Authors: Carolyn Hart
Rachel rattled the pink flyer. “Diane Littlefield. That's why you asked about Diane. Oh, Annie, she does have a red Jeep.”
“I know. I saw her in the Jeep this afternoon.” Annie frowned. “She was working at her mother's antique store. Why wasn't she in school?”
“She goes to school half days and works in the afternoons. Lots of kids do that and she doesn't care about school, not really. I mean, she doesn't make good grades, just barely passes. Everybody treats her like she's a big deal because she's”âRachel carefully folded the flyersâ“different. But not”âand her honesty was painfulâ“different like me. I mean, I'm too skinny and I don't talk like the other girls and I've only lived here a couple of years. It's like Diane's special because she goes to Europe all the time and she's thin like a model and her clothes are always perfect. She's better than everybody. She doesn't have to make good grades. She's going to go to some school in France after she graduates and all the guys are hot for her. Except Ben, and he's been in love with Meredith since they were in fourth grade. That's what Christy told me. Anyway, Diane's special.” Rachel flipped open the second flyer, pointed to the cryptic sentence: What happened to the Littlefields' red Jeep? “Is that what you want Christy and me to do, call a meeting and ask everybody about Diane's Jeep? I don't think Christy will help me. She won't want to be left out of every
thing.” Rachel's eyes were huge and forlorn. “But I can do it. I'm not going to have any friends anyway.”
“No, no, no.” Annie understood in a flash. Rachel was in despair because she saw her life at school tumbling into the misery of ostracism, and yet to help Annie she was willing to brave the very girls she feared. “Oh, Rachel, absolutely not.” Annie's eyes shone with love and admiration. “That wouldn't be fair to Diane. Everything in these flyers may be a lie. That's not what I have in mind at all. In fact, you can say you want to help Diane by finding out who's behind the awful flyers. Here's what I'd like for you to doâ¦”
Annie loved the sounds of night, the
of barred owls hunting for unwary cotton rats, the continual call of the chuck-will's-widow flying low to devour roaches and moths, the rustle of magnolia leaves. Max gave a shove and the wooden swing creaked. Annie rested her head against the curve of his arm and looked up at the star-spangled sky. The shadows of the palmettos on the deck of the pool were squat and chunky in the moonlight. The charcoal embers still glowed in the grill. Annie gave a contented sigh.
Max gave her a squeeze. “Feeling better?”
“Yes.” How could she not feel better? Max's outrage at the smashed window made her feel cherished. Moreover, through her own effortsâand it hadn't been easy or pleasant to make that circuit of those accused in the fake flyersâshe'd wrested vindication from, at the least, and perhaps made a good start on vanquishment of, her nemesis, whoever that might be. Annie gave a
little chuckle and pointed toward the unshaded window on the second floor that blazed with light. “I checked on Rachel a few minutes ago and she'd only eaten half her hamburgerâoh, Max, that was a great hamburgerâ¦”
Max gave a modest shrug, but he did consider himself to be a world-class hamburger chef, his ground-chuck patties studded with diced Vidalia onions and mild green chilis.
“â¦anyway, she was too busy talking on one phone and taking calls on her cell phone and printing out leaflets offering a hundred-dollar reward for the identification of the person who left the fake flyers all over town. Christy told Rachel there were a couple of hundred flyers at the school this morning. And Christy's telling everybody Rachel skipped school today to help me investigate. Rachel said everybody's calling and asking all about itâincluding the senior girls. And a couple of them are helping organize the meeting tomorrow after school and it's turned into a âDefend Diane' rally, which is also a plus for Rachel with the senior girls. Soâ”
“So all's well that ends well.” Max bent closer to nuzzle her cheek. His lips were soft and seeking.
“Oh, Max, I hope so.” A cloud slid across the moon and it was suddenly darker. An owl hooted. A rustle sounded in the tangle of growth beneath the towering pines. Perhaps a raccoon, smelling the hamburgers, knowing there might be tasty remnants in the garbage. Or perhaps a fox or a cougar. Annie stared into the shadowy night and felt uneasy, but Max's lips were warm and suddenly the world beyond them mattered not at all.
Henny was smiling as she unlocked her front door. A wonderful evening. Old friends were best friends. And Bill had been there with her and Maggie, a part of their memories of the heat and dust and wind in Sweetwater, Texas, the roar of the planes, the fatigue and the fear and the fun, the jukebox with the hits by Glenn Miller and Lena Horne and Rudy Vallee, especially Rudy Vallee's “As Time Goes By.” Odd in a way that she still felt like the Henny of so long ago and yet, should she glance in the mirror as she opened the front door, she would see an old woman past eighty, dark hair streaked with silver, lined face, a woman who had lived almost sixty years longer than her young husband. She wasn't the same and yet in a way she would always be the same. Would Bill still love her?
Had she spoken aloud or was the swift answer simply in her heart? She closed the door, dropped her purse and keys on the small table beneath the mirror. In the daytime, the mirror reflected the world of the marsh through the bank of windows that ran the length of the long room. Now there was the blink of a tiny red light.
Henny crossed to the kitchen, separated from the living area by a serving counter, and looked at the caller ID. Kay Nevis. Henny stepped out of her low-slung pumps, massaged an instep sore from a long though leisurely after-dinner walk on the Savannah waterfront. Odd. Why would Kay have called again? Henny picked up the receiver, dialed her voice-mail number, punched in her ID, then 1:
“Henny, this is Kayâ¦” The troubled voice trailed off, as if undecided whether to continue.
Henny stepped out of her other shoe, padded to the refrigerator and plunked ice into a tall tumbler. She opened the door, found the apple juice, poured it over the ice.
“â¦I can't decide exactly what to do. I've made a stand.” A sigh. “It would have been so much easier had I ignored the situation. But I can't do that. And I won't back down. It can be handled without anyone knowing, but if I must make my knowledge public, I will do so. Some actions cannot be countenanced.” A deep gong sounded the half hour. “Oh, well, it's getting late. Never mind my call. I'll take care of it. I wish I didn't have to do this. But right is right.” A click signaled the end of the connection.
Henny listened to the message again. The call was very unlike Kay, who always knew her own mind and never hesitated to share her convictions, whether or not others agreed. Kay had sounded troubled and worried.
Henny glanced at the clock. Almost eleven. It was too late to call. Whatever it was, it would have to wait until morning.
Laurel picked up her knapsack, which bulged uncomfortably when slung over her shoulders. It contained a 35-mm video camera equipped with the Night Quest 6010 Ultra pocket scope, a versatile, lightweight camera night-lens system that was very efficient in recording nighttime activity in extremely low-light conditions. Fortunately, there was sufficient moonlight that she
should be able to obtain excellent footage when the action began. So far, her evening excursions had been unremarkable except for the startled raccoon near the country-club trash cans and an even more startled amorous couple on a (they thought) deserted beach. She'd been a trifle disappointed that she'd not encountered more people. However, last night she'd driven her motorboat slowly past Gull's Point. She'd worn her miner's hat with the light onâshe tucked a strand of golden hair beneath the rimâso she had been clearly visible. When she'd smelled tobacco smokeâit was rather astonishing how many people still smoked, both so bad for them and definitely so apparent and wouldn't one think those engaged in nefarious activities would try hard not to be noticed!âshe'd edged the boat next to a rather large hummock and stood in the bow, her outstretched arms holding her rhinestone-studded pink plastic dowsing rods, and called loudly, “I seek treasure stolen from Blackbeard.” She'd continued her requestâand truly sound carried so beautifully over water, surely not one word was missed by the listenerâuntil the smell of the cigarette was gone and so, very likely, was the smoker.
Laurel glanced at the clock, gave a small yawn. These late-night forays were a bit tiring, but she wouldn't have to do them much longer. Tomorrow nightâif Rosa had heard correctlyâwas the important night. Once that was past, it would be essential to continue the thrice-daily performances with the divining rods for at least a week or two. Then she would announce to the world at large that the divining rods simply refused to focus on ill-gotten gains, so they
were of no use to Laurel in her search for the booty looted from Blackbeard by a rather daring associate. On no account must anyone connect Laurel to the incident she intended to record tomorrow night. That would lead straight to Rosa. But if all went well, no oneâespecially not the young and very rich Crawfords, who lived near Gull's Point on their profits from cocaineâwould ever have any idea that their downfall had anything to do with Laurel and the maid who had worked at both their house and Laurel's.
Another yawn. Laurel patted her lips with pink-tipped fingers. Coffee? No, that would keep her awake upon her return. Oh, well, once she was in her boat and out on the water, she'd wake up. And, after all, something interesting might occur as she putt-putted around the island.
Frank Saulter lay quietly on the air mattress across the room from his bed. In the wash of moonlight, the pillows beneath the sheet looked very much like a sleeping form. Frank was not sleeping. His Smith & Wesson stainless-steel pistol rested inches from his hand. His other arm was crooked behind his head. He watched the shifting shadows as the breeze rustled the magnolia outside the bedroom window. He knew the noises of the night. He had no doubt he would hear a step on the porch, the squeak of an opening window or the smash of glass. Would Jud Hamilton pad as quietly as a prowling fox? Or would he bull through a window, glorying in attack?
That Jud would come, Frank was coldly certain. If not tonight, the next night or the next. Frank touched
the hard steel of the gun and looked at the dusky images on the wall. He was justified in defending himself. The images on the wall melded into memories in his mind: Sue in her pink bridesmaid's dress at Colleen's wedding; Colleen dead at the foot of the stairs; Annie's eyes when she said, “But you were the chief of police.”
HE MOTORBOAT ROSE
and fell in the deep swells. Laurel was far enough offshore to avoid the hummocks, near enough to keep the dark shore in view. The light in the miner's hat cascaded down, bathing her in a gentle glow. She was confident she looked simply fetching in her white middy blouse and black slacks with scarlet piping on the pockets. Her black tennis shoes sported red laces. Surely Blackbeard would have approved. She hummed a sea chantey as she neared Gull's Point. The three-story house that belonged to the Crawfords was quite modern, with an interesting assortment of electronic aerials and dishes. Tonight no lights shone. The Crawfords often entertained, lavish parties with a band from Savannah and catering by the country club. There would be no party tomorrow night, but Laurel was willing to wagerâthough she was not a betting womanâthat there would be a huge party Friday night. How better to distribute bricks of cocaine than an evening of merriment with many off-island guests? Who would note as the band played and guests danced that men moved quietly in the darkness shifting containers into unlocked trunks of cars parked in a shadowy lane?
Laurel idled the motor. She reached inside the backpack in the next seat, pulled out the video cam with its attached nightscope. She looked through the view
finder and was astonished as always at the clarity of the picture. She frowned. Was that a boat without running lights? How odd. The last vestige of sleepiness fled. She was alert and wary. But it was an outboard, not a cabin cruiser. The boat coming to the Crawfords tomorrow night would be a cabin cruiser that had made the run from Colombia. If this boat had shown running lights, she would never have given it a thought. She pressed the record button and the film whirred.
A thick bright beam from a flashlight blazed, pinning her in a harsh circle of light.
Laurel lowered the video cam, shoved it into the backpack. She held up a hand, squinted against the piercing shaft of light.
The outboard bucketed toward her. A gunshot exploded.
Laurel registered the fact of the gunshot (she'd been a skeet champion at one time) and the dark boat bucketing toward her. Quickly, she clicked off the light on the miner's hat, bent low over the wheel, gunned her motor and sped out into the Sound.
The phone rang. Max flailed upright. He peered at the clock. Three
.! Had to be a wrong number. That, or big-time trouble. He fumbled with the receiver.
Annie rolled over on her side, turned on the bedside lamp.
“H'lo.” His voice was thick with sleep.
Annie checked the time. “Max, who is it?”
Max held up his hand, blinked as he listened. “Dear
boy. I'm so sorry to wake you, but I felt I should. Being shot at, of course, was rather startling.”
“Shot at?” Max swung his feet to the floor. “Ma, who's shooting at you?”
“My dear”âthere was a hint of impatienceâ“if I knew, I should be much better equipped to deal with the situation. However, I'm afraid I was clearly visible, so I rather think my house may have been broken into. Possibly not, but if my demise is definitely intended that would surely follow, wouldn't it? I know it's rather late to call, but I wanted to get in touch with you before the police called. In case they should. But that does seem rather likely. At least, to me.”
“The police? Are the police after you? Ma, did you shoot somebody?” Max struggled to his feet, began to unbutton his pajama top.
Annie rolled out of bed on his side, stood on tiptoe next to him, trying to hear.
Max held the receiver between them and Laurel's voice flowed into the room. “â¦Dear boy, do listen. I have not shot anyone. Someone shot at me.” There was puzzled speculation in her tone.
Max was not reassured. “Where are you?” His voice was grim.
“Oh, here and there. But not at home, of course. That's why I called. Should the police get in touch with you, simply tell them I've gone shopping in Atlanta and will return”âa thoughtful pauseâ“actually I'm not sure. I have a matter I must see to and it is most unfortunate that this has occurred. Rather a problem, to be honest.”
“Ma, wait a minute. Why did somebody shoot at you?” He jammed his hand through his uncombed hair.
“No running lights.” Her husky voice hung in the air. “Hmm. That scarcely seems reason enough to shoot an observer. However, I can't worry about that now. In any event, be assured I am fine. Energized, in fact. I must, however, impress upon you”âshe was suddenly quite firm and seriousâ“that it is of critical importance, may I say a matter of life or death, that my name not be associated with the police in any fashion. Absolutely not. Therefore I must insist that you not exhibit any concern to the authorities. Should my house have been entered, you must emphasize how fortunate it is that I am off island. And that”âher usual cheery tone returnedâ“will take care of that. Now you and Annie get right back to sleep. Ta-ta.” The connection ended.
“Ma!” He stared at the receiver.
Annie bolted toward the door. “I'll check the caller ID.”
But when they reached the kitchen, Max right behind Annie, and looked at the blinking light, Annie slapped her hands on her hips. “She used her cell phone. She could have called from anywhere.”
They looked at each other, faces strained, hair tousled with sleep, and turned to hurry upstairs, both talking at once.
“â¦better go and checkâ¦”
“â¦so she's not there. But maybe we'll find outâ¦”
Annie flipped open her purse, felt about for her Chap Stick. “Why does she think her house has been broken into?” As she traced her lips, the Ferrari careened out of their drive. “Better slow down a little.”
Just as Max braked, a white-tailed buck loped across the road. “Yeah. Annie, I don't get it. She says somebody shot at her and her house may be broken into. Now what's the cause and effect? I mean, I know Laurel'sâ¦” His voice trailed away. “Wait a minute. Somebody shot at her and she thinks whoever did it will still be out to get her, so her house may be broken into. My God, what do you suppose she's gotten herself into?” He gave a spurt of irritation. “Dammit, why was she so vague?”
Annie didn't bother to answer. If a man didn't know his own mother by nowâ¦Laurel was a grand master of vagueness, misdirection and obfuscation. There was always, of course, a reason. Not, perhaps, a reason that would suffice for the great majority of rational beings, but a reason.
Annie stared into the pitch-dark gloom of the unlighted road. The turnoff to Laurel's house was not far, but it would be difficult to see. “Running lights. What did that mean?”
Max's head jerked toward her. “Running lights! Annie, she must have been on the boat. Maybe we should check the marina first.”
A siren sounded. Annie pointed up the road. “Look, Max, flashing lights. That's a police car and it's turning onto Laurel's road.”
Max gripped the steering wheel and pushed on the accelerator. The Ferrari bolted ahead and careened onto the dusty road only a car length behind the police cruiser. Both cars jolted to a stop in the crushed-oyster-shell driveway in front of Laurel's dark house.
Annie and Max piled out of the Ferrari as the door of the cruiser opened, slammed shut. A burglar alarm
wailed from the dark house. A sharp white flashlight beam swung toward them.
“Annie, Max.” Billy Cameron hailed them. “The alarm company called us. Did they call you, too?”
Max, true to his legal background as well as his Boy Scout oath, never deliberately lied. Annie found it quite endearing as well as mystifying. She, however, was neither a lawyer nor a Boy Scout. “We got a call, Billy”âcertainly that was true and there was no law that she had to identify the callerâ“so we came as fast as we could. We'd better check everything out.”
Billy rested one hand on his holster. “I'll see. You stay here.”
But Annie was starting up the front walk toward the house built high on arched supports. “Probably a squirrel triggered the alarm and Laurel's not here to turn it off. She's shopping in Atlanta.”
Max made an inarticulate sound in his throat.
The tension eased from Billy's shoulders. “Oh, she's not home? Okay, I'll take a look around. You and Max wait here.”
Annie pointed at the pot of geraniums on the front porch. “There's a key tucked in the middle of the flowers. And the code's 5555. Laurel said 1955 was a very good year.” Annie had an inkling that whatever Laurel had enjoyed in 1955 would not be an appropriate topic for dinner-table conversation.
Billy hurried up the broad steps. He shook his head as he fished for the key. He found it, opened the door, and stepped toward the alarm box. The siren stopped in mid-wail.
Max jammed his hands into the pockets of his chinos, paced back and forth by the broad front steps. “Listen, we can't lie to Billy. Somebody shot at Ma.”
“Max, she told us to keep quiet about it.” Annie moved toward the steps.
Slamming doors marked Billy's progress through the house. In a few minutes his heavy footsteps sounded on the heart-pine floor of the entryway. He poked his head out the front door. “The glass is broken on a patio door and it's open. Nothing's disturbed. I'll look upstairs.” The front stairs creaked beneath his weight.
Max started up the front steps.
Annie reached out, gripped his hand. “You heard Laurelâa matter of life or death. Max, she meant it.”
Max's unshaven face was drawn with worry. “That's the problem. We need to find her. And the police can look for her.” He held the door for Annie. They stepped inside, looked around the charming entryway, the pink-and-white-striped wallpaper, ivy twining from a cut-glass punch bowl on a wrought-iron table, an original oil of a seaside Greek village clinging to a cliff.
Annie squeezed his hand. She kept her voice low. “Max, she's okay. That's why she called. We have to do what she asked. For some reason it is very important that she not be linked with the police.”
Max stared up the curving stairs. “Life or deathâ¦that's what she said.” His tone was thoughtful. He took a deep breath. “Okay. We'll play her gameâwhatever the hell it is. But I wish we had some idea of what she's up to.”
Doors banged upstairs.
Max frowned. “Sounds like Billy's slamming into every room. What's he looking for?”
Annie walked to the end of the hall. Billy had left the lights on as he went. The long, cheerful terrace room glowed. The heap of broken glass by the French window was easy to see. The breaking of the glass must have triggered the alarm. Annie frowned. The door was ajar. That meant the intruder, despite the alarm, reached inside to unlock the door. Of course, everyone ignored alarms. Still, it would take enormous coolness or utter desperation to enter a house with a burglar alarm ringing.
Steps thudded in the upper hallway. Billy started down the stairs, stopped when he saw them. “Hey, come on up. Nobody's here, but somebody's made a hell of a mess.”
Max took the steps two at a time. Annie was right behind him.
Billy stood by the open door to the bedroom that overlooked the pond. It was Laurel's bedroom, a lovely room with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that opened onto a balcony, a huge canopied bed with ice-blue silk hangings and spread, cream walls, a grass mat on the wooden floor. Billy's big face creased into a heavy frown. “Look at that.”
Chairs were overturned. The doors to the balcony flung open, many of the glass panes shattered and cracked. Cosmetics atop the dresser had been swept onto the floor. The torn canopy of the bed hung in shreds. Ugly gashes scored the posters of the French Provincial bed. A machete protruded from the center pillow.
Water slapped against the pilings. Max stared at the empty slip. “So she was out in the boat. Annie, why the hell? In the middle of the night, she was out in the boat. And she's still out somewhere. Where could she have goneâand where is she now?” He glanced at his watch. “My God, it's almost five o'clock.”
“She was fine when she called us.” But Annie, too, was puzzled.
Max swept the flashlight back and forth. There was nothing to see but the dark water. “Dammit, we should have told Billy.”
Annie slipped her arm through his. “Max, she didn't want us to do that. And she's okay, we know that. Yes, somebody tore up her room, but it wasn't anything more than a bully trying to scare her.” Or was it? The slashed furnishings argued unsatisfied fury. If Laurel had been thereâ¦Annie took a deep breath. “Anyway, Laurel was smart enough not to come home. She's lying low. And if we can't find her, Mr. Machete can't find her either.” Annie tugged on his arm. “Come on.” She smothered a yawn. “Let's go home. There isn't anything else we can do tonight.”
As the Ferrari pulled away from the marina, Annie leaned back against the headrest, welcoming the soft sweep of air through the window. Windowâ¦Tomorrow she'd have to see about her car window. Smashed glass. Smashed glass at Laurel's house, too. Somebody didn't like them very much. Tomorrowâ¦It was already tomorrow, the faint tendrils of pink presaging sunrise. But she had to get some sleep. Laurel was probably sleeping like a baby at this very moment.
Laurel stirred in her sleep. So wonderful to relax for a while. No hurry to get up. Surely there was some coffee in the pantry. And there was the bike in the carport. Not even locked. Dear Pudge. So trusting. And the dock was quite private. There was no reason for anyone to note the presence of the boat. Oh yes, she was secure for the moment. After tonightâ¦well, she'd worry about the morrow when it came. She'd spend the day quietly. She'd spotted a raft of mysteries in the living room. Pudge was quite up-to-date in his taste, books by Robert Crais and Harlan Coben and Gar Anthony Haywood. Mysteriesâwhy had that person shot at her? Her eyes opened for an instant. There had to be a reason. But that could wait. The coming night was what mattered. Her eyes closed, she gave a little sigh and slipped into a favorite dream of a darkly handsome man walking toward her across a sparkling expanse of marble while an orchestra played, the violins sighing. He wore a tuxedo with a red cummerbund. Perhaps paisley? And her blueâice-blue, of courseâdress swirled over her silver slippers as she ran to meet himâ¦.