James Cote sat reclined in his used 1978 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser. A light gray trilby covered his eyes. The long shadow of a palm tree cut the car in half, but managed to miss him completely. A Casio calculator watch lay on its side on the dashboard, flicking away the seconds on its LCD screen.
He wasn't really asleep anymore, but wished to God he was. Keeping the tail on his target all day had been murder, only to be followed by a long boring stakeout at said target’s love shack in the suburbs. The lovebirds didn't even rendezvous there until sunset.
At least it was almost over. He'd told his client as much the other night. James felt he had enough evidence as it was, but she wanted the case to be rock solid. No wiggle room for fancy lawyers to dance around. After today, he'd consider the investigation complete and the wife could begin the legal proceedings if she wanted. That was her business.
It was risky taking a nap, but Mr. McGillicutty was a creature of habit. James was sure he could get away with it—as sure as he was that he could type “BOOBIES” upside down on his watch—and just as sure as those were still on McGillicutty's mind.
The alarm went off and James groaned. So much for rest. He straightened his hat, put on his watch, and grabbed the Canon AE-1 from the passenger seat.
The detectives in movies might prize their gun or even name it, but this camera was James’ most important piece of equipment. Classic black and chrome body and utterly reliable—just hold down the button as long as you need to. He pointed the camera at the house and checked the focus. The cars were still there. He adjusted the exposure levels and put the camera down, then looked at his watch. He bet himself ten bucks McGillicutty would be out in fifteen minutes.
Half an hour later, James wondered if he'd accept an IOU from himself. Probably not. That worthless bum wasn't good for it. He decided to take a casual stroll up and down the street, see what was going on.
The house was what McGillicutty’s people would call a starter home. Small, single floor with a tiny attic—the kind you and the missus would want to move out of once you realized how much room a kid really needed. It had a For Sale sign on the lawn that bore the name of one of McGillicutty's real estate companies. As far as James had been able to determine, the property had been on offer for three years now. It was in a quiet suburban neighborhood twenty minutes from downtown Orlando if the traffic agreed with you, which it usually didn't. James didn't see anything interesting from the outside and instead tried to get a nonchalant peek through any unobstructed windows, just to see if anyone was stirring within.
He found the rear bedroom window wide open, curtains flapping.
Great. He'd been made and they sneaked out the back. Swell. It didn’t matter, though; he had enough evidence as it was. He’d simply aimed for overkill at the wife’s insistence. Professional thoroughness and all that.
James peered through the window, mostly out of curiosity. It was unlikely they'd have conveniently left anything incriminating around for him on the floor, but it didn’t hurt to look. Stranger things were known to happen.
Such as finding the half-naked body of Mr. McGillicutty lying face down in a pool of blood.
James felt cold. The pool was big and it wasn't spreading. McGillicutty's skin was pale. A small wound could be seen in his back, just off center. A trail of drying blood had rolled along his ample midsection until it hit a fold and followed the fleshy crevasse to the floor. His face lay to one side, mouth open. His glassy eyes stared at the floorboards. On the bed lay the mistress’s bright red long coat and wide brimmed hat. But no mistress.
A snapshot of memory flicked through James’ mind, almost too quick to register. Seeing the world sideways, looking into a face both alien and familiar—
Panic began to rise. He had followed this man for two weeks. He knew his habits. Harold McGillicutty liked action movies but always watched romantic comedies with his lady love. He always left his spare change in donation boxes. He preferred Italian food. Tipped average. He was closing a big deal this week. His employees liked him. Only one of them knew he was having an affair. He wasn't a saint or a demon—just an everyday sinner, no different from the next guy.
James was breathing heavily, but it was like someone else was doing it. He felt his fingers shake and clenched his hands into fists. He squeezed his eyes shut. He could hear blood rush through his ears, the echo of his own pulse buried within the roar...
Then, without warning, it all went away like a switch had been flipped. The figure on the floor stopped being Mr. McGillicutty of Lawndale Road in Pine Hills. It was just a body, and it was the police's problem now.
James sucked his teeth. Got out his notebook. He'd have to find a payphone, call the cops, prepare his notes from last night, and record everything he saw and did from this point on. He already had a theory about what went down but couldn't be certain. Not without disturbing the evidence. Only one thing was certain; Mrs. McGillicutty wasn't going to like this one bit.
Two hours later, James was having an informal conversation with Detective Wilkes of the Orlando Police Department. The old wooden desk they sat at seemed out of place inside the white-walled department with punishing fluorescent lights that gave shadows no quarter. As a symbol of justice it was fine, but it was murder on the eyes. The donuts were bad and the coffee worse, but that was only because the department’s usual supplier had a fire and they'd been forced to send out for Dunkin Donuts.
Wilkes was the sort of man who looked at donuts with scorn. His body was a temple—or at the very least a precinct—but he was pleasant enough to talk to. James’ notes lay on the desk in front of the detective, and Wilkes was scribbling ones of his own.
“So what time did you say you nodded off?”
“Around four, I think. I set my watch for seven. He always left around quarter after to get to the office on time. Sun got in my eyes at six-thirty and I wasn't able to really sleep after that.”
Wilkes smiled. “You're lucky my partner isn't here. Falling asleep on a stakeout? You'd never hear the end of it.”
James laughed. “I just hunt wayward spouses. It’s not like Tony Montana is involved.”
“I know, but he’d say it's the principal of the thing. So you didn't see or hear anything?”
James shook his head. “There's no clear line-of-sight with the rear bedroom window without leaving myself out in the open. That's why I set up to catch them coming in and out instead. I wasn’t aiming for blackmail photos; I had enough shots of them at restaurants and theatres to make the case. When I woke up, both of their cars were still parked on the street so I assumed they were both inside.”
The mistress had also left her hat and coat inside, so it would have been that much easier for her to slip past even if he had seen her.
“Then you stretched your legs and noticed the bedroom window open.”
“Yes, sir. I figured one of them spotted me on the way in and they snuck out the back together. Then I looked in the window and saw McGillicutty on the floor.”
“Did you attempt to aid him?”
James shook his head. “He was long dead. There was a stab wound that had come out the back and too much blood on the floor. I thought it was better to leave the crime scene intact for the professionals.”
Detective Wilkes leaned back. “That's interesting.”
“Well, if you didn't disturb the body, how did you know the stab wound came out the back and not that he was stabbed in the back?”
James shrugged. “I could be wrong, but there wasn't much blood on his back, and it was a small visible wound. McGillicutty was a large man. If he had been stabbed in the back with a small knife, it wouldn't have come out the front, so the blood would have pumped out the back until he died. But if he was stabbed in the front with a larger knife, it could have made a small exit wound in the back, but the blood would still pump or drain out the large hole in the front.”
Wilkes seemed to size him up, and his story. His opinion could go either way. James gave him an easy smile. “Hey, just because I chase cheating husbands doesn't mean I can't assess a crime scene. Like all private investigators I got my license by reading the complete works of Sherlock Holmes and trading in ten cereal box tops.” This got a laugh out of Wilkes. A little self-deprecating humor never went wrong with the boys in blue. “Like I said, I could be wrong. It could have been a long thin weapon in the back—like a letter opener—but I don't imagine that penetrating all the way through. Maybe a stiletto. Or maybe he was peppered with a dozen small stabs on the front and I only saw the one on the back.”
Wilkes looked at his notes. “Well, it turns out your first theory was right.”
James knew that was all the information Wilkes was going to give. This was a police matter now. They didn't want James to be part of it, and he was more than happy to oblige.
James considered waiting a day before contacting Ellen McGillicutty. No point in bearing the brunt of her grief when the police were going to do that for him, right? But in the end, he decided to deal with her now rather than later. He needed to get home. He needed this to be over. James waited until the police had spoken with her before visiting the newly-widowed at her gated mansion, which was big enough to have kept McGillicutty’s love shack in the backyard as a pool house.
To say the woman felt conflicted was something of an understatement. She came across as the sort of wife that planned for a divorce but really only wanted her husband back. Wanted things the way they were. She was furious and distraught at the same time. Why Mr. McGillicutty felt the need to step out on her with a younger model of the same brand was beyond James. She was still a blonde bombshell, even at forty-five.
They talked in her spacious living room, where all the furniture was made with fine polished wood that bloomed into elegant swirling patterns wherever possible. He let her vent, sob, and get the last drops out of her system. When she finally calmed, she asked, “How did it happen? The police won't tell me anything because they're still investigating. They say they haven't even found that slut Harold was with yet.”
“I don't know for certain,” said James.
“But you were there. You must have seen something!”
“I'm sorry, I didn't.” James tried to avoid eye contact, but the widow clearly felt like he was holding out on her.
“Don't you have a theory?” she asked.
“You should wait for the police to finish their investigation. It won't help anyone to spout off half-baked theories.”
“It's better than their unbaked ones. Please, I need something to hold onto now, even if it changes later.”
James relented. “There's only one reason I can think of why the mistress climbed out the back window instead of the front and not take her car. She knew the front door was being watched. If I had to guess, they found out I was following them and your husband confessed that he was married. It’s likely she already knew that, but regardless, it ended the same way: in a fight. Maybe he said he had to break things off. Maybe she forced him to choose and he made the mistake of being honest. She must have left the room to get a knife, probably from the kitchen. He had his shirt off and didn't have any defensive wounds on his arms, so he must have thought the fight was over and didn't see it coming.” James paused a moment. “This is all guesswork, you understand.”
He studied Mrs. McGillicutty's face. It was like stone, but far from impassive.
“I want you to find her before the police do.”
It took a second for this to register. “Pardon?”
“I want you to track her down, wherever she is. I don't care how long it takes. I don't care how much it costs. I want you to find her.”
“Then nothing. You tell me where she is. That's all.”
James leaned forward. “I understand you're upset, ma'am, but I think you misunderstand the nature of my job description.”
The widow kept her gaze locked on him. “You still work for me.”
James pulled up the briefcase he'd set beside the chair and opened it. “This is everything I've collected during the last two weeks.” He pulled out a large thick envelope. “Your late husband's movements, where he went when he was supposedly on business trips, and copies of the photographs of him with 'the slut,' as you call her. The police have all the negatives for their investigation. I'm afraid that concludes our business together. I'll send you my invoice tomorrow.” He put on his hat and got up to leave.
“Wait.” Mrs. McGillicutty’s tone was desperate. She followed James to the front entrance, then stepped in front of him, bracing her hands on either side of the engraved oak door frame. “Isn't there anything I can do to convince you to stay? I'll pay you time and a half.”
James stopped, waiting for her to move. Judging from her thin but expensive gold watch, she could afford twice that—and if she had offered he would have said yes. “It's not about the money,” he lied. “It's what you intend to do.”
“I never said I intended to do anything.”
“That's why I know you intend to do it. Florida has the death penalty, ma'am. I suggest you bear that in mind and let the police do their job.” He tipped his trilby to her and she allowed him to leave.
“Hi honey, you're home!”
It had been an hour and a half drive, and James knew those would be the first words he heard when he walked through the door. As spontaneous and creative as she was, Lettice Cote wasn't above dragging out a joke and beating it until only a wet puddle remained. She'd been torturing this one since they moved from California. While their place wasn’t quite the starter home McGillicutty had spent his last day in, it was on the quaint side. Lettice had once said all it was missing was a white picket fence and a kid out front selling lemonade for five cents. It also turned out to be a bit more than they could afford.
James answered with his usual response. “That's my line.” And if history was any judge, that would be the last predictable moment of the evening. He sorted the mail, tossing away yet another million dollars from Publisher’s Clearing House and came across what he knew would be lurking near the bottom: the credit card bill. James sighed. It had been a bad year. Their savings were gone, and even when the McGillicutty invoice was paid, they'd still be in the red and they had a mortgage to worry about.
James sniffed the air; something was off. Either dinner was a unique kind of disaster or—
“Are you painting?”
“In the living room!”
Lettice was on a stepladder, dressed in blue overalls. A red paint cap covered her head and she had a paint roller in hand. The furniture was covered in cloth or plastic. She had just put the finishing touch on the ceiling. “What do you think?”
James looked up. “It's black.”
“Do you like it?”
“I don't think ceilings are supposed to be black.”
“You don't like it.”
Given the walls were an off-white—a shade Lettice called cloud cover—and their sofa and chairs were green, it was admittedly an odd mix. “It's... unusual. You know, when you said you were going to go back to painting, I thought you meant finding work.”
“I'm trying, hon. I had two interviews while you were away. But I think they heard about Disney. I got that vibe from them.”
“Oh.” James frowned. That wasn't good. “I hope you're not blackballed.”
“I doubt it. Well, maybe a little.” Despite her perky tone, James could tell she was fighting off the mean reds. “I'll look into less mainstream and more independent work. I'd rather do that anyway. For now, I'll settle for painting at home.”
“Unless your name is Michelangelo, that's usually done on canvases. Not ceilings.”
Lettice came off the ladder and put the roller in the paint tray. “That is my canvas.”
James looked at the endless black abyss over his head. “Going post-modern, are we?”
Lettice smiled and stuck her tongue out between her teeth. “It's not finished yet, silly.” She picked up a can of paint by the plastic-covered couch, as well as a three foot long photographic print of outer space. “Once it's dry, I'm painting the universe!”
James looked closely at the photo—a high quality shot from NASA. “You're going to paint thousands of stars and a couple of galaxies onto the ceiling. By hand.”
“I'm also going to get the color of each as close as possible to the real thing.”
“You're bored, aren't you?”
“Unbelievably so. I was thinking about going to Sea World tomorrow, or maybe the big D. Wanna come?”
James held up the Visa bill. “Not the best idea right now.”
Lettice took it and looked it over. “Maybe we can afford Gatorland?”
“I’m not sure we can afford a movie.”
“Tomorrow’s cheap night. Back to the Future is playing at the Plaza.” She pulled off her paint cap (actually an old knit wool cap drafted into the job) and shook her blonde hair loose. A number of strands floated up on all sides from the static. “You're back early, aren't you? Wait, what day is it? Is it Monday? It has to be, or tomorrow can’t be cheap night.”
James let out a deep breath. Right now he was grateful for Lettice's eccentric side. It felt downright sane after the last twelve hours.
James looked at her and gave a half smile. “Hell of a day.”
“I barely managed to escape from a Dashiell Hammett novel.”
The next thing he knew, James was having a round of Whodunnit with Lettice—a game they’d played since they were first dating. Usually he invented a mystery for her to solve, but this time he didn't need to. James gave a detailed account of the day's events, and every so often Lettice chimed in with a question or observation.
Finally she said, “It might have been an accident. She might have panicked and fled.”
“How do you figure?”
“If it was an act of passion, why did she only stab him once? If she stabbed him in the abdomen... doesn't that seem a bit odd to you? Wouldn't she use an overhand strike, come down on his upper chest?”
“Or she wasn't confident about her strength and used a double-handed thrust straight on.” James clasped his hands together and demonstrated.
She countered by making a T with her fingers. “Maybe they wrestled over it, fell down together and he fell on it.” She closed the T so it went from capital to lower case.
“Maybe, if he landed just off to the side of her. She pulls out the blade and the body rolls flat, the way I found it. But I’d still have expected her to track blood around. I didn't get a close look at the body, but I didn't see any defensive wounds. It’s a neater story if it was a single intentional thrust she could pull away from.”
“But regardless of murder or manslaughter, she knows you’re out there waiting, so she sneaks out the window.”
“Seems that way. Not that it matters. It's the police's problem now. I don't want anything to do with it.”
“Oh, the glamorous world of private investigation. Magnum would be proud.”
James got this from her all the time. “We don’t live in TV land, hon. You know that, right? You get sucked into one of these cases and nothing good can come of it. Everyone lies. Everyone is emotional. Everyone is unpredictable. Who says they won't kill again if you get too close? And you should have seen the widow—what a piece of work. I'm sure she'd kill the mistress if she had the chance. At one point I think she was putting the moves on me just to keep me on the case.”
“Oh, really?” Lettice's expression showed how likely she thought that was.
“Yes, really. Offered me time and a half, too. All she was missing was to be dressed in black with a veil while holding a small caliber pistol.”
“Bogart would have taken that case,” said Lettice.
“Yeah, well...” James took off his trilby and tossed it to the hat rack by the front door. It missed by a mile. “If this was a movie I'd have made that shot.”
“You missed on purpose.”
Lettice smiled, always ready for a challenge, but then the smile faded. “How do you feel after all that?”
“Well, you seem awfully nonchalant for someone who stumbled on a murder.”
“But you've never seen a murder before. Not that I know of.”
“Jasper got shot, way back.”
“But he lived. Still calls you dumbass. This guy was dead.”
James shook his head. “It's not like I was covered in gore. It was no big deal.”
“It should be. It's not exactly an everyday occurrence. You should feel—”
“What should I feel? I only knew the man from the end of a telephoto lens.” He realized he had snapped at her. “I'm sorry. It was no big deal. Really.”
“If you say so.” Lettice walked down the hall and picked up his hat. She pretended to throw it with her off hand before hanging it on the rack. “You threw it left-handed,” she said. “Can't imagine you intended to make the shot.”
James gave a nod of approval. “Maybe you should work with me instead of turning our living room into a planetarium.”
“Maybe if you took on more interesting cases than lost kittens, I would.”
James covered his heart, wounded. “There was that kidnapping case last year.”
“Which turned out to be a spoiled runaway.”
“The embezzling job at the bank?”
“Which never existed. It was a computer glitch.”
“The blackmailed movie star?”
“Who only paid you to make the payoff drop. Hardly exciting.”
“Glad my life keeps you so enthralled.”
“I'm pretty sure my point was it doesn't.”
“And Disney was an action packed thrill ride for you,” said James, then reconsidered. “Oh wait. That was only the day they fired your ass.”
The playful sniping continued until they ended up in bed, tossed the sheets to the floor and quickly followed them. Most of the time snide comments were made about the other's profession.
An hour later, the phone rang. James felt blindly around the nightstand over his head for the receiver.
“Must be another lost kitten, Sam Spade. Do you dare take the case?”
“Maybe it's Disney calling to say they replaced you with a trained monkey, you hack.”
Lettice giggled as James finally dragged the receiver down. “Yeah?” The grin on his face fell. “Yes, this is James Cote.” He listened intently, then pointed to the dresser. Lettice got up and handed him a pad of paper and a pen. James took down some notes and asked some questions. “Thank you very much, officer. I'll be right down.”
His wife was already putting her clothes back on. “What is it? Mistress found dead? Widow found dead? Widow and mistress found dead in bed together in S&M gear with a goat?”
James shook his head. “Nothing to do with that. It's my uncle, Gary. He was arrested for entering the country without a passport.”
Lettice frowned. James’ family all lived north of the border. “What? Canadians don't need a passport to get into the States.”
“They do when they come in from another country. Gary entered from South America. No passport, no ID, and no idea how he got there.”