(This excerpt is subject to change prior to publication!)
Peri stared at the photo.
Ambassador Lars Nilsson, his wife Karin, and daughter Maja (not pictured) arrive at the Portland International Airport to attend the Earth and Climate Technology Summit, happening this week at the Oregon Convention Center.
The Nilssons were a stylish couple. Clad in fine, tailored linen, and discrete gold jewelry, they smiled broadly at each other in the bright Oregon sunshine, but it was the blurry man walking behind them who’d captured Peri’s unwavering attention.
He wasn’t named in the caption that accompanied the photo, but there was no mistaking the identity of the man who carried several expensive leather bags–presumably the belongings of the Ambassador and his wife–which meant the Swede was likely part of Nilsson’s staff.
She’d found him.
She’d found him!
Adrenaline fountained through her as she put Nilsson’s name into the search engine and hit enter.
Finding the Swede had seemed impossible–laughable!–and she’d had to go to the library to do her research (because her laptop was in the shop), so she almost hadn’t bothered, because the odds of finding the Swede were in the fat freaking chance category. But miracle of miracles, she’d actually managed to–
Swedish Ambassador and Wife Killed in Accident on Burnside Bridge
Her thoughts careened to a halt, and she blinked at those words. The faint, nagging sense of doom that had attached itself to her in the last twenty-four hours grew stronger, bleeding dread through her veins, and she didn’t want to go any further.
Then don’t. Stand up and walk away.
Peri knew that voice; that voice had saved her life. Listening to it was a no-brainer.
She clicked on the link.
Another photo filled the screen, but this one was starkly absent the bright sunshine and smiling faces. Instead, it was dark and grim, a black and white shot shrouded in a hazy fog, the focus of which was a black vehicle that resembled little more than a crushed aluminum can.
The sight of it turned her stomach.
Peri was certain the Swede was dead. And here was evidence that four days prior to their run-in at the theater, the man and woman he’d been photographed with upon arriving in the states were killed in a horrific accident.
That could be no coincidence. This was something.
Something that was not her imagination.
Her heart beating triple-time, she read the article.
The Ambassador and his wife had been on their way to the opera when a tractor-trailer loaded with steel beams crossed the center line of the bridge and pulverized them. The Nilssons and their driver died instantly, but their ten-year-old daughter Maja, who’d been strapped into the third seat, had survived.
Peri blinked again and looked at what remained of the vehicle.
How had the girl lived through that?
A shiver moved through her. She didn’t envy anyone the memories that would come of surviving such a horrific accident. Peri knew a thing or two about the tenacity and power of memories best left forgotten, and a pang of empathy echoed through her.
Some things never left you, no matter how far you ran.
You have to help her.
The Swede’s voice whispered through her, and she shivered again.
She had no way of knowing who he was talking about. He could have been talking about anyone.
No assumptions could be made. She knew nothing–not even the man’s name. Not his relationship to the Nilssons, not why or how he’d died. Not who he’d been talking about in the theater–help her–or what he’d warned of–the black sheep–which left her with a whole lot of nothing.
Except for a dead ambassador and his wife.
She continued to scroll through the hits but found nothing helpful. A handful of articles about Nilsson securing a contract with EarthCore, a German company whose carbon sequestering technology promised to be a game changer for the climate crisis, and photos of him serving soup in a Stockholm shelter. And then she stumbled across the Department of State website and found a list of foreign ambassadors and their staff.
She scrolled down. Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra–
“Last call, Peri. Wrap it up. I’ve got a hot date with Fergie in five.”
–Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia–
“Did you hear me? I gotta go!”
The lights above Peri winked out, and she turned to glare at the woman who stood silhouetted in the front door of the Hidden Hills Library. Hen was in her late fifties, with brilliant, scarlet-red hair, big, black-framed eyeglasses, and rabid enthusiasm for the color orange. Today she wore a pair of burnt orange palazzo pants and a pumpkin-colored blouse. A chunky, carnelian necklace hung around her neck, and her lipstick was the shade of a tiger lily.
“I’m doing research,” Peri protested.
“Do it at home.” Hen tapped her booted foot impatiently. “Like a normal person.”
Peri snorted. “Normal is overrated.”
“You’re telling me.” Hen rattled the keys she held. “C’mon, kid, move it. They’re playing Harold and Maude at the drive-in, and it’s Fergie’s turn to pay.”
Fergie ran the local tire shop. He was big, burly, his bushy brown beard hung nearly to his waist, and he was easily a decade younger than Hen.
“I can lock up,” Peri offered hopefully.
“Don’t make me come over there.”
She sighed, grabbed her pack, and headed reluctantly for the door. The library was a small, two-room log cabin that had once belonged to timber magnet Jamison Kingsley, who’d founded Hidden Hills in the mid-eighteen hundreds. There were only three rooms in the small building, one filled to the brim with children’s books and reading chairs, one dedicated to non-fiction and a small card catalog–because Hen was seriously old school–and the front entry, the home of all things fiction, the checkout desk, and the library’s only two computers, which were ancient but functional.
Hen eyed Peri as she locked the door behind them. “You working on another article?”
“No, just poking around.” Peri slung her bag over her shoulder and headed to the rack where she’d left her bike. “Thanks, Hen. Have fun at the movie.”
Hen waved, climbed into her orange Mustang convertible, and sped away. Peri unlocked her bike–overkill in a place like Hidden Hills, but she was more than a little paranoid when it came to securing a getaway–and wished she’d brought her phone. Now she had to wait until she got home to look up the Swede–he’d been so close!–but at least there was a good chance she might have actually found him–
A large, hard body slammed abruptly into her from behind. Peri fell against her bike and went down, crashing into the frame. A chest pressed to her back; hard arms clamped around her, and a cloth covered her mouth.
Realization bolted through her like lightning, and the defenses borne in her childhood roared to life like an angry bear awoken from its winter slumber. There was no panic, no fear, no thought. Just reaction.
Her head snapped back and smashed into bone; her booted heel kicked back hard and found a knee. A harsh sound rumbled in the chest pressed against her, and the cloth trying to choke her loosened. She threw herself sideways, rolled across the back tire of her bike, and hit the sidewalk. Before she could stand, hard hands grabbed her pack and lifted her into the air, swinging her around like a toddler.
Freakishly strong asshole! Damn it–
She kicked back again, frustrated and enraged, and hit what felt like a thigh. Another wild swing smacked her into the bike rack, but she took advantage of that miscalculation and slammed her feet against it, pushing off hard, sending them staggering backward. They hit the edge of the sidewalk and went down, crashing sideways to the hard earth. Her teeth snapped together and she tried to crawl away, but those crushing hands caught her, and she turned toward him with a ferocious growl.
The sight of what loomed above her almost froze her in place. She’d never seen a man so white. White hair, white skin, white suit. White eyes tinged with pink–
–who was climbing on top of her and trying to shove that ragged blue handkerchief down her throat, so she kneed him hard in the jewels, and when his hold loosened, she thrust her palm against the underside of his nose and splintered the cartilage there.
Blood rained down; a snarl escaped him, and rage washed over his features as he reared back. She managed to block the first blow, but not the backhand that split her lip and flooded her mouth with blood. The hit stunned her; her head bounced against the concrete, and her ears rang. He smiled through the blood leaking from his nose, and rage burned in her veins like napalm. She grabbed the lapels of his snow-white, blood-spattered suit and yanked him toward her so she could head butt him again.
Son of a–
She never got the chance.
Before her forehead could smash into his mangled nose, he was plucked off of her like a tiny, flailing kitten. An errant ray of fading sunlight stabbed into her eyes, and Peri blinked, blinded for a moment. A grunt sounded, then another, then–
“Hurts to dance with someone your own size, doesn’t it, little hare?”
Annoyed, a little dazed, and more relieved than she cared to admit, Peri watched as the man she’d thought about far too often since their brief run-in smashed his fist into the Albino’s bloody nose. The Albino fell back and shook his head like a wet dog. Then his fist shot out. Alpha-Delta ducked, and he plowed another punch into the Albino’s belly.
Peri rolled to her feet and staggered; her brain shifted, and blood slid down her throat. She hurt from crashing into her bike, the sidewalk, the earth. Her lip throbbed. She sucked in a breath and squinted at the fight taking place only a few feet away.
The sun was fading; streetlights were flickering to life. The library faced Egret Lake. A small park sat on the north side and a strip of thick pine trees lined the southern edge. There was no one around to witness the crazy taking place. And no one around to help.
Not that Alpha-Delta appeared to need any help–
The Albino managed to land a blow, a good one, but Alpha-Delta barely moved. Instead, his hand shot out and he slapped the Albino across the face. Hard.
The Albino staggered back a step and shook his head again.
Alpha Delta–who looked more like the Grim Reaper than GI Joe–only followed and struck again, so fast his movement was a blur. Another brutal slap; the Albino went to his knees.
The sudden screech of car tires made Peri turn to see a familiar black town car lurch to a stop at the curb. The blackened passenger window slid down; a gleaming silver 9mm slid out, and she hit the ground. Bullets spat into the air; a heartbeat later, a hard, huge body landed on top of hers and rolled them behind the weathered wooden Hidden Hills Library sign. Pine splintered into the air; thud, thud, thud!
The tires squealed again, and the car took off.
Silence fell like a hammer, and for a long moment, Peri didn’t move. Her heart beat like a deafening drum in her ears; a wall of heated, tensile muscle and hard bone surrounded her. The scent of sandalwood and spice filled her nostrils, and a harsh breath touched her cheek. She closed her eyes, savoring, for just a brief moment, the strange, otherworldly sensation she felt.
Safe. She felt safe.
Her eyes popped open, and fear tore through her. She turned and shoved Alpha-Delta off her.
“What did you go and do that for?” she demanded. “I had him right where I wanted him!”
Copyright 2023 Hope McKenzie