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I’ll Always Remember My First
I’m the night janitor in a haunted teahouse, in the small, Pacific Northwest town of Sunset Cove, where things happen no one talks about. Ever. You’d think that would be enough weirdness for one person in a lifetime, but not for me. I’ve started a business on the side, to sort and sanitize supernatural drama. That is to say, I am the community’s first private detective. My name is Abby Jenkins.
I’ve studied sleuthing for years, reading every Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie and Charlaine Harris book in the public library. I rock at jigsaw puzzles. I’m naturally nosy. And my whopper-credential is that I know all the usual suspects in town, both of the human and supernatural kind. Of course we get visitors, but that’s beside the point. I figure I can solve a local whodunit with the best of them, especially if there’s a butler involved. What could possibly go wrong?
Although my jobs may sound unusual, I’m not a freak. I look like a regular thirty-two-year-old mom, the kind you see at the grocery store herding her three young children through the shopping aisles. My blond hair lives in a creative ponytail and my thrift-store clothes are stained with life. I can’t remember the last time I put on makeup. I avoid mirrors, not because I’m a vampire, but because they make me cranky. You could easily pass me by, and profile me as a normal, single-mom-next-door—a minion in the landscape of America. But I’m not. Unusual things happen to me.
It’s as if I have a sticker on my forehead, reading: “Send me your ghosts, poltergeists and living dead, and see what happens.” Some people call me, “thatwidow,” others, “the janitor in thatplace,” and now some call me, “the private dick without a dick,” but I refuse to be defined. I am simply Abby.
Let me tell you about my first case. Trust me, I’ll always remember my first.
At 2 p.m. on a stormy day suitable for ducks, I sat at my desk across from my first client in the attic of the Sunset Cove Teahouse, a Victorian gingerbread home with a wicked reputation for things that go bump in the night. The palms of my hands itched. I had never expected to live out my dream of being a detective, and I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.
I pushed a box of tissues across the desk towards the woman, hoping to stop her tears. She had cried since she entered my office, four minutes ago. I didn’t know her name or why she arrived at my doorstep. She walked in and sat down. Her fancy scent made my nose twitch.
I drummed the old, oak desk with my fingers and watched the seconds tick by slowly on the antique clock hanging askew on the opposite wall. My stomach twisted. This was not what I expected for my first day. I figured I would be looking for lost cats, wandering spouses or, at worst, lost souls. I had not anticipated tears.
My visitor was a noisy, theatrical crier, all sniffles and broken sighs. Her face flushed crimson and perspiration beaded her forehead, all signs she was definitely a live human. I checked the clock. Six minutes had passed.
I didn’t recognize her, so she had to be new to town. Fine lines radiated from her eyes. I pegged her to be a well-preserved forty-five. Her trembling right hand, holding a tissue to her nose, had a salon manicure. An expensive charm bracelet dangled on her wrist. Her left hand, resting on her lap, had a ring with enough diamonds to sink a casket. My fine sleuthing abilities surmised she could afford me.
“It’s haunted,” she blurted out. She blew her nose loudly and commenced crying again.
“I know,” I said. Of course I knew. Everyone knew. The Sunset Cove Teahouse was haunted and a—shall we say “interesting”—gang of ghosts called it home. It was only quiet at that moment because they played elsewhere during the day. All I could hear in the house was the sound of people—of the breathing variety—coming and going from Azalea’s teahouse on the main floor, looking to find good fortune in their tea leaves. Azalea, the owner of the house was, among other things, a talented tea-leaf reader. The house belonged in a catalogue for the Best Haunted Businesses.
Trying to retain my cool PI persona I looked out my window. I could see most of Sunset Cove, a small inlet with a few boats, and a sleepy town nestled in a cozy semicircle around it. My window box overflowed with purple petunias, yellow pansies and midnight-blue lobelia. The sweet scent of the flowers almost masked the smell of the supernatural. I breathed in my Norman Rockwell moment, determined to wait out the woman’s tears.
I squirmed in my seat, and I was not a squirmer by nature. Her problem had to be big, but that didn’t cut it with me. Label me a thrift-store snob if you like, but she looked way too comfortable to have any real issues, like starvation or marginalization. Or how about cultural genocide? Maybe her poodle got a bad haircut.
Most people dress casually in our sea-side town of five thousand people. For women, yoga pants or leggings with cool footwear covers you anywhere at any time, but she wore a pair of navy-blue dress pants, a white silk blouse and a well-cut blazer; an impressive power outfit, designed to take control of any situation. Her straight, platinum-blond, shoulder-length hair had enough highlights for a fashion cover. She wore black-leather stilettos with red soles that would cost more than six months of my part-time janitor’s salary. What could this woman possibly know about trouble?
She sniffed loudly.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” I said.
She shook her head. “I need help.” She broke into another elongated sob.
The ticking of the clock echoed in the room. What did one do with a whimpering woman? I took a deep breath and decided to wait out her emotional episode. After all, doesn’t everyone need a good cry every now and then?
I am an expert on the power of crying. Two and a half years ago my husband died of cancer, leaving me with three children to raise, all under the age of six. Losing my high-school sweetheart broke my heart. Having to raise our kids on my own almost broke my backbone. I cried a lot as I pulled my life together, but I did it. I built a new life for myself.
The icing on this new life was to be this supernatural-PI gig, but it wasn’t looking too sweet at this moment. Why had I ever thought taking on other people’s problems would be fun? In one word—Eric. That’s why. My boyfriend Eric talked me into the mystery business. “Become a detective,” he said. “You love to solve mysteries,” he said. “You’re a natural,” he said. “And I’ll help,” he said.
Yeah right. At this moment, as I faced the whimper-queen, I felt like a real natural: a natural idiot. And he wasn’t here.
I handed her another tissue. “My name is Abby and I want to help you.” This was the third time I had said that, but this time she stirred.
Sitting back in her chair she made eye contact. Behind the tears, the hardness of her baby-blues jolted me for a second. This was no ordinary wilting woman.
“Charisma Dubois,” she said with a slight French accent that purred.
“I have a problem I’m told only you can help me with.”
Me? Did she want advice on breast feeding? How about potty training? I did have some awesome coping tips for late-night diarrhea. Nope, I guessed none of the above by the look of her. “Go on,” I said.
“I have inherited a property.”
“That’s nice,” I said with trepidation, because something in her tone was off.
“Oh, I don’t care about the property. I will sell it after . . .”
“After I find the treasure.”
Of course, there would be property and treasure. “Treasure?”
“My great-grandmother Louise Dubois was a bit odd.”
“I see,” I said, though I didn’t see at all.
“She didn’t believe in banks and kept all her assets in diamonds.”
“And the diamonds are in the house.”
“Yes. Maybe. I’m not sure. I’m not sure at all, actually.” She stopped to sob. “According to my uncle’s will,” she continued, “I have been left my great-grandmother’s manor. No one has ever found her diamond stash and I believe it’s there.”
“Did anyone else inherit?” I didn’t want to get in the middle of a family feud. I’d seen too many murder mysteries about them.
“No. I’m the only living relative, and my uncle bequeathed me the house and all its contents.”
“Okay. So you want me to clean it so you can find the stash?” It was a Lysol job after all. Right up my alley.
The woman’s eyes shot wide. “Heavens, no.”
“Then what do you want me to do?”
Her spine stiffened as she raised her pointed chin. “I want you to find my diamonds.”
“Why don’t you go into the house and look?”
“I tried that.” Staring at a spot above my head as if the answer were there, she wiped gently at her nose. “I was told you understand abnormal things, things beyond the normal, supernatural events and such.”
“Are you saying the house is haunted?”
“It would seem so. Yes.” The color in her red face drained to a sage-green hue. Now the hysterical crying made sense. Encounters with the dead unravel the best of us.
My squirmy butt froze. “Okay, let me get this straight. You want me to go with you to a haunted house and look for diamonds.”
“Yes,” she said with glee. “But not with me, Ms. Jenkins. No, no, I don’t want to go back there. I’m from Montreal. I’ll pay you to find the treasure for me. I’ll pay you well.”
“Uh-huh.” Clearly something in the house had scared the bejesus out of Ms. Dubois. If I was a sane person I would’ve turned her down right then and there, especially given my experience with a poltergeist, but the scent of mystery pulled on my natural and too abundant curiosity. Not to mention the thought of having extra money in my pocket. I rubbed my chin.
“I’ll pay you double your normal fee.”
I pushed a contract her way. “We’ll start with a two-hundred-dollar retaining fee, and I’ll charge you by the hour. If you write down the address I’ll get started tomorrow.” Surely Eric would turn up by then and we could go together during the day when most ghosts are busy in other dimensions. I gave her a professional smile and myself a mental thumbs-up.
“I want you to start today.”
I nodded. Of course, Ms. Power Suit would demand more than I was willing to give.
After she filled out the contract and handed me five-hundred dollars in cash, she wrote down the address, which I read out loud: “Graystone Manor, 333 Witch’s Peak Road.”
“It’s five miles north of town, up a windy road, but not hard to find,” she said. Her eyes narrowed to pinpricks. “I will pay you double your regular fee for every hour you look for the treasure and an extra finder’s fee when you retrieve the stash.” She hesitated a moment. “Say ten thousand dollars.”
Ten thousand? Oh my word!My heart raced. There were so many things I could do with that kind of money, starting with finding a place to live without a leaky roof.
I bit my lip. I needed to concentrate on things at hand. Witch’s Peak? I didn’t know there was such a road. For that matter, I didn’t know there was another haunted house in town. I had so much to learn.
“The sooner you start the better,” she said as she pulled a set of keys out of her purse and handed them to me.
I stood to shake her hand and wondered.
Better? Is that better for me? Better for her? Or better for the ghosts?