"Sorry, sweetheart, I've got to go. Take my car, if you want, I'll ride with Michaels. Or I'll drop you off."
Shirley raised her eyes. Beneath her green and purple scarf, her graceful shoulders squared. "I'll stay. I'm all right with Aunt Nga. If someone got out of line, she'd speak up for me. Don't worry."
Skeet frowned. It hadn't occurred to him she'd stay. She was right, though. Aunt Nga wouldn't allow someone to abuse Shirley in her restaurant, that's where she'd draw the line. But Shirley's delicate appearance was misleading. True to her genes, she had a black woman's nerve and a Vietnamese woman's temper -- volcanic, from being usually suppressed. Even for Skeet, she was a handful on the rare occasions she was upset. Shirley needed no protection, except from silent stares at Mai's.
"Besides, I'm hungry," she continued coolly. "You go on. I'll take a taxi back, or I might walk. It's such a nice afternoon."
Skeet hesitated, but he could think of no way out. Besides, it was unlikely she and Aunt Nga would suddenly chat about their histories after years of silence. "All right," he said, deciding to carry on as usual with the rest of the day so Shirley wouldn't suspect anything. He didn't want to spoil it -- the surprise, the drama of a proposal at Mai's.
"Remember, tonight I'll be at Jake's until late. It's Thursday."
"Okay, darling," she said.
Skeet stood. "See you in the morning. I'll run by your place for breakfast?"
Shirley lowered and raised her eyelids in assent, then lifted her deep-tan cheek to meet Skeet's kiss goodbye. He knew they all watched, fascinated by this open display of love, wondering what tragedy had preceded their romance and in what heartbreak it would end.
Subbasement, Chatsford Police Department Downtown
Skeet Cullum hated to go to the morgue, particularly today. Another four hours and he could throw on a pair of jeans and head over to Jake Morrison's house. That's where he spent every Thursday night, just he and Jake, jamming on their guitars. It was more than recreation to Skeet. Jake wasn't involved with the rest of Skeet's life. Hadn't met Shirley or Aunt Nga, didn't know a thing about crime and didn't ask. Once a week at Jake's he could step away from his life, forget he was a veteran, forget he was a shrink who specialized in analyzing murderers for the Chatsford, Ohio, Police Department.
When Skeet entered the prep room, one of the assistants was there, scrubbing for a preliminary autopsy. "Hi, Rogers," Skeet said. "Come to see Hampton, if I can. Gloria Hampton."
"Sure, Doc." Rogers gave Skeet an uncertain look because everyone in the Department knew how Skeet avoided the morgue. "They're looking for you upstairs, you know."
"Okay, it's your call." Rogers said. "Lucky we haven't gotten to her yet. We're about to unzip her.
Skeet preferred to see victims before they got to the morgue. Here no vestige of their lives remained, only a body -- far emptier than any other void -- testified they were once alive. He looked through glass in the double doors as he put on a lab coat, snapped a white cap over his hair, drew on plastic gloves and a white mask. The coroner made sure visitors didn't drag trace into his lab. As usual, the place looked spotless, smelled antiseptic, and everywhere felt like death.
Rogers said, "Just a sec, Doc," then went inside and whispered to the detective assigned to guard the body until the prelim took place. He looked toward the door and nodded at Skeet, then motioned for him to wait a moment. That would be until they unzipped the bag and got going. What no accompanying detective wanted was extra people in his chain of custody before the prelim record began.
Copyright © J. R. Lankford February 2, 2001, Xlibris Corporation used by permission. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce this excerpt, please visit www.NovelDoc.com/Lankford.
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