Free Fiction Feature January 2021 | Ground Work: A Kira Brightwell Short Story

Ground Work Kira Brightwell cover

Kira Brightwell thinks she knows her best friend and roommate pretty well—better than anyone else, at least.

Rob’s life seems straightforward from the outside. He stays in the apartment and keeps to himself, preferring the company of his laptop to most other people (Trevor Wright in particular).

He gathers information from behind the scenes, while Kira takes the lead out in the real world in her ongoing search for the serial abductor known as Procurer.

But Rob has a secret. Something he keeps even from Kira.

…And an unexpected case threatens to expose everything.

A fun, stand-alone story from the Kira Brightwell crime fiction series by award-winning author, Jacquelyn Smith.

Now, you can read it for free on this site for one month only. This short story also comes in ebook and paperback format.

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Ground Work: A Kira Brightwell Short Story

Jacquelyn Smith

Rob shook the plastic cup. He let the dice rattle around inside for a few moments before dumping them onto the linoleum table in the midst of a pair of empty Big Mac boxes and some discarded fries. He watched as the dice tumbled out and shivered to a stop under the dim light of an ancient lamp with a fringed, orange shade that must have come from the Seventies—three fives, a one, and a two.

He pursed his lips. He could probably do better than that. He still had another shake left. Besides, he needed to maintain his lead, not that it would last for long. He scooped up the one and the two and put the pair of dice back in the cup.

His gaze snagged on the sleeve of his hoodie. Some Mac sauce had dripped onto the worn, burgundy fabric, overlaying an almost artistic array of older food stains that had been too stubborn to come out in the wash. He snatched up a paper napkin to wipe at the pale-orange glob before the woman sitting across from him might notice it.

The lingering scent of the spiced mayonnaise and salty fries overlaid the underlying mixture of aftershave, floral perfume, and traces of urine, body odor, and a healthy helping of Lysol that permeated the shadowy confines of recreation room—old-people smell. Rob would have wrinkled his nose, but he was used to it by now.

The napkin rustled against his hoodie despite his best efforts, but his opponent took no notice. She was too busy tapping the tip of her pencil against her scorecard and muttering to herself. Rob’s eyes narrowed.

He had a feeling he knew what was coming.

The woman shook her silver-curled head. “Oh dear,” she said in Spanish. A faint expression of distress marred her lined, nut-brown face. “It seems my math is wrong. How did that happen? I’d better add it all up again.”

Her pencil squeaked as she recorded a number in her running total column that was five points higher than before.

“Abuela Rosa,” Rob said in a wry voice. His grandmother looked up, her brown eyes wide with a look of innocence he knew all too well. “You changed that three to an eight.” He dropped his napkin and reached across the table to tap the number in question with the tip of his own pencil.

“Berto, how could you say such a thing?” She clutched at the front of her fuzzy, pink bathrobe and gave him a wounded look.

Rob rolled his eyes at her. “Because you always cheat.”

He ignored her use of the nickname ‘Berto.’ She was the only person he let get away with it—aside from his mother, who he had just about given up on at this point.

“I? Cheat?” She drew herself up in her seat across from him. “I would never do such a thing.”

She managed to maintain a straight face, but Rob could see the corners of her lips twitching and there was a glimmer in her eye.

She had always been an outrageous cheat—even when Rob had only been a child. He had stopped playing Scrabble or any other word-related games with her long ago (unless he was in a particularly masochistic mood). She had a tendency to claim certain ‘words’ she came up with were in fact esoteric Spanish terms that Rob was not familiar with. And since the retirement home didn’t have a Spanish dictionary he could use to challenge her, she usually got away with it.

He could have just used Leia—his laptop—to look up the words, of course. He gave the familiar bulk of his laptop bag a comforting pat from where it sat on the plastic chair beside him without thinking.

But watching her cheat and trying to beat her fairly was at least half of the fun.

“Did you get something on your shirt?” she asked.

She reached across the table with a napkin of her own to dab at his sleeve with a faint ‘tsk’-ing sound—in an effort to distract him, no doubt. His gaze drifted to the large, round clock hanging from the wall in the empty recreation room. He could barely make it out in the dim light: 2:25.

“It’s late,” he said as he gently pulled his arm away. “You should probably get to bed.”

His grandmother stifled a yawn. “Yes, I suppose so. Before I beat you too badly, eh?”

Yes, there was a definite twinkle in her eye as she uttered the last sentence.

She stood up with a faint scrape of her plastic chair and began gathering up the paper bag, napkins, paper cups, and cardboard containers from their meal. Rob rushed to his feet to help her. She reached up with a soft, wrinkled hand to give his stubbled cheek a fond pat.

“Thank you for coming to see me, Berto. And for the food.”

He felt himself flush and pulled away. “You’re welcome,” he mumbled. “Are they still feeding you OK here?”

She shrugged. “It isn’t bad, but they have no idea how to use spices.” She gave a mock shudder. “So bland, and everything healthy—or so they say.”

Rob gave a shudder of his own at the thought of an unseasoned meal of lean meat and steamed vegetables. He practically lived on junk food. He had no interest in cooking for himself, and his roommate Kira was no chef either.

After they had cleaned up, Rob turned off the light, plunging the scattered tables and chairs of the rec room into darkness before escorting his grandmother back to her room. The hallways of the retirement home were lit by humming, fluorescent lights, but only every second one was turned on at this hour. They reflected dully against the beige linoleum floor.

Rob walked with his laptop bag over one shoulder and his grandmother on his opposite arm. She didn’t need the support. She shuffled along in her slippers in a sprightly fashion, despite her age, but Rob knew she appreciated it when he played the role of gallant knight for her.

The rest of the retirement home was silent. It had been locked up for the night hours ago, and all the staff and residents had gone to bed—an ideal time for Rob to visit.

He and his grandmother had always been kindred spirits, and he had done his best to visit her often, especially since his grandfather had died of a heart attack a few years ago. But Rob had never been a people person, and the crowds of elderly residents that roamed the retirement home during visiting hours, all hungry to make a connection with a younger face, put him on edge.

So his grandmother smuggled him in through her window late at night instead.

No one else knew about his visits—not even Kira, or his parents and sisters. As far as any of them knew, he never left the apartment.

And Rob aimed to keep it that way—much easier than having to deal with awkward questions or raised expectations. If word got out that he was leaving the apartment to visit his grandmother, everyone would expect him to start traipsing around town to socialize.

He suppressed a shudder at the thought.

His grandmother slid her arm free from his and ducked into her room to make sure the coast was clear. She had a roommate, but the other woman usually went to bed early, and was a deep sleeper with poor hearing. Rob waited in the shadows of the hallway.

His grandmother reappeared a few moments later with a frown.

“What’s wrong?” Rob asked in a low voice. He had never encountered anyone else inside the retirement home during his nocturnal visits, but it didn’t hurt to be careful.

His grandmother shook her head. “It’s Helga.”

Rob gave her a blank look.

She waved her hand toward the doorway in an irritated gesture. “The woman who shares my room.”

Her brown eyes met Rob’s with a look of concern.

“She’s gone.”

* * *

Rob blinked as he digested his grandmother’s words. “Are you sure she isn’t in the bathroom or something?”

“I already checked. There’s no one there. Her bed has been slept in, but she’s not in it.” Her expression was more puzzled than worried.

Rob slipped past her through the doorframe. The interior of the shared quarters was dark. The fragrance of his grandmother’s rose-scented perfume tickled his nose, mixed with a less familiar, soapy scent he assumed belonged to the other woman—Helga.

He tugged his grandmother inside the room and shut the door behind her before turning on the light. He blinked against the sudden brightness.

The room was decent sized. He had only seen it maybe once or twice before with the lights on. The center was dominated by a sitting area with a low coffee table surrounded by a battered, floral couch and a matching set of chairs. His grandmother’s neatly-made bed was at one far end of the room, along with a wooden dresser, complete with a tilting vanity mirror. He would have recognized the hand-stitched, rose print of his grandmother’s bedspread anywhere.

Across the room, a second bed stood against the wall with a much more business-like chest of drawers. No mirrors for Helga. Her bedding was also utilitarian—plain dark green with no fanciful stitching or designs. Sure enough, the sheets were rumpled. Rob walked over to the bed to take a closer look. He placed a hand on the place where Helga had clearly been sleeping.

It was cold.

“Does she sleepwalk or anything?” he asked his grandmother.

She shook her curly head. “No, not that I have ever seen. But she has been more… restless lately. I have heard her muttering in her sleep.”

“What about?” Rob asked before he could stop himself.

What did Helga’s restless sleep have to do with him?

But he needed to know whether Helga had left the room on her own terms, or if his grandmother might be in some kind of danger. There were no signs of a struggle, but still…

Dammit. I’m starting to think like Kira.

His best friend and roommate always had a knack for finding her way in and out of trouble. On a couple of occasions, she had dragged him along with her. Just a few weeks ago, he had helped her to find and rescue an abducted young woman—this time from the comfort of their dining room table, with him parked behind his laptop while Kira did all the legwork. After some of his previous past experiences solving problems with Kira, he made a point of keeping himself out of harm’s way while she took the lead—much safer that way. Fewer people for him to deal with too.

This couldn’t be a Kira problem, could it?

“George,” his grandmother said, startling him from his reverie.

“Huh?” Rob blinked at her.

“She says the name ‘George’ in her sleep. I think it is the name of her son. He used to work here at the home as a gardener, but he disappeared almost a year ago.”

Rob frowned. An uneasy feeling quivered in the pit of his stomach. “Disappeared, how?”

His grandmother shrugged. “The police said he must have run off, but Helga wouldn’t hear of it. George was her only family, and she doted on him.”

“And what did you think?” Rob gave his grandmother a penetrating look.

As much as she often liked to put on an absent-minded act to put people off-guard (usually when she was trying to get her way with something), her eyes and her mind were still sharp.

She pursed her wrinkled lips. “I always thought he seemed… What is the expression? Suspicious? No, shifty.” She switched to English to find the right word before launching back into Spanish again. “His eyes—they were always moving.”

She lowered her lids and darted her own eyes back and forth to demonstrate while stooping her shoulders in a slight hunch. Rob would have laughed if the situation weren’t so potentially serious. She drew herself up a moment later.

“I tried telling the police this when they came, but they would not listen to an old woman.”

He sank his hand into his own thatch of curly, brown hair and blew out a sigh.

Yup, this is definitely starting to sound like a Kira problem.

Two people were missing. Yes, there was a chance that both George and Helga had just wandered off on their own, but somehow, Rob doubted it. (He blamed his previous experiences with Kira for his skepticism.)

He and his grandmother hadn’t heard anything while they had been in the home’s rec room, and they hadn’t seen Helga since Rob had sneaked in through his grandmother’s window a few hours ago. If Helga had fallen or been in some kind of distress, they would have heard her in the silent hallways. And all the doors of the retirement home had been locked for the night, or at least, they should be.

If something untoward had happened to Helga, it was probably related to the disappearance of her son, which meant his grandmother shouldn’t be in any real danger…

But what if someone had snatched Helga in an effort to find something? What if they came back to search her things? If anything happened to his Abuela Rosa because he couldn’t be bothered to get involved…

His shoulders slumped. He knew what he had to do. But it would mean exposing his secret outings.

Or would it?

His eyes narrowed. He could still try to keep things quiet. If he was careful, it might even work.

Yeah, maybe if Kira’s had a brain aneurysm or something.

Kira was one of the smartest people he knew. She could never touch him where computers and programming were concerned (in some part because he wouldn’t let her), but she was clever, and frighteningly quick to learn things. And she was much better at the whole people thing than he was.

In this case, her skills were both a blessing and a curse. She would be useful in dealing with the staff and residents of the retirement home. She had even made a connection with some detective on the local force that might come in handy.

Maybe if Rob could keep her focused on the case, she would be too distracted to ask too many questions about how he had learned about Helga’s disappearance in the first place…

“Berto?” His grandmother said his name in a tone that made him feel like it hadn’t been the first time. He shook himself. She tilted her head at him. “What is it?”

Rob steeled himself. “Go wake up one of the nurses and tell them Helga’s gone so they can start a search. Don’t tell anyone I was here.” He went over to the window and opened it.

If he knew his grandmother, she would insist on joining the search herself, which would at least keep her with the rest of the staff, and hopefully out of trouble. If he tried telling her directly not to stay in her room alone, she would only end up doing the opposite out of sheer stubbornness.

She gave him a solemn nod. “And what are you going to do?”

Rob hoisted himself up onto the sill, careful to make sure his laptop bag didn’t bump against anything.

“I’m going to get backup.”

* * *

Rob’s palms sweated against the steering wheel as he parked Kira’s car in its usual spot along the side of the street. He craned his neck to get a better look at the rear and side-view mirrors. Was the car closer to the curb than it had been before?

Kira had no idea he used her car for his visits to his grandmother. He usually didn’t obsess over his parking job, but tonight he had an extra reason to be paranoid.

Truth be told, Kira probably wouldn’t have minded him borrowing her little blue Corolla if he had bothered to ask her about it. She had even added him to the car’s insurance plan, in case he ever needed to use it in an emergency. But Rob still held out hope that he could keep his secret visits to the retirement home intact. He knew it was probably silly of him, but he liked having a side of his life that no one knew about—one that cemented his relationship with his grandmother and came with no obligations to anyone else.

Abuela Rosa understood. His late-night visits appealed to her sense of adventure, and she never made him feel guilty about them. Kira probably would have understood too if Rob bothered to explain it to her, but somehow, the idea of anyone knowing about his visits made them seem less special.

He pulled the car forward a few more inches. There. That seemed right. He shifted into park and reached out to turn off the ignition.

Wait… The stereo had been on.

He pressed the Play button on the car’s CD player. Kira could rarely be bothered to sync her stereo with her phone.

Rob winced as the full-throttle, profanity-laced chorus of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Only’ blared from the car speakers. He turned off the car and yanked the keys free with a string of Spanish curses.

He sat for a moment with his heart hammering in his ears, waiting for lights to come on in the neighboring walk-up apartments that lined the street.

All the windows remained dark.

He let out a slow, shuddering breath and climbed out of the car. He hugged his laptop bag to his side for comfort as he made his way across the silent street to the front door of his apartment. He must have pressed the key fob at least three times before he was finally sure he had remembered to lock the car behind him.

He unlocked the apartment door a moment later. Was the deadbolt always that loud? Surely, Kira must have heard it…

He steeled himself and slipped inside.

For a moment, he stood in the front hallway with the door still open. The streetlights in the distance behind him provided a dim source of illumination. The only other light came through the living/dining-room area, from the kitchen. Kira usually left the kitchen light on for him when she went to bed—presumably so he didn’t completely ruin his eyes by staring at his laptop screen in complete darkness.

The apartment was silent.

He eased the front door shut behind him and slid the deadbolt back into place. He winced as it made a dull thunk.

No sign of movement or sound followed. He breathed out another sigh of relief. He had done it. He had made it back into the apartment without Kira finding out he had left.

Unless she had wandered into the kitchen and that was why the light was on…

He knew he was being paranoid, but he steeled himself to check anyway. He placed Kira’s keys onto the little wooden table that stood by the front door, where she always kept them. He slipped out of his worn sneakers without bothering to untie them to creep toward the kitchen. He caught the familiar, chemical cheese scent of his own half-eaten bag of Cheetos from where he had left it on the dining-room table with a can of Red Bull as he carefully avoided tripping over various piles of his own clothing that lay scattered across the carpet.

He knew his sloppy nature bugged Kira, but those piles were at least partly meant as booby traps. When he got working on his laptop, he had a tendency to block out everything else. It was much easier to notice intruders in his domain if they were cursing his questionable laundry habits, or falling flat on their faces.

The kitchen was empty—other than the pizza box he had left open on the counter sometime earlier. Better put it in the fridge, or he was sure to hear about it from Kira. Then again, it might provide a decent distraction… He decided to leave it where it was.

She’s still in bed.

He allowed realization to send a wave of relief through him before clamping down on it. The next phase of his plan would be far more difficult.

How was he going to manage to get through this mess of Helga’s disappearance without Kira finding out about his late-night excursions?

Part of him was tempted to put off waking her and setting the whole potential disaster in motion, but in disappearance cases, the first few hours were critical. And if his grandmother was in any danger…

He squared his shoulders and strode out of the kitchen. He threaded his way back through the piles of clothing and turned in the direction of Kira’s bedroom—the only bedroom in the apartment. (Not that Rob needed one. He was more than happy to remain in his little den, stealing naps on the couch when no one was around to bother him.)

He hesitated at the door to Kira’s room.

He rarely went inside. And to creep in on her while she was sleeping… It felt like trespassing.

He forced himself to reach for the doorknob.

He turned it slowly. The last thing he wanted was to burst in on her and freak her out. Kira was trained in MMA, and he had no desire for her to mistake him for some kind of intruder.

Unlike Rob’s living area, Kira’s bedroom was fairly neat. At least, there weren’t any piles of clothes for him to trip over.

He crept forward through the darkness toward her bed.

Kira lay on her side, facing toward the door. Rob looked down at her. Her long, dark brown hair was out of its usual ponytail and trailed across her pillow. He could barely make out her familiar features in the darkness—arched brows, full lips, and a stubborn chin. The sheets clung to her lean, athletic form in a tangle. Most guys would probably be more interested in the curves that lay beneath them, but unless there was some kind of anatomical secret Kira had managed to keep from him all these years, she really wasn’t his type.

Rob reached out a hand toward her bare shoulder.

“No,” Kira said in a quiet, but firm voice.

Rob snatched his hand back and almost choked in surprise.

Kira’s eyes remained closed, but her face puckered in a frown. Her legs twitched beneath the sheets in a faint kicking motion.

She was still asleep.

Rob’s sense of relief was immediately replaced by a surge of concern.

She’s having a nightmare.

Three years ago, Kira had been abducted by a man known only as the Procurer. He was the reason she had learned MMA. Once she had escaped and rescued the seven other women who had been held captive with her, she had become obsessed with trying to track the Procurer down. The police knew nothing about him—not even what he looked like.

And then the case she had worked just a few weeks ago with another missing girl turned out to be yet another of the Procurer’s victims…

Rob bit his lip. What kind of torment was Kira trapped in right now? How many sleepless nights had she been having over the past few weeks since the Procurer had resurfaced? He had no idea. He wanted to wake her up, but now it was even more important to do so gently.

Kira shook her head back and forth against her pillow, mumbling.

“…don’t want to see the monkeys.”

Huh?

Rob’s brow furrowed. He was pretty sure he had heard the word ‘monkey’ in there…

For a moment, he was tempted to see how the rest of Kira’s nightmare played out. What did monkeys have to do with anything? Was she actually scared of them for some reason?

…Not that he could afford to judge, as someone who had a legitimate foot phobia. And if the nightmare progressed from monkeys to something more dangerous, it might not be as amusing.

He uttered a sigh and reached out for Kira’s shoulder one more time.

* * *

“Monkarup?” Kira mumbled as she felt a hand seize her shoulder. She sat up with a gasp, her arms tangled in the sheets.

For one terrifying moment, a jagged memory threatened to wash over her.

A shadowy figure looming over her bedside in the middle of the night, ready to subdue her…

But the figure skittered backward with his hands raised in a calming gesture. She wrestled her arms free and rubbed at her bleary eyes.

“Rob?” She squinted into the darkness. She could see the outline of his familiar, curly head. She ran her tongue against the dry roof of her mouth and made a face at the sour taste. “Ugh. What time is it? Why’re you in my room?”

She picked up her phone from the nightstand and winced against the glare as the screen flared to life to reveal a string of unanswered text messages from someone she had been avoiding. It was a little after three in the morning.

“Um, what’s the deal with monkeys?” Rob asked.

“Huh?” Kira shook her head in confusion. “You woke me up to ask about monkeys? Are you freak-walking or something?”

She levered herself up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed to wave a hand in front of his face. She had never seen Rob sleepwalk before… Actually, she had never even seen him sleep, for that matter.

Under other circumstances, she would have been flustered to hold a conversation in nothing more than a cami and a pair of underwear, but with Rob, it hardly made a difference—not that her mother would have approved.

Rob reached out to slap her waving hand away. “Freak-talking, you mean. You were the one going on about not wanting to see the monkeys when I came in here.” His hands drifted to the strap of his laptop bag on his shoulder in a nervous gesture.

Kira frowned. Monkeys? Fractured memories of her interrupted dream skittered across her sleep-hazed thoughts.

She felt herself flush as the familiar nightmare about a childhood visit to the zoo gone wrong resurfaced.

“Um, I must have been watching Animal Planet or something before I fell asleep. Anyway, what the hell are you doing in my room at this ungodly hour?” She went on the offensive before he could ask any awkward follow-up questions.

Rob hesitated before answering. “I need your help.”

“Mm-kay,” Kira said as she reached for an elastic from her nightstand and pulled her hair back into its usual ponytail. She had a feeling that sleep time was over. “That’s not very specific…”

Rob took a breath, as if he was unsure where to start.

Kira’s nose wrinkled as she finger-combed her hair into place. “Why do you smell like McDonald’s?” The trademark scent of vegetable oil and salt clung to him, filling the air of the room.

“I had a craving for a Big Mac, so I had some delivered.” The words seemed to come out in a rush.

Kira tilted her head to give him a measuring look. He seemed unaccountably nervous for some reason. He was clinging to his precious laptop bag like a lifeline.

Maybe he’s just weirded out about creeping into my bedroom in the middle of the night.

…Or maybe it was because her bare feet were showing. He didn’t seem to have noticed them, but he might have been just trying not to look. Either way, she shifted her comforter to drape over her bare legs and feet, just in case.

Rob showed no signs of relaxing.

Huh.

She supposed it wasn’t totally strange that Rob had gotten some food delivered. She had no idea what he got up to while she was sleeping. Her green eyes narrowed as she took in the significance of the laptop bag.

“Why isn’t Leia downstairs?” she asked. He didn’t usually pack up his laptop, unless he was leaving the apartment—which was pretty much never.

Rob swallowed. “I, um, wanted her with me while I came in to wake you up.”

Kira rolled her eyes in the darkness. “OK, I know you’re not into the ladies, but I’m pretty sure coming in here to wake me up doesn’t require a security blanket.” She waved in the laptop’s direction.

“It might have if you’d decided to attack me,” Rob muttered.

Kira quirked an eyebrow at him, even though she knew he couldn’t see it. “You would risk harming Leia to defend yourself?” If anything, she would have expected him to throw his body across the laptop to protect it from harm.

“Someone’s gone missing,” he blurted.

Kira blinked. “What? Who? Is it the Procurer?” Her fingers tightened around the edge of the mattress at the thought of the abductor for hire taking another victim.

“My grandmother’s roommate. I’m pretty sure she’s not the Procurer’s type.” She couldn’t see it, but she suspected Rob had scrunched up his face at the idea.

Kira felt herself wilt a bit with a strange mixture of disappointment and relief. “Your grandmother’s roommate? You mean at the retirement home?”

“Yeah. A woman named Helga. She went to bed, and my grandmother sneaked out to the rec room for a few hours because she couldn’t sleep. When she came back, Helga was gone.”

Kira tried to read Rob’s expression, but the darkness made it impossible. Still, they had been best friends for a long time—he was like a brother to her.

…And she had the nagging feeling there was more to this story than he was telling her.

“There’s more,” Rob continued before she could ask any follow-up questions. “Helga’s son went missing about a year ago. He was the retirement home’s gardener.”

Kira’s fingers strayed to the end of her ponytail to toy with it as she considered. “He might have just run off. And Helga… Well, maybe she just got confused and wandered off somewhere.”

“I know, but what if it wasn’t like that? My grandmother thinks Helga’s son was up to something. What if he got in over his head? What if someone wants Helga for a special reason?” Rob’s voice tightened. “What if they come back to my grandmother’s room again?”

Kira sighed. “OK, I see what you’re saying.”

She didn’t want to be responsible for anything happening to Rob’s grandmother. She hadn’t seen Abuela Rosa for years now, but she had always liked and admired the spirited, older woman.

“So you want me to look into it?” she asked.

“Would you?” She could hear the relief in Rob’s voice.

“Of course, but right now?” Kira pressed.

She wasn’t feeling particularly rested, and surely the retirement home staff would be baffled to have her show up at this time of night—a random woman who was not a member of the police force, or a private detective.

Well, maybe not just any random woman. Thanks to her abduction escape a few years ago, and the rescue she had pulled off just weeks before, she was something of a local hero, but still…

Rob’s voice turned pleading. “The first few hours—”

“Yes, yes. I know.”

Kira resisted the urge to grumble to herself over the inconvenience. After all, a woman’s life could be at stake, and there was also the safety of Rob’s grandmother to be considered. But Kira’s bed was so soft and comfy…

She got up with a sigh and shuffled over to her dresser. She pulled out a pair of jeans and T-shirt without bothering to turn the light on. Everything in that drawer was a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt anyway. It probably wouldn’t make a great impression on the retirement home staff, but she couldn’t be bothered to dress up at this hour.

“Are you going to stay to watch the show?” she asked Rob in a dry voice as she pulled out a bra to add to her folded pile of clothing.

He snorted. “Are you kidding? It’s bad enough that I can almost see your bare feet right now. I’m gonna go see what I can dig up on Helga and her son George.”

He fled from the room without a backward glance.

Kira shook her head to herself as she balanced on one leg to start putting on her jeans. So even though it was Rob’s grandmother who might be in danger, he still wasn’t willing to leave the apartment to help. Her mind recoiled at the idea of waltzing up to the retirement home uninvited at 3:30 in the morning by herself, with nothing but her local celebrity and rough-around-the-edges charm to get by on.

Her thoughts drifted to the string of unanswered text messages on her phone. A sly smile tugged at her lips as an idea formed in her mind.

Misery loves company…

* * *

Kira drummed her fingers against the steering wheel of her car in a steady rhythm. Her eyes darted every few seconds to check the wrought iron gates across the street of the upscale neighborhood where she had parked against the curb in the predawn darkness. Her trusty, blue Corolla stuck out like a sore thumb compared to the various luxury cars parked in the long driveways around her. But no one was around to take offense over her uninvited presence at this hour.

Even though she had only been waiting for a few minutes, she was already starting to doubt her decision about the detour. She checked the time again on her phone.

I’ll give him five more minutes.

The interior of the car was silent, other than the running motor and the low hum of the heat running. California nights could be chilly this time of year.

She had turned off her mix CD (mostly Nine Inch Nails) as soon as she had gotten in the car. She was still waking up, and wanted to have a chance to get her thoughts in order. Rob had barely looked up from his laptop when she had left the apartment. She assumed he was already busy trying to find some kind of background or lead on Helga and her son.

Kira felt her nose wrinkle.

Why does my car smell like McDonald’s?

She took a few deep breaths. The scent was faint, but the vegetable oil and salt combo was a match for what she had smelled on Rob earlier. Or was it her imagination?

Weird. I must be craving fries or something.

A soft chime from her phone alerted her to a new text message from Rob—a link to some story in the La Valentia Post. She tapped the link to check it out.

The article was dated almost a year ago. It detailed the mysterious disappearance of George Petronas, and was accompanied by an interview with his mother, Helga. Like Rob had said, the police had no leads, and were deeming the retirement home gardener’s disappearance a voluntary one, despite the protests of his mother.

Kira bit her lip. George’s mother definitely sounded like the doting type. In her eyes, her son could do no wrong—not surprising when George was her only child and sole remaining relative. According to Helga’s account, George had left her room on the afternoon of his disappearance for a meeting to discuss new landscaping plans for the retirement home, but he had never arrived. Helga hadn’t seen or heard from him since.

The article included a pair of photos—one of Helga and another of George. Helga was a stern looking woman, with her salt and pepper hair pulled back in a tight bun that accentuated her lean face and hawk-like nose.

There was little doubt George was her son. He shared the same gaunt features and prominent nose, along with a thatch of dark hair. He was smiling in his photo, but Kira sensed a shrewdness behind his narrowed eyes. He looked like a man who was just clever enough to get himself into trouble.

“What kind of trouble did you get into?” she muttered to herself as she studied the photo.

A knock sounded against her car window, making her jump. She looked up to see a familiar figure crouching on the other side of the glass to look in. His tidy blond curls were illuminated by the streetlights overhead. His hand rose in a cheerful wave.

Kira suppressed a groan and rolled down the window. This had been her idea, after all…

* * *

“Hello, Trevor,” Kira said in a dry tone.

“’Morning,” Trevor said in a voice that was far too chipper, considering the hour. “So what’s going on?”

He leaned against the side of the car in a way that made his trademark, form-fitting, blue polo shirt strain against his chest and arm muscles.

Kira resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Why don’t you get in, and I’ll tell you?”

Trevor’s nose wrinkled. “You want us to drive around in your car?”

This time Kira did roll her eyes. “Sorry, my limo’s in the shop.”

Trevor shook his head. “That’s not what I—OK, well, maybe that is kind of what I meant, but I thought you hated driving.”

Kira made a face of her own. “This is pretty much the only time of day that I enjoy it.” With hardly anyone else out on the roads, she actually found driving relaxing.

“Well, whatever kind of mysterious booty call this is, it’s probably going to take a few hours right?” Trevor waggled his eyebrows at her.

“Booty call?” Kira sputtered.

Trevor pulled out his phone and started scrolling until he found what he wanted to read. “‘Might be able to use your help with something. Meet me out front in ten minutes.’”

Kira gave him a disparaging look. “And you thought that sounded like a booty call.”

Trevor’s grin flashed in the darkness. “Shall I read you some of my actual booty calls for comparison?”

Kira flushed at the thought. “No, thanks. Also, I have a boyfriend, by the way.”

Trevor gave a negligent wave. “Yeah, I’ve met Jeff. It wouldn’t surprise me if you still needed a little action on the side.”

“And you assumed you would be the logical choice. Because we’re so close.” Her voice was flat.

“Look, I know we didn’t exactly get along back in high school, but we’ve been pretty tight since we worked together to find Steph, right?” He flashed her another one of his grins.

“If by working together, you mean I did all the work, while you were constantly getting in the way and freaking out, sure,” Kira grumbled under her breath.

Stephanie was Trevor’s younger sister, and had been the most recent victim of the Procurer that Kira had managed to rescue—a mess that had been unwittingly triggered by Trevor himself.

And as for the part about not being close in high school…

Trevor had been Kira and Rob’s worst tormentor back then, but when he had needed help finding his sister, Kira had been the first person he had turned to.

And he had been showing up at her apartment almost every day in the weeks since—like a cocky, well-groomed, stray cat, looking for some attention. It seemed that despite all his money and well-placed friends from high school, he had been left behind in the years since graduation, without any sense of purpose.

…Until Kira had helped him find his missing sister.

Ever since, he had been trying to push the idea that she should start her own problem solving business. She assumed he must have some kind of vested interest in the idea. She hadn’t bothered to find out any of the details.

She rubbed her hand against her forehead with a groan. Why had she thought this would be a good idea?

When she had cooked it up in her sleep-deprived head, she had imagined snapping her fingers and Trevor stumbling out of his own bed in a state of rumpled disarray in his eagerness to help her. But not only was Trevor as perfectly groomed as usual in his polo shirt that perfectly matched his eyes and crisp, khaki shorts, he didn’t even seem sleepy, which was no fun at all.

Kira’s eyes narrowed. “Where you already up when I texted you?” He hardly struck her as an early riser.

Trevor’s smile turned mischievous. “You could say that, yes.”

“Ugh, do I want to know what that means?”

A car pulled out of the gated driveway across from where Kira’s car was parked and drove off into the night. Trevor cocked his head in the direction of the disappearing tail lights.

“Booty call.”

Kira closed her eyes with another groan. She had no desire to hear any further details.

“Hey, I cut things short as soon as I got your text,” Trevor said with an injured look. “And things were going very well.”

“Um, thank you?” Kira shot him a dubious look, since he seemed to be implying that some kind of positive feedback was expected.

Trevor drew himself up and gave a casual shrug. “She’ll be back. Besides, I’m guessing whatever you need my help with is probably going to be more interesting.” He waggled his eyebrows again. “Now let’s ditch your car so we can ride around in style.”

Kira opened her mouth to protest, but Trevor raised a hand to stop her.

“You might not mind driving now, but how are you going to feel in a few hours when the morning traffic gets started?” He gave her a challenging look.

Kira held his gaze, hating the fact that he was right. “You could drive on the way back.”

Trevor snorted. “In your car? When you’re finally asking for my help with something?”

Kira sighed. “OK, fine.”

How was it that she had endured his torments in high school and rescued his sister just a few weeks ago, but she still felt like she owed him a favor?

Trevor made a grand, bowing gesture for her to pull into his gated driveway to park her car. Kira waved at him to get out of the way. He strode beside her as she drove.

“This is going to be interesting, right?”

Kira deliberately kept her face turned away from him so he couldn’t see her smirk and rolled up her window. A missing elderly woman from a retirement home?

Oh, yeah. This was going to be right up Trevor’s alley.

* * *

“Over there,” Kira said to Trevor, pointing at the sprawling, squat building across the street.

“La Valentia Gardens…” Trevor’s forehead puckered in a frown as he leaned forward over the steering wheel to get a better look. “A retirement home? You dragged me away from my booty call for this?

He turned his swiveled toward her with narrowed eyes to give her a measuring look.

“What?” Kira gave him an innocent shrug.

Trevor turned his attention back to the road. “I don’t think we share the same definition of ‘interesting.’”

Despite his protests, he pulled his midnight-blue BMW into the parking lot—the vehicle from his collection of toys that had been deemed worthy for their excursion. The interior smelled of leather and the subtle scent of Trevor’s cologne.

“It’s Rob’s grandmother,” Kira explained, doing her best not to feel guilty.

Tricking him into coming along with her to visit a retirement home in the wee hours of the morning was nothing compared to what he had put her through back in high school…

“Well, his grandmother’s roommate,” Kira clarified. “She’s gone missing.”

“How the hell did Rob find that out? Did she send him an encrypted email or something?”

Kira frowned. How had Rob found out? He would have been messing around on his laptop, and once he got going, it was often impossible to get his attention.

“She must have called him,” she said. It was the only thing that made sense.

“OK, so his grandmother’s roommate has gone AWOL. What’s the big deal? She’s probably just had one of those ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’ deals. Or maybe she had a booty call.” Trevor’s keys clinked as he turned off the ignition and gave Kira a pointed look.

Kira was tempted to lay into him for being so cavalier, but she had thought the same thing when Rob had told her. (The falling down part, anyway.)

“She disappeared from the room they shared. Rob’s worried about his grandmother’s safety.” Kira made no move to get out of the car. “There’s something else.”

Trevor cocked an eyebrow. “Something interesting?”

Kira’s lips twitched in spite of herself. “Maybe… The missing woman’s son disappeared about a year ago. He worked here as a gardener. It might be related.”

“Huh. Like a cold case situation.”

“I guess, yeah.”

Trevor turned to cock his head at her. “So why are we not getting out of the car?”

Kira blew out a sigh. “Because I don’t think anyone inside is going to appreciate me sticking my nose into their business.”

Trevor gave her a long look. “You know, this might be easier if you had some kind of official business set up.”

Kira’s lips twitched. For Trevor, that level of veiled criticism was fairly restrained. She had just given him the perfect opening to say ‘I told you so.’

She waved him off. “Finding your sister doesn’t make me any kind of expert.”

Trevor nudged her with his elbow. “And what about rescuing all those other women?”

Kira shook her head. That didn’t make her any kind of expert either. As far as she was concerned, she had just been in the right place at the right time.

More like the wrong place…

She suppressed a shudder at the haunted memories of her own abduction and focused on the task at hand. “I just want to help Rob out.”

“And you needed me because…?”

She flashed him a smile. “I figured you could use some of your legendary charm to help ease our way in.”

That was Plan A, at least. As much as Trevor’s arrogance often made her want to punch him, he did have a certain, cocky charm that seemed to work on most other women. And his father was one of the wealthiest men in La Valentia, which didn’t hurt either.

…And if Trevor’s charms didn’t pan out, he would at least provide a possible distraction.

Trevor’s expression turned sour. “So you dragged me away from some sweet bedroom action to sweet-talk some old ladies.”

“Are you saying your charms won’t work on them?” Kira cocked an eyebrow at him in challenge.

Trevor gave her a dubious look and gestured toward his muscled torso. “Oh, they’ll work. I’ll probably have to pry their wrinkled hands off me by the time we want to leave this place.” He gave a faint shudder.

“There will probably be a few younger women on the staff,” Kira said in an encouraging tone. Now that they were here, she was reluctant to go in on her own.

Trevor brightened. “Yes, and they’ll be the ones we really want to talk to, won’t they? How’s this. I’ll deal with the employees, and you deal with the old peeps. Oh, and any dudes working here can be yours too.”

“Thanks,” Kira said in a dry voice.

* * *

In the end, getting into the retirement home didn’t prove that difficult. Trevor took the lead and chatted up the young, red-haired nurse in rumpled, cat-print scrubs that answered his persistent knocking on the front glass doors. The poor woman seemed both fascinated and bewildered by him.

Kira took advantage of her confusion to peer inside. A familiar face, surrounded by a cloud of silver curls caught her attention from the hallway within.

“Abuela Rosa?” she called out.

The woman in the fuzzy, pink bathrobe cocked her head. “Kira?” She shuffled over in her slippers to the nurse’s side.

“It’s all right, Angelique,” Rob’s grandmother said. “I know this girl.”

Girl?

Kira shook her head in bemusement. Then again, she supposed she would always be a girl to Rob’s grandmother, who had met her when she was twelve.

“Yes, but it’s the middle of the night,” the nurse—Angelique—said in an exasperated tone. “And we have… a situation to deal with. She’ll have to come back during visiting hours.”

Abuela Rosa ignored her. “Berto said he was going to send help.”

She reached out to take Kira’s hand in her own and drew her inside while Trevor regaled Angelique with exaggerated renditions of Kira’s exploits to explain her presence. Rob’s grandmother’s palm was warm and soft against Kira’s.

“It’s good to see you, chica,” Abuela Rosa said as soon as she got Kira inside. She gave Kira a firm hug. “It’s been a long time.”

Kira squeezed her back, inhaling her rose-scented perfume before pulling away. “Can you show me your room?”

She asked the question in a low voice, but Trevor seemed to have Angelique well in hand now. Despite the nurse’s reluctance to let them in, her eyes were currently busy roving the contours of Trevor’s snug polo shirt as he continued his stream of babble, punctuated by dazzling smiles. His blue gaze met Kira’s for only a moment while he made a covert ‘get going’ motion behind his back before returning his attention to his target.

Kira and Abuela Rosa took the hint, easing their way down the hallway as quickly as they dared.

Kira looked around as they went. Despite the late hour, all the overhead fluorescent lights had been turned on—most likely in response to Helga’s disappearance. They reflected against the linoleum floor beneath her feet, which smelled faintly of lemon-scented cleaner. It was an older building, but a well-maintained one. The cement brick walls were painted a pale, mint-green, and a battered, wooden railing jutted out a few inches at hip height.

A pair of voices drifted from somewhere around the corner—one male and one female. They were too far away for Kira to make anything out, but the woman’s voice sounded aggrieved. Abuela Rosa steered her in the opposite direction with a furtive look over her shoulder.

“It’s just over here,” she murmured to Kira, lapsing into Spanish. Between all the time she had spent with Rob and her foreign languages major at college, Kira understood easily enough.

Rob’s grandmother stopped at a white, wooden door that held a pair of name cards printed in a firm, bold script: Rosa Alvarez and Helga Petronas. She gestured for Kira to enter and eased the door shut behind them.

“No one is taking Helga’s disappearance seriously,” she said in English with a frowning shake of her head. “Angelique is the only one who thinks something might actually be wrong.” She made a face. “Janice would have never even bothered to call the police if I hadn’t insisted.”

Kira tilted her head. “Janice?”

“The head nurse. She hated it when Helga talked to that newspaper reporter about her son’s disappearance. She said it made the home look bad.” Abuela Rosa gave another disbelieving shake of her head. “As if something like that matters when someone is missing.”

“Has the rest of the home been searched?” Kira asked as she drifted toward the rumpled bed against the far wall of the room.

The two occupants clearly had different styles, and judging from Abuela Rosa’s fluffy, pink bathrobe, Kira could guess which side hers was. The tall, plain chest of wooden drawers that belonged to Helga only bore a framed photo of her son as decoration. It was the same one that had been used in the newspaper article.

“As soon as…” Abuela Rosa hesitated and started again. “As soon I realized Helga was missing, I woke Angelique. She is the nurse on call tonight, and she is the only one young enough for me to… ¿Cómo se dice? Bully. Yes, that is the word.”

Kira felt her lips twitch as her green eyes roved the surface of the dresser and bed for any obvious clues. It didn’t sound like Abuela Rosa had changed much since the last time Kira had seen her.

“Angelique woke up the rest of the staff, and I helped them to search the entire building,” Abuela Rosa continued. “Everyone else is still asleep. All the doors were still locked, and we found no sign of Helga anywhere.”

“Did she ever talk about leaving?”

“Helga? Oh, I don’t think…” Abuela Rosa’s wrinkled face suddenly turned thoughtful.

“What?” Kira prompted.

“Well, she did mention leaving once, but it was awhile ago—before her son went missing. She said something about him getting enough money to move her to La Valentia Manor.”

Kira gave her a blank look.

“Another home,” Abuela Rosa clarified. “A few blocks from here. It’s supposed to be nicer there.” She raised her sturdy shoulders in a shrug.

Kira tilted her head and considered their surroundings. San Judas Gardens had struck her as well maintained, but it was still an older building, which probably catered to residents of a certain income level. Kira had no idea how much living in a retirement home might cost, but it made sense there would be different tiers, just like any other form of housing.

She raised her hands to start rifling through Helga’s belongings, but caught herself. She shook her head in annoyance, setting her ponytail brushing against her shoulders.

“What is it?” Abuela Rosa asked.

“I want to get a better look at Helga’s things, but I don’t want to leave any prints if the police are here…”

Abuela Rosa strode over to the door and pulled something from a box mounted on the wall—two somethings. She handed them to Kira.

“Gloves?” Kira said in surprise before working the protective latex onto her hands with a series of snaps.

Abuela Rosa gave another shrug. “We have them in every room, just in case.”

Once Kira had the gloves in place, she started with the bed. She didn’t really expect to find anything there, but it had been the last place Helga had been, as far as they knew.

The dark-green sheets were empty, and showed no traces of blood, much to Kira’s relief. She moved on to the pillows. Nothing was hiding underneath them, but…

Her hand brushed against something hard when she went to put the pillows back in place. Something in the corner of one of the pillow cases.

She yanked the pillow free and shook out the case.

A small, metal key tumbled out onto the mattress.

* * *

A persistent ringing nagged at Rob’s ears.

Ding-dong… Ding-dong…

His fingers were clattering against the keyboard of his laptop. He hadn’t found anything useful yet. He doubted he would, until Kira provided him with some kind of lead to go on. But there was no way he was going to lie down and take a nap when his grandmother might be in danger and Kira might call any minute. He distracted himself by looking into the history of the retirement home, as well as any crimes that had taken place in the area over the past year or so. Nothing interesting—at least, as far as he could see—but enough to help him worry about Abuela Rosa’s ongoing safety.

A heavy, thumping knock interrupted the ringing sound. He uttered a string of curses in Spanish.

“Kira!” he bellowed without looking up from his laptop. “There’s someone at the—oh. Right.”

Usually, Rob ignored the doorbell and any knocking as a matter of course. It wasn’t as if any of the visitors were ever for him, unless he had ordered a pizza or something. He shook himself and got up to investigate, grumbling all the way to the front door.

Who the hell is it? It’s still dark outside…

He unlocked the door and threw it open, intending to lay into whoever was on the other side.

Kira’s boyfriend stood on the front porch, his hand raised mid-knock. His hazel eyes widened in surprise.

“Jeff?” Rob blurted in confusion. “What the hell, man? It’s barely five in the morning.”

Jeff’s expression turned sheepish. “Sorry. Did I wake you? I have an early start at the garage today. Kira and I were supposed to hit the gym and get some breakfast.”

“No, I was… working.” Rob gave a vague wave in the direction of the dining room.

He took in Jeff’s sweats and the bandanna holding back his shoulder-length dark hair with fleeting interest.

“You’d better come in,” he found himself saying. He stepped aside to let Jeff pass.

“Is she still getting ready?” Jeff asked.

His soft-spoken voice seemed incongruous with his heavy-handed knocking. Then again, he and Kira did work out at an MMA gym. Kira was tough, so Jeff must be pretty bad-ass to roll with her, belying his tall, lean frame.

“I guess,” Rob said with a careless shrug.

He followed Jeff into the living room and suddenly became aware of just how sloppy it must look. Between the piles of clothes and the greasy scent of the slice of half-eaten pizza he had left beside Leia…

“Wanna play Guitar Hero while you wait?” The words seemed to tumble from his mouth.

Jesus, what the hell am I doing?

Rob knew he should tell Jeff that Kira had left to work a case. In fact, Kira had probably forgotten all about her early-morning gym date. But Rob was driving himself crazy waiting to hear from her, and Jeff was a timely distraction. Things had been a bit awkward between them when they had first met, but they had bonded a few weeks ago, when Kira had gone out of town for a few days—mainly over Guitar Hero.

And Rob didn’t have many friends.

“Sure,” Jeff said with a shrug. He gave Rob a lopsided smile of apology. “I don’t know how many rounds I’ll be able to stick around for though.”

Rob flashed him a grin of his own and turned on the TV. “Then I guess we’d better get started.”

* * *

Rob’s face contorted. His legs were locked, but the rest of his body seemed to move of its own volition in a steady rhythm. He felt a bead of sweat trickle down the back of his neck.

Jeff gyrated beside him, his lower lip caught between his teeth as his fingers moved at lightning-speed. The living room was filled with the blaring chorus of Scorpions’ ‘Rock You Like a Hurricane.’

At first, Rob didn’t hear his phone. But eventually, Joan Jett’s signature voice belting ‘Bad Reputation’ started to clash with his and Jeff’s dueling guitars—his current ringtone for Kira.

“Oh, shit,” he blurted, unclenching his hands from the neck of his guitar console. It dangled from a strap around his shoulders as he rushed over to the dining-room table to answer.

“Kira?” he said as soon as he picked up.

“Rob?” Kira’s voice was puzzled. “Why do you sound out of breath? And what’s all that music in the background?”

Rob made a slicing motion against his throat in Jeff’s direction. Jeff shook himself and picked up the remote to press the Mute button before striding in Rob’s direction. He barely missed tripping over a pile of clothes.

“Wait, Kira’s not here?” he demanded in a hushed tone with an accusing look.

Rob waved him off. He needed some time to figure out how to salvage this.

“Um, just getting my groove on,” he said to Kira with a trace of awkwardness. “What’s up?” He was hyper-aware of Jeff glaring at him.

“Getting your groove on?” Kira echoed in a disbelieving voice. Rob silently prayed she would let that one pass. “OK… Well, I think I’ve found something. It looks like a key for a safety deposit box. I found it hidden in Helga’s pillow case.”

Rob eased himself into his usual seat at the dining-room table in front of Leia. His guitar console clunked against the table leg.

“Any idea where it’s from?” he asked. She wouldn’t have bothered calling unless she had some idea…

“Yeah, it’s engraved with the logo for La Valentia Vaults.”

Rob’s eyes widened in recognition. “That’s just down the street from the home.” He had never been inside, but he had driven past it often enough during his nighttime excursions.

“I was hoping you might be able to find out whether anyone has done anything with box three-twenty-six lately,” Kira said.

She avoided spelling out exactly how Rob might be able to discover such information. His grandmother must be in the room.

All of Rob’s family knew he was good with computers. They just didn’t know how good. He had actually been able to move out of his childhood home funded by the money he continuously earned from his various online security contract gigs. He had earned a reputation as the best white-hat hacker in the area and his clients paid him accordingly.

“I’m on it,” Rob said. He used his shoulder to cradle the phone against his ear. His fingers started to dance across the keyboard in a series of tapping.

“Maybe check as far back as a year ago,” Kira added.

“You think it might be George’s box?”

“I think it seems more likely. Judging from Helga’s belongings, she doesn’t strike me as the hidden fortune type.”

No, Helga’s side of the room at the home was spartan at best. And that photo in the paper didn’t make her look like a party type either. Rob considered this as he worked his way past the firewall for La Valentia Vaults’ system. They must have some kind of digital log…

“Huh,” he said a few moments later as a detail page popped up on his screen. “Box three-twenty-six was rented almost a year ago by George Petronas—paid up for the entire year. It was accessed yesterday.”

“Any activity in between?” Kira asked.

“Nope. You think Helga cleaned it out? The log doesn’t specify who it was, only that the box was accessed.”

“She must have. She has the key. But why wait until now?” Rob could hear the frown in Kira’s voice.

Rob ran his free hand through his tangled mass of brown curls. “I guess that means George didn’t skip town after all then. He would have cleared out the box first, right?”

“That’s what I’m thinking. I—”

“Hey, boss.” Rob heard a familiar, male voice somewhere on the other end of the phone. “Find anything yet?” The voice took on a flirtatious lilt. “Oh, hello there. You must be Rob’s mother.”

Rob almost dropped the phone in surprise. “Is that Trevor?

Kira paused. Rob could almost see her wincing on the other end. “Um, maybe?”

“You brought Trevor Wright to see my grandmother?” Rob demanded in a strangled voice.

“I used him as a distraction to get in.” Kira sounded sheepish. “It worked pretty well, actually.”

Rob looked up as a hand clutched at his shoulder. He flinched as he met Jeff’s glare.

Oh, right.

He had forgotten Jeff was still there. Great. Now things were about to get even more awkward…

“Kira’s with Trevor right now?” Jeff’s eyes narrowed. “In the middle of the night?”

Yeah, that didn’t sound too good to Rob either. Then again…

“Right.” Rob swallowed. “Um, Kira, I think someone wants to talk to you.”

“What? Who?” Kira sounded baffled, but she switched gears almost immediately. “Oh, and is it just a coincidence that my car also smells like McDonald’s right now?”

Shit. Stupid, smelly fries, ratting me out…

And he had been so careful!

“Didn’t you have an appointment this morning?” Rob said in a Hail Mary attempt to worm his way out of this mess. “Something involving going to the gym and getting breakfast?”

Kira uttered a string of curses. Yes, she’d definitely forgotten. Rob thrust the phone in Jeff’s direction. He snatched it from Rob’s fingers.

“Good morning, Kira,” he said in a flat tone that made Rob wince.

Still, at least he wasn’t on the receiving end… He slipped out of his chair and started to retreat from the table to find a place to lie low until the whole situation blew over. The bathroom maybe? He could pretend to take a shower or something.

Kira must have said something, but Jeff didn’t look any happier about the situation. His fingers tightened around Rob’s phone.

“What’s he saying about a booty call?” Jeff demanded, sounding incredulous.

Rob switched directions mid-creep and headed for the kitchen instead, where he could listen in from out of sight.

It sounded like things might actually get interesting.

* * *

Kira buried her head in her hands with a groan.

“Good talk with Jeff?” Trevor asked in a bright voice.

Kira lowered her hands to give him a death glare. “Did you actually think that mentioning a booty call was going to help?”

Trevor lifted his broad shoulders in a careless shrug. “I thought maybe you didn’t want him to know why you really rushed off with me in the middle of the night.”

“Why not?” She shook her head in exasperation, her ponytail swinging around her shoulders.

Trevor rolled his blue eyes. “Because you called me instead of him. Finding this woman and her son is important, right? It’s better if Jeff thinks we just had some kind of meaningless hookup.”

Kira held his gaze and quirked an eyebrow at him. “Would that make you feel better if it were the other way around?”

Trevor considered for a moment before shaking his head. “I can’t imagine having a girlfriend who would look somewhere else for satisfaction.” He puffed out his chest with a grin before continuing. “But I probably wouldn’t be happy about her asking another dude to help her with important stuff instead of asking me.”

Dammit, he was right.

Kira already felt bad enough for forgetting her early-morning date with Jeff… And if she was being honest, it had never actually occurred to her to call him to help, which was even worse.

It definitely wasn’t that she preferred Trevor’s company. When she had texted Trevor, it had been with the idea of inconveniencing him, more than anything.

How the hell am I going to explain this to Jeff?

“Kira, who is this man?” Abuela Rosa asked in a hushed, Spanish aside.

With Kira distracted, Trevor had turned his dubious charms back toward Rob’s grandmother. Abuela Rosa’s narrowed, brown gaze in Trevor’s direction told Kira the older woman wasn’t buying it.

“We went to high school together,” Kira said.

It seemed like the safest—and easiest—explanation. Trevor watched the exchange with a bewildered expression. He had never paid much attention in Spanish class.

Abuela Rosa’s eyes narrowed even further at Kira’s response. Her brows knit together in a frown.

Whoops.

Abuela Rosa was no fool. She knew what Kira’s and Rob’s high school years had been like. Kira decided to change the subject, before Rob’s grandmother could start beating Trevor with one of her pink slippers.

“Did Helga go out yesterday?” Kira asked, switching back to English.

Abuela Rosa gave her a long look before answering, as if she were deciding whether to let the question distract her.

“She went for a walk yesterday. I said I would go with her, but she wanted to be alone.”

Kira’s gloved fingers tightened around the hard, metal edges of the small key as she considered.

Why now?

It was the same question she had asked Rob on the phone—before Trevor had stuck his nose in and everything had gone to hell in a hand basket.

George had been missing for nearly a year. Based on the newspaper article, Helga was devastated about his disappearance, and convinced that foul play must be involved.

But if she’d had the key in her possession all along, why wait to use it? Presumably, whatever had been inside the safety deposit box was somehow linked to her son’s absence. Surely, she would have turned it over to the police during their investigation in an effort to find him.

A sudden, cold thought struck Kira.

What if Helga had only just found the key? What if the safety deposit box did contain evidence concerning her son’s disappearance?

…And what if the person responsible knew Helga had accessed it?

* * *

“Where does Helga like to go?” Kira asked Abuela Rosa in a rush.

Abuela Rosa’s brow furrowed in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Around the home.” Kira made a circling motion in the air with her finger. “Where does she spend her time?”

She must have found the key on the premises somewhere… It was the only thing that made sense. After all, her son had worked at the home.

Abuela Rosa shrugged. “The garden. She has never been very social with the rest of us. She has always liked to sit out there, especially after her son went missing.” Abuela Rosa’s thin lips twisted. “Not that it’s much of a garden anymore. Janice didn’t bother to hire a new gardener after George disappeared. She just got the other nurses and staff to water the front lawn and left the back garden alone.” She uttered the words with a sniff of disapproval.

Janice. This was the second time the head nurse’s name had cropped up. First, she hadn’t wanted to bother calling the police about Helga’s disappearance, and now it turned out she hadn’t wanted anyone rooting around the back garden either…

Was that where Helga had gone?

There was a chance she had been snatched from her bed, but Abuela Rosa said there had been no sign of her during the search of the home, and all the doors had been locked. Rob had mentioned that Abuela Rosa hadn’t heard anything from where she had been stationed in the home’s rec room either. But if Helga had left the building of her own volition…

Kira’s green gaze drifted to the window on the far wall. She walked over to investigate.

“Could she have climbed out?” she asked. She didn’t know how physically capable Helga was, but the home only had one floor, and the window wasn’t that high.

Abuela Rosa tilted her silver-curled head as she considered. “Maybe?” She made a rocking motion with her hand to indicate her uncertainty. “She moves around fairly well, but she has arthritis in her knees. It flares up at night.”

“Ha!” Trevor said with an air of triumph. “So it could have been a booty call.”

Kira rolled her eyes and ignored him. If she heard the words ‘booty call’ from him one more time, she was probably going to punch him.

Kira opened the window. The pane slid aside easily. She eased her gloved fingertips around the worn, metal edges of the screen. It popped out without any effort.

Abuela Rosa gave her an uneasy look. “Kira, I really don’t think—”

“I know. If she went out the window, how did she get the screen back into place from the outside?” Kira bit her lip. It was a sticking point.

Abuela Rosa blinked. “Yes. Exactly.” She gave a firm nod, her face flushing slightly.

Something in Kira’s mind snagged on her reaction.

Huh. Maybe she’s the one getting booty calls…

Dammit. She was using the stupid phrase now. A lovely side-effect of spending time with Trevor.

Despite her disappointment, Kira leaned out the window to look outside. It had been such a good idea… If only the screen had been left leaning against the wall or something. She rolled her eyes to herself.

Yeah, and then Abuela Rosa would have known exactly where Helga had gone, wouldn’t she?

Wait.

Kira leaned out the window further, her hands tightening around the sill to brace herself. The sky outside had turned a silvery gray. Her eyes narrowed in an effort to pierce the predawn shadows.

“What is it?” Trevor prompted.

“I think I see footprints.”

“Are you sure?” Abuela Rosa asked. “The sun hasn’t come up yet. Your eyes might be playing tricks on you.”

Kira shot her a dubious look before hoisting herself up onto the sill. “I’m going to take a look.”

“Is that a good idea?” Abuela Rosa asked in a fretful tone. She held a hand out toward Kira to forestall her. “It’s not high, but you could still hurt yourself. Besides, if there are any prints, they’re probably from the staff when they water the lawn.”

Trevor gave Rob’s grandmother a playful nudge. “Have you been having some late-night visitors? Can’t say I’m surprised.”

He gave her a wink. Abuela Rosa swatted him away with a distracted look.

Kira sighed. She didn’t know whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that she and Trevor were on the same wavelength. She ignored Abuela Rosa’s protests and swung her legs out the window. A moment later, she was hopping down to the ground below with a soft thump.

It wasn’t a long drop. Helga probably could have made it, but it would have been a painful landing with her knees. Kira dropped to a crouch to inspect the bare flowerbed where she had landed.

The earth was damp with dew. Its scent filled her nostrils, along with the smell of wet grass from the lawn beyond. The window was on the side of the sprawling retirement home, which faced a two-story office building with darkened windows about twenty feet away.

Yes, there were definitely footprints. Kira could make out what appeared to be the soles of a worn pair of running shoes—possibly a male’s, based on the size. Kira was tall for a woman, and wore size 11 shoes. The prints looked a bit shorter than her own feet, but they were wider. They only formed a few steps before disappearing onto the grass with a faint dusting of soil.

They definitely weren’t Helga’s.

Several different facts clicked together in Kira’s mind. The unmistakable scent of McDonald’s on Rob when he woke her, the same smell in her car, Abuela Rosa’s strange behavior…

She shook her head as an unlikely solution took shape. No. It was too crazy.

Then again, Rob had seemed eager to change the subject when she had asked him about the smell inside her car…

She shook her head and forced herself to focus on the task at hand. She was here to find Helga, and keep Abuela Rosa safe, not make wild guesses about Rob’s potential nocturnal activities. She frowned down at the dirt. Was that…?

Yes, a second set of prints lay beneath the first. They were faint and bore no tread, which was why Kira had almost missed them. She crouched even lower to look.

This set of prints was significantly smaller and more narrow than the first. They reminded Kira of Abuela Rosa’s pink slippers, but Rob’s grandmother was a sturdy woman with feet that were wider than Kira’s. This set of prints also led toward the grass, but angled toward the back of the retirement home instead of the front.

Kira lifted her head to follow where the trail left off with the line of her gaze, like a hound following a scent. A wooden fence with peeling, white paint marked the perimeter of the retirement home’s backyard. She could make out a closed gate in the predawn glimmer. Was Helga inside?

“Trevor Wright?” A familiar, male voice from inside Abuela Rosa’s room made Kira freeze. The speaker’s tone conveyed both surprise and a faint trace of contempt.

“Hello,” Trevor drawled. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m the officer who responded to the call about a missing woman.” The man’s voice was flat. “What are you doing here?”

“You know, just catching up with Rob’s grandmother here.”

Kira winced as she imagined Trevor draping his arm over Abuela Rosa’s shoulder and her shaking it off.

The other man paused for a beat. “At five-thirty in the morning.”

“Well, when Rob found out about the missing woman, he sent me over to keep her company. And to protect her, of course.” Trevor uttered the words in his usual arrogant fashion.

Kira rolled her eyes. Yeah, that sounded plausible…

“I didn’t know you and Rob were that close.” The deadpan voice grew louder as a pair of heavy footfalls sounded from within the room, moving toward the open window. “What’s this? Looks like the screen fell out.”

Kira closed her eyes for a moment, and wondered just how this entire mess had just managed to become even more complicated.

When she opened them, a familiar face with short-cropped, dark hair and brown eyes was looking down at her. His broad shoulders filled up the window frame, encased in his usual dark V-neck T-shirt. His expression was stern, but his lips twitched as he took in her crouching form in the garden below. He uttered a weary sigh.

“Hello, Kira.”

* * *

Kira popped up to her feet, her face flushing. “Hi, Nick.”

She was proud of the fact that she had managed to keep her voice casual, as if she met police detectives while pawing around their crime scenes every day. She raised her hand in an awkward wave, only to realize she was still wearing latex gloves.

…No chance of telling him she ‘just happened’ to be in the garden now—not that he would have believed her anyway.

She had first crossed paths with Detective Nick Foster during her investigation into the disappearance of Trevor’s sister a few weeks ago. Nick had been aware of her past experience escaping from the Procurer, and clearly suspected she had more to tell about how she had managed to find Stephanie. (He wasn’t wrong.)

He and Kira had kept in touch in the weeks since, but Kira was always careful to keep him at arm’s length. She liked Nick, and it would be handy to have a friend on the force if she wanted to keep trying to track down the Procurer, but she was wary of giving away too much information. When the time came, she wanted to be the one to take the Procurer down.

Plus, she had only just started dating Jeff, and she didn’t want Nick to get the wrong idea.

For his part, Nick seemed to consider her with an odd mixture of bemusement and respect. He was patient enough not to push her, even though he must know she had information that could be of value to the unsolved Procurer case.

His eyes darted to her raised hand before returning to meet her eyes. “Nice gloves.”

Kira felt her flush deepen. “I, um, didn’t want to leave any prints.”

“That was thoughtful of you. How long have you and your… friend been here?” His eyes rolled in Trevor’s direction.

Even though he hadn’t gotten a chance to know Trevor very well yet, he had clearly formed an opinion. It seemed Trevor’s charm didn’t work so well on male police detectives. Kira’s stories about him probably hadn’t helped either.

Kira shrugged. “Not long.” She kept her tone light and evasive. No need for him to find out she had probably been on the case longer than he had…

“What are you doing out there, anyway?”

“Oh!” Kira’s eyes widened as she recovered her scattered wits. “There are footprints out here.”

She heard Abuela Rosa start to protest from inside, but Kira ignored her. “I think Helga might have gone to the backyard.”

Nick’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed the ground around Kira’s feet. “Huh. OK, don’t move. I’ll meet you out there in a sec.” His torso slithered back inside the window.

“Hey, where are you going?” Trevor demanded from inside the room.

“Outside,” came Nick’s curt response. “Wait here.”

Trevor snorted. “You know this was our case first, right?” Kira shook her head at him in warning from outside the window, but he wasn’t looking in her direction. “Besides, Kira’s the one who found the prints and the key.”

Kira saw Nick stop halfway toward the door. “Key?”

He swiveled his head to shoot an inquiring look in Kira’s direction. Kira gave an innocent shrug. She didn’t want to have to shout the entire story from where she was standing for him to hear—not when interested parties might be listening from somewhere outside the room.

Nick’s eyes narrowed. “She can tell me all about it when I get out there.” Even though he was talking to Trevor, his gaze never left Kira’s. He broke it off with a rueful shake of his head before striding toward the door.

“Well, I’m coming with you,” Trevor said, following on Nick’s heels. Nick stopped to shoot him a withering look.

Abuela Rosa crossed her arms. “And if he is going, I am going.” Despite her fluffy pink bathrobe and matching slippers, she made an imposing figure.

Nick uttered another sigh. “Fine.”

A few moments later, Kira watched in bemusement as Nick, Trevor, and Abuela Rosa marched toward her across the grass in a miniature parade. As they approached the part of the barren garden where Kira was standing, Nick held up a hand to call a halt.

He eyed the ground and carefully avoided several places where the grass had been flattened to approach her. He fell into a crouch a few feet away. The scent of his aftershave tickled her nostrils.

“There are two sets of prints here,” he said in a low voice. “One going toward the front and one going toward the back.”

“I know,” Kira said with a trace of impatience. “I don’t know who the shoe-prints belong to, but the other ones might be Helga’s.”

At least, she didn’t know for certain who the shoe-prints belonged to… No need to distract Nick with her unfounded speculations, especially when they might make Rob look like a potential woman snatcher.

“You think the shoe-prints are irrelevant?” Nick cocked his head at her. “They indicate the person went through the window after. Actually, there might even be a print from the same shoe leading toward the window as well.”

“Yes, well, about that key you were wondering about…”

Kira launched into an explanation of how her day had unfolded, skimming over exactly how she had found out about the activity on George’s safety deposit box. Nick hadn’t met Rob, but Kira had told him enough about her roommate and his skill-set for him to fill in the blanks.

“So what are you thinking?” Nick asked when she was done.

Kira shrugged. There wasn’t any reason for her to keep her suspicions a secret. Helga’s disappearance clearly had nothing to do with the Procurer.

“Blackmail,” she said. “Helga mentioned possibly moving into a higher-end retirement home before her son went missing. I’m thinking George got some information on someone and stored the evidence in the safety deposit box.”

Kira doubted Helga had known anything about it, until she had found the key. She certainly didn’t look or sound like someone who would dirty her hands with blackmail, based on that newspaper interview. George must have only told her that he was coming into some extra money. He definitely looked like the blackmailing type—and the type who might be stupid enough to tip his hand to whomever he was trying to screw over.

Nick made a slight grunt of agreement. “So if Helga already has the evidence of who might be responsible for her son’s disappearance, why is she headed toward the backyard?”

Kira’s brow furrowed. “That’s where I’m guessing she found the key. She would have acted sooner if she’d had it all along.”

She bit her lip. Why had Helga slipped out of the window to visit the backyard?

* * *

“We’d better check it out,” Nick said. He rose to his feet to step around the two sets of prints.

Kira made a move to join him, but she was directly beneath the window, surrounded by both sets of tracks. After a moment’s hesitation, she took a long step over them to where Nick had been crouching a moment before.

Her foot wobbled on the uneven soil. Nick’s hand darted out to hold her elbow to steady her. Kira flashed him a tight smile of thanks as she regained her balance, silently cursing herself as a clumsy idiot. Bad enough she had to face him nosing in on his investigation in a rumpled set of clothes she had put on in the dark, without even brushing her hair…

As soon as her second foot had joined her first, Nick drew his hand away with a nod and started off toward the backyard gate. Kira strode after him with Trevor and Abuela Rosa following on her heels. Nick led them in a wide berth around any other potential prints on the damp grass, even though Kira couldn’t make anything out in the faint, predawn light. When he reached the gate, Nick gestured for Kira to open it.

Kira quirked an eyebrow at him. He lifted his hands palm-out and waggled his bare fingers in the air. Right. She was the only one wearing gloves.

She approached the gate from an awkward, sideways angle, where it was unlikely Helga would have stood earlier. She doubted they would all manage to enter the backyard without damaging any possible prints, but if Helga was really back there, there was a chance she might be in danger. The person her son had been blackmailing might have caught up with her by now. It would be easy enough for the older woman to have an unfortunate ‘accident.’

Kira winced as the latch on the gate opened with a slight rasp. She pressed against the peeling, white paint to swing it open. Knee-length grass greeted her on the other side. The tufted heads of dandelions bobbed at irregular intervals in the early morning breeze. Trees and hedges clustered along the fence within in an untidy sprawl. A shed with a peaked roof hulked in the fading darkness in the far corner of the yard.

Nick eased his way past Kira to take the lead again. His hand drifted to his hip to unclip his gun. The snap of his holster uttered a soft, metallic pop as he eased the weapon free.

The tall grass seemed to tug at Kira’s jeans as she waded along behind him. She cringed as she felt dew seep through the heavy fabric to chill her legs. Goosebumps prickled her bare arms. She suppressed a shiver and wished she had thought to throw a hoodie on top of her T-shirt before rushing out of the apartment. The scent of wet grass was stronger here.

The flowerbeds that ran along the bases of the hedges and trees hugging the backyard fence were bare—aside from the weeds, of course. Kira paused at the sight of seven ceramic dwarfs decorated in bright colors with chipped paint. Their toothy smiles looked ominous to her in the lingering shadows.

One of them had been overturned by an ambitious gopher, who had tunneled into the garden. The dwarf lay on its side, looking for all the world like it had had too much to drink.

“George got those for Helga,” Abuela Rosa said in a low voice. “She always read ‘Snow White’ to him when he was a child.”

Kira found herself wondering whether Helga had read him the Disney or the Brothers Grimm version.

“How long has that one been knocked over?” Kira asked, pointing to the downed dwarf.

Abuela Rosa shrugged. “I don’t know. No one but Helga ever comes back here anymore.”

Kira frowned. The gopher hole looked fresh. What if George had hidden his safety deposit box key beneath the dwarf for safekeeping? It would have remained there until the gopher had knocked it over—assuming the person he was blackmailing hadn’t known where to find it.

Nick shot them a silencing look over his shoulder and continued toward the shed.

“Why does he get to be in charge?” Trevor grumbled to Kira under his breath.

“Well, he does have a gun.”

“And I’ve got my own pair of guns right here.” Trevor spared a moment to strike a double bicep pose and admire his own physique.

Nick hurled another glare in Trevor’s direction. Trevor raised his chin, but he also lowered his arms. Slowly. Kira rolled her eyes and strode through the grass to catch up with Nick.

They passed a sliding patio door with a ramp that led back inside the home. For a moment, Kira thought she saw a moving shadow somewhere on the other side, but nothing happened. She turned around and almost bumped into Nick’s back. He had paused at the door to the shed.

It was ajar.

* * *

A faint, yellow light came from inside the shed through the sliver of the open door. Kira leaned forward, her shoulder almost touching Nick’s. A muffled, scuffling sound reached her ears, punctuated by mutterings in what sounded like distressed German. It was too jumbled for Kira to make anything out, but it was clearly a woman’s voice.

Nick eased the shed door open and stepped inside. Kira followed, practically on top of him.

The interior of the shed smelled of stale earth and rusted metal tools, which hung from pegs along the walls. They cast long, eerie shadows, thanks to the illumination of the battered flashlight lying on the ground. A grass-stained, electric lawnmower stood right by the door for easy access. Kira peered around it to see someone hunched by the back wall.

“Helga?” she said in a soft voice.

The woman shook her head and did not turn around. Her salt-and-pepper bun was askew and her plain, dark-green nightgown was stained with dirt. Its long, shapeless fabric clung to her thin frame.

Nick kept his gun held low and ready, but allowed Kira to circle him to approach the other woman. Kira recognized Helga’s hawk-like nose immediately. Her lean face was contorted in an expression of distress. She clutched a garden spade with both hands, using all her frail strength to push it into the packed dirt floor. Every once in awhile she shook her head back and forth in firm denial, without pausing her mutterings. She seemed to take no notice of Kira’s presence.

“Helga?” Kira tried again. She crouched by the other woman’s side. “What are you doing?”

“He’s here,” she muttered in German.

“Who is here?” Kira asked in the same language.

“George.”

Kira’s eyes rolled up to meet Nick’s. Maybe finding the safety deposit box key had sent Helga over the edge…

“He had a meeting. The day he disappeared.” Helga kept working the blade of her her garden spade against the dirt floor. Her English was stilted, and punctuated by ragged breaths. “To talk about new landscape plans. It must have been here.” Although she spoke to Kira, she made no attempt to look up at her.

“Helga?” a woman called out in a stern voice from somewhere outside the shed.“Are you in there?” It wasn’t Abuela Rosa.

Helga flinched, but kept digging.

Kira rose to her feet to greet their visitor. A woman who was almost an entire foot shorter than her stepped into the shed. She wore a crisp set of pale-blue scrubs and a yellow cardigan that were perfectly cut to her small frame. Her graying, blond hair was styled in a tidy pixie cut that framed her freckled features. She scowled at Helga.

“What are you doing?” she demanded. “We’ve been looking all over for you.”

Kira shot Nick a questioning look.

“This is Janice, the head nurse,” he said by way of introduction.

Kira did her best not to stare. This was Janice? She was hardly the hulking bully Kira had been expecting…

“And who is this woman and the oaf outside?” Janice demanded, swinging her scowl in Nick’s direction.

Nick blinked but didn’t recoil. “This is Kira Brightwell. She was the one to find Helga. The oaf outside is her associate.”

“‘Oaf?’” Trevor protested in a wounded tone as he entered the shed with Abuela Rosa.

With six of them inside, it was starting to feel fairly crowded. Still, Abuela Rosa managed to worm her way to Helga’s side to place a comforting hand on her roommate’s shoulder. Helga paid no attention to any of the newcomers and kept digging.

Janice frowned. “Kira Brightwell? That upstart girl from the newspapers?”

This time, Kira blinked.

‘Upstart?’

Nick’s lips twitched. “Yes.”

Janice whirled toward Kira. “Well, thank you for finding Helga, but I must say that in future, you would be well advised to observe proper visiting hours.” Her voice turned cajoling. “Come on, Helga. Let’s get you out of here.”

It was the same tone of voice Kira might have used to coax a cat onto her lap. It seemed Janice had the bedside manner of a steamroller.

Helga shook her head and kept digging.

“Helga.” Janice’s voice hardened. “It’s time to go. You’ve wasted enough of everyone’s time.” She shot Abuela Rosa a pointed look as if to let her know who was to blame for getting the police involved in what she considered a pointless, domestic matter.

“He’s here,” Helga said again in German.

“She thinks her son George is here,” Kira said. She watched Janice’s reaction before continuing.

“I think she’s digging for him.”

* * *

“What?” Janice blurted. A faint flicker crossed her sylvan features. “That’s absurd! Everyone knows that lazy layabout packed up and left.”

Helga’s head swiveled toward her from where she knelt. Her eyes were wild. “I know it vas you.” She spoke English, but her German accent had thickened, turning her ‘W’s into ‘V’s.

Janice uttered a nervous laugh. “What are you talking about?” Her eyes darted to Nick. “She’s clearly distressed. I really do need to get her inside and in bed.”

“Zere is blood on ze rake.” Helga’s fingers tightened around the handle of the spade as she rose painfully to her feet.

Kira eyed the soil-encrusted, rusty blade of the garden spade. It was an unlikely weapon, but it at least offered a chance of someone getting tetanus. Trevor followed the line of her gaze and wormed his way past to join Abuela Rosa at Helga’s side, planting himself between her and Janice. Nick kept a wary eye on the head nurse.

Kira pulled her phone from her pocket and turned on the screen to use as a flashlight of her own as she moved toward the tools hanging on the wall.

“This is crazy!” Janice shook her head. “Those tools have been here for years. Anything could be on them.”

“You are a liar and a thief,” Helga said from where she stood behind Trevor. “You have been stealing from all ze residents for years! George knew. He had found proof. I have seen it.”

“What?” Abuela Rosa blurted. She turned toward Janice, her eyes hardening. “What is she talking about?”

Janice took a half-step back and spread her hands with an anxious look of confusion. “Honestly, I have no idea. We really need to get her some Valiu—”

“Our rent, it costs one amount, but she charges us another—a higher one,” Helga said in a hard voice. Abuela Rosa uttered a string of curses in Spanish.

Kira stretched her arm to aim her phone at the business end of an old, iron rake. This was not how she had imagined the reunion with Helga going.

Janice seemed like an unlikely murderer, considering her size. But she could have easily taken down a grown man with the right tool—especially if he were caught off guard with his back turned in the dim confines of the shed.

Yes, Kira could see shifty-eyed George showing up for a meeting to discuss his blackmail terms, and getting whacked for his troubles instead.

“This is all nonsense!” Janice’s voice was shrill.

“There’s something on the rake,” Kira said in a voice that was much calmer than she felt. “It looks like dried blood.”

Janice shook her head, her face flushing. “That could be from a gopher for all we know!”

“Ze blood belongs to my son.”

Helga was shaking now. Kira wasn’t certain whether she would try to charge into Trevor in her desire to reach Janice. Nick stepped forward to add himself to the human barrier.

“Foolish woman,” Janice said with a trace of heat. “You can’t possibly know that. Now come with me, before—”

“I do know!” Helga shouted. “He is lying right zere.”

Kira’s gaze followed the line of the soil encrusted shovel as Helga pointed.

Somehow, all of them had missed it with Helga crouching over her digging.

A set of pale, white finger bones gleamed dully through the soil.

* * *

For a moment, everyone in the shed remained frozen.

“You’ve ruined everything!” Janice shouted. “Do have any idea how long I’ve worked here, scrimping and saving while I look after you sorry lot?” Her breath came out hard and fast as she jerked her chin in Helga and Abuela Rosa’s direction.

She barked a humorless laugh before continuing. “No one even noticed when I started charging extra. It wasn’t like you couldn’t afford it. I deserved that money.” She jabbed her finger against her own chest before stabbing it in Helga’s direction. “And then your idiot son found out somehow. I had to take care of him.”

The head nurse’s blue eyes were wild. “And now, I’m going to have to take care of all of you.”

She darted toward the rack holding the heavy, iron rake. Aside from Kira, everyone else was clustered in the corner of the shed. Nick had his gun, of course, but it would be dangerous to shoot in the close confines, with Kira standing so close to his target. She saw the look of indecision flicker across his face.

“Janice, we can talk about this,” he said in a calming voice while still gripping his gun. He met Kira’s gaze with a grim nod. He would shoot Janice if he had to.

“You killed my son!”

Helga chose that moment to throw herself forward with spade in hand. Abuela Rosa skittered back into the corner near the buried body while Trevor and Nick tried to subdue Helga. Her pent up anguish seemed to lend her strength well beyond her scrawny frame.

Kira heard the rasping sound of Janice pulling the rake free from the pegs behind her. From the corner of her eye, she saw the shorter woman raise her weapon over her shoulder to strike the back of Kira’s head.

“Kira, look out!” Abuela Rosa blurted from her position in the corner. Both Trevor and Nick whirled their heads in Kira’s direction with anxious expressions.

But Kira was already moving.

She spun backward toward Janice, her elbow connecting with the shorter woman’s face with a sickening crunch. She barely caught the heavy rake as Janice wilted to the ground with blood pouring from her nose.

Kira tossed the rake aside with a dull thump to straddle her in a full mount. Janice tried to flail at her from below, but Kira used her knees to pin the head nurse’s arms against the ground. She scowled up at Kira, who gave her a grim smile.

‘Upstart,’ my ass.

* * *

“…and then he stormed off,” Rob said around a large mouthful of a Sausage and Egg McMuffin slathered with ketchup. A red glob plopped onto the sleeve of his hoodie before he hastily wiped it away. “We never did get to finish our Guitar Hero game.”

Kira rolled her eyes at him before blowing out a sigh. She toyed with her hash brown, picking it apart where she sat across from him at the dining-room table. The sun was up, and it shone through the front windows of the walk-up apartment, illuminating the scattered piles of Rob’s clothes like a spotlight. For a moment, the only sounds were those of rustling paper and chewing.

“How the hell am I going to patch things up with him?” Kira asked in a plaintive voice.

After she had finished telling Rob all about her adventure at the retirement home, he had told her how things had played out with Jeff after their little dust-up on the phone.

Rob had almost choked when Kira had arrived home with a bag of McDonald’s breakfast in hand, but she made no mention of her observations of the smells she had detected earlier that morning, other than to say she must have been craving something salty.

Rob had nearly wilted in relief at the free pass, hardly able to believe he had managed to get one over on Kira for once. He would have to be extra careful the next time he sneaked out. Maybe his grandmother could loan him some air freshener, or he could hold the food bag out the window as he drove…

“I’m sure you’ll talk him around,” Rob said with a wave of his hand. “Jeff likes you, and it was only a misunderstanding.”

He hoped he was right. It wasn’t as if he had other guy friends who came over to play video games with him…

Kira gave him a weak smile of thanks before her expression turned considering. “You know what? You’re right. Besides, it was all Trevor’s fault, really—and yours, for making me forget my date with Jeff in the first place.”

“What?” Rob spluttered. “You’re going to try to pin this on me? I’m pretty sure Trevor can take all the blame. He’s overdue. And why did you drag him along in the first place?” Rob’s eyes narrowed. “He didn’t do anything to my grandmother, did he?”

Kira pursed her lips. “Well, he did flirt with her a bit.”

“With Abuela Rosa?” Rob almost leaped to his feet in indignation. “How could you let—”

Kira raised a hand to calm him. “Don’t worry, she gave him the brush-off. It seems he’s not her type.”

“Of course he’s not her type,” Rob said in a grinding voice.

Kira tilted her head to give him a mock-consoling look. The end of her dark ponytail dipped over her shoulder. “Were you worried about getting a new grandfather? Abuela Rosa has been single for a few years now.” Her lips twitched.

Rob’s mind exploded. The very idea of his grandmother hooking up with Trevor Wright of all people… He couldn’t even form a coherent sentence in protest. His breakfast sandwich dropped from his fingers as his features contorted in a disbelieving glare at Kira’s audacity.

Kira stroked her chin. “All joking aside, I think Abuela Rosa might have been seeing someone. Other than Trevor Wright, I mean.”

Rob froze. “What’re you talking about?”

“Well, there was a set of footprints just under her window,” Kira said. She gave Rob an unreadable look. “They looked like a man’s. And Abuela Rosa acted strange about me noticing them. She actually tried to keep me away from the window in the first place.”

Kira drummed her fingers against the smooth, wooden surface of the dining-room table as she continued to muse aloud. “The way I see it, someone could have visited her earlier in the night, before Helga went missing. Abuela Rosa left the screen out of the window. Later, the visitor went out the same way and Abuela Rosa put the screen back in the window behind him, obscuring the fact that Helga had left that way in the meantime.”

Rob forced himself to pick up his McMuffin as if nothing were wrong. “Huh. I guess that’s one theory…” He swallowed to clear his throat. “What does Nick think?”

He hadn’t even considered contaminating a potential crime scene when he had made his escape from his grandmother’s room…

A flicker crossed Kira’s features. “I convinced him the prints were irrelevant. I figured you would want me to keep your grandmother’s private matters out of police business. Besides, whatever Abuela Rosa was getting up to, it had nothing to do with Helga or George’s disappearance.”

Rob gave her a long look. Did she know? He wasn’t sure…

Better to just drop the whole thing and move on.

“Thank you,” he said, actually meaning it.

Kira had been there for him when he had needed her, and had helped keep his grandmother safe. Even if she had gotten Trevor Wright involved.

Kira bobbed her head. “You’re welcome.”

“You know, you are good at this whole helping people thing,” Rob said. “I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I could set you up with a website, no problem…”

Kira rolled her eyes. “Have you been talking to Trevor?”

“What? No!” Rob made a face at the idea.

“Well, he’s been pitching the same idea.” Kira squared her shoulders. “All I want to do is track down the Procurer.”

Rob suppressed a sigh. “I know.”

He still hoped to wear her down about the idea. Eventually. After all, they made a good team—especially when she did all the legwork. And as good as he was at his online security business, the saving people business was far more interesting.

“So considering you’ve messed things up between me and Jeff…” Kira began in an obvious effort to shift the subject back to its original course.

“Hey, it’s not my fault you forgot about him!”

Kira raised an eyebrow. “Are you telling me that showing up in my room in the middle of the night to loom over me—reeking of McDonald’s—and waking me out of a dead sleep isn’t a distraction?”

Erg. She hadn’t forgotten about the McDonald’s thing after all.

“Well it’s not like it was fun for me either,” Rob blurted. “…Creeping into a half-naked girl’s bedroom where there were sure to have been bare feet, and never mind all the weird muttering about monkey—”

Splat.

Rob winced as the bulk of Kira’s picked-at hash brown hit him in the face. It tumbled to the dining-room table to land against his McMuffin wrapper with a rustling thump.

Kira scowled at him, but there was a familiar glimmer in her green eyes as she held his gaze. “Just promise me the next time there’s an emergency in the middle of the night, you’ll knock—like a normal person.”

Rob used one of his paper napkins to wipe at his face while trying to gather the battered remains of his dignity.

“Agreed.”

* * *

Ground Work: A Kira Brightwell Short Story

Copyright © 2021 by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover design by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover art copyright © Arenacreative, Dmitrij Tkačuk, Richard Thomas/Dreamstime

 

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