He was one of those creatures who hunt through store catalogs for the perfect storage unit, foolishly believing it was necessary -- even possible -- to put a life in order, never mind keep it that way. My client in a nutshell.
So many of my clients in a nutshell.
I leaned back against the row of beer kegs, feeling the cold metal through my shirt. "You were right. Your wife is seeing somebody."
The muscles along his jaw tightened. "Do I know him?"
"I couldn't say. Didn't want to interrupt."
Jeremy kicked at the flooring. "Probably that coworker of hers."
"If you're interested, I can find out. I can also keep it from happening again."
He paled. "I don't believe in violence."
"That's not what I meant. I can put a scare into them, create the impression I'm coming at them from his end. Debra will be so relieved you never found out, she'll stay honest."
"Have you done this before?"
I nodded towards the building outside the walk-in refrigerator. "You manage a restaurant. Have you learned yet what keeps the place going, something they might not even have mentioned in that hospitality management program you aced?"
"What's that?" He puffed his chest, probably attempting to regain some shred of his manhood.
"Sidework. That's where your cooks, your bartenders, your servers spend two-thirds of their time. When it gets busy in the restaurant, you can't have your people prepping sauce and filling saltshakers. All those tasks are done at the beginning of their shift or at the end for the next."
Jeremy chewed that over. "Okay. Okay, just do it."
"We'll use a verbal contract for this portion, and I'll need the cash up front. That way, if anything goes wrong, you can't be implicated."
"What could go wrong?"
This from a guy who managed a restaurant, land of one crisis after another. "There's always a slight chance her boyfriend will try to mix it up with me. I might have to slug him a few times."
Jeremy's grin wasn't pretty. "Where do I not sign?"
The next day, I took photographs of Debra and her lover as they crossed from the office building to his car, and then another set as they ran from his car to the motel. Wouldn't it be ironic if the manager of that fine establishment graduated from the same school as my client?
Parked behind lover boy, I called an ex-client and waited for him to finish the traffic stop before running the tags. Then I drove to the address he gave me.
Timothy Ward lived in a brand-spanking new development that went up twice as fast as its neighbors, thanks in no small part to words I'd whispered in some people's ears. I owed a gal a favor and I always paid my debts. She made ten thousand when the last unit was completed a full seven months sooner than the earliest possible date claimed by the man she bet against.
Timothy's house boasted a two-car garage. Neither bay was filled with the oddball possessions that would collect if a car weren't parked there every night.
There was no sign of toys, bikes, or any other child-related minutia.
How unfortunate. Children always added weight to the prospect of blackmail.
"Can I help you?" A short-haired brunette watched me from her front step, one hand on the open door, ready to flee if she determined I was dangerous.
Walking to the edge of Timothy's driveway, I acted surprised. "Nobody seems to be home."
"Tim gets in about five-thirty. Eli a little past six. Are you a friend of theirs?"
"We were schoolmates." I threw out my arms with just a twinge of dramatic flair. "I guess our reunion is just going to have to wait. After all these years, what are another couple of hours?"
We smiled at each other, and I returned to my car so she could go back to whatever she'd been doing on the other side of that window when she'd spotted me.
Adjusting the plan to accommodate this new information, the following morning I went to work with Eli, two cars back and then in the same elevator. People deferred to him.
The fact that he had his own office was even more promising. His assistant said Mr. Graham had a few free minutes at ten o'clock. I said I'd wait, and leafed through corporate propaganda until I was told he could see me now.
Eli Graham shook hands before motioning me to a seat. "You told my assistant we had some business."
"I'm a professional photographer in that I sell pictures that other people would pay to keep from being seen."
He measured me with his cool gaze. "It sounds like you're talking about blackmail."
"No, I'm a private eye. In the course of a current investigation, I took some pictures that might interest you."
"Let me guess. Tim with some skirt." Eli sniffed. "They don't mean anything to him. That's all you need to know."
So much for that idea. "I apologize for taking up your time."
My surveillance switched to Eli, and I shot dozens of pictures detailing his home-life and partner over the period of a week. I was finally rewarded for my patience when he escorted another friend to an AIDS clinic. The friend didn't look good.
While I would have preferred to make a little extra money off one of the players, I'd settle for fulfilling my obligations. Even after all the hours I had spent chasing down possible opportunities, I'll still come out ahead.
Calling Debra, I arranged to meet her that night while Jeremy worked at the restaurant.
Debra paused as she stepped inside the laundromat.
"We spoke on the phone." I smiled warmly. "There are seats in the back near the dryers."
"You said something about Timothy."
"Why don't we get comfortable first?" I led her to the waiting area.
Debra sat across from me. "What do you want?"
"I'm hoping you can help me." I paused, took a deep breath. "I know you're having an affair. That's not what's important to me. I'm concerned about Tim."
I nodded. "His partner, Eli, has been sleeping around. Perhaps he senses that you and Tim.... Anyway, one of Eli's lovers has been diagnosed with AIDS."
"Eli?" Debra blinked rapidly as she struggled to keep up.
"I can't tell Tim what's going on. He'd never believe me." I handed her an envelope containing selected pictures. "But you, Tim will believe you."
Debra glanced down at the envelope. "What is this?"
"Photographs. I don't know how you'll explain them to Tim, but you have to convince him to break off the relationship with Eli before he also becomes infected."
"And if it's too late?" The envelope trembled in her hands.
"We can only pray it's not." I stood. "Thank you. Thank you for everything."
Debra barely nodded as I left her there with her thoughts.
That night -- at 2:32 AM to be exact -- I received an enraged call from my client. "What did you do? I just got home and Debra is gone! Cleared out!"
"Did she leave a note?" I rubbed my face with my free hand.
"Nothing! But her clothes are gone, and she's taken some items of sentimental value."
"At least it doesn't sound as if she's planning to jump off a bridge. I'll be at your place first thing. Since you're probably not going to sleep anyway, keep looking for a note. Check all your voicemails, emails, everything."
"What did you do to me?"
"I'll bring coffees." Hanging up, I rolled over and immediately fell asleep, trusting in my internal clock.
I woke at noon, jumped into a quick shower, and finally caught up with Jeremy at the restaurant.
"You said first thing!"
Not bothering to remind him I'd also promised coffee, I raised my hands in surrender. "You're not my only client."
He slammed his office door closed behind us. "You promised you'd take care of things!"
"So, did she leave a note?"
"Nothing. Why? Is finding farewell messages another service you offer?" Sitting behind his desk, he glared at me. "For an additional price?"
"If she didn't leave a note, she's expecting to come back. Debra doesn't want a piece of physical evidence to come between you, harming the reconciliation process."
Jeremy had been slopping tomato sauce into a pan when I found him in the kitchen, and I couldn't take my eyes off the splatter pattern.
His eyes went wide. "I don't believe this. You'll say anything, won't you? I suppose Debra leaving me is actually part of your plan to keep her faithful."
"Where might your wife have gone?"
Jeremy leaned forward. "Why do you want to know? So you can bill me for checking up on her? Or maybe you're offering to pick her up because -- just coincidentally -- your car contains a taxi meter."
I kept my voice level, trying to defuse the situation. "There's a good chance that she only wants a little time to think over what she's done. Once she realizes what she's missing, she'll be back."
"I don't want to hear any more of your self-serving theories." He stabbed his finger towards the door. "Just get out and stay out. I don't want to ever see your face again."
I honored my client's request, assembling the rest of the story from assorted news items.
Debra must have actually given the envelope of photographs to Tim before she disappeared. While she was probably trying to be helpful, all she did was incite a screaming match between Tim and Eli that quickly escalated into violence.
The neighbor who called 911 was not identified, but I pictured the brunette who'd spoken to me as I fleshed out the events in my mind.
By the time the police arrived at the house, Tim had beaten Eli so badly that he slipped into a coma. Apparently, Eli and the man he'd escorted to the AIDS clinic were ex-lovers, a five-year-old relationship that still obviously threatened Tim for some reason.
The following day, that ex-lover shot Tim to death as Tim was being escorted to the courthouse. The police immediately subdued the killer who did not resist arrest but laid down his weapon and raised his hands. As he later told reporters, there was no point in running since prison was as good a place to die as anywhere else.
After completing a thorough investigation, and exhausting all possible leads, the police were unable to determine the origin of the photographs. Imagine that.
Jeremy didn't leave a note, so I can't say whether it was the loss of his wife or the attendant tragedies that pushed him over the edge. While he was usually the last to leave the restaurant on Friday nights, this past Friday he then locked himself in the walk-in refrigerator and mixed three gallons of bleach with three gallons of ammonia.
While Jeremy's professors may have skipped the more mundane realities of the restaurant business, at least they'd covered the very serious dangers of accidentally producing chlorine gas while trying to clean and disinfect.
I tracked Debra to her folk's place in Kansas. She'd suffered some kind of nervous breakdown, complicated by heavy drinking. Despite all the attention the story generated, nobody ever stepped forward asking me to find the missing widow.
Just as accidents seem to unfold in slow motion, I watched in dismay as one possible revenue stream after another was lost to me.
Sure, Jeremy's check had cleared for the original infidelity investigation, and he paid cash for my follow-up work, but I still felt cheated. The whole situation had been so ripe with possibilities that it didn't seem fair I hadn't been able to tap additional resources.
And as if that wasn't bad enough, it didn't look like the case was going to generate any referrals either.
BIO: Over five hundred of Stephen's stories and poems have appeared in more than two hundred publications. His website, stephendrogers.com, includes a list of new and upcoming titles as well as other timely information.