Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Listen... Ring of Lies by Victoria Howard


RING OF LIES by Victoria Howard
Available Now in All Ebook Formats
- Also in Print

When accountant Daniel Elliott dies in a car accident, his widow, Grace, is overcome with grief...and panic. Daniel was controlling and their marriage loveless, but he always took care of her. Or so she thought. Grace soon discovers Daniel kept secrets: an alias, mob ties, a list of numbers, a mysterious beach house in Florida...and a girlfriend who looks like Grace. Swallowing her fear, she flies to Miami to claim the house Daniel left her. But the price of her curiosity is peril. Underworld figures stalk her. And handsome, troubled FBI agent Jack West has crossed precarious paths with Grace before. With little to go on and danger at every turn, Grace must depend on Jack to help her navigate the criminal world of south Florida, and find the truth behind the Ring of Lies.


CHAPTER ONE

Grace Elliott followed her husband’s coffin down the cobbled path from the church to the graveyard and tried not to stumble on rain-slicked stones. She shivered and grasped the collar of her suit jacket, holding it tightly against her neck, as the winter rain seeped through her clothing and chilled her to the bone.

She felt hollow inside. And guilty.

Daniel’s accident was her fault. If only she hadn’t argued with him before he’d left for the conference, he might still be alive.

The small twelfth Century church stood on a hill on the edge of the village, its yellow Cotswold stone weathered with age. Moss-covered headstones dotted the graveyard, the inscriptions faded and barely readable. High in the branches of a gnarled yew tree, a rook cawed. Even the angels on top of the monuments seemed to frown on her.

Grace straightened her shoulders and kept her eyes firmly fixed on the single wreath of yellow chrysanthemums, solidago, and eucalyptus on top of the casket.

Apart from her heavily pregnant best friend, Olivia, only half a dozen mourners clustered around the open grave. Daniel had many friends and business associates. Where were they? She flitted between anger and sadness. He’d thought he was so loved, yet he was reduced to this—nearly forgotten on the day of his rest. She looked at the small group. Daniel’s business partner, Shaun, and his wife—what was her name? Grace struggled to remember: Mary? Margaret? No, Margot, that was it. And there was Liz, Daniel’s secretary, standing self-consciously to one side, constantly dabbing at her eyes with a crumpled handkerchief.

She didn’t know the short, smartly dressed, middle aged man with the pale, square jaw. But she recognised two of Daniel’s friends from the local golf club, who had forsaken their daily round to attend.

But the person whose support she needed most of all was absent.

Despite all the phone calls to Catherine’s mobile phone and messages left on her answering machine, her sister remained silent. It wasn’t unusual for Catherine to do her own thing. She had always had a selfish streak, going her own way, letting the family down, and today was no different. Yet it was, because Catherine was leaving Grace alone at a time when she needed her only sister the most.

Head bowed, Grace took her place next to the minister beside the open grave, her sense of loss beyond tears.

The minister’s voice intoned over the heads of the mourners. “We have entrusted our brother, Daniel, to God's mercy and we now commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

She struggled to hold back her tears and concentrate on the words, as grief and guilt squeezed her heart. Perhaps she should have organized a wake for Daniel’s business colleagues and friends, but with his parents dead and her sister nowhere to be found, she couldn’t face listening to their condolences and platitudes on her own.

At the minister’s prompting, she stepped forward and picked up a handful of earth, allowing it to slip through her fingers, dusting the casket. The service over, the mourners crowded round her. Shaun was the first to step forward and take her hand.

I just wanted to say how sorry Margot and I are. It’s a very difficult time for you, Grace, and if there is anything we can do, please don’t hesitate to let us know. Daniel was a good friend as well as my business partner.”

Thank you, Shaun. Daniel… Daniel would have been pleased that you remembered him. And I appreciate your kindness in clearing his desk and returning his personal items to me when I know you’re so busy.”

It was no trouble, Grace. No trouble at all.” Shaun leant forward and kissed her cheek. “Keep in touch.”

One by one, the other mourners paid their respects then silently drifted away. Only Olivia remained by her side.

Poor, poor dear,” she said, draping an arm around Grace’s shoulders. “Here you are. And where is that sister of yours? Doesn’t she care?

You know she does, Olivia. I’m sure she’d be here if she knew, but I’ve been unable to contact her. She has a career and—

“—and a sister, whom she is leaving to twist in the proverbial wind on the darkest day of her life. I swear, Grace, I don’t know how you’re holding together.”

Grace shivered. “I’m not.” She collapsed on Olivia’s shoulder and shuddered with sobs. Olivia cradled her as a child—as the child she’d soon have, Grace thought. Another loss, she realized. She’d never have a child now that Daniel was gone.

Oh, Grace. I know you loved him so.”

I did. I do. What do I do now, Olivia? How do I continue without him?”

I’m here for you, dear, as is Tom. Somehow we’ll get through this together.”

Grace sniffed and blew her nose. “I… I’d like a few moments by myself. Could you wait in the car for me?”

Olivia narrowed her eyes. “Are you sure?”

Yes. I need to say goodbye. I have to. I won’t be long.”

All right. Take as much time as you need. I’ll wait as long as I have to.”

Not trusting herself to speak, Grace merely nodded. She clasped her slender hands together and bent her head to hide the pain in her eyes. She felt empty. A flash of wild grief ripped through her, threatening to shatter her resolve not to cry anymore.

She remained at the graveside, ignoring the rain as it dripped from the brim of her hat onto the back of her neck, her eyes fixed on the rain-speckled brass plate on the coffin.

Daniel Elliott. 1971-2009

Tears blinded her eyes. Daniel was too young to die. At thirty-eight, he’d been the youngest partner in a firm of international accountants. And he’d been her rock—her one constant in ten brief years. How would she cope without him?

With her emotions barely under control, she made her way over the slippery cobblestones towards the car park. A man stepped out from beneath the moss-covered lych-gate and made her jump. She recognised him as the smartly dressed stranger from the graveside.

He doffed his hat. “Mrs Elliott?”

Yes?”

My condolences on the loss of your husband.”

Thank you. I appreciate you coming today. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to be on my own.” Grace turned, but he grabbed her arm with the strength of a boxer. She winced. He released his grasp slightly, but held her fast.

What I have to say won’t take a moment.”

Grace felt her temper rise. “I don’t even know you. I’ve just buried my husband. Have a heart!”

He grinned. “A heart? An interesting choice of words. Hearts aren’t standard issue in my business, Mrs. Elliott. Information is.”

Her head snapped up. “Information? What sort of information?”

The kind you are about to provide.”

Grace gave an involuntary shudder. The impenetrable blackness of his eyes and the way his tongue darted at the end of his sentences made her think of snakes. She glanced over her shoulder. Olivia beckoned from the car, no doubt anxious to get back to help her husband Tom, the local vet, with afternoon surgery.

I have to go now. My friend is waiting.”

I realize that this is not the most suitable time to discuss matters, but I assure you this will only take a few minutes. Your late husband looked after my business interests.”

If you’re enquiring about your accounts, I suggest you talk to Shaun, Daniel’s partner. He’s in charge now.”

Perhaps I’m not making myself clear, Mrs. Elliott. This has nothing to do with your husband’s business.” His tongue darted again. “Daniel and I had a private arrangement. He had access to some very, shall we say, sensitive information. I just want to ensure that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.”

Frightened, Grace tried to pull away, but his fingers tightened. “Whoever you are, let me go.”

In a moment, Mrs. Elliott.”

You’re hurting me!”

The stranger’s lips twisted into a cynical smile. “That’s good, since it’s my intention.”

I’ll scream. Someone will come.”

We’re quite alone out here. If I wanted to, I assure you I could drop you where you stand.”

Grace ceased to breathe. She knew he was right. “What do you want from me? Who are you?”

Your husband kept files that are of great importance to me.”

All client files are stored at the office.”

The stranger shook his head. “Not paper files. Electronic files—computer disks.”

Whether the information you require is on paper or on a computer, I can assure you, I don’t have anything belonging to you.”

He smirked, never blinking, and then released her arm. “You’re telling the truth.”

Of course I am.”

It’s a good thing you are. I know when women are lying. You wouldn’t want to lie to me, Mrs. Elliott. Not ever. It wouldn’t bode well for you. Now I’ll let you go. You’ll be late for your appointment with your husband’s solicitor.”

How do you know that?” Her fingers tightened around the strap of her purse, until her nails dug into her palm.

It’s my business to know things. By the way, have you spoken to your sister lately?”

Grace’s head jerked up. “That’s none of your business.”

The man merely smiled. “No. Of course it’s not. I won’t keep you any longer, Mrs. Elliott. I’ll be in touch again soon.” He turned and limped away into the mist.

Sweat gathered along Grace’s spine as fear replaced grief. Her heart hammered beneath her ribs. “Wait! Please! Is Catherine in trouble? If you know anything at all about her, please tell me.”

He didn’t turn around. “Goodbye, Mrs. Elliott.”

She stared at his retreating back. Who was he? Someone violent enough to instil fear, that much was certain. And what did Catherine’s whereabouts have to do with the stranger’s computer disks? And how did this man know about her appointment with the solicitor? Was it a lucky guess?

She took a deep, unsteady breath, and hurried out of the churchyard toward the waiting car.

Who was that?” Olivia asked, as Grace slipped into the passenger seat.

One of Daniel’s clients.” Grace rubbed her arm absently. “I told him to speak to Shaun.” She twisted in her seat to look back at the wooden lych-gate, but the stranger had vanished.

Well, not to worry, my dear,” Olivia replied. She selected first gear and released the handbrake. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you to see the solicitor?”

Thanks for the offer, but no. I think this is something I should do on my own.”

Olivia sighed. “Then I’ll drop you off in town. But you need to know I don’t approve.”

I’ll be fine. Besides, didn’t you say one of the veterinary nurses is off with the flu?”

Rufus, Tom’s assistant, has come down with it too. Otherwise Tom would have come to the funeral. It’s very difficult to find a locum vet at short notice. And you know how agitated Tom gets if he has to cope with reception duties as well as his patients. But if you wanted me to stay, I daresay he could manage on his own for another hour or two. Can I change your mind?”

You and Tom have been marvellous. I don’t know what I would have done without your support. And thank you for letting me borrow a hat. I just hope the rain hasn’t ruined it.” She took it off and laid it on the rear seat.

Darling, think nothing of it. That’s what friends are for.”

Grace turned and smiled at the woman next to her. Olivia’s dark hair was cut into a sleek dark, chin length bob, and despite the sadness of the occasion, her blue eyes brimmed with happiness. Pregnancy suited her.

I have to get used to being on my own. Besides, you’ve the baby to think of. You should be sat at home with your feet up, not running around after me.”

Well, I must admit, I’m starting to feel tired. But if you would like me to stay until that wayward sister of yours contacts you, I can.”

Grace shook her head. “No, really, I’ll be fine.”

Ah, here we are.” Olivia pulled the car into a vacant parking space outside the chemist. “I’ll call you this evening, just to make sure you’re all right.”

Grace climbed out of the passenger seat. It was market day, and the small Cotswold town was crowded with Christmas shoppers. Grace felt anxious as she walked along the bustling High Street toward the solicitor’s office. She hated dealing with people in authority: Daniel had insisted on handling everything himself.

As she passed the shoe shop, Grace caught sight of her reflection in the window. She looked gaunt, much older than her thirty-two years. The jacket of the hastily purchased black woollen suit hung off her shoulders, making her appear anorexic. Her normally pink cheeks were pale, and there were dark circles under her deep blue eyes. Even her chestnut-colored hair lacked lustre. Perhaps she should have worn it loose instead of scraped back in a bun, which highlighted the hollows in her cheeks. She shrugged. It was too late to worry about her appearance now.

She took a deep breath, and pushed open the door of the solicitor’s office. The staccato of her heels echoed on the polished marble floor. She hardly noticed the d├ęcor as the exquisitely groomed receptionist showed her into the senior partner’s office where an old, bespectacled gentleman sat behind an enormous desk. He creaked to his feet when she entered the room.

Mrs. Elliott. Please take a seat. I’m sorry to drag you here, especially today of all days, but it’s best for all concerned if these matters are settled quickly. I hope you’ll accept my condolences on your husband’s untimely demise. It must have been a terrible shock for you.”

Yes, it was. Your letter came as a surprise. I hadn’t been aware that Daniel had made a will.” Grace’s hands twisted in her lap. “I didn’t think it was necessary as we purchased the house in joint names and have a joint bank account.” To her dismay, her voice cracked.

Mr. Elliott made his will quite recently. Of course, it simplifies matters from a legal point of view, but I am surprised he didn’t discuss it with you first. He leaves the bulk of his estate to you. Applegate Cottage, as you pointed out, is held in joint names so your husband’s share passes to you automatically. I am sure it will come as a relief to know there are ample funds from his life insurance to pay off the outstanding sum on the mortgage, so you needn’t worry about that. There is only one other legacy, to a Miss Catherine Peterson.”

Catherine? Daniel included my sister in his will? Do you know why?”

A will is a very personal thing, Mrs. Elliott, as I’m sure you appreciate. It is not my place to ask my clients the reason behind their decisions.”

No, no, of course not.” Grace bent her head and studied her hands as she absently listened to the solicitor. Anger and confusion surged through her. Why had Daniel felt it necessary to make a will? And why had he made Catherine a beneficiary?

“—Probate should take four to six weeks to obtain and everything should be finalised within six months. I’ve already spoken to your bank and arranged to transfer your husband’s savings account into your name. You’ll need to make an appointment to see the manager and sign some papers, but it’s all very straightforward. With regard to the beach house in Florida, I’m afraid your attorney in America will have to handle the transfer into your name.”

Grace’s head jerked up. “Excuse me? A house in Florida? An attorney in America? I don’t understand. We don’t own any property overseas.”

The solicitor examined the papers in front of him. “Actually, you do, Mrs. Elliott.” He took off his reading glasses and smiled at her benevolently. “I can assure you there’s no mistake. Your husband purchased the beach house on Gasparilla Island some months ago. I have a copy of the purchase contract here in the file. As I mentioned, Mr. Parous, your American attorney, will be able to handle the transfer into your name. Now, is there anything else you’d like to ask me?”

Mr. Parous?”

Yes, that’s right.” He handed Grace a business card. “I’ve already spoken to him and faxed him a copy of the will. He sounds like a very competent chap. I’m sure he’ll deal with the legalities in a prompt and professional manner.”

Grace glanced at it. Zachary Parous, Esquire, Attorney at Law. Beneath the neatly typed name were a telephone number and an address in Miami. She sat dumbfounded. Why hadn’t Daniel told her that he’d purchased a house in Florida?

Her mind refused to accept what she’d been told. She was about to ask how Daniel could afford a second home when the solicitor pushed a pile of papers across the desk.

If you’d just sign these, Mrs. Elliott, I can get started. Mrs. Elliott?”

I’m sorry? My signature? Yes, of course.” She signed every sheet without reading it. Daniel always told her what she was signing. Daniel—

It was dark when Grace left the solicitor’s office. Numbness had finally set in. She moved without thinking, without emotion as if she were one of the stick figures at a theme park—flagging down a taxi and giving the driver her address.

Flicking on the hall light in her home, the home she and Daniel had shared and loved, the pain returned in a torrent. She dropped her purse on the table, and went straight to the study. Daniel’s study, the one room in the house she never entered, not even to dust.

Grace rested her hand on the door knob, and half expected to hear his deep-timbered voice reminding her not to enter. She’d ignored his warning only once, the ensuing argument had left her reeling. Ever since then she’d respected his wishes. All of them.

But Daniel was no longer here to wish for anything.

She pushed open the door and stepped inside. The air smelt stale. She told herself that the lingering aroma of pipe tobacco was permanently embedded in the furniture, but her feelings told her otherwise—that he was here, alive somehow, yet invisible to her. She fumbled with the catch on the window and threw it open, impervious to the frigid air that flooded the room. An old leather chair, which had once belonged to Daniel’s father, stood next to the soot-stained limestone fireplace where ashes of a half-burned log lay in the grate. A large oak desk, its surface covered with a faint film of dust, filled the bay window. The date on the desk calendar showed the seventeenth of November, the day Daniel had left for the conference. She tore off the pages without bothering to read the proverb printed underneath, and threw them into the wastepaper basket.

Daniel’s face, and that of her own, smiled back at her from a small silver framed photograph on the corner of the desk. She picked it up and wiped the dust from the surface with her fingertips.

What other secrets have you kept from me?”

Daniel’s brown, unfathomable eyes seemed to stare everywhere but at her. With a heavy heart she replaced the photograph on the desk. She collapsed into the chair and rested her aching head in her hands. Their marriage hadn’t been perfect; they’d had their fair share of ups and downs like every other couple, but she’d never thought of Daniel as being secretive. Yet the last few hours had proved that he was just that.

She leaned back and rubbed her temples. Nothing the solicitor had told her made any sense. They weren’t rich. Their joint checking account, which last time she’d looked, held less than two thousand pounds. When they’d purchased Applegate Cottage four years ago, they’d put down the minimum ten percent deposit and borrowed the rest from the bank. So where had the money come from to purchase a house in America? And more importantly, why hadn’t Daniel told her about it?

The desk held seven drawers; three in each pedestal and one in the center. Her fingers hovered over the small brass handle of the center drawer. Feeling like an intruder, she pulled it open. It was empty. One by one she opened the remaining drawers. Apart from an assortment of envelopes, a few credit card receipts, a letter opener shaped like a dagger, and some spare batteries for the hand-held dictating machine Daniel occasionally used, she found nothing connected to the beach house.

Daniel’s briefcase, which the police had found in his car, and the personal items from his office, sat in a box next to the door. She slipped out of the chair, picked it up, and placed it on the desk. Item by item she removed the contents: a desk diary, a box of post-it-notes, a calculator, and a framed photograph of her and Catherine. The desk diary she put to one side, replaced everything else, and then put the box on the floor.

She’d given Daniel the Raffaello briefcase for his thirtieth birthday. It had cost two weeks housekeeping money, but it had been worth it to see the smile on his face when he opened the box. She ran her fingers over the now scuffed and torn calfskin.

Grace pressed the locks to open the case, but nothing happened. She dug the fingertips of her right hand into the frame and tugged at the handle. The catch on one side gave, and she realized that the force of the impact had warped the frame. With great care she eased the blade of the letter opener into the lock on the opposite side and twisted sharply. There was a loud click and the case popped open. Inside lay Daniel’s Mac Book and a number of manila folders. One by one, she went through the internal compartments, but found nothing else of interest.

Part of the silk lining had come away from the frame. When Grace ran her fingers along the edge she felt something underneath. She pulled back the fabric and found an envelope taped to the bottom of the case. She tore it free and turned it over in her hand.

Why go to so much trouble to hide something as innocuous as an envelope? She slipped her fingernail under the flap and opened it. A passport and a tiny piece of paper fluttered on to the blotter. A series of numbers, written in Daniel’s unmistakeable scrawl, covered the surface. Perplexed, she counted the digits. Twenty-four. Daniel was fascinated by numbers and frequently designed puzzles as a way of relaxing. Were these something he was working on, or the combination to the safe at the office?

The latter seemed the most likely explanation, yet Daniel had an eidetic memory. There was never a need for him to write anything down.

Grace opened the passport at the photograph on the back page. Daniel’s face stared up at her. Only the name in the passport wasn’t his, but that of Lionel Lattide.

A flicker of apprehension coursed through her. She tried to catch her breath, but couldn’t get air. The more she struggled to control her breathing, the more terrified she became. Beads of perspiration dotted her forehead. She willed herself to relax, just as the doctor had told her to, but it was impossible.

She staggered into the kitchen. Her medication lay on the shelf next to the fridge. Standing on tiptoe, she reached for the bottle, but her hands shook so much it slipped from her grasp, the contents spilling out along the shelf and onto the floor.

She could get through this, she told herself. It was only a panic attack—she wasn’t about to die. It wasn’t real. Crying with frustration, her fingers trailed along the floor until she finally pinched a wayward pill between her thumb and forefinger. She popped it in her mouth, and washed it down with a glass of water from the tap.

Leaning against the sink for support, she forced herself to breathe deeply—in, out, in, out. The pill started to do its work, and the room began to steady itself. As her heartbeat slowly returned to normal, she tried to ignore the questioning voice in her mind, but couldn’t. She pressed her hands over her eyes in an attempt to blot out her fears.

What have you been up to, Daniel, that you needed a second passport?

She took another sip of water. The passport lay on the drainer next to her hand. With trembling fingers, she opened it and turned to the visa section.

It was stamped.

She froze. Her mind and body benumbed.

She peered at the faint impression and could just make out the words ‘Department of Homeland Security’. America! She turned to another page, and found that too, had been stamped. During the last six months alone, Daniel or whoever he was, had travelled to the United States on five occasions.

Why?

She wrenched the calendar off the wall, and compared it to the passport. Every entry visa coincided with a date when Daniel had been away on business.

Waves of panic and nausea overwhelmed her, and she sank to her knees and sobbed. The man to whom she had trusted her heart had lied to her. Not once, not twice, but least four times.

Pain yielded to anger.

Who was her husband?

It seemed that the only way to find out was to fly to Miami and meet with the attorney, Zachary Parous.

It sounded so easy when she said it quickly. But the thought of such a journey aroused old fears and anxieties. She wasn’t a traveller—and certainly not alone. What if she had a panic attack mid-Atlantic? Who would help her? And then there was the small problem of getting from Miami to some place called Gasparilla Island and locating the mysterious beach house. How hard would it be to find? Would she be safe?

She’d heard such things about Florida, stories of gangs, drug lords, and even worse. She snatched up the phone before she could change her mind and booked a seat on the nine-thirty flight to Miami the following morning.

Then there was only one call left to make.