by Irene Hannon
Fatal Judgment: A Novel, By Irene Hannon
At the vibrating summons from his BlackBerry, Deputy U.S. Marshal Jake Taylor clenched his hands on the steering wheel and stifled a groan. Except for the two hours of semi-restful downtime he’d enjoyed during the flight back to St. Louis from Denver, he’d been operating for almost twenty-four adrenaline-packed hours on high-alert status. His plan had been to head straight for his rented condo, ignore the boxes waiting to be unpacked, and crash.
But a quick glance at caller ID told him that plan was probably toast.
Taking a deep breath, he pressed the talk button and greeted his boss. “Hi, Matt. What’s up?”
“Sorry to call so late. Did I wake you?”
“No. The flight was delayed. I’m on my way home from the airport.”
“You might want to pull over.”
A drive-through coffee shop came into view, and Jake swung into the parking lot, grateful for the providential timing and the establishment’s late hours. Since the LED dial on his dashboard clock was inching toward midnight and he suspected sleep wouldn’t be on his agenda in the foreseeable future, a hefty dose of caffeine was in order.
“I’m stopping for some coffee as we speak.” He pulled behind the car already at the order window.
“Good idea. Everything go okay?”
“Yeah. We had it covered. He didn’t even get off a shot.”
Arresting a person on the U.S. marshals’ most-wanted list was always dicey. And as Jake had expected, Ray Carlson—whose string of warrants included murder, arson, narcotics trafficking, and firearms and explosives violations—had merited the deployment of a full contingent of deputy marshals from the service’s elite Special Operations Group.
“Good. That’s the way we like arrests to go down. Listen, I hate to pull you into another tough situation before you catch your breath, but Todd just left for Beauregard for some sniper training.”
Meaning Matt thought this job warranted SOG attention. Todd was the only other St. Louis–based member of the select tactical group headquartered in Louisiana.
“What’s the problem?” Jake extracted a small notebook from his pocket and balanced it on the steering wheel, keeping an eye on the car ahead of him.
“There was an attempted murder earlier tonight at the home of a federal judge. The judge’s sister was shot. She’s alive, but it’s not looking good. Until we have a handle on what happened, I want a protective detail on the judge 24/7. I’d like you to head it up.”
Not for the first time, he wished he’d had more time to prep before his transfer to St. Louis. Jake knew few of the judges here that the Marshals Service was charged with protecting. But no sooner had he arrived in town two weeks ago than he’d been called away to work the Carlson arrest. And during his prior six-month deployment to Iraq, he’d been focused on improving that country’s judicial and witness security—and staying alive. Future assignments back home hadn’t been on his radar screen.
“Who’s the judge?” Pen poised, Jake figured he could get the basics from Matt now and fill in the rest later.
He stopped breathing.
Liz Michaels? Doug’s wife?
No. It couldn’t be the same person.
Even as that question echoed in his mind, he had a sinking feeling he knew the answer.
“Jake? You there?”
“Yeah.” He took a breath. Kept his inflection neutral. “I haven’t done my homework on the Eighth District judges in this area yet, but the name is familiar. I knew an attorney years ago from Jefferson City named Liz Michaels.”
The car in front of Jake pulled away from the drive-through window, and he eased forward to place his order.
“Same person. She was in private practice there for quite a while, then served as a state circuit court judge for three years. She was appointed to the federal bench four months ago.”
A muscle in Jake’s jaw clenched as he pressed the mute button on his phone and addressed the barista. “Large Americano. And throw in an extra shot of espresso.”
The silence lengthened as he dug for his wallet, and when Matt spoke again he could tell from his boss’s tone that the man was frowning.
“Is there a problem?”
Yeah. A big one.
He’d rather go back to Iraq than head Liz Michaels’s protective detail.
But there was only one response a professional could give.
“No. No problem.”
“Good. I’ll get you some relief as soon as this thing is sorted out. But I’d like you to stick close for the first twenty-four hours. I’ll send Spence over to assist.”
“Okay. Where is she?”
“St. John’s. It was the closest Level I trauma center. Two police officers are with her in the ER. They’ll stay there until you arrive. What’s your ETA?”
Jake exited the drive-through and headed toward westbound I-64.
“Ten, fifteen minutes tops.”
“I’ll be in touch.”
The line went dead.
After slipping the BlackBerry back onto his belt, Jake reached for his cup and took a swig of the potent coffee. Then another.
It was going to be a long, unpleasant night.
Fourteen minutes later, the buzz from the espresso beginning to dent his fatigue, Jake found a parking spot near the ER and walked past the media vans. He drew no more than a few disinterested glances from the news crews milling about in the chill of the October night. Dressed in jeans, a wrinkled cotton shirt, and a scuffed leather jacket, with twenty-four hours’ worth of stubble roughening his jaw, he assumed the reporters didn’t consider him anyone worth noticing. They might have revised their opinion if they’d seen the SOG-issued .45 caliber Springfield tucked in the holster on his belt.
Unlike the media, however, the police officers at the door gave him their full attention as he approached.
Hand hovering near his holster, the older of the two officers stepped forward. “May I help you, sir?”
“Deputy Marshal Jake Taylor.” He’d already withdrawn his credentials from his pocket, and he flipped them open. The officer examined them, then nodded. “We were told you were on the way. Your brother is waiting to brief you. I’ll take you back.” He led the way inside, motioning for another officer to take his place at the door.
So Cole was on this case. Meaning the crime had happened in the jurisdiction of the St. Louis County PD. That was one piece of good news, at least. His brother was an excellent detective. But he’d have preferred a different venue for their first get-together since his homecoming. One that included a loaded pizza and a few laughs.
A midnight rendezvous in an emergency room didn’t even come close.
As Jake followed the officer down a brightly lit corridor, blinking against the glare while his eyes transitioned from real-world darkness to a world that never slept, the acid from the coffee gurgled in his stomach, sending a vague wave of nausea through him.
He hated hospitals. Had for four years. If he could have avoided this one, he would have.
For a lot of reasons.
He caught sight of one of them as he passed a doorway flanked by two more officers. While his glimpse through the half-ajar door was fleeting, and though he hadn’t seen her in five years, Jake had no problem recognizing the sole occupant of the room.
One quick, assessing sweep was all he needed to conclude that Liz Michaels hadn’t changed much. She had the same long, honey-blonde hair parted to one side. The same lithe figure, bordering on too thin. The same preference for classic, elegant attire. Except tonight the silky, cream-colored open-necked blouse tucked into her dark brown slacks had maroon stains at the cuffs and splotches of the same color on the front.
Her posture also suggested uncharacteristic defeat. He remembered her as the chin-up, look-the-world-in-the-eyewith- confidence type. Tonight, no hint of that self-assurance was evident. She sat head bowed, eyes closed, her fingers laced as she rested her elbows on the arms of the plastic chair.
There wasn’t a trace of color in her cheeks.
He almost felt sorry for her.
“Detective . . . Marshal Taylor is here.”
Realizing he’d slowed while passing the room where Liz sat, he picked up his pace to join his brother a few yards away.
Cole raised his disposable coffee cup in salute and gave him a wry smile as the escorting officer returned to his post.
“Welcome to St. Louis.”
Sarcasm twisted Jake’s lips. “Thanks a lot. I’d rather be home in bed.”
“Join the club.” Cole gave him a sweeping appraisal. “But I must admit you look like you need the sleep more than I do. A lot more, in fact. Must be your advanced age.”
“I’m only three years older than you.”
“Yeah. But thirty-eight is a lot closer to forty than thirty-five.” Cole grinned. “How come you didn’t let me know you were back?
“I just got in an hour ago.”
Cole grimaced. “Ouch. I take it you didn’t get any shut-eye on the flight home.”
“Nope.” As they both knew, dozing off on a plane was against the rules for armed marshals.
“When’s the last time you slept?”
“I can’t remember.” Jake surveyed his brother. Cole’s dark hair was a bit disheveled, and the white shirt beneath his sport coat had lost most of its starch. “You look like you’ve put in a long day too.”
“That’s why we get paid the big bucks, right?” Cole smirked and hefted his cup again. “You want some coffee?”
“I had an Americano with three shots of espresso on the way here, thanks.”
“Smart choice. You’re going to need it.” He drained the dark dregs and made a face. “And I thought the coffee at the office was bad.” Tossing the cup in a nearby trash can, he gestured toward a darkened room. “We don’t have much yet, but I can brief you on the basics in there.”
Without waiting for a reply, he entered, flipped on the light, and shut the door behind Jake. Settling into one of the two hard plastic chairs, he withdrew a small notebook from his pocket. “Make yourself comfortable.”
Jake cast a skeptical eye at the rigid chair. “Right.”
“I hear you.” Cole shifted in his seat. “They ought to make the people who design these things sit in them for an hour every day.”
Blowing out a resigned breath, Jake sat. “Okay. What do you have?”
“According to Judge Michaels, she arrived home from the courthouse about 7:30, as usual. She checked on her sister, who had been lying down. The sister got up, and the judge ran across the street to get a FedEx package that had been dropped off at her neighbor’s house. She was gone about ten minutes. Her neighbor carried it back for her, and after he left she found her sister slumped on the couch in front of the television in the family room. She’d been shot in the head from behind at close range.”
Jake’s lips compressed into a grim line. Not a pretty image. No wonder Liz looked shell-shocked.
“The sister’s husband. Judge Michaels says he was abusive, and that she’d been after her sister for years to leave him. She finally did. Yesterday. After he beat her up again. We alerted her local PD in Springfield, and they’ve been to the house. No one’s there. We issued a BOLO alert about an hour ago.”
Jake frowned. An abusive husband who was angry enough to kill his wife might also be inclined to seek revenge on the woman who’d offered her shelter.
Cole read his mind. “We had the same thought.” He tucked his notebook back in his pocket. “And trust me, we’re more than happy to turn the good judge over to you guys.”
“Thanks a lot.” Any lingering hope of getting some shuteye tonight evaporated. “How’s the sister?”
“Critical. Not likely to make it. She’s in surgery now. We kept the judge here instead of moving her to the surgical waiting room because it was easier to secure.” He rose. “I need to ask her a few more questions. Might as well introduce you.”
“We’ve met.” Jake stood too. “She’s Doug Stafford’s wife.”
“Whoa!” Cole’s eyebrows rose. “The connection didn’t register.”
“No reason it would. Michaels isn’t an uncommon name. And I doubt I’ve mentioned her to you more than a couple of times.”
“Well, at least you’re acquainted. That might make things easier.”
Jake let that remark pass. He’d never shared his opinion of Doug’s wife with Cole.
But as he followed his brother down the hall, easy wasn’t the word that came to mind about this assignment. Not even close.
This can’t be happening.>
Elbows resting on the arms of the uncomfortable plastic chair, Liz leaned forward and massaged her temples. She felt like she was in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Five hours ago, she and her sister had been getting ready to share a spaghetti dinner.
Now Stephanie was fighting for her life.
From a gunshot wound.
It was surreal.
But she was alive, thank God. Although she wouldn’t be if she hadn’t sensed a presence behind her and shifted at the last instant. At least that was the speculation of the doctor who’d spoken with her hours ago, then left her alone to wait. And worry. And lament the day Stephanie had ever said “I do” to Alan Long.
She hoped that once the police found him, he rotted in prison for the rest of his miserable life.
As a surge of anger ripped through her, she rose suddenly— startling the officer stationed at the door.
“Everything okay, Judge?” He gave her a worried scan and wrapped one hand around the edge of the half-closed door, blocking her exit.
Her anger spiked up a notch. What kind of stupid question was that? The only way to make everything okay was to rewind the clock. Start the day over. Edit out the bad stuff. But none of those things were going to happen. And that wasn’t this young cop’s fault.
“Would you like a soft drink or some coffee, ma’am?” Shoulders slumping, she sank back into her chair. “Coffee would be good.”
And see if you can round up a miracle while you’re at it.
Two minutes later, when the door swung open again, she expected a coffee delivery. Instead, the detective stepped through. She searched her memory for his name. Gave up. If he’d told it to her, it hadn’t registered. Besides, she wasn’t in the mood to talk to him again. She’d already told him everything she knew.
“I have a few more questions, Judge. And I wanted to let you know the U.S. Marshals would be taking over your security.”
Liz knew such protection was protocol for federal judges. She’d just never expected to need it. And she wasn’t sure she did now. Obviously, Alan had . . .
Her train of thought derailed as a tall, dark-haired man stepped into the room behind the detective.
Her husband’s best friend from college.
Shock rippled through her.
Though their paths had only crossed twice—once when he’d been the best man at her wedding, the second time at Doug’s funeral five years ago—there was no mistaking those intense brown eyes nor his formidable presence.
She also recognized his dispassionate gaze. It was the same cool, aloof manner he’d displayed toward her at the service for Doug, and it hadn’t warmed one degree over the years. She’d never understood what she’d done to incur his antipathy—and had long since given up trying to figure it out.
The more important question was, what was he doing in St. Louis?
“I understand you know my brother, Jake,” the detective said.
The tall, dark-haired detective and Jake were brothers. She studied them, seeing the obvious resemblance now that they stood side by side. They had the same perennial-tan coloring, same strong chin, same athletic build—though the detective was about an inch shorter than Jake’s six-one, six two height.
“Yes. Hello, Jake.”
The officer returned with her cup of coffee, edging around the other two men in a room that had suddenly grown crowded. “I hope black is okay.”
“Fine. Thank you.”
As she reached for it, she saw Jake’s focus shift to the stains on her long-sleeved blouse.
She’d been trying to ignore them all evening. And she did her best to do so now as she took the coffee. But she couldn’t control the tremors in her fingers, and the steaming liquid sloshed dangerously close to the edge. She wrapped both hands around the flimsy cup.
As the younger cop exited, the detective spoke again. “Jake will be handling security for you.”
She carefully balanced the cup on her leg. “Why? My sister’s husband got what he came after.” Bitterness etched her words.
The men exchanged a glance, and the detective moved the other chair in the room closer to her. “You want to grab a seat? There are more chairs in the hall.” He raised an eyebrow in Jake’s direction.
Propping his shoulder against the wall, Jake folded his arms across his chest and looked down at her.
“We’d feel more comfortable if you had security until we apprehend your sister’s husband,” the detective told her as he sat.
Liz processed his comment. “You think he might come after me?”
“It’s possible. You harbored his wife. He clearly has an anger problem. If he’s the perpetrator, he’s already killed once—or tried to. I doubt he’d hesitate a second time.”
She reasoned through that, trying to nudge her numb brain into analytical mode. “If he wanted me dead too, why wouldn’t he have taken care of both of us at once?”
The detective shrugged. “He could’ve been watching for you to return and seen your neighbor coming with you. Or he might have been spooked by something. We won’t know that until we find him.”
Jake had remained silent during the exchange, and she tipped her head back to look up at him. He towered over her in the small space, hovering like a keen-eyed hawk waiting to swoop down on his quarry. For the first time, she noticed the shadows of fatigue beneath his lower lashes, his rumpled clothes and the stubble on his chin. The scruffy look didn’t fit. Meaning he must have had a very long day.
But his eyes remained alert. Focused. Razor sharp. Just the way she remembered.
“Are there any security cameras at your house?” he asked.
“What about cameras at the neighbors’ houses, Cole?” Cole. Liz tucked the name away as she took a careful sip of the too-hot coffee.
“We already checked. Nothing. Judge Michaels, is there anyone else you know of who might have had a reason to want your sister dead?”
“No. Stephanie is one of the kindest, sweetest people I’ve ever known.” She blinked to clear away the sudden blur of moisture. “The only one who ever mistreated her was Alan. I tried over and over to convince her to leave him. But she always said he was a good person at heart, and that he couldn’t help these rages that came over him from time to time.”
She rummaged in the pocket of her slacks for a tissue. “The only reason she finally left him was because she just found out she was pregnant, and she was afraid for the b-baby.” Her voice caught, and a tear slipped down her cheek. She swiped at it, balling the tissue into her fist.
“Let’s assume for a minute your sister wasn’t the specific target.” Cole leaned closer to her, his posture intent. “Is there anything in the house important enough to kill for?”
“You think robbery might have been the motive?” She squinted at him, taken aback by that notion.
“We need to explore every option.”
She chewed at her lower lip and considered the question, then shook her head. “No. I did bring home some case notes for an upcoming trial, but there was nothing sensitive or incriminating in them. And I don’t have many personal items of great value.”
“We’d like you to look around and see if anything is missing once the evidence technicians are finished. Sometime tomorrow.” She felt the blood drain from her face. “I’m not sure I can . . .” Her voice choked, and she swallowed. “Going back there will be very difficult.”
“I understand that. But if your sister’s husband has an alibi, we need to consider other motives.” Cole rose. “If you have any other thoughts about what happened tonight, let Jake know and he’ll pass them on.”
Standing, he directed his parting comment to his brother. “I’ll be in touch.”
She watched as he exited and pulled the door half closed behind him.
Several beats of silence passed. Her husband’s best friend remained standing, eyes veiled.
“I’m sorry about your sister.”
“Thanks.” She felt like a bug under a microscope, and gestured to the chair Cole had vacated. “You might want to sit. It’s going to be a long night.”
After a brief hesitation, he pushed off from the wall, eased the chair away from her, and dropped into it.
The silence lengthened again. Liz wasn’t up to small talk, but the quiet in the room felt uncomfortable. “I thought you were based in Washington.”
“I was. But they needed more help here, and I volunteered to transfer. Family ties and all that. I only arrived two weeks ago.”
Just her luck.
“Was Jennifer able to get a . . . teaching job here?” It took her a moment to summon up the profession of the woman she’d never met. She’d always regretted not being able to go with Doug to the wedding in Virginia six years ago, after new evidence in a case she was handling came to light days before the trial was scheduled to begin. That hellish week of twenty-hour days could still make her shudder.
A muscle twitched in his cheek. “Jen died four years ago.” Another wave of shock rippled through her. “I didn’t . . . I had no idea. I’m sorry.”
“So am I.” The words came out gravelly, and he cleared his throat.
“Was it an illness?”
“No. Head injuries from a skiing accident.” He shifted in his seat. “Have you had any updates on your sister?”
She got the hint. Subject closed.
“No. They took her to surgery hours ago. I was about to ask one of the officers if he would . . .”
The words died in her throat when a fortyish man dressed in scrubs pushed open the door and stepped inside. Jake rose at once and moved in front of her.
“It’s okay,” she spoke up. “This is Dr. Lawrence. The surgeon.”
His posture relaxed a fraction.
“I’ll wait outside.” He started to exit.
“You don’t have to leave.” She swallowed, trying to control the tremor in her voice. Whatever the doctor had to say, she didn’t want to face it alone. Despite Jake’s reserve, his solid presence felt somehow reassuring.
He hesitated, one hand on the door, then stepped back into the room and gestured to the empty chair. “Take my seat, Doctor. I suspect you’ve had a long night.”
“Thanks. I have.” The man pulled the chair closer to her and sat, his eyes weary.
At his grim expression, Liz’s heart stuttered and she tried to brace herself. Though he hadn’t uttered a word, she already knew the bottom line.
The news was bad.