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   Chapter 9 Brownie Oxford and the Ashland Affair

Brownie Oxford and the Ashland Affair: Brownie Bk1 By Valerie Gaumont Characters: 19016

Updated: 2018-03-07 14:23


Chapter 9

We pulled into the parking lot of an older strip mall that had seen better days. At least half of the stores sported for sale or lease signs on the windows with hollowed out interiors behind. The stores that remained open had discount stickers plastered over them offering as much as seventy percent off their offered merchandise. There didn't seem to be many takers. As many of the sale stickers had faded, florescent colors turning sickly in the sun, I doubted there had been many takers for quite a while.

Swift's Land Rover bucked and swayed over the cracked asphalt parking lot. In places, weeds had pushed through the larger of the cracks and reached for the sky, some making it as high as a foot before ending in fat seed heads like misbegotten wheat. A row of hedges and trees separated it from what looked as though it had once been an office building. As Swift navigated the lot, I looked through the overgrown trees and shaggy bushes to see flashes of sale and lease signs on the empty office building. Apparently, it had no better luck than the strip mall.

Swift drove around behind the strip mall and parked near the back entrance of what had once been a shoe store. He glanced at his watch as I tried to shake the bad horror movie vibe that the place seemed to give off.

"We have twenty minutes, " he informed me. I looked over to ask him why so short a span, but he was already opening his door and getting out of the car. I scrambled out of the passenger side and caught up with him as he unlocked the back entrance to the shoe store. We quickly stepped inside and Swift locked the door behind him. I looked around.

We had stepped into the back storage area. Many of the shelves that would have contained the store's stock of various sized items were still in place. A couple of boxes remained, left behind while the rest of the inventory was cleared out. The light was filtered in from the front of the store and was very dim. Dust motes drifted lazily through the weak sunlight and the air smelled stale and moldy. I looked down and in the center of the floor was a black body bag, the silver zipper catching what little light there was and winking slyly at me.

"Stay here while I do a quick check, " Swift told me in a low voice. I nodded. Swift left to scan the building and make certain that we were alone. I turned away from the body bag. I hated interviewing the ones I had met before death. On a row marked with my shoe size, I spotted one lone box and wondered what sort of shoe had been left abandoned. It reminded me of the misfit toys from the old Christmas show about Rudolph.

Deciding shoes were better than focusing on the dead body of Mr. Salesman, I stepped over and pulled the box from the shelf. I lifted the lid and looked inside. I had the impression of some sort of heel and the flash of glitter before Swift returned. He frowned at me and I closed the box.

"I just wanted to see what was left behind, " I explained. He sighed.

"Did you touch anything else?"

"No, just the box. I didn't even touch the shelf." I pointed to the dust covered shelf.

"We'll take the shoe box with us, " he told me. "Don't touch anything else."

I nodded and Swift pulled the shoebox from the shelf, walking back to the body bag. He bent and unzipped the bag and I walked over. George Whittaker had seen better days. He hadn't been dead long enough to smell, but deep bruises and shallow cuts covered his face and his lips were tinged with blue. The salesman grin I had used to name him was gone. I shivered. In the half-light it looked as though he was made of wax and had never been a real person at all.

"Time, Brownie, " Swift said straightening and backing away. It was a reminder that we had little and that I needed to stop stalling. I knelt down beside the bag and placed a hand a few inches over his chest.

"George, " I called soundlessly. I felt a stirring. "Please George, I need to speak with you." I kept my tone light and like a child peering out from beneath his blankets, George slowly emerged. A trickle of sweat rolled down my spine and I realized how warm the close atmosphere of the abandoned shoe store was. I breathed energy into him in a slow steady stream trying not to spook him. Given the time constraints I knew that if I lost him, there would not be time to get him back. As his image solidified, I was able to see the look of fear clearly written across his face. He was hoping I wasn't the boogey man.

"Please George, I have a few questions I need to ask, " I told him. I added a little sound to my voice so Swift could hear me and then motioned him away. While I could add enough energy to George allowing Swift to see him, I knew that Swift had seen George in his cell and might be associated with the pain that followed. George would never willingly talk to Swift as Alex had done in Dr. Harding's office. Understanding my signal, I felt more than saw Swift retreat to the shadows.

"Then you'll leave me alone?" George asked hesitantly. I got flashes of the pain he had suffered shortly before death and saw the men who inflicted the damage. Two of them I recognized from Swift's office. To my relief, Swift's image did not appear.

"They didn't actually want me to talk, " George told me as if watching me watch what had happened. "They work for Matheson too, you see. I saw them at his house. They knew I had seen them."

"Yes, " I told him gently, hoping to end the stream of images, even as I filed the information he gave me away for later. "I'll leave you alone."

George sighed as though resigned and nodded. "All right. Ask."

"Who were you working for

eplayed the scene with George and Matheson. Matheson, whose first name I still didn't know, who claimed to be my uncle and who had been so enthusiastic about getting rid of one, if not both of my parents. My fingers gripped the edge of the shoebox so hard that the cardboard dented.

"Who is Matheson?" Swift asked. "I heard you mention him."

"He hired George and friends, " I told Swift, leaving out all of the other details. "That's all George said about him."

"No first name?"

"Not that he told me. I think he was a little afraid and envious of him."

"Envious?"

"Matheson had money and power. More than George. George wanted it."

"And why did Matheson want you?"

My mind flashed on the image of the ritual in the book. Even though the image had flashed by too fast for me to read the page, the central image had featured an altar, the victim on it bleeding from the wrists into a pot of some kind. Somehow I didn't think it boded well for a warm and fuzzy family reunion. "George didn't know, he thought Matheson wanted some guy raised from the dead, but didn't have any other details."

Swift nodded. "That explains the test in the cemetery. Was there anything else?"

I shook my head. "No. He was pretty much gone." We sank into a silence neither one of us felt like breaking, each wrapped up in our own thoughts. I had learned more about my family in the last few hours than I had in a lifetime. I wasn't quite sure what to do with the information yet, but had the feeling investigating further would probably best be done after the Ashland affair was sorted out. I tried not to dwell on the possible visuals that went with a far too enthusiastic death and hoped that whatever gruesomeness it entailed happened after a swift and relatively painless death, the enthusiastic bits only entering the picture when they were beyond pain.

I tried to push my family drama away for later contemplation as I focused on more immediate concerns, i.e. someone else's family. If Dave had listened to his uncle, Matheson still did not know my real name. If he thought it gave him power, I was just as glad. It may not help terribly much with the hiding process, but it was something and might end up saving me from an…enthusiastic demise of my own.

Unless of course, Matheson killed and then questioned Dave.

Disturbingly, it was a possibility. I wasn't used to the bad guys having the same skills as I did. Although, if he had trained, with books and teachers to help him rather than just seeing what happened, then he probably had a much better set of well-honed skills at his disposal. The thought made me want to shake.

"So where are we going anyway?" I asked when I could no longer stand to be surrounded by only my own thoughts. We had long ago left the city and I had begun seeing signs for the state line.

"Mayenfield, " Swift said. "My friend Paul has an apartment over his shop that he will be renting you. You, Betty are between jobs, trying to figure out what to do with your life after a bad break up from your boyfriend Luke. Paul Foster is a friend of the family and suggested getting out of your normal routine would help."

"I see, " I told him accustomed to Swift's random cover stories. He always gave me names and a general scenario, although rarely had I been called upon to pass the details on in full to an interested party. Still, I committed the names to memory in case they were needed. The rest was easy enough to remember, after all, with the exception of the fictional Luke, it was close enough to the truth.

"How long before we reach Mayenfield?" I asked.

"We will be driving all night and arrive in the morning." I lifted an eyebrow in surprise, after all it wasn't even lunch time. Clearly, we had a long way to go.

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