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Trent Fordham took the turn off Pacific Coast Highway in his Porsche at nearly one hundred miles per hour. It was after two in the morning, so no cars were around. He rarely had the opportunity to see what his baby would do. He floored it and the needle shot up to one-twenty.
"Slow down," screeched Courtney from the seat beside him. "You'll get another ticket."
His wife was right, he silently conceded. He could not afford to be stopped tonight. It might result in a sobriety test. Not that he'd been drinking… but it was best to be cautious. After all, he was now a CEO of a company. Not a major player—yet—but he was well on his way up the ladder of success. Another speeding ticket was the last thing he needed.
He eased off the accelerator to an audible sigh of relief from his wife and watched the needle drop. They drove in silence—what was there to say?—up to the gated entrance to their exclusive community. He slowed, expecting Jerome, the night guard, to wave as they passed. Instead, the guard signaled for him to stop.
"What's up?" Trent asked.
"The police are waiting for you."
"Why?" He wasn't worried; this had to be some mix-up.
Jerome shrugged. "Wouldn't say." He shrugged again, his voice apologetic. "I had to let them in."
"Of course." Trent tried to sound unfazed, but a yellow flag of caution shot up in his brain. "Thanks for the heads up." That's why he tipped the guards handsomely at Christmas—just for times like this.
He roared through the ornate, twenty-foot-tall gates. He sped by mansions lit up like national monuments. What was going on? he wondered silently.
"It can't be Timmy. The Scouts would have called my cell or yours. Something's wrong at Surf's Up," Courtney said, sounding only slightly worried.
"No way," Trent told her. "Security would have contacted me." His mind was whirling like one of those dervishes he'd read about. Why would the police be waiting for him in the middle of the night?
He stopped at the small park area. The green belt had created open space between mansions that took up most of each lot, leaving little grassy areas. During the day, nannies would be there with children and maids walking neighborhood dogs would be strolling along the meandering flagstone paths.
"What are you doing?" Courtney cried.
Trent turned off the sports car and climbed out, saying, "That was pretty awesome shit we were smoking. I want to hide my jacket in the trunk. It probably reeks."
"You were smoking," Courtney said, "with your buddies. I—"
Trent tuned her out. Courtney should talk! She was high on pain pills. All day; every day. He shared a spliff or two with the guys on weekends only.
Bile had risen in his throat; he needed air. He tossed the jacket into the trunk and looked up at the stars. He forced himself to inhale a few deep, calming breaths. The Milky Way slipped in and out, back and forth like a kaleidoscope. He tried lowering his head, then sucking in more air. Better, but not much.
"Oh, my God!" Courtney cried her voice high-pitched. "Maybe something did happen to Timmy They might not have been able to reach our cells. You know, a tower outage or something."
Trent stood up and rushed back to the driver's side. Their son was with the Boy Scouts at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park for something called a Roar and Snore sleepover. The kids stayed up half the night to watch the lions feed, then they slept in tents.
A thought hit him, kind of wobbly, fading away almost before he could grasp it. The Scouts required all sorts of emergency information before they took the kids anywhere. He was as sure as he could be when he was this mellow that nothing had happened to his son. "Don't worry, honey. Timmy is fine."
"I hope so."
"Unless," he said as he put the Porsche into gear, "they caught him with dope again."
"Impossible! You know he's being bullied. Those kids planted it in his backpack. None of those little monsters are Scouts."
"Right. So you said." Trent wasn't buying that bridge. He'd been Timmy's age not so long ago. True, his son was just eleven and Trent had been older before he'd first experimented. But today's kids were getting into trouble at a younger age.
The problem with Timothy Grant Fordham wasn't experimenting with drugs. His son was a wimp. How could he grow up in a family who made a fortune from surf and skateboard equipment and not even be able to ride a boogie board? Timmy only used his skateboard when Trent insisted.
The kid should be a surfer or least a skateboard champ, the way Trent had been at the same age, if his mother didn't do her best to make him a sissy. The kid wanted piano lessons. Now whose idea was that? Courtney's. She was a frustrated singer who'd sung backup for a local band before he'd met her. She had music in her blood and claimed Timmy did, as well.
Trent rounded the corner and forced his mind back to the problem. The police cruiser was parked right in front of his house, which, like all the other houses around, was still lit up even though it was well after midnight.
Maybe Timmy had been caught with drugs again. Perhaps the Scout leaders had found his stash and called the police. The Scouts did not like having their name dragged through the muck, so it seemed unlikely that they had called the cops.
Then he noticed the panda car belonged to the Costa Mesa police. Newport Beach patrol cars had ocean blue stylized italic lettering on the sides. Very beachy—for cop cars. Timmy was in San Diego County. If there'd been a problem, the Newport Beach police would have contacted him. Wouldn't they? They lived in Newport, not the lower-middle-class Costa Mesa where Trent had grown up. It bordered Newport but was worlds away financially, socially.
Trent pulled to a stop in his driveway near the rear of the police car and got out. A uniformed officer stepped out of the driver's side of the cruiser while a man in a sports jacket emerged from the passenger side.
"Mr. Fordham?" asked the officer.
"Yes?" Keep it together, Trent warned himself. "Is something the matter?"
"Could we go inside?" This from the suit. Trent assumed he was a detective.
Trent leaned into the Porsche, turned off the ignition and switched off the headlights. Courtney was already out of the car and waiting near him. Tears clouded her dark eyes. She cried so damn easily. Once he'd found it touching. Now was not the time to bawl. Something was really wrong. He needed to be firing on all cylinders, which he wasn't, thanks to the heavy-duty shit he'd shared with his buddies earlier.
"T-Timmy." Courtney's lips quivered around the kid's name. "My son…" Tears gushed and Trent put his arm around her, knowing the meds she took often triggered crying jags. She collapsed against him, sobbing softly.
"Mrs. Fordham, this isn't about your son."
Courtney lifted her head. "Really? Timmy's all right?"
"As far as I know," the detective assured her.
There was something ominous about the way the man responded. It was as if the guy thought they should know why he was there. Trent was nervous, which was unusual when he was high. He sucked in a deep breath and held it in his lungs to clear his head. He let it out slowly so no one would notice.
They walked up the flagstone path to the massive double doors that led into the house. For a second, Trent wondered what they thought. The place was impressive, he had to admit, but it wasn't anything compared with the Pelican Point mansion where they'd attended the party tonight. Trent hoped to move there—just as soon as his parents' estate went through probate and he received his share.
If the economy tanked any more, he'd need the money from the estate to keep the company his father started afloat. And pay the mortgage on this house. The cops probably didn't envy him. No doubt they were glad they didn't have this overhead.
Trent unlocked the door and disarmed the security system. The cloying scent of too many roses bombarded his nostrils. Courtney insisted on having five dozen white roses arranged in a crystal vase in the entry hall each week even though he'd told her to cut back. Above the spacious marble entry a vaulted ceiling rose to the second floor. Dead in the center of the foyer was the spectacular floral arrangement on an antique table.
He took Courtney's hand and led the group into the spacious living room that was rarely used. He punched the control panel on the wall to make the low-level lighting in the room brighter.
Trent settled Courtney on one of three sofas that faced a fireplace befitting a castle. The men took chairs nearby. The detective settled back, but the uniformed officer teetered on the edge of the silk chair that some fancy decorator had found, as if the officer believed his gabardine slacks would snag the delicate fabric.
Courtney suddenly began to sob loudly. Now what? Trent wondered.
"Honey, they said Timmy is okay. Stop crying."
"Th-this… is b-bad news. I—I can tell."
"I'm afraid your wife is correct," the detective said in a level voice.
The words were like a shard of glass entering Trent's spongy brain. This reminded him of the night a little over a year ago when he'd received the telephone call that his father's plane had crashed, killing Trent's father and stepmother. Allison's death was no loss, but Trent had been devastated that his father—his idol—was no longer around to guide him.
"I understand you're next of kin to Hayley Fordham."
It took a second for the words to register. He'd always thought of Hayley as "the step," never his next of anything, but he realized the death of his father and Hayley's mother meant that he was Hayley's closest relative except for her aunt Meg.
"Oh, no," wailed Courtney. "Has Hayley been in an accident?"
Trent didn't have much use for his stepsister beyond her value as a designer for Surf's Up. That role had taken on greater significance when Hayley's mother Allison had been killed with Trent's father in the plane crash.
He had to admit Hayley had been instrumental in aligning their company with Mixed Martial Arts. Illegal in many states, MMA—the human equivalent of cock-fighting—was the fastest growing sport in America. Hayley had picked up on this multibillion dollar business and designed a line of clothes for The Wrath to wear. The Wrath was National MMA champion and one scary dude, but he was to MMA what Tony Hawk was to skateboarding. The MMA line kept the bucks rolling in just when surfboards were tanking, another victim of cheap Asian imports and a nosediving economy.
Trent might not care for his stepsister, but he admired her business sense. His wife was another story. Courtney adored Hayley. An artist-to-artist thing, he supposed.
"What's happened?" Even as he asked the question, Trent knew this couldn't be a simple accident. A telephone call would have done the trick. His skin prickled with anxiety as reality began to penetrate his usually sharp mind.
"I'm afraid," the detective began in that same irritat-ingly level tone, "she's been killed."
"Oh, my God! No!" Courtney jumped to her feet. "Tell me it isn't true."
Trent pulled her back down beside him. Breath gushed from his lungs in short bursts. His mind struggled to get a grip on what he'd just been told. Her death changed— everything. For the better, he had to admit.
"Her car was blown up by a bomb at about eight o'clock this evening," the uniformed officer informed them in a voice barely loud enough to be heard over Courtney's sobs.
"What? That's terrible—a tragedy." Trent shaded the truth. He'd be a hell of a lot richer with Hayley out of the way. "Car bombs happen in the Middle East, not Newport Beach." He tried to keep his mind off the money, adding, "Besides, who would want to kill Hayley?"
"Dear Lord, what is the world coming to?" Meg Amboy asked the nurse who'd brought her breakfast just after dawn. Along with it came her medication and the morning paper. "Did you see there was a car bombing right here in Newport Beach last night?"
"Umm-hmmm," the middle-aged woman with a chest like the prow of a battleship responded. "It was out by the airport. That's Costa Mesa."
Meg noticed the nurse had dismissed the incident as if it had happened on another planet. Typical attitude around Twelve Acres. The staff had been trained to be elitist. Newport had money and cachet while Costa Mesa, which bordered on Newport, was decidedly middle class with an area that could only be termed a barrio. Meg knew most of the help in the kitchen and the housekeepers lived in Costa Mesa or just beyond in Santa Ana.
Meg prided herself on not being a snob. True, she spent her money on the best assisted-living facility she could afford because she knew she didn't have much longer to live. But she remembered with fondness growing up poor and earning her own way. Making a fortune with no one's help.
The battleship nurse, whose name Meg always failed to remember even though Meg had been at Twelve Acres for two years, left. Meg went back to the paper, content to read it until it was time to go downstairs for a second cup of coffee with Conrad Hollister. After they'd finished, she would walk beside his wheelchair to their morning game of bridge.
"Conrad," she whispered and lowered the paper. She stared out at the craggy shoreline framed by her huge window. The rampartlike bluffs had been weathered by wind and the unrelenting surf. Now scrims of early morning mist clung to the shore. Short trees bowed by the elements stooped like hunchback sentinels along the tops of the bluffs where mansions were perched.
The view was breathtaking but she often experienced a haunting, solitary feeling when she gazed at the sweep of the deep blue sea. It made her lonely, which was an emotion she'd rarely experienced when she was younger, but she had more time to reflect now. Too much time.
"What might have been?" she whispered to herself. What if she'd met Conrad Hollister ten, twenty, even thirty years ago?
Meg refused to allow her thoughts to stray in this direction. At eighty-five, she had the same sharp mind that had guided her as she amassed an empire in real estate. She wouldn't be here if she didn't have a heart that refused to recognize her brain was still young. Why dwell on what might have been when she had accomplished so much?