A James Cartwright Hard-Boiled Noir Short Mystery
By Oliver Dean Spencer
The Conversation (Excerpt)
“If the cards are stacked against you, reshuffle the deck.”
― John D. MacDonald
SHE KEPT STARING AT ME from across the diner. I had been working my way through a couple of eggs—over easy, bacon, home fries, and a dried-out tomato slice. I was famished after a night of chasing down a missing orangutan from a local zoo. I gulped down the last of my coffee and made my way towards her.
“Excuse me miss, but do we know each other?” She looked up giving me this look of utter disbelief as if such a possibility was absurd. And then she told me as much.
“I’ve never laid eyes on you in my life.”
“Well. I’m sorry to have bothered you.” I made to turn, to head back to the remnant of my morning chow, when she reached out, grabbing hold of my arm.
“Are you James Cartwright, the private detective?”
“On what?” She seemed to have a low tolerance for being ignored.
“On why you’re looking for him.” She considered this obvious fact for a moment.
“Please forgive my manners. I’m Julia. Mrs. Julia Martin. We spoke earlier on the phone,” offering up a smile with her words that could stop dead—a crash of rhinoceroses. She then extended her perfectly manicured hand, one that had probably never seen a day’s work. I shook it. It felt as soft as lamb’s skin.
“So, what is it that you think I could do for you, Mrs. Martin?”
“A friend of a friend told me you could help.”
“With what, exactly?”
“A missing person. My husband to be exact.”
“Have you been to the cops?”
“That’s just it. I haven’t. I figure they would suspect me right off.”
“Suspect you of what?”
“Why is that? You said he was missing. So, either he’s missing, or he’s dead?’
“I’d have to say both.”
I took this last detail in and chewed on it for a few seconds. But it was leaving a bad taste in my mouth, similar to the dried-out tomato slice I had tackled moments earlier.
Truth be told, I already knew who Mrs. Martin was. And there was a strong possibility she had killed her husband. It wasn’t by chance that our fates should cross at ten thirty in the morning, at a local greasy diner.
A week earlier, I had returned to my office after a case, to find a plain white envelope slipped under the door. It was stuffed with ten crisp Franklins and a note. The note was from a one Albert Martin.
He wanted to put me on retainer in case anything happened to him. He did not give any details, except that if anything untoward should come of him, his wife would most likely be behind it. He left no forwarding address, contact number, or means of returning the money—so I tucked it away in my safe and waited.
Of course, I tried tracking Martin down. But it was futile. The name was the thirteenth most popular surname in the US. I did some preliminary checks on most of the Martins residing within Motor City’s inner core and surrounding Wayne County District. But no luck.
Then a couple of days ago, as I was heading out to my favourite breakfast diner, I got a call from a woman claiming to be Mrs. Martin. She said she wanted to meet. Since I was already heading to Frankie’s, I told her to meet me there. I got there before her, grabbed a seat near the front and ordered my usual.
Ten minutes later she showed. I could tell she was nervous and out of sorts—probably more at home during an opera recital at the Metropolitan, then at a jam-packed local breakfast haunt. I didn’t approach her. If she made me, I’d introduce myself and go from there. I hadn’t given her a description of myself, so the odds were that she wouldn’t.
I didn’t exactly fit the expectations of a slick, modern day, PI. I weighed in at around two hundred and twenty-two pounds, stood six feet two, and had a snub nose and chiselled face which gave some, cause for alarm. I was wearing a black cotton, double-breasted suit. My favourite black felt Fedora sat on the table, next to my breakfast.
I asked her once again, why she had contacted me. She said she already told me why. She thought her husband was missing, but most likely dead. As I feigned to leave for the second time since striking up a conversation with her—she finally decided it was time to level with me. She believed her husband had been killed for what he knew. That he had uncovered a plot to cover up a murder.
“Who’s murder?” I asked.
“I can’t be sure. It had something to do with a company named Consolidated Enterprises.”
“What about it? Can you give me more details?”
“Only that my husband was a security expert and he was hired by the company to investigate some internal problem.”
“What exactly was your husband’s expertise?”
“Well, he also told me to contact you directly if anything should happen to him.”
“How do you know something’s happened?”
“The particular thing about my husband is that he is extremely compulsive. When he’s not at home, he calls me every hour on the hour to make sure I’m OK. I haven’t heard from him now for over twenty-four.”
“I see.” But I didn’t. What began as a simple open and shut case regarding a possible homicide, one which I could have shuffled off to the local cops, had become much more complex and intriguing.
“Alright Mrs. Martin, I’ll help you.”
I proceeded to quote her my standard fee, which was two-fifty per day plus expenses. Without any hesitation, she pulled out her chequebook and filled in the amount for a thousand.
“I hope this is satisfactory?”
“Hopefully, your husband will be back in a couple of days, and I’ll be offering you a refund.” But we both knew that was doubtful. Plus, something just didn’t sit right about Mrs. Martin, and I’d probably come to regret this moment. My gut was usually never wrong.
The Conversation is available for a special low price of .99 at these following online stores: