A Key To All That Glitters
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by Kathleen Rowland
Description: Balancing her thriving yoga spa and raising twins, Widow Heatherlee Baronova is slammed by her late husband's past when an ex-con demands a key to a safe deposit box. Naïve, Heatherlee knows nothing about it. When her spa Clearwater is robbed, the police investigation is headed by Sheriff Marc Duarte, a sheep rancher from the silkiest gentry of town. The last thing she wants is for Marc to prove that dirty money built Clearwater. Marc knows her problems with a Russian theft ring will escalate beyond bad press and the bottom line. After the twins are kidnapped, she starts listening. Shrewd, rugged, and rich, Marc is clueless that this coppery-haired bundle of determination and desire married her husband because he looked like him. He does see a practical advantage, but if he goes undercover as "out of hiding" Yuri Baronov, will it be a death sentence?
eBook Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press, 2008
eBookwise Release Date: January 2009
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [387 KB]
Reading time: 224-313 min.
"A KEY TO ALL THAT GLITTERS is an interesting book dealing with a woman who seems afraid of most everything at the beginning to one who stands up for herself and her family, and takes bold steps into her future. I liked that author Kathleen Rowland makes her hero Basque and adds characteristics of this lesser-known ethnic culture to the storyline."_Kris Jones, Romance Junkies Reviews
Heatherlee Baronova sat there stunned. She faced her late husband's ... whatever. His partner, lover, or friend showered words that felt like pellets of ice. She wanted to head for cover where she could think. Here she couldn't get past the immediate pounding in her chest and roar of blood in her ears. She'd been trapped into listening to something about which she knew nothing. She couldn't move, needed to breathe. Another ten ... twenty seconds passed. Panic pressed on her, but she couldn't let it consume her.
Because her upstairs apartment had toys strewn all over, she'd invited her to a public area. They sat in her spa's open-air loggia that spilled over the rugged Pacific coastline, and she was glad she'd chosen that spot. She'd hoped to hear a cute story.
Instead, the tempest of a woman beat the dead horse. "I want my half. Yuri promised. You know what key."
Heatherlee knew nothing about a safe deposit box and threw up her hands. "I wish I did!"
Medusa spat her words. "We partners, friends from Russia."
"He never mentioned you." She glanced at valued customers from the Silver Age Yoga workshop.
The loggia's peaceful setting didn't bring calm to this hellcat. She watched her fiery stare dart from one corner of the room to another and said, "No one dangerous lurks in the shadows." She wished for a private cubbyhole.
The stranger paused for a second. "You Yuri's widow."
We're going the third round. "That's right. I'm five years his widow."
"Give me key now." A flash of anger streaked across the tough woman's features.
Suddenly, her chest hurt from racing palpitations. Anxiety clamped her lungs. Her fingers tingled, and she sensed a panic attack in the making. Not this! She felt twilight dizziness and watched gentle waves turn surreal and glisten in the noontime California sun. Breathe. She inhaled, deep and long. Slowly panic drained away, and urgency took its place.
The tyrant's face was beat red, but her hailstorm began to make an inkling of sense. More than once, he'd been a whopping big liar. Truth feels as right as rain.
She had no choice but to attend to this unsavory business. With more breaths, she willed away a panic attack and spun her thoughts to something concrete, her daily schedule. She'd teach Hatha Yoga at one and then pick up the twins, currently safe at preschool. The woman wouldn't know about the twins, conceived In Vitro. "Your name again?"
"Svetlana Kessk. I from Russia like Yuri."
His self-proclaimed partner was a hardened, graying blond. Young, she'd have been stunning with those high cheekbones. Heatherlee reached for the courage that had momentarily deserted her. She forced herself to think and conjured up his relatives, nearly silent at his funeral. "He was born there, but his roots were in L.A."
Svetlana jerked from a slump. "No. Roots in old country. He good at English. No accent."
"Care for iced tea?" Hoping to find her own composure, Heatherlee tried her best to put normalcy into her tone.
"Vodka." Svetlana strained across the bistro table.
"Sorry, no alcohol in the house. I wasn't expecting company until Thanksgiving. How about pomegranate juice? It's as tart as wine." She didn't wait for an answer and rushed to the efficiency kitchen for the bottle of juice.
A resin pilgrim couple and their turkey pal dangled their legs over the counter. She wanted to disappear into their Plymouth Rock imagery. She returned and set the juice down.
Svetlana grabbed it and twisted off the top. "I drink it straight up." After she'd finished it, her expression softened.
Heatherlee took note of her thirst, knowing a war with nerves brought on dehydration. She caught sight of the Silver Agers as they wandered behind them, toward the efficiency kitchen. Led by town matron Anna Duarte, they spoke among themselves and poured bottles over crackling ice. Her well-heeled clients paid on the honor system and dropped bills into a jar. She wondered if Svetlana was destitute. Was she hungry? If she ate something, would she go away? Heatherlee scooted alongside her clients for zucchini bread, forcing a smile.
Thankfully, the gadflies were busy talking while she dumped the contents of the jar, around twenty dollars, into a plastic bag. Juggling a water bottle and several slices of bread on a napkin, she returned to sit opposite Svetlana. Damned if her hands weren't shaking. The money bag dropped to the table, and her fumbling fingers pushed the bread across.
The vagrant shoved a slice into her mouth. Her other hand snatched the money, and Heatherlee's thoughts raced to a single post-mortem fact. For a jewelry sales rep, Yuri's accumulation of funds and property was remarkable. He'd left her a rich woman.
"Okay, Yuri's widow, I tell you whole thing one more time." Svetlana hunched forward. "He and I make deal. I take fall. Go to jail. Got out. Yuri dead. My half in safe deposit box. I want key."
For a horrible split second, Heatherlee worried that Yuri had died for a crime they'd committed. She decided to cooperate and later, come up with a better plan. "I'll try to find it. What bank?"
"Orange something bank." A crumb sat on her upper lip.
"Even if I don't find the key, I can ask at the Orange County Bank if they have a safe deposit box for the two of you."
"Tell no one. I just got out of jail." She banged the table with a fist.
"I get it. You're afraid the bank will look you up."
Svetlana fished through her plastic purse and pulled out a Starlight Motel Pen. "I stay here. Room three." She held it up for Heatherlee to read the name and then scribbled a 'three' on a napkin. She shoved it across the table. Crumbs flew.
Heatherlee clasped it with an unsteady hand.
"Find key!" Svetlana's words came out like a hiss. She stormed from the loggia. As she passed through the swinging door, it slapped her on the butt.
No doubt for the benefit of the Silver Agers, Anna Duarte said, "Heatherlee, dear, it's not one whit mysterious what you've got on your hands. Unsatisfied customers need to eat less. She's obviously toned."
She gave her a polite nod. "She does have that, Anna." For another five minutes she sat there, refusing to fidget. When she finally moved, she darted through the swinging door and across the spa lobby. She ducked into a stairwell, hidden within a closet.
Yuri had arranged for several passageways to be built. Any closet brought on anxiety for Heatherlee, but this time, fleeing felt good. She pounded upstairs to her apartment.
Inside its protective walls, she dialed her friend, a lawyer. Tara had the working-through-lunch habit.
"It's Heatherlee. You know I've had suspicions about Yuri." It took a few minutes to share Svetlana's story. Goosebumps spilled across her skin as she replayed the scenario.
"The jailbird rocked you off your ass. Have a panic attack?" Tara knew her all too well.
"Almost." Even though every breath had felt like an Olympic event, yoga had taught her to breathe them away.
"I suspect Svetlana's coming out of the woodwork to get at money that isn't hers." Tara's voice was tight and sharp as she turned from friend to criminal lawyer.
"Remember, though. After Yuri's death, I didn't know how he got the fat bank account or paid off the mortgage."
"You really believe this woman was Yuri's partner?"
"I do." Heatherlee recalled the beads of perspiration on Svetlana's forehead. "Her desperation was sincere."
Tara blew air. "That makes them partners in crime."
"It seems she's paid for hers."
"I'll look up a ruling against Svetlana Kessk and phone the president of the OC bank. As his widow, you'll want to access the box and all that glitters within. I'll message over a letter on your behalf."
"Hold off on that last part, Tara. I'm going to hire Leviticus Blake."
"A private investigator is a good idea. Leviticus is the perfect choice. I still advise you to alert the cops. An ex-con and two thugs want a key to Yuri's safe deposit box."
"It's a good idea in theory. Too bad the cops are in bed with the Landings Beacon. My business depends on goodwill. If this leaks, Clearwater's name will turn to mud."
"Well, Leviticus and Mae won't be back until this evening. They're spending the day with his grandson." Tara and her husband lived next door to the Blake couple.
When Heatherlee hung up the phone, panic returned like a golf ball in her throat. Somehow Svetlana had found her. It made her worry that her cronies might know about the twins, born after Yuri's death. Annie and Galen were all that mattered, and she didn't want the thugs anywhere near them.
Fuzzy recollections of Yuri's peculiar trips swirled about her mind, but redirecting gloom was a practiced talent. Like an ostrich, she stuffed her head in the sand. Personal crises, it was the best way to get through them. Not even Mae or Tara would guess that she was sitting in the corner of her bedroom for under an hour, unable to decide what to wear. During the second hour, she forced herself to stay positive. Back downstairs, teaching yoga was real and sane. Up and at them, she drove herself hard through an advanced track.
Since the temperature was a comfortable seventy-two, she held her class on her roof garden. Clients paid a premium price for outdoor workouts under the UV protection of a gauzy shade. She started them out with Sun Salutations. Most were seasoned practitioners, easily led through a sustained pranayama practice. Her inversions, balances, and bends were fluid, but mind altering to nothingness wouldn't come.
* * * *
Sheriff Marcellus Duarte tossed a leg over the side of his bed. It wasn't his divorce anniversary that kept him awake. He rolled to his side in a half doze. With the holidays coming up, his blues had worsened. A week away, Thanksgiving would trumpet in the season for families.
He didn't have one.
The singles scene put him in a restless mood. Who was the blonde tangled up in his sheets the night before? Dawn or Fawn, something like that. To survive the festivities and endless foodstuffs, he could dish up someone sweet. He wouldn't. Their party personalities reminded him too much of Pilar.
The crackling of a 911 call brought him to the here and now. Hokay. I'm awake.
Propped with an elbow on the mattress, he reached for the two-way radio on his bedside table. He strained to hear the dispatcher over the static.
"Sheriff, I'm shooting over a recording. Over."
"Ready. Over." He listened.
"Heatherlee Baronova. 15 Cannery Row. Break-in downstairs. Carried my twins to the roof." The woman's voice was a dusky whisper. Tiny voices whimpered.
The dispatcher's voice broke in. "Intruders hit the first level. The victims are a mother and her two children. They occupy the second floor. They're hiding on her roof garden. Police are dispatched."
"I'm on my way." He knew the Cannery Row location. The painted-lady Victorians were no more a cannery than the Fox Hollow Condominiums were furrows for foxes, but names stuck from what used to be.
Cops would arrive first. Marc's job as temporary sheriff was to oversee their investigation. After pulling on jeans, he slipped on an official shirt with the badge attached. He rammed a small tablet and pen in the breast pocket. Hastily, he ran out the door to the cruiser.
Marc knew every inch of the Duarte County Road. It took him from his ranch down the coastal bluff. He rounded turns with tires squealing and hunched forward over the steering wheel. Coming through fog to Landings Beach, the town flanked the Pacific like an ominous jewel box. He hoped things wouldn't happen faster than he could take them in.
He picked up the cruiser's radio mike. "Sheriff Duarte here. I'll be at the Cannery in five. Keep me posted." He heard other sirens pierce the night as he peeled down the final hill. Ahead, gaslights of the historical section glowed over the dark water. Slowing at a stop sign, he rounded the corner along a stand of trees and rolled down his window. The teeth of the wind bit him in the face. It would be cold for the woman and children on a roof.
His nostrils filled with the scent of eucalyptus. No sirens now. The dispatch operator interrupted. "Another call's come in from the same woman. I'll shoot it over to you."
Preparing for the worst, he set his elbow on the window frame, arched his hand across his forehead, and squeezed as he listened to a recording from moments before.
"Heatherlee Baronova." A siren resounded in the background. "Have a telescope. Two men. A woman dragged by her hair to a dark Mercedes. Pulling north. License plate ... FY5."
Marc clicked to headquarters. "Put two units after and an all points bulletin out on a dark Mercedes, partial license FY5, heading north on the PCH. See if a chopper can lift from Irvine. We've got an abduction. Who's working the swing?"
"Sergeant Ditzman and a rookie have it all night."
He didn't waste a second telling himself the woman hiding with her children hadn't been discovered. Thieves would have scrammed when they'd heard the siren.
Marc knew all about Clearwater, a pricey health spa. His former wife called it Omtown. Yoga and Pilates kept her trim, but that effort turned out to be for her boss-lover. He connected with the cop on assignment. "Sheriff Duarte here. Give me an update."
"We brought the victims down. I'm with them on the first level. My partner's outside the building."
He caught sight of a cop's silhouette walking around the closed Cannery Row shops. Marc pulled behind the cop's cruiser along the red line of the curb. When Marc cracked his cruiser door, wind whipped it open. He shut it with a swift nudge. The only noise was the crashing surf as he walked along cobblestone to the entrance of the corner rowhouse, southern to the other red brick low-rises. A waterfall splashed over stones into a reflecting pool, illuminated with spotlights. Under the water, he read a silvery script, Clearwater.
Two-stories high, each rowhouse had shuttered windows with flower boxes on either side of a door. This one was gouged. A hand-sized hole had been drilled next to an ornate brass knob. He grabbed it, pushed it open, and a bell jangled. Dust from a cop's fingerprinting kit rubbed off on his hands. Inside the establishment, the spa smelled of burned sandalwood. Marc gave a cursory nod toward Sergeant Ditzman who stood behind a smashed counter. "Sergeant, you said the landline was cut."
Ditzman said, "Mrs. Baronova grabbed her cell."
The pretty proprietor sat on a bench and braced her back against gleaming pole with exercise equipment attached. Over one willowy shoulder, a comforter draped. Under it, tiny children squirmed on her lap. The temperature in the spa was warm, but Marc saw her shiver. Her world was not feeling safe. "You okay, Mrs. Baronova?"
"We don't need medical attention." Her tone was neutral, one of someone talking to a phone solicitor.
Her toddlers spun into a kicking frenzy with each other. With gentle fingers she separated and wrapped their feet with the suede comforter. She wore no ring.
Ex-spouses topped the suspect list.
The police sergeant's stomach hung over his gun belt in a mess of blue shirt. "Sheriff, I did the tool mark exam. Took prints."
"Saw that. Your partner checked the perimeter?"
"Yes, sir. Landline's cut." He bit off a piece of chewing tobacco. To keep their hands free, smokers often chewed.
When Marc approached the counter, glass crunched under his feet. Alongside the cash register, still in place, was a tumble of Yoga magazines. Loose wires drooped from the back of a computer monitor. He said, "The entire processing unit is gone." Thieves wanted the hard drive, but it was easier to haul off the whole thing. "Display case is smashed." He bent down to look in. "Whatever was there isn't any more. Is the rest of the place intact, Sergeant?"
The woman drew a breath and followed it with silence.
Landscape paintings covered tan walls. "Mrs. Baronova, let us know if any paintings are missing." Placed around a hardwood floor was an assortment of stainless steel workout equipment. "Same with the equipment." He could see she'd considered his statement wordlessly. Beyond were classrooms labeled for Yoga, Pilates, and Swedish massage. The sandalwood aroma lingered from a dry sauna's open door. Encased with security bars, an oceanside loggia could be seen through swinging doors. He scanned the sign over the reception desk, 'Clearwater over Stone: Systems that incorporate principles from yoga, dance, gymnastics, swimming and tai-chi.'
He reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and brought out his tablet and pen. He kept a respectful distance to the owner. "I'm Sheriff Duarte."
With fingers strong and slim, she extended her hand to his.
He didn't expect to shake hands and quickly pocketed his ballpoint pen.
She gave him a swift shake. "Marc Duarte," she said as if his name clicked with her. "I know Anna Duarte." The woman actually spoke more than two words.
Under these circumstances, no mortal sat with such noble posture as this flame-haired woman. "Your mother and I co-chaired a fundraiser." Her voice trembled but her words had the cadence of natural release.
"Junior League?" He didn't keep tabs on his mother's acquaintances. She toiled in auxiliaries, the league, and made appearances wherever her opinion was required. Marc thought the small-town chitchat might relax Mrs. Baronova enough to get her thinking about details. He'd put up with it. "You're good with names."
"Need to be in this business. Before I had my twins, volunteering was my life. I owe a lot to your mother for getting my spa off the ground." She spoke like a debutant with the formalities and courtesies that his parents instilled in him within the Basque echelon. She closed her eyes briefly. "Anna gave me her wholehearted support."
"How so?" He assumed her polish meant she was raised with money. She was adept at turning the night's chaos into a social exchange. Her jaw had gone from rigid to slack.
"Anna got some leaguers to gorilla-market the spa."
"Good old-fashioned name-dropping."
She seemed to like his mother. His former wife had begrudged her boldness. "Should I call you Sheriff Duarte?" Her voice was deep for woman.
"For a friend of my mother, Marc is good. I listened to your calls. Glad you and your children came through okay, Mrs. Baronova." He ambled across the room toward the marred door and ran a hand around the drilled-out hole. "We know how they entered."
She held his gaze. "A touch on any window would have set off alarms. They chose an unwired door."
To choose is to know. She seemed too pleasant for her miserable circumstances. What was she covering up? "You have a fine business." He'd need to redirect her banter, but for now would delay pointed questions. He slipped onto an adjacent bench. "Teach yoga?"
"Yoga and gentle resistance. I offer massage, a vegetarian weight loss program, and rent out space for a beauty shop. But the body comes first." Clearly, her sales pitch was canned. Memorized and repeated many times, she'd removed the rhythm and sounded robotic. "Please meet my twins, Annie and Galen."
"Hi there, Annie and Galen." He knew they were younger than his five-year-old niece. He'd have to interview their dad.
Her face was arresting, irregular because of a narrow prominent nose. A swath of red curls fell over her broad Celtic forehead. Delicate and ethereal, she pulled her children toward her. She rocked them back and forth, kissing their heads as she buried her face in their dark brown waves.
The cop tramped toward her and handed over his clipboard. "Mrs. Baronova, I need you to fill in the blanks," he roared. "List what's missing from that display cabinet."
Reacting to the cop's loud voice, the tiny girl jumped, lifting from the bench. The small boy recoiled.
Marc said, "Sergeant, you're scary."
"Sorry, Sheriff." Ditzman eyed his watch and shuffled toward a chair.
She pulled them closer. "There, there, Lovebugs." Her voice was warm as she comforted the fidgety toddlers. She soothed her hands over their tiny shoulders and then struggled to write while managing both children.
"Hey, Sport," he said to the little guy. "Want to sit on my lap while your mommy fills out the paperwork?" He held his arms open.
"Go ahead, Galen. The sheriff is not a stranger."
When the boy tottered over, Marc lifted him to a knee.
She studied the clipboard, shifted and laid her sleepy daughter's head in her lap. Looking over the questions, she rolled the pen back and forth between the palms of her hands. "I can't think."
Her tiny daughter rolled sideways and studied him. Annie's eyes connected with his. She smiled. He winked. "Mrs. Baronova, what are you missing besides the processing unit?"
"Nothing much, yoga props are here." Her brow furrowed as she studied the smashed case. "Jewelry is missing." She jotted down items. "I'll write up costs."
"What kind of jewelry?" Marc placed his notepad and pen beside him on the bench. He jostled Galen.
"Handmade. I design and make mala and other prayer beads. Wood and semi-precious. Balinese etched onyx, lime turquoise, coral, vintage hand-blown glass, sterling and gold clasps." She rattled off the list, but her voice cracked. "Jewelry-making is more of a hobby than anything." She let out an exhausted sigh.
His ex-wife had bought her overpriced trinkets. "Anything else?"
"Thin, long silk scarves. Small objects d'art from Tibet."
With Galen perched over his left forearm, Marc walked behind the counter and peered behind the computer. He lifted clipped lines. "Thieves came prepared. It strikes me as odd they left the monitor and printer. There's a market for those." He looked up to see the little girl's eyes follow him. "Thieves wanted the data on your drive. I'm concerned about your billing information. If a company loses that, it will be put out of business." He returned with her son and sat on the bench across from her. "Did you backup? If you left it in the drive like most of us, yours is gone." With the tot on his lap, he whispered in his ear, "Hope not, hope not." He knew it would tickle. Galen giggled and squirmed.
"I backup daily cash flow onto a thumb-drive." She let out a sigh of relief. "Bring it upstairs at night. After my twins are asleep, I attach it to my laptop and merge in daily balances. In answer to your question, I've got it."
Mrs. Baronova opened her mouth and ran her tongue against the inside of her cheek. She rocked her daughter in her arms. In another moment, little Annie's eyes drooped.
With his free hand, Marc tapped the pen up and down on his note pad. Galen grabbed it. Marc took it apart and gave him the blunt outer coverings. He kept the useful, thin metal section.
From the lights above, their mother's hair glimmered with orange hues. Her face was chalk-white. When spots of color appeared on her cheeks, he knew her brain was back at work.
"Who are your rivals in the exercise-spa business?" He considered competitors further down on the suspect checklist, but worthy of his attention.
She smiled but her eyes went into a blinking frenzy. Did the word 'rival' hit a nerve? Later, he'd get back to them.
Her daughter's hair was brown and as shiny as glass, brought up in two ponytails. Both twins' eyes were deep gray. Galen tipped his head back and peeked up from of the corners of his eyes. It was nice holding him on his lap. Her daughter, now asleep, had a peachy-olive complexion and her son's was creamier. Their mother's skin was transparent. Small blue pulses beat in her throat and temples, a quick drum of vitality.
He'd need to question her about close relationships, the initial suspects. Marc gave the little guy another series of jiggles on the knee. "Is Mr. Baronov away?"
"Deceased." Her expression dulled, but she gnawed her cheek as if it were a chunk of celery. One slim leg moved under her gown. Heels lifted from her bare feet, and the tendons of her high arches stood out. No cuts, she'd avoided the glass.
Ditzman's face went into a grimace. "Yuri Baronova. Family's off the Russian boat." The cop was beginning to annoy him.
"His name would be Baronov," Marc corrected. He had some knowledge of the Cyrillic language and knew they distinguished between male and female names. He looked at the sergeant, knowing he knew more about the situation than he did. "You were saying?"
"He died of a heart attack a few years back. Died while keeping fit on a bicycle."
Heatherlee Baronova nearly toppled over. Ditzman's words had dropped on her like a cold stone. It was another minute before an expression of numbness left her.
Marc's mind quickstepped. His attention fell on his death 'a few years' before and the ages of the twins. A numbers guy, he did the math. "Is there a significant other?"
"No one's significant."
Sergeant Ditzman was heavy-eyed and getting cynical. Marc pulled the form off his clipboard and held it up. "Sergeant, Mrs. Baronova will drop this off. After that, you'll stamp it for her insurance."
"Yes, sir." He swallowed a yawn and sagged against the doorjamb.
As Marc looked at her and her charming twins, she'd squared her shoulders. Having regained her determined bearing, she looked prepared for battle. Oh, yeah, definitely uptight. But a protective thread was forming in his heart while he pondered the burglary. On the suspect list was any man in her life. With her beauty, men would fall at her feet. The boyfriend might be out of town. "Insignificant boyfriend?"
"Of late, no." When Mrs. Baronova stood with Annie, the comforter slid from her shoulder. She was clad in a sleeveless pink satin gown, and her arms were solid muscle. Strength was at odds with her slight body.
What he noticed most was her appealing glow of goodness, her gentleness with her children. Her facial features were aristocratic. He watched her lithesome, white-sugar neck move downward so that her chin balanced on her daughter's head. The slight bump on her nose made her all the more patrician. Her green eyes were the color of money. She didn't need a man.
As Marc stood with Galen, he caught her floral scent. "Can you account for stolen items?"
"Original orders for yoga props and jewelry-making supplies sit on my laptop upstairs. I'll print them."
Each time he looked at her, he was pulled in without effort. "Unless you have a printer upstairs, you'll do that later. Your printer cable's severed."
"You're absolutely correct." Little Annie rested on her left hip. She pulled Galen off Marc, setting the tot onto her right hip. The twins fit on her like puzzle pieces.
"I understand you and your children were on the roof during the break-in." He hoped a brief rehash would point to clues.
"The roof garden is above my bedroom balcony."
"I'll take a look."
She faced him. "Of course, for your investigation. Come up. I need to put my twins to bed. Their sleep is a priority." Fatigue had settled in pockets under her eyes. As she held both twins, their feet dangled near her knees.
On her own, Mrs. Heatherlee Baronova raised kids, had a successful business, and made jewelry on the side. She called the cops with her cell when thieves broke in and had the foresight to hide on the roof. Hell, she backed up daily balances.
Ditzman labored to a standing position.
With a nod, she motioned them to follow as she strolled toward a triple set of closet doors. She hesitated for a moment, suddenly wound as tight as her ruby red hair. "It's just that I ... don't like closets."
Marc opened it and peered inside. "Where are the stairs?"
"Back there. I'll show you." She wiggled in front of him, shouldered coats aside, and disappeared behind them. A wooden hanger swung and struck his chin.
He followed past built-in wooden drawers and bins that held umbrellas and hats as neatly as a Beverly Hills boutique. Something about it looked staged, too perfect. Jutting to the right, he made out a stairway. Deep within the closet, it was completely out of place and unexpected.
She kicked aside a large bulky stroller filled with small jackets and teddy bears. There, that was real life. She lugged the twins up the steps.
Behind her, he couldn't help but admire her ankles and feet. He reminded himself not to fall off task. He snapped to attention when the stairway's plaster construction caught his eye. It smelled of sandstone and was original, unlike the drywall bank of closets.
Sergeant Ditzman yawned behind him. "Sounds like a tour I can do without, Sheriff. I'm done except for those costs. I'll find my partner and go home."
"Fine, Sergeant. I'll check in tomorrow. Good night." He turned and followed up the stairs. A ceiling spotlight above the landing lit the way. At the top of the steps, he faced a photo ledge. Standing sentinel was a wedding picture. She was a teenage bride. Her groom had grayed at the temples, and he felt like he was looking in a mirror.
As if she'd read his mind, she said, "You look like a younger version of my late husband."
"Indeed." The photos spoke of happy times.
"Could you excuse me? I want to put the twins in their beds and grab a robe."
"Sure." He examined the dim living room. Except for the spotlight above the ledge, lights were out in her second floor apartment. She made no effort to turn them on as she walked away.
Her corner rowhouse had exterior lights mounted on the south side. Through shutters, enough light streamed into the rooms for him to see. Her domestic quarters had high ceilings and large rooms.
Few find solace in darkness.
She'd returned and angled her head toward him. "The view from the street doesn't suggest that the second floor is inhabited."
"Exterior lights shine in their eyes. Was it planned?"
"Yuri worked that out." Her breathing became edgy. "I know this sounds insane. Closets have always scared me, more tonight than ever. Can you check through my walk-in?"
He faltered for a few seconds. "I don't want to invade your privacy."
"Please. Right now I'm a gutless wonder."
"In that case, fine." His heart sang. She'd requested a favor from him, the son of Anna Duarte, a woman she held in confidence. Wise in the ways of business, she had a surprising case of closet phobia.
Her lips quivered. "My bedroom closet is huge. I know it's childish. I guess I'm shaken."
God, she's beautiful.
She nodded toward double doors. "My bedroom's that way, Marc."
His walked through the living room, as expansive as a hotel lobby and furnished with old money antiques. The fireplace was marble. Above its mantle was a recent portrait of the family of three, mother and children. He passed an end table and took note of another photo. Set out for the public to enjoy, a young girl and a boy, both with unruly red hair, locked arms in a woodland setting. He recognized Duarte County Park. The kids were photographed in front of an old bus.
In her bedroom, he felt awkward walking into her closet, even though she'd asked him to search it. It wouldn't take long, and then he'd search the roof. The walk-in was deep, and he pulled the string to a bare bulb above.
Women's clothing took up one side. He assumed the menswear on the other belonged to her late husband. After five years, why hadn't she dealt with this? Clothing hung by color and length. Was it from loyalty that she kept dark fabrics lint free? He peered behind clothing and shelving all the way to the back. What do we have here, another passageway? A path cleared to a single elevator door. Interesting, but no closet demons, and he turned. Coming out, his forehead grazed a fringed linen cloth. Not wanting to dislodge whatever was above, he looked to see if it needed an adjustment. He recognized church linen embroidered with a white cross.
He'd seen similar covers on funereal urns and stepped back for a better look. Intricately painted with gold leaf, two swans faced each other forming a heart. Swan Lake was a tragic drama. The urn was too romantic to contain ashes of a late parent or beloved pet. Contained within the keepsake had to be the remains of the late Yuri Baronov. He yanked the string for the light, and all went dark. He closed the door on memories clearly close to her heart.
On his way to the rooftop, he flicked on a lamp and then shoved open a slider to the balcony. He started toward the spiral staircase. Potted plants were toppled at the base, and vines hung loosely on rungs. Prior to trampling, they'd hidden it. He scaled metal steps to the roof, but trailing plants caught on his feet. At the top, he lingered for a moment and looked down. Black water crested against boulders. Wisps of fog streamed between them, blown from the sea.
He pulled out his phone to check on the APB for the Mercedes and exchanged information with the dispatcher. They'd lost them. He knew the thugs would be back. Yuri was Russian, and he recalled an old saying. If you have a Russian for a friend, you don't need an enemy.
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