If there’s one thing I hate, it’s puzzles. I used to love puzzles. I have no idea where that love came from because I’m pretty sure I haven’t done an actual puzzle since I was six, but there was something satisfying about the idea of taking broken pieces and putting them together into something whole. These days it’s just a chore, despite my entire life being made up of one solved mystery after another.
The broken pieces never fit quite right anymore, and I always feel like I’ve left a part of myself behind each time I finish a new challenge. Is it even worth the effort?
I’ve been thinking this a lot lately, and I don’t especially want to know what that means for my business. I’ve spent the last eighteen years building up a reputation as a private investigator; I’ve never met a mystery I couldn’t solve. I have so many people hoping to hire me that I have three different backup detectives to recommend them to whenever my client list is full. At this point, I could refuse to take on any clients at all, and the commission I get from those recommendations would be enough to pay the bills and then some.
I think that’s what scares me the most. I don’t want to do this, and I don’t have to do this. But if I stopped, what would that mean for me? Where would that put me?
“Briggs? Did you just figure something out?”
I look up from the picture frame on my desk—I’ve probably been staring at it for a while—and shake my head. “Keep talking.”
Gordon Thwaite has been talking at me for the last twenty minutes, telling me all sorts of “evidence” he’s found when it comes to who is stealing money from him. He hired me a week ago, but I figured out the culprit about an hour after first stepping into his office. I probably could have told him the answer back then, but most people like to think I’ve done my due diligence, and they always prefer proof. He wouldn’t have believed me if I’d told him too soon, so I’ve been biding my time and gathering evidence until I’ve reached a point where he’ll accept the answer I give him.
He’s not going to like it.
“Oh,” he says. “Well, that was basically it. Do you think it’s Sharon?”
His secretary is quite possibly the sweetest woman I’ve ever met. She’s nearing seventy years old and keeps Werther’s caramels on her desk, and she will talk about nothing but her grandchildren for hours if given the chance. She also happens to be married to a self-made millionaire who struck oil on their little farm decades ago. Thwaite may be a moderately successful stock trader, but his wealth is barely enough to make him a target. If he had been making more, he probably wouldn’t have noticed the funds going missing in the first place, but ten million dollars made enough of a dent to send him running to me.
“It’s not Sharon,” I say, resisting the urge to roll my eyes. If he would open his eyes for once, Thwaite could have figured this out on his own. The signs were all there.
He frowns at me, as if annoyed that I didn’t even consider his theory. Honestly, I wasn’t listening to his evidence anyway. “You sure?”
“Then who is it? Damian? Brian from accounting? The guy who cleans the—”
Thwaite’s jaw drops, his face turning ashen as he stares at me. He’s going to argue—I know he is—but deep down he knows I’m right.
They always do.
“Todd?” he repeats. “My brother? You think my brother is stealing from me?”
I don’t think. I know . Todd used a shell company to siphon the money, but he wasn’t exactly good at covering his tracks. One transfer from the shell to his own account each time, in the exact amounts that have gone missing from Thwaite’s business account, isn’t exactly a mystery. Besides, the guy was shifty the moment I set foot in the office and introduced myself. He knew exactly who I was, and I made him nervous enough that he took an early lunch that day.
During his lunch break, he went to the bank and cashed out as much as they would let him take in one go. The rest went somewhere I couldn’t track it.
I take a slow breath and rub the scruff on my jaw, bracing myself for a stronger reaction than this disbelief Thwaite is giving me now. “Todd has access to the accounts.”
“Because we started this company together after he left his teaching position in Alabama.”
“He sent a questionable email to your accounting team, telling them he noticed some discrepancies in the books.”
“That’s how I found out about the missing—”
“So he requested full control over the money until things were resolved,” I continue. “AKA no one else could access the money. The day you hired me, Todd cashed out half a million dollars from his personal account.”
Thwaite groans, growing agitated enough that he stands and starts pacing. It’s sinking in now. “He gets a good salary. That’s not—”
“Where is your brother now, Gordon?”
“On vacation. He lost a good deal of money at his monthly poker tournament, so he needed a few weeks to decompress.”
This time I do roll my eyes. “Where is he, Gordon?” I know the answer, but I want him to come to a conclusion on his own.
Thwaite scoffs. “In the Cayman Islands I think? I don’t know, somewhere tropical. Why does it…” He suddenly sinks back into his chair. “Oh.”
There it is.
I give him a second to process. No one wants to find out their one surviving family member is a dirtbag, and I can’t imagine this is easy. I lucked out with my siblings; I love them all to death, and they’re good people. My dad, not so much, but he hasn’t been a part of my life in over a decade. Finding out someone I thought I could trust had screwed me over would be a hard storm to weather, so I’m not going to push Thwaite to process this any faster. He can take all the time he needs.
“You…” He swallows. “You’re really sure about this?”
I nudge a manila envelope toward him. “All the proof the police need to take him down, if he ever comes back,” I say. “He is in massive debt with that poker ring, and even the money he took from you isn’t enough to cover what he owes.”
He doesn’t even look at the envelope. “Is he in trouble?”
It’s a credit to the kind of man Thwaite is to still be worried about his brother despite the unfortunate circumstances. He could easily wash his hands of this and carry on with his life without caring what happens to Todd, but he won’t. There’s a reason he never suspected his brother, and I admire his commitment to his family.
But there’s something he needs to understand.
Sitting forward, I lace my fingers and rest them on the desk in front of me, trying to be as gentle as possible. It’s not easily done for me. “Gordon, most of that money he stole came from your clients. You haven’t been taking much of a salary the last few years as you build up your business, so how are you going to pay them back? Whether you care for your brother or not, you’re going to have to get that money back from him or you’ll be facing criminal charges yourself.”
He’s smart enough to know I’m right. But I hate that I’m right at his expense. That it seems to age him twenty years as he slouches in the comfortable armchair I keep on the other side of my desk. He lets out a weary breath that seems to take all of his strength with it.
There goes a bit of my soul.
I stand, picking up the envelope and placing it in his hands when he joins me at the door. “I’m sorry,” I tell him, which isn’t something I say often. I try to be impartial, just a man finding the facts and presenting them in the most helpful way. But I’ve lost track of the number of marriages that have ended in this room. Of the family members that have betrayed one another. I’ve lost the reasons I should be happy in a world that is increasingly awful.
Settling in my chair as soon as Thwaite is gone, hopefully to go contact the police, I let out a deep and weary sigh and turn my focus back to the one and only picture I keep on my desk. I was sixteen when I paid to have it taken, a splurge I couldn’t afford back then, but I’d been so afraid of losing my siblings that I wanted a way to keep them.
Houston and Brooklyn, twins in appearance but not personality, both look confused in the picture, probably because they’d only ever had their picture taken for school pictures. Our mom was always too in the moment to grab a camera. At eight years old, they share matching awkward smiles as they look at the camera. Houston is missing one of his front teeth, and Brooklyn’s hair looks pretty wild because I hadn’t figured out how to do it for her and she was too interested in schoolwork to do it herself.
Then there’s Micah. I had to beg her dad to let me take my half sister for the day, and I know he was wary about letting a teenager who barely had a license drive with a kindergartener. But even if she didn’t live with us, she was one of us. She’s so much like our mom, though Micah barely knew Mom before she died. She has the same smile, even in this old picture. And though she stands out because her clothes actually fit and her dark hair is done up in a bow, she was so happy to be with us for the photo session. Micah is the happiest person I’ve ever known, and this five-year-old grin always reminds me that there is still a lot of good in the world. Especially in my family. I need that reminder more and more lately.
I can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep giving people bad news and expecting my life to get any brighter without something to look forward to at the end of the day.
My phone is in my hand before I’ve really thought this through, dialing the number I call most.
Micah answers after two rings, like she always does. No matter where she is or what she’s doing, she always answers when I call, and I love her for it. “Chad! Hi!”
I relax, already feeling a little better because she’s the sort of person who always talks with exclamation points, even when she’s talking quietly. It’s impossible not to feel better with her around. “Hey, Half-pint. How you doing?”
She clicks her tongue. “Don’t you sound cheery? What’s got you being Mr. Grumpy Gills?”
I’ve never figured out how she does that. I’ve gotten into the habit of keeping emotion out of my voice, but Micah always sees through the mask. “Tough case,” I mutter.
“You’ll figure it out!”
I already did. Therein lies the problem.
I pinch the bridge of my nose, thinking for a moment. This is probably long overdue, but I worry about staying away from my siblings for too long. It’s not like they can’t call me, right? “Hey, so, I think I need to get away for a little bit. Take a break.”
She’s quiet for a second, which is unusual for her. “Sorry, I think I heard you wrong. It sounded like you said you were going to take a break!”
I chuckle, recognizing her joke. “I know it’s unusual. I think I need some time to myself. A chance to breathe for a bit.”
“I think that’s a great idea!”
“I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
Her laugh sounds like sunshine. Like someone took the warmth of a summer day and condensed it into a single sound. I don’t have a favorite sibling, but Micah is my favorite for moments like this, when I feel like I’m drowning in the sludge of ugly, unwanted truths brought to light.
“Chad,” she says, putting a lot of emphasis into my name. “When was the last time you took a vacation?” She doesn’t wait for an answer because she knows I don’t have one to give. “You deserve to have some fun! Go travel the world or something!”
That sounds like a nightmare. In order to get anywhere I might want to see, I would have to face public transportation. There are too many people in airports. Too many problems on display.
I once flew to California to see one of Houston’s games when he was playing college baseball, and I was ready to pull my hair out by the time the plane landed. My seatmate spent the flight confronting her boyfriend over text, who was clearly cheating on her despite repeatedly telling her he wasn’t. The kid behind me kept kicking my seat while his parents actively ignored him and each other because the husband hadn’t wanted to go to Disneyland in the first place and resented the fact that her parents paid for the trip because he couldn’t afford it. (People really need to learn to whisper quieter when surrounded by strangers in the security line.) And the couple across the aisle from me were clearly pining over each other despite convincing each other that they were only friends.
I stepped in on that one, bumping into the girl as we deplaned and knocking her into her friend’s arms so he would have to catch her. I found them making out as they waited for their luggage at the carousel, so it must have worked.
That’s beside the point. I’m not a fan of crowds, or people in general, so I will not be traveling the world despite Micah’s excitement over the idea.
“I was thinking Laketown,” I say, already smiling because I know how she’ll react to that.
“Laketown? Seriously? That town is so tiny !”
Exactly. Micah’s dad, Lloyd, always brings his whole family up to the little mountain town in Colorado each summer for a massive family reunion. Massive because he’s been married six times and had kids with almost all of his past wives. The twins and I aren’t technically related to him anymore since our mom died, but he still considers us his family. Plus, I think Micah would throw a fit if we didn’t come, and she has her dad wrapped around her little finger.
Laketown is small, yes, but that also means it’s quiet. That’s exactly what I need right now.
“I need some time away, Mic,” I say. “Think you’ll be okay?”
“I’m twenty-five years old, Chad. I think I can handle myself.”
She can, but she also tends to keep herself vulnerable. I make a note to ask Brooklyn to keep an eye on her while I’m gone since Houston is deep into the World Series with his MLB team and won’t be home for a week or two. Micah is full of endless positivity, but that also makes her susceptible to disappointment bringing her down, no matter how much she pretends otherwise. I don’t like leaving her alone if I can help it, and I know her dad feels the same way. The only reason he let her stay in Sun City instead of making her move with him to Diamond Springs a couple hours away is because he knows I’m here to keep an eye on her.
“You can always call me,” I remind her, glad when she doesn’t complain about me being overbearing. It’s the problem with being eleven years older than her; I feel like I have to take care of her, no matter how capable she might be.
“What are you going to do in Laketown?” she asks. “There won’t be any mysteries to solve.”
That’s the point. That town is as unproblematic as they get. “I’m sure I’ll find something,” I say with a chuckle. Hopefully that something involves a whole lot of silence. “I’ll see you when I get back.”
“Have fun! Be sure not to fall in love with some bright-eyed beauty and never come home!” I can practically hear her winking.
I’m sure she would love that. No one loves love like Micah. But unfortunately for her, I have no intention of opening my heart to anyone. I tried that once, and it fell apart in my hands when my girlfriend of six years, a woman I was fully planning to marry, dumped me out of the blue and disappeared from my life without a trace. Not that I tried hard to find her. Mercedes made it clear that I was not what she wanted, and I’m not one to force something that isn’t working.
No, love isn’t in the cards for me, and that’s fine by me. It wouldn’t last anyway.
Nothing good ever does.