Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
“You still haven’t told me how you picked Black Falls.”
“I was working night and day and needed a break, and I started looking on the Internet. I saw good reviews of Black Falls Lodge. I made a reservation.”
“Had you been in touch with Rigby, or he with you, since December?”
“No. I’d filed his card under people who could be good to know and didn’t think of him again until Nora went camping after Alex’s death. Thomas was so upset. It just made sense to call Rigby.”
“Then he shows up here and ends up nearly killing four people out of the blue? I don’t buy it. I don’t think you do, either.”
“He engineered this whole thing. He obviously lied, manipulated—I don’t know why. I’m not a detective. Maybe he was just a crazy killer who seized the moment.” Melanie was defensive now, even angry. “I’m cold. I’m going back inside.”
Jo didn’t stop her, instead followed her into the dining room—no sign now of the two Cameron brothers and their cop pals—and down the hall to the lobby, where Thomas was in a wingback chair in front of the massive stone fireplace. He had Nora in his lap, holding her as if she were five again.
Obviously at a loss, Thomas barely acknowledged Melanie and Jo as he hugged his traumatized daughter. “I can’t believe this,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “Oh, Nora. Sweetheart. We’ll get through this ordeal together. I promise.”
Nora lifted her eyes to Melanie. “What about her?”
“She wants to help.”
“No, she doesn’t.”
Thomas looked pained, almost stricken. “Nora.” There was just the slightest edge to his tone. “I wish I knew what to say.”
Melanie’s mouth thinned, but she smiled cheerfully as she plopped down onto the sofa across from them. “Hey, guys. You’re the smart ones, staying here where it’s warm.”
Nora slid off her father’s lap and moved to another chair, and pulled her knees up under her chin, curling herself into a tight ball. Jo had learned from Lauren that Carolyn Asher Bruni would be arriving in Black Falls soon. Nora had indicated overnight in the cabin just how much she dreaded seeing her mother. Then she’d have to confront the reality of Alex’s death and the days ahead. A funeral, an investigation, her mother’s grief—and her own. Alex Bruni had been a strong force in Nora’s life.
Thomas, ashen now, blinked helplessly at Melanie. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
She gave a little shake of the head. “Don’t worry. Please. Nora’s been through an awful, awful time.”
Jo left the three of them by the fire and headed back to the dining room. No one was around—Camerons, cops, guests. She felt her own emotions well up, her fatigue gnawing at her. And questions, she thought. So many unanswered questions.
A.J. and Elijah emerged from the kitchen, A.J. carrying a golden-crusted pie, Elijah plates and forks. They set them on the first table they came to.
“Over here, Jo,” A.J. said. “You never could resist apple pie. I picked the apples myself.”
“You did not.”
He smiled at her. “It’s good to have you back home.”
She approached the table, steam rising out of the pie and the smell of apples and cinnamon filling the air. “A.J., could Kyle Rigby have stolen the money from the shop’s petty cash box? To frame Devin. It would have been easy to get the money out of Nora’s kitchen, and even the café. Could he—”
A.J. was having none of it and shook his head. “I don’t want to think about that son of a bitch crawling around here, near my family, our guests.” His Cameron blue eyes held hers for an instant, his anger and his fierce love for his wife, his kids, his life in Black Falls radiating out of him. “Later, Jo.”
She nodded. He cut three thick, warm slices of pie and set them on plates.
Elijah stood next to Jo and slid an arm around her waist. “Sit before you drop.”
She shivered, not with cold this time, but with the awareness that she’d done it to herself again. Or maybe just had let herself reawaken what had been there all along, buried deep, dormant. Dangerous, even.
She loved Elijah Cameron, and she had since she was a girl.
Myrtle dropped Grit back at the hotel where she’d picked up him and Charlie and took off again. The only reason he’d let her go was that he’d spotted his new FBI pals, and he thought he might need their help after all. As he walked toward their black sedan, he hit the redial button on his cell phone. This time, Elijah answered. “Storm over?” Grit asked.
“Long night. What do you have?”
Grit gave him the news. “Alexander Bruni was on his way to meet Thomas Asher for breakfast. Asher must have phoned in the tip about the messenger. They now have more specifics on her identity.”
“How do you know?”
“I have my ways.” Best not to tell Elijah about Charlie and his cousin switching places. Grit didn’t want to put Elijah in the position of having to lie to his Secret Service-agent girlfriend. “I’m about to get into a car with a couple of FBI agents. I could be a while. If you don’t hear from me in six months, come find me.”
“Will do,” Elijah said without hesitation, and Grit knew he meant it.
“What’re you up to, anyway?”
“I’ll fill you in later. Right now I’m eating apple pie.”
“Vermont,” Grit said and disconnected.
The back door of the FBI car opened, and he climbed in, ignoring a sudden tightness in his left foot. The cute female agent was driving this time. She glanced in the rearview mirror at his reflection. “Who were you just on the phone with?”
From the narrowing of her eyes, Grit guessed she hadn’t expected a straight answer, but she got her FBI face back on fast—just not fast enough. Whatever had been going on in Vermont while Elijah was
she knew about it.
“Let’s go see Myrtle Smith,” Grit said, snapping on his seat belt. “She just dropped me off. But I figured I might need your help. You know where she lives, right?”
“Where have you been?” the beanpole agent asked him.
“Parking with Myrtle. She’s a doll, isn’t she? Those lavender eyes.”
The female agent wasn’t in the mood. “Start talking, Petty Officer Taylor.”
“That reminds me. What are your names?”
They pretended not to hear him and drove out past Embassy Row and onto a shaded cul-de-sac of tidy Craftsman-style houses.
Flames were coming out of the front window of a cream-colored stucco two-story.
The two FBI agents swore under their breath, but before their car came to a full stop, Grit had the door open and was on his way, racing across the lawn in long, even strides, arms pumping, his mind focused on one thing and one thing only: Myrtle. She lay crumpled in her doorway as black smoke poured out of the house and swirled around her.
Grit heard popping, hissing and cracking sounds from inside as he ran up the front steps. He grabbed Myrtle up in his arms, turned and charged back out across the grass and all the way to the side of the road.
The beanpole FBI agent was on the radio, calling in the world.
Myrtle coughed, spat black gunk and sat up. “I knew you were on my tail,” she told Grit.
He grinned at her. “You hoped I was.”
The female agent beelined for them. “Ma’am, are you all right?”
Grit could see Myrtle was shaken, but he said, “You should have told me you were getting threats.”
The female agent’s brow furrowed, but she kept quiet.
Myrtle wiped a shaking hand across her mouth, smearing soot. “Hindsight. I get people warning me to back off all the time. I guess these bastards meant business.”
She coughed, then nodded. “Andrei was a good man with bad enemies.”
“Doesn’t matter anymore.” Her lavender eyes were red rimmed and watery. “One of his enemies hired our assassins to kill him.”
“My damn house burning down does it for me.” She looked back at the flames and smoke, sirens already sounding in the distance. “At least I don’t have a cat. I’d have hated to have a cat killed in a fire.”
“Ever have a cat?” Grit asked her.
She spat some more and shifted her gaze to him. “Why? Do I strike you as the type?”
Tears welled in those big eyes of hers. “Lefty. I had to say goodbye to him a year ago. He was eighteen. Life sucks, Grit.”
“We’re dealing with ruthless, dangerous people.”
“Yeah, Myrtle, we are.”
The beanpole FBI agent joined them, and his partner looked up at him and said, “The fire trucks are on the way. In the meantime, Myrtle and Grit here are going to talk to us about assassins.”
Thomas took in a sharp breath when he saw Jo walking toward him from the dining room. He could tell she knew about his breakfast meeting with Alex, and he wanted to die on the spot. “Melanie. Please.”
“Thomas—what is it? What can I do?”
He summoned his last shreds of dignity as he got to his feet, the fire crackling behind him, hot on his back; he felt flushed, sick to his stomach. He couldn’t look at Nora. “Take Nora back to the Whittakers’.”
Melanie took his hand. “What’s wrong?”
“Just do as I ask. Please.”
She nodded. “Of course.”
Finally he turned to his daughter and spoke firmly. “Nora, I want you to go with Melanie. Lowell and Vivian are expecting you. They have a guestroom set up for you, since the police might still be at the guesthouse.”
“Your mother is on her way there.”
He didn’t wait for Nora to respond and extricated himself from Melanie, who obviously sensed his distress. But he couldn’t think about that now. He hurried down the hall toward Jo, intercepting her before she could say anything in front of his daughter and fiancée. “I panicked,” he told her. “I panicked, and I ran. I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.”
“You need to talk to the police.” Her tone was crisp, professional. “Scott Thorne just got here with my sister. I’ll introduce you to him. You two can talk.”
Thomas held back a surge of defensiveness. “The meeting was Alex’s idea. He wanted to talk to me about Nora—he was worried about her. There was something else on his mind, too, but he didn’t go into detail. He was late. I waited. Then when he was hit by that car…” Thomas pictured his friend’s briefcase, the crease in his pants. “I don’t know anything, Jo. I swear. I talked to a messenger who said she was a witness. I gave the police everything I could remember when I called in the tip. That’s all.”
“Who else knew about your breakfast with Ambassador Bruni?”
“No one that I know of. We wanted to be discreet, because of our personal situation. I just don’t understand. Why kill Alex?” Thomas repeated the question, stunned, as if it would help him make sense of everything that had happened. “Who would want to harm him? He was my friend. He fell in love with the woman I married, but Carolyn and I weren’t meant to be a match forever.”
“As far as you know, she didn’t know about your breakfast?”
“There was no reason for me to tell her, and I doubt Alex did. She was in Hong Kong, on an entirely different schedule. But he might have told her. I certainly don’t know either way.”
“What about Melanie?”
“No, I didn’t mention anything to her, but I didn’t hide anything from her, either.”
Jo gave a curt nod. “Talk to Trooper Thorne. He’s in the dining room with A.J. and Elijah.”
But she stayed focused. “I’ll bring you to him.”
Melanie resisted an impulse to get Nora by the hair and drag her across the parking lot. One more frosty look or moan of fatigue or whine about Devin and how scared she’d been, and Melanie wouldn’t be able to resist smacking her. Thanks to the little bitch and Kyle’s idiotic assault on Elijah Cameron and Jo Harper, Melanie realized that her life as she knew it was over.
“Just a few more steps,” she said sweetly. “I know you’re tired, sweetie.”
Nora gave her a sullen look and didn’t pick up her pace a fraction.
Melanie resisted an impulse to slap her across her sorry, tearstained face. What did that little bitch have to worry about? Her life would go on. She had her mother and her father and her trust fund. She could go back to Dartmouth. So, Alex was dead. So, she’d been scared. Melanie thought of all
was in danger of giving up thanks to Nora and her lack of trust, her inability to let her father fall in love again. She realized she was losing Thomas. The police must have been provided with some new bit of information about Alex’s death—someone who’d seen Thomas at the hotel. He’d looked guilt stricken when he’d seen Jo coming down the hall, but also maybe a little relieved, as if he’d been waiting for the moment when everyone would finally discover what a weasel he’d been.
Not that it mattered. As the day had worn on and Kyle’s death had penetrated her psyche, Melanie had recognized that Kyle’s stupidity left her no choice but to deal with Nora Asher herself.
Damn you, Kyle.
She went around to the passenger side of her rented car and opened the door. He must have known that Elijah and Jo were armed. They weren’t the cold-blooded killer Kyle was, but they were more than capable of taking him down.
He hadn’t committed suicide. Not intentionally. Knowing him as well she did, Melanie was convinced he’d thought he could make his plan work. He just wasn’t that good at thinking on his feet.
But she was.
“Here,” she said, opening the front passenger door. “Do you need help getting in or are you—”
“I’m fine,” Nora said, stepping past Melanie and flopping down onto the car seat.
Melanie kept her mouth shut and ignored the twitch in her fingers. It would be so easy to reach into the car and choke Nora to death right here, right now. But Kyle had warned her countless times to control her impulses and not let the thrill of doing the unexpected get ahead of her thinking and her self-interest.
She went around to the driver’s side of the car and got in behind the wheel. Very calmly she reached inside her shearling jacket and withdrew the pistol that Kyle had given her last night. She slipped it into her right outer pocket and looked at Nora with a small, satisfied smile. “You’re in trouble, my darling daughter.”