On the run from a troubled past, Kate Weller, the newest member of Price Investigations, covers her tracks, changes her name and takes a case in Charleston, South Carolina, where she can hide in plain sight.
Renting a charming room with a waterfront view, Kate sets about trying to locate her adopted client’s natural siblings, only to find more questions than answers when she eventually tracks down a long-lost sister. Meanwhile, her new landlord won’t stop sticking his nose into her case. As far as Kate’s concerned, Eric Manfredi should focus on whatever competitor is bent on ruining his family business. But when petty vandalism turns lethal, and Eric’s father is arrested for murder, Kate determines to prove his innocence. Can she find the real culprit before a killer from her own past tracks her down?
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It wouldn't have taken much to turn a lousy day into something left of atrocious. First, Kate Weller had argued with her landlord who was suddenly demanding a year-long lease instead of their current month-to-month agreement. Apparently, paying in full and on time can work against a person. The landlord wanted her to stick around forever. Next, the air-conditioning in her old Mustang quit working. Since a person couldn't run surveillance with the top down in a convertible, she was forced to endure an uncomfortable afternoon. Finally, she had to watch a landscaper toil for hours in the hot sun without showing the least bit of interest in his female co-worker. Kate yearned to tell his suspicious wife she was imagining things. But since her newfound career as a PI demanded finesse as well as endurance, she would resist insulting the client and be thankful she had a job, considering the gaps in her résumé.
Kate liked her job and the people she worked with. Beth Kirby, a fellow employee, was given the thankless job of training her during her probationary period. She liked her boss, Nate Price too, despite only meeting the man once. And as the agency's traveling PI, she loved knowing she would soon move on to a new case in a different town. Where no one knows my name, she thought, putting a new twist on an eighties sit-com jingle.
Considering how many times she got stuck in traffic, she should have found the answer to world peace, let alone mapped out her future. Because it was definitely time to move on. An occasional hang-up in the middle of the night might not cause concern. But when the same car parked outside her apartment four nights in a row, Kate knew her past had caught up with her.
It wasn't easy to hide in the twenty-first century.
Maybe if I learned how to cook, quilt, and sew my own clothes, then I could hide in an Amish community. Or maybe not.
After parking the Mustang behind the building, Kate climbed the steps to the second floor, turned the key in the lock, and pushed open the door. Silently, she stood listening ... for what? The cocking of a trigger? The slide of a semiautomatic chambering a bullet? Or maybe the deep breathing of a madman waiting for her to step across the threshold. Kate had no idea exactly who was after her or how deadly were their intentions. But if the past was a good indicator of the future, she didn't want to stick around to find out.
I should've taken Beth Kirby's advice and bought a gun. But tracking down deadbeat dads and making sure those claiming total disability weren't waterskiing on the weekend didn't require firepower. Certainly her current case – checking that a landscaper wasn't stepping out on his wife – required only patience and endurance. Besides, how would her new pastor react to a shoulder holster beneath her Sunday dress and cardigan?
Spotting her two battered suitcases gathering dust in the corner, Kate contemplated emptying her drawers into one and her closet into the other. Except for her toiletries, one picture album, and a folder of important papers – which didn't seem very important any more – she had nothing else to pack. But how could she turn tail and run? Nate had offered her the chance she desperately needed. He'd given her a career she loved and friends that could be trusted. Although her current case could be wrapped up with thirty minutes of paperwork, Kate was still on probation. Hopefully, her new assignment would be far away from these ancient, moss-covered oaks on town squares filled with fountains, locals reading newspapers, and tourists poring over maps. Savannah would be a nice place for Beth and her partner-turned-fiancé to settle down in. But Kate hoped for an assignment someplace obscure. If a place like that still existed.
When the phone rang on her way to the kitchen, she practically jumped out of her skin. Kate picked up on the second ring. 'Hey, Beth, I was just thinkin' about you.'
'Were you wondering why a perfectly sane woman marries a man she's known less than a year?'
'Nah,' Kate teased. 'No way are you sane, not even imperfectly.'
Beth snorted. 'That is the truth, girl. But what I want to know is what are you doing for supper?'
Kate opened the freezer and peered inside. 'Looks like Lean Cuisine chicken with cashews. You know, part of their Asian collection. I'll pair it with a glass of sweet tea and settle down for reruns of Masterpiece Theater.'
'As delightful as that sounds, why not drive to Tybee Island instead? My friend Evelyn is throwing an impromptu deck party for Michael and me. Just for a few friends and neighbors and you. She wants to meet the agency's newest hire.'
Beth's friend Evelyn Doyle was a well-heeled former client who'd already thrown Beth an engagement luncheon, an early bridal shower, a formal dinner party to honor the couple, and had given Beth a forty-thousand dollar car that had belonged to her late husband.
'Thanks, but I think I'll pass. I'm sweaty and tired. Please give my regrets to Michael and Mrs Doyle.'
'Absolutely not! Hose yourself off, put on a party dress, and climb into that fast Mustang. Evelyn has sold her Tybee beach house to a family from Beaufort. Movers arrive tomorrow to start packing her up. Don't miss your last chance to munch on catered food under the stars, surrounded by priceless artwork, as waves lap the shore in perfect rhythm to the reggae combo she hired for the night.'
'Oh, good grief. Is there no limit to that woman's entertaining budget?' Kate scrubbed her face with one hand. 'If you're not careful, you'll turn into a younger version of Mrs Doyle.'
Beth issued another burst of laughter. 'That would be fine with me. Too bad Michael's and my pockets aren't deep enough. Please say you'll come. I want to show off my protégé. I'm so proud of how quickly you learned the PI trade.'
Praise like that wasn't easy to ignore. 'OK, as long as you promise not to treat me like a trained poodle, I'll come. But I have no party dress and my fast Mustang only fires on three cylinders. Can I wear long shorts and a silk shirt?'
'Absolutely. Put on a studded dog collar and arrive any time after seven.' Beth recited an address she knew by heart and hung up.
Staring out at an alley lined with trash and recycle receptacles, Kate smiled. I'm going to a party. Just like a normal person in America. Tonight, she would eat steamed jumbo shrimp caught off the coast of Georgia and chargrilled oysters, along with salads and appetizers without a thought to the cost of the food. No burgers, hot dogs, and macaroni salad for this crowd. Maybe someday her life would be normal like Beth's and Evelyn's. Then she would throw a party for her friends and neighbors and not check over her shoulder one time. Even if it was only burgers and hot dogs.
Kate glanced at her watch and jumped in the shower. Within ninety minutes she had applied makeup to the best of her ability, ironed her blouse, and added curl to her straight hair. Then she assessed her appearance in the mirror: Medium height, medium weight, medium brown hair and eyes – average, in every way. Ordinary, just like hot dogs and macaroni salad. But maybe that would make it easier to disappear.
Kate climbed into her car, programmed her GPS with the address, and headed for the Island Expressway. At least the road could live up to its name since the earlier traffic snarls had combed themselves out. Rolling down the windows, she tuned the radio to a country station. Nothing like country music to get a person in the mood for a party. Either a guest could drown their sorrows at the bar, or in her case, at the dessert table.
With Savannah's city limits behind her and a salty sea breeze wafting through the open window, Kate relaxed for the first time that day. She felt confident she hadn't been followed from her gentrified, Forsythe Park neighborhood. There were only so many times you can check the rearview mirror. Perhaps the gorgeous pink and gold sunset had lulled her into a false sense of security, but Kate's anticipatory good mood didn't last long.
Just as she pulled into a turnout to send a message to her boss, Kate received a text from tonight's guest of honor: Where are you? You better get here before Michael finishes off the mini chicken kabobs. Just wait until you see the reggae drummer. If ever a man looked like your type ... Beth ended her message with a series of heart-shaped emojis.
Kate rolled her eyes and slipped the phone into her back pocket. Beth thought every single man was her type even though Kate couldn't describe her type if her life depended on it. In order to develop romantic discernment, a person needed to date more than a handful of times in five years.
Perhaps it was her concentration on her lack of romance that caused Kate to pull on to the pavement without thoroughly checking traffic. Luckily, she caused no crashes or near-misses, but a car was approaching at high speed. Stomping on the accelerator, Kate switched on her hazard lights in case the speeder hadn't seen her in the eastbound lane. A long string of oncoming headlights ruled out the other side as an escape route. Yet still the vehicle in her rearview mirror wasn't slowing down one iota.
When the vehicle was only a few yards from her bumper, Kate whispered a short prayer, jerked the wheel to the right, and pulled on to the narrow shoulder. Braking hard, she waited for the crazy driver to go around her. Maybe the idiot would shout a warning or offer a rude hand gesture as he sped by. But instead the driver also rammed on the brakes, squealing his tires to slow down. With the black van matching her speed, Kate couldn't pull back on to the highway. Was this some sort of lesson for her inattention?
Kate bumped along on the narrow ribbon of land with one wheel on the pavement, the other on gravel berm. Only inches separated her right tires from the steep drop-off to the marsh below. With her phone in her pocket, she couldn't very well call for help. Kate laid on the horn and flashed her angriest expression toward the van's tinted glass windows. But neither enticed the other driver to speed up or slow down. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, Kate had no time to argue with someone with a death wish. With the van exactly next to her, it took everything she had to keep her car from careening down the embankment into the bay. And tonight, she was in no mood for a swim.
Ahead, she saw a bridge overpass that would narrow the berm to almost nothing. Closer still was an access road to a fishing pier beneath the bridge, and according to a weather-beaten sign, a nameless road to a marina which may or may not still be in business. Growing up in Florida close to the Gulf, Kate knew both roads would be dead-ends. With daylight fading, neither would provide a getaway route from a road-raged driver out for blood.
Kate sucked in a breath and turned the wheel to the left to gain a firmer hold on the pavement. She came within a hair of the van's right fender. But instead of allowing her back on to the highway, the van driver yanked the wheel to the right and banged the Mustang's door. She rammed on the brakes as her right tire dropped over the embankment in a spray of gravel and dirt. Kate fought to maintain control, and by sheer grace, pulled the wheel back to the berm. The van sped past her, but as it did, Kate saw the passenger window lower. Simultaneously, she heard a blast of gunfire and felt an explosion of shattering glass hit the back of her head.
Any notions that this was simply road rage vanished as warm blood trickled down her neck and her left ear throbbed from the percussion. Her mouth went dry; her stomach tightened, and her vision clouded with tears, but the nightmare was far from over. Fifty feet ahead, the crazy driver rammed on his brakes and swung his vehicle across the right-hand lane. Kate had three choices: a head-on collision with oncoming traffic; the access road to the fishing pier or the dead-end to the marina. Some choice. But with a gun barrel protruding from the van's window, Kate accelerated and turned down the marina road in a squeal of tires.
It's funny what a person thinks about in a life-or-death situation. She imagined a speedboat waiting at the end of the dock to whisk her to safety. Perhaps she was remembering an old James Bond movie in which no harm ever comes to the good guys. But as Kate reached the end of the road she saw a steel boathouse, a small office building, and rows upon rows of slips filled with pleasure crafts. Directly in her path lay a concrete ramp where trailers could back up to load and unload boats.
But no speedboat to deliver her to Mrs Doyle's party on the beach.
Kate stopped at the ramp and threw her car into park. Luckily, the black van was nowhere in sight. Jumping out, she ran to the office, but it was locked with the shades drawn. Kate pounded on the door, but her efforts yielded only a flurry of seagulls from the roof. In fact there was no sign of human life in any direction she looked. With few options, Kate sprinted toward the expanse of tall grass behind the boathouse. Their waving, tasseled heads reminded her of pampas grass that grew behind her childhood home in Pensacola.
Too late she realized this wasn't a field of brush on terra firma, but acres and acres of sawgrass, whose appearance can deceive anyone who ventures forth without first testing the ground. Immediately, brackish water filled her brand new pair of shoes – the espadrilles with open toes and wedge heel she'd splurged on. When Kate tried lifting her right foot, she heard a horrible sucking sound as her foot pulled free from the shoe. Feeling both foolish and uncomfortable, she bent down to find her shoe just as a pair of headlights turned into the marina. Considering the number of cars she'd seen since leaving the highway, Kate had a good idea who it might be.
With little alternative, she crouched down in eight inches of dark water that smelled like rotting vegetation and dead fish. But at least she wouldn't drown in eight inches of tidal surge. With water soaking her shorts and the hem of her shirt, Kate peeked between the fronds of sawgrass. The black paneled van slowed and then stopped behind her Mustang. When the driver's door opened, a yellow circle of light shone on the pavement. But it closed just as quickly, giving her no chance to identify her adversary.
'Kathryn! Come out so we can chat.' A man's voice called over the marsh. 'I know you can hear me, Kathryn. Or Kate, or Katrina, or whatever you're calling yourself these days. Not very creative. I would have expected better from Liam's little sister.' A malicious laugh punctuated the criticism.
She hunkered down, no longer worried about the fetid smell or her party clothes or her new shoes. If she had to sink up to her nose to keep from meeting the man from the van she would.
Suddenly, a high-powered spotlight illuminated the perimeter of the parking lot and then scanned the marsh on her right. But this cornered animal had no inclination to bolt like a white-tailed deer or a frightened raccoon.
'This is your last chance to come out and talk,' he hollered from behind the white beam. 'I won't be so nice in the future.'
This guy considers shooting at people and forcing cars off the road as being nice? When the beam moved over her area of marsh, Kate didn't twitch a muscle.
Not when the cold water chilled her to the bone.
Not when mosquitos feasted hungrily on the back of her neck.
Not even when something spiny crawled over her bare foot.
'Fine. Have it your way.' The man switched off the spotlight, throwing Kate into darkness except for the weak light of the moon.
As an engine roared to life, Kate lifted her head in time to see the van ram the back of her Mustang. Once, twice, then with the third hit, the van pushed her convertible down the ramp into the waterway. Helplessly, Kate watched her beloved car slide deeper until only the top remained visible. After another moment, even the roof disappeared below the murky surface. Tears filled Kate's eyes as her most valuable possession sank to the bottom.
'Here's a little reminder to make sure your new job doesn't go to your head.' Without warning, her mysterious adversary fired several shots into the marsh. One bullet cut through the tassels a foot above her head, giving Kate more to worry about than a waterlogged car. Then she heard car doors slam and the van sped off without switching on its headlights until well beyond the marina. From her marshy vantage point, she had no better view of a license plate or the van's occupants than on the highway.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hiding in Plain Sight"
Copyright © 2018 Mary Ellis.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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