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    Libby Drew
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

40 Souls to Keep - 14. Chapter 14

The sun was almost over the horizon when Lucas pulled up to the security gate of Paradise Palms. Holding his breath, he punched in the universal access code he’d been given a few nights ago. The candy-striped bar rose in a series of jerks, and Lucas coasted under as soon as the Jetta’s roof had clearance to pass. He activated his GPS, instructing it to find the last programmed address, and soon the cheerful British voice was directing him to turn onto Mariner Drive.

Night had covered the worst of it. Lucas remembered the street as empty, but daylight revealed something far uglier. Whoever had coined the term air of abandonment knew what they were talking about. More than one pool cage had been compromised, the screen shredded, and with that feeble protection gone, the pools within had become green sludge. Lucas didn’t want to consider too carefully what else might be living in the water. White bedsheets hung in windows. Stacks of rolled newspapers littered driveways.

He rolled to the end of the cul-de-sac and up onto the driveway. Martinez’s yellow crime tape fluttered in a light breeze where it stretched around the side of the garage to the front porch, and Lucas’s stomach rolled with sense memories—the flash of a scaled tail disappearing into the canal, pretty pictures on the wall, and the wet smell of blood.

Jase shifted, muttering in his sleep, and Lucas reached over to squeeze his shoulder. Jase rolled his head toward the touch, looking rumpled and vulnerable, killing Lucas’s personal promise to scale back the intimacy between them. He cupped Jase’s cheek, swiping his thumb across his lips. “Hey, Sleeping Beauty. We’re here.”

Jase rubbed his eyes open. “I slept.”

“Is that so surprising?” Considering the past few days, anyway. Macy had been the only one getting her fair share of rest.

“I thought I was way too keyed up to sleep. Had the strangest dream,” he mused. Something I haven’t thought about in years.”

“That’s your ever-so-helpful subconscious. You should pay attention to your dreams,” Lucas said. “They usually mean something.”

“Yeah,” Jase said gruffly. “I’m sure.” He opened his door when Lucas did, canting his neck side to side as they walked through an arched portico to the tiny courtyard guarding the front door. “You don’t really think the front door is open?”

Lucas shrugged. “Can’t hurt to try.” The knob refused to twist in his hand. “Ah well. Plan B.” He skirted the low stucco wall that framed the courtyard and followed a gravel path that led around back. It felt as though the house stretched forever, but that was the builder’s solution on narrow lots. It let people snatch up their slice of heaven at rock-bottom prices.

“How far back does this place go?” Jase asked. He slid on the loose gravel, and Lucas reached back, steadying him. “Almost there.”

The screen door leading into the three-story pool cage wasn’t locked, but that didn’t mean they’d get inside the house. One hurdle at a time. They passed through the door, entering a dying medieval jungle. In some places, the brown, wilted plants were stacked three deep. Set above the pool, a hot tub, framed out in glass brick, looked like someone had filled it with hot chocolate. A cracked red garden hose lay half submerged in the murky water. Fifteen-foot bamboo plants hemmed the pool. The previous owners had used more bamboo to set off different areas of the lanai. Lucas caught a glimpse of a bar and the top of a patio umbrella. It had probably been beautiful in its time, the pride of the neighborhood. Now it looked dangerous—a predator-filled rainforest.

They found the glass sliders locked as tightly as the front door. “Why don’t you go over there,” Jase said, tipping his chin to the opposite side of the patio. He hefted a wrought-iron chair and tested its weight.

“Trying to protect me?”

“Plausible deniability, that’s all,” Jase answered.

Reasonable, but it rang of cowardice. “I’m fine,” Lucas said. Besides, “over there” looked a bit too creepy and snake-infested.

“Suit yourself.” Jase threw the chair through the doors, and they shattered impressively. Stale air, scented sweetly of blood, rushed out over Lucas’s face, and he gagged.

“You okay?” Jase called as he turned and walked quickly away.

“Yeah. Just the smell. Go ahead. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Jase peered inside, then back at Lucas. “Okay. I’ll stay on the main floor.”

Lucas made his way back to the stone wall hiding the pool equipment, swallowing back the saliva that kept flooding his mouth. He’d managed to overcome this the other night, so what was the problem now? Other than the fact that the carpets had been saturated with blood three nights ago and were probably still tacky.

Stomach turning, he fumbled for the hose spigot. The tap turned, but only a few rust-stained drops emerged. “Jesus.” He’d do anything for a mouthful of something cold. A ripple moved across the surface of the hot tub, and Lucas followed it with his eyes. Okay, anything except dangle his feet in the Jacuzzi.

Jase’s voice drifted out the door. “Okay, Lucas?”

About as okay as could be expected. He pulled a picture of Macy to the front of his thoughts and concentrated on that. Mind over matter. Shoulders squared, he crossed through the dead forest to the jagged hole in the glass and stepped through.

“I take it the worst of it is upstairs,” Jase said from the kitchen. The rising sun had yet to penetrate the windows. Lucas squinted at Jase’s shadow. “Yeah. But the family was camped out down here.”

His eyes tracked to the jumble of abandoned furniture and boxes in the cavernous room across from the breakfast nook. Just as it had done for the neighborhood, the dark softened the details. He could have been looking at a child’s play fort, the way the sheets had been draped over boxes and tucked into the corners of couch cushions. Even with five bedrooms at their disposal, they’d settled for this bit of flimsy privacy, as though the house weren’t a shelter at all, but something to be feared.

Turns out, they’d been right about that.

The police had turned the tiny camp inside out. Lucas remembered it as Spartan but neat. Organized. Their little bit of control over a world that had fallen apart around them. Little of that neatness could be seen now. Lucas bent down to sift through a stack of papers and books, but the room was too dim to make out the titles. “I’ve got a flashlight in the car,” he called. “I think we’re going to need it.”

“Hang on.” A beam of light appeared in the kitchen.

“Looks like one of your buddies left their Maglite behind.”

“Score. My tax dollars hard at work.”

Jase picked his way over and shined the flashlight where Lucas directed. The pile of papers were coupon circulars, the books third-grade readers. “Nothing here,” Jase said, picking up one of the schoolbooks. “Looks like Macy’s mother was doing her best.”

Weren’t they all? Lucas toed the stack of papers. “What are the chances we’re going to find anything useful in this mess?”

“I don’t know,” Jase admitted. “But if the police were focused on a drug connection, then something innocuous might have slipped under their radar.” The flashlight swung in a wide arc as he swiped at the sweat on his forehead. “Just keep an open mind.”

Hilarious, but since he’d yet to pin down exactly when Jase was serious and when he was teasing, Lucas kept his smart-ass remark to himself.

In the end, the camp yielded nothing. Enough nothing to make Lucas suspicious. “Where are all her mom’s things?”

“Right here.” Jase pointed to a plastic milk crate of clothes and shoes, mostly bright prints and florals.

“Not the clothes,” Lucas said, turning in a circle.

“I mean the girly things. You know, the bath salts and perfume and makeup.”

Jase eyeballed the crude camp. “You really think she’d have that stuff? Or continue to buy it when they were this bad off?”

“You’d be surprised.” Lucas backtracked through the breakfast nook into the kitchen. “Vanity outlasts everything. When being pretty is all that’s left, some people cling to it.” He’d never seen Macy’s mother, not even a picture, so the vanity angle was a stab in the dark. But he’d also been witness to his fair share of evictions. He’d seen women leave everything from cribs to televisions on the side of the road, while carting their beauty products away in suitcases.

A short hall, flanked by pantry cupboards, led off the kitchen, and light poured out from underneath a closed door at the end. Lucas cocked his head. One of the cops left a light on. Then he remembered—no electricity.

Jase grabbed his arm when he moved forward. “Wait.”

“It’s fine.” They hadn’t exactly been subtle about their entrance. If someone was in there, they knew by now that they had company. Lucas gripped the handle, took a deep breath, then pushed. Sunlight poured over them both.

“Just an old butler’s pantry,” Lucas said, mentally removing the “old” when he saw the black granite countertops and rows of glass-front cupboards. High in the far wall, morning sun poured in through a half-moon window. A butcher block sat in the middle of the room, and while the granite and cupboards lay under a coating of grime, the table had been wiped clean recently.

Lucas counted three stools surrounding it. At one end, a jumble of papers and crayons sat in untidy piles. The topmost picture showed a modest peach-colored house shaded by date palms. At the far end were several more piles of papers, none of them pictures. Jase clicked off the flashlight and stepped around to look.

“Resumes, mostly,” he said, flipping through them. “Want-ads. Applications.”

Lucas ran a finger through the dust, tracing an M on the granite. “Sounds like a guy looking for a legitimate job.”

“Exactly.” Disgusted, Jase tossed them aside. “How did the police miss this?”

“Maybe they didn’t. You said yourself they were happy with the drug-dealing theory.”

Idly opening and closing cabinet doors, Jase shook his head. “I never liked that theory.”

Playing devil’s advocate, Lucas shrugged. He wasn’t keen on it either, but one of them had to stay objective or they’d feed each other’s fantasies until they’d twisted the facts the way they liked. He saw it happen all the time. So far, Swift’s “drug deal gone bad” hypothesis held the most water.

“So these must be Macy’s,” Lucas said, fingering the crayon artwork. He flipped through the pictures. The level of detail was impressive.

“She’s good,” Jase said, coming to stand behind him. “I know adults who can’t draw like that.”

Not she was good. Jase was holding on to his hope. Another part of Lucas’s heart became his.

“Yeah.” No question about her budding talent. She hadn’t mentioned the pictures, or that she’d like to draw, but then she’d barely talked about anything, so no telling how important they were to her. Lucas went on a hunch and gathered them into a neat stack. “We’ll take them. You see any rubber bands over there?”

“Hmm.” Jase turned to a column of drawers. In the smaller top two, he found nothing, but the third one down held two treasures. The first was a small faux leather-bound journal and the second was a half-empty bottle of vodka.

Or half-full, depending on how one called it. Pessimism had been the default outlook around here, though, and he bet Macy’s mom or dad—or both—had savored every swallow, paying more attention to how fast the level of the liquid dropped rather than the pain it blunted.

“Don’t judge,” he told Jase when he stood staring at the bottle for several seconds.

“Not my style. I’ve been there, remember?” Jase replaced the bottle but kept the journal. Lucas craned his neck for a look before Jase closed the drawer.

“What else is in there?”

Jase peered inside. “Girly stuff. Are you going to tell me how it sucks to be right all the time?”

“It does suck.” The smell from the main part of the house had started to trickle in. Lucas swung the door shut, then jabbed at the painted window latch until it gave. Hot, moist air poured into the room. Better. “Well?” he asked, turning to watch Jase flip through the journal.

“It’s Macy’s mom’s.” Jase closed it and handed it to Lucas.

He accepted it gingerly. “You want me to invade her privacy?”

“She’s dead, Lucas. She’s got all the privacy she’s ever wanted.”

Nice. Jase had a habit of saying things that made all the hairs on Lucas’s arms stand on end.

“I just thought since this is your area, so to speak, you might see something I won’t.” Jase shrugged.

“Enough with the logic. You’re killing me.” Lucas sank onto the closest stool, shifting the journal between them when Jase came to stand alongside, pressing close. The intimacy relieved a measure of his stress.

“How are you doing?” Jase asked quietly when Lucas didn’t open the book right away. His hand found the back of Lucas’s neck, fingers stroking away the last of the tension.

“Better now,” Lucas said.

The diary was one of those trendy scrapbooks that could be purchased anywhere these days. It came complete with a thick satin ribbon place-marker and gold embossed lettering across the front. My Journal it said—for forgetful shoppers.

Lucas skipped to the end, like he did with every book he read. He had the patience of a gnat for mysteries, and this one was a doozy. Maybe the answers they were looking for would be laid out on the last page of Amanda Pearl’s journal. Hell, maybe the murderer had left a confession. Disappointed, he read, “‘More rain today. I feel like we’ve stowed away on an ark and will float away at any minute. At least I don’t have to make up excuses for Macy to stay inside.’”

He flipped back one day. “‘Gordon has the interview at the Ritz today. There was a brand-new suit hanging in the closet upstairs that fit him perfectly, the tags still on it. I didn’t think twice about cutting them off. Some days I can’t even look at myself in the mirror. Macy keeps us together. Macy keeps us sane.’”

“Children are resilient,” Jase mumbled.

But not bulletproof. People counted on that resiliency far too much, in Lucas’s opinion. He started when Jase reached forward and peeled his fingers from where they’d clenched around the pages. His lips brushed Lucas’s temple. “Okay?”

“Fine.” Lucas wet a finger and turned the page, traveling further back in time. “‘I hate lying to Macy. Mostly because she knows I’m lying, but is too kind to call me on it. I’m convinced we’re playing a twisted game of house. She’s the parent and Gordon and I are the naïve children. She sees things differently than most people. I can’t wait to meet the woman she’ll grow into.’” His voice caught. “Shit,” he said, pressing his palms against his eyes.

Jase slid the journal away from him. He skipped back another page, then frowned. “‘I took Macy back to the playground on the south side of the property. They never finished it, and the canal floods that part of the development sometimes, but there’s enough there to keep her happy for hours at a time.’” He stopped to glance at Lucas. “‘Our friend was there again today. We talked about Gordon’s never-ending job hunt. Nothing’s getting better, only worse.’”

Despite the warm, heavy air, Lucas shivered. Jase continued without being prompted, skipping back until he stopped at a page overflowing with words. “‘There was a man at the park today. Macy and I walked over after lunch. We took the paths across the canals instead of the streets, because I think those people at the end of the block suspect us. The man at the park seemed very nice, willing to listen to me vent even though I’m sure he had problems of his own. I’m lucky I found someone to talk to.’”

Jase paused. He tapped his fingers against the scrawled words, then continued. “‘There’s an opening at the Ritz-Carlton on the island. Gordon’s overqualified, but then isn’t everyone these days? The most we can do is keep our fingers crossed and pray.’”

Another page further back: “‘I stole a can of soup today.’”

Another: “‘I had a nightmare last night. Gordon didn’t hear me crying but Macy did. She held my hand in the dark and promised me that things would get better.’” Jase took an unsteady breath. “‘I’m not fit to be this child’s mother.’”

Lucas reached over and closed the book. “Enough.” The thought of opening the door and making his way back through the house made his mouth dry. Ghosts hovered all around him. He could’ve helped these people, but he hadn’t known they existed. No one had known. Jase’s fingers rubbed across his skin, his body a comforting warmth, but Lucas couldn’t stop shivering.

The fingers on his neck coiled around his hair and pulled, tilting his face back. “You can’t save them all,” Jase said before kissing him, lingering over the contact.

Lucas came away dizzy.

Neither can you.

Jase needed to hear it, but their morning had reached its quota of harsh reality about two journal entries ago. Jase’s lips blazed crisscrossing paths across his face until Lucas slipped off his stool and rolled to press him against the heavy table, happy to do nothing but kiss and rub leisurely as long as Jase kept his arms locked around Lucas’s back. But the ghosts on the other side of the door would keep quiet for only so long, and soon the itch to escape overcame everything else. “I think we were lucky to find as much as we did. Let’s get out of here,” Lucas said, nuzzling into Jase’s hair.

Jase nodded. He swept up the resumes and want-ads, placed the diary on top of the pile, and hefted it into his arms. Lucas did the same with Macy’s pictures.

They picked their way over the broken glass and back into the dead forest, coming onto the lanai just as a strong wind swept through, crackling through the dull brown canopy and twisting the fallen leaves into mini tornadoes. Lucas clutched Macy’s pictures to his chest. Superstitions he hadn’t entertained since childhood had been making a comeback these past few days. Jase’s company notwithstanding, the myths and mysticism that he often disparaged in front of his kids and colleagues became more real by the second. He’d never believed in haunted houses, scoffing at cold spots and doors that slammed by themselves, but he began to wonder now if the very air inside a place could be so corrupted with pain and despair and death that it could contaminate a person’s soul. Was that what it had been like for Macy, even before the murders?

Jase curled a hand around his elbow and they came around to the entryway. “Let me drive.” He dug into Lucas’s pocket for the keys.

Lucas climbed in, then locked the door. Jase didn’t comment, just backed out of the driveway, turning the car toward the open end of the cul-de-sac. “Where to?”

Lucas’s thoughts spun in circles, like dead leaves. Focus, for Macy. “Macy’s dad went for an interview at the Ritz.”

Jase grunted his agreement.

“Wonder how that went?” Lucas mused. He slammed his fist against his window. “I feel like we’re running in circles.”

“It’s only been a few hours.” Though Jase’s voice held an edge all its own. “We can try our luck at the hotel. Remember I can get anybody to talk to us.”

Lucas hadn’t forgotten. He’d half considered just driving out to the Riverwalk marina and having Jase ask around until they got some sort of lead on who was trafficking what, and what they might know about two murders and a young, frightened girl. His healthy sense of preservation kept his mouth shut. How many people could Jase influence at once? They could get in over their head in a matter of seconds, be dead in minutes, if things got out of hand. What help would they be to Macy then?

He nodded. “I’m game.”

“Point me, boss,” Jase said, scooting under the security gate. “What’s this island she mentions in the diary?”

“There’s only one Ritz on an island that I know of. Head back toward the highway, then turn south.”

“Which exit?”

“The last one before the land of brush fires and alligators. That would be the Everglades for you nonnative types.”

That pulled a half-smile to Jase’s face. “Where does it go?”

“Marco Island.”

Copyright © 2022 Libby Drew; All Rights Reserved.
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Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed it. 

Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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On 1/17/2023 at 12:45 PM, scrubber6620 said:

Two more interesting things arose from their search in the house: Macy is recognized by her mother as very aware and mature ( which suggests she can be a survivor) and an unknown man paid attention to them when Macy and her mother visited a park. They took Macy's drawing with them. Maybe, they can help reassure her if they find her. Will she have drawn a picture of the man in the park?

Love the observations. Macy is indeed a survivor. 

Thanks for all the comments. 

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On 3/5/2023 at 8:32 AM, Doha said:

Lots of potential clues to sift through. Strange that the police haven't taken it. 

Let's see what they find out at the Ritz on Marco Island. 

Not really. The concentration was on the murders that night and evidence. None of the things left behind were evidence.

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