by Claire McNab
When a law enforcement officer dies under highly suspicious circumstances, it sounds like a perfect case for Australian Detective Inspector Carol Ashton…Too bad she’s the suspect.Attending a rigorous F.B.I. training course in the United States, Aussie top cop Carol Ashton feels a little out of her element —but is she out of her league as well? After a bitter argument with an instructor, Carol is shocked to find herself accused of murder. Framed, friendless and far from home, Carol soon discovers that her only ally is a female F.B.I. agent with a not-so-hidden agenda. But will there be time to find the real killer as the evidence against Carol mounts and the clock ticks down on her career, her freedom …and her life?
Twelfth in the Carol Ashton Series.
Originally published by Naiad Press 2000.
|Publication Date||January 1, 2000|
|Cover Designer||Sandy Knowles|
Have you ever wanted to kill someone? When I was young I remember often being filled with silent rage, wanting someone to disappear forever, vanish in a silent puff of acrid smoke. Mostly, I just thought about it, fantasized how I would kill. My imagination was often violent—I smashed hands that had beaten me, tore out eyes that had mocked me, ripped out tongues that had derided me.
I never acted on these impulses, though, except for that one time, with Simon Shales. Of course, that could have been an accident. After all these years, I’m not sure myself. I certainly wanted him dead, but whether I really pushed him or he slipped and fell in front of the bus, isn’t quite clear to me now. What is clear is how happy I was, how relieved that he had gone, and could torment me no longer.
Now, as an adult, I have the means, the will, and the guts to remove someone for sure. I’m plotting—how funny that sounds—murder. And I know I’ll feel the same happiness and relief when it is all accomplished that I felt when the school bus turned Simon Shales into a bloody bundle of flesh and clothes.
I’m older and wiser, and I understand myself better, so I know this time I’ll feel much more. Exultation, joy, and the sheer pleasure that comes from doing something well, of being smarter, quicker, and more powerful than everyone around me.
Wish I could tell them. They’d be shocked, amazed, dumbfounded. And admiring.
In the gray early light the Qantas jumbo jet circled over Los Angeles and then back over the ocean, waiting for permission to land at LAX. From her window seat Carol could see patterns of streetlights spread in an immense grid covering the floor of the mountain-ringed basin that held the city. A layer of smog smudged the air so that she could only just make out the tall buildings of downtown LA.
Sinking lazily toward the runway, the jumbo jet crossed over a fat freeway, five lanes of vehicles charging each way in an urgent flow that seemed to Carol to be like a dual artery of some enormous body.
“The Four-oh-five,” Inspector Peter Karfer said with authority, craning over Carol to gaze out the window. He had a provoking air of superior knowledge, and Carol wasn’t looking forward to spending the next few weeks in his company.
“Busiest freeway in the nation,” he went on. “You can imagine what a bitch it was when the ninety-four earthquake broke its back in a couple of places. I was here then, you know. Holidays. Bit of a shock, the whole thing. Threw us clear out of the hotel bed. Afterward, Majorie didn’t sleep for a week.”
His smile, Carol thought, was meant to indicate that he had been undisturbed by the experience.
She made a vaguely affirmative noise, not wanting to encourage any further confidences. It wasn’t that she actively disliked Peter Karfer—she didn’t know him well enough—but rather that she found him tiresome. Their careers had run in parallel, and she’d met him on different occasions, but they had never worked together. Karfer had the reputation of being jovial and easygoing. Certainly he was affable, but she had heard whispers of his propensity to take credit and shed blame, whilst knee-capping rivals who might get in his way.
She glanced over at Karfer as he sat back in his seat. He didn’t look ruthless. In his forties, he had sandy hair cut very short, sharp blue eyes framed by gold-rimmed glasses, a full-lipped mouth, and a deep cleft in his chin. He smiled easily, had a deep, resonant voice, and, although obviously well educated, he cultivated a faintly larrikin manner to enhance his one-of-the-boys role.
Carol had never personally heard him say anything disparaging about female police officers, but she had a feeling that he didn’t consider women his equals and that he was unlikely to be pleased if one was promoted over him. Karfer had already inquired, smiling, if Carol was intending to apply for promotion to chief inspector, and Carol, smiling in turn, had said she hadn’t really thought of it—had he considered promotion himself? He’d lifted his shoulders and grinned. “I dunno. Maybe.”
She hadn’t been delighted to discover that both she and Peter Karfer had been accepted for an FBI program open to international law enforcement agencies and had been booked in adjoining seats on the same flight out of Australia. The police service had provided economy travel tickets, but Carol had sufficient frequent-flyer miles to upgrade to business class, so she would be assured, she thought, of a peaceful trip with a stranger sitting beside her. She wanted to avoid Karfer chatting away to her about work, particularly as her most recent high-profile case had had a less than desirable resolution, and she didn’t want to give him the opportunity to have a sly dig at her about it.
Carol had said good-bye to everyone and boarded the plane a little early, settling into her window seat with two novels to read and the pleasant thought that for the next thirteen hours no phone would ring, no responsibilities would impinge.
She had scarcely taken a sip of the coffee the flight attendant had brought her when Karfer’s cheerful voice said, “Great, isn’t it, Carol? Thought I wouldn’t have enough miles, but I just squeaked into business class. Then the guy next to you said he’d swap seats with me, so we could travel together.”
He had the assured air of one who is confident of being always welcome. Carol repressed a sigh. “I hope you’re not looking for conversation, Peter. I’m tired, and I’d rather not talk.”
He ignored that. “Looking forward to the FBI? Should be quite an experience, I’ve heard. Actually know a couple of officers from the U.K. who are doing the course with us. Have you heard of Magic Mike of Scotland Yard?”
“No. Never heard of him.”
Her flat, uninterested tone didn’t seem to register. “Chief Inspector Michael Yench,” Karfer went on, “also known as Magic Mike because of the work he’s done on antiterrorism. He came down hard on the IRA when they targeted London in the early nineties.”
He looked at Carol expectantly. When she merely looked at him, he went on as though she’d queried him. “You want to know how I met him? First ran into Mike when he was out here a couple of years ago chasing up stuff on an IRA link with Australia, and then we met up again when I was in London a few months back. He’s a big wheel in drug enforcement these days. For a Pom, Mike’s not bad. Big guy, and a lot of fun. I’m sure you’ll hit it off with him.”
When Carol didn’t respond he went on, “Maybe his offsider would be more your style. Debra Caulfield. Deb’s tough as a bloke, but twice as pretty.”
The more your style was said with subtle emphasis, and Carol felt a wave of vexation. “I can hardly wait to meet Magic Mike and Deb,” she said caustically.
He peered at her. “You sound fed up. What’s the matter?”
“As I said before, I’m tired and I don’t feel like talking.”
Plainly put out, he murmured “Righto” and turned his charm on the nearest female flight attendant. Then, after the several courses of dinner—served with real tableware and individual tablecloths—Karfer became immersed in the movies showing on the personal screen, which popped out of the armrest between them, and so mercifully left her alone.
Carol had read for a while, then slept, the kaleidoscope of her dreams blending with the steady roar of the engines as they forged their way across the Pacific Ocean. She would swim up to wakefulness, then slide back into the procession of images: Mark Bourke grinning as he assured her that he wouldn’t touch the paperwork in her in-tray; at the airport her son, David, his pale hair and green eyes mirroring hers, hugging her good-bye; Sybil kissing her cheek with neutral friendliness; Aunt Sarah squeezing Carol tightly and warning her, “Don’t trust anyone. If I thought for a moment you’d listen, Carol, I’d beg you to call this trip off. I’ve seen a shadow in your future.”
“Since when have you been a psychic?” Carol had chuckled, thinking Aunt Sarah had to be joking. It was strange for her aunt to recommend caution, as Sarah’s personal motto had always been expressed as “Dare mightily!” and, when not engaged in ecological activism, she was an intrepid traveler.
Aroused from a confused dream where Aunt Sarah was just about to tell her details of the danger that faced Carol in the future, she found it was time for breakfast, Carol had sleepily swallowed scrambled eggs as she mentally prepared herself for Los Angeles. She was being met by an old school friend at the airport, so she crammed herself into the minuscule washroom just ahead of the rush and made efforts to make herself look presentable. Cleaning her teeth with the travel toothbrush and tiny tube of toothpaste thoughtfully provided by the airline, she considered her face in the unflattering glare of the lights over the mirror. The illumination, she thought, seemed designed to shake the confidence of all but the most attractive. She looked at herself critically. Carol had always taken her good looks for granted—she’d been, she’d always thought, lucky in the genetic draw, having inherited her mother’s beauty and her father’s slim build.
Heavy maintenance time coming up, she thought, inspecting the spray of fine lines at the corners of her eyes, the result of too many times of scorning dark glasses to squint in bright sunlight.
The engine note changed as the plane began to sink toward the land. Suddenly full of a pleasant anticipation, Carol went back to her seat. A new country, new people, new challenges to meet. On an impulse, she’d requested permission to attend the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, a desire, she admitted to herself, to escape for a while from the demands and pressures of her job. And, if she were honest with herself, it was also because she needed to gain a breathing space, a time away from everything familiar so she could gain a new perspective, not only of her career, but of her personal life.
Peter Karfer, freshly shaved and smelling of a light cologne, tightened his seat belt. “Take off and landing,” he observed, “are the most dangerous times. Most crashes happen then.”
“You’re a comfort, Peter.”
He grimaced at her. “Sarcasm will get you nowhere, Carol. I don’t doubt we’ll make it to the ground, one way or the other. I’m booked in the Airport Hilton. You?”
“I’m staying with a friend.”
Karfer raised his sandy eyebrows. “I didn’t know you knew anyone in LA.”
“How could you?” Carol said shortly.
Her cool tone amused him. “I’m a detective, remember? You’d be surprised what I know.”
She looked at him sharply. “Meaning?”
He spread his hands. “Meaning nothing at all.”
The massive plane touched down so lightly it was a moment before Carol realized the wheels were on the tarmac. Then the roar of engines in reverse slowed them to a stately pace, and they began an interminable taxi to the terminal, which seemed located as far as possible from their point of landing. A cheerful warning admonished passengers to keep seat belts fastened until the plane had come to a complete stop at the arrival gate. “It’s six thirty-five A.M. local time, and welcome to Los Angeles,” added the chirpy voice.
Carol reset her watch, musing on the odd effect of the International Date Line, which zigzagged down the mid-Pacific to keep to open water, and which ensured that Carol was arriving in America on the same day that she had left Sydney, but several hours earlier.
Gathering his things from the seat pocket in front of him, Karfer said, “I’m spending two days here before flying to Washington to play tourist for a couple more before the course starts. You’re welcome to join me anytime, but I suppose you’ll be spending your time with your friend.”
“I suppose I will.” The exasperation she had felt at his probing was rapidly become an irritation.
He gave her a cheeky grin. “We Aussies have to stick together, you know. Strangers in a strange land, and all that. Besides, I get the impression the FBI types like to really test you, put you through your paces, and I reckon we’ll need to be looking out for each other.”
She was saved from any response by the ping as the seat-belt sign went off, a signal that was immediately followed by a wave of activity as passengers leapt from their seats to open overhead bins and collect their possessions.
Carol was expecting the worst from Los Angeles international entry, having been told many horror stories of long lines and imperious officials who amused themselves by making the whole process as difficult as possible. She’d conscientiously completed the immigration forms given to her in the plane, taking seriously the injunction that any carelessness in filling them out would result in long delays.
Prepared for a long wait, she was happily surprised to find that their flight’s early arrival meant that there were no long queues, and in only a few minutes she was past the first entry point and, followed by Karfer, who kept up a running stream of comments about everything around them, heading for the luggage carousel. As they approached, a buzzer sounded and the mechanism ground into life.
Carol reflected that this could be any airport, anywhere. Passengers stood around waiting, with various degrees of boredom, anxiety, or fatigue, watching the suitcases as they were spat out of the metal mouth of the carousel to slide like helpless bodies onto a constantly circulating loop that took them around and around until an owner recognized an item and reached out to yank it from the display.
Carol’s suitcase, marked with a red priority tag, was one of the first to appear, and she seized it before Peter Karfer could help, nodded to him, and set off for the final customs gates. She’d splurged on a new suitcase, the giant version of the small wheeled cabin bags, and it glided along behind her like some huge, black pet.
Another few moments, and she was painlessly through and walking up a slight incline that led arriving passengers into the waiting area of the terminal. Early as it was, there was a crowd, and a cacophony of different languages hit her as she maneuvered around a knot of people who had slowed to scan for friends and relatives.
Jill had insisted that it was no trouble to come to the airport to pick her up. Carol got out of the way of the stream of people coming behind her and looked around.
“Carol!” Jill del Bosco came bounding over, looking fresh and buoyant, as though it were not unconscionably early in the morning. They embraced, then stood back, smiling. Carol had only seen Jill a few times since her friend had left Australia to marry an American attorney six years ago, although they had kept in touch with birthday and Christmas cards and, lately, by email. “You look tremendous,” Carol said, meaning it.
Jill was tall and lean, with streaked blond hair, perfect red nails, and flawless makeup. She was wearing tight blue jeans, a pale rose cashmere sweater, and an indefinable air of privilege. She was thinner than Carol remembered, and her smile seemed whiter and brighter. Carol vaguely recalled Jill mentioning that cosmetic dentistry had been an anniversary present from her husband.
“I hope you’re going to introduce me,” said a male voice. Peter Karfer gave Jill the benefit of a warm smile that crinkled his eyes as he looked her over with approval. “Carol, this friend of yours is one stunning lady.”
Jill’s expression of disgust made Carol laugh. “Forgive him,” said Carol. “We’ve just had a long flight.”
“Since Carol obviously has no intention of introducing us, I’m Peter Karfer.” He extended his hand. “And I’m sorry to say I haven’t heard a thing about you.”
She shook his hand briefly. “Jill Fontaine. Welcome to Los Angeles.”
Carol looked at her curiously. Jill hadn’t made a thing about keeping her own name when they married, and the return address on mail had always been Hal and Jill del Bosco.
“You’re an Aussie? Damn it, I was hoping for an intro to a genuine California blonde.” He put an arm around Carol’s shoulders. “Sorry, Carol, but the Yanks do turn out the best blondes. Everyone knows that.”
As Carol shrugged off his half-embrace, he said with mock alarm to Jill, “Next you’ll break my heart by saying you’re married.”
“I’m afraid I am. Great to meet you, Peter, but we have to run.”
“No problem.” He hesitated, his face dejected. It was clear to Carol that he was hoping that Jill would come up with an invitation of some sort. “I’ll be around for a couple of days…”
“There’s lots to do in this town.” Jill picked up one of Carol’s bags. “Sorry, but we’ve got to be going.”
When Carol looked back, Karfer was staring after them, his face a cold mask. Carol felt a cold finger of disquiet, then shrugged to herself. If Peter Karfer was offended—too bad. It wasn’t worth worrying about.
Jill waited until she and Carol stepped onto the pedestrian bridge leading to an ugly cement-gray parking structure before she said, “Well, he’s a piece of work.”
Carol glanced over at the crush of vehicles below. Raising her voice above the impatient revving of engines and blasting of horns, she said, “You’ve just met Mr. Charm of the Sydney cops—Detective Inspector Peter Karfer. Impressed?”
“And you’re spending the next few weeks with him? Rather you than me.” Jill raised her key ring, and halfway down the row of cars the lights on a tomato-red BMW obediently blinked. “The guy’s getting a bit long in the tooth for that boyish aren’t-I-cute stuff.”
“Seems to work for him.”
Jill made a face at her. “This town’s full of cute guys who are younger and better looking than Peter Karfer. I see them every day. He’ll have his work cut out to impress anyone here.”
Carol smiled at her with affection. “You’re talking just like a native.”
“Am I? I can’t help it. Hal rubs shoulders with the shakers and movers in the business—and that word here means the entertainment business. We have to know all the right people, belong to the right country clubs.” She gave an impatient snort. “It’s all a game, Carol. Look the part, and you’re in. As long as I stay thin, keep a moderate tan, go three times a week to the most upmarket gym, turn up for tennis with the right wives, and generally play by the rules, life in the sun can be pretty good.”
“Doesn’t sound to me like you enjoy it all that much.”
Jill shrugged. “I do, and I don’t. It’s nice to get the best table in a restaurant, front seats to a show, to mention Hal’s name and have personalized service, not to mention a measure of groveling deference—” She broke off to strike a mocking pose. “What little Aussie woman wouldn’t warm to a life in the fast lane with the rich and famous, eh?”
Hoisting her bulky suitcase into the trunk of the red BMW, Carol said, “I noticed you called yourself Fontaine.”
“Identity crisis,” said Jill lightly. “Truthfully, I use both names. I’m del Bosco when necessary, and Jill Fontaine when I’m just me. Hal, bless his soul, doesn’t mind at all, or if he does, he’s wise enough not to say so.”
Forgetting that in the States the front passenger sat to the left of the driver, Carol went to the wrong side of the car. “You’re going to drive?” asked Jill, grinning. “You’re welcome to try, if you like.”
“Some other time.”
As Jill made her way past lines of cars and huge sports utility vehicles, Carol looked over at her friend’s familiar face. She and Jill had met on their first day of high school, and even though they had grown apart in later years, their shared memories of school and university, of friends and experiences, had made a link between them that had grown thin, but never broken.
The sun was glaring down when they joined the traffic clogging Century Boulevard. It seemed to Carol that the light in Los Angeles was flatter and less nuanced than in Sydney, but she had to concede that this impression might be related to jet lag. As she fished in her bag for dark glasses, Jill, having apparently read her mind, said, “You going to be jet-lagged? I’ve got a bit of a party set up for tonight, and it’d be great if you lasted long enough to meet some of those famous people you hear about every day.”
“I refuse to believe in jet lag,” said Carol. “Besides, all I need is bright light to reset my internal clock, and I can see I’m going to get plenty of that.”
She did a quick calculation: It was about three in the morning in Australia, and the next day. This way lies madness, she grinned to herself.
“Enjoying yourself already?” said Jill, glancing over at her.
“Just getting orientated. Now, exactly which famous people are you talking about?”
Jill turned right onto a ramp that indicated it led to the 405 North. “Robbie Zow, for one. No doubt his arrest was featured in the Aussie media.”
“Front-page news. When a Hollywood star is accused of attempted murder, that beats global warming or the latest famine in Africa hands down.”
“Cynic,” said Jill, accelerating as she joined the freeway traffic. Magically a space opened up, and they joined the mass of commuters bound for work. “Robbie Zow is bigger than all those things, and don’t you forget it. Hal’s defending him, and the trial’s set to start the day after tomorrow.”
Without signaling, she drifted across three lanes of speeding vehicles. Carol winced, but nobody flashed lights or blew a horn. In fact, it seemed to be the norm to dart into any gaps without giving any indication. “Traffic’s good today,” said Jill. “Half the time you’ll get stuck in a stop-go jam for miles.”
“About Robbie Zow…” said Carol.
Jill squeezed a smile at her. “Thought you’d be interested. He and Davina Alcine will be at our place tonight.”
Carol couldn’t prevent a startled glance. “The girlfriend he ran down in his driveway?”
“Tut,” said Jill. “Is alleged to have run down. Actually, he did aim his Ferrari right at her, and it’s some kind of miracle she wasn’t badly hurt. As it was, she got thrown over the top of the car and didn’t go under the wheels.”
“You make it sound so matter-of-fact.”
“That’s life. Robbie was under the influence of God-knows-what, but Hal will get him off. Davina had forgiven him before she got out of hospital.” Jill shot Carol a wicked smile. “She’s hoping to be wife number-three, but I don’t like her chances.”
“Next you’ll be telling me she’s a witness for the defense.”
“She is. This is so LA. But for the unfortunate fact that there were people who saw the accident who fell over themselves selling their stories to the media, it’s likely Robbie wouldn’t have even been charged.”
Carol visualized Robbie Zow’s instantly recognizable face. His latest movie was playing in Sydney, and he stared from press ads and billboards with that cocky, crooked smile that was his trademark. Zow was handsome, of course, but he had more than that—he had a carefree charm that contained a hint of darkness, as though, given the chance, he’d be a bad, bad boy. And Zow could act. Carol had seen him in several movies and admired his ability to totally inhabit the role he was playing.
“I suppose it’s bad form to ask for an autograph?” she said, mock-serious, thinking how thrilled David would be if she came home with such a prize.
“Very bad form. What you’re supposed to do is go along with the fiction that he’s just an ordinary guy. Mind you, Robbie’ll be very insulted if you don’t show, however subtly, that you’re mighty impressed to meet him.”
Seeming not even to check for an opening, Jill changed lanes to the right and zoomed down an off-ramp signposted WILSHIRE BOULEVARD EAST. “We live in Brentwood. O.J. Simpson territory,” she said, merging into a s1ower, thicker stream of vehicles on the surface street. “Parking is a nightmare, but Hal says it’s worth it for the address.”
Having only met Hal del Bosco when he’d been visiting Australia before his marriage to Jill, Carol was curious to see him in his home territory. Certainly his name was synonymous with very expensive, very public representation, usually for serious offenses that less well-represented clients might consider with consternation. Hal, however, had an enviable record with juries, and accounts of his famous clients’ trials and subsequent acquittals frequently made the international news services.
The del Bosco house was, Carol was hardly surprised to find, a mansion. Set behind stone walls and wrought-iron gates, the tall white columns that framed the heavy front door irresistibly reminded her of Gone With the Wind. The circular driveway ran through gardens that bloomed luxuriantly, even in winter. “Our humble home,” said Jill.
“I had no idea you lived in a manor,” said Carol innocently. “Is there a butler?”
“No butler, but someone cooks for us. And my personal trainer, Greg, comes early most weekday mornings. I’m lucky to have him—he’s much in demand. I put him off today, of course. I might be able to arrange a session for you, if you want one.”
“You don’t think I got this figure by accident, do you? And it takes a bloody lot of work to keep it, I can tell you.” Jill pointed a finger at Carol. “I’ve taken my mantra from Wallis Simpson: ‘You can’t be too rich, or too thin.’ Now there was a woman born before her time!”
The housekeeper, a sturdy woman with a beautiful mahogany face and jet hair pulled back in a tight bun, came out to help with Carol’s luggage. “Would you like Maria to unpack for you?” Jill asked.
Carol found herself faintly horrified that a stranger might do that for her. “I’ll do it myself.” She smiled at Maria. “But thank you.”
“I forgot to tell you,” said Jill as they entered the entrance hall, which was flooded with light from a skylight that threw into relief the gray marble floor and crisp white walls. “Hal has arranged a special guest for tonight, just for you. Someone from the FBI.”
“You’re kidding me. Who?” Carol had to laugh. “Not the director, surely?”
“No, not that that’s impossible,” said Jill. “Hal does seem to know almost everyone who’s anyone. In this case, however, it’s someone a bit lower in the ranks, though a senior agent. Her name’s Leota Woolfe. And Carol, she’s heard of you. Don’t know if that makes you famous, or notorious…”