Secret Desires Pt. 02bymadam_noe©
She couldn't sleep. It was too much. For almost thirteen years she had slept in that room with her cousin Suzie on the other side, sharing secrets, talking about boys, and plotting together. The feverish thoughts of Nick, the surprise at Aiden's presence...shockingly that took a backseat to the forlorn quiet of the room without Suzie's presence. Now she was gone, run off with a man in trouble, and Shannon was supposed to find her and magically convince her to return to the little backwater town they had both had fled at the first opportunity.
She remembered the first time she had seen the house, shocked at the primitive state of it. Life before had been mostly nice and average. She'd been born in Jacksonville, over in Florida, lived in a house like the dozens of others navy families, with air conditioning, proper indoor plumbing, and electricity. She'd had a dog named Shaggy, a mutt her dad had adopted. Then, when she was four, and sadly it was one of her first memories, the naval officer had come to tell the babysitter that her parents had died in a car accident.
Shannon had spent a year drifting from relative to relative on her father's side until her mother's sister took her in on the bayou. Shaggy was long gone to a better home and by the time she'd arrived in Belle Trouver Shannon had only one small suitcase to her name.
Just as she had the first night she'd been there, Shannon tossed and turned in the sultry heat, worrying the light mosquito netting, dreaming awake of a place she could never return to. Sleep came at last when the fingers of dawn spread, and her dreams were heated and fast, knowing smiles and strong arms, a distant scream of terror...but when she woke they were gone.
She opened her eyes at a clatter to the netting and the bright sun filtering through the leaves and the ratty burlap curtains. Alarmed by the brightness she reached for her cell phone to check the time. It was past noon.
Charlotte banged a wooden spoon on a cast iron pot in the doorway again. "Shannon! Time enough, girl. Best git on up, you've had three callers already."
She struggled up, wiping a thin layer of sweat from her brow and yawning. "I'm up. Who was it?"
The door was nothing more than an old shower curtain, which Charlotte had pushed aside. She was dressed once more as if she was a mechanic and set the pot down for a steaming cup of coffee with the smell of heavy chicory. "What happened to you last night?"
"I...spoke with the sheriff. All he knows is the note said they were going south, but she used her debit card at a gas station going north." Shannon parted the netting and took the coffee from her, needing the sharp tang of hot caffeine in her veins before anything else.
"Don't make much sense, 'course, high tailin' it to New Orleans makes even less sense."
"So who was here?"
"Well them boys that was always houndin' ya, and Lucy. Good girl, that Lucy. She'll help ya, maybe you can have our Suzie home in a week or two."
Great. Nick, who'd she'd run out on, and Aiden had both been there. It was too much, she needed to wrap this up and get home soon. "Look, Aunt Charlotte, I can take a week off. I really shouldn't, but I can work it out. I don't have much money, I'm not traipsing all over the country, but I'll do my best to get you answers."
"You gonna lose your job, girl? Can't have dat." Charlotte's dark eyes narrowed.
Truthfully she probably would, but Shannon had begun to hate her job, and there was always something else around the corner, if you knew how to look. Charlotte had been the one to teach her that. "I'll be fine."
"Hmm. Well that Beauchamp borrowed the Maurice skiff, looking a damn fool polin' in that suit. She left ya this." Charlotte tossed her a small note.
Sleepily Shannon missed the catch, but set the mug down on the scarred pink nightstand and opened the note up. "Darlin', come on down to my office, we got a shower, everything you need, and then we'll have breakfast. I might be able to help." The letterhead had the emblem of the old Rousseau & Rousseau law firm, but Lucy had scratched out one name and written hers to make Rousseau & Beauchamp.
"Best I can give you is a sponge and tub for a poor bath, same as it always was. You should go on, see your friend, get done up for the day right 'n' proper."
Setting the note down next to the book of Sudoku she'd futilely worked on in the night, Shannon looked at her aunt. "I'll probably leave right after."
Charlotte worried her mouth for a moment, refusing to be perfectly still. "I know why you haven't come back since you left, I know you gone on, made something of yourself. But you do know I love you, girl."
Shannon climbed out of the bed and hugged her aunt tightly. "I love you too. I promise you, I will do whatever I can for Suzie, but that is the most I can promise."
Charlotte pulled back. "Dat's all I ask. I been saving up some, got nothin' to spend it on. Here, dis should help." She pulled an envelope out from the pocket of her coveralls and pressed it into her niece's hand.
Inside was five hundred dollars. "I can't take this, it's your savings."
"I'm still working, cleanin' houses 'n' fishing, it puts food on the table. I clean old Doc Hauser's house so he sees to my health. My funeral is all set and paid for, but God willing it won't come for some time. You take dat and if it keeps you safe lookin' for my girl, den I done my part."
Knowing better than to argue, Shannon put the envelope down. "All right, I'll get dressed, head out. How can I get information to you?"
"You either call dat Beauchamp girl and she'll pass it along, or you call me at Doc Hauser's. I'll get you the number while I get dressed."
Shannon was ready quickly, armed with Suzie's letter, the envelope zipped deep in her bag, and the town doctor's home phone number. After a few hugs, a tremendous display of emotion from her stoic Aunt, they parted at the landing dock.
Back in town Shannon parked at the law office, right across the street from the sheriff's office and city jail. She refused to look, though a part of her was desperate to catch a glimpse of a tall dark form in the window.
In the law office there was no one at the front desk but as soon as the door closed to a jangle of bells a familiar redhead popped out of an office with a grin. "Shannon!"
"Lucy!"Instantly they were teenage girls, running into a hug, giggling wildly. Lucy was still petite, and even in high heels she was still on the short side. Shannon easily picked her up in a bear hug and they laughed until she set her down.
She looked around at the office, clean and orderly, a museum of 1920's architecture and decoration. "Wow, you went into law. I had no idea!"
"Well, I didn't want to be a lawyer, you know I wanted to change the world. But you get on years and you start to think about paying the bills. Old-old Mr. Rousseau passed away last year, so old Mr. Rousseau needed a partner. It's quiet here, mostly wills, estates, real estate work, few arrests need lawyers in this town. Come on, let me take you to my place, let's get you cleaned up, then let's go to Shirley's for breakfast."
Lucy had taken the apartment upstairs. Once it had been two 1920's style railroad apartments but long ago the walls between had been moved to make a four bedroom space with two bathrooms and two kitchens. She had decorated it simply, cleanly, in bright cheery colors and large posters of world city skylines at night, and the second kitchen was a dark room.
"Nice skyline shots."
"They're mine," Lucy said, beaming with pride. "I traveled in school, photography is my hobby, but hard to make money in it. Come on, I'll show you the guest bath and put on some coffee."
Shannon showered and dressed for the day in a simple denim skirt and a navy tank top, toweling her shoulder-length hair dry and only putting on mascara and tinted lip balm. Any other makeup would be sweated off in an hour.
After a quick cup of coffee over which they discussed Lucy's photography, they walked down the street to Shirley's, the little dinner that shared a back with the honest-to-goodness soda fountain next door. From there the cool breeze of air conditioning filtered in, but in Shirley's the red booths and counter were slapped with the heat of the grill even as slow turning fans moved overhead.
"So, I heard you saw Nick." Lucy opened as they sipped their sweet iced teas, awaiting their omelets.
Shannon's heart hammered. "Uh, yeah. And, um, Aiden, briefly. Tell me he's not living here."
Lucy took the bait. "No, he's not, but he's not far. Baton Rouge. You didn't really think he would stay away long, now did you?"
"I thought a lot of the past would stay in the past."
"He and I lived in the same dorm back at Tulane. He never forgot you. Oh, he 'dated' other girls, just as I'm sure you've dated other guys, but he's still hung up on you. Speaking of which, have you got a guy?"
Shannon laughed nervously, pleased and yet disconcerted by Lucy's easy revelation. "Not in a while. I went to law school myself, worked all through it, never had time. Now I meet a guy and as soon as he finds out I have the degree, passed the Illinois state bar, but don't have a junior partnership where I can make him a househusband, they hightail it. What about you?"
"I'm seeing a nice young man from Port Barre. John owns a nursery and coaches little league. He sounds boring on paper but...it's something special."
Shannon found herself smiling at the telling blush on Lucy's dainty pale face. "That's great. Tell me about your life."
Their food came and two old friends caught up, swapping stories of wild youth and life lessons learned, and the tribulations of adulthood, and quickly it was like no time had passed. All too soon their plates were cleared, a slice of peach pie sat half eaten between them, and the conversation turned to more pressing matters.
"Suzie chose the wrong man at the wrong time."
That was Suzie's M.O. Shannon thought with a frown. "Tell me about Big Johnny Parker."
Smoothing a red curl from her face Lucy sighed. "The lot wasn't doing so well, not since the new Ford dealership opened up in Port Barre. So about five years ago a developer named Charles Mingham came sniffing around from Natchitoches, wanting to put in a Walmart, another gas station, and a few other shops that would appeal to the town and people on forty-nine. The land was owned by four people, all elderly, and they wouldn't sell to an outsider.
"That's where Parker came in. He should have gone through us, but instead he and his lawyer, some friend of Mingham's, conned those people. They sold their land without even talking to a lawyer or Debbie Walker who's now the realtor, and they got screwed. They came to us looking to sue after, something work on the land devaluing it before the final sale, but it was air-tight, there was nothing we could do, yet strangely Parker's lawyer offered them a settlement without talking to us first, and all four took it. They all moved into the home down in Opelousas, the land got developed, and the stores moved in.
"Enough people got jobs that two years ago Parker ran for mayor and won in a landslide. He was incompetent at best, the budget was a nightmare, and anyone who objected got fired. Money started disappearing, and Mingham was here more and more. You ask me, Mingham had something on him."
Shannon frowned. "You mean blackmail?" Lucy nodded. "For what, that he was having an affair with Suzie?"
"Honey, everybody knew about that."
"You got me. Parker was a louse for running around on his wife, bad at budgeting, but other than being a cheating bastard he was a decent guy."
"How did it all happen?"
"Well, believe it or not, it was Nick, and an accident. Suzie had just about every man she could, married or not, but not Nick. She dogged him, followed him around like a lovesick puppy. She even applied to work dispatch though he swore she never would. She made noises about suing him for sexual harassment and old Mr. Rousseau laughed her out of the office. Nick knew she'd quiet down with a real job so he let Big Johnny get out of a speeding ticket if he hired Suzie on at the dealership. He moved to the mayor's office and she came with, and Little Johnny had to take over and hire his own secretary."
Shannon sighed. "Suzie never did have a lick of sense."
"Truer words were never spoken. The affair began at the lot, and when he got elected mayor, it continued. I'll ay this; Suzie was with Big Johnny longer than any man. Her usual M.O. was one or two nights, once a year at most, but once she hooked up with Big Johnny is was like no other man on earth existed."
"You said money disappeared. Any of it end up with Suzie?"
"Not with her or Big Johnny, which is why we think he was using to pay someone off, chiefly Mingham. There was nothing implicating her until two weeks ago when Johnny emptied the treasury while Suzie sat in his car,, and then they disappeared.
"Look, Nick and I are still friends, so I know all evidence has them going north. Aiden...well, let's just say he knows they're not in New Orleans, or if they are, nobody knows how to find them. I don't think they would have headed north to Mingham, I think they're running from him. If you ask me, Parker had something to hide, something Mingham knew, and he would have gotten as far away from him as possible."
"What do you know about this Mingham?"
"He's bad medicine. He steals land, cheats landowners, bad things happen around him. He has entire towns in his pocket. The good news is that I think if something had happened to them, we would know by now, so they're still out there."
"If they're running from this guy Mingham, why aren't they just hiding out here, safe and sound out on the swamp?"
"Mingham's been sniffing around properties on the swamp, including your aunt's. Nick didn't tell you any of this?" Lucy leaned in, her soft blue eyes twinkling. "What did you two talk about last night?"
It was Shannon's turn to blush. "Um...mostly catching up."
"Well now, that's interesting. Two fixes in the henhouse."
The redhead smiled and finished off her coffee. "It's a small town, sweetie, there are no secrets."
"I'm just here to find Suzie. And Nick and I are only friends."
"Did you forgot we were best friends? He always had a crush on you and you liked him too. Aiden just got to you first. And I hear you and Nick got pretty chummy last night. Lucky girl, you have your pick of the two best men this town ever produced."
Shannon had no reply to that. "Can you write down the names of the landowners Parker stole from Mingham?"
"Aunt Charlotte brought me down here to find her. I'm not PI but I owe her. I owe it to Suzie. And I need to know why exactly they went on the run, and if anyone would know more about the relationship between Mingham and Johnny, it's these four people."
"Mingham is dangerous. You might be a good process server but you're not the best detective, Shannon. You should leave this to the police."
"It's family. I have to."
'They're old, I think one died of old age not long ago. You'll be lucky if they're not all senile."
"I have to know. Maybe they're not running from Mingham. Maybe their debt was paid off to him, but then Johnny couldn't cover his embezzlement. He could have made an agreement to pay it back and been fine."
"Are you really that naïve?" Lucy asked, one brow raised.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Blackmailers never stop. Why, when they have such a good thing going? It continues until the victim dies or disappears. This is dangerous stuff."
"Look, I just want to ask a few questions. I'm a desk jockey, my job is doing this and not letting the world know too much."
Lucy gave her a considering look and sighed, setting her glass down. "Tell you what, I'll give you their names, you can run down to Opelousas and talk to these people for whatever help you think it might give you, but I want you back here by four. In my office. The city lawyer can tell you more than me, he knows the details. Nick probably told you some files were missing, well, that might be why they ran, we just can't figure out why."
"Boy, you really didn't do much talking last night, did you?" The redhead grinned. "When Johnny and Suzie disappeared, they took all the records dealing with the land deals with them."
Frowning, Shannon sighed. What the hell had Suzie gotten herself into? "Is the town prosecutor still Mr. Lacroix?"
"Yup. He married Miss Jackson and they have kids now."
Shannon thought back to their fifth grade teacher marrying the seemingly-immortal town lawyer. "Wow, the ice queen thawed."
"I wouldn't say that in front of him. All right, I'll take care of the bill, here." Lucy pulled out one of her business cards and wrote four names and an address on the back. "Just take the frontage road down. You'll probably get more from Little Johnny, but wait until you talk to Jackson. Little Johnny hasn't talked to Nick or the FBI, but he always warmed to you. You were his favorite babysitter."
"All right, but I'm going straight to him after our meeting. Then I'm heading out. I'm sorry, Lucy, but there are ghosts of the past I just don't want to face." She started to slide out from the booth but Lucy's hand on hers stopped her.
"I'm not sure what scared you. Was it the thought you'd be stuck here? It's not so bad. The town survives, thrives even. I'm happy here."
"You know what it was like for me, being my mother's daughter, coming from a normal world into Aunt Charlotte's. You know from before we even met I dreamed of moving out, of carving my own path. I'm glad you're happy here, but it's not for me." Shannon stood and pulled out her wallet, but Lucy shook her head.
Standing with a knowing smile, Lucy grabbed the check. "I guess that's all there is to say on that, then. See you in two hours. Don't be late!"
Shannon walked outside and stood by on the sidewalk, watching Lucy pay at the counter. Why did it seem like all her old friends were waiting for her, and knew something she didn't?
The nursing home in Opelousas was actually an old plantation house, lovingly restored. Just two miles away Shannon knew was a much less expensive home of red brick, where her own grandmother had spent her twilight years under constant care. This home with the huge lawn, private doctors, cost a pretty penny. Interesting for four landowners screwed out of their properties' full value.
At the front desk she discovered that after three years, only one former landowner remained. One had passed recently at the age of eighty-seven, and two others had been moved. Adele Sinclair was in her early eighties, slim, spry, well-dressed, her long white hair lovingly styled, and her brown eyes sharp.
"Little Shannon Moreau." She stood, wearing a nice skirt suit and looking much younger than she should have.
"I'm sorry Miss Sinclair, I don't think we were ever introduced." They shook hands now and Shannon took the seat Adele motioned to. They were at a white wrought-iron table set on the generous back patio. With attendants circling for drinks the setup could have been an upscale restaurant.
"You're the spitting image of your mother," Adele said, making Shannon pause as she was sitting.
"Did you know her, ma'am?"
"Everyone did. Don't blush, child, the past is past, and call me Adele."
"Thank you, Adele. I assume you've heard about my cousin Suzie. She's run off with John Parker, the man who bought your property to build the strip mall."
Adele frowned, adjusting her posh sunglasses. "I would spit at his name, if I weren't such a lady. And these nice young men do so hate havin' to mop the patio."