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Authors: Eric Wilson

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BOOK: Dark to Mortal Eyes
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Skreech!

The wind clawed branches across the rooftop, a sound that set his teeth on edge. Or maybe his ears had caught the far-off shrill of a bird.

Ske-reeech!

He winced at the ache in his temples and wondered where he’d picked up this headache. Pounding again, worse than last night. Had to keep on task. Stay dialed in. Yesterday’s meeting in the café was a little fuzzy, but as Steele had promised, Beau was now wearing a denim jacket with specific items in the pockets.

Yeah, buddy, the details were coming together.

When the Motorola cordless chimed at his side, Beau answered and confirmed his position. The signal might come at any minute, he was told. He was to sit tight and keep from nodding off. Committed to this task, he loosened his jacket and spread his arms like wings to welcome the morning chill. Anything to keep awake.

Lonely out here. Still, it felt like something was hovering over him.

Through gritted teeth, to boost his courage, he stole a villain’s line from half of the cheap DVDs he’d watched at home. “Let the games begin,” he said.

“Babe?” Scooter wrapped an arm around her. “What happened?”

“Let’s get out of here.”

“Did you talk to her?”

“What do you think?” Josee appreciated Scooter’s concern but pulled away when he tried to touch her cheek. “She stinkin’ bailed on me. Stood me up.”

“Kara called it off?”

“Well, not exactly. Guess some housekeeper lady answered, said there’d been a disruption and I’d have to call again tomorrow. Not like I’m going to waste my time.”

“Don’t let it mess with you, babe. Didn’t Kara warn you this could happen?”

“She said that if it didn’t work out, we could try again for the day or two after. What does she think, that I’m going to just sit around and wait? Like I have nothing better to do? ‘Oh sorry, Josee, today doesn’t exactly work either. How ’bout the day after next or—’ ”

“No hurry, we got time on our hands.”

“Or how about never!” Josee regurgitated the events from the market for him, then tossed back her head and dragged both hands through her cropped black hair.

“But you didn’t even talk to her,” said Scooter. “Not in person. What, you’re gonna believe some cow behind the counter? Just call back
mañana
. It’ll work out.” He tried to meet her eyes, produced a pack of cigarettes, and dropped it in her lap. “That’s it—the last of our stuff.”

“Thanks, hon.” She lit one and leaned back to expel smoke over her shoulder. “I just keep getting this bad feeling. Why should I even expect her to care after all these years? Maybe she’s like my father, having second thoughts.”

“Sucks, I admit, but she wouldn’t agree for you to come down unless she meant it. Here, want some croissants? Stale, but better than nothing.” When she shook her head, he added, “Sorry about the limited menu. You deserve better.”

“It’s fine, Scoot. Upset tummy, that’s all. Nerves.” Her eyes scanned the thicket. “Speaking of which, where’d that thing go?”

“The canister thingamajig?” Scooter moved to the tent’s edge and lifted the object from behind the flap. “Thar she blows. Thing was giving me the creeps, so I stashed it away.”

“What happened?”

“It was gettin’ hot to the touch, like there was somethin’ inside.”

Josee took it and ran her hands over the metal. The burnished surface seemed warmer than was natural.

“See what I’m sayin’?” he said. “Bizarre, isn’t it? Like it’s—”

“I told you not to—”

“Like it’s alive.”

She challenged him with a look and tapped her cigarette over the pit. “You’re not worried, are you?” By aiming the fear at him, she could pretend it wasn’t her own.

“Josee, you’re the one who said it was sort of spooky, and you’re the one who knows this stuff, right? Like with my sculptures, you’ve always got the words that fit.”

True, Scooter had always given her the liberty to christen his work. Now, in her hands, the canister begged to be christened as well. It weighed upon her, its corporeal need for attention draining her even as its title made itself known.

In cauda venenum …

The Latin words scrolled across Josee’s mind, remnants from some first-period lecture. As she plumbed her memory for a translation, fingertips of anxiety brushed her neck. Literally, it meant “In the tail is the poison.” Referring to a scorpion’s whiplike tail, the words were loosely paraphrased “Beware of what you cannot see.”

She sniffed along the cylinder’s seam. “Whoa, hold on a sec. You smell that?” She thought she detected spiced cinnamon sticks. Or stove-cooked applesauce. Or the holiday potpourri the workers used to spread out at the group home the weeks before Christmas. She’d pronounced it “pot-pour-ee” just to bug them.

That’s when it grabbed her.

Pain seized her chest, squeezing until she dropped the cigarette. Her eyes bulged. She dry-heaved. Tears boiled along her eyelids, blurring the pine needles at her feet.

“Babe, what’s wrong?”

She coughed through a mouth full of cotton, spit into the coals. Spit again.

“Tell me you’re kidding,” Scooter said. “This isn’t funny.”

Josee gulped, rubbed her face and neck. Fever heat scorched her ears, and the shaft of pain that had spiked between her ribs felt permanently lodged there. She dropped her head between her knees and tried to see beyond the swirling flecks of light.

“Was it the food last night?” Scooter grasped for an explanation. “You checked the dates, yeah? The fish wasn’t overdue, was it?”

“Only a day.” Her voice was hoarse. “But it’s not that.”

“Should’ve known better and just left the fillets where they were.”

“You did your best, Scoot. Not your fault. It’s that … that freakin’ canister.” As though identifying the problem was a remedy of sorts, she felt warmth
settle over and coat her with a sense of protection. Oxygen rushed back into her lungs, and her eyes began to clear.

The canister … 
Oh, no! Where’d it go?

Josee scanned the carpet of roots, leaves, and twigs. She must’ve dropped the thing when the pain grabbed her. There—it had made a half circle around the firepit and bumped into Scooter’s feet.

He scooped it up. “See, what’d I tell you? This thing’s hotter than sin.”

“No, don’t! Put that down!”

4
The Opening

Turquoise eyes watched him from a five-by-seven framed picture. Chaffed by this manipulation, Marsh dropped the photo facedown on the vanity countertop. Kara should’ve known better than to try such a tactic. Asinine, that’s what it was.

“Maybe I went too far,” she had admitted. “I hoped only that it might touch something inside you. Thought it might find a soft spot.”

“You thought wrong.”

Though he’d been tempted to slam the master-bedroom door, he had let it click into place instead. Restrained anger. Always more effective. He’d discovered that certain business maneuvers paid dividends here on the domestic front. Of course, when Kara had pulled on jeans and a sweater and threatened to leave, he hadn’t taken her seriously. She’d insisted that his mood would not contaminate this momentous day and had stridden out to the car. Strapped herself into the Z3’s cockpit. Lifted her chin.

And she actually did it, actually left!

It’d been years since Kara had done such a thing; he could almost respect her for that.

The brass frame sparked his ire anew. To prove his immunity to it, he flipped the photo back up beside the faucet and pondered the young lady’s face. Unfamiliar, yes, but he knew who this was. She had Kara’s chin, petite and strong, eyes the same shape, set wider and deeper. On her eyebrow, a silver hoop clung like a question mark that refused to go away.

Josee Walker …

Her likeness was supposed to twist some emotional knob, but that just wasn’t going to happen. As though to convince the man staring back at him in the mirror, he shook his head and combed through his wavy black hair.

For crying out loud, Josee, I have questions too. You’re not the only one
.

From the sunken shower enclosure, the sweet scent of Kara’s Shalimar lingered
in Marsh’s nostrils. He’d been hard on her, maybe too hard. Didn’t she see, though, the folly of traipsing back into the past? She was not only driving a wedge between them, she was gambling her daughter’s stability.

Within the photo’s gaze, Marsh ran a triple-bladed razor over his stubble and swirled the residue down the drain. He slipped into gray slacks and Arin Mundazi loafers, buttoned his shirt, draped over his chest a silk J. Dunlary tie.

Almost seven o’clock. Only minutes till his daily chess match.

His tie fit the chess motif, with random white squares against a field of black.

In his study he stood waiting at the window as a tangerine dawn squeezed over Addison Ridge. Below, in the brick-encircled parking area, Japanese maples swayed in the breeze. Within the hour the manor and vineyards would stir with activity; migratory grape pickers and machine operators would clock in; Rosamund, the Addisons’ lone live-in employee, would manage the daytime kitchen and custodial staff. At the moment, however, the estate lay subdued. Marsh was sure that, aside from Rosie downstairs, he was alone.

Alone? Well, that was Kara’s choice, wasn’t it? Not his.

He punched the intercom button. “Rosie, you there?”

“Sir?”

“Bring my breakfast up to the study. Buzz to get in.”

“The usual?”

After a string of capricious personnel, he had hired Rosamund Yeager for her European efficiency and attention to details. At seventy-six years old, beneath honey-tinted hair and powdered wrinkles, she remained unflagging, meticulous, attentive to his patterns. To keep her on her toes, he said, “Throw in an egg overeasy—salt, pepper, and a dash of paprika.”

“I’ll bring it up myself, sir. And will your wife be joining you?”

“She’s not here.”

“Oh? Is she … keeping an appointment? Should I prepare her meal in advance?”

“Appointment?” Marsh watched a repair truck pull up the drive. “Yeah, set something aside. Why not? Of course you know what she likes.”

“I’ll see to it, Mr. Addison. You’re certain she’ll be back?”

“She’ll be back.”

Marsh hoped that Kara’s morning away would give her fresh perspective. She’d saunter in, sporting independence like some imitation fashion design, but experience assured him that she would return. That much he could count on.

“She’s making her move.”

“I’m all over it.” Beau jutted his chin, rolled his eyes like marbles in their sockets. “How do you chess masters say it? ‘Guard your queen’?”

“A superfluous warning. A worthy player has no need for it.”

“Was just a comment, Mr. Steele.”

“Keep those eyes peeled. That’s your priority.”

Beau folded his arms over the van’s steering wheel and studied Ridge Road. Nothing yet. The cold had constricted his hands into talons as they gripped the Motorola. He gnawed on the rubber antenna and wondered how Steele maintained his cool. With patience and a plan—those were the keys.

Ske-skereech!

That stupid bird. Still shrieking. Why didn’t the thing shut up?

As sunlight sliced through the trees, Beau blocked the rays with outstretched hands. His fingernails turned deep orange, as though he’d scratched at the burning sphere and got its rinds beneath his nails. Even dropped into his lap, the fingers retained a numinous glow that empowered him.

Enabling. Enervating … Ha, there was a big word for ya! In cauda venenum.

Still no sign of the queen. Where was she?

BOOK: Dark to Mortal Eyes
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