I locked the post office box and flipped though my mail as I exited the building. There were three- count 'em- three bills with past due notices. I sighed. No matter what anyone tells you, private investigators do not make a lot of money. Ever. Well, maybe if they work in a big firm, where you get the posh clients and simple cases, but me? No. Oh, it was all right when Ted was around, but anymore it was a good month if I broke even. Oops! I guess you're a bit confused at this point. Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Quinby Xander (what are the odds of my initials being the two least used letters in the English alphabet? Believe it or not, I don't even have a middle name to balance things out. Ted told me to keep my maiden name- Clarkson- but I guess I'm a traditionalist at heart) President of the Chelsea Detective Agency, Wilmington, Delaware (I find myself snickering whenever I say that) In case you didn't guess, Ted is-was? Anyway, he's my late husband. He was the agency's Vice President. When we were both working cases, we made a pretty good profit. But then he got cancer. Of the liver. I had asked every doctor we saw how a man who's never had so much as one alcoholic drink could have liver cancer before he turned thirty. Of course, no one had an answer. Finally Ted's oncologist took me aside one day while he was in treatment. "Mrs. Xander," he said, "No matter how deeply or how long we study medical science, only God truly understands the 'whys' of the human body. You and your husband may not have much more time together. I urge you to stop looking for explanations and enjoy your life." He was right, of course. No physician was going to be able to tell me why my husband was dying, just that he was. Oh, there were treatments that went on for about a year, but I'd somehow known all along- even before that conversation- that it wouldn't do any good. Ted died on my twenty-fifth birthday, less than a week before our third wedding anniversary. Four years later my chest still constricted when I thought of him. Enough of that though. I was in the process of jiggling the key in the door of my car in the post office's parking lot. Finally it opened, and I fell into the driver's seat of my Honda. The car had been twelve years old when I bought it after selling mine to pay Ted's medical bills. Nearly five years later- well let's just say it was on shaky footing when I got it; now it was a mobile scrap heap. Two of the doors had no handles. Use of a screwdriver was required to open the trunk, and I'd long ago counted any items in the glove box as lost forever. I'd racked up a few seatbelt tickets, as those only worked when it suited their fancy, and then there was the large brownish stain on the passenger's seat from the time I rushed a suspect who'd been shot in the gut to the hospital. Another thing you can't believe. If detectives really drive hot cars like on T.V.- they're idiots. You never know when you might have someone bleeding to death in the seat or get your windshield shot out. Windshield's on an early nineties model Civic are relatively cheap. I'd hate to think what it would cost to fix one in a Camaro. I turned the key in the ignition. Predictably, nothing happened. I beat my fist on the dash in frustration. I wish the government would sponsor that Cash for Clunkers program again, although there was no way I could afford a car payment. Goodness, I couldn't even pay my light bill, but you can't run a detective agency with no electric. I popped the hood and got out. Just because I'm a detective, doesn't mean I know any more about fixing motor vehicles than the average woman. I wiggled the battery cables and blew off the distributor cap, but after that, I had no idea what to do. Thankfully about that time a silver four door pickup, pulled up in the space in front of me.
"You needing some help, miss?" I turned to look into the bluest pair of eyes I'd ever seen. I mean, the only time I've seen anything close is on a Siamese cat. Truly a captivating pair of orbs. I zoomed out. The face they were attached to was nothing to sneeze at either. Much as I hate to contribute to the stereotype of 'poor dumb female', at least when it has to be it's nice to be rescued by a handsome knight in shining armor. Or in this case, jeans and a polo.
"It won't start." Okay, so that was probably pretty obvious, since most people aren't in the habit of staring at their car's engine if it's working fine.
He poked around under the hood for about five minutes, "Have you tried jumping…" he leaned under the motor. His words were unclear for a moment, then he leaned back and I heard "…it."
"Jumping on it?" I repeated incredulously, "No, but I'd love to. Where should I-"
"No, jumpstarting the motor." He said tersely, shooting me a look that plainly announced he thought me a total fruitcake. "I'll take that as a no. Do you want me to?"
"If you think it'll make it work." He sighed and shook his head, hopped in his truck, and for one terrifying moment, I thought he was going to leave me. But no, he turned the pickup around and got out with a yellow cable that had two clamps on each end. He opened the hood to the truck and attached the cables.
"Can I trust you not to run off with my truck?" I nodded dumbly. "Then hop in and give it a little gas." Nervously, I climbed into the truck. It was a nicer vehicle than I'd ever hope to own. I set my foot on the accelerator and pressed. The engine revved in response. "I said a little!" he hollered. I eased off. After a minute I heard the sound of a sickly sounding motor turning over, and finally my little car roared back to life. Well, perhaps 'roared' is an exaggeration of the facts. Let us say it was now functioning, and hopefully would get me home. I thanked the man, and asked ever so casually for his name. "Garrett Whitson." Such a nice normal name I thought. Again I thanked him, and he got in his truck and drove away.
I made it home without further incident. I let myself in the back door and disarmed the security system. I walked around flipping on lights, and then unlocked the glass front door. Why? You ask would a detective invite trouble by having a glass door? That's because I live in my office. 1449 Northeast Parkway to be exact. Office in the front, and bed, kitchenette, and bathroom behind the partition. It wasn't exactly cool with the zoning board, me living here, so I kept it under wraps. I'd moved in after Ted died for two reasons. Reason 1: I couldn't afford to pay my rent at the apartment. Reason 2: I hadn't been able to stand living there without Ted anyway.
I sat down at my desk and turned on the computer, and then took out my letter opener to investigate the envelopes I didn't recognize. Envelope #1 contained a letter from a woman who was distraught over the disappearance of her cat, Pueblo. Included were a photo of a small gray cat, and a $50 retainer check. If I were any less honest, I would pocket the fifty bucks, get a gray cat from the shelter, and collect my usual fee. But I felt quite strongly about ethics, so I grabbed one of my form refusal letters, filled in the name, and placed it with the outgoing mail. On envelope #2 I hit the jackpot. A $500 check for my fee on a case I closed months ago. The check was dated back ninety days. I guess it had gotten lost in the mail. I'd written the lady off. I opened the spreadsheet Ted had set up for me to record payments in. he'd always taken care of collecting, because, as he put it, I was too nice. I wrote out checks to cover the bills and put them in outgoing. Then I checked my email and answering machine. When finished, I compiled a list prioritizing the requests. Marital disputes went to the bottom tier. (They were no fun, and I didn't always get paid) next were missing persons. (They were all but impossible to solve) then there were my favorite cases, the 'easy money' as I like to call them. Stolen objects. There were two of them today. 1) Grandma's Diamond Ring. Notes: Victim removed ring because her finger was starting to swell. She put the ring in the cup holder of her Mustang, and got out to enter a restaurant. Forty-five minutes later, she comes out and the ring is gone. No sign of tampering observed on the car, odd because she locked the doors and set the alarm, but, oh yeah, left the windows and top down! My conclusion? (Other than that this chick is a bona fide idiot) Any Tom, Dick, or Harry walking by would have been sore tempted to lift the ring. She had included a high-res photo of the jewel taken at an engagement party, and was willing to pay out $1,000. I always ask for a 15% retainer, so I shot her a return email, gave her my miscellaneous account number, and told her to make a cash deposit. Once I saw the money was in there, I would start the case. Case #2. Stolen license plate. Why don't people just report things to the police? I wondered as I forwarded the email to my contact in the department, Sgt. Humphrey Left. Rats. This meant I'd have to look through the missing persons cases while waiting for Ring-a-Ling to deposit my retainer. The bell over the door chimed. Or not. The tall blonde strolled casually over to my desk before removing her large sunglasses. Her makeup was definitely Mary Kay, and applied by the book putting me in mind of Tammy Faye Baker. Her hair hung between her shoulders and her waist, and reminded me of when my friend Linda got a home permanent when we were in junior high. If she had split what she spent on her hair and face evenly she'd have looked a lot better. That wasn't a nice thought. I'm cynical. Also jealous. She was tall, svelte, and confident. Me? Well, I'm short and scrawny. Fun-sized Ted would always say as he rested his chin on the top of my head. I sure miss that guy.
The blonde shoved her sunglasses into her over-sized knock-off Gucci bag. "I need to speak with the President." She demanded coolly. The way she acted, I momentarily wondered if she meant of the U.S., but then she wouldn't be here I suppose.
"That would be me." I said calmly, "Please, have a seat." She did. "Now, how may I help you?"
"This is a matter requiring extreme delicacy," she began, "I will pay any price you ask, but I demand discretion, perfection, and no outside involvement."
"Okay," I said slowly, "Suppose you tell me what it's about."
She cut me off, "I refuse to tell you unless you are taking the case."
"You want me to grant you carte blanche, so to speak, on my time?" I replied dubiously, "If any of this is illegal, I can't. I'd lose my license." That wasn't the only reason, but I hoped it would make an impression.
"It's perfectly legal." She snapped. "I just don't want everyone knowing my business."
This bat was strange with a capital S. my head screamed for me to run and not look back, but I could really use the income. "If I discover anything contrary to law, I'll have to report it," I said hesitantly.
"Then I'll do it."
"Okay." She smiled, "I need you to follow my husband." That's it, I'm officially loony. "I think he's hiding something from me."
Inwardly, I groaned, "By 'something', you mean infidelity?"
She laughed, "Oh, goodness no!" he produced a photo from her purse, "He's hardly attractive enough to catch another woman." I studied the picture. He wasn't devastating like Garrett Whiston, but not altogether a bad looking man. "I think he's sick." I wondered in what sense she meant that. I mean, frankly, I thought a man who would get involved with her was mentally ill, but…
"What makes you say that?" I tried to keep my voice devoid of emotion.
"I've discovered some… invoices among his things- bills from a doctor's office, and some credit card receipts with several large transactions at different pharmacies. He's been acting rather… strange these last few weeks- I- I'm afraid he has cancer." At this point she burst into tears. I was startled, but waited calmly until her sobs abated. I did feel sorry for her; after all, I'd been through this myself.
"But he hasn't told you?" I asked softly. It would have killed me if Ted hadn't been up front with me about his illness.
She shook her head sadly, "I think he believes me too delicate to deal with it, but I have to know."
"I understand." He was out of touch if he thought she was delicate.
"You'll do it then?" I nodded, "What will it cost?" I quoted her double my hourly rate just for the trouble I was sure she was going to be. She agreed. "And I'll need $500 for deposit." Chances were she'd be too distraught to pay me later. "Cash." She produced ten fifty dollar bills from her wallet. I tucked them in a desk drawer. Now I need a little bit of information about your husband. I filled out a file as she answered my questions. Name: Mason Price. Age: 42. Occupation: Manager for LEKU a locally based company that makes software for retail stores. I took a scan of the photo to keep in my file. Once I was satisfied with my knowledge of Mr. Price I asked for her contact information. Her name, by the way, was Beryl. "Barrie, my friends call me."
"Now, Mrs. Price," I wasn't sure if 'Barrie' would be too familiar.
"Oh, no, I've gone back to my maiden name, Getteman."
"Gone back?" I asked
"Oh yes, I legally changed it last year when Mason and I separated."
Well THAT certainly changed things! "If you are separated, perhaps he did not feel compelled to tell you that he was sick."
"Oh, we're back together now." She said with a wave of her hand, "We separate for about three months every couple of years. Last time it was almost six though. We actually started divorce proceedings. But then we patched things up, so I just filed the papers away. Guess I'll finish them if you find what I think you will.
I felt my jaw slacken. "You would divorce you husband just because he has cancer?" okay, so apparently my normal tactfulness had taken a vacation today, but come on, what a jerk! Granted I believe strongly in the sanctity of marriage, so I wouldn't have left Ted for any reason, but least of all when he needed me.
"Honey do you have any idea how expensive treatments for that are?" I was about to say that I did, but wasn't given the opportunity. "By the time it was all over there wouldn't be anything left." Her attitude made me want to throw up. I kind of hoped she did divorce him. Mason Price, whoever he was, would be better off without this broad.
"So all you want me to do is find out if your husband has cancer?" I confirmed.
"Or some other…debilitating illness." By 'debilitating', I assumed she meant expensive. "But yes, that's what I need to know."
I started to suggest that she ask him herself, then didn't. This wouldn't be so hard, and I might as well make a few bucks of the greedy woman. "All right then," I stood up, "it's been a pleasure meeting you." That was a direct violation of the ninth commandment, "I'll call you when I know something." I offered my hand for a shake.
After Barrie left, I opened up my web browser and read everything I could find about Mason Price. Seems he was a local boy, graduated high school in Elkton, Maryland, Class of 1988. He attended college in Wichita, Kansas, but returned to the area the summer after graduation. In '95 he moved to Florida for an internship and returned two years later with his wife, Jillian, and promptly landed a position at LEKU. In the spring of 2000 the couple welcomed a son, Sean Price. Before Sean turned one, Mason and Jillian divorced, and by Christmas, Mason was engaged to Barrie Getteman. He'd been working his way up at LEKU since he started, and was promoted to his current position in 2008. I his LinkedIn profile. Interesting enough, but I didn't give me anything about his health. I'd have to think about a good way to find out. Meanwhile, I logged into my internet banking. My $150 was there, so I put up my 'out to lunch' sign, fixed myself a sandwich, and headed out to the car. The first two pawnshops were a bust as far as the ring was concerned, although I did buy a set of those old sports glasses that folded up into a small rectangle. They fit in my purse beautifully. My next stop was Honest Joe's off Monroe Blvd. and Wynn Street. Joe met me at the door.
"Uh-oh," he said, "Quinby's here, I must be in trouble."
"Only if you've seen this." I'd printed out an 8x10 of the photo, and now stuck it in his face. To put it Biblically, his countenance fell. I sighed, "Where did you get it?" I asked, "And where is it now?"
Now it was Joe's turn to sigh, "I've got it here under the counter. Kid came in with it last Friday; said his mom was in the hospital and he needed money to pay for her medicine." He handed me the ring.
I looked it over carefully to make sure it matched the picture. "You know what's wrong with you, Honest Joe?" he looked up, "You're too honest. How much did you give him for it?"
"Two fifty." Joe mumbled, "I should've known something wasn't on the level. It's worth ten times that. I looped the stone. Museum quality." I pulled the money from my purse, and handed it to him. He wouldn't take it, "Now, Quinby, we both know you can't afford this."
"Don't worry," I said, "The client is paying me fabulously to bring it back."
He shook his head, "I can stand the loss better."
I took back a few of the fifties and added a twenty and a five, let's split it then." I said. He glared at me, but took the money. I tried the ring on just for kicks. It fit beautifully. I had buried mine with Ted, but sometimes still wished I wore it if for no other reason to keep every creep in the book from hitting on me. "Got a bag?" Joe handed me a small paper sack and put the ring inside it and in my purse. When I got in the car, I called my client from my cell phone. She met me at McDonalds in what I would call a "lesser" part of town. (That was my twisted sense of humor at work. I doubted this girl had ever seen the inside of a McDonalds, much less this section of town.) She looked nervous the entire time we were there, but especially when I asked for my money. I flipped the Benjamims under the light to check the watermark (you can't be too careful these days) the way she paled when I did that, I almost expected them to be counterfeit. It wasn't as though anyone was watching; I had chosen the high backed living room style chairs in the corner (on an unrelated subject have you ever wondered why Mickey Dees felt the need to go chic? I mean, come on, this is where you take six year olds) As soon as I relinquished the diamond she bolted. I was in the mood for a hot fudge sundae, but then realized I had given all my small bills to Joe. Since there was no way I was paying for a one dollar sundae with a fifty I left and drove to my bank. After making my deposit, and transferring money out of my miscellaneous account, I swung back by the post office and dropped my mail. I did a little bit of work on a couple of other cases before returning to my office. I spent the rest of the afternoon doing research. I locked the door at 7 and decided to celebrate getting paid by eating out. I hate going to restaurants alone, so I got Chinese takeout and sat on a bench along the Delaware River while I ate. I was in bed by nine o'clock, and fell asleep almost immediately.