When I became a private investigator, it wasn’t for excitement, or for money. The work is humdrum, and whatever noir romanticism the profession ever actually had is long gone (though I’ve got a raincoat, a fedora, and a dusty bottle of scotch in the closet, just in case they’re called for). As for money, there isn’t much—and I don’t need it anyway. I’m a dilettante and utterly unashamed of it.
It was an ego boost, pure and simple. I suppose I just enjoyed the idea that, when some poor, desperate soul was in dire straits, stretched to the breaking point with nowhere to turn, I would be the one he’d call.
Well, now I’m sitting at my desk, unable to take my mind off the lower right-hand drawer and the unique item therein, and I have no idea who I should call.
I am, however, extremely open to suggestions.
We were just about to give up for the morning and go for lunch; the prospect of a deliciously unhealthy meal had much greater appeal than sitting around the office looking for new and exciting ways to cross-index the files. Then Mr. Harris shambled in and sat down. He wore a really sharp gray suit, but the ends of his tie were the wrong lengths, and he’d missed several swaths of his face the last time he’d shaved. He was an older guy, about my age, and despite his current disarray, he seemed comfortable in his skin. I saw Harris as a kindred spirit; I suspected that he had seen and done a great many more things than his nice clothes indicated.
It was with this impression in mind that I held out that little spark of hope—so quickly extinguished in most cases—that this endeavor would be something more than my having to chase after his wife for a month, taking pictures of her with some other guy. This could be something different.
“It’s about my wife,” said Harris.
Well, win some, lose some. “Go ahead,” I prompted, “how long’s it been going on?”
“What? No, nothing like that. At least I don’t think so.”
“What seems to be the problem, then?”
“She hasn’t been herself lately.”
“She’s bored. I’ll admit that. I’m busy with my work, and there’s nothing to do around the house. Committees, charities, they just weren’t doing it for her. So she went to a party last year hosted by one of her friends…you know, where they sell the cosmetics?”
He gave me the name of a well-known company—I’d heard of it, at least—which I’ll keep to myself for now.
“The next thing I know, the house is full of the stuff, boxes piled up everywhere. Every weekend, she either hosted a party at our place or oversaw someone else’s. It’s not what people expect from the wife of someone like me, and we certainly didn’t need the money. But she was having the time of her life, she’d found something she was good at, and I certainly wasn’t going to stop her. Besides, plenty of well-off people have stranger hobbies than that.
“She started recruiting people, and pretty soon she had her own cadre of saleswomen. She was away from home all the time, but I couldn’t bring myself to complain; I figured that the way I was feeling—lonely and isolated—was no different from how she’d felt during our entire marriage, and she’d never complained once. She was genuinely happy now, so I never said an unkind word about any of it.”
“So what’s the trouble?” I asked.
“About a month ago, they made her a regional director—bumped her up in the hierarchy, so now she has two tiers reporting to her. She hasn’t been the same.”
“She became distant—she barely speaks to me. She has enough clothes to outfit a small army, but now she only wears the company suits they gave her—and I mean 24/7. She’s not home most nights, and never—never—during the day. I know it sounds like she’s cheating on me, but I’ve followed her everywhere I could, and no dice. It’s all makeup parties and company functions, nothing else.”
“What is it you think I can do for you, Mr. Harris?”
“I don’t really know. But something’s wrong. She literally changed overnight. I guess I’m hoping a fresh perspective will help. I have money, whatever you need.”
We shook on it, and I assured Harris that I’d at least look into it. After the door swung closed behind him, my two associates wandered casually in from the next room, where they’d been listening the entire time.
I’m pretty good at this job, but sometimes there are places where a middle-aged white guy is just too conspicuous, and for those occasions I depend on Michelle Riggs (for femininity) and Nate Churchill (for blackness)—both of whom, I hasten to add, are top-notch investigators in their own right.
“Got an errand for you, Michelle.”
“Go to one of these parties and see what’s up?”
“That’ll be fun, right?”
“It will be if you budget me some expense money; it’ll look suspicious if I don’t buy anything.”
“Sure, go crazy. Get a variety. We may want to have them analyzed, if all else fails. Nate, would you—”
“Find out everything I can about this cosmetics company? Here, start with this.” Nate pulled a folder from behind his back and tossed it on the desk.
“You’re a wonder, Nate.”
“It’s called Google, Mr. W. I’d teach you to use it yourself if I didn’t think it was the only reason you kept me around.”
“So what do you make of it?” I indicated the array of tiny pastel boxes spread across my desk: lipstick, eyeliner, and other things beyond my ken.
“It’s pretty good,” Michelle replied. “Better than the drugstore stuff and on par with the fancier brands.”
“This isn’t much for five hundred bucks.”
“This is actually two hundred and fifty dollars’ worth. I’ve got the rest at home. Performing some independent analyses.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I said dryly. “But that won’t be the answer anyway. If these products were making people catatonic and nomadic, we’d find out about it. And Nate says no, not a single case. Besides, I imagine it’s quite the opposite—I bet those parties can get pretty rowdy.”
“A bit. So what’s the next move? Observe the wife?”
“Nate’s tailing the wife now. Nothing so far that we don’t already know.”
“Well, it happens that when I was paying for the stuff, I hinted that I might be interested in selling it myself. The saleswoman was more than willing to talk my ear off, and she invited me to the next local function—where she’s going to be promoted to regional director.”
“So wasn’t that the last thing that happened to the wife before she went off the deep end?”
Understanding began to dawn for me. “You should go, then.”
“We should go—husbands are invited too. You can observe first-hand.”
“Husband? I’ve already played that role. Twice. Panned by the critics both times.”
Arm in arm, Michelle and I strolled into the lobby of the Days Inn, whose largest meeting room was to contain this little get-together. My other hand rested in my suit pocket, awaiting the phone vibration that would signal an update from Nate. We hung at the back of the room, trying to remain inconspicuous while watching for anything suspicious. The place was filled practically to overflowing with chattering women and self-conscious husbands. Everyone was friendly, if cursory—I knew no one here, of course, and Michelle’s single acquaintance from the party was nowhere to be seen.
Out of nowhere, the meeting suddenly came to order, and the majority of the people settled into several rows’ worth of folding chairs. Michelle and I camped in the back row, and four of the women took seats behind a wide table at the front of the room. From their identical magenta blouses and black blazers, I took them to be higher-ups in the company. Pinned to each of their lapels was a feathery brooch—probably meant to be floral, but to me, they looked like little round sea anemones, stirring in the occasional cross-breeze from the air conditioning.
Oh, how those women did go on. There was company news to disseminate. A bunch of awards to hand out for best recruiter, most product sold, and so on. Then a nervous little guy in a bad rug came in and gave a refresher lecture on the tax implications of home-based businesses. He seemed glad to get out of there—I think being around that many women made him uncomfortable. All through these proceedings, the four at the front remained seated, never participating, only whispering among themselves occasionally.
Finally, they got to it. Someone introduced Michelle’s friend from the party; she rose, to enthusiastic applause, and gave a little speech thanking everyone for their support. The four bigwigs at the front got up from their chairs and solemnly shook her hand. One of them produced another anemone brooch from her briefcase and fixed it to the lapel of the newly-minted regional director, who then brought her chair to the front and sat at the head table, a position befitting her new status. She was smiling like she’d just won the Irish Sweepstakes.
I nudged Michelle. “Now keep an eye on her,” I whispered.
“We should both keep an eye on her.”
“Yes, but I’m about to fall asleep.”
“And I’m not?”
“I thought you liked makeup.”
“Makeup, yes,” she hissed. “But if I cared about tax deductions and promotions, I’d have gotten a real job in the first place.”
“Mind your manners, you’re on the clock.”
I had assumed they would end the meeting with the woman’s promotion, but they kept right on going. My natural male defenses blocked out most of the talk, but I dutifully kept some of my attention on our subject. She and the four bigwigs sat tranquilly at their table as each speaker took her turn. Unlike those of us in the audience, whose eyes were naturally drawn to whomever was speaking, those five stared straight ahead at nobody in particular. When an amusing anecdote was shared, the audience dutifully tittered, but the bigwigs’ expressions never changed. And the smile that had adorned the face of Michelle’s friend had faded away without our notice; she now wore the same neutral expression as the other four.
“Hey, Michelle,” I whispered. “Doesn’t she look sort of—”
“Distant? I was just thinking the same thing.”
“Go up and congratulate her afterward. See what she does.”
The meeting droned on, and we didn’t hear a word. We kept staring at the Big Five, none of whom made a move. When we finally—finally!—adjourned, the rank and file milled around and socialized, while the Big Five filed out of the room, briskly and quietly. Michelle and I fought our way through the crowd and out into the hotel’s lobby, but I’m damned if we could find any trace of them. I sent Michelle out to survey the parking lot while I combed the hallways, but wherever they’d gone, they’d been quick about it. For successful businesswomen, they didn’t spend much time glad-handing.
We regrouped in the lobby. I gasped for breath, lamenting the tribulations of middle age. The rank and file drifted past us and out to their cars. “Something happened to that woman,” I said. “Right there in front of us. I don’t know what, but I think we’re on to something.”
“What do we do?”
“Call Mr. Harris and tell him to meet us at the office. I need to call Nate.”
I fumbled my phone out of my suit pocket and dialed. The intrepid lad answered on the first ring.
“Nate, it’s your boss. Code mauve.”
“Mr. W., I don’t think we have code mauve. We’ve got code red, green, blue, purple. Teal, even. No mauve. In fact, I don’t even know what mauve is.”
“There’s no code purple. What you’ve been calling purple, that’s mauve.”
“Purple? Oh, hell no. You said that one was only theoretical, Mr. W.”
“Gird your loins, my boy, and get back to the office ASAP.”
Michelle sat atop my desk, I behind it. Mr. Harris paced the office. We made small talk to stay awake. It was past midnight, and well into the small hours, when Nate finally strode into the office. His slacks and shirt were torn and several deep scratches adorned his arms.
Code mauve means to retrieve the subject under observation, by force if necessary. It’s frowned upon, legally speaking.
“I got her,” Nate said, “but you guys can get her out of the car yourselves. You didn’t say she was gonna fight like that.”
Harris took Nate by the arm. “Is she okay?”
“Is she okay? Look, Mr. W., I trust you implicitly. You say bring her in, I bring her in. But let me tell you, a brother can’t be bundling a struggling white lady into his car on a regular basis. It’s likely to raise eyebrows.” He tossed me his keys. “Once I cuffed her, she settled down some.” While the three of us hurried out to the car, Nate retrieved the scotch from my closet and took a healthy pull straight from the bottle.
Mrs. Harris was in the back seat, cuffed to the door. A handsome, classy woman, she wore one of the black company blazers, complete with anemone brooch. I unlocked the cuffs, and Mr. Harris coaxed her out of the car. We three each kept hold of her, and after one abortive escape attempt, she gave in and accompanied us into the office. Nate backed away slowly, scotch in hand, as we brought her in, sat her down, and handcuffed her to the desk. Mr. Harris knelt on the floor beside her and took her hand. She never said a word.
“Where was she, Nate?” asked Michelle.
“At some lady’s house. They were both dressed like that. When I got Mr. W.’s call, I waited until she left and accosted her in the driveway. She fought like a badger. Didn’t make a sound, though.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s think. Something turns normal women into…this.”
“Something that was also in that conference room,” mused Michelle. “But what? A hypnotic suggestion? They give them laced bonbons before the meetings?”
“Maybe something in those damn blazers,” said Nate.
“That makes as much sense as anything,” I said. “Something common to the bigwigs, but not to the rabble at large. In fact, I don’t think the rank and file had a clue anything was wrong.”
“Take the jacket off her, see what happens,” said Nate. “One of you do it, though.”
“Mr. Harris,” I asked, “is she usually dressed this way?”
“I haven’t seen her in anything else all month,” he replied. “She’s got a dozen of them.” He stroked her hand. This was the most time he’d spent with her in days.
“Mrs. Harris,” said Michelle as she cautiously approached the woman, “let me slip your jacket off that arm. Then I’ll uncuff you…” Michelle had barely laid a hand on Mrs. Harris’s sleeve when the woman pushed her violently away, propelling her across the office. “Mr. Harris,” she said haughtily, straightening her blouse, “would you mind?”
Harris grimly took hold of his wife’s jacket. “It won’t come. It’s her brooch, I think it’s pinned through to her blouse. Just a second…oh.” Harris backed away. His face had gone pale. I pushed him aside and grabbed at Mrs. Harris’s jacket. She began to thrash. Michelle joined in our struggle, and with her help, I got a hand inside the blazer and felt the spot where the brooch joined it to the blouse. Reminding myself to apologize to her husband, I reached inside Mrs. Harris’s blouse…and found that the brooch passed right through it, pinning both blazer and blouse to her skin. Only there didn’t seem to be a pin at all; something else held the whole works together…
Steeling myself, I withdrew from inside Mrs. Harris’s clothing and grabbed hold of the brooch with both hands. And oh, my lord…
It was like holding an angry tarantula in both hands. Those little feathery wisps that I’d thought looked like anemone tentacles began fluttering wildly in my grasp. Revulsion shot through me, but I held on long enough to give one good heave, and the brooch came away from the jacket…and there was more to it than we’d thought.
Protruding from the back of the brooch was a bloody root the width of a pencil. I looked away and pulled harder, feeling more and more of the thing sliding out of Mrs. Harris’s chest with a sickly wet sound. It seemed like fifty feet of the stuff, especially with all of those little tentacles bristling impotently against my palms, but when I finally yanked it free and landed on my backside, there were about twelve inches’ worth of roots trailing from it. As it struggled, it flung drops of the woman’s blood, which spattered on the floor.
The enormous implications of the night’s events were beginning to dawn on me, but for the moment, all I wanted was to find somewhere to stash this thing before it stuck me with that root and turned me into a zombie. Michelle and Harris stared, openmouthed, but Nate was on the job, dashing into the next room and returning with the candy jar from his desk. He emptied it on the floor; M&Ms skittered everywhere. I stuffed the thing inside. Nate furiously screwed the lid back on and stowed the jar in my otherwise-empty lower right-hand desk drawer, slamming it shut.
I collapsed on the floor, shuddering. From somewhere on the other side of the desk came Mrs. Harris’s voice, plaintively addressing her husband. “Sweetie? What’s going on? What is this place?” I heard her rattle the handcuffs.
“Mr. Harris?” I slid the drawer open a little and peeked in. The thing lay in the jar, twitching pathetically. “Do you have someplace to take your wife for a while? A summer home? Or perhaps you might go on a nice long cruise? I think someone may come looking for this.”
And we’re back at the beginning, and I’m stuck with a mind-controlling alien sea anemone in a jar. Sure, I could just set the thing on fire and forget about it, but the other four brooches we saw—along with who knows how many others—imply bigger issues that need addressing.
The cops would laugh at me, the FBI would hang up on me, and my priest would hand me a pamphlet to read while he called the nuthouse.
Homeland Security? NASA? Area 51?
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