Erika had the following prompts to choose from-
Wendy- If I could live in a movie it would be…
Amy- First line: “When she walked down the aisle, she stumbled when she spotted her high school sweetheart in a pair of dark sunglasses sitting in the first row.”
Cameron- The case of the missing pens
Jen- Great big gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts
She chose… Cameron’s…
When I first considered my prompts, I was immediately drawn to Amy’s. I thought, how fun, the main character is about forty and at a heavy metal show, maybe Iron Maiden. As she walks to her seat she sees her boyfriend from high school, still looking eighteen; he hasn’t aged a day! I was thinking of perhaps a modern-day revamping of “A Portrait of Dorian Gray.”
That got me thinking… which led me to this… the case of the missing pens.
I drank my tea as I waited for my newest client to show up for our 10am meeting.
It had been almost a year since Sam died in a freak car accident. As my mind lingered on our shared jokes, frequent laughter and the few kisses we exchanged in the days just before his death I longed for one more talk, another kiss and the feel of his arms around me one more time, just one more damn time. I sighed, not fooling even myself.
One more would never be enough. How could it ever be? I had been lucky to have that time together, enough to realize our love for each other. I just hadn’t been lucky enough to get to keep him. No, one last time together wouldn’t be enough. There wasn’t a number big enough.
I closed my eyes for a moment, putting thoughts of Sam away.
“You’re Charlie Watts?” A stranger stood next to my table and set his coffee down at the place across from my seat.
“You seem surprised,” I said.
“I suppose I was expecting someone older, more British and male,” he said, folding his arms and raising one eyebrow at me. “You aren’t what I would picture as a drummer.”
I stifled a groan. The fact that my name was the same as the drummer for the Rolling Stones had elicited a lot of jokes (usually unoriginal and not-funny) and comments (all trite) over the years. I waited, raising an eyebrow at him in turn.
He smiled in a charming way and stuck out a hand. “Hi, I’m Nick Scratch. We emailed?”
I stood and grasped his hand. “Charlie Watts, P.I.”
“Please to meet you,” he said. “Thanks for making time for me on such short notice.”
Nick Scratch was a few years older than my own age of thirty-three and handsome in a well-groomed, blonde metro sexual way. His shoes, leather loafers, were expensive. His dark blue suit was well-cut, extenuating his lean form, and his tie sported the latest “in” colors for spring: lime green and royal blue. He had a way about him that reminded me of the few really professional confidence men I had met over the years. The sort of suave, “I can be anything you need” oiliness that set alarm bells ringing in the back of my head. Oh no, sir, I thought, there isn’t a thing I need from you. He had started to pull a business card from his shirt pocket, but then tucked the card away again.
“You can give me a card if you like,” I said, taking a sip of my tea.
He shook his head. “Wrong card. Force of habit, I meet so many potential customers, you see.”
“Alright,” I said, flipping open my iPad and preparing to take notes. “How can I help you, Mr. Scratch?”
“Please, call me Nick.”
“Sure. What seems to be the problem, Nick?”
He turned his coffee cup a couple of times. “Charlie? Short for Charlene?”
“Ah, of course.” Still he hesitated, gazing at his cup. When he lifted his head I was struck by the appeal in his brilliant blue eyes. My eyes are blue, but his were blue off the charts. “This is… embarrassing. You see, I’ve lost something, or it’s been taken, but either way I was the responsible party. It isn’t going to look good for me.”
He had my attention now. It was always easier dealing with my clients when they got to the heart of the matter. Sincerity usually translated to more accurate, truthful information and that meant I wouldn’t waste precious hours chasing false leads to save some idiot’s ego. But I digress.
“What did you lose, Nick?”
He blew on his steaming coffee and took a cautious sip. I got the feeling it was for show; he was stalling. “I lost a case, a valise.”
“What were its contents?”
“Does it matter?”
I pushed my iPad away from me. “It does if the contents are illegal. I don’t bend the rules, Mr. Scratch.”
“No, no, you come highly recommended and your integrity is vouched for. That’s why you are so intere… er… why I chose you. And it’s Nick, please.”
I folded my arms and waited.
“Please,” he said, holding up both hands in a conciliatory manner, “there’s nothing illegal in the case. I promise.”
“Any leads you can offer?”
“Only that the thief must be an employee of the company I work for.”
“As sure as I can be.”
“How on earth could you possible know it’s an employee?” I asked.
He paused, his jaw clenching for an instant. In fear? In anger? I couldn’t tell, only that there was some real emotion there. “This case opens in a unique way. One must have a blood match.”
“A blood match?” I repeated. “Truly?”
“There’s no other way. You can’t crack it, can’t blow it up?”
“No.” His answer was confident in its grim finality.
“Okay, then. How long has your property been missing?”
I allowed my surprise to show on my face. “You must have emailed me about ten minutes after you realized it was missing then.”
“That’s pretty quick. Contents insured?”
“These are beyond any value. No insurance company can help me.”
“Really. These are… unique.” His emotions read true. As far as I could tell, Nick was missing something of value and he was worried. You don’t survive long in my business without being able to get a good read on people. “Here, this is for you.” He pushed a thick file folder toward me. “My personal number is written on the front. I’ve provided a website and password which will allow you to peruse our security footage at my various facilities.”
I thumbed through it. “This is a lot of information. Still not going to say what exactly I’m searching for?”
“And if it is removed from the valise? How will I know what I’m looking for?”
“They won’t be removed.”
“Won’t or can’t?”
He smiled in a rueful way. “Stop digging, Charlie.”
“It’s Ms. Watts.”
His smile faded. “Stop digging, Ms. Watts. Start working your case.”
“You understand my rates? $750 per day plus expenses?”
He cocked his head to one side. “I do and I accept them. However, I will leave you the option of changing your price should you see fit.”
I frowned, confused. “Excuse me? Why?”
He stood and waved an arm for me to proceed him with exquisite courtesy. I noted that he was at least a foot taller than me. “I like you, Ms. Watts. That’s all. No agenda, I am simply leaving you the option should you see fit to take it.”
As we left, passing the register we heard loud voices. “I want a manager! Right. Now.” A customer was berating the cashier. The unlucky young man at the register sporting a nose piercing and ear gauges, turned away, muttering to himself, “What I’d give to be out of here.”
Nick leaned over and discreetly handed him a business card. “When you know what you want, give me a call.” The twenty-something barista stared at the paper, transfixed.
“You’re a head hunter?” I asked.
He shrugged. “In a manner of speaking. Call me when you have some information?”
I nodded, glancing at the manilla folder. I was curious and eager to begin. “You bet. I’m going to get started right away.”
“Thanks, I appreciate you making this a priority.” He sounded sincere… and relieved.
It only took me ten minutes to drive to my office which, coincidentally, was also my home. Times being what they were it made no financial sense for me to rent an outside space and hire an administrative assistant. I worked from home, took my own phone calls and did my own errands. One thing I didn’t do though, was invite clients to my house. I reasoned that was what the good Lord created Starbucks for. My house wasn’t much, but it was my sanctuary and I intended to keep it safe.
I parked my black Toyota Tacoma on my gravel driveway. Carl, my Rottweiler (yes, I named him for the “Good Dog Carl” books), bounded up with his usual infectious wiggling joy. “Hey, boy,” I murmured, tousling his silky ears. “C’mon, Mom’s got work to do today. Gotta pay the mortgage.”
I spent the entire day and into the evening on Nick’s problem. Late that night, cracking open a well-deserved Lagunitas IPA, I put my feet up on my desk and thought. Based on the warehouses and lists of employees, their duties and hours combined with their sworn statements, I was fairly certain that I could lead Nick to his missing items. I was also equally certain that I didn’t know squat about what was really going on here. For starters, how this file had been pulled together in the intervening hours was beyond anything I had ever seen.
Nevertheless, the next morning after I braided my long, dark hair and tried to make myself reasonably presentable, I called my client and told him the good news. Nick pulled in front of my house within ten minutes. I wasn’t happy as I had wanted to meet at the Starbucks. How had he gotten my address? Did he have me followed? I mean, it wasn’t hard to do, but it was pretty rude.
Carl, my adorable affectionate pet, was growling, hackles raised, and teeth showing in a savage display. I had never seen him react to anyone this way. My dog was actually foaming at the mouth as he stalked Nick, step by step. Stranger still, Nick didn’t seem the least bit affected; he even seemed amused. I frowned. Carl was a big dog, and he did not appear at all sweet right now. Anyone would have been a little scared, or at least put off by this kind of aggressive behavior. “Carl, bad dog. No!”
Nick turned to me. “No, Ms. Watts, don’t scold the beast. He is doing as a good dog should do.”
A rush of good will filled me at his patience with my ill-mannered pet, replacing my earlier puzzlement. Carl rushed forward again, snapping and growling in a ferocious display as he lunged for the interloper. Fearing for Nick’s safety, I put myself between my dog and my client just as the Rottweiler leapt. ‘Carl! No! Down!”
Carl twisted to avoid landing on me and his massive bulk hit the sidewalk. He whimpered, a broken and confused sound as he slinked away from me and Nick. I hurried to the dog, who licked my hands in canine submission. Looking up, I saw Nick’s sympathetic blue gaze on me. “I told you,” he said, “he’s a good boy. Dogs just don’t like me, never have.”
Just then, my mail carrier, Hank, came whistling up the walk. True to form, Carl launched into full-scale barking, but without the foaming, growling and hackles he had exhibited with Nick. I stared, wondering at the difference. Hank gave me a cheery, “Good morning,” but his worried eyes lingered on the large dog I was holding back.
“Always with the dogs. Damn dogs.” I could him muttering as he went down my driveway, shaking his head.
As Hank passed Nick I saw him reach into his pocket for a card. “When you know what you want, give me a call.” I heard Nick say in a persuasive voice. Hank paused, staring at the card as though seeing the world for the first time, his face alive with some dawning realization. I couldn’t help speculating on what he could possibly be thinking.
“I should take Carl to the yard,” I said.
“Of course, take all the time you need. I am sorry I upset your pet.”
I took Carl to the backyard, slipping him a couple of his favorite liver treats. He still whimpered, nuzzling at me as if afraid for me, rather than simply afraid. I shook my head, knowing I was anthropomorphizing to the ‘nth degree.
I returned to Nick as he held his car door open for me. Trying to act as if sliding into a Bentley was something I did all the time, I settled myself on the plush leather and got down to business.
“I’m not sure why you called me,” I said as we backed out of the driveway.
“Really? Whyever not?”
“This wasn’t a difficult case to crack.”
“I have many servants, and many who wish to, what is the word? ‘Kiss-ass?’ I need someone who thinks for herself, who can draw conclusions. I… I do not always understand people.”
“Okay, I hope you didn’t waste your money.”
“Well, I do not have my property in hand as yet, nor have you been paid. Perhaps, as the saying goes, you should not be counting chickens.”
“Point taken,” I said and then I told him where to drive.
We went to a lonely warehouse on the outskirts of town, where country met city in a confused juxtaposition of scenery.
“So, Ms. Watts, why here?” asked Nick as he parked. Shutting off the engine, he turned to face me. The bright morning sun lent him a glow, even a halo of suffused golden light.
“You can call me Charlie,” I said, remembering his kindness toward my Cujo-esque dog.
He acknowledged my comment with an incline of his head. “Thank you. Now, why are we here?”
“Based on the records that you gave me, only sixteen of a possible four hundred and thirty-two employees were in the right place at the right time to take the case as you described.”
He blinked. “You eliminated so many based on?”
“Many were eliminated through their schedules and log-ins, some by their commutes and travel times, not to mention Fast-Pass information and others by their snack preferences.”
“Their snack preferences?”
“Yes, you see certain of your businesses have specialty snacks that they are quite good at preparing and some of your employees are adamant in not missing. You know, the chicken chile nachos or the loaded potato skins.”
“You, you, were able to narrow suspects through snack habits?”
“Right, you see your snack bars don’t stock enough. They always sell out of the good stuff, even on graveyard shifts. There’s a limited time for the quality foods. By tracking where an employee’s key card was used to purchase food and triangulating that with security footage, I was able rule out those employees whose movements could be accounted for at the critical time.”
“Through snacks?” Nick was shaking his head.
“Well, and driving, company meeting logs, that sort of thing, but sure, snacks, too.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“Everyone loves to eat.”
He smiled then, a wide natural grin, the first I had seen from him. “No argument there, Ms., I mean, Charlie. Shall we look around?”
“That’s what we’re here for.”
“Who’s there?” I heard a woman’s voice.
Turning we saw a short elderly Asian woman in a green security uniform. She moved in slow, stiff jerky movements. “Good morning, Mrs. Ito,” said Nick, bowing with respect.
The woman’s face crinkled with a welcoming smile. “Hello, Mr. Nick, very nice to see you. What a pleasant surprise!”
“Are you alright, Mrs. Ito?” he asked, putting a hand under one of her elbows.
“Oh, I’m fine, just fine. Still, I’m not getting any younger. My knees hurt, and my hips. Got a bad shoulder, just never seems to stop hurting.” Her voice trailed off. “I can’t remember what it was not to hurt.” She shook her head, and said in a brighter voice, “I’m fine, not to worry a bit, Mr. Nick.”
Nick reached into his shirt pocket. “When you know what you want, give me a call.”
She stared at the card, but didn’t take it. “No, I’m fine.”
“You hurt all the time, Mrs. Ito, we can’t have that. I want to help.” He held the card out to her.
She shook her head. “Not to worry, sir.”
Nick leaned toward her, his voice gentle. “You said it yourself, when was the last time you didn’t hurt? When did the pain go away? No one deserves that.” He held the card closer.
Her hand trembled as she reached for the slip of paper. Nick’s smile was dazzling. “When you know what you want, give me a call.” His voice was hypnotic. I frowned, unsure of what I had witnessed.
“Have a good day, Mrs Ito,” said Nick. He searched in his pocket and pulled out the cards. I could see he only had two left. I glanced at the cards. In large letters on the top I could read, “Morning Star, Limited.”
“What’s “Morning Star?’ A talent agency?” I asked.
Nick returned the cards to his pocket in a quick movement. “Something like that,” he said, not meeting my eyes. “Where now? According to you, we still have sixteen employees to sift through. And there’s no cafeteria here.”
“No.” I shook my head. “Just one.”
Nick turned to meet my eyes. “Only one?”
“Best as I can say.” I shrugged, and then I was lost. Staring into Nick’s eyes was like nothing I had ever experienced and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to explain it. Imagine staring into the oncoming storm, spitting into a hurricane, watching a whirling vortex of ancient evil, good, pain, sorrow, joy, humor, hate, love, all wrapped in one incredibly complex being. “What are you?” I gasped, wrenching my gaze from his through sheer force of will.
“Not like you,” he said, his tone frank and a little sad. “Now, my property?”
I trembled as I pointed toward the rear double doors. “I believe there is a man, named Gilbert, who loves the back lot of this place. Your profiles and statements make him out to be a simple man. I think he’s out back.”
Nick’s face altered to such a grim mask that I feared what might happen next as he hurried through the doors I had pointed to. I followed behind. I would have wrung my hands if I had known how exactly this was done.
The back field was in actuality, a lovely meadow, the country half of the strange melding of city industry with rural space that was this particular property. Under an oak tree sat a man, with a small case open, and he seemed to be drawing. Coming closer, I saw he had fountain pens scattered about him and he was drawing on what appeared to be business cards. All around him, spray painted on the ground in red were arcane symbols that I did not recognize. They surrounded him in a large circle. With a start I saw that Gilbert actually sat in a giant pentagram filled with other painted symbols. Nick’s face darkened with anger. “Gilbert!” He thundered. “How dare you?”
The man named Gilbert, looked up, his smile was beatific. In an instant I realized he was stoned out of his mind. “Making pretty pictures, trying to undo what I did. Don’t want to give it up.”
“A little late now,” growled Nick. “It is mine. You signed.” He seemed to grow larger, his features even shifted. It was as though he became a different man. His voice sounded different and the bright glow I had observed about him darkened. Without meaning to, I took a step back.
Gilbert waved a hand around him, at the pens strewn about in his pentagram. “But now, no one can sign. No more deals. Gone, gone. Contracts gone.” His voice was a sing-song, but then he spat at Nick, speaking with force. “Get thee behind me, Satan, get thee behind me and torment me never more.”
In the bright morning sunshine, I felt as if all the heat had been sucked from the sun. My hands trembled as I reached behind me to check that my pistol was tucked into my shirt as always.
“Forget the gun, Charlie,” growled Nick. “It’s gone. Though feeble, do you really think I’d let you carry a weapon of any kind against me?”
“Nick,” I whispered, “what is happening?”
He turned to me and I saw again the strange changes in his features, his mannerisms, even his voice. As he addressed me, I saw the Nick I had met in the coffee shop reappear. “You’re different,” I continued, “When you speak to me versus how you are with Gilbert. You aren’t even the same man.”
“I started out The Adversary,” Nick said in a quiet voice as he circled Gilbert, inspecting the markings on the ground. “When I was young, I always imagined myself the lawyer, a voice arguing for justice. It seems these days my destiny is that of a salesman.” He met my eyes again, the contact burned like a living brand, searing my soul. “You do not want what I am selling.”
I shivered as he continued moving with slow deliberation around Gilbert who muttered nursery rhymes under his breath, ignoring Nick and I. Nick continued, “They call me evil. I am their definition of evil. Yet, I am only what you all bring with you when you approach me. If you bring weakness, then I match it. You bring hate and bigotry, then I give you your just desserts. But you, Charlie,” and he turned to me, “are something else. You are not vain about your looks like many women, though you are fair. You do not seek to be young forever, you seem to enjoy the voyage of life and though you have lost, and lost greatly, you accept this as what the universe is and how humans move through it.”
“Who wants to live forever?” I whispered, scared at what might happen next.
“More than you’d think,” said Nick in a dry voice. “Take our friend here.” And he pointed to Gilbert. “He wants to live forever, well, correction, he didn’t say forever. His bargain specifies that he will be young all his days. Of course, given this transgression, plus the fact that my contracts do not lend themselves to longevity and I’d say his days of wine and roses are just about done.”
Nick stopped moving and I held my breath. “You missed a spot,” whispered Nick in a venomous tone to Gilbert, pointing to a gap in the arcane circle. “I find our contract null and void.” Before my eyes Nick was changing, becoming dark and evil. He pulled a card from his pocket, but this one I could see was covered in tiny script. Gilbert stood, I could see his despairing wail on his lips before he even gave it voice.
“NO!” I screamed with all my might.
“What?” spat Nick. “He is mine, legally, morally and now, certainly for his transgressions these past hours. His soul, unending hellfire- that’s the deal.”
My heart was pounding and I gasped for breath. “You said, I could change my fee, that I could name my price.”
Nick became still. He did not answer me, but I knew he was concentrating on my every word. “I cannot,” I said, “I cannot stand here and watch whatever you are about to do to him. Don’t make me a part of this.”
“You wish me to take him to Hell and do it there? Done.”
“No!” I screamed. “My price is you release him, the contract as you said is null and void. Now, forgive the debt.”
Gilbert had fallen silent and Nick regarded me. The meadow seemed to be holding its collective breath. “Run,” said Nick with contempt to Gilbert, “and for the rest of your miserable and long life, during which you will age, thank the heavens for Charlie. Without her you would reside with me for all eternity. Perhaps now you’ll take this second chance and make something else of your life. Something deserving of a different hereafter, one without me. Now… RUN!”
Gilbert took off. I have never seen anyone move so fast. Amazing what motivation can do for a body. The unnatural silence of the field behind the warehouse gave way over the minutes to a more normal silence. It was the kind of quiet filled with the buzz of insects and the occasional bird call on a sunny morning.
“You never offered me a card,” I said at last, wondering why.
“I do not have anything you want,” he answered with a thoughtful expression.
I remembered Sam’s bright eyes and broad smile with a pang of yearning. No, I told myself again, one more conversation, one more touch would never be enough. There isn’t a number big enough, you would always want more. Glancing up, I saw Nick’s hand on his shirt pocket, as though about to reach inside. I frowned at him and his features lit in an unexpected smile. “Still no?” he asked. “Good.”
Leaning down he repacked the small valise, setting his pens and cards inside with care. I watched and the thought crossed my mind, would it do any good to try to stop him? Would it change anything? Save anyone? I started toward him. “Don’t even think of it,” Nick said in a flat,murderous tone. I found I could not move, I was frozen, held by an unseen force.
Nick straightened, still wearing a smile as he regarded me and I found I could move again. “Though it may sound strange for one such as me, I would vastly prefer if you never took a card. I think this world is far more interesting with you in it .” In a gesture of surprising grace, he bowed and then gently took my hand in his and kissed it with an old world gallantry.
Stepping back, he added, “And I would never wish mine on you.”
He turned to go and I couldn’t resist saying, “So, should I call you, Lucif–”
He stopped and our eyes met, in an intense rapport. Again, I saw something more than human, greater than me and a whirling eldritch kaleidoscope of evil, good, pain, sorrow, joy, humor, hate, love, all wrapped in one being. When I blinked, the instant of contact was over, broken.
“You can call me ‘Luke.'”
He walked across the sunlight meadow, case in hand. A shadow appeared before him, malignant and so dark I couldn’t see anything through it. Its blackness seemed to seethe and boil as though alive. It was a gateway, I realized, but I shuddered to think where it led. Luke looked back once, and raised his hand to me, before striding into the gaping maw and disappearing. For a moment the shadow coalesced into the shape of a pair of huge, ebony wings and then faded without a trace.
And that is how I first met the Devil and helped him find his pens.
This post was written by Erika Gardner. If you enjoyed it, please sign up to receive updates on this blog or on her personal site www.erikagardner.com. Or you can follow Erika on Twitter @Erika_Gardner or “Like” her Facebook page Erika Gardner- Writer and Storyteller.