Avalanche (A Stone Mountain Mystery Book 3) (8 page)

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

In answer to the bell, Jessica shoved open her front door with her hip, pushing against the wind that threatened to shove her back into her suite. Snow whipped across her driveway, blocking out her view of the road.

All she’d wanted was a bit of sleep, but she couldn’t even have that.

“I saw something on the night of the theft,” Aiden Price said.

Aiden huddled on Jessica’s front porch with his arms crossed tightly over his chest, and cold air blasted past him into her hall. Somehow he appeared insignificant wearing personal clothes. His lift manager uniform gave him credibility, and Jessica suspected that was part of the reason he often wore the getup, even when he wasn’t on duty.

“Turner called off the search, and the money’s still out there,” he said.

“You mean Ben called it off. How could he do that to his brother-in-law?” Jessica leaned on her open front door with a quilt hanging over her shoulders and squinted against the raw weather. Her frustration at Turner for cornering her outside the washroom had grown from anger to fury. Finally, exhaustion had wrapped around her like a sleeping bag with a stuck zipper, and she hadn’t been able to summon the energy to go to bed. Instead, she’d camped out on her lumpy couch and fallen asleep. “I’m tired. Do we really need to do this now?”

“Don’t you want to know what I saw the morning the money was stolen?”

“Fine. Come in.” Jessica stepped out of the way. Her skis and poles hung on the wall rack to the right. Her helmet, goggles and gloves covered the entrance side table. Gear she would never use with Roy again.

Aiden knocked snow off his gloves and stamped his feet before stepping across the threshold. He pulled the door closed, shutting out the howling wind.

Jessica’s cell chimed, and she answered on the first ring. “Hey.”

“Nice meeting you had with Turner today,” Simon said.

Without moving the cell away from her ear, Jessica clicked the volume button on the side of her phone to low. “What do you mean?”

“I was in the can. I heard every word.”

Aiden raised his eyebrows and gestured with his hands for Jessica to hurry up.

“I can’t talk right now,” she said.

“Do you know if I’ll be asked to do a polygraph?”

“No, and I don’t care.”

“If Turner fires you, can I have your job?”

As if Simon could jump from night auditor to finance center manager. “I can’t believe you called me for that. I gotta go.” Jessica tapped the end call icon and tucked the phone in her back pocket. “What’s so important it can’t wait?”

“The day of the avalanche, I saw Roy near the admin building around five in the morning, carrying a duffle bag and his backpack.”

Jessica rolled her eyes. “Really.” She leaned casually against the wall, blocking him from going further into her ground-floor suite. “What were you doing there?”

“I was on my way home from a party, but that’s not the point. I’ve been thinking a lot about Roy. I think he stole the money.”

“You and the cops. How could he? He had no access to the finance center or the safe.”

“He could with your help.”

Jessica clenched her fists at her sides. Didn’t she have one friend left? One person who cared about what she was going through? Instead of being a friend, Aiden was hassling her about the money. “That’s bullshit.”

“I’m just sayin’ ski patrol found part of his backpack, but no one’s mentioned the duffle bag yet. So where’s the money?”

“You think I have it?”

“Yeah. Remember the night I called you when you were in the finance center after hours?”

Jessica had been so angry with Roy and Helen after following him to her place. How dare he go to her in the middle of the night? Jessica had snuck into the finance center after hours, looking for ways to find fault with Helen’s work and maybe give her a helping hand at getting fired. She’d used a flashlight instead of turning on the lights, and Aiden had seen the flickering beam from his office in the mountain ops building.

Aiden brought Jessica back to the present by shaking her shoulder. “Are you going to answer me or just stand there staring off into space? I said, I’ve been thinking about the night you were in the finance center after hours.”

“What about it?”

“I think you were preparing for the theft.”

“I think you’re an idiot.”

“I’m not an idiot. Why were you searching the center with a flashlight?”

“I told you the light was burnt out, and I needed a file.”

“Sure it was. If you don’t have the money, then who does?”

Jessica pressed her hand onto his chest and pushed him backward. An idea was forming, and she needed time to think. “I want you to go.”

He leaned forward until their noses were almost touching. “If you don’t want me to tell the cops what I know, I want in on the money.”

Jessica shoved hard, and Aiden stepped backward. “Get out.”

 

* * *

 

The following morning, four days after the horrid avalanche, Jessica entered Turner’s reception area. His assistant, Gertrude Anderson, barely glanced at her. The fluorescent lights were too bright for the early hour and gave a bluish tint to Gertrude’s skin.

“You can sit there.” Gertrude nodded at the chair nearest Turner’s office door.

Jessica waited, watching Gertrude hunch over her keyboard, resisting the urge to wave away the scent of her noxious perfume. How could this woman represent the president’s office with her fifties hairstyle, her frumpy clothes, and the constant frown she’d perfected? She didn’t exactly have the youthful, energetic image the marketing department tried to promote for the resort. If Jessica were the president, she’d hire a different assistant.

Making her wait after asking her to come in at seven in the morning was a nasty move. Twenty minutes passed, and Jessica broke the silence. “Any idea what he wants to see me about?”

While her fingers moved furiously across the keyboard, Gertrude shook her head.

Jessica waited another ten minutes, tapping her fingernails on the armrest and watching the clock round the bottom of the circle past seven thirty. Turner had never kept her waiting for so long before. He prided himself on being efficient and not wasting time, his or anyone else’s. When he finally opened the door, her bottom remained epoxied to the chair.

“Come in.” Turner walked to the table in the center of his office, placed a white, eight-and-a-half-by-eleven envelope on the surface and waited for her to follow.

She released her grip from the armrest and dragged her feet into his office.

“I’m disappointed in you.”

Disappointment she could take.

“I understand how upsetting it is to lose a good friend and how that might cloud your judgment.”

Jessica relaxed her shoulders, and the tension in her back subsided.

“Because you’re the finance center manager, I’m holding you responsible for the theft.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but Turner held up his hand.

“I’m not saying you stole the money. I’m saying you didn’t have the right processes in place to prevent a theft. You left the combination to the safe the same for a month. You lost your key and didn’t have the lock changed. You can’t ignore company policy and expect no repercussions.”

“I’ve updated the training manual, and I’m going to put the clerks through a new course on the process.” As long as Turner didn’t check the truth in her statement, and if she still had a job at the end of the meeting, she could churn out a new manual in an evening.

“That’s great, and I’m sure we’ll be able to use it. However, I need to think about what’s best for the company, and right now I don’t think that’s you.”

“I’m not what’s best for the company?” Jessica dug her fingernails into her palm. “Are you firing me?”

“Don’t be obtuse. That is exactly what I’m doing.”

Jessica tried holding his gaze, but his eyes sliced through her like the edge of a ski through soft snow. “You have no grounds to fire me. I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“You have. I checked with our employment lawyer, and because you lost your key, didn’t have the lock changed and didn’t report the incident, I do have grounds. Gertrude is cleaning out your office now.”

Jessica’s pulse quickened, and a headache pounded at her temples. “She knew before I came in here you were going to fire me. That bitch just sat and typed. She never said a word.”

“Careful with your language. Her job is to do as I ask.”

Jessica crossed her arms and dug her heels into the carpet. “I won’t go.”

“You have no choice. We no longer have a constructive working relationship.”

“What if I take the polygraph?”

“It’s too late for that. You can take it if you like, but it won’t change anything.”

“Has Kalin approved this?”

“This is not about her.” Turner handed Jessica the envelope. “Your termination papers are in here. You’re being let go with cause.”

Jessica eyed him for a moment. She thought about the idea Aiden had planted in her head. Time to get busy. With rent due February 1
st
, she needed money. She’d lose her free ski pass and have to buy another. Her overdue car loan hovered in the periphery, waiting for payment. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.”

She snatched the envelope and stormed out.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

Shortly before eight a.m., Kalin leaned her snowshoes against the wall outside her office. She slid her key into the lock and felt a hand press on the small of her back. She stumbled through the door and twisted violently to face her attacker.

Chica growled, and the hair along her spine bristled.

“If that mutt bites me, I’ll have her put down.”

“Easy, Chica.” Kalin rested her hand on Chica’s head, and the dog settled.

Jessica’s face flushed, and she wiped an eye with the back of her hand. “How could you let Turner fire me?”

Kalin waited until her pulse returned to normal. “Can you calm down and have a seat?”

“I don’t want to sit. I want answers.”

“I’m happy to talk to you but only if you settle down. Please have a seat.” Kalin waited for Jessica to take the guest chair, then sat opposite her. Sometimes she missed her old boss who didn’t overstep his boundaries. A year-round employee should not have been fired without her approval and her making sure the labor laws were being followed. Turner was out of control. What was he doing firing Jessica? And who was going to fill the manager role now? Maybe the job at White Peaks was what she needed.

“What happened to your chin?” Jessica asked.

Kalin put her hand over her stitches. She’d tried to hide the bruise making its way up her cheek with makeup but had failed. “Nothing.”

Jessica seemed like the type who would sue the resort if she thought she had cause. Taking the blame for Turner’s mistakes was not on Kalin’s agenda, but she wouldn’t let Jessica know she’d been unaware of the firing. “Can you tell me what happened?”

Kalin listened to Jessica’s version of her meeting with Turner. A control freak was an understatement when it came to him. He hadn’t even let Jessica’s boss fire her. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

“There’s not much I can do. You’ve received a letter of termination. That’s pretty final. If you’d like to clean out your office, I’m happy to help you.”

“You mean you’ll supervise, so I don’t steal anything. Gertrude’s already guarding the door.”

Instead of reacting to the anger in Jessica’s voice, Kalin stilled her body. She placed her hands in her lap and crossed her legs at her ankles. “I didn’t say that. We have a process to follow, that’s all.”

“How can you do this to me after what’s happened this week? You’re Roy’s sister. He loved me.”

Kalin stretched forward and put her hand on Jessica’s wrist. “I know he did. If you hadn’t lost your keys and not changed the lock, I might have been able to help.”

Jessica snapped her hand away from Kalin. “Why are you even working?”

“I miss Roy, too, but I have to do my job. I don’t think about him as much if I’m busy.”

“And now I have nothing to do but think about him.”

“I’m truly sorry about that.” Kalin’s cell rang. White Peaks was calling. “Can I meet you in your office in a minute?”

Jessica stood and, without a word, left Kalin alone.

 

* * *

 

Kalin disconnected the call. Jessica was a hard person to like, but Kalin felt sorry for her. She rubbed Chica’s head in an effort to calm herself before heading to Jessica’s office.

Footsteps ghosted on the carpet outside her office as if someone was timidly approaching her door.

Ben poked his head around the frame. “Can we talk?”

Chica burst from her place at Kalin’s feet and pranced in front of Ben. He kneeled and was rewarded with a lick on his nose.

Kalin swiveled her chair to face him but said nothing.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

She pinched her lips between her teeth. Her body betrayed her. The ache for his arms around her made it hard to breathe. She steeled herself against succumbing. “I’m fine.”

Ben softly closed the door. “You went to bed without talking to me last night.”

“I know.”

“Can you at least tell me if your chin is okay?”

“It’s fine.”

“Did you get stitches?”

“Four.”

Ben’s fingers lighted on her chin and gently moved her head backward. He studied the wound. “We’re going to have matching scars. That must mean something.”

She yearned for a kiss, but how could she betray Roy that way? Ben had called off the search, and Roy’s body wouldn’t be found.

“I talked to Oliver about the snowmobile. It’ll be covered by insurance.”

“That’s nice.”

“Kalin, please. I’m sorry about Roy. I know this is hard for you. It’s hard for me, too. I can’t lose you over this.”

Tears formed in her eyes.

Ben placed his forehead on the top of her head and wrapped his fingers around her hair. “I love you. We need to figure this out.”

Reaching behind her head, she removed Ben’s hand from her hair. She rolled her chair backward and stood. “I need time. That’s all.”

“Time for what?”

“I don’t know. Just time.”

“That makes no sense.”

“I know. Roy’s only been gone four days. I have to get my head around losing him so soon after he came back in my life.” Hurt radiated from Ben’s eyes. She’d cut right to his heart, and she knew it. Roy being caught in an avalanche was Roy’s fault, but Ben would forever live with the search and rescue failure.

Ben stepped backward and leaned against the door. They were at opposite ends of her office, as far apart as they could be and still be in the same room. Chica picked up on the tension and paced between them, wagging her tail.

“Do you still love me?” he asked.

“I’m angry. I’m terrified about how Roy died. Don’t make this into something more than it is.”

“Fine. I’ll give you time.” Ben opened the door and left.

Kalin’s knees buckled, and she dropped to the carpet. Chica trotted to her and licked her cheeks. She wrapped her arms around Chica’s shoulders, buried her fingers in silky fur and held firm. She stayed there until the shaking stopped.

 

* * *

 

On her way to the finance center, Helen smiled at the thought of her two-minute meeting with Turner and Duncan Bosey, the ever-quiet director of finance. Being promoted was beyond her expectations.

She passed Jessica’s office and cringed. Kalin hovered beside her, supervising her while she cleaned out her office. Jessica had a nasty streak and feeling sorry for her was not easy.

Although short on time, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee enticed her into the staff kitchen. She poured herself a cup with double cream and double sugar. A co-worker had left a box of doughnuts on the counter. She chose one covered with chocolate and rainbow sprinkles, grabbed a napkin, glanced around to see if anyone would notice and piled on a second doughnut. Fully supplied, she rushed to the finance center.

Constables Miller and Wagner entered behind her and closed the door.

“Good morning,” Miller said.

Helen’s stupid cheeks stung with heat, and Miller hadn’t even asked a question yet. Why had two of them come? “I’m supposed to leave the door open. Sometimes employees need change for the registers.”

“They’ll have to wait. I have a few more questions,” Miller said.

Helen bit the corner of her lip. She placed her coffee and doughnuts on her desk. If she got this over with, she could stop stressing.

Miller rolled the spare chair close to Helen. He placed his RCMP cap on her desk and removed a pen and notebook from his breast pocket. His partner stood with her back to the door.

“I’ve been trying to contact you. Where were you the last couple of days?” Miller asked.

“I’m not really sure what you want from me. I’ve already told you everything I know,” Helen said.

“Please answer the question.”

“I went to Calgary.”

Miller scribbled in his notebook and turned his ocean-blue eyes back to her. “What for?”

“To visit my parents.”

Wagner shifted but held her position at the door. Had something Helen said interested the female officer?

Miller glanced at Wagner but focused right back on Helen. “Odd time to leave work, right after a theft. Surely you knew I’d want to speak with you again. I told you we needed to get your fingerprints. Is there any reason you’ve avoided having that done?”

Helen smoothed her dress over her thighs and straightened her belt. “I went to visit my parents. I haven’t seen them since last summer, and with everything going on, I needed them.”

Miller held his pen ready. “Please give me the names and contact information for both your parents.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, what for?”

“I’m wondering why you went to see them when you obviously should be here.”

“But I already told you why.”

“So you did.” Miller wrote her parents names and phone numbers as she dictated them.

“That dress you’re wearing looks new, as do the boots. Did you do some shopping while you were in Calgary?”

She fidgeted with her bracelet, clicking the gold clasp open and closed. She bought the dress, thinking the sleek shape made her look trendier and Roy would like it. The new dress was her way of being positive about seeing Roy alive again. “I…yes.”

“You seem to be taking the theft personally. Is there anything you’d like to tell me?”

“It is personal. I was the last person on duty before the theft. I took the call and didn’t check it was real. I found the empty safe. I feel terrible,” Helen said in a voice just above a whisper.

Both of them turned toward the door when a knock interrupted them. Helen stood.

Miller shook his head. “They’ll have to wait. What’s your relationship with Roy McCann?”

Helen returned to her seat. Snow whipped by the finance center window in swaths thick enough to create a screen and added to the snow already dropped in the last twenty-four hours. The wind more than anything had forced the rescue team to call off the search. Roy lay somewhere on the frozen terrain, but the safety of the rescuers remained the priority. He’d been missing for too long. Even if the avalanche hadn’t killed him, he would have died from hypothermia by now, and she ached for him.

She wished she’d told Roy she loved him. He dated Jessica and didn’t feel the same way about her, but at least he would have known. Now she had to mourn in silence.

“Helen?”

“Yes?”

“Your relationship with Roy?”

During her lunch hour on the day before the theft, she’d attended her first snowboarding lesson. Roy had given her lessons as a Christmas present. Having never snowboarded or downhill skied, she’d hid the coupon in her desk and waited until the last moment to redeem it. She hadn’t expected a gift and hadn’t bought anything for him. Did Jessica know about Roy’s gift? Maybe that’s why she’d been hostile in the week leading up to the theft.

To Helen’s amazement, she loved the lessons. She wasn’t an adventurous athlete, but the experience of being on the hill with others who were new to snowboarding was exhilarating. When the weather cleared, she’d go again. “We’re friends.”

“Good friends?”

“I think so.” The sting in her cheeks meant her face had turned red again. “Not romantic friends. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. We just hung out once in a while.”

“Did you give Roy the combination to the safe?”

“You think Roy stole the money? He wouldn’t do that.”

“Did you give him the combination?”

“I didn’t.” With Miller staring at her as if she’d helped the thief, she couldn’t hold his gaze. She darted her eyes to the window and back to him. “I’d lose my job if I did.”

Miller had a talent for keeping his expression unreadable, and Helen fidgeted with her bracelet again but couldn’t outlast his silence. “I didn’t tell anyone the safe combination. Roy could be dead, and you’re here thinking he took the money. That’s cruel.”

“Did you leave the combination written down anywhere he might have seen it?”

Keeping her eyes lowered, she shook her head in response.

“Jessica Scott suggested I talk to you about Roy. Why do you think she would say that?”

“I don’t know. Jessica doesn’t like me. She seemed jealous Roy and I were friends. Especially lately. I used to spend more time with Roy, but then he started dating her. I think he was getting tired of her, and we began hanging out again. Maybe she told Roy the combination and wants you to think I did.”

“Meaning you think it’s possible Roy took the money.”

A second knock interrupted them, but this time Helen didn’t move. “You’re twisting what I’m saying.”

“Do you know if Roy had money problems?”

“If he did, he never talked to me about it.”

“Was he acting differently before the avalanche?”

Helen thought for a moment before answering. “He was moody. He didn’t used to be like that, but it could’ve been because of Jessica. I don’t really know.”

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