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Fiction Amateur Sleuth

Excess Baggage

photographs by Jay Forman

designed by Level Best Designs

Publisher
Level Best Books
Initial publish date
Apr 2021
Category
Amateur Sleuth, Women Sleuths
  • Paperback / softback

    ISBN
    9781953789402
    Publish Date
    Apr 2021
    List Price
    $21.99

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Description

Travel writer Lee Smith joins her brand new husband Jack Hughes and some of his top executives for what Jack claims will be a fun corporate team building adventure; chasing geocaching clues that take them from the Bay of Fundy, to the French islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon, and across Newfoundland.

Lee hopes the trip will offer her an escape from the intense media interest in her father's appeal of his six murder convictions.

Instead of fun and escape, Lee finds dead bodies. Bodies with first names that match her father's list of victims. Soon more than the media is focused on Lee. The combined forces of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the French Gendarmerie Nationale, and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary are keeping a close eye on everyone on the Hughes retreat - especially Lee.

A menacing muscle-bound man keeps showing up wherever Lee is. A red car repeatedly appears in her rear-view mirror. And all the while, the body count continues to climb.

About the authors

Contributor Notes

Jay Forman was once a relatively sane television producer. Since walking away from the cameras she’s been crazy busy adding mother and mystery author to her list of credits. Her focus is now locked on sending Canadian travel writer Lee Smith and Jack Hughes (Lee’s best friend with many benefits, not least of which is that he’s a billionaire philanthropist) to wherever bodies are found.

Excerpt: Excess Baggage (photographs by Jay Forman; designed by Level Best Designs)

Chapter One

 

46° 5' 16.87? N

 

64° 46' 37.78? W

 

Was Wendy right? Was she crazy to even think of doing it? Sheila had been so sure this morning, but now? Not so much.

She reminded herself that it wasn't as if she was going to swipe right on Tinder and hook up with a complete stranger, the way Wendy did sometimes.

The old guy in front of her was taking forever. If he didn't hurry up, she'd be late getting back to work. One by one, by one, by one, he swiped the barcodes on his lottery tickets. He must have wasted over a hundred bucks; all of his tickets were losers. Only one person in the lunchtime line-up had won anything so far, and all he got was a free play.

Sheila knew the chances of her having the $50 million ticket in her hand weren't great, but that wasn't the point. If she won anything, even just a free play, it would be a sign. It would make the decision for her.

Wendy was right about one thing—Sheila had never actually met him. But she knew a lot about him—important stuff. He was handsome, rich and single. And he was going to be flying into town today for the first time ever. And Sheila didn't just know where he'd be staying; she knew exactly where he'd be going after he landed.

She wasn't supposed to know that bit, but she did.

She also knew he wouldn't be able to find what he'd be looking for right away. That wouldn't stop him, though. He'd go back to look for it again later, she was sure of it, even if the park was closed by then. The richest guy in the country could do things like that. He could go anywhere he wanted whenever he wanted. And Sheila knew how to sneak into the park after closing time. She and Wendy and their friends had done it all the time when they were in high school.

Would he think it was too weird if she was waiting for him under the Lover's Arch? Yeah, that would probably be too much. She'd wait for him at the top of the stairs. That way she wouldn't have to wear flats to walk on the soggy ocean floor; she could wear her new short black skirt and the killer heels that made her legs look so good. Hair up or down? Probably down. Most guys liked long blonde hair.

She sort of had a legitimate reason to go welcome him to town. Maybe he'd be impressed by her above-the-call-of-duty customer service?

It was a good thing she'd only put the agency's name on the box of Godiva chocolates she'd sent to his hotel suite. Chocolates from her personally and a surprise welcome greeting in person would be too much. He might think she was stalking him or something.

"Coming up next on New Country 96.9," Paul Thomas' deep DJ voice announced through the convenience store's speakers, "Dean Brody's 'Canadian Girls'."

Well, if that wasn't a sign, what was? Her favourite country artist (he'd even been an adopted Maritimer for a while), singing a song about how great Canadian girls are. Jack liked them so much that he'd married one. But he'd divorced her. Sheila had seen lots of photos of him with famous Canadian women hanging off his arm since his divorce. He hadn't married any of them, though. And the little blonde woman who'd hurled herself at him in the news clip after his helicopter crash had been identified as his best friend, not his lover or girlfriend or fiancée or wife. From the way she'd wrapped her arms and legs around him, it was obvious that she wanted to be more than just friends. Sheila recognised the woman's name when she got the email from Jack's assistant about the hotel bookings, and the email had been very clear—Jack and his 'friend' were to be booked into separate rooms. He didn't want to be more than friends with that woman. Jack was waiting to meet the right one……and who's to say that Sheila couldn't be that one? Nobody, that's who; not even stupid Wendy.

Finally, it was her turn to swipe her ticket.

"Winner! Gagnant!" The recorded woman's voice announced as the short calliope-sounding tune played from the lottery machine. "Winner! Gagnant!"

She'd won ten dollars.

Decision made.

Today was her lucky day.

Chapter Two

 

43° 38' 57? N

 

79° 22 '46? W

 

"How is he?" I wanted to burst out of the corner office just as quickly as those three stupid words had flown out of my mouth. Running hard at one of the two walls of glass would give me instant escape, but I didn't want out desperately enough to tumble down to the street in a seventy-story free-fall.

He'd been locked up in a maximum security prison for almost a quarter of a century. How would anyone be after that? I'd doubted I'd hear 'He's just peachy' in reply to my stupid question.

"He's doing well, and he's hopeful. We all are. We're building a very strong case," Mr Peel said as he stood up and leaned over to pick up the slim zippered black document holder that had been lying on his dark mahogany desk since the beginning of our meeting.

Given the cut of his suit, perfectly folded pocket square and gold bar cufflinks, I was willing to bet that it wasn't cheap imitation alligator skin wrapped around that document holder. When he laid it open flat on the desk, the gold embossed lettering on the inside flap confirmed my suspicions:

 

EST 1887

 

SMYTHSON

 

OF BOND STREET

 

Nothing cheap came from Bond Street in London.

There was a Bond Street in Toronto that may have existed way back in 1887, but over a century later it still wasn't populated by luxury stores. It wasn't even close to the luxurious Yorkville area of the city.

"I have a letter from him for you." Mr Peel pulled a wrinkled white envelope out from under the embossed flap. "He was going to mail it, but I offered to deliver it to you personally."

I instantly recognised the jerky handwriting on it. It was addressed to me care of Auntie Em's post office box. In the upper left corner, he'd written his return address:—Stuart Saddler, Millhaven Institution, PO Box 280, Bath, Ontario, K0H 1G0. The back flap of the envelope had been folded over, but it hadn't been sealed shut.

I didn't want to touch it.

"He's also hoping that now, with the courts agreeing to hear his appeal, you'll reply to this one. He asked me to tell you that he understands why you didn't reply to any of his earlier letters."

Earlier letters?

I watched my hand reach out to take the envelope and then forced my eyes to look anywhere but at it. My first physical connection with Stuart in over twenty years felt like acid searing my fingertips.

Those walls of glass didn't look that sturdy. Sure, they were probably quadruple-glazed, or maybe even decuple-glazed, but there was an overload of adrenaline pulsing through me and an all too familiar urge to flee was tempting me to take a run at them.

The waves of heat coming off the pavement down below made the ant-sized people who were scurrying around look blurry. Even the streetcar that was moving along King Street looked like it was wobbling on its tracks. I looked up and over the buildings that were south of King Street, all the way to Lake Ontario. A ferry was heading over to Hanlan's Point on the island; two little kayaks were bobbing in its wake at the eastern end of the runway at Billy Bishop Airport. On the far side of the island I could see a sailboat's sail that was striped like a rainbow, possibly because it was Pride Week. Beyond the colourful sail was nothing but open water. That's where I wanted to be—on water, away from the cars and double-parked delivery trucks and taxis and streetcars, away from the throngs of people, away from Mr Peel and his overpriced colleagues. Hopefully, Jack was taking me somewhere where I could be on water. I jammed the envelope into my backpack and wiped my fingers, hard, against my thigh.

"And, if you'll allow me, he asked me to transfer an audio file to your cell phone. He was very insistent about it."

No way. That was not going to happen. I might—might—read the letter, but I sure as hell didn't want to hear Stuart's voice.

"There's a song that he wants you to have."

That sounded like Stuart. We'd always bonded over music. Did prison inmates have access to iTunes? Or iPods? They hadn't even been invented when Stuart was locked up. What had he been doing for music? He needed it just as much as I did.

Mr Peel held out his hand. "Your phone?"

A song couldn't hurt. It was just notes and instruments, right? "Okay." I felt the scorch of the envelope again when my fingers brushed against it as I rummaged in my backpack for my phone. I'd let him transfer the song, but that didn't mean I'd listen to it.

It only took Mr Peel a minute to transfer the audio file. He handed my phone back and immediately looked down at his Patek Philippe. Jack had a watch just like it. "Thank you for coming today."

He'd probably just noted the end of his billable hour with me. Would he bill me for taking up space in his office when I'd had to sit there for almost an hour waiting for him to get out of the meeting he was still in during our scheduled time?

Who was paying his bill? And why hadn't I wondered about that before? If Jack was signing the cheques, I'd kill him. Not kill him as in murder him, though. That was Stuart's forte, not mine. "When will you decide about me testifying?"

"Soon. How long will you be gone?"

"I don't know." I didn't even know where we were going. "A week. Maybe two."

"I would have thought you'd have everything all planned out and booked in advance in your profession."

I usually did. "This trip's different."

"And after this one? Will you be staying home for the rest of the summer?"

"I'm not sure." I'd deliberately not booked any work trips over the summer because I thought I should spend some time with my new husband. Our jobs had sent both Jack and me bopping all over the world since our wedding nine months earlier. I'd naively thought Jack would take some time off, too, but he hadn't. Instead, he'd scheduled the annual corporate team-building vacation for his top executives and he'd talked me into going with him. I never should have turned down the offer from the adventure company to write about their Haida Gwaii tour. I could have been kayaking off the coast of British Columbia. Instead, I was in downtown Toronto during a brutal heat wave.

The receptionist who'd thought I was a bicycle courier when I arrived wished me a pleasant day as I bolted past her desk in the main foyer. I moved more slowly when I had to retrace my steps back to her desk to ask her how to work the elevators. Whatever happened to elevators with just an up and a down button? The six elevators that went all the way up to the offices of Peel, Elias, Deepak & Samad LLP didn't have any buttons beside their doors. Nope, they had what looked like a big iPad stuck on the wall and my only touch screen options were the even floors between the 70th and 50th floors and at the bottom of the screen was 'Concourse/Lobby'. I wanted concourse. I didn't want lobby.

There was a television news crew in that lobby, on their way to interview the famous lawyer who was now representing the infamous serial killer known as Mr Clean. I most definitely didn't want our paths to cross.

The receptionist told me that the elevator would decide where it let me off, that I had no choice in the matter. All of the elevators were double-decker, so I had a 50/50 chance of the doors opening to the lobby.

I had to wait for the elevator with an unknown destination to arrive and was alone as I whooshed down to ground level. I kept my fingers tightly crossed when the elevator slowed down and then stopped. The doors opened. Across from my elevator was another bank of elevators. I tentatively stepped out to see which floor I'd landed on and heard the doors slide closed behind me, leaving me in the lobby. I could have made a run for the escalators down to the concourse level, but they were out of service for maintenance. Maybe there was a stairway?

If there was, I never saw it.

What I did see was the news crew. I recognised the craggy-faced reporter who'd been covering the crime beat for CBC News since shortly after the invention of colour TV. Something in the way he looked at me for just a second too long as we passed each other told me that he recognised me, too.

I picked up my pace, bent my head down, hugged my backpack tightly to my chest and dug around in it to find the baseball cap I'd worn into the building. But it wasn't there. I remembered taking it off in Mr Peel's office. Damn. And damn Stuart for his genes. I looked too much like him to deny our hereditary link.

"Miss Saddler? Lee Saddler?" Craggy-face caught up to me.

"Who?" I didn't slow down.

"You're Stuart Saddler's daughter, right?"

His camerawoman had run in front of us and was lifting her camera up onto her shoulder as she turned around to walk backwards.

"Sorry, you've got the wrong person." Maybe I should dye my hair black for the next few months? Or cut it really short? It would be easier than constantly keeping my blondeness tucked up into a baseball cap. I didn't even like baseball caps. Then again, maybe there wouldn't be any reporters trying to find me wherever Jack was taking me?

"I just want to ask you a few questions, Lee, it won't take long."

"I told you, you've got the wrong person." Technically, I wasn't lying. I wasn't Lee Saddler anymore. I'd legally changed my name right after Stuart was convicted. Thankfully, Craggy-face didn't know what I'd changed it to.

"Miss Smith! Lee!" I heard the familiar voice of Mr Peel's receptionist call out from somewhere behind me. "You forgot your baseball cap."

"You changed your last name to Smith?"

"Leave me alone!" I broke into a run and almost knocked over a real bicycle courier as I bolted into the quarter-section of the revolving door he'd just stepped out of.

The people in the other three-quarters of the spinning door were shuffling slowly, and there wasn't anything I could do to speed them up.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! I'd let panic obliterate the calm demeanour that Uncle Doug had taught me to fake. I should have just said 'No comment' and walked slowly, calmly. Instead, I'd let them see, and maybe even record, how rattled I was.

When my section of the revolving door finally opened to the outside world, I slammed into the oppressive wall of heat and humidity that was blanketing most of southern Ontario. The air tasted horrible and there was a smog alert in place. Why would anyone choose to live in a city that had to routinely issue Do Not Breathe advisories every summer?

It smelled even worse in the subway car that I forced my way into just as the doors were closing. I'd managed to jam myself in with the rest of the human sardines in one of the cars that didn't have air conditioning.

By the time I made it uptown to York Mills station where I'd parked my car, I was more thankful than I'd ever been for the luxury of the SUV that Jack had helped me buy. Audis had great air conditioning. I cranked the temperature down to Arctic level and was just about to jack the tunes up when curiosity got the better of me.

It was easy to find the song that Mr Peel had downloaded; it was the top one on my 'Recently Added' list, but the title was disconcertingly ambiguous—Songs for Lee. Two songs? How much damage could six minutes and ten seconds do to my psyche? My finger was hovering over the Play button on my centre console when I was literally saved by the bell—or rather, the cha-ching ringtone of an incoming call from Jack. His phone number came up on the dash screen.

"How did it go?"

"It went." I didn't want to think about everything that had been said in my meeting, let alone talk about it. Jack didn't need to know about the letter Mr Peel had given me, or the 'earlier letters', or the reporter recognizing me. Or about the DNA sample I'd been asked to give.

I heard Jack sigh. "Okay, I won't push. You can tell me about it when you're ready."

It was a good thing Jack was a patient man, because it would be a long, long time before I'd be ready to talk to him about it. He couldn't understand that I didn't want my previous Saddler life to touch our present Smith/Hughes life. I was probably kidding myself, thinking I could keep him out of it, but I had to try. "How did your Good Morning America interview go?"

"It went."

I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of reacting to his obvious ploy to make me feel guilty for not giving him more than that in response to his question. And I knew I wouldn't have to wait long for him to tell me more.

"The interviewer kept wanting to talk about the mugger. She didn't want to talk about the new mine at all."

"Well, duh! Canada's wealthiest bachelor, a diamond magnate no less, thwarts an armed robber? That's big news."

"No, it's not. And I didn't thwart him. The undercover cop who was walking by did."

"That's boring."

"I didn't think so at the time. And I'll have you know that I'm a very happily married man."

"Damn right, you are, but she doesn't know that." His interview would have turned into a 'what it's like to be married to Mr Clean's daughter/does she think he's guilty/did she lie on the stand' exposé if the Good Morning America woman had known that Jack and I were married and the last thing he needed was to be bombarded with the questions I'd been dodging most of my life.

"Where are you?"

"Just about to get onto the 401, but traffic's not moving on it. I don't how long it'll take me to get to the airport. Where are you?"

"We took off from LaGuardia about thirty minutes ago, so we should be landing at Pearson within the hour."

"Are you going to tell me where we're going now?"

"I still don't know. Adaya's sending out the first clue at noon; everyone's supposed to be at the airport by then."

"What did she tell the others about me?"

"She listed you on the itinerary as my best friend since high school."

Her description was accurate and vague enough, but Jack's executives probably wouldn't buy it for long. "They're going to know we're more than best buddies when they see us going into the same hotel room every night."

"We're not sharing a room."

"Like hell, we're not." Keeping our secret safe was one thing, but it wasn't worth breaking one of the cardinal rules of our marriage—if we were in the same city, we were in the same bed.

"Adaya came up with a great idea."

Good for her.

"She booked us into rooms that are right beside the fire exits, but one floor apart. You can sneak up to my room—"

"Or you can come down to my room—"

"I'll have a suite."

"Of course you will." Adaya probably booked the room next to the ice machine for me.

I really had to get a grip on my attitude toward Adaya. She was the best assistant Jack had ever had, and she was a very nice person. If only she wasn't so stunningly beautiful. And her name came out of Jack's mouth too much for my liking. Adaya this, Adaya that—'so smart, so organized, don't know what I'd do without her'—you'd hire another assistant, Jack; that's what you'd do. Preferably a male assistant; or a female one with a hideous facial deformity, like maybe an extra nose or third eye, definitely with some sort of oozing skin disease, and six or seven hundred extra pounds hanging off a gargantuan manly frame.

I was being stupid. Knowing that, admitting it to myself, didn't improve my mood any. Neither did the almost stationary traffic. A motorcyclist decided to treat the dotted white line between my car and the van in the next lane as his own private skinny lane and almost clipped my side-view mirror. "You jerk!" I slammed my palm against the steering wheel and blasted him with the horn.

"What did I do?"

"I wasn't yelling at you. An idiot on a motorcycle was cutting between the lanes."

"If traffic's that bad, why don't you go up to the 407?"

"Because it's a toll highway."

"You know who you married, right? We can afford a toll charge."

"It's the principle of the thing. I refuse to pay for something when I can get it free somewhere else." I heard the beep of another call coming in and looked at the screen on the dash. "Auntie Em's calling. I should take it."

"Okay, see you in a bit. Drive safe."

"Fly safe."

Auntie Em didn't bother with pleasantries when I answered her call.

"How did they find out that your last name is Smith?"

"Who's they?" The sinking feeling in my gut told me that I already knew the answer to that question.

"A reporter just called me."

"What did you say?"

"Nothing. I hung up. Then I went out and locked the gate at the end of our lane. How did they find out?"

I told her far more than I hadn't told Jack about my meeting with Mr Peel. "And he gave me a letter from Stuart."

"Have you read it?"

"No."

"Are you going to?"

"I haven't decided. The weird thing is he said Stuart sent me other letters before. Do you know anything about that?" She waited too long to answer. "Seriously? You knew?" It was a good thing that traffic was at a standstill. I was gripping the steering wheel so hard that my arms were shaking and my foot was pushing down on the brake pedal so hard that my calf muscles were cramping. If that foot had been on the accelerator when Auntie Em didn't answer my question, I wouldn't have cared how high the speedometer went. "Why didn't you—"

"I didn't know. Not for certain."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Betsy said something a few months ago when I was in picking up our mail. It was right after Stuart's appeal started making headlines. I give you my word it was the first time I'd heard anything about—"

"What did she say?" I let my death grip on the steering wheel relax a bit.

"She wanted to know if I thought Stuart would start writing to you again."

"Did you ask her what she was talking about?"

"Of course not. You know she's more town crier than postmistress. I didn't want her making something out of it and getting everyone's tongues wagging. I just fluffed it off and got out of there."

"If Stuart did write to me before, where did those letters go? You're the one who picks up the mail."

"I didn't use to."

Uncle Doug. He always stopped by the post office on his way home from the detachment when his shift ended. And, like Jack, he always felt an annoying need to protect me from any kind of hurt. I could easily imagine him thinking he was doing me a favour by keeping the letters from me. "Do you think Uncle Doug read them?"

"Probably."

"Would he have thrown them out?"

Auntie Em laughed. "That man never threw anything out."

"So where are they?"

"I'm afraid that may be a secret he took to his grave. We've been through all of his things. Unless—"

"Unless what?"

"There were those boxes that he brought home from work."

"I thought you were going to call Will about those."

"I forgot to."

She said those three words too quickly. And I knew why. "Auntie Em, he can't get in trouble for them now."

"I know, it's just—I don't want his image tarnished. They take officers bringing home case files very seriously. Doug wasn't doing anything wrong, of course. He was just such a workaholic that he couldn't stop working at the end of a day when he was on an important case. And I'm sure he didn't bring any original documents home."

"You don't think he put Stuart's letters in those boxes, do you?"

"I don't know. It doesn't seem likely, but they're the only things of Doug's that we didn't go through. Do you want me have a little poke around in them?"

Did I? Even if she did find the letters, would I read them? "Yes. No. Maybe? Oh hell, I don't know. Just leave the boxes. I'll look through them when I get home." Maybe.

"I think this trip of Jack's is coming at the perfect time. You'll be getting away from all of this."

I didn't want to get away from it. I wanted it to go away, but knew it never would.

"Do you know where you're going yet?"

"No clue."

"Well, go and have a wonderful time. It'll be good for you and Jack to spend some solid time together."

Together with four of his top executives and their significant others on some strange scavenger hunt, looking for hidden caches. It didn't sound like much of a fun time to me. And Jack and I couldn't even win the big prize if we finished first; he didn't think it would be appropriate for the boss to win. Besides, he already had the use of his private jet fifty weeks of the year. Being able to go wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted, was like a normal Tuesday for him. But for his executives, and their guests, being able to do that for two weeks would be a real treat.

Another call came in seconds after Auntie Em and I had said goodbye to each other.

Did I want to answer that one?

I usually let all of my brother's calls go to voicemail and waited days to read any of the very few texts or emails he sent—but today was different. Today Mr Peel had pulled me back into my shared history with Steve. We'd been the only two survivors of our family's implosion, and we'd always be connected by the emotional scars. I hadn't been as upset as Steve was when our mother ran away, but we'd been equally shocked—stunned, actually—when Stuart was arrested just two summers later.

"What did Peel ask you about?" Steve barked the instant I answered his call.

"I'm well, thanks for asking. And how are you?"

"Cut the crap, Lee. Just answer my question. He wants me to come in again next week and I haven't decided if I'm going to go."

That was a bit of a surprise. I didn't think Steve would skip the opportunity to strike Stuart in the emotional gut. It had always been one of his favourite pastimes. "He just asked me about my testimony at the original trial. And he asked for a DNA sample, so he'll probably ask you for one, too."

"You didn't agree to that, did you?"

"Yeah, I did."

"What are you? Stupid or something? Never, ever, let anyone take your DNA!"

"Why?" Mr Peel wasn't going to try to clone me or steal my identity, for Pete's sake.

"God, you're naive. If you don't already know why you shouldn't have done that, I'm not going to waste my time explaining it to you."

Fine with me; I didn't want to waste my time listening to him explain it, either.

"Did he say why he wanted the sample?"

"No."

"What else did he ask you about?"

"I already told you. He just asked me a bunch of questions about my testimony in the original trial. And he really pushed me for more details about what Stuart and I were doing the night Connie was murdered. I told him about how we were—"

"You don't know for sure that was the same night. It was a long time ago. And the jury didn't believe you. Besides, Dad was found guilty of all the other murders, and the modus operandi was the same for all of them."

"He was found not guilty of Sheila's murder because of my testimony. And he should have been found not guilty of Connie's. I know for a fact that he didn't do that one." I'd tried to doubt my memories of that night, but deep down inside I always knew that my memories were accurate.

"Again, you can't be—"

I could feel my blood pressure rising. Steve was doing what he always did—repeating his opinion with more force to try to get me to agree with him. Sometimes I agreed with him just to shut him up. But I wasn't going to agree with him on this point.

"I'm one hundred percent sure."

It had been one of the worst days of my life; the day I found the puppies hanging from the clothesline at my friend Marie's cottage. She'd been a summertime friend, only up at her cottage for June, July and August, living in Halifax for the rest of the year. But we'd still been close. And when her purebred Golden Retriever accidentally got pregnant after her cousin's English Sheepdog came for a weekend visit, Marie and her mother offered me one of the puppies. Zuzie had always refused to let me have a dog. But she was gone by then. Stuart said yes without hesitating when I raced my bicycle all the way back to our grocery store after Marie's mother asked me if I wanted a puppy. I'd been so excited. I went and visited the puppies every day after they were born. Until that day. I'd never told anyone, other than Stuart, that I'd seen the puppies' bodies. By the time he drove over to Marie's cottage, her parents were home and one of Uncle Doug's officers was already talking to them. Over twenty years later, it was still too upsetting to talk about. The image of the white ropes tied tightly around each puppy's neck, their black-and-white excessively furry little bodies hanging limply, one of them swaying in the breeze— "Stuart took me out to look at the stars that night because I couldn't sleep."

"Whatever. Stick to your story if you want. Did he tell you what they've got? What they're going to present during the appeal? He wouldn't give me anything when I met with him and that was over a month ago, so he's probably worked out his game plan by now."

"No, and I didn't ask." I didn't want to know. "The only new thing I learned is that Stuart sent me some letters from prison, but Auntie Em and I think Uncle Doug kept them from me. We think he might have put them in some old file boxes that he brought home from work, so I'm going to look for them when I get home. Did Stuart write to you, too?"

"No! He knows I would have burned them without reading them."

"Mr Peel gave me a letter from him."

"Have you read it?"

"Not yet. I haven't decided if I'm going to."

"It'll be full of bullshit. You should just throw it out; it'll only upset you. You always thought the sun rose and shone out of his ass; you never saw him for the prick he was."

We were never going to agree on Stuart's parenting abilities. No matter what he may or may not have done to those women, I still believed that he'd loved us and tried his very best. Steve seemed to forget that Zuzie, our beloved mother, was the one who abandoned us first when a man with a really big bulge in his pants—his wallet—asked her to run away with him.

"When do you get back from the corporate retreat thing with Jack?"

"How do you know about that?" He'd never shown any interest in any of my trips before.

"Emma told me. I couldn't get in touch with you after my meeting and wanted to prep you for yours, but then Emma told me you were away and that you wouldn't be able to meet with Peel until this week and she wasn't even sure you'd make today's meeting because of the trip you're taking with Jack. You're leaving today, right?"

"I'm on my way to the airport right now, but I'm stuck in traffic on the 401."

"Okay, good."

"Good?"

"Yeah, good. You'll be getting away from all of this crap. I know how hard it's been on you. Talk to you later."

Who was that person on the phone and what had he done with my jerk of a brother? I couldn't remember a single time that Steve had ever—ever—expressed any compassion or understanding of how difficult Stuart's trial and convictions had been on me.

Songs for Lee appeared on the screen on my dash again after Steve hung up.

Hell, no.

I brought up my full 'Artists' list and pushed play. I didn't care what song played, just as long as it didn't have anything to do with anything that mattered.

AC/DC was at the top of the alphabetical list, and I smiled when I heard the first few guitar scratches from their Highway to Hell. I turned the volume up so high that the speakers in the doors rattled when the drums kicked in. The guy in the pickup truck beside me started rocking his head in time to the beat and gave me a thumbs-up.

By the time I took the turnoff for the private terminal at Pearson Airport my tunes had fittingly shuffled their way to something much more highbrow—the London Philharmonic playing Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5.

Ever-efficient Adaya had already sent my licence plate number to the security booth and the electronic gates started opening as I pulled up to them. One of the servers in the VIP lounge recognised me and handed me a cup of my favourite tea, in a bone china cup, seconds after I sat down in one of the plush chairs.

"Mr Hughes should be touching down soon," the server informed me before he discreetly disappeared to leave me in private luxury.

I reached into my backpack to get my phone, but jerked my hand back out the instant it touched Stuart's letter. Instead, I pulled my computer out of the front compartment and used it to check my emails. An offer from Visit Scotland to write about the North Coast 500 driving route grabbed my interest. Stuart and I used to talk about taking a trip to Scotland to go see where our ancestors had come from. I forced my thoughts to look toward the future, instead of back at what could have been.

The other side of an ocean, any ocean, was where I wanted to go and I hoped that Jack's little corporate treasure hunt would be heading somewhere even farther away than Scotland. Like maybe on a ride on one of his buddy's Virgin Galactic flights? It was too bad that Sir Richard Branson hadn't yet worked out all the kinks in his spacecraft.

The images I found on the internet of the Bealach na Bà pass through the Applecross peninsula in Wester Ross in the Scottish Highlands were stunning and I was so engrossed in the notes I was making for a potential itinerary that I didn't notice Jack's plane when it landed.

"Miss Smith?"

I looked up and saw a young man wearing crisp navy pants and a white golf shirt that had the stylised blue Hughes Diamonds logo on it. "Oh! You're here." I closed my computer and slid it back into the front pocket of my backpack.

"I'll take that for you." He leaned down and picked up my backpack. His bicep bulged against the short sleeve of his knit shirt, and his eyes opened wide with surprise at the weight of it. "Canada Border Services are on the plane clearing it through customs, but they won't take long. Mr Hughes and Mr Lewis will be deplaning shortly."

"Um, why? Shouldn't I be getting on de-plane?"

"You'll be taking the car to the other terminal."

I followed him out onto the tarmac and tried to resign myself to the fact that from here on in I'd be a follower for the entire trip to wherever. I wasn't good at following, and Jack knew it. To make matters worse, I'd be following Adaya's instructions.

A long, black stretch limousine had pulled up beside the lowered stairs at the front of Jack's jet and the chauffeur had popped the trunk open. Two Canada Border Services agents came down the steps of the jet, one of them laughing so hard at something someone behind her had said that she almost stabbed herself in the neck when she tried to shove her pen into the chest pocket of her bulletproof vest. I'd never seen a customs officer laugh like that. Maybe they were able to show some personality when they didn't have to deal with the masses en masse? Behind the customs agents came two more logoed and golf-shirted Hughes employees who were also laughing. One was carrying two large matching suitcases; the other a single black leather carry-on bag.

Had Jack learned nothing from me? Why had he brought so much luggage? It would only slow us down—on the geocaching scavenger hunt that we weren't allowed to win. Prize or no prize, I had every intention of coming in first.

Then Jack stepped out of the plane and I forgave him for his luggage faux pas when my heart did the little flip that always surprised me whenever I saw him after we'd been apart for a few days. His smile matched mine when our eyes met. Everything in me wanted to run to meet him, to reconnect with him physically. But we weren't alone. Not only were there customs, airport and Hughes employees all over the place, there was also a second man following Jack down the stairs.

His limited height immediately appealed to me. The top of his head barely came up to Jack's shoulders. He was still taller than me, but my neck wouldn't get sore from looking up at him if we got into a long conversation.

"Hi," Jack said as he walked up to me.

"Hi." Did he want to reach out to touch me as much as I wanted him to?

"Lee, meet Neil. He's our VP of marketing. Neil, this is Lee—my oldest and dearest friend."

Neil and I shook hands, and I was really impressed when he didn't flinch as he touched the burn scars on my right hand. And he didn't seem to be fighting the urge to stare at the paler scar on my cheek, either.

"Come on, let's go." Jack walked over to the open door of the limousine. "We've only got ten minutes before Adaya sends out the first clue."

"Where are we going?" I asked as I slid into the car.

Jack rolled his eyes. "I told you, we won't know until—"

"Not where on the planet. I mean, where are we going right now? Won't we need your plane?"

Jack smiled. "Nope. We're flying commercial."

"First, business or economy class?"

"Economy." He looked so proud of himself.

"Welcome to the ninety-nine percent. You sure you're going to be able to survive roughing it with the rest of us peons?"

Neil started to laugh, but quickly stopped himself. Laughing about the boss' one-percent lifestyle probably wouldn't help his professional advancement possibilities. That was a luxury that could only be afforded by oldest and dearest friends—and wives.

When we met up with the rest of Jack's employees and their partners on the departures level in Terminal 1, it really struck me how different their treatment of Jack was to mine. Most of them were deferential to him, something I'd never been.

Neil's husband, Michael, had such a handsome face that it could have launched a thousand advertising campaigns and he looked vaguely familiar to me, so maybe he really was a model? He was so happy to see the great and powerful Jack Hughes again that he almost squeaked out his hellos.

"And this is Silas Ambunda; he runs our Human Resources." Jack introduced me to a slightly pudgy man who had rich mahogany skin and one of the friendliest smiles I'd ever seen.

He shook my hand with both of his hands, giving that extra-friendly touch that made me like him instantly.

"You must be Lisa," Jack said to the girl who was standing next to Silas.

"Nice to meet you, Mr Hughes." Lisa looked uncomfortable. She was younger, much younger than Silas. So young she could have been his daughter. But her skin was only faintly tanned, so I doubted they were genetically linked. And she had a slight accent that I couldn't quite place. Austrian? German? "Thank you for letting me come. Dad's useless at technology, so he would have had difficulty working out the GPS coordinates by himself."

"No need to thank me, and please call me Jack. I hope your grandmother doesn't mind us delaying your yearly visit to see her." Jack turned to me. "Lisa's studying archaeology at Cambridge. She spent most of last summer on a dig in Peru, and she usually spends a couple of weeks with Silas' mother in Windhoek."

"I can't believe you remember all that." Lisa sounded impressed.

"Silas talks about you all the time." Jack turned to the sultry, dark-haired woman who was standing next to him. "And this is Isabella, our resident genius geologist. She's the head of our technical global mining division."

"Nice to meet you," Isabella said curtly, but I still managed to catch her Brazilian accent. "You remember Grant, don't you, Jack?"

"Of course I do. Good to see you, Grant."

Grant was the only person, other than me, who was travelling with just one bag. "You, too, Jack. Lee Smith?" He stared at me very hard. "I know who you are."

My stomach sank. What was he…a reporter?

"I'm a big fan of yours. We've got several clients who book trips based solely on your articles."

"Grant's a partner in a chain of travel agencies," Jack clarified for me.

Jack's chief financial officer, Samson, didn't match his biblically powerful name. He was barely taller than me and almost scrawny. With his bald head, pointy nose and round dark eyes, he looked a bit like a curious rat. His thick South African accent was the only attractive thing about him. (I was a sucker for South African accents. Well, imitation South African accents that were being imitated by Ewan McGregor, to be more accurate. Every time I heard a South African accent I immediately heard Ewan saying "Welcome to South Africa" the way he had when he and Charley Boorman crossed the Namibian border in their Long Way Down travel series. I was tempted to say "Welcome to Canada" to Samson, using the same slightly Scottish South African accent that Ewan had used, but knew no one would get the joke.)

Samson's wife, Melody, had a thick accent, too, but it was a Chicago accent. She was overdressed, complete with four-inch heels, wore more make-up than I owned, and had so many gold bracelets on her wrists that they constantly clanged together almost as loudly as the bells at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. I disliked her immediately. My reaction to her wasn't just emotional, though. I had a strong physical reaction to her, too. I was allergic to the vat of perfume that she'd doused herself with. Her personality had all the power that Samson's body lacked; she was overbearing to the extreme. And she barely acknowledged my existence, choosing to expend all her conversational energies on making sure that everyone knew that Jack's "wife's name is Lisa, just like your daughter's name, Silas," and that she was thrilled to "have a Lisa with us again." I kept waiting for Jack to clarify that Lisa was, in fact, his ex-wife. He took too long to say it, so I said it for him. Even though she was only slightly taller than her husband, she was definitely looking down on me as she looked at my T-shirt and jeans with obvious distaste.

When everyone's phones came alive with a cacophony of ringtones, all conversation stopped.

Jack quickly pulled his phone out of his suit jacket pocket and looked at the text that had popped up on the screen. "And we're away!"

Chapter Three

 

45° 49' 12.87" N

 

64° 34' 21.61" W

 

The teams broke apart, each one going off to strategize away from the others.

"What do we do now?" Everyone else seemed to know what to do. I just stood there, staring at Jack. "Where are we going?"

"We're going to 45 degrees, 49 minutes, 12 point 87 seconds north, 64 degrees, 34 minutes, 21 point 61 seconds west."

"Speak English."

"You'll need to download the Google Earth app on your phone."

"You know what I do for a living, right?" He didn't look up from his phone. "That app is one of the tools of my job."

"Yeah, I guess it would be," he said more for something to say than to acknowledge that he should have known that I'd have the Google Earth app on my phone. Jack turned his phone around so I could see the screen and pointed at something on it. "According to the GPS coordinates that Adaya just sent out, that's where we have to get to. What are the Hopewell Rocks?"

"Tall, flowerpot rock formations in the Bay of Fundy, off the coast of New Brunswick." I didn't need an app to tell me that.

"Let's go find a flight to Saint John!" He grabbed the black leather carry-on bag that I'd seen one of his employees carry off his plane. That's when I noticed that the other suitcases they'd carried off the plane belonged to Neil, not Jack.

"Moncton's closer to the Rocks." I opened both the Air Canada and WestJet apps on my phone and started looking for the earliest next flight to Moncton. I would have preferred to be looking for flights to Mombasa, but at least Moncton wasn't in southern Ontario, where the Mr Clean story was front page news every day.

"Come on, Lee! We have to go!" Jack was walking away from me.

"Where are you going?" I found a direct flight that was leaving in less than ninety minutes and immediately tried to book two tickets on it. Hopefully, it wasn't full.

"To find a ticket counter."

"Why?" Success. The charges I'd just put on the Hughes credit card that Adaya had sent to all the players were approved. A confirmation email came in, followed by an email telling me to check in now. "I just bought us two tickets on the next flight, but you're not going to like our seats." I'd only been able to get seats near the back of the plane, and they weren't even in the same row. I forwarded Jack's boarding pass to his phone.

"How did you do that?" Jack walked back to me.

"Again, you know what I do for a living, right?"

"Sorry."

He gave a better response that time, so I went on to explain that most people didn't have an Adaya to book their lives for them as we walked toward the line-up for security. After that, I had to explain why we had to stand in such a long line.

We weren't the only couple in the line-up. Silas and his daughter, the unfortunately named Lisa, and Brazilian Isabella and her travel agent husband, Grant, were right behind us. Neil and Michael were still struggling with their combined luggage somewhere in the main area. Melody was probably still arguing with the agent at the ticket counter, with Samson standing meekly beside her.

"You sure you're okay with this?" I asked Jack. "You never said anything about flying commercial."

"Well, if it's good enough for ninety-nine percent of the population then—"

"That's not what I'm talking about and you know it." He was pulling my trick, turning something into a joke to avoid having to deal with the serious stuff. He never let me get away with it, and I wasn't going to let him get away with it either.

"I know. Let's just say that I'm no more worried about this than I am every time you get on a commercial flight. And you always make it home safely."

I wanted to give him a hug, but too many people could see us. "It'll be okay. You've let Rachel fly you around ever since Webequie and nothing bad's happened."

"True. The last time I was in a crash, the pilot error was all mine."

"Don't do that. It was an accident; it wasn't your fault—"

"I had the controls, and I lost control of the aircraft."

"Because someone was shooting at you!"

He just shrugged. "It doesn't matter. It was still my fault."

"How did George's last surgery go?" I knew that Jack would never forgive himself for causing his co-pilot's injuries, any more than he'd ever forgive the pilot who slammed his parents into the ground.

"Really well. He says he's ready to come back to work. His doctors, however, don't share his opinion."

"What will happen to Rachel if George comes back to fly for you?"

"George's seat will always be there for him. If he comes back, Rachel will be his co-pilot."

I wondered how Rachel would feel about being demoted from chief pilot, but knew that that might not ever happen. George still had more surgeries and a lot of physical therapy to get through.

It was time to change the subject. I could tell by the look on Jack's face that he was thinking the same thing, wondering if George would ever be able to come back to work. "Explain the rules of this thing to me. We're racing, right? But if we all get to the cache at the same time, how do you figure out who the winning team is?"

"It's like a rally stage." Of course, he just had to use car racing terminology. "The clock started ticking for each team the minute Adaya texted out the GPS clue. Inside each cache that we find will be a unique item and we have to take a photo of it and text it back to Adaya to stop the clock for us on that stage of the race. The next stage will start when Adaya sends out the next GPS clue."

"When will she do that?"

"I don't know. My guess is that she's scheduled each leg so that we can all spend the night in a hotel in each city, but she might surprise us. And, even if she has booked us all into a hotel for the night, there's no guarantee that every team will have managed to book their travel arrangements properly, so some teams may fall behind. We're responsible for figuring out how we're going to travel around at each location, too. There are lots of variables that can either slow down or speed up a team. At the end of the race, after we've found the last cache, we have to send her a photo of all the items we've found in the caches and that will stop each team's clock for the last time. Adaya will tally up everyone's time for every leg, and the team with the shortest overall time will be declared the winner."

My chances of winning the race improved with each point Jack made as he explained the rules. Figuring out travel arrangements, whether by air, sea, or land, was my speciality. Grant was probably my closest competition, unless he just owned travel agencies and didn't actually work as a travel agent. If he just shuffled papers, I had this race in the bag! Jack and his executives were used to having their assistants handle plebeian things like booking travel arrangements.

I half expected Jack to complain about the lack of legroom when we finally made it down the aisle to our seats, but that wasn’t what bothered him most. He wasn’t happy about having to sit two rows apart, so he laid the Hughes charm on extra thick and talked the woman in the seat next to mine into changing seats with him. The concept of shoving his bag into the overhead bin baffled him, but he managed to figure it out.

“Did you see the air marshal in first class?”

“I thought they were supposed to fly incognito?” he said when he finally dropped into the seat next to mine (and frowned at the closeness of the seatback that his knees were pushing against).

“There was nothing incognito about the guy I saw. He’s built like a linebacker, is wearing a dark suit and black sunglasses, and his hair is cropped military short. Actually, he kind of looks like a Secret Service agent, but I didn’t see one of those curly wires hanging down the back of his neck from an earpiece.”

“Maybe he’s just a well-dressed football player?”

“He’s an air marshal, I’m sure of it.” I scanned through the contacts on my phone and found the website address of the car rental company I used whenever I was in Moncton. “Compact, sedan or SUV?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m booking a rental car.”

“Damn, you’re good.” He leaned over and tried to turn my face to his with one hand. “That can wait, though.”

“No, it can’t. We’re going to have to turn our phones off soon and I want to make sure we’ve got a car waiting for us.”

His hand dropped. “Why do we have to turn our phones off?”

“Because they’ll mess up the electronics or something; you’re not allowed to use them when you’re flying commercial.”

He reached over for my face again. “They won’t mess up anything. That’s a twenty-year-old FAA rule that’s still on the books because cell phones used to interfere with radio signals. You probably won’t get service if you’re above three thousand feet over sparsely populated areas, but over southern Ontario you’ll be able to use your phone long after we’ve taken off. Technology’s come a long way, and I’ve waited too long to kiss my wife.”

I looked up at him. “Really?”

“Really.” He brought his lips to mine.

He was a pilot, so I put my phone down and said hello to my husband the way I’d wanted to ever since seeing him step out of his jet. We were already in the air by the time I came up for air and finalized the car rental.

Editorial Reviews

"Once I started reading this, I kept going … Travel writer Lee Smith has a remarkable backstory: her father is in jail, a convicted serial killer. But is he really guilty? In this mystery, which benefits from interesting settings off the east coast of Canada, a bewildering sequence of crimes which seem to echo her father's alleged murders place her own life in extreme jeopardy."

Martin Edwards – 2020 recipient of the Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger, the highest honour in UK crime writing

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