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Deadly Exposure

Deadly Exposure by Cara Putman
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Dani Richards barely noticed where the usher pointed as she turned to take Aunt Jayne's arm but groped emptiness. Dani spun in a circle, searching for her. "Aunt Jayne?"

"She went that way, ma'am."

Dani nodded at the usher and hurried across the plush red carpet toward the boxes. She slipped into their box, but it remained empty. Then she heard a raised voice from the adjoining box. She darted to it, parted the curtain and pushed through. Aunt Jayne relaxed next to a young woman whose stiff back and chin pointed high made it clear she was trying to avoid eye contact. "There you are. You scared me to death, Aunt Jayne."

"No need to worry. I looked for our seats and found this lovely young lady instead."

"You don't belong here." The woman looked from Dani to her aunt, emerald eyes flashing. Her regal bearing sagged with a hint of disappointment. She glanced beyond Dani into the emptying foyer.

Aunt Jayne patted her hand. "Don't worry. Your young man will join you. You're too lovely to miss."

Dani examined the woman more closely, wondering why she seemed so familiar. In her job as a reporter, she worked with too many people to count in an average week, but this woman tugged at her memory. "Have we met before?"

"Please leave." With a quick twist of her wrist the woman glanced at her watch.

"Sorry for the interruption. Come on, Aunt Jayne. Cats starts any minute." Together they reentered the foyer and slipped up the stairs to the right box. Dani released a deep breath, determined to enjoy every moment of the evening. After the latest trial she'd covered on her crime beat for Channel 17, she'd earned the reprieve. Her aunt deserved her full attention on a night when the cloud of Alzheimer's had slipped away, even fleetingly.

Aunt Jayne sank into her seat and smiled. "Thank you for bringing me, dear. It's so nice to have you in town again."

Dani settled beside her in a maroon seat as the orchestra crescendoed into the opening notes of the musical, prepared to relish each moment. She'd spent the five years since graduation working her way through the ranks of broadcast journalism, moving from Cheyenne to Des Moines to St. Louis. She'd given it all up to move to Lincoln for Aunt Jayne. Her mom believed she'd lost her mind, and her dad tried to convince her to take a job at his station in Chicago each time they talked.

Lincoln had been lonely, especially when Aunt Jayne's bad days outnumbered the good. She'd wanted to dance when she reached Peaceful Estates and foundAunt Jayne alert and excited. A sliver remained of the woman Dani remembered from summers spent in Lincoln. If only she reappeared more often.

The curtain rose, and Dani leaned into the railing. She glanced at the neighboring box, but couldn't see more than outlines in the darkness. The opening song began, and her attention focused completely on the stage covered by a large set that resembled a junkyard. The actors stretched and danced as they mimicked cats and sang. The scenes flew by, and too soon the curtain sank for intermission.

Dani shifted against the seat and straightened. Renee Thomas. That was the woman's name. She'd interviewed the grad student for a story on promising research at the university. Though Renee had been formal and distant tonight, she'd been much friendlier and relaxed during the interview. Odd, since people tended to freeze in that setting. She'd practically glowed as she discussed the research, something about protecting the food supply from terrorist attacks. Dani had worked with her to describe the research in layman's terms.

Aunt Jayne tapped Dani's arm lightly. Dani smiled. "Are you okay? Need a break from sitting?"

"Maybe we should hunt for the story. Surely it's hiding somewhere." Aunt Jayne looked at her, amusement glowing in her eyes.

"There's a loose plot, keep watch." Dani stretched in her seat and her gaze slid into the box to her right. Renee sat motionless. She studied the woman, remembering the edge of worry that marred her expression. Renee had remained alone after all. "Let's stretch our legs a bit."

They stepped into the wide hallway. Dani looked around, hoping tonight wouldn't be the time she ran into the only person she'd allowed to break her heart. Caleb Jamison. The thought of him made her emotions spiral into a tornado of anger and hurt. She looked over her shoulder, afraid he'd appear like some horror-movie ghoul. Wished she could wipe her memory of him.

"Aunt Jayne, let's step up here. I interviewed your new friend last week. Maybe she'd like to join us."

Dani approached the neighboring box. She knocked on the doorframe, parted the curtain and entered the woman's box. A spicy fragrance tinged the air.

"Renee?" Dani waited a moment. The woman never turned. The seconds ticked by. "Are you enjoying the show? Andrew Lloyd Webber is a genius."

Renee remained silent. Dani stepped closer. One part of her mind began to insist she leave. Now.

Dani tapped Renee on the shoulder. Her skin felt cool. With quick steps she circled the seat and stood in front of Renee. Dani looked down, looking for a flash of recognition. Instead, Renee's gaze remained fixed, a horrible grimace pasted to her face. The emerald scarf wound tight around her neck in contrast to the way it floated earlier.

She sucked in a breath and willed herself to remain calm. Between the tightness of the scarf and the bruise lying under the woman's jaw, Dani's instinct jumped to murder. Bile rose in her throat. She put a hand over her mouth and swallowed.

This couldn't be happening again. Images of her college roommate's distorted features floated in front of Renee's. She'd been too late then. She couldn't be now. Dani rushed into the hall, fumbled for the cell phone in her evening bag and dialed 911. No service. She thrust the phone back into her purse. "Somebody call 911. There's a medical emergency. Does anyone know CPR?"

She didn't wait for an answer but ran back into the box. She sensed someone behind her, and turned to find Aunt Jayne. She pulled her attention back to Renee, and tried to ease her to the floor, struggling under the leaden weight.

Please don't let it be too late.

Concerned faces peered into Dani's from around the curtain. A well-dressed gentleman slipped into the box. He eased Renee the rest of the way to the floor, then loosened the scarf. He checked the woman's neck for a pulse. Dani watched him silently tick the seconds off his watch for an eternal moment. He shook his head and glanced at her. "It's too late."

Dani shuddered. She rose to her feet and took Aunt Jayne by the arm. "Let's get you back to our seats where you can be comfortable." A couple minutes later, Dani stood in the foyer. She took a step toward Renee's box, then turned back to her own. Aunt Jayne seemed fine, but Dani hesitated.

The news director would expect a complete report. She'd found the body, so she'd own the story from this moment. Somehow she'd balance that with caring forAunt Jayne until she was back in her suite at Peaceful Estates. Interview questions ran through her mind. Someone had to have seen something.

"Ma'am, you have to stay until the police arrive." A tenor voice tickled her ear.

Dani jumped back against the wall. She turned toward the sound. An usher had invaded her space and her gaze met a fishy stare.

"You're a reporter with Channel 17, right?" He slid a half step back and licked his lips. "TheyÂ…the police, I mean, should be here soon. They'll want to talk to you.You found the body."

She stepped to the side, unable to bear his proximity. "I promise I won't leave before the police arrive."

"Maybe I should clear the box." His gaze darted around the small area.

"It's a little late for that. Quite a few people have moved in and out already."

"Still, there must be something. They never told us what to do in a situation like this." Beads of sweat pooled on his brow as he twisted the top button of his shirt open. Angry uncertainty flashed across his face.

Dani leaned farther into the wall. "Are you okay? I'd be happy to get help."

"I'm fine." With a parting glare and tug at his collar, he turned on his heel and headed down the hall.

Dani watched him disappear, and then turned to the box. A security guard huffed up the stairs.A couple followed him. The man, tall and trim with a long stride, caught her eye. The woman held his arm and managed to keep up without looking rushed. Every brown piece of hair was in place, and her blue cocktail dress perfectly fit her athletic form. The man looked at her. Dani froze. One look in Caleb Jamison's face, and she reverted to the teenager head over heels for the star football player. The teenager who couldn't say no. The teenager who ached when he stopped seeing her. Stopped calling. Stopped caring.

The ice disappeared in a flash of anger. Her hands trembled. Her stomach clenched at the thought of his smug, self-satisfied face. She couldn't go back there. The echo of their baby's cries as she was given to others jarred Dani's mind. Caleb had abandoned her long before the birth. Yet here he was, cocky smile and all. He took a step toward her, and Dani escaped into the box.

Dani blinked to adjust to the dim lighting and pull her attention back from the nightmare of her past. The curtains brushed against her back, but she refused to turn and see who was there. Note to self: don't run into a closed room when trying to avoid someone. Several people filled the box. She worked her way toward a young coed.

A hand gripped her arm. Even though she knew it was Caleb, she jumped.

"Dani, we need to talk." His voice reached deep inside her. She stiffened. "But it'll wait. Right now you need to get out of this box. Wait for me in the lobby."

"Let go of me." Dani hissed and tried to shake free.

"I will when you start to obey."

"That worked so well for me last time." She snorted, stepping back. "Excuse me. I have a job to do."

She turned and ignored his soft chuckle. She didn't even want to know what amused him. She could imagine. None of the options merited turning around.

"Everyone out." Caleb's voice sank lower and easily filled the small space.

Dani kept her back to him as the crowd dispersed along with her interviews. She spun on her heel and followed everyone to the foyer. A burly security guard moved to the top step. He crossed his arms and stood legs apart, a barrier to reentry.

Caleb directed the group toward a small room, acting every bit the police officer. How could the young man who'd had no qualms about drinking underage and partying end up as an investigator with the Lincoln Police Department? And why was he with a beautiful woman?

Dani eased a coed and her date to the side. The twenty-something young man looked like a player for the university's renowned football team. Their holey jeans and T-shirts stood out in the well-dressed crowd.

The girl clung to her date, wide-eyed. "This is wild. How could this happen here?"

"Yeah," the young man said. "I heard the excitement and rushed over. Wonder where her date is?" He tucked the girl under his arm.

Dani smiled at him. "Did either of you see her with anyone tonight?"

"Nope, but she wasn't dressed to be alone." He glanced toward the box. "Seems like a strange place for this to happen."

"Why would you say that? I've heard of stranger things."

"Maybe on CSI. But the theater is packed. Not a place I'd pick."

Dani shook her head. "Maybe not. Here's my card. If either of you think of anything, call."

She stepped back as Caleb waved the couple into the room. She scanned the foyer looking for others to talk to. No way was she stepping into a small space with him. It didn't matter how many other people were there.

Dani headed to her box and left the curtain open so she could watch the lobby. Maybe she'd be able to talk to someone other than Caleb when the other cops arrived. Her toes tapped the wall in front of her as she sat next to Aunt Jayne, her mind racing with everything she should do. Her aunt reached across the empty seat and placed her hand on Dani's knee.

"It'll be okay, child. He can't hurt you anymore."

Based on the jolt of electricity that hit her each time she saw Caleb, Dani doubted anything would be okay until she returned home and left the madness. The faint sound of sirens pierced the night. The sound sharpened until it stopped altogether. Rotating blue and red lights reflected off the foyer's floor-to-ceiling windows. She braced herself for the whirlwind the next few minutes would bring. Especially after the police learned a reporter discovered the body.

Those left in the lobby pressed against the windows, watching the police vehicles. What on earth were they doing outside?

Finally, a man in a dark suit, probably a theater employee, marched up the broad staircase. He wiped a few strands of hair across the top of his head as he looked behind him. Several uniformed policemen trailed at a determined pace. "This way, Officers." The man pointed toward the box with a jerk of one arm while he wiped his brow with the other.

"We've never had anything like this happen before. Excuse me. I must announce the show won't continue." Without waiting for an answer, he hurried off, mumbling under his breath. He wrung his hands in despair like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland.

Caleb walked toward the officers, his dark hair standing at odd angles, as if he'd raked his fingers through it. Dani slipped from the box to watch.

"Glad you guys could make it. The body's in that box." Caleb stepped around the security guard and poked his head past the curtain. He turned to the guard. "Anyone else been in here since you arrived?"

"Nope. I've kept it cleared." He puffed out his chest. Caleb turned to his men. "Ford, see if there's anyone still around to interview." He turned to another officer. "Get the box taped off. Denimore and Westmont, I've got a room with several people for you to interview. It doesn't look like they know anything, but we can hope. Let's see if we can piece together what happened while we wait for the crime scene techs."

Caleb squared his shoulders as his calm gaze landed on Dani. "I'll come talk to you in a few minutes." His voice was deeper than she remembered with a timbre that made her quiver even as her stomach clenched. "Where's your seat?"

She nodded toward the open doorway. He considered her a moment, then turned away.

Dani fought relief. "My aunt is with me, and I really need to get her home. Can't we talk now?"

"You'll have to wait a few minutes. Besides, I doubt you'll leave until after we do. I'll be back as soon as I can." He didn't wait for an answer before turning his back. "Maybe Tricia can help."

Tricia? His sister? Was she the woman he'd brought? Her traitorous stomach eased at the thought that he hadn't brought a date after all. She stared at Caleb's back, hands clenched, and then turned as movement caught her eye.

"Hi, Dani." A young, willowy woman approached. "Remember me? Caleb's kid sister who wouldn't leave you two alone? How can I help?"

How could she forget? They'd even been friends. "Aunt Jayne's with me, and I'm sure she'd appreciate company."

Dani led Tricia to box B. In no time, Tricia and Aunt Jayne were chatting like old friends. Dani tried to ignore them in favor of the foyer and Renee's box.

Steeple Hill; May 2008
223 pages; ISBN 9781426817281
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Deadly Exposure
Author: Cara Putman
 
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