’ he signed beside her. He’d known without being told that it would be easier for her to sign than try to speechread as they walked side by side.

     And he signed well.

     Sara could have hugged him.

     ‘Only a few blocks from here. You?’

     ‘Right there.’ He indicated the luxury high rise on the far side of the skywalk from the train station. ‘There’s a coffee shop around the corner. They make a great latte. Let me get you one before I walk you home.’

     ‘So, you’re walking me home now?’ she signed, relaxing in his company enough to enjoy the easy banter.

     ‘No, I’m buying you a cup of coffee first.’

     She laughed out loud. They stopped walking and she looked up at him.

     “Are you always this insistent?”

     “Only if the girl is this resistant.”

     She caught her lower lip with her teeth for a moment. “I’m a Clear Speech client. Aren’t you bound by some sort of doctor/patient thing?”

     “Yesterday I would have been, yes,” he admitted. “But I finished my quarter with Dr. Tanaki. In fact, you were the last of his clients I saw. I started at Mass General today, working with aphasia patients. So as far as I know, there aren’t any professional impediments to our sharing a cup of joe.”

     His smile carved a deep dimple in his left cheek.

     “I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “You’ve already kept me from landing on my bottom on the train. You don’t owe me anything else.”

     His smile faded. “This isn’t about owing anyone anything.”

     “You’re a speech pathologist and I’m an available subject. But I don’t want to be part of some study you’re doing, Ryan.”

     “What are you talking about? What study?”

     “You know, it might make a good thesis at that—the single scene for the hearing-impaired,” she said with a wry grin. “Or better yet, a sit-com. Sex and the Single Deaf Girl. Sign any good pick-up lines lately?”

       As soon as the words left her mouth, she wished she could stuff them back in.

       One of his brows arched. “I was just thinking coffee, but sex sounds good to me.”

       His smile returned with a wicked tilt.

       Heat spread over her cheeks. “Oh, I did not just say that. I’m so sorry. It’s—well, I’m used to living by my own thoughts. I’m not very good at conversation anymore and things tend to sort of . . . pop out.”

       “If it’s things like that, I’ll bet you’re pretty popular,” he said.

       “Not really.” She turned away from him and picked up her pace, trying to leave him behind.

       He caught up with her easily. ‘Why are you so prickly?’ he signed, bewilderment knotting his brow. ‘All I did was offer you a cup of coffee.’

       She stopped and faced him squarely, hands on her hips. “I’m nearly deaf, Ryan.”

       “I know. But it doesn’t keep you from drinking coffee.” His blue-as-the-ocean eyes narrowed. “It must get really heavy to lug around.”

       “What must?”

       “That chip on your shoulder,” he said. “Everything isn’t about your hearing, you know. If I hadn’t bumped into you on the train, I planned on finding you some other way. I’d like to get to know you better, Sara. Why make everything so hard?”

       She couldn’t decide whether to be offended or flattered. Ryan Knight refused to let her hide behind her impairment. He ripped down her defenses and battered her over the head with his off-handed charm.

     “Has anyone ever told you you’re very single-minded?” she asked.

     “Yep.” He switched to signing and started walking. ‘Come on, Sara. Just coffee for now, and I’ll take you for a ride in the T-bird on Saturday. We can decide about the sex later.’

     His eyes glinted wickedly, but she decided he was teasing.

     “Wait a minute.” She stopped him with a hand to his arm. “You really have a convertible?”

     “Scout’s honor,” he raised his hand in a three-fingered pledge.

     “What makes me think you were never a Boy Scout?”

     One corner of his mouth lifted in triumph. “If you want to see my badges, you have to come up to my condo sometime.”

     Like that’s going to happen. Sara didn’t want this fluttery, anything-is-possible feeling in her chest, but she couldn’t seem to stop it.

     “Sure is. It would give us a chance to revisit that whole sex issue.”

     She choked out a laugh. “You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”

     “Always prepared.”

     “Guess you were a Boy Scout, after all. All right, I give up.” She raised her hands in mock surrender. “Lead me to the caffeine, O mysterious coffee god.”

* * *

     Neville Rede didn’t look up from his paper when the couple walked past him. In his peripheral vision, he saw them waving their hands in the air, signing animatedly until they parted company at the steps of her building.

     It was the right deaf girl. Considerate of the newspaper to include her picture.

     The man with her was not the ex-husband, though. That much was sure.

       Amazing what you can find out if you Google someone.

     Sara Kelly had been married to a cop, Neville had learned. But the guy she was walking with now wasn’t packing. Most cops got so used to the weight of a piece on their hips they felt naked without one, even in their civvies.

     Still, this guy moved with assurance. A tension in his muscles that belied the easy lope of his stride.

     Martial arts, maybe?

     Could be a deterrent. Neville would have to see.

     So far, his employer hadn’t ordered him to hit the girl. The police hadn’t changed the accidental status on the Valenti case, but when the press got involved, who knew what could happen?

     He looked up to the row of third floor windows. Second one from the end was the deaf girl’s bedroom. Another day or so of recon—a week at most—and he’d know how and where to do her. She was an unacceptable threat. Even without an order, he’d do her for free.

     It was a matter of principle.

 


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