She burst into my office late one afternoon, eyes wild. “My sister’s missing. You have to find her.”
I looked across the desk and recognized an impossible case, complete with spiky hair and a pierced eyebrow. I seemed to have been specializing in impossible cases lately, and I was sick of them. I’d promised myself no more impossible cases. But I had a hunch that turning down this client was going to take careful handling. “Sit down and tell me about it.”
“She hasn’t come home.”
For a moment it was my own sister’s patrician features and pinched mouth I saw across the desk, and I felt that familiar twinge of responsibility. I knew all about sisterly histrionics, thanks to some of the stunts Susanna’s pulled over the years. Stunts I’d ended up rescuing her from.
“How long has your sister been gone?” The neutral tone took effort.
“Since this morning.” The young woman chewed on a fingernail. She wore trainers and bike shorts, carried a helmet. The flat light of late afternoon painted dappled shadows on her pale face. My eyes kept straying to the dark metal hoop through one corner of her left eyebrow, my stomach muscles clenching at the thought of the needle going through.
“It’s too soon to be worrying about her,” I said.
She jumped up and put both hands on the desk, leaning her face close to mine. “You don’t understand. She went to meet that creep. And she hasn’t come back.”
“Some guy she met through a dating service. Can you help?”
In her desolate tones I heard echoes of a seven-year old Susanna, holding out a doll without a head. “She broke. Fix her, Barbara, please. I know you can.” A shaky movement from my client jerked me back to the present.
“Why don’t you sit down, and let’s start with some facts. What is your sister’s name?”
She scowled, straggly brows meeting, but sat. “Celeste. Celeste Deslauriers.”
“And how old is Celeste?”
“She’s thirty-two, no, thirty-three. Nine years older than me.”
And one year younger than I was. I hoped Celeste, wherever she was, was considerably more stable than her excitable younger sister. “Have you reported her missing?”
She nodded. “Yeah. They took all the information, but I could tell they didn’t think it was urgent.”
“Does your sister have any disabilities? Addictions?”
Then she was right. Her case wouldn’t be considered urgent yet. “Have you called the hospitals?”
“When did you see her last?”
“I told you, this morning. Around nine. We had a fight.”
“I didn’t think she should meet this guy. And she wouldn’t even tell me his name.”
Sounded like a smart move on Celeste’s part. “What time was her date?”
“Ten. She was only planning to meet him for coffee. Playing it safe, y’know?”
It was barely four now. “Maybe the date is going really well.”
“But it’s Sunday.”
What was I missing? “And?”
“Sundays we always invite people over for dinner. Celeste starts cooking by one. And she’s always on schedule.”
“Maybe she decided to bring home takeout for once.”
“Not Celeste. She’s compulsive. Like anal, y’know?”
Lucky Celeste, to have her younger sister sum her up so easily. “You two live together?”
“Yeah,” she said with a grimace. Then remembered why she was here. “She wouldn’t just not show up. Not Celeste. Something’s happened to her, I know it.”
“Hmmm.” I made some meaningless scribbles in my notebook. Celeste hadn’t been gone long enough for anyone to panic. But how to convince her sister?
I wished my own sister had showed such concern for me, even once. I softened, momentarily forgot that this was another impossible case. “Look, I’ll see if I can find out who this guy is, and where Celeste went after their date. But I can’t do much until she’s been missing at least overnight.”
The words were out. It was too late to call them back.
“But that’s too long. What if she’s in danger? She doesn’t know this guy!”
She was over-reacting. Her sister was an adult, had been missing less than a day. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
She shook her head. “If you knew Celeste, you’d understand. Please!”
I thought she’d been reading too many thrillers, but couldn’t ignore the fear in her voice. “OK. I’ll do some preliminary work, see what I can find, but don’t expect too much. She’ll probably just come home later. Now, what’s your name?”
She gave it to me. Just off Fraser Street, in East Van.
“Which dating service did she use?”
“Two Hearts. Downtown.”
Who names these places? “And where was Celeste meeting this man?”
“Starbucks, the one at Kits Beach.”
“Did she drive there?”
And she handed over a snapshot of a woman standing proudly in front of a bright red mini Cooper. The year and license number were written on the back. Despite her panic, she was pretty organized. “Do you have a better photo of Celeste?”
She nodded, pulled out a closeup of the two of them, obviously dressed to go out. Marie wore fringed layers of scarlet and purple that clashed hideously. Celeste was an elegant contrast in basic black, a sheath dress that suited her slim figure. Marie’s bright red hair spiked straight up. Celeste’s hair was a much paler red, drawn back up in a smooth chignon. Marie’s face was excited, Celeste’s was calm, her cool green gaze turned inward.
“Is this recent?”
“Yeah. Two months ago. We were at Lido.”
Vancouver’s newest nightspot. Celeste couldn’t be all that anal. “I’ll need to keep the photo for a bit.”
“It’s just a copy.” Marie jumped up and put a hand on my arm. “You will find her, won’t you? Before he kills her?”
“Kills her?” Where had that come from?
“He could be a killer.” Defensive now.
I looked down at her ragged fingernails. “I’ll do my best. I’m sure she’s fine.”
I watched the look of relief pass over Marie’s piquant features and hoped I was right.
An hour later I stood in line at the Starbucks counter. I glanced through the plate glass windows that looked across Cornwall to the beach. Traffic was bumper to bumper as harried shoppers swarmed over the Burrard Street Bridge to homes in Kitsilano and Point gray. In contrast to the craziness was the serenity of the park, trees just leafing out and the ocean still and calm. Two weeks of non-stop drizzle had given way to a warm sunshine that felt more like July than May, and the beach was littered with bodies soaking up the last rays of the day. And I was working. What was the matter with me?
Inside, trendy beach-goers were ordering mocha frappuccinos and grande non-fat vanilla lattes. “Grande cappuccino,” I said when I finally reached the counter. I handed the bearded youth a five. “And I’m looking for someone who was working here this morning. Around ten?”
He scribbled on a cup, rang it in. “I wasn’t on. Tanya was, though.”
I dropped some change in the tip jar. “Which one is Tanya?”
“Thanks. Over there, with the beans?”
Tanya, a short redhead with a blue Celtic pattern tattooed around one wrist, was holding two brightly colored half kilo coffee packages, chattering away to her customer. She was a talker. Good.
I inhaled the rich coffee aromas, drank some of my cappuccino. OK, maybe taking this case wasn’t so bad. I’d needed a break anyway. And the sight of those beans reminded me I needed to restock my office supply. I sauntered over.
Tanya handed over the pouch of coffee and turned to me. “What can I get you?”
“Half-kilo of Sumatra, please.”
She nodded. “These just came in, so they’re really fresh.” Reaching behind her, she picked up the bright foil pouch.
I waited until she turned back, then leaned towards her. “I was told you were working this morning.”
“A friend of mine was in around ten. She was meeting this new guy, only she wouldn’t tell me anything about him. I thought it’d be pretty funny if I could describe him like before she did.”
Tanya grinned. “That’d be good. What did she look like?”
I showed her the photo Marie had given me.
“Yeah, I remember her. She’s pretty, but she looked real anxious for a while there. Till he turned up.”
“He was late?”
“Guess so. He got there about fifteen minutes after she did. I noticed, cause like I said, she sat there by herself, kind of playing with her coffee. I was watching her cause I figured she was waiting for a guy, and I wondered if he’d be worth it.”
“And was he?”
“He was kinda cute. Not my type, but yeah, probably worth waiting for.”
“What did he look like?”
“He wasn’t too tall, maybe five eleven or so, medium build, early thirties. Brown hair, mid-brown, you know, but shiny, nice cut. Could have used some spiking, but looked cute. His face was squarish, nothing special, but he had a nice smile, kinda tilted up on one side. I notice smiles,” she said, giving me another grin.
So did I. “Did you notice what color his eyes were?”
She shrugged. “Something light. Blue maybe, or gray. I had a customer just then, so I stopped watching.”
“Did you notice anything else?”
Delicate eyebrows drew together. “Yeah,” she said. “When they left, he held the door for her, and his right arm moved sort of funny.”
“I’m not sure. It just looked awkward, as though he’d pulled a muscle or something.”
I filed that away. “When did they leave?”
“They weren’t here more than ten minutes. It was pretty noisy, and they seemed to be trying to talk. He got a couple of coffees to go, and they headed towards the beach.”
“Do you remember who served him?”
“Cheryl, I think. But she’s off shift.”
“No matter. Tanya, thanks so much. I can’t wait to see my friend’s face when I describe him,” I said.
Well, at least I knew Celeste had made it this far, and had met the guy, whoever he was.