Cynthia has a Secret

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chapter-1

drop-cap-carmina could see the flashing lights before she got up to their property. She could tell they were close, and was curious as to what the neighbors had been doing that the police were there. Julius, her dad, was always suspicious of what their neighbors were up to, so it came as no surprise to Carmina that they were in trouble.

But as she got closer, she realized the emergency vehicles were not, in fact, in the neighbor’s long driveway. They were at hers. She slowed her walk, and then stopped.

Her first thought was that someone was hurt. Maybe her mother had slipped on the stairs or cut herself. She always overreacted when she got hurt, and thought she needed stitches or a cast or something. But the flashing lights were not an ambulance, they were police cars. Not just regular police cars. They were unmarked black cars. Feds.

Carmina hid behind one of the big trees, and watched, acid burning in her stomach and chest. Black-suited men went in and out of the house. Two of them came out with her father between them, his hands cuffed behind his back. They put him in one of the waiting black cars. Then a few minutes later, a couple more came out with her mother. Esther Knight’s long, blond hair blew back slightly in the breeze. Even at a distance, Carmina couldn’t help but admire and envy her mother’s beauty. Her own hair was quite dark. Her skin was darker and her facial features rounder and not so finely shaped. Esther always looked impeccably groomed, her make-up perfect, her hair shining, even when she was painting first thing in the morning, trying to catch the early morning light.

Esther was upset. She was trying to pull away from the two agents holding onto her. Esther hated people in her personal space. She didn’t like her routine to be broken. Carmina swallowed, wishing she could just brush off the feeling of dread. Sometimes she awoke early in the morning with an inexplicable feeling of impending doom, and she would tell herself how silly she was being. She had no reason to be worried. Carmina had a good life, and nothing horrible was going to happen to her. But this time, watching her parents being escorted out of their home into the waiting vehicles, she couldn’t think of what to tell herself.

Maybe it was all a mistake. Maybe it was just some kind of clerical error. Or mistaken identity. Her father had often warned her how easy it was for someone to steal your identity, to do things in your name and mess up your credit and your reputation. That had to be what had happened. It was either a mistake or someone had stolen her parents’ identities. They would take Julius and Esther Knight down to the police station, or whatever building these agents worked out of, and they would sit down and talk, and they would figure out that this was all just a mistake. It was all a big mistake.

A wave of dizziness passed over Carmina, and she turned away from the scene for a moment, leaning her back against the tree and closing her eyes. She took a deep breath. Calm. She had to stay calm. Think. What would her father tell her to do? They had handcuffed him and put him in a car, caged him. He couldn’t explain it to her this time, couldn’t tell her what to do. She had to think about all he had taught her and figure it out herself.

She looked back around the tree toward the house. With both of her parents in separate cars, the feds were apparently wasting no time moving the process along. With at least half a dozen agents still in the house, the two cars pulled away from the house and headed back down the long, winding driveway toward Carmina. She stayed hidden behind the tree the best she could and watched them go past her. She knew she should not peek out to watch them drive by. But she had to see. She had to know everything she could about what was happening to her family.

The black car with Esther in it drove by first. The red and blue lights were flashing. There was one agent driving and another in the passenger seat. Esther’s head was bowed. Carmina wasn’t close enough to see tears, but she was sure they were there. Running down Esther’s beautiful face. They wouldn’t smudge her waterproof make-up. That would stay perfect, like always. Esther didn’t look out the window. Didn’t see her daughter hiding behind the tree, wondering what was going on and what she should do.

The car with Julius in it followed close behind. His head was not bowed like her mother’s but up, swiveling this way and that, taking everything in, his dark eyes glaring out from underneath bushy black brows, collecting a hundred bits of information about his environment in case there was somehow the opportunity for escape. Julius’ head stopped moving momentarily as the car drove past the tree. He didn’t make any sign he had seen her, adding this new piece of information to everything else. He did nothing that would attract the agents’ attention to Carmina. Didn’t try to mouth a message or make any kind of gesture to her. He just watched her for the few seconds the car took to pass by the tree, then his head started to swivel again.

Carmina waited until the cars had pulled out of the long lane, through the tall gates, disappearing out of her sight onto the residential street. She looked toward the house to make sure no one would see her, and then started to work her way back down the driveway the way she had come, this time sticking close to the trees, hiding behind them or in their shadows. She knew what she had to do. Knew what her father would say to her. He wouldn’t want her sticking around to get arrested herself. He wouldn’t want her to be in danger. She had to disappear before they started looking for her. They might already be on her trail.

Neil Crowther stopped outside the house to look down the long driveway to make sure Julius and Esther Knight were out of the way. He wouldn’t be the one doing the initial interrogations, he had to stay around the house and supervise the search and seizure of anything incriminating. He had to make sure everything was done by the book and that the chain of evidence was preserved and it could all be used in court when the time came.

The foliage around the lane was lush and thick. It was a beautiful place. There were few people who would turn down living in a mansion like Knight House. It was luxurious and impeccably cared for. It was Neil’s job to discover all of its secrets. Judging by all of the work that had gone into the investigation up until now, Neil suspected it would be a long process. There were lots of secrets in Knight House.

Other agents had started the process of boxing up Julius’ office files, and were loading them into the trunks of the waiting vehicles. Neil had ordered a van as well, after taking a look at the man’s office. They weren’t just talking about a few file drawers on a desk. Julius had several banks of lateral files, all carefully catalogued and labelled. It was going to take weeks of work to go through them all.

They would need a second van just for Esther’s canvases. The Knights didn’t store all of them at Knight House; most of them would be at the galleries. But there were still plenty of them in her studio. Neil recognized copies of some of the more famous paintings, but most of them were too obscure for him to know. He was no art major. For the more part, the best he could do was discern which of the paintings were Esther Knight originals, and which were copies of someone else’s work. Esther’s original work was light and airy, lots of soft colors, wind and water, fantastic beasts, and elves with her daughter’s features. Her copies ran the full gamut of art history. She seemed equally able to reproduce a renaissance piece, a surrealist, and a modern work. It would take an expert to tell the reproductions from the originals, and Neil was not an art expert.

Mike put down a stack of boxes and wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. “What about the girl’s room?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Well, run through it carefully, but be respectful. Leave things where they are, unless something is obviously suspicious.”

“Her computer?”

“Better take that.”

“There’s artwork in her room too.”

“Take it. Make sure it’s labeled as coming from her room rather than the studio.”

Mike nodded. “Okay. Is someone going to go over to the school to pick her up?”

Neil looked at his watch. “Mandy. But she doesn’t get out until three-thirty, so we’ve still got a few hours.”

“Poor kid. This is going to devastate her.”

Neil felt a pang of guilt. But they couldn’t let criminals operate just because they had kids. It wasn’t Neil’s fault the Knight family was being ripped apart. That was the parents’ fault. Their choices had led to this. At least he didn’t have to rip screaming toddlers from their mother’s arms. The teen was old enough to understand what was going on. Old enough she would only have a few years in foster care or with relatives before she could get out on her own.

“She’ll be all right,” he told Mike. “Kids are tougher than you think.”

Mike shrugged and nodded, heading back into the house to continue with the work of removing all of the evidence. Neil waited until Mike was inside again before popping a Pepto pill in his mouth, chewing it well before swallowing, and waiting for it to take effect.

Once Carmina was away from the house, she stopped to sort things out. She was on her own. She couldn’t rely on anyone else, she was going to have to get along on her own. All those times she had secretly thought her parents were smothering her, and she just wanted some freedom and independence? Well, that time had come. And now she wasn’t so sure she was ready for it.

She sat down on a big rock, under a tree with a wide, green, rustling canopy. There was a little stream at her feet. Just deep enough to hide a few fish or to get her shorts wet if she decided to wade through it. If she’d been wearing shorts. Carmina unzipped her backpack, and slowly reviewed the contents.

Schoolbooks were out. She wasn’t going to need those anymore. Although the text on graphic design… she still kind of wanted to hold onto that one. Carmina opened it up. Her name was neatly inked in her mother’s manuscript printing on the first page. Carmina tore it out. She figured if she ripped it off quickly, like a bandaid, it wouldn’t hurt so much. She hated to deface a book. And that one was a particular favorite. But she couldn’t keep anything that would identify her. She put the discarded books and page in a neat pile at her feet.

Her lunch was still in her bag. She had felt sick at lunchtime. That was one less meal to worry about scrounging now that she was on her own. She set it to the side. Pushing around other items, she dug to the bottom of her bag to pull out her emergency kit.

Julius had always insisted they keep emergency kits with them at all times. In the car, in Carmina’s school backpack, in Esther’s purse. Julius had small kits that fit in his suit pockets. Carmina clutched it to her, hearing his often-repeated words.

You never know when and where you will be when an emergency happens. That’s why you have to be prepared. Always.

She slowly unzipped the top of the little daypack. Nothing fell or sprang out. Everything was neatly arranged. Silver space-age blanket to capture body heat. Granola bars, gum, and bouillon cubes. Rope, string, and a multi-tool. Safety pins. A minuscule first aid kit. She didn’t take anything out, not wanting to risk losing anything or not being able to fit it all back in properly. She zipped it back up and put it back in her backpack. There was another package right at the bottom of the backpack. Carmina pulled out the money belt. Taking a quick look around to make sure she was still alone and unobserved, she pulled up her shirt and buckled it on, pressing it to lay flat and snugging it into place. She didn’t open it to see how much cash was there.

Her wallet contained her social, which she had never been able to memorize, her learner’s license, her school ID, and her credit card. It would have to go as well. She re-opened the emergency kit to remove the multi-tool, and opened it into a big pair of sturdy scissors. She cut the cards into small pieces and buried them and the wallet under a nearby log.

Carmina looked at her phone for a long moment. If only she could call someone and tell them what was going on. But she couldn’t involve anyone else. Couldn’t trust anyone else. And who did she really have that she would tell anyway? It wasn’t like she was popular or even had a best buddy. Her best friend was her mother, and since Esther was so reclusive, they didn’t have a larger circle of friends who went out together for movies or tea or shopping. It was just Carmina and Esther. And Julius. And Esther and Julius couldn’t communicate with her now.

Carmina tossed the phone into the stream. It made a little sploosh sound, and disappeared.

Now she was really on her own.

Neil looked at his watch. They were on their fourth van, and there was no sign they were going to be finished clearing out Julius Knight’s file drawers any time soon. His boss, Mandy Foss, a diminutive, tough-as-nails black woman, was getting out of her car and coming up to the mansion, and she would be looking for some kind of ETA until they would be finished with the house.

“We’re working as fast as we can,” Neil said, getting to his feet.

He had only been sitting down on the grand stairway leading to the front door for a minute. The rest of the day he had been on his feet, and he was really feeling it. He eased his legs and feet stiffly.

“I’m not here to hurry you along,” Mandy assured him. “It’s more important to be thorough and get it done right, than to be fast. Let’s get all we can.”

Neil nodded his agreement. “Right. So… what’s up?”

She didn’t need to be checking up on him in the middle of an investigation. They had planned everything out properly, and she knew all of what was going on without coming into the middle of it personally.

Mandy looked at him. She swept one hand through her corn-rows, and pursed her full lips. She looked tired around the eyes. Like maybe she’d been up all night before the bust, going through the files and making sure everything was in order.

“We have a problem.”

Neil’s heart sped up immediately, and he had to remind himself that ‘a problem’ when you were on reduced duties was not the same as a problem when you were out in the field chasing down the bad guys. Taking down white-collar criminals like Julius and Esther Knight did not generally involve gunplay or high-speed chases. It was the first time Neil had even been out of the bull pen in weeks.

“What is it?” he asked.

“It’s the girl.”

Neil tried to recall what details he knew about Julius and Esther’s daughter, who had only been incidental to the investigation. “Carmen?”

“Carmina,” Mandy corrected.

“Carmina. What’s the problem? I thought you were going to pick her up from the school.”

“That’s the problem. She’s not there.”

Neil frowned at her. “Where is she? Truant?”

“Apparently, she wasn’t feeling well, and left the school early this afternoon.”

Neil looked at the government vehicles intruding in the driveway in front of the mansion. He looked down the long lane leading up to the house. At the still-wild woods alongside the road. He started to work through possibilities in his mind.

“She might be skipping, out with friends.”

“The school doesn’t think so.”

“Of course they don’t, that would suggest a problem with their attendance monitoring. Why don’t they think so?”

“Apparently she doesn’t really have a group of friends she hangs out with. I’ll leave you to follow up with them on details. But in the meantime… she’s not there, and she’s not here.”

“We’d better get a missing persons alert out.”

“I agree.”

Neil looked down the driveway again, and sighed. “I think I’d better pull the guys off of clearing out files, and start a search. She’s probably just out with a friend, but if she came here and saw intruders… she might be scared.”

Mandy agreed. “The files will wait. We don’t want a kid out there alone once it starts to get dark.”

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Cynthia has a Secret

By P.D. Workman

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