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Excerpt for Breakdown by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Breakdown


By P X DUKE



Copyright 2019 P X Duke

All Rights Reserved



ISBN 978-1-928161-42-4



Disclaimer

What follows is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Places mentioned by name are entirely fictitious and purely products of the author's imagination, and are not meant to bear resemblance to actual places or locations.


10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1





Breakdown


Jim Nash and his partner's faithful dog Friday are left to fend for themselves when Maddie Spence is called home. A concerned client lands on their second-floor doorstep, convinced his wife has gone missing. The police won't get involved. It's too soon, and the wife hasn't been gone long enough. Friday takes matters into his own hands when he chooses to babysit the man's young daughter while Jim handles business. Is the woman really missing, or has her husband contrived an elaborate plan to cover up something more sinister?


Contents


1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15

16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22

23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29

30 | 31 | 32


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https://pxduke.com | author@pxduke.com





BREAKDOWN



ONE



I HELPED MADDIE downstairs with her bags. It seemed like there were a lot of them, but maybe I was worrying too much. After all, she was leaving Friday with me. That by itself was unusual, considering she and the dog were inseparable. Each had adopted the other when he jumped into her car at a rest stop.

—You're coming back, right?

Of course she was. Friday looked from Maddie to me and back. His tail wasn't wagging. I suspect he too was concerned when he saw the suitcases.

—Friday wouldn't like to find out you left him with no explanation.

He was sitting by the passenger door to Maddie's little yellow compact. He kept looking from his mistress to me and the car.

—See? He's concerned there's something you aren't telling him.

Maddie rolled her eyes.

—Do you think there's something I'm not telling you, detective?

—Well—

I got down on a knee to pet Friday.

—I'm pretty sure you're not abandoning Friday. Lily would hunt you down.

Friday's ears perked up when he heard the little girl's name and he snorted.

—What else are you pretty sure of?

If she was leaving Friday with me, it had to mean she was coming back. Heck, we hadn't even had a fight yet. Or had we? I thought for a moment but couldn't remember.

—If you aren't coming back does that mean I get the dog? To keep?

—Nah. I'll send for him. Right, Friday?

Mollified, Friday barked. I couldn't tell if he knew all about it, or if he was making it up as he went along. I finished loading the bags into the tiny car's trunk.

—You sure are taking a lot of luggage. How long are you planning on staying?

I leaned with both hands and the trunk snapped shut. I think Friday sensed my concern. His head was still busy, moving from one of us to the other. Maddie reached to pet her dog.

—Friday.

He looked at her. His head tilted. His ears perked. His tail stilled. I was pretty sure he was waiting for his mistress to open the door.

—You stay with Jim. Okay?

The dog went sad-sack all of a sudden, knowing for sure he wouldn't be going on this car ride. His entire body seemed to collapse. His tail sagged. He looked at me with a forlorn expression on his furry face.

—You do what Jim tells you, all right?

His head drooped. I think mine did, too, now that the goodbyes were over. We were a pair, not wanting Maddie to leave. Both of us wanted to go with her for moral support. Or something.

—Jim, take care of my dog.

Was there any doubt?

—Friday. Take care of Jim.

I don't think Friday was so sure. Maddie brought out the bandanna Lily had bestowed on Friday and tied it around his neck. That seemed to cheer him up. Me too, come to think of it.

—What a handsome boy.

That did it for Friday. He was happy. Already I knew he'd be prancing up the stairs like he was the best boy ever. Which he was.

—As for you, sailor—

—Am I going to get a bandanna?

—No. You're going to get something even better.

She wrapped her arms around me and kissed me like she'd already been away for a week.

—That ought to hold you.

Friday barked, but he was probably jealous. We stayed downstairs until the car disappeared from sight.

—All right, dog.

I opened the door and waited.

—I'm the boss now.

The dog didn't seem to think so. Friday couldn't be bothered to even give me a look before prancing past and heading upstairs.





TWO



SANDY FRANKLIN LIFTED his daughter and placed her in her high chair at the table. He found a clean bib and tied it around her neck through a scramble of arms and hands. His daughter struggled to turn in the chair, wanting to see what was going on with the stove.

—It's ready, dear.

Holly wasn't convinced. She screwed up her face around the soother and looked at her father. He attached the tray to the high chair through waving arms. When it was done, Holly's tiny hands slapped at it.

—I wouldn't lie.

Holly's eyes grew big following the waffle floating in front of her father from over the stove to the plate on the high chair table. She grinned past the soother stuck in her mouth and spit it out. It flew past the tray and bounced on the floor where it disappeared.

Sandy spread a dab of butter and a teeny tiny bit of syrup on the warm waffle.

—Careful, dear. Hot.

Holly dabbed at it cautiously with a finger. A hole appeared before she finally picked the waffle up whole. Using both hands, she raised it to her mouth and taste-tested. A huge smile appeared. Her feet kicked. Her mouth broke with the smile and began chewing.

—Mmm. Is that good, dear?

She agreed. With Holly quieted until the waffle disappeared, Sandy looked around the kitchen. Waffle mix and a pot and utensils cluttered the counter.

Milk and orange juice and apple juice and syrup and whatever Holly might want next was scattered on the table. He didn't like to feed her the sweets, but sometimes it was the only thing that would soothe her. He wanted his wife, who wasn't a fan of feeding sweets to her daughter, to come and go in peace.

Angela—Angie—was the bread-winner of the family. They discussed it endlessly before the baby was born. She had the better job. It paid double his salary. Thus he—both of them, actually—agreed that he would stay home and take care of their first child.

He had grown into it over the almost two years. He was thoroughly enjoying it but for the sleepless nights and long days. Even so, he managed to convince himself it wasn't so bad. The dark circles beneath his eyes were his reward for allowing his wife to provide for the three of them.

He told himself he didn't mind again and again. Perhaps there was just a bit of repressed resentment every day when his wife left the harried household behind, looking fit and trim and dressed to the nines. Her job as a corporate financial adviser demanded it. She worked with the really high-priced help. Her work helped them make the choices that got them their fancy cars and big bonuses.

He didn't begrudge her that, although he knew she wasn't exactly enamored of doing all the work for someone else to take home the lottery. That was what her job entailed, though, and Angela had become accustomed to it. It seemed like it rankled her less and less.





THREE



ANGELA'S MORNING WASN'T off to a great start. She had been up late, working on her presentation long past her usual bedtime. Sandy had admonished her every time he got up to soothe restless Holly, their daughter. To satisfy him, she reluctantly ended up bringing the laptop into their bed. Exhausted when she finally went to sleep, she slept twenty minutes past her alarm.

She checked her lifeblood on the bed beside her. The battery was dead. There was no hope for it. She discarded it in her bag and checked the phone. It too was on its last legs. She would charge it in the car.

She remembered the dongle attached to her laptop. She plucked at the tiny plug and dropped it into a pocket in her purse. It contained the only copy of her project and the extensive profiles of the three companies being considered for buyouts. With any luck, it would be the last work she did on them. The whole thing was becoming boring. She wanted something new to sink her teeth into. This morning's meeting would tell the tale.

Angie checked her reflection in the bedroom mirror. Satisfied, she headed downstairs clutching her work bag and her purse with both hands. She halted in the doorway to the kitchen and watched Sandy happily feeding a cooing Holly. Her daughter was digging into the waffle like it was the last one she would ever see.

She surveyed the bombed-out kitchen. The normally neat and tidy island was a breakfast mess, thanks to Sandy. Waffle-making goods, cups, saucers, cutlery, milk, lay scattered everywhere. She spotted the juice containers.

—I thought we agreed no sweet juice first thing in the morning.

Sandy turned to face her and immediately she regretted saying it. It was obvious he hadn't gotten much sleep as evidenced by the dark circles surrounding his eyes.

—I know, dear, but sometimes agreements are made to be broke. You must know that from work.

Was it a dig at her job? She wasn't sure. Was he trying to make one on purpose? He had to be too tired for that.

—You look nice this morning.

—No I don't. I'm a mess. I stayed up too late.

It appeared as though he was about to admonish her, but instead he swallowed hard enough for her to hear. He had called to her several times throughout the night. She ignored him every time. He didn't know she had even come to bed until he woke to find her getting in beside him. That was when he noticed the laptop on the bed.

—Big day today?

She rarely kept him advised about what she was working on. He only knew she liked her job, for the most part. They both liked the paydays, even if her hours were too long and the days too short. He didn't hold it against her. She always made time for their daughter, no matter how exhausted she was when she got home.

Lately, that bedtime was becoming later and later. Rarely did she make it before Holly was in bed. Usually by then he was grabbing a few hours of peace and quiet under a blanket on the sofa. Sometimes she would leave him sleeping while she went upstairs to her office to continue working.

She knew that always annoyed him, but she knew he swallowed his pride, too. It was all about the payday and the future for the three of them. He was constantly telling her she would be rewarded for her diligence and work ethic.

She wasn't so certain, and she made it plain to him. Her last raise was a year ago. This year's expected Christmas bonus hadn't happened. The powers that be made the announcement at the party. No bonuses for last year. Try harder for next.

So she tried harder, and she was convinced she would make it this year.

—Don't forget I'm taking the car in for a service today.

She cursed silently, knowing she would be forced to drive the truck.

—You need to get rid of that thing. It's dangerous. The brakes. The transmission. You said you were going to put lap belts in it and you haven't.

It occurred to her she shouldn't have said any of it. After all, the truck was his baby. He had it before they were married. His dream was to finish it properly, seat belts and all. Even she knew it would be one sweet ride when it was done. If it ever got done.

—I know, dear. I just don't have the energy any more. Holly is taking up all of it. The park. Walks. The stroller. Meals. Play time. My time is Holly time.

Immediately she regretted admonishing him. She was the worker bee. It was Sandy's job to support her by dedicating his time to care for their daughter. Still, on weekends, when it was Angela's turn to spend time with Holly, she called her Mommy. She was still calling him Dada, and he spent five non-stop days a week with her.

She heard the sigh, and knew exactly what he was thinking. There was no justice.





FOUR



ANGELA KISSED HER husband and daughter goodbye before making for the truck and then remembered the keys. Sandy grinned, already waiting at the door to switch them out. Holly waved furiously, calling out Goodbye mommy again and again. It was their standard ritual. Angela kissed her daughter a last time on the way by.

She stepped outside into the sunshine and hesitated. The day was starting auspiciously. A bright blue sky would take her to work. A light breeze whispered through the leaves of a nearby tree. The truck was parked beneath it. It was a real antique, even if it wasn't classified as one. Antique was too kind a word for it.

While her husband had perfected the exterior before they were married, he hadn't found the time or the inclination to work on it since. The interior was beat. A blanket covered the ragged seat. The huge steering wheel was no longer round. The automatic transmission clunked into every gear. She looked out over a faded and cracked dash. He hadn't bothered to get one of those cheap auto-store covers for it.

She turned the key and a cloud of blue smoke engulfed the driveway, drifting off in the breeze. She wondered if the neighbors would complain again as she wrestled to get the shift lever into reverse. It caught and she jerked into the street. She made another try to find drive and she was off.

She barely heard Holly's repeated goodbyes over the exhaust sound. She waved a final time before disappearing around a corner. Her grip on the wheel relaxed and then tightened again when she remembered the presentation.

She fished for her phone and the charging cable in her purse. Went to plug it in before catching herself. There was no outlet. Instead, a cigarette lighter filled the spot on the dash. How many times had she asked for it to be replaced with an adapter so she could plug in her phone? She lost count. She cursed silently and tossed the dead phone on the seat.

That and a dead laptop. What else could go wrong? She reached across for her purse. The truck swerved. She fought with the steering to get it back in her lane. Carefully now, she checked the pocket in her purse.

The feel of the USB dongle reassured her that at least it was still there, and she was smug in the knowledge that her presentation would be a go. Satisfied, she concentrated on maneuvering the truck through traffic.

She fought with the ancient power steering. She struggled with the old brakes. Sandy had explained the truck's eccentricities to her many times, but it was like the first time she'd driven it. Resigned to being late, she concentrated on rehearsing the presentation she would give.

The black SUV on her tail was following too close. She kept looking in the mirror, wondering if she should brake-check the driver to wake him up.

She turned off the busy main street. As she did, she checked the mirror. The SUV was still there. Obviously they both wanted to make time by taking a less busy shortcut. She'd done it many times. She halted at a stop sign, looked both ways, and was immediately blocked by a vehicle cutting in front of her.

She cursed and wrestled with the shift lever in an effort to back up and go around. The transmission locked. The truck would move neither forward nor back. The truck's door flew open. A hand grabbed her hair and hauled her out. She fell on her knees. Someone climbed over her to grab her laptop bag.

Two men forced a black hood over her head. They secured her wrists before manhandling her into the vehicle. Doors slammed and it accelerated away.

She rocked from side to side as the SUV made a series of rapid turns before the driver gunned the accelerator. They had to be on a straightaway to make good time.

Angela's first panicked thoughts were about her project presentation. There was no one to replace her. Her concerns came to an abrupt halt when she finally realized that was the least of her problems. She was in trouble. Big trouble.





FIVE



SANDY SURVEYED THE clean kitchen. He had a routine, and it hadn't taken long to neat it up. He busied himself readying the three-wheeled stroller for his daily run. Water for him and Holly. Sunscreen for the park if they stopped today. Never his phone, though. His morning run was his me time. He and Holly. He tucked a sweet juice into the stroller, a reward they would share.

—Don't tell mommy, okay Holly?

She looked up at him and giggled.

—No-no, Dada.

Holly didn't mind in the slightest.

—We'll be sure to brush our teeth after.

Holly cooed and giggled and laughed and waved at strangers as they went speeding down the sidewalks on their run with the three-wheeled stroller. The stop at the park lasted only long enough for a brief swing and to share the juice. By the time they returned, Holly was as fatigued as he was with all of her arm-waving and smiling and calling out to strangers.

Sandy gave Holly her bathroom break before changing her outfit and putting her to bed for her nap. Her eyes closed the instant she went down. In sympathy, as he liked to call it, he stretched out on the sofa and closed his eyes. He went off to dreamland as quickly as Holly. He kept one ear attuned, in case she should wake up before he did.

He almost slept past the service appointment for their fancy car. He woke Holly. She opened her eyes and grinned up at him.

—Are you ready for a car ride, Holly?

She reached out her arms and he picked her up and put her in her chair.

—How about a snack before we go?

She nodded and called out Cerweal pwease in her little-girl voice.

—Cereal it is. I think I'll join you.

He filled two bowls, but Holly wasn't having it. She reached for his, wanting to eat out of it. He obliged her with a single spoon for both of them.

—All right. It's time. Do you need to go to the bathroom?

She nodded and he took her, waiting until she finished.

—Good girl, dear. Now, where did I put that soother?

At the sound of the word, Holly perked up instantly. Her eyes grew large. Her head turned from side to side, searching and looking around. She couldn't see it, either. She was on the verge of tears when Sandy popped it into her mouth. Her eyes closed and she grinned past it, showing tiny white teeth in the process.

He carried her to the SUV and strapped her in the back. He slipped one of her shoes off and placed it in his lap. It was a little trick someone told him about. It made sure he never forgot she was back there. Sure enough, even after her nap, she quieted and was dozing off by the time he turned into the dealership.

—All right, dear. We're here.

He picked the soother up from the back seat and popped it into her mouth. He dropped the keys off and he carried her part-way to a park bench. He put her down to let her walk the rest of the way on her short, sturdy little legs. At the bench, she held out her arms and he lifted her up to sit beside him. Together, they amused themselves by watching people and dogs strolling by.

—Puppy, Dada. Puppy.

Holly pointed and giggled and kicked her feet. He was tempted to put her down so she could investigate on her own. In the end he thought better of it. He didn't know the owner, and he'd be darned if he'd let a strange, unknown dog near his daughter.

He went for his back pocket to check the time and discovered he'd forgotten his phone. He cursed his forgetfulness silently and picked Holly up. They traded the bench for the swing. It took only three pushes for Holly to begin laughing and squealing with delight.

—Push, Dada, push.

Sandy pushed. Holly laughed and giggled. Finally, it was time to return to the dealer. He picked up a pink-faced, happy Holly.

—Let's go see how they're doing with our car.

Car wide, Dada? Car wide?

He drove home, gave Holly a bathroom break, and prepared lunch for two. Following that, he took her out for a swing in the back yard before putting her down. As was his wont, he stretched out on the sofa and crashed.





SIX



GROGGY AND STILL half asleep, Sandy tuned an ear. It wasn't Holly. He listened again. It was his darned phone, the phone he forgot to take with him. He'd only turned it on its face, forgetting to turn it off. He checked the time, revealing the unfamiliar number. One-thirty. He was out longer than he thought.

He cocked an ear to listen for Holly, but she was still sleeping. He didn't like her to be down for too long. It meant when she went to bed she wouldn't sleep until late into the evening.

—Hello?

He was groggy and confused from his nap. He probably shouldn't have answered.

—Is this Sandy Franklin?

—Yes.

Now he was intrigued. He quickly ran through a list in his head. All the bills, paid. That was the extent of it. It was his job to never leave anything unpaid. He saw to it assiduously. Perhaps it was the car dealership.

—Who's calling, please?

The garage where he took the car? He paid by credit card. It couldn't be that. He hadn't left Holly behind. She was upstairs, sleeping. To be certain, he climbed the stairs to look in on Holly in her crib.

—Hello?

Mumbling came through the phone. Other voices in the background.

—Hello. Who's there?

—Sandy?

—Yes. Who is this?

—It's Bill Henry from Angela's office.

—Oh. Hello. Yes.

His wife's boss.

—What can I do for you?

—It's about Angela. She didn't come in today. Do you know where she is?

He recalled the presentation his wife told him about. She was scheduled to give it this morning. It was important, according to her. She wouldn't slough it off. Wasn't it supposed to go first thing? Why was her boss only calling now?

—Hang on.

Sandy scrolled through numerous text messages and several voice mails from the same number. So they had called earlier. He missed them all when he forgot to take the phone with him to the garage.

—She's not here. Did you try her cell?

—Yes. More than once. She's not picking up. We texted, too. She was scheduled to give a presentation this morning. It's long overdue now. We've given up and postponed everything. Do you think you could track her down?

It was the truck. It had to be. She hated driving it. Maybe the brakes failed. Or the steering. She was in a hospital somewhere. Damn but he should have put seat belts in it. She was always asking when he'd get around to it. Every time he had put her off.

—I'll make some calls and get back to you, all right?

He hung up immediately. Considered waking Holly so she wouldn't stay up late. Thought better of it and called Angie's cell phone instead. The call went straight to voice mail.

All right, he remembered her phone was dead when she left. The adapter. He'd meant to pick one up for the truck's lighter. She wouldn't be able to charge her phone or make any calls. But it was after lunch. She should have been at work long ago. He checked the first text asking about the whereabouts of his wife.

Nine o'clock. She would have been a half-hour late by then.

What to do. What to do.

Sandy paced the living room and tried thinking things through. Police. Would they know anything? Perhaps about an accident. But didn't they only look into missing people after two or three days? It was hardly that. He would call anyway.

Sandy hung up the phone, disappointed, worried, and no farther ahead. There were no accidents involving his truck. The desk officer was nice enough to check with the 911 operations center. There were no calls reporting the plate number for anything amiss. He debated calling the hospitals, but thought better of it. It the 911 center had no records—

As far as the missing person report, it was just as he suspected—too soon.





SEVEN



THERE IT WAS again, filtering up from the ground floor. I tuned an ear to the door and listened ever more closely. The cries were getting louder. Friday's ears perked up. He went on alert, too. His tail halted its wagging and he positioned to face the door. His head tilted and a confused expression appeared on his furry black face. I recognized the sound, finally, and admonished the dog.

—You can relax, Friday. I don't think they'll be coming in here. They're looking for someone else.

The dog took my advice and returned to his bed between the office desks. In seconds he took up the position he was in before the commotion began.

—You're getting far too much sleep, Friday. Maddie wouldn't be happy knowing we haven't gone for our walk yet.

I held a finger to my lips, something I learned from Lily.

Shh. If you don't tell, I certainly won't.

The commotion started all over again before it appeared to hesitate on the second floor landing. Slow steps halted at the closed door. A knock sounded, tentative and barely audible. Okay, so maybe Friday was right after all. I called out through the door.

—You can come in. It's open.

A tall man in a rumpled shirt pushed the door open. Dark-rimmed eyes wandered the office and then paused to look me over. A gray blanket covered an indiscriminate lump hanging over the man's left shoulder. I heard snuffling. I recognized it because it was what Friday did sometimes. Not quite, but it was close.

The man offloaded the lump of blanket from his shoulder into both hands and turned it around. A pink-faced baby peeked out past the blanket and examined me with bright blue eyes. Okay, so not exactly a baby. A baby perhaps two years old. Maybe younger. I was no expert in that department.

The man eased the blanket back to reveal tangled, curly red hair poking up. A pink hoodie matched the girl's teary pink face. Pink pants completed the outfit. The baby's outfit. The man was dressed normally but for the badly wrinkled shirt.

—I take it this is the private detective's office. Are you Jim Nash?

—That I am. And you are—?

—Franklin. Sandy Franklin. This is our daughter, Holly.

At the mention of her name, Holly spit out the soother that had been firmly clenched between her teeth. It arced, hit the floor, and bounced out of sight. High-pitched screams filled the office the instant it left the confines of her mouth. Piercing screams.

Holly's head circled, first left, then right, searching, before tilting up at her father. It was obvious even to me she wanted to follow the soother to the floor. Kicking feet and waving arms told me Holly was probably a handful. I didn't need a detective to figure that out.

—Pleased to meet you, Sandy. Hello, Holly.

Holly's blue eyes focused on me. Her screaming halted and she forgot all about the missing soother. She seemed to look me over and then, as though suddenly remembering she was absent something, began to scream all over again.

I wasn't surprised. I was known to affect some women that way. Sandy put his daughter on the floor and she got down on hands and knees to investigate her new surroundings.

A very wise Friday stayed put between the desks. I think he even tried making himself smaller by pulling back against the wall. He may have been trying to process exactly what was happening in his normally much quieter domain. Holly's blue eyes locked onto the dog. Before Friday could effect a nervous blink, she screamed.

—Puppy!

Friday sat up and looked over at me. I remained nonchalant, trying to appear as though everything going on in our lives in this instant was the most normal thing ever.

The little girl waddled in Friday's direction on short, sturdy legs and white-laced pink sneakers at the end of them. Wavered with every tentative step. Changed direction at least once on the way before correcting herself. It looked as though she might fall down any second.

She got within what she must have considered hailing distance. She held out her short little arms and splayed fingers and began to coo. Friday looked up at me again. I thought for sure he was about to put tail between legs and slink off before anyone noticed, especially his new short little best friend.

—Too late, Friday. Holly is on her way to introducing herself.

The soother was forgotten. Holly slipped and landed on her well-padded rear. She leaned forward on hands and knees and made a feeble attempt to push herself up. Duly intrigued, Friday reluctantly got up on all fours. Holly's head looked up at the dog and she immediately ended up splayed out on the floor a second time.

—Nice puppy.

Resigned to the little girl's distress, Friday stood over her. He gripped the back of the hoodie in his teeth and lifted the girl up. He set her down on her feet and released her. Holly giggled and promptly sat down. Friday picked her up again and this time she stayed up. Her stubby little arms circled Friday's neck and she cooed into his ear.

—Puppy.

Satisfied that the girl wouldn't be falling down until she released him, Friday sat back on his haunches and kept a wary eye on Holly. Her arms remained locked around his neck. I looked over at Sandy. He was grinning like a proud father. Come to think of it, so was I.

—Furry.

Holly wasn't about to be silenced.

—Puppy furry.

Holly buried her face in Friday's neck. Her grip slipped and she ended up on her rear. Friday sighed a doggie sigh and looked up at me.

—You're on your own, dog.

Holly wasn't so sure. She called to the dog.

—Ups. Ups. Puppy. Ups.

Resigned to possibly being Holly's helper for the rest of his life, Friday did as requested. The little girl giggled and, back on two sturdy, upright legs, wrapped her arms around Friday's furry neck once more and giggled.

—Now that Holly seems to have Friday under control, what can I do for you, Mr. Franklin?

—I think my wife, Angela—Holly's mother—has gone missing.

Sandy Franklin had to be a remarkably patient man to sit through all that before declaring a missing wife.





EIGHT



SANDY FRANKLIN KNEW the dog wouldn't hold Holly's attention forever. Without a word he got down on his hands and knees. The man craned his neck as he searched high and low for his daughter's missing soother. He found it and looked furtively at her holding onto the dog's neck. He wiped the soother on a pant leg and jammed it into a pocket before standing up.

—We're trying to wean her off of it.

—How's that working for you?

—Not well, but we keep trying.

—So why did you find my office again, Mr. Franklin?

I looked at my phone. Three p.m. I turned it over and placed it face down on the desk.

—It's my wife. Holly's mother. She seems to be missing.

I opened a drawer and brought out a notepad.

—What leads you to that conclusion?

I noted the date and time and the man's name and that of his wife and daughter. His eyes traveled to the little girl with her arms wrapped firmly around an uncomplaining Friday and then up at me.

—We had our normal breakfast. As you can imagine, it was rushed with Holly refusing to eat and crying and banging things and scattering food. I like to get Holly to the table early so Angie can get dressed in peace and quiet. She works. I'm a stay at home dad.

—You were saying she was missing.

I wanted to get things back on track.

—Oh, yes, well, we were arguing about what time she'd be home. We had a dinner date with some neighbors. A barbecue. Sometimes she gets back late, and I wanted to be sure she'd be home in time.

He looked down at Holly.

—Anyway, she leaves around seven-thirty every morning. Drives herself to work for eight-thirty. By nine the office was calling wondering where she was. Apparently she was supposed to be at an important meeting first thing and never showed. No phone call, nothing.

I scratched more notes before looking up.

—Who does your wife work for?

He told me. It was a venture capital firm. In a previous life I had worked part-time for one of the biggest.

—I've heard of them.

The company bought up near-bankrupt outfits, sold off assets that were worth anything, and let the remainder die. It laid off or fired employees left, right and center in the process to reduce costs. Pension and retirement benefits, everything, went out the window. Sandy interrupted my thoughts.

—They buy up solvent companies, too. Not many, but a few.

—Her job has to be high-pressure. Do you know if she has any enemies?

He thought before replying.

—Not that I know of. Although I guess anything is possible given the nature of her work.

—And that is?

—She runs the numbers on the companies before the firm buys them. If the numbers are no good, they don't buy.

—So she does financial audits and investigations. Maybe saves some companies, lets others collapse in bankruptcy.

—I suppose that's one way of putting it.

I scribbled more notes.

—So it is possible she might not have made many friends in the companies she allowed to go bust.

—That's possible, yes.

Holly had gone suddenly quiet. I looked over at Friday. He was stretched out on his bed. Holly was snuggled against him with her face buried in his neck. She was breathing quietly, fast asleep. The one eye Friday was keeping on the little girl appeared to look relieved.

—You mentioned something about an important meeting that required your wife's presence this morning. Do you know what it was about? Perhaps a takeover? Maybe the outfit's owners weren't happy with her decision.

Sandy considered.

—It could be something like that, yes. My first thought was to go to the police.

So he hadn't gone that route.

—Why didn't you?

—I didn't think a few hours was enough for them to do anything. Was I right?

He was. I didn't say so. I asked what kind of car she drove. The plate number.

—I did call to ask about accidents.

So he called after all. Probably smart of him to ask.

—Is it possible the car broke down?

He considered.

—I suppose. But we have a road service. It wouldn't take her this long to get to work even if it did. No. Wait. That's not right. Her phone was dead. And she couldn't use it in the truck. I never picked up an adapter.

So the truck she drove to work was old. I continued making notes, halting when Sandy's phone rang.

—It's her.

He held the phone to show me.

—Honey. Where are you? Work has been calling all morning. I'm at a—

Sandy halted, listening.

—I'm going to put you on speaker, okay? I'm doing laundry.

Chalk one up for Sandy.

His wife's voice was shaky. Trembling. Trying to remain calm and not doing a good job of it. Her breathing came in spurts between sentences. She was barely keeping it together.





NINE



DEMANDS. SURELY THE kidnappers would have demands. They would come after the How are you-I'm fine tear-filled and panicked talk between husband and wife. The phone would be surrendered and the kidnappers would talk. But when it was over, they didn't have demands. They hung up. Perhaps it was more of a getting-to-know-you phone call. I was confused, to say the least.

So was Sandy. I asked the obvious question.

—Did you recognize anything? Any familiar sounds in the background?

I couldn't ask if he recognized any kidnapper voices. None of them talked.

—No. I'm just relieved she's okay. She's okay.

He looked down at his daughter nestled against Friday and smiled.

—What did you do before you quit work to take care of Holly, Mr. Franklin?

—I was a computer programmer. I worked on the shady side of things. Testing. Probing. Looking for weaknesses in systems. That kind of thing.

—Ever do any hacking?

He looked at me, as though sizing me up.

—Well—

I waited.

—Yes. Plenty. I was good at it, too.

There it was. I had a glimmer.

—You've been away from the business for two years or so. Do any of your old friends miss you?

—Oh yeah. Some. Mostly the second rate ones. I carried a lot of their weight.

I considered for a moment before asking.

—Perhaps one of your old friends has been hired to break into your wife's computer to obtain inside information. Is that possible?

—She does sensitive work. Collects a lot of data and parses it for the higher ups. What she presents determines whether the company she researches will be a buy or an ignore or a sell. Whether it will be parted out and sold bit by bit. Destroyed and dumped once the value is gone. That kind of thing.

I made more notes before putting down the pencil.

—All right, Mr. Franklin. I'll look for your wife. I'm going to call a friend of mine at the local PD. You don't need to know who he is.

Sandy Franklin reached into his bag and pulled out a checkbook. He filled it out without asking what my services were going to cost. He handed it over, and as much as I didn't want to look, I did anyway.

—Fill in any amount you want, Mr. Nash. Anything at all. Holly needs her mother, even though right now it seems she needs Friday, too.

He bent to pick up his little girl. She opened drowsy eyes and grinned at him. Turned her head to look at me. I grinned right back. Friday, ever the watchful dog with the children, sat up and snorted.

—Bye puppy.

—His name is Friday, dear.

—Bye Fwiday. Bye.

Short pink fingers attached to a pink hand with an arm covered by a pink sleeve waved at the dog from her father's arms.

—Bye Fwiday. Bye Fwiday.

Friday woofed and followed them to the stairs. Holly called out all the way down to the door. Friday woofed his own goodbyes every time she called his name.

—Well, Fwiday.

The dog tilted his head and looked up at me like I should have known he was only being nice for the little girl's sake.

—It looks like we have a new client. Come on. We're going for a car ride.

That was all it took to get the dog taking the lead down the stairs. He halted at the car and I opened the door.

—You didn't even call shotgun, dog.

He looked from side to side and then up at me, as though to say There's no one else here, before jumping onto the seat.

—We're going to drive the route Holly's mom takes to work every day. What do you say to that?

He sniffed the air, searching for a scent.

—Don't worry. You won't be seeing Holly for a while, dog. You can relax in peace and quiet.

Friday didn't look like he believed me.





TEN



WITH MADDIE OUT of the picture while she visited home, I was left to my own devices with the Franklin case. And, she left her favorite and only dog behind. She must have thought I was capable of taking care of him on my own. I think Friday was still reserving judgment on that. We hadn't gone on any of our promised daily walks.

—We'll walk when we get back, dog.

His ears perked up and he settled into the Packard's front seat beside me. I powered down the top before referring to my notes. Franklin gave me the streets his wife normally drove to work. I was familiar with them. Two would be congested at the time she drove them.

I made for the first and by late afternoon we were cruising. Traffic was mostly in the opposite direction, headed home. I got onto the second, with the same result.

—Our client's wife was late getting off to work.

I found myself addressing a dog.

—She would have been looking for a route around the early morning congestion. Since she drove it every day, she'd know where to turn well in advance.

Friday didn't say anything. Maybe be agreed with me. Maybe he didn't.

—The only way to find out is if we drive the side streets. We'll zig and zag and see what we can see.

I was sure more than a few people would have had the same idea. Even with the fewer cars of after-hours traffic, it was a pain. Back and forth. Left and right. Crossing streets and taking up on the other side. It was time-consuming and frustrating.

—We're almost done, Friday. What do you say we walk the last few streets?

He woofed assent. I poured a jug of water and let him bury his face in it. He finished, and I attached his long leash. We were off. Out of the convertible and the wind, it was a lot warmer and definitely humid.

I allowed Friday to take the lead. He tugged at the leash, doing his usual sniffing and snuffling and stopping and starting. He even took time to anoint a fire hydrant.

—Good dog, Friday. I've wanted to do that a time or two myself.

My shirt was wet and soaked in perspiration. Friday's tongue was hanging out. He was panting a little too hard for my liking. We crossed the street and retired to a restaurant's small sidewalk patio and shade under an umbrella.

The waitress appeared and I requested water for two. She took one look and it turned dirty before she disappeared. The dirty look returned with two tiny glasses.

—Can I get a bowl, please? I like to slurp my water when it's hot like this.

She shook her head and mumbled something about customers and I ignored her until she returned with the requested bowl. I serenaded her with a tuneless ditty for her efforts. She didn't crack so much as a smile. Perhaps it was my singing. Or maybe it was late in her day.

Friday finished up his drink. I wandered to the edge of the sidewalk to have a gander up and down the street.

—Friday, that looks like what we're searching for.

We rushed past the till. The waitress hurried to our table. I was certain she wanted to see if we left the salt and pepper behind.

—Friday. Heel.

He did as ordered, and I halted a block away. In front of us, the truck angled towards the curb, not quite parallel to the street, as though it had been forced to stop. I led Friday behind a hedge and scanned the street. A sedan was parked half a block from the truck. Windows down. Someone in the driver's seat. A stakeout, maybe.

—Come on, Friday. We have some scouting to do.





ELEVEN



I ALLOWED FRIDAY to take the lead, letting him tug me along. We strolled past the car. Music blared. A man occupied the driver's seat.

Behind us a door slammed. Friday halted and looked. I followed his lead. A man carrying a brown bag and a thermos made for the car. He climbed in and the driver left the scene.

We took our time getting to the truck. From a distance it looked to be an immaculate restoration. The colors matched Sandy's description and the pictures he showed me. Both windows were down. I ordered Friday to stay and put on a pair of gloves before opening the driver's door.

Inside was a beater needing plenty of work. The dash cracked and faded in too many places to count. The shift lever indicator was in reverse. I wiggled it to no avail. It was stuck.

Missing door covers revealed the window guts. I tried the hand cranks. They worked, but with some difficulty. A window slipped out of its track.

I checked the visor. The ash tray. Under the floor mat. No keys.

A colorful blanket covered the seat. I slipped my fingers along the crease. They touched something. I dug deeper and came up with a USB drive. I put the dongle back and took pictures. I pocketed the drive and closed up the truck to take some distant shots. If it got towed I'd have a record.

I made sure to include the plate. I made sure to check my notebook, too. The plate was definitely a match, but by then there was no doubt.

—It looks like we found it, dog. Just where we thought it would be. Angela must have turned off the crowded street to make time and ended up waylaid by person or persons unknown.

It sure wasn't to steal the truck. It might have looked pristine on the outside but for a tailgate filthy with oily exhaust fumes. Inside, it was anything but. Under the hood it was likely a disaster in the making.

—Let's call it a day and head home, Friday. I have some thinking to do.





TWELVE



I PUT IN a call to Don Boyle, a friendly lieutenant in the local PD. He was out. I left a brief message about the case and the found vehicle particulars. Even though Sandy's wife hadn't been missing long enough to file a report, it never hurts. In this case, the found truck tended to send the message that Angela Franklin could have been abducted.

Next was a call to Sandy Franklin. He picked up immediately and I filled him in.

—I also found a USB storage drive in the truck. What would you like me to do with it?

—Could you bring it over? It's late to try to find a sitter.

—I'll feed and water Friday and we'll be over in a bit.

—Holly is going to be so surprised. She was just asking about Fwiday a few minutes ago.

He mimicked his daughter's name for the dog and chuckled. I did, too. In the background, I heard Fwiday, Dada? Fwiday? Friday would be in for a shock when Holly showed up to answer the door. No doubt Holly would be, too.

Boyle returned my call just as Friday and I were departing the office. I was pleasantly surprised when he told me he'd already sent a couple of his guys to look over the truck. I wanted to tell him about the USB stick, friends that we were, but I thought better of it until I had Angela's husband take a look at it.

—Thanks, Don. My client will appreciate it, I'm sure. I owe you one.

—No problem, Nash. Keep me updated, all right?

I said I would and Friday and I headed for the car. Friday, always one for a ride, jumped right in and took the front seat where Maddie usually sat.

—I miss her too, dog. Maybe we'll get a call later. What do you think?

We arrived at the Franklin residence. Friday followed me to the door and stood by my knee. His nose tested the air. He seemed unsure, but his tail wagged and it looked to me like he was smiling.

—Sit, Friday.

He looked up at me with a quizzical expression before doing as he was told. Maddie had trained him well. A commotion behind the door had Friday perking up his ears. His tail stopped sweeping the step.

—Open the door, dear. There's someone who wants to see you.

—Who, Dada?

I imagined the pink-faced little girl looking up at her father.

—You'll see.

The door eased open and short pink fingers slipped out from behind to pull it all the way. Holly's eyes widened. Her mouth opened. Nothing came out. Friday stood up. His nose was even with Holly's. Friday's tongue licked at the little girl's chin. Shocked, she fell back and landed on her rear. She was speechless for only a surprised moment.

—Fwiday! Dada. Fwiday. Look.

Dutiful dog that he was, Friday walked behind her. Holly's head turned as far as it could in one direction. She regrouped, and turned it the opposite way. Her arms waved. Friday did his duty and picked her up. A huge grin appeared.

—Good, Fwiday. Come. Come.

Friday looked up at me and waited. I gave him a sign and he obeyed. Side by side the pair walked down the hall to what I presumed was the little girl's room.

—You gave him a signal.

—Yes. His mistress trained him to respond to certain unspoken signals. If he doesn't see it, he won't go. I think it's good for everyone concerned. If you don't mind I'll just go down and take a quick look.

—Go ahead. I'll make coffee.

I nodded and made my way down the hall. I passed open doors and looked in rooms. Neat. Tidy. Plenty of pictures of the family. The girl's room was full of stuffed animal refugees and lots of colors and posters and drawings on the walls.

—Do you think you'll be all right, Friday?

I don't think Holly heard me. She was too busy hugging Friday. The dog was resigned to his fate and couldn't be bothered to woof a complaint. Truth be told, he seemed to be enjoying the attention.





THIRTEEN



I HANDED SANDY the portable drive. He disappeared to retrieve a laptop before settling in at the kitchen table and inserting the storage drive.

—It's password protected. I'll be right back.

He returned with a folded piece of paper. He laid it flat on the table. It contained groups of numbers followed by long lists of symbols.

—How secure is that if you write down all your passwords?

—Oh, don't worry. It's meaningless unless you know the correct combinations. We did it that way so we could keep everything available in case something happened.

—Well then, I guess this is the case. Something has happened.

He looked up before going to work on the keyboard. It took several tries, but Sandy ended up unlocking the laptop. He went to work on the many folders. Each was locked with a different password.

—Success. I'll get a bigger monitor. It'll be easier on the eyes.

I poured a coffee and went to check on Friday and Holly. The girl was busy chatting away to Friday.

—Bouncy ball, Fwiday. Bouncy ball.

She busied herself leading Friday to the door. He paused halfway through and waited while his playmate rolled the ball. She chased after it and walked it back, halting in front of Friday. He took the initiative and used his nose to send it sailing down the hall. Laughing and giggling, Holly chased after it and brought it back.

He nosed the ball again and looked up at me, as if to say I don't think this is how it works but I'm going to go with it anyway. His playmate waved arms in a frenzy, retrieved the ball again, and waited. I left them alone. Holly would no doubt end up sleeping well tonight.

I returned to the kitchen. Sandy was busy at the laptop. Fingers flew over keys. Documents launched and he arranged them in overlapping order.

—Take a look at this.

I looked, but it was something I was unfamiliar with. Games. Specifically, computer-based games. At least, that's what I got from the letterhead.

—Those are the most recent files. It has to be what she was working on for the presentation. A video game company. Some of those games are real money-makers.

—Do you know the firm?

Fingers began anew. A site listing came up filled with recent articles about the company.

—See these last two? It looks like the company is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. If they're to be believed, that is.

—You're certain?

—Oh yes.

He changed the search terms and more sites came up, essentially saying the same.

—They're all gamer sites. The reporters are highly regarded in the gaming industry.

—Could there be some animosity between programmers and owners?

—Oh yes. Quite often.

I wanted to know how.

—The owners want to release the game to start getting some return on their massive investment of time and money. The programmers don't want to release until they think it's ready. Often, the feeling is that it's never ready.

—Is Angela's report there?

—If it is, I can't find it. She might have it hidden. I'll need more time.

I went back to check on Friday. He was curled up on the floor in Holly's bedroom. Holly was snuggled up with her face in his neck. Curly red hair stuck out, tickling the dog's wet, twitching nose. Both were fast asleep.

—You better take a look, Sandy.

He halted in the doorway.

—I'll be right back.

He returned with his phone and snapped a picture.

—I'll send you a copy.

I was going to tell him not to bother but thought better. Maddie would get a kick out of seeing Friday all tuckered out by her dog's red-haired little playmate.

—You and Friday might as well head home, Detective Nash. I'm going to be a while figuring this out. When I have it I'll let you know.





FOURTEEN



I TURNED OVER the ringing phone and grinned recognizing Maddie's number. A happy woman could barely talk past her own grin. I was relieved she was checking in.

—So, do you miss me, or is it my breakfast cooking you miss? I'm frying up a couple of slices of bacon to mix with Friday's breakfast.

—He's getting bacon? How come?

—We had a late night last night. Our new client kept us up until Friday couldn't keep his eyes open.

—The client must have come in after I left.

—Late in the afternoon. She's only eighteen or nineteen—

She didn't allow me to finish.

—What? A teenager? What's she doing there? Isn't she kind of young to hire a private investigator? What happened? Did her boyfriend stand her up for prom or what?

—Hang on. Your favorite dog's breakfast is ready.

Friday hadn't twigged to the fact that I was talking to his mistress. His tail wagged eagerly, knowing what was coming. I picked the bacon out of the pan and patted it dry. He knew I was chopping it to mix with his breakfast, and his tail continued its furious wagging.

—There you go. Enjoy, dog.

His tail halted and he buried his furry face in breakfast. I went back to my conversation with Maddie.

—Oh, no. Nothing like that. She's—

—She's what?

Maddie sounded filled with regret that she'd left on her trip home.

—I'll send you pictures. Friday's in them, too. You'll get a kick out of the pair. They played bouncy ball last night. It plumb tuckered out both of them.

I knew better than to wait longer than a minute after we hung up. I wished I could see her face when she learned the teenager was eighteen months old. I didn't have long to wait.


>> You are a bad bad man.


A phone call interrupted my fun. Sandy managed to unlock his wife's report and was inviting me to see it. In turn I invited him to the office. I finished feeding and watering Friday and leashed him for our walk.

—Your girlfriend is coming over, dog.

He looked up at me, head tilted, unsure what to make of it.

—You remember. Holly. Bouncy ball girl.

He woofed and shook his head.

—How soon we forget. Come on. We don't have much time for our walk.

Holly greeted her Fwiday like it was old home week. Sandy fished the bouncy ball out of his backpack and the little girl took over from where she left off the night before. Friday, accustomed to her game of backwards fetch, played along. He happily nosed the ball while Holly chased after it only to retrieve it and put it down in front of him.

—I wonder how long it's going to take her to train Friday to fetch.

—I'm not sure, but I think Friday is smarter than your average dog. He's keeping her too happy and busy to even think about letting him fetch the ball.

I had to agree with Sandy on that.

—Okay, so what's the latest? Any more phone calls?

—Yes. Another shortly after you left. I got to talk to Angie again, briefly. She says she's safe.

That was a bit of a relief.

—Any clue as to what they want?


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