She had a tissue sticking out the strap of her bra. The flimsy white paper peeking out from under a well worn and painstakingly cared for dress, one of those flower patterned, almost shapeless things that swallowed the wearer. Rips along one of the pockets and sleeve had been darned with neat and uniform stitches that were almost invisible at a glance. The hole from a cigarette burn was had been delicately stitched into a flower pattern that blended with the material that had been worn and washed many times. Another tissue lay twisted and torn in long spindly fingers of her dry and wrinkled hands, a road map to a life of hard labour. Steam and chemical burns along her palms and forearms spoke of a job in cleaning, maybe at a laundry. A faint chemical scent lingered, the sharp cut of steam and starch on the nose. Yes, definitely a laundry. Her hair was damp with sweat, her pallid skin looked thin and pulled under the heavy humidity of what the weather channel was calling “severe heat wave conditions” but what residents were calling hell on earth.
She blotted her eyes once again and stuffed the tortured napkin into her purse, the movement making several crumpled tissues spill out onto her chair and to the floor. She made them no mind.
“i went to the police you see, they told me… they told me that she must be having fun with some friends, lost track of time, forgot to call. That I just had to wait and she would come back.”
Her voice would have been called sexy once, that deep dulcet tone that would have made toes curl. Now, years of hardship and hard living had left but an echo of that velvet. She leaned forward, almost unconsciously, as she spoke; her large grey eyes wide with tears and yearning. They were startling and beautiful and spoke of the vibrant woman she must have been before life had aged her so. The tissue twisted again.
“But my Cindy, she’s not like that. She’s a good girl, a quiet girl. She studies hard, gonna start college soon. Full scholarship. She knows better than to go with boys. It’s been a week you see, she would never… she just knows better.”
That was the clencher. It had been a week since Cynthia “Cindy to her friends” Riley had been seen leaving the construction office where she worked for her uncle as part time office clerk to earn a little extra cash before heading to college. Seven whole days of no contact with her family, friends or anyone who knew her. Somewhere out there was this woman’s little girl.
Brennan looked at the woman, sitting in the fading light of the evening on one of her mismatched office chairs. The setting sun painted the office in dusky yellows and oranges and the shadows slowly crawled the walls and floor. At times like this, she remembered watching old detective movies as a child, mesmerized as the femme fatale sauntered across the set to perch upon the detective’s desk. Most people who knew of her obsession thought that she wanted to be the sensuous mystery woman who, as her grandfather once said, “walked in beauty like the night”. When others would tease and scoff at her, He would laugh and pat her on the head, for he alone knew that in her heart of hearts she was always the detective, the Sam Spade character who solved the case and kicked bad guy ass.
A pang of grief hit her hard and she rubbed her chest with her fingertips, grimacing. Her grandfather’s passing had been the final blow in a truly fucked up period in her life. Adding to that miasma with her exit from the military, her injury, the loss of a lifelong dream and the strained relationship with her family, it had been a dark time for her. But there wasn’t time to dwell on that now. She wasn’t at home where she could fall into a bottle of Southern Comfort and pass out on her kitchen floor. There was a young girl missing and nobody was looking for her.
“Ms. Riley. I’m not married you see. Cynthia’s father was… well he wasn’t around for her, for any of us. It’s just been just me and her. Her uncle, my brother helps us when we need it. He and his family have been very good to us. He’s been like a father to her when he can. Gave her the part time job at his business to earn money before she went off to school. She wanted to earn money for the things she needed, never wanted to burden me with things like that. Such a good, kind girl you see. Never one to run off, not tell me where she was going. That’s why I know something’s wrong.”
She took a deep breath then. Her voice had started out as a whisper and had grown to almost a wail in agitation. The tissue was smoothed out in her lap and crumpled again several times as she collected herself.
Brennan let her be for a moment. She found that client like this often told more voluntarily than as answers to questions. People forgot things, omitted things and grew defensive at times. It was best to just listen and observe, what they said, what they didn’t say, their body language, their manner. Everything was a clue, everything would be catalogued and examined later until the facts and observations could fit tighter like a construct in the mind to be drawn up and examined from every angle when needed.
“She’s always a kind girl you see, real friendly like. People just like her you know. She’s always talking to people, strangers on the street. I told her about that, warned her. Even when she was young. Don’t talk to strangers, I would say and she would say Yes Mama. Just like that – Yes Mama. But I couldn’t stay mad. I could never stay mad. She’s such a good girl. She would just talk to anybody. I thought that maybe someone she talked too may have liked her too much. That they maybe took my baby because they like her so much.”
There is was. Hesitation. There was something more, something she was not saying.
Brennan sat back and laced her fingers together over her stomach.
“What makes you think I can help? Maybe she just needed sometime away before school starts. Maybe the police are right. It’s been known to happen”
“Not my Cindy!”
Anger now. Warring with worry and fear.
“I’ve tried the police. They don’t care. I’ve looked everywhere, called everyone. I’ve even tried….” Words bitten off and swallowed. She took a breath.
I need someone who will believe me. My Cindy would never leave me like this. She just wouldn’t do it. She’s not that kind of person. She just couldn’t you see. She couldn’t possibly. Not this long with no word. That’s why I came to you. I know you would understand. That you would know what it’s like.”
Brennan furrowed her brow. Ms riley looked nervous now, biting her lips as if to keep words from escaping, secrets that put that sliver of fear in those grey eyes and settled like a small cold stone in Brennan’s gut. Her body stilled and she searched the other woman’s face as she spoke.
“Have you…” she began softly, keeping her tone soft and level as if trying to calm skittish prey. “ … gone to the centre about this?”
A pause and then fear blossomed behind those eyes as the blood drained completely from her already pale face. For a brief moment, she looked like the white skull of death. Then a sound like a mix between a dry sob and a choked gasp wracked her frame and the stone in Brennan’s gut grew ice cold. The tissue lay in shreds among her tightly clenched, trembling fingers. Tears dripped down her cheeks and soaked into the fabric of her dress. Brennan grabbed the box of Kleenex from a desk drawer and came around to desk to squat at the weeping woman’s side. She waited the moments it took for her client to visibly pull herself together, looked into those eyes.
“Tell me” she said.
And Ms. Riley did.