Young women and girls are disappearing, and bodies start showing up in the desert around the old Blood Mountain hotel…
Sales Director, Rachel Ryan, who never could mind her own business, decides to investigate at the request of an elderly friend of one of the women. And, this time, Deputy Tucker doesn’t mind as his case is going nowhere, despite the many and varied suspects. Rachel quickly gets in way over her head, as usual, and Tucker takes her off the case. Undaunted, Rachel charges off on her own, determined to find the killer, especially after she discovers one of the bodies herself. Another body is discovered by Jared Johnson, a retired detective from Detroit, and Rachel immediately enlists his help in solving the cold-case murder of her parents in Grand Rapids more than a decade ago.
To make things even more complicated, Alex Tucker suddenly swoops back into Rachel’s life—just as she finds herself falling for Buddy—and Rachel is forced to make a life-changing decision…if she survives the murder investigation.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Blood Mountain Conspiracy by Joanne Taylor Moore, intrepid Rachel Ryan gets in over her head investigating the disappearance of young women and the bodies that start showing up in the desert around the old Blood Mountain hotel. In addition, Rachel discovers that her parents’ death a decade earlier was not what it seemed to be. As Rachael investigates, and gets into trouble, her sister and JT try to keep her in control, while Buddy gives her a shoulder and any help she asks for. Just as she starts to fall for Buddy, Alex Tucker, her old flame, rushes back into her life.
As always, Moore’s characters are charming, flawed, and very human. Her plot is strong, with plenty of surprising twists and turns to keep you riveted from beginning to end.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: With Blood Mountain Conspiracy by Joanne Taylor Moore, the third book in the Blood Mountain series, we are again treated to another edge-of-your-seat mystery. In this story, Rachel investigates the disappearance of young women from the area and uncovers corruption of major proportions. Rachel starts out on her own, but Deputy Tucker admits he needs help and let’s Rachel do her thing until she screws up. Even after she’s taken off the case, so to speak, Rachel doesn’t give up. (This girl is nothing if not tenacious.) Enlisting the help of some residents of the old-folks home, Rachel quickly gets in way over her head.
Like Moore’s other books, Blood Mountain Conspiracy keeps you on your toes and turning pages. I especially liked the fact that I couldn’t figure who all the bad guys were and some that I thought were, weren’t. While the story has lots of twists and turns, Moore adds some additional surprises, which will make you shake your head and say “Huh?” A very intriguing and satisfying read. I highly recommend it.
Rachel Ryan left the hotel lobby and walked through the courtyard to her casita. The April sun felt good after spending the day behind the desk in her air conditioned office. She eagerly climbed the steps to her suite, unlocked the door, and glanced around the southwest-themed living room. Slanted rays of light glinted off the copper lamp shade, bathing the room in a golden glow.
She kicked off her red Jimmy Choos when her feet hit the carpet and removed her designer jacket on the way to the bedroom.
At five-feet-eight, she was a tall woman and looked even more so because of her long, slim legs.
She’d hung up her office wear and pulled out a T-shirt and jeans when her cell phone rang. She glanced at the caller ID. It was her sister.
“Hey, Heather, what’s going on?”
“Not a whole lot. What are you doing?”
Rachel frowned. “I’m standing here, looking in the bedroom mirror, wishing I had bigger boobs.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Rachel. Get off that. Women would give their right arms to look like you.”
“Easy for you to say, Mrs. ‘C-Cup’ Carpenter.” Rachel posed in front of the mirror, flipping her pale hair back, letting it flow down over her shoulders like a stream of chardonnay.
“Rachel, stop it. You know I was practically flat-chested until the twins were born and it never bothered JT one bit. God made me the way he wanted to, and I was fine with that.”
“Okay,” Rachel conceded, not wanting to go there. “You win. I totally renounce my sin of covetousness and I’ll even throw in a couple of Hail Marys.” She could hear Heather trying to suppress a laugh and glanced at her watch. “You called, remember?”
“Yes. You want to meet JT and me for dinner later? In the Plantation Room? Chef Henri just received a shipment of prime filets.”
“Ah, the perks of living at the Mesquite Mountain Inn.” Not having a domestic bone in her body, Rachel loved the hotel life, especially the part about eating there three times a day and not having to cook or wash a dish. She paused to think about the JT part. “Um…how is my favorite brother-in-law doing?”
“He’s fine. Why?”
“Oh, no reason,” she hedged.
A note of caution crept into Heather’s voice. “You two didn’t have a fight, did you?”
“No, we did not have a fight,” Rachel reassured her sister. “However, we could not agree as to why the sales and catering department’s first quarter financials did not come in according to budget, nor could we agree on a marketing budget for the summer months.” She decided to leave off the part about the raised voices.
“Sweetie, it wasn’t your fault about March. JT knows that. He also knows we’re very fortunate to have someone with your background and expertise as our sales director.”
“So you say.”
Rachel’s mind skipped back to the time JT hired her. She’d practically begged for the job, knowing she could help her sister–and herself–since she was unemployed and had no place to live. But dealing with JT every day…well, that was the downside of the deal.
“So, are you coming or not?”
Rachel was tugged back to the present and pictured herself consuming a filet mignon covered with a thick layer of mushrooms sautéed in a butter-wine reduction. Then the vision disappeared. “I can’t. I’d love to but I’m afraid I have a hot date I better not cancel,” she reluctantly replied.
“A hot date? Hmm. Let me guess. You’re visiting Hank at the rest home.”
“You guessed right, but it’s not a rest home. It’s called assisted living.”
“Oops. Sorry. So much for my political correctness. Tell him we miss him and bring him a lemon meringue pie for me.”
“I already have one set aside, my dear.” Rachel would have preferred to bring the whole meal from the hotel kitchen instead of dining on what she was afraid might be pureed chicken and prunes, but Hank insisted he host their meal. “And I really would love to join you and JT for dinner, but Hank sounded pretty worried when he called.”
“Worried? That doesn’t sound like Hank Levinson. Did he say why?”
“No. He just seemed anxious about needing to see me as soon as I could get there.”
Rachel could almost see the frown on her sister’s forehead, the freckles popping up on her nose.
“I hope everything is okay at Golden Vista,” Heather continued. “I’ve read stories about awful things that go on in old folk’s homes.”
“You mean like sex orgies?”
Heather gasped. “Rachel Ryan, you’re incorrigible!” She tried to sound annoyed, but she was laughing.
“Yeah, I know. It’s part of my charm.”
Rachel dropped the phone into her purse, finished dressing, and skipped down the stairs from her suite. She stopped and looked back at the two-story casita that sat along the hill with the others. Did the door click shut? She had to think a minute. Too many things on my mind. But the truth was, she, too, was worried about Hank.
Deciding the door had locked after all, Rachel jogged on ahead and made a quick stop at the cafe for the pie. She drove the Hummer down the winding mountain road toward town. The sun was setting, a fiery gold sphere in a clear blue sky. She glanced in her rear view mirror at Blood Mountain and could already see the magic happening. The sunset was turning the mountain’s rock face into a dark shade of red, like the color of blood. Montana de la Sangre, Rachel mused. They really couldn’t have called Blood Mountain by any other name and been honest about it. Her body heaved in a deep sigh. And to think, this is where I’ve ended up working–in a dry gulch little town on the Mexican border.
She reached the bottom of the mountain in a cloud of dust and drove through the valley on the blacktopped road that led to town. Miles of farmland stretched out on either side, fields that were covered with checkerboard squares of vibrant greens and golds. Not that she cared. Rachel much preferred living with tile and carpet under her feet, surfaces she’d rather navigate in a pair of her designer shoes.
Noticing the town limit sign of Mesquite, Arizona, looming ahead, Rachel slowed her speed. Her eyes searched around for signs of the old sheriff’s deputy that slapped a speeding ticket on her shortly after she moved to Blood Mountain.
She recalled Deputy Tucker was an amusing sight with his gray walrus mustache and bowed legs that particular day, but their ensuing relationship was hardly comical. It seemed like they were always on the opposite side of any opinion or disagreement. She also appeared to be a constant source of irritation to him because he claimed she was always butting into business she shouldn’t be butting into. Maybe a little of that was true, Rachel admitted to herself, but only because Tucker acted like a bumbling idiot at times and needed her help solving cases. So she considered it an even exchange.
She drove across Main Street to the historic section of town and turned onto River Street, the surface of which was old, cracked, and looked like alligator hide. It felt like it, too. The street led past historic adobe houses that still stood with their stucco coatings partly chipped away, while their interiors had been converted into shops and artists’ studios. Many of the houses were attractively landscaped with large ficus and palm trees and so much greenery, it almost made a person forget they were in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.
She braked when she arrived at Golden Vista, where a large sign above the porch boasted: Home of Gracious Assisted Living. Hank had complained that, with most of the residents in wheelchairs or using walkers, it seemed more like a nursing home than assisted living–and that was only one of Hank Levinson’s complaints.
He was waiting just inside the foyer when Rachel arrived, sitting tall and upright in a wheelchair, wearing a western shirt, Wranglers, and a pair of cowboy boots. His hair was thick and white as cotton.
At eighty-two, Hank was still handsome in a distinguished kind of way, with prominent cheekbones and a chiseled jaw that went back a few generations to an Apache heritage.
Rachel leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “You need a haircut,” she teased, roughing up his hair.
“Yeah, and who’s gonna make me get one?” he said, squinting and trying to look tough.
“Uh–well–” Rachel stammered, pretending to be afraid. “I guess not me.” She shot him a quick smile and pulled the pie out of a bag. “Peace offering–your favorite, lemon meringue.”
“Ah, now we’re talkin’!” Hank’s eyes lit up and so did the smile on his face. “Follow me to my place. I don’t want any of these old people spotting my pie. They’ll be hounding me for slices if they suspect it’s from the Hibiscus Cafe.”
Hank scooted down the foyer, which smelled faintly of disinfectant and roasted chicken. Rachel stayed at his side, her arm securely latched onto the pie.
As they passed by the dining room, she glanced through the columned doorway and noticed the room was nearly filled with elderly residents.
A lofty cathedral ceiling arched over the room, and crystal chandeliers hung high above the tables, casting a warm, luxurious glow.
Golden Vista had emerged from a year-long remodeling project of the Krutzer family and it was the only facility of its type existing in town. Bricknell Krutzer and his mother, Hester, had reclaimed the town’s first hospital, renovated most of it, and turned it into a facility that housed the elderly with varying degrees of disability. Overseen by a couple of nurses and their certified assistants, forty residents lived in private studio apartments and shared common dining and recreation areas.
Rachel and Hank were viewing the pictorial history of the renovation that lined the entire hallway when a huge man in gray scrubs came barreling toward them with a scowl on his face. She stepped back as the man charged past without a smile or greeting and rushed out the main entrance.
“Who was that?” Rachel asked, turning to look at the man who had already disappeared.
Hank’s smile was gone. “Ron Emmett. He helps out around here.”
“Not with the residents, I hope.”
“No, he’s Brick’s right hand man. I’m not really sure what his position is, he just kind of hangs around, doing whatever needs to be done.”
Rachel shivered. “I can’t imagine Brick Krutzer hiring someone like him to work here. I mean, I never met the man, but he seems too smart for that.”
“Oh, Emmett’s an old high school buddy of his. They used to play football together.” Hank paused at the nurses’ station and turned a sharp right.
“Well, that explains it. But he still gives me the creeps.”
“Yeah, he has that effect on quite a few people.” Hank stopped and turned his chair in front of a doorway. “Here we are. I’m lucky to have the first room next to the nurse’s station,” he said with a smile back on his face. “I get to check out the action.”
Rachel gave him a sly look. “You mean check out the babes, don’t you?” She laughed. “Oh, Hank, you haven’t changed a bit.”
“No, and I don’t intend to, either.”
He cocked his head, indicating Rachel should enter his apartment. She stepped in on the taupe carpet. It was new and smelled faintly of formaldehyde. The paint job on the walls, a bland shade of beige, was also new. The studio itself was L-shaped with a small kitchenette located near the entrance. It contained a sink, a counter with a microwave on it, and a small, but sufficient, refrigerator.
“They completely redid the place before I moved in,” he said. “The old guy who lived here before me must have really torn it up.”
“It’s lovely.” Rachel looked around. “No stove, huh?”
“Too dangerous for us old people.” Hank’s tone dripped with sarcasm.
Rachel had sympathy in her eyes when she turned to look at him. “I’m so sorry. I know it must be hard for you to adjust to this kind of life.”
“Hey, it could be worse.”
By the sound of his voice, Rachel didn’t believe he meant a word of it.
A small table with two chairs sat adjacent to a comfortable looking sofa. A flat-screen TV hung near the opposite corner, enabling Hank to see it from both the sofa and the bed, which was tucked into the end of the “L.”
“This is actually quite nice,” Rachel said, studying the simple decor. “I guess I won’t have to call Heather in for decorating advice after all,” she teased then glanced back at the table. It was set with flatware, napkins, and goblets filled with ice water and lemon wedges. A basket of corn chips sat in the center. “I assume we’re eating here today?”
“You assume correctly.” Hank extended his arm. “Please sit down and allow me to serve you.”
“Thank you. Now this is a treat,” she said, slipping into the chair that faced the window. “You have a nice view from here.”
“Yeah, it’s not bad. I get to see a lot of what goes on around here.” Hank opened the refrigerator and pulled out a tray with two bowls. Holding it in one hand, he wheeled himself to the table, set down the tray, and maneuvered himself into the chair across from Rachel.
“Looks like you’re doing better,” Rachel said, noticing how easily Hank accomplished getting the meal set up and seating himself.
“Only physically,” came the curt reply.
“Okay, Hank,” Rachel huffed, dropped her hands to her lap, and looked at him. “It’s obvious you’re upset. Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“Yes, but try the salad first. This is one of the best things they make.”
Rachel looked down at the crispy chicken lying on the bed of greens. It was sprinkled with black beans, chopped tomatoes, corn, cheese, and pieces of red and green pepper. “It looks delicious.” She took a small bite. “It tastes good, too.” She put her fork down. “So, now, tell me what happened.”
Hank’s head and shoulders drooped, and he raised his eyes to look at her. “Zoe’s gone.”
“Zoe’s gone. Disappeared.”
Rachel blinked. “You mean, Zoe, the nurse? The cute little redhead with the ponytail you keep proposing to?”
“Well, she’s not exactly little. She’s got a big, lovely set–”
“Okay, okay. I know who you mean. She quit?”
“No, she didn’t quit. She just disappeared.”
“What do you mean, she just disappeared? She just walked off the job?”
“No!” Hank raised his voice and pounded his fist on the table, nearly sloshing the water out of his glass. “She just disappeared. Like into thin air. One minute here. Next minute gone.”
Rachel looked at Hank, dumbfounded, and wondered if there was something going on with his head. Maybe all of this was too much.
“No, I’m not going crazy,” he said calmly, reading her mind. “I talked to Zoe shortly after she came on night duty last night. Everything was fine. I’m telling you, she just disappeared.”
“Now, Hank,” Rachel began, a little condescendingly, “I’m sure she just didn’t disappear. Maybe she got sick and went home. Something must have happened.”
“Something happened all right, but I know she wasn’t sick. There was nothing wrong with her when she handed out the night meds. That’s when she told me she’d come back to see me. But no one’s seen hide nor hair of her since.” He looked at her and frowned. “And you don’t have to patronize me, Rachel. I’m not senile.”
“Oh, Hank, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.” Her ivory skin flushed with embarrassment. She felt like she was making one faux pas after another. “Did you ask around?”
“Of course I asked around,” he snapped, then dropped his voice, embarrassed. “Ah, I’m sorry Rachel. I’m just so dang upset. Nobody around here knows anything. And if they do, they ain’t talking.”
“Hey, it’s okay. I want to help. Do you want me to call Zoe at home?”
“I already did. No answer. Nothing.”
“What about family?”
“None. The only thing I know is that she was seeing Long John.”
“Long John? The locksmith?” She remembered seeing him around the hotel before.
“Yeah, the locksmith. And he hung up on me when I called.”
Rachel’s eyes teased. “Did he know you were his competition?” She took another bite of salad.
Hank grinned a little cockeyed smile. “Aw, Rachel, it wasn’t really nothin’ with me and Zoe. I’m old enough to be her grand pappy. And she flirts with all us old guys.”
“But she really cares,” Rachel said, softening.
“I suppose.” He then dropped his head and turned pink.
“I gave her a ring.”
Rachel gulped down the salad she had in her mouth. “You gave her a ring? As in diamond ring?”
Hank shook his head. “Naw, it was a big, fake stone, one of those man-made diamonds. It was like a joke, Rachel. I asked her to marry me, like I do nearly every night when she comes by to hand out the meds, and I gave her this ring I bought at the outlet store.”
“Then what happened?”
“Zoe liked it. It was fake, but it was pretty. She put it on her finger and wore it.”
Rachel laughed and shook her head. “Hank Levinson, you are quite the romantic.”
She gazed out past the window. The sunset was casting a reddish glow over the garden, and a white panel truck was headed down the driveway to the rear of the home.
“So do you think Long John came by, saw the ring on Zoe’s hand, got jealous, and bopped her one?”
“Aw, Rachel, no. He could have come by, though. He often does after he locks up the shop. I’ve seen him pull up the driveway, there, and knock on the side door.”
He started poking at his salad and Rachel thought a minute. “So what’s the official word from Golden Vista?”
“Well, Teresa Espinoza was the CNA on duty, and she said that when she came out of the break room, Zoe was gone. Just gone. She’d been on break fifteen minutes. She said she sets the timer on the stove because she likes to read and would probably forget about work if the buzzer didn’t go off.”
“And Teresa said Zoe was just gone?”
“Yup. Like she disappeared into thin air, like one of them alien abductions. She said she looked all around and then called Brick.”
“Then what happened?”
“Brick called his momma, they both showed up, looked around. Nobody saw nothin’.”
“Did anyone think to call the Deputy Sheriff?”
“Yeah, I finally did. Everybody else had their fingers up their noses. But Deputy Tucker said we had to wait 24 hours to file a missing person’s report, ’cause she was an adult.”
Rachel glanced at her watch, knowing what Hank said was true. “It’s almost twenty-four hours now.”
“Yeah. Tucker said he’d come back tonight. I imagine he’s probably already here. He don’t seem to have too much to do lately.”
Rachel wasn’t about to get into a discussion of Deputy Tucker. “What about Zoe’s car? Does she drive to work?”
“Her car’s still sittin’ out in the lot right where she left it.”
“Oh, boy.” Rachel looked down at her salad and moved it around with her fork. She was afraid to raise her eyes. “So, what do want me to do?”
Hank suddenly grabbed Rachel’s wrist. “I want you to find her.”
She jerked her head up when she felt his rough hand grip her.
Hank quickly let go of her wrist. “Aw, Rachel, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to grab you like that.” He shook his head, humiliated. “I’m such a jerk.”
Rachel rubbed her wrist. “You know, you’re still pretty strong for an old dude.” She wasn’t smiling and, for a minute, neither one of them said anything. Finally, she spoke. “If I leave now, I can probably catch Long John before he closes up his shop. He might be willing to share some information with me.”
Hank raised his head. His eyes were wet. “Aw, would you do that, Rachel? At least somebody around here would be doing something.”
Rachel saw raw pain in his eyes. Funny, she thought. Even at his age, love hurts.
“You know, you don’t have to.”
Rachel thought his eyes said otherwise. “I know I don’t have to.” She rose from the table. “But Zoe Liddy isn’t the only one around here who cares about you.”
Only a few blocks away from Golden Vista, the sign for Long John’s Lock and Key stretched across the front of a small stucco building that sat on the edge of the sidewalk. The sign was new and replaced the “Long and Sons Locksmith” sign that had hung above the door for twenty-six years.
Long John’s name was actually John Long. The twist on his name started back in John’s grade school years. When his teachers called the roll, they’d always call the last name first, hence, “Long, John.” Even in grade school John was always the tallest in his class, so the name, Long John, stuck.
John was also wire thin, which made him look even taller than his six-six frame. His hair was a dark brown, and he had learned to keep it long enough to hide his ears, which stuck out from his head like little wings. When Rachel parked in front of the lock shop, twilight still clung to the sky. She glanced around the area, glad for the little bit of light. Old Town wasn’t the best place to be after dark. She opened the door to the shop, and a little bell on the back of it announced her entrance.
“We’re about to close,” Long John called out. He stood behind a counter at the back of the room, sorting through papers.
The shop smelled of metal and dust and old linoleum. A big gray area was worn into the floor in front of the counter where people had stood over the years. A rack of key blanks in a myriad of colorful designs sat off to one side of where Long John stood. On the other side of the room, a group of safes and metal lock boxes appeared to have been plunked down on the floor without any thought to artistic arrangement.
Rachel walked up to the counter. “I won’t be but a minute,” she said.
He continued to sort through papers that looked like the receipts of the day. “What can I help you with?”
“I’m looking for Zoe Liddy, and I was hoping you could help me find her.”
Long John snapped his head up. “What do you want with her?”
“She was my friend Hank’s favorite nurse at Golden Vista, and he’s heartbroken because she seems to have disappeared.” Rachel came closer. “I understand you two dated and I was hoping you might have some idea of where she could be.”
“I’d like to know myself,” he said, obviously miffed, and then went back to his work.
“Hank said he called the Deputy Sheriff.”
Long John glanced up and made a face. “I’m sure that was a big, fat waste of time. I already tried that. When Zoe didn’t answer her phone, I called Golden Vista and then drove over there to look for her myself. Her car was still there. Nobody could tell me anything, so I called Deputy Tucker.”
“And he said you needed to wait 24 hours to file a missing person’s report.”
“Yeah. Exactly. He said someone had already called in and reported her missing, that he had already gone over there and made an initial report. He said he’d go by Golden Vista tonight to make it official.”
“It was a resident who first called Tucker–my friend, Hank,” Rachel offered. “I guess the Krutzer’s weren’t all that worried about her.”
She watched Long John attack the pile of papers again. This time she was close enough to see he had bitten his nails down to the quick.
“When did you see her last?”
“Last night.” His eyes shifted over to the side. “Last night, just before she went on duty.”
“But you spoke to her after that.”
Long John leaped out from behind the counter. “No, and I don’t need to talk to you about it.” His voice boomed out at her. “You just tell that Hank guy to butt out of Zoe’s life or I’ll tell him myself.”
Rachel stepped back, feeling intimidated by the angry man towering over her, even though she was five-feet-eight in her stocking feet.
Before she could reply, Long John walked right past her and yanked the door open, the little bell clanging against the back of it. “I know all about the ring and his fantasy marriage. Zoe is never going to marry him. Heck, she wouldn’t even marry me and I’m–”
He glowered at her. “Look, just go, whoever you are.”
“Rachel Ryan,” she said, holding out her hand. “And I’m really sorry I’ve upset you. I hardly know Zoe, but she means a great deal to my friend Hank. He’s old, he’s crippled, and she makes living at Golden Vista bearable for him.”
Long John regarded her hand, turned his head, and looked away.
It was dark by the time Rachel left the lock shop and headed back to the Mesquite Mountain Inn. She leaned on the accelerator when she hit the valley. A thin crescent of moon, glowing like an evil grin, rose in the east sky over the mountains.
Irrigation water was flowing into the cotton fields, pushing away the heat of the day. Rachel rolled down the windows to feel the rush of wind on her face. It tossed her hair, but did little to diminish the thoughts that clung to her with angry tentacles.
For every mile she drove, the more she felt her anger build.
She glanced at the clock. Surely Buddy would be back from LA by now. If he wasn’t too tired from his day, he might be willing to give her a drink and a sympathetic ear.
Buddy was JT and Heather’s partner in the Mesquite Mountain Inn, and Rachel could always depend on him to soften the tension between her and JT. Tonight she was hoping he could…well, she wasn’t sure what she was hoping he could do and didn’t want to think about it either.
Rachel turned on the radio. It irritated her. She popped the music off and began to mentally remind herself that Zoe was not her problem.
She was still telling herself that when she reached the hotel, pulled up in front of her casita, and pulled out her cell phone. She punched in the private number of Byron Edward McCain.
“Okay, Buddy, you can kick all the other girls out. I’m on my way over,” she said, hung up, and tramped two doors over.
Buddy studied her face a moment when he opened the door. “Will that be a single or double margarita?” he asked.
She stomped in past him. “Just give me the whole dang bottle of tequila and a glass of ice.”
Buddy stood his ground and watched Rachel plop down on the sofa, his eyes soft and sympathetic behind gold rimmed glasses. “I picked up something new you might like,” he said matter-of-factly, pretending to be totally oblivious to the storm she blew in on. He set off for the kitchenette and returned with a bottle of Agavero licor and two small glasses filled with ice.
“What’s that?” Rachel asked, eyeing the bottle.
“Tequila liqueur.” Buddy poured the two glasses full and gave her one.
She took a large sip, tilted her head back, and let the sweet liqueur float down her throat. She finally looked at him. Buddy was still standing in front of her, smiling. He was wearing gray slacks, pleated in the front, the cuffs brushing the tops of his loafers.
His Ralph Lauren shirt was the exact shade of blue as his eyes, open at the collar, and it fit him closely, as if it had been custom made for him. He had a trim, athletic body, and moved with grace.
“You look good,” she said, checking him out from top to bottom. “Still playing tennis, I see.” She picked up the fat-bottomed green bottle to read the label. “And this is good, too.”
Buddy sat down beside her. “It’s yours.”
“Why, thank you. That was unexpected.” She held out her empty glass. “But don’t mention it to JT. He’ll be on your butt about enabling me.”
“I think I can handle JT.” Buddy laughed an easy laugh. “And I hardly think I’m enabling you.” He refilled the glass.
She took another big sip, felt a little click in her brain, leaned back against the sofa, and studied her friend. His bushy, sandy-colored hair was slightly mussed, as usual, and his teeth gleamed in a million dollar smile. “You know, one thing I like about you, Buddy–you don’t have a tense bone in your body. It’s so easy to relax around you.”
“I know. I keep telling you, you need to marry me,” he teased. “But instead, you’re off having dinner with some other guy named Hank.”
Rachel tried her best to look annoyed, but a smile pulled at the corners of her lips. “That Heather Carpenter is such a little tattle-tale. I was hoping you wouldn’t find out I was two-timing you.”
When Buddy laughed, his whole face lit up. Rachel never thought of him as handsome, in the classical sense, that is. His jaw was a little too narrow and his nose had been broken once by an irate husband. But he was attractive. His eyes were vibrant, and his breath always smelled of peppermint.
Even more important, he was totally charming, a trait that caused women to fall madly in love with him. Rachel suspected, deep down inside, she was probably the only woman alive who resisted that urge with every fiber of her being.
“Have you eaten?” he asked.
“Why don’t we go over to the Plantation Room and get a couple of those filets, a good bottle of wine, and talk for a while. Then you can tell me why you blew in here like a hurricane.”
Rachel cast her eyes toward Buddy but her thoughts zigzagged past him. He was so accommodating as far as her temper and her moods were concerned. Her tantrums just rolled off him like rain off tile roofs. She wondered, maybe, just maybe…
“Hey, it’s only dinner,” he teased, bringing her back. “A simple yes would be okay.”
When they arrived at the Plantation Room, the dining room was quiet. It had been that way the last few weeks since a competitor had opened up a fancier place downtown. Rachel looked around, thinking it felt like her own personal dining room. In a way it was, since Buddy and the Carpenters owned the place and their personal imprints were everywhere.
Heather had painted the mural that covered the back wall, a balcony view of a tropical beach. JT had built the rock waterfall that flowed down to a small pool surrounded by tropical plants, and Buddy had inherited the whole place–including Blood Mountain–to begin with. With the soft background music and a fruited drink, it never took much for Rachel, or anyone else for that matter, to mentally transport themselves to the Mexican Riviera.
“This was definitely a good idea,” Rachel said, sliding into one of the booths that lined the room, feeling more like herself again. “But it looks like our competition is hurting us more than I thought.”
Buddy motioned for a waiter to bring their usual drinks and then turned to Rachel. “Give it a little time. Right now, Anna Venkman is pouring on the charm, the cheap meals, and the fancy service. She can’t keep it up forever. Even with Pappa Hans bankrolling her, there’s a limit. He’ll have to cut her off eventually. She’s already gone through one chef, half her silver-plated flatware has been stolen, and most of the fancy crystal is either smashed or missing. She even had to replace her beloved Domino dummy.”
“Whatever. The point is, once she has to make it on her own, she’ll have to cut back on the fancy stuff and raise her prices. Her customers won’t take kindly to that. We did things right the first time. You and Chef put together a great package. We’ve never raised our prices and until two weeks ago, we were in the black. The people will tire of Queen Anna’s shenanigans and come back. Trust me.”
Manuel arrived at the table with a tray of drinks: ice water with lemon slices and golden margaritas. He set them out and Buddy ordered the prime filets along with baked stuffed crab for the both of them. “We have a new Cabernet Sauvignon,” Manuel offered. “A French import. Would you like to try it?”
“Yes, bring us a bottle.”
Manuel stood a moment and shifted his weight from one leg to the other.
“Is there anything else?”
“Um–I thought you and Miss Rachel might want to know, two of our people who left to go to Domino’s came back in this afternoon to ask for their old jobs back.”
Buddy turned to Rachel with a told-you-so look in his eyes. “Thank you, Manuel.”
They were well into their salads and had thoroughly dissected Anna Venkman’s attributes and her restaurant when Buddy asked, “You do remember we’re all going on a gold hunting expedition tomorrow, right?”
“Are you kidding? Of course, I remember.” Rachel looked at him like he was crazy. “I was ready the last time, when we had to cancel. I’ve got my clothes picked out. I mean, I’ve never gone panning for gold in my entire life. I’m not about to miss it. What if we discover a rich vein right here on Blood Mountain?” She shifted her eyes away from him. “Besides, Heather and I are already designing the jewelry we’re going to have made with our share of the gold.”
“Well, I’m happy to hear that,” Buddy said, relief in his voice. “I was afraid this problem you’re dealing with might have initiated a change in plans.”
“No, not at all, but I have to admit I am worried.” Rachel slouched back in the booth and looked around the room. “You do remember Hank Levinson, don’t you Buddy?”
“The old white-haired guy that used to sit in the first booth in the Hibiscus Cafe who ended up going to the old folk’s home?”
“Yes,” Rachel said, smiling sweetly. “Only now it’s called assisted living.”
“Well, his sort-of girlfriend has disappeared.”
“His sort-of girlfriend?”
“More like one-way, I suspect. He had a crush on one of the RNs. She’s probably thirty-something, young enough to be his granddaughter. She simply disappeared in the middle of her shift.”
“And Hank chose you to investigate the great mystery,” Buddy teased.
“This isn’t funny,” Rachel said, pulling herself up, frowning. “He’s a nice old man who lost his wife, never had children, and then had a stroke and lost the use of his legs. He had to sell his farm and move into assisted living.”
Buddy’s demeanor suddenly changed. “I’m sorry Rachel. That really is a sad story.”
Manuel appeared at their table with their entrées and more wine. After he left, the couple ate while Rachel gave Buddy her play-by-play account of Hank Levinson and the missing girlfriend.
Buddy put down his fork and asked, “Do you think Long John has something to do with Zoe’s disappearance?”
“I’m not sure. But he’s hiding something. He said the last time he’d seen or heard from Zoe was last night before she went on duty.”
“Which makes Hank the last person to see her that evening, correct?” Buddy glanced at the Rolex peeking out from under his sleeve. “Actually, she’s only been missing about twenty-seven hours.”
Rachel put down her fork. “That’s not the point. It’s the way she disappeared. Poof!” She jerked up a hand. “One minute here, next minute gone. And her car never left the parking lot.”
She picked up her wine glass and drained the rest of it.
“And you’re saying Long John never talked to her after she went to work.”
“No.” Rachel shook her head. “I told you Long John said he never talked to her after that. But he knew about the ring that Hank gave Zoe. And Hank didn’t give it to Zoe until around eight-thirty last night, just before Teresa Espinosa went on break.”
Buddy swallowed the last of his wine and worked through the scenario in his mind. “So you think–”
“Yes, of course. Long John is lying.” She pointed a pink fingernail at Buddy. “But the question is why?”
© 2015 by Joanne Taylor Moore