Free Fiction Feature April 2021 | On the Card: A Kira Brightwell Short Story

What is the Free Fiction Feature?

So roughly a year ago, I started posting one of my short stories for free each month, over on my multi-genre website. Each story was available for one month only, before it was taken down, and another one was posted in its place. (Inspired by insanely prolific author, Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Free Fiction Mondays feature.)

These stories were a mix of my mystery and fantasy work. (Mostly fantasy, since I’ve written a lot more of it at this point.) After some thought, I’ve decided it makes more sense to break these stories out onto my genre-specific websites instead.

What does this mean? Well, this site now has a blog feature, which it didn’t have before, so I’ll probably be posting updates on my mystery writing here going forward, with my multi-genre site acting more as a roundup for all my writing news. More importantly, it means this feature will only include mystery stories. As I said, I don’t have as many mystery stories as I do fantasy. So to keep this feature running for a decent amount of time, I’m going to post a free mystery story for one month of each quarter (which is roughly the same, if not somewhat better than the rate I was posting them on my multi-genre site before). Bottom line, there will be one mystery story available for free during the months of April, July, October, and January.

(Side Note: If you also happen to enjoy reading fantasy, you can check out my fantasy Free Fiction Feature. And yes, this means that during those months listed above I’ll have two free stories available–one mystery and one fantasy.)

Make sense? Let’s kick things off with some birthday hijinks!


On the Card Kira Brightwell coverKira Brightwell needs to pay.

A problem solver for hire and local hero in her own right, Kira never sought any acclaim for her actions. She only wants to track down the man who abducted her three years ago. And maybe celebrate her birthday with some ice cream cake.

But even an unintentional path to prominence comes with collateral damage.

…And some people can never forgive and forget.

A fast-paced, stand-alone story from the Kira Brightwell mystery series by award-winning author, Jacquelyn Smith.

Now, you can read it for free on this site for one month only. This short story also comes in ebook and paperback format–both on its own, and as part of the Second Warning Kira Brightwell Collection.

Get the ebook at:


Buy ebook direct from the author

Paperback available at:


On the Card: A Kira Brightwell Short Story

Jacquelyn Smith

May 23rd, 3:37 P.M.

The card was perfect.

Each word had been chosen with care, and only a single name marked the envelope.

The metal mail slot fell shut with a click as the card was pushed inside, allowing a brief, narrow glimpse of the townhouse apartment’s front hallway before it closed. A slight breeze ruffled the warm, spring air, carrying the scents of flowers and soil from the haphazardly-tended front garden.

How long before the card was discovered and opened?

In some ways, it probably would have been better not to send the card at all. But then the actions that were about to follow might seem random and inconsequential.

No, she needed to know that what was going to happen was her fault. She needed to suffer—to be afraid.

Kira Brightwell needed to pay.


5:58 P.M.

Happy birthday to me…

Kira Brightwell uttered a long-suffering sigh as she tried to balance the large ice cream cake box in one hand and her gym bag over her other shoulder while fumbling for her keys as she approached her townhouse apartment. The cake box wobbled precariously and her keys gave a jingle as she steadied herself with a stream of muttered curses.

It had been bad enough having to pick up her own birthday cake. She hadn’t found out until after her training and sparring session that the women’s showers were out of commission due to a plumbing problem. (As the only woman at her MMA gym, no one had thought to put up a sign.)

She had been forced to ignore sidelong glances from the other Dairy Queen customers as she had waited in line in her sodden workout gear, her face and ponytail dripping with sweat. At least her deodorant hadn’t let her down, so she still smelled better than she looked (which was more than she could say for a few of the perfume-drenched women in line who had shown up to place their orders in high-heeled shoes and breathless voices for their young children).

She had almost decided to skip out on the cake altogether. After all, it wasn’t as if she had a party to share it at. Her boyfriend Jeff was sick with the flu, and Nick was working a double shift today, thanks to several other people down at the station suffering from the same illness that seemed to be sweeping through the suburban town of La Valentia. Kira’s father was out of town on yet another business trip, and her mother and sister were too busy working to celebrate with her until the weekend.

Normally, Kira wouldn’t have been too broken up about spending less time with her family, but considering the circumstances, she couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for herself. She wasn’t even going to get to see Kevin—her adoring (and adorable), young nephew and the only member of her family who seemed to accept her without reservation.

The only person she had left to celebrate with today was Rob. And while she had no doubt that she and her best friend and roommate would be able to put a serious dent in the large cake, it was less than what she had been hoping for—which hadn’t really been that much in the first place.

A quiet, romantic evening with Jeff, or maybe a small party hadn’t seemed like much to ask. Kira had always been an introvert with few close friends. She didn’t want anything big. And previous experience had told her not to expect much from Rob (who never left the apartment), or her mother and sister (who seemed to spend every get-together trying to point out all the various mistakes Kira was making with her life).

But this year’s birthday felt like a new low.

Kira shoved down a surge of self pity and tried to take comfort in the simple things instead. The feel of the warm, California sunshine on a beautiful spring day, the fact that she wouldn’t be forced to dress up since her family wasn’t coming, the cold weight of the fudge-centered ice cream cake against her hand through the cardboard box…

She walked up the front steps and went to unlock the front door, only to find it was already ajar.

She stiffened, shifting her keys inside her palm until she had a piece of pointed metal sticking out from between each knuckle.

She had locked the door before she had gone out.

She stepped warily inside the apartment, easing her sneakered feet down toe-first to avoid making any sound. She lowered her gym bag to the floor and placed the cake on the small, wooden table by the door before moving forward. If Rob was in trouble…

But the familiar sound of his fingers clattering across the keyboard of his laptop told her he wasn’t in any immediate danger.

Kira’s gut clenched as an idea of something far worse than a home invasion suddenly struck her.

What if it’s a surprise party?

Kira didn’t mind surprises—small ones, at least. And getting through her birthday party each year was manageable, as long as she knew who was coming and how to mentally prepare.

A surprise party was a whole other story.

“All I’m saying is, would it have killed you to put up a banner or something?” a familiar, male voice huffed from the direction of the living room. “Or to get rid of some of these nasty piles of clothes on the floor?”

“Don’t touch those!” Rob replied with some heat. “Not with your feet.” His voice had turned pleading.

Rob had a thing about feet.

“Well, I’m certainly not going to touch any of this stuff with my hands. And what does it matter if I shove some of it out of the way?”

“You’ll mess up my entire system,” Rob groused. “Not all of those clothes are dirty, you know.”

“Yes, we certainly wouldn’t want to mess with your ‘system’…”

Kira walked into the room to see Trevor Wright rolling his blue eyes as he spoke. He lowered his muscular arms from his air quotes and turned toward her with his trademark, blinding-white smile.

“Kira! Happy birthday!” He took a step forward with his arms extended as if to hug her before stopping in his tracks. “Um, did you just come from the gym?”

He looked her up and down, taking in the full effect of her dark, tangled ponytail and the damp T-shirt she had thrown on over her bra top and matching Lycra shorts. His crisp, khaki shorts and snug, pale-blue polo shirt were just as fresh and unrumpled as always, and not a single one of his blond curls was out of place. Kira felt herself flush beneath her dried sheen of sweat and gave her former high school tormentor a flat look.

“Brilliant deduction.”

Somehow, she had forgotten about Trevor when making her birthday plans. Probably because she classified him as more of something along the lines of a fungus than an actual friend—someone who just kept seeping further into her life every time she turned around, despite all lack of encouragement.

Rob peered around his laptop screen from where he sat at the dining-room table. “Whoa. Did you go into DQ looking like that?”

Kira’s green eyes narrowed. As if he was anyone to talk, with his tangled mass of brown curls that probably hadn’t been brushed in days and his food-stained hoodie…

Instead of answering, she strode over to where she had left the cake in the hallway and sailed past both Trevor and Rob into the kitchen to put it in the freezer (dodging several haphazard piles of Rob’s clothes along the way). She came back out into the living room to give each of them a dire look.

“No one gets any until I’ve had a shower.”

Despite the long-held animosity between them, Rob and Trevor shared a wordless look of their own. Kira used her imagination to fill in the blanks.

‘We’d better not fuck with her,’ Rob seemed to say.

Trevor’s broad shoulders lifted in a small shrug. ‘You’re probably right. She could kick both our asses.’

Trevor spoiled the illusion by raising his fingers to his brow to give Kira a mocking salute. “Whatever you say, birthday girl.”

Kira stalked out of the room before Rob could add a snarky comment of his own. She had not expected Trevor to show up at her pathetically small party for two. And she knew Rob would never have invited him.

She shook her head to herself as she wondered what Trevor was doing in her apartment this time. Surely, he didn’t expect her to stumble across some kind of crime while stuffing herself with ice cream cake…

* * *

Kira eyed the package sitting in her lap warily.

“Go on, open it,” Trevor urged with an eager smile as he leaned forward in his seat just down the clothing-draped couch from her.

The present was a shallow, neatly-wrapped, rectangular box with a blue bow. Based on its size and light weight, Kira guessed it contained an article of clothing. She suppressed a shudder.

She had been on the receiving end of clothing presents from both her parents and her sister over the years. Even when the items fit, they were never anything she would actually wear. Worse, the person who gave the item of clothing usually expected her to model it immediately afterward to revel in their own handiwork, which was definitely awkward.

(Kira usually found an excuse to remove the new dress, blouse, or skirt as soon as possible and ended up donating the items to the local Goodwill.)

She couldn’t understand what was wrong with a pair of jeans and her favorite Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, which was her go-to outfit, and what she had put on as soon as she had gotten out of her overdue shower. The outfit was both comfortable and practical. Besides, it wasn’t as if she was working in an office or something, and she felt more naked in a dress or skirt than she did in her form-fitting workout gear.

She put down her bowl of ice cream cake on the couch beside her with reluctance and made herself start to open Trevor’s gift. Rob’s fingers were still tapping his laptop keyboard at a good clip, but his brown eyes slid over to look.

“Where’s your present?” Trevor demanded as he caught Rob watching.

Rob turned away with a sniff. “I already gave it to her this morning.”

Strangely enough, Rob had also gotten Kira an article of clothing—a pair of leather gloves.

After escaping the abductor for hire known only as the Procurer a little over three years ago, and rescuing seven other women in the process, Kira was obsessed with tracking him down. She had spent her time acquiring fighting skills to protect herself, and searching for any sign of the Procurer cropping up anywhere else, but she had come up empty handed.

…Until she had rescued Trevor’s sister from one of the Procurer’s patrons less than two months ago.

Peter Croft had been a known purveyor of underage women back in his hometown of Austin. The oil tycoon had taken refuge in La Valentia, and made a deal with the Procurer to arrange a new plaything to occupy him—Stephanie Wright.

Kira had taken down Croft when she had rescued Stephanie, but the Procurer had escaped unseen. And Croft had been murdered in his jail cell only a few hours later, before he could be convinced to reveal what he knew about the man he had hired.

Now, Kira was more determined than ever to find the Procurer. Rob had given her the gloves with the intention that she use them while investigating her next crime scene—whenever that was.

She doubted whatever Trevor had gotten her would be as useful.

She unwrapped the present slowly with Trevor urging her on. Despite his huffiness, she still saw Rob taking peeks from where he sat at the dining-room table across the room.

An unmarked box lay beneath the brightly-colored paper. Kira bit her lip and forced herself to open it.

A pale-blue polo shirt lay inside.

Kira lifted it out of the box with a frown. It was the exact shade of blue as the one Trevor always wore. She took a delicate sniff. It even smelled of his cologne.

“You gave her one of your own shirts?” Rob’s eyebrows disappeared beneath his unkempt curls as he uttered the words around muffled laughter.

“It’s not one of my own shirts,” Trevor said with a wounded look. “I had it custom made. See?” He reached over toward Kira to shift the fabric in her hands. “Look at the crest.”

Kira spotted an embroidered logo of a raised fist holding a magnifying glass with the words ‘Brightwell Investigations’ emblazoned beneath it. She clutched at the fabric as her green eyes darted upward toward Trevor.

“What is this?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.

Trevor puffed out his chest. “Our new uniform. Look, I have one too, so we can match!” He pulled a rolled-up shirt from behind his back to show her.

He shot Rob a less than apologetic smirk. “Sorry, I only had two made.”

“I see,” Rob said in a flat voice.

Trevor shrugged. “It’s not like you leave the apartment for anyone to see you in it. Besides,” he added in an offhand voice. “Blue’s not your color. Someone like you should know that.”

Rob’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Someone like me?

In addition to making fun of Rob’s Mexican heritage back in high school, Trevor and his friends had targeted Rob’s sexuality as well. Trevor had been better since they had joined forces to find his sister, but he still had a long way to go.

Kira lowered the shirt into her lap with a sigh before the argument could build up steam.

“Trevor, we’ve been over this. Just because we worked together to find your sister does not mean I want to start up some kind of crime-fighting for hire business.”

“But it’s such a good idea,” Trevor said in a pleading tone. “And it’s probably one of the few things Rob and I will ever agree on.”

“Still doesn’t mean it’s happening,” Kira said, even though the logo did look pretty good…

She set the shirt aside and moved on to the small pile of mailed birthday cards while Trevor and Rob started to bicker again.

Most of the cards had arrived days ago, with the latest ones showing up just before she had gone to the gym, but she had saved them to open with her cake. (At least it was something to make her birthday feel a little bit special…)

There was one from her grandparents near Toronto, and another from her Canadian cousin who lived near Ottawa, as well as a few from her mother’s side of the family, mostly around California. She opened them one at a time as she finished her second piece of ice cream cake.

She frowned.

The one at the bottom of the pile was only marked with her name—no address, and no stamp. She didn’t recognize the handwriting either. She tore the envelope open.

A picture of a birthday cake with sparkling sticks of dynamite on top decorated the front of the card. She opened it to reveal the message printed inside:

‘Hope your birthday’s a BLAST!’

There was no signature.

Kira put down her nearly empty bowl and opened the card fully.

Untidy handwriting scrawled across the inner, left half of the card. Kira read the words carefully, a chill going through her as Trevor’s and Rob’s sniping voices droned on around her.

“Look, I’m not going to get another one of these beauties made just so you can toss it on the floor,” Trevor was saying. “I’m sure Kira knows what I’m talking about, right?”

“…Um, Kira?” Trevor reached over to poke her knee. “Hey, are you still with us?”

Kira looked up from the card in a numb haze of fear.

Trevor’s blue eyes flickered with concern as he saw her expression. “What is it?”

“You OK, Kira?” Rob asked with a frown.

Kira wordlessly passed the card to Trevor.

“OK, well this looks pretty lame,” Trevor said as he gave the card a once-over. “‘Hope your birthday’s a blast’…” He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Hilarious.”

“The other side,” Kira said in a tight voice.

Trevor shifted the card in his hand. “Oh, yeah. There’s more…” He cleared his throat before reading the words that were already echoing inside Kira’s mind.

“‘An eye for an eye, Kira. You took the person I love the most from me.’” Trevor’s eyes widened and he looked up at Kira as he finished.

“‘By eight o’clock tonight, my pain will become yours.’”


6:51 P.M.

“Kira!”

Detective Nick Foster called out in greeting as he looked up and saw Kira approaching his desk. He rose to his feet, revealing the full height of his broad, six-foot-two frame and usual getup of jeans and a black, V-neck T-shirt.

His surprised smile fell and his voice flattened as his dark gaze shifted to take in the figure who was following on Kira’s heels.

“Trevor,” he said with a nod.

Trevor Wright had that effect on other men.

Kira ignored the awkward moment and rushed over to talk to Nick. “Sorry to bother you, but I need your help.” She blurted the words in a breathless rush.

Nick blinked in surprise. Kira felt herself flush.

She never asked for help, even when she probably needed it. And even though she had become friends with Nick since she had met him during the aftermath of Stephanie Wright’s abduction, she had never asked him for a favor.

“Sounds serious,” Nick said as he seemed to recover his footing. He ran a hand through his short, dark hair.

Kira looked around the precinct before pulling out the card. There weren’t many other people around, and those few officers she saw were hard at work at their desks, either talking on the phone or working on their computers. The air was filled with a low hum of voices, clacking computer keys, and the scent of stale coffee. No one seemed to be paying her visit at Nick’s desk any attention.

She shook herself.

She knew she was probably being paranoid, but even after an internal investigation, the police still didn’t know how Peter Croft had been murdered while he was in custody.

Kira slid the envelope containing the threatening birthday card across the tidy surface of Nick’s desk.

“I just got this.”

Nick eyed the envelope for a moment and reached for the top drawer of his desk. He pulled a pair of latex gloves from a box and tugged them on with a series of snaps. He picked up the envelope and held it at eye level to examine it.

“No stamp or address,” he muttered. “Whoever sent it must have either put it through your mail slot themselves, or gotten someone else to do it.”

Kira nodded, her dark ponytail swinging around her shoulders. “It came today. I noticed it with the rest of the mail earlier, but I only just opened it.”

Nick flipped the envelope over to look at the unmarked back before sliding out the card inside. He looked at the front and back before opening it. Kira watched as his eyes moved across the inside, his brows drawing together in a frown.

“Do you have any idea who might have sent this?” he asked when he was finished.

Kira raised her shoulders in a helpless shrug. “No.”

“No enemy from your past, who might hold a grudge?” Nick prompted.

Kira snorted at the very idea. “No. I mean, I’ve never exactly been popular, but as far as I know, I haven’t done anything to anyone to warrant a death threat…”

“Except the Procurer,” Trevor said with a pointed look at Kira as he gave her an unsubtle nudge with his tanned arm.

Nick’s eyes widened at his words. “That actually makes sense. You’ve thwarted the Procurer twice now by freeing his victims.” He scratched at his stubbled jaw with gloved fingers. “Maybe it’s not a death threat. Maybe it’s an abduction threat.”

“See?” Trevor flashed Kira a smug grin. “I told you.”

Kira sighed. They had been arguing about it the entire drive over to the precinct.

“And I’m tell you, this isn’t him.” She shook her head and folded her arms across her chest. “This isn’t the way the Procurer operates. He would never do anything this obvious.”

Until Kira had escaped from his clutches, no one outside of his client base had even known he had existed. He had contacted her twice since then—once with an anonymous flower delivery a few months after her abduction escape, and again with a congratulatory phone call after she had freed Stephanie. Both of those contacts had been confidently pleasant in tone as the Procurer reached out to mock her from a safe, untraceable distance.

The message on the card was completely different.

Nick blew out a sigh of his own. “You’re right. This is far more crude and direct than what I would have expected from him.” He flashed Kira a smile of apology. “Wishful thinking, I guess.”

“So who is it from then?” Trevor blurted. “It’s not as if Kira’s been going around bumping people off.” He turned to give her a wary look. “You haven’t, right?”

“No, but that could always change…” She raised a pointed eyebrow at him as she left the threat dangling.

“Let me see if we can get some usable prints,” Nick said.

He pulled a kit from his drawer and began dusting both the card and envelope with a small brush and some dark powder. Kira watched as multiple fingerprints were revealed on the surface of the paper, as if by magic. Nick used strips of what looked like clear tape to lift them and scan them into his phone one at a time.

Kira drummed her fingers against her thigh as she waited, listening to the series of beeps from Nick’s phone as he stared down at it while he worked. Even though she knew print recognition technology had come a long way from the days when detectives were forced to use a magnifying glass and their own eyes, the entire process seemed to take forever. Between her own prints, Trevor’s, and whoever had delivered the note, there were lots to be processed.

Nick looked up with a shake of his head. “No matches in the system. Whoever delivered this either wore gloves, or has no priors.”

“Great,” Trevor grumbled. “So now what?”

“Well…” Kira hesitated, looking away from Nick. “The reason I really wanted to come by was to see if you could arrange some sort of protection for my family.”

“Who do you think is the target?” Nick asked.

Kira bit her lip as the words scrawled onto the card echoed in her mind.

‘…the person I love the most…’

“My first instinct is my nephew, Kevin,” she said. “And if I’m right, that means my sister and her husband could be in danger as well. Oh, and my mom’s on her own with my dad out of town, so she might be vulnerable too…”

Kira had called both her sister and her mother shortly after receiving the threat to reassure herself they were all right. She had claimed to be returning their calls wishing her a happy birthday—a task she would normally have put off until later in the evening to avoid awkward, lengthy conversations, if circumstances had been different. The last thing she wanted was to make anyone panic, which was exactly what her sister and mother would do if Kira told them the truth.

…That, and blame her for the entire situation.

“Well, we’re already shorthanded with this flu going around,” Nick said with a twist of his lips. “That’s why I’m working a double today and I couldn’t go to your party.”

Trevor rolled his eyes. “Sure, it is.”

Nick ignored him and focused on Kira instead. “I was going to see if I could get a bit of time to slip over to your place later, so I could give you your present. It’s in my car.”

“Oh.” Kira said, her lips tugging in a smile at the thought despite herself.

She just hoped he hadn’t gotten her any clothes.

“Anyway,” Nick continued, “I had just finished my last report when you showed up. So, I can keep an eye on your sister’s place and see if Martinez is available for detail at your mom’s. He should be getting in soon.”

He titled his head and gave Kira a wary look. “Do they know they might be in danger?”

Kira swallowed. “No. I didn’t want to freak them out.”

…Or get disowned.

Nick gave her a wry nod, as if he had expected as much. “We’ll be discreet then. Who knows? It might just be some kind of prank.”

Even though Kira knew he meant the words to be comforting, she also knew he didn’t really believe them.

“Use your resources to see if you can figure out who might be behind this,” Nick continued. He knew all about Rob’s hacking skills and Kira’s ability to track down trouble. “I’ll see if I can find anything useful on my end—similar cases or recent parolees who might fit the bill. Call me if you need anything.”

Kira gave him a nod of thanks. She hadn’t learned anything new by bringing Nick into the loop, but she felt better for talking to him. She knew he would do whatever he could to try to keep her family safe while she tried to figure out what the hell was going on and who was responsible.

She just hoped she could do it all in time.


7:25 P.M.

“I’ve already reviewed all the traffic cam footage from the closest intersection for today,” Rob reported as Kira sank down onto the couch next to Trevor after returning from the precinct. “I started working on it right after you left. There are only five cars that aren’t regulars that might have turned down our street.”

Rob leaned back in his chair and sank his hand into his mass of matted, brown curls as he spoke. In addition to his unwashed bowl from the ice cream cake, a can of Red Bull and open bag of Cheetos littered the table around him, filling the air with an odd commingling of sugar and chemical cheese.

Trevor snorted. “How would you know whether the cars were regulars? You never go outside.”

“Rob doesn’t watch TV like normal people,” Kira explained. “He watches the neighbors in his downtime instead.” She made a gesture toward the large, living-room window that faced the street.

“I probably know them even better than Kira does,” Rob smirked. “Who needs TV when you’ve got a live reality show available twenty-four seven?”

Trevor shot Kira a dubious look. “Well that’s not creepy at all…”

“Anyway,” Rob said in a forceful tone, “Of those five vehicles, only one of them is from out of state—a white pickup with Texas plates.”

He tapped a few keys on his laptop and turned it around to show Kira the screen. “It’s registered to a Kayla Ryan from Austin, if that means anything.”

Kira got up from the couch and went closer to get a better look at the driver’s license photo. The woman in it was young. Kira judged she had barely finished high school. She had plain, broad features and wide, blue eyes. Her frizzy, brown hair hung over her shoulder in a braid.

Kira shook her head in disappointment. “I don’t recognize her, and the name isn’t familiar either. Maybe she’s just visiting.”

“Are we still sure it isn’t the Procurer?” Trevor asked. “You might be making this more complicated than it needs to be.”

“For the last time, it’s not him,” Kira said with a certain amount of heat.

She was getting awfully tired of that question, especially since she had no way to prove her certainty. Her hands balled into fists in frustration.

“OK, no need to get your panties in a twist,” Trevor said as he shifted away from her in his seat and raised his hands in mock surrender.

Kira took a step toward him with her fist raised, her mouth opening in protest.

“What about the other women?” Trevor blurted before she could say or do anything, his blue eyes widening.

“Other women?” Kira echoed.

“Yeah, the ones you rescued from the Procurer.” Trevor’s words seemed to tumble from his mouth as he tried to fend her off. “Maybe one of the people who hired him is mad you set them free.”

Kira lowered her fist and rocked back onto her heels. It actually wasn’t a bad idea…

She shook her head again, her ponytail swishing. “But that was over three years ago. Why wait until now to get payback?”

Trevor frowned. “Maybe they got caught for something else and only just got out of prison?” His voice sounded dubious.

Kira looked over at Rob.

“I’m on it,” he said, his fingers flying across the keyboard.

Nick had said he would look into recent parolees for her already, but he might not have gotten around to it yet…

“Well?” Kira prompted after a few minutes had passed.

Rob shook his head. “Just a few drug offenders and some guy who held up a bank. None of them have any obvious connection to La Valentia either.”

Kira stifled a hot surge of disappointment. Trevor’s idea made more sense to her than anything else she had heard so far. She was sure the Procurer wasn’t responsible, and she couldn’t see any of her enemies from high school lashing out like this either.

Trevor scratched at his blond curls, wearing the most earnest ‘thinking face’ Kira had ever seen on him as he puzzled over the matter.

An odd thought struck her.

You didn’t to this, did you?” she asked him in a wary voice.

“What?” Trevor’s eyes widened. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Whoa,” Rob said as his head swiveled in Trevor’s direction with new interest. “That’s messed up.” His eyes narrowed in accusation.

Trevor gave each of them a bewildered look in turn. “OK, I know we weren’t exactly close back in high school, but we’re friends now, right?”

“I meant as a prank,” Kira clarified as she folded her arms across her chest. “You’ve been trying to get me to set up some kind of amateur detective agency with you as my Watson for weeks now. Was this case supposed to be some kind of warped, birthday surprise to convince me Brightwell Investigations is a good idea?”

“It is a good idea,” Trevor huffed. “And no, I didn’t send the card. Or arrange to send the card, before you ask.”

He raised his chin in his usual, arrogant manner, but there was a trace of hurt in his eyes as he met Kira’s gaze.

Kira blew out a sigh. “All right, I believe you. Sorry.” She muttered the last word. “It’s just that you looked so… thoughtful just now.”

“And it made you suspicious?” Trevor’s lips twisted.

Kira gave him a helpless nod.

Trevor rolled his eyes. “Actually, I was thinking about Clarissa.” He shook his head. “I mean, she was one of the women you rescued three years ago, right? Except she hadn’t been abducted for anyone. The Procurer took her for himself.”

“And your point is…?” Kira raised an eyebrow at him.

“Well,” Trevor said, speaking slowly as if he were still putting the pieces together. “She committed suicide a few days after you rescued her.”

“That’s what the police say,” Kira said in a bitter voice.

She was still convinced the Procurer had murdered Clarissa, who was the only person who might have actually seen his face. Clarissa had vehemently denied having seen anything useful, but Kira suspected otherwise.

“OK, so what if Clarissa had a boyfriend or something?” Trevor continued, looking up at Kira from where he sat. “Someone who might be upset that she’s dead?”

Kira blinked. “And they blame me?

Trevor shrugged. “Well, the Procurer isn’t exactly around to point the finger at, is he? And if this boyfriend was really messed up about it, he might tell himself it’s your fault she’s dead. I mean, one way or another, she didn’t die until after you rescued her.”

…And I probably should have done more to make sure she was safe.

Kira winced. It was a thought that had haunted her ever since she had found out about Clarissa’s death. Kira had tried to warn the police about Clarissa’s mental state, and the fact she might have seen the Procurer, but in the end, it had made no difference.

“Clarissa didn’t have a boyfriend,” she said in a numb voice.

Kira had made a point of getting as much information as possible from Clarissa’s grieving parents at the funeral. Neither of them had been eager to talk, but there had been no boyfriend at the funeral, and both parents denied she had one.

Still, Kira’s mind continued to churn. Something about Trevor’s train of thought was leading her in a new, uncharted direction. Her green eyes widened as that direction crossed paths with something Rob had said.

It turned out Trevor was right after all.

She had bumped someone off.

* * *

“Tell me about Kayla Ryan,” Kira blurted to Rob.

She began pacing across the carpeted floor of the living room. She had to dodge a few scattered piles of clothing to pick out a path as she worked through her sudden burst of nervous energy.

Trevor’s blue gaze followed her with a speculative look from where he sat on the couch.

“You’ve figured something out, haven’t you?”

Kira raised her hand in an absent wave to silence him.

Rob started tapping away on his laptop, his curly head lowered toward the glowing screen. The sun had started to set outside, and the sky beyond the peaked roofs of the other townhouses outside the living-room window had turned a violet hue.

“Let’s see… I pulled up a bunch of info on her and the other drivers from the traffic cam footage while you were gone, in case you wanted it…” Rob nodded to himself. “Right. She works for an independent landscaping company in Austin. Looks like it’s owned by her father. She’s worked for him since she was fourteen.”

“And how old is she now?” Kira asked.

“Um, eighteen. Her birthday was a couple of months ago.”

“What else?” Kira prompted.

“Well, I couldn’t find any sign of her mother…” Rob’s brown eyes rolled up to meet Kira’s as he popped a Cheeto into his mouth. “There’s no obituary, or anything, so I’d say she left.”

The words came out around a series of crunches. Kira wrinkled her nose at the cheesy smell of his breath.

“So it’s just her and her dad,” she mused. “Any way to find out about the landscaping client list?”

Rob shrugged. “Their website has photos of their work, but no specific locations are listed. There are also some testimonials, but no full names.”

Kira stopped her pacing to tug at her ponytail in frustration. “OK, what about Kayla’s social media accounts?”

She had her suspicions, but she needed something more to go on…

“All I could find was a Facebook profile,” Rob said. “What are you looking for?”

Kira gave a shrug of her own. “I want to know what she’s like.”

Rob blew out a cheese-scented breath. “Well, she’s not online that much, and she doesn’t have many friends on Facebook—kind of like someone else I know…”

Trevor snorted as Rob shot her a pointed look.

Kira ignored them and sidled up beside Rob. “Let me see her profile page.”

Rob leaned back with an exasperated wave toward the laptop. “Suit yourself.”

Kayla’s profile picture was similar to her driver’s license photo, except she was smiling. Her frizzy, brown braid hung over what looked like a T-shirt and a pair of overalls, with some kind of blooming shrub filling up the background.

Kira navigated to Kayla’s online photo albums. (Either Kayla didn’t know how to set up her privacy settings correctly, or Rob had worked his way past them. Kira suspected it was the latter.) There were a few selfies of Kayla that had been her previous profile pictures, and one untitled photo album. Kira clicked on the album.

It was full of garden photos.

Kira frowned. It looked like all of them were from the same location—a sprawling, residential garden for what must have been a mansion. Flowering vines crept up trellises against the brick walls, and every inch of the garden appeared to be part of a wild profusion of healthy, blooming shrubs and flowers. Kira almost felt as if she could smell them through the screen.

The photos were mostly taken from a distance. A similar figure appeared in each one—a sturdy-looking man in a gray, designer suit. In some of the pictures, his back was turned, and others had been shot from the side, almost as if he didn’t know they were being taken. He was too far away to make out any of his features.

“Who’s that?” Rob leaned forward with a frown. “It doesn’t look like her dad.”

“Yeah, definitely too snazzy an outfit for gardening,” Trevor observed from over Kira’s shoulder, almost making her jump.

She hadn’t heard him get up from the couch. The scent of his cologne helped to offset Rob’s Cheetos. Somewhat.

Kira kept clicking through the photos. All of them were the same—same garden, same man, shot from a distance.

…Except the last one.

Kira sucked in a breath.

The final photo in the album was a selfie of Kayla and the man in the gray suit. The man’s arm was around Kayla’s shoulder, and she was positively beaming. Her blue eyes sparkled, and her plain, broad features softened with pure happiness.

It was the man’s face that made Kira go cold all over.

“Wait,” Trevor said with a frown. “Isn’t that…?”

Kira swallowed and nodded. The thinning, brown hair, the stocky face and cunning eyes…

“It’s Peter Croft,” she made herself say.

Rob uttered a string of curses in Spanish.

“So wait,” Trevor said with a shake of his blond head. “Kayla knows Croft and blames you for his death?”

“I’m the one who caught him and turned him over to the police,” Kira said with a feeling of numb certainty. “If he hadn’t been caught, he wouldn’t have been killed in custody.”

“But why?” Trevor blurted. “I mean, is she related to him, or something?”

Kira swallowed. “She’s obsessed with him. Look at the photos. He’s in every single one, and she doesn’t have any other albums on here.”

Rob’s nose wrinkled. “But he’s a sex offender. It was practically an open secret back in Austin, even though there was no proof. That’s why Croft moved here to start over.”

“And isn’t she a little long in the tooth for him?” Trevor said with an equal trace of bewildered disgust.

This was the man who had arranged for his younger sister to be taken.

“Kayla’s been working for her father since she was fourteen,” Kira said. “She probably met Croft early on, and he made an impression. She’s not conventionally good-looking. Some rich, older man paying attention to her like that…” She gave a helpless shrug.

“So did they ever hook up, do you think?” Trevor asked with a shudder.

Kira tilted her head as she considered. “I doubt it. Even when she was younger, she wouldn’t have been Croft’s type.”

As far as Kira knew, Croft was particular about his tastes, which usually ran to good-looking, underage women, who excelled in the arts. A plain-looking gardener didn’t exactly fit the bill.

“But Kayla’s been pining for him all these years…” Kira uttered the words almost to herself.

And I took him away from her.

‘An eye for an eye’…” Kira muttered. She shook herself, her green eyes widening.

“What now?” Trevor said in an exasperated tone as he read her expression. “You already figured out who sent the creepy card…”

Kira’s eyes met his.

“I know who Kayla’s target is.”


7:39 P.M.

Kayla Ryan couldn’t believe her luck.

She hasn’t even called the police!

Kayla could have gone after her target much earlier, of course. But she wanted to wait as close to her deadline as possible to give Kira a false sense of hope before snatching it away from her.

She had expected the final phase of her plan to be much more difficult. But not a single police car could be seen on the residential street. She didn’t even see anyone sitting in their car to watch undercover. The only people around were a few kids playing basketball in a nearby driveway—no one to worry about.

For a moment, a wave a fury threatened to overwhelm her.

Didn’t Kira even care?

Kayla had expected her to put some kind of protective measures in place… She had hoped that the vagueness of her threat would force that protection to be spread thin, allowing her to slip through to her target.

She hadn’t expected this.

Did Kira think the card was a hoax? …But why take the risk?

Kayla’s strong fingers tightened around the truck’s steering wheel. She breathed hard through her nose, the familiar scent of floral air freshener doing nothing to calm her as her blood pounded in her ears.

After all she had lost…

She shook her head. Didn’t Kira take her seriously? Or had Kayla chosen the wrong target? The symmetry of her choice appealed to her, but if Kira didn’t even care…

No. It was too late to back down now.

Kira would care.

Kayla was going to make sure of it.


7:45 P.M.

Kira’s fingers fumbled across the keyboard of her phone as Trevor turned a corner in his silver Porsche at high speed. She had already tried calling, but there was no answer. She did her best to compose a hasty text of warning, including a photo of Kayla. She winced as she slid in her seat and the car tires screeched.

She took a deep breath in an effort to calm herself, inhaling the scent of leather upholstery and Trevor’s cologne.

“Anything yet?” Trevor asked, keeping his eyes on the road.

Kira shook her head. “Not yet.”

“Are you sure about this?” His brow furrowed.

“Pretty sure.”

She did her best to sound more confident than she felt.

Her suspicions made sense, but she still had no proof to back them up. The person who had sent the threatening card might not have even been Kayla Ryan at all…

“What about Nick?” Trevor asked as Kira finally managed to finish typing and hit the ‘Send’ button.

“I gave him a heads up.”

Kira pulled her eyes from her phone to watch the streetlights whiz by. 7:46. Normally, she would have said something about Trevor’s driving, but the might already be too late…

A car horn blared as Trevor wove through local traffic.

She only hoped they made it to their destination without getting pulled over.

Her heart was hammering in her chest as they turned another corner into a residential area. She glanced down at her phone.

Still no response to her text. She bit her lip and tugged at her ponytail as she mentally urged her phone to buzz.

“Almost there…” Trevor muttered. “It’s this one, right?” he asked, slowing only slightly at the entrance to a side street.

Kira shook her head. “It’s the next one.”

She jerked back in her seat as Trevor sped forward. A moment later, they made one final turn.

“Slow down,” she chided as they drew closer to their target.

If Kayla was around, there was no need to tip her off.

“Pull over here.” Kira indicated a spot a few houses away.

Silence fell as Trevor cut the engine.

Kira took one last, steadying breath before slipping out of the car. She did her best to muffle the sound of the closing door behind her.

The street was fairly quiet. A few kids were playing basketball in a nearby driveway in the growing twilight. The sound of the ball bouncing against the pavement and young voices raised in both taunts and encouragement drifted toward her on the cool, evening air.

She spotted a white pickup with Texas plates parked against the curb.

“She’s here,” Trevor said in a low voice from where he loomed, just behind her.

He had seen the truck too. His blue eyes narrowed as he looked at the shrubs lining the modest townhouse that was their goal.

“See if you can do anything about those kids,” Kira said as she took a step forward. “I’m going in.”

“What?” Trevor blurted. Kira glared at him and his voice dropped back down again. “You want me to go wrangle some kids while you take down some nut job?” he demanded in a strangled whisper.

Kira kept her eyes on the house. “I don’t want them to get in the way if anything goes wrong.” She gave him a tight smile. “Besides, it’s my birthday, and I’m not a kid person.”

She also didn’t want Trevor getting underfoot. She was a trained fighter, but he wasn’t. And his eagerness to be helpful might cause problems.

“What about your nephew?” Trevor demanded. “You like him, don’t you?”

“Kevin?” Kira shrugged. “He’s different.”

Trevor muttered a string of curses. “OK, fine. I’ll go deal with the ankle-biters. But you’d better not have all the fun while I’m gone.”

Kira rolled her eyes. “Yeah, it’s going to be so much fun. Now get going. It’s almost eight already.”

She followed her own advice and moved toward the house without looking back.

* * *

Kira moved from shadow to shadow, using a series of parked cars to get closer to the house that was Kayla’s target. There were a few lights on inside, but there was no sign of movement behind the drawn curtains.

Was she already too late?

Her palms were damp with sweat. She breathed deeply through her nose and mouth, and shook her arms loose as she crept closer, using a neighboring hedge for shelter. She inhaled the scent of the surrounding greenery.

The modest, attached townhouse was similar to her own apartment. She narrowed her eyes for any sign of movement around it in the growing darkness. A faint creak made her head turn.

The gate to the backyard was opening.

She slid around the hedges in a crouch. Was someone going in, or coming out?

She felt a wave of relief go through her as caught a glimpse of a shadow slipping into the backyard.

There was still time.

Kira darted toward the house, her sneakers making no sound as she crossed the narrow strip of front lawn. She hoped none of the neighbors were watching. She probably looked sketchy as hell right now with the dark hoodie she had thrown on over her T-shirt and jeans.

She reached the gate in a matter of moments and slipped inside.

The backyard was a shared one. Fortunately, the next-door neighbors were either inside or not home. A small, rusty-looking shed stood in the far corner, and several pieces of worn patio furniture littered the flagstones that hugged the back of the building, along with a domed, tripod barbecue.

A shadow was moving beneath an open window.

Kira froze and watched as someone carefully lifted one of the patio chairs toward the brick wall beneath the darkened window.

Kayla Ryan.

Kira forced herself to creep forward, her hands tightening into fists.

“Kayla?” she called out in a soft voice before she thought the better of it.

The idea of attacking an infatuated eighteen-year-old from behind didn’t sit well with her.

The shadowy figure dropped the patio chair with a dull clatter and whirled toward her, frizzy braid swinging.

“How did you find me?” Kayla demanded in a rush. Her blue eyes hardened and she took a wary step forward. “How do you know my name?”

A wicked-looking gardening knife slid from somewhere in her grass-stained overalls into her fist. The blade gleamed dully in the fading light.

Shit.

Of course, Kayla had a knife.

Peter Croft had died with his throat slit.

* * *

Kira raised her hands in a calming gesture.

“You told me where to find you.” She struggled to keep her voice even. “‘An eye for an eye’?” She gave Kayla a pointed look.

Kayla hurled several unflattering curses in Kira’s direction, her broad features twisting.

“You weren’t supposed to figure it out in time.”

“Jeff has nothing to do with what happened to Peter Croft,” Kira continued. “You don’t have to hurt him.”

“But he’s your boyfriend, isn’t he?” Kayla sneered. “Not that what you have with him is anything like what it was like between Peter and me… You didn’t even bother to have the police try to protect him!”

Kira winced. She was right.

It hadn’t even occurred to her that Jeff might be the one in danger until the last minute. They had only been dating for a couple of months. Things were going well, but neither of them had gotten around to bringing up the ‘L’ word yet…

Kayla shook herself before continuing.

“This was the only way I could make you feel at least a little bit of what it was like when you took Peter away from me.” Her voice broke on the words.

Kira eyed the knife as Kayla kept her distance.

“You know about the other girls, right?” Kira asked. She lowered her hands and spoke at a regular volume.

Maybe Jeff will hear me through the window…

“Of course, I know about the other girls,” Kayla said with a twisted smile. “I’m not stupid. But they meant nothing to him.” She uttered the words with heat. “I was the one he was meant to be with. I was even going to come here to La Valentia, once I turned eighteen. The day Peter was killed.

Kira winced. Ah, that explained the birthday card approach.

“Then why did he have another girl with him when I found him?” Kira made herself say. She shook her head. “Trust me, he wasn’t thinking about you at all when I took him down.”

She suppressed a shudder at the memory of Peter Croft practically salivating over his newest captive while Kira had listened in from the next room.

“You bitch!” Kayla spat.

Her shoulders bunched and she took another step forward. The garden knife trembled in her clenched hand.

Kira didn’t step back.

“You’re not even his type,” she taunted.

She looked Kayla up and down with a smirk that would have been worthy of one of her own high school tormentors.

“He liked beautiful, young, artistic girls,” Kira continued, hating herself for what she was doing. “Even if he was still alive, you’d be too old for him now. He probably didn’t even look at you when you were younger.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Kayla spluttered.

Her knuckles whitened around the knife.

“Maya Green is an accomplished violinist,” Kira said as if she hadn’t been interrupted. “She had been earmarked for your beloved Peter when I rescued her three years ago, along with the other girls. Stephanie Wright plays both piano and violin, and she’s an artist too. She was the one I caught him with just before I turned him over to the police—on your birthday. And you should have heard the things he was talking about doing to her…”

Kayla uttered a wordless howl of protest. She surged forward with the garden knife extended.

But Kira was ready. She clamped both hands around Kayla’s wrist and took a sweeping step to circle right.

She crouched over Kayla’s knife arm as she pulled the other woman toward her. Kayla’s right hip landed hard against Kira’s left. Kira heard a soft grunt of surprise. She kept her grip on Kayla’s wrist and rotated her own upper body to the right to secure the standing arm-bar.

Kayla uttered a yelp of pain as Kira torqued the other woman’s wrist while keeping her elbow pinned.

The knife clattered to the flagstones from Kayla’s limp fingers.

Kira kicked it into the grass and out of reach.


8:01 P.M.

“Aw, man, I knew you were going to end up having all the fun!”

Kira craned her neck from her standing crouch to see Trevor shaking his head as he entered the backyard, bringing the scent of his cologne with him. He was shouldered aside by Nick and a pair of officers in uniform.

“It’s over, Kayla,” Kira said to the other woman in a soft voice.

She turned back toward Kayla and straightened out of the arm-bar, but kept a firm grip on the other woman’s wrist.

Kayla’s gaze went from Kira to the knife on the grass and back again. Her blue eyes widened.

“What… What have I done?” Her voice sounded like that of a child.

“It’s fine,” Kira said in a soothing voice. “No one got hurt.”

“But I almost…” Tears welled up in Kayla’s eyes and she swallowed. “I just loved him so much. I always thought someday he would finally notice me. And then, he was gone.”

“I’m sorry for those terrible things I said.” Kira’s ponytail swished as she shook her head. “But everything I told you about Peter is true.”

Kayla bowed her head and allowed herself to be cuffed by the pair of officers accompanying Nick. She remained silent as one of them read her rights.

“Are you OK?” Nick asked Kira in a low voice. “We got over here as soon as we could. I just had to wait for someone to take over from me to keep an eye on your sister’s place first, just in case.”

“You thought I might have made a mistake?” Kira’s lips twisted in a wry smile.

Nick lifted his broad shoulders in a shrug. “Better safe than sorry. I would hate to have to answer to you if anything had happened to your nephew.” He gave a mock shudder.

Kira watched as the officers escorted Kayla from the backyard. “What’s going to happen to her?”

Nick raised his hands in a helpless gesture. “Depends on how her lawyer tries to plead her case. I’m guessing there’s grounds for insanity. Do you think Jeff will press charges? Are you going to press charges?” His brown gaze drifted to the garden knife in the grass.

Kira bit her lip. “I won’t bother. And I’ll talk to Jeff about it. I mean, I know it was premeditated, attempted murder, but she’s clearly not stable, and no one was hurt…”

“Where is Jeff, anyway?” Trevor demanded. “I mean, the window’s open and all hell’s been breaking loose back here. Is he even home?”

Kira’s phone buzzed in her pocket. Several times.

She pulled it out to read a series of confused texts from Jeff and looked up to see a light come on beyond the open window.

He had slept through the whole thing.


9:37 P.M.

Kira let out a weary sigh as she walked up the front steps to her apartment in the gathering darkness. It had taken awhile to get Jeff up to speed and calmed down. He had taken a full dose of NyQuil and gone to bed early, so he had been pretty out of it when he had gotten Kira’s texts. Kira and Trevor had given their statements to Nick, who had also taken extensive photos of the crime scene and retrieved Kayla’s garden knife as evidence.

Kira was really looking forward to another piece of ice cream cake.

“Why are you sighing?” Trevor demanded. “I’m the one lugging things around.”

He shifted a framed poster under his arm—a rare, Nine Inch Nail’s print from the Fragile era, which was also Kira’s favorite album. How Nick had managed to find one in such good condition, she had no idea.

Kira snorted. “You’re the one who offered to carry it. Besides, I thought you could use a chance to show off those muscles of yours, since you probably only got to flex them for the kids.”

Trevor puffed out his chest. “Hey, those kids were impressed by my physique. How else do you think I got them to go inside?”

Kira gave him a sidelong look. “Are you sure that’s how you convinced them? Sounds kind of sketchy to me…”

Trevor rolled his eyes with a sigh. “OK, some money might have changed hands. Turns out I’m not much of a kid person either.”

Kira unlocked the door with a jingle of her keys and led the way inside. She tossed them into the wooden bowl on the small table in the front hallway and winced at the chemical smell of her own hands. She had wiped them down liberally with disinfectant before leaving Jeff’s place. No way was she going to catch the flu for her birthday…

Trevor set down the framed poster to lean it against the wall and shut the door behind him before following Kira into the living room.

Kira blinked.

Rob was sitting in his usual spot at the dining-room table with his laptop. He gave her a grunt of greeting as his fingers clattered against the keys.

What the—”

Kira looked back to find Trevor shaking his blond head in disbelief as he spoke. He slowly raised his arm to point at Rob in accusation.

“Is that…?”

Rob had squeezed himself into the shirt Trevor had bought for her birthday. The Brightwell Investigations logo strained across his frame, stretching the embroidery and making it wrinkle. (Rob wasn’t substantially bigger than Kira, but he was at least one size up—especially when Trevor was the one doing the sizing.)

A glob of melted chocolate from the ice cream cake already marred the front of the blue polo shirt.

Rob looked up with a smirk in Trevor’s direction. “Turns out blue is my color.”

“You little…” Trevor began laying into Rob in a strangled voice and the argument was on.

Kira walked past both of them and got herself another piece of ice cream cake from the freezer before sitting on the couch to watch.

A thwarted murder attempt, a Nine Inch Nails poster, and now a show…

Maybe this isn’t such a lame birthday after all.

* * *

On the Card: A Kira Brightwell Short Story

Copyright © 2021 by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover design by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover art copyright © Arenacreative, Oksanabratanova, Petar Milevski/Dreamstime

 

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Posted by Jacquelyn