| DEAD MAN'S CURVE
Text Copyright © 2014 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
Special Agent Ava Trent took a slow turn around Room 125 of the Mountain View Motor Lodge, studying everything, even though the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had already given the place a thorough once-over that morning before the locals had called in the FBI. She doubted there was much they’d missed, but she liked to walk through a crime scene while it was still relatively fresh.
She wasn’t going to pretend she could put herself in the head of either the victims or the perpetrator—she’d leave the hocus-pocus to the Investigative Services Unit. She just wanted to get a good look at the setup. Get a picture of it in her head. Most people in law enforcement had their own rituals. Taking a good, long look around a crime scene was hers.
Unmade queen-size bed. Suitcases open, partially unpacked, on the luggage stand helpfully supplied by the Mountain View Motor Lodge. Two toothbrushes in the bathroom.
Blotches of blood on the torn green comforter hanging off the bed.
“Married couple. Gabe and Alicia Cooper.” Cade Landry, the agent assigned to investigate the possible kidnapping with her, strode up to her, all broad shoulders, square chin and no nonsense. He was new to the Johnson City, Tennessee, resident agency and, if his gruff demeanor was anything to go by, he wasn’t going to turn out to be a favorite among the other agents.
She didn’t care, herself. She wasn’t looking to have her hand held, and if she wanted conversation, she could call up her mother or her sister and get all she could handle. And unlike the female support staff at the resident agency, who all found Landry’s rock-hewn features and sweet molasses drawl irresistible, she certainly wasn’t in the market for a romantic entanglement, especially not with a fellow agent.
“Plenty of signs of a struggle, but not serious injury,” Landry continued. “Blood on the bedspread looks incidental. Bloody nose, maybe. Busted lip in a fight. If the Coopers are deceased, it didn’t happen here.”
“Why were they here in Poe Creek?” she asked.
“Three-year wedding anniversary, according to the motel staff,” Landry answered.
“An anniversary trip to Poe Creek?” She took another look around the motel room and shook her head.
“The husband’s a pro fisherman. Seems his idea of an anniversary trip included fishing on Douglas Lake,” Landry explained, referring to a lake northeast of Knoxville, Tennessee. It was a fifteen-minute drive from Poe Creek, depending on where they’d planned to put their boat in the water.
“Where can I get me a romantic man like that?” she murmured.
It might have been her imagination, but she thought she spotted a hint of a smile flicker over Landry’s stony features. Just a hint, then it was gone. “Not an angler?” he asked as he followed her on her circuit of the room.
“Actually, I’m a very good angler,” she answered. “But I don’t reckon scaling fish ranks high on my list of things to do on an anniversary trip.” Not that she’d ever had an anniversary to celebrate. Unless you counted six years with the FBI.
“Maybe he does all the fish-cleaning. A woman might find that romantic.” Pulling out a pen, Landry nudged a piece of paper lying on the bedside table. It was a note, written in a lazy scrawl. “225 Mulberry Road.”
“Locals already checked it out. It’s a bait and tackle shop on the way to Douglas Lake. They’re getting the security video for us, in case the Coopers made it there.”
“May have nothing to do with their disappearance.” Landry’s tone of voice was one big shrug. She was beginning to wonder if anything interested him at all.
But not enough to ask him about it. Taciturn and antisocial was just fine with her. She wasn’t exactly Susie Sunshine herself.
“We don’t have a lot of time before the family shows up,” Landry warned a few minutes later when they emerged from the small motel room into the late afternoon gloom. An early fall storm was rolling in from the west, advancing twilight despite the early hour. Rain would be on them soon, making the drive back to Johnson City a gloomy prospect.
“The family?” she asked.
“The Coopers. As in Cooper Security. Ever heard of it?”
“Oh. Of course.” Anyone in law enforcement around these parts had heard of Cooper Security, the private agency that had brought down a major-league global conspiracy involving some of the previous administration’s top people. “I thought you said this Cooper was a fisherman, though.”
“He was. But Mrs. Cooper works for Cooper Security. They’d have been informed by now, and they have access to helicopters, hell, maybe even private jets, which means they can be up in these mountains before you can say ‘civilian interference in an official investigation.’ No way will they stay out of this, not with both an employee and one of their own cousins gone missing.”
She tried to gauge whether Landry found the thought disturbing or not. For her part, she didn’t like the idea of civilians, however skilled and resourceful they might be, getting up in her business on a case. It cramped her style, if nothing else.
“Why don’t we see if we can get a couple of rooms and stay here for the night?” Landry suggested, surprising her. She slanted a sharp look his way. “Territorial rights,” he added with another ghost of a smile.
She smiled back. “Stake our claim?”
“Somebody’s gotta do it. Might as well be us.”
First sign of life she’d seen in Landry since they’d arrived. She wasn’t sure if she liked it or not, but at least it suited her own intentions.
She called the resident agency and talked to Pete Chang, the Special Agent in Charge. “Do you think the case will benefit from your staying in town instead of commuting?” he asked.
“I do,” she answered with more confidence than she felt.
“Approved. Just do the paperwork.”
She hung up and nodded to Landry. “Go take care of getting the rooms.”
His eyebrows lifted slightly. “Where are you going?”
“Just want a look around.” She wandered across the parking lot, where a crowd had gathered in the deepening gloom. Onlookers were ubiquitous at any crime scene, though in a town this small, the crowd wasn’t as large as it might have been in a bigger place.
She let her gaze run across the crowd, just out of habit. It had surely taken more than one person to overpower and abduct two able-bodied people, especially if one of those people was a Cooper and the other one worked for Cooper Security. Not likely they could spare someone to see what was going on at the crime scene.
But it wouldn’t hurt to give the onlookers a little extra scrutiny.
Most of the people in the crowd came across as tourists rather than locals, though Ava couldn’t put her finger on what, exactly, gave her that impression. She wasn’t a local herself, though she was close. Her hometown was Bridal Falls, Kentucky, not far across the state line up near Jellico, Tennessee. She knew her way around the mountains.
Some of the people in this crowd weren’t dressed for the mountain climate—too many clothes or not enough, depending on where they came from, she supposed. Some wore socks with sandals, which every self-respecting Southerner knew to be a big, flashing sign of an outsider. As she wandered closer to the gathered crowd, she heard a few northeastern and Midwestern accents as well, mingling with the southern drawls.
Apparently, Landry had followed her, for his deep drawl hummed near her ear. “Is this some sort of FBI magic trick? You listening for the voice of J. Edgar or something?”
“Go get us some rooms,” she repeated.
She couldn’t see him, but she pictured his shrug. After his one, brief moment of liveliness, he was back to the guy who didn’t quite give enough of a damn about anything to put up much of an argument. He would have bugged the hell out of her last case partner, an uptight blue flamer from somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
Didn’t bother her a bit, though. A little objectiveness about a case was usually a good thing. Better than sweating every detail until you started seeing things that weren’t there.
She turned away from the crowd and looked back at the motel. It was picturesque, she supposed, in the way small mountain motels were. The facade was pure sixties kitsch, complete with a space-age neon sign starting to glow bright aqua in the waning daylight. To a certain type of traveler, she supposed, the Mountain View Motor Lodge might prove too much of a temptation to resist.
Which one chose the place? she wondered. Probably the wife. This was a wife kind of place.
She noticed a truck and a high-end bass boat parked near the end of the lot. The husband was a fisherman. The boat was probably his. She pulled out her cell phone and made a note to check whether forensics had taken a look at the vehicle and the water craft.
Slipping the phone back in her pocket, she turned toward the crowd, letting her gaze slide across the faces again as she pondered the obvious question nobody had yet asked.
Why would someone kidnap a fisherman and his wife? Was it the Cooper name? Was it the wife’s job at Cooper Security?
As she reached for her phone again to make a note to check into the wife’s open cases, her gaze snagged on a face in the crowd.
He stood near the back, a golden-skinned face in the middle of a sea of various skin colors. Dark hair worn longer than the fashion these days lay thick and wavy around his angular features. He had a full lower lip and deep brown eyes that, back in her foolish, romantic youth, she’d thought soulful.
Someone in front of him shifted, blocking him from her view. She edged sideways, impatient, but when the space opened again, he was gone.
The electric shock coursing through her body kept zinging, however, shooting quivers along her nerve endings and sprinkling chill bumps down her arms and legs. A tidal wave of images and memories swept through her brain, washing out all good sense and replacing it with a tumble of sensations and wishes and the time-worn detritus of shattered dreams.
It’s him, she thought, her heart racing like a startled deer.
Except it couldn’t be him. How could it be?
Sinclair Solano was very, very dead.
UNTIL THAT BRIEF, electric clash of gazes with the woman across the motel parking lot, Sinclair Solano had almost lost touch with what it meant to be alive. He’d forgotten that something other than caution or dread could animate his pulse or spark a flood of adrenaline into his system. That his skin could tingle with pleasurable anticipation and not just the fear of discovery.
But as soon as the sensation bloomed, he crushed it with ruthless intent. He had no time for anticipation. No room for pleasure. His sister, Alicia, had disappeared from her motel room earlier that day, and while Sinclair could offer no evidence to support his theory, he knew deep in his gut, where the worst of his regrets festered—that she’d been taken because of him.
Someone in Sanselmo had discovered the truth. He hadn’t died in Tesoro Harbor, as the world supposed.
And if he had not, then his former comrades would assume only one thing: he had been their enemy, not their friend.
And enemies were not allowed to live.
The crowd shifted, and he darted back toward the woods across the sheltered road, grateful that summer’s thick foliage hadn’t yet surrendered to the death throes of autumn. He’d dressed today, as he had since coming to these mountains, in olive drab and camouflage, an old habit from his days with the rebels in Sanselmo. Blending into his surroundings had become second nature to him long before his “death,” and nothing he’d experienced since that time had given him a reason to change.
Home these days was a lightweight weather-proof tent in the woods. He was able to pitch the tent in minutes and disassemble it as quickly as the need arose.
The only question now was, had the need arisen again?
She’d seen him. But had she understood who she was seeing? When he’d known her, he hadn’t yet crossed the line. He’d been a young man adrift, not long out of college and on a mission to find himself. Twenty-five years old, possessing a law degree but no career, a steady supply of his parents’ money and a restless yearning to change the world, he’d bummed around the Caribbean for a while. Haiti for relief work. The Dominican Republic to teach English to eager young students.
The trip to Mariposa had been an oddity. A real vacation, downtime from the poverty and sadness he’d faced every day. And the pretty, corn-fed college girl with her Kentucky drawl and pragmatic view of the world had seemed damned near as exotic as the Mariposan beauties.
They’d clicked, in the way opposites sometimes do, and though the smart, practical girl from Kentucky had at first been wary about being alone with a stranger on an island, they’d connected soon enough. It had been the best week of his life, a fact which had confounded him, since neither of them had done a damned thing high-minded or selfless.
Confounded him and made him feel guilty. Especially after talking to his parents one night and realizing, with dismay, that some of the things he’d found most charming about Ava had left his parents appalled and speechless.
It had been his father who’d told him about Luis Grijalva. Luis was doing amazing things in the Caribbean and South America, politically. Organizing workers, fighting for social justice, all the things that mattered to the Solano family.
The things that had mattered to Sinclair.
What was one last day with a college girl compared to meeting the great man himself and learning from his experiences?
He reached the tent, his heart still pounding, and zipped himself inside, wrapping his arms around himself to hold back the shivers. The day was mild, not cool, despite the coming storm, but he felt chilled from the inside out. He dug into the pockets of his trousers and pulled out his latest burner phone. There was a little juice left, but not much. If he didn’t run into town in the next few days, he’d be completely cut off from even the hope of communication.
He stared at the dimmed display, wondering if it was time to make contact with Quinn again. Just a call. A couple of carefully memorized code words. He hadn’t tried it yet, but things had changed. Alicia was missing.
He hadn’t checked in with Alexander Quinn in almost eight months. He couldn’t trust that Adam Brand, the FBI agent who'd recognized him, would keep quiet. There were limits to even Quinn’s influence, and enemies more powerful and ruthless than the government who’d once listed him as one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives.
But Sinclair hadn’t left the mountains, either. He supposed, in a way, they were as close to a place to call home as he’d found in years of running from his past. He’d always lived in hilly places, from the rolling streets of San Francisco to the volcanic peaks of Sanselmo, the home of his heart. Even on the tiny Caribbean island of Mariposa, where he’d spent a couple of years before the call from Quinn, he’d gravitated to the mountain that filled the center of the island.
The Smoky Mountains were an alpine rainforest rather than a tropical one. But they’d felt like a place of refuge ever since he’d arrived.
THOUGH SHE’D GROWN up in the mountains, it had been a while since Ava had spent much time in the middle of unfettered nature. She’d been living in cities for several years now, where hiking meant leaving the Ford Focus at home instead of driving it downhill to the grocery store when she had a few things to pick up.
But she’d stayed fit, thanks to the demands of her job, and she found some of her old childhood skills coming back to her as she picked her way through the thickening forest.
The land sloped gently upward, making her calves burn as she hiked, but she shrugged the twinges away, concentrating instead on trying to follow the trail through the gloom. Rain had started to fall by the time she reached a fork in the forest trail, turning her hair to damp, frizzled curls beneath the hood of her rain jacket.
She should have been shocked that Landry hadn’t asked more questions about why she was heading into the woods, but based on her hours in his unadulterated presence, she wasn’t surprised at all. He was phoning it in these days, for whatever reason. She doubted he’d last at the agency much longer with that attitude. But she didn’t have the time or the inclination to dig deeper into what drove him to such epic levels of ennui.
She had an abduction to solve, and based on what she’d learned from her supervisory agent just a few minutes earlier, chasing a ghost into the woods just might be the best use of her time.
“Don’t know if it means anything,” SAC Chang had told her when he called, “but her name pinged in our records because of her familial connection to a terrorist.”
At that point, she’d known who the terrorist would be. Hadn’t she?
She certainly hadn’t been surprised to hear him add, “Her maiden name is Solano.”
Sinclair Solano’s sister had gone missing the same day Ava had looked up into the crowd at the crime scene and seen the ghost of her brother. And since she didn’t believe in ghosts, there was only one explanation.
Sinclair Solano was alive after all.
“Come on, Sin,” she muttered, blinking away a film of rain blurring her vision even as it darkened the day. “Where the hell did you go?”
The man she’d met years earlier, before his descent into murder and mayhem, had been a real charmer. Handsome, beautifully tanned, in love with beauty and music and passionate about the world of people around him, he’d been as exotic to her as a Mariposan native, even though he was an American, born and raised in San Francisco. His parents were college professors, he’d told her. His sister was a brainiac who’d skipped grades and was already on the verge of graduating from college at the age of twenty.
He’d liked her accent, argued passionately with some of her politics without making her feel evil or stupid, and when he’d kissed her, she would have sworn she heard music.
How he’d gone from that man to the scourge of Sanselmo was a mystery that had nagged her for a long time, until word of his death reached the news shortly after the terrorist bomb blast he’d set, one intended to take out the new president and his family, went terribly wrong for him and some of his comrades instead.
She was glad, she’d told herself. Poetic justice and all that.
But there was a part of her that had always felt cheated. That curious part of her, the one that had driven her into her current job, that wanted to know why.
Why had he blown her off that last day in Mariposa, knowing her flight would leave the next morning? Why had he grown so cold and distant after talking to his father on the phone?
Why had he left Mariposa for Sanselmo, armed himself on the side of brutal, ruthless rebels and channeled his passion for justice into a murderous assault on a nascent democratic republic?
After word of his death, she’d resigned herself to never knowing the answers to those nagging questions.
Now, maybe she’d get a chance to ask them after all.
The rain fell harder around her, seeping under the collar of her rain jacket. Her jeans were soaked through and beginning to chafe. Worst of all, she had no damned idea where she was anymore. And if the ghost she was chasing had left any sort of trail from here forward, she saw no sign of it.
Trudging to a stop, she just stood still a moment, listening to the woods, taking in the ambient sounds—the susurration of rainfall, the distant hum of engines from the highway north of her position, the slightly ragged whoosh of her own breathing.
Another sound seeped into her consciousness. Footsteps. Careful. Furtive.
Turning a slow circle, she let her gaze go unfocused. Let the wall of green become a blur against which movement might become more evident. She slowed her breathing deliberately, remembering lessons from the shooting classes she’d taken in pursuit of her career, determined to be the best at any task she took on. Her own weapon, a Glock G30S, sat heavily in the small of her back. She reached behind her slowly and eased it from the holster.
She wasn’t dressed for stealth on purpose, but her olive-green blouse and dark trousers didn’t make her an easy target. She had ordinary brown hair, not a bright shock of red curls that might draw attention her way. Plain olive-toned skin, unlikely to stand out in the gloom. She was in many ways a nondescript woman, which had served her well on the job.
But right now, she felt utterly exposed, as the crackle of underbrush filtered through the patter of rainfall.
Someone was watching her. She felt it.
Edging back in the direction she came, she tried not to panic. Coming out here alone had been reckless, especially when she probably could have convinced Landry to come along with her if she’d made the effort.
She hadn’t wanted to tell him what she’d seen. That was the truth of the matter. She hadn’t wanted to see his skepticism or, worse, his ridicule. Didn’t want to hear that she was imagining things.
She knew what she’d seen. She’d looked at Sinclair's photograph for years, even after his death, wondering how the sweet-natured, passionate man she’d met in the Caribbean could have become a terrorist.
The wind picked up, swirling leaves from the trees to slap her rain-stung cheeks. Blinking away a film of moisture, she quickened her steps.
A dark mass rose out of the gloom to her right, slamming into her with a jarring blow before she could react. She staggered against the impact, trying to keep her feet, but shoes slipped on the rain-slick leaves carpeting the forest floor, and she hit the ground. Her pistol went flying in the underbrush, out of reach. Breath whooshed from her lungs, and her vision darkened to a narrow tunnel of blurry light.
Rough hands grabbed at her as she gasped for air. Twisting, she tried to see her captor, certain she would see Sinclair Solano’s face staring back at her. But the dark-eyed man who held her in his painful grasp was someone she’d never seen before.
He shoved his pistol into the soft flesh beneath her chin, the front sight digging painfully into her skin. “¡Silencio!”
Her pulse rattling in her throat, she had no choice but to comply.