Miranda followed the quick-paced Simmons across the uneven ground, cursing the high heels she’d worn. And the gall of Parker for pulling that little “test” on her. And for denying he had ulterior motives for bringing her here.
Okay. So she’d jumped to conclusions about Witherspoon. Detective work brought out the hunter in her. But she wasn’t biased. She knew women could be as nasty as men. Hadn’t she gotten into as many fights with one sex as the other, during her barhopping days?
If Simmons suspected she was being followed, she didn’t show it. She strode past the press tents, waved casually to a group of friends relaxing in lounge chairs, wended her way around bales of hay that marked the path to the paddock. She marched past fences where jockeys and trainers were warming up their horses, finally taking a turn toward the large barn that boarded the steeplechase contestants.
Miranda was right behind her, still fuming. Objectivity. She had objectivity.
Open-minded. That’s what she was. Okay, she was working for Simmons’s husband, not Witherspoon’s wife. Simmons’s husband was the one who’d hired the Parker Agency. But what if he wasn’t a very good husband? A neglectful man could give a wife a wandering eye. What if he was like the abusive jerk Miranda had been married to?
Simmons was nearing the barn now. It was a long, brown wooden structure with open stalls, so the horses could poke their heads out and get plenty of air. Not fancy at all, which surprised her. At its near end sat a boarded-up structure, like a lean-to, with a dark opening for a door. Must be where they kept supplies.
Miranda’s heart sank. Simmons would probably just give her prize steed a pat on the nose and head for the stands, making this excursion nothing more than a good walk. All they’d have was the footage of the monkey business at the pavilion. They’d have to put in more hours to catch Simmons and Witherspoon in the sack together.
And then something strange happened. As she reached the building, Simmons ducked into the lean-to.
If Miranda had blinked, she would have missed it. But she didn’t blink. She headed for the enclosure. As she reached it, a low, sensual moan greeted her ears.
Already? That was fast. Someone must have arranged to meet Simmons in there. Her heartbeat picking up, she strolled casually past the door, then stopped and pressed herself against the side of the lean-to. Holding her breath, cautiously she peeked through the opening.
Next to some riding gear, Simmons had some guy pressed up against the wall. It wasn’t Witherspoon. This one had dark hair and was shorter. Another old flame from college? He had Simmons’s skirt hiked up to her waist, and his hands were all over her ass. Simmons was unbuckling his belt.
Two lovers? One cheater cheating on another cheater? Simmons’s husband must have never heard of Viagra.
Making sure she wasn’t seen, Miranda reached up to turn on the high-powered directional microphone hidden in the ribbons of her hat.
Lover-Number-Two’s pants slipped down around his ankles as Simmons straddled him. And they’re off.
They both groaned and pawed each other. One thigh rubbed against another. And it’s Lover-Number-Two on the outside. Breathing heavily, Simmons attacked with her tongue. The filly takes the lead. They kept at it. Miranda tilted her head, suppressing a giddy thrill as she captured a good half-minute of nice, x-rated footage. They both were moaning, on the point of orgasm. Heading for the home stretch…they cross the finish line.
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Didn’t have to be Witherspoon. Cheating was cheating. Miranda hoped Farrah Simmons had a good lawyer.
Pleased with herself, she straightened and leaned against the wall a moment to catch her breath. How’s that for objectivity, Parker? No matter how she felt about the people involved in a case, she did her job.
She was just about to head for the track when she heard the sound of a horse.
Not the normal neighs and snorts you hear around a steeplechase, but a fierce, frenzied whinny. A wild screech pierced the air. Then sharp banging, like a round of gunshots. She felt the vibrations through the wall behind her. Along with the sensation of icy fingers snaking down her nerves.
Something was wrong. Bad wrong.
A man shouted. People began to dash toward a stall down the way, yelling like the barn was on fire.
She turned and watched a heavyset man rush to the angry horse. “Whoa, Calypso. What’s wrong, boy?”
Another man reached up and grabbed at the animal’s rope, but it pulled out of his hands. “What’s the matter with him?”
“He’s going berserk.”
Miranda caught a glimpse of a horse’s head bobbing up and down in the stall. Then he reared into the air, as if he’d suddenly gone mad. As if the enclosure was suddenly too small for him and he was frantic to get out.
The heavyset man reached for the beast’s halter, but couldn’t catch hold of it. “I don’t know what’s wrong,” he shouted to the other man. “I left for only a minute to get a bottle of water. He’s never acted this way before.”
The horse came down on his front legs. He ducked his head, and the sharp bang, bang of his back hooves hitting the stall shattered the air once more. There was another sound, too, like a dull thud.
A crowd started to gather.
“What’s going on?”
“What’s wrong with that animal?” a woman shouted.
Another man dared to step close enough to take a look at the enclosure. As soon as he did, his hands shot in the air. “There’s someone in there! Get that horse out.”
“Unhook the latches.”
There wasn’t much of a barrier for the door. A movie-theater-like rope and a piece of canvas stretched over the opening.
Someone got it open, and the chestnut bounded out, snorting furiously, his beautiful coat shimmering with sweat in the sunlight. He bucked and kicked his long, graceful legs in the air, as though hornets were attacking him.
The sight was as dazzling as it was bizarre.
Three strong men seized the animal’s halter. Another peered into the stall “It’s Ms. Langford,” he shouted. “My God, what was she doing in there?”
Shrieks came from the curious onlookers.
Panic pumping through her veins, Miranda raced for the stall, pushing her way through the swarm of people. When she got to the barn, she peered through the mesh wire that fenced in the upper part of the enclosure.
The sight took her breath.
Freshly torn and splintered by Calypso’s hooves, loose boards hung from the back wall. The wood was punctuated by gaping holes. And there in the hay, beside the wall, lay the body of a woman.
Miranda glared at the gawking crowd. “Isn’t anybody going to do anything?”
Too stunned to speak, the onlookers blinked at her.
CPR. Her training took over and she marched into the stall, went straight to the body. But as she leaned down, she saw the blueness of the woman’s skin. A finger against her throat told Miranda she was dead.
She’d seen dead bodies before. Too many, recently. The bodies of children. But that didn’t stop her gut from wrenching hard enough to give her a jolt of pain, her mind from reeling fast enough to make her wobble. She struggled to get hold of herself, forced herself to breath, as she took in the scene.
A girlish, blue-flowered sundress was wrapped around the dead woman. White gloves covered both hands. Delicate, short curls, as red-gold as Calypso’s coat, lay tangled and matted in the hay.
Mid-thirties maybe? Hard to tell from the face. The fragile cheekbones that must have been beautiful a few minutes ago were now broken and bruised in a lacerated mass of bleeding flesh.
Her eyes were open. Sea green. Cat-like. Mangled from the injury, they seemed to gaze in two directions at once.
A smashed straw hat lay upside-down next to her hand as if she’d just taken it off. Except that it, too, had been crushed by the animal’s hooves. There was something under it. A piece of paper?
Miranda felt dizzy. The stall suddenly seemed cramped and close. A strong scent of booze came from the body, but there was also a mix of animal odor, the smell of death, and…a man’s cologne?
“Desirée,” a voice murmured behind her.
Miranda spun around and saw a man standing behind her in the hay.
Tall and rather thin, he was dressed in jeans, a tangerine suit coat and teal-and-green tie. The festive colors seemed garishly out of place at this scene, like a dish of rainbow sherbet in a morgue. But the tie was askew, his coat a bit rumpled, almost like he’d slept in it.
His streaky, bleached-blond, shoulder-length hair was thick and wild, and there was stubble under his lip. Tears stained his cheeks. His eyes blazed with shock and grief.
He reached out for the woman as he stepped forward. “Desirée darling, what have you done?”
Instinct took over and Miranda got to her feet. “Don’t come any nearer, sir.”
Rainbow Sherbet focused on Miranda with a glazed look, as though he hadn’t seen her until now. “I have to talk to her. I have to tell her something.”
Too late for that. The poor guy was in shock. She took a step, stubbornly blocking him.
His face grimaced in anguish. “Let me pass. I have to talk to her. I have to tell her I love her.” He lunged forward, his long-fingered hands awkwardly trying to push Miranda aside.
“No, you don’t, buddy.” She grabbed his arm, quickly twisted it behind his back in a classic move she learned long ago in one of her martial arts courses. She’d never dreamed she’d have to use it in a situation like this.
“Let me go.” He struggled, pulling against her. “Don’t you understand? That’s my wife lying there.”
Miranda softened her grip, her heart going out to the dude. She couldn’t let him go, even though she knew he hadn’t meant to attack her. He was out of his mind with grief. “I’m sorry, mister. But I can’t let you touch anything. You’ll contaminate the evidence.”
His glazed eyes flashed with terror. “Evidence?”
“Yes, evidence.” It might have been a bizarre accident, but sooner or later, the police would be here to investigate.
“Mr. Usher,” a voice barked from outside. “What the hell are you doing in there?” A large man in a beige uniform ducked under the rope someone had put back up to keep out the crowd and took Rainbow Sherbet by the arm.
Thank God. “Are you with Security?” Miranda asked. “We have to secure this stall.”
The man ignored her comment and reached for her arm. “You, too, lady.”
What the— “Hey, watch it, buster. I’m with the Parker Agency.”
“I have orders to clear the area.” Without even acknowledging her claim, the big man pushed her and Rainbow Sherbet toward the narrow opening.
Outside, a small troop of uniformed guards was holding back the throng of onlookers.
“What’s going on in there?” a voice demanded. “What happened to that woman?”
“Everyone stay back,” the big man boomed. “The police will be here shortly to investigate.”
“Investigate,” Miranda said. “That’s what I was doing.” Or starting to.
As if he had wax in his ears, the guard shoved both her and the man out the door and into the crowd. Still in her grasp, Rainbow Sherbet twisted away and headed toward the far end of the stables.
“Hey,” she cried. “Shouldn’t someone be questioning that guy?” But he’d already disappeared into the sea of people.
Fitfully, Miranda scanned the scene as she reached under her hat and turned off the camcorder she’d just realized had been running the whole time.
Calypso and the men who’d tried to control him were gone. The mass around the barns had swelled with trainers, jockeys, vendors from nearby booths. There were spectators in suits, in bright dresses and the omnipresent hats. A host of hungry reporters from the press tent were there, too, itching for a story. Was the whole world here?
The teeming throng pushed her farther away from the stable, but Miranda had to get back in there. She was struggling to reach one of the guards, when the crowd parted like the Red Sea.
In the middle of the opening, Parker appeared.
Alongside him, strode Lieutenant Erskine, Chief Detective of the Atlanta PD, and behind him several other police officers who must have been locals. It didn’t take long for Parker to spot her. They had a sort of telepathy in stressful situations. He shot her a warning look that told her to stay put and out of trouble.
What the hell? Now she was pissed. What’s wrong, Parker? Am I not ‘objective’ enough to help out? Again, she started to muscle her way back to the stall until she felt a tug on her arm and spun around with a gasp.
Sea green, cat-like eyes. Short, reddish-blonde curls. Girlish, blue-flowered sundress. White gloves. Straw hat. The same woman she’d just seen lying dead in the stall? She inhaled, her throat constricting.
“They say that’s my sister in there.” The words came out in a hoarse Southern accent.
Sister? Miranda focused on the woman. Her eyes were red and filled with tears. The lines around them told her she was probably in her early forties. Older than the woman lying in the hay back in the stall. She wore a dazed look. Shock.
The woman pressed a trembling hand against her chest. Even in her panic, she had the air of a Southern aristocrat. “I’m Delta Langford. Desirée’s sister.”
That explained it. “You…you look a lot alike.”
She gestured awkwardly toward her too-sugary garment. “Desirée and I always dress alike for the Steeplechase. It’s our…tradition.” She gazed about with a wild stare, then fixed on Miranda. “Is it true? Was it Desirée in that stall?”
Slowly Miranda nodded. “Desirée Langford. That’s the name I heard.”
Miranda didn’t think she should be the one to give her the details. “There was an accident.”
“Someone said she was trampled by one of our horses.”
“I’m not sure.” Miranda didn’t really know who the crazed horse belonged to.
The woman shivered. “Is she…is she…really dead?”
Miranda gritted her teeth, hating to be the one to deliver the news. But she couldn’t lie about that. “Yes, ma’am,” she said softly.
With a shriek, Delta Langford put a lacey handkerchief to her mouth and closed her eyes. “Oh, dear God. Dear God!”
Gently Miranda reached for her arm. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Ms. Langford.” She wished she could say something more comforting. She wasn’t usually so touchy-feely with strangers, especially upper-crust strangers, but her heart went out to the poor, bereft woman.
Suddenly Delta Langford glanced around with her catlike eyes, as if she didn’t want to be overheard. She grasped Miranda’s arm and nudged her to the side of the barn, giving them some privacy from the grumbling crowd. “You’re Miranda Steele, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” Miranda answered cautiously.
“I recognized you from your picture in the paper.”
She winced. Her first case at the Agency had made her semi-famous in Atlanta. She liked it better when nobody knew who she was.
“You work for the Parker Agency, don’t you?”
Delta Langford leaned toward her. “Ms. Steele, I need your help.”
“My help?” Involuntarily, Miranda backed away.
Nervously, Delta Langford glanced over her shoulder. She was looking more unstable by the minute. “I don’t know what just happened to my sister, but I know he had something to do with it.”
Delta Langford sobbed into her handkerchief and gestured toward the barn. “I saw you coming out of barn with him just now.”
Rainbow Sherbet. The dude with the colorful clothes and wild hair that she’d just had in an armlock. The security guard had called him Usher. Delta Langford must have been in the crowd, watching the commotion. “That’s right, Ms. Langford. He said Desirée was his wife.”
“Ex-wife.” Her catlike eyes grew dark, she began to wring the lace hanky in her hands and mutter, half to herself. “The way that man carries on, you’d believe he really loved Desirée. But he’d just as soon destroy her. I know he had something to do with this.” She wept again.
Miranda’s investigator’s ears perked up. The woman thought it was murder?
She recalled Usher’s bewildered expression in the stall. He’d wanted to tell Desirée he loved her. Guess he still carried a torch for her. Sad. “He seemed pretty upset.” As much as Delta was, though they both appeared a little strange to Miranda, even under the dismal circumstances.
“That man is often upset. He’s a temperamental artist, as if that’s an excuse,” Delta Langford sneered bitterly. “Desirée’s life was always in an uproar when she was married to him.”
“I’m so sorry.” Miranda glanced back at the barn. Police stood barring the entrance, refusing to answer the questions the desperate onlookers and reporters were shouting at them.
The woman in the stall had been kicked in the head by a horse. How could the guy dressed like a dessert parfait have caused that? “It looked like a freak accident to me.”
“This was no accident,” Delta insisted, darkly. “Ever since that man came into Desirée’s life, he’s caused her nothing but pain. It was because of him she drank too much. He got her into using drugs. Oh, my poor, poor Desirée.”
Whoa. This was way too much information. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you understand, Ms. Steele.”
“That story in the newspaper. I read about your courage. Your own ex-husband. How did you face him? What nerve that took.”
Miranda rubbed her arms. Yeah, she’d faced her ex, that vicious, abusive jackass. She wanted to tell Ms. Langford it was nothing, but that was far from the truth.
She’d had nightmares about it. The knife blade flashing through the air. The pain of its slash across her skin. The taste of her own blood. She had a new memory to replace the day he’d put her daughter up for adoption and tossed Miranda out in the snow. Parker was pushing her to go into therapy, but she didn’t need a shrink. She knew where Leon Groth really was. Lying in a hospital room on life support, waiting to die.
“Ms. Steele, I want you on this case.” She said it more like a command than a request.
What case? Miranda shook her head. “I appreciate the compliment, but I don’t take work for the Agency.”
“You’re turning me down?”
Miranda wasn’t convinced it was murder. Besides, she couldn’t take on a case by herself. She’d gotten in enough hot water for going out on her own the last time. “If you want the Agency’s help, you need to contact Wade Parker,” she told the distraught woman as gently as she could.
“I can’t do that.”
A funny look came over her face as she uttered an odd half-laugh. “Wade Parker’s a man. He wouldn’t understand. Not the way you do.”
That was different. Most people would jump at the chance to have Atlanta’s top detective on their case. Most women would jump through a hoop of fire to be in the same room with Parker.
“Please, Ms. Steele.” The woman’s green catlike eyes pleaded with her, pulled on her heartstrings.
“Uh.” Miranda shifted her weight and glanced toward the stall where Parker had disappeared. Snooping around a little was one thing, taking on a client was a different matter. She wasn’t a full-fledged investigator yet. She couldn’t speak for the Agency. Parker would have her head.
Once more, Delta Langford reached for her arm. “Ms. Steele, I need you to bring Desirée’s killer to justice.”
Justice. The word evoked powerful urges. The same impulses she’d felt on her last case. The need to act. To do something. To set things straight. What if Delta Langford was right? What if Ferraro Usher had killed her sister? If it were true, Miranda would love to be the one to put him away.
She looked back at the stall, considering the idea. At that moment Parker stepped out of the opening. His gaze went straight to her. He gestured for her to join him.
Saved by the boss. She turned to the woman. “Sorry, Ms. Langford. I gotta go.” She hurried away as fast as she could.
“Ms. Steele,” Miranda heard her cry out. “Is there a way to get in touch with you?”
“You can contact me at the Agency,” she called back over her shoulder. Then she was out of earshot.
Whew, that was close. But deep down, Miranda hoped Delta Langford would phone her.