The gilded white mansion, ivory castle-like towers beheld visions of rose, gold and copper sunsets which painted its pearly walls hues of saffron and magenta. Sunbeams danced on the turquoise rivers of Allegheny County.
Sunshine and warm showers nourished spicy-sweet lilies. Pristine hedges and lavender bellflowers lined the paved pathway that led to a baroque front door. The McKay Estate.Chip McKay inherited the manor, $10 million, and the family brewery when his father, a widower, died. He stayed a respectable, humble man who supported several charities.
He wed Katherine Brodie in 1973. She was a slender female with an upright carriage like that of a ballerina. The palest of blue eyes lit up whenever she saw him. A sensual scent of vanilla mingled with jasmine lingered on her fair flesh. God, she was stunning.
Deeply in love, he proposed. They exchanged their vows to the musical sounds of water rippling through the floral pond garden of the McKay estate.
Katherine dressed in a white ball gown with a fitted bodice. She looked gorgeous. Her gown was adorned with pearls and pink rosebuds.
Chip wore a black tuxedo with a pale rose vest to complement the rosebuds on
Katherine’s gown, crisp white shirt, black bowtie, and a scarlet boutonnière pinned to his lapel of sweat. “She only lives an hour away. Her cell phone went straight to voicemail My wife and I are frantic with worry. Mr. Keppler, we love this girl. She’s a daughter to us. Can you find her?”
“Did you call the police or area hospitals?”
“Yes. They said we couldn’t file a report for twenty-four hours” His voice increased an octave with each word. “Hadn’t occurred to me to phone hospitals and certainly not a morgue.”
“Where do you live?”
“In Pittsburgh. #1 McKay Family Circle.”
“I’m fifteen minutes away in Squirrel Hill. Be there shortly.”
“Thank you, Mr. Keppler.” Chip clicked off.
His anxiety skyrocketed. He restlessly waited for Keppler to arrive. The rumble of a car engine halted in the driveway. Chip flung the door open.
“Please come in.”
He ushered Keppler to a white velvet antique settee in the hunter green and burgundy great room. Chip’s profuse sweat mingled with the minty honey aroma of the eucalyptus plants.
“Thank you for coming so quickly.”
Chip sank into a burgundy armchair and wiped his sweaty palms on his gray slacks. Abram, a squat chap with a black beard and a yarmulke on his head, wasted no time.
“You’re welcome. I need to ask you some questions. What does your niece look like?”
“Molly has shoulder-length blonde curls, chestnut eyebrows, and cobalt blue eyes. She’s about five-foot-five.”
“You know her well.”
“As I said, I watched her grow up. You’ve got to find her for us, Keppler.”
“What highway was she traveling on?”
“U.S. Route 30.”
“I’ll be in touch.”
Chip shook his hand, escorted him to the door, and watched his last hope stride away.
After seven months, Keppler rescued Molly from a sex trafficking ring. An irresolvable undertaking, yet that guy got it done.
Molly was traumatized but safe. Nevertheless, even after years of therapy, she could not overcome this new episode of PTSD. She never was the same outgoing, good-natured girl she grew into following her years of psychiatry after the death of her parents.
Brett spent days with her. Her blank eyes gazed into the distance. He would rest her head on his shoulder and held her hand. She rarely spoke; Molly merely let him stay with her. It broke his heart to watch her suffer.
One day after he left Molly, whose tears cascaded, he exploded. His guilt dogged him. He should have been there to protect her. Brett banged his head against the wall to abate the emotional pain. Blood splattered from his brow. His head throbbed like hell, but Brett didn’t care. Killing the bastards that hurt Molly spun like a violent tornado in his brain.
Brett confronted the investigator. “Where did you find Molly? Who held her captive?” Fists closed, his chest pumped out as if ready to pounce on someone.
“In Detroit. The feds busted a holding cell. Molly was one of the girls rescued.”
“What’s a holding cell?”
“It’s a basement, warehouse, homes, etc. Could be anywhere. They keep the girls there until they move them to other traffickers here or overseas. We got lucky with this case. Only 1 to 2% of victims are ever found.”
This information staggered Brett. The veins in his temples throbbed. Vengeance rankled him. Only the blood of those malicious monsters would appease him. Brett must earn his private investigator licensure. His hunger to capture violent criminals and find missing persons agitated his insomniac nights. The idea of others suffering set his heart afire.
“I’m impatient; I make mistakes, but I protect my family at any cost.
January 25, 2015 2 p.m.
Brett McKay’s triangular jawline threadlike brown hairs dappled his upper lip and chin. His long bushy eyebrows were twice the size of his deep-set pale blue eyes. A celestial nose sat between high cheekbones. He pulled his espresso shoulder-length wavy mane back into a ponytail exposing his small ears.
His mother named him Brett Alastair. In Scottish, Alastair meant “defender of man.” Quite prophetic.
Gripped by Dick Tracy comic books and Sherlock Holmes movies, Brett aspired to be a police detective, but after a disaster his perspective changed.
Thirty-six-year-old Brett’s motivation to become a private investigator did not stem from his childhood heroes. His cousin Molly disappeared while driving to Brett’s home to celebrate Christmas week in 2012. The police could not find her, but a private investigator did.
Brett’s pale blue eyes reflected his dispositions. Brett succeeded in creating a straight-faced poker-face. A necessary trait for a private investigator.
Insomnia beleaguered him. His brain never shut off. He embraced his insomniac hours studying until he passed out.
Brett earned his master’s degree in Criminal Justice at Penn State University. After a short-term internship with Massey and Funkle’s Investigations, he launched his career.
There he met Gibson Martini, a private investigator who worked in the field for several years. Gibson saw potential in Brett. He owned a business in Las Vegas: MISSING PERSONS INVESTIGATIONS ENTERPRISE
“Hey Brett, how would you like to partner up with me?”
“But I just graduated.”
“As one of your professors, I don’t run across young men like you often.”
“What do you mean?
“You are a student of the craft,” said Gibson.
“Am I?” –Brett rubbed the back of his neck. He knew he had the confidence, but this man was an expert investigator.–
“What would you like me to do?”
“I want to expand my corporation. I’d like you to set up a branch in your area. Use my business title ending with Pittsburgh Office. Phone me after you’ve done this.”
“Will do. Thank you for the opportunity. I’ll contact you soon.” It astonished Brett that a person of Gibson Martini’s caliber chose to mentor him.
Brett set up the business as Gibson had instructed: MISSING PERSONS INVESTIGATIONS ENTERPRISE: PITTSBURGH OFFICE. Reliable, ruthless Brett McKay would use any means at his disposal to solve a case or die trying. He had no problem to prove himself worthy of Gibson’s decision. He called Gib.
“Hi Gib. I set up the Pittsburgh office.”
“Thanks Brett for expanding my corporation.”
They clicked off.
Private investigators have no boundaries. February 12, 2015 1 p.m.
A desperate woman phoned his Pittsburgh office. Her twin daughters vanished ten years earlier. Were they kidnapped as Molly was?
He to drove the mother’s house in West Carrollton City, Ohio, four hours away from his Pittsburgh office. A collage of evergreens, dense woodlands, autumnal birch, and scarlet maple trees zoomed by. A gray-clouded reddening sky threatened snow. However, the temperature was a pleasant 40°. Brett cranked down his window and inhaled the crisp, fresh air.
He arrived at Mary Malone’s house at 3 p.m. She squatted on her front porch step, her body perched forward as if on the lookout for him. The Tudor house looked out of place in an area full of ranch-style homes. A dead garden bed separated the brown lawn from the stone path that led to the door.
Mary Malone had close-set turquoise eyes, straight eyebrows, and baggy lids. Wavy black hair hung down to her turkey neck. Chalky complexion, shapeless lips, a bulbous beak, and stubbly double chin. Mary was a chunky woman with stumpy legs and pudgy feet.
Brett extended his hand. She countered with a bone crusher handshake.
“Come in, Mr. McKay.”
She wore a frumpy beige housecoat that revealed knobby knees. Her toenails, jagged and yellowed.
“Call me Brett.”
Mary Malone had beautiful eyes, like the refreshing waters of a turquoise sea. He had never seen eyes that color before. Her eyes left quite an impression on him.
He sagged into the plush cushion of a red and green plaid armchair. His 2004 Honda Accord worn out rigid seat chafed his rump. Judging by the dip in the sofa and the extra padding on Mary’s hips, he figured that was her comfort zone.
“Wanna cup of coffee?”
“That’d be great. Thanks. Mind if I smoke?”
The four-hour drive wacked him. His insomnia kept him up until 4 a.m. A boost of caffeine would do the trick.
Mary waddled into the orange kitchen, the sound of elephant toenails scraped and wobbled the floorboard. An odor of cheap perfume and
Brett tucked his hand into the right pocket of his faded black Levi’s and whipped out a book of matches. He lit a Camel cigarette and exhaled bubble smoke rings, examining each as they evaporated. He tapped the ashes into his hand and wiped it on the left thigh of his jeans.
Brett observed the framed photos lined up on the fireplace mantle. He spotted a picture of two pretty, turquoise-eyed, redheaded teens who mirrored each other. The twins. If not for the turquoise eyes, he found it difficult to believe Mary birthed those girls.
Mary returned with two mugs and placed one on the mushroom wicker table next to Brett. He lifted the Mickey Mouse mug and sipped the pitch-black coffee. It tasted like supercharged caffeinated mud.
“Before we start, why me?”
“No special reason. Found you on Google.”
“You Google strangers on the web and invite them to your home? How do you know you can trust me?”
“Read your profile and reviews, and I’m desperate.”
“Mrs. Malone, are you aware my hourly rate is $75 plus expenses?”
He slanted forward, propped his forearms on his thighs with the Camel crooked between his lips. Brett blew another smoke ring, flicked more soot into his left hand, then smeared it the widening smudge on the left thigh of his jeans.
“Yeah, I know.”
Her slurps of the muddy coffee broadcasted water sucked down a clogged drain.
“I want you to understand the chances of finding your girls may be difficult. Too much time has passed. Are you positive you want me to search for them?”
“Listen Mistah, my girls nevah run away from me! Someone stole ‘em.”
“Mrs. Malone. Calm yourself. I’ll do what I can.”
Brett sucked in one more drag, filled his mouth with smoke, then blew out smoke rings. He crushed the butt between tip of his thumb and index finger.
Brett resumed back to business and removed a valid contract from his briefcase. He read it to Mary, then showed it to her.
“Do you have any inquiries regarding the contents of this contract?”
Mary browsed the paperwork. “Nah, it’s fine. Sorta what I spected anyhow.”
A wave of sweat and vinegary breath blew Brett’s way. He flapped his right hand like a blue jay in flight to shoo away the stench.
They each signed on the dotted line. Brett tore off her copy, gave it to her, folded his neatly, and slipped it into The Malone Case file jacket.
“Mrs. Malone, I have to ask you some questions. Please don’t be offended by them. I need all I can to build the case.”
Brett placed a tape recorder on the cast iron coffee table and turned it on.
“I’ll do whatevah I gotta do to get my girls back.”
“Did you file a police report?”
“Yeah, but the cops blew me off. They said they got billions of runaways in their database. I gave ‘em my info, and I guess they filed it there.”
“Have you followed up with the police?”
“Uh, no. Like I told ya, they blew me off.” A curious response for a desperate mother.
“You do realize that many teenagers run away from home.”
She waggled her finger at him. “No! No! Not my girls.” Her turquoise eyes blazed red. “They good girls, straight A students. And happy. They sang in a church choir.”
“May I ask why you waited ten years to contact an investigator?”
Brett lit another Camel, inhaled a gray cloud of filtered heaven, then held the cigarette between his forefinger and thumb tips.
“Afore my girls disappeared, my husband fell off a raftah at a construction site. He busted lotsa bones and was downright disabled. His disability checks wasn’t ‘nuff to pay our debts. We was penniless ‘til my darlin’ Aedan dropped dead three months ago in prison. I got a lotta money from his life insurance policy.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, Mary.” Ah, the merry widow. She didn’t seem too upset about his death. “May we move on?”
“Can we get this over with?”
“Just a few more questions and we’re done. Do you know if the girls had any boyfriends?”
“No! My girls ain’t like that.” Mary’s face descended into three shades of red.
“Have you contacted their friends?”
“Yeah. the few I knew of,” she replied. “No one’s seen my girls.”
“Don’t worry Mrs. Malone. I’ll do my best to find your daughters.” — He rubbed his chin with his right thumb and forefinger. –“Can you think of anything at all that seemed different than usual?”
She stuck her hand in a glass jar on the coffee table, grabbed a green jellybean, popped it in her mouth, and chomped it like a cow chewing cud.
“I know this must be horrific for you with the death of your husband and your missing girls. Do you have somewhere else to go? A change of scenery might be helpful.”
“Ain’t got no friends or family.” She squawked and glared at him. “Are you done? I got work to do.”
“Madam, you called me or did you forget. Now if you want me to find your twins you need to cooperate. Stop behaving like a damn grouch.”
Brett broke a cardinal rule for private investigators. He lost patience with a client. He kneaded the cervical spine of his neck to relieve the tension.
“I apologize for snapping at you, Mary.”
“I’ll be in touch.”
Brett lifted his briefcase, bolted to the front door, twisted the knob, then forgot to ask her some things.
Cocking his head sideward, he said, “I have a few more questions before I leave. Do the twins have any identifying marks? Any special interests?”
“They got my turquoise eyes. Carly’s gotta scar on her chin. Samantha’s gotta a brown spot under her lip. They got red hair.”
“You mean a beauty mark?”
“Yeah, I think that’s what ya call it. My Carly wants ta be a singah.”
“What kind of singer?”
“Country. She likes Carrie Underwood.”
“That might give me a lead. What about Samantha?
“That girl follow’s Carly everywhere.”
“Lastly, I’ll need the names, addresses, and phone numbers of their friends and their high school. Also, the most recent photo you have of the girls.”
Mary yanked a tattered notebook from the wicker table drawer. She tore out an empty page and scribbled the names of three friends and their high school.
She pulled a wad of dough out of the bottom drawer stuffed with cash. Mary slapped the paper in Brett’s hand, grabbed a photo from the mantle, and counted out $1,500 to pay his retainer fee. Brett clicked off the tape recorder and slipped it into his left hip pocket.
He figured it might take a week or so to interview the friends and former teachers. Brett found a $40 per day hotel: Springtop Suites, the cheapest in the county. It required about $280. She handed him the cash. He punched the figures into his Ipad.
“I’ll call you,” said Brett, anxious to get away from the bizarre female.
He sprinted to his car, grabbed his keys from his pocket, opened the car door, and slid into the driver’s seat. Then, he deliberated over his notes which seemed useless.
There was something strange about Mary Malone. Brett couldn’t put his finger on it. After all, the twins were adults. Maybe she was concerned if they were dead or alive. However, if the girls wanted their mother to know their whereabouts, they certainly would have let her know by now.
Brett entered the cream and almond hotel lobby. He walked to the reception area and checked in with the desk clerk.
“I have a package here for you Mr. McKay,” said the curvy brown-haired woman. “Here’s your key card, Sir. Room 328. Enjoy your stay.”
He went to the elevator and pressed the third-floor button. He slid the key card through the slot, walked in, and chucked the package on a polished wood desk.
Brett placed his suitcase on the beige leather sofa and unpacked it. He showered, then plopped on the too-soft mattress. Laptop on his thighs, tape recorder and Ipad on his right; cell phone to his left. Then he set his attention on the new development.
Written on the package: To Brett McKay no return address. He emptied the contents, all of it cash with a note: “Make sure you find those twins.” He counted $100,000. Something underhanded was going on. Was someone else involved?
Brett phoned Gibson.
“Gib here. Who’s calling?”
“It’s Brett. I have a few questions. I’m stumped.”
“I received an envelope stuffed with $100.000 in it.”
“Who is it from.”
“Don’t know. But the note read make sure you find those twins.”
“Odd. Seems someone else really wants those girls.”
“But, for what?”
Brett tapped a cigarette out of a pack of Camels. Lit it up and drew in a mouthful of smoke, then blew smoke hearts. He entertained himself with smoke tricks. It relaxed him.
“Any suggestions? Only dead ends here.”
“You say ten years have passed?”
“Sorry I can’t help you, Brett. Try Truckers United. Hard to forget twin redheads with turquoise eyes Keep me updated Good luck.”
“No problem. Thanks, Gib.” Brett’s self-assurance deflated. He expected more support from Gibson.
Brett turned on his playlist and listlessly drummed his pencil on the laptop to the blue beat of Sink or Swim. His illuminated watch read 8 p.m. Where would those girls go?
His dampened eyes prickled, their lids felt weighty. Fluttering sluggishly, he glanced at his watch again. 9 a.m. Brett had overslept.
He brewed a pot of strong caffeinated coffee in the mini kitchen, poured a mugful, stirred in a shot glass of bourbon, settled back, and read Mary Malone’s note. He started with the twin’s high school.
Ten years had passed. He hated to waste time, but he drove to the high school. Brett visited the principal’s office. She could offer no information. Their database kept records for seven years. He phoned their friends. All the lines. Disconnected.
Next, he clicked on his Visual Aging software. He uploaded the picture of the girls, hit a key, added ten years, and waited for the results. He uploaded the enhanced photograph to his email, downloaded it to his laptop desktop, and filed it in the Mary Malone folder.
The twins could be anywhere on the planet. It seemed Mary Malone’s was the only place they didn’t want to be.
He saw no point in calling hospitals or the morgue due to the length of time passed. They surely would have contacted Mary by now. He phoned her.
“Hello, Mrs. Malone. This is Brett.”
“Any news bout my girls?”
The air blew too hot from the dual air conditioner. Sweat trickled down his neck and his tongue, parched. He gulped cold water, then adjusted the thermostat.
“I have bad news. Nothing but dead ends locally. The school had no records of the twins. Their friends phones are disconnected. I’m flying out to Vegas to speak to a colleague about this case. Travel costs are expensive. Do you still want me to look for your girls?”
“Yeah. Cash ain’t no problem. I got hundreds of thousands.” Mary’s voice boomed. Her tone faltered when she realized what she said.
How could a woman inherit that much money from a life insurance policy?
“I mean it seems like hundreds of thousands when you been poor all your life,” Mary stuttered, hoping she covered her ass with that stupid comment.
“By the way, did you send an envelope to my hotel room?”
“Huh? Why would I do that?!”
“Hmm. Anyone else who’s looking for them?”
“Ain’t no one know their missing cept me.” Mary quivered. She knew that old geezer was searching for them too.
“Ok. Talk to you soon, Mrs. Malone.” They hung up. Someone else clearly wanted those girls also. But who? And why?
Brett slid his hand into the right front pocket of his Levi’s, grabbed his keys, and drove to clear his head. He wondered why he took that damn case. The woman had issues. What parent waits ten years to search for their kids?
Brett opened his window. A blast of fresh air cooled his face. The vivid sunset, dappled with puffs of silvery clouds, painted the snow-dusted trees pink and violet.
He inhaled the glorious scene. He was no longer Brett, the private gumshoe. He transformed into Brett, the romantic in the Golden City of Oz. He lingered as he gazed at the panoramic scenery. Glistening crystal flakes danced gently on his windowpane.
A quiet snowy day. Nevertheless, a clap of thunder knocked him out of the pristine moments. The pseudo-wizard dropped him back into reality.
The gas meter in his car read a half a centimeter from empty. And no gas station in sight. Brett pulled over, got out of the car, opened the trunk, and took out two gallon jugs of gasoline. After he poured them into the tank, he drove to a diner and gobbled the house special: chicken fried steak with brown gravy and mashed potatoes.
Then, he headed back to the cheap hotel and the depressing realization the case of the twins would be a challenge to solve. His weary mind drifted off as he. tumbled into a hypnotic sleep. He dreamt about his cousin Molly. Her hands stretched out as if to cry for help. He reached for her, but it was like riding on a treadmill. And who can outrun a treadmill?
He woke up in a cold sweat and knew he could not give up looking for the twins. No matter how hopeless it seemed, Brett would keep his promise to Molly and himself. He would solve a case or die trying. His vow gripped him like a vise.
Brett gathered his facts then, he phoned Gib.
“Hi, Gibson. Sorry to bother you again,”
“No problem. You can call me anytime. What’s up?”
“Do you have connections in Nashville, Memphis, or Branson?”
“Carly, one of twins, wanted to be a country music star.
“Good thinking. Do you have recent photos of these girls?”
“I used my virtual aging software. I’ll fax a copy of the file to you.”
“I’d like you to come out to Vegas. Are you working with anyone?”
”I hired a guy ”
“Thanks. Talk soon,” said Brett.
Next, he had to figure out which city the girls would head to first. Either they hitchhiked or drove off with a friend. He prayed it was the latter. Buried bodies of naïve hitchhikers strewn concealed places along roads and highways across America. If they had hitchhiked, he would never be able to find them.
Back in his hotel room, clad in his Ralph Lauren blue and gold plaid pajamas, he slipped his feet into his Pittsburgh Steeler moccasins. Brett moseyed to the bathroom, grabbed his toothbrush, slathered it with Colgate toothpaste, and brushed his teeth. He rinsed his mouth with Listerine and grinned at his pearly whites in the mirror.
The thin brown hairs on his face thickened into a mustache and beard. He glanced down at the trimmer on the bathroom sink. Grumbled “the hell with it,” padded across the room, and plunked into bed.
His cell phone vibrated around 6 p.m. The caller ID read: Pop.
“Hey Pop, how are you?”
“It’s your mother, Son. She had a heart attack last night and is at Pittsburgh Memorial Hospital. Doesn’t look good.” His father’s voice quivered.
“I’ll be right over.”
If his mother loved him, if she had not verbally, emotionally, and physically abused him, if he left Vegas, Tammy might disappear, then he might have visited his mother on her deathbed.
“Also, I found one of the twins.”
“Listen, Brett, stay put. You take someone’s money you’re obligated to finish the job.” said his father. “Besides, your mother won’t even know one way or another. She’s drugged up and delusional. Ma’s on her way out, Son.”
His matter-of-fact attitude gave Brett the impression that his father had accepted the impending death of his mother.
Brett arrived at the hotel’s entrance.
“Brief me later unless it’s urgent, Damien.”
He opened the door, grabbed his stuff, and got out of Damien’s SUV. A bellhop approached him to carry his luggage. He had only one suitcase and his briefcase.
“Thanks. I got it.”
Brett handed him a five-dollar tip and headed for the front desk. He leaned his arms on the desktop and subtly scanned her from neck to toe. Bad habit of his. The clerk was a young woman with a toothy white smile between full rose-colored lips. She wore a blue blazer with the hotel logo, a crisp white blouse, a black knee length skirt, sheer stockings, and black ballet-type flats.
“Welcome, Sir. My name is Marla. How can I help you?”
“Hi, Marla. Brett McKay. I have a reservation.”
“Give me a moment while I check the register. Ah, here it is. Room 742. Here’s your key card. Enjoy your stay.”
“Thank you, Marla. I plan to.” Brett slipped a ten dollar bill across the desk to her.
“Thank you, but that’s not necessary.”
He left the bill there, winked, and strolled toward the elevators