“What do you mean you believe her? She played me,” Mason said angrily.

The popular quote more specifically mentions being played like a fiddle, as if just anyone can pick-up and competently play a fiddle. You’ll never hear ‘played like a violin’ because of the mental picture it draws. Who would think sitting in any one of the numbered orchestra chairs playing classical music under the direction of a long coat-tailed maniac would be easy? Either one would be difficult, especially because they are the very same instrument.

“Just because she played you like a violin doesn’t mean she tried to have me killed,” I said.

“Please stop saying that! I would never, could never!” she said.

“What? Play me? You can save it, Vince told us everything,” Mason said.

“Again with the play me,” I said sarcastically.

“Okay fine, yes. I was helping him. But you don’t understand. There’s a time in my life when I did things that I’m not very proud of. Vinnie is one of those things. I hoped if I could help him with one more score, that would be it, we’d be done. Really, I didn’t even have to do anything at all. I mean, sure I told him I would tell Alfie if things went bad, but really, it was all him,” Buffy said.

“First of all, to be clear, Alfie is Alfred Meltone correct? Secondly, I have to say that so far you’re not at all what I expected,” I said.

“You mean, who you expected? I get that a lot. Buffy, the dumb blonde stripper right?” she asked.

“For a minute I was thinking Buffy the attempted murderer,” I said.

“Hell I still do. You trust her?” Mason asked.

“I do, but you can bet they don’t,” I said.

I gave them both the heads up to the driveway outside that all of a sudden was piling up with police vehicles. Buffy appeared a little shocked, maybe at a loss for what to do, but certainly not scared.

“I wouldn’t wait if I were you. They’re not shy about taking doors down,” I said.

Buffy hurried to let them in.

“Buffy Meltone?” the policeman asked.

“Yes, can I help you?” she asked.

“Detective Tom Czerneski, I have a warrant to search your home,” Tom said.

Without any further ado, a small army of uniformed police officers as well as a few plain clothes types pushed their way into the house.

“Ah, Philippine, fancy meeting you here. Where’s your car?” Tom asked.

“I rode with him,” I said.

“If you don’t mind, I need a word, in private,” he said.

“Of course,” I said.

“Wait a minute, what’s this all about?” Buffy asked.

“Mrs. Meltone you have the right to remain silent,” he said.

“Am I being arrested? For what?” she demanded.

“Sergeant, would you kindly read Mrs. Meltone her rights while I have a little talk with Ms. Maximine?” he asked.

“Sure boss. Mrs. Meltone, you have the right to remain…”

After more than a word I returned to face a handcuffed and confused Buffy Meltone and a strangely satisfied Mason Owens sipping a morning drink at the bar.

“Is that really necessary?” I asked referring to the cuffs.

“Until I know for sure,” Tom said.

“Mason, would you please take me to my car? Buffy here has her hands full for now,” I said.

“You going to tell me what’s going on?” Mason asked.

“All in good time, all in good time,” I told him.

I didn’t give Mason much to go on, I couldn’t, not yet.

“If not her than who? I’m telling you, no way it was Mary,” he said.

“Listen, I’ll give you a call later. There’s something I have to do first, stay tuned,” I told him.

I had to see my old friend Vinnie again. With Buffy in cuffs and a hole in his pants I had a hunch he was going to be slightly more cooperative. By the time I arrived at the AAPT central offices, it was just about quitting time for nine to fivers.

“Hello Philippine, I didn’t expect to see you. I don’t remember you having any meetings with the boys today. Did you have something scheduled?” Marnie asked.

“Nope, just thought I’d drop-in. There’s a couple things I need to discuss. Hey, could you do me a favor?” I asked her.

“Sure, what did you need?” she asked.

“Could you page your driver? We’re going to need to talk to him,” I said.

“Sure, I guess. Who’s we?” she asked.

“Oh, me and the boys,” I said.

“Well, okay, in that case let me call Wesley and let him know you’re here,” she said.

“Don’t bother, I think I’ll just pop-in,” I said.

I charged past her and directly into Alfred’s office.

“Sir Alfred Meltone?” I asked. “Philippine, Philippine Maximine. I stopped in today because up until this morning, I was wondering why you tried to kill me?” I asked.

“What? Why I never,” he said.

He picked up his intercom and demanded Marnie call the police to have me removed. The look on his face when he heard the reply was priceless.

“Um, they are already here sir,” she said.

Detective Tom knocked as he entered the office. Before he closed the door I could see any number of uniformed officers milling around the other side. It wasn’t a moment before Wesley Meltone also made his way into the room slamming the door behind him.

“Oh, it’s you. Figures you would have something to do with this,” he said to me.

“Wesley Meltone? I’m definitely going to need a word with you. For now, why don’t you do me a favor and have a seat at your desk. Could you do that please Mr. Meltone?” Tom asked.

“I demand to know what this is all about. What is she doing here? Why are you harassing my father?” he ranted.

Tom opened the door and called out into the office.

“Sergeant, could you please escort Mr. Meltone to his office and make sure he stays there until I’m ready for him?” Tom asked.

“Sure thing boss.”

“What is this all about?” Alfred asked.

“Mr. Meltone? I have in my hand a ballistics report. Are you familiar with modern ballistics Mr. Meltone?” Tom asked.

“Yes of course,” Alfred said.

“Well, do you know what it says? It says the bullet fired through Ms. Maximine’s office window,” he paused. “I’m sure you know Ms. Maximine. Anyways, the hole in Ms. Maximine’s window was made by a 7.7-millimeter rifle round otherwise known as a British .303. I have to say, it took my guys a little while to track it down but once they did, it got me to wondering. Turns out that this morning we recovered from your home one immaculately cared for MK-1 Lee Enfield rifle, chambered for the British .303, the weapon of choice for the British army in WWII. Immaculate, except for the fact that it had been recently fired. Now, chance being what it is, I decided to have that rifle tested against the round recovered from the wall outside Ms. Maximine’s office and wouldn’t you know it? It matched. And, it had your fingerprints on it to boot,” Tom explained.

“Of course it had my fingerprints on it, it’s mine. Besides, your story is preposterous. You sir are bluffing. My wife was home, she would have called,” Alfred said.

“And that is exactly what she planned to do, that is until we told her why you fired the shot. Recognize this man?” Tom asked.

Tom was holding an 8 x 10 glossy of Mason Owens, the man Sir Alfred thought was having an affair with his wife. Mr. Meltone took a moment before sitting back down in his chair.

“Yes, yes of course, I recognize the chap, he is my real estate man. But this proves nothing,” he said.

“You’re jealousy got the best of you Alfie, but you were too cheap to hire out weren’t you. War hero like yourself, thought you’d just take care of it on your own. Well, almost. Isn’t that right Alfie? I tell you what Mr. Meltone, I’m going to do something I don’t normally do, because without her, we might never have known. Philippine?” Tom said.

Tom leaned out of the office and spoke to the officer outside for a brief moment before returning.

“I’m not saying another word until I can speak to my lawyer,” Alfred said.

“That’s just fine Alfie, because all I want you to do is listen, let him in,” I said.

“Have a seat,” Tom said to Wesley.

“You see this whole time I was looking for a person that wanted to kill me. At first, I thought it was your driver, Vince, but besides him not really having the brains, he didn’t really have a reason. I considered for a moment Wesley, thinking maybe after talking to Vince and uncovering his little scam, you’re being played by the way, he might want to have me bumped-off. But it turns out that it wasn’t his limo in the alley outside my office that day was it? It was yours. You see, in all the chaos, my cat jumped out the window that day. Yup, right off the ledge, briefly onto your car, and off who knows where? He never came back, but that’s not the point, his footprints were. That’s two things you should have cleaned Mr. Meltone, your rifle and your car. It wasn’t me you wanted to kill, it was Buffy. You found out who she really was thanks to Vince, who was blackmailing you to keep it all a secret. The public embarrassment would have killed every chance at the fundraising you need to keep this place afloat,” I accused.

“Again! Preposterous. Anyone who knows me can tell you unequivocally that I do not drive. I’ll also have you know that I love my wife very much,” he said.

“Yes, I’m sure you do Mr. Meltone, or at least, did. Tom?” I said.

Tom opened up the door and let Vince in the room with the same instructions he gave to Wesley.

“Let me introduce my old friend, Vince Botoni.  Seems you two have a lot in common. Huh, who’d guess?” I said.

“Anything this man says is not to be believed. Why, he is a common criminal,” Alfred said.

“Oh don’t worry about Vince, he’s only here because I wanted him to hear this. I’m well aware that you weren’t driving the car Mr. Meltone, nor was Vinnie, or even Wesley here. The person driving the car is the same person who stole Mary Owens’ Jaguar, although be it temporarily. She left her scent all over it. This person also met with and hired a group of killers. This person has access to your money. Tom?” I said.

“The person who saw you pull the trigger from the moon roof of the limo, a person you love, a person who wished she was in Buffy’s spot and the person willing to kill to get there. I remembered her fragrance. I remembered the first time I smelled it; it was unique. It was the day she walked into my office looking for her lost brother. Ms. Marnie Fankowski,” I said.

The sergeant led Marnie into the room in handcuffs.

“Ms. Marnie Fankowski, taking advantage of the limousine lunches of Mary Owens and Wesley Meltone, stole Owens’ car so as not to be trackable, and with access to the company checkbook hired a group of men to assassinate me at all costs. One of the men who I did not manage to kill, but only wound escaped that day. However, detective Tom informed me this morning during the search of your house Mr. Meltone, that a suspect was apprehended and in exchange for certain amenities, was more than willing to talk,” I explained.

“That’s enough of this nonsense, Ms. Fankowski has impeccable credentials and…” Wesley said.

Wesley saw the look on her face as her head hung low.

“You lied about my brother, you took my money and lied. All that bullshit about being a hero. You and that damn kid, you got him to lie too. For all I know you never even went looking for him. You deserve to die for putting me through it all again. Why do you think I recommended you to the sicko in the first place?” Marnie exclaimed.

“Sicko? Why I never…” Wesley protested.

“And finally that takes us to you, Wesley Meltone. As it happens, I know exactly why she called you that. You see the real reason I wanted Vinnie here wasn’t just to hear the evidence, or her confession. Alfred was right, he’s a common thug. Whether you know it or not Mr. Meltone, Vinnie here was in the process of blackmailing you. Well, you and Mason Owens that is. Him and his beloved ex Buffy were going to take half of everything you scammed off the old man. She was just hoping to get Vinnie off her back once and for all. Yeah, sorry Vinnie, truth hurts. Vince here was hoping for the big score. Too bad he was too stupid to pull it off. That, I’ll leave up to the detective to handle but not you Wesley. Because this time, it’s personal. Your father’s house wasn’t the only home searched this morning. Nobody was at your house. You’re not married are you Mr. Meltone? I wonder why? I thought nothing of it when Detective Tom told me they didn’t find anything incriminating, that is until he finished his sentence. ‘Nothing but an out of place old gray pair of sweatpants.’ We both found that to be a little strange. So this afternoon, purely on a hunch I called Vinnie here and for some reason he was far more cooperative than he had been in the past. He told me about a strange habit you have of being dropped off at a large strip mall parking lot, one with a laundromat where consequently, you like to put your dick on the windows of women’s cars you sick, son of a bitch,” I said, angry.

“I spent the afternoon collecting all the evidence they’ll ever need to give you some quality time with men of equal values. I admit, I didn’t recognize you. After all, I wasn’t really concentrating on your face, but it’s not your face I’m going to have to ID is it now Mr. Meltone? Detective Czerneski? They’re all yours. If you’ll excuse me, I have a few clients to attend to, and a window to wash.”

There was always one girl in grade school who was monumentally bigger than all the rest of the girls, even most of the boys. I was not that girl. That girl in our class was Maribella Schmaltz. Maribella loved to pick on the smaller girls, including me. One day, having had enough I pushed Maribella off the top of the silver metal slide. You had to wonder what kind of sadist would approve the installation of a slide on a playground for children that would get so hot in the summer sun that it would often leave skin behind. A short railing kept users safe, unless your Maribella who’s foot was firmly stuck. She hung there upside down like an overly large hormonal freak pinata. The formerly bullied crowd circled her, roundly ridiculing her situation and consequently filthy underwear. Maribella put on the tough front as long as she could before finally cracking. The foul stench of bullying was replaced with sweet pity that day, and a general sense of satisfaction was enjoyed by almost everyone.

“Get in,” I said.

I opened the back door of Mason’s sedan and slid in next to Vince, keeping the barrel of my gun tight against his gut.

“Take me to my car,” I said.

“Where’s your car?” Mason asked.

“Your house,” I said.

“Look Lady, this ain’t gonna go well for you,” Vince said.

“Oh no? I feel like it’s the other way around,” I said.

“We’ll see. Same for you money bags. Wait’ll your buddy Wesley finds out, and the old man. All about your dirty little scam. It’s all over for you buddy, curtains,” Vince said.

“Curtains? Are we filming an old movie?” Mason asked.

Vince was a want-to-be old timey mobster right down to his heavily pomaded hair and grossly underpowered and inaccurate snub nose .38 I removed from his cliché shoulder holster.

“Who ya workin’ for Vinnie?” I asked jabbing the gun into his side.

“That’ll be the day,” he said.

“You think I’m playin’ around here Vinnie?” I asked.

“You ain’t got the balls lady. I’m as safe as if I was in my dear mother’s arms,” he said sarcastically.

I pulled the hammer back and pushed the gun into Vince’s scrotum.

“Now you ain’t gonna have the balls either,” I said.

“Ha, like I said, you ain’t gonna do nothin’ lady. Why don’t you go knit a nice sweater somewhere, yous can even add in a picture of a, a, King Martin or whatever, maybe the peanut guy,” Vince laughed.

I fired a round through his pants unintentionally missing Vince’s most cherished appendage. The shot caused Mason to swerve the vehicle into a near miss that would have undoubtedly claimed the life of at least one, and maybe all of us. Vince jumped backwards in the seat and hit his head on the rear glass. 

“Oh God you crazy bitch you did it oh God oh God!” Vince screeched.

“My God Philippine, what the hell? My car!” Mason yelled.

“Shut up, I only burned it, next time though, off with its head,” I said.

I dragged my thumb across my neck mimicking the universal sign for death via beheading. I apologized to Mason for shooting a hole in his seat and probably the floor. However, the satisfied smirk on my face as I noticed the smoking hole in the fine leather seat may have made the apology seem slightly disingenuous.

“Now, let’s try this again. Who are you working for?” I asked.

“I ain’t workin for nobody. I just drive the car, I swear,” he said.

“Not good enough,” I said.

I cocked the gun again, exaggerating the angle of my grip while looking him in the eyes.

“Who you working for? No way you’re smart enough to pull this off alone,” I said.

“I’m tellin’ ya lady. I ain’t workin’ for nobody. He knows, ask him. It’s only me and her you know? He knows,” Vince said referring to Mason.

“Wait what? So she already knows?” Mason asked.

“Yeah, yeah she knows everything,” Vince said.

The ‘she’ to whom he was referring was Buffy Meltone, wife, arm candy, and now prime suspect in my attempted murder.

“Why her? She doesn’t need the money,” I said.

“Me and her go way back. We was a thing. Now she got hers and I’m getting mine. She’s helping me. Me and her, we’ll always be a thing, ya know?” he said.

“What about me?” Mason asked.

“What about you? You don’t mean nothin’ to her if that’s what you’re getting at. Yeah that’s right lover boy. She ain’t as dumb as you two think. She’s been on to you since day one.”

The tan sedan looked no worse for wear besides some dirty ash and a dick stain on the window. Same for the jag sans the stain. I climbed in for a second just to see how the other half lived. The seat was pulled up high for a short driver. The mirrors echoed the same short sentiment. No surprise. It was the heavy cloth inlay that told the crux of the tale. Deep in the pores I recognized a scent my nose hadn’t caught wind of since I first saw her at the AAPT office. It was earthy, slightly subtle. Not the sort of fragrance I expected a girl like her to wear. The office, the girl, the car, things were beginning to get clearer.

Muffled beeping irritated its way into the interrogation from Vince’s pocket.

“What’s that? What is it?” I asked, shouting, pointing my gun at him.

“Please lady, calm down would ya? It’s just my beeper,” Vince said.

As far back as there has been history either written or delivered intrinsically over the blanketed laps of elders, telling a person, especially a woman, and most especially me, to calm down, has not only never worked, it has enflamed every single situation to the point where someone usually needs medical attention. In fact, rumor has it a hysterical woman aggressively demanded her husband get rid of the snake in the garden and guess what he said? And that my friends is how Adam messed it up for everybody.

“Who is it? Who is it, Vince?” I demanded.

I was doing my best to keep the situation tense.  Vince needed to believe me without trusting me. Tough nuts eventually crack, especially when a bullet cuts it a little too close.

“It’s them, er, him. I gotta pick him up probably. It’s about that time,” Vince said.

“Who’s him?” I asked.

“The old man, you know, Meltone,” he said.

“Just him? Where?” I asked.

“I dunno, I gotta call the office,” he said.

“We have to find a payphone, now,” I told Mason.

Vince hung up the phone and gave us the scoop.

“Okay, I just gotta go get the car, pick him up at home, and bring him to the office. No biggie,” Vince said.

“Where’s the car?” I asked.

“At the office. Yeah, there’s you know, there’s a thing, a what-da-ya-call-it, a parking garage underneath, they keep the limos in there,” Vince said.

“Limos? How many Limos?” I asked.

“Two,” he said.

“I’d be very interested to see those. Just him?” I asked.

“Just him what?” Vince asked.

“Meltone, you idiot. Is it just Meltone or are you picking someone else up too?” I asked, frustrated.

“Oh sorry, just him, just him,” Vince said.

“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. Mason, you and I are taking Vinnie here to the limo. From there, we’re going to follow him out to pick up the old man. After he’s merrily on his way, we’re going to stay behind and have a chat with your girlfriend,” I said.

“What about him? What if he tells the old man what we’re doing?” Mason asked.

I gave Vince a long look in his eyes. I could tell that was exactly what he planned to do because he was waiting for my answer as well.

“First of all, once my friend detective Tom Czerneski finds out it was Vinnie here that took a shot through my office window, well, let’s just say it’s gonna be a pretty tough rap to beat. Attempted murder can be that way,” I said.

“Whoa, whoa, wait, hold it lady, I didn’t do nothin’ like that,” Vince said.

“Especially once he finds out about your connection to Buffy,” I said.

“Look lady, you know damn well that’s a bunch of…”

“And secondly, I’m about to turn this gun on little miss ‘always be a thing’ and her and I are going to take a little ride. If the old man finds out, trust the shit out of me when I tell you she’ll be lucky if the birds find enough of her to shit a stain on the old man’s fancy car. Capiche?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah, you make a good case. But like I said, I didn’t do no shootin’,” Vince said.

“Yeah, well, then who did?” Mason asked.

“Beats me buddy. Yous can tell it wasn’t me,” he said.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“You’re still breathin’ ain’t ya?” he said as we pulled into the garage.

“Who drives this other limo?” I asked.

“Me usually, I mean, it’s sorta like a backup. Whoever needs a car ya know? Let’s say you gotta go to the office store and I’m out, get lunch, whatever,” Vince said.

“What about that day you followed her and Mason to lunch, the day I saw you driving down my a…”

I stopped. As I rounded the rear of the second limo during my circle inspection I noticed something.

“Tell me Vince, are there any cats in this garage?” I asked.

“Not that I’ve seen. And I’d notice, I hate cats,” he said.

“Of course you do. How then would you explain these?” I asked.

I stood next to the car like a stage model presenting the grandest feature of the latest piece of crap marketed to make a woman’s life easier but designed to take her money.

“What?” he asked.

“Cat tracks,” I said.

“Yeah so?” Vince said.

“Open it up,” I said.

I walked around and climbed into the driver’s seat. It was set up for a woman, along with the mirrors. The smell, again, recognizable.

“Let’s get a move-on boys, me and the little lady have some things to discuss,” I said slamming the door.

Mason and I followed Vince to the gates of a ridiculous stone mansion on the lake. We parked and walked into the expansive compound, taking refuge behind the guest house until they passed on their way out.

“You’re up loverboy,” I said.

I stood off to the side and let Mason work the scrooge door knocker with the creepy face on it. As much as I wanted to be ready for the next interrogation, I couldn’t help but think that if the door knocker came to life and started talking, I was going to have to abandon this case altogether.

“May I help you?” the maid asked.

“Um, yes. Mrs. Meltone please. Please tell her Mr. Mason Owens is here to discuss her design interpretations at the new building.”

The maid looked outside the door slightly puzzled but had not seen me.

“Why didn’t you ring at the gate?” she asked.

Mason stood there silent for what I felt was far too long but like any good salesman, quick lies come natural.

“Oh well I just happened into Mr. Meltone on his way out. He told me to just go ahead on through. I’m sure if you feel like there’s a problem we can give him a call,” he said.

“No, no, I’m sure it’s fine,” she said with a new smile.

“Won’t you come in? I’ll just let her know you’re here,” she said.

I stepped-in behind Mason as she double-timed her chore in order to save face.

“There’s a bar, head over there and make a drink,” I whispered.

“A drink? But it’s..”

I gave him a look that would have led him down a hole from which few return. I hid behind the bar and waited for my chance.

“Oh my gosh, Mason dear, what are you doing here?” Buffy asked.

“You and Vince? Really? You were going to turn me in to the old man? Are you trying to get me killed?” he asked heatedly.

“No, no, you don’t understand, it was all Vinnie’s idea. If Alfie found out who I was, I mean, I’d lose everything,” she pled.

“Is that why you tried to kill Maximine? Because she found out who you used to be?” he asked.

“Maxiwho?” she asked stupidly.

“Maximine, Philippine Maximine, the private investigator. She was the one who spoke to Sindy? Found out what you used to do there? Ring any bells?”

Buffy cluelessly looked at Mason doing her level best not to break into tears.

“Really! I don’t know what you mean! I could never hurt anybody!” she cried.

“Hey Buff, how’s about you and I have us a good old-fashioned girl to girl chat?” I asked.

My jack in the box scene entrance startled the cry right out of her. Or maybe it was the gun I set down on the bar.

“Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Philippine Maximine, and I believe you.”

Would you rather suffer pain from a superficial injury or be the guest in the home of a couple having an impromptu argument? Maybe something started out as a joke, worse if it was your joke, and it escalated from there. Maybe it was deep-seeded, and it just took a while to break the surface to find light and grow. Would it be worth blood not to be there? How about a broken bone, or would you settle for a bad sprain with bruising? Spend enough time with any couple anywhere and you might be able to answer the question.

A night in the hospital is just what the doctor ordered, especially in a guarded room. I’m glad it wasn’t private. I would have hated to be so disassociated from human suffering as to not enjoy the company of my roommate. She made for a rather contradictory metaphor. In Oz, the witch was just out there for everyone to see, there were no preconceived notions about who she was. She gets all the credit in the world for that. The wizard, he hid behind a curtain. Everything he did was accidental, lucky lies that took on lives of their own. And of course, he was quite familiarly busted by a little dog. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Poor Muffin. This woman was definitely a witch, but she stayed behind the curtain.

After her particularly harsh brand of personal intoxication wore off, the remorse of what she may have done, had she remembered set in. My job was to be her captive emotional tampon. For some reason I was supposed to tell her everything was going to be alright. She wanted me to assure her that there’s no way her husband was going to find out she was knee-deep in the dealer’s sheets when the drug house was busted. Her husband, after he finds a babysitter, was not going to mind one bit that all she had to wear was jail scrubs and he’d better dig something out of her drawer before he comes down to bail her out. He won’t mind the track marks on her arm, the wreak of straight booze emanating from her pours. He’ll never know a thing unless he hires me. I wondered if the old man knew Buffy was a stripper.

“Lady? I just shot some guys okay? Shit in your own bedpan,” I said.

“Knock, knock, you decent?” Detective Tom asked.

“Whatever happened to resting?” I asked.

“Haven’t you ever heard the phrase no rest for the wicked?” Tom asked.

“Explains more than you know,” I said.

“Well, anyways, I thought you might want to know, so far ballistics came back with a bullet fired from an as of yet unidentified high caliber rifle,” he said.

“So, nothing. You couldn’t have told me that on the phone?” I asked.

“There’s more. The guy, the guy you wounded really didn’t give us much, and fact is, he might never,” he said.

“Bad?” I asked.

 “Worse, he could be gone by the time I get back up there,” Tom said.

 “What, a, shame,” I said slowly.

“At the moment, I’m holding her on suspicion to commit, but that ain’t gonna hold for long. Once the judge gets ahold of it she’s going to be on the street before you can whistle dixie unless I can get more. What else you got for me Philippine. And don’t hold out on me, it’s your ass we’re talkin about here,” Tom said.

“I gotta tell ya Tom, Mary Owens might be a first-class bitch, but I don’t think it’s her. The second guy? He was going to kill her, sure as shit. Even if I was the target, they had no problem with collateral damage, even her. Those guys weren’t a couple of half-wits from the bar, they did that sort of shit for a living. Contracts like that generally pay in full upon completion. No way they kill her, not if they wanted to get paid,” I explained.

“You sure about that? Maybe some guys on down the line just don’t know any better,” Tom said.

“Yeah but even right away when it all started. They just opened fire, started blasting. If the dog didn’t tip us off…”

“She never gave you a clue? What about the cat, the shot in your office? Think about it Philippine,” Tom said.

“Yeah, I got it. You need something, I might have something. You know why I’m in here Tom?” I asked.

“Yeah, of course, you were in an explosion,” Tom answered.

“Yeah Tom, I’m here for observation, overnight, under guard. I got a damn tube in my arm and they gave me some shit that’s supposed to relax me but it ain’t workin’. You know why it ain’t workin’ Tom?” I asked.

“Read you loud and clear Maximine. I’ll see you in the mornin’. Hey, what’s her problem anyways?” Tom asked.

He needed to pass by the witch’s side of the curtain in order to leave the room. Asking personally invasive questions is a cop’s version of comforting small talk.

“She is, same as everyone,” I said.

“Yeah? Well, whatever,” he said as he left.

I checked myself out early the next morning. I wanted to make sure I could beat feet before I had to meet with Detective Tom again. The tan sedan was still at the scene, so I called the one guy I knew for sure wasn’t getting any sleep.

“Thanks, we need to talk,” I said.

His car was what you would expect it to be. The leather seats in Mason’s late model European sedan squeaked as I slid my ass into place. 

“Where to?” Mason asked.

“Let’s get a cup of coffee. Try here,” I said.

I had a drink coaster in my back pocket. I planned on using it when I changed seats at the bar, but I never got around to it. I showed it to Mason and tossed it onto the floor.

“Are you kidding? Hey!” he said.

“Nope, and whatever, they have good coffee,” I said.

The uncomfortable silence was made worse by the damn car you could barely hear run.

“What about the car Mason? Black Jag convertibles don’t exactly grow on trees,” I asked.

“Coincidence. Has to be,” he said.

“Really? That’s bullshit and you know it.  You got no chance at that coincidence BS with me. I ain’t buyin’ it, and you can bet the cops aren’t either. And what the hell is this situation you got yourself into? What are you trying to get out of?” I asked.

Mason stopped his car in front of the club.

“Here? Really? You sure?” he asked.

“Yeah. Like I said, they got good coffee. Plus, I know someone who works here, I can get us a deal,” I said.

“I’ll buy if money is the issue,” Mason said.

“Nope, plus maybe we’ll get lucky and run into an old friend,” I said.

“Yeah? Like who?” Mason asked.

“Doesn’t matter. Point is, nobody here gives a shit about us, so we know nobody is listening,” I said.

The smell of fresh coffee and urine punch you in the face first step through the front doors. Once you’re used to it, it’s almost like that sweet smell when you’re still a half a mile from a flat skunk, until you get close.

We chose a booth where I could see the door. My old friend Randy spotted us and immediately disappeared into the back room.

“Friend of yours?” Mason asked.

“Not exactly, but she is,” I said.

Sindy must have pulled the early shift that day. She came through the front doors looking like she got up late for church.

“Hey Sin,” I said.

“Ms. Maximine! Hey, he’s much better than the last one huh?” Sindy said.

“Just business Sindy. I’m glad I ran into you though. I was hoping you could keep an eye out for me. Ya know in case anyone we might know shows up unexpectedly. Oh, and could you tell her a couple of large coffees? Thanks,” I said.

I handed her a twenty spot folded the long ways. She gave the bartender our order, gave me a wink and headed backstage.

“Alright, spill it,” I said.

“She didn’t do it. No way. I’d know. This whole thing has gotten out of hand,” Mason said.

“I’m aware. Now why don’t we start with what it is you got yourself into,” I said.

“Money. Lots and lots of money. The AAPT, the old man. He got on this animal kick a few years back. He wants to go international with this thing. Hell, he already has. They needed properties, and I knew how to get ‘em. Thing is, the son, Wesley, he was in charge of all property acquisition. Now believe it or not, he’s still punching the damn clock. The old man might have all the money in the world, but unless you either got tits or puppies, he ain’t all about sharing it,” Mason said.

“So lemme’ guess, you and Wesley set out to get some of it for yourselves,” I said.

“Yeah, you could say that. The old man has no idea how much property costs. As long as it was for the animals, he doesn’t care what he pays for a building. Wesley and I split the overage right down the middle, fifty, fifty,” he said.

“How does Mary fit in?” I asked.

“She knows about it, about everything. She was lovin’ it, fancy house, car, maid. It was all good until he found out,” Mason said.

“Who? The old man?” I asked.

“Vince, Vince Rantelinini. The fuckin’ chauffeur. This guy overhears a conversation Wesley and I were having in the back of the damn car, comes to my office and says he’s going to tell the old man’s arm candy wife all about us. Says he used to date her heavy and she’ll tell the old man unless we cut him in on the deal.,” he explains.

“How much did he want?” I asked.

“Half! Fuckin half! I’m supposed to tell Wesley that him and I are going to get twenty-five each while this asshole gets half? I don’t think so. He had to have sent Mrs. McArm Candy, aka Buffy over there to make the hire,” he said.

“Why me then? I’ve never met the woman,” I said.

“Um hello? Like, she probably doesn’t want her like traditional old guy husband to know she like, you know, worked here,” Sindy said.

“What the, how long have you been standing there?” I asked.

“Um, I brought your coffee, and he’s here,” Sindy said.

“Who’s here?” Mason asked.

“Him,” she said pointing.

Vince walked in and sat at the bar, never having even glanced in our direction.

“Nice Sin, nice,” I said.

“Great, so you know this asshole,” Mason asked.

“He’s the old friend I was talking about, although admittedly we’ve never been formerly introduced,” I said.

“How does that even make sense?” Mason asked.

I sipped my coffee.

“Anyways, maybe she’s right? I mean, it had to cost a shitload of money to hire those guys. Who else could do it?” Mason asked.

“No way, uh uh. Doesn’t add up. Why send so much firepower, do so much damage just for me? Seems like a bit of overkill doesn’t it?” I asked.

“Maybe they tried it the other way and missed. You know, one guy, a shot through an office window?” Mason asked.

I’ll admit, Mason and Sindy had my wheels turning double time. It just seemed a little bit too easy.

“What about the cat? Where’ did ole Vince get a mountain lion?” I asked.

“Oh. Well, um, that might have been us,” Mason said.

I removed my gun from its holster and placed it on the table in front of us.

“What?” I asked.

“Yeah, well, we needed you to keep an eye on Wesley without really telling you to keep an eye on Wesley. He was the threat who at first, we never anticipated. How long before he realized he didn’t need me anymore? We needed you to think we were getting divorced so that Wesley would trust Mary. We knew if you tailed her, she’d lead you to him. The lion was a setup. Who else can get a lion besides the boss of a rare animal rescue? It was a breadcrumb. And once Mary got tight with Wesley, we’d know about any plan he had to you know, end the deal, end me. Meanwhile I knew damn well Buffy wasn’t getting what she needed from the old man, so you know, a passing glance, a little flirting here, an accidental touch there. Next thing you know we’re on both sides of the coin. Being with her was the only way I knew for sure I could get ahead of this whole Vince thing. And really, the lion thing worked, sort of,” Mason said nervously.

I picked the gun up off the table, chambered a round, stood up in the booth and pointed it at Mason’s head, aiming carefully between his eyes. After a moment of conjectural fear instillation, I adjusted my aim, stepped out of the booth and approached the bar.         

“Hi Vince, let’s say you and me take a ride.”

Avoid placing a bouquet of flowers near fruit. Ripening fruit releases fractional amounts of ethylene gas that can prematurely wilt your fresh cut flowers. Do add flower food to the water, trim the stems, even add a little bit of sugar to the mix. Avoid bullets. Bullets and to some degree, shattered glass will remove the petals at a frightening rate.

“Go, go, go!” I yelled.

Mary and I crawled quickly across the tile floor with the sole intent of escaping the melee, destination not included. Splintered wood and shards of glass filled the air as bullets ripped through the breakfast nook. Flower petals from the vase on the table fluttered to the ground peacefully in pieces.

“Do you have a basement?” I asked.

Mary couldn’t answer. Fear and panic evidently shut her down. She covered her ears, rolled into a fetal position and cried. If I could have stood up without getting killed, I would have kicked her. Mostly to get her moving, but also for giving a slave name to the maid.

“Mary! Mary!” I screamed.

“Yes, yes,” she pointed.

I pushed her forward, sliding her across the floor like a dog that refused to go to the vet. Heavy blows and cracking timber let me know the gardeners were coming through the doors. Slamming her head into the basement door helped Mary to sort of get her wits about her, at least enough to navigate the stairs.

“We need an egress Mary, now!” I yelled.

“A what?” she asked.

“A window Mary, A fuckin’ window that goes up!” I said.

Mary shook her head yes feverishly but in the heat of the moment, looking around cluelessly, could not locate the window. I grabbed her by her shoulders and looked into her eyes.

“Where Mary? Think! Shit, too late!” I said.

One of the gardeners was charging down the stairs. Much to his surprise I buried a bullet in his chest just as he neared the bottom. He fell forward, letting his short, automatic weapon slide towards us across the floor. A weapon I quickly acquired.

The basement was a labyrinth of rooms. Once Mary’s brain started to work again, I followed her to the room with the egress. I shot the window with my pistol and finished it off with a folding metal chair with a red padded seat. It was the kind of chair you’d expect to sit on attending a time share meeting at a cheap hotel. Instead of poking our heads out to be shot off, I hid a whimpering Mary behind the furnace and crept back to the stairs.

In an adjacent room I backed into a corner behind a rack of exercise equipment. From my position, through the doorway I could see the body at the bottom of the stairs as well as Mary behind the furnace. I put my finger to my mouth signaling her to be quiet.

“Matka, Matka!” a man upstairs yelled.

Seconds later he came down speaking a language I could not understand. I could tell he was pissed. Bitching and moaning is in fact universal. If we as humans were to ever make contact with an alien race, we need only complain about where they parked their spaceship and they would probably understand.

He checked for a pulse on the neck of the man I shot who was very apparently dead. He called back upstairs but stayed crouched next to the body as his eyes scanned for any sign of me, of us. As he watched the blood puddle from the dead gardener steadily grow, his face revealed all the rage of a man who just lost a comrade. His restraint was commendable if only temporary. Two more gardeners descended the stairs, this time slowly, methodically. He pointed directional instructions and the men quickly complied.

One man found the broken egress window, studied it for a moment, then ascended the ladder and disappeared from view. The other must have heard Mary behind the furnace. His gun was at his shoulder when she came into his view. Mary looked up at him with absolute terror in her eyes. She screamed and I was quite sure she was about to be killed. I put a round through his left temple and he crumpled like a house of cards. Mary stopped screaming, momentarily shocked into silence, the air in her lungs simply unavailable. She was in fact so scared that she could not breathe, a malady which proved to be regrettably as temporary as the head gardener’s restrained anger. My guess is the discharge from the exit wound, now dripping from her eyelash, reignited her ability to scream. And scream she did.

“No!” he yelled.

The only word spoken so far that I understood, the gardener at the stairs officially lost his patience. He moved hastily towards us; weapon drawn. No longer possessing the element of surprise I rather instinctively pointed the automatic weapon in his general direction and pulled the trigger. To say I aimed would be wholly inaccurate. The weapon tracked towards the ceiling as it fired like a tiny jet engine ripping a line of holes through the gardener, the wall, the ceiling, and whatever happened to be above us.

From my peripheral I could see the shadow of the man coming from the ladder outside the egress window. Before I could see a person, I saw the barrel of a gun. I fired the weapon again, this time in a much more measured fashion, holding it firmly while issuing short, measured bursts. I assume to have struck his hand or arm as he dropped his weapon and fled back up the ladder, into the yard and out of sight.

The remaining few gardeners were still upstairs and presumably, in their language decided the mission was a failure. The choir of their moving feet sang a collective retreat out the door, the baritone may have been dragging a leg.

Mary sobbed uncontrollably in the corner. She was most likely going to need professional help.

“They’re gone,” I said.

“What about, what about,” Mary sobbed.

“What about what? Spit it out,” I demanded.

It was at that very moment it occurred to me that when this all started we were not in the house alone. Gun drawn; I carefully climbed the stairs. The first thing I noticed was a blood trail where a man plowed through the debris with a bleeding limb. I searched room to room for the maid but came up empty.

“Are they gone?” Mary asked from downstairs.

“Yeah, yeah they’re gone. I must have hit one of them on accident, probably when I shot the other guy,” I said.

Then I saw her.

“Wait, Mary, don’t come,” I started to say.

It was too late, Mary was at my side before I knew it, and there was no way she wasn’t going to see what I was looking at. Outside what used to be the window, the maid’s lifeless body was cradled in the arms of the statue of the crying saint, his tears turning the blood on her white outfit to pink.

“Oh my God, Sarah!” she yelled.

Mary started her panicky crying again.

“Really? She was your slave, don’t act like you care now,” I said.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I told you, that’s not me, I had to,” she said.

“Nobody has to go that far, people like you don’t even know, wait, what’s that?” I asked.

In the kitchen, opposing pages in a chapter of nightmares jumped the bookmark to become one. Against the wall, squarely in the trail of bullet holes delivered from below, the built-in refrigeration unit suffered a mortal blow. Faint whiffs of smoke mixed with the smell of electric ozone accompanied its last sparks of life. Across the room, the soft hiss of a wounded gas line filled our noses with the intentionally added odor of rotten eggs designed to warn of impending doom.

“Go! Now! Run!” I yelled.

Mary, still distraught and crying about Sarah was confused as I grabbed her by the arm and ran for the door.

The percussion from the exploding fireball blew us off our feet and across the lawn. The house, in all its artistic glory was a total and complete loss. A black mushroom cloud billowed into the atmosphere as debris rained down on the fancy neighborhood.

Blackened, slightly injured and thoroughly traumatized, we laid in the grass together waiting for the distant sirens to arrive.

“Next time, I don’t think I’ll come,” I laughed.

Anything quantifiable that Mary had to say she most likely would have to say to the psychiatrist.

“I just, you, you killed them, and Sarah, they killed her, she, and the. They were going to kill us,” she muttered.

A police car was first, then fire trucks, ambulances, pretty much everybody. Both of us were able to walk with a shoulder to lean on. From inside the ambulance I could hear car tires screech to a halt. Seconds later Mason Owens was standing in front of the rear doors looking-in.

“You! Maximine! What the hell are you? Never mind, where’s Mary?” he asked heatedly.

I motioned towards the other ambulance and he was gone as fast as he came.

“Hold up a second doc,” I said.

I scooted forward and stepped out the back of the ambulance. I saw Mason jumping into the back of the other unit. The relief in his voice was palpable.

“My God Mary!” he yelled.

I snuck in for a closer look.

“Mary, Mary, thank God, thank God you’re okay,” he said embracing her.

“So the divorce is off I’m assuming?” I asked walking up.

They both looked at me with all the guilt of a kid getting caught opening presents in the middle of a Christmas Eve night.

“Look, Philippine, we need to talk,” Mason said.

“And I’m going to be looking forward to every word, but first I’m going to need to talk to her alone if you don’t mind,” Detective Tom said.

Tom stood behind me holding open the door of the rescue unit with one hand while the other held a constantly chattering radio.

“Hear all this Phil?” Tom held up his radio.

“I got blood, I got automatic weapons, hell I got bodies Phil, lots of ‘em. I got probably one of the biggest crime scenes to hit this area in the last God knows how many years. But you know what I don’t have Philippine? I don’t have one God damn answer as to what in the holy hell happened here today,” Tom said.

Detective Tom took a set of handcuffs from his pocket and hung them on his finger.

“Am I going to need these Phil? Cause I can god damn guarantee you aren’t going to go any damn where until I get some of those answers Philippine. Here, downtown, it don’t matter to me. Just get your ass down here and start talkin’,” Tom said.

Mary and Mason were still locked in loving embrace.

“Let’s talk about this later,” I told them.

“You two aren’t going any damn where either so don’t get any ideas. Sergeant! They go nowhere unless I know about it understand?” Tom said.

“Excuse me detective, are we under arrest?” Mason asked.

“Hell yes,” Tom said.

I told Tom everything, from the initial phone call to set up the meeting to the antics of Muffin the barky dog.

“Yeah we found the dog, seems they shot him too,” he said.

“So you killed three and wounded two others?” Tom asked.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I hit the guy upstairs,” I said.

“And then you blew up the damn house,” he said.

“That, that was an accident,” I said.

“And them? They don’t look much like they want a divorce wouldn’t you say?” he asked.

“So I noticed,” I said.

“You just sit tight, they’re next. You so much as move a muscle I’ll have every cop in the…”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said.

It was at least an hour before I witnessed an extremely frustrated Detective Tom exit the ambulance and storm away in a huff. Mason stepped out a few moments later and came over to talk.

“Look, Philippine, I…”

“What the hell is going on Mason? I don’t give a shit what you said to major Tom, but you had better cough up some answers, right here, right now,” I demanded.

Mason kept his head to the ground lacking the manhood to look me in my eyes.

“There isn’t going to be any divorce, never was,” he said.

“Well no shit,” I said.

“Yeah, um, we kinda got ourselves in a situation. I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, I was hoping we could get out before this all happened. I thought maybe if we endeared ourselves, split ourselves off, maybe, just maybe we could get out. I thought if it was his idea to use you, you’d be our golden alibi, they’d believe it was all true. We could get out, be free,” he pleaded.

“Who? What did you get yourself into? Who’s ‘he’ Mason? Shh, here he comes,” I said.

“Good, you’re both here, come with me,” Tom said.

We walked together to the other ambulance.

“Mary Owens? You’re under arrest for the attempted murder of Philippine Maximine. Sergeant? Read her her rights,” Tom said.

“Wait! What?” Mason asked.

“Turns out the guy you wounded wasn’t quite fast enough to keep up with his buddies Phil. And it looks like he speaks English after all, at least a little anyways. We found him on the edge of the bushes over there with a two by four sticking in his side. Talk about literally spilling your guts. It was always you Philippine, they followed you over here, it was always you. Says he didn’t see her up close. A blonde woman in heels hired them. Drove a black Jaguar convertible, just like that one parked right over there.”

Depending on the direction of the wind, simply approaching a strip club provides the sort of sensory overload usually reserved for livestock barns and polluted rivers. Be aware of what you may step in or on. If it slips, squishes or moans, your shoes might need a booster. The smell is decidedly biologic, with a chemical aftertaste that sticks to the back of your tongue like generic cold medicine. And we weren’t even inside yet.

The sidewalls of the black circular bar were upholstered in fake leather stitched in a repeating diamond pattern.  The bar top was a wood dance floor, littered with cheap heel scuff marks and sweaty drink rings. Matching black stools stood sentinel, keeping the bar itself from running out the front door and pulling the rest of the place along with it. The bar could have been the groom at a wedding who got caught being pleasured under the table by a jealous bridesmaid. In his haste he tucked the tablecloth into his pants and ran out the front door, pulling everyone’s chicken dinner and marble cake onto the floor. 

Tom and I were not even a novelty, an old white man with a much younger woman who wasn’t. His badge was more like a frequent customer card that made us eligible for every one-hundredth lap dance free.

We struck up a conversation with the bartender who swore she came in late and had no recollection of the man in question. She pointed us to the manager, Randy, a squirrely type with a gold chain buried in too much chest hair with a bad case of the sniffles. 

“Yeah, no, never heard of him,” Randy said.

“Yeah? Well, he made it seem like you two was buddies, you know? I’m tellin’ ya, I just talked to the guy, Vince, says he knows you pretty good. The hell of it is if you can’t verify that your buddy was here, I may have to run him in, see what else he has to say,” Detective Tom said.

Randy stood there sweating while Tom was hitting him over the head with typically vague cop threats, intimidation scenarios with built-in back doors. The doors were there for everybody, cops and criminals alike. Everybody except justice, whose blindfold covered her ears as well as her eyes.

One of the dancers moved in close. Either she was overly ambitious or overly nosy, maybe both. Randy shoved her away hard. She tripped on her heels, stumbled, and fell into the bar stools. A regular spectacle.  

“Are you fucking kidding me? Back the fuck off!” he berated her.

Although not personally, I knew her. Every single body who grew up where I did knew her, or at least someone just like her. It’s easy to sit back and judge. Nothing but a thief, a prostitute, a drug addict, and a whore. She’s just lazy. It’s easier to shake your naked ass and turn tricks for money than to actually punch a clock and be productive. A bunch of rhetoric from bar stool magistrates that never met her father or spent a night in the homeless shelter with her children. It wasn’t for me, but I know the second you think you’re too good is the same second you’ll never get any better.

“Look you mutherfu—”

“Whoa, now Phil, just hold up,” Tom interrupted.

I managed to get my hand on my gun before Tom stopped me. I may not have shot him but I was going to do my best to return some of the anxiety and fear he gave to her. I read him the riot act, left finger squarely in his face. I would have poked him in the chest if not for the fear of coming away with something.

“You feel like a big man now? You feel tough? He just saved your life fucker. For now anyways, because I swear I ever hear you touching any of these girls again I won’t make it quick. I’ll make sure you feel everything, and not even God will know where you are. Only gators, one piece at a time. Trust me, they love rotten meat,” I explained.

“Jesus man! Chick’s crazy man! Get her off me!” the manager begged.

Not having the stomach to look at him anymore I left the rest of the interrogation up to Tom. I sat at the bar and ordered a cup of coffee. Despite the atmosphere, they really did make a good cup of coffee. 

“Oh yeah? Well then why don’t you just show me?”

I overheard Tom talking to the manager, it was a fake statement, inserted into the only part of the conversation loud enough for me to hear over the music. The two men disappeared into a back room. I really didn’t even want to know. The girl, the stripper, sat down next to me at the bar.

“Hi, I’m Sindy, with an S,” she said.

“Of course you are. Hi Sindy with an S. Philippine, Philippine Maximine,” I said.

“I wanted to say thanks for what you said back there. Randy can be a real jerk sometimes,” she said.

“Guys like that need to be put in their place, they need their asses kicked is what they need,” I said.

“I mean, he’s not always like that, I mean, sometimes he can be really sweet. You know?” she said.

“Don’t kid yourself, they’re only sweet when they want something Sindy,” I said angrily.

“Hey, that guy you’re looking for? Vince? Yeah well he comes in here like all the time. I saw him here, like earlier. Yeah, he and Randy are good friends. He even used to date one of the girls here. They were together for like, ever. He’s worse than Randy though, you know? And I guess she finally had enough,” Sindy said.

“Does she still work here?” I asked.

“Oh no, she hooked-up with like a major rich guy,” she said.

“Does this girl have a name?” I asked.

I really didn’t need to ask.

“Her real name or stage name?” she asked.

“Real please,” I said.

“Buffy, I’m not sure of her last name, it like, changed,” she said.

“That’s okay Sindy, I think I can take it from there. I appreciate the information,” I said.

“No problem, it was like, the least I could do after you stood up for me,” she said.

“One more thing Sin, when you see the old guy, tell him to find his own ride home,” I said.

I tucked a twenty into her G-string. She laughed and gave me a thumbs up.

“Take care of yourself Philippine Maximine,” she said.

“You too, Sindy, you too,” I said.

Sepia from the waning light of day through my old office window jaded my perspective of the outside world. Yellow light bulbs reflecting off painted things that used to be white offered a finishing touch to an artist’s rendering of another depressing day. The new window glass changed things. Clear light offers sharper images, a better look at what I rarely bothered to see. 

It was a feet up, drink in hand sort of evening but peace and quiet both exist to be disturbed, otherwise you would never be able to fully appreciate either. Phone bells however are the modern equivalent of a bit playing actor you never heard of yelling “Man the life rafts!”

“Philippine Maximine. Why yes Mrs. Owens, I just wanted to, yes I suppose that, sure? Ok, I’ll…” 

She kept the call as short and rude as possible. Either she was being careful keeping her pawns hidden behind her, or she was just a shitty person. As long as the phone was hot, there were other calls I could make to find out. I was invited to her home the next morning for a meeting, a meeting which was overdue.

Two stone pillars supporting wrought iron gates which never moved marked the drive at the end of the road. The house was a modern art masterpiece, boasting a museum quality design too ugly to be functional but too beautiful not to live in. A little white dog with the heart of a lion yipped and yapped on the front stoop as I pulled up, although its pinkish sweater made me doubt the veracity of its claims. Mary Owens met me at the carved wood doors.

“Good morning Ms. Maximine. I trust you have answers for me,” she said.

“Mrs. Owens, we need to have a chat,” I said.

“In that case I suppose you must come in,” she said.

The little dog with its little teeth showing through its little growl stood tall against me as I tried to follow Mrs. Owens inside.

“Oh Muffin, that’s quite enough,” she said.

Muffin, go figure. 

“He’s a cute little guy, what breed is he?” I asked.

“First of all, he is a she, and she is a Maltese. Really, one would think such a thing to be obvious,” she said.

“I’m so sorry. I don’t have much experience when it comes to little dogs. See, where I’m from, they really weren’t fast enough to escape the gators so, you know, there weren’t too many of them around,” I said tongue in cheek.

I could tell by the look on Muffin’s face accompanied by her sudden silence that she was picking up what I was laying down. Mary and I made small talk as we meandered through the house. I was busy noticing.

“My, how barbaric, you must be proud of… Where exactly did you say you were from Ms. Maximine?” Mary asked.

“I didn’t say, but as long as you ask, Lose-ee-ann-a. At least as a kid anyways, before we moved up north,” I said.

“How nice for you. Tell me Ms. Maximine, what made you take up such a dangerous line of work?” she asked.

“Family business,” I answered.

Mary and Muffin led me to a quaint breakfast nook overlooking a stone fountain of what I assumed to be a holy saint with his arms extended weeping water from his eyes. He appeared to be asking ‘why’ and crying profusely.

“My, that’s rather,” but I ran out of words.

“Can I get you some tea, maybe coffee?” she asked.

“Coffee would be great, thanks,” I said.

“Of course,” she said.

Mary clapped her hands twice, but nothing happened. I wasn’t sure whether to expect a light to come on or a robot to come rolling into the room. She clapped again.

“Sarah, Sarah,” she called.

A young Asian woman walked into the room and stood by the table. Mrs. Owens gave her instructions and she promptly left the room to comply.

“You’ll have to excuse the help. To be honest, Sarah isn’t even her name, but I had to call her something,” she laughed. “I mean really, it’s not like her actual name is pronounceable in English. For goodness sake, on paper it looks like someone spilled the alphabet and tried to clean it up with, you know, something that wouldn’t work. Can you imagine? So, of course, I gave her a proper name,” she said.

“Look, before I even get around to telling you exactly how wrong and absolutely awful that is, let’s talk about all this honestly. Let’s talk about you and Mason,” I said angrily.

“What would you like to know?” she asked.

“I want to know what you hope to gain from all of this,” I said.

“Isn’t it obvious dear? Look around. You’re sitting on your answer. She’s serving you coffee, eventually. It’s over your head and under your feet. It’s out the window, it’s in the garage. It’s everything, I want everything,” she said.

“Seems to me there’s nothing here your boyfriend Wesley wouldn’t be able to provide. If I was to venture a guess, I would say he could even do a whole lot more,” I said.

“Why Philippine Maximine, what ever are you saying?” she asked.

“Cut the crap, Mary. I know all about Wesley. What’s more is I know all about you. I know about your DD214, the drugs, everything. Furthermore I’m aware that you qualified as an expert marksman before your discharge. I know a certain detective who would find that to be pretty interesting information, especially since a bullet came screaming through my office window yesterday. Maybe, just maybe that was you. Maybe somewhere in that fancy gun cabinet in the other room there’s a rifle that fits that bullet,” I accused.

I may have underestimated her acting skills as her eyes welled-up with tears.

“Why would I want to shoot you?” she asked.

“Why indeed? Hiring me would make the perfect alibi wouldn’t it. But maybe it wasn’t me you were trying to kill. Maybe it was someone who was there with me, like your husband,” I said.

Mary broke down completely and buried her head in her arms on the table.

“You’re right you’re right,” she sobbed. “I’m a fake, this isn’t me. I just have to get out, Wesley. He can get me out, he can help me. He’s why I hired you, it’s all him,” she cried uncontrollably.

Muffin was at it again, railing hard against a bevy of gardeners. Gardeners who felt the need to creep around the outside shrubbery, gardeners without tools, gardeners with their hands in their pockets, gardeners who sure as hell didn’t look like gardeners.

“Mary, Mary, calm down, calm down. Are you expecting any gardeners today?” I asked.

Mary perked up. Even if just for a second, strangely appreciating what I had said.

“Oh that’s sweet, thank you. I always felt like I had a knack for…” 

“Shit! Get down!” I yelled.

“Why detective, so good to see you,” I said sarcastically.

“I’m sure it is, Ms. Maximine, I’m sure it is. What kind of mess have you gotten yourself into this time?” Tom asked.

“Are you a major yet? You guys have captains, lieutenants, foot soldiers, I think you should be a major. Major Tom, can you hear me major Tom? Can you hear me major Tom?” I sang.

Detective Tom Czerneski was clearly not amused. He never was. Tom always had an angle. The kind of cop who assumes to know every answer before he asks the question. The kind of man who spends too much time in the bathroom slogging on all matters of alchemy designed to keep women 29 until they’re 69. This guy would arrest his own mirror.

“That’s twice in a week, Philippine. I think it’s time you let me in on it don’t ya think?” he asked.

“There’s nothing to let you in on, Tom,” I said.

“Really? Let’s just recap for a second shall we? A mountain lion just happened to pick the lock on your office door for what? Because he was tired? Because he wanted a cup of coffee?” Tom asked.

“Oh hey good idea. You want a cup?” I asked.

“Cut the crap Maximine. I’m on your side here. Someone is trying to kill you and it’s my job to find out who and why,” he said.

A miscellaneous officer walked in and handed Tom a plastic bag.

“We have the bullet sir,” the officer said.

Detective Tom held the bullet up to the light in front of both of us.

“I imagine that would have hurt a bit,” he said.

“I’ll bet you’re the kind of class act who would hold up a baby and say that same thing to the mother,” I said.

“Let’s face it, you’re no kind of mother Maximine,” he said.

“Let’s just say I like to have the option. After all, you never know when a post middle aged tin star one forgotten birthday away from forced retirement might wander in and sweep a girl off her feet, you know that cop pension and all,” I said.

“You know I ought to run you in,” he said angrily.

“On what charge?” I asked.

Eight knuckles down on my desk he leaned in close and turned the tone dial up to serious.

“I’ll think of something,” he said quietly.

In poker terms, sometimes a dog bluffs, growling even though it’s afraid. It’s hoping you’ll fold and get the hell out of the game. Other times a growl can be its tell, it’s going all-in and attack is imminent. A dog person can tell the difference. As it turns out, I’m neither a dog nor a cat person, but I sure can tell when a cop is serious. I guess that makes me a cop person although I will refrain from taking one as a pet.

“Alright, alright, you win. Because you and I both know I’m going to need those ballistics…have a seat. Have you ever heard of the AAPT?” I asked.

I handed him a full cup of coffee and he took a seat in the old precinct chair.

“Rings a bell, something to do with the drug dogs downtown,” he said.

“Animals Are People Too,” I said.

Major Tom nearly spit his joe in my face, flinging himself forward in his chair in order to give his mouth a head start on catching it. He swallowed hard, clearing his throat to more effectively state his disbelief.

“In a nutshell, I have a woman cheating on her husband with an executive of the company. Not only is her husband completely aware of the situation, he’s busy whoring around with the all too young trophy wife of the father of the executive, head of the aforementioned AAPT. This guy, the husband is also the real estate broker for the company that is currently expanding. The wife knows the husband is cheating but doesn’t know with whom. That’s where I come in. I have an ex-client who recommended me to the executive, who in turn tells the cheating wife to hire me to prove the husband is unfaithful so she can take him for all he’s worth in the pending divorce. No sooner does she hit the bricks, when the husband walks in, tells me he knows what his wife wants me to do, that I shouldn’t trust her, and as long as I’m at it, he’ll double my fee to prove she’s cheating on him,” I explain.

“That’s a pretty big nutshell,” Tom said.

“Wait, it gets better. While I’m tailing the husband and the trophy wife, I see they are being tailed by a guy who appears to be a hired thug, likely put in motion by the father, i.e., the husband, founder, and CEO of AAPT, none other than Sir Alfred Meltone, renowned philanthropist and rabid animal rights activist. After my window was shot out, I saw what appeared to be the same car the guy was driving ripping down the alley,” I said.

“You get a plate?” he asked.

“I did not, I was too busy watching my cat escape.”

“That explains the smell,” he said.

“Yeah, well, anyways I don’t really think it was him. I think I’m just supposed to think it was him. Whoever took the shot couldn’t have been that bad at their job. And why shoot once? Why let me see the car after you missed? Something, besides this office just doesn’t smell right,” I said.

I couldn’t tell if I lost him, or if the gears were just turning all too slowly.

“So, the cat. That wasn’t the cat that…”

“No,” I laughed.

“Totally different cat. That was Dick. I acquired Dick, formerly Richard from the AAPT as a means of getting me in the door. Actually, that reminds me of something I need to do,” I said.

I grabbed a can of disinfectant and a handful of napkins from the credenza in my office.

“If you’ll excuse me,” I said.

“So what, that’s it? I’m just supposed to go on my merry way after that convoluted explanation?” Tom asked.

“Listen, I’ll keep you in the loop and if I need you, I’ll call you. You want an attempted murder rap, and I want to get the guy who’s attempting to murder me, so trust me, we’ll be in touch. Just let me know what you find out about that bullet,” I said.

“You’re going to have to give me more than that Maximine. For instance, where you going with that?” he asked.

“Um, there’s something on my car that desperately needs to be cleaned off,” I said.

“What’d you, or should I say who did you hit? You know destroying evidence will get you locked-up quicker than…” 

“Oh trust me, if I could have hit him I would have, and I would have been proud of the stain,” I said.

“Why not just take it in for a wash then?” he asked.

I fully intended on lumping Major Tom and all men together during my eloquently planned explanation detailing their disgusting tendencies and hence the need for an industrial disinfectant. Instead, he gave me an idea.

“First of all, car washes cost money, and anyways, they closed the only one on this side of town,” I said walking out the door.

I staked-out the car for more than an hour before the driver came out of the building. To accentuate the beauty of my mock filthy face I pulled my hair back and tied it under a floral print handkerchief. The ripped material over the toes of my old blue tennis shoes complimented the stained jeans I kept around for chores. My sweatshirt embarrassingly straight off the hanger in my closet completed my bum ensemble all too well.

“Wash your window? Wash your windshield?” I asked.

I came from the street side. Approaching from the sidewalk would have given the chauffeur a chance to thwart my advance. Although his window was open, his attention was given to the front doors of the AAPT office building, presumably waiting for his client. I sprayed the cleaner and started to smear it with a dirty rag immediately triggering an incensed reaction.

“Hey, what the, what the hell are you doing? I’m gonna, why you, get the hell…” 

The chauffeur flung the car door open and slammed it closed hard enough to pop the glass out of the mirror housing. It bounced once, providing us both with that split second of relief, that feeling you get when disaster is averted. At least until the rug is pulled out and it hits the ground a second time shattering on the concrete.

We both just stood there staring at the broken pieces glistening in the sun. Slowly he turned his gaze towards me. I could tell by the look on his face he blamed me.

Sure I could have apologized, most people would in that situation. I also could have ran away and based on his angry eyes that would have been understandable. Instead, I offered an alternative.

“Tell you what, let me clean that up for you, no charge,” I said.

Enraged, he grabbed me by my neck and threw me onto the hood of the car. As he was in the process of offering me a close-up look at the back of his knuckles, a man came from nowhere and grabbed his wrist.

“That’s enough!” 

Detective Tom spun the chauffeur around and slammed him onto the hood next to me. The man rolled off the car and faced off with Tom. He said nothing, even when Tom dangled his gold shield in the man’s face.

“Like I said, that’s enough,” Tom said.

Tom looked at me like a disappointed father would look at a daughter who got caught coming home late with her prom dress on backwards.

“You. Get the hell out of here,” Tom said.

I slid off the hood, wiped my mouth and slowly walked away, looking the limo over as carefully as I could. Having sort of found what I was looking for, I went back to my car and waited. It didn’t take long. Tom opened up the passenger door and slid into the seat.

“What the hell were you thinking Philippine? Had I not come along that guy would have…”

“I know, I know. And thank you. I never thought I’d be grateful for being followed,” I said.

“What did you hope to gain by that little stunt?” Tom asked.

“Cat tracks,” I said

I was holding a napkin to my bloody lip and presumably I was difficult to understand.

“What?” he asked.

“Cat tracks, claw marks, anything. Dick, the damn cat landed on the car that left the scene. The way my office was trashed with litter, he would have left a mark, something, anything,” I explained.

“Well?” Tom asked.

“Nothing, not a damn thing. The car was clean,” I said.

“Maybe he had it washed,” Tom said.

“I doubt it, there was no time. I mean, I would have asked him, but…”

“Yeah I know, you were too busy being an asshole,” he said.

“Yeah funny. Did you get anything, ask him anything?” I asked.

“I did. He told me he was getting coffee. He still had the cup in his center council. Hell, it was still warm,” Tom said.

“Still warm? That would have been hours ago,” I exclaimed.

“Let’s just say he went to the kind of place where you get a cup, you stay awhile, and then you get another cup to go. As a matter of fact, I’m going to head over there now, see if I can’t collaborate his story,” he said.

“Head over where?” I asked.

“Starboinks,” Tom said.

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” I said.

I’m not much of a fan of literature in any form, but some time ago a bartender who I’d become familiar with rattled one off that struck a chord with me. So much so that I committed it to memory.

It was a year ago September, a day I well remember. I was walking down the street in drunken pride. When my knees began to flutter, I fell down in the gutter and a pig came by and lay down by my side. As I lay there in the gutter thinking thoughts I could not utter, a lady passing by was heard to say, ‘You can tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses,’ and the pig got up and slowly walked away.*

Starboinks may not have had the best coffee in town, but it didn’t matter, pigs who go to strip clubs generally don’t care what they serve.

“I’m coming, I’ll drive,” I said.

A regretful loser, a person who makes poor and uninformed decisions, feeling like a complete and utter failure and the back-burner fear that you will be seen, judged, and labeled as all of the above. Step one onto the end of the return line at the department store. An admirable alternative such as giving whatever it was you wanted to return to someone raises questions as to why. Why don’t you like it, why doesn’t it fit, why doesn’t it work and why would you even buy it then? See step one. I would rather throw it away. What happens then when you buy a liar’s load of crap?

The shiny coating on his embossed and colorful business card bounced a ray of sun from my dirty office window onto the wall across from my desk. Richard was enamored with it and even the slightest movement of the card made the ray wiggle and shake. His compounding disappointment of multiple failed captures was potentially only eclipsed by its complete disappearance.

Owens Real Estate Holdings LLC., his name was written in cursive.

“Hello Mr. Owens? Philippine Maximine, yes, well, thank you, and yourself? Sure, sure, well, I won’t take too much of your time. Let’s just say I think based on our conversation yesterday that your concerns may yield some interesting validity. Yes, absolutely I think we should move ahead. Okay, great, I’ll touch base with you in a few days. Yes of course, feel free to contact me with anything you may think pertinent. Very good then, I look forward to working with you,” I hung up the phone.

Something about having to say goodbye on the phone felt necessary and forced. In person, a hug, a wave, or in certain circumstances a kiss says it all. Even certain phrases like ‘Okay well see ya later,’ or ‘Talk to you tomorrow’ have to be followed by a prerequisite goodbye where if I were to pin that tail to an in person meeting it would just feel palpably uncomfortable.

“Hello Mrs. Owens? This is Philippine Maximine. I’ve had a chance to go over the evidence and I feel like this should be a pretty routine case. If you could give me a call at the office, I just have to know more particularly what you are looking for along the lines of hard evidence, my fees, etcetera. My number is 744-5629,” I hung up the phone.

“Hello? Missy? Hi, yes this is Philippine Maximine. Remember me? Yes, great we are getting along famously as a matter of fact. Hmm yes, oh yes I agree, it is really great. Um, hey Missy, I’ve been thinking about it and you know, ‘Joining the club’ as Mr. Melton would say just feels like the right thing to do. Yeah, yeah, yes, that is really super extra great. I was wondering if you could help me set up a meeting with Mr. Meltone. As a volunteer I possess a highly particular skill set that may prove to be quite beneficial to the AAPT cause. Yes of course Wesley, is there another? Oh, well I wasn’t aware of that, or should I say him? Wesley and I have already met so…Sure, secretary, I’ll give her a call and set it up. Thank you, you’ve been, yeah, yeah, great to hear from you too, yeah great, great, bye now,” it was uncomfortable anyways.

At first glance the address didn’t ring a bell. It wasn’t until I was on my way that I knew where I was going and that’s how a simple office visit can become a metaphor for the rest of my life. It was the first place she stopped after the spa.

Through the glass doors I had three options. To the right, through another glass door, this one marked AAPT, I could see a similar reception desk to the uptown location that was happily staffed by a strikingly similar version of Missy. To the left, a law office level professional, solid wood office door also marked AAPT. Straight ahead, the multiple gates and doors of the world’s oldest looking elevator staye partially open as an official invitation to manic claustrophobia. Door two please.

Just inside, a typical secretarial desk and credenza staffed by a non-typical secretary answered at least one pressing question.

“Well hello Ms. Maximine, It’s so nice to see you again,” she said.

“Marnie Fankowski, you too, you too! I had no idea you worked here,” I said.

It had been weeks since I had spoken with Marnie. The death of a sibling is never easy, especially when the body is never found, and extra especially when investigating that death nearly gets you killed.

“Yeah, well this is it, welcome to my office. Can I get you a cup of coffee?” she asked.

“No thanks, I’m actually here for an appointment,” I said.

“Yes, I know, I was the one who scheduled you yesterday,” she said.

“I’m so sorry I didn’t recognize your voice over the phone,” I said.

“Oh that’s okay, people sound different on phones. Then you just hung up, so I assumed you had some kind of emergency or something. I hope everything is okay,” Marnie said.

“No, no, everything is great, thanks for asking,” I said.

She hung there for a second in midair, chin up, presumably waiting for an answer as to why I hung up. Leaving people to wonder why you do certain things keeps you in their thoughts.

“Say Marnie, did you recommend me to anyone recently?” I asked.

“As a matter of fact I did. I overheard Mr. Meltone speaking with um, well I heard him inquire as to maybe hiring a private investigator and I had no choice but to interrupt and let him know all about you. About everything that happened, everything you did for us, me and Gage that is, Ross too, I mean, going into the wilderness, finding those people, nearly not making it out yourself,” Marnie gushed.

“I’m just glad I could find you some answers. Thanks so much for the recommendation. Sometimes word of mouth is the best advertising,” I said.

“Oh for sure, for sure, no problem. I’m just going to let Mr. Meltone know you’re here,” she said.

“He’ll see you now,” Marnie said.

“Why Ms. Maximine it’s a pleasure to see you again. I understand you’re interested in joining the club, possibly volunteering,” Wesley said.

After a short pause while claiming the seat to which he motioned I threw him the first curve.

“What’s odd Mr. Meltone is I didn’t tell Marnie why I needed to meet with you,” I said.

“Wesley please, and well, I assumed of course. I mean why else would you want to meet with me?” he asked laughingly.

“Maybe joining the club, but volunteering is pretty specific, that wouldn’t be assumed. I’m guessing you spoke with Missy,” I said.

“Yes, that’s entirely possible, I office from both locations,” he said.

“Fair enough. You’re right though. You may not know it, but as it would happen, I am a private investigator. I’m sure that in your line of business, you know, working for your father, you could possibly use someone like me for, I don’t know, to help the animals somehow,” I said cryptically.

Wesley just sat there faking paying attention, both elbows on the desk pushing his fingertips into a tent.

“That’s one hell of a boat right there,” I said.

Behind Wesley on the bookshelf was a picture of him next to an obvious couple on the deck of a monster sailing yacht. It was obvious by other pictures in the office that the older man was his father, but the young girl he was wearing wreaked of interesting.

“Yes, yes it is,” he said.

He reached back, picked up the framed photo and handed it to me.

“It’s my father’s latest toy, Buffy,” Wesley said.

I focused for a moment on the picture while deciding exactly how to respond to that statement.

“There’s definitely a high degree of beauty there,” I said.

“Nice try, Ms. Maximine,” he said.

Wesley leaned forward and snatched the photo from my hands, giving me the same kind of look you get when you get caught lying about your age.

“The boat, the boat is named Buffy. It just so happens he named it after the girl, his girl, that girl,” he said.

“My, there’s quite a significant age difference is there not?” I asked.

“Yes, Ms. Maximine, there is indeed. What do you say we just get right down to it then shall we? The jig was up when you walked into this office. You of course know Marnie don’t you Ms. Maximine? And as you are a private dick, presumably worth half your salt, you didn’t happen in here by accident did you Ms. Maximine? So might I ask exactly what, or who you are looking for?” Wesley asked.

“Let’s just say that I wouldn’t be worth my salt if I were to breach my client’s trust by revealing too many details but…she interests me, Mr. Meltone, very much,” I said.

Previous to me walking into that office I had never heard of Buffy. Hell, I didn’t even know her last name, but I knew she played a role in this thing somehow, I could smell it. I just didn’t know how meaningful of a cog she was. A wise man said to me years ago, ‘The guys that put cogs in machines do it for a reason. Even a cog on a sign is for lookin’ at.’”

Wesley’s intercom buzzed like a messenger who loved to deliver bad news.

“Yes, what is it Ms. Fankowski?” Wesley asked into the box.

“Your father wanted me to let you know he was leaving now,” Marnie said.

“Very good, I’ll be right out,” he said.

He stood up and assembled the bottom buttons of his suit coat.

“Well, Ms. Maximine, I’m afraid I won’t be able to help you today but I think it’s safe to assume this meeting is adjourned,” Wesley said.

“Your father huh? Wow, I’d love to meet him,” I said.

I made a quick move out the door. Standing impatiently in front of Marnie’s desk was the man himself, Sir Alfred Meltone, millionaire philanthropist, recluse, and animal right’s activist among other things. Portly, gray haired, with thin stick legs he leaned on a cane to compensate for being top-heavy. Behind him was Buffy, also top-heavy in her own right but for different reasons. Absolutely every single aspect of The Muffy Rule was in play with Buffy. The man obviously had a type.

Although I had the opportunity to meet him before Wesley could catch me, I decided to hang back. That way, it would be much easier to tail them.

I skipped a formal goodbye with Wesley and caught the door just before they did. After a repulsive kiss between the two, they each entered different limousines. Once Sir Alfred was out of sight, Buffy hailed a taxi. What I doubt Buffy was capable of noticing was the limo followed her anyways. The driver had a hard-plastic face. A face that would never show fear, or anger, or love and happiness. I had known the type. What neither of them knew was I was following them both.

Had she worn clothes that provided a function beyond that of a lingerie store mannequin, she would have been able to walk the three blocks to her destination, Owens Real Estate Holdings, LLC.

I watched outside until they left together, Buffy and Mason. The limo waited as well, further down the block out of line of sight. Three more steps and he would have seen them. I put the pedal to the floor, even squeaked a tire. I slid to a stop in front of them, leaned over and flung the passenger door open.

“Hello Mr. Owens. If I was you, I would get in this car before you take another step. You too Buffy, now hurry, get in before he sees,” I said.

They both bent down and stared into the car.

“Now dammit!” I yelled.

Mason opened up the back door and they both slid inside.

“Duck, duck down,” I said.

“What’s this all about?” Mason asked.

“Someone’s always watching the watcher, sound familiar?” I asked.

The inside of my office smelled like some kind of spoiled food marinated in a bath of ammonia and feces. The corner of my desk was scratched into splinters. Every single piece of paper on my desk was now on the floor, some of them wet. Slowly, I pulled my pistol from the back of my belt.

“Oh no please you can’t! Not the poor kitty!” Buffy pleaded.

She grabbed my arm to stop me. I probably wouldn’t have done it, but it may have made me feel better to have the option for a minute. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that long, the bullet blew my old dirty window into a million pieces, passed by us all and wedged into the opposite wall of the hallway outside my office.

Richard, or Dick as I now call him, seized his opportunity to escape into the alleyway below. He bounced off the roof of a passing limousine headed full speed away from the scene, landed on his feet, and disappeared into the city.

“Well, at least I don’t have to return him,” I said.

“Hi Carl,” I said casually.

I was doing my best to make it seem like I wasn’t carrying an institutional sized bag of kitty litter. Carl and the window lettering guy were having the sort of conversation that stops when the person they are talking about walks into the room.

“Um, hello. Please, allow me,” Carl replied.

He held my office door open, carefully peaking inside, closing it rather quickly after I passed through.

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed.

Every single time that I have opened and closed that office door during my tenure here, the glass rattled. I was aware that it was most likely due to age, but it always made me feel as if it were rickety and that it was only a matter of time before it was going to shatter upon closing.

“Carl!”

I yelled his name for no other reason than I was inside the office and he was not. I flung the door open, excited that it worked so well.

“Carl?”

Carl and the lettering guy were nearly to the end of the hallway.

“I just wanted to…”

There was no point, they were outside before I could finish the sentence. I understood, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around Carl being faster than, well frankly, anyone.

“Poor lettering guy,” I mused.

I decided I would wait for him to come back and finish before I brought in the food bag, but in the meantime, I had an errand to run.

“Hi! Welcome to AAPT! How can we help you today?” McBubbly asked.

According to the cat-shaped tag on her blouse her name was Missy, but McBubbly seemed to fit more accurately. I had never met a Missy whom I could recall, but I felt like this particular one was governed by the Muffy Rule. Far from a universal constant, the Muffy Rule was a theory I stumbled onto after a bottomless glass of wine in a bar too close to the college campus. It very simply states that all Muffys, as well as corresponding friends including but not limited to Buffys, Bunnys, Sissys, Missys, and sometimes Heathers must have blonde hair, be annoyingly bubbly, wear heels with nearly any outfit, and attract men like moths to a flame.

“Hello Mc, um, Missy. I was hoping you could introduce me to the newest and furriest love of my life,” I said somewhat sarcastically.

“Aww? Really? Like, that’s so sweet! I would love to be a part of this day in your life today! I have to tell you, the way you asked was like the most awesomest thing you could have ever said! And I know, you’d probably like take them all, but are you looking for a sweet, cute, and super-duper cuddly kitty or a big, soft, huggable and playful puppy to share your world with?” Bubbly asked.

There were few things I had not gotten around to doing that morning including eating breakfast. Had I, thanks entirely to McBubbly, I would have just tasted it for a second time. I forgot something else though, far more destructive to my psyche and personal well-being. Not only did I drive to the office, picking up cat supplies along the way, but I was in the parking lot of the shelter before I remembered the dick smudge on my window. Granted I had a lot going on, but a window stain of this magnitude should have demanded my utmost attention. Faced again with only my sleeve to wipe it off, I reached down and scraped up a handful of dust and gravel from the parking lot. The rocks clinked off the glass, but the white dust stuck the way cops leave visible fingerprints on a drinking glass after dusting. Great.

“I was thinking cat,” I said.

“Aww, we have so many adorable kitties who I’m sure would just love to share your life with you. We just need to start with a few like, you know, questions?”

She just sat there looking at me with her face.

“Um, sure. Glad to, happy to,” I said.

“Great! How did you hear about us? What I mean is what made you pick AAPT?” she asked.

“I saw your sign, animal adoptions,” I said.

“Great! Are you familiar with AAPT and our adoption services?” she asked.

“No, I’ve been thinking about it for awhile and like I said, I saw the sign and decided, ‘Today’s the day’. I’m not even sure what the acronym on your sign stands for,” I said.

“Great! I can help you! I’ll have to ask about the acronym thingy, but our sign says AAPT and that stands for Animals Are People Too! Isn’t that great?” she asked enthusiastically.

“Wow, that is,” I said.

I scorn things in my life I find ludicrous although I’ve done a great job over the years not letting others in the room know how ridiculous I think they are. All of my skills to that extent were on the table now as I was immersed hip-deep in a dank pool of crazy.

“I know right? We just have a few forms for you to fill out today, you can have a seat in one of our super comfy chairs and enjoy a cup of our super scrumptious fair-trade coffee,” McBubbly said.

I’ll admit the coffee was good. I filled out the litany of forms, somewhat surprised that my blood type was not in question. An informational pamphlet rack formed an unavoidable wall between the coffee and the only writing table available. I collected a handful for the road including why leather was bad, where I should buy my coffee from, why eating meat will kill me, and how the fur industry is in fact a metaphor for world domination by capitalists.

“You guys really ask a lot of questions,” I said.

“Great! You’re all done! We do our best to make sure your friend of choice is the best overall fit for both of you going forward. Isn’t that just something?” she asked.

“Yeah, great,” I said.

“I know, right? Well if you’ll just step this way into our amazing living quarters we can find you the best friend your looking for,” she said walking.

The bright white room was lined with cages, some quite large with bars thick enough to house anything large. The new, gray paint still shined on the concrete floor. The smell of it mixed with bleach imposed on my senses. I felt sorry for the beasts that had to breathe it in all day. Bubbly chattered on and on, something about never putting an animal down and the good folks at AAPT going the extra mile.  

“So, how long have you guys been around? The AAPT I mean,” I asked.

“Ooh, you know what? I’m not really sure about that. We are currently expanding in the area though to really try and help every last animal we can,” she said.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“Oh I’ve been here since we opened,” she said.

“I take it that’s recently?” I asked.

“Oh yes, like I said, we are expanding,” she said.

A dinging bell sent Missy back to the front entry, presumably to irritate a different victim.

“Oh my, well, duty calls! Feel free to look around and get to know some of our guests. You never know who’s going to pick you! And remember. Let’s not open any cages without an official representative from AAPT present to assist you okay? Okay great!” she sang.

I wandered the rows half expecting one of them to bang a tin cup against the bars. Dogs were front and center, wagging their tails and air licking me through the tiny holes. Most cats were evasive, staying against the back walls of their cells, trusting nothing. There was one cat however who’s eyes appeared to lock onto my soul as I passed. He was gray with black stripes and most definitely troubled. I don’t think he was abused. I felt like instead his troubles were more self-imposed, like he laid awake at night questioning every decision he’s ever made while bouncing a ball of yarn off the wall over and over again until the wine was gone.

“Richard,” I said reading off the tag.

The penmanship was all Muffy, but he clearly came with the name. I heard the double doors leading to the front entrance bang open. Heavy heels pounded the new paint, the pitch was soprano, a woman, aggressive and in some sort of hurry.

“Of course Mrs. Owens, of course. I’m sure he’s expecting you, but I’ll just have to let him know that you are here. Mrs. Owens? Mrs.?”

Mary Owens charged through the animal living quarters presumably en route to the heavily reinforced steel door in the back of the room. Finding it locked, her tiny fists lacked the necessary meat to make a significant enough boom on the heavy metal to be noticed. I decided it best to remain anonymous among the natives.

“I know you’re in there,” Owens yelled as she banged.

She continued to rave for minutes while McBubbles did what she could to thwart her aggression. Eventually the door swung open. A large man bulging at the seams of his cheap suit stood in most of the frame blocking her way.

“He will see you now,” the large man said.

He stepped aside and let her pass. He glanced momentarily at Bubbles but turned his full gaze to the cage I hid behind as he closed the door. I had been noticed. My instinct to look up confirmed the many cameras that lived in the room. McMuffy noticed me as well.

“Well, how did we do?” she asked.

“I’ll take this one. Richard,” I said.

“Great! I do have to tell you that Richard is one of our older residents and sometimes it’s a little bit harder for them to get accustomed to a new home, but they sure are easy to love!” she exclaimed.

I bent down to get a better look into the cage.

“Are you sure about him?” she asked.

“Yup, he’s the one. I feel like we can relate somehow,” I said.

“Great! That’s awesome! Let me go ahead and put one of our special notes on his house, that way everybody will know he’s spoken for,” she said.

“I have a collar and leash in the car, I’ll just go out and…”

“Oh! You know that’s great that your so extra prepared to love him but I’m afraid you’re not going to be able to take him home today. You see we have to approve your application. I’m afraid not everyone is, you know, just right for like, sharing their lives with some of our guests,” she said.

“Just right?” I asked.

Buffy leaned in close and whispered into one hand to block those who might be figuratively listening, “Some people are just big meanies.”

“I thought the idea was to adopt them out. You know, find them homes?” I asked.

“It’s quite simple actually,” the man said.

I never heard him coming. All of a sudden he was just ‘there’. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the steel doors were now open and there was no sign of Mrs. Owens or the immense man.

“You see, we don’t know anything about you Ms. Maximine. For all we know, you could be moving these animals into shall we say, a less desirable situation,” he said.

“Less desirable than a cage? And apparently you do know something about me seeing as how you just used my name,” I said.

“Why it’s on your paperwork of course Ms. Maximine. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Wesley Meltone, I’m the President of AAPT,” Wesley said offering his hand.

“Nice to meet you. Philippine Maximine,” I said.

“Ms. Maximine I will tell you that in order for us to get to know you better, you might want to consider joining the club so to speak,” he said.

“The club?”

“Yes, well you see AAPT is much more than just adopting cats and dogs. We do our best to use our resources to do what’s right for our communities. We donate time and money to organizations that may otherwise lack funding opportunities, maybe even help to affect policy. We even rescue and home exotic animals that otherwise would undoubtedly have to be euthanized. Becoming a member of the club just means you’ve donated. It’s all on the up and up I can assure you,” Wesley explained.

“If I do, can I take the cat home today?” I asked.

“Well of course, of course you can,” he said.

“Excuse me Mr. Meltone but,” Bubbles tried to interject.

“I’m sure it will be fine Missy, everything is going to be just fine. Missy here will make sure you get what you need. A pleasure Miss Maximine,” he said.

He motioned his hand and the big man appeared. He whispered something in his ear and he promptly left the building. Wesley returned to the room with steel doors. Looking inside I could see now it was an office, warm and comfortable with castle topped chairs and a large ornate desk, affectionately adorned with a ready and waiting Mrs. Mary Owens.

On the way home Richard sat in the front seat fully panicked, maniacally meowing at the passenger window like he was calling for God himself to come down and rescue him. Undoubtedly he noticed the smudge and was only echoing the sentiment of every other cat he’s ever known.

Two for one sales have never been a good deal for me. Standing in the snack aisle because I went to the store hungry, the steel cage, double elimination, winner take all the cookies match inside my head had me frozen in place until the shelf-stocking guy started looking at me funny. Offering me two bags should have been a deterrent. Either way, I lose. I never had to endure an inner struggle over lettuce. 

Tailing the black jag was only one bag of cookies. I deemed it in my best interest to learn more. I have never been much of a spa girl. I always felt a touch of the round peg syndrome, and there was always some woman sitting in the square hole with that certain look in her eye telegraphing the idea that people like me weren’t welcome. 

I had no way of knowing what she knew of me, what I drove, where I lived. I was counting on the anonymity of my saddle tan four door sedan to be just another mostly invisible bandage on the skin of one of the ladies in the square hole.

“Excuse me, excuse me ma’am? Is everything okay?” asked the miscellaneous man in the parking lot.

“I’m just fine, thanks,” I replied.

“You know I just sort of wondered, I saw you sitting here. I was just inside the laundromat and like I said you’ve been sitting here for some time,” he said.

“Yeah, I know, I’m fine,” I said shortly.

“I know, but like I said,” he prattled on.

This was the sort of person almost guaranteed to be killed in a monster movie. The last thing the viewer would see would be his legs going straight up as presumably he was in the process of being eaten, maybe a splatter of blood for good measure and an R rating. 

“Look! I said I’m fine!” I told him. “Now have a nice day,” I added.

“Oh, well, then what do you think about this?” he asked.

The man was wearing an older and somewhat tattered pair of dark gray sweatpants, so it was easy for him to pull out his penis. He touched it onto the glass of my passenger window. 

I would like to visit the word mentality. Generally when we think of it, or bring it up in general conversation, some person or group’s actions or words are being brought into question by those of us who believe we have a comparatively much better grip on sanity. We can’t quite wrap our heads around the ‘mentality’ of said group or individual. Does potential proof that God is indeed a woman lie in the fact that the root of mentality is mental, and the root of mental, is men?

A shroud of anger and shame covered me. I wanted to scream but I uttered no sound. I wanted to move away, run, anything, but I couldn’t move. My mind raced to process the attack. I wondered what I had done to deserve this, why was this happening? If he would have laid his hands on me, if he had physically assaulted me, I would like to believe that my reaction would have been more immediate, and I would have killed him where he stood.

“You son-of a,” the only words I could finally manage to mutter in the heat of the moment.

I leaned towards him and popped open the glove compartment. This seemed to excite him even more, at least until I was pointing a pistol directly at his penis. He tucked it back in his pants and ran. I got out of the car as quickly as I could, still shocked and angry, I had every intention of running him down and causing him as much bodily harm as I could muster. The black Jag backing out may have saved his life.

I had officially lost all focus on the case. My tailing method was becoming questionable. Every time I checked my passenger mirror I could see a little mark on the window, like a fingerprint but not so much. It was like an accident I couldn’t look away from. I was having difficulty keeping up with her.

She had little choice but slow her roll once she happened into the warehouse district. The old brick buildings and roads were laid out to accommodate wood spoked trucks and rail cars, neither one of which moved quickly back in the day. The current trend in construction was up-cycle and re-use. New businesses were popping into ground level units like wildfire.

The corner unit with old-timey yet brand new AAPT lettering on the windows wouldn’t have been my first guess as a sketchy destination. It sported a wrought iron staircase that wound around the corner into what might have been the only worthy grass for blocks. The small green area was planted in the footprint of a long gone building between two others that survived the ages. A tin roof lean-to protected a heavily fenced area and another staircase ascending to a side entry. 

A young woman leashed to a pack of dogs came out the side door, unleashed them all and let them run. 

“Hell of an alarm,” I thought.

I stayed in the tan sedan, watching as she watched the dogs. The Tan Sedan was my car, my girl. It was plain, even a little rusty but it ran great, good power, good heat, air and always started in the winter. I had never heard of AAPT, but then again I never heard of a lot of things, until I had.

The dogs went inside and a few moments later Mrs. Owens came out. We headed into the post WWII housing west of downtown. Main streets were plain, with useful businesses and the occasional small grocer. The next stop looked to be an old gas station with a plain square addition and fenced area on the side. This time there was a sign. AAPT Specialty Animal Adoption Services. With double barbed wire topped fencing it looked more like a prison exercise yard than a dog park. Plastic privacy slats in the outside fence protected the privacy of the dogs. 

Mrs. Owens stayed roughly the same amount of time as she had at the last location and filled her gas tank on the way home. I headed back to my office, intent on contacting Mr. Owens, billing him for my time and impolitely declining his case, then contacting her and asking for more information. 

“Maybe she’s looking for a dog or something, a cat, like an office cat,” I said to myself, chuckling.

Looking at the mirror, at the spot, reminded me of the laundromat again, and how in the world I could have forgotten to clean my window. Outside my office I approached the spot but suddenly using my sleeve repulsed me. Inside I was sure there was glass cleaner in the cabinet. The idea of using some sort of chemical seemed like the proper course of action.

As I put the key into the lock, my office door opened just a little too easily. It was unlocked, and as sure as I need coffee in the morning, I don’t leave my office door unlocked. Looking both ways in the hallway I took my pistol from the back of my belt and slowly pushed open the door. I swung left, then right, eyes level behind the gun. Where the barrel looked, I looked. I moved into the room. I heard it before I saw it, growling lightly in the lower left corner of my peripheral. It lunged at me throwing paws with wild and amazing speed. I fired as it hit my arm, blowing the glass in my door into a million pieces, sending my pistol flying across the room. 

I felt its claws cut through my shirt and skin as the attack flung me onto and over my desk. I gained my bearings to face it, the gears in my head slowly clicking in order to process what I was seeing. Her teeth were flared, she was dipped on her front haunches, crawling in my direction, ready to strike again. I pulled my top drawer out of the desk and bounced it off her rock-hard head. She let out the kind of noise that told me it hurt, but now she was pissed. I made for the door. 

Usually when you shoot a gun inside of an office building, even an old, broken down and crooked office building, during daylight hours, someone is going to hear.

“You okay in there Ms. Maximine?” asked Carl, the building superintendent.

He was outside my office door, leaning in my direction, hiding behind the safety of a large cart of cleaning supplies, brandishing a mop with a brand-new head. I can be sure he never expected me to come out headfirst through the window hole.

“Run!” I screamed.

I barely made it to my feet before the puma followed me through the window. 

“Go, go, she’s coming!” I yelled.

I could hear her claws scratching for purchase on the wood floor. I was gaining on Carl to the point where I thought he might very well be a dead man. Just as we made it to the door leading outside at the end of the hallway, he fell. Determined not to trip over another old man, I flung myself into the wall, hoping to carom off into the push handle of the door. Just as I had, the lion apparently jumped, at least that’s what Carl told me. What nobody could have predicted was as Carl fell, instead of playing dead, or even trying to get back up, he stuck the mop in the air like a medieval knight hoping the dragon would fall onto his sword. 

Because mops don’t pierce the bellies of mountain lions, it instead acted like a catapult. Coupled with my keen timing and a little bit of luck we were fortunate enough to send her flying right out the door.

“What the hell was that?” Carl yelled.

“That? That was a mountain lion, or puma I guess, depends on where your from,” I said, panting like the lion that just attacked me.

“What the hell was it doing… Hey, are you ok?” he asked.

I was clutching the claw cuts on my arm, my shirt sleeve soaked in blood. 

“Um, no, I don’t think so. I’m getting a little woozy,” I said.

I leaned back against the wall and let myself slide down into a seated position on the floor.

“I’m going to call for help,” Carl said.

“Yeah, thanks,” I said as Carl hurried down the hall.

“Hey Carl! My office door is open,” I yelled to him jokingly.

“By the way, how’d you know it was a girl? And where the hell did it come from?” Carl asked.

“Because she had a pink collar, and I wish I knew, I wish I knew,” I said.

Those were the last words I could remember. I passed out a few moments later and woke up in the hospital, again. For a moment, when I opened my eyes I was back in Ely, I felt the relief of finally being safe from the grasp of Darlene. Then I remembered the lion, and relief turned into anger.

“Nurse? Nurse?” I yelled.

“Hello Ms. Maximine,” he said as he walked into the room.

“Hey flatfoot, get me the nurse would ya?” I said.

“I wish you wouldn’t call me that,” he said.

“Call you what? Flatfoot? How about the fuzz? The man? Here piggy, piggy,” I taunted.

“How about detective, or maybe even Tom, and let’s not do this whole act like you don’t know me thing, I have a lot to do,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah, okay Mr. Tom, what can I do for you?” I asked.

“For starters you can tell me about the lion, you know the one you shot at? When you could have killed somebody?” he said.

“Gimme a break Mr. Tom, what the hell was I supposed to do? It was a friggin’ lion, ya know? You got it?” I asked.

“Got what?”

“You know what, now hand it over please?” I said sitting up in bed.

Detective Tom took in a deep sigh, reached into his inside coat pocket and slapped my semi auto pistol into my outstretched hand.

“Here. Now, about the lion,” he said.

“I don’t know Tom, I don’t know. But I can promise you I’m going to find out,” I said.

Back at my office the window had already been replaced, lettering would have to wait.

Looking at the carnage that once was my office, two thoughts occurred to me. The first was I was most definitely going to take Mason Owens up on his offer just as soon as I could put my phone back together and parlay a dial tone. Secondly, after this last experience, I was thinking I might just need an office cat after all, and I had a pretty good idea of where I could get one. That, and another bag of cookies.

“I’m usually not the sort of person who has flowers on her desk, but these, I might keep some around once in a while,” I said.

“Alright,” Mary said slowly, dismissively.

Without further ado I’d like to open the bidding on not blaming the husband.

“Um yeah, look, to be honest, I’m not really here about the flowers. I kind of said that to you know, get the conversation going? Maybe you don’t like, deal with certain people a lot, but that’s how it is usually,” Mary explained.

“Well Mrs. Owens, I actually have quite a bit of experience with self-entitled assholes and usually I like, you know, tend to end those conversations as soon as possible.”

My coffee cup had never been officially washed in soap and water for the entirety of the time it has lived in this office. I sometimes think that ancient coffee has permeated the pores of the ceramic so deeply that it acts as some sort of glue that keeps it from breaking when I slam it onto the desk to accentuate my point. Mary just stared at the cup with a fake, fallen smile on her face.

“Um, yeah, well now that you have that out of your system, lets discuss what I want you to do,” Mary said.

“Wait, wait, hold it right there. I have not even said I was going to take your case. In fact, after meeting you I doubt very highly that there’s anything you could say that would convince me to,” I said.

She mumbled something inaudible and was shaking her head in disgust as she fumbled with something in her designer bag. I kicked back in my strangely comfortable chair and dropped both feet firmly on my desk, the same desk where she slammed down a stack of fresh, bank banded greenbacks.

“What about now?” she asked.

“You have my attention,” I told her.

“Of course I do. Money is everything to you people,” she said.

I swallowed ‘you people’ as if it were two, whole, unchewed grapes that I had every intention of spitting back into her face.

“I mean, why else would you be in business? I’ve done a little research and private eyes aren’t cheap,” she said.

Okay, she can live.

“If you’re wondering why I chose you, believe it or not, you come highly recommended,” she said.

“Believe it or not? Look,” my feet came back to the ground as I was about to stand and let her have it once and for all but once again, her mouth got to the finish line first.

“Now before you go slamming your grimy mug on the desk again you have to admit you haven’t been very welcoming. Furthermore, I don’t understand how someone in your line of work could be so easily offended.”

In the race for life, my anger was only second due to the overwhelming desire to pay rent, but not by much. Utter disbelief that this stereotypical bitch really existed was a very close third.

“What do you say we get down to business, hmm?” she said.

“The man you’re going to be proving is cheating is Mason Owens. Of course he’s my husband,” she said.

“What makes you so sure but not sure enough that you need to hire me?” I asked.

“A woman knows, wouldn’t you agree? I’ll tell you right now Mason is not a stupid man, however, he is careless. I’m counting on his carelessness to be his undoing,” she said.

“Who did you say recommended me?” I asked.

“I didn’t. I didn’t say. But the fact that you are a woman may in fact pay dividends in this case. I’ll assume you can blend-in? You see I’m not quite the type of person who, I don’t know, stands out in a room shall we say?”

“So it was a woman?” I asked.

“You really like, have to get off that already. Think about it Philippine, if I wanted you to know, I would have told you by now. Let’s just say the person who recommended you wishes to remain anonymous,” she said.

“You know what I think Mrs. Owens? I think you’re full of shit. I don’t think there was any recommendation whatsoever. I think you did not want to hire a man because you’re afraid they would have laughed in your face if they haven’t already. I think I’m your last resort, your only place left to turn to prove your husband is cheating on you, which may or may not even be true. And for what? Why do you want this to be true so badly? Why ever would you want rain to fall in your perfectly little plastered, pasty-white life?”

“Consider the cash an advance,” she said through half of a smile.

“And you’ll be needing this as well,” she added while dropping a file folder on my desk.

She shouldered her purse, turned, and headed for the door.

“Good day Ms. Maximine, I expect I’ll be hearing from you.”

“Wait, there’s paperwork, I’m not sure what this is but it may not be enough, excuse me? Mary! Mrs. Owens!”

She raised her left hand and either offered me a backwards half-hearted parade wave, or a poorly constructed bird as she walked out the door.

One of the problems with making fresh coffee, is the lack of water in my office. Sure, I could get a water cooler but then there’s the water bottle guy who is always going to be bringing me too much water. Plus, how often does the company change guys? Unknown, access granted, random individuals aren’t welcome in my line of work.

Water is available from the building’s communal bathroom down the hall. I say bathroom because after the wall-hugging hike down the Alice in Wonderland hallway you come to a room with a toilet, a sink borne of plumbing antiquity, and a broken lock. The room is most definitely not in the least bit restful.

I still wasn’t sure about Mary or if I was going to take the case. On the other hand these sorts of cases are generally pretty easy. You tail a guy, snap some pics, maybe take a closer listen if necessary, simple stuff. He’s either up to no good or he’s not. The only thing close to camping that will take place is spending a few hours staked-out in the car. At least for the time-being, I didn’t want to be outside any more than I had to.

With my empty mineral-stained coffee pot, I strolled past a man who I pegged as being anything but a random visitor to this building. I would bet he spent more time grooming himself than every similar aged man within a two-block radius. Each of his hairs appeared to be sprayed and laid individually into place and his scent, though not overwhelming seemed as if it knew how to float around intelligently, how to find my senses at just the right moment.

He was sitting in my old precinct chair, legs effeminately crossed, perfectly comfortable and composed.

“Hello Ms. Maximine. My name is Mason, Mason Owens. I believe you’ve just met my wife Mary. Enchanting woman isn’t she?” he said, I believe sarcastically.

“Actually I thought she was kind of a bitch,” I said.

I had every intention of offering him a normal, socially acceptable greeting. Even to the point where I could feel myself looking for a place to set down the decanter so I could shake his hand. Mid neural synapse, unabashed truth took over regardless of consequence.

Mason Owens’ smile was made of trash. Stark raving white dumpsters filled with absolute garbage. Notably missing were any recognizable genuine human attributes that ought constitute such a treasured emotional response.

“And I have no doubt that if I were a woman you might feel the same about me, but as you can plainly see, I am not. No, instead I’m a man on a mission. You see Ms. Maximine there are two things I would like to know. One is how much is she paying you, and two, what will she do when she finds out,” he said.

“I’m sorry but what she wants to pay me, and for that matter, what she hired me for is none of your damn business,” I said.

“Of course it is. Please don’t be ridiculous Ms. Maximine. We both know it’s my money anyways. She did little more to earn it other than to hold the sheets down with her bare back. Secondly, like any spoiled little girl, she throws a little accusatory temper tantrum every time she shakes her moneymaker and I’d rather be doing almost anything else rather than having one more broken chip from the bottom of the bag. So you see what she is paying you, I am paying you.”

He stood up and extended his hands, offering to take over the coffee making procedure. He poured the water into my Mr. Life Blood while I sprinkled new grounds over the old ones, filling the filter to capacity, wholly determined to get every last usable drip out of the beans.

“Considering who’s money we are speaking of, knowing, for peace of mind of course, that Mary’s and my relationship issues could be potentially amicably solved to be mutually beneficial, I am prepared to offer you the opportunity to double your pay. I promise, you’ll have no more to do than during any other routine case. In fact, you’ll most likely have less,” he said.

“Go on,” I said as I took a seat behind my desk.

“It’s very simple really, whatever she’s paying you with my money to follow me, double it. Picture if you will, the ease of your task if you happened to know exactly where I was, when I would get there, and what I was doing,” he said.

“I see, you go out and lead a fake life so I can let her know what a fine and upstanding husband and citizen you are. You know Mr. Owens, I wasn’t even going to take your wife’s case but now, after meeting you, after this, shit. The hell I won’t. Now you can just take your—”

“Just wait a minute! Clearly, you don’t understand,” he interrupted.

“Oh I understand. You’re afraid to get caught. Clearly, she’s right, isn’t she?”

“Maybe she is. Maybe she isn’t. You’ll find out if you just simply do your job. What you don’t understand is I don’t care if she finds out. I might even prefer that she does. Finding out from you might somehow give closure. God knows she’ll never leave by my word. Do you really think I’m going to grow old with her? Do you really think I want that painted whore to be the mother of my children? And for shit’s sake, do you really think she needs to hire a private detective to tell her if I’ve been cheating? And why you?” he asked.

“She said I came highly recommended,” I said.

“Yes, but did she tell you by who?” he asked.

“No, no she didn’t. In fact, she made it a point to not tell me, said I didn’t need to know,” I said.

“You have to ask yourself why. And then you have to ask yourself why not. As in, why not take this man’s money, why not pay my rent in advance for once? Maybe put a few bucks in the bank, buy yourself something nice, whatever,” he said.

Mason grabbed himself a mug from inside the credenza where Mr. Coffee lived. He spent a few seconds looking inside.

“Do you ever clean these?” he asked.

“No, ruins the flavor,” I said.

Mason took the pot out before it was done brewing and poured some into the dirty mug.

“What you have to understand Ms. Maximine is yes, there may have been a few marital discrepancies. And if Mary were to find out, let’s just say it might not be the worst thing for me. Not that I really want to see her go, deep down we had something at one point. But dead, that most definitely would be the worst thing for me. Her dead, me dead, and now that you’re involved, you dead, would be the worst thing for everybody,” he said.

“Wait, dead? Who’s talking about dead? And I am most definitely not involved,” I stated defensively.

“Oh, you are definitely involved Ms. Maximine, most definitely. You see whoever recommended you to her in all likelihood also wants to know something and using her to use you to find the answers they seek is just the sort of thing these people excel at,” he said.

“Correct me if I’m wrong but if the people you’re thinking of are the same people I’m thinking of, don’t they have their own people for this sort of thing?”

“You’d recognize the Grim Reaper on your doorstep, so instead, send an angel to do the dirty work,” he said. “My card Ms. Maximine, the number on the back is my personal service, they’ll be able to get a hold of me anytime day or night. Mary is at her weekly spa treatment as we speak, uptown on Rosemount just past the lake. She’s not hard to find, she drives a black Jag convertible. If you don’t trust me, why not see where she goes next. You can bill me,” he said.

He took two steps to the window, looked up and out.

“Be careful Ms. Maximine, someone is always bound to be watching the watcher in this game. Maybe this time, that’s you.”