Sally Murdock opened the packet and let the glossy photos spill onto the table. They landed with the photo-side down. I stared into the depths of my ginger ale; I stirred the straw and watched the amber bubbles bob up between the ice. I had already seen too much of the photos. I had taken them, after all, and I had developed them myself. I had had too much of what the pics had to offer.
Mrs. Murdock picked up the stack of photos and straightened them. Her hands moved in slow, deliberate movements. She paused. She clutched the photos to her chest. She took a deep breath. After all that, she removed the photos from her chest and cast her eyes down.
I already knew how she was going to take the news the pictures brought. Mrs. Murdock wasn't going to be a "Mrs." much longer.
The jazz quartet across the room launched into a shoddy rendition of "Take Five." My eyes flitted toward them for a moment, resting for a brief moment on the blonde playing the drums. She was wearing sunglasses, although the room was dim as an idiot's brain. Clouds of Marlboro smoke hazed up my vision, giving the quartet, and the blonde in particular, an otherworldly air.
I took my handkerchief from my pocket and coughed into it, ridding my lungs of the cigarette smoke. I took a drink of ginger ale. That's one of the perks of my old job; it gives you health habits that you never shake, like no smoking and no alcohol-drinking. It kept me in shape and it also made for good publicity. Now that I've switched careers, it also makes me a pretty neat oddity: a private detective who's not a chain-smoking drunk.
Mrs. (excuse, me, Ms.) Murdock moaned. I looked at her. She looked green around the gills, and her usually-attractive face was contorted into a Creature-From-The-Black-Lagoon face. The photos lay face-up on the table, the ugly truth screaming from their glossy surfaces.
"How long has this been going on?" Murdock asked, nodding at the pictures.
"Don't ask me, ma'am," I said. "I've only been following him for a few days. Judging by how often I've seen her, though, probably a long time."
Mrs. Murdock moaned again. My eyes drifted toward her purse; I tore them away and focused them on her pained face.
"What do I do now?" Murdock asked.
"I'm not sure. I'm not a marriage counselor," I said. "If you want, I can recommend one for you." I figured I would give Dr. Ross this one; I'd thrown bones to all of his colleagues lately, but I'd been neglecting him. That was unacceptable; after all, Elton Ross and I had been good friends ever since I'd helped his daughter ten years ago.
Mrs. Murdock shook her head. "No, thank you," she said. "Mr. Murdock and I will resolve this ourselves."
I knew what that meant. The Murdocks would be going to the only marriage counselor who never went to medical school: a divorce lawyer.
I nodded. "Whatever you say, ma'am," I said. "Now, not to sound crass, but… you know, expenses and all…"
"Oh! Yes," Mrs. Murdock said. She reached into her purse and pulled out a thick envelope. She handed it to me. "There's a bonus," she said. "You've done something the other investigators have never managed to do."
"What's that?" I asked as I tucked the envelope into my suit pocket.
"You managed to catch my husband," Mrs. Murdock said. "How'd you do it?"
"Just lucky," I said. I figured Mrs. Murdock didn't need to know about the talents I had acquired in my last occupation, talents that had proven to be extremely useful in detective work.
"Well, thank you," Mrs. Murdock said.
"Yes, ma'am," I said. I slid out of my seat. "I'd better get going. Tell Bobby to put the drinks on my tab."
I turned and left, pretending I didn't see the guy tailing me.
I stepped out of Hannigan's Bar into the bright southern California sunlight. I paused for a moment, letting my eyes grow accustomed to the Cali sun. I watched my shadow slouch back into the shadows of the bar.
What an amateur this jerk was. Tailing someone is one of the most delicate things a detective does, but a good P.I. does it so easily that any Joe Blow from Kokomo thinks he can do it. Fortunately for guys like me, that's not true.
I started down the sidewalk, moving toward downtown Santa Theresa. I listened as the background noises faded away, leaving only the echoing footsteps of the guy behind me. I watched as my vision grew sharper; I was able to make out every detail of the faces of the people across the street. I sensed the air stir behind me as my shadow cocked back his fist.
I whipped around, not as fast I used to, but still fair. I stuck out my hand and caught my follower's fist in my hand. I squeezed lightly, and I felt the bones in his hand crunch to powder. The guy screamed.
"You want something?" I said.
"You broke my- You broke my-" my shadow said, his brain deteriorated into jelly, if it hadn't been that way already.
"That's right, I did," I said. "And I'll do the same for the other if you don't get out of here."
"Yessir!" my tail said.
I let go of his hand. My tail clutched it gingerly, moaning.
"You wanted my money, huh?" I asked.
My shadow nodded.
"You'd better find another line of work. You're no good at this one," I said. I whipped myself back around, a little faster this time, and started walking back toward downtown.
I smiled as I listened to the would-be mugger scamper the other direction, toward the hospital. My grin widened as I thought of the story that the punk would tell the doctor down at the hospital, about how an old man in his sixties had crushed his hand just by holding it. If the kid didn't end up in a strait-jacket, it would be a miracle on par with the Red Sea.
Let me tell you, it feels good to be sixty-five and not to have to take any guff from young punks. I guess that's one of the perks of being a retired superhero.