PI Sydney Brennan’s first error in judgment: performing a background check for her ex-boyfriend. Her second: delivering the report in person to his upstate New York home, where a man is murdered shortly after her arrival. Will believing her ex is innocent be the third error that leads to another murder?
Following is the first chapter of the Sydney Brennan novella, Secrets in Stockbridge:
If you were a professional accountant, would you agree to prepare your ex’s taxes? For other than revenge purposes, I mean. If you were a baker, would you agree to make his wedding cake? For other than revenge purposes, I mean. If you were a plumber, would you agree to fix his toilet? For reasons other than a court order to fix the damage you had inflicted, I mean. You get the idea. So what the hell was I thinking when I allowed my ex-boyfriend Bran Woodford (yes, that’s his real name) to hire me to do an investigation? I wasn’t thinking about revenge, but I wasn’t thinking smart either. I guess I just wasn’t thinking.
I’m a private investigator in Tallahassee (which is in north Florida or south Georgia, depending on who you ask). Bran lives in upstate New York. We dated long ago when we were both living in Boston after college. Our breakup wasn’t particularly acrimonious. At the time, I decided the occasional perks of dating a trust fund baby didn’t outweigh the everyday reality of dating a trust fund baby. He didn’t take it personally. Of course, he didn’t take anything personally. Did I mention the trust fund baby part? Don’t get me wrong—Bran wasn’t a bad guy. He’d just never really had to be a good guy.
I’d heard a little about Bran and his exploits (from friends, not tabloids—the trust fund wasn’t that big) but hadn’t actually heard from him in over ten years. He called out of the blue recently, opening with a few minutes of casual chitchat before segueing into “so I hear you’re an investigator” and culminating with an offer I didn’t have a good reason to refuse. His request seemed simple: a background check into a man his aunt Jeanette was dating. Also in his favor, he called at a time when my coffee kitty, along with the rent and other less important funds, was dwindling. On top of that, I hadn’t been vaccinated in a while (yes, that’s a euphemism), so my resistance to his considerable charm was pretty low. So let’s summarize. An old friend, with whom I just happened to have been intimate, currently living a thousand or so miles away, asked to pay me real money for work that I regularly do, work that would require no more contact between us than a brief phone call from me advising that a report was on the way. An old friend whose check wouldn’t bounce. Still think I was stupid? Of course I was.
The background check was relatively straightforward, as I had hoped. The brief phone call advising that my report was on the way was not straightforward. In fact, that’s where things got complicated.
“Bran, hey! It’s Sydney.”
“Sydney—thank God!” A more enthusiastic response than I was used to, but maybe it meant I’d get a bonus.
“Listen, I wanted to let you know that I finished my report. No major red flags, but I can give you the highlights if you’d like. I was wondering whether you preferred your copy by snail mail or email.”
“I’d like it in person.”
“You mean like Fed Ex?”
“I mean like you. Coming up here. In person. Today.”
“Bran, you haven’t gone all Howard Hughes on me, have you? Tell me you’re not serious.”
“I’m not crazy, and I am serious. They’re talking about getting married. We have to stop it.”
“I assume you mean Jeanette and James. With alliteration like that, it’s obviously meant to be. Look, stopping weddings is a little outside my job description. And you’re not my only client right now.” (Little white lie.)
No response. Waiting people out is an investigative tool I’d spent years honing. Unfortunately Bran is a savant, and he outlasted me.
“Bran, I can’t just drop everything and fly to New York.”
Another little white lie. I could go; I just didn’t want to go. And I was not going to speak first this time. Seconds ticked away. Metaphorically. Where’s a good old-fashioned non-digital clock to stare at when you need it? Obviously not in my office. Maybe I should buy one. And some new blinds for the front windows that face the street. Mine were looking a little tatty. My office chair was on its last legs (so to speak) as well. Every once in a while the chair would start slowly creeping toward the floor on its own, so slowly that it gave me Lilliputian panic attacks. I probably wouldn’t get them if I were a little taller to begin with.
I continued to silently inventory the state of my office furnishings. This time Bran caved first. “How about tickets to a Red Sox game?”
I quickly flipped open my day planner, skimmed through it, and glanced at the calendar on my desk. I really could fly up there. Put off some paperwork. Take a break from the Florida heat. Avoid the legislators and their circus—wait, they weren’t in session now. Okay then, help a friend in need.
“I can get you in a Dugout Box, close enough to smell the sweat,” he offered.
“Okay, but I can’t leave until tomorrow. And I have to be back on Monday.”
I tried to sound grudging in my acceptance, but I don’t think I was very successful. Bran knew there’s very little I won’t do to go to a game on the rare occasion I’m within a couple hundred miles of Fenway. Make it a Dugout Box and the list gets even smaller.
“Great! Thanks, Syd. I really appreciate this. And my fiancée is looking forward to meeting you. My assistant will make the arrangements and email you the details. ”
That evening I nearly wore a groove in my floor walking between the closet and the bed, deciding what to pack. I tried to tell myself it was because I was going to a different climate, but come on—summer is summer. No weather in New York would be more challenging than the juxtaposition of Tallahassee’s heat and humidity with the extreme air conditioning de rigueur for all buildings in the capital. It wasn’t the weather I was trying to dress for; it was my ex-boyfriend. Or more accurately, his fiancée.
Bran and his fiancée and his aunt Jeanette and her fiancé James and who knows who else—oh yeah, me, with no fiancée —would be staying at the Woodford house. I wasn’t sure what cover story Bran had for me, but experience had taught me great respect for Bran’s abilities of fabrication. Which brought me back to—fiancée! Who the hell would marry Bran? Impossible to say, since he’d managed to hang up without even giving me a first name. Come to think of it, meeting the woman who could get Bran to the altar was worth the entire trip. Although I hear he’d had a few near-misses, so she shouldn’t count her half of the trust fund until it hatched. I laughed out loud and felt my wardrobe dysfunction melt away as I threw my usual road uniform (jeans and button-down white shirts) into a carry-on. My only fashion concessions were to pack some nicer camisoles, a couple of scarves to tame my crazy red hair, and one cool summer dress, in case the heat and/or social pressure got to be too much for me.
* * * *
My flight the next morning was about as straightforward as it could be, considering I was flying last-minute from Tallahassee’s regional airport (seriously—what other state capital has a regional airport?) to Albany. Which means it took me seven hours. I remember Atlanta and Detroit, and I think maybe the International Space Station was in there somewhere. Thank goodness I had packed light—it made the cross-terminal sprints easier. On the bright side, I had plenty of time to review my notes and get my head on straight during the trip.
James Marshall had been upfront with Jeanette about the skeletons in his closet, including his conviction for check fraud under his previous name, Jimmy Smith. I confirmed that he’d served a couple of years in Broward County, Florida, back in the mid ‘90s, and I didn’t find any other criminal convictions under either name. The Florida connection is one of the reasons Bran gave for calling me, and there was some logic to that. Once I’d exhausted all of my paper trails, I’d put out some calls and eventually got someone who’d been an investigator for the Broward Public Defender’s office at the time James was convicted.
Simon Marshall (no relation to James) is a guy who runs counter to stereotype. With his English accent and silver-haired good looks, Simon is more likely to be cast as a high-class jewel thief than a lowly PD investigator.
“Believe it or not, of all the Smiths I’ve met in my storied career, I do remember Jimmy. Pretty minor charges, but he was an interesting guy. Very charming.”
“Oh, come, Simon. I’m sure he has nothing on you.”
“True enough. I remember the first time we met, he asked me to explain the game of cricket to him. People are always asking me silly questions—does the queen really use Tupperware? What’s in a Yorkshire pudding? Those types of things. But Jimmy had this look when he asked … he wasn’t seriously asking, but he wasn’t just taking the piss either. It’s like there was a joke we were both in on. I told him he’d asked the wrong reformed Englishman; it just seemed to me like baseball for people short a few bases and a proper bat.”
“So charm aside, if his charges were so minor, what made Jimmy memorable?”
“Glad to see you continue to be more than just a lovely face. Something just felt a little wonky about Jimmy’s case. First of all, it was a felony, but one of the less felonious ones if you catch my meaning. An attractive woman a few years older than Jimmy—married, I might add—claimed that Jimmy had forged a couple of her checks. It wasn’t more than a few thousand dollars. When I interviewed the woman, let’s just say I felt she wasn’t being entirely truthful with me.”
“The account was in her name. Her husband was a lawyer or banker or some such thing and had made sure she had her own account for household expenses and play money. But I think he suspected her play was getting a little too playful. He checked the account and confronted her, and she came up with this ridiculous forgery story.”
The sounds of Simon fiddling at his desk were audible over the phone. He’s notorious for keeping all his office memos in a tray and cutting them (unread) into mini paper doll chains while talking on the phone. Being so good at his job and close to retirement, no one higher up found it worthwhile to do anything about it except designate juniors to fetch Simon for crucial meetings. I still couldn’t resist a little dig.
“Careful playing with scissors. Is this just your gut talking or do you have evidence?”
“Thank you for your concern. For the record, no portion of my alimentary canal has the power of speech. Call it a combination of intuition and empirical evidence. I saw the checks. If Jimmy were that good a forger, he’d be working a different circuit. And from what I can tell, Jimmy knew bugger all about forgery. He didn’t need to. Jimmy had a reputation for exciting the kindness of women. Why take what is freely given? He may have gone as far as the occasional bogus investment scheme, but Jimmy never took anyone for more than she could afford to lose. That’s how he avoided being charged.”
“Okay, so you didn’t believe the victim. What else was off?” I asked.
“Well, like I said, this wasn’t a serious case as felonies go. And I think he had a good chance of winning in court, or at least dealing out for a slap on the wrist so the victim could avoid going to court. The odd thing is he didn’t. He didn’t push for bail, and once a trial date was set he pled guilty. To the original charge, with very little reduction in time. Sentenced to something like three years, probably served less.”
“A little over two. What do you think—guilty conscience?”
Simon barked out a laugh. “Not bloody likely. I spent a fair amount of time with Jimmy, though I didn’t need to. You know how it is—sometimes it’s easier to deal with the wankers you have to see if you’ve also got someone to look forward to. I’d pull him out for a social visit whenever I happened by the jail. I enjoyed talking with him, but there was always this undercurrent, like he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Some other charges to be filed or something; I don’t know what. I asked him once about his willingness to go to prison. He just fed me that line about ‘three squares a day.’ We both knew there was something else going on, but we also both knew I wasn’t going to get any more out of him.”
I could hear another voice in the background, then Simon’s chair hitting the floor and scissors hitting his desk. “Sydney, love, some wet-behind-the-ears bloody lawyer tells me I’m supposed to be in some bloody nonsense meeting now. Promise me you’ll call next time you’re in the neighborhood.”
“Abso-bloody-lutely, Simon.” I always suspected he pulled out extra bloodies on my account. I’d once admitted I was a sucker for his accent. “By the way, Mr. Marshall, did you know Jimmy legally changed his name after he got out?”
“No, Ms. Brennan, but I can’t say as I’m surprised.”
“Trying to get a fresh start I guess. He changed it to James Marshall.” Silence on the other end. “I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. ‘Ta, love!”
A speechless Simon Marshall was a first in my experience. I didn’t have a problem with someone getting a name change (Sydney Brennan isn’t the name I was born with either), but I also hadn’t inspired a felon to adopt my last name as his own.
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