All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2017 Jacqueline Winters

Simply Scandalous

By Jacqueline Winters

Chapter 1

 

Her entire body ached, like she’d been sleeping on a sheet of plywood. Claire peeled her cheek from the cold tile floor, her eyes never leaving the rust-covered blade clenched in her hand. Grogginess swam through her as she struggled but failed to lift herself. She managed only to push up onto her elbows.

A single bead trickled down her wrist and splashed onto the gray tile, missing a rust-colored smudge one square over. As the spinning in her head slowed, the hue of the droplet sharpened, transforming from a light pink blur to a deep red oval.

Claire shrieked and threw the knife. The blade clattered and skid across the floor, bumping into a display shelf. Crawling backwards on her hands, she slammed into a wall behind her. The familiar rustic wood of the counter snared a strand of her long hair. Freeing the blonde lock from a loose sliver in the panel, she finally realized where she was.

“Claire? You here?” Her mother’s frantic calls echoed. “Claire?” Then, “—Honey, what happened to you?” Mara kneeled at her side, her hands gripping Claire’s forearms. “You look like you—oh, my God, is that blood?”

Smudges blotted the floor of the compact botanical shop, illuminated now by the piercing glow of the sun. The beams glinted off the knife. Claire’s heart pounded in her ears. She patted her limbs for a stab wound she couldn’t find. “Not mine.”

“What the hell?” Mara jumped up, her long skirt swishing as she hurried across the room. Kneeling, she reached for the knife. But before her fingers grazed the handle, she retracted her hand.

Claire finally pushed herself to her feet, barely able to keep down last night’s mozzarella sticks. “What is it?”

“This knife. It’s from the case.”

Their heads snapped in unison toward the wooden case mounted on the wall. The one behind the checkout counter that held some of their most expensive and rare items. The jagged outline of broken glass clung to one corner of the wooden frame.

“I-I don’t know what happened,” she stammered. Her mind raced for any recollection she could find. Any clue. But aside from the sour aftertaste of fried food, she had none.

Mara dashed behind the counter, broken glass crunching beneath her boots. “How long have you been here?”

“I just came to.” Claire rubbed the back of her creaking neck. “Right before you got here.” Her mind scurried for answers. Why was I even in the shop last night?

But her memory seemed to be a blanket of blackness. There was the stop off for a drink. Yes! At her favorite sports bar. She’d caught the end of the Cubs game before she went home. Did I go home?

In a flash, her mother disappeared toward the back room. At the moan of horror, Claire hurried back to the tiny space they used as an office.

No wonder Mom had moaned. The room was littered with papers and broken pieces of a lamp. Shards of glass and a blanket of decorative teal beads covered the floor. On the back wall, a landscape painting dangled from one nail, revealing the busted safe door.

Claire’s heart sank. She slipped into the room cautiously and combed her hand over the cold metal interior of the nearly empty safe. “Our money. All our money’s gone.”

Ignoring the sharp debris everywhere, Mara didn’t stay at the door. Seemingly shocked, she charged in, stopping at the sight of something on the desk. She lifted a single photo, drawing it closer to see it. “Son of a bitch,” she mumbled.

“What is it?”

Tossing the photo onto the cluttered surface of strewn papers and broken glass, Mara crouched under the desk without answering.

At the rattle of wood, Claire took a cautious step closer. “What are you looking for?” Her eyes remained transfixed on the black and white photo.

“Oh, thank you!” Mara huffed out in relief from under the desk. “It’s still here.”

Kneeling, Claire caught the glimmer of a silver chain dangling in her mother’s grasp. Her fingers tight around whatever the chain held. “What is that?”

The question jarred Mara. She shot out from beneath the desk so quickly Claire hardly had time to stumble out of her way. “We have to go.”

Claire knew not to ask if they should go to the police. They’d spent her entire life running from the authorities. It wasn’t likely a little robbery would bring her mother to trust the police now. But she asked anyway.

“No. We can’t.”

“But—”

“He is the police.”

“What?” Her mother’s hurried pace forced Claire to chase her to the back door, but not before she snatched the photo off the desk. “How do you—”

“We don’t have long.” Mara stopped before she twisted the knob. Digging in her purse, she shoved a hair tie into Claire’s hand. “Put your hair up. There’s blood in it.”