Read For Her Eyes Only Online

Authors: Shannon Curtis

For Her Eyes Only (3 page)

BOOK: For Her Eyes Only
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“Wait! What about an—” Vicky said rapidly, but stopped when Ryan swung the door wide. “Alarm,” she finished quietly.

He indicated the keypad just inside the door. A little light was flashing green. “It isn’t on.”

Vicky frowned. “Okay, now I’m worried. Orla is super security conscious, especially after what happened to her dad.”

Ryan didn’t bother trying to protect her with false reassurance. Vicky was smart, and she was quickly adding things up and getting the same summation he had.

He took her hand, and they both entered the house.

Chapter Two

Vicky huddled behind Ryan, for once happy to let him take the lead as they crept across the parquetry flooring of the conservatory. The house was silent. Dead silent.

Orla better be at the florist.

“Where’s the housekeeper?” Ryan asked softly.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s her day off. I’m surprised that Mitzie hasn’t greeted us though.”

“Who the hell’s Mitzie?”

“Her Bichon Frisé.”

Ryan paused, and she bumped into his broad back. He cocked his head to listen, and she held her breath, as though that might help him.

Something didn’t feel quite right. Orla should have been here. If she couldn’t make their meeting, Orla definitely would have called. She was a receptionist, and had complained many times about patients who missed appointments with no effort to contact the surgery. It was one of her friend’s pet peeves.

They walked through the kitchen. “Maybe I should call out for her?”

Ryan shook his head. “No housekeeper. No dog. No Orla. We don’t announce our presence until we know the coast is clear.”

“You’re too paranoid.”

He shot a quick glance over his shoulder. “Undercover work will do that to you. You might want to remember that.”

He stopped at the door leading from the kitchen to the rest of the house, and cracked it open.

“We’re going to have some serious explaining to do if we give the housekeeper a heart attack,” Vicky whispered. It would be so embarrassing to be caught snooping around Orla’s house—but Orla would probably laugh it off. Eventually. She hoped.

Ryan must have decided the way was clear, and pushed the door open further. “Tell me the layout of the house.”

Vicky gestured down the marble-tiled hallway. “That’s the front. Dining room and formal lounge on the left, living room and media room on the right. There are two bathrooms and a den down that way,” she said, pointing in the opposite direction. She glanced toward the front of the house, where the wide winding staircase with wrought-iron balustrading rose from the ground floor like a dark, winged angel to, well, the second floor.

“Upstairs are the bedrooms, another living area, guest rooms and I can’t remember how many bathrooms.”

Ryan nodded. “Okay, let’s check the front of the house first. Stay behind me.”

He was beginning to freak her out, this stealthy, wary version of her buddy. That annoyed her. He annoyed her. She’d introduced the facts of Dr. Kruger’s murder at the case meeting earlier that morning. Ryan had questioned why McCormack Security Agency would be looking into a normal murder.
As if there is any such thing as a normal murder
. She’d known Dr. Karl Kruger. She’d been stunned by the news of his murder. Her boss, Reese McCormack, had given approval to take on Orla’s case, but when Vicky had mentioned her intention to actively help with the investigation, Ryan had laughed. Laughed!

Jerk
.

She followed Ryan down the hall to the front of the house, pausing when he stopped and frowned at her over his shoulder. He pressed a finger to his lips.

Vicky frowned back at him. What? She was barely breathing, damn it.

He gestured to her low heels. She rolled her eyes, bent down and removed her shoes. He nodded in satisfaction before resuming his exploration of the house. She tiptoed behind him in her bare feet, the marble floor cold and unforgiving beneath her soles.

The formal dining and sitting rooms were luxurious—and empty. The more casual living room and media room bore Orla’s unusual taste in interior decoration, with varied prints, fabrics and finishes providing an almost kaleidoscopic effect that only the wealthy would find as a comforting surround, whereas she’d found it complicated and austere.

But still no Orla.

They silently backtracked down the hall. With each step, Vicky’s anxiety grew. They had been inside the Kruger mansion for nearly five minutes, and there was no sign of any of the residents. The cool silence of the house was beginning to creep her out.

Ryan quickly scanned a bathroom and the den.

“After we check this bathroom, we can take the rear stairs to the upper level,” Vicky whispered in his ear as he turned the handle on the bathroom door. She caught a whiff of his scent, something fresh and masculine and way too sexy, and pulled herself back. He nodded briefly as he cracked the door open.

His body froze, and Vicky could feel his muscles stiffen as though he was slowly turning to stone.

A sharp, metallic scent assailed her nose. Her breath hitched. “What?” she whispered.

“Go call the police,” Ryan said quietly.

Vicky’s heart stuttered. “Let me see.”

“No.”

That single, emphatic word had the same effect as a sharp crack of a starting pistol, spurring her into action.

She ducked under his arm.

“Vic, no!”

She fought against his efforts to prevent her passing, and caught a glimpse of the scene in the bathroom.

“Nooooo,” she wailed.

Orla, fully dressed in a silk lounge suit, lay in a bloody mess in the bathtub, her head tilted back, her eyes closed.

“Oh, Orla,” Vicky cried.

Orla’s wrists were gaping wounds, and she lay in a bath of her own blood. Her face bore cuts across her forehead and down each side of her head, near the hairline.

“Oh, God, Orla, baby.” Vicky stopped struggling and leaned against Ryan. His hands grasped her arms as she felt her knees turn to rubber.

The blood against the white marble tiles was a dark, rusty color. Dark smudges against the ceramic rim of the bath danced with little white spots in her vision, and Vicky blinked. The marks stopped dancing, and it was a moment before she realized they were letters. Bloody letters made by a dying hand.

Ultima
.

Vicky blinked again, and dashed a hand at something warm on her cheek. Tears.

“We need to make sure,” she said. What if she was still alive? Maybe, just maybe, Orla was hanging on to life by a thin, invisible thread.

“Wait here.”

Ryan glanced at her briefly, his eyes searching for something inside her gaze. She took a deep, shuddering breath. He squeezed her arms briefly, before carefully crossing the tiled floor to the bathtub. He leaned down and touched two fingers to Orla’s neck.

He sucked in a breath. “Christ.” He whipped off his jacket, throwing it carelessly behind him on the tiled bathroom floor. He unbuttoned his cuffs and jerked at his sleeve until she heard a faint ripping sound and the fabric tore away from his shoulder, leaving his arm bare.

“Call an ambulance. She’s alive, but barely,” he said as he repeated the exercise on his other sleeve.

Vicky pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed 9-1-1, and spoke rapidly to the operator. She stated the address succinctly, trying to keep the panic out of her voice.

God, there was so much blood.

“Okay, ma’am, we have an ambulance on the way,” the operator told her. “Please stay on the line.”

Vicky absently made a noise of confirmation, but now that someone had been called she stared at Ryan as he bound her friend’s wrists tightly.

“Come here, we need to keep pressure on her wrists,” he told her. Vicky joined him, instinctively obeying his command before she’d properly processed it. She took hold of one wrist and gripped it tightly while Ryan held the other, applying pressure over the impromptu bandage he’d had made.

She glanced at her friend’s face. Orla’s complexion was a ghastly white, and her lips were tinged with blue. She was so still. If it wasn’t for the cuts and blood, she’d look almost peaceful.

This time her knees dipped, and Ryan caught her with one hand, sliding her down to join him on the floor. He maneuvered them until his shoulder blocked her view, as though he was still trying to shield her from the scene, from the horror. From the truth.

“I’m sorry, Vic.”

She burrowed into his jacket, squeezing her eyes closed as though she could un-see everything.

Oh
,
God
,
Orla
.

She shuddered.
Don’t panic.
Don’t lose it.
She gulped.
Oh
,
God
,
don’t throw up.

She struggled to get her erratic breathing under control.
It will be okay
. Help was on its way. She’ll live.

She could hear a low electronic beeping sound, and tried to breath in time with the sound. Inhale three beats, exhale three beats.

Ryan paused, and she felt his head lift from where it had momentarily rested against the top of her own.

“What is it?” she whispered, raising her own head to look at him.

“Good question.” He leaned over to check under the pedestal vanity.

He stiffened, a curse whispering from his lips before he jumped to his feet, hauling Vicky up at the same time. He lifted Orla’s unconscious body out of the bathtub, hoisting it unceremoniously over his shoulder.

“Go, go, go!” he bellowed.

“Wha-what?” she stared at him in confusion as he bundled her out of the bathroom.

“RUN!”

His hand was like a vice around her upper arm as he dragged her down the hallway.

“Wait, Orla...” The tiled hallway was cool against her feet as they slapped against the surface.

“We need to get out of here, now!”

He dragged her into the den, around the desk and to the double French doors that led to a stretch of terraced lawn beyond.

He jiggled the handle, took a step back and kicked at the lock.

Timber splintered as the doors whipped open, and glass shattered as both doors banged against the exterior walls of the building.

Ryan grabbed her hand.

Vicky didn’t know what the hell was going on, but she immediately followed him across the stone verandah, wincing as her feet found glass splinters on the stone paving.

“What’s going on?” she panted as they leaped over the railing and sprinted across the lawn. The extra weight of her friend didn’t seem to slow him down.

“There’s a b—” Ryan’s words were interrupted by a blast from the back of the house.

They jumped from one terraced level to the next as the house exploded into a fireball, and Ryan tugged her down against the retaining wall. Orla landed heavily next to them, and Ryan covered both of them with his body, shielding her from the debris raining down on them. Vicky shrieked at the roar, the heat that billowed up over and above them.

Chapter Three

Ryan raised his head and peeked over the stone retaining wall.

What remained of the Kruger mansion lay in a pile of smoldering rubble.

He looked down at Vicky. She lay beneath him, her eyes closed and face scrunched up as though she was trying to pass a kidney stone.

“Is it over?” she whispered, cracking one eye open.

Her neat braid was unraveling, long, curling red tendrils framed her face, her flushed cheeks smudged with dirt. Ryan was tempted to stay like this, his body pressed against hers, before she remembered what she’d just witnessed, remembered the horror, her dying friend next to her. He’d give anything for her not to remember what she’d just seen.

She opened her other eye, and he realized he hadn’t answered her.

He grunted.

She frowned.

“Get off me.”

He reluctantly levered himself off her, and she sat up to look over the retaining wall. Her eyes darkened as she took in first the burning rubble that remained of the Kruger mansion then her bloody and near-lifeless friend. Her lower lip wobbled.
Oh
,
no
. She was going to cry, damn it. He didn’t like it when women cried. Hated it. Felt useless when they did it.

“Suck it up, Buttercup,” he warned her. “Let’s get out of here first.”

Her head reared back, as though he’d slapped her.

“Get a move on, I’ll bring Orla.” He lifted the woman onto his back and waited.

Vicky glared at him as she blinked back the suspicious sheen in her eyes.

“You are such a jerk.”

She shoved past him and started to crawl along the length of the retaining wall toward the drive.

Whatever
. Her friend was practically dead—it would be a miracle for someone to survive that kind of blood loss—and the house was toast. There would be plenty of time for her to dissolve into tears—when they were safely out of any potential danger.

He followed her, making sure his body protected hers from any subsequent explosion or debris.
I
will not stare at her ass
. He repeated the mantra to himself as he stared at her ass, hypnotized by the mesmerizing swing of shapely hips. A flash of blood caught his eye. Her feet were cut and bloodied. Damn. But she didn’t complain.

She stopped abruptly, and he ploughed into her backside.

“What the—?”

“Mitzi.” Her voice was a tortured whisper.

He raised his head to look past her, his hands on her hips. A bloodstained ball of white fluff lay on the ground.

Ah
,
damn
. There was something sad and oh-so-frustrating about the sight of something so benign and vulnerable having been treated so maliciously.

There was a curve in the retaining wall, and the placement of the dog’s body meant it wouldn’t have been seen from the drive—or the house. Ryan suspected the location had been selected for just that purpose.

Vicky shuddered, and he felt the tensing of her muscles beneath his fingertips. Killing a person could be understandable, given the right motivation. He would know. But killing a dog, well, that was just downright twisted in a whole world of nasty. And he didn’t like dogs.

He raised his hand to pat Vicky on the back, to try and offer some comfort on what was turning out to be a hell of a day, but she’d already started to move, skirting around the dog’s body without looking at it any further. Her movements were jerky, robotic. He didn’t know what to do, what to say, only that he wanted to do or say something that would take away the horror she’d witnessed, the pain she was experiencing.

He could hear sirens in the distance, and tires screeched down at the gate. A cold breeze swept across the lawn, as though bringing with it the whisper of impending death and destruction. Orla was a slight woman, her body cool against his back. Realistically, if she was still alive, it was a miracle. Hopefully, if she was still alive, there was a chance she could survive. He hoped so, for Vicky’s sake.

He leaned over to touch Vicky’s arm.

“Let’s stop here, Vic. This should be far enough.”

She paused, and Ryan moved beside her. He gently lowered Orla to the ground, and he and Vicky sat side by side, holding her friend’s wrists, trying to stop the woman’s life blood from dripping away.

He felt Vicky shudder against his side, and he wrapped an arm around her trembling body as they sat and waited for the ambulance, police cars and fire trucks to speed up the drive. Someone must have moved the car, he thought absently, and forced the gates open.

He rubbed Vicky’s arm. “It’s okay, Vic. We’re okay.”

“My God, who could do this?”

A tear tracked down her cheek, and he tugged her into his side.

“I don’t know.” He cleared his throat. “It’s okay, if, uh, you want to...uh, lose it. Now.” God, even talking about crying was uncomfortable.

She squeezed her eyes shut and huddled further into his side.

“Jerk.”

He had to duck his head to hear her softly spoken insult, and detected a hint of relief he knew she’d deny. She sniffled, and he kissed the top of her head.

“You’re welcome.”

* * *

Vicky walked into the conference room, determined not to limp. Her right foot felt like it was on fire, but the paramedics had assured her that they’d removed all of the glass splinters. She’d also showered, scrubbing the blood of her friend off her skin. Her bloodied and soiled clothes had been confiscated for evidence, and she now wore gray sweats that she’d kept in her locker at the office for running. She strode past a surprising number of MSA staff. It was just past 2:00 a.m., and she was humbled by the team’s attendance to this emergency assembly.

In the several hours since the explosion, she’d been grilled by the police and their various investigative units, including the Arson Squad, as had Ryan. She hadn’t been able to see Orla, though, and knew only that she was in intensive care under police guard. But that was okay. It meant she was alive.

She could feel a presence behind her, and turned, thinking it was Reese McCormack, head of McCormack Security Agency. She was mistaken. It was Ryan. They’d been separated at the scene, and she hadn’t had a chance to talk to him since “the incident.” That’s what she was calling it. She still remembered him telling her not to lose it.
Jerk
. She conveniently ignored the fact that he’d been right. They hadn’t known if the area was safe, and getting out of there had been a priority. At the moment, though, he didn’t look happy to see her.

Reese must have told him that she was definitely in on this investigation.

She took her seat at one end of the conference table, and Ryan pulled out the chair directly opposite hers. He sat and folded his arms, glaring at her. Okay, so he was pissed. Well, so was she. She started to doodle in her pad, like she always did. She found the activity tended to help her focus.

Maggie Fletcher collapsed in the seat next to her, and Vicky frowned at her friend’s wan complexion.

“Are you okay?” Vicky whispered.

Maggie smiled weakly. “I should be asking you that. I’m fine. I think I just ate something off,” she whispered back. “I heard what happened. How are you?”

Vicky shrugged. “I’ll be okay.”

She doubted she’d sleep tonight, the horrific images of Orla’s unconscious body kept playing over and over in her head, her beautiful face twisted and bathed in blood.

So much blood.

Blood, gore and even death weren’t strangers to her, though. At one time, her job had revolved around emergency response to catastrophes. Except this wasn’t a large-scale event. This was the death of a friend’s father, and now a violent attack on her friend, and she was still trying to get her head around it. Orla would be okay. She needed to be okay. For now, she was alive.

Vicky realized her hand was trembling, ever so slightly, and she gripped her pen tighter. She was angry, and determined to find her friend’s attacker, and Karl Kruger’s killer. The marks she was making on her notepad got thicker, darker, as she pressed her pen harder into her notepaper.

Reese McCormack entered the room, and the remaining staff took their seats.

“As you all know, there has been a further development in the Kruger case,” he began, his deep voice smooth and calm. “Our client, Orla Kruger, is now in the hospital. She was attacked earlier today, and left for dead.” Her boss glanced briefly at her, and Vicky nodded. She was good, she could endure the conversation. She wanted to get whoever was responsible for Kruger’s death, and for Orla’s attack.

“So let’s recap,” Reese continued. “Dr. Kruger was found dead four days ago, when his daughter arrived to open his surgery center. Orla previously gave a statement to police that his final appointment was a couple who had recently undergone complete facial reconstructions. Upon their arrival, her father urged Orla to leave early. All records of that couple have since been destroyed, and the patient identities that Orla was able to provide proved to be false.”

He turned to Vicky. “While you were out with Ryan, we received more information.” He nodded to Maggie.

Maggie hiccupped next to her, and clapped a hand over her mouth.

“Sorry,” she mumbled behind her hand. She fumbled with a clicker and pointed it at the data projector in the ceiling. The large screen mounted on the wall behind Reese flashed, and Vicky glanced with curiosity at Ryan, who shrugged his wide shoulders and turned in his seat to view the screen.

“Fingerprints were found at the Kruger murder scene,” Maggie began. She met Vicky’s gaze and swallowed before continuing. She clicked, and two mug shots appeared on the screen of a man and woman. Vicky estimated them both to be in their late twenties to early thirties.

“Simon and Jade Maxwell,” Maggie began. “Grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, married in college. Both Jade and Simon started breaking into homes, again while in college. Initially it was just theft, but then they found they had a talent for blackmail. There’s even an assault charge against Simon. They found their reward grew bigger, depending on the wealth and status of the family home they broke into—and what they found there. Simon is a bit of a techie,” she said, turning briefly to Luke before continuing. “He was on a full scholarship to Caltech, before he lost it due to his activities.”

Vicky moved forward in her seat to lean on the table. “What about Jade Maxwell?”

Maggie grimaced. “Her young life is dotted with scrapes with the law. She dropped out of college while Simon was in prison for the assault charge. There is an unsubstantiated report that she was raped at college by a fellow student, but no investigation was ever filed.”

“Why the hell not?” Noah Samuels frowned from the end of the table.

Maggie checked her file. “The guy accused was from a wealthy family. Some witnesses came forward to state that it was a consensual act at a party. It came down to he said, she said. Nothing could be proven, so the case was dropped.”

“This guy’s family wouldn’t happen to be one of those early robberies, would they?” Vicky asked, then stared as Maggie seemed to dry retch, then clap a hand over her mouth.

“’Scuse me,” Maggie mumbled.

Vicky eyed her friend cautiously as she answered.

“Uh, yes, they would. Actually, they were the first,” Maggie finally responded. “Since then the Maxwells are prime suspects in a number of house robberies and con-artist schemes.”

“Why do we think they’re responsible for Kruger’s death? There is a big leap between robbery and scheming cons, to murder. Is there anything else in their records?” Mal Ryker asked. He was new to their group, but Vicky thought he showed a lot of promise with the strategic planning side of things.

“Well, that’s our problem,” Maggie replied. “The reason we have these two on file in the first place is because Simon was arrested once for that assault and Jade did some shady things, but they haven’t been charged for any of the recent suspected activity. With all the confidence schemes they’ve been running, there is a slightly different description of them each time. They’re suspects, but nothing has ever been proven. These guys are ghosts. They change their appearance like they change their underwear. They’re constantly on the move. Their spree originated in Nebraska, and they’ve hit pretty much every state, except Ohio.”

Noah snorted. “Nothin’ worth taking in Ohio.”

“Hey, I’m from Ohio,” Mal protested.

“Case in point,” Noah responded with a grin.

“Why do we think they’re involved with the murders?” Ryan asked.

Maggie clicked to the next image, and Vicky clenched her jaw at the sight of the smooth-faced, handsome man she knew was aged somewhere in his fifties, although he didn’t look it. She would not cry, damn it.

“This is Dr. Karl Kruger, before his death. Jade’s fingerprint was found on his glasses. We think she and Simon are the mysterious couple who had the facial reconstructions. The last patients to be admitted into his surgery before his murder.”

Maggie clicked through to crime scene photos of the doctor’s murder.

“Whoa.” This came from Mal as he looked at the screen. “That’s nasty.”

Maggie’s chair fell back as she turned and raced from the room, clapping her hands over her mouth. Luke grimaced and raised an apologetic wave to all for his wife’s speedy exit.

Vicky averted her eyes and grabbed the clicker that Maggie had dropped on the table. She pressed the button, removing the distressing images from the screen. Yes, part of their job was to analyze the crime scene, look for clues in the photographs, try and get an idea as to the motivation behind the crime. But she’d had dinner with that man a week before his death. He wasn’t just a victim. He’d been her friend, too.

Her gaze rose to meet Ryan’s. His gray eyes were fixed on her. The process they used for taking on cases wasn’t a democratic one, nor was the assignment to the agents. Each person had specialized skills, and they used them collaboratively. As Operations Manager, she didn’t need his permission to accept a case, just his cooperation. She wanted him to give that freely.

“They probably killed him so that he couldn’t tell anyone of their new identities,” Noah said.

BOOK: For Her Eyes Only
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