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AN ALLIE FORTUNE MYSTERY
By Sara Mills
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One December 1947
A CIRCLE OF LAMPLIGHT in the otherwise darkened office cast a cool glow on the letter as I wrote. The hum of cars whizzing through the night, far below my second-story office window, was the only noise I could make out. Soon waking sounds would echo through the streets of New York, but at four a.m., it was as quiet as the city ever got. I took a deep breath, picked up my pen, and signed the letter.
My name is Allie Fortune, and I'm the only female P.I. -private investigator-in New York City. I was probably also the only P.I. awake and working at this time of night. Most people would be in bed enjoying the last few hours of rest before dawn. Instead of sleeping I'd spent the quiet, still hours writing a letter, trying to find someone, searching out an investigative lead. But this time it wasn't on behalf of a client. Tonight it was my missing person. My mystery. My quest.
David Rubeneski. Up until three months ago, he'd been dead. At least that was the official statement from the War Department: missing in action and presumed dead. But I'd never presumed. Up until three months ago, I'd had no real reason not to believe the claims, but something inside me had never accepted them. And so I'd searched and written letter after letter and investigated until I'd finally found out the truth. Sources inside the FBI had confirmed it. David was alive.
Unfortunately the information I'd bartered for was incomplete; someone knew where he was, but I didn't.
As impossible as the task of locating him seemed, I wasn't about to stop looking. And so I wrote inquiries and investigated. He was alive. But I wasn't much closer to finding him.
I finished the letter and sealed the envelope, then went over to the window and peered through the blind slats at the empty street below. A small section of sidewalk was illuminated, but I saw no signs of life.
Only a few more hours until dawn. I looked over at the long leather couch where often I caught an hour or so of sleep. I knew without even bothering to try that sleep wasn't going to come. I'd recently visited the doctor to discuss my sleep problem. He'd told me it was insomnia and that there was no cure. He'd recommended sedatives; I'd refused.
I sighed and went over to the record player in the corner and turned on the music. I rarely let myself listen to it, but once in a long while I sank into the song that played the last time I'd seen him. As notes fluttered out and filled the room, I leaned against the wall. Unbidden, the memory of a smoky dance hall, the heat of hundreds of bodies, and the feel of David's jacket against my cheek returned. For a brief second I felt dizzy, as though I were really dancing with him again. I shook my head, trying to blur the memory, to fade the edges so they weren't so sharp and raw. I reached out and jerked the needle off, not caring that I may have scratched the disc, just needing it to stop. The sudden silence was jarring.
I moved back to the desk and sat down, looking for anything to distract me from my thoughts. The worst part of insomnia was the tiredness that pervaded the waking hours, but a close second was the sheer boredom of being awake when no one else was. There was only so much paperwork I could do in the middle of the night. Sometimes I longed for nothing more than another voice in the darkness, someone to talk to.
I pushed a few files to the side and laid my head on the desk. It wouldn't make up for the lost hours of sleep tonight, but a few minutes of resting my eyes would help nonetheless. I let my eyes drift shut. Blocking all further thoughts of David, I just let my mind drift.
A shrill ring penetrated my foggy brain. I lifted my head from the desk with a sigh, checked my watch, and was surprised to see that it was a few minutes past six. I must have dozed for more than an hour. Shaking my head and trying to brush off the fog of fatigue, I heard the phone ring again.
Reaching for the receiver I cleared my throat before lifting it to my ear. "Allie Fortune here." My voice had no telltale sleep huskiness, but the person on the other end hesitated anyway.
"Allie?" Jack sounded unsure.
"Yeah, it's me. How are you, Jack?" I rubbed at my face with my free hand to wake myself up. I hadn't spoken to Jack in a few weeks, but I'd assumed that the FBI was keeping him running. Still it was great to hear his voice.
"Busy, but not bad." There was a hesitation in his voice. "I have something, some information that I really need to run by you. Get your opinion on."
I could tell he didn't want to talk about it over the phone. "Sure, do you want to come by the office sometime today? I've got a lot going on here, but I'm free until about eight o'clock this morning."
"I'm a bit tied up at the moment. I can't get off work until this evening. Can we meet then?"
Something in his manner put me on full alert. "Today is Wednesday. You know what that means."
Jack groaned. "Dinner with your parents." He sighed. "This is important. Could you see if I can be your date for dinner tonight? I know it's last minute, but I really need to talk to you."
Asking me to call my mother and change plans for tonight was huge. For almost anyone else in the world I would have refused flat out. But this was Jack, and he wouldn't have asked if it wasn't important.
A sigh of relief whispered on the other end of the line. "Supper is at six-thirty, right?"
"On the dot."
"Can I meet you there? I'm going to have to race to make it as it is."
"Just don't tell my mother. She'd lecture you all night on the proper way to treat a lady."
He laughed. "So would mine, but this is urgent."
The man was making me very curious. "Sure. I'll meet you in the driveway at 6:25 but if you're not there by then, I'm going in without you. I won't arrive late, not even for you, Jack." I laughed and heard it echoed from the other side of the line.
"Fair enough; if I'm late, I'm on my own." He was quiet for a second. "I'll see you tonight then."
I set the receiver down, and it jiggled in its cradle for a moment. I had no idea what Jack wanted to talk to me about, but I knew one thing-it was going to be an interesting night.
Chapter Two I WAITED UNTIL nine a.m. before phoning my mother. I'd spent every Wednesday for the past seven years at my parents' house for supper. And every Wednesday, with only the rare exception, my mother had arranged for an eligible young man to be invited over for dinner as well. Seven years of awkward conversations and boring dates, and I'd never shown a flicker of interest in a single one of them. My mother was nearly overcome with frustration at her thwarted attempts to get me married off. So this whole situation would have to be handled very carefully because I didn't want my mother taking my request to bring Jack to dinner as reason to break out the wedding invitations.
I knew for sure that she approved of him, as she was the one who had arranged our initial introduction, mere hours before our work lives had intersected.
I dialed the phone, cranking out the familiar numbers with trepidation, running the thick black telephone cord through my fingers as I waited.
Three rings before she answered. "Morning, Mother."
"Alexandra?" She went silent for several seconds. I held my breath. "I hope you're not phoning to cancel for this evening." Her tone was a shade beyond clipped.
"No, Mother: I'll be there. I was just wondering if we could adjust the plans slightly."
"Change the plans? How?" She sighed loudly. "Are you going to be late? Because it's not like we ask a lot of you, one night a week is all, it's the least you could do to show up at the prescribed time-"
"No. I won't be late, I'd just like to bring a friend with me."
"A friend?" Her tone was suspicious, but I could tell that I'd piqued her curiosity.
"You remember Jack O'Connor. He's the FBI agent that you introduced me to a few months ago." I cringed. Once I'd said it, I knew she was attaching all sorts of meaning to my request. I was going to have to head her off.
"Jack O'Connor?" Silence stretched across the telephone line. I tapped my pencil against the desk, nerves making me restless. "That would be fine. I could change the plans we had for this evening to include him."
"I want to make sure that you don't get the wrong idea."
"And what idea would that be, Alexandra? You've asked to bring a friend along to dinner. How can I get the wrong idea about that?"
Her words didn't sway me. "Jack is just a friend. A colleague. We've worked together on a case, and we're friends." I knew I was repeating myself, but I couldn't seem to keep quiet. I needed to make her understand.
"Goodness, Alexandra, there's no need to get defensive. I understand. Mr. O'Connor is your friend. It's not like I'm going to have a string quartet playing Pachelbel's Canon when you arrive. I'm not about to hang up the phone and go unpack my grandmother's wedding veil. He's just a friend. I understand the concept."
I closed my eyes and rubbed at my temple, feeling the beginnings of a headache. "I'm sorry, Mother. I didn't mean to sound condescending."
"Fine. Your apology is accepted. So we'll see you at six-thirty?"
I sighed. "Yes, I'll be there at six-thirty." Exactly the same time I've arrived for the past seven years. I didn't speak that part aloud, but I had to bite my tongue not to.
I hung up the phone feeling drained and just a little testy. After all that, ,lack had better have something mighty important to discuss tonight.
My caseload had been full to overflowing for several months, but over the course of the day I got four of my open cases off the books and even got paid for one of them. I scratched the payment amount into my account book, filed the closed cases, and cleared off my desk. It felt good to get a few things put away and moved out of sight. At five o'clock I deposited a stack of file folders that contained open investigations onto the corner of my desk. It was work that hadn't been completed and would need to be shoved on to the next day. Then I started the ten-block walk to my apartment. I had to grab a quick shower and change of clothes before setting out for supper at my parents'.
The air outside was chilly, even for December in New York, and the sky was dark, but wrapped in my heavy grey wool trench coat, the cool damp air didn't bother me. The clack of my heels on the pavement as I strode through the darkening streets echoed in my ears. The glow of light from the streetlamps kept me from walking in the dark. I looked up and saw dark brick apartment buildings flanking the street, their square hulking forms broken by lighted apartment windows. Inside the warm, cozy apartments, families were probably going about the nightly rituals of supper and bedtime. The thought made me a little melancholy, knowing that my own apartment would be cold, dark, and empty. Suddenly glad I was going out, even to my parents' house, I accelerated my pace.
I let myself into my apartment, shut the door, and removed my coat. I didn't even wait a moment before turning on the element under the teakettle. After the click, hiss, and snap of gas igniting, the blue flame made me feel warmer almost immediately.
I waited for the water to boil, made the tea, then went to have a quick shower while it steeped. In picking out clothes to wear, the main consideration was warmth, so I chose a charcoal wool suit, stockings, sensible shoes, and a black felted wool hat. I sipped my cup of tea and enjoyed the last few minutes of warmth before I had to go back out and face a cold subway ride and several hours of my mother's company.
I walked as quickly as I could from the subway station to my parents' house. Blowing on my gloved fingers, I'd already decided that if Jack wasn't outside when I got there I would go in without him. No way would I stand outside in the bitter cold longer than absolutely necessary.
My parents' house was imposing by almost any standard. Right on the edge of Central Park, it was a stone behemoth with large windows, pillars, and formal landscaping, made even more forbidding by winter's cold. The inside was just as impressive and just as cold. Carefully placed art, beautiful but uncomfortable furniture, and a constant hum of tension, not relaxing or homey.
The sight of Jack leaning against one of the pillars both relieved my mind and brought a smile to my face. I was bundled up and freezing, and there he stood, jacket open, no gloves, leaning back, not a care in the world. Jack was a handsome man, with dark hair and eyes and a quick smile. He often looked as though he knew something everyone else didn't and was laughing just a little to himself. I always felt better when I was with him, from the first day I'd met him. He had a solid sense of humor and the ability to laugh at himself. He also respected my skills as a detective, despite my gender, and that mow than anything told me all I needed to know about him.
When he spotted me he straightened up and headed down the drive toward me.
"Why didn't you tell me that you were going to have to walk? I could have found a way to come and get you." He glared at me as though annoyed.
"I didn't walk all the way here, just from the subway station."
"Still, I would have picked you up if I'd known."
I stopped and turned to look at him, despite my burning desire to get inside. "Jack, I don't have a car. How did you think I was going to get here?"
He removed his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. He replaced the hat again and narrowed his eyes at me before answering. "I thought you would be sensible and take a taxi."
"It costs ten times as much to take a taxi, and that's if you can even find one in this weather. It was just easier."
"You're stubborn, you know that?"
I felt my eyes narrow, and I crossed my arms. "1 haven't seen or heard from you in almost a month, and that's the first thing you can think of to say to me?"
He grasped my elbow and guided me up the sidewalk to the door "Other than to tell you that you haven't changed a bit? Yeah, that's it." He grinned as he said it, and I felt the old bite of friendship and rivalry between us, but I also saw a tightness around his eyes that worried me.
"You okay?" I asked it quietly as he reached out and knocked.
"I've had better weeks." He stared straight ahead, another hint that something was wrong. I knew he had something to tell me, and I hadn't known how serious it was, but I was getting the feeling that whatever it was, it was weighing heavily on Jack.
My thoughts were interrupted when the door opened with a blast of warm air I didn't wait, even for a second, just barreled straight in. Jack followed at a slightly more polite pace, but I noticed that he shut the door behind us without waiting for the maid who'd answered the door to do it.
I turned to the maid, a young woman I'd never seen before. She looked weary. Her pinned-up hair was slightly askew and there was a small stain on the front of her apron. From the looks of it, she'd had a hard first day. I was pretty sure it was her first day here as I'd seen the look she had in her eyes dozens of times on the faces of my mother's new employees. She was a hard woman to work for, and it showed in her constantly changing household staff.
"I'm Allie Fortune, and this is my friend Jack O'Connor We're expected for dinner." I smiled at the woman, but she didn't respond. She had a vacant look that told me she was beyond cheering at this point. All she wanted was to go home.
"Follow me." We trailed the woman from the entryway, through the leaded glass French doors, and into the drawing room. My mother sat on the high-backed, stiff Queen Anne settee, and my father sat in the only comfortable chair in the room. He read the newspaper while my mother sipped coffee out of a china cup in silence.
She was a very attractive woman, looking closer to her forties than her fifties. Her posture, her diction, and everything else about her seemed to scream breeding and tasteful wealth. Sometimes when I considered it, I felt sorry for her. What must it be like to have a daughter like me? A female detective, unmarried, and well past marrying age. A daughter who had no interest in the things that were important to the mother. I didn't do it to spite her, or at least I hadn't in years, but I could just never mold myself into whatever it was she wanted me to be.
Excerpted from MISS MATCH by Sara Mills Copyright © 2009 by Sara Mills. Excerpted by permission.
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