First Chapter: SYMPATHY BETWEEN HUMANS by Jodi Compton

Read an excerpt of the second Detective Sarah Pribek mystery novel by Jodi Compton

Fiction - Mystery & Detective | Delacorte Press | Hardcover | March 2005 | $22.00 | 0-385-33714-0 SYMPATHY BETWEEN HUMANS by Jodi Compton

Chapter 1

It was late afternoon on Spain's Atlantic coast, the sun turning golden in the lower layers of atmosphere over the water. At the ocean's edge ran a seawall, not a barrier of rocks but a solid stone wall that broke the gentle surf. A section had been cut away to let water feed into a bathing pool, a dark-watered rectangle about half the size of a swimming pool, submerged stone benches cut all around the sides.

It was like something an ancient Roman city builder might have created, both simple and decadent. Egalitarian, as well. There were no fences, and locals seemed as welcome to come here as the well-heeled vacationers. Sunbathers came in to cool off, and children swam, darting across and back from one bench to another, like birds changing roosts in an aviary.

Genevieve Brown had brought me here, Gen who'd once been my partner in the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department. On the job she'd been measured and cautious, and I'd expected the same from her here. But she'd taken the lead, stepping down onto the bench and immediately from there into the center of the pool, tucking her knees to let the water cradle her cupped body as her dark, shoulder-length hair made a cloud around her head.

Now Genevieve sat next to me on one of the benches, her face tipped up into the sun. Her skin seemed already to be turning a warm, creamy brown. Genevieve was of Southern European extraction, and while she'd never been a sun worshipper, her skin would tan in the weakest early-spring rays.

"This is nice," I said, raising my face into the late-afternoon sunlight. Already the salt water was drying on my face, tightening the skin. I wondered if my face would have a faint salt glaze, a shimmer under light, if I decided not to rinse in fresh water afterward.

"You're overdue for some good times," Genevieve said. "Last year was...difficult."

It was an understatement. Last spring Genevieve's daughter had been murdered, and last fall I lost my husband to prison. At the end of that extraordinarily bad year, Genevieve had quit the Sheriff's Department, reconciled with her estranged husband, Vincent, and gone to live in his adopted home of Paris.

We'd talked about me coming to visit, of course, almost from her first transatlantic call in December. Five months had passed, though, before I did. Five months of snow and subzero temperatures, of heating my car's engine with an extension cord and myself with bad squad-room coffee, of the double shifts and extra assignments I'd volunteered for. Then I'd taken Gen up on this invitation, to meet her down the coast.

"Have you heard anything about the Royce Stewart investigation?" Gen asked, her voice casual. It was the first she'd mentioned it.

"I heard a little about it early on, in December," I said, "but then nothing happened. I think it's stalled."

"That's good," she said. "I'm happy for you."

I hadn't told Genevieve about the investigation into Stewart's death, much less that I'd been suspected of the murder. That was curious. If I hadn't told her, who had? She'd said she wasn't in touch with anyone else from her old life in Minnesota.

"Who told you I was under suspicion?" I asked.

"Nobody," Gen said. "It just stands to reason."

A small drop of seawater fell from my wet hair onto my shoulder. "Why does it stand to reason?" I asked.

"Because you killed him," she said.

I looked quickly at the trio of women sitting at the other end of the bathing pool, but they gave no sign they'd heard.

Quietly, I said, "Is that supposed to be some kind of a joke? I didn't kill Royce Stewart. You did."

"No, Sarah," Genevieve said softly. "It was you, remember? I would never do something like that." Her eyes darkened with pity and concern.

"This isn't funny," I said, my voice low and stiff. But I knew this wasn't some mean-spirited joke on her part. Her tone communicated nothing but compassion. It said that her heart was breaking for her friend and partner.

"I'm sorry," she said, "but someday, everyone's going to know what you did."

A siren went off beyond the horizon, piercing and almost electronic in its pitch, relentless in its one-note anxiety.

"What's that noise?" Genevieve said.

I opened one eye to see the glowing digits of my clock radio, the source of the electronic wail, then raised my hand and squelched the alarm. It was late afternoon in Minneapolis; I'd been sleeping before my shift. Through the windows of my bedroom, the elms of Northeast Minneapolis cast greenish shadows on the warped wooden floor; they were in the early leaf of spring. It was early May; that much was true.

Also true: Genevieve was in Europe, and my husband, Shiloh, a cop once recruited by the FBI, was in prison. All this is because of what happened last year in Blue Earth. You might have read about it, if you follow the news, but you didn't read all of it.

At the root of everything that happened in Blue Earth was a man named Royce Stewart, who'd raped and murdered Genevieve's daughter, Kamareia, and gotten off on a technicality. Months later, Shiloh had gone to Blue Earth, intending to run down Stewart in a stolen truck. But Shiloh had found himself incapable of murder. It was Genevieve who, in a chance encounter, had stabbed Stewart in the neck and burned down the tiny shack he'd lived in.

It was Shiloh who'd gone to prison, though, for stealing the truck, while Genevieve, her crime unwitnessed by anyone but me, had gone to Europe to start a new life. I didn't blame her for that. My husband was already behind bars; I didn't want my old friend there, too.

It wasn't until Genevieve was virtually on the plane for France that I'd been tipped off that I was a suspect in Stewart's death. Disturbing as it was, it made sense. I was the one who'd been in Blue Earth, looking for my husband. It was me who had been seen having unfriendly words with Stewart in a bar, just before his death.

Two Faribault County detectives came to the Cities to interview me, recording my carefully rehearsed, evasive answers. They didn't appear convinced by anything I'd said.

I didn't tell Genevieve what was happening, because I feared she'd fly home to bail me out by confessing. Nor did I seek Shiloh's counsel, because at the prison his mail was almost certainly being monitored, and it was impossible to explain the situation without referring to Genevieve's guilt.

But a strange thing happened, or rather, didn't happen. One month passed, then two, but I was never arrested, nor even questioned again. The investigation seemed to have stalled.

Then the Star Tribune ran its investigative piece.

The Suspect's Death, the headline had read, with an extended sub-headline below: Royce Stewart was suspected of killing a Hennepin County detective's daughter. Seven months later, he died in a suspicious late-night fire. A former MPD cop has confessed to planning his murder, but not to carrying it out. While the case is still technically open, the answers may have gone up in flames.

It was the Star Tribune piece that had mentioned what all the other stories hadn't:

In an unexplained sidelight, several documents note that Shiloh's wife, Hennepin County Detective Sarah Pribek, was in Blue Earth the night Stewart died. Faribault County officials have refused to answer questions about whether Pribek is suspected of involvement in the death and the house fire.

Just two sentences, but they acknowledged at last the rumor that had been circulating in Minneapolis's law-enforcement community for months. The Monday morning after the article ran, there was a very awkward silence when I arrived at work.

What bothered me most was this, though: after the Strib story ran, I saw something in the eyes of the young male rookies when they looked at me. I saw respect. They believed I'd killed Royce Stewart, and they thought better of me for it.

It would have been an easier burden to bear if it had been shared by my ex-partner and my husband. I didn't blame them for not being here. Genevieve had been wise to get away, safely out from under the growing cloud of suspicion and speculation. And Shiloh, of course, had been imprisoned; he was not gone by choice. But I felt their absence every day. They were more than my immediate family. They were my history here in Minneapolis. Shiloh and Genevieve had known each other before I'd met either of them. That was why, even when the three of us weren't together on a daily or even a weekly basis, there had been a web of interconnectedness between us that gave me a sense of stability. Without them, I had lost something deeper than daily companionship, something I felt the lack of in conversations with co-workers that were polite and pleasant and nothing more than that.

As two months turned into three, four, and five, still I wasn't charged with anything, and I realized that the investigation was stalled, perhaps forever. But I understood something else: if I would never be outright accused of Stewart's murder, neither would I ever be exonerated. At work I sensed a silent verdict: probably guilty by reason of persistent rumor. My lieutenant did not assign me another partner. The major-crimes and missing-persons work that Gen and I had done dried up, replaced with interim and odd assignments. Like the one I had tonight.

Excerpted from SYMPATHY BETWEEN HUMANS by Jodi Compton Copyright © 2005 by Jodi Compton. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.