Nightshade, p.5Part #3 of Night Tales series by Nora Roberts
“No.” She grabbed his hand to keep from losing her mind again. “This is insane, completely insane.”
“Yeah.” He couldn’t have agreed more. “And it felt great.”
“This is an investigation, Nightshade. And we’re standing in what is very possibly the scene of a major crime.”
He smiled and lifted her hand to nip at her fingers. Just because this was a dead end for their investigation didn’t mean all activity had to come to a halt. “So, let’s go someplace else.”
“We are going someplace else.” She shoved him away, and quickly, competently redid her blouse. “Separately.” She wasn’t steady, she realized. Damn him, damn her, she wasn’t steady.
He felt that the safest place for his hands at the moment was his pockets so he shoved them in. She was right, one hundred percent right, and that was the worst of it.
“You want to pretend this didn’t happen?”
“I don’t pretend anything.” Settling on dignity, she pushed her tumbled hair back, smoothed down her rumpled jacket. “It happened, now it’s done.”
“Not by a long shot, Lieutenant. We’re both grown-ups, and though I can only speak for myself, that kind of connection just doesn’t happen every day.”
“You’re right.” She inclined her head. “You can only speak for yourself.” She made it back to the living room before he grabbed her arm and spun her around to face him.
“You want me to press the point now?” His voice was quiet, deadly quiet. “Or do you want to be straight with me?”
“All right, fine.” She could be honest, because lies wouldn’t work. “If I were interested in a quick, hot affair, I’d certainly give you a call. As it happens, I have other priorities at the moment.”
“You’ve got a list, right?”
She had to take a moment to get her temper back under wraps. “Do you think that insults me?” she asked sweetly. “I happen to prefer organizing my life.”
She arched a brow. “Whatever. For better or worse, we have a professional relationship. I want that girl found, Colt, every bit as much as you do. I want her back with her family, eating hamburgers and worrying over her latest math test. And I want to bring down the bastards who have her. More than you could possibly understand.”
“Then why don’t you help me understand?”
“I’m a cop,” she told him. “That’s enough.”
“No, it’s not.” There had been passion in her face, the same kind of passion he’d felt when he had her in his arms. Fierce and ragged and at the edge of control. “Not for you, or for me, either.”
He let out a deep breath and rubbed the base of his neck, where most of his tension had lodged. They were both tired, he realized, tired and strung out. It wasn’t the time and it wasn’t the place to delve into personal reasons. He’d need to find some objectivity if he wanted to figure out Althea Grayson.
“Look, I’d apologize for back there if I was out of line. But we both know I wasn’t. I’m here to get Liz back, and nothing’s going to stop me. And after a taste of you, Thea, I’m going to be just as determined to have more.”
“I’m not the soup du jour, Nightshade,” she said wearily. “You’ll only get what I give.”
His grin flashed, quick and easy. “That’s just the way I want it. Come on, I’ll drive you home.”
Saying nothing, Althea stared after him. She had the uncomfortable feeling that they hadn’t resolved matters precisely as she’d wanted.
Armed with a second cup of coffee, Colt stood at the edge of a whirlwind. It was obvious to him that getting three kids out of the house and onto a school bus was an event of major proportions. He could only wonder how a trio of adults could handle the orchestration on a daily basis and remain sane.
“I don’t like this cereal,” Bryant complained. He lifted a spoonful and, scowling, let the soggy mess plop back into his bowl. “It tastes like wet trees.”
“You picked it out, because it had a whistle inside,” Cilla reminded him as she slapped peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches together. “You eat it.”
“Put a banana on it,” Boyd suggested while he struggled to bundle Allison’s pale, flyaway hair into something that might have passed for a braid.
“Ouch! Daddy, you’re pulling!”
“Sorry. What’s the capital of Nebraska?”
“Lincoln,” his daughter said with a sigh. “I hate geography tests.” While she pouted over it, she practiced her plies for ballet class. “How come I have to know the stupid states and their stupid capitals, anyway?”
“Because knowledge is sacred.” With his tongue caught in his teeth, Boyd fought to band the wispy braid. “And once you learn something, you never really forget it.”
“Well, I can’t remember the capital of Virginia.”
“It’s, ah …” As the sacred knowledge escaped him, Boyd swore under his breath. What the hell did he care? He lived in Colorado. One of the major problems with having kids, as he saw it, was that the parents were forced to go back to school. “It’ll come to you.”
“Mom, Bry’s feeding Bongo his cereal.” Allison sent her brother a smug, smarmy smile of the kind that only a sister can achieve.
Cilla turned in time to see her son thrusting his spoon toward their dog’s eager mouth. “Bryant Fletcher, you’re going to be wearing that cereal in a minute.”
“But look, Mom, even Bongo won’t eat it. It’s crap.”
“Don’t say ‘crap,’” Cilla told him wearily. But she noted that the big, scruffy dog, who regularly drank out of toilet bowls, had turned up his nose after one sample of soggy Rocket Crunchies. “Eat the banana, and get your coat.”
“Mom!” Keenan, the youngest, scrambled into the room. He was shoeless and sockless, and was holding one grubby high-top sneaker in his hand. “I can’t find my other shoe. It’s not anywhere. Somebody musta stole it.”
“Call a cop,” Cilla muttered as she dumped the last peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich into a lunch box.
“I’ll find it, señora.” Maria wiped her hands on her apron.
“Bad guys took it, Maria,” Keenan told her, his voice low and serious. “They came in the middle of the night and swiped it. Daddy’ll go out and lock them up.”
“Of course he will.” Equally sober, Maria took his hand to lead him toward the stairs. “Now we go look for clues, sí?”
“Umbrellas.” Cilla turned from the counter, running a hand through her short crop of brown hair. “It’s raining. Do we have umbrellas?”
“We used to have umbrellas.” His hairstyling duties completed, Boyd poured himself another cup of coffee. “Somebody stole them. Probably the same gang who stole Keenan’s shoe and Bryant’s spelling homework. I’ve already put a task force on it.”
“Big help you are.” Cilla went to the kitchen doorway. “Maria! Umbrellas!” She turned back, tripping over the dog, swore, then grabbed three lunch boxes. “Coats,” she ordered. “You’ve got five minutes to make the bus.”
There was a mad scramble, impeded by Bongo, who decided this was the perfect time to jump on everyone in sight.
“He hates good-byes,” Boyd told Colt as he deftly collared the mutt.
“The shoe was in the closet,” Maria announced as she hustled Keenan into the kitchen.
“The thieves must have hidden it there. It’s too diabolical.” She offered him his lunch box. “Kiss.”
Keenan grinned and planted a loud smack on her lips. “I get to be the milk monitor all week.”
“It’s a tough job, but I know you’re up to it. Bry, the banana peel goes in the trash.” As she handed him his lunch box, she hooked an arm around his throat, making him giggle as she kissed him good-bye. “Allison, the capital of Virginia’s Richmond. I think.”
After everyone exchanged kisses—including, Colt noted with some amusement, Bongo—Cilla held up one han
“Anyone leaving his or her umbrella at school will be immediately executed. Scram.”
They all bolted. The door slammed. Cilla closed her eyes. “Ah, another quiet morning at the Fletchers’. Colt, what can I offer you? Bacon, eggs? Whiskey?”
“I’ll take the first two. Reserve the last.” Grinning, he took the chair Bryant had vacated. “You put on this show every day?”
“With matinees on Saturdays.” She ruffled her hair again, checked the clock on the stove. “I’d like to hang around with you guys, but I’ve got to get ready for work. I’ve got a meeting in an hour. If you find yourself at loose ends, Colt, stop by the radio station. I’ll show you around.”
“I might just do that.”
“Maria, do you need me to pick up anything?”
“No, señora.” She already had the bacon sizzling. “Gracias.”
“I should be home by six.” Cilla paused by the table to run a hand over her husband’s shoulder. “I hear there’s a big poker game here tonight.”
“That’s the rumor.” Boyd tugged his wife down to him, and Colt saw their lips curve before they met. “You taste pretty good, O’Roarke.”
“Strawberry jelly. Catch you later, Slick.” She gave him one last, lingering kiss before she left him.
Colt listened to her race up the stairs. “You hit the bull’s-eye, didn’t you, Fletch?”
“Terrific wife, great kids. And the first time out.”
“Looks that way. I guess I knew Cilla was it for me almost from the first.” Remembering made him smile. “Took a little while to convince her she couldn’t live without me, though.”
It was tough not to envy that particular smile, Colt mused. “You and Althea, you were partners when you met Cilla, right?”
“Yeah. All three of us were working nights in those days. Thea was the first woman I’d ever partnered with. Turned out to be the best cop I’d ever partnered with, as well.”
“I have to ask—you don’t have to answer, but I have to ask.” And how best to pose the question? Colt wondered as he picked up a fork and tapped it on the edge of the table. “You and Thea … before Cilla, there was nothing … personal?”
“There’s plenty personal when you’re partners, working together, sometimes around the clock.” He picked up his coffee, his smile easy. “But there was nothing romantic, if that’s what you’re dancing around.”
“It’s none of my business.” Colt shrugged, annoyed by just how much Boyd’s answer relieved him. “I was curious.”
“Curious why I didn’t try to move in on a woman with her looks? Her brains? Her—what’s the best word for it?” Amused by Colt’s obvious discomfort, he chuckled as Maria silently served their breakfast. “Thanks, Maria. We’ll call it style, for lack of something better. It’s simple, Colt. I’m not going to say I didn’t think about it. Could be Thea gave it a couple moments of her time, too. But we clicked as partners, we clicked as friends, and it just didn’t take us down any of those other alleys.” He scooped up some eggs, arched a brow. “You thinking about it?”
Colt moved his shoulders again, toyed with his bacon. “I can’t say we’ve clicked as partners—or as friends, for that matter. But I figure we’ve already turned down one of those other alleys.”
Boyd didn’t pretend to be surprised. Anyone who said oil and water didn’t mix just hadn’t stirred them up enough. “There are some women who get under your skin, some that get into your head. And some who do both.”
“Yeah. So what’s the story on her?”
“She’s a good cop, a person you can trust. Like anybody else, she’s got some baggage, but she carries it well. If you want to know personal stuff, you’ll have to ask her.” He lifted his cup. “And she’d get the same answer from me about you.”
“Has she asked?”
“Nope.” Boyd sipped to hide his grin. “Now, why don’t you tell me your progress in finding Liz?”
“We got a tip on the place on Second Avenue, but they’d already split.” It still frustrated him. The whole bloody business frustrated him. “Figured I’d talk to the apartment manager, the neighbors. There’s a witness who might be able to ID one or more of our movie moguls.”
“That’s a good start. Anything I can do to help?”
“I’ll let you know. They’ve already had her a couple of weeks, Fletch. I’m going to get her back.” He lifted his gaze, and the quiet rage in it left no room for doubt. “What worries me is what shape she’ll be in when I do.”
“Take it one step at a time.”
“That sounds like the lieutenant.” Colt preferred to take leaps, rather than steps. “I can’t hook up with her until later this afternoon. She’s in court or something.”
“In court?” Boyd frowned, then nodded. “Right. The Marsten trial. Armed robbery, assault. She made a good collar on that one. Do you want me to send a uniform with you to Second Avenue?”
“No. I’d just as soon handle it myself.”
* * *
It was good to be back on his own, Colt decided. Working alone meant you didn’t have to worry about stepping on your partner’s toes or debating strategy. And as far as Althea was concerned, it meant he didn’t have to work overtime trying to keep himself from thinking of her as a woman.
First he rousted the apartment manager, Nieman, a short, balding man who obviously thought his position required him to wear a three-piece suit, a brutally knotted tie, and an ocean of pine-scented aftershave.
“I’ve already given my statement to the other officer,” he informed Colt through the two-inch crack provided by the security chain on his door.
“Now you’ll have to give it to me.” Colt saw no need to disabuse Nieman of the notion that he was with the police. “Do you want me to shout my questions from out in the hall, Mr. Nieman?”
“No.” Nieman shot the chain back, clearly annoyed. “Haven’t I already had enough trouble? I was hardly out of my bed this morning before you people were banging on my door. Now the phone has been ringing off the hook with tenants calling, demanding to know what the police are doing sealing off the penthouse. The resulting publicity will take weeks for me to defuse.”
“You got a real tough job, Mr. Nieman.” Colt scanned the apartment as he entered. It wasn’t as plush or as large as the empty penthouse, but it would do in a pinch. Nieman had furnished it in fussy French rococo. Colt knew his mother would have adored it.
“You can’t imagine it.” Resigned, Nieman gestured toward an ornately carved chair. “Tenants are such children, really. They need someone to guide them, someone to slap their hands when they break the rules. I’ve been a resident apartment manager for ten years, three in this building, and the stories I could tell …”
Because Colt was afraid he would do just that, he cut Nieman off. “Why don’t you tell me about the penthouse tenants?”
“There’s very little I can tell.” Nieman plucked at the knees of his slacks before sitting. He crossed his legs at the ankles and revealed patterned argyle socks. “As I explained to the other detective, I never actually met them. They were only here four months.”
“Don’t you show the apartment to tenants, Mr. Nieman? Take their applications?”
“As a rule, certainly. In this particular case, the tenant sent references and a certified check for first and last month’s rent via the mail.”
“Is it usual for you to rent an apartment that way?”
“Not usual, no …” After clearing his throat, Nieman fiddled with the knot of his tie. “The letter was followed up with a phone call. Mr. Davis—the tenant—explained that he was a friend of Mr. and Mrs. Ellison. They had the penthouse before, for three years. Lovely couple, elegant taste. They moved to Boston. As he’d been acquainted with them, he had no need to view the apartment. He claimed to have attended several dinner parties and other affairs in the penthouse. He was quite anxious to have it, you see, and as his references were impeccable …”
“Of course.” Lips pursed, Nieman drew himself up. “I take my responsibilities seriously.”
“What did this Davis do for a living?”
“He’s an engineer with a local firm. When I contacted the firm, they had nothing but the highest regard for him.”
“I still have the file out.” Nieman reached to the coffee table for a slim folder. “Foxx Engineering,” he began, then recited the address and phone number. “Naturally, I contacted his landlord, as well. We apartment managers have a code of ethics. I was assured that Mr. Davis was an ideal tenant, quiet, responsible, tidy, and that his rent was always timely. This proved to be the case.”
“But you never actually saw Mr. Davis?”
“This is a large building. There are several tenants I don’t see. It’s the troublemakers you meet regularly, and Mr. Davis was never any trouble.”
* * *
Never any trouble, Colt thought grimly as he completed the slow process of door-to-door. He carried with him copies of the lease, the references, and Davis’s letter. It was past noon, and he’d already interviewed most of the tenants who’d answered his knock. Only three of them claimed to have seen the mysterious Mr. Davis. Colt now had three markedly different descriptions to add to his file.
The police seal on the penthouse door had barred his entrance. He could have picked the lock and cut the tape, but he’d doubted he’d find anything worthwhile.
So he’d started at the top and was working his way down. He was currently canvassing the third floor, with a vicious case of frustration and the beginnings of a headache.
He knocked at 302 and felt himself being sized up through the peephole. The chain rattled, the bolt turned. Now he was being sized up, face-to-face, by an old woman with a wild mop of hair dyed an improbable orange. She had bright blue eyes that sprayed into dozens of wrinkles as she squinted to peer at him. Her Denver Broncos sweatshirt was the size of a tent, covering what Colt judged to be two hundred pounds of pure bulk. She had two chins and was working on a third.
“You’re too good-looking to be selling something I don’t want.”
“No, ma’am.” If Colt had had a hat, he’d have tipped it. “I’m not selling anything at all. The police are conducting an investigation. I’d like to ask you a few questions regarding some of your neighbors in the building.”
“Are you a cop? You’d have a badge if you were.”
It looked as though she were a great deal sharper than Nieman. “No, ma’am, I’m not a cop. I’m working privately.”
“A detective?” The blue eyes brightened like lightbulbs. “Like Sam Spade? I swear, that Humphrey Bogart was the sexiest man ever born. If I’d have been Mary Astor, I wouldn’t have thought twice about some dumb bird when I could have had him.”
“No, ma’am.” It took Colt a moment, but he finally caught on to her reference to The Maltese Falcon. “I kind of went for Lauren Bacall, myself. They sure did set things humming in The Big Sleep.”
Pleased, she let out a loud, lusty laugh. “Damned if they didn’t. Well, come on in. No use standing here in the doorway.”
Colt entered and immediately had to start dodging furniture and cats. The apartment was packed with both. Tables, chairs, lamps, some of them superior antiques, others yard-sale rejects, were set helter-skelter throughout the wide living room. Half a dozen cats of all descriptions were curled, draped and stretched out with equal abandon.
“I collect,” she told him, then plopped herself down on a Louis XV love seat. Her girth took up three-quarters of the cushions, so Colt wisely chose a ratty armchair with a faded pattern of colonial soldiers fighting redcoats. “I’m Esther Mavis.”
“Colt Nightshade.” Colt took it philosophically when a lean gray cat sprang into his lap and another leapt onto a wing of the chair to sniff at his hair.
“Well, just what are we investigating, Mr. Nightshade?”
“We’re doing a check on the tenant who occupied the penthouse.”
“The one who just moved out?” She scratched one of her chins. “Saw a bunch of burly men carrying stuff out to a van yesterday.”
So had several other people, Colt thought. No one had bothered to note whether the van had carried the name of a moving company.
“Did you notice what kind of van, Mrs. Mavis?”
“Miss,” she told him. “A big one. They didn’t act like any movers I ever saw.”
“They worked fast. Not like people who get paid by the hour. You know. Moved
Nightshade by Nora Roberts / Romance & Love have rating 5.5 out of 5 / Based on44 votes