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Authors: Maggie Shayne

Darker Than Midnight (31 page)

BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
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“You were saying?”

“The woman in the photo is dead,” River said. “Murdered.” His voice sounded just as lifeless. “More than a year ago. But it seems as if the wrong man was blamed for the crime. I'm looking into it.”

The manager appeared alarmed. “I assure you this has no connection to us, whatsoever.”

River shook his head slowly. “She was never here?”

“Never. I would remember her if she had been. I've been the manager here for seven years, and I assure you, I've never seen this woman.”

River blinked slowly, letting that settle in. It was a relief. Was it possible he'd been wrong, that his wife had not been having an affair with his best friend?

“Would you mind if I questioned some of your staff? Maybe someone else might remember—”

“I'm afraid I really can't let you do that. Bad for business, you understand.”

Screw business, River thought, but he agreed. He'd find a way to question the employees here before the day was out. Whether this guy liked it or not.

He thanked the manager, took the photo and left the inn. Limping with the help of the wooden cane he'd picked up on the way there, he followed the winding stone path lined with holly bushes to the parking lot where he'd left Cassandra's car.

Señor! Señor,

He turned and saw a woman tugging a huge down-filled jacket around her even as she hurried toward him. It was, he realized, the housekeeper he'd glimpsed inside. She must have come out a different exit and cut around in front of him.

He moved toward her, and even before he reached her his stomach was sinking.

“That woman—the one in the photo—I saw her on the news after she died. It was tragic. Tragic. Miss Stephanie was kind to everyone. Always.”

He blinked, and tried not to let his throat close up. It was tough. “You knew her then?”

She came here all the time. With a man who was not her husband.”

He closed his eyes slowly. “She was having an affair.”

“That's why her husband murdered her. At least that's what I always thought. He must have found out about her and the doctor.”

River's head came up fast. “The doctor?”

Dr. Melrose. He's a regular here. She wasn't the first woman he brought. But he pays well, very well, for our discretion. And he's a friend of Mr. Monteray—the manager.”

“Why did the manager lie?”

“This inn caters to the wealthy,
They count on us to keep their visits to ourselves.”

River thought that required a response, but he couldn't get words to form, couldn't make a sound. He lowered his head and tried to squeeze the tears back, not to let them show. They burned. His chest burned, his throat, too. The knowledge burned.

Stephanie and Ethan. God, his wife and his best friend. No question. Not anymore.

“I'm sorry,” the housekeeper said. “I just thought—telling the truth was the right thing to do. What Jesus would do.”

River glanced at the way she fingered the tiny gold cross she wore on a chain around her neck and he nodded. “Thank you. It
the right thing to do. I'm grateful.” He was choked and hoarse, but at least he managed to speak.

she whispered, pressing one hand to her chest as she stared at his face. “Are you the husband?”

“No.” He shook his head slowly. “No, just a friend of the family.” He turned and moved past her to the parking lot, got into Jax's car, where Rex sat waiting, and took off. But a mile down the road, he had to pull off to the side, because his chest was heaving and he didn't know how to deal with the overwhelming emotions that were flooding him right now. All he could think of was Cassandra. If he could only get to her, talk to her….

God, she had tried so hard to warn him off, to slow him down. And he was letting himself fall, anyway. It was way more than physical attraction—he knew that, and thought she did, as well. He'd tried not to feel anything. But he'd failed. And right now, the betrayal, the shock of learning what the last woman he had loved had done to him, was coloring everything. It was just as well Cassandra didn't want any involvement. He sure as hell didn't want it, either.

And yet he needed to talk to her. To hear her voice.

He didn't have a cell phone. She did, but it was only twenty minutes until he had to meet her, anyway. He thought he could probably stand it that long. He put the car into gear and drove into Burlington, to the parking lot two blocks from the coffee house where he and Cassandra were supposed to meet.

But she wasn't there—the police were. His heart jumped into his throat, and he sat in the middle of the road, staring.

The street was cordoned off at the intersection near the coffee house. Yellow tape crisscrossed it, and cops were walking around, taking pictures.

A pedestrian walked past along the sidewalk, and River put the window down and called out, “What happened over there?”

“Man, they don't even know. Weird shit. Someone said a woman was hit by a car, but I didn't see anyone hurt. No ambulance or anything.” He shrugged.

River swallowed his fear and nosed the car into the parking lot, then turned it around and drove back out. He headed the opposite way, then right and right again, until he found a vacant parking space and pulled over. Leaving the car running, and the cane inside, he got out, put a quarter in the meter and limped through the alley, emerging right in front of the coffee house.

He turned up the collar of his coat, tugged down the knit hat and wished to hell he had a pair of sunglasses to better hide his face as he walked up to the rawest rookie. Easy to tell which one he was, too, by that kind of lost look in his eyes, as he wondered if there were anything he was supposed to be doing and wasn't.

“What's going on?” River asked.

The rookie said, “I'm sorry, sir, you'll have to—”

“I'm a cop. Sergeant Samuels, NYPD,” River said, giving his long-ago partner's name. “Here on vacation. Anything I can do to help?”

The kid looked relieved not to have to do crowd control. “It was a hit-and-run. I think we've got it covered.”

“Hit-and-run?” River asked. As he did, his eyes scanned
the pavement, and he saw blood—a tiny puddle, and then a smeared trail. His own blood turned to ice.

“With a twist,” the rookie said. “Witness says the driver dragged the victim into the back seat and took off with her.”

River tried to keep the look of horror from his face. “Do we know who the victim is?”

The rookie nodded. “That's why the place is crawling with uniforms. Word is, she was a cop.”

“Jesus,” River whispered. “They have a line on her yet?”

“Some teenager witnessed it and followed her a ways, was on the cell phone with her boyfriend till the signal ran out. All we have is her last known location.”

“South of town?” River asked, guessing as much, because that was the direction in which several police vehicles had just sped off.

“Yeah, off exit ten. That's all we know.” He lifted his head. “You wanna meet the chief? He could tell you if you could do something to help.”

River pretended to look at his watch—though he wasn't wearing one. “I gotta go, but I'll check back in with you later. Thanks for the info.”

Another cop glanced his way, frowned and started coming toward him. River saw recognition in the man's eyes, or thought he did. Hell. He turned around and headed back through the alley, and he could feel the hairs on his nape standing up—that sense of pursuit. Once out of sight, he moved faster into a run, limped out the other side, dived into the car and took off. And even as he did, he saw the cop coming through the alley, glimpsing the car and speaking into a radio.

They were on to him. And if they realized he was driving Cassandra Jackson's car, they would be pursuing him in short order.

Didn't matter. He had to find her. He had to find Cassandra.


ax had no idea where she was when she opened her eyes. The room was blurry—but it was that: a room. And it felt as if it had been a long time since anyone had used it. A chill, and a sort of musty dampness, permeated the air.

She blinked and tried to bring things into focus. There wasn't much light. What came through the windows was filtered by slatted shutters pulled tight, and grime-coated glass in between. Instinctively, she kept quiet, knowing she was in trouble, but not clear on why. So she remained still, moving little, and waiting for the dust in her mind to settle.

She'd been in Burlington. Yes. Heading to the coffee house to meet with Victoria Melrose. She remembered walking down the sidewalk, recalled the sunshine, the cool air, the benches. Crossing the road.

Oh, God. The car speeding toward her, crashing into her, her body being pounded by the hood and then by the pavement. Hell, no wonder she was hurting so much.

She didn't see or sense anyone in the room, so she dragged herself up into a sitting position, wincing at the pain in her side that the movement brought. Dizziness rose like a wave, then subsided, leaving her weak, but clear enough to take stock.

She was in a room with four walls, a window in the two on either side of her, a door in the wall that faced her, and a
wood-burning stove at her back. The place was paneled in what looked like real wood. The floor beneath her was covered in a braided round rug that left the four corners bare, where she saw hardwood. No other doors or doorways. It looked like a one-room shack. A deer head was mounted on one wall, its marble eyes glinting at her. There was a tiny, cot-size set of bunk beds in one corner, and a wooden table with a couple of chairs stood in the center of the room. A few easy chairs occupied other corners, and a magazine rack full to bursting sat beside one of them. There were cupboards on one of the walls, above a counter made of polished pine boards. The potbellied wood stove was trimmed in silver metal that included the words Round Oak. It was pretty, and not cheap, probably an antique. A blue metal coffeepot with white speckles sat atop it, but the stove was stone cold and the pot, she suspected, empty.

“It's a hunting cabin,” she whispered. And again she eyed the windows, the door, seeing nothing to stop her from getting up and walking out.

Except, of course, for pain. She drew a breath and tried to take stock of her body, now that she had a handle on her bearings. There was a lot of pain in a lot of places, and it took her a moment to focus in on any one specific complaint. She closed her eyes and put her attention on her feet, which felt all right, except that one was shoeless. And that ankle throbbed. She moved her foot a little, left then right, ran her hand over the ankle, feeling for protrusions or lumps. It was swollen, but she didn't think broken. Sprained, then. And damn, it hurt.

She continued moving her attention up her body—shins and calves felt all right. Her knees were scraped, but that was minor. Thighs were good. One hip must be bruised, but it wasn't serious. Pelvis felt okay. Belly wasn't hurting and it wasn't distended, either, which she took as a good sign. Lower
back—she ran her fingertips up and down her spine from the middle to the tailbone, relieved that she could feel her own touch, and there wasn't any pain. Then she lifted her arm, to try to touch her spine from the nape down as far as she could reach, but stopped at a sharp stab in her side.


She lowered her arm again, slowly, and ran her other hand over her side and waist. “Damn.” She could feel the broken ribs. More than one, she thought, but how many in all she had no idea. It hurt like hell. She drew a breath, noting when the pain kicked in harder. Had she punctured a lung? She tried to focus on her breathing, on what exactly hurt, but she couldn't be sure. She felt her own pulse, and it was good and strong. She wasn't dizzy or feeling cold. She didn't think there was internal bleeding. If there was she would feel more than just pain, right?

Okay, so her spine seemed all right, but her ribs were in sorry shape. She continued her exploration. Chest, neck, collarbones—okay. Arms, elbows, shoulders—a little stiff in one shoulder. Sore and achy, especially when she moved the left arm a lot. Jaw, nose, cheeks. One cheek was tender to the touch, and she imagined she'd smacked it into the pavement on impact. Probably bruised it. No big deal. She could hear okay. She thought her eyesight was normal, though it was hard to be sure in this dimly lit room. And her head didn't seem to be split, though there was one hell of a goose egg forming on one side, just above the temple. She didn't feel sick to her stomach. Probably not a concussion, then.

Okay. She wasn't going to be able to run too fast. The ankle and the ribs were her biggest problems, as far as fighting or escaping. Good to know where she stood. She reached to her waist for her gun, but it wasn't there. She didn't know if it had been knocked to the pavement with her shoe, or if whoever brought her here had taken it from her.

No cell phone, either. Great.

She gripped the cold metal of the woodstove behind her, and tugged herself to her feet, wincing when she put weight on the sprained ankle. Damn, that was going to be sheer hell. Best not walk on it until she had to. She hopped to the nearest window, peering between the slats to see outside. Woods. That was all she saw. Just woods. Trees devoid of leaves. Stiff brown weeds sprouting from the patchy snow. She hopped to the other window and saw a similar view. A quick look at her watch told her two hours had passed since she'd been assaulted by a speeding Mercedes.

A speeding
Mercedes. “If I live through this, Ethan Melrose, I am going to kick your ass,” she muttered. And then she moved toward the door, shoved against it, but it wouldn't open. She tried harder, but it was solidly blocked. She didn't think she could bust through it even at full strength.

Fine. She turned to the windows, went to the first one and tried to open it. But the sash was sealed. “Not a problem,” she said, turning to look around the room for something useful.

Her eyes were adjusting to the darkness by now. She saw the fire poker hanging from a nail in the wall behind the wood stove, took it down and went back to the window, using it to smash the glass out of the frame. Then she shoved at the shutters.

Blocked. Just like the door. And a closer inspection of the tiny crevice of light that ran vertically along each side told her why. There was something over them, holding them. Like a board nailed on from the outside.

Spinning around, she went to the other window, unwilling to give up even though she fully expected to find this window's shutters sealed, as well. This one had a stand underneath it, covered in a dusty old sheet. She decided to get up onto it, and maybe kick the shutters open from there.

The sheet had to go. No use falling and doing even more damage to her body. She yanked it off and caught her breath.

A chest-type freezer, not a stand, stood beneath the window.

“Oh, my God.”

Her eyes were riveted to the freezer as her stomach clenched. It was the same one that had been in the rental unit. The same one that held the body of River's former gardener, and the Melroses' sometimes handyman, Arty Mullins.

The room started to spin and warp and twist. Jax pressed a hand to the lump on her head and wondered if it was more serious than she'd thought. She hadn't been nauseated before, but she was now. And before she could analyze that further, she fell into what felt like a spiraling tunnel that took her into oblivion.

* * *

Dawn couldn't find them. They'd gotten too far ahead of her on the winding dirt roads, and even though she'd pushed the Jeep to greater speeds, she'd lost them. She sat at a crossroads, staring first in one direction, then another.

“Which way did they go?” she asked. She turned off the engine and got out. Then she stood there, turning and staring in each of the three directions she might take. None had a telltale dust cloud lingering in the air. She listened, but couldn't hear anything beyond the crows squawking, and a slight breeze whispering through the naked limbs of the towering trees.

Disheartened, she turned back toward her precious powder-blue Wrangler, half expecting to see the woman there—the ghost of Stephanie Corbett—pointing the way. She almost
to see her there. But there was no one.

Dawn looked skyward. “So what do you want me to do?”

No answer.

Her father's curse was useless, maybe not even real. And instead of feeling relieved, she felt angry. Why couldn't it come when she needed it most? Jax was in trouble.

She stomped back to the Jeep, got in and slammed the door. “Screw it. I'll just pick a direction and go, fast as hell. If I don't
find a sign of them, I'll come back and pick another. I just hope Jax has that kind of time.”

She jerked the stick shift into first gear, stomped on the gas and popped the clutch in her frustration, spitting gravel behind her as the vehicle lurched forward.

A woman stood dead in front of her, and Dawn shrieked and slammed her foot on the brake pedal, forgetting the clutch. Stalling the Jeep. The ass end of it had fishtailed around to one side, and she sat there, clutching the wheel, gasping and peering through the clouds of dust all around her.

But there was no one there. No one.

“Okay, okay. I get it. Not that way.”

She managed to stop shaking just enough to back the Jeep up and turn it in another direction, the second possible route. This time she took the road to her right. She went slowly, though, didn't stomp it as she had before. Again, the woman appeared right in front of the car. Dawn met her eyes, saw the way she seemed to move them from side to side, as if to say no.

“All right,” Dawn whispered. “Okay, third time's the charm. Besides, it's the last possible choice.” She executed a three-point-turn, and drove in the opposite direction.

And this time, nothing showed up to block her path. So she kept on going, though she couldn't bring herself to drive fast, the way she had fully intended to do. The jolt of nearly hitting someone—even someone who was already dead—was too horrifying to experience more than once.

And maybe the ghost wanted her to drive slowly. Dawn rolled her eyes and shook her head. Her own thoughts sounded ludicrous. She didn't want this. Had never wanted it. Had been living in dread of it ever since she'd first begun to suspect…And now here she was, actually

Was she insane? Was this the beginning of the end? Had she really seen what she thought she had seen on that street
in Burlington? Or had it all been part of the same delusion that had her talking to ghosts and driving over country roads with no clue where she was going?

She frowned, then, slowing the car to a stop in the road, because there were tire tracks in the snow along the side—tire tracks veering over a barely discernable path, narrow and seldom traveled, she figured. Beyond them she saw a gate. It was closed and had a heavy chain looped through it, and a large padlock dangled from one side. But the car tracks moved beyond that point. Someone had opened the gate, driven through it and then locked it again.

Clearly, she wasn't going to get in there by car—not even by Jeep. But she had a feeling that was where she had to go. What other car would have been driving over these roads recently enough to leave fresh tracks in the snow?

Sighing, she knew what she had to do. So she drove her car farther along the road until she found a spot where she could pull off to the side and park it. Then she got out, and paused, looking in at the front seat. At the items on it.

Swallowing her fear, she reached back into the car, taking both her cell phone and Jax's. She checked the panels, but neither had a signal. So she set the ringers to vibrate, just in case, and tucked them into her coat pocket.

She reached in again, this time closing her hand around the cool grips of Jax's handgun. A shiver went up Dawn's arm as she held the gun in her hand. She didn't know how to work the thing, wasn't sure if she squeezed the trigger whether or not it would fire. She wasn't sure if she'd have to do something else first. She looked for a safety button, found one, but couldn't tell if it was on or off.

She hoped to God she wouldn't need to find out.

* * *

River had Cassandra's car pulled off on a side road when six screaming police vehicles sped by, and as far as he could
tell, not one cop noticed him there. Granted, he was blocked by some sentinel pines, but he wasn't invisible. Cassandra's car was red, for crying out loud.

Not only were the police missing him, they were missing the correct route. There was only one place he could think of where Ethan might have taken Cassandra. And since the Mercedes's last known location was within a few miles of there, River was pretty sure his instinct was on target.

He put the cops out of his mind and refocused on his reason for pulling over in the first place. A crossroads. And before he went any farther, he wanted to make absolutely sure he was heading to the right locale.

He opened the door and got out, then held the door open. “Come on, boy.”

Rex clambered out, as well. River held the balled up T-shirt he'd found in the back seat to the dog's face, and let him sniff. He knew it smelled like Cassandra. Even he could detect her scent clinging to the fabric. What he couldn't do was find its match on the air.

BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
4.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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