Stan gets a missing person's case.
Approximately 3800 words
Stan swerved to change lanes as he buzzed through the morning rush-hour traffic. After last night, all he wanted was his first cup of coffee and to lose himself in what little work waited at his office. He slammed on his brakes when a black BMW SUV cut in front of him. He glared at driver, who seemed to be steering with her knees and simultaneously applying her makeup by looking in her rear-view mirror. Fucking idiot. His hangover throbbed and his index finger tapped a steady drumbeat on his steering wheel.
The sunlight streaming through his windshield threatened to boil his brains, and the stop-and-go traffic roiled his stomach. When he finally pulled into the strip mall where he rented office space, he killed the engine of his rusted-out Honda, rubbed his face, and felt inside his suit jacket for antacid and aspirin. He swallowed two of each, dry, and winced as his stomach threatened to eject them back out.
Sunlight flashed off the gold letters on the plate-glass window in front of him: Dunstan Scholl, Private Investigations. At least the new secretary the temp agency was supposed to send wasn't here yet. Stan needed coffee before he could face strangers so early in the morning.
He clambered out of his car, gave his Italian suit a precise adjustment, and strode to the office entrance. Stan pulled out his key and pressed against the door. Adrenalin prickled out his fingers when it swayed open at his touch, already unlocked and unlatched. He inspected the door for signs that it had been jimmied. Nothing. He was certain he'd locked it last night, when he'd dropped off Mr. Dumbledore, a litter box, and related cat-stuff before returning to his apartment.
He remembered Chuck Olofsson's hysterical threats in Rob's apartment, but that oaf was too ham-handed to break in without leaving behind evidence like a broken window. Or muddy footprints. Stan's paltry caseload was routine: a couple of spouses looking for evidence on their philandering partners, a suspected instance of life insurance fraud, and a rich dude wanting dirt on his sister. Nothing that would cause anyone to risk breaking and entering, let alone hire a professional.
Just in case, he checked his shoulder holster but didn't pull his weapon. Everything seemed to be in order in the shabby reception area. He paused and held his breath, listening. A thud sounded from the inner office and then Mr. Dumbledore poked the door ajar, spread his whiskers and stropped at Stan's legs. "Hey, Dumble. I'll feedja in just a minute." He flipped the lights on and called out, "If anyone is back there, now would be a great time to say something. I've got a gun, and I shoot intruders."
He stood to one side of the door and slammed it open. At least no one was hiding behind it. In a rush, he stepped inside the office, crouched low, and scanned the interior.
No one. He checked the tiny bathroom, and it, too, was empty.
A high-pitched warbling voice from behind made him whirl around. "Are you Mr. . er Shole"?" A petite, middle-aged woman with gray hair that was too long for her age and a purse the size of New Hampshire stood staring at him.
He caught his breath. "Scholl. The name's pronounced 'Skawl.' Who are you?"
"I'm Debbie Niblock. The agency sent me over." She pulled paperwork from her purse and handed it to him.
He glanced at it. "Debbie. Did you just get here?"
"Yes, Mr. Shole. I'm sorry I'm late." She looked him up and down, appraisingly. "Are you all right? Your face is a little pale, and it's all covered with perspiration."
He swiped at his forehead with his perfectly pressed handkerchief. "You're sure you just got here? You didn't unlock the place or anything, did you?"
"How could I do that, Mr. Shole?" she simpered. "I don't have a key."
"Scholl," he muttered. "No, of course you don't."
Mr. Dumbledore chose that moment to announce that he needed fed, and right now!
Debbie's face looked like she'd stepped in his litter box. "What's that animal doing in here? Shoo! Get away, you scruffy thing."
Stan knelt and scratched the cat's chin. Mr. Dumbldore stopped his demands, closed his eyes, and looked like he'd just had sex. "This is Dumble. He's a stray I picked up, and now he's the office...uh...guard cat."
"Guard cat! I've never heard anything more ridiculous in my life!"
"Well, that's what he is if I say so. Part of your job is feeding him." Stan stood. "You sit out front. Let me orient you to the job."
Within five minutes, he'd settled Debbie at her desk, fed the cat and brewed his first cup of blessed coffee.
Debbie frowned at his expensive Swiss coffee maker. "What's that? I like my coffee the old-fashioned way. Instant."
"You'll like this. It grinds the beans and brews one cup at a time. You want some?"
She looked like he'd offered her arsenic. "No, thank you."
He heaved a sigh. "Well, then. I've got things to do in my office. I'm expecting a call from a police detective, Barbara Murphy. Put her through, but otherwise you're job is to take messages and not disturb me. "
"What if someone comes in and wants to see you?"
"If it's Detective Murphy, let her in. Otherwise, make an appointment for tomorrow. My calendar's on the computer. I'm going to be busy all day today." Stan gave her a nod, entered his office and closed the door.
He spent the next half hour examining his files. The cabinets were still locked, and he couldn't see any evidence anyone had tampered with them. He ran a finger along his pristine desktop before checking the drawers. Still locked, and no signs anyone had tried to jimmy them open.
Stan settled in his chair, leaned back and tented his fingers. It didn't look like there'd been a break-in after all. No signs of forced entry, and nothing disturbed, as nearly as he could tell. It was just possible the cleaning service had forgotten to lock up last night. He thought about calling to check, but the clock on the wall reminded him he'd already wasted an hour this morning. The coffee, antacid and aspirins had tamed the worst of his hangover. Time to clear up his sparse workload before Barb showed up with the file from last night.
An hour later, he scowled at the buzz of the office intercom and closed the surveillance report on Chelsea Puchner that he'd been editing. Her brother wanted dirt on her, but Stan hadn't been able to find any, at least not without any clues about what to look for. "What is it, Debbie? I asked you to not disturb me." A fleeting thought of the flask of Jack Daniels hiding in his desk tempted him, but he pushed it away.
She cleared her throat and dumped her phlegm-soaked voice into the orderly quiet of his office. "I'm sorry, Mr. Shole. There's someone here to see you."
He winced. She was going to have to learn his name if she was going to stay here. "That's Scholl, Debbie. Scholl." He kept his voice even. "I'm busy. Who is it?"
"It's a woman , sir. A, uh, Mrs. Bregas. She said Mr. Conner Jacobs sent her. She says it's real important."
Stan's jaws tightened at Conner's name. He narrowed his eyes and moved the single folder on his desk two millimeters to the right. He thought again about the flask in the bottom drawer. The digital clock on the wall clicked to 10:19. "Send her in, please." This could be a coincidence, but then again it could be connected to those calls from Rob's cell phone to Conner. It couldn't hurt to check her out.
He stood when a woman with Ann Margaret hair and a figure two sizes too large for her polka-dot sun dress flounced into his office. Dark sunglasses and waxy, red lipstick couldn't hide the shiner on her right eye or her swollen lip. The click of her open-toed high heels on the hardwood floor rebounded against the barren plaster walls.
He walked around the desk and extended his hand. "Mrs. Bregas. I'm Dunstan Scholl, Private Investigator."
"Pleased to meet you." Her words whispered from her lips with a nasal Iowa twang. She laid boneless fingers into his hand for a brief moment. It was like grasping a damp, snow-white dishtowel that someone had daubed with crimson nail polish. "Call me Cissy, will you? I'm getting rid of the 'Mrs.' part." Her voice broke and she reached into her blood-red vinyl purse, pulled out a wad of Kleenex, and patted behind her sunglasses.
Stan held one of the client chairs for her, the leather one without the coffee stain. "Please, have a seat, Cissy." She squeezed into the chair, leaving behind a heady wake of floral perfume. Her body jiggled like jello and threatened to ooze out of her dress before it adjusted to a new equilibrium.
Stan returned behind his desk and settled into his worn, executive chair. He pursed his lips and aligned a pen with the folder he'd centered earlier. "What brings you here, Cissy? You said Conner sent you?"
"I just didn't know what to do. Conner's my caseworker. He's so nice and understanding. Anyways, he said he was sure you could help."
Stan quirked an eyebrow at her. "Conner usually works with children, Mrs. Brega. I'm surprised he has an adult for a client."
Her eyebrows crawled up her brow like little mascara-covered worms squiggling across her forehead. "Whatever. What difference does it make whose client we was?"
He shrugged. "Apparently none." He tipped an ironic eyebrow at her. "I'll be sure to thank Mr. Jacobs for the referral." Sending me a client is a first for Conner. What's he up to?. "Perhaps if you can tell me what your...problem is?"
Her face flushed under the layers of makeup. She leaned forward, her semi-exposed breasts at the vanguard. "My problem?" Her tone changed from a jazzy saxophone to the screech of an out of tune violin. "My problem is my sumbitch husband, that's what my problem is."
Stan blinked at her psycho shift in demeanor. Why the hell would Conner send this whack-job to him? "I understand, Cissy. Is he the one who beat you?"
She winced and leaned back, fingering her cheek. "Does it show? I tried to cover it up with my makeup."
"I'm a private investigator, Cissy. I'm trained to notice things." He made another miniscule adjustment to the pen. "Now, how can I help you? What, exactly, did Mr. Jacobs have in mind for me to do?"
Passing confusion befuddled her features. "Who? Mr. Jacobs? Oh! You mean that nice social worker, Conner. He said you could find my baby."
"Your baby?" Stan reached into the bottom drawer, and his eyes lingered on the flask before he pulled out a notebook. "Tell me more."
"My baby boy's missing. Last night, the cops came when my rat-bastard husband beat me. They arrested him and dumped me at the emergency room. I didn't have a way home and no money for a cab, so I called Conner. When we got back to my place, my baby boy was gone." She choked on a sob, and a makeup-stained tear rolled down a pudgy cheek.
That explains why he was late for dinner. "Have you checked with the police, Cissy? They wouldn't have left an infant unattended." Stan frowned. Conner would have known to call children's services. Fuck, he was children's services.
"Infant? Who said anything about an infant?" She scowled at him. "You been payin' attention? Maybe you're not the man for the job."
"Cissy, you said your 'baby boy' was missing. I assumed you meant he was, you know, a baby."
"Ha. You assumed. You know what that means. You make an ass out of you and me." Triumph lit her face, as if she'd proven something.
He rubbed at the incipient pain between his eyes and stared at her. "Let's start at the beginning, shall we? This all happened last night?"
"Yeah. They said they could only keep my rat-bastard husband overnight. I bet the sumbitch is back at his job right now, sittin' high and mighty."
Stan made a note. "And where do you live?"
"I'm at the women's shelter right now. That nice Mr. Conner had 'em come and get me. Can't tell you where that's at. It's just for women. Can't tell no men where it's at."
Stan nodded, while noting the address on Division Street in his book. "Of course not, Cissy. I understand. So you think your husband will return to your home?"
"He can have that pig sty apartment, for all I care. As soon as you find my baby boy, we're goin' to live with my sister up in Lost Springs."
"Well, I'm good at finding people, Cissy. What's your son's name? And how old is he?"
"My Duane's only 19, the poor thing. He's a good boy, even if he says he's one of them homo-sex-uals. I prayed for him, y'know, and the Priest said he did, too. When we get to Lost Springs, I just know he'll find Jesus. I'll see to it." She emphasized her words with a flashy red fingernail that tapped on Stan's immaculate desk.
"Well, I can't help you locate Jesus. I'm afraid that case is a little cold." Stan flashed a quick grin and then paused in thought. One more case more or less wouldn't matter, and this should be pretty easy. He decided to take the job, even though it didn't seem connected to Rob's death or the mysterious phone calls. "I'm pretty sure I'll be able to find Duane, though. Do you have a recent photo?"
She gave him a suspicious look, but then pawed through her purse. "Here's his grad-gee-ay-tion picture, and this here's a snapshot from a picnic at Merit Island Park last Fourth of July."
Stan accepted the dog-eared photos. They revealed Duane to be a skinny, pimply-faced kid with greasy black locks that fell rope-like to his shoulders. A pointy spike of hair sprouted from his left brow, either by design or perhaps it was just an unruly cowlick. A cheap stud glittered in his left ear, and his smile showed crooked teeth. "He's a handsome young man, Cissy. Does he have any friends I can contact?"
She snorted. "There's Lola. I thought she was his girlfriend, but then my husband found 'em in bed together and 'she' turned out to be a 'he.' Lola's one of them faggots what tempted him to stray from Jesus."
"Lola. Do you know her last name?"
"His last name. No, and I don't want to."
"Not that I know of. Duane was always kinda a loner."
Stan frowned and bit his lower lip. It wouldn't do any good to criticize her lack of parental interest. Not now, anyway. Poor kid. No wonder he ran away. "Where did he go to high school?"
"Central, 'cept he dropped out his last year. I paid for the grad-gee-ay-tion picture when he got his GED."
"Does he have a job?"
"The little sad sack tried and tried, but he jest couldn't get nothin'. My no-good, worthless husband coulda got him a job where he works, but he wouldn't do it. Said he didn't want no faggot son around. The Puchners wouldn't like it."
"The Puchners? He works for them?" Stan's eyebrows lifted and he made another note.
"Yeah. He's a bill collector for Puchner Payday Loans. They was our landlords, too. Puchner Paradisio Apartments, on Harrison."
"I know the place." Stan tapped on his notebook. "I'll have to speak with your husband, Cissy. He might have some leads, and I want to look at Duane's room. There might be clues about his acquaintances there."
Her nostrils flared and her lips turned down. "That SOB won't do nothin' for you."
"We'll see. I have a way with people." Stan gave her a coy smile. "Now, what's his name? I can't go to the Payday Loan place and ask for Rat-bastard Bregas."
"Johnnie. His name's Johnnie." Her voice quavered and she smeared at the tears on her cheek. "You really think you can find my baby boy, Mr. Shole?"
"If he's still in the metroplex, I'll find him, Cissy."
She reached into her purse and counted out ten twenty-dollar bills. When she shoved them across the desk, she leaned forward and exposed more cleavage. "Conner said I'd have to pay you. This is all's I got, two hundred dollars. Is that enough?"
Stan took five twenties and pushed the remainder back to her. "I'm sure this will be sufficient, Cissy. You'll need something to get you and Duane up to Lost Springs."
She snatched up the money. "Thank you, Mr. Shole. Conner said you was a nice man."
"I'm sure he did." Conner must have known she couldn't pay and that Stan couldn't resist helping find a runaway gay kid. Talk about a rat-bastard. "Now, I'll need to be able to get in touch with you. Do you have a cell phone?"
"My asshole husband stomped on it and broke it."
"Not a problem." He pressed the intercom. "Debbie?"
His assistant cleared her throat and answered, "Yes, Mr. Shole?"
He winced and reflected this would be her first and her last day. "In the lower right drawer of your desk you will find some pre-paid cell phones. Will you please bring one to me?"
The speaker emitted shuffling noises. "I don't see them, Mr. Shole."
"The lower right drawer, Debbie. I'm sure they're there."
"Oh, silly me. The right drawer. Yes, I have them. What should I do with them?"
He clenched his jaw, but kept his voice even. "Please bring one here."
Something went clunk in the outer office, and Debbie appeared at the door holding a drawer-full of cell phones. "Here they are, Mr. Shole. I don't what you're going to do with so many of these."
Stan joined her and plucked a phone and charger from the drawer. "I only needed one, Debbie."
"Well, you could have said so." Her gaze sparked and her voice turned snippy.
He avoided rolling his eyes. "That will be all, Debbie." He pushed her from the room, closed the door and turned back to his new client. "Here, Cissy. Keep it charged up. I'll call you tonight with an update."
She stuffed the phone into her purse. "Thanks. You think you'll find him today?"
"Probably not. Maybe tomorrow or the next day. I don't think it will take long. I'll let you know."
"All right, then." She stood and pressed too close to him. "Thank you, Mr. Shole. You're a good man. I'm sorry I doubted you before."
"What?" Her eyes darted about the room. "Is there a skull someplace in here?"
"Scholl. My name is Scholl." He took her by the elbow and showed her to the door. "I'll be in touch."
As Cissy departed, Debbie looked up from where she hunkered over her computer at the receptionist desk, playing solitaire. "I need a restroom break if that's all right, Mr. Shole."
Stan waved a hand at her. "Sure. In fact, I won't be needing you the rest of the day. You can go ahead and go home."
She wrinkled her forehead at him and scolded, "The agency promised me a full day's pay, Mr. Shole."
He nodded and plastered a smile on his face. "Of course. You'll be paid as agreed."
"Well, then, I'll see you tomorrow at nine."
She waited, but he just kept his sappy smile in place, while silently congratulating himself for not strangling her.
With a sniff, she pulled her purse from under her desk. "Have a good day, Mr. Shole." She paused to primp her too-long, graying hair and then waggled out of the office.
Stan closed his eyes and waited for the door to slam. The flask in his desk called to him, but he resisted and decided on coffee instead. When he tried to brew a cup, his expensive machine whirred, made loud clunking sounds, squirted brown water and grounds onto the table and floor, and then started to smoke.
He jumped, unplugged the machine and found instant coffee crystals jammed into the hopper that was supposed to hold beans. "Holy crap on a cracker! I swear, if she ruined this thing, then I'm not paying her a nickel." His head throbbed, right above his left eye, and no amount of rubbing would make it go away.
He flipped the "Open" sign on the office's outer door to "Closed" and retreated to his desk chair. He had an hour before he needed to meet Conner for lunch. Alone in his office, he wondered again about the unlocked door this morning and decided to call the cleaning company to inquire if they might have done it. He flipped his phone open, checked the address book and dialed.
A perky tenor answered, "Two Guys and a Broom Cleaning Agency. How may I help you?"
"Hi. This is Dunstan Scholl. You have the contract to clean my office at the Emerald Plaza on Ninth."
"Mr.Scholl. Yes, sir. I've been meaning to call you with an apology."
"An apology?" Stan nodded and a satisfied grin bent his lips. So they did leave the door unlocked. I knew it.
"I'm afraid our crew didn't make it to your office last night. They were in an accident, and they spent the evening in the emergency room. I'm so sorry. We'll credit your bill."
"An accident?" He sat up, frowning. "Is everyone all right?"
"Oh, yessir. Just bumps and bruises, but we wanted them checked out, just be sure."
"Good, of course." Stan's breath came in slow, measured bursts. "So no one came to my office to clean last night?"
"No, sir. We do apologize."
"Don't worry. Give my best to the crew, okay?" He rang off and leaned back. How the hell did his office door end up unlocked?
Mr. Dumbledore appeared from nowhere and stretched to twice his normal length before he snuggled onto Stan's lap, leaving behind a trail of cat hair on his slacks. Stan stroked the cat's back, forgiving the lint the animal left on his suit.
His cell phone rang and Stan gave a little jump. Mr. Dumbledore tossed an offended look at him before thumping to the floor. Stan's jaws clenched when he recognized Barb's number and memories of last night came cascading back. "Hey, Murph. What's up?"
"Hi, Stan. The ME ruled it an 'accidental death' at ten this morning. The case is now officially closed."
He leaned back and closed his eyes, trying to not think of Rob's body on the ME's autopsy table. "Just what you expected."
"Yeah. Can we meet this afternoon? I'll bring a copy of the file."
"Sure. How about the Village Inn at Harrison and I-80? Say around three-thirty?"
"Perfect. And Stan..." She paused.
"Have you talked to Conner about this?"
His stomach chilled. "Not yet."
"You still there, Barb?"
"Yeah. Just be careful, okay? Both of you. I've got a bad feeling about this."