Chasing shadows, p.3
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       Chasing Shadows, p.3

           Karen Harper

  She amazed and scared herself by saying, “Call me first. But why don’t we meet at your office?”

  “This is ex officio, not under the aegis of the firm. It’s a kind of charity I sponsor, a low-profile company I call South Shores that only takes on certain suicide-versus-murder cases.”

  Now she was sure she was crazy to even talk to him about this. But she was curious, too, totally tempted—not by his charisma, of course—but by the mystery of what he’d shared so far.

  “I’ll call tomorrow morning,” he said, standing. “I have your number from your website.” He lifted his hand and walked out, probably trying to leave before she had time to change her mind again.

  At least, she’d only agreed to hear him out. Too late she realized she’d been gripping the florist paper wrapped around the rose stems. She crinkled it so tight she’d stuck her thumb with a thorn. All she needed was to lose more blood, even a drop. And was it an omen?

  She had to admit she wasn’t doing well lately choosing clients. Nick Markwood fit the description of something Claire’s mother, who always had her nose in a book, had said about romantic poet Lord Byron: mad, bad and dangerous to know.

  * * *

  “Darcy, thanks so much for bringing Lexi and me home, but you don’t have to stay,” Claire told her younger sister that afternoon when they got back from the hospital. “You’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty.”

  “Not duty, big sister. Love. Love is the key, like in that song our munchkins keep playing over and over. I swear, I’m going to scream if I hear it one more time.”

  They hugged—that is, Claire hugged her one-armed and Darcy encircled her very gently, before they sat at Claire’s kitchen table. Darcy had driven her home with Lexi and her own four-year-old Jilly in the car. Lexi had cuddled up to Claire the whole way in the backseat, and she’d managed lots of hugs despite her sore arm.

  It was a Saturday, and Darcy’s husband, Steve, was at their house with their six-year-old son, Drew. The girls were in Claire’s living room, playing the song “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen over and over.

  Frozen, Claire thought, that’s how she felt. Like her wounded arm was frozen to her side, like her thirty-two years of life were frozen and on hold. Like her feelings for Jace were frozen. She shuddered, remembering how horrible it had been when she used to lie awake and feel frozen for a few minutes, unable to move, helpless...

  “But I’m telling you,” Darcy went on, “that you are out of your everlovin’ mind if you even hear out Superman Lawyer, man of steel, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. You need your rest, not some new assignment gallivanting all over the state.”

  “I didn’t say I’m taking him up on it. I only agreed to a chat, across the Trail at Lake Avalon. You know I can use the money from a new assignment, and I need to build the reputation and publicity for Clear Path. I have big plans for it, not just to be the only Certified Fraud Examiner for consult or hire, but to have a staff.”

  Darcy rolled her eyes. She’d heard all that before. “One more warning,” she said, then took a sip of the strong tea she’d fixed for the two of them. “I’m telling you, Nick Markwood’s a ladies’ man. He’s not married, shows up in the society pages all the time with a string of different, beautiful women. Last week it was some ‘Stomp in the Swamp’ dance for an Everglades reclamation charity. Can’t recall if that was in the newspaper or that glitzy mag Naples Illustrated.”

  “Everglades reclamation? Well, see? A lot of charities are worthwhile. Besides, he needs a high profile to be a rainmaker for his firm. But—what? Stop looking at me like that. You think this request for my help is a come-on? I hardly move in his circles. He has some friend who’s in trouble, and he was impressed with how I handled the Sorento interviews, that’s all.”

  Claire amazed herself to be defending Nick. No way was she admitting to Darcy that this assignment was not actually for his law firm, but for a sort of secret charity. Actually, didn’t his dedication to such causes mean he was a nice guy after all? But she was too tired to argue that now.

  “Okay, okay,” Darcy said, looking hurt. She ran her fingers through her pixie-cut hair.

  When Darcy got emotional, it had always seemed to Claire that her freckles popped out. Her hair had never been as red as Claire’s, and her eyes were blue, but anyone could tell they were sisters.

  “Listen,” Claire told her, “I know I pay you next to nothing for child care, but I want to thank you again for all you’ve done for me and Queen Alexandra in there.” She nodded toward the door to the living area. “You’ve been a second mother to her, and Jilly’s like a sister. It should be the older sister taking care of the younger, but you’ve always been the steady one. You’ve stuck with me through—through everything.”

  “Well, with a hard-driving, hard-drinking traveling salesman father and our nearly unresponsive mother, we needed to hang together, that’s all.”

  “It isn’t all.”

  Darcy’s lips crimped into a smile, and she crinkled her nose. Here came her make-light-of-their-sad-childhood routine when Claire had always wanted to psych it out. Darcy had majored in elementary education at Florida State while Claire had immersed herself in linguistics and psychology there.

  “I mean,” Darcy went on, “maybe you should just psychoanalyze me and be done with it. How many girls do you know who were named for someone’s favorite male character in an English novel of manners, no less? At least she didn’t name me Mr. Darcy. How did you ever escape with Claire?”

  They held hands across the corner of the table. Darcy managed a smile, but Claire blinked back tears. “Remember, I got Claire from ‘Clair de Lune’—Claire de Looney.” They smiled at one of their old childhood jokes. “But I have to admit—” Claire went on as their daughters’ song floated in again with both girls singing along “—I still prefer the Hans Christian Anderson story The Snow Queen to Disney’s rendition of it in Frozen. What did she not read to us when we were growing up? At least we had that. You do remember that fairy tale is about two sisters who learn to stick together?”

  Pieces of the lyrics floated in again, maybe the tenth time it had been played. The words of the song about the past being in the past and wanting to move forward, despite being unsettled in one’s heart...

  Maybe, Claire thought, as they rose and went to join their girls, that song that was driving them crazy was exactly what she needed to hear.


  “Let’s sit at the picnic table over there,” Nick suggested as they got out of his black BMW at Sugden Park just across US 41 from where Claire lived. The traffic sounded muted here. It seemed like another world.

  He carried a cooler and a tartan blanket, no less, when the temperature must be in the high eighties. She couldn’t wait for the weather to break to the clear coolness of autumn days, but the oppressive humidity and the cloudy sky seemed appropriate somehow. She was sure she would—at least should—turn him down.

  A warm Gulf breeze rippled the man-made lake that was set back a mile or so from the shore. The park service was giving kids waterskiing lessons today, and several small sailboats zigged and zagged across the surface. The screech of ospreys sailing overhead reminded her of the drone in the sky at the courthouse.

  Then, high above the lake, she saw there was a drone, a white one, hard to see in the sun against the sky. She’d read those might be used to spray for mosquitoes, but surely over the Everglades, not in a populated locale like this. She scanned the area to see who might be controlling the drone. Maybe the man way down where the bike trail disappeared into the woods.

  She watched Nick flap the blanket over the worn wooden surface of the picnic table. He took soft drinks—with plastic glasses and ice—and two plastic deli cartons out of the cooler. Plastic utensils, napkins, dark rolls and tiny tubs of butter. She saw everything was from Wynn
’s, a market uptown she loved but usually avoided because she’d walk out of there with a bill twice what she’d intended.

  “Lobster salad,” he said, sitting across from her with his back to the lake, when she was hoping he’d sit beside her so he didn’t seem to be interrogating her. She was really sensitive about body language, and his said impatience and controlled aggression right now. Worse, since his back was to the sun, he took off his sunglasses and regarded her with those disturbing silver-gray eyes. “Hope lobster’s okay.”

  “Great. I’d eat that even if I had no hands instead of just one that’s working well. So how is the state of Florida involved in this St. Augustine situation, other than, if your friend is indicted, she’ll go on trial there?”

  “So you have been thinking about this case. Good sign.”

  “Maybe, but I’m not ready to sign up.”

  “Let’s not do a contract per se, except for this.”

  He fished a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket, unfolded it and turned it toward her. He was eager now, in a hurry. And he had not answered her question.

  She took off her sunglasses to read the paper better. It was not a contract but an offer letter, for two hundred dollars an hour for interviews! And fifty dollars for “general consultation” time! She’d never earned more than seventy-five dollars for an entire interview. It also offered a daily rate of three hundred dollars while in St. Augustine (St. Johns County) and someplace called Palatka (Putnam County) to be paid weekly to her account. Her stomach cartwheeled as she read on. If she helped his South Shores company prove that Jasmine Montgomery Stanton did not murder her mother, Francine Montgomery, there was a $10,000 bonus. He’d signed the paper and had it dated and notarized.

  She just stared at the document at first, a forkful of lobster salad halfway to her mouth. She put the fork down and stared into his intense gaze. He moved across from her to block the sun from streaming into her eyes.

  “This means a lot to you,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. “You said she—this Jasmine—was a friend. Is that why?”

  “It’s not the only reason. Through South Shores, I usually take cases in which I believe a so-called suicide or accident is actually a murder. I don’t want to sway what you’ll find out but I don’t think this woman would kill herself. She was influential in St. Johns County, owned Shadowlawn Hall, one of the largest pre-Civil War plantation houses in the area—not a working plantation anymore but a real historic and cultural treasure. It’s been handed down in her family for generations. For financial reasons, she came to the difficult decision to either deed it to the State of Florida or auction it privately. But her daughter Jasmine disagreed with letting it go from the family, despite the financial crunch. I’m convinced Jasmine did not kill her mother, so someone else did. People who knew the deceased are the ones who need to be deposed—I mean, interviewed.”

  “And Jasmine herself, of course.”

  “Indirectly. She’s been through hell with the authorities, and they still may indict her. She has a small staff and there is at least one other acquaintance who needs to be interviewed.”

  “Then let me start briefly with you, since you know her well enough to be quite assertive that Jasmine is innocent. She and her mother did have a disagreement on the fate of the property, which some could construe as a motive for murder.”

  “See, I knew you were good. But it isn’t like that,” he insisted, hunching forward. “She loved her mother. I’ve known her—both of them—for years. Francine was a friend of my father, which makes this case more important to me. He thought the world of both of them.”

  “I read your father started your law firm.”


  She’d thought a slight change of subject would calm him, but he seemed even more agitated. And she needed much more information than he seemed willing to share. He gripped his plastic fork so hard he snapped it in half. He sighed deeply, frowned and put the fork down.

  “After founding the firm,” he told her, “Dad got into some real estate investment problems that ruined his reputation, but this isn’t about him.” He narrowed his eyes. “So, have you been reading up on me like I have on you?”

  “Not yet, but you’re not exactly a private person around here.”

  “No, but I’m a deeply concerned person. Claire, I need your help on this. Maybe on other cases, too. I saw how damn good you are. Besides being a Certified Fraud Examiner, I see on your website you’ve trained to be a Forensic Document Examiner, too. I don’t think any forgeries are involved with this case, but that could be important for the future.”

  The future, she thought. We’re already talking about a future?

  “You’re strong,” he went on, “but you can come off as gentle and nonthreatening. There’s something about you people like and trust, but you’re wily and clever in psyching out and piercing through their armor of lies. Let me ask you the same question I overheard a reporter ask you. Besides verb tense and body language, how do you psych people out?”

  She nodded, on familiar ground now, even though she was well aware he’d shifted the conversation from himself. She took a bite of the lobster salad—delicious—though she wasn’t tempted to take a second one right away because he was asking her about her passion. People. People who built walls the way her parents had, people who could help or hurt others and too often did the latter.

  “To summarize six years of working my way through college with a double major in psych and English, here it is. When people are lying, they seldom refer to themselves and they tend to talk around direct action. They don’t say, ‘I unlocked the door,’ but ‘The door was left unlocked.’ They speak evasively, try to answer a question with another question like, ‘Why in the world would I kill my own brother?’ They use you’ve-got-to-believe-me language with oaths or vows like ‘I swear,’ or ‘God as my witness.’ They either leave out details or talk too much, often off the subject. So in court, as you saw in the trial, explaining this as I testify makes me an expert witness—hopefully a credible one who can sway the jury.”

  “As I’ve seen close up and personal,” he said. He nodded and rapped the table with his knuckles. “You should have gone to law school. And that psyching people out is the way I’m trying to learn to think. Maybe after this St. A case, you can do a workshop for my associates at the firm.”

  “I’d rather do that than go to St. Augustine, Nick, because I should stay home. Besides, my sister and doctor will have a fit if I go with this shot-up arm over three hundred miles away anytime soon. You said soon, right?”

  “Are the terms suitable?” he countered, pointing at the paper still open before her.

  “Oh, yes,” she said. “And evasive people sometimes counter a question with another question.”

  “Touché,” he said. “I need to know you’re on board before I tell you everything. Some of this is privileged. But I should have said the offer includes room and board. We’ll be staying at the Bayfront Hilton in St. A. It’s a drive from Palatka and Shadowlawn, but we’ll need our creature comforts. I’ll drive you there, get you settled, help set up your interviews, introduce you to the right people, then be in and out.”

  “You’re assuming I’m going with you.”

  “Aren’t you? Jasmine needs your help. Shadowlawn Estate does—I do.”

  “I’ll need a doctor there to check my arm if it takes over a couple of days.”

  “No problem.”

  “Nick, there is a problem. It’s leaving my daughter behind for a while, even though my sister’s family is great to her. I need to know exactly how I’ll get around if you’re not there since I can’t drive safely right now with one arm. I can dictate into a computer, but can’t use a keyboard easily without two hands. In short, I’ll need some sort of transportation and digital backup.”

  “Heck,” he muttered.
  “What? You didn’t think of that?”

  “No, Heck—Hector Munez, goes by Heck. He’s my South Shores geek genius. I plan to set things up with you, run you around, but he’ll be available to help you with anything digital and drive you if I’m not there for a while. I’ll have you meet him before we head out tomorrow.”

  “Tomorrow? I couldn’t!”

  “Day after tomorrow at the latest. I’ll make things work out for the best. You’ll see.”

  The sun came out from the clouds and blazed brightness and heat on them. Their gazes snagged and held. Mad, bad and dangerous to know...

  But shouldn’t she tell him her other caveats? Not that she had trouble even dressing herself, couldn’t so much as hook a bra, but she’d get around that somehow. He needed to know that, like some darned little kid, she needed her naps, that she had to get her sleep at night. She absolutely had to calibrate and balance her meds. She had hidden all that from Jace and, since he was gone so much—actually, was so self-centered—she had managed for a while. But all that had caused her downfall, the blowup between them. But this was just a business deal, not a life shared.

  “I’ll do my best to give you an answer soon,” she heard herself promise him.

  “Your best is all I’m asking.”

  * * *

  At home while Lexi took the short afternoon nap Claire always insisted on—she watched her daughter like a hawk for early signs of anything—Claire forced herself to take her twenty-minute power nap, at least that’s what she liked to call it. With a cup of p.m. coffee it perked her right up. Of course, she’d rather have dark chocolate, especially from Norman Love’s shop up on the Tamiami Trail, but once she started on that, she couldn’t stop. She might be narcoleptic, but she was also a chocolate-holic.

  She played with Lexi for an hour, and yes, read to her as well, since that had been one good thing “She,” which is often what she and Darcy called their mother, had done for them. Claire had a great American and English lit education before she even took English 101 her freshman year.

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