ⓒ 2011, Vicki Hinze
Saturday, June 5 at 6:00 p.m., Seagrove Village, Florida
He was late. The country club’s parking lot was nearly full, but Detective Jeff Meyers spotted an empty slot in the last of five rows. He parked and cut the engine, grabbed the invitation to Harvey and Roxy Talbot’s renewal of their wedding vows off the center console, and then rushed through the humid heat back to the main entrance.
Cold air blasted him in the face. He breathed deeply, relishing it. No doubt all the Crossroads Crisis Center staff was already out in the courtyard. He hated to show up for a classy event late and sweaty, but thanks to clashing factions over the coming mayoral election at Ruby’s Diner, there hadn’t been time to shower and change clothes.
Bypassing a grouping of sofa and chairs, Jeff headed toward the back of the building. With all its polish and gold-framed original art, the club was too elegant for his tastes, but the people were friendly enough to make it semicomfortable. There was no need to ask anyone where to go, which was a good thing since not a soul was in sight— kind of funny, that—but Annie and Nora, the self-appointed Seagrove Village wedding planners, had made sure if a body found the front door, there’d be no confusion.
Rose petals on the cool marble floor created a path between stretched white columns to a set of French doors that led outside to the courtyard. A sign would have worked, but the club didn’t allow them. There were limits to its tolerance for things that pricked at its perception of class.
Since Roxy had her heart set on the inner courtyard, they had scheduled the ceremony later in the day to avoid the relentless heat, but it still radiated. With reluctance Jeff left the cool lobby and closed the French doors behind him. Doing his job or not, he would get his ears blistered by Nora for being late. His only hope was that the village matriarch was so focused on the ceremony she wouldn’t notice. She was getting up in age and bat-blind, seeing walls only when she bumped into them, but Jeff had never known Ben Brandt’s housekeeper to miss a thing that mattered to her, which meant Jeff was going to get reamed. He resigned himself to it.
Nora had put everyone on notice. This ceremony had to be perfect for Harvey and Roxy. Dr. Harvey Talbot worked at Ben’s crisis center and Nora worked for Ben. That put Harvey under Nora’s protective wing as one of her “boys.” She was beloved in the village, and anyone who messed with her would answer to everyone—Jeff included.
Truly, Harvey and Roxy getting back together was a miracle, and all the villagers were glad to see it. They never should have gotten divorced. Harvey hadn’t wanted it, but Roxy was with the FBI and she’d pulled a case that involved NINA—Nihilists in Anarchy—a group of terrorists with a criminal wing so ruthless, it gave Homeland Security, law enforcement, and crooks cold chills. Roxy had divorced Harvey to get him out of the line of fire so NINA wouldn’t hurt him or use him to get to her. Not that she’d explained that to Harvey, which is why he’d been as miserable as the men on death row. Apparently, so had she.
Jeff followed the rose-petal trail onto a stone walkway that wound between fat shrubs and fountains that cooled the air with a welcome mist. He’d like to pause to cool down but didn’t dare; if he was lucky, he’d get to hear the “I do agains.”
Intended to seat fifty, the intimate courtyard was surrounded on all sides by brick buildings that held in the heat. He rushed his steps, rounded a cluster of petite palms and spiny palmettos—and came to a dead halt.
Bodies lay everywhere.
All the white-slatted chairs stood empty, and every guest who should have been in one was sprawled on the ground. Under the arch draped in leafy greenery and pink roses lay Harvey and Roxy and Reverend Brown.
Jeff didn’t dare move. Hyperalert, he scanned the scene. The Crossroads group was clustered together. Nora lay facedown, her arm outstretched as if reaching for her companion, Clyde Parker, who was flat on his back with a toppled chair parked half on his stomach. It wasn’t moving. With breaths, that chair should be moving.
Jeff whipped out his phone and hit speed dial, phoning the station. Busy. No surprise; most who’d answer were here, supine on the grass. The silence in the courtyard was deafening. They all lay motionless. What had happened here?
His heart thudding, he pulled his gun, continued searching. Nothing. Fearing a trap, he checked the rooftops but saw only clear blue sky. The lingering scent of something pungent burned his nose. It sure wasn’t the flowers, but he couldn’t tag its source. The building’s walls had trapped the scent, but now a breeze stirred. Whatever the smell, it was faint and fading fast; another minute or two and it’d be gone.
Chemical. Get out of here. You’re getting exposed.
He ignored the warning. He was already exposed, and these people mattered to him; he couldn’t just leave them. Keeping his eyes pealed, he thumbed off the safety and readied for rapid firing, then moved toward the people closest to him: Beth Dawson and her SaBe, Inc. co-owner Sara Jones-Tayton. Sara’s husband, Robert, wasn’t with her. Strange. He seldom missed a social event, and Sara rarely attended one without him. Beth and Sara volunteered at Crossroads, kept the center’s computers safe from hackers, and helped out Quantico when it got in a pinch. Crumpled on the grass behind the chairs, they too must have arrived late and not made the last half-dozen steps to their seats.
His mouth went stone dry. These were all his friends—many of them, since birth. Were they all dead?
Nothing. Not one unexpected sight or sound or movement. He tried the station again. Still busy.
A table draped in crisp white linen stood between the others and him. Flowers and crystal filled one end; a two-tier wedding cake, the other. The breeze bent all the leaves to the north and that faint, pungent smell had disappeared. Whatever it had been, it’d dissipated.
Get out, Jeff. Wait for Hazmat.
The internal battle escalated to a war. He should wait for a hazardous-material team, but his heart wouldn’t let him. Covering his mouth and nose with his handkerchief, he stepped behind the table and bumped his back against the brick building, then slid down the rough wall to Beth. Don’t let her be dead. Please.
In a cold sweat, he squatted and pressed his fingers to her throat. A steady thump pulsed against his fingertips. She was alive. Thank God.
“Beth?” No answer. “Beth?” They had dated a couple times. He had been crazy about her, but she just hadn’t been into him so they settled for being friends. “Can you hear me?” No response.
What about the others?
No. Backup first. You need backup.
Reverting to his life as a beat cop, he reached for the radio clipped to his collar before remembering he no longer had one and his phone was already in his hand. Darting, wary, he tried the station yet again. Finally, it rang.
“Seagrove Village Police.” The rookie, Kyle Perry. “It’s Jeff Meyer. Who’s there with clout?”
“The chief’s in, but he’s in conference.”
“I can’t, Detective. He said not to disturb him.”
It was quicker to switch than to fight a rookie under orders. “Who else is there?”
Hank would do. “Get him on the phone.”
A moment later, Hank came on the line. “Hey, why aren’t you at the ceremony?”
“I just got here. Everyone’s out cold, Hank.” Jeff briefed him, requested backup, and then added, “I need a Hazmat team—medical too, but put them in a holding pattern away from the building until Hazmat gives an all-clear.”
“What do you think happened?”
Sara Jones-Tayton was breathing. Shallow and slow, pulse thready but there. “I don’t know.” Jeff stood, his knees crackling. Still no one conscious in sight. He moved on to the next closest group. “No signs of a struggle. They’re just all on the ground, out cold.”
“White powder? Oily residue? Funny smell? Anything like that?”
“No residue or powder. I caught a whiff of something when I arrived, but it’s gone now. There’s nothing else to see—wait a second.” Beth lay on her side, her hand buried beneath her. He looked closely, then checked the others, homing in on their hands. Beth, Sara, Kelly Walker, and Lisa Harper all had strings tied to their fingers— and Roxy did too. “Five women have strings tied to their fingers. Looks like monofilament.”
“Appears so.” He followed the lines to where they converged. “All five lead to one place—the wedding cake.” Jeff double-checked, then added, “To the bride. She’s half buried in the bottom layer of the cake—not Roxy, the plastic bride that usually sits on top of the cake.” He moved closer. The plastic was cracked, its edges jagged. “The plastic groom was ripped off.” Jeff checked beneath the table. “He’s missing.”
“The plastic groom is missing.” Hank stuttered. “Harvey—”
“Then what does it mean?”
“I don’t know, but this was no accident.” Not with those strings. Jeff didn’t like where his mind was going, yet he’d have to be a brick short to ignore the obvious. “Professionals knocked out everyone and singled out specific targets.”
“Oh, man. Not NINA again.” Hank sounded as nervous as Jeff felt.
The international terrorist organization that, to fund its ideological objectives, black-marketed anything of value—weapons, intelligence, drugs, people. “It’s crossed my mind already.” They’d had two run-ins with NINA; of course it’d crossed his mind.
“I could see NINA coming after Kelly or Lisa—and Roxy busted up their human-trafficking operation—but why Beth and Sara? They can’t identify anyone in NINA.”
“They helped us take NINA down in the human-trafficking case.” When it came to computers, Beth and Sara were two of the best on the planet. Their SaBe was a megasuccessful software company, and everyone in the village knew they helped out the government all the time. Quantico tried repeatedly to hire Beth but couldn’t afford her, and before Sara had married Robert Tayton, she’d spent nearly as much time at Quantico as she had at home. NINA could want them both out of the way for that. “Revenge, maybe?”
Jeff turned to examine the next of the fallen. Darla Green, the wife of the deceased mayor, lay alone. Jeff wiggled his fingers into position on her throat. Breathing. He moved on.
Hank grunted. “NINA can’t afford idle revenge. If they’re behind this—”
“Who else has the ability or guts to pull off something like this?”
“No one who’d actually do it. But that means there’s more to it than revenge.”
“We don’t even know what it is yet.” Jeff kept moving through the crowd, person to person, finding throat pulses and growing more and more relieved. “Whatever it is, we never saw it coming. They came in and did what they wanted—they could have killed them all.” That truth sent shards of fear slicing through Jeff’s veins. His friends—all his friends—could have been murdered on his watch.
“But they didn’t kill them.”
“Not this time.” Jeff gazed down, then glanced over, seemingly seeing double senior women. His heart sank, then slammed against his chest wall. “Maybe something is still in the air, Hank. I’m seeing two Noras.”
“Probably Nathara, Nora’s identical twin. She’s here from New Orleans to take Nora to some eye specialist.”
“Oh.” Jeff had never seen her before. He blew out a relieved breath and checked them both. Strong. Steady. He moved on, past Nora and her sister, and placed his fingertips on the next throat. Nothing.
He tried again.
Tried a third time but it just wasn’t there. No pulse. A lump rose in Jeff’s throat. “Oh, man.”
“What?” Jeff’s eyes burned. Bury it. You’re a professional. Remember it. His throat went thick and strain flooded his voice. “You’ll need to come out too, Hank. I—I, um, can’t lock down the crime scene by myself, and the rookie won’t be much help.”
“Got it. Backup’s already on the way.”
Not the kind of help he required. “I need backup and high-powered help.”
“How high?” Uncertainty elevated Hank’s voice. A tear leaked from Jeff’s eye. “All the way.” Hank was sharp on the uptake. The chief was too. They’d know to contact Homeland Security and to get the FBI on-scene immediately.
“Al won’t like it. Not without some preliminary work being done first.” Hank Green was wrong on that. “The chief will dial the phone.” Jeff looked into sightless eyes that once had twinkled kindness and his own vision blurred. He gently swept the eyelids closed with his fingertips and searched for his voice. “This has to be some kind of chemical attack. We don’t have the resources—”
“Let’s don’t jump to conclusions, Jeff.”
He started snapping photos with his cell phone. Hank, not the chief, was reluctant to call in outsiders. Why? Protecting the village tourism? He was running for mayor… “You either jump or get dragged into this one, Hank. Chemical is all that makes sense.”
“We don’t have to rush to judgment. They’re alive. We can—”
“I’m afraid we do need to rush,” Jeff interrupted. The first forty-eight hours were critical to successfully solving any case. Stats backed him up on that. “We have a fatality .”
A long second passed. Then another. “Visitor or villager?”
Jeff’s voice cracked. He cleared his throat. No way was he identifying this victim over the phone. Word would sweep through Seagrove like wildfire. “A villager.” He moved over to the cake, snapped a shot. A curled edge of paper was half buried in the frosting. “Whoever did this left a message. It’s attached to the bride buried in the cake.”
“Can you read it without disturbing it?”
Jeff moved around, positioned at an angle and the bold black print became clear. “I can read one word.” Chills slammed through his chest, spread like fingers to his limbs. He jerked away, stiffened.
“What does it say?”