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“I haven’t the faintest idea,” he said wryly.
Without thinking she started up the long, narrow stairs to the second floor. There were four bedrooms and a bath off the center hallway. The claw-footed bathtub was stained with rust, the old linoleum on the floor was cracked and torn. Three of the bedrooms were abandoned, smelling of mice and mildew, the fourth was relatively more habitable.
It had a fireplace, as well, probably connected to the same sorry chimney. The old iron bed was high and wide, covered with quilts and a myriad of pillows that had somehow survived the mice. The casement windows stood open to the lake, and an old wicker chair had been drawn up close. There was a book open on the floor beside it, and she moved closer, curious. Then she realized that Mr. Smith had followed her up the stairs and was leaning in the doorway, watching her while she poked around his bedroom.
“Looks like the roof needs replacing,” she said calmly. “Or at least mending.”
The man was very annoying. He either said too much or too little. “Look at the watermarks on the ceiling by the fireplace,” she said. “The flashing needs fixing. And there are some stains near the window. Maybe ice dams, but since this house isn’t used in the winter that’s probably not it. No one shovels the roof in the winter, so it’s most likely weakened from the weight of the snow. You need someone to come and check it out or the whole thing might collapse on you while you’re lying in bed.”
Damn, why had she said the word bed? she thought hastily. Without thinking they both turned to contemplate the bed. “We wouldn’t want that, now would we?” Mr. Smith said. “Who do I call?”
She was still curious about that thick tome by the side of his chair, and she had no intention of leaving the room until she read the title. “Hank Maynard fixes chimneys. Zebulon King does carpentry, and you can probably get his wife and son to come in and clean the place if they’re not too busy working for the other summer people. They’re a little odd, but good workers.”
“Summer people? Is that what I am?” He sounded amused at the notion.
“Those are the people who come in the summer and leave when it gets cold. You’re a summer person.”
“What makes you think I’ll be leaving?”
She ignored that. “How’s the plumbing?”
“Aren’t you going to check?” he asked. “You’re very thorough.”
She refused to blink. “I’ll take your word for it.”
“The water’s rusty, but the pipes seem to work.”
She moved around the chair, too damned close to the bed, ostensibly to look at the casement windows. The framing seemed in good shape, and the glass was still intact. She glanced down at the book, then stepped back hastily.
“Finished?” he asked pleasantly.
“Finished. I’ll write down those names and phone numbers for you. The first rush of summer business is over, so they should be able to help you. I imagine Marge Averill can send the bills to whoever still owns this place.” She looked up at him. “You really ought to find a more comfortable place to rent. This place is in lousy condition—anyone would be a fool to buy it.”
“What makes you think I’m interested in buying it?”
A wave of relief washed over Sophie. “Silly of me. No one would want to buy this place….”
“Except you, obviously. Don’t worry, Sophie. I’m not here permanently. You’ll have your privacy back before long.”
She still didn’t trust him. “In the meantime I’m not sure how safe this place is. Maybe you ought to see about renting the Wilson place on Black’s Point—”
“I like it right here.” He moved out of the doorway, just enough to let her pass. She had to brush against him in the narrow, dark space, and she didn’t like it. She found she was holding her breath until she got past him.
She was sitting at the table, scribbling down notes, when he came up behind her. She concentrated on her list, ignoring him, until he spoke.
“So what happened to the Whitten girl?”
She glanced up at him. “I imagine she just got bored with the place and took off. Just because there were murders here a long time ago doesn’t mean that it will happen again. Most young women need a little more adventure than Colby can offer.”
“I’ve never cared much for adventure,” she said in a calm voice.
“When did she disappear? Before or after the killer got out of jail?”
She turned to face him. “You seem awfully interested in our old murders, Mr. Smith.”
He shrugged. “Just curious.”
“Curious enough to be reading a book called Encyclopedia of Serial Killers?” she shot back. “You’re as bad as my mother.”
“Your mother likes to read about serial killers? How very interesting.”
“She used to like true-crime books. Now she doesn’t read much of anything.” She rose from the table. “Those names should get you started. That is, if you’ve decided to stay.”
“Oh, I’ve decided. Nothing could make me leave here until I’m good and ready to go.”
It was far from the best news she’d ever heard. There also wasn’t a damned thing she could do about it. “I need to get back to the inn,” she said.
“Of course you do. You’ve been very…neighborly.”
She didn’t glare at him, as much as she wanted to. She headed toward the door, uncomfortably aware of his eyes on her. She paused. “I wouldn’t drink the water from the tap if I were you. Buy some bottled stuff at Audley’s. I think they get the water straight from the lake here.”
“I don’t mind a little gasoline.”
“That would be the least of your worries. I’d hate to think of how sick you’d be if you picked up something organic. Stomach bugs can be downright nasty around here.”
“Now, why do I have trouble believing you care?” he murmured.
“If you were doubled over in your bathroom you’d be out of reach of my sister, but I don’t think I could in good conscience let that happen,” she said in her coolest voice.
“It’s not your sister I’m interested in.”
She almost thought she’d misunderstood him. She stared at him across the room, but he didn’t even blink. Finally, she gave in to her cowardice, letting the screen door slam behind her as she made her escape down the path.
Why the hell had he said that? Griffin picked up the sheet of paper and squinted at the names, then took off his glasses to get a better look. Instead he found himself analyzing her handwriting. He would have thought she’d have a tight-fisted, crabbed style of writing. That, or something with too many curlicues and even smiley faces over the Is. Instead she had a bold, slashing script, a little hard to read, but strong. He glanced up at the screen door, half expecting her to still be there. She was long gone.
Not his type, he reminded himself. He liked his women skinny and sophisticated, with short skirts and long legs and no emotion. He wasn’t interested in a chintz-wearing domestic goddess who viewed him as the Big Bad Wolf come to chow down on her little sister. Particularly when Sophie Davis was much more succulent.
The thought was unbidden and quickly dismissed. He didn’t have the time or the inclination to spend thinking about getting beneath his neighbor’s flowered, ruffled skirts, even though he was obscurely tempted. He needed to find out what he wanted to know and then get the hell out of there. Telling her he was thinking of buying the Whitten place was just a bluff, to see her reaction. There was no way he’d tie himself to a town like Colby, not with his history. No matter how much it called to him. It was nostalgia, not destiny. Hell, he didn’t even believe in destiny, or much of anything at all.
In the meantime, though, he was going to have to make himself more comfortable, and getting rid of mouse turds and being able to make a decent cup of coffee were two major requirements. Not to mention making sure the roof didn’t fall in on him while he was lying in bed with…
/> Lying in bed alone, he reminded himself sharply.
Shit, maybe it was the air around Colby. Maybe he hadn’t just been a randy young drifter, maybe the air had an aphrodisiac quality. Because truth to tell, he’d been hard ever since he’d seen Sophie Davis look at his rumpled bed, and he knew better than that.
Get in, do the job and get out. It had always been his mantra in life, and this situation was no different. He needed to concentrate on finding out what happened twenty years ago, not waste his time being distracted by animal instincts he’d long outgrown.
He leaned back in the old chair, looking at the decrepit cottage with new eyes. So Sara Ann Whitten had disappeared some time while he’d been in prison? He tried to remember her but came up blank. The Whittens had been an older couple, and their daughter must have been too young to catch Griffin’s predatory eye at the time.
He glanced around the room. In the wake of Colby’s burgeoning revival as an exclusive vacation spot, this place would be worth a fortune. Instead it sat by the lake, abandoned, for years on end. According to the real estate agent the title on the old house was murky. The parents were dead, and the daughter had been missing for years. There was no one around to care enough to have the girl declared dead, no one who cared enough to see to the old house. The town fathers had finally decided to rent it to cover some of the unpaid taxes, but sooner or later it would be sold at auction.
What would make a young girl run away? Granted, northern Vermont was about as far off the beaten track as you could get, but to never return, never tell anyone where you were going, seemed unlikely. Particularly when a murderer had roamed that very area.
Too bad for Sara Ann Whitten, but he really wanted to believe she was murdered, her body buried somewhere. Because that would prove without a doubt that he hadn’t killed anyone, that there’d been a serial killer loose who happened to prey on the young women of Colby’s year-round community. Or at least it would prove it enough to give him peace of mind.
He reached for his notebook, shoved the list of names inside, then started writing. Number one, get into the hospital wing and see if anything jarred his memory. Number two, find out anything he could about Sara Ann Whitten. When she disappeared, who she was involved with at the time, what people thought happened. See if she had any friends still around who might have heard from her.
Number three, search the Whitten house for anything that might suggest what happened to her.
Number four, find out if any of the murdered girls’ families still lived in Colby, and figure out whether or not he could talk to them without them realizing who he was.
Number five. Keep away from Sophie Davis and her randy sister and her gaga mother with the too-sharp eyes. And try to avoid Doc Henley, as well.
And all that would only be a start. He figured he’d give it a couple of weeks if he was lucky, maybe less if the weather turned cold early. He couldn’t spend too much of his life looking for answers that he might not find. He’d already lost five years he wasn’t going to get back. Finding the truth would simply enable him to let go of it and get on with things. Maybe.
No time like the present to get to work. He pulled out his cell phone and punched in numbers before he realized there was no signal. Nada.
He flipped the paper over to Sophie’s side, and wrote beneath her list, Get the goddamned telephone turned on. Then he shoved his cell phone back in his pocket.
“He’s a reporter.”
“I beg your pardon?” Marge gave her a strange look. “Who is?”
“John Smith. If that’s even his name. He’s doing research on serial killers, he’s got law books and medical books and case studies all over his bedroom.”
“His bedroom?” Marge said blankly. “How the hell did he get you in his bedroom so fast? I thought you were the Virgin Mary.”
Sophie gave her an irritated look. “I was helping him out.”
“Sure you were.”
“He wanted my advice on what needed to be done around the Whitten camp, so I showed him. I told him to have it done and have them send the bills to you.”
“Like hell you did,” Marge said in horror.
“Like hell I did,” Sophie agreed placidly. “Whenever the town finally decides to sell the old place you’ll get the money back. In the meantime it can come out of the rent.”
“The town’s garnishing the rent for back taxes.”
“Then tell them to sell it to me.”
“You can’t afford it right now.”
“Good point,” Sophie said morosely, stabbing her slice of peach pie. The two women sat on the porch. “And that man probably can. He said he wasn’t interested in buying it, but I don’t believe a word he said. There’s no way a stranger would just show up here toting a bunch of books on serial killers if he didn’t have some kind of agenda. And why the hell would he want to buy it? He was just trying to scare me. Though why would he want to scare me?”
“He told you he’s really a reporter?” Marge broke in on her rattled musings.
“Of course not. And I could be wrong—instead of a reporter he could be writing the kind of true-crime thrillers my mother used to devour. I bet if I look through her stacks of books I’ll find one with his picture on the back cover.”
“As long as it’s the back cover and not the front,” Marge said. “You know, it seems to me that you’re the one whose imagination has gone into overdrive. Lots of people read about serial killers.”
“Then he’s probably a very rich writer,” Sophie said grimly. “Which means he can afford to buy the house out from under me.”
“I think you need to take a deep breath and calm down,” Marge said, pushing her empty plate away from her. “And you need to stop feeding me your food. I’ve gained fifteen pounds since you moved here.”
“So have I,” Sophie said mournfully. “And I can’t afford it.”
“Tell you what. Get your mother and sister to help with the cooking. That way no one will be tempted to eat much.”
Sophie made a face. “Great idea. Then I’ll be flat broke in a matter of weeks.”
“I thought you were already flat broke.”
“Close to it.”
“So why are you wasting your time worrying about the Whitten place and your Mr. Smith?” Marge asked, practical as always.
“Not my Mr. Smith!” she protested. “And maybe I just want to be distracted from my problems.”
“And maybe you’re more interested in Mr. Smith than you want to admit. There’s no question he’s a very attractive man if you like that sort.”
“What sort? Tall, dark and loathsome?”
Marge grinned. “Yeah, you keep on thinking that way, missy. If you ask me, the man’s hot, and you’d be a fool not to do something about it.”
“The only thing I’m about to do is check on my mother and sister. Mr. Smith can snoop around all he wants—I’m planning to ignore him.”
“As you’ve ignored him so far? Good luck, babe,” Marge said lazily. “If you’re really not interested in him I’ll have a crack at him. He’s too young for me but I can be open-minded.”
Sophie opened her mouth to protest, then shut it again. Marge was baiting her, and the awful truth was, Sophie was rising to it. She didn’t want Marge sleeping with her mysterious neighbor. She didn’t want anyone having him. She wanted him to simply disappear, as Sara Ann Whitten had so long ago, so she could concentrate on important things like her family and her extremely shaky business venture. She didn’t have the time or energy to waste on a stranger with a hidden agenda.
“Feel free,” Sophie said breezily. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. He’s probably only here to research a new book on the Colby murders, and he doesn’t care who he uses.”
“I think you’ve got one hell of an imagination yourself, Sophie. You ought to start writing fiction instead of columns on the perfect strawberry jam and how to turn your lawn mower into a planter.”
“I plead guilty to the first
, but not the second. And speaking of which, I need someone to help with the garden and the mowing. Jeff Pritchard went back to college early. Can you think of anyone?”
“I’ll send Patrick Laflamme over,” Marge said, sounding amused at the notion. “He’s the only one I can think of who’s strong enough to resist Marty’s siren lures.”
“Is he old and ugly? Anything less would be too dangerous.”
“Sorry, he’s young and cute. He’s also tough enough to ignore Marty. Don’t worry about him—he’s got good old-fashioned Yankee values and a mother who’d put the fear of God into anyone. He won’t lead your sister astray.”
“I’m more worried about the other way around,” Sophie said grimly.
It was late afternoon by the time Sophie got back to her kitchen. The weeds in the perennial garden couldn’t be ignored any longer, and then there was laundry to do and Marty to harass into eating something. Sophie was always terrified that Marty was going to become anorexic, but in fact she ate enough. Her reed-thin body just never showed it. Which just went to show how unfair heredity was. Sophie’s mother Grace had always been slender and willowy, while Marty’s mother had constantly battled her weight. Sophie should have been the one to inherit a skinny metabolism.
She was planning on making another peach pie, a dire mistake since she’d end up eating most of it, but she couldn’t let all those wonderful peaches go to waste. Marty had left her dishes in the sink, as usual, and she was lying down by the lake, courting skin cancer at an early age. Sophie just shook her head and put the dishes in the dishwasher, then reached for the earthenware crock she kept her flour in when she noticed the yellowed newspaper on the counter.
At first she thought it was some kind of flyer, but as she looked closer she realized it was an actual copy of the Northeast Kingdom Gazette from long ago. Twenty years ago, in fact. And the headline read “Murder in the Kingdom.”
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