Authors: A.W. Hartoin
TOUCH AND GO
A Mercy Watts Short
Published by A.W. Hartoin
Copyright © A.W. Hartoin, 2012
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Also By A.W. Hartoin
Mercy Watts Mysteries
If timing was everything, my future looked bleak. I could be counted on to pick the worst possible time to do anything. So naturally, an epic ice storm would start while I was driving to my parents’ house to feed Mom’s snotty Siamese cats and do some work for Dad. I should’ve turned around and gone home to crawl under a blanket like everyone else in St. Louis. I’d have avoided a load of trouble if I had.
By the time I got to the house, sleet was coming down in great sheets of grey misery. Ice particles hit my parents’ back door, ricocheting off and beaning me in the face as I slid around, trying to get ahold of the ice-coated doorknob thanks to Dad. My parents used to have a complete back porch until six months ago. Dad discovered dry rot and tore the old porch off. He promised to get another one put back on before winter set in and had got the porch itself back up. Before he could get the roof going, he got a big case and that was the end of that. My father was a private detective and not especially diligent at working on the house. Mom had threatened to call a contractor, but Dad distracted her with a trip to a spa. He’d get to it eventually and that was why I was standing on the naked porch freezing my ass off trying to stop shaking long enough to stick the key in the lock.
I lunged at the knob and got it, but fell to my knees in a puddle of slush. The key went in after some persuasion and I let myself into the butler’s pantry, shaking the ice out of my hair and peeling off my coat. I took an embroidered tea towel out of a drawer with a brass plaque engraved Everyday and squeezed the water out of my hair. Even at twenty-five it seemed very posh to have a butler’s pantry, even if there hadn’t been a butler in residence for fifty years. The pantry was bigger than my living room with floor-to-ceiling cabinets that held all manner of goodies. I snooped around through cubbyholes and the secret drawers, which I’d discovered as a child, for Dad’s cookies or Mom’s chocolate stash. I found a can of Ghirardelli’s Double Sweet Chocolate behind some dusty port bottles and grinned.
I went into the kitchen that wasn’t much warmer than the pantry and cranked up the thermostat. The Siamese, Swish and Swat, sat in the middle of the room, eyeing me with distain. I was their servant and they never let me forget it.
“Yes, I’m here to feed you. How about some appreciation? I could’ve been killed driving over here.”
Swish snorted in derision. He actually snorted. If something happens to Mom, he’s the first to go.
“One of these days I’m going to feed you 9 Lives and see how you like that.”
I didn’t though. I gave them the special fancy-pants cat food Mom buys at a pet store so exclusive you need a background check to get through the door. I think the food was made of filet mignon and black truffles. Surprisingly, I wasn’t required to serve it in a starched white apron.
The cats ate, their long, skinny tails stuck straight out. I so wanted to step on one. Instead I mixed up a pot of hot cocoa and yelled, “Anybody home?”
I didn’t expect an answer, but you never knew who might be loitering in the attic. It’s been host to more than a few odd characters over the years. On that day, my parents were out of town on a case/vacation. They’d been hired to track down my mother’s former boss’s son. Stevie Crown had boosted his mother’s Jaguar and credit cards. Using the cards, my Uncle Morty tracked him to Florida and my parents went to reel him in and take in some warm weather while they were at it. I had the house to myself, not that I wanted it. There was always more paperwork when Dad traveled and somehow I’d ended up being his secretary, unpaid of course.
I was supposed to transcribe case updates while I was over feeding the cats and update clients. Dad had three other detectives in his stable and they’d been generating paperwork like crazy. I’m a nurse, but Dad considers typing my most useful skill. From birth he considered me an untapped labor source. In high school, he pestered me for three years until I took a typing class. The minute I passed with thirty words a minute, he put me to work. I wished I had at least one sibling to share Dad. But I’m such a pain, to hear him tell it, that they decided they couldn’t handle any more kids. I bet he regrets it, considering the amount of work he’s gotten out of me over the years.
The doorbell rang as I poured my cocoa into a mug. I went down the hall and peeked around the big newel post at the foot of the stairs to the front door. Someone small was standing on the other side of the four-foot cut glass oval, but I couldn’t see who it was. Everyone who was anyone knew my parents were out of town and clients didn’t come to the house. Since a visitor would delay me awhile and a computer-downing blackout might come through to save me from typing, I flipped on the intercom system and asked, “Who’s there?”
“Hello. I’m here to see Thomas Watts.”
“Who may I say is calling?”
“Claire Carter. I’m a friend of his daughter.”
Claire Carter. I hadn’t seen her in years and I looked like crap. See what I mean about timing? Claire was famous for being put together. We were satellite friends in high school. Satellite friends are when you’re friends with the same people, but never call each other up or anything. She was the girl who had guys panting down the halls after her. To put it mildly, I was a Marilyn Monroe look-alike. So I got a lot of looks, but very few dates. Apparently, my face was intimidating. That never made any sense to me. I was a human cupcake with lots of blond frosting. The guys who did ask me out tended to do it with a hand on my ass and that got a response full of personality, something I had no shortage of. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure Claire had a personality. A friend of mine dumped her after three months because she would never tell him what movie she wanted to see or choose a restaurant.
I sucked it up, disengaged the alarm, and opened the door.
“Mercy!” she said. At least I was recognizable.
“Hi, Claire. My dad’s not here.”
“I guess I should’ve called first.”
She stood there looking beautiful and pathetic with a veil of sleet behind her. I wanted to tell her to go away, but if I did, I’d have to type.
“Come in. It’s miserable out.”
“Thanks. I don’t mean to bother you.”
“No bother.” Not much anyway. “Come into the kitchen. Do you want something to drink? I’m having hot cocoa.”
“No thanks. I’m on a diet.” Claire was on a diet. Surprise, Surprise. I’d bet she’d missed a lot of brownies over the years. Still, I wanted to dump my cocoa down the sink.
“What’d you want to see Dad for?”
“Oh. I don’t know. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
“How bad can it be?”
She folded her umbrella, took off her thick cashmere coat, fluffed her hair, and said with uncertainty, “My husband’s disappeared.”
“Not Chris. Evan.”
Evan? Who was Evan? The last I’d heard she was married to Chris Donner. He’d been her second husband. Troy Abbott from our class was her first. I didn’t know why the first marriage had broken up and I wasn’t dying to know about the second.
“Er, yeah, Evan.”
“We’ve only been married two months. I don’t know what happened. I’ve been checking at all the hospitals and I made a police report.”
“When did you last see him?”
“When he left for work two weeks ago.”
“So you want to hire Dad to find him.”
“Well, yes, but how much does it cost?”
“Depends. There’s not like a flat rate or anything, but Dad’s not cheap.”
“I quit my job.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“Evan said I didn’t need to work, that he’d take care of me.”
“Uh huh. Where does he work?”
“He’s in sales.”
“What’s he selling?”
“Some sort of high tech medical equipment.”
“What’s the company?”
Her cheeks flushed and she started blinking like crazy.
“Why don’t we sit down.” I led her through the dining room and I caught a glimpse of her in the mirror behind the fireplace. Her head was bowed, shoulders defeated. I left Claire in the living room checking out Mom’s collection of Chinese export porcelain and went to get drinks. It was hot cocoa for me and chamomile tea for her, no sugar.
I set the drinks tray down on the coffee table and sat. “Dad is expensive, but he is worth it.”
Claire sat and said, “I had no idea, but I can pay after I get another job.”
“What do you do?” I said.
“I’m a transcriptionist.”
Ding. Ding. Ding.
“You’re a typist? How fast?”
“A hundred a minute.”
“No shit? No wonder you were Ms. Perkins’ favorite.” Ms. Perkins was our high school typing teacher. Claire was her pet and Ms. Perkins wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom even if my eyes were turning yellow.
“It’s a talent, I guess,” she said.
“I guess. Look, I’ve got an idea.”
“You need someone to find Chris…”
“Right. Evan. And I need someone to type up a bunch of reports for Dad. I was supposed to do it, but you know me, thirty a minute.”
Claire leaned forward, balancing her mug on her knees and warming her hands with the steam. “So your Dad will find Evan if I type his reports?”
“No. Dad’s in Florida. You type the reports and I’ll find Evan.”
“You can do that?”
“You’d be amazed what you pick up around here. Unless he pissed off the mob, I’ll find him.”
“The mob?” Her cheeks paled.
“Just kidding, but I can find him.”
“OK. When do I start?”
“Now unless you’re busy.”
I gave Claire the dime tour of Dad’s home office and set her up with the computer. She wrote down everything she knew about Evan and gave me the keys to her apartment. An hour later I charged back out into the storm to find Evan Sorbeck with a thermos of hot cocoa and a hunch.
Claire’s apartment was in a snazzy new complex in Chesterfield. It was a pretty exclusive neighborhood for a transcriptionist. Evan must’ve been quite a salesman to afford it. I let myself in and went straight to the master bedroom closet. It was a walk-in with most of it dedicated to Claire. She had twenty-two purses with matching shoes. My purse and shoes have never matched in my life. Evan’s side was stark with four white dress shirts, one dark blue suit, two pairs of dress shoes and one striped tie. It didn’t look like a complete wardrobe to me. The chest of drawers didn’t store much either. Evan had one pair of underwear and socks. Assuming he was wearing a pair, he only had two pairs of underwear to his name. I’d never known a guy to have less than a dozen. If they’re single, guys might have thirty, so they don’t have to wash them more than once a month. Of course, I’d known a couple of guys who’d wear them inside out to extend the time between washings to two months, but I didn’t want to dwell on that. In the bathroom, Evan only had the bare necessities, razor, aftershave, etc…
They had a small home office. Evan had no files in the cabinet. There were two computer games that featured gore next to the computer. I figured those for Evan. Otherwise, I hadn’t a clue to where he was or what kind of guy Claire had married. There were a couple of framed snapshots of Claire and a man mixed in with photos of her family. I even found a graduation picture of the two of us. The man, who I took for Evan, was in his thirties, overweight with suspiciously thick brown hair. He didn’t look like Claire’s type. Maybe she’d decided that her failures had something to do with her choices and decided on a change of pace. I slid the picture out of its frame and put it in my purse. The apartment said Claire to me. It had her style, beige with a touch of Jessica McClintock. There was no beer in the fridge, only diet soda and salad stuff. You’d have to use some imagination to think a man lived there. If Evan had run out on Claire, he didn’t leave much behind.
I pulled her credit card info and the marriage license. Then I went back to Dad’s house. The sleet had turned to snow. I had two inches built up on my head before I made it in the door. Claire was hard at work, her fingers a blur. I stood in the doorway and sipped a fresh cup of cocoa. She was beautiful. I hated to admit it as much as I did in high school. I did take a certain pride that my beauty was entirely genuine and hers was applied. Claire had started bleaching her hair in junior high. She soon added blue-tinted contacts, nail extensions and a tanning bed tan. But beneath all the smoke and mirrors was a fine bone structure and porcelain skin. Her beauty wasn’t entirely fake, but she made it seem that way.