She Wore Mourning, стр. 2

investigation business. Nothing substantial like a homicide. It was a high-profile case. A lot of volunteers had shown up to help, expecting to find a child who had wandered out of his own yard, expecting to find him dirty and crying, not floating face down in a pond. A lot of people had mourned the death of a child they hadn’t even known existed before his disappearance.

“I need your help, Mr. Goldman. Zachary. I can’t afford a big name, but you’ve got good references. You’ve investigated deaths before. Can’t you help me?”

He wondered who she had talked to. It wasn’t like there were a lot of people who would give him a bad reference. He was competent and usually got the job done, but he wasn’t a big name.

“I could meet with you,” he finally conceded. “The first consultation is free. We’ll see what kind of a case you have and whether I want to take it. I’m not making any promises at this point. Like I said, my schedule is pretty full already.”

She gave a little half-sob. “Thank you. When are you able to come?”

After he had hung up, Zachary climbed into his car, putting his camera down on the floor in front of the passenger seat where it couldn’t fall, and started the car. For a while, he sat there, staring out the front windshield at the magical, sparkling, Christmas-card scene. Every year, he told himself it would be better. He would get over it and be able to move on and to enjoy the holiday season like everyone else. Who cared about his crappy childhood experiences? People moved on.

And when he had married Bridget, he had thought he was going to achieve it. They would have a fairy-tale Christmas. They would have hot chocolate after skating at the public rink. They would wander down Main Street looking at the lights and the crèche in front of the church. They would open special, meaningful presents from each other.

But they’d fought over Christmas. Maybe it was Zachary’s fault. Maybe he had sabotaged it with his gloom. The season brought with it so much baggage. There had been no skating rink. No hot chocolate, only hot tempers. No walks looking at the lights or the nativity. They had practically thrown their gifts at each other, flouncing off to their respective corners to lick their wounds and pout away the holiday.

He’d still cherished the thought that perhaps the next year there would be a baby. What could be more perfect than Christmas with a baby? It would unite them. Make them a real family. Just like Zachary had longed for since he’d lost his own family. He and Bridget and a baby. Maybe even twins. Their own little family in their own little happy bubble.

But despite a positive pregnancy test, things had gone horribly wrong.

Zachary stared at the bright white scenery and blinked hard, trying to shake off the shadows of the past. The past was past. Over and done. This year he was back to baching it for Christmas. Just him and a beer and It’s a Wonderful Life on TV.

He put the car in reverse and didn’t look into the rear-view mirror as he backed up, even knowing about the precipice behind him. He’d deliberately parked where he’d have to back up toward the cliff when he was done. There was a guardrail, but if he backed up too quickly, the car would go right through it, and who could say whether it had been accidental or deliberate? He had been cold-stone sober and had been out on a job. Mrs. Hildebrandt could testify that he had been calm and sober during their call. It would be ruled an accident.

But his bumper didn’t even touch the guardrail before he shifted into drive and pulled forward onto the road.

He’d meet with the grandmother. Then, assuming he did not take the case, there would always be another opportunity.

Life was full of opportunities.

Chapter Two

Molly Hildebrandt was much as Zachary expected her to be. A woman in her sixties who looked ten or twenty years older with the stress of the high-profile death of her grandchild. Gray, curling hair. Pale, wrinkled skin. She wasn’t hunched over, though. She sat up straight and tall as if she’d gone to a finishing school where she’d been forced to walk and sit with an encyclopedia on her head. Did they still do that? Had they ever done it?

“Mr. Goldman, thank you for seeing me so quickly,” she greeted formally, holding her hand out for him to shake when he arrived at her door.

“Please, call me Zachary, ma’am. I’m not really comfortable with Mr. Goldman.”

Telling her that he wasn’t comfortable with it meant that she would be a bad hostess if she continued to address him that way, instead of her seeing it as a way of showing him respect. He hadn’t done anything to deserve respect and was much happier if she would talk to him like the gardener or her next-door neighbor.

Not that there was any gardener. Molly lived in a small apartment in an old, dark brick building that was sturdy enough, but had been around longer than Zachary had been alive. The interior, when she invited him in, was bright and cozy. She had made coffee, and he breathed in the aroma in the air appreciatively. It wasn’t hot chocolate after skating, but he could use a cup or two of coffee to warm him up after his surveillance. Standing around in the snow for a couple of hours had chilled him, even though he’d dressed for the weather.

Molly escorted him to the tiny living room.

“And you must call me Molly,” she insisted.

She eyed the big camera case as he put it down. Zachary gave a grimace.

“Sorry. I didn’t come to take your picture; I just don’t like to leave expensive equipment in the car.”

“Oh,” she nodded politely. She didn’t ask him who he had been taking pictures