The 9th Judgment Page 1




SARAH WELLS STOOD on the roof of the carport and snaked her gloved hand through the hole she’d cut in the glass. Her pulse was thudding in her ears as she unlocked the double-hung window, opened the sash, and slid quietly into the darkened room. Once inside, she flattened herself against the wall and listened.

Voices rose from the floor below, and she heard the clanking of silverware against china. Good timing, Sarah thought. In fact, perfect.

But timing and execution were two different things entirely.

She switched on her miner’s headlamp and took a 180-degree illuminated tour of the bedroom. She noted the console table to her left, which was loaded with whatnots. She had to watch out for that table and the scatter rugs on the slick hardwood floors.

The lithe young woman quickly crossed the space, shut the door between the bedroom and hallway, and headed to the open closet, which smelled faintly of perfume. Leaving the door open just a crack, Sarah played her light over racks of clothing. She parted a curtain of long, beaded gowns, and there it was: a safe in the closet wall.

Sarah had bet on this. If Casey Dowling was like most socialites, she dressed for her dinner parties and wore her jewels. Chances were that she’d left her safe unlocked so she could put her jewels away later without having to punch in the combination again. Sarah tugged lightly on the safe’s handle—and the heavy door swung open.

It was a go.

But she had to work fast. Three minutes, no more.

Sarah’s headlamp lit up the contents of the safe while leaving her hands free to frisk the jumble of satin envelopes and silk-covered boxes. Way in the back was a brocaded box the size of a small loaf of bread. She undid the latch and lifted the lid on the mother lode.

Sarah gasped.

She’d read stories about Casey Dowling for two months and seen dozens of photos of her at society events, glittering with jewels. But she hadn’t expected the sheer weight of diamonds and precious stones, the gleaming mounds of baroque pearls.

It was cra-zzzy. Casey Dowling owned all of this.

Well, not for long.

Sarah plucked bracelets and earrings and rings out of the box and stowed them in one of her two small duffel bags, the straps of which crisscrossed her chest. She paused to study a particular ring in its own leather case, to marvel at the frickin’ wonder of it—when lights flashed on in the bedroom only yards from whe

re she stood in the closet.

Sarah snapped off her light and dropped to a crouch, her heart rate shooting into overdrive as she heard the living, booming voice of Marcus Dowling, superstar actor of theater and the silver screen, bickering with his wife as he came into the room.

Sarah tucked all five feet eight of herself into a ball behind gowns and garment bags.

God, she was stupid.

While she’d been ogling the jewels, the Dowlings’ dinner party had ended, and now she was going to get caught and be imprisoned for grand larceny. Her. A high school English teacher. It would be a scandal—and that was the least of it.

Sweat broke out under Sarah’s knit cap. Drops of it rolled from her underarms down the sides of her black turtleneck as she waited for the Dowlings to switch on the closet light and find her squatting there, a thief in the night.


CASEY DOWLING WAS trying to squeeze an admission from her husband, but Marcus wasn’t having it.

“What the hell, Casey?” he snapped. “I wasn’t staring at Sheila’s boobs, for Christ’s sake. Every single time we get together with people, you complain that I’m leering, and frankly, sweetheart, I find your paranoia very unattractive.”

“Ohhhh no, Marcus. You? Leer at another woman? I’m soooo ashamed of myself for even having had the thought.” Casey had a lovely laugh, even when it was colored with sarcasm.

“Silly cow,” Marcus Dowling muttered.

Sarah imagined his handsome face, the thick gray hair falling across his brow as he scowled. She imagined Casey, too—her willowy shape, her white-blond hair falling in a silvery sheet to her shoulder blades.

Casey cooed, “There, there. I’ve hurt your feelings.”

“Forget it, love. I’m not in the mood now.”

“Oh. Sorry. My mistake.”

Sarah felt the rebuff as if it had happened to her. Then Marcus said, “Oh, for pity’s sake. Don’t cry. Come here.”

The room went quiet for a few minutes, until Sarah heard a whoosh of bodies falling into plumped bedding, then murmuring—words she couldn’t make out. Then the headboard began to tap against the wall, and Sarah thought, Oh dear God, they’re doing it.

Images came to her of Marcus Dowling in Susan and James with Jennifer Lowe and in Redboy with Kimberly Kerry. She thought of Casey in Marcus’s arms, her long legs wrapped around him. The tapping became more rhythmic and the moaning became louder and then there was a long, groaning exhalation from Marcus, and then—mercifully—it was over.

Someone used the bathroom after that, and finally the room went black.

Sarah squatted quietly behind the curtain of gowns for at least twenty minutes, and when the breathing outside the closet settled into sputters and snores, she opened the door and crawled to the window.

She was almost home free—but not there yet.

Sarah was quick and quiet as she vaulted to the windowsill, but when one leg followed the other, she hit the side of the console table—and it all went wrong.

There was the tinkling of sliding whatnots as the table tipped and then crashed, sending its load of picture frames and perfume bottles to the floor.

Holy crap.

Sarah froze, mind and body, as Casey Dowling bolted into a sitting position and yelled, “Who’s there?”

Sarah’s stark fear propelled her out the window. She hung on to the roof of the carport with all the strength in her fingertips, then released her grip and made the ten-foot drop.

She landed on grass, knees bent, no pain. And as the Dowlings’ bedroom light came on overhead, Sarah ran. She ripped off her headlamp and stuffed it into one of the duffels as she sprinted through the upscale San Francisco neighborhood of Nob Hill.

A few minutes later Sarah found her old Saturn where she’d left it in the parking lot outside a drugstore. She got into the car, closed the door, and locked it, as if that could keep out her fear. She started up the engine and released the hand brake, still panting, trying not to throw up as she drove toward home.

When she hit the straightaway of Pine Street, Sarah pulled off her cap and gloves, wiped her brow with the back of her hand, and thought hard about her escape from the Dowlings’ bedroom.

She’d left nothing: no tools, no prints, no DNA. No nothing.

For now, at least, she was safe.

Honestly. She didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.