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Authors: Mariah Stewart

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BOOK: Mercy Street
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“Not tonight.” He repeated her words back to her. “Tonight, we are going to talk.”

“But Gail…,” she protested.

“Gail can find someone else to warm that bar stool next to hers.”

He took his mother gently by the arm and steered her in the direction of the kitchen. He’d find something to fix for dinner, put on a pot of coffee, and then he and his mother would have a long-overdue conversation about Jilly’s future, as well as her own. It was time she understood she had few options as far as her daughter’s well-being was concerned, and it would be up to Charlie to explain to her exactly what those options were.

NINE

W
hat?” Robert stood in the doorway of Susanna’s office. “You’ve got that look on your face.”

“Which look is that?” Susanna’s hand was still on the receiver, even though she’d already hung up the phone.

“The one that says,
Huh?

She waved her hand dismissively. “I just finished talking to Mallory.”

“Who?” Robert pulled an armchair closer to her desk and plunked into it.

“Mallory Russo? The PI that Kevin…” She sighed. She’d thought he hadn’t been paying the least bit attention when Mallory was in the office the other day; now he’d confirmed it.

“Oh, right. Right.” He nodded and, obviously disinterested, got up and went over to the fish tank. “So what about her?”

“I told her to drop off her hours on Fridays before two. So today, being Friday, I expected to see her well before now, even though she only had a few days to bill. When she didn’t show up, I called her.” Susanna frowned.

“And…?” He shook food into the top of the tank, something he did every week at this time. Every other day, Susanna looked after the fish. But for some reason, on Friday it occurred to him to feed them.

“And she said she wasn’t billing any hours this week.”

“Not billing?” Robert snorted. “A PI that misses an opportunity to bill? What’s up with that?”

“Well, see, that’s just it. She isn’t licensed to work as a PI….”

“Oh, swell. You’re just finding this out?”

“Well, no, she did tell me that when she was here the other day, but…”

“Why’d you hire her, then? I thought that was the point. Kevin wanted a PI.” He put the container of food back on the shelf and returned to the chair, sitting on the arm this time rather than the seat.

“She did tell me that she’d applied for a license, but it hasn’t come through yet. She doesn’t expect any problems in obtaining it; she was a cop for nine years. And she did tell me that technically, she couldn’t charge for her services until she was licensed.”

“So if she told you this the other day, why are you surprised now?”

“I guess I didn’t think she was serious. As you just said, when was the last time someone declined to bill us for anything?” Susanna leaned back in her chair. “I mean, I figured she’d bill me anyway. I even told her she could call it something else. You know, consulting on the landscaping or flower arranging, whatever. But she said no. She said when she could go on the clock, she’d let me know.”

Robert made a face. “So she’ll pad her bills and slip the hours from this week in somewhere else.”

“I don’t think she will.”

“Oh, come on.” He laughed. “What are the odds of that happening?”

“I’m betting she doesn’t.”

“You’re too trusting.”

“You’re too cynical.”

“So what do you want to bet?”

“I don’t know. Something I can afford to lose.”

“Dinner at the top of the Eiffel Tower.”

Surprised, Susanna laughed. “I said something I could afford to lose. That eliminates fuel for that bird of yours. Try again.”

“The flight will be on me, but if you lose, you pick up the tab for dinner.”

She studied his face for a moment, then looked away. Sometimes it was just too hard to look for too long.

“All right,” she said. “You’re on.”

“Great.” He stood. “I haven’t been to Paris in a long time. Beth and I always talked about going.” His demeanor changed in the blink of an eye. “I always thought there’d be time.”

“I’ve never been,” she said, disappointed that his mood had changed so suddenly. She was pretty sure he hadn’t heard her.

Robert started toward the door as Susanna logged off her computer and pushed back from her desk. The clock chimed three.

“Well, I guess I’ll be heading out.” She slipped her bag off the back of her chair, then pushed the chair under the desk.

“So what are your plans for the weekend?” he asked from the doorway.

“Oh, you know.” She shrugged, sensing that the question had been an afterthought, the type of thing you figured you should ask a coworker when they were leaving the office for the weekend. “The usual. You?”

Robert shrugged. “No plans.”

“I thought Doug and Karen were in town this weekend?” Old friends of his from college.

“I don’t really feel like company.” He shrugged again. “I told them I wasn’t available.”

“I hope you never give me the brush-off like that.” She turned off the lamp on her desk.

“I never have to. You always understand. I never have to explain myself to you.” He patted her on the back when she reached the door. “You’re my best friend, Suse. One of my two best, anyway.”

She forced a smile. “Well, if you change your mind about having company, give me a call,” she said, knowing he wouldn’t.

“Will do.” He stepped aside to let her pass. “See you on Monday. Have fun.”

Susanna smiled again and left the office. At the front door, she turned around to wave, but he’d already disappeared. She went through the kitchen to say good-bye to Trula, but she wasn’t there. Outside, Susanna got into her car and tossed her bag on the passenger seat.

“Fun,” she muttered as she started the engine. “Yeah, I’m going to have a ball.”

She drove out through the gates and pulled into her own drive less than five minutes later. While not palatial, her home on one of the side roads was situated on a nice piece of ground that had plenty of room for her gardens. It had been built from plans originally intended for an English cottage, but the architect who’d designed it had enlarged the room sizes and added modern amenities, making it the perfect house for her: a romantic cottage with all the comforts of contemporary life. She’d fallen in love with it the first time she laid eyes on it, driving around the area one day shortly after Robert had bought the estate. She’d been secretly thrilled when he asked her to stay on as his personal assistant after the sale of Magellan Express.

“Don’t make me break in someone new,” he’d pleaded. “Not after all these years. Please, Suse—have a heart…”

She often wondered whether she’d have taken the job if she’d known how things would work out. It was less than six months later that he’d met Beth and married her after a whirlwind courtship.

Sometimes it was tough being his best friend.

Over the years, she’d amassed a nice little stash of Magellan stock, and when Robert sold the company, it went sky-high. Susanna had sold her shares high—high enough to buy the house outright and still have plenty to invest. That, plus money she’d saved from a lifetime ago, meant she was as financially secure as she’d ever need to be. She could easily retire tomorrow and never have to worry about money. But money wasn’t what kept her returning to the Magellan home five mornings out of every week.

She glanced at the clock and debated on the best time to leave. If she left now—right now—she’d miss the rush-hour surge of cars onto the highways around here, but would run into traffic later on her journey. Fridays were always bad anyway, she reminded herself as she flipped through the mail she’d gathered from the mailbox at the end of the driveway. All those people heading to their banks with their paychecks, all the singles on their way to meet their friends for a night out and a little time to put the stresses of the workweek behind them.

She decided she’d leave now, while it was still light enough to admire the scenery on her way west. Her bag was already packed, her reservation at the small motel already made, so all she had to do was change her clothes. From casual office attire to jeans and a light sweater took less than five minutes. Another few minutes to set the timers on her lamps downstairs and the outside lights—not that this was a particularly high-crime neighborhood, but no place was crime-free these days, so there was no point in tempting fate by declaring
NO ONE’S HOME
over the weekend.

She grabbed one of the magazines that had come in the mail that afternoon and checked her tote bag to make certain the maps she’d printed off the Internet the night before were there. Finding she did, in fact, have everything she’d need for the weekend, she headed off for her weekly trip to Gibson Springs.

TEN

F
ather Kevin Burch opened the door to the small conference room and leaned in.

“How’s it going?” he asked before stepping inside.

“Okay, I suppose.” Mallory frowned. “I’d hoped to hear something about one of these kids that I hadn’t heard before, but so far there haven’t been any surprises. Everything you told me has been reiterated by the teachers I spoke with. Four good kids, no discipline problems, great students. Just as you said.”

“Trust me, if there’d been anything negative, I’d have told you up front.” He leaned over the back of the nearest chair. “It’s getting late. I was wondering if you’d rather come back on Monday to finish up.”

Mallory glanced at the clock on the wall. It was almost six o’clock.

“I didn’t realize how late it was.” She picked up the sheet of paper listing the names he’d given her earlier and waved it. “I only have two others to speak with. Ryan’s football coach and the guidance counselor.” She looked up at him. “I’d really rather finish this up now than have it go into next week.”

“The football coach is also the golf coach, and they have their banquet tonight, so he had to leave at five. He told me to tell you he’d be happy to speak with you.” Burch took a card from his jacket pocket and walked over to where she sat. “Sorry. I almost forgot. He said to feel free to call him anytime.”

“Thanks. I’ll try to catch up with him tomorrow.” Mallory put the card in her wallet. “So that just leaves the guidance counselor, Sister Rosalie Clark. I’m sorry to have made her wait so long.”

“She said she’d be in her office working anyway,” he told her. “She’s the third door down from here on the left.”

“I’ll walk down.” Mallory gathered her notes and tucked them into a leather folder. “Thanks for your help in organizing everyone for me.”

“You’re welcome. Whatever we can do to help, of course we will.” He pulled back her chair for her, and she stood. “I had spoken with many of the teachers and some of the students a week or so ago myself, but nothing popped out at me. Still, I’m not trained to ask the right questions. I was hoping you’d be able to dig out something that would help.”

“If there was something there—if one of the teachers knew something—I think they’d volunteer that information, don’t you, instead of waiting to be asked?”

“One would hope.” He escorted her to the door, pausing to turn the light off. “No, actually, I’m sure if someone knew something that would lead us to understand what happened that night, I would have heard about it by now. Then again, sometimes you could probably know something that you aren’t aware you know, if that makes sense.”

“Perfect sense.” Mallory nodded as they walked toward the guidance counselor’s office. At the door, they stopped. “Thank you again for all your help.”

“Make sure you call me if you need anything else.” He knocked softly on the door.

“Thanks. I will.”

“Come in, Father Burch,” a voice from within called.

“I’m just the escort, Rosalie,” he called back. “I’m sending Mallory Russo back to see you.”

“Straight on down the hall,” the counselor told Mallory. “First door…”

Mallory waved to the priest, then followed the voice to the first door.

“I apologize for not getting up,” the woman behind the desk told Mallory before she’d reached the door. “Twisted my ankle in the parking lot on Monday and it still hurts like hell.”

She smiled at Mallory and pointed to a hard plastic chair. “Sorry I don’t have something more comfortable to offer.”

“That’s quite all right,” Mallory told her as she took the indicated seat. “Sorry about your accident.”

“That pothole had my name all over it. And I knew the damned thing was there, too. Momentary lapse, stepped right into it. Talk about the flying nun. What can you do?” She shrugged. “So I understand you want to talk about the kids.”

“I do. I’m sure as their counselor you got to know them fairly well over the past year, with college applications and such.” Mallory sat back in her chair, immediately comfortable with the slightly overweight, sixtyish woman behind the desk.

“I knew them well before that,” Sister Rosalie told her. “This is a small school. We start to get to know the kids as freshmen, follow them through their sophomore years, start thinking ahead to what schools might be a good match for each of them. I usually know by mid–sophomore year where everyone will end up.”

“You must be very good at what you do.”

“Lots of experience helps. And frankly, if we had more students, I wouldn’t be able to operate like that on my own. But with a limited number of students, I have the luxury of making sure everyone makes the right choice.”

“These four kids—Jamey, Adam, Ryan, Courtney—they all made the right choices, in your opinion?”

Sister Rosalie hesitated, then said, “For the most part, yes. Courtney had been accepted at two state universities—Bloomsburg and Millersville—either of which would have been a great fit for her. Then, all of a sudden, out of the blue, she decided she really wanted to go to Penn State, main campus.”

“You didn’t think that was a good fit for her?”

“No, I did not. For one thing, it’s too big a school for her. She’d get lost there. Those huge universities aren’t for everyone. Some people thrive. Others can’t handle it. I didn’t think it was the place for her, and frankly, her sudden interest took me completely by surprise.” She made a face. “I wouldn’t have recommended it to her even if she’d wanted to apply back in August, but to apply so late, she had zero chance to get in.”

“I thought she was a good student.”

“Courtney was an excellent student, but they get a ridiculous number of applicants who are excellent students, and they fill their spots early with the best kids who apply. As good as Courtney was, there was nothing that stood out about her. She was a good athlete, but she wasn’t great, so she hadn’t been recruited. She would have needed something spectacular to have caught their eye at that late date. Like all-state in field hockey, or winning the state science fair.”

“Why was she so focused on Penn State?”

“Who knows? She just came in one day and said that she wanted to apply. I thought it was a waste of money, given that most of their acceptances had already been mailed, but she insisted.”

“And she never said why?”

“Just that she wanted to go farther away. That’s the most I ever got out of her. That she wanted to go away.”

“Any reason for that, that you knew of?” Mallory’s interest was piqued. “Problems at home? A boyfriend, maybe, who was influencing her?”

“Again, not that I know of. It’s just her and her mother and her sister, and they are really tight. Dad walked out when the sister was about six months old; Mom has done a bang-up job raising both girls. I think Courtney just got the bug, thought she was missing something, and decided Penn State was the place to go. I’ve seen it happen a hundred times, Detective Russo. The kid applies to a number of schools, gets accepted, then decides at the last minute that the one they
didn’t
apply to is the one they really want to go to. The old grass-is-greener thing. It generally isn’t more than that.”

Mallory caught the “detective” but didn’t correct her.

“Was there any change in her behavior over the past year? Had she made friends with a new group of people, or had she lost interest in things she’d previously liked to do?”

Sister Rosalie thought for a moment, then said, “No, nothing over the past year. Like I said, Courtney comes from a pretty solid background, there’s a good safety net there. This class was really close. Most of the kids have been together since the early grades, if not from kindergarten. She’s had her ups and downs, like all kids do, but nothing really seems to throw her off course.”

“How about that last week, maybe even that last Friday before they disappeared. Did you see her then?”

Sister nodded. “I saw her early in the day.”

“Did she seem upset about anything?”

“Not that I noticed. Courtney was a pretty laid-back kid.” She paused, then added, “The only time I ever saw her shaken up about anything was that shooting at Hazel’s year before last.”

Mallory’s head shot up. “Was Courtney working at Hazel’s at the time?”

“Yes, but she wasn’t in the front of the store when the robbery took place. She said she was on break at the time, in the back, so she wasn’t right there when the boy was shot.”

“The boy was eighteen,” Mallory recalled. “Hazel’s nephew. There had been a suspect, the case almost went to trial, but the DA pulled it because he didn’t have strong enough evidence, if I recall correctly. I didn’t work that case, but I think I would have remembered Courtney’s name if she’d been a witness.”

“I don’t think she was. She said she hadn’t heard anything before she heard the gunshots, and she didn’t see anyone in the front of the store when she came out front to investigate, so she couldn’t have testified to anything.”

“She called it in?”

“No, a customer who’d dropped down to hide behind a display when he heard the shouting by the register called 911 on his cell when the killer left the store. Courtney said when she came out from the back, the police were already there. I imagine that would shake up a kid, though, knowing how close she came to being the one on the register when the robber came into the store.”

“It would, yes,” Mallory said thoughtfully. “You said that Courtney had changed after that incident. How so?”

“She became very quiet for a while, spent more time at home, I think. And that marking period, her grades slipped a little. Nothing terrible, but enough so that I noticed.”

“You spoke with her about it?”

“She just said she was having a lot of trouble sleeping, but she was hoping it would pass.”

“Any chance she might have tried taking something for it?” Mallory asked.

“If you’re suggesting that she turned to drugs, the answer is no. I told her that her family doctor might be able to help, but she thought she’d be okay. I offered to counsel her—told her she was welcome to come in whenever she felt she needed to talk.”

“Did she take you up on that?”

“No. She said she’d work it out on her own, and apparently she did. By the end of the next marking period, her grades were back up, and everything seemed fine.”

“How about the boys? Anything similar there?”

“No.” She shook her head. “Like I said, these are all good, solid kids. No drugs, as you were suggesting. Someone would have noticed.”

Mallory raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“Someone would have noticed, Detective,” Rosalie insisted. “If one of our kids is into something he or she shouldn’t be, we’d have found out about it.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because we always do.” Rosalie smiled. “Yes, over the years we’ve had a few kids veer from the straight and narrow, but we’ve always found out, one way or another.”

“And you are confident that nothing was going on with any of these kids?”

“One hundred percent confident.” The counselor folded her hands on the desktop. “I’d bet my life on it.”

         

The first thing Mallory did when she got into her car was dial Charlie Wanamaker’s cell phone. She’d hesitated only briefly before deciding to share what she’d learned with him. Something was nagging at her, and she thought that by talking things out she might get a better idea of what that something was.

His voice mail picked up, and she left a message for him to call her back. She’d been driving for less than a minute when her phone rang.

“Mallory, hi. It’s Charlie. What’s up?”

“That was quick—thanks for getting back to me so soon. Listen, I just left Our Lady of Angels after spending the last several hours talking to teachers and a few students and the guidance counselor. I’d like to run something past you. Any chance you could meet me for…” She looked at the clock. It was after seven. “Well, dinner or coffee or a drink or something?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t make it tonight.”

She mentally slapped her forehead. Duh. Friday night. Dinner hour. He probably had a date.

“Oh, that’s okay. I just thought that while I was on the way home…,” she said, slightly embarrassed.

“But I’d like to sit down with you and catch up tomorrow. What’s your day look like?”

“I might have some time.”
Like all the time in the world.

“I have something I have to do first thing,” he told her, “but I don’t know how long I’ll be tied up. Can I give you a call, maybe sometime around noon, one o’clock, see what your schedule is?”

“Sure. That would be fine. I’ll talk to you then.”

Mallory disconnected the call and tossed the phone into her bag. Wherever Charlie had been, whatever he’d been doing, he obviously wasn’t alone. In the background, she thought she’d heard the sound of a woman weeping.

Well, of course he’d have someone in his life. Maybe that’s what brought him back here to the town where he’d grown up, she thought as she drove toward home. Maybe he wanted to…

To what? Marry his hometown sweetheart? Mallory frowned, realizing that she didn’t know that he wasn’t already married.

Not for you,
she told herself.
You’ve done a lot of things in your life, but you’ve never gone after another woman’s man. Now is not the time to start. Use Charlie for the information he can share just as he’s surely going to use you for the same purpose. Find the kids, collect your fee, and skedaddle back on into your own little life.

Yeah.
She nodded as she parked in front of her town house.
That’s the plan.

She turned the key in the front door and walked in just as a message was being recorded on her answering machine. She reached for the phone, then stopped, her hand frozen in midair, when she recognized the voice.

“Say, I was in court today with an old friend of yours from the DA’s office. Steve Mooney, you remember him? He sure remembers you. Says you used him on more than one occasion to get charges upped or lowered, depending on whatever it was you wanted at the time. Yeah, that Steve Mooney.” Frank Toricelli coughed into the phone. “Anyway, he says to me, So, I see where your favorite girl is gonna be a PI now. Well, I got a lot of favorite girls, your name never made it to that list, so you can imagine my surprise when he tells me, Yeah, I see where Mallory Russo’s name is posted on the list of people who applied for a license.”

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