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The Fire of Heaven

Heaven Cover 2

Lexington Detective Jack Dantzler is asked to look into a death that has been ruled a suicide. When he learns how the person died—cyanide poisoning—he immediately suspects that the victim was murdered. Although the death occurred in another county, Dantzler agrees to look into what is a closed case. However, before he can begin his investigation, a medical clinic is bombed and a woman dies in the blast. Within days, the owner of the clinic is murdered.

As Dantzler digs deeper into these cases, he begins to suspect that the murders are somehow linked together. But how? And who is the link? Dantzler’s list of potential suspects grows, and so does the body count. Suddenly, Dantzler is scrambling to bring down the killer—or killers—before more blood is spilled. It’s a race he cannot afford to lose.

The Fire of Heaven features a cast of memorable characters, headed, of course, by Dantzler, the gifted detective critics have compared to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Critic Natasha Jackson said it best: “The Fire of Heaven pulls you in right from the very first paragraph, and Tom Wallace does a great job of creating a world-class detective in Dantzler.”

Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

 Jack Dantzler had no plans for going out tonight. Stay in, kick back, order a pizza, pop in a movie, maybe Heat for the umpteenth time, and watch Godfather’s Pacino and De Niro give a classic acting lesson in their first-ever shared scene. A second possibility: Miller’s Crossing, which he judged to be the eccentric Coen Brothers’ greatest achievement. Either choice a winner.

With Laurie out of town—one week through a four-week training seminar at Quantico—and with no active homicide investigations to work, he was experiencing that rarest of circumstances: free time, alone.

His time.

Dantzler was seldom happier or more fulfilled than during those hours, days and weeks when matching wits with a murderer. Putting scumbags away was his calling, his duty, his responsibility. It was righteous work in every way. But . . . this time alone, with absolute freedom to do as he wished, to come and go as he chose, this autonomy over his own life, was not something to be taken lightly or for granted.

It was a luxury and should be appreciated as such.

In the end, however, his work would eventually be an unwelcomed intruder. Work would end his quiet sabbatical. Dantzler knew this with absolute certainty. Already, somewhere in the dark corners of Lexington, the grim elixir for future homicides was surely brewing, concocted by men and women filled with anger, hate, greed, rage, jealousy and stupidity. It would all close in on him soon enough. Chew into his time, take his own life away from him, once again making him captive to circumstances, deeds and actions created by men and women he didn’t know, or ever cared to know.

In short, bring him back into the real world.

But on this Saturday night his time belonged solely to him. He was going to enjoy it to the fullest.

Dantzler nixed ordering a pizza on the grounds that it was too late for food so heavy and cholesterol-rich. Tonight, he would make the healthy decision and give his arteries a break. Instead, he mixed a Pernod and orange juice (good for the arteries, maybe, but not so good for the liver), popped in a Leonard Cohen CD and flopped down on the sofa. Cohen, the brilliant Canadian poet, was Dantzler’s all-time favorite singer-songwriter, and had been for more than thirty-five years. As Cohen’s raspy, cigarette-ravaged voice sang In My Secret Life, Dantzler sipped his drink, leaned back, closed his eyes and listened.

Looked through the paper, makes you want to cry; nobody cares if the people live or die.

Can’t agree with you on that one, Leonard, Dantzler thought to himself. Some of us do care. Some of us make our living by caring.

Sometimes too much, in fact.

Caring too much was both the blessing and the curse for any good homicide detective. And Dantzler was, even by his own reckoning, one of the very best.

The doorbell rang so softly Dantzler wasn’t sure if the sound was real or part of the song. He raised himself to a sitting position, set his glass down and glanced at the clock above the TV. Eight forty-five. Kind of late for a visit. As a detective who had put away dozens of violent criminals, he was naturally wary of unannounced callers, especially those who showed up after dark. There was always the chance one of the bad guys he had put away, one who had sworn revenge, might be the person knocking on his door.

Striding across the room, he mentally ran through a short list of possible late-night visitors. Richard Bird, head of the Homicide Department, topped the list. This unusual lull in criminal activity had also provided Bird with more free time on his hands than normal, so perhaps he wanted to drop by for some small talk. Or maybe it was David Bloom, the psychiatrist and Dantzler’s old college tennis teammate. Could be he was in search of a late-night tennis match. The third possibility was his uncle Tommy Blake. But that was unlikely. At eight forty-five on a Saturday night—on any night, for that matter—Tommy was well into a fifth of Jim Beam, using alcohol to fend off the legions of personal demons that haunted him twenty-four hours a day.

But Dantzler’s hunches were wrong. Opening the door, he was surprised to find a tall, very pretty, dark-haired young woman standing in front of him. She was dressed in Levis, a blue University of Kentucky sweatshirt, white Nikes. A red baseball cap bearing the logo for Devonshire Farm cast a shadow over her eyes. Standing there, she shifted nervously from side to side as though she was somehow trying to balance herself, and she constantly rubbed her hands together.

Dantzler didn’t recognize the woman but he did recognize the logo on her cap. Devonshire Farm was owned and operated by Amy and Nick Curtis. Amy was Milt Brewer’s youngest daughter. Milt was the senior member of the Homicide squad.

“I know it’s late,” she said, before Dantzler had the door completely open, “but I would really like to speak with you. It’s a matter of some importance. Well, it’s important to me. However, I’ll understand if you think it’s too late. Just give the word and I’ll scram.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“Please, if you don’t mind.” She looked over her shoulder. “I would really feel more comfortable discussing this inside rather than out here.”

“Are you being followed?”

She seemed surprised by the question. “No . . . I don’t think so. Why do you ask?”

“You’re acting a little skittish, that’s all.”

“No . . . no, I’m fine. I just need to speak with you, if it’s okay.”

Dantzler waved her inside, closed the door and followed her into the living room. She moved quickly, with the grace of an athlete, purpose in her stride. She sat on the couch, removed her baseball cap, unleashing a mountain of piled-up brown hair, leaned back and let out a deep sigh.

“You okay?” Dantzler asked. He sat in the leather chair across from her. “You appear to be a little . . . stressed.”

She let out a deeper sigh, and for an instant Dantzler was certain she was going to cry. But whatever moment of weakness she felt quickly passed, replaced by a look of steely resolve in her bright hazel eyes. After several seconds, the frown melted and her lips curved into a slight grin.

“You really must think I’m nuts, coming here this late at night.” Her grin broke into a full-fledged smile. “A complete and total stranger just barging in like this.”

Dantzler shrugged. What could he say? At the moment, nuts wasn’t entirely out of the question.

“I suppose you’re asking yourself why I’m here,” she continued. “Well . . .”

“Actually, I’m asking myself who you are.”

“Oh, yeah, I guess I should identify myself. It’s just that, well, we met several years ago, and I thought you might remember me. But . . . that’s a pretty stupid assumption on my part. We only met for a few minutes.”

Dantzler pointed to the baseball cap she held in her hands. “Obviously, you know Amy and Nick Curtis,” he said.

“Yes, yes, I do. And that’s where we met. On their farm nine or ten years ago, while I was still in college. I spent two summers working for Amy and Nick. Doing odd jobs, feeding the horses, mucking stalls—that kind of stuff. You came to the farm for a visit. It was just after you’d cleared a big case. I remember Amy telling me you were the youngest detective to ever get a gold shield. In Lexington, I mean. Amy said you are a great cop, better even than her father.”

“Prejudicial testimony, I’m afraid. You see, I’m Amy’s godfather. So, anything she says about me wouldn’t hold up in a court of law, Miz . . .”

“Nikki . . . with two Ks . . . Bradford.”

“Okay, Nikki with two Ks, now that we’ve solved that mystery, let’s move on to the next one. Why are you here?”

“Because I want you to investigate a death.”

Dantzler had readied himself for a thousand possible answers to his question. Investigating a death hadn’t been on his list.

Nuts was definitely the early leader in the clubhouse.

“Whose death?”

“My former partner. Danny Tucker.”

Danny Tucker. The name clanged around inside Dantzler’s head like a pinball. He’d heard it somewhere, recently, but . . . where, when, in what context? TV? Newspaper? The office? Bar conversation? Where? The answer was tantalizingly close, but for now he couldn’t locate it.

“You and Danny Tucker were partners?”

“Yes.”

“As in living together?” Dantzler said.

“Oh, no, no. Partners, as in we worked together. When he was still with the Sheriff’s Department. I’m still with the Department, but . . . in fact, we joined the Sheriff’s Department on the same day. Back in oh-five.” Nikki looked down at the floor, then back up at Dantzler. “We weren’t full-time partners, but we did work together on several occasions. Until . . .”

“Until his death?”

“No. Until he left the Sheriff’s Department and went to work for the State Police.”

“When was this?”

“Two years ago.”

“Why the switch?”

“Purely a matter of finances. Danny made several thousand more a year working for the State Police. He got married about the same time, so he needed the extra money.”

Danny Tucker. “How and when did Danny die?” Dantzler said, still trying to place the name.

“Two weeks ago. Ruled a suicide.”

The pinball stopped clanging, memory cells clicked. Danny Tucker. Sure, the young cop who offed himself. Dantzler recalled reading about it in the papers and hearing about it on the tube. But the details of what he remembered were sketchy, fragmented. It happened in the house, Danny Tucker’s body was found a day or so later by . . . who? That particular detail Dantzler couldn’t recall. He also couldn’t recall the manner of death.

Dantzler said, “The way you say the word suicide, I get the distinct impression you disagree with that conclusion.”

Nikki nodded quickly. “Most definitely. No way Danny took his own life.”

“Cops have a high suicide rate, Nikki. It’s a sad fact of life. Maybe the job got the best of Danny, drove him to the point where he felt he had no choice but to eat his gun. Unfortunately, it happens all too often in this business.”

“But Danny didn’t eat his gun. He didn’t slash his wrists, and he didn’t lock himself in the garage and leave the motor running. He . . . ”

Nikki looked straight into Dantzler’s eyes.

“. . . died as a result of poisoning. Cyanide, to be exact.”

“That’s certainly not your garden variety method of suicide, that’s for sure.”

“Because it wasn’t suicide.”

“Then it’s either accidental or a homicide. There’s not much else left in between.”

“Danny Tucker was murdered,” Nikki said. “I believe it with every fiber in my being.”

“What was the coroner’s ruling?”

Nikki snickered and rolled her eyes, at the same time raising both hands in a they’re-all-idiots gesture. “Suicide. Danny put cyanide in his coffee, drank it, died. Simple as that. And, of course, the department signed off on it. Couldn’t shut it down quick enough. Unhappy, depressed young cop, stressed out, couldn’t handle the pressure, checked himself out. A terrible tragedy, we offer our prayers for his family and friends, now let’s move on. Pure party-line bullshit.”

“Every suspicious death is considered a potential homicide until proved otherwise,” Dantzler pointed out. “As such, I should have been involved in the investigation. I wasn’t, and as far as I know, no one from the department was. Any reason why we weren’t involved?”

“Danny and Anna lived in Lexington,” Nikki answered.

“Anna is . . .?”

“Danny’s wife. But Danny died at his parents’ home in Versailles. I don’t guess you work Woodford County.”

“No, I don’t. Why was he at their house? And where were they on the day Danny died?”

“They were in Florida. With them gone, and with Anna out of town, Danny was staying at his parents’ farm. They have a few horses, so Danny was taking care of them.”

“Do you know who did investigate?” Dantzler asked.

“A detective named Amos Garland. Do you know him?”

“We’ve met, but I don’t know much about him.”

“Will you speak with him? Get his take on what happened?”

Dantzler let out a heavy sigh. He suddenly felt the need for another drink. Maybe several more. What he didn’t need was to be trapped in his living room at nine o’clock listening to a disillusioned cop regurgitate the details of a former partner’s death. He wanted to tell her to scram, to forget about sticking her nose into dark corners, to simply leave things as they now stand. To go home and get on with her life.

But—

He wouldn’t tell her to scram. Couldn’t. And he knew why, too. Like it or not, he was intrigued. Cop, suicide—not exactly earth-shattering news. Happens all the time. But cyanide? That’s a worm in the salad. A foul ball. He’d never heard of a law enforcement officer using any poison to check himself out, much less cyanide. Cyanide was what the Nazi thugs took rather than face a trial and execution. But a cop? Didn’t figure.

There was something else, too. Nikki was so damn earnest it was virtually impossible not to fall in step with her. She believed the sermon she was preaching. Absolutely, totally believed it. And her enthusiasm made you want to believe it. She was like a Girl Scout hawking those damn cookies nobody really wants or needs but buys anyway. You want to say no, but you can’t quite make yourself do it.

“Would you care for something to drink, Nikki?” Dantzler said, standing. “Pepsi, Ginger Ale, water? Beer, if you are brave enough to try a Guinness?”

“Are you having something?”

After giving serious consideration to a Guinness, he finally said, “Pepsi.”

“Pepsi sounds good.”

Dantzler went into the kitchen, filled two glasses with ice and Pepsi, came back into the living room and handed a glass to Nikki. She took it from him, said thanks, took a quick sip and held the glass in both hands.

“So . . . honestly. Do you think I’m nuts?”

Dantzler laughed. “Nuts? No. Misguided? Likely.”

“I’m not nuts, and I’m not misguided. I’m right.”

“Give me two solid reasons why you don’t think Danny Tucker committed suicide. Something more concrete than ‘no way Danny would take his own life.’”

Nikki seemed energized by the question. “One: Danny genuinely loved his job and was about to be promoted to sergeant. Two: Danny found out a week before his death that he was going to be a father for the first time. He was absolutely thrilled, overjoyed at the prospect of becoming a dad. And for a kicker, Danny recently applied for admission to graduate school. He wanted to get his master’s in Criminology and then eventually go to law school. His ultimate goal was the FBI. No one with plans and dreams like those would kill himself.”

“That’s not necessarily true, Nikki. Depression, if it’s severe enough, can easily overpower things like dreams and plans.”

“Well, it’s true in this instance. Danny was anything but depressed.”

“When was the last time you spoke with Danny?”

“Three days before his death. We met at Wendy’s for morning coffee. I’ve never seen Danny in a more upbeat, positive mood. He was literally on top of the world. Then—”

Nikki took another drink and looked down at the floor. Her eyes filled with tears.

“Who discovered the body?” Dantzler asked.

“When Danny failed to show up for work or answer his phone, his captain sent one of the guys over to the house. He found the body.”

“Inside or outside?”

“Danny was inside. In the kitchen.”

“No. The guy who found him. Did he see the body through a window and then break down the door to gain entrance? Or was the door unlocked, he went inside and found Danny?”

“I’m not sure. Does it matter?”

“Everything matters when you’re trying to uncover the truth.” Dantzler finished off the last drops of Pepsi, set the glass on an end table. “Where was Danny’s wife?”

“Out of town. Visiting relatives in Chicago, if I remember correctly.”

“Is she from Chicago?”

“No. Anna is originally from Alabama. Her father is a minister, heads one of those big mega-churches. Birmingham, I think. But I could be wrong. Somewhere in Alabama, though.”

“How well do you know her?”

Nikki shrugged. “Not very well. She’s, ah, well, she’s kinda distant. Not an easy person to get to know. Very serious, very reserved.”

“Sounds like you don’t like her.”

“I really don’t know her well enough to say one way or the other. What I will say is she’s definitely not the type of woman I expected Danny to fall in love with.”

“Why not?”

“Danny was just so . . . so damn nice. Laid-back, funny, kind, friendly to everyone. Just a sweet, down-to-earth good guy. Anna’s different. She’s the exact opposite in almost every respect. Cold, distant, arrogant. There’s a, I don’t know, an air of superiority about her. Like she’s better than everyone else.”

“I’m guessing you see her as a first-class bitch. Right?”

“With a capital B.”

“Could she have killed him?”

“I don’t think so. I mean, why would she want him dead? Danny didn’t have any money, any property, anything of real value. He was like the rest of us—just scraping by. I don’t know how much money Anna’s family has, but I have to believe it’s more than Danny had.”

“Homicide wears a million different disguises, Nikki. It only takes one to get the job done. And money isn’t always the one that rules the day.”

“But,” Nikki reminded, “the cyanide was in his coffee. And he made the coffee on the morning he died. Anna was in Chicago. Wouldn’t that effectively rule her out as a suspect?”

“Are you positive he made the coffee that morning? Or are you assuming he did?”

“Well . . . assume, I guess.”

“Was there coffee remaining in the pot?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“It would be interesting to know if all the coffee contained poison, or if the poison was only in the coffee in his cup.”

“My guess would be the poison was in all the coffee.”

“Facts solve homicide investigations, Nikki. Not guesses.”

Nikki placed her glass on the end table, leaned forward, her hands clasped together. “Will you look into Danny’s death for me? If you will, I’m positive you’ll find out I’m right. Danny was murdered.”

“Have you spoken with Danny’s family since his death?”

“Yes. Several times.”

“How do they feel about it?”

“They believe the report, that Danny took his own life. But they are in such a state of shock I don’t think they have really considered other possibilities.”

“What about Anna? You spoken to her?”

“Once. She’s in agreement with the family. But the M.E. is wrong. Danny did not commit suicide. Will you look into it?”

“I don’t know, Nikki. Medical examiners are pretty sharp people. They don’t make many mistakes. When they sign off on a case, it means they are confident in their findings.”

Dantzler immediately realized his ringing endorsement of the Woodford County medical examiner had been given more out of habit than fact. This was based on his long association with Mac Tinsley, the veteran Fayette County M.E., who was quite simply the best. But things had recently changed in the coroner’s office, and Dantzler, like everyone else, was having a difficult time adjusting. Mac, who worked the job for almost four decades, had retired, replaced less than two months ago by a young man named Arnie Edwards. From the reports turned in by Dantzler’s colleagues, and from his own admittedly brief encounters with Mac’s replacement, one fact had emerged—the jury was still out on Arnie. Unlike Mac, whose word was gold, Arnie still had to prove himself before his views and opinions were accepted outright.

Dantzler considered the possibility that he was giving the Woodford County coroner more credit than he deserved based on his tremendous respect for Mac Tinsley. That could be an error in judgment. All coroners are not created equal. Dantzler wouldn’t be able to judge until after meeting with the man. Only then could he make a fair and accurate assessment.

“The medical examiner is wrong,” Nikki protested, “I don’t care how good he is. Please, Detective Dantzler, I need you to do this for me. I need your help, your eyes. You can see through the bullshit, find the truth.”

“Maybe the truth is, Danny really did kill himself. And for whatever reason you’re blind to the truth.”

“Then prove it to me. If you look into it, if you find that Danny really did commit suicide, then I can live with it. But until then, I can’t. I won’t.”

“I’ll think about,” Dantzler said. “But no promises.”

“Thanks. That’s all I can ask.”

“If I do decide to look into it, is there anyone with the State Police who would be willing to discuss the situation?”

Nikki answered without thinking. “Lucian White. He and Danny were pretty tight. Lucian says he agrees with the official report, but I don’t think he really buys it. I think it’s a matter of him being afraid to go against the party line. Like I said, they were quick to bring it to a close.”

“Were Lucian and Danny partners?”

“No, Lucian was, you know, like a big brother to Danny. A mentor.”

“He could be risking his job, talking to an outsider about the case without permission. He’d need to consider that before making any decisions.”

“Lucian will help—I know he will. He really cared for Danny.”

“Was Lucian the one who found Danny’s body?”

“Keith Davis did. And I’m not sure how cooperative he’ll be. Keith’s . . . well, he always thinks about Keith Davis first.”

Dantzler opened the door and walked Nikki to her car. When she got in, he said, “Can you think of anyone who would want to kill Danny? Anyone who would benefit from his death?”

Nikki shook her head as she started the car. “No, I absolutely cannot. I’ve racked my brain a hundred times and I can’t come up with a single name. Everybody loved Danny. Everybody.

Not everybody, Dantzler thought, as he watched her drive off into the night.

 

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