Fire and Ash Sample

Chapter 1

“Depending on what you tell me I’ll probably kill him. That’s a joke, don’t go running to the cops, Alisa. May I call you Alisa? I need your help on this.”  

I looked at the tall redheaded woman standing before me and nodded. I didn’t mind her using my first name. She put a hand on her slim waist. The other hand dangled a cigarette.

It was her face, though. It carried a deep scowl. She was clearly upset and had been for some time.

I tried to look neutral. Mentally, I readied myself to hear this woman’s tale of woe.

A small pain in my fingers alerted me that I was gripping my ballpoint too tightly. I let it go, flexing my hand in the process.

Like all the rest, I already knew what she wanted, could probably speak her next words verbatim if she let me.

I cued up my laptop and spread some papers around on my desk, trying to appear professional even though I was feeling anything but.

   It was always the same. Over the last couple of years, the script hadn’t changed much, only the players. Cheating spouses, dishonest business partners, false insurance claims… I’d seen it all and to be honest, I was tired. When I’d first gotten into this business eight years ago, I’d been an excited newbie, eager to excel in a new field. Now? Now I was just done.

My bank account was also done, and didn’t that beat all? I was down to my last dollar and with an empty fridge and rent due in three days, I couldn’t afford not to take this case.

There were other options, but I’d rather eat hot coals than go to my father with my tail between my legs asking for his help. I was twenty-seven years old, yet he still thought he could make decisions for me.

He’d never approved of me becoming a private detective, thought I’d be better suited as a teacher or nurse. He was a stern man, a big name in this city.

When I’d decided to get my PI license, only one person had been brave enough to let me train under them. I smiled when I thought of Reid. He’d taken a chance on me, and for that, I’d always be grateful.

Still, that didn’t help me now. I loved the PI business, but for the moment, I needed a break. Hot leads and anonymous tips no longer made my adrenaline rush and my heart pound.

Now I just groaned and wished I’d passed on the case.

Reid called it burnout. He’d often lectured me on the importance of being able to distance oneself from the case. I’d never learned that lesson and somewhere along the path, I’d lost my way.

In the end it didn’t matter. Whether it was burnout or a simple weariness with the business, I knew without doubt this would be my last case for a while.

What would I do for money in the meantime? That was the real question.

I cleared my throat, realizing I still had a client in front of me. I smiled at her, then encouraged her to continue. “Tell me the facts.”

It was an effort to keep the fatigue from my voice, but this lady had come to me for help, and she deserved my best. So, I pushed away my misgivings and promised to give this case my all.

My client, a Mrs. Melinda Handler, didn’t miss a beat. She paced the room, ticking off a list of things that’d caused her suspicion. “Overtime at work that’s not really overtime. I call his cell phone, no answer. Then I call the office. Still no answer.”

She put fire to her cigarette. This was a smoke-free office, but because of the rattled look on her face, I decided to let it go. She blew a long line of smoke out of her mouth, then continued with her story.

A strain of annoyance crept into her voice. “If everyone has to work overtime, wouldn’t someone be there to answer the damn phones?”

I continued to take notes but made no move to interrupt. I knew she probably had a lot more to say.

She blew more smoke out of her mouth then finally took a seat in one of the brown office chairs in front of my desk. “Strange phone calls in the middle of the night. When I answer, they hang up. When he answers, it’s whispers in the bathroom, or backyard.”

She shook her head, eyes filled with rage. “Leave it to a man to think you’re too stupid to see what’s right in front of you, huh?”  

I ignored that and read over the information she’d given me so far. The smoke from her cigarette drifted my way, and I stifled a cough, hating the way it smelled. She needed to put it out.

 To do something with my hands, I began typing her information into a spreadsheet on my laptop. The late-night phone calls and unaccounted-for overtime did seem suspicious.

 Still, one thing I’d learned in my eight years as a PI… Never jump to conclusions.

Things were rarely as they appeared. Her husband did seem to have a secret, but that could be anything from him arranging a surprise birthday party for her, to planning a secret vacation for their anniversary. Innocent until proven guilty, right?

I continued to type. There was no need to speculate. I’d find out what I needed once I got started on the case. “I require a five-hundred-dollar retainer. My fee is fifty dollars an hour plus expenses.” 

I hoped she had it. If she did, then I could eat something besides a peanut butter and jelly sandwich tonight, and I’d be able to put a dent in my rent.

 I owed fifteen hundred, but maybe my landlord would work with me if I gave him some money.

He wanted the whole thing upfront. But who could turn down four hundred dollars being brandished in their face? As for the other hundred, well a girl had to eat.

Melinda reached into her purse and pulled out a thick white envelope. She smiled like she’d done something great, then put the cigarette out on the corner of my desk.

I gritted my teeth. The smoke and ashes made a distinctive mark on my mahogany. I could feel my nostrils flaring. It took everything in me to keep from reprimanding the other lady. My office was a source of pride for me. My only thing of value.  

It was just the way I liked it. It represented me, who I saw myself as. The walls were a warm burgundy, the carpet a plush maroon, which I thought offered a nice contrast.

My desk was set against the back wall, with the front door to the right and a standard size office window to my left.

No pictures hung on my walls, only my state license. It was a comfortable space. At one hundred seventy square feet, my office was just the size I needed it to be and not a bit more.

I’d never been the best in the housekeeping department, but I made an effort here, and it showed. No dust covered my desk, and I emptied the trash and ran the vacuum every night before I went home.

If only I could keep that same diligence once I left here. My house looked like a hurricane had run through it. But at the office, I tried to be as neat as I could.

That’s why her putting her cig out on my desk bothered me so much. That, and the smell from a cigarette always seemed to linger long after the smoke was gone. It wasn’t a pleasant scent. Not to me, anyway.

Melinda, for her part, seemed oblivious to the frown on my face. She pointed to the envelope. “Here’s five thousand to start. Sufficient enough for you?”

I swallowed hard and tried not to blink. A queasy feeling hit me in the gut. That was a lot of money. It’d pay my rent up for a few months, allow me to get some groceries, and do a few extra things if I needed.

That was all good, but because of how disconnected I’d been feeling from the job lately, I wasn’t sure I was up to earning it. If not, I’d give it back. No way around it.    

Melinda pulled out a much larger manila envelope and plopped it on my desk. I’d asked her to bring as much information as she could gather. I assumed this was it. I laid it beside the envelope with the money and listened to what she had to say.  

She ticked off a list with her fingers, her cherry nails looking elegant and freshly done. “Here’s some photos, work information, places he likes to hang out, list of friends, you know, all the stuff you said you needed.”

I opened the envelope and picked up one of the pictures of Brad Handler. He was a handsome man. He had a strong chin, deep-set brown eyes, and brown hair with hints of gray around his temple. It gave him a distinguished look.

I put the photo down and turned back to my client. “How long have you two been married?” While I waited for an answer, I typed his name into the spreadsheet, then pulled out a folder and wrote it on the tab. 

Melinda’s eyes flashed with hurt, then she cleared her throat, and they turned to steel. “Five years. Can you believe the nerve? We were together three years before we said, I do.”

She lit up another cigarette. I sighed. That dreadful smoke once again filled the air.

I coughed surreptitiously, my eyes filling with tears. I hated cigarette smoke. I choked every time I was near it. That was it! She had to go before my lungs exploded.

I got up and walked to the door. When I opened it, I made a waving motion with my hand. “It was nice meeting you, Mrs. Handler. I’ll call if I have any questions.”

It was a quick, non-rude way to end the interaction. Plus, I was grateful for the clean air that flooded my office once the door was opened.   

Melinda took a deep breath and stood. Her fingers shook when she tried to button her coat. For a moment I saw the scared, vulnerable woman underneath the facade.

I lowered my eyes. I’d seen that look on so many of my client's faces over the years, and I hated it. Heartbreak. The number one thing that drove people here.

 I wanted to help her. I’d tried to help them all. Hence my burnout now. I felt their pain on a personal level. How could I not?

The defeated look in their eyes always stayed with me when I worked their cases. When that happened, I’d work extra harder to bring them back the answers they sought.

Sometimes the news was good. Other times not so much. But I always gave one hundred percent. This case was no exception. I planned on working hard for her.     

“I’ll do my best,” I said, my voice strained from just thinking about it.

She swallowed hard, cigarette dangling from her lips. Her eyes shone. She walked out of my office without uttering another word.

I watched until she disappeared, then closed the door, taking a second to catch my breath.

The emotion it took to deal with this on a daily basis got to be too much sometimes. I was more than thankful this would be my last case for a while.

I walked back into my office. The first cigarette still lay crushed on the side of my desk. I marched over to it and quickly used a napkin to plop it into the trashcan.

There. That was better. I smiled, my office was smoke-free again, though the smell still lingered a bit. I wiped the desk off with a disinfectant wipe then sat back down and looked over the things Melinda had given me.

Mr. Handler usually left the office at five in the evening. It was four forty-five now. I printed out the spreadsheet and snatched the folder up. If I hurried, I’d have just enough time to make it to his job before he left for the day.

I threw the information back into the manila envelope, grabbed my purse, and headed for the door.

I usually did more planning than this but had decided a simple tail would be okay until I could set up the real surveillance. Normally, a good tail required at least three cars, but I just wanted a quick look at his after-work routine. This was the best time to get it.

I was supposed to have drinks with my sister later, but depending on Mr. Handler, I might have to cancel. My sister Vonda was a bank teller at First National downtown.

She’d wanted to study marketing and go into advertising, but my father had squashed that by refusing to pay for her college courses.

She hadn’t been able to receive financial aid because of his income and though she’d had a few scholarships, she’d left them floating in the wind in the face of his disapproval.

My hands gripped the steering wheel tighter. Vonda often carried a trapped look in her eyes. Her dreams were gone, yet my parents couldn’t be prouder of her.  

Me? Well, I was the rebel child. The black sheep, who dared go into the career I wanted instead of the one my father had chosen for me. My brother was not exempt from this either.

The only reason he’d opened a restaurant in midtown, instead of the nightclub he’d wanted, was because of my father. When he’d discovered my brother’s aptitude for cooking, he’d hammered home the benefits to be gained from feeding some of the city’s top officials.

The stoplight changed to green. I turned into Brad Handler’s office parking lot, vowing to leave my family drama for another time. From here on out I needed to focus on the case.

Brad’s office was just around the corner from my own. When I looked at the clock on my dash, it read four-fifty-five. It’d taken me ten minutes to get here.

I parked toward the back. While I waited, I gave his picture another look. His features were strong, bold.

He seemed the type who was used to giving orders and having them obeyed with little to no resistance. I wondered if that extended to his wife.   

At five-fifteen, I saw his tall figure, making its way confidently across the parking lot. He wore khaki pants and a brown sweater, briefcase gripped tightly in his hand.

He moved with distinct purpose, like he had somewhere important to be. He stopped in front of a white Volvo, then opened the door and got inside.

He drove out of the parking lot at a normal speed and headed down Main Street. I hurriedly turned on my engine, following a couple of cars behind.

I’d expected him to go left, which would’ve taken him toward home. Instead, he went right, toward the bridge. I followed, only two cars between us now.

Where was he going? I sighed. I’d probably miss drinks with my sister, after all.

Since it was winter, the day had already turned to dusk. This was both a plus and a minus for me. On the one hand, it’d make it harder for him to spot me. On the other, it’d make it more difficult for me to see. 

I followed him for over twenty minutes. We went out of the city and into the country. I watched as large buildings and houses turned into trees and wilderness.

 I bit my lip, telling myself to focus. I hated this. It was dark, with nothing but forest and empty road for miles. It was also isolated. Only one car had driven past us in the last couple of minutes.

Brad turned down a small dirt road, causing me a moment of shock. I’d taken this route many times. I’d never noticed there was a street here.

   I waited until he was a good way down, then started a slow drift in that direction with my lights off. After about ten minutes, a clearing came into view.

I eased the car over to the right, in between two sets of trees. I figured I’d hang back and soak up as much information as I could.

I got out, knowing I’d have to hoof it from this point forward if I wanted to keep my car hidden. The cold night air hit against my skin, freezing me to the bone. I shivered, then buttoned my coat to the top, reaching inside the pockets to pull out my gloves.

It was pitch black here. I shuddered and tried not to panic. I couldn’t see my own hands in the darkness, and that put me on edge. Off in the distance, an owl hooted, a dog growled, a frog croaked, and something fast and furry ran past my feet.

I took a deep breath to center myself. My heart sounded like a thundercloud in my ears, and my pulse raced a million miles a minute. It was spooky here. The quicker I got done with this whole matter, the better.

I opened the trunk and took out the small backpack I kept for just such occasions. I rambled through it a bit, sticking a few items in my pockets. Once done, I closed the trunk and locked my doors before heading down the dark path Brad had taken.

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