Chapter 7: Leather and Steel

After nearly a week of trying to meet with Bradley Ambridge, I finally arranged to talk to him at his father’s private ranch. I had to barrow Jake’s automobile to get out there – it was some distance out of town. But the trip did not take as long as I thought it would and I arrived half an hour early.

I parked at the end of the private road near a large stable and told some workers, stable hands, that I was waiting for Mr. Ambridge. I didn’t say which one. They seemed uninterested in me after that and had no time to chat.

To pass the time I walked along the fence and looked at some of the horses. It’s not too
often I see horses outside of the race track so I took the opportunity to admire their grace and beauty in this pleasant environment. As much as I enjoy the business of the city it was nice to get away on occasion.

At some point I became aware of a black horse being ridden from a far field toward my direction. As the rider neared I realized it was a woman. A few more paces and I realized it was a beautiful woman.

She had long black hair that waved behind her as she rode and she wore very finely fitted ridding clothes. The sun lit her face brightly but she did not squint. As she drew closer she looked at me with big dark eyes and smiled at me with bright red lips.

Two of the stable men ran up to aid her dismount but she waved them away. She enjoyed looking down on me as she came along side the fence. She wore black leather ridding boots, tan riding pants, a white blouse, and black leather gloves.

I removed my hat and wished her a pleasant day.

Speaking more at me than to me she said, “So has my brother hired a new accountant? Or are you here about the stable hand job?”

I was quite tempted to answer the latter but decided to play this one straight. “I’m a private investigator.”

“Well,” she said, “Brad always did have a paranoid mind. Would you like to tell me why he hired you?”
As she spoke she slowly pulled at the fingers of her glove then stripped it off. At that moment I thought of Natalie.

“I’m actually here to ask him some questions about I case I’ve taken for someone else.” I said.
She was starting to pull off the other glove, more slowly this time. I then realized that I was staring and looked back at her face. She was smiling with intense pleasure.

“Wonderful thing, leather.” She said, “It stimulates all the senses. Sight, sound, touch, scent. Don’t you agree?”

Saying this she tossed her gloves at me and I caught them in front of my face. She seemed to wait so I made a motion to show that I sniffed them. The smell of leather mixed with the sweet odor of a hard ride entered my head. I decide not to mention the sense she had omitted.

She looked me up and down then said, “Are you sure you’re not here for that stable hand job?”
Before I could answer I was startled by a voice about ten yards behind me.

“I trust you’re staying out of mischief, Priscilla.”

My instincts as a detective took over and I hid the gloves inside my jacket before turning around. I would have liked to have the time to straighten my tie and hair as well but decided it was better to quickly face the man who I guessed to be this woman’s brother and Natalie’s boyfriend.

“Detective Drake, isn’t it?” He gave no hint of expecting to shake my hand so I made no such move myself.

Bradley Ambridge had the look of controlled authority and utter confidence. I’ve met men with similar qualities, but not many. Even in what was meant to be casual clothing his appearance was impeccable.

“So Natalie went to the police?” He said with the sound of surprise. “But she has some bizarre medical condition. Why would she need the police?”

“I’m not with the police, Mister Ambridge,” I explained although I’m sure he understood, “I’m a private investigator and my clients come to me for reasons of their own.”

Priscilla interjected, “Natalie Taylor? Are you still taken with that call-girl, brother?”

“Please, Priscilla,” Mister Ambridge said with a tone as sharp as a barber’s razor, “This is a confidential matter. I don’t need you meddling in my affairs. Again.” Then to me he said, “This way, Mister Drake.”

I followed and we walked on the road, away from the fence.

“So Mister Drake, this is about the … thing … that has happened to Natalie? I expect she told you that I was caught quite unprepared by the sight of her.”

“Mr. Ambridge,” I began, “I understand you were with Miss Taylor the night before she vanished.”

“Yes, I took her to dinner at the yacht club. But if you think there was something in the food then wouldn’t dozens of such cases turn up?”

It was a good point but I was leaving such questions to my medical colleague. I asked Mister Ambridge to recount the evening in detail. The story was just as I had heard it before, dinner, dancing, and finally a drive home. There was a kiss at the door – Natalie hadn’t mentioned that.

“And that was the last time I saw her, literally.” I couldn’t bring myself to smile at his weak pun.
With a hint of emotion in his voice he finally said, “Please, tell her that I deeply regret my reaction the next day.”

I stopped and turned to face him. With all his status and image he was just a man like any other. I said, “Perhaps you should tell her that yourself.”

He cast his eyes down to the ground. “I can’t bear to, Mister Drake. It frightens me to see what she has become.”

I thought about this man who seemed to have such a commanding presence only a short time ago. I wouldn’t have thought that anything could frighten him.

“She’s still the same person, Mister Ambridge. She’s still a sweet and wonderful woman who happens to be transparent.”

“Mister Drake, I wouldn’t expect a man of your position in life to understand.” The steel was returning to his voice. “In my world, status and appearance go hand in hand. I cannot risk being seen with a woman who can’t be seen.” This time there was no humor in his voice. He didn’t care if it sounded like a pun. “Look Mister Drake, I know it may sound harsh but there are no headless women in my social circles.”

He then wished me a good day and walked back to the large stable. I wrote some notes in my book and also made some mental notes that were not appropriate for paper.

I walked back to my auto – Jake’s auto, actually – and started to think about my next move. When I looked up I saw Priscilla Ambridge watching me. She had one foot on the bumper and her hands on her hips.

“Going so soon?” she asked.
Not knowing what else to say I reached into my jacket pocket. “You forgot your gloves,” I said offering them to her.

She smiled playfully and said, “You can give them to me when you return.” She walked around to the door as I got out the keys. “Bring them back clean and I’ll give you my boots next time.”

I said nothing and got in the vehicle. She watched as I started the engine and turned around. I avoided looking at her in the mirror.

As I drove back to the city I wondered at what point I had begun to think of Miss Taylor as “Natalie”.

Next Chapter

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