Smoke In Mirrors
Jayne Ann Krentz

Excerpt

Chapter One

The present...

A shifting of the light reflected in the mirror above the dresser was the only warning she had that she was not alone in the dead woman's apartment. Her hands went cold. The fine hair on the nape of her neck stirred as if she had been zapped with an electrical charge.

Leonora straightened swiftly from the drawer she had been searching and spun around, a soft, pale pink cashmere sweater in her hands.

Two junkyard dogs stood in the doorway of the bedroom.

One of them was human.

His broad shoulders filled a lot of the available space and cut off the view of the hall behind him. There was about him the deceptively relaxed, totally centered grace of the natural-born predator. Not an impulsive young hunter overeager to take down the first of the prey that bolts from cover, rather a jaded pro who prefers to pick and choose his targets. He had the face of a man who had done a lot of things in life the hard way and he also had the cold gray eyes to match.

The ghost-gray beast at his heels had a lot in common with his companion. Not real big, but very solid. One of his ears was permanently bent, the result of a fight, no doubt. It was difficult to imagine this creature springing playfully in pursuit of a Frisbee. Probably tear the thing to shreds and eat the plastic raw.

Both of the intruders looked dangerous but her intuition told her to keep her eyes on the man. She could not see his hands. They were thrust casually into the deep pockets of a charcoal-colored windbreaker. He wore the lightweight jacket open over a buttondown denim shirt and a pair of khaki trousers. His feet were shod in leather work boots. The boots looked large.

Both man and beast were damp from the rain that misted this stretch of the southern California coast today. Each gave the impression that going for her throat would be no big deal. All in a morning's work.

"Were you a friend of hers or did you just happen to hear that she was dead and decide to drop in to see if there was anything worth stealing?" the human junkyard dog asked.

His voice suited him. A low, dark, very soft growl.

She got a grip on her hyperactive imagination. "Who are you?"

"I asked you first. Which is it, friend or casual opportunist? Either way, I figure you're a thief so maybe the answer is moot."

"How dare you?" Outrage incinerated some of the alarm that had quickened her pulse. "I am not a thief. I'm a librarian." Damn, that sounded dumb. Well, no one could say that she couldn't hold her own when it came to snappy reporters, she thought.

"No kidding." His mouth curved into a mockery of a smile. "Looking for overdue books? You should have known better than to give Meredith Spooner a library card. Doubt if she ever returned anything she stole in her entire life."

"Your sense of humor leaves a lot to be desired."

"I'm not auditioning for a late-night comedy show."

One had to be forceful in situations such as this, Leonora thought. Take the initiative. Take charge. Gain the upper hand with a show of confidence and authority. It wasn't as though she had not had some experience with difficult people. In the course of her career as an academic librarian she was occasionally obliged to deal with a variety of obnoxious patrons, from egotistical, demanding faculty members to boorish frat boys.

She went deliberately toward the door, praying that the stranger and his dog would step back in that automatic way most creatures did when you made it clear that you wanted to move past them.

"As a matter of fact I have every right to be here, which is probably a good deal more than you can say." She gave man and dog a steely smile. "I suggest we discuss this with the apartment manager."

"The manager's busy. Something about a plumbing emergency down on the third floor. I have a feeling we'd both rather deal with this privately, anyway. Got a name?"

It became glaringly apparent that neither he nor the dog was going to get out of her way. She was forced to halt in the middle of the room.

"Of course I've got a name," she said crisply. "But I don't see any reason why I should give it to you."

"Let me take a wild guess. Leonora Hutton?"

She froze. "How did you know?"

He shrugged. The easy movement drew her attention once again to the impressive width of his shoulders. The fact that they fascinated her was worrisome. Normally she was not the least bit attracted to male muscle. She preferred the intellectual type.

"Meredith didn't have a long list of friends," he said. "Mostly she just had marks, from what I can tell."

"Marks."

"Marks. Targets. Victims. Dupes. Whatever you call the people she used, conned or fleeced in the course of her scams. But unlike most of the people in her email address book, you and she went back a ways from what I can tell." He paused a beat. "Assuming you're Leonora Hutton, that is."

She set her teeth together. "Yes, all right, I'm Leonora Hutton. Now, who are you?"

"Walker. Thomas Walker." He glanced down at the dog. "This is Wrench."

Wrench tilted his broad head and grinned in response to the sound of his name.

She looked at Wrench's impressive array of teeth. "Does he bite?"

"Nah." Thomas was apparently amused by the question. "Wrench is a real sweetheart. Very nonconfrontational. Probably a miniature poodle in his former life."

She did not believe that for one moment. If Wrench had had a former life he had no doubt lived it as a giant medieval hunting mastiff. But she decided not to make an issue of it.

"We've been waiting for you to show up, Miss Hutton," Thomas said.

She was aghast. "Waiting for me?"

"Three days now. Spent most of the time in that coffee shop across the street." He angled his jaw toward the window and the partial view of a block of small shops. "You were the one who claimed the body and made the burial arrangements last week. Figured you'd come to clean out her apartment sooner or later."

"You seem to know a great deal about me."

He smiled. It was the kind of smile that made her want to take a couple of steps back, turn and run for her life. But that would be the worst thing she could do, she told herself. She knew enough about animal behavior to know that predators only got more excited by fleeing prey.

"Not nearly as much as I'd like to know about you, Miss Hutton."

There was nowhere to run, anyway. He had her cornered in this small, barren room. She stood her ground.

"How did you get hold of Meredith's email address book?" she asked.

"That was easy," Thomas said. "I came here and helped myself to her laptop just as soon as I heard the news about the crash."

The casual admission left her speechless for a few seconds.

"You stole her computer?" she finally managed to ask.

"Let's just say I borrowed it." He gave her another one of his chilling, humorless smiles. "In the same spirit that she borrowed one-point-five million bucks from the Bethany Walker Endowment Fund."

Oh, damn. This was bad. This was very, very bad. Embezzlement had been one of Meredith's favorite sports but her preferred victims had been other cons and scam artists who had not been in a position to complain too loudly. And to the best of Leonora's knowledge, she had never gone after a score of this magnitude. Trust Meredith to go out with a bang, not a whimper.

And trust her to leave me with the mess to clean up.

"Are you a cop?" she asked warily.

"No."

"Private investigator?"

He shook his head. "No."

Not the law. She didn't know if that was good news or bad news.

She cleared her throat. "Did you know Meredith personally?"

"Oh, yeah, I knew her," he said. "Of course, like a lot of folks who had that privilege, I wish I had never met her, but hindsight is always twenty-twenty, isn't it?"

Understanding descended with the inevitability of a shroud.

"I see. You were one of her-" She broke off, searching for a diplomatic turn of phrase. "The two of you were, uh, acquainted socially?"

His mouth was a flat line. "Not for long."

He had been one of Meredith's lovers, then. For some reason that news was oddly depressing. Why should she care whether or not this man had had an affair with Meredith? He certainly wouldn't have been the first. It occurred to her that he might have had the distinction of being the last, however.

"I'm surprised," she said, without stopping to think. "You're not her usual type."

Oh, jeez. What in the world had made her say that?

It was the truth, though. Meredith had had a long- standing policy of sticking to men she could manipulate. Something about Thomas Walker sent a message that he wouldn't play the puppet-on-a-string game for long, not even for a woman as savvy and sexy and as skilled in manipulative techniques as Meredith.

If she could see that stark truth, Leonora thought, Meredith, who'd had preternaturally acute instincts where the male of the species was concerned, had almost certainly seen it also. Maybe that was why the relationship hadn't lasted long.

"Meredith had a type?" Thomas looked mildly surprised by that information. Then he nodded in a thoughtful way. "Well, hell, I guess you're right. She did have some distinct preferences, when it came to her social life, didn't she? Far as I can tell she only dated men she figured could help her further her own agenda."

Leonora wondered if the real problem here was that Thomas had been badly hurt when Meredith's true nature was revealed. A broken heart could generate a lot of pain, and pain could produce anger. Maybe he was grieving in his own macho, masculine fashion.

She offered a sympathetic smile.

"I'm sorry," she said very gently.

"Yeah, me, too. More than sorry. When I found out that she had embezzled the one-point-five mil I was kind of pissed off, if you want to know the truth."

Okay, he wasn't exactly prostrate with grief. He was mad.

"Uh-" Inspiration failed her.

"What about you?" Thomas asked much too pleasantly. "Any fond memories of the deceased? How far back did you two go?"

"We met in college. We've kept in touch all these years, but-" She swallowed and tried again. "I didn't see much of her in the past few months."

Not since I found her in bed with my fiancˇ, she added silently but she saw no reason to bring up that dismal subject.

"You should probably consider yourself fortunate," Thomas said. "Meredith Spooner was bad news. But, then, I'll bet you already know that."

Old habits were hard to break. The instinct to cover up, defend and make excuses for Meredith kicked in, just as it always did when crunch time hit.

She raised her chin. "Are you absolutely certain Meredith embezzled that money?"

"Positive."

"How did she manage that?"

"Easy. Took a job as an alumni endowment fund development officer at Eubanks College. As the person in charge of the money on a day-to-day basis, she had access to all the accounts and to a lot of wealthy alumni. Add in the fact that she had the morals of a con artist and great computer skills and you have the recipe for embezzlement."

"If what you say is true, why are you here? With that kind of money involved, I would have thought you'd have gone to the police."

"I'm trying to avoid the cops."

"When there's more than a million dollars missing?" She saw a chance to go on the offensive and grabbed it. "That sounds very suspicious to me. It certainly casts some doubts on your story, Mr. Walker."

"I want to avoid the cops because that kind of bad publicity can really hurt an endowment fund. Undermines the faith of potential donors. Makes them question the integrity of the folks entrusted with the responsibility for managing the money, know what I mean?"

She'd had enough experience with the delicate politics of academic endowment fund raising to realize that he had a point. But that was no reason to let him off the hook. Besides, he didn't look at all like the kind of person who got involved in college endowments. That business was run by suave, cultured types who wore good suits and who knew how to make nice with wealthy alumni.

She gave him her most polished smile. "I think I'm getting the picture here. My turn to take a wild guess. Could it be that you haven't reported the missing money to the authorities, Mr. Walker, because for some reason you think you might be a prime suspect?"

His dark brows rose in silent appreciation of the direct hit. "Close, Miss Hutton. Not quite on target, but very, very close."

"I knew it."

"Meredith left a trail that would point to my brother, Deke, if the embezzlement is exposed."

"Your brother." She digested that slowly. "Where exactly is the headquarters of this Bethany Walker Fund?"

"It's part of the alumni endowment of Eubanks College. It was set up to support research and teaching in the field of mathematics."

"Eubanks?" She frowned. "I'm not familiar with that institution."

"It's a small college in a little town called Wing Cove. About an hour and a half's drive north of Seattle."

"I see."

"The fund is named for Deke's wife, Bethany, a brilliant mathematician. She died last year. Deke is the head of the board that oversees the fund's operations and investments. In three months there will be an audit. If that money turns up missing, he will look like the guy responsible for making it disappear, thanks to sweet Meredith."

A typical Meredith operation, Leonora thought. Make sure the victim of the scam won't call the cops.

"I realize how upsetting this must be for you and your brother, Mr. Walker. But I must say, for a man who wants to keep the situation low profile, you seem to be quite chatty on the subject."

"That's because I have a strong interest in recovering the money. I want it back in the fund's account before that damned audit."

"I understand," she said. "But why are you talking to me about this?"

"Simple. You're my best lead."

She stared. "I beg your pardon?"

"Let me put it this way, you're my only lead."

Panic shot through her. "But I don't know anything about that missing money."

"Yeah?" He looked unconvinced. "Let's say for the sake of argument that you're telling me the truth-"

"I am telling you the truth."

"Even if that is the case, you're still my only lead."

"Why?"

"Because you knew Meredith better than anyone else, as far as I can tell. I'm really hoping that you can help me out here, Miss Hutton."

In your dreams, Leonora thought. "I just told you, I didn't have much contact with her this past year. I wasn't even aware that she had a job at Eubanks College. I didn't know she was living here in this apartment until the authorities contacted me after the accident."

"No kidding. According to the manager, she used your name on the rental application."

Leonora said nothing. It wasn't the first time Meredith had borrowed her good name and credit references.

"I doubt that she intended to stay here long." Thomas surveyed the room with its bare-bones furnishings and uninspiring view. "Probably just needed a staging area and an address she could use while she set up her next scam."

"Look, I really don't know what to say. I can't help you, Mr. Walker. I'm only here to pack up Meredith's belongings. I intend to donate most of her stuff to a local thrift shop. When that job is done, I'm going straight home. I have reservations on an evening flight. I'm supposed to be at work in the morning."

"Home is Melba Creek, right? Outside of San Diego?"

She tried to ignore the unsettling sensation that trickled through her. "Okay, so you know where I live. Is that supposed to scare me?'

"I'm not trying to scare you, Miss Hutton. I'm trying to work with you."

"Uh huh."

"I've got a business proposition for you."

"Give me one good reason why I should listen to it."

"I'll give you a couple. The first is that if you cooperate with me and help me locate the money, I'll see to it that you get a finder's fee."

"Let me get this straight. You'll bribe me to return the money?"

"Beats going to prison for embezzlement, doesn't it?"

"Prison?" She did take a reflexive step back at that. Wrench shifted a little in response and looked interested. She froze. "Why would I be arrested? You said your brother was the one who would appear guilty if that money isn't found."

"I don't intend for my brother to take the fall for Meredith's embezzlement scam," Thomas said softly. "If that money isn't back in the account before the next audit, I'm going to make sure the cops look real hard at you."

"How?"

"Deke is a wizard when it comes to computers. I'm pretty good on the financial side. Shouldn't be too difficult to create a trail from Meredith to you."

"Me?" She was dumbfounded. "But I had nothing to do with Meredith's embezzlement."

"Who knows? Maybe you'll even be able to prove that in the end. But I can arrange to make life damn miserable for you in the meantime. Tell me, how do you think your employer would react if it got out that you were being investigated for embezzlement?"

"How dare you threaten to drag me into this mess?"

He took one hand out of his pocket. It was a very large, powerful, competent-looking hand, the hand of a man who worked with tools or climbed rocks. Not the soft, manicured hand of a businessman.

He spread his fingers in a fait-accompli gesture.

"In case you haven't noticed, Miss Hutton. You're already in this mess. Right up to your very nice ears."

"How can you say that?"

"You're the closest thing to a friend that Meredith had, as far as I can tell. In my book that makes you the closest thing she had to a partner."

"I wasn't her partner."

"The two of you have a history. You're the only person she kept in touch with through thick and through thin. I'm pretty sure that with a little help from Deke, I can make you look like her accomplice."

"My God, you're serious, aren't you?"

"With one-and-a-half million, plus my brother's reputation on the line? Yeah, Miss Hutton, I'm damned serious. Cooperate with me. Help me find the money and we can both walk away from this without anyone having to hire a lawyer."

"Just where do you think I would stash that kind of cash?"

"At this point, all I know for sure is that it's not in your personal bank account."

She felt her jaw drop. "You checked?"

"First thing after I found your name in Meredith's email address book."

"How?"

"I told you, my brother is good with computers."

"That kind of invasion of privacy is illegal. I could have you arrested."

"No shit. I'll have to remember that for future reference."

She glared. "And you have the nerve to accuse me of criminal behavior."

"Go figure."

"I don't believe this." She felt dazed. "It's beyond bizarre."

He looked almost amused. "Be grateful. You've got the easy part. All you have to do is help me find the money."

She watched him warily. "What's the hard part? Getting it back into the endowment fund?"

"No. That will be simple. The hard part is going to be convincing my brother that Meredith Spooner wasn't murdered."

She felt the air leave her lungs in a rush. Stunned, she gazed at him, her mind a complete blank for about three full seconds.

"The police didn't say anything about murder," she finally got out.

"That's because they didn't find any evidence to indicate the crash was anything other than an accident," he said. "Probably because there wasn't any."

She got the feeling he'd had this conversation a number of times in recent days.

"But your brother takes another view of the situation?" she asked.

"Deke is-" He broke off, apparently searching for the right word. "Some people think he's a little obsessed with his theory that his wife, Bethany, was murdered a year ago. When he heard about Meredith's accident he leaped to the conclusion that the killer had struck again."

"Good grief. What do you think?"

Thomas was silent for a time. Wrench leaned heavily against his leg, as though offering support.

She thought that Thomas might brush off the question with all its horrifying implications. But to her amazement he just shook his head.

"I don't know," he said eventually.

"You don't know? What is that supposed to mean? We're talking about murder, here."

"Look, all I can tell you is that a year ago when Bethany died, I didn't think there was any question about what had happened. The official verdict was suicide. Unfortunately, it seemed to fit the circumstances and there was no evidence of violence."

"Was there a note?"

"No. But that's not as unusual as people think."

"Suicide is always so difficult for those who knew the victim. No wonder your brother is looking for other answers. But what is it about Meredith's death that makes him think there's a connection?"

"Not much," Thomas admitted. "Meredith didn't arrive in Wing Cove until six months after Bethany died. The two never even met. But Deke is trying to see patterns where none exist. The only thing Meredith and Bethany had in common as far as I know was that each of them spent a lot of time at Mirror House."

"What is Mirror House?"

"The headquarters of the Eubanks College Alumni Association."

"That's it? They worked in the same place? That's the only connection you've got?"

He hesitated briefly. "The only solid one."

"No offense to your brother, but that's extremely weak."

"I'm aware of that, Miss Hutton." Thomas's voice was grim. "Like I said, Deke has had a difficult time coming to terms with Bethany's death. I've done my best to discourage his conspiracy theories. I thought I was making progress in the past few months. He seemed to be coming out of his depression, at least. But Meredith's death has set him off again."

She replayed his earlier comment in her head. "Wait a second. You said the fact that Bethany and Meredith worked in the same place was the only solid link between the two deaths. Are there other, less substantial connections?"

"Maybe," he said slowly. "One possibility, at any rate."

His obvious reluctance told her that he was not buying into his brother's conspiracy theory completely, but that he felt obligated to give it some credence. A family loyalty thing, probably. She knew only too well how that worked.

"What?" she asked when he offered no further details.

"After the funeral, there were rumors."

"Rumors?"

"Some local gossip that Bethany may have been experimenting with drugs at the time of the suicide," he said reluctantly. "Deke and I agree that would have been completely out of character. She never did drugs so far as we know."

"Were any drug tests run at the time of her death?"

"There were some routine things done, but there was no reason to go looking for anything exotic that would have required a lot of unique and expensive testing. Small-town law enforcement and medical examiner budgets don't allow for extensive tests unless there's a serious question about the cause of death. She had no history of drug use. Deke had questions about the suicide, but they didn't revolve around drugs. And there's no going back now. Bethany was cremated according to the stipulations in her will."

"Meredith's death was ruled an accident. There was no indication of drugs or alcohol involvement. How do the rumors about Bethany Walker link to her death?"

"After the news of the crash reached us in Wing Cove, there was some gossip that Meredith had been doing drugs while she lived there."

"No," Leonora said flatly.

He narrowed his eyes. "No? You're sure of that?"

"Oh, yes. Very sure. Lord knows, Meredith had her faults, but doing drugs was not one of them. Her mother killed herself with them, you see."

"Huh."

Thomas said nothing more. Just looked thoughtful. Wrench looked bored.

"Traffic accidents happen all the time." She wondered if she was trying to convince him or herself. "And there's no motive for murder."

"I wouldn't say that. One-point-five mil is a lot of money. Let's assume for the sake of argument that Meredith did have a partner. Someone who didn't want to split the profits."

She felt as if she was falling down the rabbit hole. This was getting worse and worse.

"For the last time, I wasn't Meredith's partner," she said tightly. "I knew nothing about this scam you claim she was running at Eubanks College."

"Prove it. Help me find the money she embezzled."

"You're threatening me. I really hate that."

"I've also offered a hefty finder's fee," he reminded her. "Think of it as the carrot-and-stick approach."

"If you don't mind," she said icily, "I've got to finish packing up Meredith's things."

"Which reminds me. I've got a question about that."

"What question?"

"Why are you the one who came here today? Why is it your job to clean out the apartment and deal with the final details of Meredith Spooner's life?"

Leonora looked around at the unadorned walls and the impersonal furnishings. It was difficult to imagine Meredith, always so vivid and exciting, spending the last few days of her life in this plain, dull space.

A great sadness welled up inside Leonora. Meredith had been complicated and frequently maddening. Whenever she had appeared, trouble had followed. But the world would certainly be a less colorful place without her.

"There was no one else to do it," Leonora said.

—Reprinted from Smoke in Mirrors by Jayne Ann Krentz by permission of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © January 2002, Jayne Ann Krentz. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form