The eyes of the dead held secrets. Detective Hank Bonner knew that just as he knew his job was to uncover them. He looked down at the body of Luka Kole.
What secrets did your eyes hold, old man?
Hank didn't want to find out. He had less than two weeks left as a cop, and he wanted to spend the time writing reports, cleaning up old cases, and shutting down what had been a major part of his thirty-six years.
But two hours ago, Parnell, head of the Sokanan Police Department's detective division, had other ideas. "Dead body on Rossvelt" He'd handed Hank a scrawled address, the expression in his face daring Hank to object.
Hank knew what Parnell was doing. He could have given that DB to anyone. But he was using it to hook Hank, paying out the line, trying to reel him back with one last case.
Hank buried himself in a box of assorted memorabilia--a cracked coffee cup that had been a Christmas present years ago, a faded picture of himself just out of the academy, papers he still needed to sort through. "Let Klimet handle it."
"Klimet couldn't handle a cat stuck in a tree. Not yet anyway. I got your butt 'til the end of the month, Bonner. Get going."
So here Hank was, haunted by another pair of dead eyes.
He scanned the crime scene inside the Gas-Up on Rossvelt Avenue, the latest in a string of convenience store robberies that had plagued the Hudson Valley for the last month. Luka Kole, who owned the place, lay behind the counter, a squat, gray-haired man with a hole in his barrel chest. The open cash drawer stood empty, the overturned candy bin lay on its side. Lindt truffles wrapped in shiny blue, green, and red paper were strewn on the counter and floor, along with Slim Jims, cigarette lighters, and Van Dekker County souvenir pens.
The mess was a sure sign of struggle. Whoever he was, Luka Kole hadn't gone down easy.
The only thing detracting from the obvious was the bank bag. Hidden beneath the cash drawer, it contained over a thousand dollars, fat and ready for deposit. Why would the robber leave it behind?
"Because he's a mope, not a rocket scientist." Joe Klimet stared down at Luka Kole's sightless brown eyes as though he expected them to confirm his conclusion.
Hank studied the younger man. He wore a sharp black suit, silver-gray shirt, and patterned tie in yellow and gray. Slick and flashy with a grin to match. But Hank forgave him. Or tried to. He remembered what it was like to be cocky.
"So he leaves the money because he's stupid," Hank said.
Joe shrugged: why not?
Hank bent to get a closer look at the body. He'd already scouted the scene, starting with a careful walk around the outside perimeter and gradually moving closer to the victim, who was always the last thing he examined.
"Seems to me a guy who's managed to get away with four of these jobs right under our noses is no dummy."
Klimet frowned. The detective division's newest addition, he didn't like being challenged. "Something scared him off before he could check below the drawer."
Hank looked at him calmly, ignoring the irritation in the younger man's eyes. "What?"
"How the hell should I know? A customer, a car pulling in. Something."
"Maybe he wasn't after the money."
Klimet rolled his eyes. "You know, you're nuts, Bonner. The scene is clear--the cash drawer's empty. If the scumbag wasn't after money, what was he after?"
"Who knows? Revenge maybe. The clerk said Kole argued with someone earlier in the day." Hank flipped through a small notebook. "Adulous McTeer, also known as Big Mac. Maybe this Big Mac wanted the last word."
"Then why take anything?"
"To make it look like a robbery."
"It was a robbery." Klimet crossed his arms, not hiding his annoyance. "Just like all the others."
Hank was silent. "Looks like. But I want to talk to Mr. Big. We got someone rounding him up?"
"Already on it." Klimet ducked under the yellow crime scene tape to confer with the patrolman who'd been first to arrive.
Hank called to Greenlaw, one of an elite cadre of patrol officers trained as crime scene technicians. "Still no brass?"
"No, sir," Greenlaw said.
No shell casings could mean a revolver. Or a smarter than average creep. "Keep looking."
Someone handed Hank the victim's wallet. Hands gloved, he examined it, hoping for something that would give him insight into Luka Kole. The clerk--who'd found the body after returning from his dinner break--hadn't been very helpful; Kole owned the store, but the clerk had worked there only a few weeks and didn't know much about his boss. The wallet didn't give away much either, except that Kole was no spendthrift. The case was old and thin, the outline of credit cards imprinted on the worn leather in front. The guy must have been sitting on the thing for years.
Inside, Hank found the usual: credit cards, driver's license, plus fifty dollars in cash the robber had been good enough to leave behind. Behind the bills he found a newspaper clipping, the headline half-torn but still readable: JOINT U.S. RUSSIA ECONOMIC VENTURE BRINGS JOBS TO VAN DEKKER COUNTY.
Quickly, Hank scanned the print. Normal press release stuff. Quotes from Mikail "Miki" Petrov, the businessman who was bankrolling the Russian end of deal, and from A. J. Baker, the American consultant who'd set the whole thing up. Mr. Petrov was a big shot in Manhattan and Washington, and not easily accessible. A. J. Baker, on the other hand, apparently lived right here in the Hudson Valley.
Hank replaced the clipping and slipped the wallet into an evidence bag. So, like everyone else in town, Luka Kole was looking forward to the deal with Renaissance Oil. But how many people carried around articles about it?
Hank ducked under the yellow tape. "Klimet." He handed the younger detective the bagged wallet. "Subpoena the phone records. Here and at the vic's apartment. Take Finelli with you to canvass the area. Maybe we'll get lucky and someone heard or saw something. And see if you can track down a home address. We got keys, but the driver's license is pegged to the store address. I'll see you back at the station."
"Where are you going?"
But Hank had already walked off and pretended he hadn't heard.
Outside, he ignored the small crowd milling around in uneasy formation at the edge of the parking lot. He understood their fascination and their horror. When murder hit close to home the two things melded together. It could have been me. Thank God it wasn't.
He got in his car, backed out, and called in to the station, waiting for the dispatcher to hunt down an address on Baker.
Then he turned down Route Nine, Klimet's question circling inside his head. What had the shooter been after?
Dead man's secrets.
Ten minutes later, he turned off the highway and slowed down to peer into the wooded roadside for addresses. The house was somewhere along this road.
At least Luka Kole was dead. And dead men were a lot more predictable than live ones. They didn't turn crazy, eyes wild and maniacal. They didn't come at you with guns or knives or... A chill shivered through Hank. Or screwdrivers. Instinctively, he pressed a fist to his chest. Still there. Still beating.
As if he'd never felt that death blow and then, somehow, lived.
"That's one strong breastbone," the emergency room doctor had said. "Deflected the blade. A little to the left or right and we'd be saying prayers over you. Count yourself lucky."
Oh, he did. Damn lucky.
But the problem with luck was sooner or later it ran out.
A wave of sick certainty rippled over his skin. It welled up inside him as he found the address and turned the car into a long, gravel drive. Woods lined the road, thick, green, and impenetrable. His heart started that upward chase, his hands gripped the steering wheel. This was crazy. No one was hiding back there. No one waited for him with murderous intent.
He swallowed, forced the runaway train inside his chest to slow down. He was there to do his job. Gather information. Find out what he could about Luka Kole.
Concentrate on the dead man, he'd be fine.
When the house came into view it was easier to remember the drill. He braked, paused to gape. The place was a sculpture of glass, stone, and wood, but nearly overwhelmed by the natural forest overlooking the Hudson. Undergrowth tangled around it, thick as the briars surrounding Sleeping Beauty's castle in the book he read to his niece. A lair or a hideout, even a retreat. Hank sympathized. He understood the wish to submerge, to bury yourself. Did Mr. Baker? Or was he just too cheap to hire a crew to cut back the growth?
He pulled up to the house and noticed the tail end of a green van parked around the side. Out of the car, he walked around to investigate. Edie's Flowers, the van said. In front of it were two more vans. Caterers. A flurry of people swarmed in and out of the house.
Someone was throwing a party tonight. By the looks of it, a big one.
And then Hank remembered what day it was.
Alex Baker's reflection stared back at her from the large, gilt-framed mirror that hung above her dresser. She was all angles tonight, cheekbones like razor blades. Once, she might have cringed at the sharp edge in her eyes, but she was glad of it now. She felt well honed, a killing blade.
And if her stomach fluttered, she ignored it. If that queasy awareness that she was alone, and always would be, haunted her thoughts, she pushed it away.
Stuffed it deep down where it couldn't rise up and make her weak. Defenseless.
She concentrated on the way her silvery slip dress clung to her body, the way the barely there straps blended with and exposed her skin. Her body was a tool, a smoke screen. It would compel and distract, and slowly, slowly open the door of the trap she was setting.
And it all began that night.
She checked her watch. Nearly seven. She had a good hour or more before guests arrived; plenty of time to get ready. And yet, here she was, dressed and perfumed, hair perfect, makeup perfect. Only one small detail to add. She caressed the blue velvet case on her dresser. Inside was the necklace her father had given her more than a decade ago on her sixteenth birthday. She would wear it tonight, in honor of him.
She smiled at herself, a tight, deadly smile, and opened the case.
A knock sounded.
Her head swiveled in the direction of the sound. "Yes?"
The door opened to reveal Sonya, the shapeless brown dress over her short fat legs making her appear like a wrinkled mushroom. A worried mushroom, if her expression was any indication. Immediately, Alex crossed to the old woman and drew her into the room. She'd been fretful all day, not used to strangers in the house.
"Why aren't you in your room?" Alex spoke softly. "Let me bring you a plate of goodies. We're having blinis tonight. With caviar and sour cream. You love that. It's been a long time since you had real blinis."
Sonya shook her head. "Too much...noise," she said. "And now--" Her hand twisted together and a word burst out from her. A word in Russian. Police.
Alex stilled. "What are you talking about?"
Sonya emitted another torrent of Russian and instinctively Alex put a hand over the older woman's mouth, looking around as though the room held spies. "English, dear one. English. Slow down. Tell me."
The old woman bit her lip. Tears formed in her eyes. "Sorry, so very sorry." But the words came out in Russian. "He frightened me so."
"All right," Alex soothed. "Take a breath. Here." She went into her bathroom and filled a cup with water. "Drink this."
Sonya drank and handed back the cup with trembling hands.
"Now tell me, what is this about the police?"
"They are here."
"Where--at the house?" Alex smiled. "Of course they are. We have a security detail."
Sonya shook her head. "Nyet. Not...party. To talk. Questions. He said, questions."
A small alarm went off inside Alex, but she quickly silenced it. Sonya's English had never been very good; she often got things mixed up. "It's all right, darling. I'm sure it's nothing." She settled the woman into a large upholstered armchair. "Stay here and rest. I'll be right back. And don't worry."
Swiftly, Alex closed the door and made her way toward the front of the house. Preparations for the party were rapidly coming to a close. The house sparkled with lights and flowers. Silver trays and goblets, crystal bowls for candies and tidbits. As the sun set, fairy lights outside would turn the woods and garden into a magic kingdom seen through glass. A kingdom aglow with the rich, silky flush of oil. Russian oil.
She stopped just short of the entrance, where two workers from the florists were putting the finishing touches on the man-sized centerpiece--a wire structure in the shape of an oil rig and entirely covered in thick golden mums.
"Quite an eye-catcher," said a deep male voice. The owner of the voice stepped from behind the structure and gave her a crooked smile. A big man with wide shoulders under a rumpled sport coat, he had fair hair and sun-kissed skin. A surfer stranded on land. A man out of place somehow. She met his eyes. Nothing out of place here. They were green. Sharp. Evaluating. Was this what had frightened Sonya?
His greeting replayed itself in her mind; had he been referring to something other than the decorations? To her?
She stiffened, a wall of ice rising like a protective shell around her. "May I help you?"
He flashed a badge. "Detective Bonner from Sokanan PD. I'm looking for A. J. Baker."
"I'm A. J. Baker."
His eyes widened, giving her a moment of satisfaction. She liked surprising people.
"You're..." A jolt shook Hank. The shimmer of femininity in front of him looked no more capable of putting together an international business deal than he was. But perception wasn't always reality, as he knew only too well.
Quickly, he reassessed. Her ice blond hair glistened and fell to her shoulders in a straight, silky waterfall, a perfect foil to the silvery dress, which swirled around her curves like mercury. Not beautiful in the classic sense, but in an outrageously exotic way, with high, angled cheekbones, and eyes the color of sky before it rained. A pulse quickened inside him, and he saw the look of recognition come over her. The look that said, I know what you're thinking pal, and forget it.
Yeah, he'd bet she did know. He'd bet A. J. Baker was used to men drooling over her. And he wasn't going to get in line. Ignoring his purely chemical reaction, he let out a breath to cover his initial surprise. "So what does the A. J. stand for?"
"Alexandra Jane. Alex."
He noted the drawn-out a. Alexaaandra. Some kind of British thing. Or New England. Boston maybe.
"As you can see," she said, "we're preparing for a big event tonight. Is this about the security detail? I hope there's no problem." She gave him an impersonal smile, and he saw hardness congeal behind those cloudy eyes. Not a street-wise toughness, but the cool confidence that only money and years of private schools could instill.
"Security detail? You mean for the big wingding half the department will be at? No, it's not about the security."
"Detective, I'm busy. How can I help you?"
Polite but impatient. Eager to get rid of him. Because he was a cop, or something else? He glanced at the team of floral workers. On ladders and on the ground they hovered over the huge structure that probably cost more than his car. "Is there some place we can talk privately?"
"What is this about?"
Again, he glanced at the workers, and she let out a small sigh of irritation. "This way."
She led him through the glass terrace doors and into a garden courtyard. The forest was even thicker here. Trees huddled over the house, enclosing it in a suffocating embrace as though hiding it from the rest of the world.
He nodded toward them. "I can recommend a gardener."
She looked in the direction he'd pointed, eyes narrowed in puzzlement. Then, as though she saw when he'd seen, "I like a lot of foliage."
Short, crisp, and by the aloofness in her voice, all the explanation he was going to get.
"I don't mean to be rude, but I'm expecting a lot of people. What can I do for you?"
The air smelled earthy and green and reminded him of the orchards of Apple House, the Bonner farm. But that memory brought up others, leading always to two orphaned children and his own part in their fate. A bleakness descended, and he had to force himself to focus on the woman in front of him.
He leaned against the edge of the garden wall, a low brick structure that framed the patio. "I'm looking for information about a guy called Luka Kole. Ever heard of him?"
Her expression shifted, but quickly as the change came, her features composed themselves into disinterested lines. "Lu--Luka who?"
"Kole. Luka Kole. Know him?"
Did her shoulders tense? She frowned, looked down and then over at the woods beyond the garden as though trying to remember. "The name isn't familiar. Why? Who is he? Has he done something?"
Hank watched her closely. "Got himself killed today."
Her head snapped around. "Killed? You mean in an accident? Look, Detective, tonight is a very important--"
"Definitely not an accident. He was shot."
"I see." She sank into one of the wrought-iron chairs. Her silver dress shivered against the black metal, and the neckline drooped to reveal a dip of cleavage. "And what does that have to do with me?"
Hank tore his eyes away from her breasts. "I don't know." He cleared his throat. "Probably nothing. It was a long shot. We found an article about your Russian business deal in his wallet. Thought I'd see if there was any connection."
She smiled, a dismissive, lady-of-the-manor curve of her lips, but something else lurked behind it. What? "As I don't know him, I can assure you there isn't." She rose. "I'm sorry I can't help you. And I am busy." She indicated the door back into the house and escorted him inside. "Will we see you tonight?"
He shook his head, dreading the evening ahead. "Got a previous engagement."
"Well, enjoy your evening."
Alex saw him out, closed the door behind her, then wilted against it, her legs suddenly gone.
Luka. My God.
One of the floral workers noticed her. "Are you all right, Miss Baker?" He started toward her, and she drew a steadying breath. She could not draw attention to herself. Not now. Not when she was on the brink of everything she'd worked so hard for.
She straightened, brushing her dress as if nothing had happened. "It's all right. I'm fine. I haven't had much to eat today. Too much excitement."
The man nodded understanding, and Alex thanked him, then swept past, shoulders back, head high, though it cost her.
Get to the phone. She must get to the phone.
She was halfway to her room when she remembered Sonya. Oh, God, she couldn't face the old woman now. Not with this catastrophe. But she couldn't avoid all contact with her either. Sonya would only worry.
Retracing her steps, Alex forced her pace into a casual stroll and walked into the sunroom, where a white-coated bartender was setting up a portable bar.
Take a breath. Smile.
She introduced herself. "Opening night jitters," she confided. "I don't suppose you could spare a little vodka."
The bartender laughed. "We've got so much Stoli we could swim in it. There's plenty to spare." He found a bottle and upturned a glass. "Ice?"
She shook her head. "Never."
He handed her the drink and she thanked him, but didn't take a sip. Luka, what happened? She carried the glass into the kitchen, where the rich fragrance of Stroganoff nearly turned her stomach. A platoon of cooks and servers made the place look like a staging area for a major battle. They stirred pots, checked ovens, and plated canapés. Several were setting silver and glassware on huge trays to take to the buffet area. She filched a plate and spooned some of the thick beef-and-cream concoction on it, added blinis and Russian black caviar, herring salad, and mushrooms in sour cream. Two finger-shaped saikas with jam for dessert, then up the small flight of stairs at the back of the house.
Luka. Luka. The name echoed with every step.
Outside her bedroom door, she closed her eyes and breathed. In and out. Steady. Sure. She could do this. She'd been hiding her feelings for years.
With a smile on her face, she pushed the door open and strode into the room.
Sonya dozed in the chair, her chin sunk to her wide, fleshy chest. Alex laid the food and the vodka on the small table next to the chair, knelt, and shook Sonya gently. "Dearest, look what I've brought you."
Sonya woke slowly, gasped when she saw Alex, and gripped her hand, the hold shaky with fright. "Everything is all right?"
"Yes, it's fine. Didn't I tell you it would be? The policeman was only here to double-check the security arrangement."
Sonya brought a hand to her chest. "Oh, so glad. I thought--"
Alex stroked the old woman's white head. "I know, I know. But there is nothing to worry about."
Tears formed in the older woman's eyes and she stroked a gnarled hand down Alex's cheek. "Sashenka, you are such a good girl." She spoke in Russian. "God watch over you."
Alex squeezed Sonya's hand. She didn't have the heart to argue with her about speaking Russian again. And she didn't know about God, but if anyone was watching over them it would be Alex herself. "Do you want to stay here for a while?"
The old woman shook her head and rose with a grunt. "I go to my room."
Carrying the plate and the vodka, Alex followed the older woman down the spacious hall and settled her into an upholstered rocker. She handed her the food and the drink and kissed the top of her head. "I'll see you in the morning."
"Spokoynoy nochi, rodnaya moya." Good night, dear girl.
For once, Alex replied in kind. "Spokoynoy nochi."
Then she raced back to her room, closed the door, and scrambled in her purse for her cell phone. Glancing wildly around, she saw the broad windows that usually gave her such comfort with their view of the solid, protective tree line. Now, the windows seemed to unmask and expose her, and though it was irrational, she dashed into the bathroom, closed the door and the curtain over the window. Huddled on the toilet, she punched in a series of numbers with shaky fingers.
Luka. What did you do? What did they do to you?
A man's voice came on the line. Alex opened her mouth to speak, then realized the voice was recorded. A message. The man wasn't there. A wail sounded deep in her head.
What should she do?
Outside, someone knocked on the bedroom door. Not now, please, not now. Alex checked her watch. Past seven. No time to think. Too dangerous to leave a message. She ended the call and bolted from her hiding place to open the door.
A woman in a black maid's uniform stood there. "Your guests are beginning to arrive."
Alex nodded. "Thank you."
The maid left, and Alex closed the door. It was time. Luka Kholodov was dead and if she wasn't careful, she could join him.
But first, she would clear her father's name. And have her revenge.
Grimly, she marched to the dresser, where she'd left the jewelry box open. A brightly colored necklace sparkled up at her from its blue velvet nest. She lifted it and fingered the tiny cloisonné locket. Designed in the round shape of a jolly peasant woman, it was a matryoshka, a replica in silver and jewel tones of the wooden nesting dolls so famous in Russian folk art. This one had been designed to hold two even tinier women, one inside the other. Three smiling sisters, her father had said as he'd placed the necklace around her.
She closed her eyes briefly, remembering, and tried not to let the sadness clog her throat.
She sealed the clasp around her, and if her hands shook, she pretended otherwise. Just as she pretended that the happy colors of the little sister shimmering against her skin meant everything would be all right.
Without warning tears prickled, and for an instant she felt lost, brittle with loneliness. It was all up to her now. Her alone.
Quickly, she forced the tears back before she ruined her makeup. She couldn't show up downstairs with red, swollen eyes.
She sat deadly still until she'd regained control. Then rising, shoulders back, she glided to the door. Lightly, she brushed the locket.
For you, Papa. You and Luka. For you both.
Then she swept into the hallway and made her way toward her guests.
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