Chasing shadows, p.20
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       Chasing Shadows, p.20

           Karen Harper
 
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  She thought about lying, but time was getting short. Whoever ran from Nick and hit Jace over the head could be the same person who shot her and shoved them in the water. So she decided to push Win a little more.

  “It’s Francine’s diary she kept for years, from way back.”

  “Recent, too, I hope, so it might throw light on what happened to her.”

  “It’s very revealing, but sadly, that’s the hardest part to decipher.” She didn’t tell him why and he didn’t ask. “I’m only up to the part where Jasmine is in her teens.”

  “But you must have peeked at the end. Anything to help the sheriff? Or more importantly, to help you and Attorney Markwood? But my only interest in it is whether it could be used for my shoot in Francine’s bedroom, if you’d trust it to me for a while. An interesting artifact.”

  “You could use it later if I stay right there, then take it back. It could be key evidence.”

  “You’re teasing or taunting me, but why?” he demanded, turning toward her but keeping one hand on the camera.

  “Just observing. You see with a keen eye. And I can learn from that.”

  He said nothing else but didn’t ask her to leave. The next time he popped out from under his dark cloth, she asked, “I overheard something about Neil’s Superman costume and collection of fright masks. Does he have illusions of grandeur—or terror?”

  “He didn’t show you everything then? Best take that as an omen. Besides the suit from Creature from the Black Lagoon, the man has a second cinema costume of note—old-time TV, rather. You’re much too young, but in the 1950s, there was a television show called The Adventures of Superman starring an actor named George Reeves, who, by the way, had played one of Scarlett O’Hara’s suitors in an early scene of Gone with the Wind.”

  “Shades of Shadowlawn?”

  “I told you the first day we met that Shadowlawn is real, and, therefore, so much better than Scarlett’s Tara.”

  “I remember. So he wants to display that costume, too?”

  “If he gets his way with his museum, which the State of Florida or any buyer would probably kick off the grounds. You know, the ironic thing about the actor Reeves who portrayed Superman? First of all, it was really a dumb show. They expected the kids watching to believe a so-called ‘mild-mannered newspaper reporter’ could just take off his glasses, slick his hair back, change his clothes and not be recognized for who he was in real life.”

  “But it’s amazing how people can con each other, isn’t it?”

  He shrugged. “The older you get, the more you realize how brilliant or stupid people can be. Anyhow, there was a huge scandal over whether the Superman actor committed suicide or was murdered. But back to the masks—Neil paid big bucks for the famous one from one of the Phantom of the Opera productions. I believe he said he has one from an early Batman movie and one from that horrible slasher Scream. I told him he was crazy to buy one of those Scream so-called Ghostface masks on eBay because you can get them in any store selling Halloween things. What? You look—actually, scared.”

  “I’ve seen that Scream mask, but I couldn’t remember what it was from. It reminded me of some famous painting.”

  “Did it? That’s by an artist named Munch. The character in the Scream horror movies runs around murdering people who deserve it since they’re so stupid, treading where they should not.”

  But Claire was thinking she’d have to tell Nick she’d finally learned what had inspired Fiend Face’s mask. And that Neil had bought one of those masks on eBay when he’d initially given her the impression he wasn’t internet savvy. Perhaps he’d never showed her that mask—or his others—because he didn’t want them to link his Ghostface mask to the person who threatened them the day they drove here from Naples. Win had said that Neil was deceptive and borderline dangerous, though she knew not to believe everything a witness said, especially one so verbal and helpful as Win.

  Claire had named her small company Clear Path, because, as she’d said on her website, she could help her clients find their way to answers, to better solutions in their problems and their lives.

  But in this case of Nick’s, it seemed she was fighting her way through the underbrush along the river, at night, with someone she couldn’t see chasing her. It was like running, running, making progress but still being lost in the mud and the thick foliage. Those narcoleptic nightmares she’d had years ago with ghosts and dead people chasing her...it was just like that.

  21

  Claire was surprised to see Nick peek in the door of the parlor while she was watching Win. He gestured for her to join him in the hall. Win was draped to his shoulders by his black curtain again. The camera was clicking away, and the lights were popping. Claire put the diary in her purse, rose quietly and joined Nick who closed the door behind her.

  “Let’s walk down by the river,” he said. “I think it might rain, but not yet.”

  “It’s that time of year. You can tell it’s 4:00 p.m. when it starts to rain, at least in Naples.”

  “I saw there’s a bench off to the side beyond Bronco’s airboat. I get the feeling these walls have ears,” he whispered with a glance toward the front door, then the back one.

  “There was a gator near that spot on the river,” she told him, digging her sunglasses out of her purse. “But I’m game.”

  “Don’t say that too loud around here or Bronco may hunt you. I thought he’d be in there with you two,” he said as he held the back door open for her.

  “He was, but Win told him to take a break for a while. Win didn’t even like me sitting there. Bronco may be out here somewhere,” she told him, looking around, as they crossed the patio and headed for the river.

  She wasn’t a bit afraid out here with Nick, though along the water it seemed so—well, primeval. A dinosaur might just as well lumber out of this thick foliage, and the St. Johns River reminded her of that narrow, dark ditch last night. She realized, as terrified as she’d been when the car went in the water, that being with Nick had made all the difference. He’d told her not to panic, and she hadn’t—at least, not for long.

  Besides, the struggle she’d been through with her disease, the dreadful nightmares that had seemed so real before she was properly medicated—what could be more horrible than that? More than once in her sleep before she was diagnosed, she’d been certain she was going to die.

  “Claire—” his voice interrupted her thoughts “—I said, any more ideas? I mean about who looks suspicious.”

  “I’m writing up my final conclusions for you tonight about those I’ve interviewed. Jasmine, Win, Neil, Bronco—even Cecilia Moran. I’ll have Heck type it from my notes, though my handwriting can’t be as bad as Francine’s in this diary. I was hoping to learn more about her in it so that I could give you my opinion on whether she might have committed suicide. But it’s slow going with faded and blurred ink, mostly from the early and late parts getting wet, not to mention her small, cursive writing. She sometimes refers to people I don’t have a fix on. But I just feel there’s something here that will help us.”

  “You just feel? If you have to testify about all this in court, since you’ve begun to sympathize with her so much, will you claim woman’s intuition?”

  She knew he was teasing but that riled her. She was on edge and frustrated and she wanted to get home to Lexi.

  “Hardly,” she said. “I’ll swear to experience and knowledge from my Certified Forensic Fraud credentials and document examiner training. I don’t mean to sound defensive, but Jasmine and everyone else I’ve interviewed here are sounding that way, and it’s catching, like some powerful plague.”

  “Sorry. I have the problem of seeing you as a dynamic, desirable woman as well as a dedicated colleague.”

  She felt herself begin to blush, of all things. Had they almost had another argument? But she was a w
oman, too. They’d blurred the lines between professional and personal and, as dangerous as that was, it was partly her fault, too.

  Nick took her elbow and steered her toward a wooden bench. It was rustic, almost crude, a log sawed in half for both the seat and the back, but the surface had been sanded smooth. She hadn’t noticed it when she was out here with Bronco, so his airboat must have hidden it. She saw the chain that secured the boat to the tree was off and the boat rested closer to the river. Was Bronco planning to go out on a day Win was here, or had he gone for a ride already? Airboats made quite a racket, and she hadn’t heard anything. She wondered if he’d been out in the boat with poor Lola or sat on this bench with her.

  They sat close together, turned slightly toward each other. “So, you’ll give me an opinion on murder versus suicide after you read the diary,” he said in what suddenly sounded like his lawyer voice. “After some agonizing, I’m holding to my original position that Jasmine can’t be guilty, and I want to explain why. I know she’s done some things that look bad.” He cleared his throat, then went on.

  “She refuses to admit or accept that Francine might have committed suicide. I told her flat out that would be her best defense if they indict, but she won’t budge. She even pulled the guilt card on me—that, because of my father’s death, I should understand that she won’t accept that Francine killed herself.”

  “Her refusal to try to take that way out is strong in her favor. But she probably knew you’d go for it the way you did, that it would help to convince you of her innocence. Does she know about South Shores?”

  “No. Do you have to see every side for everything, Claire? I’m trying to build a waterproof case here!”

  “You hired me to do this job, and we agreed I would do it my way. I’m struggling to stay objective, but that’s getting harder the more I know these people—and you.”

  “Maybe you shouldn’t stay objective about me, at least not when we’re done here. Look, I need to get what information and insight you have, then send you home. After last night, I’m worried something will happen to you.”

  He angled his body more toward her and slid his arm behind her shoulders on the back of the bench. A piercing scream overhead made them both jump. Surely not a drone in this thick tree cover.

  “Sounds like an osprey way back in here,” he said, looking up. “But I don’t see it.” They were silent a moment. In her ears echoed her own scream when they’d plunged into the water last night.

  “Nick,” she said, “I do have something more to say before I write things up. Win says Neil has a Superman costume that belonged to some 1950s actor who either killed himself or committed suicide—big scandal over that. Neil seems to have a dark, secretive, maybe borderline psychotic side. But something more.”

  “Go on,” he urged, frowning. His hand behind her gently clasped her shoulder as if to steady her. That was the Nick she knew and had come to like, maybe even love a little bit—strong yet sensitive, even vulnerable.

  “Neil has a collection of so-called monster masks he did not show Heck and me or even mention during our tour of his museum. Win’s description of one of them is just like what we’ve called Fiend Face, so could that have been Neil? The mask is inspired by that horror movie franchise called Scream. So if Jasmine could have told Neil that I—maybe even we—were coming, and if Neil wanted to scare us off...”

  “That’s a lot of ifs. Bronco was not here that day or the day after, either. Could you see Neil and Bronco in cahoots to get rid of Francine before she asked them to leave, if the mansion was sold or deeded out from under them?”

  “Not really, but desperation creates strange bedfellows. Bronco was supposedly hunting pythons in the Everglades when she died, just like he was when we came here.”

  “And the Glades are near Naples. Now you’ve got me thinking that way. But I agree they don’t seem the type to work together. Then again, how many Americans own one of those stupid masks, and Halloween is about one month away. I know some people start getting their masks and costumes ready way ahead for theme parties. It could have been anyone—completely unrelated to this—in that car.”

  “Once again, none of this is proof. It could be coincidence, but after last night, we know someone is following us, at least sometimes, and wants us either off this case or—”

  He finished for her, “Or dead.”

  * * *

  Jace couldn’t decide what to do about those three photographs a so-called “friend” sent to him in LA. The guy tormenting him should have signed it Fiend instead. Out over the Pacific now, night had fallen, and he had the controls while the pilot took a restroom break on their long flight to Singapore. As on all American-based flights, there had to be two people in the cockpit at all times, so a flight attendant sat behind him. He was glad it was Lance, because the women always wanted to talk. As the Airbus flew on automatic pilot, the wraparound lighted control panel also kept him silent company, that and the huge wing lights outside that probed the darkness.

  He couldn’t get those pictures of Claire and Nick Markwood out of his head. Why would someone take photos, he guessed, from a drone? Why warn the ex-husband about an ex-wife and Markwood? Obviously, someone had a beef with her or the lawyer. And then that printed warning. Should he email or call Claire about that? Even contact Markwood? Were either of them really in danger? He sure didn’t want it to be Claire.

  He rechecked the altimeter and cruising speed, though he’d just done that. Piloting this big baby was a lot more complicated but physically easier than controlling the Cirrus SR22 he still co-owned with a friend who rented him a small beach house in Naples. The Cirrus was a far cry from the F-16s he’d flown in the Middle East and was way different from this Airbus.

  Flying at night was symbolic of life, because you never quite knew what was out here, but you had to be prepared for anything. Here at least you had GPS and radar. Living life day to day—not even that.

  He’d fallen so fast for Claire, practically eloping, though they did have a small wedding because her sister had a fit over them just running off. Then Claire hiding her illness, especially never sharing the nightmarish cataplexy with him... Had he been that busy or distracted? Uncaring? Self-obsessed? He should have known, but she should have told him.

  He did love her still and not just because she was the mother of his child. He still felt responsible for Claire, no way around that.

  He let the huge monster of a plane fly him and the nearly six hundred souls for which he was responsible through the vast, black night.

  * * *

  As Nick and Claire started back into the house, Bronco suddenly appeared on the river path, though a ways from them. Nick jumped and noticed Claire was startled, too. So had they been watched? Overheard? Despite this man’s denials, had he knocked out Jace Britten under the so-called ghost tree? Was he in good enough physical shape to run away after spying on them and not appear to be tired or out-of-breath when it seemed he was just working at his trailer?

  “You know,” Bronco said, “that bench marks the spot where the indigo used to be loaded onto river rafts. So I know my kin, William Richards, spent time there, too. Right now, I gotta go back to check if Win needs me again.”

  Nick said, “Have you decided whether you’ll be in that monster movie Neil asked you about?”

  “Monster movie?” Claire said, making Nick recall he hadn’t told her about that.

  With a look not to say more, Nick told her, “Bronco said it’s just a short promo piece Neil wants with Bronco wearing the Creature from the Black Lagoon suit. With Win producing, directing and filming.”

  “Aha.”

  “I think your idea’s good to forget it,” Bronco told Nick. “But Neil—he got Miss Jasmine’s ear more’n I do, so I don’t want to tick him off. ’Sides, that rubber suit would be so hot, and he says you can hardly move in it. F
all in the river in that thing, you don’t swim real fancy down under with a girl in your arms like in the movie—you prob’bly drown.”

  Without another word—was he just upset, or had he glared at them?—he went into the house.

  “Nick—”

  “Never mind scolding me. He asked me for legal advice yesterday, and we had so much going on I forgot to tell you. I don’t think it means much, do you—like some kind of subtle threat to us? The guy’s not that clever.”

  “What’s that about still waters run deep? No, I think it shows Neil’s the master of manipulation to get what he wants to protect and promote his museum. And that Bronco—if left to his own devices without your input—might go along with Neil. Win said Neil’s devious and deep but, with Bronco, everything’s on the surface.”

  “Even the way you describe that makes me feel we’re underwater with this case,” he said as he held the back door open for her. “But again, thanks for seeing things in people I miss. I need that from you.”

  As if the heavens stressed that thought, deep thunder rumbled overhead and shook the back windows of the house.

  22

  “Mommy, I just Skyped with Daddy, too, and he’s got jet bags, bags under his eyes, I think. You know, from flying a long, long time to Singing-poor.”

  Bags under the eyes: Claire knew how that looked and felt. But, however tired he was, Jace had always seemed so alert and resilient to her. She hoped he wasn’t sick. Who knew what he could catch in exotic places like that—Singing-poor, as Lexi always called it.

  “Maybe he meant he had jet lag,” Claire told her, trying to sound perky and keep a smile on her face. “That means, since you’re not at home and in a different place, you feel kind of sleepy.”

  “But, Mommy, you know people on airplanes take bags. I think it’s jet bags. Are you having a good time there?”

  “I’m working hard, hon. And missing you, so I hope to be back in a couple of days. Any other news from the preschool you and Jilly are going to start after Christmas?”

 
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