As soon as she walked through the door I knew she was trouble.
As it turned out, I was right. But not in the way I anticipated.
I was seated at my desk toying with the peanuts I keep in a pink Depression-glass dish for any clients tempted to indulge. Few ever are. Maybe the mouse droppings mixed in with the peanuts put them off. Maybe the peanuts attract the mice in the first place.
The peanuts don’t really matter. It’s not as though I’m inundated with clients. Only the most desperate walk through my door. Or the hopelessly naïve.
Like this one. A young girl. She wasn’t what you’d call pretty, but you could make the case she was cute as a button. Red hair. Turquoise eyes, the kind that make your heart skip a beat. Her face sported more freckles than a Speckled Trout. She had on a pale green top tucked into summer shorts a darker shade of green.
Her legs below the shorts were bare. Her spotless white sneakers looked brand new. Her arms and legs were tanned. When she saw me toying with the peanuts she hesitated. “Are you Mr. Atti, the detective?”
“One and the same. What can I do for you, honey?”
She approached my desk. “You can begin by not addressing me as ‘honey.’ My name is Melissa. Melissa Manning. You may call me Melissa, since I’m only eleven. You’re an adult, so I’ll call you Mr. Atti.” I’d known her all of a minute and already she’d put me in my place. Even so I liked the kid.
“Have a seat, Melissa.” I indicated one of the two chairs I’d salvaged from the salt marsh below my windows. The locals use the marsh as a dump. You never know what you’ll find there: chairs, glass dishes, a ladder with only one broken rung, a chamber pot you could use as a spittoon. As luck would have it she sat in the chair with the uneven legs. It wobbled. But that didn’t seem to bother her. Maybe she had a rocking horse at home.
“So Melissa.” I put on an avuncular face. “Tell me why you’re here.”
“I want you to find my dog.”
I glanced at the peanuts. Maybe I should put out cashews instead. Might attract a more mature clientele.
I have a pet. A cat. If Marlow went missing I’d be sad. “I’m sorry your dog is lost,” I said. “But locating lost pets is not what I do. Missing persons, yes. Lost dogs, no. Have you tried the pound?”
“Jeeves is not lost, Mr. Atti. He has been abducted.”
Abducted. Fancy word for an eleven year old. I leaned back in my swivel chair (also salvaged from the salt marsh). “Before we go any further there’s the matter of my fee. I charge twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses. A hundred in advance.”
She dug into a pocket and pulled out a small leather purse. It looked expensive. She unsnapped it and removed a wad of bills. One by one she peeled off five twenties and placed them on the desk in front of me.
I raised my eyebrows. Something didn’t feel right. Assuming she hadn’t robbed a bank, this kid was rich. What was she doing here by herself, carrying around that much dough? “How did you get here?” I asked. “Somebody drop you off?” A chauffer maybe?
“I rode my bike, Mr. Atti.”
The portraits of Andrew Jackson stared at me from the desk. Business had been slack lately. I could use a hundred bucks. Pay some bills. Buy Marlow his favorite cat food, myself some beer. Even with the windows open it was stifling in the office. A cold brew would hit the spot.
“Where’re your parents, Melissa? Do they know you’re here?”
The girl’s lips tightened. She swallowed before she spoke. “My parents are dead, Mr. Atti. They died in an automobile accident last year. I live with my uncle.”
“Sorry to hear that.” I fingered the pencil I keep on a pad of paper next to the peanuts, buying time. Take the kid’s money? Or send her packing? A bottle of cheap bourbon took up space in a desk drawer. A slug or two might help make up my mind. But not in front of a kid.
“Are you going to help me, Mr. Atti?” she demanded. “Time is wasting.”
“Hold on, kid. You’re a minor. Does your uncle know you’re here?”
She shook her head. Watching the freckles dance back and forth made me dizzy.