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"Looks like everyone in town showed up." Michael Graham peered through the tinted window of his vintage limousine at the crowd gathered in front of the Magic Lantern Theatre. Chinese-style lanterns in bright colors hung over the marquee that announced, "Special Announcement Plus Showing of Peter Pan 2: Return to Neverland."
"That was the point." Molly leaned in over her husband's shoulder.
For a moment, Michael grew distracted by her perfume and the heat of her body pressing against his. They'd been married three years, but her sheer physical presence still made a tremendous impact on his senses. He knew that would never change, and he was glad for it. He grinned in spite of himself and kissed the back of her neck.
Molly shivered, as he knew she would, and pulled back. She held up a forefinger in warning. "Don't even think about that."
Michael laughed, but he let her have her space and returned his attention to the festivities filling downtown Blackpool. His newly adopted town was still fascinating to him and constantly inspired his creative juices. The mixture of old and new strewn throughout the hills and up to the cliffs overlooking the sea enthralled him.
Normally on a Friday night, Blackpool's streets remained relatively desolate. Truly there wasn't much to do in town. Most of the action took place out on the sea, or on the beaches where the teens met up to drink out of sight of their parents.
But tonight the throng gathered all along the police barricade in front of the movie house, filling the thoroughfare and making traffic all but impossible. A few people slapped the limousine or waved as it passed. Not everyone in Blackpool knew the Grahams, but all of them had heard of them.
And even without the limo they would have stood out. Most Blackpoolers walked or biked as the narrow streets downtown and twisty switchbacks up the hills made driving impractical. Tourists and visitors usually arrived by boat and tied up in the harbor.
But the limo had come with the house they'd purchased when moving to Blackpool, and Irwin Jaeger—the houseman—had come with both. They seldom used the car, which often disappointed Irwin.
Tonight the black night was fought off by more streetlights than normal, illuminating the squat stone-and-wood buildings in the town square. The brightness seemed out of place amid warehouses and shops more than a century old.
Still focused on her iPhone, Molly Graham shot Michael a quick glance. "I'm glad to see you're finally back among the living and not off robbing crypts or fighting orcs or goblins."
Chagrined, Michael set aside his small netbook. Partially drafted monsters filled the tiny screen. A pang of guilt twisted within him. "Sorry, love. Didn't mean to go away on you these past few days right before your event."
"I can't blame you." Molly glanced through the window and frowned. "I was distracted by last-minute details." Her dark auburn hair curled under and swept her bare shoulders. The understated black dress showed off her petite figure but maintained an air of professionalism. A black onyx set in a silver pendant hung at the hollow of her throat from a fine silver chain.
Michael understood her distraction. His profession as a video and computer game designer demanded unwavering focus, as well. Molly's work in public relations and grant writing consumed her from time to time, as well, especially since she assumed responsibilities on her project for beyond what was required, or what she got credit for. She didn't hold back, and that passion was only one of the reasons he loved her so much.
"Of course you do."
Molly lifted an arched brow. "You were distracted by mermaids."
Michael chuckled. "No more than usual. And, in my defense, mermaids can be quite distracting."
"I've seen the drawings of mermaids your illustrator friend, Keith, sent you. Not exactly Disney, I must say."
Michael chuckled. "Well, Keith's a naughty boy. And it gets toned down for the market."
Molly leaned in and kissed him. Her warm lips lingered on his for a moment and tasted like cherries. She drew back and looked directly at him. "The netbook stays in the car when we go inside."
Michael grimaced. Molly straightened the collar and lapels of his thigh-length black leather jacket. "I need you to be yourself tonight."
"I'm always myself."
"True, but tonight I need the emphasis put on the wonderful and adorable self."
Michael rolled his eyes in mock reproach. "You want arm candy."
"You can let people know you have a brain."
"Ah. Thank God for that."
The limousine rolled a few more feet toward the theater, mired in the crowd. On the other side of the privacy screen, Irwin Jaeger shook his head. He thumbed a button that rolled the glass down and glanced in the rearview mirror.
"My apologies. It appears we won't get any closer tonight despite my best efforts."
Neatly cut iron-gray hair lay under the chauffeur's cap he'd put on for fun and a bushy mustache covered his upper lip. Thick bifocal lenses made his muddy-brown eyes look larger than normal. The tailored livery fit his thin frame exactly.
"This will be fine, Irwin." Molly smiled at the old man.
"Very good, ma'am." With an economy of movement, Irwin put the transmission in Park, got out and came around the car, opening the door with a flourish.
"Thank you, Irwin." Michael climbed out, then extended a hand to Molly. She reached back into the car for a black wrap. Michael draped it over her shoulders, then guided her toward the crowd in front of the theater.
In the distance, Michael noticed Glower Lighthouse standing tall over Blackpool. Even when fog shrouded it and the light appeared to stab out of nowhere, the place seemed threatening, and seeing it at night chilled Michael. During the day, he experienced nothing out of the ordinary, but when he went to the lighthouse at night, especially with the local group of cave explorers he sometimes accompanied, he definitely felt something unsettling lingering in the timbers and stone. And he didn't believe in ghosts. At least, not much.
Michael smiled as the crowd surrounded Molly and him. It was her night, and he wanted to watch her bask in the event she'd brought to life. He trailed along a step behind her, referring everyone who had questions to Molly.
Confronted by dozens of people, Molly Graham felt as though she'd stepped into her element. She loved being on stage, loved being the center of attention, and she loved bringing a production to successful fruition—in this case the filming of a documentary right here in Blackpool. Her senses suddenly seemed sharper, her thoughts clearer, and strength coursed through her. To her, public relations was a kaleidoscope of pure energy.
"Mrs. Graham, you've managed to pull off quite the little event here. Will you give us a hint of anything special you've planned?" Fred Purnell, reporter for the local paper, straightened one of his suspenders over his broad belly and forced his way next to Molly. His thinning hair lay oiled against his scalp and he wore his best shirt.
Molly smiled, conscious of the teen photographer that trailed Fred. The girl had a death grip on her camera. The flash went off and temporarily blinded Molly. She never missed a step as she listened to the dozens of curious voices around her.
"Patience, Mr. Purnell." Molly plowed through the crowd, and the reporter struggled to keep up.
Purnell grimaced. "Everyone in town wants to know if you've discovered anything more about the robbery."
"All in due time."
"C'mon, Molly. Give an aging newspaperman a break. If you'd written a press release, I could have already filed this story for the Journal."
Purnell was a dogged reporter for the newspaper he owned and operated, the Blackpool Journal, when news was breaking, but things were often slow in Blackpool. Except for the mystery surrounding Ravenhearst Manor and poor Emma Ravenhearst. He ran stories concerning the family whenever he could because they often got picked up by larger newspapers.
"What about the robbery? Molly, for God's sake."
Glancing over her shoulder, Molly spotted Michael a half step behind her. A devilish smile curved his lips at Purnell's remonstrations.
Although she'd looked at her husband countless times, she could never grow tired of it. There was something earthy and magnetic about him, about the smooth way he moved. She had to admit, the leather jacket looked great on him, projecting a raw, rugged image that suited him well. He wore a black turtleneck under it and black slacks. At six feet two inches tall, he kept his black hair shaved almost to the scalp, and his carefully trimmed goatee made him look distinguished.
Michael mouthed the word, Robbery?
Molly grinned impishly at him.
Everybody loved a mystery. Her uncle Peter, who worked for the Mystery Case Files Agency, an international private investigation firm, had regaled her with stories of crimes and criminals since she was a girl. She'd hung on his every word and loved trying to solve the crimes he'd dangled before her.
Most people had heard rumors about the documentary and knew that it was connected to an infamous robbery. But no one knew all the details. To make things even more exciting, this was a mystery that even she didn't have all the answers to. And, of course, there was the treasure. The lure of it would draw a lot of interest.
The answers would surely follow.
"You know, Mrs. Graham. I really don't think this is such a good idea. Didn't think so to begin with, and I like it even less now."
Detective Chief Inspector Maurice Paddington of the Blackpool Police Department raked a scarred knuckle across the thick shelf of his jaw and shook his shaggy head. His trench coat was rumpled and he held his unlit pipe in his hand. In his fifties and overweight, Padding-ton nevertheless remained a bulldog when it came to law enforcement.
At the moment, he stood solidly behind one of the police sawhorses blocking entrance to the theater. He was as much a bulwark as the sawhorse and the police officers around him.
Occasionally the Blackpool Police Department pulled in smugglers and drug runners who tried to do business in town, and sometimes they arrested thieves and vandals, but the town didn't have much in the way of criminal activity. Now, anyway—as a former pirate den, it had a history of outlaws. But Paddington kept the current peace with a heavy hand and simple, inflexible rules.
The police department only had a small contingent of officers, but more had been drafted to help manage security for the filming of the documentary Molly was going to announce tonight.
Molly stood waiting for one of the police officers to remove the sawhorse blocking her path. "It's a little late to stop this now, don't you think?"
Paddington squinted at her, harrumphed and turned away. He waved at one of the young officers standing nearby. "Let Mr. and Mrs. Graham pass, Constable Bedford."
The young policeman eased the sawhorse away, allowed Molly and Michael through, then pushed the barrier back into place to control the rest of the crowd.
Twenty-seven minutes later, Molly stood to one side of the Magic Lantern's large screen. For the moment the houselights glowed dimly and served only to stir the darkness inside the large room. Townsfolk filled every seat.
"You appear to have quite the turnout, Mrs. Graham."
Barely managing to quash an involuntary start, Molly turned toward the smooth, oily voice.
Aleister Crowe stood there in elegant evening wear. In his early thirties and with his dark hair worn brushed back to reveal a widow's peak, he looked as predatory as his namesake. Light reflected from the silver crow's head topping the walking stick he carried purely for looks, though rumor held that it was a sword cane passed down through generations of Crowes.
"I do hope you can deliver on all the furor you promised." Crowe's voice was controlled and deep, an orator's voice. "Even if you do, though, I doubt the detective chief inspector will be very pleased with you. You're threatening the orderliness he works so hard to maintain in Blackpool."
Breathing out slowly, Molly chose to be calm and collected. Something about Crowe and his family always left her feeling on edge. Aleister had come into his own after his father had mysteriously died at sea a dozen years ago.
"On the contrary, Mr. Crowe, I believe Inspector Pad-dington will be happy after tonight's announcement. His department is going to get a good deal of publicity during the filming of the documentary."
Shifting his attention, Crowe gazed at the seated crowd and those standing at the back of the theater.
"For such a small town, Blackpool seems to attract huge secrets. It would be a shame if you tripped across something that had been buried for a long time while seeking to film your little movie." He shrugged. "You might want to consider that before you start kicking a hornet's nest."
"Is that a warning, Mr. Crowe?"
He smiled, and a neutral expression slipped across his face like a well-used mask. "Not at all. Just an objective observation."
"As I understand it, the Crowe family has no shortage of buried secrets." They'd lived in Blackpool since the first pirates and smugglers had lit campfires on the seashores. "Is this documentary going to touch on one?"
"Touché, my dear." Crowe drained his wineglass and placed it on the tray of a passing server. He shrugged and glanced around the room. "I suppose I should mingle and leave you to your event."
"I hope you enjoy the evening."
Crowe nodded, then turned and walked away, disappearing almost instantly in the darkness of the theater.
Creepy. Molly shook her head and promised herself that she wouldn't tell Michael about the encounter. He thought Crowe was obnoxious, but not scary. Threatening, maybe, but not supernatural. Molly wasn't so certain. There was something menacing about Aleister Crowe—about all of the Crowes, actually—and Molly couldn't quite shake it off. Maybe it was just the eeriness of Blackpool itself. The stories continued to cycle about infamous resident Emma Ravenhearst and the ghost that was said to haunt the ruins of where the old Ravenhearst mansion had stood just outside town.
At precisely seven o'clock, Molly walked out onto center stage. The baby spotlight switched on with a loud snap and bathed her in blue-white incandescence. She kept from blinking through an effort of will and avoided looking into the light. She couldn't see the audience, but she heard a hush falling over the crowd, receding from the stage like an outgoing tide.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and children." Molly spoke naturally and the wireless mic pinned to her top carried her voice to the back of the theater. "I want to thank you all for coming." She smiled.
Michael sat in the front row beside Fred Purnell. The chair to Michael's left was empty, as were a couple of others. Simon Wineguard, the documentary's director, wasn't seated where he was supposed to be and that bothered Molly. They'd agreed about the timing and the seating.