A face to die for, p.14
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       A Face to Die For, p.14

         Part #6 of Forensic Instincts series by Andrea Kane
 

  Dani shook her head. “Thanks, but I’d rather take a shower first. Then I’ll treat them. I’m dirty, achy, and tired.”

  There was something in the sound of her voice, and Gia gazed at her, knowing the answer even as she asked the question. “You’re flying back early.”

  Slowly, Dani blew out a breath. “I’m going to try to get my flight changed from tomorrow night to tomorrow morning. It might sound juvenile, but I’m a total mess, not as much from the mugging as from what was taken. I have a feeling you and I will be talking far into the night. After that… I don’t feel much like partying or sightseeing anymore. I need some time alone just to chill before I go back to work the following day. Are you okay with that?”

  “Of course. I’m pretty much a mess myself. I doubt I’ll be doing anything productive tomorrow, either. But, yeah, we have to talk about this, explore it from every angle. Something’s off. We know that. What we don’t know is why.”

  With only a terse nod, Dani went off to take her shower.

  * * *

  The plan had worked.

  The girl used her cell phone and switched her plane tickets to a morning flight. That meant she was scared shitless. She’d be out of New York and back in Minneapolis where she belonged.

  Major threat averted—at least one end of it.

  Now it was time to take care of the other end.

  CHAPTER 15

  Gia drove Dani to the airport and walked her to the check-in point.

  “Safe flight,” she said, fiercely hugging her friend good-bye. “Message me later. Whether or not we’re related, we have a strong connection. I don’t want to lose that.”

  “We won’t.” Dani hugged her back. “I’ll touch base after I’ve had some recoup time, probably tonight.”

  “Perfect.”

  From the airport, Gia drove directly to the gym, where she worked out for two hours like an animal in the hopes of diminishing her anxiety.

  The workout left her exhausted, panting, and still unnerved.

  She sank down on a bench after her cooldown, a towel draped around her sweat-drenched neck as she breathed deeply in and out.

  Dani had been right—neither of them had gotten any sleep last night. They’d discussed the missing photo album ad nauseam and gotten no closer to a solid theory for why it had been stolen or the lengths the thief had gone to in order to steal it.

  “He either didn’t have the opportunity to grab yours or one album was enough,” Dani had said. “But enough for what?”

  “I keep drawing a blank,” Gia had replied. “Someone was either trying to scare you or get his hands on something we don’t realize matters.”

  “What would that be? A picture of me in my bassinette? There’s nothing valuable in that album, Gia. I didn’t keep anything tucked inside it, either—like a safety deposit box key or anything else you see on crime shows. It was just a bunch of photos.”

  “I know.”

  They’d played devil’s advocate all night, trying out different, farfetched scenarios and coming up with nothing.

  But Gia wasn’t letting it go. No matter what the reason, Dani’s photo album had been worth something to someone. She just had to figure out the why and the who.

  She rose from the bench, debating whether to take a shower here or just go home and take a longer, hotter shower there. She was way too drained to set up client meetings, and everyone at the agency assumed she was taking today off to spend time with her friend. Which meant she didn’t have to do the split-second-shower-and-put-on-business-attire thing, the way she usually did. Given that, maybe she’d just go home, shower, and try to chill out.

  She’d just packed up her gym bag when her cell phone rang.

  Glancing down at the caller ID, she was surprised to see it was from Mrs. Kaye, her neighbor from the townhouse next door.

  “Hi, Mildred, what’s up?” she answered.

  “Gia, I know you’re probably working, but you need to come home right away,” the elderly woman said, her voice high and thin.

  A tight knot formed in Gia’s gut. “Why? What’s wrong?”

  “I just got home from the supermarket, and I heard the shrill sounds of your smoke alarm. I also smelled smoke coming from inside the house. I used the key you gave me and let myself in.” Mildred was talking a mile a minute, and she paused to catch her breath, then rushed on. “The candle you left burning on your mantel had toppled over. It must have happened just before I got there, because only the photos on the mantel top were burning. I threw a bucket of water on the flames, and it seemed to do the trick. But I was so frightened. I ran outside and called the fire department. They’re here now, looking around.”

  Gia was already running to her car. “I’m ten minutes away. I’ll be right there.”

  * * *

  There was a fire truck parked outside Gia’s townhouse unit when she arrived.

  After slamming her car door shut, Gia raced up to the front door, which was ajar, sounds of activity coming from within. Nearby, Mildred was pacing around, wringing her hands. Gia could smell traces of smoke as she approached her neighbor.

  “Thank you for all you did. You saved my house.” Gia gave Mildred’s hand a quick squeeze. “We’ll talk after. Let me see what the firefighters have to say.”

  She’d barely taken a step when a solidly built man in full firefighter gear strode outside.

  “I’m Gia Russo, the townhouse owner,” she said without preamble. “How bad is the damage?”

  The firefighter yanked off his helmet and dragged a forearm across his sweating brow. He scowled at Gia.

  “You’re very lucky you have such an attentive neighbor,” he told her bluntly. “A few minutes later and your whole house would have been engulfed by flames. It’s a good thing she came home when she did. She did our job for us. The fire’s out. All that’s left is residual smoke and a pile of burnt picture frames. The pictures inside them are dust. And the photo album that was closest to the candle is burned to a crisp. What were you thinking, going out and leaving a lit candle sitting there?”

  “I didn’t leave any candle, lit or otherwise,” Gia shot back. “I don’t have a candle on my mantel or anywhere else in my living room.”

  “Right.” The guy clearly thought she was lying. “Well, then, someone bought you a present you don’t remember and lit it for you. Because the thing was definitely there, definitely lit, and definitely the cause of the fire.”

  Gia wanted to rip him a new one. But she held her tongue. She might sound aggressive, but the truth was, she was one step away from breaking. She had fewer answers than this bruiser did and a hell of a lot more terrifying questions. Plus, given the circumstances, if their places were swapped, she wouldn’t believe her denials, either. And maybe it was time she stopped issuing them. If the police were called in, this would become an open investigation. Gia had a different avenue in mind, one that was both private and secure.

  “Look,” she said, this time with forced calm. “I don’t want to argue. If there was a candle there, I don’t remember it. When I left the house, I was sure everything was properly turned off. If I was wrong, I
apologize. I truly appreciate everything you did.”

  That seemed to mollify him. “Well, it’s over now. Just don’t ever repeat the mistake.”

  “I won’t.” She swallowed her irritation. “May I go inside now?”

  “Yeah. We opened all the windows, so the smell of smoke should clear out fast. We deactivated the smoke detector, so once the house is clear of smoke, make sure the battery is in place and the thing is working right. Don’t do any cleanup for a while; the mantel’s still pretty hot. But otherwise, you’re good to go.”

  As he spoke, the second firefighter emerged. He was younger and a little less gruff than his partner.

  “Hi,” he greeted Gia. “This your place?”

  Mutely, she nodded.

  “Well, it’s in good shape. Fire’s completely out. No major damage. Just remember that candles should be extinguished before you leave the house.”

  It was all Gia could do not to scream and remain calm. “Your partner already cautioned me about that,” she replied. “I won’t make the same mistake again.”

  The firefighters drove away, Gia thanked Mildred profusely, insisted on taking her out to lunch soon, and promised to come over for a cup of tea—just not right now. Right now, she needed to go inside and reassure herself that her home was intact.

  Fortunately, Mildred understood. Exhausted from the events of the past hour, she admitted that she needed a nap, then went off to take one.

  Gia waited until she was sure she was alone. Then she squatted down at her own front door, scrutinizing the lock. There was no sign of tampering. Then again, she hadn’t thrown the deadbolt when she left, and a basic lock was easy enough to pick. Was that what had happened? Or had the intruder come through a window? Those, Gia rarely locked. Then there were her sliding glass doors off the dining room—she couldn’t remember if she’d flipped the lock on those. Her neighborhood was so safe and so densely packed with townhouse units that Gia was pretty lax about this stuff. Obviously, too lax.

  In any case, someone had gotten inside. The facts were the facts. A candle that didn’t exist had appeared in her home and nearly burnt it to the ground. Someone had planted it there and set the scene. He wanted that photo album destroyed and he was ensuring that it was.

  But why not just take it? Why go to all the trouble of setting a fire and incurring all the risks that might come with it?

  There was only one answer Gia could come up with.

  They wanted to scare the shit out of her. Just the way they had with Dani. There was no denying what was staring her in the face: someone wanted to keep the two of them apart.

  Why?

  Straightening, Gia glanced at her watch. Dani would just be landing. As soon as she checked out her home, Gia would send her a text and ask her to call the second she stepped off the plane.

  A warm June cross breeze greeted Gia when she walked inside the house—a reminder that all her windows were open, diffusing the acrid smell of smoke still permeating the place.

  She gazed around, taking in all the downstairs rooms. Other than the cluttered debris on her living room mantel, everything looked so untouched, so normal—when, in fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.

  With her customary do-it-now attitude, Gia crossed over and scanned the mantel, remembering not to touch anything as she did. There were traces of candlewax alongside a clutter of burnt picture frames and the singed photos inside them.

  Most important was the totally destroyed photo album that lay closest to the trail of wax. Gia could still make out frayed pieces of the album cover. But the contents were reduced to a pile of ashes.

  Trying to keep it together, Gia took out her phone and sent a brief, pointed message to Dani: Call me the second you get this. It’s urgent.

  * * *

  Dani rolled her carry-on down the exit ramp and into the waiting area. As always, she stopped there to check her texts and emails for anything urgent. She wasn’t expecting anything.

  She was wrong.

  Every hair on her body stood up when she read Gia’s message. She yanked her luggage to the nearest chair, sat down, and called.

  “Thank God,” Gia answered. “I don’t think I could have dealt with this alone much longer.”

  Dani’s panic intensified. Gia was freaked out in a way Dani had never imagined her to be. This was going to be bad.

  “What happened?” she demanded. “Are you all right?”

  “Listen to me.” Gia had had enough time to realize that communicating with Dani this way was unsafe. She’d also had enough time to do something about it at her end. Time for Dani to do the same. “I need you to find a place in the airport that sells disposable phones. Buy two. Then call me back on one of them, but not on my regular cell. Call me at the number I’m texting you now.”

  “Gia, you’re scaring me.”

  “Just do it—please.”

  “Done.” The line went dead.

  Gia tossed down one of the disposable phones she’d run out and gotten and began pacing. She didn’t stop until that phone rang, this time with an unknown number showing in the caller ID.

  “Hello?” Gia answered tentatively.

  “It’s me.”

  “Good.” Gia wished she could stop shaking. “Now we’re going to exchange phone numbers—not the one you’re calling me on or the one I’m answering on. The other two—the ones we haven’t used yet. After that, we’re going to toss these phones and talk to each other only on the unused ones.”

  This time Dani didn’t ask questions. She just gave Gina the number. Gia did the same.

  “I’ll call you now,” she told Dani.

  Dani answered before the first ring had completed. “What happened?” she demanded.

  Gia blew through the story as quickly and accurately as she could, omitting none of the details. By the time she was done, Dani was gripping her phone so tightly her knuckles were white.

  “This is surreal,” she managed, bile rising in her throat. “A nightmare. Are you sure you’re not hurt?”

  “I’m fine. But I realized that whoever’s doing this knows when we’re together and what we have planned. That means they must somehow be intercepting our calls and texts. We can’t take the chance of using our regular phones with each other.”

  “So from now on, it’s these. I get it.” Dani sucked in her breath. “How do we figure this whole sick thing out?”

  “Without putting ourselves in danger, you mean?” Gia asked. “Whoever’s doing this is obviously willing to go to extreme lengths to have us forget we ever met and to abandon poking around in our roots. If we ignore their warnings, who knows what they’re capable of doing?”

  Dani gritted her teeth. “I just wish I understood how our trying to figure out if we’re biologically related would threaten them.” Abruptly, a thought struck her. “Gia, the one thing they clearly don’t know about is the DNA testing we had done. We never discussed that on the phone, through our Facebook messaging, or anywhere. Plus, if they did know, they wouldn’t be wasting their time burning up photo albums. They’d be trying to intercept those test results.
Look-alike baby pictures versus DNA? Not even close.”

  “You’re right. And they won’t be intercepting anything. The minute we hang up, I’ll call the lab, make them aware that others might want to get their hands on our test results, and inquire about their security policies. That will probably piss them off, but it’ll raise the red flags we need.”

  “That’s a smart precautionary step.”

  “Yes, but probably unnecessary. Your logic makes sense. Given the tactics they’re using to scare us off, I doubt they have a clue that we’ve gone for absolute proof.”

  “Which brings us back to, what do we do? Our lives could very well be in big-time jeopardy.”

  “I know.” Gia had already thought this one through. “The test results aren’t due for a couple of days. So let’s let the bad guys think they’ve won. Let them think we bought these phones because we’re scared rabbits. We’ll each stay in our own neck of the woods, go about our usual routines. Their fears will die down. Meanwhile, we’ll wait for the test results. Once we have them, along with the answers both our instincts are screaming they’ll provide, I know the perfect pros to go to for help.”

  “Who?” Dani demanded.

  “Forensic Instincts—a private investigative firm in Manhattan. Very avant-garde and very proactive, even in the absence of legal evidence.”

  “Which we have none of,” Dani realized aloud. “Are you sure we can trust them?”

  “I’m sure. They have a well-earned reputation as being the best. And that’s not just hearsay, although they’re in the media often enough. I know one of their team members, Marc Devereaux. I handled his wedding a few weeks ago. He was a Navy SEAL and an FBI agent before joining Forensic Instincts. He’s a great guy, but formidable as hell. If I didn’t like him so much and see how devoted he was to his fiancée, I would have been scared to death. Trust me, a criminal wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley.”

 
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