As I walked from the parking lot into my high school, I noticed a stranger standing near the stairs eyeing me. We acknowledged each other the way strangers do - a quick glance, a nod. He was in his mid-forties, tall, lean, swarthy complexion and black hair. His nose was slightly askew, as if it had been broken recently. If he’d appeared only once, I wouldn’t have felt threatened. But after his third appearance, I thought of telling the school administration about him. As if he knew I was onto him, he disappeared. Then two weeks later he showed up at the park and the mall, and I got real nervous.
I live with my grandmother, and she often thinks my imagination runs like a hound after a fox, so I kept my anxiety to myself and only told Rita, my best friend. But she thought I was dreaming up a new mystery. Since we both loved mystery stories, I kind of understand her thinking. But she was wrong. And then when school let out for the summer, I got caught up in my new job and forget about the dark-haired stranger.
When Private Investigator Nat Winthrop’s secretary quit, she hired me for a three-month stint. Nat’s my grandmother. Hiring me was practical, since she had put up the money for my used Toyota Tercel on the understanding that I’d pay the insurance. I didn’t need wheels to get to work, because Nat used the small cottage on the back of our property for an office. I just walked out the kitchen door, across a small patio and bingo, I was at work.
On my first morning on the job, the temperature soared to melting hot. Sweat dripped down my back. The end of May in Southern California made the office a sweatbox. Nat believed air conditioning caused the greenhouse effect, and every summer we argued about the pros and cons of air conditioning. Our city of Anaheim, apart from its attraction, Disneyland, was a tired town, and our lives bore no relationship to the Magic Kingdom. Disneyland tourists seldom needed Nat’s services, and money remained tight.
My grandmother’s hound dog Lucky snuffled awake with the ringing phone. I picked up the receiver and pulled an investigative form toward me. “Winthrop. May I help you?” We never used the word “investigation” until the caller identified whom he wanted and why.
However, I needn’t have been cautious. The quivering voice of a neighbor, Mrs. Radzik, answered me. “Clarence Osgood, my neighbor, is missing,” she said. I didn’t take her seriously, because Mrs. Radzik often acted befuddled. But I listened.
“ I’ve been feeding Mr. Osgood’s dog, Einstein, for two weeks. I haven’t heard a word from him.”
“ Him?” For a moment I thought she meant Einstein hadn’t said a word for two weeks. Mrs. Radzik sometimes got things mixed up. “You mean you haven’t heard from Mr. Osgood?”
“Isn’t that what I said? He’d never leave Einstein home alone.”
“ Did Mr. Osgood leave a phone number where he can be reached?”
“No. He goes away a lot. Las Vegas, I think. He knows I’ll look after Einstein.” Mrs. Radzik’s voice trembled. “I always do. He’s such a sweet dog.”
“ Why do you think Mr. Osgood won’t be back?”
“He didn’t tell me he was going away. Einstein just trotted over to my house. Two weeks ago now. Einstein gets out of the yard a lot, but this is different. Mr. Osgood just isn’t around.”
“Have you called the police?” Her response scalded my ear. I thought she was a sedate old lady, but I’d obviously been wrong. Nat, who had been listening, scribbled what I should say on a piece of paper and held it up for me to see.
“ Mrs. Radzik, why don’t I visit you late this afternoon around five o’clock?”
“ Couldn’t Mrs. Winthrop come?”
I looked at Nat who shook her head. “She’s tied up on a case. I know you’d rather she handled your problem, but I’ll take notes, tape our conversation, and report back to her.” That seemed to placate her, and I hung up.
My first phone call on my new summer job wasn’t a thriller, but at least I was going to conduct an interview. Although Nat insisted upon guiding people to other sources if the problem wasn’t one she would or could handle, she’d at least look into a situation for a neighbor in distress.
I went back to rifling through the desk drawers to see what Nat’s former secretary might have left. The morning of my first day on the job droned by like the flies outside. Finally, I asserted myself. “I can’t sit in this dilapidated chair any longer,” I said, flapping my powder blue cotton shirt to cool me off.
My grandmother pushed her fading blond hair from her eyes and squinted. “Mandy, it was good enough for my last secretary.”
“She weighed three hundred pounds, and this chair shows it. Let’s get a cleaning crew in and spruce up the office.” The desk I occupied had been bought at a garage sale. I had no idea where the chair came from.
“You’re going to cost me more than if I’d hired someone from outside. Do you want the job of cleaning lady or secretary?” Nat jammed her files into the gunmetal filing cabinet that had a touch of rust around the edges. She claimed that since her clients never saw the office, there was no need to spend money on office decor.
“Actually, I’d like to be put on as an investigator.” I said, rolling my chair back and forth, accentuating its squeak.
“ The deal was office work, word processing, filing investigator’s reports. I can’t even send you out to serve a subpoena until you’re eighteen. No more grumbling please.”
Nat stuffed the files away and walked across the yellow linoleum floor to the old kitchen cabinet where she kept extra copier paper. The cottage was definitely a lame excuse for an office.
“ I’m not grumbling. I’ll be a lot of help to you. But I really could do more than plain old office work. With my long legs, I can follow anyone.”
“ It takes more than legs. You know that.” She peered at me over her reading glasses. “Besides, you have a penchant for sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong. Always have. My fault, I guess.”
“I wouldn’t get in trouble.”
“Humph. I’ve heard those words before. What about the time you erased my surveillance tape? Or the time you claimed I wasn’t your real grandmother? That turned into a fun visit with the principal.” Nat began fiddling with the knobs and buttons on the copier as it groaned with odd whirring noises.
“I was younger then,” I said.
“If you’d call me, grandmother, maybe things like that wouldn’t happen.”
“Nat, we’ve been through this zillions of times. When you adopted me and I took your last name, you agreed I could call you Nat.”
“I can’t for the life of me figure out why I gave in to a conniving five-year-old?”
I watched Nat fuss with the copier. She and I had become a fierce duo, despite our constant bickering. After my parents died in a car crash, Nat didn’t have the heart to deny me anything, and I demanded everything. Of course, in time that changed.
Early on I insisted upon calling her Nat. Some psychologist said I felt deserted by family. But it was more than that. Eventually, Nat gave up on shrinks to help me deal with my parents’ death, and I kept calling her Nat.
“ You wouldn’t like it if I called you grandmother in front of clients. That would make you seem old to them. Right?”
“Smarty pants.” She continued to stare at the copier.
“ So what about the chair, Nat?”
She waved a plastic ruler in one hand as she buried her head in the inner workings of the copy machine. Her words were garbled, but I got the gist. Something about wishing she’d never let me in on her trade secrets.
“It is your fault,” I said. “You’ve made me want more than just an office job. Now, what about another chair? And by the way, the dust on that shelf is gross.”
Nat’s head came out of the copier, but her blue eyes continued to glare at the machine as she spoke. “I don’t remember your mother being a neat freak. Aren’t teenagers supposed to be messy? You must be a throw back.” She gave me a quick look.
I laughed and tried to avert her attention so she wouldn’t talk about my heritage like she usually did. “You must mean my winter coloring.” I’d learned about seasonal coloring charts from fashion-minded, Rita, who told me that my blue eyes, dark hair, and olive complexion were winter colors.
Lucky pawed at my leg, but I ignored her sad brown eyes as she sat up and begged for a treat. Nat spent more money bailing the dog out of the pound, than she did on cleaning. The dog could not be penned. Five years ago Nat found her in a dumpster, and Lucky had free reign ever since. Lucky’s the only creature, other than myself, that’s ever been able to take advantage of Nat.
“You’re more like your father’s side,” Nat said, tossing her hound dog a chewy bone. “Spanish blood from a sailor who got tossed on the shores of Ireland….”
“ During the Armada,” I finished for her. I’d heard that one since I was seven. Every time I’d ask about my parents, Nat had spicy stories to tell about the Spaniards on my father’s side. That’s how she convinced me to study Spanish in junior high. She had an ulterior motive for everything.
When we drove out of town on trips, she’d ask me to show her the way home. I always thought she had a poor sense of direction. And no matter where we went, she’d ask me what I saw and what I heard, as if she were the Spanish Inquisition. I’d respond by smugly asking if she needed glasses and a hearing aid. We had our go-rounds. It took me years to figure out that she was training me to be aware of my surroundings.
I liked the research and puzzle solving part of Nat’s business, although I’d learned that a lot of the private investigative business was plain drudgery, like filing, typing, searching records, and doing stakeouts. Once when I was eight years old, I sat in the car for ten hours while Nat watched a house. In those days she didn’t have assistants and couldn’t afford a baby sitter. I developed the best bladder control of anyone my age.
Nat’s method of raising me might have been unorthodox, but my grades proved it worked. She made me listen to people without interrupting. Later she’d drill me on what they said, what they didn’t say and what their body language said. Bottom line for Nat: get the information and get it right.
As a result of Nat’s incessant questions, I developed a keen sense for details. Listening became a rite of passage for me. While my classmates dozed off during lectures, I’d zero in on the teacher. I’d pick up clues from her facial expressions; try to figure out what made her tick; pay attention to opinions and facts she thought important. It made studying easier. I learned, too, to question everything, which my teachers found unsettling. However, since I was a straight A student, they put up with my assertiveness.
While Nat and I were engaged in our family dispute, the phone rang again. This time Nat answered. From her stiffened shoulders, I guessed the call might mean an important case. I walked across the room to peek over her shoulder at the particulars she had filled in on the form.
Client: Casualty One Insurance Co.
Contact: Supervisor Ray Parker.
Nat had done lots of work for him. His calls usually meant an important and lucrative case.
Job: Interview Tri Play Kiddie Skool owner-managers, Mrs. Paula Mitchell, Mr. Glen Mitchell. All other employees.
Reason: Missing child – possible false claim – compare to former case from same school. Father, Gordon Boyington, may have child.
Child: Heather Boyington, 3 years old.
Mother: Jean Boyington
That’s all I saw, because Nat pulled the form toward her and away from my prying eyes. Besides, the other phone line rang. I hurried back to my tidy desk to catch it on the third ring.
The call was from one of Nat’s investigators, reporting in after serving a subpoena in Riverside. She planned to visit the City Hall to get added information on another case and wanted to know if we needed any other info while she was there?
I interrupted Nat and got a “no” sign, relayed the “no” to the investigator and hung up. Nat was still on the phone when the other line rang again. This time it was the woman who worked out of her home and transcribed investigator’s reports. She wanted to know if there was more steno work to pick up. I searched the intake bin and found two tapes. I also found a spider web. After telling her, she had more work to pick up, I hung up. Then I cleaned under all the in and out bins.
“Interesting, but routine,” Nat said, matter-of-factly, after she hung up the phone.
But Nat had told me once that routine investigations sometimes lead to big cases and dangerous situations.
“What’s the case?”
“Casualty One insures Tri Play Kiddie Skool. Four years ago a child was abducted from their grounds. The police filed a report with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”
I knew from other cases that this was the national center where all children kidnapping reports were gathered so the information could be coordinated and disseminated to different agencies.
“Neither the father, who they think might have taken the child, nor the child was ever found. The case is still open. But recently Casualty settled a payment to the mother on the school’s behalf.
“Now there’s been another abduction. Same scenario. The parents seem to be battling over possible divorce proceedings. We’re to dig around discreetly. It could be a coincidence, but the company doesn’t like the feel of it. Seems like a duplicate of that other case.”
“Sounds cool. Can I be involved?”
“No way. My other investigators need assignments. I’ll let them do some of the interviews, but I’ll help out on this one. I’ll have Pete look into the civil, domestic, and criminal history records of those involved.”
Pete would be thrilled with any extra work Nat threw his way since medical bills for his kids were huge. Why did the nicest people fall on tough times?
Nat tapped her chin with a pen. Something was up. I waited, hoping she’d let me in on her brain waves. Not a word, but I knew patience would win. I dusted around, under and on top of my desk. Lucky gave me a dirty look when I pushed her aside to sweep under a nearby chair. By the time I got my area spruced up and had scrubbed the phone with Lysol, Nat began muttering.
“If this ties into the case four years ago, it’ll be a whopper. Naturally the insurance company doesn’t want to pay out, but I hope they’re wrong on their assumption. Stealing kids is as low as people can get in my book.” She looked up at me, then glanced away somehow embarrassed. Why?