I was sipping on my third iced coffee when a bronze Caddy 'Sclade pulled up next to the loading dock of Jeff's Save-A-Lot Supermarket and a young woman ran out the back door and jumped in. It swung into traffic and I followed from three cars back. I was pretty damn sure that the last thing ol' Jeffy had on his mind was that he was being tailed.
Hammer's the name, Michelle Hammer; my friends call me 'Puss'. I'm a Private Investigator. I was hired by Jeffy's wife Alice to see if her hubby was cheating on her. Word had gotten back that her everlovin' had his own personal Employee of the Month reward program goin' on with his female cashiers and stockers.
I followed the 'Sclade to the outskirts of town and down into Rippling River Park where it finally stopped under some trees near a deserted picnic shelter. I checked my camera and waited 'till the 'Sclade began bobbing, exited the Z, snuck up to the right rear door and hearing cries of passion, yanked it open and let the camera do it's thing.
The seat had been folded down and there on a blanket was Jeffy and some pigtailed cutie in flagrante delicto. She screamed, he swore and I legged it to the Z, threw it in gear and took off in a spray of gravel. A few sharp turns and I was on the Interstate going my usual 10 miles over the limit when my rear view was filled with Caddy, I guess Jeffy didn't take kindly to my interrupting his whoopee time.
I heel and toed the clutch and loud pedal, rowed through the gears and left the 'Sclade like it was standing still; bad boy, Jeffy, bad boy. I took the next exit and found myself in the warehouse district. I floored it and shot down Industrial Boulevard when I saw out of the corner of my eye a flash of bronze emerge from between two buildings. Evidently Jeffy don't give up easily.
He was winding that Caddy out and finally caught up to me near the docks. My head jerked back as he slammed into my bumper, now I was pissed. My 280Z is my pride and joy and I don't like idiots damaging it. I went into a four wheel slide and roared down River Road, I knew a place where the road changed to gravel and you either made a ninety degree turn or went for a swim.
Jeffy was so intent on catching me he barely noticed the change in pavement and barely saw the turn. He jammed the brake to the floor, skidded on the gravel, cut a doughnut, fetched the 'Sclade up against some yellow cement bollards and settled in a cloud of dust.
I hung a uey and went back to check on them. The airbags had protected them but their bells were rung pretty good and when I opened the driver's door the two of them were sitting there, eyes closed and laps full of collapsed plastic. They were breathing and seemed unhurt. I took a few more pictures, called the wreck in to 911 and split.
When I got back to my office, after having stopped off at McGinty's for a cold one, my answering machine was blinking.
"Is this Mitchie? Hi Mitchie. This is Claire from college. Remember me? I need your help, badly. Please call me at..."
I scribbled down the number and sat back in my chair. Did I remember her? Is the Pope Catholic? Where had she been all these years? Claire and I met as roomies in college and were soon inseparable; our dorm mates called us sisters.
In the fall quarter of our junior year, I returned to our dorm room from my job at the college bookstore to find her side cleaned out. Not a scrap of paper remained, no note, nothing. I never saw her again. I was brokenhearted and finally dropped out. Now here she was and needed my help. I hesitated, and then dialed her number.
Claire lived in an old part of town where the houses were on acreage behind wrought iron fences. All the classic architectural styles were represented here; Victorian, Gothic Revival, Neo-Classical, Arts and Crafts, Neo-Grec, the works.
Claire's home was a Queen Anne Stick Style, painted bright yellow and blue. The gate was open so I pulled under the porte-cochere and got out.
"Mitchie!? Ohmygod! It's you!"
Claire came running out the door waving her arms, grabbed me in a bear hug and kissed me square on the lips. Any thought I may have had about acting cool evaporated as I hugged and kissed her back and we danced around like two school kids chattering excitedly.
After a few minutes we ran out of breath and just hugged. Looking over her shoulder I saw someone in the doorway, a woman around our ages, mid thirties, with long red hair, pale skin and a nice figure. She was leaning against the doorjamb, looking perplexed.
We broke our clinch and Claire said "Mitchie, this is Susan, Susan this is Mitchie, my dearest friend from college."
"Hi Mitchie, It's nice to finally meet you, Claire's told me so much about you I feel as if I know you as well."
I could tell it wasn't nice and she didn't care to know me; whatever. I was here to help Claire not make friends.
We sat in the parlor, Susan brought some tea and we exchanged pleasantries. After playing remember when a while longer, I had to ask.
"What happened that day, Claire? You never said you were leaving, you never said goodbye. I was really hurt. I had lost my 'sister'."
"Oh Mitchie, I'm so sorry. I came back from the dining hall and all my things were gone. Two men came up to me, said my father had sent them and practically kidnapped me. I found out later he'd turned state's evidence about a stock manipulation scheme where he worked and that he and his family were being put into the Witness Protection Program.
"We moved from place to place for years and no one knew where we'd gone, not even family. Finally all the men involved were dead or behind bars and we were finally free. Dad and Mom stayed in St. Louis where we'd been moved last, but I wanted to come home.
"I'd lost track of everyone, but I went back, got my degree and went into book publishing. That's where Susan and I met. She'd written a children's book and I was asked to look it over. I liked it but felt it needed some tweaking. She agreed and we became friends..." she paused and they exchanged glances..."And then we became lovers. Susan and I are Life Partners."
Susan had snuggled against Claire who put a protective arm around her and they kissed. I'll be damned; my best buddy in college turned out to be a lesbian. She had found someone to love that loved her back and that was okay with me.
I said, "I'm really happy for both of you," and I meant it. Susan smiled at me and Claire sighed with relief. "Now what's the problem, ladies?"
"We're being blackmailed," Susan said, "We don't know who it is since they only communicate through e-mails. They want three hundred thousand dollars by the end of the month or they'll go public about us living together."
"So what's the big deal about that?" I replied.
"These are the big deals," Claire said, handing me a stack of books. They were children's stories about funny woodland animals, dragons, snakes and turtles by the same author, 'Miss Marjorie'."
"Who's 'Miss Marjorie'?" I asked.
"That's us," Claire said. "We have eighteen in print and a dozen more to be released in a few weeks. We get thousands of letters every day from children and their parents saying how they enjoy our books and how they encouraged their children to read."
"Only a few persons know of us as a couple," Susan continued. "If it becomes common knowledge we'll be ruined. We're not ashamed of whom we are, but the bigots, the haters and the scandal mongers will have a field day. Mothers will be afraid to buy our books and the children will be disappointed. We can work at other things, of course, but we enjoy writing these books. It's fun."
She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and Claire hugged her again, "Can you help us?"
"Damn right I can," I said, feeling my ears getting hot. I hate sneaks and cowards who hide behind the anonymity of the internet while harassing people. I hate blackmailers even more. "Who do you think it may be?"
"We've talked to everyone that knows us and they all swear on the Bible or their mother's graves they hadn't told a soul. I believe them," Claire said. Susan nodded in assent.
"Have you saved those e-mails?" I asked.
"Every one," Susan replied. "We knew it could be evidence."
"Good, I know someone who can give us a hand with those." I scrolled through my address book and made a call.
Susan was showing me how she made the book illustrations on the computer when the doorbell rang and Claire answered it. She said later that when she saw this gangly kid standing there wearing a 'Metallica' t-shirt, cargo shorts, sandals and a backpack, she almost said 'We don't need any magazines today', and then realized he was who I sent for.
Scott was McGinty's cousin and according to him was a whiz with computers and electronic gadgets in general. He'd stop in the tavern when that ancient Wurlitzer jukebox McGinty stocked with 45 RPM records from the fifties stopped workin' and have it goin' in no time. He even fixed a customer's cell phone once right there on the bar.
I gave him a hug, said thanks for coming, introduced him to the girls and we filled him in on what we needed. He sat at the computer, took a bunch of wires and gadgets from his back pack and set to work. About an hour later he came into the parlor where we were and said "Any of you know an Eric Bryson?"
Susan turned pale and said "That's my ex. I haven't seen him for years. I thought he'd left town."
"Well he's sending those e-mails," Scott replied, and added "He needs to upgrade his firewall."
Claire wanted to pay Scott for his trouble, but he said 'Nope', he was glad he could help and left. Susan's shoulders were shaking and I thought at first she was crying, but she was quivering with rage.
"That goddamn slimy weasel; that sleazy sonofabitch; how dare he do this to us, I could just strangle him!"
It seems Susan and Eric had been married for a while before things went sour. She had gotten married after high school because they had dated as seniors and that's what you did in her family. Get married and have kids. As it turned out, he was a serial cheater and she discovered she preferred women so that was that. Now here he was, back in her life.
We only had a couple weeks to the end of the month so I had to move fast. I scanned the e-mails and noticed the first ones had attachments, when I clicked on 'em some pictures popped up and I said "Oh shit!"
They were pictures of Claire and Susan in bed and making love. It looked as if someone was in the room with them making a porno. I knew that wasn't it, so I asked them how the pictures could have been taken at such close range without their realizing it.
Susan began crying again and Claire said she didn't know. I figured I better check the place out; there might be cameras hidden in the walls. Their bedroom was upstairs, so I'd start there.
It was huge, filled with Queen Anne furniture including a four poster bed by a bank of double hung windows that offered views of their wooded property. A bird started singing outside and I walked to the open window to see what kind it was.
I couldn't see it, but it was in a tree right by the window, the branches almost touching the screen ... the tree!
I ran downstairs, down the hall, through the kitchen and service porch, banged out the screen door, rounded the corner and stood looking upwards at the tree. It was huge and old; acorns littering the ground underneath. It must have been a good fifteen feet up to where the branches began, how did ... then I saw the gouges in the bark ... of course, climbing spikes.
About then Claire and Susan joined me and I showed them how our photographer had gotten those 8x10 glossies. He must have been practically right outside the window with a close-up lens. Hidden in the leaves at night he was invisible.