Günter crept through the darkness, shining his flashlight on the wall in front of him. The light beam reflected back into his eyes so intensely that he had to squint. He moved closer and touched the surface of the twelve-foot tower of solid gold bricks. There were thousands of them, some dented and battered, some pristine and fresh. All of them shining like new, because gold never tarnishes.
There had been a time when Günter loved gold. But that was before he knew the truth. That was before his search for gold led him to this miserable damp cavern. Far off, he could hear the echoing sound of water dripping onto the cave floor. Aside from that steady drip, drip, drip, the silence surrounding him was complete and claustrophobic.
He stood statue-still, awed and horrified by the quantity of gold stacked in front of him. In the all-encompassing silence there was a sigh that didn’t emanate from his body.
Günter killed his light and waited in the pitch-black, straining his ears for the noise to repeat itself. His heart pounded against his rib cage, and cold fear crawled along his backbone. His testicles had retreated far into his body. Maybe to the point of no return. Not his biggest worry right now. If he was found in the cave it would mean certain death. He caught the faint rustle of cloth and the click of a light switch. Harsh halogen work lamps flashed on and illuminated the grotto.
For the first time Günter was able to see the length and breadth of the storage space. Golden walls had been erected, as if King Midas was building an underground maze. Stalactites and stalagmites, looking like the teeth of some subterranean monster, partially obscured the view.
Günter was overwhelmed with regret. He should never have come here. He’d driven thousands of miles to get to this godforsaken place. What the heck was he thinking? He was just a middle-aged banker with high blood pressure and low self-esteem. He had no business playing amateur detective. He should have gone to the authorities as soon as he began to suspect. Problem was, the authorities were the ones he suspected.
There! He saw a shadow moving among the towering limestone columns. The figure of a short man. A man who moved with the grace of a cat, his footfalls making no sound on the cavern floor. The man stepped into the light, and Günter felt a chill rip through him, felt the contents of his intestines liquefy. The man was bald and had bulging eyes. Günter knew the man. And he knew that the man was looking for him, and that the man was capable of doing terrible things.
Günter was hidden behind a stack of gold bricks. He shrank back and scanned the area, looking for an escape route. He crept to the end of his protective stack, turned a corner, and almost tripped over a body. It was a woman. Her dead eyes were open wide with terror and the top of her head was caved in. A gold bar lay beside her, matted with hair and blood.
Günter gagged and clapped a hand over his mouth to keep from moaning out loud. He recognized the woman. She was Yvette Jaworski. And he knew he was partly responsible for her horrible death. He turned to run and came face to face with the bald man…and the shiny scalpel in his hand.
“Günter, you picked the wrong place to go exploring,” the man said, in a soft, silky voice.
Günter would have agreed if he’d had the chance.
Riley Moon parked her Mini Cooper in the circular driveway and gaped at the house in front of her. She thought it looked as if it had been designed by the witch from “Hansel and Gretel” after she’d made a killing in the stock market. Its steeply pitched roof, multicolored shingles, odd turrets, and sprawling, ungainly porch made it both inviting and ominous. It was located at the end of a long private drive that wound through a heavily wooded section of Rock Creek Park. It was one of the biggest mansions in Washington, D.C., and it was appropriately called Mysterioso Manor. Emerson Knight, the resident owner, was appropriately known as a nutcase.
Knight had ignored requests that he visit the bank to discuss his recently inherited fortune and to choose a new personal banker, so the bank had dispatched Riley to assure Emerson that his money was in good hands.
Riley maneuvered herself out of the Mini, straightened the hem of her fitted cream-colored Akris jacket, and planted her four-inch Valentino heels on the gravel driveway. It was her second week as a junior analyst at Blane-Grunwald, the mega-bank that made Goldman Sachs look like a mom-and-pop savings and loan. She’d taken the time to get degrees from Harvard Business and Harvard Law, and now at age twenty-eight she was finally ready to set the world on fire. She was going to make her family proud, pay off her gazillion student loans, and carve out a brilliant career. And she was moving closer to her goals on this perfect September morning.
She was two steps from the massive porch when the front door to the mansion burst open and a frazzled woman stormed out, swept past Riley without a word, and headed down the driveway.
A tall, rangy woman in her midsixties stood on the porch and waved at the angry woman. “Danielle, give it one more chance!”
“No! No more chances!” Danielle yelled back. “You’re all whacko. And I’m not cleaning up after no damn armadillo.”
“At least let me give you a ride home!” the tall woman pleaded.
“I’d rather walk,” Danielle said, stomping around the bend in the road, disappearing from sight.
Riley thought that the tall woman looked like she’d just stepped out of the Dust Bowl. Her hair was mostly gray and piled on top of her head with a bunch of strands escaping. No makeup. Beat-up running shoes, loose-fitting jeans, and an untucked though neatly ironed floral-patterned faded pink shirt.
The woman sighed and turned to Riley. “Sorry you had to hear that, hon, but Danielle had a right to get her tail feathers ruffled.”
“Did she say something about an armadillo?”
The tall woman looked at her with stoic resignation. “Yep.”
Riley extended her hand. “I’m Riley Moon from Blane-Grunwald bank. I’m here to see Emerson Knight. He’s expecting me.”
“I’m Emmie’s Aunt Myra. Come on in. Nice to see a pretty girl stopping by, even if it is just business. And look at you with all that curly red hair and big brown eyes. And you got a nose that’s cute as a button. I bet you work out too.”
“I like to run when I get the chance. It clears my mind.”
“Well, I’m glad to see you here. Emmie doesn’t have many visitors these days.”
Riley liked that this woman called Emerson Knight, one of the richest men in the country, plain old “Emmie.” Maybe the rumors she’d heard were untrue. Maybe he wasn’t as aloof and eccentric as the press reported.