The rain poured down in sheets outside. Thunder rattled my office window and echoed in my ears. The lights in the building flickered, and I briefly wondered if I should light my lantern. Before I could get up, a shadowy figure appeared in the pebbled glass of my door. My heart jumped as the door opened, and he walked in. Of all the private investigators in town, why did he have to come to my office?
Okay, so I’m the only PI in town. Still…
“Hi, Dell. What brings you out on a night like this?” Despite my reservations, I greeted my old partner on the force with a smile. He hates cold, wet weather and the storm outside fit both. He shook the water off his overcoat like a dog shaking its fur. I grabbed two mugs from the shelf behind my desk and filled them both with coffee.
Dell plopped into my “client” chair and stared through me, his hang-dog expression one I had seen too often. It meant he had a problem he couldn’t solve. In the background, the old record player I had on top of the file cabinets scratched out “Moonlight Serenade” and I reached up and turned it off. Even though Dell was the one who’d gotten me hooked on old music, I didn’t think it right to play that now.
“How’s the kid?” he asked.
So it was going to be one of those nights. “MJ’s growing like a weed, which you are well aware of, since you were just there on Sunday. Cut his first teeth. Starting to totter around already. Max is doing the dad thing with him tonight.” I handed him his coffee, black and strong enough to hold a spoon on its own. “Now, you gonna tell me why you’re here?”
He held the mug with both hands, like it was someone’s neck and he was strangling the life out of him. Or her. Or it. In this town, one could never be sure.
“I need your help.”
Uh-oh. You know things are bad when Dell asks for my help. Sure, we had been partners for a long time. Sure, he’d kept my pregnancy a secret from the higher-ups as long as he could. He was a good friend, and godfather to my son. I trusted him more than I did anyone else, and I do mean anyone, but I’m not on the force anymore and for him to come here and ask… Let’s just say it was out of the norm.
I took a swig of my coffee. Damn, that stuff was bad. That’s what I get for buying the cheap grind and letting it reheat a dozen or so times. Dell gulped his down like it was water.
“So, what’s the problem?” I leaned back in my chair and studied him, noting the dark circles under his eyes, the pinched look around his mouth. Dell had a few years on him, but he was still fit and trim. I often wondered why he’d never married. The man was honest, good-looking, and, okay, so he had a few issues. Who doesn’t?
“You remember the toy store break-in back before Christmas?”
“Yeah. Report said you caught Caitlin at the scene. Broken door. Claimed there was a body, but there wasn’t.”
“That’s the one.”
I waited for him to go on. With Dell, you didn’t rush. He was methodical and one of the best investigators I’d ever known, but he took his own sweet time. I put my feet up on my desk. Lightning flashed outside, followed almost immediately by a crash of thunder that had my ears ringing. The lights went completely out, even the emergency ones, for just a minute, and I felt a cold draft blow through the room. I felt the hairs on my arms raise, and it had nothing to do with the sudden chill. Before I could grope around for my lantern, Dell had his flashlight out. Funny how that little beam of light made me feel so much better.
I found my lamp and lit it. As I did, the light flared higher than normal, and I thought I caught something odd in the corner of my eye. The flame settled down as the lights came back on. Dell put his flashlight away, but I kept the lantern lit. I glanced in the corner by the file cabinets, but there was nothing there but dark shadows and dust.
“Fire hazard using an open flame in here,” Dell pointed out and I let out a chuckle, but didn’t move to blow it out. The lamp was a gift from my friend Brigid. I had an identical one in my son’s bedroom.
“Need new batteries for my flashlight,” I said. “Keep planning on getting some, but…”
“You never quite get around to it.” Dell snorted. It was an old joke with us. Me being forgetful about minor things like flashlight batteries, him…not. He set his mug down, serious again. “There’s a shadow on this case, Flint. I can feel it. I just can’t put my finger on it. I need another set of eyes.”
“You do have that new assistant,” I pointed out. He snorted again, that one sound spewing out several volumes of opinion.
“I need your eyes. You have a knack with these things.” I couldn’t argue with him. Sometimes answers just came to me. I know it weirded Dell out, but what could I say? I told him it was just women’s intuition, but only I knew different. Experience is a wonderful teacher and I had it by the boatload.
“Tell me what you’ve got.” He slid over a thick file. That was so unlike Dell, it stopped me for a sec. Dell does everything by the book and handing me, someone no longer “official,” the file was definitely not in any rule book I’d ever read. “CJ, no one can know you have this.”
“You think? You okay if I copy these?” He nodded and I dumped the pages into my printer. A few minutes later, it was cranking out the copies. I handed his file back to him and he rose.
“I gotta go. Let me know if you figure out anything.” Dell turned and strode out of my office like he had a lit firecracker on his tail. I’d never seen the man so fidgety. I grabbed the sheets and went through them. Though there were a lot of pages, there wasn’t much I could use. As I read over the reports, I got the feeling someone else was in the room with me. I flipped the pages over and picked up the lantern. There. In the corner where I’d sensed something earlier. A shadow that didn’t fit. I raised my lantern and saw a kind of face. It reminded me of “The Scream,” one of my favorite paintings. I have a copy hanging on my wall. Yeah, okay, I’m an ex-cop turned PI who likes art. Deal.
As I brought the lantern closer, the shadow flickered, then flowed around the wall and toward my desk. When I saw where it was headed, I plopped the lantern down on the file cabinet and grabbed for the papers, but was too late as they went up in smoke faster than I could blink. Next thing I knew, the shadow flowed out under the door, leaving me standing there, my office smelling like smoke and something else. Something dark and heavy. Smelled that smell once before, but couldn’t remember exactly where or when. I shrugged it off. It would come to me. Eventually.
I couldn’t help the grin on my face as I sat down at my computer. Guess old Mr. Shadow wasn’t up on his new technology. I pulled up the scans from the printer and started reading.