|Publisher:||Speaking Volumes, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)|
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He'd found the lair, but the killer was gone.
Lake McGregor swore silently as he looked around. The small room had been cleanedas cleaned as a room in a dingy, urban hotel got, anywaybut luckily, and perhaps not surprisingly, it had been unoccupied since the killer had left.
His quarry was too smart to have left many traces, but there was enough. The faint smell of antiseptic lingering in the rather grim bathroom, a reddish brown smear on the flimsy shower curtain, a heavy, broken rubber band in the toilet tank, indicating somethinggun or stash?had been hidden there. That, coupled with the abandoned brown sedan just like the one Lake knew the killer had been driving out back, and the description given by the clerk downstairs, clinched it.
With what he hoped was a coaxing smile Lake handed over the promised twenty to the overworked and sour-faced maid who had let him into the room.
"When was he last here?" he asked.
"Three days," she said, stuffing the twenty in the pocket of a smock that was none too clean itself. "But he is paid until the end of the week. The manager, he says clean the room."
She muttered something under her breath, in Spanish, that Lake didn't catch. He lifted a brow at her. She repeated it, he assumed, in English.
"He left behind many towels that are ruined."
"Sangre," she told him flatly, and then, apparently considering the implications of what she'd said, firmlyclosed her mouth without translating. Lake considered what he might get for another ten, or even more, but she hurried away and he let it go. He already had what he needed, anyway.
The man he was hunting had been staying here.
He'd left in a hurry, without settling up, even though they owed him money.
And he'd been wounded.
Sangre. Blood. Bloody towels.
He silently thanked Rob for the crash course in Spanish. Genial, good-hearted Rob Cordero, murdered by the man who had left behind those bloody towels.
"You'll be needing more than towels when I catch up with you, Joplin," Lake muttered.
Of course, how he was going to do that escaped him right at the moment. The man already had nearly a week's head start, because it had taken Lake so long to find this place. Jess Harper would have done it in a day, he thought. The Lone Wolf of the Wolf Pack could track a mosquito through a rainstorm. It was his talent just as explosives had been Rob's, and leadership had been Ian Russell's. Together they'd been the Wolf Pack, and they'd pulled off missions no one thought possible.
But the pack was no more, Jess was safely out of this, and just as well; there was little doubt that at the end of the trail would come a killing, and that was his department, not Jess's. It always had been. Jess was tough, quick, and the best at what he did. But he was no killer.
He's found another place to hole up, a place to hide, Lake thought. And chances were he'd stay there until he was strong again; the man he was hunting was many thingsvicious, cold, and probably crazy, but he was not stupid. He knew if you didn't move, you didn't leave a trail. And he knew Lake didn't have Jess's uncanny ability as a tracker. He knew too damn much about the Wolf Pack. It had almost gotten Jess and the woman he loved killed.
And it was up to Lake to make sure the man didn't get a second chance.
Lake left the drab room and the drabber hotel behind, walking briskly. This older, run-down area was at odds with the sunny, prosperous image of southern California; even the golden sunlight of this late summer day couldn't save it. But it was the kind of place he was all too used to; the Wolf Pack had done its work out of places a lot worse than this. But that was long ago, the pack was ten years scattered, their leader ten years dead.
He paused before a newsstand in front of an office building, a more modem structure that seemed to be the demarcation between the dinginess of the hotel he'd left and a more prosperous business district. He was, he guessed, somewhere near the county courthouse; no doubt that was the reason for the change. Courthouses meant lawyers, and lawyers meant fancy offices and secure parking garages for the fancy cars that went with the territory.
It also apparently meant every newspaper in the country and most from abroad, he thought, scanning the stacks.
He had The Wall Street Journal and was handing over a dollar bill before he realized he didn't need to look for the moment; there was no one to call for help. For ten years he'd checked every issue of the ubiquitous paper, carefully reading the Marketplace section, looking for the call. And for ten years, it had never come. Never had the Wolf Pack been summoned out of hiding, until the widow of Ian Russell, its founder and leader, the man who had been the heart and soul of them all, had called for their help.
Lake stifled the reflexive surge of disgust that the one time he was weeks late in checking, the one time he'd allowed himself time away from the memories, had been the one time when he'd been needed. And he hadn't been there for Jess, or Ian's widow and son, when they'd needed him.
But he could clean up the mess. They were safe now, out at sea on Jess's boat, sailing Puget Sound with no set schedule or timetablea moving, unpredictable target even someone as clever and determined as Lake's quarry was would have trouble finding right now.
And that, he thought, brought him to the true bottom line. It didn't really matter if he found his quarry now or not. Because Lake knew perfectly well that eventually his prey would come to him. Because he knew that he was the hunted as well as the hunter.
He bought a cup of coffee from the shop next door to the newsstand, smiling wryly at the trouble it was to convince the young woman behind the counter that yes, he wanted a plain, simple black coffee.
"We have great espresso!"
"No, thank you."
"How about a latte?" Her voice was so bright he nearly winced, and she was watching him very intently.
"At least try our special hazelnut blend. I promise you'll like it." She smiled, and he could have sworn he heard a giggle.
"Just black coffee. Please."
She was trying too hard, he thought as he took the cup she at last handed him and sat down at a small table with a single chair, by habit moving it so that his back was to the wall and he faced the door. All that smiling, dimpling, and the breathy little "Great hair" as he'd turned away were a bit much to sell a double mocha latte.
Unless she'd been selling something else, he thought suddenly. Startled, he glanced back at her. She caught the movement and smiled. He got the strongest impression she was about to wink, but the customer she was serving said something, rather loudly, and she turned back to business.
Flirting? Had she been flirting with him?
He was suddenly bemused, not so much by the idea as by the fact that it was such a revelation. Had he really been that isolated that the very idea of a woman flirting was so unusual? He dismissed the subject with the ease of long practice; he knew better than to dwell on the solitude of his life.
But the woman's attentions did bring to mind something else. He ran a hand through his hair; it was past time for a haircut. The thick, silver locks were enough of an attention-getter without adding shoulder length to the equation. More than once on a mission he'd clipped it short, or even darkened it, knowing he couldn't afford to be as distinctive as that combination of hair and his oddly colored eyes made him.
He stopped the motion, letting the long strands fall back to his shoulders. Maybe he'd postpone that haircut. Perhaps the distinctive silver would serve a useful purpose, making him easy to track, to find. Maybe he couldn't track like Jess, but he could give his quarry a chance too good to pass up. If he could find the right way to lure him out, with himself as bait, it would no doubt be a lot quicker than continuing to try to hunt the man down.
Once he had the right setup, all he had to do was wait. And while waiting was not going to be easythe image of Rob, a gentle, generous man he had laughed with, drunk with, and fought beside, lying broken and dying, was not easily ignoredhe was a very patient man.
The best predators always were.
A moment later he was staring in shock at the newspaper spread out before him, the newspaper he'd bought out of habit rather than need, the newspaper that couldn't possibly hold anything for him.
But it did.
He closed his eyes for a moment, then read it again.
It was obviously a trap, that black-rimmed death notice. Especially in this newspaper. He knew it instinctively, would have known it even if it had not come at this particular time, when the last of the Wolf Pack was being hunted down, when Rob had already been murdered, and Jess nearly so. But it had come now, and it was far too coincidental for him to accept at face value. It might appear to be only the notice of the death of a man in some distant, small Colorado town, but he knew there was more to it, knew there was something else at work here. Only this time he had no coded message to spell it out for him. There were only the routine, cold words announcing a death.
His mind raced through the possible ramifications. Perhaps his quarry wasn't as badly wounded as it seemed, and had been able to set this up. Or perhaps Joplin had set this in motion before his confrontation with Jess, before he'd been injured. Or perhaps it wasn't him at all ...
That possibility sparked a hot interest in Lake, and he set down the coffee that seemed cool now by comparison. Could it be not Joplin but the man who'd started it all, that slime who'd decided that for his own political aspirations the Wolf Pack must die, hadn't crawled deep into a hole after all? Was he not convinced disappearing was the only way he would stay alive? Was he stupid enough to try again?
Lake almost hoped so. Jess had made a bargain with the man, and Lake had to respect that; he even tended to agree with Jess that the public ruination was the worst possible punishment that could be inflicted on a man like Wayne Duran, who had aspired to the highest halls of power. But if Duran was fool enough to break that bargain, all betsand dealswere off.
Either way, it was still a trap. But he'd walked knowingly into traps before, when it suited him. And if it would end this now, he wasn't averse to doing it again. His record of turning traps against the trapper was untarnished. The thought wasn't arrogance; it was simply a cool, rational acceptance of what he was, and how well he'd been honed to do what he did best.
That was his unique talent. It was what had made him invaluable to the Wolf Pack. But for all his lethal abilities, he hadn't been able to save Ian, the one man who had understood. He hadn't been able to save Rob, the one man in whose pure goodness of heart he believed. Two of the three men on this planet he would have not only killed for but died for were dead, and he'd done nothing.
Quashing the useless regrets, he tossed the dregs of the coffee into the trash, folded the paper up neatly, and headed out the door.
Colorado, he thought with an unexpected sense of longing.
It seemed he was going home.
Alison Carlyle was used to people stopping dead in front of her gallery window, so she merely smiled when this one did. It happened whenever she put an unusual or particularly beautiful piece there, but never as often as it had since she'd hung that painting.
She knew just how they felt; she'd felt the same way the first time she'd seen it. Her father had had a term for it; poleaxed, he'd called it. It was as good a description as any for the complex rush of feelings she'd felt when she'd first looked at the piece. Now she found herself judging people by how they reacted to the paintingdiscounting the locals who came to stare out of sheer amazement at her temerity in hanging it.
Of the others, some didn't look at all. Some glanced at it and kept on moving as if it were nothing more than a pretty local landscape. Some stopped, looked, then moved on. Some even hastened their steps, as if anxious to get away.
And some came back, as if the glimpse they'd gotten had just played back in their heads, and they had come back for a second, longer look. A few, as this one had, simply stopped dead in their tracks, staring, the myriad of expressions crossing their faces a blatant display of the emotions the painting evoked. It was these two kinds of people Alison made an effort to approach, knowing they would likely appreciate the kind of art she presented inside.
Alison set down the clipboard holding the shipping form she'd been filling out, and walked toward the front of the gallery, toward the man who had come to an immediate halt on spotting the painting. The last time this had happened, she'd sold the odd little twisted iron sculpture that had sat near her office door for nearly a year. She'd put it there simply because it made her smile; the first time she'd looked at it she'd seen the suggestion of a whimsical fox in the curved iron, head cocked at a quizzical angle, as if bemused by the all too human world in which it found itself. The fact that no one else had seemed to see the creature in the piece didn't bother her; she knew her eye, as well as her sense of style and design, was different.
That time, the woman who stopped had tried to talk her into selling the painting, despite the NOT FOR SALE tag clearly displayed. And when Alison had as graciously as possible refused yet again, she had said she'd take the metal fox instead. Alison had wanted to hug her for seeing the fox. She would have laughed at her own protective feeling toward an inanimate iron sculpture, but she'd long ago accepted that it was part of her makeup, this deeply personal reaction to the art that moved her.
She held on to the smile that the thought of the sculpture had brought as she stepped outside. A moment later that smile was gone as she staredall right, she admitted, gapedat the man standing there.
He was the most striking man she'd ever seen, and she'd seen a lot among the artists she dealt with. A very few who were naturally dramatic, intense in that way the purest of artists have, and many more who struck the pose, as if adopting the exterior could cause the talent on the interior.
It was partly the hair, she realized. She'd never seen hair quite like that on man or woman: silken, thick, and a pure shining silver. Not gray, not white, but silver. She knew, logically, it had to be just a combination of gray and white and the way the light played on it, and here in the Rockies the light was as pure and gilding as anywhere on earth, but it was still silver. It hadn't always been, she could tell; his brows were as raven-dark as her own hair. But it had obviously happened young; he wasn't that old now.
She had an instant more to notice, with her trained eye, a profile that lived up to the promise of the striking hair; high forehead, neatly shaped nose, steady chin on a strong jaw. But she had only that instant, for then he turned on her. And she found nothing extreme in the words that came to her, for indeed he turned on her, like an attacking wild thing.
It took all the self-control at her command not to stagger back before the sudden threat. She was imagining things, of course, Lord knows she'd done it before; her father had always said her vivid imagination would get her into trouble someday. But not today, she told herself. It was broad daylight in peaceful little Jewel, there was no threat. Talk, she ordered herself. Say what you've said a hundred times, If you'd like to come in, we have ...
The thought ended incomplete. Even the idea of inviting this man inside made her shiver. It was something about his eyes. Not just the oddly metallic color, as if they had gone silver just as his hair had, but the ferocity in them. The stark black jeans, boots, and long-sleeved pullover shirt he wore did nothing to alleviate the menacing picture.
"Is ... something wrong?" she asked, rather inanely. Of course something was wrong, or this total stranger wouldn't be looking at her as if she'd murdered his best friend. As if he were about to leap at her throat.
That fit, she thought. There was a touch of wildness about him. Or perhaps, it was a sense of solitariness, of a man closer to the wild things, and lonelier because of it.
God, Dad was right, she thought. That imagination of hers. She was facing a man who looked like he wanted her head on a platter, and she was trying to figure out what he was instead of diffusing the situation. Or perhaps wiser still, simply getting out of his way.
"You work here?"
She could tell nothing about his natural voice; the words came from behind clenched teeth. She again had that sensation of facing a wild animal. A barely restrained one. A tiger by the tail, a wolf on a leash. A very thin leash.
Normally, her rather proud answer would be "I'm the owner." She'd worked long and hard to be able to say that. But this situation seemed anything but normal.
"Yes," she said slowly, figuring it was both safe enough and the truth. "If you need any help ..." she began, all the while thinking that whatever he needed help with, it was way out of her league. Her degree was in art, not anger management. And her minor was in business not ... guerrilla warfare. The analogy should have been funny, she knew, but it wasn't; she could too easily see this man in camouflage with paint on his face, synchronizing some kind of jungle mission with that complicated watch that would have looked like an affectation on any other man, and carrying a weapon that fired faster than she could count.
"Where did you get that?"
She knew perfectly well what he meant, but she didn't like knowing he could make her feel this way; whoever he was, he was damned intimidating, and she didn't let herself be intimidated often. Besides, they were outside on the public sidewalk, there were people around, he wasn't about to do anything to her here.
"Which piece were you interested in?" she said in her best helpful salesperson voice.
She thought he swore, but it was so quiet, so low and under his breath she couldn't be sure. Perhaps that leash was a bit stronger than she'd thought.
"That one," he said, the teeth tightening again as he jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward the painting without looking at it. Odd, she thought. He looked as if he were struggling with ... something.
"I'm afraid that one's not for sale. If you'll notice the tag, it's clearly marked that"
She was sure about the curse this time; it was audible, and short, although no less emphatic for its brevity.
"Where the hell did you get that painting?"
It burst from him, words that were low, harsh, and barely controlled. That leash seemed to have vanished, and she again had to fight the involuntary urge to step back, to get away from him.
He saw it, she could tell by the way his eyes narrowed slightly. And suddenly the leash was back, almost visible, as if her slight shrinking from him had brought the beast back to civilization.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. Maybe I should talk to the owner," he said.
She wasn't sure she liked the cool steel in his tone now any better than she'd liked the bewildering rage. Nor did she like his assumptions. She drew herself up straight, and looked at him steadily, in what her friend Yvette had once called her most regal way. There was no point in denying what had been so obvious, so instead she turned it back on him. It wasn't like her to do that to a potential customer, but she wasn't at all sure she'd want to sell any of her pieces to this man anyway.
"You've already upset the owner," she said, her tone cool.
He blinked. Those eyes were really quite remarkable, she thought. Metallic was the only word she could think of to describe them, a sort of burnished pewter color that defied traditional description.
He looked her up and down in a way that was more assessing than insulting. She knew she didn't fit the idea some people had of a gallery owner. Her pale gray suit was trim, businesslike, set off by a rich, royal blue silk blouse that turned her eyes the same shade. The strand of hand-carved blue beads at her throat was unique, the product of a local artisan, and her hair was neatly up in its usual French twist, smooth and tidy.
More than once her friends had suggested she should wear something flowing and artsy, let her hair down, to fit the imaginative and sometimes fey atmosphere of Phoenix. They didn't realize she was projecting exactly the image she wanted to project; the pieces she sold were unique, and expensive, and when dealingand parting withthose amounts of money, people felt more comfortable with a familiar, businesslike look. Besides, her art spoke for itself, it didn't need a shill.
"Why are you avoiding the question?"
He asked it mildly, almost gently. It should have been soothing, this switch to normalcy, but instead it made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She liked this voice least of all, she thought and, irritated at herself, answered sharply.
"I have a tendency to not answer questions that sound like accusations."
"Is that out of guilt, or just an effort to deflect attention?"
Her eyes widened; she'd spoken out of irritation, but he was reacting as if his words truly had been an accusation.
"I don't know what you're implying, Mr....?"
He ignored the nicety. "I'm not implying anything. I'm stating that there is no honest way you could have come by that painting."
Alison's breath caught. She stared at him, unable to stop herself even as her mind told her it must seem by her reaction that what he said was true and she'd been caught out. But the only logical explanation for why he would say what he had just said was something she'd almost given up on. She called up in her mind the photos she'd seen, compared them to the striking face before her, mentally darkening his hair...
"It was ... given to me by the artist's father," she said, keeping her gaze fastened on his face, watching those eyes for any sign that the leap she'd made was valid. She saw only the slightest tightening of the skin around his eyes. And there was only the barest hint of emotion beneath the flat words he spoke, in that same low, dangerous voice.
"You're a liar. A good one, I'll concedethat was just the right touch of ingenuous sinceritybut a liar, just the same."
She knew then. She was certain; she didn't need to ask, so she didn't.
She merely said, "Welcome home, Lachlan McGregor."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This sequeal to Dangerous Ground was equal wonderful. With a fast-paced plot and great characters, this story was definitely well worth reading. It's a must read.