(This is chapter 2 from a new novel-in-progress titled “Tough As Nails.” I had hoped to have this book finished by year’s end but it’s not going to happen. Sometimes when I read what I have written I fall in love with the voice. I need to finish this novel in order to feel good about myself in 2012.)
My first client, Charlene Gibbons, was a pretty woman with stunning red hair that made you want to look at her. Imagine a sculpted, fragile face with tough eyes - everyone else in the room blended into the woodwork. Charlene, who lived across the street and four houses over, had done all right for herself - two eight cylinder cars, professional lawn care.
Three weeks after my arrival, she gave a welcome tea and served a sheet cake iced with blue roses. When I caught sight of all those safely married suburban women waiting to meet me, I put a lock on anything resembling my true self. “If you’re smart,” Charlene whispered, “you’ll use the occasion to establish your credentials with these vultures.” Besides money, Charlene had a take-charge quotient. In a women’s commune, hers would be the menstrual cycle to follow.
After the second cup of coffee, I mentioned my profession. “What do you mean?” asked Janine Tobias. She was a patrician looking blonde, the kind that wears a barrette in her hair until she’s about eighty. “You spy on cheating husbands?”
“That’s one aspect of it,” I hedged. I could see them trying to decide whether I was weird or interesting when Charlene broke the tie. “This is great,” she said. “I want to hire you to find out who poisoned my dog.”
Selma McNeil, a buxom brunette saved from beauty by a too round nose, said, “Charlene, Tiffany was hit by a car.”
“She was poisoned first,” muttered Charlene.
I thought that would be the end of it but the next morning, I was putting Retin-A under my eyes when the doorbell rang. Charlene was at my door. It was only eleven but she had on high heels and a dress I would have saved for a wedding. She strode into the room as if she’d been there many times. “Tiffany was hit by a car because she was fed something that made her go nuts,” she said. “I need to know who poisoned her.”
Charlene sat down on my down-filled couch and rewarded me with an appreciative nod. I pulled up a chair. My instinct was to chat about the neighborhood but by some miracle, I had the sense to squelch anything personal and stick to business. “Was your dog a nuisance? Dig up yards? That sort of thing?”
Charlene’s face, so angular and tight it looked like it hurt when she widened her mouth to make vowel sounds, stretched in amazement at my stupidity. “Tiffany was an expensive pedigreed dog. I never let her out free.”
“Do you know why anyone would want to harm your dog?”
“The women in this neighborhood are jealous. Charlie’s in a cash business and makes money to burn which kills a lot of people. I can drop big bucks without thinking and the women hate me for it. Not to my face of course.”
There was no rancor in her voice. She was just letting me in on some facts of life. The idea that someone else makes gobs of money easily while they struggle sends some people through the roof. Someone as rough around the edges as Charlie Gibbons would piss people off if he flaunted his wealth. “But why take it out on the dog?” I asked. “That seems needlessly cruel.” That last statement was misleading. I’m ashamed to say I’m indifferent to most animals. We had a cat, Fred, that I fed grudgingly and I always bought the cheap birdseed with like three sunflower seeds per pound of gravel that the birds refused to eat.
“You tell me,” said Charlene reasonably. “How much do you charge?” She was already expanding one of those Gucci drawstring pouch bags.
I had never said my fee out loud so it took some control. “Fifty an hour plus expenses. Fifteen percent more for weekend surveillance.
She looked disappointed, then suspicious. “You new at this?” I shook my head. “You don’t charge enough. It’s a dead giveaway. It’s okay with me. You’re the earnest type which means you’ll work hard. And you live in the neighborhood. She paused. “Charge seventy-five. My allergist charges ninety for a two-minute shot. Don’t sell yourself short. You’re going to need the money to fix up this house.”
I wasn’t offended. I was thinking about the allergy shots. I guess that’s the price she paid for that gorgeous red hair. “Thanks for your confidence Charlene, but fifty will do it.”
She shrugged. “I’m not a fool,” she said. “If you’re going to work for me, you have to be one hundred percent on my side. I’m your client and that’s sacred. I looked into her eyes and was surprised by how much intelligence showed through the toughness.
“I know that, Charlene, but I don’t mind you spelling it out.” I found her statement too dramatic for the crime at hand and that should have tipped me off that there was more to this than a dead dog. Her conversation was studded with violent imagery: “money to burn,” “kills a lot of people,” “dead giveaway.” Otherwise, she appeared to be up front. She said what was on her mind and most of it made sense. The people I had lived among for twenty years, just ten miles north, never said what was on their mind. It was culture reversal. Here, in Roxbury Commons, people talked openly about money. They talked about the housewives on reality shows as if they were best friends. In this neighborhood, I could be dull and slow. No one even wanted snappy talk.
Charlene extricated five one hundred dollar bills from a slim alligator wallet, a material I thought had been outlawed. I would have bet she had a mink or two in cold storage. “Here’s something on account. Tell me when you use it up.” She snapped the drawstrings of her handbag as if it were a dog she wanted to behave. “You’ll probably want to know whom I suspect.” Someone had taught Charlene English usage.