Julie Lynn Hayes
My expression never changes. No nervous smile, no shocked intake of breath. Nothing to indicate that I'm more than passing familiar with the man in the photo—this blast from my long dead past. Or that I once loved this boy to distraction and then some. Excuse me, he's a man now. Damn good-looking man too. That was a hell of a long time ago, him and me. Fifteen years ago long. Fifteen years since he dumped me on the night of our high school graduation.
"Mind if I keep this?" I give it another quick glance, then set it aside for now. There'll be time for a closer examination later.
"Okay then, Pamela... tell me something about… Jeremy, was it?" Yeah, I know. Just playing it cool. "Tell me what you think's going on with him." I pull out a clean steno pad from the drawer. New client—new book. I pride myself on my ability to keep my voice detached and unemotional. Businesslike even. Like this is just another case. Because that's what it is, no different than any other, and the sooner I realize that, the better it's going to be for everyone. Even if the walls I so painstakingly built are threatening to collapse around me. No time for maudlin memories right now.
She releases a breathy little sigh, as if she recognizes that I've accepted her case and that all's gonna be right in her world. At least as right as I can make it. I guess the rest depends on what I might find out, for better or for worse. Whatever the truth might be.
I have to say that based on past experience, I'm not holding my breath that my ex is innocent of what he's being accused of. But for now, I'm withholding judgment, even if I'm not ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. Not for me to pass judgment. All I have to do is collect the facts and pass them on. No more, no less.
"Okay, yes, that makes sense. What would you like to know about him?"
I give her a sharp look, before I quickly reach across my desk, snagging a Kleenex box I keep handy just for that purpose, and hand it to her. Just before the tears begin to flow. I know the signs too well, seen it too many times. The first indication is the quaver in the voice. It's a dead giveaway.
She dabs at her eyes apologetically. "I'm sorry, it's just that—"
I hold up one hand. "No need to explain. Whenever you're ready…" I can wait as long as it takes. I have nothing pressing to do right this moment. And a burning desire to hear more about my ex. "Are you sure I can't get you something? How about a bottle of water?"
As if on cue, the outer office door clicks open and closed. Shari must be back. What, did she fall in? She's tossing her purse in her drawer, about to slide into her chair when she realizes I'm staring at her through my open door. And that I'm not alone. Her mouth pops into an 'O' of surprise, then snaps shut.
"I stepped out for a minute," she defensively explains, although I haven't said a word. Good thing she's moving back home when the semester ends. Except then I'll have to hire a new one. Always something.
"It's okay," I assure her. I'm not big on confrontations. Luckily, I'm not really forced into them too often. If I'm ever caught by the subject of my surveillance, then I deny everything and lie through my teeth to get out of my predicament. That generally works. And when it doesn't, I run like hell.
So far, I haven't had to do that too often. It's bad for the ego.
I push back from my desk. A small refrigerator sits in the corner. It's cheaper than running out every time I get thirsty, or want to offer a client a libation. I pull out a bottle of water for Pamela, then lean into the doorway of the outer office. Shari flips a paperback upside down on the desk and gives me one of her looks, as though I'm invading her personal space.
"Invoicing done?" A business can't run without money, and people are more inclined to pay when you remember to bill them.
"Not yet." She doesn't seem fazed by the glare I give her book. Good help is so hard to find.
"Then why don't you do it?"
"Sure." She glances inside the novel, before sliding a bookmark between the pages. "Did you want me to pay the bills while I'm at it?"
"No, hold off on that for now. And hold my calls. I'll be in conference for a while." I pointedly close the door between us, forestalling any further questions or comments. I'm usually on the edge of being fashionably late with my bills, especially the rent. I've still got a little leeway before I need to worry about presenting the landlord with my typical song and dance. I like the building and its location, and I'd rather not move if I don't have to. So far I've managed to keep up with everything, but some months it's been damn close.
Setting the bottle in front of my new client, I take my seat, and pull out a black ballpoint. "Sorry for the interruption," I apologize. "You were saying?"
She opens the bottle and takes a quick drink before replying. "Thank you, I guess I did need that. Um, Jeremy… okay, let's start there, shall we?" She swallows, chewing at her bottom lip for a moment. "He and I… we've been together ever since we were in high school."
"Oh, you went to high school together?" I lower my head so far into my notebook that my nose touches the paper. I don't want to chance her looking in my eyes right now; I'm afraid I might give something away. If she went to our school, I don't remember her, and I sure as hell hope she doesn't remember me.
"No, I went to an all girls' school, he went to public school."
That's a relief. I say a quick prayer under my breath and look up. "Okay, go on, please…"
"I just meant we started dating in high school. We met at this gas station he used to work at after school. I used to get my gas there."
Oh yes, I remember that job. It was the source of a lot of friction between us. And not the good kind.
"And then we became engaged senior year and got married right after graduation."
"That's pretty young," I comment noncommittally.
I glance up sharply, hearing something in her voice; her cheeks are flushed. Heated memories?
"I'd planned on going to college, actually. In fact, I put in apps to some of my top choices, and I took the ACT, but Jeremy… he was so… well, it was all very sudden. He swept me off my feet. He told me we just had to get married. How could I say no? I was young and in love…"
"And you're not now?" Damn, I need to edit myself better. Shouldn't have blurted that out like that.
She grips the bottle of water, rolling it back and forth between her hands, struggling to answer. "Mr. Heidegger… Holden… I'm sure you've heard this from most of your clients, but I love my husband, I really do. That's why this hurts so much. I mean the idea that he might find another woman more attractive…" Her voice breaks and she snags another Kleenex from the box, wipes at her eyes.
Somehow I suspect that another woman is not her problem, but I withhold comment.
I watch her struggle to get herself under control; I can tell it's not easy. She seems like a strong lady—I guess she has to be if she's been dealing with him for the last fifteen years. She composes herself again, and starts over. "My dad gave Jeremy a job right after graduation."
"And what is it that Jeremy does? For a living, I mean?" Thinking head, address and phone number of said work place would be handy. Home address wouldn't hurt either.
"He manages the Huntley Hotel, on Franklin Boulevard."
Impressive. And way too rich for my blood. On the bright side, I hear the restaurant is pretty good. I bet I can snag at least one decent meal out of this, if I play my cards right, if not more. At Jeremy's expense, of course.
I never said I was above getting payback, did I?
"So your maiden name would be Huntley?" I write that down too. Now I know why she wasn't in public school with the rest of us schmucks.
"Yes, it was. Pamela Huntley."
"So your… that is… Jeremy works at the hotel. Any particular hours? Like does he have a set schedule or anything?"
"Not really. He goes in whenever he's needed. Usually days, but not always. I never know when he'll be called in, to be honest. They always need him to handle some emergency or other."
"In other words, no."
I can only imagine what sort of emergencies Jeremy handles…
"You say your father got him the job? What's his name? Does he still work at the hotel?" You'd think with his father-in-law on the premises, he'd have to exercise some measure of discretion. Her next words dispel that idea.
"Benjamin Huntley. And no, Dad's retired. He's living in Florida now, with his new wife. They come up a few times a year to visit. Otherwise, Jeremy's in complete charge of the hotel."
Convenient. "I see." I jot down more notes. "So what makes you think there's a problem?"
She doesn't answer right away. I look at her and see she's struggling to keep the tears in. And failing.
"He… we… we've had separate bedrooms for a while now. He said it was for my benefit, because he's a restless sleeper. But it's more than that. We're never… we don't…" She looks away from me; I've got a good idea where she's going with this, what she doesn't want to admit to.
"You're not having sex?" I offer softly. I'm not trying to get personal, but it helps to have the whole picture, and estrangement of intimacy is often a big part of it. A man who doesn't want sex from his wife is usually a man who's getting his milk from somewhere else.
She shakes her head, pulls out another Kleenex and sniffles into it. "I'm sorry," she apologizes again, attempting a half-hearted smile.
"Don't be, I'm sorry to put you through this." I reach out and pat her hand. "I promise to do everything I can to find out the truth for you, Pamela." No matter how ugly the truth is.
She tries to pull herself together, so I change the subject to something a little less personal.
"What does he drive?" Focus on the preliminaries, Holden. I remind myself I don't even know that the man's guilty of anything; I need to keep an open mind. Although that's hard to do, given my history with him.
"He has a 2012 Lexus sedan. Dark blue."
Champagne tastes, wonder when he developed those? I can remember a time when he thought French Fries were gourmet. I tear out a piece of notebook paper and slide it across the desk.
"Can you write down the license number for me? And the address and phone number of the hotel, plus his cell and your home address and phone?" That should take care of that, at least for now.
While she's busy with that, I turn to my computer and pull up a file, fill in a few blanks, and send it to print before I buzz Shari.
"Bring me in that contract I just printed out, will you, please?"
She clicks off without responding. I'm tempted to keep the printer in my office, but then she'd just bother me when I'm trying to conduct business. A no-win situation if ever I saw one. I remind myself it won't be for much longer. Maybe I should consider placing an ad in the local paper, but I guess I'm not strongly enough motivated yet.
She knocks on the door then blithely breezes in, lays the paper on my desk and skips out. Not even a 'Can I do anything else for you?'
I take a red pen and x the spot where I need Pamela to sign and lay the contract and a pen before my new client. "Look this over, and if you have any—" The words are barely out of my mouth when she's flipped the damn thing over and signed by my red x. Woman's decisive when she wants something, I see. Good thing I'm not the kind of guy that would take advantage of that. I think my rates are reasonable. My daily fee, plus expenses. And I don't pad those to make an extra buck like some do.
She slides me the contract and the paper with the contact info. In return, I reach into the top drawer and pull out my business card, handing it to her.
"If you need me, just call..." Usually my clients wait to hear from me, but sometimes they do get impatient. Somehow I don't think she's one of those. I don't like to give out my personal number, so I use one that rolls over to it; that allows me my privacy, and my clients still get through. "Oh, I usually get a retainer up front…" I hate to mention money, but I am running a business, so it has to be done.
Shari's mention of the bills reminds me that I should pay something on them. Plus I have my apartment to pay for, such as it is, which isn't much. Just a place to lay my head and keep my cat. Sometimes I'm tempted to put a cot in the office and sleep there. But then I get over that idea.
"Of course." She doesn't bat an eye, reaches into her purse and pulls out a checkbook; on the cover I can see a lighthouse. She opens it and quickly fills out the top check, rips it off, and hands it to me. "I trust that will cover it?"
I glance at the amount and nod appreciatively. I'll decide which bill to pay later. "Thanks, that's just fine." I make sure the check is signed, fold it, and put it in my wallet for now.
She sighs, getting to her feet. I know that sound. The one that says I'm committed to a course of action, let the chips fall where they may. I stand too, handing her the bottle of water.
"Thanks." She smiles.
"I'll be in touch with you when I know something. It might take a few days or more. It's hard to say."
"I understand. You can reach me any time of the day or night. I'll wait to hear from you." As we talk, I walk her to the door. I can tell she's ready to leave, now that she's done what she came to do and it's in my hands now. Just as I reach for the knob, she hugs me. Not the first time that's happened either.
I balance my response between sympathetic and not too close—been down that road before too with the neglected wife who finds me a little too attractive for both our goods. It would be even more ironic considering who this one's spouse is, and what he and I once were.
Worthy of a bad novel, even.
I navigate her through the outer office and to the hallway. She heads for the elevator. Her back is ramrod straight, her shoulders squared; she never looks back. Once she's out of sight, behind closed doors, I turn and head to my office. I'm thinking maybe I should head to the Huntley tonight and scope the place out. Go home first and clean up a little.
Not for him, but because I don't want to look scruffy in that crowd, or stand out in any way. Gotta blend in. Worst thing a PI can do is look like a PI.
I run my hand along my jaw. Wouldn't hurt to shave while I'm at it.
I cross my office and stand by the window, staring out. The sun's just starting to set, and the night time city's gearing up for action. This building sits on a fairly busy street; that was one of its attractions, beside the low rent. It's lined with strip malls, restaurants and bars. The traffic can get hellacious sometimes. Too many idiots in this town don't know how to drive.
I turn my head. Shari's standing in the doorway, a sheaf of papers in her hand. "Don't forget you have to serve these tonight."
Yeah, I serve process papers too. It's a living.
She lays them on my desk. I guess she's useful for something after all.
"Do you need me any more tonight? If not, I'm gonna go."
"No, go ahead. I'll lock up."
"Okay, thanks, see you tomorrow." She gives me a cute little bye-bye wave, races back to her desk, picks up her purse and dashes out the door. No grass growing under her feet.
Guess I'll serve these things, get that out of the way, go home and feed MoMo, get cleaned up, and then go over to the Huntley and see what's up.
Am I hoping to see him? I'd be lying if I said no. I'm many things, but a liar isn't one of them.
Am I still in love with him? Guess I'm gonna find out, now aren't I?