Without A Trace
CHAPTER
1
With Every End Comes A Beginning
Tessa ascended the stairs slowly, clutching the large briefcase to her chest tightly. She reached the top of the staircase and stopped for a moment to catch her breath.
She felt her phone buzz in her pocket. She adjusted the briefcase to free a hand, pulled out her phone and flipped it open. “This is Tessa.”
“Yeah, Tess?” the voice on the other end cracked. “It’s me. Jackie.”
Tessa sighed deeply.
“Look, I know you’re going through a hard time right now, but just hear me out, okay?” Jackie coughed lightly on the other end. “This is important.”
Tessa sat down on the top of the stairs and closed her eyes. “Yes?”
Tessa could hear papers shuffling. “Tess, there’s a funeral on Friday.” Jackie paused for a moment. “It’s at Lincoln park, over by where Grandmama used to live. 2:00 at the main gazebo.”
Tessa opened her eyes and stared down the steep steps. “Yeah, so...”
“So, I think you should go.”
Tessa poked at the dirt clinging to the bottom of her pants leg. “I’m not going,” she said plainly.
Jackie huffed. “Tessa, you need to go. It’ll be good for you. Maybe it’ll provide a little... closure.”
Tessa pursed her lips together. “I don’t need closure.”
“Tess, please, I-“
“Nor do I need your sympathy.” Tessa stood up and grabbed the briefcase by the handle. “I’m not going.”
There was a long pause. Tessa was beginning to think that Jackie had hung up when she heard her voice crack through the receiver. Tessa could tell she was fighting back tears. “Just- Just think about it, okay?”
Tessa shook her head, knowing Jackie couldn’t see her. “I have business to attend to. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Alright, I’ll leave you to your work.” Jackie choked back a sob. “Goodbye Tessa. I love you.”
Tessa blinked hard and snapped her phone shut.
She walked to the studio door at the end of the hallway and scanned her keyring. She inserted a short brass key into the lock and turned it counter-clockwise until she heard a quiet click. She pushed through the door and inhaled deeply. The familiar scent of ink and film rushed into her senses, and Tessa felt an overcoming sense of emptiness.
She plastered on a stoic face and walked stiffly over to her desk. She thumped the briefcase down on the top and popped the latches.
The popping sound startled a figure in the other room and a shuffling of feet could be heard. A head popped out from around the corner. “Mistress Tessa!” it exclaimed. “You’re here early.”
Tessa nodded. “I came to get some extra work done.”
“Oh, not a problem Miss!” the head recoiled back into the room, but the voice still echoed through the empty studio. “Would you like a coffee?”
Tessa opened the briefcase and emptied the contents on her desk. There were more negatives than she remembered. “No thank you, Mildred. You know I’m cutting back on the caffeine.”
“Oh, right! Silly me, m’lady.”
Tessa smiled faintly. Good ol’ Mildy.
“Oh, Mistress Tessa! Your sister called here not so long ago. Was looking for you. Said it was urgent.” Mildred poked her head back out of the room. “Did she get a hold of you?”
Tessa spread out the negatives across her desk and placed the empty briefcase on the tile floor. “Yes, she caught me on my cell.”
Mildred smiled. “Ah, wonderful!” She emerged from the room with a toasted bagel and a cup of steaming coffee.
She looked no different than she usually did. Her shining honey eyes were hidden by her huge, wrinkly smile. Her long brown hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail, and the few golden strands shimmered in the sunlight. She had on her favorite t-shirt: the one that was two sizes too large with the name of some rock band graffitied on the front. She was wearing her “studio jeans,” and old pair of skinnies that had tore at the pockets. She had patched them up with the scraps of an old ty-dyed t-shirt from her middle school years. And she was barefoot, as she always was.
Mildred placed her coffee on her desk and took a large bite out of her bagel. She glanced at the clock on the wall above the back door. “I guess it’s that time, ma’am. Should I open?”
Tessa glanced at her watch. 9:00 am, on the dot. “Yes, I suppose you’d better.”
Mildred nodded and waltzed over the the main entrance and undid the deadbolt. She flipped the sign on the window from ‘closed’ to ‘open’ and propped open the door. The cool morning air filled the studio and it made the hairs on the back of Tessa’s neck stand on edge.
Tessa turned back to the negatives sprawled out across her desk. She looked them over. She didn’t understand why Harriet insisted on keeping these. They were terrible, blurry shots. It was only possible to determine what 25 of the shots were. The other 75? Duds.
Harriet always had weird taste. That’s why she and Tessa had gotten along so well. Harriet kept Tessa dreaming, and Tessa kept Harriet on the ground.
But Harriet’s taste died with her, and she left Tessa to clean up her mess.
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