"We've got an intriguing one this time!" Frank announced from the comfortable swivel chair in the reception room of Sunset Investigations, as soon as the agency door had opened. He belatedly tore his studying gaze from the computer monitor on the island positioned desk in front of him, looking sideways to make sure it was his partner who had arrived.
Stepping inside from the upstairs corridor of their two story building, Marcus couldn't help grimacing. The exhausted detective felt a lot older than his thirty-five years. He had just wrapped up the Williams case, getting not only fraud charges against that accountant dropped, but vindicating him after the man had sideswiped his Malibu against Chief of Police Charlie Armatron's three-day-old Lincoln, in the Court House parking lot. Alert Rutherford Williams had swerved in order to avoid running over a child on a skateboard.
"He's right, it is an interesting mystery," a sure of herself woman agreed without hesitation, her tone full of confidence. Holding a small potted plant, she was standing beside the shoulder high bank of filing cabinets that were in a corner, to the right of the door.
Looking across his shoulder, Marcus saw a rotund figure wearing a plug ugly dress.
"Hey," she cheered, "how about that! You're close to being the spitting image of Tom Jones, when he was younger. Can you sing?"
Marcus appreciated being compared to the once quite famous singer, Tom Jones, even though he'd rather remind people of a butt stomping Rambo. Actually, he figured that he fit somewhere in the middle, between those two examples. First glance saw him to be a nicely built gentleman, polite, respectful of others, with a charming smile. But when he was ticked off, muscular shoulders would bunch, biceps bulged, his manners became a thing of the past, and he'd been told that on those occasions his glare alone could slice through heat tempered iron. He always thanked his grandmother for her fib.
He strode briskly over to Frank. "Who's that?" questioned quietly, thumbing a point accordingly toward the graying redhead, who was probably three decades older than they were. He hoped that nothing critical was being deleted from the computer, as always seemed to happen when Frank so much as touched one.
"Our new girlfriday. Mrs. Patrick." Shooting her a swift glance, an off the cuff warning was issued. "I'd advise being nice to her, she doesn't take guff from anyone."
Detective Marcus Ryan turned around to face the agency's new employee. Recognizing a self-important expression on her round face, he couldn't help testing Frank's advice, by sniggering, "Shouldn't you be at home collecting Social Security?"
"I'm not over the hill yet!" she sniggered right back, a sparkle in her green eyes.
"Could have fooled me," Marcus muttered, turning back to his partner. "Where's Sue?"
"Yeah, Sue. Your wife. The last time I was here, which was yesterday, Sue was our girlfriday."
"She quit to go to work in a bakery. Mrs. Patrick is a lot more competent, so we're better off." Frank shrugged after his disclosure.
"I am competent, Mr. Ryan," she verified. "Take a look at the monitor and you'll see that I've already set up the file folder on this new case."
"I don't want a new case. I want a beer!" he all but bellowed, clamping both of his hands onto his slim hips. He glared back and forth from one smug individual to the other, striving not to laugh.
"Aw, come on, Marcus. You'll love this case," Frank told him.
"Seems to me, I've heard that before. On several illustrious occasions. Only this time you aren't going to talk me out of taking my vacation. I haven't been anywhere in years. Or longer."
"Suit yourself. I don't need you to help solve this one, anyway. It'll be a nice change for me to do all of the leg work," he flat out lied.
"I'm going to end up hating myself," Marcus began to mutter, his curiosity peaked, "but what's this case about? Who's the client?"
Sensing success, grateful that it wouldn't be himself stepping on all kinds of official toes, Frank began tossing out the facts. "There actually isn't a client..."
"Then how do we get paid?"
"We aren't. This should turn out to be a point winning gesture. Public relations. I don't know. The thing is, Tucson P.D. will owe us big when we wrap this case up!"
"Now hear me out before you pass judgment, Marcus. Mrs. Patrick was familiarizing herself with our computer files. The next thing I knew, she'd somehow gotten us linked with the computer system down at the cop shop."
Marcus canted his head so that it was possible to look at the woman who'd worked nothing short of a miracle. He had been trying to do what she'd done, ever since he'd bought the agency's first computer, what seemed like half a century ago. That antique machine had since been relocated to his private office, and was now taking up space under the vanity in the connecting bathroom.
Doreen flashed a magnificent smile, her very round face radiating an aura of confidence. Smoothing the skirt fabric of her yellow and green pinstriped dress, she felt the dangling presence of computer shaped charm earrings tapping the sides of her fleshy neck.
Rising to his feet, beginning a circular pacing route around the centrally located reception desk, Frank continued his explanation. "It seems that Tucson P.D. has been keeping secrets..."
"You mean that Charlie has been holding out on us?" Marcus cut in to snigger, not believing a word of it. He and the chief were friends. Friends didn't hold out on friends.
"Yeah. Good old dependable Chief Charlie Armatron, head law dog down at the cop shop. Your pal. Now please let me get on with this!" He had used swinging arm gestures for emphasis.
"Sure," Mrs. Patrick replied for Marcus, earning herself a pair of scowls. Her five-foot six frame erect, she smiled at the detectives, who were both half a foot taller than herself, and shrugged. Actually, she judged Mr. Curtis to have an inch on Mr. Ryan.
Frank cleared his throat, concentrating on divulging the remaining information accurately as he continued to pace. "You've undoubtedly read in the newspaper, that in separate instances, three men have been murdered."
"Yeah. You and I have even discussed it," Marcus said, his gaze following him.
"Right. Something is in the paper about it nearly every day. This is where the withheld information kicks in. There's definitely a pattern developing."
"You sound like it would be preferable if there'd be more poor souls killed just to develop that pattern," Mrs. Patrick declared with a visible shudder. She crowded her massive bulk past him and wedged herself into her swivel chair. No easy task, and there was substantial overflow.
"That's not what I meant, at all," he said without getting upset because of her accusation, or because she'd nearly tripped him. "You'll eventually get the hang of common speech patterns connected with the private investigation business, as well as law enforcement jargon, in general, Mrs. Patrick."
"I guess I've got a good deal to learn, Mr. Curtis. Right now, talking of patterns makes me feel like I'm working in a fabric store." She chuckled at her own joke, then sobered when neither of the men so much as cracked a smile.
"It seems to me, Frank," Marcus began slowly, "that the girlfridays you're prone to hire all have the same asinine sense of humor. Where'd you find this old bat?" He nodded at Mrs. Patrick and folded both of his arms across his chest.
Halting his march between the back of the computer, and the wall on which hung the large picture of a window, he clarified. "I didn't, I just did the official hiring. Sue found her own replacement. Mrs. Patrick was Sue's instructor at the computer class. They..."
"We were chatting during a break," she cut in swiftly, determined to do her own explaining, "and when I found out that Sue has a keen interest in baking, I suggested she go have a chat with a friend of mine. Jacob owns a bakery. She of course was hired to fill the job opening."
Marcus winced. If there was one thing that Sue could be sued for, it was her baking talent. She'd nearly poisoned him, several times over. The cheese bread was the worst. He'd tossed the yellow brick under his trailer months ago, and the last time he checked, the ants still hadn't touched it. "I'm sure she appreciated your--"
"My reasons were purely selfish, Mr. Ryan. I wanted her job. Here. Teaching isn't anywhere near as fascinating as this is bound to be," Mrs. Patrick stated assuredly.
The smile he gave her was genuine. "I'm assuming it's because of your teaching skills that you were able to hack your way into the police station's computer system?"
"Yes," she replied. "But it doesn't hurt to have a nephew that's a geek, either!"
Frank winced. His own computer skills ranked right up there with those of a chimp. "Shall we get back onto the subject of three the murders? Before we lose our edge?"
"Shoot," Marcus said, squinting at the monitor. He hadn't bothered inquiring about which edge.
"No, they were stabbed," Mrs. Patrick said as a reminder. She didn't mind when both of her bosses strode close, to stand one on either side of her. "You already have to know part of this from the newspaper, but I'll recap it. Thomas Sinclair was the first victim. His body was found out in the alley behind his house nine days ago. That would be May 10th. He'd taken out the garbage at about 8 p.m., right before it started to rain. When he failed to come back into the house, Janet, his wife of many years, went looking for him. He was out in the alley, sprawled on the dirt beside the dumpster. His throat had been slashed. He was already dead."
Marcus reached and depressed the 'page down' button on the computer keyboard. "Read on, old bat," he said.
"Sure, and then perhaps you'll sing for me, Tom," she countered with a perfectly straight face.
He gritted his teeth, grinding out, "My name isn't Tom, and I don't sing. Now get on with the file!"
Doreen shrugged. "Well, the body of Art McBain was discovered on May 14th, by the cleaning crew at his place of business. Rusty Apple Imports. He was crumpled on the floor of the universal restroom, between toilets, and under the stall partition. His throat had been slashed, too. His wife's name is Sonja. She came to him as a bride from somewhere in the Orient." Mrs. Patrick scrolled down to the next file.
"Buddy Carltin was victim number three. He was found slumped over the steering wheel in his car, where it was parked outside of his garage. Which is, Buddy's Body Shop, on east Speedway. That was the day before yesterday, May 17th. His middle torso had six stab wounds, two of which could have been fatal. His wife's name is Karen. They hadn't been married all that long."
"Most of what you've just read made the news. Why are you putting an emphasis on the victims' marital status, and spouses?" Marcus inquired, bending forward slightly toward the monitor.
"That's where the pattern is developing the strongest," Frank interjected. "Although the papers didn't mention it, all three of those women were battered wives."
"Do the files give statistics on where that information came from?" Marcus questioned. He looked from his partner to their new girlfriday.
"You don't want much, do you?" she countered, her eyes quickly scanning line after line of information. "It seems that after the deaths, all three of the wives had expressed their relief to the investigating officer, and briefly told him why. As for how the killer knew ahead of time that they were being physically abused ... well, there's no mention of it, Mr. Ryan."
"There must be something? It can't be a coincidence. Did the families know one another? Maybe from an abuse therapy group?" he rattled off, also reaching to take control of the computer mouse.
Mrs. Patrick smacked his hand away, declaring, "Mine!"
"I was right. You are an old bat!" he countered crossly.
"In that case, I'd watch my neck if I were you!" she hissed. A few clicks, and she had the printer zipping data, which included pertinent addresses.
Frank reacted first, snatching the sheet of paper up before it had completely fallen into the catch tray. "I hired a quick learner," he said, rapidly digesting the short versions of three brutal murders, some of which information had been reported by the daily newspaper.
Marcus whisked the sheet of paper away from his partner. "This'll be a start. Oh, by the way, you two, since the cops don't want all of the details on this case spread around, we'll help their cause by not letting them know we're on to them. We'll wait until they're out from underfoot before we question anyone."
"Let me get this straight," Frank began, his voice elevating slightly. "You aren't going to confront Charlie about holding out on us?"
"Now, I didn't say that. I certainly do intend to give him a piece of my mind..."
"Hope it's a big piece," Mrs. Patrick grumbled.
"...and you can count on that! It's the lawdog's pack that'll hopefully be in the dark. The less people who know we've gotten ourselves involved, the more likely we are to succeed. We'd also have to explain how we became involved," Marcus said, nodding toward a geek's aunt. "And now that we're square on that ... while I'm questioning the widows, Frank, why don't you browse through the newspaper archives. I'd like to refresh my memory on the stories as they'd been reported for the public to digest. From what I remember, they'd been given a lot of space, even though details were sketchy."
"Hell! Athenaeums give me claustrophobia! I'll feel like the walls are closing in. Besides, I hate micro-fish contraptions!" Frank growled, totally unhappy with this turn of events. He was grateful that the newspaper was owned by a tightwad, who had not upgraded to a computer system. Frank might detest micro-fish, but at least he knew how to use it.
Instead of commenting, Marcus strode toward the door. Pulling it open, he hesitated fractionally, then stepped across the threshold out of the agency and into the corridor. He returned in a flash, glaring at his partner. "I'd like to see you in your office, Frank. Privately!"