By Steven E. Belanger

“My man Shakespeare said there’s a special Providence in the fall of a sparrow,” I said to Colleen, over the faux-wooden partition, as I cupped my hands over the receiver. “Everything’s connected.”

Mrs. Pierce, my landlady, muffled something over the phone.  She’d “lost” her kid again. Colleen and I were waxing philosophic about that, among other things, from our desks. 

“Sounding profound isn’t being right,” Colleen said from behind her monitor.  She’d been searching for a computer virus for over an hour, frowning at the screen like an annoyed parent.  The antivirus hadn’t found it.  Nothing was working.  She didn’t tell me what she was doing to find it, and I wasn’t sure why she needed a computer for my seven clients that month anyway, but I didn’t ask. 

Knowledge is often clutter.

Just before Mrs. Pierce called, Colleen had said that she was divorced from her husband not because of cause and effect, but because he was a dumb jerk and she was tired of it.

“That’s cause and effect,” I said. 

“No, it’s not.  Had I not tired of it, he’d still be a jerk.”  She called the computer a sonuvabitch.  “It’s all will.  He’s willfully a jerk and I willfully left him.  There’s no innate connection there.  The only link is the action I willfully took.”

“Foster, are you listening to me?” Mrs. Pierce said.  Though in her thirties, her voice had an older, elementary teacher’s tone.  I uncupped my hands from the phone and said that I was, in fact, listening. 

There came a knock on my office door.  Colleen and I stared at the door for a moment — at the thick, backward black letters that said BRADLEY FOSTER, INVESTIGATIONS from the hallway — as if no one had ever knocked upon it before.  A shapely silhouette stood behind the smoked glass.  Mrs. Pierce hadn’t abated.  I told her that she’d either have to pay me to find her kid, or hang up, because I had an appointment at the door.

She hung up.  She’d call back soon.

Colleen let in a professionally-packaged Mrs. Nickleby, and then closed my door, gave me a look, and waged her virus war.  The red light on my speakerphone meant she hadn’t flicked on her phone to listen in.  The light turned green when she played Big Brother.

Despite the Dickensian name, Mrs. Sasha Nickleby was a fit, middle-aged, red-haired knockout.  She looked my age, about ten years younger than her forty-five, and exuded contained sensuality in her tan skirt, red blouse and heels.  She was sinewy, but sexy, probably jogged and did Pilates, and was the kind of woman guys would say was a wildcat in bed.  But they wouldn’t say it too loudly because she’d kick their ass.  They’d like it, too, but that wouldn’t diminish the ass-kicking.

She was about to kick her husband’s ass, but he wasn’t going to like it.  He’d been trying to screw her in the divorce, saying she’d cheated on him.  He’d actually cheated on her, and she’d had the pictures to prove it.  Except she’d shown them to him to get him to play nice, and he’d hit her and tossed her out of his house — and kept the pictures.  No copies.  And she hadn’t backed them up to a CD or a flashdrive.

I had glanced at them, of course, when I found them.  Someone had stood at David Nickleby’s bay window and taken the pics while he and his young legal assistant rolled around on his living room floor, trampling documents.  The blonde was full-breasted and gorgeous.  In one picture, she was straddling him with a memo on his law office’s letterhead sweat-stuck to her left breast. A small, yellow Post-It clung to her stomach, just above her thin outie.

Mrs. Nickleby had asked me to shoot the pics, but I’d declined.  I hadn’t been as desperate at the time.  Or, I hadn’t realized I was.  I’d probably take the job now.  When I’d asked why she hadn’t hired the picture-taker for the reclamation, all she’d said was she hadn’t liked his preferred method of payment.

“I was the broke and discarded woman of a rich man,” she’d pouted.  I’d left that alone.   

I slid the clasped manila envelope over to her.  The crags and craters on my desk stopped it before it slid all the way to her, ruining the effect.  She leaned over and grasped it, and slowly pulled out the pics.  Her red blouse was one of those loose-collared ones women wear when they want you to see a bit of freckled cleavage; it clashed wonderfully with her tanned skin, and the whole package reeked of power.

She slipped the photos back into the envelope. 

“How’d you get these?”  She licked her lips once and sat still, her back straight.

I’d broken into her husband’s house by hoisting myself up on a side-yard fence, crossing the deck to his bedroom window, and removing his air conditioner, which I carefully replaced and wiped off after I’d climbed in.  For almost three hours I’d picked through hundreds of papers and folders that littered his living room and office like confetti in Times Square, but finally I’d found the photos, on his counter, near the toaster. I'd carefully wiped every hard surface with my handkerchief, put the pics in a manila folder I’d brought with me, folded into a small square in my back pocket, and walked out the front door.

“It’s better that you not know that.  However, because of the circumstances surrounding their acquisition, I’m going to have to ask for double our original agreement.  And, for both our benefit, it’s better if you pay me in cash.”

She sat back on the red plastic client chair for several moments, thinking it over.  I’d been extremely unethical, but I was a few months behind on my mother’s assisted care facility, and Colleen wanted to be paid sooner rather than later.  And Sasha Nickleby was smart enough to know I’d have to commit B & E to get the pics, so I didn’t feel that badly.  This pause also gave me time to contemplate the fact that she’d somehow leaned in to grab the envelope — and to show some look-at-me cleavage — without actually moving her backside on the chair.  Power, with little effort.  And really great posture.

She knew I had her over a barrel, so she agreed, finally, and counted twenty hundred dollar bills taken from her bottomless, but tiny, red Coach, looking at me the whole time, again leaning over to the lip of my desk.  She didn’t ask me anymore about the photos, and I forced myself to stop wondering where she, the poor, discarded victim, had gotten two thousand dollars, cash. 

Knowledge isn’t always power.

Colleen was still searching for the virus when I led out our client.

“Thank you, Mr. Foster,” Mrs. Nickleby said, shaking my hand at the outer office door.

“You’re welcome.  It was a pleasure.”

“Yes,” she sighed.  “It was.  You have my number.”

I asked her to leave the door open. Colleen and I watched her sashay down the hallway.

“She’s out of your league, Foster,” Colleen said as I shut the door.  “But, then again, aren’t they all.”

I pushed aside the large pile of bills, and the much smaller pile of checks, and sat on the edge of her desk.  Colleen had on the same style of professional suit, with the same loose shirt, except her skirt was blue.  Both wore blouses a bright red, and they were both redheads.  She had pale skin and, like Sasha Nickleby, many freckles.  My client had been bronzed; Colleen was a striking pale.  Neither seemed to mind that I noticed.  Probably that was the plan.

“She left happy, right?  She got her pictures.  I charged double for the B and E.   She paid cash to avoid a paper trail.  My mother’s facility gets paid.  You get paid.  Hell, even I get paid.  See?  Everything’s connected.”

Colleen held out her hand.  I put the hundreds in it.  She counted them, swiftly, like a bank teller, and removed two expense envelopes from the top drawer, one marked OFFICE and the other ELMORE HOUSE.  She scribbled amounts in each, and wrote out four checks: Mother, office, her, me.  She was a few years younger than me, but much more efficient and mature.

“The fact her husband’s an ass isn’t connection,” she said, jerking the mouse and clicking again.  “It just means he’s an ass.  And the money thing isn’t connection — it’s economics.”

I had a comment about how both husbands were asses, and both women redheads, but before I could get into it, the phone rang.  I took it at my desk, leaving my door open.

“I can’t find that damn kid anywhere!” shrieked Mrs. Pierce.

“I charge three hundred a day, plus expenses.”  She knew I was kidding, but she swore at me anyway.  I let her vent for awhile.  I was often behind on rent.

Colleen ran into my office.  “I found it!”

I cupped the phone again.  “Where was it?”

“Damn thing was hiding in the antivirus software folder.”  She sank into the other plastic client chair.  I’d never seen her splay her legs before.  “How the hell am I supposed to know to look for a virus that disabled the antivirus and hid in the folder?”

I pondered that for a moment.  I wanted to tell her that maybe, because the world was flawed, it had come with the antivirus itself, but another idea brewed.  An analogy.

“Mrs. Pierce,” I said into the phone.  “What was the last thing you said to Brian before you knew he was missing?”

“I told him to put the damn basketball down and get in here because I was gonna give him a bath.”  He was five, she explained, though she knew I knew this, and he often ran to the neighbors to avoid unpleasant things.  But she’d called them already.  And she’d called his friends, and now she didn’t know what else to —

“Hiding virus is to anti-virus software folder like hiding, unwashed Brian is to bathtub,” I said.  Colleen watched me.  “Go look in the tub.”

“Foster, that’s ridiculous,” Mrs. Pierce said, but I heard her thumping up the stairs.  “He’s nowhere near smart enough to —”

She paused.  I heard her open the door.

“Oh you little bastard.  Get over here —”

The kid squealed.  I hung up.

“Everything’s connected,” I said to Colleen.

“That’s not connection,” she said.  “It’s luck.”

When I quoted Shakespeare at her again, she rolled her eyes at me and left my office, ready to wage her next war.

Steven E. Belanger’s sales include some short stories, to Big Pulp, to OnThePremises.com and to Space and Time Magazine; a short piece about adopting his greyhound; and a poem. He has been a Teacher of Secondary Education for the past 14 years.  He waxes philosophic about mystery and crime novels, movies, and lots of other things at www.stevenebelanger.blogspot.com/.

Copyright 2014 Steven E. Belanger. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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