Knight Heirrant: Chapter One

by wfgodbold

Be sure you’ve read the Prologue, first. If you’d like more information, check out the Knight Heirrant page.

Chapter One

One week earlier…

I squinted and rubbed at the bridge of my nose. The harsh glare of the computer screen cast a bluish pallor over my sparsely furnished office; a couple cheap chairs, a desk that IKEA would have been ashamed to sell, and two solid aluminium filing cabinets don’t make for a homey work environment, especially under fluorescent light. The last client St. George Consulting had was over a month ago, before my grandfather abruptly retired and left me in charge of the family business.

Scouring the internet for reports of unusual disappearances and murders hadn’t yielded any likely job prospects, either. I glared at my cellphone; it sat on the desk next to a black ballpoint pen, and stubbornly refused to ring. St. George Consulting might not have a lot of overhead — with Gramps gone (and collecting social security, instead of a paycheck), I was the only employee — but our equipment still needed to be maintained. If we didn’t get a client soon, I was going to have to cut back on my workout regimen to get a part-time job.

The knock at the door startled me; I tried to look nonchalant when it immediately swung inwards and a short, balding, middle-aged man entered the office. He was in a hurry for some reason, and made it halfway to the desk by the time I’d stood and extended my hand. “Afternoon, sir,” I said. “What can St. George Consulting do for you today?”

The portly man mopped at his forehead with the stained handkerchief clutched in his left hand. He shook my hand with a limp and clammy grip and said, “You’re Theodore St. George?” He looked me up and down, confused. “From Robert’s description, I expected someone older.”

I gestured for him to sit in one of the chairs before the desk. While he did so, I sat in my own chair and said “Theodore was my grandfather. My name is George Santos, and I’ve taken over the family consulting business.”

The older man nodded nervously, and glanced around the office quickly. “He’s not around, is he?” he asked. “I’d feel more comfortable discussing the problem with someone more … experienced.”

I forced a smile. “My grandfather retired a month ago. If you could fill me in on what’s troubling you, I’d be glad to see what I can do to help, Mister…” I waited for him to introduce himself.

“John Wyatt,” he said, finally. “You’re sure there’s no one else I could talk to?”

“Mr. Wyatt,” I said a hint of annoyance creeping into my tone, “I’ve worked with my grandfather my whole life. After my mother passed on, he raised me to follow in his footsteps, and trained me to take over the business. I haven’t worked alone before, but that doesn’t mean I’m as inexperienced as you think.” I took a deep breath. “Now, if you could tell me what your problem is?” I prodded again.

Wyatt flinched, and mopped at his forehead once more before saying, “Of course, of course. I didn’t mean to imply you wouldn’t be able to help me, but it’s just that, well …” He paused. “My daughter,” he finally said, “has been missing for five days. Since last Thursday.” He removed a recent photo from his wallet and slid it across the desk.

Ah, that explains the nervousness. I nodded. “You’re worried, Mr. Wyatt. That’s understandable,” I said. “You want to make sure you’ve got the best person available on the job. Even in my grandfather’s absence, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

I picked up the photograph and looked at it briefly; it showed Emily clad in a black robe and holding a tasseled mortarboard, a wide grin on her pretty face. Her twinkling eyes and cheerful expression contrasted sharply with the forced smiles her parents bore; they stood at either side of the black-haired, green-eyed teenager. Even though her parents plainly didn’t get along with each other, they were willing to put forth an effort for their daughter’s high school graduation.

After setting Emily’s photo aside, I closed the browser window and opened a new document with the word processor. “Before getting into the circumstances surrounding your daughter’s disappearance, I have a few background questions. For our records.”

Wyatt glanced over at the filing cabinets and nodded. “Whatever you need,” he said. “As long as you find my daughter, I don’t give a damn what you ask me.”

“Robert referred you to us, you said?” I asked.

“That’s right,” Wyatt said, wringing his handkerchief in his lap nervously. “Robert O’Malley. He’s the medical examiner in Bryton. He said he’d worked with Theodore St. George thirty or thirty-five years back, and that Emily’s disappearance had the same kind of feeling as the case he’d worked back then. Said something about it being right up your alley,” he explained.

I nodded. As Wyatt spoke, I filled the document with names of people and places, and any other information he mentioned. “Did he give you any more information about what he’d done with my grandfather than that? Even any information about O’Malley himself would be useful,” I said.

“No, he didn’t.” Wyatt shrugged. “Sorry.”

“What do you do in Bryton?”

Wyatt collected his thoughts before answering. “I own and farm several large tracts of land on the outskirts of town,” he said. “They’ve been in the family for generations, just like the land belonging to the other farmers.”

“Other farmers?”

“There are three other large farms outside town. They’re all about the same size as mine,” Wyatt explained. “All belonging to families that started farming here when Bryton was first founded.” He paused. “Actually, there are a few more smaller farms, but most of the land is split amongst the four families.”

“We mostly grow corn or soybeans,” the older man continued. “To be honest, if you want information on the farming itself, you should talk to my manager. I’m not as involved in the day to day running of the farm as I was when I was younger, but even then, Frank Gibson was the brains behind the operation. He’s been the farm manager since just after my father inherited it.”

I nodded. The more Wyatt talked, the faster the words spilled from his mouth. I didn’t interrupt, but just listened as he continued to explain.

“My daughter, Emily, is out of college for the summer,” he said. “She’s in her third year at Aldrin State, and lives with her mother.” Wyatt got a far-off look in his eyes as he spoke. “We’re divorced,” he said. “Emily’s majoring in agribusiness, so I suggested that she work on the farm over the summer. First-hand experience is better than sitting through lectures, and since eventually she’s going to inherit the farm, she agreed.”

“Would she really get a good idea of what working on the farm is like?” I asked. “Everyone would probably give the boss’s daughter special treatment, especially if they know she’ll be the boss herself at some point. It’s never too early to curry favor.”

“Emily thought the same thing,” Wyatt said. “She wasn’t interested in taking advantage of nepotism. Since she’d never been to the farm before, and my marriage to her mother wasn’t widely known in Bryton, we decided that she would use her mother’s maiden name and rent a cheap apartment in town. As far as any of my employees know, Emily Dawes is a college student I hired on as a favor to an old college buddy.”

“No one else knew of your actual relationship? Not even Frank Gibson?”

“I never told anyone,” Wyatt said. “I got married in college, mostly to piss off my father, and ended up getting divorced after graduate school while I was commodities trading. Emily was born just before the divorce, and her mother has had full custody. Aside from occasional visits and phone calls, I haven’t been that involved in Emily’s life.” He sighed. “That was part of the reason I suggested this. I wanted to get to know the young woman that my daughter had become. We’ve been meeting a couple times a week to talk and have dinner. When she didn’t show up for our meeting on Thursday, I didn’t know what to think. I called Frank, and he said that she’d taken one of the tractors out that morning, but he hadn’t seen her the rest of the day.”

“I figured she’d decided to do something else for dinner, or that she’d caught some kind of bug or something,” Wyatt said. “But the next morning I got a call from Frank. The combine Emily had taken out the day before was missing, and Emily hadn’t shown up for work that morning.”

Wyatt wiped at his forehead again, and continued. “That’s when I first started worrying,” he said. “We went out to the plot Emily was supposed to work on, and found the combine there, right at the edge of the field. The door was open and the keys were in the ignition, and it was out of gas.”

“We called the sheriff’s department, and after the deputies looked around, they didn’t find any evidence of foul play. They did say that a couple times a month, someone would call in about abandoned cars or farm equipment. They claimed that the itinerant workers would just up and decide to hit the road again.”

“Itinerant workers?”

Wyatt nodded. “I don’t hire any,” he said defensively. “Our equipment is efficient enough that we don’t need much help. Some of the smaller farmers, though …” his voice trailed off, and he shrugged. “They make up for their older equipment by hiring cheap labor in the summer and fall.”

“Did you tell the deputies that the missing person was your daughter?” I asked.

“No. I stuck to my story about her being the daughter of a college friend of mine,” he said. “Once they found out she was a college student working a summer job, they laughed and said she’d probably taken off for the weekend early.”

“Monday morning rolled around, and Emily didn’t show up for work at the farm. Or call. I called the sheriff’s office again, and they sent Robert O’Malley over to look around.” Wyatt laughed hollowly. “The medical examiner is the closest thing Bryton’s got to a crime scene specialist.”

“Did he find anything?” I said. “Or had it been too long?”

Wyatt’s face fell. “No, he didn’t. The tractor was pristine, and aside from tire tracks on the side of the road, there weren’t any indications anything out of the ordinary had happened.”

I stared across the desk at the older man. “Why’d he send you to St. George Consulting, then?” I asked. “If there wasn’t any indication anything strange had happened, what does he expect me to do?”

Wyatt folded his handkerchief haphazardly and jammed it into his shirt pocket. He shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “All he said was that I should contact Theodore St. George, just to be on the safe side. He called it a hunch, and didn’t elaborate.”

I leaned back into my chair and laced my fingers behind my head. If O’Malley was right — and since he’d worked with Gramps in the past, he might well be — then something suspicious was going on in Bryton. I glanced over at the file cabinets and silently cursed Gramps for never getting around to computerizing our records. It would take me hours to go through them to figure out what O’Malley and Gramps had worked on together. Like my mother, may she rest in peace, always said, ‘Whatever you put off ’til tomorrow instead of doing today will bite you in the ass.’

I sighed. “Well, Mr. Wyatt, given Mr. O’Malley’s recommendation, I can look into this matter for you. Something does feel off about your daughter’s disappearance,” I said. “Whether it falls into our area of expertise remains to be seen. If it is similar to whatever O’Malley helped my grandfather with, the least I can do is check it out.”

Wyatt stood, wringing his hands. The unshed tears in his eyes glistened as much as his forehead under the fluorescent lights. “If you need any help, anything at all, let me know!” he said.

I smiled. I don’t think it was a nice smile, because Wyatt’s face fell, and he sat back down with a thump. “We’re not quite done, Mr. Wyatt,” I said. “There’s still the matter of my fee…” I opened the bottom desk drawer and withdrew the standard St. George Consulting contract. I snatched up the pen from its spot on the desk and quickly filled in the basic information regarding the case, and then slid the contract and the pen across the desk for Wyatt to sign.

“One hundred an hour, plus expenses,” I said. Wyatt blanched, but before he could complain, I continued. “Non-negotiable. If your daughter’s disappearance turns out to be … mundane, then I’ll refund eighty percent of of the hourly rate. The remainder and the expenses are non-refundable.”

“That’s …” Wyatt’s voice faded, and he swallowed. “That’s not as bad as I’d feared, to be honest,” he said, a soft drawl tinging his previously unaccented speech. He scribbled his name and the date across the bottom of the contract, and returned it.

I added my own signature before tearing the carbon copy off and handing it back. “For your records, Mr. Wyatt,” I said.

He stood and folded his copy of the contract. Wyatt turned to leave, but stopped at the door and looked over his shoulder at me. “Mr. Santos,” he said, his voice hard. “If you fail, I hope you don’t expect me to pay.”

“Of course not, Mr. Wyatt.” I met his gaze and was surprised to finally see an emotion besides worry on his face. Anger. I smiled mirthlessly and said, “If I fail, I expect to be dead.”

Prologue Top Chapter Two

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