St. Louis, 8:20 a.m.
Early as was respectable, Alexis Free rode alone from the family estate to the home of Estelle Rowland, the friend and neighbor to the Colson family and apparent confidante to the two men accompanying Emma. She had wanted to visit the other family first, but Estelle’s closer proximity made up her mind on that. The robin’s pre-dawn chorus was dwindling and the chipper, crisp warble of the cardinal was in overture as she rode under the bright morning sky.
She went over her questions again and tried to formulate responses to Estelle’s answers from there. The road ahead had many forks and Alexis wished to have some notion of where it all led. She rarely got lost if she prepared herself.
Every day as she went to work, Alexis had passed the small farmhouse Estelle and her children lived in. She had always admired the little garden near the log fence running around the modest acreage. She was aware of the rumors about the woman of the house losing her husband in the fire a few years back. A damaged portion of the house had slowly been rebuilt, but it was evident money was an issue, for the general upkeep had waned in recent times.
She turned into the carriage drive and dismounted, tying her horse to a small crabapple tree a good distance from the house. She hoped to be seen and therefore not come as a complete surprise.
The porch roof, while sturdy-looking enough, leaned a touch to the right like a drunk holding fast to anything for support. Under this, the door opened inward revealing a woman squinting at Alexis. She wiped her hands on a lace-trimmed apron and stepped onto the porch, which spread out and around one corner of the house. It looked idyllic in its promise of leisure with a hanging bench built for two and one old, regal rocking chair.
“Mrs. Rowland?” She hailed, still twenty rods away. “My name is Alexis Free and I was wondering if I might trouble you to ask a few questions about a mutual friend.”
“That depends, Mrs. Free,” she replied dryly, “on what those questions are, who they are about and how long you intend to take. I have to get these children ready for services.”
“It’s Miss Free, actually,” she corrected, wishing she hadn’t, “but call me Alexis, please.”
A moat circled Estelle’s castle as she gave absolutely no reply, and no bridge was quick to be lowered.
A pair of tow-headed children, one boy about six and a girl near nine or ten, stuck their curious faces out from behind Estelle. Another, brown-haired child who shared no resemblance to the rest of the clan, peered through a window nearby, ducking her head back inside as Alexis waved to her.
Though the sun was beginning to warm the earth around her, Alexis felt a distinct chill.
“Come on in and let’s get this inquisition begun,” Estelle said as she turned and ran smack into the two spies at her side. “If you two don’t run upstairs and get church-y, I am liable to leave you all there for Bible studies after service!”
Estelle’s frank response to her actually made Alexis think that, under different circumstances, she and the woman could have forged a different relationship, but these times and this situation had been cast already. She untied her hat, stepped onto the porch and into the house.
It was clear to Alexis she was being inquisitioned by Estelle and not the reverse.
Before Alexis had even cleared into the kitchen, Estelle started in. “So, who are you and why are you asking after Emma?”
There it was, like a skunk on the dinner table.
“To be truthful,” Alexis replied, wondering if she was allowed to sit before being strung out on the rack. “I am here because Theodore Colson—”
“Oh, well!” Estelle cut in, “I should have known! You his mistress? Come to collect his daughter? You tell him he sent her down that road alone this morning to me—in the dark—and she is in my charge now until he grows a backbone and comes to collect her himself. She’s not linen you can just drop off and collect at your convenience. You think you have the vinegar to take her from me?”
Estelle jammed her hands on her hips in grand defiance, flour dabbed along her strong but tired jawline. Alexis remained undaunted.
“You misunderstand,” Alexis said. “May we sit and talk over a cup of coffee, perhaps?”
“Now she wants coffee! Let me ring the butler and have him whip us up a little breakfast, ma’am!” She was livid and beyond her limit of civility. Hands flailing, head rolling about wildly, she blew a strand of wayward hair from before her narrowed eyes as she said, “I told you I had to corral these children for service and here you want coffee as we discuss the ruination of a young woman’s life . . .”
“I assure you, I am neither Mr. Colson’s mistress or his . . . whatever you think I am supposed to be.” Alexis lost her patience and found her own temper. “If you would shut your wagging chin and listen to me for a moment, you would learn that, yes, Colson has hired me, but I am now beginning to believe he may be the one I must protect Miss Emma from. You think this true as well. The fact you mentioned Emma’s name before I even did, and your hostility, leads me to believe you are worried for her too. I am a private investigator for hire, but I am still a woman.”
This actually did shut Estelle’s mouth—after it wagged up and down for a brief time in astonishment. A slight grin whispered at the corner of her lips. Alexis knew she almost had her.
Estelle looked into Alexis’ eyes for a moment, unraveling some barbed knot in her mind.
“Kaitlin Rose!” She shouted to the ceiling.
This bizarre outburst startled Alexis. Estelle was looking absently at the ceiling awaiting some reply when the girl from the porch—the spy—craned her neck around the corner. “Yes, Momma?”
Estelle gave a start herself then. “Child, you go sneaking around scaring me so . . . you’re supposed to be upstairs getting set for service. Never mind. Get your brother and Louisa ready and go to the Semple’s and have them carry you to church. Tell them I’ll be along soon, you hear?”
“Ask them to tell the Reverend my delay is in the concern of Emma!” she yelled to her daughter, who had already gone into the other room and was tugging a reluctant girl past the doorway.
The brown haired child stared at Alexis as she bobbed past. She waved once more to the child as she was pulled along, but the girl stuck her tongue out at Alexis.
“Wonderful little girl,” she said wryly.
“Do not judge her too harshly. She has been through much in her short years and aside from Emma and I, she has not been shown much care.”
Duly chastised, Alexis said, “I’m sorry. You are right. I must remember they come from the same situation.”
Estelle turned her back on her and did indeed begin the makings of a pot of coffee. She motioned to the table and chairs, “Sit down, Miss Free. I suppose this will take some time.”
Neither woman spoke until they were both seated with steaming cups of coffee before them.
Alexis asked about Emma and Theo and why she might have run off.
“I think you know why, Miss Free. Why else would you have offered that whole speech about needing to protect her from Theodore? I will not speak of some things I know, but I will say she has been treated most foully. A man such as that . . . I wonder how you can work for the likes of him? When you already suspect his dark nature and darker intentions?”
“I have taken on this case. Often times, the reasons for deciding on an investigation change. Often times, the client may become the suspect,” was all she gave away.
It was not enough for Estelle.
“You take his check, but do not do his bidding? You know that money is rightly hers, don’t you? You are taking money from him to drag her back to the lair of the monster. Her money, I might add.”
“I haven’t deposited the check.”
“I would like to believe you, Miss—”
“Please, call me Alexis.”
“Alexis. You’ll have to forgive me, but I do not know you. I only know you are employed by a man you now say you are not working for and it all smells odd to me.”
“Fair enough. But, I cannot think of any ways in which to convince you, and if I could, you would most likely not be buying in on it anyway. All I can do is go forth in my own good conscience and hope you come along at some point to witness my true intentions. Can you tell me about Mrs. Colson? What has her reaction been to this? Has she any way to—”
“Elizabeth Colson was admitted to the St. Louis Insane Asylum this morning,” Estelle said hotly. “That man put his own wife in there. He sent her youngest girl here to be cared for and now has no impediments to the goal of recapturing that child and making her . . . Theo told Louisa to inform me that Elizabeth grew distraught over Emma’s ‘kidnapping’ and ‘if I would be so kind,’ would I look after his poor Louisa while he took matters in hand. Humph.”
Alexis asked, “May I speak with Louisa?”
“No. I will not allow that.”
Alexis expected as much so she judiciously cut right past the issue. “What can you tell me about the men she left with yesterday?”
“I have no idea who you’re talking about,” she said, arms crossed tightly across her chest. Her pale cheeks turned light rose and her eyes danced along the hem of her apron.
“I suppose I should not have let you see my cards there, but I have little time for polite parlor games. I can scry from your reaction you are, in fact, acquainted with these men, but also you are not going to tell me anything about them.”
No reaction from Estelle, but a long, direct stare—the kind wielded to wither most any child’s confidence—but Alexis was no child to be brought to heel. “It appears my most direct route to you is to come right down the pike. I know about Emma’s plight. I know also a bit about her flight. I know you have aided her by supplying your friends as a method of egress. I do not know these men as you do, so I question their natural inclinations as men who would agree so heartily to sweeping off with a very young woman out onto the trails of a hard West.”
Estelle straightened and took a look of insult upon her brow.
“Your reaction at least sets my mind at ease. You obviously hold these men in such high esteem you show affront when I question their character, and you trust them enough to ward her to her grandfather out in Arizona Territory. Yes, I know about the grandfather. Unfortunately, so does Theodore Colson. After all, it is his own father. I have come to know Theodore only a short while, but in that time, I have begun to not like him and seriously question his motivations. Furthermore, I know if I do not proceed on my own to help this young woman—if I return to Theodore and tell him I will not take this case, or have not done as he has asked—he will no doubt contract another investigator from another firm. This hypothetical new detective will come crashing down on your dear friends with professional indifference, drag Emma back to Theodore, and happily cash the check.”
Estelle’s shoulders hunched forward while she looked away to the windows. In her mind, she spied her dear, far-off friends and the dangers ahead of them.
The stampede of children down the stairs scattered her daydreamings. “You all go straight to the Semple’s now, and no stopping off to feed those chickens of theirs!”
Out the door they raged, slamming it shut in their wake.
Silence reigned for a few minutes. A log popped and hissed inside the stove and the water pump at the sink dripped.
Alexis sighed, “I can tell you are a thoughtful woman, and by that I mean stubborn, so I realize any answer or help from you will not be timely.” She drained the coffee in one last gulp and stood. “Think about Emma before you loiter too long in indecision. I have been honest with you and now you must be honest with yourself. Will you do absolutely nothing for her now after you have already done so much? Are you going to help me see to it she is safe or are you going to let her take her chances on a carriage route through a landscape of rough travel and rougher humanity? I cannot say I will see her to Arizona, but I can say I will do all within my power to see justice done by her.”
Estelle sat and watched as Alexis opened her riding waistcoat to reveal the pearled handle of a small firearm holstered neatly against her ribcage. Alexis reached inside the jacket and Estelle tensed. Alexis retrieved a small leather wallet, withdrew a card and slid across the table.
As she tucked the case away, she looked intently into Estelle’s eyes. “Here is the information by which to contact me. Direct any information you wish to share to either my father, Benjamin Free, or myself. Once again, I realize you are reticent to help me, but I sincerely hope you will find your way past your stubborn suspicions to see to Emma’s safety.”
After a second time calling Estelle stubborn, Alexis turned and showed herself out. She knew she had lit a fuse and wanted to clear the blast area before it burned down.
Estelle picked up the card and listened to the fire pop once more.