CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEMPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
Tracy Hayes, P.I. to the Rescue
I was hit by a storm as I stepped out of the elevator on my way to work in the morning. And by storm I mean the psychic whose office was next door to the detective agency I worked for, and by hit I mean pulled into a hearty hug.
And I do mean hearty: over two hundred pounds of woman, most of it in her bosom right at the level of my face. She was a very tall woman. I was only five foot six.
“Good morning, Tracy,” said the storm—I mean Madam Amber.
“Gah,” said I, trying to breathe.
Madam Amber’s real name was Rhonda Goodwin, she was at the latter end of her forties, and nearly as wide as she was tall, especially with the layers upon layers of skirts, dresses, and scarves she always piled on herself. Cornrows reached to her waist, most of it her own hair, but there were extensions in bright colors in there too, all tied into a thick bundle with a silk scarf that covered her head. In her ears she had large golden hoops.
In short, she was a remarkable sight.
She put her hands on my shoulders, making the dozens of thin metal bracelets in her wrists chime, and pulled back to arm’s length—which still left me uncomfortably close to her impressive chest. “I feel today is a good day to read your destiny,” she beamed at me, all too cheerful for such an early hour.
Well, it was nine in the morning, but I’d lost the ability to function before ten ever since I quit waitressing.
I gave her a wary look. “It is?”
This wasn’t the first time Madam Amber had told me it was a good day to read my destiny, but I’d managed to avoid the ordeal so far. I didn’t particularly wish to know my future. I didn’t want to know what good or bad awaited me. And I especially didn’t want to learn that there would be neither, that my future would be infinitely dull.
I’d only recently managed to leave behind the dull, stagnant life I’d fallen into since my marriage had failed six years ago. I was no longer Tracy Hayes, college dropout, or Tracy Hayes, unemployed waitress, or Tracy Hayes, divorcee. I was Tracy Hayes, apprentice P.I. I didn’t want to find out that I might become a nobody again.
Madame Amber’s smile grew impossibly wider. “Absolutely. And as it so happens, I have free time.”
Arm around my shoulders, she began to guide me towards her place. I looked longingly back at the agency, but the door was closed and no one saw me being abducted. I considered yelling for help, but even though Cheryl Walker, the agency secretary, was a formidable woman, she was shorter than me and would likely lose to Madam Amber.
A shiver of horror ran down my spine when I imagined the tug of war between the women, with me as the rope.
Madam Amber’s small boudoir was everything I could hope for in a psychic reader’s chamber. There were soft oriental carpets, large floor pillows, and colorful drapes hanging from the walls and covering the windows. The lampshades were tasseled and cast a dim, red light to the room. The scent of incense pervaded everything, making my eyes water.
In the middle of the room sat a small table covered with a silk scarf, with chairs on both sides. At the back was a low, wide coffee table surrounded by large floor pillows. On it sat a deck of Tarot cards.
“Would you like me to read your palm, or consult the cards?”
“Which one is more accurate?”
Madame Amber gave a hearty laugh—really, everything about her was hearty. “This isn’t an exact science, Tracy. One reveals one thing, the other something else, and all of it is true.”
“In that case, I choose the palm.” I didn’t care either way, but I hoped the palm reading would be faster. If I had to linger in this cloud of incense long, I might develop an acute case of asthma.
“Wonderful. I’m feeling a particular affinity towards it today.”
She made me sit in the chair by the tall table and took the opposite chair herself, making the poor thing creak under her weight. Then she lit a scented candle on the table, adding another fragrance to the already full bouquet. My head began to swim.
“Please give me your hand.”
I wiped my suddenly damp palm on my jeans, then rested my forearm on the table and placed my hand on hers, palm up. Her hand was warm and dry, and its brown contrasted nicely against my pasty Irish skin.
“What an interesting hand you have,” she said, leaning in to study it closer. I leaned in too, wondering how she could see anything in the dim light.
“Oh, yes. Such wonderful things I see here.”
I couldn’t see anything but my ordinary palm, no matter how hard I strained my eyes. “Like what?”
“This here line…” She drew a finger over my palm, tickling me a little. “Promises long life.”
I straightened, delighted. “That’s good to know, what with people always trying to shoot me.”
Well, twice now, and it had been a month since the previous time, but that was twice too often for someone who was only an apprentice P.I.—even if they’d missed.
Madam Amber gave me a reproachful look. “Complications like that I cannot foresee. But if you can avoid being shot, you’ll live a long life.”
“No profanities, please.” She drew a finger over another line on my palm. “And there is romance.”
“There is?” I didn’t know how to take that. I’d put my love life infinitely on hold when I found my husband—now ex-husband—balls deep in a groupie of his band.
“Yes. Someone tall, dark, and handsome.”
“Can you be more specific? Because I have quite a few men of that description in my life already without any romance whatsoever.”
The first of them was out of romance territory by virtue of being my brother, but otherwise Travis fit the tall, dark, and handsome description perfectly. At thirty-five, he was eight years older than me, a defense lawyer at the Brooklyn Defender Service and as busy as a bee who had to hold three minimum wage jobs, but it hadn’t stopped him from meddling in my life. Now that I was a P.I we actually spent more time together, as the agency occasionally investigated for the Defender Service.
The second tall, dark and handsome was my boss, Jackson Dean. He was Travis’s age—and his old school friend—and he had a nice, long-limbed, wide-shouldered body, and dark brown hair currently growing out of its cut—the man had some sort of hate relationship with hairdressers. You wouldn’t instantly think he was handsome—he had a curiously unmemorable face—but once you noticed its special quality, you couldn’t unsee it. His strong character shone through.
But he was out of romance territory too. He was my boss, for one. For another, he saw me only as an employee—and possibly a nuisance. And I’m sure there were other reasons too, but with my brain addled with incense, those reasons escaped me.
Then there was the even more impossible candidate who liked to pop into my life regularly to mess it up: Jonny Moreira. Definitely tall, definitely dark, and pretty handsome too. But he was a henchman to a drug lord, so even if he didn’t date supermodels—which he did and I wasn’t—he would be out of the question. I did have a thing for bad boys, but not quite that bad. Just because he tended to be nice to me wasn’t a reason to overlook his occupation.
“I’m afraid not,” said Madame Amber. “Like I said, this isn’t an exact science. Mere impressions.”
“Well, as long as you don’t see tall, blond, and promiscuous there, I’m good.” That would be my scumbag of an ex, Scott Brady, who had returned to my life recently—though I did try to keep away from him.
I often failed.
Madame Amber smiled, knowing who I meant. We’d shared our stories over multiple cups of coffee whenever she popped into the agency to have a chat with Cheryl.
“I can’t see the past as well as I do the future.” She pointed to another line. Her eyes grew more serious and I swallowed. This was it.
“There’s a crossroads coming. Pause and think carefully when you reach it, so you won’t regret your decision.”
I grimaced. “I’m not very good at that.”
An understatement if anything was. I’d married the scumbag only after a couple of weeks of knowing him and then followed him on tour with his band—and I definitely came to regret that. But I’d also decided to become a P.I. on a whim after losing my latest waitressing job, and despite having been shot at, twice, not to mention falling into a stinky dumpster—really not a fond memory—I hadn’t regretted it yet.
“It’s not in your immediate future, so you have time.” She curled my palm into a fist and placed her other hand over it, closing my hand into a warm cocoon. “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
I gave her a hesitant smile, not knowing what to say to her. “I guess not. So how much do I owe you for this?”
Madame Amber waved her hand dismissively. “What’s money between friends, eh?” I shook my head, because I didn’t know. She smiled. “But if you like, there is a favor you could do for me.”
I entered the agency fifteen minutes later, having listened to Rhonda’s request, and was instantly greeted by Misty Morning, Cheryl’s little border terrier Yorkie mix. She was a joyful little creature who wouldn’t make much of a guard dog, as she was always happy to see new people. She rushed to me with a delighted bark, sniffed my legs, sneezed, and then pulled back with a reproachful look in her black button eyes.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” I cooed at the dog as I leaned down to scratch her head around the pink bow there. “I was waylaid by a psychic on my way to work and she likes to pile on scents as much as she likes to pile on clothes.” I wouldn’t be able to smell anything for a couple of hours.
Cheryl laughed from behind her desk. She was in her early fifties, short and round, with a bleached blond do that was always teased into a bouffant style, and a heavily made-up face. Her wardrobe consisted of fifty shades of pink, and animal print tops.
“Rhonda finally got to you?”
“That she did. I was promised a tall, dark, and handsome in my life.”
“I’m still waiting for mine,” Cheryl sighed. She was twice divorced, with a grownup daughter from her first marriage, and currently single.
“That’s discouraging.” We both laughed. “Is the boss in?” I asked, nodding at the closed door of the office that he and I shared.
“He was, but I sent him to have his hair cut.”
“Nooo. I liked the longer hair.” The messier do gave him an edgier look. A sexier look too. A girl had the right to have a sexy boss. I hadn’t had any of those when I worked as a waitress. Plenty of other kinds of bosses though.
Cheryl shook her head, reproachful. “You know he has that big date tonight. He has to look nice.”
Annnd that was the third reason why Jackson wasn’t the tall, dark, and handsome my palm promised. He was dating someone else. But I had no reason to complain. After all, I’d encouraged him to ask the woman out myself when he would’ve thrown her number away. Besides, I’d sworn off dating, so I didn’t really care who the guy would turn out to be. Or if there ever even would be a guy.
Actually, that wasn’t quite true. Lately I’d begun to think it would be nice to find someone—eventually. But I’d be choosier than the first time. And I definitely wouldn’t pick a tall, dark, and handsome simply because my palm said so.
I left the door to the reception open when I took my seat on the couch at the side of Jackson’s office. I’d made a nest on it these past two months since I’d started working for Jackson—as had Misty Morning, who often slept next to me during the day. The coffee table in front of the couch was filled with all sorts of papers and files for the cases that I was currently involved in, plus all the material Jackson made me study for the job.
I tended to be a slow study.
The office was large and cozy. Jackson had a wide hardwood desk by the window that looked over Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn. The walls were lined with bookshelves and filing cabinets. Most of the files were old cases from the time his uncle had owned the agency—we went through them occasionally for educational purposes—but Jackson had handled his fair share of cases too in the four years since he’d inherited the agency. He was a popular and trusted investigator and he could pretty much pick his cases. Even though he was choosy, we were currently pretty busy.
Therefore I hesitated to bring up Rhonda’s favor when the man himself returned. He was dressed in his usual black jeans that made his long legs look really nice, but instead of the daily variation on the same black T-shirt, he was wearing a burgundy button-up shirt with the top buttons open. It was slim fit and hugged his trimmed torso as it tapered from his wide shoulders down to his hips before disappearing into the jeans. With his black blazer, minus the shoulder holster underneath it ruining the cut, the effect was amazing.
I blinked. “Wow, boss. You look really great.”
A light blush rose on his cheeks—bless him—and he ran a hand self-consciously through his now upsettingly short dark brown hair.
“Just trying something different.”
“Right…” I drawled, teasing. “So where are you taking Emily?”
He was dating Emily Hunter, the personnel chief at the Aqueduct Racetrack, whom we’d met during a murder case a while back. She was always extremely stylish, so I didn’t wonder that Jackson had made an extra effort for his looks.
“Just to dinner,” he said, taking a seat behind his desk and moving papers on it seemingly with purpose, but still clearly confused.
“Hence the new look.” I’d noticed before that he had a great body, but that shirt managed to bring out the absolute best of him.
He glanced at the shirt. “I’m more of a hamburger kind of guy, to be honest.”
“I hear you. But every once in a while a girl wants to be treated to a different kind of experience, with a chance to dress up and eat ridiculously small portions that leave her hungry if she hasn’t had the good sense to eat beforehand.”
Jackson laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind. Now, what’s got you so on edge?”
Did I already tell you that he was a really good private detective?
“Your shirt?” I suggested—because, wow—but he gave me the no-nonsense look every cop mastered at some point in their career if they were any good. Jackson was a former homicide detective and he had a great gaze in his browns that always got me to spill the beans.
“Rhonda’s niece, Deanna, has gone missing.”
He blinked. Then an amused smile spread on his face, warming his eyes and banishing that piercing look.
“So she finally got you?”
“She attacked me when I exited the elevator. There was no place to hide.”
That made him laugh. “So what did she promise you?”
“Someone tall, dark, and handsome.”
“She promised that to Cheryl too.”
“I know. Depressing.” We both smiled. “Anyway, Deanna is fourteen and she’s been missing for two days.”
Jackson got serious. “And you promised we’d find her?”
“I promised that I would. I know you’re busy.”
“I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of you going after her on your own.”
I was instantly miffed. “Oh, come on, it’s high time I have my own case. And it’s only until the police take her being missing seriously and start looking for her too. Unless I find her before that.”
“And what if you don’t find her at all?”
The look he shot at me told it was a real possibility, but I wouldn’t allow the idea to take hold. “I’d be really upset.”
He frowned. “Does the family have any leads?”
“No. They’ve gone through all her friends and they’re sure no one’s hiding her. But Rhonda gave me a list of her closest friends, so I can ask them myself.”
“What reason did she have to go missing?”
“That’s just it. Nothing that the family can think of. She’s been doing well at school. She wasn’t bullied, and she hadn’t been fighting with her family or friends.”
“In other words, this could be more serious than a teenager running away.”
My stomach fell. “I sincerely hope not. And the police don’t think so either, because they’re not looking for her.”
“There hasn’t been other teenagers going missing?”
“Not that the family is aware of.”
“Where does she live? I’ll ask the precinct there.”
“Brownsville,” I said, slightly hesitant, and wasn’t surprised when Jackson shook his head.
“I really don’t want you to go there alone.” It was the crime capital of Brooklyn, but I wasn’t easily scared. Not anymore, anyway. Being shot at had changed me.
“Come on, what could happen?”
“With you, anything.”
It wasn’t entirely unfair of him to say so. A simple case of a missing dog had got us mixed with a drug lord—the one Moreira worked for—and I’d managed to get myself arrested simply by trying to help my roommate with his romantic life. Not to mention that I’d been shot at by a murder suspect, which had forced Jackson to shoot her to save my life. He’d been sullen for weeks afterwards and I couldn’t blame him.
“I’ll be careful. I promise.”
I didn’t even cross my fingers behind my back.
He sighed. “Fine, you can look for her. But it can’t be our priority. And you know Rhonda won’t be able to pay.”
“I know.” I shot up and he gave me a baffled look.
“Are you going now?”
“Yes. The poor child’s been missing for days already. And she hasn’t updated her social media accounts the whole time.” I’d checked while I waited for him. “I think this is serious.”
“Do you need a ride?” He made to get up, but I lifted my hand to halt him.
“I’ll take the subway.” I didn’t own a car. I could borrow my mom’s cherry red Ford Fiesta if I needed, but I didn’t want to take it to Brownsville.
“It’s a large neighborhood. It’ll take you the whole day to walk everywhere.”
“It’ll do me good.” I grinned. “Which reminds me, in case I won’t be back before you leave this evening, shall we cancel our run tomorrow morning?”
“Why?” He looked puzzled.
I rolled my eyes. “It’s your fourth date, and extra romantic. Surely you’ll be spending the night at her place?” I wasn’t looking forward to the exercise. Any excuse to cry off was welcome.
He frowned. “That’s none of your business. And no, there will be no cancelling.”
His laughter followed me out of the office.
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