Everything was all right until the photograph showed up in my mailbox.
Actually, that isn’t true. Nothing had been all right since my sister vanished into thin air.
I’d never known people could disappear so completely that no trace was ever found. Isn’t this America? Land of the free, home of the security camera? Big Brother is watching more often than we think. Unfortunately, he’d been asleep at the switch when Katie went AWOL.
For three years there hadn’t been a sign of her despite all the pictures I’d plastered on signposts, store windows, and every missing persons Internet site I could find.
Then I’d gone into the office, started sorting through my stack of mail, opened a five-by-seven manila envelope, and voilà! There she was, standing outside a building named Rising Moon.
It had taken me all of three minutes to determine the place was a jazz club in New Orleans. I’d shoved a few changes of clothes and my toothbrush into a backpack and boarded the next available flight.
A few hours later, I stood on a street called Frenchmen, listening to jazz wail out an open doorway and wondering how it could be so freaking hot in the middle of February. When I’d gotten on the plane in Philly, fat snowflakes had been tumbling down.
I’d never visited New Orleans, never wanted to. I wasn’t the party type; I wouldn’t fit in. However, I didn’t plan to stay. I planned to get Katie and get gone.
I forced myself to walk through the door, ignoring the smoke, the noise, the people. The inside was sparse, narrow, nothing like the big, airy taverns at home, which boasted lots of tables, lots of space for billiards, darts, and other amusements. Rising Moon was all about the music.
I knew nothing about jazz. Give me some Aerosmith, a little Guns n’ Roses, even Ozzie on a really tough day. But jazz? I’d never understood the attraction.
One look at the man playing the saxophone near the front of the room and attraction took on a different twist.
He was tall and slim, and everything about him—his hair, his clothes, even the glasses that covered his eyes—was dark.
I glanced at the ceiling. Not a spotlight to be had.
“Weird,” I muttered, and received a few glares from the spectators crowded as close to the man as they could get.
There wasn’t any stage. He just stood in a corner and played. From the microphone, the piano, and the abandoned drum set behind him, I assumed the corner was the stage.
He held that sax as if it were the only thing he’d ever loved. Despite the need to show the picture of Katie to anything that moved, I found myself watching, listening, captivated by a stranger and his music.
Even with the dark sunglasses bisecting his face, I could tell he was better than handsome. His hair was shorn close, but that only drew attention to the sharpness of his cheekbones and the devilishly well-trimmed mustache and goatee.
His hands were long fingered and elegant, the hands of an aristocrat in a world where such distinctions were long dead. He seemed European, and I guess that wasn’t too odd, considering.
New Orleans had always been more foreign than domestic—a city where life moved at a slower pace, where music and dancing were part of every day and every night, where French was as commonly murmured as curse words. No wonder I’d felt itchy and out of sorts from the moment I’d stepped off the plane. I was a peasant, and I always would be.
The tune ended, whatever it was, the last notes drifting toward the high ceiling and fading away. The spell over the crowd broke as they clapped, chattered among themselves, then lifted their glasses to drink.
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.” His voice was as mesmerizing as his hands—deep, melodious, with an accent I couldn’t place. Perhaps Spanish, with a pinch of the South, a dash of the North, and something mysterious just beneath.
The bartender, a tall, muscular black man with eerily light brown eyes and impossibly short natural hair appeared at my elbow. “What can I get you?”
I wanted to shake my head to clear it of the dopey infatuation with the sax player’s hands and voice. I was not the type of woman who went gaga over a guy for any reason, let alone his looks. If I cared about looks I’d be in deep shit. My face certainly wouldn’t inspire any sonnets.
I laid the photo of Katie atop the polished wood. “Seen her?”
“You a cop?” The bartender’s accent was pure Dixie.
“No.” I could have shown him my private investigator’s license, but I’d discovered more info was forthcoming when I made my reasons personal. “She’s my sister. She was eighteen when she went missing. Three years ago.”
“Oh.” His face went from suspicious to sympathetic in an instant. “That’s too bad.”
I couldn’t determine his age—maybe thirty, maybe fifty. He seemed both a part of this place and yet removed from it. Muscles bulged beneath his dark T-shirt, and the hand that reached for the snapshot would have made two of my own.
He peered at the picture so long, I wondered if his tiger-eyes were in need of some pretty thick glasses. Then he set it back on the bar and lifted his gaze. “A lot of people go missing in this city. Always have. What with the tourists, Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, the river, the swamp, the lake—” He spread his big hands and shrugged.
I’d have to take his word for it. I hadn’t done much research on the city proper before I’d hopped on the plane. I’d spent what time I had trying to figure out where the manila envelope had come from, although I’d had no luck.
My address had been typed in both the center and the top left-hand corner. There’d been a stamp, but no postmark. Which made me think someone had shoved it into my mailbox when I wasn’t looking.
“My sister went missing from home,” I clarified. “From Philadelphia.”
“You’ve come a long way.”
I shrugged. “She’s my sister.”
Sisters can be both the best and the worst—depending on the day, the mood, the sister. Mine was no different. Still, I’d travel to the ends of the earth twice over for Katie. Sure, we’d fought, but we’d also been best friends. I’d shared so many things with Katie, that without her I felt like only half of myself.
“I don’t recognize her.” The bartender leaned back, nodding at someone who waved for a drink.
“Are you the owner?” I asked.
“No, ma’am. That would be John Rodolfo.”
“And where could I find him?”
He jerked his chin toward the rear of the tavern. “Should be in the office.”
As I headed in that direction, the murmur of voices and the clink of glasses filled the burgeoning night. The corner of the room was empty; the hot saxophone player was gone.
I was surprised at my disappointment. I didn’t have time to hang around and listen to music I wasn’t all that fond of. Hell, I didn’t have time to listen to music I liked.
My life was my work and I didn’t mind. I can’t say what I would have done if I hadn’t become a private investigator. Back when I was twenty, two years into college and no clue on a major, it had seemed like a good idea to take a little time off and work for Matt Hawkins, the PI my parents had hired to look for Katie. He was old, he needed help, and it was my fault she was missing anyway.
Well, not technically my fault. We’d had a stupid sister fight, and she’d walked out. I should have gone after her; at the very least, I should have met her later that night as I’d promised. But I’d been angry; I’d stood her up, and I hadn’t seen her since.
I never had gone back to college. Matt had left me his business when he’d retired the previous year. He helped out here and there—like now, for instance, when I had to leave town to follow a lead. I was conveniently between cases, and Matt could deal with anything that might come in during the few days I was gone.
A door marked private stood between two others marked messieurs and mesdemoiselles. So where did the “Mesdames” pee?
Most people would hesitate before barreling through a door labeled “private” but not me. I’d never been very polite even before I’d applied for my license to pry, so I turned the knob and stepped inside.
The room was pitch-black. I guessed Rodolfo wasn’t home. I started to leave, but a single muttered curse from the depths of the darkness had me fumbling for a switch.
The harsh electric glare left me blinking. Not so the man behind the desk. He still wore his sunglasses.
For a minute my mind floundered, wondering why he was in a dark room, wearing dark glasses. Then the truth hit me in a flash brighter than the fluorescent lights.
He was blind.
“Can’t you read?” The man came around the desk, his long supple fingers trailing the edge, showing him the way. “‘Private’ means just that. The facilities are on either side of this door.”
“Fine. Get out.”
My eyebrows lifted at the rude words spoken in that sexy growl of a voice. “I wasn’t looking for the bathroom. I was looking for—”
I stopped. Was I looking for him? I wasn’t sure.
“A quick fuck with the sax man. Not today, chica, I have a headache.”
He crossed the short distance separating us more quickly than a man who couldn’t see should. He also grabbed my arm with a minimum of bumbling and yanked me toward the door.
I stood my ground. I was at least four inches shorter than his six feet, and he probably outweighed me by thirty pounds, but I was in shape and determined. He couldn’t budge me if I didn’t want him to.
“John Rodolfo?” I asked, and he stopped tugging.
Staring at a point just to the left of my face, he demanded, “Who the hell wants to know?”
He tilted his head, and I was struck anew by his beauty. Even with his eyes covered so I could discern neither their shape nor their color, he was handsome beyond imagining.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
He dropped my arm, but he didn’t step back. “Let’s try this again. What do you want if not a quickie on the desk?”
“I prefer my quickies against the wall, but not today and not with you.”
His lips twitched. I wondered what he’d look like if he smiled, then shoved the notion aside. I doubted the expression ever crossed his face, and wasn’t that sad?
Come to think of it, sad was how he’d seemed in the flare of the overhead lights in that instant before he’d sprung to his feet and come after me.
“You prefer women.” He shrugged. “I could change your mind.”
I snorted. A typical macho answer—as if one night with him could change anyone’s sexual preferences.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but I don’t prefer women. What I prefer is to get down to business.”
I still clutched the photograph, but since it would do me no good with Rodolfo, I shoved it into the pocket of my jeans. “I’m searching for my missing sister.”
Any trace of amusement vanished. “What does that have to do with me?”
“Someone sent me a photograph of her standing outside this jazz club.”
“And you wanted to ask if I’d seen her.” He spread his hands. “Can’t help you. Haven’t seen anyone in quite a long time.”
“Her name was—is Katie. Katie Lockheart.”
I’d made that slip before, talking about Katie as if she were dead. It was hard not to after three years.
I’d worked enough missing persons cases to know that not finding someone in the first thirty-six hours indicated, more often than not, that they wouldn’t be found alive. I patted my pocket, praying the photograph meant the statistics were wrong in Katie’s case.
“Never heard of her,” Rodolfo said.
“That doesn’t mean she wasn’t here.”
“True.” He stood so close his breath stirred my hair. Even though the door was open, the lights were on, I felt crowded, lost, and a little bit trapped.
I inched back. “I spoke with the bartender, and I’d like to speak with your other employees—”
“There aren’t any.”
“No other employees.”
“We haven’t been open that long.”
“How long?” I demanded.
If Rising Moon was new, that would date the photo, give me a better idea of when Katie might have been here.
“Less than a year.”
“What was the place called before?”
“Same thing. I haven’t done much except clean and stock.”
“The outside hasn’t changed? You didn’t buy a new sign?”
The excitement rushed out of me like air from a punctured balloon.
“We’ve had a few cocktail waitresses but in the service business . . .” He shrugged. “They come and go. We’re constantly shorthanded even though I offer a room as part of the salary. A lot of cheap apartments were washed away by Katrina.”
“Anyone who’s worked for you still in town, maybe working somewhere else?”
“Not that I know of, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t.”
I sighed and withdrew the snapshot from my pocket, staring at the image of my sister. Katie had always been the golden child, literally. While my hair was an indistinct shade, hers sparkled like a sunbeam at dusk. My eyes were the hue of a mud puddle, hers seemed to reflect the deepest blue sea. Her nose was straight and cute, her skin clear and white. And her body . . . Let’s just say that when God handed out bra sizes, he’d given Katie three quarters of mine.
You’d think I would hate someone so perfect, and sometimes I had. But along with all that beauty, Katie was genuinely sweet and a whole lot of fun. We’d played a thousand and one games of hide-and-seek as kids—and Katie always won, but I didn’t mind because I’d loved being with her.
I’d become obsessed with the search, to the exclusion of almost everything else, but she was my little sister, and I was supposed to take care of her. I hadn’t done a very good job.
“Shut off the light when you leave.” Rodolfo turned sharply, as if he couldn’t wait to be alone.
I’m not sure why, but I touched his shoulder, meaning to apologize for intruding, or maybe thank him for nothing. He spun around, his hand coming up and snatching my wrist before he yanked me against him.
I gave a little squeak of surprise, then my breath whooshed out as I slammed against his chest. I glanced into his face but all I saw was my reflection in the dark lenses that shaded his eyes. I looked pale, frightened, and somehow prettier than I knew myself to be.
“I—I’m sorry,” I managed. “I startled you.”
“I don’t like to be touched,” he murmured.
Which explained his annoyance when he’d thought I’d come for sex. What it didn’t explain was the bulge in his silky black trousers, which pressed against my hip, the heat, the pulse revealing that while Rodolfo might not want to be touched, his body had other ideas.
He let me go with an annoyed shove, then stalked to his desk and sat down, effectively removing his lower body from view. But I knew what I’d felt.
Hot guy was attracted to me. I wasn’t sure what to think about that.
Copyright © 2006 by Lori Handeland. All rights reserved.