One: The Client
Everything unfolded on a Monday.
It was mid-July, and misty rain, the kind that drove the intermittent windshield wipers crazy, had been falling since early morning. I pushed my way through the outer front door, and then the matching interior one, walking into the small anteroom of Silent Sleuth Investigations. As I stepped up to the receptionist desk where Evelyn sat typing from notes pinned to a prompting pad, I took notice of an older woman dressed in a yellow waitress uniform sitting stiffly on one of the waiting room chairs and staring straight ahead. Her purse was resting on her lap with both hands holding the straps so tightly it was making her knuckles turn white. The blank expression on her face made me wonder what she was thinking about.
“Good morning, Evelyn,” I said, plopping my notebook on the corner of the desk.
Evelyn was a couple of decades older than me, but with sharpshooter-like eyesight and hearing so acute she could detect a fly fart across the room. In her light-blue sweater, something she wore regardless of how hot it was outside, and her gray hair pulled back into a bun, she reminded me of my deceased grandmother. And much like my grandmother, I imagined Evelyn was the type of woman who tormented her grandchildren by assigning them an endless number of meaningless chores.
Evelyn stopped what she was doing and stared at the spot where I had laid my notebook. I quickly snatched it up.
“Good morning, Miss Williams,” Evelyn replied with a weak attempt at sounding cordial. Evelyn had been with Silent Sleuth since its inception and made no attempt to hide her displeasure about the recent changes. “This lady is here to see you,” she said, quickly followed by, “She doesn’t have an appointment.”
I glanced at the other woman again, and although I’m good with faces, I didn’t recognize her.
Evelyn must have read my puzzled look because she answered my unspoken question.
“That is Mrs. Bennett. She’s a longtime client of Mr. Cobb. She was scheduled for a meeting with him in June, but she didn’t keep the appointment. Instead, she showed up unexpectedly this morning needing to speak with him. I explained the situation to her and that she’ll have to reschedule, but she won’t leave,” Evelyn explained.
Aaron Cobb was the previous owner-manager of Silent Sleuth, and the situation Evelyn had referred to was the fact that he dropped dead in June. Massive heart attack. The part that irked Evelyn was that Aaron’s last will and testament stated ownership of the agency was to be left to his sister, Tildy, which wasn’t a surprise. However, Tildy’s first act was to promote me to office manager, and that came as a shock to everyone, myself included. I was the investigator at Silent Sleuth with the least amount of experience since everyone stayed forever—my ten years still made me the novice. Getting the idea why everyone hated me?
In my mind, I began flipping through the open case files I’d been familiarizing myself with since taking over two weeks ago, and I recalled the basics of the Bennett file. This one was unusual and a bit sad. My caseload, along with the other cases Aaron had been working on before slumping over during a company picnic, left me swamped, and I really didn’t have time for this. But I reminded myself that one reason I’d gotten this new position—according to Tildy—was that I focused on the client first.
I turned around to face the woman in the yellow uniform.
“Mrs. Bennett, I’m Dianne Williams. I understand you’re waiting to see me.” I introduced myself pleasantly.
Mrs. Bennett rose to her feet. “If it’s not too much trouble. I have to be at work in forty-five minutes, so I won’t take much of your time,” she answered with a deep Southern accent.
“No problem at all. Why don’t you come back with me,” I replied, ignoring the sour expression on Evelyn’s face.
SSI was founded in 1983 by Aaron Cobb. It had grown into a full-service detective agency with ten investigators on staff who served the Charlotte area and five surrounding states. The agency performed everything from background checks to criminal investigations to hidden assets searches. All of the investigators who worked at SSI had at least ten years’ experience in the field they specialized in.
As I led Mrs. Bennett down a hallway toward the rear of the building, I passed the luxurious breakroom on the right, two closed office doors on the left, and paused before the entrance to the office farther back on the right just past the conference room. Using my key to open the lock, I pushed the door open, reached in, and flicked on the lights. I let Mrs. Bennett precede me into the room.
A plethora of sports paraphernalia, all belonging to Aaron, overwhelmed anybody entering my office. It dominated the decor. Framed hockey jerseys, a University of North Carolina football helmet, display cases holding autographed baseballs, and picture upon picture of various signature action shots took up every wall space or nook and cranny. Of course, I rationalized I had been too busy dealing with the day-to-day business matters to take the time to pack away Aaron’s prized possessions and move in my stuff from across the hall. Still, the truth was I hardly spent time in my office, and it showed, so removing all of Aaron’s decorations would leave the office naked. I didn’t really care, but as the manager and the face of Silent Sleuth, I probably needed to.
I offered Mrs. Bennett a seat in one of the two captain’s chairs in front of the enormous oak executive desk. I quickly stepped around to the other side and took a seat in the black leather desk chair, depositing my notebook on a computer credenza behind me.
“I was sorry to hear about Mr. Cobb,” Mrs. Bennett said as she settled into her seat. “It must have been a shock.”
“Yes, and it was quite sudden. We’re all still trying to adjust. As Evelyn probably explained to you, I am taking over all Mr. Cobb’s cases. Usually, whenever we move a case from one investigator to another, we like to have a conference with both investigators and the client present, but I’m sure you can understand the special situation here. I haven’t looked at your case file in-depth yet, but I know the general facts. Evelyn told me you had an appointment scheduled for June that you didn’t keep,” I started.
Looking at the woman seated across from me, I now recognized her uniform from IHOP. A white name tag with Emily printed on it was pinned above her left breast. Her long hair had equal amounts of brunette and gray, held back from her face by a black plastic headband on top of her head. Unfortunately, the middle-aged woman’s most prominent features were a pug nose, bushy eyebrows, and hazel-colored eyes that seemed set too far apart on her face.
“I’ve had an appointment with Mr. Cobb every year on that same date. Every June sixth. He would update me with any progress he’d made on my sister’s case,” the woman drawled.
“Your sister who was murdered in 1992?” I confirmed.
“Yes. My sister Pamela, Pamela Goodwin. Her murderer has never been caught, and the police stopped looking for her killer a long time ago. I employed Mr. Cobb and your agency to do what the police would no longer do.”
I recalled what little I had skimmed in Mrs. Bennett’s file. A pawn shop robbery that had apparently gone bad, ending with the murder of Pamela Goodwin and both owners. It happened in Easley, a small town just twenty-five minutes west of Greenville, South Carolina. There had been no new leads or developments in the case for over twenty-nine years, and the circumstances of her death offered little hope of a breakthrough. However, her sister would show up each year on the anniversary of Pamela’s death, pleading—or in this case, paying—the agency to not let her sister’s death be forgotten and go unpunished. From the documentation in the file, I remembered Aaron would log a couple hours of follow-up inquiries for show, send the woman a bill, and then file the case away to wait for her next annual visit. Aaron Cobb was generally a stand-up guy and a decent investigator. Still, as I started delving into the agency’s past dealings, it became apparent he wasn’t above padding clients’ bills. This wasn’t outstanding detective work, but then again, what could you expect from a twenty-nine-year-old case?
“Can I ask why you missed your appointment in June?” I inquired, already suspecting what the answer might be.
Mrs. Bennett’s hazel eyes dropped to the purse in her lap, and the straps in her hands endured another round of twisting.
“My husband didn’t…I…I had…I mean, we both had second thoughts. Second thoughts about…continuing.” she struggled to say.
“Mrs. Bennett, I’ll be candid with you here. The likelihood of catching somebody responsible for your sister’s death is doubtful after twenty-nine years. I can understand your desire to see justice done for your sister, and your devotion in that regard is commendable. However, the money you would pay our agency might be better being put toward a remembrance fund for her.”
Mrs. Bennett picked her head up and looked straight into my eyes. “Miss Williams, this isn’t only about me wanting to see justice done, because that’s not it at all.”
That surprised me. “Then why don’t you tell me what it is about?”
Mrs. Bennett hesitated. “I don’t know if they wrote this in the file, but my sister and I both worked in that shop. I was supposed to be working that day, not her. I woke up with the flu that morning, and Pamela went to work for me. She worked and ended up dead. That should have been me. But what you don’t know, what nobody knows, was that I only told everybody I had the flu.”
A subtle tremor became evident in Mrs. Bennett’s voice, and her eyes became moist.
“What I’ve told nobody was that I was out with my friends the night before and got home late. Pamela was covering for me…like she always did. I sent my sister to her death because I was hung over. I will never forgive myself for that.”
The woman collected herself and returned her gaze to me.
“I need you to tell me the truth. Would you say that there was absolutely no chance of finding out who killed her?”
I looked long and hard into the woman’s eyes, searching for a clue on how to answer. Was she here because she needed someone who knew about such matters to tell her it was finally time to stop? Or was she looking for a glimmer of hope, something to reaffirm what she was doing, had been doing for so many years, was the right thing?
Unable to find the answer in the woman’s hazel eyes, I thought about the backlog of open cases, all with achievable results, stacked on the credenza behind me. I went with the truth.
“I’m not very optimistic, Mrs. Bennett,” I answered. “But, I never say never.”
The edges of the middle-aged woman’s mouth tilted upward. She had heard the answer she was looking for.
“Do you still charge the same rate?” Mrs. Bennett asked, rising from her chair.
I extended my hand across the desk. “For such a longtime customer as you, Mrs. Bennett, this year, it’s on the house. I’ll send you a report with what I find out in a couple weeks.”
Mrs. Bennett took my hand in both of hers and squeezed, smiling more widely now. I had the depressing feeling that smiles were scarce in her family.
I walked her back to the lobby and watched her leave.
“What did you tell her?” Evelyn inquired.
“I told her I’d look into it.”
Evelyn shook her head and continued typing. “You’re not doing her any favors.”
The remark made me feel a twinge of guilt. Had I mistakenly given the poor woman hope where none belonged?
Little did I know that seven hundred miles away, events were taking place that would change my outlook…and my life.
Two: The Blog
Lee Hamilton pressed Enter. That was that.
He pushed away from his desk, clasping his right hand over his left wrist, and stretching his arms taught over his head, making his muscles strain and his back pop. Finally, he relaxed and rolled back upright in the chair with a deep exhale, removed his reading glasses, and flung them onto the desktop next to the keyboard. He rubbed his eyes with his palms for a couple of seconds and wondered whether it was time to get his eyes rechecked.
Through his blurry vision, he looked at the display on his Dell monitor and could still make out the words Your Blog Post Published Successfully boldly written across the upper left-hand corner. Lee felt both relieved, and apprehensive. It felt good to have finally uploaded this blog entry after contemplating it for so long, but it was unlike anything else he had posted—raw and revealing. When writing it, like a good many of the things he wrote, he wasn’t sure if he was going to post it at all. He had written the first draft in a single day and then spent the next two weeks fine-tuning it late at night or early in the mornings. Most of his struggles involved how much he should reveal, and what to keep to himself. It was an agonizing exercise.
There was only one other time he had posted an entry this personal since he’d started blogging, and he’d anguished about that post for a long time as well, changing his mind a dozen times before actually doing it. That decision turned out to be the right one because it garnered him the most traffic—or site hits—he’d ever achieved, and it put him on the map as far as the blogger elite go.
Lee had started the blog he innocently entitled Cruising Altitude back when blogging was relatively new and the general population was unacquainted with some of the more obscure goings-on the internet offered. He always felt the word itself, blog, seemed to unintentionally demean the concept it was meant to describe because it sounded so hokey.
Lee’s blog was an outlet, a way to channel the creative side of himself. The style of writing he had gravitated to over the years typically revolved around articulating examples of the human condition shown in the simple events he witnessed every day. He’d turn those observations into entertaining slices of life stories and, fictionalizing certain aspects, make the tales funnier or more poignant. Sometimes he would step out of his mold and post entirely fictitious stories, being careful to inform his readers of that fact to avoid confusion. He always tried to drive home a central theme, one he hoped would make people feel good, whether writing about the world around him or making things up.
The popularity of Cruising Altitude turned out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it flattered him that so many people enjoyed his writing and held it in such high regard, but on the other hand, it brought a type of stress he wasn’t used to. He put pressure on himself to keep churning out meaningful and entertaining stories, and it wore on him. What he wished for was a type of anonymous fame, if there was such a thing. At times, he felt like he was producing material for his readers instead of himself, which was completely opposite from the reason he started writing in the first place. He was also continually being approached by marketing firms wanting to take advantage of his internet traffic, to which he flatly refused. It got to a point where he considered shutting down Cruising Altitude altogether, but even though he could never bring himself to do that, he did compromise by cutting back on the frequency of his updates.
Lee heard the door to the back deck open and close and then squeaky footsteps heading along the back hallway toward the kitchen.
“Are you finished with the backyard?” he called out, realizing that he no longer heard the lawn mower humming in the background.
His son Chase’s voice answered from the kitchen, “Yep.” The refrigerator door opened. “I still have to do the weed trimming.”
It was mid-July, and true to form for summers in the South, it was the second time the lawn had needed attention this week. His son, who was home for the weekend from the University of Arkansas, surprised him by volunteering to do the chore. Although Lee was perfectly willing and able to mow the lawn himself, he let Chase help. The last few times his son had come home, Lee sensed Chase felt guilty for leaving him to grieve by himself. Lee tried to convince him he was fine and could handle being alone, but Chase still felt the way he felt. His son’s way of easing his guilt was to do as many chores as possible while he was home. Lee was more than happy to accommodate by coming up with all kinds of odd jobs.