Nightshade, p.10
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       Nightshade, p.10

         Part #3 of Night Tales series by Nora Roberts
 
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  “After the game.”

  “Ah, a poor sport. What else have we got on him?”

  “I’ll tell you what else I’ve got on him,” she said, but she couldn’t resist leaning back against his massaging hands. “He was fired for breaking training—having a woman in his room.”

  “Boys will be boys.”

  “This particular woman was tied up and screaming her lungs out. They dealt it down from rape to assault, but Scott’s football days were over. After that, we’ve got him on a couple more assaults, indecent exposure, drunk and disorderly, petty larceny, lewd behavior.” She punched another button on the keyboard. “That was up to four years ago. After that, nothing.”

  “You figure he turned over a new leaf? Became a pillar of the community?”

  “Sure, just like I believe men read girlie magazines because of the erudite articles.”

  “That’s what motivates me.” Grinning, he leaned down to kiss the top of her head.

  “I bet. We’ve got a similar history on contestant number two,” she continued. “Harry Kline, a small-time actor from New York whose rap sheet includes drunk and disorderly, possession, sexual assault, several DWIs. He drifted into porno films about eight years ago, and was, incredibly enough, fired from several jobs because of his violent and erratic behavior. He headed west, got a few similar gigs in California, then was arrested for raping one of his costars. The defense pleaded it down and, due to the victim’s line of work, made it all go away. The victim’s only justice came from the fact that Harry was finished in film—blue or otherwise. Nobody even partially legit would touch him. That was five years ago. There’s been nothing on him since.”

  “Once again, one would think our friends either became solid citizens or died in their sleep.”

  “Or found a handy hole to hide in. Leo claimed that he was first approached—by Kline—two, maybe three years ago. He knows it was at least two. Kline wanted women, young women who were interested in making private films. Citing free enterprise, Leo obliged him and took his commission. The number he was given to contact Kline is out of service. I’ll run it through the phone company to see if it was the penthouse or another location.”

  “He never saw the other man, the one Meena said sat off in the corner?”

  “No. His only contacts were Scott and Kline. Apparently Scott would drop in for a few drinks and brag about how good he was with a camera, and how much money he was pulling in.”

  “And about the girls,” Colt said under his breath. The fingers rubbing Althea’s shoulders went rigid. “How he and his friends had— How did he put it? The pick of the litter?”

  “Don’t think about it.” Instinctively she lifted a hand to cover his. “Don’t, Colt. You’ll mess up if you do. We’re a big step closer to finding her. That’s what you have to concentrate on.”

  “I am.” He turned away and paced to the far wall. “I’m also concentrating on the fact that if I find out either of those slime touched Liz, I’m going to kill them.” He turned back, his eyes blank. “You won’t stop me, Thea.”

  “Yes, I will.” She rose and went to him to take both of his fisted hands in hers. “Because I understand how much you’ll want to. And that if you do, it won’t change what happened. It won’t help Liz. But we’ll cross that bridge after we find her.” She gave his hands a hard squeeze. “Don’t go renegade on me now, Nightshade, I’m just starting to like working with you.”

  He pulled himself back, let himself look down at her. Though her eyes were shadowed and her cheeks were pale with fatigue, he could feel energy vibrating from her. She was offering him something. Compassion—with restrictions, of course. And hope, without any. The viciousness of his anger faded into the very human need for the comfort of contact.

  “Althea …” His hands relaxed. “Let me hold you, will you?” She hesitated, her brow lifting in surprise. He could only smile. “You know, I’m beginning to read you pretty well. You’re worried about your professional image, snuggling up against a guy in your office.” Sighing, he brushed a hand through her hair. “Lieutenant, it’s almost three in the morning. There’s nobody here to see. And I really need to hold you.”

  Once again she let instinct rule, and she moved into his arms. Every time, she mused as she settled her head in the curve of his neck, every time they stood like this, they fitted perfectly. And each time it was easier to admit it.

  “Feel better?” she asked, and felt him move his head against her hair.

  “Yeah. He didn’t know anything about Lacy, the girl who’s missing?”

  “No.” Without thinking, she stroked his back, soothing muscles there as he had soothed hers. “And when I mentioned the possibility of murder, he was genuinely shaken. He wasn’t faking that. That’s why I’m certain he gave us everything he had.”

  “The house in the mountains.” Colt let his eyes close. “He couldn’t give us much.”

  “West or maybe north of Boulder, near a lake.” She moved her shoulders. “It’s a little better than we had before. We’ll narrow it down, Colt.”

  “I feel like I’m not putting the pieces together.”

  “We’re putting the pieces we have together,” she told him. “And you’re feeling that way because you’re tired. Go home.” She eased back so that she could look up at him. “Get some sleep. We’ll start fresh in the morning.”

  “I’d rather go home with you.”

  Amused, exasperated, she could only shake her head. “Don’t you ever quit?”

  “I didn’t say I expected to, only that I’d rather.” Lifting his hands, he framed her face, stroking his thumbs over her cheekbones, then back to her temples. “I want time with you, Althea. Time when there isn’t so much on my mind, or on yours. Time to be with you, and time to figure out what it is about you, just you, that makes me start thinking of long-term, permanent basis.”

  Instantly wary, she backed out of his arms. “Don’t start that now, Nightshade.”

  Instantly relaxed, he grinned. “That sure does make you nervous. I never knew anyone so spooked by the thought of marriage—unless it was me. Makes me wonder why—and whether I should just sweep you right off your feet and find out the reasons after I’ve got a ring on your finger. Or”—he moved toward her, backing her against the desk—“if I should take things real slow, real easy, sliding you into the I dos so slick that you wouldn’t know you were hitched until it was over and done.”

  “Either way, you’re being ridiculous.” There was something lodged in her throat. Althea recognized it as nerves, and bitterly resented it. Feigning indifference, she picked up the tea and sipped. Now it tasted like cold flowers. “It’s late,” she said. “You go ahead. I can requisition a unit and drive myself home.”

  “I’ll take you.” He caught her chin in his hand and waited until her eyes were level with his. “And I mean that, Thea. Any way I can get you. But you’re right—it’s late. And I owe you.”

  “You don’t—” Her denial ended on a moan when his mouth swooped down to cover hers.

  She tasted frustration in the kiss, a jagged need that was barely restrained. And most difficult of all to resist, she tasted the sweetness of affection, like a thin, soothing balm over the pulsing heat.

  “Colt.” Even as she murmured his name against his mouth, she knew she was losing. Her arms had already lifted to wrap around him, to bring him closer, to accept and to demand.

  Her body betrayed her. Or was it her heart? She could no longer tell the two apart, as the needs of one so closely matched the needs of the other. Her fingers dug deep into his shoulders as she struggled to regain her balance. Then they went lax as she allowed herself one moment of madness.

  It was Colt who drew back—for himself, and for her. She’d become more important than the satisfactions of the moment. “I owe you,” he said again, carefully spacing the words as he stared down into her eyes. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t let you go tonight. I don’t think I could. I’ll drive you home.” He picked up
her jacket, offered it to her. “Then I’m probably going to spend the rest of the night wondering what it would have been like if I’d just locked that door there and let nature take its course.”

  Shaken, she draped her jacket over her shoulders before walking to the door. But she’d be damned if she’d be outdone or outmaneuvered. She paused and sent one slow smile over her shoulder. “I’ll tell you what it would have been like, Nightshade. It would have been like nothing you’ve ever experienced. And when I’m ready—if I’m ever ready—I’ll prove it.”

  Stunned by the punch of that single cool smile, he watched her saunter off. Letting out a long breath, he pressed a hand to the knot in his gut. Sweet God, he thought, this was the woman for him. The only woman for him. And damned if he wasn’t ready to prove it.

  * * *

  With four hours’ sleep, two cups of black coffee and a cherry Danish under her belt, Althea was ready to roll. By 9:00 a.m., she was at her desk, putting through a call to the telephone company with an official request for a check on the number she’d gotten from Leo. By 9:15, she had a name and address, and the information that the customer had canceled the service only forty-eight hours before.

  Though she didn’t expect to find anything, she was putting in a request for a search warrant when Colt walked in.

  “You don’t let moss grow under your feet, do you?”

  Althea hung up the phone. “I don’t let anything grow under my feet. I’ve got a line on the number from Leo. The customer canceled the service. I imagine we’ll find the place cleaned out, but I can pick up a search warrant within the hour.”

  “That’s what I love about you, Lieutenant—no wasted moves.” He eased a hip down on her desk—and was delighted to discover she smelled as good as she looked. “How’d you sleep?”

  She slanted a look up at him. Direct challenge. “Like a rock. You?”

  “Never better. I woke up this morning with a whole new perspective. Can you be ready to roll by noon?”

  “Roll where?”

  “This idea I had. I ran it by Boyd, and he—” He scowled down at her shrilling phone. “How many times a day does that ring?”

  “Often enough.” She plucked up the receiver. “Grayson. Yes, this is Lieutenant Althea Grayson.” Her head snapped up. “Jade.” With a nod for Colt, Althea covered the receiver. “Line two,” she whispered. “And keep your mouth shut.” She continued to listen as Colt shot from the room to pick up an extension. “Yes, we have been looking for you. I appreciate you calling in. Can you tell me where you are?”

  “I’d rather not.” Jade’s voice was thin, jumping with nerves. “I only called because I don’t want any trouble. I’m getting a job and everything. A straight job. If there’s trouble with the cops, I’ll lose it.”

  “You’re not in any trouble. I contacted your mother because you can be of some help on a case I’m investigating.” Althea swiveled her chair to the right so that she could see Colt through the doorway. “Jade, you remember Liz, don’t you? The girl whose parents you wrote?”

  “I … I guess. Maybe.”

  “It took a lot of courage to write that letter, and to get out of the situation you’d found yourself in. Liz’s parents are very grateful to you.”

  “She was a nice kid. Didn’t really know the score, you know? She wanted out.” Jade paused, and Althea heard the sound of a scraping match, a deep intake of breath. “Listen, there was nothing I could do for her. We only had a couple of minutes alone once or twice. She slipped me the address, asked me if I’d write her folks. Like I said, she was a nice kid in a bad spot.”

  “Then help me find her. Tell me where they’ve got her.”

  “I don’t know. Man, I really don’t. They took a couple of us up in the mountains a few times. Really out there, you know. Wilderness stuff. They had this really classy cabin, though. First-rate, with a Jacuzzi, and a big stone fireplace, and this big-screen TV.”

  “Which way did you go out of Denver? Can you remember that?”

  “Well, yeah, sort of. It was like Route 36, toward Boulder, but we just kept going on it forever. Then we took this other little road for a while. Not a highway. One of those two-lane winding jobs.”

  “Do you remember going by any towns? Anything that sticks out in your mind?”

  “Boulder. After that there wasn’t much.”

  “Did you go up in the morning, afternoon, night?”

  “The first time it was in the morning. We got a really early start.”

  “After Boulder, was the sun in front of you, or behind?”

  “Oh, I get it. Ah … I guess it was kind of behind us.”

  Althea continued to press for details, about the location, the routine, descriptions of the people Jade had seen. As a witness, Jade proved vague but cooperative. Still, Althea had no problem recognizing Scott and Kline from Jade’s descriptions. There was again a mention of a man who stayed in the background, keeping to the shadows, watching.

  “He was creepy, you know?” Jade continued. “Like a spider, just hanging there. The job paid good, so I went back a couple of times. Three hundred for one day, and a fifty-dollar bonus if they needed you for two. I … You know you just can’t make that kind of money on the street.”

  “I know. But you stopped going.”

  “Yeah, because sometimes they got really rough. I had bruises all over me, and one of the guys even split my lip while we were doing this scene. I got scared, because it didn’t seem like they were acting. It seemed like they wanted to hurt you. I told Wild Bill, and he said how I shouldn’t go back. And that he wasn’t going to send any more girls. He said he was going to do some checking into it, and if it was bad, he was going to talk to his cop. I knew that was you, so that’s why I called back when I got the message. Bill thinks you’re okay.”

  Wearily Althea rubbed a hand over her brow. She didn’t tell Jade that she should be using the past tense as far as Wild Bill was concerned. She didn’t have the heart. “Jade, you said something in your letter about thinking they’d killed one of the girls.”

  “I guess I did.” Her voice quavered, weakened. “Listen, I’m not going to testify or anything. I’m not going back there.”

  “I can’t promise anything, only that I’ll try to keep you out of it. Tell me why you think they killed one of the girls.”

  “I told you how they could get rough. And it wasn’t no playacting, either. The last time I was up, they really hurt me. That’s when I decided I wasn’t going back. But Lacy, that’s a girl I hung with some, she said how she could handle it, and how the money was too good to pass up. She went up again, but she never came back. I never saw her again.”

  She paused, another match scraped. “It’s not like I can prove anything. It’s just … She left all her stuff in her room, ’cause I checked. Lacy was real fond of her things. She had this collection of glass animals. Real pretty, crystal-like. She wouldn’t have left them behind. She’d have come back for them, if she could. So I thought she was dead, or they were keeping her up there, like with Liz. And I figured I better split before they tried something with me.”

  “Can you give me Lacy’s full name, Jade? Any other information about her?”

  “She was just Lacy. That’s all I knew. But she was okay.”

  “All right. You’ve been a lot of help. Why don’t you give me a number where I can contact you?”

  “I don’t want to. Look, I’ve told you all I know. I want out of it. I told you, I’m starting over out here.”

  Althea didn’t press. It was a simple matter to get the number from the phone company. “If you think of anything else, no matter how insignificant it seems, will you call me back?”

  “I guess. Look, I really hope you get the kid out of there, and give those creeps what they deserve.”

  “We will. Thanks.”

  “Okay. Say hi to Wild Bill.”

  Before Althea could think of a reply, Jade broke the connection. When she looked up, Colt was standing in her
doorway. His eyes held that blank, dangerous look again.

  “You can get her back here. Material witness.”

  “Yeah, I could.” Althea dialed the phone again. She’d get the number now. Keep it for backup. “But I won’t.” She held up a hand for silence before Colt could speak, and made the official request to the operator.

  “A 212 area code,” Colt noted as Althea scribbled on her pad. “You can get the NYPD to pick her up.”

  “No,” she said simply, then slipped the pad into her purse and rose.

  “Why the hell not?” Colt grabbed her arm as she reached for her coat. “If you can get that much out of her on the phone, you’d get that much more face-to-face.”

  “It’s because I got that much out of her.” Resentful of his interference, she jerked away. “She gave me everything she had, just for the asking. No threats, no promises, no maneuvering. I asked, she answered. I don’t betray trusts, Nightshade. If I need her to drop the hammer on these bastards, then I’ll use her. But not until then, and not if there’s another way. And not,” she added deliberately, “without her consent. Is that clear?”

  “Yeah.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Yeah, it’s clear. And you’re right. So, you want to pick up that warrant, check that other address?”

  “Yes. Do you intend to tag along?”

  “You bet. We should have just enough time to finish that before we take off.”

  She stopped in the doorway. “Take off?”

  “That’s right, Lieutenant. You and I are taking a little trip. I’ll tell you all about it on the way.”

  Chapter 8

  “I think we’ve all lost our minds.” Althea gripped her seat as the nose of the Cessna rose into the soft autumn sky.

  Comfortable at the controls, Colt spared her a glance. “Come on, tough stuff, don’t you like planes?”

  “Sure I like planes.” A tricky patch of crosscurrents sent the Cessna rocking. “But I like them with flight attendants.”

  “There’s stuff in the galley. Once we level off, you can serve yourself.”

  That wasn’t precisely what she’d meant, but Althea said nothing, just watched the land tilt away. She enjoyed flying, really. It was just that she had a routine. She would strap in, adjust her headset to the music of her choice, open a book and zone out for the length of the flight.

  She didn’t like to think of all the gauges over which she had no control.

  “I still think this is a waste of time.”

  “Boyd didn’t argue,” Colt pointed out. “Look, Thea, we know the general location of the cabin. I studied that damn tape until my eyes bugged out. I’ll recognize it when I see it, and plenty of the surrounding landmarks. This is worth a shot.”

  “Maybe” was all she’d give him.

  “Think about it.” Colt banked the plane and set his course. “They know the heat’s on. That’s why they pulled out of the penthouse. They’re going to be wondering where that tape ended up, and if they try to contact Leo, they won’t find him, since you’ve got him stashed in a safe house.”

  “So they’ll stay out of Denver,” she agreed. The engines were an irritating roar in her ears. “They might even pull up stakes and move on.”

  “That’s just what I’m afraid of.” Colt’s mouth thinned as they left Denver behind. “What happens to Liz if they do? None of the options have a happy ending.”

  “No.” That, and Boyd’s approval, had convinced her to go with Colt. “No, they don’t.”

  “I have to think they’d stick to the cabin for the time being. Even if they figure we know it exists, they wouldn’t think we’d know its location. They don’t know about Jade.”

  “I’ll give you that, Nightshade. But it seems to me that you’re relying on blind luck to guide you there.”

  “I’ve been lucky before. Better?” he asked when the plane leveled. “It’s pretty up here, don’t you think?”

  There was snow on the peaks to the north, and there were broad, flat valleys between the ridges. They were cruising low enough that she could make out cars along the highway, communities that were little huddles of houses, and the deep, thick green of the forest to the west.

  “It has its points.” A thought erupted in her mind, making her swivel her head in his direction. “Do you have a pilot’s license, Nightshade?”

  He glanced over, stared, then nearly collapsed with laughter. “Lord, I’m crazy about you, Lieutenant. Do you want one of those big blowout weddings or the small, intimate kind?”

  “You’re crazy, period,” she muttered, and shifted deliberately to stare out through the windscreen. She’d check on his license when they got back to Denver. “And you said you weren’t going to bring up that kind of thing.”

  “I lied.” He said it cheerfully. Despite the worry that never quite dissipated, he didn’t think he’d ever felt better in his life. “I’ve got a problem with that. A woman like you could probably cure me of it.”

  “Try a psychiatrist.”

  “Thea, we’re going to make a hell of a pair. Wait until my family gets a load of you.”

  “I’m not meeting your family.” She attributed the sudden hollowness in her stomach to another spot of turbulence.

  “Well, you’re probably right about that—at least until we’re ready to walk down the aisle. My mother tends to manage everything, but you can handle her. My father likes spit and polish, which means the two of you would get along like bacon and eggs. A regulation type, that’s the admiral.”

  “Admiral?” she repeated, despite her vow to remain stubbornly silent.

 
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