Hot On His Trail
Linda Winstead Jones

<< 1 2 3 4 5 6 ... 10 >>

From beyond this very small part of the world, in the seats beyond the jury box, eyes were trained on Nick. He knew that. But in the past two weeks he had learned to ignore those onlookers so completely they ceased to exist. His mind had remained on the witnesses against him, the evidence the D.A. had presented so competently, the defense Norman had put together.

His defense was simple, but it was enough. It had to be. Innocent men didn’t go to prison for the rest of their lives. They didn’t go to the electric chair.

At the judge’s direction, he and Norman rose to their feet. Still, no one looked his way. Not the judge, not the D.A., not the members of the jury. Everything was so…quiet. Nick wondered if they could all hear the beat of his pounding heart and the way the blood rushed through his veins, so loudly he could hear the roar in his ears.

He waited to hear the words “Not guilty.” He waited for Norman to smile, to clap him on the back, for relieved eyes to turn his way at last.

Guilty. At first he wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. The noise that followed the verdict was deafening. The crowd murmured loudly, with individual voices raised. A few men and women hurried from the room: reporters, damn them all to hell. The judge banged his gavel, and the sheriff’s deputies came to take Nick away. They didn’t look at him, either. Norman said something low and indistinct, something Nick couldn’t hear for the roar in his ears.

Numbly, he allowed the two sheriff’s deputies to lead him away. Through the side door, through the small office, into the hall by way of a doorway near the elevator that would take him back to jail. Back to jail.

His heart beat much too hard now, threatening to burst through his chest. He couldn’t breathe. His vision dimmed. Guilty?

One of the deputies reached for his handcuffs. In a move more instinctive than deliberate, Nick lunged for the man’s weapon.

Chapter 1

Shea ran up two courthouse steps, spun around quickly and lifted a hand to her hair. She smoothed one dark strand, which barely brushed her shoulder. “Do I look okay?”

Mark, in his usual ratty T-shirt and a backwards ball cap that covered most of his bright red hair, cocked his head and glanced from behind his video camera to smile at her. He was the same age as Shea, twenty-five, but could easily pass for sixteen years old. Since he didn’t stand much more than five foot six he looked like a kid lugging around that big camera. “You’re beautiful, sweetheart.”

She didn’t feel beautiful. The August heat was suffocating, humid and almost overwhelming. Her hair was going to fall, her makeup was going to melt…and she had to look her best.

If she’d had more time she might have chosen the royalblue suit instead of the red one, but it was too late to worry about that now. The call from the station had been unexpected, and she’d had less than fifteen minutes to put on her makeup and change clothes. Fortunately, she was getting good at this. Concessions had to be made, though, in the name of expediency. Her legs were bare and she was wearing a pair of running shoes instead of the red pumps that matched this suit.

It didn’t matter; she’d only be on camera from the waist up.

“So,” Mark said casually, the heavy camera that was resting on his shoulder leaning precariously to one side. “What did you give Astrid to make her sick?” He wagged his pale eyebrows and gave her a devilish smile.

Shea restrained the childish impulse to stick out her tongue. “Nothing, I swear.” She grasped the microphone nervously; her palms were sweating. Oh, she never got nervous filing a story!

But then, she’d never covered a story like this one. Astrid Stanton had been with Channel 43 for nearly seven years, and the Nicholas Taggert murder trial was her story. She’d even gotten a few seconds of play on the network. The network! If not for a nasty bout of the stomach flu—which Shea had absolutely nothing to do with—it would be Astrid standing here; six foot tall, blond-haired, blueeyed, ratings-go-through-the-roof-when-she-smiles Astrid.

“Weird case,” Mark said, sensing Shea’s nervousness and trying to make conversation. “I mean, Taggert actually killed his neighbor because the guy was painting his house the color of Kermit the Frog?”

“Chartreuse,” Shea said. “The color was chartreuse.”

“Whatever,” Mark answered with a grin.

“And there has to be more to it than that,” she mumbled, as much to herself as to Mark. “People don’t kill over something so inconsequential.” At least, she hoped they didn’t. The very possibility was depressing.

This was Shea’s chance, and she knew it. Reporting the news was what she wanted to do more than anything else in the world, and she was tired of filling in for the weatherman on the weekends, sick of smiling inanely through stories on how pets looked like their owners or how a bunch of schoolkids had celebrated spring with kite day. She was in this business to cover real news, and murder was as real as it got.

The jury was coming in; they had that much. No one had much doubt as to what the verdict would be. Even though Nicholas Taggert had maintained his innocence throughout the trial, the evidence was overwhelming. The state had DNA—a couple of stray hairs on a blood-and-paint-stained Taggert Construction T-shirt. A small amount of the same blood and paint had been found in Taggert’s kitchen. They had the murder weapon, a baseball bat with Taggert’s fingerprints on it, and several neighbors had witnessed a heated argument between Taggert and his neighbor, the late Gary Winkler.

Still, Taggert had been convincing on the stand as he’d professed his innocence, and these days when you put twelve people together and called them a jury, anything was possible.

Nicholas Taggert had been residing in the jail on the ninth floor of the Madison County Courthouse for the past ten months, as there had been no bond set for this bizarre and grisly case. Today a jury would decide if he’d remain imprisoned until his sentence—either life without parole or death by electric chair—was passed, or if he’d go free.

Shea’s producer, Kimberly Lane, came bursting through the courthouse doors. “Guilty,” she said, breathless from her run from the second floor.

A deep breath calmed Shea. Suddenly her palms were dry, her heartbeat slowed and she was no longer nervous. I can do this. It’s who I am, it’s what I want. Her shoulders squared as Mark nodded to her, and she lifted the microphone to her mouth.

“This is Shea Sinclair reporting for Channel 43 live from the Madison County Courthouse, where Nicholas Taggert has just been found guilty of murder. Ten months ago the successful building contractor was accused of killing his neighbor, Gary Winkler. Mr. Winkler—”

An unexpected bursting noise, like a firecracker, broke her concentration, and Shea snapped her head around so she could see the glass courthouse doors. “That was a gunshot,” she said softly into the microphone. Muffled shouts followed, and then another sharp report of gunfire from within the building.

She climbed a step, her eyes on the doors.

“Get back here!” Mark growled at her. She looked at him once, just to make sure he was following her, and ignored his advice.

“There seems to be something happening in the courthouse,” she said softly and clearly. “Whether or not it’s related to the Taggert trial, I can’t say at this time.”

A man with a gun in his hand pushed through the doors and onto the covered walkway that encircled the courthouse. Shea recognized Taggert right away, with his neat black hair and expensive gray suit.

That face was unforgettable, even if it hadn’t been plastered regularly on the evening news and in the newspapers for the past ten months. It was handsome, with intelligent eyes and distinct, sharp lines. More than one woman who’d glanced at Taggert’s picture had proclaimed it a crying shame that he’d gone bad. “What a waste,” Astrid had said on several occasions.

Mark yelled this time. “Shea, get down here right now!”

She glanced over her shoulder to see that he had his camera on the escaped murderer, but she ignored his order and took another step toward Taggert. Maybe she could catch a word from the convicted murderer with her microphone. Oh, this was too good.

Taggert limped, she noticed, dragging his right leg with every lurching step he took. As he came closer she saw that there was a nasty hole in his pant leg, and he was bleeding badly. He left a thin trail of blood on the white concrete pathway as he headed for the steps.

The courthouse doors burst open again, and five law enforcement officers rushed out, weapons drawn. Two Madison County deputies came through the doors first, and three Huntsville City uniformed policemen were right behind them. No one fired; there were too many civilians on the street and the sidewalk.

“Are you getting this?” she asked softly, her eyes never leaving the drama that was taking place just a few feet away.

“Yeah baby, I got it, I got it,” Mark whispered.

There were other camera crews in the area, but she and Mark were closest. No one else would have a shot like this one on the five o’clock news. No one. Shea smiled.

Taggert jogged in her direction, and he locked the coldest, bluest eyes she’d ever seen onto her face. Suddenly she realized that the pictures in the newspapers and the clips on the evening news had not done justice to his size. The man was tall—over six feet, surely; wide in the shoulders and long legged. Shea’s smile faded, and she shivered from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. Taggert was pale, and frantic, and dangerous…and staggering straight at her.

She waited too late to take Mark’s advice and retreat from the situation. Taggert grabbed her microphone and tossed it away, and in a swift, sure move he wrapped one arm around her waist and spun her about with a jerk, so that she faced the advancing officers. Her heart leaped into her throat as she stared down the barrels of several guns.

Taggert backed down the steps, the hand that held his weapon snaking past her waist as he took aim at the officers.

“Put ’em down,” he said hoarsely. His hot breath touched her neck, and she could feel his irregular breathing against her skin. The officers didn’t immediately do as he asked, so he wedged the gun he held into Shea’s side. The oddly warm black metal pressed sharply against a rib.

The advancing armed men came to an immediate halt and lowered their weapons.

“Now, Taggert,” a gray-haired deputy in a khaki uniform said calmly. His Southern drawl was like molasses, thick and sweet and dark. “Let the girl go and come on back in. We can write this off as a moment of poor judgment on your part, get you to a hospital and get that leg fixed up, and then we’ll just forget it ever happened.”

“Yeah, right,” Taggert said into her ear, his hoarse voice so low Shea was sure no one but she could hear.

A tall, thin man in a dark suit skirted around the lawmen. Shea recognized him, from numerous news reports, as Taggert’s lawyer, Norman Burgess. “Come on, Nick,” he said calmly. “Let the lady go, give me the weapon and let’s go back inside.” Absurdly, his voice was almost sweet, serene and musical. “It’s not over. We can appeal.”

“They don’t believe me,” Taggert whispered again. Shea didn’t know if the statement was meant to be heard or if the injured man was talking to himself. His arm tightened around her, and he dragged her down another step.
<< 1 2 3 4 5 6 ... 10 >>