“Be careful who you trust,” the old barber had said.
Not trusting folk didn’t come naturally to Aldrich, he tended to divide the world into two categories of people: the good and the bad. Aldrich saw the world in black and white, the ‘shades’ of grey were foreign to him. The old man finished trimming Aldrich’s hair. Whitman reached for his wallet; the old man waved him off.
“No charge, son. Ever since people went off to war, this town’s been dying. It’s good to see a new face. Don’t be a stranger.”
“Well, I appreciate it. I’m Aldrich Whitman.”
“Danny J. Baston. Nice to make your acquaintance. Don’t forget what I said about trusting folk.”
With a fresh haircut and shave, Aldrich walked to the Sheriff’s office. Patty sat at the desk chewing bubble gum. She nodded at Aldrich when he walked in.
Patty blew a bubble and twirled her hair around her index finger. Aldrich walked past and made his way to Lancaster’s office. He knocked on the door.
Aldrich opened the door and walked in. Lancaster glared at him when he walked in, a young woman stood at the corner of his desk. Tears wetted her cheeks. Aldrich said nothing and sat in a chair.
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to brief you, Sheriff.”
“You’ve been here for less than six hours, Whitman. What have you learned in that time? Have you discovered Sue Ann’s location?”
“No. I do have a suspect, and I followed him to a small community west of town. What’s a house of ill repute doing in this dinged up hole?”
“What are you talking about?”
The young woman looked away and cleared her throat. Lancaster’s face turned bright red, beads of sweat dotted his brow, and Aldrich thought Lancaster might throw him out. He didn’t care. Let the fat man sweat it.
“Oh, you don’t know. There is a mobile home off CR 111, several other trailers are around it. A fence blocks most of the view from the main road. Are you sure you don’t know what I’m talking about?”
“You best watch yourself, hoss. You’re treading on thin ice…”
Aldrich gave the sheriff a lopsided grin and leaned back against the seat. The young woman started for the door, but Lancaster snapped, “I ain’t got my money out of you. Sit your butt down until I deal with this punk.”
“I know you’re not threatening me,” Aldrich said laughingly, “it would take less than five minutes for the papers to tear this town a new rectum. You best reconsider, sheriff.”
“You wouldn’t dare…”
“What wouldn’t I dare, sheriff? Don’t try me. I would get the media in here and explain that you hired me to investigate a missing person case, when you have the manpower to delve into it. Or maybe they would find it interesting that an elected official has violated a young girl in his office. I’m sure that is worthy of a story.”
Lancaster shook with rage, but he held his tongue. Aldrich took the young woman by her hand and helped her up. Without another word said to Lancaster, the pair walked out of his office.
Aldrich extended his hand to the young woman and said, “I’m Aldrich Whitman and you are…”
“I’m Haley Mobley, Sue Ann’s youngest sister.”
Aldrich stopped and stared at the young woman. Unlike her sister, Haley had brown hair, her face was riddled with acne, and she wore glasses. She noticed his stare and rolled her eyes.
“Yes, I am her half-sister. We shared the same mother but have different fathers.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I am looking for my sister. Do you think that…”
“I don’t know. There’s too little information to draw conclusions just yet. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Haley, I need to go check up on something.”
Patty’s desk was empty when Aldrich walked past it. He glanced at the clock; it was after 5 p.m. The sun had set, and twilight fast approached. He needed to get into the community and lay eyes on what happened when the gate was closed.
Haley walked beside him to his vehicle. Aldrich turned and stared at her. She did not back down, rather she drew close and locked eyes with him. He saw fierce determination in her eyes and knew there was no back down in her.
“You’re a cop?” She didn’t ask so much as demanded that he answer.
“No, I am a private investigator.”
“That’s like a cop. I want to help you find my sister.”
“Uh, no. Things might get dangerous, I can’t have a kid getting in the way. Besides, if you got hurt, I would be liable for your injuries.”
“Fine. I’ll follow you and tell everyone that’ll listen that you’re my boyfriend.”
“Whatever. You’re what fifteen. Maybe? Stay out of the way.”
Aldrich opened the door on his sled and sat behind the driver seat. Haley got in on the other side. Before he could tell her to get out, she shut the door and handed him a piece of a locket shaped like a heart.
“We met last summer for the first time. She gave me a piece and she kept the other. Sue Ann said that just because we met later didn’t change the fact that we’re sisters. As long as I had one part of the heart, we would always be close.”
“Fine, kid. I don’t have time to argue with you.”
Aldrich fired up the Plymouth and headed for what he had labeled a house of ill repute. Neither he nor Haley spoke during the trip. He wanted to ask of her experience in Lancaster’s office, but he lacked the vocabulary to broach such a subject.
“How did you know what the sheriff had planned for me? Do you think my sister is still alive?”
“The sheriff is a fat slob, and given that fact, it didn’t take much to think that he would try to take advantage of you. As far as your sister is concerned, I have no idea. Until we know otherwise, it’s best to think she is alive.”
Aldrich pulled the car into the obscured parking lot. Before he opened the door, he turned and put his hand on Haley’s shoulder. She stopped and met his eyes.
“If we are permitted entrance, you stay with me and do what I say. Do you understand? If this is what I think it is, perverts are going to try to paw you. Stay in my hip pocket.”
“Okay. For the record, I just turned eighteen. I’m not a child.”
“I don’t care. Follow me.”
Haley and Aldrich got out and started up the gravel path. Two guards stood outside of the gate. Both men were tall and muscular. They watched as the pair drew near to them.
“Are you two lost?”
“Nope. I had to go pick up my date,” Aldrich said motioning to Haley, “and you know women. They couldn’t be ready on time to save their lives.”
Both men looked at the other and back at Aldrich. Haley slipped her arm around Aldrich’s waist and snuggled up to him.
“I had to look good for my man, right boys? No man wants to be shackled down to an ugly woman. Men expect us women to look our best, and that’s why you can’t keep your hands off us.”
“Yeah,” one the guards chuckled through his yellow teeth, “that’s right. Go on in.”
The other guard opened the gate, and for whatever Aldrich had conjured in his mind about the community, it paled in what he witnessed when he walked through the gates.