He noticed her the moment she stepped into the pavilion. Even in a
crowd of other women dressed, for the most part, in skimpy summer
clothing, she was definitely a standout. Surprisingly, she was
As she paused to get her bearings, her gaze stopped briefly on the
dais, where the band was performing, before moving to the dance
floor, then to the haphazard arrangement of chairs and tables
surrounding it. Spotting a vacant table, she moved to it and sat
The pavilion was round in shape, about thirty yards in diameter.
Although it was an open-air structure with a conical roof, the
underside of which was strung with clear Christmas lights, the
pitched ceiling trapped the noise inside, making the din
What the band lacked in musical talent they made up for with
volume, obviously of the opinion that decibels would make their
missed notes less discernible. They did, however, play with raucous
enthusiasm and showmanship. On the keyboard and guitar, the
musicians seemed to be pounding the notes out of their instruments.
The harmonica player's braided beard bounced with every jerking
motion of his head. As the fiddler sawed his bow across the
strings, he danced an energetic jig that showed off his yellow
cowboy boots. The drummer seemed to know only one cadence, but he
applied himself to it with verve.
The crowd didn't seem to mind the discordant sound. For that
matter, neither did Hammond Cross. Ironically, the racket of the
county fair was somehow soothing. He absorbed the noise --- the
squeals coming from the midway, catcalls from rowdy teenage boys at
the top of the Ferris wheel, the crying of babies grown tired, the
bells and whistles and horns, the shouts and laughter inherent to a
Going to a county fair hadn't been on his agenda today. Although
there had probably been some advance publicity about it in the
local newspaper and on TV, it had escaped his notice.
He'd happened on the fair by accident about a half hour outside of
Charleston. What had compelled him to stop, he would never know. It
wasn't like he was an avid carnival-goer. His parents certainly had
never taken him to one. They had avoided general-public attractions
like this at all costs. Not exactly their crowd. Not their kind of
Ordinarily Hammond probably would have avoided it, too. Not because
he was a snob, but because he worked such long, hard hours, he was
selfish with his leisure time and selective about how he spent it.
A round of golf, a couple hours of fishing, a movie, a quiet dinner
at a good restaurant. But a county fair? That wouldn't have topped
his list of pleasurable pursuits.
But this afternoon in particular the crowd and the noise appealed
to him. Left alone, he only would have brooded over his troubles.
He would have reflected himself into despondency, and who needed
that on one of the few remaining weekends of the summer?
So when his highway speed was reduced to a crawl and he got trapped
in the traffic inching into the temporary parking lot --- actually
a cow pasture turned parking lot by an enterprising farmer --- he
had remained in line with the other cars and vans and SUVs.
He paid two bucks to the tobacco-chewing youth who was collecting
for the farmer and was fortunate enough to find a spot for his car
beneath a shade tree. Before getting out, he removed his suit
jacket and tie, and rolled up his shirtsleeves. As he picked his
way carefully around cow patties, he wished for blue jeans and
boots instead of dress slacks and loafers, but already he felt his
spirits rising. Nobody here knew him. He didn't have to talk to
anyone if he didn't want to. There were no obligations to be met,
no meetings to attend, no telephone messages to return. Out here he
wasn't a professional, or a colleague. Or a son. Tension, anger,
and the weight of responsibility began to melt off him. The sense
of freedom was heady.
The fairgrounds were demarcated by a plastic rope strung with
multicolored pennants that hung still and limp in the heat. The
dense air was redolent with the tantalizing aromas of cooking
food-junk food. From a distance, the music didn't sound half bad.
Hammond was immediately glad he had stopped. He needed
Because despite the people streaming through the turnstile, he was,
in a very real sense, isolated. Being absorbed by a large, noisy
crowd suddenly seemed preferable to spending a solitary evening in
his cabin, which had been his original plan upon leaving
The band had played two songs since the auburn-haired woman had sat
down across the pavilion from where he was seated. Hammond had
continued to watch her, and to speculate. Most likely she was
waiting for someone to join her, probably a husband and assorted
children. She appeared to be not quite as old as he, maybe early
thirties. About the age of the carpool-driving set. Cub Scout den
mothers. PTA officers. The homemakers concerned with DPT booster
shots, orthodontia, and getting their laundry whites white and
their colors bright. What he knew of such women he had learned from
TV commercials, but she seemed to fit that general
Except that she was a little too...too...edgy.
She didn't look like a mother of young children who was enjoying a
few minutes' respite while Daddy took the kids for a ride on the
carousel. She didn't have the cool, competent air of his
acquaintances' wives who were members of Junior League and other
civic clubs, who went to salad luncheons and hosted birthday
parties for their kids and dinner parties for their husbands'
business associates, and who played golf or tennis at their
respective country clubs once or twice a week between their
aerobics classes and Bible study circles.
She didn't have the soft, settled body of a woman who had borne two
or three offspring, either. Her figure was compact and athletic.
She had good-no, great-legs that were muscled, sleek, and tan,
shown off by a short skirt and low-heeled sandals. Her sleeveless
top had a scooped neck, like a tank top, and a matching cardigan
which had been knotted loosely around her neck before she had
removed it. The outfit was smart and chic, a cut above what most of
this shorts-and-sneakers crowd was wearing.
Her handbag, which she'd placed on the table, was big enough only
for a key ring, a tissue, and possibly a lipstick, but nowhere near
large enough for a young mother whose purse was packed with bottled
water and Handi Wipes and natural snacks and enough equipment to
survive days in the wilderness should an emergency situation
Hammond had an analytical mind. Deductive reasoning was his forte.
So he concluded, with what he felt was a fair degree of accuracy,
that it was unlikely this woman was a mom.
That did not mean that she wasn't married, or otherwise attached,
and waiting to be joined by a significant other, whoever he might
be and whatever the nature of their relationship. She could be a
woman devoted to a career. A mover and a shaker in the business
community. A successful salesperson. A savvy entrepreneur. A
stockbroker. A loan officer.
Sipping his beer, which was growing tepid in the heat, Hammond
continued to stare at her with interest.
Then suddenly he realized that his stare was being returned. When
their eyes met, his heart lurched, perhaps from embarrassment for
having been caught staring. But he didn't look away. Despite the
dancers that passed between them, intermittently blocking their
line of sight, they maintained eye contact for several
Then she abruptly broke it, as though she might also be embarrassed
for having picked him out of the crowd. Chagrined over having such
a juvenile reaction to something as insignificant as making eye
contact, Hammond relinquished his table to two couples who'd been
hovering nearby waiting for one to become available. He weaved his
way through the press of people toward the temporary bar. It had
been set up during the fair to accommodate the thirsty
It was a popular spot. Personnel from the various military bases in
the area were standing three deep at the bar. Even if not in
uniform, they were identifiable by their sheared heads. They were
drinking, scoping out the girls, weighing their chances of getting
lucky, wagering on who would and who wouldn't, playing
The bartenders were dispensing beer as fast as they could, but they
couldn't keep up with the demand. Hammond tried several times to
flag one's attention but finally gave up and decided to wait until
the crowd had thinned out before ordering another.
Feeling a little less pathetic than he had no doubt looked sitting
alone at his table, he glanced across the dance floor toward her
table. His spirits drooped. Three men now occupied the extra chairs
at her table. In fact, the wide shoulders of one were blocking her
from Hammond's view. The trio weren't in uniform, but judging by
the severity of their haircuts and their cockiness he guessed they
Well, he wasn't surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised.
She was too good-looking to be alone on a Saturday night. She'd
been merely biding her time until her date showed up.
Even if she had come to the fair alone, she wouldn't have remained
dateless for long. Not at a meat market like this. An unattached
serviceman with a weekend pass had the instincts and
singlemindedness of a shark. He had one purpose in mind, and that
was to secure a female companion for the evening. Even without
trying, this one would have attracted attention.
Not that he had been thinking about picking her up, Hammond told
himself. He was too old for that. He wouldn't regress to a frat-rat
mentality, for crying out loud. Besides, it really wouldn't be
proper, would it? He wasn't exactly committed, but he wasn't
exactly uncommitted, either.
Suddenly she stood up, grabbed her cardigan, slung the strap of her
small purse over her shoulder, and turned to leave. Instantly the
three men seated with her were on their feet, crowding around her.
One, who appeared to be hammered, placed his arm across her
shoulders and lowered his face close to hers. Hammond could see his
lips moving; whatever he was saying to her made his companions
laugh uproariously. She didn't think it was funny. She averted her
head, and it appeared to Hammond that she was trying to extricate
herself from an awkward situation without causing a scene. She took
the serviceman's arm and removed it from around her neck and,
smiling stiffly, said something to him before once again turning as
though to leave.
Not to be put off, and goaded by his two friends, the spurned one
went after her. When he reached for her arm and pulled her around
again, Hammond acted.
Later, he didn't remember crossing the dance floor, although he
must have practically plowed his way through the couples now
swaying to a slow dance, because within seconds he was reaching
between two of the muscle-bound, hard-bellied marines, shoving the
persistent one aside, and hearing himself say, "Sorry about that,
honey. I ran into Norm Blanchard and you know how that son-of-a-gun
can talk. Lucky for me, they're playing our song."
Curving his arm around her waist, he drew her out with him onto the
br> "You got my instructions?"
"Yes, sir, Detective. No one else comes in, no one leaves. We've
sealed off all the exits."
"That includes everybody. No exceptions."
Having made his orders emphatic, Detective Rory Smilow nodded to
the uniformed officer and entered the Charles Towne Plaza through
the hotel's main doors. The staircase had been touted by numerous
design magazines to be an architectural triumph. Already it had
become the signature feature of the new complex. Epitomizing
southern hospitality, two arms of wide steps swept up from the
lobby floor. They seemed to be embracing the incredible crystal
chandelier, before merging forty feet above the lobby to form the
On both levels of the lobby policemen were mingling with hotel
guests and employees, all of whom had heard by now that there had
been what appeared to be a murder on the fifth floor.
Nothing created this kind of expectant atmosphere like a killing,
Smilow thought as he assessed the scene.
Sunburned, perspiring, camera-toting tourists milled around, asking
questions of anyone in authority, talking among themselves,
speculating on the identity of the victim and what had provoked the
In his well-tailored suit and French cuff shirt, Smilow was
conspicuously overdressed. Despite the sweltering heat outside, his
clothing was fresh and dry, not even moist. An irritated
subordinate had once asked beneath his breath if Smilow ever
sweated. "Hell, no," a fellow policeman had replied. "Everybody
knows that aliens don't have sweat glands."
Smilow moved purposefully toward the bank of elevators. The officer
he'd spoken with at the entrance must have communicated his arrival
because another officer was standing in the elevator, holding the
door open for him. Without acknowledging the courtesy, Smilow
stepped in. "Shine holding up, Mr. Smilow?"
Smilow turned. "Oh yeah, Smitty. Thanks."
The man everyone knew only by his first name operated three
shoeshine chairs in an alcove off the hotel lobby. For decades he
had been a fixture at another hotel downtown. Recently he had been
lured to the Charles Towne Plaza, and his clientele had followed
him. Even from out-of-towners he received excellent tips because
Smitty knew more than the hotel concierge about what to do, and
where to go, and where to find whatever you were looking for in
Rory Smilow was one of Smitty's regulars. Ordinarily he would have
paused to exchange pleasantries, but he was in a hurry now and
actually resented being detained. Curtly he said, "Catch you later,
Smitty." The elevator doors slid closed.
He and the uniformed cop rode up to the top floor in silence.
Smilow never fraternized with fellow officers, not even those of
equal ranking, but certainly not with those of lower rank. He never
initiated conversation unless it pertained to a case he was working
on. Men in the department who were fearless enough to try
chitchatting with him soon discovered that such attempts were
futile. His bearing discouraged comradeship. Even his natty
appearance was as effective as concertina wire when it came to
When the elevator doors opened on the fifth floor, Smilow
experienced a thrill he recognized. He had visited countless murder
scenes, some rather tame and unspectacular, others remarkably
grisly. Some were forgettable and routine. Others he would remember
forever, either because of the imaginative flair of the killer, the
strange surroundings in which the body had been discovered, the
bizarre method of execution, the uniqueness of the weapon, or the
age and circumstance of the victim.
But his first visit to a crime scene never failed to give him a
rush of adrenaline, which he refused to be ashamed of. This was
what he had been born to do. He relished his work.
When he stepped out of the elevator, the conversation among the
plainclothes officers in the hallway subsided. Respectfully, or
fearfully, they stepped aside for him as he made his way to the
open door of the hotel suite where a man had died today.
He made note of the room number, then peered inside. He was glad to
see that the seven officers comprising the Crime Scene Unit were
already there, going about their various duties.
Satisfied that they were doing a thorough job, he turned back to
the three detectives who'd been dispatched by the Criminal
Investigation Division. One who'd been smoking a cigarette hastily
crushed it out in a smoking stand. Smilow treated him to a cold,
unblinking stare. "I hope that sand didn't contain a crucial piece
of evidence, Collins."
The detective stuffed his hands into his pockets like a
third-grader who'd been reprimanded for not washing after using the
rest room. "Listen up," Smilow said, addressing the group at large.
He never raised his voice. He never had to. "I will not tolerate a
single mistake. If there's any contamination of this crime scene,
if there's the slightest breach of proper procedure, if the merest
speck of evidence is overlooked or compromised by someone's
carelessness, the offender's ass will be shredded. By me.
He made eye contact with each man. Then he said, "Okay, let's go."
As they filed into the room they pulled on plastic gloves. Each man
had a specific task; each went to it, treading lightly, touching
nothing that they weren't supposed to.
Smilow approached the two officers who had been first on the scene.
Without preamble, he asked, "Did you touch him?"
"The door was standing open when we got here. The maid who found
him had left it open. The hotel security guard might have touched
it. We asked, he said no, but..." He raised his shoulders in a
"Telephone?" Smilow asked.
"No, sir. I used my cellular. But again, the security guy might
have used it before we got here."
"Who have you talked to so far?"
"Only him. He's the one who called us."
"And what did he say?"
"That a chambermaid found the body." He indicated the corpse. "Just
like this. Face down, two gunshot wounds in his back beneath the
left shoulder blade."
"Have you questioned the maid?"
"Tried. She's carryin' on so bad we didn't get much out of her.
Besides, she's foreign. Don't know where she's from," the cop
replied to Smilow's inquiring raised eyebrow. "Can't tell by the
accent. She just keeps saying over and over, ?Dead man,' and
boo-hooing into her hankie. Scared her shitless."
"Did you feel for a pulse?"
The officer glanced at his partner, who spoke for the first time.
"I did. Just to make sure he was dead."
"So you did touch him."
"Well, yeah. But only for that."
"I take it you didn't feel one."
"A pulse?" The cop shook his head. "No. He was dead. No
Up to this point, Smilow had ignored the body. Now he moved toward
it. "Anybody heard from the M.E.?"
"On his way."
The answer registered with Smilow, but he was intently gazing at
the dead man. Until he saw it with his own eyes, he had been unable
to believe that the reported murder victim was none other than Lute
Pettijohn. A local celebrity of sorts, a man of renown, Pettijohn
was, among other things, CEO of the development company that had
converted the derelict cotton warehouse into the spectacular new
Charles Towne Plaza.
He had also been Rory Smilow's brother-in-law.
Excerpted from THE ALIBI © Copyright 1999 by Sandra Brown.
Reprinted with permission by Warner Books. All rights