Chasing shadows, p.5
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       Chasing Shadows, p.5

           Karen Harper
 

  “Then, fine,” she said. “I’m in. Tell me what time you and your man Heck will pick me up tomorrow.”

  “Right. He’ll drive the second car, and I’ll brief you on the people you’ll interview—the ones I know, at least, though you may want to do others. Nine a.m., okay?”

  “I’ll be ready.”

  * * *

  But she wasn’t ready for who rang her doorbell at seven that evening. She’d gotten Lexi, whose head was nodding from exhaustion, bathed and settled down for bed and, since it was easier to have assistance undressing and dressing, she’d taken her shower, too, so Lexi could help her into her cotton nightgown and robe. They were going to have cookies and milk and cuddle, and then Claire had to finish packing for—for how long?

  But Lexi heard a car door, looked out the window and went berserk, screaming. “Daddy! It’s Daddy! Daddy’s here!”

  And sure enough, there was Jace at their front door.

  Furious with him for getting Lexi riled by suddenly showing up, Claire went to the door where the child was already unlocking the knob and bolt. The safety chain snagged until Claire closed the door and slid it free.

  Lexi hurled herself at Jace, and he picked her up and walked in. “Glad I caught you,” he told Claire, bouncing Lexi up and down. “How’s the arm? I figured you could use some help for a couple days. They catch the idiot who shot at you yet?”

  That quieted Lexi. “Did someone mean to shoot you, Mommy? Aunt Darcy said it was an accident.”

  “It was an accident,” she said, glaring at Jace who mouthed, Oops! “No one meant to hurt me. Jace, I wish you had called. As you can see, we’re just settling down, and I have a business trip tomorrow.”

  He frowned at her and started to dig small gifts for Lexi out of his pockets as they went into the living area. He hadn’t shaved. Golden stubble dusted his lean cheeks and half-moon shadows hung under his blue eyes. His shirt and pants were mussed, and he was missing his co-pilot suit coat, but he still somehow looked put together, his short hair cut perfectly to frame his broad face. He always had looked that way, especially in the navy pilot uniform he’d worn before she knew him, the picture Lexi kept on her dresser because of “Daddy’s pretty pins and ribbons on his coat.”

  She stared at him now, the perfect physical specimen. How many times had she and Jace just fallen into bed together when he’d returned from a flight? How many times had she forced herself awake to wait for or respond to him, so he wouldn’t know she was about on par with the walking dead? She’d even fallen asleep under him once in the throes of passion, slumped like a dead doll, he’d said, and he’d patted her cheeks to wake her up. Sexual desire, just like any other intense emotion, used to set her off before these newly calibrated meds, but she’d never tell him she was better now. He’d relinquished his right to know anything intimate about her.

  She left the two of them together and went down the hall to pack for a half hour while he regaled their daughter with tales of foreign places, and she chattered on to him about the zoo and starting preschool after the Christmas holidays, about wishing she’d lose her teeth and get some big ones and how Drew scared her and Jilly with a snake. Claire kept the door to her room open, though, of course, she trusted him not to fill her head too full of travel temptations. But it was sure going to be a battle to get the child settled down in bed tonight when Claire, too, needed her rest—right now.

  But Jace knew that. Surely, she could get him to leave soon. Wishing again she could get dressed without help, because she would have changed out of her nightgown and robe, she went back in to join them.

  “I forgot, Mommy, you need to go to bed.”

  “Yes, but Daddy’s leaving soon. How long a leave this time, Jace?”

  “Because of what happened to you, I took a week off. You said you’re leaving on a business trip? With that arm? Like—to where?”

  “St. Augustine for a few days on assignment.”

  Lexi said, “With Mr. Nick, who is very nice. He said if I pretended to like snakes, Drew wouldn’t try to scare me again.”

  Jace’s brows rose. His eyes and lips narrowed. “You’re taking out-of-town assignments now, Claire?”

  “This one. Very worthwhile in more ways than one. If you’d like to tuck Lexi in, that’s fine.”

  “You’re right, it is,” he groused and stood to take Lexi’s hand and lead her toward the hall.

  But Lexi pulled away from him and came back to hug Claire. “You’re the best mommy ever.”

  “And you are my best and only sweetheart.” Claire finished their usual good-night with a kiss, despite Jace’s scowl behind Lexi’s back. Who did he think he was, coming back like this and judging her, trying to take over?

  At least, she thought, he got the hint not to take long with Lexi. He came back out, and Claire stood so he wouldn’t sit and try to make himself comfortable as he had before when he’d dropped in.

  “I’ll be seeing a lot of her this week,” he said, his hand on the front door knob.

  “That’s great. She’ll be staying with Darcy, so please clear times with her. If you spoil her as usual, please don’t let her eat all the junk food she wants.”

  “So what’s this St. Augustine gig?”

  “I’ll be interviewing people about cause of death.”

  “What you used to call murdercide?”

  “Evidently.”

  “Who’s Mr. Nick? He’s obviously met Lexi.”

  “Nick Markwood, a lawyer, my client. I had an interview with him today at the zoo, because I wanted to spend the day with her.”

  “Next assignment New York City? Paris? Rangoon? Marrakech?”

  “You know, that sounds like a list of places you’d rather fly out of than Ft. Lauderdale or Miami, so you could see your daughter more. Look, Jace, sorry to say, this is none of your concern. I’m building Clear Path, this is a good assignment, and you’re not involved.”

  “But you just said, ‘sorry to say,’ Ms. Word Maven. So, are you sorry I’m not involved anymore?”

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” she blurted. But had he caught her there? No, that wasn’t what she’d meant. But, darn the man, he still had that swagger, that I-own-this-room attitude, that almost swashbuckling aura that had first attracted her.

  “Good night, Jace. And, as I’ve said before, now that you have really, permanently ‘left the building,’ please call before you just appear next time with gifts like—like an off-season Santa Claus or the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

  He opened the door, then turned back and put one hand on the frame, almost as if he were blocking her in her own condo.

  “I’ll see you soon,” he said. “One place or the other. One way or the other.”

  She couldn’t decide if that sounded like a promise or a threat.

  5

  A light rain glazed the pavement as Darcy’s car pulled away. Claire waved goodbye to Lexi until it disappeared. She’d filled Darcy in on Jace’s abracadabra appearance, but Darcy was used to that, too. Feeling suddenly unsure and alone, Claire was still standing outside under the overhang when Nick pulled into the driveway and another car came right up behind—a black SUV—evidently driven by South Shores’ tech expert, Hector Munez, alias Heck.

  The two of them stepped inside where Claire had her luggage ready. Nick made the introductions. Heck was young—maybe midtwenties, but then, weren’t all cyber gurus young? He was short and wiry with slicked, coal-black hair, trimmed beard and dark eyes under thick brows. He spoke with a slight Latino accent. He seemed a little jumpy, probably nervous like her to be heading out on an important assignment.

  “I hear I might be a chauffeur, too,” Heck told her with a broad smile.

  “And, perhaps a second pair of ears and recorder in interview sessions,” she told him. “It’s important I wa
tch as well as listen. Besides, I can’t type with one hand, and there are lots of legal drawbacks if I record every word, chain of custody and all that. I have to admit you’d be a lot less threatening than Attorney Markwood sitting there, glaring.”

  “But I can glare with the best of them!” Heck said and elbowed Nick. Claire saw under the TECH-TOCK T-shirt he wore a thick gold chain to match his earring, which made her remember she hadn’t worn hers.

  Nick shook his head and told Heck, “Your suddenly sitting in on interviews, my man, is probably just the first of many surprises from our new partner. But she’s the one calling the shots—on that, at least.”

  “You will get used to my name,” Heck told her, while tossing his car keys from one hand to the other. “It always sounds like mild cursing, yes? But where you been, boss?” he said and hit Nick’s shoulder lightly with his fist. “Ladies—they all like that, full of surprise—surprise!”

  Heck asked for her cell phone and punched his and Nick’s regular and his emergency numbers and email address into her phone logs in case she needed them, then hefted her single big suitcase and put it in the trunk of Nick’s car. With a wave, he got in his own vehicle and backed out, windshield wipers spitting rain.

  Claire got it: they were in a hurry. Nick carried her laptop bag and she grabbed her purse and slung it over her good shoulder. While Nick waited in the covered entryway, she locked up, relieved that Jace hadn’t shown up at the last minute. She’d half expected him to. The first assignment she took after their split, he’d actually followed her to be sure she was safe when she drove into an area he didn’t like.

  “I told Heck he doesn’t have to follow us, since he’s a fast driver,” Nick said with a nod at the departing SUV. She saw the back was covered with bumper stickers but they were too far off to read. “Too fast, so if he runs you around, keep an eye on him,” he added. “South Shores doesn’t need his speeding fines rolling in.”

  “And where does South Shores billing roll in to?” she asked as he held the car door for her and she ducked in out of the rain.

  He closed her door, hurried around and got in. “I’ll explain all that. We’ve got a long drive, and I brought a lot of background information for you to look over so we can hit the ground running. By the way, Heck is staying in a B and B in St. A, because he hates big hotels. I think it’s the fact his grandfather used to own a small hotel in Havana which Castro took over in la revolution, and he really loved the old man. He died just recently in Miami.”

  As they left Naples and headed north on I-75, Nick kept his word, not about explaining South Shores, but about briefing her on everything else. “Not a good way to start a long drive,” he admitted as they headed into more rain, and he raised his voice over the thwack-thwack of the windshield wipers. “So, anyway, I think you should look at the Putnam County ME’s autopsy report on Francine first. You have everything you need to read by?”

  “I’m fine. Don’t need magnifying glasses quite yet in my dotage.”

  He smiled at her, and his gaze seemed to take her all in for a split second before he looked back at the road. “Nope,” he said. “I think you’ve got a few good years left in you. Look in the top folder in the accordion file by your feet.”

  Annoyed that that split-second look from him scrambled her brain, she pulled the thick report out one-handed. She’d seen such before and was familiar with the layout. Francine Anne Montgomery, age 61, female, Caucasian... Claire skimmed to the estimated time of death. Her daughter Jasmine Stanton (nee Montgomery), age 41, had discovered her unresponsive at 8:04 p.m. exactly one month ago today, sprawled on her bedroom floor near the French doors to the balcony on the second floor of Shadowlawn Hall overlooking the St. Johns River near Palatka, Florida. Daughter called 911, and the squad pronounced Francine Montgomery deceased at 8:45 p.m. Date and time of the autopsy were listed with the attached, handwritten note that “The deceased’s daughter Jasmine Stanton insisted her mother must have died of a drug overdose and did not want Francine ‘to be dissected like a frog.’ Daughter was distraught and belligerent.”

  “Not only poor Francine, but poor Jasmine,” Claire said.

  “Yeah. Losing her mother, finding her mother...” His voice trailed off. For one second his deep voice snagged before he went on, “Then being investigated for her possible murder. If we can turn something up fast, it may keep her from being indicted. Did you get to the forensic findings yet?”

  “I am now. External Examination. No needle marks, no unexplained scars or bruising.”

  Claire flipped pages one-handed, balancing the papers on her knees. Internal Examination. “Stomach contents, food and beta-blocker drug, all listed. Death from cardiac arrhythmia,” she read aloud. “But it says here that leaves no autopsy evidence, so why did the ME put that down?”

  “His best guess at first. She was on Propranolol. Ever hear of it?”

  “Actually, I have,” she said, looking up at him. “It can calm panic attacks or anxiety syndrome. And, yes—it lowers blood pressure and heart rate, so you have to be careful with it. I only know about it because a friend who does amateur theater in Naples uses it to calm her stage fright. But it says here it didn’t show up on tox reports.”

  “Not the first one. Keep reading. Propranolol has to be screened for specifically and, knowing Francine has been prescribed it, the ME ran another test and found it. Lots. Too much. Serious overdose. Otherwise her death could have been declared a heart attack or cardiac arrhythmia, and we wouldn’t be going through all this.”

  “Which—if she was murdered—the killer could have been banking on.” She kept skimming the lines of print. “So the question is, did she accidentally overdose—or intentionally—or did someone help her to overdose? Someone who knew the power and danger of this panic attack drug.”

  “That’s it. And because Jasmine happened to find her, and they had rather publicly disagreed on whether the mansion and estate should go in trust to the state, be sold or be kept in the family...”

  “Jasmine’s their number one suspect, but they can’t prove it.”

  “They’re working on it, though. And now you’ve got the case. I won’t say this again or try to push you on it, but I’m telling you, Jasmine’s not a murderer.”

  “You’ve evidently known her for a long time and well. Maybe I should interview you first.”

  “If I can help—be a character witness, whatever. But I knew Jasmine best years ago. My father’s ties to Francine, not Jasmine, go even further back. He and Francine were romantically involved before he married my mother.”

  “You said earlier you aren’t emotionally tied to Jasmine now.”

  He cleared his throat, glanced back out his side window, signaled and did a lane change. She saw the sign ahead to I-4 toward Orlando that would take them across the state to the other coast.

  “The fairest thing to say is I’m involved with proving her innocence. I still care for her deeply. But not romantically—free as a bird.”

  Claire recalled how Darcy had said he was a ladies’ man. He was avoiding her question again. She’d told him that was one way people avoided the truth, so was he testing her tenacity? She had to admit she didn’t really know him, except he seemed a sort of knight in shining armor to want to help Jasmine, evidently others, too, through his shadowy South Shores company. If she didn’t need another quick nap, she’d question him again on that, but there would be time enough. Riding in a car always made her nod off, so if she was the one driving, she prepped herself with stimulants—not only coffee, but her favorite, hand-made-in-Naples dark chocolates.

  She skimmed the death certificate itself. Mode of death: cardiac arrest from cardiac arrhythmia. Cause of death, overdose of beta-blocker Propranolol. But under Manner of Death where the boxes to be checked were natural, homicide, suicide and accident was written, UNDER INVESTIGATION.

 
* * *

  As they left the series of Disney World exits behind and passed the tall buildings of downtown Orlando, Nick stole quick glances to watch Claire sleep. He’d done a lot of fast reading last night on narcolepsy and cataplexy. A weird and dangerous disease, but she obviously coped well with it. And with being a single mom and starting her Clear Path consulting firm. He knew how hard it was to get something off the ground from when he fought like hell to resurrect his father’s tarnished law firm.

  Claire Britten was innocent-looking, almost angelic, as she slept. Her trust in him moved him deeply. He prayed he would not betray it. She’d shared with him about her Achilles’ heel, so should he tell her about his? That he was hiding one of the real purposes of South Shores, something that was a risk for him. Hopefully, not for her.

  One of the secrets his dad had hidden from most people was that he loved writing poetry. Didn’t fit with the image of hard-hitting attorney-at-law. The so-called suicide note left beside his hand holding the gun had one line which read, I will be safe on those South Shores forever more.

  No way his dad had shot himself, however bad it looked, despite that poetic touch in the note! If it was the last thing Nick ever did, he’d prove it and nail who killed him. He knew who that was, or thought he did. Trouble was, Nick knew he, too, was being stalked. But by his dad’s killer or by someone else he had let down? He had enemies. Most criminal lawyers did.

  Claire stirred so suddenly he wondered for a second if he’d said that out loud. He shot another fast glance at her. Waking, she looked dazed, upset, maybe surprised she was here with him in a rain-coated car. Was that look of dismay she quickly hid part of being between the worlds of sleep and wakefulness? He’d read that PWNs sometimes had terrifying waking nightmares.

 
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