Turning off my headlights, I left the paved road and drove down a bumpy two-track a few hundred feet back from the bar. Once my car was out of sight to passing traffic, I shut the engine off and listened to the stillness around me. A full minute brought no sound except the ticks of the car’s various parts cooling down. Reaching under a blanket in the backseat, I picked up a small backpack that held my tools and a large flashlight. Glancing at my reflection in the rearview mirror, I pulled my black knit cap even lower and raised the collar of my black turtleneck. With black jeans and black Easy Spirit lace-ups, I looked like an over-the-hill Ninja.
Through the trees a sign was visible atop a long, low porch. Joe’s Bar and Lounge was written in letters three feet high and lit by four large flood lights. Beneath the name, smaller letters read, Fine food and alot of it I’d been here many times during regular business hours. The food was good, but Joe had made mistakes that called for a visit from me.
A single lamp burned at the back of the building, but no figure moved in the square of light I could see. It might have been left on as a deterrent to burglars, but it didn’t deter me. With a last look around to be sure there was no traffic on the road, I unscrewed the last of the interior light bulbs and eased out of the car in total darkness.
Shouldering the backpack, I crouched and made my way to the bar, staying near the road but not on it. It’s not unheard of to meet a black bear in the woods of northern Michigan, and while I’ve heard they’re not particularly belligerent, even Gentle Ben might be grumpy if surprised in the dark. A car came along at one point, but the night was quiet enough that I heard it a long way off and melted into the trees until it passed.
I’d worried it would be tricky to climb onto the roof of the bar, but there was a convenient step, a discarded video game of the old boxy kind set against the back of the building. Standing gingerly on its top, feet spread to keep my weight on the frame rather than the glass, I laid my upper body on the edge and hauled the rest of myself onto the long, low roof.
The roof was cedar shakes, dry and brittle under my hands. I flattened my body over them, hearing faint cracks as little bits broke off and stuck to my clothing. Again I paused, listening. The night was dark and as silent as only nights in the country can be: no traffic, no sirens, no gunshots. Yet.
Recovering my courage, I rose to a crouch, took the backpack from my shoulder, and moved to the sign. As I placed my feet carefully to avoid noise and a nasty fall, I thought about the owner of this place and what he’d think if he knew of my visit.
As if I’d conjured him, Joe suddenly called from below me, “Who’s out there?”
I froze, unsure what to do. If I moved, he might hear me. If I remained still and he happened to look up, he’d easily see me, curled like a fetal child in the harsh lights of his sign. If Joe caught me, if he looked in the backpack, there would be no doubt my intentions were criminal. Following my instincts, I lay still. Joe repeated the question, taking a couple of steps forward. I could see the top of his balding head. He turned a hundred eighty degrees, peering into the darkness. I tried to control my breathing, which sounded like factory machinery in my ears.
A third time he asked his question to the empty night. He took another step forward and I saw he held a shotgun in his hands. It looked big enough to stop a rhinoceros.
Joe made a slow circle of the brick patio that fronted his restaurant. The gun rested easily in his hands, like he knew what to do with it. I watched in dread. His head turned slowly from side to side. His finger hovered on the trigger. When he turned back toward me, I saw the whites of his eyes, larger than normal from fear or possibly anger. I stayed perfectly still, remembering something I once read. People usually look out, not up.
It’s true, at least it was in this case. Joe turned around once more, listening to the quiet, and then backed into the doorway beneath me. He must have stood there staring outward for a while longer, but finally I heard the door close with a firm snap and the turn of the deadbolt that followed. I released the breath I’d been holding, but it was a long time before my grip on the knapsack relaxed.
After I’d crouched there a half hour, barely managing to breathe, Joe finally left. During the whole thirty minutes, I argued with myself about whether to stay put or try to escape. When he finally slammed the door, rattled it to test the lock, and headed for the parking lot, I had another panic moment, fearing he’d see my car as he drove away. The taillights never brightened as he passed the two-track, though. Joe was apparently anxious to get home. I was in the clear.
I watched the night for several minutes after the sound of his car could no longer be heard. With hands that still shook a little, I went to work, taking out two small pots of paint, one white, one black, and two one-inch brushes. The actual work was easy, and within ten minutes I was back at my car. As I turned the key in the door, I looked back at my work and smiled. Joe’s bar it said, Fine food and alot of it. Joe’s a fine cook, but his English skills are terrible.
It was childish, I know, but the next day I couldn’t resist taking my sister Faye to Joe’s for lunch. When we pulled up, this time parking in the front lot like normal people, I admired the sign, now grammatically correct due to my late-night visit. No one else appeared to have noticed, but it made me happy. Not only could we get good food at Joe’s, but he didn’t look like an ignoramus.
Pleased with myself, I almost missed the bombshell. While I ate Joe’s excellent coleslaw, Faye laid a proposal before me, watching my face for clues to my reaction. Because I love my sister, I waited until she was done, trying to give the appearance of contemplation.
When she finished and leaned back, apparently composed but exhibiting little signs of nervousness I knew well, I said, “It’s not like you think, Faye.”
“I know it isn’t all night clubs and big payoffs.” She dredged her onion ring through some sort of glutinous, artery-clogging sauce.
Her knee jiggled. That was one of the signs. “Who said I wanted to live forever?” She tried for humor. “Remember, I’m sewing a deer costume.”
I sighed. Faye claims she’s making a brown flannel suit for when she gets too old to take care of herself. She claims she’ll wear it into the woods during hunting season and get shot, ending the need for the rest of us to worry about her. I admit it would probably work during any November in Michigan, when hunters crowd the woods. There’s one problem, however: neither of us can even hem a pair of pants.
Under the black comedy is a hint of truth. Life has been hard on my sister, and she has no great desire to extend it. That doesn’t mean she’s suicidal. She’s simply averse to a rest-of-her-lifetime lease on a room in a nursing home.
I tried another approach. “We don’t know anything about a business like that.”
“We’ve got the basic ingredients, and while I draw unemployment benefits, we can get ready.” Faye glanced at the cigarette lying beside her plate, a tacit promise to herself for the moment we were back outside again. “I’m a damn good office manager, despite evidence to the contrary. And you’re up to your neck in lawyer stuff you aren’t using.”
“The law in Tacoma, Washington, not Allport, Michigan.” I fished in my pocket for a tissue, an almost constant pastime since I turned fifty.
Concerning Faye’s qualifications to run an office, I had no argument. She’s directed daily affairs in businesses ranging from financial investments to a string of pizzerias. She’s efficient and reasonable, and customers love her. It was not her fault her job in an insurance office was about to disappear. Times are tough in Michigan, and it had come down to a lay-off for either the boss’ sister or mine. You can guess how that ended up.
As for me, I retired young from a career as a lawyer, if you call the fifth decade young. I suppose my co-workers gossiped among themselves that I was disillusioned or burned out or whatever the current term is for it. While I hate gossip, they might have been right.
A profession is exactly what people in the Middle Ages meant by the term, a job in which one professes faith in something. The legal profession, like medicine and education, requires dedication to helping others, faith in the work that’s being done, and commitment to the future of the field. Having lost both my faith and my sense of commitment, I’d retired from the law and most of the human race. I came home to Allport, the location of what was left of my family. It was quiet and no one expected anything from me. Rather, no one had until now.
“You’re bored.” My sister’s voice interrupted my woolgathering.
“Not bored. Unsure what I want to do next.”
“It’s the same thing. If people could decide what they wanted to do, they’d never be bored.” She has this disturbing tendency to be right, at least when it comes to other people’s lives. In her own, Faye’s faced plenty of problems worse than boredom. Hence the plan for the deer suit.
I was bored. After years of answering the alarm, in fact, anticipating its ring until the clock itself wasn’t necessary any more, I’d had no plan for six months. Busy saving the world from criminals, I’d never married or had children. Now I found myself too young to be finished being useful but too old to start a family. I was fifty-two, alone, financially stable, and rather passively looking for something to catch my interest.
My sister thought we should open a detective agency.
“Who’s going to ask two inexperienced women detectives to track down a missing spouse or prove a neighbor set fire to his house?”
“People who need us,” she replied calmly. “There isn’t a detective within an hour’s drive of here, and I can think of three friends right off the bat who need a professional investigator.”
“Does even one of them have money with which to pay such a person?” Faye Problem Number One: she collects strays and losers like a cocker spaniel collects burrs. My sister has the softest heart in Michigan, and her head is sometimes squishy, too. She’s Mom to the world; I’m Mom to nobody. We’re an odd pair, but we love each other too much to admit our differences.
Fast forward several months. No need to list all Faye’s arguments or recount how she wore me down over time. My sister wouldn’t think of nagging, but she’d slip in a reason here and an enticement there, answer an objection with a well-considered argument, and generally encourage me to come to the right decision.
The fact that I finally agreed stemmed from two considerations. First, I was concerned about Faye finding a job. She’s almost fifty, which is a disadvantage in job-hunting, no matter what the Equal Opportunity people say. Her husband’s disability check wasn’t enough to support them, so a job was essential. Running a business together would provide money Faye was too proud to take as a gift. Secondly, I was interested in working again, this time as my own boss.
We got the necessary certifications and registered with the appropriate agencies. Some eyebrows were raised at the prospect of two decidedly mature women becoming private investigators, but we pretended not to notice. I even took a refresher course in self-defense, which I’d had years ago as an assistant DA. I paid more attention this time, not because I planned to get into situations where I had to defend myself, but because the instructor scared the hell out of me with demonstrations of how to hurt someone. I didn’t remember being that impressed by violence at twenty-six, but then, what do babies know about reality?
I had one big problem with the whole thing. In order to be a P.I., I’d have to deal with people again. In twenty-five years of law, I’d seen more than enough human stupidity, and I was decidedly unexcited about inviting people into my presence to confess their lack of brain-power and ask me to fix whatever they had screwed up.
Still, I’d never seen my sister so excited. To her, the whole thing was a big fairy-godmother trip. We’d swoop in and make things better for people life had dumped on. She’s hopeless, but you have to admire her optimism. Besides, she was right about it being good for me to have a goal. At the very least I’d have lots of idiots to make fun of.
Less than a year after the subject was first broached, Faye opened the door of an office we’d set up in the front parlor of my home one block off of the main street of Allport. We’d worried a little about what my neighbors would say to a business operating out of a residential area, but we weren’t the first in our neighborhood to do it. Just the strangest. A discreet sign and some classy ads in area newspapers, Internet sites, and the phone book, and we were ready to undertake our first case.
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