His Secret Life. Debra Webb
and take orders since the evening crowd was slowly drifting into the diner.
The bustle of the kitchen staff was also obvious beyond the serving window. While the waitresses were preoccupied with their evening rush, Jane pulled a couple of plastic sandwich bags from her purse and picked up the bowl, using one of the bags as a barrier between her fingers and the stoneware. With her movements hidden beneath the counter now, she slipped the empty bowl into the second bag and tucked it into her purse.
With a quick check to ensure that no one was paying attention, she grabbed the side order bowl left by the customer who’d abandoned the stool next to her and placed it by her plate. No need to call attention to the fact that she’d taken the bowl.
Patsy strolled past, slowing long enough to refill Jane’s soda.
Her phone vibrated. With another perusal around the diner, Jane reached into the pocket of her pants and pulled out her phone to check the screen. Text message from Ian Michaels. Rendezvous with MW 5:00?
Jane responded with a suggestion of five-fifteen. OK flashed on the screen. The newest member of the Colby Agency’s staff, Merrilee Walters, would come by the Plano Hotel at five-fifteen to pick up whatever Jane had been able to retrieve that might provide Benson’s prints.
Excellent timing. Evidently she’d already been in the area since the office in Chicago was more than an hour away. That a member of the agency staff was standing by, indicated that the client was getting anxious. He wanted the name of the hero who’d rescued his wife and son.
Jane polished off her burger, paid her check, left a generous tip and headed for the rendezvous with Merri. The hotel was only a few blocks from the diner, so Jane had chosen to walk. According to one of the waitresses, the entire diner staff worked until around eight cleaning up and prepping for the next day. Benson wasn’t likely going anywhere before eight.
And if he did, Jane knew where he lived. She was waiting for one thing, approval to approach. That approval would come when the Colby Agency had done all possible to rule out a criminal record.
As Jane rounded the corner at the end of the block, she hesitated. The sun hovered above the trees, still generating enough heat to draw a sweat. The occasional car rolled down the street. A few pedestrians were out and about. Still, that creepy sensation that crawls up the back of one’s neck had camped at the base of her skull.
Jane stopped, turned around.
Her instincts still humming, Jane sped up her pace and made it to the hotel in record time. She surveyed the block in both directions. Nothing or no one appeared out of place. No sign of Merri.
Jane waited out front until her colleague arrived. She parked at the curb and Jane slid into the passenger seat, thankful for the cold air blasting from the air-conditioning vents.
“Any trouble finding the place?” Jane was careful to wait until Merri had turned in her direction before speaking. The newest member of the Colby Agency staff was deaf. She was inordinately skilled at lip-reading.
“Your directions were very clear.” Merri glanced around the street. “Has your target noticed your presence yet?”
“He’s suspicious.” Jane couldn’t help wishing she’d been born with Merri’s bright blue eyes and silky blond hair. Truth was, no one was really ever happy with their appearance. At least that was what she told herself each time she had a “plain” moment. “I think he’s keeping an eye on me.”
“I guess I should make this quick, then,” Merri suggested. “I don’t want to draw any unnecessary attention.”
She was right. Jane retrieved the bagged side order bowl and passed it to her colleague. “The waitress may have blurred Benson’s prints, but it was the best I could do for now.”
Merri placed the bag in the console of her sedan. “I’ll get this to Ian this evening. He has a friend from CPD and one from the bureau standing by.”
“Good. Maybe we’ll know something early tomorrow morning.”
“That’s Ian’s goal.”
Before getting out, Jane hesitated. “How’s Victoria?” The last couple of weeks had taken a tremendous toll on the head of the Colby Agency. Her granddaughter’s safety was at stake and the source of the threat was still untraceable. Victoria now knew his identity, but finding him was proving impossible.
Merri’s expression turned grim. “She’s holding up.” She shook her head. “The little girl, she doesn’t really understand what’s going on. Which is good.”
Until now Jane hadn’t noticed the slight distortion in Merri’s speech. Maybe because they hadn’t talked alone like this before. Merri had been deaf for about six years now. Her speech had begun to suffer in the extended period without the resonance of sound to maintain rhythm and modulation.
“Have a safe trip back to the city.”
Merri nodded. “Ian will be in touch.”
Jane watched Merri drive away. After living her entire life in the South, Merri was certainly getting her bearings in what she teasingly called Yankee territory.
Fishing for her keys in her purse, Jane walked toward the car she’d rented for this assignment. By the time she drove back to the diner, the dinner crowd would have thickened. Taking up a surveillance post nearby would be fairly simple.
She wasn’t cleared to approach Benson yet, but keeping an eye on him in case he decided to cut and run was essential. Norcross was insistent on learning as much information as possible on Benson.
She slid behind the wheel and drove the few blocks to the diner. Parking down the block and on the other side of the street, she watched the customers filter in and out. Even with the windows down, the July heat was sweltering.
From time to time she got out and walked a short distance, just to stretch her legs and get some air flowing beneath her blouse.
More than two hours passed before the waitresses started to, one by one, head out the front entrance. The brightly colored neon sign that announced the diner was open for business went dark. Benson came out the back door a couple of times pulling a trash container. Another employee hustled out to help him dump the containers. The second time, Benson paused before going back inside. He surveyed the street, his gaze settling on Jane’s car.
Oh yeah, he was well aware that he was being watched.
If he had something to hide, he might very well ditch his comfy life.
Jane watched him swagger back to the rear entrance. His suspicious glances piqued her curiosity. “What are you hiding, Mr. Benson?”
Pretty soon the lights went out inside the establishment and the kitchen staff trickled out the rear entrance. Benson waved good-night to his coworkers and headed for his old blue truck. He climbed inside and backed out of his parking slot. He hesitated at the street, probably checking out her position again before driving away.
Jane gave him a few seconds’ head start before executing a U-turn and following. He’d already made the turn that led deep into the woods when she reached the turnoff to Grissom Spring Road. His farmhouse sat a couple of miles into the woods. At one time the farm had been pastureland and cultivated acreage, but for the past fifteen or so years the woods had closed in, leaving a small yard around the old house.
There were no streetlights on the old road, making the path dark beneath the canopy of ancient trees. Jane’s weapon was in the rental car’s console. But before she got out of the car, it would be in her purse. She was no fool. Being armed, especially on an assignment like this, was the only way to go.
She passed Benson’s place and almost braked, but checked the urge at the last moment. His truck wasn’t in the driveway.
What the hell?
When she’d rolled past his property far enough to be unseen, she braked to a stop and shoved the gearshift into