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Authors: Roxanne St. Claire

First You Run (8 page)

BOOK: First You Run
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She shook, she tensed, she vibrated with need. “Please,” she begged again. “I’ll die if you don’t. I’ll die.”

She needed this, needed to take him in and squeeze the satisfaction from between her throbbing, aching, hypersensitive legs.

Sliding her panties to the side, he thrust a finger into her, then two, pushing and prodding and pulsing her flesh at precisely the right place. Three fingers plunged inside, and his thumb pressed the hood of her clitoris, circling, cajoling, teasing.

At the same time, he kissed her, their teeth clashing, their lips tearing at each other. His other hand glided up her dress, until his rough palm shocked her tender nipple, squeezed it with two fingers, and sent fire straight to the spot he owned with his thumb.

The lightning flashed again, blinding her even though her eyes were closed. The wind roared like a train, and her body sparked and whipped against him.

She was lost. Gone. Taken away and dropped into a black hole, where she swirled and folded and burst and dissolved into one long, endless, blissful euphoria that shook her body.

Again and again and again, until finally, blessedly, it stopped.

And she was free of the ache and the need, heavy with satisfaction, soaked with her own release.

The blackness lifted, her blood cooled, each breath hurt a little bit less.

Finally, she could open her eyes. How they had gotten from the crypt to the ground was hazy in her mind, but he was clear. Close and warm and sharply in focus.

Had she noticed how thick and long his lashes were or that his golden eyes had flecks of black in them? His hair, unkempt and wild, was pushed back, his temples soaked with sweat, his mouth reddened, swollen.

This had to be a trance. It was Taliña’s magical, mystical shaman trance of ecstasy. She’d had no control, and he had…

Plenty of control.

Her fist was still closed over an enormous erection, and his fingers remained curled inside her body. She closed her eyes and let out one last, helpless sigh.

“I wasn’t kidding. I
was
possessed.”

“I believe you were.” He eased his fingers out of her, and helped her sit up. “If I didn’t satisfy you, you might have spontaneously combusted.”

She
had
combusted, quite spontaneously. “I think she…made me…completely crazy.”

“Someone did,” he said with a teasing smile. “And while that is quite a lovely skill to have, it makes me wonder what else she is doing to make you crazy.”

Miranda drew back, reality and common sense making their return as she finally let go of him. “What do you mean?”

“Your hostess has ten thousand copies of your book hidden in a basement of one of her fake temples.”

“Ten thousand!” Miranda’s sexual buzz totally evaporated. “Are you sure?”

“Give or take a couple thousand.”

“Maybe she wants to give them as gifts to friends?”

“More than the four hundred who showed up tonight?”

“To her husband’s business associates? As a Christmas gift?”

“That’s an awful lot of associates.”

Disbelief washed over her. “There has to be an explanation.”

“Could she be one of your crazies? Maybe it’s an attempt to hide all the copies of a book she doesn’t want sold?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t get a dangerous vibe from her, and she’s been so supportive.”

“Supportive? She spirited you away to a dark crypt, juiced you up to a frenzy, and God knows what she’d have done to you next.”

Why
did she have ten thousand copies of Miranda’s book were hidden in a basement?

“I want to see for myself,” Miranda said, pushing up on her knees and straightening her dress.

“No need.” He stood and offered a hand. “You can trust me.”

But could she? What if Taliña’s warnings were real? “If you don’t take me there, I’ll go find them myself.”

“Miranda, I saw them. You don’t need to go snooping around the basement of some temple.”

“Yes, I do.” She stood without his assistance. “Maybe they’re just blank covers. Or maybe they’re some kind of mistake print run. It’s the Temple of the Cross, isn’t it?”

“Fine. I’ll take you there. But no matter what, don’t leave me. You got that?”

“Yes.”

To prove it, she held his hand tightly as they made their way through the rain forest. The trees were thick and plentiful, the tangy smell of cedar and spruce mixed with sweet orchids and wet earth. The only thing that gave away the real location was the utter lack of humidity in the air. No amount of irrigation could create the greenhouse of humidity Miranda had breathed in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala.

Still, the smells, the trees, the leaves, and the canopy felt real. All that was missing was the shriek of a howler monkey or the squawk of a macaw. It was a wonder the shaman hadn’t had her rich husband pipe in the music of the rain forest.

“What did she do in there, anyway?” Fletch asked.

“She was trying to get this light to shine. It’s called
kyopa.
It’s an energy of—”

He paused, holding her back as his gaze darted around the shadows. Then he reached his right hand to his waist, sliding his gun from under his jacket.

“What is it?” She barely mouthed the words, but he gave his head a quick shake, quieting her without even looking at her.

With his left hand, he twisted her behind him, pulling her close against his back and locking her there with a solid grip. “No matter what I do,” he whispered, “stay behind me. No matter how I move, stay on this side.” He squeezed her closer, pressing her to his back.

Adrenaline rushed from the pit of her stomach to the tips of her fingers, and she moved closer to Adrien—a safe, solid man who’d take a bullet for her after knowing her for just twenty-four hours.

He held his weapon straight out, his index finger not along the barrel as it had been when he’d secured her apartment last night, but curled around the trigger, ready to kill with a touch.

Her pulse accelerated as she matched his stealthy footsteps, watching his head move from side to side. No one attacked, no sound slowed them, and Adrien followed his instinct and an impressive mental compass to get them back to Taliña and Victor Blake’s Maya-inspired mansion.

“Where in the temple?” she asked. “Where were the book?”

“Underneath a statue of a jaguar.” He pronounced it
jag-u-ar.

“The jag-u-ar is the god of the underworld.”

He snorted softly. “No wonder he was such a heavy bastard.” He loosened his grip on her a tiny bit and eased her around to his side. Then he lowered the gun away from her, his finger off the trigger. “There’s only one entrance, in the front. But there’s hardly any light, so if you stay right in front of me, I’ll block you, and we’ll run up.”

“Why do you think someone is going to attack us?”

“Years of training. Fear of error.” He glanced around. “And the odd crack of a branch.” The only people in the courtyard appeared to be the white-jacketed waiters and staff. “You ready?”

“I will be in a second.” She reached down and slid her sandals off. “Let’s go.”

He gave her a tiny push, and they picked up their pace, staying deep in the shadows of the bushes and the foliage until they reached the foot of the structure.

Her heart pounding, she flew up the stairs into the darkness of the enclosed shrine at the top of the small pyramid.

As he’d said, the only thing in the cool stucco-walled room was a massive statue of a jaguar leaping in the air, its mouth wide. Ambient light filtered through the arched openings along the front, creating an eerie shadow of the beast against the back wall.

“The opening’s under him,” Fletch said. “Let me give it a burl.”

He holstered the gun and braced his body against the hind quarter of the carved stone, a grimace pulling his expression as he pushed. It didn’t move. He grunted and pushed again.

“Son of a bitch,” he murmured, kneeling to the ground. “It’s been bolted back in place.”

Miranda turned slowly, examining the room. “There has to be another opening to the chamber below. I bet it’s on the side, built into the wall, under the front stairs. That’s how the original structure was built.”

“Maybe not in this Disney version.” He worked the bolts.

“I know where the downstairs opening could be. Come with me.”

“All right. But if we don’t find it, we’re calling it quits.”

She let him lead the way down the front steps. “Around the side,” she said as they reached the bottom, her shoes hanging from her fingers.

“Wait!” He grabbed her hand, and his eyes flashed an alert. Then he pushed her against the wall. “I heard something over there.” He indicated the left side of the building. “Go around to the right, stay low, and don’t move,” he whispered. “I’m going to see who’s following us, and I don’t want you in the line of fire.”

She did as he said, sliding along the base of the square building, inching around the corner into the shadows.

As she pressed one hand against the cool stone, she felt it. The opening.

She dropped her shoes and jimmied the stone one way, then the other, until a door on cleverly hidden runners rumbled to the left.

She took a half-step into the darkness, blinking to adjust her eyes to the pitch black. Holding her hands straight out, she felt nothing, but on her right was a chilled stone wall, and a few steps to her left was another. But what was ahead of her? The chamber? Ten thousand books?

Discomfort slithered over her. She didn’t want to go any further into the dark, away from the door. She ventured one more step, then a smack of stone against stone cracked behind her.

Oh, God, no!
She spun around, smacking her hands on the wall that used to be a door and knowing, deep and certain, that she was trapped. She threw herself against one wall, then another, then another, then another.

There was no air. No space. No light.

Familiar, fierce, and suffocating, panic squeezed the life from her chest.

She threw all her weight wildly at the stone wall, but it didn’t budge. She scraped her fingers down each side, trying to find a handle, a slot, a way out. There was none.

She tried to breathe but couldn’t. She tried to call out, but her voice was strangled by fear. Sweat broke out everywhere. She sank to her knees, the only sound in her black grave her hopeless breaths.

Darkness and raw certainty engulfed her. She was going to die. Now.

C
HAPTER
EIGHT

F
LETCH BRACED HIS
weapon with his left hand, peering into the thick foliage that brushed the orange stucco walls. Even a homemade jungle was a deep, dark, and dangerous place. He darted around the corner, ready to surprise whoever or whatever had been following them since they left the crypt.

But nothing moved. No predator’s eyes gleamed in the dark. Had he imagined the rustling of trees? He walked along the side of the structure, scanning for the slightest movement, listening for the softest sound. Only a twig cracked under his foot, and in the distance, the tap of china and soft Spanish chatter drifted from the party cleanup.

He rounded the back, using his shoulder to skim the stone in case he found the opening to the underground chamber that Miranda thought would be there. Everything was still and quiet. At the last corner, he took one more check around him, then turned, expecting to see her where he’d sent her.

Bloody hell. Where did she go?

“Miranda?” He didn’t shout, but she should have heard him. “Miranda!”

He sprinted toward the front of the pyramid, squinting into the brush and feeling the walls for that opening. Where was she? He called again, much louder this time.

His foot hit something, and his heart lurched at the sight of her shoes on the ground. Had someone taken her? Had she run?

Then he heard a whimper so soft that a man who hadn’t spent months in hostage-rescue training would have missed it. A sound of desperation, a moan that came from…inside.

She was in there? He holstered his weapon and spread his hands on the walls. There was no opening, no crack he could see. “Miranda!”

He felt every inch of the rough stucco wall using his palms, his cheek, his whole body to sense, until he finally found the thin, hidden seam.

Dropping to his knees, he plastered his ear to the wall to hear her.

“Hold on!” he called. “I’ll get you.”

Stabbing his fingertips so furiously he broke the skin, he searched for the way in. Sweat ran down his temples, and every muscle strained with the frustrating effort. At her next muffled call, he kicked the damned wall.

She had to be trapped in the chamber under the pyramid. Drawing his weapon again, he tore around the front corner and raced up the stairs, two at a time.

He shot at the bolts, the crack reverberating inside the enclosure, bullets and concrete and pieces of the wooden platform ricocheting around him. He threw his weight on the statue and powered it to the side.

“Miranda!” He rushed down the steps, moving from memory in the dark. “Are you in here?”

“I’m here!” Her cry was still muffled, but he could tell they were separated by something less dense than concrete.

He followed the sound to the mountain of books stacked floor to ceiling. She was behind them? How deep was this wall of books?

Deep.

He started flinging one after another over his shoulder, clearing the way to the other side. “Hang on!” he hollered as he whipped through another hundred books, the hard covers jabbing his hands, more sweat sliding down his face. There was no frigging air down here. How long would she last?

Behind the books, in a narrow opening he’d cleared, he reached a solid wall. He wanted to spit in frustration, mentally flipping through every possible option and coming up with zero.

“It’s quite simple, really.”

At the sound of a man’s voice, Fletch automatically reached for his weapon.

“You just press this button.”

With a low hum, the wall started to move to the right as if by magic. He dove for Miranda, pulling her out with one hand, positioning his gun to fire with the other. She gulped air, tumbling into him.

Then he turned his attention to Victor Blake’s voice in the dark. “Thanks, mate. That handy switch work a light, by any chance?”

A match struck, flaring under the rounded jaw of their host. He looked at them, then at the mess, his expression pure confusion. “What the hell is all this?”

He didn’t know what was in his own cellar? “This is a stockpile.” Fletch dipped lower to support her, then guided her through the tossed books. “Of Miranda’s books.”

She’d held tight. Still getting her breath and bearings.

“Are you all right?” he asked, pulling her closer.

She half nodded, then shifted her attention to Blake, her expression changing as strength and oxygen started to surge through her again. “Why do you have all these?” she demanded. “Who trapped me in there? What’s going on?”

Victor frowned, took the last step, and sighed. “I’m afraid Taliña’s interests can sometimes border on obsession.”

Miranda choked, her eyes burning Blake. “She
bought
these books? Why?”

“As I said…” He shook the match before it burned his fingers, cloaking them in darkness again, then lit another. “Please. Come upstairs. We can talk.”

“You first, Blake.” Fletch made sure the other man saw his weapon.

They followed him out into the air, Miranda’s body trembling, but Fletch suspected it was as much with fury as fear.

“I’m afraid that this time, her obsession has gotten out of hand,” Blake said. “She’s fixated with everything that has anything to do with the Maya, and your work fascinates her.”

“How did I get trapped in there?” Miranda asked.

“I’m certain that was an accident. There is a switch on the floor that closed that door behind you. It’s simply another entrance to the underground of the pyramid. I use it as a safe room. I have several around the estate, for our protection.”

The explanation made sense from a security standpoint but didn’t begin to erase Fletch’s unease. “Who rebolted the statue over the basement door?” he asked. “I left that wide open an hour or so ago.”

“Probably one of the staff. Perhaps they came to replenish the supply of your books at the party.”

“Why does she have so many of them?” Miranda demanded. “There were only a few hundred people here.”

He drew in a long breath, lifted one shoulder. “You’d have to ask her.”

“I will. Now.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” Blake said. “She’s gone.”

“Gone?” Miranda almost choked. “Where?”

“I don’t know where she goes,” he said, resignation and shame in his voice. “But periodically, she disappears into her jungle, where she…” He paused.

“She what?” Fletch prodded.

“She practices her craft.” Blake’s expression turned dark, his focus on Miranda. “I think it best you leave tonight, Dr. Lang.”

Fletch couldn’t agree more. “We’re out of here.”

“Absolutely not,” Miranda shot back. “Not until I talk to her. When will she be back?”

“We never know.” Blake turned to the rain forest he’d built. “But she always returns, eventually. And that’s all that matters.”

Miranda squared her shoulders. “I need to talk to her, and I will.”

“No, Dr. Lang. You need to leave. Can I make it any clearer? Leave Canopy. Leave Taliña. Now.”

Fletch’s fingers twitched on the Glock. “We get the message, Blake.” He put a bit of pressure on Miranda with his shoulder.

She didn’t argue. But he knew she’d be back here—with or without him.

 

Eileen Stafford was right about one thing: it was easy for an ex-cop to find an ex-cop. Especially at dawn on a Sunday morning, when the ex-cop looking for information brings doughnuts to the overnight shift.

At the painfully precious clapboard building with the hand-painted isle of palms police department badge hanging from a cornflower-blue railing, it cost Jack only a dozen Krispy Kremes to learn exactly where to find former Officer William L. Gilbert, who had left the Charleston PD just a few years after he’d arrested Eileen for murder and moved to this luxurious suburb to finish his years on the force. Now he could be found golfing.

And if he wasn’t on the green at Seagrass, a ritzy strip of land that jutted into the ocean ten minutes from downtown Charleston, then sixty-year-old Willie could be found at his condo clubhouse, playing cards at the table overlooking the last fairway, drinking sweet tea with lemon with two of his cronies. They played every single day from eleven to two forty-five, when Willie had a massage, a haircut, or a visit from a lady friend.

Willie was a creature of habit, it seemed, and a very healthy and wealthy one at that.

It didn’t take long to find the clubhouse at the Seagrass Condo and Resort complex and the casual game room and grille known as the Nineteenth Hole. There, among the ladies who lunched and the golfers who relived each stroke of the morning, was a table of three old men deep in a game of cutthroat pinochle.

Jack wandered over to the table, testing his observation skills to see if he could guess which one was Willie Gilbert. If not for the young lieutenant at the Isle of Palms PD who suggested that Willie’s lady friend was a stripper and the former cop was a frequent user of a certain little blue pill, Jack would have picked the man with the alcohol-induced rosacea on his hollow cheeks. Or the slightly hunched fellow with thick-rimmed reading glasses and the bad comb-over.

So he went with the player who had no telltale signs of alcoholism, no deep crevices from smoking, no sad cop jowls or baggy eyes from sleepless nights at crime scenes.

“Willie Gilbert?”

The virile retiree looked up, and just for a flash, Jack could see the ready, defensive mask of a cop. It disappeared, replaced by an easy smile and a booming Southern drawl. “What can I do you for, son?”

“Name’s Jack Culver.” Jack reached out to shake Willie’s hand. “I’m a private investigator. Can I talk to you when you have a break in the game?”

The other two men glanced at Willie, then at Jack.

Willie knocked the table, hard. “Bid or pass?” Then, to Jack, “What’s the subject matter?”

“An old Charleston PD case.”

The man to Willie’s right slid his glasses lower and peered over the rims at Jack. “You play?” He jutted his chin to the empty chair.

“We don’t play partners, Gabe.” Willie’s glare was easy to read. “Go sit on the patio, son. I’ll be out in a spell.”

“A spell could be two hours,” Gabe said, flattening the few strands he had left over an egg-shaped dome. “Which case?”

Willie tossed his cards onto the table. “Son of a bitch, can’t a man play a game of cutthroat in peace?”

“I can give you a call and set something up when it’s more convenient,” Jack offered. “Maybe around three today.”

Sunday was Lady Friend Day.

Willie rolled his captain’s chair back and gestured toward the French doors that led to an outdoor terrace. “Go.”

Outside, they walked to a tile-topped table, still damp from morning dew.

“Those two old biddies don’t need to hear everything,” Willie said as he yanked out a chair. “What’s on your mind?”

“Does the name Eileen Stafford mean anything to you?”

Jack saw the tiniest change in Willie Gilbert’s hazel eyes.

“Of course it does.” He waited a beat. Then another. “And?”

“You arrested her.”

“I arrested a lot of people. Don’t tell me she’s weaseled her way out of jail.”

“Not unless you consider dying of cancer weaselly.”

Willie lifted his chin to scratch a clean-shaven face, the motion revealing a slight discoloration along his jaw, the work of an excellent plastic surgeon and his laser. “So, what do you want to know? The case is thirty years old.”

“Do you remember it?”

He shrugged. “I remember that there was enough evidence to put her away for life. A gun that matched the murder weapon practically in her hands, her fingerprints all over the gate down in Philadelphia Alley where the victim was shot. No alibi and an eye witness who saw Stafford running from the scene of the crime.” Willie leaned back, swiped his hands on his trousers. “What exactly are you working on?”

There were a number of different ways to go on this. The missteps in the trial, where Willie had testified. The fact that there was no gunpowder residue on her clothes or hands. The fact that her motive didn’t hold water. The fact that Willie Gilbert lived well beyond the means of most retired cops. The old Jack, the one with unparalleled instinct, would have known exactly which route to choose.

“I’m trying to reunite Eileen with a child she gave up for adoption.”

He saw an infinitesimal flinch before Willie shook his head. “News to me. ’Fraid I can’t help you.” He pushed back from the table.

“You ever hear of the Sapphire Trail babies?” Jack asked. “A black-market operation near Holly Hill up in Orangeburg County?”

Willie stared hard. “You want some free advice, Mr. Culver?”

“I don’t know. Do I?”

Standing to his full six feet, Willie tucked his hands into the pockets of his dark green pants, his golf shirt pulling over gym-toned muscles. “Drop this case.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because Eileen Stafford is a pathological liar, a toxic, hate-spewing witch whose brain is so warped she probably gave herself leukemia.” He made a mock salute. “I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

He headed toward the door, which opened before he got there. Gabe was on the other side, waiting. Over the thick rims of his glasses, he gave Jack an unreadable look.

“Willie,” Jack called.

He stopped, waited, then turned. “What?”

“I never said it was leukemia.”

Willie’s tanned, unlined face paled slightly, though not so much someone else might notice.

“Whatever. I stand by my advice.” Willie continued into the clubhouse.

A welcome shot of adrenaline spilled into Jack’s veins, as satisfying as a finger of Glenlivet. He still had it. He might not be able to fire a gun like he used to, but he could still smell a baddie. He headed down the outside stairs toward the parking lot, where the valet popped him his keys, and he caught them, left-handed.

Opening the car door, he couldn’t fight a satisfied smile.

He still had it. And although Willie Gilbert hadn’t told him much, he’d unknowingly told him something critical. The history here was important enough to matter. To someone. Still, thirty years later.

That’s what no one knew but him. Well, someone knew. Eileen knew. And…a killer knew. His thoughts stopped when he slid into the driver’s seat, frowning at the business card stuck in the steering wheel.

BOOK: First You Run
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