A Question of Fire
Genre: Romantic Suspense
When Cathy Bennett agrees to attend an important party as a favor for her boss, she knows she won't enjoy it. But she doesn't expect to end up holding a dying man in her arms and becoming the recipient of his last message. Bobby Stark has evidence that will prove his younger brother has been framed for arson and murder. He wants that evidence to get to his brother's lawyer, and he tries to tell Cathy where he's hidden it. But he dies before he can give her more than a cryptic piece of the location.
The man who killed Bobby saw him talking to her and assumes she knows where the evidence is hidden. He wants it back and he'll do whatever it takes to get it, including following her and trying to kidnap her.
Cathy enlists the aid of attorney Peter Lowell and Danny Stark, Bobby's prickly, difficult younger brother, as well as a handsome private detective to help her find the evidence before the killers do.
The word slithered from the bushes behind her, startling Catherine Bennett out of the few wits she'd managed to recover in the peace of the dark, quiet garden. Thready strains of violin music and the buzz of voices drifted across the lawn from the open door to the house. In the light spilling out from it, she could distinguish a couple of people sitting at a table on the deck. Cathy measured the distance with her eye. A good, heavy-duty scream would be heard, even over the party noises.
"Please, miss!" Tense urgency drove the voice as it called again.
She didn't need this. The evening had been disastrous enough already and a man hiding in the garden spelled trouble with capital letters. She got up and backed away, while turning to face the source of the call.
"Don't run away, please," the voice begged. "I won't hurt you. I promise. I just want to ask you something."
A ring of sincerity in the pleading tone kept her from sprinting straight back to the house, an action the more cautious part of her brain urged. Cathy strained for a look at the person in the shrubbery. The voice was male and adult, though probably not very old. "Come out where I can see you," she demanded.
"Shhh!" he ordered in a fierce whisper. Leaves rustled, and a slender shape detached itself from the bushes. In the darkness she couldn't distinguish his features.
A light breeze in her face set her shivering. "What do you want?" She backed another step away. They both jumped when a particularly loud laugh rang across the yard.
He turned to face the house. "You been at the party?"
At it, not of it, Cathy thought. She didn't say so; the young man wouldn't understand the distinction. "Yes," she answered.
"You know a guy named Peter Lowell?"
"Yes," Cathy admitted, wondering where this was leading.
The young man's indrawn breath sounded almost like a sob. "He's in there, ain't he?"
"Could you ask him to come out here?"
"I don't know. We just met tonight and I. . . I don't think he liked me very much. He might not come."
"Please. It's real important. You gotta try." A quiver shook the young man's body and voice. Tension or fear -- or both? Whichever it was, he sounded near the breaking point.
"All right. Who should I tell him is here?"
The clouds drifted apart and the moon emerged from their shadow. A sliver of light fell across the man's cheek and glinted off the sheen of perspiration there. "Tell him . . . Tell him it's Bobby. He'll come, I promise."
Cathy sighed. "All right, I'll try. Wait here." She turned toward the house when another noise sounded behind them -- the crackle of twigs or dried leaves underfoot.
Bobby's head jerked around toward the bushes, then he called again, "Wait!" There was no mistaking the sheer desperation in his voice now. "Please. Wait." He looked from her face to the shrubbery and back again. "I better give you the message. Tell this to Mr. Lowell, and no one else. Promise you won't tell anyone else?"
Cathy went back to him, found one of his arms, and pulled him back into the shadow of a large boxwood. The arm she held was trembling. "All right," she said. "What's the message?"
The young man looked around the yard and took a couple of quick, shallow breaths. "Tell him Danny was framed. I got the proof. Tell him--"
Another rustle shook the bushes, followed by a sudden, sharp crack which reverberated for a few seconds afterward. Bobby groaned and collapsed, sagging against Cathy. The abrupt burden of his weight drove her to the ground, where she found herself half crushed by the young man's bulk. She moved out from under him, a rush of adrenalin sharpening her senses so that she could hear, over Bobby's ragged breathing, the squish of a footstep in the shrubbery and the churning of leaves and branches fading rapidly as the gunman retreated.
Cathy stood up and started toward the brush to follow the noise, but changed her mind when a choked groan from Bobby called her back. He sprawled motionless on the ground where she had pushed him when she stood up. The moonlight provided little illumination, but a new, large smudge stained the young man's light shirt. "Please. Tell Lowell--" He choked on the words.
Cathy found one of his hands and tried to tell him to be still, to be quiet, she'd get help. His breathing was harsh, rattling, and difficult.
Bobby moved his head in a bare negative motion. "Tell Lowell . . ." He worked for a breath. "God, please . . ." He tried again. "Danny . . ." He paused and the hand she held clenched. "In the air . . ."
Breath and strength deserted him at the same time. The fingers clasping hers went slack and slid out of her grasp.
Cathy did scream then, yelling for help at the top of her voice, though she knew the man on the ground was beyond assistance. She stood and ran back to the house. People responding to her cry met her as she got to the bottom of the stairs, and she managed to choke out the words to explain that someone needed to call the police and an ambulance.
When a man said he'd make the calls, she went back to the site of the shooting, leading a knot of strangers. The young man still sprawled, face up and unmoving, on the grass. Cathy collapsed beside him. She picked up his hand again, and held it while they waited in the darkness. She asked one of the people to find Peter Lowell and bring him. She shivered as the breeze blew across her bare arms again, but the tears sliding down her face burned.
Other people joined the group and several pressed questions on her. She explained only that she'd met this person in the garden and he'd been shot by a sniper while they were talking. Someone brought a flashlight and by its glow they ascertained that the young man was indeed dead. Cathy looked away after her first view of him. Stripped of personality, the face told her nothing she didn't already know: he had been young. The crowd was beginning to overwhelm her when she heard a voice she thought she recognized asking to be allowed through.
"Lowell?" she said.
The flashlight swung toward the newcomer, picking out a tall, slender man in a gray suit. The beam glinted in his blond hair and reflected off the lenses of thick glasses. "Yes," he answered. "What's---?" He stopped abruptly. "God Almighty!"
The light had moved back to shine on Cathy. She must look even worse than she knew. She lifted a hand toward him and saw in the light it was red with blood; she let it fall back into her lap and shut her eyes against the glare.
"Turn that away!" Lowell ordered the man with the torch. "You wanted me?" he asked.
"He wanted you." She gestured toward the man on the ground. "He was trying to get a message to you."
"Who is it?"
"He said his name was Bobby."
"Bobby?" The name meant something to him. Lowell went down on one knee beside the body.
"He's dead," Cathy warned.
"Dead!" She could hear his shock. "Bobby? Are you sure?"
"I'm not a doctor, but yes, I'm sure."
"Dead? No." Pain sharpened Lowell's voice to a thin wire of sound. "Oh God, no." His hand moved to the dead man's throat, felt for a pulse, then reached up to smooth the hair. "He was trying to get a message to me?" He stopped and swallowed hard. "Did he say what the message was?"
"Yes," Cathy said.
"What---?" The sharp blaze of a siren cut through the night and the chatter of the crowd. Lowell looked up and surveyed the people gathered around them. "Later," he said, and Cathy nodded agreement. The siren approached and swooped into the driveway, cutting off abruptly as the police car reached the end of the driveway at the back of the house. Blue lights swirled, reflecting off trees, grass and crowd, throwing crazy shadows over them all. Another siren heralded the arrival of an ambulance just seconds later. People piled out of the ambulance and police car, hauling lights, weapons, and medical equipment.