Matilda solves a grieving mother's case in a way that neither woman ever expected
|Matilda’s long lashes began to descend, her chin doing likewise before suddenly jerking upward. Blinking away her fatigue, she shook her head. Her eyes refocused on the cup of cheap drip coffee that had nearly slipped from her slender fingers. Exhaling in relief, she set the cup into the cupholder at the center of the clean but worn interior of her aging Corolla.|
Tired green eyes returned to the door of the house, still having trouble focusing properly. The light in the house was still on, the shadow of the man she’d been sent to tail still casting a stoic silhouette across the living room curtains.
She withdrew her phone, checking the time. It was 1:47 AM.
She’d been here since 3:00 PM, and still the man hadn’t gone to bed. Maybe she should have asked her client, Alicia Winters, if her ex-husband was nocturnal before spending 12 hours in the car outside his house without making an ounce of progress.
She’d been hoping to wait until the man went to bed, then snoop around the house, using the opportunity to peer into every window. Casing the outside of a house was low risk and high reward. She’d gotten everything she needed for more than a few clients by doing exactly that. Besides, it was usually possible to tell from outside if someone had a doorbell cam or see the telltale flash of a home security system LED by the front door. If she didn’t see either, she might even try her hand at a little B&E. In her experience, it wasn’t unusual for single men not to bother with locking the door. Men, in general, tended to overestimate their ability to provide their own security. That was fine by her. It only made her job easier.
Of course, if Mr. Winters were really hiding the kid, he might be a little more security conscious. Particularly after the cops had paid him a visit two days prior. They hadn’t found anything, but then, they had more rules than she did.
Well, that wasn’t technically true. She had at least as many rules. It’s just that she didn’t particularly care if she broke them. Not if it gave her client her kid back. Along with a hefty check. It was almost the end of the month, and she was short on rent.
Alicia Winters was the best kind of client. Well-to-do and desperate, not so much as batting an eye when Matilda had thrown out a rate of $100/hour? Matilda had expected the woman to haggle her down into something closer to her usual $50 rate, but she hadn’t. The woman had simply agreed. Puffy-eyed and frantic, Matilda probably could have charged Alicia Winters just about anything, and she would have been willing to pay. The woman had even been clear that she was willing to pay for any evidence at all that her ex may have abducted her son. Matilda didn’t even have to actually find him.
Not that Matilda herself would be satisfied without finding him. If Mr. Winters had him, she had no doubt that she could return the boy to his mother. If she could do that, she wouldn’t feel guilty in the slightest about the rate. Not that it would bother her too much regardless. Ms. Winters could afford to pay, and Matilda needed the money. Judging by her client’s Chanel bag and Christian Louboutin shoes, the woman wouldn’t miss a couple thousand dollars.
Matilda sighed. She wasn’t going to wait any longer. She would simply end up falling asleep and blowing her opportunity to get inside while it was still dark. It looked like she was going to have to resort to Plan B. She reached behind her head, undoing the loose bun to let a thick mane of dark hair pour over her shoulders. She glanced longingly at the black fedora in the passenger seat, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to don her favorite accoutrement for this little endeavor. Too bad. Wearing the hat always made her feel like a bonafide gumshoe.
Reaching down, Matilda popped the hood before exiting the car. A short trench hung loosely about her slender waist as light droplets of Portland rain began to pelt the poplin armor. With an annoyed twist of her full lips, Matilda took off her coat, tossing it inside the car. As rain began to dampen her blouse, she shivered. It felt strange to expose herself to an Autumn night in the Pacific Northwest without a coat, but it was necessary in this case. She circled the car, raising the hood onto its prop rod.
Looking up into the night sky, she squinted into the mist above, raising her arms to either side as she got into character, working herself into a moderate tizzy like a method actor. She unbuttoned the top few buttons of her blouse, then tugged downward on the tank she wore beneath, exposing a hint of cleavage. After a few more adjustments to her appearance, she hustled toward Mr. Winters’ front door, her soaked stringy hair slapping at her toned back. As she rang the doorbell, she widened her eyes until their usual crafty glimmer had transformed into one of innocent need.
A moment later, footsteps approached the door from the other side. The door opened, and a tall, well-groomed man in a Reed College t-shirt and plaid boxers rested his arm on the doorframe, looking down on her with curious eyes. “Pretty late to be knocking on somebody’s door, isn’t it?” He surveyed her soaked appearance with softening eyes. “Do you need help or something?”
The man looked and sounded exceedingly normal. Helpful even. If she didn’t know better, she would have found him pleasant company. For a brief moment, Matilda questioned her client’s judgment. Maybe he hadn’t done anything wrong. But that was silly. Child abductions with divorced parents were nearly always related to one parent or the other. It had to be him.
“I saw your light on. Thank God you’re awake,” said Matilda, raising the pitch of her normal speaking voice as she blinked the raindrops from her large eyes. She leaned forward, placing her hands on the man’s toned forearm as she gazed into his eyes. “Would you help me with my car? My phone’s dead, and it’s so late, and I really need to get home…”
“Your car?” he asked, blinking once himself.
“Yes,” she said, nodding eagerly. She turned to point at her vehicle across the street. “That one.”
“Well, I suppose I might be able to take a look. Let me get dressed.” He began to turn, pushing the door shut. Then, almost as an afterthought, he glanced back at Matilda, pulling it back open. “Want to come and wait inside while I put on a pair of jeans?”
She nodded, again noting just how normal and polite the man seemed. For someone who had just kidnapped a child, he didn’t seem very circumspect. Quite the contrary. He seemed trusting. As he disappeared into the bedroom, Matilda took full advantage of the man’s naivety, taking the opportunity to look around. She couldn’t move around too much without giving herself away, the dripping water from her soggy frame marking the trail of her movements easy to track. So she simply turned in place, studying everything in sight with discerning eyes.
She didn’t see any evidence of children. No drawings on the fridge. No toys in the living room. No jars of animal crackers on the counter. There wasn’t even a children’s jacket hanging on the pegs by the door.
The bedroom opened with a squawk, causing Matilda, momentarily lost in thought, to start. She cursed herself for the momentary lapse, though she supposed that jumpiness might work well for the distressed character she was supposed to be playing. She whirled to see a broad-shouldered man in jeans striding confidently down the hall. He smiled at her. “Let’s take a look at this car of yours. Hope I can help.”
Matilda shot him a grateful smile before following him out to the street. As the tall man leaned over the engine of her car, a frown of concentration forming on his lips, she stepped behind him, extracting a stun gun from the small of her back. She waited until his right hand neared the car’s battery before jabbing it into the unsuspecting man’s back. He stiffened as the jagged arc of crackling blue light sizzled the flesh under his white t-shirt. When she released the trigger, he collapsed onto her car engine, his eyes fluttering shut.
Shoving the weapon back into the rear waistband of her jeans, Matilda jogged back to the house, kicking off her shoes at the door so as to not track wet footprints all over the place. She only had a few minutes before a man that size would regain his senses, so she had to hurry.
She darted into every room, expertly scanning every surface, checking under beds, in closets, everywhere that a man might think to hide a child when his doorbell rang. She even found the attic compartment, using the flashlight feature of her phone to give it a quick once over.
She found nothing.
There was a child’s room—probably there for the weekends on which he had custody—but the single bed was neatly made, clearly unslept-in. There was nothing else in the room. No toys. No stuffed animals. The sheets and blankets were undisturbed. The room didn’t have a single sign of recent use.
Matilda frowned, disappointed. As she turned to leave, however, she had another thought. Maybe there was an outbuilding in the back. A toolshed in the back yard or something? She darted out the back, stepping onto the patio to scan her eyes across the yard.
Jaw tightening in frustration, Matilda closed the sliding door and walked through the kitchen toward the front door when she suddenly stopped. Something wasn’t right about this. Mr. Winters’ house was nice enough, but it hardly looked like a match for Ms. Winters’ shopping habits. This wasn’t the house of someone who bought his wife designer handbags.
Matilda looked around, a sly smile forming on her lips. Her eyes alight with the quiet epiphany, Matilda strode swiftly back to the main entrance, put on her shoes, and ran back to her car. Mr. Winters, still draped over the car engine, was beginning to stir. Quickly, she leapt into the driver’s seat and turned on the car, hearing a startled cry from beneath the hood as the man jerked himself from the starting engine.
Matilda hopped from the car, wearing a smile that quickly turned into a well-acted look of concern. “You okay?”
She strode up to Mr. Winters, placing a hand on his arm as he shook his head. The poor guy looked woozy and confused.
“I’m… not sure,” he said absently, blinking repeatedly as he turned his head toward Matilda.
Matilda adopted a horrified expression. “Oh no! I thought I saw some sort of spark. Did you maybe touch the battery or something when you were fixing the car? Did you get a jolt?”
“Yeah,” he said, visibly blanching at the suggestion. His brows furrowed as he scoured his memory for some idea of what had happened. “Maybe that’s it. I do feel a little… shaky.”
He began to rub the back of his neck as Matilda lead him back to the house. Well, whatever you did, it worked. My car’s running great!” she said, depositing the man just inside his front door. “Thank you so much!”
Matilda didn’t give him the opportunity to ask any further questions, hustling away as Mr. Winters watched her go with dazed eyes. Matilda hopped into her car and drove off. She was almost certain of the boy’s location now. She just needed to confirm it. Once she did, she would be back to pay his father another visit.
“So you found evidence of my son at my ex-husband’s house?” asked Alicia Winters, looking eager as she entered Matilda’s office.
“No,” said Matilda, amusement still painted over her delicate features.
“No? Nothing at all?” her client scowled. “From your expression, I thought you had found at least some evidence. That’s all I asked you to find.”
“Oh, I have evidence alright. In fact, I know exactly where your son is.”
Ms. Winters looked startled. “You do?”
“I have to hand it to you, Alicia. You’re quite the actor. I’m pretty good at spotting lies, and you had me fooled for a while.”
“What do you mean?” The woman’s eyes were cold as they appraised Matilda.
Matilda picked up her phone, made a few gestures over the screen, then turned it toward her client. It was video of Ms. Winters’ son. In the mother-in-law suite on the woman’s opulent estate.
Ms. Winters didn’t look pleased. “I didn’t ask you to investigate me. I hope you realize that you won’t be paid for such insolence.”
“No, I didn’t think you would,” said Matilda, her lips curling upward into a faux-innocent smile. “But Mr. Winters was more than happy to. In fact, I think that he found my little video quite valuable.”
Now Ms. Winters looked downright angry, though she remained composed. “How did you know?”
Matilda leaned back in her chair. “Your purse.”
Ms. Winters cocked an eyebrow. “My purse?”
“Yes, Alicia. Your Chanel purse,” Matlida’s eyes flashed darkly. “You see, your ex-husband’s house isn’t the sort of place that he would have if his alimony were enough for you to afford designer bags. That’s when I realized that he wasn’t the one with the money. He wasn’t the one paying alimony. You were.”
Matilda rose from her seat, clearly relishing the moment. She didn’t like it when her clients lied to her. “And you clearly don’t want to… which is why you hired me to find evidence for you.”
The detective began to walk toward her office door. “That’s why you emphasized that you were simply after evidence. You knew that I wouldn’t be able to find your son with your ex-husband. You just needed anything I could find to help you pin the abduction on him. After all, the burden of proof for a civil action to cut off alimony is much lower than the bar for charging him with a criminal offense.”
“And once the case was decided and the alimony payments halted, I’m sure that your boy would have been miraculously returned to you. Everyone would have still thought his father had abducted him and simply returned him surreptitiously to avoid prosecution. I’m sure that you’ve been coaching the boy to say something along those lines, right?”
“You think you’re so clever, don’t you?” spat Ms. Winters, rising to her feet in disgust.
“I am clever,” said Matilda, opening the door, gesturing for her client to leave. She wore a smug smile.
As her client swept past her, Matilda dropped an envelope into the woman’s Chanel handbag. “Oh, and consider yourself served. Mr. Winters wants to revisit both his alimony and his custody arrangement in light of recent events. I told him I’d handle the process serving duties free of charge.”
Alicia Winters whirled, her lips quivering with fury.
“It was nice working with you, Alicia.” Matilda waved, smiling sweetly as she slowly shut the door.