Office of Caswell & Lombard, Private Investigation
Miami Beach, Florida
CLAIRE CASWELL LIFTED the steaming peppermint tea to her lips. She had filled the flamingo mug to its very brim, and she cautiously took a short sip. It was too hot, and it burned her mouth. She nearly dropped it to her desk attempting to set it down.
“Ouch!” she pronounced loudly. “My mind is somewhere else today. I should have waited ’til it cooled a bit.”
“Are you all right?” Jin asked.
“Yeah, I think so. Very preoccupied, though.”
Every time she was overly absorbed in her thoughts, it usually preceded something major. She reminded herself to be vigilant.
Remaining seated, she turned her office chair around and set her attention on the student. She disappeared in thought and momentarily reflected back to the day she and Guy Lombard had hired Jin Ikeda as an intern at their private investigation firm. Jin was currently a third-year law student at the University of Miami School of Law, and when he wasn’t attending classes or studying, he was working at the Caswell & Lombard firm. In a short time, he had become an invaluable part of the business. It had been close to a year already. How time had flown.
Claire let her mind drift. Gaston “Guy” Lombard, her business and life partner, and now husband, was out on a case interviewing a prospective client, and that provided her some time to catch up on the never-ending stacks of paperwork cluttering her desk.
The phone rang.
“For you, Ms. Caswell,” Jin announced.
Claire picked up the phone.
“Yes? Claire Caswell here.”
“What? . . . How? . . . When? . . .” she asked.
Her eyes jolted wide open, and her voice trembled with shock and horror. She listened carefully as the caller continued.
“But I saw her yesterday. Yesterday!” Claire protested. “It’s not possible. She’s . . . my friend.” She hesitated, her voice breaking up. “Yes. I’ll be there Friday. Yes, I’ll say a few words.”
Claire hung up and let her head fall down to her desk, catching her forehead in her hands. She closed her eyes. She stayed in this position for a time, permitting her mind to reminisce.
Fun times she’d spent in her college days with Charlotte Truman frolicked through her head. She had so many memories. The two had been kindred spirits from the first time they’d met—similar personalities, interests, and even likes and dislikes. How could her friend be gone? Tears began to well in her eyes. Claire would never again be able to spend time with Charlotte. There would be no more lunches, shopping sprees, or talking on the phone for hours. The loss was immeasurable.
Charlotte had been killed instantly in a fatal car accident, and all the treasured things the two shared had been taken away forever in the blink of an eye. Without warning. Without so much as a chance to say good-bye.
She felt a soft touch on her left shoulder. She lifted her head and opened her eyes.
“Ms. Caswell, is there anything I can do?” Jin asked.
“No, Jin. Please hold my calls for the rest of the day.”
Claire’s face looked as white as a cloud, and her expression was one of disturbed surprise.
“Are you okay, Ms. Caswell?” Jin persisted. “You don’t look well. Maybe I should contact Mr. Lombard?”
“No, thank you, Jin. He’s busy with an interview. It won’t change a thing if you interrupt him now. I’ll tell him when he returns.” She hesitated. “I’m going out for a walk. Please hold down the fort.” The sadness in her voice was unmistakable.
As Claire walked she thought about the day before.
CHARLOTTE TRUMAN had bulldozed her way into the office of Caswell & Lombard, Private Investigation. It was ten minutes to noon.
“Thank goodness you’re here—we’re going to lunch!” Charlotte announced. She walked over to her friend, leaned down, and gave Claire a quick hug.
“Now?” Claire asked.
“Yes. Right now! I have something to show you.”
There was a sense of playful mystery in Charlotte’s voice. Her eyes sparkled with vivaciousness.
Claire closed the file she was working on and stood up. “Okay. Let’s go.”
“I’m celebrating! And I’m treating!” Charlotte announced.
“Guy, I’m having lunch with Charlotte,” Claire called out. “I’ll be back soon.”
Guy looked up from his work. “Enjoy yourselves.” He flashed his famous grin. “I know you will.”
“And I’m driving too!” Charlotte said.
The two walked from the office. Before long, Claire saw the source of Charlotte’s exuberance.
“It’s a beauty!” Claire said, staring at the latest model of a Porsche Cayenne SUV—white with black wheels. She peeked inside the sparkling-clean vehicle. The interior was white leather piped in black. “Did you have to mortgage your home to buy this?”
“No, not quite.” She giggled. “I’ve wanted it for a long time. And I figured if not now . . . when? Life is short.” She beamed from ear to ear. “I walked into the dealership two weeks ago and bought it on the spot.”
“Well, if anyone deserves it, you do. I don’t know anyone who works harder than you.”
“Jump in!” Charlotte said. “Wait ’til you see how it rides. Pure luxury!”
Claire was clearly impressed. “How much does a stockbroker get paid these days?” She smiled.
Charlotte smiled back. “I admit I’ve had a good year.” She chuckled. “In fact, I’ve had a great year. Single women are buying luxury cars more and more, you know. They’ve captured a huge percentage of the sales. And why not?”
Soon the two arrived at an open-air restaurant located on The Beach. The hostess led them to a table under a large umbrella, affording the friends a magnificent view of the water. It was a typical sun-drenched Miami day, and the shade was welcomed.
They ordered beverages and lobster salads tossed in a light orange dressing.
Minutes later, Charlotte looked like she was about to burst. “I can’t hold it in a second longer, Claire. There’s something else,” she said. “I met a man. We’re dating, and I’ve never been happier.”
“Charlotte, that’s wonderful,” Claire said. “Who is he? Where did you meet?”
“You won’t believe it. He works at the car dealership where I bought my SUV. He’s the finance manager. Brilliant when it comes to numbers. And he’s also a salesman there. He’s quite nice to look at, too, although he’s a bit older than I am.” She hesitated. “I haven’t felt this way in a long time, Claire. We’ve been together every minute the two of us have had free time over the past two weeks.”
“A new car? And a new man? This is big news! We do have a lot to celebrate!”
The two friends clicked their iced teas together.
“To happiness,” Claire said.
“To happiness!” Charlotte repeated.
“What’s his name?” Claire asked.
“Stephen—with a ph, not a v—Fox.” Charlotte’s eyes looked amorous as she spoke of him. “I think I . . . love him, Claire. I’ve waited so long and then it happened so quickly.”
CLAIRE JOLTED back to reality. How could life be this cruel? How could Charlotte have been so blissfully happy one day and wind up dead the next? It wasn’t fair.
Claire returned to the office and was pleased to see Guy had returned.
“What happened, Claire?” Guy asked. “I just got back and Jin told me you received a terribly upsetting call.”
“Guy, Charlotte is dead. She died in a car accident.”
He rushed over and cradled her in his arms.
“What? We saw her yesterday!” A look of utter disbelief appeared on Guy’s face.
Claire broke into tears. “I’ll miss her, Guy. We’ve been good friends a long time.”
“This doesn’t seem right,” he said. “It can’t be right.”
“It can’t be,” Claire echoed. She forced back the tears and gently broke away from Guy’s embrace. She walked to her desk and called the Miami-Dade County Police Department.
“Captain Massey, please. It’s Claire Caswell. He’ll take my call.”
She tapped her foot impatiently.
“Ms. Caswell. They pulled me out of a meeting. I know this must be important,” the often-irritable captain said. He cracked his knuckles.
“I wouldn’t interrupt you if it wasn’t,” Claire shot back. “I need some information, and I need it fast. A longtime friend, Charlotte Truman, was killed this morning in a car accident. I’d like to learn the specifics. Will you find out everything there is to know...