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Goes down easy

By:Alison Kent

Goes down easy_ Roped into romance - Alison Kent
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THE TRAIL went cold in New Orleans the same time as the weather, a double header for which Jack Montgomery wasn’t prepared. Since hired by Cindy Eckhardt to look into the kidnapping of her husband Dayton—chief executive for Eckton Computing and missing since New Year’s Day—he’d reveled in all kinds of heat.

First there was the temperature that had the Gulf Coast in an unseasonably sweaty grip. Next, the series of hot leads that had him hoofin’ it across the state line, from Texas into Louisiana. Finally, the burning in his gut that made him believe this case was going to go down like cream.

But then the tables had turned, flipping him a big fat bird. And now he found himself standing in the middle of Jackson Square, a week into the new year, freezing his ass off and wondering whether he’d be doing better to turn left or right.

It wasn’t that Cindy, the trophy wife nearly thirty years her husband’s junior, didn’t trust the cops or the feds to get the job done, as much as it was her needing to know someone had her back. Especially since Dayton’s heart medication had been found on the ground at the kidnapping scene, and a week into the case the authorities were no closer to a solution than they’d been on day one.

He started walking aimlessly. The sign for Café Eros came into view, reminding him that he was hungry enough to eat a six-foot submarine sandwich. Café Eros, eh? Well, he’d never been one to turn his back on love—even if right now the only affair he was interested in involved his stomach and a whole lot of food.

Burrowing into his hooded sweatshirt, Jack headed for the building’s courtyard. He jogged up the stairs to the small eatery’s second floor, hoping it wasn’t busy, not in the mood for a crowd.

Too much noise interfered with his ability to process information, to analyze, to reason, to think—which was why he and special ops had made such a good fit for eight of his twelve years in the Marines. The missions he had run required secrecy, and communication was often accomplished with hand signals and nothing more.

When hitting a dead end like this one, however, he doubted even total silence would help. What he needed was a sign. But first he needed a sandwich.

At the counter, behind which was painted a mural of a swaggering swashbuckler, Jack ordered a bowl of gumbo and half a muffuletta. When in Rome, and all that. He took a seat at a table decorated with a purple, green and gold Mardi Gras tablecloth and picked up a copy of the Times-Picayune.

He scanned the front page, listening to the smoky jazz playing from the café’s corner speakers—God, he loved jazz—sipping at a hot chicory coffee blend, the warmth of the mug thawing his fingers and doing a good job of heating up the iceberg in his gut. He was not cut out for the cold.

He’d lived most of his life in Texas for that very reason. His three tours of duty were the only years he’d spent away from the Lone Star State. Bring on the heat and humidity; that was his motto. Even the mosquitoes and the ragweed couldn’t drive him away.

Nothing in his life had prepared him for what he’d suffered during his years in special ops—the lack of food, of sleep, of shelter, often of contact with another soul whose native tongue was the same as his. And weather so hot and humid, the air so heavy with moisture that there were days that just breathing had been hard work.

Ending his trip down weather lane, he turned to page two, eating as he skimmed the paper. The coffee was hot and biting, the gumbo steaming with spicy sausage and the tang of tomatoes, okra and bay leaf. At this rate he might dig in and stay for awhile.

Sounded a lot more appealing than admitting he’d screwed up somewhere, and that the job he’d taken at the request of the Eckhardt family was quickly heading down the tubes. He’d been surprised when Becca Nelson, the University of Texas coed who ran his Austin-based private investigation business between classes from her Blackberry, had told him of Cindy Eckhardt’s call.

He had a reputation for finding people who didn’t want to be found. The sixteen-year-old Dallas trust funder who’d wanted to play in a rock ’n’ roll band. The bride from Fort Worth who’d changed her mind on the way to the church. Most recently, the San Antonio bank executive who’d left his position in the midst of a midlife crisis, taking a new name—and a whole lot of his employer’s money with him.

Jack owed much of the notoriety to Becca. She was in the fifth year of her four-year degree plan, having spent thirty-six months working her way around the world before starting school at twenty-one. Since hiring on five years ago when he’d first set up shop, answering an ad he’d placed in the UT newspaper the Daily Texan, she’d made it her mission to get his name out there in an effort to ensure job security.

Hers.

She’d had no problem with the fact that he ran his business out of his SUV, and had taken over converting him to a rolling electronic wonder, crawling around with a tool belt bigger than she was, outfitting the Yukon’s dashboard to resemble a Black Hawk cockpit.

She’d set up the meeting with the Eckhardt family, flooded his PDA with scanned clippings and e-mailed him online stories. Seemed Cindy and Dayton had been loading the car New Year’s morning, heading for the airport and an Aspen vacation, when the kidnapping went down.

With Dayton outside, Cindy had made one last trip into their Hyde Park home, coming out less than ten minutes later to find Dayton gone, the doors of his Lexus wide open, suitcases strewn about.

The police had taken one look at the obvious signs of a struggle, interviewed witnesses who’d seen two masked men in a black Jeep without plates and put out an APB.

Enough of the crime’s details had been in the news that Jack wasn’t surprised things had begun going south. The kidnappers had only to flip on a local broadcast and hear everything the media proclaimed the public had a right to know.

Screw that. Dayton Eckhardt wasn’t the public’s husband or father. No one but the Eckhardt family, the Austin PD and the FBI had a right to anything. And, the way he saw it, in that order—the very reason he checked in with Cindy every few hours, new news or not.

Unfortunately, so many of the particulars had been leaked that the kidnappers were no longer even a blip on the radar. If anything, they were burrowed deep underground. Three days and counting, the police were down to zero leads and were still waiting for a ransom demand. Jack had lucked out with the New Orleans connection—especially since the feds had turned up nothing much in Louisiana beyond rumors that a psychic was involved.

Dayton Eckhardt had started Eckton Computing in the Big Easy before market conditions—property taxes, salaries, the value of a square foot of warehouse space—had sent the start-up to Austin a year ago. Eckhardt had left behind more than a few disgruntled employees—not to mention, rumor had it, Dayton’s disgruntled mistress.

One of the ex-employees Jack had interviewed thought she’d seen Dayton at a Christmas party in the Quarter. That made no sense, but it was the only scrap Jack had, and he held on tight. There had been no activity on Dayton’s cell phone since the kidnapping, and none on his personal or corporate e-mail accounts. At least nothing outgoing. There had been plenty of incoming, and most of it junk. Even that had been analyzed by the Eckton tech working with the Austin PD. So far, nothing but ads for erectile dysfunction meds and spam mail promising live sex via webcams.

Jack was more into having fun with the real thing. Or he would be, one of these days. When he found the time. When he found the woman. When he found a reason to look for either instead of spending his time looking for strangers who’d vanished without a trace. Instead of looking to find himself.

His life had been in flux for a while, the transition from special ops to civilian PI tougher than he’d anticipated. Six years ago at his fifteenth high school reunion  , after catching up with his friends who’d made up “the deck”—he’d been the jack, Quentin the queen, Heidi the joker, Ben the ace, Randy the king—fitting back into real life had seemed a doable prospect.

The three-day reunion   had been a hell of a party. He’d stood onstage at The Cave Down Below—the warehouse club booked for that Friday night—looked out at the four friends who’d been his high school anchors and choked himself up, barely recovering before belting out Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

He remembered sitting on a picnic table next to Heidi the next day, and telling her about not wanting to hit eighty and wonder how he got there. Or what happened during the years in between.

And even though he’d been tired of traveling the world, he hadn’t been quite ready to settle down. He’d continued to drift for a couple of years after the reunion  , living on the road and out of his duffel bag for the full tour that he’d fronted for Diamond Jack, the band he’d put together once his discharge had come through.

Music had been a huge part of his life for as long as he could remember. His days playing bass in “the deck’s” high school ensemble had been one of the best times of his life. He’d learned about belonging. About true friendships and human nature, about faults and flaws and royally freaking things up—which was exactly what he’d done after graduation.

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