Authors: Diane Bator
Tags: #Cozy, #Detective and Mystery Fiction
"Which is why the police were quick to grab him before he could skip town," she said. As a chill settled over her, Gilda nestled against Mick for warmth. "So why invite Charlie to referee Kane and Gomes in the tournament? Were you hoping they'd make up and everyone would live happily ever after?"
His jaw tightened. "Charlie called to say he got a letter from me to personally invite him to referee at the grand opening." He hesitated. "Since
didn't invite him, it makes me wonder who might have wanted him here and why."
"I guess that could depend on when he got the formal invitation," she said. "Kane and Mena weren't even in town until right before the opening. Were they?"
Mick shook his head. "No, and Razi's been with me day and night while we pulled this place together. He might have had access to the letterhead, but his written English isn't so good, even with spell check. Kane has the biggest motive of everyone, which is why the cops keep babysitting him, but he and Mena only got here a few days before the opening."
She frowned. "True, but Kane's the only person who hasn't tried to hide his past. It's all over the Internet where anyone can find it. While he has a lot of reasons to want Charlie dead, so does Mena."
He sat back and met her gaze. "Why Mena? Just because you don't like her?"
"No." Gilda's face burned. "Because she was all over Charlie when he first arrived and he didn't seem happy to see her. Besides, Kane keeps calling her a stalker."
Mick smirked. "And you just don't like her. I don't think she'd kill Charlie. She has other ways of getting even with the men who cross her. None of which, by the way, involve lethal weapons."
"Oh." Gilda sighed then raised her eyebrows. "Oh, wow. Sounds like you had a bad experience of your own with her."
"Let's just say I was young and foolish once." He grimaced. "Just once."
She forced a smile. "What about Sanchez? I know he was in Gomes' corner at that fight, I saw him in the video."
"Good eye, Sherlock." Mick turned off the television, then pulled her close and draped his arm around her shoulders. He let out a long, slow breath. "Sanchez left the party at Razi's early. Chances are if Charlie stabbed one of his own fighters in the back, he wouldn't hesitate to screw with a trainer like Sanchez who'd be more than happy to return the favor."
"Or Gomes." Kane filled the doorway and ran a hand through his thick, disheveled hair. "Once a dirty fighter, always a dirty fighter. With all the confusion and contractors in the new school, anyone could've snuck in and got hold of some letterhead."
Mick nodded. "Or made their own. Sanchez is a graphic designer by trade. It'd be nothing for him to make a fake letterhead."
"Or Mena," Kane said. "She's been working on her own stuff for this so-called store she's setting up. It would be a snap for her. She's good at faking a lot of things."
Gilda flashed a smile. "Did Thayer give you a day pass?"
He rolled his eyes as he turned an old wooden chair around and straddled it backward. "Not exactly. He wanted to charge me with assaulting an officer and obstruction of justice."
"Don't tell me you escaped already," Mick groaned. "You know what kind of trouble that'll get you."
"Relax, Mick, he didn't escape." Fabio limped into the lounge. "I need him here at the school to stir up some trouble."
"I'm sure that'll be easy enough." Gilda's shoulders sagged. "So now you don't think he killed Charlie?"
Fabio snorted. "Not after Thayer interrogated him. Anyone else would've snapped and tried to bash Thayer's face in again. Kane just sat there and grinned."
"But he already knocked Thayer's lights out before the interrogation," she said.
"Just not in front of the cameras, and I didn't leave any bruising. Just a cut from the handcuffs." Kane winked. "The way the prosecutor sees it, I have the patience of a saint, and it would've taken hours for Charlie to provoke me."
Or years. Gilda glanced at the dark television screen. "So where does that leave us?"
"I'm taking a closer look at your friends Gomes and Sanchez," Fabio said.
"What about Charlie's bodyguard?" she asked.
Fabio's gaze flickered to Mick then he shrugged. "The guy's a ghost. I haven't seen him anywhere around town, nor did I find much information about him."
Gilda frowned. "Who is he? Do you at least have a name?"
"No, that's the first thing I need to find out." When Fabio turned to walk away she was sure his jaw twitched. Why lie to her now?
Gilda had slipped out of the school while Mick and Kane chatted. She hoped she'd be home with the doors locked, drinking a glass of wine before either man noticed she was gone.
As she walked through the warm, peaceful night toward her cozy little house, a chill sliced through her. Maybe taking a few clothes and heading over to Marion's house was a good idea. Suddenly staying in her little house alone didn't seem so comforting.
Mick certainly had a few things buried in his past she never would have guessed if she hadn't met Kane or Mena. He'd trained Kane and worked alongside Charlie Hunt and Razi for years before coming to Sandstone Cove. He'd even been ringside when Kane won his title, then sat and watched as Kane had destroyed his whole life. Was that why Mick hired Kane to work at the Phoenix school? Out of guilt?
While Kane still had murderer potential, he was so insistent on his innocence she'd actually started to believe him. With his very public, volatile past, and outrageous behavior since arriving in town, it was no wonder Thayer wanted to lock him up for life. Still, she'd seen enough of his gentler side to think he might be telling the truth.
She paused at her front gate and narrowed her eyes. Crap. She'd forgotten to turn on the porch light when Mick and the cops had hustled her out of the house earlier. At least the streetlight was bright enough to let her find her house key on her ring.
As she stepped onto the front porch, something crunched beneath her running shoes. Broken glass. Her heart hammered. Had someone broken both her light fixture and the bulb inside so they could break into her house in the dark?
Gilda stared at the front door for several seconds, weighing her options. She could call the police right away, only to have it be a false alarm. If she called Marion for backup, they'd probably create a bigger scene. If she called Mick, he'd play the part of valiant knight and search the house before he'd allow her inside.
She took a deep breath and opened the door, bracing her entire body in case someone was still inside. No one moved. No one made a sound.
Gilda flicked on the light and gazed around her living room. Once again, someone had overturned her furniture and scattered her pictures around the floor. What was left of her knickknacks lay in shards on the carpet. She certainly hoped the third time was the charm.
"Oh, wow." She walked through the living room and was stunned to see the kitchen in complete disarray as well. From there she made her way down the hallway. Every drawer in her bedroom lay empty and her bedding was scattered around the room. Her folding closet door had been ripped from the hinges.
Without looking at her phone, she dialed Fabio's cell phone. "Hey, it's Gilda. Guess what happened at my house today?"
"You're not supposed to even be there," Fabio snorted. "Mick and Kane just called. We were about to go look for you. Get out of the house and meet us at the front gate. You shouldn't be inside. We really have to make some new living arrangements for you before someone breaks in while you're at home."
Gilda shrugged. "At least we'd know who it was."
"No, we wouldn't," he said. "You'd be dead and we'd still be clueless."
Her stomach sank. "Good point."
"We're on our way. Get out of the house." Fabio hung up.
She called Marion next. "Someone broke into my house again."
"What?" Marion huffed. "Who let you go there alone?"
She sighed. "I just left the school. I was going to get some clothes and go to your house."
"Good. I'm just leaving work. I'll be there in five minutes. Get out of the house and wait for me by the gate. I'll bring a baseball bat. We'll deal with Mick and Kane later."
Gilda ignored everyone's advice and picked through the debris, straightening shelves and picking up torn books and magazines. Try as she might, she still hadn't noticed anything missing this time either. A shiver swept over her. What
the intruder looking for?
"Gilda Wright, come out of the house with your hands up." Thayer's voice rattled the windows.
"What?" She peered out the window to where Thayer stood on the sidewalk with a bullhorn in one hand, his revolver in the other, and a square of gauze taped to his forehead.
Fabio clapped one hand over his face and the other on Thayer's shoulder while Kane and Mick peered out from the back of the squad car.
Gilda stormed out the front door toward Thayer. "Are you trying to make an even bigger scene?"
"I guess I wasn't specific enough." Fabio snatched the bullhorn away from his partner then opened the door for Kane and Mick. "I told him to knock on your front door and ask you to get out of the house so we could do a search."
Thayer folded his arms. "After the day I've had, I just thought I'd have a little fun."
Gilda's jaw dropped. "Someone's broken into my house how many times now and you thought it'd be funny to put on a show for the entire town at my expense? Nice. How was that supposed to be fun?"
"Settle down." Marion ran up the sidewalk, huffing and puffing like she'd run up the street from work, and grabbed Gilda by both arms. "He's not worth injuring a second time. Did they take anything?"
Gilda shook her head. "I don't know. I didn't check. I guess they still haven't found what they're looking for though."
"How do you know that?" Thayer asked.
She waved a hand toward the house. "They're still looking."
Fabio approached Gilda. "You ladies stay out here. Thayer and I need to take a quick look around before the crime lab boys show up."
Gilda sighed. "I'd really like to know what they're after."
Kane folded his arms across his chest. "My guess is drugs."
"I don't have any drugs," she said.
Mick nodded. "No, but Charlie did."
Marion snorted. "Who'd be such a jerk as to stash drugs in his grandma's house? That takes a special kind of evil."
"Charlie would have," Kane said. "He's done a lot of things that would give you nightmares, love, but I have a hard time believing he'd leave drugs stashed anywhere. Guns and paperwork, maybe. Drugs, not a chance."
"Did you just call me 'love'?" Marion asked. When Kane shrugged, she grinned. "Cool."
"Unless he was in jail at the time." Gilda sat on the curb and covered her ears. "I don't want to know. I just want everyone to stay out of my house. I've lived here for two years. If there were anything inside that house to be found, I would have found it by now. There's no cellar and the attic is just a crawlspace full of bugs. The only good hiding place would be in the kitchen cupboards, and I've already cleaned those from top to bottom, inside and out."
Mick sat next to her and draped one arm around her shaking shoulders. "It's okay, babe. Fabio's putting both you and the house under full police protection. This won't happen again."
"Just what I need," she said, "a legitimate reason for Thayer to follow me all over town."
He smiled. "It's either that or you'll have to move in with me."
"Or me." Marion sat at her other side.
Kane crouched in front of them. "Moving in with me might be a little awkward considering Mena keeps some of her stuff there and comes over all the time."
Marion raised one eyebrow. "You live with her? I thought you said—"
He winced. "Like I told you, love, it's complicated."
"Yeah? Well a guy like you can do way better than the likes of Mena," Marion said.
Kane raised his eyebrows. "You think so?"
Mick cleared his throat and gave Gilda a squeeze. "The point is, we all want you safe, and you're going to have to get out of here before someone actually shows up while you're home and tries to hurt you."
"At least that hasn't happened." Gilda met Mick's gaze. "They probably watch to see when I'm coming and going."
Marion frowned. "You say that like it's a good thing, but that would mean someone was stalking you. That would scare me half to shreds."
"No one's stalking me, just my house." Gilda's stomach churned as she glanced around what she'd always thought of as her safe neighborhood. Her sanctuary. "That sounds weird."
When Gary followed her earlier that summer, he'd at least been obvious. In his mind, he probably wasn't so much stalking her as keeping her safe. This time, however, she had no idea who watched her or what their motive was.
Once the police gave the all clear, Fabio and Thayer followed the crime scene officers then lagged out near their car, probably to compare notes.
Mick led Gilda and the others inside. He paused in the doorway and gave a low whistle. "You're right, they're upping the game. Whatever they're after, they were probably afraid someone would catch them in the act and had to move fast."
"Or the stakes have gone up and they need to find whatever Charlie hid soon." Kane wandered into the kitchen. "Are you sure you never found anything, love? It might be something so normal and useless to you maybe you tossed it away."
Gilda's breath caught in her throat. Charlie's key. Once more she'd forgotten about the hidden key and still hadn't mentioned it to anyone else. She stuck it in her pocket to give it to Fabio before he left and hope he wouldn't lock her up for withholding evidence. If it even was evidence.
"What if they're not after something that's here now, but something they knew was here before?" Marion righted the armchair and tugged together the two sides of a rip in the fabric.
"Like what?" Gilda sat and sighed, overwhelmed by all they had left to do and dismayed Mick had called the police when he couldn't find her at the school.
"Who did you say lived here before you bought the place?" Kane asked.