The pain in my chest spread and tightened. It wasn't like that of a bullet, which I had first-hand experience of, but it hurt just as much. A broken heart can bring down the tallest of men like an imploding skyscraper and now this stunningly beautiful woman I called my fiancée was pushing the detonator. I watched in horror and despair as she opened the front door, glanced over her shoulder to look at me one last time and then disappeared from my life forever without explanation.
I awoke in a daze and found myself sat in my rundown ’47 Chevy Stylemaster. I looked around with tired eyes to get my bearings. I’ve been having that dream a lot. It’s been three weeks since Louise left, but her goodbye is still fresh in my head, like it only happened yesterday. As I was nursing my emotional pain, something up ahead caught my attention and I suddenly remembered why I was here, parked in a filthy alleyway outside a Los Angeles apartment building at one o’clock in the morning.
On the second floor, a seventeen year old girl approached the window to draw the curtains closed. She was wearing a man’s shirt covering her modesty where it mattered. I snatched up my camera with long-zoom lens and began snapping away with reckless abandon. Before you get the wrong impression, let me explain; I don’t get off on this kind of thing. I’m a private investigator and have been hired to track down this girl and provide proof of her actions and whereabouts. It’s not my forte and I don’t enjoy it, but it pays the bills. I watched as a tall shirtless man in his twenties stepped up behind her and wrapped his arms around her skinny waist. He kissed her neck passionately. She liked it. It was the same old story. Teen girl is seduced by older man then runs away from home to live with him. These tales never end well. And I would be a catalyst in that tragic end. I took a few more pictures of them together before she drew the curtains to hide the world from their love. I checked the images on the preview screen, I’m no Ansel Adams, but I was happy with the quality. I started the engine and crawled the car out of the alleyway.
I do a lot of my business at Paulie’s Diner Downtown; meeting clients, pouring over investigatory material for clues and of course, eating. It was the early hours of the following morning and pancakes were on the menu. I was sat in my favourite booth opposite a distressed Mr Richmond, my latest client and the man who asked me to track down his seventeen year old daughter. He was dressed in a scraggy suit with ruffled hair analysing my latest photography work. With each picture, he became more and more irritated. I see that as evidence I’ve done my job well.
‘You’re daughter is staying in a cheap apartment in Inglewood. It seems she’s got herself a roommate,’ I told him, as if the pictures didn’t make that clear enough.
He looked up at me with strained eyes, they were bloodshot. I could feel he was on the verge of exploding with anger and trashing the joint.
‘What’s the address?’ he asked.
‘Now, Mr Richmond, you only asked me to find her, make sure she was okay. Giving you the address doesn’t strike me as a smart decision, given the circumstances. You have the look of someone planning to do something irrational.’ I hoped my words would get through to him, but they had the opposite effect.
‘What I do with the information is my business, Mr Shelby. I’m paying you to serve my interests. If my interests change, that is no concern of yours. I’m willing to pay extra.’
He reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of notes wrapped in a money clip. He placed it down on the table in front of me like he was tempting a lion with meat. I took it in my hand and counted through it. There must have been at least two hundred bucks. I considered his offer for a moment and then the words spilled from my mouth.
‘1404 Lime Street. Apartment 2C.’
Mr Richmond hastily gathered together the photos on the table and slipped them back into a large envelope I used to transport them. He stood up and towered over me asserting his dominance.
‘I appreciate your professionalism and discretion, Mr Shelby.’
I didn’t know what to say so I just nodded. He then turned and rushed toward the diner exit like he’d just robbed the joint. I leaned back in my chair still looking at the money on the table. I was sure I’d done the right thing giving him the address, his daughter is seventeen after all and still his legal responsibility, but there was something in his eyes that worried me. In the meantime, that extra two hundred dollars would keep a roof over my head and food in my stomach for another month, so no matter what you think, in my eyes, it was worth it.
When I arrived home later that day, I found a small piece of paper sitting on the welcome mat. This was not unusual. I’d had my fair share of death threats over the years. I unfolded it to discover it was a note that read, “Nick, please visit me at my family’s home. It’s important, Stephanie.” Stephanie? Why would she be contacting me? No doubt it was regarding Louise, but what? I should explain, Stephanie is Louise’s older sister, raised the same, but a lot more cynical about life. I remember the first time Louise took me to meet her family, which is to say her sister and mother. I never found out what happened to her father, I guess he was never in the picture. Her family lived in a large white house up in the Hollywood Hills. It was a warm summer’s day, the city had been suffering an extreme heat wave and I’ll never forget the drive over was insufferable, like travelling via sauna. We pulled up outside the house that afternoon. She led me up the garden path toward the large double front doors. She was giddy with excitement pulling me by my hand.
‘I can’t wait for them to meet you. They’re going to love you,’ she said with more enthusiasm than a child on Christmas Day.
‘Will you calm down?’ I laughed back.
Louise rang the doorbell, not the dull monotonous tone you normally hear but a beautiful melody calling the residents to the front door. A Hispanic maid named Maria greeted us with such politeness. Having not come from money myself, this was all new to me. We stepped into the large entrance hall with grand staircase winding up. Polished marble flooring, pillars straight out of ancient Greece, expensive artwork on the walls. Was this for real? Maria informed us that Louise’s Mother and sister were out on the veranda. I didn’t even know what a veranda was until she led us out a set of patio doors at the rear of the house. Louise’s mother, Jemima, was sat at a garden table knitting what looked like a scarf. Stephanie lounged on a deck chair reading a book. She looked a lot like Louise, maybe not as attractive, but that was nothing to do with genetics, just a lack of effort on her part. Jemima looked over the rim of her thick glasses at us and smiled.
‘Hello, Louise dear,’ she called out. Louise pulled me closer to them.
‘Mother, Stephanie. I’d like to introduce you to Nick Shelby.’
I approached Jemima and extended a hand to shake. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ma’am,’ I said with more politeness than I thought I had.
‘And you, Nick. Please, call me Jem.’
She placed her hand in mine and I could tell she was a woman of tradition. I raised it gently to my lips and kissed her knuckles. I gave her my most charming smile.
‘If you insist, Jem,’ I followed up with. She blushed struggling to look me in the eye. I knew then and there I had the mother on side. Next was the sister.
Stephanie reluctantly put down her book and stood up to approach me. She extended a hand to shake and I was about to give her the same courtesy as her mother, but she snatched her hand from my grip.
‘I’ll save you the effort. That’s not going to impress me,’ she said with a snarky attitude. Before the moment got awkward, Louise interjected.
‘I have some exciting news for you both. We’re getting married!’ Louise announced as she flashed the engagement ring on her finger, the diamond sparkling in the sunlight.
Jemima was now on her feet rushing toward Louise with arms open wide.
‘Oh, that is wonderful news, dear. I’m so happy for you.’
As Jemima embraced Louise with a loving hug and kissed her on the cheek, Stephanie was staring daggers at me. I wasn’t sure what I’d done, but Stephanie clearly didn’t like me.
Jemima was getting a closer look at the ring lifting her glasses revealing her short sightedness.
‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ Louise asked her.
‘It certainly is, dear,’ Jemima assured.
‘What do you think, Stephanie?’ Louise asked as she swung her arm around for Stephanie to get a better look.
‘It’s pretty,’ she replied with only the briefest of glances. ‘Could I speak to you alone, dear sister?’
Louise followed Stephanie into the house. I saw them enter a dining room through the window and a heated conversation broke out between them. I was trying to read their lips, a skill I’d developed over the years, but Jemima distracted me.
‘What line of work are you in, Nick?’
I tried answering whilst also keeping an eye on the sisters, but it was proving difficult and I could see Jemima wanted my full attention. I couldn’t risk upsetting the mother now that I had her in the palm of my hand.
‘I used to be a detective with the LAPD, but I’ve recently started my own private investigations company.’
‘Oh, how fascinating,’ I think she said, because at this point I saw Stephanie place a reassuring hand on Louise’s shoulder, but she slapped it away and stormed out of the room. Louise reappeared on the veranda clearly not happy.
‘Come on, I think it’s time we left,’ she called over to me.
‘So soon? But you just arrived,’ Jemima protested with disappointment.
‘We have a wedding to organise.’
As Louise said this, she gave Stephanie a dirty look you’d have to be blind not to see. Louise grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the patio doors. I looked over my shoulder toward Jemima and Stephanie and waved.
‘It was nice meeting you,’ I said, my voice no doubt fading as I entered the house. I did enquire as to what the heated conversation was about between them, but Louise never revealed anything.
I was now standing outside that very house again. All that seemed so long ago. I didn’t think I’d ever come here again after she left, but here I was, on the sister’s request of all people.
A sorrowful looking Maria answered the door. I smiled with a greeting, but she was clearly in mourning about something. She said she’d been expecting me and sent me through to the living room where Miss Stephanie would be waiting. As I entered the living room, I found Jemima sat in a wing back chair by the fire. She held a handkerchief to her eyes, red from tears. I frowned with concern and was about to speak when Stephanie jumped up from a nearby couch and rushed over to me. I froze, half expecting her to throw a fist in my face, but she wrapped her arms around me tightly.
‘Oh, Nick,’ she said.
‘What is it?’ I asked, becoming more and more anxious. Stephanie released her grip on me and looked deep into my eyes. I could see she had been crying also, but the tears had been recently wiped away.
‘Terrible news. Absolutely terrible,’ her voice wobbled on the verge of crying again.
‘What’s going on?’ I was desperate to know.
Stephanie glanced over at her mother staring into the fire.
‘Let’s go through to the study,’ she suggested.
She led me into a room I suspected was rarely used. Everything was placed neatly and didn’t have the feeling of life. Perhaps this was their father’s room and was kept as it was after his departure. She asked me to close the door, which I did. I was becoming impatient and confronted her, keen to know why I had been summoned and why everyone was upset.
‘You should take a seat,’ she told me.
‘I’d rather stand, if it’s all the same.’
‘Very well. This morning, Maria returned home from the market with a copy of a Mexican newspaper. Something she does all the time. Only this time, when she sat down to read it, she let out a terrible scream.’
Stephanie approached a large ornate desk in the corner of the room and picked up a newspaper. She flipped open to a specific page and laid it back down on the desk. She then took a step back and gestured for me to look. I cautiously approached, a part of me knowing what to expect. The first thing I saw was the photograph of Louise. Her full lips, thin nose, beautiful eyes and flowing dark hair. Next to it the headline read “Mujer Americana Encontrada Muerta.” I’m not fluent in Spanish, but I knew just enough to tell the words ‘Americana’, ‘Muerta’ plus the image of Louise weren’t painting a pretty picture.
‘She’s dead! My sister is dead,’ Stephanie cried, tears beginning to stream down her cheeks. I picked up the newspaper for a closer look at the article for more information.
‘It says she was shot in the face. Who would do something like that?’ Stephanie asked.
Something about the article caught my attention and my poor Spanish came in handy again.
‘It says here the victim’s name is Lucy Stevens,’ I pointed out to Stephanie.
‘That’s the name they found in her passport. We’ve tried contacting the Mexican authorities to tell them, but they’re no help. I just don’t understand, why would Louise be in Mexico with a fake passport? And why would someone kill her?’
I was thinking the same thing.
‘Maybe you could find out,’ Stephanie followed up with. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting her to ask, but I hoped she wouldn’t.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, shaking my head. I put down the newspaper as a metaphorical way of saying I don’t want any part of this, but Stephanie placed a hand on my arm and squeezed.
‘Please. You’re a private investigator, right? This is what you do.’
‘You don’t understand. I’m trying to move on with my life. I don’t want to open old wounds,’ I explained, knowing full well no matter what I said it wouldn’t fly. When a woman wants help, she’ll get it, eventually.
‘But surely you still want to know why she left so abruptly without an explanation. We all do. If you could find out why she was there, it may become clear, you may even find closure. Maybe she was in trouble, she had no choice. There’s a whole host of possibilities. Don’t you want to know why?’
‘Of course I want to know. But something like this could just make the whole deal ten times worse. More complicated. Just confuse me more,’ I stressed.
‘But you won’t know until you start asking those questions. Please, Nick. For my mother at least.’ She stared at me with puppy dog eyes. My one weakness, something Louise always used. I exhaled with frustration. It took more persuading than I expected, but I knew she was right. Of course, I wanted to know why Louise left without reason, but what if I don’t like that reason. It’s like when I’m asked to find a missing person, chances are I’ll find them dead and I wonder what would the families prefer, to never find them and maintain hope they’re still alive, or find them and know they’re dead? Sometimes no answer is better than a bad one. I watched the overhead gantry sign reading “Mexico Border, 1/2 Mile” fly over my head as I drove my Chevy down the highway.
To be continued...
Read the full story in Old Wounds: A Nick Shelby Case and Other Crime Stories available in paperback from Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, Amazon and WH Smith.