The Perfect Suspect: Excerpt
She never meant to kill him.
Shooting David was not a premeditated act. There were no plans, no blueprints, like the detailed drawings of a grand building. Nothing like that. It had happened in an instant, the loud retort of the gun that had shattered the quiet and shocked her as much as it shocked him. She had seen the shock and disbelief in his eyes before they went glassy and he started stumbling backward, grasping at the cord of a table lamp. The lamp had crashed on top of him.
Ryan Beckman pulled herself over the steering wheel and flexed her fingers. Her hands had gone numb, she had been gripping the wheel so hard, staring at the oncoming headlights on I-70, taking the curves around the mountains too fast. She needed to put as much distance between herself and David Mathews' house as possible. Still she forced herself to let up on the gas pedal. It would never do to be stopped by the state patrol when everyone at headquarters thought she was in Breckenridge. She could see the lights of Denver glowing in the rearview mirror.
Not premeditated? Then why did you bring the 9 mm Sig 226 Tactical? That would be the first question the detectives would ask. She knew exactly how the questioning would go. She had been a detective almost fourteen years, the last three years with the Denver Police Department, and before that, eleven years in Minneapolis. She was inured to surprises in investigations, hardened and experienced. She knew how to anticipate questions and turn them away from her. But her colleagues were the type to pound and push, refuse to give up. How could she make them understand? She had carried the gun to get David's attention, that was all. Make him look at her and see what he had done. Destroyed her life, her peace of mind, her future. All of it disappearing like smoke out of a burned house that once had been beautiful and filled with promise. David was her life. They were perfect for each other, he had said so himself. Destined to go on together, be old together, sit on the porch and hold hands and laugh about how close they had come to losing everything. But David was likely to brush aside anything she said, just as he had done two weeks ago when she had pretended to bump into him in the hotel lobby downtown. Telling her not to make a scene, telling her to get over it. Shrugging and smirking, with that ugly way he had of dismissing unimportant things. The valet had brought his SUV around, and he had left her standing in the lobby, the upholstered sofas and chairs, the thick wood tables, the oriental rugs and chandeliers blurring around her. The SUV had peeled away, the engine roaring in her ears.
So she had brought the gun to force him to listen.
There won't be any questions. The sound of her own voice over the noise of the tires and the hum of the engine made her feel calmer. The tension began to drain away, her fingers relaxed around the wheel. She had to remain logical and in control, not let the situation get away from her. She had signed out for a long weekend. Three days in Breckenridge, she'd told Sergeant Crowley. Hiking, a little fishing. You fish? he'd said, barely swallowing the amusement and incredulity in his voice. "It's very relaxing," she'd told him. He knew she deserved a little relaxation, time-off from the madness. The last case had shaken her—the bludgeoning death of a seventy-six-year-old woman by her beloved grandson. Crowley had called in the department therapist to talk her and Martin Martinez, her partner, through the images and nightmares. When she told the sergeant she needed a few days off, he had balked only enough to remind her that she had used most of her vacation time, which she knew. All those weekends and stolen hours with David.
You left town. Booked a condo in Breckenridge to give yourself an alibi, drove back to Denver and killed David Mathews.
Stop it! She heard herself shouting, felt her fingers squeezing the wheel again. Stay calm! Stay calm! There was no reason to suspect her, and there would be no intimidating interviews. In any case, it was an accident, a horrific, unanticipated event. She had never planned to kill anyone. She had discharged her pistol before, it was true, but only in the line of duty. Only to save herself or another officer. She had been exonerated, even commended for her quick-thinking actions. There had been other tense stand-offs, once with a wooden Indian at the end of an alley, standing up practically comatose, gripping a knife, ignoring her orders, poised to rush her. "Drop the knife!" she had shouted. She was close to pulling the trigger before the knife clattered onto the concrete. That had brought another commendation—for restraint under stress.
Something had changed. It was as if she were driving under water, and she realized she was in the Eisenhower Tunnel beneath long tubes of fluorescent lights. Red taillights blurred ahead. She realized something else: she was crying. David had been as quiet as that Indian, comatose on his feet, looking straight at her and not seeing her.
"This isn't a good time," he'd said when he opened the door. He blinked hard as if an unwanted apparition had appeared on his porch.
"Why is that?" She could see herself standing under the light on his porch, her straw bag hung off one shoulder, the black night folded around her. "Are you expecting someone?" She had brushed past him into the marble-floored entry with the staircase that curved upward and wound overhead and the warm, soft lighting in the living room beyond.
She had walked straight into the living room, sensing the exasperation and barely controlled anger that rolled off David like perspiration. "Can I have a drink?" she'd said.
"You have to leave." His voice had been hard and cold.
"One drink, David? Surely you have time."
He had stepped over to a cabinet and poured two fingers of bourbon into a crystal glass that danced and sparkled in the light. An ice cube tinkled against the crystal, and hope had washed over her. He remembered her drink: Bourbon, neat, a little ice. She smiled at him as she took the glass. "We have to talk," she said.
"Look, Ryan." He held out both hands, as if he wanted to pull her toward him, even hug her. Her heart had pounded with anticipation. "What we had was very good, but it's over. It no longer works." She had tried to interrupt because it wasn't true, but he had kept on, always the politician, as handsome and charming as JFK, cajoling and soothing different factions, searching for common ground. Let us go forward together was his campaign slogan. He was sure to be the next governor of Colorado.
"The timing's all wrong, for starters," he said. "Sydney has agreed to work things out. Polls have me thirty points ahead, but the election is two months away. Any scandal, rumors of an extra-marital dalliance could destroy everything. I can't take the chance."
He had gone on, saying other things, but she hadn't heard. Her mind had stuck on the word dalliance. A year of her life, and that's all she was? A dalliance? "You don't know what you're saying!" She had heard herself shout over whatever political platitudes he was still spouting and struggled to sound calm, rational. "We can work it out," she said. "All you and Sydney have to do is put up a front until the election. Then you settle into office, get a divorce, and we'll be together. Until then, I'll stay in the background. No one knows about us. No one will suspect..."
"Listen to me," David had said. "It's over. How many times do I have to say it?"
"But that's all wrong. Try to understand, David." She could hear the hysteria working back into her voice.
"You have to go now."
"Please don't do this." She had been holding the glass. She couldn't remember whether she had taken a sip of Bourbon, but her mouth felt dry, her tongue as thick as sandpaper. She must have set the glass on the sofa table, because she realized she had taken the gun out of her bag and was holding it on him, pleading with him, issuing orders. Listen to me. Listen to me. Drop the knife!
"For godssakes, Ryan. Put the gun down." She had heard the tremor in his voice, so unlike the candidate renown for his cool demeanor, his control of every situation. "Don't do anything that..."
It was lost, all lost, in the explosion of the Sig. Her own life crashed around her, as if the beams and the plaster had fallen from the ceiling and she was left standing in the debris, staring at the lifeless body of David Mathews. You had to be ready to pull the trigger—that had been drummed into her from her rookie days. If you take out your gun, you must be ready to fire.
She had been shaking, her hands trembling so hard that she had difficulty shoving the gun back into her bag. She made herself step across the living room, searching for the casings. My God, there were three. She had shot him three times. Maybe she had fired off even more bullets. She managed to extract the gun and check the magazine. Three bullets missing. She stepped back to the lamp table and picked up the glass. She hadn't touched anything else, she was sure. She had been careful. David had let her inside, and she had walked past him without touching the door.
She had to get away. A neighbor could have heard the gunshots. People could appear out of nowhere. She backed across the living room and into the entry, not taking her eyes from David's body, so still and helpless and complete. There would be nothing more for David Mathews. She slid the glass inside her bag and used the front of her jacket to turn the doorknob. Still using the jacket, she pulled the door shut behind her.
She saw the woman then, halted in mid-step on the sidewalk next to the curb, a shadow swallowed in the darkness except for the white slacks billowing and shimmering.
Ryan swung sideways, out of the porch light, ran along the front of the house and rounded the corner. She kept running, slipping on the lawn, catching herself and finally throwing herself inside the gray Ford parked a half-block away. "Never park in front." She could hear David's voice in her head. "Park down the block so no one will connect your car to my house."
The street was quiet, wide and lined with oaks. The thick, heavy branches nearly obscured the mansions behind the deep swaths of lawn and curved walkways. She had pulled into the lane and forced herself to maintain a slow, steady speed, a resident returning home after a late night, not wanting to disturb the neighbors. She had felt the shaking deep inside, as if her heart had gone into freefall.
The woman on the sidewalk had seen her! In that instant, when she had looked in the woman's direction. An instant was enough for a witness to pick someone out of a line up. She had seen it happen. Every instinct told her to drive around the block, find the woman and kill her. It would be obvious what had happened. Someone had gone to David Mathews' home, shot him, then shot the woman outside who must have been a witness. Logical, unsurprising, the kind of act homicide detectives would accept. She would have accepted it. A killer, wanting to make sure no one could identify him. Or her.
Instead, she had turned onto the thoroughfare that ran through the neighborhood west to the highway, on automatic now, her hands glued to the wheel, the straw bag with the Sig and the crystal glass tossed onto the passenger seat. Still calm on the outside, she thought, her heart pounding against her ribs, probably driving like a drunk, the slow, cautious turn, the effort to keep from swerving into the next lane. She kept going, the highway somewhere in the darkness ahead pulling her forward like a magnet. She was not a killer. It had been a horrible accident. The case could even be made that what happened was David's fault. Anyway, the shadow on the sidewalk would never connect the woman under the porch light of David Mathews' house with Detective Ryan Beckman.
She had followed the entrance ramp onto I-25 and forced herself to concentrate on merging into the traffic that curved to I-70. She drove west, the dark, ragged shapes of the foothills floating ahead for a while. Then she was climbing into the mountains, barely aware of the uphill pull on the engine, her heart still hammering, the image of David, shocked and surprised, thrown off his own game, running through her head. At one point, alone on the highway with no oncoming traffic and nothing but the enveloping darkness behind her, she had rolled down her window and thrown out the crystal glass.
She followed the exit to Frisco and drove through town. Moonlight traced the waters of Lake Dillon outside her window. Twenty minutes later she was in Breckenridge heading up the mountain toward the ski area. The condo she had rented was hidden in clusters of lodgepole pines, and the smell of pine drifted inside the Ford. She parked in the garage underneath, a voluminous cavern lit by dim overhead bulbs and bisected by rows of parked vehicles. The sound of her door slamming bounced around the metal and concrete. She rode the elevator to the third floor, let herself into the condo and leaned against the door a moment. She was safe. No one had seen her driving into the garage, making her way upstairs. Had she planned all the details, they could not have worked out so well. She turned on the table lamp, then slumped onto the sofa, giving in to the crushing sense of exhaustion.
The ringing of her cell cut through the silence.
Ryan blinked into the light flaring from the lamp a moment, trying to get her bearings. The night came back to her in a rush, like photos flashing in front of her. Finally she managed to pull the cell from her bag, and check the readout. Headquarters. She waited for two more rings, trying to still her breathing and control the erratic rhythm of her heart, before she answered. "Hello," she said. Her voice sounded mute and thick.
"Ryan?" The sound of Crowley's voice drilled into her. "Did I wake you up?"
"What do you think?" Her heart had started up again. "What time is it?" She tried to bring the face of her watch into focus. 5:45.
"Sorry, you're vacation's over. I need you here."
"What are you talking about?" My God. The woman on the sidewalk must have gone inside David's house and found his body! But how had she gotten in? The door was locked. Maybe she looked through a window, saw David on the living room floor, and called the police.
"High profile shooting," the sergeant said. "David Mathews shot in his home last night."
"Mathews, shot?" She clasped the cell hard against her ear. "Is he dead?"
"Two bullets in the chest, one in the thigh. Somebody made sure he was dead. I need you here."
She managed a gulp of air. She felt as if she were in a race, trying to stay ahead of the man on the phone. What was he saying? She should investigate the case? It was so absurd she had to jam her fist against her mouth to keep from laughing. After a moment she heard herself say: "I have a three-day vacation, Sergeant. I just got here this morning."
"Williams and O'Keefe are tied up with a shooting in Montbello. Bustamante and Greeves are still in LA working the gang shooting and the muggings in LoDo. I don't expect them back until tomorrow."
"What about the other detectives?" The sense of absurdity expanded around her, as if she had stepped into a funhouse and was surrounded by an array of mirrors that reflected distorted and grotesque images. "You can find somebody else."
"Not with your experience. This is the highest profile homicide we've handled in ten years. The press will be all over this, and that includes the national press. Television, radio, bloggers, you name it. We can't have any mix-ups. I need an experienced detective in charge, and you are it. How soon can you get down here?"
"I'm in Breckenridge," she heard herself saying. The grotesque images in the funhouse mirrors seemed to be closing in. "I need a couple of hours."
"I'll expect you in an hour and a half," Sergeant Crowley said.
© Margaret Coel