Saturday, March 14, 2009

An Unlikely Alliance - Part I

© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved

Part I

I scoured through the morning paper for what? A client? Right. I was starting to mumble under my breath a lot these days. For the past several weeks I knocked on the doors of countless law firms from Wall Street to Harlem and everyplace in between. The insurance companies who had paid for my skills in the past weren’t hiring either, and the banks? The criminals were on the inside now. The Feds had those greedy bastards and corporate leaders on a short leash to hell.

It’d been too long since my last case and even longer since I’d seen a check for services rendered. All the same, I wasn’t desperate enough to go after the mafia type criminal who blackmailed poor shopkeepers on the lower east end. Not this girl. I’d rather hold out for the white-collar crimes. The cases that allowed me to blend in without getting fingered as a private investigator.

My last job dried up mid-stream when the only witness to a land scam skipped town and my client vanished without writing a check. I’d leave my home every morning with a promise on my lips to not come home without finding a client. I’m tired—dead tired. I woke up this morning feeling as worn as an old pair of socks. I gave the paper a toss and wondered how I ever managed before the invention of automatic timers on coffee pots. Now the aroma from the Italian blend dripping into the pot was the only reason to get out of bed before ten. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and reached for a mug from the dish rack. I was in the midst of pouring that much needed first cup when I heard the familiar sound of metal rumbling outside on the porch. The mailman arrived like clockwork with the usual assortment of unwanted bills and junk mail.

I waited for him to leave before snatching the envelopes from the box and slamming the front door shut with a deliberate swing of a hip. The envelopes got a quick thumb through and just as I was ready to pitch the pile in the trash, a small square envelope caught my attention. My name, Jacquie Stone, was scrawled across the front in heavy black strokes of ink. The New York postmark was dated two days before but that wasn’t a problem. It was the absence of a return address that brought on a frown. Like an idiot, I studied it for a second or two the way some people look at and shake a gift-wrapped box before trying to guess what’s in it. This little delivery was just what I needed to fire up the old inquisitive juices. I ripped it open with a few jagged strokes of the thumb and read:

Must talk, noon, Augusts 19, at the Chester House. ~ O. Kurtz

Eleven words if you count the initial. That’s all. Aside from the signature, I had no clue to the sender’s identity or his reason for wanting to meet. One thing for sure was the reputation of the membership at the Chester House. In recent years, the club had caved in to the demands for admitting women executives. Gender aside, this little note had the smell of testosterone and deep-pocket money. The kitchen clock told me I had two hours to shower, dress and get my rear down to the swanky club in the center of Wall Street. Must have changed clothes three times before deciding on a pair of khakis and a lime-colored blouse. Frilly’s not me and anything more than casual would have screamed desperation.
* * *
I walked into the Chester House with six minutes to spare. The stench from years of cigars and pipe tobacco wafted over me. Dark wood paneling lined the walls of the lobby and scattered about, in groups of twos and threes, were burgundy leather wingback chairs. The polished ends on the arms marked their years of use.

“May I help you?” The slender man behind the desk could easily have walked out of a 1950s flick with his yellow cardigan sweater, polo shirt and slicked back hair--pure white. His ruddy complexion and the burst of capillaries that crisscrossed his face revealed an old habit.

“Jacquie Stone,” I said. “I’m supposed to meet a Mr. Kurtz.”

“Right.” He pointed to one of the leather chairs. “Have a seat. I’ll tell ’em you’re here.”

The gawky little man disappeared down a narrow hallway and didn’t return. A few minutes later and still no sign of him or Kurtz. Money or not, my patience was starting to wane.

By twenty after, I was royally pissed. Regardless of my penniless state, being the butt end of an old geezer’s joke wasn’t on my agenda. Only one thing to do, but when I started to leave the familiar tone of my cell made me stop and reach into my pocket.


“Sit down, Ms. Stone.”

I instinctively shot a glance around the lobby. There were only a handful of men here today. Some were reading the paper. The two off to one side were in the middle of a heated discussion, and the man across the way was sound asleep. None of them was using a phone.

“Would you like a drink, Ms. Stone?” the caller said as if we were a couple of long lost friends.

“I don’t think so.” I should have kept walking. Instead, my curiosity got the better of me so I took a seat. Still, I couldn’t stop scanning the room. Silence screamed at me from the other end of the line. It was deafening and I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into. “I suppose you’re feeling smug with yourself. You know my name and apparently what I look like. Why the sham?”

“Let’s just say I’m cautious.”

“I suppose Kurtz isn’t your real name either.” I waited for a response--it never came. “Right, have it your way. So, what’s on your mind?”

“I need to know you can be trusted.”

“You came looking for me, remember?” In fatter days, I would’ve left by now. Instead, I glanced at my watch and pretended to be out of time. I had nowhere to go, but at least that was one thing the creep on the other end of the line couldn’t possibly know.

“Am I keeping you from something?” he asked.

The hint of laughter in his voice nudged me to the next level of unease. “A paying client.”

“Really, Ms. Stone. You haven’t worked a case in six weeks, you’re past due on your mortgage, the bill collectors are beating a path to your door, and you have no prospect for work. Go on, have a drink on me.”

“Any fool can get his hands on that information if he knows where to look.”

“You grew up in Pennsylvania, your father worked in the mines, your mother was a teacher. You are the youngest of four, caught pneumonia at the age of seven—nearly died, flunked out your first year at Penn State and decided police work was a better fit. Shall I go on?”

“Who the hell are you?”

“That shack you call home and your personal life are a mess by most people’s standards. You smoke and drink entirely too much to be called a lady and in spite of your failed attempts at what most would consider normal jobs, your success rate as a detective--”

“Private investigator.”

“—is noteworthy. You can be cold and ruthless when the situation calls for it and equally clever when no one’s looking—just the qualities needed for the task I have in mind.”

“You forgot suspicious. And buddy, you’re at the top of my list.”

“I’d expect nothing less from you,” he said. “Being guarded isn’t a bad thing which is why I’ve decided to overlook your shortcomings and hire you.”

A barrage of thoughts buzzed through my head like gnats on a bruised banana. All right, so I was desperate for money. The kicker was this joker knew it and was using that little roadblock against me.

“And if I refuse?”

“That, my dear, will be your choice—certainly your loss.”

Hadn’t realized how tightly I was holding the phone to my ear until I felt a tingly numb feeling rip through my fingers.

“Don’t think too long on it,” he said. “My offer is on the table until the end of this meeting.”

“What offer?”

“You have a good record when you actually work. I imagine by now you’d be willing to do anything.”

“Not quite. Even I have my limits.” Not the most accurate statement I’d ever made, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to give any man an ounce of power over my life. Still, that hard spot pressing against my back was starting to sting and I had to wonder if Kurtz was responsible for my failed attempts to find clients. Our conversation was leaving a pungent taste in my mouth and a slug’s trail of chills up my spine. I felt sickened by my vulnerable, desperate state. It seemed I had no choice but to take whatever morsels of work Kurtz had to offer.

“Ms. Stone, all you have to say is, ‘yes’ and the job is yours.”

Thinking, thinking. The law, my standards and principles were all things I could talk myself into bending in spite of the logic against it. Having spent the last thirty-five dollars on gas to drive across town to the club was incentive enough for me to consider my options.

“Who are you?” I asked again. “How do you know—”

“I assure you that isn’t as important as my proposition.”

“Which is?” I questioned my sanity the second the words shot out of my mouth.

“I need information.”

“You and half of New York City.”

“I want you to follow someone.”

“Let me guess, your wife or your mistress? Maybe both?” I reached for the note pad and pen at the bottom of my purse.

“Neither. And there’s no need for that, Ms. Stone. All the information on the case is waiting for you in your home as we speak.”

“Great. I suppose one of your thugs broke in?”

“Not exactly.”

“Whatever that means.” I had visions of a busted lock or a window I’d have no way to fix. Yes, I desperately needed the money this jerk was willing to part with. The question was, what did he expect in return? Was he with the mafia or worse, a government agency? I finally managed to state the obvious.

“You’re forgetting one thing.”

“I doubt it.”

“I haven’t agreed to anything.”

“Ms. Stone, you and I both know you can’t afford to be hard-nosed about this. The fact that you’ve stayed on the line tells a great deal more than you’re willing to reveal. Take the case. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.”


“I’ll be in touch.”

“Not until we meet face-to-face.”

“In time. Not here, not now.”

“Yes, now!” From the corner of my eye I noticed the men in the lobby turn their heads when I raised my voice.

“That will do nothing but complicate matters.”

I could feel him watching each move I made. Nothing good every came from a deal made in hell. Then again, for the right price, I could easily overlook the old man’s eccentricities. Two could play at this cat and mouse game and unless I missed my guess, he was just as desperate. “My fee is five hundred a day plus expenses. Take it or leave it.”

“Go home, Ms. Stone. Read over the material and then get some sleep. You’ll need it.”
* * *

I didn’t remember the half hour drive home. His voice was trapped in my head. His words ricocheted from lobe to lobe and angered me more with each passing. It was nearly three when I nosed my car in front of my house. From the street, the place looked just as I left it. No busted lock or broken glass on my living room floor. Instead, I found the large, sealed manila envelope Kurtz’s goon left on my bed. A perfectly shaped rose rested on top of it. It wasn’t enough that he entered my place uninvited, he had to get personal. He had to go to my room.

I raised the bud to my lips, felt its velvety peddles and drew in its scent. “Angel Face.” My grandmother’s prize rose garden in Ohio was full of them. The light purple color and strong, citrus fragrance instantly took me back to my youth, the summers spent on her farm, and the number of ribbons her roses consistently won at the state fair. I drew in a second whiff of aroma and looked at the rose again.

“How the hell did you know?"

The End ~ Part I
Read conclusion on 3/16/09


  1. Love her...gutsy, hard boiled, but also a girl from down on the farm.

  2. I'm intrigued.
    She's a very feisty character, and the case looks to be interesting .

  3. Thanks, ladies. What do you think? Will she be too much for me to handle on the next case?

  4. Great character. Hope I remember to visit on the 16th.

  5. The 16th, that's tomorrow, Sheila. Tomorrow.