Chasing shadows, p.27
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       Chasing Shadows, p.27

           Karen Harper
 
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  30

  Nick fought to stay alert on the way back from Palatka in the rain. The wet streets made other headlights seem to leap at him. Right now he totally understood Claire’s tendency to get tired. He’d had trouble putting one foot ahead of the other, forming one more thought.

  As he pulled into the curved driveway in front of Shadowlawn and killed the rental car’s engine, he just sat there a moment in the dark silence. Win’s SUV was gone, but, of course, Heck’s vehicle was still here.

  Nick’s headlights, which stayed on a few minutes with the interior dome light, illumined the hanging tree through the light rain. He saw someone had taken down Cecilia’s marionette, no doubt the police for evidence. Someone had cleaned up the shattered squad-car window glass, probably Neil. Other than that, the house and grounds looked unchanged—timeless.

  He ran his fingers through his hair and gripped his skull as if to hold inside all he’d thought, all he’d been through. He’d managed to get Bronco a pro bono lawyer who would drive in from Daytona Beach in the morning. A contact of a contact, a good guy. He’d briefed the attorney on his cell phone before he’d left Palatka. He’d also assured Bronco that he and Claire believed he had not drugged and murdered Lola. It had cut deep when the big, rugged man grabbed his hand and thanked him with tears in his eyes. His gut told him Bronco—real name Charles—was not a murderer. After all, his walking, talking conscience Claire had said the same.

  Despite the blessing of getting her back in one piece today, Nick felt he was about ready to cry over the chaos of this case. Claire had messed things up, yet her help and insights had been invaluable. He wanted desperately to protect her, even more than he wanted to protect Jasmine. That tear of Claire’s he’d tasted before he left hours earlier tonight was salty, but sweet on his lips. That was Claire, and he wanted more of her.

  To his surprise, when his car lights went off, the veranda lantern over the front door came on. Jasmine—that is, he thought it was Jasmine through the wet side window of his car—came out to meet him. She had either been out or knew it was raining again, because she wore a shiny raincoat. Her hair looked wet, and she’d slicked it back. He wished it could be Claire but he knew better. Right now she must be dead to the world.

  “Aren’t you coming in, stranger?” Jasmine asked when he opened his door to get out.

  “Too exhausted to move.”

  “So much has happened. I’m going crazy. Can’t sleep. Despite the rain, Win left a long time ago. Neil says he’s getting a sore throat from picking up all that broken glass out here in the rain and he went to bed. Heck’s in the hall upstairs in a sleeping bag I gave him instead of on the sofa, so that’s all yours. I haven’t even been to bed—been in the parlor, trying to read and pacing until I knew you were okay.”

  She took his hand and tugged him toward the house. “So the sofa’s waiting for you, unless you’d like a shower and a real bed. None of the other bedrooms are set up but I wouldn’t mind sharing, I’d—I’d really like it.” To his surprise, because she hadn’t made a move like in the old days when she’d often been the aggressor, she pressed against him at the door. Man, where was this coming from all of a sudden?

  “The sofa will have to do,” he told her. “Was there some problem that Heck went upstairs?”

  “He was just worried that Claire might sleepwalk or something—I don’t know.”

  Nick could tell she was upset, at him, at the happenings here tonight. He was almost too tired to care for once but was glad to hear Heck had gone upstairs to protect Claire.

  As they went in, Jasmine kept her arm around his waist. “Nick, am I going to be all right now? Do you think Bronco killed Lola over a lover’s quarrel? It wouldn’t be the first time, that’s for sure. But Claire believes my mother might have actually ki—Damn, I hate the words murder, kill and suicide. Oh, sorry, I know you do, too—your father, and all. What a coincidence for us, right? We do have a lot in common.”

  She was babbling. She was panicked. He sank onto the sofa and kicked off his shoes. “We can go with a suicide defense for you if Goodrich still indicts you,” he said, trying to stick to business. “We’ll make a case that she was depressed and overwhelmed by the problems here. And one side effect of her meds is depression and even suicidal tendencies. When Claire’s herself again—and I am, too—we’ll sort it all out and decide—”

  “Why Claire?” she interrupted. “I’m the one with everything at stake. Hasn’t she finished around here?”

  “Because, even if we call you to testify, the jury will want to hear calm, professional testimony about everyone’s state of mind. That’s part of what fraud examiners do.”

  “I haven’t asked, because—well, it’s your and Claire’s business to examine a dead woman’s state of mind—but was there anything in Mother’s diary Claire had that would throw light on that? I have a right to know—to have possession of it when she’s finished with it.”

  Nick rubbed his eyes with his fingers. Bright colors exploded in his head. “Some of it’s really hard to read,” he said. “She’s deciphering it but slowly.”

  “It’s where she figured out the tragedy between Rosalynn and Bronco’s ancestor, isn’t it? But what about current things that could help us build a case to protect me?”

  “We have time, especially now that Goodrich is focused on Bronco and Cecilia. We’ll show the diary to you—translated, so to speak—when we’ve examined it.”

  “When she has, you mean. But Bronco and Cecilia, poor souls. Amazing how desperate people are capable of—of anything and everything. Okay, I get the message. I’ll leave you to sleep off your exhaustion. You know where there’s a restroom off the library near Neil’s quarters if you need it.”

  “Thanks, Jasmine. I just need to recharge my battery right now,” he said and lay down just the way he was.

  She touched his shoulder once—almost a caress—then went out. Just before he drifted off, he didn’t hear her climb the front staircase but head out toward the back of the house.

  * * *

  Claire wandered between fear and exhaustion, trying to stay awake. She knew where she was now—Neil’s creature museum. She had to get up, get out. Find a way to take her gag out, go to the door and scream. But that scream mask—it wasn’t still on her face but here somewhere.

  She rolled into the darkness, hurting her left arm. Trying to keep her balance, she got to her knees, managed to get to her tied feet. Still so dizzy. Why hadn’t her meds worked? But at least, for some reason, her thoughts were a little clearer now.

  Then a terrible thought: If someone had tampered with Francine’s meds, could someone have tampered with hers?

  She fought to clear her memory even more. That food Neil gave her, which Jasmine had ordered? That sharp taste to the cheese sandwich. Maybe that was what had thrown her taste off later when she took her night dose. But it had tasted sweet, not tart as it should. When she was in the bathroom, had Jasmine—or Neil—tampered with her Xyrem?

  She had to find something in the dark to dislodge her gag so she could scream. But who would there be to hear her? That person, whether it was Neil or Jasmine, was coming back. She had to hurry. Hurry now.

  She tried to recall the layout of the museum when Neil had showed it to her and Heck. She’d seen Heck unconscious, hadn’t she, though he wasn’t tied, and it looked as if he’d simply fallen down the stairs. At least her thoughts were better now. Adrenaline rush. Desperation.

  Though she hated to do it, she shuffled toward where she thought the Creature from the Black Lagoon must be. Its finned hands and feet had sharp edges and claws. Maybe she could hook something to pull her gag out, but she’d have to guard her eyes. She could try to saw the ropes around her wrists there. But that could take a lot of time.

  She’d barely started rubbing her wrist ties against a sharp fin behind her ba
ck when she heard the key in the lock. The door opened, and a beam of light swept the room, blinding her. The light came closer; hands pulled her away.

  “Got to move fast now,” her captor said, shoving her ahead, perhaps so she wouldn’t look back to recognize a face. “Sorry about this, but you got in the way. I can’t read that damned diary either, but you’re sharp. And your ex-husband says you know the murderer and are going to tell, and we can’t have that.”

  This person had read the diary and talked to Jace? But he could not be in on this! Was she hallucinating again, hearing voices that weren’t there? No, this was real, too real.

  “You’d figure it out,” her captor said. “Messing with meds worked twice before, so hope the third time’s the charm.”

  This phantom—this person—had killed Francine! And drugged Lola, too, before hanging her!

  She realized a corner of the gag had been snagged loose and tried to shove it out with her tongue. Struggling to dislodge it, she almost choked. Should she spit the gag out, then try to scream? Or trust her psych-and-talk skills which had saved her once today already?

  She spit the gag out and said—amazed at her steady voice—“Neil, just let me go. I’m going to testify that Francine killed herself, and Bronco’s going to prison for killing Lola, if you had anything to do with that, so—”

  The sharp laugh was a man’s, but his own voice. And not Neil’s.

  “Sorry you got caught in this, Claire, honestly I am. Another strange death will keep the sheriff busy, won’t it? Maybe break Markwood, get him out of here. And then who’s left to advise poor, broken Jasmine, right? There must be a death curse on this place—that and the phony ghosts will help to save Shadowlawn when I finally control it and the wealth it can bring if handled properly. Really—again, sorry I can’t save you, though.”

  Her insides cartwheeled. How could she have been so trusting and so wrong? She knew who this was now and that words would never save her.

  * * *

  Someone shook Nick awake. Damn, but he could have decked the person—Jasmine?

  “Nick, Nick! I finally went upstairs. Your man is missing. There’s blood on the floor, and Claire’s gone! The diary’s missing, too, unless she hid it, and I swear I didn’t take it!”

  He was on his feet in a second, didn’t stop for his shoes. She thrust a flashlight in his hand. He took her at her word, didn’t consider it a trap—at least not one she’d set.

  “Go knock on Neil’s door to see if he’s there,” he ordered. “And be careful. He still could be behind this.”

  He sprinted for the front staircase. Even in the darkness, probed only by his beam of light, he took the stairs two at a time. His socks made them slippery. Upstairs, every door was open and squares of light crisscrossed the hall. Jasmine must have searched every room for Claire.

  He wasn’t even sure which room had been hers until he saw the blood. Heck’s? Claire’s?

  He looked in the small room. Yes, her meds on the bedside table. Her purse there, opened. Had Jasmine done that? He wasn’t sure, didn’t have time to ask. His heart pounded so hard from exertion and fear he could hear it thumping in his ears.

  He thought of two places Claire could be, especially if she’d gone out on her own. If she’d been taken by Neil—who knew? He cursed himself for even thinking the other possibility—that Heck could have turned on them, but he’d always feared the long, rich reach of Clayton Ames.

  31

  Claire could not get her gag out to make more than a murmur as Win Jackson carried her toward the river. If only she could get her feet down to make drag marks, anything to leave evidence she did not walk into the river to drown herself because she’d messed up her meds today.

  Win was vocal and clearly a manipulative mastermind, so she knew she could not outtalk or outpsych him. He was the one doing the talking, as if his righteous reasons for murders would make things all right. He’d been so clever through all this. So she had one chance, one choice. Keep calm, she told herself. Stop fighting until he didn’t expect it. Wouldn’t he have to take out her gag and untie her to make it look as if she’d drowned herself in her drugged state?

  Through mist and light rain, she saw the water. The silhouette of Bronco’s airboat emerged, then faded as they passed it. What if there were alligators? She’d seen them here!

  Thoughts bombarded her. Lexi, Darcy. She should not have been so resentful of her mother. People had to cope with their lives, and she had to cope with this so she would not lose her life. If her head would only clear more, if the gag would come out and—

  Win slipped once in the mud, and they went thigh-deep in the water. It seemed warm, welcoming. He drew a knife. Was she wrong he meant to drown her? But he only cut the ties around her ankles and shoved her to her knees in the current which swirled almost up to her chin.

  “Sorry, really,” he said again. “I’m afraid you’re collateral damage. After Francine realized I was faking my feelings for her, she changed her mind about letting me help guide Shadowlawn, but I think Jasmine will. Lola knew I loved the place and not the woman and talked against me—accused me of messing with Francine’s meds. You were eliminating others, and you’d get to me, so I have to—to eliminate you. When Markwood left your purse in my car, I had a look at the diary, and your ex-husband called on your phone to say you were on to Francine’s killer. Just relax now, relax and breathe...”

  He meant breathe in the water! He thrust her head into the river with her feet free but her hands still tied behind her. Jasmine’s long skirt kept her from kicking. Her gag finally came out, but what did it matter now as he held her down, down, down.

  * * *

  Nick was completely panicked. He tore into what Francine had called Rosalynn’s room. The portrait loomed large, and one door to the balcony was open. He ran out onto the wet surface and looked over the railing.

  He bellowed, “Claire?”

  He glanced down at his car, at Heck’s SUV, then toward the hanging tree. Nothing amiss. River fog had sifted in, and light rain pelted down.

  “Claire!”

  He didn’t wait for Jasmine to report in. No way—he hoped—that she was in on any of this because she wanted to get her hands on the diary. Had she—like Win Jackson—been too helpful lately?

  He tore down the front stairs and ran toward the back of the house. Claire had said her meds—or lack of them—could give her nightmares, but he was living one now. He prayed that getting her back safe today was not one miracle too many.

  * * *

  Claire went limp and held what little breath she had. With that gag still in when he’d first dunked her, she hadn’t taken a big breath. The river current seemed to carry her away, but he hadn’t let her go. Still, he seemed to slip again, to relax his hold a bit. She felt her hair tug at her scalp, floating above her head. “Doesn’t your little girl have beautiful red hair?” she heard a voice asking her mother. Lexi’s face...Darcy’s...even Jace’s floated past.

  Now. She had to do something now before her lungs burst and she sucked in water. The current had lifted, twisted her skirt higher, almost to her knees. One kick was all she would get.

  Wait, he was untying her hands. Her left arm still hurt from being shot. Hold on, hold the last bit of breath. Yes, her hands free. Should she just pretend to float away if he loosed her? But then she’d have to keep her head under, couldn’t do that anymore, had to lift her head, had to be herself, stand on her own, take a clear path to life and...

  She slowly raised her right leg almost to her chest, then slammed it back. Her foot connected with his stomach. She tried to yank free, reared up, sucking in air through the heavy curtain of her sodden hair.

  She screamed but not loudly. Out of breath, gasping, then screamed again. The sound seemed to echo, echo as if another woman had screamed while falling to her d
eath. Behind Win as he slipped, staggered and reached for her again, she thought she saw a woman in a white gown pull him back. No, not a woman, only river mist that looked like the merging of a woman’s form with that of a man reaching for her, reaching for her and holding her...

  She clawed at Win’s face and, off balance, hit at him, but she only struck his shoulder. Screaming again, she scrambled for the slippery bank.

  Suddenly, Nick exploded into the water, hitting Win, kicking him, shouting. Claire clung to the riverbank, clawing at it to get a handhold.

  Jasmine appeared, pulled her out, helped her up the bank where she fell to the ground. Kneeling, Jasmine steadied her, patting her on the back, screaming curses at Win.

  Claire gasped in huge breaths as Nick dragged the bloody, soaking man from the river. He grabbed rope coiled in Bronco’s boat and tied him to it. He stuffed a ripped piece of Win’s shirt in his mouth.

  Jasmine called to Nick, “Neil was in his room, but your man Heck was dumped by his door, we think to make it look like Neil did it. Heck’s alive, and we called the squad for him. They can help Claire, too.”

  Claire shook her head. “All—right—now,” she wheezed. Yes, she was all right now.

  “Okay,” Nick said. “Then go call to get the sheriff back here, Jasmine. I’m not letting this bastard out of my sight until they get here, but Claire needs something then—blankets, hot tea, something.”

  “I think,” Jasmine said very quietly with a little sob, “she just needs you.” She hugged Claire’s shoulders and ran back into the house.

  Claire breathed deep but trembled from shock as she watched Nick nudge Win with his foot.

  “I’ll let you tell it all to the sheriff and then a jury,” he said. “I hope you get a good defense lawyer because Claire and I—and Jasmine—are going to testify against you.”

  Nick stumbled to Claire and, panting, pulled her to her feet and picked her up. He carried her a little way toward the house, then collapsed on the grass with her in his arms. As weak as she felt, she curled against him, her head on his shoulder. He was shaking, too, and she could feel his heart pounding.

 
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