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Pepper’s ankles bled from the jagged bottle edge. No telling how long it took her to cut through the scarf that bound them as one but she was finally free of it. The tingle in her legs told her the circulation had returned—and too fast. If she didn’t get something around her deep gashes she could easily bleed out. It should have been a simple task to tie a scarf but the zip ties that held her wrists together behind her limited her movement. She bent her leg backwards to reach. Her swollen fingers fumbled with the fabric in defiance. She bound her left ankle as best she could.
Her legs were still asleep from the calves down. If she stood she would surly fall over until the feeling came back to them. She had no choice but to crawl to get the other scarf that had been tied around her eyes. Pepper moved herself across the rock surface of the floor by her knees. A trail of red lay behind her, the scarf a few inches in front—she grabbed it. Her fingers were almost beyond the ability to function as she wrapped her other ankle.
Pepper rolled herself to a sitting position and raised her knees to her chest. Despite the pain she stomped on the ground until the tingle in her feet subsided. If just this exhausted her, would she have the energy to escape? She took a few deep breaths. Whatever it took, she had to get out.
She leaned against the wall for support as she stood. Her thirst and need for fluids overwhelmed her. The glass and pitcher of water left on the table to taunt her lay across the room. Had someone intended to come back and couldn’t? Why even kidnap her? Did Malcolm panic? The questions that taxed her mind added to the dizzy swirl inside her head from the effort it took to stand. She hadn’t been in this much trouble since Chicago. Pepper put her back to the wall and waited for her eyes to focus. She looked at the water, then the wine bottles. She took slow steps until she felt balanced and made her way to the wine racks. Back up against the end of the rack, she lifted off a corkscrew that hung off a nail by a string and stuck in her back pocket. Pepper surveyed the wine. A bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild would do well. Granted alcohol may not be the best choice but she had no clue what, if anything was in the water.
The thought of something to drink renewed her spirit. The chair and table didn’t seem so far now. She walked to it with renewed confidence. Her only immediate problem was how to get the bottle open to pour it. After several attempts she relented. There was no way she could configure the movement with her bound hands behind her to undo the cork from the bottle. She returned the corkscrew to her back pocket.
“Sinclair!’ she screamed. “Sinclair, if I get out of this I swear I’ll shoot you on sight!” The echo of her voice off the stone wall was her only answer. She emitted the laugh of one with hysteria. How stupid that was—she had no gun. No one heard her. She didn’t even know if he was the one who put her in here. But it had to be didn’t it? Malcolm knew who she really was. Pepper fell back into the willow wood chair defeated. This was worse than Chicago. The move to a small town where no one knew her was supposed to be safe, a fresh start. But no, she got the undercover itch and had to do it her way to snoop on Malcolm Sinclair. Hadn’t she learned her lesson the last time? To have a stalker obsessed with the role she played undercover was dangerous enough with lewd phone calls from her “darling” as he’d say and photos of her left on her door stoop; then being jumped, tied up, just to be tossed out from a van for dead. This time she was taken as herself. It somehow made her feel more violated. At least she could justify in her mind that the persona she existed as in Chicago wasn’t really her, it was someone else. But this was real, this was her real life and it pissed her off.
Pepper stood and grasped the wide part of the bottle toward the bottom as tight as her fingers could stand. Yes, she had been through hell, but damn if some arrogant SOB like Malcolm Sinclair was going to bring her down. She was already a bloody mess, how much worse could it get? She smacked the neck of the bottle on the edge of the table till it shattered. She poured the wine slow right to the rim of the glass then checked for bottle fragments. Clear. She bent over and sipped. Her taste buds awoke to the sweet taste. The moisture that flooded over her parched mouth invigorated her. She drank a bit more and it hit her hard deprived of a drink for so long. Two tunnels out but which one should she choose? Too much alcohol made people do crazy things, but maybe a little crazy was what she needed. Without further thought she picked one at random and ran.
Sheriff Clayton Nazzaro roared into Malcolm Sinclair's estate and screeched to a stop in front of the house, his cell phone still under his chin. "What do you mean? What kind of surveillance equipment—home security?"
"Well some of it," said the deputy, "but most of it looks like shots of places in the village."
Clayton got out of his vehicle and ran up the walkway to the front porch. His phone now in hand he twisted to get the kink out of his neck. "Any sign of Investigator Black?"
"No. Nothing. Sorry sir."
Clayton couldn't decide if that was a good thing or bad. "We'll don't touch anything. Call in the tech guys to handle it. How do I get down to where you are?"
"The tech team is already ------ sheriff. They're parked around back. Come -----way. The lake entrance is the quickest ----- here."
"You're breaking up. Be right there." The signal by the lake was crap. Clayton came down off the porch and made his way around the side of the house. He could see the county van down a steep drive that lead to a dock. He went around it but still saw no one.
The deputy seemed to appear from nowhere. "Here, sheriff. Over this way."
Clayton didn't see the actual entrance until he was right up on it. The rock formation zigzagged out from the side over an opening set further back which gave the cliff side the illusion that it was all one solid piece. No wonder the wealthy bootlegger bought up the surrounding properties and built his house here. It was a perfect way to smuggle alcohol out via the lake and maybe people too—then and now. Another tunnel, he assumed, was the one that lead up into the house. The stone room itself was massive. Fishing equipment was lined up to one side. None of it looked like it was recently used. It felt too dry. Another wall was filled with computer screens; each one flashed a different scene between snowy static of poor reception. Clayton went over to where the techs were at the keyboards.
Hey, sheriff," said the tech, "quite the exciting night for our department, huh?"
Clayton ignored his flippant remark. "Just tell me what all this is."
"Right, well," the tech said, as he pointed to various screens, "each one of these is a different view of the village. Here's our station, the court house, the Lamont Bicycle Shop, the Lamont Cafe, all different places. Then the entrance to here, see? You can see our men in the tunnel."
"The bike shop." Clayton paused. "You mean Pepper's apartment. Everywhere she would go is more like it, but why?"
"Couldn't tell you that, sheriff, but looking at the stack of disks over there I'd say he's been doing it for a while."
Clayton followed the direction of the tech’s hand to a cabinet at the far end of the long desk that held the equipment. He opened it. The dated CDs went back almost a month. Not too long after Pepper had arrived in town, and right around the time Malcolm bought the property. Many were from before the murder of Margie Webster. "I don't get it. He's stalking her?"
"I'd say so, sheriff," said the tech. "This one scene though, I'm not sure where it is. Looks similar to where we are now."
Clayton turned to the screen and scanned his eyes across until he spotted the one the tech meant. He was right. It looked almost the same except for what appeared to be the edge of a wine rack showing on the edge of a view of a tunnel.
A flicker of an image passed across the screen, then static. Clayton was sure it was a person. "Did you see that? Can you make that replay without interrupting the recording?"
The tech rose and moved to one of the other computer stations and signaled another officer from his department to take his seat. “I can do it from here. Let’s see what we get.” His fingers moved rapidly over the keys. He stopped it, went back again and paused. “I think I got it set in the right spot.”
The tech tapped the keyboard and in slow motion they could see something enter the view. A woman with a braid down her back, and arms behind her back came from out of the wine racks and exited down the tunnel. She didn’t turn to face the camera but Clayton knew. It was Pepper and she was alive. He had a hunch where she was and he had better be right.
Clayton waved over his other officers. “You all know the old Olmstead place on Hempstead Road?” Some of his men gave him the same confused look that Beth had given him when he told her about it. “The big brick house?” The look of recognition crossed their faces as they nodded.
“That the one that was owned by that writer guy about a hundred years ago?” asked an officer.
“Not quite that long,” said Clayton, “but, yes. Malcolm Sinclair owns it now. I want some of you to go around through the front and see if there’s an entrance to the cellar. Might be hidden. I’ll take the rest to the field down the road where Margie Webster’s body was found. If it’s anything like this place there’s a tunnel that leads between the two. I hope.” Hope and a hunch, that’s all he had—and a prayer he could get a search warrant. Either way, they were going in.
Pepper picked wisely. She could see moonlight at the end of the tunnel. Odd that she didn’t smell the water. She slowed for a moment to catch her breath. When she looked up a figure was blocking the light. She stepped back with one foot, then the other. Maybe she hadn’t picked so well after all. The person moved closer. It was too short to be Malcolm.
“Oh, Ms. Black you have become such a nuisance,” a woman said.
It was khaki pants. Flashlight in one hand, Pepper’s Sig Sauer 380 pointed at her in the other. “Jessie. What the…”
“This is the cutest little gun, by the way. I must get one,” Jessie said, as she waved it in her hand. “It would fit so nice in my purse.”
It didn’t appear the Calvary was going to find its way in time to save her. Pepper didn’t think the stall option would work with this one either, too unstable, but what the hell, she had to ask. “Why are you doing this? Why me? And what about Margie? Was that you or Malcolm?”
“Poor Malcolm. He was so upset about Margie’s death,” said Jessie. She moved closer to Pepper. “Silly girl. Margie took the boat one day to make a delivery for her boss and thought Malcolm would be down by the docks so she came up the lake way. She came in a little too far and saw all Malcolm’s cameras. It burst her little bubble about him right there and then.”
“Never you mind that,” said Jessie. She shook the gun in Pepper’s face. “That’s not the point. The point is she thought she could come to me for advice. Advice! I was sick to death of Malcolm fawning over her. Margie’s so down to earth. Margie’s so level headed. Margie can help me. He was falling for her! Not me. Her!”
Jessie was going for the deep end quick but she had the gun and Pepper had two useless arms behind her back. “So what did you do Jessie? You killed her for it?”
“Well, I didn’t really mean too. I don’t think. Well, okay. I did. She made me mad.” Jessie was running her fingers along the sides of the gun, caressing it. “I wish I had this. It would have been less messy, but no. I gave her the advice, just not the way she wanted. We were on our little field trip. We went into the den. And there were Malcolm’s clubs for show. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play. And Margie didn’t want to play anything with him after what she saw. I didn’t want to hear it. Not about the cameras or another woman I had to worry about. I just wanted her to shut up. I grabbed a club and whack. That’s it. She was quiet.”
There is always some truth in deranged rambles but Pepper had no idea what train Jessie’s brain was riding on. “Did Malcolm help you dump her?”
“Oh, heavens no. Malcolm didn’t even know she was dead until everyone else did.” Jessie grinned, and then gave the same giggle as she did the night of the book club. “It was easy to get her out actually. Phillip Olmstead was my great-grandfather. I used to play here. I knew about the tunnel that led from the house to the field. This place was on the Underground Railroad. I just dragged her down, dumped her in the wheel barrel and took her out. So now we’re done and off you go.”
Now Pepper understood why she didn’t smell the lake. They were at Malcolm Sinclair’s other house. She heard the distinctive cock of a gun, but it wasn’t the one in Jessie’s hand. Another shadow stood in the moonlight. “What about her head, Jessie?”
“What?” Jessie was distracted.
"Her head,” Pepper said. “Why’d you cut it off?”
“Oh, it sounds so bad when you say it like that,” said Jessie. “The adze was there on the ground and I thought, well so much for having a good head on her shoulders, huh?” Jessie was in a state of uncontrollable laughter and didn’t hear the soft steps from behind. “But then it looked in such poor taste to leave her like that, so I tied the scarf around her neck.”
“Put the gun down, Jessie.”
The voice sounded familiar but Pepper couldn’t place it. It sounded like Malcolm, but not.
Jessie turned and looked back. “But I brought you a present Malcolm, isn’t this what…”
Jessie dropped like a marionette whose strings were let go. It was a clean shot through the temple.
Malcolm ran to Pepper’s side. “Are you alright?”
“I suppose.” Pepper was leery. It was something about his voice. She was tired and hurt all over. It had to be her imagination. “You knew I was here, how?”
Malcolm came in closer, a breath away. He rubbed his hands up and down her arms, yet he made no attempt to cut her free. An odd look came across his face. “I’ll always know where you are, darlin’, Chicago or otherwise.”
He called her darling. Now she knew. She smacked her knee in his groin as hard as she had the strength for and got around him. Malcolm reached out and grabbed her ankle as he doubled over in pain, sending Pepper face first into the stone floor. She screamed in agony. She heard the sound of sirens from the outside. Her other foot went back and made contact, she hoped with his skull by the feel of it.
“You bitch!”He let go of her ankle.
Pepper rolled so she could see him and shimmied backwards until she touched the wall and was able to stand. Malcolm was up and headed for her.
“Not this time.” Pepper felt for her back pocket and found the corkscrew. She held on tight with her bound hands. Malcolm lunged, and as he did Pepper turned and embedded the point in Malcolm’s side. He fell against her as they both toppled to the floor. His weight was excruciating. He still breathed.
Feet pounded up the tunnel. “You all better hurry the hell up. This guy’s still alive,” yelled Pepper.
Clayton was the first face she saw when he kicked Malcolm off of her. She gasped in air that filled her lungs. “You were right,” Pepper said between breaths.
“After all of this, that’s all you have to say?” said Clayton. He knelt down beside her. “Right about what?”
“No more undercover. Now you mind cutting me loose before my arms fall off?”
Clayton unclipped his knife from her belt and cut her free. It took a few minutes for her to bring her arms around to the front. When she did, she hugged herself. Someone should.
Pepper sat on the edge of the rescue vehicle as Malcolm, or whoever he was, wheeled past her to an awaiting ambulance. He turned his head to look at her. Childish as it was, she couldn’t resist the urge to stick out her tongue at him. Blame it on the Chateau Lafite.
“You look like you went forty rounds with a grizzly bear,” said Clayton. “You going to be okay?”
“They bandaged me up pretty good, but the higher ups want me checked out over to the hospital,” said Pepper.
“So I take it that dancing to some Zydeco over at the country club is out?”
Poor Clayton, she put him through hell too tonight. “I’ll take a rain check on that one.”
Clayton seemed at an uncomfortable loss for words. She still had one thing left that bugged her. “Did you ever figure out what Margie meant with all her notes in that Hemingway book? Why it was so important?”
Clayton waited before he spoke. “I realize tonight was the wackiest book club you’ve ever encountered, but you know what?”
“Sometimes a book is just a book.”
Today's word – Z is for Zydeco - is brought to you by (FB) Chip Etier.
Zigzagged was brought to you by me - because it was there.
If you would like to catch up, here is my 2013 A to Z Mystery Recap.
This post is part of April's Blogging From A-Z Challenge and Camp NaNoWriMo. The rest of the A-Z bloggers can be found pinned in the links section of my sidebar.
Hope to see you Thursday for my Surviving A to Z post where I discuss plot holes and goof ups of a first draft.