Death is Not Enough – Karen Rose

Nineteen years earlier . Chevy Chase, Maryland, Sunday 10 January 10.30 P.M. ‘Sherri, give me the damn key.’ Rolling her eyes at her boyfriend’s growl, Sherri Douglas closed the driver’s-side door, locked up, and tossed the key to her old Ford Escort over its peeling roof. ‘There you go.’ Thomas’s scowl was interrupted by the grimace of pain that twisted his bruised face as he reflexively caught the key in midair. He froze for a second, then hissed as he lowered his arm. ‘Shit,’ he muttered. Sherri sucked in a breath, instantly regretting her thoughtlessness. ‘Oh, Tommy, I’m sorry. That was stupid of me.

’ He schooled his battered features and swallowed hard, pursing his lips then quickly opening his mouth because his lip was split too. She wanted to cry. His beautiful face was . still so beautiful. But hurt. Her chest ached as she catalogued every wound. She wanted to hit something. Someone. Four someones, actually. She narrowed her eyes, thinking about the boys who’d done all that damage. Hating them. Her fists clenched and she shoved them in her coat pockets.

Hitting them wasn’t going to help Thomas. And her father would kill her if she got in trouble too. Her dad wasn’t terribly keen on her dating a white boy to begin with. Ha. A white boy. It would have been funny had it not been so frustratingly sad. Thomas’s dark skin wasn’t white enough for him to fit in here at school, but he wasn’t black enough for her father. At least he hadn’t forbidden them from seeing each other. Because Sherri would have disobeyed her father if he’d tried. But if she got expelled along with Thomas? Her father would make sure they never saw each other again.

Expelled. They’d expelled him. She still couldn’t believe it. It was so unfair. ‘Don’t you ever call yourself stupid,’ Thomas said quietly. She blinked in confusion, then realized he was referring to what she’d just said. But it had been stupid to make him move so quickly. ‘I should have thought.’ Because it wasn’t only his face that was battered. They’d kicked his arms and legs too.

She clenched her teeth, willing the tears back. They’d hurt him. Those bastards. They’d hurt him. Thomas shook his head. ‘It’s all right. I’ll live.’ He walked around to where she stood and held out the car key, his expression one of weary defeat. ‘Sherri, please. Give me the right key.

I’m too tired for games. I just want to get my bass and get out of here. Get back in the car and keep it running. You should stay warm.’ Her eyes filled with tears she couldn’t hold back. ‘I’m going with you,’ she whispered fiercely. His dark brows lifted, his split lip bending down. ‘No. You’re not.’ ‘I’m .

’ Her voice broke and she looked up at him helplessly. He was so big and strong and . good. Better than any of those bastards. One on one, it would have been no contest. At six-three, he was the tallest, strongest boy in their class. But there’d been four of them. Four. They’d beaten him and yet he’d been blamed. He’d been punished.

He’d been expelled. Because Richard Linden – even in her mind, Sherri hissed the entitled bastard’s name – thought he had the right to touch any of the scholarship girls. Just because we’re poor. And he’s not. And because Thomas couldn’t ignore poor Angie’s terrified face as Richard held her against the wall and groped her. And because when Thomas pulled Richard off Angie, Richard and his posse of thugs attacked him and beat the crap out of him. The principal had blamed Thomas. What a shock. Dr Green did whatever the Linden family said because they were rich. And white.

And Thomas and Angie and I are not. And to make it all even worse, somehow Richard or one of his crew had gotten to Angie, because she was denying Richard had even touched her. So they’d expelled Thomas. He’d worked so damn hard to look good to the colleges. He’d needed a scholarship or he wasn’t going. Now? He’d have to go to his local high school, the expulsion on his permanent record. Would the colleges even want him after this? Richard Linden and those bully friends of his had stolen Thomas’s future. She was going to make damned sure they didn’t touch anything else of his. A blink sent the tears down her cheeks. ‘I’m going with you,’ she repeated.

‘It’s just the band room. It’s not dangerous.’ ‘If you get caught, you’ll be expelled right along with me.’ He cupped her jaw in his huge hand, gently swiping at her tears with his thumb. ‘I won’t let that happen to you.’ ‘It shouldn’t have happened to you. It’s so unfair, Tommy.’ She bit her lip hard, trying not to cry anymore. She knew her tears ripped him up. He drew a deep breath.

‘Yeah.’ ‘We need to fight this. You need to fight this. You did the right thing. You protected Angie. You were the hero.’ ‘Fighting it won’t do any good.’ She held his gaze, desperately hoping to make him see reason. ‘We can sue.’ He laughed, a huff of disbelief.

‘What? No!’ She took his free hand in hers, twined their fingers together. Her skin dark, his a few shades lighter. ‘We can get a lawyer.’ ‘With what?’ he scoffed. ‘Willy counts every bite of food I put in my mouth, for God’s sake. You think he’s gonna pay for a lawyer?’ Thomas’s stepfather was a nasty, abusive man. Sherri didn’t like being around him. He made the hairs stand up on the back of her neck. He didn’t make any secret of the fact that he thought Thomas was inferior. Thomas, who was better than all the other men.

Thomas, who Sherri loved with all her heart. ‘We can call the ACLU,’ she said. Thomas blinked down at her. ‘No way. I’m not suing anyone. Nothing ever gets solved in court.’ ‘That’s not true.’ Her voice was trembling again and she closed her eyes to fight back tears. ‘Tommy, this is your life.’ Wearily, he leaned down until their foreheads and noses touched, a gesture he’d learned from his real father, with his Maori roots.

His real father, long dead, whose memory Thomas quietly worshipped. Sherri, only five feet nothing, leaned up on her toes so that he didn’t have to bend down so far. She barely caught his whispered reply. ‘I can’t fight the Lindens, Sher. You know it as well as I do. Nobody is going to stand up for me. Nobody but you.’ ‘But some of the teachers might. Coach Marion or Mr Woods . ’ The soccer coach loved Thomas, and their history teacher did too.

He closed his eyes, shook his head, pivoting against her forehead. ‘They won’t stand up for me either.’ ‘How do you know?’ He drew in an anguished breath. ‘Because they didn’t,’ he snapped, then sighed. ‘They had a chance on Thursday.’ ‘They pulled the boys off you,’ she murmured. ‘Then walked with you to the main office.’ Except that Thomas hadn’t been walking, not really. He’d been too badly hurt, dizzy from the kicks to his head and limping because one of the boys had repeatedly stomped on his knee with a heavy boot. Coach Marion and Mr Woods had actually been holding him upright.

‘They had the chance to tell Dr Green what happened, but they didn’t.’ Thomas shrugged. ‘Woods started to, but Green called him out into the hall and said something about contract renewal.’ Sherri’s eyes widened. ‘He threatened Mr Woods’s job?’ ‘Yes. I assume he said the same to Coach, because he didn’t speak up for me either. And they were the best allies I had.’ Another defeated shake of his head. ‘Hell, Miss Franklin could have let you take my bass with you on Friday, but here we are, breaking into the school to get it. I bet Dr Green threatened her too.

’ It would have sounded paranoid, except that it was true. Miss Franklin had said as much when she pressed three keys into Sherri’s palm late Friday afternoon. One was to the school’s outer door closest to the band room, one to the band room itself, and the third unlocked the instrument cabinet. I can’t give him the bass myself. But if someone breaks in and takes it? Miss Franklin had shrugged. That would be a real shame. Especially if it happened on Sunday night. Nobody’s here to stop any would-be thieves on Sunday night. Miss Franklin wanted to help, but she wasn’t willing to defend Thomas either, and the realization was devastating. ‘Tommy .

’ He pressed his finger to Sherri’s lips. ‘Nobody’s gonna stand up for me, Sher, and that’s just the way it is. I’ll go to the high school near my house. I’ll be okay. I’m more worried about you, staying here without me.’ She wanted to say she’d go with him, that she’d leave this fancy school with its rich white brats and follow him wherever he went. But her father wouldn’t allow it. Her parents wanted her to have a future, and Ridgewell Academy was her ticket to an easier life. There had to be an answer for Thomas, but she wasn’t going to figure it out standing here in the school parking lot. She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin.

‘Come on. Let’s get your bass.’ It had been his father’s – his real father, not that piece of shit who was his stepfather. His real dad had died when Thomas was five, and the bass was all he had left of him. The instrument wasn’t worth a lot of money, but it was everything to Thomas. He never left it at school overnight, but the principal hadn’t let him get it Thursday after the incident. Dr Green hadn’t allowed Sherri to get it for him either, the ass. She set off at a half jog toward the rear of the building, well aware that one of Thomas’s strides required two of hers. At least on a normal day. He was still limping and she reached the door before he did, scowling as she unlocked it and slipped through, holding it for him.

‘Dammit, Sherri, go back to the car. I’ll meet you there.’ ‘Nope.’ Because she wasn’t sure what they’d find in the instrument closet. Yes, she had the keys, but it had been forty-eight hours since she’d seen the bass. She wanted to be there to support Thomas if someone – like Richard Linden and his friends – had gotten there first. If the bass was gone . or, even worse, broken? Thomas was going to lose it. The heavy outer door closed behind them, automatically locking with a click that echoed in the quiet. ‘Let’s do this,’ Sherri said, and started jogging toward the band room.

She could hear Thomas’s heavy steps behind her. Normally he moved like a panther, swiftly and silently, but Richard’s friends had done a number on his knee. Abruptly, his footsteps halted. ‘Sherri,’ he hissed. ‘Wait.’ She slowed and turned. ‘I’m not going back to the . ’ Thomas was limping down one of the side corridors, and Sherri followed, catching up as he reached the stairwell at its end. ‘Sherri!’ he shouted, panic in his voice. ‘I’m here,’ she said, a little out of breath.

‘What’s wrong?’ A second later, her eyes adjusted to the dim light . and she saw. Horrified, she stumbled backward. ‘Oh my God. Who is it?’ Because the boy on the floor wasn’t recognizable. Someone had beaten him until his features were one big bloody mess. Thomas crawled under the stairwell and pressed his fingers to the boy’s neck. ‘He’s . still alive, but God, Sher. I don’t see how.

Looks like he was stabbed.’ ‘What do we do?’ ‘I’ll try to stop the bleeding. You call 911.’ ‘I don’t have any quarters.’ ‘You don’t need them for 911. Go!’ He shrugged out of his coat, wincing in pain because his arm still hurt. She turned to run, but from the corner of her eye she saw him freeze. ‘Shit,’ he whispered, then looked up to meet her eyes. ‘It’s Richard.’ ‘Oh no,’ Sherri breathed.

‘Oh no.’ Thomas’s jaw tightened. ‘Go. Call 911. He’s lost a lot of blood. Go!’ She turned at the snapped command, then stopped short when he called her name again. He’d taken off his coat and was now ripping off the sweater she’d given him for Christmas. ‘What?’ she asked as he flung the sweater away and began taking off a longsleeved T-shirt. He balled the T-shirt up and pressed it to Richard’s stomach. ‘Once you’ve called 911, get out of here.

I don’t want you involved.’ ‘But—’ ‘Don’t argue!’ he shouted. ‘Just . ’ His voice broke, and he blinked, sending a tear down his battered cheek. ‘Just go,’ he whispered hoarsely. And then she understood. When help came, Thomas would be caught in the school. With a dying Richard Linden. ‘They’ll blame you.’ She choked on the words.

Dropping to her knees, she grabbed his arm, but he shook her off. ‘Thomas, come with me. We’ll call 911 and then leave. Together.’ Thomas shook his head and resumed putting pressure on Richard’s stomach. ‘Somebody has to stop the bleeding. He’ll die otherwise. He’s not even conscious. I can’t leave him to die.’ She stared at him helplessly.

‘Tommy . ’ He met her eyes, his misery unmistakable. ‘For God’s sake, go! Do not come back. Please.’ She pushed to her feet and backed away, then ran for the payphone. She’d make the damn call, then she’d go back and sit with him. There was no way she was leaving him to face the blame for something else he had not done. The payphone was next to the front office. With trembling hands she dialed 911. ‘What is your emergency?’ the operator asked.

‘We . ’ Sherri drew a deep breath through her nose, tried to slow her rapid pulse. ‘We need help. There’s a guy—’ The doors flew open and men poured through them. Men in uniforms. Cops. Cops? How did cops— A burly man grabbed her arm and squeezed hard. ‘Drop the phone!’ ‘But . ’ The man clamped his other hand around her wrist, drawing a cry of shocked pain from her throat. ‘I said drop it.

’ Her fingers were forced open, releasing the phone, which hung on the tangled cord. She stared up at the cop, stunned. Roughly he spun her around and shoved her against the wall. The next thing she knew, he was snapping cuffs on her wrists. Behind her, she could hear Thomas screaming her name. ‘Sherri, run!’ She grimaced, her temple pressed against the wall so hard that it hurt. It was too late for that now. Montgomery County Detention Center, Rockville, Maryland, Wednesday 13 January, 11.15 A.M.

Laying his head on the cold metal of the interview room table, Thomas closed his eyes, too tired to wonder who was behind the mirror and too exhausted to be worried about what this meeting was about. He hadn’t slept in three days, not since they’d brought him to this place. To jail. I’m in jail. Words he’d thought he’d never say. Goddamn Richard. The fucker had died. I ruined my life and he died anyway. Bled out from stab wounds to his gut. Thomas’s first aid had been too little, too late.

Murder. They’d charged him with murder. He was almost too tired to be terrified. Almost. He hadn’t seen Sherri since he’d been here. He hadn’t seen anyone. Not even his mother. His mom had written a letter, though. He laughed bitterly. Yep, she’d written him a letter, saying she was disappointed in him and how could he kill that nice Richard Linden? And oh, by the way, we will not be paying your bail or for a lawyer.

Thomas was on his own. The door opened, but he was too exhausted to lift his head. ‘Thank you,’ a man said. ‘I can take it from here.’ ‘Fine.’ That voice Thomas knew. It was the guard who’d locked him inside this room. Leaving his hands cuffed behind him. ‘If you need anything, just ask.’ ‘Wait,’ the new man said.

‘Uncuff him.’ Thomas lifted his head enough to see the man’s dark suit and tie. And his wheelchair. Thomas jerked upright, staring. The man wasn’t old. He was young, actually. Maybe thirty. It was hard to say. His hair was cut short, his suit expensive-looking. He was studying Thomas clinically.

‘Thomas White?’ he asked. Not for much longer. He’d be ditching his stepfather’s last name as soon as possible. He was sure the bastard was the reason his mother had turned her back. Part of him wondered what his stepfather had needed to do to force her to write that letter. Part of him worried about his mom. Part of him was too tired to care. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘I’m your lawyer,’ the man said blandly. He turned to the guard.

‘Uncuff him. Please.’ The way he said please wasn’t polite. It was . imperious. Commanding. ‘If you’re sure,’ the guard said with a shrug. ‘I’m sure,’ the lawyer said. Thomas gritted his teeth when the guard jerked his arms under the guise of unlocking the cuffs. ‘One move from you, kid,’ the man growled in warning.

Rubbing his sore wrists, Thomas glared and said nothing. ‘That’ll be all,’ the lawyer said, waiting until he and Thomas were alone to roll his eyes. ‘All right, then, Mr White. Let’s start—’ ‘Thomas,’ Thomas interrupted. ‘Not White. Just Thomas.’ ‘I can do that. For now, anyway.’ The lawyer rolled his wheelchair to the table, appraising Thomas with too keen an eye. ‘Have you been eating?’ ‘No.

’ ‘I didn’t think so. I don’t have to ask if you’ve been sleeping. You’ve got bags under your eyes.’ Like you care. This guy, with his expensive suit and lord-of-the-manor attitude. ‘Who are you?’ Thomas asked again, more rudely this time. The man pulled a silver business card case from his breast pocket and gave one of the cards to Thomas. ‘My name is James Maslow.’ The card was sturdy and not cheap at all. Maslow and Woods, Attorneys at Law.

No way I can afford this guy. ‘I have a lawyer already.’ ‘I know. The public defender. If you choose to stay with him, I’ll honor your wishes. But first let me explain to you why I am here. Your history teacher and my law partner are brothers. Your teacher asked me to speak with you, as a favor. He thinks you’re innocent. I reviewed your case and thought he might be right.

’ Mr Woods talked to this lawyer? For me? Why? His lungs expelled air in a rush. ‘You believe me?’ he asked, his voice small and trembling, because no one else had. Maslow nodded once. ‘Yes.’ ‘Why?’ Thomas’s voice broke on the single word. Maslow’s smile was gentle. ‘For starters, because your teacher told me what really happened the day you defended that young girl from Richard Linden’s advances.’ ‘Mr Woods will lose his job,’ Thomas whispered, remembering the principal’s barely veiled threat. Had that been only six days ago? Really? ‘He decided to risk it,’ Maslow said, and there was a spark of pride in his eyes. ‘Mr Woods has written a letter to the school board on your behalf.

’ ‘Wow.’ Thomas cleared his throat. ‘That’s . really nice of him.’ ‘Well, he’s a really nice guy. I think you probably are too.’ Thomas lifted his chin, stared Maslow in the eye. ‘I didn’t kill Richard Linden.’ ‘I believe you, but the prosecutor thinks he has a case. He wants me to tell you that he’s offering voluntary manslaughter.

Eight to ten years.’ Thomas came to his feet, shoving the chair backward. ‘What? Eight to ten years?’ Maslow patted the table. ‘Sit down, Thomas, before the guard comes back.’ Thomas sat, his body shaking. Tears burned his eyes. ‘But I didn’t do it.’ ‘I know,’ Maslow said soothingly. ‘But I’m required to tell you whatever they offer. Let’s discuss your case and then you can decide what you want to do about representation.’ Thomas rubbed his eyes roughly, clearing the moisture away. ‘I can’t pay you. I can’t even make bail.’ ‘Don’t worry about my fees. If you agree, I’ll be taking your case pro bono. That means for free.’ Thomas frowned. ‘I know what it means,’ he snapped. ‘I got seven-eighty on my verbal.’ Not that his SAT scores mattered anymore. No college would take him now. Nor was it this guy’s fault. He drew a breath. ‘I’m sorry, sir. I’m . tired.’ ‘You look it,’ Maslow said sympathetically. ‘You’ve also made bail.’ Thomas’s mouth fell open. ‘What? Where did my mother get the money?’ ‘It wasn’t your mother. I’m sorry about that.’ His stomach pitched. Not my mom. ‘She really has cut me off, then.’ Maslow’s brows crunched in a disapproving frown. ‘I’m afraid so.’ ‘That’s why I don’t want to be White. Her husband changed my name when he married her. I want to change it back. Take back my real father’s name.’ ‘What name was that?’ ‘Thorne. I want to be Thomas Thorne.’ One Present day Baltimore, Maryland, Friday 27 May, 5.30 p.m. He sat back in his chair, waiting patiently as one of his most trusted aides walked into his office with a bright yellow folder. He truly hoped Ramirez would deliver, but he didn’t really believe he would. Which was unfortunate indeed. ‘Here’s the information you asked for,’ Ramirez said, placing the folder on his desk, looking as relaxed as he usually did. That Ramirez had been betraying him for so long . If he hadn’t seen the evidence with his own eyes, he never would have believed it. Ramirez was like a son. A trusted son. ‘Have a seat,’ he said, using his normal tone, unwilling to give away what he knew just yet. He opened the folder, flipped through the contents. And sighed. ‘This is incomplete.’ Ramirez frowned. ‘It is not. I compiled the data myself. That is everything that anyone knows about Thomas Thorne.’ ‘It is not,’ he said, intentionally repeating his clerk’s words. ‘I know this because I also had Patton do the same search. The file he compiled is twice as thick. What you’ve given me is less than I could have gotten from searching Google myself.’ He deliberately closed the file and folded his hands. ‘What do you think I should do about this?’ Ramirez licked his lower lip, his first sign of nerves. ‘Do? About what?’ ‘About you, my friend.’ From his drawer, he pulled out the photos Patton had taken of Ramirez. And Thomas Thorne. Conspiring together. ‘Care to explain?’ Ramirez drew a breath. ‘You had me followed?’ ‘I did. Thorne seems to know a great deal about my operations. I wondered how he’d gotten all that information. I had all of my inner circle followed – by the person who’d get their job should they be shown to be the betrayer.’ He smiled. ‘Patton was extremely thorough. He’ll make a very good head clerk.’ Ramirez swallowed hard. ‘I never betrayed you.’ ‘I don’t believe you.’ ‘Patton photoshopped those pictures.’ He turned on his cell phone and swiped through the photos he had stored there. ‘Ah, here it is. You with Thorne.’ He held his phone out so that Ramirez could see the image. ‘I took this one myself.’ Ramirez paled. Then he squared his shoulders and lifted his chin, acceptance of his fate in his eyes. ‘My wife had nothing to do with this.’ He shrugged. ‘Then it’s a pity she has to die too.’ ‘No.’ Ramirez leaped from his chair, reaching out as if he’d strangle him with his bare hands. But at the sight of the gun aimed at his head he stopped abruptly and froze, breathing hard. ‘Why?’ he asked the clerk simply, holding his gaze. ‘Why did you give Thorne information?’ ‘I didn’t,’ Ramirez insisted. ‘You’re going to die either way, old friend. I can make it quick or make it last. I can also do the same for your lovely wife. Quick or slow torture? Tell me why.’ Ramirez closed his eyes. ‘You killed my nephew.’ He lifted his brows. ‘I did?’ ‘Your people did. He was sixteen, just a kid. Got caught in the crossfire when your guys did a drive-by two years ago. Except they picked the wrong fucking house and it was my sister’s son who was filled with your bullets.’ Ramirez’s eyes filled with fury and grief. ‘You weren’t even sorry. I’ve worked for you for twenty years and you weren’t even sorry.’ ‘I’m still not sorry,’ he said, then lowered his aim to Ramirez’s gut and pulled the trigger three times in rapid succession, creating a tight grouping of bullets. Ramirez slumped to the floor with a groan. He stood, peering over his desk at the man writhing on his hardwood floor. Ramirez looked up, the fury and grief in his eyes now joined by shocked realization, intense pain and all-consuming hate. ‘You said it would be quick,’ he gasped. ‘You lied.’ ‘So did you.’ ‘No, no.’ Ramirez groaned. ‘I told you the truth. I told you why I gave Thorne that information.’ ‘Too little, too late, my old friend.’ He spat the final word. ‘You lied to me every single day that you came in to work for me, took salary from me, all while you betrayed me.’ Ramirez’s pain-glazed eyes narrowed to a sneer. ‘And it’s all about you, isn’t it? My old friend?’ He blinked at that. ‘Of course. It’s always about me.’ He stared down at Ramirez for another full minute. How had he missed that grief? That fury? That absolute hate? He settled back in his chair, knowing full well the answer to that question. He’d missed it in Ramirez’s eyes because he’d seen it in his own. In the mirror. Every damn day since the prison had delivered his son to the morgue in a body bag, minus his guts. Those had been spilled onto the dirt in the exercise yard when his son had been eviscerated, quickly and skillfully. But he’d suffered before he died. He closed his eyes, a wave of fresh pain rolling through him, clenching his chest so hard that he had to fight not to gasp. His son had suffered before drawing his last breath. God, how he’d suffered. Ramirez was getting off easily, he thought coldly. He pressed the intercom button. ‘Jeanne, can you send Patton in? Tell him to bring in Mrs Ramirez and two body bags. Mr Ramirez isn’t quite dead yet, but he should be soon. Also give me a few minutes to dispatch Mrs Ramirez, then send someone in with a wetvac. My floor seems to be covered in blood.’ ‘Certainly, sir,’ Jeanne said with an equanimity that he’d long admired. His office manager was pushing sixty and he dreaded the day she’d retire. At least she was training her replacement, and he had to admit the girl had all of her mother’s organizational skills. Jeanne’s younger daughter, Margo, was as close to a daughter of his own as he’d ever had. And Jeanne’s older daughter, Kathryn, was as close to a soulmate as he’d ever have again. Kathryn warmed his heart and his bed, but they both knew that he would always grieve his Madeline. That Madeline had hand-picked Kathryn to be her replacement had made the transition smoother, but Kathryn would never be his wife. Luckily she didn’t expect to be. She was happy to be the mistress of a powerful man. ‘Can I get you anything else?’ Jeanne asked. ‘Yes. Tell Margo that I need to meet with her in about thirty minutes.’ The mother of his grandson, Margo, and little Benny were all he had left of his son, Colin. Anguish speared his heart, but he welcomed the pain. Avenging his son’s death was what gave him the strength to wake up each morning. ‘I have a job for her.’ ‘You bastard,’ Ramirez gasped when his wife was brought in, bound and crying. He smiled. ‘What is the expression? Pot, meet kettle? You have much nerve, Mr Ramirez. Your betrayal will hurt so many more people than only yourself. You can excuse us, Mr Patton, but don’t go far. We’ll need those body bags soon.’ Standing, he removed his clothes, folding them neatly and storing them out of the way in the wardrobe. He liked this suit and didn’t want it bloodied. Carefully he lifted the leather thong over his head. From the end of it dangled a small vial containing Madeline’s ashes. Soon he’d mix Colin’s ashes with them. Feeling the burn of pure rage, he put the vial on top of his clothes and shut the wardrobe door. ‘Now, Mrs Ramirez. I will apologize in advance for the pain I’m about to cause you. When you are screaming curses, aim them at your husband. You’re here because of his betrayal.’ ‘I won’t,’ Ramirez’s wife stated forcefully. ‘I will never curse my husband.’ But she did. They always cursed the one whose missteps had put them under his knife. In this case, his auger. Mrs Ramirez suffered terribly before he finally took pity and put a bullet in her head. Then he ended his former aide with a final bullet to his heart and showered off the mess. Once he was dressed again, he called for Patton to remove the bodies and sat down to read through his new head clerk’s much fuller folder. Patton had indeed been thorough, finding nearly everything he himself had found. There was nothing new here. His plan to bring Thomas Thorne to his knees had been in progress for months. Thorne would beg for mercy, just as Ramirez’s wife had. But just like with Mrs Ramirez, there would be none. Baltimore, Maryland, Saturday 11 June, 11.45 P.M. ‘I’m out,’ JD said, tossing his cards to the table with an annoyed huff. ‘Fuck, Thorne. Do you have to win every damn hand?’ Thomas Thorne gave the five men sitting around his poker table a smug grin as he began to stack his chips. ‘Yes.’ The others grumbled good-naturedly as they fished out their wallets. ‘Your luck’s too good tonight,’ Sam muttered, throwing a ten on the table. No one ever lost more than ten in an evening. They played for fun. And to win, of course. None of them liked losing. Across the table, Grayson rolled his eyes. ‘I’m thinking his luck is way too good tonight. Maybe we should investigate. Sam? JD?’ ‘Lots of ways a man could cheat,’ JD agreed. Grayson Smith, the city’s lead prosecutor, decorated homicide detective JD Fitzpatrick, and former Baltimore PD officer Sam Hudson would certainly know about many of those ways, but Thorne knew none of the men were really upset. Nor did they believe he’d actually cheat. He’d earned their trust, just as they’d earned his. ‘Knock yourselves out, boys,’ he said loftily, then made a point of looking at his watch. ‘Except you’ll need to make it fast, on account of your curfew. You poor married boys have to go home.’ JD snorted. ‘Asshole,’ he said, but it was with affection. JD was married to Lucy, an ME who’d come back from maternity leave to work part-time in the Baltimore morgue. But she and Thorne had been friends for years before JD came into the picture. For the past eight years, Lucy had been Thorne’s partner in Sheidalin, the nightclub they owned with Gwyn Weaver. Who Thorne had studiously not been thinking about all evening. Liar. Fine. Yes, he had been thinking about Gwyn all night, wondering if she’d actually gone on the date she’d been so excited about. If her date had any brains at all, the answer would be no. Either way, Thorne would have to wait until tomorrow to hear about it. ‘Nah, he’s not an asshole. Not a total one, anyway.’ Sam had left Baltimore PD the year before, taking a job as a PI for Thorne at the law firm he fondly called his ‘day job’, even though the firm was his major focus. Sheidalin was primarily Gwyn’s to manage. Thorne and Lucy were there mainly for the music, performing occasionally. Although Thorne hadn’t done so in some time. Four and a half years, to be exact. He missed it, playing his bass onstage in front of a live audience. But he’d had other things that needed his focus. There’d been his godson, Lucy’s little boy. Jeremiah. He loved that kid. And he’d had to take care of Gwyn, as much as she’d let him. Which wasn’t that much. Mostly, though, he’d focused on his firm. He’d built it up from a solo operation to one that employed two other attorneys, a paralegal, who managed the office, and a death investigator. And Sam, who’d proven himself a skilled PI. Thorne felt lucky to have him. Sam was chuckling. ‘Thorne’s just jealous because he’s got to clean up this mess all by himself.’ Yes, Thorne admitted, but only to himself. He was jealous of the married guys who had partners to go home to. Once they all left, his house would be far too quiet. But he’d never admit that to any of them, because they’d all conspire to fix him up. They were worse than old women in that respect. Instead, he raised one brow. ‘Ruby cleans for you?’ He pulled out his cell phone. ‘Should I ask her?’ Sam’s wife Ruby, formerly Lucy’s ME tech, was now Thorne’s death investigator. He highly doubted she would actually clean up after Sam. Sam laughed. ‘Please, no. I value my life.’ ‘We single guys have to go too,’ Jamie said with a sigh. He backed his wheelchair away from the table with an ease that came from a lifetime of practice. Born with spina bifida, he’d used a chair from the time he was a child. ‘I’m getting too old for these late nights.’ Jamie’s movements were only a little slower than they’d been when he and Thorne had first met, nineteen years before. Jamie Maslow had started out as his attorney, but had quickly become his friend and mentor. And the closest thing he’d had to a father since his own dad had died when Thorne was just a boy. Now Jamie was his employee. Newly retired from his own firm, he did pro bono work for Thorne’s. ‘You wouldn’t be single if you’d just marry Phil and make an honest man of him,’ Thorne said blandly. It had taken him months to stop calling Phil ‘Mr Woods’ when the two men had taken him in as a scared and abandoned teen. His old history teacher had left the fancy prep school Thorne had attended years ago, dedicating his career to teaching kids in the inner city. Thorne admired them both, so damn much. They’d been the role models he’d so desperately needed as a miserable kid. They’d given him a home when he had nowhere else to go. ‘I keep asking him,’ Jamie said, a twinkle in his eye. ‘He says that when he retires, we’re going to elope to Vegas and get married by Elvis.’ Frederick snorted. ‘I think if you elope, you’ll have a revolt on your hands.’ The newest member of their group, Frederick Dawson had recently come to Baltimore from California. Once a high-profile defense attorney in Oakland, he had recently become licensed in Maryland and worked with Jamie and Thorne on a pro bono basis. He gestured to the empty chip bags and beer bottles. ‘Seriously, you need help cleaning up before we haul our asses out of here?’ ‘Nah. It won’t take me long.’ Thorne knew he was lucky. He had good friends, loyal and respectable. There had been a time when he didn’t know if anyone respectable would ever give him the time of day. But even the best friends in the world had to go home sometime. And I’ll be alone. Still. Always. Someone rapped briskly on his front door, opening it before Thorne had a chance to push away from the table. Lucy peeked into the room. ‘Can I come in?’ JD’s face lit up with a smile of surprised delight as he hurried to greet his wife. ‘I thought you had to work the office.’ Thorne, Lucy and Gwyn had managers who worked the front of Sheidalin, but the three of them liked to have one of the owners in the office on Friday and Saturday nights, the two busiest – and most lucrative – nights of the week. Gwyn normally took those shifts, but Lucy had pinch-hit tonight so that Gwyn could go on her date. Since Lucy was here, Thorne assumed that Gwyn’s date had not occurred. He felt relief ripple through him. ‘Gwyn took over,’ Lucy said, then laughed when JD dipped her low and kissed her soundly. ‘She told me to go home, but not to have any fun.’ JD’s brows shot up. ‘Why?’ Lucy sighed sadly. ‘She’s in a mood.’ ‘Are we going to listen to her and not have any fun?’ JD asked. Lucy shook her head. ‘Hell, no.’ She waggled strawberry-blond brows. ‘The kids are staying with Clay and Stevie tonight. We’re going to take full advantage of an empty house, then lie through our teeth and just tell Gwyn we had a terrible time.’ ‘I’ll get my gun out of Thorne’s safe and we can head home.’ JD took off, a distinct spring in his step. ‘Show-offs.’ Thorne gave Lucy a hug. ‘I’ve got one of your casserole dishes in the kitchen. Come with me and I’ll find it for you.’ He led her away from the prying ears of his poker buddies, who were awful gossips. ‘Why did Gwyn come in?’ he asked carefully, hoping to confirm his assumption. ‘I thought she had a date.’ Lucy made a face. ‘She got stood up. Again.’ Yes. Her date had been smart after all. ‘That’s awful,’ Thorne said soberly, and with anyone else he could have pulled it off. But he and Lucy had been friends for nearly a decade and she knew him far too well. ‘It is,’ she said, frowning at him thoughtfully. ‘This is the third guy who’s canceled on her. She’s only been on one date since she started going out again, and he never called her back.’ Because that guy was smart too, Thorne thought balefully. ‘Maybe it’s the dating service she’s using.’ Lucy narrowed her eyes. ‘She’s not using a dating service. She’s been fixed up by friends. Which you knew. Tonight’s date was someone I personally vetted. He’s a nice guy. Wouldn’t harm a flea. Much less be so rude as to stand her up. You wouldn’t have had anything to do with this, would you, Thorne?’ Abso-fucking-lutely. Thorne gave her a look of disbelief. ‘What? Why would you even ask me that?’ ‘Because you should be as pissed off as I am on Gwyn’s behalf. But you’re not. What’s the deal? She’s been alone so long. She’s finally dipping her toe into the dating pool and you’re . what? What are you doing?’ Suggesting that they ought not touch her. In a roundabout way, of course. But at sixsix and two hundred fifty pounds, even his indirect suggestions were crystal clear. ‘Nothing.’ Lucy blinked at him. ‘Thomas Thorne, you’re lying to me.’ He winced. ‘Not . exactly.’ He’d simply needed more time to tell Gwyn how he felt himself. Because she’s mine. Lucy stared at him for a long moment, then her eyes widened. ‘Oh my God. You . ’ She struggled for a word. ‘You want Gwyn? For yourself?’ Thorne could feel his cheeks heating. He could fool a whole courtroom, but not Lucy. Who was, it seemed, a lot more aware than Gwyn herself. He’d been hinting – openly flirting even – for weeks, but Gwyn was oblivious. He said nothing, reaching into a cupboard to get Lucy’s glass dish. ‘I washed it,’ he said, shoving it into her hands. ‘Oh no,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘You don’t get to shoo me away. What the fuck, Thorne? Do you want her or not?’

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