It’s vacation time and Charity is happy to spend a few hours doing a favor for a neighbor. Then she faces reality. A different culture, an indifferent police force, and the shady world of smugglers combine to make for a dangerous search for a missing woman. Can she get to the answers before Audrey is dead?

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CHAPTER 1

 

It had been three months since Jake went to Morocco to make a movie. Three months of emails and phone calls, and a growing feeling that I was losing him.

My work as a private investigator hadn’t been fascinating since I’d finished with the people traffickers. I’d had a couple of wandering spouse cases. One of them wasn’t even wandering. He’d forgotten to tell his wife he was going fishing. I was getting pretty tired of boring cases.

I’d taken the leap into adulthood and decided to stop dabbling in investigating and actually put some effort into my business. Charity Deacon Investigations now had a website. I had a business coach and a five-year plan. But right now, I had a lack of business. When Jake called to say he was given a week off filming and would I like to spend time with him in Paris, I jumped at the chance.

When I told Lu, she said, “Let’s get out of this freaky spring chill and add on a week in the South of France. You’ll be better for the break and I’ll get a vacation.”

We were leaving in six hours.

I had my passport, some euros, and an empty suitcase. And a pile of clothes on my bed that was too big to fit in the case. I still had time to get a bigger suitcase, but something told me that I would just find more things to bring with me.

I made a pot of coffee to help me think. When I had my mug in hand, I decided that I should make a pile of the essentials; clothes, toiletries and put other stuff to the side.

When I was done, I was staring at the pile of clothes, which might now fit into my suitcase, when the doorbell chimed. Thankful for the interruption, I headed downstairs.

Standing on the finger dock was Delores Markham, neighborhood gossip and rule keeper. I readied myself for some kind of lecture. A quick glance over Delores’ shoulder showed me Lu making her way toward us. Unlike me, Lu was looking chic in black and cream. Tall and slim, and perfectly groomed, she always looked elegant. It wasn’t just because she was rich, or Asian, there was something cool inside her.

I was tall, but built a little more solidly, and I lived in jeans and tee-shirts. Today, I didn’t have to check in the mirror to know I was looking harried and messy.

I looked back at my neighbor and hoped my taste never went to heather and beige outfits. “Come in, Delores,” I said, keeping my voice cheerful.

I left the door open so Lu could just walk in. Since gang members broke into my little floating home and trashed it, I had the door set up to lock when it closed. It meant I had to keep a spare key in my car, but I slept better knowing I couldn’t accidentally leave the door unlocked.

“Thank you, Charity,” Delores said, pulling her cardigan around her as if she was cold. “I understand you are going to France today.”

Lu walked in and went straight to the kitchen. “Can I pour you a coffee, Delores?” she asked.

“No, thank you, Lu.” Delores smiled as she spoke which kind of put me off kilter.

She had been so nice to me when I got beaten up and came home to find my house a disaster zone. I knew there was a nice Delores in there, an interesting one even. It just seemed she preferred to show the world the judgmental Delores. Or, maybe, Lu was right and the judgment was all in my mind.

“Yes, we’re off to France. I’m just packing. Is there something I can do for you?” I tried to convey a feeling of urgency without seeming to push her out the door.

“Yes. I would like to ask you a small favor. I have a friend in Pina sur Midi. It’s a small town on the Mediterranean, near Cassis. Will you be going in that direction?” Delores’ voice caught on the last question. This was more than a small favor. I looked a little closer and noticed shadows under her eyes. Delores was worried enough to lose sleep.

I pulled one of the chairs out and asked her to sit. “We’ll be close enough to go. What’s the favor?” I waited. The tension she wore like a veil didn’t shift.

Lu put a box of Kleenex on the table and joined us. At least I wouldn’t have to deal with an emotional Delores alone. I hoped she didn’t need the Kleenex. I didn’t like tears at the best of times, but tears from her would be like the sphinx sobbing.

The words came out in a rush. “Well, my friend, her name is Audrey Wylie, hasn’t been in contact for a few days.”

“Have you talked to the police?” I figured she was going to ask me to find this Audrey, but I wasn’t going to barge into a French police investigation.

“Yes,” Delores said. “Of course, I did. The Gendarmes were not very helpful. However, they said they would look into it. A gentleman by the name of Matthieu Durant is in charge of the case.”

I could at least try to talk to him, but before I promised, I wanted all the information. “Is it possible that your friend just went away for a few days?”

“She would have told me. Charity, I know there is something wrong. Audrey and I have been friends since we were activists in the sixties. She never lost that drive to fix problems. I know I have grown too old to join protests. But Audrey could never pass up an opportunity to right a wrong. She is quite inspiring.”

I ignored Lu’s raised eyebrow. I’d tell her what I knew about Delores’ history with the Equal Rights Movement later.

“What exactly makes you think something is wrong?” I prompted. Delores was like a lot of my regular clients. The emotions they felt fought with their thinking. Like they could only be logical if they were calm. I was used to prodding until I got what I thought was everything.

“She said she was sure someone was running guns in her town. She told me smuggling was a problem in all the coastal towns, but lately there had been incidents that she thought were more than the normal cargo of marijuana or alcohol. She said that someone might be watching her.” Delores dug into her purse and handed me a sheaf of printouts. “Here are all her emails and the information I gave to Mr. Durant. Please, Charity, it would mean a lot if you could make sure the police are taking this seriously.”

Who could say no to a scared old lady? It wouldn’t hurt to check with the local cops and maybe have a poke around. In fact, doing that would let me write off some of the cost of the trip.

“I can pay you,” Delores said, misunderstanding my hesitation.

“No, you don’t need to do that. I was just thinking of the best way for us to check. Do you have her address and phone number in here?” I held out the papers.

“Yes, it’s on the top page. Thank you, Charity, it means a lot to me.” She turned her attention to my home and the worry seemed to slip from her. “I feel like I should be doing something in return. Can I keep an eye on your home while you are gone? And Jake’s?”

Despite feeling that I was giving her permission to snoop through my things, I said, “Yes. That would be great. The house sitter I contacted still hasn’t gotten back to me, and I don’t have time to track her down.”

I pulled out my spare keys, Jake’s was on there, along with my front door and car. “You don’t need to do anything but pick up the mail.”

When Delores left, Lu looked at my packing attempt and laughed. “It’ll all fit, don’t worry.” She started rolling the clothes and stuffing them in layers into the case. She looked at the pile of other things I’d set aside. “Why are you bringing your laptop?”

“We might need it for emails or something.” And playing solitaire when I get bored.

“Leave it here. If we need to be in touch, we’ll find an internet cafe.”

I started to argue but realized I’d be lugging the laptop with me on the plane, train, and rental car. I decided to go for an unencumbered ride.

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