Authors: Jude Hardin
Copyright © 2011 by Jude Hardin
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, businesses, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published in the United States by Oceanview Publishing
Longboat Key, Florida
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RINTED IN THE
For Corey. A fine lad.
The publication of a novel is always a collaborative effort.
has gone through several incarnations over several years, and many people have helped make its publication a reality. Please forgive me if I have forgotten any names.
I would like to thank my editor, Pat Gussin, for her meticulous and tireless work on the manuscript, and for seeing its potential on first reading.
Thanks to all the wonderful folks at Oceanview Publishing: Bob Gussin, Frank Troncale, Susan Greger (enjoy your retirement!), Mary Adele Bogdon, John Cheesman, George Foster, Kylie Fritz, Sandy Greger, Joe Hall, Susan Hayes, Maryglenn McCombs, and Cheryl Melnick. An author only gets one debut, and I would like to express my deepest gratitude to all of you for making mine an occasion I will never forget.
In no particular order, I would like to thank all my friends, family members, and colleagues, for their help on my journey toward publication: Pat Boling, Kathy Ledford, Amy Marin, Alicia Dixon, Jay Poynor, Lainey Bancroft, Kathy Calarco, Eric Christopherson, Bob Florence, Kris Montee, Kelly Nichols, Aaron Lazar, Stephen Parrish, Marcus Sakey, Susan Grace, Mark Terry, Leighton Gage, Dusty Rhoades, Jon VanZile, and a couple of blogging editors called The Crabby Cows (you know who you are, even if nobody else does!).
And a special thanks to authors Erica Orloff, Tess Gerritsen, and J. A. Konrath for their guidance and encouragement. I promise to do my best to pay it forward.
My stepfather taught me three important survival skills: how to use a baitcaster reel, how to filet a bass, and how to adjust for the kick of a .44 magnum. I had gotten up at six a.m. and exercised the first. By nine, I stood under the shade of a loblolly pine, busy with the second.
I never quite mastered the third. That’s why I carry a .38.
I wore khaki shorts, no shirt, a pair of Top-Siders, and a ball cap that said Guinness. Typical north Florida fishing attire.
I scraped the scales off my third and final fish, looked up and saw a little red car turning from Lake Barkley Road onto my gravel driveway. It was one of those cars I call a Bic. Like the lighters, they’re cheap and disposable. You buy one fresh off the lot, and by the time it needs new tires it’s ready for the junkyard. An internal timing device insures that all working parts take a dive at the precise moment the warranty expires.
It struggled up the hill and parked beside my GMC Jimmy. The driver’s side door opened and a young woman got out, wearing what at first appeared to be a hearing aid. It was one of those cell phone gizmos you hang on your ear so everyone thinks you’re loony tunes walking around talking to yourself. In the future, they’ll implant a computer chip directly into your brain and you’ll be perpetually connected, via satellite, to people you don’t want to talk to anyway.
I was hoping I’d die before anything like that ever happened when the woman said, “I’m looking for Nicholas Colt. The private eye. Is that you?”
She surveyed my home sweet home—a 1964 Airstream Safari travel trailer—my ten-year-old SUV, my bloodstained picnic table littered with catch-of-the-day carcasses. She had an expensive-looking hairstyle, clipped shoulder-length, dark brown with bourbon highlights, and a
expression. She wore a navy blue skirt and jacket, silky white blouse, some sort of shoes that didn’t tread well on my sandy yard. White leather purse. I doubted she was old enough to drink.
“If you’re selling something, I’m broke, so don’t bother. If you’re from the loan company, I’m really broke, so really don’t bother.” I was six weeks behind on my car payment. I expected to wake up any day now and find my Jimmy not there. A tow truck hadn’t followed her in, so I figured I was safe for the moment.
She stepped forward and extended her hand, briefly breaking eye contact to glance at the scar on my belly. Her perfume was light and spicy, very nice. I put the filet knife down and opened my palms to show the fish grime. She frowned and laced her fingers together against the front of her skirt, quickly giving up on the idea of a handshake. Tiny beads of sweat studded her forehead.
“My name is Leitha Ryan. I need help finding someone, Mr. Colt. Is that something you might be interested in?”
She raked her hair back with her fingers and chewed on her upper lip as if she were hoping I’d say no.
“My clients usually call first,” I said. “Kind of caught me at a bad time.”
“I apologize. I did try to call, but—”
The sandy-haired dog we call Bud crept up from behind and pushed his muzzle under her skirt. Bud has some Great Dane in him. He looks like a Labrador on steroids. Leitha screamed.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “He doesn’t bite.” Dylan Crawford, my friend Joe’s son, likes to think Bud is his dog, but Bud belongs to nobody. I like that about him. He showed up at the lake one day a couple of years ago, mangy and half-starved. Joe took him to the vet and got him straightened out, and he’s been with us ever since. Sometimes he sleeps at my place, sometimes on Joe’s porch.
Bud trotted toward the lake wagging his tail, apparently satisfied with the smell of Leitha’s crotch.
“Was my phone disconnected?” I said.
“Sorry. Been a little slow lately. How did you find my place?” I don’t tell many people where I live, and I don’t advertise the address.
She hesitated, took a step back toward the Bic. There was a St. Christopher statue on the dashboard, similar to the one my mother had when her ’65 Fairlane met with a tree. The statue survived. Mom didn’t. Mom was a Baptist.
“Can I get you a cup of coffee or a glass of iced tea?” I said. “I’m having fish for breakfast. You like fish?”
She looked at the mess on the picnic table and her face went pale. “No, thank you. I already had breakfast. Maybe I should come back some other time. Sorry I interrupted what you were doing there.”
She turned to leave.
“Wait,” I said. I needed the work. My bank account had bled to death waiting on a couple of previous clients to pay up, and I wasn’t in the mood to shoot the repo man when he came for my Jimmy. “If you can hang around for a few minutes while I get cleaned up, I’ll be happy to discuss your problem.”
She halfheartedly followed me inside, visibly relieved that my air conditioner was functioning. I washed my hands, put some ice cubes in a glass, filled the glass with sweet tea, and handed it to her. I switched on the television so she’d have something to do while I took a shower. I put my bass filets in the refrigerator and closed the partition on my way to the bedroom and bath.
The shower in an Airstream is slightly larger than a coffin. I scrubbed my body and toweled off and gave my beard a quick trim. I pulled my hair back in a ponytail and returned to the living room wearing fresh khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. They were talking about the local weather on television. No surprise there. High in the mid-nineties, 100 percent humidity, chance of afternoon thundershowers.
Leitha had helped herself to one of my Marlboros from a pack on the coffee table. Beside the cigarettes were a box of toothpicks, a stack of nicotine patches, and a package of peppermint chewing gum. I’d been trying to quit. Rule #6 from Nicholas Colt’s
Philosophy of Life:
Shit happens, especially when you give up smoking. I was seventeen the first time. My stepfather blew his brains out that week, with the same .44 he’d used to teach me how to shoot. Years later, I had the gun melted down to a blob. It’s on my desk now, next to Mom’s St. Christopher.
At first I thought Leitha was talking to herself, but she was connected to someone on that goofy ear thing. She said goodbye when she saw me coming. I poured myself a glass of tea, sat on the sofa beside her, and picked up the cigarette pack.
“Mind if I have one of these?” I said.
She smiled. “I should have asked.”
Mi casa es su casa.”
I lit my cigarette.
Leitha crossed her legs, which I noticed were first-rate. Rule #3 from Nicholas Colt’s
Philosophy of Life:
Love will break your heart, and lust will break your bank account. Rule #3 has been proven many times, and is universally accepted as being true.
She stood and examined the gold record hanging on my wall, the only one I hadn’t pawned for blow in the ’80s. An awkward moment of silence inevitably follows when someone realizes I’m
Nicholas Colt, the one who crawled from the wreckage of a chartered jet seconds before a massive fireball consumed his wife and baby daughter and everyone in his band. I let it tick off and then said, “You’re trying to locate someone?”
“Is this your wife and little girl?” She pointed at the framed photograph hanging near the gold record.
“Yes,” I said.
Twenty-some years had passed, but it was still difficult for me to talk about the tragedy. Especially with a stranger.
“You’re trying to locate someone?” I repeated.
Leitha blew smoke at the ceiling. “My sister. She ran away from home.”
“Sister. How old?”
“Fifteen.” Her voice broke slightly when she said it.
“I figured you to be about that age.”
“I’m twenty-three, Mr. Colt.” She sounded offended.
“Where’s home?” I asked.
She sat back down on the couch. “We live in Jacksonville, downtown in Springfield. I work at the hospital there. We’re orphans, Mr. Colt. Grew up in foster homes. When I graduated from nursing school, the state allowed me to take custody of Brittney. So, basically, I’m raising her.”
“My girlfriend’s a nurse,” I said. “I should have done something like that. Good money, never any shortage of work.”
Leitha laughed. “You should have been a surgeon. Seem to be pretty good with a knife.”
I cleared my throat. “How long your sister been gone?”
“Almost two weeks. She did it once before, ran away, but she came back after two days. I kept thinking she would come back again this time, you know?” Leitha stubbed out her cigarette. Her eyes were red now, on the verge of tears.
“You’ve contacted the police?”
“That’s the thing. I’m afraid to. I’m afraid they’ll take her away from me and put her back in foster care. Please don’t tell the police, Mr. Colt.”
“Call me Nicholas. You sure she ran away? Sure she wasn’t kidnapped or something?”
“We had a fight. It was a week ago Saturday, August fifth, right before she left for her tennis lesson. She’d started hanging out with a guy named Mark Toohey. He was way older than her, like nineteen, I think. Seemed like an all right guy, just too old for Brittney. I told her Mark could come to the house when I was home, but that she wasn’t allowed to go off with him in his car. She freaked. She called me a bitch and said I wasn’t her mom and all that. You
know, the usual bullshit. I told her that as soon as she got home from her lesson, she was grounded for a week. Next morning I found this note under my windshield wiper.”
Leitha reached into her purse, pulled out a crumpled paper that had been torn from a spiral notebook. It seemed the note had gone to battle with a half-eaten red Twizzler stick. She peeled the sticky candy away, handed the note to me. I found my glasses and read it.