Authors: Diana Killian
It took every ounce of courage she possessed to slide out from behind the door. She stuck her head out the kitchen doorway and peeked around.
The light in the bedroom was on. There was no sign of Peter Fox, but she could hear him walking around, opening and closing drawers.
Slipping off her shoes, Grace sprinted noiselessly to the door, every moment expecting to hear a yell behind her. Fingers unsteady, she turned the knob and eased the door open. Not daring to close it, she hurried, still on the balls of her feet, down the staircase. Her legs trembled with both fear and exhaustion.
Below her, the showroom lay in darkness, the eyes of the merry-go-round horse glinted in the light from above. Grace was just tiptoeing past the display of pikes and axes—with that conspicuous bare spot—when a voice floated down from above, “Well, well. If it isn’t Miss Hollister, wandering lonely as a cloud.”
With a squeal of panic, Grace bolted down the rest of the stairs toward the front door.
But she had not realized how fast and silently he moved, so silently that he seemed to barely stir the air. Grace’s fingertips grazed the front door handle as his hand fell heavily on her shoulder.
She screamed and whacked at him with her shoes. Her shoes were yanked from her hands so hard she nearly fell. She tried to fight back, but was hindered by the sliding strap of her purse. It was happening so fast. Grace screamed again, and tried to swing her bag at her attacker. Everything she had ever learned about self-defense came to her in a confused rush. She kicked, trying unsuccessfully for that most vulnerable part of the male anatomy. She flailed furiously. But above all, she screamed, breathlessly, hoarsely for help.
From a distance she heard Peter Fox yelling at her to shut up—shut up or else. Somehow he held on to her, his hands punishing as Grace turned and twisted frantically, still kicking out. She was fighting for her life. Yesterday she had been unprepared for violence; today was another story.
“Damn you, stop it!” swore Peter Fox. “What the hell is the
with you?” He shook Grace so hard that her head bobbled back and forth.
“Let go of me!” She clawed at his face.
He slapped her.
As a slap it was not much. The Queen Mother could have taught Peter Fox a few things about hitting women. However, it was the second time in as many days that a man had struck Grace, and instead of seeing stars, this time she saw red.
Like a professional boxer, she hauled off and swung, her fist connecting to Peter’s jaw with a force she felt all down her arm.
The silence that followed was as shattering as the previous pandemonium. It didn’t take Grace long to get her breath back. She was way past fear.
“Don’t you ever,
hit me again, you swine!”
“Why, you bloody lunatic!” Peter broke off, uncharacteristically at a loss for words.
By now it had sunk in on Grace that if Peter Fox had killed the man in his secret passage he would not have been yelling what was the matter with her. He would not have wasted a minute wrestling with Grace when he had plenty of other weapons within grasp. She was not naive enough to imagine she had actually held her own in physical combat. The fact that even now, following their impromptu brawl, he merely stood there rubbing his cheek and glaring, told Grace all she needed to know about Peter Fox and the dead man in his stockroom.
“You were hysterical,” he stated.
Voice wavering, she got out, “I don’t care if I’m foaming at the mouth, no one is ever laying a hand on me again!”
Peter quit rubbing his cheek and gaped indignantly. “You silly bitch, you’re lucky I don’t wring your neck. Who do you think you are?” He took a menacing step toward Grace. “And what the hell are you doing in my house?”
All at once Grace felt perfectly calm. Rational. She willed away the vision of how she must appear to him, Mr. Rochester’s crazy wife in her livelier moments, and pronounced, “I came to warn you.”
” Clearly he thought the warning had to be as bad as whatever she was warning against.
“It’s a long story. I think you’d better …” Like a figure of doom, Grace pointed toward the back office.
Peter stared, following the traverse of her finger, then glanced back at Grace. “If this is some kind of joke …”
Grace shook her head.
Keeping a wary eye on her, Peter started toward the back room. Grace followed. She saw him pause a fraction of a second when the smell hit him. He muttered something she didn’t catch.
Flicking on the light, Peter stared around the office with narrowed eyes. Grace hung back in the doorway; he crowded the little room. She gestured toward the shelves with their faux ledgers and glued-on gimcracks.
He looked pale. She thought, he already knows what that scent means. Tersely, he asked, “How do you know about the passageway?”
“It was open when I arrived this afternoon.”
“Make yourself at home,” he muttered, crouching down before the shelf. Reaching behind, he released some catch and swung the case toward himself as though he were opening a door.
The passage mouth gaped blackly before them.
“He’s in there.” She shivered, hugging herself against the memory of the thing at the foot of the stairs.
Frowning, Peter reached in, and to Grace’s chagrin, snapped on an overhead light. She could not see his face, but she saw the set of his shoulders go rigid. His whole body was perfectly still for a moment and then he moved toward the stairs and out of Grace’s line of vision.
Footsteps dragging, Grace entered the stockroom and dropped down at the bare desk. She could not see what was happening in the passage, but Peter’s out-loud thought reached her ears, “You greedy little sod, what have you done?”
She waited, staring unseeingly at the painting of Dutch windmills. How had she not known that unmistakable smell the first time? The pungent, metallic odor of blood and other. The less definable scent of death.
A moment later Peter ducked out of the passage. His eyes, meeting Grace’s, looked electric blue in the pallor of his grim face.
“Would you mind explaining how you figure into this?”
All the lazy charm of their first encounter was gone. This, Grace thought, was the real man: tough and rather cold.
“I was hoping you could tell me. Since I pulled you out of that stream I’ve been run off the road, abducted by men with guns, and held prisoner in an abandoned farmhouse. Today I found a dead man in your secret passage.”
Peter’s eyes flickered. “What were you doing in my secret passage to begin with?”
“I told you, I came to warn you.”
“Warn me of what?”
Grace spluttered, “Of—of
” She waved at the passageway with its gruesome contents. “I heard them talking—”
“The Queen Mother and the other one.”
“The …!” Peter’s expression said it all.
“A man wearing a party mask,” Grace corrected with asperity. “Look, I know I’m not telling this very coherently. There isn’t time. One of the men who grabbed me said—well, actually I overheard him talking about ‘icing Fox.’
A strange expression crossed Peter’s face.
Grace said impatiently, “I’ve gone through this with the police. They didn’t believe me, which is why I had to come myself.” She put a hand to her forehead. “What are we wasting time talking for? We’ve got to phone the police now!”
She reached for the phone on the desk.
Peter’s hand covered hers, forcing the receiver back in its cradle.
“What are you—?” she broke off, frightened by the odd look in his eyes.
“No police,” Peter said in a flat, still voice.
She pushed back in the chair, on her feet in one movement.
” Peter’s hands forced Grace back into her seat. “I didn’t kill him, Grace.”
“Then who did?”
“I don’t know.” His long, thin fingers absently massaged her collarbone through the loose-knit sweater.
There was something hypnotic about that soothing touch. Grace felt as though her muscles were melting along with her resistance.
“Then what is going on?” she whispered.
“I don’t know. Straight up.” His eyes held hers for a moment, then he moved away, closing the passageway on the thing it held. He pushed the shelf back into place, and glanced at Grace, still motionless with indecision.
“Come on, let’s go upstairs and talk this through.”
“We can’t just leave him there!”
“We don’t want him upstairs.”
The callousness of that held Grace silent. She stared into Peter’s face, trying to read his expression.
“Come.” Count Dracula couldn’t have put it more convincingly, and his hand on the small of Grace’s back seemed to leave her body no choice but to obey. She preceded him out of the office and down the narrow aisle of furniture and statuary.
In the showroom she waited while Peter moved soundlessly through the crowded darkness, relocking the front door, rearming the burglar alarm.
“So that’s how you knew I was here,” she commented, thinking aloud.
His voice carried to her across the aisle. “That’s how I knew someone was here. I was expecting to be charged with a battle-ax though. Little did I think it was my own Miss Bluestocking from the colonies.”
Being a fan of Regency novels, Grace knew that a “bluestocking” was a not particularly flattering term for a female academic. Irritation pricked her weary apathy.
“For a man expecting to be charged by an ax-wielding burglar you seemed pretty cool. You must lead an interesting life.”
“It has its moments.” Peter appeared beside her in that noiseless fashion that sent her nerves snapping like there was a short in her wiring. “After you,” he invited.
Inside the flat, Peter waved her to one of the comfortable oversize chairs. She ignored this, trailing him into the kitchen, watching as he plugged in the electric teakettle.
“Tea?” she said disbelievingly. “We’re going to have tea?”
“If you’d prefer something stronger—?”
“There is a body downstairs with an ax in its chest. Someone scrawled the word ‘Astarte’ in blood on the wall, and you’re concerned with
” Grace’s voice shot up an octave.
Peter’s brows rose with it. “Definitely something stronger for you.”
He brought Grace a brandy. “Drink up, there’s a good girl,” he ordered. “My nerves can’t take another bout of hysterics.”
nerves? The man didn’t have a nerve in his body.
Grace snatched the snifter and drank the brandy in two gulps that left her gasping beneath Peter’s gaze. “I’m not hysterical,” she informed him. “And even if I am, I have every right to be.”
“Certainly. We’ll hear about that in a minute.” Peter pressed replay on his answering machine. While he listened to the messages he prepared a tray for tea. Watching him Grace felt as though she had wandered through the Looking Glass. Not even the Queen Mother’s snarl of a voice caused him to turn a hair as he calmly filled a bowl with lemon wedges, placing fragile porcelain cups and cake plates on a tray.
Exasperated beyond belief, Grace hobbled after him into the living room, sinking wearily into a deep, leather chair. He set the tea tray on the curio table.
“Cream and sugar?”
dreaming, she thought foggily. Perhaps it was the brandy kicking in, but she decided to go with the flow. “Please.”
There was something fascinating about such a virile man performing so civilized an act as pouring tea. Grace observed his long brown hands deftly moving the delicate cups. She found herself wondering what those hands would feel like on her body. She tore her thoughts away, shocked.
Distractedly, Grace drank the tea. It was hot and strong and refreshing. She ate some chocolate hazelnut cake, and remembered that she was starving. The last real meal she’d had was now but a fond memory. She had been running on adrenaline and caffeine for the last few hours, and now she was running on empty: physically, mentally and emotionally. She had believed she was too stressed to eat. She served herself another delicious piece of cake.
Peter watched her tuck it away without comment. He served her a second cup of tea, and waited till Grace leaned back in the chair with a heartfelt sigh, before commenting, “Suppose you start at the beginning.”
As coherently as possible, Grace related her adventures. After the brandy, tea and cake, she felt better. Much better. Stronger. Calmer. She did not trust Peter Fox, but oddly enough, she felt safe with him.
He heard her out from beginning to end with only a couple of questions. There is something very flattering about being given a handsome man’s undivided attention. Grace experienced the same tug of attraction she had felt at the Tinker’s Dam.
we supposed to meet that next morning?” she asked as an afterthought, as she wound up her story.
Peter’s lashes lowered, veiling his eyes. He said evasively, “I thought I might do well to check out a couple of things first.”
So all that charm of the night before had simply been to pry information out of her. Grace recalled the feminine voices on his tape machine, the waitresses at the Tinker’s Dam vying for his attention. Whatever happens, she warned herself as though advising one of her girls, you must not fall for this man.
“And what did you learn?”
Peter shrugged. He leaned back in his chair, stretching his long legs. He wore denims that hugged every move his lithe body made, and a moleskin shirt of palest baby blue, which played up the color of his eyes and the gold glints in his thick hair. He was not classically handsome, but there was definitely something about him.
Grace, on the other hand, knew she looked like she felt. She needed a shower and sleep. She was still wearing the clothes she had made her cross-country run in, and if her hair did not actually have leaves and twigs in it, her braid was as frayed and tattered as her nerves.
“Tell me this,” he said offhandedly. “Did your constable happen to mention who owned that farmhouse in the middle of nowhere?”
Grace thought it over. “If he did, I don’t recall it. The place had clearly been abandoned for years. But I suppose you’re right. The owner might provide some kind of clue to the identity of those thugs who nabbed me.”
He seemed to have no further comment.
“Wait just a minute,” she responded to Peter’s reticence, “it’s your fault I’m involved in this. I have a right to know what’s going on. If you know, you need to tell me. You owe me that much.”
Peter sat forward, putting that husky, beguiling voice to good use. “I know. I do apologize. But trust me on this, Grace; the less you know, the better.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Grace glared at him. “The more I know, the better my chances of protecting myself. That’s just common sense. Quit carrying on like someone out of … of Sax Rohmer, and tell me what’s going on!”
Peter had drawn back warily at this unexpected attack. Now a faint smile curved his wide, rather mocking mouth. “Actually, I haven’t a clue what’s going on,” he admitted. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Don’t trouble yourself. Tomorrow you’ll be on a plane heading back to the States.”
“I wish.” She sighed, leaning back in the butter-soft leather upholstery, and added, “It’s going to take the consulate a couple of days to issue me a replacement passport. I can’t afford to buy new plane tickets. I don’t even know if I can get my old tickets replaced.” She rubbed her head as though she could stimulate her thought process. “Who was that man downstairs? Did you know him?”
After a moment, Peter said reluctantly, “His name is—was—Danny Delon. He’s a petty thief. Strictly small-time.”
“What nice friends you have.”
“He was more of an acquaintance.”
“Then what was he doing in your secret passage?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“Do you have an idea of who killed him?”
“You must have
Peter looked annoyed. “This interrogation technique might work wonders with the belles of St. Mary’s or wherever the hell it is—”
“—but I don’t appreciate it.”
“I don’t appreciate being slapped or having guns pointed at me or being run off the road or kidnapped. What is it those men wanted in exchange for me?”
Peter gritted his teeth. “I do not know.”
have some idea. They said, ‘ask your mate Delon.’ ”
“Unfortunately, he’s not talking. As you may have noticed.”
Years of dealing with devious adolescents had equipped Grace with a built-in lie detector. Peter Fox was good—a born liar in fact—but Grace knew what that slant of eyes to the left meant. He might not be lying, but he wasn’t telling the complete truth.
She asked tartly, “And I suppose Astarte is the name of the person who killed him?”
For one fleeting second he actually seemed to consider trying it on. He replied shortly, “You know as well as I do Delon never lifted a finger after that ax was planted in his chest.”
Grace swallowed a lump in her throat. “So what does
mean? Is it a warning?”
“I suppose so. I don’t know. About a week ago Delon came to me with a story of a valuable something he’d managed to lay his hands on.”
“That would be a safe bet.” Peter’s left brow rose in a gesture Grace was beginning to recognize as characteristic.
“What did you do?”
“I told him I thought he was in over his head. I told him to get rid of the goods.”
“And instead someone got rid of him. Who? Mutt and Jeff? The Queen Mum?”
Peter said crossly, “Would you stop calling that bloke the Queen Mum? It’s distracting.”
Grace was not listening, busy tabulating facts. Fact: Danny Delon, a small-time hood, brought stolen goods to Peter Fox. Fact: Peter Fox did not want to contact the police; not when someone tried to kill him, and not even when he found a corpse in his home. These facts did not add up to a very flattering portrait of Peter Fox.
“Why can’t you go to the police?” she inquired.
“I prefer to handle this my own way.”
“Dead bodies in the secret passage all in a day’s work for you?”
The blue eyes gleamed with dislike. Grace prodded delicately, “Are you … er …?”
“Known to the police?” Peter finished dryly. “Yes, Miss Hollister, in a manner of speaking, I am. Which is why I didn’t want any part of Delon’s find, intriguing though it sounded.”
“You’re a crook?” Grace abandoned tact.
“No, I’m not a crook!” Peter rose and then seemed to have nowhere to go. Restlessly he prowled the spacious room. No further explanation seemed forthcoming.
A crook with tender feelings? Grace prodded, “Then what?”
Peter stared out the window at the black silhouette of wood line. He said finally, “It was over five years ago, but …” He sighed. “Take my word, I cannot go to the police.”
“Even over something like this?”
“Trust me.” He said it as though he fully expected her to do so.
“What happens if the killer comes back?” Grace speculated aloud, “Now that I think about it, you have four people that I know of wanting to kill you.”
“Not ‘ice’ as in kill,” Peter clarified reluctantly. “ ‘Ice’ as in diamonds. Ice Fox. It’s an alias. A bit of youthful cheek.”
Even if the Queen Mother and cohort had not planned to kill Peter, someone had. Someone had deliberately put his head underwater. Mutt and Jeff? Someone had certainly killed Danny Delon.
“What about Mr. Delon?” she pointed out. “Was he killed in mistake for you?”
“You’re joking. No one could mistake Danny for me.”
He had a point. It would be like mistaking one of the dwarves for Prince Charming. Even if the murderer had never seen Peter, he had to have a general idea of what he looked like. Had Danny Delon actually been the intended victim? Then why the attempt on Peter’s life? Were the two things
connected? Given Peter’s (she suspected) unsavory past, maybe people frequently tried to knock him off. It would explain his sangfroid about the incident.
Were the “gewgaws” the intriguing “stuff” Danny had got his hands on? Where did Astarte fit in? Where did Grace fit in?