Chapter 1 of BLACK ORCHID ©2016 by Vaughn C. Hardacker
. . . adults, declared missing after twenty-four to seventy-six hours, are for the most part voluntarily missing
—Private Eyes: A Writer’s Guide To Private Investigators
There was a young woman standing in the threshold of Ed Traynor’s office door. At first Traynor thought she looked as timid as a gun-shy retriever, but then he realized she was debating whether or not she should come in. It was August and business was slow, and he’d been enjoying a quiet Friday morning at his desk—sitting with his feet propped up on its corner and reading a crime paperback. He’d gotten through several pages before even noticing the woman, and when he finally had become aware of her presence he’d thought to himself: Real observant. If I was her I’d walk away.
Now, he dropped his feet to the floor, stood up, and studied her. The short, royal-blue skirt she wore made her look more like she should be leading cheers for her college football team than standing in the doorway of a private investigator’s office. Her appearance was neat—a look that Traynor thought many young women today disdained, or seemed to. Her brown hair fell to her shoulders in soft waves. She had the darkest eyes he’d ever seen—almost obsidian. The mercury was supposed to push past the ninety-degree mark, but one would never know it to look at her. She looked and, more importantly, smelled as fresh as if she’d just stepped out of the shower. He thought that maybe she stood in his office door hoping to sell him candy to support her school’s yearbook or athletic department.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Are you,” she glanced at the lettering on the door, “Mr. Edward Traynor?”
He took out his wallet and looked at his license. “This official document from the great state of New Hampshire says I am—although, you’d never know it from the picture. Call me Ed. Edward sounds too stuffy.”
Her face reddened. Sometimes Traynor’s sophomoric sense of humor left people cold. He realized that they needed to know each other better before he could be his usual flippant self. Suddenly, he felt foolish, almost ashamed of his behavior. He threw the novel on his desk and stood up. “I’m sorry. Sometimes—usually when I’m alone too long—I get smart-mouthed.” He circled the desk and offered her a chair. “Have a seat, Miss . . .”
“Hollis, Deborah Hollis. Please call me Deb.”
“Okay, Deb it is.” He waited until she was seated, her bag demurely placed on her lap, and both legs clamped tightly together. He dropped into his chair and swiveled it around to face her. “So, Deb, what brings you to my office?”
“I’m told you’re a private eye.”
“The best there is in New Hampshire.”
“I believe you’re the only one in the state—at least the only one listed in the phone book.”
He chuckled and thought: No one’s putting anything past her. He decided to stop the smart-mouth attitude and get serious. “That term is a bit dated. These days we’re called detectives or private security consultants. What you call me depends on what you pay me to do.”
“I need you to find someone.”
“Then it’s ‘detective.’ Who do you want me to find?”
She stared at him, almost as if testing his sincerity. Her eyes weren’t black—when the light hit them just right he could see they were a dark blue. “My sister. Her name is Mindy, Melinda actually.”
“And she’s missing?”
“We haven’t heard from her in almost two months.”
“Missing persons are usually best handled by the police. They have more resources and cost you nothing.”
“We contacted the police, they found nothing.”
“These things take time.”
“I don’t believe they’re looking.” Her nostrils flared.
“Hiring a person like me can be expensive.”
She took out a checkbook and said, “How much?”
“My rates are five hundred a day plus expenses.”
She quickly wrote out a check, for what he assumed would be one day, two at most. She ripped it out of the book and handed it to him. Traynor took it and glanced at it: five thousand dollars. “This is enough for ten days, less my expenses.”
“It’s good. You can call the bank before you do anything.”
He wasn’t questioning the validity of the check, but he was surprised. Most of the women her age he knew would not have such easy access to so much cash. They’d probably have to ask if he took credit cards.
He glanced at the address on the check; it was a New Castle address, in the neighborhood of the Wentworth Hotel to be exact. In New Castle, they called brand new million dollar homes the projects. Her address wasn’t in the projects. She was in the exclusive part of town—waterfront property.
She was one of those Hollises; they were old money—lots of old money. The state of New Hampshire has eighteen miles of seacoast and at one time the Hollis family owned almost three-quarters of it. Today, it was common knowledge that they only owned about a quarter of it. About thirty years ago old Elias Hollis sold off most of his property for mega-millions or more. He doubted her check would bounce. In fact, he doubted if a check for ten times that amount would be large enough to put a dent in the balance.
“Deb, I know this may sound as if I don’t want your business, but I need to know. Why would a young woman of your obvious means choose me?”
“You come highly recommended.”
That was a new one. “And, who was it gave me this stellar recommendation?”
There was a time when Earl “Buck” Buchanan and Traynor had been friends. They’d been New Hampshire State Police homicide detectives together. These days, Buchanan was the Rockingham County Sheriff, which Traynor believed was just another way of saying a politician. No doubt the Hollis family was a major contributor to his upcoming re-election campaign. Nevertheless, Buck hadn’t needed to mention him; as a matter of fact, Traynor was surprised that he had. A couple of years ago, Traynor got involved in one of Buchanan’s cases. The sheriff never bought Traynor’s resolution, as accurate as it was. Still, he knew Buck would not have sent Deb Hollis to him if he had any doubt about Traynor being up to the job. It looked as if he had a case.
“When did you last see or hear from your sister?”
“Two months ago. She called me.”
“Where was she then?”
“California. She’s always wanted to be an actress and went out there to get some experience. She said she was building her resume.” She hesitated, and then said, “Truthfully, I believe she went out there because it’s as far from here as she could get from here without leaving the country.”
Traynor knew he had to be careful with his next question, but it was the question that he needed answered. “Deb, are you sure your sister wants to be found? She wouldn’t be the first twenty-something to get upset with the family and run off.”
“I understand, but that isn’t the case here. Mindy takes great pleasure in calling my parents and rubbing it in their faces . . .”
“So there is some type of family feud taking place—”
“It’s more rebellion than feud,” she said. “However, her problems were with our parents. She and I got along fine. We were very close.”
“You have an address for her?”
“She was living in some place called Simi Valley. She and another woman were sharing a place.” She wrote down the address on a piece of notepaper and handed it to him.
He looked at it. Traynor was a born-and-bred, live-free-or-die New Hampshire man and didn’t much like the West Coast. However, he was familiar with the Los Angeles area, having spent time there while in the service. As a young Marine, he had roamed the area looking for college women—even met a few. So he got to know his way around quite well, though of course, that was long ago. No doubt the place was a lot different than he remembered—but at least the general geography would not be completely alien. One thing jumped out at him though: her address. It was near the San Fernando Valley; he would have expected a young woman with access to the Hollis fortune to be in the more affluent suburbs, such as Brentwood. His face must have telegraphed his thoughts, because Deb said, “Mindy and Daddy haven’t spoken in over a year. She wouldn’t ask him for a glass of water if she were dying of thirst.”
“So she was trying to do it on her own?”
“What about you? Do you get along with your father?”
“Even though Mindy’s three years younger than me, I’m Daddy’s baby—his favorite. But if he knew I was here, he’d be livid. Mindy gets her stubbornness from him.”
Traynor pondered the probability of successfully locating Mindy; he knew it was low. Then his eye caught the check lying on the desk before him. For the past couple of months all he’d had were a couple of small cases—neither of which brought in much cash. He picked up the check, reread it, and then looked at Deb Hollis. “Okay, Deb, you’ve got yourself an investigator.”
Suddenly, she began crying. Traynor didn’t know what to do, but then he never did when a woman cried. He wanted to comfort her, but wasn’t sure how she’d react—after all, he’d never laid eyes on her until fifteen minutes ago. He did what he thought was the manly thing—he handed her a box of tissues and stared out the window, giving her some semblance of privacy.
Traynor watched a fishing boat struggle against the current as it pushed its way up the Piscataqua River. It passed the Portsmouth Naval Yard, which is really in Kittery, Maine. The fishing boat was almost out of sight by the time she stopped sniffling. He turned back to her as she was wiping her eyes. She blew her nose, Traynor held up the wastebasket, and she threw the tissue in it.
“Do you have a picture of Mindy?” he asked. “I need one I can keep.”
“Yes. It’s a couple of years old, but she hasn’t changed much—at least she hadn’t the last time I saw her.” She rooted around in her bag, pulling things out, and placed them on a corner of his desk. The contents of her purse soon covered the surface. She removed used tissues, makeup, more used tissues, lipstick, and a condom. She hesitated for a second, staring at it as if she had no idea where it came from, then blushed and quickly stuffed the condom back into a side pocket. Once again, he turned to the window for a second, this time hiding his smile. It was like watching an inept magician try to find a rabbit in a hat. When at least thirty wads of tissues and sundry cosmetics were piled on the desk, Deb smiled significantly and took out a tiny wallet. She pulled a photo out of it and handed it to him.
The picture was of a woman in her mid- to late twenties with light brown hair cut just below her shoulders. She wore blue jeans, a white blouse, expensive sandals, and leaned against a late-model Corvette, —her broad smile indicative of what seemed to be a happy time. Her resemblance to the young woman sitting across from him was such that there was no doubt they were sisters.
Traynor focused on the photo, studying Mindy’s face. Her eyes had a faraway look to them. He didn’t want to say anything, thinking it was his damned old biases again. But he’d seen eyes like those a thousand times—on drunks and drug addicts. He got a bad feeling, one that gave him second thoughts about taking this case. The outcome might not be one Deb Hollis was going to like. He put the photo on the desk.
“I may have to speak with your parents. Is that going to be a problem?”
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t speak with them unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
“I think it will be absolutely necessary.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Experience. Sooner. Sooner or later, your father’s going to find out about me. I’ve always found being upfront from the beginning to be the best policy.”
“Okay, but I want to break the news to him. I hope I can calm him down before you get there.”
“I’d like that too.” He gave her what he hoped was his most reassuring smile. “I’d like to see him this afternoon, and then tomorrow I’ll do some checking. How about three o’clock? Will that give you enough time to talk with him?”
“I guess it will have to, won’t it?” She held out her hand.
Deb Hollis’s hand was so tiny and finely sculpted that he was afraid to grip it for fear it would break. Her ring finger held a diamond that was large enough to let one know it was expensive, but not so large as to be considered ostentatious. Her nails were impeccably manicured and real. Traynor realized he was holding her hand longer than needed and let it go. “I’ll do everything I can to find your sister,” he said, trying to get back on safe, professional ground.
“Thank you. You’ll never know how much this means to me.”
“I’ll do my best. I need as much information on your sister as you can provide . . . especially her social security number.”
“I thought you might, so I put together as much as I could.”
She reached into her bag once again and, this time, found what she was looking for immediately. She extracted a folded sheet of paper and handed it to him. He unfolded it and noted that everything was organized and written in legible handwriting—there was even a photocopy of a credit card application with the social security number. “This is great. I’ll get started immediately.”
She stood and offered her hand again. “I’ll be looking for you at three . . . the address is on the check.”
After she left, he picked up the phone and called Charley Giles. Charley was the most technical friend Traynor had. He and Max Thurston owned an auto body repair shop, which doubled as a command center when Traynor was on a case and Charley had to do a lot of online research for him. Charley had ways of getting data that bordered on the amazing. Max, on the other hand, provided additional muscle and backup on those rare occasions when Traynor needed it. Charley answered the phone on the second ring.
“I need anything you can find on Melinda Hollis, aka Mindy. Last known address for her is in Simi Valley, California. Her social is . . .” He read off the number.
“What’s this all about?”
“I’m employed,” Traynor said.
“It’s about time.”