Read A Wrongful Death Online

Authors: Kate Wilhelm

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Legal, #Suspense, #Contemporary Fiction, #Thrillers

A Wrongful Death


Who knew that being a Good Samaritan would lead Barbara Holloway to face her biggest challenge ever: being named prime suspect in a high-profile kidnapping?

The peace and quiet of Barbara's retreat on the Oregon coast is shattered when a terrified young boy calls to her as she walks along a deserted beach. Frantically he leads her to a cabin deep in the woods where his mother lies senseless and battered — clearly left for dead. Barbara runs for help, but by the time she returns with the police and medics both mother and son are gone.

The puzzle only deepens when, back in the city, Barbara learns that the boy she met is the grandson of a wealthy and prominent family — and that they have accused her of aiding and abetting his disappearance.

With the help of her father, Frank, Barbara delves into the mystery of the missing child, only to realize that the kidnapping is a ruse for a more sinister plan — a plan that pits the meaning of family against cold hard cash.

But the more she learns, the more questions she has, and troubling obstacles continue to thwart her every move — from the justice system that employs her, to the false identities of those around her. Yet none of these things compares to the shocking murder scene that awaits her.

book cover

A Wrongful Death



A book in the Barbara Holloway series

Copyright © 2007 by Kate Wilhelm

Chapter 1

The New York branch of the Farrell Publishing Group had six offices, a small reception room and enough books and manuscripts to fill a space triple the size it occupied. Much of the overflow was in Elizabeth Kurtz's tiny office. Boxes were stacked on boxes and the filing cabinets were so packed that they were seldom opened, since it was almost impossible to remove a folder to examine its contents. On shelves and on the floor were stacks of dictionaries, science reference books and pamphlets. A bulletin board held so many overlapping notes and memos that some of them had yellowed and curled at the edges. The small sign on her door read: Elizabeth Kurtz Assistant Editor. That door had not been closed all the way in the three years that she had used the office on Mondays and Thursdays. The door would start to close, then stick, leaving a three- or four-inch gap. It had bothered her in the beginning, but she never thought of it any longer, and paid little attention to any activity in the hall beyond it.

That October day she was frowning at a sentence she was trying to unravel, something to do with paleontology, she assumed, since that was the subject of the manuscript.

The door was pushed open and Terry Kurtz entered and tried to close the door behind him. When it stuck, he gave it a vicious push, to no avail.

"What are you doing in here? Get out! Whatever you're selling, I'm not buying," Elizabeth snapped, half rising from her chair.

"I have a proposition for you," he said, and tried again to close the door. He cursed and kicked it when it stuck.

"I'm calling security," she said, reaching for the phone. He rushed around the desk and grabbed her wrist, wrenching her hand back.

"Just shut up and listen," he said in a low voice, keeping an eye on the door, holding her wrist in a numbing grip. "I just came from the hospital. They're going to operate on Dad in the morning, emergency open-heart surgery, and they don't think he'll make it. He told me something. Mom left us alone for a couple of minutes and he told me. Taunted me with it."

Elizabeth felt no more sense of loss or grief than Terry was showing. She tried to pull away from his grasp, and he tightened his hold and leaned in closer, whispering now. "When he found out you were pregnant, he assigned a share of the company to us, in both our names. He was going to hand it over when Jason was a year old and I was thirty-five, a present to celebrate my birthday, our marriage and a grandchild, but you spoiled it when you got on your high horse and kicked me out. He put the assignment away somewhere. It's still valid, except Mom will get her hands on whatever that document is and she'll shred it faster than she'll order his cremation. I've got his keys, and I intend to find it first. You have to help me."

"I don't have to do anything" she cried. "Get out of here and leave me alone!"

Voices in the hall outside her door rose as the speakers drew nearer. Terry released her wrist and straightened up, and she jumped from her chair and stepped behind it. Neither spoke until the voices faded, then were gone.

"If you touch me again, I'll have you arrested for assault!" she said.

"That assignment means a hefty income for the rest of your life and Jason's if you sell it back tomorrow. And when the company sale goes through that amount will triple, quadruple! No more dingy office where the door won't even close. You have to think what it will mean for our son."

"Our son!" she said furiously. "As if you care a damn about my son. How many times have you even seen him? Three!

Goddamn you, three times in five years!"

But it still hurt, like a phantom pain from an amputated limb, she sometimes thought. A year of magic, the princess and her incredibly handsome prince, playing, making love, seeing the world like two wide-eyed children with fairy dust in their eyes. Then her pregnancy. He had walked out when she was just under five months pregnant, and he had not returned until Jason was six months old. She had met his return with divorce papers.

He was still the incredibly handsome prince, with curly dark hair, eyes so dark blue they appeared black until the light hit his face in a particular way and they gleamed with an electric blue light. Muscular and lean, athletic, with the perfect features of a male model, he had won his princess without a struggle, but while he still lived in fairyland, she had put illusions behind her and regarded him now with loathing.

"You can sell your share tomorrow, easily a million dollars. Hold it for six months, and that figure rises astronomically. Two million, three, God knows how high it'll go."

He was whispering again. "I have his keys to the office files, and to his home files. Mom will stay at the hospital for now, but if she finds out that I lifted his keys, she'll head for wherever that document is. The office, or the condo. And we have to get that paper before she gets to it. She knows where it is, and she'll get it, believe me. You can take the condo, and I'll hit the office files. We'll find it first."

She knew he was right about his mother. Sarah Kurtz felt about Elizabeth the same way Elizabeth felt about Terry. She shook her head. "I can't get inside the condo or the office, so forget it. Go search by yourself."

"I'll take you to the condo. I can get in, and I can take you in with me and leave you there while I go over to the corporate office. But, Goddamn it, we have to do it now! Before she realizes I took the keys."

In a cab minutes later, sitting as far from him as the seat allowed, Elizabeth asked, "What sale are you talking about?"

"I don't know," he said, almost sullenly. "They don't tell me anything. I just know it's in the works, a Swiss conglomerate. They're doing the preliminary investigation, whatever that means."

She did know they told him nothing about the business. The playboy son had never wanted a thing to do with the business of prosthetics that had made his family wealthy. Then his hasty marriage to a half-breed Spanish dancer, was how Sarah Kurtz had put it when she found out. He had deserted Elizabeth, but Sarah had her own spin on that as well. Elizabeth had snared him, enticed a rich, innocent American boy, got herself pregnant and kicked him out to bring in her real lover, another woman. Elizabeth's lawyer, a savvy, hard-faced woman, had hired a detective to track Terry down on the Riviera, then photograph him frolicking on a nude beach with a movie starlet. The divorce had been a piece of cake, she had told Elizabeth. There was a very good settlement, and Sarah Kurtz would never forgive Elizabeth for threatening to besmirch the family's spotless reputation. Attorneys had handled the whole affair and, as far as Elizabeth knew, not a word had ever been printed about the matter.

In the cab, Elizabeth, gazing out the side window, seeing little of the passing scene, knew she was going along with this as much to strike back at Sarah as for the money itself. Not for how they had treated her, but for the way they treated Jason. No one in the family had ever seen Jason except Terry, who had visited his son twice after the divorce and wouldn't recognize him unless he was wearing a nametag.

Elizabeth had been in the condo several times before, the last visit had been for dinner, when she had told the family that she was pregnant. Joe Kurtz had been delighted. She remembered that scene, as she looked about the luxurious suite, decorator-perfect and lifeless, like an illustration from a glitzy magazine. "Now, he'll settle down," Joe had said that day. "You've turned our boy into a man, a family man, by God!"

Fat chance, she said under her breath, following Terry to Joe's home office. There was a kidney-shaped desk with a black mirror-smooth surface, two file cabinets, black-leather-covered chairs and a tub with a palm tree. She left her briefcase by the door and took off her sweater.

"Here's the key," Terry said, handing it to her. "It will open them both. If you find it, call my cell. I'll give you a call if I find it." He handed her a card with his number, and she told him her own. He hurried out, and she opened the first file cabinet.

At three-thirty she had finished one cabinet, and was midway through a drawer in the second one, when she pulled out a file labeled: Knowlton. After a glance, she replaced it and reached for the next file, then paused as a faint memory stirred. Knowlton. Something. She took it out again and looked more closely at the contents. She saw drawings of prosthetics, joints, arms, legs, things she didn't recognize. Slowly she walked to the big desk and sat down, gazing at the drawings. She caught her breath as the memory took shape. Knowlton had sued the company, accused them of stealing or something. The file was thick, and her fingers fumbled as she picked up and put down papers after scanning them hastily.

"Oh, my God!" she said.

Moving fast, she closed the file folder and ran back to the cabinet to close the drawer, then hurried across the office to where she had put down her briefcase with the manuscript she was to edit. She stuffed the file folder inside, put on her sweater, snatched up her purse and left the beautiful apartment.

Her cell phone rang as she stood on the street and hailed a cab. She ignored her phone. Outside her bank minutes later, she made a call of her own.

"Leonora, something urgent has come up. You have to collect Jason and take him home, then pack a suitcase for him, and one for me. We have to go somewhere. I'll explain when I get there." Leonora wanted to know what was wrong, and impatiently Elizabeth cut her off and said, "Just do it. I'll tell you when I get there. Do it now."

At the bank she made out a withdrawal slip for ten thousand dollars from her savings account. When the teller looked puzzled, she said, as lightly as she could manage, "A friend is selling her car, but she has to have cash. It's a sweet deal." No hassle, she thought. Just don't give me a hassle. The teller asked her to wait a few minutes, and while she waited, she made plans.

She would need a computer, a laptop. Pay for it with a credit card, but no more credit card purchases after that; they could find her through them. No cell phone, possibly they could trace her through it. But she needed the computer and, later, possibly a printer. She had a lot of research to do. She'd sell her car, buy something less noticeable and use cash for everything...

Leonora had done exactly as Elizabeth had told her. She had collected Jason from kindergarten and packed a suitcase for him, and was still packing for Elizabeth when she arrived home. It was a spacious apartment, shared by Elizabeth and Terry for several months, until his departure, and then retained by Elizabeth. Her attorney had insisted that she should be awarded enough not to have to make any drastic reductions in her living arrangements. Leonora, her friend from childhood, had moved in to help out during the pregnancy and stayed on afterward.

Leonora's mother had left her abusive husband when her daughter was twelve and Elizabeth's mother had taken the child into her own household and the two girls had become sisters in most ways. Elizabeth's father, a State Department employee at the UN for years, had died in a boating accident when she was eleven. Her mother had remained in the States to see her daughter safely enrolled at Johns Hopkins, where she had been an honors student, and then had gone back home to her native Spain. The two girls had shared a bedroom, worn each other's clothes, then had drawn apart when Leonora married early and Elizabeth had gone to university.

They had drawn together again when Leonora had come to realize she had married a man very like her own father. After two stillbirths and several beatings, she had left him, and had maintained a close friendship with Elizabeth ever since.

That day her face was drawn with worry as Elizabeth said, "I have to get Jason out of here and have a little time to think about something I came across. I'll call you in a few days and tell you what it's all about, but not now. I want you to go get my car. I'll finish packing up. A pillow case, that's what I need, for some toys." She rushed through the apartment, looked in on Jason watching television. He waved and said, "Hi, Mama Two." There was a mischievous gleam in his eyes those days when he called whichever one was with him first Mama One, and the other Mama Two. Until recently they both had simply been Mama. Elizabeth ran to the bedroom, with Leonora at her heels, and began tossing things into her own suitcase, rushing back and forth from her closet or dresser to the bed and the open case. "After we're out of here, you'd better go somewhere and stay a few days, maybe even a week. They'll want to ask you questions, and it's best if they can't find you. I'll call your cell phone."

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