Tasting Fear (4 page)

Crafty bitch. Fucking with him from the grave. He flexed his knuckles. He wanted to wrap them around her stringy old neck and squeeze. But her daughters’ necks were velvety soft, he reminded himself. He could punish Lucia through them and have a juicy old time doing it. He took the cell in hand. His internal stopwatch had warned him that the time had come. Five till midnight—four…three…two…one…
Beeep
. Right on cue. John punched “talk.” “Yes?”

“What do you have to report?” came the soft, accented voice. “Something more interesting than weeping, bingeing females, I trust?”

John meditated for half a second upon the number of zeros that would be printed on his final bank draft. “Only that there’s a carpenter crew coming tomorrow morning to start renovating the place.”

“Renovating? Now?” The usually soft, dead-calm voice on the other end of the line rose in pitch to a gratifying squeak. “Did you search again?”

“As requested. I went through the place after the carpenters—”

“What? Carpenters? You mean they have already begun?”

“They unloaded their supplies,” John said. “Tomorrow they start.”

“Did you get the paperwork on the pendants, at least?”

At least? What was this “at least” shit? As if he’d failed? Asshole.

“Of course,” John said, his voice flat. “I found the delivery slip with the jeweler’s store address. I also found his home address.”

“And?” The German waited.

“Ah…and what? It was past business hours, and the guy was probably eating dinner, or fucking his mistress, so I figured I’d wait—”

“Wait? For what? For the carpenter’s crew to rip the house apart and find what you are unable to find? What then, John? What then?”

John’s mouth worked. The asshole went on before he could reply.

“Assume that the pendants are part of the Contessa’s puzzle. The daughters know nothing. The Contessa is dead, thanks to you—”

“I did not kill her!” John protested. “I just started to—”

“The only person who could conceivably know more is the jeweler,” the German said. And? So?

John blew a breath out flared nostrils. “All right. Tomorrow I’ll—”

“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”

“You mean…now? But it’s past midnight, and I—”

“I know exactly what time it is. Past midnight is an ideal time for an interrogation. It’s an ideal time for many things. As you know, John.”

John reordered his mind around this new imperative. “You are implying an, ah…ultimate solution?”

The man sighed, as if John was being tiresome. “When you were recommended, I was told that I would not have to micromanage.”

John ground his teeth. “I will take care of it.”

“I do not want that crew in that house until we know more.”

A muscle twitched in John’s cheek. “I can’t stop it without making a mess,” he said. “I could arrange an accident for the carpenter…?”

“No. No more bodies unless it is necessary. A break-in, some vandalism. Delay the work. Search again, not that I hold up much hope after your failure so far.”

“Yes,” John said tightly after a pause.

“Very well, then. Until tomorrow.”

The connection broke. John laid the phone down. Back to work.

He dragged his black plastic box out from under the bed. It was full of curiosities that he’d acquired over the years, devices he’d made and adapted himself, even some original antiques. He selected some tried-and-true favorites and loaded his kit bag. The thought of the job ahead, his knives and picks, the jeweler screaming, begging…ah. He needed something to kick him up. But first, the bitch Contessa’s house.

He selected the lock drill. Even if the contents of the house were inanimate, smashing them would feel good.

It was a precursor of warmer, softer, juicier things to come.

Chapter
3

N
ancy took a bracing gulp of her coffee, finished typing the latest edits into Peter’s CD liner notes in her laptop, and closed the program. She was already late. Moxie flung herself at Nancy’s feet and writhed. She picked the cat up and buried her face in the animal’s fur. Her kitty had been feeling neglected, and now Moxie had to spend yet another day alone while Nancy cleaned the stuff out of Lucia’s kitchen.

She had not asked her sisters to come help. Not that they could have, today. Nell was working, as always, teaching classes all morning and waitressing all afternoon, and Vivi was working a crafts show upstate. Of course, Nancy herself had a triple workday that she was canceling out to do all this. But the truth was, she preferred to see Liam Knightly alone. Nothing got past Vivi’s and Nell’s sharp eyes. Nancy didn’t want her sisters intercepting any smoldering glances, catching any stray waves of throbbing sexual heat. They would draw their shrewd conclusions, and, God forbid, tease her. Or worse, worry about her.

First order of business, to dress. The jeans and T-shirt she’d thrown on after her shower were perfect for cleaning and packing kitchenware, but they were utterly inadequate for facing Liam Knightly.

Moxie sprawled, purring, on a growing heap of rejects on the futon couch as Nancy yanked item after item out of her closet.

She finally settled on snug black pants and a white cotton blouse, nipped in at the waist, primly buttoned up. Just the last button left open, so that the beautiful sapphire
N
at her throat showed, a tiny glint of color. Crisp, no-nonsense, yet subtly feminine. She fixed her hair twelve different ways. In a paroxysm of disgust, she fell back on her old standby: slicked back with styling gel into a gleaming braid. She spritzed on hairspray to underscore the no-nonsense message of the tough hair. Some cover-up under her eyes, brown mascara, a dab of sandalwood oil to infuse the look with an air of sensual mystery.

She stared into the mirror wishing she could make the anxious crinkle between her brows disappear. What was she trying to accomplish, anyway? A come-on, or a back-off?

Hell with it. It was 8:20 already, and she was wasting the guy’s time with her stupid, crushed-out primping. She perched her glasses on her nose and gave herself a hard smile. Ta-da.

She picked up Moxie and buried her nose in the cat’s soft fur again. “Time for me to scram,” she whispered. “Sorry. I’ll make it up to you.”

Her cell phone buzzed. She almost ignored it, late as she was, but ingrained professionalism prevailed. Or maybe obsessive paranoia. It depended on one’s point of view. She hit “talk.” “Hello?”

“Nancy? This is Liam Knightly.”

Moxie fell to the ground with a squawk as Nancy’s arm went boneless. “Ah. Um, hi,” she stammered. “Are you already at the house?”

“Yes, and I—”

“Oh, God. We must have crossed wires about the meeting time. I’m so sorry. I’m running a little late, because of some—”

“Nancy.” He cut her off, his voice grim. “There’s a problem.”

“A problem?” A weird, creeping, cold began to spread its tendrils out to her belly and her limbs. “What do you mean, a problem?”

“There’s been another break-in.”

Another break-in? “That’s not possible,” she whispered.

“I was driving by on my way to breakfast, to see if your car was there,” he said. “I wanted to pass a broom through the place before you saw it, since Eoin and I tracked in mud yesterday. I saw the door was open, so I thought maybe you drove a different car up. Then I looked inside.”

His eloquent pause chilled her blood. She was starting to shake. “And?”

“It’s bad,” he said shortly.

She was crumpling. On her knees, her hands holding the floor away from herself like it was trying to rise up and hit her in the face. Her cell lay next to Moxie’s bowl of kitty crunchies. Fish-shaped pellets were scattered on the black-and-white tiles. The floor was cold against her hands. Liam Knightly’s urgent, tinny voice came through the phone, from where it lay on the floor. She let her hip drop to the floor so that she could support herself on one hand, and picked up the phone.

“Here I am,” she gasped out. “Sorry. Dropped the phone.”

“Jesus! You scared me! Are you okay?”

“I’m good,” she croaked. “Did you, um, call the—”

“The cops? Yeah. They’re on their way. You were my second call.”

Unreasonable panic seized her, ballooning inside her into something monstrous. She saw Lucia’s body lying on the ground, her wide-open eyes, her livid face. “Don’t go in! Get away from there,” she told him wildly. “Right now! What if whoever did it is still inside?”

“I’ll be okay,” he soothed. “I won’t go in. I’ll leave that for the cops.”

“It’s just a goddamn house.” The words made no sense, she realized, as they flew out of her mouth, and oh shit, her face had dissolved again. “It’s just a goddamn house. That’s all. That’s all!”

“Yes. That’s true,” he said. “Hey, Nancy? Answer me!”

She tried, but her throat was vibrating too much. She made a wordless sound, just so he would know she was still conscious.

“Nancy, give me one of your sisters’ phone numbers, okay? You shouldn’t be alone. I’ll call one of them for you. Give me the number.”

He thought she was going batshit on him. Embarrassment stiffened her spine. “No. They’re busy. I’ll be out there as soon as I can.”

“No!” He sounded appalled. “You’re upset! You should not drive!”

“I will be
fine.
I’ll see you in an hour and ten, barring traffic.”

“Hey! Wait! Nancy—”

She hung up on him and lurched over to the kitchen counter. The little espresso pot had a mouthful of powerful coffee in the bottom. She poured it into a cup, cold though it was, and dosed it with sugar.

Her cell began to tinkle. She checked. It was him. No freaking way was she answering now. Ten rings. A pause. Ten more. Take that, buddy. Then, the chime of a text message. She opened it. It said,

 

At least take a goddamn taxi pls

 

She snorted. Like she had a hundred and twenty bucks to burn. She tossed on her jacket, legs wobbling. This news had taken all the starch out of her, but it gave her a feeling of unfurling warmth in her chest that he worried about her. She cherished the feeling.

Silly though it was. Bossy though he’d been. Sweet of him.

She spent the drive up to Hempton trying to figure out why she’d flipped out like that. It was just a deserted house. A break-in was upsetting, expensive, a rotten inconvenience—and that was it.

Lucia was no longer in that house. The very worst that could possibly happen had already happened.

So why did she still feel so scared?

 

Liam lurked in his truck and watched cops and forensics techs trooping in and out of the D’Onofrio house. Finding the house trashed had been a shock. Weird, for lightning to strike the same place twice, just a week after Lucia’s death. He felt strange, queasy, like he was missing something important. Something that kept flitting out of sight before he could focus on it.

Maybe that was a result of not having slept. Around two-thirty a.m. he’d given up and headed to his furniture workshop. The detailed work of joining without glue or nails was one of his favorite activities. It put him in a mellow, focused place that he liked. The next best thing to sleep. Currently, he was working on a dining room table big enough to feed a dynasty. Sometimes he fantasized, in a vague, hopeful way, about his future wife while he worked on it, imagined how it would feel to see his wife and children gathered around it.

The fantasy usually gave him a connected feeling. Hope for the future. He’d figured that working on that table would be just the thing to chill him out. Hook him back into reality. His real, bedrock values.

He’d bombed out, big-time. He hadn’t been able to picture his future wife. She was a fog of bland possibilities, whereas Nancy D’Onofrio stood out, brilliantly sharp and clear. Every vivid detail of her, burned onto his retina. Those soft, cool fingers. At a certain point, his unruly mind had gone wild with erotic fantasies involving Nancy and the dining room table. Her, perched on the edge, graceful legs spread wide. Him, on his knees, with his face in her muff and his tongue as deep inside her as it would reach, licking up her lube. Her hands wound into his hair. Writhing and whimpering.

He was still twitching from the aftereffects. Whew. Working on that dining room table was never going to be the same again.

He’d gotten out of the house before Eoin was up. The first thing he’d done was to drive by the D’Onofrio house. And the bitch of it was, she wasn’t even in the damn house. Oh, no, it was enough for him that she’d been in it the day before. That she’d be in it again today.

Jesus. How sick was that. How stupid.

Well, he’d paid for his sophomoric bullshit. He got to be the dumb-ass who bore the bad tidings. That was what happened when a guy started nosing around in a woman’s messy, complicated life.

Even so, he was quietly glad it had fallen out this way. Better him than her. If she’d been that upset to hear about it on the phone, it would have scared her out of her wits to see the condition of that house in person and alone, with no warning. And no wonder, for the love of God. After finding her mother there dead, just a week before.

Nancy’s small, battered black Volkswagen Jetta pulled in behind his truck. His heart rate kicked way up. She’d driven. Stubborn female.

She didn’t spare him so much as a glance when she got out. The wind fluttered her white blouse, but did not budge a wisp of her smooth hair. Her body was so graceful. Her profile stark and pure as she stared at the house. Her face was terribly pale. She looked like she might faint.

He got out of his truck and folded his arms over the heavy thud in his rib cage, as if she might hear it. As if the woman didn’t have more serious things to worry about than his horn-dog crush. She turned at the sound of the car door. Her chin went right up.

He went for it. “So you drove.”

“Of course,” was her cool retort. “I can’t afford a cab.”

He let his silence criticize that decision, and a flush of anger bloomed on her cheeks. “Did you call your sisters?” he demanded.

“Not that it’s any of your business, but no. Not yet. Nell’s teaching and doesn’t have a cell anyway, and Vivi’s upstate doing a crafts fair. I’ll tell them about it later, when I know exactly what happened.”

He grunted. “Hmph. Just wondering why it always seems to be you who has to take care of the messy details.”

“It’s not their fault!” she snapped. “They’re perfectly willing to help! They’re just busy! And you had my number, not theirs.”

Her head was high, her eyes snapping. Excellent. She looked much better. Nothing like putting a man in his place to perk a woman up.

“Uh, yeah. Of course,” he murmured, suitably subdued.

She trotted up the stairs with a spring in her step that she hadn’t had before. He caught up with her, looked at the marks under her eyes that the makeup did not hide. He wanted to take her hand, offer her his arm. But her hands were clenched, knuckles white. Bracing herself.

He followed her in. She looked around. The place had been brutally trashed. Every piece of furniture had been upended, every sofa cushion and pillow slashed, every breakable thing crushed. The tiles he and Eoin had hauled in were everywhere. Lengths of lumber were scattered around like huge matchsticks. There were jagged holes in the walls. Every picture had been flung down and lay shattered on the floor. A photograph of Lucia and her three daughters smiled up from the floor, covered with shards of glass.

Nancy bent down and reached for the pieces. Her hand shook.

“Please don’t touch anything yet, ma’am,” said the evidence tech working the scene, a middle-aged woman. “It might be better if you waited outside. Until we’ve finished.”

“Oh. Um, let me just take a look,” Nancy said. “I’ll be quick.” She took a step farther into the room and let out a low cry of distress when she saw what lay at her feet. It was impossible to identify, a formless tangle of wire and chunks of broken glass and stone.

“Oh, no,” Nancy whispered. Her voice shook. “This is…this is a sculpture that Vivi did for Lucia, years ago. ‘The Three Sisters,’ she called it. It was one of Lucia’s prize possessions.” Then she turned and saw the
intaglio
writing table. Her hand flew up over her mouth. “Oh, my God.”

The plastic cover she’d bought had been tossed aside, and the plane of the table itself smashed in. The two pieces lay collapsed in upon themselves, splintered edges ragged. The four-by-four that had been used to break it lay in the midst of the broken pieces. The jade plant was in pieces on the floor, dirt and leaves scattered everywhere.

Better judgment, common sense clamored at him, but he ignored them. He reached out and took her hand.

Nancy’s fingers curled gratefully around his. A rush of sustaining energy flooded into her body through his hand. He was so solid. An oak that would never bend or break. The romantic metaphor almost made her smile. It was lifted right out of the haunting ballad that Enid had just cut for the album, a song Nancy had finished helping mix in the studio only a few days ago. Of course, the oak in that particular folk song did break. The girl was left barefoot in the snow with an illegitimate baby in her arms. Just a little something to think about.

She stared down at the ruined table, thinking about the vast sweep of history that it had seen. Lucia’s family line and this historic table had both come to an abrupt, violent end, here in this room, within a week of each other.

As if the table could not exist without Lucia.

One thought kept coming back, circling around and around in her mind. She opened her mouth, and voiced it. “He wasn’t satisfied the first time. He’s still angry.”

Liam slanted her a cautious glance. “You think it’s the same person? From what the cop said, it’s a very different kind of crime.”

She shook her head. Anything she said was going to sound like grief-stricken rambling. She pressed her hand hard against her mouth as she stared at the ruined table, painstakingly crafted by some nameless artisan hundreds of years ago—smashed by a brain-dead hoodlum.

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