Here's the 2nd half of Chapter 23 of "BRETT ENTERS THE SQUARE CIRCLE" (Brett Cornell Mystery #5), in which Brett delivers the report to his client (Doug Petrie) regarding the missing girl he's been hired to locate.
The paragraphs below (as usual) are told in the first-person, from Brett's point of view:
And so, after arriving back home to shower and trim the old mustache, muss up the curls a little bit to give them that natural, unruly look, and everything else that needed to be done before leaving the apartment, I got back in the car and drove on over to my private office downtown. Then, upon getting my fine derriere ensconced in the old swivel-chair, I leaned back in utter comfort and relaxation, held the phone to my ear, and soon found myself speaking to good old Doug Petrie.
“You’re back? Already?” the man exclaimed, quite astonished when he heard my voice and I told him that our “mission” had been accomplished.
“Why act surprised, little guy?” I retorted. “This is Brett Cornell you’re dealing with here, not some two-bit private eye who don’t know his ass from his donkey.”
“So? What – what can you tell me?” he said, and I could tell immediately that “nerved-up” was to be the emotion of the day, as usual, for Officer Petrie. Whereupon I told him to calm down, take a chill pill, and come on over to my office, so I could deliver my official report to him in person.
“Well, can you at least tell me –“
“Woops, gotta hang up! The two F.B.I. agents I contacted last week are on their way into my office right now to consult me on a top-secret government assignment we’ve recently been collaborating on, so give me another hour or so, then come on down.” And I dropped the receiver onto its hook, then straightened out the hairs of my mustache as I complimented myself on my ability to lie so convincingly and on the spur of the moment, too. Of course, in dealing with gullible saps like Doug Petrie, it was a lot easier to do than usual.
And so, almost sixty minutes later on the dot, Petrie poked his head in, gave me a weak smile, and waited for me to finish blowing out just one more smoke ring before mashing out my cigarette, then I motioned him to come in and even invited him to take a seat.
“That’s O.K., Brett, I’ll remain standing,” he said, twisting his cap nervously about between the fingers of both hands in front of him. (What else was new?) “I’m kind of – anxious – even worried about what you’re about to tell me – you know – about Stacey.”
“Fine, just stand there then,” I told him,” but if I see piss start rolling down the side of your leg and out the cuff of your pants, I’m gonna make you lick it up off the floor before I let you leave this office.”
“And? So?” Officer Petrie prodded me, uttering each word in a soft, but shaky voice.
“In a word –“ I said to him, and then paused for sweeping dramatic effect, “ – I’ve found Stacey Ashton for you!”
Instantly, instead of revealing an increase of nerves, the guy stiffened up, and he stared at me in disbelief – or so it seemed to me at the time.
“You found her!” he finally blurted out. “You found her? Where? Where did you find her?”
“Why, in Philadelphia, you stupid little Dumbelina!” I told him with a sharp, brittle laugh. “That’s where she told Melanie she’d be, and that’s where she told the old biddy she worked with she’d be, and sure enough, that’s where I found her.”
“But how – that is, how could you possibly have known where to look for her?” the guy wanted to know, his brows knit but his hands holding tightly onto his cap without twisting it around in his fingers.
“Well, this is the thing, man,” I replied with a slight shrug of my shoulders. “From the very beginning of this whole business, I got the impression that you and your slut sister never really had enough confidence in my abilities as a private detective. Am I right, or am I right?” I naturally didn’t give him time to answer that, neither was I the least bit curious as to how he’d respond to the question, anyways. “You just paid me a fair amount of money to go to Philly and locate this gal, I did just as you asked, and now you’re finding it hard to believe, ‘cause you don’t see how I could have possibly done it?” Then, without giving him any time at all to consider that question either, I took the photograph of Stacey Ashton out of my shirt pocket and tossed it across the room in his direction, knowing damned well that he’d reach down and pick it up from the floor as soon as he saw it land there. “There you have it, man. There’s a photograph of the gal in question.”
Petrie, upon bringing the photograph closer so as to examine it as completely as he needed to, slowly ended up lowering it back down and, looking across at me with utter seriousness, he said to me,
“Where did you get this?”
“Is it her?” I shot back at him, just to avoid answering his question a little longer, thus increasing the odds of his actually wetting his pants while I did that.
“Yes, it’s her – but that doesn’t answer the question: Where did you get this?”
“It don’t matter where I got it. It’s her, right? Of course it is. You just admitted it.” Then I shifted my weight around slightly in my swivel-chair and smiled quite broadly at him. “But it don’t matter, either, if I tell you where I got it.” The guy seemed to perk up on the spot, so I told him,” I got it from her cousin.”
“Don’t stand there, looking like such a damned idiot!” I couldn’t help saying to him. “Yeah, I got it from her cousin Vera, who lives in Philadelphia. I spoke to Vera, and I spoke to Stacey – and that’s about the size of it.”
“And – Stacey’s all right? Nothing’s happened to her?” the guy asked me, and there was a slight glimmer of hope starting to come into his eyes right then and there.
“She’s fine, man, and as loose as a goose in a noose – in a manner of speaking, of course,” I assured him. “The only thing is: She says she ain’t ever coming back here to Rhode Island.”
Almost as though he hadn’t really heard what I’d just told him – or possibly it hadn’t really penetrated his thick skull, the man bit his lip for a moment, then smiled a bit weakly, and said to me,
“So, she’s all right, you say. Nothing’s happened to her, right?”
“Uh, I’m sorry I neglected to get her to sign a sworn affidavit to that effect, pal,” I retorted, starting to grow tired and impatient with this whole scene that was being enacted in front of me. “You should be happy, though, knowing that she’s fine and nothing’s happened to her. Right?”
Then, after a brief pause during which time Petrie didn’t seem to have the nerve to actually look me in the eye, he gradually put a smile on his face, agreed with me that he now had every reason to be happy, and then turned and went out the door.
Feeling a bit exhausted, but slightly amused by the way the guy continued to carry on every time he stood in front of me in my office, I almost absent-mindedly took out another Marlboro, and then a match to light it with –
-- and then Doug Petrie suddenly came storming back into my office.
“You’re a goddamned liar!” he shouted at me, and then he rushed right up to my desk and flung the photo of Stacey Ashton on top of it. “I don’t trust you, man! And I don’t believe you! You’re just telling me all this, just to get me out of your hair!”
“Get the –“ I started to tell him, without even raising my voice or getting the least bit perturbed.
“She’s not in Philadelphia!” he then cried out, raising his voice in such a way that it went off-pitch and sounded almost strangulated. “She’s in Manhattan – visiting her father! She’s there, I just know it! – And I’ll pay you a thousand dollars to go there and find her and bring her back! A thousand dollars, Brett! Just think what you could do with all that money!”
“Get out of my office,” was all I could think of to say to him. Well, on second thought, I toyed with the idea of suggesting that he find himself a good shrink who might be able to help him find his way back down to Planet Earth, but in all honesty, the guy was starting to creep me out.
As it happened, though, I didn’t have to repeat my request that he leave my office. In fact, I didn’t really get a chance to speak another word to him, as he suddenly got a blank look on his face, and then he started backing away from my desk. Then, looking right at me but without really seeing me – or so it seemed – he kept backing away and said to me,
“Just stay away from me from now on. I don’t trust you. I – I’m afraid of you -- and I’m afraid of what you might do to me –“
Then he shut his lips tightly together, got a kind of stoned look on his face, and turned around to sort of stumble his way out of my office.
I deliberately allowed a full sixty seconds to pass by without even making another move, in the event that he should suddenly decide to come back inside my office and launch another verbal attack against me --and if that were to happen, I’d immediately and personally put in the necessary call to the nearest psych ward and have them send somebody on over to take him away.
But the sixty seconds passed, and I finally struck a match and lit the cigarette I’d placed between my lips when Petrie had left my office the first time around. Then, with my surroundings perfectly still and quiet, I smoked my butt in peace.
But I certainly wasn’t at ease, as it slowly was beginning to dawn on me that I might never be able to put this whole affair behind me, since it was becoming more and more apparent that I might never figure out where Stacey Ashton’s body had been stashed.
And yet – standing in the April sunlight a few months later – I realized that I should have known. I should have figured it out a lot sooner than I actually ended up doing.
Ciao for now, folks!