by D.L. Fields
Historical mystery rough draft. GP's for critiques!
|All God's Children, ch. 2 rough draft
I had a problem: how to read a bank statement and eat a bowl of chili at the same time. Sauce dripped off the fork, splattering on the statement, leaving little red dots on the page. Every few fork fulls I wiped the page clean, leaving red smears and blotches, making the statement resemble butcher paper. Without clients in need of my services and the rent overdue, it didn't matter how much I cleaned, I was literally in the red.
My office is on the second floor of an office building on Olive Street in St. Louis, Missouri. I share the building with three other tenants: Yacobian Rugs, Red Apple Children's Clothing and Bates Sporting Goods. We consider ourselves fortunate, we have a small parking lot behind the building, a shoe shine stand across the street, Ben Franklin's about a block away, a bus stop practically at our front door and an O.T. Hodges Chili parlor just around the corner. My office furnishings--desk, two chairs, an oscillating fan and filing cabinet--I purchased at a second hand furniture store. I'm not complaining, at least I don't have to go down a flight to use the bathroom, I have my own, complete with child-sized tub. I never did find out what business was here that required a bathtub. I sighed, shifting the weight off my chest and looked at the bank statement again. Zero balance; so, where could I economize? I was seriously thinking about giving up my apartment and squeezing my six-foot-two frame into the bathtub at night, when the phone rang.
I muttered something that could pass for a prayer and picked up the receiver. "P.R.W. Services, how may I help you?"
A woman answered, her nose congested and her voice uncertain, "Um...is this a private investigators office?"
"Yes," I answered, then silence. I was about to hang up when I heard whispering coming from their end. "Hello? Can I help you?"
"I hope so, can," she sounded like she was being coached, "can I make an appointment?"
The only appointment for June, 1955 was a party later in the month, otherwise it was as blank as typing paper. "What date would be best for you?"
"Oh, would this afternoon be too soon?" She couldn't decide on a time and sought help from the voice in the background. "Would two o'clock be alright?"
"No, that's fine." I wrote her name in today's square and we hung up.
Enough time to finish my lunch, run some errands and make a pot of coffee, I thought as chili spilled off the fork and tumbled down my only tie. I narrowly avoided sauce stains on my pants by jumping out of my seat. Giving up, I tossed O.T. Hodges best into the waste paper basket and went to the bathroom, turned on the water and wondered how to get red sauce stains off of a blue and pink tie. Too late, the stain set into an abstract design. Never mind, I thought, throwing the tie over the side of the tub, grabbing my keys, coat and hat and headed to the nearest five and dime for note pads, pencils and an extra cup.
I was back at 1:35, just enough time to set up the percolator. The aroma filled the office when I realized she might take hers with cream, most ladies I know do. Personally, I prefer black with sugar. I glanced at my watch again, 1:50. Not enough time to beg, borrow or steal some. Oh, well, she'll have to take it without. After arranging pencils and note books on my desk to make it look like I didn't just move in, I checked my watch again. 1:55. Anytime now. I settled myself behind my desk and waited. Unsteady footsteps were coming up the hall. I assumed it was her; maybe she was ill. A silhouette formed on the frosted glass of my office door. But she was wearing two hats. A knock.
"Come in." I said.
Two women walked into my office; the older woman had to be near fifty years old. She wore what was probably her Easter outfit: a light-blue, two-piece dress suit with three-quarter sleeves, white gloves, blue pumps and carried a black handbag. Her short hair was caramel colored, streaked with gray and set in the curly, feminine fashion of the day. She wore a white hat with crocuses around the band. Her eyes were dark as chocolate, rimmed in red and tired. The muscles around her mouth were taught, like she was between forcing a smile and bracing herself. The younger woman settled her into a chair and made the introductions.
"Mr. Wolfenkoehler?" She asked and placed the handle of her wicker handbag into the crook of her left arm and held out her right hand. She turned her small, round face up to me and gripped my hand determinedly. "This," she gestured to the older woman, "is my mother, Evelyn Murphy." Her long, honey-colored hair was pulled up in a high ponytail. It brushed the back of her neck when she turned her head. She too was dressed in her best: a Kelly green jumper with a deep scooped neck, a white, long-sleeved blouse and green shoes that didn't have heels. "I'm Charlotte Murphy." She barely came up to my chin; I could have put her in my pocket.
I released Miss Murphy's grip, moved to my side of the desk and sat down.
"I'm sorry," I apologized, "would you like this seat?" Miss Murphy shook her head and stood beside her mother. "Alright then, how can I help you?"
Mother reached up and held daughter's hand, together they made the leap.
"Do you look for lost people?" Mrs. Murphy asked.
"Yes, I take missing person cases." I corrected and opened a new notebook, putting today's date at the top of the page. "Before we begin, you should know I charge forty dollars a day plus expenses. When you no longer need my services you'll receive a detailed expense report and notes pertaining to the case, in the event the police have to be involved." I wanted them to know that I wouldn't take advantage of them just because they wore skirts. The ladies looked at each other; for a moment I was afraid I had wasted money on an extra cup. Then Mrs. Murphy nodded. "Okay, who are you looking for?"
The mother looked up at the daughter and for a moment roles were exchanged; the daughter nodded encouragement while the mother took her tentative steps.
"It's my husband, Peter Murphy" She opened her purse and dug out a handkerchief.
"Is that his full name?" I asked, scribbling notes in chicken scratch.
"Peter Alan Murphy."
"How long has he been missing?"
Mrs. Murphy's throat muscles contracted, choking down a lump. She coughed and answered in a near whisper, "Almost two months now."
"Can you remember the last time you saw him?"
"April twenty-fourth." She wove the handkerchief between her fingers.
Now the dreaded question: "Did you file a missing person report with the police?"
"Yes, at first they said he would probably come home on his own. Now...I don't know what they're doing."
"They weren't very helpful, Mr. Wolfenkoehler." Miss Murphy interjected.
Mrs. Murphy silently scolded her daughter with a look that only mothers can perfect. Miss Murphy got the last word in, "Well they weren't." I decided not to put a dog in this fight.
"I'll need to know everything about your husband."
Mrs. Murphy fidgeted with her lapel; I was betting she was raised to believe that lives of husbands and wives should never be discussed in front of other people, especially the children.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?" I asked. Mrs. and Miss Murphy looked confused at this segue. I went to the filing cabinet and poured two cups, "How do you take it?"
"Um...cream and sugar, please."
"And you, Miss Murphy, how do you take yours?"
I glanced inside a filing drawer, then went into the bathroom, counted three and came out empty handed.
"Darn the luck, I only have the two cups and I'm out of cream." I fished my last singles out of my wallet and handed them to Miss Murphy, "Would you do me a favor? About a block from here is a Ben Franklin's. Could you get some cream from their lunch counter and an extra cup?" I asked and ushered her to the other side of the door. "Thanks." She stood in the hall for a second or two, emitted a gasp of disgust and then I heard her footsteps fading down the hall.
Now that it was just the two of us, I settled into my seat, picked up the pad and pencil, determined to get answers without embarrassment getting in the way.
Peter Alan Murphy, age 42, was last seen leaving for work in the family car--a dark blue '51 Buick Super Four-Door Sedan--on the morning of March 17, 1955. He works at the State School for Mentally Retarded Children; before this job he was a Medical Doctor. When asked why her husband would give up a prestigious position for a desk job, Mrs. Murphy answered "More important work needs to be done." I'm glad she didn't ask me why I became a private investigator, she would get the same blank stare I give my mother. She forgot to bring a recent photo, so she gave me her address and I promised to drop by the following day.
Most of the standard questions yielded a "No."
They married in 1933; first marriage for both; Charlotte is the only child. No, they haven't had any money problems recently, but they had plenty of those during the war. She wouldn't say what he did during the war. That's fine, plenty of wives would rather forget. And husbands too. No, he didn't gamble or owe money to people she'd rather not know. No, he didn't drink, not even beer. Yes, he smoked a pipe. When asked if their marriage was alright, Mrs. Murphy answered yes, but the way she crossed her arms in front of her chest said no. Okay, possible problems there. No, he doesn't have any birthmarks, scars or tattoos, but he does have a bad left knee. Yes, he got it during the war, again Mrs. Murphy wouldn't say how. Fine.
I closed the notebook as Miss Murphy returned. Depending upon who she was looking at, her expression changed in severity. I was given the narrow-eyed, thin-lipped stare of a protective daughter, while her mother received gazes of warm concern. She sat the cream and cup heavily on the desk.
"Did I have any change?" Ouch, another glare. "That's all I need to start." I said and stopped Mrs. Murphy from pulling a wallet from her handbag. "I don't need anything now."
"Are you sure?" she asked.
I came around the desk and opened the door for them. "I'm sure." I lied and closed the door behind them.