Drex stepped out of the shower and reached for his ringing cell phone, which he’d balanced on the rim of the sink. He looked to see who was calling, then clicked on. “Hey.”
“How are you faring?” Mike asked.
“Right now, good. I’m standing naked and wet under a ceiling fan.”
“The fan squeaks, but this is the coolest I’ve been since I got here. Why didn’t you tell me this apartment wasn’t air-conditioned?”
“You didn’t ask.”
Once it had been decided among the three of them that Jasper Ford warranted further investigation, Drex flew to Charleston. He wasted no time in driving to Mount Pleasant and locating the Fords’ home.
Google Earth hadn’t done it justice. The two-story house was built of brick, painted white. Classically southern in design, a deep front porch ran the width of the façade, twin columns framing a glossy black front door with a brass knocker in the shape of a pineapple. The house was surrounded by a sprawling lawn and shaded by decades-old trees.
The residence looked lived in. Blooming flowers in all the beds. Thriving ferns on the porches. An American flag hanging from the eaves. Newspaper and mail delivery.
By contrast, the house next door looked less tended, and for the three nights Drex surveilled it, lights came on at the same time, went off at the same time. Timed to do so. No flowers, ferns, or mail.
He returned to Lexington, briefed Mike and Gif, and instructed Mike to find out who owned the property neighboring the Fords’, which appeared to be a second home or otherwise infrequently occupied.
Mike did his due diligence, got a name and contact info off tax records.
Then Drex did his thing. He made a cold call to Mr. Arnott, who, with his wife, resided most of the year in Pennsylvania, but, upon retirement, had purchased the place in South Carolina to escape the cold and snow.
Drex, laying it on thick, told him of his situation, which was a complete fabrication. Then he got down to the heart of the matter. He was seeking temporary lodging in or near Charleston. During a scouting expedition to see what might be available, he’d crossed the Cooper River into Mount Pleasant, and as he was driving around getting the lay of the land, so to speak, he’d spotted the garage apartment. It was ideal: Secluded. Quiet. A “cabin in the woods,” within the confines of a scenic and safe neighborhood.
The apartment would provide all the space he required. He would live there alone, no pets. He was a nonsmoker. And, in the bargain, he would keep an eye on the main house.
“Honestly, Mr. Arnott, if I’d been a burglar, I’d have chosen your house to break into. It’s obvious that you’re an absentee owner.”
When Arnott hedged, Drex was tempted to play his FBI card. He didn’t, fearing it would be tipped to Jasper Ford that he had a fed moving in next door to him. Instead he provided Arnott several fictitious references, all written by Gif, whom Arnott actually called to confirm his high recommendation. Mike also got a call to verify the reference letter signed by him. Between them, they convinced Mr. Arnott that Drex Easton was a man of sound mind, good character, and everything he claimed to be.
Arnott agreed to lease him the apartment for the requested three months, although Drex would be there for only two weeks—his allotted vacation time. Only Mike and Gif would know how his time away was being utilized. Until he had a major breakthrough, he was keeping everyone else in the dark.
Besides, asking Arnott for a three-month lease lent credibility to his story and made him seem like a stabler, more responsible tenant. He paid the full amount of rent up front.
“Besides no AC, how is it?” Mike asked now. “Are you moved in?”
From the open bathroom door, Drex could see practically the entire apartment, and virtually every square inch of it was empty, as had been most of the boxes he’d carted up the stairs for the benefit of his audience next door. The apartment had come furnished, though sparsely. He’d brought only the essentials needed to keep himself clothed and groomed. He’d brought a coffeemaker, but he hadn’t lied about a steady diet of fast food.
“All settled in,” he told Mike. “My laptop is on the kitchen table. My pistol is between the mattress and box spring.”
“In other words, it’s the same as your place here,” Mike said. “And you’ve lived here for how long?”
“Is there a reason for this call? If so, get to it. Because I don’t want to be late for my date.”
“In two days’ time you’ve already lined up a girl?” Mike said. “When you said ‘fully cocked,’ you really meant it? I’ll have to check my charts, but I think this might be a record.”
“There’s no girl, and cut the bullshit. Is Gif with you? Put me on speaker.” When Drex could tell that Mike had switched over, he said, “Jasper Ford invited me over for dinner tonight.”
After a second or two of stunned silence, Mike and Gif exclaimed their surprise.
“Here I have my high-powered binocs focused, all set up to spy on him, and he comes over today with a cold beer and a handshake, welcoming me to the neighborhood. I’m glad he made the first move. That saved me from having to devise a way to put me in his path and make his acquaintance.”
He gave them a run-down of their conversation. “It was casual, friendly, but definitely an appraisal. When he saw me moving in, he called Arnott to check me out.”
“Paranoid, you think?” Gif asked.
“Or just a watchful property owner, cautious of strangers,” Mike said. “Anybody in that kind of neighborhood would be.”
“It could be either,” Drex said. “I should have a better feel for him after our dinner.”
“What about the missus?” Mike asked.…although Drex had spotted Jasper coming and going over the past two days, he hadn’t seen any sign of his wife. “He told me that she’s been out of town, which I hope is the truth and that she’s still alive.”
It had been a worry to them that, although Drex had spotted Jasper coming and going over the past two days, he hadn’t seen any sign of his wife. “He told me that she’s been out of town, which I hope is the truth and that she’s still alive. While we were talking, he did receive a text ostensibly from her.” He told them about the delayed flight.
“Why Chicago?” Gif asked.
“He didn’t say. But he did say that her being delayed happens a lot, indicating that she flies often.”
“Makes sense,” Mike said. “She was in the travel business.” “Yes, was,” Drex said. Mike had discovered that the sale of Shafer Travel, Inc., had been the source of Mrs. Ford’s mega bucks. “Question is, why is she still frequently on the go?”
When no answer was forthcoming, Drex said, “I’ll feel better when I can confirm she’s still with us. Maybe I’ll get a lot of questions answered tonight. Speaking of . . . ” He glanced out the window. The sun was sinking. “I’ve got to go now, get dressed, make a run to the liquor store.”
“It wouldn’t be neighborly to show up for dinner empty-handed.”
As he signed off, he was thinking how neighborly it had been of Jasper to bring him a beer and then offer to toss the bottle for him.
However, wouldn’t it have been more neighborly to let Drex finish drinking the beer? But no, Jasper Ford had wanted that bottle back.
“White for the crab cakes. Red for the steaks.” Drex held up the bottles of wine in turn as he approached the screened porch where Jasper was sitting in a rocking chair beneath a twirling ceiling fan.
He got up and held open the screen door. “You didn’t have to do that, but thank you.” He took the bottles from Drex. “How about a drink first?”
“What are you having?” Drex motioned toward the highball glass on the wicker table next to the rocking chair.
“Bourbon on the rocks.”
Drex grinned. “Perfect.”
“Have a seat.” Jasper put the white wine in the mini fridge beneath the built-in bar and poured Drex’s drink. As he handed it to him, he said, “You do clean up okay.”
Drex raised his glass in a quasi toast. “I try.” He’d shaved, but had left a scruff. He’d worn casual slacks and a button-up shirt, the shirttail out. Docksiders, no socks.
Jasper resumed his seat in the rocker and sipped from his drink. “So, you’re a writer.”
Drex pretended to strangle on his sip of whiskey and looked at his host with surprise.
“Your literary agent was one of the references you gave Arnott.”
“Oh! For a second there, I thought you were a mind-reader.” Looking abashed, he said, “I’m trying to be a writer. Can’t claim the title yet. I haven’t published.”
“Your agent told Arnott that you had real potential.”
He waved that off. “All agents say that about their clients.” “She must believe it or she wouldn’t be representing you.”
“My agent is a he.”
“Oh. My mistake.”
My ass, Drex thought. That had been a test. “Are you writing full-time?”
“Lately I have been.”
“How do you support yourself ?”
“Frugally.” Jasper gave the expected laugh. Drex said, “My dad died a couple of years ago and left me a small inheritance. Nothing to boast about, but it’s keeping a roof over my head while I work on the book.”
“Fiction or non?”
“Fiction. Civil War novel.”
Jasper raised his eyebrows, encouraging him to continue. “I don’t want to bore you,” Drex said.
“I’m not bored.”
“Well,” Drex said, taking a deep breath, “the protagonist takes a sort of Forrest Gump journey through the conflict, from Bull Run to Appomattox. He grapples with divided loyalties, his moral compass, mortal fear during battle. That kind of thing.”
Drex smiled as though he realized that was a platitude, but appreciated it all the same. “My agent likes the story, and said my research was factually sound. But he felt the narrative lacked color. It needed more heart, he said. Soul.”
“So you came down here to get color, heart, and soul.”
“I hope to soak up some while working on the second draft. And,” he said, stretching out both his legs and the word, “I needed to get away from the distractions of the everyday grind.”
“Like a wife?”
“You sound bitter. What happened?”
“She accused me of cheating.”
Drex looked at him and cocked an eyebrow, but didn’t answer. Instead he sipped his bourbon. It was a smooth, expensive one. “The divorce cost me dear and taught me a hard lesson.”
“You’ll never cheat again.”
“I’ll never marry again.”
“Ah, never say never,” Jasper said, shaking his index finger at him. “After the loss of my first wife, I grieved for her and stayed single for a long time. Thirty years, in fact.”
“Man, that’s loyalty. How’d she die?”
Looking Drex straight in the eye, he said, “In pain.” He held the stare for a beat, then finished his bourbon in one shot, stood, and headed for the kitchen. “How do you like your steak?”
The medium rare rib eye had been seasoned and grilled to perfection. Jasper apologized for serving the meal in the casual dining room, rather than the more formal one, but the table was set a lot fancier than Drex was used to, and he confessed as much.
While they ate, Drex probed his host for more personal information, but in a manner he hoped would seem natural. “This house is really something.”
“You hire a professional decorator?”
“Only to consult. Talia knew what she wanted.”
“Talia? That’s your wife’s name? Pretty.” He glanced around. “She has good taste.”
“She has great taste.”
Jasper only smiled at that, but didn’t respond.
Drex took a sip of the Cabernet he’d brought, blotted his mouth, and then picked up his utensils and cut into his steak again. “You seem to do all right,” he said, applying his knife to the meat. “What’s your line of work?”
“I work at enjoying the fruits of my labors.”
Drex stopped chewing and looked across at Jasper to gauge whether or not he was joking. Jasper’s expression didn’t change. He didn’t even blink. Drex swallowed and laughed out loud. “Lucky you. You retired early?”
“Several years ago.”
“From what? Must’ve been a healthy business.”
“I created some software that proved to be lucrative.”
Or did you accumulate a fortune by rooking women out of theirs?
That’s what Drex was thinking when Jasper smiled at him congenially and said, “I have lemon sorbet for dessert.”
Drex declined the sorbet. And since it was obvious that Jasper didn’t want to elaborate on his former field of endeavor, Drex let the subject drop. He also declined to have coffee, not wanting to outstay his welcome.
Although he offered to help with the cleanup, Jasper refused.
As Drex was about to leave, he mentioned that the apartment didn’t have air-conditioning. Jasper insisted on lending him a box fan. He fetched it from his garage and told Drex to keep it for as long as he needed it.
“Thanks. Thanks for everything.” Drex extended his hand.
As they shook, Jasper said, “Talia texted that she should be home by midnight. We’re taking a boat out tomorrow after- noon. Not too far offshore. Just puttering around. Why don’t you join us?”
Drex was anxious to meet his wife, gauge her, but didn’t want to appear too eager. “Nice of you to offer, but it’s been days since I looked at my manuscript. The move-in and all. I really should work tomorrow.”
“You can’t take off a Sunday? I’m sure the Lord would understand.”
Drex pretended to have been persuaded. Jasper gave him the name of the marina and the number of the slip. “Meet us there around noon. We’ll go ahead and get things ready. Come hungry. We’ll have a picnic lunch on board.”
“Sounds great.” Drex thanked him again for the evening and carried the box fan across the lawn and up the stairs.
He began undressing by reaching under his loose shirttail and removing the holster from his waistband at the small of his back. Call him a cynic, but surf and turf had seemed a little over the top for a first visit even if the meal hadn’t originally been prepared with him in mind.
Fifteen minutes later, he was stripped down to his underwear, the fan was on high, all the lights were off, and he was at the window watching through binoculars as Jasper went about cleaning up. When he was done, he locked the doors and turned out the lights. A few moments later an upstairs light came on. Minutes after, that light was also extinguished.
He hadn’t waited up for his wife. Talia.
Drex repositioned the fan so it would be blowing across the bed. He lay down on his back and stacked his hands on his chest. But, tired as he was, he was still awake when he heard a car. He returned to the window that offered the most advantageous view of the Fords’ house.
Turning into the driveway was a late-model BMW sedan. Drex checked his wristwatch. Mrs. Ford had overshot her ETA by twenty-seven minutes. She must have opened the garage door with a remote. She drove in, and the door went down.
Drex never distinguished more of her than a shadowy form, but by the lights being turned on, then off, he tracked her progress through the house. The last light to go out was behind a shade in a small upstairs window. He presumed it was a bathroom. Drex stayed at the window for several minutes more, but the house remained dark.
He returned to bed but lay awake, his mind troubled with thoughts of Talia Ford, lying beside her husband. When she got into bed with him, had she whispered good night, kissed his cheek, snuggled against him, reached for him and initiated lovemaking? The thought of it made Drex ill.
At least she was alive. But for how long? Because if Jasper was the man Drex suspected him of being, his wife’s days were numbered. If Jasper Ford was the man Drex had first come to know by the name of Weston Graham, then this woman would be the next of many whom Jasper had befriended, wooed, and robbed of millions before they disappeared without a trace. Drex was convinced that he had disposed of those women.
How’d she die? In pain.
The words, Jasper’s implacable doll-like stare when he spoke them, had made the hair on the back of Drex’s neck stand on end. In that moment, it had felt as though Jasper was baiting him.
Drex hadn’t taken the bait, but he’d wanted to.
He had wanted to lunge across the short distance separating them, grab the man—the good cook, the perfect host, the friendly neighbor—by the throat, and demand to know if he was the psychopathic cocksucker who had killed his mother.
The vessel moored in the designated slip wasn’t just a boat, but a yacht. It wasn’t the largest in the marina, but it held its own among them, being impressively sleek and shiny. Drex felt like he should be wearing white pants and a blue blazer, maybe with a jaunty pocket handkerchief, and have a hat with gold braid and a shiny black brim.
Instead, he was in khaki shorts, a chambray shirt, and baseball cap.
Jasper waved to him from the aft deck. The woman beside him called down, “Ahoy, Drex. You’re just in time for Champagne.” She hefted a magnum by the neck.
He gave her his best smile and started up the ramp. “I’d settle for a beer.”
“We have that, too.”
A decade younger than her husband, she was very pretty in the soft and—what was the word Gif had used? Naïve? She had that dash of girlish naïveté that a con man would target. Her hair was blond, short, and artfully tousled. She was dressed in white capri pants and a bright pink sleeveless top with a scooped neckline that showed off a deep cleavage. The best that money could buy, Drex guessed.
As he joined them on deck, he and Jasper shook hands. “Have trouble finding us?”
“None at all.” He took in the yacht, then divided a look between Jasper and his wife, landing on Jasper. “You’re a lucky bastard. This is some beauty you have here.” Then he leaned in, adding, “The boat’s not bad looking, either.”
All three of them laughed. Mrs. Ford flattened a hand against the swell of her breasts, the diamonds on her fingers flashing rainbows in the sunlight. “Why, thank you. Jasper warned me that you were a charmer. I’m so glad you joined us today, even though I understand we’re dragging you away from your work.”
“Thank you for the invitation, and it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me here. A writer looks for any excuse not to write.”
“I would be completely daunted by the prospect of writing a book,” she said.
“I’m completely daunted by it, too, Talia. I’m sorry, is it okay if I call you Talia?”
She and Jasper looked surprised, then both began laughing. She said, “You could call me Talia if that was my name. I’m Elaine. Elaine Conner.”
Taken aback, Drex was about to stammer an apology when Jasper looked beyond him and smiled. “Here’s Talia.”
Drex did an about-face.
A woman dressed all in white was coming up the steps that led from the galley, a tray of canapés balanced on her right palm. Hearing her name, she tilted her head back and looked up through the hatch, straight at Drex.
His stomach dropped like an anchor, because, in that instant, he knew: I’m so fucked.