Murder, Interrupted – James Patterson

Christmastime was approaching in Carrollton, Texas, and Nancy Howard’s husband, Frank, was putting up the Christmas lights. The two-story brick house was the sort of house Frank and Nancy had dreamed about since the day they were married, twenty-eight years ago now, in Frank’s daddy’s church. The house where their three grown-up children always came back to for the holidays. Nancy missed Ashley, Jay, and Brianna so much it was like part of her own body had gone missing. But the truth was that she also looked forward to her years as an empty nester. Frank was a hardworking man. At home he’d been a devoted father, with all the time in the world for their kids. Nancy loved and admired those qualities. But Frank’s work, the kids, and all of the hours that Nancy and Frank had spent with their church—that meant less alone time for them. Hard as it was to see her children leave home, Nancy looked for a silver lining and found one: In all of the months and years to come, she’d have more of Frank to herself. At least, that’s what Nancy had thought. The Howards had seen each other through some hard times. Ashley, their oldest, had barely survived her first days in the hospital. That had tested Frank and Nancy’s faith. So had Frank’s prostate cancer and Nancy’s fibromyalgia—a chronic condition that disturbed her sleep and her moods and made her muscles ache constantly.

But in the end, those trials had only strengthened their bond. Then, in 2009, Frank’s two-man accounting firm had taken on a new client. At first, it had seemed like a windfall. The client was a defense contractor named Richard Raley —a man with significant interests in the Middle East. What Raley did specifically was ship ice, military hardware, and other equipment to American troops in Iraq. What he’d engaged Frank to do, after the death of his previous accountant, was to help him manage tens of millions of dollars he’d made in Kuwait. Officially, Frank was to be paid $10,000 a month to advise Raley’s firm on issues relating to investments and taxes. Frank had his questions about the operation, and about Richard Raley, but he kept them to himself, and Raley ended up making Frank his chief financial officer. The job came with significant perks: new office space, the use of Raley’s own private jet. Frank bought himself a Lexus and began flying to the West Coast, Europe, and the Middle East on business.

Left behind in Carrollton, Nancy felt lonely and abandoned. But what made it worse was that the Frank who came back from these trips seemed less and less like the man she had married. Distant. Furtive. Angry. For two years now, those were the words Nancy had tried to avoid when she thought of her husband. For two years, those same words kept coming to mind. Nancy blamed Richard Raley and the long hours that Frank had been putting in, ever since Raley had made him his CFO. Frank himself had told her that the job was wearing him out. But Nancy wondered if there was more to it than that.

Something she couldn’t put her finger on. Something that was nagging at Frank and pulling him further and further away from their marriage. Now she watched from the kitchen as Frank dug around in a big bin of old holiday decorations. After a minute, he pulled out something that looked a lot like a strongbox. Furtively, he carried the box out into the yard. Outside, Frank darted behind a bush and dropped the strongbox into a small hole he’d dug there. In the time that it took Nancy to follow him into the yard, he’d made it back up the ladder. “Frank? Frank?” Jesus, Frank thought, what is it now? “These are all wrong,” Nancy said, pointing at the Christmas lights he’d already strung up. “You’re going to do this side over.” Looking down from the ladder, Frank smiled.

But underneath he was seething. As far as he was concerned, Nancy nagged him and nagged him, always over the smallest details. But the big picture was completely beyond her. She simply couldn’t see how hard Frank had worked for their family. She couldn’t understand the sacrifices he’d made, all his traveling, his long hours. And when he got home, there she was—always nagging and egging him on. Who cared if the Christmas lights were crooked? Frank barely swallowed his fury. “Well, if you say so!” he said as he adjusted the lights. Chapter 2 Frank Frank Howard had always been proud that he was born and raised a preacher’s kid. He met Nancy in his father’s church in San Marcos—when they got married in that same church, Frank’s father performed the ceremony himself—and here in Carrollton, their Baptist church was the center of their social life.

Frank and Nancy took part in the church’s community outreach programs. They prayed for international missionaries and for poor people closer to home. They sang in First Baptist’s choir. And they gave very freely to the church. A few days before Christmas, the Howards’ minister pulled them aside after choir rehearsal to thank them for the truly remarkable donation they had just made. “Well,” Frank told the minister, “the Lord’s blessed me with so many incredible opportunities.” “It wouldn’t be right not to share our good fortune with others,” Nancy added. Moments like these made Nancy thankful for Frank’s job. Giving to others reminded of her of how much she herself had been given. Blushing slightly, she thought of the good things that the past few years had brought their family.

Nancy knew that for Frank, gaining Raley as a client had been the start of a whole new life. In point of fact, it had been the beginning of two new lives. A richer, more rewarding life here in Texas. And a life on the West Coast that Nancy knew nothing about and would have been shocked to discover. But what Nancy didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her—at least not today, as she smiled at the minister and all of the nice things the minister said. “You know, I’m still just a preacher’s kid from downstate,” Frank said as the minister wrapped up his song of praise and gratitude. Turning to the minster’s wife, he added, “Who knows, if things hadn’t turned out differently in my life, I could have ended up with a church of my own. But Nancy and I love it here at First Baptist. We’re so happy to give back. And, truly, it’s no big thing.

Just the way my daddy raised me.” The four of them stood there silently. Maybe even a bit awkwardly. Then the minister’s wife turned to Nancy. “Won’t it be nice,” the wife said, “to have all your chicks coming back to their nest?” “Heaven!” said Nancy. “You know, it’ll be like paradise, right here on Earth.” She was beaming now as Frank took her hand and stood, smiling, beside her. Chapter 3 The Howards On Christmas Eve the whole Howard family—Frank and Nancy, Ashley, Jay, and their youngest, Brianna—gathered in front of the fire. It was a family tradition, and this was a special year. Their family was about to get bigger.

Brianna had brought her fiancé, Jed, along, and Nancy couldn’t stop oohing and aahing over the engagement ring that Jed had bought for her daughter. “How did you and Frank meet?” Jed asked. Nancy loved to tell this story: Frank’s daddy’s church in San Marcos. Falling in love with the minister’s kid. It had made perfect sense at the time—Nancy herself was the daughter of a church pianist in Driftwood—and Nancy still remembered how handsome Frank looked, with that crooked smile of his and his thick shock of black hair. She loved to talk about how they fell in love across the pews and tied the knot in that very same church. She’d just gotten to the part about the pews when Frank’s phone started to ring. “Work,” he whispered. “On Christmas Eve?” Nancy whispered back. “I have to take it,” Frank said, loudly enough to catch Ashley’s attention.

“What’s happening?” she asked. “Daddy, what is it?” “Nothing, sweetie. I’ll be back in a moment.” With Frank gone, Nancy tried to pick the thread of her story back up: Frank’s father’s church. Falling in love across the pews. But all the emotions that she’d felt rising up in her just a moment ago fell as flat as a collapsed soufflé. She stumbled on her own words. And when Frank returned, he broke the bad news to the whole room at once: The call was from his boss, who needed a new account set up and needed it done before New Year’s. It was important work. Work that would not wait.

“No!” Nancy said. “Flying out on Christmas? Just say no, Frank! Who works on Christmas Day, anyway? Don’t you have any backbone at all?” Frank made the usual appeals. First, he played the part of the patriot: “Those boys in Iraq that we work for—they don’t take Christmas off. They’re laying down their lives for us every day, making the hard sacrifices.” Then Frank played the part of the victim. Brought up the sacrifices he’d made—sacrifices that he continued to make—for the troops, for Nancy, for the kids: “You think I want to be traveling on Christmas? My whole life is here, in front of this fireplace. Who else would I even be doing this for?” Frank teared up a bit, thinking about all he’d done for his family. His voice broke, twice, as he talked, and Nancy’s heart broke to hear him. Duly chastised, she dried her own tears, apologized, and felt bad for feeling so selfish—for wanting Frank all to herself—when all he wanted to do was take care of them. Looking at him now, she really did understand how hard Frank had been working.

How tiring all of this traveling must be. How much he’d given up for his family. All those late nights at the office. All of those trips out of town. By the time Frank was done talking, she’d fallen in love with him all over again. Chapter 4 Frank and Suzanne It was Christmas Day in Santa Cruz, California, and Suzanne Leontieff had been waiting—forever, it seemed—for her lover to walk to her door, take her in his arms, and…and what? Standing there in her lace nightgown, Suzanne blushed just thinking about it. She was middle-aged now but more attractive than most women half her age. A true born-and-bred California girl, blond as the best of them, smart, self-assured. She had a good, solid job as a dental hygienist. Daughters as beautiful as she had been when she was their age.

And Suzanne’s lover was attractive too. Wealthy, and with a full head of hair that had only just begun to go gray at the temples. Suzanne thought it made him look dignified rather than old. The two of them had met a few years previously, at a softball tournament in Tahoe. Both of Suzanne’s daughters played softball at the tournament level. She was forever ferrying them to tournaments. But in Tahoe she’d decided to take some time for herself. After another long day out in the bleachers, she’d wandered into a lakeside casino. There, at one of the tables, she’d met the man she would fall for—a man who would sweep her away. They gambled together for a night, flirted, and, finally, parted.

But the attraction was undeniable. “It’s too bad you’re married…,” Suzanne said, and stared at him meaningfully. A part of her had to have known that once she said it out loud, there’d be no going back. That part of her had been right. They met the next day, and the day after that. Suzanne was separated from her own husband. Now the man she’d suddenly fallen for told her that his own marriage had taken a turn for the worse. It wasn’t long until the man, who was now her lover, was paying for tournament trips. He paid the college tuition for one of Suzanne’s daughters. He bought Suzanne a new house in Santa Cruz—the house she was pacing around in now as she waited for him to arrive.

The house had cost close to a million dollars. But her lover had paid in cash, then bought another home—a luxury condominium that they could share in Tahoe. Suzanne’s lover took her to exclusive restaurants, bought tickets to sold-out sporting events, flew her and the girls to the West Indies for a vacation. He’d even started an IRA in Suzanne’s name, depositing $700,000 of his own money. This was not why she had fallen in love with the man. But, to be brutally honest, none of it had hurt his chances. And now here he was. Ringing her doorbell. Holding an expensive bouquet and beaming. Chapter 5 Frank The flight from Texas had hollowed Frank out.

The man sitting next to him in the fifth row was wearing an LSU sweatshirt, snakeskin shoes, and just about the amount of cologne it would take to drown a mama cat and all of her kittens. It was a blessing that the good old boy hadn’t talked all that much. Frank no longer liked to fly commercial. The talk from other passengers made his head spin; the food made his bowels hurt; the stewardesses treated him (or so he felt) like a baby. When he was lucky enough to drift off, he dreamed of driving through the very same landscape—that long drive from Texas to California, with pit stops in Santa Fe, Tucson, Los Angeles. But there never was time enough for the drive, and Richard Raley’s private plane was a luxury, not a day-to-day thing he could use whenever Suzanne sank into one of her moods. “Frank,” she would say. “You said you would leave her. But here we all are!” The way Frank figured it, he’d spent millions of dollars on the woman. The least she could do was be grateful.

But, of course, some part of Frank knew she was grateful. She missed him was all, and was lonely for him. And when she opened the door in that lace nightgown that Frank had bought her, Frank was grateful too. Together, they moved through the house. It was as if they were dancing. From the entryway to the living room. From the living room to the staircase. Then up the stairs to the bedroom, with Suzanne whispering in his ear the whole way. “Frank,” she said, in that low, sultry voice she used when she was feeling seductive. “Oh, Frank, the things that I’m going to do to you.

” * * * It was dark and they were naked and spent, drinking champagne in the bedroom, when Frank reached over, stuck his hand deep in the pocket of his black Burberry coat, and pulled out a baby-blue jewel box. The box was small and wrapped with a ribbon, just the right size for a ring. Suzanne squealed when she saw it. She tore off the ribbon. And then her face dropped. “Baby, they’re diamonds,” Frank said. “You don’t like ’em?” “They’re perfect,” Suzanne said, and managed a smile. “You were expecting a ring?” “Years, Frank. It’s been years. How much longer am I supposed to wait?” “I’m here, aren’t I? Here, on Christmas, in the house that I bought for you.

Can’t you just wait a bit longer?” He flashed the same smile that got to her back in Tahoe and she couldn’t help but smile back. It really was Christmas. He really was here, and not back in Texas with her. “Yes,” Suzanne said. “Promise?” “I’m yours. And don’t ever forget it.” The next day they drive to a casino. Suzanne forgets herself there, flirts with two men at the blackjack table, and ignores Frank until the moment her chips are all gone, at which point she asks him for another $10,000. Frank nods to the floor manager. A moment later, new stacks of chips appear in front of Suzanne.

But Frank’s smile is as tight as it was in Texas, when Nancy was nagging him about those Christmas lights that he should have paid someone else to hang—and as he walks away from the table, that smile turns into something twisted. Outside the casino, Frank pulls out a disposable cell phone—a burner—and punches out a short text. Need to see you, he writes. SOON. Next week. I’ll drive out to your town.

.

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