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Dead Ringer: Chapter Three
Link to Chapter Two.
Nelle’s Diner is a neat little affair with a stainless steel exterior and one of the best breakfasts in town. Year-round, Christmas lights adorn the front of the small building. Mark was in a booth up front, spreading homemade strawberry jam onto his whole-wheat toast, his vegetarian egg-white omelet already partly devoured.
“Thanks for waiting for me, you’re such a freakin’ gentleman.” Fatigue makes me testy, a flaw I’m not proud of, but there it is. I plopped down with a dramatic flair, tossing the packet containing the photos and negatives onto the table, and shoved his camera case at him.
“Well, a delightful good morning to you, Reverend Blair.” He gestured toward me with a fork laden with eggs, spinach, and broccoli.
Mark is six-foot-two, nicely muscled in a rangy martial-arts sort of way, broad-shouldered with mahogany brown eyes and dark loops of waving hair. He smells like a combination of vanilla and the woods just after it rains, and he carries himself like a coiled secret.
“Blainey,” he said, holding me in the direct gaze he uses when he needs my full attention. “Thank you.”
I gave a sullen nod. I was a little too hungry for his approval, truth be told. As I’d gotten to know him, I liked him better and better. He scored high on empathy, was much smarter than he let on, and it certainly didn’t hurt that he was a seven-course feast for the eyes.
“Did you look at these yet?” he asked, taking great care to wipe the jam from his fingers before opening the photo packet.
“Of course,” I said. “They’re perfect.”
A perky little wait-person came and took my order while Mark was leafing through the stack of pictures. I could tell from his expression that he was pleased.
“What happens now?” I asked when he finished, setting the stack of photos on the table.
“I’ll call Gina this afternoon and set up a meeting.”
He sorted through the pictures again, nodding. “Nice work, Blaine,” he said and reached for his wallet, pulling out two twenties. I took the bills and stuffed them in my purse.
“So I’m ready for another one. You just tell me when and where. I’m your scout.” Trying not to sound too eager. Failing.
“Really nothing going on right now, but just sit tight and I’ll keep you in mind.” Mark used the last corner of his toast to scoop up scraps of omelet. “Make sure you do the paperwork for me,” he said.
“Will do,” I said.
In North Carolina most private investigators are required to have a background in law enforcement or military, like Mark, who’d been an M.P. in the Army. I had no such experience, but the state allows you to become a licensed investigator if you complete three thousand hours of investigative work under the supervision of a currently licensed P.I.
I didn’t have a burning desire to become licensed myself, but Mark reasoned as long as I was doing the work, I might as well get credit for it. That way if I decided I wanted to go for licensure, I’d have the required documentation.
Perky Wait-Person returned just then with a plate of waffles for me and an addition to Mark’s order, a side of grits. She freshened our coffee before heading back to the kitchen.
We chewed in silence for a while, and things would have been just fine if I’d only concentrated on the lovely pools of melted butter and silken syrup that flowed over my waffles. A more sensible person would have opened her mouth for one reason only, and that would be to fill it with luscious forkfuls.
Instead, I offered casually, “I thought you said you were working something when I talked to you Sunday. You sure there’s nothing for me to do?” It was a mistake, but the words were out before I could suck them back in.
He didn’t even respond, instead signaling our waitress with one hand while he spooned the last of the grits into his mouth. Then he heaved a sigh and unfolded himself from the booth, leaning on the table to bring his face near mine. “You’re nosing around, Blainey. Don’t.”
“Sorry. Jeez.” It was a little alarming to have him that close. “I just thought I could help.”
“Bullshit,” he said, and a woman at a table near ours failed in her effort to not turn and gape. I knew Mark was winding up to deliver a lecture, but at that moment his cell phone rang, and after noting the number he pointed an index finger at me. I interpreted the gesture as an instruction to “stay,” and I did, like a shamed puppy and with just about as much remorse.
He went to the rear of Nelle’s, scooted into an unoccupied booth, and plugged one ear with an elegant finger to better hear over the buzz of voices and clinking glass.
When he came back, he was shaking his head, a bewildered half-smile at the corner of his mouth.
“Well, that was Gina,” he said, sliding across from me.
“Really? Great! When are we on?”
“We’re not,” he said. “She’s wants us to drop it.”
My jaw and heart fell at the same velocity. “Why would she do that? We caught him red-handed!”
“Not every woman needs to put her unfaithful husband on a spit and roast him over hot coals.” He looked at me pointedly.
“Well, some women are just odd that way,” I said, clenching my teeth so hard my jaws hurt.
“How many times did you take Nate back?”
“Hey, I didn’t come here to talk about my disaster of a marriage with you.”
“You mean, your private life is off-limits.”
I gave him a “whatever” look and curbed the urge to kick him under the table. “So now what?”
“I send her the bill,” he said, smiling.
“Shouldn’t we try to talk some sense into her?” I pressed. “He’s just going to keep on, and she’ll end up with some nasty disease or something.”
He stood up again, sliding the camera bag strap over one shoulder, and picked up the packet of photos and negatives. Patting me on my head with the heavy envelope, he said, “Let it go, Blainey.”
The little bell on the door jingled as he exited. I watched him through the large plate glass window, striding off into the morning, heat waves lapping at his ankles.
I knew I had overstepped my bounds. On the other hand, why did he have to be so tight-lipped? All he had to do was level with me. Why would he imply he was working a new case? He could’ve said, “I can’t talk. I have company.”
And why did he give up so easily with Gina? He should have tried to persuade her to at least get a look at the photos before she decided the case wasn’t worth pursuing.
Then an evil notion began to take shape regarding Paolo and his dalliances, a notion I had grave difficulty suppressing. A half-hour later I was parked at a fast food restaurant across from Golden Touch, the auto detailing business where Paolo worked, and on the passenger seat was a disposable camera I’d just bought.
During our first meeting with Gina Amato she’d explained Paolo’s schedule. “He’s only there on Mondays and Wednesdays,” she said. On the other days he drove around Brady, picking up CEOs’ and surgeons’ and bond traders’ luxury vehicles and shuttling them back and forth for detailing and other services.
“And you suspect your husband of having an affair?” Mark had asked.
“He comes home smelling like other women.” Gina’s eyebrows arched fiercely above her cat-eye makeup. “That, and I found a credit card receipt from Victoria’s Secret.”
“That’s unusual?” Mark asked.
“I prefer Frederick’s of Hollywood. And I always buy my own.”
I thought I caught a flush creeping over Mark’s cheeks, but he kept his voice even and his eyes on the paperwork in front of him.
Gina picked bits of lint off her black sweater with long red fingernails, her dark hair cascading over slim shoulders. “So how much?” When Mark quoted the standard sixty dollars an hour, she hadn’t batted an eye.
“I’ll give you some time to look over the contract,” he said, and slid the paper to her.
She’d waved at him impatiently. “Just let me sign and let’s get on with things.” She pulled a checkbook out of a black leather handbag. "
“One hundred enough for a retainer?” she asked, and Mark said that would be fine. She tore off the check and handed it to Mark, then breezed out the front door of his office, the scent of jasmine and musk trailing after her.
As it turned out, she’d only be billed for a mere three hours. I wondered what could have happened to change her mind about busting her cheater of a husband.
Just then a blue Cadillac pulled into the front parking lot of Golden Touch and a barrel-chested man with a shock of white hair got out and handed Paolo the keys. Paolo jotted some things on a form on a clipboard, the man signed at the bottom, and then transferred over into the back seat of a waiting Lincoln Town Car, what I assumed was a courtesy ride. He waved at Paolo through the window as the driver pulled out into traffic.
I thought Paolo might use one of the luxury cars for a little lunch hour tryst. I’d tail him, get some pictures with the current recipient of his affections, take them to Frankie for developing, and then…well, here is where my plan got a little fuzzy.
Should I mail them to Gina? Drop them in a packet at her front door? Knock and present them to her, standing there while she leafed through pictures of her husband kissing another woman, her hands shaking, tears of rage and sadness filling her eyes?
The image jolted me. What was I thinking? Well, obviously I wasn’t, and I couldn’t blame this on fatigue.
An old wound had begun to throb, like shrapnel that works its way to the surface.
The husband who had betrayed me with the best friend I’d believed never could.
The words I’d choked on and never spoken to her and the questions I’d never gotten to ask her, losing the chance altogether when she’d taken her own life.
Then Nate and I, alternately clawing at and clinging to each other in our separate, shared grief, torn open as we were with guilt and sadness.
Once, I’d sat on a soft beige sofa in the quiet office of a spiritual counselor and recounted in tearful fury a list of all the devastating things I’d never been able to prevent. She let me finish, and then while I sobbed, said, “There is a God, and you’re not it.” I hated her a little bit for that, hating how right she was, hating how little control I had.
Her words had come back to me again and again, and now I heard them loud and clear as I sat staring across the street at Paolo.
“Okay,” I said. “Fine.” I tossed the camera into the back seat.
But I did start the car and drive across the street, and I did pull into the entrance to Golden Touch, stopping at the front doors. Paolo came out almost immediately, clutching his clipboard. He looked a bit confused as he took in my decidedly-not-a-luxury vehicle with her little dents and few spots of rust, the things I believed gave her personality.
I rolled down the window, and Paolo bent toward me. “How may I help you today, miss?” he asked, and up close the first thing I noticed was the unexpected wide-open kindness in his eyes. It put me right off the smart-ass certainty of my right to meddle. Damn it. What had been my plan here? To confront him? Berate him? Shame him?
“Hi,” I said. “I think I’m a little turned around. I’m trying to get to the Independence Shopping Center?”
He ran one hand through his bulletproof hair, which remained miraculously undisturbed. “Oh, you’re definitely turned around,” he said laughing, and a little dimple formed in one cheek. “It’s all the way on the other side of town.” He flipped over the intake form and scribbled directions on the back while narrating them, and then handed the paper to me.
“It’ll take you about twenty minutes this time of day,” he said.
“Thanks very much,” I said.
“Of course,” he said. “Anything else I can help you with?”
“No, I’m good to go.” I smiled at him and started to roll up the window.
“You have a good afternoon then, Ms. Blair,” he said and gave a small parting salute.
My jaw dropped a little. “You…know my name,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady.
“Oh, it’s on your windshield sticker,” he said and pointed to the hospital parking decal that read, B. Blair, Pastoral Care Permit #57.
Shit, shit, shit.
“Right,” I said. “I always forget that. Hey, thanks so much for your help! I really appreciate it!” I shut the window and pulled away, little alarm bells going off in my head. In my side mirror I caught sight of Paolo watching as I drove off. Then he jotted something down on his clipboard. I hoped it wasn’t my license plate number.
Shit, shit, shit.
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