by Sara Marx
Shel Carson was a great cop until she fell victim to the vices of Shreveport’s underworld. Clawing her way back from the brink has left her dishonored and unemployed.
She turns to the only thing she knows and becomes a detective for hire. When a wealthy client offers a huge fee to extract his kidnapped daughter from his psychotic ex-wife, Shel reluctantly takes the case.
She finds mother and daughter quickly, living under new names. Even to Shel’s jaundiced eye, “Addison James” appears to be a loving mother and a gentle, quiet woman, nothing like the evil witch her ex-husband described.
A belated sense of honor is extremely inconvenient—as is the irresistible passion that Addison arouses. But her client wants back what he considers his…
Click is the latest imaginative and gripping story from Sara Marx, author of Before I Died and Decoded.
Praise for Sara Marx
Lambda Literary Review — Marx weaves a tale with threads of comedy... She gives us plenty to think about in a story that packs a whallop.
GCLS Goldie Awards: Sara Marx, Finalist, Romantic Intrigue
From her place in bed she watched him move around the room, momentarily disappearing into the long closet and reemerging with cufflinks. He paused before the full-length mirror to fasten the monogrammed jewels in place and proceeded to pluck invisible lint from his white slacks. His crisp shirt and jacket were also white, as was his bowtie, and all were linen in keeping with the evening’s theme. Kathleen quietly watched him perform these rituals and when he caught her studying him in the mirror, he turned to face her.
Her dry, thin lips turned upward in her shy smile, which did little to brighten her waxen complexion or improve the dark crescents beneath her eyes. He went to her and carefully perched himself on the edge of the bed they shared. As was his habit, his actions were swift, businesslike, and the rapidity of his movement caused her to flinch unnecessarily. When his hand came to a rest on her forehead, she relaxed against his gentle touch as he checked for fever. He dragged his fingers along her face and stroked her cheek. She nuzzled his palm and kissed it.
“I’m sorry about tonight,” she whispered, raising wide eyes to look into his. “Are you disappointed in me?”
“My concern is for you, my love. I want you healthy.”
She clasped his hand between hers, as if in appreciation or prayer, one of her many childlike mannerisms she knew he adored. His world revolved around her innocent ways, her eye for artistic detail, and admittedly, that he could take utter possession of her in the bedroom. He devoted to her a brand of attention that bordered obsessive, cultivating every aspect of their relationship with the care a gardener would in tending a prized orchid. When she was good, all was right in his world and he felt powerful and grand. It was this poise that made him New Orleans royalty and a force to be reckoned with in the art world.
She also knew all this and wondered if he could possibly survive without the confidence she’d provided him for so long. If he could personally survive, she wondered if his business would.
“How do I look?” he asked her, stiffening his posture for her appraisal.
“Very aristocratic, Mr. Fortier.” She kissed his hand once more. “The women will be climbing over themselves to get at you.”
He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, then kissed her, deeply and with a sense of familiar urgency. She wondered if his confidence required sex before he faced the masses on this night.
“They can climb over themselves if they wish, but I’ve got my Kathleen,” he whispered, tightening his hold. “Always.”
After a moment, she nudged away, but only as far as his hold would allow. “Let’s not get you sick, darling.”
His emotions appeared to be teetering between hurt for having been shrugged off and genuine concern for her illness. He loosened his hold and stood. Back at the mirror, he adjusted his tie, his eyes flitting between her reflection and his own. “If you’re not better by tomorrow, I’m calling the doctor.”
“I’ll be better,” she weakly promised him. She snuggled into the pillows, rubbing her bare arms. Her chest felt dreadfully tight and her head ached as she surveyed the white blankets on the white bed, in the all-white room. Richard’s present white uniform nearly camouflaged him against the sterile surroundings. Were it not for his sun-kissed skin, he might have disappeared right before her eyes.
He stopped fiddling with his tie and turned to face her. His tone took on severity. “Perhaps I should stay with you.”
Her heart surged against her ribs, but she made no display of emotion. Instead, she calmly nestled back into the pillows. “You could, but you love White Linen Night more than anyone. It’s your night to shine.”
“I can’t shine knowing you’re unwell.” Again he was at her bedside, checking for temperature. “Not a drop of temperature. There couldn’t be worse possible timing.”
“It’s probably a little virus,” she sweetly cut him off. “A doctor would only prescribe rest for such a thing.”
Wearing a conflicted expression, he glanced at his watch. “I did hire extra help for tonight’s events…”
She attempted to compound the thought she knew was surely in his mind. “Are you sure you can you trust them?” She then gave him a final push. “You know how transient they can be.”
He did. He bent to kiss her. He hesitated once more at the door, but at last he left.
She counted the minutes, enough to be sure he’d made every stop his obsessive routine required—the nursery, the library for his briefcase, then a sweep through the first floor to make sure the butler had done his job well—then she slipped out of bed and went to the window. The angle made it difficult to see when he’d made his precise exit, but soon enough he crossed the street to his awaiting car. The driver would ferry him through the French Quarter to the Warehouse District, then deposit him as close as possible to The Fortier Gallery.
As he did each year, he’d make the short walk, greeting patrons and artistic friends along the way, each step further enveloping him in his beloved art festival where he was a celebrity. The event drew thousands, go-drinks in one hand, paper fans wagging in the other, white as far as the eye could see. It was a grand tradition that bolstered art sales of the known and unknown, a gala unstoppable by neither weather nor politics. On this night, humidity had the city in a chokehold, a detail that wouldn’t rate any more notice than Kathleen’s absence from the event.
She watched until Richard’s car was out of sight. The butler crossed the street seconds later for his nightly grocery run, just like clockwork. Kathleen looked at her scanty attire—a sheer nightie that barely came to her panties, the same as all her nighties, each hand-selected by Richard—then hurried to the master bath.
She filled the sink with water and dabbed her face with makeup remover until the dark circles under her eyes were gone and she was left looking like she’d cried black tears. Using toilet tissue, she dabbed the delicate area beneath her eyes then splashed water on her face until the water ran clear. When her face was pink and the dark makeup gone, she discarded the black clumps of tissue into the toilet and flushed. She started over with simple mascara, powder, and a bit of light lipstick.
In the narrow closet complex just off the master bedroom, she rummaged the racks until she found the white dress she’d worn at last year’s event. Removing the dry cleaner’s plastic, she shimmied into the costume, catching glances of herself in the full-length mirror. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t a particularly fashionable dress, but it did matter that it looked expensive. Grabbing the matching white mesh hat, she hurried back into the bathroom. There she pinned back her hair, allowing tendrils to spill away and softly frame her face. No matter her nice appearance, her stomach felt fluttery and her heartbeat loudly pounded in her head. She hoped her acting job hadn’t been such a good one she’d convinced even herself. There was no time to think about it at present.
Back in the closet, she walked the length of shoe racks, counting until she came to number ten. It was the one she’d unbolted from the wall a week before, but left standing in its place. On the same day, the panel it hid had also been jimmied loose with a butter knife. Now, she pulled the heavy rack away from the wall then pounded the loose panel with the heel of her hand. At last it budged making it possible for her to grab the strap of the bag she’d put there. She heard a skittering sound and tried not to think about what else might also be hidden behind the walls. She tugged the bag from its cavern, then re-closed the wall and replaced the rack. Assessing the closet, she deemed it normal looking before hauling the bulging bag back into the main room. She quickly collected the dry cleaner’s wrap she’d earlier removed from the dress and shoved it into the zipper compartment of the bag. She would leave no clues.
Kathleen slipped into low heels before softly, swiftly heading down the hallway.
There was another very integral component of her plan, one that would significantly raise the risk the operation might fail, but would ensure ultimate success if it did not. She calmed herself, employing every effort to tamp down emotions, a necessary approach in her plan. She ducked into the nursery where the child was already asleep.
She quickly realized the combined weight of the bag and sleeping toddler was more than she’d anticipated. With growing determination, she mustered her strength. So preoccupied with her internal pep talk was she, she turned around and nearly smacked into the nanny.
Cecelia had hair dyed so black it glinted blue in the nursery nightlight. Her red lips were a sharp contrast to her ghoulishly stark white skin and her eyes looked like they should rightfully belong to a cat. She moved like a cat, too.
Kathleen caught her breath. “We’re going to have to put a bell around your neck, Cecelia. You startled me.” She attempted to move around her, but the nanny took a sideways step to prevent her. Kathleen shot her an accusing glare. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
“You’re looking much better,” Cecelia practically purred. She seemed pleased at having caught the lady of the house in a misdeed yet to be determined. Eyes sparkling with both intrigue and humor, she went on. “It’s like...a miracle.”
Kathleen tried not to show her surprise. Normally she behaved calmly and coolly, whether at home, in his social circles, or around the gallery. The nanny was another story. Nothing seemed to rattle her. With her, Kathleen figured she could have well met her match.
“I am feeling better, thank you.” Kathleen’s tone wavered. She again attempted to move past the nanny, and again she was blocked.
“Richard said you were staying in for the evening.” The nanny’s low voice was tinged with smugness.
Cecelia’s use of Richard’s name was too frequent, too familiar. The minor twinge of anger it elicited from Kathleen was more about disrespect than jealousy, but it was enough to reignite her waning courage. “Mr. Fortier knows very well that we are joining him at the gallery.”
Again Kathleen started around her, and again, Cecilia took a step to stop her.
“Certainly White Linen Night is no place for a child to be.” The nanny wasn’t deterred and didn’t attempt to mask her condescending attitude. “I think I’ll phone her father to be sure.”
“You will refrain from speaking to me that way,” Kathleen said, mustering her best authoritative voice. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
The nanny didn’t attempt to stop her again. Kathleen held her bag and the child tightly to her, both extremely valuable, though for different reasons. Second thoughts had her thinking she didn’t need to make an unnecessary enemy of the woman. After all, she could call Richard the moment Kathleen stepped out the door and the plan would be over before it had begun. She could understand why her newfound healthy glow and her appearance in the nursery only minutes after Richard’s departure were suspicious.
Pausing a moment in the doorway, she again turned to face the nanny.
“Cece, we may not last the entire night with Mr. Fortier, since I have been under the weather.” Kathleen shoved a hand into her bag and fumbled until she produced two one hundred-dollar bills. “But there’s no need for you to hang around here, waiting. Take the rest of the evening off.”
Any trepidation the nanny may have felt was wearing off as she looked at the bills. Kathleen waved the money again, silently willing her to take the money. For a moment, she considered offering more, but stopped herself. A move like that would make her look desperate, and again would surely warrant a call to Richard the moment she stepped out the door. The look on the nanny’s face was hard to read, and Kathleen hoped money represented something—a tattoo, a night on the town—anything that would trump the bizarre allegiance she had for her boss. At last, Cecilia accepted it, eyeing her with more curiosity than suspicion.
“I don’t think Richard allows you nearly enough time off. I hate to go against him, but I was once your age.” Kathleen worked up her most convincing smile, though she sincerely doubted she’d ever had a single thing in common with this particular girl. That she’d taken the money offered her said Cecelia might be a con, and that had Kathleen rethinking her position on their commonalities. She forged ahead. “There’s no need to mention the money to him.”
As Cecilia pocketed the money Kathleen again started for the door, hopeful her performance had been a convincing one. On the landing outside the nursery, she made an authentic-sounding offer. “If you’re headed to the Warehouse District, you’re certainly welcome to ride with us.”
After a moment, Cecilia gave her a forced smile. “Not my scene, thanks.”
The deal was sealed. Trying to conceal her glee, Kathleen added, “Have a good night, however you spend it.”
The child had roused from sleep, which made Kathleen nervous despite the emptiness of the house. She smiled and shushed the child as she carried her down the stairs of a house that was dark not because of the time of day, but because that was how Richard liked it. With the exception of the antiseptic room they shared and the colorful nursery, the house was otherwise drearily decorated with heavy woodwork, rich mahoganies, and deep purples, sparingly lit by rustic lamps. The place was as daunting and dark as the nanny, which had Kathleen wondering if the woman had been hired for nannying skills or for the sake of performance art against Richard’s hand-selected décor.
Kathleen offered the child a rather unconvincing sort of assurance, speaking soothingly as she carefully took each stair step.
Kathleen froze. She clutched the child to her body, feeling every bit of blood drain from her face. Her arms strained with the physical weight she attempted to bear and her head was heavy with worry. Her future and the money were suddenly in jeopardy. If Richard were to come home, the child would stay and no doubt she would be made to answer for her actions; without the child, the plan was off. Kathleen began mentally kissing the money goodbye…
She stared longingly at the front door only feet away then turned to see Cecelia on the landing above her. She mustered every bit of calm she had within her. “Yes, Cecelia?”
After brief hesitation, the nanny asked, “You think Mr. Fortier would mind if I stayed out for the night?”
Kathleen let out the breath she’d drawn in so tight her chest ached. She hoped it didn’t show. “I think what Mr. Fortier doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
“Cool.” The girl finally grinned then walked down the stairs and right past them, pausing only long enough to hold the door for Kathleen and the child. She watched the nanny go, then turned and headed the opposite direction.
The evening light was blinding compared to the dark interior of the mansion. The air was heavy and wet and carrying her load quickly had her weary. To her relief, a cab driver quickly spotted her and pulled curbside before she could trouble to flag him down. He hurried around and opened the door for her, perhaps because she was beautiful; more likely because he recognized her white attire, which hinted at society. She was clearly of means.
“Warehouse District, madam?”
“No,” she said, breathless not from having hauled the child or bag, but from having committed multiple acts of deception in only a few short minutes. “Mandeville, please.”
As the cab pulled away from the curb, she turned in her seat, looking for any sign she was being followed. She buckled the seat belt around the child, then gave the tot what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
The oversized bag was heavy on her feet and Kathleen plunged her hand through the zipper opening, gaining the smallest confidence as she ran her hand along the bound stacks of cash. It was now short two hundred dollars, but buying off the nanny was her first good move. Her next would be even better. She zipped the bag, sat up, and fastened her own seat belt.
Ten minutes later, the cab was on the causeway headed for the other shore. Only then did she consider the amazing feat she was pulling off. She had the child and she had the money. Between heartbeats, it finally began to feel real. The good life was within reach.