The dog days of summer had drawn to a close, and the slight
crispness in the air hinted at a future without heat, humidity and bugs. I stood
in the doorway of my new office, watching the sexiest man in the world ride away into the morning mist on his Harley. That
I would see him again, I knew for sure, but how soon it would be was not so clear. I had returned to my home town of Quisby,
Alabama just a few days ago. Harland and I had ridden here on our Harleys from Boston, Massachusetts, where I had been living
for the past year.
A bunch of mixed emotions ran through me. Sadness at seeing
Harland go, fear that I had done the wrong thing in letting him go, excitement and anticipation at the prospect of starting
my new venture, and an eagerness to bring my mama's murderer to justice.
Looking back, I realized this past summer had been one of the
best and worst in my life. On the down side, I had been fired from my job as an IT tech for showing my boobs to the company
nerd. I mean, was that really such a big deal? I had also been shot at, blown up in a bomb blast, ridden off the road, and
attacked and kidnapped by a very scary man.
Worst of all, I had lost my mama to a crazed murderer.
On the plus side, I had allowed Harland O'Connor into my life.
Because of Jimmie-Ray, I can't use the "L" word when describing my feelings for any man, but the feelings I have for Harland
The other good thing that happened this past summer was me
discovering I was not only capable of being a private investigator, but also that I was great at it, and I loved it. I had
proved this while working for Harland, up in Yankee territory.
I grew up in Quisby, where residents mostly just shake their
heads and ignore the negative comments from strangers passing through the town. Remarks about the weeds growing through the
cracked pavements, and the stained and peeling paint on some of the store fronts. Strangers seem to be particularly offended
by the junk laying around in peoples' yards. The way we see it, if you don't like it, you're free to leave.
The pulp and paper mill located a few miles outside of Quisby
is the major employer. In fact, if it wasn't for the mill, there probably wouldn't be a town called Quisby, or it would be
a lot smaller than the 1,200 that the census bureau said there were last year. The mill is on the outskirts of town. On the
west side. Anyone who has ever driven past a pulp and paper mill will know that they give off a really bad smell--worse than
the worst fart you've ever smelled. The wind usually blows the smell toward the northwest, but on rare occasions the whole
town of Quisby smells like all the inhabitants farted at once.
I ran my fingers across the sign which, in bold red lettering,
REDNECK DETECTIVE AGENCY
The sign on the other side of the door proclaimed that this
was also the office of
QUISBY REAL ESTATE--BROKER PERVIS TAUNTON.
My Uncle Pervis and I had closed the real estate office when
the recession took hold and I could no longer make enough money to support myself selling real estate. That was when I followed
my best friend Jane northward to find work. She had moved up there when we both graduated from high school, and she persuaded
her married lover, Andrew, to give me a job in the computer firm where he was the boss.
I wasn't happy about moving into Yankee territory, but work
was hard to find in the South at that time. It turned out to be a good move in the end, because I met Harland. He got shot
and had to stay in hospital for a while just about the time I lost my job. He was a P.I.--private investigator to the uninitiated--and
his clients all seemed to need answers in a hurry. Most of them would probably have taken their business elsewhere if I hadn't
stepped in and taken over their cases when I did. Long story short, I solved a few cases and learned a lot about being a P.I.
When Mama was murdered in Quisby, I knew I was gonna investigate
her death. And here I was, back in Quisby and ready to start.
Uncle Pervis owned my office building. It was one of those
little old wooden houses built up on blocks that had been re-zoned for commercial use. He had bought it a couple of years
previously and done some repairs and refurbishing, which included painting the outside a dark teal color, replacing the old
wooden window frames with modern fake wood ones, putting on a new dark gray shingle roof, and sanding and polishing the old
When the housing market crashed and I left to go north, he
simply closed the doors and locked it up. A few days ago he had given me permission to use my key, which was still on my key
chain, and take over the building again.
Harland had helped me clean up. We had to knock all the dust
off the furniture and wipe the cobwebs off the ceiling and sweep and mop the floors. He laughed when I showed him my old real
estate files, still in the cabinets exactly where I had left them.
Now standing in the doorway looking in, I almost felt like
I had never left. I might have even been able to convince myself that everything that happened in Massachusetts was just a
dream if it wasn't for Harland.
Harland was most definitely real. In the past few days we had
indulged in some very real and very hot sex. I felt myself getting warm and tingly all the way from my head to my toes, just
thinking about it, and besides, I had a hickey--two hickeys and a few bruises--to remind me just how good it was.
I gazed wistfully down the road where I had watched him until
I could no longer see him, sighed heavily, and went inside. I poured myself a mug of still hot, sweet tea from the pot on
the stove in the kitchen. I much preferred tea to all the coffee I had had to consume in Yankee territory.
Being that the office was once a home, there was a good sized
kitchen, with space enough for the small square table and four chairs. Uncle Pervis had replaced the countertops with Formica
and put in a more modern stove and a new refrigerator.
From the parking lot, the steps led up onto the covered porch
and through the entrance to the reception area, which was previously the living room. Pervis and I had furnished it with a
sofa and three easy chairs, and a desk with a computer and two straight-backed chairs across from it. I had used this desk
when I had real estate customers. Pervis had brought some really cool oversized pictures of Quisby fifty years ago for the
walls, with old cars in the streets and people dressed in old fashioned clothing.
My office was in what had been the single bedroom. I had placed
the oversized desk right in the center, facing the door, with two chairs, one in each corner, and I lined up the bank of file
cabinets against the back and one side wall. I had filled the free wall with an enormous map of Quisby and its surrounding
I once saw this word in the dictionary that would describe
me quite well--"callimammapygian". It means having shapely breasts and buttocks. I am five-nine, have long, wavy reddish hair,
green eyes, a few freckles--well quite a lot, actually--and take a fourteen to sixteen dress size, depending upon how much
flesh I want to expose. I am not fat, nor am I flabby, just curvy and luscious, and definitely never angular.
This was my first day of operation, and I knew that in a small
town like Quisby, the residents were itching to know everything they could about my new business. That's the way it is in
small towns all over the world. I had a silent bet with myself that Connie Hazlewood would be my first visitor. She was the
town gossip, and made it her business to know everything about everyone else's business. It was a given that it was impossible
to keep a secret around her.
Sure enough, I barely had time to take my first sip of tea
when I heard a car crunch on the gravel outside. The wooden floor protested loudly as Connie waddled into my office, all two
hundred and some pounds of her. Maybe even three hundred pounds. I idly wondered how much weight the old floor could hold,
and had a brief mental picture of her crashing through it.
She knew the way to my office, having been there before, and
sank gratefully into the chair in the corner of the room, across from my desk, without an invitation. Her four chins and underarms
all shook together. I hoped the chair was strong enough.
"Connie", I said with an enthusiasm I wasn't feeling. "Haven't
seen you for ages. How are you doing?"
"Oh, I still have a bad heart, and my arthritis is giving me
a lot of problems." She paused to catch her breath. "But other than that I'm doing okay." She fluffed out her brassy blonde
hair and smacked her lips together in an attempt to spread the thick coat of bright orange lipstick around. All she really
did was smudge it around the outside of her lips more.
I stood up and went into the kitchen, pulled my only other
clean mug off the shelf and filled it with tea, which I set down in front of her.
"So, I know you're here to find out as much stuff as you can
about me so you can spread it around town." I eyed her over my mug as I took a sip of my tea.
She didn't bat an eyelid. "Actually, I wanted to welcome you
back to Quisby in person." She paused again. "And find out what you've been up to."
What a surprise. I sighed and forced a smile. "Well, as you
can see, I've started a private investigation firm. I'll be helping people--Quisby residents--to solve problems they can't
take to the sheriff's department."
"Well, I cannot see how you think you'll make enough money
to live on by doing that."
I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes. "I'll also be doing
investigation work for the deputies, and most likely for Podge Thompkins and Dan Wright." Podge was the local lawyer and had
been practicing in Quisby ever since I could remember. Dan had started his practice around two years previously. "Maybe I'll
visit the lawyers in Grover, too."
"And what makes you think you are qualified to do this? I could
also start a private investigation business. I'm about as qualified as you are. I probably know more about what's going on
in this town than you."
"I have no doubt about that. You should. Start an agency, I
mean. There's no reason why you shouldn't." I stared her down.
"Well, you know, with my health problems and all it might not
be a good idea"
She wanted to know who Harland was. "I've seen you around town
these past few days, riding around on a bike with a strange man…"
"Yeah, and he left this morning, as I'm sure you are aware.
He was my boss. He taught me all I know about being a private investigator."
"Well. From what I've heard you didn't act like he was a boss.
In fact, everyone in town seems to think he's your boyfriend."
I didn't answer. She wanted to know where I was living, and
why I now had a Harley instead of my old SUV. She probably would have asked me which hand I used to wipe my ass with if I
had given her enough leeway, but I kept her on a tight rope and chose my answers carefully, fighting hard to restrain myself
from throwing her out. It would have taken too much effort anyhow, given her weight.
She had been saving the bombshell for last, and the triumph
in her voice was unmistakable when she said, "Well I have things to do so I'd best move along. Oh… I guess you'll be
taking on some work for Jimmie-Ray. He's a lawyer, and you said you will be working for lawyers."
I was silent. Struck dumb. I didn't want to give her the satisfaction
of showing her how much of a shock this was to me, but I'm sure it showed in my face, because I felt the blood drain from
it and I knew I must be ghostly pale. She left with a triumphant bustle of skirts and a swing of her ample hips and no sign
of any arthritis.
I sat there, frozen with shock, a million things churning around
in my head. There was no question which Jimmie-Ray she was referring to. I couldn't believe he was back in Quisby. The last
I had heard he was living with his pasty little Yankee wife in Oklahoma. I put my head in my hands and sighed and sighed,
and was thinking that I should text Jane, and I didn't notice that I had another visitor until he coughed politely.
I jumped and found myself looking into Zeb Walton's piercing
blue eyes. His eyes were pretty much all that showed through his bushy grey beard and shaggy eyebrows. His beard was stained
yellow from the tobacco he chewed, and the skin that was showing was tanned brown, and wrinkled. I stuck out my hand. His
was rough from work, and I didn't have to look to know his fingernails were dirty. I told him to sit and made a mental note
to install a chime on the front door.
We talked a little about the weather and about my experiences
with working in an investigation office. I knew he would eventually get around to telling me why he was visiting me. People
who live in small towns are generally not in any hurry to do anything much. He wasn't one of the curious or gossipy people
of the town, and rather kept to himself most of the time.
"There is a reason I'm here," he said.
I leaned forward and looked him in the eyes. "Go ahead, Zeb,
I'm listening," I said. I held a pen poised above a yellow pad, hoping that I appeared to have my full concentration leveled
on him, when really my head was still spinning from what Connie had just told me.
"Well, it's about my ma," he said. "She passed sixteen years
I nodded and said nothing. Everyone knew that.
"She… She had a lot of money hidden away when she passed,
but I was never able to find it." Now that was news to me.
"And you want me to see if I can figure out where it is?" I
said, while I wrote: CASH LEFT BY MOTHER.
He nodded. "It was a sizeable sum. She won the Lotto, you know."
Now he had my full attention. I didn't know. "Like how much?"
"I reckon it's somewhere around five hundred thousand or more.
Maybe even a million."
I was silent, and I think my mouth hung open for a while. "Is
it in some bank and you don't know which one?"
He shook his head. "She never had no bank account. She took
the money in cash. I saw it."
I put my hand over my mouth. My brain was churning through
the gears. "So, you want me to find the money?" He nodded. I paused while I wrote a five and six zero's, then corrected it
and erased one of them. "Okay. I charge a percentage of any cash recovered. Like five percent. Is that okay?"
He nodded. "I'll be happy to give you a percentage if you can
help me find it." He rested his hands on my desk and picked his nails.
"I also charge an up-front fee to help cover any costs involved
during my investigation. And to make certain clients are really serious about getting the information they are requesting."
He scratched his beard. "How much?"
"Five hundred dollars. That's just a deposit, though. I charge
by the hour the same way a lawyer does, only I'm not as expensive. Thirty dollars an hour is all I'm asking."
He screwed up his lips and looked down at his hands. I figured
he was trying to decide if it was worth the expense. He lifted his head and said, "I reckon I can handle that. If you find
that cash it'll be worth it."
"If I find it. I'm great at what I do, but I'm not a miracle
maker." I paused to let that sink in. I was a kid when his mother, Miss Earlene died. Not even in middle school yet. "Okay,
I need to ask you a few questions. You said you saw the greenbacks. Where and when would that have been?"
He screwed up his eyes. "Mmm… It was a long time ago
but I remember 'cause it was the day she died… I was over at her house when she told me about it and she asked me to
hide it for her." He looked up to see if I was listening.
"I'm all ears."
"I stuck it in the ceiling. There was two big canvas carry
bags. I remember they was gray--or maybe brown. And heavy. Also remember wonderin' where she got them, 'cause I hadn't never
seem em before."
He pulled a tin out of his pocket, flipped the lid and dug
into it. I like the smell of chewing tobacco--it's kind of like licorice. He stuffed a plug of it into his right cheek. It
made his beard bristle and stick out on that side.
"How do you know the money didn't burn up with the house?"
He shook his head, and shifted the plug to the other cheek.
"I was looking for it the day of the fire. I climbed on a chair and felt around for it where I knew I had put it. It was gone.
I went back to my place to get a stepladder and flashlight so I could see if it had been pushed farther into the attic. The
next thing I saw flames lickin' out of the roof. By the time I got back to the house, the fire was too big. I couldn't get
in. The house was almost completely burned up. Then the fire truck arrived, and they wouldn't let me go in. That cash is someplace,
I know it."
I looked down at my notepad again. "I think I should visit
your ma's house, or what's left of it, so you can give me an idea of where that money was."
"Like I said, there ain't much left of it since the fire. It
was a long time ago."
"I still want to see it. I lifted my pad and stared at the
desk calendar. "Can we meet out there next Tuesday at--say two in the afternoon?"
When he agreed, I said, "I'll get a contract printed up. If
you can wait a few minutes, you can sign it now and give me the five hundred dollar deposit."
I didn't keep a spittoon in my office and was very glad when
he went out and paced in the parking lot by his truck while he waited.
My computer was already on. I pulled up the contract that I
had copied from Harland's practice and adapted to mine, filled in the details, and printed it out. When it was done, I walked
to the door and waved it at him. "I just need you to sign this and give me the
He came back in, dug in his pocket and handed me a wad of money.
I counted it out and placed it in my top desk drawer, wondering why he was carrying so much cash around with him. I went over
the contract with him to make certain he understood the terms. "Here's a pen. Just sign there and write the date there."
"Now I don't have a phone. Got sick and tired of them cutting
it off when I didn't pay the bill and I had to pay a reconnection fee every time. Figured it's a lot less stressful to just
do without, but I'll be there Tuesday. After that, I'll probably also stop by every now and then to find out if you've found
anything, if that's okay."
I stood in the doorway and watched him drive away in his battered
truck, wondering why I hadn't heard him pull up.
I fingered the cash. My first case. Just like that. Half a
million dollars and nobody knew. Correction--someone knew about but they weren't talking. I was sure of that. Someone had
to know. Unless it all burned up. That would be a shame.
I was feeling pretty happy. Then I remembered Jimmie-Ray. How
could I have been in town and not see him over the past few days? How could I not have known he was there? I was surprised
at how angry I still felt that he stood me up on my wedding day and went off with that bitch.
Before I had time to do some serious moping, Velda Maynard
pulled up in my parking lot. I was really happy to see her, because one of the cases that I knew I had to solve was the murder
of her husband, M.J. Maynard, which I thought could have been related to my mother's murder.
This murder had taken place when I was at high school thirteen
years ago, and had haunted me in recent months.
Velda had re-married a couple of years after M.J. died and
I asked her how that was going. "It's okay," she said, "Clancy is a hard worker and he gives me his paycheck every two weeks.
The kids like him too." She looked around suspiciously as if she thought someone might be hiding in the filing cabinet, lowered
her voice and leaned in closer to me.
"You know your mama visited Miss Brandy two days before she
Actually I did know. My cousin Rowena had told me the same
thing at the funeral. But I wasn't about to give Velda that information.
"Miss Brandy's mind has gone, but I reckon she told your mama
"Like what?" I said, while my head churned.
She shook her head. "I dunno, but it's best left alone. Just…just
don't go asking questions about it around town. You'll get Miss Brandy into trouble."
I wanted to ask how you could get a woman who was in the nut
house into more trouble than she already was in. I changed the subject.
"What about M.J.?"
"What about him?" She sounded angry.
"Has anyone ever looked like they could be the killer?"
She just sat there and stared at me with a blank look in her
"You can't have forgotten that time you told me you would kill
him while pointing that loaded shotgun at me. It's not funny to have someone point a gun at you, especially when you're buck
naked, you know."
"Twila Taunton, you know very well I wasn't pointing it at
you. It was your skanky whoring cousin who was hiding behind you who deserved to die."
"I don't know if Rowena was sleeping with M.J. or not," I lied.
"I just remember you saying you were gonna kill M.J. Two weeks later, he was dead. The killer's never been caught."
She jumped up off her chair. "I knew this would happen, when
I saw your sign. Why? Why can't you just leave it alone? He's gone and I didn't kill him. I told you--leave it alone or you'll
go the same way as your mama," she shouted, while angry tears poured down her cheeks. She gave me the evil eye and shook her
finger at me. Then she stomped out of the office and kicked up gravel with her tires.
Well that was weird. Maybe she wasn't as innocent as she had
proclaimed. I didn't owe her anything and I was more curious than ever now, and more determined to find the answers. Especially
if Mama's murder was also related to M.J.'s.
If it was.