The rain had been coming down steadily for days, leaving large puddles covering the sidewalks, and constant rivers running from the roofs and gutters. The dark streets were abandoned as the wind whipped the rain sideways, rendering all but the most robust raingear useless.
Anna leaned back into the cheap, cracked vinyl seat of her usual booth, and stared out at the rain. She curled her hands around the coffee she had been nursing for the past hour—she wouldn’t order food until her client showed up—and scanned the papers and photos spread out in front of her one more time. She didn’t need the review; she had been over them more times than she could count. They weren’t anyone’s idea of art but they communicated the point clearly. The client wouldn’t be happy, but she was getting her money’s worth.
The bell over the door clanked limply as the least likely person to ever be seen on this side of town, much less this diner, struggled to open the door. Anna watched her for a second, measuring her client’s mood before she raised one hand, signaling the obviously wealthy woman to her booth while sliding the evidence into a folder with the other.
In the silence of the diner, the clicking of the client’s heels pulled the cook from the kitchen to the bar. He narrowed his eyes and started to open his mouth, until he noticed Anna. Smirking, he leaned against the bar, not even hiding his interest in the conversation that was about to occur. He had seen this play out before with different clients and different cases. Watching Anna handle the drama was always a good way to pass an afternoon.
Anna slid out of the booth and stood to greet her visitor. The woman eyed the booth suspiciously before perching as daintily as she could, still clutching her purse in front of her as if it could shield her from the diner’s grimy décor. Anna sank into the booth on her side, cutting her eyes to the cook as she did. Her old friend chuckled at the unspoken warning and headed back to the kitchen; whatever drama was coming, it wasn’t going to be the good kind. Once he had pushed his broad shoulders through the swinging door, Anna turned her attention to the client.
“Thanks for meeting me here.” Anna tried to look as pleasantly professional as possible, knowing she was facing an uphill battle. The halo of curly black hair that framed her face gave her the appearance of a fresh-faced college girl, rather than an experienced private investigator.
“When you said I wouldn’t be recognized, I assumed you meant somewhere on the East Side…” The older woman’s voice trailed off. She was far too polite to suggest this place was beneath her, despite how much it obviously was.
“You wanted the utmost privacy; this seemed best.” Anna slid the folder of documents in front of her, reminding her client of the nature of her investigation.
The woman pressed her perfectly painted lips together in a thin line and dipped her head, acknowledging Anna’s subtle point.
“Of course, I do rely on your expertise in matters such as these…” She trailed off again as her years of etiquette training failed to provide a template for this scenario.
The approach of the waitress halted their conversation. Like everything else in the place, she was faded and worn and probably been there since it opened, but underneath the years and hard living, Anna could see that in her prime she would really have been something special. She slapped the laminated menus down on the table and waited for them to order. Anna didn’t have to look at hers: “Chili, extra jalapeños and cheese.” The waitress nodded, looking at the older woman. Something about the stranger’s poise and pearls inspired the server to add an extra-gracious “ma’am?” to her impatient stare. The older woman scanned the menu quickly; there wasn’t much to it.
“Is the chicken salad good?”
The waitress tilted her head quizzically; no one bothered to question the quality of the food in a place like this. “Yeah, he gets the rotisserie chicken from the deli down the street and makes his own dressing. It’s what I usually eat.”
This satisfied the client and she nodded her acceptance. Her eyes followed the waitress as she made her way back to the kitchen, waiting until she was clearly out of earshot to pick up their conversation. “What did you find?”
Anna looked down at the folder. This was her least favorite type of job. Her client was a very wealthy woman who needed help in determining who among her highly dysfunctional family to trust with her considerable assets. Anna had spent the better part of the last month going through the lives of her children with a fine-toothed comb.
“Claire, please. As familiar as I assume you are with my family, we should be on a first name basis.” Anna nodded silently, taking a moment to regroup and rephrase.
“Claire, you asked me to check on your children, Wendy and Jack.” Anna pulled the first set of black and white photographs from her folder. Wendy favored her mother even down to her classic fashion sense. The photos Anna had of her were all very boring. Wendy had a routine—gym, work, home—and she followed it like clockwork until the weekends; then her routine became gym, errands, home, with the occasional brunch with a set group of similar women. When Anna had gotten bored with Wendy’s routine, she followed the younger Dorrence’s friends for a while hoping for something worth reporting on. To her frustration, they were all as reliable and straightforward as Wendy. “As you can see, you were correct about her. She is every bit as reliable as you believed.” Claire impatiently scanned the photos but Anna could tell she wasn’t seeing the images on them. Anna reached for the second set of photos and documents. “We should talk about Jack.” She slid the first of the set of prints over to Claire.
The first picture showed Jack Dorrence, the town’s most eligible bachelor three years running, heading from a run-down cab into a seedy motel in what would only be called the wrong side of town. Claire Dorrence dragged her eyes silently over the photo, taking in each detail. “What happened next?” Anna opened the folder and pulled out the next picture in the sequence. In this one, Jack was inside the motel with his arms around a very scantily clad woman with large hair and ribs visible though her thin tank top.
“This woman, he gets his illegal drugs from her?” Claire was no fool, even when it came to her children. Most of what Anna uncovered was Jack’s unsavory past. After failing out of a few different colleges, he went on a tour of the sleaziest bars and clubs in town. A few run-ins with the law for possession, public intoxication, and reckless driving had landed him in rehab. Since then, he had avoided any major scandal but Claire had never regained her trust in him. She assumed that rather than quit his destructive behaviors, Jack had become more skilled at hiding them.
The kitchen door caught the older woman’s eye and she deftly flipped the photos face down on the table as the waitress slowly approached with their food. Anna silently thanked her for giving them time to protect Claire’s privacy. The staff at the diner had become accustomed to Anna and her clients. The investigator tipped well for the staff’s discretion and they appreciated her business; Anna usually ate at least one meal there a day.
The waitress worked efficiently placing the plates around the photos without acknowledging them. When the food was properly arranged, Claire thanked the waitress and took a small hesitant bite of the recommended salad, almost smiling when she realized that the quality of the dish had not been oversold. The waitress beamed down at them proudly before retreating back to the kitchen to let the cook know his chicken salad had pleased the fancy lady.
They ate in silence for a few minutes. Anna knew the next photos in the series would be much more painful to her client. Her previous question hung in the air unanswered, but Anna knew there was no need to rush. It was far better in the long run to let the older woman break the silence.
When she had made it through half of her salad, Claire placed her fork on the edge of her plate and look directly at Anna.
“It’s probably better if we eliminate any unnecessary details and focus on the core issue. Did Jack do drugs with this woman?” Anna would have preferred the unnecessary details. The more time people took to prepare for bad news the better it usually was, but Claire Dorrence wasn’t her usual client.
“It’s a bit more complicated than that.” She passed her the last glossy in the stack. This photo showed Jack and the woman sitting at what passed for a bar at the seedy hotel. The woman was holding a baby on her lap as Jack and the baby giggled together. Anna studied Claire’s face carefully. A son involved with drugs could be shuttled off to a quiet rehab; an illegitimate heir, that would be harder to conceal. Anna believed Claire to be a rigid but fair woman; she hoped she was right.
“This is my grandson?”
“Without a DNA test, I can’t confirm that, but it certainly seems that way.”
“He looks like Jack at that age.” There wasn’t any reply for that and Claire didn’t give her time to find one as she continued to question Anna at an ever-increasing pace.
“Is he healthy? They live in this…place?”
Anna sighed inwardly, relieved at the direction her client’s questions had taken. “The mother has a small apartment to the south of the city, near the river. This is just where they meet. She does hair for the women in her building, and Jack gives her money when he can. They seem to be doing ok, but they struggle.” Something shifted in the older woman’s face, as she realized this was a problem she could solve.
“She could be quite pretty, if given some advantages.” Anna could see Claire’s mind working furiously and felt a twinge of sympathy for the girl and her child. She wasn’t sure whose surprise would be greater: the young mother or the sudden grandmother.
Anna felt compelled to gently warn her client. “I don’t think your son has told her everything.” Claire looked up from the photograph and stared at Anna considering the weight of her words.
“She doesn’t know he comes from money?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Did they seem happy?”
“As happy as they could be.” Claire nodded thoughtfully at her words, and any guilt Anna had felt about interrupting the young family’s life was soothed by her hope that Claire would do the right thing.
“This is now a family matter. You’ve done excellent work here.” Claire pulled out her checkbook and an elaborately enameled pen. Anna knew the figure would be enough to keep her in business for the next few months, but she hated having to take it from a case like this.
“Not everything can be fixed with money.” Anna met Claire’s gaze as the older woman snapped her head in the investigator’s direction. Anna pushed on. “Just be gentle or she and the kid are going to rabbit, and they’ll probably take your son with them. You wanted me to find out if your kid was into drugs again. He’s not and that’s good, but this...” Anna gestured at the file, “This is a hell of a lot more complicated.”
Claire met Anna’s sad gaze with her own. “You sound like you’re speaking from personal experience.” Anna shrugged, and then nodded. She didn’t usually get into her own life with her clients, but she’d been down this road before and she liked the lady enough to want to spare her some pain.
“We made mistakes with Jack, his father and I. Perhaps it is not too late to fix them.” She slid the check across the table. “At any rate, a slower approach is called for. At least that would keep my lawyers happy.” Anna smiled and handed her the files on Jack and Wendy. She hoped that Claire would be able to fix her family, and that their future would be filled with family dinners and overstuffed holidays. It was a nice thought, that one of her cases might get a happy ending. So few of them did.
Claire slid out of the booth with a dignity the younger woman wouldn’t have thought possible. “Good day, Miss Green.” Anna nodded her goodbye and watched the woman walk out of the diner and back to her life of luncheons, shopping and charity balls. When Anna left the diner, she would be returning to a dingy office one door down from her equally dingy apartment. She looked down at the bowl of half-eaten chili and wondered how many of her bad decisions led to this moment. It was a conversation she had with herself often, usually after a case she wished she hadn’t taken, or a case that reminded her of her own broken family.
Anna dropped the money for their meals on the table and stood, stretching her sore back and legs. She had been sitting still for far longer than she realized. Anna grabbed the worn leather messenger bag she usually stuffed her tablet and camera into and walked to the front window. It was still raining, or raining again, it didn’t really matter which. Her coat on the rack was still damp from when she came in and shrugging into it was less than pleasant, although venturing outside without it would be far worse.
She pushed the door open and stepped out into the mess, thankful she only had a couple blocks to go. Her apartment slash office wasn’t in a terrible location; close to bars, restaurants and taxi routes. Add in some generous rent control and a fairly hands-off landlord, and it was the ideal situation for someone who worked a lot, never cooked, and had a casual attitude towards paying bills in a timely manner.
Despite her rapid pace, Anna was fairly soaked when she made it to the door of her office. She promised herself that if she just checked mail and messages first, then she would get to take a nice long hot bath, with wine and music and then later, take-out from that awesome pho place down the block and the last half of whatever game was on.
Her office was comfortable but had very few luxuries. It was one small room with a tiny bathroom and even smaller supply closet. Even then, for her purposes it was almost too much space. The desk was modular Swedish design, lamps were from a thrift shop a couple blocks towards the harbor, but the chair, that was top of the line. Soft leather and firm back support were a must given the time she spent on her feet, plus it made her feel successful. She wasn’t completely without her ego.
Anna flopped into the familiar chair and powered up her laptop. Like most of her equipment, it was as close to brand new as she could afford and very well taken care of. She didn’t consider herself a highly technical person, but she depended on the connection her devices provided. It not only kept her employed, it drove and fueled her. Even now watching the startup screen, she felt a familiar hint of excitement. What had changed since the last time she checked the feeds, blogs, tweets, vines and snaps? She felt like this was her main advantage over the others who got their license and hung out a shingle, other than being young, energetic and fairly stubborn. She didn’t just love information, she hoarded it, using every resource available to its fullest to find the missing, abandoned, or forgotten.
She lingered over the news sites, but nothing immediately relevant grabbed her eye. Rocks on Mars seemed cool, but not significant; sports star forced into retirement due to injury; slightly more interesting but sadly not work-related. All around it had been a quiet day. With nothing else to distract her, she finally clicked her email; nothing but junk, and not even good junk: two weight-loss programs and three online dating sites. With that bleak commentary on her life, Anna snapped the laptop closed and reached for the stack of physical mail she had been ignoring for a week. This collection was a bit better: two bills nowhere near due and a card from her mother. She turned the envelope over, weighing her options as she debated if the deal she made for herself included actually reading the mail, or if acknowledging its presence was close enough.
It was a pretty envelope; her mother loved stationary and the card inside was equally impressive. Anna could picture her mother poring over her collection, looking for the perfect card; something that was endearing but not too pushy. The one she had gone with seemed to do the trick: a light pink flower adorned the front with simple, precise wording on the inside, “Thinking of you.” There was a simple handwritten note, “Hope you are well, love Mom and Dad,” with no mention of Dennis, her mostly estranged brother, or any other familial hand grenades. It was short and pleasant enough that Anna made a note to reward the positive behavior with a lengthy phone call later in the week.
With mail, bills, and messages checked, there was nothing else to keep her at the office. She gathered her bag and phone and headed one door down the hall to her apartment. When she first moved in she had considered asking her landlord if she could put in a connecting door, but ended up keeping the separation between her home and work. It wasn’t much separation, but at the end of a long day it was enough. The apartment didn’t have much space; just one bedroom and a decent-sized galley kitchen, but the living room had an amazing view of the city. She loved crashing on her old couch and watching the sun set over the skyline, or on nights like tonight, watching the rain stream down as lightning flashed across the sky.
Anna unlocked her door and shouldered it open, dropping her bag on the floor by the well-worn rug she kept in the hall. Closing the door behind her she sighed, relieved to be home, out of the rain, and away from the loud city streets. She wandered into the kitchen, grabbing a beer and the takeout menu from the fridge, then to the living room where she flopped down on the sofa while scanning the menu. Anna pretended to pondering her options even though she knew it was going be the same thing it always was: rare beef soup with extra mushrooms. She grabbed the remote and flipped the TV on as she groped around blindly for her phone with her free hand. Coming up empty, Anna groaned as she realized her phone was still in her bag by the door. She stayed flat on her back on the couch for a long minute, willing her phone to float out of her bag and across the living room. When telekinesis once again failed to manifest itself, she finally pulled herself up from her spot and dragged her feet back to the hall where her bag should have been, only to find its usual spot empty. She stared down at the wet spot her bag had left on the rug, while trying to remember when she moved it and where she moved it to. When nothing came to mind she slowly rotated in place, only to see her bag propped carefully against the wall on the other side of the door.
Anna frowned. She knew she had been distracted by the thought of dinner, but she didn’t remember moving her stuff from its normal place. She grabbed her phone and moved her laptop to the kitchen counter while amusing herself with the idea that maybe she did move it with only the power of her mind. It was much more comfortable than the idea that she was forgetting even the simplest of things,
Making her way back to the living room as she dialed the Vietnamese place, Anna shivered and reminded herself that a hot bath was next on the list after dinner. With just twenty minutes to kill before her dinner arrived, she slipped into faded, worn yoga pants and a baggy sweatshirt, and flipped channels to the pregame show. The sportscaster spent a gleeful five minutes running down every flaw for the local basketball team, from the lack of solid defense to the center’s selfish ball handling. Anna shook her head and argued back at the TV, while pulling a blanket from the back of the couch to wrap around her. Despite the distractions of the game, dry clothes and the fleece throw, she couldn’t shake the chill she had picked up.
When the ring of the doorbell sent her leaping to her feet, she realized how tense she had become. She stood there for a second waiting for something, anything to justify her nerves. There was only the stillness of the apartment. Shaking her head at her foolishness, she hurried to answer the door. The always-cheerful delivery man shivered as the air from her apartment hit him. “You might want to get your heater fixed.”
Anna grimaced. “I thought it was just me.”
He chucked dryly. “Always something with these old places, right?”
She nodded her head, adding a little extra to her customary tip to make up for the man’s trip out in the rain and cold. “Try to stay dry out there.” As he waved and headed back into the night, Anna kept the door open a beat longer than normal, checking for anything in the hallway that could explain the cold and her unease. There was nothing but the hum of the building and the sounds of other tenants going about their lives. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to comfort her. With her unease settled, she turned her attention to getting warm. On the way to the kitchen she double-checked the thermostat; although it read 68 as usual, Anna made a note to call the landlord in the morning. It couldn’t hurt to double-check.
By the time she had made it back into the living room with her piping hot soup in one of her oversized mugs, the ref was blowing the whistle on a totally undeserved technical. Anna nestled back on the couch with her favorite food and a surprisingly good game. The stress of the day began to fade, and by the time the buzzer sounded signaling the end of the game and a close victory, she was ready for her bath and then bed.
Anna filled her tub with hot water and a combination of aromatherapy salts designed to help with a good night sleep. The combination of the lavender, jasmine, and heat soothed her tired nerves and removed the remaining chill from her bones. She stayed in the tub until the water went from hot, to tepid, to kind of cool, before she pulled herself from the water and drained the tub. But as she pulled on her flannel pants and the baggy t-shirt she always slept in, she could feel the anxiety and the cold creeping back in. Anna pulled back the thick blankets she always kept on her bed but paused before crawling in. The front door was locked, wasn’t it? If she checked it did that make her paranoid? The bag still bothered her, but there wasn’t any room in her apartment for anyone to hide. Unable to shake the feeling, she checked the front door only to find it as she suspected: locked. This all could be explained by her reaction to the day’s cases, she thought. She didn’t want to admit how much Claire Dorrance’s case had reminded her of her own family, or how deeply that reminder had upset her. The Dorrance’s might be well on their way to reunion, but the Green’s were years away from being in the same state.
Standing alone in her foyer, Anna suddenly wanted nothing more than to be in bed, under all her covers, with the day firmly behind her. It had been a long and awkward day and it was time for it to be over.
When Anna finally opened her eyes, the sun was filling her bedroom for the first time in over a week. She stretched out in the sunbeam while putting off looking at the clock as long as possible. When the smell of coffee from her automatic maker drifted to the bedroom, she finally flopped the covers back and dragged her body to the kitchen. In the morning light, the cold damp from the previous night had faded and her apartment was once again her sanctuary from the busy city. As she fixed her first cup of coffee she scolded herself for getting so worked up over a misplaced bag and a wonky heater.
Taking her mug, she wandered over to her huge window to watch the city wake up. Anna loved seeing everyone start their day, hearing the cabs start up and seeing the suits rush to catch them. She let her mind wander, toying with the idea that she could hold a 9-to5, or have a family without feeling trapped. As she pictured her life revolving with the hands of a clock, each moment ticking away on schedule, she grimaced. Her current profession could be hard, emotionally, physically and at times, financially, but those were sacrifices she was willing to make for what she considered freedom. After all, it was after nine and she was still in her PJ’s, while they were up, dressed, at the office and worst of all, dealing with other people before noon.
Cheered by the thought of spending the day not talking to anybody, and maybe not even leaving her apartment, Anna wandered back to the kitchen. She left her empty mug in the sink next to a week’s worth of bowls before flipping open her laptop. As the screen lit up, her eyes focused on something just past it and she stopped cold. She was looking out to the hallway where she had dropped her bag the night before. Instead of resting neatly against the wall, the worn bag was lying open in the middle of the hallway.
She spun around as the chill crept back around her. The apartment was, other than her, still empty. Could someone have gotten past all the locks? Did she sleepwalk back out here for something? Her mind raced through her client list, scrambling for anyone who would know where she was and would want something from her computer or office. When she came up empty, Anna grabbed her keys and made her way quietly down the hall to her office.
The office was dark, the door still closed, and as Anna was relieved to find when she turned the knob, locked. She let herself in as quietly as possible, searching the area quickly for anything out of place. It didn’t take long for her to see that nothing obviously missing or displaced. More confused than worried, Anna backed out of the office, closing and locking the door behind her. She leaned against the doorframe and looked down sheepishly at her pajama-clad legs. She really was starting to lose her mind. Head hanging, she walked down the hall back to her apartment.
Safely inside, she poured another massive mug of coffee and returned to her laptop, hitting the space bar to bring it back to life. She stared at her bag and ran through every possible explanation for its new location: she knocked it over getting her phone; she kicked it when she was getting dinner; it was always there and she just thought it was closer to the wall; she was losing her mind and should probably be seeing a shrink. That last one was probably true in any case. She had been carrying so much of other peoples’ baggage it probably would do her a world of good to talk to a professional. This particular train of thought brought her reluctantly back around to her family problems again. With her brother on her mind, Anna pulled up her favorite chat client and fired off a quick message. Within seconds the computer chirped with his response.
D: Hey sis? What’s going on?
A: I’m getting paranoid. Think that all the rain here is starting to get to me.
D: Cautious is not paranoid. :D
A: I keep feeling like someone’s been in my place.
D: You spend too much time alone. Get a roommate. Or a dog.
A: I’m more of a cat person, or a fish person.
D: Can you be a fish person?
A: Tell me I’m just being crazy.
D: Don’t tell Mom you talked to me.
D: You’re not crazy, you just work too hard. Call you later.
Feeling reassured, Anna closed the laptop. Dennis was the reason she became an investigator in the first place. On the morning of Anna’s sixteenth birthday he left home, leaving no message or forwarding address. Their parents had no idea where he was or how to find him, not that they seemed to try very hard. Not satisfied with their efforts to find him, Anna lost herself in various communities, all online, trying to dig up any hint of his whereabouts. By the time she found him a year later, she had developed a talent for tracking down people, and when she graduated high school, she almost immediately went to work doing just that. Dennis never returned home or spoke to their folks, but he and Anna stayed in contact, a detail she never divulged to her parents. Keeping contact with him meant lying to her parents and while they had always seemed okay to Anna, they had done something to drive him away. He never said what, and she instinctively knew not to ask. It was the one piece of information she couldn’t uncover.
With the calm of the morning interrupted, Anna decided she might as well try to get some work done. Setting about her morning routine would erase the rest of her worry, and nothing distracted her like focusing on someone else’s problems.
After a far too long and almost too hot shower, selecting the perfect work casual outfit, and the ridiculously short commute, Anna was settled in her office chair, feet up on the desk, laptop humming. In the familiar environment with the soothing rhythm of work, all the cold and weirdness of the morning was forgotten. She worked steadily through the morning catching up on loose ends, paying bills, closing out files, and sorting paperwork and by the time she looked up, it was way past lunch. Rather than call in for her usual, she decided she needed to stretch her legs. The rains had passed for the moment and it was a rare, mostly sunny day. If she didn’t get out now, she likely wouldn’t for the next few days.
Anna strolled down the familiar streets running through all her lunch options in her head. She didn’t have the patience for the food truck mobs, and Vietnamese was last night, Thai the night before, and Mexican before that. She could stop at that salad place that’s supposed to be good, or grab a burger at that place that uses the good cheese. Burgers weren’t exactly the healthiest choice, but she was getting some exercise and the restaurant was the farthest from her office. She rationalized her choice by promising to spend some extra time at the gym she continued to pay a monthly fee to, despite the infrequency of her visits.
By the time she made her way through the busy streets to the restaurant the lunch rush had passed and she was able to get a table in the back where she could continue to work while she ate. After placing her order, Anna settled back into her comfortable pace with her files, reviewing, verifying, sealing. Caught up in her work, she blocked out all the distractions of the other customers and wait staff. As far as she was concerned, they might as well not had been there at all. She was able to keep her focus until the waiter finally arrived with her cheese-laden monster burger. Happy for the distraction, Anna pushed her laptop to the side and turned her attention to the new and much more enjoyable job in front of her. Anna loved eating alone. She wasn’t a delicate eater and often felt self-conscious for truly enjoying her food in front of clients, or the rare date. If she had been with anyone else, she never would have ordered something as juicy and massive as what sat in front of her. At first sight it was everything the menu and enthusiastic waiter promised it to be, but as she prepared to dive in, she couldn’t help but notice the stranger watching her from the next table over.
“Is there a problem?” She tilted her chin and cut her eyes over to the unfamiliar man, trying to size him up only to feel her irritation turn to curiosity as she caught his icy blue eyes. Combined with his smooth dark complexion and to-the moment suit, the man had the air of someone completely out of his element. She imagined he would be more comfortable on a yacht, or in the boardroom of a music company, or anywhere more fashionable then a joint known for oversized burgers and messy melty cheese.
“I’m envious.” His voice was low and soothing without a hint of irony. “I’ve long since had to give up that kind of luxury.” Despite her irritation at having her private moment interrupted, Anna smiled back at him.
“I’ll give up good food when they pry it out of my cold, dead hands.” She meant it lightly but her worlds sounded loud and heavy in the suddenly quiet restaurant. Something dark clouded his clear bright eyes and Anna once again felt the same damp chill that had clung to her the night before. He gave her a small, almost sad smile.
“I hope that doesn’t happen,” he said, before the arrival of his waitress pulled his attention.
Anna watched him laugh with the waitress for a second before turning back to her food. She found herself not entirely sure of what their conversation had been about, but she couldn’t shake the gut feeling that something important had happened. Although she had been starving when her burger arrived, her hunger had been replaced by her most frequent feeling: curiosity. As she picked at her lunch she tried to subtly keep an eye on the man, only to find his behavior completely normal. He ordered a salad—one with lots of dark green leafy things, dressing on the side—and drank a couple glasses of ice water. He was polite to the waitress, but not overly so. It was all rather disappointingly normal. When her server brought Anna’s check, she realized she couldn’t linger without drawing unnecessary attention. Reluctantly, she packed her laptop and made her way out. When she reached the door, she gave him one last backward glance, silently hoping he would look up at her, but not quite disappointed when he didn’t.
On the way back to her office, Anna replayed the encounter with the stranger, looking for the pieces she must have missed and wondering why it left her feeling so uneasy. She didn’t get hit on often—not that their brief exchange felt like an attempt at flirting—and she didn’t seek out attention, male or otherwise, but their conversation felt different from every other encounter she could think of in a way she couldn’t wrap her mind around. It has been an unusual meeting, but that was all, right? She was glad her office was a decent walk; the extra time and fresh air helped clear her mind and direct her focus to the backlog of files and paperwork she was working through. Anna pushed the strange man from her thoughts and forced herself to think of nothing but bills for the rest of her journey.
After her long walk in the bright sun, Anna was glad she kept her office so cool and dark and refreshing. When she first started, she had tried having a bright cheery room, but after a while she reverted back to dim lights and sparse décor. It suited her better, and it seemed like the clients that came to meet her in person seemed to expect it. A dark office and late afternoon and evening hours seemed to be requirements for an investigator in this town. Anna wasn’t much of a day person anyway, so she ended up feeling right at home with the dark ambiance and late nights. Her brother kept threatening to send her a trench coat and fedora to complete her look. As she let herself back in, she wondered if dressing like an old movie detective would bring her better clients.
Grabbing a bottle of water from her office mini-fridge, she flopped back into her chair and prepared to dive back into the files when a knock at the door jolted her out of her daydreaming. She didn’t have anyone in the book and she hadn’t seen anyone behind her in the hallway. The allure of a new client and new investigation was more than enough to ignore her moment of concern. She sat upright and straightened the files on her desk.
“Come in.” She kept her voice bright and even and as professional as she could sound in her excitement. The door swung in, slowly revealing the piercing blue eyes of the man from the burger joint. When she saw him standing in her doorway, she realized she had been hoping it would be him. Her mind raced through all the possible reasons the sophisticated man in front of her would need to hire an investigator like her.
He smiled tentatively, looking charmingly embarrassed. Anna narrowed her possible reasons down to infidelity or financial, something he would want to keep out of the rest of his life. She put on her most calming professional smile and looked up at the new arrival.
“Welcome to Green Investigations. What can I do for you?” She must have sounded more confident to him than she did to her own ears. He stepped into the office, closing the door softly behind him. While he wasn’t an overly tall or overly muscled man, she could tell despite the button-down shirt and comfortably worn leather jacket he was wearing, he had an impressive air about him. The longer she studied him the more trouble she had trying to guess the type of problem a man like this could have that he couldn’t handle himself. He moved confidently to the desk and dropped almost weightlessly into the chair across from hers. Anna onlyhad amoment to contemplate his wardrobe change before he began to speak
“I’ve heard excellent things about your work.” Anna waited for him to continue; she wasn’t sure if she wanted him for a client but was willing to hear him out. “I have a problem and I don’t think there is anyone else who can help me. It’s a sensitive matter.” His voice was calm and steady, whatever his problem was he wasn’t letting it rattle him.
Anna smiled as comfortingly as she could. “Most of my cases are. Do you want to tell me about it?” She wanted to let him know she had seen it all, there wasn’t much a client could tell her that would surprise her.
“I appreciate that. I guess the best place to start is the beginning.”
“Start wherever it makes the most sense to you. We’ll figure it out.” Anna reached for a notepad; she would take notes by hand and then type up everything later.
“I used to work with this friend, I’ve known him almost all my life, a few months back I started doing my own thing so we lost touch a bit…” He paused and looked up; Anna winced at the pain and guilt she saw his eyes. Based on that look alone, she had a feeling she was going to take the case even before he finished his story. She hated to admit it but right now she couldn’t imagine saying no to anything this man asked.
Anna gently directed him back to the story. “What happened to your friend?”
He took a deep breath and continued. “I felt bad, we hadn’t talked in a while. I went to see him, but it was too late. He’s dead.”
Anna’s eyes went wide and she bit her lower lip to keep her jaw from gaping. She handled a lot of strange cases but murder hadn’t been one of them. When she didn’t say anything he leaned forward begging her with those piercing blue eyes. “There isn’t anyone else who can help me. I need you to find out who killed him. “
“I haven’t, I mean, I don’t really do…murder…” Anna stumbled over the words, trying to figure out what she wanted to do with the case and with the client. She raced through her options. On one hand, it wasn’t anything she was really set up for; finding lost people is one thing, tracking a murder was a whole different type in investigation. But, and this was a big but, this could help her career, plus she could probably charge hazard pay. Not to mention the difficulty she was having saying no to the stranger, whose name she somehow had forgotten to get. “I’m so sorry, what did you say your name was?”
“David Burke. It’s my fault, I never introduced myself. Nervous I guess.”
He flashed her another sheepish grin and Anna started to get the feeling that David was all too aware of his charisma. Anna cleared her throat and looked down at her notepad; it wouldn’t hurt to hear all the details. She did have a friend or two in the police force that she might be able to refer David to. It couldn’t hurt to at least hear him out.
“Nothing to be nervous about. Let’s talk about your friend. Where did you guys work?”
David looked up and the smallest smile flashed briefly across his face. “Does this mean you’ll take the case?”
“It means I want to hear more about it. “Anna paused, considering how honest she should be with David. Well, if he wanted to hire her, he might as well know what he was getting. “Honestly, murder isn’t my deal. You want someone found, I’m really good at that. But this…no offence, but why do you think I’m the investigator you need?”
David tilted his head to one side, and to Anna’s surprise he was smiling. “I guess I need someone found. It just so happens that someone might have caused my friend’s death. As for why you, well, you don’t have a single unhappy client. It’s hard not to go with that kind of success rate.”
Anna sighed. She wanted so badly to not want to get involved but she knew better. She was going to take the case.
“What do the police say about your friend?”
David winced, it was a small movement, the corners of his eye tightening almost imperceptibly. If Anna hadn’t been watching him so carefully she might not have noticed.
“The police aren’t exactly investigating.”
“Did they rule it an accident? Or suicide?” She dropped her voice on the last word; if this was suicide, dealing with the facts and David’s feelings could be challenging.
“They don’t know about it.”
Anna looked up over her pad.
“How is that possible? You’re not trying to get me into anything illegal…are you?”
“Not illegal. Not even immoral, just not normal. I’m sorry I couldn’t figure out a good way to explain this part, and I’m scaring you a bit, but I need you to believe me. Or just listen for a little bit longer. My friend, he died but he wasn’t supposed to. We’re not really supposed to be able to die at all. We are…we’re reapers. “
Anna slowly set the pad down on the desk. She had dealt with crazy before; usually it was more obvious early on, but sadly this wasn’t unfamiliar. Her phone was close to the edge of the desk; she could probably grab it without upsetting the obviously crazy man.
“Mr. Burke, the police...”
She didn’t know where she was going with that sentence, but she never got there. She trailed off as she realized the room growing colder and darker. The few lamps she had flickered briefly before blinking out, one after the other. David rose slowly as his shadow, too large to be created from any lamp, spread across the room before settling on his shoulders and wrapping around him like a cloak. His soft dark skin shrunk and tightened, leaving only polished bone, glowing from a light source Anna couldn’t see.
Anna lost all her professional pretense as she watched the formerly lovely man slowly become something dark and strange and completely supernatural. She stared at him unable to find anything appropriate to fill the silence. When the creature in front of her spoke again, his voice was cold and hollow.
“I’m not crazy and I’m not lying. I didn’t want to tell you this way, but I’m desperate. You understand now why the police can’t help me. I’m looking for someone with the power to kill Death.