If society wasn't filled with liars, deceivers and betrayers, Mahayla thought, I'd be out of a job. She stared at the stack of files on her desk, all consisting of just-completed projects. Most of them were cases of cheating spouses which required her to spend time snapping photos of clandestine rendezvous and collecting evidence for her clients to use in court. One or two were genealogy related—not her specialty—and still another was a business owner who suspected a rival was using underhanded methods to drive customers away.
She'd solved them all, even the genealogy cases, in record time. No new cases sat in the 'In' basket. Private Investigation work had slowed down as the troubled economy struggled to get back on its feet. There was little she could do to drive more customers through the door besides wait patiently and hope the ad in the yellow pages attracted some attention.
Maybe I should redecorate the office.
Mahayla glanced at the plush chairs on the other side of her desk, then the bookcases lining the walls, and finally the stylish divan and wingback in the designated 'waiting area'. The small, rectangular space got all its character from eclectic bits of architecture around the windows, molding on the walls, and the cream-burgundy-black décor that gave it a chic, vintage feel. Situated on the second floor above a book shop on La Palma Drive, it was perfect for her needs and really, if she was honest, didn't need a lick of updating at all.
It needed customers.
She needed customers. Mahayla didn't like to be idle.
Leaning over, she plucked the photograph of her father, her mother, and herself off the desk. She'd acquired her mother's dark hair, blue eyes, and five-eight height. From her father, the CIA agent who had inspired her to become what she was, Mahayla had inherited a love of mystery, thrills and the need to find answers to questions. A recommendation (and string pulling) from her father right out of high school landed her a job at the CIA, a job she left five years later to open her own business. The reasons for her departure were complicated and personal, reasons her father never understood, much less supported.
Four years on, she didn't regret her choice. Private investigation wasn't as intense or thrilling, sacrifices she was willing to make to keep her morality intact.
All she regretted was that she didn't have a challenging case to sink her teeth into.
Fate must have been listening in; a timid knock—taptaptap—came at the door.
Mahayla set the picture down. “Come in.”
At first, nothing happened. No one entered. Just as she stood up, the handle twisted and a woman stepped in.
Right away, Mahayla noticed three things: the wig, the fear and the weapon. Blonde, five-two, medium height and weight, the woman closed the door but hovered near it as if she thought she might have to suddenly flee. She also clutched a can of mace in a tight fist, skin white over the knuckles. Her clothes were the kind that allowed her to blend in with any crowd: whitewashed jeans, a mint green cardigan and new tennis shoes of an indiscriminate make.
A pair of gray shaded sunglasses hid the woman's eyes from view.
“Can I help you?” Mahayla asked. She had the distinct impression the lady was about to bolt. Interesting.
“Y...yes. I mean, maybe. How much for a...consultation?”
“The consultation is free, ma'am. Would you like to sit down? I have coffee here and a few cold drinks.” Speaking smooth and slow, Mahayla gestured toward one of the chairs opposite her desk.
“Is anyone else here?” the woman whispered.
“No ma'am, it's just me. I'm Mahayla Breland.” She didn't move around the desk, afraid she would make the woman flee before she found out what the problem was.
A husband turned stalker, most likely.
Again, the woman hesitated.
Mahayla saw the way the woman's sunglasses tilted toward the high corners of the room. Like she was looking for surveillance cameras. There were none in this specific office, though the building owner had them on the outside in case of break-ins.
Finally, the woman walked to a chair at the desk and sat on the very edge. She didn't put the mace away. “I'm Emma Chapin.”
Mahayla didn't sit down yet, and she didn't offer her hand. Instinct told her that would be a bad idea despite her own personal protocol. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Chapin. Would you like something to drink?”
“No thank you.”
“All right. What can I help you with today?” Mahayla sat down and folded her hands over the top of her desk. She realized that she didn't expect the woman to talk about an unruly ex-husband, an obsessed lover, or an irate co-worker any longer. Intuition, which she'd learned to trust long ago, warned her that whatever brought Emma here was much darker.
Emma licked her lips and nudged the sunglasses up on the bridge of her nose with a knuckle. “Do you accept missing persons cases?”
“Yes, I do. Who is it that's missing, Ms. Chapin?”
“It's my son. Elliott.” Emma's sunglasses pointed down at her hands. At the mace.
“How long has he been missing?”
“How old is Elliott, Ms. Chapin? Have you contacted the authorities?”
“He's twenty-nine, thirty in September. I can't contact the authorities. I need to do this on my own.”
Mahayla sat back in her chair. “I'm not sure I understand. The authorities have a much more intricate networ--”
“They have spies in the police department,” she whispered.
Emma whipped a look behind her.
The quick motion startled Mahayla. No one had come into the office. What had the woman so spooked?
“I can't tell you unless you agree to take the case, Miss Breland,” Emma said when she glanced back. She seemed a little edgier.
“I'll take the case. I need a hundred-fifty dollar deposit. The balance will be due when I find your son.” Even if she'd had ten cases ahead of this one, Mahayla wouldn't have turned it down. This was more than a simple missing persons case, more than someone who'd run off in a fit or a fury. She could feel it in her bones.
Emma dug through her purse, keeping the mace handy at all times. She withdrew a wallet and then fished out the payment in small bills. Carefully, she made a stack on the desk.
Mahayla pulled her receipt book over and began writing one out. “Thank you. Now then, who is 'they'?”
“The Society of the Nines.” Emma's voice dropped below a whisper. So low that Mahayla had a hard time making the words out.
“I'm sorry, did you say the Society of the Nines?” Mahayla glanced up. Emma's face looked ashen and her mouth had compressed into a tight line.
“Yes, dear. Do you know them?” Her hand tightened around the mace.
Mahayla noticed; she also knew that Emma was watching her every move, as if she suspected Mahayla might be involved with this group. She tore off the receipt and set it down. Picking up the stack of bills, she put it in a plain white envelope and set it into the top drawer. She hoped the mundane task would take the edge off Emma's tension.
“I've never heard of them before. Why don't you tell me about them though after you tell me about Elliott.” Mahayla surmised this group, whoever they were, might have something to do with the entire situation. She gathered a notepad and a pen and glanced at Emma.
The sunglasses were pointed at her, suggesting Emma was staring. Mahayla strove to appear collected and calm. She wasn't entirely convinced of Emma's sanity at the moment, and really didn't want to be sprayed with mace.
“It's my fault they're after him,” Emma lamented. Sincere regret tinged her voice.
“Why is it your fault? What do they want with Elliott? Do you think they already have him?” Mahayla doodled on the notepad; endless little circles in a corner. Her busy mind worked over the evolving details.
“Because he was born on September ninth. If I could have only had him one day earlier, or one day later.” Emma exhaled what sounded like an exhausted sigh.
“I don't understand the correlation.” Mahayla wished the woman would remove the sunglasses. She might get a better read on her.
“Nine. Nine, nine, nine,” Emma said. She leaned forward and, without asking, flipped the pages on Mahayla's desktop calendar until the date on the pages read: September 9th, 1999.
Mahayla stared at the date. Obviously, the number Nine played a prominent part. Society of the Nines. All the nines in Elliott's upcoming birthday. Roughly eight weeks away.
“You didn't say whether you thought they'd made contact with Elliott,” Mahayla reminded her.
“No. No, I don't think they have. That's why I'm here.” Emma's sunglasses tipped up from the calendar toward her again. “I want you to find him before they do.”
“Why doesn't Elliott just find you?”
“Because he knows they watch me. Now, they'll be watching you too.”