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Authors: Eric Wilson

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BOOK: Dark to Mortal Eyes
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Although his tenure dated back to Virginia Addison’s days at the helm, Henri Esprit continued to bring unique expression to his position. He revered the vineyard’s winemaking techniques, and despite a palate sensitive to the fruit’s complexities, he never overindulged—a man in unity with his abilities and the results. Although Marsh held him in high regard, he’d avoided Esprit during his own formative years. With Virginia’s fancying Esprit as something of a male role model for her son, Marsh had resisted.

Time was eroding that barrier. He was turning to Esprit more and more.

Marsh glanced at his watch, a sapphire-faced Bulgari. “Let’s get in there.”

“What’s on the agenda?”

“A number of items: vineyard purchase options, minimum wage increases, overseas tariff hikes. With my trip to Europe on Saturday, I might need a bit of coaching for the scheduled negotiations.”

“Or I could simply go along.”

“Oh, you wish.”

“My language skills are more polished than yours. You know it’s true. My French alone could save you tens of thousands of francs.”

“But this place wouldn’t survive a day without you, Esprit.”

“I’ll keep asking. You know that I will. May as well invite me along.”

“Come on. We’re late to a meeting.”

“All in good time. You mustn’t let work drag you through life by the throat.”

The throat?
Marsh steadied himself against a barrage of images.

“Thank you, O wise one. I’ll keep that in mind.” He started toward double oak doors inscribed with the initials ARV woven among curled autumn leaves. Without a tie, he felt naked for a boardroom skirmish. “Glad to have you joining me, Esprit. I believe that our board members await.”

“Bored members, indeed.” Esprit feigned a yawn. “On a serious note …”

Marsh grunted.

“What’s bothering you, Marshall? There’s something wrong. I can see it in your eyes.”

“I’m fine. Nothing a little sleep can’t fix.” He was glad that Kara and he
had kept her intended reunion with Josee to themselves. No need for the prying eyes of vineyard staff and acquaintances. “Enough with the questions,” he said. “Let’s get on with business.”

On a park bench hugged by hydrangeas, Stahlherz skipped to the audio conclusion of
The Little Drummer Girl
. He now had his own drummer girl in town. Time was his ally, and after his years of searching, she’d presented herself—so unwittingly.

The week had started well and was shaping up for the grand finale.

Check and mate.

In his pocket, the vibration of his phone alerted him to a new message. He entered the security code and heard Beau’s voice. The kid—that ignorant, bumbling pawn!—had already deviated from the plan. He was supposed to have forced the Addison lady at gunpoint to drive them to the hiding spot. Her car would be the perfect cover. Instead, he had caused her to ram the BMW into the guardrail. Loose ends, plans unraveling. Stahlherz loathed this. Chess consisted of precision and timing, and even one set of transposed moves could unravel the finest strategy.

How’d I end up in this cesspool of incompetence?

First things first. The Professor had arrived.

A vintage Studebaker rolled into a space at the walkway’s edge. The engine’s anguished snarl was that of an old tomcat, stirring rooks from among the trees. The birds beat the air with their wings, silhouettes against a gloomy sky.

Stahlherz approached the vehicle. “Audentes fortuna juvat.”

The Professor’s Latin put him to shame. “Audentes fortuna juvat. My son, you’re two days from the national stage. Surely you could do with a haircut.”

“More important things on my mind,” he snapped. “Is it true that she’s here?”

“True indeed. Her name’s Josee Walker.” The cracked window and the sound of rustling trees could not hide the tremor in the Professor’s voice.

He said, “Mmm, after all this time. Where is she now?”

“That’s the odd thing. Although details are sketchy, we know that she and Kara planned to rendezvous soon. Instead, according to a dependable source, Josee has been picked up by police and taken to Good Samaritan.”

“Hurt?”

“Not that I’m aware of. However, the young man she was accompanying has suffered an injury resembling a snakebite.” Touching a hand to an old wound, the Professor cringed. “I believe it has returned. It has found me one last time.”

“You’re certain? Any proof that this man was envenomed?”

A tired shake of the head. “Doctors’ll know soon enough. We can only hope.”

“That’s a positive thing, isn’t it? Confirmation that the end game is upon us.”

“Either way, Stahli, the plans have been set in motion. Tell me, has Kara Addison been removed from the board?”

“She has. Even Beau’s miscues cannot set us back.”

“Miscues?” Aggravation twitched across the Professor’s visage.

“I’m setting things right,” Stahlherz said. “I’ve taken crisp countermeasures.”

The Professor allowed him to explain, then, unimpressed, extended and waggled a forearm to entice a loitering blackbird. The rook touched down and received a directive before rising again on strong wings to advance across the cloud-checkered sky. “Be careful, Son. I know that you fancy yourself a grand master, but you’re not so impregnable as all that. Anger is a tool, yet you swing it like a weapon.”

“It is a weapon.”

“A clumsy one at best. You’re liable to injure yourself.”

Stahlherz pushed arthritic fingers along his brow. He was a scolded child, revisiting isolation and inadequacy. Why did parents undermine their offspring’s greatest gifts? Envy? Regret? Wasn’t the scope of his anger his to control?

No one will impose limits on me. Not even you, esteemed Professor
.

“Stahli? Are you listening? Your job now is to get to the hospital and ensure that the facts are spun to our benefit. With our ICV members in position,
that shouldn’t be difficult. And you’ll pay the victim a visit, I assume? Outstanding. We’ll use every possible resource to keep tabs on Josee Walker.”

“Her every move,” he agreed. “Attack and defend, with no fear and no regrets.”

“So long as the task is accomplished, my son. You’ll make me proud yet.”

As they went their separate ways, he wondered if that was possible.

In the van’s mirror, Beau checked the blanketed bundle on the floor. The Addison woman—she deserved what she had got. She was pretty, all right. But so what? She drove that flashy Beemer just to flaunt her money, just to taunt people like him. And those earrings? Well, diamonds didn’t make her better than anybody else. When would the world get that through its thick skull?

Never, according to the Professor. Such hopes were wasted. That’s why the cancer had to be cut away, piece by piece.

Stay cool, guy. Don’t go drawing attention to yourself
.

One by one he lifted clenched fingers from the steering wheel and stretched. He eased his foot from the gas. Sixty-seven miles an hour? He couldn’t risk being pulled over. The cops would see, and they would know. Wasn’t time for that yet.

Ke-reech …

Scrapes on his knees were scabbing over with dirt and dried blood. His descent into the ravine had cost him time and energy, but Mr. Steele had insisted. All part of the plan—even if it was Plan B, even if Beau had flubbed up. “Crisp countermeasures”—that’s what Steele had called them.

Lost in his thoughts, Beau entered a graded curve. The van tilted, and the bundle behind him rotated, pounding an uneven beat against the metal floor, a drum roll played with elbows and kneecaps.

Snip-a-snip-a-snappp!

Ooh, that had to hurt.

The curve shot the van back onto a straightaway, and the bundle rolled back to its original position. Beau noticed more angles in the shape now,
which meant more hassles for him. He still had to carry her down into the cellar. He fought off an urge to puke. He’d never physically hurt a woman before today. What’d taken over him?

He clawed his fingers along his neck and told himself to get a grip.
Just do what you gotta do
, he ordered himself.
I must obey to find the way …

7
Sparring Partners

On their way down from Washington three days ago, Josee and Scooter had been dropped off at Champoeg State Park by a rancher in an old pickup with a bumper sticker that read “Compost happens.”

The words summed up her feelings now. She was sweaty. Dazed. Uneasy.

“Any news, Sarge? Tell me he’s gonna be okay.”

Sergeant Turney trudged from the nurses’ station, splashing coffee from two cups. “They’ll let us know soon as they hear somethin’. You sound concerned.”

“Wouldn’t you be?” Josee collapsed into a waiting-room chair, tucked her bedroll behind her legs, then adjusted her damp sweatshirt over no-name jeans. The scents of antiseptics and tonics infiltrated the space. Medics rushed a gurney up the corridor, and at the sight of a child beneath a shiny thermal blanket, Josee imagined Scooter’s ordeal. He’d been in Good Samaritan’s ER for over two hours.

I’m here, Scoot. Hang in there
.

She said, “Hospitals give me the creeps.”

“You and me both.” Turney extended a hand. “Ready for a cup o’ joe?”

“Styrofoam.”

“Say what?”

Josee pointed. “Styrofoam. Haven’t you heard of the ozone layer?”

“So that’s your shtick. Well, kiddo, it won’t hurt ya to drop the environmental martyr act and pour a little warmth into that skinny belly of yours.” To prove the liquid was harmless, he took a gulp. Sputtered. “Sakes alive, that’ll put hair on your chest.”

“Smells burnt.” She cast her words like bait. “Is that the way
real
men like it?”

He ignored the question, examined the drink.

“What now? Something wrong with the cup?” She underlined the question with arms crossed beneath her breasts—small, yes, but all natural. She felt no need to conform to the silicon standards. She could still provoke a lascivious response when necessary, and at this moment she wanted Turney to snap at the bait so she could cement her resentment of him. Holsters and badges. Desire. Derision. She and Scoot had faced their share of power-hungry cops.

“Doesn’t taste that bad.” He looked up. “Got a kick to it, that’s all. Go ahead and drink up. Either that, or I’ll hafta book you for resisting an officer.”

“Ooh, getting rough now.”

“Just don’t wanna see you shivering for the rest of the day.”

To Josee’s surprise, the sergeant’s eyes glowed with a clean, bright fire. Whereas most men’s eyes—even Scooter’s—burned like soot-stained lanterns, his revealed nothing dirty or disturbing. A hint of sorrow maybe. Nothing lecherous.

“Fine, have it your way.”

She took the cup, placed it against her cheek. The heat was nice. Champoeg State Park had provided her last shower, and she knew her clothes were growing musty. She thought of thanking the officer but decided against it. She popped a daily gel capsule into her mouth, then let the vial dangle back around her neck. Beside her, Turney wedged himself into a chair with a copy of
Field & Stream
, his belly parting his shirt at the lowest button.

“So, how long do we have to sit here?”

He flipped a page. “Long as it takes ’em.”

“I’m a big girl. I’m good here on my own if you have work to do.”

“Actually, I’m waitin’ on Chief Braddock. Should be here soon enough, poking his nose into matters.” Turney fiddled with his badge. “Not to mention, you and I’ve got some questions to go over, to establish what went on out there. Was it a case of self-defense? Had you been in some sorta argument?”

“It wasn’t like that.”

“When I walked up, you were standing over him. Did you happen to hit him with your hands or with that stick?”

“This is so lame. Why would I want to hurt him?”

“Is Scooter your boyfriend?”

“Friend, boyfriend. Whatever. We’ve hung together almost three years.”

The sagging magazine in Turney’s lap seemed to match the gloom that tugged at his face. “A lot can happen in three years.”

“Am I a suspect, Sarge? Is that what you’re getting at?”

BOOK: Dark to Mortal Eyes
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