tagNovels and NovellasA Touch of Death Ch. 04

A Touch of Death Ch. 04


I don't know what reaction I'd been expecting from Wallace, but taking off like a bat out of hell sure wasn't it. Shock? Sure, that would have been a normal human reaction. Anger or pleasure? For an eco-fanatic, it would not have been surprising. But not him fleeing headlong. That just looked so... guilty.

I looked back at his front door. Should I try to look around his place? I might not have a better chance, but if he was the murderer and he came back I might be in real trouble.

Without giving myself time to think about it I walked back to the front door. If it was open, or easy to get in, I'd take a peek. If it was locked, I'd have to let it go since lock picking wasn't a skill I'd picked up. The doorknob turned easily in my hand and the door opened a crack. He'd been in such a hurry he hadn't locked up after himself. Well, I thought, it wasn't my fault, then. Right?

I took a quick tour of the parts of the house I hadn't seen yet. The rear of the house consisted of two bedrooms with a common bathroom. One of the bedrooms was a mess, with dirty clothes scattered everywhere and a few empty food containers on the dresser. The hotel manager in me quailed at the mess.

The bathroom was worse. I steered around his discarded underwear and peered into the bathtub. It was rusty and had coats of soap scum. At least I hoped it was soap. Yuck! Somehow I'd thought an environmentalist might be a bit cleaner.

The last bedroom had been converted into a makeshift office. There was a beat up army-style metal desk that looked like it might've been new during WWII. It held a beat computer that was probably ten years old. There was also a worn upright filing cabinet and a small bookcase stuffed with ratty paperbacks and a scattering of hardbacks. The thing that was most interesting, however, was the last item in the room.

There table against the far wall was covered in a miniature of the Tahoe basin. It was built like some people build little train yards, with little toothpick trees and foam hills. The areas containing towns and cities were marked but there were no buildings.

There were also a host of little numbered flags set all across the surface of Lake Tahoe. Well, most of them were on the lake. A few were set at other places on land. I wondered what they meant.

I pulled out my cell phone and snapped a couple of pictures of the model. They wouldn't be great but I'd be able to reference it again later when I had more time.

The desk was empty of anything interesting. All it had was broken pencils, empty soda cans, dead pens, and paper clips. The filing cabinet was also mostly empty but it did have one item of interest: a purple Crown Royal bag with something solid and heavy in it. It felt like a rock, but I doubted Wallace was the type to hide a rock in a Crown Royal bag.

The golden drawstrings were knotted so tightly I couldn't even peek inside. I eyed my short nails, decided I'd need something a little more pointed to tease the knot open, and headed for the kitchen. I found some steak knives in a block on the counter and used one to worrying the tip in between the strands of string.

I'd just gotten one loose when I heard the front door crash open. I froze in place for a moment, my eyes wide like a deer caught in a headlight. He was back! I had to get out of here!

I slipped the knife back into the block and considered what to do with the bag. There was no way I was getting it back into the office, and I couldn't just leave it out. That left taking it with me, and I could hope he wouldn't notice it was missing.

I unlocked the back door and opened it slowly, praying that it didn't make a loud noise. Whoever it was hadn't come into the kitchen yet but that could change in an instant. I slipped out and eased the door closed behind me.

The back yard was overgrown, the grass almost reaching its natural state. There was a shed but I wouldn't be getting anywhere near it without a machete. I eased myself around the corner of the house and found a gate so rusted, it would undoubtedly scream like a little girl in a haunted house if I tried to open it. That left going over it, rusty, pointy tops or not. I sighed at the thought of even touching it; I couldn't remember when I'd last had a tetanus shot.

For most people it might be easy to just hop over a four foot chain link fence with a two step start. At my height I'd need a pole and a running start. I looped the strings on the bag around my wrist and started pulling myself up, using the toes of my shoes to find holds in the diamond-shaped mesh of wire.

I'd just gotten one leg over the top when the back door slammed open with a crash. That sent me over the fence right then and there. I made it over and landed on the ground with a muted thud and no scratches. The only problem was my blouse snagged on one of the wires and ripped wide open across my front. Hell, it almost ripped the blouse off me. Terrific.

The sound of the tearing cloth was more than loud enough to be heard in the back yard so I leapt to my feet and hauled ass to where I'd parked on the street, ignoring the fact that I was exposed to the world if anyone looked. My hands were shaking so badly I almost dropped my keys as I pulled them from my pocket and unlocked the car door.

I threw myself in the driver's seat and started the car at the same time the scream of un-lubricated metal announced the opening of the side gate. I slammed the car into drive and lit out of the neighborhood even faster than Jake had half an hour ago. I could only hope he hadn't gotten a good look at my car.

Once I was out of the residential area, I set the bag in the passenger seat and grabbed my jacket from the backseat. After I slipped it on, I pulled my seat belt on. The last thing I wanted now was to be pulled over. The jacket was too warm but better than driving around town showing off the color of my bra.

My heart was finally starting to slow down when I realized there'd been no sign of Jake's car in his driveway or on the street.

* * * * *

I'd planned to slip unseen up to my room to change blouses as soon as I got back to the lodge but, of course, that was too much to ask for.

Parked next to the main entrance of the Lodge was Ty Walker's muscle car, and worse, he was perched on the trunk looking right at me as I pulled into the lot. Terrific.

I let a deep breath of frustration hiss out my nose and pulled into the slot beside him. Grabbing the liberated purple bag and my purse, I got out and locked my car.

Ty grinned lazily at me, his chin subtly sexy with dark stubble. "Hey. Am I invited to the party?" He nodded at the bag. "Crown Royal and me go way back."

I felt a smile tug the corners of my mouth up. A crystal clear image of Ty and I half naked on a rug in front of a fire popped into my mind, and my body reacted instantly to that image. I shook my head to clear it before I started to pant. "I haven't had that kind of party in a while." More like never, but I wasn't going to admit to being that much of a dweeb. "You're not waiting around for me, are you? I wasn't even planning on stopping by until a few minutes ago."

He hopped off his car and the suspension barely moved. He was dressed in the same tight jeans and black tee shirt he'd been wearing earlier and I once again found my gaze wandered down to take in his well-defined muscles.

If he minded being ogled it didn't show. If anything his grin was wider. "I thought I'd wander by and see if you've made plans for lunch."

Well, I'd planned on having a sandwich and looking in this mysterious bag, but that could wait. I'd have to be an idiot to turn him down. Ty in front of that rug came back to mind.

I smiled, intentionally showing off my dimples. "As a matter of fact I can pencil you in. What did you have in mind?"

"A picnic out on the lake. It just so happens I have a basket of various goodies."

I smiled. "You know how to sail? Sure, that sounds great. Let me go change into something more suitable to boating and I'll meet you back here in fifteen minutes."

The sound of a window above us opening captured my attention and I glanced up. My mom was leaning out from one of the windows in the second floor lounge and waving at me.

"Candy! Can you come up here for a minute?" Her eyes swung to Ty and her smile became sly. "I don't think I've met your friend. Ask him to come up, too."

I planted my hands on my hips and gave her 'the look' while I tapped one of my feet. I'd never been able to see anyone without her finding out faster than I'd like. The perils of living in a small town with people that liked to gossip. "Why don't you ask him yourself?" I asked tartly. "I'm sure he can hear you just fine."

My mom frowned and peered at me. "What are you wearing under your jacket?"

I looked down and realized I'd forgotten I was almost topless under my now gaping jacket and anyone who cared could see right down to my navel. With a partially muffled 'eeeep' I whipped my jacket closed and blushed furiously.

Ty's eyebrows had climbed to his brow but his smile looked pretty satisfied. "Yes, what are you wearing under that jacket, Candy?" he purred.

"Never you mind! I'll meet you and mother upstairs after I change." Without waiting for a response from either of them I ran inside and up to my room.

Only when I was safely in my room, with my back against the closed door, did I run my hands over my face. Jesus! Could I have embarrassed myself any worse? I'd practically flashed Ty!

I took another deep breath. Forget practically. With this little slip of a bra he'd gotten more than an eyeful of the girls. I'd just have to come up with an explanation. Or pretend it never happened. Yeah, that sounded much better.

The blouse went into the trash as Screamer stropped my legs, purring softly. I knelt and scratched her head.

"Screamie, I just flashed Ty in front of my mother. She'll think I'm a slut. Hell, he'll think I'm a slut."

Screamer didn't seem to think it was such a big deal, apparently, because she just continued to demand love. I gave it to her and then clothed myself in my best black two-piece swimsuit, black shorts, and a dark blue tee shirt. My armor restored, I left to face the music.

* * * * *

I found Ty and my mother sitting at a window seat in the upstairs lounge looking out the wide windows at Lake Tahoe. I could see the boats criss-crossing the lake, with skiers trailing rooster tails of water behind them. The beach was also just visible, crowded with people enjoying the sun. I wondered how many of the families taking advantage of the sun knew they were laying where a dead body had been just a few hours before. I shuddered and forced the grim thought out of my mind.

Mom had a sly smile ghosting around the edges of her lips and was sipping on a glass of iced tea while she skewered Ty with those all-knowing eyes. Ty was leaning back in his chair telling her something. His expression was polite and amused. If mom intimidated him it didn't show. I set my purse on the table and sat down.

"I see you two have gotten comfortable. It's probably too late, but Ty meet Linda, my Mom."

Ty smiled at me. "Your mom was just telling me how quiet it's been around here." His eyes didn't stray any lower than my face. Good boy; pretend it never happened.

Mom laughed. "That's almost right. I was telling him how quiet it's been in your life. Since the divorce."

I rolled my eyes and shook my head. "Pots, kettles, so forth, and so on. Thanks Mom, but I think I can handle this." I narrowed my eyes. "Unless you have some more recent experience that might shed some light on the issue."

She looked at her watch and stood up. "Oh, dear. I hate to rush off but I have an appointment." I thought not.

She held out her hand and Ty took it. "Tyrone, it's so good to see you again. I expect you to join us here for dinner soon. Tomorrow?" Her tone was a mixture of pleasure and firmness.

"How could I possibly decline?" he asked rhetorically. "I'll be here. Seven PM? Formal?"

"Seven is fine," Mom said. "Come as you like. I intend to be casual." Her eyes swept over me. "You two have a good time... boating." Her eyes twinkled at the last. She must have revised her opinion of Ty since high school. With graceful strides she left the room without a backward glance.

The silence in her wake was deafening. Ty raised an eyebrow at me and shrugged.

"Is it just me," I asked dryly, "or is my entire family rushing off on unexplained appointments every time you show up?"

He smiled. "They do seem to be busy people. I think they like me."

"What's not to like?" I glanced away for a moment. "Look, about earlier-"

"Did something happen earlier?" he interrupted smoothly, his eyes twinkling. "I must've missed it. I'm sure it wasn't important."

I shook my head, amused. "I'm pretty sure you didn't miss it, but thank you for being a gentleman."

His teeth gleamed against the backdrop of his darkly tanned face. "Oh, let's not get carried away. I certainly don't want to get a reputation as a gentleman."

I laughed. "You seem like one to me, so you'll just have to live with it. Then again, maybe I'm just out of touch. What are you, then?"

His smile grew wider. "I'm not into labels. When you figure out what I am I'm sure you'll let me know." He finished his tea and stood up. "Ready?"

I stood. "Ready."

* * * * *

Blue Sky Marina looked like it could've been transplanted from somewhere on the California coast. Rows of piers served hundreds of boats, large and small, powered and sail. They also did a booming business in jet skis. White was the predominant color but the sails spanned the spectrum.

I climbed out of Ty's car and took a deep breath. The air tasted of the lake, the surrounding forest, and diesel fuel. That was part of the increase in population around the lake I could've done without. People bustled down the piers and boats moved steadily in and out of the marina.

Ty gestured at the marina restaurant. "I need to pick up the keys to the boat and the picnic basket. Come on in and you can pick the wine."

I nodded and followed him in. The interior of the restaurant was dim, more like a bar than an eatery. The floor was made of polished planks and the decor leaned heavily toward the nautical. The walls were festooned with articles from various ships: pictures, life rings, etc.

It only took a moment before someone in one of the booths waved to us. Ty returned the gesture and led me over. The light in the booth was better thanks to a small lamp mounted to the wall.

Sitting there smiling at us was a man who looked to be staring down the wrong end of forty with a nose so flat it looked like someone had taken a skillet to it. I'd seen boxers with nicer schnozzles. His hair was light brown, liberally salted with gray, his eyes mud colored. He was casually, but well, dressed in slacks and a polo shirt.

Ty gestured to him. "Candy, this is Damien Manchester. Sir, this is Candice Kane."

Manchester smiled warmly and held out a hand. His grip was firm and dry. "A pleasure to finally meet you, my dear. I saw you in passing at last year's dinner but didn't get the opportunity to meet you." He glanced at Ty. "Or perhaps it would be more honest to say that I just didn't get around to it. My loss, I assure you. Tyrone has spoken quite highly of you. Please, take a moment to join me before he slips away with you."

I smiled back and slid into the booth. Ty sat down next to me, his leg pressed firmly against mine. That set off an unexpected flutter in my stomach that I firmly told to stay put.

"I remember you most vividly," I said. "You cut quite the dashing image in your sailing togs. Your wife was very lucky."

He laughed. "You mean I looked like Thurston Howell the third? It's both kind and diplomatic of you to say so. Elsa was smiling because I looked like an idiot and every so often she'd lean over and tell me so. Still, you're right that I'm lucky to have a wife like her. Not many people would put up with my sense of humor."

"At least you didn't look like Gilligan," I quipped.

He laughed and shook his head. "A woman with a sense of humor. Treat her well or else you'll regret it, my young friend," he told Ty.

"I'm afraid my sense of humor is much lower than hers," Ty smirked. "I'll be on my best behavior, sir."

Manchester waggled a finger at him. "See that you do." His expression sobered and he focused his attention back on me. "I understand you found Steven."

My smile faded at the reminder of the dead man. I nodded. "I did. You were his partner, weren't you? I'm so sorry for your loss."

He nodded. "That and more. He and I have been... were best friends since we were in college together. Part of me still hasn't accepted that he won't be coming through the door any minute. I can't believe he's gone. His death has devastated Elsa and me." He tried to smile. "I tried to get her to come out and meet you, but she's still too distraught."

A pang of sympathy shot through me. "You shouldn't let us keep you, then. She needs you. Go home."

"You need me enough for the keys to the boat," he said as he stood up. Ty stood up with him. He pulled a plain key ring from his pocket and set it in Ty's hand. "She's a good ship. Bring her home in one piece or don't come back." His smile was a ghost but the attempt at humor was evident.

Ty grinned. "I promise. It's not like I could just sail off into the sunset anyway; Tahoe is a lake, and we're on the wrong side anyhow."

Manchester laughed again, clapping Ty on the shoulder. The two of them shook hands and I rose to my feet as well. "I realize this is none of my business, but what about the project you were working on with Mister Armstrong. Will it be going forward without him?"

All humor fled from his face and he stuck out his jaw pugnaciously. "Raising the Tahoe might have been Steven's idea originally, but it's become my dream, too. With or without Steven beside me, the S.S. Tahoe will be raised and refurbished. It's Steven's legacy, and I'll see it through, come hell or high water."

He took a deep breath and seemed to shake himself. A smile touched his lips again. "Forgive me. I'm still on unsettled ground. You two have a nice trip and I'll pick up the keys from you tomorrow, Tyrone." He touched two fingers to his temple and bowed a notch before turning and walking out the front door.

"He'll do it, too," Ty said. "And he'll spit in the eye of anyone that tells him he can't." He glanced at me. "Shall we pick up our lunch, Milady?"

I smiled lopsidedly. "Milady, am I? I better keep an eye on you, you smooth devil."

"That won't help," he assured me. "I'll only make my move when you aren't looking."

* * * * *

It was two PM by the time we picked up a picnic basket and a chilled bottle of Chardonnay. The breeze was starting to pick up from the south now that the afternoon was upon us and I was glad my hair was still tied back.

Ty led me down one of the piers and stopped in front of a big, turquoise blue sailboat. It looked as fast and sleek as an otter. Her name was Naughty Monkey. That made me laugh.

He climbed aboard and I handed him the food before scrambling nimbly aboard. While he unlocked the cabin and got the food settled, I examined the controls and sails. The sails were powered so we wouldn't have to heave and ho. The controls were modern and well provided for.

"Where shall we go, Milady?" Ty asked as he came out of the cabin. "West to Emerald Bay? North to deep water?"

"Let's hit deep water," I decided. "We can drop sail and enjoy the peace and quiet."

"Your wish is my command," he said with an elaborate bow.

I stowed my purse and helped him get the sails set and us underway. The Monkey picked up the freshening wind and shot into the lake like an eager horse leaping to the gallop.

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