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The fall sun was already beginning to set above the cypress trees on Tuesday evening, when Colette Guidry parked her car in front of the quaint home in Vodoun, Louisiana. An attractive wooden sign that read Second Chance Detective Agency was already placed in front of a beautifully landscaped flower bed, but the sounds of hammering and stacks of lumber on the front lawn let her know that the office conversion wasn't exactly complete.
She reached for the door handle and paused. Maybe this was a bad idea. She'd worked with Alexandria Bastin-Chamberlain, one of the partners at the detective agency, at the hospital in New Orleans before Alex resigned to open the agency with her husband. She shouldn't feel self-conscious about asking for her help.
But what if Alex thinks you're crazy, too?
And that was at the crux of it. The rest of the hospital staff and the New Orleans Police Department had already informed her that her concern over her missing employee was misplaced. Anna Huval had a history of skipping town with undesirable men and usually surfaced when the disastrous relationship had run its short course. Colette had intimate understanding of choosing the wrong man, although her choices hadn't been near as wild or frequent as Anna's. But her two disappointing whirls with noncommittal men had given her enough sorrow to be sympathetic to Anna's heartbreak, even if it was self-induced.
But all that was in the past. With Colette's guidance, Anna had turned her life around, and for the past six months, she had been on a path that guaranteed her a healthy, successful future. The only problem was no one believed it would last, and Anna's disappearance was a signal to many that she'd relapsed into the behavior that was so familiar to her.
Colette understood exactly why people felt that way. Logically, it was the best explanation, and if Colette hadn't gotten to know Anna so well, she would have bought completely into it, also. But despite the lack of evidence of something dire, and a seemingly logical explanation for what had happened given Anna's past, Colette knew something terrible had happened to the young nurse's aide.
She pushed the car door open and stepped out. The detective agency specialized in situations the police wouldn't handlegiving concerned friends and family a second chance for answers. Anna's disappearance fit that description. If Alex and her husband, Holt, didn't think her case had merit, then they'd tell her, and that would be that.
The door to the agency was partially open, so she pushed it a bit farther and stuck her head inside. Alex stood talking to a contractor in the middle of what was probably going to be a reception area once it had paint, flooring and furniture. As the sunlight crept in through the open door, her former coworker looked over and waved when she saw Colette.
"Did you come to take my temperature?" Alex asked as Colette stepped inside.
"Why? Are you sick?"
"I must be to think I could handle the construction management myself."
Colette laughed. "Well, I'm hardly going to accuse a psychiatrist of being crazy, so sick it is. Perhaps a mindaltering flu."
"Sounds lovely," Alex said and pointed to the only portion of the house away from the loud saws and other construction equipment. "My office is this way. It's the only place with decent flooring and chairs." She leaned over and whispered, "Plus, I have the gourmet single-serve coffeemaker hidden in my filing cabinet."
Colette felt her spirits rise as she followed Alex into a pretty office with blue walls and white trim located in a corner of the building. In addition to being intelligent, attractive and empathetic, Alex was the most intuitive person she'd ever met. If there was help to be found, she'd find it here.
She took a seat in front of the desk and made small talk while Alex made them coffee, catching her up on all the hospital gossip since she'd resigned the month before. Then Alex slid into the chair behind her desk and gave her a shrewd look.
"While I am very happy to see you, I doubt you drove all the way to Vodoun to bring me up to speed on the latest inner workings of New Orleans General."
"No. I have a problem one I'm hoping you can help me with."
Alex pulled a pad of paper and pen out of her desk drawer. "Tell me."
"Anna Huval didn't report to work on Friday. She was scheduled for the evening shift, but was a no-show/ no-call."
"You tried to reach her, of course."
"Yes. I called her apartment and her cell. When I didn't get an answer, I checked with the emergency room of all area hospitals, then when I came up empty there, I called the police. Fortunately, they had no Jane Does in the morgue that matched Anna's description, and they let me file a report but said they probably wouldn't look into it until Monday. Yesterday."
Alex nodded. "Because most adults turn up within twenty-four to forty-eight hours and haven't been victims of a crime."
"So did they investigate on Monday?"
"I pestered them and they finally agreed to check her apartment. I'd already tried to get in but the landlord has gotten in trouble for letting unauthorized people into apartments before and wasn't budging."
"Did you find anything inside?"
"No sign of forced entry or a struggle, and her backpack was missing. Since she started nursing school, she carries it with her everywhere, sneaking in study time whenever she can." Colette frowned. "But the thing is, her books were on her bed. Scattered like they'd been tossed there in a hurry. The bed itself was still made."
"Could you tell if any clothes were missing?"
Colette shook her head. "I don't know. There were no large gaps in her closet, so if she intended to leave, she didn't take much, but then, she didn't have much to begin with."
"Tell me more about her cell phone."
"She has a prepaid one that I've been calling every couple of hours, but it goes straight to voice mail. The police called the cell-phone company to track it, but they said it's either turned off or not in range."
"Did the police find any other reason to suspect she'd taken off on her own volition?"
Colette struggled with her own frustration and disappointment. Now that she was repeating the facts out loud, she could see exactly why the New Orleans police weren't taking her seriously, and the next bit of information was not going to make the situation any better.
She sighed. "Her bank said she withdrew four hundred dollars on Friday evening, a couple of hours before her shift was due to start."
Alex raised her eyebrows and tapped her pen on the desk.
"I know how this looks," Colette said. "If you take the facts and couple them with Anna's reputation for hooking up with the wrong men, then you have a foolish girl adding one more wild weekend to a very colorful past. But I promise you, that is not the young woman Anna is now."
"How can you be sure?"
"Well, I suppose no one can be one hundred percent sure, but I've worked with her every week for the last year. When she told me she wanted to turn her life around, I got her counseling with hospital staff as a start. After three months of therapy, she told me she wanted to be a nurse, and I helped her get grants for nursing school. She comes to me with questions on her courses, and I can see her interest and focus clear as day."
"Maybe a family emergency."
"She's always claimed she has no family left, and I've never seen evidence of any since I've known her. Besides, if it was an emergency, why wouldn't she call me? She trusts me. She knows I would help."
"Perhaps it's not the sort of emergency you would help with."
"What do you mean?"
Alex sighed. "I know a little about Annasome from the rumor mill at the hospital, some from Anna herself. If she's involved in something she knows you wouldn't approve of, she wouldn't tell you. It's clear from what you've told me that she respects you, and I got the impression that with Anna, respect doesn't come lightly. If she thought telling you would damage that, she may choose to handle it alone."
Colette slumped back in her chair. Everything Alex said made so much sense. "But that doesn't mean she's not in trouble, whether or not she chose to walk into it."
"So will you take the case? I have the money, and Anna's become well, like a little sister to me. I have to do something."
"Of course you do," Alex said, and Colette could tell by her expression that Alex truly did understand.
Alex was the only person at New Orleans General whom Colette had ever confided in about the boating accident that killed her parents when she was young and being raised by her only living relative, a spinster aunt who never wanted children and who'd died years ago. More than anyone else, Alex knew the loss she felt at having no family and would understand why Anna had become so important to her.
"I have no problem with our taking the case," Alex said.
Relief swept over Colette like a wave. "Thank you. I can't even tell you how much this means that someone is actually listening."
Alex leaned forward in her chair and looked directly at Colette. "But you have to be prepared for whatever we findeven if it's not the answer you wanted."
Colette nodded. "I can handle that. I just can't handle doing nothing."
"Good. As it happens, Holt's half brother Max is starting at the agency this week. I'll get all the information from you and bring him up to speed at dinner tonight."
"Holt's half brother?" Colette struggled to control her disappointment. "I was hoping you and Holt would do the investigation."
"We're busy on two other cases as the moment, but I promise you Max is an expert. He's got ten years with the Baton Rouge Police Department and was the youngest detective in the department's history. If anyone can find out what happened to Anna, Max can."
"Okay. If you have that much confidence in him, then he must be worthy of it."
Alex smiled. "He'll probably want to talk to you tomorrow. Since you knew Anna better than anyone else, you'll be a big help."
"Anything I can do," Colette said, hoping between now and tomorrow she could think of somethinganythingthat would help find Anna. If Alex's assessment was correct and Anna was in some sort of trouble, then she needed Colette's help now more than ever before.
Max Duhon handed a board to his brother Holt, who was up on a ladder replacing a rotted section of roof trim on his little cabin on the bayou. "It doesn't sound like much of a case," Max said.
Holt held the board in place with one hand and secured it with his nail gun with the other. "It's not sensational or meaty, no, but Alex agreed to take the case, and you're the only one available at the moment to handle it. She'll bring you a folder tonight, but what I told you is the gist of it."
"But the entire case is based on Alex's opinion of someone else's opinion. That's hearsay in court. Why in the world is it good enough for you to launch an investigation?"
"The client meets our criteria. She suspects something has happened, and the police won't open an investigation. The client is credible, even if the missing person is questionable."
"And if it turns out to be nothing but a loose woman taking an unscheduled weekend with her latest passing fancy?"
Holt climbed down the ladder and placed his nail gun in its case. "Then we've still solved the case and earned our fee. We find answers here, Max, and the answers don't always have to be criminal in nature. Turning her away would be going against the very reason we opened the agency in the first place."
Max sighed. "I get it. I just don't know how much more I can do than what the police have already done."
"Talk to the client and try to find a new line of investigation. Poke around into things the police wouldn't have bothered withquestion classmates, see if she had a favorite hangout." Holt clapped him on the shoulder. "Do what you do best. If anyone can ferret out an answer on this, it's you."
Max picked up the ladder and followed Holt to the storage shed. He wished he had as much confidence in his abilities as his brother did. Maybe that was why Alex had assigned him a relatively straightforward, boring and safe case. Maybe they didn't really believe he could handle the work, either. Not now.
The old Max was invincible indestructible. At least that's what he'd thought.
The bullet wound ached in his shoulder as he lifted the ladder onto the rack in the back of the sheda constant reminder of what had happened. Of his failure.