The Seduction of Miriam Cross - Excerpt
The sound, a subtle scrape of metal against metal, drilled through her subconscious, jarring her awake. She picked her head up off her desk, wiped a thin line of drool from her chin, and looked around the dim room, telling herself to focus. Outside, the wind howled. The branches of a pine hit her window in a rhythmic tap, tap, tap. She tried to listen beyond the wind, beyond the falling rain, beyond the pounding of her own heart. She heard only silence.
Quickly, fervently, she organized the materials she’d been working on into a pile and fastened them with a binder clip. She shoved everything into a desk drawer and locked the drawer with a small silver key. Her computer screen was black, so she tapped the mouse and waited impatiently for the screen to come alive. Just to be safe, she hit the save button, exited the document and shut down her computer. All of this took her a minute, tops. It felt like forever.
She stole a glance at the clock on her desk. 2:48. Had she bolted the doors and windows before she’d gone into her study? It’d been around nine, so no, probably not. She cursed herself for falling asleep.
She made her way through the study and out into the hallway that divided her one-story house. The darkness felt thick and viscous, enveloping her in dread. Try as she might, she still heard nothing beyond the storm. Perhaps it had been a dream. But her gut said that wasn’t the case – and once upon a time she’d been a woman who trusted her gut.
She didn’t dare turn on a light. Feeling her way along the walls, she passed the open doors to her bedroom and bath, each room a dark abyss in the early morning hour. She held her breath. A few more feet and she would be in the living room. Beyond that, the kitchen and the back door. She needed to check the locks. Then she could return to her study and finish what she’d needed to finish in the first place.
A table lamp in the living room cast shadows across the small, carpeted space. Her gaze flew from one end of the room to the other, pausing in the darkened corners. Nothing looked disturbed. Relieved, she crept to the front door and fastened the bolts, stopping only to take a deep breath in a failed attempt to calm her jittery nerves. A year of running had made her paranoid. A year of relative anonymity had, perhaps, made her careless.
Paranoia was fine. But she could ill afford to be careless.
She turned, pulling her cardigan closer against a sudden chill. For the briefest of moments, her mind flitted to another time, to feelings of warmth and contentment. But some things were bigger than one person’s feelings and she forced herself back to the present. To her own safety. To the safety of others.
The kitchen was dark.
Her pulse raced. She could have sworn she’d put the light on over the stove. Yes, she was certain. She’d retired to her study after a dinner of bread and soup and had left the dishes out to be cleaned later. The light had been her reminder.
But the light was off.
That meant . . .
She jumped. While her eyes scanned the darkened kitchen for the person who went with the disembodied voice, her mind spun with more practical matters. What had she left out? What would they find?
He said, “This place is very . . . quaint.”
She spotted him in the shadows. He sat sprawled on a chair by the back door, his legs out in front of him, something long and metal on the table by his side. In the dark, his face was hidden. But she recognized the voice.
“How did you find me?”
“Does it matter?”
She forced herself to sound calm. “It does to me.”
“We have our sources.”
“We,” she repeated.
“Does that bother you, Emily?”
She remained silent, her eyes on the back door, which, she noticed now, stood slightly ajar. How long would it take her to reach it – could she get there before he did? Even if she did, what then? A run to the neighbor’s house? To what end? So that she could knock loudly on the locked door and wait until the frightened woman finally agreed to open up? By then he’d have caught her. Perhaps her bolted front door? But her car keys were in her purse . . . and what if he wasn’t alone?
“What do you want?” she said.
“You know what we want.”
He smiled. It was a shark’s grin, full of cold-blooded malice, a reminder of who he was and all that he stood for. She knew then that she could tell herself whatever lies gave her momentary comfort, but the truth was, she was going to die in this house, far from everything she held so dear.
Oddly, this sudden understanding gave her strength. She forced herself to meet his gaze. She smiled. “Killing me,” she said, “will do you absolutely no good.”
He raised his harm. In his hand was a needle. Another icy smile. “I beg to differ.”
She shook her head, thankful for her forethought. He – they, she reminded herself – could take what they could from her. But it wouldn’t be everything.
He rose and took two steps toward her. She saw now that the glistening metal object on the table was a knife. An impossibly long knife. She swallowed, again measuring the distance between her and a door.
In a burst of desperation, she stepped toward the back door, then quickly turned and ran toward the living room. She fumbled with the bolts, forcing jittery hands to steady as she jammed the locks away from their resting places.
The last bolt in her hand, she felt him behind her. Strong fingers clasped over her mouth, hot breath on her neck. She struggled against him, but it was no use. He was too big, too powerful. Her only weapon was retreat.
“Oh, Emily,” he said. A hand slip down her side, cupped her breast, continued down to her waist. There it stopped. “What were you thinking?”
She remained quiet and closed her eyes. He tugged at her sweater, pulling it off. Her bare arms prickled in the chilly air. He grabbed her forearm. She felt the sting of the needle and waited for the haze that would no doubt descend. He picked her up, carried her to the back of the house. Toward her study.
She knew what he wanted. What they wanted.
She wouldn’t give it to him. That much she could do.
“Delilah Percy Powers, never in a million years did I think I’d find you doing something like this. Your momma was right! You have lost your mind.”
“My mother has a narrow view of sanity, Katrina.”
Delilah sank back in her office chair, amusement and irritation battling it out. She’d agreed to see her old school mate only because the woman had driven hours for a consultation. For what purpose, Delilah still wasn’t sure. Getting information out of Katrina Straub – now Katrina Mellon – was like prying a bone from a rabid dog.
“Well, never mind that, you haven’t changed a bit.” Katrina laughed, a gesture that did nothing to soften the horsy look of her face. “Your momma is worried about you, you know. After everything . . . ” Katrina shook her head. “Back home, we understand your need to get away. But here? Never expected to find you running to a place like Philadelphia.”
“This is Jenkintown, not Philadelphia. And I’m not running away from anything.”
Katrina looked pointedly around the office. “Well, sweetie, it doesn’t look like you’re running to something, either.”
Delilah refused to bite. As she recalled, Katrina had been mean-spirited in high school. Seems some things never change. Delilah took her time straightening the papers on her desk, careful to keep her face neutral. No good would come of saying more, even if the words were burning a hole in Delilah’s mouth. As satisfying as it would be, Katrina would scurry back to their hometown, full of half-truths and syrupy anger. And then Delilah’s mother really would have her Spanx in a twist.
Delilah said finally, “What do you want Katrina?”
Katrina sniffed. “That’s all I get after almost twenty years? Down to business already?”
“Most potential clients are in a hurry to discover some truth or another.” Delilah folded her hands on the desk, strained patience losing out to frustration. “But maybe you’re the exception.”
Katrina pursed her lips, clearly deciding whether or not to be offended. She held out a magenta-manicured hand in supplication. “It’s Hank. I think he’s desirous of other women and I mean to prove it. Your momma told me about what you do, and I thought, well . . . I thought maybe you could do something to help me out. I’ll pay, of course.”
Delilah thought about this. She remembered Hank Mellon as a tall, balding, dour-faced young man. While he didn’t seem to be much of a catch, he also didn’t seem like the cheating type. But Delilah knew that a pickle could be a cucumber and vice versa; you had to be close enough to smell the difference.
“Do you need him followed?”
“Kind of.” Katrina looked away. Delilah and Katrina were the same age, but Delilah could see the thinker’s crease etched between Katrina’s thirty-six-year-old eyes. She didn’t look like a woman who feared her love was betraying her. Delilah smelled a scheme.
“I can’t help you, Kat, unless you tell me what you need.”
“Your momma said you are a private investigator.”
“You have women who . . . who can nab men?”
“I hire professional detectives.”
Katrina stood up. She walked to a bookshelf in Delilah’s office and scanned the photos that lined the top. She picked up a picture of a young man standing in front of a rocky cliff. His smile was generous, his eyes focused on something just beyond the camera. An involuntary shudder coursed through Delilah. She forced herself to hold Katrina’s gaze.
“Have you ever fallen in love again, Lila?”
“You were lucky with him, you know. Had things turned out differently” - Katrina flashed an apologetic smile - “he’d probably be a bastard like the rest of them.”
“That’s enough, Kat. Whatever your problems, don’t involve Michael.”
Delilah’s voice was quiet, but Katrina must have heard the underlying steely threat because she put the picture down and turned back to face the desk, suddenly all business. She sat down.
“I want one of your sexiest women to come on to Hank in a bar. I can give you the name of the place where he hangs out, I can tell you the type of women who excite him, I can give you any information that will make it more likely that he’ll bite. And then I want pictures.”
“You want one of my investigators to sleep with him?”
“Whatever it takes to get incriminating photos.” Katrina took a deep breath and continued. “I can’t be married to him anymore, Lila. I’m miserable. I dread every day waking up next to that man. But we have a pre-nup and the only way out is if he’s cheating. You understand - it’s for the kids.”
“Does he hurt you?”
“No, of course not.”
“You suspect him of having an affair?”
Katrina laughed. “Why would you even ask that?”
“So you want me to set up what amounts to a sting operation?”
Katrina smiled. “What else is there?”
Delilah said, “No.”
Katrina let out a strained laugh. “You’re refusing?”
“If you don’t want your girls getting sexual, hire a prostitute. I’ll pay. There are women out there who can be bought, I assure you.”
“But I’m not one of them.” Delilah stood and pushed her chair back from her desk. It was after six o’clock and her stomach was rumbling. She had another two hours of muggy daylight to get the horses settled down and she still had her other chores to do. She wanted Katrina and all she represented out of her office - and out of her life.
“I offended you. I’m sorry,” Katrina said. She stayed seated on the chair and looked up at Delilah with beseeching eyes, fluttering unnaturally long lashes. “I couldn’t go to someone near home for fear that Hank would find out. I knew I could trust you to be discrete, being school friends and all-”
“Look Katrina, I’m sure you have reasons for wanting out of your marriage, but at Percy Powers, we don’t set men up to fail. Lord knows, they do that often enough on their own. Hank may be an honest man. I won’t have a hand at turning him.”
“I drove almost four hours to get here.”
Delilah opened the office door. “Then you should have called first.”
“What was that about?” Margot asked in her typical matter-of-fact tone, but Delilah heard the underpinning of concern.
“Just an old acquaintance.”
“Didn’t sound too friendly.”
“Or turning away business?”
“Let’s just say it wasn’t a case for us.”
Margot nodded, clearly not satisfied. The older woman reached under the receptionist’s desk and pulled out her purse. She slipped on a pair of driving glasses. With her shapeless brown skirt, dowdy cream sweater - even now, in early June - and wedge-sole shoes, Margot looked every bit her seventy-two years. But Delilah knew what a spitfire Margot McDentry could be. She only worked for Percy Powers part-time, mostly doing administrative work and research, but she was smart and could work under the radar. Two attributes that came in handy at a detective agency.
“A few more applications came in,” Margot said, peering at Delilah over the top of her glasses. “I put their resumes on your desk.”
“Some have solid backgrounds.”
“Try to hide your excitement, Delilah.”
Delilah gave her a weary smile, Katrina’s caustic reference to Michael still on her mind. Fourteen years had done nothing to dull the ache. Or the anger
“You’re turning away cases because we‘re understaffed, yet you’ve been looking for someone for nearly three months.” Margot shook her head. “You’re stalling.”
Delilah sighed. “We’re a well-oiled machine. If anyone should understand that, it’s you. Barb, you, Natasha . . . If we introduce a new person, it’ll upset the mix.”
“I left the convent for a reason, summed up in one word: control. But clergy aren’t the only ones cornering that market. Perhaps it’s time you stop holding so tight to everything and let the world in.”
Exasperated, Delilah turned away. While Margot, an ex-nun and former headmistress, was not shy with her opinions, it was rare that she voiced them in business matters. Yes, Delilah had been turning away business, real business, not like Katrina’s offer, for months now. But introduce someone new and the chemistry she valued would disappear.
Delilah glanced in the mirror behind the desk. The woman staring back at her looked tired and worn, her red hair more tarnished penny than new copper, her skin pale, circles like bruises under her eyes. She was tired. It had been a long day and tomorrow would bring with it new crises.
“Margot,” she said finally. “I appreciate your concern. When the right person comes along, we’ll hire her.”
Delilah sighed. “Or him.”
Margot gave Delilah an appraising stare. She straightened her skirt, tossed Delilah a curt nod and marched toward the door, stopping short of the threshold. “In life, Delilah, there is no bigger thief than fear.” With that, she left.
Delilah walked back to her office, mulling over Margot’s words. It had taken eight years to build this business into what it was today: one of many private investigative firms near Philadelphia but one of the few places women could go to find justice. Was Margot right – was she afraid to relinquish control? No. If she was turning away paying cases, it was because she had to, plain and simple. If she expanded too much, she’d lose what she’d set out to do in the first place. The personal touches, the tough but caring atmosphere, would be gone.
Why am I spending time thinking about this nonsense? But Delilah knew why. Margot had uncanny intuition. And between Margot’s comments and Katrina’s visit - specifically, the mention of Michael and her mother and, like entwined vines, all the suffocating pain they represented - Delilah felt rattled.
Delilah locked away the few files still on her desk. She glanced around at her cramped office. One large mahogany desk, a yard sale find, and two upholstered arm chairs filled most of the space. A bank of filing cabinets lined one wall, rows of neatly sorted book shelves the other. Matted and framed photographs of her father’s ranch in Wyoming were scattered about, roots in a crazy world.
The entire room measured 90 square feet. Katrina had been right about one thing – the office was nothing to look at. Her employees shared one large office and, other than the two offices and reception, there was just a tiny kitchenette and an even tinier bathroom. But this place felt like home.
Damn it, Lila, you’re getting sentimental. Cut it the hell out.
Delilah shut the lights to her office and walked through reception. On impulse, she went back to her desk and grabbed the stack of resumes. She’d give them a quick glance. At least then she could tell Margot she’d considered everyone.
And that the answer was still no.
It was well after nine when Delilah closed her front door, finally in for the evening. Night had fallen fast and hard on her little farm, and Delilah, exhausted, wanted nothing more than dinner and a hot bath. She’d driven up the gravel driveway that led to the two-hundred-year-old house in Ivyland nearly two hours ago. After running inside to throw on jeans, sneakers and a tank top, she’d headed back outside to feed the animals.
Delilah rode the horses, brushed each horse down and picked the mud out from their shoes. Chores finished, she leaned back against the small barn and inhaled the clean scent of fresh hay. If only everything in life were so simple. Millie, her rescue horse, an old brood mare, nuzzled Delilah’s hand with her soft muzzle, searching for the carrot that Delilah brought out to end each day. Delilah fished the vegetable out of her back pocket and watched the mare devour it. Millie had lived on the ranch for over a year, but it was just recently that the haunting had left her eyes.
Millie’s treat got Spur worked up and he whinnied, poking at Delilah’s stomach with his nose. She stroked the white star on his head. “I have one for you, too, old boy.” Spur had been her childhood horse and the first thing she came back for when she moved north. He was an old man now, nearly thirty, but he had the spirit - and manners - of a young stud.
“What would I do without you two?” she asked aloud. The horses, chewing contentedly in their stalls, simply stared at her with a mixture of innocence and old-soul wisdom. Delilah locked the barn gate behind her and walked briskly back to her house. She heard a meow and turned to see Mittens, the stray that had adopted the horses, following her. “You, too, huh?”
Two dogs greeted Delilah at the front door. She ignored their noisy hellos and went inside. She scooped a bowl of cat food from inside a pantry and placed it outside, next to a bowl of water. She gave the skittish cat a quick stroke, then closed and locked the front door. The dogs - Sampson, a small Terrier mix and Goliath, a Great Dane - sat next to each other in the kitchen, waiting expectantly for their own food. Delilah fed the dogs and then poured herself a tall glass of Pinot Grigio. In her bedroom, she traded her jeans and tank for pale green cotton pajamas. Back in the kitchen, she put together a ham and cheese sandwich. She sank into the sofa, sandwich in one hand, remote in the other. The time on her BluRay read 9:33.
Her cell phone rang. Work. Reluctantly, Delilah stood back up, the muscles in her legs and back complaining loudly, and picked up her phone, half expecting it to be Katrina. Not a number she recognized.
“Delilah Percy Powers.
There was a moment of silence. Delilah was about to hang up when finally a soft voice said, “Delilah? Lucinda Mills. Do you remember me?”
Indeed, Delilah did remember Lucinda, a quiet, unassuming woman with extensive burn scars on her arms and neck. Lucinda had been one of Delilah’s first pro bono cases. Lucinda’s ex-husband Butch had been the worst kind of abuser: an abuser with power. A cop. Terrified that if she asked for a divorce, Butch would get the kids, Lucinda had put up with the beatings for years. Desperate, she showed up on the firm’s doorstep convinced that she needed proof of the abuse to get her divorce and keep custody of her boys.
At first, Delilah had said no. How could she sit idly by while a client was beaten? But Lucinda had insisted that they could intervene after they got photos. She just needed proof. They got proof alright – proof that Butch beat his wife and harassed the homeless, runaways and prostitutes he encountered on the streets. When all was said and done, Delilah and Barb had the pleasure of giving Butch a tiny taste of the hell he’d spread like cholera in a developing nation.
It’d been a troubling case, but in the end, Lucinda got her divorce and full custody of the kids. Butch Mills was fired from the Philadelphia police force.
That was three years ago. Delilah hoped that Butch was not back in Lucinda’s life. While she liked to believe that her clients were able to move on and create new lives, she was pragmatic enough to know that abusive relationships, like all relationships, were complicated. Some women could not resist the call.
As though reading her mind, Lucinda said, “It’s not Butch, Delilah. Haven’t seen him since the divorce.” Lucinda paused. “But I can’t talk about this over the phone.”
“I just . . . can’t.”
“Are you in danger?”
“I . . . I don’t think so. I don’t know. Listen, Delilah, I can make this job worth your while, but I need to talk to you, explain everything. Can you meet me? Please?”
Delilah looked at Sampson and Goliath lying on the cool stones of the hearth by a dormant fireplace. Content. Happy. A knot of anxiety twisted in her stomach. Lucinda sounded nervous, and the fact that she couldn’t explain the job over the phone made Delilah nervous. Either Delilah was stepping into a hot pile of manure or she was dealing with a paranoid and unstable woman. Neither option seemed attractive.
Still, Delilah was not one to turn away someone in need. She could at least get the facts before making a decision.
“Where do you want to meet?” Delilah said finally.
“Center City. I’ll email you the location.”
“Fine. Nine a.m. sharp.” Even as she clicked off her phone, Delilah wondered what she was getting herself into.