Vision of Darkness (D.I.E. Squadron Book 1), page 1
Ever since John “Cappy” Putnam’s doc handed down the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, he’d spent the better part of the past year waiting to die. The grim reaper had his number and he was next in line, though this wasn’t exactly how he imagined it would happen. Cappy figured his arthritic legs would give out as he walked down the stairs and he’d take a nasty tumble. Or his old heart would just stop pumping in his sleep and he’d go quietly into that dark night. Or maybe his brain, rotting away in his skull, would forget to tell his tar-coated lungs to breathe.
Never figured on being murdered.
But he kind of liked the idea. Blaze-of-glory and all that.
Just too damn bad nobody in town would listen to him before it happened.
The porch’s weathered floorboards creaked as Cappy settled into his old rocker and laid a rifle across his lap, a Winchester given to him by his father when he was a boy. He had planned to pass it down to his two boys when they came of age, but John Jr. showed no interest in hunting and Wade, bless him, was too damn slow to be trusted with a butter knife, not to mention a rifle. So here sat the old gun, waiting with him. Come to think of it, it was a perfect ending for them both.
He scratched a match on the side of his chair. The flame hissed and flickered across a face that he knew had never been handsome and that had only gotten uglier with age. His final cigar fired to life between his lips and he puffed on it until the end smoldered and sweet smelling smoke curled into the night air. His sons had been afraid the cigars would end him. Oh, if only they knew how wrong they were.
Wouldn’t be long now.
Cappy inhaled, sighed, and fell into the comfortable habit of smoking as if he had never quit. Guilt nipped for breaking his promise to his boys but—well, hell, a man had the right to enjoy one last victory dance.
Death was coming, surrounding him. One if by land and two if by sea. He smirked at that thought.
Soon footsteps would pound up the wood stairs beside the lighthouse, coming up from the beach. Soon they’d ghost around the edge of his yard, slipping ever closer, but he refused to run. He may be old, his joints may be rusted, and yes, perhaps he had lost a few marbles over the years like everyone in town claimed, but he’d be damned before he let them silence him without putting up a fight.
Oh, he’d miss the keeper’s dwelling, the lighthouse, and the Green Lady, his constant and malicious ghost. Imagined she was off somewhere dancing a happy jig to know she’d soon be rid of him. He could see her almost, up on the lighthouse catwalk, dancing. The night had gone mute, too late in the year for crickets, too chilly for other nocturnal creatures to scurry far from their homes, and her laughter whispered over the grounds. The trouble she’d cause once he died—
Well, not much he could do about it now.
A pair of headlights punctured the blanket of night at the bottom of the hill, pinpricks at first. Ah, so they’d chosen to arrive by car instead. Should have figured on that.
Cappy scratched at his beard, continued to rock back and forth, back and forth. His old heart stayed calm, gnarled hands steady on the Winchester. Going down with the ship was every captain’s dream. His vessel was a land-bound lighthouse, but that made him no less proud to be going down with her tonight.
He smiled and jabbed the cigar into his mouth. Headlights played over the porch. Two vehicles. He pushed his creaky joints to stand and readied the rifle. The crew had finally come for him. Be damned if he met his fate sitting down.
A YEAR LATER
Alex Brennan stopped his car for what appeared to be the only traffic light in the tiny town of—wherever the hell he was. He squinted through the windshield at the ornate blue and white sign posted at the edge of the road.
Welcome to Three Churches, Maine.
Huh. So there was something out here in the middle of BFE, Maine after all. Not much, but something. He’d started to wonder if he’d driven to the ends of the earth as the coastal highway twisted around insane curves and hugged the edges of wild cliffs that plunged into oceanic oblivion. Apparently, he hadn’t gone that far yet.
He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel in tune to The Rolling Stones and studied the epitome of Main Street, U.S.A. with its iron lampposts and flower baskets that probably rioted with color in the spring. Laughing cardboard skeletons decorated the mom-n-pop storefronts. Town workers strung an orange and black banner across the intersection that promoted a haunted hayride attraction on Milbridge Road opening Friday.
The song on the radio segued into Bob Seger, and the traffic light remained red.
Alex leaned forward, looked both ways. The only visible vehicles sat in parking slots in front of the cinder-block diner to his immediate right. Jack-o-lanterns grinned at passersby from the diner’s front window and an orange hand-painted sign proclaimed they had the best pumpkin pie in the county.
His stomach grumbled. The light at the intersection continued to glow red.
Okay. He could take a hint.
He hit the signal and guided his Lexus into an empty space in front of the diner, marked with plain lettering over the front door as Mae’s.
No parking meters, he noticed even as he reached for the spare change he kept in the ashtray. He shook his head, let the change drop.
What kind of creepy Stepford Wives place didn’t have parking meters?
His cell phone trilled as he shut off the car. He dug it out of his coat pocket and checked the screen: Theo. Definitely not what he needed right now. With a sigh, he silenced his brother’s call and returned the cell to his pocket.
Alex slid from the close confines of his car and breathed deep, enjoying the bite of fall as he shook out his cramped legs. The air had a clean crispness here that it lacked in the city. One thing this rinky-dink town had going for it, he supposed. It smelled like a holiday candle, leaves and pine and freshly baked pumpkin pie that beckoned him into the diner.
He stepped through the doors into a blast of warm air and hearty conversation. Dishware clinked, people laughed, and a group of men groaned, drawing his gaze to the TV on the wall behind the counter. The Patriots had just fumbled the ball. From the frustrated looks on the men’s faces, it was nothing new. Had the Pats been doing that badly? Alex had no clue and he—
Jesus, he liked football.
Wow. He rubbed his unshaved jaw, walloped by the realization of something he should have known without a second thought. He’d been tied up with the O’Shaughnessy case for too long. Alex Locke, his alter ego, the thug he’d been living as for the past two years, enjoyed cars and drugs and women more than sports. Alex Brennan, his real self, liked chilling with a bottle of beer and a group of close friends in front of the Sunday afternoon game.
How could he forget that about himself?
Alex considered sitting near the TV, but then he might have to make small talk. He chose a stool at the end of the yellow counter beside a glass case that displayed the diner’s baked goods. He grabbed up a plastic coated menu from between a set of salt and pepper grinders and a sheet of paper fluttered to the floor.
Missing poster. It looked old, its corners crinkled, the white paper stained from so many greasy fingers. Alex spread it out on the counter, studied the description and faded color photo.
Sixteen years old, missing from Bar Harbor since August twenty-ninth of last year. Five-five, one-twenty, baby blues, blonde hair streaked liberally with black highlights, a tattoo of a bird across her lower back, navel and nose rings.
Runaway, he guessed. He’d seen many posters just like this one in the city. Pampered girls that
Well. Nothing good happened to them, that was for sure.
This girl looked like trouble. Even so young, she had the body of a porn star and dressed to showcase it in a tight, low-cut tank and tiny shorts. She gazed at the camera with sex in her kohl-lined eyes, one hip jutting in a come-hither sort of way. Cocky. Insolent. Much like he, himself, had been as a teenager before the military jaded him.
Alex wondered if they ever found her and, before his eyes, Lila VanBuran’s face began to melt off the page, wax-like, dripping onto his hand in fleshy globs.
Plop. Plop. Plop.
One pretty blue eye drooped like a stroke victim’s, and then the other, and then her bow of a mouth wilted as her skin slithered off a grinning white skull—
He dropped the poster and pressed his fingers into his eyes. He did not see that. It was nothing but his exhausted, highway-hypnotized mind playing tricks.
Get a grip, man.
He took a breath, grabbed the menu and perused the selections, careful not to look at the poster again. Just tired and hungry, that’s all. He needed calories, something fried and swimming in gravy. Country fried steak looked good. Potatoes, mashed. Side of corn on the cob and of course a slice of the purportedly famous pumpkin pie. Maybe two. If he couldn’t eat them both, he’d take a slice for the road. This joint had decent prices, so even if he did eat both slices now, he could still—
“Emma, did you hear? There was another accident up at the lighthouse.”
Distracted from the menu, Alex looked toward the furtive voice and saw two women chatting in the booth nearest his seat. He couldn’t say what it was about them that caught his attention, whether it was the dark tone their conversation seemed to have taken or something else, but he tuned in. People flung gossip around so carelessly that it often proved to be the best source of information.
Not that you’re here to gather information, his inner cynic reminded. He was on leave from the DEA. A “vacation” as his boss had called it, though they both knew otherwise.
The woman who had spoken wore a floral print coat that resembled upholstery. She dropped two cubes of sugar into her coffee cup then leaned over the table toward her companion, Emma, a fine-boned fidgety woman, and lowered her voice. “One of those poor workers up there chopped his hand clear off.”
“No!” Emma said, wide-eyed.
“Um-hm. My girl Betsy treated him at the clinic herself before they flew him out to Portland.”
“Horrible. Just horrible. All those accidents up there…” Emma tsked and shook her head.
“Like with nutty ol’ Cappy Putnam last year,” Flower Coat said, shaking her spoon before dipping it into her mug to stir her coffee. “I’m still not convinced he killed himself. How could he have hanged himself from the tower when he was so full of arthritis he could barely walk?”
“It’s a shame. He was such a good man before he started getting sick.” Emma shivered. “Oh, let’s not talk of it anymore. Speaking of arthritis, how’s Henry been doing?”
“He has his days…”
Alex tuned them out as one of the men watching the football game whooped and drew his attention. The man elbowed through his friends to get to the counter, and they let him without complaint.
Ah, the big fish in this small pond.
In other words, inner cynic chimed in again, an asshole.
The guy was a tall blond and packing some heat—Alex saw the telltale bulge of a piece under his half-zipped plaid coat—but he couldn’t be military or cop. Anyone with formal handgun training knew to keep their weapon easily accessible. If there ever came an occasion for Big Fish to use that gun, he’d be a goner before he got his coat unzipped.
“Are you all right?” As the new voice spoke, a shadow fell over Alex’s menu and he tensed in an automatic, trained reaction that had him ready to spring off his stool into battle.
He drew a breath, let it out, and forced his muscles to loosen. An effort. In his experience, unexpected shadows were never a good thing.
“Uh, hello? Are you all right?” the voice asked again and a hand waved in front of his face.
“Yeah, I—” He looked up at the dark-haired waitress standing on the other side of the counter, ready to give the first lame excuse that popped to mind—he wasn’t about to say he was probably a traumatized, emotional wreck on the verge of hysteria—but lost his train of thought when she smiled. She was medium height with a pear-shaped body that strained her polo shirt and jeans in all the right places and brought to mind twisted, sex-soaked sheets. She had her hair tucked under a ball cap, but from the wisps falling out around her face, he could tell the color was so dark it verged on black.
Pretty. Even his inner cynic, that snide voice always in the back of his mind making him doubt himself, thought so. He almost smiled, felt it quirking the side of his mouth. So rarely did they agree on anything. “Yeah, I’m good.”
Her bright blue gaze said she doubted that, but her smile never wavered. “You look like you could use some coffee.”
With that voice, like a velvet caress, she was just the right mix of sweet and sultry. Now all she had to do was grab him by the shirt and drag him over the counter for a romp in the kitchen and every fantasy he’d ever had as a teenager would be fulfilled.
“So, what about it?” she said and held up a coffee pot. “You want some?”
The jolt of lust was immediate and mildly embarrassing since it caused his breath to catch.
Coffee, Al. She’s talking about coffee.
Trying for nonchalance, he turned over the mug sitting upside-down on a saucer in front of him. Still, as she poured the coffee, he couldn’t help but let his gaze drop to her chest on the pretense of reading her nametag. Nice.
“Thanks … Pru.” He raised the mug in a salute then took a sip. Hot and strong. As the coffee hit his tongue, he could already feel the caffeine zinging into his bloodstream and sighed. “I do need this.”
“Been on the road a while, huh?”
He thought about it. Ten, twelve hours? Yeah, seemed about right.
“I can always tell the weary travelers from everyone else,” Pru said. “Mostly because I know everyone else.” She set the coffee pot aside and smiled at him again.
Alex felt a stirring in his gut, the warm, heavy sensation of arousal, his libido waking up from the slumber Trisha had put it in. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked at his ex-lover and wanted her like he now wanted this waitress he just met. Come to think of it, had he ever? Trisha was just another part of his life undercover, a convenient blonde bimbo to help solidify his identity in the minds of the criminal underworld.
“So where are you headed?” Pru asked.
Hah. Good question. His only goal had been to get out of the city when he packed up a bag and his camp gear yesterday and started driving. He’d originally headed west with the vague notion of driving out to Montana to visit Nick, his best friend, but he’d gotten as far as Albany, New York and had an inexplicable urge to go north. So he’d traveled up through the Adirondacks to Burlington, cut across Vermont into Maine, rambled through Bangor heading toward Bar Harbor, then hooked north again on US-1. Even after driving all over the half acre of hell known as New England, he still had no clue where he was going.
How was it possible to know right where you were on a map, yet still feel lost?
“Just passing through.” Wanting a distraction, he tapped the missing poster still laid out on the counter. “Did anyone ever find her?”
Pru did a double-take. “Wow, that’s old. Where did you find that?”
“Stuffed between the pages of the menu.”
“That explains it. Nobody around here uses the menus much.”
“So they found her?” Alex asked, surprised by the flutter of hope in his chest.
Yeah right, inner cynic scoffed. The bastard was speaking up a lot today, but he had a point. Innocence was a ruse. The hand of evil had long, bony fingers and nothing and no one went completely untouched. Not even this serene little town.
“No, I don’t think they ever did. Her parents even offered a reward.” Pru looked at the two women in the booth, who had stopped talking and now watched them with rapt interest. She sighed, part annoyance, part resignation. “In case you haven’t noticed already, gossip is like air around here. The general consensus was that she ran away from home and didn’t want to be found.”
At the end of the counter, Big Fish called Pru’s name, but she ignored him and took a pad and pen from the pocket of her apron. She scribbled with the pen, muttered a soft oath, and touched her tongue to the tip in a way that made Alex go instantly hard.
Christ, that gesture should be illegal. He tried to shift to a more comfortable, discreet position on the stool. Pru scribbled again and, satisfied her pen would work, sent him another bright smile.
“Okay, Boston, you want something to eat with that coffee? We have the best pumpkin pie for miles.”
Alex prayed the counter had enough of an overhang that she wouldn’t see how much her gesture had affected him. “Yeah, uh, I’ll start off with a piece. When I saw the sign out front, I couldn’t ignore it. Pie’s my weakness.” And, apparently, so were dark-haired, blue-eyed waitresses.
“You’re in for a treat then.”
She bent over to remove a pie from the glass case. Her ass was round and lush, made for a man’s hands to grab, and he noticed he wasn’t the only male at the counter looking at it. A surge of protectiveness washed through his blood.
Jesus, he really had to get a grip. She wasn’t his to protect.
“How’d you know I’m from Boston?” He watched her slice the pie with quick, efficient movements and then slide one piece onto a plate.
“The accent,” she said and set the plate in front of him.
TONYA BURROWS SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Reckless Honor_HORNETHonor ReclaimedCode of Honor (HORNET)Wilde Nights in Paradise
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