There are nights when I lie awake and can still hear the sound of my mother’s dying breath. I see her chest rise and then with one final gasp, she is no more. I was ten years old when my mother passed and I was with her in the hospital, holding her hand as she left this world. I remember my father running into her hospital room, his face streaked with tears, just having missed saying goodbye to the woman he had married when he was barely twenty years old. I had made it in time with my grandmother and had sat with her as she watched her only child die. I can still hear my father’s sobs as he gathered my mother’s lifeless body in his arms, begging her to come back to us, but my mother had not been with us for almost a year, the cancer that had consumed her body, robbing us of her presence both physically and mentally. I can’t explain to this day, the sense of relief and calm that came over me when I saw her take her final breath. Looking back, I think I envied her passing away, because, unlike me, she would never have to bear witness to losing her entire family in a matter of months.
Monday morning traffic in Johannesburg can be a nightmare to most, but I revelled in the thinking time it afforded me. Being stuck in what seemed like a virtual parking lot at times, allowed me to order my thoughts, re-arrange my list of things to do and face my fears. In two weeks’ time, on the 14th of June, my brother Luke would be thirty-five years old. It would also mark the twentieth anniversary of when I’d last seen him. Ever since I was ten years old and my world fell apart, I would each year, wish away the months of June, July and August, not because it was the winter months in South Africa, but because I had lost each one of my family members in those months, thus bringing to an end, my idyllic childhood in Cape Town.
Alexa, my cousin, who is two years younger than me and twenty years wiser, has often told me over the years, that I, Mia Casiraghi, was the luckiest unlucky person in the world! When I went to live with my father’s family at age ten, I carried the burden of loss on my tiny shoulders and Alexa unknowingly contributed to helping me get rid of it. Alexa is actually the daughter of my first cousin Gray, who in turn is the son of my father’s only sibling, Gareth. Uncle Gareth had been an only child and was out of high school, when his parents announced that they were expecting another son, my father, Ben Casiraghi. Although the brothers were very close, their lives were literally provinces apart, with my family living in Cape Town and Uncle Gareth basing himself and his family in Johannesburg. I had spoken to Uncle Gareth many times over the phone and he and his wife Emma came to visit us when my mother took a turn for the worse, but he had been, for the most part of my early childhood, a distant relative. Gray, on the other hand, who was closer in age to my father, was a regular fixture in my life and he and my dad shared a very strong bond. My mum used to say that they were more like brothers than uncle and nephew.
I was born in Cape Town, five years after my brother Luke, to Anna and Ben Casiraghi, two amazing parents who lived almost a bohemian lifestyle and instilled in their children a love for all things creative. When I lost my family twenty years ago, first Luke in June, my mother in July and my dad in August and my Gran was too frail to care for me, Uncle Gareth and Aunt Emma came to fetch me, despite my protestations that I could live alone in our small house! I knew I was reluctant to leave Cape Town in case Luke returned and didn’t know where to find me. But he never did. In twenty years, no one had seen or heard from Luke Casiraghi and the official story was that the runaway had met a fatal end. I refused to believe it as a ten-year-old and now, at thirty, it was still something that my heart refused to accept.
My failure to accept the ‘truth’ of my brother’s disappearance was the reason I now sat in peak hour traffic. My Gran once told me, more in jest than in anger when we were embroiled in an absorbing game of chess, that I didn’t know when to give up. I think my problem is, that I don’t know how to give up, which is the reason that I still refuse to believe that Luke walked away from all of us without a backward glance.
I eventually reached the building in Sandton which housed the offices of Munro and Associates, a private investigation firm. The building looked fairly nice on the outside and I wondered at the cost of renting such a place in one of the priciest suburbs in Johannesburg. Stop it, Mia, I chastised. I could never suppress the financier in me, I realised. I was always appraising buildings and companies. A bad habit, I know, yet one in which I was clearly gifted. I parked my car, the practical Honda Jazz that I was driving today and opened the boot to retrieve the copies of files that I had brought with me.
I walked into the building, trepidation marking my every step as I made my way to Munro and Associates and prayed that Alexa’s ex-fling was a better investigator than a boyfriend.
Chase Munro drank his third cup of coffee for the morning, silently thanking Mrs Joubert, his secretary, who had come in early to put on the coffee and bring him his favourite apple danishes. He needed the reinforcement, especially since he had promised his good friend and old flame Alexa that he would take on her cousin’s case, even though he was overloaded with work and his associate was still recovering from a gunshot wound sustained in a failed hijacking attempt. But that was another story. He had prodded Alexa for more information on Mia Casiraghi because he didn’t like to go cold into a case, but all she would say, was that Mia was an open book and she wanted him to form his own opinion of her and the case. It was odd that even though he had known Alexa for a while, he hadn’t met her cousin, whom Alexa called her ‘sister’. Chase had learnt through Mrs J though, that Mia Casiraghi was the owner and executive chef of Casiraghi’s, an upmarket restaurant a few blocks away from their offices. Mrs J also excitedly informed him that the restaurant was always busy and you had to book at least a month in advance if you wanted to eat there. Chase personally preferred the ‘walk-in’ type of restaurant and besides, the food at his mum’s place was often better than that of any restaurant he’d eaten in. Better still, the Munro kitchen was open 24/7!
Mrs J formally announced his next appointment and he was surprised to see that his secretary looked almost in awe of their newest client. Chase quickly assessed the young woman who stood in front of him. He knew that she was the same age as him, but boy did she age better! Mia Casiraghi was a petite, brown-eyed brunette, who was five foot nothing and he would guess, barely a hundred pounds. She wore a navy-blue pantsuit with a red blouse and red heels, with her hair pulled neatly into a ponytail. Classy lady, Chase decided.
“Miss Casiraghi, it’s a pleasure meeting you,” Chase said formally when he noticed the ‘let’s get down to business’ look of his client. Mia Casiraghi, diminutive as she was, definitely appeared intimidating to the untrained eye.
“Thanks Mr Munro and it’s Mia,” Mia began. “I’m really grateful for you seeing me at such short notice. I know that you’re probably extremely busy,” she continued, realising that she was still holding the box of files that she had carried in.
“It’s Chase and it’s no problem. Alexa wasn’t too forthcoming on your case but she mentioned that it was important to you and your entire family. Please, take a seat,” he motioned, as he took the box of files from her hands. He waited as Mia seated herself. He noticed that her nervousness was accompanied by a steely determination. “So, do you want to tell me how I can help you?”
Mia folded her hands on the table. “It’s pretty simple really. I need you to find my brother, Luke.”
Crap! Chase hated missing persons cases. Sometimes, people just did not want to be found, especially adults. However, he had made a promise to Alexa which he intended to keep. “Okay, when did you last see him?”
“Twenty years ago,” Mia said simply. “My brother disappeared when he was fifteen years old and no one has seen or heard from him since.” Mia gave Chase a moment to absorb that information. “I need you to find him or find out what happened to him!”
It was almost midnight when Chase left his office. He had closed off some of his associate’s cases before tackling Mia Casiraghi’s request. The information she had brought him and the story she related were truly fascinating, distracting Chase from the fact that he hated missing person cases.
The facts of the case were really interesting. In June of 1998, Luke Casiraghi, then 15 years old wandered off from his home, never to be seen again. The police reports were very detailed, but Chase gathered that the detectives investigating Luke Casiraghi’s disappearance had eventually surmised that the teenager had run away from home. Luke’s teachers, his friends and even a few neighbours reported that his behaviour proved cause for concern, so much so that he had been mandated to see the school psychologist for a few sessions. However, Luke’s father, Ben Casiraghi was adamant that his son was not a runaway and that Luke had been acting out because of his mother’s impending death. Anna Casiraghi was stricken with cancer at that time and virtually on her deathbed. Her entire family was stressed and highly-strung. Ben claimed that even though he and his son had fought the night before his disappearance, Luke would never have abandoned his sister. Mia and Luke were inseparable, Ben claimed and Luke took his duties as big brother very seriously. Chase saw that the detectives had also interviewed then-10 year old Mia Casiraghi. “The missing teenager’s sister, Mia, presented no indication that she suspected that her brother planned to run away. She insisted that Luke would not do that, that he loved his family. Mia had spoken to her brother the night before his disappearance. He had been helping her with her homework, since their father was at the hospital with their mum. She also shared that the family had had breakfast together on the morning of Luke’s disappearance, to celebrate his birthday. My assessment is that the little girl is telling the truth, or at least what she believes is the truth,” the detective had written.
Chase closed the report and placed it back into the file jacket that Mrs J had opened up for this case. He already had a list of questions forming in his mind and he knew he would have them all written down before he closed his eyes tonight, but first he needed to speak to his ex-girlfriend.
“Seriously, Chase, I think you should speak directly to Mia first,” Alexa protested, not too happy with Chase’s interrogation. “Look, I’m grateful that you took on her case, but she’s the only one who can answer all your questions.” Chase smiled, knowing that the look of frustration on his ex-girlfriend’s face masked the fierce loyalty that Alexa had for her cousin. In all the months that Chase and Alexa had ‘dated’, Alexa had spoken of her cousin with reverence. Of course, she hadn’t mentioned that Mia Casiraghi was the owner and executive chef of this fine restaurant in which Chase now sat, sharing a coffee with Alexa.
“Okay, I get your point,” Chase conceded. For now. “What are you doing so late at the restaurant in any case?” Chase asked.
Alexa sighed, recognising Chase’s diversionary tactics. “Well, we only open for dinner on Mondays and because of that, we tend to stay open until midnight. I’m just waiting for Mia to close up. She is a bit OCD about her kitchen and won’t be able to sleep if she doesn’t leave it spotless. I guess all chefs are like that,” Alexa laughed.
“My mother is like that about her kitchen,” Chase smiled, just as Mia came into view. If Mia was surprised to see him, it did not show on her face. Instead, she stood at their table, waiting for Chase to speak. “I thought I would drop by to see if Alexa was up for a coffee and whether you could answer a few questions that I have,” Chase admitted.
“It’s rather late for that, don’t you think?” Mia asked. Chase almost felt guilty for a second but then realised that she had asked for his help. “I can come by your office at midday, Mr Munro. I’m afraid I need to get up early tomorrow,” Mia said, without waiting for a response to her earlier question.
She was a piece of work, Chase thought, and yet there was something about her that he liked. She was very forthright. In his job, that was a bonus. “Midday tomorrow should be fine. And it’s Chase,” he reminded her. Mia nodded. Chase took that as his cue to leave, kissing Alexa goodbye on her cheek as he left. He knew that they would say something about his visit after he left.
He was right. “I bet he was trying to get more information about me,” Mia rightly stated as they walked to her car. Alexa was staying over at her place that night, as her apartment had been painted during the day and she couldn’t take the fumes.
“Guessed it in one, cuz,” Alexa joked. “I think he wanted a different perspective.”
“He could have just asked me,” Mia huffed. “So, why did you two break up again?” Mia asked.
Alexa laughed as she put on her seatbelt. Chase would enjoy working with Mia, Alexa thought. “Chase and I were a one-night stand that went on for three months, before we both realised it. When we did, we knew that we would be better off as friends,” Alexa said, noticing the slight flush on her cousin’s face. Mia was the smartest person that Alexa had ever met, but she was also the most innocent in terms of relationships. Apart from that creep Thomas Gardner that she had dated for six months many years ago, Mia rarely dated and was still waiting for Mr Right.
“Hey, I’m not judging you,” Mia proclaimed when she noticed Alexa looking at her. “I always thought that maybe he cheated on you or something.”
There was a slight note of hurt in her voice and Alexa knew that Thomas the Bastard had put it there. He was some piece of work. If she ever saw him again, she would kick him in the nuts! Instead, she said, “I know you’re not. And no, Chase did not cheat on me. He’s actually a great guy and an even better friend. Sometimes Mia, a girl has to settle for Mr Right-Now. There is nothing wrong with a one-night stand, you know. You should try it sometime,” Alexa joked and then, noticing her cousin’s heightened colouring, a suspicion formed in her mind. “OMG, you did try it!”
“I can’t talk about it right now. It wasn’t a good experience for me,” Mia said quickly.
Alexa paled. “Why, did the guy hurt you?” she asked.
“No,” Mia replied quickly. “It was, uh, a mistake for both of us.”
Alexa sensed Mia’s reluctance to expand on the conversation and left it, comforted that her cousin had not been violated in any way. As Mia exited the parking lot onto the main road, she didn’t notice the dark blue sedan that followed them all the way home.