The First 994 Words

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Well, we’re less than a week away from Deception Al Dente’s release. Just to get you started, here is the first 3.36652% of the story…

“Hey, doll, is José around?”

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t hear the speaker enter. I sat with my back to the door, looking out the big window behind my desk, absorbed in people watching while pedestrians passed on the sidewalk below. It wasn’t very stimulating stuff, but it beat sitting there twiddling my thumbs.

Still, I should have heard a prospective client come through my office door. A good private investigator is supposed to have nerves of steel, the reflexes of a cat, and the senses of… I don’t know, something with really good senses. To make matters worse, the guy must have weighed in at two hundred fifty pounds, easy. There’s no way he made a stealthy entrance.

“Um, no, he’s not here right now. Is there something I can help you with?”

He plopped down into the seat across the desk from me. I held my breath, waiting to see if the old wood would hold together under his weight. Like everything else in the office suite, I’d bought it second-hand. The suite wasn’t very big, consisting merely of a small reception room with my office off to the left and a walk-in storage closet to the right. I didn’t have much of a budget for decorating, so the place had been completely outfitted via Craigslist. Well, almost completely. I’d also picked up a few things off the curb.

The chair held, at least for now. For its sake, I’d try to keep the meeting short.

“I’m Marco Augustino,” he said as if the name should mean something to me. My face must have been a blank stare, because when he continued, he sounded a little hurt. “Marco Augustino. Chef Marco. I own Bistro Italiano.”

Still, nothing. A glance at my garbage can showed wrappers from all my regular fast food joints. Just the name of it told me that Bistro Italiano was way out of my price range these days. If business picked up, maybe someday. Or, if I did a good job on his case, maybe this Chef Marco would float me some free food. But I’d prefer cash.

“Anyway,” he said with a chuckle, “I need to hire a private dick.”

It wasn’t the first time I heard this particular line, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. Usually, it didn’t merit a response, but something about Chef Marco annoyed me. I slipped into my best intellectual accent, the one used by all the talking heads on the Sunday morning political talk shows. The one that normal people like me use to try to sound smart.

“For what reason, sir, do you require a private investigator?”

“I need…hang on a second.” Marco picked up the name plate from my desk, the one I brought with me when I left the Charles Harrison Insurance Company. “You’re Josie?”

“Yes. I’m Josie.”

He let out a loud laugh. My eyes went to the chair to see if it would tolerate his shaking. It gave one little creak, but held. Thirty seconds or so later, he stopped laughing while wiping tears from his eyes.

“Did I miss something, sir?”

“No, it’s just… José… Josie. Anyone ever mix you two up?”

No, never, since José didn’t exist. But I couldn’t explain the whole thing right then and there. It would take too long and I had a chair in danger.

“No.”

“Okay, so anyway, I’m doing okay with my restaurant, right? It’s, like, packed with people all night. My kitchen is busy as hell. But for some reason, I’m not making any money. I think someone’s stealing from me.”

“Have you consulted a financial professional?”

“I got me an accountant, yeah. Thing is, since money’s involved, he might be in on it, you know? Plus there’s more to it than just missing money.”

“Such as?”

“Such as someone slashed my tires a couple nights ago. Such as someone leaving hundreds of dollars of meat on a counter overnight so it spoiled. Such as at least once a week someone squashes my cannoli. There’s a bunch of other little things, too many to list. I’m telling you, someone’s messing with me, and I want to know who.”

“Do you have any known enemies, sir?”

“What? No! Of course not!”

I gave him a measured, knowing look, just to see what kind of reaction I would get. He began to fidget in the endangered chair. Interesting.

“Well, maybe. I mean, a man in my position… Us chefs are the new rock stars, you know? There might be a lady or two out there who thinks I owe her something.”

Taking a pen and notepad from a drawer, I slid them across the desk to my potential client. “Write down their names, addresses, cell phone numbers, and dates of birth. E-mail addresses, too.” This last was an afterthought, but I thought it sounded good.

Chef Marco muttered something about ladies not giving out their birthdays and then hunkered down over the pad, occasionally consulting his phone, scribbling away in what was sure to be almost illegible handwriting. After a couple of minutes, he straightened up and slid the pad back to me. “What’s next?”

“I do a little recon, see what I can see.”

He looked a bit skeptical at this. “You’re doin’ the recon? What about your boss?”

It took all the self-control I could muster to keep from rolling my eyes. “I do the initial legwork, and then pass my findings over to him.”

He nodded, apparently satisfied for the time being. “And if you don’t find anything?”

I gave him a flat gaze, though my mind raced to come up with an appropriate response. “If the research doesn’t turn anything up, then we take it to the next level.”

“What’s the next level?”

“Well, then we…” I paused dramatically, giving myself time to think. The answer occurred to me a beat later. “…go covert.”

“You mean, like a spy?”

“Exactly.”

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