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Authors: Jude Deveraux

Tags: #Fiction, #General

Scarlet Nights (8 page)

BOOK: Scarlet Nights
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Mike fell back against the chair in utter bewilderment. He had
no
idea what he’d just been accused of. “Seduce her?” He hadn’t come close to her.

Mike ran his hands over his face. His instinct was to knock on her door and try to talk to her, but as he had no idea what to say, that would be useless. Why couldn’t she have drawn a nice big gun on him? A revolver. A semiautomatic would have been a good choice. She could have said, “Get near me again and I’ll kill you.” He’d had that said to him multiple times, and he’d always handled it easily.

The timer went off for the hens, Mike got them out of the oven, then went outside to call Tess.

She answered on the second ring.

“So what do you think of her?” Tess didn’t bother with preliminaries.

“She’s stressed-out. And she knows I’m lying.”

That astonished Tess so much she could hardly speak. “But you
always
lie. It’s what makes you so good at your job. You lie about … about what kind of toothpaste you use, but people never know it.”

“Are you sure you’re on
my
side?”

Tess didn’t laugh. “I don’t understand this. Sara believes every word of a guy the whole town knows is a jerk, but she doesn’t believe
you
?”

“Who can understand it?” Mike’s voice conveyed his puzzlement. “I’ve treated her like I would a princess, cooked for her, cleaned up after both of us, but she still accuses me of … I don’t really know why she’s so angry at me.”

“What about the people of Edilean? Not the newcomers, but the ones who know Sara. What’s going on with them?”

Mike took his time in answering. “I talked to some of them this morning, and they’re genuinely concerned about her. They don’t want her to be hurt.”

Tess well knew what he was saying. “That town is astonishing, isn’t it? Those people actually
care
about one another. Of course you have to be on the inside to get that caring, but it does happen.”

“Not what we were told about this place, is it?”

Tess gave a low laugh. “Not by a long shot. Have you talked to anyone who knew Grans?”

“No, and I don’t want to. I’d like to think that mess was buried with her.”

“Me too,” Tess said. “So, now, I want to hear what
you
think of Sara.”

“I think she’s …”

“She’s what?”

“Beautiful.”

“How beautiful?”

“She makes me nervous.”

“That bad, huh?”

“The strangest things make her furious at me, but it’s impossible for me to get angry back at somebody who wears clothes that look like angels made them.”

“I know. Sara wears long sleeves even on the hottest days. She orders a lot of the fabric from Ireland, then makes her own clothes. They go with that porcelain skin of hers, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, I do,” he said in a low, throaty way.

“What about Sara as a woman? Great, huh?”

“I don’t think I’ve seen her as she really is, but I like what I’ve been told about her. Everyone in town thinks she’s practically a saint. She’s the one who volunteers to help everybody. She earns so little money that if it weren’t for her mother feeding her, she’d starve.”

Tess was glad Mike couldn’t see her because she was smiling broadly. She knew he had never come close to being serious about a woman, but then his “dating” was always connected to the undercover cases he worked on. He’d once had a torrid affair with the wife of a drug lord so he could get info about her husband. When the arrests were made, she’d slapped Mike so hard—and he let her—that he wore a neck brace for a week. Only Tess knew the despondency Mike went through after that. He’d liked the woman, even liked her two children. It had been Tess who’d taken care of him after that case and seen what he went through over it.

“I made an appointment for you tomorrow,” she said.

“For what?”

“For the house closing that I’ve been nagging you about for an entire
year
. It’s at the title company in Williamsburg, and now that you’re there, you can do it.”

“But I’m here on a case, so maybe another time would be better. I could—”

“No! I am not going to give you more time. I made the appointment and I texted you the address. Show up there at two, sign the papers, and the place is yours.”

“A farm! What do
I
want with a farm?”

“We are
not
going through that again,” Tess said, her teeth clenched. “Whether you like it or not, I swore to our grandmother that someday our family would own that place, and I’m keeping that promise.” Tess would never tell her brother but she’d sworn on
his
life, and Tess superstitiously feared that if she were to break the vow, the horrible old woman would come out of the grave and take her revenge.

Mike interrupted Tess’s ugly memories. The truth was, what else was he going to do after he retired but live close to her?

“Tell me again why you and Rams don’t live on the place?”

“He has a piece of land that he wants to build on. I’ve told you all of this. And I’ve also told you that I think you’ll
like
that old farm. You can move around, and fixing it up will give you something to do after you retire.”

Mike’s voice went back to teasing. “Okay, so what’s your plan for me with this farm? Am I supposed to grow corn? Or do you guys up here raise cotton?”

“That would be better than the vile job you have now. But when you visit, just don’t forget about the old man who’s the caretaker. He greets guests with a shotgun, so you’d better call first.”

“You’re not talking about old … What was his name?”

“Brewster Lang.”

“That’s right,” Mike said. “How could I forget that name? Grans’s only true friend in all of Edilean. You don’t think he’s as mean as she was, do you?”

“I think he may have taught her all she knew.”

Mike gave a low whistle. “He couldn’t be that bad.”

“Tell me when you’re going to the farm unannounced and I’ll alert the hospital to expect a man with a body full of buckshot.”

“Point taken. But he must be nearly a hundred years old now. Is he able to ever leave the place?”

“It’s not New York, where everything is delivered, so I assume he has to get food.” She paused. “Here comes Rams. I have to go.”

Mike laughed. “I forgot to ask: How’s the honeymoon?”

Tess’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m pretty sure I’m pregnant, but I haven’t told Rams yet. Buy my kid a pony and keep it on your farm. I love you. Bye.” She hung up.

When Mike clicked off the phone, he was surprised at how good Tess’s announcement made him feel. A baby? A fat little kid sticky with fruit juice, a soggy diaper, a dimple in his cheek? He could almost see the boy.

“And me living on a farm,” Mike said aloud. “A kid, a pony, and a farm. I might as well shoot myself now.”

He went back inside, ate dinner by himself, wrapped up the leftovers, and put them in the refrigerator. He went for a run and returned to see that Sara’s door was still closed, but there was a light on. After his shower, he slipped a note under her door saying he was going to bed and to please help herself to the food.

When he was in bed, he listened but heard no sound from her. He felt bad that all his questions had made her so angry that she’d gone without dinner.

After his run, he’d stopped at his car to get some of the files the captain had given him, and he stayed up until midnight reading them. Whereas he’d seen the criminal files, he hadn’t had time to read the in-depth reports.

He’d never before been involved in the Economic Crimes Unit,
so reading about how the Vandlos worked fascinated him. Stefan was ordinary—seduce and take—but Mitzi was more interesting. What she did took cunning and a total disregard for the quality of human life.

Until a few years ago, Mitzi was living in upstate New Jersey and commuting into New York City, where she worked scams on rich women. She lured them to her through a tiny office in the center of Manhattan with
PSYCHIC
painted on the window. Women in trauma, in grief, whose lives were in chaos, thronged to her, hoping to find answers about what they should do to solve their problems. Mitzi took the ones who were so desperate for relief that they were willing to pay all they had to get out of the turmoil their lives had become.

Mitzi’s code, refined through generations, was three part: trust, faith in The Work, and control. First, she spent months gaining the trust of the women. She was an expert at body language and could tell what someone wanted within minutes of meeting her. And she listened to them in a way they had never been listened to before. Mitzi heard what her victims said and remembered it. She understood; she championed the woman, was always on her side. Mitzi was the best friend anyone could imagine.

When she’d gained her victim’s trust, Mitzi started on making her believe in “The Work” and that she, Mitzi, was only a vessel being used by spirits/angels/God, whatever appealed to the victim. Believing that she was doing everything for a Higher Power made a person feel that she’d at last found her purpose in life.

Once the victim had faith, Mitzi would start working her way into controlling and completing the isolation that was necessary to pull off a major scam. She would meet the victim, looking red-eyed and haggard, telling her that she’d been up all night with The Work and had seen horrible things. By this time Mitzi knew what the
woman’s deepest fears were, so she could use them against her. If she was afraid of her ex-husband, then Mitzi said he was plotting with friends against her. It was best to get away from them.

What Mitzi really gave her victims was hope. She promised love, children, fortunes—whatever was wanted—and the frightened women held on to it like a life raft. Hope became everything to them, what they lived and breathed for. And Mitzi made them believe that only
she
could give them what they needed—if she was given the money to create the energy to perform the task. But it was all right to pay because Mitzi swore that when The Work was completed, every penny would be returned.

As in all abusive relationships, there came a time when the good ended. The listening disappeared, the feeling of deep friendship, when you were both dedicated to a purpose, stopped. The victim became so desperate for that time to return that she paid more and more money. By then she had no other friends, just Mitzi, so she worked hard to please her.

But, eventually, the victim would run out of money, and that’s when Mitzi would instantly and abruptly stop the relationship. Suddenly, Mitzi’s phone would be disconnected, her office empty. If the frantic victim was able to contact Mitzi—sometimes after months of trying—her desperate pleas for help would meet Mitzi’s coldness. Crying, devastated, the victim would ask for her money to be returned, as she had been promised. That’s when Mitzi would tell her that every penny was “gone,” used up by The Work. Without the slightest bit of compassion, Mitzi would hang up.

The victim would be left alone. She was usually nearly bankrupt, and under Mitzi’s tutelage, she’d cut herself off from everyone. She had no one to turn to for moral support as she tried to recover, and she was usually too embarrassed to go to the police and tell them how—as she saw it—stupid she’d been.

If the woman did screw up her courage and go to the police, she was usually dismissed. According to them, she’d given the money away of her own free will, so there was no crime. But the Fort Lauderdale Police Department had listened to one victim and after they’d subpoenaed some of Mitzi’s many bank accounts, they were shocked at the sheer magnitude of what they saw. Mitzi Vandlo had taken millions of dollars from many women.

Whenever there’s lots of money involved in a crime, the federal bureaus step in, and everything changes. It was soon found out that Mitzi was just a small part of what looked to be one of the largest organized crime rings in the world—and no one knew anything about it.

As the investigation went forward, fortunately, it was backed by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said the gullibility of a person didn’t eliminate the fact that a crime had been committed. People who did what Mitzi had done were as guilty as bank robbers.

State criminal law and federal law work in opposite ways. Criminals arrested by state law enforcement are incarcerated, then evidence is found. But the Feds will spend years gathering information before arrests are made. Unfortunately, the first time around, when they were ready to indict Mitzi and twenty-eight of her family members, she’d been told what was coming. She and her son had disappeared where no one could find them.

As Mike straightened the papers, he agreed with the captain that the only reason Stefan
and
his mother would come to a two-bit town like Edilean, Virginia, would be for something really big. And it looked like during the time Mitzi was missing, she’d found another way to extort money, and this time, it involved Miss Sara Shaw.

Mike put the papers in his bedside table drawer, making a mental note to take them out in the morning. He couldn’t risk Sara finding them when she snooped through his room.

As he closed the drawer, he couldn’t help but think of the irony of the evening. This afternoon, while he’d spent a couple of hours at Williamsburg’s outlet mall buying new clothes, he’d envisioned a nice, domestic evening with Sara. They’d have good food and the wine that was never opened. He imagined that after dinner he’d get his new clothes out of his car, and he and Sara would go through them. Since she was in the business, he’d ask her advice about what he should wear. And every scenario that he came up with ended with Sara telling him what it was that the Vandlos wanted. But, somehow, everything had fallen through.

As he turned off the light, Mike thought, Strippers. From now on, he was going to deal
only
with strippers. No more good girls who made no sense whatsoever.

5

T
HE NEXT MORNING
, Sara awoke with what she knew was a hangover. Two margaritas wouldn’t be enough to make most people drunk, but Sara’d never been able to tolerate much alcohol.

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