Dark Storm – Karen Harper

Naples, Florida “I can’t believe you can get two seven-year-olds to work in your garden in this August heat,” Claire’s friend Kris Kane told her as they watched Claire’s daughter, Lexi, and her cousin Jilly pull weeds from around the flowers in the Markwood backyard. “It’s the butterflies they’re interested in. The brightly colored flowers and those hanging nectar pans attract them. Lexi’s obsessed, says she’s going to major in butterflies in college. She adores her first grade teacher, who retired last year and has a butterfly farm out past the citrus orchard just before the Glades begin.” “Oh, the place your sister works part-time?” “Right. And speaking of butterflies, would you and Mitch be interested in a butterfly release at your wedding rather than having everyone throw rice? It’s one of the services the Flutterby Farm provides, and Nick and I would be happy to arrange it as a gift to you.” Kris’s fiancé, Mitch Blakeman, and Claire’s ex-husband, Lexi’s father, Jace, were best friends and pilots who flew together, literally into the storm, checking data on hurricanes along the east coast, clear down to Florida. They had all joked it was best for the men to be commuting to that job from as far away as possible. Kris and Mitch were engaged to be married as soon as the hurricane season ended later this autumn. “I’ve heard of butterfly releases for funerals, but weddings?” Kris said. “I’d have to run it by Mitch but anything having to do with flight, he’d probably be all for. Claire, I don’t know how you ever kept sane when you were married to a pilot. Sorry to bring that up, but I do worry about Mitch, not only because of the flying, but the work itself now that he’s a storm spy, as he calls himself.” Claire sighed and stood to move closer to the huge window to watch Lexi and Jilly work.

At least they were pulling weeds, not newly planted lantana this time. “I suppose you should talk to Brittany about that, since she’s married to Jace now,” she told Kris. “I think it’s great you and Brit have become good friends—the archaeologist and the zoologist, no less.” “I’m sorry, Claire. I didn’t mean to bring up any—” “It’s okay. Nick and I are friends with Jace and Brit, and Lexi’s close to her father. She calls him Daddy and calls Nick Dad. But I understand your concern for Mitch’s new career. Lexi would be devastated if anything happened to Jace. All I worry about these days is that some disgruntled client Nick defends in court will turn on him.

He’s in court right now, defending an elderly lady who has been wrongfully accused of fraud. He never knows what’s coming next.” She turned back from watching the girls. “We’ve been through enough dangerous situations that I’ve become a worrywart, and Nick’s even worse. He’s so protective of me. But I’ve been happy just running my website and doing some forensic psych consulting lately, mostly on corporate fraud. Our detective friend at the Collier County Sheriff’s Department still wants me to work there part-time, but for now, I’ve turned him down. It’s been a great—and quiet—year, staying home, taking care of little Trey and keeping an eye on my mad butterfly gardeners when Darcy’s working. She takes them to work with her some days. But try not to worry too much about Mitch chasing storms.

Hurricanes or not, he and Jace know what they’re doing in the air.” “Both of them are danger junkies to the core,” Kris admitted. “I’ve noticed Trey’s walking great for a sixteen-month-old,” she said with a glance at him standing up in his playpen. Observing people as closely as she did, Claire thought it was a pretty smooth attempt to change the subject. “Sometimes he’s walking too great,” she told Kris, going over to the playpen to give him the football-shaped beanbag he’d thrown onto the floor. “Good pass, future Florida Gators quarterback!” she teased, and bent to kiss the top of his head. “He’s into everything,” she added with a smile, and waved at her darling son, Nick’s pride and joy. “I don’t like to have him in that playpen too long, but he’s out and about enough to do me in.” The little guy waved back and said something only he understood. But quarterbacks in their huddles used secret language, anyway, Nick had said.

Smiling at that thought, Claire picked up her cell on the coffee table when it sounded. “Oh, it’s Darcy,” she said, looking at the screen. “You know, she might be my younger sister, but she’s always been one to reach out, make sure I’m okay.” “I remember from our college days, she was always calling to check in.” Claire turned away, her back toward the window. “Hi, Darcy. Are you done at the Flutterby already? The girls are fine.” “This is Darcy’s sister, right? Lexi’s mother, Claire Markwood?” a woman’s voice asked. Claire’s heartbeat kicked up. “Yes? Ms.

Gerald? Why are you calling from Darcy’s phone? Is she all right?” “I took some butterfly release packages to the post office. When I came back—well, I can’t find her anywhere. And her car is gone.” “If she’s not there, how are you calling me on her cell?” “It was here on the floor in the first butterfly house. I shouted all around for her, even in the residence, but with her car gone…and some things disturbed…” Claire’s stomach went into free fall. “I don’t know whether to call the police,” the woman went on. “I mean, I don’t want to alarm you, but Darcy would never leave the door of this big butterfly house open. It’s the one that houses all the exotics. But it was wide-open, and some of the butterflies are gone—gone, too.” “I’ll be right there, and we’ll call the police together.

No—I have a contact there I’ll call on my way. I’ll be there as fast as I can.” She punched off and turned to a concerned Kris. “I can’t explain right now, but can you do me a huge favor? I know you said you had errands but there’s an emergency at the butterfly farm, and I need to go there now. Could you stay and watch Trey and the girls until I can get our nanny to come over? You’ve met Nita. She’s eight months pregnant but she gets around fine.” “Sure. Of course. Anything else?” Still holding her cell, Claire ran for her purse in the master bedroom, calling back over her shoulder, “Like I said, Nick’s in court, so I can’t call him right now. I may leave him a message.

If you hear from him, please have him call me.” She snatched her purse and sunglasses, tore back out. “Tell the girls I just had to run an errand. There are cookies on the counter and juice in the fridge.” “Claire, is everything okay?” “I’ll know more when I get here. Thanks for doing this,” she called back over her shoulder as she rushed toward the garage. Yes, something was wrong. Very wrong. “I think I need to quit joking that our getting to fly again is like being in seventh heaven,” Jace told Mitch, his good friend and copilot for this hurricane hunter flight, the first one for which they’d been in the cockpit. The roar of the wind was so loud they spoke only through their mics and muted the noise with their earphones.

“Heading into the eye of these storms is damn dangerous.” “You just figure that out? Good safety record or not, the season’s been bad. This storm’s gonna rip up the east coast if it doesn’t head out over the Atlantic, and evidently that’s not the damn thing’s direction of choice.” Both men were seasoned military pilots, and Jace had flown commercial passenger jets, but this new career was a challenge. Hurricane hunter planes were twin turboprops, not fan jets. Turboprops were more tolerant of hail and extremely rugged. Rugged like us, Mitch had joked. The US Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, known as NOAA, operated these large turboprop planes that flew into hell to reach the calm eye of the storm and send back information about wind currents and direction. With the exception of when they were in the eye itself, it was one mother of a bumpy ride. The flights would last for brutal hours, but the weather info gained was essential for the safety of their fellow earthlings, as they liked to call them.

Newlywed Jace had kidded the soon-to-be-wed Mitch that it was a lot like being married: smooth at first, then the thunderstorm turbulence of a first fight, then the calm eye of making up, then rough again. “Let’s order another dropsonde,” Mitch said, referring to the cylinders they released to measure storm data. “Man, this rockin’ ride’s something. And to think we volunteered for this.” “You know you love the challenge and danger as much as I do,” Jace told him, readjusting his earphones. But he couldn’t help but think of when he’d seen Lexi last week and had kissed her goodbye. His daughter kept pointing out butterflies in Claire and Nick’s backyard, one beautiful gold one flitting around her like a halo. The first big blast before the eye wall slammed them, bouncing the plane like a toy. Jace gripped the control wheel even harder. This would be an almost twelve-hour flight and the crew of thirteen weather technicians on board depended on them.

At least this storm was nowhere near Florida—yet. “Hang on. Gonna get worse,” he told his friend. Claire tried not to speed, but she was panicked to get there. She never used the phone when she was driving, but she had today, calling Nita Munez, their nanny. She had intended to call Ken Jensen, a friend and detective she and Nick had worked with before, but she decided to hold off on that. Surely Tara Gerald was overreacting. Darcy might have dropped her phone without knowing it, then run an errand and would be right back. But then there was that door carelessly left ajar at the exotic butterfly house. That didn’t sound like Darcy at all.

Ms. Gerald had been Lexi’s first-grade teacher last year and an excellent one, though she’d recently retired to work her beloved butterfly farm full-time. Lexi had been devastated she’d no longer see her around school, but Claire and Darcy had visited the farm with their daughters and one thing led to another. Darcy accepted a part-time job there, occasionally taking the girls with her. Claire gripped the steering wheel with both hands as she turned off Collier Boulevard onto narrow Sabal Palm, which led to the farm. About three more miles. The road was only paved partway out. She sped now, past a garden center, then an orchid farm. Her hands shook, and her heart pounded. Darcy had been her mainstay after their salesman father had deserted them and their mother had retreated into her books, adult fiction she’d sometimes read aloud to them.

A free literature degree, Darcy had often kidded. No one else had visited their girlhood home except sometimes their mother’s librarian friend, Will Warren, who dropped off books. He’d later left South Florida and somehow made a fortune for himself. He was back at his old job now, and the kids loved it when Darcy took the girls there for story time while Claire and Nick caught up on work. The paved road ended with a bump, and the dry dust the car kicked up obliterated everything in Claire’s rearview. The skeletal melaleuca trees on both sides of the road were etched with dust, which would wash away in the season’s terrible storms. Had Darcy driven this road in the other direction? Fleeing from someone? God forbid, taken by someone? The butterfly farm was the last property on this long road before wilderness began. If only Jace was still flying small crop-dusting planes so he could look for Darcy’s car out in the glades. But no, she couldn’t allow herself to panic. This would turn out all right.

She passed the wooden sign with two beautiful butterflies and the visiting hours for the farm handpainted on it. The hours included today, right now. Had someone come in to see the place without a reservation and found Darcy alone? “Seen too much crime,” Claire scolded herself. “This will be okay. Everything will be okay.” Nick heaved a sigh of relief when the judge called for a short recess. He comforted his client, gave his legal team a couple of instructions, then hustled out into the hall with a simple, “No comment at this time,” to the hovering media mavens. He walked way down the hall and turned a corner, seeking privacy. He was really looking forward to the end of this trial. He and Claire were going to take the kids north—way north—to Mackinac Island off northern Michigan, which they had always wanted to see during warm weather, since the place had been frozen during their time spent there under the Witness Protection Program.

They had reservations for the last week in August, right before Lexi went back to school, if they could only pry her away from her butterfly obsession and her pony, Scout, which she rode twice a week. He thumbed over Claire’s photo to call her, his beautiful redhead with a penchant for getting into trouble. But then he should talk. They’d been through thick and thin together from the moment they’d met, but at least things were calm with nothing dangerous on the horizon now. She didn’t answer at first, must have left her phone elsewhere in the house. He was just about to leave a message when she answered. “Oh, Nick, thank heavens. Listen, Kris is with the kids, Nita’s on her way there and I’m heading to check on Darcy at the butterfly farm. Tara Gerald called me.” “Check on Darcy why? Is she sick? What happened?” “She might have disappeared—took her car.

Don’t call Steve yet.” “Yeah, he’s working upstate. You be careful. Don’t walk into anything strange. I’ll call Ken Jensen to come out, if you think it’s not just some…some mistake. He owes me a favor, but, Claire, wait for him if anything looks off. Do nothing on your own.” “I’m pulling in. Got to go.” “Call me back, leave a message.

As soon as I can get out of here, I’ll be there. Keep calm. Don’t panic.” But Nick knew she was. And knowing Claire was a magnet for danger, he panicked, too. 2 Claire drove her car up the bumpy gravel drive, past the old, one-floor sprawling house with its wide, wraparound porch that had been Tara’s parents’ home. Behind it stood three metal-framed, white-mesh humpbacked butterfly houses that looked like greenhouses. They were filled with the vibrant-hued plants the butterflies loved. The mesh let the sun through but protected the delicate inhabitants that flitted about, feeding off the flowers and sugar-water feeders. Tara kept some of the caterpillars and cocoons in a room in the house also.

As Claire jumped out of her car, Tara came running from the nearest butterfly house. “I’m so sorry!” Tara shouted. Even from here, Claire could tell that she’d been crying, and she was wringing her hands. “I can’t imagine what happened. If only I had a surveillance camera out here or in the houses. Should I call the police?” “My husband is doing that. But just show me first,” she said as she ran toward Tara. “You did look in the other two butterfly houses?” Claire was already out of breath and in panic mode. She tried to regain control. “Yes, before I called you.

Here, be careful to keep that door closed behind you. It was left open— that was the giveaway, because Darcy was never careless. I didn’t have time for a good count but a lot of falcate orangetips are gone.” The air inside was warm and moist, but it felt better than the humidity and strong sun outside. Claire was sweating more from her frenzy than the heat. The profusion of vibrant plants here suddenly seemed overwhelming, pressing in. Her mind flashed back to their mother’s funeral—all those fragrant flowers on the casket, and she and Darcy holding hands. “You checked through all the foliage?” she asked Tara. “In all three houses.” “Where was—is—her phone you used?” She understood why Tara used it to call her, but what if there were fingerprints on it—ones that weren’t Darcy’s? Claire almost dry heaved in fear.

What could have happened here in this peaceful, private, lovely place? Tara showed her the phone, lying on a table with plants. She pointed out the grassy floor under a three-foot-tall spray of scarlet cosmos and purple zinnias where the phone had been dropped. Claire pulled a tissue from her purse and lifted the phone, wrapped it and put it on the counter. A painted lady butterfly landed on her hand as if to comfort her, but the eyelike pattern on its wings seemed to stare. Had someone been lurking, watching Darcy? Saw Tara leave? Saw a woman alone here? “I’m going to call my contact at the police station,” Claire told her, perching on one of the metal folding chairs in the aisle. “My husband, Nick, probably already did, but I will, too, to make sure someone comes.” She took out her phone. “This officer has worked missing persons before.” Tara sank into the other chair. She was a spry, wiry woman who kept her auburn hair in easy-totend corkscrews now frosted with silver.

Claire was tall at five-ten, so Tara, at least eight inches shorter, always seemed so petite. Although she had loved her elementary school students, she’d retired at age fifty-five to grow this business she loved so much. As far as Claire knew, she had never married. Her butterflies and students had been her life. She looked up Ken Jensen’s number in her contact list and connected the call. Oh, thank God, he answered right away. “Detective Jensen here. Claire? Nick called me, and I’m on my way out. He’s going to try to talk the judge into a temporary emergency adjournment.” “Oh, thank you! There’s no sign of my sister here.

” “Sit tight and don’t touch anything. You know the drill. And don’t start interviews until I get there. So it’s way down at the end of Sabal Palm?” “Past the citrus grove, as far as you can go.” Those words echoed in her mind when she ended the call. Where did Darcy go? Her husband, Steve, was miles away in Daytona overseeing the installment of a solar community. She dreaded calling him. Darcy’s son, Drew, was with Steve’s parents in upstate New York for the month before school began again. And Jilly—dear God, please don’t let me have to tell her that her mother’s missing. Ken Jensen pulled in fifteen minutes later in an unmarked car, kicking up another cloud of dust.

Too bad it hadn’t rained for two days, Claire thought, so car tracks in Tara’s driveway and on the road would show, maybe could be traced or molds made of strange treads so that— No. She had to stop playing cop. She had to stay calm, objective, not fall apart as Tara had, at least not yet. Ken Jensen always looked Scandinavian to her with his blond hair and blue eyes. He was in civilian clothes, no sport coat or tie and a short-sleeved light blue shirt. She introduced him to Tara, whose eyes were red from crying. At least she wasn’t shaking like Claire was, and Jensen evidently knew it when he held her hand a bit too long. “So, Ms. Gerald,” he said, whipping out a notebook, “please show me where you last saw Darcy —her last name?” Both women told him “Stanley” at the same time. They led him into the so-called exotic butterfly house, though Claire had noted there were Florida breeds familiar from her backyard inside, too.

“Like another world in here,” Ken said. “Garden of Eden. Wow,” he added as a turquoise longtailed skipper—Lexi and Jilly had raised a couple of those at home—landed on his arm. “Go ahead, please,” he said, not shaking it off. He sat them in the two chairs while he stood, taking notes as Tara told him everything she’d explained to Claire. She pointed out Darcy’s phone and where it was found. “Glad you wrapped it and didn’t touch it. If there are other prints on it—” “There will be,” Tara told him. “Mine. I panicked and called Claire on it because I didn’t have her phone number.

” “So what other property of Darcy’s is here?” he asked. “A purse?” “Missing, as far as I can tell,” Tara said. “Ken, the point is she’s missing, too!” Claire cried, though she was trying to keep calm. “I can tell you her license plate and the make of car. Can you put out an APB for her? There’s a lot of land out there,” she rushed on, gesturing toward the wilderness of the Glades, where there was some dry, drivable land as well as lot of ponds and streams. He put his hand briefly on Claire’s shoulder when she tried to get up, so she stayed put. “That’s what I’m going to do right now, Claire, but we have to figure this out. Why don’t you try Nick again and see if he got away from the courthouse? Then I want you and Ms. Gerald to tell me anything about anyone you think Darcy might have been in contact with. When an adult disappears, there can be many reasons, sometimes generated by the person themselves.

” “No,” Claire said, looking up at him. “She would not skip out! Ken, she would never have left that butterfly door open if she left on her own, so I’ll give you her license plate number right now.” As many years ago as it was, a sharp, stunning memory flashed at her. It was the day when she and Darcy were little and their father went missing. Her mother had insisted to the police he would never leave his family, but it turned out he had deserted them without a word or warning. That was another reason Darcy would never leave on her own. No way Darcy would do that to her own family. “Might there have been a random visitor, Ms. Gerald?” Ken went on. “Maybe a visitor or buyer who could have dropped by? You do sell butterflies and not just, well, show them?” “Yes.

Sometimes I give tours and sell specimens, most through the mail, but I wasn’t expecting anyone today.” In the humid warmth, even sitting down, Claire thought she would either faint or throw up from stomach cramps. But, of course, this was the way to go about things, calmly, rationally. Still, she wanted to scream, just scream. She wanted Nick here. They had to call Steve to tell him his wife was missing and to come back now. No way Darcy had missed him so much she would drive up to see him, surprise him, though she’d done that once before. But not without telling Claire to take care of the kids, not without her phone, unless she’d accidentally dropped it, then realized too late she didn’t have it. No, she’d come back for it. She would not just leave an open door for the butterflies to escape.

Claire recited Darcy’s license plate, then began to shake harder as Ken stepped away to make his call outside the butterfly house door. She kept picturing the door of their childhood home that she had stared at, waiting for Daddy to come back when she was five and Darcy was a newborn. He was on the road a lot, so maybe he was just delayed somewhere. Maybe he had finally made a big sale and stayed awhile and forgot to call them. She’d been so devastated by his desertion, still was, always would be, but Darcy didn’t even remember him, that is, only through what Claire recalled and shared. And Mother was so broken—so broken by his loss that she had never talked about it to them, not even when they were old enough to understand. Even at her age now, even a mother twice herself, Claire admitted that Darcy and Nick were still her security and sanity. Nick tore off his suit coat and tie and tossed them in the car he’d parked behind the one he assumed was Ken Jensen’s. Ken had helped them before, but then they’d helped him, too. Though Nick knew he was out in the boondocks, he locked his car and sprinted toward the three white butterfly houses baking in the afternoon sun.

He was not only worried about Darcy, but about Claire—and Lexi and Jilly, too, of course, if Darcy really was missing. Surely there was an explanation, and his sister-inlaw would turn up soon. “We’re over here!” Ken yelled out the door of Tara’s residence before he could enter the first butterfly house. Good, Nick thought, because, unlike Lexi and Claire, he didn’t like those things landing all over him, though he never let on, given how thrilled they were with the little critters. After all, butterflies were bugs, just ones blessed with gorgeous wings. He’d known people like that with fancy facades that hid motives and crimes. And that made him silently pray again that this disappearance was not foul play. He went in through the door Ken held open for him, and they shook hands. It was dim and cool inside; an old air conditioner purred away. “Thanks for coming,” Nick told him.

Without another word, he followed Ken through a kitchen and a room—once a dining room, he bet—where cocoons, all labeled, hung on pegs on otherwise spotless white walls. Something called Orange F predominated, but those pegs were mostly empty alongside a lot of others. What a strange creature to go through such different life stages. He found Claire in the living room, comforting the first-grade teacher Lexi had liked so much, the one who had gotten his family caught up in this butterfly craze. “Since you said you were on your way,” Ken told him, “I waited to get formal statements from both of them, though no one needs a lawyer.” “I need this lawyer,” Claire said, and rose to hug him. She was trembling and had tears in her eyes, and Ms. Gerald had obviously been crying. Out of one trial with weeping witnesses and into another, Nick thought, but then, this was family. “All right, I’m going to start with Ms.

Gerald since this is her property and she saw Darcy Stanley most recently,” Ken explained. “Of course, this is open land, a commercial endeavor where outsiders could walk in, but can you think of anyone who has any sort of issue with you or this farm, Ms. Gerald?” “I’ve been racking my brain, of course,” the older woman said. “I mean, who has anything against a peaceful and educational butterfly farm? We did a major release last month in Fort Myers for the dedication of a children’s cancer clinic, and it was so symbolic and beautiful.” “And all went well?” Ken asked. “No customers have seemed disgruntled or upset?” “No, and wouldn’t they come after me if they were?” “Would they know the woman tending butterflies wasn’t you?” Ken countered. “Well, perhaps not, but Darcy and I don’t look anything alike, if someone meant to take—to hurt me. I do have several pictures of myself on the Flutterby Farm website.” Claire held Tara’s hand as she sniffed back tears and wiped under her eyes with her other hand again. “Well, now that I think of it, there is a group who are upset about our mailing practices for distant events,” she said, her voice wavering.

She looked away from Ken to Nick. “They threatened —I mean, mentioned—a lawsuit, because they say butterflies should not be put in special little envelopes and mailed on ice. Well, they have to be kept cold and they quickly reanimate and fly free.” Nick had been careful not to jump in on Ken’s questions, but Tara had given him the opening with that look and the mention of the lawsuit. “Anything further on them?” Nick asked. “Is this group local?” “Local and loco, if you ask me,” Tara said, showing some spunk instead of looking so wilted. “They are bleeding hearts just looking for a cause and publicity. They insist it harms nature to release the lepidoptera in an area they don’t know, like taking them away from their family or something like that.” Nick saw Claire sniff back a snob. She was thinking that someone had done that to Darcy? Their strong and intimate marriage let him read her mind sometimes.

If Darcy didn’t turn up fast, he knew she’d be questioned thoroughly about Darcy’s domestic life and problems. Steve would, too. Damn, they had to call Steve with this terrible news. They’d grown closer over the last year, as different as they were, and if Claire called him with the news, she’d probably fall apart, because she looked like she was getting close to that right now. Ken said, “So what is the name of this eco-friendly, protect-the-butterflies group, Ms. Gerald?” “‘Fly Safe,’ if you can believe that,” she said. “They’re into protection of all sort of insects, birds and even bats, not just the beautiful, inspiring, adorable butterflies I raise. And I understand they’ve also branched out into the protection of marine animals like dolphins.” Nick’s gaze snagged Claire’s at her mention of the name Fly Safe. Jace and his buddy Mitch planned to start a flight school on nearby Marco Island in the off-season for hurricane hunting, and Fly Safe was the company title they’d chosen.

Maybe, using the excuse he was checking out the domain rights of that name, he could visit the eco-group and see just how hostile they really were. Doing their own investigations had gotten him and Claire in hot water with Jensen before, which made him wonder if he should he bring it up or fly under the police radar? Claire would probably say to forge ahead. Meanwhile, he had to get Steve home and sit with Claire while clever Ken questioned her about Darcy. He knew damn well that adults sometimes snapped and took off, even leaving behind ways they could be tracked—like cell phones. So had Darcy snapped? Whether she had or not, he could sense Claire was about to.

.

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