Chasing shadows, p.4
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       Chasing Shadows, p.4

           Karen Harper
 

  Today, when Darcy stopped by to take Lexi grocery shopping with her and Jilly, Claire called a cab to take her to Port Royal to give her condolences to Fred Myron’s family. She’d phoned Fred’s widow to be sure it was all right and had been told the family had already gathered in preparation for the funeral tomorrow. They were getting Fred’s body back today from the Collier County ME, and then they’d be sitting shiva for a week.

  At the Myron home with its backyard on a canal, everyone greeted her and commiserated. Repeatedly, she was asked if she knew why anyone would shoot at her, because “our Freddie had absolutely no enemies.” Though she felt exhausted by the visit, she was glad she went; that is, until she started to leave, driven home by Fred’s brother, because they wouldn’t hear of her calling a cab again. A small group of reporters, some of whom she recognized from the courthouse, had assembled on the front lawn.

  “We’re not talking to them, not one word,” Jerry, Fred’s brother, muttered as he backed out of the driveway past their shouted questions. “I’d like to get poor Sarah away from them for a while. Those vultures keep circling, trying to prove poor Fred did something wrong when he was only standing up for the truth and the business he’d built up with his own hands. You going to get away so they don’t bother you?”

  “Maybe I should now that they know I’m out of the hospital,” she said. “Yes, I guess I may get away for a while.”

  “Get some good rest. Put everything bad behind you, right? Forget the reporters and that lawyer that tried to rip you apart.”

  “I’m sure that’s good advice.” It was the only thing she could think of to say that wouldn’t be a lie. She hadn’t actually decided she was going to trust Nick Markwood yet. But she was going to do two things before she agreed to go north with him. First, she would research him to death—so to speak. Without talking to him or his contacts directly, she was going to do an online study of him. Then she was going to risk telling him the real reason she was afraid to accept his offer, and hope that he would be the one to back out of the deal.

  * * *

  Jace never liked riding in the so-called jump seat that was available to pilots. Hard to see out the windows. Rode backwards. Could hear the flight attendants chatting when they were in the galley. But worse, he was close to the cockpit but not in it, so he felt completely out of control. And he hated that.

  He tried to doze but he kept replaying the last time he’d been with Claire, seven weeks ago, when he’d flown into Miami and rented a car there to go see Lexi. But that had meant seeing Claire, too. She’d changed since their divorce. She’d always been kind of quiet, almost private, probably because of all she was hiding—she and that sister clone, Darcy. Man, Claire had put one over on him, however quick their courtship had been. If he hadn’t been flying so much, he would have sniffed it out earlier.

  “Narcolepsy with mild cataplexy!” he’d exploded a little over a year ago when she’d finally come clean with him, after he found her stash of pills and that gross-looking liquid stuff she took at bedtime. “No wonder you sleep like a rock! No wonder you want sex in the daytime but not at night like a normal woman! I thought it was me!”

  “It isn’t you, except I know you can’t stand weakness, can’t stand anyone being sick. You’re a driven perfectionist, Jace, and I’m not perfect.”

  “Oh, try to blame me for your lies and hiding things. You hiding anything else—anyone?”

  “Of course not. Can you keep your voice down? I don’t want Lexi to hear us.”

  “Oh, yeah, hear her mother never trusted or loved her father enough to come clean about—about this sleeping sickness and getting paralyzed at times!”

  “These pills you’re freaking out over keep me from falling asleep or getting paralyzed at times. I’m dealing with my problem. I’m on an even keel.”

  “You could have gone to sleep when Lexi was in the tub or the pool! You could have nodded off and dropped her.”

  “I told you, it’s all under control.”

  “Well, hell, I’m not. You may not have lied to me, ’cause I didn’t ask, but we’ve been living a lie! Is it too much to ask the person who’s supposed to be closest to me not to lie?”

  “I knew it would upset you and drive you away. I didn’t want that. Look, Jace, our romance and eloping happened so fast, and you’re gone so much. I know this is about me, but I found a note to you from someone named Ginger on hotel stationery from Singapore in the pocket of a shirt I laundered, so don’t lecture me on not telling everything. It was a come-to-my-room note. I know you’re gone a lot but—”

  He’d slammed out of their condo. He’d divorced her soon after, and she hadn’t contested it, a Marital Settlement Agreement with a Parenting Plan, the state of Florida called it. Looking back, he supposed they’d done it just as hastily and recklessly as they’d decided to get married.

  But the kick in the gut was that he still felt for Claire, even after all of that. Too often, even now, he recalled their sunset dinners on the beach, how they would dance in the dark in their own living room. How insanely happy they were when she told him she was pregnant and the first time he saw her holding Lexi. How Claire felt curled up against him, or under him...

  The airplane intercom kicked on. The voice of Don Thomas, a pilot he’d flown with many times, interrupted his agonizing: “Good afternoon. We’re beginning our descent into the Los Angeles area. Local arrival time should be 2:14 p.m. with a temperature of eighty-four degrees, cloudy with a light northwest wind. Flight attendants, please prepare the cabin for landing. Welcome to or back to the United States.”

  Someone in the plane actually clapped. An attendant began announcements about tray tables, seat backs and turning off electronic devices. Yeah, he thought, welcome back to the United States, but he was going to soon head out on yet another flight, to a state far from California, to see Lexi, of course, but also to see the woman he couldn’t get out of his head and his heart.

  * * *

  Frustrated she had to move so slowly, typing on the keyboard with one hand, Claire had switched to her smartphone to find websites and articles on a variety of subjects: Nick’s law firm; Francine Montgomery; Jasmine Montgomery Stanton; Palatka, Florida; on and on. There wasn’t much about Shadowlawn besides brief mentions of it. Kingsley Plantation near Jacksonville, rather than the little town of Palatka, got all the publicity, but then it was already open to the public and evidently thriving. Pressed for time, Claire gave everything a mere skim read.

  She searched references to Nicholas Markwood, Jr., but she had not found one hint about his under-the-radar company he’d called South Shores.

  Still, she could patch together why such an entity probably existed. Nick’s father, Nicholas Markwood, Sr., had committed suicide when Nick was ten, evidently over a bad land development deal that had swept him into debt and ruined his reputation and the reputation of his law firm, which Nick had resurrected later. Nick Markwood, the father, had left investors holding the bag for his bad deals, though he’d claimed he’d been duped. His world—and, no doubt, young Nick’s—had collapsed.

  Nick was an only child who had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth that was evidently, she assumed, tarnished by the scandal and his notorious father with the same name. But he had put himself through the University of Miami undergrad and law school on scholarships and hard work, even bought his mother a property in Naples before she died, quite young, of cancer. He lived in that same house in the Aqualane Shores area of Naples when Claire had imagined he at least owned a place in tony Port Royal or Quail Creek West. She looked up a photo of his house on Google. It wasn’t pretentious or even very big, though it was on a canal. And the boat moored behind it was hardly a yacht, more like a fishing boat with an inboard motor.

  So—surprises all around about Nick. Still, she was going to use her last ploy to see if he would really trust her t
o take the case he offered and to let her handle it her way, not his. No coddling Jasmine Montgomery Stanton just because Nick wanted that. Shadowlawn Plantation and the generations of women who had run it, including most recently Francine Montgomery, intrigued her. Nick intrigued her. And if he accepted her restrictions and rules when she told him the truth about herself that she’d shared with few others in the past twenty years—only Jace, who didn’t understand, and a kind nurse, who did—she’d take Nick’s South Shores case.

  4

  Nick could not believe he was paying to get into the Naples Zoo. He hadn’t been here for years, not since it was small and called Jungle Larry’s and he used to spend time here with his dad. After he lost his father, he couldn’t bear to come back. But he hadn’t protested when Claire had told him that, if she was leaving with him tomorrow, she was spending this day with her daughter, niece and sister, doing something special for her child—bringing her here.

  He’d left his suit coat and tie in the car and rolled up his sleeves, but he still felt warm, overdressed and out-of-it with this casual crowd. Running shoes and flip-flops were the order of the day, which made him feel like these Italian leather loafers were screaming, “Look at me!” The crowd was heavy with grandparents doting on kids, especially in the playground area called the Cub Corral. It was a big, much improved zoo over Jungle Larry’s, that was for sure. Hell, this whole mess with Jasmine—and now Claire—was turning into a zoo anyway.

  He followed the signs toward the Primate Expedition Cruise where Claire had said she’d meet him. She had to tell him something important, and if that was okay with him, she’d said she’d sign on the dotted line and leave with him tomorrow morning. He admitted to himself that he could have employed any of the three what he privately called psych-out-the-bad-guys consults the firm had used but he wanted Claire. He supposed, if he was honest with himself, he wanted her in more ways than one.

  He took the right-hand path that skirted Alligator Bay. Across the small stretch of water, zoo workers were feeding the alligators. The whole thing reminded him of how his father’s former friend, a man he should not have trusted, had turned into a carnivorous beast. The man he’d grown up calling Uncle Clay had turned out to be a monster. Nick had been only ten, but those memories still haunted him.

  Haunted: that reminded him that he’d better tell Claire about the ghosts that supposedly inhabited Shadowlawn before he took her there. He’d never seen them, but Francine and Jasmine had sworn they existed. Supposedly, the one who had thrown herself from the balcony only appeared to women. Francine had joked that would be a big draw if the plantation was opened to the paying public: “If you have ghosts, tourists will come.”

  He scanned the area near the cruise dock where people were waiting for the boat to leave. Screeches of monkeys pierced the sound of children’s chatter. Claire had a sun visor on, but her red hair shone like a beacon. She spotted him, too, where she was waiting in line with her little group. She said something to the other redhead, obviously her sister, and came over, holding her little girl’s hand.

  The child was cute with blond hair barely tinged with red. “Nick, I’d like you to meet Alexandra, whom we call Lexi.”

  He smiled at Claire and squatted to get to Lexi’s height. “Are you having fun with your mom today?”

  “Lots. We’re going to see everything here, but I don’t like the snakes. Their place here is called Snakes Alive. My cousin Drew threw one at Jilly and me in the backyard. He’s in school today—first grade.”

  “Drew should not have thrown the snake. You know, if you pretend you’re not scared of them, maybe tell Drew you really liked seeing them at the zoo, he won’t do that again. He probably just likes to scare girls. Alexandra is a pretty name. There was a Queen Alexandra once.”

  “Well, Mommy said so, but I’d rather be a princess. You know, like Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel, Belle, Pocahontas and Jasmine.”

  At that last name, he stood. He had business to attend to here. “She’s a walking Disney encyclopedia,” Claire put in. For the first time, he realized Claire was fairly tall at about five-ten. At six foot two, he was used to towering over women.

  “And she’s bright, like her mother,” he said. “Your sister’s gesturing. I think the line to get on the boat is moving.”

  “I’ll get Lexi to her and be right back. We can talk while they take the little cruise,” Claire said and ran, holding Lexi’s hand, back to deliver her to her sister, who kept looking their way.

  He snagged a bench, and Claire came right back. “I don’t know what I’d do without Darcy—even when we were small,” she told him and sat on the bench, angled toward him. He turned to her. The hot breeze ruffled her blue sundress above her knees and she smoothed it down. A moment of silence passed while they just looked at each other. He almost tilted toward her, as if he were drawn to a magnet.

  “Shoot,” he said. “Well, I shouldn’t have put it like that,” he added with a glance at her arm. “By the way, I have a doctor lined up in St. A who can check the wound in three days, which is what you said you’d planned to do here.”

  “Thank you. Nick, I am intrigued by your offer. I love the challenge of it, and I’m sure the heritage treasure, as you called it, of Shadowlawn, is worth saving—as is your friend Jasmine, if she’s innocent. But I have to level with you about something first, something you may consider a deal breaker.”

  She actually looked as if she were going to cry. This must be serious. His stomach knotted. “I checked your CFA credentials, and they’re fine,” he tried to assure her.

  “It isn’t that.” She took off her dark sunglasses and looked squarely at him. “I just need to tell you that, since I was thirteen, I’ve had what is a fairly rare but demanding disease, though I have it under control with meds and watchful behavior.”

  “The disease is?” he prompted when she seemed to hesitate.

  “Do you know what narcolepsy is—with mild cataplexy, actually?”

  He sat up straighter. “Exhaustion? Dozing off? No, I don’t know the catalepsy part.”

  “Cataplexy. Yes, dozing off big-time with narcolepsy. Those of us afflicted with it prefer to call ourselves PWNs—Persons With Narcolepsy—rather than narcoleptics. That sounds too much like alcoholics, and narcs reminds people of narcotics. But yes, being exhausted continually for no apparent, normal reason. Cataplexy, which often strikes a PWN, is a brief, sudden immobility or paralysis that can occur on waking or dozing off—or when one’s emotions get too strong, so I have to watch that—involvements with that, sudden rushes of feelings...”

  Her voice kept trailing off, her gaze darting away. It surprised him, for she usually spoke well and seemed so self-confident. But again, their gazes locked and held. Could she read his mind that he felt a rush of feelings for her, right now, and it wasn’t just that he’d been afraid when she was shot. Watching her in court had almost done him in, and not just because she was ripping his defense of Sorento apart bit by bit. But despite all that—and this—he had the feeling he could trust her. He’d seen her in action.

  “Okay,” he said, “but it is, as you said, all under control with your meds? I watched you in court for four days—no apparent problems.”

  “Strong meds, pills and a liquid I take at night keep me going. I need one or two brief naps and regular sleep, as well as stimulants like caffeine from coffee or chocolate. No alcohol, or it can mess me up. I need to be disciplined. Another problem, one I’ve coped with well, is hallucinations, nightmares. When I was young—before this was diagnosed—I actually thought I was haunted by ghosts, by things I’d see and feel that weren’t there. I seldom have these waking nightmares now. I tell almost no one all this, but I thought—considering your trust and investment in me—that you should know.”

  He reached for her good hand. She held his. She was trembling. Well, he thought, all this comp
licated things, and he for sure wasn’t going to tell her about the Shadowlawn ghosts right now like he’d intended. But she’d done a great job with the Sorento case—and she’d leveled with him about this. He wouldn’t worry she’d hold other things back, however bad the going got.

  “So,” he said, still holding her hand, “we can shake on it.” They did. She managed a firm shake and even a tight little smile. “And if you need some sleep, I won’t think it’s your work or my company that’s boring.”

  “Hardly that,” she blurted, obviously relieved he was still all in. She actually blushed. “Nick, just one more thing. Well—when my mother used to say that, it was always time for a double whammy,” she admitted.

  “Go on,” he prompted.

  “It’s just that—well, I know you’re used to being a senior partner, and you’re the boss here. But I will need to do these interviews my way, with my expertise and knowledge.”

  “Agreed.”

  “But that means not giving someone a pass just because you have your own theories or prejudices—your favorites, or maybe someone you owe a favor to. I’ll need access to Jasmine, whether you think she’s guilty or not, for example.”

  He sat up a bit straighter. “Sure, I get that. I’d want that.”

  “Without pressure from you, no matter what I find. I realize you must be tied to her emotionally somehow—”

  “Was.”

  “All right, was. But I can’t do my job unless it can be mine—then I’ll report to you, of course.”

  A strong woman, delicate appearance or rare diseases be damned, he thought. But that was what he wanted, wasn’t it?

  “So, let’s make some plans,” he told her. Realizing he still held her hand, and much too hard, he let go. She put her sunglasses back on, but not before he saw her blink tears off her long lashes. He cleared his throat and tore his gaze away, as if he were just scanning the area. He noted a small, white drone overhead, probably one taking pictures for the zoo to sell later. What he used to call monkey island was an appropriate place to be, with the way this woman scrambled his emotions. She really got to him on a personal level when this should be all business.

 
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