tagNovels and NovellasA Touch of Death Ch. 07

A Touch of Death Ch. 07

byWine_Maker©

I'd rather have avoided being seen by the demonic duo, but Ginger, alas, had other ideas. She half-stood and waved at them.

"Crap," I hissed. "Did you have to do that?"

Dora's face clouded and she started stalking across the dining room toward our table. Calvin followed her at a slower pace. My fight or flight system began clamoring for me to get up and start swinging but I over-ruled it and schooled my face. I would not sink to her level on her turf.

She stopped a few feet short and planted her hands on her hips. "Well, well," she sneered. "Look what we have here. Coming to see how the better half lives, Kane? Just needed to see Calvin one more time? You need to stop mooning over him. He's mine now."

"You have a better half?" I responded coolly. "And as for Calvin, I think he's perfect right where he is."

Dora's eyes sparked with hate. "I don't have to put up with this crap in my place from a pathetic loser like you." Her eyes flicked to Ginger. "Or your whore friend." Leave it to Dora to dive under the gutter.

"Dora!" Calvin snapped. "Apologize this instant!"

Dora turned and stared at him with the same look of open-mouthed astonishment as I was no doubt wearing.

"Miss Armstrong," he said as he stepped in front of Dora and actually bowed. "I'm so sorry for the terrible accident that happened to your brother. Please accept the condolences of all of us here at Tahoe Inn."

He didn't spare one glance at me but that didn't surprise me.

Ginger ignored Dora and smiled sadly at Calvin. "Thank you. I appreciate you thinking of me. I was wondering if the police are done with my brother's room. I'd like to take possession of his things as soon as possible.

He nodded earnestly. "They wrapped up this morning so you can pick up the key at the front desk when you're ready. Take all the time you need." He turned to Dora. "I realize this has put a strain on everyone, dear, but that's no excuse. Miss Armstrong is still waiting for your apology, Dora." Dora's open mouth slammed shut and she glared at her husband.

It suddenly hit me why he was crawling. Calvin couldn't care less who Dora insulted. He normally lived for the divisiveness she caused. The difference was Ginger could sue the pants off him for wrongful death. His insurance would pay but the hit his premiums would take wouldn't be pretty. Ironically, he'd have been better off steering the investigation away from a ruling of accidental death. Too bad for them they automatically took the opposing view from me.

Ginger turned her attention to Dora. She neither smiled nor frowned. Her control astounded me. "I fully understand the strain everyone is under. Today has been the worst day of my life. I'm only just now starting to think of what steps I need to take to fully understand what happened."

Calvin swallowed and glared back at his wife. "Apologize to the woman, Dora."

"And to Miss Kane," Ginger added coolly.

"But she-" Dora protested.

"Dora!" he growled.

"Let it be, then," Ginger said with a sigh and a shake of her head. "I won't force an apology from anyone who doesn't mean it." She rose to her feet and picked up her purse as Calvin paled.

"Wait!" he stammered. "We just need a moment."

"I'm having some people look into my brother's death," she said, ignoring his protest. "I need to know what was happening the day he died. I want your assurance that they won't be impeded." She shifted her gaze to the furious Dora. "Assurances from both of you."

She skewered Calvin with a cold stare before either he or Dora could respond. "I want them to have full access to anyone they want to speak to. If I'm satisfied that there was no negligence on your part I won't contact my lawyer." She smiled sweetly at Calvin. "That won't be necessary, will it?" Ginger asked, her gaze moving between them coolly.

Calvin shook his head. "Everyone will cooperate fully with whomever you send."

Dora nodded mutely. That drew Ginger's gaze to her.

"Just to avoid misunderstandings, I'd like to make sure that you agree fully with your husband, Mrs. Fletcher. Will anyone I send have full, unimpeded access to anything and anyone here?"

"Fine," Dora spat. "Whoever you send will have whatever they want but I don't have to like it."

"Excellent," Ginger said cheerfully. "I knew we could all be reasonable." Her eyes swept back to Calvin. "The two of you have a good dinner."

Calvin didn't give Dora a chance to object. He virtually dragged her away, her eyes shooting daggers back at the two of us. She only dismissed us when they arrived at their table. Damien Manchester and a pallid, mouse-haired woman were just seating themselves. Probably his distraught wife, Elsa. Damien smiled at me and gave me a small salute before he focused his attention on Calvin and Dora. His companion only glanced at us listlessly for a moment.

"Are you going to help me?" Ginger asked, distracting me.

I turned my back on the Fletchers and looked at Ginger in confusion. "Help you what?"

The corner of her mouth quirked up. "Why, look into Steven's death. I'd like your help."

I could feel my eyebrows drawing together. "Me? I'm no private eye. You need a professional."

"What I need," she said, gently leading me toward the door by my elbow, "is someone that looks beyond the surface. You're already asking questions. Let's work together. Trust me. In my line of work, you get a knack for sizing up someone's character pretty quick. I need you."

"Hold up," I said, digging in my purse. "I need to pay for dinner."

"My treat," Ginger said. "It's the least I can do. We'll talk about more later." She waved her hand at the maitre d' and pointed at my table then herself. The man nodded his understanding at once. She guided me into the lobby before I could balk.

"I don't need compensation. I'm doing this because I have to know."

"Then I won't fight you about it," she said with a smile. "I'll just do what I want without asking you."

I rolled my eyes and followed her to the front desk. She asked for, and received, Steven Armstrong's room key. I might as well get with the program. After all, I had a few interesting questions to ask Dora about Steve. Like, if they were lovers. Not that I expected her to tell me the truth. Putting her on the hot seat was its own reward.

Five minutes later, we were standing inside Armstrong's room. It had the all the amenities: bed, dresser, extensive bathroom. What it lacked was any soul. I could've been standing in any room in any major hotel chain. Any room, anywhere. This was Lake Tahoe. We could do better. Kane Lodge definitely did better.

Ginger looked into the closet, pulled out a couple of suitcases, and opened them on the neatly made bed. "We can look at everything up here as we pack it into the suitcases. I'd rather not leave anything for later."

I nodded and we got to work. Armstrong had a few things on hangers in the closet but he had folded most of his clothes and put them into the dressers. He seemed to have two styles. Colorful casual and stylishly suave.

The only item of real interest to me in the room was a three-ring binder with information on the S.S. Tahoe. It had pictures, both old ones sailing the lake and shots of the sunken hull. It looked surprisingly intact.

I left Ginger to finish scouring the room and sat down at the desk to look the binder over. There were a number of written stories about the four scuba dives down to it. Apparently, because of the altitude of the Tahoe basin and the roughly four hundred-foot depth the hull was laying at, the dives were difficult, dangerous, and brief.

There was a hand-drawn diagram of the ship with what looked like points to mount cables to raise the ship. There was a fair bit of math that didn't mean anything to me, as well. A hand-written note at the bottom raised the possibility of using the deep-diving equipment to raise the S.S. Meteor from the deep end of the lake, too, if they could locate it. It dismissed looking for the S.S. Nevada because its last captain had burned it before sinking it.

There were extensive notes on rehabilitating the S.S. Tahoe and making her into a floating museum. Not only were an incredible amount of ideas on how to restore the ship crammed into just a few pages, but he had filled the margins with more hand written thoughts. It was obvious that Armstrong had filled the margins with more hand written thoughts on how to best restore the ship to the point there was hardly any white space left. He'd obviously been fired up about this project.

Behind those were several document protectors with a number of letters condemning and praising the project. Right up front was a letter from the family that had owned, and sunk, the ship, giving Armstrong their blessing to raise the vessel. I suppose that wasn't technically required since they abandoned it, but it still made it crystal clear that he had the moral as well as legal authority to carry out his salvage project.

The letters against it were all from the maybe-environmentalist, Jake Wallace. I frowned. The Sheriff's Department should've taken these. They might be evidence. I shook my head. What was I thinking? They thought this was an accident. They probably didn't even get this far.

The protest letters started out pretty tame but they rapidly degenerated into name-calling and not-so-veiled threats unless Armstrong abandoned the project.

I read each one carefully. While most of the vague references to damage that might occur were to ships and equipment, some of them might be shoehorned into personal threats at Armstrong himself. I found myself riveted by the warning to be careful about slips and trips on the lake that concluded the last letter. A letter dated the day before Armstrong died.

If Wallace had done the deed, he was an idiot. What kind of mental defective threatens someone in a letter with his or her own name on it before killing someone? Was he that stupid?

Maybe.

Jake Wallace hadn't struck me as a genius the one time I'd met him. True, he seemed surprised when I told him that Armstrong had died. However, he sure hauled ass right away. That seemed guilty enough for a murderer to me

Behind the letters was a background check on Jake Wallace. So Armstrong felt concerned enough to have someone check him out. Too bad he had never called the Sheriff's Department to complain about the threats. It might've saved his life.

It seemed Jake wasn't a local. Up until two years ago, he'd lived in Los Angeles. In several different areas in five years. There was a copy of his arrest record. I wasn't sure it was legal for a private citizen to get that but money talks, I suppose. It looked like Jake had a fine appreciation for recreational pharmaceuticals. Half a dozen arrests for being picked up with various drugs. Mostly pot but a few names I recognized from the news. He'd served time for two of the arrests, getting out the last time just before he moved to Lake Tahoe.

He'd set up the 'Save Tahoe Basin' organization less than six months ago. According to the report, the only member of the organization was Wallace and its only cause was stopping the recovery of the S.S. Tahoe.

Whoever wrote the report seemed to be at a loss of how Wallace had supported himself during the intervening eighteen months before he'd started pulling a salary from the non-profit he'd formed. Or even how the non-profit was funded in the first place. Perhaps with gold nuggets? Curiouser and curiouser. Where did he get such a big honking gold nugget in the first place? Were there more? Had he used them to finance his new cause? What did he hope to accomplish?

I made a mental note to download all the pictures I'd snapped on my cell phone in Jake's office. Maybe something about that map of Lake Tahoe would make more sense with the information I had now.

Ginger was sitting on the bed watching me when I closed the binder. "All done. Did you find something interesting?"

I filled her in on the contents of the binder. After a brief hesitation, I told her about the nugget.

"Could this somehow be about finding more gold?" I asked her. "I don't see how raising the S.S. Tahoe could have anything to do with it, and it isn't mentioned anywhere in that binder, but gold makes people do funny things."

She shook her head. "I can't believe that. Steven had plenty of money. The company he owns is worth tens of millions of dollars all by itself. Besides, after hearing him drone on for hours about what he would do to restore the ship I just can't believe it. He would've said something."

"What about his partner, Damien Manchester?"

"That sounds even more outlandish. Damien must be three or four times as wealthy as Steven." She shook her head. "I just can't see Damien getting hot and bothered about some gold. If he wants some, he'd just buy it."

I wasn't quite so ready to give up on the idea but I wouldn't gain anything by arguing with her about it. I closed the binder and stood up.

"I'm going to take this with me, if you don't mind. I want to go over it again and see if anything pops out."

She nodded. "Sure. I'll want it back later but keep it as long as you need to. If you do find anything, I want to know about it, day or night. Do you really think this Wallace fellow killed Steven?"

I shrugged. "He sure looks like a good possibility but I won't know till I look at everyone connected to your brother. Any of them might have a hidden reason."

The corner of her mouth quirked up. "Even me?"

"Well, the police look at family in murders for a reason I suppose. I hope you're not offended but I imagine you're standing to inherit quite a sum from your brother." Not that it would stop me if she were.

"Check away, then," she said with a smile. She grabbed the two suitcases by the handles. "I'd hardly have asked you to look into it if I had killed Steven. Especially since the police seem to be going out of their way to make his death an accident. To get away with it, it seems like my best bet would be to do nothing."

Well, that certainly was true.

I took one of the suitcases and helped her to carry it to her car. Thankfully, we didn't see Calvin or Dora on the way out. Tomorrow morning would be soon enough to piss them off. Again.

Ginger was driving a cherry red little sports car that looked like a roller skate. It was so small that it looked like even tiny little me might have trouble fitting in behind the steering wheel. The two suitcases fit into the trunk. Barely. And she fit behind the steering wheel, though it was an even tighter fit. If the thing had an airbag and she ever had an accident...

It was even more unsuitable for Lake Tahoe winters than Ty's car. Still, I ran my hand down its fender and wondered how cool it would be to own a car like it."

"I'll ask some questions of my own," she said as she slipped on a pair of sunglasses, "and catch you at the Lodge sometime tomorrow. Okay?" She smiled. "And, if you like, you can take her for a spin."

I grinned with embarrassment but I didn't turn down her offer either. "See you sometime in the afternoon. Call ahead and I'll make sure the front desk knows where I am."

With a jaunty salute, she started the car with a roar that sounded too large for it and zipped off. It sure could corner.

I unlocked my too-plain car and set the binder on the passenger seat. I was about to climb in when I noticed someone watching me from inside a nearby car. I couldn't make out who it was with the sunlight reflecting from the windshield so I waved on general principles. In my line of work you learned to be friendly to everyone you could possibly stand.

It was only when that seemed to startle my admirer into revving his engine and taking off that I took a closer look. When he pulled out of the parking lot, I had a good, if quick, view of his obviously frightened face.

Jake Wallace.

* * * * *

By the time I took off after him, he was gone. I drove around the area for a few minutes but it was already getting dark and I couldn't find any trace of him. With a sigh of frustration, I headed back to the Lodge. I'd seen and heard a lot today and I needed to make some notes and think about what I needed to do next.

That plan lasted until I parked in the Lodge parking area and shut off my motor. I hadn't even had a chance to unbuckle my seatbelt when I saw my mother sneak out the side door and duck into her SUV. She was definitely sneaking since she kept glancing around furtively.

I ducked below the dash and waited for a count of ten before I raised my head enough to see. She was just backing out of her parking spot. I let her get on the road before I started my car and pulled out behind her. For the second time in a half hour, I was trying to tail someone. Hopefully I'd have better luck the second time.

I really had no business spying on her, but she was acting so oddly I couldn't help myself. Maybe she was off to see her secret lover. I felt a thrill of excitement course through me. He would be worth knowing about, even if I never told a soul. That being the case, I couldn't chance her knowing I even had a clue, so I dropped a little further back.

She headed north on the highway that hugged the Lake Tahoe shoreline. There weren't many towns along this way of any size until you got to the top of the lake. Up there were some ritzy towns that catered to the ski crowd. I wondered if he was a wealthy tourist. Maybe she was having a wild affair. Or maybe she was heading for someone's house along the way.

I should've bet on the long drive. It took an hour but she drove all the way to Crystal Bay-Incline Village, along the north shore of Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side. The sun had set and the temperature was beginning to creep downward when she pulled into the Hyatt parking lot. Thank goodness I had my jacket with me.

She jumped out of her SUV and walked quickly toward the main entrance. There was a young man standing there but I didn't pay him much attention. He was far too young to be waiting for my mother. Her 'date' must be inside.

Boy was I wrong.

Before I could understand what was happening, the two of them were in each other's arms, kissing. My brain tried to process what I was seeing but it just didn't compute.

"If you leave the door open, the overhead light and dinging noise will give you away," a deep voice said from right outside my open car door.

I squeaked and whipped around in my seat. Standing there holding my door handle was Ty Walker. His grin was both engaging and smug. I scowled at him and yanked the door closed. A glance at the hotel entrance showed my mother hadn't noticed anything. If they had changed position, it wasn't apparent to me. I rolled down the driver's side window.

"Are you trying to give me a heart attack," I hissed. "And what the hell are you doing following me around?"

His eyebrows rose and his grin widened. "Well, you were following your Mom so I thought I'd follow you. Why are you tailing your mother?"

Another glance revealed her walking into the Hyatt arm in arm with the man. The short look I had of him while he was in the light convinced me he was young. About my age. Maybe younger. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be outraged or not. I knew some women dated younger men, but this was my mother! It looked like I had one more thing to think about. Whatever I did, I could not screw this up.

Ty took my discombobulation in stride, opened the car door, and bowed low with his free arm sweeping to the side. My glare didn't faze him at all. "They look dressed for dinner so if you're wanting to tail her home, assuming she goes home, we're in for a wait. Want to walk with me on the beach?"

I got out of the car and huffed, mildly offended. "Of course she's going home."

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