"Come on, Albert. There must be something you can tell me about the Murphy case," I pressed, leaning on my khaki clad knees conspiratorially.
"Sorry, Nick," the big man behind the old wooden desk replied, leaning back in his chair until the front legs left the ground. "Client wants this to be kept strictly quiet. Any of my case notes end up in that sorry newspaper you work for, I'll know who to blame."
I raised both eyebrows and touched my chest. "Albert, I'm hurt. When have I ever published something you asked me not to?"
"Sometimes you don't ask," Albert replied with a shake of his head. "Look. Here's my statement on the missing college student." He tossed a folder across the desk. It was so thin I doubted it contained more than two pieces of paper. The man was allergic to neat. If he put it in a folder, it was to obscure the lack of detail. "That'll give you something to keep your editor happy."
I picked up the folder and tucked it under my arm. Albert was a stubborn man. I knew if I pushed any further, I'd just make my life more difficult the next time I needed information. It was time to cut my losses. I touched the brim of my beat up fedora in a mock salute. "If you change your mind, you know where to find me."
Albert waved, clearly dismissing me. I was halfway through his office door when he called after me. "Next time bring me a coffee! Black."
I chuckled and closed the door behind me. The waiting room outside was much neater than Albert's own office. Gladys, his secretary, made sure of that. Come to think of it, I didn't see Gladys at her desk.
A quick glance around the office confirmed Gladys had stepped out. I looked at my watch. Twelve-thirty. Gladys wouldn't be back for another twenty-five minutes, minimum. I could sneak a peek at some of Albert's current case files. Of course, I wouldn't dig into the Murphy files. Albert had asked me not to and I would respect that. But Albert was a busy man. Surely there was something else interesting around the office that would make for a good story.
I got as far as putting my hand on the stack of papers piled neatly on Gladys' desk. I could feel the wrinkles in the top page on my finger tip. Albert must have spent a lot of time on that one. I shook my head at my sorry state. The shoe string budget and constant layoffs at the paper were making me desperate. I ordered myself to leave before before I ruined a friendship I'd had since college. I made it three steps from Glady's desk when a woman came in through the front door.
Not Gladys. Gladys was a grandmotherly sort who wore her glasses on a string and kept two pencils in her hair. This newcomer was a tall and lanky blond. In her mid-thirties if I had to guess. She wore a pair of tight designer jeans and a pair of tasteful black sandals that clung perfectly her impeccably manicured feet. To top off the outfit, she wore a tank-top proclaiming, "Reverse the Curse." Given the subtle air of money about the rest of her attire, the tank-top told me she was not only a local, but a die-hard Sox fan.
Her hand clutched at a tissue that had turned blue from wiping her eyes and only to come away coated in mascara. She was holding back tears when she spotted me. "Oh thank god! Please, you have to help me! Nobody believes me!"
Before I could say anything more, I had a sobbing woman crying into my shoulder. I hated it when people cried. Awkwardly, I patted her back while frantically looking around for help. Already I could feel her wet tears soaking through my last clean shirt. "What happened?" I found myself asking.
"My husband was murdered!" she wailed. She sucked in a deep breath in a vain effort to get her crying under control. Almost immediately, it shuddered back out and straight through my shirt. I probably had make-up stains on my shirt. Wonderful.
"Shouldn't you be taking this to the police?" I asked. In my search for help I spotted a box of tissues on Gladys' desk.
"The police ruled it accidental." She was only sniffling now. "I know it wasn't. It doesn't make any sense! But no one will listen."
I carefully pried the woman off my shoulder and led her to one of Albert's hard, vinyl waiting room chairs. He wanted his office to look like the ones you always saw in the movies, but the attempt fell short due to his unwillingness to part with any extra money. "Wait right here, ma'am. I'll go get the detective." I quickly grabbed box of tissues off Gladys' desk and pulled out a few for myself before handing it to the young woman. She blew her nose in a very unladylike way. As an afterthought I stole Gladys' trashcan and put it next to the blonde.
Once she was settled, I knocked on Albert's office door, surprised he hadn't come out when he heard all the commotion.
"I'm on the phone Gladys, I'll be there in a minute," Albert called back.
Reluctantly, I turned back to the woman. She was occasionally sniffling. Mostly she was staring off into space. "What was your name?" I asked.
"Lindsay Simmons," she replied quietly.
"Nicholas Summers," I pulled up a chair in front of her. "Now, don't worry. Al Johnson's the best in the business. You're in good hands."
"You think he'll take my case?" she asked hopefully.
I nodded. Technically, the police should investigate a homicide, but I'd never known Albert to turn down a lady in need. Especially one who could pay.
"Now, what seems to be the problem out here?" Albert's booming voice interrupted my thoughts. He stopped mid-stride. "Nick? What are you still doing here?"
"I was on my way out when Mrs. Simmons came in, looking for help. Gladys wasn't here, so I kept her company until you were available."
Albert nodded, giving me a once over. "Thanks, I can take it from here." He held out a thick arm, gesturing towards his office door. "If you'll come this way."
Lindsay stood and with a shaky smile turned to me. "Thank you."
"Anytime," I answered.
"You can see yourself out?" Albert asked me.
"Of course." I headed towards the door. They headed towards his office. I had made it all the way to the door before curiosity got the better of me. I had only told Albert I would find my way out... not when.
I slunk back to Albert's door and leaned against the wall right next to it. If Gladys came back, she'd think I was just waiting for my old pal.
"...seems to be the trouble?" That was Albert's rich base voice.
"My husband was murdered five days ago while we were on vacation," Lindsay's voice was breaking again.
"And the police?"
"They ruled Kyle's death accidental. They told me he'd been mauled by a dog. But a dog? In broad daylight in a populated city? And no one saw this happen? Kyle was strong. He would've fought. He at least could have called for help." As she talked, her voice strengthened. It probably helped to have someone who would listen. "Someone would have known. But his body wasn't found until the next morning."
"And where were you?" Albert asked. He was trying to be a professional, but I could tell Lindsay had already peaked his interest.
"I was back at our hotel room. I'd caught some stomach bug so I was sleeping and Kyle'd gone out to get me something to eat. He never came back," at that Lindsay started sniffling, again.
"Was there anything else strange about the case?" Albert asked. Occasionally I could hear the clack of his keyboard as he took notes.
"I went to the police, but they sent me to a local private investigator. She decided it was an accident and closed the case."
I frowned. I never heard of the police using private investigators unless they were really strapped for agents.
There was a pause. "Where was this?" Albert asked.
"We were vacationing in Salem," Lindsay answered.
I didn't picture Mrs. Simmons as the hokey entertainment sort. Maybe it had been her husband's idea. Regardless, Salem was crowded this time of year. I had to agree with her. It was a bit strange no one saw anything.
It took me a moment to realize that Albert had remained silent after Lindsay answered. Maybe I had missed his answer. I leaned a bit closer so that I could press my ear against the door directly.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Simmons. I really am. I can't take your case," Albert said gently.
"But... I thought were going to help me! Where can I go now? The police here won't investigate. Said it wasn't their juristiction." Mrs. Simmon's voice was breaking, again. I was sure she was either going to start crying or hiccuping any minute.
"I'm sorry. You should take this up with the Salem Police Department," Albert said with a tone of finality. I heard the scrape of a chair on the floor and scrambled to get away from the door before it swung open.
When Lindsay stepped into the waiting room, she didn't even notice me. She just ran out of the office, slamming the door behind her hard enough to rattle Gladys' pencil cup.
"What was that about, Albert?" I asked when the older man came to stand in the doorway.
"Drop it," he replied, giving me a warning glare.
I was too angry to care. Her story stunk to me. Someone was running a cover-up. Whether it was for sloppy investigation tactics, or something more sinister, I didn't know. It was worth investigating. "You were all set to help that woman until she told you where she'd been," I pointed out.
Albert crossed his arms. "You were eavesdropping, again?"
"You're dodging," I growled. "Why won't you help her?"
"The folks in Salem don't like outsiders messing in their affairs. Trust me. She's better off crying her eyes out for a few weeks and moving on. She's not going to get answers from anyone in that town." Albert turned his back to me, thinking the conversation was over.
"What are you afraid of?" I asked. Albert usually had a temper, I saw him tense briefly before shrugging and continuing toward his desk. I decided to try provoking him one more time. "Someone gonna put a hex on you if you investigate?"
"I wouldn't rule it out," he replied quietly. He sat down heavily, now facing me. "We've been friends a long time, Nick. Trust me when I say, don't dig into this. You won't be doing anyone any favors. Least of all yourself."
I shook my head. Albert's warning was genuine, but I grew up on stories of the awfulness of turning a blind eye towards suspicious behavior. If no one stepped in, nothing would change. "Thanks for the warning," I replied tersely before storming out of the office.