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 - Part 2

The Lost Daughters of Stone Harbor - Part 2

Part 1

I’ve been Don’s guy for a few years now. People around Stone Harbor think it has always just been that way. Truth is, I started working for Don to pay off a serious debt that landed Ben, my brother, in jail. He owed some guys, which Don was able to appease for a short time. He advised Ben to plead guilty for a lesser sentence at his hearing knowing jail would be the safest place for him until things settled down. I remember being so pissed at Don for convincing Ben to plead guilty in court, but I get it now.

Don really showed up for our family when I came knocking, looking for a job. The collection agencies started coming after Ben for child support even though he didn’t have a penny to his name. I always figured my kid brother had a child out there somewhere, but when we learned the news, everything changed for me that day. A little one from our family was going to be born. No matter how blockheaded my brother is, I won’t ever be able to shake the need to look out for him. In the same way I do anything for Ben, I do everything for her.

I never have held Ben’s daughter. The baby girl was born after Ben was locked up, about three years ago now. I see her around town with the mother. Even from a distance she is perfect. When I go by the jail for visiting hours, we talk a lot about getting her back. I know if Ben could just hold her, it’d change everything for him. Being a father will make all this worth it.

Just thinking about her is making the whole night ahead unbearable. Don’s grieving sure, but the weight pulling down the back of the town car is too strong a visual. This entire plan is disrespectful and manic. No one else hauls their dead around looking for homicidal answers. One look at the body and no one is going to talk either. When we found his daughter yesterday, crumpled over the wound in her abdomen, Don’s eyes hardened into glass. His soul seemed to be vaporizing from his body, unnerving me to my core.

A door slams from the back of the car. My hands quiver despite seeing my long-time employer and friend lower into the seat. Reflected in the rear view mirror, Don is dressed to the nines, adjusting his cufflinks. Sitting there is a man with nothing to lose.

“Boss, maybe there is another way?”

“Our reservations are for seven. I will not be late.”

The chill in the car forces my arm muscles to lift my hand to adjust the air conditioning. Turning the air off is my only defense against the icy fear edging at my heart.

With a slight jut of his chin, Don signals for us to leave. The car slides away from the curb, the backend much lower to the pavement than it should be. I try to remain in the moment, shifting gears, flicking on blinkers, pressing the gas pedal. My perspective shifts and I am watching myself carry out the plan from far above. Stopping the mass of my torso is impossible. I will my mind to blackout so I will not have to remember this night for the rest of my life. But I cannot. Each memory is etching into me.

Across town, Julien peels a high collar, velvety, black sweater from the bundle of hung blouses stored in her mother’s closet. She stopped wearing her mother’s things while her father was alive because he would comment on how she looked like her with a few salty drips on his cheeks. No matter her protests, she was her mother’s daughter to her father, if only in appearance. Julien grappled to claim any other similarities because she had never met the woman who birthed her.

In the mirror her peachy coloring shines from her cheeks. Any concerns about the letter from her door are overturned by the thrill of mystery and luxury. On her own she cannot afford even an appetizer at Ristorante Luciano. But tonight, some handsome, steaming, betrayed lover may be sitting across the table from her. Sliding the back onto her earring, she straightens to evaluate her full appearance in the mirror. Reflecting back is the woman she wants to be tonight.

She switches off the lights in her flat and locks the door behind her. The suspense of a dinner with a stranger is making her stomach protest with growls and grumbles. Pleasant thoughts of bubbly risotto and crusty bread float into her mind as she saunters down the boardwalk to the awning dressed restaurant.

Julien turns the corner and gets a full view of the restaurant door and a shadow streaked figure. A sleek black Cadillac looms from the curb. The letter explained she would be met at the door, but at first glance the theatrics are spectacular. The goon at the door swings the glass wide, unintentionally looking down on her from his natural height. She staunches her thank you by tilting her face high and prancing in on high heeled toes.

The curtain of reality crashes down moments after taking stock of the open seating restaurant. Vertigo causes the room to tilt like a seesaw. The entire dining room is devoid of people and light. Her flight mode alarms in her head. The mixture of clanging bells and shifting walls sends her outside for fresh air. The slightest muscle twinge in her calf and a firm palm lands on her shoulder, urging her into the dark. One lamp centered on a white linen table casts an inadequate security net for her to proceed on her own. A tailored suit poised in the glow of the light, observes her entire entrance.

Seeing the man across the room restores some of her confidence in the predictability of this set up. Her mind jogs through the memory bank of crime stories she has absorbed over the years. She needs to believe that she could pick any number of plots from her memory and figure out how the night will end. A little smirk hides in the corner of her lips. She plans to maintain the upper hand because she holds the one thing this person wants, the truth of a secret.

A large step forward and she releases herself from the hand on her shoulder. She is reassured in her rightness and readiness for her delicious bowl of risotto.

“Goodness, you have got quite the set up here! Consider me impressed.” Julien lifts her arms out and performs a little twirl of breezy confidence before settling into her untucked chair.

“You didn’t put yourself out too much, paying the restaurant for a whole, exclusive dinner thing? I guess they are saving money on the lights being out. We should order soon, because I am starving.” She whips the starched napkin to the right, grinning with the fresh snap of the clothe.

Don grips his hands beneath the table, crushing his disgust for the woman approaching him. Her jolly, carefree attitude is what caused his daughter’s death, he was sure of it.

“You need to stop right now. I have questions that you will answer. Do not waste my time.”

“Hmm,” Julien coolly plays off his intensity.

“I might talk, if I can get some risotto. People really do not converse well when all they are thinking about is food.” She studies the man across from her trying to match him to one of the clients she assisted.

“What did my daughter come to you for?” She notices he is fatigued, in a not sleeping through the night sort of way.

A little more air is squeezed from the space around them.

“I never work with children. In fact, now that I see this whole scary Godfather set up, I realize you are deeply mistaken. My business has never intersected with your’s, I can assure you.” Julien begins to force her premature exit by standing and gripping her purse near her body. Something about this man is raising red flags and she does not intend to get caught up in mob business.

Don flicks two fingers in the air. Before Julien can turn toward the assailant coming at her, black liquid floods her vision. Her last thought, before fainting, was hope they would not take her mother’s sweater off her body.

Standing behind her, I listened to everything Julien said in the restaurant. She was rambling because she was scared. She felt in over her heard but couldn’t lose face. Part of me wanted to talk her down outside the restaurant; but nothing Don had done this day was convincing me of normal behavior. When he waved me over to knock her out, I didn’t get it at first. Never before was Don prone to cold-hearted violence. I mean we were in home security for Christ’s sake.

The night needed to go on and so I bumped her skull hard enough to cause her to pass out. Her frame was equivalent to glass tubing filled with air. She drifted into my arms and I carried her bride style to the back seat of the Cadillac.

Twenty minutes passes, I’ve been driving us around to buy ourselves time to adjust to our new reality of being assailants. She will be waking up soon so with a resigned look into the rear view mirror, I take the que from Don and turn the air conditioning to full blast. The cold air rouses our victim and excuses the goosebumps already formed on my neck.

I hear the low growl of Don’s frustrated voice, “Keep quiet, answer only what you know. Where did you send my daughter?”

The silence can only mean Julien is finding her bearings. Maybe she blinks at Don and the town car as the dizziness swarms her head. It is possible she does not even remember the restaurant. But I have to keep driving, and believing Don is not going to hurt her. The desperation of being in a true crime is palpable and I taste bile from my throat.

“Give her some water.” I suggest as I crane my arm back to offer a Dasani water bottle.

Don gazes stunned into the rear view mirror but takes the drink. I catch a glimmer of his old self as he opens the bottle, wraps a towelette around it to absorb the condensation, and holds it out towards Julien. I latch onto the notion he will return from his manic state of mind.

As Julien skims herself up from the floorboard to the seat before accepting the token of kindness, I look over her face. Her senses have returned. She is playing the disoriented, feeble girl to buy herself time. Only because I am watching do I notice her eyes flick to the door handle and lock at her left. She is flipping through mental instructions on how to escape a moving car.

“I wouldn’t do that. It hurts way more than the books say.”

Her body stiffens, on the edge of the car seat, at the realization of being found out.

“What the fuck is going on?” A glistening droplet of spittle flicks from her viper quick tongue.

My nerves crack under the tension of the past two days and I hear deep bellied laughter emerge from my gut. Don blushes a dark purple and I cut the sound.

Startling everyone in the car, Julien’s voice fills the air.

“You are the guy with the kid brother in jail. Your niece, something like Rebeccah, right?” She is staring straight at my reflection. My posture stiff, like a cold steel rod is my spine. I won’t meet her eyes though. I cannot affirm or deny her question because I do not know my own niece’s name.

The quiet in the car constricts our chests so only short, quick breathes are heard from each person. Even so Julien refuses to stop looking at me.

“You don’t know, do you? You have never met your own niece.”

Don interjects our private conversation by landing a fast falling grip on her knee. The shock wave of pain travels the course of her leg up to her face. She grits her teeth together and locks eyes with the hand crushing her leg. The gas pedal jams down under my foot and the odometer reads one hundred and five.

Rebeccah. How does she know Rebeccah?

Each torque of pressure the salt and pepper haired man exerts on her knee causes another wave of pain to rise to her head. Julien holds her breath to suppress shouts as tears pool in her eyelids. When her vision sharpens into focus, she beams in on the polished cufflinks at his wrist. A monogrammed D. L. swirl in the confines of a white gold ring. The script is familiar to her, but the jolts of electricity up her spine collide every forming thought into the wall of her skull. Her mind starts working like a wind-up toy as she plows through each memory from the past few months.

His fingertips reach all the way to her bone and clarity strikes her. In the standstill moment, a visual memory plays at the back of her eyes like a projected movie. A young, dark haired girl sits across the table, fidgeting with an engraved pendant worn around her neck.

“The necklace.” Julien murmurs under her breath, audible only to the sharp ear of an enraged parent.

The man’s hand shoots in the air. Julien folds forward to clutch at her bruised knee but the car slams to a halt. Her head banging against the back of the driver’s head rest before meeting the thud of weight from the trunk. Three ashen figures bristle in the halted Cadillac.

Don heard what he wanted to hear and is jerking Julien out the back door by her elbow. She is scrapping around the back seat for anchorage. My conscience reunites with my body, and a surging compulsion jolts me out of the driver’s seat. Nothing about the next few minutes will be reversible, and everything is projecting forward with unbearable speed.

I hear Don jam a spare key into the trunk and I hustle to stop him.

The black lid of his daughter’s temporary coffin propels skyward on spring loaded hinges.

“You know who did this!” Don’s rage rings out and I look all around us for witnesses. Without intention, I drove us to the end of the boardwalk, a place known for being nowhere good after dark. I cannot get caught up in all this. I am more the thug tonight than I ever wanted to be.

I guide my body down the length of the town car until I reach the taillight. I can see Julien looking at the body in the trunk. Her sobered expression does not match the mangled body before her. Without turning my head down, I can see the brutalized form of Don’s daughter. I only needed to look once, when we found her body, to never forget how she left this life. Transfixed by Julien’s calm, I cannot understand how she can know so much about a town, that knows nothing about her.

A moment longer and it is obvious to me, I offer, “She doesn’t know.”

Don, desperation plastered on his face, spits back, “How can you say that? What about this?”

He reaches into the breast coat pocket of his suit for a tattered page from his daughter’s journal.

“Her name was the only one we found in Marene’s room. She has to know.”

“She knows something, yes. But she did not know Marene was dead. Don let your daughter’s body rest now. Give yourself some space from all of this.”

Don’s shoulders slump and he wraps his arms around himself turning to face the dark sea beyond the ragged boardwalk. I look back at the woman who knows about Marene and Rebeccah and myself and Don. If she wanted, she could never tell us what she knows. She could keep everything all to herself.

The feeling of exposure and powerlessness absorbs all my attention. No one would ever really know what Julien did Marene’s last afternoon. She was in the business of secrets, a professional secret keeper. Her constructed wall of solitude was so fortified it brought her to this place of isolation where no one can help her. I think of Rebeccah, as a grown woman, trying to make it alone in the world but instead at the end of the boardwalk, with two angry men, and I shudder.

A slight swivel in her posture and she raises her eyes to mine. She knows I have been staring at her, boring my questions into her.

“Go to Rebeccah, and her mom, there are some facts you don’t understand about her.”

The quiet words spoken to me trigger Don’s wretched figure to move.

I hear the click of the safety and my body springs forward. I am too far away to change the course of the projectile, but I dive forward anyways. The bullet whistles through the night, a shrill tune of death. A crashing crescendo echoes in the dark. I catch her before the end, but the same way she kept the secret from Don she does not tell me the truth about Rebeccah. I remain, holding her limp, reverberating body as her heartbeat drums the last notes of her life. In my ears and everywhere around, we listen to the final verse of two murdered daughters. We have been robbed of the truth of our girls forever. The silent secret may be the song we can never unhear.

The End

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