Former trapeze artist Amalie Vaughn moved to Burning Cove to reinvent herself, but things are not going well. After spending her entire inheritance on a mansion with the intention of turning it into a bed-and-breakfast, she learns too late that the villa is said to be cursed. When the first guest, Dr. Norman Pickwell, is murdered by his robot invention during a sold-out demonstration, rumors circulate that the curse is real.
In the chaotic aftermath of the spectacle, Amalie watches as a stranger from the audience disappears behind the curtain. When Matthias Jones reappears, he is slipping a gun into a concealed holster. It looks like the gossip that is swirling around him is true—Matthias evidently does have connections to the criminal underworld.
Matthias is on the trail of a groundbreaking prototype cipher machine. He suspects that Pickwell stole the device and planned to sell it. But now Pickwell is dead and the machine has vanished. When Matthias’s investigation leads him to Amalie’s front door, the attraction between them is intense, but she knows it is also dangerous. Amalie and Matthias must decide if they can trust each other and the passion that binds them, because time is running out.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Amanda Quick
Six months earlier . . .
“Fly for me, Princess,” the killer said. “If you fly, I’ll let you live.”
He was lying.
Amalie Vaughn knew that death awaited her at the top of the trapeze ladder. She had no choice but to climb to the narrow platform. The long wire necklace strung with glittering black glass beads was a garrote around her throat. The Death Catcher used it as a chain to control her.
He followed behind her on the ladder. The black necklace dangled down her back within his reach. Every so often he gave it a sharp tug to make it clear that he could slice open her throat whenever it pleased him.
Only one more rung remained until she reached the platform. In the morning they would find her body and she would be a headline in the local paper. The Flying Princess Dies in Tragic Accident.
“I watched you fly tonight at the evening performance,” the Death Catcher said. “You were so pretty in your costume. It was all I could do to wait until now.”
His voice was a ghastly parody of a lover’s croon. He was trying to coax, charm, and seduce her to her doom but he could not conceal his feverish excitement.
She was almost at the top of the ladder. When she looked down she saw that the floor was illuminated by twin rows of lanterns. There was no net. The Death Catcher had staged the scene with great care, as if preparing for a real performance in front of an audience.
His real name was Marcus Harding. He had been hired on as a rigger. His work had been good. The high wire walkers and the trapeze artists of the Ramsey Circus always inspected the rigging before they practiced and performed. Their lives depended on the skill of the men who rigged the wires and cables.
Marcus Harding was an expert—and only a skilled rigger would know how to sabotage the equipment so that the death of a flyer looked like an accident.
This was how the three flyers in the other traveling circuses had died, Amalie thought. The police in each of the small towns where the performers had been killed had concluded that the victims had perished in tragic accidents or, perhaps, by suicide. But now it was clear that the hushed rumors that had circulated in the circus world were true. The man they called the Death Catcher was not just a frightening legend. He was real.
Moments ago he had awakened her with a knife to her throat. He had dragged her from her bunk in the train car, slipped the black necklace around her throat and forced her to cross the empty circus grounds.
He had propelled her into the silent, night-darkened big top and made her climb the ladder to the trapeze platform.
The ease and skill with which he followed her told her that he was accustomed to high wire and trapeze equipment. She was very sure that he had once been a performer himself.
She was shivering so badly it was all she could do to cling to the ladder. She had been raised in the circus and trained to fly at an early age. The trapeze was as familiar to her as a bicycle or a car. But she was trembling tonight, and not just because she knew Harding intended her to die. She was fighting something besides panic. Her senses were in a fog.
It dawned on her that the killer had drugged her. He must have poisoned her at some point during the evening, probably at dinner. They had all eaten the same hash and the same vegetable soup served out of the same pots but Harding could have slipped something into her food.
She had been left alone that evening. The other performers and the clowns, animal trainers, ticket sellers, and roustabouts were still in town, celebrating the surprisingly successful run in Abbotsville. The Ramsey Circus was one of the few traveling shows that had survived the worst of the economic disaster that had followed in the wake of the Great Crash of ’29, but it was struggling financially. The stock market had collapsed nearly a decade earlier, but much of the country was still trying to escape the shadow of the Depression. Ticket sales during the past week had been a rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal season.
She had stayed behind and gone to bed early because she had not felt well. She could not afford to get sick. She was the star attraction. Her circus family depended on her.
Her head was slowly clearing but her heart was still beating too fast. She reached the top of the ladder and transitioned to the small platform. She grasped one of the upright poles that supported the narrow board on which she stood and took deep, clarifying breaths.
The only good news was that Harding could no longer reach the black necklace. He had stopped a couple of rungs down, his waist even with the platform. She realized that he did not feel confident about joining her on the board. There wasn’t much room. Perhaps he was afraid he would be vulnerable. Perhaps he feared that she would try to take him with her when she went down.
“Time to fly,” Harding said. He braced himself on the ladder with one hand and took out the knife. He waved the blade slowly back and forth as if trying to hypnotize her.
“If you do as I tell you,” he said, “and if you’re as good on the trapeze as everyone says, if you really are the Flying Princess, I will let you live.”
It was then that Amalie heard the high, muffled giggles. They emanated from the darkened seats. Someone was watching. She was dealing with not one, but two human monsters tonight.
Never let the audience see you sweat.
“We both know you won’t let me live,” she said, fighting the fear and the effects of the drug. “You can’t afford to do that because I know who you are. I can identify you. So of course you have to kill me.”
“Fly, you stupid bitch. It’s your only chance. If you don’t perform I’ll slit your throat and throw you off the platform.”
There were more giggles from the shadows.
“Who’s your pal in the audience?” she asked.
“If you want to live, shut your mouth and fly.”
Her nerves and senses were a little steadier now. They were on her territory. She was the Flying Princess. The trapeze was her realm. She ruled here. And she never worked with a net.
“Sure.” She grabbed the bar as though preparing to perform. “How many times have you done this? They say at least three flyers have been killed in the past few months. Did you murder them all by yourself? Or did you need help?”
“Fly or die, Princess.”
Harding watched her with the eyes of a snake. She sensed that he was a little rattled, though. She had gone off script. He was not accustomed to that.
She toyed with the bar, testing it. Her flyer’s intuition warned her that it did not feel right. Harding had, indeed, sabotaged the equipment. If she flew for him she would go down.
“I’m not going to fly for you,” she said. “If you want to kill me you’ll have to step out onto the platform with me. You don’t have the nerve to do that.”
Harding roared and bounded up the last few rungs of the ladder, the knife aimed at her midsection.
“I’ll gut you first,” he said.
It was in that instant when he transitioned from the ladder to the platform that he was vulnerable, because he was using one hand to grip the knife and the other to cling to the support pole.
She had inherited her excellent reflexes and her keen sense of balance from her father. She also had what her father had called flyer’s intuition. She relied on it now.
She jabbed the end of the trapeze bar at Harding just as he lunged at her. The length of metal connected with his knife arm. He did not drop the blade but the attack startled him and deflected his aim. He missed her by inches and drew back for another thrust.
“You crazy bitch,” Harding yelled.
“I fly for a living and I do it without a net,” she said. “Of course I’m crazy.”
She whipped the bar at his knife hand.
He reacted instinctively, raising his arm to block the strike. But the move had been a feint. She yanked the bar back and went at him again, wielding the length of metal like a spear.
Enraged, he dropped the knife and grabbed the bar instead. He yanked on it, intending to rip it from her grasp.
She let go.
He was not expecting that. He still had one hand wrapped around the support pole on his side of the platform, but he was off balance. Instinctively, he clung to the bar as if it could support him if he went over.
She held on to the upright on her side and lashed out with one foot. The maneuver swept one of his legs off the platform.
He lurched to one side, still instinctively clinging to the bar in a desperate effort to regain his footing.
The sabotaged rigging broke. The bar came free of the lines. Harding released his grip on it but he had waited a split second too long. In the trapeze world when you were working without a net, a split second in timing meant disaster.
He tried to cling to the support pole but he was dangling in midair now. The palm of the hand that he was using to hang on must have been damp with the rush of panic. He lost his grip.
He went off the platform and plummeted straight down. The shock of his body hitting the packed earth floor reverberated throughout the night.
An eerie silence gripped the deeply shadowed tent. For a moment Amalie could not move. She was riveted by the sight of the crumpled form on the ground.
The sound of panicky footsteps brought her out of her frozen state. She remembered the watcher. She turned quickly, searching the shadows.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a dark figure moving swiftly down the aisle between the seats.
The watcher disappeared into the night.
She had to concentrate very hard to make her way back down the ladder. By the time she reached the ground she was shaking so badly she could barely stand. She had heard about other flyers who had lost their nerve. She wondered if that was what was happening to her now. What would she do if she could not fly?
She found Harding’s knife on the ground not far from his body. She gripped it very tightly. When she got to the entrance of the tent she heard the roar of a car engine being driven at high speed. The sound faded rapidly into the night. The watcher had fled the scene.
That should have been reassuring. She probably did not have to fear a second attacker tonight. But it also meant that the monster who had giggled in anticipation of watching her fly to her death was still alive.
Amalie knew that something had gone very wrong when the robot named Futuro carried the suitcase onto the stage. It was a small thing, really; just something about Dr. Norman Pickwell’s expression.
Pickwell stood at the podium on the other side of the stage. He was in his late forties, with a neatly trimmed beard and a pair of gold spectacles. He had just ordered the mechanical man to carry the suitcase behind the curtain, leave it there, and return to the stage with a tea tray.
No one else in the theater seemed to notice the startled expression that flashed across Pickwell’s face when Futuro reappeared with the suitcase instead of the tray. But Amalie had spent a good portion of her life performing dangerous stunts in front of an audience. It was a career in which the smallest miscalculation in midair spelled disaster. Her intuition had been honed to a razor-sharp edge.
A moment ago Pickwell had been lecturing the audience on the wonders of the future, when most labor would be done by robots. Now he was distinctly nervous.
He recovered quickly.
“Futuro, put down the suitcase and pick up the vase of flowers that is on the bench,” he commanded.
Amalie glanced at her aunt, Hazel, who was sitting beside her. Hazel was watching the demonstration with rapt attention. She did not appear to have noticed anything strange about what was happening onstage. She was clearly captivated.
The robot was humanoid in shape, with a surprisingly sleek aluminum body. It did not look like one of the blocky, clunky images on the cover of Thrilling Wonder Stories or Popular Mechanics. The head resembled an ancient Egyptian pharaoh’s death mask.
Hidden motors whirred and hummed as Futuro obeyed Pickwell’s new orders. Flashlight-sized eyes glittering with an eerie blue light, the robot clomped across the stage and set the suitcase on the bench.
Futuro appeared to deliberate for a moment before it picked up the vase of flowers in two metal hands.
Dr. Pickwell seemed somewhat relieved but Amalie thought the inventor still looked uneasy.
“As you can see,” Pickwell said to the audience, “Futuro is capable of carrying out many of the tasks one expects of a well-trained butler. My invention is only the first of what I predict will be an unlimited number of mechanical men. In the future, robots will free humankind from the dangerous work now performed by humans in mines, shipyards, and factories.”
A man in the front row leaped to his feet. “You mean the damned machines will take our jobs. How is the average working man going to make a living if robots take over?”
A murmur of disapproval rippled across the theater. The Palace was a fashionable venue in the very fashionable town of Burning Cove. The audience was composed primarily of people who had purchased tickets because they wanted to be amazed and astonished and, above all, entertained. Most of the men wore evening jackets. The women were in glamorous cocktail dresses and heels. Amalie suspected that very few of those occupying the red velvet seats had ever worked in a mine or a shipyard or a factory.
Tickets for the demonstration of Futuro had been expensive and hard to come by. The only reason she and Hazel were there was because the inventor had graciously provided them with passes. Dr. Pickwell was staying at their newly opened bed-and-breakfast. Pickwell was, in fact, the first and, so far, the only guest at the Hidden Beach Inn.
Earlier, Amalie and been interested to see that a number of the town’s movers and shakers were in the audience, including Oliver Ward, the owner of Burning Cove’s biggest hotel. His wife, Irene, the crime beat reporter for the Herald, sat next to him. She had a notebook and pencil in hand. Oliver’s uncle, Chester Ward, said to be an inventor in his own right, had accompanied them. Chester, with his unkempt gray hair and spectacles, looked rather like a mad scientist in a horror movie. He was watching the demonstration with a mix of fascination and, Amalie sensed, deep suspicion.
Luther Pell, the owner of the town’s hottest nightclub, the Paradise, occupied a seat in the second row. Pell was not alone. Two people had accompanied him to the theater. Amalie assumed that the sophisticated woman in the stylish gown next to him was Raina Kirk, Burning Cove’s only private investigator. Word around town was that Miss Kirk and Luther Pell were romantically linked.
The man in the seat on the other side of Pell was a stranger. Amalie was not surprised that neither she nor Hazel recognized him. They were new in town, themselves. There were a lot of people they did not know. But there had been enough curious and speculative glances from the crowd to indicate that the stranger was not one of the locals.
The fact that he appeared to be an acquaintance of Pell’s automatically made him interesting, and quite possibly dangerous. Luther Pell, after all, was rumored to have mob connections. If that was true, it was a good bet that any friend of his had links to the criminal underworld.
“There is no need to fear robots,” Dr. Pickwell declared. It was clear that the suggestion that robots would displace workers annoyed him. He raised his voice to be heard above the murmurs of the crowd. “I urge you to consider that these machines could take the place of soldiers. Wars of the future will be fought with robots, not human beings. Think of the lives that will be saved.”
“You’re mad,” someone else shouted. “You want to create robots that can kill? What if these machines of yours decide to turn on their creators and try to destroy us?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Pickwell snapped. “Robots are nothing more than mechanical devices. Fundamentally, they are no different than the cars we drive or the radios that we use to get our news.”
“Futuro looks mighty dangerous to me,” the man in the front row called.
“Nonsense,” Pickwell said. “Allow me to demonstrate how useful Futuro can be. Futuro, what is the forecast for tomorrow?”
The robot answered in a scratchy, hollow voice. “There will be fog in the morning but by noon the day will turn warm and sunny. No rain is expected.”
Pickwell faced his audience. “Think about how useful it would be to have Futuro in your home at your beck and call. It won’t be long before there will be robots that can cook and clean and do the laundry.”
But the crowd was no longer paying any attention to Pickwell, because Futuro had once again lurched into motion.
“What’s that thing doing?” Hazel whispered.
“I have no idea,” Amalie said.
They watched along with everyone else as the robot opened the suitcase that it had just placed on the bench. Pickwell finally realized that he had lost the attention of the crowd. He turned away from the podium to see what was going on at the bench.
Futuro reached into the suitcase and took out a gun.
There was a collective gasp from the audience.
“No,” Pickwell shouted. “Futuro, I command you to put down the gun.”
The robot pulled the trigger. Twice. The shots boomed throughout the theater.
Pickwell jerked under the impact of the bullets. He opened his mouth to cry out but he could not speak. He collapsed onto his back.
Futuro calmly clanked offstage, disappearing behind the curtain.
Stunned, Amalie stared at the unmoving figure on the stage. It was a trick, she thought. It had to be some sort of bizarre charade designed to shock the audience.
Most of the crowd evidently believed the same thing. The majority of the people in the seats did not move. They appeared stunned.
But not everyone was frozen in shock. Amalie glimpsed motion out of the corner of her eye. When she turned to look, she saw that Luther Pell and the stranger who had accompanied him to the theater had left their seats and were making their way to the stage steps. They were moving fast, almost as if they had been anticipating trouble.
When they reached the stage they were joined by Oliver Ward, who had managed to move with surprising speed, considering that he had a noticeable limp and was obliged to use a cane. His wife, Irene, was not far behind. She had a notebook in one hand.
Luther Pell and the stranger vanished behind the curtain. Ward crouched beside Pickwell and unfastened the inventor’s tuxedo jacket to expose a blood-soaked white shirt.
The theater manager evidently had been watching the demonstration from the last row. He rushed down the center aisle toward the stage.
“Is there a doctor in the house?” he shouted.
Amalie saw a middle-aged man in the center section make his way quickly down the aisle.
“I’m a doctor,” he said in a loud voice. “Call an ambulance.”
The manager disappeared through a side door, presumably in search of a telephone.
Onstage, Ward was using both hands to try to staunch the bleeding. The doctor arrived and quickly took charge.
Luther Pell reappeared from behind the curtains. He looked at Oliver Ward and shook his head. Ward looked grim.
The stranger finally emerged from behind the curtain. He was in the act of reaching inside his white evening jacket. Amalie caught a glimpse of something metallic just before the elegantly tailored coat fell neatly back into place.
It took her a couple of seconds to comprehend what she had just seen. Then understanding struck. Like any self-respecting mobster, Luther Pell’s friend from out of town had come to the theater armed with a gun.
“This is a disaster,” Hazel announced. “We are ruined. Utterly destroyed. We can’t possibly survive such a catastrophe.”
“We will figure it out,” Amalie said. “We have to figure it out.”
“No,” Hazel wailed, “we’re finished. Mark my words, by tomorrow morning everyone in town will be saying this place really is cursed. We can’t survive rumors like that.”
She strode across the grandly furnished front room of the villa and came to a halt at the black lacquer liquor cabinet. Seizing a bottle of brandy, she yanked out the stopper and splashed a liberal amount of the contents into a glass. She downed a fortifying swallow and surveyed the surroundings.
“Damn,” she said. “It all seemed so perfect.”
When it came to high drama, Amalie reflected, no Hollywood actress could outshine Hazel Vaughn. She had once been a star attraction in the Ramsey Circus, one of the Fabulous Flying Vaughns. She had dazzled crowds with her daring tricks. She was middle-aged now but she still knew how to command an audience.
Amalie eyed the brandy and decided that she needed some, too. She pushed herself up out of the massive leather sofa and went to the liquor cabinet. Hoisting the bottle, she poured herself a stiff shot.
“You know what they say about something that seems too good to be true,” she said.
“If we had the cash, I’d get a lawyer and sue the real estate agent who sold us this place.”
“Well, we don’t have the money and I doubt if we would win anyway.” Amalie contemplated the big room. “It really is ideal for the kind of inn I imagined.”
In spite of the looming disaster, she loved the mansion. She still could not believe that she owned such an amazing dream house. The large villa on Ocean View Lane looked as if it had been made to order for a Hollywood movie, a film set in the sun-splashed Mediterranean. With its spacious, high-ceilinged rooms, massive stone fireplace, richly paneled walls, and beautiful tile work, it was a grand example of the Spanish colonial revival style. Crowned with a parapet roof clad in red tiles, the house rose three stories above the spacious walled grounds.
The gardens were lush and green. Orange and grapefruit trees perfumed the air. A shady grape arbor provided a delightful retreat. At the rear of the house a glass-and-iron conservatory and a broad patio made a beautiful setting in which to serve breakfast and tea to guests.
The two floors above the ground floor had been designed to accommodate a large number of houseguests for a Hollywood mogul who had planned to entertain on a lavish scale.
An expansive view of the sparkling Pacific Ocean and easy access to a secluded beach completed the gracious scene.
Perfect, Amalie thought. Except for the stupid curse.
“The agent should have warned you about the history of this villa,” Hazel said. “If you had known that a famous Hollywood psychic jumped off the roof a few months ago you would never have gone through with the purchase.”
“You’re wrong, Hazel.” Amalie took a sip of brandy and simultaneously put up a hand, palm out. “I would have bought it regardless. I couldn’t turn down such an incredible bargain.”
She had sunk the full amount of the small inheritance she had received from an uncle she had never met into the villa. She had to make the inn successful.
“The only reason the owner was willing to sell so cheap was because he knew full well he couldn’t get much for it, not after that psychic, Madam Zolanda, jumped off the roof,” Hazel said.
“In time, people will forget about the psychic who died here.”
“Maybe,” Hazel allowed. “But now that our first paying guest has been murdered by his own robot in front of a packed theater, we will never be able to attract customers.”
Amalie squared her shoulders. “We have no choice but to figure out how to turn a profit. We will find a way to make the Hidden Beach a premier place to stay in Burning Cove.”
“Got any ideas?”
“Not at the moment, but I’m sure something will come to me.” Amalie swallowed some more brandy and set the glass down. “Meanwhile, I’m going to go upstairs and take a look around Pickwell’s room.”
“It’s after midnight,” Hazel said. “We can pack up his things tomorrow. There’s no rush.”
“I think we can expect a visit from the police first thing in the morning,” Amalie said. “I want to examine the room before they show up.”
Hazel stared at her. “The police?”
“If Pickwell does not survive, his death will officially become a homicide.”
“Homicide by robot.” Hazel shuddered. “Gives a person the creeps, it does. It was like a scene out of a horror movie.”
Amalie thought about that for a beat. “Yes, it was, wasn’t it?”
“I will never forget what happened onstage tonight. I still can’t believe that machine murdered its inventor.”
“I find it hard to believe, too,” Amalie said.
She went behind the polished wooden bar that she and Hazel had decided to use as a front desk and opened the door to the small office that had once served as a coat closet. She took a key down off a brass hook.
“What do you expect to find?” Hazel asked.
“I have no idea.” Amalie crossed the lobby to the grand staircase. She paused, one hand on an ornate newel post, and looked back at Hazel. “But that scene onstage tonight has been bothering me.”
“I’m sure it bothered everyone.” Hazel narrowed her eyes. “What, in particular, has you worried? Besides the fact that we will probably be bankrupt within the month, I mean.”
“You said it, yourself—the murder was like a scene out of a horror movie.”
Hazel had been about to pour herself some more brandy. She hesitated. “Meaning?”
“Movies are elaborate illusions designed to fool an audience. Maybe we should not believe everything we thought we saw onstage tonight.”
“Huh.” Hazel appeared intrigued. “Do you think Dr. Pickwell faked his own murder?”
Amalie thought about the grim expressions she had seen on the faces of Oliver Ward and Luther Pell. Then she remembered the stranger who had worn a shoulder holster under his evening jacket.
“I am almost positive that Pickwell was shot with real bullets tonight,” she said. “But I am not so sure that the robot is to blame.”
“How can you say that? We saw that thing shoot Pickwell.”
“Maybe we saw what we were meant to see. Think about it, Hazel. You and I both know how easy it is to fool an audience.”
“True. But that blood looked real.”
Hazel pursed her lips. “Don’t you think it was strange that those two mob guys, Pell and his friend, were the first to rush down to the stage?”
“Oliver Ward and his wife headed for the stage, too.”
“Sure, but Irene Ward is a crime reporter. It makes sense that she would want the story and that her husband would want to keep an eye on her. There was no way to know if that robot would come back and shoot some more people. But why did Pell and that stranger get involved?”
“I have no idea,” Amalie said.
Hazel heaved a sigh and sank into one of the oversized chairs. She gazed morosely into the unlit fireplace.
“I suppose this means we’re going to get stiffed on the room rent,” she said. “Can’t collect from a dead man.”
“We don’t know for sure that Pickwell is dead,” Amalie said, trying to stay optimistic. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Take your time. It’s not like we’ve got a villa full of paying guests to look after.”
Amalie went quickly up the staircase. All things considered, it had been a very odd evening. She did not want to admit it, but Hazel might be right. Perhaps the disaster at the Palace tonight would hurt future business.
When she reached the landing she turned and went down the hall. She and Hazel had made certain to give Pickwell the best suite in the villa.
Make that the second-best suite.
Strictly speaking, Number Six wasn’t the most luxurious room in the mansion. That title belonged to the suite that had been used by Madam Zolanda, and after one quick look Amalie and Hazel had decided not to rent it out to guests. The psychic’s belongings—her colorful wardrobe, her personal effects, jewelry, costumes, and shoes—were still there.
The previous owner of the villa had instructed the real estate agent to sell the property with all of its contents. When Amalie had taken possession of the mansion she had become the new owner of everything inside Zolanda’s suite. There were no truly valuable baubles inside, but there were several nice pieces of jewelry, and some of the scarves and gowns were made of expensive materials. The plan was to discreetly sell a pair of earrings or a bracelet or perhaps a turban or a gown if and when the inn’s financial situation grew truly desperate.
She was in the process of sliding the key into the lock of Number Six when she heard the muffled rumble of a powerful engine turning into the drive. She listened closely. An expensive car, she decided. Not the police, then.
She let herself into the darkened room and hurried across the carpet to the French doors that opened onto the small balcony.
Taking a deep breath, she opened the doors and went out onto the balcony. Careful not to look straight down into the dense shadows of the gardens, she gripped the wrought iron railing and focused on the long sweep of the drive.
The twin beams of brilliant headlights slashed the night, moving swiftly toward the entrance of the villa.
A wave of apprehension came over her. She was very sure that whoever was behind the wheel of the speedster was not bringing good news.
She hurried back inside, paused to close the balcony doors, and went down the hall. The doorbell chimed just as she reached the top of the staircase. She saw Hazel rush toward the front door.
“I wonder who that can be?” Hazel said. “Sounds like an expensive car. Maybe it’s someone who just arrived from L.A. and wants a room because the Burning Cove Hotel is full. Perhaps we aren’t doomed, after all.”
“Hazel, wait . . .” Amalie said.
But she was too late. Hazel was already opening the big front door.
“Welcome to the Hidden Beach Inn,” she sang out. “You’re in luck. I believe we might have one room left . . . Oh.”
From where she stood at the top of the staircase Amalie could see the man who stood on the front steps. The shock of recognition made her go cold. Luther Pell’s mysterious associate, the stranger who wore a gun under his evening jacket, loomed in the doorway.
“Thank you,” he said. “Sorry for disturbing you at this hour. My name is Matthias Jones. May I come in?”
His voice, dark and intriguing, sent little frissons of electricity across the back of Amalie’s neck. She had never responded to a man’s voice in quite that way. It probably ought to worry her.
“Well, you’re here,” Hazel said, no longer the gracious innkeeper. “You might as well come in.”
“Thank you,” Matthias said.
He moved into the front hall and inclined his head toward Hazel, gravely polite. The niceties out of the way, he immediately switched his attention to Amalie. He watched her descend the staircase with an expression that somehow combined cool interest with even colder determination. Her intuition warned her that he was trying to decide if she was going to be a problem for him.
She could have told him that the answer was yes.
Fair enough, she thought. She had already concluded that he was going to be trouble for her.
Matthias Jones was lean and broad-shouldered with the sort of strong, fierce features that would never qualify as handsome. The bold nose, grim jaw, and smoldering amber eyes could more accurately be described as predatory. He was not unusually tall yet he somehow dominated the room.
He wore the same evening clothes he’d had on earlier that evening—the same crisply pleated trousers, the same white shirt, the same black bow tie. He was also wearing the same evening jacket that had been expertly tailored to conceal a shoulder holster. That meant he probably still wore the gun.
She was very sure that he was not going to leave until he was ready to do so. Matthias Jones was both an immovable object and an irresistible force.
“What can we do for you, Mr. Jones?” she asked, going for the cool, calm, always-in-command attitude of a professional innkeeper.
“I understand that Dr. Norman Pickwell was a guest here,” Matthias said. “I want to take a look around his room.”
Hazel’s brief moment of hope had given way to deep suspicion. “Are you a cop?”
Circus people and law enforcement had a long history of a fraught relationship, to say the least. When the circus was in town it was all too easy for the police to blame the highly transient crews of roustabouts and performers for any crimes that occurred while they were around. Got your pocket picked while you were watching the high wire act? Did a few tools go missing off your back porch? Blame the circus people.
“No,” Matthias said. “I’m not a cop. I’m doing a favor for a friend.”
That information should have come as a relief, Amalie thought. Instead it just confirmed her earlier suspicion. Matthias Jones was most likely connected to the mob.
“If you’re not a detective,” she said, “why should we let you look at Dr. Pickwell’s room?”
Matthias regarded her with eyes that revealed nothing except glacial-cold control.
“Pickwell didn’t make it,” he said. “He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”
Hazel sighed. “Oh, dear.”
Amalie did not take her attention off Matthias.
“I see,” she said. “I’m very sorry to hear that. But I still don’t understand why we should allow you to examine his belongings.”
“It’s a long story and one I’m not at liberty to discuss. All I can tell you is that I’m tracking a killer. I have reason to believe that he murdered Pickwell tonight.”
Hazel’s brows snapped together. “So, you are a detective?”
“I thought I made it clear,” Matthias said. “I’m not a cop. I’m conducting an investigation for a friend.”
Amalie eyed him. “You’re a private investigator?”
“Something like that.”
“What is there to investigate?” Hazel demanded. “Futuro, the robot, shot Dr. Pickwell. We saw the whole thing. Everyone in the audience was a witness, including you.”
“The robot pulled the trigger of the gun,” Matthias said. “But I’m certain that the person I’m after arranged for that to happen.”
“How is that possible?” Amalie said.
“I don’t know,” Matthias said. “With luck, there will be something in Pickwell’s room that will answer that question.”
He reached inside his jacket. Amalie stopped breathing.
But Matthias did not pull out his gun. Instead he handed her a card with a phone number on it.
“Call that number,” he said.
She started breathing again. “Who is going to answer?”
“A detective with the Burning Cove police. His name is Brandon. He’s in charge of the investigation into Pickwell’s death. He can assure you that I’m authorized to examine Pickwell’s room.”
Amalie looked at Hazel, who shrugged.
“Make the call,” Hazel said. “We don’t need any more trouble.”
Amalie crossed the room to the front desk and picked up the receiver of the enameled white and gold telephone. The ornate phone, along with the rest of the furnishings, had come with the villa.
She dialed the number. A gruff, masculine voice answered.
Amalie heard the clacking of typewriter keys and masculine voices in the background.
“This is Amalie Vaughn at the Hidden Beach Inn,” she said. “I’ve got a Mr. Matthias Jones here. He says that he has the authority to examine the guest room that was booked by Dr. Pickwell. Is that correct?”
“Yeah,” Brandon said. He sounded weary. “Let Jones look at whatever he wants.”
“I don’t understand,” Amalie said. “If this is police business, why aren’t you or someone else from the department handling the investigation?”
“Because it’s not police business, thank the Almighty. It’s Luther Pell’s personal business. That means that people like you and me want to stay as far away from it as possible. Understand?”
“Yes,” Amalie said, “I certainly do understand. There is nothing I would like better than to stay out of Luther Pell’s business, but I seem to have landed in the middle of it.”
There was a long sigh on the other end of the line.
“I know. Sorry about that, Miss Vaughn. My advice? Cooperate with Jones. The sooner he gets his look around Pickwell’s room, the sooner he’ll leave you alone.”
“Thank you for that very helpful advice, Detective Brandon.”
She lowered the receiver into the cradle and looked at Matthias Jones.
“Follow me,” she said.
“Thanks,” Matthias said. “I appreciate the cooperation.”
“Don’t thank me. Hazel and I are new in town but we’ve been here long enough to figure out how things work. You’re a friend of Luther Pell’s and Pell is one of the people who control this town. That means he also controls the Burning Cove Police Department.”
“I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.”
“No, Mr. Jones,” Amalie said. “It’s a fact of life here in Burning Cove.”