Authors: Amy Leigh Simpson
WHEN FALL FADES published by:
1153 Bergen Pkwy Ste I #114
Evergreen, Colorado 80439
Copyright 2015 by Amy Leigh Simpson
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.
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Trade Paperback ISBN
Interior Formatting by Elijah Toten
Book Cover Design Kim Mesman
Editor Andrea Ferak
Table of Contents
For my mama, who believed in me from the very first page one.
Your faith gives me wings.
Town and Country, Missouri
onight is the night
. Anticipation crackled off his skin, leapt out into the black night, writhing in the muggy air like a live wire.
He’d done his due diligence. Observed, waited, calculated the risks. His heartbeat raged in his ears. The stark silence of night amplified each anxious breath like a roaring freight train.
Today, all the paranoia would be put to rest and things would be set right. He deserved this. Craved it for years. So the circumstances were different than he imagined, he didn’t care. He’d get what he came for. He had to. There was too much at stake to walk away.
Having never decoded all the riddles, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Not exactly. But no matter what happened, he would have his answer.
It would all be over soon.
A purring rumble littered the calm, quiet dusk. Pungent exhaust of the old muscle car polluted the sweet Indian summer air. The engine choked, heaved its final breath before the forced hinges of a slamming car door jolted his mind from his plotting.
, the neighbor girl was home. A different kind of tension coiled through him, a hunger to rival the need for payback. He licked his lips. Imagined the taste of her and the things he could do with those soft, subtle curves wrapped around that hard runner’s body.
You should have her.
His desire whispered.
He prided himself on being a man who got what he wanted. Perhaps he should pay her a visit, see if she was as good as he imagined? He’d imagined quite a lot.
A buzzing from his pocket severed the scene playing out in his mind. He opened the message.
YOU’RE RUNNING OUT OF TIME.
Adrenaline and fear poisoned his pleasure. The seductive rush of his fantasy overpowered by the urgency of his mission. He wasn’t a patient man, but this was tricky and he needed to be careful. He’d wait until the sexy neighbor, the only potential witness, was asleep. Then he’d have all night. He sucked in a calming breath.
She’d be safe as long as she didn’t start poking her nose where it didn’t belong. And if she did, well, he’d learned a few tricks over the years—an education that came with the sometimes unsavory company he kept. He’d take care of it. Hell, it’d probably be fun. Another lascivious smile was tempered by the warning that lurked behind the text message.
The last light from the girl’s window surrendered to the dark night. He’d wait another hour to be sure, then he’d make his move. Playtime would have to wait until later.
Town and Country, Missouri
his can’t be good
. Pulling up to the scene and slipping behind his FBI agent mask, or rather an expression as impenetrable as Kevlar, Archer Hayes removed himself from his Suburban and set to the task at hand. The trip from downtown St. Louis shouldn’t have taken long. Unfortunately, an accident had him crawling here in bumper-to-bumper agony for over an hour giving free rein to his guilty conscience.
Archer surveyed the scene. Town and Country PD had blocked off the street and redirected traffic. The ambulance was pulling away, but the medical examiner remained on the scene. Odd. If the old man died at the wheel of natural causes, they’d have moved the body by now.
Meaning Archer might have missed something. And Westwick might not have been crazy.
Approaching the unfamiliar ME, a young woman, maybe thirty, with caramel skin, and smooth black hair, Archer flashed his badge. “Special Agent Archer Hayes, FBI. Why is he still here?” His head nodded toward the silver Buick on the shoulder of the two-lane road. The driver seat still occupied by what he gathered was the corpse of Charles Westwick.
“Body can’t be moved. CSU hasn’t arrived yet.”
“You mean to tell me this is a homicide?”
“Looks that way.” She motioned for him to walk with her. “Name’s Candice Stevens. I’m the new Lead Medical Examiner. What looks to be your usual, garden-variety heart attack—” she paused for effect, “isn’t.”
A man approached with a mess of papers. She briefly stopped and signed off on something before she continued. “We found a small puncture wound in the victim’s neck, and there’s also some perimortem bruising on his arms, indicating a struggle.” Candice called out to a police officer’s beckon. “Be right with you, officer.” A twinge of a Jersey or Brooklyn accent tinting her tone.
“Anything else unusual?” He grabbed a glove from a box near the evidence collection.
Candice sighed. “Workin’ on it. I’ll send over the results of the autopsy once I have anything solid. Wanna tell me why FBI was called in?” She lifted an eyebrow. Her strange, cat-like eyes cast an unknowing accusation.
But she didn’t have any answers yet, and neither did he so he kept it simple. “Just following a lead, Dr. Stevens. Thanks for the information. Once CSU sweeps for prints and fibers have them call me.” Archer handed her his card and tipped his head to acknowledge her cooperation before heading to examine the body and scene.
Crossing under another line of yellow tape, he hunted for clues amid the bustle of activity until he zeroed in on the still, huddled form of a girl on the side of the road, knees to her chest, head buried in her arms. The girl who found the body. She could wait.
Approaching the car, he laid eyes on Charles Westwick for the first time. The sight of the old man’s slumped and lifeless body made the regret band tighter, wringing his stomach until the bitter taste hit the back of his throat.
Perhaps he should have humored the guy when he’d called with his paranoid ramblings. He’d called enough times over the past year to earn a spot on the watch list. Though the FBI didn’t cater to personal complaints, Archer had tried to appease the old loon by looking into a few of his conspiracies. The time he’d wasted turned up a big, fat nada. When the calls kept coming he’d eventually tuned out.
Just now Archer remembered something in the old man’s voice when he called months ago.
“Now you listen good, young man,” Westwick warned. “Someone was in my house rootin’ through my old files from the service and the rug in the study looked like an accordion, I tell you! Now I ain’t filin’ no police report for breakin’ and enterin’, cause ain’t nothin’ broken, far as I can tell, but I know someone’s fishin’ for my classifieds and bad stuff gonna come out if that happens.” A weary sigh and what sounded like a head scratch followed his rant, and then his voice grew somber, cracking in a resigned whisper, “I am not crazy.”
Transfixed by the sight of the old man, Archer struggled to recall all he had said during their conversations. He knew Charlie had been some sort of aviation engineer, but his simple, country dialect didn’t match the man of intelligence Archer viewed in front of him. Nor did the image reflect all of his ninety-one years.
From the looks of his apparel and his vehicle, Westwick appeared to have been a tidy and organized man. Clean shaven. A sufficiently groomed tuft of cotton hair. His plaid shirt, buttoned all the way to the top button, was neatly pressed, except for the wrinkles around the cuff of the sleeve.
A small, almost undetectable, smear of gray caught Archer’s eye. He removed a pen from his inside pocket and used it to lift the already unbuttoned cuff of Westwick’s sleeve, revealing the faintest residue of what looked like duct tape on the underside of his palm. A tiny swath of missing hair from the base of his forearm confirmed the notion of bondage. Murder, indeed.
Circling to the other side, Archer leaned his head in the open passenger window. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. A newspaper lay folded on the seat. A pair of oversized sunglasses that older people place over their regular glasses rested in a cup holder as well as one of those yellow suckers with a looped stick you get from the bank teller at the drive-through. Odd though, they usually only send those out when there are children in the car. Perhaps he was toting around a grandchild recently.
Archer straightened away from the window, took a deep cleansing breath of the early autumn breeze to eradicate the stench of death. Brilliant ribbons of sunshine filtered through the arced branches converging over the road. He squinted and then looked back, noticing the driver’s side visor wasn’t pulled down. By now the sun poised high in the afternoon sky. However, if Westwick had been out driving anytime this morning on this part of the road, the sun would have angled straight into his windshield. Since Archer observed him to be about five feet eight or so, he would have needed to use the visor or the glasses resting in the cup holder to avoid a serious morning glare on a day like today. Archer made a note to corroborate sun-up and time of death to see if that led anywhere interesting.
He was about to move on, but something was amiss about the position of the body. Craning his neck, he took in a different angle. And then he saw it.
Westwick’s feet were too far from the pedals. In general, elderly folk tended to adjust their seats a little too close to the wheel as opposed to too far away.
Someone else had been driving.
Finished with his survey of the inside of the vehicle, Archer reached a gloved hand to the trunk latch. The trunk of the sedan was empty except for a can of Fix-A-Flat and emergency fuel. Against the dark gray carpeting he noticed a few strands of white hair he rationalized could have easily settled there anytime during Westwick’s ownership of the vehicle. But the only stray hairs were together about midway back on the far left side … where someone’s head would be if they were lying in the trunk.
When the Crime Scene Unit finally arrived on the scene, Archer shared his observations with the CSU lead and then headed toward the witness. She hadn’t moved. He cleared his throat to signal his approach.
Nothing. “Excuse me, Miss. Special Agent Archer Hayes, FBI.” Still nothing. She was probably traumatized from discovering a dead body.
Crouching down, he tapped her shoulder. The touch made her flinch, triggering a deeply indrawn breath.
It took her a moment, but when she raised her head and met his eyes, he noticed she wasn’t a girl, as her long blonde ponytail and petite frame suggested, but a woman, probably in her late twenties.
Captivated by her vibrant blue-green eyes, red-rimmed from tears, he somehow couldn’t look away. A suspended moment stretched to two, then three, painful seconds of silence until his brain finally kicked back in from its little hiatus. He grated at his suddenly parched throat and averted his eyes as she stood. Heat swamped him regardless. Sweat prickling his brow and dampening his collar. A fevered rush speeding through his veins.
Archer couldn’t recall the last time he’d been caught off guard. What was wrong with him? Like he’d never questioned a pretty girl before? He resisted the urge to tug at the neck of his tie. Maybe it was heat stroke? There. A plausible explanation.
Yet his mind scrambled in a directionless whim. This investigation was already becoming another ghost to add to his collection. Throwing a woman into the mix was about the last thing he needed.
Just focus on your job, Hayes. Nothing else matters.