PREVIEW FRIDAY: Follow the Money


This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.

Mustang Sally,

MY NAME is Diana Darling, and I’m a private investigator. I’ll admit to the ink still being a bit wet on the printed certificate from my online private investigator (PI) course. I knew there was still office set-up that needed to be done, but I had just landed my first case.

It was exactly 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, and I was in hot pursuit of a vehicle, following the guidelines from my PI manual. Let me rephrase that. It wasn’t actually hot pursuit—more of a casual drive whilst I tried to follow the car. Okay, so maybe I ran a couple of red lights, weaving through the traffic. Not like I did it all the time though. At least I put my signal light on, unlike most of the

other drivers. Sometimes rules needed to be followed.

Besides, being a private investigator wasn’t exactly rocket science, was it? The underarm sweat marks on my new white blouse from Wally Mart belied my inner confidence. A once crisp collar surrounded my now perspiring neck in a limp chokehold. I gripped the wheel more tightly than I needed to and checked my rear-view mirror more often than necessary. Okay, so maybe I was a tad nervous.

At any rate, the car was easy to spot. You’d have to be blind to miss the vintage 1967 blue Mustang convertible, with its long snout-shaped hood and short deck behind. It was like a sex magnet on wheels; one with a really good engine and staying power. Attributes that most of the men I’d met as of late were definitely lacking.

In the midst of compact cars, vans, and other non-descript vehicles on Lakeshore Road, even a stretch limousine with a full police escort would have paled in comparison. Sunlight ricocheted off the polished bald pate of the driver. He may as well have had a helicopter beacon targeting his head. All I had to do was stay two to three car lengths behind and follow the sunlight.

A quick mental review of chapter four from my online course reminded me of all I needed to know about tailing a suspect’s car. I’d aced the test for that unit, earning a 95%. But then again, it was on paper, not the real thing. But my 10-year-old faded grey Hyundai was perfect and wouldn’t stand out in the current traffic — not a car Baldy would pick up on. Besides, he probably had no idea he was even being followed. Likely had better things on his mind. I just needed to be careful, bide my time, and take a few photos for my client.

Just yesterday, my client, Baldy’s wife, called my newly opened office. Had she been there in person, she would have noticed I have no receptionist and no other staff apart from me. I did, however, have an impressive display of chunky computer screens and monitors in the small waiting room area, advertising everything from the weather in Tokyo to the stock market on Wall Street. It was part of my façade, pretending to be well-established and experienced. First impressions are always important, and you only get one go at it. Mind you, if a client sat there too long, they’d realize that all the videos were on a loop, repeating every 20 minutes. But since I was new in the private investigator business, waiting wouldn’t be an issue for my clients.

It never occurred to me to ask how Baldy’s wife found the phone number for the Diana Darling Private Investigator Agency. I was just happy to land a client. Her name was Isadora LaPorte.

“My husband is having an affair. I know it,” she’d declared. While her voice sounded shaky and distraught, as if she was holding back tears, over the hand-held receiver, mostly she just seemed angry. From her timbre and word choice, I pictured her to be about 55 years old. I envisioned her as she threw herself into the visitor chair across from my new self-constructed IKEA desk.

“He married me for my money, and now he’s screwing around with some blonde bimbo half his age,” she’d sobbed over the phone. “And there’s more, he might be trying to poison . . .” Her voice dropped off.

Unsure if it was just a bad phone connection or she was being a tad paranoid, I chose to ignore the last bit. After all, I understood her angst. Not because I’d ever had a lot of money, but I’d had a couple of screwed-up marriages of my own, so it seemed like poetic justice for this to be my first case. After she settled, and gave me specifics about her husband and his whereabouts, I assured her the case would have my full attention. She was fine with my fee, even promising to put a cheque with half the amount in the mail today.

I dreamt of jacking up my rates and hoped for more referrals from this soon-to-be satisfied customer. But for now, I was hot on the trail, focused, and mentally adding the rest of the anticipated large bill to my bank account. Ka-ching . . .

The stubby rear tail light of the Mustang winked its signal. As the car turned right, I eased off on the gas pedal, not wanting to be too close. As the car pulled into the parking lot of the Whispering Pines  motel, I muttered, “Oh for God’s sake, could ya not have picked a better place?” The motel was renowned, mostly because it rented rooms by the hour — it was one of those no tell motels. To folks in the area, it was also known as the Eager Beaver. Even I knew that, and I was well beyond having sordid affairs in seedy motel rooms. Well mostly, except for the couple of times that I now chose to forget for good reason. The place hadn’t changed much since my last visit a few years back. Still had grass that needed cutting, a green sludge over the pool, and rusted deck umbrellas that threatened to be released by a really strong wind.

I found a spot in the rear of the parking lot and sank down in my seat. My chin brushed the middle of the steering wheel as I pulled my Nikon camera from the passenger seat and affixed a long-range zoom lens. My elbow accidentally hit the horn and a loud blast followed. Crap! I threw myself across the seat. The gearshift jabbed my side and I cursed. My Timmie’s coffee that was sitting in the cup holder was now spewed across the front of my brand-new blouse. Not only was I in pain, I was also a mess.

Damn, I may as well have mounted a neon sign, with flashing letters for Baldy, saying: “Here I am! Come and find me.” After what seemed like a decent time to wait, I cautiously peeked over the steering wheel. No one seemed to notice me. I propped the heavy long-range lens on the dashboard for stability and carefully avoided contact with the horn. Bring it on, you cheating bastard! Diana Darling is poised and ready for action.

As the suspect exited his car, he took a look around, as if scoping out the perimeter. Possibly my horn shattering the silence had him on high alert, or maybe it was just his guilt related to the sin he was about to commit. It was obvious he knew where he was going. No check-in at the front desk, just a purposeful stride to motel room 69 on the ground floor. Even the number was a cliché. I wondered if they paid more money for that room just because of the number. Then I noticed there was actually a 69A, 69B, and 69C. There was my sign!

What made me smile the most were his flood pants. What self-respecting guy wears pants that show half of his socks? From her voice and dialect, I pictured my client, Isadora, as a classy lady, probably dressed in Bianca Nygard’s latest fashions. How in hell she’d ended up with this dude wasn’t my problem. I just had to catch him in flagrante delecto. Or as chapter seven from my

course indicated, naked and in the act.

Suddenly, the door to room 69A opened. There stood a blonde woman with a bad dye job that looked as if it had been done by a hairdresser with a hangover. She wore a low-cut crimson top that bared half her jiggling triple Ds, and a pair of black knee-length tights that stretched the limits of spandex. I’m not sure where my client got her information from, but if this lady was half the age

of the suspect, someone was seriously amiss on mathematics. She qualified as the epitome of a worn-out cougar. My worth-every-cent- I-paid-for zoom lens exposed her false eyelashes, robin’s egg blue eyeshadow that Kresge’s discontinued in the 1970s (for good reason), and overdone bright red lipstick that would probably stain only God knew where. Christ, I didn’t even want to think about it. My camera was ready. Snap, snap, snap. I caught their game of tonsil hockey, just before they closed the door.

It was a start, but not enough. Damn, I needed to get closer. A deserted cleaning cart was parked about three rooms away on the sidewalk. With brooms, garbage containers, recycling bins, and cleaning supplies, it was a perfect cover. I nudged my car door closed with a hip thrust, not wanting to make any more noise than I already had, then crouched behind the cleaning cart and rolled up to the window of room 69A. Only people walking on the sidewalk would be able to see me, and for now it seemed deserted. The Whispering Pines motel was not a hub of activity at two o’clock in the afternoon. I presumed the lunchtime crowd had already left, after paying the twenty-five dollars per hour, including the two-hour minimum charge.

The curtains to the room were left ajar at the bottom of the window. Opportunity beckoned. All I needed was a shot of naked bodies, for Baldy’s wife to pursue her lawsuit. It wasn’t illegal to have an affair, and my client knew that. All she wanted were some photos to blackmail her husband and end up with a better divorce settlement. “There’s no way that guy is getting half my money,” she’d said. “He’s a minister. He’ll probably just give it all away.” It made me wonder if he prayed at night. Did he follow the commandment about forgive us our trespasses or naughty things we may have done? I reckoned this guy had probably broken more commandments than just this one. At any rate, it didn’t matter. His vices equated to more money in the bank for me.

I cringed at the thought of seeing Baldy butt naked — not a pretty sight. Surely though, it would be a quick in and out, on all accounts. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy to wine and dine his date with flowers or any meaningful, extended foreplay. Without looking through the window, I switched to a shorter camera lens, positioned the Nikon at the gap in the curtains, and pressed the button. The bed had to be in the middle of the room, didn’t it? Oh well, I thought, just enough to satisfy my client and spare me the pain of seeing a naked Baldy. I tried to snap the photos, but there was no clicking sound coming from my Nikon.

The screen displayed a picture of my cat. Shit! I had it in the wrong mode. Didn’t the damn camera know what I wanted? I switched it from picture viewing to picture taking, then tried again. Darn, still no shot of his butt doing the dirty. Now there was nothing but a blank screen.

Snap, snap! The sound of a camera from over my head caught me off guard. “Hey, lady, what are you doing?” a man’s low-pitched voice whispered into my left ear. Where the freaking hell had this guy come from? He was so close that the scent of Old Spice infiltrated my nostrils and his leg brushed against my knee.

I jumped up and banged into the cart, rolling it off the edge of the sidewalk. Crash, bang, clang. My body followed the cart, and I ended up sprawled on the pavement, flat on my back with my legs splayed in the air. Thank God I was wearing pants instead of a skirt. As the front door to room 69A burst open, there stood a semi-naked Baldy, with a towel draped around his waist. Skinny legs with varicose veins and hammer toes met my eye level. The last thing I wanted to do was look up!

“What’s going on here?” Baldy shouted.

“I’m sorry, just a mishap with the cleaning lady. We’ll be out of your way soon,” said the man who had whispered in my ear mere seconds before. His voice was calm and controlled.

“Fine. As long as that’s all it is.” Baldy slammed the door, oblivious to the two cameras now lying on the sidewalk. Mine looked broken and I was pissed.

Still on the ground, I looked up into the grey-green eyes fixated on me. His firm jaw held a hint of a smile, and his crew cut reeked of a cop or someone with a military background. Shit, what had I

gotten myself into?

“Maybe next time, you’ll remember to take the lens cap off before photographing close-up scenes,” he smirked. I hated the controlled laughter in his voice. I hated that he was helping me to my feet. I hated everything about him. Mostly I hated the fact that I’d missed my opportunity for the photographs.

“It seems like we’re on the same case, just from different angles. Here’s my card. Call my personal number on the back.” And then he was gone.

My first case was a bust. I watched as the stranger walked across the parking lot and entered a black Jeep Cherokee. Nice firm butt in tight jeans. Perhaps about 45 years old and approximately five feet, 12 inches tall. Part of me wondered if he looked as good coming as he did going. I gathered up the remnants of my camera lens, tossed them into the conveniently available garbage container, and hastily copied down the licence plate number to his truck. Pleased that some of my detective skills weren’t going to waste, I could track him down. That’s when it dawned on me. I was holding his phone number in my hand!

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