Thicker Than Water
By P.J. Parrish
Published by Pinnacle Books 
January 2003; 0786014202; 368 pages

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Thicker Than Water by P.J. ParrishCHAPTER ONE

He stood at the window, looking down at the dark street below. In the orange glow of the streetlight, he could see the black tops of the trees waving in the wind. It was late and a storm was blowing in from the gulf. There was no one out tonight. He didn't even see the homeless man who usually slept on the bus bench across the street.

The wind gusted, catching a wad of newspaper. He watched it as it swirled and twisted in the orange spotlight, like a madman performing a desperate dance to the demon music in his head.

He turned away and pressed his palms into his eyes.

Jesus...He was so tired.

He looked at his desk, at the files and papers covering it. His brain was telling him to go home, get some sleep. But there was so much to do yet, so many things he hadn't taken care of. And sleep, the real sleep that made you whole again, was something he had given up on years ago.

Going back behind the desk, he sat down in the old leather chair. The corned beef on rye and cream soda was still there, untouched. He sat there, hands heavy on the armrests, eyes unfocused, brain working.

What was he worried about?

Cade wouldn't do anything. Even if he took his threat seriously, the man wasn't stupid enough to try something. Except sue. He could still do that. The statute of limitations had run out, but with a good lawyer and a sympathetic judge, Cade could still make his life a hell.

But what did he care? It was over anyway. He was tired of keeping the lies to himself, tired of carrying the whole thing around for the last twenty years.

He didn't care what would happen to him if it all came out. He'd be disgraced, disbarred for sure. He'd lose a fortune. But he just didn't care anymore.

 

His wife, she would care. And his partner, he would, too. But he didn't care about them either. Or about anyone anymore.

He shut his eyes.

That wasn't true. There was still one person he loved, one person who loved him.

He opened his eyes. They focused on the far wall, on a arrangement of framed photographs. No people, no children, just sepia-toned street scenes of old Fort Myers as it looked in the forties, and one picture of a pale yellow Victorian cottage on a sugar-white beach against a cloudless blue sky. Remembering how nice the world can be...

Not anymore. It was over now. Twenty years...gone.

One decision, one moment, and his whole life had gone down a different road.

His felt his throat constrict. He could make it right though. He could still do right by Cade, try to make up for what he had done. But first, he had to tell someone. He wanted some peace, some absolution, and there was only one person who would give it to him. He glanced at his watch. Nine-thirty.

He picked up the phone.

A sound out in the dark hallway made him look up. He saw a figure coming toward him. The person stopped in the open doorway.

He put the receiver back in the cradle.

"You came back," he said. "Why?"

There was no answer.

"It doesn't matter. We have to talk anyway."

The figure in the doorway slowly brought up his hand.

He saw the gun.

He tried to stand.

He heard the shot.

The bullet shattered his right temple, propelling him back against the leather chair.

He felt nothing, but he saw a blaze of light, like an exploding sun. Then he fell onto the desk, twisting as his body slumped forward.

He lay there, his head cocked at an angle. The blood seeped slowly out of his brain, onto the yellow legal pad and onto the purple blotter, a slow river of red spreading outward, settling into the dents and cracks of the old cherry desk.

His eyes were still open, fixed on the picture of the yellow beach cottage on the far wall.


CHAPTER TWO

There was so much red. It streamed out from the center in slender little arteries, bleeding across the purple backdrop.

He had been standing here for ten minutes now, waiting for just the right moment to do what he had come here to do. He didn't know much about taking photographs. But he knew that he had to wait until just the right moment.

The red was deepening, spreading.

Finally, he brought the lens up to his eye, aimed and took a picture of the sunset.

As he dropped the camera from his eye, a smile tipped the corners of Louis Kincaid's mouth. Finally. He had finally done it. He didn't even need to wait for the film to come back this time. He knew this time the picture wouldn't be blurry, the colors pale or the damn horizon crooked. This time he finally had finally nailed it.

He looked back out over the gulf. The sun hovered just above the horizon for a second. Then, as if pricked by a pin, the red ball suddenly deflated and melted into the water.

He heard someone applauding and turned to see a couple standing about a hundred yards or so down the beach. They were applauding the sunset. He always thought it was funny that people did that. It was the tourists mainly, who came down to the beach at dusk, wine glasses in hand, to pay homage to Mother Nature or God or whatever deity they thought was behind the light show.

The sunset. He used to notice it. No matter where he was -- in his cottage or his car, sitting at a bar or buying groceries. Every day without fail, right around five, his eyes wandered to the west and he would wonder what it was going to be like that night.

But things were different now. He had been here six months and sunsets were now just a scientific phenomenon to be taken for granted, like rain or snow. Nothing but slanting sunlight shooting through a prism of dirt, gas molecules and water vapors.

But he wouldn't tell Frances that.

He would just send her and Phillip the photograph and tell them that this was what he saw when he stepped out of his cottage and that, yes, he was very happy and that no, they didn't need to worry about him.

The colors were fading and the couple had disappeared. He watched the dark green waves crash and foam. The storm last night had left the water still churning and the tide line was rimmed with rotting kelp, broken shells and dead fish. He turned and started back toward the cottage.

He paused at the crest of the low dune. The sun had turned the weather-beaten gray boards of the cottage to umber, making it look like some rustic hideaway on Cape Cod. He stared at the cottage -- his cottage -- for a minute then brought the camera up to his eye and took a picture.

The photograph wouldn't show the torn screening on the porch or the mildew in the shower stall, but, hey, Frances wouldn't know that. His foster mother would just be happy that he finally had settled into such a nice place.

At the door, he paused to knock the sand off his flip-flops, then went in. His eyes wandered over the old rattan furniture with its faded blue cushions, up over the terrazzo floor to the pale green walls decorated with matching prints of two crazed-looking pink cockatoos.

Settled...was he settled? He liked his cottage. He liked taking his cup of coffee out to the beach in the morning and getting surprised by the sight of a dolphin's fin breaking the glass-smooth water. He liked Captiva Island. More than he thought he could have.

But settled?

That wasn't the right word. Not with that little something that kept gnawing at him inside, that voice that kept telling him 26-year-old men didn't settle into sleepy little beach towns where the only things keeping a person connected to the real world were cable and a causeway bridge.

Twenty-seven. Today was his birthday. He had almost forgotten.

Louis set the camera on the bar and went to the refrigerator to get a Dr Pepper. As he closed the door, his eye caught the card that hung there under the seashell magnet. It was a birthday card with a picture of a golden retriever wearing a big red bow. He took it down and opened it, reading the short note again from Frances and Phillip. They had never forgotten his birthday, not once since he had first come to live with them when he was eight. Every November, a week before his birthday on the eighteenth, no matter where he was, the card would find him -- always with the twenty dollar bill tucked inside.

He put the card back under the magnet. Leaning back against the counter, he took a drink of the Dr Pepper, watching the shadows growing in the corners of the kitchen.

Shit, his birthday. Maybe he could go over to the Dodies'. He had just been to see them over the weekend, but hadn't thought to mention his birthday was coming up. He glanced at his watch. After six. They'd already have had super, but Margaret would surely fix him a plate.

No, he had been sponging off Sam and Margaret too much lately. He couldn't afford to wear out his welcome. Even on his birthday.

A cricket started to sing somewhere in the cottage. His stomach rumbled, and he knew without looking there was nothing but a couple cans of Beefaroni in the cupboard. He finished the Dr Pepper and tossed the can in the trash. He'd walk down to Timmy's and grab an early dinner, maybe a few beers.

He threw on a clean T-shirt and left the cottage. Next door, at number four, a family was dragging their suitcases out of their car and stopped to look at him. Louis gave them a smile and mumbled a good evening. The two teenaged boys stared at him sullenly. Louis hoped they weren't like the last ones who had rented number four. Those kids had blasted their boombox into the night and he finally had to go over there and tell them to stop.

He hadn't really cared about the loud music. But the other guests did and it was his job to do something about it.

Louis shook his head as he headed out to the road. Security for Bransons on the Beach cottages. An ex-cop couldn't get much lower than that. Even if it did mean he paid next to nothing for a gulf view others paid three hundred a day for.

The lot of Timmy's Nook was nearly empty. It was too early for the locals and Timmy's was too rustic looking for most the tourists.

Bev looked up from behind the bar and gave him a smile. "You're early. You hungry or just bored?"

"Both," he said, taking a seat at one of wood tables covered with red checkered vinyl.

Bev was up to her thin elbows in soapy water. "It'll be a minute or two. Carlo's just fired up the fryers." She cocked a head toward the cooler. "You know where it is."

Louis got up, went behind the bar and got a Heineken, taking it back to the table. He watched Bev as she finished washing the bar glasses. He came into Timmy's a couple times a week and Bev was always there to serve him his fried grouper sandwich with fries and slaw, but they had never gotten beyond friendly banter. Outside of what he saw of her here, he didn't know much about her, and she sure as hell knew nothing about him, other than his tastes in food and that he lived down the road. And what had been in the newspapers.

Bev dried her bony hands. She looked maybe sixty, a spindly Lucille Ball with her upswept dark-rooted blonde hair, bright red dime-store lipstick, always dressed in the same black capri pants and black tops. He liked her. She was like his cottage. Old-fashioned, a little musty, but homey.

She came over to lean against the wall near his table and eyed his Miami Dolphins t-shirt.

"Nice shirt," she said.

"What's wrong it with?" Louis asked.

"The Bucs ain't good enough for you?"

"The Bucs aren't good enough for much of anything."

"All we need is a couple of good draft picks."

"Shit, Bev, even Bo wouldn't come to Tampa for seven million. The Bucs stink. They will always stink."

She started to sulk, but Louis knew it was fake. They had been having this same argument since the first day he walked in. She was a die-hard Bucs fan and hated the Dolphins just on general principle. It was what passed for personal talk between them.

"Fucking Fish," she muttered. "What kind of colors is that for a football team? Pool colors. You don't look good in aqua, you know. No man looks good in aqua."

Louis smiled, shaking his head.

"You want your usual?"

"Yeah. Extra tartar."

Bev went back to the kitchen. Louis took a swig of beer. She was right about the aqua T-shirt. Six months ago, he wouldn't have been caught dead in one. Hell, he never used to wear T-shirts out in public. Same with the khaki shorts and the flip-flops he was now wearing. He took another drink of beer. Was it because of Florida, like Dodie switching from flannel to those guayabera shirts? Or was it because he wasn't a cop anymore? Even when a cop was off-duty, he had to dress like he wasn't. The humidity had probably just melted the starch out of him.

Bev wandered back, bringing silverwear wrapped in a paper napkin. "Haven't seen you in two days," she said. "Where you been?"

"I had a job down in Bonita Springs," Louis said.

"Another cheating, dirt-bag husband?"

"Cheating, dirt-bag wife this time."

"How'd you nail her?"

"Photos. Coming out of the Days Inn."

"Cheap bastard. He couldn't spring for the Marriott?"

Louis knew Bev liked hearing the details whenever he had a surveillance case. But he didn't really want to give them.

"Boring case, Bev," he said. "Nothing juicy this time."

"Damn." She retreated to the kitchen. Louis took another drink of beer, his eyes wandering out the window. It was too dark now to see much further than the dock, but out in the black channel, he could make out the red and green running lights of a boat making its way south.

His thoughts drifted to the husband of the woman he had busted in Bonita Springs. The poor guy had looked at the photographs, taken out his checkbook, slid the check across the table to Louis and left. All without saying a word.

Louis stared out at the black water. God, he hated it. He hated that woman, he hated that man, he hated sitting in a hot car waiting for people to prove they were human. He hated being a PI. He hated not being a cop.

"Excuse me."

Louis looked up. A man was standing at his table. Tall, thin, wearing jeans and a faded green t-shirt.

"Are you Louis Kincaid?" he asked.

Louis nodded warily. It had been months since anyone had recognized him and he had begun to hope the notoriety was finally wearing off. He didn't want to spend the rest of his life answering questions from strangers who got off hearing about serial killers. The press had dubbed it the "Paint It Black" killings, after the Rolling Stones song. Once, when he was sitting at a bar, a drunk came up and even started singing it. Louis had almost punched the guy out. He just wanted to forget it, wanted his fifteen minutes to be up.

He looked up now into this man's eyes. What was the question going to be this time?

"I'm Ronnie Cade. I heard about you."

Louis saw Bev looking at them. She had come to be a little protective of him.

"I went to your house," the man said. "Some weird French guy said you were probably here."

Great. Leave it to Pierre...

"Can I sit down?" the man asked.

"Look, man, I don't mean to be rude, but I'm getting ready to eat," Louis began.

"I want to hire you."

Louis blinked in surprise.

"I know you caught that paint guy and that you're doing private investigation stuff now." The man looked around at another couple taking a nearby table. "Can I sit down?"

Louis hesitated. He needed the work. There wasn't a helluva lot of cases for a PI to take on here. But this guy looked like he was a little too desperate.

He caught Bev's eye again. And Carlo, the sumo-sized cook, had come out. Louis gave them a small wave to signal he was okay. His eyes moved back to the man standing in front of him.

His dark hair was pulled into a pony-tail and he had an eagerness in his eyes that at first made him seem young, but from the fine web of lines around the eyes and the leathery skin of his arms, Louis guessed him to be in his late thirties.

Cade was bouncing lightly on his toes, his lips moving back and forth between a smile and grimace, like he couldn't decide if he want to be tough or friendly.

"All right. Sit down," Louis said.

Ronnie Cade dropped into a chair, started to extend a hand, then drew it back. He crossed his arms and leaned forward on the table.

"I know you must get real good money for what you do," Cade said, "but I was hoping maybe you would take what I got and let me make payments on the rest."

Louis stared at him. Good money? He rubbed the condensation off his beer bottle. "First things first. What kind of investigation do you want me to do?"

"My father's been arrested. They've charged him with murder."

Louis took a drink of his beer and waited just long enough to not look eager. "You want a beer?" he asked.

Cade nodded quickly. "Bud."

Louis called over to Bev, trying to sound casual, but inside his heart was quickening. This was promising.

"Who did your father allegedly kill?" Louis asked.

"That lawyer Spencer Duvall."

Louis straightened slightly.

"I thought that would get your attention," Cade muttered.

Bev brought the beers. Louis ignored the questions in her eyes. After she left, he asked, "How much can you pay to start?"

"Five-hundred dollars," Cade said.

"Shit, man..."

Cade's hand shot out and he grabbed Louis's wrist. Louis jerked his hand back and Cade threw his hands in the air.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled. "I'm sorry, okay?"

"Does your father have the same temper, Mr. Cade?"

"I said I was sorry," he said, his eyes low, his voice strained.

Louis shook his head slowly. "Five hundred dollars is a day's work in a homicide investigation, Mr. Cade. Doesn't your father have a lawyer?"

"Yeah, court-appointed. Everyone knows how hard they work for people like us."

"People like who?" Louis asked.

Cade paused to take a drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his calloused hand. "Look, I do lawn maintenance for a living. My kid and me live in a double-wide over on Sereno. I ain't had many breaks in my life and I don't blame anybody for that. But the law don't work the same for everybody." He paused again. "Do I have to start singing a sad song for you here?"

Louis glanced around the restaurant. He had seen the news about Spencer Duvall on TV the other night. A big-shot lawyer getting gunned down in his own office late at night would be news anywhere, let alone Fort Myers. He had seen the film of a man being hauled away in handcuffs, the talking head saying the suspect had been recently released from prison. Louis had just chalked it up to a revenge thing gone bad. Now here was the guy's kid, begging for someone to believe his dad didn't do it. Interesting. But not interesting enough that he could afford to work for near free.

"Look, Mr. Cade, I don't think I-- "

Cade leaned forward. "He's my father," he said. "I'll give you anything I have." He reached in a pocket and slapped a business card on the table. "Look, I've got my own business, I got a truck--"

Louis shook his head. "Sorry, man."

Cade stared at Louis for a long time then grabbed his beer and quickly drained it. He stood up slowly, digging for money in the pocket of his jeans.

"Forget it," Louis said. "It's on me."

Cade didn't move. His eyes flitted around the restaurant then came back to Louis. "I lost him," he said tightly.

"What?" Louis said.

"My father. He went to prison. I lost my father for twenty years." Ronnie Cade's eyes glittered in the florescent lights. "My father wasn't there when I graduated high school, when I got married or when I had my boy. Twenty years, man. He just got out and now this."

Louis didn't reply, the sounds of the restaurant suddenly dull and thick.

Cade shook his head slowly. "Fuck, you haven't got the faintest idea what the hell I'm talking about, do you?"

He started away.

"Hey, Cade," Louis called out.

The man turned.

"I'm not making any promises, okay? But I'll look into it."

Cade stared at him for a moment then nodded briskly. He left, the screen door banging behind him. Louis picked up the business card. J.C. LANDSCAPING. It was dirt-smudged and the phone number was inked out and a new one scribbled in. He slipped it in his shorts pocket.

Bev came over, setting the grouper sandwich down in front of him. "What was that all about?" she asked.

"A job offer," Louis said, picking a fry out of the basket.

"For what?"

"The guy's father was arrested for murdering a lawyer."

Bev's eyes darted to the door where Ronnie Cade disappeared. "That was Jack Cade's kid?"

"I guess. He didn't say what his father's name was."

"Jack Cade. He just got out of prison and now they're saying he killed Spencer Duvall," Bev said, excitement creeping into her voice. "What, you don't watch the news?"

"I saw it." Louis took a bite of the sandwich.

"Don't you think it's kind of weird?" Bev pressed.

"Bev, I think all cons dream of killing the guy who put them away. Maybe this one made his dream come true."

"But why would Jack Cade kill his own lawyer?"

Louis looked up at her, wiping his chin with a paper napkin. "Duvall was Cade's defense lawyer?"

She nodded. "Twenty years ago. When Cade was on trial for murder."

Louis set his sandwich back in its plastic basket. "Who did Cade murder?"

"A girl." Bev's brow furrowed. "Kathy something, I think. No, Kitty, her name was Kitty. She lived over in Fort Myers. It was big news around here at the time. I was working at the HoJo's on Cleveland and the cook had this TV in the back and we followed it on the news. It was pretty bad stuff. That girl...he raped her, too, and left her body in a dump." She paused. "So you gonna take the case?"

Louis looked up at Bev. "I'm not sure."

"Why not?"

"He can only pay me five hundred."

Bev shook her head slowly. "You should have taken it."

"Why?"

"End of the month. I gotta collect on your tab, hon. Five hundred bucks can buy a lot of grouper sandwiches."

"I'll settle up at the end of the week, I promise."

Bev picked up his empty Heineken bottle. "I'll bring you another." She stopped. "Kitty Jagger, that was her name." She shook her head absently. "Wow. Twenty years. I can't believe that was twenty years ago. Where's the time go?"

She went back to the kitchen. Louis picked up his sandwich, took another bite and set it aside. He looked out the window, out at the black moonless night and the inky water of the channel lapping against the dock.

Twenty years was a long time. But not long for rape and murder. Spencer Duvall apparently had done a good enough job to have kept his client out of the chair. Why would Jack Cade turn around and kill the guy who had saved his neck?

He fished the business card Cade had left. J.C. Landscaping. Louis guessed the J.C. stood for Jack Cade. Twenty years ago, Ronnie Cade would have been, what? - fifteen maybe? What goes through a kid's head when he finds out his father is a rapist and murderer? How the hell do you forgive that?

He's my father. I lost him...

A green bottle appeared in front of him. Louis looked up at Bev.

"Today's my birthday," he said.

"No shit?" Bev said.

Louis took a quick swig of beer. "Yeah, no shit."

Copyright 2003 Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols
Reprinted with permission.

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Synopsis

On a hot spring night in South Florida, a beautiful young girl named Kitty Jagger is brutally raped and murdered. Twenty years later, Jack Cade, the man convicted of her slaying is released from prison – only days before a prominent lawyer is found shot to death in his office. It is discovered the dead lawyer is the same man who defended Cade 20 years ago, and Cade is quickly arrested. When Cade’s son comes to Louis Kincaid for help, Louis finds himself "working the other side of the fence" for the first time in his life. He follows a trail of death that links the old case with the new murder and leads him into a web of secrets and lies involving the police, families and an aging detective haunted by the past.

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Author

P.J. Parrish is a pseudonym for two sisters: Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols.

Montee lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Before Dark of the Moon, she had been a dance critic and a newspaper editor at the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida. Also, under the name of Kristy Daniels, she authored four contemporary women's novels.

Nichols lives in Philadelphia, Mississippi and has been in the in the casino business, first as a blackjack dealer and then as a personnel manager.

Somewhat based on their combined history they claim that P.J. Parrish has worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, arts reviewer, blackjack dealer and personnel director in a Mississippi casino. Parrish resides in South Haven, Mississippi and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and is married with three children, three grandchildren and seven cats.

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