A face to die for, p.24
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       A Face to Die For, p.24

         Part #6 of Forensic Instincts series by Andrea Kane
 

  “He’s in love with you,” Claire said, staring off into space. “He has been since you were together in college. He needed to feel close to you. He didn’t know you’d reconnect at the conference the way you did. He might have blown off the money he’s being paid and made different choices.”

  “It can’t be Gabe.” Tears were glistening on Dani’s lashes. “He’d never accept a payoff to do something like this to me. You must be wrong.”

  “I wish I were. But I’m not.” Claire got a quick glimpse of an image from the past—a small box nestled in Gabe’s jeans pocket with a tiny glistening diamond ring inside. “This isn’t about money, not really. Yours and Gabe’s breakup—it wasn’t mutual. You ended things. He was going to propose to you. But you left him. He’s never accepted that. And he’s never let go. He signed up for this hacker job to get close to you, but he’s in way over his head. He’s scared, Dani, for you and for him. He doesn’t know what to do or how to get out.”

  “Oh my God!” Dani sobbed, pulling away her fingers and covering her face with both hands. “Oh my God.”

  Claire felt the connection snap as Dani’s hand left hers. The flashes of Gabe and his motives began to fade. So Claire switched gears, instead supplying Dani with the facts she needed to hear. “I can’t explain all the techno details, but Ryan traced the hacker’s IP address back to Cleveland. He then used Gabe’s emails to you to compare the IP address to the hacker’s. It matched. There’s no question that it’s Gabe.”

  “I just spoke to him. He was so worried about me.”

  “That wasn’t a lie.”

  “He even said he’d come to New York to be with me while…” Dani’s voice broke off. “How did he know I was in New York?” she realized aloud. “I told him I was with my family. That would mean Minneapolis. How could I have missed that?”

  “You’re on emotional overload,” Claire replied. “Please don’t beat yourself up.”

  “He was going to ask me to marry him? When we were in college?”

  Claire nodded. “But you broke things off before he could—at least that’s the way he views it.”

  “That’s not what happened.” Dani was visibly racking her brain. “We went our separate ways. It was mutual, or at least I thought it was. We needed time and space to evolve as individuals. It never occurred to me…” She swallowed, turning to face Claire. “Does he know the reasons he’s doing this? Is he in on the entirety of things—like hurting Gia and me, or worse?”

  “My instincts say no. I think he was misled. Things have changed from when he first started this. He now realizes there’s danger involved. He didn’t before. He’s a wreck. I think he might even be relieved when we confront him.”

  Dani stared. “You’re flying to Cleveland?”

  “Marc and I are, yes.” Again, Claire spoke gently. “We need information and Gabe needs to be held accountable for what he’s done. And before you ask, no, you won’t be there. In fact, you won’t give Gabe so much as a hint that we’re coming or that you know the truth. Just send him your usual texts. No phone calls. You’ll have plenty of time to confront him. In the meantime, we’ll be there in a few hours.”

  “He won’t be home,” Dani said woodenly. “He’ll be at work. Do you need the address?”

  “We have it. We’ll be visiting him there. Given the circumstances, I think he’ll clear his schedule.” Once again, Claire reached over and squeezed Dani’s hand. “I’m so sorry. And for what it’s worth, so is Gabe.”“Thank you, Claire.” Dani rose, as did Claire, and Dani dashed the tears off her face. “I’ll be okay. Just find out who’s behind this. Please.”

  Cleveland, Ohio

  Gabe’s waiting room was conducive to both animals and humans. Twin love seats sat adjacent to each other, upholstered with animal prints. Bowls filled with dog treats sat on the long bench spanning one wall, beside which hung a rack with canine life vests and rehab balls for sale. Animal Wellness and other, more mainstream magazines, were splayed on the end tables, and photos of patient success stories lined the walls. The desk was the only mundane item in the room, containing the usual computer, paperwork, and adjacent printer.

  From inside the office space, Claire and Marc could hear the motorized hum of the water treadmill and the occasional words of praise, both from the man who had to be Gabe and the young woman who had to be the pet’s owner.

  “Let’s sit,” Marc said to Claire, gesturing at one of the love seats. “Marching into that PT room with accusations is only going to cause a riot. Let’s wait for the client to leave, and we’ll have our face-off before the next one is due.”

  Claire nodded in agreement, sinking into the pet lovers’ settee. “How do we handle it if his next clients show up early?”

  “We’ll approach the desk and make our presence and our purpose known. Believe me, Gabe will talk. He just needs the proper motivation.”

  Claire looked a tad bit alarmed. “You’re not going to get physical, are you? I think that would be a mistake.”

  “So do I—unless it becomes necessary. But something tells me it won’t. I suspect he’ll cave with just a few words. And he’ll clear his schedule on the spot.” Marc settled himself beside Claire, glancing down at the upholstery. “A pet parade,” he muttered. “Abby would love this.”

  Abby was Marc’s niece, the daughter of his older brother, Aidan. She was a four-year-old hellion, and she had both of the implacable Devereaux men wrapped around her little finger.

  “I’m sure she would.” Claire smiled. “I’m also sure she’d grab some crayons and draw some dog houses and cat beds on the upholstery as accoutrements.”

  A deep chuckle. “That—or worse.”

  The humming sound halted, and a conversation between Gabe and the young woman commenced.

  “The laser therapy and ultrasound should ease the joint pain,” he said. “And she did beautifully on the treadmill today. The limp is much better. Keep her quiet for the rest of the day and off that leg as much as possible.”

  “Thank you, Gabe,” was the reply. “Trixie thanks you, too. Her recovery has sped up rapidly since she started seeing you.”

  “I’m glad.” Gabe shuffled around. “Here. Towel her dry. Then use the blow-dryer to finish the job.” The sound of something—presumably an oversized blow-dryer—rolled into the room.

  “No problem.” The woman was clearly used to the procedure. “While I’m doing that, could you put us in your schedule for Friday? And bill us for today, of course. Just put it on the usual credit card.”

  “Sure.”

  The blow-dryer whirred to life just as a lanky, wavy-haired guy with strain written all over his face entered the waiting room.

  “That’s Gabe,” Claire said quietly, stating the obvious but confirming it for Marc.

  He nodded, rising to his feet as Gabe glanced quizzically in their direction. “Can I help you?” he asked.

  “We need to talk.”

  The combination of Marc’s tone and his formidable presence made Gabe shift nervously. So did the appearance of Claire, who came to stand beside Marc. “Did you want to make an appointment for your pet?”

  Marc jerked his thumb in the direction of the room with t
he treadmill. “I want you to do what that lady just asked you to do. Don’t bother setting up her next appointment, just charge her credit card for today. Then I want you to cancel whoever’s due in next. You won’t be seeing them. In fact, you should cancel all your appointments for the rest of the day, as well as the next several days. Go for the family emergency excuse. It’s very effective, wouldn’t you say?”

  By this time, Gabe had turned sheet white. “Who are you?”

  Marc slapped a business card on the desk and stared Gabe down. “Marc Devereaux. And this is Claire Hedgleigh. From Forensic Instincts, which I’m sure you’ve thoroughly researched. Enough said.” A pause as Gabe stared at the card, looking ill. “But just to refresh your memory, our investigative firm represents Danielle Murano. And isn’t that reason enough to cancel your appointments?”

  “I’ll take care of it right away.” Sweat trickled down Gabe’s face, and his hands were shaking as he made the list of necessary calls.

  By that time, the blow-dryer had stopped, and the young woman inside had walked into the waiting room with a beautiful golden retriever who had the slightest limp. She glanced quickly at Marc and Claire, giving them a tentative smile. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I’d run over on time.” She turned to Gabe. “Why don’t I give you a call to book our next appointment?”

  “I think that would be best.” Gabe’s tone all but ushered her out, and she took the hint, leading her dog out the door and letting it swing shut behind her.

  Claire walked over and flipped the lock, turning the sign that read OPEN to CLOSED. Then she rejoined Marc at the desk, facing Gabe with all of the anger Marc felt, but with a tad of sadness. The guy had looked like hell to begin with. Now he looked like he was going to vomit and wet his pants simultaneously.

  “I can’t do this anymore,” he managed, collapsing in his chair. “I just can’t.”

  “Then don’t,” Marc replied. “Let’s skip the preliminaries and any denials you plan on issuing. We traced the spyware back to your IP address. We know it’s you who’s been keeping tabs on Dani. Now you’re going to tell us the why, along with the who. Who hired you? What’s his agenda? And why is he going after Dani and Gia?”

  Gabe slumped farther down in his chair, obviously caught between two terrifying alternatives. “He’ll kill me,” he whispered.

  “Not if you talk to us, he won’t. We’ll protect you.”

  “And if I talk to you? I’ll go to jail and he’ll still find a way of getting to me.”

  “We’ll keep you out of jail—but only if you cooperate.”

  “Why would you do that? What I’m doing is illegal.”

  “Because our job is to protect Dani and Gia. Not to turn in some part-time hacker. But all that could change if you don’t start telling us what we want to know.”

  “Gabe,” Claire added softly. “Do it for Dani. Her life is in danger, and you know it. You didn’t before, but you do now. You love her. So help protect her.”

  Briefly, Gabe shut his eyes. When he opened them, there was resignation written all over his face. “The guy calls himself Al Carp. I’m sure that’s an alias.”

  “What does he look like?” Marc demanded.

  “He dresses like he works on Wall Street. But there’s something about him—he’s scary, really scary, in a way that makes my blood run cold. Thick muscles, cruel features—he looks like a hitman from an old movie. He approached me about a month ago. And he knew all about me—my past relationship with Dani, my side jobs in tech support, everything.”

  “Then why would you sign on to help him?”

  “Because I was an idiot. Because I believed what he told me.”

  “Which was?”

  “That Dani was in danger from her biological father, who was tracking her down. That he meant to hurt her, really hurt her. Carp made the guy sound like some kind of psycho. And I love Dani. I was afraid for her. And, yeah, I was being paid, and well. Plus, I liked the idea of being Dani’s knight in shining armor, and of watching her every day. She’s all I’ve thought of for the past six years. Being back in her life was… everything. But now—I don’t believe all that crap about Dani’s father I was told. I think it’s Carp who’s after Dani and her sister. But I swear, I don’t know why. All I know is that I was hired to report back on their activities so he could keep the sisters apart.”

  “Wait a minute.” Marc’s mind zoomed in on a previous bit of information Gabe had supplied. “You said that Carp approached you a month ago. But Dani and Gia hadn’t even made contact back then. So what made Carp seek you out? And why scrutinize Dani and not Gia? What made Dani a bigger threat—or any threat at all?”

  “My guess?” Clearly, Gabe had thought this one through. “Dani told me she’d had a recent job interview in Manhattan. That trip must have raised a red flag to Carp or whoever he’s working for.”

  “That’s the reason there was spyware only on Dani’s and not Gia’s computer,” Claire said. “Carp wanted to monitor things to see if Dani took that job and moved to New York.”

  “Right.” Marc’s wheels were turning. “This guy Carp probably is a hitman. Whoever’s running the show, Carp works for him. When was the last time Carp contacted you?”

  “Yesterday. He was all over my case, furious at me for not providing information. But I had nothing to report. I’m sure your guy Ryan McKay removed the spyware and covered up the microphone and camera. So I was coming up empty.” Gabe swallowed, his Adam’s apple going up and down in a sickly fashion. “Carp said I was dispensable. And the truth is, I am.” He gazed pitifully up at Marc. “What should I do? How can I help Dani?”

  “Fly to New York,” Marc said. “Not with us. On a separate flight.” Marc slapped a one-way plane ticket on the desk. “No one knows we’re here. We made sure of it—false identities. Call Carp and tell him that Dani broke down and told you she was with her sister, and that you’re flying there to get a firsthand take on things. That’ll please him enough to hold off on killing you. We’ll take care of the rest.”

  “Where will I stay?”

  “Exactly where we tell you to.”

  Gabe sucked in his breath. “Fine. I’ll do as you say.” A pause. “One more question,” he began hesitantly.

  “Yes, Dani knows,” Claire supplied. “I told her myself this morning.”

  “God, she must hate me.”

  “Right now, she’s in shock. But yes, she’s livid, not to mention feeling totally betrayed. Do you blame her?”

  “Of course not.”

  “You’ll have to face her yourself and deal with the fallout.” Claire wasn’t sugarcoating this. “It’s what you deserve.”

  Gabe gave a bleak nod.

  “Tossing you out on your ass isn’t an option,” Marc surprised Claire by saying. “She can’t. It’s imperative that your friend Mr. Carp thinks you two are still a couple. He’ll be watching you. Don’t doubt that for a minute or let your guard down.”

  “I won’t.” Gabe turned his palms up. “But how am I going to convince Dani to go through this charade?”

  “That’s our job. Now call Carp,” Marc instructed. “Put him on speakerphone. I want to hear his voice.”

/>   “I… Okay.” Gabe did as he was told.

  “Yeah?” A harsh, threatening voice answered. “And it better be good.”

  “It is,” Gabe assured him.

  Marc and Claire listened to the terse exchange between men. Carp was a bastard. But there was no doubt he was pleased as hell with the breakthrough.

  “Get details out of her,” he demanded. “And call me as soon as you do.”

  “I will, Mr. Carp.”

  The phone line went dead.

  “We’ll have a guy waiting for you at La Guardia,” Marc told Gabe. “You’ll be going straight to Gia’s townhouse. You’ll have your reunion there.”

  CHAPTER 27

  Gia’s townhouse

  Rye, New York

  The next afternoon

  “Marc just got here,” Gia said, handing Dani a glass of wine as her sister stood at the townhouse window, gazing out at nothing in particular. “He parked at the other end of the development and came in through the patio slider. So his visit went undetected.” She pressed her lips together, determined to keep her hatred of Gabe in check. Dani didn’t need any more negativity piled onto her. “And Patrick’s guy will be bringing Gabe back in fifteen.”

  “I can hardly wait,” Dani replied dryly. “As if last night wasn’t enough.” Gabe had been delivered to the townhouse door fresh from his flight. He’d been broken, pleading, and pathetic. Claire had called hours before that and prepared Dani for the visit. But she couldn’t prepare her for the hurt or the furious sense of betrayal that still gnawed at her.

 
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