Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
“I’m not your daughter,” Nora said, “and I hate you.”
“Fine by me.” Melanie stuck the key in the ignition.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To a cold and lonely place where you’ll die a cold and lonely death, just like Drew Cameron did. The cold will make you sleepy after a while. You’ll stop shivering. You’ll go to sleep. It’ll be nice. I’ll tell police that you went to meet Devin. They’ll believe me.”
“You’re Kyle Rigby’s partner.”
“Kyle’s dead. I’m marrying your father on Valentine’s Day.”
“No, you’ll die a horrible death and suffer for all eternity in the fires of hell.”
Something about her tone—her moral certainty—made Melanie frightened for the first time in years. But her fear didn’t last. She would take Nora to an isolated spot in the mountains. With the weather, the location, the approach of nightfall, there was virtually no chance anyone would find her in time.
After she turned Thomas over to Scott Thorne, Jo walked back down to the stone fireplace and took a call from Mark Francona. She’d been expecting one. He didn’t ask her about the shooting. “The police received another tip. They’ve located their messenger.” He spoke without any hint of relief. “She said she didn’t come forward because she assumed there were other witnesses.”
“She saw the driver?”
“A woman. Blond hair—probably a wig.”
“Rigby had a partner.”
“We’re assuming he was involved in Bruni’s death.”
“He was.” Jo paused. “Mark, Thomas Asher’s fiancée recommended he hire Rigby.”
“Where is she now?”
“With Nora. I have to go.”
She dropped her phone and drew her weapon as she ran out the door, not surprised, somehow, when Elijah fell in beside her.
“It’s Melanie,” Jo said.
“I’ll find Nora.”
He shot ahead of her, charging out to the parking lot toward Melanie’s car. Jo ran behind him, leveling her Sig at the driver’s side. The window whirred down. Melanie looked shocked. “What on earth—”
“Hands up where I can see them,” Jo ordered.
“Hands up. Now.”
Melanie’s hands went up. “Good heavens. Relax.”
On the other side of the car, Elijah ripped open the passenger side and grabbed Nora, even as she screamed, “Melanie’s got a gun!”
He half carried, half dragged Nora behind his truck and told her to stay down.
Melanie sighed at Jo. “Nora’s talking nonsense. Where would I get a gun? I’m just taking her back to the Whittakers’ house. I know she’s upset, but to be this irresponsible and inconsiderate is beyond the pale.”
“Keep your hands where I can see them,” Jo said. “No sudden moves.”
“Why are you treating me like a criminal?”
Jo kept her weapon on her. “The police have a witness who can place you behind the wheel of the car that killed Alexander Bruni. You’re in a tough situation, Melanie. Your partner’s dead. He took us on because he knew he had no choice. It was kill or be killed by his own people. You need to cooperate.”
Her eyes shone with tears. “Please. Stop. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You and Rigby have failed, Melanie. I’m guessing the people you work for don’t like failure. The police are combing Drew’s cabin for evidence. If you left behind so much as an eyelash when you and your buddy Rigby killed Drew Cameron, they’ll find it.”
Melanie didn’t move, but a kind of calm came over her. She leveled her gaze on Jo with a bloodlust that was soul deep. “Drew died believing he’d exchanged his life for his son’s.”
“That’s not what happened,” Elijah said, cold, controlled.
“It is what happened,” Melanie said, addressing Jo, clearly taking pleasure from whatever image she had of that day. “He’d had a premonition. He knew his son was in mortal danger. He died and Elijah lived.”
“He was onto you and Rigby,” Jo said. “That’s why you and Rigby killed him.”
Elijah stayed in front of Nora by his truck, but Jo could feel how much he wanted to go after Melanie. “I’d already been wounded,” he said. “Maybe my father was tuned in to my pain and maybe he wasn’t. You and Rigby killed him for reasons that didn’t have a damn thing to do with his fears for me.”
As he spoke, Jo took a step toward the car. She was about fifty feet away.
Melanie was still enjoying herself. “The moment Drew saw Kyle and me, he knew he was dead and there was nothing he could do.”
“You had guns,” Elijah said. “He didn’t. Never mind his fears, any connection he had with me. You killed him. You got his pack off him and made sure he’d freeze to death up there.”
Jo didn’t go any closer to the car. “Open the door, Melanie. Step out of the car. Do
as I say.”
Fear sparked in her eyes. “If I cooperate—”
With no warning, the car erupted into flames and smoke. Jo felt herself being blown backward, off her feet, as a heavy double thump ignited the gas tank, sucking the air out of the immediate area. The car jerked off the ground and then slammed back down hard in a flaming heap.
She felt the ground hard under her, then became aware of Elijah leaping toward her as she fought for air, her chest tight. She rolled onto her stomach, shoving her bare hands into the snow up to her wrists. The shock of the cold helped revive her, and she jumped up.
Elijah was there now, and he grabbed her. “There’s nothing we can do. She’s gone.”
“Elijah, what the hell—”
“It was a remote-controlled device. Not on a timer. Maybe a cell phone.”
She nodded, the acrid smoke filling her nostrils, clogging her throat. “Then someone’s close enough to have set it off. We need to get moving.”
A.J., Scott Thorne and Beth ran out of the lodge with fire extinguishers. But they, too, quickly saw there was no hope for Melanie Kendall. The explosive device had very clearly been set near—probably under—the driver’s seat. She hadn’t stood a chance.
“Her own people killed her,” Jo said.
Elijah nodded grimly.
Thomas Asher walked tentatively out the main entrance of the lodge. He hesitated as he took in the scene, then descended the steps and pushed his way past A.J. and Scott, breaking into a run as he yelled not for his fiancée but for his daughter.
Elijah grabbed him and brought him over to Nora, who was curled up, not moving. Her father dropped to his knees and held her, sobbing. “Nora, thank God. My baby.”
“We need to see if we can locate whoever set this thing off,” Jo said to Scott Thorne.
He was already on his radio, calling in a fresh surge of state troopers. Jo fell in beside Elijah. A.J. was there, too. But she could tell from their expressions that they all knew what she did: they wouldn’t find the paid assassin who had just set off a remote-controlled explosive device and killed one of their own.
Grit entered Myrtle’s favorite D.C. bar, which had pale pink walls and a lot of pictures of movie stars from before his time. He found her in an ornately carved wooden booth with a lit votive candle in the middle of the table. She was drinking Perrier with lime and obviously hating it. “Hey, Myrtle,” he said. “Got a place to stay tonight?”
She shrugged. “Here. The owners like me. I can sleep under the table.”
“Bet you booked yourself a room at the Four Seasons.”
“Not me. I hate spending money on fancy hotels. But I’m not sleeping on your sofa, so don’t invite me. I couldn’t take the rats.” She tipped back her glass and took a big swallow of her water, then set it down and stared at it as if it had answers. “The arson investigator says the fire started in my office. Probably electrical.”
“It wasn’t an accident.”
“No, but killing me wasn’t the main goal. A bonus, maybe.” She peeled the little lime off its toothpick and dropped it back into her water. “I had a lot of source material that went up in flames. I think I just got too close to these bastards.”
“What do the police say?”
“Nothing. Your FBI friends aren’t talking, either.”
“Everyone’s tight-lipped on this one,” Grit said. “This network’s been flying under the radar. It could be a guy in his basement with a computer, hiring killers on behalf of people who want someone killed.”
“Like Andrei,” Myrtle said.
“Yeah. You and Petrov were an item?”
“I loved him. He loved me. We weren’t ever going to be together. I’m not the marrying type, and he was a worse workaholic than me.” She looked away, her pretty eyes shining but tearless. “Paid killers aren’t easy to find. There’s no connection to the victim. No passion. No
. It’s all about money. Sometimes I don’t know which I detest more—the killer for hire or the one who hired him.”
“I’m sorry about Petrov,” Grit said simply.
“Yeah. Thanks.” She cleared her throat and turned back to her water. “I have a feeling Drew Cameron and Alex Bruni were killed for the same reason my house got torched. I think they got too close to these bastards. This network of assassins.”
Grit considered her words a moment, then said, “I think you’re right.”
But she didn’t respond, and a slim, pretty waitress in an outfit a slightly darker pink than the walls came for Grit’s order. Scotch. No water for him. When she left, Myrtle rolled her eyes. “What is it with you and women?”
He paid no attention. “You know, Myrtle,” he said, “you could have been killed today.”
“They teach you that in SEAL school—that a fire can kill someone?”
“It’s not called—”
“Don’t start with me. You know what I mean. I wasn’t killed today. Neither were you.” She raised her eyes, a dark purple in the dim light. “You weren’t killed in April, either.”
“Should have been.”
She reached down to her side and produced a printout of a color photograph, which she pushed across the table at him. “That’s Moose Ferrerra’s baby boy. Ryan Cameron Ferrerra. Three months old. Adorable, isn’t he? His mother named him after two men who fought with his father in his last hours in this life. Two men who were also badly wounded and could have died that same night.”
Grit didn’t look at the picture. “Don’t turn Elijah, Moose and me into a human-interest story.”
Myrtle squeezed her lime into her water. “His widow chose the name for their son after his father was killed. Not before, Grit. Give me a break, okay? You know what I’m saying. This baby carries the names of three good men.”
“April shouldn’t have turned out the way it did. Moose had a family. I didn’t.”
“Elijah Cameron doesn’t have a family.”
“He does,” Grit said. “Just different. And he wasn’t a SEAL, and he wasn’t supposed to die. I was.”
“You still are a SEAL, Grit. And Moose’s widow doesn’t think that way. You think that way.”
Grit’s drink arrived. He flirted with the waitress and pretended Myrtle wasn’t there. But the waitress had to go back to work, and Myrtle was hard to ignore.
She said, “Elijah set up a trust fund for Moose’s two kids—a two-year-old boy and this little guy. Contribute to it. Be there for those boys when they want to know what their dad was like.”
“You need to stop, Myrtle.”
She didn’t. “Let Moose go. Let him be at peace.”
Grit drank some of his scotch and wondered about the tragedies in her life, what ghosts she’d had to face. The dead Russian. Others.
“Come on.” She took one more sip of her water and shoved the glass to the middle of the table. “Let’s walk over to the Lincoln Memorial.”
“Did you know Lincoln?”
“Is Cameron as big a pain in the neck as you?”
“Fun, because after we talk to Lincoln, we’re going to Vermont. You’re a one-legged SEAL and I’m a lonely reporter with cat pictures in her wallet. Let’s go see that other ghost you’re friends with—Cameron—and talk assassins.”
“I like Vermont maple syrup,” Grit said. “That’s about it.”
He had to slow down for her on the walk to the memorial, then a couple of times up the steps to the massive statue. It wasn’t a lack of fitness on her part, he knew. It was the fire at her house. The Russian. Assassins. Maybe Charlie Neal.
He was on the top step when he felt Moose ease in next to him, but when Grit turned to say something, his friend and teammate—the man who’d saved his life—was gone.
Jo found Nora on the floor in front of the stone fireplace with her knees tucked up under her chin as she stared, motionless, at the flames. Lowell Whittaker had just called A.J. to let him know that Nora’s mother had arrived in Black Falls and he and Vivian were driving her up to the lodge.
With his fiancée and best friend dead on top of not mentioning his breakfast with Alex Bruni, Thomas was still with the police. Dozens of law enforcement vehicles stretched down the ridge road. The local police, the Vermont State Police, the FBI, ATF, federal prosecutors, state prosecutors—they were all there.
So was Wes Harper, the recently retired Black Falls police chief.
“Mind if I join you?” Jo asked Nora and, without waiting for an answer, sat on the floor next to her. The fire was roaring. Everyone who passed it seemed to toss on a log. “I could sleep here, I think. Have you had anything to eat?”
“Me, too. It’s good, isn’t it?”
“I guess. Devin…How is he?”
“He’s back home with his sister and brother. He’s banged up, but he’ll be okay.”
She sniffled, but her eyes never left the fire. “He saved my life. I wish I’d saved his instead.” Fat tears rolled down her cheeks. “I wish I’d done something.”
“You did. You trusted your instincts, and you ran after Alex’s death.” Jo spoke quietly but firmly, believing every word she said. She was aware of Elijah behind them, close enough to hear, far enough not to intrude. “Drew Cameron came to Washington in April two weeks before you and your father were up here.”
Nora didn’t respond. She seemed unaware of the tears streaming down her face, over her mouth and chin, onto her knees.
“Did you see him?” Jo asked.
This time Nora answered. “He stopped by Alex’s office. We’d just had this big, awful fight about colleges. Dad hadn’t met Melanie yet. Drew walked in—I’d seen him in Black Falls but didn’t really know him. He looked like…” She sucked in a breath, her nose running now, too. “I thought he looked like such a hick.”