Authors: L.j. Charles
My phone pinged, interrupting my conversation with the sports shopkeeper. It was Annie.
No word. Lay low until he gets there. Promise me.
An easy promise to keep since Torquay was turning out to be a bust.
Waiting. Impatient. Sightseeing, but staying out of trouble.
I tucked my phone away and got back to the task at hand. I’d done enough research to know it would be legal for me to carry a Boker Plus knife that was less than three inches long and didn’t lock. I liked the look of it because there was a finger guard, making it less likely I’d cut myself. It wasn’t as comfortable in my hand as Annie’s Kershaw, and I hated not having the Smith&Wesson boot knife Whitney had bequeathed to me, but the Boker would be better than nothing. I hoped. And I wouldn’t be arrested for carrying it. That was a huge plus.
THE NEXT MORNING I HELPED
a cup of coffee from the breakfast sideboard, inhaled the fragrance—weak and acidic—and took a cautious sip, then poured the remainder into a nearby potted plant. English coffee wasn’t going to work for me. Unless I could find a Starbucks. I wrinkled my nose at the teapot. Try it, or not?
Mrs. Brumley interrupted my decision-making process. “Good morning to you, Miss. Sleep well?”
“I did, thanks.” I dug into the side pocket of my handbag with shaky fingers, slipped out a sheet of paper, and handed it to Mrs. Brumley. “Do you know where this is?”
I’d copied the Torquay address my mother had written, who knew how many years ago, because I didn’t want to chance carrying around the fragile original. Now, watching Mrs. Brumley’s face cloud with confusion, I figured I’d made a mistake. “Is something wrong?”
She handed me the paper. “Not wrong, but that’s not an address. Not from these parts. Are you sure you have it right, Ms. Gray?”
The single sip of not-coffee burned in my stomach. “Thanks. I probably copied it wrong.” But I hadn’t. Surely I hadn’t. I hurried back to my room and compared my mother’s note with what I’d written. An exact match. Best thing to do: ask around Cockington Village. Maybe their addresses were different from Torquay’s.
Service Sixty-Two Cockington Tripper for the mile-long bus ride to the quaint village. I could have walked, but wanted to spend the day exploring and figured I’d be getting enough exercise if I followed Cait’s suggestion of wandering along the paths.
She’d been right. Picturesque and quaint barely did the village justice. It was simply perfect, like being dropped back in time. And best of all, since it was a cool, cloudy day I almost had the grounds to myself. The air was so fresh and…country. I kept inhaling, soaking in the ambiance, until a couple spots danced in front of my eyes. Time to lay off the country air until my lungs adjusted to the fresh air, and my nose to the underlying scents of manure and freshly turned earth.
I ambled along one of the paths, busy appreciating the colorful flowers and lush foliage, until I spotted a sign on the tourist information building that advertised a Murder Mystery Trail. What better way to sharpen my detecting skills and prep for solving the mysteries surrounding Mitch and my parents? It would be fun, something that had been missing from my life for way too long. I paid the £6.99 and followed the trail.
It was supposed to take about an hour and a half, and probably would have for the average tourist. I had a blast chasing clues for twice that long. I didn’t solve the mystery, but hunger pangs had me jogging to the Cockington Court Manor House for cream tea. And I was determined to start asking about Fion Connor and showing the address to people. I couldn’t wait forever for Pierce to show up. Besides, he would’ve been here by now if he thought I was in any danger.
Luck was with me. My server was a matronly grandmother type who’d obviously been around long enough to know everyone in the area, or so I hoped. The sweet scent of scones and strawberry jam went right to my stomach, setting off an embarrassing grumble. I ignored it and looked at the woman who’d set the plate in front of me. “Looks delicious. Do you by any chance know Fion Connor?”
Her face drained of color, leaving blotches of red along her cheekbones. “And why would you be looking for Miz Connor, young lady?”
Miz? A woman? “I thought…” I snapped my mouth closed. Probably it would be beyond dumb to confess I’d assumed Mitch’s boss was a man. A shiver of foreboding skittered over my skin. I had to answer her, and there was no point in hiding the truth, especially since I couldn’t lie worth a darn. “I believe she worked with my husband.”
Narrowed eyes squinted at me. “Family’s been here for generations. Not the friendly sort. Keep to themselves.”
She scurried away. I bolted partway out of my chair, then plopped back down. Chasing a server would be noticeable, and not at all cool. Not that I cared so much about coolness, but it would be harder to get information out of her if I scared her to death. My interrogation skills needed some work, and I’d botched the opportunity to show her the address. Where the hell was Pierce when I needed him? He would have melted the skittish woman with one blue-eyed wink.
Fion Connor was probably around Mitch’s age, or maybe a few years older or younger. There was no telling in the spy business. I rummaged for my cell, grateful I’d remembered to add global service minutes before the Steele Management jet had taken off. It was time to enlist some help in the form of my favorite computer genius and woman of many names, Annie Jameson Stone Martin.
Can you find and send me a picture of Fion Connor? Should be located in the Torquay, UK area. Or maybe Cockington Village. Thanks. Oh, and is there any info about Mitch’s assignments yet?
I sent the text to Annie, scarfed down my scone, and scanned the restaurant for my server.
She’d obviously gone off shift or something, but I managed to get the attention of someone else—who only spoke French. Or maybe she was just pretending not to understand my questions about Connor. Interesting. I spread strawberry jam and clotted cream on my second scone. I’d have to skip lunch to make up for the outrageous number of calories I was consuming, but it was worth it. So very worth it.
Now, if I could just figure out why my server had acted so odd about Fion Connor.
My sugar high had me bouncing with fake energy, so I snagged the check off the table and strode up to the register in search of another person to ask about Mitch’s boss. The guy behind the counter was gnarled and gruff, with an accent so strong I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Dead end. No point asking questions if the answers were going to be unintelligible.
I tried to focus on the positive. Fion Connor probably lived here, which meant Mitch’s note had led me in the right direction. That a nice old woman appeared to be terrified of her wasn’t the best news, but not that unexpected. Whoever sent Mitch after me for…and wasn’t that the real question? Why exactly had this Connor woman been after me? Protection made the most sense. And Loyria Gray’s formula, of course. Everyone who came in contact with my mother was interested in that, but nothing was really clicking into place. Yet.
Where in the bloody hell was Tynan Pierce?
There were too damn many questions. I stepped out of the tea room and into a damp mist that had crept in and shrouded the area while I’d been eating. A chill crawled along my spine, and I buttoned my jacket tight to my neck. I’d wander some more, then go back to my room and wait for…
My phone pinged. Annie.
Haven’t found photo of FC. Camera shy? You promised to wait for Pierce. Why are you looking for Connor?
She was ticked, and I didn’t blame her.
Sorry. I’m…too much to text. Calling.
The first ring hadn’t completed before Annie answered. “What the hell were you thinking, asking about Connor? Doesn’t sound like you’ve been staying under the radar. We agreed—”
“I sent Pierce multiple messages requesting his presence here, and there was no danger in asking a few people if they’d heard of him, ah, her. Fion is apparently a woman, and I told you I think her plan was probably to protect me. It makes sense, considering that Mitch left her name for me to find so—”
A strangled sound came over the line. “Hold it. Why would you think Hunt left any clues for
to find? Have you given any thought as to why this woman’s name was…where was it?”
“Stuck behind one of
books on the shelf. Mitch never read fiction, and we were the only people who spent time in his study, so he had to have left the information for me.” Doubt crept in. “Didn’t he? I mean, who else…”
Annie huffed. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe the people he worked for. Or it could have been a note that was meant for his eyes only, like notification of a change in command. Perhaps
was the one scheduled to rendezvous with Connor.”
Mist curled down my collar. “Doesn’t matter why the note was there. What matters is that we find her and question the fu…dderbudder out of her.”
Annie’s laugh was rich and full. “Maddie and I appreciate the upgrade in your language.”
The things I did for motherhood and Maddie. “Pay attention. I’ve made one interesting contact. The woman who served me cream tea just now went squirrely when I asked about Connor. Apparently the family has lived here forever, and I got the feeling our Ms. Connor isn’t a very nice person, so definitely worth looking into.”
Annie’s only response to what I thought was a rather exciting bit of intel was the furious tapping of keys.
“You find a picture of Connor?” I asked.
“Just did. Newspaper, so it’s grainy. Should be there…about now.”
Anticipation had me scrambling for the text screen on my phone. Maybe I’d already seen her while I was wandering around and could chase her down, or at least have a starting point for our search when Pierce finally got here. “Hang on while I check it out.”
“Uh-huh. In other news, Maddie really missed you the other night. I promised her a long weekend with her favorite aunt as soon as you get back.” There was definite amusement in Annie’s voice.
I loved Maddie, but she only had two speeds: asleep and full speed ahead. A single night sleepover exhausted me, so no telling what an entire weekend would do. “Okay. Sure, I can do that.” I tapped the text screen. “There’s an air about this woman that’s strikingly elegant. Her posture and the tilt of her chin are almost picture perfect for an aristocratic archetype. And there’s something about her that seems familiar, not that it’s easy to tell with all the graininess. Was there a location with the picture?”
“I agree she’s a bit too perfect, and the location was Torquay. I think she’s had surgery on her nose, and maybe her chin. If you look closely, you can see they don’t quite match the rest of her face. Oh, and it’s possible she owns, or maybe leases, the tea room at the Cockington Court Manor House.”
A chill inched down my spine. “That makes sense. The servers might be reluctant to talk about their boss, you know, to preserve privacy and all.” I spread my index finger and thumb over the surface of my iPhone making the photo larger. “Yeah, I see what you mean about her facial features. It’s like the puzzle piece fits but it isn’t the right one.”
A Maddie-wail sounded in the background. “Gotta go.” Annie disconnected.
Phone in hand, and unsure about my next step in the search for Fion Connor, I started along the path with nothing but touristy picture-taking on my mind. I’d noticed an adorable cottage on my way up the hill and wanted a photograph to…
Were those footsteps behind me?
A CHILL SETTLED BETWEEN MY
shoulder blades. I squatted, pretending intense interest in something on the ground while I scanned the area. No one in sight. It was time for some defensive action, since I would rather not have to fight in a public place, or at all. Especially in the UK. Their laws were different, and I didn’t have a single in
with the constables here. Except maybe Whitney Boulay. At one time she’d been employed by Scotland Yard, but these days she was safely in Hawaii, living a dream life with her new husband.
My senses sharpened. The crisp scent of early autumn seeped into my nose, and under it cherry tobacco. A pipe? Probably. Innocent? Probably. No one knew I was in Torquay, after all.
I slipped the Boker from its sheath on my forearm and palmed it. I’d learned the hard way it was more prudent to explain the presence of a weapon than to be caught without one. I stood, rolling to the balls of my feet, and then balanced my weight, slowly shifting to check the path behind me. Feigning interest in the object I’d supposedly picked up, I tilted my hand toward a weak shaft of sunlight and opened the Boker.
Movement on the far side of the hedges. Furtive? A fresh rush of adrenaline hit me, and blood pounded in my ears.
Two inhalations. The panic churning in my stomach pissed me off, so I swung into offensive mode. Long, even strides took me toward the back of the cottage. The scent of cherry tobacco intensified, and I honed in on the source, calculating the time it would take me to reach my target. Ten seconds, max.
A hand landed on my shoulder. Squeezed.
I spun, my knee halfway to the attacker’s groin.
“You knee me and I’ll have to hurt you.” The brogue was heavier than usual, and his blue eyes sparkled with laughter. There was a polished tobacco pipe in his hand, and a single wisp of smoke trailed into the air.