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The Red Ledger: 5 by Meredith Wild (1)

CHAPTER ONE

Isabel

New Orleans

Creamy white blossoms curl up from their leafy nests in the magnolia tree shading the stone courtyard. Those unexpected sprigs of elegance decorate the thick, gnarly branches like lotus flowers unfurled from the mud. Detached and beautiful, almost separate from their ugly roots.

In these quiet moments alone, I try to derive some wisdom from my surroundings when everything else has descended into turmoil and confusion. Our rootless, winding journey. This house and its absent host. Our search for answers, now terminally linked to Jude McKenna, whereabouts unknown.

Tristan’s been pacing and plotting for hours. Meanwhile, I’ve disappeared into the quiet of the garden. What I can’t tell him is that I’d rather commit myself to almost any other mission than join a search party for Jay, which has been his single-minded focus since she disappeared this morning.

The back door squeaks open and slams shut. Tristan emerges. The full force of his energy seems to radiate off his muscled form, extending his presence. His features are rigid—intimidating and fascinating at once. The strong set of his jaw. The aquiline ridge of his nose. His silvery-blue eyes grow darker under the shady magnolia, and his mood is indisputably distressed.

Before he can reach my spot at the wrought-iron table, I’m prickling with trepidation. Anticipation of our next step. Halo was a haven for me once, but now it’s the epicenter of my uncertainty.

Tristan takes the seat beside me and rests his forearms over the ornate tabletop. “Are you hiding out here?”

“Maybe.”

“What’s on your mind?”

I laugh a little. “I may be as conflicted over Jay as you are.”

His dark brows wrinkle. “This doesn’t have to do with how I feel about her. This has to do with everything she knows. Things no one else knows. We have to find her.”

I hold his gaze, remembering how Martine counted Jay’s knowledge of Tristan’s history among her assets. Nothing about the heated encounter I overheard with my grandfather last night sits well with me, but those words strike me now as particularly unsettling. Why would Tristan’s past as a killer be valuable to Martine? Maybe she doesn’t separate the transgressions of the Company from his, even though he’s broken away.

I can’t possibly know her true motivations, but I do know I’m still at war over Jay’s role in all of this. She’s not a victim, but Tristan insists she needs saving. He’s already saved her once. Of course, the alternative would have been to leave her for dead or days more of abuse from Crow and his men. I wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone—friend or foe. But the way he’s committed to finding her now weighs on me in an unsettling way.

Finally I lob the question that’s been roiling inside me for too long.

“How do you feel about her?”

His frown deepens. “Isabel… Don’t do this.”

“You saved her life. You were holding her hand just last night. You claim to hate her, yet it feels like you’ve grown closer. You’re connecting with her in ways you never did before. Tell me that’s not true.”

“What do you want me to do?” He renders the question so softly, so calmly, as if the fate of the situation is somehow up to me.

I look up at the blossoms again. Anything to distract me from these fickle thoughts. My jealousy shouldn’t change our course. I’m not sure what I want. Acknowledgment of something I wish weren’t true? We have enough adversity coming at us without this line of thinking.

The door opens again. Zeda and Skye pass through and walk toward us.

Tristan stands. “Where have you been?”

“Out,” Zeda replies curtly.

Skye’s eyes are wide, her posture tense. “I found something.”

“What is it?” I ask.

“Blood in the room Jay was staying in. A smear on the sink and a few drops on the floor. Barely anything. I missed it when I was looking for her in a rush this morning.”

I don’t miss the sudden tightness in Tristan’s jaw or his cold stare between the two women.

Zeda doesn’t seem to care. She lowers into the seat beside me, her tall figure folding into it with carefree grace. “I don’t think Martine took her by force, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she says. “I saw them leave a couple hours after Martine and Gabriel were arguing in the office last night. I hung back for a while after he stormed out. Martine was between her office and her bedroom for a while after. Then she went upstairs. About twenty minutes later, she and Jay left together. Right out the back door.” She points toward the metal gate covered in vines at the end of the courtyard.

I shake my head. “Why would there be blood if she left without a fight?”

“We should sweep the house,” Tristan says. “Every room.”

Skye stiffens again. “Martine will be back soon. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for all this. She’s never gone for more than a few days at a time.”

“Which is exactly why we should search the house now,” he snaps back.

Zeda sighs loudly. “Listen, we could be blowing all this out of proportion a little bit. We don’t know what happened. Martine probably had a good reason to get Jay out of the house.”

Tristan opens his mouth to speak, but Zeda cuts him off.

“We should let the dust settle for a while. We could probably all use a little time to decompress and think it over before we jump to conclusions. I was thinking about hitting up that festival over on Freret later. Anyone want to come?”

She shoots a look to Tristan that only lasts a second. Skye misses it. I don’t.

Skye’s expression brightens a little, her relief evident. “I think Zeda’s right. We shouldn’t be rash. And I’m in.”

Tristan manages a small smile. “Fine. You’re probably right. Let’s give it twenty-four hours.”

Something about the easy way he relents tells me he’s not even close to actually giving up. When we’re back in the room, I press him on it.

“It seems like you and Zeda are up to something.”

He sits on the edge of the bed. “I need to get the watchdog out of the house so I can look around.”

“Whether Skye is here or not, Martine’s office is locked.”

He shoots me a bored look, and I almost laugh. He doesn’t let much come in the way of what he wants.

“Okay, what do you expect to find? I doubt she left a map.”

“I’m not sure yet. But can we both agree Martine shouldn’t be trusted?”

I pause. “After what I heard last night, I don’t trust that she’s entirely the person she portrays herself to be.”

“Your grandfather doesn’t think so either.”

My growing doubts about Martine’s intentions take root a little more. “What did you talk about? I saw you walk away with him this morning.”

“He thinks Martine’s ego is out of control. He wants you far away from all of this in case she decides to drag you further into it the way she did with Boswell. I think he’s telling the truth. I believe he cares about you and wants the best for you.”

“He’s my grandfather. Of course he does.”

Even as I say it, I think about my own parents’ betrayal. Actions they took with my best interests in mind, supposedly. I shake those thoughts, because what’s done is done. I can’t dwell on it for long. “Skye and Zeda will only be gone a few hours. Will that be enough time?”

“Should be. You’re going with them.”

I still. “Why?”

His expression softens. “Because it’ll be good for you to get out of the house. Do something normal.”

I laugh. “Normal?”

“You had fun when you all went out before. It was the happiest I’ve ever seen you.”

I walk over to him, take the space between his thighs. “Being with you makes me happy.”

“It’s also fucking with your head right now.” He rests his hand on my hip and holds my gaze.

He might be right, but I’m still wary about leaving him alone when it feels like we’re in the middle of a crisis—one I’m eager to escape. I don’t know how else we’ll get Skye out of the house for any extended period of time otherwise, though.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. Stay on guard and stay together, obviously. But you should get out and get to know the city, especially if we’re going to be staying here.”

“Okay,” I say tentatively.

“Don’t worry about Jay, okay? Let this be my problem.” He touches my cheek, traces my lower lip. “You’re all I care about. Everything comes back to you.”

TRISTAN

I don’t enjoy seeing her walk away from me, sandwiched between her disillusioned friend and Zeda, the woman I’m putting more stock in lately. But I tell myself this is the right thing. I can’t think straight when she’s drilling me about Jay—supportive of the humanity I show her one minute and questioning my attachment to her the next. I can’t overthink it. There’s simply no time. Not when Martine’s got this much of a head start.

Every hour that passes is valuable time lost. If I have to tear this house apart to get some answers, I will. I can’t do that with Skye anywhere near. Unfortunately it’ll take more than a missing sister of the house to shake her loyalty to Martine.

I let some time pass before I head back to Martine’s office. The door is locked, but I manage to release both the doorknob and the deadbolt with some deft movements of a couple of paperclips I found in a junk drawer in the kitchen.

The inside of the room is just as I remember it. Darker and less feminine than I would have expected, since her overall look is loud and consistently feminine. Then again, Martine isn’t who she claims to be. Of this, I’m certain.

I sit behind her desk and tap the keyboard, waking up the display. The computer is locked, which is fine. I pick the nearby cabinet, which reveals a monitor showing cameras strategically placed around the house. The upstairs and downstairs hallways, sitting room, and kitchen. I’m relieved to not see the bedrooms. God knows there’s already enough elicit video of Isabel in Martine’s possession after the Boswell ordeal.

I open the attached laptop and navigate back to the wee hours of the night until I catch movement through the kitchen. It’s too dark to identify the shape of the person. I rewind the video a little further and pause it on Jay’s figure walking down the stairs alone. A little further back shows Martine entering her room and leaving a short time later. Jay would have been alone for the moments before she left through the back door, Martine by her side.

Zeda’s story checks out. Nothing seems amiss. No pauses. No struggles. Just a quiet march from Jay’s room to the back door after a quick visit from Martine. She must have said something to get Jay to leave so suddenly. Was it a threat? Misinformation?

I navigate around the surveillance software a little more, disappointed there’s no audio attached to the visuals picked up by the camera. I glance around Martine’s office, knowing there’s bound to be something of value hiding in her filing cabinets. I open the closest one to find mostly administrative paperwork. Bills and invoices. Another contains dozens of files associated with properties. Deeds and plots and purchase agreements. Some go back a decade or more, all now in the name of Halo Ministries. There’s no sign of tax forms.

I shake my head with a silent laugh. Unbelievable. For however long Martine’s been driving the Halo mission, I’d be willing to bet she’s been doing it tax free. How much is Halo sitting on?

I pull another drawer but find it locked. I fiddle with the lock impatiently until it springs open, revealing its contents. A handful of folders hang in the otherwise empty drawer. The first one contains statements from a local bank. A checking account and a savings account. The former serves as the general Halo operating account, judging by the nature of the transactions and small amounts listed on the paperwork. Between the two, there’s just over five million dollars combined.

The amount doesn’t faze me. There has to be more. Martine’s hands are in too many pots.

The next folders confirm it. Four other accounts spread across different institutions, including an offshore account, each totaling eight figures or more. The only activity on the accounts are a dozen or so monthly deposits in the tens of thousands and a couple of outgoing wire transfers for far less.

Halo is sitting on piles of cash and who knows how much more in real estate. And all of it is completely under the radar. Why would a supposedly charitable organization hold on to that much liquidity? The women in the house have every need met, but with the amount of money Martine’s working with, she should be helping more people, and they should all be driving around in Bentleys. She’s stockpiling. But for what?

I hit the brakes on my racing thoughts because they’re leading me down a road I don’t have time to travel right now. The only asset I should be worried about is Jay, who Martine’s got in her clutches. It could take hours to piece this paperwork together and get a clearer picture of her game, but even then, who knows if anything will point to where she’s keeping Jay.

After putting things back the way I found them, I abandon the office and head upstairs to the room where Jay was staying. It’s bare beyond some stacks of clothes with tags set atop a bureau. Whatever Skye bought for Jay didn’t go with her, or at least not much of it. The polished pine floors that are as old as the house lead into a bathroom. Brick-colored ceramic tile covers the floor and continues seamlessly into the shower.

I immediately notice the smear of blood on the white sink. I crouch lower and study the floor to find several perfectly round red droplets sprinkled around a two-foot radius, almost camouflaged on the flooring. What the hell was Jay doing?

Everything else is bare and clean. I rise to my feet, ready to abandon the investigation of Jay’s room, when something catches my eye. A tiny black dot at the bottom of the toilet bowl, barely noticeable. I bend, submerge my hand in the water, and retrieve it. I roll it between my thumb and forefinger. I’ve never seen one exactly like this, but I know enough to recognize it’s a micro tracking chip. This one is no larger than a pill capsule, except flatter, easily hidden under the flesh.

And I’m willing to bet the contents of Halo’s Swiss bank account that it’s been inside Jay until she cut it out this morning. She probably tried flushing it, but it never carried through the drain pipe. What’s even more concerning is the tiny switch on one side, just big enough to move with my thumbnail. But I’m not sure if this thing is still pinging, and I don’t want to be the one to set it off.

Either way, I’ve found one more good reason to get Isabel as far away from Halo as possible.