Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
Except, she thought, to Alex Bruni, a repeat guest at Black Falls Lodge.
What if the person—or people—who dispatched killers like her and Kyle, paid them and kept them from knowing too much about their targets, had decided Drew and Alex were threats to
To their network of paid assassins?
That made screwing up that much more complicated and dangerous.
And if she suspected she and Kyle had been hired to kill Drew Cameron and Alex Bruni to protect one of their own, then Kyle suspected it, too.
No wonder he was so serious.
Melanie dried her hands. She liked the soap. It had a clean, soft scent. Roses, maybe? She didn’t know. She inhaled the scent, calming herself, and returned to the dining room. It was almost dusk now. Scott Thorne, the Vermont State Police trooper, had left after interviewing both her and Thomas, every indication suggesting an official search for Nora and Devin would be launched before long. Melanie had done everything possible to make sure that wouldn’t happen.
The handful of guests staying at the lodge seemed to enjoy being there during a storm. Three or four inches of snow had accumulated, enough to whiten the landscape. Conditions were worse at higher elevations. She wanted to go sit in front of the fire, but Thomas was still rooted to his chair at a table near the windows overlooking the terrace and the meadow. Lauren Cameron had brought them hot cocoa. She was so beautiful, and from a good family, too. Melanie imagined Lauren and A.J. having her and Thomas up to their house for dinner, becoming friends with them. But with Drew Cameron’s death, and now a series of deaths about to happen, Black Falls would be reeling for a while. Melanie wasn’t sure she and Thomas would want to spend much time there. Maybe they should put this experience behind them and make their own friends.
She pulled out a chair at the table and sat down, irritated when Thomas didn’t even look at her. He stared blankly out at the snow. A.J. had dropped into a chair across from him. A.J. looked serious and hard-bitten, but from what Melanie had gathered, he usually did.
“I just heard from Kyle,” she said with just the right touch of both relief and caution. “He got through to me on my cell phone just before his died. I could hardly hear him, but Nora’s fine. He ran into her above the falls. She didn’t have a clue anyone was worried about her.”
“Oh, thank God.” Thomas flopped back in his chair and almost cried. “Thank God.”
Melanie liked giving him the good news. He grabbed her hand and squeezed it, and she let her eyes fill with tears. “I know it’s a hard time for you, darling,” she said.
“Did he say anything about Jo and Elijah?” A.J. asked.
She shook her head. “No, but he only had a few seconds, really, before his cell phone died.”
A.J. said nothing, and Melanie sensed his skepticism. The Camerons were all so damn tough. The police could check her cell-phone records for proof that Kyle had called her, but they’d have to have a reason. She wouldn’t give them one, and if she did, she’d get out, flee. She didn’t want it to come to that, but she was prepared. She had money stashed. So did Kyle. They could disappear for a couple of years. Let things cool off. Then resurface.
Thomas pushed his cocoa aside and shot to his feet, and she bit back her irritation with A.J. His question had clearly spoiled Thomas’s sense of relief. “Then Jo and Elijah are looking in the wrong place,” he said. “They’re stuck in the storm now, too. What about Devin?”
A.J.’s eyes darkened, but he left the dining room without another word.
Melanie stood next to Thomas and hooked her arm through his. “You’re so warm,” she said, leaning into his shoulder.
“The snow’s piling up. The wind, especially up on the mountain…” He was clearly too distressed to go on.
Melanie slipped his arm around her waist and snuggled into him even closer. He was a little soft in the waist. Not hard everywhere like Kyle. But that was okay. “Kyle’s with Nora. He’ll do what he can for Devin. And Jo and Elijah—”
“I’m not worried about them. They’re both Black Falls natives who know these mountains better than anyone.” Thomas seemed to struggle to make himself sound optimistic. “They’ll do fine up there.”
Melanie felt a sharp prick of fear.
Then she thought—
this could be good.
It could work to her advantage if Kyle didn’t come off the mountain, either.
Whatever happened, she’d do what she had to do. Kill Nora. Kill Devin. Kill Kyle, too, if she had to. Jo, Elijah. Thomas.
All of them.
But that was crazy thinking, an overreaction to her circumstances, although she relished how it made her feel, how it relieved her fear and her tension to picture herself killing all the people who threatened her and her happiness with Thomas.
He kissed her on the top of the head. “What would I do without you?”
Melanie squeezed him gently. Everything would work out. She and Kyle had yet to fail, and they understood what they were up against. They’d do what they had to, and that would be that.
Kyle would find a new partner, and she would marry Thomas.
They just had to get through the long night ahead.
Grit had spent the day shaking every tree in Washington, and he found his way to the attractive suburban street where Thomas Asher lived just as the sun went down. He’d had to do a combination of bus, cab and walking to get there.
The house was a Dutch Colonial with mature gardens and shade trees. Nice place even in the November gray, Grit thought. Earlier in the day he’d been to the Bruni house in Georgetown. It was smaller but more expensive, more elegant. Law enforcement had already done their thing there, and it was quiet when Grit went by. But he figured it was probably still under surveillance and his presence had been duly noted.
Just like now, he thought as he headed up the brick walkway.
The front door of the Asher house opened, and a woman who looked to be in her early forties stumbled out and ran down the steps. She stopped abruptly and stared down at pink and white impatiens drooping at her feet along the edge of the walkway.
Grit started to introduce himself, but without acknowledging him, without even looking at him, she said, “I played hopscotch with my daughter out here when she was three. I can see her now. She was such a sweet little girl. I remember one day when Thomas came home early and joined us. We laughed and laughed. Such a simple thing.” Tears shone in her eyes as she finally focused on Grit. “We were a happy family. I don’t care what anyone else thinks.”
“You shouldn’t,” Grit said.
“You’re one of Thomas’s friends?”
“No, ma’am. My name’s Ryan Taylor. I know Elijah Cameron—”
“Elijah?” She seemed confused. “From Vermont?”
“That’d be the one.”
She took in a breath through her nose and collected herself. Carolyn Asher Bruni, Grit had learned, was successful in her own right, even compared to her second husband. But she held all that in check right now, clearly exhausted and grief stricken despite her self-control. “I only know Elijah by reputation,” she said. “I’ve met his brother A.J. and his sister, Rose. They’re lovely people. I’m sorry. I’m not myself. You’re not from Vermont, though, are you?”
“No, ma’am, I live here in Washington.”
She glanced back at her former house. “I threw away a good life, Mr. Taylor. I didn’t expect to come out here, but here I am. Do you know what I want right now more than anything else? Just to go back in time—to be here, playing hopscotch with my daughter.”
Unspoken was what was going on in Vermont. What had happened a few miles away in Washington. “If anyone can keep Nora safe,” Grit said, “it’s Elijah. I don’t know Jo Harper—”
But Carolyn Bruni wasn’t listening. “I stayed home with Nora the first few years. Thomas and I never had other children. We got caught up with other things.”
“I guess that happens.”
“Alex was so ambitious, so driven. I loved that about him. Thomas is more laid-back. I thought being here…” She took a step forward, her shoulders back as if she were steeling herself against a hard wind. “It doesn’t matter now. Alex is gone, and Thomas is no longer part of my life.”
“He’s still your daughter’s father.”
“Nora’s barely a part of my life anymore, either,” she said with a trace of regret, maybe bitterness, too. “She’s eighteen. She’s taking a break from school right now, but she’ll go back.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Grit said simply.
“You want to know if I have a clue as to who killed my husband.” She got combative and raised her chin at Grit. “If
killed him. Isn’t that what everyone wants to know? I don’t, and I didn’t.”
“Some days I wondered who
want to kill Alex. I don’t mean that as an insult. He could be very intense, exacting, tough. He didn’t demand of anyone what he wouldn’t demand of himself.” She shook her head, some of the fight going out of her. “I’m so jet-lagged, and upset, obviously. I barely know what day it is. Maybe it’ll all turn out to be just a terrible accident.” She narrowed her tired eyes on him. “Why are you here?”
He wasn’t all that sure himself. “Just trying to help. Your daughter—”
“Nora knows what she’s doing. She’s very capable. She’s young, but she’ll find her way.”
“You’re not worried about her going off on this camping trip by herself?”
“I’m concerned about how she’s handling Alex’s death, but no, I’m not that concerned about her camping in Vermont. She’s very levelheaded. She and Alex got along all right, but they didn’t see that much of each other. If you’re wondering if she hired someone to kill him, that’s ridiculous. She wouldn’t know the first thing about how to do such a thing.”
“You just said she’s capable.”
“In the woods, not with hired killers.” Her cheeks reddened suddenly, but she remained under control. “I should go. I don’t normally pour out my soul to a perfect stranger.”
“Melanie Kendall went up to Vermont with your ex-husband,” Grit said. So far, his turning-over-of-rocks and shaking-of-trees hadn’t turned up much on the fiancée and future stepmother.
Carolyn Bruni’s gaze steadied on him. “Good for her.”
“Nora get along with her?”
“I have no idea. We haven’t discussed Melanie. She has absolutely nothing to do with me. Good to meet you, Mr. Taylor.” Carolyn Bruni paused and gave him a cool, superior smile. “Perhaps you and Elijah Cameron should mind your own business.”
She marched past Grit, got into a little BMW parked on the side of the road and sped off.
Moose fell in next to Grit on the walkway.
“The mother’s conflicted,”
“Well, I guess she is. She’s also a Type A control freak who thinks her daughter hates her and she deserves to be hated.”
“She has regrets. Big regrets. It’s tough living with big regrets.”
Grit breathed out. “Yeah. It is.”
He noted a surprising lack of security at the Asher house. He could have gotten inside in seconds. Instead, he walked down to a dark sedan parked a half block from the spot that Carolyn Bruni had just vacated. His leg wasn’t hurting much today. He liked walking.
A window rolled down, and Grit said to the beanpole of an FBI agent behind the wheel, “I’ll save you the trouble of trying to figure out who I am and what I’m up to. I just need a ride back to town. I took the bus, and my leg—”
“Get in the car.”
He climbed into the backseat. Up front next to the beanpole FBI agent was a very cute female FBI agent who turned a little in her seat and gave Grit a steel-melting look. “You’ve been talking to a lot of people today, Petty Officer Taylor.”
“You know my name? I’m flattered. You’re—”
“We’re the ones driving you back to Washington.”
“Guess you don’t need directions to my place, do you?”
Not even a twitch of a smile. “You were outside the vice president’s residence today,” she said.
Grit didn’t respond. The street he’d been on was a public street, and they all knew it. He’d begun to wonder if maybe the assassins theory was just the product of a bored genius kid with an Internet connection, but that didn’t feel right to Grit, mostly because of Myrtle and the Russian and the poisoned toothpaste. Myrtle didn’t get bored. She didn’t make up stuff.
“We appreciate your service,” the cute FBI agent said when they finally pulled up to his dump of a building. “Now mind your own business.”
“Mrs. Bruni said the same thing, except she didn’t add the platitude—”
“It’s not a platitude.” She seemed chagrined.
“You don’t want to know my assassins theory, do you?”
“No. Good night, Petty Officer Taylor.”
One thing about his military service, Grit thought dispassionately, was how good it had made him at detecting when people were hiding things. Even those people who were good at hiding things.
The two FBI agents already knew about assassins.
The beanpole glanced in his rearview mirror at Grit’s reflection. “You okay back there? Your leg…”
Grit opened the door and got out. He wasn’t getting into the nuances of transtibial amputations with the guy. Besides, he’d spotted Myrtle hiding behind a sick cedar tree on the corner of his building and figured she wouldn’t really want to talk to the FBI.
After they left, she stepped out onto the street and shuddered. “Holy moley. I just saw a rat the size of a raccoon.”
“Ah. Little fella.”
“Why do you live like this?”
“Never mind. I’d go in, but for all I know, you have pets, and I can only just imagine.” She nodded at the retreating car. “Feds?”
“I caved and gave you up after the girl fed batted her eyes at me.”
“Are you ever serious? Don’t answer—I know. You’re a man of action. Words mean nothing, so you might as well be irreverent.” Her lavender eyes stayed on him a fraction longer than he would have preferred. “I did more research on you, Grit. It wasn’t easy. You and your friend Elijah Cameron are a couple of ghosts, but you’re both bona fide, indestructible American heroes.”