Carol W Hazelwood

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My Grandmother the PI

by Carol W. Hazelwood

Chapter 1

My name is Mandy Winthrop a self-reliant, street-smart teenager. Okay, I'm cocky.

I live with my grandmother Frances, Fran for short, a private investigator, so I’ve learned to be aware of my surroundings. When a guy shows up every time I'm out and about, I get suspicious and a little nervous. If he'd appeared only once, I wouldn't have felt threatened, but after the third time, I thought about reporting him to my high school office, but didn’t. Maybe he knew I was onto him because he disappeared. Then he popped up two weeks later at the park and then the mall.

As usual, I remembered details: tall, lean, dark complexion, graying hair, fortyish, shabby khakis, blue polo shirt and new shoes. His nose was askew like it had been broken. Fran would call his face marked by life. She thinks my imagination runs like a hound after a fox, so I told my best friend Rita about the stranger. She thought I was dreaming up a new mystery. We both love mysteries, so I couldn't blame her, but she was wrong.

When school let out for the summer, I got caught up in my new job and forgot about the man. Fran’s secretary quit, and I pleaded to be her secretary to pay for my car insurance. Although Fran put up the money for my used car, I pay the insurance. Since public transportation is almost nonexistent in southern California, having a car spells freedom. But I didn’t need wheels to get to work, because the small cottage on the back of Fran’s property is the office of Winthrop Investigations. I just walk across the yard and I'm at work. Which is where I was when our hound dog, Lucky, snuffled awake with the ringing of the phone.

I picked up the receiver and pulled an investigative form toward me. "Winthrop. May I help you?" Fran told me to never use the word "investigation" until the caller identified themselves.

The quivering voice of a neighbor, Mrs. Radzik, answered. "Clarence Osgood is missing," she said.

I didn't take her seriously. Mrs. Radzik often acted befuddled, but I listened.

"I've been feeding Mr. Osgood’s dog, Einstein, for two weeks. And I haven't heard a word from him."

"Him?" For a moment I thought she meant Einstein hadn't said a word. "You mean you haven't heard from Mr. Osgood?"

"Isn't that what I said? He'd never leave Einstein home alone without telling me."

"Who is Clarence Osgood?"

"My neighbor. Didn't I say that?"

No, she hadn't, but no matter. "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 rose an octave. “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 runs free a lot, but this is different. Mr. Osgood just isn't around."

"Have you called the police?" Her response scalded my ear. She was really upset. Fran, who’d been listening, scribbled what I should say on a piece of paper and held it up.
"Mrs. Radzik, this is Mandy. I can come over today around five o'clock."

"Couldn't Mrs. Winthrop come?"

I looked at Fran who shook her head. "She’s tied up on a case. I know you’d rather she came, but I'll take notes, tape our conversation, and report back to her." That seemed to make her happy, and I hung up.

My first phone call on my new job wasn't a thriller, but at least I was going to conduct an interview. Fran liked to help people but needed to spend her energy on cases that paid. Since Mrs. Radzik was a neighbor, we’d at least check out her story.

The morning droned by like the flies outside in the heat. I wiped sweat off my forehead and was glad I could wear shorts to work. A privilege I appreciated. The beginning of June in Santa Ana made the office a hot box. We had air conditioning, but Fran believed it added to global warming. I stood. "I can't sit in this dilapidated chair any longer."

My grandmother pushed her dyed-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." I don't know where the chair came from, but the desk I was using had been bought at a garage sale. "Hey, we can get a cleaning crew and spruce up the office. How about painting the walls a soft blue?"

Fran jammed files into a rusting gunmetal filing cabinet. She figured her clients never saw the office, so there was no need to spend money on decor or furniture. "Do you want the job of cleaning lady or secretary?"

"Actually, I'd like to be an investigator." I sat and rolled my chair back and forth, making it squeak.

"The deal was clerical and computer work. I can't even send you out to serve a subpoena until you're eighteen. No more grumbling, please." Fran finished stuffing files away and walked across the yellow linoleum floor to an old kitchen cabinet to grab extra copier paper.

"I'm not grumbling. I’ll be a lot of help to you, especially with internet searches."

She peered at me over her reading glasses with one of her don't-argue looks. But I kept pestering her anyway. "I really could do more than office work. With my long legs, I can follow anyone."

"It takes more than legs. You know that. Besides, you have a penchant for sticking your nose where it doesn't belong. Always have. My fault, I guess."

"Isn't that what investigators do—stick their noses where they don't belong to find out stuff?"

"Humph. You carry it to extremes and get into trouble. 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." As the copier sputtered, Fran fiddled with the knobs and buttons.

"I was younger then," I said.

"If you'd call me grandmother, maybe things like that wouldn't happen."

"Fran, we’ve been through this a zillion times. When you adopted me and I took your last name, you agreed I could call you Fran."

"I can't for the life of me figure out why I gave in to a conniving five-year- old?" She was paying less attention to me and more attention to the groaning copier. I sat back in the old chair and thought about the past. After my parents died in an auto crash, Fran 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 my grandmother, Fran. A psychologist said I felt deserted by my family. But it was more than that. Eventually, Fran gave up on shrinks to help me deal with the trauma of my parents' death.

"You don't really mind me calling you Fran," I said. "It's more businesslike in front of your clients, and you don't seem as old. Right?"

"Smarty pants." She continued to glare at the copier.

“So what about this chair?”

Fran waved a plastic ruler then 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's 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." Fran's head came out of the copier, but her blue eyes maintained their vigil on the machine. "I don’t remember your mother being a neat freak. Aren’t teenagers supposed to be messy? You must be a throw back."

Lucky pawed at my leg, but I ignored her sad brown eyes as she begged for a treat. Fran spent more money bailing the dog out of the pound, than she did on cleaning the house. The dog could not be penned. Five years ago Fran had found her in a dumpster, and Lucky had free rein ever since. Lucky’s the only creature, other than me, that’s ever been able to take advantage of Fran.

"You take after your father's side of the family." Fran tossed a chewy bone to her hound dog. "Spanish blood from a sailor who got tossed on the shores of Ireland during the Armada." I'd heard that story since I was seven. She told me that's why I had blue eyes, dark brown hair and an olive complexion. She never said much about my mother, which I always thought kind of strange, since she was Fran's daughter. Every time I'd ask about my parents, Fran had spicy stories to tell about the Spaniards on my father's side. That’s how she convinced me to study Spanish in school. She had ulterior motives for everything.

When we'd drive out of town on trips, she'd ask me to show her the way home. I thought she had a poor sense of direction. No matter where we went, she'd ask me what I saw and what I heard. I'd ask her 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 details in my surroundings. Fran's method of raising me might have been odd, but my grades proved it worked. She made me listen to people. Later, she'd drill me on what they said, what they didn't say, and what their body language might mean. Bottom line for Fran: get the information and get it right.

As a result, I developed a 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 and pay attention to her opinions and facts she thought important. It made studying easier. I questioned everything, which some of my teachers found unsettling. But I was a straight A student, so what could they do?

I liked the research and puzzle solving part of Fran’s business, but learned that a lot of the private investigative business was drudgery, like filing, typing, and searching records. But stakeouts gave a whole new meaning to the profession. Once when I was eight years old, I sat in the car for ten hours while Fran watched a house. In those days she didn’t have assistants and couldn't afford a babysitter. I developed the best bladder control of anyone my age. I hated peeing in the cup she’d carry with her for emergencies.

The phone rang again and this time Fran answered. From her serious expression, I guessed the call might be an important case. I walked over to peek over her shoulder at the form she was filling out.

Client: Casualty One Insurance Co.
Contact: Supervisor Ray Parker.

Fran had worked for him before. His calls usually brought in a significant amount of money.

Job: Interview Tri Play Kiddie Academy owner-managers, Mrs. Paula Mitchell and her husband Glen Mitchell. All other employees.
Reason: Claim filed by father, Phillip Boyington, his child is missing.
Notes: police filed a report with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Amber alert—the whole drill.

I knew from other cases that the national center was where all child kidnapping reports were gathered so information could be coordinated and sent to other agencies. I kept reading her notes.

Mother claims child, Heather Boyington, is with father. Father missing. Before claim filed, father told mother child was with him. School said father picked up child and had authorization to do so.

Check files for other cases from school that might have a bearing on this case. Work with police. Get all forms from school regarding child's enrollment. Child: Heather Boyington, 3 years old.

Mother: Jean Boyington

That's all I saw, because Fran pulled the form toward her and away from my prying eyes.

The other phone line rang. I hurried back to my tidy desk to catch it on the third ring. It was one of Fran’s investigators, reporting in after serving a subpoena. She planned to visit 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 Fran and got a “no” sign, relayed the "no" to the investigator and hung up. Fran was still on the phone, when Nellie, Fran's transcriber, phoned. She asked if there was more work to pick up. I kept telling Fran there was a new APP that would take the digital recordings and put them into hard copy. She didn't like the idea, because it would put Nellie, who needed the money, out of work. I searched the intake bin and found two recordings that I needed to download. I also found a spider web. After telling Nellie that I'd download the recordings and email them to her, I hung up. Then I cleaned under the IN and OUT bins.

After Fran hung up, all she said was, "This one could get messy." Then she shrugged. "Or it could be routine."

Fran had told me that sometimes routine investigations lead to big cases. I thought of danger, but of course that was my imagination working overtime. "What's the case?" I asked.

"Casualty One insures Tri Play Kiddie Academy." She rummaged through the cabinet and pulled out that insurance company's file. After setting it on her desk and thumbing through it, she said, "Four years ago a child was thought to have been abducted from there. A month later the child was found unharmed with the parents, and the school was absolved of any wrong doing. Still, its reputation was harmed, and Casualty paid the school a hefty sum for loss of revenue."

She took out a yellow pad and jotted more notes while she continued to explain the situation. "Mrs. Boyington has denied any divorce proceedings are in the offing. I'm to investigate discreetly to get information from the mother and see if she knows where her husband is. If she hasn’t lawyered up, I might be able to play nice and get her to talk to me. The police have questioned her, but got very little new information. Casualty believes it could be an insurance scam, not an actual abduction. The school is cooperating and afraid they’ll end up in the high risk insurance pool."

"Sounds cool. Can I be involved?"

"No way. I'll be working closely with the police. I'll have Pete look into the civil, domestic, and criminal records of those involved."

Pete would be thrilled with any extra work Fran threw his way. His youngest kid had medical problems, and bills were eating up his savings. Why do the nicest people fall on tough times?

Fran 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 chair. By the time I got my area spruced up and had scrubbed the phone with Lysol, Fran was muttering.

"I pray this is just a case of misinformation or miscommunication between the parents and the school. Perhaps it's the same as the fiasco that occurred four years ago. I hope I'm wrong, but this one smells. Stealing kids is as low as people can get in my book." She looked at me, then glanced away somehow embarrassed.

"If I didn't know better, I’d say you look guilty." I laughed and teased her. "You stole me."

She glared at me. "I did not!"

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