CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEMPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
Tracy Hayes, Apprentice P.I.
My life took an exciting turn on a hot August Tuesday. Mind you, I didn’t appreciate my good luck when I found myself jobless and broke through no fault of my own.
Well, almost no fault of mine.
I was carrying a dog that smelled of puke, which didn’t improve my mood. Not that it was the dog’s fault he smelled. The poor thing had gorged on donuts and then thrown up everything.
That he’d snuck into the kitchen of Café Marina to eat the donuts I’d left unguarded—and then regurgitated them on the newly scrubbed floor—was the reason I was now jobless after sixteen months as a waitress there.
That he wasn’t my dog hadn’t saved me from being fired.
It was early afternoon and I was standing on the sidewalk outside the café, watching the busy traffic on Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, whizz past me, reeling from the fast turn of events. The 7th Avenue subway station was right across the street and I should’ve headed home, but my feet began carrying me in the opposite direction, clutching the dog against my chest like a stuffed toy for comfort. My head was spinning, and I felt sick to my stomach.
How the hell was I supposed to pay the rent without a job? I didn’t have a penny to my name. I’d be homeless by the end of the month and have to move back in with my parents. They already thought I didn’t know how to adult—at twenty-seven. I’d never hear the end of it.
Oh, they’d be sympathetic and understanding—this wasn’t exactly the first job I’d lost these past six years—and then they’d ask my eldest brother Travis to find a suitable place for me—nothing too complicated, you understand. Or worse, they’d contact Aunt Moira, who worked in a canned soup factory. And I’d rather serve tables for the rest of my life than work there—which, admittedly, was the only profession I was good for with my skillset.
In fact, after six years of waitressing in various establishments around Brooklyn, I was a damn good waitress. Waitress extraordinaire.
Well, maybe I was exaggerating a little there.
But as dire as my financial situation was, I had more pressing concerns. “What should I do with you?” I cooed at the poor dog. He was listless after his bout of vomiting, but he licked my arm to show that he sympathized with my predicament, only he was just a little dog and had no idea either.
“My name is Tracy. Who are you?” I checked for his collar but he didn’t have one. “Are you a stray?” But his coat was shiny and groomed. “You’ve run away, haven’t you, you naughty boy?” The dog whimpered in answer. “Maybe you’re someone’s beloved pet and they’re worried sick for you.”
I paused when a thought hit. “Maybe they’ll pay me to bring you back.”
Having a purpose—however small—cleared my head. I retraced my steps and headed to the residential area behind the café with, if not actual spring in my step, then determined ambling, and started looking for missing dog posters. I wouldn’t be too proud to take a fifty as a finder’s fee. Moreover, Prospect Heights with its old townhouses was a neighborhood where only the rich could afford to live, so the finder’s fee might even be substantial.
Then again: “You don’t look like much though, do you?” Maybe he didn’t belong to anyone wealthy after all.
The dog was more of a mongrel. At least he wasn’t any breed I recognized, and I knew quite a few. I went through a dog phase when I was about ten, but to my eternal heartbreak I’d never had my own dog, because both my brothers were allergic to them. By the time I moved out on my own I’d got over wanting one. Never could afford it.
“What are you, a border terrier?” He had the build and looks of one: small, stocky body, longish, slim legs and a strong head with floppy ears. “But you’ve this nice, silky black and brown coat, so maybe some Yorkie in the mix?”
The dog didn’t answer, and I hoped he wasn’t getting sicker. I didn’t know if donuts were deadly to dogs, like chocolate was, but it couldn’t do him any good to eat a tray full of them, even if he had puked out most of it.
“You really should be more careful with what you eat, you know.” If he was a pampered pet from around this neighborhood, he’d probably been fed with gourmet dog food. No wonder his stomach was upset.
Then again, dogs ate anything they found on the streets. Including dog poo. Donuts had to be an improvement.
I ambled—determinately—up and down the streets in the residential area, looking at lampposts for missing dog posters, but there weren’t any. The dog probably hadn’t been gone for long; he was in such a good condition. Maybe the owner would only miss him when he came home from work. But that would be a couple of hours from now.
“I can’t carry you around that long,” I said aloud.
But I didn’t want to go home either. I lived in Midwood, a twenty-minute subway ride away, so not that far, but I only had enough on my MetroCard for one ride, and nothing to top it up with. I wouldn’t be able to return if I left now.
“I’m not usually this bad off,” I explained to the dog. He cocked an ear, so I was encouraged to continue. “But Jessica—my roommate for the past three years—moved in with her boyfriend two months ago, so now I have to pay the rent all by myself. And let me tell you, it’s not easy with minimum wage plus tips.”
Which I didn’t have now either.
I was actually really miffed with Jessica for it. She just announced one day she’d be moving and was gone the next—and good luck asking her to contribute for last month’s rent. She should’ve given me a warning at least, so I could’ve found a new lodger.
Moreover, I didn’t want a new lodger. Jessica and I had got along well. Who knew what sort of idiot I’d had to put up with from now on just because I needed someone to pay half of the rent.
Actually, I couldn’t even pay my half of the rent at the moment.
Of course, you could argue that I shouldn’t have spent the last of my money on having my hair dyed, but it had been necessary. I have really mousy, mud-brown hair, an unfortunate genetic mix of my father’s black-Irish hair—the kind with a hint of auburn in it—and my mother’s strawberry blond. My sister Theresa—Tessa for short—had inherited beautiful auburn hair, but my auburn came from hairdressers. And it wasn’t cheap, even though my hair only reached to my shoulders.
Anyway, vanity was the main reason I was now broke.
“Maybe I should take you to the police,” I suggested to the dog when I spied the 78th Precinct’s imposing limestone building on the corner of 6th Avenue. I had two cops in the family, and I tended to think cops could solve any problem I had.
But the dog gave a disgusted huff and I nodded. “Quite right. They’d only send us to Animal Control.”
And I didn’t know where the nearest one was—or have money to get there. Moreover, I didn’t want to hand him to the nameless care of a shelter. I wanted to find the owner myself.
I wanted that finder’s fee.
I turned towards Flatbush Avenue again, mostly because I’d covered the residential area already and didn’t have any clear idea where to go from there. It was the closest main street, and I needed to find a place to sit. The August day was hot and the dog was a warm and surprisingly heavy bundle in my arms, making me even more uncomfortable, even though I was wearing my waitressing uniform of blue T-shirt and cute blue skorts, the kind that was shorts at the back and a skirt in the front, and flattering to my figure on both sides, though maybe I had slightly more figure around my bottom.
Marina Bellini, the owner of the café, had wanted me to leave the uniform before I left, but since I’d come to work wearing it, I couldn’t very well leave naked.
“You’d better return it cleaned or I’ll take it out of your last pay. And I’ll most definitely deduct the donuts,” she’d yelled after me as I was walking out the door. She had a fast and fierce temper, and while she cooled down fast too, I didn’t doubt she meant what she said.
But at least I would be paid what was owed to me, so that was something to look forward to.
There was a Doughnut Plant at the corner of Bergen Street and Flatbush Avenue, and the mouth-watering scents wafting out from the kitchen door made the dog perk.
“Oh, no. No donuts for you. Ever,” I said sternly, taking a tighter hold of him.
To be on the safe side I crossed the street and headed towards Atlantic Mall. At least it would be cooler there. A flock of people surged out from the Bergen Street station just as I passed the steps leading down. To avoid them, I walked closer to the wall, but that wasn’t good either, because it brought me into the path of customers exiting a bank on the corner.
Swerving left and right, trying to avoid being trampled by busy Brooklynites, I walked smack into a stand placed on the sidewalk by the wall. The dog whined when I accidentally squeezed him as I tried to regain my balance, and I paused to soothe him. While at it, I read the advertisement on the stand.
Jackson Dean Investigations. Help wanted. Inquire on second floor.
My heart skipped a beat. A private investigator. Just what I needed. And they needed me too.
“Let’s go in. I’m going to become a P.I.”
The first impression of the building was pleasantly surprising. I associated private detective agencies with seedy back alleys and low-rent dives, but this was a block from the Barclay’s Center on a fairly expensive stretch of a main street in Prospect Heights. The entrance hallway was—admittedly—worn, but the elevator at its end had been recently upgraded and everything was clean. The ride up was fast and soundless.
There were two doors on the second floor, one for a psychic—Madam Amber—of all things, and the other for Jackson Dean Investigations, as the nice brass plate on the door declared. The door was slightly ajar, so the dog and I went in.
We came into a small, windowless reception area with a dark brown hardwood floor and pale yellow walls. A desk for the secretary was on the right; a couple of chairs for customers to wait on were on the left, and wooden filing cabinets lined two walls. Judging by the papers and ring binders on the secretary’s desk, the place was doing well. I gave the desk an apprehensive look, hoping it wasn’t a secretary they were looking for.
Then again, anything beat waitressing.
Across the floor from the entry was a door with an opaque glass pane on it, and it was wide open. I had a clear view into the office, and the large hardwood desk in front of the windows. A man was sitting behind the desk, immersed in something on his computer screen. Since I couldn’t very well keep standing there, holding the dog, I crossed the floor, but paused at the door to the office, not wanting to disturb the man.
The office was large and light. The windows looked over Flatbush Avenue and all its noise, but it wasn’t terribly distracting. There were more filing cabinets and bookshelves here, chairs for clients in front of the desk, and a comfy couch wide enough for a man to sleep on at the side wall, with a wooden coffee table in front of it. Everything was slightly worn and mismatched, but clean and comfortable. I felt immediately at home.
But it didn’t look like a P.I.’s office. Not that I was entirely sure what I’d expected. Magnifying glasses and a row of wigs for disguising oneself perhaps?
I gave the doorframe a knock and walked in. The man glanced up and drew back, baffled. “Who the hell are you?”
He had a pleasant voice, low and comfortable, the kind you’d want your priest to have. Though I was fairly sure Father Seymour would never say “Who the hell are you?”
Then again, I hadn’t been to church in about a decade. Maybe he’d changed.
“Tracy Hayes. The reception was empty so I just came in.”
He hurried to his feet, clearly thinking that I was a client, and rounded the desk to shake my hand, only to halt when he spotted my bundle. “Is that a dog?”
“It’s under debate at the moment.” I switched my hold of the dog under my left arm and offered my right hand to the man. He gave it a firm shake, his eyes on the dog.
He was in his mid-thirties, around five-eleven with long legs, and in really good shape with wide shoulders and sinewy arms that were bared by his black T-shirt. He looked great, but I’d imagined a fat middle-aged wash-out with a whiskey habit and a wheeze from a pack–a-day routine, so I didn’t quite know how to relate.
Okay, fine, this was better.
He was wearing black jeans with his T, and black Converse sneakers, which gave him some edge without drawing attention to him. He had short, dark brown hair that wasn’t quite out of shape yet even though it should have been cut a couple of weeks ago. And he had the kind of face you forgot the moment your back was turned—clean lines, pleasant, but unmemorable. In short, perfect for surveillance work.
Then he shot me a piercing look that made me upgrade my assessment of him.
He had the sharp, all-seeing eyes of a seasoned cop. I knew those eyes. My dad was a retired cop with an excellent glare, and my brother Trevor was a homicide detective working his way towards a good glare of his own. The look transformed Jackson’s face completely. You wouldn’t forget his face once you’d seen that look.
“What can I do for you, Miss Hayes?” he asked, taking a seat behind his desk. I sat on a chair in front of it, holding the dog.
“You had a sign downstairs saying you need help?” It came out as a question, but I couldn’t avoid it. His eyes had unsettled me.
He studied me slowly. “You’re not exactly what I had in mind.”
My heart fell; it had really set its eyes on this job and had managed to get the rest of my body excited about it too.
“Really? I’d love to become a P.I.”
His mouth quirked and lines appeared around his brown eyes, softening them. He didn’t look so scary anymore. “It takes years of in-work experience and studying to become a P.I., if you’re not a cop or a lawyer.”
That was upsetting to hear, but I wouldn’t give up so easily. “I can learn,” I said with more confidence than I felt. Studying of any kind wasn’t exactly my ballgame.
“I’m sure you can, but I’m looking for someone tougher. You look like a nice home-girl.”
“Was that an assessment of my looks or my age?” Because I wasn’t that short to my weight at five six, and if my round parts were rounder than they’d been before I started working at the café, I wasn’t a softie on the inside.
“Both, I guess,” he said.
“I’ve been a waitress in Brooklyn for six years. They don’t come tougher than that.”
He laughed aloud, which banished the last effects of his stare. “Be that as it may, this job can be rough, and I’d like someone who can defend himself.”
“My dad’s a cop. I can defend myself.”
Annnnd the piercing look was back. “Anyone I might know?”
“Sergeant Colm Hayes. He worked at the 66th. He’s retired now.”
He frowned, as if the name rang a bell. “I see.” But he didn’t elaborate. He leaned back in his chair, linked his hands behind his head, and proceeded to give me the third degree.
He wasn’t impressed with my answers. I was too young, for one—which felt both good and insulting for someone who was twenty-seven already—and too poorly educated.
“You’re saying you don’t have any formal education, Miss Hayes?”
“I have a year in college.” If I sounded defensive it’s because I was. My three older siblings were over-achievers, and never forgot to remind me what I could have been if I’d stayed in college.
“Then what happened?”
It wasn’t a story I shared easily, but since I didn’t want him to think I was too stupid for college, I told him: “I thought it would be more important to follow the man of my dreams as he toured the country with his band than to get a degree.”
“And was it?”
“Up until I caught him doing a groupie in the backroom of a concert venue.” My stomach still roiled every time I remembered the scene, even though it was six years ago already. “Then it was a fast divorce and back to my parents.”
“But not back to college?”
“I needed to clear my head first. And then I needed to save money for it.” Neither of which had gone very well, but I wouldn’t tell him that.
“And now it’s just you and your faithful dog?”
I glanced at the dog, who had recovered enough to squirm on my lap, so I took a tighter hold of him. “He’s not mine.” The baffled look on his face was so comical I had to laugh. “I think he’s run away.”
He cocked a dark brow, prompting me to go on.
“He somehow got into the kitchen of the café I worked in.” I considered. “Okay, maybe I should’ve kept a better eye on wandering strays when I took the donut delivery, but we were busy scrubbing the place because the health inspector was about to make a visit.”
I’d also been busy ogling at the donut delivery guy. There were so few things that brought joy to a waitress’s life and he was one of them. Donuts were the other, so he was pretty much the best thing in the world as far as that café was concerned. I could hardly be blamed for indulging.
But I wasn’t going to tell Jackson that.
“I placed the box down for two minutes, and when I came back the dog had gone through it all.”
The man looked impressed. “Not bad for a tiny dog.”
“I know. If only he could’ve kept it in. But he threw everything up. At the feet of the health inspector.”
Jackson threw his head back and barked a laugh. “Then what happened?”
“I was fired on the spot.”
“That was a bit rash of your boss.”
“She has a temper.” Also I was late coming to work for the third time this month, but I thought it best not to share that piece of information either.
“What did you think to do with the dog?”
“Someone must miss him, so I figured I’ll put up posters around the café and see if he’s claimed.”
He nodded. “Sounds like a plan. Why don’t you start with that and we’ll see from there.”
I straightened in the chair, excited. “I got the job?”
“I may regret this, but yes. For now.” He smiled. “Welcome to Jackson Dean Investigations.”
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