K is for Killer Page 92

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"But why all the heat?"

"Stockton's got some land the oil companies would love to have. All worthless without water. Esselmann supported him at first, but now he's suddenly opposed. Stubby feels betrayed."

I thought back to the phone call I'd overheard. Esselmann had mentioned the board's being sweet-talked into some kind of deal while he was in the hospital. "Was Stockton working on this while Esselmann was out ill?"

"You bet. Damn near succeeded, too. Now that he's back, he's using every ounce of influence to get the application turned down."

The woman in front of us turned and gave us a look of reproach. "There's still business going on here, if you don't mind."

"Sorry."

The president of the board was trying desperately to establish order, though the audience didn't seem particularly interested.

I put my hand across my mouth. "Have they voted on this?" I said in a lower tone.

The guy shook his head. "This issue came up a year ago, and the water board set up a blue-ribbon panel to investigate and make recommendations. They had environmental impact studies done. You know how it is. Mostly a stalling technique in hopes the whole thing would go away. The matter won't actually come to a vote until next month. That's why they're still hearing testimony on the subject."

The woman in front of us raised a finger to her lips, and our conversation dwindled.

In the meantime, Esselmann sat down abruptly, his color high. Serena went around the end of the table and joined him on his side, much to his displeasure. Stubby Stockton was nowhere to be seen, but I could hear him on the patio, his voice still raised in anger. Someone was trying to calm him, but without much success. The meeting picked up again, the president moving adroitly to the next item on the agenda, a fire sprinkler system agreement that didn't upset anyone. By the time I slipped out, Stockton was gone and the patio was empty.

18

I drove over to St. Terry's, stopping to fill my car with gas on the way. I knew I'd reached the hospital after visiting hours had ended, but ICU had its own set of rules and regulations. Family members were allowed one five-minute visit out of every hour. The hospital was as brightly lit as a resort hotel, and I was forced to circle the block, looking for a parking space. I moved through the lobby and took a right turn, heading for the elevators to the intensive care unit upstairs. Once I reached the floor, I used the wall-mounted phone to call into the ward. The night shift nurse who answered was polite but didn't recognize my name. She put me on hold without actually verifying Danielle's presence on the ward. I studied the pastel seascape hanging on the wall. Moments later she was back on the phone with me, this time using a friendlier tone. Cheney had apparently left word that I was to be admitted. She probably thought I was a cop.

I stood in the hallway and watched Danielle through the window to her room. Her hospital bed had been elevated to a slight incline. She seemed to cloze. Her long dark hair fanned out across the pillow and trailed over the side of the bed. The bruising on her face seemed more pronounced tonight, the white tape across her nose a stark contrast to the swollen, sooty-looking black-and-blue eye sockets. Her mouth was dark and puffy. Her jaw had probably been wired shut because there was none of the slack-jawed look of someone sleeping. Her IV was still in place, as was her catheter.

"You need to talk to her?"

I turned to find the nurse from the night before. "I don't want to bother her," I said.

"I have to wake her up anyway to take her vital signs. You might as well come in. Just don't upset her."

"I won't. How's she doing?"

"She's doing pretty well. She's on a lot of pain medication, but she's been awake off and on. In another day or two we could probably move her down to medical, but we think she's safer up here."

I stood quietly beside the bed while the nurse took Danielle's blood pressure and her pulse, adjusting the drip on her IV. Danielle's eyes came open in that groggy, confused fashion of someone who can't quite remember where she is or why. The nurse made a note in the chart and left the room. Danielle's green eyes shone stark in the cloudy mass of bruises around her eyes.

I said, "Hi. How are you?"

"I been better," she said through her teeth. "Got my jaw wired shut. That's why I'm talkin' like this."

"I figured as much. Are you in pain?"

"Naw, I'm high." She smiled briefly, not moving her head. "I never saw the guy, in case you're wondering. All I remember is opening the door."

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