Society of the Nines

By: Danielle Bourdon

Chapter One

If society wasn't filled with liars, deceivers and betrayers, Mahayla thought, I'd be out of a job. She stared at the stack of files on her desk, all consisting of just-completed projects. Most of them were cases of cheating spouses which required her to spend time snapping photos of clandestine rendezvous and collecting evidence for her clients to use in court. One or two were genealogy related—not her specialty—and still another was a business owner who suspected a rival was using underhanded methods to drive customers away.

She'd solved them all, even the genealogy cases, in record time. No new cases sat in the 'In' basket. Private Investigation work had slowed down as the troubled economy struggled to get back on its feet. There was little she could do to drive more customers through the door besides wait patiently and hope the ad in the yellow pages attracted some attention.

Maybe I should redecorate the office.

Mahayla glanced at the plush chairs on the other side of her desk, then the bookcases lining the walls, and finally the stylish divan and wingback in the designated 'waiting area'. The small, rectangular space got all its character from eclectic bits of architecture around the windows, molding on the walls, and the cream-burgundy-black décor that gave it a chic, vintage feel. Situated on the second floor above a book shop on La Palma Drive, it was perfect for her needs and really, if she was honest, didn't need a lick of updating at all.

It needed customers.

She needed customers. Mahayla didn't like to be idle.

Leaning over, she plucked the photograph of her father, her mother, and herself off the desk. She'd acquired her mother's dark hair, blue eyes, and five-eight height. From her father, the CIA agent who had inspired her to become what she was, Mahayla had inherited a love of mystery, thrills and the need to find answers to questions. A recommendation (and string pulling) from her father right out of high school landed her a job at the CIA, a job she left five years later to open her own business. The reasons for her departure were complicated and personal, reasons her father never understood, much less supported.

Four years on, she didn't regret her choice. Private investigation wasn't as intense or thrilling, sacrifices she was willing to make to keep her morality intact.

All she regretted was that she didn't have a challenging case to sink her teeth into.

Fate must have been listening in; a timid knock—taptaptap—came at the door.

Mahayla set the picture down. “Come in.”

At first, nothing happened. No one entered. Just as she stood up, the handle twisted and a woman stepped in.

Right away, Mahayla noticed three things: the wig, the fear and the weapon. Blonde, five-two, medium height and weight, the woman closed the door but hovered near it as if she thought she might have to suddenly flee. She also clutched a can of mace in a tight fist, skin white over the knuckles. Her clothes were the kind that allowed her to blend in with any crowd: whitewashed jeans, a mint green cardigan and new tennis shoes of an indiscriminate make.

A pair of gray shaded sunglasses hid the woman's eyes from view.

“Can I help you?” Mahayla asked. She had the distinct impression the lady was about to bolt. Interesting.

“Y...yes. I mean, maybe. How much for a...consultation?”

“The consultation is free, ma'am. Would you like to sit down? I have coffee here and a few cold drinks.” Speaking smooth and slow, Mahayla gestured toward one of the chairs opposite her desk.

“Is anyone else here?” the woman whispered.

“No ma'am, it's just me. I'm Mahayla Breland.” She didn't move around the desk, afraid she would make the woman flee before she found out what the problem was.

A husband turned stalker, most likely.

Again, the woman hesitated.

Mahayla saw the way the woman's sunglasses tilted toward the high corners of the room. Like she was looking for surveillance cameras. There were none in this specific office, though the building owner had them on the outside in case of break-ins.

Finally, the woman walked to a chair at the desk and sat on the very edge. She didn't put the mace away. “I'm Emma Chapin.”

Mahayla didn't sit down yet, and she didn't offer her hand. Instinct told her that would be a bad idea despite her own personal protocol. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Chapin. Would you like something to drink?”