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Authors: Linda Ladd

Gone black

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BOOKSBYLINDALADDClaire Morgan Homicide ThrillersHead to Head Dark Places Die Smiling Enter Evil Remember Murder Mostly Murder Bad Bones Claire Morgan Investigations SeriesDevil Dead Gone BlackGone BlackLINDALADDKENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.www.kensingtonbooks.comAll copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.Table of ContentsBOOKSBYLINDALADDTitle PagePrologueChapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter EightChapter NineChapter TenChapter ElevenChapter TwelveChapter ThirteenChapter FourteenChapter FifteenChapter SixteenChapter SeventeenChapter EighteenChapter NineteenChapter TwentyChapter Twenty-oneChapter Twenty-twoChapter Twenty-threeChapter Twenty-fourChapter Twenty-fiveEpilogueTeaser chapterTeaser chapterCopyright PagePrologueLittle Boy LostMay 5The small child stood still and looked around his family's safe room. It was really a grotto dug out of volcanic rock and located way down in the ancient Roman sewer tunnels, deep under the old stone Saracen Tower in which they now lived. There was a huge opening in the rocks right in front of him, one that showed the sky and jutted out a good ways over the water below. He could see the waves moving in to the shore, just like marching soldiers all in a line, right under where he stood near the drop-off. He could hear the waves hitting, crashing, and smashing upon the rocky shore when they reached the base of the cliff somewhere far beneath the safe room. It was a long way down to the water so he took care not to stand very close to the edge. The sea winds hit him in the face and blew back his dark hair while he gazed out over the shiny, sunlit sea with all the seagulls wheeling and diving into the water.Smiling, he was very happy that his mama and daddy had moved them to the seashore. He was born in California, but his daddy's family came from southern Italy and that's why they had chosen their new home in the ancient fortress on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. They had moved into the big stone structure a few months ago, and he and his daddy had been exploring the subterranean tunnels. His daddy said Roman engineers built them. They had found all sorts of caves and grottoes, too, where they had been dug into the cliffs by centuries of storms and weather and pounding waves. He loved to explore down there in the cool, dark underground place with his daddy. His daddy was a real good archaeologist, kinda like Indiana Jones, and his mother was a geologist and really liked all the rocks and stuff around the fortress.After the whole family had pulled up stakes and moved away from Sacramento, California, and to this wonderful place, they had told him all kinds of tales about how the fortress was used as a Roman lookout a long time ago for searching the sea for the Saracen and Barbary pirates, and even earlier than that as a fort kind of thing for the Phoenicians and then much later as a hideout for French and Spanish pirates and privateers. His daddy told him that those pirates probably hid their gold coins and other booty down inside the Roman system of troughs and cisterns and grottoes where he was right now, and he always looked for treasure when he was exploring. But he never had found any. Not yet. Maybe they had taken it away when they left.His parents called their new home a fortress, but he thought it looked more like the castles in his picture books, the ones with knights and ladies and kings and queens. They lived all by themselves, and it was kind of scary, really, with the high dark mountains rising up in the distance at the middle of the island. He could see other islands outside the opening, too, rising up from the sea on the horizon, almost like it had looked when they had visited Hawaii. All he knew was that he liked this new place a whole, whole lot. He missed his friends, though, way back in California. They had all lived in his old neighborhood, and his mama used to give them cherry Kool-Aid and Skittles and M&Ms. Once his mama and daddy had even taken him and his friends to a real fun bounce house and petting zoo. They even took them to Disneyland once, too, and that was the most fun place he'd ever been.But this new home was super awesome, too, kinda like he had his own big special hideout, where he could play down in the dark, narrow tunnels any time he wanted. The grottoes had peepholes in the walls and inside the fortress were big modern heat vents and bookcases that were really hidden doors that opened out into the rooms because not so long ago it had been an inn. He loved all of that. It was real secret and fun to peek in at his parents when they didn't know it. But down here in the safe room, he had made a special hideout just for himself, and it was up pretty high in the cliff where some of the tunnels emptied rainwater into the sea. There was a lower opening in the cliff, too, one that overlooked the water, but it was far below them.He liked this one better because that's where his daddy stacked boxes of food and bottled water and medicines and clothes and ammunition for his guns in case something terrible happened, like a big storm or like when those bad people came to kill his mom someday. He had some bedding down there, too, sleeping bags and blankets and pillows and lots of hisStar Warstoys. It was a real good place for a kid like him to play. But he hadn't spent the night alone down there yet. He was kinda scared to and his mother wouldn't let him, anyway. She said he was a big boy, but still too little for some things.Today it was real pretty and sunny outside, real hot, too, and bright light sparkled across the water and gave off a terrible glare, one that almost blinded him and made him shield his eyes when he looked out at it. He should've worn his sunglasses. Directly in front of him was the big hole in the rocks where one of the shallow troughs poured water over the ledge after rainstorms when the big cisterns along the shafts overflowed. It poured off from very high and into the deep blue water below.Somewhere under his feet the wild waves were still crashing into the bottom of the cliff, and he could hear the loud roiling and teeming and smashing turmoil against the cliff. It sounded as if an angry beast was trying to tear down the mountain right under his feet. Behind him lay one of the deepest cisterns. There was a small opening above it that revealed the blue sky with lots of white clouds that looked like popcorn. Freshwater poured through that hole and made a terrible racket during the big rainstorms that rolled in off the sea. It had only happened once since they'd moved there, but it had been pretty scary with all the lightning and thunder and howling winds.“Don't get too close to the ledge,” his daddy warned sternly from behind him. “That's a long way down, son, and the undertow down there is awfully powerful.”The child glanced back at his daddy, who was working behind him taking out cans of food and new bottles of his mama's medicines and boxes of flashlight batteries from the wheelbarrow and storing it in some big metal lockers that they had pushed down through the dark tunnels the week before. They had most of their extra supplies in the safe room now, but they had some stored in a few of the smaller grottoes up the tunnel closer to the house, too. It sure was a lot of hard work, but Daddy did it for Mama because she was always so afraid that somebody was gonna come and kill her with guns and stuff. Sometimes, the little boy got real scared and wondered who these bad folks were, why she was always so worried about them, why she always carried that little silver gun in her coat pocket, and why she locked all the doors so tight at night and in the day, too, no matter where they were or where they went. Even when they left and went out to have a picnic on the cliffs, she locked up everything. She locked it tight and took the key and wore her binoculars around her neck to watch for the bad people.“Son, you ready to go back up?”The little boy turned around and smiled at his daddy. “Yes, sir. Can I push the wheelbarrow?”“We'll go get one more load of supplies and bring it down, and then maybe we'll go down to that little beach we found the other day and look for shells. What'd you say?”“I wanna find some conch shells and that kind that curls all around like a horn.”“Okay, let's get going then. Mama can fix us a snack to take along. Maybe she'll come this time with us.”So they walked back up the tunnels together, with the boy pushing the big wheelbarrow. The main shaft was fairly high but pretty skinny, but his daddy could stand up, and he was pretty tall. It was wide enough for the wheelbarrow but not too much wider than that. Some of the side tunnels were really low, and they had to get down on their knees and crawl when they went inside them, but that was fun. There were all kinds of secret passages and hidden places, all along the sides of the main trough. It was almost like being in his favorite movie,Star Wars. Sometimes he pretended he was Luke Skywalker and he lived inside the fortress, but it wasn't Earth anymore. It was on a Jedi planet far, far away, and he could land theMillennium Falconup in the big paved courtyard. He smiled to himself, pretending that Princess Leia and Han Solo and Yoda all lived there with him, too.“Now remember, Mama's birthday is tomorrow. We're gonna surprise her with that pearl necklace we bought. We'll fix her favorite breakfast and give it to her in bed, and then we'll do anything she wants to do, all day long. It's her special day.”“Okay,” the boy said. He loved surprises, especially ones for his mama. She was so little and sweet and good to him. He was almost as tall as her already, and he wasn't even very old yet. She read to him from hisStar Warsbooks every night when he went to bed, and she took long walks with him along the cliffs when his daddy was searching for artifacts in some of the other Roman ruins, the ones that lay just down the beach. She loved that, taking walks and having picnics, so he bet she'd want to do that on her birthday and maybe swim some, too, out in the gentle part of the beach.It took them quite a while to get up through the tunnels because they twisted and turned all around through the rock cliff. It was really awesome. Daddy's flashlight illuminated the floor of the troughs, and in time they reached one of the hidden bookcases that Daddy said the Barbary pirates had built to hide the tunnels from anybody looking for their booty. There was a fancy brass grille with a steel latch that opened into the boy's bedroom, and he liked to use it. But this time, they had the wheelbarrow so they went through the bookcase in his parents' bedroom. They locked it back into place and then moved out into the long stone corridor on the second floor of the fortress. Even though it was boiling hot outside, it was really cool everywhere inside the house, because the stone walls were so thick and chiseled right out of the cliff. They hardly ever used the air conditioning. They left the wheelbarrow upstairs and walked down to the main staircase, which was really wide and had neat stone bannisters, and then they passed by all the buckets of paint and decorating supplies that his mama had ordered so they could redecorate the rooms the way they wanted and make their home look real pretty.Walking down the steps to the great hall, his daddy called out his mama's name, because he never liked to walk up and surprise her. That always just scared the life out of her, so they were very careful to call out her name first. Every time, too. She didn't answer yet, so they headed to the kitchen where she was probably getting ready to cook dinner. He hoped they were having cheeseburgers. They turned the corner, and that's when they saw her.His mama was standing behind their new black granite counter, but this time, there was a great big man right behind her, holding his arm around her neck. He had a gun pointed at her head! The little boy stopped in his tracks, shocked to a standstill, and then the man just pulled the trigger and part of his mama's head flew right off, and she just crumpled down in a heap on the floor. Then a woman with long red braids suddenly appeared out of the big pantry and aimed her gun at his daddy.“Run, Rico, run and hide!” Daddy yelled, shoving the child behind him.Rico was so shocked for a second that he couldn't even move, but then he took off as fast as he could, back the way they'd come, heading for the safety of the Roman tunnels, just the way his parents had always told him to do. He ran hard, but before he could reach the wide stone stairs again, another shot rang out from the kitchen. He skidded to a stop and looked back, afraid they had shot his daddy, too. That's when the woman with long red braids came out of nowhere and grabbed him up off his feet. He kicked at her and fought as hard as he could, but she was way too strong. When she hit him in the head with something hard, Rico fell down on his back, real dizzy, and she got down and straddled his waist with her legs.“Hello there, little lost boy. You're an orphan now, you know that? But no worries, I'm going to take very good care of you. You can be my precious little pet boy. Okay?”Still groggy, and not really understanding what she meant, Rico just stared up at her, so terrified in that moment that he almost wet his pants, but the redheaded lady only laughed at the scared look on his face. Then she jerked him up onto his feet and dragged him back to the kitchen. He was shaking all over then, so terrified he could barely breathe. His mama and daddy were both laying on the floor now, big puddles of red stuff all around them. He knew that was blood, and he just froze in his tracks and stared at them in total shock, until the redheaded woman picked him up and swung him down hard on top of the kitchen counter.There were two men in the kitchen now, an old one, who was not real big and who had a bald head and a long bushy white beard but no mustache. He was standing by the refrigerator and smoking a cigar that smelled really bad. The other man was big, bigger than Rico's daddy, and he had the same kind of dark red hair that the woman did, but his was long, too, and hung to his shoulders like pictures of Vikings that Rico had seen in his books. He had kind of a real short half beard kinda thing on his chin that went around his mouth and under his nose. He was the one who had his arm around Rico's mama's neck and who had shot her down dead. That one was just leaning his back against the counter and frowning, as if he were really, really mad at somebody. All three of the bad people just ignored Rico then, but the little boy sat frozen with dread, so shocked by what he'd seen, by the sight of his parents down on the floor right beside him, dead and bloody, that he could not speak or even move a muscle.“Just kill the kid, Jaxy, and quit being stupid.” That came from the big frowning one.Rico began to shake then, scared to death. They were going to kill him, too. They were going to make his head explode, too. He squeezed his eyes shut so tightly that it hurt, but he didn't want to have to see the guns when they pointed them at him.“No way, Max. I've always wanted a little kid. He's cute, too. He can be my pet. I want to keep him. So just shut up.”“Shoot him, or I will. We don't need loose ends.”“Max, that's enough,” the old bald-headed man with the cigar said, and his voice was all sharp like he really meant business. “She can keep the kid, if she wants to. What harm will it do? But you listen to me, Jaxy. You keep that boy under control, or I'll let Max kill him. Understand me?”Then Rico opened his eyes and saw the lady called Jaxy nod. “Yes, Daddy. I'll put that new shock collar that you designed on him. That oughta do the trick.”Staring down at his mother's head, Rico finally let go and started crying. The woman named Jaxy walked over and got down close to his face. “Shut up, you little shit. Now. Shut your mouth.”Rico sobbed harder until she grabbed him and shook him really hard. Then he stopped crying and stared at her, afraid.“There. That's better. Come along, kid, we need to get that collar on you.”She jerked him off the counter, and while she led him out of the kitchen, some more men came and got hold of his mama's and daddy's feet and started dragging them away. Rico turned around and watched them until they got out of sight. Then he tried not to cry because he knew that might make them put the guns up to his head, too. His daddy had told him once that people might come someday and hurt his mama. That's why Daddy and Mama moved around a lot and lived in places like the big castle because it was so far away from everything and hard to find. But the redheaded people had found them and they had killed his mama, just like Daddy had said would happen. But he had never thought that they would kill his daddy, too. He never imagined that they would kill his whole family and keep him for a pet. Like Jabba the Hutt did to Princess Leia.Rico hated them, especially the mean woman named Jaxy. He wasn't supposed to hate people, but he hated her. She was scary. He thought about the tunnels and passages, and he hoped they didn't know about them. Because he was going to run away as soon as he could, and then he was gonna get one of their guns, and he was going to sneak up and shoot them in the head, just like they shot his mama and daddy. Just like Han Solo and Luke would do.Out in the great hall, the mean woman jerked his arm some more and pulled him over to where some other men were carrying in black backpacks, duffel bags, and other kinds of heavy cases. It looked to him like they were just gonna move right into his house. She kept a tight grip on his wrist and pulled him after her to where she knelt down in front of a long dark blue nylon duffel bag. She poked through the contents until she found what she was looking for. That's when she brought out a pink dog collar, set with tiny little silver sequins, and a matching leash, one like the boy had when he had that dog named Skippy that one time back in Sacramento. But the collar was fancier than Skippy's had been and it had a bunch of wires and stuff fastened to it.“See this, kid? This is how I'm gonna teach you to obey my commands. Got that? I got this little remote thing. Right here. See it? If I push this little button, you are going to get hurt real bad. Do you wanna see how it works?”The little boy shook his head. He did not like the looks of that collar.“Oh, now, don't be such a sissy. Come over here. Now.”He obeyed and stood still while she buckled the collar around his neck, and then he watched her manipulate some controls on the remote thing. “I won't put it up too high, since you're being a pretty good little boy. But you need to know what happens if you don't do what I say. Okay? Understand me?”He stared at her, aware she was going to hurt him now. Not quite sure why, though, or how she was going to do it. Then she stepped back and smiled down at him. “You ready, kid?”Standing there, he just looked up at her, not sure what to expect. Then she pressed a button, and he felt a tiny little jolt of electricity around his neck. He yelped, more from the surprise than from the pain, and tried to tear off the collar. It was over pretty quick, but it didn't hurt too much. It had hurt worse that day when he had fallen on the lava rocks and cut up his knees. But he didn't want Jaxy to turn it any higher. That would probably hurt him really bad.“Oh, no, you don't, kid. That collar stays on. You do exactly what I tell you to do, and I won't push this button ever again. You mess up or try to run away, I will hold down this little button right here and make you wish you hadn't.”“Oh, for God's sake, Jaxy. When are you gonna grow up?”That was the big man named Max with the long red hair and little beard. He looked exactly like a pirate. He was shaking his head, giving the lady a really nasty, mean kinda look.“Shut up, Max. I don't tell you to stop when you take a woman off by herself and have your perverted fun, do I? At least, I'm not beating this kid up. You can't say the same, can you? Where are those leather gloves of yours, anyway? Still too bloody to wear yet?”“That's enough, both of you,” the old bald-headed man said from the doorway to the kitchen. He was a lot older than the others, and Rico decided that he must be their daddy. He talked with some kind of funny accent, too, but they didn't, not as much, anyway. They talked more like his friends back in California, but not exactly like that. “Get your gear and pick out a bedroom. We've got to go over our plans, down to the very last detail, and we don't have a lot of time. And quit your bickering. If that kid causes trouble, Jaxy, I'll give him to Max. I'm warning you. You got that?”When he heard that, Rico's terror grew and grew until he couldn't even breathe. Jaxy nodded, but she looked really angry. She jerked the leash and pulled the boy after her. “C'mon, kid, let's pick out a bedroom and get settled in.”So, for a long time, the little boy had to live there alone with all the bad people. He didn't know how long it lasted, but it sure did seem like a long, long time. He learned right off to do whatever they said and do it quick. If he did that, Jaxy didn't shock him with the collar or hurt him at all. If he behaved, all of them pretty much just ignored him. They had lots of other big men with them now, who did whatever they said, probably about twenty of them, maybe. Every one of them moved into his house, too.One night when he was lying on the rug beside Jaxy's bed with the leash tied to her bedpost, he started thinking about his parents and crying a lot. That made Jaxy real mad and she told him that they had thrown his mama's and daddy's bodies into the ocean and that the fish were eating them and then she laughed about it. He lay there after that and wished Jaxy would have let Max shoot him and let the fish eat him, too.The days went by and he was always attached to the leash. Jaxy either tied him to something or dragged him around with her, but he didn't get to go outside much into the sun. He wished somebody would come and help him, but nobody knew where they lived. His daddy had said it wasn't safe for anybody else to know where they were. If Rico could just get away, he could hide inside the dark tunnels. They didn't know about the caves and stone water channels yet.So he was going to have to get up the courage to jerk the leash out of her hand and run like the wind and hide real good. If he did that, he didn't think Jaxy could ever find him. And he didn't want to make the big brother or the cigar man angry. They were even meaner than she was. They killed his parents. He wished he could kill them, but he couldn't, not yet. Maybe when he got a little bit older, he could shoot them in the head. That's what he wanted to do the most. And then he'd throw them in the sea and let the fishes eat them.The day came when they made preparations to leave the castle, and he got pretty excited because he figured they would just leave him there. Or maybe they'd kill him and that would be better than being Jaxy's pet. He wanted to be free. His neck was all bruised and sore from her jerking him around. But they didn't leave him there. Jaxy told him that he was going to come in handy, after all, and that he better do exactly what they said or else.Then they took him outside and put him in a jeep and drove him out to the airstrip where his daddy had their supplies flown in by helicopter. There was a small private jet sitting there, and they forced him up the steps and into the cabin. It took off at once, and Jaxy kept him on the floor beside her, flipping him potato chips if he would pretend to beg. He was so hungry that he did it. The man named Max sat farther away, and he said, “You are sick, Jaxy. He's just a kid. Why don't you leave him alone?”“He's my kid now, and I'll do whatever I want with him. Daddy said so.”After a while, they landed again. He stayed on the plane while some of them got off, and then he heard a bunch of guns going off real loud, but he couldn't see out the windows because the shades were all pulled down. After a little while, Jaxy came back inside and pulled him out into the warm night air. A black van was waiting for them, and she pushed him inside with all the other men, and then she got inside, too, and slid the door shut. Rico sat on the floor in the dark and wondered where they were going now.Killing BlackJuly 3Nicholas Black took one final walk-through inside the Italian villa that he had leased for his honeymoon. He had finally found the perfect place to bring his fiancée, Claire Morgan—a virtual palace of white marble perched high atop a cliff on the Amalfi Coast near Monterosso al Mare, one that boasted a killer view of the blue Tyrrhenian Sea. In his opinion, the entire coastline south of Mount Vesuvius and Naples was one of the most beautiful places on earth, with its white and pastel square houses clinging to the steep slopes above the sea like picturesque building blocks climbing up the mountainside.Claire would absolutely love the place, especially the beach far below with waves that lapped onto pristine golden sand and crashed in great, towering sprays against the rocky outcroppings on either side. They would have complete privacy down there. He wanted everything to be perfect, from the first moment she stepped foot into the house until the minute they drove away and headed back home. It would suit him fine to stay there forever, just the two of them, safe and secure from all the evils of the world. With Claire, however, that was a different story. She loved her home on Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, and that's where she wanted to live most of the time.Black had waited a long time for Claire to accept his marriage proposal, and then even longer for her to pick a wedding date and stick to it. But she had done both now, and he was elated. They were to be married tomorrow, on the Fourth of July, at exactly two o'clock Missouri time. Therefore, he had to wrap up preparations and head back home within the hour. But so far, so good. Everything was right on schedule.Black had allotted himself plenty of time to drive to the nearby private airstrip owned by Vittorio Ricci, his old friend and colleague. They had often conferred on the patients that Vittorio treated in his Rome clinic. Black's Learjet was out there now, fueled and ready, the pilot and copilot waiting on board to take off. Black was eager to get back home to Claire, because tomorrow at this time, they would already be married. Finally. He smiled to himself; couldn't help it. He hadn't ever really been certain it would happen. He felt confident it would now, and more content than he had been in a long time. But he'd been gone over a week now, and he missed the hell out of her.Strolling down the wide white marble staircase to the front foyer, he bid one last thank-you to the household staff, all of whom had been working diligently to ready the villa. Satisfied now that everything was sitting on go, Black climbed into the sleek red Ferrari convertible he'd leased for the summer, fired the engine, and headed down the long, curving road toward the coastal highway. Smiling, he decided to phone Claire, just to hear her voice and make sure everything was okay at her end. He hit speed dial and put the phone on speaker so he could negotiate the tight curves edging the sea. She answered on the third ring.“Well, well, if it isn't my long-lost fiancé. I was beginning to think you were havin' a serious case of cold feet. You know, chickenin' out and afraid to come home and hear those dreaded wedding bells.”“Well, I did start to flee the country but decided maybe it wouldn't be so bad to wake up beside you every morning.”“You already wake up beside me every morning. Except when you fly off to Italy for a week and leave me here to deal with all this wedding crap. Big weddings are a pain in the neck, let me tell you. I'm not gonna have any more big weddings, thank you very much.”“Well, I hope not.” Black smiled. Claire sounded good. Happy. Hell, he was happy, too. For once in their lives everything was going okay for both of them, in work and in their private lives. Best of all, she had not been seriously injured a single time since she had given up her homicide badge and gone private with her own detective agency. A few close calls, true, some bruises maybe, and one scissors stab wound, but no eighteen-day comas, no gunshot blasts, and no getting beaten to a pulp by homicidal maniacs. Thank God for tender mercies.“So sweetheart, everything under control back there? Do I need to pick up anything on the way home?”“Nope. At least I don't think so. Laurie and Nancy have everything under control, and they are doing one helluva good job. I've had a bit of trouble controlling my jitters, but they tell me that's gonna pass as soon as you get here. So don't forget to show up.”Laurie Dale and Nancy Gill were both good friends of Claire's, and both had worked in law enforcement with her. Black was distinctly glad they were around to keep her grounded. Weddings were not Claire's forte, not by any stretch of the imagination, and that was putting it mildly. She had preferred a quick trip to Vegas or no wedding at all, but she was suffering through the traditional nuptials for him. “Tell me everything they've done. You like the way the yard looks?”“No way am I telling you a single thing so quit asking. This is my wedding gift to you and the first and probably the last surprise you'll ever get outta me. Because, as you know, I hate surprises worse than poison. So you're just gonna have to wait and see how great everything looks.”“Fine by me.” And it was. Black was pretty much agreeable to anything and everything at the moment. Just as long as Claire walked down that aisle. He wanted those “I do's” over with once and for all and forever. He sure as hell had to wait long enough to hear her say them. “I'll be back at the lake early tomorrow morning. I'll get some sleep on the flight so I'll be rested and ready. Is there enough seating for everybody on my side of the aisle?”“Now, wait a minute, Black, you don't have any surprises up your sleeve, do you? Remember, this thing is small. Tiny, in fact. Very casual. Only our best friends. You can have your big fancy receptions later at your hotels and do them however you want. Okay? You do understand that? Not a cast of thousands at my place, no way.”“You saw my guest list. Nice and short. Just make sure you're there. That's my biggest worry. That you'll back out.”Claire gave a soft laugh. “Well, now, I'm the one who's here, right? You're the one who's not. Most of the guests are here, too, and checked in to their suites at Cedar Bend. Still think we shoulda just gone to Las Vegas and got in and out of the Wedding Chapel in nothing flat, sans the hoopla and fireworks.”“You make it sound like an execution, but not to worry, I'll be there. Count on it.”“You do remember what you're supposed to do, right? You don't show up at the cabin until I'm ready to walk down to the dock. Plan is John Booker's gonna wait for you on the dock as your best man but the rest of the groomsmen will be down there, too. You speed across the lake in the Cobalt and make your grand entrance right before we start the procession. In fact, that's our cue to get the show on the road.”“Can't wait.” And that was the understatement of the year.“Even better, the two of us can take off in the Cobalt after we get the damned deed over with and said a few how-de-dos and thank-yous and head back to Italy. Guests can party all night if they want. I've had enough of this white stuff sitting around all over the place.”“Just so we both sign the marriage certificate before we take off. I want this thing legal.”“Good grief, Black, you really think I'm gonna walk away from you now, after all this trouble?”“No, but you better not.”“Let's just get this wedding over with so we can get back to normal. I've got cases waiting. Novak can't handle everything forever. He's a great partner, but he's got his limits.”Claire's private detective agency in New Orleans was doing well, and Will Novak was working out fine as her trusted and intimidating colleague. She liked the work, but not as much as Black liked it for her. “As if anything about us has ever been normal.”Claire laughed at that because it was so true.“Tell me about your gown. Long or short?”“Gonna have to wait and see. But it is something that I had made especially to wow you with.”“Oh, I'm going to be wowed all right. I'll like everything that happens tomorrow. You just be ready for me. I have missed you like crazy.”“Good. Ditto, and all that good stuff. Everything all set over there?”“You're going to like it even better than you did that island in Tahiti.”“That's gonna take some doin', Black. You know how I loved that little private slice of paradise and all those shady palm trees and that chef who cooked me everything I wanted.”“Just wait. You'll see.”“When are you taking off?”“As soon as I get back to the airstrip, and that's where I'm headed now. Well within the hour, anyway. That's gonna put me home very early tomorrow morning with time to spare.”“Good. Be careful. And don't embarrass me by dragging in late and making everybody think you're havin' second thoughts.”“Rest assured. Not gonna happen.”“I am ready, willing, and able, too. So quit with the worrying. I am not a runaway bride.”Black laughed. “You better not be. I'll track you down. I have my sources.”“Yeah, tell me about it.” She paused, listening to a female voice calling to her in the background. “Hey, I gotta go. Sounds like some kinda crisis outside. Probably can't get the flowers arranged just alike. Something uber catastrophic like that.”“Okay, see you tomorrow. I love you.”“Love you, too. But I gotta go. Really, now, don't get lost on your way home.”“Don't worry.”Grinning to himself, Black hung the phone up and drove south on the winding curves edging the vast and majestic cliffs overlooking those gorgeous, breathtaking ocean vistas. The sea looked calm and so did the weather. Nothing was going to delay takeoff. By the time he turned off the highway onto the heavily wooded road leading out to Ricci's airstrip, it had grown completely dark. He drove fast, eager to get in the air. As he rounded the last sharp curve, he saw something in the road, braked hard, and went into a long and harrowing sideways skid before coming to a screeching stop, only inches from a little boy standing right in the middle of the gravel road.Black muttered a curse, aware he had almost run the child down. Inside the smoky beams of his headlamps, he realized the kid was small, probably seven or eight, maybe even younger. The boy just stood there in the lights, not running away but crying hard and shaking all over. He looked absolutely terrified. Black climbed out of the car and pulled out the Colt .45 from under the driver's seat. Just in case all wasn't as it appeared to be. He had learned the hard way to be careful on trips abroad, and this had the look of an ambush. Why else would a small child be out in the middle of nowhere on a deserted mountain road all by himself? There were no houses anywhere around. All this land belonged to Ricci. Where the hell did the kid come from?For several minutes, Black just stood behind the driver's door, scanning the scene, but outside his headlight illumination the roadway was dark, completely deserted. It was a quiet night, nothing audible but the boy's loud sobbing. Trees lined both sides of the road, thick and dark and impenetrable. Nothing moved inside the dusty vegetation. Wary, he listened to the creak and buzz of undisturbed crickets and frogs for a few more minutes.Still holding the weapon, his finger along the trigger, Black walked around to the front of the car and stood looking down at the child. The boy wore a pair of red shorts and a torn blackStar WarsT-shirt with Han Solo and Chewbacca on the front and no shoes or socks. He looked filthy, his clothes stained and wrinkled. His hair was long and curly and dark and a little matted in the back, as if he was a feral child and had lived out in the woods with wolves. Black took a step closer to him and spoke to him in Italian. “What are you doing out here alone, boy?”That's when the child dropped down on his knees in the gravel and wept harder, tears making tracks through the dirt on his cheeks. Frowning, Black glanced around again but saw no one, no cars, and heard nothing but the insects and the wind rustling the tops of the trees. He moved closer to the kid and knelt down in front of him, and then he placed his free left hand lightly on the child's heaving back. “Are you hurt?” he asked him softly. “Where did you come from? Where are your parents?”The child lifted his head and stared up into Black's face. His curls were wild and unkempt and hung around his face, and his eyes were big and dark and reflected the car lights. They were glassy with tears, and he looked so frightened that Black took him gently by his shoulders and helped him stand up. The child's muscles went rigid at his touch, and he quivered and sobbed harder. Black spoke again, in English this time. “Don't be afraid. I won't hurt you. Let me help you.”The boy suddenly stopped crying and gazed at him again. Black thought he looked hopeful, as if he did want help. Then the kid lowered his eyes and stared at the gun in Black's hand and looked terrified again. Black glanced around, and then he put his weapon down on the gravel and held his hands out, both palms forward, showing the little guy that he meant him no harm. The child took a step back away from him, and Black was pretty sure the kid was getting ready to bolt into the trees. Black spoke again, staying with English and keeping his voice low and soothing. “It's okay. I promise I won't hurt you. Tell me who you are. What's your name? Where do you live? I can take you home.”That's when the boy spoke in quick, breathless gasps. “I wanna go home. I'm scared of the bad people.”The boy sounded like an American, and that surprised Black. “Where are they? How did you get out here? Did you run away? Did they hurt you?”
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