Page 4 of Smoke in Mirrors

His dark brows rose in silent appreciation of the direct hit. “Close, Miss Hutton. Not quite on target, but very, very close.”

“I knew it.”

“Meredith left a trail that would point to my brother, Deke, if the embezzlement is exposed.”

“Your brother.” She digested that slowly. “Where exactly is the headquarters of this Bethany Walker Fund?”

“It’s part of the alumni endowment of Eubanks College. It was set up to support research and teaching in the field of mathematics.”

“Eubanks?” She frowned. “I’m not familiar with that institution.”

“It’s a small college in a little town called Wing Cove. About an hour and a half’s drive north of Seattle.”

“I see.”

“The fund is named for Deke’s wife, Bethany, a brilliant mathematician. She died last year. Deke is the head of the board that oversees the fund’s operations and investments. In three months there will be an audit. If that money turns up missing, he will look like the guy responsible for making it disappear, thanks to sweet Meredith.”

A typical Meredith operation, Leonora thought. Make sure the victim of the scam won’t call the cops.

“I realize how upsetting this must be for you and your brother, Mr. Walker. But I must say, for a man who wants to keep the situation low profile, you seem to be quite chatty on the subject.”

“That’s because I have a strong interest in recovering the money. I want it back in the fund’s account before that damned audit.”

“I understand,” she said. “But why are you talking to me about this?”

“Simple. You’re my best lead.”

She stared. “I beg your pardon?”

“Let me put it this way, you’re my only lead.”

Panic shot through her. “But I don’t know anything about that missing money.”

“Yeah?” He looked unconvinced. “Let’s say for the sake of argument that you’re telling me the truth—”

“I am telling you the truth.”

“Even if that is the case, you’re still my only lead.”

“Why?”

“Because you knew Meredith better than anyone else, as far as I can tell. I’m really hoping that you can help me out here, Miss Hutton.”

In your dreams, Leonora thought. “I just told you, I didn’t have much contact with her this past year. I wasn’t even aware that she had a job at Eubanks College. I didn’t know she was living here in this apartment until the authorities contacted me after the accident.”

“No kidding. According to the manager, she used your name on the rental application.”

Leonora said nothing. It wasn’t the first time Meredith had borrowed her good name and credit references.

“I doubt that she intended to stay here long.” Thomas surveyed the room with its bare-bones furnishings and uninspiring view. “Probably just needed a staging area and an address she could use while she set up her next scam.”

“Look, I really don’t know what to say. I can’t help you, Mr. Walker. I’m only here to pack up Meredith’s belongings. I intend to donate most of her stuff to a local thrift shop. When that job is done, I’m going straight home. I have reservations on an evening flight. I’m supposed to be at work in the morning.”

“Home is Melba Creek, right? Outside of San Diego?”

She tried to ignore the unsettling sensation that trickled through her. “Okay, so you know where I live. Is that supposed to scare me?’

“I’m not trying to scare you, Miss Hutton. I’m trying to work with you.”

“Uh huh.”

“I’ve got a business proposition for you.”

“Give me one good reason why I should listen to it.”

“I’ll give you a couple. The first is that if you cooperate with me and help me locate the money, I’ll see to it that you get a finder’s fee.”

“Let me get this straight. You’ll bribe me to return the money?”

“Beats going to prison for embezzlement, doesn’t it?”

“Prison?” She did take a reflexive step back at that. Wrench shifted a little in response and looked interested. She froze. “Why would I be arrested? You said your brother was the one who would appear guilty if that money isn’t found.”

“I don’t intend for my brother to take the fall for Meredith’s embezzlement scam,” Thomas said softly. “If that money isn’t back in the account before the next audit, I’m going to make sure the cops look real hard at you.”

“How?”

“Deke is a wizard when it comes to computers. I’m pretty good on the financial side. Shouldn’t be too difficult to create a trail from Meredith to you.”

“Me?” She was dumbfounded. “But I had nothing to do with Meredith’s embezzlement.”

“Who knows? Maybe you’ll even be able to prove that in the end. But I can arrange to make life damn miserable for you in the meantime. Tell me, how do you think your employer would react if it got out that you were being investigated for embezzlement?”

“How dare you threaten to drag me into this mess!”

He took one hand out of his pocket. It was a very large, powerful, competent-looking hand, the hand of a man who worked with tools or climbed rocks. Not the soft, manicured hand of a businessman.

He spread his fingers in a fait-accompli gesture.

“In case you haven’t noticed, Miss Hutton, you’re already in this mess. Right up to your very nice ears.”

“How can you say that?”

“You’re the closest thing to a friend that Meredith had, as far as I can tell. In my book that makes you the closest thing she had to a partner.”

“I wasn’t her partner.”

“The two of you have a history. You’re the only person she kept in touch with through thick and through thin. I’m pretty sure that with a little help from Deke, I can make you look like her accomplice.”

“My God, you’re serious, aren’t you?”

“With one-and-a-half million, plus my brother’s reputation on the line? Yeah, Miss Hutton, I’m damned serious. Cooperate with me. Help me find the money and we can both walk away from this without anyone having to hire a lawyer.”

“Just where do you think I would stash that kind of cash?”

“At this point, all I know for sure is that it’s not in your personal bank account.”

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