Play Dead, page 1
Praise for the work of
“If you like your suspense intriguing and your sexual tension high, look no further!”
—RT Book Reviews on Death’s Door (4½ stars)
“Sawyer’s gift for building great and believable characters makes the danger they face all the more intense. Outstanding!”
—RT Book Reviews on Kiss of Death (4½ stars, Top Pick)
“Sawyer spins a tale to captivate and entertain… Wonderfully crafty and extremely entertaining.”
—Romance Reader’s Connection on Half Past Dead
“Nail-biting suspense punctuates this thrilling romantic adventure. The name Meryl Sawyer is synonymous with exceptional romantic suspense.”
—RT Book Reviews on Better Off Dead
“A riveting work of romantic suspense…near perfection.”
—Publishers Weekly on Tempting Fate
“Meryl Sawyer has become a brand name known for taut, sexy and very intriguing romantic suspense.”
—RT Book Reviews on Closer Than She Thinks
“A page-turner…glamour, romance and adventure on a grand scale.”
—Publishers Weekly on Promise Me Anything
“Count on Meryl Sawyer to deliver a fast-paced thriller filled with sizzling romance.”
—New York Times bestselling author Jill Marie Landis
Kiss of Death
Half Past Dead
Better Off Dead
Every Waking Moment
Closer Than She Thinks
Trust No One
Half Moon Bay
A Stand-Up Guy.
Thanks for the memories.
The best way to love anything is as if it might be lost.
—G. K. Chesterton
“ANDY,” CALLED HAYLEY before she remembered he was gone. She walked out onto the third-floor balcony and gazed at the water as the breeze off the bay ruffled her hair. It was way too soon to leave, she decided, but her loft seemed so empty.
She’d been lonely for a long time, she realized with an ache too deep for tears. It was reflected in her paintings, or so she’d been told. Ian never lied. Why would he? Ian Barrington had been the first person to recognize her talent and offer to sell her paintings in his gallery. Hayley’s earlier works had portrayed her happy outlook on life.
But in the two years since she’d secretly begun selling her art, Hayley’s life had taken an abrupt turn. The familiar sadness, the melancholy seeped through her each day. Betrayal and death changed you radically, she reflected. She thought of her parents and her heart contracted with an overwhelming sense of loss.
“Don’t feel sorry for yourself,” she said out loud, watching a boat passing by. The guys on the deck were wildly waving to get her attention.
She knew what they saw: a young woman dressed in a short skirt and sleeveless blouse. Her brown hair was streaked with copper highlights, making her look more like the beach bunny she’d been in her teens than the artist she was today.
Maybe she should cut her hair short and stop streaking it. What would it feel like to have short hair? For as long as she could recall, Hayley had worn her hair long. The style made the hazel-green eyes that dominated her face appear larger than they actually were.
The needs, the longings for a past that would never come again nagged at her. Time for a change, Hayley reminded herself. In another few weeks, her life would move in a different direction. This would be a great opportunity for a new hairstyle. The fresh start she’d been planning.
She checked her watch. It was too early to leave. She’d already packed her purse that doubled as a backpack with the few things she would need. She’d placed her treasured set of paint brushes in their wooden box and wrapped it in the shorts and T-shirts she planned to wear.
She realized how much she was counting on her life making a dramatic change. How much she was looking forward to the future. Once she altered the course of her life, there would be no going back.
Bring-bring. From the loft’s studio behind her, Hayley heard the sound of the telephone. She decided not to answer; let the machine pick up. She wasn’t in the mood to talk.
A shaky voice came through her machine. “H-Hayley, are you…you there?”
Hayley charged back into the loft, recognizing the anguished tone of her friend Lindsey Fulton. She was stunned Lindsey was phoning. She never called.
Hayley snatched the receiver from the cradle, saying breathlessly, “I’m here. I’m here. What’s happening?”
“Hayley,” her friend said, her voice choked with tears. “Oh, Hayley.”
“I—I’m at a payphone,” replied Lindsey, sobbing now. “I’ve got to get away. Now! I can’t waste a second.”
This was the call Hayley had been expecting—and dreading—for so long. Why now? she silently asked. The timing couldn’t be worse. Hayley was just hours from changing the course of her own life. It didn’t matter, she decided in the next instant. All that counted was saving her friend.
Hayley suddenly realized how she could help her friend while getting a fresh start. The perfect solution, she decided. “Lindsey, listen to me and do exactly what I tell you.”
WHAT WAS TAKING SO LONG? Hayley Fordham had been in Gulliver’s for over two hours, no doubt slurping down cosmos. Didn’t she know the hunt was on? Didn’t she realize time was running out, trickling away like the last grains of sand in an hourglass? Couldn’t she sense this evening was different from all previous nights in her life?
Of course not. The bitch was clueless—as usual.
Hiding at a safe distance, concealed by the trees and the Dumpsters at the back of the trendy restaurant’s parking lot, was boring as hell. While the waiting was a total downer, the building anticipation was as heady as a powerful narcotic. Exhilarating. Arousing. The sensation transported the predator to an unimagined height of excitement. Annihilating an unsuspecting victim—just the thought of it—ignited a thrill so profound that it rivaled sex.
Just wait. Hayley’s charmed life—all thirty-three years of it—was almost over. Charmed? Damned was more like it. She would get what she deserved—in spades.
The killer took stock of the surrounding area, sensing more than seeing the objects nearby and ignoring the rank smell coming from t
In the light of day, someone from the nearby office building would have spotted a person hunkered down behind the Dumpsters, but not at night. As an extra precaution, the predator had smashed the nearest security light with a rock. There was a security camera at the back door of the restaurant. A quick squirt of Pam ensured nothing but blurry images would be recorded. There hadn’t been time to do more than destroy the one light, but then extra precautions hadn’t been necessary. Lady Luck had smiled, bringing Hayley to this restaurant and having her park in the rear—in the shroud of shadows cast by the line of tall, dense shrubs that separated the parking area from the office buildings behind it.
With a deafening roar and whoosh of air, a jet streaked into the sky from John Wayne Airport, which was opposite the restaurant. Convenient. Very convenient. The killer hadn’t planned it but Hayley’s destination tonight had been perfect. The noise from the airport would add to the confusion, the terror.
A gloss-black limousine pulled up to the rear of the restaurant, its engine purring almost inaudibly. Since Gulliver’s faced the busy street across from Orange County’s airport, the back entrance was the only way in or out of the restaurant except for the fire exits used only in emergencies. With the stretch limo blocking the view, it was impossible to tell who was leaving. Or was someone arriving?
Not some celebrity. The OC had a smattering of them—nothing like L.A. But the Newport Beach area was filled with people who had money up the wazoo to use a limo at an upscale restaurant like Gulliver’s, which was well known for its bar scene. The limo drove into the night and disappeared from view.
The predator waited and waited. A few groups of people trickled out of Gulliver’s. A couple so hot for each other that they almost did it on the hood of his Corvette was mildly distracting, but time ticked on and on. Finally a slim woman with shoulder-length hair emerged, stood on the walkway exit and glanced around warily.
The air shifted with a sense of hushed expectancy. Something seemed to be…off. Had she sensed…danger?
“No way,” the killer whispered. Nothing was wrong. Things were going according to plan. Then why was Hayley just standing there? She usually sauntered along oblivious to everyone around her, glistening brown hair streaked with copper bobbing on her shoulders. Hayley couldn’t be waiting for a valet. Gulliver’s was a self-parking facility.
Noise exploded from the Acapulco restaurant at the far end of the lot it shared with Gulliver’s. A bunch of guys barely out of their teens staggered through the double doors from the Mexican cantina, revealing they’d consumed enough tequila to make them rowdy.
They’d better get to their cars and get outta Dodge in a hurry or—hell, who cared? Killing innocent bystanders wasn’t the goal, but collateral damage had been factored into this scheme.
Hayley hesitated, gazing at the group. They were too far away for her to be concerned about them, but the killer thought she might be feeling threatened by something. It showed in the slump of her shoulders and in the way she hurried toward her car. Never underestimate women’s intuition. She might have sensed death lurking in the shadows.
Her older model Beamer was parked at the rear of the lot like a black toad, which had made this job a piece of cake. The dark area wouldn’t be safe in most cities, but this was Newport Beach. Women felt secure here, and most of the time they were.
Most of the time.
Tonight an ominous undercurrent of danger and death filled the balmy night air. A cunning person could pick up on it the way some animals had realized a tsunami was heading their way. Even the predator’s bones could sense the danger and the sensation heightened the anticipation.
Hayley seemed to fumble with the door lock. Was she drunk? It wasn’t like her. From this far away and with the lack of light, it was difficult to tell much about the snotty bitch.
Get on with it already.
Hayley opened the door and slid into the car. The interior light illuminated her shimmering hair for a second. The killer couldn’t help smiling. This would be the last time anyone would admire that shiny mane.
The killer eased around to the back side of the Dumpster for protection and flipped the metal lid backward to act as a shield. A full minute passed. The killer risked a peek around the protective corner of the Dumpster. What in hell was Hayley doing?
The interior light in her car was off. A faint blue glow came from the dashboard. She appeared to be leaning forward, fooling with something. The GPS? Was she programming in her next destination?
“Hayley, your next stop is hell.”
A convertible pulled up and a noisy group of guys, already half in the bag, vaulted to the pavement without opening the car doors. Get inside, the killer silently warned. They hustled toward the entrance and the driver sped away to find a parking spot. Lucky for him, the guy headed for the open spaces behind the adjacent Mexican restaurant.
Lethal silence. A second later a supersonic crackling—KA-BOOM!
The explosion knocked the Dumpster sideways like an eardrum-splitting hatchet blow. The impact of the detonation assaulted every lobe in the killer’s brain and blackness eclipsed everything for a few seconds.
Debris rained down, pummeling the Dumpster lid with shrapnel-like objects. They bounced off the sturdy metal and crashed to the ground nearby. The acrid smell of smoke and burning rubber roiled through the air like a noxious fog. Jolted by the shock wave, nearly a hundred car alarms shrieked simultaneously.
Ears ringing, the killer ventured a look and saw the orange-red inferno that had been Hayley Fordham’s BMW. Flames shot out in all directions and lit up the darkness while a cloud of white smoke mushroomed skyward.
Hayley would be reduced to ashes in seconds by the inferno. What remained of her. No doubt the explosion had sent body parts flying. There were something like twenty bones in the human skull. Hayley’s head was now in twenty million pieces. The fire would incinerate anything else.
Identifying Hayley Fordham would be a bitch. The killer had foreseen this. Hayley’s rear license plate had been removed and scorched with a cigarette lighter, then tossed into the shrubbery behind her car to make it appear that it had been blown off during the explosion. The police would know exactly who had died in the car bombing.
Panicked, hysterical people stampeded out of Gulliver’s, screaming and holding up cell phones to photograph the geyser of smoke and flames. Others were yelling at 9-1-1 operators. No doubt the emergency switchboard was lit up like the fourth of July.
To the killer, the sounds were muffled, as if they were coming from underwater. Should have used earplugs. Even if the chaos couldn’t be fully heard, it was exciting. It made the waiting, the planning worthwhile.
Windows were shattered in the cars parked nearby. Some had suffered major damage from the flying debris. Windows and doors in both restaurants had been blown inward by the force of the blast. The destruction was mind-blowing. Worse than expected.
Who knew? Excitement like a live wire arced through the killer. Inching along in the shadows to where the rental car was parked behind the three-story office building to protect it from the explosion, the killer couldn’t resist a smile of self-congratulation.
Hayley Fordham was dead. What a trip! Everything had gone exactly as planned.
TRENT FORDHAM took the turn off Pacific Coast Highway in his Porsche at nearly one hundred miles per hour. It was after two in the morning, so no cars were around. He rarely had the opportunity to see what his baby would do. He floored it and the needle shot up to one-twenty.
“Slow down,” screeched Courtney from the seat beside him. “You’ll get another ticket.”
His wife was right, he silently conceded. He could not afford to be stopped tonight. It might result i
He eased off the accelerator to an audible sigh of relief from his wife and watched the needle drop. They drove in silence—what was there to say?—up to the gated entrance to their exclusive community. He slowed, expecting Jerome, the night guard, to wave as they passed. Instead, the guard signaled for him to stop.
“What’s up?” Trent asked.
“The police are waiting for you.”
“Why?” He wasn’t worried; this had to be some mix-up.
Jerome shrugged. “Wouldn’t say.” He shrugged again, his voice apologetic. “I had to let them in.”
“Of course.” Trent tried to sound unfazed, but a yellow flag of caution shot up in his brain. “Thanks for the heads up.” That’s why he tipped the guards handsomely at Christmas—just for times like this.
He roared through the ornate, twenty-foot-tall gates. He sped by mansions lit up like national monuments. What was going on? he wondered silently.
“It can’t be Timmy. The Scouts would have called my cell or yours. Something’s wrong at Surf’s Up,” Courtney said, sounding only slightly worried.
“No way,” Trent told her. “Security would have contacted me.” His mind was whirling like one of those dervishes he’d read about. Why would the police be waiting for him in the middle of the night?
He stopped at the small park area. The green belt had created open space between mansions that took up most of each lot, leaving little grassy areas. During the day, nannies would be there with children and maids walking neighborhood dogs would be strolling along the meandering flagstone paths.