Atlanta was a big enough city to get well and truly lost in. Even with a newborn baby to look after, there were plenty of cheap motels and off the beaten path places someone could go to hole up, which put the chance at finding Genevieve “Jenny” Williams about as remote as they could get. Val wasn’t worried about that though. Between the mundane sorts of magic Tam and Anna could work and the mystical weirdness Charlene sometimes had available for them, finding people wasn’t usually a problem. Finding them alive however? That was the tricky bit, with getting them back home safely and even more difficult feat to pull off.
“Any special line of questioning we want to take with Jenny’s sister?” Tam asked as they pulled into the driveway outside the single level ranch where Sera Williams lived. She dropped the kickstand for her newly enhanced bike (James had been as good as his word about getting it ready in time for her trip) and put her helmet over the right handlebar.
Val followed suit, her own bike a custom made,carbon copy of Tam’s except for the muffler. Anna, by contrast, eschewed the sleek, razor sharp lines her younger associates’ machines. Hers was a behemoth of a motorcycle, closer to a tank with two wheels than anything that could properly be termed a “bike”. That didn’t stop her from arriving first wherever they went. She might not have the maneuverability or raw speed to match the other’s bikes but she did have a level of fearlessness that put both Tam and Val to shame.
“I do not think she will try to hide anything,” Anna said, waiting for the other two to catch up before approaching the house’s front door. “If she was involved in her sister’s disappearance, she would not have reached out to us.”
“People can be kind of stupid sometimes,” Val said.
“Then she will give herself away as soon as she starts talking,” Anna said.
Val had no trouble believing that. Even without Anna’s height and low voice, the older woman projected an aura of authority. It wasn’t impossible to lie to her, but it took practice and a mindset that few people had.
“Is it a good sign that the door is open?” Tam asked. “I’ve heard that the people in the South are very welcoming but…”
“But we’re twenty minutes north of Atlanta,” Val said, taking the lead. “No one is that welcoming this close to a major city.”
Had Val been a cop, she would have drawn service revolver. Had she been a licensed private investigator in a TV drama, she would have drawn an implausibly large firearm. She was neither of those things though, so instead she put on what looked to all the world like a normal pair of sunglasses and gestured for Tam and Anna to stand back.
Then she kicked the door hard enough that it left a dent in the wall when it slammed open.
And she waited.
A second later there was the sound of scrambling within the house as two people fled towards the back door.
Val raced into the house, gesturing to Anna and Tam to head around to the back and cut off the fleeing suspects.
It was a straight shot into the house’s kitchen, and from there out into the backyard where two men were racing away from the premises.
Val’s first instinct was Fight. Chase down the bad guys. Make them pay. And they were definitely bad guys. Sera Williams was supposed to be home alone for their meeting. Two men fleeing her house at the first sign of someone catching them there were absolutely up to no good.
But there was Sera herself to think about.
The men had fled the house through the backdoor out from the living room. That’s where Val found Sera, half tied to a chair and ripping away at the knots.
“Let me help you with those,” Val said, putting away the Sonic X-Ray Vision glasses.
“Who are you?” Sera asked, her head shooting up in surprise at Val’s arrival.
“I’m Valentina Perez. Charlene from the Second Chance Club sent us.” She helped untie the last of rope that bound Sera to the kitchen chair.
“Oh thank god that you’re early!” Sera said, shaking off the ropes and jumping out of the chair like it was covered in leeches.
“Who were those guys?” Val asked, gesturing for Anna and Tam to come inside. They’d made it around to the back of the house but the men had fled to a waiting car on the next street over and escaped without running into either woman.
“I don’t know,” Sera said. “They were asking about Jenny, but they wouldn’t say why.”
“She’s been missing for a month right?” Tam asked. “Does that seem like weird timing to anyone else?”
“It is somewhat unusual, yes,” Anna said, scanning the contents of the room as she always did when meeting someone new in their personal space.
“I went to the bank today,” Sera said. “To get some of the stuff she kept in our safe deposit box for you. Could that have done it?”
“Maybe,” Val said. “Were they asking about the things you retrieved?”
“No. They just wanted to know where she was,” Sera said. “They burst in here, and I think one of them hit me on the head. Then they were dragging me in here and tying me up.”
“Hold still for a moment,” Tam said and inspected Sera’s scalp. “Yeah, they clipped you across the side of your head. We’ll probably want to get you to hospital next.”
“That sounds good,” Sera said. “I have some friends on duty today.”
“That’s right you are a nurse aren’t you?” Anna asked, standing up a chair that had been knocked over.
“I just got off my shift a few hours ago,” Sera said. “But you’re not here for me. What can I do to help you with finding Jenny?”
“Step one? Get somewhere safe,” Val said. “We’ll be more effective if we don’t have to divide our efforts.”
“I can do that,” Sera said. “The hospital has officers stationed there and I can go to a friend’s house tonight.”
“I think we can do better than that,” Anna said and tapped a contact on her phone.
One quick ring later and Jimmy B answered.
“Anna, hello, what can I set you up with this fine day?” he asked.
“We need secure lodging. One week’s worth. Some place nice.”
“How secure would you like?” Jimmy B asked.
“Let us be on the safe side,” Anna said.
“I’ve got just the thing then. The Marigold estate is currently unoccupied. I’ll book you in there for the week. The guards will know to expect you and a guest. No one else is going to get in unless they bring a battalion with them.”
“The Marigold estate?” Sera asked. “I catered there once when I was in school. That place is unreal! It’s gorgeous! I can’t afford that!”
“That’s the concussion talking,” Val said. “This isn’t a hotel stay. This is protective custody. We’ll work things out with the hospital to get you some time off. For now though, if you’re up for it, tell us what happened with your sister.”
“The last time I saw her, we had a fight,” Sera said. “It wasn’t a big one. She wanted me to look after Meg, her daughter, but I had a shift that night. I should have heard how desperate she sounded, but I thought she was just tired. I told her I’d come over as soon as I was done, but that wasn’t good enough. She hung up on me in the middle of me asking her if she’d be awake when my shift was over.”
“This was the night she disappeared or did anyone else see her after that?” Tam asked.
“It was that night,” Sera said. “The phone records say I was the last person who talked to her.”
“So you talked to her at most a couple hours before the break-in,” Tam said. “When did you learn she was missing?”
“I was mad that she hung up on me, so I didn’t go over the next day. I tried to call her though, but she didn’t answer. Finally, when I didn’t hear from her the next day, I went over to see what was up and that’s when I found the apartment had been broken into.”
“That’s when you called the police?” Val asked.
“Yeah. I had to leave everything in there alone because it was a crime scene, so I don’t have any of the stuff from her apartment for you. That’s why I thought about the deposit box.”
“You have a key to her safe deposit box?” Anna asked.
“Not her personal one,” Sera said. “This is one we share together. It’s got things like the life insurance on our parents that’s payable to the both of us. Some of Jenny’s personal stuff was in there too though. We put a copy of our own wills in there and the paperwork for some accounts that we have at that bank. It’s just the most convenient place to keep them.”
“That might be something to start with,” Anna said.
“I don’t think so,” Tam said. “I’ve checked her bank accounts. Jenny was tapped out.”
“She drained her accounts before running?” Val asked. “That’s a pretty typical move for people looking to get away from their old lives.”
“In this case I don’t think it had anything to do with trying to runaway,” Tam said. “From the bank records I’ve been able to pull up, her husband’s medical bills and the bills from Meg’s birth completely wiped them out. More than completely in fact. They somehow paid off more of Lewis’ bills than they had income or savings to cover and then had enough left for the initial charges around Meg’s birth. But they still owe a lot of money.”
“But she didn’t say anything about that?” Sera said.
“Many people do not like to talk about their finances when money is short,” Anna said.
“Which, of course, is also when they could use help and advice the most,” Tam said.
“But why would she disappear?” Sera asked. “I could have helped her get back on her feet. We could have worked out some kind of plan. Or declared bankruptcy or something.”
“That depends on what her creditors were like,” Val said.
“It looks like several months ago, both Lewis and Jenny used the services of the ‘Best Deal Payday Loan’ business,” Tam said.
“But that would just make things worse!” Sera said.
“Yes. That is how those businesses operate,” Anna said. “You said that was several months ago though? Where did they turn after that?”
“That’s the part that has me worried,” Tam said. “Lewis made a number of deposits, but I can’t see any source for the income. Could he have had friends who could loan him over two hundred thousand dollars?”
“No,” Sera said, shaking her head in disbelief. “No one in our family knows anyone with that kind of money laying around.”
“Then I think we know who Jenny is running from,” Tam said.
“Yeah, whoever Lewis had been going to for cash,” Val said. “That’s got to be who sent those guys over.”
“Why would they want to know where Jenny was though? She obviously doesn’t have any money to pay them back at this point,” Sera asked.
“Sometimes it is less about recovering money that has been loaned out, and more about setting an example for others,” Tam said.
“There is one other mystery that presents itself here though,” Anna said. “The blood.”
“What do you mean?” Sera asked.
“There was blood found in your sister’s apartment,” Val said.
“Yeah, I know,” Sera said. “It wasn’t hers or Megs though, so they weren’t hurt in the break-in. Were they?”
“We don’t know,” Val said. “What hasn’t been made public yet is that the blood in Jenny’s apartment wasn’t just ‘not from them’. We have less than usual to go on because the blood wasn’t from anyone. It wasn’t human blood at all.”