A Touch of Death Ch. 10byWine_Maker©
The desk clerk at the Inn directed me to the dock when I asked about Dora. The beach next to it was filled with tourists and there were even a few on boats tied up to the dock.
Dora stood beside the bloody piling while an older man dressed in denim coveralls knelt to examine it. They had their backs to me so I took that as a sign from God to sneak up and listen.
"It's down into the fibers of the wood," the man said. "There's nothing I can do to get it out."
"I can't leave it like this," Dora said. "People won't want to come out here with blood all over my dock. Can we replace the piling?"
The man nodded at her. "Sure, but that could get pricey. You might want to consider sealing the pilings and painting them. That would be a lot more cost effective."
"How soon can you do it?" she asked. "I want people to forget anything ever happened here, the sooner, the better."
The man stood and spotted me as he turned toward Dora. He nodded politely. "I can get started tomorrow morning. Let me work up an estimate for you before I leave."
Dora half-turned and her expression darkened when she saw me. "Perfect. If you would, just leave it with the front desk and I'll look at it as soon as I take care of some unpleasant business. I'll call your office within the hour."
He nodded again. "Pleasure doing business with you." He nodded at me. "Miss."
I smiled at him and let him by on his way back to the Inn. By the time he was past me Dora's expression had sunk to nuclear winter.
"What do you want?" she asked coldly.
I smiled, full of cheer. I could afford to be in a good mood. I was about to make Dora a very unhappy woman.
"Good morning! I wish I could say how much of a pleasure it is seeing you again. I'm following up for Ginger Armstrong." I smiled more widely. "You remember her. The woman that can sue the pants off you for wrongful death if something else doesn't turn up?"
Her frown became a scowl. "Don't be such a bitch. I told Calvin I'd cooperate but that was before I knew it would be you. Make it fast before I do something you'll regret."
I tisked gently. "Now, now. Let's not get our panties in a wad. Assuming, of course, you're wearing any." I held up a hand to forestall her hot retort. "Someone told me that Steven Armstrong was seeing someone on the sly. Did he have any female visitors while he was staying here?"
"If he did, it was no business of mine and it isn't any business of yours," she said. "What the hell does that have to do with anything?"
I grinned. "That's simple enough. Rumor is he was sneaking around with a married woman. That kind of thing might drive a jealous husband to kill."
Dora's jaw dropped and her face became beet red. "Are you accusing me of sleeping with Steven Armstrong?" she half-shouted. "That's pure bullshit, you jealous bitch! I'd never cheat on my husband!"
Perfect. I raised my voice to match her volume, carefully not looking around to see who might be watching the growing scene. "Don't make me laugh. If anyone knows for sure that you'd cheat, it's me. Were you cheating with Armstrong?"
"I wasn't married when I slept with Calvin," she sneered, hunching her shoulders higher. "It's not my problem if you couldn't keep him interested. That's not surprising, really, since he said you just lay there like a dead fish."
I poked her in the chest with my finger. "I wouldn't believe a single word micro-dick tells you about anything. A little bird told me you were hot and heavy with Armstrong. You slipped out of the dinner party with him for a little sport in a dark corner."
"Keep it up, slut," she hissed. "Keep pushing and I'd beat the snot out of your Barbie doll ass." She took a step forward, emphasizing how badly she out-massed me. "I told you I don't sleep around and I won't say it again. If you're looking for a cheap floozy then you need to look at some of the Yacht Club wives. Those whores sleep around like it's a hobby. Go bother someone like Alison Stanton."
Alison! I quickly masked my surprise. Interesting that she would point the finger of blame back at the source of the rumor.
"You talk a good fight, Dora. I almost believe you. I wonder if any of the ladies clothes Steven kept at his house have your initials in them."
I realized I'd gone too far the moment I said that. Dora's expression twisted with fury and she grabbed me by the throat with both hands, squeezing for all she was worth. I tried to pull her hands off me but they were like iron. My lungs burned with the need for air and I started panicking. The bitch was going to kill me!
Someone reached between us and twisted her hands away from my neck, breaking her hold. I scampered back and breathed cool air like a bellows pumping into a furnace. Dora struggled to break the man's grip to no avail.
It wasn't a stranger; it was Ty. Thank God!
"Mrs. Fletcher," he said, "you really need to attend an anger management course before you hurt someone."
"Let me go you bastard," she screamed. "I'll kill that skinny little whore." Her eyes glinted as she snarled at him.
If that bothered him, it didn't show. "You need to cool off a little before you go inside. You're scaring all these fine people."
I looked around and everyone was staring at us. Hell, people were pouring out the back of the Inn to see the cat fight. A scream and a loud splash made me look back to Dora and Ty. Or, rather, to Ty. Dora was gone. He'd thrown her into the water. Again. I couldn't help laughing.
Ty turned away from the edge of the dock and theatrically dusted his hands off. He grinned at me. "It's good to see you've started learning how to win friends and influence people."
Dora screamed imprecations and threats that made women on the beach clap hands on young ears.
That only made Ty's grin widen. "So, do you wait here for her to climb out or are you ready to go?" He gestured to a motor boat bobbing at the end of the pier.
Dora sounded like she was making good time toward the beach. My mission was accomplished with panache. Everyone would know I thought Armstrong was killed for sleeping around before lunch. It was time to flee.
"After you," I said with a grin of my own and a half-bow toward the boat. Together, we walked quickly but calmly to the boat. A soaking wet Dora made it to the end of the dock just after Ty had cast off and started the motor. I waved at her cheerfully from my seat as he took us into a powered turn and away from shore. The roar of the motor obliterated her voice and we were gone.
* * * * *
By the time we were pulling up to a large ship, I'd told Ty all about the confrontation with Dora and my reasoning for it. I expected a butt chewing but he took it all in stride. I think it amused him.
He killed the engines and our boat gently bumped up against the larger boat at a small platform under a huge metal gantry. Ty smoothly jumped across and secured a mooring rope. He helped me step over and lifted me onto the ladder leading upward.
My stomach did a slow roll at the feeling of his hands clamped on my waist. I smiled at him and didn't object when they lingered just a touch too long. "You've got strong hands," was all I said.
"I have strong everything," he assured me. "Damien is waiting up there or we could talk about it in more... depth." With a quick grin, he slapped my butt. I scurried up the ladder with a laugh and a thudding heartbeat. Thoughts of last night kept trying to take my mind to interesting places, but I forced myself to focus. There'd be time later to think those thoughts.
Damien Manchester was standing on the deck at the top of the ladder. I think he must've overheard us because he was smiling deeply. "Welcome aboard the Aztec Warrior," he said. Across the lower deck, two men coiling a cable of some kind grinned at each other. Oh yeah, they heard us.
I flushed and stepped aside. Ty climbed nimbly up the ladder and stood beside me. "Thank you for inviting me," I said. "Ty's been telling me about the project. Can you really lift a two hundred foot steamer after all this time?"
He nodded and took my elbow, leading me up the steps to the bridge. A tall, supermodel-thin woman with short brown hair stood near the big wheel and smiled at us politely as we entered the bridge.
Damien nodded her. "This is Catherine Deal, my Captain. Cat, you know Ty and this is his, ah, friend Candy."
The woman smiled a bit wider at Damien's hesitation. "Welcome aboard, Candy." She raised an eyebrow at Damien. "Are we ready to get a move on?" Damien nodded and she started the engines and gave the wheel a gentle turn. "We'll be there in about half an hour."
"Thanks, Cat," Damien said. He gestured toward a door at the rear of the bridge. "Ty, Candy, let's adjourn to the operations room and I'll gainfully spend some time explaining the plan for today."
Ty shook his head. "I've heard it and unless you object, I need to go get suited up or we'll be wasting time." He raised an eyebrow at me.
I nodded. "Go make sure everything is good. I'll be fine."
Damien led me back into a well-appointed sitting room with a table bolted to the floor. Magnets held maps and other papers securely to the surface in spite of the roll of the boat. He gestured at one of the chairs. "Would you like a soft drink?"
I nodded and sat down to examine the maps. "A diet drink would be perfect, if you have one."
He retrieved a can of soda while I marveled at the detailed map spread before me. It showed the depth of the water to an incredible precision. It was laid out just like a contour map showing every dip and rise.
"This is amazing," I said as I took the cold can he offered me. "I had no idea the lake was so well mapped."
He sat down beside me and popped the top on his non-diet drink. "It wasn't until just a few years ago. Some scientists towed an array of instruments all over the lake: side-scan sonar, magnometers, you name it. They even precisely placed a host of sunken ships, though we don't know what they all are. It makes my job of raising the Tahoe easier." He pointed to a ship on the lower left side of the map. "That and the pictures some adventurous divers took of the hull."
"What will Ty be doing today?"
"He'll be making a circuit of the hull to be sure nothing disastrous has happened. His suit has a high-powered light and an integral camera. He'll also be verifying the integrity of the suit at this depth."
"Is it dangerous," I asked, trying to keep the worry out of my voice.
"It should be perfectly safe," he reassured me. "The suit is rated for dives over two thousand feet. This is just a piddling four hundred feet."
I licked my lips and nodded. "And then he'll come back up so you can examine the camera footage?"
"Maybe," he said, rocking his head from side to side in little jerks. "Ty is trying to convince me to let him take a peek inside the ship. He somehow got the crazy idea in his head that there's a fortune in gold down there."
Dismay threatened to flood my face so I schooled my expression. "He said that?"
Damien nodded and took a drink of his soda. "Yup. He trotted out some crazy story about a hoard of stolen gold being stashed on the Tahoe just before it was sunk." His lips tightened. "He seems to think someone might have killed Steven for it."
"What do you think of the idea?" I asked delicately. Ty and I were going to have to talk about loose lips.
The corner of his mouth quirked up. "I think it's crazy. Even if there were gold down there, how will killing Steven help anyone? Stop the project? I don't think so and no one that knows me would think so either. I'm even more dedicated to success now." He shook his head. "No, I almost wish there was even as crazy a reason as that for Steven's death but there isn't. It was a senseless accident."
"What if it isn't smoke? What if there really is a pile of gold down there?"
He snorted and drained his can of drink. "Then I raise the ship and hand the gold over to the police. Stolen goods are the property of the owners or their heirs. They wouldn't be covered by any salvage law, though I might make an argument for a finder's fee. It's wrong to take something that belongs to someone else. There's always a heavy penalty for those that don't remember that. I'll take the good press and that would be my reward if there turns out to be any looted gold down there." He sounded almost grim by the end of his little speech.
After a beat he shook his head and smiled wryly. "I sound way too serious. These last few days have been a real drag. Was it you that put the idea of gold into Ty's head?"
I considered my options and nodded. "I suppose I did. Steven's sister asked me to look into his death because I'm nosy and that popped up."
He raised his soda in salute. "She's a wonderful person. Elsa loves her like a niece. The idea has the blessing of originality, I'll give it that." He squinted at me. "It was serious enough to get my lead diver hurt. Do you really think that enviro-wacko was after gold and shot at the two of you? And that Edward Stanton is somehow connected to him?"
I balanced the public scene I'd created earlier with all the information Ty had let slip and mentally shrugged. "It sure seems that way. I can't say how Stanton and Wallace are linked, but I think they are. Stanton knew I'd talked to Wallace so the two are in communication. You might be right that Steven died in an accident, but Wallace is acting guilty. Tying him down will let the police eliminate that possibility at the very least."
Damien nodded his head thoughtfully. "That's a very good point. Until the police drag out the lights and rubber hoses they can't exclude the possibility that Wallace killed Steven. Or prove it, though I'm not sure how they might do that. I hope they get him soon." He waved a finger at me. "Until they do, you need to stay out of his sight. Let Ty keep you safe. Do you have a gun?"
I shook my head and grimaced at the memory of the vision I'd had of Ty using one. I don't think I'd ever want to have to use one. "No. I've never handled one. I'd be afraid I'd shoot my own foot off." I held up a finger to signal a subject change. "If you don't mind, I have a couple of questions about Steven."
"For Ginger? Certainly. Ask away."
"Steven had a reputation as a ladies' man," I said delicately. "Was there anyone special in his life when he died?"
Damien shook his head. "Steven was always seeing someone. Sometimes more than one at a time. I could never keep track of who was up at bat. I'm surprised that they haven't come scurrying out from under the floorboards by now."
"Were any of them married?"
He scowled. "Not that I ever heard. He played the field but the only women I know of were safely single. That's one nasty rumor that I'd rather not see slither out from under its rock. Why in the world would you think something like that?"
I shrugged. "Someone I talked with mentioned it. Actually, two people mentioned it. Both of them are married and pointed the finger at each other. You'll probably hear about one of them before we get back to port since she and I had a screaming match over it."
His eyes glinted with a little humor. "You? Screaming at someone? I can't see it. Who did they say Steven was supposed to have cavorted with?"
I wasn't inclined to shield Dora. Let her reputation suffer. "Dora Fletcher."
His eyes widened. "That shrew?" He laughed. "Steven told me himself that her husband must duct tape her mouth before sex. He couldn't stand the woman. You can rule her out of any torrid affair with Steven. Who else?"
I hesitated and he raised his hand in a Boy Scout salute. "I promise that it will go no further than this room. Scout's honor. Steven and I talked about everything. Let me help."
I sighed. "Since it came from Dora, it's hardly more than slander in my opinion. I don't want to sully the woman. Please keep it quiet. She told me I should look at Alison Stanton."
He scratched his chin. "I know her, of course. Her husband is in the Mariner's Association. She's always been devoted to her husband so I can't see her having an affair with anyone, much less Steven. Steven had a little black book with names, phone numbers, and little stars. Maybe you can check that."
"A book?" I asked with interest. "I hadn't heard anything about a book. Do you know where he kept it?"
Damien shrugged. "I assume he kept it at home. You can probably ask Ginger to get it for you. I don't think it will help, though. Like I said, I don't see Steven poaching."
"Do you think the gold is more likely?" I asked with a saucy grin and my tongue figuratively in my cheek.
"I'd bet my life on it," he said, rising to his feet. "Ty should be almost ready and we'll be on site in a few minutes. Come on down and give him a good lecture on being careful down there."
* * * * *
Ty stood in the stern dressed in a spacesuit. At least, it looked like a spacesuit. The thick walled helmet lay nearby on the deck. He grinned at me as one of the three men around him fitted an earpiece with an attached microphone to his ear.
"My good luck charm has arrived," he said. "I can dive now."
I gave him the look. "You're a nut. I can't believe I let you talk me into being out here while you risk your life like this."
"Safe as houses," he assured me. "A walk in the park."
I shook my head. The crazy goon was going to risk his life and he was cracking jokes. He needed to get things in perspective. I stepped in front of him and gauged the distance between my face and his. He towered over me and that suit didn't look that flexible. I started looking for footholds on the suit.
One of the men laughed and grabbed a small stool. "Don't step on him, you might damage the suit. Use this."
"Thanks." I stepped up and grabbed Ty's hair, planting my mouth on his before he could say anything. I kissed him passionately. Only when I was sure he was about to start ripping the suit off did I pull back and stared into his eyes from two inches away. "That's for luck."
Our audience hooted and clapped when I jumped back out of Ty's grasp and smiled my best sexy smile from a safe distance away. "Come back up safe and I'll see my plans are for later."
"You sure know how to negotiate," Ty said in a ragged voice. "Always leave something on the table. If you have plans for dinner tonight, cancel them. You're booked."
"Now he'll walk to shore if he has a problem," one of the guys told me as he picked up the helmet and settled it over Ty's head. A twist locked it into place and he started tightening some fasteners. When the suit was fully sealed, he turned on a radio mounted to the winch. "Radio check."
Damien whispered in my ear. "Two-way radio. Everything any of us say will go right to the other."
"Loud and clear," Ty replied. "The indicators are all green. I'm go for dive on this end."
The man turned to Damien. "We're go for dive, Mister Manchester."
Damien nodded and picked up a handset beside a TV monitor on a rolling cart. "Cat, we're go down here. What's the ETA to the dive zone?"
He listened to her response.
"Roger that. Two minutes. Thanks."
It seemed like an eternity before the ship came to a halt but the crew made up for it with the speed they hoisted Ty up and started lowering him into the water. My last sight of him was a grin and a stiff-armed wave. I felt like my throat was swelling shut.
Damien patted my shoulder. "Relax. He's going to be fine. Pull up a chair and watch the monitor with me. We'll have the best seat in the house."
The monitor showed the bottom of the boat as seen from Ty's slowly descending point of view. The water was crystal clear and the boat got quite small before he looked downward into the approaching gloom. He switched on his suit lamps and bright spears of light shot into the darkness.