Read an Excerpt
BEFORE THE BEGINNING
Günter crept through the darkness, shining his flashlight on the wall in front of him. The light beam reflected back into his eyes so intensely that he had to squint. He moved closer and touched the surface of the twelve-foot tower of solid gold bricks. There were thousands of them, some dented and battered, some pristine and fresh. All of them shining like new, because gold never tarnishes.
There had been a time when Günter loved gold. But that was before he knew the truth. That was before his search for gold led him to this miserable damp cavern. Far off, he could hear the echoing sound of water dripping onto the cave floor. Aside from that steady drip, drip, drip, the silence surrounding him was complete and claustrophobic.
He stood statue-still, awed and horrified by the quantity of gold stacked in front of him. In the all-encompassing silence there was a sigh that didn’t emanate from his body. Günter killed his light and waited in the pitch-black, straining his ears for the noise to repeat itself. His heart pounded against his rib cage, and cold fear crawled along his backbone. His testicles had retreated far into his body. Maybe to the point of no return. Not his biggest worryright now. If he was found in the cave it would mean certain death. He caught the faint rustle of cloth and the click of a light switch. Harsh halogen work lamps flashed on and illuminated the grotto.
For the first time Günter was able to see the length and breadth of the storage space. Golden walls had been erected, as if King Midas was building an underground maze. Stalactites and stalagmites, looking like the teeth of some subterranean monster, partially obscured the view. Günter was overwhelmed with regret. He should never have come here. He’d driven thousands of miles to get to this godforsaken place. What the heck was he thinking? He was just a middle-aged banker with high blood pressure and low self-esteem. He had no business playing amateur detective. He should have gone to the authorities as soon as he began to suspect. Problem was, the authorities were the ones he suspected.
There! He saw a shadow moving among the towering limestone columns. The figure of a short man. A man who moved with the grace of a cat, his footfalls making no sound on the cavern floor. The man stepped into the light, and Günter felt a chill rip through him, felt the contents of his intestines liquefy. The man was bald and had bulging eyes. Günter knew the man. And he knew that the man was looking for him, and that the man was capable of doing terrible things.
Günter was hidden behind a stack of gold bricks. He shrank back and scanned the area, looking for an escape route. He crept to the end of his protective stack, turned a corner, and almost tripped over a body. It was a woman. Her dead eyes were open wide with terror and the top of her head was caved in. A gold bar lay beside her, matted with hair and blood.
Günter gagged and clapped a hand over his mouth to keep from moaning out loud. He recognized the woman. She was Yvette Jaworski. And he knew he was partly responsible for her horrible death. He turned to run and came face to face with the bald man . . . and the shiny scalpel in his hand.
“Günter, you picked the wrong place to go exploring,” the man said, in a soft, silky voice.
Günter would have agreed if he’d had the chance.
Riley Moon parked her Mini Cooper in the circular driveway and gaped at the house in front of her. She thought it looked as if it had been designed by the witch from “Hansel and Gretel” after she’d made a killing in the stock market. Its steeply pitched roof, multicolored shingles, odd turrets, and sprawling, ungainly porch made it both inviting and ominous. It was located at the end of a long private drive that wound through a heavily wooded section of Rock Creek Park. It was one of the biggest mansions in Washington, D.C., and it was appropriately called Mysterioso Manor. Emerson Knight, the resident owner, was appropriately known as a nutcase.
Knight had ignored requests that he visit the bank to discuss his recently inherited fortune and to choose a new personal banker, so the bank had dispatched Riley to assure Emerson that his money was in good hands.
Riley maneuvered herself out of the Mini, straightened the hem of her fitted cream-colored Akris jacket, and planted her four-inch Valentino heels on the gravel driveway. It was her second week as a junior analyst at Blane-Grunwald, the mega-bank that made Goldman Sachs look like a mom-and-pop savings and loan. She’d taken the time to get degrees from Harvard Business and Harvard Law, and now at age twenty-eight she was finally ready to set the world on fire. She was going to make her family proud, pay off her gazillion student loans, and carve out a brilliant career. And she was moving closer to her goals on this perfect September morning.
She was two steps from the massive porch when the front door to the mansion burst open and a frazzled woman stormed out, swept past Riley without a word, and headed down the driveway.
A tall, rangy woman in her midsixties stood on the porch and waved at the angry woman.
“Danielle, give it one more chance!”
“No! No more chances!” Danielle yelled back. “You’re all whacko. And I’m not cleaning up after no damn armadillo.”
“At least let me give you a ride home!” the tall woman pleaded.
“I’d rather walk,” Danielle said, stomping around the bend in the road, disappearing from sight.
Riley thought that the tall woman looked like she’d just stepped out of the Dust Bowl. Her hair was mostly gray and piled on top of her head with a bunch of strands escaping. No makeup. Beat-up running shoes, loose-fitting jeans, and an untucked though neatly ironed floral-patterned faded pink shirt.
The woman sighed and turned to Riley. “Sorry you had to hear that, hon, but Danielle had a right to get her tail feathers ruffled.”
“Did she say something about an armadillo?”
The tall woman looked at her with stoic resignation. “Yep.”
Riley extended her hand. “I’m Riley Moon from Blane- Grunwald bank. I’m here to see Emerson Knight. He’s expecting me.”
“I’m Emmie’s Aunt Myra. Come on in. Nice to see a pretty girl stopping by, even if it is just business. And look at you with all that curly red hair and big brown eyes. And you got a nose that’s cute as a button. I bet you work out too.”
“I like to run when I get the chance. It clears my mind.”
“Well, I’m glad to see you here. Emmie doesn’t have many visitors these days.”
Riley liked that this woman called Emerson Knight, one of the richest men in the country, plain old “Emmie.”
Maybe the rumors she’d heard were untrue. Maybe he wasn’t as aloof and eccentric as the press reported.
Myra turned back to the door and gave a disgusted grunt. “The dang thing closed behind me,” she said.
She tried the handle. Locked. She entered a number into the keypad beside the door. Still locked. She tried another number. Nothing.
“Shoot,” she said. “This is supposed to be a smart house.
Why isn’t it smart enough to let me in?”
Myra shifted in front of the camera that was part of the keypad, pushed a button, and said, “Hello, Emmie,” a little too loud, like Riley’s mother did when she talked on a cellphone. “I’m locked out again.”
A man’s voice came over the intercom. “Aunt Myra? Is that you?”
The man sounded distracted, as if he had just been pulled away from finding a cure for cancer or a marathon binge-watching of Game of Thrones.
“Yes,” Aunt Myra answered. “Did you change the password?”
“I might have.”
“What did you change it to?” Aunt Myra asked, patiently.
“I have no idea. Who’s that with you?”
Riley leaned into the camera. “It’s Riley Moon, sir. From Blane-Grunwald. You were expecting me, Mr. Knight.”
“I received a message that a bank representative would be visiting. I didn’t respond. I assumed that indicated disinterest.”
“Let us in, Emmie,” Aunt Myra said. “Open the door!”
There was a faint click, Myra tried the handle, and the door opened.
Inside was all dark wood and high ceilings. A huge staircase with blood-red carpet rose up the center of the very formal foyer. The banister was mahogany. The elaborate chandelier and wall sconces were crystal. The side chairs, center hall table, and various chests and side tables were antique and reminded Riley of her gram’s Duncan Phyfe dining room set. When Gram passed on, the furniture went to Aunt Rose and Uncle Charlie, and it had looked very grand in the small dining room of their doublewide.
“Just head up the stairs. Go down the hall to your right until you hear the weirdo music,” Aunt Myra said to Riley. “That’ll be the library. I have to go make lunch. You’ll be all right. There’s nobody here but Emerson and me.”
“It’s a big house. No . . . staff?”
“No, they keep quitting.”
Riley climbed the stairs, and a dark little creature scuttled across the hall in front of her. The armadillo. Riley was from a small, windblown town in Texas, and she was more used to seeing armadillos as roadkill. This one was refreshingly unflattened by an eighteen-wheeler. It trotted along the carpeted hallway like some alien from another planet, its shell bobbing up and down as it moved. Okay, so it’s a little odd, Riley thought, but it was adorable all the same.
She’d been anticipating an eerie organ fugue, or monks singing Gregorian chants, or perhaps New Age music played on a pan flute. The music blasting out of the library was 1970s go-go funk.
“I feel like bustin’ loose. Bustin’ loose!”
Riley entered the library and looked around. The room was gigantic. A lot more dark wood. An intricate parquet floor, inlaid to look like a giant chessboard. A fancy circular wrought iron staircase led up to a balcony. The balcony encircled the entire room and provided access to two levels of towering carved oak bookshelves. A huge domed ceiling loomed above her, featuring an eighteenth-century Italian fresco. A large weather-beaten Coleman tent had been set up in front of a massive stone fireplace.
“Hello?” Riley called, not seeing anyone in the room. “Knock, knock?”
She crossed the room and peeked inside the tent. No one there, but it was very cozy with brightly colored silk prayer flags hanging from the sides and peaked roof. A lightweight sleeping bag was neatly laid out on a camp cot. A small wooden meditation bench and an altar hugged another wall. There were fresh flowers and some photographs on the altar.
Riley turned away from the tent and bumped into Emerson Knight, spearing his foot with her spike heel.
“Crap on a cracker!” she said, jumping away.
“That’s an interesting exclamation,” he said. “Is that regional to Texas? You have a definite Texas accent.”
Whoa, Riley thought. The man was gorgeous. He was about six two and lean. He was wearing loose-fitting gray cords, brown Converse All Star sneakers, and a gray T-shirt that was loose enough to be comfortable and tight enough for Riley to see he was ripped. He had a lot of wavy black hair, and dark eyes that could only be described as smoldering. He looked like the cover of a romance novel come to life. This was a complete surprise, as it wasn’t in the bio she’d been given. She’d expected Emerson Knight to look like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.
“I’m so sorry!” she said.
“It’s perfectly all right,” he said. “The pain lets me know that I’m alive. Thank you.”
“I didn’t see you there.”
“Entirely my fault. I was exercising my power to cloud your mind, so you couldn’t see me.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Not at all. In fact, I almost never joke.”
“Oh boy,” Riley said.
“What does that imply?”
“It implies that I don’t believe you.”
“Did you see me?” he asked.
“There you have it.”
Riley decided the man was physically a ten, but intellectually he was a certifiable fruit basket. Probably did astral projection to Mars in his spare time. She sucked in some air and did a mental reboot, going into her rehearsed speech.
“Mr. Knight, Blane-Grunwald considers you one of our most valued clients.”
“Because I’m really, really rich,” Emerson Knight said.
Not seeming to brag but simply stating the facts. “Yes,” Riley said. The facts were the facts.
Crossing to a huge wooden library table, Emerson sat down in a spindly Louis XIV chair and gestured for Riley to join him at the table.
“At the risk of sounding rude, I see no purpose for your visit,” Emerson said. “I’ve repeatedly requested a meeting with Günter Grunwald. Obviously you aren’t Günter Grunwald. I find this all quite odd.”
Riley perched on a chair across from Emerson. “Mr. Grunwald is out of the office for a few days. Personal leave. I’ve been instructed to give you any assistance you might need in his absence.”
“It’s been more than a few days.”
“Yes. That would be more accurate. Günter always managed my family’s assets, including our gold holdings. And now that my father’s dead and the estate has been settled . . .”
“I know this is a difficult time for you.”
Riley’s superior had prepared that line for her, knowing that Emerson’s father had died just eight months ago.
“Not really,” Emerson said. “My father and I were never close. And now that I’ve inherited the family fortune, I see that it has dwindled.”
“The economic downturn has been rough on everyone,” Riley said. She’d been coached on that line, too. “I understand you’re concerned about the state of your portfolio, and I want to assure you that your personal assets are in competent hands.”
“I don’t care about my personal assets,” he said. “There’s more than enough for me. The foundation that controls charitable contributions is in disarray, and I do care about that. The foundation funds several positions at three different hospitals. We support leukemia research at Massachusetts General Hospital. We maintain no-kill animal shelters throughout the country. We run food banks and shelters for the homeless. We support the arts. It’s now my personal responsibility that the foundation stays financially healthy.”
“For some time now I’ve been having doubts about the management and security of my assets. These doubts are disturbing my intellectual equilibrium.”
“I suppose that’s uncomfortable.”
“Indeed,” Emerson said. “What it comes down to is . . . I want my gold.”
“My gold,” Emerson said. “The family’s gold holdings. I want to withdraw them.”
“Well, I don’t think you mean that literally.”
“I do. I mean it literally. Not figuratively.”
Emerson looked at Riley with an expectant expression on his face.
“You act as if we keep the gold in a vault in the bank,” Riley said.
“Yes, of course, but it might not be in the D.C. bank,” Riley said.
“Nevertheless, I want it.”
“You can’t just withdraw the gold. It isn’t done.”
“Can I look at it?”
“Excuse me?” Riley said.
“Can I look at my gold?” Emerson asked. “Why?”
“It’s my gold. I ought to be able to look at it.”
Riley narrowed her eyes and dug in. “It might be too much of a security risk.”
“Why? Are you afraid I’m going to steal it? I can’t. It’s my gold.”
“You can’t just look at it.” Riley was doing her best to speak with authority, but truth is, she was feeling a little out of her depth. Harvard Business School hadn’t prepared her for this.
“Why not?” He sat forward on his chair. “You don’t know where my gold is, do you?”
Riley met his gaze. “I don’t know where your gold physically is. But I can assure you that it is perfectly safe.”
“As far as you know?”
“I can’t know any further than that.”
He cocked his head. “I like that. That’s good. I’m going to remember that.” Emerson looked at her quite seriously. “Miss Moon, how long have you been working at Blane-Grunwald?”
“Just a short time.”
“I started last week.”
“Good,” he said. “Then we can learn together.” He got up and walked toward the doors. “Come on.”
“Come on where?”
“To the bank. To get my gold. You have to drive. I forgot to renew my license.”
Crap on a cracker, Riley thought. Her assignment was to placate the client, not bring him in to withdraw his fortune.
“I can’t just drive you to the bank and give you the gold,” she said to Emerson.
“Sure, you can. We’ll go see your boss.”
“You need an appointment.”
“Nonsense. I’m really, really rich, remember? I don’t need appointments.”