The black merchant, p.1
The Black Merchant, page 1part #2 of Madison Meyer Mystery Series
A Madison Meyer Mystery
Copyright © 2017 by Shannon Reber
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
Published by Magic Fire Publishing
This book is a work of fiction. Incidents, names, characters, and places are products of the author's imagination and used fictitiously. Resemblances to actual locales or events or persons living or dead, is coincidental.
Printed in the United States of America
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Table of Contents
Author’s Note 180
About the Author 184
The saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from your enemies.
If someone had told me not so long before that I would spend my days researching paranormal activity, I would have said they were crazy. Now that it’s my life, it’s clear I’m the crazy one. Why I ever thought working for TC Erkens would be a good idea made no sense.
I had thought it would be exciting. I had thought there would be adventures. Turned out, it consisted of researching every single mythological creature in his cramped, dusty office.
Research was something I was very good at . . . on the computer. There were search features on the computer. When your boss was a retro-grouch who hated all things electronic, that was when research became tedious.
I sneezed for about the hundredth time that day as Erkens plunked what looked like an encyclopedia down on the desk in front of me. I loved reading. It was diverting. This was not diverting.
I needed a break and some air that wasn’t filled by two decades of unwashed, undusted junk. In my old job, I had spent my days being berated by my boss. I had always held my tongue simply because I needed the job. That wasn’t true anymore.
Yes, I did need the job. The thing was, even though Erkens was a crusty old man who resembled a bulldog, he was a good and patient teacher. Mostly.
I glanced around that cluttered office and smiled a little. I didn’t understand his system. There WAS a system, though. There was a clear pattern in the way he placed things.
I had been worried when I’d first come to work for Erkens, unsure a paranormal investigator would make enough money to support both of us. It turned out that the way he made money was the fact he owned the old apartment building where the office was. He also used his pension to supplement his income when things got tight.
I leaned back in the old, green vinyl chair and gave him a long look. He was in his mid-sixties, a retired police officer. The cop part was very much alive and well inside him. There was a gruff authority about him that made me respect him and a twinkle in his eyes that made me like him.
“I have an idea,” I told him and leaned forward to pick up the huge book he’d bestowed on me. “I can’t breathe in here. Why don’t we grab a few of these books and go over to the diner? I bet you’d like it. Breathing clean air is good for the lungs.”
He scowled at me, an all too typical expression for him. “You want to take my books to a diner, where food and drinks can be spilled on them and ignorant people can jeer?” he demanded in his usual crotchety tone.
I shrugged in an unconcerned way. “Your books would be perfectly safe if you used your phone or tablet,” I said, my voice still raspy from my ordeal a couple of weeks before. I lifted my phone with a flourish. “I have quite a few of your titles downloaded on my phone. I can keep researching every aspect of your beasties and you can pretend to be unaffected by the charms of the waitresses. Come on,” I said and rose, my nose tickling like one more sneeze intended to pop out before I was released from the confines of that space.
I tucked my dark hair behind my ear, my pale, freckled skin a little less sallow than it had been a few days before. I was getting better in my body. My mind still struggled to deal with everything that had happened.
My now typical black t-shirt and jeans were looser on me than they had been. I had lost some weight, something that didn’t look good on me at all. I had begun to look unhealthy. Hopefully, since my skin was less pasty, it meant I looked less hollowed out.
Erkens made a harrumph noise. He didn’t rise. “I’d like you to be able to identify any and all creatures that are thrown at us no matter what we’re hired to do. If you can do that in the diner, spend all the time there you want.”
“Does this mean you’re not coming?”
He shot me a half amused, half annoyed look. “No, Madison. I’m not coming. This may have escaped your notice. I’m not a social butterfly. I prefer to be alone.”
I smirked in a knowing way. “That’s not true. You just prefer to be with people you respect and you respect yourself most of all.”
He shot me a snide grin and shrugged. “You and I both need to be informed about what’s going on in this city. You need to read the news, watch the news, have contacts who will let you know when and if odd things happen, et cetera. When you’re not researching these beasties of mine, you need to be keeping yourself informed.”
I inclined my head in acknowledgment of his order and picked up my bag. “Will do. Want me to bring anything back for you, like maybe a vacuum cleaner or feather-duster?” I teased, knowing his answer before he even responded.
He didn’t disappoint. Erkens humphed and waved me off, his eyes indeed doing that twinkle thing.
I stepped gingerly around the stacks of files he had strewn all over the floor, rolling my eyes in disgust. I had offered to help him clear up some of the mess on my first day. He had acted like I’d insulted him in some horrible way.
So, I’d learned where to place my feet and carried tissues around with me everywhere. Sneezes were my new way of communicating. And my nose twitched as another of them tried to work its way free of me.
I opened the door and began to step out into the hallway, nearly falling backward into the office in shock. Someone was there. Holy blue screen. A possible client? Hallelujah!
It was a girl a year or two younger than me, her eyes a little wild, her hands clenched into fists. She had pale skin and yellowish white hair, with a small, triangular scar on her cheek. The girl was obviously albino, the slight circle of pink around the iris of her pale blue eyes making that clear as day.
Something about her features looked familiar in a vague way. I didn’t think we knew each other, though. I had no idea. It hardly mattered if we did or not. She was there and she might give me the excuse I needed to get out of the endless research.
“Hey. Can I help you?” I asked, giving her as friendly a smile as possible.
Her eyes moved over me, lingering on the bruises on my neck. I had put a layer of makeup on them but
I had a stupid urge to hide behind the door, to keep from being seen. No. I had to nut up. It was over. There was nothing to worry about anymore.
The girl looked from those bruises to the mess all around me, then at Erkens who sat behind his desk. She seemed to be at a loss for words. After a few uncomfortable seconds, she apparently decided to spit out her issue. “I need to talk to the paranormal investigator,” she whispered like she thought the title was a secret.
I nodded and stepped back as much as possible. “Come on in. Just watch your step,” I warned. The more I looked at the girl the more I was sure that we’d met before.
Her eyes watered like she was about to cry as she stepped in. I didn’t know what had brought her there. It was clear she was scared. Sympathy rose inside me, growing more intense as I looked harder at her.
There were other scars on her exposed skin. Thin scars crisscrossed her arms. It was hard to tell if she was a self-harmer or if she had been hurt.
She sniffed and reached up to cover her mouth as an explosive sneeze escaped her, her breaths wheezing out. That was when I got it. It wasn’t emotion making her eyes water or not ONLY emotion. It was the dust.
I made a small hand gesture to Erkens to get his attention and waved my hand toward the door. I wasn’t sure if he’d get what I meant. As the girl started coughing, it seemed he got it.
“There’s a diner down the street where we can talk,” he said, his stern voice softened as the girl pulled an inhaler out of her purse and took a puff off the thing.
She turned so fast to leave, she almost ran me over. “Sorry,” she wheezed. “I need . . . air.”
I got out of her way, as worried as Erkens when she stumbled over one of the piles and nearly took a nosedive. The girl was about to pass out if she didn’t get out of there fast.
I stayed out of her way, relieved when the door was opened and she was able to step out into the hallway. She still struggled to breathe, so hoofed it down the hall toward the entrance of the building. I followed along behind her, praying she was okay.
She was the first possible client who’d come by in the two weeks I’d worked for Erkens. It seemed a shame to lose her all because the man had an aversion to dusting.
Her face was sweaty as we got out onto the sidewalk. She did look a lot better. She squinted in the dim light of that cloudy day like the light bothered her, so pulled on a pair of dark sunglasses. As she breathed in deep gulps of the clean air, it became even more obvious she had severe allergies.
When she was breathing a little more normally, I held out my hand between us. “I’m Madison. I work for Erkens,” I said, trying to push away my usual awkwardness in social situations.
She took my hand without hesitation. “I’m Hadley,” she said, her voice still wheezy. “Is Mr. Erkens . . . well . . . good at this?” she asked without looking at me.
I blinked and touched the base of my neck, glancing at the building as Erkens exited. “He’s the best.”
“So I can trust him?”
I glanced at her, confused about why she’d ask me that. Why would she care what I thought of Erkens? “Yeah, you can,” I said, sure the girl had a story of her own which had nothing to do with the paranormal world.
Erkens tromped over to us and made a motion toward my car that was parked in front of the building. I raised my brows in question. He didn’t answer. He motioned to my car again like it was the only vehicle there was.
All three of us got into my car, something that seemed like a bad idea to me. Once I thought it through, it was probably more sensible than being left alone with a girl I didn’t know in a small space like my car. There was no telling what could happen.
Hadley had apparently decided that since I’d said he was trustworthy, Erkens could be her new best friend. “Everybody thinks I’m overreacting but I swear I’m not. I’m worried. I’m really worried. She’s my best friend. I know her. I know she wouldn’t have run off like everybody says she did.”
“Who, Hadley?” I cut in, using her name so Erkens would know it.
“Her name is Esther. She hates her horrible old lady name, so I’ve been calling her Fester since we met.”
I smiled, recalling the fun of the nicknames and private jokes that were the mainstay of having a best friend. “How old are you, Hadley,” I asked, clearing my throat to try and dislodge the ache. Yeah, being strangled was not my favorite thing.
“Is Esther the same age?”
“She’s actually nineteen.”
I peered at her as I pulled into a parking place in front of the diner. There was something off about the girl. No one trusted that quickly. For a teenage girl to willingly get into a stranger’s car and to hand out information about herself . . . it set off warning bells in my brain.
Hadley got out of the car and shot me a grin. It was a pretty smile, something that she probably used to distract people all the time. I wasn’t distracted.
I decided to let Erkens take the lead and simply observe. I might be able to figure things out if we played the classic good-cop/bad-cop roles. If Erkens had ever played that role before, it would have been as bad-cop. I was positive. That role had been made for him.
The diner was a place I both loved and hated. I had spent a few hours there with Ian before everything had blown up in our faces. Despite the difficulty of the things we had been researching at that time, it had been wonderful. Then there had been the moment before we left, where we had been shown the truth of Emma’s death by her ghost.
A shiver passed its way up my spine at that memory. I did my best to shrug it off. The diner’s coffee was good. Their crepes were amazing. It was a place that had been dusted in the last ten years. I could do this.
I walked to a table in the corner and sat with my back to the wall, pulling my hair around to cover at least part of my neck. Erkens sat next to me, leaving the chair across from us open for Hadley.
After the cheerful waitress had taken our orders and filled our coffee cups, I opened my laptop. For me, that was like coming home. I understood computers far better than people.
People could betray you, let you down, leave you. A computer never did that. They did what was necessary and if you treated them right, they opened up the world for you.
Hadley sighed and leaned her elbows on the table. “Me and Fester always end up going to twenty-four-hour diners and drinking coffee until about 4:00 in the morning. This coffee is like five times better than what we usually get.” There was an edge to her voice like it took a great effort to keep her from wailing in fear for her friend.
“How long has Esther been missing?” Erkens asked, his tone gentle like he understood his role in our interrogation or interview. Whichever it was.
“A few days,” she said, her eyes fixed on the table.
“And what makes you think you need a paranormal investigator to find her?”
Hadley folded her hands and leaned a little closer, looking up for the first time. “She’s from a big family. There’s nine of them in total and her mom treats her like she’s the devil incarnate. I mean, Esther has her problems but she’s the best. She doesn’t deserve to be treated like that.”
My heart pounded. Wow. Other than the big family, that sounded all too familiar. “What’s her full name?” I asked in as gentle a tone as possible. It seemed to me that if Hadley saw bad-cop right then, she’d get belligerent and walk off.
I Googled the name, not sure what to expect. Would there be a missing persons alert? Would she even be alive?
Nothing came up. There wasn’t a single news article about that girl going missing. I considered that a challenge so reopened the backdoor I had made into Pittsburgh’s police database.
I searched through the missing persons files and still found nothin
There was indeed an Esther Colbert listed, yet the only infractions in her record were for two speeding tickets that had both been paid on time. There were no other police related issues.
There were no school records either yet there were homeschool reports. Ouch. A family of nine who homeschooled sounded like torture to me. And that was when I found it.
Listed at the bottom of the report for the girl’s graduation from high school was the fact her education had been completed at Hope House. I had heard of the place. It was a rehab type of facility for troubled teens. It wasn’t necessarily drug rehab. It was like a live-in counseling center.
It only took me a few seconds to get through their pathetic security and into their mainframe. And there she was. Esther Colbert had been listed as a resident. She had been released a few days before. Okay, something was wrong with the story Hadley was telling us.
Inside the girl’s file was a photo. She was pretty, with pin-straight, dyed blonde hair and gorgeous, dusty-aqua eyes. She looked like someone who laughed frequently and cared deeply. It was written all over her face.
I looked from the photo in Esther’s file to Hadley, trying to take in as much detail about her as possible. She hadn’t answered Erkens’ question about why she needed a paranormal investigator rather than going to the cops or even a normal private investigator. And there was something suspicious about the way she spoke. It was like she was telling a story, forming the words in her mind into a tale that would capture our attention or something.
“Hadley, how long was Esther at Hope House?” I asked, my voice still calm and quiet.
She glanced at me and swallowed before she spoke. “Her mom sent her there at the beginning of her senior year of high school. She said Esther had a drinking problem because one of her brothers had dumped an empty whiskey bottle in her room to keep from being busted. Esther refused to rat him out, so she ended up at Hope House.” Her voice had changed as she spoke. She went from cheerfully rattling off facts to a fiery growl. It was clear the girl truly did care about her friend.
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