This is a Sneak Peek of Maggie Shayne's
COPYRIGHT 2017 MS LEWIS, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
On a beautiful summer evening in upstate New York, Marcus “Molotov” Romano’s life ended in a ball of white heat.
He’d been heading home after another day on the job, feeling damned full of himself too. He’d get a bonus for this one. No question. Maybe get that swimming pool Wendy had been teasing about. Or the mini-ATV little Melinda had been asking for.
Thinking about his family made him remember to call home. He hit the phone button on his in-dash touchscreen, then got a little nervous when it took Wendy so long to answer. But that was the deal these days. A four-year-old made answering the phone fall very low on his wife’s list of priorities.
She finally picked up on the third ring. “Still alive, I take it?”
He grinned. She was only half-teasing. He knew she worried every time he had a sensitive mission, a dangerous one, and while he couldn’t tell her the details, he always let her know the risk. That was something she’d insisted on from the start, and a concession he’d reluctantly made. She needed to be prepared for the worst, she’d said. Today had been risky. Big time risky.
“Still alive,” he confirmed. “I don’t think I could be this hungry otherwise.”
“Stop for food, then, silly.”
“Nope. In too big a hurry to get home.” Brushes with death always left him with a gnawing need to hold his little girl in his arms. It seemed to wipe out the darkness and dirt and death he dealt with for a living.
“Melinda’s in a hurry for you too. She’s been asking when you’re going to be home every ten minutes for the last three hours.”
“How is the little rugrat today? Drive you nuts?”
“A perfect angel like always. She made you a gorgeous self-portrait on the bathroom wall with a black Sharpie, so it would never come off, and then to celebrate its completion, tried to flush a couple of pounds of Legos.” He laughed while she went on. “She’s in the back yard now. I was just about to call her in to get cleaned up for dinner. So it went okay?”
He nodded. “Couldn’t have gone better. Chalk up another win for the good guys.” Today he had thwarted a plot to blow up the capital building in Albany by remotely detonating the explosives while they were still in the terrorists’ van. Took out six of the bastards in the process, and really pissed off their handler, the mercenary known only as Mr. White. And not one single innocent casualty. Getting innocents killed was not an acceptable outcome to him. Never had been. And in his business, he ran a huge risk of that every single time.
“And you’re all in one piece?” Wendy asked.
“Intact. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna leave you to raise our monster alone.”
She laughed softly. “How far out are you?”
“I’ll put the lasagna into the oven. Should be ready about the time you pull in.”
Wendy was a fabulous cook and a terrific mother. He loved her as much as he was capable of loving anyone. His little girl being the one exception to that. He loved her like the sun.
Their marriage hadn’t been the result of any great romance, but rather the result of a potent cocktail consisting of alcohol, libido, and carelessness. But they were making it work for the kid, and in the process they’d become best friends.
“Saw your boss today,” she said. He could hear the pan sliding into the oven, the door closing, the soft beeps when she set the timer. “He looked guilty as hell when he saw me. ‘Flu my ass.”
“Darren? That SOB. Where’d you run into him?”
“Gas station on the way to Chuck-E-Cheese for a play date. He was talking to the oddest—oh, hey, Melinda’s hanging upside down from the monkey bars and hollering at me to come out and see. Gotta go. See you when you get here.”
She hung up the phone. The radio came back on. Old school Metallica filled the car, the bass booming so loud it could be heard from outside, and he stepped on it, his stomach growling in anticipation of Wendy’s lasagna.
Twenty minutes later, he pulled onto their neat suburban lane, slowed down to the speed limit, and watched for kids on bikes and skateboards, and other kids walking with their eyes glued to their device screens. Not too many outside at the moment. It wasn’t quite dark. The summer sun was just getting ready to set. When his house came into sight, he smiled. It was a one level ranch style haven, with a huge fenced-in yard for Mindy, a back deck with a giant barbecue grill, and a basketball net above the garage door.
Wendy must have heard the telltale purr of his powerful engine, because she opened the front door and smiled at him, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. He waved at her, put on his signal and waited for another car to pass between him and his driveway.
And then there was a blinding flash, a deafening explosion, and a percussion that knocked him sideways in the seat. When he lowered his arm, and came upright a rainstorm of debris was falling. He couldn’t see out his car windows and realized the shockwave had shattered them, so he grappled with the door and stumbled out of the car, running unevenly toward his house, his family.
But the house was gone. It was just… gone. He ran toward it, and then something fell out of the sky and flattened him to the blacktop.
The next time Marcus opened his eyes, his CO Darren Wade and fellow agent and nemesis Jarred Striker stood on either side of him. The memory of the blast shot through him like adrenalin and he sat up in what turned out to be a hospital bed, would’ve jumped right out of it, if they hadn’t both grabbed him by the shoulders and held him still.
“Nurse!” Darren shouted. “A little help in here!”
Striker thumbed the call button on his bed repeatedly. Marcus met Darren’s eyes and saw the grief there, the message, the unspoken words. Wendy was gone. He knew that. But he had to ask all the same. “Melinda?”
Darren shook his head slowly.
An infusion of darkness filled his veins, pushing everything else out. It replaced his blood with thick, black despair. He sank back onto the bed, no longer struggling to get up.
There was no point in getting up.
“This was White. It had to be White,” Darren said.
“Did it?” Striker’s tone carried a hundred suggestions, none of them flattering.
Marcus glanced at the slick, well-dressed asshole. “Yeah, it did. Unless it was you, you bastard. Everybody knows you wanted Wendy for yourself. Did you finally get frustrated enough to do something about it?”
“I loved her, you bastard!”
“And I married her. Four years ago. You’re still obsessed, though. Obsessed men do violent things.”
“I might be obsessed, but I’m not the explosives expert in the room.”
Marcus leaned out of the bed, grabbed him by the front of his shirt, and drove his knuckles into the bastard’s face twice before three orderlies were pulling him off, and a nurse jabbed him with a tranquilizer. It made his brain go fuzzy before he even hit the pillows.
“I loved her,” Striker said again. “If you killed her because you found out about us–”
“Shut the fuck up, Striker,” Darren warned. “You’re out of line. Keep it up and you’ll be out of a job, too. This was White. There’s no question.”
“Yeah? Then how the hell did White know where they lived? Huh? How did he find them with all the precautions we take to protect agents’ families?”
Marcus reached out with an all-but-limp hand, closed it around the I.V. Pole beside him, and tried his damnedest to swing it at Striker’s head. He was unconscious before he ever knew whether it had connected.
When Lexi came home from her final day at the clinic, her genius father was in their driveway, wearing a trench coat and loading suitcases into a U-Haul van with one hand, while holding an umbrella over his head with the other.
The sun was shining and the sky was blue. It was pushing 80 degrees.
She pulled into the driveway, sighing and shaking her head. The dementia had come on suddenly, only a few days ago. She’d decided to take a quit her job to stay home and to take care of him.
He’d missed three days at the lab—which convinced her that he should have retired by now. So far she’d covered for him. Everything in her hoped this setback was something simple. She’d had elderly patients who developed symptoms this bad due to a simple UTI, but so far he was adamantly refusing any doctor’s appointments or medical care. So she’d brought home two weeks’ worth of antibiotics and a urinalysis kit. She was going to get to the bottom of this, and she would care for him herself, whether he liked it or not, the stubborn old bastard.
She drove past him, into the open garage, then got out of the car, reaching back in for her purse and medical bag. But her father beat her to it, yanked her passenger door open, grabbed both bags, and hustled back out to the van, moving as fast as a twenty-something, even if he did wobble side to side like a penguin when he rushed. “Dad, what—”
He slung the bags into the back of the van, followed by the umbrella, then turned to glare at her from behind thick lenses rimmed in gold. His wild hair fit the mad-genius cliché a little too well, but she couldn’t get him to sit still long enough to let her cut it.
“Get in,” he told her. “Hurry, get in. We have to go.” He slammed the van doors closed and thumbed a button to close the garage door. Then he headed to the driver’s side.
She hurried to keep pace. “Where are we going?” she asked.
He opened the door, but Lexi moved in front of him and blocked him from getting in. “Dad, slow down. Just tell me what’s going on.”
He stood still, looked into her eyes, and his were filled with impatience, anger, and no small amount of dislike. These were not new. He’d always looked at her pretty much that way. And despite the apparent confusion suggested by his actions, he was clear eyed.
“I’m leaving,” he said. “I have everything set up, and I’m leaving. Your time off begins today. You told me so, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did.” Time off. She was finished at the clinic. Put in her resignation, knowing it would be a full time job caring for her father. His dementia was worsening at an alarming rate, and she was determined he not go into a facility. They had plenty of money, and her career could wait.
“Good,” he said. “Then you’re free to come with me if you want. God knows I’m going to need help, as much as it galls me to admit it. Bad enough I had to move in with you. But it can’t be helped and won’t be for long anyway. On the other hand, you can stay behind and I’ll hire a nurse when I get there. If that’s your choice, fine, but you should know that you will never see me again.”
She frowned hard, a trill of alarm skittering up her spine. “Dad, what the hell is going on? What do you mean, I’ll never see you again?”
He looked past her, up and down the street. “I can’t tell you that. They could be listening.”
God, this was far worse than she’d thought. He was completely delusional. Okay, okay, she needed to just keep him calm.
“Everything’s taken care off,” he said. “The heat’s turned down, and a discreet friend will check on the place once a week. I’ve set up timers for the lights so it looks like we’re still there. Our mail will be forwarded to a service that will forward it to a lawyer who’ll keep it for us to pick up. I paid top dollar. We won’t be traced.”
“Why would anyone want to trace us?”
“We have to go now. We have—we have to go—we have to—” He started gasping in between his words, and then he pressed one hand to his chest.
Lexi swore. “Where are your pills, Dad?”
He reached for his pocket and missed. “Not gonna help. Have to go. House is all locked up. Everything’s… taken care of.”
She dug the pill bottle from his pocket and shook out a nitro to slip between his lips. Then she said, “I’ll drive, okay? You just calm down. Don’t kill yourself over this. All right?”
Panting, he nodded and shuffled around the van to the passenger side. She opened the door and helped him get in. He seemed calmer, but not enough.
She watched him do up his seatbelt and glanced back at the house. “Where’s Jax?”
“In the back with the other boxes.”
“Ah, hell, Dad.” Lexi closed his door, ran around to the driver’s side and got in. There was an open path to the back where it looked like everything they owned had been tossed in, some boxed, some bagged, some just loose. Shoes were scattered everywhere. A mountain, apparently made out of every outfit she owned, blocked the rear windows, and their toaster lay across the top of it.
“Jax? Kitty? Where are you, boy?”
A plaintive and far too muffled “meow” guided her to a box that was taped shut and jiggling fiercely.
Right. The cat, he boxed. Rolling her eyes, Lexi peeled off the tape and her oversized goofball of a yellow cat shot out like one of those fake peanut cans full of snakes.
“Will you hurry it up, girl? I am not playing games here. We have to go, now.”
She wasn’t going to calm Jax at this point, so she let him be, and got herself into the seat behind the wheel again. “Okay, we’re going.” She started the van, and turned to her father. “Which way?”
“The quickest way to Eighty-one,” he said. “We’re heading north.”
She almost smiled when he said that. The only place she could think of in that direction was north was her mother’s cabin. Well, hers now, she supposed. It was still in her mother’s name, though she’d been dead for 24 years. She’d willed it to her daughter when she’d received her terminal diagnosis. She’d passed before Lexi started kindergarten, and her father hadn’t taken her back there since.
Lexi had no idea what kind of shape the place was in. But it was the place that held her fondest memories of her mother for her.
She backed out the driveway and headed down the street. “How long are we staying?”
“Not very long,” he told her. “Just till I’m dead. Now step on it, will you?”
Sighing, Lexi stepped on it.
The genius Elliot Stoltz had died in his sleep only three weeks after they’d arrived at the cabin. Six months after that, Lexi was still there. She’d had a neighbor put her car in storage, had a realtor sell the house, and wrapped herself up in this place like a big warm blanket.
The cabin was in fact, a log mansion. At least in Lexi’s mind. Her mother had loved the place, from what she remembered. It was odd how her only remaining memories of the woman were set there. And they were happy memories; blurry, sketchy, happy memories. But they comforted her.
Lexi had only been three and a half when her mom had died. And her father had grown steadily colder and more hateful toward her every day since.
She still didn’t know what had happened to him. He’d left explicit instructions for his remains, forbidding autopsy or obituary, and requesting immediate cremation. There was nothing all that mysterious about a man of 82 suffering dementia or dying in his sleep. And since he’d have hated the notion of her interfering with his final wishes, she hadn’t.
She’d been surprised to learn that everything he’d owned had been quietly transferred into her name a month before his death. She wondered if he’d known, somehow, that he was out of time. And she wondered why he’d given everything to her when he’d always hated her, and why he’d always hated her, and whether coming up here to die had somehow made him feel closer to her mother, the way it always did her. She wished she’d asked her questions while he was still alive.
“Who am I kidding?” she asked aloud. "He wouldn't have told me anyway."
Jax looked up at her from his spot on the rug, as close to the fireplace as he could get without singeing his yellow fur. Lexi sat in a rocker only a little bit further from the warm, yellow flames. It was good up here. Quiet. Comfortable. Serene. It was a good place for her to figure out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
The wind outside moaned a little louder than before, compelling her to get up and wander to the nearest window. The place had lots of windows, tall, broad ones that followed the lines of the steeply peaked cathedral ceilings in the great room. They provided a panoramic view of the snow covered pines and the mountains all around the place. An 18 foot spruce tree stood in front of the tallest of them, decked in soft white lights and nothing else.
The tree farm owner had sent his teenage sons up with it a week ago, lights already attached. She hadn’t put another thing on the tree, and she rarely even bothered to plug it in. She kind of liked the serenity of the darkness.
Nighttime was different here, she thought, gazing outside. Star-spangled and natural. Alive and real. Nothing like night had been downstate. The night up here spoke in whispers, but at least it spoke.
The house tended to creak in response to the wind outside. It was as if the wind moaned a question and then the house creaked an answer.
She paced away from the window, bending to stroke Jax’s head when he twisted around her calves. There was nothing out there. Just forests and lakes and a speck-on-the-map town a few miles down the mountain, where old men still sat around a checkerboard in the general store. She ought to go back to bed, try to go back to sleep, she supposed. She turned toward the curving staircase and started up it.
Then she stopped dead in her tracks and listened to what sounded absurdly like an upstairs window scraping open.
A heartbeat later, the doorbell chimed, and she almost jumped out of her skin, the sound was so unexpected. No one visited her up here. Especially not in the dead of night.
Her stomach turned queasy as she tried to decide which to investigate first. She turned toward the door, because a doorbell was certainly real, while a weird noise her brain interpreted as a window scraping open, was probably not.
Maybe it was a hunter who’d got himself lost. Or maybe one of the locals needed something. Still, there was tingling feeling along her nape, and her hand on the doorknob trembled a little as she turned it and pulled the door open.
The man who stood on the other side of it looked…desolate. A face of harsh angles, and eyes that held no light. Dark hair that had gone too long without a trim, and a face in need of a shave. Thick, expressive brows. Black leather jacket, jeans, boots.
He was looking her over just as carefully, and she shivered a little in her white flannel nightgown and bare feet.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I hope so.” There was something about his deep, rough voice that made her nerve endings go alert and tense. “I’m looking for Dr. Elliot Stoltz.”
“No one here by that name. You must have the wrong address.” She had no idea what made her blurt the denial, but it was spilling from her lips before she had time to think better of it.
“You’ll find,” he said slowly, “that it’s not a real good idea to lie to me, Lexia.” She blinked rapidly, drew in a shallow gasp. “That is who you are, isn’t it? Dr. Lexia Stoltz?”
“Lexi Stoltz,” she said. “I’ve never used Lexia. And now it’s your turn. Who are you? How do you know my name? And what are you doing at my door in the middle of the night?”
“I told you, I’m here to see your father.”
Another sound came from upstairs, and it shouldn’t have. A tingle of ice crept up her spine, and she glanced over her shoulder toward the stairs. There was definitely something going on up there. Maybe a raccoon had got in, like in the fall.
“My father isn’t here,” she said. “I’m sorry you came all the way up here for nothing.” She started to close the door, but he stuck a foot in the way, and her heartbeat sped up. “What do you think you’re–”
“Sorry. I’m not buying it.” He walked right in, shouldered his way past her into the house. Then he took a long slow look around as Lexi stood there watching him and trying to decide what the hell to do. She was alone. There were no landline phones and cell service was spotty at best. But he wouldn’t know that.
His gaze swept the room, from the flickering scented candles burning here and there, to the fireplace, to the giant spruce tree standing in the window.
“So, where is he?” As he said it, he took a deliberate step toward her.
She shook her head and took an equal step away from him. “I’m—I’m calling the police. And then I’m going to turn my dogs loose, and—”
“You’re not calling anyone, because there’s no phone up here. And I can tell you that I’ll be a lot easier to deal with than whoever comes through that door next.”
When he said that it scared her, and the noises upstairs came back to her mind. Involuntarily, she glanced toward wide staircase. Each step was a half log, flat side up, and the rails were branches and limbs still dressed in their bark, preserved under layers of shellac.
“Someone’s upstairs, then. Who, Lexia? Your father?”
“Stop calling me that.” She averted her eyes, tried to focus on getting her heartbeat under control, but it was too late. She felt the sensation of her heart tripping over itself before taking off a full gallop. Now, of all times!
She felt as if she wasn’t getting enough air, which made her breathe more quickly, which made her dizzy. This was not an unfamiliar event, but it was not one she needed just now.
Another sound came from upstairs then and her eyes probably gave away that it shouldn’t have.
He reached inside his leather coat and pulled out a handgun. When she saw it, the tachycardia kicked itself into high gear. It felt like a punch in the chest, followed by a beat so rapid she couldn't have counted it if she'd tried. She pressed her hands to her chest, an automatic reaction to the thundering of her heart, then spun around and ran out of the great room. She didn’t even know whether she was running away from the gun, or toward her stash of meds. She needed to take a pill and take it fast, before this episode got out of hand.
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