Authors: Roxanne St. Claire
Astor Cove, NY
The Hudson River Valley
something, and he wanted it bad enough to skip his beloved Sunday afternoon rugby game, remove his single hoop earring, cover his Aborigine axe blade tattoo with a long-sleeved shirt, and make small talk with his boss.
Amused and curious, Lucy Sharpe obliged.
“The client on the diamond drop sent me an e-mail last night,” she told him, clicking through her BlackBerry for the message from the Dutch jewel trader. “He said you performed the job flawlessly and has requested you as his Bullet Catcher escort next month, when he plans to deliver another forty million dollars’ worth of…” She smiled as she read the rest. “Useless overpriced carbon to the jewelers of the world.”
Fletch chuckled, deepening a set of heartbreak dimples. “He’s a good bloke, that Maurice Keizer.”
“He’s also one of our very best clients. I’ve already e-mailed him back that you will be assigned to him next month.” She set the device on the desk. “I’m delighted with your work for him, and for the company, Fletch.”
He tested the fortitude of Lucy’s Louis XVI salon chair with a backward tilt of six-foot-one, two hundred pounds of sinew and muscle. “Then it’s a perfect time to ask a favor.”
She lifted her brows. “You can always ask me a favor.”
“That’s what I like about you, Luce, and that’s why I’m here.”
“Here in the United States working for the Bullet Catchers or here in my library on a fine spring day, when you’d rather be getting covered with mud and bruises?”
He glanced at his watch and shook his head, his honey-toned mane grazing his shoulders. “Game’s long over. The boys are on their last pint of Four X by now. But it’s the latter. I’m here for my next assignment.”
“I thought you were taking a month off. I expected you to be headed to Tasmania to have that conversation with your father you’ve been putting off for most of your life.”
He let the front legs of the chair thud back into place, tumbling one burnished lock toward a sharp cheekbone. “Don’t you have some unwritten rule about not throwing confidences back in your men’s faces?”
She purposely let the sincerity show in her expression. “I’m not throwing anything back in your face. I respect what you’ve shared with me. I’m simply giving you time to do what you need to do—for purely selfish reasons, of course. I like my team to be as fit emotionally as they are physically. You put your life on the line every day to protect principals, conduct investigations, and ensure the overall security of our clients. You can’t do that with the perfection I demand if your personal affairs aren’t in order.”
He shooed that off with a wave. “The personal stuff is aces right now, Luce. I work hard, play harder, and rather like putting my life on the line. I’m here for a mate.”
“A friend of yours needs to hire the Bullet Catchers?”
“Sort of. And I’d like to use the time between official assignments to take the job, which might require your resources and…” He paused and pinned her with a steady gaze. “Your support.”
Her curiosity ratcheted up at his tone. He clearly wasn’t expecting to get it easily. “What’s the project?”
“I need to find a woman. I don’t know who she is or where she is. And when I find her, chances are I’m going to get her naked, rock her world, and then make her wish I were dead.”
A smile pulled at Lucy’s mouth. “And how is this different from any other Saturday night for you?”
“Because this sheila might very well hold the key to solving a thirty-year-old murder.”
She propped her elbows on her Victorian writing table, nestled her chin onto her knuckles, and met his level gaze. “Start from the beginning.”
He took a breath, nodding. For a man whose personal hallmark—and occasional downfall—was impetuosity, this deliberation surprised and alerted her.
“My friend is working on a case to reunite a woman with a child she gave up at birth. A while back, he was digging up information for another client who was sold through a South Carolina black-market adoption ring back in the seventies. Evidently, a rural midwife ran a baby-selling operation from a farmhouse on a road known as Sapphire Trail. The whole deal was blown apart in a bust in 1982, and ever since, there’s been an ongoing effort to reunite something like a thousand babies with their birth mothers.”
Lucy nodded. “I’ve had some cases of black-market adoption searches, and I’ve heard about the Sapphire Trail babies. All the birth certs are falsified, and the leads are very, very hard to follow. But it can be done. How much documentation did they discover when they broke the ring?”
“Some.” He stroked the shadow of whiskers that lined his jaw and the bit of golden hair under his lip. “My friend did locate the son of his client, and that case is closed. Now another Sapphire Trail mother has persuaded him to help her find her daughter, too.”
“And you want to help him, and this other mother, find her child?” Why was this something she would object to?
“Yes. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. This birth mother is serving life for murder one, and that sentence is about to end because she’s been diagnosed with leukemia.”
“So she wants to have this reunion with a lost child before she dies?”
“Yes. Especially since a bone-marrow transplant from a living relative might give her a few extra years. Years that might give her the time she needs to prove her innocence.”
Her expression must have been skeptical, because Fletch leaned forward to plead his case. “My friend believes her. He really does. He’s a bonzer investigator and thinks her case was botched from the beginning. So time is of the essence.”
Time was always of the essence to innocent people in jail. Especially when they were dying. “Fletch, if you’d like to conduct a private investigation that could save someone’s life and even lead to the release of someone wrongly accused, surely you know I’d have no problem with that. You are free for a month, until the Keizer diamond drop is scheduled. If you need to tap into our database or work with Sage Valentine’s research and investigation team, by all means, you may. How much information do you have so far?”
He looked a bit relieved, but not completely. Did he really think she’d take a stand against a standard adoption search? Something wasn’t right.
“I have a list of infants that were sold from the Sapphire Trail operation during the six-week period that this woman says she gave birth,” he replied. “But the list only has the names they were given, not the names of their birth mothers. There are eight or nine female babies, who would be about thirty-one now. I’m going to track them down and interview them all.”
“Why doesn’t your friend do that himself, and how are you going to be sure you have the right woman? Some might not even know they were adopted, and their birth mothers’ names might mean nothing to them.”
“True,” he agreed. “But evidently, this baby was marked with a tattoo.”
Lucy gave him a look of pure incredulity. “Really.”
“I believe my mate has the facts right,” Fletch said, his strong jaw set in defiance. “He has very good instinct, and he’s dependable and smart.”
Had she said he wasn’t? “Which brings me back to my first question. Why can’t this man go interview these women himself?”
“Because he’d like to dig into the murder investigation files in Charleston while I find the daughter. Since the mother’s sick, there might not be time for him to do both, so we thought we’d do the job simultaneously. Like I said, he’s an ace investigator.”
Lucy’s fingers began to tingle, the way they used to when she was an operative for the CIA and she just
that right around the corner, someone was waiting to take her down. That tingle had saved her life more than once. “Who is this friend of yours?”
Fletch shifted in his chair. He glanced down, then back at her.
The soft scuff of a footstep outside her library door broke the silence. Lucy looked over Fletch’s shoulder, and suddenly all that hesitancy, that “you’re going to hate this one” tone, was crystal-clear.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Sharpe.”
Jack Culver leaned against the door jamb, his hands tucked into the pockets of khaki trousers, his thick, dark hair tousled as if he’d just rolled out of bed, his jaw stubbled.
She resisted the urge to swear and thanked God for the training not to move a single muscle in response to a man she’d stripped of responsibility and fired last year. Instead, she stood. “We’re finished here.”
“Aw, Luce, come on.” Fletch shot up. “Just hear him out. Tell her the story, Jack.”
She should have figured out what brought Fletch all the way up to the Hudson River Valley on a Sunday afternoon. He and Jack were as close as brothers.
She kept her gaze solidly on the Bullet Catcher she still respected. “What you do in your free time is your business, Adrien.” He flinched at the use of his first name. “I don’t mind, as long as you don’t get yourself killed and you return to work when I need you. But this time…” She cut her glance to Jack. “I would counsel you to steer clear.”
Jack kicked up one side of his mouth in a half-smile. A move that might weaken the resolve of most females, but not her. His sexy smile was wasted on her.
“I told you, Fletch.” Jack’s smile widened. “The woman has a heart of stone and a soul of steel.”
She stabbed him with a glare that had buckled the knees of men far braver, stronger, and smarter than Jack Culver. “You are not welcome in this house or at any gathering of the Bullet Catchers. I don’t give help to people who lie—”
“I did not lie.”
“By omission,” she volleyed.
“Lucy, listen to him,” Fletch insisted.
“I don’t want to hear—”
“Eileen Stafford did not commit murder,” Jack said, straightening. “She’s been rotting in jail for a crime she didn’t commit for thirty years, and now she’s going to die. I believe her in my gut, Lucy. She needs to stay alive long enough for me to prove it. To do that, we need her daughter. If we succeed, you get all the credit.”
“I’m not interested in credit.”
“Well, this job doesn’t pay, so you might have to take kudos instead of your usual astronomical rates. That, plus the fact that you helped free yet another person unjustly imprisoned. You take those jobs pro bono all the time.”
She crossed her arms. Of course, he would zero in on one of the things that really mattered to her; they all knew her pet projects. “There are a lot of wrongly accused people on Death Row, Jack. I can’t save them all.”
“You don’t have to save them all. Just give me Fletch, and let him use your resources. I believe Eileen Stafford when she says she’s innocent, and I also think there’s just something noble about giving a dying woman a chance to live.”
Lucy blew out a breath of pure disgust. “Oh, please.”
“Come on, Luce.” His voice dropped low. That New York City–tinged baritone of a jaded cop always snagged her. “Doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance?” He had the audacity to wink. As if that could make her forget that he’d lied and it damn near cost the life of one of her best men.
“Not everyone,” she said, pointing a red nail at the door. “You can wait downstairs, Jack. I’d like privacy with Adrien.”
He nodded, his dark eyes giving nothing away. No hope, no gratitude, no glimmer of apology for the misery he’d caused a year ago.
When he was out of earshot, Lucy turned on Fletch. “Why are you doing this? You know that man is…dubious.”
“I know that man is the best mate I ever had. I know that what happened a year ago almost killed Dan Gallagher, and I know how you feel about that. But bloody hell, Lucy, I wouldn’t be
if it weren’t for Jack. He needs help, and I’m only doing what he’d do for me.”
“He needs more help than you can give him.”
“He’s gotten his act together. He’s got his own PI business now. And he’s sober. He just wants a chance to prove he still has what it takes.”
She held up her index finger. “You have one month. If you need my resources, let me know, and I’ll decide on a case-by-case basis. After one month you will be on a plane to Antwerp, ready to escort one of my top, astronomical-rate-paying clients on another diamond drop. Do what you have to between now and then. But do not, under any circumstances, expect me to aid, abet, or otherwise enable Jack Culver.”
“Ace by me, Luce.”
She took a deep breath, surprised at how much seeing Jack again had spiked her blood pressure. “Just tell me one thing. I understand why this news might rock a woman’s world and make her hate you, but why would you have to get her naked?”
He grinned. “How else am I going to find that tattoo?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is the great honor of Page Nine Bookstore to introduce Dr. Miranda Lang, assistant professor of linguistic anthropology at Berkeley, an expert in Maya studies, and the author of
The Cataclysn’t: The End of the Myth, Not of the World
. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Lang, who will read a brief excerpt from her work, answer your questions, and sign copies of her book.”
Miranda nodded her thanks to the store manager and started across the “Page Stage.” She’d been at the university long enough to know this was a big deal. A camera flashed—probably one of her students—as she stood at the podium and looked out at the crowd of fifty or sixty people. A big turnout, especially considering that most of the anthro faculty would come only if they thought she’d fall flat on her face.
She smiled at the crowd. With her book finally published and her tour set up, that wasn’t going to happen. Especially since Dr. Stuart Rosevich himself was in the front row, beaming at her. She beamed right back, hoping the head of Berkeley’s impressive anthropology department knew of her gratitude for the chance he’d given a young Ph.D. Next to him, Adam DeWitt smiled more moderately, but it was sweet of him to show up tonight after their awkward conversation last week.
A few rows behind them were two low-level lecturers from the department and a few TAs. The rest were your basic anthro and linguistic nerds, some Maya enthusiasts, and the usual intellectuals who frequented readings at the Nine.