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"Aw, c'mon, Cherise. Be reasonable." Jack McPhee's lips pulled back in a grimace. The heel of the hand not holding the telephone receiver clunked his temple. Too little, as recriminations went, and definitely a couple of words too late.
"Be reasonable" was number nineteen on the list of sixty-two things to never say to a woman. Any woman, whether you were dating her, sleeping with her, married to her, called her Mom or she knew "the usual" was Chivas on the rocks with a twist.
Therefore, it was hardly a surprise when Cherise Taylor's normally dulcet drawl could have etched granite. "So," she said, "it's unreasonable for me to be upset about being stood up for dinner. Again."
"No, no, of course it isn't," Jack said, tired of reciting dialogue from a familiar script and the revolving cast of leading ladies. Any second now, she'd say
"We haven't seen each other since Thursday at lunch."
"When I told you I had an out-of-town job to take care of." An off-the-books, expenses-only one for a friend, Jack might have added, but what was the point?
"Yeah, and I stayed home all weekend, in case you called." A derisive snort, then a plaintive, "You've heard about floors clean enough to eat off of? You could take out somebody's spleen on mine."
Jack tapped a pencil end over end on the desk blotter. He'd flown to Seattle by way of Dallas and Denver, logged twelve hours' sleep in seventy-two and the majority of those after he fell into his own bed last night. "If I'd had a chance to call," he said, "and you weren't home, I'd have tried your cell phone. If you didn't answer, I'd have left a voice mail."
"Oh? Then it's my fault I was bored out of my mind all weekend."
Prettymuch, he thought. A bit harsh, maybe, but before he came along, Cherise volunteered on Saturdays at a library teaching English as a second language. Sundays, she'd meet her married sisters for a girls'-day-out brunch, then hit the flea markets, catch a chick flick or zip north to Kansas City to shop at malls identical to those in Park City.
Sniffling now, Cherise went on, "And you don't even remember what day this is, do you?"
The obvious trick question disqualified Monday as the correct answer. Jack's eyes cut to his page-a-day calendar. July 7 was blank, apart from a sticky note to remind him to drop his suit at the cleaners before the bloodstains set.
"Who cares if tonight's our anniversary?" Sniff-sniffle. "No big deal."
Jack pulled away the receiver, examining the sound holes as if the pattern would reveal what the hell she was talking about. Anniversaries commemorated wars, major battles, natural and unnatural disasters and wedding ceremonies. None of those applied, yet all of a sudden, the commonality seemed oddly significant.
"For six months, I've put up with your weird hours. With dates canceled at the last minute and knowing your mind's anywhere but on me sometimes when we are together. But have I complained? Uh-uh. Not even once."
I wish you had, Jack thought. Repeatedly and often.
On a shelf above the microwave at his apartment was a framed sampler that read: "The lower the expectations, the higher the probability a man will tunnel under them." His ex-wife had cross-stitched it and given it to him for a divorce present. Whether she'd coined the phrase, or copped it from Gloria Steinem, a louse with good intentions should have it tattooed on his forehead.
"I'm sorry, Cherise," he said. "I really am."
A lengthy silence acknowledged the subtext. "Me, too." Cherise's sigh implied a middle-distance stare at the ceiling, select memories scrolling behind her eyes, her head shaking in futility. The image skewed somewhat at her muttered, "Honesty in a relationship, my ass."
Jack scowled. "Hey, now wait a sec. I have been honest with you. A hundred percent from the first time we went out."
"Sure you were," she agreed. "But how was I supposed to know that?"
His mouth fell open. Bereft of an intelligible response, he raked his fingers through his hair and wondered if a lapsed Episcopalian was eligible for the priesthood.
"First date," she said. "Between the beer course and the pizza, I asked you to describe the perfect woman. I expected the usual answersJulia Roberts, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek. If you'd said your mother, I wouldn't have stuck around for the cinnamon bread."
Jack could do worse than a gal like the one who'd married dear old Dad. And had more times than he cared to count. "For the record, my mom's a wonderful woman, but not exactly my type."
"I gathered that when you said 'The perfect woman for any man doesn't confuse supportive with taking his crap and making excuses for him.'" Cherise laughed. "Ten points for creativity, but you really didn't expect me to believe it, did you?"
Actually, he had. For one, it was the truth. Plain, simple, straightforward. For another
He didn't have another. Couldn't imagine why he'd need it. "Look, I"
"Don't, okay? Let's leave it at we had fun, it's over, no hard feelings, time to move on." Cherise hesitated a moment, her voice somber, the drawl more pronounced. "I'm gonna miss you, though."
Jack nodded, as if she were seated across the desk, not downtown in a triwalled cubicle with less square footage than a municipal jail cell. "Same here, kid," he said, curbing the impulse to suggest a fresh start.
Barring dual amnesia, there was no such thing as a mulligan in a relationship. Jack's crazy uncle George once owned a beater Oldsmobile that wouldn't shift out of Reverse, but for most people, going backward to go forward was a dumb idea.
Cherise knew that as well as he did. "Let's leave it" was code for "Goodbyes hurt, but we aren't in love and in like isn't enough for the long haul." Still, the handset's glowing redial button dared Jack to ask her forgiveness. To give him a second chance at being the dependable, thoughtful guy she deserved.
Uh-huh. Sure. He docked the phone. And while he was at it, he'd learn Parsi, buy season tickets to the opera and take up water polo.
By noon, Park City Florist would have delivered the half-dozen pink carnations Jack sent to Cherise's cubicle. Figuring she'd understand the quantity, but not the symbolism in their color, he'd asked the clerk to write "I'll never forget you" on the card. Although sincere, his latest failed romance was the last thing on his mind as he cruised by the Midwest Inn's guest entrance.
The three-story, stucco-clad motel was situated on a backfilled knoll facing I-44's prime business interchange. From the air, the building was shaped like a capital M with a swimming pool puddled between its legs. Tourists seldom traveled through southwest Missouri in helicopters, so the snazzy architecture was wasted on pigeons, drive-time traffic reporters and the local hang gliders' club.
The all but deserted rear parking lot angled in concert with the M's ascender points. Jack knew the checkout time was 11:00 a.m., and check-ins were prohibited before 3:00 p.m. The black Lexus sedan and a forest-green minivan parked several discretionary spaces apart credenced the adage about rules being made to be broken. Or at least bent, in exchange for the folded fifty-dollar bills Jack had slipped to the desk clerk. Two President Grants was the agreed-upon bribe for the clerk to call Jack's cell phone with Mr. and Mrs. Smith's room number and precise location.
He pulled in beside the Lexus and lowered his side window. It was risky to forgo tailing his quarry to the motel, but he sensed he'd been spotted at last Friday's rendezvous at a Best Western across town. The rapid metallic ticks emanating from the Lexus's engine confirmed the greedy desk clerk's ETA.
Shifting his aging Taurus into Park, Jack left the engine running and snagged an equipment case from the backseat. While the building's height shaded the asphalt for a few yards behind his car, air-conditioning wasn't optional when midday temperatures flirted with the century mark.
He snapped photos of both vehicles with a still camera, then switched to a digital. Elbows propped on the steering wheel, he aimed the telephoto lens at room 266's plate-glass window and adjusted the zoom.
The miniblinds were closed, as always, with the slats tilted down, rather than up. From Jack's or anyone else's ground-level vantage point, the interior view was akin to lurking at the bottom of a stairway to peek up a lady's skirt.
Motels and hotels provide drapes for a reason, and it wasn't just to give the bedspreads something to match. If married couples hot for a nooner with someone other than a spouse knew how the law defined an expectation of privacy, Jack would have to find another line of work.
Domestics weren't his specialty. Maximum sleaze factor and aggravationminimum challenge. But it'd been a slow summer and a guy's just gotta do what a guy's gotta do to cover the rent. Whether Cherise believed his excuse for canceling their date tonight or not, Jack hadn't lied about meeting a client for dinner. Hopefully there wouldn't be a scene, until after he'd polished off his steak and steamed veggies. Either way, he'd leave the restaurant with a check in his pocket and craving a long shower.
A couple more shots of the lovebirds' striptease were all Jack needed and all he could stomach. The camera was whining its second electronic high C when the Taurus's passenger door swung open. The young man tilted the whole car as he crammed himself into the seat. "Mr. McPhee," he said, huffing a bit from the exertion. "This is your lucky day."
A fleshy inner tube oozed from under his rock-band T-shirt and spilled over the waistband of his jeans. He smelled like a deep-fried Esquire cologne sample. Two days' growth of stubble fanned from a goatee and bristled his chins. A ham-sized knee, then the other, wedged against the glove compartment. The .38 Police Special inside might as well have been in a bank vault in Wisconsin.
Then again, if Moby Dick was a carjacker, he'd need the Jaws of Life to stuff that gut behind the steering wheel. Jack eyed a manila folder clutched in the man's fist. A process server would have shoved a subpoena at him and waddled off. There'd be balloons and a camera crew if the dude was with that magazine outfit's prize patrol. Besides, you had to enter to win.
"Who the hell are you?"
"Brett Dean Blankenship." He offered his hand. Jack didn't take it. Nonplussed, he went on, "Pleasure to meet you, sir, but who you are is why I'm here."
A smirk exposed teeth not many years removed from orthodontic appliances. Attention turning to the folder, Blankenship recited, "You'll be forty-one on October 4. Married once, divorced, no kids" he glanced sideward and heh-hehed "as far as known. You've gotaB.S. in criminal justice, graduated from the Park City Police Academy, then resigned two years later. You bounced around from rent-a-cop to long-haul trucking, dabbled in auto repair, retail sales and telemarketing. For the past fifteen years, you've been a marginally successful private investigator."
Jack took exception to "marginally successful." He'd had many a good year and a fair share of great ones. Self-employment ordained lean ones proportional to sweet ones. It kept you humble and out there hustling. Or it should.
"Not too shabby for a one-man operation." Blankenship handed over three sheets of paper. "But it's safe to say, you ain't setting the world on fire."
The pages' bulleted lines noted Jack's Social Security number, previous and current home and office addresses, savings and checking account balances, registration info on the Taurus and his pickup, average utility bills at his office and apartment Junior G-man stuff either in public records or easily obtainable if you knew where to look.
What raised Jack's hackles was an account of his activities over the past week. Blankenship had tailed him and Jack hadn't even noticed. Which explained the Lexus driver's sudden hinki-ness last Friday.
He balled the sheets and tossed them into the backseat. "Whatever your game is, sport, I'm not playing. Now get outa my car, before you void the warranty on the shock absorbers."
Blankenship blanched, then exhaled, as though a lung had collapsed. "I worked like a dog on that report. I thought you'd be impressed." He stretched a shirtsleeve to mop the sweat trickling down his muttonchops. "The correspondence school instructor said that showing we can run background checks is the best résumé we can have."
God deliver Jack from schmucks with matchbook private-detective-school diplomas. And from the Missouri law mandating a year's apprenticeship with a licensed investigator. That and a written exam weeded out the wanna-be overnight Sam Spades, but presented certain liability issues. Like men-torship being a pain in the butt for a working, marginally successful P.I.
"I live with my mom, so I can work for free," Blankenship wheedled. "Double the manpower, double your billable hours. Maybe triple 'em."
Halve them was more like it. Jack needed Baby Huey under his wing like a duck needs a concrete flak jacket. "Sorry, but like you said, McPhee Investigations is a one-man agency."
"It wasn't when it was Gregory, Aimes & Watkins." Blankenship shrugged. "Okay, so Watkins was dead and Aimes's wheel was throwing spokes before Chuck Gregory took you on. If it hadn't been for him, you wouldn't have a license, much less your name painted on the window."
With uncustomary patience, Jack said, "I was in the right place at the right time." His inflection relayed as opposed to you. "Chuck wanted to retire and he loved showing rookies the ropes. Me, I'd rather hang myself with them."
Desperation edged Blankenship's laugh. "Come on, gimme a thirty-day trial. If it doesn't work out, no hard feelings. At least I'll have a month's experience to add to my résumé."
Jack's eyes rose to room 266's window, then lowered to the dashboard clock. By the time Blankenship extricated himself from the passenger's seat, Mr. and Mrs. Smith could waltz out arm in arm from the building's rear entrance.
He'd also bet McPhee Investigations hadn't topped Blankenship's list of employment prospects. The Park City telephone directory's business pages advertised about two dozen agencies, including a pricey nationally franchised outfit. If the kid had a brain, he'd started there and worked his way down.
"What I will do," Jack said, stashing the camera equipment on the floorboard, "is give you some friendly advice, while I drive you around front to your vehicle."
"It isn't here." Blankenship yanked on the shoulder harness. "I took a cab so I wouldn't blow your surveillance."
Well, well. That hiked Jack's previous estimation a few notches. Not enough to hire him, but maybe the kid had a brighter future than he thought. Wheeling around the motel's east side, he said, "Where to?"
"1010 West Danbury."
Jack gripped the steering wheel tighter1010 West Danbury was his office address.