Find White Hot Christmas, a new Jane Kelly mystery, within this anthology!
When the Snow Falls (Anthology)
Excerpt from White Hot Christmas (found in the When the Snow Falls anthology)
James Wexford, an old classmate of mine, led the way into Wine About it, the wine bar adjacent to the new offices of Durbin Investigation. I followed after him, glad I actually had a client, worried because I wanted to know why he wanted me, not Dwayne, leery because, well. . .old classmates do not good clients make. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m betting I’m right.
One of the waitresses pointed to an empty booth festooned with fake greenery and little red poinsettia lights that lined one wall when James asked for something more private than bistro tables scattered around the room. There were only a few patrons inside. A man and a woman sat at the bar, which was a huge slab of blondish wood with whorls and knotholes that had been smoothed and lacquered to a high gloss. They each had a glass of red wine and a flagon between them and had their heads bent close together.
James settled himself across from me and folded his arms on the wood top, a piece of prefab with none of the bar’s character, though smooth and lacquered as well. My mind’s eye was still watching Dwayne leave through our office’s glass door, climb into his truck, which was parked out front, and drive away. He hadn’t deigned to join us because well, James had asked for me.
“Darcy’s in trouble and she needs your help,” James said as an opener.
The waitress brought us a menu with their wine and appetizers. I glanced down
at the list of almonds, olives, a chevre disc with lavender and fennel, served with honey and nuts, various wheat crackers and bread sticks, and wanted them all. Holding myself back, I asked for a glass of cabernet, the cheapest on the menu, though at a price that still caused my heart to palpitate, especially since I wasn’t sure how much cash I had and didn’t want to add to my credit card debt. But then James stepped in and ordered for me in that proprietary way real wine connoisseurs — or at least the ones who think they are — are wont to do. I would have objected, but he finished with, “I’m buying,” so I kept my mouth shut apart from saying thank you and just waited. What the hell, a free drink is a free drink, and free is a very good price.
In the name of fairness, I said, “Before we go any further, you should know Dwayne’s the man in charge of Dwayne Durbin Investigations.”
“But you work there.”
“I work for him,” I agreed. “But he’s the man. Truly. I know you and I are acquaintances—“
“Friends,” he corrected.
“–but you’d be better served by Dwayne.”
“Well, he’s not here now, is he?” He lifted his glass and waited for me to do the same. We clinked rims and then tasted the wine. So, okay, I’m not a wine connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination, but. . .it was pretty damn good. I wanted to leave it on my tongue a while, and I think I might have lost track of the moment because I missed something and caught up only when I heard him say, “. . .didn’t hang around. Besides, I want you. You, me and Darcy. . .we all come from the same place. We’re compadres, y’know? You gotta hang onto that stuff. Friendship. Roots. That’s what it’s all about.”
I never think of Los Angeles as a town where one has deep roots. Everybody there seems to be from somewhere else, but okay, my family and his and Darcy’s had been there long enough for us to graduate high school. However, no matter what James was trying to sell me, I knew I didn’t come from the same place as James and Darcy, not in terms of social equalities, at any rate. Both of them were from wealthy SoCal families, whereas my brother and I had been raised by a single mother after dear old Dad ran off with his secretary and started a new brood with her. Let me add that I have no contact with either my father or those half-siblings, which works for me and, apparently, for them, too.
But the point is, by no means were Darcy, James and I from the same place socially or economically, though my mother always made sure Booth and I had everything we needed and has done all right for herself over the years. My common ground with Darcy and James began and ended at Braxton High. Go Tigers.
“We need to hire you,” James was going on. “Just tell me what your rates are so we can pay. Darcy and I are very comfortable.”
“Well, that’s great,” I answered, for lack of anything better to say. I didn’t know what Darcy’s problem was, but the last thing I wanted to do was reunite with either one of my old classmates. Was I being crabby and unreasonable? No. . .I just have too strong a recollection of Darcy swooping in on me and trying to intimidate my other friends, as if I were some prize to be claimed. She’d wanted me for her own, and she was a bull about going after what she wanted. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like myself quite a bit. But that doesn’t mean I’m not wary of others who find me irresistible for no good reason that I can see.
“Let me tell you what happened,” James said, inhaling a deep breath as if he were getting ready to launch into the yarn of the century.
I interrupted before he could start. “How did you know how to find me?”
He blinked, as if he couldn’t believe the question. “Social media.”
“I’m not on social media,” I stated firmly. I have resisted Tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming or whatever, and frankly, I’m kind of proud of myself in that regard, although I’m not completely out of today’s electronic world. I have taken a selfie or two. . .
“Somebody knew about you and put it on their page,” James continued. “Darcy saw it. She has lots of friends, so when she got arrested, she asked me to find you, and somebody knew you were with Durbin Investigations. I called the number and the voice mail said you’d just recently moved to this address.”
He’d clearly called Dwayne’s cell, which he uses for his business as well. “Arrested?”
“Darcy’s been accused of kidnapping.”
Whatever I’d been expecting, that sure wasn’t it. “Kidnapping,” I repeated in disbelief. Then, “Oh,” as I considered she might be one of those people seeking to steal their own child back from an ex.
“It’s not like that,” he said, reading whatever was on my face. “She’s done nothing wrong. She was helping a woman, and things just kind of got out of hand.”
Darcy helping someone and it got out of hand. . .I braced myself, feeling that this could be one of those stories that once told, would be impossible to unhear. I could already picture myself throwing my hands over my ears and loudly crying, “La, la, la, la, la, la, la!”
“You know how Darcy is,” James said on a heartfelt sigh. “Always looking out for people.”
I could feel my lips pinch in as if I’d sucked on a lemon and made a show of clearing my throat so I could move my mouth around. Darcy was the kid who always waved her hand to be called on in class, and she’d volunteered at every charity event, soup kitchen, and dog rescue, and this was in high school, when the rest of us were only interested in who was doing what to whom and who had the most expensive shoes. Not that I played well in that group, either, as I had a tendency to read books and play video games and generally wait for high school to end. I’ve always kind of known Darcy’s interest in me ran in the “she needs to be rescued” vein, which I strenuously objected to, though she paid me no mind. Luckily, she’d fastened onto boys somewhere in there, eventually settling on James, and therefore finally leaving me alone.
“You know the Vista Bridge,” he said.
“The suicide site?”
He pointed at me like bingo. “Darcy’s with the Think Twice suicide prevention group. They’re one of the groups that patrol the bridge to stop people from making a fatal mistake. We’re all waiting for the city to do something about the problem. A lot of people could be saved if there were just some barriers erected.”
“Uh. . .I thought barriers had been erected.” The iconic Vista Bridge had been around since the early nineteen hundreds and was a beautiful Portland landmark that spanned one of the busiest city highways. It was also a favorite spot for determined suicide jumpers, and as yet, no one has come up with the answer to solving the problem because the bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and would need to be fitted with architecturally appropriate barriers at a multi-million dollar cost that’s currently not in the city’s budget. If you polled me on the issue, I would be reluctant to add permanent screening/walls to the bridge. I mean, people who want to end their live by jumping off a bridge will probably just go to some other bridge, won’t they? And Portland’s a city of bridges, of which Vista is just one.
But then, I spend most of my energy trying to save my own skin, so I’m clearly no judge.
“There are temporary barriers,” James enlightened me, “but you can get around ’em if you really want to, and some of these poor unfortunates really want to.”
“So, what happened with Darcy?”
“This woman. This. . .”
“Poor unfortunate?” I suggested, when he seemed to be struggling for the right words.
“Bitch,”he said, surprising me by his vehemence. “She climbed up on the barricade and was working her way around it to jump when Darcy stopped her. Darcy risked her life to do it. She took her home and really poured her soul into saving the woman. Her name’s Karen Aldridge, and Darcy talked to her for hours and calmed her down. It took all night, but Darcy felt Karen had really turned a corner. But now Karen’s claiming that Darcy kidnapped her. Held her against her will! My God, the police came and escorted Darcy to the station!”
“Wow,” I said, for lack of a better response.
“You said it,” James agreed. “It was a real mess. Luckily, the DA is at least halfway reasonable. He suspects it’s a trumped up charge, so they’re not planning to prosecute, thank God. I mean, Karen could have left any time that night but chose to stay with Darcy. Yes, the gates were locked, but it wasn’t as if Karen was chained to a chair or anything. If she’d really wanted to leave, Darcy would have let her out.”
“Okay . . .” I said. I wasn’t exactly sure how I could help.
“Darcy’s such a good person. It’s just been devastating. She’s been meaning to get in touch with you, but now it’s imperative. She needs a good friend on her side. She can tell you more about the lawsuit.”
“That awful woman is suing Darcy. Well, suing us. For millions. Can you believe it?”
“Well. . .huh. Sounds like she’s found something to live for,” I pointed out. James did not appreciate me finding anything a wee bit humorous in their plight and pulled back from me. If he were a turtle, he would have retreated into his shell.
“It’s not a laughing matter.”
“It also sounds like you need a good lawyer, not a private detective,” I pointed out.
“Oh, we have that, too, but Darcy really wants to talk to you.”
“I. . .” I looked around the wine bar, trying to think of a way to ease out of the whole thing. A good friend of Darcy’s I was not, and I sensed another tar baby if I got involved at all. I could well picture Darcy plying her special brand of advice and concern on a hapless, would-be suicider, and I could see this person–Karen Aldridge, in this case–running out of Darcy’s house in a panic, hanging onto the bars of the gate and screaming for help. Maybe this wasn’t exactly the picture of what transpired, but it was close enough in my book. For sure I’m no expert on the mind of someone contemplating suicide, but it had to be damaging to be with Darcy.
I could also see how a crafty lawyer might find a way to make a few bucks off the wealthy Wexfords through the use of an unstable client. Not saying that was the case here, but come on. Moneyed people have been sued for far less.
James’s cell phone emitted a quick beep that sounded like a text had come through. He glanced at the screen. “It’s Darcy. She wants to know if you’re coming today.”
“Coming where?” I shook my head. “I’ve got a dog at home waiting for me. Maybe. . .” I was going to say tomorrow, but my tongue wasn’t forming the word.
“To the house. She needs to see you today. I was sent to bring you back. My car’s just out front.”
“James, I can’t. I really do have other obligations.”
“Well, go home first, and then I’ll pick you up there.”
“No. . .no. . .”
“Jane, we pay well.”
I stared at him, painfully aware of how much my bank account could use a boost. My bottom line hadn’t been helped by holiday shopping, either. I said slowly, “I can drive my own car.”