At about four in the evening, a guest arrived for Adyson, and the guest sent Samantha into such fits that she stormed up to her room with Sonia following after to calm her down.
Gwenllian Kerr stood in Casa de la Playa for the first time since she’d moved in with Luke Hatfield, and she looked as uncomfortable with the whole thing as Samantha Benton obviously felt, but Adyson clearly cared little for the comfort of others.
“Brilliant,” she sighed, tapping her nails on the tabletop. “Now, Aunt Rose told me you happen to be less than satisfied with your current employer.”
“Yes,” Gwenllian said slowly, glancing around at all of the files and papers spread across the table. Her hair looked a bit thinner, and her large eyes slightly sunken and dull. “He’s a terrible human being.”
“I’ve also been informed by Chloe,” Adyson continued, ignoring the personality assessment, “that you wouldn’t scorn the occasional act of sabotage or corporate espionage.”
Rose wasn’t surprised at all when Gwenllian’s pretty blue eyes lit up and her pale lips curled into an almost-sinister smile. She sat in one of the chairs, tapping her own perfect fingernails on a bare spot of the table and said, “What exactly do you want to know?”
“Anything,” Adyson said, leaning forward, tape recorder on and pen poised. “This recording won’t be used in any legal capacity and will be destroyed once I acquire the records I need, either from you or someone a little less obvious. It’s just so I don’t forget anything when I go digging.”
Gwenllian waved her hand at the recorder dismissively, assuring Adyson she didn’t mind at all, asking only to see the will briefly as an assurance that she dealt with someone with the authority to accomplish such claims.
Then the two girls set to work, pressing their heads together, discussing every aspect of Luke Hatfield’s life anything less than spotless, and Rose quickly discovered this accounted for an awful lot.
She went into the busy, bustling kitchen after a while to brew herself some tea, and she just poured her cup in a quiet corner of the chaos when her phone began to ring. She didn’t even bother checking the number before stepping into the adjoining corridor and answering.
“Hello?” she said. “Ewan?”
“Yes, it’s me,” the familiar, strong Scottish accent said through the phone. “You said urgent, so I checked up on the names first thing.”
“Brilliant, what did you find for me?”
“Well, the girl first. I looked into that crash you mentioned. Up by the lakes, terrible business. I might say just an accident, but I managed a look at the crime scene photos by greasing a few palms of old colleagues.”
“Well, there’s something very odd about it. The vehicle was one of those cars where the passenger airbag doesn’t deploy unless there’s someone in the seat setting off the sensors.”
“But the passenger airbag went off.”
“No heavy bag in the seat or something?”
“No, no luggage at all in the car, as I understand. Someone said it could be faulty, but I talked to the mechanic who looked at the car and he faxed me his records. Nothing tampered with and everything functioned fine. And something else.”
“She couldn’t have been driving when she crashed.”
Rose nearly dropped the phone. She tightened her grip, feeling the loose skin of her hand pulling taut around her shifting bones.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I asked a coroner unrelated to the case to take a look at the pictures for me, and he said she must have been in the passenger seat, based on the way the seatbelt marked her chest, and her arms would have been impacted differently if she’d been at the wheel. He told me they rested at her sides. And he can’t say for certain, but because of the condition of her neck, he thinks she might have been sleeping. Limp, anyway. Unconscious, drugged, sleeping, maybe drunk. Probably asleep if I had to bet money on it.”
“So who drove?”
“Well, that’s the really fishy thing, isn’t it? Because some caravaners discovered her about an hour or two after the coroner estimated the crash to have happened, and she definitely was buckled in on the driver’s side, and nobody else there.”
“So whomever drove left her and tried to make it look like her accident,” Rose said, feeling strange, unpleasant goosebumps on the back of her neck. “Or.... You don’t think they murdered her, do you?”
“Well, here’s where the officer you mentioned comes in. His name couldn’t be found anywhere in her file, and I’ve no way of telling if he’d ever met her without digging a lot more, but his name is in connection, not in a working capacity, to at least six other deaths of young woman throughout the past twelve years in Scotland, and I placed a few calls to cities he’s documented working in over in the US, and he’s connected to even more. I’d bet there’s at least one for every place he’s worked, if I were a betting man.”
She rolled her eyes, knowing he nearly lost his house to loan sharks not two years back.
“All deemed accidental deaths,” Ewan said darkly. “But you know, sometimes it can be hard to tell with things like car accidents, gas leaks. It’s odd, because a few of the times he nearly died as well, but the ambulance arrived and took him to hospital in time. Either this man possesses very bad luck, or something very unusual is going on here. Anyway, I checked nearby hospital records from the night of Julia Whitney’s death, and I found nothing for two towns over, but go one more and you find a hit. He walked in with marks indicating he ‘may’ – I love that, may, as if they couldn’t tell – may have been in a car accident.”
Rose’s head spun. Half a dozen girls in Scotland, and perhaps as many or more in the United States, all ruled accidental, like Conrad’s death nearly ended up. But Conrad’s death didn’t fit the motivation. He certainly wasn’t a young girl. Unless, unless they weren’t dealing with a serial killer, in the strictest sense of the term.
“Sorry, I was just thinking about some of the deaths here.”
“Yes, my cousin’s husband had an...accident and she called me out here. And her eldest daughter has just been shot.”
“No accident there. How old was the daughter?”
“Oh, she’s not his type,” Rose said bitterly. “She’s too old. No, I happened to learn last night he’s been dating the youngest daughter, and both the father and the older sister planned ways to send her away.”
Ewan paused for a long moment, and she wondered what he was thinking. Obviously, Conrad and Evelyn dug into Michael’s past, whether they knew the full extent or just enough to be very suspicious. And they meant to separate Michael from Annabelle. What the next step would have been, she couldn’t say, but they understood at least, that Annabelle was in serious danger.
“Where is she now?” he asked.
“She’s upstairs sleeping. Her sister only just died a few days ago. The wake was yesterday, and they read the will this morning. She had a rough week.”
“You need to talk to her, tell her. I’ll keep digging on this end, call some people in your area. Where is your area?”
“I’m north of Los Angeles, so you’ll want to call whoever that is. It’s a place called Vista Del Marina.”
“That’s not proper Spanish.”
“Tell me about foreign grammar later,” Rose snapped. “My niece could be in danger. Call your people. Give them my number. See what they can manage. Obviously, we don’t possess any proof yet, but we’ll find it, and we’ll find it quickly.”
“I will, but Rose, be careful on this one. He’s obviously well-trained and incredibly dangerous, and you’re not as young as you used to be.”
She would have laughed, but she couldn’t find it funny given in the situation. Instead, she told him she would, hung up the phone, and poked her head out into the dining room, tea forgotten. Adyson and Gwenllian hadn’t heard a thing, fast at work, the two blonde heads leaning over a folder.
Rose rushed up the back stairs, down the hall, and knocked on Annabelle’s door, firmly, loudly.
“Annabelle?” she called. “Annabelle, wake up, I need to tell you something very important.”
No answer. Perhaps the girl slept heavily. Rose opened the door and rushed through to the bedroom, intent on shaking the life out of the girl if she needed to, but instead of finding Annabelle fast asleep she found an empty bed, not even turned down, but her phone still sat on her bedside table. Perhaps...perhaps she went somewhere in the house.
Rose hurried back downstairs, thinking of where she might go, if she were Annabelle. She checked Samantha’s room as casually as possible, but only Sonia and a dozing Samantha could be found. The studies turned up empty; the library contained only a young servant dusting, so Rose asked the servant if she had seen Annabelle.
“She’s gone for a drive,” the pale girl said.
Rose’s heart thudded so violently, so loudly, she expected the servant could hear her.
“A drive,” the girl repeated, brushing a bit of auburn hair out of her eyes. “She asked Miguel to fetch her a car. Let me think.... Her Volvo, I believe. It’s strange, because she usually drives that one at night, but she insisted.”
Rose thanked the girl and headed back upstairs. Why would she leave her phone? Perhaps she just forgot it in her eagerness to leave the house. Perhaps it meant nothing.
In a fit of desperation, Rose touched the button to light up the screen, showing what happened since the last time Annabelle unlocked her phone.
A text, from Michael, still unopened, but short enough that she could see the whole of it:
Am @ the cabin. Cya soon.
Rose felt like her heart stopped in that moment, and she realized she hadn’t a clue how long it took to reach the cabin, or exactly when Annabelle left. The text arrived fifteen minutes ago, though, so possibly she already arrived.
In a frenzy, Rose rushed to her room and pulled out her purse, fishing through for Blake’s card. She dialed his cell phone and anxiously waited through the ring.
“Hello, this is Officer Donaldson-Shepard.”
“Blake? This is Rose McFarland.”
“Hi, Mrs. McFarland. You okay? You sound a bit shaken up.”
“Is Michael there at the station?”
“No, he left early for the day, said he felt ill. Do you want his number?”
“No, I need to know, when did he leave?”
“Maybe twenty minutes ago? Twenty-five at most.”
Rose began to pace, clutching the phone in her shaking hand.
“How quickly can you pick me up and drive to the Benton cabin?”
“If it’s an emergency, I can be there in about six minutes, and we can drive you to the cabin in another fifteen or so. I’m not a miracle worker like Annabelle, but it’s not too bad of a road. Is it an emergency?”
“It is,” she said. “Bring a gun. Annabelle’s in danger.”
There was a short silence and he said, “You’re sure?”
“Positive. I’ll explain on the way, just come here as quickly as you can.”
“I’m halfway to my car. I’ll be there soon.”
Rose stuffed the file on Annabelle under her arm and hurried downstairs, walking down the long driveway and waiting by the street, not wanting to waste time with turning around. Her knees felt horrifically weak as she stood there, pacing every minute or so, until Blake pulled up, sirens flashing, and she climbed into the car.
“She’s at the cabin?” Blake asked. His eyes were slightly red around the rims, and she felt bad for causing him such distress, but they had no time to skate around the truth.
“Yes, she left about twenty minutes ago, I would guess.” Rose’s voice was shaking and tight. She’d dealt with a lot of close situations before, but never with someone she cared about half as much as Annabelle, and certainly no one her own flesh and blood. “She received a text that came in around then. I imagine she left before it arrived, because she left her phone in her room.”
“That’s not like her,” Blake said nervously. “She doesn’t forget things like that. But then, I guess, with her sister. Why the cabin?”
“I think it’s their meeting place,” Rose said vaguely. First things first, then break the boy’s heart. “How long would it take to drive there in her Volvo, going the speed limit?”
“Ah, well, it’s a fairly low speed limit once you reach to the road leading up to the cabin,” he said. She felt a bit sick from how fast Blake drove and the sound of the sirens and the way the adrenaline pumped through her body. “Twenty-five, thirty minutes?”
“So she’s already there.”
“Probably, but I can’t be sure.”
Rose leaned back in her seat, pressing her hand to her chest and taking deep breaths, trying to calm her heart. Blake must have realized what a mess she was, because he didn’t press her as they went through town, cars dipping out of the way so he could roar past.
“Should I call for back-up?”
“Not if we maintain the element of surprise,” Rose said darkly. “We just need to arrive before he kills her. You can’t manage any quicker?”
The word “kill” spurred something on in him, because he said, “I can certainly try.”
A quick glance at the speedometer showed him going at least ninety miles an hour as they left the main part of town, and he barely slowed at all going up the gravel-covered mountain road. If they died on the way up, Ewan was at least contacting his people in the FBI or wherever he knew people who could handle such a case. Arriving alive wouldn’t matter if they didn’t arrive on time anyway.
“Will I need to shoot someone?” Blake asked, his voice a bit nervous. “I flew out of there so fast, I didn’t notice I only had the pistol until practically at Casa.”
“You might,” Rose said, apologetically. “You’ll be fine. Hopefully we’ll arrive before he’s started however he plans to kill her. Is the cabin run on gas?”
“There’s an attic.”
“Any windows to throw her out of?”
“They’re just portholes. She couldn’t fit through those, not since she was maybe six or seven years old. Honestly, unless he’s sedated her or something, the only way to kill her without her struggling is to shoot her, which is probably why he shot Evelyn.” He hesitated, glancing at Rose. “It’s the same person, isn’t it? The same one who killed Evelyn and Conrad.”
“I’m almost absolutely certain,” Rose said, gripping the seat now her heart felt better. She still felt sick, like the entire world was spinning. “Keep your eyes on the road.”
“Sorry.” He licked his lips. They went over a rather large bump, but he kept on going like it didn’t happen. That sort of thing might puncture a tire, but the car felt fine, so Rose pushed it from her mind. She needed to consider more important things, like where Michael and Annabelle would be in the cabin.
“The room where they killed Evelyn has large windows, right?”
“Yeah, the killer turned his back to the windows,” Blake said, nodding. “Probably a forty-five degree angle from the door. Do you think he’ll try it the same way again?”
“Maybe not exactly the same spot,” she said slowly. “The chalk is down.”
“There’s police tape all over the front,” Blake said nervously. “Maybe he’ll be outside. He was really conscientious with cleaning the crime scene. What if they’re in the woods and we can’t find her in time?”
“He’ll be inside,” Rose said darkly. “I’m almost completely positive. He won’t care about the crime scene or the tape.”
Blake hesitated. They were close now. Rose almost certainly remembered that clearing from before. How long would it be at this speed, three minutes? Five?
“Mrs. McFarland, who is this guy?” he said. “You said she got a text. Who sent it?”
Rose closed her eyes. She could feel the throbbing of her head against her eyelids as the sirens blared. She knew how Blake looked up to Michael, how much he idealized Annabelle, and she had no time to explain. But she needed to tell him, or the shock of seeing Michael when they arrived could ruin the only chance of saving her.
“Now, I’m going to tell you this,” she said gently, “and I want you to remain calm as you can, because the most important thing is that we rescue Annabelle, okay? I promise to explain everything when this is over, but first and foremost is Annabelle’s safety.”
Rose took a deep breath, and began to explain as much as she could before they arrived at the cabin, seeing Blake’s eyes widen a little bit more with every word, and utter heartbreak twist his features.