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Authors: Melinda Leigh

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #General

Midnight Betrayal

BOOK: Midnight Betrayal
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Also by Melinda Leigh

Midnight Exposure

Midnight Sacrifice

She Can Run

She Can Tell

She Can Scream

She Can Hide

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

 

Text copyright © 2014 Melinda Leigh

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

 

Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle

 

www.apub.com

 

ISBN-13: 9781477824238

ISBN-10: 1477824235

 

Cover design by
theBookDesigners

 

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014903120

For Granny,
For a lifetime of unconditional love and support.

1

Two weeks ago

She died faster than I’d expected. In fact, the whole abduction and killing scheme was easier than I’d anticipated. I’d allowed several hours for tonight’s task but finished well ahead of schedule.

I shifted the dagger in my grip. The light from the camp lantern shone on the engraved hilt, and blood gleamed wet and thick on the silver blade I’d honed for the occasion.

She’d been easy to lure. A simple offer of drugs had been enough to entice her into the car. Once I attained the privacy of this abandoned house, the rest of the steps proceeded as planned. I’d been keeping her for several days, but tonight was the grand finale. Remembering the hours spent perfecting my scheme and the clockwork precision of its execution, adrenaline raced through my veins. Though dampness lingered below ground, I wasn’t cold. The event had gone off beautifully, and success was always a thrill. But for the culmination of a daring plan, the conclusion had been decidedly anticlimactic. I’d planned this for so long, envisioned every moment of each step along the way. How disappointing.

What had I done wrong?

The human body was appallingly fragile.

Size, fitness, strength. None of that mattered. One slice to the neck was all it took to turn a living being into a pile of connective tissue and bone.

Standing tall, I surveyed my work. She was naked. Her jeans and shirt, sliced from her body on day one, were folded neatly beside her. Her last-minute struggling had loosened scabs over the punctures on her thighs. Fresh blood dribbled in thin rivulets across her skin. The wounds had ceased bleeding now that her heart had stopped.

I’d anticipated that the killing would be messy business, but I hadn’t appreciated the sheer violence of dying. The cut had been perfectly placed for a quick death. I’d like to claim I’m not entirely without mercy, but that wouldn’t be true. My decision was based on practicality and the necessity of adhering to my schedule. After all, it wasn’t the first time I’d used a knife on her flesh, but it was definitely the last. The first few heartbeats after the knife stroke had produced rhythmic spurts with decreasing trajectory. The concrete slab wasn’t perfectly level. The remaining blood that flowed from the wound had run downhill and pooled against the cinderblock wall. Once her heart stopped, gravity allowed the body to leak for several minutes postmortem. Thankfully, I’d stood well back from the red river, sparing my clothes and shoes from contamination.

Leaning over, I switched to a reverse grip on the handle and used the knife point to draw a spiral on her abdomen. Even on an utterly still subject, precision took care. What I’d give for the spirograph of my childhood. There. Done.

I wiped the blade on her T-shirt and placed the knife in a plastic bag inside my kit. Now for the finishing touch. I’d brought everything needed for a proper funeral pyre: paper, kindling, gasoline. The match was struck and tossed. Fire whooshed, flames embracing the body with greedy fingers. I made my exit, not waiting to see if anyone noticed the fire—or the smell of burning flesh. Even if they did, this wasn’t the sort of neighborhood where anyone rushed to call the police. Grabbing the camp lantern, I hurried to my car and stowed my bag in the trunk. I checked the dashboard clock. An hour to spare. I’d counted on her putting up a better fight. Instead of thrashing and resisting death, she’d acquiesced with a few minor struggles, surrendering the moment she saw the knife. Perhaps the puncture wounds had been too deep.

Did some people hang on to hope longer than others? Were physical condition, age, and strength major factors in a person’s survival instinct, or did mental stamina play the largest role? Did a happy student with a bright future have a greater desire to fight death, a stronger will to live, than a homeless runaway? Or was the survival instinct an inborn trait as independent of life events as eye color?

All interesting questions, but before they could be analyzed, the next step of my plan needed to be executed.

Another girl waited. Another death. Another fire.

2

Today

The collection storage room of the Livingston Museum of Archaeology maintained the optimal temperature and relative humidity to stabilize the deterioration of the artifacts stored on its shelf-lined walls. Filters and vigilance reduced exposure to light, pollution, and pests. At a long stainless-steel table in the center of the twelve-by-twenty-foot space allocated to the European collection, Louisa examined the Iron Age Celtic short sword with gloved hands. With a sixteen-inch blade, the two-thousand-year-old weapon had been light and deadly in the close-quarters combat the Celts had favored. She returned the ancient piece to its open acid-free box. Moving to a second container, Louisa unpacked the newly arrived reproduction and held it next to the original, the length of shiny steel a sharp contrast to the artifact’s heavily corroded blade.

It was perfect.

Displayed side by side in the glass case beneath the battle mural, the juxtaposition of old and new swords would help museum visitors envision Celtic warriors charging into combat with the Romans. In the far corner of the room, life-size figures frozen in battle would reenact the deadly clash in 3-D. If Louisa closed her eyes and pictured the exhibit room as it would look in a few weeks when the new renovations were complete, she could hear the sounds of screaming men and the
thunk
of heavy blades on metal shields, smell unwashed bodies and sweat over the coppery scent of fresh blood.

She was hopeless, stuck in the past, living in her imagination. Even as a child, she’d had more books than friends, especially after her mother died.

No. She wasn’t going to be that person anymore. She’d left her old life behind.

No more hiding in history to avoid the present. Being fired from her last position was a stain on her résumé—even though she’d recovered the artifacts that were stolen under her watch—but like a cat free-falling from a high-rise, she’d landed relatively unscathed. Yes, in order to get a job, she’d had to take the blow to her ego and accept a demotion to assistant curator. In Maine, she’d curated an entire small museum. But she was grateful to work in the field she loved again, and that she’d been forced to leave the painful family entanglements of her hometown. Being away from home gave her an exhilarating sense of freedom that compensated for her lower salary. It was a good thing her trust fund enabled her to do as she pleased.

Regardless of the drawbacks, Philadelphia was still her fresh start. Nothing was perfect.

Someone knocked on the door behind her. She set the knife down, crossed five feet of gray speckled linoleum, and opened the door for the department administrative assistant. April followed her back to the table. “Oh, the reproduction is lovely.”

“It is.” Louisa leaned back and studied the gleaming new weapon. “I hope it’s as effective in wowing visitors as it is beautiful.”

“Don’t underestimate the glitter effect. People are like fish. They’re drawn to shiny objects.” April cocked her head as she watched. “The new exhibit is going to be spectacular. Visitors are going to feel like they’re in the middle of an epic battle.”

“That’s the idea. Just give me one minute. I’ll be right with you.” Louisa repacked both boxes.

“Take your time.” Respecting Louisa’s concentration, her assistant waited, but the toe of her practical flat shoe tapped an incessant beat.

Satisfied the weapons were secure, Louisa placed the artifact on the shelf. Peeling off her gloves, she removed her glasses and slid them into the pocket of her suit jacket.

April got down to business. “Director Cusack wants to see you in his office.”

“What’s wrong?” Louisa turned toward her assistant.

At fifty-five, April was small and slim with bright red hair styled in a short, spiky cut that suited her energetic and quirky personality. She’d been with the museum for decades. April knew everyone and everything that went on inside its glass-and-brick exterior. Nothing slipped past her experienced scrutiny.

“I’m not sure what he wants.” April’s frown and narrowed eyes conveyed her displeasure. “But the police are with him.”

“The police?” As if being summoned to the director’s office wasn’t enough to stress her out. Louisa tucked the boxed reproduction under her arm and followed April to the hallway. The door locked automatically behind them.

“I suspect it’s about Riki.”

“I hope it isn’t bad news.”

Riki LaSanta, a second-year intern working with the Egyptian collection, had gone missing a few weeks before. The police had questioned the staff when the girl first disappeared, but with no evidence of foul play, the case
hadn’t garnered much attention. Though she didn’t work directly with Riki and hadn’t known the young woman very long, every time Louisa saw one of the
MISSING
flye
rs posted around the museum and university, her chest ached. What could have happened to her?

“I don’t know, but the police look grim.” April’s eyes misted. “I was hoping Riki had just needed a break. I know her grades were shaky this semester.”

Louisa gave April’s forearm a supportive squeeze. “That’s what everyone is hoping. It’s a valid theory. Graduate school is tough. The pressure can get to anyone.”

They walked down the corridor in silence. Louisa’s heels tapped on the tile, echoing the staccato beats of her heart. At a junction in the hall, they stopped.

“Do you want me to take the reproduction up to the prop room?”

“Would you? That would be great.” Louisa handed her the box. “I already cataloged it. It goes along the far wall with the other props for the
Celtic Warrior
exhibit.”

“I’ll take care of it.” April lowered her voice. “Watch yourself in there. Cusack will be looking out for his own hide, not yours.”

“I will. Thanks.”

She and April parted ways in the center corridor. Louisa paused outside the director’s door to button her jacket. Composed, she walked into the outer office. The blonde receptionist talking on the phone waved her through. Two sharp-eyed men sat in the guest chairs that faced the director’s antique mahogany desk. Behind his desk, Dr. Hamish Cusack, director and chief curator, stood, prompting his guests to do the same.

“Dr. Hancock, come in.” Lured from a museum in northern England seven years before, Director Cusack’s accent was as impeccable and British as his manners. In a tailored charcoal suit that contrasted with his guests’ off-the-rack attire, he was tall and fit for his fifty years. Cusack gestured to the men one at a time. “These are Detectives Jackson and Ianelli.”

Detective Jackson was a wiry African American in his midfifties with a shaved head that reflected the overhead light like polished walnut. Ianelli was younger, perhaps forty, with dark hair and olive-toned skin that suggested Mediterranean ancestry. The buttons of his blue dress shirt strained against the bulge of his belly.

“Let me get you a chair.” Cusack rounded his desk, picked up a wing chair in the corner by the seat back, and angled it between his desk and the detectives. Louisa was no genius at reading subtle human body language, but her boss’s position was blatant. He was declaring his neutrality. He’d neatly put her between him and the police and distanced himself from the situation.

She shook the policemen’s hands and perched on the chair. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”

The older detective, Jackson, cleared his throat. “We’d like you to look at a few pictures, Dr. Hancock. But I need to warn you they might be a little . . . disturbing.”

Louisa touched the pearls at her throat.

“We’ve found a couple of symbols that look strange. Director Cusack thinks they’re Celtic. He says you’re the expert.” Jackson’s shrewd eyes watched her fidget.

She lowered her hand, interlocking her fingers on her lap to hold them still, and glanced at her boss. He avoided eye contact. The rat. The museum Cusack ran in England was full of Celtic artifacts. “Where did you find the symbols?”

Jackson’s response was abrupt. “On a murder victim.”

She flinched.
They couldn’t want her to . . .
She met the detective’s unwavering gaze. They did. Despite a silk blouse and suit jacket, a wave of damp cold rolled over Louisa’s arms like fog across the bay. “You want me to look at a dead body.”

“Not exactly,” Jackson said in an equally flat voice. “Photos.”

Pictures were a better option, but not by much. She took an unsteady breath. Someone had to help the police, and it was obvious that someone wouldn’t be her boss. “All right.”

Jackson slid three photos from a yellow clasp envelope and spread them out on the director’s desk. The images were zoomed in so closely that at first she wasn’t sure what she was seeing. Plus, the skin was dark . . .

Louisa put on her glasses.
Oh God.
That was a person’s skin.

“The marks are hard to see.” Jackson pulled a small magnifying glass from his pocket. “They’re very small, and the body was burned.”

The graphic mental image that followed his statement dimmed her vision for a fraction of a second. Knife wounds. Charred skin. She was accustomed to seeing blade marks on bones that had been buried for a thousand years. Time provided distance. But this . . .

These wounds were here and now. They screamed pain and fear and violence.

Jackson hovered the glass over the tiny purplish blotches. “These bruising patterns are what we’re interested in. They look like spirals and something else.”

Louisa closed her eyes to the gruesome images and took a single deep breath. She lifted her eyelids and studied the marks, trying to detach herself from the pictures as if studying a recently unearthed bone. It didn’t work. This was too recent, too fresh, too real. She still saw a person, charred skin, and suffering. Determined, she cleared her throat and focused. “Those look like typical Celtic symbols: spirals and knots. This one might be a horse.”

“What can you tell us about them?”

“Celts decorated their weapons with symbols of their gods and beliefs, whatever they thought would give them an edge in battle.” Louisa fought the nausea gathering beneath her sternum.

“What type of weapon might leave marks like this?” Jackson asked.

“We have a few Celtic daggers with engravings.” Louisa knew she’d seen a similar pattern.

“Are the weapons here?” Jackson stacked his photos and slid them back into their envelope.

“Yes, they’re in the collection storage room. We’re in the process of building a new exhibit of Celtic weapons. The artifacts are locked away until the renovations are complete.”

He fastened the metal clasp. “Can we see them?”

“Certainly, but the blades aren’t sharp enough to kill anyone.” Louisa shuddered. To leave bruises around the wounds, the blade must have sunk to the guard. Great force—or great rage—would have been required. “They’re between eight hundred and two thousand years old.”

“No one is claiming that the weapons have anything to do with a murder.” But Cusack’s voice sounded hollow.

Louisa and the policemen ignored him.

Swallowing a wave of sickness, Louisa walked toward the door. The three men followed her back to the artifact room. She unlocked the door with a swipe of her ID card. Inside, she pulled on white gloves and scanned the shelves for the boxes she wanted. The first three she checked held Iron Age daggers. Only one was engraved, but the carvings didn’t match. She grabbed the next box containing a Bronze Age specimen. She moved it to the center table and raised the lid. The corroded blade was encased in a thick patina of verdigris and rust. She pointed to the curved guard that separated the blade from the handle. “It’s hard to see on the original piece, but the engravings were spirals and knots. May I see the photo again?” Though that was the last thing she wanted to do.

Please don’t match.

Jackson pulled out the picture and held it next to the artifact. “All I can see is rust.”

She slid a magnifying lamp from the center of the worktable and positioned the flexible gooseneck over the dagger. Worn down by time, the engravings were faint, but her experienced eye visualized a mirror image of the marks on the victim’s skin. She compared the symbols to the marks in the photo in Jackson’s hand. Not every symbol had made a distinct impression, but the ones that were visible matched those on the ancient weapon.

With questions whirling in her head, she stepped aside.

Jackson leaned over the magnifier. He stiffened, then straightened and knuckle-slapped his partner on the arm. “Take a look.”

Ianelli stared through the lens and grunted. “Damn. That looks close, but like Dr. Hancock said, there’s no way in hell that blade killed anyone. Looks like it would crumble if you touched it.”

Dread flooded Louisa’s belly. Her blood chilled, flowing through her limbs like the Atlantic in January. “The museum commissioned a reproduction of this dagger.”

“You had it copied?” Jackson asked.

“Not exactly. The reproduction is made to show how the knife would have looked when it was new.” Louisa returned the artifact to its box and shelved it. They left the collection storage room and walked down the hall to the elevator.

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