Hi, there! 🙂 Get ready to have
your world rocked a look at the first chapter of Damaged Goods, the Erica Jensen mystery novella I’ll be releasing this coming May. At this point, I’m in the midst of writing the next Erica Jensen mystery, more than 30,000 words into it. If I can double that, it’ll be a miracle it would be nice. 🙂
In any case, here’s a link to the Prologue. You might want to give that a look before proceeding further.
And here’s Chapter One:
I jerked awake in my bed in Wheaton, Maryland, bathed in sweat. Eight years had passed and I still had the dream. I was alive, Perkins wasn’t.
The room was a dark blur. My head throbbed. I blinked rapidly to clear my vision, but it continued to go in and out. I stared at the bedside clock and forced the numbers into focus. 0430 hours.
I flopped back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Was another hour of sleep really worth it? Did I even want to go back to sleep?
“Oh, what the hell,” I grumbled. I turned off the alarm, threw the covers aside, and got up. I had an important meeting that morning and didn’t want to be late.
I peeled off my sleep shirt, trudged to the bathroom, and took a warm shower in a bid to relax and ward off remnants of the dream. I toweled dry, threw on a robe, and brewed a strong pot of coffee. The paper wouldn’t be delivered for another hour. I like reading an actual newspaper. Yeah, I’m weird that way.
Filling my mug to the brim with coffee, I dry-swallowed two Advil and sipped the hot brew. A poor substitute for the painkillers I’d been forced to quit, as part of my court-ordered therapy. My aching brain cried out for one tablet from my hidden stash of leftover Oxy. Excuses floated through my head. But it’s an emergency … Focus, I thought.
I puttered around the kitchen, making a simple breakfast of English muffins slathered in butter and Marmite (a salty British condiment you either love or hate). After cleaning the few dishes and utensils, I did a 10-minute meditation to prep for the day. Then, I performed yoga stretches to strengthen my back, get my head right. As I did, I steeled myself for a meeting with a multi-millionaire.
I’m not what you’d call a real private eye. My return from Afghanistan was hardly auspicious. I came back a physical and mental wreck, thanks in part to outmoded or inappropriate gear and vehicles. The ill-fitting heavy armor had worn my spine down something fierce. As for the explosions I’d survived before leaving the country, let’s just say noise as benign as a distant firecracker made me as jumpy as a cat in a dogs-only kennel.
Back then, scenes from the war played in my head like a movie on a continuous loop. Between that and my aching back, I couldn’t sit still for even a short length of time.
I required a few years of physical and occupational therapy to manage the worst of the toll on my body from the war. As for the mental aspects, I was still in recovery. Probably for the rest of my days.
I found office work completely unbearable. Office politics aside, my coworkers seemed to bitch non-stop about tiny problems. That drove me nuts.
I ended up working as a freelance researcher. I developed my computer skills sufficiently to track down debtors—deadbeat dads, deadbeat moms, deadbeats of all stripes. I even did a little repo work. Such work as I could get plus pain pills and therapy—court-ordered and otherwise—kept me afloat.
The latest call for my services had come out of the blue—on a Sunday, no less. I’d been referred to Stuart Blaine by one of my previous clients. All my clients are by referral. Most of them aren’t in a position to pay the freight for a legitimate private eye.
It’s an unfortunate fact of life that one can’t obtain a private investigator’s license in Maryland if one is addicted to narcotics. According to the VA and the judicial system, I was such an addict. Advil, therapy, and yoga notwithstanding.
The fact that Blaine made more than enough dough as a real estate developer should have set off alarm bells. But he claimed it was an emergency and wanted to meet me as soon as possible. My calendar wasn’t overflowing with billionaire clients, so we arranged to meet the following morning.
Before leaving, I double-checked my attire. My dark blue suit wasn’t Nordstrom, but it placed well above Goodwill or Salvation Army. I tugged at the jacket and fiddled with tights so sheer, they might as well have been pantyhose. I loathed dressing up to impress some big shot, but I needed the money. What a way to start a Monday. Hopefully, a few hours in this getup would be worth the sacrifice.
At 0900 sharp, I stood at the doorstep of a small palace in upper Montgomery County, Maryland. Me, in my monkey suit, looking the part of a down-and-out relative, outside a mini-manse, totally out of my element. But money’s money.
Stuart Blaine’s assistant answered when I rang the doorbell. He told me to wait in the foyer. I waited. The echo of a hushed discussion bounced off the walls. It made my skin crawl—as if ghosts were talking. Then footsteps. Blaine appeared, descending a grand staircase curving from the second floor.
Blaine couldn’t have been taller than four foot ten, a good half-foot shorter than me. In his mid-fifties, he was a stick figure with pasty skin and green eyes made huge by the Coke bottle lenses in his glasses. Rich as Midas, but he wore cheap eyewear. Maybe penny-pinching was the secret of his success. He wore jeans and a fleece-lined plaid flannel shirt with the arms lopped off so the lining peeked out, revealing an elaborate blue and purple skull-and-flowers tattoo on his upper arm. Here I was, the hired help, dressed to the nines, while Blaine looked like an overage slacker.
He extended a hand as he approached. “Thanks for coming to see me, Ms. Jensen.”
“No problem. It’s good to meet you, Mr. Blaine.” As we shook, he held onto my hand, as if for dear life.
“Please … call me Stu.”
“Yes, sir. Stu. I’m Erica.”
Blaine led me through an area decorated in classic Ethan Allan. “This is the family room,” he said over his shoulder. “Not my style, but it’ll do until I can update the look.”
“Here’s the kitchen.” He waved toward the small room. “It needs to be expanded and upgraded.” Blaine’s compulsion to provide these explanations made me wonder if he mistook me for an interior decorator. We took a short hall to a room lined with bookshelves. A sleek Danish modern desk sat near the picture window.
I did a quick scan of the bookshelves, which looked dark, wooden and heavy. They held a mix of hard cover and paperback books.
“This is the library.” Blaine stopped and swept his hand in a sideways arc. No shit.
“Take a seat.” He nodded toward a guest chair. I sat. Apparently, the tour was over, and we could get down to business.
Blaine dropped into his high-backed leather chair, and judging from his not being completely dwarfed by it, I would’ve sworn the tiny man used a booster seat. He propped his elbows on the desk and gazed at me over steepled fingers. “My daughter is missing,” Blaine said without preamble. “I’m willing to pay whatever you ask to find her.”
Odd. During our phone call, Blaine had given another reason for hiring me.
“You told me your former partner may have embezzled from you,” I said. “Now you tell me your daughter is missing. Have you called the cops to report her missing?” He looked confused, so I added, “How old is your daughter?”
“She’s twenty-two, single, and going to art school in Baltimore. She hangs around with losers who borrow money and party all night.” Blaine raised a hand, palm forward, silencing me. “I also have the problem I mentioned on the phone, but that’s a separate issue.”
Says you. Despite the money I stood to earn, this wasn’t the best start to a potential business relationship.
“Your daughter isn’t a minor. She can go where she wants,” I said.
Blaine glared at me. “Did you not hear me? She’s hanging out with a bad crowd. I haven’t been able to reach her, and that’s unusual. I’m worried.”
You want to control her life. Tell her who and what to be. Is it any wonder she’s dropped off your radar? Too much like my own parents.
I took a breath before speaking. “Let’s take things one at a time,” I suggested. “When did you last hear from your daughter?”
Four days ago.
“You can file a missing persons report anytime,” I said.
He frowned. “No cops. That’s why I need you.”
I could already guess his reasons, but I had to ask. “Why not call the police?”
He grimaced. “Young lady, do you read the papers? Or do you just surf the Web for funny cat photos and weird celebrity news?”
I let his condescension slide. Blaine seemed like one who confuses taunting with being assertive. Besides, even though I just turned thirty, I’ve been told I look seventeen, which doesn’t help.
“I know who you are,” I said in an even tone. “I know you were released from prison last year.”
“Then you should understand why I’d rather not have the police involved in my personal business.”
I nodded. Being a convicted drug dealer must complicate one’s life. Cry me a river.
“Assuming I agree to find her, any guesses where your daughter may have gone?”
“How should I know?” A vertical line creased the space between his brows. “She could be anywhere.”
Blaine had no clues about his daughter? Not exactly Father of the Year material. “So … she’s never expressed a desire to leave the area?”
He waved a hand. “She’s mentioned wanting to see the Southwest. I doubt she actually went there, though.”
“How can you be sure?”
“She’s determined to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art and wasted a lot of money on classes there.”
“You don’t pay her educational expenses?”
“I told her if she insisted on going to art school, it would be on her own dime.” Blaine pursed his lips. “She can’t tap her trust fund, except for emergencies. Art school doesn’t qualify.”
Asshole, I thought. I resisted the urge to point that out. “How about her friends? Have you tried talking to them?”
“I have no contact with the people she hangs with now.” A wistful tone crept into his voice. “Her best friend in high school was Katie Saunders. Don’t know if they’ve stayed in touch.”
“How about guys? Any special ones in her life?”
“She’s seen so many boys I can’t keep track.” The wistfulness was gone and his tone was flat.
Helpful. Maybe Katie would know more.
I pressed on. “What about her social media? Is she on Facebook or Twitter?”
Blaine scowled. “I don’t post or tweet or snaptweet or whatever they’re doing these days. I leave the social media work to my partner.” He waved a hand, as if swatting flies. “My daughter works at a coffee shop near school. Cafe Latte or some such. I can’t recall her saying anything unusual or likely to help you find her.”
“How do you know she’s missing? Have you been to her home?”
Blaine’s expression turned stiff, his lips pressed thin. “We usually talk every Friday or Saturday, but not this past weekend.”
I pondered the non-answer. Was he deliberately evasive or simply obtuse?
“Does she usually call you or vice versa?” I asked. When faced with verbal ninja moves, respond in kind.
“I always call. She usually answers or gets back to me.”
“What happened over the weekend?”
“I left a message.” Blaine brushed non-existent dust off the arm of his chair. “Haven’t heard a thing.”
“So did you go to her place?” Patience.
Blaine’s expression crumpled. “I don’t know where she lives,” he admitted.
I’d read that Blaine was divorced, so the next question would be tougher.
“What about Melissa’s mother?”
“What about her?” His tone invoked images of thunderclouds.
“Does she have a good relationship with her mother?”
Blaine shook his head like wet dog. “I don’t know. We don’t talk about her. If you knew my ex, you’d understand why.”
What a guy.
“I’ll need to talk to her mother. Just in case.” This interview was as much fun as a DIY root canal.
Blaine released a breath of Arctic warmth. “Fine,” he said, and offered up his ex-wife’s email, phone and address in California in the manner of a state secret.
When I asked about other close relatives, Blaine claimed there were none.
“Here’s what I’ll do,” I said. “I’ll spend three hours looking for her. I’ll check with her friends and contacts around school and work. Do some online research. If I don’t get any leads, I’ll check back with you. But to be honest, any further work may be a waste of your money and my time.”
“Now, see here–”
I leaned forward and glared at him. “No, listen. If her disappearance is …,” I paused, then in a lower voice continued, “due to foul play, the police must get involved. Given the unusual nature of my services, I don’t want to tread on official toes. Understand?”
His visage turned sullen, but he nodded.
“Now,” I continued. “About the missing partner and money. I can understand why you’d wish to keep this quiet and avoid official interference with your business. I’ll need more details—your partner’s name, the amount missing, and any information that could help me find him and the money.”
Blaine launched into a story about how he and his partner, Slava Kandinsky, had knocked heads over marketing, reinvestment in the business and other matters. Kandinsky had kept the books and was a spender. Blaine wanted to rein in extravagant purchases and focus on reinvesting to shore up the basics. He claimed that ten grand was unaccounted for. I nodded and took notes.
“And the name of your business?” I asked.
“B & K Developers, LLC.”
That much I knew from reading the papers.
“When did you last see him?” I asked.
He squinted and pinched his chin between thumb and forefinger. “Last Wednesday, maybe. Yeah, that was it. He called me on Thursday, claiming he was sick. I didn’t notice the discrepancy in our records until Friday. And I’ve been unable to reach him, at home or on his cell.”
Sucks when no one returns your calls. I paused to think of a good way to ask the next question. “How well does Kandinsky know your daughter?”
He paled a bit, but answered with authority. “Far as I know, they’ve never met.”
Right. Keep telling yourself that.
“One more thing,” I said. “It’ll save me a lot of time if you tell me your daughter’s name.”
He smiled and shook his head. “What was I thinking? Her name’s Melissa. Her full name is Melissa Anne Blaine.”
I jotted down the name and wondered what he was thinking, too.
You can pre-order the book for 99 cents from the
usual suspects following retailers:
PS: The cover is still in the works!