Novella

 

Part 1 (to start at the beginning)

The Client
The Butler

Part 2

The Associate
The Notebook

Part 3

The Cop
The Reporter

Part 4

The Boss
The Old Flame

Part 5

The Maid
The Sister

Part 6

The Beagle

Part 7

The Waitress

I took Bruno down to the ruins of Plumb Orchard Fine Used Books and let him have another sniff of the shoes. He lead me right to the spot out back where the Lexus had been parked, and then up and down the alley a couple of times. Finally, he sat down and howled at the traffic going by on Glendale Road. This, he was telling me, was the end of the line.

I bought Bruno a burger on the way back to Ace Kennels as a reward. A reward for nothing, but that wasn’t his fault. He’d been a trooper, and I had taken a liking to the dog.

Well, I was stumped. I had a notebook full of suspects and motives and not a clue as to who had done old man Jones in. He was dead. Of that I was sure. But who had killed him, and why? I drove down to Mable’s Diner to ponder the dilemma.

Angie was on duty and gave me a friendly wave as I came in. She hustled on over and asked me what she could get.

“Baby, you don’t have what I need,” I told her glumly. “But in the mean time, I’ll have some coffee. What’s the special tonight?”

“Chicken fried steak and American fries.”

I could feel the indigestion starting already. “Screw the coffee,” I reconsidered. “Bring me a beer and some chips. I’ll order dinner in a bit.”

“Sure thing, Max.” She was gone in a flash.

I pulled out my notebook and pondered the facts. The missus was still my best suspect, but she really seemed intent on finding the guy. It just didn’t make sense. Her brother was just as likely, but not unless he had her in cahoots with him. So back to square one. The nerdy kid… I scratched a thick line through his name. Wasn’t even worth considering. Then there was Micky the Hammer. He’d be my number two suspect, if I had to scratch the missus. But then he had gone and hired me too. But, I knew, if Jonesy was making funny with the books, somehow cheating the boss… Well Micky wouldn’t hesitate to set things straight. And of course there was the Giacardo gang – Micky’s competition. Maybe I was witnessing the beginning of a mob war? I didn’t like that idea at all.

I was suddenly aware of someone standing next to the table, looking over my shoulder. I covered the notebook and looked up. Oh joy. Murphy.

“Hello, Max. Been busy?”

“What do you want?” I asked.

“Not very friendly tonight, are we? Aren’t you going to ask me to join you?”

“No.”

He sat down opposite me. “So what’s in the little book?”

“My notes, if you don’t mind.”

“Oh no, I don’t mind. Not at all. Mind if I take a look?”

“Over my dead body.”

“Don’t tempt me.”

“Listen Murphy, you got something to say, say it, and leave me alone.”

“I heard you were sniffing around the arson site tonight. With a dog.”

“Yea. So?”

“Find anything?”

“No.”

“And at the house?”

“No. Listen, Murphy. You want to check for scents, go out and get you a dog. I can tell you a place to go.” I’d like to tell him where to go.

“That’s OK, Max. We have our own dogs. On retainer.”

“So what do you want?” He was becoming annoying.

“Your head on a spike?” He grinned, feigning a joke.

I was getting pretty fed up. Then Angie came back with a cup of coffee. She stumbled just as she approached the table and the coffee sloshed out, splattering on the table in front of Murphy. He jumped back to avoid being burned. Angie gushed with apologies and dabbed frantically at the wet spots on his sleeve. Murphy warded her off as he climbed out his side of the booth, cussing like a sailor. He shot me an evil look and stormed out, ignoring Angie as she trailed after him effusing her regrets. In a minute she was back, plunking a beer down in front of me.

“Thanks, babe.”

She gave me a wink. “I’ll be right back with those chips.”

#

I had three beers and two bowls of chips as the evening wore on. I was running out of time and knew it. And if my hunches were right, Mrs. Jones would be off on her cruise the day after tomorrow and I’d be left holding the bag with a $300 bill to Ace Kennels, not to mention the other expenses. I wouldn’t even break even on my $500 retainer. Sometimes life’s just a bitch.

I finally ordered a plate of fettuccine with clam sauce for dinner and switched to coffee. I needed a clear head and more time. More time would give me a clear head, but nothing would give me more time. Hell, Mrs. Jones would be gone as of Wednesday afternoon. Then what would I do? I picked at my fettuccine.

“Not hungry tonight, hon?” Angie looked at the cold plate of pasta and shook her head. She and I both knew that Mable didn’t like it when food came back uneaten. Mable took it sort of personal.

“It was good,” I assured her. “Tell Mable I’m just feeling down tonight.”

“What’s wrong, hon?” Angie slipped onto the bench opposite me.

“Nothing you can help me with,” I said.

“Is it Murphy? Max, are you in trouble?”

I laughed and patted her hand affectionately. “I’m OK, Angie. It’s just this case I’m working on. It’s got me stumped.”

“You mean the old man Jones case?”

I looked up at her, surprised. “You know about that?”

“Oh sure, hon. Mable told me all about it. It’s all the talk over at Betty’s. Mable got her hair done there today. The place smells of smoke!”

“I see,” I said. “So, what all did Mable tell you?”

“Oh, just that old lady Jones killed off another husband and burned down his store to cover the crime.”

“Oh?” I had to grin a little. “And where did she get that idea.”

“The black widow?” Now she patted my hand, as a mother pats the hand of a child that just doesn’t seem to understand. “Everybody knows about the Black Widow. What’s this now, her third husband?”

“Yea, her third husband.” I shook my head. It seemed obvious enough, shoot, even to Mable and Angie. But it just didn’t add up. Something was missing, but what? “I’ve got to admit it does look mighty suspicious for Mrs. Jones, Angie. But it just doesn’t add up.”

“Why’s that?”

“She hired me to find him. And she seems intent on me succeeding.”

Angie chewed on her lip over that one.

“But there’s only one common denominator,” I had to admit, ”And she’s heading for the Caribbean the day after tomorrow.” I sighed.

“Yea. Three husbands, one house,” Angie mused. “Funny, the more things change the more they stay the same. Like the butler, for example.”

I looked up from my coffee, stunned. “What?”

“Huh?” Angie looked confused.

“What did you just say?”

“Oh, about the butler? Yea, Mable tells me that the butler’s been there from the start. Worked for old man Abrams, before they even met.” She gave a little chuckle. “I guess you could say he came with the house. And he’s just devoted to her.”

I jumped up and kissed Angie on the lips. Hard. “Angie, you’re a doll!” I cried as I made for the door. Sometimes it’s just the most obvious thing.

The Collar

“Betsy! I need Betsy!” I pounded on the door again. The ruckus from the back of the kennel was enough to raise the dead. At last I was gratified to see a light come on down the hall.

“What in tarnation?” Ace opened the door to me despite his reservations. “Do you know what time it is?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Morgan, but this is an emergency. I need to hire Betsy, right away.”

He looked at me with a quizzical eye but turned to lead the way into the kennels. “So, you got a notion, do ya?”

“Oh yes, Mr. Morgan. I’ve got a notion all right.”

#

I pounded on the door again. Dogs in the neighborhood started barking. A few bedroom lights across the street came on. I tried the doorbell again. And again. At last the light in the hallway came on. I stood so that I could not be seen through the side panel in hopes Robert would not simply turn off the light and go back to bed. It didn’t work.

“Who is it?” A disembodied voice came out over a tiny speaker hidden somewhere in the overhang. It was Robert. He sounded quite annoyed.

“Max Mann. I need to speak to Mrs. Jones right away.”

“Go away! Do you have any idea what time it is? Come back in the morning.”

“No can do, Robert. I need to talk to Mrs. Jones. Now!” I was shouting through the door. More lights came on up and down the street.

“Go away or I’ll call the Police!” Now he was getting angry.

“Who is it Robert?” I recognized her voice.

“Mrs. Jones! I need to talk to you! Max Mann, here. Please, open the door.”

I could tell the intercom was quickly switched off. Damn! I raised my fist to pound on the door again but then heard the sound of fumbling with the lock. The door opened slightly. This time Robert had his foot firmly planted to prevent me from pushing my way in. “This is an outrage!” he snipped.

“I need to see Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones, are you there.”

“Let him in!” Mrs. Jones ordered. Robert reluctantly acquiesced. As he opened the door his eyes fell on Betsy standing calmly at my side and he began to close the door again.

“You cannot bring in that animal!” He looked down his nose at the dog.

“Let them in, let them in.” Mrs. Jones countermanded.

“Oh for God sakes!” I saw Alex approaching from down the hall. “What the hell is he doing here? We’re trying to sleep, man!”

I stepped through the opening door before events could change the situation. Between Robert and Alex, they just may have prevailed upon her to keep me out.

“He’s brought the damned dog back!” Alex sneered.

“No,” Mrs. Jones said, bending to one knee to scratch Betsy behind the ear. “This is a bitch. The other dog was a male.”

Alex rolled his eyes and thew up his hands in resignation. “What the hell. We’ll never get back to sleep now. And we’ve got a lot to do tomorrow.” He shook his head and turned away. “I’ll put on some coffee.” He turned around and called for Helen.

“So, Mr. Mann, what brings you here at this hour?” She was standing again and had me fixed with steel hard eyes. This had better be good.

“I have a theory I need to test,” I told her.

“I see,” she said, and waited.

“I was wondering if I could go over the house again. With Betsy.”

“To what point!” Robert shot.

I ignored him. “But this time, we’ll be looking for something else.”

“Oh?” She crossed her arms, waiting for me to elucidate.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I know this is going to be difficult for you. But there is no easy way to say this.” I looked down at Betsy. “Betsy here, well, she’s what they call a cadaver dog.”

The blood drained from her face. Robert moved forward, as if to strike me, but she forestalled him with a hand on his forearm. She looked at me, tears welling up in her eyes. Her lips opened for one barely perceptible word, “Rodger?”

“No ma’am.”

“What?” Robert was now quite exasperated with me.

“Please ma’am, bear with me. I was wondering if you had anything from your first husband that we might get a scent from.”

“Are you mad?” Robert was virtually aquiver with rage. Mrs. Jones stepped back and slumped against the wall. Robert jumped to her side to support her. He shot me a hateful look. “You bastard.”

“I need to sit down,” Mrs. Jones murmured. Robert took her down the hall to the study. I followed along, with Betsy at my side.

She sat down at the desk and stared at the mahogany without seeing. Once settled, Robert returned his attention to me. “Let me throw the scoundrel out,” he pleaded to his mistress.

She raised a hand to dismiss the suggestion and looked up at me.

“Mr. Mann. You do have a way of upsetting me.” I apologized again. She dismissed that with a wave too. At that point, Helen came in with a tray with coffee. She went to the desk and poured her mistress a cup. Mrs. Jones ignored it.

“You bring a cadaver dog here and ask for something from my first husband?” Helen’s eyes widened at that news. She too looked at me like I was mad. “Do you know how long ago Jeremy went missing?”

“Yes ma’am. But Betsy is a very good dog.”

“I’m sure she is.” She looked at Betsy as if trying to appraise her worth. At length she gave a sigh, evidently having made her decision. She turned to the maid. “Helen, be a dear and go up to my room and bring down my lock box.”

“What!” Alex, who had come in to join us could not contain himself. She shot him a reproachful look.

“Helen, please.”

“Madame, this is ridiculous,” Robert objected.

“I will decide what is ridiculous here, Robert.”

“Yes, Madame.”

Helen was soon back with the lock box. Mrs. Jones took a key from her bodice and unlocked the desk. She retrieved another key from the desk and unlocked the box. She opened it and gazed at the contents for some moments, while her eyes teared up again. She reached in and considered several items before at last drawing forth an old leather wallet. She looked up at me with a fey smile. “This was Jerry’s wallet. Will it do?”

Alex banged his cup and saucer down on a side table and stalked out of the room.

“Yes ma’am.” I took the wallet from her with as much respect as possible. I held it to Betsy’s nose and let her smell it for a while. Then I began leading her around the house.

Unlike Bruno, Betsy gave no pull on her lead at all. There was no hot trail to follow, no recent treads to chase. All the scents of the late Mr. Abrams were long worn away. All, I hoped, but one. No, with Betsy, it was I who did the leading.

I took her to the most likely spot. We went to the cellar door. I lead the way down the stairs, followed by Betsy, then Mrs. Jones, and finally Robert. There was no sign of Alex. Robert stood at the bottom of the stairs like a sentinel while I lead Betsy around the basement, strewn with years of clutter. Mrs. Jones followed behind us at a distance, sometimes pausing to consider old items stuck away and long forgotten. There were a lot of them, it being a big basement.

“Madame, don’t you think this has gone on long enough?” Robert asked hopefully from his post near the stairs. She shushed him with a wave.

Suddenly, Betsy lunged forward and the lead grew taunt in my grip. She pulled me forward towards a large crate and sniffed at it intently. She circled it several times and began pawing at it. Before I could say anything Mrs. Jones was beside me with a crowbar in her hands. I caught my breath, expecting her to clobber me with it, but she handed it to me and stepped away, clutching her arms to her sides.

“Open it.” She shuddered as she said it.

I set my crutches aside and began to work on the crate. Soon I had the lid pried off. I threw the lid aside and began digging through the straw packing. I pulled out smaller boxes and opened them to find… books. Books, books, and more books. Before long I had the crate empty and naught to show for it but books.

“Those were Jerry’s books,” Mrs. Jones informed me. “He’s where I first learned the love of fine books.” She picked up one leather bound volume with a wistful look in her eye. Robert stood at the base of the stairs looking rather smug.

I couldn’t believe it. In frustration I hefted the crate onto its side to look at the bottom of it. Could there be a false bottom? I rapped on it with my knuckles, hoping for a hollow sound. Instead I heard a ruckus at the stairs.

“Down here, officers. I think he’s quite mad!” It was Alex. He had called the Police. Robert was now looking quite triumphant. God I hated that man.

We all looked up at the clatter on the stairs. Three uniforms were coming down, double quick. Alex was right behind them. They looked at me while fingering their nightsticks, almost daring me to resist. The lead officer approached and began to fumble for his handcuffs.

We all froze to the sound of a baying hound.

We turned our attention to Betsy. She howled again, a long and mournful wail, as if weeping for the dead, and then began to frantically paw at the dirt where the crate had stood. The officer paused, wondering what was going on. Mrs. Jones sank down to the ground with a groan of, “Oh my God.” The smile on Alex’s face died, replaced by a look of complete confusion.

“What the hell is going on here?” the lead cop demanded.

“Officer, get a shovel!” I exclaimed. “I think we are about to discover a body.”

Suddenly Mrs. Jones looked up, at last understanding. There was fire in her eyes. But she was not looking at me. “You!” She rose and pointed a long accusing finger at Robert. “You!” She grabbed the crowbar with intent to kill. Robert bolted up the stairs. The cops had their hands full trying to restrain her and it looked like Robert was going to make a clean get away. Then I heard him squawk, and heard an old familiar voice up in the kitchen.

“What’s your hurry, bud? Where is everybody?” It was Murphy. It appeared Robert had run smack into him.

#

They exhumed the body of Jeremy Abrams the next day. Seems Robert was so taken with the beauty of the new Mrs. Abrams that he could not bear the thought of the man despoiling her night after night. At last he could take it no more, and he killed his former master and buried him in the basement. Since there was never any reason to suspect him, or Mrs. Abrams for that matter, the investigating detective (need I say who it was?) decided that they did not need to do more than a cursory search of the house. Then years passed and the grave became virtually indiscernible from the rest of the dirt floor. The crate of books had been a minor stroke of brilliance on the part of Robert. Just the thing to explain the late man’s scent, should anyone have the presence of mind to use a hound. The investigating detective had never bothered.

A couple of happy years passed with no one but Mrs. Jones and her loyal butler to grace the presence of #17 Park Avenue. But then the unthinkable happened. The woman remarried! It gnawed at Robert until he took measures into his own hands to set the world aright. All he had to do was loosen the fitting to the brake fluid reservoir. With the way Mr. Ferguson drove, he knew it was only a matter of time before the slow leak did its deed. Murphy, er I mean the investigating detective, didn’t think it was anything more than a mechanical failure. Mr. Ferguson was well known to tinker under the hood of his cars, after all.

Then, to Robert’s complete consternation, the woman he doted on married again!

#

The forensics team found some blood that matched Mr. Jones’ shortly after sunrise out in the gravel where Bruno had howled the night before. Seems Robert had been parking there since the Lexus had been impounded. They found blood in his trunk too.

“Yea, that’s the difference between us pros and you amateurs”, Murphy swaggered as I approached. “We’ve got hard evidence on him, and he’s singing like a bird. Buried the poor guy in a steamer trunk out in a corn field. What a nut.”

That Murphy. You gotta love him.
~

This concludes Max Mann and the Black Widow. Thank you for reading.
If you enjoyed this story, please tell your friends to drop by to read and comment. I have seven Max Mann novellas in all, and will consider posting more of them in the future if there appears to be an interest.

You can find other exciting serialized fiction on the web via the #TuesdaySerial tag on Twitter, or visit Inspired by Real Life, for a weekly listing.
(c) 2010, by J. M. Strother – All rights reserved.

 

Part 1 (to start at the beginning)

The Client
The Butler

Part 2

The Associate
The Notebook

Part 3

The Cop
The Reporter

Part 4

The Boss
The Old Flame

Part 5

The Maid
The Sister

Part 6

The Beagle

As soon as she left the office I broke out the yellow pages and started searching for a dog. I had told the dame that I had picked up a scent hound, and she was expecting me at the house in less than an hour. I looked under Dog and found all manner of Dog Food Retailers, Dog Furnishings, Dog Groomers, and Dog Supplies but no entries that looked useful for my purposes. So I tried Hounds, but the book went right from Hotels to House and Building Movers. I’d have to keep that in mind if I ever wanted to move a house.

So who would know about dogs? A vet? Yea, that’s the ticket. I thumbed back to Veterinarians and dialed the first one I found – Acupuncture Veterinarian Care. I had to key myself through a mind numbing barrage of voice menus before an actual human being finally picked up the phone to ask how she could help me. From the sound of her voice next Saturday night came immediately to mind, but I stuck to business and laid out my tale of woe. She put me on hold and after a few minutes she came back on line to suggest that I try Ace Kennels. She even had the number for me.

Ace Kennels was named for Ace Morgan, a gruff sounding man that talked loud so that he could be heard over the sound of dogs yammering in the background. I told him what I needed, a scent hound – one that could be used to find a missing person. He said he had just what I needed and that I could rent him for just $300 a day.

#

Plus expenses, I kept telling myself as I drove over to Ace Kennels. I got there in about 20 minutes. If Mrs. Jones was expecting me within the hour, she was going to be disappointed. Ace was halfway across town from where she lived.

Ace met me at the door. He was sort of short and shriveled, with a face not far removed from that of a Basset Hound, but he had friendly eyes and an easy manner that made you warm up to him right away.

“So you’re the fella what needs a hound, eh?” He took my hand and shook it in a firm yet gentle handshake. “Ace Morgan.”

“Mann. Max Mann,” I introduced myself.

“Well come on in, Mr. Mann. I’ll show you the dogs. Got three or four that might do.” I hobbled after him down the hall. I could hear dogs yapping somewhere in back. Then he opened the door to the kennels and all hell broke loose.

Dogs jumped up and started barking and baying, some leaping up onto the chain link cage fronts, others dashing back and forth from one side of their cage to the other, all very interested in who was coming to see them. Despite their racket, I felt no sense of danger. The dogs all seemed friendly enough, just very excited to greet me.

“This here is Max,” Ace said pausing before a cage that housed a Basset Hound. At first I thought he was introducing me to the dog and began to wonder about his sanity, but then he said, “Max is three years old and has worked for the Police several times. Found the missing Kelly kid a year ago Autumn.”

“Wow.” Max. Nice name.

“And over here, I gots Charlie.” He stepped over to another cage and nodded appreciatively at what appeared to be some sort of Spaniel. “Charlie’s a mut,” Ace told me in a low voice so as not to insult the dog, “But he has a nose on him as good as any. He won’t do you wrong.”

“OK.”

Then he led me to a cage holding two dogs, both Beagles. “And over here we’s got Bruno and Betsy.”

I couldn’t believe it. “Bruno?”

“Yep. Heard of ‘em?”

“No, no… It’s just that…” Hell, it had to be fate. “300 dollars a day, you say?”

“Well, that’d just be for Bruno. If you want ‘em both, it would be 600.”

“No, no. I just need one. Is he a good scent hound?”

The man laughed in what sounded like a series of throaty barks. Bruno and Betsy both laughed back, with their eyes and tails, and danced merrily about each other. “Is he good? Mister, Bruno is the best.” Then he considered Betsy. “Or Betsy. They’s both the best, but Betsy’s better with the corpses.”

I hesitated. I was convinced I was looking for exactly that, a corpse. But Mrs. Jones still seemed to hold out hope. And I had told her the dog I had rented was named Bruno – how could I argue with such a coincidence?

“They work best as a team,” Mr. Morgan was telling me. “Bruno’s a little better at finding trace scents, you know – when the trail’s cold. But Betsy can find a dead’un like there’s no tomorrow. You looking for a live one or not, mister?”

“Hmm. Well, my client seems to hope he’s alive,” I told him.

“But you doubt it.” It wasn’t really a question.

“I’d be surprised.”

“How old’s the scent?”

“Well, he was last seen three days ago, around six o’clock pm.”

“I see,” he said. “Bruno’d be the one for you then. If you don’t want ‘em both. If’n he narrows the field for you, then you can always come back and get his sister.”

“That’s a plan,” I said. We shook hands and Ace opened the cage and put Bruno on a lead.

#

I’m not used to handling dogs and drove over to Park Avenue with some trepidation. I half expected Bruno to lunge into my lap, or get under the brake pedal, but he sat there in the passenger seat like a perfect gentleman, panting and dripping on my leather upholstery, with only an occasional soulful glance in my direction. When the car came to a halt in the the driveway at #17 he looked up attentively, as if knowing it was time to get to work.

Mrs. Jones had the front door open before I could get out of the car. I gave Bruno’s lead a little tug and he hopped right out, wagging his tail with enthusiasm. Mrs. Jones held the door open and let us in. She dropped to one knee and petted Bruno affectionately. “What a pretty dog, Mr. Mann.”

“Well, ma’am, you’re not really supposed to pet him,” I told her. She scoffed at that. “Not supposed to distract them from the job at hand.”

“I see,” she said and got up to lead us into the house. “What do you need from me?”

“You have something with Mr. Jones’ scent on it, ma’am? Something he wore recently? A dirty sock. Some dirty underwear?”

She looked offended. “Helen is very good at doing the laundry, Mr. Mann. Dirty underwear, indeed.”

“OK. How about a pair of shoes? She doesn’t wash his shoes, does she?”

“Don’t get smart with me,” she quipped. She lead me into the study, seemingly the only room in the house I was destined to know. Helen and Mr. Marino were both there. Alex was sitting at the desk. Helen stood discretely to the side of the door, ready to serve as needed.

“Helen, be a dear,” said Mrs. Jones, “And go up and get a pair of Rodger’s shoes.”

“Some well worn ones,” I put in. Mrs. Jones tisked at that, as if the thought of anything being well worn in this house was beyond the pale.

Soon Helen returned with a pair of well worn running shoes. I shot Mrs. Jones a glance but held my tongue. According to Helen, Mr. Jones jogged in these shoes every morning. Perfect. I held them up to Bruno’s nose and waited for a second.

Soon enough Bruno was leading me on a merry chase, a neat trick on crutches. He led me all through the house. We went upstairs to the bedroom, down the hall to the bath, downstairs to the kitchen, to the dining room where he sniffed at the chair Mr. Jones usually sat at during dinner, off to the living room to take in his favorite arm chair. We even went down to the basement to check out his work shop. It was an old low ceilinged basement with a dirt floor, like many of the old historic houses still have. It always amazed me how these things stayed dry, but they did. But Bruno was not all that interested in the basement and he dragged me off again, clumping up the stairs to the kitchen. He sat down and wagged his tail, as if to say he was done.

“So what did that prove?” Alex Marino asked with acid in his voice.

“Well, I expected Bruno to get Mr. Jones’ scent around the house,” I told him.

“Well duh!”

“Yea, Yea.” Kiss my ass, I wanted to say, but couldn’t insult the client’s brother. “At least now we know that Mr. Jones is not in the house.”

He looked at me like I was daft.

“Well,” I treaded cautiously, “he could be hiding on the premises.” Or you could have stuffed him in a closet, I thought more likely.

“And you’re paying for this?” he asked his sister sarcastically.

“Oh stop it, Alex. Now what, Mr. Mann?”

“I guess I should check the grounds.” Alex rolled his eyes.

We went out the kitchen door and Bruno quickly dashed to the driveway. He circled around and around one patch of gavel then sat down and howled.

“That’s where Rodger parks his Lexus!” Mrs. Jones cried.

“Bravo!” Alex applauded and then turned back to the kitchen in disgust.

~

Next week – Chapter’s 12 & 13: The Waitress & The Collar

Next week I bring you the exciting final two chapters of Max Mann and the Black Widow. I changed the line up to present two chapters next week rather than one, as important clues are revealed in Chapter 12 that would not be good to let simmer for a full week. So, who do you think did it, or did anyone do anything? Is Mr. Jones dead or alive? Just who is up to no good here, anyway? Feel free to speculate. All will be reveled next week.

You can find other exciting serialized fiction on the web via the #TuesdaySerial tag on Twitter, or visit Inspired by Real Life, for a weekly listing.
(c) 2010, by J. M. Strother – All rights reserved.

 

Part 1 (to start at the beginning)

The Client
The Butler

Part 2

The Associate
The Notebook

Part 3

The Cop
The Reporter

Part 4

The Boss
The Old Flame

Part 5

The Maid

I tooled on over to #17 to see what the results of my little conversation with the insurance agent would be. I parked on Oakwood, just around the corner, where I could keep a discrete eye on the driveway. Sure enough, before long Mr. Marino showed up, raising a cloud of dust as he whipped up the drive. He slid to a stop and flew out of the car and about bolted to the front door. I found it interesting that he didn’t need to knock – he let himself in with his own key. Hmm.

I wasn’t particularly surprised when my cell phone rang a few minutes later.

“Mann.”

“Mr. Mann?” It was Mrs. Jones. She sounded upset.

“Yes ma’am?”

“I’d like to talk to you.” Her voice was low and forced, like she was trying to keep control. Mr. Marino must have told her of my suspicions.

“Sure, ma’am. Talk away.”

“Not on the phone!”

“OK. You want me to drop by?”

“No.” That was definite. “Where are you? Are you at your office?”

“No ma’am, I’m out in the field following up some leads.”

“Well, I want to see you. Now.”

“Oh jeeze, ma’am. ‘Fraid I can’t get back to the office before, oh, three o’clock. Well, maybe two-thirtyish.” I looked at my watch. It was just before noon. I figured if I gave them some time to stew, they might do something foolish that I could follow up on.

“Two-thirty! Where on earth are you?”

“I’m heading out I-85 to see a man about a dog,” I lied.

“What?”

“Bruno.”

“What?”

“Best scent hound east of the Mississippi, ma’am. Bruno’s out on a farm in mid-state. I think he could help us find your husband. You do still want me to find your husband, don’t you?”

“Well, of course. Well, no. Why yes!” She was obviously flustered. “That is to say, I want my husband found, of course.” Ah. The subtext there was pretty obvious. Found, but not by me. She was going to fire my ass.

“I see,” I said. “Well, if I hurry, I can get back by two-thirty. Of course, any speeding tickets count towards expenses.” The phone clicked off in my ear. I hung up and watched the front door.

The door opened and Mr. Marino stepped out onto the stoop. Mrs. Jones stood on the threshold, and they talked – heads close together. Then she leaned forward and gave him a long and deep felt hug. As she closed the door he turned and dashed back to his car. He wasted no time hitting the road, again raising a cloud of dust. I put the key in the ignition, figuring to follow him when a car suddenly came out from behind the house. It was Mrs. Jones, driving her Mercedes. Unlike Mr. Marino, she seemed to be in no particular hurry. She turned the other way on Park and then, to my dismay, turned left onto Oakwood. I slunk down in my seat as she drove by, but she didn’t seem to have noticed me. Whew. That was close.

Now what to do? Follow Mr. M, or Mrs. Jones? Marino had already passed out of sight, so I figured I’d best follow Mrs. Jones. So once again I put the key to the ignition. Once again I stopped before firing her up. Another car was coming down the driveway!

This was one I hadn’t seen before, a late model Buick. It was driven by none other than my old friend Robert, and he seemed to be in a hurry. He squealed out onto Park and headed off in yet a third direction. Hell! What to do, what to do?

Then a thought struck me. This would be a great time to search the house.

#

I could see through the side panel beside the door that the security alarm had not been armed. They had all been in such a rush to leave they hadn’t bothered with it. That made my life simple. I tried the door knob, but it was locked. So I headed for the back door, where I was less likely to be seen. If Murphy couldn’t pin a homicide on me he’d be perfectly willing to settle for breaking and entering.

To my delight I found the back door was not even locked. I knocked, very lightly, just so I could say that I knocked, and pushed the door open. The kitchen was empty so I slid in as quiet as a cat. As I tried to close the door behind me I bobbled one of my crutches. To my dismay it clattered across the tiled floor. I winched and waited, but the house remained silent. So I closed the door and struggled to retrieve my crutch, trying not to bend too much in the middle. My ribs screamed in silent protest.

Once I was recrutched I considered what to do next. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, so I had no real plan of action. I’d just go over the whole place quickly and see if anything jumped out at me. I decided to start in the study, mostly because it was the one room in the house that I had seen before.

The study was sparsely furnished, lots of books, a desk and chair, and a few other scatterings of furniture. I went to the desk. It was locked. I decided against forcing it and browsed over the books on the shelves. Unlike the books at Mr. Jones’ bookstore, these were fine books indeed. Most were leather bound with titles like The Iliad, The Works of Shakespeare, A Tale of Two Cities and the like. No cheap mysteries or romances here. I pulled down a gilt-edged tome titled Hard Times by Charles Dickens. I flipped it open to the title page and saw it was printed in London by Bradbury & Evans in 1704. I don’t know Jack about rare books, but I’d be willing to bet this baby was a first edition.

“Who the hell are you?”

I about jumped out of my skin and the book went flying. I grabbed for it and bobbled it two or three times before snatching it from mid air. I whirled around to face a heavy set black woman in a white uniform, losing my crutches in the move. I was busted. By the maid.

“Mann. Max Mann.” I had to talk fast before she called the cops. “Mrs. Jones hired me to find her husband.” She folded her arms and scowled, unimpressed. “I dropped by to talk to Mrs. Jones and… well it looks like she’s out, so I thought I’d read a book while I waited for her to get back.”

She marched across the room and firmly removed the book from my grasp. She inspected it, wiped off the binding as if I had contaminated it, and carefully put it back on the shelf. She turned to find me struggling to bend down for my crutches. Bless the woman for she took pity on me, picked them up, and handed them back. “Well if you mess up her books she’ll fire your sorry ass. Damn, she doesn’t like anyone messing with her books.”

“These are hers?”

She folded her arms again and looked at me like I was stupid.

“I just thought… well with the bookstore and all…”

“Hell no. Mr. Jones don’t know a first edition from the Sunday paper.” She lovingly caressed the spine of Hard Times with her rag and smiled. “Oh, he buys ‘em for her all right, but it’s Mrs. Jones that finds ‘em. On the web. Yea, she do love her books.”

“She reads these?”

“What the hell do you think? Of course she doesn’t read them. Hell, she’d get her finger oils on the pages. Shit mister, that book costs over a thousand dollars. You don’t read books like that!”

“Oh.” I decided to change the subject. “So tell me, um… I’m sorry. What’s your name?”

“Helen.”

“So tell me, Helen, do you know when Mrs. Jones will be back?”

She shrugged. “Hard to say. You just missed her. She had to run out to the store to get another steamer trunk.”

“A steamer trunk?”

“Yea. She’s gonna take a trip and damned if one of the steamer trunks isn’t missing.”

A lump formed in my stomach.

“A trip?”

“Yea. She’s going on a cruise. With Mr. Marino.”

“Oh?” Now wasn’t that interesting.

#

I headed back to the office convinced Mrs. Jones had killed her husband and was now preparing to flee the country. According to the maid, she and the insurance agent were going on a ten day Caribbean cruise. Due to leave the day after tomorrow. They could drop out of site at any port along the way and never be seen again. Just one thing bothered me. Why the hell did she hire me?

The Sister

I swung by Carl’s for a burger and fries before heading back to the office. I had plenty of time on my hands, since I wasn’t expecting Mrs. Jones till around 2:30. So I took my time and had an extra cup of coffee. As I sat there drinking my joe, I ran over the facts in my head. Over and over. And the more I looked at it the more I began to think my old buddy Cliff was right. But no dame was going to stick me for a murder I didn’t commit. Still, I’d have to be careful and watch out for the set up.

I killed a little more time so that I could get back to the office fashionably late. After all, I was supposed to be out in the field. If Mrs. J showed up early I didn’t want to have to explain why I was already there.

I drove past the office and sure enough the red Mercedes was parked out front. Nobody in it. I drove around to the alley and parked in my usual spot out back. I would have liked to hoof it up the back stairs to make a show of trying to be on time, but my leg thought better of it and I grabbed the elevator instead.

She was waiting for me out in the hallway. She whirled around at the sound of the elevator dinging. I hustled out, but before I could say anything she closed the gap between us and took a slap at my face.

I grabbed her wrist in mid swing, and to heck with the crutches. This dame had slapped me once. She wasn’t going to get away with it a second time. “What the hell is that all about!” I panted.

She struggled to free herself and tried to slap me again. Again, I caught her wrist and this time she let loose like a bobcat, flailing at me wildly with both hands. I had a good hundred pounds on her, and there was no way she was going to get to me. She tried a knee to the groin, but expecting it, I turned my hip in time and blocked her. She stopped as suddenly as she had started and all at once collapsed against my chest, bursting out in tears.

Now I felt awkward and helpless. Mrs. Arens, the accountant across the hall opened the door to see what all the ruckus was. I gave her a hapless look while Mrs. Jones continued to weep into my chest. Mrs. Arens retreated with a slam of the door.

“Come on, lady, what’s this all about?” I cajoled.

“You… you,” she gasped between sobs. “You’re a beast, Mr. Mann!”

I held her away from me and looked her in the eye. “And how ya figure that?” I asked.

“I talked to Alex,” she was finally beginning to compose herself again. She jerked away, and tidied herself, daubing at her eyes. “He told me what you said.”

“I see,” I said.

“How could you?” Her face began clouding up again. I made a move towards the office hoping to avoid another scene out in the hallway. “Alex told me that you think I killed my husband!” She gasped for air and managed not to cry.

“Well, ma’am, I’ve got to consider all the possibilities.”

“All the possibilities!” she shrieked. Several of the office doors popped open and heads poked out. I tried to shush her, but she would have none of that. “All the possibilities! How could you? How could you even think it! He’s my husband, Mr. Mann. And I love him very much.”

“All right, I understand.”

“No you don’t! And then,” she got even louder, “you accuse me of sleeping with Alex!” Her arm tightened and I could see another slap coming. But she managed to restrain herself. Barely.

“Well, ma’am, you gotta admit it looks a little suspicious…”

“What looks a little suspicious?” she demanded.

“Well, you and Alex seem to go way back,” I said. “Through three husbands, it seems. And he seemed mighty at home by the pool the other day. And now you’re going on a cruise together? Come on. What am I supposed to think?”

“You men are all the same!” Her lip began to tremble again. Tears were welling up in her eyes. “Your minds are in the gutter.”

“I see.”

“No, you don’t see, Mr. Mann. You can’t see beyond your tawdry little…” Tears began flowing and she collapsed against my chest. She looked up into my face with the most wounded look I think I’ve ever seen on a person. “He’s my brother, Mr. Mann!”

You could’ve knocked me over with a feather.

#

I finally got her into the office and managed to calm her down. I apologized to her for accusing her of sleeping with her brother, and tried to explain that seeing as I did not have all the facts, it just looked pretty bad. Then I asked her about the sudden Caribbean cruise. She explained that there was nothing sudden about it at all. She and her brother always took a Caribbean cruise around this time of year and had booked the tickets months ago. Seems Murphy had already questioned her about the cruise and by the tone of her voice I could tell she did not think much of my pal. But he had cleared her to go. Evidently Murphy was satisfied that she was not a risk to flee. Again, I explained that I had not had all the facts, so things looked bad, and told her she could have been a little more forthcoming and have avoided all this discomfort. At length we hashed out all our differences and she rose to go. She looked around the office and seemed a little puzzled.

“Well, where’s the dog?” she asked.

“The dog?”

“Bruno. Aren’t you going to bring him over to the house to get the scent?”

“You want me to bring Bruno over to the house?”

“Oh course, Mr. Mann. I want you to find my husband.”

Man, was I confused.

~

Next week – Chapter’s 11 & 12: The Beagle, and The Waitress

Just two more installments. Yet to come: Part 5 – The Beagle, and The Waitress; and Part 6 – The Collar

You can find other exciting serialized fiction on the web via the #TuesdaySerial tag on Twitter, or visit Inspired by Real Life, for a weekly listing.
(c) 2010, by J. M. Strother – All rights reserved.

 

Part 1 (to start at the beginning)

The Client
The Butler

Part 2

The Associate
The Notebook

Part Three

The Cop

The doc down at St. Joe’s told me my knee wasn’t broken, just bruised, strained, and dislocated. Funny, the news didn’t make me feel any better. My ribs were another matter. I had one broken and two cracked ribs. And a big bruise on my stomach. When I told him I fell down the stairs because the light was burned out I knew he knew I was lying. They patched me up as best they could, gave me some crutches and some advice about changing light bulbs, and sent me on my way. It was well past midnight by the time I got out of there.

The trip home was no joy ride. I had to learn to accelerate and brake with my left foot, and each lurching stop and start sent new waves of pain through my chest and leg. Even driving over the cobbles of the alley was painful. I pulled into the spot next to Ferguson’s Plymouth and intentionally let my door bump into his as I got out. Lights from a half a dozen apartments came on, a window flew open and someone cursed the stupid car alarm and the idiot who had set it off. That was just fine by me. I just didn’t want any more surprises on the steps.

As I approached the brownstone Tom Ferguson came stomping out in his underwear, glowering and muttering under his breath. I shrugged atop my crutches and apologized, explaining that the crutches made it awkward getting out of the car and all. He just grunted at me and stomped on towards his car. He didn’t even bother to ask me how I had gotten hurt. I hobbled on. As I passed his place the car alarm went still. I labored on, up the steps, and heard him go back inside before I even made it to my back door.

I unlocked the door and reached in to flip on the lights. I peeked in and inspected the kitchen, half expecting a guy with a pipe to be hiding behind the door. No one there. I went on in, closed the door and collapsed into a chair at my kitchen table. When the throbbing subsided I got up and checked out the place until I was satisfied no one was there. Then I popped open a beer and sank into my living room arm chair to think about the day’s events.

I awoke to the sound of someone banging on my door. I jerked forward and collapsed back in a bundle of pain. “Go to hell!” I yelled towards the door. It didn’t seem possible, but it was daylight already. The beer bottle lay on the floor next to the chair, and I looked and felt like crap.

“Police!” the door banger responded. “We want to ask you a few questions.”

Oh jeez, could it get any worse? Now what the heck did the police want? Whatever it was, they were not going to go away, so I reached for my crutches. “Just a minute!”

I opened the door to find a blue and a dick standing in the hall. Mrs. Jennets from across the way was peeking through her door crack, to get all the dirt she could. The dick stepped forward and shoved his ID in my face like I didn’t know him, and said, “Hello Max.” He eyed the crutches without sympathy. “Can we come in?” Without waiting for an answer he pushed past me and immediately began to gaze around.

“Maybe.” I said. The blue stood out on the stoop, unsure if he really should come in at that point or not. Since I didn’t want to leave my door standing open for Mrs. Jennets, I nodded to him and said, “Sure.”

He came in and I closed the door.

“So, Murphy, what brings you around this early on a Sunday morning?” I asked. Buddy Murphy and I went way back. He didn’t like me and I didn’t like him, and we both felt just fine about that.

“Where were you last night?” Murphy asked. “Say, around ten o’clock?”

I snorted. “Me? I was enjoying the lovely emergency room facilities over at St. Joe’s. Why?”

He looked at my crutches and frowned. “Oh yeah? When did you get there?”

“About nine.”

“You can prove that?”

“Well, I had to sign in at the desk. Then I had a seat and waited to see a doctor.”

He frowned again. Something had happened last night at around ten and I had an iron tight alibi. He hated it when that happened. “When did you get out?”

“I was discharged a little after midnight. Why?”

He poked at the empty beer bottle with his foot. “A little early, ain’t it?”

“It’s from last night, asshole. I didn’t exactly feel like hobbling back to the kitchen to toss it. Now what the hell are you digging at?”

If looks could carry pipes, I’d be heading back to the hospital now. But he cooled down fast and asked, “You ever hear of Plum Orchard Fine Used Books?” My stomach tightened.

“I might have.”

“Cut the crap. I’ve got a patrol officer that puts you on the lot there at around six-thirty last night. I got a kid that says you were in there, poking around in restricted areas from around four-thirty till closing.”

“So?”

“So why were you there?” He walked up to me and put his face right next to mine.

“I was looking for something.”

He nodded his head like a bobble head doll, waiting for me to go on. But I wasn’t cooperating. “So elucidate, already.”

“Oh, big word, Murphy. I hope it didn’t hurt too much.”

He pushed his chest into mine. “You give me crap Mann, and I’ll haul your ass down to the station and lose the key.”

“Yeah, for what? Visiting the hospital after visiting hours? You can’t haul my ass anywhere.”

The blue was looking a little disconcerted and was nervously fingering his nightstick. It looked uncomfortably like a pipe to me.

“Did you hear any sirens last night around ten?” he asked.

“I was at the hospital, Murphy. Of course I heard sirens, all night long. Why?”

“Plum Orchard Fine Used Books burned down last night.” Despite the fact that I should have seen it coming, my head reeled. I needed that bookstore. There were too many clues in there to lose. But of course, that was why it had burned down. Damn!

He walked away from me then and chomped on his cigar. Then he turned back to me and said, “Funny how you go poking around and the place burns down. Looks like arson by the way. You like fire, Mann?”

“It has it’s place,” I retorted. “Arson’s not one of ‘em.”

“You seen anything of a Mr. Rodger Jones lately? The owner of the joint.”

“No. Have you?”

“No.” He poked his cigar in my direction. “And that’s the thing. The owner’s car is out back of the place, but no sign of the owner. Now I got a fire, a car, and no owner. Know what that smells like to me, Mann? Not just arson. Arson to cover up a murder.” Again, he poked his cigar at me. “The bomb and arson squad are going over the place now. If they just happen to find a body in there, I’ll be asking you down to the station.”

“You think I torched the place? Get real, Murphy, I was at the hospital.”

He grunted. “Who’s to say you didn’t have an accomplice?” He nodded to the blue to open the door. As he headed out he just happened to accidentally kick one of my crutches. I winced in pain.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Max. I hope that didn’t hurt.” He stuck his cigar back in his mouth and stepped out into the hallway. Mrs. Jennets scurried back into her place and mostly closed her door. “We’ll be talking to you again, Mann,” he threatened.

“Oh, I’ll be looking forward to it,” I assured him.

Mrs. Jennets door snapped closed just after mine.

The Reporter

I drove over to the Plumb Orchard Shopping Center to see the place for myself. I pulled into the lot and parked a few doors down, as close as the yellow Police Line tape allowed. Two cruisers, a fire department, and an unmarked car were there, along with a local crowd of onlookers. I saw Murphy talking to one of the blues. As I struggled out of the car with my crutches he looked up and saw me. He stopped talking and sauntered over my way. “Revisiting the scene of the crime?” he sneered from behind the yellow tape.

“Very funny, Murphy.”

“Oh, homicide’s not so funny,” he retorted.

“You found a body?” I asked, surprised.

“Should we have?”

“Only if somebody died,” I shot back. He grumbled something about me being a smart ass and wandered away at that.

On the far side of the ash pit that used to be the bookstore I saw my old friend from the Times, Cliff Williams, taking notes. He was talking to Joe Badger, the town Fire Marshall and chief arson investigator. From the smoke billowing around them you would have thought Cliff was on fire himself, but it was just his cheap cigar. As he wrote something down he looked up and saw me. Flipping his notebook shut, he said a few more words to the Fire Marshall, and hustled on over.

“So, what brings you out here, compadre?” he asked as he shook my hand. “Murphy call you in for an assist?” He grinned an evil grin, knowing full well how Murphy and I got along. Then he went on, “Joe tells me it looks like arson. Found traces of accelerants in the rubble. Kind of amazing they can find anything in that pile, eh?”

“I guess if you know how to look,” I offered.

“Yeah. I guess,” he echoed. “Someone says there was a strange car here early last night,” Cliff went on. “A big old Brougham. I think they said it was maroon.” He looked over my shoulder at my car.

“They? You mean Murphy, don’t you?”

He just grinned. “From what I hear, the bookstore didn’t do a whole lot of business. Guess maybe it was losing money. Think the guy might have torched it for insurance?” By the way he looked at me, with that sidelong glance, I knew he was fishing. I kept mum. At last he decided I was not going to bite, so he put another worm on his hook. “Or maybe it was torched to cover up some other crime?” I examined my shoes. At last, in exasperation he said, “I’m hearing rumors that the store’s owner is missing.”

“Is that right?” I avoided looking at him.

“Oh come on, Max, don’t act like you don’t know anything. Murph’s already told me you were here last night, in the store before closing, and that the old man is missing. Says you’re the prime suspect.” He gave me a big grin.

“Is that right?” I gave a shrug.

“Oh come on, Max. Give me something.” He gave me his old sad dog look.

“The old man was missing before last night,” I offered. He flipped open his notebook and poised pen over paper, waiting for me to go on. At length he looked up to me with a frown. “Come on, Max, you can do better than that.”

“Look, Cliff,” I apologized, “I’m working a case here. It wouldn’t be ethical for me to go blabbing to the press. What would my client say?”

He flipped his notebook shut in disgust. “So who’s the client?” Then, “Off the record.”

“You just don’t give up, do you Cliff?” I smiled despite myself. Truth be told, Cliff was a good guy, an old school chum, and I knew I could trust him to keep quiet if he promised we were “off the record”. It was not a promise he made lightly, or often. “OK. Off the record? Let’s go down to Mable’s for some coffee.”

Looking at my condition he offered to drive. I scoffed at the idea. I told him that I wasn’t going to let a simple dislocated knee and a few broken ribs slow me down. Truth is, I didn’t want to leave my car there on the lot with Murphy still around. The jerk was likely to have it towed, just out of spite. Before I let him into my car, I made Cliff snuff out his stogie. He pinched off the cherry and stuck the unused portion into his inside vest pocket. I swear, some day he’s going to go up like a torch.

We headed off for Mable’s, the old Brougham lurching and jerking to starts and stops as we went, due to my left footed driving. Cliff took it all in stride, making small talk as we went, though he buckled his seat belt, which was uncharacteristic of him. To his credit, he barely raised an eyebrow when a VW pulled out in front of us and I came within inches of creaming the stupid SOB. After I angrily pulled around the dolt, Cliff pointed at my leg and asked what happened. He didn’t buy the falling down the steps routine and at length I described the guy with the pipe.

“Sounds like Big Al Macavich,” Cliff decided. “He works for Micky ‘the Hammer’ Malone. They run the hot rocks market around here. Rumor has it that they’ve expanded into smuggled stones from Africa, blood diamonds they call ‘em. You know anything about that?” He pulled out his notebook and produced a pen.

I shook my head, “Sorry. Not really.”

“Too bad,” Cliff grumbled. “I could use a good story.”

I was unable to perform my usual three point parking job in front of Mable’s. It’s not so easy to parallel park with a bum leg. Still, I didn’t leave enough damage on the other cars to worry about. We went on in.

Cliff nabbed us a booth at the far end of the diner where we could talk. As I settled in, Angie came up all concerned to see me on crutches. She wanted to know what happened. I told her I fell down the steps and she looked to Cliff for confirmation. He shrugged, feigning ignorance, and Angie patted my shoulder in sympathy and told me I needed to be more careful. She took our order and headed back to the counter. Cliff watched me watch her sashay away and grinned. “So, you and Angie?” he winked.

“Ah, no.” I pointedly looked away. “Oh, she’s nice and all, but… No.”

“You ever ask her out?”

“Angie? No.” I shook my head.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. Just never did.”

“She likes you.”

“Bull.”

“Sure she does. You could tell, the way she made all over you and your crutches. I think she likes you.”

“She was just being nice,” I told him. That’s the way Angie was. Nice. She was always nice. To everybody.

“If you say so.” Just then Angie came back with our coffee.

“Let me know if you need anything else, hon,” she said before walking away. Cliff winked at me and mouthed the word hon as she headed to another table. I tried to kick him, only to wince in sudden pain.

“So, who’s your client?” Cliff asked once we were finally settled.

“Off the record?” I asked.

“Off the record.”

“Mrs. Jones.”

He snorted coffee up his nose and about fell out of the booth. I looked at him somewhat perplexed. A few heads turned our way.

“The black widow?” he finally gasped.

“The black widow?” I returned.

“Christ, Max. Don’t you know about her?”

“I know she’s been married three times now.” I tried not to sound defensive.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah what?”

“Come on Max. Married three times. Widowed three times. Gets richer with each funeral she attends.”

“Now wait a minute. Who says this latest guy’s dead?”

“You don’t think they’re going to find his body in those ashes?” He looked incredulous.

“I don’t know. He wasn’t there when I locked up last night.”

“So you were there?”

“Hey!”

“Come on, you can trust me. What were you doing there last night?”

“I was looking for Mr. Jones,” I told him.

“She hired you to find her husband?” I nodded. He shook his head in disbelief. “Well, that doesn’t make any sense.”

“Why not?”

“Come on, Max. She’s three for three. She inherited that big house over on Park from her first husband. Took years for her to get title to it, before the insurance company would declare him dead. Then she married Henry Ferguson, the car dealer. The brakes on his brand new Vette failed on I-85. Hit a bridge abutment on 85 at 85. Wasn’t much left. She inherited millions on that one. And now number three is missing and his store just happens to be a smoldering pile of ash. How much insurance you figure he had on the place? How much on himself? A couple of mil if it’s a penny, I’d bet. One will get you ten they find his teeth in there.”

I stirred my coffee, mulling all this over.

“But what I don’t get,” Cliff pondered, “is why she would go so far as to hire you to find him. Something doesn’t add up on that score.” He looked at me with concern in his eye. “I’d be careful if I were you, Max. I don’t know, but it seems to me about the only thing that makes any sense here is that she’s trying to set you up to take the fall.”
~

Next week – Chapter’s 7 & 8: The Boss, and The Old Flame

(c) 2010, by J. M. Strother – All rights reserved.

 

Part 1 (to start at the beginning)

The Client
The Butler

The Associate

The Plumb Orchard Shopping Center was not really much of a shopping center, it was nothing more than a fancy strip mall catering to the upscale neighborhoods of town. The bookstore was at the far end of the strip, beyond the oriental furnishings company and Betty’s Beauty Shop. But the bookstore came dead last in the row of shops, the least desirable location on the strip.

I stopped and looked at the front of the store and scratched my head. The sign was right, Plum Orchard Fine Used Books, but the store was not. In the window, behind an obviously hand made sign that read, We Buy, Sell, Trade for Fine Used Books, were used books alright. But I wouldn’t call them fine. There were tasteful little collections of books in the windows; science fiction, mysteries, romance novels. All paperbacks, and some in pretty tattered condition. Must be first editions, I figured with a shrug, and headed in. A little bell jingled when I opened the door, and a nerdy looking kid rushed up from where he had been working stacking shelves, to ask if he could help me.

“Mann. Max Mann, private eye,” I introduced myself.

He squinted at me through glasses as thick as pop bottles and brushed back a long shock of greasy black hair that hung down into his face. It flopped back down almost immediately.

“I’ve been hired by Mrs. Jones to find her husband, Rodger,” I told the kid. “She told me I could find his business associate here, a Mr. Reginald Lewis. Is he in?”

The kid let out a high nasal laugh that did nothing to endear him to me. “Ha, ha, ha! That’s me, mister. Reginald Lewis.” Another obnoxious laugh. “Yep, that’s me, mister. Reginald Lewis. An Associate.” He beamed and pointed to his name tag. Just under the large letters Reggie, in small caps read, ASSOCIATE. Oh jeez, I thought, that kind of associate. I was expecting a business partner, someone with some in-depth knowledge of Rodger Jones and his dealings, not the hired help from the local high school.

“I see,” I said. “So, Reginald, did you work here yesterday?”

“Oh sure, mister. I work here every day. Work, work, work. That’s all I ever do. Yep, I work, work, work.”

“I see,” The kid was very annoying. “So, you saw Mr. Jones here yesterday then?”

“Oh sure, mister. I see Mr. Jones here every day. He’s my boss, mister.” He looked around furtively, as if to be sure he was not speaking out of turn, or that if he was, he would not be overheard. “He comes in every day to tell me what to do. And I do it.”

“OK…” Please, God, let this end. “But he didn’t come in today. Did he?”

His head retracted like a turtle’s and he looked around as if expecting to get smacked. His brows furrowed, and for a second I thought the kid was going to start bawling on me right there and then. But he didn’t. He just shook his head in dismay and mumbled, “No.”

“Mind if I look around?” I did not wait for an answer and began strolling up and down the aisles, checking out the books on the shelves. He shuffled along right beside me like an expectant puppy. SciFi. Mysteries. Romance. All paperbacks. All priced between 25 cents and a dollar. Each aisle had a sign posted informing me that they took books in trade at the rate of two to one. Another sign told me, All Sales Final. I pulled out an occasional volume and checked the fly leaf. Seven rows of books. All cheap novels. No fine leather. And not a first edition to be found.

It didn’t make sense, just didn’t add up. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that you’d need to sell one hell of a lot of tatty 25 cent novels to be able to afford #17 Park Avenue. Something seriously did not add up.

“So,” I asked, putting another dog-eared novel back on its shelf, “Does Mr. Jones have another bookstore somewhere?”

The kid scurried up even closer, pressing in enough to make me uncomfortable. I tried to back away, but he kept closing the gap, again and again. “Oh no, mister. This is his store. The only store he has.” Again the obnoxious laugh. “He comes in every day at 10:00, just like clockwork, and closes up every night at 6:00. Just like clockwork. It’s his only store, mister.”

“Got it. And when do you arrive? And leave?”

“Oh, I get here at 3:00 every day, mister. Just like clockwork. Three o’clock, and then I work, work, work. Mr. Jones yells at me if I’m late, mister. He yells something terrible. And if I don’t work, work, work.” He looked around again with great trepidation. It was obvious this kid lived in fear of crossing Mr. Jones. “And I get off at 6:00, mister. Every day. Just like clockwork.”

“I see,” I said. “You leave with Mr. Jones? I mean at the same time? He locks up behind you?”

“Oh no, mister. That’s not how it is at all!” He laughed at my ignorance in the matter, that same obnoxious laugh. “He lets me out the front door and locks it. Then he goes out the back.” I followed his eye to a door at the rear of the store, where the stockroom would be.

“Back there?”

“Yep, yep, yep.”

I started towards the back door and the kid was all over me, trying to block the way. “Oh, you can’t go back there, mister. Nope, nope, nope. Mr. Jones doesn’t let anyone go back there. Ever.” His head retracted like a turtle’s again. “I went back there once and Mr. Jones yelled at me real bad, mister. You can’t go back there, mister.”

I grabbed him by the shoulders and physically moved him aside. “It’s OK, Reginald. Mrs. Jones hired me to find her husband. I think I can go back there.”

He licked his lips nervously and shrank away from me, obviously unconvinced. The kid lived in terror of the wrath of Mr. Jones.

I opened the door and found a cluttered storeroom that occupied most of the back of the shop, with a clear aisle way running all the way back to the steel door which was the rear exit. A wall ran down the left side, just off the doorway I stood in, and it had a cheap hollow core wooden door in it, evidently leading to an office. I walked into the storeroom and glanced around. The kid stood out in the retail area, wringing his hands, watching me through the open doorway. When I reached for the office doorknob he nearly tied himself in knots of contorted agony. “Oh please, mister! Don’t go in there!” He was sweating bullets.

From his reaction, I knew what I was going to find in the office. Mr. Jones. Dead. The police would crack the kid in no time. He had no nerve. I almost felt sorry for him. I turned the knob and the kid let out a gasp, almost a sob, and nearly folded over double in agony. Yet he remained at the doorway to the storeroom, too distraught to flee.

But I did not find Mr. Jones in the office. I found no one in the office. Alive or dead. I could hear the kid out in the showroom making little whimpering sounds. I poked my head out into storeroom and said, “There’s no one in here, kid.”

“I know that, mister. You think I didn’t know that, mister? I knew that, mister.” He had almost regained his composure.

“So you’ve been back here?”

The head retracted again. “Oh no, mister. I don’t go back there! Mr. Jones gets real mad if anyone goes back there. I told you that, mister. But you wouldn’t listen. Oh no, you wouldn’t listen. Now Mr. Jones is going to be real mad.”

“So how did you know he wasn’t back here?” I asked.

“Because he didn’t come out and tell me what to do today when I got here. And he didn’t come out to yell at me for doing it wrong; except I couldn’t do it wrong, since he didn’t come out and tell me what to do. He always tells me what to do when I get here, mister, and then yells at me for doing it wrong. And since he didn’t come out here to tell me what to do, or come out later to yell at me for doing it wrong, I knew he wasn’t back there, mister.” I began to feel like I was trapped in a Franz Kafka novel.

“I see,” I said. And the scary thing was, I did. “OK, kid. Relax. Mr. Jones is not going to yell at you for letting me come back here. I work for his wife. If he yells at anyone, he’ll yell at me. Or her.” He continued to look petrified with fear. “So when you got here today, was the front door unlocked?”

“Sure mister. It was unlocked. How else would I have gotten in, mister?”

“So the store was open, but no one was here? Any customers?”

“No mister. We don’t usually have any customers.”

A cheap used bookstore with no customers. And #17 Park Avenue. The correlation just was not there. Very strange indeed.

I saw a coat hanging on the coat rack in the corner. It was a simple sport coat, but of good make, the type of coat a shop owner might wear to work. Mr. Jones’ coat, evidently, so he left in a hurry. I went over to it and rummaged through the pockets. I turned up a checkbook, bearing his name and address, a gold pen and pencil set, engraved with his name, a monogrammed notebook, and a set of keys. The keys to a Lexus were among them.

“Where’s he park, kid?” I asked poking my head out into the stockroom again. The kid was still standing in the doorway to the showroom. He would not come into the stockroom for all the tea in China.

“He parks out back, mister. He always parks out back.”

I flipped the keys into my palm and headed for the back door. It lead to an alley, where there were dumpsters and clutter, and a scattering of cars near the back doors of other shops. And there, behind the rear exit of Plum Orchard Fine Used Books sat a silver Lexus. Plates BX7-143.

The Notebook

Well there was nothing to do but to check the trunk for a body. Maybe the kid wasn’t off the hook after all. I walked to the rear of the car, and with some trepidation, pressed the fob’s button. There was the solid thunk of the release, and I opened it, using my handkerchief to lift the lid. To my relief the trunk was empty, except for the usual detritus of an automobile trunk. I closed the trunk with my handkerchief so as not to leave my prints, and peered into the passenger compartment through the smoked glass windows, again careful not to touch any surfaces, to see if all was right inside. It was. There were a few CDs on the passenger seat, and a fuzzy troll doll hung from the rear view mirror. Nothing at all out of the ordinary. I did not open it to look around any closer, since it might become part of a crime scene investigation all too soon. I headed back inside.

To the kid’s dismay I did not come back into the showroom, but turned back into the office. I still needed some answers, or at least some questions, if I was going to make any headway into this little puzzler. I poked around carefully, trying to leave things exactly as I had found them. There was a shredder at the side of the desk, the expensive cross cut type that banks used so that material could not be reassembled, and it was filled with what appeared to be shipping records based on the color and texture of the paper it held. Thin tissue type paper in pinks and greens a la UPS and FedEx invoices. There was a waste basket full of Styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap. Most of the bubbles had been popped. So Mr. Jones was a nervous fidget. There was a file cabinet, crammed full of all sorts of records, so many that I made a mental note to come back tomorrow and start sifting through them. Nothing I wanted to tackle this late tonight.

Against one wall was a workbench with several power tools mounted on it; saws, grinders, other odd equipment I did not immediately recognize. But none of it looked like something one would find in a used bookstore. And a jeweler’s lamp was mounted next to each piece of equipment, the kind with the round light that encased a huge magnifying glass. The workbench was impeccably clean. There were three cardboard boxes next to the bench, one of which had been opened. They were all labeled, BOOKS, and their shipping invoices were missing. I peeked inside the open box and saw that it indeed contained books. Lots of cheap dog-eared novels. It probably cost more to ship them than they were worth. I turned my attention to the desk.

The desk was pretty clean too, and also fitted with a jewelers lamp. There were some pictures of his wife, a blotter without blots, the telephone, an open box cutter, and a desk calendar. The calendar was still on yesterday’s date. Evidently he had not even sat down this morning to turn the page. I flipped back and forth a few days to see if he had any appointments marked on it. Last Thursday he met with Willie at 10:30, yesterday he met with Joey at 11:00, and next Monday he was set to meet Big Al at 10:00. Interesting names, I mused.
The desk was locked, but a key on the key ring opened it. Ah, now things were getting interesting.

In the desk I found a full set of jewelers tools; hammers, saws, picks, eyepieces, tweezers, the whole works. The power tools on the workbench began to make sense to me. Then, in a little box stuffed way in the back of the top drawer I found six uncut rocks the size of my pinkie’s nail. No wonder Mr. Jones didn’t want anyone to come back here. He was a stone cutter. And 10 to 1 the IRS had no hint of it.
I went to the boxes and riffled through the books of the one that was open. Before long I found what I was looking for, an old Edgar Rice Burroughs novel that had been hollowed out. The box in the back of the desk drawer would have fit it quite nicely. Very interesting. Sure wished those shipping invoices had not been shredded.

I went back out into the stockroom and began to poke around. There were lots of boxes just like the ones in the office, but with shipping labels intact. I cut one open with my pen knife and the kid about died. “Oh! Oh! Oh!” he gasped, pointing to me in horror. He was so beside himself he almost forgot the prohibition and started to cross the threshold from showroom to stockroom before leaping back. “Don’t do that, mister! Don’t do that, mister!” He began gnawing on his knuckles. I sifted through the contents and found just a bunch of worthless books. They had been shipped from Fred’s Discount Books in Kansas City, MO. I had a feeling any of the other boxes that still had shipping labels would contain more of the same, just worthless used books.

“Come on, mister, I gotta go!” The kid pleaded from the doorway. He was tying himself up into contortions again so I assumed he had to pee. I had noticed a bathroom off the showroom earlier and shrugged.

“So go.”

“What?”

“Well, don’t let me stop you. If you need to pee, go pee.”

He looked at me like I was crazy. “I mean I have to go, mister. It’s 6:00. It’s time to close up.”

“Oh. Well…” I looked around the stockroom and decided that there probably wasn’t much to discover here that could not wait till tomorrow. I decided to give the kid a break and knock off for the day. “Sure, kid. I understand. Let me lock the back door.”

When I rejoined him in the storefront it struck me that I ought to check the bathroom. The kid could have killed old man Jones and hidden him in there, I supposed. It was empty and after a minute, so was I.

“So, Reginald, do you know anyone named Willie, or Joey, or Big Al?” I asked when I came back out.

He shook his head then his eyes lit up. “I know Willie McCrenna the Third,” he declared. “He’s my best friend at school, Willie is. He’s the President of the Latin Club! He knows The Gallic and Civil Wars by heart.”

“That’s nice. You know any customers by those names? Men that came in here asking for Mr. Jones.”

“Ha, ha, ha, that’s funny mister. Customers asking for Mr. Jones. That’s funny mister.” We were slowly working our way towards the front of the store and the kid was now much more relaxed. His long nightmare, by the name of Max Mann, would soon be gone and his life would return to normal.

“Customers are funny, eh?”

“We don’t get any customers, mister. Nope, nope, nope.”

“None?”

“Well…” He was thinking. Hard. “There have been three, since I started working here.”

“And when was that?”

“Oh, last year, after Christmas. Last year, after Christmas.”

“Do you remember them?”

“Oh sure, mister. I remember them. Jeez, there were only three of them. Be hard to forget since there were only three of them. Wouldn’t it, mister?” I had to admit it would be. “The first one was Willie. He came by the day after I got my job here, to see how I was doing. He bought 36 books! Let’s see, he bought Atlantis by Norman M. Ventro, The Hero’s of Dregby by Kim Lyndsey Chisholm, the…”

“That’s OK kid, I don’t need to know what books he bought.” Whew, that was close. “How about the other two?”

“Well there was a lady that came in around Easter and looked around a little. She did not buy anything. I see her go into Betty’s now and then. I think she just came in to see what we had.”

“So you could point her out to me sometime?”

“Sure mister. She gets her hair done every other Thursday at 4:00. Just…”

“Like clockwork,” I finished for him. “OK. Will she be back this Thursday, or next?”

“Next.”

“And the third customer?”

“I don’t know who he is, mister,” he admitted sadly. “He bought a book though. The Diamond Tiger, by Elizabeth Lowell.”

I stopped dead and looked at him. The kid ducked, like he expected to get hit for doing something wrong.

“Honest, mister. That’s what he bought. The Diamond Tiger, by Elizabeth Lowell. 25 cents, plus tax.”

“I see,” I said. He eyed the door anxiously. We were so close that he could almost taste the end of his ordeal. But I was not quite done.
“One more thing, Reginald.” He deflated, resigned to answering more questions. “Have you ever seen a package arrive, marked books, but with something funny about it… like an odd packing slip?” He reeled away from me like I had hit him.

“We gotta go, mister, we gotta go!” He rushed the final three feet to the door and pushed it open, breathing hard. “We gotta go, mister. It’s past 6:00, and we gotta lock up. Come on, I have to get home. My mom’s going to be worried soon.”

“Whoa! Hold on now, Reginald. I didn’t mean to scare you, or anything.” It was obvious from his reaction that he had indeed seen a package arrive with something out of the ordinary about it. So I stepped outside with him and let the door ease closed behind us. I held the key to the lock, but did not insert it. “So, about that package?”

He squirmed and writhed and obfuscated for a good ten minutes before I finally got it out of him. About a month ago a US Postal truck had dropped off a package on the front counter at around 3:00, just after he had arrived for work. He had picked it up and carried it back to the doorway to the store room and called out for Mr. Jones that a package had arrived. When Mr. Jones found him holding it he let into him like he had never done before and threatened to fire him if he ever handled another delivery. If something arrived, he was to tell him right away, not lift it, not shake it, not even touch it or even look at it, but was to go get Mr. Jones right away and find something else to do at the other end of the store, or he would be fired. Had he noticed where it was from? Oh sure, mister. It was from Ghana, in Africa. Of course he had noticed that, mister. After all he was an avid stamp collector. It figured.

Satisfied that I had gotten all I was going to get out of him, I locked the door and pocketed the keys. I let the kid go home, drenched in sweat, and promised that the store would be open for him to work in by the time he got there at 3:00 the next day.

I went back to my car and got out the little notebook I had found in Mr. Jones’ coat. It was just starting to get dark so I turned on the dome light and flipped through it quickly. It was written in a tiny but scrawling hand that made it damned near impossible to decipher, at least in this lighting. Jeez, I almost needed a jeweler’s lamp… Ah… He wrote these notes in miniature, under his jeweler’s lamps. Exactly so they would be damned near impossible to read. I looked back to the bookstore and considered it, but the cop car that pulled into the lot just then decided it against me. “Tomorrow,” I said to myself, and stuck the book away into my breast pocket.

I swung by Mable’s Diner and swilled down some coffee as thick as tar, woofed down a burger big enough to choke a bear, and some fries you could of sunk an oil well in. I left Angie a good tip. I always do. because she looks good and talks nice to me when I drop by. Then I headed home.

Home was a third floor flat in a row of three story apartments built in the manner of turn of the century inner city brownstones. The neighborhood I lived in wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t the worst either by any means, and one I could easily afford given my irregular income. My building had a tiny front yard, and a small shared garden out back, between the house and the alley. I parked in the alley, careful not to bump Mr. Ferguson’s car with my door when I got out so his damned car alarm would not go off. Then I headed for the rear stairs. The back light was out again, so I had to be careful on the darkened steps.

As I passed the Ferguson’s alcove a dark shape lunged out and grabbed me by the neck and my right arm. His hand clamped over my mouth and I struggled to twist out of his grasp, but his grip was like iron. Then another form appeared in front of me and punched me in the gut. Hard.

“Quit struggling, or I’ll hit you again,” the guy in front hissed. I stopped struggling right away. My motto has always been, “If it hurts, don’t do it.” I stood still, in the vice like grip of the guy in back, but with my full attention on the guy in front. He was carrying a pipe, which was definitely not a good sign.

“It’s come to our attention that you are poking your nose where it don’t belong,” the guy with the pipe informed me. “So Micky The Hammer tells me to tell you to butt out. So’s I’m telling you.” He swung the pipe down into my kneecap. Hard. Only the mitt over my mouth kept me from screaming like a banshee, my eyes watered and my eyesight went white. As I sank to the ground I felt the guy yank open my coat and fumble through my pockets. He stood up, satisfied and kicked me in the ribs. “Have a nice day.” With that his partner shoved me aside, in a heap, and the two scurried down the alley and got into a waiting car. Only after they were gone did I realize what they had taken—the little notebook.
~

Next week – Chapter’s 5 & 6: The Cop, and The Reporter

(c) 2010, by J. M. Strother – All rights reserved.

 

The Client

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.

“Mr. Mann?”

“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.

The Butler

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.”

“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…”

“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.”

“Procedures?”

“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.

“Plates?”

“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

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