Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sample Sunday: COLD ALTAR -- An Alex Bourque Mystery

Chapter One

The combination of sweat rolling down my face along with the dull, repeated thud of hammer-to-nail-to-sheetrock numbed my senses late that morning. I had hammered away at the wall behind my desk for two hours, hanging several pictures as well as my freshly minted and framed private investigator license for all to see. My arms had grown sore by 11:30, and it was almost time to meet Lauryn, my girlfriend, for lunch at Espresso Pizza across the street.

My office door opened and slammed shut. I put the hammer down at once and turned around to see that an elderly, matron-like woman had crossed the threshold. In a floor-length floral dress, she reminded me of my great aunt, a woman whose presence commanded immediate respect. This woman’s piercing eyes seemed to judge me from fifteen feet away as she looked me up and down, as if searching for every flaw. I hoped my shirt wasn’t thoroughly saturated with sweat. She looked like the type of aristocratic woman who would turn her nose up at the slightest hint of body odor near her person.

She probably sent her kids to private school, I mused, and I knew from her stare that my pending lunch date with Lauryn would have to wait.

“Are you Alex Bourque, the private investigator?” she said.

I said that I was he.

“What can I do for you?”

“Your father sent me.”

I smiled. Good old dad. My father was still on the Fitchburg Police Department and had walked a beat for five years before moving up to the rank of detective. He could have retired five years ago, but he was the type of person who would never be happy sitting at home while there were crimes to solve. Not only that, but I knew that my mom would have kicked him out five minutes after he got home from his retirement party. Better to stay busy at work than annoy the wife at home, he always said. He had been on the job for nearly forty years, and it didn’t appear that he’d slow down any time soon.

And yet he has forwarded a prospective client — my first client — my way. I made a mental note to thank him later on and ask him why he’s sending me cases. If he’s doing this, why aren’t he and mom on a beach in Florida?

I offered the woman a seat in front of my desk. Unfortunately, her chair wasn’t cushioned: it had been a part of my grandparents’ old dinette set before it found a new home as part of my office’s rustic decor. I hoped she wouldn’t smell the dust on the underside. Along with the chair, I offered her coffee. She accepted. I brought two cups back to my desk along with cream and sugar for her. I drank my coffee black. My commander’s chair, thankfully, was padded. I almost groaned with relief as my rear end hit the seat.

She took a sip from a faded Mark Martin mug and after a beat made a face that signaled disgust at my coffee-making skills. I wanted to tell her that my Mr. Coffee was second-hand and that the warming plate had a short in it, but I didn’t think she would understand my fresh-out-of-college lifestyle. She looked like the type of woman who married young and married money.

It also didn’t help my cause that the coffee was about three hours old. I drank it anyway. I’m a trooper like that.

“Your father said you are a rather intelligent, resourceful young man and that you may be able to help me with a problem that I have,” she said.

“What’s the problem?”

I leaned back in my chair, my Red Sox coffee mug nestled between my palms. I only felt the raised B insignia and the cold porcelain against the meaty part of my thumbs.

“My great nephew was murdered.”

I sat up just a tad straighter at hearing those words.

“I don’t understand, Mrs. —”


I knew the name, and I didn’t need her to repeat it. Anyone who grew up in Fitchburg knew the Keenan name and the great reputation that went with it. My older cousin went to school with a few of the Keenan boys in the 1990’s, and he had told me they were some of the best athletes to go through the old Fitchburg High School during the Grutchfield/Cosenza Era. But that’s beside the point. I didn’t know if it was the same family, but how many Keenans could there be in this run-down hamlet?

“Mrs. Keenan. I don’t understand. Your great nephew was murdered, and yet you’ve come to a wet-behind-the-ears P.I. instead of the police?”

“Your father referred me to you when I called him this morning. It is a cold case.”

“How cold is it?”

She looked at me with narrowed eyes.

“Frigid,” she said.

Like my coffee, I thought.

I put my mug on my desk and rested my forearms on the wood, lacing my fingers together. I resisted the urge to send my thumbs a-twiddling in front of my guest.

“What can you tell me about the case?” I asked.

She began her narrative. She told me that her great nephew was James Sullivan — not a Keenan, I noted. In late November 1980, his parents had reported him missing. He had gone for a walk to a nearby variety store and had never returned home. Four months later, just as the spring thaw took hold, an engineer on a passing commuter train reported seeing a body lying in winter’s detritus near the Fifth Street Bridge. The body had frozen during the winter months and was unrecognizable to investigators — one of whom was my father, she said.

“They used dental records to identify the body,” she added. “It was James.”

I didn’t put anything down on paper — yet. I wanted to let her tell me the facts. One of the things my father taught me was to have a notebook handy and out, ready to go, before you start interrogating a potential witness or a suspect. Mrs. Keenan was neither, but then again, she wasn’t officially my client.

There was also the fact that my legal pads were in boxes in my car. I wasn’t expecting a walk-in while I was in set-up mode upstairs.

Then she dropped her bombshell.

“He was only 11 years old when he was taken.”

Even as my heart dropped, I grabbed a box of tissues and slid it across my desk. She scooped two in her hand and dabbed at her eyes. There was more makeup on the tissue than tears. A good investigator notices things like this.

“I’m sorry for your loss, ma’am,” I said. I didn’t know where to take the interview from here, seeing as it was my first fact intake and I didn’t exactly have experience at this sort of thing. But if I were to take the case on, I needed to ask questions. Any questions, for that matter. “Can you tell me how far my father and FPD got into the investigation?”

“There was barely any evidence at the scene, they said. With no leads, they were unable to close the case. They kept it open for the purposes of public interest, but there was little they could do with it.”

Her tone interested me. It bordered on exasperation and disgust, I could tell. Call it P.I.’s intuition. It was exasperation with the police and disgust that they had not caught her great nephew’s killer in thirty-one years. I just didn’t know if her level of disgust for my father’s investigation was higher or lower than the coffee I offered. I didn’t have the heart to ask, either.

“How did my name come up?” I asked. I had returned to my relaxed posture. My coffee cup stayed on my desk. I didn’t have the stomach for aged coffee any longer.

“I had called your father this morning,” she replied. “I wanted to see if there was anything new. I wasn’t holding my breath when I picked up the phone. He said there wasn’t, but that if I wanted someone independent of the police department to try to dig up new leads to come see you.” She looked around my office. I tried to gauge her reaction to the threadbare couch over in the corner or the near-rusted yet empty filing cabinets against the wall. “I didn’t realize you were so young.”

“Is my age a problem, ma’am?”

She hesitated a moment, but shook her head.

“No, it’s not — if you can find out who killed my precious James, your lack of experience won’t matter in the slightest.”

My right eyebrow shot up by a few millimeters as I tried to see if that worked out to a compliment. I wasn’t sure if it did. At my age, I’m sure I was expected to take a few backhanded compliments from older clients.

“I hope I can handle the responsibility.”

Mrs. Keenan chortled.

“That makes two of us.”

“I am slightly curious as to why you’re hiring me instead of James’s parents?” I asked.

Her face twisted, as if I had stuck a cup of souring milk under her nose.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been the one who has carried the torch for this family. My niece and her husband have been somewhat reclusive in the matter, as if they’ve forgotten about their own son. I tell them what I do, but it goes in one ear and out the other. They don’t know about me hiring you, though. They’re on vacation at the moment and won’t be back until Memorial Day.”

Interesting, I thought. I knew I’d want to talk to them, but if they wouldn’t get back to the area until then, then the interview would have to wait until after Memorial Day. I’d be a good egg and give them a day or two to recover from their trip.

“Do you carry a gun, Mr. Bourque?”

I nodded.

“May I see it?”

I didn’t know why she wanted to see my piece. Did she not believe me? I know I looked like the janitor right now and I wasn’t wearing a holster — after all, I was in my office and didn’t have an active case, nor any reason to carry my weapon — but it was a curious question to be sure. But she was the client-to-be. If she wanted to see my gun, I’d show her my gun. I kept my eyes on her as I opened my desk drawer and pulled out my Glock 22 .40 caliber pistol.

Her face barely flinched as she fixed her gaze on Black Betty.

“Satisfied?” I asked.

She nodded. I stashed my gun away for the time being.

“What is your fee?”

I told her.

If she had any coffee left in her mouth, I would have worn it. Lauryn wouldn’t have forgiven me if I stained a shirt she had just washed. That wasn’t a conversation I would want to have at any stage in my life.

“You’re not serious.”

I grinned at the incredulous look she gave me.

“I want to retire early,” I said. “Besides, I believe you said that I was a rather resourceful and intelligent young man. That’s the going rate for resourceful, intelligent young men in this day and age. And that doesn’t include expenses, either.”

She mirrored my look.

“I’ll pay for your services a week ahead of time. Send me a bill for the rest.” She gave me her address and ripped off a hefty advance. As she handed the check across the desk, I promised her I would have my accounting department — which was me, myself and I, for the most part — get one out to her by the end of next week.

“I’m sure you will, Mr. Bourque. I’m sure you will.” She stood and left the office.

Once the door closed and her silhouette slipped down the corridor, I kissed the check and, after folding it, slid it into my pocket. Then I grabbed my cell phone. My first call was to Lauryn to tell her I’d be over in a few minutes. After a few squoochy woochy kisses through the phone, we hung up. I called dad and asked him if he would lend me the Sullivan file.

He said he’d deliver it personally. I could hear the smile in his tone, even through the phone line. We hung up.

I then changed my shirt, threw on some deodorant — always a spray, since I’m allergic to the roll-ons — and, even though I glanced toward my desk with the thought of carrying my Glock, I headed out without it.

I was on the job, but I was hungry, too.

Pizza would have to do — for now.

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