Saturday, April 4th
THIS was the last place Dylan expected to find himself on a Saturday morning. He should be parked in front of a bowl of Cocoa Pebbles, browsing through the sports section, feet up, Bugs Bunny chomping a carrot in the background. Instead, he was on a bogus mission, here to pacify a woman whose inner soundtrack might well have been Warner Brother’s inspiration for Looney Tunes.
The house reeked of curry, scratchy wool blankets, and forced heat. Sexy lamp on a side table. Beads, bangles, and some sort of sparkling carpet spanning one wall. Helen was the definition of eccentric and certainly skirted the rules when it came to calendar ticks. Didn’t look a day over sixty, but according to Dylan’s calculations, she had to be at least eighty.
He walked the length of the living room and rearranged sheer curtains at a side window, his gaze landing on the bungalow beyond a thick hedge of bushes. A house both familiar and strange to him now. His ex-girlfriend’s house. Only now she was married. To his brother.
“Did you call Finn?” he asked Helen, taking his time to turn back to her. “If your friend’s really missing, a police report should be filed.” Dylan had no idea why Helen had contacted him in the first place. He assumed that in her book, he ranked somewhere between an IRS auditor and Kim Jong-un.
The old woman flashed a panicked glare. “The police won’t give this top priority. I need a private investigator.”
Private investigator. The ink on his license was barely dry, and he had only worked a total of two cases. A woman trying to find out if her husband was cheating. He was. A man who suspected his son was on drugs. He was. The job was almost too easy in Riley’s Peak. A town where the anonymous part of AA was anything but anonymous.
This he knew firsthand.
“Tell me again what—” Dylan started.
“Elyse showed up here last night, a day early. Leticia, that’s her daughter, is coming to be with us for our annual Soul Cleansing Weekend. I haven’t seen Leticia since she came home from Iraq. I couldn’t be prouder. Anyway, she’s coming up from Savannah.” Helen stopped, stared past him with a near-startled expression. “So much to look forward to. Now Elyse is gone.”
“Maybe she went out for a toothbrush or milk or something.” Or maybe some extra soap for the “cleansing.”
Helen pursed her lips in a sour pucker. “We don’t do dairy.” She shook her head defiantly; tips of dangly, mismatched earrings brushing her shoulders. One feathery. One all beads and stars.
“But her car is gone, her purse,” Dylan pointed out. “It seems like she left on her own. Whatever the reason.”
Helen pointed to a half-empty glass of red wine on the end table. “Elyse would never do that. She’d finish it, or she’d wash out the glass. This simply isn’t her style.”
So this friend left without cleaning up after herself. Bad manners. Not a crime. Dylan was ready to tell Helen to call him if she had a real problem when her eyes lined with tears.
“The cards don’t lie.” Helen moved to the coffee table and spread five large tarot cards in a wide arc. “Someone wants to kill her.”
He’d never put much stock in cards, tea leaves, or people reading the cream in their coffee. “Do the cards say who?”
Helen swiped at her wet cheeks, straightened. “I know skepticism is your strong suit, sort of your signature, but there are powers in this world you and I will never understand.” She motioned to the table; her fingertips lightly touching a card featuring a scythe-swinging skeleton, and then tiptoeing to one with a star. “If you’ll indulge me, this represents you. Hope and inspiration.”
Hope and inspiration? He’d never been anybody’s hope or inspiration. She needed a new deck of cards. “Where were you when your friend left?”
“I was out.”
“I had plans with Stanley. At his place. We alternate. I came back a little after six this morning. As I said, Elyse was a day early. She didn’t want me to cancel my date even though I told her I could see Stanley anytime. But she insisted she’d stay here while I went out.” Her hands clasped together twisting, twisting. “She insisted.”
He’d heard Helen was more “active” than most her age, maybe legendary. “Let me get this straight—”
A rap at the door interrupted him, and Helen ran to open it. A woman in a black leather bomber jacket and those pants that look air-brushed on gripped both sides of the doorjamb in a pose that was anything but casual. Freckles sprinkled her nose and marched in opposite directions toward perfect ears. No make-up. Dark hair scraped into a loose ponytail. A straight line of bangs nearly eclipsed what appeared to be her best feature. Her eyes. She certainly wasn’t out to win any beauty pageants.
And yet she could.
Without waiting for an invitation, she stepped into the house, and Helen folded her into a hug.
“Aunt Helen, it’s been too long!” The hint of a southern drawl worked its way through an attempt to downplay it.
“Leticia, I’m so glad you’re here.”
“It’s Tish.” Her tone instructive. You will call me Tish.
“I’ll try, but Leticia is so ingrained.”
“Mom’s not here yet?” She unzipped her jacket. “I’ve been trying to call her since I got off the plane.”
Dylan’s first impression of Leticia, Tish, whatever, the pretty face with a figure to match, was swallowed by her military precision, the way she barked out questions in a caps lock voice.
Tish spun toward him as though realizing for the first time he was in the room. “Who are you?”
At least she didn’t ask for rank and serial number. Stepping forward he offered his hand, “Dylan Tierny,” and let it drop after a few emasculating seconds. Okay, no handshake.
“As I said before, Tish.” No last name required. Like Beyonce or Kesha, he guessed. She stared at him a penetrating moment before she returned to Helen.
Helen’s fingers crept to her mouth and dropped to her chin, rubbing, deliberating. “I don’t want to worry you, but Elyse is gone. She was here last night, but now . . . something is very wrong.”
“Did you try RJ?” Tish asked.
“I’ve called cell and home a hundred times. No answer.” Helen turned to Dylan. “RJ Corman is Elyse’s common-law husband. She didn’t want to marry again after her dear Frank passed. Of course, that was years ago, but—”
“Are you sure she didn’t just run out?” Tish interjected. “Maybe to the store.”
“I suspected the same,” Dylan said.
Tish zeroed in on him now. “Excuse me, Dylan, is it? I don’t mean to be blunt, but this is a family matter.”
Most cases were. He didn’t need to be told. His morning routine was calling him back, and maybe it made sense to leave and let Tish here help Helen find her crystal ball. But the urge to stay and see how this turned out trumped his compulsion to walk away—this might be far more entertaining than the Saturday cartoon line up.
“Why don’t you start at the beginning, Helen,” Dylan heard himself say. “Don’t leave anything out.”
Tish closed the space between the three of them and assumed an authoritative stance; legs shoulder width apart, hands on hips. Almost masculine. Almost. Who was she trying to kid? She oozed female from her haphazard ponytail to her shiny black boots.
“That’s not necessary, Aunt Helen.” That drawl pulling at the edges of her words again. Then to Dylan, “Seriously, I’ve got this.”
He felt the corner of his mouth involuntarily lift in a smirk before he barked out, “Dismissed!”
“A military crack?”
“Just speaking your language. But I’m a private investigator not some private in the marines. I don’t take orders from you.”
“Army.” Her gaze floated over him. “I was in the army. Listen, I’m not sure why Aunt Helen called you—”
“Please.” Helen spread her arms in a referee’s T, indicating unsportsmanlike conduct.
Dylan conceded. For Helen’s sake. Plus, he might enjoy tooling on this one. He knew the type. Bitter. Felt like she had something to prove.
“A picture of your friend would be helpful, Helen.” He watched as the muscle in Tish’s jaw did a little hop skip before he went on. “Do you happen to have a recent one?”
“I do!” Helen clapped her hands together. “Elyse and I went to see the Spirit Gourds of Native America Exhibit in Allentown last fall. It’s quite a drive, but we generally do something special on Anne’s birthday. She was Elyse’s mother and my dearest friend. I drove so Elyse could work. Don’t know why she needs to switch from gadget to gadget like that, but it was still—”
“No need for a picture,” Tish broke in. “I know what my mother looks like.”
“I’d love to see it,” Dylan said to Helen.
She moved to the bookcase, selected a framed photo. “Lovely, isn’t she?”
Helen and a tall woman stood side-by-side, silhouetted by a fog-capped lake. Charcoal smudged eyes, high cheekbones on mocha skin, she had a beaming quality, like she’d just won a prize. Her arms, crossed in a prove-it pose, broadcast her confidence. Beautiful. Like her daughter.
“Helen, is anything of yours missing?” Dylan asked.
“As I said—” Helen started.
“Now you’re calling my mother a thief?” Tish made no attempt to mask her accent this time.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Well the question sure sounds like an accusation.”
“Yes!” Helen belted out. “Something very important is missing.” She waited until she had their full attention. “Elyse.”
END OF CHAPTER