The key stuck in the lock. Again. Derek jiggled it back and forth, chewing his lip. After an eight-hour shift of staring down teenage mall-roamers, the last thing he needed was one more little thing. To make matters worse, he hadn’t used his private investigator license in six months. You can be whatever you want hadn’t come true for him yet.
Finally, the lock yielded with a disconcerting snap, and the door lurched open. Derek suppressed an exasperated grunt and yanked his key out of the door. One day the landlord would find him climbing in the window of his own apartment.
“Hi!” a voice called brightly.
Derek smiled in spite of himself. His brother always had a smile for him, and always managed to get him to smile back.
“Hi, Robbie,” he answered, slamming the door.
“Nothing!” Derek dropped his briefcase on the floor and started unbuttoning his uniform shirt. “I’m ten hours older than I was when I left, but that’s it!”
Robbie glanced over his shoulder from where he sat at the computer. “You stop to see Mr. Hudson after work?”
“Yeah…” Derek grabbed a diet Coke from the fridge, and thumped back into the living room. “But he didn’t have anything he wanted to tell me about.”
Hudson, Hudson, & Mann had provided the bulk of Derek’s cases for the past year and a half…mostly probate, and mostly very boring. Hunting down long-lost heirs wasn’t the complex job it used to be.
“Something’s bound to break soon,” Robbie continued, tapping on the keyboard.
“Like the kitchen sink…” Derek groaned. He cracked his soda can open and took a large slurp. “That’d be the kiss-of-death to the security deposit for sure.”
“Why so morose?”
Derek looked up. Rob had swung his wheelchair around to face him. He hadn’t complained recently, but Derek could tell his back had been bothering him again. He probably needed more therapy and different drugs and other things Derek couldn’t buy him. Derek didn’t need to vent his frustration at his own ineptitude on him; that wasn’t fair.
He heaved a deep sigh. “I’m okay. Enough about me. Have you had supper?”
“No. I was waiting for you. I was going to make Ramen, but we’re all out of pans, so I started the dishwasher instead.”
“Alright.” Derek put his can down and walked into the kitchen. For several moments, he stared blankly at the shelves.
“What if we have mac & cheese instead?” he asked, glancing over the peninsula.
“We had that last night!” protested Robbie, looking up.
“Well, that’s about what there is. And the dishwasher won’t be done for a while. I’ll go shopping tomorrow.”
He ripped the cover off a package and shoved it into the microwave. Around and around it went, while the microwave hummed mechanically. Just like his life. Around and around, and always the same place in the end. Rob’s disability allowance helped with the rent, but not much more than that.
Derek squeezed his eyes shut and ran his fingers through his hair. He’d heard rumors that the mall was going to downsize. He knew the first one to go would be him, not the guy who’d been there ten years, nor the manager’s elderly brother who spent his shifts sitting in front of the Cinnabon. Was it too late to follow Dad into finances?
The microwave beeped. Derek blinked slowly and opened the door. Robbie didn’t need to worry about it. He’d probably grow up to be a famous, brilliant mathematician or computer programer or something cool… If his older brother’s bad luck didn’t shoot him down before he’d had a chance.
As he walked into the other room, the TV crackled to life. Probably dating back to when color was a big thing, it took a while to warm up.
“MacGyver reruns on at seven, in case you’re interested,” Robbie commented, rolling to the coffee table and dropping the remote onto it. “I figured you’d want to watch the news, at least.”
“I guess…” Derek handed Robbie his bowl and slumped into the couch again.
“Seriously…what’s wrong with you tonight?” Rob exclaimed. “It’s not like you’ve never had no cases before! Something’s bound to break!”
“I know… It’s okay.”
Derek muted the TV while they prayed over their meal. It was a simple thing, but it always made Derek think of their parents, who had taught them that. Sometimes the thought was a comfort, sometimes it just made his guilt dig deeper into him.
He looked up at Robbie, curled up in the wheelchair, picking the macaronis out of the cheese and popping them into his mouth. He’d probably have been a tall, strapping, athletic type if he’d had the chance. Robbie had gotten the short end of everything.
“Hmm…They’re showing a clip of that Tough-on-Crime Citizens’ Initiative summit you went to,” Robbie commented.
Derek looked up. Sure enough, the extensively made-up, exquisitely blonde anchor was in the middle of an artificially excited report of the mayor’s “stirring” speech on the issue. “Stirring” in the sense that the audience did a lot of stirring in their seats for the duration of his spiel.
“Huh…” Derek grunted. “I wonder if any of the five hundred business cards I handed out that night are every going to do anything for me.”
Robbie shrugged. “Like you said, it’s all about getting your name out there, right?”
“Yeah. You’re right.” Robbie was right. Derek didn’t have anything to complain about. They got by…and if anyone was going to gripe about dreams prematurely shattered, it was Rob. But he didn’t. It was good for Derek to have him around…especially since that was all he had.
The telephone rang. Derek leaped up and grabbed the handset off the end table. “Hello?”
“Mr. Hayes? The investigator?”
Derek’s pulse skipped a beat. “Oh, yes! Yes, ma’am.”
The woman on the other end cleared her throat. “My name is Cindy Lane. I’m calling because — I must admit, I’ve never contacted a private investigator before, but I have something that…needs looking into.”
“Yes, ma’am. Go on.”
“It’s about my husband.”
“Oh. Oh, I’m sorry.” Probably not the thing to say, but it was the best he could think of.
“You might have heard about it; he’s the DEA special agent they found…”
Something clicked in Derek’s mind. Cindy Lane…Brian Lane…a slew of news reports almost two months before about a Drug Enforcement Administration agent found in his own car, dead of a meth overdose. Tragic, superlative, and tragically ironic, officers still investigating, and look! cute dog with cute kid owner doing something. And the news cycle had rolled on.
“I remember hearing about that, yes,” Derek said. What could you say to this? “You’d think something…like that…would get more air time.”
“I don’t mind if the investigative journalists, so called, give it a rest. The way they dramatize things…”
“I know what you mean…”
Mrs. Lane let out a chuckle – a small, desperate chuckle. “Well, they didn’t give the whole truth. I mean, he didn’t take those drugs himself. I mean, Brian wouldn’t…”
Her voice caught, and she paused a moment. Derek waited, leaning against an end table and glancing at Robbie.
“I’m sorry. Brian wouldn’t do that. I knew him; I was his wife, for goodness’s sake. I know it sounds silly like that–”
“No. You’ve got every right to be mad at people misrepresenting your husband.”
A sniff sounded over the line. “I’m sorry. I’m not a hysterical person, really. You see, the police think the thing’s resolved. I’m sure they did their best, but I guess they’ve got a million cases on their hands – and the couple people I talked to thought it was pretty straight-forward, which I don’t understand, since I know Brian would never do something like that.”
“I don’t mean to sound like that; I’m sure the detectives did their best — but they must have missed something. Anyway, I was talking to some of the people at the DEA office, agents and administrators and such, and you were recommended as a reliable investigator who might be able to spend more time on this.”
“Thanks.” Recommendations were good, but if the police had closed the case, what more could Derek find out? There were some good officers on the force — on the other hand, if she thought he could help, he wasn’t going to turn this down. And who knew – he understood about juggling cases, and maybe the detectives had missed something.
“So do you think you’d be able to help with this? I’m sure you’re busy, but I can’t just let this rest. My husband wouldn’t have committed suicide – and I’m not sure where else to go with this.”
“Absolutely. Would you be more comfortable discussing this in person?”
“Would you be willing to consider this case?”
Consider it? Derek flexed his fingers. He’d take drug overdoses over serving papers any day. “Absolutely. What time would work best for you?”
“Anytime after eleven tomorrow should be fine, or some time next week –”
“Tomorrow would be great –”
“I realize your time is valuable –”
“Where would you be most comfortable? There are a number of places –”
“I didn’t see a location on your card.”
Oh, yes. About that. “I don’t exactly have an office…but there are lots of good, sort-of third-party places…”
“The Moose Cafe?”
“Are you sure it isn’t too short notice – ?”
“Of course not. I’ll see you at – eleven?”
“Eleven would be great.”
“Excellent. I’ll see you then.”
“I’ll be there.”
Derek clicked down the receiver. He drew a long breath and puffed it back out.
Robbie stopped twirling the remote and grinned. “A case…”
“It’s the wife of that DEA agent who was on the news that one night–”
“It was a while ago; he was found dead of a meth overdose.”
“Yeah…He had a hypodermic and meth in his car, and was parked in that abandoned parking lot.” Derek flopped back onto the couch and grinned. “Talk about interesting!”
“So what’s she want?”
Derek grinned, grabbing the remote. “She insists he didn’t do it — that it wasn’t a self-inflicted injection.”
“Murder?! That should get you a few days’ pay at least.”
“At least it isn’t intestate…” Derek laughed, and wrapped his mouth around a large spoonful of macaroni.
“And you were just griping about all those business cards you handed out,” exclaimed Robbie, gesturing at the TV. “Maybe the lady got your name there!”
“Could be…huh. Well, maybe it wasn’t a total waste of brain cells to listen to all those speeches.”
“That’s not nice.” Robbie sucked on his spoon. “Are we going to watch MacGyver?”
“Sure.” Derek grinned. “Hey…Maybe we’ll stream some Columbo, too.”
“So you can brush up on your technique?”
“Yeah…my cigar-smoking technique,” Derek laughed, bopping Robbie’s nose and grabbing his dish to carry into the kitchen.