Madeleine Kleppinger challenges readers to experience life through stories that inspire more adventurous living, personal growth and meaningful service of others.

The Lost Daughters of Stone Harbor

The Lost Daughters of Stone Harbor

Don slinks into the office with a crisp sheet of personal stationary extended towards me. I heard his clunking gold watch as he walked through the foyer moments before, surprised he was heading in my direction. Any other day, by ten am, he comes by the home office three or four times to get customer updates. Today circumstances are different; people’s needs for footage of their teenagers sneaking out of windows are unimportant. When I first arrived at work, I set all calls to silent so as not to disturb the house.

I notice the envelope is intentionally unsealed when I snag the paper from his hand. He speaks to the room, avoiding direct eye contact.

“I need answers. The police aren’t going to do shit to solve this. Before any tracks are covered, we need to get out there.”

Heavy ink cursive swirls menacingly on the page. “Boss, I think the girl is a lost cause. She doesn’t involve herself into this kind of work. I checked. Twice.”

“Then why did we find her name? Deliver the note. She is our only lead.” Don straightens his back, but the lines all over his face color in the pain of last night. He clamps his lips and the corner eye twitches revealing how tired his face is from holding back the enormous weight of his grief. He turns and walks out of the office, striding with the same presumed confidence he leads his business.

When they found the body, I expected shrieking and shouting but the whole night, quiet preparations carried on. The ambulance arrived without sirens. The time of death written down, instead of announced. Don and his wife held each other’s hands. A display of solidarity I never witnessed between them.

I open the note I am to hand deliver. My eyes flicker over the message written out in his hand. I wish differently, but he is not going to get the answers he wants with this little threat. Sending out his big brute to be seen around town, knocking on young women’s doors, though, the message will be heard: Don was wronged, and he is out for revenge.

Not trusting the police is part of his nature. He acts the Godfather, always playing the mobster since he was a young man. This modern-day Al Pacino owns a home security business though. His work is as squeaky clean as it comes, but a guy can pretend. Sometimes I am convinced he hired me on to look imposing because Don is a gangster without a gang. He was dealt a big blow last night. Losing a kid can change a man.

A typed note will be better. To the point. At the expensive computer Don furnished the office with, I load up Microsoft Office.  He refuses to use any of the technology he invests in, preferring fountain pens, in line telephones, and doorbells. Despite appearing the vintage character, Don understands home security is all about the image of protection. The company is stocked with every modern smart gadget, hulking men in crisp suits, and lots of guns. It occurs to me that Don might find answers to his daughter’s death before the police. He sure has the means to do so.

I open Julien Sullivan’s Facebook profile for the third time this morning. A young woman with wispy, almond hair and lake blue eyes is on the screen. While her face is young, the camera caught the puffed purple indentations under her eyes. Everyone in town knows about her father’s passing, but few of them ever check in on her.

If the rumors in town are true, Julien may have gotten herself into trouble. Not once in my life has the town talk turned out anything credible. I am guessing, she hustles because she is smart and needs income. Most likely, people paint her into a larger picture because they do not want to credit her for duping them.

The personal stationery and Goliath posted on her doorstep are unnecessary. I am willing to bet this woman will talk because she is sharp. I type Don’s words in a clear, bold font and print onto a plain piece of copy paper. Folding the paper into three sharp creases, I make it so she will know if any nosy readers got to the note before her. I drive the Cadillac across town but park far enough away from the grocer so as not to cause any sideways glances. The side stairs to her second story apartment are decaying from Atlantic Ocean air and years of unkempt varnish rotting the wood. She, light as a wisp, can climb these stairs in silence. A heavy man like me creaks every board. Without a doubt, if she is in the grocery downstairs, she is aware I stopped by.


A white, paper flag flaps in the wind from her door jamb. People did not normally leave behind notes for her. Paper trails could damage their reputations and create more evidence for their conviction. Maybe it was just an advertisement for the Stone Harbor American Legions’ Food Drive. She shifts the brown paper bag to her left hip and retrieves keys from her jean’s pocket. Julien snags the crisp paper and clips it between her lips to unlock the door with her freed-up hand.

Inside her loft, everything she arranged carefully in place stands at attention. A warm lavender scent wafts in the air causing her to breathe a sigh of relief. She places the groceries and keys on the lone counter space before unfolding the note.

 

I know what you have been doing with your business.

Your enterprise is over now.

Meet me at Ristorante Luciano Tuesday evening. There will be someone expecting you at the door.

The words can not be unread. Centered in the perfectly creased page, there is no way to deny the warning now. She moves to the front window, peeling apart two slats of the blinds so she can scan the block to find anyone watching her apartment. The surrounding street appears clear of any intruding presences but most things in her life never are what they appeared.

About a year ago, Julien perched on the checkout counter inside the empty, bank owned grocery her father had left to her. Wearing a simple fitted, black dress of her late mother she picked at her pantyhose. Now that everyone was gone, and her father was buried, she was unable to cry one tear stored up inside. The only thought that came to her was how hungry she was. Looking around, thinking of the debts, envisioning the empty cabinets upstairs in her apartment, she spotted a box of Little Debbie Fancy Cakes. Sliding down from the counter, she went for the box, opening the first cellophane package. She paused for one second before stuffing the entire thing in her mouth. Eating each cake one shameless bite at a time, she thought about all the precious time she wasted to provide for herself because she had spent it fretting near his bedside. Each gasping breath from his wrecked lungs had ripped her heart until nothing whole remained. She had been the faithful daughter to the end. In that moment all it had gotten her was empty words of praise from the line of people she did not even know attending the grocer’s funeral.

People say after a funeral there is so much food, but no one is hungry. Not one person from the quaint little town of Stone Harbor brought by a casserole or sent over a pizza. And Julien would have eaten everything because since her father’s death all she did was think about food. The days following the funeral the pantry sat empty. Julien had no money to keep the heat running as the brisk New Jersey fall crept inside. She sat in the dark of the flat above the store tucked under a heavy blanket and accepted for the first time in months that she was starving. She was ravenous with an appetite for fresh air, a late night out with friends, and pipping hot food. She wanted roasted pork, a smoldering baked potato, and freshly melted Gruyere. The fourth day she threw the blanket off her body and marched downstairs. She would renew the grocery and reclaim her existence.

The eagerness she felt, the week after her father’s passing, faded as fewer customers came by to shop. Most of them would not look her in the eyes as they lined their wares on the counter for her to ring up. Others would wave an excuse by her that the supermarket in town had more things their family needed before they stopped coming all together. She was the town orphan and her reality was too heavy for all of them. She really had tried to live an honest life and provide for herself; it just did not pan out for her.

The day she realized her knack for exposing people’s weaknesses she felt free from the stupid store that had never done anything for them. After spending the day’s last minutes watching the sun set from the pier, on the walk the home she spotted a blushing lover as he neatly tucked a window down into its seal. He was leaving Marie’s room where he did not belong. At the front of the house her husband was preparing to unlock the door to their home. The lover’s eyes pleaded with Julien and a thrill of excitement coursed into her heart. Julien acted quickly, calling out from the shadows to avert the husband’s attention. Marie’s lover took his opportunity to escape and Marie had time to tidy herself before receiving a loving husband moments later.

The following afternoon, Marie came into the store carrying a heavy basket filled with chocolates, fresh fruit, and a bottle of champagne. Julien shouted from the back of the store to let the customer know she was on her way up. All she heard of the visitor was the bell tinkling against the door on their way out. She looked around for signs of a break-in but all she found was the basket. It was the first moment she realized she could benefit from keeping other people’s secrets and her fear of losing one more pound subsided.

The note left on her front door is not completely a shock. Julien keeps lovers’ secrets for many paying clients now. She never black mails them. People tend to do that to themselves because of their guilt. But she figured eventually someone would come for her as a place to direct their blame.

She assists people in deceptions, distracting devoted spouses or providing iron clad alibis, and leaves it up to them to determine her value in the assist. She loves keeping secrets for people. It makes her feel included, like she is a part of Stone Harbor, without risking being close to anyone. Being involved changed everything for her; she rises early, cooks robust dinners for herself, sometimes even stops by to tease the older men playing chess at the coffee shop. Outwardly, Julien is still their local grocer. She sells to people exactly what they need and keeps in stock what they crave. Most of the people in town supposed she is done grieving her belated father. It’s the opposite though; she is celebrating all the life other people are living.

The note still gripped in between her fingers, Julien folds the page and busies herself with putting away the groceries. If she could go through her list of clients and figure out who would plan this forced dinner date, then she could talk her way out of their anger. She would explain that not all secrets are dark and malicious. Many times, they just need a moment longer before they can pop out into the world. Julien likes giving people time. After waiting months at her father’s bedside, wishing for relief to come to them both, when it was over she had wanted more time. Now she distributes time like tokens at a fair. The prizes of life delighting her clients, many of them returning for more.

A tricked spouse had probably discovered her involvement in helping a delayed lover escape their notice. They could easily enough be appeased. The aggrieved spouse would be positively moved by her story of their true love’s happiness and how romantic feelings are heightened when we see the risk involved from being in love. The dinner might even land her another paying customer.

As she closes the refrigerator, a small receipt slip tucked under a magnet reminds her of her latest visit. Remembering the young woman who waited for her on the steps of her flat with a stricken face, Julien hopes this unplanned dinner has nothing to do last week.

It had not have been more than two days ago the girl came by. Julien was locking up the store when the sound of sniffling from the top of her stairs stopped her in her place. She snuck across the block to get a look at her uninvited guest. She watched a plump, black curly haired girl of about eighteen pulling at her blouse and twirling a necklace latch around her neck. She lit a cigarette from her purse only to stub it out with a look of distaste. Julien stayed at a distance a minute longer to try and guess the girl’s request.

Whatever trouble the young woman had created for herself was not Julien’s line of work. Her parents could not be too far behind either by the looks of the girl’s name brand clothes and designer bag. Julien sensed desperation in her posture too, the frays of hair plastered around her face and neck meant she had been waiting in the heat for more than a few minutes. She would let the girl down hard, in a tough love approach to dissuade her from whatever plan she was mulling over.

Head down, Julien marched across the street, straight up the stairs, through the door she flung wide open. The girl jumped to her feet, flustered by the near miss, and swiveled around on one leg trying to decide if she should follow or not. One thought of the future and she tumbled inside after Julien.

After some informal and unnecessary introductions, her request to Julien had not come easy. The words practiced over and over again in a darkened bedroom tangled and tripped over each other. Thirty minutes and two cups of tea later, Julien decided to do them both a favor.

“I do not assist in disappearances.”

“But that is exactly what needs to happen. I need to disappear. Even you can see that.” The young woman stared wide eyed across the petite cafe table struck by how the exact nature of her plan had come out in the open so blatantly. She had spent nights planning her escape from the life unfolding before her and yet she had never been sure what to call it.

Julien shook her head, “What you need is some hot tea, a well formed apology to your dotting parents,  and a good night’s rest.” She stood up and ushered the girl out to the steps.

Had Julien not taken that girl’s plea seriously enough? Thinking back now, the girl offered vague details of her predicament. Maybe the truth was frightening enough to cause her to flee. Julien’s neck and shoulder muscles tighten in a cringe at the possibility of being the last person to have seen the young woman.

To Be Continued…

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