A body in a garage. A revolver in a locked car. A chance meeting of two old friends on a plane. Is this a happy reunion or a devious frame up for murder?
The Risa Vitale that Adam Taggart remembers as a skinny daredevil kid who trailed him around the ski club didn’t show any signs she would become the attractive woman who greeted him as he lined up to get off a plane. His uncomplicated happiness at their reunion, however, ends shortly after she offers him a ride. Finding a revolver under his seat and a pool of blood in the back of her van doesn’t encourage romance. Then he discovers his stepsister’s dead body in Risa’s parents’ garage!
ASIN: B01JRE4276 GENRE: Romantic Mystery ISBN: 978-1-925191-76-9 Word Count: 72, 310
Maybe life did begin at forty. Sylvia rolled onto her back and stretched lazily. The action drew the navy satin sheet off the bare torso of the fair-haired man who sprawled on the bed beside her. Philip had earned his rest, she thought with a satisfied smile. He’d always been a talented lover, but her threat to sue for divorce had spurred him to previously unattained heights last night. His stamina had been truly incredible. Long after he had collapsed in exhausted slumber, every nerve ending in her body still purred gently.
Sylvia felt more content with her life than she had in a long time. She took a deep breath. Wood smoke from the fireplace below blended with her perfume, Philip’s cologne and the musky smell of sex.
She didn’t have any illusions about what made her so necessary to her husband’s happiness, but, she’d never found anyone else as talented in bed as her occasionally devoted husband. She held up her hand to admire the way the exquisite sapphire ring he’d brought as a peace offering caught the morning light that was slanting in the tall window of the loft.
As she slipped out of bed, she ran a finger lightly along the silky hair of Philip’s forearm. He didn’t stir. She sighed and shrugged on her fleecy white robe. There was no reason the man shouldn’t sleep while she made herself some much needed coffee. She would keep Philip a while longer. A delicious shiver of anticipation snaked along her spine when she imagined his response to that news. There was much to be said for marrying a younger man.
She was at the top of the narrow stairs that led down to the chalet’s living room when she heard a key being turned in the front door lock.
Damn! Hadn’t she told Jessie to notify the security patrol she was going to be here? She started down.
Just inside the front door, an all-too-familiar man in a ridiculous yellow slicker stood silently fumbling with something in the deep pocket of his coat.
“What are you doing here? Has something happened?” Sylvia snapped, torn between annoyance and concern. The heels of her slippers clattered as she hurried down the steep steps.
The man shook his head slowly. The unexpected menace in his cold eyes stopped her in her tracks.
“Then get out. I told you I needed some time here alone.”
Instead of replying, he drew a snub-nosed revolver from his pocket and aimed it deliberately at her chest. Before it sank in that the oaf actually intended to shoot her, Sylvia heard a loud blast and felt a heavy blow as if someone had kicked her in the left breast. She didn’t hear the second shot.
Sylvia Anne Langdon Smythe Farnsworth March had been mistaken. For her, life ended at forty.
Chinese water torture was too tidy. How about hanging the perpetrator by his thumbs in a steamy sauna – wearing tweed underwear.
The corner of Adam’s mouth twitched for a second. No. There was no punishment diabolical enough for the person who’d designed the economy class seat he was crammed into. He’d hitched rides on military aircraft that were more comfortable. His body ached to move freely and his lungs craved air that hadn’t been recirculated through the plane’s overworked air conditioning system. Shifting his weight and easing one leg out into the aisle, he rotated his foot to work some of the kinks out of his cramped muscles.
Three rows ahead of him a female ankle was being put through the same gyrations. Ever since he’d started noticing the more subtle differences between male and female bodies, he’d been a fan of slender ankles. He was sure he’d admired that fine example before. Unfortunately, all he could see of its owner, apart from her foot and ankle, was part of a glossy, dark brown French braid. He could wait. She’d stop leaning forward to catch a glimpse of the landing and turn her face towards him when the plane touched down.
When the seat belt sign flashed off, the mystery woman stood up to get her things from the overhead bin, giving him a clear view. Even though the rest of her more than lived up to the promise of her shapely ankle, he still couldn’t place her. She was tall, at least five foot ten, and leaner than the women who usually appealed to him; however, her well-cut slacks and bulky white sweater hinted at interesting curves. But it was her face that was absolutely breathtaking. Those strong cheekbones and large, tiger eyes were tantalizingly familiar. She glanced down the crowded aisle between them. Then her face lit up in a broad smile.
“Adam Taggart!” she called, her low voice sounding genuinely pleased. “Is it really you?”
Good Lord! The memory of that same broad grin displaying gleaming metal braces flashed through his mind. Only Risa Vitale had a beacon of a smile like that. This beautiful woman was Marco Vitale’s skinny little pest of a sister.
“Risa,” he replied, stumbling to his feet. Lord, but she’d grown into an attractive woman! Adam wished he’d been faster off the mark getting his coat from the overhead storage. Not anxious to rush into the depressing situation at his mother’s, he’d chosen to allow the rest of the passengers to precede him off the plane.
“It was great to have this chat with you,” Risa quipped with a wry smile as the crowd of impatient passengers swept her past him towards the exit.
He couldn’t leave it at that. That smile of hers had already dispelled some of the gloom.
“Will you wait for me by the baggage carousel?” he called after her. The intensity of his relief when she nodded her assent caught him by surprise. He definitely needed this break.
As she waited for her luggage to come around on the carousel, Risa told herself to simmer down. So Adam Taggart asked her to wait for him. He’d probably stay long enough to get his luggage and exchange a few polite words. She lifted her bag off the belt and placed it on the floor beside the bulky carton of samples and swatches of fabrics Garth wanted her to consider for the new bathing suit line. Any minute now she would see Adam’s shock of dark hair above the crowd. She was still reeling from her first glimpse of his unforgettable eyes across the crowded aisle. That combination of silvery blue-gray eyes and thick, brown lashes had to be unique. Then, he’d stood up. He was taller than she remembered. Over the years, she’d caught him on network news reporting from one war torn country or disaster area after the other but it must be fifteen years since he and most of the high school ski team had hung around their house with Marco.
It was amazing that Adam even remembered her name. She’d had an embarrassing preadolescent crush on him but, if he’d thought about her at all, it was only as a tomboy nuisance who insisted on tagging along after him and Marco on the ski hills. Of course, Adam was seventeen at the time with a real girlfriend – a bouncy, busty blonde. Risa, miserably sure she’d never develop breasts herself, had hated her. Good Heavens! That would make Adam thirty-two, now.
He materialized a few feet away from her. The flutter she felt as she watched him swing a well-traveled bag off the carousel and start towards her took her back fifteen years. This was ridiculous. She was a divorced, savvy business woman not an impressionable twelve-year-old. However, she was having trouble maintaining her hard won composure in the face of his appreciative grin. He rolled his eyes heavenward in mock astonishment.
“Well, Risa, Risa, pesky Risa.” He grasped both her hands, then stepped back, cocked his head slightly, and looked her up and down. “Who’d have thought you’d grow up to be such a knockout?” His voice was fuller and even more resonant in person than it was on television. “Is anyone meeting you?”
“I drove myself. My van’s in the car park across the way.”
“Good. Then you can join me for an early supper.” He caught himself. “I should ask,” he said with an apologetic smile. “I’m too used to calling the shots with my crew. Will you please join me for a little supper and conversation?”
She smiled back. The teenaged Adam had been single-minded and forceful, too. She didn’t know anything about the adult Adam except that his lanky body had filled out and his handsome face had become a little craggy and bore a few lines that showed he’d done some living.
She wondered if he had a special woman to share some of that living with him. He had a predatory bachelor gleam in his eye and he wasn’t wearing a ring. That didn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t married. Why should that matter? An hour or so touching base with a childhood acquaintance wasn’t a date, she assured herself. In the course of business, she had meals with married men all the time. And her ex-husband had taught her to be wary of charismatic men with exceptional good looks.
“I’d like that.” She didn’t have to lose his company just yet. When she boarded the plane, she’d felt totally wiped. Four days of living the Vitale public persona always left her feeling flat. Adam’s frank admiration of just plain Risa lifted her spirits.
“Do you mind eating here in the airport?” he suggested. “I have to rent a car but I’m too hungry to wait around for them to do the paper work before I eat. I skipped the airline’s plastic chicken lunch and with the fog delay in Chicago, I’m starved.”
“It won’t take much longer to get my van and go somewhere quieter,” she suggested. “Then, after we’ve eaten, I can drop you off wherever you’re staying and you can rent your car from there.”
“The restaurant part sounds great but I can take a cab home from the restaurant,” Adam said, zipping up his leather jacket and pulling on his gloves. Before he could pick up Risa’s carton, she directed a porter to load it and the bags onto a trolley.
“That’s probably best. I’m sure my mother has a car I can borrow for a few days,” he added.
“Your family still lives in Denver?”
Risa realized she’d offered to drive the man home and had no idea where to take him. Fifteen years ago, Marc would have teased her unmercifully if she’d asked him where one of his buddies lived. She’d admired Adam from afar like the rock stars whose posters had covered the walls of her bedroom. And he’d been off to college or somewhere before she got into high school.
Adam looked at her strangely. “My stepfather would never leave the city. Actually, he’s very ill. That’s why I’m here.”
“Oh, Adam, I’m so sorry,” she said, feeling a twinge of guilt for her uncomplicated joy at seeing him. “I’ll drive you straight home.”
“Let’s get something to eat first,” he said. “I want to hear everything about you. We have years of catching up to do. How are your parents? And Marco?”
She told him that her parents were well and enjoying a long-anticipated visit to her father’s relatives in Italy. The trip was a fortieth wedding anniversary gift from her and Marc.
“Marc hasn’t changed much. He’s just as bossy. Maybe a bit heavier than he was in high school,” she told him. “He’s still single. Says he doesn’t have the kind of spare time it would take to keep one woman happy.”
“Hazel told me Marc was a rising light in the District Attorney’s office.” He must have caught the question in her eye. “My mother. When my brother turned thirteen, she insisted she was too young to be called Mom by a teenager.” He gave her a ‘that’s life’ kind of smile. “Anyway, who’d have thought that Nutzo Marco, the wild man hotdogger of the team, would take up law?”
“Most of the team are pretty staid and settled these days. You’re one of the few who found a high adrenalin career.”
“I’ve never thought of writing as life threatening,” he said.
The incredulous snort Risa emitted didn’t fit her recently acquired elegant image. “Don’t give me that. I’ve caught your news reports from some scary places over the years,” she told him. And she’d made sure she caught every news item during the months he’d been held hostage in the Middle East last year.
They piled their luggage and Risa’s carton into the back of the crowded van that ran a shuttle service to the long-term parking lot and slid into the last two empty seats.
“Are you here between assignments?” she asked, trying to ignore the muscular thigh that pressed against hers in the suddenly small seat.
“I’m taking an indefinite leave,” he told her.
“Ah, your stepfather.” She nodded.
“Hazel’s call decided the timing but, to tell the truth, I was already thinking I needed time off to do some serious thinking,” Adam surprised himself by adding. “My boss tells me there’s a desk waiting for me in Washington if I want it.”
“Wouldn’t you find that dull?” She seemed truly interested.
“Dull doesn’t sound all that bad to me right now,” he told her. He couldn’t imagine why he was telling this stunning stranger with the familiar smile about the offer he hadn’t mentioned to another living soul.
The silence was threatening to become awkward when she asked, “Has your stepfather been ill a long time?”
“Almost a year. I’ve been home a few times since he was diagnosed but last week, Hazel called to say his condition was deteriorating and he wanted to see me.”
He realized that a Vitale would have been on the next plane home. But Risa had no idea how complicated his relationship with Sam was. “I was almost seventeen when he married Hazel,” he said. “Then I went away to college.” He didn’t want to get into details. Not if Risa truly didn’t know his mother had married Sam Langdon.
“But what about you, Risa?” Even though there was no wedding ring on her slender finger, she was too attractive not to have some significant man in her life. “Are you visiting, too?”
“I’ve been back in Denver for almost five months. My company…” She paused, then gave him another of those delightful, big smiles. “I love to say that. ‘My company’. I really share it with my partner and the bank. My company makes casual wear and, last winter, Langdon Industries decided to buy out the Canadian department store chain I had a contract with. So here I am – back in Denver.”
Her open grin and her casual mention of Langdon Industries tempted him to believe Risa had no idea of his connection with her employers. Then it hit him.
“You’re that Vitale!” You couldn’t open a magazine or turn on the radio these days without being bombarded with the name. When he’d come home for a short visit early last spring, his brother, Robert, had been boasting to anyone who would listen that Langdon’s Stores had an exclusive contract to launch the Vitale aprés ski line in their Designer Boutique Departments this fall.
“I should have made the connection,” he said. There was another connection niggling at his mind. Sylvia had been upset about the deal. Of course, his step-sister usually found some reason to bicker with Robert. “When you weren’t underfoot on the slopes as a kid, you were hogging the big table in the family room making bizarre Barbie outfits on your mother’s sewing machine.”
“I still have most of them. And, I proved I was right. My designs were a lot more important than your old card games.”
“Bite your tongue. Poker is a male rite of passage. Even if you never play it again, learning poker is mandatory when you’re seventeen. Seriously, I really am impressed by your success.”
To his surprise, the lovely cheeks of the internationally acclaimed designer flushed red. It was a long time since he’d seen a woman blush. “Is your factory here in Denver?”
“The new one is. Our original shop is in Toronto but with our big contract with Langdon’s, Garth felt we needed to build here.”
He wanted to ask her who the devil Garth was, but the shuttle had stopped and it was time to get out and rescue their luggage from the pile in back. He handed Risa her suitcase and, over her protests that she could handle it herself, he swung the fairly light but bulky cardboard box onto his shoulder and grabbed his own bag.
“Are you living at home then?” he asked after the van pulled away and left them in the relative silence of the chilly dusk. He wasn’t going to ask her directly about Garth.
“For now. While Mom and Dad are in Italy, I’m looking after their dog. I didn’t think I’d have to go out of town before they got back but this publicity blitz in Chicago and Toronto came up suddenly. Poor Fang! He’s never been boarded before.”
“Fang?” Adam raised a questioning eyebrow.
Her unrestrained hoot of delighted laughter took him back to the warmth of the Vitale’s kitchen a decade and a half ago.
“Papa thought Fang was a hilarious name for a cuddly golden retriever puppy. But it turned out to be even more ridiculous for the placid sweetheart he grew into.” Her indulgent smile spoke volumes about her relationship with her parents. “So Garth has the apartment to himself for six glorious weeks while I dog sit.”
After casually tossing in the tidbit that she and Garth were sharing an apartment – or had been sharing one, she led him between the snow-dusted rows of automobiles towards a gleaming white van with a discreet but stylish navy-blue Vitale logo emblazoned on its doors. Sitting decidedly crooked in its slot, the van looked as if it had been hastily abandoned rather than parked. Risa frowned, shook her head slowly, then, with a shrug, took a remote door lock opener from her purse and pressed the button.
“Just throw your bags in there,” she said, heading for the driver’s side of the van.
Pondering the role of the unknown Garth in Risa’s life, Adam absentmindedly slid open the large central door on the passenger’s side. He reached around to slide the carton into the rear section but changed his mind when he noticed a large dark spot that could have been oil on the otherwise pristine pale blue carpet. Instead, he put the box and luggage down just inside the door and climbed around them towards the roomy passenger seat.
“Let me get those.” Risa reached across and retrieved two crumpled paper lunch bags that had been lying on the seat. Judging from the vaguely fishy aroma that overlaid the van’s new car smell, Risa was a fan of tuna sandwiches. “Sorry,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Rotten housekeeping. I’d better find a trash can soon.”
“Why can’t they make aircraft seats like this?” he sighed, as he sank into the seat and stretched out his legs.
“Mind putting my purse under your seat?”
Adam grunted as he took the large leather bag with both hands. “The airline didn’t count this as carry-on luggage?”
Uninspired, Adam. He’d have to do better than that. She had him clowning and mugging like a teenager to earn another of her megawatt smiles. He tried to tuck the purse into the space between his pedestal chair and the gear shift but met an obstruction. He reached down and picked it up. When he saw what he was holding, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Tell me, Risa,” he asked, dryly, presenting the Smith and Wesson .38 snubby revolver on the palm of his gloved hand, “Does someone usually ride shotgun?”
Her smile faded rapidly to a look of confusion, then anger. “Why are you waving that gun around, Adam? I’m not impressed. Put it away.”
“Back under my feet? That’s no place for a loaded gun.”
“Under your feet?”
Risa switched off the ignition and glared at him.
“Guns are no joke,” she bit out. “Put it back in your pocket or wherever you got it from. Then you can get out of my van.”
What was going on? Did she think that he’d been carrying that gun? He replaced the revolver on the floor.
“Don’t leave it in my van.” She gestured towards the door and flicked her fingers impatiently in a shooing motion.
“That’s where I found it.”
Her fingers stilled and her eyes widened in what looked to him like honest bewilderment.
“But that’s not possible,” she whispered.
“If that gun doesn’t belong to you,” he said, handing back her purse. “We’d better both get out without touching anything else and notify the police that someone left you an unwelcome gift.”
Without further argument, she yanked her key from the ignition, accepted the purse, and exited the van.
“I’m the only person who has driven this van,” she told him. “I only took delivery three weeks ago.” She met his eyes. “And when I left it here Friday, there was no revolver on the floor.”
“Maybe that guy Garth used it while you were out of town.”
“Not possible. Garth’s been in Toronto on the same business I was. He’s still there. Besides, he hates guns.”
“Who else had access to the keys?”
That wasn’t exactly true. Oh, Lord, she prayed she was wrong. She leaned back against the van and wrapped her arms tightly around herself.
Adam pulled her gently into his arms and she went to him as if they’d done it a hundred times before. His strength and warmth surrounded her for a fleeting moment. Then, apparently realizing that they were virtual strangers, he released her but lifted her chin so that she had to look at him. She thought she saw concern in his silvery eyes.
“Who else, Risa?”
“I don’t know.” Adam’s touch helped calm the quaking in her stomach but it couldn’t wipe out the fact that she’d found a revolver in her locked vehicle. “Somebody snatched my purse when I was leaving the store two weeks ago. All my keys were in it.”
The full horror of the situation hit her. The thief had the keys to the plant, to her apartment and her parents’ house! She began to rummage in her purse. “I have to call the police. The officer I reported the purse snatching to gave me a number to call if anything else happened.”
“Before you do that, we’d better call your brother. Marc will know the best way to handle this.”
“You think someone used the van to commit a crime.” Adam’s grim expression confirmed her suspicion.
“I remember noticing Friday morning that I still had fifteen hundred miles to go before I reached the magic five thousand mark.” She switched on the light and looked at the number on the dashboard. “Somebody’s put close to a hundred miles on it since then.” She took a deep breath. “I’d better find a phone and call the police.”
“I have a cellular phone in my bag. You can use it but call Marc first. He might be able to ensure that some rookie doesn’t decide to give you a hard time about the gun.”
Adam looked so concerned that she decided not to argue with him. A taped message in Marc’s secretary’s voice told her that the office was closed for the day. When Risa dialed her brother’s apartment, she got the answering machine. She left a message saying it was urgent she talk to him, and the number of Adam’s cell phone.
“Was Marc expecting to hear from you when your plane got in?” Adam asked.
“I usually call around dinner time. He worries about me,” she explained. That was an understatement. After the divorce, the only way she’d been able to take control of her own life had been to leave the state.
“So he’ll probably check his messages soon,” Adam pursed his lips. “The best plan is for me to rent a car after all.”
Her face must have showed her dismay because he caught her hand and squeezed it.
“I’m not leaving you alone to deal with this, Risa,” he reassured her. “Marc will probably call before I’ve finished renting the car. But I’ll hang around until you’re safely home.”
“You don’t have to do that,” she protested feebly. “But, you’re right. I should talk to Marc.”
“Then let’s get our hand luggage out and get back to the shuttle stop.”
Risa accepted her little wheeled overnight case and strode out across the snowy parking lot with it trying to recapture her usual composure.
“You have troubles of your own. You want to get home to your family.” Then she heard herself asking, “Is your wife joining you?”
“No wife,” he said. “Never had one. You married?”
“Not anymore.” She didn’t elaborate.
At that moment, Risa caught sight of the shuttle. When she shouted and started to run towards it, the driver stopped to wait for them. As they climbed back on board, he looked at them curiously and asked, “Got a problem, folks?”
Adam’s brusque reply that they had everything under control didn’t encourage further conversation.
In the terminal, Risa spotted an unoccupied bench.
“I can wait here with the bags,” she offered.
Adam swung his scuffed leather bag onto the bench and handed her his phone.
“Good idea. You’ll need this,” he said and turned as if to leave. “Risa,” he said, turning back. He looked at her hesitantly. “Would you like me to hang around until Marc calls?”
“Good heavens, no!” she exclaimed. It had been a long time since anyone but Marc had thought she needed help handling anything life threw at her. “Thanks for the thought, though.”
As she watched him stride through the crowd toward the “Rentals” sign, she wished she could recapture the carefree excitement she’d felt before they’d found that gun. Adam’s broad shoulders disappeared from view but she could still feel his vital presence. No man had made her pulse race like this since the first bloom of infatuation had worn off her marriage about seven years ago. She’d been divorced four years now and enjoyed being in control of her life and her emotions. She’d promised herself that no one was going to mesmerize and use her again. No matter how powerful Adam Taggart’s brand of male magnetism was, Risa Vitale was determined to remain unaffected by it.
The cell phone in her pocket startled her back to the present.
“Are you okay, Reese?” her brother demanded.
When Risa told him about meeting Adam, then finding the revolver and discovering the extra mileage on the van, the expletive that exploded in her ear wasn’t one she’d ever heard Marc use.
“I can’t possibly leave the meeting I’m in right now, honey. The team is fine-tuning strategy for a big case that’s coming up tomorrow. But I’ll look after everything. I’ll get hold of Paul,” he said. Marc’s long-time friend, Paul McIntyre was a police detective with the city. “He’ll know if anything’s gone down in the last few days where a missing gun figures.” He paused. “The guy who stole your purse would have your keys, wouldn’t he? Damn! You can’t go home alone and I’m stuck here. You could…”
“Marc,” Risa interrupted. “You get in touch with Paul. I’ll act on his advice. If it makes you feel better, Adam said he’d make sure I got home safely.”
“Look,” he said, as if she hadn’t spoken, “you stay at the airport. Get something to eat. I’ll get back to you after I talk to Paul. More than likely, he’ll say all you have to do is bring in the gun. Tell Adam I appreciate his offer. And stay with him! I’ll be in touch.” He rang off.
You’d think she was still twelve years old!
“Judging by the frown you’re wearing, you’ve been talking to your big brother and he’s been laying down the law,” Adam said, cheerfully waving a set of car keys. “Where to?”
“I’m not sure,” she said and filled him in on her conversation with Marc.
“Food would be nice,” she concluded a little wistfully.
“Fast food,” Adam agreed. “Massive burgers and mountains of fries.”
They found a restaurant, ordered and actually managed to eat most of their meal before his phone beeped again.
Adam took the call. After agreeing it had indeed been too many years since he and Marc had spoken, Adam’s side of the conversation was mostly monosyllabic.
“Sure, I remember Paul McIntyre. Slalom, right? … Fine,” he concluded. “We’ll go back to the parking lot to meet him.”
Risa took a last swallow of her cola and hurriedly buttoned her coat as she stood up.
“McIntyre agreed to check out the van,” he informed her.
“I’m glad it’s Paul,” she said. “He’ll make this as easy as he can. He and Marc still do a lot of skiing together. They try to get in at least one ski weekend a year.”
Unbidden, a picture of a laughing young Risa barreling full tilt down a mountain ski run filled Adam’s mind. He didn’t think he’d ever known that kind of wholehearted laughter. An unfamiliar emotion clutched his heart. It didn’t matter that she was no longer that girl, and that she probably shared that fierce joy and her ski weekends with a man named Garth. He didn’t want ugliness to touch her. And, he suspected there was some serious ugliness connected with that revolver.
“I’ll be glad to quit toting these suitcases.” Adam tossed the bags into the trunk of the mid-sized white rental car. “Back to the parking lot,” he announced, starting up the engine.
He found a parking spot not far down the aisle from the Vitale van. Shortly, a dark sports car with ski racks drew up and a big, sandy-haired man wearing jeans and a brown leather bomber jacket almost as well-worn as the one Adam was wearing climbed out of it and stood with his hands on his hips studying Risa’s van.
Paul McIntyre swung around when Risa called his name. The frown on his square face softened slightly when he saw them.
“Risa. And Tagg.” He held out a large hand to grasp Adam’s. “Been a long time. So, Risa,” he said, getting right down to business, “Marc said you found a firearm. Fill me in.”
Risa unlocked the van. McIntyre listened intently while she told him what little she knew, compared the mileage figures in the notebook she had in her purse to the reading on the odometer and flipped on the overhead light. He leaned into the van and was drawing a rough sketch of the position of the revolver when Adam spoke up.
“I’m afraid I picked the gun up before I realized what it was. Neither of us touched anything else after that and we were both wearing gloves.” He pointed to the large sample box. “I put that carton into the van first, then our bags in front of it. I didn’t want to put anything down on that stain in the back.”
Paul looked where he was pointing and cursed under his breath. He made his way back and called out, “I need the flashlight from the door pocket of my car.”
Adam got it for him, then stood next to Risa by the van’s open door. When the flashlight beam illuminated the dark area on the carpet, she wheeled around to face him. “You didn’t mention that stain to me. Didn’t you think I might be interested?”
He saw the full realization of what they might be dealing with dawn on her. “Oh, God, Adam. What do you think it is?”
“It’ll be all right, Risa,” he said and hoped he was right.
Paul emerged from the van and rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. “I’m afraid you’ll have to leave your van here, Risa,” he said, gruffly, not meeting her eyes.
“What is it?” she whispered. Her eyes were over-large in her pale face.
“Something or somebody lost a fair amount of blood back there, as far as I can see. I’m calling in a crime scene squad to go over the whole van carefully. You’ll have to come down to the precinct so we can take your prints.”
“My fingerprints?” Risa sounded aghast.
“Only to eliminate them from the ones that don’t belong.”
“Surely that can wait,” Adam stepped in. “Your people are going to be busy here for quite a while and Risa’s exhausted. She’ll come in first thing in the morning. I guarantee it.”
Adam could see McIntyre’s hackles go up at his interference.
“I could insist.” The detective’s voice was chilly.
“You know she couldn’t be a witness to anything. She’s been out of the country since…” The steam went out of his argument. He didn’t know.
“Friday morning,” Risa told them. “I left the van here at six-thirty Friday morning.” Adam watched her turn the full power of a beseeching smile on poor McIntyre. “Couldn’t I go home now, Paul? I’ll have Marc take me in to be printed first thing tomorrow.”
McIntyre gave in. “First thing in the morning, then.”
Risa and Adam were soon on their way out to the Vitale house with their luggage.
“I hope you don’t mind driving me out this far. Mom and Papa didn’t need the space after we all left home.”
Adam felt a real twinge of regret for the warmth of Mom Vitale’s old aromatic kitchen. For the rest of the half-hour drive, Risa appeared to be lost in grim thoughts and Adam was dealing with an unpleasant realization of his own.
When Risa mentioned she was divorced, he should have made the connection. The day Robert smugly announced the Vitale deal to the family, Sylvia had been furious because, with all the designers in the world to choose from, he had deliberately chosen her current husband’s ex-wife. Adam could still hear her ranting. Didn’t Robert know the woman was a sore loser who was still trying to break up Sylvia’s marriage? Adam hadn’t paid much attention because, unfortunately, his stepsister had proved too often that she was perfectly capable of breaking up her marriages without outside assistance.
He swore silently. Whatever the truth was, he wasn’t about to get involved with a woman who was tangled up in one of Sylvia’s messes. He’d been torn between his obligation to be with his mother and Sam and his bewildering need to keep Risa safe from gun-toting purse snatchers and suspicious policemen. Now his duty was clear. He’d better hurry back into the city the minute he got Risa home. Her problems had nothing to do with him. Besides, he could keep tabs on her situation through Marc.
Following Risa’s directions, he drove through the dark winding streets of a subdivision that had sprung up since he’d left Colorado. They came to a stop in the driveway of a neat, attractively landscaped back-split bungalow.
“Thank you, Adam,” Risa began. “I’ll be fine now.”
“Not yet.” So much for dropping her off. “We have to check your parents’ house from top to bottom before I leave.”
He opened the trunk and picked up the cardboard box for what seemed the hundredth time. “Where do you want this?”
She rummaged in her purse and pulled out a remote control with a triumphant little smile.
“In the garage,” she directed, aiming the remote at the garage door.
Her smile froze on her lips as she focused on something on the floor of the garage. Adam followed her gaze.
What he saw lying in the glare of the headlights stopped him in his tracks.
“Holy Christ!” he breathed.
On a blood-smeared yellow slicker sprawled the half-clad body of a woman. At first glance, all he could make out was that she was small, blond, and wearing some kind of white robe. From her unnatural posture and the amount of dark blood on her chest, he guessed she was also very dead.
He heard Risa gasp behind him as he advanced into the garage and leaned closer to press two fingers against the woman’s icy throat. Her skin was as cold as the snowy pavement under his feet.
“Adam!” Risa’s voice was a hoarse whisper. “Who is it?”
He stood up and caught her as she tried to move around him.
“Don’t!” He pressed her face against his chest to try to shield her from the ghastly sight. He wasn’t quick enough.
She made a choking sound, then spun free of his grasp and stared again at the dead woman. When she turned to look at him, her eyes were wide with confusion and shock.
“It’s Sylvia Langdon,” she whispered, almost voiceless with horror.