Friday, 4.52 p.m.
"I know, I know. Sports ain't your thang." Tyler Shaw shook his head, a redneck grin on his face. He reached for his fishing hat. They'd just gotten out of the shift turnover briefing.
Detective Orlando Bateman sat down across from his partner at their abutted desks, marveling again at how much denim one man could wear. Ty wore jeans, a denim button-down shirt, a frayed jeans-vest, and now the denim ball cap. Orlando's partner broke out in a cold sweat whenever the captain asked him to put on a nice jacket.
"Enjoy the fishing," Orlando offered with a good-natured smile.
In a few minutes, Ty was headed for the rustic cabin he owned "Up North", where he fished, hunted, and skied year-round. In the more than five years Orlando had worked at the Briar's Point Police Department, his partner had been teasing him about his lack of interest in any and all sports. Ty wasn't the first. Orlando's unusual height of six foot five inches had interested most of his high school coaches. But, once they saw his clumsiness on the court, they gave up all hope of recruiting him. Foolishly, Ty still hadn't given up on wanting to make him a hunting and fishing enthusiast. Orlando had never felt the need to inform him that, while as a cop he believed in being prepared in all situations, the thought of taking an innocent life--especially in sport--bothered him. Ty would only inform him the meat that came wrapped in butcher paper hadn't magically appeared on the store shelf that way.
A cell phone rang, and Orlando recognized his own ringtone. His first thought--his fervent wish--was, Sylvia. He averted his gaze from Ty's knowing one as he reached for the device in his belt. Ty alone didn't lecture him about a situation his family couldn't refrain from commenting on, advising him about, pulling out the if-onlys left and right. If only he'd let go of his feelings for her sooner. If only he'd moved in quicker, right after she'd dumped her first boyfriend, Garry--before she met Den.
"If only" is right. If only he hadn't stupidly told his family he'd asked Sylvia Price to marry him. Then he wouldn't have had to inform them that, not only had she promptly rejected him, saying she'd never seen him as anything more than a best friend and brother in Christ, but that she'd chosen to give her heart--and everything that goes with it--to his rival, Den McHart.
He saw his younger sister Roselani's number in the screen, sighed, and flipped open the phone while putting it to his ear.
"What are you doing tonight, Lando?" she asked without preface.
"Working, for one thing."
"You have to work late?" she asked as if the idea was unthinkable, doubtful and just plain laughable. They had crime just like every other place on the globe. Briar's Point was barely a quarter of the size of Riverbend, the immense city nearby. Rose and their parents still lived there, where he'd grown up. Briar's Point had a population of just under a thousand and served as a bedroom town to Riverbend, which had almost a half-million citizens. Riverbend was just a jog out of Briar's Point and down the freeway. Briar's Point, like its fairy-tale name, was a town made up of whimsically-named businesses and charming, old-fashioned neighborhoods.
He and Sylvia had worked on the Riverbend Police Department together for years. Then, more than five years ago, he'd been made detective, she couldn't get over the slight, and she went to work with Den at what had quickly become McHart and Price Investigations. Like a moron, Orlando had applied at Briar's Point and, amazing coincidence, they'd been looking quietly for another detective to join their small force. He'd taken the job, moved to Briar's Point... And planned my whole life around one Sylvia Price.
Orlando swung his chair around so he wasn't facing his own desk anymore. "You need to stop worrying about me, Rose. I'm fine. I'll be fine." I will be fine--just as soon as I can stop remembering what an idiot I was for actually getting my hopes up when Syl never gave me the slightest encouragement in that direction. It's not her fault that I can't recall a time in my thirty years when she didn't mean everything to me. Is it sheer stupidity to love a woman for as long as you've known her, even when she's been with other men, to want to build a life with her, fill a house with children, and then grow old, still in love the way we were in the beginning? Yeah. I went heart over head, and now I'm paying the price for it.
The worst part was that he didn't know whether their friendship was over, or should be. He didn't know if they were simply adjusting to the bald-headed fact that he'd spilled his guts to her, laid his heart out for her to see, and she'd barely had the courage to squeak in response that they were friends--always friends, best friends. Only friends.
Orlando closed his eyes, feeling his ears, cheeks, and eyes burning furiously with the heat of humiliation. He could picture the wedding invitation she'd sent him a month ago, her scrawled words Please come, Orlando at the bottom. The envelope had been all but hidden on his living room desk during these weeks, unRSVPed, yet calling out to him constantly. Sylvia Price would be married in a little more than three weeks, and the idea of going there to wish her well made him feel like he'd swallowed a whole mess of lava rocks.
"Think about what I've said. I know I'm not Casanova--no woman's heart'll stop at the sight of me... but I'll love you completely, Sylvia. No other woman could ever hold my attention the way you do. But I'd rather have your friendship than nothing. I told you I'd always be here for you, whether you accept my proposal or not. I meant it."
"I'm glad. I never want to lose you. Your friendship means everything to me, Orlando. I don't want to hurt you though. It's my reason for everything. I can't bear the thought of hurting you. But I can't give you what you want. I can't. I know it. I'm sure of it. And I'm sorry. I love Den. No matter what I do, that won't change."
"Lando, are you listening to me?" Roselani demanded in his ear.
"Gotta go, Rose. I'll see you and Mom and Pop at church on Sunday."
Quickly, he closed the phone, then swung back around to see Ty staring full at him from his desk on the other side. He didn't say a word, but Orlando knew what he was thinking: "You keep saying you're fine, bro. But you're not. We both know you're not. You haven't been since that pretty little filly stomped the romantic notions right straight outta your heart."
The sound of dragging footsteps tore both of their attentions from the otherwise silent police station. A feeling of dread entered Orlando's chest. He knew those footsteps only too well. Den McHart had been limping like that since a shot in the leg forced him to use a cane.
Out of instinct, Orlando swiveled his chair around again. Please, God, I haven't seen Den or Sylvia since she sent the wedding invitation. I'm not ready now to face either of 'em--together, a couple in love and not just partners in the private investigation business.
Den appeared in the wide-open station room where the desks of the patrol officers and two detectives were situated. Just behind him came, not Sylvia, but a tall, striking woman wearing a sophisticated, sapphire-blue dress. She had smooth, coffee-colored skin, a lithe, graceful form, and long, silky hair. Despite that every woman he saw in the last month with long, dark hair reminded him painfully of his heartbreakingly lovely Syl, this woman didn't--maybe because she was African-American and Sylvia wasn't. This woman wore her blue-black hair in nearly the same style--loose and free, parted at the right side to sweep over the top of her head in thick waves. Even from across the station, he could see how beautiful this woman was, with large, thickly-fringed eyes and a generous mouth.
Orlando forced himself to shift his gaze to the woman who walked closely beside the beauty, and he had to bite back a hiss of shock at the opposite extremes. This woman's skin was dark black, and she was short and plump. But it was her face that brought horror and pity. She was so disfigured and scarred, nothing about her visage looked normal. The way she averted her eyes and kept her head down most of the time spoke wordlessly of her inner torment.
Unfolding himself from his chair, Orlando stood, his gaze clashing with and then skittering from Den's.
"How is everything?" Den asked with more friendliness than Orlando supposed he deserved. He held out his hand. Maybe justifiably, Orlando hadn't gone out of his way to welcome Den's presence in his life in anything more than a professional manner.
Orlando nodded his head, his throat tight with the tension of the meeting. He managed to shake Den's hand, all the while fighting the urge to tighten his grip in an age-old challenge. Prove you're worthy of her. Prove it, or step aside.
Ty cleared his throat pointedly, and Orlando muttered, "How's...Sylvia? Wedding plans?"
"We're getting there. But we haven't received your RSVP. You are planning to come, aren't you? Syl would be devastated if you didn't."
But I'm just the friend. It's always gonna be you. Think I'll ever forget those words?
Shame filled Orlando for his dark thoughts. "Busy," he offered, glancing away. Had Sylvia decided not to come down to the station with Den? Because things had been so awkward between them? Awkward enough that Orlando had avoided any contact whatsoever with either of them until now. "Sylvia out in the car?"
Den shook his head. "No. She had something else to do."
Despite Orlando's relief that he wouldn't have to try to handle himself with both her and Den in the room, he couldn't help feeling suspicious, especially when he followed his partner's glance to the two women. "What's going on?" he asked.
Den shifted to stand next to them. "This is Keeya Nilsen and Blair Sayer."
Orlando took a deep breath and willed himself to risk another look at Keeya, the beautiful woman. He now saw that her hair was much longer than Sylvia's, not simply a different shade of "dark". There was also a willowiness, a frailty, about her that was completely opposite of tough-as-nails Sylvia Price. She was staring fixedly at the goose-neck lamp on his desk.
The short woman next to her peered at him uncertainly, and he saw close-up that the long, jagged scar ran diagonally from her hairline over one eye, twisted part of her nose and slashed through her mouth and chin. The scar was thick, possibly showed some evidence of severe burns once upon a time but was obviously years old now. He'd seen a lot of accidents in his time, but he couldn't be sure what had caused this much damage.
Wanting to alleviate some of her discomfort, he reached his hand out to her first. "I'm Detective Orlando Bateman."
Blair's handshake was weak to the point of being limp, and she let go almost before she took his hand. She didn't look at him once. Keeya's shake was firm and lingering, but he had the feeling she wasn't really seeing him even when their gazes met for an instant. She closed her eyes immediately and breathed in deeply. Reluctantly, Orlando let her small, soft hand go.
"Keeya's an old friend of mine," Den said. "Her granddad was a good friend of my Uncle Marty's."
Marty--the uncle who'd gotten Den interested in the field of private investigation.
"Tupac Hadhairi was her grandfather's name," Den offered.
Orlando recognized it instantly. "Old Denim Blues himself?"
"You've heard of him?" Keeya asked in surprise. Her voice was soft yet slightly flinty.
"I'm a huge fan of the Blues." Orlando's fingers instinctively snapped the rhythm. "Don't open no eyes, no' make right former lies. Don't cook your dinner, chil', buy you a heart of gold neither. No, no, no. Better learn. Love is blind, and, baby, it don't pay the bills either."
Silence fell like a thud in the nearly-vacant room. Though Keeya was still staring at the lamp as if she'd zoned out, she offered a distracted, surprised smile.
"Keeya came to me and Sylvia yesterday," Den continued, obviously trying to hide an amused smile. "She asked us to look into something she's missing. More than one thing actually."
Orlando realized abruptly that this wasn't a social visit but a case. He turned and drew up a couple more chairs to the side of the adjoined desks, then he took his seat again.
"What's missing?" he asked, brushing a hand through his usually military-short hair. He'd unconsciously let it grow out in the past few months.
"Keeya's most prized possession--her grandfather's unpublished Blues compositions. She thinks maybe her boyfriend took them at some point before he disappeared. After she told Sylvia and me the whole story, we told her she needed to come to you with this. There's also the problem of missing money."
"Money?" Ty asked. "How much and when did you notice it was missing, ma'am?"
Ty's question made Orlando realize that his partner would have already been in his truck right now, heading for his beloved cabin, if he'd gone immediately after the shift-change briefing instead of sticking around to tease Orlando about his sports' handicaps.
No response came, and Orlando glanced at Keeya. Her gaze on the lamp had become more than a little strange. All of them were looking at her, and Blair leaned forward to wave her fingers aggressively in front of her friend's face. Startled, Keeya backed up in her chair, effectively breaking her fixation on the light.
"The detective asked how much money you're missing and when you noticed it was gone," Blair said in a loud voice.
No one, not even Keeya, commented on her friend's rudeness. Instead, it seemed she forced herself to turn toward Orlando. She spoke in a tone that implied she wasn't the least bit comfortable being here and talking about this. "Twelve hundred dollars. Three hundred was taken each day, starting last Thursday through Sunday. I paid my rent on Sunday. Then, Monday afternoon, my bank--Briar's Point Country Bank--called me and alerted me to the ATM withdrawals over the last four days, and the fact that my rent check had overdrawn my account. I never keep much money in my checking account--no more than two paychecks. The rest goes into savings and CDs."
"The bank must have let you know which ATM machine was used to make the withdrawals," Orlando stated.
"The one at Mopsie and Peter's coffee shop."
"That machine's owned by your bank. What about your card?" Ty asked.
Keeya nodded. "As soon as the bank told me, I checked my wallet and found it missing."
Orlando had drawn a notepad and pencil toward him, and he scratched down the information while Ty rose, excusing himself. Orlando knew he was going to make a call from another phone to one of the only two banks in town to find out if he could get the coffee shop surveillance recordings from the days the withdrawals were made.
In his absence, Orlando continued the interview. "What does this have to do with your boyfriend?"
"Lance Smith," she murmured, but there was a bitter harshness in her tone. "He hasn't called or come to see me in almost two weeks. I can't imagine who else could or would have taken my card or Granddad's compositions. I guess I should have known he'd turn out to be a creep just like all the others before. Everyone kept telling me. I guess I can't see a jerk when he's standing right in front of me. I can only see it when he's already gone."
"So, after you found your card gone..." he prompted.
"I started checking to see what else was missing. That's when I discovered that the chest of songs Granddad left me was gone."
Orlando leaned back in his chair. "I don't know if Den told you, Miss Nilsen, but no value can be assigned to unpublished compositions."
"I told her."
"That doesn't mean we can't try to get them back. But the stolen money's certainly our biggest area of concern."
Ty came back into the station room, and Orlando shifted his chair to see the look on his partner's face. Without a word, Orlando stood. "Excuse us. We'll be back in a little while. Can I get anyone coffee or a soda?"
The three shook their heads. Keeya didn't glance up at him, simply closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead as if tired or headachy.
Orlando followed Ty to the briefing room.
"Called the bank. President's a golfing buddy of the Chief's. He's gonna drop off the surveillance recordings I requested on his way home tonight."
"Thanks. Why don't you head out, buddy? No sense letting this ruin your vacation. You've got the whole weekend planned."
Orlando brought up his fist and Ty met it with his own. "You just return the favor when I've got the weekend off."
Ty laughed. "And you just be sure to solve this case by the time I get back on Monday."
Not likely. "Get out of here while you can."
Ty didn't hesitate.
Den slipped into the room while Ty slipped out. Orlando tensed instantly and the instinct filled him with inexplicable rage.
Den was six feet one inch, rugged and rangy despite the limp. Denim blues eyes--hence his nickname--purposeful stubble, and charm that seduced most females from the youngest to the oldest had given him a reputation as a heartbreaker. Orlando had never tried to compete. He didn't have charm, and he didn't have heartbreaking good looks. Around women, especially beautiful ones, the only thing he could seem to do was trip over his own tongue.
To think that he'd gone out of his way to help this guy be with Sylvia. He'd gone to Den's house behind her back, tried to get it through her partner's thick head that he had to understand a few things that were pivotal in removing the obstacles that kept Den from the woman they both loved.
I'll be skinned if I'll let him make nice now. I don't want gratitude for playing Cupid. Orlando swallowed. He didn't like what he knew deep down he wanted--revenge. Revenge he would never take. Maybe not, but right now the last thing I can tolerate is Den buddying up to me.
"Hope you don't mind, Orlando, but I'm gonna leave this one in your capable hands and shove off."
Orlando bristled but said nothing.
"Blair will make sure Keeya gets home safely."
The words were strange--seemingly meant more for a child than a grown woman. "Home safely?"
Den seemed a little taken aback by Orlando's obvious confusion. "Keeya's visually impaired. She's not blind, but she needs a lot of help. Blair's been there for her a long time."
Blind? No, not blind--visually impaired. Orlando couldn't prevent his shock. Outside of the odd fixation she'd had on his desk lamp, he hadn't noticed anything of the sort. Weren't those with visual impairments supposed to wear sunglasses? Beneath them, her eyes would be opaque, dense with scarring, unseeing in an obvious manner? Keeya's eyes were lovely and clear, a deep brown color that didn't show the slightest sign of blindness or impairment.
Swallowing, he asked in a rough tone, "What happened to her? To Blair?"
"Plane crash--the one that almost took Old Denim Blues himself. Keeya's parents and Blair's father were killed in the crash. Blair was disfigured. Her face was torn open and burned in the crash. Reconstruction hasn't been easy and hasn't helped much. Keeya was nearly blinded. That was thirteen years ago. Her grandfather and uncle, and Blair, took care of her. Then her granddad died two years ago. He and Keeya were really close. Those songs mean everything to her. She'll be devastated if you can't find them. She didn't want to go to the police, but she's desperate to recover them."
Orlando took a deep breath, nodding at the heavy responsibility placed on his shoulders. "I might need your help. Seems like there's a lot to this case, and the department won't have much interest in pursuing the songs beyond seeing if they're connected to the ATM thefts."
"Give us a call if you need anything. Syl and I'll do whatever we can on our end."
Giving a nod, Orlando hoped his expression dismissed the other man. For a moment, it seemed to. Den limped over to the door. Unfortunately, he turned back at the last minute. "Sylvia's worried about you. You might want to give her a call."
Orlando kept the glare from shooting from his eyes like lasers. He said nothing, and Den accepted it, inclining his head complacently before walking out the door. Orlando let out the breath he'd unconsciously been holding.