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I waited for The Look. Maybe you know the one, that startled stare of disbelief that says, "You?! You can't be."
In my case, the can't-be is a private detective, and the disbelief stems from my gender (female), my age (twenty-six), and last but never least, my size (four feet nine inches; ninety-seven pounds).
If you have trouble visualizing those stats, picture your basic female Olympic gymnast, that sturdy, eternally pubescent body type honed by years of triple-flipping across the floor, dancing on a skinny balance beam, vaulting over massive barriers, and swinging over and under those slippery uneven bars several times your height. Such skills weren't included in the certification test I took for P.I. legitimacy in Washington State, but already they've come in handy. Maybe more so than my year as a Chicago cop.
But this woman standing in my office doorway didn't have that look. In fact, her gaze alighted on me only for a moment before it took off, darting about the room like a small bird desperate to find a window.
"Ms. Abbott?" I said. "Come in, please. Have a seat." I gestured toward the client chair, a shabby but comfortable gray plush monster I found left on a curb with the garbage. It's soft and deep, easier to get into than out of. Which I thought couldn't hurt business either.
When she didn't move, I leaned back in my swivel chair behind the desk to await her decision. She had called from the Prince Island Women's Center, just four blocks from my office in the little town of Grace, and the source of most of my business. She was still holding my card, in fact, in the same hand with which she gripped thestrap of the bag over her right shoulder. The long fingers of her other hand were nervously shredding a corner of the card until, abruptly, she moved to a chair and sat.
It was not the comfy chair she chose, however, but one of the two metal folding chairs to the left of the desk, meant to accommodate any others in the client party. Already, my knowledge of pop psychology was assigning her low points for self-esteem.
She set the big beige purse on her lap and wrapped her arms about it. The bag was one of those huge vinyl numbers advertised in catalogs as having compartments for everything you could possibly need, and Mary Alice Abbott looked to be a woman in need.
She was not unattractive--at least potentially--tall and slim, probably only five or six years older than my twenty-six years. But she had the shadow of middle age upon her, a slump to the mouth and shoulders that suggested a lifetime of disappointment. Her thin hair was coiled on her head in a style several generations out of date, her clothes equally unfashionable--straight gray wool skirt reaching midcalf above sensible shoes, starched white blouse downplaying ample breasts. Her complexion was flawless but pale, as though she'd been ill. Even her eyes, a vivid cobalt blue, had an abstracted quality, as if she'd left some vital part of herself behind.
Altogether, the woman struck me as a person whose connection to life was tenuous, like an orchid that would wither outside a greenhouse. And whatever had brought her to me had put enough of a scare in her to force her out of that shelter.
Her eyes focused on mine at last and she spoke. "It's about my sister," she said. "I have to find her."
I suppressed an impulse to sigh. When would a case for more than missing persons ever walk through that door? In the eight months since I'd set up shop on this island, I'd found two runaway daughters, three errant husbands, and a birth mother. Not that I didn't appreciate the business--any business that came my way in those first months--but how could a P.I. earn any real rep without something juicy to work on?
Professionalism, professionalism. I sat up straighter and directed my attention back to the client. "Has she been missing long?"
She looked at me, her thin brows creasing over her nose. "I'm not sure," she said slowly. "We haven't . . . been in touch that long."
I struggled to make sense of the statement. "It's been a while, then, since you've seen each other?"
"Oh, I haven't seen her."
"Haven't seen her?" I echoed foolishly.
"She only just contacted me, two weeks ago now. But we were to meet and she never came. I haven't heard from her since."
She opened the purse then and took out a packet of three letters bound by a frayed blue ribbon. Her hand seemed to contemplate extending them to me but instead pulled the packet back against her breast. "You understand, my mother must never know of this," she said, her intense eyes staring into mine. "At least not yet."
I murmured something about confidentiality, withdrawing the hand I'd offered to receive the letters.
She went on, her voice hoarse, as though she didn't use it much. "My mother has given me everything; I don't want her hurt."
I felt at a bit of a loss to know what to ask next; I hadn't fully processed what I'd already heard. "Have you known you had a sister? Before she contacted you, that is?"
She hesitated. "Sometimes I seem to have memories of her. But my mother said Alice was only my invisible friend. All children have them, you know, so I guess I just believed that."
"Alice?" I said. The woman had identified herself over the phone as Mary Alice Abbott. I felt an involuntary thrill of excitement as the words evil twin flashed, unbidden, through my brain. "Was--is she your twin?" I asked.
"Oh, no. She's older. My big sister. She says I was still little when she got sent away. So I could have been imagining, like Mother said."
"But you weren't."
"And you're sure the person you're hearing from now is legitimate?"
"Oh, yes. Yes, I knew it immediately."
She seemed to pass into a reverie again, her eyes losing focus, her hands moving across the letters like a child caressing its blanky.
"What do you remember particularly about her?" I asked, to jog her back.
"She protected me," she answered promptly. "I remember that she protected me."
"From . . . ?"
Her face blanked out again. After a considerable pause I ventured, "From your parents maybe?"
The vivid eyes refocused. "Oh, no, my mother has always protected me. My uncle too, Mother's brother. Maybe too much, you could say."
"And your father?"
"That's just it," she said. "Apparently, it's memories Alice has been having about him that have led her to contact me. She started going to a group because she couldn't sleep. They told her she was having "post-traumatic stress.' I looked it up: memories of abuse."
"I guess," she said faintly.
"Did you experience any such abuse yourself?"
Her eyes widened with alarm. "No! Oh, goodness, no." Then, collecting herself, "I hardly even remember him. Mother says I was almost three when he left us."
"What do you remember about him?"
"Nothing, really. I saw a picture once though. He was very handsome. I think my mother really loved him--you know, that way."
Belatedly, I remembered my new resolve to take notes during first interviews. My memory tends to get lost in impressions and forgets details. I pulled a yellow legal pad and gnawed ballpoint from the desk's top drawer and reviewed the basics, looking up periodically for confirmation. I headed the sheet Mary Alice Abbott and asked for her address, home and work phone numbers, social-security number, and birth date. She was, it turned out, also twenty-seven--twenty-eight come next August.
"Your sister contacted you two weeks ago."
"Yes. The sixth of March."
"But you have not actually met her in person."
"No. She finally wrote that she wanted to, last week, but then she didn't come. Or maybe she thought I didn't. She said ten in the morning, but I only got the letter at four that afternoon. The mail usually comes early at work, but that day there was a substitute and it came late. So I went right there, to the restaurant, but I didn't see anyone who could be her. I've been back every day since, at lunchtime, and after work until my mother started suspecting something. But Alice never came. At least she never introduced herself. But I'm sure I'd know her if I saw her."
"What was the restaurant?"
"The Queen's . . ."
"Queen's Rest? Above Port Angel?"
"Yes. I was glad it wasn't the house she picked to meet at. I mean, she's angry at Mother, says she sent her away. I'm kind of worried about it, to tell you the truth."
"You think she might harm your mother?"
Fear stiffened her features. "Oh, I hope not. But who knows what she might be capable of? What anybody might?"
There was something there to be pursued, but I let it go for the moment in the interest of a continuous history.
"So you were how young when she left?"
"I don't know exactly, since I don't really remember, but Alice says I was still little. She says she started running away but kept coming back to check on me, to be sure I was okay. Then Mother sent her away for good."
"Do you know where?"
"No. But it was to some woman. Who always read the Bible."
"Have you any idea who that was?"
I backtracked a bit. "You say 'the house.' Does that mean you're still living with your mother?"
Mary Alice gave me another of her curious blank looks. "Yes," she said, the look adding, "of course."
"And the name. You say your sister was named Alice, but your name is Mary Alice?"
She came up with a small smile, which seemed to give her face a needed rest. "I guess Mother started calling me Mary Alice after Alice left. Maybe so I wouldn't wonder why she wasn't there." The smile disappeared. "I haven't asked Mother about any of this though. I'm afraid to. That's why I've come to you, to find out."