Gravel crunched beneath the tires of the old Corolla. Beyond the reaches of its headlights, the darkness was thick. A full moon had begun its ascent, but hidden behind the acres of pine forest, it wasn’t much help. The mine was an eerie place at night.
Darci Tucker rounded the final bend, and the view opened up. The office building stood to the left. Ahead and to the right, mounds of dirt rose in the slanted moonlight, a mini-mountain range against a dimly lit sky.
She turned into the parking lot and tightened her grip on the wheel. Two cars sat in front, a white Mercedes and a silver Lexus. The Lexus wasn’t familiar. The Mercedes was. When she’d left work forty minutes earlier, the place had been deserted. Now her boss was back. Mr. Wiggins wouldn’t appreciate her interrupting his after-hours meeting. But she’d left her phone on her desk and wouldn’t return until Monday.
She circled around the building and stopped at an unmarked door. Maybe she could slip in through the employee break room without bothering anyone. Rupert Wiggins was the chief financial officer of P. T. Aggregates and her direct supervisor. But he had his hands in all the operations. And he was a tyrant. During her five and a half months of employment, she’d never been the recipient of his wrath, but she’d seen him ream out enough others to know she’d rather avoid that temper.
When she stepped from the car, a cool breeze swept her hair into her face. She tucked the strands behind her ear and pulled her jacket more tightly around her. In mid-November, some parts of the country were bracing for a long winter. Not Florida. Its first cold front of the year had lost its bluster before reaching the Georgia-Florida line.
She crept toward the building, key in hand, and peered through the window. The break room was dark, but dim light came from elsewhere, probably the hall that led to six of the offices, hers and Wiggins’s included.
As she stepped inside, murmured words drifted to her. Wiggins and his guest. She tiptoed closer, and when she rounded the last corner, the muscles in her neck and shoulders tightened. Her boss’s office door was open, his light on.
Then an angry shout stopped her in her tracks. Wiggins wasn’t pleased. The other man responded, but she couldn’t make out the words. He was hoarse, as if he had laryngitis.
“You want out?” Wiggins’s voice was still raised. “It’s a little too late for that now.”
She held her breath, straining to hear the stranger’s answer.
“I don’t like the way you’re doing things.”
After another moment’s hesitation, she spurred herself to action. She wasn’t going through the weekend without a phone, especially after driving forty minutes to get back. She’d almost made it to Cedar Key before she realized it was missing.
She crept down the hall. Wiggins’s office was at the end, but she wouldn’t go that far. Interrupting him when he was angry might have serious consequences.
Wiggins continued. “We had a problem, and I took care of it. I did what had to be done.”
“And you crossed a line that I wouldn’t cross.”
The derisive snort that followed came from Wiggins. “You haven’t complained about the money you’re raking in, so don’t go getting pious on me.”
Darci stepped into her office without turning on the light, her pulse pounding in her ears. That didn’t sound like a disagreement over business practices. Not ethical ones, anyway. If they knew she had overheard, losing her job would be the least of her worries.
Before she could reach her phone, the screen lit up and a drumbeat sounded. She froze just inside her doorway, her heart lodged in her throat. Other instruments joined in, bringing the ring tone to full volume. The conversation at the end of the hall ceased.
The thud of footsteps kicked her body into motion. She flew around her desk and dove under it a nanosecond before bright light filled the room. Both men approached.
She swallowed hard and clenched her fists. Her hands were ice cold, but perspiration dampened her palms. They were standing so close she could have reached out and touched their shoes.
Wiggins gave a dry laugh. “Chill. It’s just her phone. You’re way too jumpy.”
“And you’re not jumpy enough.”
The voice penetrated her spiraling thoughts. Beneath the raspy tone was the hint of something familiar.
“There’s no reason to be nervous. No one’s here but us.”
Several excruciating moments passed before the men moved toward the door. Strength drained from her body, relief tempered with caution. She wasn’t safe yet.
“How much does Darci know?”
At the raspy words, relief fled. Dizziness assaulted her, as if some unknown force had sucked the oxygen from the air. She know the man. At least, he knew her.
“And if she finds out?” The confidence in Wiggins’s voice was lacking in the other man’s.
“The other one did.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure she doesn’t talk.”
Dread knotted her insides. Someone flipped the light switch, casting the area into semidarkness, and the men stepped into the hall. Her head was tucked and turned to the side, her neck bent at an awkward angle, her knees pressed into her cheek. But she didn’t move. No matter how long Wiggins’s meeting lasted, she would wait it out.
His office door closed with a soft thud, and footsteps again sounded in the hall. Maybe they were done for the night. Wiggins always kept his door locked. Now she knew why.
The other man spoke from just outside her office. “How many people do you think can disappear before someone suspects something?”
Tension that had just started to ease returned tenfold.
“It won’t come to that.” There was a coldness in the words that shot straight to her core. “I have ways of guaranteeing silence. Darci Tucker won’t be a problem.”
“You’d better not hurt her.” A threat lay underneath the tone.
The footsteps moved away. Yes, they were leaving. Wiggins gave another derisive snort. He had condescension down to a science. “Sounds like you’ve still got feelings for my accounting manager.”
The hallway light clicked off, casting her in darkness. The other man’s response didn’t reach her. Wiggins’s next words barely did.
“You’re so used to women falling at your feet, you can’t get over the fact that one told you to take a hike.”
Darci crawled out from under the desk and tiptoed to the doorway. Who was Wiggins talking to? Someone who’d hit on her at some point. But that wasn’t much help. Since starting at P. T., she’d been asked out by several employees, as well as a couple of vendors and customers—the joys of being the only single female in a predominantly male work environment. But with a special-needs four-year-old who required her attention, she wasn’t in the market for any of it.
She emerged from her office and crept toward the front of the building. The entry door opened then closed, and a key turned in the lock. Now alone, she slipped into the lobby, avoiding the soft light spilling in through the two large windows. Outside was Wiggins’s Mercedes. The Lexus was next to it, backed in, but with the angle and heavy shadow, the license plate was obscured.
She couldn’t identify the man, either. He stood at his driver’s door with his back to her, the hood of his lightweight coat flipped over his head. Wiggins gave him a rough pat on the shoulder and moved toward his own vehicle. Then they both drove away into the night. A relieved breath fell from her mouth. They didn’t circle around back, so she could escape unnoticed.
Anxious to be gone, she hurried toward the break room. As she stepped into the damp night air, she heaved a sigh. She could have been at her parents’ house, snuggled up on the couch with Jayden while a Disney movie played on the big-screen TV.
Instead she was sneaking around in the dark like a fugitive. She could have gotten herself killed. And she still didn’t have her phone. But she couldn’t take it now that Wiggins had seen it.
From day one, she’d never liked him. He was overbearing, arrogant and patronizing. And crooked. Though she didn’t know what it was, Rupert Wiggins was involved in something shady. Someone had found out. And at least one person had disappeared.
She slipped her key into the lock and slid the dead bolt over. The other what? The other accounting manager? Wiggins had said she’d quit without notice. Maybe she’d found something and didn’t want to be there when it all blew up.
Darci frowned. If she was smart, she would do the same thing.
But that wasn’t an option. She needed her job. The years she ran Darci’s Collectibles and Gifts had been good. But during the summer months, keeping her head above water had been difficult. So she’d sold the shop and applied for several jobs. When she landed the one at P. T. Aggregates, she’d been thrilled. First with the pay. Second with the insurance benefits. Both opened up opportunities for Jayden that she didn’t have as a self-employed store owner. It had almost seemed too good to be true.
Maybe it was. Maybe her dream job would become a nightmare.
A chill that had nothing to do with the cool weather swept over her. She turned and headed toward her car. Tonight’s conversation confirmed what she had suspected all along—Wiggins wasn’t a man to be messed with.
Well, he had nothing to fear from her. She wasn’t a sleuth. She wasn’t even a detective wannabe. Whatever he was involved in, she was content to just do her job and stay blissfully ignorant.
Because if Wiggins even thought that she knew his business, he would deal with her. He had ways of guaranteeing her silence. He would make sure she didn’t talk.
Maybe he would even make her disappear.
Dear God, what have I gotten myself into?