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Dead Ringer: Chapter One
I ducked and hid my face in my Civic’s frayed passenger seat and waited for the delivery van to roll by, noting the upholstery’s need for another shot of deodorizer and, a bonus, locating my missing pastor’s prayer book wedged in between the seat and the center console.
Dust particles sparked and whirled above me, little galaxies suspended in a tractor beam of the early June sunlight that had baked our eastern North Carolina town into a nice summer soufflé. When I surfaced a fraction of a second later, there they were, coming out of her front door. From the confident look on Paolo’s face, I could tell it never occurred to him Gina would have him followed.
Khaki pants clung to his hips, and his toned glutes popped with every step. A moss-colored paisley shirt, from the drape of the fabric most likely silk, showed off the bronze of his waxed chest. Brown bullet-proof hair sat like a cap on his narrow head, and he grinned at the woman beside him as one hand played with the chunky gold chain around his neck.
The bleachy blonde bimbette clinging to him like Saran wrap had the mandatory double-D enhanced chest area, large eyes, long sticks for legs, and a permanent puffy smile plastered on her face. She looked a bit mussed, as if she had just rolled out of bed, which I didn’t doubt. She wore a little black camisole and flowing pajama-like bottoms. Diamonds winked at me through the camera lens, from her ears, her throat, and her right pinky finger. Looked like time well spent on her part and money well spent on his. Unless of course you counted Paolo’s wife, Gina, into the equation. I didn’t think she'd be so pleased.
From across the street I shot away, zooming in with the ancient Nikon I’d borrowed from my boss, Mark, capturing the tender goodbye scene — the Lippy Kiss, the Pelvis Grind, and finally the heartfelt Buttocks Squeeze. Perfect. Thank you very much. The steam rising from the pavement, the result of a short but violent summer thunderstorm that had blown through half an hour earlier, lent an almost cinematographic atmosphere.
Cue steam. Passionate embrace. Cut.
I waited until the Blonde Wonder had hand-delivered Paolo to the gleaming black Porsche Boxster he was driving that day, where they shared another prolonged face-sucking farewell, and then he got in the car and roared away. As she wandered dreamily back toward her bungalow, I started my engine and whipped into the street, puttering off in the opposite direction.
When Gina got a load of these photos, she was going to rake his ass all over hot coals, uptown, downtown, and back again.
And I wanted to be there when she did it.
Go ahead, call me vengeful, but the fact I’d been offered a supporting role in nailing a faithless husband’s hide to the wall seemed no less than cosmic justice.
Afternoon traffic was relatively thin, and I drove straight to Great Shots, the photo lab where my good friend and fellow imbiber Frankie offers me generous discounts. I dropped the film canister into the slot marked One Hour Guaranteed! and waved through the window at him. He stopped cutting negatives long enough to nod and give me a thumbs up.
I called Mark from my cell phone as I headed home.
“Yo,” he answered.
“Blainey Blair, Girl Detective,” he teased.
“Be nice to me, I shot some very artistic stuff.”
“We’ll see,” he said. “Any trouble?”
“Except for a thunderstorm that almost lifted me out of my parking spot, everything else was nearly textbook. Almost too easy,” I said. “I would feel guilty except I might have misplaced my conscience.”
He tsked like a third grade teacher. “You of all people. You’re enjoying this far too much. Did you drop off the pictures?”
“I did. Ready in under an hour if you want to pick them up.”
“Not necessary. I’m working something else here. Bring them to the diner tomorrow morning, eight o’clock?”
“Make it eight-thirty. I’m the on-call chaplain in the ER tonight.”
“Eight-thirty’s fine,” he said. I heard a thump and then a feminine giggle. Working something, my ass. I hung up before I said something I’d regret.
Omega Investigations, aka Mark Danner, had been my part-time employer for the past three months. I wanted the money, it’s true, but my need for the job went way beyond finances.
It’s hard to explain, and maybe it’s me I’m still trying to convince.
A year-and-a-half ago my marriage hit a brick wall with enough force to leave an unclimbable mountain of emotional debris. Thank God, I guess, that we’d never had children, although I’d felt the lack in ways I could never make Nate understand. Anyway, I left him and church work and Pennsylvania and came back here to Brady where I’d grown up. In those days it was a sleepy little satellite community populated by commuters to Raleigh and Durham. Then came the explosion of the supernova called the Research Triangle — so named because of its proximity to the world-class research centers at UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, and NC State. Shopping centers, apartment complexes, and sprawling housing developments sprung up everywhere.
With all the tall loblolly pines and azaleas and blue, blue skies, it still felt like home to me. I bought a sweet little Cape Cod near some walking trails and decent restaurants, caught up with some old friends and made a few new ones. I found work as a tour guide at an art gallery, did some temping for a biotech company in their human resources department, and even enjoyed a brief stint as a bartender.
Then an old seminary classmate called, looking for someone to take his part-time chaplain’s position for a year so he could complete his dissertation. That’s when I began my work at St. Regis.
Don’t get me wrong. For most of my tenure there I’ve enjoyed what I do, and I can honestly say I care about the people I meet. Every person who walks — or is wheeled — through those hospital doors has a story that matters.
But a familiar irritation had begun creeping in, the weariness of constantly listening for how to help others, always having to be careful about what I said. The truth is, I was getting bored. And restless.
And I’ve always had an unhealthy hankering for adventure.
I’d started perusing the help wanted section of the newspaper, imagining myself into all kinds of new and exciting — not to mention lucrative — careers. Then one morning, as I surfed in and out of various websites, inhaling my morning dose of wicked dark French roast, I stopped, index finger in mid-air, and said right out loud, “Well, lookee here.”
A Brady private security and investigations firm seeks part-time researchers, the advertisement read. Willing to train. There was no address, only a phone number and the name M. Danner. I stared out the window into my neatly landscaped little backyard. Some siren song was sounding in the back of my head.
I’m drawn to research of any kind. It’s the process of gradual revelation, the unfolding discovery that lights my fire. Like one door after another, leading down a corridor until the last portal opens and there, glimmering in half-light, is the Holy Grail you seek. I love that. It’s so satisfying in a world where far too many loose strings are left to dangle.
I enjoy the process of finding those strings and, where possible, tying them off. It meets my need for an ordered universe in a way faith can never do. Faith is messy and asks you to live with open-ended questions. Mostly, I’ve found a way to live with that. But once in a while it’s gratifying to find some real answers.
So I called M. Danner, who turned out to be Mark, at thirty-two, ten years my junior. Our initial conversation did not go well. He was more than a little defensive when he learned of my church background, explaining that he did not hold to any belief system, as if he thought I might stand up and pronounce him and all his relatives heathens.
I was pretty sure that was the end of it, but Mark contacted me three days later and asked if I could meet with him again. This time he went through a list of questions like how I handle confidentiality, manage stress, anger, and so forth. He scribbled my answers onto a yellow legal pad, and then offered me the job.
After we’d worked together for several weeks, I got up the nerve to ask him why he’d called me back. He took a deep breath and told me he’d been looking for a nondescript female, someone who wouldn’t stand out.
“Gee, thanks,” I said, a little miffed.
Mark laughed and gave my shoulder a little shove. But he wasn’t wrong. I certainly fit the description — average height, average build, brown hair shot through with early gray. And the very fact of my unremarkable appearance has allowed me to indulge in some of my favorite guilty pleasures, people-watching and eavesdropping, without seeming intrusive. In other words, I’m that woman at the table next to you who you don’t even notice, all the while I’m leaning closer while you argue with your mother about how she doesn’t respect your career choice/boyfriend/girlfriend/political views.
Mark and I did discover that we hold a common fondness for the adrenaline rush that comes with a bit of sneaking around and courting danger.
Beyond that, we’re as different as granite and gravy. I crave order; most of the time his office looks as if it’s been tossed by monkeys. My patience tends to run thin; he’s the Zen master of restraint. I enjoy a good pale ale; he won’t touch alcohol. Meat? Bring me a medium-rare T-bone; Mark will have the marinated tofu.
When I told him I couldn’t work for peanuts, and he agreed to start me at a modest sum just above peanuts, we came to an agreement, and since I was so bored, and because I was fairly certain some pretty intriguing forms of trouble might be visited upon M. Danner, I’d taken the job.
I know what you’re thinking; it’s what most people think. I’m a minister, a woman of God, so I’m probably uptight, naive, and narrow-minded and wouldn’t say, “Shit,” if I had a mouthful of it. Whereas, those few people who know me well will tell you I say it often and with feeling, usually because it’s a perfectly reasonable commentary on the day.
Plus, it’s damn fine fun to help karma along, even when it’s only a small–time loser whose wife will take him for every last nickel, like the tight-panted Paolo.
Go here for Chapter Two.