Author Susanna Shore
Paranormal and contemporary romances, light mysteries

 

Tracy Hayes, Tenacious P.I.

Chapter One          Chapter Two

 

(This is an unedited early draft and will likely change before publication.)

Chapter One

You know how on TV the cops and private investigators always find a convenient parking spot in New York? That never happens in real life. Not for this apprentice P.I., and definitely not in Dumbo, Brooklyn, with its fashionable restaurants and clubs that keep the area busy late into the night.

I could really use that sort of luck right about now.

I had followed my target through Brooklyn without losing the sight of her cab. Quite an accomplishment, if I say so myself, considering that I’m a timid driver. Mrs. Duncan, a full-time socialite wife whose husband wanted us to prove that she was having an affair, reached her destination, an art gallery that was having an opening night. I waited a half a block down while she paid and went inside. Then I began to look for a spot for my car.

If this had been a TV show, there would’ve been a free parking place right in front of the gallery, and I could’ve kept an eye on Mrs. Duncan from my car. Instead, the streets were lined with cars as if this was the peak office hour instead of seven in the evening. I was fairly sure Mrs. Duncan wouldn’t leave while I wasn’t keeping an eye on her, but my hands tightened around the steering wheel as I drove away from the gallery in search of parking.

Three blocks down, I finally spied a free spot for the steel grey Toyota Camry I’d borrowed from my boss Jackson Dean for the night. I sped-up to claim it before a huge Mercedes SUV could, parallel parked the car brilliantly, if I say so myself; ignored the rude hand gestures from the owner of said SUV, took my camera, and exited and locked the car. Then I hurried back to the gallery.

Antoine’s was a factory convert turned art gallery, which had risen to prominence in the past three or so years. Through its huge display windows I saw that it was already full of elegantly dressed people, as if this was the Met displaying some long-dead artist whose works went for millions.

Brooklyn’s finest hadn’t suddenly become art enthusiasts. The gallery had a reputation of finding the stars of the future. A thousand dollar painting could be a fifty-thousand one in no time at all. These people may not know anything about art, but they definitely knew money.

I hadn’t suddenly become an art expert either, but I knew about the gallery because my sister-in-law Melissa, the wife of my eight-year-older brother Travis, had made a few tart comments about it over a family dinner a while back. She worked in an upscale gallery in Manhattan, but they didn’t have that kind of success predicting the winners.

“Antoine did it once, and now everyone believes he’s the one to go to,” she’d said miffed. “And half the time the artists he pushes are absolutely rubbish.”

I couldn’t see what was on display tonight, because there was a wall of people standing in front of the artwork, so I couldn’t comment on the quality. Worse yet, I couldn’t see Mrs. Duncan.

Shit.

I had no choice but to go in the gallery.

Now, strictly speaking, I should keep my distance from my target at all times to prevent them from spotting me, but that didn’t apply here. There were so many people in the gallery that I’d easily go unnoticed. Besides, it had begun to drizzle; the kind of cold January rain that went through your clothes in moments, freezing you solid. I hadn’t prepared for it and wasn’t willing to endure it just to handle my assignment. So, keeping Jackson’s many lectures on surveillance in my mind, I crossed the street to the gallery and went in.

A wave of warm air, noise, and perfumes hit me, pushing me briefly off balance. I lowered the hood of my black sweater and ran fingers through my shoulder-length hair. It was currently a striking petrol color after a visit to Shakeia, my excellent—and inexpensive—hairdresser. She’d declared that the fire-engine red I’d finally grown accustomed to was so last season, and promptly dyed my hair blue.

It wasn’t exactly an inconspicuous color, and it made me self-conscious as I took in the crowd, but it turned out I didn’t have to worry. Not everyone here was a candidate for the Real Housewives of New York. There was a large gathering of artists, art and art history students too, and I looked exactly like them with my hair and black clothing. My camera didn’t look out of place either, and I could take photos without hiding my actions.

More confident, I took a leaflet from a table by the door and skimmed the contents; mostly to look like I was here for the art. The artist’s name was Joel James, which sounded assumed, but who was I to judge. He was my age, twenty-seven, which both impressed me and made me envious. I’d never had artistic aspirations, but if I had, I probably wouldn’t have made it yet. Let’s face it; I was a college drop-out turned divorcee turned waitress who’d become an apprentice to a P.I. just because she’d been fired from yet another waitressing job.

Not exactly the stuff success is made of.

I scanned the artistic crowd and spotted the likeliest candidate for Joel James in the thick of them, completely ignored by the paying audience. He was tall and scrawny, with a mop of unkempt black hair and soulful brown eyes that the women around him seemed to find irresistible. He clearly enjoyed the attention, judging by the smug smile on his fairly handsome face, and who could blame him. He’d probably worked hard on this exhibition. He deserved to bask in their admiration.

Just then, a gap opened in the crowd, giving me the first glimpse of the paintings on display. My breathing caught.

The walls were lined with huge, insanely colorful paintings of what appeared to be fantasy animals. The style was naivistic—I’d had a class in art history during my one year in college—but the paintings weren’t childish. The animals seemed threatening or aggressive even. Powerful. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I walked closer and began to take photos.

I’d wandered through pretty much the entire gallery, mesmerized by the paintings, before I remembered my assignment. Dazed, I looked around for Mrs. Duncan, not sure if wanted to find her. She had no idea her husband was about to leave her and I felt really bad for her. I’d been blindsided by my ex-husband—though not with divorce papers—and could anticipate her shock.

But as much as I wanted her to give me the slip, I couldn’t. I’d spent four days following her everywhere she went. Her husband was out of town for the week, the perfect opportunity for her to spend time with her lover. And I’d keep following her, even though there hadn’t been a single sign that she had one. She’d spent the entire time shopping and socializing with her girlfriends. No one had stayed over at her home and she hadn’t spent nights away. It could, of course, be that one of her girlfriends was her lover—my first case had provided such a twist—but I sincerely doubted it.

I finally spotted her and her two friends at the back of the room and began to make my way over there. As I passed the people milling about, I overheard a couple in their sixties comment on the works on display. “Let’s buy one quickly so that we can leave,” the wife said. “I’ll get migraine if I have to be among all this color much longer.”

“Yes, and before Rachel arrives. That bitch is still rubbing our noses in how we missed out on the previous exhibition.”

I guess everyone wasn’t as impressed with the paintings as I was.

Mrs. Duncan and her friends weren’t much better, as I heard when I finally reached them, though I kept my back towards them and pretended to be taking a photo of a painting.

“I think the prices are a bit steep for an unknown artist,” Mrs. Duncan noted to a woman her age she had been hanging out with most of the week. They were both tall and skinny, with long blond hair, and flawless skin that took at least a decade off their forty-plus. They looked so alike that it was occasionally difficult to remember which woman I was supposed to be trailing. Amazing, considering they weren’t related.

“All this success is getting to Antoine’s head,” the friend commented with a sneer in her voice, echoing Melissa’s thoughts. “Let’s hope it won’t go away as fast as it began.” The women laughed, and then headed towards the gallerist with determination. They would not miss out on the chance to buy a painting here.

After the women had disappeared to the office at the back, I found myself gravitating towards the artist. Not that the conversation around him was all that interesting either. Mostly it was Joel telling where he had got his inspiration from:

“Dreams and such, you know,” he said vaguely, so he’d probably painted them when he was high. I could understand why he wouldn’t want to advertise that.

The crowd had begun to thin by the time Mrs. Duncan emerged from the office, making it more difficult for me to stay unnoticed. I hid myself among the artists as she and her friends walked past. They didn’t so much as a nod at Joel in acknowledgement.

Just then, a young woman entered the gallery. She was short, almost tiny, and swallowed by the large black sweater she wore over her black leggings. Her hair was a long, black mess, and her face was pale. Her eyes were haunted.

She paused at the door, and looked around, as if trying to find someone. Then she marched straight to Joel, pushing past the people surrounding him, ignoring their complaints. I don’t know why I lifted my camera and began to record, but I managed to capture the moment she punched Joel in the gut with everything she got.

“You utter fucking bastard!” she screamed as Joel gasped for breath. Everyone around them hushed. “You fucking stole all my paintings and now you’re passing them as your own? Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”

Joel recovered fast and he straightened up. “Calm down, Sam,” he said, like that ever worked with enraged women. “Have you forgotten to take your medication?”

Oooh!

“You mean the medication they forced me to take in the institution you put me in so you could steal my work? Is that the medication you mean?”

“You’re clearly distressed and don’t know what you’re saying,” Joel said, his soulful eyes full of sympathy. He put a hand on her shoulder, but she shook it off.

“No, for the first time, I’m seeing perfectly. You’re a thief and a fraud, and I want my paintings back!”

“And who do you think these people will believe? Me, or a crazy bitch?”

But she wasn’t cowed. “They’ll know what you are the moment they put a brush in your hand and ask you to paint something. Asshole.” She spat at his feet, turned around and marched out of the door.

A pandemonium broke out.

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Chapter Two

By the time I managed to extradite myself from the crowd pushing to Joel, and exit the gallery, Sam was nowhere to be seen. I would’ve wanted to ask if she was okay. No one else did.

Just as well. I had an assignment I had to see to.

I saw through the windows that Mrs. Duncan was still in the gallery, and she was looking pleased. I would’ve thought that a scandal like this would make everyone who had bought Joel’s—or Sam’s—paintings want to return their purchases in outrage. But if anything, it made them even more eager to buy them. Mrs. Duncan would probably double her investment before the night was over.

Joel declared his innocence, citing Sam’s mental problems, and I think his cheerleaders at least believed him. I wasn’t so sure I did, and neither did the artists among the crowd. They were filing out of the gallery behind me, annoyed and disgusted.

The only winner in all this was Antoine, the gallerist.

I retreated to the shadows across the street to wait for Mrs. Duncan to leave. It didn’t take long. To my amazement she and her friends took off on foot. It had stopped raining, but the move baffled me, until I followed them to a restaurant three blocks from the gallery. Since it was right next to where I’d left my car, I dove in and settled in on the front seat, grateful that I wouldn’t have to hang out in the cold night. They don’t mention freezing your ass over on TV shows either.

I picked up my phone to call Jackson. Then I hesitated.

We’d been on perfectly good terms until Christmas, when he’d kissed me—totally out of the blue. I hadn’t opposed. In fact, I’d been ready to take the kiss further the moment we escaped my parents’ house where we’d been at the time. But he’d contacted the worst case of man-flu known to humankind before the day was over, and had been out of commission for over a week. And when he finally emerged from his sick-bed, he didn’t seem to remember the kiss.

I’d tried to come up with a way to bring it up, but so far I’d chickened out. I mean, did I really want to start something with my boss? Even with one as amazing as Jackson? Then again, it was a great kiss, and I definitely had a crush on him. So things were a bit awkward right now—at least for me.

But I didn’t want to be a coward, so I placed the call. “You’ll never know what just happened,” I said the moment he picked up.

“Who dis?” he asked, but he sounded amused.

“Very funny. So anyway, I was in this gallery opening—”

“A what?” he interrupted me. “Voluntarily?”

“Hey! I’m not a total rube. But as it so happens, I was there because Mrs. Duncan went there.”

“That makes more sense. Please, continue.”

I rolled my eyes, the gesture totally wasted on the phone. “This young woman crashed the party and accused the artist of stealing her paintings. Can you believe it? She said he’d had her committed in order to take them. And since they were selling like hotcakes, I think that’s a motive.”

“That does sound intriguing.”

“I know, right. So what do you think, should I try to solve this?”

He sighed. “First of all, there’s nothing to solve. Second of all, we can’t afford to take cases no one pays for us to solve. And thirdly, you have Mrs. Duncan to keep an eye on.”

“But she’s so boring. And she’s not having an affair.”

“That’s a result too.” He sounded annoyingly reasonable. “Her husband comes home tomorrow, so you can drop the case then.”

“Fine…” I grumbled. “I guess I’ll just freeze my ass over here, watching her having a dinner with her friends. Starving.”

“That’s the spirit. Don’t forget to come and pick me up tomorrow morning. And we’ll go for a jog too.” He hung up before I had a chance to protest the last bit.

I was still grumbling about it early next morning as I was driving to Jackson’s house in Marine Park in Southeast Brooklyn. Too early, if you ask me. It had been late when I returned home, after making sure Mrs. Duncan didn’t have any late night callers.

The cold spell that had kept New York in its grip through Christmas had turned to a thaw after New Year. There was almost no snow anymore, thanks to the rains of the past couple of days, and it was relatively warm. You know, for January. That didn’t mean I was ready to resume the morning jogs with Jackson that had been on hold for three weeks.

Jackson lived in a semi he’d inherited from his uncle. Marine Park was an erstwhile blue-collar neighborhood, but thanks to its location by the Jamaica Bay, the eponymous Marine Park with its outdoor activities, and relative safety, it had increasingly gentrified in recent years. I doubt he could buy a house here now.

Jackson opened the door before I managed to knock, so he had been waiting for me. He was thirty-five and about five eleven, with a nice, lean body and wide shoulders, dark brown hair and eyes, and a face you didn’t look twice if he didn’t want you to; but that didn’t work for me anymore. I found him handsome. He was a great boss too, even with odd quirks like dragging me to these morning jogs.

He grinned when he saw me, and my heart skipped a beat. He had a really nice smile. “I was sure you’d bail out.”

“I would’ve if I hadn’t had your car,” I grumbled, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t own a car. If I needed one, I could borrow my mom’s, but it was cherry red and fairly noticeable, so for surveillance work, I used Jackson’s. “Are you sure you’re well enough to exercise?” I asked hopefully.

“I’ve waited for long enough after my last sick-day. It’s time.” To prevent my protests, he exited the house and guided me down the steps of his porch by placing a hand between my shoulder blades.

“I’m just worried, is all.”

“Mmm-hmmm.” But his eyes were twinkling. He set a brisk pace towards the park that began right at the end of his street. “How did the rest of your night go?”

“Well. I mean, I didn’t lose Mrs. Duncan and I didn’t catch cold.” Though I’d tried, just to avoid this jog.

We reached the park and the footpath we usually jogged on, and began to run. Whenever Jackson had to run with me, he kept the pace suitable for me, which is to say, very slow. It couldn’t have been easy for him, especially since his legs were so much longer than mine. And we had to pause fairly often, because I’d lost what little fitness I’d gained before the break. Jackson didn’t seem much affected by his illness, but he didn’t go for his customary extra laps after I was done with mine, and we returned together to his house.

Most of my energy was taken up with breathing, so we didn’t speak until we were back indoors. “Are you headed to the Duncan’s house this morning?” Jackson asked, not even a little out of breath. I was leaning against the hallway wall, huffing and puffing like a steam engine.

“Yes. She won’t emerge until after noon, but I’d better keep an eye on the house, just in case she has visitors.”

“Good. You can take my car. I’ll have an office day.”

He peeled off his sweaty shirt as he headed upstairs to shower and change, and I was unable to breathe for a different reason entirely.

Man, he had a gorgeous body.

Before our kiss, I’d occasionally taken my fresh clothes with me to shower here too, but the thought of getting naked in his house caused me such embarrassment that I hadn’t even considered it today. But I wished now that I’d had the excuse to follow him upstairs to ogle some more.

He emerged ten minutes later, dressed in his usual black jeans and a T-shirt in defiance of the season, bringing with him the delicious scent of his shower gel. I’d borrowed it once, but it hadn’t made me smell that good.

I was back at my lookout spot at nine thirty. The Duncans lived in Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood by the East River in west Brooklyn where people with serious money and/or pedigree lived. I’d been on a stakeout here before, and you pretty much needed a car to hang out there, as there were no cafés or shops to hide in.

I parked the car close enough to Duncans’ front door to keep an eye on it, but far enough so that I wouldn’t be instantly spotted by the residents. I had a thermos full of coffee and a battery bank for my phone, and I settled in for a long and tedious morning. To pass time, I uploaded the photos I’d taken the previous day to my laptop and went through them, deleting the blurry ones and arranging the ones about Mrs. Duncan to a special file. After that, it was social media, and then games.

That took care of the first hour. I probably would’ve run away out of sheer tedium, if a cab hadn’t pulled over outside the Duncan residence a little before eleven. A huge bouquet of flowers emerged from the car, followed by an unmistakable form of a man.

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