It took about 5 minutes for Jada to finish eating. She'd watched me with a guarded look the entire time, like she was afraid I'd take her food or smack her at any moment. I felt bad about it, but I played on her fears to hurry her up. For some reason, time had started to feel... slippery. Like it was getting away.
I'm sure it was just an effect of all the hoops we were jumping through to find Muriel. But my experience told me that the feeling might mean something else, something more sinister.
When she finished, I led her to the door. I caught Joseph's questioning look and shook my head. He didn't need to abandon his post as well.
We walked down the sidewalk several feet before stopping. Jada leaned against the building, while I stood in front of her with my hands in my pockets, angling my body sideways so I wouldn't appear too intimidating. I wanted her to be able to open up to me.
“So, Jada,” I began, keeping my voice low and calm. “Do you know who I am?” She shook her head. “I’m Nicola Crandall. Muriel is my step-sister. And you are part of her street family. We both have an interest in keeping her safe, right?”
I waited for Jada to nod before I pushed on. “I'm not after her for anything. If she's safe, I'll be going home happy.” I turned towards her. “But if she's not safe, I'm gonna drag her ass out of whatever fire she's in. You got me?”
Jada sighed and opened her mouth as if to speak, but she hesitated. I relaxed my stance and waited for her.
“She got a job,” Jada said. “She's got us a rental house, too.”
I performed an actual double-take. Playing white knight didn't usually end with getting such good news. “Well, that's... good,” I said. But Jada didn't look like she was giving me good news. “So what's wrong?”
She flinched. “I don't know,” she said. “Muriel got the others jobs, too. And me. We share a place in a decent neighborhood. A four bedroom over in Ravenswood.” She shrugged. “But Muriel goes to these meeting things all the time. And she's always trying to get us to go with her. Most of the others do, once in a while. But they also try to schedule their work so they won’t have to. I just don't like them.”
“You mean the things with Keith Ludlow?” I asked.
“Yeah, that's the guy's name. And that freaky, controlling older guy who’s usually with him. I don't know what it is about either of them, or that group. I just get a sick feeling in my stomach about it.” She pushed off the building and bounced on her toes. “No one else seems to get that, so I don't hang out with the family as much.”
I nodded my sympathy.
Jada shifted uncomfortably. “And ‘cause we got jobs and stuff, we’ve stopped going down to the bridge or anywhere else the other kids hang.”
“So you come here once in a while?”
She shrugged. “It's hard to explain. I'm not really a street kid anymore, now that I got a house and a job, but I miss them all. I miss being part of them.”
“I get it, I really do,” I said. “Look, we are gonna be checking into what Muriel and Keith are doing. If there's something wrong, we'll find it, okay?”
Jada nodded, putting her hands in her pockets.I caught her eye. “Now, I need to know where to find Muriel.”