Killing Time by Linda Howard


  “No. I was checking a digital file.”

  “Won’t there be a record of that?”

  “If someone knows where to look, yes.”

  “Or they access your cell phone records. Look, I know you’re federal and have a lot more resources than we do here, but if someone’s out to kill you, then that means somehow Mr. Allen’s murder is connected to the Wichita homicide, that someone in your office is involved, and the best thing for you to do is disappear. Those other possibilities are small, and you can’t afford to play the odds.”

  “I can’t afford to walk away, either, not knowing who’s behind this.”

  “Meaning you’re going to stay here.” He said it as a fact, not a question.

  “Unless you run me out of town, yes.”

  “All right. Then I’ll see if I can find some way to make you hard to find while you’re here.”

  His easy acceptance of her decision took her slightly off balance, and gave her a funny feeling in the pit of her stomach. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Why are you being so accommodating? I know local law enforcement resents the FBI getting involved in their cases.”

  “Oh, it’s just the way I am,” he said, smiling. “I just love a good mystery.”

  6

  The SWAT team and deputies combed the tree line behind the Allen house and found where the shooter had likely stood, as evidenced by some scuffed-up leaves and a handy low branch on which to rest the rifle, but he himself was long gone. They had determined the angle by the simple means of sticking a pencil in the bullet hole in the house; since the bullet traveled in a straight line over a relatively short distance, the pencil would show the exact angle of impact and point toward where the shooter had been standing.

  Nikita stood where the shooter had stood, Knox Davis beside her, and studied the geometry of where she and Knox had both been standing. From this angle, Knox had been on the left and she’d been on the right, facing him. The bullet had passed slightly behind her, imbedding itself in the wall. If Knox had been the target, the shot had missed by several feet; assuming the shooter had any degree of competency with a rifle, the person had definitely been aiming at her.

  “Damn it,” she said mildly.

  His eyebrows lifted. “Damn it, what?”

  “I wish you’d been the target.”

  “Gee, thanks.”

  “You know what I mean. If someone shot at you, that’s fairly straightforward. You live around here. Maybe you got on someone’s bad side. Maybe whoever murdered Mr. Allen wanted to take out the investigator, too.”

  Instead, she had lost her last hope that her mission hadn’t been sabotaged. She was truly and completely alone, cut off from any help because she didn’t know whom she could trust. She couldn’t even return to headquarters, knowing what she knew and carrying a warning; she would likely be exterminated before she could pass on that crucial information.

  “I’ve been thinking about the situation,” he said, taking her arm and ushering her back toward the house. He used a light touch, so that she’d taken several steps before she realized what he was doing. She hadn’t been quite ready to leave the site—in fact, she’d been hoping for a moment of relative privacy so she could scan the area for any telltale DNA left behind—but now she couldn’t dig in her heels without raising his interest, which meant she wouldn’t get that moment of privacy she needed.

  He was good, she realized. That low-key approach took people off guard. She might not have been wise to him even now if she hadn’t seen the steel in his eyes when he had first found her snooping around “his” crime scene, or been pinned to the wall by his arm to prevent her from taking action on her own. She needed him, but she had to be on her toes around him, too.

  “Are you listening?” he asked with faint irritation.

  “To what? You haven’t said a word since the ‘thinking about the situation’ announcement.”

  “You looked like you were off in the ether somewhere,” he explained.

  He thought she looked sedated? She understood the gist of what he was saying, though, so she merely replied, “I was thinking.”

  “Can you think and listen at the same time?”

  “Sure. Women are multitasking miracles of nature.”

  He chuckled as he steered her around a fallen log that she could easily have stepped over. She’d read that southern men were relatively protective, so she accepted the unnecessary aid.

  “You can stay at my house,” he said, and held up a hand when she opened her mouth to immediately refuse. “Hear me out. I’ll move into Starling’s bed-and-breakfast, tell people that the house has to be rewired or something. None of the neighbors will check, or even think twice at seeing a light on there because I usually park in the garage. I’m not there much, anyway, so it’s no big deal to me—”

  “Except for the financial cost.” How was she supposed to deal with this? She couldn’t repay him, in fact didn’t know if she’d be able to access any funds at all. The cash she had with her might have to do.

  He waved a negligent hand. “Don’t worry about that. You can pay me back later.”

  The offer, though outwardly kind, disturbed her. Why would he offer her his home when they’d just met, under less-than-perfect conditions? It wasn’t as if they were friends. Moreover, in her experience, those in law enforcement were far more cynical and suspicious than the average citizen.

  The answer knotted her stomach. He was suspicious—of her. He wanted her where he could keep an eye on her while he checked her out; he might even have already made a call to start the process.

  Casually, she pulled her arm out of his grasp while she stepped around a tree; then she waited for him and fell back into step. Her willingness to walk beside him would keep him from being suspicious of the little maneuver, but now her arm was free if she needed to take drastic action.

  She thought furiously, trying to decide on the best approach to deal with him. He was crucial to her mission; her plan all along had been to approach the head of the local investigation, but the way he’d found her snooping around had started her off on the wrong foot and even getting shot at hadn’t completely convinced him that she was one of the good guys.

  “I don’t know what to do,” she finally confessed. “I’m . . . well, this is my first assignment, and the way things are going so far, I’ll probably be working at a reception desk for the rest of my career if I mess up.”

  The expression in his eyes, instead of softening, cooled instead. “A rookie was given an assignment like this?”

  “Legwork,” she said, staring straight ahead. “No one thought I’d stumble into anything.”

  “Then why send you here? Even more, why try to kill you, because that sure let the cat out of the bag?”

  Cat? Rapidly she considered the context of his statement and decided on the most likely meaning. “I don’t know,” she finally said. “I can’t make sense of it. I’ve just been doing basic investigation, gathering rough data and sending it to Quantico for the brains to assemble.” That, at least, was the truth—as far as it went.

  “You saw something, questioned someone, and uncovered a crucial piece of the puzzle.”

  “I can’t think what, and certainly nothing that the local investigators hadn’t initially uncovered.” She shook her head, then said, “Going back to the original subject, I’d feel very uncomfortable staying in your house—”

  “Even if I’m not there?”

  “Even if,” she said firmly. “It’s such an imposition—”

  “Not to me. Like I said, I’m not there much. I work long hours, and the house is mainly just a place to crash for a few hours’ sleep.”

  “You’re not married?”

  “No.” An expression flitted across his face, so fast she couldn’t read it. “The other investigators are, though, so I let them have as much time at home as I can.”

  That was nice of him, she thought. Overall, he seemed like a very nice guy. Suspicious, but nice.

&n
bsp; They reached the house and she halted, looking around at the pretty home and the nicely landscaped lawn. The trees were in full leaf, and colorful flowers grew in neat beds. There were some places on earth where murder seemed to fit in, as if it were some basic part of the surroundings, but not here.

  “Has the bullet been recovered?” she asked, indicating the hole in the house. “It’ll be interesting to see if the ballistics match.”

  “Match what?” he asked.

  She knit her brows, giving him a puzzled glance. “With the one that killed Mr. Allen, of course.”

  “Oh, yeah, that one.”

  Proof positive that he didn’t trust her, Nikita thought. She knew Taylor Allen hadn’t been shot, but that little fact had been held back from the news item release. She’d given Knox Davis an opening wide enough to drive through, but he hadn’t told her about the spear.

  She was discouraged, the sun was high and hot, and she wanted shade. Returning to the front porch, she sat down in one of the white wicker chairs. The green-and-white-striped cushion cradled her, enveloping her in comfort. This was a house kept with care and pride, she thought as she took out her EN and began making more notes.

  “I assume Mrs. Allen has been investigated,” she said absently when her persistent shadow propped himself against the railing in front of her, his long legs crossed at the ankle.

  “Ironclad alibi. She was with friends. I’m still looking into the possibility that it was murder for hire.”

  “Big insurance policy?”

  “Big enough.”

  “Boyfriend?”

  “Not that I’ve been able to find.”

  She pursed her lips. “Girlfriend, maybe? His, not hers. Though hers would be a possibility, I guess.”

  “Again, nothing that I’ve found. They seemed to be happily married.”

  “Not so happily, if she had him killed.”

  “That’s just a string I’m tugging on, one of many. You just tied a bunch of them in knots, though.”

  “Not deliberately.” She tilted her head back and studied him, noting the calm intelligence in his lean face. Celtic heritage, she thought, remembering that this portion of the country had been heavily settled, pre-Revolution, by the Scots-Irish, and not diluted much in the two and a half centuries since. That lean, high-cheekboned, blade of a face was a look that could be seen in hundreds of carefully preserved old photographs.

  “Where are you from?” he asked abruptly. “I can’t place the accent.”

  And wouldn’t it be amazing if he could, she thought with amusement. “Florida, originally, but I went to college in Washington State, and I’ve worked in several different states.” Again, that was the truth, and in this case the complete truth.

  “That makes for quite a blend.”

  “It does,” she agreed. “And you?” He was the one who had asked the first personal question, so she felt free to come back with her own.

  “I’ve lived here since I was a kid. I was born in Lexington, but we moved here when my mother died.”

  “I’m sorry,” she said with instant sympathy. “That’s so hard on a child.”

  “Pretty tough. I was six.”

  “Did your father remarry?”

  “Not until I was grown and gone.”

  “Where did you go?”

  “To college, specifically, but the expression means I was old enough to leave home.” His tone was neutral, but his gaze bored into her.

  The colloquialisms were tripping her up, which was frustrating because the language was what she had studied most, enjoyed, and the area where she had felt most confident. McElroy had run into this, too, but his risk had been minimized because he hadn’t had any contact with the local law enforcement, trying instead to be as unobtrusive as possible. Maybe his had been the better idea, but it was too late for her to worry about that now.

  “Why don’t you follow me back to the office?” he asked. “We can go over the file on the Allen case.”

  Instinct warred with dedication. She suspected he wanted her close at hand until he heard back about the inquiry into her status that he was certain to make, if he hadn’t already done so, but at the same time she needed to see that file. She decided to take the risk, and trust that she’d be able to get herself out of any difficulty that might arise.

  “Sure,” she said. “Could we pick up something to eat on the way? I skipped breakfast this morning.”

  If she was FBI, Knox thought, he’d eat his badge.

  The clothes were right: conservative, not too costly. She’d handled her weapon in the approved manner, and she was quick and bright. Most cops might not like dealing with the feds, but overall the ones Knox had met were smart people. Assholes, some of them, but bright assholes.

  Maybe it was because she wasn’t uptight enough. She had an open, friendly face and an easy smile, one that invited you to smile in return, and she was remarkably relaxed on procedure. No fed he’d ever known was very relaxed about anything.

  Then there was the communication thing. A few times he’d felt as if they were talking about different subjects completely, but then he’d noticed that where things went astray was when he used slang or idioms, and she would take him literally. Every section of the country had its own version of dialect, but “white hat” wasn’t particular to the south. It was almost as if she weren’t even American, but someone who had intensely studied standard English as a second language. This last possibility was what made his inner alarm jangle.

  She could be from anywhere; there was no one ethnic look that he could say applied to her. She had glossy, dark brown hair that grew in a widow’s peak from her forehead, big brown eyes, a wide, soft mouth, and even white teeth that definitely looked American. Braces, fluoride, nutrition, and regular visits to the dentist produced teeth like that. She wore very subtle makeup, and highlighted streaks fell on each side of the slightly off-center part in her hair.

  She wasn’t Middle Eastern, he thought, or Slavic. There was a warm tone to her skin and maybe she could be of Italian descent, or Spanish, but she was on the tall side for that heritage.

  What it came down to was, he couldn’t pin down anything about her, and that made him uneasy.

  She sat across his desk from him, her chair pulled up close so she could use the desk for a table. He noticed that she seemed a bit hesitant when she first bit into her hamburger, as if she wasn’t certain of the taste. Then she chewed more enthusiastically, but it wasn’t until he picked up one of his fries and swirled it in the gob of ketchup that he’d squirted onto the spread-out hamburger wrapper that she did the same, copying his movements.

  She’s never eaten a burger and fries before. The thought sounded in his head with the certainty of a pronouncement. He tried to think of a place on earth, other than undeveloped nations, where McDonald’s hadn’t established an outpost or two. How could she not have eaten a hamburger, unless she’d been raised as a strict vegan and had only yesterday fallen off the turnip wagon, so to speak?

  “Where did you say you’re from?”

  “Florida. Sarasota.” She selected another fry and swabbed it in ketchup, then popped it into her mouth. Picking up her cup and guiding the straw to her mouth, she sucked up a big swallow of Coke—the sugared stuff, not the diet version drunk by almost every woman he knew. “Mmm, this is good,” she purred.

  While she ate, she was looking around his crowded little office as if it were a museum, and she was fascinated by the contents. He wondered what interested her the most: the piles of paperwork, the scarred and battered desk, his squeaky chair, or maybe the streaks on the window?

  His phone rang and he picked it up. “Davis. Yeah.” He tucked the receiver between his shoulder and jaw, pushing his chair backward so he could reach a file drawer and pull it open. He found a file and pulled it out. “Got it.”

  Agent Stover—or whoever she was—occupied herself while he was talking by getting up and wandering around the office. She couldn’t wander far, a few steps
in each direction, but she lightly touched objects with one fingertip, then moved on to another. He watched her bestow that gentle touch on his stained, ten-year-old Mr. Coffee, then move on to a clipboard of Wanted posters.

  She was in good shape, he thought, but then she would be if she was a newly minted agent, fresh out of the academy. He eyed the shape of her ass, outlined by her pants, then felt like a jerk and looked away. A second later he decided to be a jerk and looked again; after all, it was a nice ass.

  A voice squawked in his ear and he forced his attention back to the file he was reading, but he remained sharply aware of where she was and what she was doing. As small as his office was, that wasn’t difficult.

  She returned to his desk to retrieve her Coke. He watched her lips close around the plastic straw, an act that abruptly struck him as so rawly carnal he had to look away. Okay, so he was a horny jerk. Having a physical reaction to a woman he suspected of impersonating an FBI agent was unprofessional as hell, and he didn’t like it.

  Finally he finished his conversation and hung up the phone, then returned the file to the filing cabinet. Leaning back in his chair, he said easily, “Why don’t you tell me where you’re really from.”

  To his surprise, she gave him a crooked smile. “I knew you didn’t believe me. I really am an FBI agent.” Lifting the flap of her purse, she removed her shield and handed it over to him, then did the same with her ID card. “A genuine, authentic agent of the federal government. I suppose you’ve already put in a request for verification; am I supposed to stay here until you get it?”

  “If you don’t mind,” he said, all politeness as he examined the shield and card. They looked real, but a good forger could do some amazing stuff. He had to be careful here; if she really was a federal agent, then he didn’t want to make the mistake of disarming her and taking her into custody, which would cause all sorts of shit to come down on his head. On the other hand, he couldn’t give her an automatic pass; he had to check her out, or he was a piss-poor cop. Finally he gave the shield and card back to her and she returned both items to their designated places.

 
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