She Wore Mourning


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chapter 1

drop-cap-zachary Goldman stared down the telephoto lens at the subjects before him. It was one of those days that left tourists gaping over the gorgeous scenery. Dark trees against crisp white snow, with the mountains as a backdrop. Like the picture on a Christmas card.

The thought made Zachary feel sick.

But he wasn’t looking at the scenery. He was looking at the man and the woman in a passionate embrace. The pretty young woman’s cheeks were flushed pink, more likely with her excitement than the cold, since she had barely stepped out of her car to greet the man. He had a swarthier complexion and a thin black beard, and was currently turned away from Zachary’s camera.

Zachary wasn’t much to look at himself. Average height, black hair cut too short, his own three-day growth of beard not hiding how pinched and pale his face was. He’d never considered himself a good catch.

He waited patiently for them to move, to look around at their surroundings so that he could get a good picture of their faces.

They thought they were alone; that no one could see them without being seen. They hadn’t counted on the fact that Zachary had been surveilling them for a couple of weeks and had known where they would go. They gave him lots of warning so that he could park his car out of sight, camouflage himself in the trees, and settle in to wait for their appearance. He was no amateur; he’d been a private investigator since she had been choosing wedding dresses for her Barbie dolls.

He held down the shutter button to take a series of shots as they came up for air and looked around at the magnificent surroundings, smiling at each other, eyes shining.

All the while, he was trying to keep the negative thoughts at bay. Why had he fallen into private detection? It was one of the few ways he could make a living using his skill with a camera. He could have chosen another profession. He didn’t need to spend his whole life following other people, taking pictures of their most private moments. What was the real point of his job? He destroyed lives, something he’d had his fill of long ago. When was the last time he’d brought a smile to a client’s face? A real, genuine smile? He had wanted to make a difference in people’s lives; to exonerate the innocent.

Zachary’s phone started to buzz in his pocket. He lowered the camera and turned around, walking farther into the grove of trees. He had the pictures he needed. Anything else would be overkill.

He pulled out his phone and looked at it. Not recognizing the number, he swiped the screen to answer the call.

“Goldman Investigations.”

“Uh … yes … Is this Mr. Goldman?” a voice inquired. Older, female, with a tentative quaver.

“Yes, this is Zachary,” he confirmed, subtly nudging her away from the ‘mister.’

“Mr. Goldman, my name is Molly Hildebrandt.”

He hoped she wasn’t calling her about her sixty-something-year-old husband and his renewed interest in sex. If it was another infidelity case, he was going to have to turn it down for his own sanity. He would even take a lost dog or wedding ring. As long as the ring wasn’t on someone else’s finger now.

“Mrs. Hildebrandt. How can Goldman Investigations help you?”

Of course, she had probably already guessed that Goldman Investigations consisted of only one employee. Most people seemed to sense that from the size of his advertisements. From the fact that he listed a post office box number instead of a business suite downtown or in one of the newer commercial areas. It wasn’t really a secret.

“I don’t know whether you have been following the news at all about Declan Bond, the little boy who drowned … ?”

Zachary frowned. He trudged back toward his car.

“I’m familiar with the basics,” he hedged. A four- or five-year-old boy whose round face and feathery dark hair had been pasted all over the news after a search for a missing child had ended tragically.

“They announced a few weeks ago that it was determined to be an accident.”

Zachary ground his teeth. “Yes … ?”

“Mr. Goldman, I was Declan’s grandma.” Her voice cracked. Zachary waited, listening to her sniffles and sobs as she tried to get herself under control. “I’m sorry. This has been very difficult for me. For everyone.”

“Yes.”

“Mr. Goldman, I don’t believe that it was an accident. I’m looking for someone who would investigate the matter privately.”

Zachary breathed out. A homicide investigation? Of a child? He’d told himself that he would take anything that wasn’t infidelity, but if there was one thing that was more depressing than couples cheating on each other, it was the death of a child.

“I’m sure there are private investigators that would be more qualified for a homicide case than I am, Mrs. Hildebrandt. My schedule is pretty full right now.”

Which, of course, was a lie. He had the usual infidelities, insurance investigations, liabilities, and odd requests. The dregs of the private investigation business. Nothing substantial like a homicide. It was a high-profile case. A lot of volunteers had shown up to help, expecting to find a child who had wandered out of his own yard, expecting to find him dirty and crying, not floating face down in a pond. A lot of people had mourned the death of a child they hadn’t even known existed before his disappearance.

“I need your help, Mr. Goldman. Zachary. I can’t afford a big name, but you’ve got good references. You’ve investigated deaths before. Can’t you help me?”

He wondered who she had talked to. It wasn’t like there were a lot of people who would give him a bad reference. He was competent and usually got the job done, but he wasn’t a big name.

“I could meet with you,” he finally conceded. “The first consultation is free. We’ll see what kind of a case you have and whether I want to take it. I’m not making any promises at this point. Like I said, my schedule is pretty full already.”

She gave a little half-sob. “Thank you. When are you able to come?”

After he had hung up, Zachary climbed into his car, putting his camera down on the floor in front of the passenger seat where it couldn’t fall, and started the car. For a while, he sat there, staring out the front windshield at the magical, sparkling, Christmas-card scene. Every year, he told himself it would be better. He would get over it and be able to move on and to enjoy the holiday season like everyone else. Who cared about his crappy childhood experiences? People moved on.

And when he had married Bridget, he had thought he was going to achieve it. They would have a fairy-tale Christmas. They would have hot chocolate after skating at the public rink. They would wander down Main Street looking at the lights and the crèche in front of the church. They would open special, meaningful presents from each other.

But they’d fought over Christmas. Maybe it was Zachary’s fault. Maybe he had sabotaged it with his gloom. The season brought with it so much baggage. There had been no skating rink. No hot chocolate, only hot tempers. No walks looking at the lights or the nativity. They had practically thrown their gifts at each other, flouncing off to their respective corners to lick their wounds and pout away the holiday.

He’d still cherished the thought that perhaps the next year there would be a baby. What could be more perfect than Christmas with a baby? It would unite them. Make them a real family. Just like Zachary had longed for since he’d lost his own family. He and Bridget and a baby. Maybe even twins. Their own little family in their own little happy bubble.

But despite a positive pregnancy test, things had gone horribly wrong.

Zachary stared at the bright white scenery and blinked hard, trying to shake off the shadows of the past. The past was past. Over and done. This year he was back to baching it for Christmas. Just him and a beer and It’s a Wonderful Life on TV.

He put the car in reverse and didn’t look into the rear-view mirror as he backed up, even knowing about the precipice behind him. He’d deliberately parked where he’d have to back up toward the cliff when he was done. There was a guardrail, but if he backed up too quickly, the car would go right through it, and who could say whether it had been accidental or deliberate? He had been cold-stone sober and had been out on a job. Mrs. Hildebrandt could testify that he had been calm and sober during their call. It would be ruled an accident.

But his bumper didn’t even touch the guardrail before he shifted into drive and pulled forward onto the road.

He’d meet with the grandmother. Then, assuming he did not take the case, there would always be another opportunity.

Life was full of opportunities.

chapter 2

drop-cap-molly Hildebrandt was much as Zachary expected her to be. A woman in her sixties who looked ten or twenty years older with the stress of the high-profile death of her grandchild. Gray, curling hair. Pale, wrinkled skin. She wasn’t hunched over, though. She sat up straight and tall as if she’d gone to a finishing school where she’d been forced to walk and sit with an encyclopedia on her head. Did they still do that? Had they ever done it?

“Mr. Goldman, thank you for seeing me so quickly,” she greeted formally, holding her hand out for him to shake when he arrived at her door.

“Please, call me Zachary, ma’am. I’m not really comfortable with Mr. Goldman.”

Telling her that he wasn’t comfortable with it meant that she would be a bad hostess if she continued to address him that way, instead of her seeing it as a way of showing him respect. He hadn’t done anything to deserve respect and was much happier if she would talk to him like the gardener or her next-door neighbor.

Not that there was any gardener. Molly lived in a small apartment in an old, dark brick building that was sturdy enough, but had been around longer than Zachary had been alive. The interior, when she invited him in, was bright and cozy. She had made coffee, and he breathed in the aroma in the air appreciatively. It wasn’t hot chocolate after skating, but he could use a cup or two of coffee to warm him up after his surveillance. Standing around in the snow for a couple of hours had chilled him, even though he’d dressed for the weather.

Molly escorted him to the tiny living room.

“And you must call me Molly,” she insisted.

She eyed the big camera case as he put it down. Zachary gave a grimace.

“Sorry. I didn’t come to take your picture; I just don’t like to leave expensive equipment in the car.”

“Oh,” she nodded politely. She didn’t ask him who he had been taking pictures of. That wouldn’t be gracious. She would have to imagine instead, and she would probably be correct in her guess.

They fussed for a few minutes with their coffees. Zachary wrapped his fingers around his mug, waiting for the coffee to cool and his fingers to warm. It felt good. Comforting. He waited for Molly to begin her story.

“You probably think that I’m just being a fussy old lady,” she said. “Imagining something sinister when it was just an accident.”

“Not at all. Why don’t you tell me why you don’t think it was an accident?”

“I’m not sure at all,” she clarified. “Maybe they’re right. Maybe it was an accident. It isn’t that I doubt their findings … ” she trailed off. “Not really. I know they had to do an autopsy and all that. We waited for months for them to come back with the manner of death. I thought that once they ruled, everyone would feel better.”

“But you still have doubts?”

“I’m worried for my daughter.”

Zachary blinked at her and waited for more.

“She’s not well. I had hoped that once they released the body … and after the memorial … and after the manner of death was announced … each milestone, I thought, it would get better. It would be easier for her, but … ” Molly shook her head. “She’s getting worse and worse. Time isn’t helping.”

“Your daughter was Declan’s mother.”

“Yes. Of course.”

“What’s her name?”

“Isabella Hildebrandt,” Molly said, her brows drawn down like he should have known that. “You know. The Happy Artist.”

Zachary had heard of The Happy Artist. She was on TV and was popular among the locals. Zachary didn’t know whether she was syndicated nationally or just on one of the local stations. She had a painting instruction show every Sunday morning, and people awaited her next show like a popular soap. Most of the people Zachary knew who watched the show didn’t paint and never intended to take it up. She was an institution.

“Oh, yes,” Zachary agreed. “Of course, I know The Happy Artist. I didn’t put the names together.”

“When it was in the news, they said who she was. They said it was The Happy Artist’s child.”

“Sure. Of course,” Zachary agreed. He rubbed the dark stubble along his jaw. He should have gone home to shave and clean up before meeting with Molly. He looked like he’d been on a three-day stakeout. He had been on a three-day stakeout. “I’m sorry. I didn’t follow the story very closely. That’s good for you; it means I don’t have a lot of preconceived ideas about the case.”

She looked at him for a minute, frowning. Reconsidering whether she really wanted to hire him? That wouldn’t hurt his feelings.

“You were going to tell me about your daughter?” Zachary prompted. “I can understand how devastated she must be by her son’s death.”

“No. I don’t think you can,” Molly said flatly.

Zachary was taken aback. He shrugged and nodded, and waited for her to go on.

“Isabella has a history of … mental health issues. She was the one supervising Declan when he disappeared, and the guilt has been overwhelming for her.”

That made perfect sense. Zachary sipped at his coffee, which had cooled enough not to scald him.

Molly went on. “I think … as horrible as it may sound … that it would be a relief for her if it turned out that Declan was taken from the yard, instead of just having wandered away.”

“That may be, but how likely is that? Surely the police must have considered the possibility, and I can’t manufacture evidence for your daughter, even if it would ease her mind.”

“No … I realize that. I’m not expecting you to do anything dishonest. Just to investigate it. Read over the police reports. Interview witnesses again. Just see … if there’s any possibility that there was … foul play. A third-party interfering, even if it was nothing malicious.”

“I assume you know most of the details surrounding the case.”

“Yes, of course.”

“How likely do you think it is that the police missed something? Did they seem sloppy or like they didn’t care? Did you think there were signs of foul play that they brushed off?”

“No.” Molly gave a little shrug. “They seemed perfectly competent.”

Zachary was silent. It wouldn’t be difficult to read over the police reports and talk to the family. Was there any point?

“The only thing is … ” Molly trailed off.

As impatient as Zachary was to get out of there, he knew it was no good pushing Molly to give it up any faster. She already knew she sounded crazy for asking him to reinvestigate a case where he wasn’t going to be able to turn up anything new. For no reason, other than that it might help her daughter to come to terms with the child’s death. He looked around the room. There were no pictures of Molly’s husband, even old ones. There was no sign she had raised Isabella or any other children there. There were several pictures of a couple with a little child. Declan and Isabella and whatever the father’s name was. There was one picture of Declan himself, occupying its own space, a little memorial to her lost grandson. There were no pictures of anyone else, so Zachary could only assume Isabella was an only child and Declan the only grandchild.

“Declan was afraid of water.”

Zachary turned his eyes back to her. He considered. It wasn’t totally inconceivable that a child afraid of the water would drown. He wouldn’t know how to swim. If he fell in, he would panic, flail, and swallow water, rather than staying calm enough to float. Molly wiped at a tear.

“How afraid of the water was he?” Zachary asked.

“He wouldn’t go near the water. He was terrified. He wouldn’t have gone to the pond by himself.”

“How tall was he?”

Molly gave a little shrug. “He was almost five years old. Three feet?”

“How steep were the banks of the pond and what was the terrain and foliage like?” He knew he would have to look at it for himself.

“I don’t know what you want to know … there wasn’t any shore to speak of. Just the pond. There were bulrushes. Cattails. Some trees. The ground is … uneven, but not hilly.”

Zachary tried to visualize it. A child wouldn’t be able to see the pond as far away as an adult would because of his short stature. If his view were further screened by the plant life, the banks steep and crumbly, he might not be able to see it until he was right on top of it. Or in it.

“It’s not a lot to go on,” he said. “The fact that he was afraid of water.”

“I know.” Molly used both hands to wipe her eyes. “I know that.” She looked around the apartment, swallowing hard to get control of her emotions. “I just want the best for my baby. A parent always wants what’s best. Growing up … I wasn’t able to give her that. She didn’t have an easy life. I wonder if … ” She didn’t have to finish the sentence this time. Zachary already knew what she was going to say. She wondered if that rough upbringing had caused Isabella’s mental fragility. Whether things would have turned out differently if she’d been able to provide a stable environment. Molly sniffled. “Do you have children, Mr.—Zachary?”

Zachary felt that familiar pain in his chest. Like she’d plunged a knife into it. He cleared his throat and shook his head. “No. My marriage just recently ended. We didn’t have any children.”

“Oh.” Her eyes searched his for the truth. Zachary looked away. “I’m sorry. I guess we all have our losses.”

Although hers, the death of her grandson, was clearly more permanent than any relationship issues Zachary might have.

In the end, he agreed to do the preliminaries. Get the police reports. Walk the area around the house and pond. Talk to the parents. He gave her his lowest hourly fee. She clearly couldn’t afford more. He wasn’t even sure she’d be able to pay on receipt of his invoice. He might have to allow her a payment plan, something he normally didn’t do, but something about the frail woman had gotten to him.

He put in an appearance at the police station, requesting a copy of the information available to the public, and handing over Molly Hildebrandt’s request that he be provided as much information as possible for an independent evaluation.

“You got a new case?” Bowman grunted as he tapped through a few computer screens, getting a feel for how many files there were on the Declan Bond accident investigation file and how much of it he would be able to provide to Zachary.

“Yes,” Zachary agreed. Obviously. He didn’t encourage small talk; he really didn’t want Bowman to start asking personal questions. They weren’t friends, but they were friendly. Bowman had helped Zachary track down missing documents before. He knew the right people to ask for permission and the best way to ask.

Bowman dug into his pocket and pulled out a pack of gum. He unwrapped a piece and popped it into his mouth, then offered one to Zachary as an afterthought.

“No, I’m good.”

Bowman chewed vigorously as he studied each screen. He was a middle-aged man, with a middle-age spread, his belly sagging over his belt. His hairline had started receding, and occasionally he put on a pair of glasses for a moment and then took them off again, jamming them into his breast pocket.

“How’s Bridget?” he asked.

Zachary swallowed. He took a deep breath and steeled himself for the conversation. Bowman looked away from his screen and at Zachary’s face, eyebrows up.

“She’s good. In remission.”

“Good to hear.” Bowman looked back at his computer again. “Good to hear. It’s been a tough time for the two of you.” His eyes flicked back to Zachary, and he backtracked. “I mean it’s been tough for her. And for you.”

“Yeah,” Zachary agreed. He waved away any further fumbling explanation from Bowman. “So, what have we got? On the Bond case?”

“Right!” Bowman looked back at his screen. “I’ve got press releases and public statements for you. Coroner’s report. The cop in charge of the file was Eugene. He likes red.”

Zachary blinked at Bowman, more baffled than usual by his abbreviated language. “What?”

“Eugene Taft. I know, it’s a preposterous name, but he’s never had a nickname that stuck. Eugene Taft.”

“And he likes red.”

“Wine,” Bowman said as if Zachary was dense. “He likes red wine. You know, if you want to help things along, have a better chance of getting a look at the rest of that file, the officers’ notes and all the background and interviews. If you have to apply some leverage.”

“And for Eugene Taft, it’s red wine.”

“Has to be red,” Bowman confirmed.

“Okay.” Zachary looked at his watch. “Can you start that stuff printing for me? Is there anyone downstairs?” He knew he would have to run down to the basement to order a copy of the coroner’s report. Just one of those bureaucratic things.

“Sure. Kenzie should be down there still.”

Zachary paused. “Kenzie. Not Bradley?”

“Kenzie,” Bowman confirmed. “She’s new.”

“How new?”

“I don’t know.” Bowman gave a heavy shrug. “How long since you were down there last? Less than that.”

Zachary snorted and went down the hall to the elevator.

As he waited for it, Joshua Campbell, an officer he’d worked with on an insurance fraud case several months previous, approached and hit the up button. He did a double-take, looking at Zachary.

“Zach Goldman! How are you, man? Haven’t seen you around here lately.”

“Good.” Zachary shook hands with him. Joshua’s hands were hard and rough like he’d grown up working on a farm instead of in the city. Zachary wondered what he did in his spare time that left them so rough and scarred. He wasn’t boxing after work; Zachary would have been able to tell that by his knuckles. “Hey, how’s Bridget doing? Did everything turn out okay … ?” He trailed off and shifted uncomfortably.

“Yeah, great. She’s in remission.”

“Oh, good. That’s great, Zach. Good to hear.”

Zachary nodded politely. His elevator arrived with a ding and a flashing down indicator. Zachary sketched a quick goodbye to Joshua and jumped on. He was starting to regret agreeing to look into the Bond case.

The girl at the desk had dark, curly hair, red-lipsticked lips, and a tight, slim form. She was working through some forms, those red lips pursed in concentration, and she didn’t look up at him.

“Hang on,” she said. “Just let me finish this part up, before I lose my train of thought.”

Zachary stood there as patiently as possible, which wasn’t too hard with a pretty girl to look at. She finally filled in the last space and looked up at him. She raised an eyebrow.

“You must be Kenzie,” Zachary said.

“I don’t know if I must be, but I am. Kenzie Kirshe. And you are?”

“Zachary Goldman. From Goldman Investigations.”

“A private investigator?”

“Yes.”

He didn’t usually introduce himself that way because it gave people funny ideas about the kind of life he lived and how he spent his time. Most people did not think about mounds of paperwork or painstaking accident scene reconstructions when they thought about private investigation. They thought about Dick Tracy and Phillip Marlowe and all the old hardboiled detectives. When really most of a private investigator’s life was mind-numbingly boring, and he didn’t need to carry a gun.

“And what can I do for you today, Mr. Private Investigator?”

“Zachary.”

“Zachary,” she repeated, losing the teasing tone and giving him a warm smile. “What can I do for you?”

“I need to order a copy of a coroner’s report. Declan Bond.”

“Bond. That’s the boy? The drowning victim?”

“That’s the one.”

She looked at him, shaking her head slightly. “Why do you need that one? It’s closed. A determination was made that it was an accident.”

“I know. The family would like someone else to look at it. Just to set their minds at ease.”

“You’re not going to find anything. It’s an open-and-shut case.”

“That’s fine. They just want someone to take a look. It’s not a reflection on the coroner. You know how families are. They need to be able to move on. They’re not quite ready to let it go yet. One last attempt to understand … ”

Kenzie gave a little shrug. “Okay, then … there’s a form … ” She bent over and searched through a drawer full of files to find the right one. Zachary had filled them out before. Usually, he could manage to do an end-run and Bradley would just pull the file for him. Officially, he was supposed to fill one out. He didn’t want to end up in hot water with the new administrator, so he leaned on the counter and filled the form out carefully.

She went on with her own forms and filing, not trying to fill the silence with small talk. Which Zachary thought was nice. When he was finished, he put the pen back in its holder and handed the form to Kenzie. To the side of the work she was doing. Not right in front of her face. She again ignored him while she finished the section she was on, then picked it up to look it over.

“You have nice printing,” she observed, her voice going up slightly. She laughed at herself. “No reason why you shouldn’t,” she said quickly. “It’s just that the majority of the forms that get submitted here are … well, to say they were chicken scratch would be insulting to chickens.”

Zachary chuckled. “That’s the difference between a cop and a private investigator.”

“Neat handwriting?”

“Yeah. Cops have to fill out so many forms, they don’t care. You can just call them if you need something clarified. Me … I know if I don’t fill it out right, it’s just going to go in the circular file.” He nodded in the direction of the garbage can.

“I wouldn’t throw it out,” she protested.

“If you couldn’t read it? What else would you do?”

“I would at least try to call you.”

Zachary indicated the form. “That’s why I printed my phone number so neatly.”

Kenzie smiled and nodded. “It’s very clear,” she approved.

“You’ll call me?”

“I’ll let you know when it’s ready to be picked up.”

Zachary hovered there for an extra few seconds. He was enjoying the give-and-take of his conversation with her but didn’t want her to accuse him of being creepy. He wasn’t the type who asked a girl out the first time he saw her.

He gave her another smile and walked away from the desk. Maybe next time.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

She Wore Mourning

By P.D. Workman

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