© Susan C. Muller
The peephole on the hotel room door offered a fish-eye view of the hallway.
His eyes burned and his back ached, but he didn't move, refusing to lower his vigilance. Sweat coated his hands under the latex gloves. The air conditioner finally kicked on and filled the room with its cold, metallic smell. His shoulders flexed instinctively, allowing a breeze to flow down the back of his neck.
With the ding of the elevator, his body snapped to attention. Was this it? The brass ring surrounding the glass viewer had warmed from his body heat and he pressed his eye tight against it as he waited.
There she was. He took a deep breath, willing his heart into a steady rhythm. After all his planning, preparation, he couldn't afford to screw this up now. She passed in front of him on the way to her own room, close enough to smell her perfume.
She was alone and not staggering as if she'd been overindulging like the last time he'd seen her. But she looked tired. She needed to learn. This reckless behavior had to stop.
Wasting her gift with late night partying was unacceptable, and slipping out a back door to avoid him couldn't be tolerated.
All this would soon change. He would be her teacher. But first, she needed to learn. Here in Houston or home in Nashville, his word was law.
A muffled click reached him as her door closed.
The only illumination inside the room came from the thin line of light that seeped under the door and the glowing red numerals on a bedside clock as he groped his way to the end table and added the time to his note.
The elevator doors closed with a soft swish, allowing Noah Daugherty to meet his partner's eyes in its reflective surface.
"And you don't know why the Chief wants to see us." Any demand to report to the top floor should be met with trepidation. He didn't like it in grade school when he was called to the principal's office and he didn't like it now.
Conner Crawford stared straight ahead, but brushed imaginary lint from his lapel. "No more idea than the first two times you asked me, unless you've been up to something you failed to mention."
"Huh, I thought maybe you'd stepped in some kind of shit and chose not to tell me about it." That wasn't true. If one of them was in trouble, it was much more likely to be him. Still, while he wouldn't say he hadn't done anything, he hadn't done anything lately, or that the Chief was apt to know about.
Noah cut his eyes to the side. At a hair under six feet, Conner was a good two inches shorter than him and at least twenty pounds lighter, yet could hold his own in any situation. Noah never worried about his back with Conner around.
Not even the type of situation that might be waiting for them in the Chief's office.
The trip from Homicide on the sixth floor to the Chief's office on sixteen took long enough for a knot to form in Noah's gut. He had just reached for the worry stone in his pocket, but found only crumbled doggie treats, when the doors opened.
Now what? His fingers were coated with a smelly brown dust and he had nowhere to wipe them. He patted Conner on the back. "Don't worry, partner. I'm sure it's nothing."
The hum of a busy office swept over him after the cocooned silence of the elevator. Phones rang and printers beeped while uniformed officers, sergeants, and civilian clerical staff stopped to gawk at the two doomed men. Rumors traveled fast on the upper floors.
Noah paused at the life-sized statue of a patrolman holding the hand of a young boy and touched one finger to its cool bronze surface for luck, then made a beeline for the Chief's office.
Inside the floor-to-ceiling glass doors, a city councilman cooled his heels in a straight-backed chair. Noah glared at the civilian receptionist until she dropped her Sudoku puzzle. "Detectives Daugherty and Crawford. We had a message the Chief wanted to see us."
The desk-jockey eyed him without a smile. "Go right in. They're all waiting for you."
Oh, shit. That didn't sound good.
He tugged open the heavy oak door and waited for Conner, but his partner waved him ahead. Bastard.
Across a room the size of a basketball court, the Chief pinned him with a stare worthy of an Academy Award. Next to the Chief's desk stood his lieutenant, Nate Jansen. Noah's feet sank into the thick-pile carpet and walking across it felt like trudging to his doom.
As he got closer, the man sitting in front of the Chief's desk twisted toward him and the glare from the wrap-around windows bounced off his bald head.
The Chief of Detectives. Could this day get any worse?
"Come in, come in. We've been waiting for you." The Chief's voice boomed across the room and the corners of his mouth curved up in a fake smile. "Good to see you again, Noah." He held out his hand. "And you too, Conner." He gave a perfunctory nod.
Noah? Conner? Were they-what did his nieces say-BFF's now? He'd never actually met the guy one-on-one before. Three chiefs had come and gone since he joined the force twelve years ago. This one had only been in Houston six months.
"Nice to see you, too, sir." Two could play that game. He nodded to the other men. "Lieutenant, Chief." At least he'd met the Chief of Ds, although he had only come on board with the big boss a few months ago.
"It's a pleasure, sirs." How did Conner manage that? He actually sounded like he meant it.
The Chief nodded toward Jansen. "The lieutenant tells me you're quite musical."
So that's what this was about. Noah bit back a sigh of relief. It wouldn't pay to let the Chief know how nervous he'd been. He waited, expecting a request for his band of Homicide musicians to play at some birthday party or fundraiser.
For anyone else, the answer would be, "No." They only played for sick kids at the hospital. But this was the Chief. His boss's boss's boss.
The Chief arranged his face in a more serious expression. It was like watching him sort through a box of masks and pick the most appropriate one. "We have a situation here that needs to be handled delicately, and Nate thinks you're just the man for it."
Noah couldn't do much about the two big-wigs, but he planned to give his Lieu the business when they got back down to six. And he'd give his eyeteeth to be able to see the expression on Conner's face about now.
"If we're not careful, this could give the city of Houston a black eye."
Now he was responsible for the entire city?
Jansen and the Chief of Ds nodded like bobble-headed dolls.
"There's a free city outdoor concert planned for this Saturday night at Eleanor Tinsley Park. I'm not sure what they're calling it, The Shadow of Spring, or some such foolishness. The first day of spring was the end of March, six weeks ago. Anyway, three bands will be playing and the lead singer of one of them, Paige Reimer. . ." He glanced at Noah. "You've heard of her, haven't you?"
Noah joined the bobble-heads and nodded, although he'd only heard of her for the first time on the drive in to work.
"She's had some trouble lately. Seems she has a stalker. The asshole got up close and personal last night. Slipped a threatening note under her door. She got scared and called the concert promoter who called the mayor and threatened to pull all of his performers if we couldn't guarantee their safety. Then the mayor called me with a tirade that lasted fifteen minutes."
The Chief glared at Noah as if the problem had been his fault. "You understand-I don't like it when the mayor calls me and throws his weight around?"
The leather swivel chair groaned as the Chief sank back and folded his arms across his substantial belly. "Damn fool women. If they wore more clothes they wouldn't have such nonsense. Anyway, we've got to keep her safe while she's here, and I thought you could blend in, join her band and keep an eye on her while your partner looks for the son-of-a-bitch. Just be sure you keep this quiet. We don't want the media to get wind of this. They'd be all over it and that'd be a black eye for the city."
The skin on Noah's face felt tight, flushed. His fingers curled into fists and he shoved them deep into his pockets before the Chief noticed. "I'm a homicide detective, sir. Not a rent-a-cop bodyguard." He waited for backup from Conner, but the silence from his partner was deafening.
The expression on the Chief's face wasn't encouraging, either.
"Would you rather wait and investigate my death?" The voice behind him was soft, but full of power.
Noah spun around in time to see a vision walk through the door. She was tall, probably five nine, and her blond hair flowed in waves past her shoulders. But it was her eyes that held him. They were the most startling shade of blue he'd ever seen. For a moment, he would have sworn someone hit him in the gut with a two-by-four.
Her long legs ate up the distance between them. The guitar case hanging over one shoulder thumped against her side with each step. Skin tight jeans, cowboy boots and a frilly blouse that appeared sexy yet didn't actually reveal anything completed her outfit. A beautiful package around an angry expression.
"No, not at all." Noah swallowed a fist-sized lump and let his eyes beg Conner for help.
"What my partner means is we're trained to investigate. That's a different skill set from protection. You'd be safest with someone experienced in that field." About time Conner made himself useful.
Up close, her eyes were an even deeper blue, but anger had turned them to ice. "Your boss seems to think you can keep me safe and look for the son-of-a-bitch who's trying to terrorize me."
There went any hope she hadn't heard the Chief. On the other hand, maybe he wasn't the only one she was fuming about.
"Although I don't know about letting you play in my band. Standing on a stage in front of thousands, even faking it, is a lot different than playing kiddy songs for a captive audience."
Noah didn't answer, but held out his hand for the guitar case on her shoulder. She stared at him and let him wait with his hand out for several seconds before handing it over. He set the case on the Chief's desk and opened it.
No way was this her performance instrument. One strum told him it was a piece-of-crap out-of-tune throw down designed to make him look bad. He strummed again and adjusted the tuning pegs. Two more tries and he had it the way he wanted.
Now what was her signature song? He'd heard it on the radio twice that morning, probably because she was due in town. At the time, the lyrics had grabbed him. He took a deep breath and sang.
"When the wind reaches out to grab my hand,
And the stars light the way to Heaven,
I'll think of you lost in that distant land,
I'll dream of you searching for me."
When he finished the song, Conner was the only one in the room without a shocked expression. It hadn't been note perfect, but close enough for a spur of the moment gig.
Paige's mouth hung open as he handed the guitar back. He winked at her. "Not exactly what I sang at Carnegie Hall, but you get the idea."
"Spit it out. I know you're angry." Conner might look cool and calm as they made their way back to the elevator, but Noah wasn't fooled.
"We were out, free, but you let your pride drag us back in. You couldn't stand to be told you weren't good enough for something. Anything."
Was it pride? Or was it the desire, just once more, to do what he had spent so many years training for before life interfered and he took a different path? On the other hand, it might have been those blue eyes, calling to him. If that was true, he was a fool and deserved Conner's condemnation.
He'd learned the hard way-a woman who looked that good shouldn't be trusted. Now wasn't the time to forget. "We weren't out. The decision was made before we got on the elevator. No matter how persuasive your argument."
"Probably, but now we'll never know. Do you realize how hard it is to protect someone who's a public figure? She's going to be up on that stage where anyone could get to her if they aren't worried about consequences. We need to find this guy before she makes an easy target of herself. It's already Monday afternoon. That only gives us a little more than four days."
"This perp is some coward who slips notes under doors in the dead of night, not a criminal genius."
"He may be a coward, but leaving a message while she's sleeping is already a step up from anonymous phone calls or emails. Plus, he knows what hotel she's in and her room number. Information they don't hand out with the concert tickets."
"Everyone who's working with her on this concert could discover that much. Give me a day to get close to her and the band and I'll spot who likes to sneak around in the dark."
"Be careful. We've seen it too many times. These creeper types have a way of escalating overnight into something dangerous. Especially when you appear out of nowhere, sticking close to her."
"Don't worry. I'll blend in like I've always been there. I can out-country Willie himself if I need to."
"You don't even like country music."
"You don't know what I like. I enjoy all kinds of music." At one time he was a classical music snob, but he couldn't listen to it since Betsy died. Only now, after almost eight months, could he bear to hear it again.
"Well, then, I don't like country music."
"Get off your high horse. She sings ballads, almost lyrical, with only a touch of Country." The tune was haunting, and her voice like a crystal bell, but it was the words that drew him in. He'd love to find out who wrote that song.
They both clammed up when the elevator deposited them back in their squad room. The noise level dropped as every detective strained to hear what the Chief wanted with them.
Let them wait.
Noah stomped to his desk to collect his weapon and clip a radio to his belt. Conner could deal with the office rumor mill. He was headed home to feed his dog, change into jeans, and pick up his guitar.
Apparently he'd just become a country/western singer.
His father would roll over in his grave.