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Jaci Matlock could look at crime scene photos by the hour and never once get bored. But after a half hour in a Naples, Florida, art gallery with her mother, she was all but climbing the walls. Even the flute of bubbly the gallery owner had pressed into her hand didn't help, though she'd have hated to face the evening without it.
Her mother stopped in front of an abstract that looked as if it had been painted by a menopausal chimpanzee. She stared at it for a minute. "I hate to imagine what the artist was thinking when she painted that."
"Another night of reruns?" Jaci offered.
"Or when will my daughter come for a real visit?"
"I'm standing right next to you. That feels like a real visit to me."
"Two days and one night is not a real visit. Are you sure you can't stay longer?"
"If I did, I'd be rambling through the house alone. You're leaving for a month's cruise Wednesday."
"You could use a vacation yourself. We could go to Europe for a couple of weeks when I get back, just the two of us. Paris is lovely in the fall."
"Or we could have lunch at that new French restaurant you were telling me about. I can possibly spring for the tip."
"I'm not kidding, Jaci. You spend far too much time wallowing in the morbid. Clarence and I could give you the trip as an early present for earning your graduate degree."
Her mother's husband, Clarence Harding III, could definitely afford it. And to give the old fart credit where credit was due, he was generous with his darling wife, Evelyn and Jaci as well.
But Jaci was far too independent—and stub-born—to live on her stepfather's handouts. Thankfully, her father had started a college fund for her before he'd died. That, a part-time job waiting tables and the small inheritance she'd received from her dad's parents had let her earn her undergraduate and Master's degrees with a minimum of loans.
Almost. She still had one major hurdle to pass. "If I don't complete my thesis project this semester, I won't be getting the degree," she said, omitting the fact that spending two weeks stalking Paris boutiques with her mother would be far more punishing than any assignment Professor Greeley could dream up.
"I know you have your paper to write, but surely you could work on that just as well in Paris."
"It's not a paper. It's a project." They'd had this conversation before, and if her mother didn't consider forensics an F word instead of a science, she'd have remembered that.
Actually, the project should already be half-finished, but Jaci had run into a major complication. After six years of literally getting away with murder, the killer in her research crime had found religion and confessed to everything.
The family of the slain woman was thrilled to have closure. Jaci was back to square one as far as her project was concerned. Not a lot of hypothesizing she could do on a case that was solved by the killer's confession, and she hadn't found another cold case that spurred her interest the way that one had.
"Oh, look, there's Mrs. Baxter and her son, Matthew. He's a surgeon," Evelyn crooned. "Nice looking—and single."
Which meant her mother had dreams of match-making dancing in her head. Jaci sized up the guy as he approached with an overweight, middle-aged woman dripping diamonds. He was Caucasian, just under six feet, medium build, dark hair, lighter mustache. No visible tattoos or distinguishing marks.
She groaned silently. Maybe she had spent too many hours buried in evidence. Actually, the guy was cute, but then so were beagles. Dogs required a lot less energy than a relationship, and she didn't even have time for them.
She half listened while her mother and Mrs. Baxter exchanged greetings, then met Matthew's eyes briefly when her mom made the introductions.
Jaci put out her hand, and from the second his closed around hers, she was mesmerized—by the painting hanging just beyond his right shoulder.
"It's the Santiago house."
Matthew let go of her hand. "Excuse me?"
"That painting," she said, walking around him to stand in front of it. "It's the house where the Santiago family was living when they disappeared."
"I'm sorry. Were they friends of yours?"
"Not likely. I wasn't even born when they went missing."
"My daughter's studying to become a forensics scientist," her mother said, almost apologetically.
"That's interesting," Matthew said. "How did you choose that for a career?"
"It kind of chose me." She didn't bother to explain; her attention was focused on the painting. She barely managed a "nice to meet you" when the surgeon and his mother moved on.
"You certainly scared him off fast enough," Evelyn said. "I'm assuming that was your purpose in fawning over that macabre painting."
"It's not just a painting. That's the house on Cape Diablo."
Her mother stepped back, tilted her head slightly and studied the picture. "What's Cape Diablo?"
"One of the mangrove islands off the coast. It's not that far from here."
"The bougainvillea looks as if it's bleeding all over that decaying villa. It's repulsive."
So were the facts. A wealthy but scandalous drug runner, his wife and two children had disappeared from the house and the island thirty years ago. The only clue to what might have happened to them was splattered blood found in the boathouse.
The crime had fascinated Jaci since she was eleven and had heard her father and his partner talking about it one night when they'd thought she was asleep.
"I can't imagine why an artist would want to create something so morbid," Evelyn said.
"That's nothing compared with what you hear and see on the nightly news."
Her mother put her hand on Jaci's shoulder. "You are so much like your father."
The hint of melancholy in her voice surprised Jaci almost as much as the mention of her father did. He'd been dead eleven years and they'd been divorced for three before that. Her mother probably hadn't mentioned his name a dozen times since the divorce, and never since his funeral.
All Jaci had known of the facts surrounding the divorce was that it had broken her dad's heart. It had broken hers, as well. And Clarence Harding III's entrance into the picture so soon after hadn't made matters any better.
Jaci stepped closer to the painting and studied the artist's signature, "W. St. Clair." It was almost hidden in the trunk of a mangrove in the bottom right corner of the canvas.
Her mother had already moved on. Jaci joined her in front of a painting of a blue heron perched on the bow of a sinking sailboat. "Are you familiar with the work of W. St. Clair?" Jaci asked.
"No. Is that who painted that horrid picture?"
"Then I don't plan to become familiar with his work."
His? Maybe. But Jaci had the feeling the painting had been done by a woman. She wasn't sure why.
"Do you have a pen?"
Her mother fished a silver ballpoint from her Prada handbag and handed it to her. Jaci scribbled the artist's name on the napkin she'd been holding under her champagne glass, then slipped the napkin into her skirt pocket as she returned the pen.
"You surely aren't thinking of buying that painting," her mother said. "The house looks as if it came straight from a nightmare."
"On my budget? Are you kidding? I'm just curious about the artist. But the Santiago disappearance would make a fascinating subject for my culminating project. And it's nearby," she added, thinking aloud more than making conversation.
"You wouldn't actually visit Cape Fear, would you?"
"Cape Diablo, Mother, and there's no reason not to go there. It's a nice quiet, secluded island amid ten thousand others in the Gulf of Mexico."
"I don't like it. In fact, I'm getting a really bad feeling about the place."
So was Jaci. It was probably the crimson paint splattered like fresh blood. But she was desperate for a project, and the murder case was still as much a mystery as it had been thirty years ago.
Besides, there was nothing to fear on the island—nothing but isolation and an aging mansion that likely held deadly secrets hidden within its crumbling walls. All within an hour of the mainland by a fast boat.
The night hadn't been a waste, after all.