Remember what I said about the disgusting floor? Right about then, I didn’t care.
I hit the cement face-first, and though I screamed to my teammates to do the same, I really didn’t have to. When I got up the nerve to lift my head just long enough to glance around, I saw that they were all on the floor, too.
We stayed that way for I don’t know how long, waiting for another volley of shots that didn’t come. The only sound in the room was our rough breathing. That, and the pounding of my heartbeat in my ears.
I swallowed hard. “Everybody OK?”
Fortunately, everybody was.
Still on his stomach, Absalom shimmied over. “You never said nothin’ about people tryin’ to kill you.”
“Like I knew somebody was going to start taking pot-shots at me?” I half-crawled, half-rolled in the other direction, and when I was out of range of the window, I sat up and dug around in my purse for my cell phone so I could call the cops. “It’s not like it happens every day,” I said, even though it does happen more often than I like. “I told you I didn’t want to involve any of you. I told you it might be dangerous. I’m sorry.”
“Not lookin’ for a freakin’ apology.” Absalom sat up, too. “Lookin’ to know what you got yourself into.”
I didn’t have the answer, but as it turns out, it didn’t matter. Another round of gunfire erupted, and before I had a chance to dial 911, I fell flat again. My phone slipped out of my hand and skittered across the floor.
A bullet slammed into the cement not ten inches from it, and a spray of tiny cement pieces spewed into the air. Another bullet whizzed past my ear. I knew it wouldn’t do any good, but hey, self-preservation instincts aren’t always logical; I rolled into a ball and covered my head.
And that’s how we all waited. One minute. Two. Three. With each second that passed, I was convinced the shooter was going to spring through the window and finish us off. When nobody did, I took the chance of unfurling and taking a careful look around. “Maybe he’s gone,” I whispered.
“Maybe.” Absalom rocked to his knees and crawled to the window. He was a big target and he knew it, so he stayed close to the floor and peeked around the side of all that was left of the board that used to cover the opening. “I don’t see anybody.”
“Me, either.” Reggie crawled up beside him. He had one of the sticks from the fire, and he tossed it out the window. It clattered to the ground.
There was no response, no gunfire. In fact, it was dead quiet for another whole minute. Then we heard a car door slam.
“Son of a-” It was gloomier than when I arrived at the Lake View, and I could just barely make out Sammi when she sprang to her feet. “That jerk ruined my shirt.” Her top lip curled, she brushed a hand over her T-shirt and stomped one foot.
“It’s just a shirt, Sammi. Chill.” Delmar made sure he kept his distance when he delivered his advice. “Better your shirt gets wasted than Pepper.”
Sammi being Sammi… well, she was well beyond being soothed. I’d like to think it was me being the shooter’s intended target that sent her over the edge, but it just as easily could have been the damage to her shirt. Before any of us could even think to stop her, she raced to the window, hopped over the sill, and barreled into the parking lot, swearing a blue streak at the top of her lungs.
“No!” I scrambled to my feet just as the car outside revved its engine and squealed its tires. Absalom and I made it to the window at the same time, and it might have been a toss-up as to who was going to push who out of the way and get outside first.
Except that the next sound we heard froze us both in our tracks.
The crack of a single gunshot.
By the time we jockeyed for position to get out of the window and raced to Sammi’s side, she was already dead.
“You look like you could use a cup of coffee.”
As if by magic, right after I heard these words, a disposable cup appeared under my nose. The coffee in it was hot and steamy, and it smelled like heaven.
Just thinking about drinking it made me feel like I was going to throw up.
I looked up from the coffee cup, and maybe I should have been, but I wasn’t surprised to find Quinn was on the other end of it. He slid into the backseat of the police car to sit next to me. “You all right?” he asked.
I’d like to say I sniffed, but the noise I made was way less polite than that. I swigged, and when he handed me a handkerchief, I grabbed it gratefully and wiped my nose and eyes.
“We were just doing research,” I said, telling Quinn the same story I’d told the patrol cops when they arrived in answer to my frenzied 911 call. It was, after all, technically the truth. “We were looking over the scene and talking about the crime, and-” I hiccupped. “That’s when the shooting started.”
“And this Sammi Santiago…” He consulted a small, leather-bound notebook. “She ran out of the room?”
“You know Sammi!” I felt I could get away with this explanation because Quinn was a Cemetery Survivor fan, and as every fan knew, Sammi has-er, had-a temper. He’d seen her in action. “She was so mad about the shooting and about her shirt getting dirty…” I remembered how back in the room, she thought her T-shirt was ruined, and how out in the parking lot when I finally dropped to my knees at her side, I saw that St. James’s face was obliterated by the dark red blood that oozed from the wound in Sammi’s chest. When I tried to draw in a breath to steady myself, it wobbled on the sob stuck in my throat. “Sammi just took off. And that’s when…” I swallowed hard. It hurt. “That’s when we heard the shot.”
“And the car?”
I thought back to the moment I hopped out the window. “I only saw it from the back. It wasn’t new. I could tell that. It was gray. Or maybe white. It was getting dark, and it was hard to tell.”
“Did anybody think to get the license plate number?”
I shrugged. After the first detective on the scene interviewed me, a nice uniformed officer sat me down in the patrol car, got a blanket out of the trunk, and draped it over my shoulders. The blanket sagged. Quinn didn’t adjust it. “I didn’t see much,” I told him. “I was looking at Sammi, and it all happened so fast.” I wasn’t sure if I was talking about the way the shooter escaped or the way a person can be living one second and gone the next. Since my eyes filled with tears and my nose clogged, I don’t think I was talking about the shooter.
“It’s OK,” Quinn said. “It’s over now. You’re safe.”
I was, and it didn’t make me feel one bit better. When he made a move to get out of the car, I plucked at his sleeve. “How did you know I was here?”
“I heard the call on the radio. The dispatcher mentioned the Lake View.” His expression was dead serious. “I remembered that file you asked for, so I figured you were here. They said there was a victim, a woman. I thought-” He didn’t finish the sentence, just slid out of the car.
Before he could walk away, I leaned over to see him better. “Did you call Virgil?”
“I’ll leave that up to the patrol guys,” he said. He stooped down to look me in the eye. “We’re done talking to you for now, though somebody will probably be by tomorrow to interview you again. You want me to follow you home?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” Fresh tears welled, and I didn’t even bother to brush them away. “I’m a little confused.”
He nodded. “It’s the shock. I loaded your coffee with sugar. That ought to help.” He looked toward the Mustang. “You stay put for a few minutes, and when I can break away, we’ll get you out of here.”
He’d already walked away before I had a chance to tell him that would be fine. I had a million questions that demanded answers, and not enough energy to move a muscle. I sat in the back of the patrol car, and after a while, though I don’t remember drinking it, I saw that my coffee cup was empty. Quinn was right about the sugar helping; I wasn’t as shaky. I didn’t know where he got the coffee in the first place, but I dragged myself out of the police car to look for more.
I guess my relationship with Quinn was what had earned me the luxury of sitting in that patrol car in the first place. When I found them, Absalom, Jake, Reggie, and Delmar were herded to one side of the building, shuffling their feet and waiting for the official go-ahead to leave. They looked as miserable as I felt.
“You OK?” The blanket was still hanging from my shoulders, and Absalom straightened it. “You look awful.”
“I just can’t believe it.” Like I needed to tell them that? “I don’t suppose any of the cops said anything. About anything they’ve found? Or who could have done this?”
“Seems to me, you’re the best one who could answer that.” Absalom was right, but he didn’t press the point, and I don’t think it was because he was willing to cut me any slack. He looked tired. “All they did was ask us what we were doing here.”
“And you told them…?”
Reggie’s shrug said it all. “Told them we was following you. And that you was doing research. For the restoration at the cemetery.”
As far as it went, it was true, but it wasn’t the whole story, and it was about time they knew it. I sighed. “What I’ve really been doing is wasting time,” I said. “I think I know who buried that coin at Jefferson Lamar’s grave. He’s a man named Dale Morgan, and I should have talked to him long ago. I would have, if I wasn’t too scared to do what I knew I had to do.”
Delmar’s eyes were red, like he’d been crying. Because he didn’t want me to see, he hung his head. “You ain’t scared of nothin’,” he said. “You ran out of that room, just like the rest of us did.”
“But maybe I wouldn’t have been here in the first place. Not if I talked to Dale Morgan first. Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe if I found out what he knows, maybe Sammi wouldn’t be-”
A noise from behind us stopped me, and I turned just in time to see a couple paramedics lift Sammi’s body onto a stretcher and put it in an ambulance.
I don’t know what it was about watching the scene that knocked the shock out of me. I do know that when it was gone, the only thing left behind was exhaustion.
My knees were weak and my shoulders sagged. I barely heard Absalom when he asked, “What you going to do?”
“I dunno.” It was the truth. My eyes filled with fresh tears. “I know I can’t just stand here, not when Sammi’s dead and…” I sobbed. “It’s not the kind of place where women should get killed. It’s a stupid little motel with flamingoes on the bathroom walls.”
I listened to my own words wash back at me, and a chill like the touch of a dead hand tingled up my legs and into my body. My veins filled with ice water.
I stood there thinking for so long, Absalom figured something was wrong. He waved a hand in front of my face. “Pepper? You OK?”
If only he knew. I was as far from OK as it was possible to get.
I threw off the blanket, and I was in my car and out of the parking lot before any of them could ask where I was going.