“Hey Nelson, get me a cold Budweiser. Dragon Convenience is open.”
He blinked and rolled over. “Get it yourself. Do I look like your servant?”
Nelson’s my dog, a British bulldog. Yes, I know it sounds very odd that I can talk with a canine. I realized I could communicate with him shortly after we met. And how did that happen? He followed me home (actually, it’s my friend Wally Kendrick’s place) one night after my detective course had finished. Under the streetlight, he stood there, tail wagging. I heard him talk.
“Hi, Kepler. Do you need a dog?”
“What? How did you . . .?”
“Compatible alpha brainwaves. Do you need a dog?”
Somewhat stunned, I stood mimicking someone with rigor mortis.
“Don’t ponder my question too long,” said Nelson, “because I think you do.”
“O . . . okay,” I stammered. “Follow me.”
I brought him to Wally’s place for introductions. I was worried Wally might not agree with having a dog in the house. We walked into the front room where Wally and his new girlfriend Sophie Freyberg were snuggled together watching the boob tube. The clicking of Nelson’s nails on the granite floor tiles caught their attention.
“What the heck!” Wally swung about on the sofa to take a closer look. “Why’s that dog in here?”
Sophie jumped out of his arms. Running over, she knelt and scratched Nelson’s head. “He’s adorable.”
His alpha-waves burbled excitedly. “I like her. Can I keep her?”
“Where did you find him?” asked Wally.
“He found me,” I replied. “His name is Nelson. Can I keep him . . . here?”
“Of course, you can,” answered Sophie, now caressing his ears.
Nelson barked (it was a small one). “It’s a done deal, Kepler.” More alpha-waves.
I gave him the thumbs-up sign.
“How do you know his name?” asked Wally. “Did you give it to him?”
“He told me,” I answered somewhat matter-of-factly.
“Follow me, Nelson,” said Sophie in her lightly accented English. She was Austrian. “I’ll find you something to eat. You’re probably hungry.” Nelson waddled after her into the kitchen.
The fact that Nelson and I can communicate in human quite nicely astounded both Wally and Sophie. Asked how we did it, I answered magic. So, Nelson became a fixture in my life.
I should note that I rent the basement from Wally. After high school and numerous careers in the fast food industry eventually becoming an assistant manager at a hamburger joint, I decided to become serious about bettering myself and making some decent money. My father is rich, but I don’t see him. He’s a prick. My mother, bless her sweet soul, passed away recently. Her will’s in probate – whatever that means – and I might get a few bucks but I’m not counting on it.
Today, Nelson was splayed out on a new piece of carpet in my recently leased detective office. I had set the carpet down beside my ancient wooden desk. Nelson had complained that the office carpet was old and smelled rather badly. Clearly, his olfactory senses were much better than my 25-year-old nose.
There was one thing that I wasn’t missing, though. “Remind me to get another brand of kibble. Your flatulence is killing me.” I pulled a rusted can of lavender deodorant from the desk and quickly sent a plume of spray into the air.
“Get me that brand that has the shrimp and beef. I love surf and turf.”
“That’s about fifty bucks a bag. Do I look like a sheik of Arabia?”
“Do you want an honest answer?”
I had leased the office above Dragon Convenience. Access was via a steel staircase at the rear. Some fly-by-night contractor had banged together a second floor on the main building adding two offices and a bathroom that ran off a twenty-foot-long tiled hallway. A sign with stick-on letters hung on the second office door – Yergan Bergan, artist.
My office was two hundred square feet of 1950s chic: fake wood panelling throughout, darken to dirt brown by layers of cigarette smoke; carpeting that might once have been green was now threadbare and dotted with numerous cigarette burns and coffee stains. Adding to the Sam Spade look, a decades-old electric fireplace stood in one corner of the office. Its not-so-pristine condition gave doubt to its ability to contend with Seattle winters.
The office furniture consisted of the previously mentioned wooden desk, a small desk lamp, a steel filing cabinet, an old leather couch, a small table with a coffee machine, a lamp, and six copies of Sports Illustrated from 1998, a waste-paper basket, a secretary chair with arms for customers, and my wooden office chair, which was a gift from my friend Wally.
Behind my desk is a window facing onto NE 56th Street in the Roosevelt neighborhood of Seattle. For more light, there’s a bare sixty-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling. I haven’t had time to purchase a lampshade although I have my eyes on a beauty costing $1.99 downstairs in Silly Sue’s junk store beside Dragon’s.
On the walls are three color photographs donated by my girlfriend Tripti Banerjee. Two display models from the Glamor Modelling Agency. The third, her photo, shows a tall statuesque young woman with brown skin and long black hair. Born in Seattle of immigrant East Indian parents from the megalopolis, Mumbai, she’s the eldest of two children. Her younger brother, Pardeep, attends high school. He’s very smart and wants to be an electrical engineer.
My office pride and joy was a brand new business name plate – Rockwell Detective Agency – Jon Kepler – Associate Detective. It was made with a brass finish and attached to the office door just below the pane of smoked glass. Tripti had told me that every detective on the Mumbai TV channel in Seattle, had a smoked glass door. She had bought it from Amazon as a present for the grand opening of my detective agency (which hasn’t happened yet).
Footsteps clanged lightly on the steel staircase. Who’s that? I wondered.
Nelson rolled to his feet, let out a sharp bark, and waddled towards the open door.
A tall slender woman appeared at the entrance. She wore a Navy pencil skirt, a cream silk blouse with a high collar, a short faux fur jacket with large shoulders, a light blue felt hat with a red feather, and shiny Navy high heels. Under her arm was a small leather business case. She walked into the room and up to my desk followed by Nelson.
I stood. “Welcome to—”
“You’re a difficult man to find, Mr. Kepler. However, I do believe this is your business card.” She placed it deliberately on my desk while displaying a large diamond on her ring finger. She obviously had a few bucks in the bank account.
I leaned over and peered at it. “Yes, it is,” I replied.
“I found it pinned to the local library bulletin board,” she commented with a vibrant smile. “You must be a learnéd man.”
I stuttered when my uvula tangled with a back molar. “I wouldn’t quite go that far. It was an inexpensive marketing effort.”
Nelson, now lying again on his magic carpet, made an alpha mumble. “Right on, Jon. Knock her dead.”
I scowled at him. “Insolent beast.”
She was almost as tall as me. Her brown hair curled about her face and her green eyes danced.
“What can I do for you, Miss . . .?”
Her red lips hypnotized me momentarily. “Amber Wilson-Highgate.” Her smile further disarmed me.
Quickly recovering, I wheeled the secretary chair from beside my desk and offered it to her. “Please sit down, Miss Wilson-Highgate.”
“Thank-you. Please call me Amber. ” She sat carefully crossing two long tanned legs revealing a small tattoo just above the right ankle. “I need some detective services.”
“Naturally. You’ve come to the right man.”
“As I can see,” she purred, peering at me. “First, I have a question.”
I nodded. “Go ahead.”
“It says on your card that you’re an associate. Please explain. I need the best detective in town. Not a second-ranked hack.”
Her comments hit on an embarrassing personal issue. I was essentially broke.
About six months ago, I met a guy at a party held by the Glamour Modelling Agency. His name was Bob Rockwell. He was a boisterous blowhard who was drinking too much champagne. Turns out, he had a detective company and was looking for associates. He bankrolled my course and one month’s rent at my new office. I’d spent my rent-free month plus half of a second looking in vain for clients. My landlord Mrs. Tang would soon visit asking for more rent money. Moreover, Bob expected five hundred each month for the next two years. All this money now sat in front of me in the form of a gorgeous looking woman.
“My boss Bob Rockwell is the senior partner and owner of Rockwell Detective Agency. He has years of experience which I can draw on.” This was a lie. He was really a loan shark. But beggars i.e. me can’t be choosers.
Amber nodded. “I want you to handle what I’m about to tell you with the utmost discretion.” She said sniffling.
“It’s understood. Please go on.”
“I’m thinking of changing my name to Amber Wilson. Do you understand why?” Tears glistened in her eyes. She pulled a tissue from a blouse sleeve.
I desperately rummaged through my neurons and dendrites trying to decipher her question to find an answer. This woman was on the edge of a breakdown. If she started crying, her mascara might run, and she’d look like a goth.
“My partner, Sam Highgate is having an affair.” She put the tissue to her nose and blew lightly.
I ripped open the desk drawer and grabbed a lined pad of paper. Then I flailed my hand inside the drawer searching for a pen. “Found one.”
“What?” Amber peered at me through wet eyes.
“Oh, I was just locating writing materials. Please, tell me why you think Sam is cheating.”
She sat thinking and dabbing her eyes. Her stare grew amazingly intense. “Intimacy.”
I quickly scribbled the word on my writing pad. “I assume you mean the lack of intimacy.”
She mouthed the word yes.
I waited for additional information, but nothing was forthcoming. So, I asked, “Have you noticed any suspicious activity?”
She sniffed and nodded her head.
This was like prying teeth from a somnolent crocodile. “What kind of activity? What is he doing to make you suspicious?”
Her eye’s widened and her mouth slowly opened . . . “Sam is a she. Short for Samantha.”
I scribble some nonsense on my writing pad. This information had caught me with my detective pants around my ankles.
“I want to find out what’s going on,” continued Amber, her voice hardening. “I want you to discover who she’s fooling around with. Can you do that for me?”
It was my turn to nod, which I did with conviction—if that’s at all possible.
She opened her leather business case and pulled out a wad of one-hundred-dollar bills. “I have one thousand dollars to get you started. Once you have identified which slut Samantha is consorting with and have photographs to prove it, I will pay you a final amount of $2500. Is this money good enough for your retainer?”
She held out the stack of bills.
“Given the delicate nature of your case, it’s an appropriate amount,” I said taking the money trying not to faint with happiness. I would be able to pay Bob Rockwell his five hundred bucks plus take Tripti out for dinner to Vinny’s Curry House.
“But I haven’t finished,” she added. “Here’s the deal. Every day you spend on my case will cost you one hundred dollars. If you take five days, I will pay you a final amount of two thousand. If you take twenty-five days you will get nothing, and you must return my initial grand. Do we have a deal?”
She was a tough bargainer, but I desperately needed the money. “I have two final questions. What’s your address, and do you have a photograph of Samantha?”
She deftly pulled one from her business case and handed it to me. It showed a petite woman with short red hair and very distinctive dimples in tight jeans and cowboy boots. Her ample chest was outlined in a white shirt dotted with colorful rhinestones.
Amber stood. The photograph was followed by a business card, which I pushed into my wallet. “My address and phone number are on the card. Please make your self discreet when taking photos. She’s a tart with a temper.”
She held out her slender hand. “Deal?”
“Deal,” I said, shaking it. “I’ll contact you as soon as I have proof and photographs.”
“Thank you, Mr. Kepler. I hope to hear from you very soon.” She turned and marched from the office.
I put the thousand dollars in my wallet and began to sing quietly “Happy days are here again.”
“Can you afford my new kibble?” asked Nelson.
I laughed. “Time for some surf and turf. Prepare your taste buds.” Tugging a cell phone from my pocket, I took a moment to send a text to Tripti. Meet me at my office. Time for some curry.
A combo of heavy-then-light steps banged slowly up the steel staircase. “Shit.” I recognized that sound from before. Chinese army boots ascending to my office.
“The dragon woman,” growled Nelson. “Your thousand bucks are in jeopardy.” His alpha waves were highly agitated.
Through clenched teeth, I gave a strangled yelp. “We’ve got to hide. Follow me.” I ran out of the office to the bathroom. I opened the door and Nelson flew inside. I pulled the door shut bringing almost total darkness.
My cell buzzed with a text. “Crap.” It was Tripti. Be there in 10. “Double crap.”
The clump-drag of Mrs. Tang’s stroke-damaged legs sounded along the floor tiles. Then silence. “I know you are here, Mr. Keepler.” I was sure she was in my office. It pissed me off when she didn’t pronounce my name correctly. “You owe me this month’s rent, Mr. Keepler. Are you hiding in the closet?”
I dropped my phone. “Shit.”
“Ah, ha, Mr. Keepler. You must be in the—”
I opened the bathroom door to find the phone. In the hallway stood a guy dressed in black who held a bright flaming incendiary. He tossed it into the office. What the crap! Suddenly, Nelson barked and busted into the hallway chasing the guy from the building. I stood there frozen, my feet glued to the floor.
Ka-boom! Flames shot from the office. The floor tilted and I grabbed the towel railing, which fell away in my hand. Fear seized my heart as I slid against the wall on an awkward angle. Amidst the groans and snapping of wood and bursting of water pipes, the floor gave way, and I tumbled into darkness.