The Hiding PlaceKaren Harper
Praise for the novels of
New York Times bestselling author
“Strongly plotted and well written, featuring a host of interesting characters, Harper’s latest is a winner.”
—Romantic Times BOOKreviews on Below the Surface
“Karen Harper proves yet once again why she is on my ‘auto buy’ list.”
—www.longandshortreviews.com on Below the Surface
“Harper keeps tension high as the insane villain cleverly evades efforts to capture him. And Harper really shines in the final act, providing readers with a satisfying and exciting denouement.”
—Publishers Weekly on Inferno
“Harper spins an engaging, nerve-racking yarn, alternating her emphasis between several equally interesting plot strands. More important, her red herrings do the job—there’s just no guessing who the guilty party might be.”
—Romantic Times BOOKreviews on Hurricane
“Well-researched and rich in detail…With its tantalizing buildup and well-developed characters, this offering is certain to earn Harper high marks.”
—Publishers Weekly on Dark Angel, winner of the 2005 Mary Higgins Clark Award
“Harper…has a fantastic flair for creating and sustaining suspense…[the] deft knitting of fact and fiction enables Harper to describe everything from wilderness survival to supernatural lore with the kind of detail that convinces readers anything is possible.”
—Publishers Weekly on The Falls
Also available from MIRA Books and
BELOW THE SURFACE
DARK ROAD HOME
THE STONE FOREST
DOWN TO THE BONE
THE BABY FARM
THE HIDING PLACE
Thanks to the Jason Kurtz family for a great time in Confier, especially to Heather for all the support and advice.
As ever to Don, for being a great travel companion to parts known and unknown.
Near Black Hawk, Colorado
May 20, 2004
She was terrified she’d be too late. Tara Kinsale-Lohan took the next tight turn on the slick road faster than she should have. She’d been driving Colorado mountain roads for years, but never at this speed.
The big sedan fishtailed, but she steered it back onto the narrow, two-lane road, running with spring rain. Thank God, there was little traffic in this weather. She longed for her old four-wheel-drive truck, but her husband, Laird Lohan, liked only luxury cars. The road became a twisting, one-lane gravel path. When the next widely spaced driveway came into view, she hit the brakes again. Gripping the steering wheel in both sweating palms, she squinted to read the numbers on the mailboxes through the mountain mist. Her windshield wipers slapped gray rain aside, whap-whap…whap-whap. She was getting closer. She prayed she’d get there in time.
How could a bright woman like Alexis have been so stupid to try to snatch her child back? Rats like her ex-husband, Clay, a moral coward, could be vicious when cornered. And how, Tara berated herself, could she herself have been so careless to let her dear friend sneak into her office and take her skip trace report on Clay? One of Tara’s cardinal rules when she started her one-woman private investigating firm, Finders Keepers, was that the locate information went first to a lawyer or law enforcement, not to an emotional woman who might mess everything up, trying to take her child back on her own.
She’d simply trusted Alex too much, but they’d been close ever since they’d roomed together in college. Tara was an only child, and Alex was the closest she’d ever had to a sister. Like sisters, they sometimes argued, but when an outsider threatened them, they’d always come to each other’s rescue. When Tara’s parents had died while she was at the university, Alex’s widowed mother had taken her in for holiday visits. With no family of her own, Laird’s close-knit clan had looked so appealing to Tara—until she got to know them.
But Clay was the enemy now. Even for Alex, Tara did not like taking risks. She did almost all her work from her office on the phone or online. She never did her own surveillance or ventured out to serve a summons or subpoena where things could go bad. She had promised Laird she would not do any fieldwork, though she’d recently gone Dumpster diving—perfectly legal, though he’d had an absolute fit, just as he did each time he saw that she was not going to be remade into his picture of the perfect Lohan wife.
Their agreement, actually part of a prenup, was that she could still help women get their children back, if she agreed to hand Finders Keepers over to someone else when she and Laird had their own children. Laird was obsessed with having an heir for his share of the Lohan family fortune. The thing was, shortly after their honeymoon, their marriage had become so rocky that she had told him she was staying on birth control pills until they smoothed out their differences.
She’d seen numerous times that, if a marriage wasn’t on solid ground, having kids only made things worse for the adults—and damaged the kids, too. Lately, to her amazement, it seemed that Laird had accepted that. The last few months, he’d become amazingly understanding, though she was pretty sure he still thought children could bind any marital rift.
Tara hit the brakes and felt the big car skid. At this altitude, way above mile-high Denver, she was actually driving through clouds. She began to creep, squinting through the windshield, straining to keep control of the car and her fears. The road narrowed even more. As if protecting their lofty realm, tall lodgepole pines and blue spruce loomed like mythical giants as they closed in around her.
At least, Tara thought, trying to buck herself up, she was getting close, but why did it have to be a place like this one? When Clay Whetstone, Alex’s ex-husband, had snatched their four-year-old daughter, Claire, six months ago, Tara had agreed to trace him. Both she and Alex assumed he’d head out of state, which was why it had taken her this long for the locate. Clay loved to gamble, so Tara had spent precious hours online checking Las Vegas and Reno area U-Haul records, change-of-address Web sites, and expensive state-sponsored databases.
But Clay had outfoxed them. He’d been living—probably gambling, too—less than forty miles away in the casino-studded town of Black Hawk. She had finally located him through a hunting license he took out, since that required an address and a Social Security number. Clay and Alex had shared custody, but he’d only had Claire every other weekend. When Alex went into the hospital for an operation, he’d taken off with some house furniture and their child. Tara was worried, not only for Alex’s safety, but that she might cause Clay to panic and run with Claire again before he could be arrested.
Yes, there it was, 4147 Elk Run! Tara had cros
s-checked the address through purchasing the subscription lists for two of Clay’s favorite magazines, Western Big Gamer and Poker Player U.S.A. Now Clay was the hunted and, she prayed, his hiding game was over.
To doubly confirm Clay’s location, Tara had used an online telephone directory, then phoned Clay’s neighbor to the north, pretending to be a previous owner in the area. She’d asked if the Brown family still lived at the 4147 address, claiming their phone number had evidently changed. Pretexting, it was called; P.I.s used the chat-someone-up practice all the time to get information.
“Oh, no, the Browns don’t live there,” the woman had told her. “Carl Weatherby and his cute little daughter, Claire, live there now. Moved in ’bout Thanksgiving, though they kinda keep to themselves. He keeps funny hours, goes to play poker in Black Hawk sometimes. Steve—that’s my husband—saw him there once. I mean, Steve don’t go there much, ’cause we’re churchgoing and all, but Carl does, comes and goes, you know…”
Unfortunately, everything the woman told her about “Carl Weatherby” and his daughter, Claire, was also detailed in the report that Alex had evidently pilfered from Tara’s active file on her desk.
The road here was so narrow and steep that she couldn’t park on the berm, nor was she going to take that crooked, single-lane driveway to Clay’s residence. She couldn’t even see the house from here. Could Alex already be here and have driven in? Surely she wouldn’t approach like a storm trooper, however desperately she wanted her daughter back. After all, Clay was an avid, skilled hunter, so that could mean guns on the premises.
Tara had planned to phone the Central City P.D. today, so they could take Claire into protective custody and arrest Clay. But with Alex possibly on the scene, she was afraid to get them here in case it turned into a hostage situation. Little Claire was like a niece to Tara and she wanted to protect the child, as well as Alex, at all costs. If she could only find a place to park on this narrow road, she’d sneak onto the property to look for Alex’s car. Then she’d escort Alex—hopefully with Claire—out of here and call the cops.
Just past the property, Tara pulled as far over as she could, parking tight to a line of precariously tipped pines. After she hit her warning taillights on and killed the engine, she got out and opened her umbrella. The rain drummed hard against it. The mud and grass were slick where she started up, veering off the twisting driveway so the trees would hide her. The shifting air, unfortunately, had cleared some of the mist away; it would have made perfect camouflage. The wind seemed to howl as if in protest or warning, and her footsteps crunched incredibly loudly.
She almost went down to her knees in the slippery pine needles. Hanging branches shuddered more cold water onto her. The wind changed again, whipping the rain sideways. She closed her useless umbrella and left it on the ground. At least these thick boughs provided some cover from which to view the house.
From behind a shroud of shivering, new-budding aspens and spiky blue spruce, a small A-frame of dark-brown-stained boards emerged, with an attached one-car garage. This place was a far cry from the beautiful home Alex had up for sale in Evergreen. Knowing Clay, he had big plans for recouping his losses and moving onward and upward in the world soon. Maybe he just needed time to buy himself a new legal identity as Carl Weatherby, then find a job. As he’d often said when pushing his opinion about anything onto others, “You can bet on it!”
No, Alex’s car was not parked outside. Surely it wasn’t in the small garage. Could she have been wrong to assume Alex had come here with her information? Had she come and gone, maybe with Claire? If so, Tara knew she’d better get out of here.
She went farther up toward the back of the house. The line of trembling, drooping trees threw cold water on her each time their branches moved. Rocks and thick forest fringe clung tight to the back lot line, but she didn’t want to go higher and get cut off from a quick exit to her car. Her sopped hair stuck to her face and neck and dripped cold water down her back.
Oh, no! Alex’s car was here, driven around in back, parked on the grass next to a sodden sandbox that must be Claire’s. Her stomach lurched. Could Clay and Alex have reconciled? In her wildest dreams, she never thought that was a possibility. Or had something else happened?
Bending low, she rushed toward the back deck. It was elevated, with a narrow set of wooden stairs going up. On them, her footsteps sounded too loud despite the eaves and gutters spouting noisy rivulets of rain. Above, two house windows stared at her like blank eyes, running with tears. If she could just glance in…
No lights shone from inside, even on such a dark day. Surely Claire would be home from school by now. But where could Alex have gone?
Her heart thudded so loudly it almost drowned out the rain. Tara huddled against the wooden back door on the deck, then leaned slowly inward to peek in the closest window.
Alex! Alex, sitting in—no, tied to—a kitchen chair! Slumped over. Dead? Oh, dear God in heaven, help her—help me! She didn’t see blood, but it was so dark in there….
Tara’s first instinct was to scream her friend’s name, to break a window and climb in to help, but her gut told her that Alex could be bait. Where was Claire? Worse, where was Clay? This was a crime scene.
She thudded down the stairs, fumbling for her cell phone in her pocket as her car keys jingled. Hide back in the trees, she told herself. The number of the Central City police was on her instant dial. Call them. Hide, wait, watch until they come.
She hit their number, tried to whisper for help, then just shouted, “Nine-one-one! Forty-one forty-seven Elk Lane, above Black Hawk—a woman’s been hurt—”
Her panicked cry was prophetic. She slipped and went down in slick mud and pine needles, twisting her ankle.
In the screaming wind, she heard fast footsteps behind her. A man’s booted foot slammed on her wrist. Her phone skidded away.
A moment’s stunning pain screamed deep into her brain. Blackness fell on her. Was this death? She wanted to live. Hide! She had to hide.
In that dark, secret place, some scents and sounds still clung to the her: sharp, stabbing smells; muted music; her heart pounding in her ears and someone crying, crying, crying.
September 6, 2007
“I’m really kind of nervous today,” Tara told her new doctor’s nurse as the spiky-haired blonde prepared to take her blood pressure. “Because of my coma and rehab, I haven’t been to a personal physician in years, only specialists and physical therapists. I figured I’d better get back on track with pap smears and all. Here I am, thirty years old, and I feel like a teenager facing her first time again—for a cervical exam, I mean.”
The nurse, whose name tag said only Pamela, nodded and smiled. She was young but seemed kind and efficient. “I’ve got to tell you,” Pamela said as she inflated the blood-pressure band around Tara’s arm, “I’ve never known anyone in a coma that long—a whole year?”
“Eleven months, and then a lot of physical therapy to get my body working again, especially my left leg. I went from a walker to a cane. I’m finally back to normal, though I guess I’ll never be the same person again.”
“I read that article in the paper about you, and about your friend being lost. I’m really sorry.”
Tara blinked back tears and said, “Thanks.”
She lay back on the examining table while Pamela prepared to draw blood. B.C.—Before Coma—she used to hate needles and shots, but they were familiar ground now, as were doctors, medicines, pain. But all that was nothing next to the agony of these last long months since she’d been out of the coma. She could recall no events from the day Clay had struck her with the butt of the gun with which he’d shot Alex, but other people had pieced everything together for her. Alex was dead, and Clay Whetstone was serving a life sentence for murdering his ex-wife, though his lawyers had claimed it was in self-defense. Seven-year-old Claire was in effect an orphan, but Tara had moved in with her at Alex’s family’s home when the girl’s maternal grandmother had
died. So much loss and grief…
At least Claire’s needs and love had kept Tara sane while she mourned not only Alex’s death, but the death of her own marriage. No wonder this stranger and others pitied her. It was public knowledge that during her long coma, her husband had divorced her and left the area to start a new Lohan Investments office in the Seattle area. She had not seen or talked to him since. Tara had tried to tell herself it was all for the best. She’d been crazy to marry Laird, however wealthy, handsome and charismatic he was—Prince Charming in the well-toned flesh. Laird Lohan had, as the old saying went, swept her off her feet.
Why had he wanted her, when he could have had almost anyone? Since he hadn’t stuck with her when times got tough, she had only one answer: he’d been hooked by her looks, lust at first sight for her red-gold hair, green eyes in a heart-shaped face, and her slender, graceful frame. Probably he’d been initially drawn to her independent nature, too, though. Until that fateful day she’d gone after Alex, she’d taken few risks.
At first, she had thought Laird was a gift from heaven. His apparent adoration had gone straight to her heart. He’d declared that she was his ideal woman, but he’d obviously only meant superficially. Some men joked about being a legs man or a breast man; Laird had been a face man. “Just wait until you see what our kids look like!” he’d boasted to his parents and his brother.
“We got your medical records from Dr. DeMar.” Pamela interrupted Tara’s agonizing. She pressed a cotton ball to the puncture on Tara’s inner arm where she’d drawn the blood into a plastic vial. Tara was surprised that part was all over.