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She walked into my office smelling like a meadow of flowers and looking like one long night of trouble. She was tall, taller than I, and slender, with fiery red hair that cascaded in lush waves over her chest and down her back. She wore a black evening gown with red jewelry – glimmers of red sparkled around her neck and on one wrist, one finger – and held a blood-red clutch in her left hand. The pale blue eyeshadow clashed with the girlish freckles sprinkled over her broad face.
"Are you Mr. Foote?" she said.
My secretary Mrs. Binx had already left for the day – if the redhead had come a couple minutes later, she would have found the office empty and locked up.
"I'm Myron Foote, yes," I said. "Do you have an appointment?"
"You're a detective," she said.
"That's what it says on my door."
"No, I don't have an appointment. I had hoped to catch you before you left your office."
"Well, you have."
She stepped forward, right to the edge of my desk. I leaned back in my squeaky chair. She said nothing for a moment as she looked at me hard, studied my face, then ran her eyes down my body, back up to my face.
"How old are you, Mr. Foote?" she said.
"I'm forty-two," I said. "How old are you?"
"That's none of your business."
"Hey, I told you mine, now you're not going to tell me yours? That's just not fair."
"I'm twenty-four. You're old enough to be my uncle."
"What does that mean?"
"It means you could pose as my uncle."
"I probably could. Why would I want to?"
"Because there could be a lot of money in it for you."
I raised my eyebrows high for a moment. I stood and went to the window behind my desk, closed the curtains. It was about twenty to seven on Wednesday evening, but it was one of those long summer days when it seemed the sun would never set, when twilight dragged on and on.
"You want me to pose as your uncle?" I said.
"Is this some kind of kinky sex thing? I don't even know your name yet."
I took my suitcoat off the back of my chair, slipped my arms into it.
"It's not a kinky sex thing," she said, "it's a job."
Lately, jobs had been about as scarce as sex. A few months ago, I'd broken up with a woman I'd been seeing for almost a year. No, that's not entirely true – she left me. Business had gone downhill ever since. Probably no connection, but still. Things just hadn't been going well. This, at least, sounded interesting.
She stepped back as I walked around in front of the desk and leaned back against the edge.
"What exactly do you have in mind, Miss –?"
"Thacketer, Cynthia Thacketer."
"All right, Miss Thacketer. What do you have in mind? Better yet, why don't we go downstairs and I can buy you a drink while you tell me your story."
"I'd rather not," she said. "I'd prefer to tell you here, if that's all right with you."
"Fine with me."
"You wouldn't happen to have any liquor here, would you?"
"I'm afraid not. Fresh out at the moment. Are you sure you don't want to get a drink downstairs?"
"No. We shouldn't be seen together," she said.
"Mind if I smoke?"
"I'll join you," I said.
She put her clutch on the desk and opened it, removed a pack of cigarettes and shook from it a long slender one. I got my Zippo from my coat pocket and lit her cigarette, then took one from the pack in my pocket and lit it.
"Do you mind traveling in your work, Mr. Foote?"
"Not as long as the money's right. Depends on the job. Depends on the destination. I don't take every job that comes along, you know. Where would I be traveling?"
She ignored the question. "How would you feel about posing as my uncle for awhile?"
"That would depend entirely on for whom I'd be posing as your uncle."
She pressed her lips together and nodded once. Her lips were full, but they thinned out when she pulled back the corners of her mouth. Miss Thacketer frowned, tucked her lower lip between her teeth, and nibbled on it as she thought a moment.
"His name is Roger Blainebus," she said.
"The Roger Blainebus? The Donald Trump of the North Valley?"
"None other. I'm his – I suppose I'm his girlfriend, although I hate that word. It sounds so ... so juvenile. Mistress sounds much better, I think."
"And you want me to tell Roger Blainebus that I'm you're uncle," I said.
"You do realize what I do out of this office, right?" I said. "I'm a private investigator. I'm not an actor."
"If you're one, you're a little of the other, I would imagine," she said.
"Well." I shrugged. "There may be some truth to that. But I don't know if I'm up for a long-running performance for a man with alleged mob connections. But as unlikely as it is that I'll do that, I would really love to hear the reason for it."
"Not if you've already decided you're not interested."
"I am interested – that's why I want to hear why."
"Not if you aren't interested in taking the job," she said.
"I didn't say I wasn't interested, I said it wasn't likely I'd take it."
"Then why should I tell you my story? I'll go find someone else."
"You said there was a lot of money in it for me. That usually increases the chances of me doing ... well, just about anything."
"Yes, there is."
She thought a moment, stared at her cigarette as tendrils of smoke rose from its tip. Finally, she looked at me again and said, "I'll give you five thousand up front, but there's a lot more in it if you'll help me."
"Okay, I'm a lot more interested now than I was before. See how easy that was?" I nodded toward the club chair that faced my desk. "Have a seat, Miss Thacketer."
She lowered herself into the chair, got comfortable. "I'm in an awk – wait a second. If you're a private investigator working for me, is everything I say to you absolutely confidential?"
"Oh, yes, strictly confidential – unless you tell me you're about to go on a killing spree, or something, and then I have to do something about it."
"All right. I'm in an awkward position with Rog – with Mr. Blainebus."
"The society column in the Redding Record Searchlight hasn't mentioned it, or even run a blind item about it," I said. "You two have kept your relationship very private. How long have you been Mr. Blainebus's mistress?"
"About six months. Why?"
"Does Mrs. Blainebus know?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I don't really care. She's mostly bedridden. She has multiple sclerosis, so it's not very hard for him to hide a relationship from her. For all I know, she does know, and she just doesn't care. Even if she does, there's not much she can do about it in her condition."
"I'm curious – your awkward position with Mr. Blainebus – is that something new, or have you been experiencing it for awhile?"
"Hm. It's new. Why do you ask?"
"If it's been going on awhile, you're coming to me as a last resort. If it's new, you're coming to me first, instead of the police. Am I right?"
"Yes, you are. I'm coming to you first."
She squirmed a little in the chair, averted her eyes. She thought a moment before responding. "I saw him commit a murder," she whispered.
I took a long drag off my cigarette. "You're sure about this?" I said.
"And he didn't see you?"
"That's the problem. I'm not sure. If he didn't see me, I can go ahead with my plan. But if he did, well, then, I need to know. Because he'll kill me."
"If he knows I saw him, he'll just kill me. Or have me killed. He'll make it look like a suicide, or an accident, or something."
"What makes you think he might have seen you?"
"Something he said the other day. He came by the cabin with a couple of his employees. He'd left something he needed in his office there."
"What did he say?"
"In front of these employees, he said, twice, that I had been very unstable lately. Unstable! At first, I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. I'd had a few drinks, and it confused me. But then, it occurred to me a little later that maybe it had not been said for me to hear at all, but for the others there. Maybe he was planting some seeds, you know what I mean?"
I nodded. "Setting you up for a suicide."
"Yes. Or am I just imagining things? Maybe I have been unstable lately. I've been drinking too much, for one thing. I'm not sure what's happened to me lately. Anyway, I need to know."
I frowned. "What on earth makes you think I can find out for you?"
"I heard you're good. I heard you're a good people person."
"Ah, a good people person. Where'd you hear that, if you don't mind my asking?"
"My mechanic recommended you. You helped him during his divorce."
"I help a lot of people during divorces. It's mostly what I do these days. So when something unusual comes along – something different like pretending to be someone's uncle – well, I want to know more."
"A few seconds ago, you said it wasn't likely you'd do it."
"That was five thousand dollars ago. Things have changed. You said there's more money in it. How much?"
She thought about that a long time. She took a final drag on her cigarette, then stubbed it out in the big ceramic ashtray on my desk. "A hundred thousand."
I pursed my lips and gave a low whistle. "Okay, let me see if I've got this straight. You want me to pose as your uncle to get close to Blainebus and find out if he knows you saw him commit a murder. Is that about it?"
"And in exchange for this, I will receive five thousand up front, with as much as one hundred thousand dollars to come."
An alarm went off in my head. When that kind of money was involved, there was usually a considerable amount of difficulty and risk involved, too. Difficulty I didn't mind so much, but I approached risk with great caution. I was one of those people who still thought a hundred thousand dollars was a hell of a lot of money, and it set off my internal alarms.
"This plan of yours," I said, "you still haven't told me what it is."
She said nothing. She took another cigarette from the pack in her clutch. My Zippo made a small ding sound when I flipped the lid up to light her cigarette. She gently rested her hand on mine as she touched the tip of her cigarette to the flame. Then we both sat back in our chairs.
"All right, now, what about this plan of yours?" I said.
"What about it?"
"You said if he didn't know you'd seen him commit this murder, you could go on with your plan. Tell me what kind of plan it is."
"Is that necessary?"
"I'm afraid so. You brought it up, it's obviously part of all this. What are you up to, Miss Thacketer?"
"Oh, call me Cynthia."
"All right, Cynthia, tell me your little secret."
"How do you know it's a secret?"
"You're stalling while you try to come up with some kind of cover story. I don't want the cover story, and I'll recognize it, I promise you. I want the truth. Otherwise I'm not your man. You'll have to find somebody else."
She stared at me a long time with a gentle smile on her face.
"Mr. Blainebus has me living in his cabin on the lake," she said. "I'm alone out there most of the time during the summer, but he's planning to come to the cabin this weekend and stay for a week. He's going to be bringing some friends for a couple days of fishing. I told him I may have an uncle coming to the cabin to stay for a little while, and he said that was all right. So, you drive up to Dunsmuir, park your car, and you catch a bus to Redding so you'll have a ticket to show for it, some sign that you've traveled. I'll be waiting at the bus station here in Redding to pick you up. You move into one of the guest rooms upstairs, and you're my uncle from Central Point, Oregon."
"Central Point?" I said. "Never heard of it."
"Few have. It's a little greasespot in the road, but it does exist, and people live there, I called a grocery store and asked."
"You called a ... a grocery store?"
"Sure. You want to find out about a place, you don't talk to the Chamber of Commerce, you talk to someone who lives there. I talked to a cashier, who hates it. She says there's nothing there, and there never will be. She's saving up enough money to move. Nobody's heard of it, but it's there if he decides to check."
"Why would he check?"
"Because he's a very suspicious guy most of the time. I had an uncle in Central Point. He died a few years ago. But I got everything, he left everything to me, including his I.D.-making kit. In fact, that's about all he had. That's what he did – he made fake I.D.s and passports. He showed me how to use it before he died. You'll be using his I.D. – I'll need a picture of you for the driver's license."
"How soon am I going to be doing this?"
"You need to arrive in Redding on Friday."
"That's just a couple days away."
"I've typed up a few pages of information about me, stuff you should know. There's also stuff about Uncle Percy. Read it, memorize it. You'll have plenty of chances to use it." She opened the clutch and took out some pages folded in half. She tossed them onto the desk in front of me. "You'll have to know things about me, things about my childhood, things that will make you sound like you're really my uncle. They may never come up, but if they do, you'll need that information."
"I'll study it. But not until you tell me what your plan is. I'm serious, Miss Thacketer – Cynthia – I will not go any further with this until I know what you're up to."
Cynthia released a long sigh and a lungful of smoke. She said nothing for awhile and I took the opportunity to take her in. She was lovely. A slightly crooked mouth, fine cheekbones below glimmering sky-blue eyes, and all that beautiful red hair. She resembled a young Meryl Streep and had the same gently regal look Streep had had when she first came on the scene. Cynthia's back was stiff in the chair, her posture perfect. I wasn't sure I trusted people with perfect posture. It was like a neat and clean desk – it made me suspicious. She was up to something, and she was clamping her secret between her teeth like a piece of meat. She did not want to let go of it.
"You said if you knew I was going to do something wrong, you'd have to turn me in," she said.
"No. I said if you warned me that you were going to go on a killing spree, I'd have to do something about it. That's different than doing something wrong. Most of the people I know are engaged in doing something wrong at any given moment. So, are you planning to go on a killing spree?"
"No, of course not."
"You planning to physically hurt or bring harm to someone?"
"No, don't be ridiculous."
"Then I've got no problem with whatever you're up to, aside from the fact that I still don't know what it is. So tell me now, or I'm going to terminate this conversation."
"Why do you have to know?"
"Because whether or not I take on this case will depend on what you're up to, because I'm not putting myself into danger. Hell, Blainebus has mob connections, I could be putting myself in danger just looking into him."
"You're awfully worried. I would expect a private investigator to have a little more professional self-confidence."
"I'm worried because I have this policy that says I avoid getting hurt at all times," I said. "I don't like pain, Miss Thack – Cynthia. I don't like violence unless I'm watching it on TV. As soon as I'm physically involved with it, I immediately lose interest."
"A hundred and fifty thousand," she said.
I cocked my head and said, "You know what I like, Cynthia."
"Call me Cynth. That's what my uncle always called me, and it'll sound good. Start now. Call me Cynth."
"Okay, Cynth. A hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and I spend a few days with a guy who physically threw some Neanderthal out of a restaurant because he was rude to Blainebus's mother. Did you hear about that, by the way? It was in the Searchlight, on the news. Wouldn't have been so bad if he'd opened the door first, but he didn't. The guy went through a glass door, and he refused to press charges. You know why he refused to press charges? 'Cause he was afraid they'd kill him. No. I don't care to be thrown through anything, myself."
Excerpted from Murder Was My Alibi by Ray Garton. Copyright © 2008 Ray Garton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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