Chasing shadows, p.10
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       Chasing Shadows, p.10

           Karen Harper
 
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  “I let her go. I felt bad about it, but I had to let her go. I didn’t need her hovering and watching.”

  Hostility? Claire wondered. Resentment? Well, she was feeling both of those things right now, so she tried to calm down, modulate her voice.

  “I need her entire name, Jasmine. Nick didn’t mention her. You didn’t—no one did.”

  “Oh, I—well, I suppose you could put her on the list, but she wasn’t there that day. She helps her family with their puppet shows at times. Marionettes for children’s birthday parties, appearances here and there in town.”

  “In town here?”

  “They have a shop in Heritage Walk off St. George’s Street. Although I hated to let her go, I can clean the few rooms of the house I use myself, and she did have that other family business and support. I’m sure the police must have talked to her, and I suppose she resented me. I—it’s just an oversight that she wasn’t mentioned, but I’m telling you, she’s painfully shy. Doesn’t say much, very private. People think she’s stupid or autistic at first, but she isn’t. It’s as if the marionettes do the talking for her. You’d probably get more out of her twin sister. They’re really tight but at least Cecilia has some social skills. I never understood how Mother and Lola hit it off so well—as if Mother sometimes took care of her instead of the other way around.”

  Yes, resentment. And Claire had to admit, another motive for Jasmine to have possibly hurt her mother. Claire was astounded and angry. With Jasmine. With Nick. This Lola was like one of the house ghosts then, sometimes seen but not heard!

  “Jasmine, I’m sure you understand that I’ll have to interview her,” she said, trying to keep her temper in check. “How did you get along with her?”

  “She made herself scarce when I was there to see Mother. Now don’t be upset with Nick, as I’m not sure he saw her, or even knew of her.”

  “Please give me her full name and address.”

  “Lola Moran, but I’m not sure where she lives in town. But, to make up for my oversight, I can take you to their Party Puppets Shop.”

  “I’d appreciate that. If your mother did not accidentally overdose on her pills and you didn’t harm her, someone did, someone who probably had her trust, knew their way around the house and about her medication. We have to find that person before that sheriff interrogates your staff again. Now let’s finish up here, you talk me step-by-step through the day you found your mother on the floor, then I’ll just take you up on going to see Lola Moran.”

  * * *

  “Heck, Nick here,” he said into his cell phone, staring at files on his laptop screen about another case. “Any calls from Claire about what time you’re supposed to pick her up to head for Shadowlawn?”

  “Not yet, boss. It’s not set for Neil Costa ’til 4:00 p.m., so we got time. What’d the doc say?”

  “She’s healing well. Listen, I’d like for you to research whether or not my father’s old ‘friend’—and I use that term loosely—has any corporate ties to a company that makes quad copters, two-foot-square drones. This one I saw was white and, I think, had a camera. I swear it was hovering over Claire and me.”

  “He could’ve just bought one of those for his guys if they’re still tailing you.”

  “I haven’t seen any sign of ‘boots on the ground,’ but it’s his style to buy companies just the way he buys people. You have any way to check into that?”

  “I can try, but the guy’s slippery as an eel.”

  “Damn, but he is. I swear I’d almost rather have him make a move than stalking and tormenting me.”

  “You’re not thinking that ties into that weirdo you told me tried to scare you off the bridge?”

  “A long shot, I guess. I don’t know. There’s too much I don’t know right now.”

  “Don’t let it get to you, ’cause we got a couple feelers out on locating Ames. Oh—sorry, you said not to use his name on the phone. Thing is, I guess money talks, and he’s got it.”

  “Yeah, the bastard. Some of my father’s money. Thanks, Heck. And take good care of Claire, keep your eyes open, even along that pretty river at Shadowlawn.”

  “Yes, boss, will do. I’ll be in touch.”

  Nick punched off and stared at the phone log on the screen. Heck was working on his English but he always said jes instead of yes. As for I’ll be in touch, that’s what he wanted with Claire, to touch her. It had never hit him so hard, so fast, no matter how many women he’d known and dated, including his early-twenties passion for Jasmine years ago.

  But he’d told himself, he couldn’t risk having a wife or kids until he was sure Clayton Ames was dead or in prison. It would be just like that bastard to try to hurt Nick’s family to get to him. He was positive Ames had killed his father and staged it to look like a suicide, maybe bought off the ME or the judge. Sometimes, the fact Ames had not struck yet obsessed him. He must know Nick was after him, was dedicated to nailing him if it was the last thing he ever did.

  * * *

  Jasmine, still apologizing for not mentioning Lola Moran before, parked her car near Old Town, then led Claire down the walking mall to a covered alleyway called Heritage Walk Mall, across St. George Street from the Catholic Basilica. It was 2:00 p.m., and bells from the steeple echoed here. The mall was a covered lane with shops on both sides. Claire noticed one where a man sat inside rolling cigars; she smelled tobacco even out here. On the other side was a display of great-looking leather purses, connected to a salsa shop called Mara’s Hotter Side.

  She saw ahead there was a back exit to the mall. They went farther toward a small shop with a sign that read Party Puppets and, staring at them out the window, many posed marionettes on strings: Spanish soldiers, Native Americans, princesses—how Lexi would love one of those!—and figures for Halloween over a month early, ghosts, witches, black cats, a skeleton, goblins. The sign said Closed, but there was a light on inside, so Jasmine tried the door, and it opened.

  Looking nervous, Jasmine stuck her head in. The bell above the door jingled. “Lola! Cecilia! Anyone here? It’s Miss Francine’s daughter, Jasmine!”

  Claire followed Jasmine in. No sound but a gust of wind from the open door shifted the marionettes hanging in clusters from the ceiling behind the counter. Their strings swayed; their loose limbs rattled. A few blinked their painted eyes.

  “Someone must be here,” Jasmine muttered. “The door was unlocked, and look at the price on these things.”

  Jasmine went to the back of the display room and called through the saloon-style doors, “Anyone here?”

  “Maybe someone just went to the restroom,” Claire said.

  She closed the door behind her, but a breeze still blew in from the back room. “Maybe she smokes, or someone stepped out the back door for a breath of fresh air. Look, there’s a plastic glass of soda here, and the ice isn’t quite melted in it.”

  Claire looked around, remembering that Jasmine said Lola was always hovering and watching. With all these puppets here, she felt they were being watched.

  “I think I have Lola’s cell number,” Jasmine said, peering through the saloon doors. “I’ll just phone her and tell her we’re here, that is, if she answers the phone.” She whispered, “I repeat yet again, she is painfully shy. I always thought she needed counseling. It was almost as if she was like one of the puppets and not really there.”

  She took out her phone and punched in a number; Claire heard muffled musical ringing in the back room. “I hear it. I’ll bet she fell asleep.” She tiptoed to the doors and quietly stepped through them. “Hello! Lola or Cecilia? Could we talk to you?”

  She followed the phone music. It was playing that song from The Sound of Music where Maria works the puppets with the children. How clever, how—

  Among the hanging puppets in the back room, Christmas angels and Easter bunnies, Claire saw,
half hidden, a woman’s body. No puppet, no strings but a cordlike noose around her neck, suspending her from the rack attached to the ceiling. Hovering and watching...hovering and watching... Her tongue out, the dead woman stared blankly at Claire, silent now, silent forever.

  So Claire screamed for her.

  10

  The dead woman’s phone kept playing that bouncy tune. Jasmine ran into the back room where Claire stood gaping up at the corpse.

  “Oh, dear God, no! No!” Jasmine cried.

  “It’s her—Lola?” Claire gasped out. Wavering on her feet, shaken and dizzy, she could barely stand. Those dead people of her nightmares...this was—this was real!

  She told Jasmine, “Hang up your phone. I’ll call the medics, the police and Nick.” Her legs nearly gave out. She leaned against the wall by the back door. “Don’t touch anything. The murderer’s fingerprints could be anywhere.” She stared at Jasmine’s hands clasped together and pressed to her lips.

  Jasmine turned, almost leaped at her and seized her shoulders. “No, we can’t call the cops,” she cried. “Do you know how this will look? Like I’m finding a dead body every month? They’ll have my head. We’ve got to sneak out the back, wait ’til someone else comes in, finds her. We can’t do anything to help her. Please, Claire. You—we’ll sink Nick’s case if this gets in the papers, too, the fact that I fired her, then she ends up like this.”

  Claire raised her good arm to break Jasmine’s grip. The woman was strong in her panic and passion. Still pressed against the wall, Claire held her hand to her forehead as if that would force her to think.

  “No, we can’t lie. That would be worse. Someone could have seen us come in here—recognized you. She—I don’t think rigor mortis has set in yet, so maybe someone just did this, ran out this open door. A forensic team will work this place, find out who—”

  Jasmine doubled over, sucking air, crooning, moaning. She slid down to sit on the floor. Claire sat beside her, took her own cell phone from her shoulder purse and punched 911. She gave her name, told them what they’d found and where they were, asked for a medic squad and the police. They tried to keep her on the line, asking questions like what was her age, her address.

  She told them she’d handle all that later. She punched off and called Nick. He didn’t pick up, and it went to voice mail: “Attorney Nick Markwood here. I’m not available right now, but please leave a message, or if this is a business call or emergency, phone my office in Naples at...”

  She wanted to throw the phone against the wall. She called Heck. He answered right away. “Heck, it’s Claire. Jasmine and I need Nick. You have to find him, tell him where we are. He has to come at once. We’ve found a body, the woman who was Francine’s maid. The police are on the way.” She told him where they were.

  “Okay, okay. He’s taking a break in the pool about twenty feet from me. He’ll be there. I’ll call Neil Costa and postpone the interview. Like they say on those forensic TV shows, don’t touch anything...”

  Don’t touch anything... That was a good one. Jasmine’s prints were all over the doorknob and she’d made a call from here to the dead woman. Claire’s cell phone records would show calls from here, and her 911 would be recorded. Neil or even Bronco might know that Jasmine had words with this woman and resented her, and if so, there went Nick’s case and hers, too. Even if they didn’t prosecute Jasmine for her mother’s death, now there was this.

  Oh, damn. Just when Claire was trying to fly under the radar, this was going to blow up. And Nick was, too.

  * * *

  The police and the squad arrived almost at the same time. Because of the walking mall, they came in the back way. Jasmine was on her feet and somewhat subdued. One of the officers recognized her right away. At first even the medics stood in awe at the bizarre sight of a human body dangling among the marionettes. Then the police taped off the front of the store and the back room and took Claire and Jasmine out to separate squad cars to await questioning.

  Great, just great, Claire thought. She was the one who was supposed to be doing interviews, and they were both going to get grilled. She kept looking at her watch. The hotel wasn’t that far away. Where was Nick?

  After what seemed like forever—but was twenty minutes—she heard his voice and craned around to see him talking to the detective in charge. Nick must have put his slacks and shirt right over his bathing suit because she could see the damp, darker outline of it.

  “Yes, representing both of them,” he said, his words floating to her.

  It was hot in this squad car. The back alley was shaded, but the windows were barely cracked. She was getting dizzy. She still pictured that poor woman hanging inside, dead, dead, dead...like those terrible hallucinations at nightfall, deceased people chasing her, reaching for her, dragging her back...

  She sucked in a breath and tried to get control. Rampaging emotions always did a cataplexic in. Her meds last night...needed to take both of them and hadn’t...

  It made her angry that Nick went to talk to Jasmine first. She needed to prep him. Who knew what Jasmine would say when she was interviewed? Actually, who knew if she was to be trusted, despite Nick’s constant vouching for her? But, after a moment, leaving that squad car door open, he strode toward Claire and opened her door.

  “I’m your lawyer now as well as your boss. I can’t believe when you knew you had to protect Jasmine, you two found a body.”

  Fury and frustration poured through Claire. She got out of the car, pushed him back a step. How dare he blame her!

  “Look, counselor. Yes, I stumbled on the body of a woman no one told me about—a key witness either for or against Jasmine. Don’t you think her maid might know what happened to Francine, and she was MIA as far as you knew. You said you gave me a complete list of Francine’s staff!”

  “I swear I didn’t know about Lola Moran.”

  “You mean that Francine never mentioned her and Jasmine didn’t, either? Nick, the poor woman was Francine’s aide around the mansion, her personal maid.”

  “Jasmine says Lola wasn’t there when Francine died. And that she barely talks and would be a terrible witness.”

  “Yeah, well Win Jackson talks all the time but he also says he wasn’t there. I’m sure whoever is guilty would just blurt out the truth. I shouldn’t have to tell you I need all the key interviews to put the puzzle together. I believe that’s what you hired me for.”

  “All right, all right. I screwed up but I didn’t know about this woman.”

  Claire exhaled hard. “Jasmine said Lola often made herself scarce and was here sometimes at this puppet store or giving shows. I didn’t mean to jump on you, either. But Jasmine should have told you and me about her. What else hasn’t she shared? Does she have an alibi for the time frame in which Lola died?”

  “You don’t suspect her?”

  “I’m trying to think like the police if they learn she fired Lola, and I can tell Jasmine resented her, maybe was jealous of Francine’s attention to the girl.”

  “Look, I hear rigor mortis hasn’t set in yet, and Jasmine’s been with you. You are her alibi. Besides, she wouldn’t agree to bring you here if she’d harmed her. In these warm ambient temperatures—it was poorly air-conditioned in that back room—”

  “Maybe because we found the back door open.”

  “My point is, rigor mortis sets in faster in warmth, and I overheard the detective say it hadn’t set in on Lola yet.”

  “Actually, I observed that.”

  “So someone killed her quite recently, and Jasmine was with you. Claire, I need you to be on my and my client’s side! You should have called me from the park, first thing before coming here.”

  “Never mind changing the subject. I always watch for that when someone feels guilty. Nick, that poor woman inside was suddenly at the top of my list to talk to, s
o of course I hurried here! And she might have been a hostile witness against Jasmine!”

  “Keep your voice down. This place is swarming with cops.”

  “You know, I noticed that.”

  Another wave of anger poured through Claire. She wanted to please Nick, and he blamed her. This wasn’t her fault. And surely, this murder wasn’t Jasmine’s, either. She never would have agreed to bring Claire here right now if she’d been the one who had harmed Lola—would she?

  A woman—she looked almost like Lola—ran past the squad cars and the rescue squad down the alley, toward the back entrance of the shop. An officer grabbed her, turned her back.

  “No,” she shrieked, “let me in. They called me. My sister, my store!”

  They watched the officer speak quietly to her. The woman began to sob. Tears blurred Claire’s sight of the scene.

  “That’s obviously Cecilia, her twin sister,” she told Nick, but she suddenly sounded strange to herself, as if she were underwater. Before she could stop herself, she blurted out, “My sister screamed like that when I found her—our mother. And Jasmine found hers and...”

  Her knees buckled. She didn’t mean to argue with Nick. She had to watch her emotions, fighting for the truth, fighting him... She tried to grab the car door and get back inside before she collapsed. His hands came hard on her waist, and he half lifted, half pushed her to get in the backseat and put her head down between her knees.

  “One of the medics—send one here!” he shouted, pushing her across the backseat and getting in beside her. “This woman’s fainted.”

  Shades of when she was shot. Poor Nick.

  But she hadn’t fainted. She heard him. It was her missed meds...missed her mother, missed Lexi, maybe Jace, too.

  “I’m fine,” she told him. “Tell them I’m fine and to stay away.”

  Just like Lexi curled up in her arms, she curled against Nick in the backseat of a car or somewhere good, somewhere he could keep bad dreams away.

 
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