Author Susanna Shore
Paranormal and contemporary romances, light mysteries

 

Tracy Hayes, from P.I. with Love

Chapter One           Chapter Two

 

Chapter One

I love Christmas in New York. It’s loud, colorful, and bright, and it fills me with energy and good-will that carries me through the darkness and dreary weather. I’d thought I was a real early-bird for starting my gift-shopping and putting up decorations in my small apartment the first day of December. But I’d met my match in Cheryl Walker, our office goddess at Jackson Dean Investigations where I worked as an apprentice P.I.

Cheryl had filled every available surface in the two rooms of the agency with decorations—complete with a large plastic tree in the corner next to Jackson’s desk—the day after Thanksgiving, and had played her favorite Christmas songs non-stop ever since. Three days before D-day—or C-day?—I was heartily bored with even my favorite carols, and the office good-will would’ve been in serious jeopardy, if I hadn’t deleted the most annoying tunes from her playlist when she was in court one afternoon.

That was Jackson’s idea, by the way. He even provided the list of songs he wanted removed.

This morning, however, I welcomed the music. I was browsing the internet for one last Christmas gift that had eluded me for weeks, and I needed all the inspiration I could get—excluding All I Want for Christmas, which was mercifully no longer on the playlist. Also helpful would’ve been the use of all my fingers, but my hands were currently covered in thick mittens that I wouldn’t remove unless I absolutely had to, so I had to settle with following a link after another by clicking the mouse.

We were experiencing unseasonably cold weather that had reduced all but the most foolhardy fashionistas to walking advertisements for winter clothing if we hazarded the outdoors, and occasionally indoors too—like at the agency today. We were located in an old but fairly nice building on Flatbush Avenue near Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn that the management generally kept in good repair. But they hadn’t anticipated this weather. The heater had decided it didn’t like the extra work the cold spell put on it and had stopped operating completely. It was the second morning of no heat and it was freezing in there.

In addition to the mittens, I was wearing a black down coat several sizes too large for me. I’d salvaged it from the closet of my brother Trevor, who was quite a bit bigger than me. It wasn’t at its peak of usability anymore, but I could fit a thick sweater Mom had knitted for me underneath, plus a couple of other layers too. I also wore a colorful woolen scarf around my neck and a tasseled beanie in my head.

The last piece of clothing really annoyed me. I wasn’t hipster enough to pull it off, and it hid my one distinguishing feature: my hair, shoulder-length and fire-engine red again after a brief period of cotton-candy pink. Wearing it, my average face went unnoticed, except for the slightly frost-bitten nose and cheeks, which it emphasized. Not an improvement. But I was freezing even with it on, so it would stay.

Jackson’s concession to cold was to wear a black, long-sleeved T-shirt instead of his usual black, short-sleeved T-shirt. I swear that man had to have hot lava running in his veins to be able to sit by our frosted-over windows and not freeze to death. That, or his muscles created kinetic energy even when he was in repose, keeping him warm. They were very fine muscles, so who knows what sort of feats they were capable of.

Lately, he’d begun to hint that I should start working towards similar muscles too, just so I would able to tackle a bad guy if the need arose. He’d even promised to buy me a membership in an inexpensive gym near his home that he went to. So far I had heroically resisted, preferring my hard-earned round parts, even if some of those stubbornly clung to my waist. It was bad enough he made me jog regularly.

When he went out, he didn’t wear a hat, even though his dark brown hair was currently very short after Cheryl had made him have it tidied and the cold had to bite his scalp particularly sharply. He would occasionally put on gloves, but he only remembered to close his winter parka if I or Cheryl reminded him of it. But at least he wore the coat.

Cheryl, for the first time that I’d ever seen her, was wearing trousers. Pink, naturally, like pretty much everything she wore. Honest-to-God Ugg boots protected her feet—also the first time I’d seen her in flats. The pink angora sweater she had on today was so fluffy it practically doubled her already ample girth. Misty Morning, her Border terrier-Yorkie mix, wore the cutest pink down coat and boots when she went out, but she refused to wear them indoors. She was currently sleeping next to me on the couch that was my workspace, leaning against my thigh and warming it nicely.

On top of the cold spell, the snowstorm of the century—because we’re not at all prone to hyperbole—was predicted for Christmas Day, causing everyone to panic and creating a hoarding frenzy. The latter included my mother. Her pantry was so well-stocked by now that the entire family, spouses and grandchildren included, would survive until after the New Year.

I wasn’t panicking. Mom would feed me, and even if the storm hit earlier than predicted, paralyzing the city, I had all my Christmas preparations done—apart from that one gift. My sister Theresa and I had done our traditional Christmas shopping trip to Manhattan two weeks ago. I had helped her select her presents, and in return she had paid for mine. It’s not quite as exploitative on my part as you might think. Tessa is a brilliant doctor, with a clinical mind, but she absolutely lacks imagination and the initiative to buy presents. She doesn’t quite understand the need for the ritual of exchanging gifts, and in her opinion only practical gifts should be given. Since she earns well as a doctor—and doesn’t have any student loans—whereas I had barely survived on minimum wage and tips when I was waitressing, the arrangement suited us both. I was doing better now as an apprentice P.I., but I saw no reason to alter the arrangement. I might need that money later.

The presents that I’d paid for myself, for Jackson, Cheryl, and Jarod, my roommate, I’d bought online well in advance. Jackson would get a T-shirt with a picture of Sherlock Holmes and the text “On par with the best” on it. I thought it described him perfectly. Plus it wouldn’t put undue strain on our boss-apprentice relationship. Things had been slightly weird since Thanksgiving, largely because he’d kissed me. He’d been worried to death for me, which explained it, and though it was a great kiss, I needed things to be back to normal. He hadn’t even yelled at me lately—much.

Everything I’d ordered had arrived as advertised and in good time, and was now wrapped nicely. Online shopping was so easy that I hoped Tessa would never learn about it. Not solely so that she could keep paying for my presents, but because the shopping trip was the only time we went anywhere as sisters, and I didn’t want to lose that. We seldom saw each other as it was, if you didn’t count my all too frequent visits to her ER since I started as an apprentice P.I.—which, sadly, I did.

Tessa was the cause of my frantic browsing this morning. The one last Christmas present that eluded me was hers for her live-in partner, Angela. I’d known Angela for such a short time that I had no idea what she would like. The only facts I knew about her were that she was a pediatrician, Italian, and Catholic, none of which helped me to figure out what she might like from the woman she loved. Tessa, obviously, was no help. She would’ve wanted to buy her an espresso machine, and couldn’t understand at all when I said it wasn’t romantic enough for their first Christmas.

I tried to imagine what I would want from the person I loved, but my ex-husband, in addition to being a bastard band-leader who cheated on me, had been utterly negligent when it came to presents. I would’ve been happy even with the espresso machine, just as long as he would’ve remembered. Frustrated, I sighed loud enough for Jackson to give me a questioning look.

“What are you giving Emily for Christmas?” I asked, a true testament to how stuck I was.

A panicked look spread on his face. His was a manly face, clean lined, with dark brown brows and eyes, and it could express a wide range of emotions from amusement to anger and then revert to curiously plain and unnoticeable. But what it never, ever expressed, was panic. He was thirty-five, eight years older than me, and a former Marine turned homicide detective turned private eye. He had seen it all, and had the eyes of a seasoned cop to go with it. Nothing ever fazed him. Except, apparently, the thought of buying a Christmas present for his girlfriend.

“I don’t know. Why do you ask? Could you suggest something?”

I rolled my eyes, blue and as seasoned as any Brooklyn waitress’s. “If I had any inkling, I wouldn’t ask you. But never mind. Cheryl!” I yelled through the open door to the reception area. “What should Tessa give Angela for Christmas?”

“A locket,” she immediately answered, and I perked, excited.

“Excellent idea.” I instantly googled for lockets and inspiration abounded.

“Can I give Emily a locket too?” Jackson asked hopefully.

“No!” Cheryl and I answered simultaneously, and he pulled back, baffled.

“Why not?”

How to explain? “It’s a more intimate gift than what your relationship seems to be,” I said carefully. They’d been together for about three months and he’d intended to end the relationship many times already. Why he hadn’t, I had no idea.

“So no jewelry?” he asked, not terribly upset by my estimation.

“You can give her earrings,” Cheryl consoled him, entering the office in her pink gorgeousness. “And I know just the place where you can get both your presents. Bundle up, and follow me.”

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Chapter Two

Cheryl led us to a pawn shop at the corner of Broadway and Keap Street in South Williamsburg that specialized in jewelry loans and buying gold. The neighborhood didn’t look prosperous enough to sell anything to the shop, and every other retailer near it had gone bust, but the place seemed well-to-do enough.

Inside, it was small and crammed full of display cases of not only jewelry but antique silver candlesticks and flatware, and crystal wineglasses. It looked as if every once-prosperous old-world family in the area had exchanged their great-grandmothers’ dowries for money to fight off Williamsburg’s skyrocketing property costs. It was sad and wondrous at the same time, and I loved it. I got stuck at the door staring at everything. Jackson had to push me deeper into the shop.

“I need to get this door closed,” he said, eyes crinkling with a smile. The door was locked at all times, and we had been let in only after buzzing the doorbell. The proprietor, an ancient Hasidic man with a gray beard that reached to his chest, black coat, and a wide-brimmed black hat, was sitting behind the counter at the other end of the shop, looking anxious for the delay. I gave him an apologetic smile. He didn’t smile back, but at least he acknowledged my presence, unlike men of his religion usually did. But you probably wouldn’t become a shopkeeper if you weren’t willing to flex the rules about how to interact with the opposite gender.

“How may I help you?” he asked politely, and Cheryl flashed him a charming smile.

“We’re looking for lockets and earrings suitable for romantic Christmas presents.”

He became instantly animated and began to pull out drawers behind him, lifting them on the counter for us to view. We leaned over to eagerly study what he had to offer. It was a fine selection of craftsmanship you didn’t often see anymore, or at least not in the places I could afford to shop. Every piece looked like there was a story behind them, but when I asked, the old man shrugged and said that the owners had run out of money.

Cheryl and I had a heated debate over whether a pair of cameo earrings or teardrop pearls would suit Emily best. Jackson remained silent, either because he didn’t care or because both options were fine by him. The pearls won in the end, and he bought them for a fraction of their true value.

Choosing the locket was more difficult. Most of them were oval-shaped with a floral motif carved onto them; only the size varied. I was contemplating picking one at random, when the old man opened one more drawer.

“These aren’t lockets, but they would make a fine romantic gift too,” he said, placing the drawer on top of the others. It held charming gold and silver pendants.

“Oh,” I sighed, picking up a silver filigree heart the size of my thumb. “I love this one.” The back side was a plain silver plate, with a pre-war date engraved on it, and the front was filled with tight, intricate coils and swirls like unfurling ferns that gave it an organic look. It looked like it might open, but I couldn’t find a mechanism.

“Excellent choice. It only arrived yesterday, and I’m sure it’ll go fast.”

He allowed me to take pictures of it to show to Tessa, though I knew she’d be fine with whatever I chose. I would’ve purchased it right away, but even though I successfully haggled the price lower, I didn’t have that kind of money on me, or in my bank account for that matter. I’d have to return with Tessa later.

“If you are not back by the end of the day, it’ll go on sale tomorrow,” the old man warned me as he stored it into a different drawer with Tessa’s name on it. I promised to be back.

“I could’ve loaned you the money,” Jackson said as we returned to his car.

I smiled. “I know, but I think Tessa should make at least a token effort for her girlfriend’s present.”

“So I guess I should wrap this myself?” he asked, showing the red velvet case the earrings had come in. Cheryl and I exchanged glances.

“Or, you know, we’ll do it for you,” she said carefully. His smug smile indicated that he’d aimed for it all along.

I sent the pictures of the pendant to Tessa and received “fine” as an answer that I decided to interpret as enthusiasm. We then agreed to meet later that day, before she had to go to work.

After a quick lunch, we returned to the office to discover that the heating had finally been restored, just in time for our one o’clock client. It was warm enough to peel off the top two layers of clothing and lose the beanie and mittens. Jackson pushed his sleeves back to the elbows.

Mrs. Krugman was in her mid-sixties, with white hair in a short bob, and a well made-up face. She was dressed in a pantsuit and a knee-length mink coat that, while perfectly presentable, if not exactly to my liking, seemed like an heirloom. That notion was strengthened when she told us why she was here.

“Someone’s been stealing small pieces of jewelry and other items of sentimental value from my mother,” she said, and lines of dissatisfaction appeared on her face. They were so deep it was probably a default expression. “She said she’s given them away, but she refused to tell me to whom. It can’t be anyone from the staff of the retirement home where she lives, as they have a strict policy of not accepting anything from the residents, because, well, some are suffering from memory issues and don’t necessarily know what they’re doing.”

“But your mother is of sound mind?” Jackson asked.

“Absolutely, apart from this odd quirk. But I think she’s lying to me. Why would she give them to strangers? Grandmother’s wedding ring? I was hoping to give it to my granddaughter when she marries. I had to confiscate everything from her and put them into a safe. And now she refuses to talk with me.” The lines deepened. “I don’t know what to do. I want those items back.”

Jackson cleared his throat. “Legally speaking, she has the right to give them away.”

“I know that! I spoke to a lawyer first. He suggested that I hire you to find out who she gave them to—if she did—so that I can ask if the person would be willing to give them back. They’re not expensive pieces. You could only perhaps sell the rings for their gold, but that’s all.”

An image of the old man’s shop instantly flashed to my mind, but I refused to think that he was dealing in stolen goods. Jackson glanced at me, as if reading my mind, and nodded. “I think we could visit shops that buy such items. Do you have any photos of the lost pieces?”

Her shoulders slumped. “No. They’re not insured. They’re not valuable enough for that. But I could check if they show up in any family photos.”

“And maybe we could talk to your mother too?” I suggested.

“You can try, but she’s been very stubborn.” She gave us her mother’s name and address. “Couldn’t you just, I don’t know, put a camera in her room?”

Jackson controlled his face heroically. “That’s illegal, I’m afraid.”

“I thought you P.I.s don’t care about such things.”

“That’s a common misconception.” And one we ran into almost every day.

She frowned. “Well, then. When can I expect to hear from you?”

“That would depend on how cooperative your mother is. But the sooner you can send us the photos, the faster we can start with the pawn shops.”

She rose and pulled her fur coat closed. “I’ll get them to you as fast as I can.” With that, she shook Jackson’s hand and sailed out of the office. I gave Jackson a questioning look as he returned to his chair.

“What do you think?”

He leaned backwards in the chair and drummed the desk with his fingers, like he often did when he was thinking. “I think both options are valid until proven otherwise. Occasionally old people are ashamed to admit that they have been stolen from and invent people they have given the items to. But occasionally they do give the stuff away, just to piss off their family.”

The notion of cantankerous old people made me blink. “Well, we’ll learn either way, if she deigns to talk with me.” I arranged a visit with the retirement home for the next day. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon compiling a list of pawn brokers in Brooklyn. There were so many that even if we split the list, we’d be doing this for weeks. And that was assuming the person had pawned the items, or pawned them here.

Eventually, the day drew to an end and Tessa came to fetch me. I got into the front seat of her Toyota hybrid and directed her to the pawn broker’s by programming the address into her GPS.

“Are you sure Angela will like the pendant?” she asked, looking more concerned than I’d have thought. She was six years older than me, almost six foot tall, and supermodel gorgeous—literally—with short auburn hair and a clean-lined, beautiful face. We looked nothing alike.

“Absolutely. She seems like a romantic type of woman.”

She found a parking space near the shop and we crossed the short distance as fast as we could. After the heated car, the cold was a shock to my system and I struggled to breathe. Not so my perfect sister, who sashayed down the icy sidewalk in her boots with two-inch heels, as if she needed the extra height. Her purple down coat hugged her slim figure, and she had a large white scarf wrapped around her throat. In my hand-me-down coat, I looked like the Michelin Man in comparison.

Or, you know, even without comparing to her.

She gave the shop a suspicious look as I rang the buzzer. “Are you sure this place is legitimate?”

“Jackson bought his present here,” I said, and she found it good enough.

There was no answering buzz to indicate the lock was being opened. Frowning, I rang it again. “He should be here. It’s not closing time yet and I said we’d be here tonight.”

“I don’t think it’s locked,” she observed, and pushed the door. My spine tightened in premonition when it opened.

“I’ll go in first,” I stated, taking out a Taser from my messenger bag and firing it up. I held it in front of me like a gun as I entered cautiously. “The owner wouldn’t leave the door unlocked.”

The shop was fully lit, empty, and quiet. The old man wasn’t behind the counter. Could he have gone to the backroom?

“Hello?” I shouted, louder than I wished. Tessa, totally without imagination as she was, simply marched to the counter and leaned over to take a look. Her brows shot up.

“Call the police. There’s a dead person down here.”

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Tracy Hayes, from P.I. with Love is published December 2, 2018. Preorder now on Amazon, Smashwords, B&N and iTunes.