The Stable Vices Affair Sample



The name’s Chandler: Veronica Irene Chandler. You can call me Veronica or Ms. Chandler.

If you have the normal love for keeping your limbs attached to your body, do not call me Your Imperial Majesty or Mrs. Anything. My patience, never one of my strong points, has worn thin.

From an early age I had a detailed plan for my life, and to say that it hasn’t worked out the way I thought it would is beyond a gross understatement. Quite a few years ago–never mind how many–all I ever wanted was to be a private investigator. To recover the lost and expose the faithless.

That’s pretty good isn’t it? Maybe I should put it on my business cards. Assuming, of course, that I ever have use for them again. Between then and now my life has become a bit complex.

Right from the start of my career I attracted unusual cases. Cases that would have gotten people burned at the stake in the 17th century. Or, for that matter, in most modern university physics department meetings.

When it became obvious how things were going, I had brief fantasies that it would be handy to be a superhero or a wizard. Unfortunately, I have no powers, and all the best names are taken. What would I call myself? Super-, naw. Hyper… Chick? Wow, lame.

I’d make a terrible wizard. The only magic I ever learned involves making a knot in a piece of string.

Superpowers aren’t my style anyway. Despite everything that’s happened, I like to cling to the belief that I am a mostly normal, Canadian, teenage girl. I even have a lot of human friends. At least, for some value of human.

Personally, I blame most of my problems on that damned dwarf.

And the aliens, of course.

Chapter 1 – Fifteen Minutes of Fame

The second hand on the wall clock insisted that time was moving at a normal rate. My keen, investigator’s instinct informed me that the clock was lying.

The previous week I’d had this great idea of getting the local campus radio station to interview me as free advertising. Advertising equals work equals money equals food. So far my business accounting had been all out and no in.

It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Now, I wasn’t so sure.

The waiting room (or “green room” as the perky production assistant had called it) was painted industrial beige. The chairs were ones that the college had decided were practical, durable, and cheap. Comfortable they were not. They were probably excellent for keeping students awake during classes. My butt was slowly going numb.

There wasn’t much in the room other than a few of the torture chairs, a low table with magazines almost as old as me, and the clock. I tried not to stare at the only other person present. That would have been rude.

He’d come in a few minutes after me, and was average: average height, average weight, average looks somewhere in his forties. I guessed that he was here for the program segment after mine.

He had no problem being rude, and kept leering at me when he thought I wasn’t watching. It was creepy. I have no illusions about being supermodel beautiful or being well-endowed. At first I wondered if he’d ever seen a woman before.

In this case, though, he didn’t look like he was checking me out. He looked annoyed. As far as I knew we’d never met, and my new theory was that maybe he just didn’t like women.

I glanced at the clock, which had advanced by a whole 40 seconds since last time I’d checked. It would be nice to get this over with.

Mr. Average was still glaring at me, so I gave him a five second eyeball-to-eyeball stare, then smiled insincerely, and ignored him completely until I was called.

Eleven tectonically-paced minutes went by before the perky PA returned.

“Ms. Chandler? Mr. Stickler? We’re ready for you.”

What the…? I was sure I’d been told that I’d be the only guest. My stomach did even more of a dance than it had been as I smoothed my navy blue skirt. Not that it would make any difference on the radio.

The girl led us down the corridor to a door with a red light over it and stopped. After a moment the light went out, and the door opened.

Ziggy Mendolia was shorter and darker than I’d imagined. From his voice over the radio, I had pictured someone more like a young, hard-bodied Prince. From the look of Ziggy’s shirt, the six pack was still a distinct possibility. I became glad that I’d tried to make myself presentable. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

“Hello,” he said with a big smile. “Please come in.” He had a light Jamaican accent that added charm to his voice, and listeners to his audience. No, not bad at all.

The sound booth had blue, corrugated panels on the walls, sort of like egg cartons, or the underside of mattress foam. A round table with four microphones on short stands sat in the middle. One wall had a large window showing us the engineer’s booth where a guy wearing headphones was sitting at a mixing console.

We sat in equally spaced chairs around the table.

“One minute,” said a voice in midair. I jumped slightly. Ziggy gave me a reassuring smile. Out of the corner of my eye I caught the engineer leaning back from an overhead microphone.

“Relax,” Ziggy said. “This isn’t a job interview, it’s just a conversation. Take a deep breath.”

“Okay,” I said, wondering why I was so nervous. Stickler was trying to look bored, and not quite succeeding. I guess I wasn’t the only one with nerves. That made me feel a little better.

“When you speak,” Ziggy said to both of us, “speak directly toward your microphones, regardless of who you are addressing. You don’t have to lean in or speak loudly.”

“Got it,” I said. Stickler said nothing. Whatever.

“Five seconds,” the engineer’s voice said. In his booth, he held up five fingers, then four, three, two, one…

“Welcome back, my friends,” Ziggy said to his microphone. “This morning I’m pleased to have two special guests. Ms. Veronica Chandler is the youngest private investigator in Alberta, while Mr. Orval Stickler is an independent candidate for Calgary North East who will be running in the upcoming by-election. Ms. Chandler, what led you to become a private detective?”

That was easy.

“My mother.”

Ziggy made a stretching motion with his hands. Oh.

“She’s a homicide detective with the Calgary Police Service.”

“Why didn’t you become a policewoman like her?”

“She wanted me to, but the police only deal with criminal matters. I wanted to help the people the police can’t. I guess the obvious example is people with cheating spouses. That’s a civil matter, not a criminal one.”

“If I may say so, you look too young to be peeking into motel bedroom windows.”

“Firstly, I don’t peek in bedroom windows. That would be illegal. There are other investigative techniques available. Secondly, I’m hardly an innocent child.”

Stickler jumped in before I could continue.

“You see, this is a perfect example of what is wrong with our present government. How can an eighteen-year old girl be a licensed investigator?”

I gave both of them a dirty look, then spoke to my microphone.

“An eighteen year old woman can easily be a licensed investigator if she is dedicated, and works hard enough. It’s not that difficult.”

“Clearly, the industry needs better regulation. I certainly wouldn’t send a child out to do a man’s job, especially one as dangerous as this.”

Holy crap, the guy was a dinosaur. I understood why Ziggy had put him on the show with me–it made for good radio. That didn’t prevent me from wanting to tear our host a new one later for not warning me.

“Mr. Stickler, I assure you that the industry is quite well regulated. As far as being a child…”

“In British Columbia the requirements are much more…”

“We aren’t in B.C. We’re in Alberta. Any resident, male or female, can take the investigator’s course at any age, and write the provincial licensing examination at 18. True, most PIs are older and are ex-cops, but that’s not a requirement. If I was unqualified the word would get around quickly, and nobody would hire me. Incompetence would be self-correcting without any need for government regulation.”

I smiled to convey how friendly and relaxed I was pretending to be. My temper was under control for the moment, although the urge to punch him remained. Doing that on the air was probably not the kind of free advertising I wanted.

Stickler opened his mouth again, but Ziggy beat him to it.

“He does have a point, Ms. Chandler. Most provinces require a PI to have industry experience, or serve an apprenticeship. Does Alberta have anything similar?”

“Not formally, but I spent two years prior to licensing as an intern with the CPS. That, along with the investigator’s course, gave me a thorough grounding in investigative work.”

“I can’t believe that you were hired by the police at the age of 16,” Stickler said, mocking. I didn’t like his tone.

“They didn’t. It was an unpaid internship.”

Stickler threw his hands in the air, although the gesture was lost on our audience.

“Well, there you are. What did you do during your ‘internship?’” I could hear him put quotes around the word. “Make coffee?”

I took a deep breath, and let it out. The urge to hit him was definitely getting stronger again.

“Mr. Stickler, I have no idea what I did to pi – upset you, but if you can’t have a civil conversation I’m leaving.”

He snorted.

“I certainly wouldn’t hire an investigator who runs away from a confrontation. This is just another example of the current government’s incompetence…”

I cut him off. “I’ve never run away from a fight, Mr. Stickler. Nor do I need to. I have practised Krav Maga since I was nine, I’m licensed to carry a baton, and I’ve had firearm training. Believe me, I can take care of myself.”

Stickler gave me an over-the-top shocked look, and I realized that his over-acting was designed to piss me off so I’d become flustered.

“Are you telling me that our government allows teenage girls masquerading as private investigators to wander around with guns?”

I shouldn’t have mentioned guns. Dammit, I was going to have to keep my temper under control.

I took another deep breath, and let it out. He looked smug. I would be damned if I was going to say something stupid that he could use against me. My heart was pounding. I ignored it as well as I could, and tried to speak in a calm, quiet voice.

“Have you ever been a police officer, Mr. Stickler?”

“No, but that’s hardly…”

“Have you ever been in the armed forces?”

“I haven’t had that honour.” He said it like a rehearsed line.

“I’m not a girl. I’m an adult woman. I’m not wandering around with a gun playing cops and robbers. That would be both illegal and unnecessary. If you’d bothered to do your research, you’d know that private investigators in Canada aren’t allowed to carry firearms. Despite that, I have shot and killed a man in the line of duty, which I think gives me a better perspective on the dangers of guns than your completely civilian one.”

“I find it difficult to believe that even the Calgary Police Service would issue a firearm to an unpaid, underage intern. You can’t seriously think that people will buy that story.”

He’d insulted my friends in the force. I went dead calm, the same as I would in a physical fight.

“They didn’t. The circumstances were unique. I used a constable’s pistol to shoot a subject who was an immediate danger to others.”

He gave me an unpleasant smile. Like a predator who thought he was closing in.

“And what was this constable doing while you were allegedly doing his job for him?”

I ignored his gender assumptions.

“Lying on the ground unconscious with a fractured skull and broken arm, both courtesy of the subject.”

“A civilian should never take the law into their own hands. When I’m elected…”

“What would you have done?”

Clearly, the responsible thing would have been to call 9-1-1 instead of trying to act like a hero.”

“Then you would have died, as would the constable, and several bystanders. I was there. You weren’t. The subject was insane and carrying a baseball bat with which he’d already murdered a man.”

“Hopefully this alleged incident took place somewhere where other people weren’t in danger.”

“I wish. It was in downtown Calgary.”

“Good heavens, you could have killed someone!”

“I did,” I said very, very evenly. “The man I was aiming at.”

“And we’re taking a break,” Ziggy said. “We’ll be back after the news.” He leaned back in this chair, and the ON AIR sign went off. I leaned forward, my eyes fixed on the candidate across from me.

“Since you are obviously a real man who knows just how things should be done, and I’m just a silly little teenage girl, how about if we meet outside later and you can show me how you would have handled the situation?” His eyes were fixed on mine, like a mouse watching a hawk. He swallowed.

“You can’t threaten me,” he said.

“I didn’t,” I said. “It was a polite invitation.”

For once he didn’t have anything to say.


Chapter 2 – Crash Course

It’s strange how quickly life can change. One moment I was a sixteen year old girl who was happily looking forward to a career as a private investigator. The next I was a cold-blooded killer.

The conversion started with a flash.

Constable Danielle Shuemaker and I had spent a tedious morning at the court house, and now we were in hot pursuit of lunch before returning to the police station.

Danielle drove north on Fourth Street in an attempt to escape from downtown Calgary’s warren of one-way streets.

At Sixth Avenue, we were half way through the intersection when I saw a flash of something to my right moving faster than I’d have believed possible in downtown traffic. I almost had time to turn my head toward it before the world exploded. There wasn’t enough time to draw in a breath, let alone warn Danielle, or do anything to protect myself.

You have to have been through such a thing to understand the violence of what we experienced. The noise alone would have been enough to make me scream if I’d had time. The impact tossed us around in our seat belts like a chew rope in a Rottweiler’s mouth. I had no control over anything. No time to even think of bracing myself.

My head hit the side window before the air bag could go off. When it did, I was violently thrown toward Danielle. Her head smashed into my shoulder when we met. My ears were ringing, my head hurt and my shoulder felt broken. She rebounded back into her own seat.

Amid the impacts, the screaming metal, and exploding air bags, I barely registered that the street outside the car was spinning madly in a circle. Most of what I did remember came to me later. I didn’t have time to process much while I was in the moment.

It was a miracle that our car didn’t collide with anybody else as we came to rest, now facing south instead of north. Snow slurry had sprayed up on the windows, and all I could see outside was a blur. Everything inside my head was a blur too.

I think that Danielle asked me if I was all right. I could hear sound but I didn’t understand the words.

“I’m okay. You?” I didn’t really hear the words as I spoke them.

She released her seat belt, then hit the switch to turn on the light bar on the roof.

“Stay in the car.” Her mouth moved, and her hand gesture made her meaning clear. Since I was just an intern that was fine by me. I could just sit there and hurt while the professional took care of things.

She hit her door with her shoulder several times before it opened. By then the ice was running down the warm windshield, and I saw that the other driver had crawled out of his broken driver’s side window, and tumbled to the pavement. He staggered toward us, blood oozing down the side of his head. He had something in his hand.

Danielle was watching the traffic in case some moron ran into her. She wasn’t expecting an attack. The northbound cars that had been behind us had either already cleared the intersection, or stopped when they saw the collision. One idiot on the cross-street decided that he could make it through. She held up her hand to stop him, and his pickup truck slid to a halt blocking Danielle’s view of the guy coming toward her.

“Danielle, look out!” I yelled. She finally spotted the driver, who lurched around the stopped truck waving a baseball bat. For no obvious reason he hit the truck grill a few times as he passed. My hearing was coming back, and he was screaming so hard that his voice was distorted. I couldn’t understand anything he was trying to say. It was all just noise, like a wild animal trying to mimic human speech.

Danielle, left palm outstretched and right hand on her holstered gun, ordered him to drop the bat as she side-stepped to get clear of the truck. Its driver grabbed the opportunity to take off in a panic, spraying her with slush as he went.

The screaming man ignored both the truck and her command, and she took a step back to give herself more room, as well as to manoeuvre so that nobody else was in her line of fire. He kept coming as she ordered him to drop the weapon again, and drew her gun.

On her next step her feet flew out from under her. She fell heavily, the gun still in her hand. I was helpless to do anything to stop him as I watched the aluminium bat whistling toward her head. Her hand came up, maybe to fire, maybe to stop the blow, and I heard a horrible crunch as the bat met her forearm before pushing through to connect with the side of her head. She collapsed unmoving in the street. The blow sent her Glock bouncing off the open car door to land somewhere out of sight. I stared out the door, stunned by the violence, and the sudden realization that I was alone, unarmed and trapped in the car with a psycho outside.

I shoved on my door, but it had been horribly mangled by the collision, and wouldn’t open no matter what I did. The window controls didn’t work. There was nothing to break the window so I could crawl out. The only way out was through the driver’s side door.

I wasn’t a cop, and I wasn’t trained for any of this. After seeing Danielle go down, I’m ashamed to say that I panicked.

The madman howled as he saw me, and hit the window of the open door with his bat. I closed my eyes as small cubes of glass sprayed my face. He swung his bat a few more times, hitting the car, then realized on some level that he couldn’t get to me that way.

I fumbled with my seat belt, trying to get it undone so I’d have some chance of defending myself.

The seat belt buckle popped open. I pulled my feet up on the seat, trying to stay as far away from him as possible. He dropped the bat, and, instead of doing the obvious thing and coming through the door, he lunged at me through the broken window.

There was nowhere for me to go. The prisoner barrier behind the front seats prevented me from getting into the back. He grabbed my leg, dragging me toward him. I kicked at him, but the steering wheel got in the way. My next try caught the dispatch computer on the centre console. His yanks on my leg threw my aim off, and made it hard to get a clear shot at him. Everything I tried to do hit equipment instead. My left boot caught his head once and cut him, but it was like he didn’t even feel it. As he hauled me across the driver’s seat my open coat was rucked up to my armpits. The dispatch computer gouged my ribs. Small cubes of glass grated my skin.

Taking off my seat belt was a mistake. If I’d left it on he wouldn’t have been able to pull me from the car.

I slammed my free foot against the door, and he lost his grip just as he was about to pull me through the window. He staggered back while I fell out onto the cold street. Like Danielle, my feet slid and I fell flat on my stomach in the slush beside her. From under the door, I could see him trying to pick up his baseball bat again.

He screamed something else unintelligible, and raised the bat over his head.

I didn’t think of how useless it was to cover my head with my arms. I just ducked and whimpered. There was a loud bang as the bat came down, and smashed the window frame instead of me. He was still howling like an animal. I was so frightened that I wasn’t far from that myself.

He was completely insane, and hit anything he could get to: the door, the fender, our windshield. Every time he missed me, his rage seemed to transfer to whatever he’d hit. If he’d kept any ability to reason, he’d have just come around the broken door that was acting as my shield and killed me. I thought of playing dead, but I was terrified that he’d just keep beating us anyway.

He raised the bat over his head again, and screamed like a feral creature in pain. There was no time for me to dodge, pray, or anything else. At the age of sixteen, I knew that was going to die.

The bat smashed into the top of the window frame again, denting it downward. He howled in frustration, then hit it a few more times, venting his rage on the twisting metal.

My brain didn’t bother me with the details of what it planned. The next thing I knew, I was trying to crawl under the car. There was a sharp pain in my foot as he struck my boot. It was a glancing blow, but it still felt like my foot had been crushed.

I was pulled out from under the car just as my hand closed on something cold and solid.

Looking back on it, I think my brain had finally gone to its happy place, and was pretending that it was playing a video game where the worst thing that could happen was that I’d get a lower score.

Danielle’s Glock was cold and heavy in my hands. As he raised his bat again, we were so close that I could smell that he hadn’t bathed for several weeks. My brain was so overloaded that I think the two shots caught me as much by surprise as they did him. Two holes appeared in the centre of his chest. The training sergeant would have approved of the perfect double tap. Just like I’d done while fooling around in the simulator. Just like every first-person shooter video game I’d ever played. Just like on television. Completely unlike any of them.

God help me.

Pain. Cold. Wetness. Silence. Blood.

A real person, not an image on a screen, looked surprised as two .40 calibre bullets tore through his body. A real person, not a game avatar, crumpled to the ground.

In that instant, I don’t think I knew what had happened. I was just happy that he had stopped trying to hit me.

The Glock was still pointing upward as I lay in the street gasping for breath. After a while it occurred to me that I could lower it, and my arms felt better. I tried to suck air into my lungs, but for some reason they weren’t working properly. I felt light-headed.

He’d splashed me when he fell, adding to the mess the wet snow had made of my clothes. I spat out wet, salty, dirty slush. Every part of me that was, or had been, in contact with the ground was wet and agonizingly, bitterly cold.

My ears had completely shut down from the gun shots. All I could hear was a high-pitched whistling sound.

After some time, I looked up, shivering, and saw people on the sidewalks moving in near silence. Some were running away. Others had their mouths open, probably screaming. Some were doing both. Nothing else was moving.

The shock paralysed me. This couldn’t be happening. The small part of my brain where the lights were still on was trying to cope by telling me that I had to get moving and do things. Anything to postpone reality.

That didn’t work either. There were so many things to do that sheer indecision froze me. I remember putting my bare hands down into the wet cold, and forced myself to my knees. It was hard to keep my balance, or maybe the whole world was moving. I couldn’t tell which.

The world proceeded in a series of film clips with blanks in between as I faded in and out. An older woman appeared out of nowhere, and said something to me. I couldn’t hear her.

The snow by Danielle’s head was turning red. Her radio on her duty belt. Eventually my brain recognized those as important things.

I dropped the gun beside Danielle, then crawled around her and fumbled with frozen fingers.

On top of the radio was the tiny, orange Code 200 “officer in trouble” button. I managed to press it, then tried to stand. I had to use the door for support. My wet fingers tried to stick to the metal. I reached into the car, and pulled the trunk release lever. My hands were nearly useless. It took me a few tries.

The woman was still trying to speak to me, her hand on my arm. I ignored her while I felt my way along the side of the car to the back, trying not to touch metal with my bare skin. The trunk lid had opened: a minor miracle. I started pulling out the emergency blankets. The good Samaritan figured out what I was trying to do, and helped me to wrap them around Danielle. She seemed to understand that we should move her as little as possible. I could feel more cold, salty tears in my eyes when I saw movement under the blanket. Danielle was still breathing.

The radio was squawking, so I had to be able to hear again. The microphone was clipped to her lapel, just visible beneath her. I managed to get it unhooked without moving her much, and tried to push the talk button.

It was so difficult. I was surprised to see blood on my right hand. I didn’t remember injuring it. It was too cold to hurt.

I never knew that my head could be spinning around in circles while simultaneously made of unmovable lead.

It’s a good thing that push-to-talk switches are big. My hands were ridiculously clumsy. I pressed the button in.

“This is, uh…” I couldn’t remember our unit number. “There’s been an accident.”

“Calling officer, say again,” came from the speaker. I must have remembered to let go of the button so I could listen.

“We had an accident. We’re at…” I looked around, trying to process what I was seeing.

“Knox United Church,” the nice woman said.

“We’re at Knox United Church. Officer down. I–I had to shoot him.”

Sirens were approaching, summoned by the Code 200 “officer in trouble” button I’d pushed earlier.

“Are you saying that you shot a police officer?”

“Are you all right, miss?” The nice lady was still standing there, concern on her face. Trying to have two conversations confused me to the point where I couldn’t speak.

God, there was so much to do. I completely forgot about how I’d gotten to this point, and what had actually happened. One thing at a time. The radio was most important. There was somebody on the radio who could help. I coughed to clear my throat, then took a breath, and focused as well as I could.

“Dispatch, this is, um, Veronica Chandler. We need an ambulance at Knox United Church. Constable Schuemaker was hit with a baseball bat. She’s unconscious and bleeding.”

“What was that about shots fired?”

“I had to shoot him.” I said it once, calmly, then the reality slammed into me, roaring over me like an avalanche, and my head spun. It was like the car crash all over again. “I had to shoot him. I…”

It’s strange, I remember the microphone dropping from my fingers as I finally looked at the unmoving man lying next to Danielle. There wasn’t as much blood around him as I thought there’d be. His face was toward me, and he looked like he finally was at peace.

Movement caught the corner of my eye and I cringed, remembering how his car had come out of nowhere, but it was the red and blue lights flashing as at the responders pulled up. One car was threading itself through traffic going the wrong way along Sixth. Another was inching its way along the sidewalk to get around the stopped vehicles. There were blood spatters everywhere. Where had those come from?

Pain. Cold. Wetness. Noise. Blood.

Somebody started screaming. I wondered who I needed help now.

That was weird. Whoever was screaming sounded like me. The world flew apart into scattered shards.

Everything after that was black and still.

Chapter 3 – The Great Santa Scam

My strangeness started before kindergarten. Other little girls played with dolls, were deeply fascinated by Pokémon, and had sleep overs where they and their friends talked and giggled a lot. They had normal lives.

I was never normal. Not in the “Veronica is our special child but we love her anyway” sense of the term. I just didn’t think about the world like other children.

One of my earliest memories involves being in a stroller. We must have been in a toy store, but only one thing remains clear: the thing that almost looked like a person. Daddy held it up to me, and it started talking. I tried to escape, but the straps in the stroller held me too tightly. Years later, Mum told me that I cried and screamed so much that the manager asked us to leave the store. Mercifully, nobody ever tried to buy me a doll after that. Creepy

The kids in school were crazy about Pokémon. I found the whole idea unsettling, although it was a few years before I could explain why. I couldn’t understand the appeal of a game with the goal of enslaving creatures, and forcing them to participate in gladiatorial combat. It seemed too much like bullying. Everybody, except for a few adults, looked at me like I was crazy if I said anything about it. After all, it was only a game. Maybe I’m the reincarnation of Sojourner Truth.
Stranger things have happened to me recently.

Sleepovers were okay. I liked playing with others, and having friends, except for one minor detail: we had little in common. They liked little girl things. I liked adult things.

My dad was a professional chef, and by the age of five I was helping him in the kitchen at home. Looking back, I probably wasn’t all that helpful, but I tried and Daddy was always patient with me. The paring knife he let me use seemed huge at the time. I’d chop easy things like celery, and he taught me to hold the knife by the bolster for better control. He was always there to make sure I didn’t cut myself. I never have. I also stirred sauces, and measured ingredients for him.

One day, all by myself, I made a lemon mousse for dessert. I wasn’t strong enough to whip the cream by hand, so Daddy supervised my use of his stand mixer. Mummy and Daddy pronounced the mousse delicious. It was one of the proudest moments of my life to that point.

The other girls in our neighbourhood were lucky if they knew how to pour cereal into a bowl. It seemed weird to me that not everybody knew how to cook. Come to think of it, it still does. We spend several hours a day eating. Why not learn to make the adventure as pleasurable as possible?

The other adventures in my life were the ones that Dad would read to me before I went to sleep at night. He’d lie in bed beside me so I could see the words as he read them.

We went through all the adventures he’d read as a boy: Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, and, of course, The Annotated Alice.

By the time I started kindergarten I could read Alice quite well, although I still preferred to have Daddy read it to me. He never wore any kind of aftershave or cologne in case somebody at his restaurant had an allergy, so he just smelled like Daddy. It was a smell that I found comforting.

Mum and Dad were both avid readers. Our house was full of books when I was growing up and by full, I mean that the only walls without bookcases were the ones in the kitchen and the bathroom. Even the windows were surrounded by shelves. They correctly assumed that I’d be a reader too.

I loved the time Dad and I spent together, but in some ways my mum was even more interesting.

She was a police detective.

As far as I know, Mum’s Glock was always either locked in her gun safe, or was on her hip, so despite what some people think there was never a problem having a gun and a small child in the same house.

Much later, I learned that a lot of people are overly paranoid about gun safety. They lock up the guns, which is reasonable, and then threaten their kids with all kinds of punishment if they go anywhere near the gun safe. Sometimes that backfires, if you’ll pardon the expression, and makes the kids even more curious. That’s when problems happen.

Mum had a completely different approach. Just after I started kindergarten, when she thought I was old enough to understand, she took me to the shooting range.

She showed me her service pistol, explained how it worked, and explained why she had it. Then she emptied a clip into the paper target while I watched. Even with the ear protectors, it was loud and scary. The gun jumped in her hand like something alive that was trying to get away. I remember being in awe that my mother could control that much power. It was one of my first lessons that being female had nothing to do with being weak.

At the end of our adventure I got to fire the gun. Several years later, she admitted that she’d loaded one bullet, a Simunition round, so even if I did something wildly wrong I wouldn’t do any permanent damage. She showed me how to hold the gun, and how to stand just like she did. The Glock 22 was huge in my little hands. It was almost too big for my finger to reach the trigger, and it was really heavy. She knelt behind me, her hands nearly touching mine, and helped me to
squeeze the trigger. When the gun went off, it kicked enough that it almost hit me in the head. I remember dropping it.

After that, I had no interest in even thinking of playing with firearms, just like I didn’t play with the stove after I’d burned myself once on a hot skillet before Daddy taught me how to cook.

The girls at school talked about dresses, parties, and things they’d seen on television. I talked about Daddy letting me use a knife, how we made a souffle together, and how Mummy let me fire her pistol. The other girls thought that I was strange. Some of their parents complained to the school that I was a bad influence on their precious indigo children.

I didn’t care all that much because there was something better than playmates. By the age of seven I was reading things that some people considered completely “unsuitable” for my age. While my classmates pretended to be scared after reading Goosebumps, I read the works of Dashiell Hammett, Anthony Bidulka, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. To those I added a good measure of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert J. Sawyer, Robert Heinlein, H.P. Lovecraft, and many other
masters of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery.

My parents never censored the books I read. If I wanted to read it, I could.

They weren’t easy books to read. They were meant for adults, and assumed that I knew things that I didn’t. The first time I read The Maltese Falcon I had a lot of questions, so I went to find my father. I found him sitting in the living room, reading a copy of a food magazine.

“Daddy, I have a question.”

He put down the magazine he was reading, and patted his knees. I climbed up into his lap and settled in.

“What would you like to know?”

“What’s the difference between a .38 and a .45?”

He looked confused.

“Between what?”

“In this book I’m reading, the private eye uses a .45 and the bad guy uses a .38. What’s the difference?”

He paused, and looked at me oddly. Then he cleared his throat.

“I think that’s a Mummy question.”

That was fair enough. My parents never hesitated when I asked something, but some things were Daddy questions, and others were Mummy questions. I asked Mummy about the guns.

Over the next several years, I asked her a lot of questions about guns, adultery, cocaine use, and men with boyfriends. I assumed that a detective with the Calgary Police Service must know everything, (except about cooking, restaurants, and business, which were Daddy things), and I must say that she rarely let me down.

I became a voracious reader, in the same sense that starving piranhas are voracious eaters. I went through children’s books so fast that it wasn’t worth checking them out of the library. Young adult novels might last me a few hours. The typical four-hundred page bestseller would last me a few days, unless it was a weekend when I could read all day. I had more familiarity with Victorian London, the ethnic cuisines of Saskatoon, the jungles of South America, the layout of
the Royal Ontario Museum, the grimy dives of San Francisco, and the geography of Barsoom than with the rules for hopscotch.

The girls at school liked to pretend they knew a lot about the world. The more weird stuff they thought you knew, the higher your status. I didn’t have to pretend. My big problem was that it drove me nuts when people got something wrong. It took me a while to figure out that constantly correcting people did not lead to happiness.

All of this got me bullied a lot. Apparently, the dear, sweet, little girls only liked you if you were exactly the same as them.

Part of my problem with them was that they did the same thing that a lot of adults do. Instead of saying something like “I don’t like that TV show,” they’d say “that show is stupid.” Most people don’t seem to understand that they are being insulting when they say something like that, and it doesn’t allow a lot of room for discussion.

I came home crying far more often than any child ever should. Never let anybody tell you that girls are only about psychological bullying. A lot of times I was crying because I’d been in a fight. I was small for my age, so despite being motivated I never won.

I was also too stubborn, or stupid, to run away. Come to think of it, I still am.

Mummy and Daddy tried to make things better. Daddy would hold me and tell me that I’d done nothing wrong, and that the other girls were just mean. That didn’t make me feel much better because I already knew that. The hugs, however, were wonderful. As long as Daddy loved me I could imagine things getting better. Never underestimate the healing power of your daddy’s arms as a remedy for sadness.

Mummy, as usual, took a more direct approach. She gave me similar talks and hugs, but she also asked for the names of the bullies. Then she visited their parents in an official capacity. For some reason, it makes parents nervous when somebody wearing a badge and a gun comes to talk to them about the behaviour of their evil brats.

Many of the parents were reasonable, and agreed to punish their kids for being bullies. A lot of the overt intimidation at school stopped. What Mummy and I didn’t realize at the time was that we’d violated an unwritten law of childhood. The girls hated me more for being a snitch than they did for being weird. The bullying became more sneaky, like someone anonymously tripping me from behind when I was walking down the hall.

A few months into the new year, when I was nine years old, the bullying stopped. At Christmas I’d come out of the closet.

At first my father took it hard. The crisis came after supper on a bitterly cold evening in mid-December.

“Sweetie, I have something for you,” he said.

I looked up from the book I was reading. It was unusual to get a present just before Christmas, and I was hoping for a book. Instead, it was a flat cardboard box. Maybe there were books inside.

I opened the box. Inside was a new dress. It was pink, knee-length, with spaghetti straps, and an empire waist.

I have to explain something. I loathe pink. I always have. It reminds me of Pepto Bismol, idiot princesses who need somebody else to save them, and really old, smelly bathrooms. Mum agrees with me. We aren’t pink girls. Never have been. Never will be.

You’d think that would be clear enough, wouldn’t you? Especially for an intelligent man who had lived with us for many years.

The problem was that my father was somewhat delusional. One of his enduring, irrational beliefs was that all girls love pink.

I looked up at Dad, who was smiling like he’d done something clever. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I didn’t know what I could say that wasn’t a lie.

“What do we say?” Mum prompted.

“Thank you,” I said. I hoped that I didn’t sound too much like I was being tortured by Nazi dentists. I told you that I read inappropriate things.

“Try it on, then we’ll go see Santa.”

He had to be crazy. The weather report on TV said that it was -27 Celsius. Nobody in their right mind would go outside at that temperature. Mum had been saying during supper that she’d had a rough day and was tired. She was also looking at him like he was 10-21. That’s a police code for somebody who is a few galleons short of an armada.

Mum and I took the dress to my room. At least Dad had gotten the size right. We looked in the mirror. It wasn’t too horrible except for the colour. Maybe Mummy could dye it or something when he wasn’t looking.

When I started to take it off Mum stopped me.

“He’ll want to see it. And try not to roll your eyes like that when you are

When we returned, Daddy was beaming.

“You look beautiful,” he said. “Turn around.”

I pirouetted clumsily. He’d already grabbed our coats from the closet, and was putting his on.

“Shall we?”

Mum and I looked at each other. We hadn’t been consulted, but apparently it had been decided that we were all going to see Santa.


Chinook Shopping Centre in Calgary has always suffered from a common retail dilemma. Being surrounded on all sides by major roads, it inhabits a strictly limited area. To be competitive it needs lots of stores, but to accommodate that many customers it needs a vast parking space. It’s constantly at war with itself, and seems like it’s always under construction, an activity that further limits both the shops and parking. We circled the mall for what felt like hours until Daddy
found a spot to leave the car. We walked a long way from there to the warmth of the stores. My legs almost froze off.

People jammed themselves into the mall, all of them desperately intent on giving in to their compulsion to over-spend themselves into debt in the name of peace and goodwill among men. Over the roar of the multitude the PA system played the same Christmas playlist, over, and over again. The people working there must have been ready to go mad.

We fought our way to the line for Santa. Mummy and Daddy were on either side of me, holding my hands so I wouldn’t be swept away by the torrent. I nearly got bowled over a few times by obsessive shoppers who weren’t looking where they were going. I shivered, despite the body heat and bright lights. In this weather, any sane person would be wearing ski trousers instead of a skirt. For goodness sake, my mother was wearing slacks and a parka.

We moved forward one step. An eternity later we took another step. After an infinite number of eternities, one of Santa’s helpers ushered me to Santa’s throne.

Santa’s helpers were a couple of older women dressed as elves; they probably were high school students trying to make money for Christmas. Santa himself was one of the better ones I’d seen. At least his beard and hair looked real. My legs were still cold and his velvet suit was warm against them. I decided that made it worthwhile to sit on his lap.

Apart from the cold, the dress and the music, there was another reason why I wasn’t excited to be there. I’d come to a shocking conclusion during the past year – Santa Claus was a fake. Close inspection showed that, instead of one Santa, there was a different one at each mall. Somehow, despite the lack of a fireplace in our house, presents appeared under our tree. The black threads I’d strung around the living room on Christmas eve to catch him remained undisturbed in the
morning. After reading Mummy’s copy of a book by Naomi Wolf, I realized that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was a song about bullying, and gaining favour with the alpha male in a patriarchal dictatorship at the expense of one’s natural companions. As far as I was concerned, the clincher was that it would take some serious magic to make his delivery schedule work. If magic that powerful existed, my grandma wouldn’t have died of cancer when I was eight.

The revelation about Santa scared me. I’d already been bullied at school for being different. Everybody else I knew seemed to believe in the reality of Santa Claus. I decided that, if anybody would be on my side, it would be Mummy.

One day, when we were alone, I asked her to come to my room. I closed the door, and had her sit on my bed. The people in stories tended to faint a lot when they got shocking news, and I didn’t want her to hurt herself.

I presented her with my evidence, carefully building my case. She listened attentively to my report, then hugged me.

“Veronica, let’s just keep this a secret between us. Try to pretend that you still believe in Santa when you talk to your father. Okay?”

I was as I feared. “Daddy believes in Santa?”

“No, dear, but it’s complicated. He needs you to believe in Santa, just for a while longer. Can you pretend to do that for him?” She brushed my hair back behind one ear with her fingers.

It made no sense to me, but I agreed to the deception. Much later I understood that fathers have certain innate beliefs about their daughters. My father’s addiction to pink was one example. Another, probably more universal belief, is that daughters will be little girls forever. When puberty destroys that illusion, they switch to firmly believing that their daughters will always be virgins. He did eventually figure out that one, just as I’d figured out the truth about Santa Claus.

“Hello, little girl. What’s your name?” Faux-Santa asked in his hearty voice.

“Veronica Irene Chandler,” I said. “Would you like me to spell it for you?”

Honestly, I wasn’t trying to be sarcastic. A lot of people seem to have trouble spelling even the easiest names. I was glad that I didn’t have a name like Qarrynn Smyth at school. His eyes flicked toward where my parents stood, then he ho-ho-hoed.

“That’s all right, Veronica. What would you like for Christmas?”

I’d been bored, standing in line, so I thought about why Daddy had dragged me here. If Mummy was right, and Daddy didn’t believe in Santa Claus either, then the only purpose he could have for bringing me here was so that the man in the red suit could ask me that question. A question that, for some reason, Daddy didn’t want to ask me himself. Fathers can be so 10-21 at times.

“I want a baton.”

“Ho, ho, ho,” fake-Santa boomed again, “you want to be a majorette, do you?” I had no idea what a majorette was.

“No,” I said, “I want a twenty-one inch ASP baton, like my mummy’s.” I spoke loudly and clearly so I could be heard over the background music. Both of Santa’s elves stared at me like I’d said something strange. I defiantly stared back at them. I had no intention of taking any crap from a pair of old ladies.

Santa’s eyes flicked toward my parents again, and I followed his eyes.

Mummy had stepped behind Daddy where he couldn’t see her. She hid her mouth behind her hand, and for some reason her shoulders shook. Daddy looked sad. I thought that maybe I’d done something wrong. Was Mummy crying?

“Her mother’s a detective,” Daddy explained to Santa in an odd voice. Mummy’s eyes sparkled, like she had tears in them.

The light went on in pseudo-St. Nick’s head.

“Oh, you want one of those batons.”

I nodded, my eyes still on Daddy’s unhappy face, and Mummy’s moist eyes. What had I done wrong?

“I’ll see what the elves can do, but they’re better at making toys. Is there anything else you want, just in case they can’t get a baton ready in time?”

He must have thought I was a child. Batons come from ASP, not elves at the North Pole.


“Maybe something smaller?”

“I’ll grow into it,” I said, being stubborn. “My mummy says that a larger baton is more versatile, and feels better when it’s extended.” Mummy turned completely away, her shoulders shaking even more. Daddy looked uncomfortable. The elves’ eyes grew round, and one of them smirked. What was their problem? Like either of them knew anything about how batons felt. Santa cleared his throat.

“Well,” Santa said as he locked eyes with my father, “we’ll see what we can do.”

We got the required family picture with Santa. Mummy and Daddy didn’t say much in the car on the way home. I really thought that I was in trouble, but had no idea why.

When we got there, Dad disappeared into the kitchen. It was his version of a man cave. Mummy took me to my room, and we sat on my bed for another talk. Now she looked like she was trying hard not to laugh.

“Did I do something wrong?” I was close to tears. I hate not understanding what’s going on. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to become a PI.

“No, Veronica,” she said gently as she hugged me. “I think that your daddy finally understands that you will be whoever you are, not the little pink princess he expected. Don’t worry, he’ll get over it. Why do you want a baton?”

“You said it took you months for you to learn how to use yours, so if I start now, then I’ll be ready when I become a private detective,” I said, using the term I’d learned from books.

“Is that really what you want to be?”

I nodded.

“You like cooking with your father. Maybe you’d like to be a chef.”

“I can be both,” I said with the confidence of a nine year old that whatever I could imagine was possible. Except Santa Claus, of course.

Mummy gave me another hug. “All right, dear. I’ll explain it to your father. Everything will be all right.”

On Christmas morning I came bouncing down stairs to the living room. Since we were staying home, I wore the pink dress to please Daddy. I was proud that I’d thought of that all on my own.

We had a plastic Christmas tree, but it looked wonderful with little twinkling lights, and shining balls hung from it. Daddy had sprayed something on it so it almost smelled like a real tree. By family custom, I got to open one present before breakfast. I dug into the pile beneath the tree, branches poking me in the head and back. I didn’t care.

Ignoring the other boxes that promised wonderful things, I came out with a small, heavy present that had been near the trunk. The tag said “To Veronica, with love, Daddy.” I tore the paper off, and inside was a box with an Armament Systems and Procedures logo on it. I thought I’d die from the suspense. Inside the box, I found my first tactical baton. I ran my fingers along it, feeling the cool, black steel and foam rubber grip. It smelled faintly of machine oil. Daddy even
hugged and kissed me when I squealed, and thanked him for it.

All was right with the world. I was out of the closet as a private eye, and my daddy still loved me. Mummy was smiling as I hugged her too.

It was time for Daddy and I to make pancakes together.



Chapter 4 – Clients

It’s difficult to pay attention to a client when your thong is leaping across the living room. The private investigator’s manual really needs a module on dealing with animate lingerie.

It was a Monday afternoon in the middle of December. The provincial private investigator’s licensing examination was two months behind me. I’d written it on my eighteenth birthday, the minimum age for licensing in Alberta.

My not-particularly luxurious apartment doubled as my office, an arrangement that saved me a lot of money. That was good, because I still had no clients, and rapidly shrinking savings. A frugal diet had become old. To cheer myself, I’d decided to make porchetta for supper.

Whole suckling pigs don’t fit well into a normal oven, especially the ones they put in one-bedroom apartments. Besides, they are expensive. I made do with a piece of pork tenderloin.

Adding olive oil to the rub makes it to stick to the meat more evenly, and helps to hold in moisture. The drawback is that the preparation is messier. I scooped a blob of spice mixture from the prep bowl with my fingers. The mingled smells of anise seed, thyme, rosemary, pepper, lemon, and garlic rose to caress my nose with the promise of wonders to come.

That’s when my cell phone rang in the living room. Dammit, I’d left it on the coffee table.

The bowl nearly leaped off the counter as I scraped the spices off my fingers. There was no time to wash my hands, so I grabbed a side towel and dashed for the phone, wiping as I went.

“Chandler Investigations,” I said in a slightly breathless version of my professional voice. It was probably a telemarketer, but you never know. Despite my best efforts, the phone slowly slid through my still oily hand.

“Is this the private investigator?” The woman’s voice sounded snooty and condescending, which is to say, rich. I can live with snooty and condescending as long as I get paid on time. My heart beat faster.

“Yes, this is Chandler Investigations,” I said, thoroughly professional now. I’d already said that, but I can live with deaf too.

“An acquaintance suggested your services to me.” From her tone, clearly none of her friends would have lowered themselves to making such a suggestion. I wondered what acquaintance we could have in common. Maybe it was somebody one of my cop buddies knew.

I heard the quiet tapping sound of tiny claws on Formica coming from the kitchen. Yoko Geri (pronounced with a hard G, not Jerry – it’s Japanese, not a Spice Girls reference) had jumped onto the counter, circumnavigated the sink, and was tentatively extending his feline nose toward the defenceless pork roast. I balled up the side towel and threw it at him. He jumped backward as it hit him, sending the prep bowl spinning toward the edge of the counter.

While my attention was distracted the phone made a break for freedom, finally sliding from my oily grip. I had to grab at it with both hands. There was a skittering of claws trying to find purchase, and a thud as my cat hit the linoleum floor. The bowl wobbled to a stop almost half way over the edge, looking like it would fall if a fly landed on the rim. I got the Evil Eye from Yoko, and he gave voice to a series of irritated chirps as he trotted out of the kitchen, around
the corner, and into my bedroom.

“Sorry, what was that?” I said into the phone as I went to rescue the bowl.

“I said, I need to see you immediately.”

I looked around the apartment. Damn. I needed to stall.

“I’m booked until this evening…”

“What time?”

“One moment.” I stared at my 1941 Maltese Falcon movie poster for a count of five in lieu of consulting an empty appointment book.

“How about six thirty?”

“Good.” She hung up before I could ask her name, or if she had my address. Damn again.

Then I jumped up, pumped my fist in the air, and did my happy dance. At least that’s what I call it. I’ve never actually learned how to dance, and I suspect that I look like a crippled, epileptic elephant.

My first case as a private investigator! I squeezed the phone too hard, and it flew out of my hand again, bouncing across the counter, and into the living room. I put it back on the counter.

My elation was immediately followed by a moment of panic. Who am I kidding? I’m not ready for this. I’m eighteen years old! Getting a high mark on the provincial exam was one thing. Adequately performing services for a live client was another.

Yoko Geri stomped out of my bedroom dragging a cream-coloured silk blouse in his teeth. I distinctly remembered putting it in the laundry hamper. He stared at me with his golden kitten eyes, and I got the message. Nice blouse. It would be a pity if something happened to it, say, if I don’t get some of that porchetta.

I know when I’m beaten.

“Well, predator, I guess we’re having supper early.”

I had barely started to spread a second handful of oily glop onto the roll-fileted roast when the phone rang again.

This was ridiculous. For a second I was going to ignore it, but it could have been my new client calling back for directions.

Scrape the fingers, wipe the hands, juggle the oily phone. It would be a pain cleaning it later.

“Chandler Investigations,” I said a trifle less professionally.

“You sound pissed,” a familiar voice said, and my mood immediately improved.

Hola, chica. How’s my favourite sister?”

“Your only sister,” Kali reminded me. “I wondered if you’d like to come over for dinner.”

“Sorry,” I said casually, “I have a client meeting at 6:30.”

“Oh, my gods! A real, paying client at last? I was beginning to worry.”

I fought back the nerves at hearing my own doubts echoed. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, hermanita.”

“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “You’ll be awesome. I did have an ulterior motive for asking you over, though.”

There was a second of silence that caused small alarm bells to go off in my head. Kali was many things. Hesitant was not one of them.

“I have a situation that seems to need a private investigator.”

That wasn’t good. “What’s wrong? Maybe I can reschedule with my client.”

“Don’t you dare. It can wait.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s for a friend of mine. It’s nothing life-threatening or anything.”

“All right, how about after my meeting? I can probably make it by eight or nine.”

“That’ll be great. Have fun with your client.”

After she hung up I wondered which of her friends was involved. It was going to bug me until I knew. Insatiable curiosity was part of the price of being a PI.

An hour later, Yoko Geri graciously accepted a small slice of porchetta and gravy while I savoured a considerably larger portion. I did not share the mint peas, the new potatoes aux herbes de Provence, or the smooth, home-made red beer. I love my cat, but I have my limits.

After supper I tidied the apartment, and sprayed to clear the air of the delicious smells. It was a shame, but I thought that clients would respond better if they thought that this was solely my office. I also changed out of my flannel pyjamas. They never actually mentioned it in the investigator’s course, but I’m pretty sure that most investigators wear real clothes during a client interview.

Unless, I suppose, the interview was at a nudist resort. I wondered if I’d ever get a case like that. I had a brief image of frisking hot male suspects for unconcealed weapons. I have a bit of ADD. When I get nervous my mind wanders in weird ways.

At 6:15 the intercom buzzer sounded. The client must be impatient. I buzzed her up, then stuck the tasteful, magnetic “Chandler Investigations” sign on the outside of my door. I stared at it for a few seconds until I’d convinced myself that it was straight. In theory, ours is a residential-only building, but after I batted my lashes at the superintendent he relented, and told me that I could put up my sign when I was expecting a client. He drew the line at putting “Chandler Investigations” on my buzzer button outside, though. I settled for just “Chandler.”

Unless the elevator is already at the ground floor, it takes at least half a minute to get to my apartment on the fourth floor. I used the time for a last look around. Laptop and tissue box on the coffee table: check. The last time I’d looked, Yoko was sprawled on my bed asleep. Bedroom door closed: check. Bathroom door closed: check. I sniffed my hands. Oil and spices removed: check. Since I’d cleverly waited to dress until after supper, I didn’t have to worry about spots on my
blouse from the gravy.

As I expected, she walked in without knocking. I gave a friendly smile as I saw my very first client. She didn’t quite wrinkle her nose.

“Mrs. Sofia Reinkemeyer to see Veronica Chandler,” she said, glancing around my apartment/office, then dismissing it from her mind. She
started to remove her leather gloves.

“I’m Veronica Chandler.” I extended my hand.

She paused, the second glove half off, then finished removing it.

“Really? You look much younger than I expected.” She did not shake my hand.

She should talk. If she was more than twenty-two, I wanted to know where she kept the portrait that aged instead of her. I caught the scent of Shalini perfume, a bottle of which would keep me in food for at least four months.

“Thank you, I get that a lot. It has benefits in certain investigations. Won’t you have a seat?”

I’d salvaged a cool coat rack from a 1930s-era office that was being demolished. It looked like it belonged in Sam Spade’s office. I hung her coat on it along with my fedora and trench coat that Dad had bought me as licensing presents.

She accepted my offer of a seat on my IKEA couch, where she perched as if fearing contamination. Her mid-back length blonde hair fell over one shoulder of the short Armani dress that probably cost more than my month’s rent. She canted her legs to the side to keep her knees together. That just happened to nicely display her mid-heel Gucci boots that definitely cost more than my month’s rent.

It’s not what I would have chosen to wear on a cold winter evening, but to each her own. Maybe being cold was her natural state.

I sat across the IKEA coffee table from her in my IKEA comfy chair and picked up my refurbished, non-IKEA computer.

The laptop felt warm on my thighs. With any luck, my Sears pant suit and Payless shoes would pass muster.

“What can I do for you, Mrs. Reinkemeyer?”

There was another pause, and her lips pursed slightly.

“It’s about my husband, Frank.”

She hesitated again, and I caught the first hint that her calm wasn’t as deep as she wanted me to believe.

“We were married three years ago. At first, he was wonderful: buying me presents, and taking me on vacations all over the world. Then he changed.”

She sniffled artistically, dabbing at the corners of her shockingly blue eyes with a tissue from her purse so she wouldn’t damage her make-up. It’s very important, I’m sure, not to damage your make-up when you suspect that your life is dropping into the toilet.

“How old is your husband?” I asked, making notes on the computer.

“Forty-three. He’s the owner of a high-end computer consulting firm. He was quite athletic when we married, but now he’s let himself go. And – I think he’s having an affair.”

Her last sentence really brought out the tears, and her chin quivered in a way that’s difficult to fake. I could relate; my first boyfriend had cheated on me. I waited for her to cry herself out.

“When did you first become suspicious?”

“A month ago, when he started working late. Why would he have to work late? He owns the business. He has people to do that for him. I don’t know what I’ll do if he leaves me.” The words came tumbling out in a stream of consciousness jumble. Her distress seemed genuine.

One thing was certain: if he was seeing someone more than a few years younger than his wife then a divorce would be the least of his problems. He’d be up on a paedophilia charge as well.

“Do you have a recent picture of him?”

She dug through her Versace shoulder bag that perfectly matched her eyes. I didn’t want to think about what that had cost. My own eyes are sort of hazel, my hair sort of brown (currently dyed darker so I can mention my hair colour without prefacing it with “sort of”). On the other hand, I’ll never have to worry about my breasts drooping.

The formal head shot of Frank Reinkemeyer looked like it had been taken for a company brochure. It showed his public persona: a confident, strong, friendly, trustworthy businessman who could get things done for you. It also tried, but failed, to disguise that he had at least a double chin, and a neck in peril of overflowing his shirt collar. Even with the most talented photographer head angle, make-up, and good lighting can’t hide everything.

That’s when I noticed the thong.

Yoko Geri was at the all-legs stage of kittenhood, and he must have sneaked out of the bedroom before I’d closed the door. I must have missed one of his toy stashes in the living room itself, probably hidden under the couch. He threw a lacy black thong into the air, and then danced on his back legs to catch it as it floated down. Damn it, he’d been raiding the laundry basket again.

So much for professionalism. If he moved slightly toward me he’d be in her line of sight. Trying to tackle him would be a bit obvious, as well as futile. He was fast when he thought he was being chased. He might take the thong with him, parading it around the room, or he might not.

Either way, my chances of stopping his play weren’t good.

The wisp of nylon floated to the carpet and he crouched, his feet spread wide. With a small chirp, he pounced on the offending underwear, and threw it up into the air again, his paws waving menacingly to catch it as it descended. He’d managed to get the toss just right, and the thong looked like a tiny three-cornered parachute. I needed a good distraction.

“Would you like some water?”

Sofia sniffed and nodded, too self-absorbed to notice Yoko’s almost silent acrobatics on the floor beside her. I tried to grab my thong in midair on the way past, but he beat me to it, running a few steps away with it in his mouth. He dropped it, and this time I managed to pin it to the carpet with my toe before scooping it up. That earned me an indignant chirp from my sidekick. He scampered after me into the kitchen, thoughts of more porchetta dancing in his head. Hope springs eternal in the kitten stomach.

After tossing the thong into the mostly empty freezer to keep it well away from Yoko, I grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. While I was there I also put a slice of porchetta in his dish to keep him busy.

I handed her the bottle, and the art film of her internal monologue rolled across her face. What the hell is this? Water comes in plastic? What’s a “Kirkland Signature?” Where’s the San Pellegrino label? She gave me an insincere smile and sipped. Ugh. I didn’t know they made unflavoured water. She tried to be

“Thank you, Ms. Chandler.”

“Please, call me Veronica. I assume that you’d like me to find out if your husband is having an affair, and to bring you proof either way,” I said gently. She nodded. Despite her care, her make-up now the worse for wear. I felt considerably more sympathy for her as a grief-stricken woman instead of a trophy wife out for blood.

We went through questions about where his office was, his hobbies, habits, and schedule. By the end I had enough to start surveillance.

It only took me a minute to type the details into my contract template and print it. She took a long time to read it, and I tried not to fidget. In high school, I’d never earned more than fifteen dollars an hour, and I only got that because I worked at my father’s restaurant. I like to think that I’m pretty self-confident, but asking a stranger to pay me fifty dollars an hour plus expenses, with a thousand dollar retainer, made me uncomfortable despite her obvious wealth. The
shrink I’d seen a few years ago had gotten me into the habit of questioning my reactions, so I thought about why the money was an issue for me.

It struck me then that this had nothing to do with money. This was the real graduation, the loss of another virginity. Before this meeting, I was a teenage girl who had a part-time job, a dream of becoming a private investigator, and whose parents would bail her out if I got into trouble. As soon as we signed the contract, I would be an adult professional with a private investigation agency for whose performance I was solely responsible.

I took a deep breath, knowing that my nerves were stupid. This moment was what I’d been working toward since I was a small girl. Still, I studied the computer screen, and pretended to make more notes so she wouldn’t see my jitters.

Yoko, just to prove that sometimes he’s actually a loving companion instead of a fiend from hell, jumped into my lap. He sat purring on the keyboard. It forced me to stop typing, and start stroking his back with one hand. That helped, and my mind drifted.

I felt a little like Ernst Blofeld. Too bad Yoko is the exact opposite of a white Persian. Maybe I should get a grey Mao jacket. Or perhaps Auric Goldfinger would be more appropriate: Do you expect me to sign? No, Mrs. Reinkemeyer, I expect you to pay. In a masterful use of mental mixed film metaphors, I  ictured myself putting the end of my pinky to the corner of my mouth. I firmly stifled a nervous giggle. I hate it when I giggle.

My client finally flipped to the last page, signed, and took an envelope out of her handbag.

“I believe you require a thousand dollars for your retainer?”

I glanced inside the envelope briefly, and saw a thin stack of new hundred dollar bills. My first income as a PI. I tried not to salivate.

“Perfect,” I said. She started to rise, so I tried to place Yoko on the floor, the laptop on the table, and get out of my chair, all without looking too clumsy. Sofia rose smoothly from the edge of the couch, and accepted my business card. Women who are tall, willowy and graceful should be shot.

“Call me the next time he says he’ll be working late. I’ll be in touch as soon as I have anything to report.” I offered her my hand again, and this time she accepted it. I was afraid to squeeze too hard. It was like shaking hands with a water-filled condom.

I don’t like people with soggy handshakes. So much for us ever becoming friends.

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