Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
“Why are you here, Charlie?” Grit asked.
“I don’t want to get anyone into trouble.”
“You want to keep yourself out of trouble, too, don’t you?”
That gave him his spine back. “I don’t care about that. What’re they going to do? Just watch me even closer than they do now. The people who are supposed to keep an eye on me will get in trouble, though. And that’s not fair.”
“It’s also not your problem.”
Charlie glanced behind them at the revolving doors, then shifted back to the street. “I followed him here,” he said. “I wanted to talk to him about Agent Harper. My sister Marissa told me they’re friends. Agent Harper has lots of friends in various federal law enforcement agencies, but I didn’t want to go to them. You know. Risk getting them in trouble.”
“Risk having them recognize you and haul your ass back to school. Who’s ‘him’? Who’d you follow?”
“It doesn’t matter. Marissa misinterpreted their friendship. It’s not as close as I thought.”
Grit realized Charlie wasn’t talking about Bruni, but he said, “Is Marissa like you, smart and doesn’t mind her own business?”
“She’s not as smart as me. I’m not bragging. I’m just…”
“You’re just stating the facts,” Grit finished for him.
Charlie hunched his shoulders and said quietly, “I wanted to figure out how I could make amends.”
“Ah.” Grit got it now. “You’re talking about Thomas Asher.”
The kid was silent.
Grit figured it was pretty much like holding a live grenade, having the veep’s kid right next to him with no Secret Service protection. “All right,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Go? Go where?” Charlie straightened, his cockiness back in full force. “I have to get to school. I have another calculus test today. I can’t miss it. I’m down to a B-plus average as it is. My cousin took this one test for me, and he isn’t great at math—”
“You can’t just kidnap me.”
Grit scratched the side of his mouth. Now what? He’d tried calling Elijah first thing that morning but got no answer. It was lousy weather up north. Snow, ice, wind. He could always try to reach Agent Harper, but Grit had a feeling she was onto Charlie herself. And she was up north in the same storm as Elijah and probably in his back pocket wherever he was.
“The Secret Service will have egg on its collective face,” Charlie said, “if it gets out that my cousin and I switched identities.”
There was that. “Tell me about Thomas Asher.”
Charlie debated a moment, his lips compressed in a manner that suggested he was accustomed to being called onto the carpet. He nodded back toward the hotel entrance. “He went in through the revolving doors and entered the restaurant and waited at his table for a while. I hung around. I figured I’d talk to him after he finished breakfast. I assumed he was meeting someone, but I kept checking and no one ever came. Then there was this big commotion out here.”
“Where exactly were you?”
“In the lobby outside the restaurant. I didn’t see Ambassador Bruni get hit.”
“No. Impossible.” Charlie shook his head, adamant. “He ran out into the lobby to see what all the commotion was about. Then he left.”
“How’d he look?”
“Shocked. Upset. Terrified—but under control. He was in self-protection mode.”
Charlie adjusted his cap, a hunk of blond hair falling down on his forehead. “That’s why I came here today. I hoped it would help me remember.”
“There was a messenger on a bicycle. A woman. I saw her. I heard about the tip the police received. I didn’t realize she’d witnessed what happened.”
Grit waited, then said, “And?”
The kid obviously didn’t want to go on. Finally he answered. “Mr. Asher spoke to her.”
“Can you describe her? The tip didn’t have details. If Thomas phoned it in, he might have been too upset to remember specifics and—”
“Fleet of Pedal is the name of the messenger service.”
Grit waited again. “Charlie. You have to tell the police.”
“It doesn’t have to be me.” Charlie turned to him. “You could tell them.”
“I wasn’t here,” Grit said. But he could tell the FBI or even Myrtle, let her work her wonders and get Charlie’s tidbit to the police without putting him into the middle of a media firestorm.
In the meantime, Grit wasn’t about to leave the only son and youngest child of the vice president of the United States—a smart, troubled, sixteen-year-old kid with assassins on the mind—out on the streets.
He jerked a thumb at Charlie. “Let’s go.”
“Are you kidnapping me?”
“I’m taking you back to school.”
Except he didn’t have a car. Where the hell was Myrtle?
Ten seconds later, as if he’d conjured her up, she pulled next to the curb in a fancy little car, her window rolled down. “Sorry I’m late.” She frowned at Charlie. “Who are you?” She swallowed, obviously recognizing him. “Oh. You do have some interesting friends, Petty Officer.”
They got in her car, Grit in back with Charlie, and Myrtle drove them out to the rolling northern Virginia campus of a very private school. Grit’s high school in the Florida panhandle had been a series of trailers. Charles Preston Neal was good-looking, smart, athletic—and surprisingly invisible. It was tough to stand out when you were good at everything and were handed everything. He wanted to matter.
Not your problem, Grit reminded himself. “How does your cousin explain where he’s been when you’re off following people and hunting bad guys?”
“We’re careful. Except for that one time during calculus, we switch during play practice. It’s intensive, total immersion into the play. We’re doing
A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Conor and I work production. We switch off, so it’s easy—he can be himself and me. Neither of us is missing that way. No one notices when one of us isn’t there.”
“You’ve pushed it. He took a test for you. Ever take one for him?”
“He was going to fail trig. He has this awful, obtuse teacher—”
“Conor sounds like he’s as big a pain in the ass as you.”
“I have four sisters,” Charlie said quickly. “They’re all pretty. If you don’t rat me out, I can arrange a date with one of them. Come on. Cut me some slack.”
The kid wasn’t exactly begging, but Grit said, “I’ve got enough problems without dating one of your sisters. Go on. Get to class. Myrtle and I will keep your secret.” He glanced up front. “Won’t we, Myrtle?”
“Sure.” She smiled into her rearview mirror. “You’ve got that look, Grit. I’ll agree to anything you say. I don’t want you killing me in my sleep.”
Drama. He reached across Charlie and opened his door, then sat back again. “You and your cousin are not to pull this stunt again. Understood?”
Charlie nodded, then hesitated, his skin losing some of its color. “I don’t care what happens to me,” he said quietly. “These assassins. They’re not done. There’s a network of them out there. They’re ruthless, Petty Officer Taylor. I don’t know if it’s all about money or what. There has to be a middleman who hires killers on behalf of different clients. It’s so clear to me.”
“Fair enough. Any theories about who ordered Alex Bruni killed?”
The kid hesitated, then said, “What if he knew Drew Cameron’s death in April wasn’t an accident? What if he was killed by these assassins? Alex Bruni was a prominent ambassador. He probably had enemies who’d be willing to pay someone to kill him—who’d be able to figure out how to get in touch with such people. But he also knew Drew Cameron, and…” Charlie didn’t go on.
Grit finished for him. “Cameron was just a guy from the mountains. He doesn’t fit with the other victims. Bruni does, but since Cameron and Bruni both have connections to Black Falls, it’s a problem.”
“Yeah,” Charlie said. “It’s a problem.”
“That’s why we have cops. Anything you haven’t told me? Your father—”
“He’s not in danger that I know of. Absolutely not.” Charlie blinked back sudden tears, his breathing rapid and shallow now.
Up front, Myrtle didn’t say a word. Grit stayed very still. “Charlie?”
“I told you. Marissa was almost killed in September. Agent Harper saved her life. Jo could have died. Marissa could have died.”
“According to my sources, that fire was an accident.”
“What if it wasn’t? I don’t want anyone dying for me. The airsoft prank…I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“On some level, that prank made the risks Jo and her colleagues take feel less real to you.”
“And it was funny,” Grit said.
“Jo got sent to Vermont. I didn’t realize that’s where Nora Asher moved after she dropped out of Dartmouth. If her father’s mixed up in this network…if Drew Cameron and Alex Bruni were among its latest victims…if it’s connected to Black Falls somehow—”
“Whoa. Slow down. How do you know about Nora Asher?”
He rolled his eyes. “Facebook. Come on. That was so easy.”
Charlie noticed everyone and everything. Couldn’t be an easy way to live.
A stunning, fair-haired young woman appeared on the walkway down from Myrtle’s car. She was flanked by Secret Service agents. Charlie pulled his sweatshirt hood up over his cap and sank low in his seat. “That’s Marissa. She teaches history here. I told you, didn’t I?”
Very pretty, Grit had to admit. Even prettier than the pictures of her he’d found on the Internet.
Charlie slipped out of the car and ran, as if he were just a regular kid.
Moose slid into the seat Charlie had vacated.
“Wow. She’s a knockout. The FBI agent, now the veep’s daughter. Myrtle’s not bad, either. Not so sorry you lived after all, are you?”
“Don’t speak too soon,” Grit said. “The Secret Service is running Myrtle’s tags right now.”
“Not mine,” Myrtle said. “It’s my mother’s car. And who the hell are you talking to?”
Grit grinned at her. “Your mother’s still alive? She must have been born during the War of 1812.”
“Revolutionary War.” Myrtle sighed at him. “Don’t you have PT exercises to do for your leg?”
“Did them. You going to tell me what’s going on?”
“No. My problem. I’ll deal with it.”
“You and the dead Russian?”
“Go to hell, Grit.”
Charlie’s seat was empty again, and Grit pictured Moose bleeding, screaming at him to let the Special Forces medic cut off his leg. He said, “Been there.”
Jo took her mug of coffee and followed Melanie Kendall onto the terrace. The snow—half as much as up on the mountain—spread smooth and untouched down across the meadow and into the trees. The sky was clear now, a heart-stopping shade of blue. The police were still processing the scene on Cameron Mountain. As Elijah had anticipated, a search-and-rescue team had arrived soon after Rigby’s first shots into the cabin. They’d heard them on their way up the mountain.
Jo’s sister had been part of that first team to reach them and had treated Devin and helped transport him down to the old logging road and then to the hospital by ambulance. Beth had hardly spoken, but her expression had said everything. Words weren’t necessary to convey just how close she knew Jo, Elijah and the two teenagers had come to getting killed early that morning.
There was much work to do to re-create Kyle Rigby’s activities since arriving in Black Falls.
And even before then, Jo thought as she looked out at the beautiful view. She didn’t see her hawk and wondered if he knew, by instinct, that it had been a bad day in his mountains. Elijah was in the dining room with A.J. and a couple of local police officers. A.J. hadn’t believed what Rigby had told Melanie Kendall in his call to her.
Thomas was inside by the fire with his daughter.
Melanie shivered as a gust of wind blew across the meadow, whipping her black hair into her face. She wore a putty-colored shearling jacket but was hatless, her nose red, her eyes sunken. “I’m sick,” she said as she stared at the view. “Just sick. That awful man wormed his way into my life. Then I
him into Thomas’s life. He used us all.”
“He told me you two met in December,” Jo said.
Melanie nodded. “Yes, in Colorado. I’ve been through all the details with the police. He told me he was an experienced, private search-and-rescue expert. That’s why I thought of him when Nora took off after Alex’s death. I didn’t think anything of calling him. I was drawn to his certainty, his clarity, his decisiveness.”
With her free hand, Jo scooped up snow from the top of a wooden table and, ignoring the cold on her bare fingers, formed it into a small ball as she flashed on countless snowball fights she’d had with the Camerons. Drew would often participate. He’d loved the snow.
She tossed her snowball off the end of the terrace and watched it plop into the fresh snow and disappear.
“You met Thomas in Black Falls in April,” Jo said. “Had you been here before?”
Melanie shook her head. “No, never. It was my first visit.” She turned, shoving her hands into her jacket pockets as she faced Jo. “Why?”
Jo didn’t answer her. “Did you know anyone from here?”
“No.” She smiled. “Agent Harper, please. Just tell me what’s on your mind. I can see something’s bothering you.”
“I want to know how you ended up in Black Falls four months after you ran into Kyle Rigby in Colorado. Did you pick it at random? Did you know someone who’d been here?” Jo paused. “Did Rigby suggest Black Falls?”
“Oh, I see where you’re headed.” Melanie frowned and returned her gaze to the sparkling, endless view. “Kyle mentioned Vermont, but I can’t remember if he said anything specifically about Black Falls. He told me he’d hiked here often and loved it.”
“He knew where Drew’s cabin was,” Jo said, watching Melanie.
She seemed surprised. “Really? Are you sure?”
Jo didn’t give her a direct answer. “The police are already checking with local inns and motels to find out if Rigby was in the area in April when Drew died.”
Melanie gasped. “I could throw up. Do you think he followed me here?” She shuddered, tucking her bare hands up into the sleeves of her jacket. “I realize now that he was a horrible, manipulative man. I don’t understand any of this. I just feel so guilty, but I suppose that’s natural. Victims often blame themselves.”