Featuring Den and Sylvia, Orlando and Keeya, and Tyler and Erin.
Briar’s Point is a whimsical little town with its fair share of colorful characters, crime, and a Cupid suffering from the denim blues…
See if you can find denim blue in each story!
Working with local private investigators Den McHart and Sylvia Price, Briar’s Point Police Department Detective Orlando Bateman solves a missing person case. Keeya Nilsen, visually impaired from the plane crash that took her parents’ lives, comes to him and has a justifiably bad attitude about love, since all the men she’s ever loved have cheated on her and robbed her…including the last one, who absconded with her most prized possession–her grandfather’s unpublished Blues compositions–when he flew the coop. As together they search for her last boyfriend and her missing legacy, Orlando reminds Keeya of the faith she’d had before the plane crash that changed her life and makes her see love as God intends.
(ebooks are available from all sites, and print is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and some on Angus & Robertson)
GENRE: Inspirational Romantic Mystery (Police Procedural) Word Count: 85, 399
Continue the series:
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.
“This was a mistake,” Keeya said under her breath the second Den excused himself and followed the two detectives. “I shouldn’t have come here. They probably can’t do anything anyway. I’ve been suckered by another pretty face with a charming line.”
“You think Lance had a pretty face?” Blair surprised her by asking in a bewildered tone that would have been laughable if it hadn’t been so ironic.
Keeya had expected an argument, not an off-topic comment that made her wonder if she hadn’t even chosen an attractive guy to throw her life away on. She’d never been big on looks when it came to men. No, that could come later. A man with the same interests, one who was caring and generous and sweet… One looking for love and spouting poetry–that’s the guy I’ve spent my life looking for. And settling for less in each case. How many times can a person be made such a fool of? This time I may have lost what’s most important to me out of sheer stupidity and blindness.
Fatigue swept over her, and she closed her eyes to shut out the pounding in her head. The days had been so long since the bank called her on Monday. No longer was she worrying about Lance’s silent desertion. Each day, she’d been gnawing on what he took with him and the stress took up the nights, too. She hadn’t been sleeping. Her eyes were in agony. Not even her work at the Riverbend Center for Visual Impairment had given her any peace lately. The institute which she’d attended herself, thanks to her grandfather, also believed in the vital importance of a well-rounded musical education. Difficult work, yes, but she left each weekday with a bone-deep sense of peace that was its own reward.
At the moment, she’d give anything to be lying on her sofa, resting before dinner.
“You had to come,” Blair insisted, abruptly responding to Keeya’s initial comment. “That lying louse took off with twelve hundred dollars from your pocket.”
Keeya shook her head. “I don’t know for sure he’s the one who did it.”
How could he? That was the part that kept ripping her to shreds. How could he have dropped off the face of the planet the way he had–weeks before the money, and presumably her grandfather’s compositions, went missing? After all they’d shared, the love they’d made… There’d been no warning whatsoever. Okay, so he had been acting strange–even skittish for awhile. She couldn’t even say how long because strange seemed his permanent state. But the fact was that they hadn’t had a fight or anything like it. The last time she’d seen him, he’d received a phone call, kissed her forehead, then got up and dressed. She’d gone back to sleep with his promise to see her the next day. He hadn’t. And he hadn’t called either. He’d simply disappeared without a trace.
“You’re not still convincing yourself that something bad happened to him, are you, Kee? Good God, how many times did you try to call him, no answer, before his cell phone stopped working? He’s gone. He’s just like all the rest of ’em, starting with that creep Grady–”
Teeth clenched, Keeya refused to open her eyes. She was so tired of hearing about her mistakes with men. Grady, her first, the one she couldn’t escape even to this day because the eye clinic was a vital part of the institute where she worked and Grady was their leading ophthalmologist. She’d been sheltered for so long by Granddad and his son, her uncle Pax, that she supposed it made sense she’d fall under the seductions of her ultra-charming doctor. “Do not bring Grady Nilsen up to me, Blair. How many times do I have to tell you? I never want to acknowledge that man exists again.”
“Okay, okay.” Her best friend gave in without a struggle. “But you did the right thing following Den and Sylvia’s advice by coming here.”
Keeya let out a snort. She wasn’t nearly so sure. But she recognized Blair’s “Everything’s okay, it’s all right” speech. The irony was that she gave it whenever Keeya was stressed to the point of coming apart at the seams.
With her eyes still closed, Keeya’s other senses were heightened. She heard quick, efficient footsteps and recognized them instantly as belonging to the shy giant of a detective. The one with dark hair and adorable dimples who’d extemporaneously sung her Grandfather’s music so amazingly with his husky voice. He sang the passionate melody so fissures of pleasure danced along her every nerve and made her restless. White music man has soul. Deep, deep soul. The other detective was shorter, blond hair, and moved like a rangy cat that felt no need to hurry. He also seemed to experience no urge to keep his desk the slightest bit clean.
Orlando. Detective Orlando Bateman. His desk’s clean, efficiently clean. I bet his house is, too.
He came closer, and Keeya sensed his nearness with a palpability that made her more than a little nervous. Helplessly, she drew in a deep breath because she remembered his scent when he’d leaned close enough to shake her hand. Sandalwood, like Granddad wore. I’d give anything to snuggle my head into the crook of his neck and simply breathe him in.
She heard him sit in his creaky old chair and shuffle through some papers.
More footsteps came, and Keeya recognized Den returning. “Can’t find my car keys. Has anyone seen them?”
“You put them in your inner jacket pocket,” Blair said monotonously.
“Ah-ha. So they are. Thanks. Looked everywhere but there.”
Keeya listened to him leave again, but the majority of her concentration was on the soothing scratch of Detective Bateman’s pencil.
“All right, Miss Nilsen, I’ll need some information.”
He asked for all her basic contact information and she gave it to him, loving the sound of his pencil. Her grandfather had scratched out songs through all hours of the night. She’d fallen asleep by the familiar sound dozens of times.
“I wonder if you have a photograph of your boyfriend, ma’am? Sure would make this a whole lot easier.”
His voice was beyond nice. Deep and smooth–comforting. The mere tone was like an encouragement for her trust him. He’d take care of her. Like Granddad. For two miserably long years, she’d been without the man who’d become her entire world. For these moments, she could almost get herself to believe her grandfather was with her again.
“Miss Nilsen, are you all right?”
Keeya forced her eyes open as much as possible. Her vision wasn’t great right now, especially in this wide-open room that seemed to have a hundred windows. The late afternoon sunshine streaming in each and every one of them unhindered was more than a little painful. Besides, she was already tired and headachy. What she wouldn’t give to keep her eyes closed through this whole thing.
“No. I don’t have any pictures of Lance. Den asked me the same thing. I suppose, in retrospect, the fact that Lance claimed he hated having his picture taken during the six months we were together should have been a clue to me he had something to hide. I just assumed he was being honest. Besides, he always insisted I be in pictures, but it’s hard for me… With the flash. I don’t recover right away.”
But she did love photographs. Seeing herself in still life… She rarely recognized herself. She didn’t picture herself the way the photographs portrayed her. Not at all. She saw herself pale and blind and awkward. In pictures, she was someone else entirely.
“Lance had…red hair. Freckles. Baby blue eyes.” She swallowed. Had he been ugly, the way Blair implied? She hadn’t noticed him until he’d started talking to her in the Blues club. And then everything he had to say made him more and more attractive to her. Whether or not he really was, she might never know. “He’s about three inches shorter than I am.”
“He wore a long, shabby black overcoat almost all the time. He was just a shabby dresser in general.”
Keeya bit back a reply to Blair’s added descriptions and closed her eyes again to hear the detective murmur, “Okay.” Scratch, scratch, scratch.
“What about an address and phone number for him? Place of employment?”
Blair jumped in with, “He worked at the lumberyard. In Briar’s Point.”
“Is that still open? I thought I heard it was closing down.”
“The paper keeps predicting that, but so far it’s still open.” Blair seemed to turn to her because her voice was nearer. “Keeya knows his address and stuff. I don’t.”
“I don’t know his address. He said he lived over at that rundown apartment complex on Hawthorne Street. He never took me there. He said he was embarrassed because he was so poor and couldn’t afford furniture. We always went to my apartment.”
“He had a cell phone.” She gave the number, unable to resist closing her eyes again so she could hear him murmuring to himself as he wrote.
“What kind of a phone was it?”
“The kind you get from any department store.”
He named the brand, and she recognized it.
“Right. That one. You buy it with a prepaid phone card.”
“That’ll help somewhat… Are you all right, Miss Nilson?”
She’d forgotten to open her eyes again. So soothing, to be in the darkness. “I’m fine. Headache.”
“Are your eyes bothering you? Is this lamp too bright?”
The phrasing of his questions made her realize Den must have told him she wasn’t quite blind. She should have bristled at the coddling, but all she wanted to do was sink into the darkness and listen to this guy’s voice until she fell asleep. “I’m fine,” she insisted as he turned the gooseneck lamp off altogether. Soft light had a tendency to draw her gaze, especially this one with its blue shade. The color blue hooked her every time. “What else do you need, Detective?”
“Tell me more about this guy. You said you were together six months. Do you know anything about his past? His friends, family?”
“We met at Blues Nights.”
“Just off the freeway between Riverbend and Briar’s Point?”
He hadn’t been kidding about loving Blues if he recognized one of the most obscure nightclubs in the area. “Yes.”
“Your grandfather played there a lot before he…before…”
She nodded quickly so he wouldn’t say the rest. “Lance loves the Blues, too. And he’d heard of my granddad. We had a lot in common. He loved kids. He mentioned that the first time we met. But…in retrospect, I realize now how little I know about his past. He didn’t talk about much of anything but the present. I don’t know his family. If he has anyone. Where he comes from.”
How stupid. Somehow they’d never talked about any of that much. It hadn’t seemed to matter, so she’d allowed him to turn aside whenever she’d asked him any questions about another time, another place. She’d simply known he loved music, loved kids, loved her. He’d been kind and sweet and charming. Whenever they’d been together, she’d wanted to be closer to him. That’s always my story, my downfall. I believe it’s different every time. That we have a connection unlike any I’ve had before. And every single time, nothing’s different. They all want something. They tell me what I want to hear. They take my essence. My heart. Then they disappear. And I’m too embarrassed to get back what’s rightfully mine.
“You said you never went to his apartment.”
“No. We went out somewhere. Blues Nights. A restaurant. My apartment.”
“You didn’t find it odd that he didn’t take you to his place ever? Not once in six months?”
“He hated to clean, hated being poor.” Would I have found out he was lying about everything if I’d insisted?
“I’m sorry to ask personal questions, Miss Nilsen–”
“When he went with you to your apartment, did he spend the night? The weekend?”
“What could that possibly matter?”
“Depending on your answer, it could matter a lot.”
Keeya clenched her teeth again, then forced herself to answer truthfully. “No. He never spent the night. Not once. He worked the night shift at the lumberyard, so he never stayed over and never stayed past seven-thirty. Even on weekends, we only spent a few hours together because he worked such odd hours. Does that tell you something important?”
“Was there any indication that he could be married?”
He might as well have hit her in the stomach without warning. She gasped at the question she’d never once wondered. “No. I…I never asked. I assumed…dear God, I assumed he wasn’t a creep when I should have realized they all were.”
The detective’s murmur was anything but mocking or accusatory. Just a hint of sympathy entered his tone. “While you were together, did anyone ever call him?”
Never once had she wondered about any of these things, but Orlando Bateman seemed to know exactly what he was doing. Or he’d had a lot of experience tracking down scoundrels. “Yes, actually. He made calls and got them constantly while we were together.”
“And you didn’t ask or he didn’t tell you who he was talking to?”
Of course not. A blind fool never does. Never even thinks to! “Work, he said the first few times. He took extra hours whenever they gave them.”
Sensing movement beside her, Keeya turned her head at an angle to see Blair lift hers and glance at her. Her face said exactly what Keeya knew she was thinking: If he worked so hard and long all the time, why did he skim money off you every time you two were together?
“When was the last time you saw or heard from him?”
Shame and anger warred inside her. “Two Fridays ago. We went out. Went back to my apartment…and he left even earlier than usual.” Their dates, almost from the very first one, ended the same way. They went back to her place, made love. An hour or two later, he said he had to get to work. This time, they’d made love, she’d fallen into drowsy contentment, and the phone rang minutes afterward.
“Did he give you a reason why he had to leave early?”
“No. The phone rang and he said he had to go. I assumed it was work and went back to sleep.”
“Did anything out of the ordinary happen between the two of you that day or recently? Did you have an argument?”
“No. I don’t think we ever fought.” Because all he had to do was touch me and say the right words, and I was putty in his hands.
“You really have no clue why he stopped calling you and coming around? If you didn’t argue, did he talk about anything in particular? Frequently?”
Keeya shook her head even as she was thinking about their last conversations.
Blair chipped in. “He’s a vagabond, Keeya. I knew it. I couldn’t believe you didn’t see it, too.”
Keeya ignored her friend. “We talked about my job a lot. My visual impairment. He kept asking questions. Sometimes the same ones over and over. He was acting strange for about a week, maybe more.”
“When you say strange, what exactly do you mean?”
“Restless, I guess.” Like he had to go. Had to run. Had to get away. He’d been leaving earlier and earlier each night we were together, now that I think about it. I just never allowed myself to believe it meant anything.
“Okay. That night–the last one you saw him–what happened after that?”
“He always called me the next day. This time he didn’t. By the next evening, he still hadn’t, so I called him. He didn’t answer his phone. I kept getting the cell phone message. Over the next two days, I called him a few more times and the same thing kept happening. So I went to his apartment building, but then realized I didn’t even know which apartment he was in. But his name wasn’t on any of the mailboxes. Some weren’t labeled… I just felt so stupid. I called him one last time after that, but his phone didn’t seem to be working anymore. I got a message about it being disconnected.”
“What about the lumberyard? Did you go there and ask about him?”
Keeya sat up a little straighter. “No. I had a shred of pride left. If he wanted it over…well, I wasn’t going to cling to him.”
Because she couldn’t bear the embarrassment anymore, she turned her head away and shut her eyes, afraid that the burning there would turn into tears. She refused to cry. That was the one thing she hadn’t done since Lance disappeared. She wouldn’t do it now.
“Miss Nilsen, if there’s any connection between his disappearance and the money taken from your debit card, I need to know when you think he might have taken it. Because you said two weeks have passed since you saw him, and I’m wondering why it took you so long to realize your card was missing.”
“I don’t use my card often. I deposit my paycheck once every two weeks, then withdraw enough cash to last for the next two weeks. I used my card that Friday night, the last one we were together. He’d asked if I minded paying for dinner. It wasn’t payday and I ran short because he’d been asking for a few dollars here and there quite a bit since the Friday before, so I had to stop at the bank ATM after I got off work. I put the card and money in my purse, just like I always do.”
“He did that a lot, didn’t he? Ask you to pay?”
“He said he was having a hard time getting established. He always seemed to be low, even after he got off work. I wondered sometimes if he’d ever been paid by the lumberyard…” She trailed off in humiliation. He’d never returned the favor for all the times she shelled out. Why didn’t that bother me more? “Anyway, if the bank hadn’t called to alert me to the overdraft, I might not have known my card was gone until my next paycheck.”
“So the card was in your purse that afternoon. You’re sure you put it back in after the transaction?”
“Of course. I’m sure of it. Even if I wasn’t, Blair would have noticed if I hadn’t. She’s a regular mother-hen who doesn’t miss a trick. I got the money on the way home from work, put it away with the card, then we went straight to our apartment building in her car. She takes me to work and back almost every day. It’s on her way. She works at the foundry in Riverbend.”
Detective Bateman nodded as though he knew it. “Lance wasn’t with you when you got the money?”
“What about the PIN number–did you give it to him? Did he see you withdraw cash on any occasion?”
“I didn’t give him the number, but he may have been with me a few times I used my card when we were together.”
“So when do you think the card could have been taken?”
“When I got home that Friday, Lance was already there, standing outside my apartment door. I’d had a long day at work, so I took a quick shower and got ready while he was waiting. He could have taken the card from my purse then. He could have also taken the chest of Granddad’s songs from my spare room while I was in the bathroom. I was in there for at least a half-hour.”
While he wrote notes, Orlando asked, “Did he have a car?”
“What can you tell me about it?”
Keeya shook her head. “I don’t know much about cars. It was old. Beat-up. One of those ugly old colors from the sixties or seventies. I honestly can’t tell you more.”
“1973 Ford Maverick,” Blair said quietly. “Kind of gold-yellow. The license plate number was…”
Keeya couldn’t help laughing while the detective took down the sequence of letters and numbers. “Blair’s a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. She has an eye–and memory–for details.”
“I’ll say. Anything else about the car that’s distinctive?”
Blair nodded. “The license plate itself–it was pretty beat-up and dented, rusted. Almost like it’d been through an accident. And the sticker was outdated. When I asked him about it the first time, he said the new one fell off, but I didn’t believe him for a second. Probably couldn’t afford a new one, let alone a better ride.”
Orlando was scribbling madly. When he finished, he said, “So he could have taken the chest and put it in the trunk of his car while you were getting ready?”
“He could have.”
“You didn’t hear him leave the apartment at any time, did you?”
Keeya shook her head, looking at her friend. “Did you hear anything, Blair?”
“Are the two of you roommates?” the detective cut in.
“No. Blair has an apartment right next door to mine.”
“So you could have heard him leaving?”
“I think I did hear him go out and come back once. I thought they were leaving for the evening, but then he came back. Keeya left with him later.”
“We may be getting somewhere. I need a description of the chest that held your Granddad’s unpublished songs.”
Keeya closed her eyes to visualize and spoke as the image came into her mind. “Chinese. Polished lacquer-wear design, in antique yellow with a rooftop design on the lid. There was a brass medallion clasp to secure it. About this big.” She motioned with her hands to about the size of a printer. “The chest belonged to my grandfather and his grandfather before him. The songs inside were all written by hand. Granddad gave them to me.”
A noise brought Keeya’s gaze back to Blair, but her friend had her head down, her face turned away.
“I think I have enough to get started, Miss Nilsen.” The detective extended a hand toward her, and she saw a business card between his long fingers. “I may call you if I need something else, and either of you can call me anytime if you remember anything that could help.” He handed another card to Blair.
Abruptly enough to make her feel slightly winded, he stood and Keeya did the same, almost like a puppet on his string. He shook hands with her again, and she realized standing so close to him that he absolutely towered over her. All her life, she’d been at least an inch or two taller than the men she dated.
Dated? What am I thinking? I’m not dating this guy. Even if he is incredibly muscular, with that sexy voice, incredible smell and soothing nature. Granddad always said that a good man is the one capable of holding up the world with just his shoulders. I never believed it was possible until now.
She could have easily lost herself in Detective Orlando Bateman, but she was too conscious of all she couldn’t see. In the non-seeing, blind, dark areas of her sight, she couldn’t take in the full of his face. The gaps in her visual field prevented her from seeing again his dark, boyish eyes, and those deep brackets around his firm mouth. She wouldn’t allow herself to look away slightly in order to see more of him in her peripheral range. She’d already let herself take in too much of this man. She had enough problems in her life–caused by the male species–to do something stupid again so soon.