On Friday we announced that Nina Croft’s The Descartes Legacy is our Thriller of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the thriller, mystery, and suspense categories: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Thriller excerpt:
4.4 stars – 5 Reviews
Here’s the set-up:
Lucas Grafton has spent the last ten years hunting the Conclave, a secret organization who took everything from him: his wife, his child, his very identity. Now he has a lead—an imminent terrorist attack on London—code-named Descartes.
Born with a genetic illness, Jenna Young has always known she was different. But the unexpected death of her father catapults her into a world of murder and terrorism she never expected. In order to stay alive, she must solve a twenty-five year old mystery—and her only ally a hard bitter man in search or retribution, her only clue the Descartes Highlands, an area on the near side of the moon.
Luke’s need for revenge collides with Jenna’s hunt for the past, and together they must stand against the Conclave. All the while uncovering the truth behind Jenna’s illness, a truth that will make Jenna question her very humanity.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Darkness had fallen by the time Luke arrived at the outskirts of the village, fifty miles north of London. He drove slowly through the quiet streets until he spotted the black SUV parked in the shadows between streetlights on the edge of the road.
Pulling up behind, he got out of his own vehicle and slipped into the passenger seat of the car ahead.
Callum tapped his earpiece to show he was listening to someone and glanced up. “You look like shit.”
“Thanks.” Truth was, he felt like shit. He rubbed his eyes, gritty from lack of sleep. “Tell me what we have.”
“Our friend Carson has surfaced at last. He’s been tailing someone, but I’ve got to say, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“Who’s the subject?”
“A Dr. David Griffiths.”
“Never heard of him.” Luke thought for a moment. “A doctor? Could he be a scientist? Maybe they need him for something.”
“Unlikely. He’s a medical doctor—a GP. I’ve had Stefan do a quick background check, and there’s nothing to suggest any involvement. The guy’s a nobody.”
Luke rested his head against the seat and stared out into the night. “No. There has to be a connection. We’re just not seeing it.” Frustration clawed at his guts. Every instinct told him he was on to something, but things weren’t adding up. “Where are they now?”
“In there. It’s the doctor’s surgery.” Callum nodded toward a building opposite. It stood back from the road with a parking area in front containing a single vehicle. Lights shone from the front windows. “Carson’s questioning him. So far it’s been softly-softly, but I have an idea Carson’s about to up the game.”
“What’s he asking?”
“Apparently, the doctor has been doing some searches on things he shouldn’t be.”
Callum turned to him with a grin. “Descartes? Does that cheer you up?”
Oh yeah. The muscles in his belly clenched tight. Maybe they were on to something, after all. “Do you have a comm unit for me?”
Callum handed him one, and Luke placed it in his ear.
A man’s voice.
“Look, I don’t know who you are, but I suggest you leave before I call the police.”
The sounds of a scuffle came down the earpiece.
“Now, tell me about Descartes.”
“I told you—I don’t know anything about any Descartes.”
A dull thud and the doctor’s next words were panicked.
“It’s a place…on the moon…I don’t know what else it means.”
There was a moment’s silence followed by a shrill scream.
“Shit.” Luke reached for the door handle, but Callum halted him with a hand on his arm.
“Where are you going?”
“To stop this.”
“Luke, think. This doctor is one man. We’re trying to stop an attack that could kill thousands, maybe more, and he’s our only lead.”
“We’ll take them both in. Find out what they know.”
“And you reckon they’ll talk if we ask them nicely?” Callum’s tone held disbelief.
“There are some lines we don’t cross.”
Callum’s expression hardened, his mouth tightening into a narrow line. “Maybe we need to start.”
A low moan echoed in the earpiece. Luke gritted his teeth. “And if we do—what’s next? We might as well just give up and join the bad guys.”
He stared into Callum’s cold eyes until the other man looked away. Then he shrugged off Callum’s hand and climbed out of the vehicle. Another scream from his comm urged him on, and he raced across the road. From the conversation in his ear, time was running out.
Luke drew his pistol and edged around the building until he reached a window where light spilled from the interior. As he peered inside, the breath left him. The light clicked out.
“You’re too late.” Callum’s voice came over the comm.
“No fucking kidding.”
“What do you want me to do?”
He rubbed at the skin on the back of his neck, the site of an old burn—the scar always itched when he was stressed. A dull pain throbbed in his temple. He pressed a finger to his forehead and tried to force his brain beyond the heavy weight of defeat.
“Stay with Carson. I’m going to see if there’s anything useful here.”
He stood motionless in the shadows. A minute later, Carson strode out of the building just as a car pulled into the parking area, catching him in the fierce glare of the headlights. He turned, shoved his hands in his pockets, and strolled away, disappearing around the back of the building.
“Carson’s on the move—don’t lose him,” Luke commanded, keeping his gaze on the approaching car.
“I’m on it.”
The car parked in front of the surgery entrance. The headlights died, and the driver sat for a while. Hopefully, they would take the lack of lights as a sign the place was closed and drive off. Instead, a woman climbed out and slammed the door. The locks beeped, and her gaze shifted back and forth between the other car and the darkened building.
She appeared young, somewhere in her mid-twenties, tall and slender, dressed in a red skirt and black top, her long blond hair a vivid contrast against the darkness. As she turned slightly, her face was lit by the dim glow from the streetlights behind him. Luke’s breath caught in his throat. She was flawless—perfect. High cheekbones, wide mouth, pale skin, and eyes slanting under arched brows.
She walked toward the surgery, her movements graceful but tentative, then paused at the door and glanced around.
Luke took one last look at the woman, the urge to warn her flashing through his mind. He shook his head. Soon the place would be crawling with cops.
Time to get out of here.
Jenna paused in front of the main door into the surgery. Something wasn’t right. The place was too dark, though across the car park, David’s blue four-wheel drive stood in its usual parking space.
After pulling her cell phone from her bag, she punched in his number. It rang until voicemail kicked in, and she ended the call without leaving a message.
She gnawed on her lower lip. Should she just turn around and go home? Perhaps talking to him had been a huge mistake, and this was her chance to back out before she involved him any further. But she needed help and advice, and David was the obvious man to ask. Trouble was, she also knew he cared for her, and that complicated matters. He was a nice man, way too nice and normal for her, even without the time-bomb ticking away inside her…
Her father had always provided her medicine, altering the doses after her monthly check-up, and she hoped David could find her records, or at least prescribe her more pills until she got herself sorted out. But with only enough medicine for one more day, her father’s warnings niggled at the back of her mind.
In the past, she’d hated his constant nagging, but now she would do anything to have him back. How could he be dead? After ten days, the pain was still raw, and it still seemed impossible he was gone.
Jenna turned the knob, half-hoping the door would be locked, but it swung open easily. Groping inside, she found the light switch and pressed it on. Unease roiled in her stomach, as though something bad and unknown hovered on the edge of her consciousness.
“David?” she called out, wondering again why he’d not left the front lights on.
As she stepped into the reception area, the door clicked shut behind her, the noise loud in the silence. The scent of a doctor’s surgery filled her nostrils, a mingling of people and antiseptic—familiar and unwelcome. The room appeared normal, nothing out of place, and she glanced across at David’s office.
The door was closed. That wasn’t unusual, yet a shiver prickled across her skin. She crossed the room, each step heavier than the last, until she stood in front of the door.
The wood was cool against her fingertips. She pushed gently.
The door opened at her touch. The office was in darkness, but the light from the reception area seeped into the room, revealing the shadow of a seated figure.
For an endless moment, she stood frozen in the doorway. She swallowed, licking her dry lips, forcing the word out of her locked throat.
The figure remained motionless, and Jenna took a slow step forward. As she entered the room, her nostrils filled with a sweet, sickly stench, and she swallowed again. Her hand flew to her face, pressed over her mouth and nose.
When she knew she wouldn’t be sick, she drew in a deep breath and switched on the light.
The phone fell from her hand, hitting the tiled floor with a crack.
Jenna swayed as shock clamped her body in a vice-like grip. The room blurred, and she reached out for the wall to steady herself. She forced herself to look, to make sense of the scene in front of her.
David was dead.
There was no doubt. He was tied to one of the solid wooden chairs, held upright by the rope around his chest. His head had fallen back, exposing the line of his throat, but the white wall behind him was splattered with a grisly medley of black and crimson.
She edged closer, needing to see his face, to confirm what she already knew. His eyes were wide open, and a neat black hole pierced the center of his forehead. Reaching out with a shaking finger, she touched his cheek. The skin was warm, and she jumped back.
Could the killer still be here? She remembered the man in the car park as she’d arrived.
Crouching on the floor, she fumbled for her phone without taking her eyes from the body. Her fingers trembled too much to press the numbers, but finally she managed, and after endless minutes, the police emergency line picked up.
“There’s been a murder.”
She gave the address and listened while they told her an officer would be with her within minutes.
Why? Why would anyone kill David?
Glancing around the room, she saw nothing was out of place. Only David.
She made herself look at the body again, take in the details. His wrists had been fastened to the arms of the chair with steel cuffs. The fingers of his right hand were splayed open and turned into a bloody, swollen mass. Dizziness washed through her, and nausea rose up in her throat.
He’d been tortured.
Swallowing, she turned away, unable to look any longer.
She stumbled from the office, back into the reception area, and sank into one of the hard chairs lining the room. The door stood open, and she wished she’d closed it as her gaze was drawn to the slumped figure. But she couldn’t make herself get up and go anywhere near David’s body again.
Her eyes burned, and she rubbed the tears away.
What could anyone possibly want worth torturing a man like David for?
His last moments must have been horrific. Had he known he was about to die? The tears welled up again. This time she allowed them to slide down her cheek.
The police would be here soon.
While she hated to be caught up in the middle of this, she had to do whatever she could to help. Her mind went again to the man she had seen leaving the car park. Had he been David’s killer? Her eyes closed; she visualized him, but he’d looked so ordinary.
Her thoughts were broken as a car pulled into the lot. She forced herself to her feet, crossed to the door, opened it, and watched two uniformed officers approach the surgery.
“Ma’am, are you the woman who called in the emergency?”
“Yes. Jenna Young.”
“You said there’d been a murder.”
She turned and gestured to David’s office without allowing herself to look inside.
One of them pulled out a radio and turned away as he made a murmured call. He came back to Jenna. “I’ve called in homicide. They’ll be here in an hour. In a case like this, we bring in the specialists from London.”
Jenna sat on one of the chairs as far away as she could get and tried not to think, but by the time she heard the sound of tires scrunching over gravel outside, she was going crazy.
Thank God. At least there might be an end to the night.
A man stood before her, tall, in black jeans and a black V-necked sweater under a leather jacket. His hair was dark and messy, his face lean and handsome. He smiled, showing slightly crooked teeth.
“I’m Detective Inspector Mitchell.” He nodded toward the woman beside him. “And this is Detective Jameson.”
Jenna offered a small smile in reply but couldn’t bring herself to speak.
“How are you doing?” he asked, taking the seat beside her.
She gave him a blank expression and a shrug. What was there to say?
“I’m sorry—it must have been a shock for you to find him. Did you know him?”
“His name was Dr. David Griffiths. I’d arranged to meet him here tonight.”
“A doctor? Were you a patient?”
“No. My father was his business partner.”
“My father died just over a week ago.”
She didn’t answer; the comment didn’t seem to require one. “Detective Mitchell, there was a man leaving as I arrived here.”
“Was he someone you knew?”
“No. That’s why I noticed him. This is a small place, and strangers are rare. He came out of the surgery as I was parking the car. It had to be him.”
“Sarah.” Mitchell called the other officer over. “Go see if there’s a CCTV camera in the car park, and if there is get hold of the tapes.”
He pulled a small handheld recorder out of his pocket and turned back to Jenna. “Can you describe him?”
Jenna attempted to picture the man, but his face remained vague, shadowy. “My mind was on other things. I noticed him, but he didn’t really register.”
“He was average. I think that’s why he’s so hard to remember. Average height, probably about the same as me.”
“And that is?”
“Five eight, five nine maybe.”
“His hair looked medium brown, but it was dark. He was dressed in jeans and a black jacket of some sort.” She shrugged. “I’m sorry—I’m not being much help.”
“You’re doing fine.”
The woman detective came back at that moment, stopping in front of them, hands on her hips. “You’re not going to like this. There are CCTV cameras—”
“Good so far. So what aren’t I going to like?”
“They’ve both been taken out. Smashed.”
A white van pulled up outside. Mitchell stood and stretched. “That will be the crime scene team,” he said to Jenna. “I need to speak to them, but I’ll be back in a little while, and we can finish up.”
“Will I be able to go?”
“I think so, though we’ll need you to come in to Scotland Yard first thing tomorrow.”
“Fine. I’m staying at my father’s house tonight, but I work in London. I’ll come in on my way.”
“Okay, well I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere.”
He left her, and she watched as he spoke to the new arrivals. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing; soon flashes were going off, and people wandered around with clipboards, taking notes, measuring things.
Someone handed her a coffee, and she sipped it, craving the heat. Her insides felt frozen despite the warmth of the night. Her life had never been normal, always overshadowed by her illness, but now everything seemed to be falling apart.
She dug into her bag and pulled out the letter. It had arrived yesterday—the morning of her father’s funeral—forwarded by his solicitor. She smoothed open the paper with trembling fingers.
If you are reading this, I am dead. I’m sorry for leaving you; I would never leave voluntarily, but we are not always in command of our own destinies.
It is vitally important that you seek help for your illness. I cannot stress strongly enough—you must not stop taking the medicine.
I am giving you the name of an old colleague of mine who will assist you. Professor Merrick is head of Biochemistry at Cambridge University, and you can find him through the faculty. Do not speak to anyone else regarding this.
Go and see him without delay.
Your loving father,
P.s. In the event he will not see you, tell him–Descartes.
But she had spoken to someone else.
She’d spoken to David, shown him the letter.
And now he was dead.
Luke had a premonition of bad news when his cell phone rang.
“Carson’s dead,” Callum said.
Luke rubbed his temples and forced down the anger that burned to life inside him. He smashed his fist into the table. “Goddammit. How did that happen?”
“He knew I was tailing him and set an ambush. I had no choice.”
“He must have spotted you.”
“No way,” Callum said. “I’d bet he already knew we were on to him.”
A week ago in New York, they had intercepted a member of the Conclave, a clandestine organization responsible for infiltrating and corrupting the world’s major power bases. With a little not-so-gentle persuasion, the man had told them a terrorist attack was planned. The attack was codenamed “Descartes,” and it was to be soon. That was all he’d given them, apart from his contact in the UK—Carson.
They’d thought Carson was a breakthrough. Instead, he was just one more layer in the complex web that made up the Conclave. And now he was dead.
“What about the body?” Luke asked.
“Not going to be a problem. I’ve set it up so it looks like a hit and run.”
“Okay,” he told Callum. “Come back here. There’s nothing more we can do about Carson.”
After the call, he got up and wandered into the bathroom, splashing his face with cold water. He needed to work out their next move and right now, he had no clue.
Most of his adult life had been devoted to unraveling the secrets behind the Conclave yet the more he learned, the less he understood. He was beginning to think he would never get to the true leaders behind the monster.
The Conclave was huge, but as far as he could tell, each man they recruited knew only two others: the person who had recruited them and the one they recruited themselves. Any mistakes were ruthlessly eradicated.
Luke flicked on the computer and stared at the screen for a long while, finally pulling up the recording of Carson and the doctor he’d murdered last night.
“Tell me about Professor Merrick. What’s your connection?”
“I don’t know him. I never heard of him until yesterday.”
“How did you hear?”
Screams which died to whimpers.
“A patient. It was a patient. I wanted to consult with Merrick on a case.”
“Give me a name.”
For a moment, Luke thought the man wouldn’t answer.
He whimpered again and finally spoke, his voice a hoarse whisper. “Jenna Young. Her name’s Jenna Young, but she doesn’t know anything, nothing. I heard Merrick might have information on her illness—it was a consult, nothing more.”
There was a small silence before Carson spoke again, this time presumably on his cell phone.
“He knows nothing. I’ll follow up on a lead, a Jenna Young, but as far as Descartes goes—he’s clean.”
A few moments of silence as he apparently listened to the other side of the telephone conversation.
Then the quiet thud of a silenced revolver.
So what did Luke have? Project Descartes, the dead GP, Griffiths, his patient Jenna Young, and finally, a Professor Merrick. With the exception of Descartes, Luke had never come across any of those names before.
What could the connection be?
He typed in Jenna Young, added the name of the village where the doctor had lived, and came up with one candidate immediately.
The picture flickered onto the screen, and something tightened in his gut. The beautiful blonde from the car park. Jenna Young.
He read the brief bio. Twenty-six years old. Mother and father both dead. She had a doctorate in anthropology and worked in the Museum of Anthropology in the center of London.
He’d get the analysts working on her. At first sight, she appeared clean, but from experience, he knew that meant nothing. In the meantime, he was going to discover exactly what the beautiful Ms. Young knew about Descartes.
He could set someone tailing her, but perhaps there was a better way. Picking up his phone, he tapped in a number.
“I need a cover.”
Outside the sun was rising, coloring the sky crimson and tangerine. Lauren stood at the floor to ceiling windows that made up two entire walls of her corner office and gazed down at the city of London spread out below her.
What would the view be like one week from now?
Not for the first time, the enormity of what they were about to set in motion struck her. Perhaps she was getting old, or developing a conscience—God forbid—but there was no point in getting squeamish at this point; she couldn’t stop this even if she wanted to.
Which she didn’t. Not really.
In many ways, she believed in what they were doing; that this was their only way forward in a society determined to self-implode. She wondered if people would understand that this was actually for their own good. The ones left alive, at least.
Lauren had never seen herself as a savior of the world; now she found herself smiling at the notion.
A quiet tap sounded on the door, and she turned as her assistant entered. “What is it, Mark?”
“Lee Carson is dead.”
Lauren glanced up to where Mark loitered in the doorway. “What happened?”
“We’ve been monitoring chatter on the web and picked up something we believed needed investigating.”
A flicker of annoyance pricked her skin. “And that was?”
“A flag set by you.”
Lauren frowned. “Descartes?” The project was on schedule; nothing could be allowed to go wrong.
“Yes. But more than that—a Professor Merrick?”
A thread of unease shivered across her skin. How long had it been since she’d heard that name? She crossed the office and sat behind her desk as she tried to see a possible connection.
“You set the flag over twenty years ago,” Mark continued. “But I can’t make out any link to the current project.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Lauren said…Though neither could she. The old connection was a dead end—literally. Why would Merrick’s name come up now in connection with Descartes? She didn’t believe in coincidences.
“Tell me,” she ordered.
“A Dr. David Griffiths. He’s a small town GP. Yesterday, he did an internet search for Merrick and Descartes. We probably wouldn’t have picked it up if it had been just one or the other, but both together set the alarms off.”
“Yes, they would.”
“We sent Carson to check it out as he was available. His contact in New York went missing a week ago.” He frowned. “We don’t suspect Carson of turning, but we were keeping him sidelined in case he’d been compromised.”
“What the hell happened?” She got up and paced the room.
“We’re not sure. But he turned up in the morgue. A hit and run. Last night.”
“When did you last hear from him?”
“He called after he’d…finished with the doctor.”
“Finished? I take it he’s dead. What happened there?”
“Carson reckoned the man knew nothing. He was going after a lead he’d mentioned but was pretty sure it would turn out to be nothing as well.”
“Do we know who the lead was?”
“A woman—a patient.”
Lauren took a deep breath and forced down the anger threatening to overwhelm her. She was surrounded by incompetents.
“Put a tail on Merrick. I don’t want anyone going near him that I don’t know about. And send someone to find out about this patient. And for God’s sake, send them with back up this time.”
As the door clicked shut behind him, she returned to her desk. Something about all this was making her uneasy. Memories from the past. A past she’d thought closed.
But with Project Descartes about to go live, it was unsurprising those thoughts should be at the forefront of her mind.
She switched on her scrambled link. “We may have a problem.”
Jenna slammed her fist into the punching bag, whirled around, and kicked out, following the move with a rapid series of punches, trying to rid herself of the images seared into her brain.
David. Descartes. Merrick.
The words hammered through her mind in time with the blows. Finally, she stood hugging the punching bag, her forehead resting on the warm leather.
“Wow.” A voice spoke from behind her. “Someone’s upset you this morning.”
She turned to see Steve, the owner of the gym, standing in the doorway, and she smoothed the expression from her face. “Hi there, and no, not really. No more than normal, anyway.”
It was a lie.
In the end, she hadn’t mentioned Descartes or Professor Merrick to the police. And through the long night, she’d convinced herself she was being paranoid.
Unable to sleep, she’d spent the night going through her father’s papers, searching for her non-existent medical records. She’d found a few old documents that might shed some light on the past but nothing about her.
Her father had been her only family. Or at least the only family she had ever known. It occurred to her that now he was gone, she was free to look up her mother. At the thought, she could almost hear her father rolling in his grave. Her mother had abandoned them when Jenna had been diagnosed with a rare form of Huntington’s disease, and he had remained bitter about it right up to the end, refusing to ever talk about her.
He spent long years researching her disease, devising the best treatment; he’d given up his life for her and had only recently returned to work in his own medical practice.
Which was why Jenna had always abided by his wishes.
Without him, she might have ended up institutionalized, even dead or wishing she were dead.
Instead, she was just dying very slowly.
Without the medicine, the disease would cause progressive damage to the cells in her brain. Areas involved in control of movement, planning, motivation, and personality. If it ever caught hold, she could lose her mind, her very self, and eventually turn into a living vegetable. The image had haunted her adolescence ever since her father had told her the consequences, shown her pictures of people with advanced cases of the disease.
Weak. Fragile. Sick.
But she didn’t feel weak. She punched the bag with all her strength.
“You know,” Steve said, interrupting her black thoughts. “You ever want to go into the ring for real—MMA or kickboxing—I can get you some fights. You’re ready, and you’ve got the killer instinct needed for the professional circuit.”
“Yeah—you like to win, and with your looks, you’d be a real draw.”
Jenna almost smiled at the idea. Her father would have loved that. Not. He’d have gone ape if he even knew she trained. But she needed some way to get rid of the excess energy, the restlessness, and this worked the best of anything she’d tried.
“Well?” Steve asked. “I know you don’t need the money, but I can get you a fee.”
“I don’t think so, but thank you.” Though maybe now that her father was gone…
She showered and dressed. One more thing to do before she could head to the sanctuary of her laboratory and the company of her bones.
Straight ahead of her loomed a huge building of glass and steel, the words Metropolitan Police in large letters on the wall and a rotating sign that read “New Scotland Yard” outside the entrance. She entered the building into a large reception area and approached a uniformed police officer behind a counter at one end.
“I’m here to see Detective Inspector Mitchell,” she said. “My name is Jenna Young.”
Taking a seat, she tried to relax her tense muscles. But even after rubbing her forehead, the dull throbbing ache refused to be shifted. She wanted desperately to get to her lab and immerse herself in her work to try to forget this for a little while.
Minutes later, a set of swinging doors opened, and the detective’s tall figure emerged. He was in the same clothes he’d worn last night, and there were shadows under his eyes, darker shadows on his cheeks. She rose to her feet as he came to a halt in front of her. He studied her for a moment, head cocked to one side, then reached out a hand. His felt warm and strong, the handshake firm.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Not brilliant.” She glanced away and bit her lip. “I can’t get the image of David out of my head. What they did to him.”
“That’s not unusual. You might need to see someone, talk it out. I can get you a list of therapists who deal with this sort of thing.”
“I’d rather get through it myself, but thank you.”
“Okay, your choice. Come on, I have one of our artists waiting to work with you.”
Jenna followed him through the double doors and up one flight of stairs. He paused in front of a door and entered without knocking. They were in a small, cluttered room. A man sat at a desk facing a computer monitor.
“This is Jeff Mailer,” Detective Mitchell said.
Jeff was young, more like some college kid than a policeman. He examined Jenna in return and grinned. “I wondered why Mitchell was giving you the personal treatment; now I can see why.”
“Piss off, Mailer.”
The other man ignored the comment. “Call me Jeff.”
“Okay, Jenna. Come and tell me everything you know.”
She sat down beside him and watched, curious, as he switched on the program. Mitchell leaned against the wall opposite, arms folded across his chest. Jeff glanced up at him, one eyebrow raised. “If you’re not going to go out and catch the bad guys, you might as well do something useful like get us some coffee.”
“Hey, I’m off duty.”
“You could go home then. It’s what normal people do.”
Mitchell stared at him broodingly as he pushed away from the wall. “Jenna, how do you like your coffee?”
She waited until he’d left the room before turning back to the other man.
“I think our rough, tough DI Mitchell is in lurve,” Jeff said with another grin. “But I’m guessing you’re used to that reaction. Okay, back to work.”
He typed in a few words, and the figure of a man flashed up on the screen. “I’ve put in some data from your interview last night. Now we have to fine tune it.”
Finally, she sat back, satisfied she had remembered all she could. “That’s him. Or pretty close.” A shiver ran through her as she studied the face. “He seems so ordinary.”
“They often do,” Mitchell said from behind her. “This was no off the cuff murder—the guy is a professional. They do their best to blend in to their surroundings and be as unobtrusive as possible.”
“Yes, I wouldn’t have noticed him except he was leaving as I drove up. He was caught in the headlights, so I saw him clearly.” She shivered again and rubbed her arms. “So is that it? Can I go?”
“Yes. We’ll be in touch if we need you for anything else.”
Jenna picked up the fragment of bone and lowered it gently into place. The skeleton was nearly complete and one of the finest she’d reconstructed. The sounds of the museum faded into the background as she worked methodically.
Her lab smelled of dust and ancient decay. She loved this place—it filled her with a sense of peace and continuity.
She’d always presumed the lack of knowledge of her own past had resulted in her passion for discovering the history of the human race. This particular skeleton dated back to the beginning of the Neolithic period, probably around 9500 BC.
She stroked a finger over the smooth curve of the yellowed skull. So much history.
Losing herself in piecing together the puzzle of her skeleton, she only looked up when one of the assistants entered the lab.
“Jenna, there’s someone to see you.”
Her first thought was the police, and David’s memory flooded over her again, followed swiftly by a dull ache in her chest.
But for some reason, the stranger who stood in the doorway didn’t make her think “police.” He was tall, at least six three, with a lean body beneath black pants and a black shirt open at the throat. His face was pale, his hair short and black.
When he saw she’d noticed him, he stepped into the room and came toward her, moving with the grace of an athlete, each step controlled, giving Jenna the impression of leashed power.
Halting in front of her, he held out his hand. This close, Jenna could see his eyes were a beautiful hazel, green-brown flecked with gold. As she slid her palm against his, a frisson ran through her arm, along her nerves, settling low in her belly. She glanced at him sharply, but if he felt anything, he wasn’t giving it away. She pulled her hand free and edged back.
“How can I help you?” she asked.
He studied her, head tilted to one side. “My name is Luke Grafton. I’m David’s cousin.”
Shock locked her muscles. “I don’t understand. Have you heard—” She broke off as he nodded, his expression somber. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even know David had a cousin.”
“We were close when we were younger, but we’d lost touch over the last few years.” He glanced around the lab, his eyebrows rising as he took in the half-formed skeleton on the table beside her. “Is there somewhere we can talk?”
“Of course.” Visitors were often uncomfortable around her work, though she had the impression very little would bother this man. “We can go to my office.”
She led him out of the lab and along the corridor to her tiny cubicle, leaving the door open behind them. With this man beside her, she realized how minute the space really was. He was big, not only tall, but also broad at the shoulders, and she couldn’t help but be conscious of his closeness. Her body felt twitchy, on edge, and the strangeness of the emotions disconcerted her.
She shook off the feeling as she cleared a box of bones from one of the two chairs. Skirting the desk, she sank into her own seat and indicated the one she had cleared. He sat on the too small chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him, arms folded across his chest, studying her intently, as though he could pierce her mind. Find her secrets.
Almost squirming under the concentrated stare, she picked up a pencil from the desk, twiddled it between her finger and thumb, then put it down again and focused somewhere over his left shoulder. “I’m sorry about David. He was a good friend, but I’m not sure how I can help you.”
“David called me last night.”
Her gaze flashed to his face. “He did?”
“I hadn’t heard from him in a while—I was surprised. He told me he thought he was being followed. He was frightened.”
“Oh.” A tremor of unease skittered down her spine. She frowned as she thought about his words. “Why did he go to you and not the police?”
“I run a security firm, and he asked me to investigate something for him. I also provide protection for prominent people.”
“You mean like bodyguards?”
“David wanted you to provide him with a bodyguard?”
“Not exactly. He wanted me to provide you with a bodyguard.”
“I don’t understand.” Nor did she want to. She didn’t like where this conversation was going.
“I don’t want to alarm you, Ms. Young, but David believed whoever was following him was a result of something he was looking into for you.”
Jenna rubbed a finger over the spot between her brows. Her headache had returned with a vengeance along with her—supposedly paranoid—fears of the night before. “I don’t understand. Why would he think that?”
“He told me he’d received a phone call asking him about something related to you.”
“Does the word ‘Descartes’ mean anything to you?”
He was still watching her intently, as though searching for some sort of reaction.
She stood up and smoothed her skirt down over her thighs. “Are you telling me David was killed because of me? That’s crazy.”
“Descartes?” he persisted.
Her fists clenched at her side. “It’s a place on the moon, or so David told me.”
“Why were you discussing it?”
It occurred to her that she had absolutely no proof this man was who he said he was. An image of David’s tortured body flashed before her, and she edged sideways so that she was between him and the door, every muscle ready to run.
His lips quirked, but the smile vanished quickly. As though he knew what she was thinking, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a wallet, and handed her a business card.
Luke Grafton, Security Services.
He also handed her his driving license and finally, a photograph of a much younger David with his arms around the shoulders of Luke Grafton. The knot in her stomach eased slightly, and she handed back the photo and license.
“I want to find out who killed David,” he said, putting the wallet in his pocket.
“Can’t you leave it to the police?”
“No.” His answer was vehement. “David came to me.” He shrugged and some emotion—guilt, maybe—flickered across his face. “He was worried, but I thought there was no urgency. I told him to stay calm, and I’d be with him today. If I’d listened to him, he’d still be alive.”
That was understandable—she would do anything to find David’s killers. But until she had looked into this man’s background, she wasn’t telling him anymore. Jenna glanced down at the card in her hand. Once he’d left, she would do a search on him and decide how much she could safely tell him. Besides, she didn’t believe there could be a connection to David’s research for her and his death. It was a coincidence.
“I’m also here because David thought you might be in some sort of trouble,” he said gently. “He would have wanted me to protect you.”
“I’m in no trouble, and I can protect myself.”
A resigned expression crossed his face. “You found the body, didn’t you? Can you at least tell me what you were doing there last night?”
“Have you spoken with the police?”
“Briefly, but I wanted to speak with you first.”
She shrugged. “We’d arranged to meet after his evening surgery. David had been looking into some medication—”
“Medication?” He jumped on the word. “He wasn’t your doctor, was he? I got the impression you were a couple.”
“No, we were just friends.”
“But David would have liked you to be more?”
“Maybe. It doesn’t matter now. I have a medical condition. Up until recently, my father was treating me, but he died suddenly, and I had to sort something else out. David was arranging for me to see a specialist—a friend of his.”
“How did he die?”
“My father?” Her gaze flashed to his face. “Well, I assure you he wasn’t murdered, if that’s what you’re thinking.” She didn’t try to keep the irritation from her voice. “He was in a car accident, but there was absolutely nothing suspicious.” His Porsche had slammed into a foreign truck driving on the wrong side of the road. He’d died immediately at the scene of the accident. She hadn’t even been able to say goodbye.
“And your illness?”
“Is none of your business.”
His eyes widened slightly at her angry tone, and another brief smile flashed across his face. He held up his hands. “Okay. So David was setting you up with a specialist. Anything else?”
She had no reason to lie, but something cautioned her to be circumspect with what she revealed. Maybe she was her father’s daughter after all, and secrecy was ingrained in her personality.
“David had sent my medicine off to the lab for analysis, and he was expecting the results yesterday. He wanted to discuss them.”
“And Descartes? Why were you talking about it?”
Jenna decided it was the time to take the offensive. This man was interrogating her. What did he really want? Revenge for his cousin’s death? Or something else?
“I appreciate your concern, Mr. Grafton—”
“Please, call me Luke.”
“But while I appreciate your concern, Luke, I don’t see how David’s death could be connected to me. I don’t know anything about this Descartes, but if I think of anything, I’ll let you know. Now I have work to do, so…”
She glanced meaningfully at the door. For a moment, she thought he was going to ignore her unsubtle hint. The silence stretched out but finally, he shrugged and rose to his feet.
Jenna almost took an instinctive step back but forced herself to hold her ground.
“My cell number is on the card,” he said. “If you think of anything, call me.”
He reached out his hand, and Jenna clasped it reluctantly. His palm felt warm and strong, and this time he held on longer than was required.
“Jenna.” He used her name for the first time and it sounded odd coming from a stranger. “Whoever killed David is still out there. The police told me he’d been tortured. I don’t want to see that happen to you.”
Swallowing the lump that rose in her throat, she tugged her hand free. “It won’t.”
A small smile flickered across his face. “Call me.”
He turned and walked from the room, and Jenna stumbled around her desk and sank into the chair clutching the card.
Her fingers twitched as she recalled David’s poor hand from the night before, and it occurred to her that Luke Grafton’s words had sounded strangely like a threat.
Well that had gone well.
Luke had learned little from the meeting, but strangely, he didn’t feel bad about the situation. He and Jenna Young were far from finished. She might not know it, but she was somehow involved in this. He just had to find out how.
On his way out, he glanced through the open doorway to the lab where she’d been working earlier, his gaze flicking to the half-completed skeleton on the table.
What was a beautiful woman doing working with a load of old bones? And she was beautiful. His gut tightened at the memory. The sensation was strange, unexpected. It had been a long time since he’d felt attracted to any woman. But Jenna stirred something inside him, something he’d thought long since dead.
The interview had awoken a sense of anticipation he hadn’t experienced in years. She was hiding something from him, but that was unsurprising—she was bright and obviously didn’t trust him.
By the way she’d clutched his business card, she was probably on the Internet now finding out what she could about him. The cover would hold, but he wasn’t convinced she would call him. Her face had been pale, her eyes red from lack of sleep and no doubt crying. Though she’d denied any connection to the GP’s death, she was scared.
She didn’t want to believe she was involved.
Luke needed to find some way to convince her she was.