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Spots blurred her vision as she ran, stumbling through the underbrush like prey trying to evade capture. Her lungs burned, desperate for more air as she gasped for breath. Her body was starting to shut down on her, but she pushed on. What had started as a simple quest for answers had turned into something much darker, and much, much more sinister. Never in her short span of years would she have suspected such a small, quiet community to harbor such secrets.
Her feet tangled beneath her, nearly sending her to the ground as she heard the distinct sounds of her pursuers crashing through the bushes behind her. They were getting closer, and she was getting tired. Her initial struggle for freedom had drained most of her energy in the first place, and she had suffered a nasty hit to the head along with a few good shots to her stomach. She’d been running for a good ten minutes now, unsure how much longer she could go on, desperate to get away.
Blood dripped into her eye from the gash in her forehead, and adrenaline was the only thing keeping her going. She was lost, hopelessly so, having run blindly across the backfield, and in the dead of night no less. She’d been hoping to make the forest line, and some cover. Perhaps she could find a good place to hide, and allow her body some rest At least the initial brush had turned to tall grass. For once in her life, she was thanking the Gods for her smaller stature.
Auburn hair fell into her face, and she quickly brushed it away. She was almost there, she could smell the pine, the tang of decomposing leaves, and she pushed harder. Using the last of her energy, she struggled through the last few yards as she allowed herself one small moment of hope, if she could just make the tree line she might be okay.
Suddenly her foot snagged a root, and sent her toppling forward. She rolled, feeling a rib give under her weight, and gasped at the pain. Winded, she groaned, knowing she had nothing left to get her on her feet again. She looked up, spotted vision revealing she had fallen only a few feet short of the protection of the forest.
She heard the tell-tale sounds of her attackers, the rustling of the grass, snapping of twigs, and the murmurs of communication between various members of her pursuit team. Any minute now, they would be on her, and the hell she had worked hard to escape would be her reality once again.
She tried once more to get to her feet, but her chest protested the movement, and sent her flat to her back in anguish. The sounds were getting louder, and she resigned herself to her fate. The last thing she felt before the world went black was a set of hands reaching out, and dragging her into the darkness of the forest she had hoped would save her.
Hands moved with practiced ease as they shuffled the cards, before eventually stopping to cut the deck, and then to deal three. Dark eyes studied the faces, widening in realization. The first told her to wait. The second said something, or someone was coming. A shiver told her it was the latter. Okay someone was coming, but who? Soon was the only response the third gave. She glanced at her clock, four-thirty a.m.. Something told her she needed to start preparing for something. She asked her Goddess what, but it seemed like she wasn’t in the mood to reveal her secrets just yet…She closed her eyes, reaching, seeking the lines running under the town. They were shifting, restless. Whoever it was, they were close, and she needed to be ready.
Opening her eyes, she looked at the cards one last time, asking them how she would know when she’d found the right person…The only answer she got as she gathered the cards back up was, ‘You’ll feel.’
A shrill ring sliced through the silence of the small industrial loft, ripping the woman in the bed from a fitful sleep. One pale hand shot out from the covers, retrieving the ringing cell phone off the nearby nightstand, and hauling it under the blankets where she was currently huddled She jabbed the answer button with her thumb, and brought it to her ear.
Before she could say anything, a thick sob carried across the line, and she pulled the phone far enough away to blink blearily at the time displayed. four-thirty a.m..
“Excuse me for calling so late, but may I speak with Delaney Delacroix? This is a matter of utmost urgency,” a woman’s tearful voice came over the line.
Delaney sat up in her bed, scrubbing her blonde hair away from her face. She could tell instantly that this was a woman with money, or at the very least a woman who wanted you to think she had money. Her abrupt and formal way of speaking told the detective that much.
“This is she. What can I help you with, especially at this hour?” She wouldn’t normally have been so curt, but the hour, coupled with her recent late nights, was clouding the good manners she had been raised with.
A clearing of a throat was heard before the woman continued. “My name is Regina Kingsley, and I wish to hire you to find my granddaughter Jenny. She has been missing for almost a week, and we fear the worst. You come highly recommended by the Morials, and they said that you are very discrete.”
Del wracked her sleep-fogged brain for the name Morial, and her mind quickly dredged up the memories for that case. A particularly dirty one in which the New Orleanss ex-mayor had suspected his boy was up to no good. She’d had to be extra careful on that one, not a family she wanted to be on the bad side of.
“Yes, well, I’m glad they think so highly of me. How old is your granddaughter exactly?” This wouldn’t be the first time some grandmother had feared the worst for a grandchild, and she’d been sent on a wild goose hunt for a kid who just wanted to go on vacation.
“Jenny is twenty years old, and she would never leave her mother without telling her. They are very close, and I’m sure that something awful has happened to her. I don’t care about the cost, Ms. Delacroix, I just want my granddaughter found.” Regina sounded like she was a woman who was used to getting her own way. “I shall expect you to arrive tomorrow in Leroy promptly at eleven.”
Del rubbed her chin in mild frustration, she could tell this case, and this woman, were going to push her patience. In all honesty, she wasn’t sure she wanted another missing kid case, not after the last one that had ended with a corpse.
“Well, Mrs. Kingsley, have you tried the police yet? Have you asked her friends, and other family perhaps?” She figured she might as well try to reason with the lady, although she had a feeling this woman wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
An indignant huff could be heard through the phone. “The police in this town is a joke. They don’t have the intelligence to find a jaywalker right in front of them, and I’m not even sure that they don’t have something to do with my poor Jenny’s disappearance. I’m sure that once you get here, you will see things my way, and understand why I have asked you to come here. Will fifty cover your time?”
“Clarify just how much fifty means, and I might be able to work something out.” Truth be told, Del could use the money. Work had been slow, and groceries weren’t getting any cheaper.
“Fifty thousand, of course. If that isn’t enough, I’m sure that we can come to a figure that suits both of us.”
Fifty thousand for a kiddie search. It was way more than she would normally charge for a job that usually went down pretty easy. Then again, who was she to look a gift horse in the mouth? Still, the nagging feeling in her gut that showed itself every now and then, told her that maybe this wasn’t going to be as easy as she was hoping. ”No, that will cover things just fine I believe. I’ll see you at 11 a.m. I’ll need any information you have on Jenny. Everything you can find on her friends, family, hobbies, any boyfriends, or even girlfriends for that matter.”
“Till tomorrow then, Ms. Delacroix,” Regina gave the blonde her address, and the call ended.
Getting an abrupt dial tone, Del tossed the phone, and flopped herself back onto her bed. She had a feeling she would regret taking this case, but there was nothing she could do now. Finally she managed the energy needed to haul herself from her warm bed, and began pulling out the supplies she knew she was going to need. It was going to be a long day.
Regina Kingsley looked at the Rolex on her wrist, ten-fifteen. Walking into the reading room, she looked over at her son Arthur Junior, or AJ as he liked to be called. She frowned disapprovingly when she noticed that he was already sipping on a glass of bourbon.
“Arthur…what have I told you about drinking before noon? I do not want the detective to smell it on your breath. It’s bad enough that we have to have an outsider to find your lost mistake, but we also have to dismantle this operation before we’ve squeezed every little dime out of it.”
“Well Mother, maybe if Father hadn’t pissed off, and left us with nothing, I wouldn’t need to drink before noon. Besides, you’re the one who made the decision that we needed outside help. I told you this would all come back to bite you. I have always said that I wanted to tell her that I was her father…she’s a smart girl, and would have kept her mouth shut, but no, you had to go and keep everything quiet. As far as my mistake goes, I was told that she wouldn’t be a problem. It seems the people you hired to keep an eye on Jenny aren’t as reliable as you thought now, are they?”
The older woman stalked over to her son and slapped him. “Don’t talk back to me young man. I can still end your life with a snap of my fingers. You are lucky I’ve kept you around this long, considering you can’t hold down a job, and all you’re good for is spending my money.”
Arthur’s hand instinctively snapped up to rub his cheek. Realizing his mother was dead serious, he backed down, not wanting to push his luck. Setting the drink aside for another time, he cleared his throat, and decided to try to change the subject from his own shortcomings to the detective en route.
“So what am I to expect of this detective, Mother.”
Taking a deep breath, the older woman turned to look out the front window overlooking the Kingsley Lake. “Ms. Delacroix did come highly recommended from the Morials; they said that she knows how to keep her mouth shut. What we need her to do is to find your mistake, and make sure that she finds enough evidence to point the blame elsewhere. It would not do to have our name dragged through the mud. Maybe once all of this is over, we can start something else. We were so close to being out from under the rock your father had left…why I married that man, I will never know.”
He stood there, regarding his mother. Her stiff posture, and stony face. She had been beautiful once, long ago when things had been so much simpler.
“For the only reason that matters of course. His money.” At this, he joined her at the window, hands in his pockets. “Now, is there anything you would like for our detective to find? Let me know so I can arrange some coincidences.”
Turning her head to look at her only son, she reached out to caress the cheek that she had just slapped.
“Let’s just give her a day or so to see what she comes up with before we start changing the direction in which she looks. We don’t want the others too suspicious. Like you said, it could surely come back to bite us. Now go brush your teeth, and gargle.”
Raelin Montrose was a pretty patient woman on most days. Today, unfortunately for the older woman standing in her front room, was not one of those days. Even though it had only been a few hours since she had been advised to be prepared, it seemed like days. Something was coming, and she wasn’t sure what.
She sighed as the woman begged her for another reading, disappointed in the results of the last one. She picked up the cards, and reshuffled, unconsciously glancing at the clock one more time.
She dealt the cards again, and began the reading, noticing with a smug satisfaction that she had the absolute attention of the woman before her. The meaning of the first card was the same as the previous draw, but she worded it a little differently to please her customer. She paused to pull her dark, wavy hair into a messy ponytail, keeping it out of her face. Flipping the second card, she described its meaning, realizing how her heart was just not in her work today.
She glanced at the clock again. When had her heart started racing? She felt a chill settle over her, and she felt like shooing the woman out. As she drew the third, a sudden jolt raced up her spine. She felt the town’s energy immediately shift, and for the first time in months, settle into something calm, as if a sudden weight had been lifted. Her eyes widened, and her words stumbled, and then stopped. The woman gave her a curious look. She felt like bolting out the door, and running to the middle of town.
Her eyes darted from the window where she had looked towards the clock on the wall, ten-thirty. She wanted to run to whatever, or whoever it was had come, to demand her answers to questions she wasn’t even sure she had. She looked at the cards she had dropped in her surprise, the card on the top giving her a start.
‘Wait’, it told her. Frankly, she was getting tired of all the waiting. The woman was asking after her now, and she replied with a hurried reassurance that she was fine. Raelin finished her business with the older woman, feeling that whatever had come to this town would find her soon enough.
After driving for a large portion of the night, Del was glad when she finally passed the Welcome to Leroy, Louisiana sign. Her eyes were burning, and she had lost all feeling in her lower half a few miles back. The Pines, Live Oaks, and Spanish Moss were starting to dwindle in numbers in favor of a few farmers’ fields. Eventually she had left the trees behind, and could see the main drag of the sleepy country town just ahead.
She passed a small strip mall and grocery store before she pulled her old Jeep to a stop in front of an antique store. An older gentleman whom she assumed was the owner was busy sweeping the sidewalk in front of the entrance. He looked at her oddly, mildly wary of her, but she had been expecting that. It wasn’t unusual for an outsider to arouse a bit of mild paranoia in tight knit communities such as this.
Slowly she rolled her shoulders, feeling the joints pop, and a quick glance at her watch read ten-thirty. Opening the door, Del stepped down onto the dusty street, and immediately got the sense of something unknown. She felt a tingle up her spine, and it spread into an awareness of everything around her. She wasn’t sure what it was, but it made her feel light, like an old friend was looking out for her. She felt inwardly calm, like she hadn’t in a long time and that alone unsettled her. Almost as quickly as it had come it settled down again into a barely noticeable hum through her limbs, and she shook it off as she approached the man, hoping to get directions.
“Excuse me sir, can you tell me where the Kingsley estate might be?” she asked with a shy smile. She knew her looks could be used to her advantage, and wasn’t afraid to use them to get what she needed on the job.
The old man stopped his sweeping to lean against the broom for a few moments, judging the young woman standing in front of him. She was a tiny thing, only reaching to about his chin with a thin frame, but he could tell she wasn’t frail.
She looked at him, sizing him up, and as he watched, she reached up to brush a long lock of corn silk hair out of her face. Jade green eyes bore into his own, and he could see not just the intelligence, but the strength of their owner, betraying the softness of her face. He followed the creamy skin of her neck until it disappeared under the well-pressed oxford shirt, currently tucked into well-worn jeans that fit like a second skin. She must have noticed his appraisal because she shifted her weight onto one foot, pushing the sleeves of her fitted jacket up to her elbows.
“Well, it depends on whose askin’?” he asked cautiously.
Del was tempted to reply with sarcasm, but knew it wouldn’t serve any use. Still, having driven most of the night on only a few hours’ sleep for a job she still wasn’t sure she should have taken, she wasn’t in the mood for games.
She shyly tucked a piece of long blonde hair behind an ear, and peered up at him through her lashes, flashing a charming smile. “Well, I’m Delaney Delacroix, and I’ve an appointment with Mrs. Kingsley to help her with some private family matters. She’s given me an address, but I’m not from around here.” Charming the pants off him seemed like the fastest way to get the information out of him, and all she wanted was to get this over with so she could have a nap.
The old man threw back his head, and laughed. “Oh, you’re good missy. You think that those green eyes, and pearly whites will charm the hell out of me. They just might later on, but I know that Regina Kingsley don’t like to be kept waiting. You head down that road over yonder, and when you see a lake on your left, take the road right beside it, and you’ll dead end into the house.”
Del flashed him a genuine smile this time, thankful for his sense of humor. “Thanks for your help.” She turned to leave, but stopped as a thought crossed her mind. “You wouldn’t also know where I could find a nice place to get a room for a few nights, would you?”
Scratching his head, he turned, and pointed down the street. “If you turn right at the light, about a half mile or so, you’ll see the Buck n’ Doe’s inn. They’re pretty clean.”
She nodded, and placed a hand on his forearm. “Thanks again Mr…?” She paused, expecting him to finish with his name. He seemed kind, and something told her an ally in this man would be beneficial to her work.
“Well missy. You can call me Jasper, and if you want some company one of these nights, I would be honored if you’d join me for dinner over at the diner.” He smiled down at the young woman. ‘Oh, to be thirty years younger again.’ He patted her hand. “You’d better get in gear. Like I said, Regina Kingsley doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
“Well, Jasper, you can call me Del. Most do. Thanks for all your help. I’ll see you around, I’m sure.” She turned, and headed to her Jeep, pausing to throw a wink over her shoulder. “And Jasper, I’ll be sure to take you up on that dinner invite.”
She climbed into her Jeep, letting out a deep sigh as she did. Dinner would provide a good opportunity to get some information out of him, about the town, and the people living in it. Her dashboard clock confirmed the time, and she set out for the Kingsley estate feeling all the while like a lamb about to head into the Lion’s den.
Jasper cocked his head, and admired the view from behind. It was just as good looking as the view from the front. He smiled, and gave a tiny wave as the pretty young blonde drove off.
AJ was standing at the front window as he saw Delaney’s Jeep round the bend of the road. Quickly he put down the glass of bourbon that he had poured earlier, and was about to drink from again. Looking around, he was glad that Mother was nowhere in sight. Taking a step closer to the window, he whistled softly as he watched the blonde get out of her vehicle.
‘That is a fine looking woman,’ he thought to himself. ‘Maybe I can have some fun after all.’
Stepping out of her Jeep in front of the large manor, Del rolled her eyes slightly at the sight. It was large, and extravagant, pretty typical for old money. Approaching the front stoop, her sharp eyes noted small signs of disrepair. Paint peeling, chipped molding, and a garden around back that needed some attention. Perhaps things weren’t as prosperous as the Kingsleys would like people to think. Then again, these were hard times. She reached up, and knocked roughly on the door, listening for signs of movement from within out of habit.
“Mother…the detective is here,” AJ called out as he walked to the foyer, and opened the door. “Yes, may I help you?” His eyes traveled up, and then down the slim body, liking what he saw.
Del regarded the man carefully, groaning inwardly at his less than subtle leering. He was tall, she had to crane her neck to catch his dark eyes when they finally left her chest. He may have been handsome in his younger years with his strong jaw, and thick hair, but there was something behind those brown eyes that she wasn’t so sure she liked, something that told her not to take this man at face value.
“Yes, I’m Delaney Delacroix, and I’ve an appointment with Regina Kingsley.” She kept her tone professional. For all her good-natured flirting with Jasper in town, the unsettled feeling this man gave off warned her to play it careful.
She looked subtly over his shoulder, gauging the layout of the foyer before she had to step in. Large, and extravagant, with elaborate mahogany paneling, it too showed signs of aging, but what really got her attention was the display case of marksmanship trophies. Pausing, she noticed they were all awarded to an Arthur, or Regina. So, the woman of the house could fire a gun, not that surprising for a Southern town though. She quickly noted the lack of sensors around the doors, odd that a house with money wouldn’t have an alarm system. That told her that these people had the power in this town, Mayor be damned. AJ was quick to extend his hand to shake hers.
“I’m her son Arthur Junior, but you can call me AJ, everyone does. Mother should be down momentarily. Won’t you please come in?” He liked how smooth and silky her hand felt in his.
“Arthur! I’m quite sure that Ms. Delacroix can walk a straight line without your assistance,” Regina’s voice called out sharply as the older woman appeared at the top of the stairs.
Retracting her hand, Del turned her attention to the woman at the top of the stairs. Tall, but not as tall has her son, Regina Kingsley descended the staircase with a regal bearing most royalty would envy. Grey hair was pulled into a severe bun on the back of her head, and steel grey eyes never once left Del’s face. Del noted in the back of her mind that Regina was sporting some pretty expensive accessories out of date though they were. Flashing a smile at her client, she reached out, and clasped the hand offered to her.
“And so we meet, Mrs. Kingsley. Is there a place a little more private in which to discuss the matters that called me here?”
Regina liked the not too firm handshake the blonde gave her. “Ms. Delacroix, I have no problems in discussing this in front of my son…he may not have the head for business, but he does care for the young girl. We’ve all known Jenny all her life. Why don’t we adjourn to the library, and we can talk more comfortably.” Turning, she led the way into an oak shelf lined room, filled with books, leather chairs that were still in good condition, but worn around the edges, and a wet bar. Sitting in a wingback chair, Regina waited for the young woman to ask the first question.
She took a seat in the chair offered, her jacket falling open to reveal a holster tucked into her left shoulder. She noted with a smug satisfaction the slight widening of the eyes when AJ caught a glimpse of the weapon. Reaching into a pocket inside her jacket, she pulled out an old notebook and pen, flipping to a new page.
“Did you get the information I requested?” She figured Regina was a woman who liked to keep things simple, and straight to the point. For now, Del was willing to indulge her.
Arching an eyebrow at the blonde’s tone of voice, Regina thought better of the cutting remark that was on the tip of her tongue, and instead let her eyes tear up.
“Yes, I had Arthur go to her mother and had her write down everyone that she could think of who might know where our sweet Jenny went. Trust me Ms. Delacroix, she just wouldn’t leave without telling her mother good-bye.”
“And the father?” she asked, jotting notes as they spoke, years of practice allowing her to write while barely looking at the page, leaving her eyes open for body language.
Smoothing back her hair, Regina sighed. “I’m sorry to say that Jenny’s father is no longer in the picture, and hasn’t been for most of her life. To tell the truth, Jenny LeBlanc isn’t my granddaughter, but is the daughter of a family friend. Amelia can’t afford to search for her, so I offered to help. Anything for a friend, you know.”
AJ crossed over to the wet bar, and almost picked up his glass again, when he thought better of it, and grabbed a handful of peanuts out of a nearby bowl. “Yes, Mother, and Amelia are such close friends.”
Putting down her pen, Del let an annoyed look pass over her face before she schooled it back into something more neutral. Standing, she watched them both as she spoke, “Mrs. Kingsley, who exactly do you think you’re working with here? If you think I drove all this way after being dragged out of my bed at some ungodly hour of the morning to be lied to, you have another thing coming. Now, I’m willing to help you here, but there isn’t a damned thing I’m going to be able to do if you can’t even give me some straight answers. In the future it would do you well to give me some answers when I ask.”
The older woman stared at the blonde while AJ almost spit out the mouthful of peanuts he was chewing. Finally smiling, Regina nodded her head.
“You are good. No wonder you came so highly recommended. Yes, you were being lied to, but not completely. Jenny is my granddaughter, and while my son here is her father she doesn’t know, nor does anyone else outside the family.”
“Well, it wouldn’t have taken a whole lot of work to figure out. You see, as soon as I mentioned the father, your son went about as rigid as a steel pipe. AJ over there has a ring on his finger, but judging by his not so subtle once over of me at the front door, I wouldn’t put it past him to have a few adventures from time to time. I’m going to assume all this secrecy is because she wasn’t exactly planned?”
Glaring at her son, Regina silenced any type of defense that he was going to offer for checking out the detective. Sighing, and turning back to the younger woman, she motioned for Del to take her seat.
“Boys will be boys, but at least he learned to use protection, and no, Jenny is a result of a fling he had early in his marriage. I paid Amelia off to keep her silence, and have made sure that Jenny is well cared for. She has been missing for almost a week, and no one knows where she has gone.”
Dropping once again into her chair, Del decided she had made her point, and resumed her note taking. “Now, when was the last time she was seen, and who was she with?”
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