Cover Of Night (Chapter 6)

Cate completely stripped the bed in number 3. Removing even the blankets and mattress cover. She intended to wash everything. Mr. Layton might not be dead, but she suspected he was, and she thought it would be slightly ghoulish to remake the bed without washing all the bed linens, top to bottom. The next guest wouldn't know, but she would.

Her mother had taken the boys on a picnic, so the house was quiet for once. They were just a quarter of a mile away, at the picnic table Neenah Dase had installed under a big tree in her backyard, but to the boys they were on a grand adventure, Cate had watched from the window as they walked off down Trail Stop's one real road, her mother carrying a small basket loaded with peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and lemonade, with the boys circling around her in a frenzy of excitement. For every step she took, they each took at least five, hopping and skipping and darting away to examine a bug, a rock, a leaf, then returning to their grandmother like satellites to a planet. Cate hoped they'd be nice and tired when they returned; since her mother's arrival they'd been in high gear, and she suspected her mother was as ready for a little quiet time as she herself was.

The phone call she'd received from National Car Rental made her feel both vaguely uneasy and vaguely depressed. The depression was because the call only verified that Mr. Layton was missing and now she felt bad that she'd been so annoyed when he didn't return on schedule. The uneasiness… she couldn't pinpoint the cause of that. Maybe it was just this entire situation; she'd never before had a guest go missing, and she had a growing sense that whatever had happened to Mr. Layton, it wasn't good.

Because she felt as if she should, she called the sheriff's department again to report the call she'd received. She was put in touch with the same investigator, Seth Marburg. For all she knew, he was the county's only investigator.

"I know I'm being a bother," she said apologetically, and explained about the phone call. "He not only didn't come back yesterday, he didn't return his rental car. The rental agency called here asking to speak to him, since he didn't turn the car in. Have you found anything?"

"Nothing. He hasn't been reported in any accidents, and there aren't any unidentified victims. He hasn't been reported missing by any friends or family, either. You said he left his clothes behind? What else?"

"It's actually just one change of clothes. Some underwear and socks, disposable razor, some toiletries. And a plastic bag from Wal-Mart. I don't know what's in it."

"It sounds as if he didn't leave anything important."

"No, nothing looks important."

"Mrs. Nightingale, I know you're worried, but no crime has been committed and there's no evidence that Mr. Layton's had an accident. Sometimes people just walk away, for no good reason. You have his credit card number, so he didn't run out on his bill, right?"

"That's right."

"He left under his own steam. He didn't bother to check out, and he left some unimportant things behind. We'll keep checking for an accident site along the most likely routes, but in all likelihood he just – left."

She couldn't see Marbury, but Cate knew he'd shrugged. "But what about his rental car?"

"That's between him and the rental agency. The car hasn't been reported stolen, so there's nothing we can do about that, either."

She thanked him and hung up. There was no help there; as Marburg had pointed out, no crime had been committed. If Mr. Layton had family, either he'd been in touch with them or they hadn't expected to hear from him yet, so he wasn't officially missing. He had just vanished.

Maybe she mas making too much of this. Maybe Mr. Layton was fine, and he simply hadn't bothered to come back for the few possessions he'd left here.

She thought back over the sequence of events. Yesterday morning he'd briefly come downstairs, but as soon as he realized the dining room was full, he'd stepped back from the door and returned to his room. Sometime between then and when she'd gone upstairs to check on the twins, he'd climbed out of his bedroom window and driven away.

At the time she'd thought he simply hadn't wanted to eat with strangers, but given his method of departure and the fact that he hadn't returned, she now had to wonder if perhaps he'd recognized someone in the dining room that he hadn't wanted to let know he was here. Yesterday morning had been unusually busy, but the only stranger she could remember was Joshua Creed's client – she couldn't remember his name. Had Mr. Layton known him? And if he had simply wanted to avoid the man – for which she couldn't blame him – why hadn't he just remained in his room until Creed and his client left?

This line of reasoning at least made her feel better, because looking at it that way made it seem far more likely Mr. Layton had done exactly as Marbury thought, and simply left without bothering to take his possessions with him. If he'd wanted to avoid what's-his-name bad enough to climb out a window and sneak away, then leaving his stuff behind probably hadn't bothered him at all.

But why hadn't he turned in his rental car, if not in Boise at least in some other town where National had an office? Cate wasn't normally a conspiracy theorist, but Trail Stop wasn't exactly the most-traveled-to place in the state; if someone Mr. Layton wanted to avoid had followed him here, that someone, logically, had found out he'd rented a car and where he was going. There were probably all sorts of rules against that kind of information being given out, but information was bought and sold every day, and a lot of those transactions were against the rules. So Mr. Layton had to know the car was a liability; if he wanted to continue avoiding whoever had followed him, surely he would want to get rid of it. Maybe he'd parked it somewhere and walked away, since that seemed to be his modus operandi, figuring he'd just deal with whatever extra charges were tacked onto his credit card bill –

Something the county investigator had said rang in her mind. She had already charged Layton's credit card, so he hadn't run out on the bill. The same circumstance applied to the rental agency; in fact, she didn't think you could rent a car without having a credit card. So why was the rental agency trying to track Mr. Layton down? Was that standard? She had no idea what their policy was, but a reasonable person would think they'd just keep applying charges against his credit card for at least a couple of days.

On impulse she checked Caller ID, and frowned when she read "Unknown Name, Unknown Number." That was inconvenient. And since when did a business block its number from showing? Not only that, the caller hadn't given her his name. Still, she thought she should pass along what Investigator Marbury had said.

She called Information, got National's number, then waited for the automatic connect. On the second ring a woman's voice said, "National Car Rental, Melanie speaking. How may I help you?"

"Someone from your company called me a little while ago about one of my guests," Cate said, "Jeffrey Layton. Mr. Layton didn't return the car yesterday and this person was trying to track him down. I'm sorry, but the man who called didn't give me his name."

"Someone from here called to ask about… What did you say his name was?"

" Layton. Jeffrey Layton." Cate spelled it for her, even though the names seemed common enough.

"A man called you?"

"That's right."

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but there are only women working here today. Are you certain he called from this location?"

"No, I'm not," Cate admitted, wishing she'd thought to ask. "The name and number were blocked on Caller ID, but I assumed the call would have come from the office at the Boise Airport."

"The number was blocked? That's unusual. Let me call up the file on Mr. Layton."

Cate heard the sound of computer keys being tapped. There was a short wait, then more tapping. The woman said, "That's J-e-f-f-r-e-y L-a-y-t-o-n? Is there a middle initial?"

"No. no middle initial." Cate was certain about that, because she had verified his identification before accepting his credit card. She'd commented on the lack of a middle name or initial, and Mr. Layton had smiled as he explained that he didn't haven middle name.

"What date was he supposed to have rented a vehicle from us? I don't have anything under his name."

"I don't really know," Cate said slowly, taken aback by that information. "I got the impression Mr. Layton had just arrived in Idaho, but I may be mistaken."

"I'm sorry, but I'm not showing anything. He isn't in our system."

"No, it's my fault. I must have misunderstood the name of the company," Cate said, then thanked the woman and hung up. Cate had been polite because she hadn't misunderstood; she knew exactly what the caller had said – and he had obviously lied about being with National Gar Rental. Even the twins could have figured out he'd just been trying to find Jeffrey Lay ton, who must be involved in something nasty and who really had driven away and left his possessions behind.

She was definitely curious about what was going on, but above that she was infinitely relieved that Mr. Layton was probably alive somewhere, and not rotting away at the bottom of a gorge. She felt okay about resurrecting her annoyance with him.

After tossing the dirty bed linens into the hallway, she vacuumed and dusted, cleaned the bathroom, and remade the bed with clean sheets and blankets. She then took the single change of clothing from the closet and neatly folded the garments before placing them in the suitcase Mr. Layton had left behind. The plastic Wal-Mart shopping bag rustled as she moved it aside to make room for the folded clothes, and she eyed it with more than a little curiosity.

"If you didn't want me to look in it, you shouldn't have left it behind," she muttered to the absent Mr. Layton, seizing the bag and picking with her fingernails at the knots he'd tied in the handles. The knots loosened and she pulled the bag open, peering inside.

A TracFone was lying loose inside the bag. There was no receipt in the bag, so she didn't know if he'd bought the phone recently and just left it in the bag, or if he'd put it inside the bag to protect it, in case his suitcase got wet while being loaded on the plane. On the other hand, most people kept their cell phones with them, not in their suitcase.

For all she knew, he could have had the phone on him until he got here and realized there was no cell phone service, therefore no reason to carry the phone around, and put it in the bag rather than leave it lying around in the open. Cate, under ordinary circumstances, didn't go into her guests' rooms from the time they checked in until they checked out, though a few did request that she make the bed and clean the bathroom every day – but Mr. Layton wouldn't have had any reason to trust her, because he didn't know her.

Double-checking the closet, she found a pair of black wingtip shoes that she had overlooked before, so she put the shoes inside the plastic bag and added them to the suitcase. In the bathroom, she put all of the toiletries inside the leather Dopp Kit, zipped it, and tried to wedge it into the suitcase beside the shoes. The suitcase was a small one, though, and the kit simply wouldn't fit.

Mr. Layton must have had more than one suitcase, she thought, and left the other one in his car overnight. She had seen his luggage when he checked in, and he'd been carrying only this one bag. Since the possessions he'd left behind wouldn't fit inside the suitcase, that meant he'd gone back to the car and retrieved something from the other bag – either the Dopp Kit or the shoes. Following that line of thought, she realized, he hadn't left all his possessions behind, just left the ones that hadn't been important enough for him to make the effort to carry them with him. After all, he could have packed the suitcase and heaved it out the window, then retrieved it when he was on the ground. He hadn't taken the time, so she doubted he would ever bother to come back for his abandoned stuff.

Which brought up the question of just what she was supposed to do with it. How long should she store the suitcase? A month? A year? She intended to put it in the attic, so it wasn't as if the case would be in the way, but ever since Derek had died, she'd tormented herself with what-if scenarios. What if she didn't get rid of the suitcase and a few years down the road something happened to her? Whoever went through the things in the attic would find this suitcase full of men's clothing and the normal assumption would be that they'd belonged to Derek, and she'd kept them for sentimental reasons. The most logical thing then would be to keep the suitcase and its contents for the twins, and she didn't want her boys mistakenly treasuring items from some idiotic stranger who'd gotten himself in trouble and disappeared.

Just in case, she got a sheet of the stationery with the B and B's letterhead on it, which she put in all the rooms, and quickly wrote out Mr. Layton's name and the date, and the information that he'd left his belongings behind, then tucked the sheet inside the suitcase. If the worst happened and she got killed, this would explain things.

She hadn't used to be such a worrier, but that was before she'd become, in short order, a mother and then a widow. Bad things did happen. She had quit rock climbing the moment she'd learned she was pregnant, and though she'd been an even more avid climber than Derek, she hadn't considered returning to the sport, because she had the boys to consider now. What would happen to them if she suffered a bad fall and died? Oh, she knew that physically they'd be well-cared for; her family would see to that, as well as Derek's family, though they weren't as close to the boys as she wished. But what about the twins' emotional well-being? They would grow up feeling abandoned by their parents, and no amount of logic would offset that primitive response.

So she took what precautions she could, shied away from risky behavior, but she couldn't offset the hand of fate: accidents happened. And no way would she let her children think Jeffrey Layton's things had belonged to their father. Besides, Derek had had better taste in clothes.

Smiling at the thought, she hefted the suitcase in one hand and the Dopp Kit in the other and carried them to the hallway, then set them down. She went to her room to get the key to the attic stairwell.

Because she didn't want the boys going into the attic by themselves, she kept the door locked and the key in her makeup bag, which was in a drawer of the bathroom vanity. On the way into the bathroom she passed by her dresser, on which sat several framed photographs. She paused, suddenly heart-struck, staring at the feeze-frame moments of her life.

It happened once in a while; enough time had passed that she could usually walk by the dresser and not really even notice the photographs. When the boys came into her room on those rare days when she could sleep a little late, they would almost always ask questions about the photographs and she could answer with equanimity. But sometimes… sometimes it was as if a razor-sharp memory reached out of the past and squeezed her heart, and she would stop in her tracks, almost felled by the rush of grief.

She stared at the picture of him, and for a moment she could hear his voice again, the timbre of which she had almost forgotten. He'd bequeathed so much of himself to the boys: the blue, mischievous eyes, the dark hair, the easy grin. It was the grin that had gotten her, so cheerful and sexy – well, that and the lean, athletic body.

He'd been an advertising executive: she'd worked in a large bank. They were young and single and had enough money to do the things they wanted. After they'd gone on their climb together, they'd begun seeing each other in locations other than on a sheer rock lace, and things had grown from there.

She moved on to a picture of them on their wedding day. They'd done the traditional ceremony; he'd worn a tux; she'd worn a romantic satin-and-lace gown. How young she'd looked, she thought, suddenly catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror and comparing the two images. Her shoulder-length brown hair had been in a sleek, sophisticated style; now it was merely long, and the style was a clip or ponytail. She'd worn makeup then; now she was lucky if she had time for a swipe of lip balm. Then she hadn't had a care in the world; now the constant strain of worry caused faint shadows under her eyes.

Her mouth hadn't changed; she still had a duck-mouth, with the upper lip fuller than the lower. Derek had thought her mouth was sexy, but she had obsessed about its shape all through her teenage years and she never quite believed him. Michelle Pfeiffer's duck-mouth was more subtle, and way more sexy, date's mouth had often caused her little brother, Patrick, to go into such prolonged fits of quacking that she had once thrown a lamp at him.

Her eyes were still brown, a lighter, more golden shade of brown than her hair, but… brown. Unexciting brown. And her body was still the same shape it had always been, except during her pregnancy, when she'd actually had full breasts. She was lanky to the point of thinness, with the sort of build that made her look taller than her ordinary five-foot-five. The only curvy part on her body was her butt, which looked too prominent for the rest of her body. Her legs were muscular, her arms thin and sinewy. All in all, she was no bombshell; she was just an ordinary woman who had loved her husband very much and, at times like this, missed him so acutely his absence was like a knife in the heart.

The third photograph was of the four of them together: Derek, her, and their three-month-old babies. They had each held one of the twins, whose tiny faces were identical, and she and Derek had such wide, proud, sappy smiles as they looked down at their children that, looking at them all now, she wanted to both laugh and cry.

Oh, God, their time together had been so short.

Cate shook herself back to the present and blinked the tears from her eyes. She let herself cry only at night, when there was no one to notice. Her mother and the boys could return from their picnic at any time, and she didn't want them to catch her with her eyes red. Her mother would be worried, and the boys would cry if they thought Mommy had been crying.

She got the old, long key out of her dresser, slipped it into her jeans pocket, and retraced her steps down the hall to where she'd left the suitcase and Dopp Kit outside room 3. She turned on the hallway light, then picked up the suitcase and kit and took them all the way to the end of the hall, where the attic stairs were, plunking them down again.

The stairwell door opened outward, revealing three steps up to a landing; then the stairs made a right turn and ended at an awkward spot in the attic, so close to the slanted ceiling that she had to duck to take that last step. At least, the door was supposed to open outward. She inserted the key and turned it, and nothing happened. The lock was a little tricky, so she wasn't surprised. She pulled the key out a little and tried again, with no success. Muttering to herself about old locks, she pulled the key all the way out, then reinserted it a little at a time, trying repeatedly to turn it. The key had to hit the pins just right…

She thought she felt a tiny click, and triumphantly turned the key with a brisk motion of her wrist. There was a snap, and half the key came away in her hand. Which meant, obviously, that the other half was stuck in the lock.

"Son of a bitch!" she swore, then hastily looked around to make certain the twins weren't standing silently behind her. Not that there was much chance of them silently doing anything, but if they ever did, it would be when she was swearing. Seeing that she was safe, she added – for good measure – "Damn it!"

Okay, the door needed a new lock anyway. And locks weren't hideously expensive, but still, there was always something that needed repairing or replacing. She also still needed to get that door open, so she could store this suitcase somewhere out of the way.

Swearing under her breath, she stomped downstairs and into the kitchen. She was just reaching for the phone to call the hardware store to locate Mr. Harris when she heard a car stop outside. Looking out the window, she saw – miracle of miracles – Mr. Harris himself, climbing out of his battered pickup.

She didn't know what had brought him here, but his timing couldn't have been better. She jerked open the kitchen door as he was coming up the steps, both relief and frustration evident in her voice as she said, "Am I glad to see you!"

He stopped in his tracks, his cheeks already firing with color as he glanced back at his truck. "Will I need my toolbox?"

"A key broke off in the attic door – and I need the door unlocked."

He nodded and went back to the truck, reaching over the side of the bed and one-handing the heavy toolbox up and over. She had the fleeting thought that he must be stronger than he looked.

"I'm going into town tomorrow," he said as he trudged up the steps. "Thought I'd stop by and let you know, in case you need anything."

"I have some mail that needs to go out," she said.

He nodded as she stepped aside to let him enter. "This way." she said, preceding him into the hallway and up the stairs.

Even with the light on, the hallway was dim, because there were no windows at either end. The open bedroom doors let some daylight in, enough to see unless you had some specific task, such as manipulating a cantankerous old lock or retrieving a broken key from it. Mr. Harris opened his toolbox, took out a black flashlight, and handed it to her. "Shine the light on the lock," he muttered as he moved the suitcase out of the way and went down on one knee in front of the lock.

C.ate turned on the flashlight, amazed at the powerful beam that shot out. The flashlight was surprisingly lightweight, with a rubberized coating. She turned it in her hand, looking for a brand name, but she didn't see one. She turned the beam on the door, directing it just below the knob.

Using needle-nose pliers, he retrieved the broken key, then took some kind of pick from the toolbox and inserted it into the lock.

"I didn't know you knew how to pick locks," she said with amusement.

His hand froze for a moment, and she could almost hear him wondering if he needed to actually reply to her comment; then he made a "hmm" noise in his throat and resumed manipulating the pick.

Cate moved so she was directly behind him and leaned closer, trying to see what he was doing. The bright light illuminated his hands, etching every raised vein, every powerful sinew. He had good hands, she noticed. They were callused, stained with grease, and his left thumbnail sported a black mark that looked as if he'd banged it with a hammer, but his nails were short and clean and his hands were lean and strong and well-shaped. She had a soft spot for strong hands; Derek's hands had been very strong, because of the rock climbing.

He grunted, withdrew the pick, and turned the doorknob, pulling the door open a few inches.

"Thank you so much," she said with heartfelt gratitude. She indicated the suitcase he'd pushed to the side. "That guy who left without taking his things still hasn't come back, so I have to store his suitcase for a while, in case he decides to come back for it."

Mr. Harris glanced at the suitcase as he took the flashlight from her, turning it off and placing both it and the pick back in his toolbox. "That's weird. What was he running from?"

"I think he wanted to avoid someone in the dining room." Odd that the handyman had so swiftly picked tip on something that hadn't immediately occurred to her. Initially, she'd just thought Layton was nuts. Maybe men were more naturally suspicious than women.

He grunted again, an acknowledgment of her comment. He dipped his head at the suitcase. "Anything unusual in there?"

"No. He left it sitting open. I packed his clothes and shoes, and put his toiletries in the kit."

He stood and nudged the toolbox to the side, opening the door wide, then bent and picked up the suitcase. "Show me where you want to put it."

"I can do that," she protested.

"I know, but I'm already here."

As she led the way up the steep staircase, Cate reflected that she'd probably heard him say more in the past ten minutes than she had in months, and it was certainly one of the few times she'd heard him titter an unsolicited comment. Usually he'd give a brief answer to a direct question, and that was it. Maybe he'd joined Toastmasters, or taken a loquacious pill.

The attic was hot and dusty, with that moldy smell abandoned possessions all seemed to have even when there wasn't any mold present. Light from three dormer windows made it a surprisingly sunny place, but the walls were unfinished and the floor was made of bare planks that creaked with every step.

"Over here," she said, indicating a bare spot against the outer wall.

He put the suitcase and Dopp Kit down, then glanced around. He saw the climbing gear and paused. "'Whose is that?" he asked, pointing.

"Mine and my husband's."

"You both climbed?"

"That's how we met, at a climbing club. I stopped climbing when I got pregnant." But she hadn't gotten rid of their gear. It was all still there, neatly arranged and stowed: the climbing shoes, the harnesses and chalk bags, the belaying and rappelling devices, the helmets, the coils of rope. She'd made certain direct sunlight never reached the ropes, even though she knew she'd never go climbing again. It just wasn't in her to mistreat the equipment.

He hesitated, and she could see his face turning red again. Then he said, "I've done a little climbing. More mountaineering type stuff, though."

He'd actually volunteered information about himself! Maybe he had decided she was as nonthreatening as the boys, so she was safe to talk to. She should note this day on her calendar and circle it in red, because any day that shy Mr. Harris began talking about himself had to be special.

"I just did rocks," she said, trying to keep the conversation going. How long would he keep talking? "No mountaineering at all. Have you climbed any of the big ones?'"

"It wasn't that type of mountaineering," he mumbled, edging toward the top of the stairs, and she knew his unusual talkativeness was over. Just then, two stories below, she heard the sound of childish voices raised in an argument, and she knew her mother and the boys were home.

"Uh-oh. Sounds like trouble," she said, bolting for the stairs.

She knew something was wrong just from the looks on their faces when she reached the bottom floor. All three looked angry. Her mother was holding the picnic basket, her mouth compressed, and she had the boys separated, with one on each side of her. The twins were red-faced with anger, and their clothes were dirty, as if they'd been rolling in the dirt.

'"They've been fighting," Sheila reported.

"Tannuh called me a bad name!" Tucker charged, his expression mulish.

Tanner glared at his brother. "You pushed me. Down!" His outrage was evident. Tanner didn't like losing in any situation.

Cate held up her hand like a traffic cop, stopping both of them in the middle of continued explanation. Behind her, Mr. Harris came down the stairs, carrying his toolbox, and the boys began shifting in agitation; their hero was here, and they couldn't swarm him as they usually did.

"Mimi will tell me what happened," Cate said.

"Tanner got the last piece of orange, and Tucker wanted it. Tanner wouldn't give it to him, so Tucker pushed him down. Tanner called Tucker a 'damn idgit.' Then they started rolling around and punching each other." Sheila looked down at both of them, frowning. "They knocked my lemonade over and it soaked my clothes."

Now that she looked, Cate could see the dark, wet patches on Sheila's jeans. She crossed her arms and looked as stern as possible as she did her own frowning. "Tucker – " she began.

"It wasn't my fault!" he burst out, clearly furious at being singled out first.

"You pushed Tanner first, didn't you?"

If anything, he now looked even more mutinous. His little face turned red, and he was all but jumping up and down. "It was – it was Mimi's fault!"

"Mimi!" Cate echoed, thunderstruck. Her mother looked just as stunned by this turn of events.

"She shoulda watched me better!"

"Tucker Nightingale!" Cate roared, galvanized by his blame-shifting. "You get upstairs and sit in the naughty chair right now! How dare you try to blame this on Mimi! I'm ashamed of the way you're acting. A good man never, never blames someone else for something he did himself!"

He shot a pleading look for understanding and backup at Mr. Harris. Cate wheeled and gave the handyman a gimlet stare, just in case he was thinking of saying anything in the least sympathetic. Mr. Harris blinked, then looked at Tucker and slowly shook his head. "She's right," he mumbled.

Tucker's little shoulders slumped and he began dragging himself up the stairs, each step as ponderous as a four-year-old could possibly make it. He began crying on the way up. At the top he paused and sobbed, "How long?"

"Long." Cate said. She wouldn't leave him up there any longer than half an hour, but that would seem like forever to someone with Tucker's energy. Besides, Tanner would have to spend some time in the naughty chair, too, for calling his brother a "damn idgit." Okay, this meant they both knew the word damn, and how to use it. Her children were swearing already.

She tucked her chin and scowled at Tanner. He sighed and sat down on the bottom stair, waiting his turn in the naughty chair. Nothing more had to be said.

Mr. Harris cleared his throat. "I'll pick up a new lock tomorrow while I'm in town," he said, and beat a path to the door.

Cate drew a deep breath and turned to her mother, who now seemed to be sucking really hard on her checks.

"Are you sure you want to take them for a visit?" Cate asked wearily.

Sheila, too, took a deep breath. "I'll get back to you on that," she said.