I was just about to bite into my foot-long hot dog when I heard the door to the outer office jingle.
“Anyone here?” She had a deep throaty voice, full of self assurance. There was nothing tentative about her in finding the outer office empty. I heard her step in and close the door.
“In here!” I shouted. I watched a figure approach the mottle glass door of my inner office. Her form and coloration became more distinct as she drew near. The form was just fine from what I could see, and she was dressed in red. The knob slowly turned and the door creaked open.
I was dumbfounded. The hints from the textured glass could not have prepared me for what I saw. The woman was a 10-point-Oh on the Richter scale and had the kind of moves that left towns like Frisco and Anchorage piles of rubble. I gawked as she entered the room.
“I wasn’t sure if anyone was here.” She apologized. There was no apology in her bearing. She strode right in, again closing the door behind her.
“Ah, Stephanie’s out to lunch,” I explained. Stephanie used to be my secretary. She’d been out to lunch for three months now, ever since I stiffed her on her pay check.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” she apologized again. “I see it’s your lunch time too.” She shot a glance at my hot dog, and then beyond. I looked down to see a dollop of mustard had rolled off the bun to land squarely on my tie.
“Oh crap!” I grumbled and put the dog back into it’s paper tray. I wiped up the mustard with a paper napkin, smearing it halfway down the length of the tie and cursed again. I loosened the damned thing, pulled it off over my head and dropped it unceremoniously into a desk drawer with half a dozen of it’s mates, similarly soiled.
“I can come back later if it’s a bad time,” she offered.
“Oh, no. Please, have a seat!” I rose and indicated the chair to the side of my desk. It was on old wooden stiff-backed armless side chair, a la 1930′s government surplus. It was prone to wobble annoyingly because it was missing one of it’s gliders. It wasn’t too bad as long as the match book wedged under that leg stayed put.
“How can I help you?” I asked as she took her seat. Luckily the matchbook stayed in place.
“Max.” I offered.
“Mr. Mann,” she reiterated, “I just don’t know what to do. I need help desperately and the police won’t do anything!”
“OK,” I said, sitting back down in my own chair. I leaning back, and it groaned under the stress. Like all the furniture in my office, it was well past its prime. “Why don’t you tell me what you need help with?”
“It’s my husband, Mr. Mann.” Her eyes began to get moist.
Oh jeez, I thought, don’t start bawling on me already. I figured she must suspect her husband of fooling around on her, and wanted me to get the goods on him. Happens all the time. “Your husband?” I encouraged.
“Oh, Mr. Mann, I’m so worried. He’s missing. I’m just sick to death over it, and the Police won’t do a thing.”
I rocked back in my chair and took out a pencil and pad. I tapped the eraser on the pad, as I started sizing up the potential for this job.
“I see,” I said. Something didn’t add up. The police generally make it their business to do something about missing persons. So I asked the obvious. “How long has he been missing?”
“Since last night.”
I put down the pencil.
“The police say they won’t even file a missing person’s report until he’s been missing at least 24 hours!” Tears began welling in the corners of her eyes.
I rocked forward. “Ah, yes ma’am,” I said. “A lot of times guys just don’t come home for a night… You know… car trouble. Tanked. Other women.”
She reached across the desk and slapped my face. Hard. I was so flabbergasted that I forgot to get mad.
“My husband would never cheat on me! How dare you suggest such a thing!”
Like an idiot, I apologized. “Well there is car trouble… Getting tanked…”
She shook her head vehemently. “My husband does not drink, and his store is only a mile from home. If he had car trouble he could have walked home.” She locked her desperate eyes on mine. “My husband is missing, Mr. Mann,” she beseeched me. “I’m afraid something terrible has happened to him.”
“Well, ma’am, I guess you know him better than me,” I conceded. “Have you checked all the usual locations?”
Her stare was as vacant as the old brick factory over on 41st Street. I could tell I wasn’t dealing with the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree here. “You know; the morgue, hospitals…”
She choked back a sob and looked away.
“I see.” I picked up the pencil and chomped down on the metal end. A jolt fired down my spine when it connected with my dental work. “Well, you know, in about six hours the police will be happy to take that missing person’s report from you, and check those… look into things.”
She wrung her hands. “Oh please, Mr. Mann. Six hours… What if he’s still alive, locked in a steamer trunk buried in a corn field and running out of air! How can I wait six hours! Please tell me you will help me find him. I love Rodger so much.” She batted her big blues at me and I found myself nodding.
“OK, ma’am. I’ll look into it for you. But I ain’t cheap. I need a $500 retainer and charge $50 an hour. Plus expenses.”
She had the check written almost before I finished the sentence. I looked at it and arched an eyebrow at what I saw. What I found interesting was the address printed on the check, #17 Park Avenue. From the address alone I knew this dame was rich. With any luck her old man would prove harder to find than I expected. I could use a cash cow like her just now. Maybe I could even get Stephanie back.
“Well thank you, Mrs…” I looked at the check again. “Jones. I’ll get right on the case.”
“Oh no, thank you, Mr. Mann,” she said raising from the chair. “I’m counting on you. Please find Rodger quickly.”
“I’ll certainly do my best.”
“Thank you,” she said again, gliding towards the door in that same smooth move that had brought her in. As she closed the door on her way out I’m sure they had another earth quake somewhere in Japan.
It took me a minute to regain my composure after the door closed, and then it hit me like a brick. I had not gotten enough info from her to even go down to Rodger’s shop. I mentally kicked myself. Hard. Then I jumped up and ran after her.
The elevator was almost to the ground floor according to the indicator panel, so I made a dash for the stairs. I took the four flights at double time but the lobby was empty by the time I crashed into it. I bolted for the front door and hit the curb just in time to see a red Mercedes turn the corner onto Pine. Shit. Oh well, I had her address on the check.
I went back up to the office to collect a few things I’d need, the check included. I stuffed a notebook, a pencil, and the check into the breast pocket of my coat and flipped the “Come On In” sign over to “Be Back Soon” and headed out, locking up behind me. I took the rear steps to the lot out back, to collect my car.
My car was a rental fleet sale, a big old maroon Cadillac Brougham – reminiscent of a battleship. It got lousy gas mileage, but since all my dealings were “plus expenses” I could care less. After all, I didn’t drive it on my nickel. She fired right up, and I headed out for Park Avenue.
Now Park Avenue in this burg is where all the rich folks live, just like in New York. But unlike New York, there were no top floor penthouses, nor ground floor penthouses for that matter. This street had big houses that could be confused for the Taj Mahal, set in lawns that actually dwarf them. I was there in less than ten minutes and began a slow cruise looking for #17.
While #17 was not the biggest house on the street, it was by no means the smallest either. Three stories, stone and beam construction, at least six rooms wide by three rooms deep and with a hint a of servants quarters out back, from what I could see from the street. I pulled into the driveway and headed on up. It was a long serpentine driveway, probably longer than my street, and paved only of loose chat. But where chat said “poor” in most neighborhoods it said “historic” on Park Avenue. I drove slowly, so as not to raise any dust.
I rang the bell and waited. After an annoyingly long period of time the door opened about a quarter of the way and a man in a butler’s outfit peered suspiciously out at me. His eyes quickly ran down me, head to foot, assessing my attire, then darted out to my hulking battleship. He lifted his chin so as to peer down his nose more effectively and said, “Whatever you’re selling, we don’t want any.”
My foot kept the door from slamming in my face, which I could tell annoyed the heck out of him. “Mann.” I said. “Max Mann. Private eye.” I flashed my ID at him quick enough to make sure he did not have time to read it. “Mrs. Jones hired me today to find her husband,” I informed him. Then I held up her check, long enough to be sure that he could read that.
He held the door tight against my foot, unrelenting. “Well, he certainly is not here,” he reproached me.
That did it. I pushed hard against the door and forced it open. I outweighed the guy by a good sixty pounds, so there was no way he could keep me out. “Gee, maybe she should have hired you instead, Sherlock,” I shot back. “Go tell Mrs. Jones that I need to talk to her. I need to get a few more details before I can really get started.”
Reluctantly he stepped aside to let me fully enter the foyer. “Very well. I will inform madame that you are here. If she deigns to see you, I will show you in.”
“Very well,” I shot back at him in the same affected voice.
While “Jeeves” was gone I poked around the foyer. The floors were real marble, set off by a Persian rug. The staircase looked to be solid cherry. An oak hat tree stood to one side of the massive front door replete with gilded hooks for hats and coats. It looked to be antique, as did the other furnishings in the room. I took the notebook and pencil out of my breast pocket and hung my coat on the rack.
The butler returned with a very disappointed look on his face. I knew immediately I was going to be shown in, so I started walking towards him before he could say anything. His face blanched as he looked past me. I turned to see what he was looking at, and realized it was my coat. “It’s OK to hang it there, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Of course, sir.” But a shudder ran down his spine. Then, turning back to the business at hand, “Madame will see you, sir. Please follow me.”
He led me through the foyer and down a long hallway, past several large well furnished rooms and into what I would have to term the study. The room was lined with books, all hard backs, most leather bound. There was a large walnut desk with a leather chair near the French doors, and a couple of side tables to each side of the room, but otherwise the room was sparsely furnished, indicating that little time was spent among these magnificent works. From what I had seen of Mrs. Jones, that did not particularly surprise me.
But there was no Mrs. Jones here. The butler strode on, into the room, to open the French doors on the far side behind the desk. He gave me a cold glance before heading outside. I hoofed it after him to find myself on a broad stone patio. He headed across the patio towards the swimming pool that lay just beyond. I followed and came up short when I rounded some huge rhododendrons to see Mrs. Jones laying beside the pool in a chaise lounge. She had on a bikini bottom and a small hand towel loosely draped over her otherwise bare chest. A man lounged on a chase beside her, outfitted in naught but Speedo racing trunks. He lifted his head to see who had dropped by and then flopped back down, apparently exhausted from the effort.
“Mr. Mann!” Mrs. Jones cried, pushing her sunglasses up onto her head. “Have you found my husband already!” She sounded delighted. I hated to bring her down.
“No ma’am.” I could see her deflate at the news. Her face got all pouty. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, ma’am. It’s just that I let you get away earlier, before I had enough information to make much headway. I need to get a few facts from you, to speed up my search.”
“Oh pooh.” She pulled her sunglasses back down over her eyes. “And I thought you had found Rodger.”
I flipped open my notebook.
She turned her head away slightly, obviously disappointed in me. “They never did find Jeremy.”
“My first husband.”
I got a knot in my stomach.
“I can’t imagine what the neighbors will say. What with Jeremy, and Henry…”
She nodded. “My second husband. He was killed in an automobile accident. It was dreadful. But at least I had closure. But to just be missing, gone with no trace… it’s awful.”
“Quite right,” the man in the chaise lounge put in. “Complicates procedures like the devil.”
“Oh yes,” Mrs. Jones confirmed. “Insurance companies don’t like it at all when they just go missing. They want you to wait for five years before they will declare them legally dead and pay you a cent!” She obviously thought that was a ridiculous amount of time to wait for an insurance settlement. “And then they keep snooping around, implying all sorts of terrible things, just because your husband doesn’t have the decency to turn up anywhere – alive or dead.”
“Took forever to collect on Jeremy,” the man concurred.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I missed your name?”
“Alex.” He flopped a hand in my general direction in lieu of a handshake. “Alex Marino.”
“Alex is my insurance agent,” Mrs. Jones informed me. “He has been very helpful, especially on Jeremy. I don’t know that I would have ever collected on Jeremy if Alex had not been around to fix things up. They never did find him, poor thing. Now Henry at least had the consideration to turn up dead right away. Wrapped his car around a bridge abutment. Terrible accident. Just terrible. But we digress. You said you needed some information to get started. What do you need?”
I wasn’t really sure I wanted to get started any more, but I needed the money. “Well, for starters, what does your husband do? Where is his store? And are there any business associates I could talk to?” I asked, ready to write things down.
“Oh, he runs Plum Orchard Fine Used Books down at the Plum Orchard shopping center. Do you know it?” I shook my head, no. I knew the mall, a little strip mall on the pricy side, but not the store. Now the books in the study made more sense to me. I could see how a purveyor of fine used books could afford to live in a joint like this, especially if he was selling first editions to his ritzy neighbors. I wrote “fine used books” in my notebook. I got a little more info from her, including what he was last wearing and the name of his business associate, Reginald Lewis, who should be at the store now. “If you hurry, you can catch him before it closes,” she added, strongly hinting that our session was over. I flipped my notebook closed and turned to go.
“Oh, his car. What did he drive?”
“A Lexus,” she answered.
“Robert?” She looked to the butler.
“BX7-143,” Robert answered coldly.
“He’s a treasure,” Mrs. Jones smiled. Robert nodded curtly in acknowledgment of the complement. “Robert will see you out.”
Robert was quite willing to see me out, the sooner the better. We retraced our route through the study, down the hall to the foyer. There he lifted my coat from the coat tree with disdain, and reluctantly held it for me while I put it on. He opened the door and stood to one side, anxious for me to leave. “Good day sir.”
“I’ll see you around, Robert,” I said with a wink. No sooner were both my heals on the porch stoop than the door slammed behind me. Hard. As I turned to go I noticed movement in the side glass panel. So I peeked back inside only to see Robert vigorously disinfecting the coat tree.
This is my first foray into #TuesdaySerial. I originally wrote Chapter One, The Client, as part of a writing contest. I liked Max so much I felt compelled to give him more of a story. When all was said and done I had a novella length manuscript, the first of seven. I plan to roll out several of the Max Mann novellas as serials on the web. If they garner enough interest I’ll publish them as as ebooks, probably as “doubles”, each book containing two novellas. Feedback, both positive and negative, is most welcome. Don’t be shy – I have the hide of a Rhino when it comes to critique. Thanks for reading. ~jon
Next week – Chapter’s 3 & 4: The Associate, and The Notebook
(c) 2010, by J. M. Strother – All rights reserved.