Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
“They said I’d just end up as a waitress who could name obscure facts about obscure movies,” she’d said with a little laugh that had struck Elijah as entirely fake.
He checked the laptop, but it was password protected. He’d only go so far in his search and decided to move on to the bedroom, its windows offering a view of the duck pond and the woods from which he’d just come. A well-worn stuffed penguin looked forlorn and downright lonely on the pillow of the made bed; it was a reminder of just how young Nora was. Emotionally if not legally, she was straddling childhood and adulthood. She had to negotiate her own expectations with those of her successful parents, navigate the dynamics of a complicated family.
Elijah figured his own father had simplified that age for him by kicking him out.
A couple of skirts and tops on hangers in the closet. Expensive-looking shoes. A dressy coat. He checked the dresser drawers—no hiking clothes left behind.
He returned to the living room and headed to the kitchen at the back of the apartment. He took a quick look around. Milk and eggs in the refrigerator. Dishes clean in the dishwasher. Nothing suggested Nora planned to be gone for more than a few days.
Nothing on Melanie Kendall, the fiancée.
He found a flower-covered notebook journal on the kitchen table. He debated, but he wasn’t ready to go so far as to intrude that deeply on Nora’s privacy. He’d check the date of the last entry and go from there. But he immediately saw that the journal contained graceful entries of poems and quotes she’d copied, all positive and uplifting. She’d apparently created her own book of inspiration for dark days.
Elijah shut the journal. He’d never been one for inspirational quotes. Reading that stuff made him focus on why he needed uplifting. Easier just to focus on what he needed to do.
He found Nora’s cell phone next to her toaster. She could have forgotten it, but he didn’t think so. There wasn’t much, if any, service in the backcountry, but there was some. He’d explained to his wilderness-skills class how a cell phone could sometimes help searchers find a lost hiker. Nora could have decided not to rely on anything but her own skills.
On the other hand, she could have wanted to make sure no one found her.
Or she could simply not want to talk to anyone.
Elijah checked the screen and saw she had a half-dozen voice messages.
He left the cell phone by the toaster. Whatever Nora’s reasoning, if she did get in trouble in the mountains, she’d have to find other ways to save herself. He thought back to what he’d told the class.
He took a key off a hook next to the refrigerator, walked back out to the entry and tried the door to the second apartment, where Rigby was staying. Sure enough, Nora’s key worked on that door, too. Elijah went into the combined living room and kitchen done in a style similar to Nora’s apartment.
Before he could get started, he heard a car outside and checked a side window. Rigby had pulled into the turnaround. Elijah watched him get out of his car and start up the stone path. Big guy. But Elijah wasn’t worried. He continued his check of the small apartment, but he found nothing of interest—no weapons, no notebook filled with detailed plans, not even a laptop.
He found a change of clothes, shaving gear, a pair of new wool socks.
In other words, zip.
He finished up and walked back outside, by which point Rigby was on the stone walk. “I locked the door on my way out,” Elijah said, trotting down the porch steps. “Locked Nora’s door, too. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if you borrowed her copy of
Pride and Prejudice.
“You’re a piece of work, aren’t you? I’ve heard a lot about you Camerons.”
“All good, I trust. What are you doing back here?”
“I’m running out of daylight. I could search in the dark if I had a credible lead or if I believed Nora was in serious trouble. I went back up the falls trail after I saw you at the lodge. I located Nora’s probable campsite—Devin Shay’s, too, just down the hill from hers.”
“Did you get lost?” Elijah asked with only a trace of sarcasm.
“No. I don’t get lost.” He nodded to the guesthouse, less combative. “I appreciate your caution. In your place, I’d do the same.”
Elijah brushed past him and started back for the duck pond, but not soon enough. Jo pulled into the turnaround and got out of her car, looking like the Secret Service agent she was. She eased over to the stone walk. “What’re you boys up to?” she asked coolly.
Rigby shrugged. “Cameron here was just leaving. I gave him my update on Nora Asher. Apparently she’s spending another night in the woods.” He paused, then said, “Devin Shay, too.”
Jo slanted a look at him. “Thomas and his fiancée are on their way. He said Melanie recommended you. I got the impression you don’t know each other that well. Is that accurate?”
“We ended up on the same ski trail in Colorado. I told her to give me a call if she ever needed a hand.”
“No contact with her since then?”
“None,” Rigby said. “I’m in close touch with Mr. Asher. He and Ms. Kendall are arriving soon. I offered to pick them up, but he’s renting a car. It’s a long drive from the airport. I guess it’d be hard to put an airport in around here, since there’s not much flat land.”
“A storm’s on the way,” Jo said. “Higher elevations could get a good dump of snow. It’s not supposed to start until later in the day, but there’s a chance it could start earlier.”
“I’ve seen the forecast. Snow should get Nora’s attention.”
He headed inside, and as soon as the door shut, Jo swooped around at Elijah, her turquoise eyes hot and suspicious. “You just broke into the guesthouse, didn’t you?”
“Who says I wasn’t invited or didn’t hear someone in imminent danger?”
“I do. I know what you’ve been up to.”
“You can be sanctimonious, you know that?”
He tried to make it a joke—a tease—but it must not have worked, because she grabbed his arm. “Did you search my cabin last night, too? Was that you—”
“I expect it was Rigby. You might want to drop the third degree, Jo, and unless you want some real trouble, you’ll let go of my arm. That’s twice in two days. Yesterday I kissed you. Not without your cooperation, I might add. Today—”
She dropped his arm as if it’d caught fire, and he figured she’d seen something in his eyes that reminded her that not all that much, really, had changed in fifteen years. The pure sexual energy that had always been a problem between them was still there. Well, not always a problem. A
He smiled. “Thought you’d see the light.”
“I should call the damn police on you.”
“Go ahead. Your future brother-in-law the state trooper likes me. Call him.”
“Scott’s not necessarily…Never mind.” She breathed out, looked down at the placid water, the ducks visible again, floating under the low-hanging willows. “I don’t know why I bite every time you try to tweak me.”
“Now, there’s an image.”
She almost smiled but instead gestured back toward the guesthouse. “Find anything interesting?”
“Nora’s cell phone, an old stuffed penguin and Tao quotes—”
“If you saw anything that suggested she was a danger to herself or in danger from someone else, you’d tell the police.”
She nodded. “I know, it’s tricky figuring out what to do.”
“Relax, Jo. I haven’t been in the back of a police cruiser in years.”
“You took a big risk,” she said. “Not just because you entered a private residence without permission. What if Rigby had caught you in his living room?”
Elijah rocked back on his heels, amused. “Worried about me, Jo?”
“Never mind. I give up. What about Devin? Has he been in touch?”
“No. I assume he’s back on the mountain trying to work things out with Nora.”
Her eyes sparked with just the slightest touch of humor. “You let a bruised, scraped, scared eighteen-year-old kid get the better of you?”
“He wasn’t that bruised or scraped. It was all a big act.”
“One you fell for,” she said.
“Running off was a dumb move on his part. I trusted him, and he threw that trust back in my face.”
She went very still, her eyes half-closed now. “Not a fun position to be in, is it?”
He looked at her dead-on and said, “No.”
“He made a promise. You took him at his word. Maybe he was sincere when he made the promise, and something changed.”
“You and Rigby were on your way back to the lodge when Devin took off. Maybe he saw you and decided to bolt.”
“Maybe.” Jo walked down to the edge of the pond. “Where’s your truck?”
“Through the woods,” he said, following her.
She shoved her hands into the pockets of her fleece and stared at the still, gray water. “You’re having trouble adjusting to being back here, aren’t you, Elijah?”
“No, I’m fine with being back here.”
She glanced sideways at him. “You just broke into a guesthouse.”
“Show me the evidence—”
“You’re a rule breaker, Elijah. You always have been. Assuming it wasn’t you last night, going to break into my place next?”
“Nope. I did that first.”
He could tell she didn’t know if he was serious or not.
He grinned suddenly. “I swear, Jo, if I weren’t afraid of being attacked by wild ducks, I’d kiss you right now.”
“Elijah…” She licked her lips, which, in his mind, meant she was thinking about him kissing her, too. But she gestured to someone behind him, and he turned and saw the Whittakers ambling down the lawn. “You should go.”
“I don’t want to leave you—”
“Ten to one they invite us to tea.”
He gave a mock shudder. “Save me, Agent Harper.”
This time, she smiled all the way. “I’ll see you back at the lake.”
He got out of there, cutting through the woods back to the stone wall and his truck. He arrived back at his place above the lake just in time to answer his phone.
“Grab a pencil, Sergeant Cameron,” Charlie Neal said, then added, “please.”
Nora dumped her backpack against a rotting fallen tree and collapsed onto her knees in tears of frustration. It was dusk, and she didn’t know where she was—not that she was lost, exactly. She knew she was on a knoll on the north side of Cameron Mountain in the general vicinity of where Devin had found Drew’s body. But she’d never find the exact spot, and now she didn’t want to, because it was getting dark and she didn’t need any more reminders of death, especially with the gray sky and the eerie shadows—and the silence.
She hadn’t considered what it would really be like to spend the night up here by herself. She sat back on her heels, sobbing. She’d sunk into a bed of wet pine needles. She could hear Elijah telling her to get up or put a tarp down or sit on her pack. Stay dry. Stay warm. Prevent hypothermia.
But she didn’t get up. She looked around at the endless woods. It was hard to believe police and rescue workers had been up in this wilderness just seven months ago. In the snow. Scott Thorne and Zack Harper had been among them. But they’d never talked to Nora about what they’d seen.
Drew had just gone to sleep and died in the cold.
She could see now how it’d happened. The shivering, numbness and pain of mild hypothermia giving way to more severe symptoms—confusion, slurred speech, clumsiness. Then unconsciousness, death.
If she didn’t want to die of hypothermia herself, she needed to find a spot to pitch her tent soon—and never mind being creeped out. She’d operated on instinct yesterday.
Get out, get out.
Now she wondered if she’d actually panicked and should have gone to someone when she’d had the chance.
She willed back her guilt at having sneaked out on Devin before first light. After deciding he couldn’t possibly have stolen her hundred dollars, she still hadn’t trusted him enough to go to him. She’d been irritated, she realized, that he thought he had to be protective of her. And why hadn’t he just
her he was out there?
Because you treated him like crap yesterday, that’s why.
She’d put on clothes that blended with her gray environment and made her harder to spot and had stayed off the trails—not that anyone was up on the mountain. She hadn’t seen a soul all day.
She didn’t know what she’d expected. A flag marking the spot where Drew Cameron had died? A gravestone? All she’d seen were trees, rocks, birds, squirrels and chipmunks—and three deer. She’d paused to watch the deer leap through the trees, unaware of her presence. One of the few nice moments in the past two days.
But she gulped back a sob and went rock still, convinced she’d heard a noise below her in the woods. Not a deer. Her heart pounded.
What was it?
“Nora? It’s me…Devin.”
“Devin!” She called to him without hesitation and leaped up, sniffling with relief. She’d been feeling guilty about leaving him, not trusting him, and now here he was. “I’m here!”
She started to run, following the rustling and crunching sounds of him making his way through fallen leaves and branches, until they found each other partway down the knoll.
He was panting and sweating and gave her a feeble smile. “Hey, Nora.”
“Oh, Dev. I’m sorry I ever doubted you. How did you find me?”
“I knew you wanted to see where Drew died. I figured you’d head this way. Then I heard you crying.” He coughed, shrugging his pack off his shoulders. “I know all the shortcuts, but I still had to hump it. I just want to be sure you’re okay.”
Nora saw his wince of pain, his scraped hands, dirty face. “What happened? Dev, you’re hurt—”
He held up a hand, still catching his breath. “I fell and hurt my leg. It’s not bad.” He used his thumb to wipe a tear on her cheek. “How ’bout you?”
She attempted a smile. “I’m better now that you’re here. I should never have come up here alone. It was crazy. But I—The money, then Alex and Melanie…”
“I know. It’s okay. I understand.”
She almost cried again. “Dev.”
“I’m being framed for stealing,” he said without drama. “There’s the money you’re missing, and there’s money missing from the lodge. Probably the café, too.”