Story Excerpt

Small Signs

by Charlaine Harris

 

Smallsigns-final-LaurieHarden
Art by Laurie Harden

David Angola was leaning against Anne DeWitt’s car in the Travis High School parking lot. The bright early-fall sun shone on his newly shaved dark head. It was four-thirty on a Friday afternoon, and the lot was almost empty.

Anne did not get the surprise David had (perhaps) intended. She always looked out the window of her office after she’d collected her take-home paperwork.

Anne hadn’t stayed alive as long as she had by being careless.

After a few moments of inner debate, she decided to go home as usual. She might as well find out what David wanted. Anne was utterly alert as she walked toward him, her hand on the knife in her jacket pocket. She was very good with sharp instruments.

“I come in peace,” he called, smiling, holding out his hands to show they were empty. His white teeth flashed in a broad smile.

The last time Anne had seen David they’d been friends, or at least as close to friends as they could be. But that had been years ago. She stopped ten feet away. “Who’s minding Camp West while you’re gone?” she said.

“Chloe,” he said.

“Don’t remember her.”

“Chloe Montgomery,” he said. “Short blond hair? Six feet tall?”

“The one who went to Japan to study martial arts?”

David nodded.

“I didn’t like her, but you obviously have a different opinion.” Anne was only marking time with the conversation until she got a feel for the situation. She had no idea why David was here. Ignorance did not sit well with her.

“Not up to me,” David said.

Anne absorbed that. “How could she not be your choice? Last I knew, you were still calling the shots.”

For the past eight years, David Angola had been the head of Camp West, a very clandestine California training facility specializing in survival under harsh conditions . . . and harsh interrogation.

Anne had been his opposite number at Camp East, located in the Allegheny Mountains. Since the training was so rigorous, at least every other year a student didn’t survive. This was the cost of doing business. However, a senator’s daughter had died at Camp East. Anne had been fired.

“I was calling the shots until there were some discrepancies in the accounts.” David looked away as he said that.

“You got fired over a decimal point?” Anne could scarcely believe it.

“Let’s call it a leave of absence while the situation’s being investigated,” he said easily. But his whole posture read “tense” to Anne, and that contrasted with his camouflage as an average citizen. David always blended in. Though Anne remembered his taste as leaning toward silk T-shirts and designer jeans, today he wore a golf shirt and khakis under a tan windbreaker. Half the men in North Carolina were wearing some version of the same costume.

Anne considered her next question. “So, you came here to do what?”

“I couldn’t be in town and not lay eyes on you, darlin’. I like the new nose, but the dark hair suited you better.”

Anne shrugged. Her hair was an unremarkable chestnut. Her nose was shorter and thinner. Her eyebrows had been reshaped. She looked attractive enough. The point was that she did not look like Twyla Burnside. “You’ve seen me. Now what?”

“I mainly want to see my man,” David said easily. “I thought it was only good sense to check in with you first.”

Anne was not surprised that David had come to see his former second-in-command, Holt Halsey. David had sent Holt to keep an eye on Anne when she’d gotten some death threats . . . at least, that was the explanation Holt had given Anne. She’d taken it with a pinch of salt.

“So go see him.” Anne glanced down at her watch. “Holt should have locked up the gym by now. He’s probably on his way home. I’m sure you have his address.” Aside from that one quick glance, she’d kept her eyes on David. His hands were empty, but that meant nothing to someone as skilled as he was. They’d both been instructors before they’d gotten promoted.

David straightened up and took a step toward his car, a rental. “I hated to see you get the axe. Cassie’s not a patch on you.”

“Water under the bridge,” Anne said stiffly.

“Holt had a similar issue,” David said casually. Apparently, he was fishing to find out if Anne knew why Holt had left Camp West.

Anne didn’t, and she’d never asked. “What is this really about, David?”

“I’m at loose ends. I haven’t taken a vacation in two years. I’m always at the camp. But until they find out who actually took the money, they don’t want me around. I didn’t have anything to do. So I came to see Greg. Holt.”

That wasn’t totally ridiculous. “I think he’ll be glad to see you,” Anne said. “When will you know the verdict?”

“Soon, I hope. There’s an independent audit going on. It’ll prove I’m innocent. You know me. I always had a lot of trouble with the budgeting part of my job. Holt did most of the work. Makes it more of a joke, that Oversight thinks I’m sophisticated enough to embezzle.”

“That’s Oversight’s job, to be suspicious.” Embezzling. No wonder David had taken a trip across country. You didn’t want to be in Oversight’s crosshairs if the news was bad.

“Okay, I’m on my way,” he said, slapping the hood of his white Nissan.

“Have a good visit,” Anne said.

“Sure thing.” David straightened and sauntered to his rental car. “Holt’s place is close?”

“About six miles south. It’s a small complex on the left, all townhomes. Crow Creek Village. He’s number eight.”

“Has he taken to North Carolina?”

“You can ask him,” she said, smiling pleasantly. Would this conversation never end?

He nodded. “Good to see you . . . Anne.”

Anne watched until David’s car was out of sight. Then she allowed herself to relax. She pulled her cell phone from her purse and tapped a number on speed dial.

“Anne,” Holt said. “I was—”

“David Angola is here,” she said. “He was waiting for me when I came out of the school.”

Holt was silent for a moment. “Why?”

“He says they asked him to leave the camp while the books are being audited. Money’s missing. He’s on his way to see you.”

“Okay.” Holt didn’t sound especially alarmed or excited.

They hung up simultaneously.

Anne wondered if Holt was worried about this unexpected visit. Or maybe he was simply happy his former boss was in town.

Maybe he’d even known David was coming, but Anne thought not. I’ve fallen into bad habits. I felt secure. I quit questioning things I should have questioned. Anne was more shaken than she wanted to admit to herself when she entertained the thought Holt might have been playing a long game.

The short drive home was anything but pleasant.

Anne’s home was on an attractive cul-de-sac surrounded by a thin circle of woodland. She’d never had a house before, and she’d looked at many places before she’d picked this two-story red brick with white trim. It was somewhat beyond her salary, but Anne let it be understood that the insurance payout from her husband’s death had formed the down payment.

Anne noted with satisfaction that the yard crew had come in her absence. The flower beds had been readied for winter. She’d tried working outside—it seemed so domestic, so in character for her new persona—but it had bored her profoundly.

Sooner or later the surrounding area would all be developed. But for now, the woods baffled the sound from the nearby state road. The little neighborhood was both peaceful and cordial. None of the homeowners were out in their front yards, though at the end of the cul-de-sac, a couple of teenage boys were shooting hoops on their driveway.

The grinding noise of the garage door opening seemed very loud. Anne eased in, parking neatly in half of the space. She’d begun leaving the other side open for Holt’s truck.

There was a movement in the corner of her eye. Anne’s head whipped around. Someone had slipped in with the car and run to the front of the garage, quick as a cat. The intruder was a small, hard woman in her forties with harshly dyed black hair.

Anne thought of pinning the woman to the garage wall. But the intruder was smart enough to stand off to the side, out of the path of the car, and also out of the reach of a flung-open door.

This was Anne’s day for encountering dangerous people.

The woman pantomimed rolling down a window, and Anne pressed the button.

“Hello, Cassie,” Anne said. “What a surprise. . . .”

 

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Copyright © 2017. Small Signs by Charlaine Harris

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