I’ve always had an interest in writing short stories; and I can get inspiration for characters from LEGO minifigures. I also enjoy reading an occasional novel and one of my favourite authors is Raymond Chandler, author of the 1939 classic “The Big Sleep” which featured a Private Investigator called Philip Marlowe; a character that has been considered to be the blueprint for P.I.s ever since. So when FireStar Toys released their custom minifigure “Film Noir Detective” I had to get one; and it wasn’t long before I was inspired to write this opening story line. Also have a look at this “behind the scenes” article on creating the images for this Studs Clutchmore mystery.
The Lady at the Window
It had been a long day. Heck, every day is a long day when there’s nothing to be done. I tell you; I’m getting close to tidying this office up; but then if I did that where would the mice go to eat? I’d finished reading the newspaper to see if there was anything that would interest me and would be worth my while heading down to the precinct to see if I could help the boys on anything, when something very strange happened; my door opened and someone walked in.
“You lost?” I asked her.
“You a Private Detective?” she responded. Touché.
I waved her towards a chair, or at least I knew there was a chair under the newspapers and take out boxes. Perhaps I really should look at tidying the office. She raised her hand to decline my offer and I didn’t blamer her. And, I didn’t mind if she stood either.
“How can I help, miss…?”
“My father said you were once the best there was.” She looked around the office, and I could see the cogs in her head whirring.
“I spent very little time here.”
She walked over to the side of the office and opened the door. Except, we both knew it wasn’t a door but my fold-down bed. As it started to open, I was able to get up and stop it from opening too far. Nobody needs to see that.
“You’ve made your point; but you’re not hiring me because you need your house cleaned. So, I ask again, how can I help, miss…?”
“Smith. Miss Penny Smith. I need you to investigate my house. I think it’s haunted.”
Smith. That name did not ring any bells with me, but then why would it? It’s such a common name. But a haunted house? The whole area was a new development and as far as I could recall it wasn’t an old Native American reservation, or a housing estate that was cleared in the war; it was just an empty forest plot that was cleared when the settlers came to town. But hey, money is money and I could at least clear this month’s rent. I looked into her eyes; probably one of the most stupid mistakes I could have made this week.
“So, my rates are… I’m sorry, I can’t take your money. Look if you live around here there is no hidden story; the oldest houses are only about 50 years old and I moved here about 30 years ago. I can tell you there has been nothing in this town that might cause ghost phenomenon. From everything I’ve read, ghosts don’t travel, except on trains, and only if the original person was killed on one. I’m sure there’s a rational reason behind it and it may well be you won’t need an exorcist or a detective, but a plumber to deal with the knocking pipes.”
It was rare for me to be well read on anything, but I do like a decent ghost story.
“Look, the house is haunted. There’s a strange lady at the top window when I get home after working at the diner; she’s pale and white. When I go in the house I go to the top window, but there’s no-one in the room and there is only one set of stairs that lead to the room.”
Ok, so right now I am a little spooked and a little interested.
“So, this happens every night? Or how often; what time of night? Does it happen in the day?”
“It’s always at night; or at least, I’ve never seen it during the day. I seem to notice it more when I’ve closed the diner up late; everyone else in the house has already gone to bed, so it’s not like there’s a light on or anyone else up.”
I sat back in my chair because I know this part of town; I knew that there were P.I.s around here that would easily take her money and then string her along. I’ve followed dead-end leads at the insistence of clients, taking the money that they were throwing at me just so they felt that someone was doing something. I also thought that this was going to be one of those cases. But, those big, pleading eyes showed a desperation that I really needed to help. Guess it’s time to be the last Boy Scout.
“I tell you what. I’ve got a couple of motion cameras that I can set up. I’ll run them for a week and if we see anything, I’ll take the case. If not, promise me you won’t try to get someone else to take your money.”
She looked directly at me. I could see her mind trying to judge if I was just playing lip service, that I thought she was half a sandwich short of a picnic, but I had offered to play along. But then I saw that she realised that this was probably the best outcome she could hope for.
“Okay. When can you come?”
I looked at my watch. They say it’s five o’clock somewhere, but my watch only said three o’clock and I really had nothing to do.
“See those two boxes behind you? Yes, the blue ones. Get them down for me please.”
I opened each of the boxes and checked that they had new batteries in them; that there were no previous images stored in their memory and that the lenses were wiped clean. I put them in my bag along with a few zip ties, screws, and a screwdriver.
“Let’s go. My car’s around the back if you need a lift.”
The drive to her place was quiet. I think she was still thinking I wouldn’t take her seriously. I was thinking that I really should clear out the newspapers and takeout wrappers that had started to give the interior its own unique smell that no Christmas tree dangler would ever get the smell out.
We turned onto her street. It was a part of Heartlake that I hadn’t been to before. The houses were set back from the road and unlike the rest of the town each house nestled in between well-established redwood trees. I immediately felt the chill as the tree canopy cut the strength of the hot sun. I could see why people might think this was pretty, but I also wondered how structurally sound the houses must be, sitting on all those roots. The road made a final curve to the left and she pointed out her house.
“There it is… and there she is.”
My eyes flicked to the rear mirror; I didn’t want to find another car buried in the boot. But there was nothing, so I stopped the car and looked ahead.
The house shone like a beacon, the sun reflecting on the white painted wood. The house had a loft room built into the roof space and there was a single sash window. And there, in the window, was a person looking directly at us.
I reached down to the car door pocket and got my binoculars out. I looked back at the window, straight into the eyes of… Beth?
My passenger looked at me.
“You know her?” she asked.
“Yes” I replied, my throat drying up faster than a desert, “that looks like Beth, my wife. Except…”
“So, you’ll take my case then?”