Find The Lady
Parson Short stepped into Carol's Cafe. Not a place known as a den of intrigue, at least lately. He missed the old batwing doors but the air conditioning was a good trade on a hot Texas afternoon. He carried the backpack over to one of the tables, removed the laptop and turned it on so it could be connecting while he ordered his java.
At the counter he asked for his regular black coffee, no fancy stuff. A sweet roll caught his eye. Carol's sweet rolls were sinfully good; large, gooey sweet, and came heated with a generous dollop of real butter. Behind the counter Jean rolled her eyes when he asked for one. She’d gotten to know him too well. He took his coffee and returned to his table to finish setting things up. With the slump in private eye business lately Short had stopped paying for internet at his little one man office. If things didn't look up soon, he'd have to let that office go as well.
Working at the cafe was better anyway. He was well known here. He could camp out at one of the tables for a half a day and use the wifi, read or people-watch. Today his plan was to run updates on his cell phone.
His old cell phone was three upgrades behind, but it did all he usually needed. It wasn't like anyone was calling him these days. Oddly enough they were still issuing updates for the software, even though the techs expressed amazement that it still worked. His sweet roll came while he was getting the process started.
The internet signal was slow today. Short read his email and unobtrusively watched the other customers as he enjoyed his roll and coffee. Sometimes a job lead would come his way if he kept his ears open. There was nothing today, though.
He was distracted when he saw an attractive young woman enter carrying a small box in her hands. He watched as she stood at the counter and looked over the menu. Before she made up her mind a pair of sheriff's deputies entered the cafe and walked toward a corner table. The girl abruptly turned and exited. Jean shrugged and turned to carry the coffee pot and mugs to the two deputies.
Short realized that he still had a fourth of his sweet roll left but his coffee was gone. He waved Jean over with the pot. As Jean filled his cup she suddenly said, “Oh damn!” put down the pot and darted to the door. She quickly returned and said “too late!” She indicated the small box on the counter. “She not only didn't order, she left that behind.” Short got up and looked the package over, it was taped shut and had no markings on the outside.
“Do you know her?”
“Don’t know her name. She comes in sometimes. I think she works in an office, she usually orders a tray of coffees and several scones.” Jean looked around the counter then checked a paper spike. “She brought a list yesterday, here it is.”
Short took the slip of paper. It was a pale blue note, torn from a pad. Part of a letterhead was on the top of the page. It said Otheros United.
“Jean, this is what we call a major clue! Otheros is just outside of town. I was just thinking of going there to see my ex. Want me to drop it off?”
“That would be great, Parson.”
Short handed her his card in case the girl returned. He packed up his laptop and cell phone, nodded at the deputies in the corner and left the shop. The small package was nestled in his coat pocket. There had been no serious prospects for income in his email, and above all, nothing from Amy. However, things were looking up. He had an excuse to see her at Otheros and maybe score a finder’s fee in the process.
As Short drove his '71 Olds Cutlass on the road north of town his phone rang. A glance at the screen told him it was Tupper Rountree, an old client. Short picked up the phone. Tupper said, "Hi, Short. I got a message that you called me."
"I did, a couple of days ago. I was wondering if you could pay me that hundred that you owe me!"
"I wish I could, buddy, but I just don't have it right now."
Short became aware of an intermittent buzzing noise coming from the package in his pocket. He took it out and laid it on the seat. He hoped it wasn't going to explode as he replied to Tupper. "Call me buddy after you've brought your tab up to date."
"I have a check coming in next week, I'll pay you then!"
"I'm counting on it, Tupper."
He hung up. There it went again, the package, buzzzz, buzz. Maybe it was the kids cell phone. But why wrap it up? Should he open it? As he pondered this, Short pulled into the parking lot of Otheros United.
The company consisted of a cluster of buildings inside of twenty acres of chain-link fence. The administrative office was at the front with an open parking lot, access to the other buildings was through guarded entrances.
Short walked through the entrance. A burly guard near the door glanced at him and looked away. Short had a moment of worry. Amy had started work here since the divorce and he hadn’t visited. Of course there was that whole restraining order thing, but that was all a mistake. Still, it was sort of a letdown that no one recognized him.
The receptionist looked up from her desk. She managed to give the impression she was looking down at him at the same time. “May I help you?”
“I’m here to see….”
Before he could finish a young man walked in from the hallway and laid several file folders on her desk. He passed an appraising look over Short and asked. “Are you the private detective; Mr. …..?
Short was surprised by the question. He almost forgot to answer. “Umm, yeah. Short, Parson Short.”
“I’m Keith. Mr. Atkinson’s assistant. He’s been expecting you. He’s in conference room B, down the hall. I’ll show him the way, Cheryl.”
Short was a bit flustered. Why did the president of the company want to see him? Had something happened to Amy? Or was he really getting the bum's rush after all? He followed Keith down the hall. The door to the conference room was open and a man was inside. Keith made a vague hand motion waving Short through the door and continued on.
Trevor Atkinson was tall and matinee idol handsome. He looked up from the spread out paperwork and pointed at a chair. Short approached him. “Mr. Atkinson, I’m Parson Short. I understand you’re expecting me?”
Atkinson took his hand and shook it firmly. “Yes indeed if you're an investigator Mr. Short, or is it Reverend?”
“Mister is fine, Parson is my name, not my job.”
“Good, then you can get started right away?”
“What is it you need me to do?”
“I’m sorry, I thought your office had filled you in. Something has been stolen from us. Something important. We’re still in a state of a shock, I’m afraid. Industrial espionage is not that common here.”
“Tell me all about it.”
“A piece of experimental hardware was taken in the past few days. We need it back and we need the thief apprehended. That’s why we wish to retain you.”
Short thought of the box in his coat pocket. “How small are we talking, bread box or pack of cigarettes?”
“A pack of cigarettes would fit. You see we developed a new …”
Just then the intercom broke into the conversation. The receptionist said, “Mr. Atkinson. There is another investigator here.”
“Send him in, Cheryl.” Atkinson turned to Short. “Are you expecting an associate?”
Short thought of his empty one-desk office. “Not really.”
Footsteps came down the hall and Ty Bonnet stepped through the door. Seeing Short he spoke abruptly. “Why are you here, Short? Otheros is our account!”
Atkinson turned to Short. “You two aren’t together?”
Ty snorted. “In his dreams.”
Short held up his hands in surrender and smiled. “I think there may have been a mistake. I was talking to the receptionist and I’m afraid your assistant made an assumption…”
“I’m confused. You’re not a private investigator?”
Ty laughed. “That’s what I keep saying!”
Short ignored him. “Yes sir, I am.”
Ty stepped between Short and Atkinson. “Get lost Short. I have this job.”
Short raised his hands again. “No worries. You can have the account. However, I do believe I may have a lead on what you are looking for, small box about so big by so big, purple tape holding it closed” Something told Short not to admit the box was on him. He hoped it wouldn't buzz again.
The other two looked at him. Ty’s face turned red. Atkinson had a thoughtful look on his face. He turned to Ty and said. “I’m afraid we won’t be needing you at this time Mr. Bonnet. I’ll work with Mr. Short on this matter.” Short felt the box vibrate again in his pocket but he covered it by clearing his throat vigorously.
Ty grimaced at Atkinson's remarks. His jaw bunched as he said, “Very well, Mr. Atkinson.” As he turned to leave, a glare at Short promised retribution to come. Short shrugged and turned back to Atkinson.
Atkinson sat behind the table, getting comfortable. He steepled his hands in front of his face and spoke. "So, Short, do you have the item? Where is it?"
"I can put my hands on it. It's in a very safe place for now."
"And the thief?"
"I don't know yet, but I'll find her…or him. Especially if I can use the box as bait."
"It better work!" Atkinson pulled out his checkbook. "Will a thousand do for a retainer?"
Short's heart thudded and re-started itself. "Sounds reasonable."
"You have twenty four hours."
"That may not be enough!"
"It will have to be. There are deadlines involved. Bring the box to me within twenty-four hours with or without the thief."
Atkinson keyed the intercom, "Cheryl, Mr. Short is leaving. See him out please."
Short was a mile down the road before he realized he had forgotten to ask for Amy. He'd be returning in twenty-four hours, he supposed that would be soon enough. He had felt the box vibrate a couple of times during his interview with Atkinson. If it was a cell phone, the battery would be running out at this rate. He called Jean at the cafe but no one had come looking.
Short decided to stop off at the Max’s Hula Hut for dinner on the way home. Some gluten-free burritos and kolaches would balance out his sweet roll for lunch, he figured.
Jay Leno was in rare form as Short finished off the last of the Goo Goo Cluster ice cream. The studio audience was laughing at a joke about the President when there was a knock on Short's door. He muted the show and opened the door. Amy was standing on his front step. Shocked, he backed up and let her in. She kissed him lightly on the lips. "Mmm, Goo Goo Cluster! How are you doing?"
"How's the private eye business?"
"Oh, you know, slow. You look fantastic!"
"Why thank you kind sir! You know, Cheryl told me you came by the office this afternoon, and why."
"I doubt that, I actually came to see you."
"Oh, I thought that was probably it, but you spoke to Atkinson instead. He hired you to retrieve something."
"Cheryl talks a lot."
Amy put her hand on his chest. "You know, if you give it to me, I'll see that Atkinson gets it. It would do a lot for my career. I'd really appreciate it!"
Short had trouble swallowing for a moment. In spite of everything, Amy still had that effect on him. "It isn't here. Besides, I can't, I need it to catch the thief. You shouldn’t tempt me, besides, what about that restraining order thing?"
"Is it…tempting? The restraining order is nothing. Just something the girls said I should do. You'd never hurt me. Would you?"
"Of course not."
Short's coat was on the dining room chair, he watched as she idly ran her hands over it, as if she were caressing a puppy. He sighed as he remembered her talented hands. They were so talented he’d stopped leaving his wallet in his coat or pants after the second month they were married.
"You're a sweet guy. Are you sure you won't give it to me? You know I can make it worth your while."
"Like I said, it's not here. And I've made other plans for it."
"You're loss, tiger. I’ll just leave you alone to think about it. When you come to your senses you know where to reach me. Any time, just whistle!"
He followed her out, making sure she left, then breathed a sigh of relief. The part of him that had been missing her wasn't the same part that remembered how utterly mercenary she was. Fortunately he had hidden the box in a safe place. The box had vibrated several more times while he was watching television and he'd grown tired of it. Besides, he wasn’t too sure what Atkinson might do. He'd finally put it inside the back of his old radio, a 1932 Silvertone floor model that he'd always intended to restore. People these days tended to forget how much empty space was in one of those old electronics cabinets. Short often used it as a place to stash things. When he’d first gotten it there had been an old bottle of nitro glycerin stashed in it. That was another story.
However, Short was really getting curious about what was in that box. Some mysteries were more solvable than others.
Short overslept the next morning. As he was enjoying his coffee and donut for breakfast his phone rang. Jean was calling from the cafe. "That girl came by for the box. I was giving her your card when her friend showed up. The friend said she knows you. They're on their way."
Short had only just hung up the phone when he heard the car on the gravel outside. When he opened the door he recognized the young woman from the cafe. She looked at him nervously. Strangely, or maybe not, she was accompanied by Amy. He ushered them both into the kitchen.
Amy said brightly, "Surprise!"
"I'm not sure anything could surprise me anymore."
"This is Justine Atkinson."
"Oh really? Any relation?"
Justine spoke, "Trevor's my uncle. Amy said that you have my box."
"Your box, huh? Did she tell you why I was holding on to it?"
"Yes, but we were hoping to convince you otherwise."
"So tell me."
Amy put her hand on Justine's arm. It was almost painful to see how Justine looked at her.
"Let me tell him."
Justine nodded jerkily at her. She turned to Short.
"A programmer in Kansas developed a smart phone app called "Pinocchio". It's pretty ingenious. He wanted it to be free to the public, but Otheros stepped in. They bought it outright. The programmer then had a "fatal accident". Otheros, specifically Trevor Atkinson, felt that they could make a lot of money by charging money to suppress the app."
"And Pinocchio is,,,"
Justine spoke, "It's a handheld lie detector. On a phone."
Amy nodded. "In the box is a smart phone. What they call a "jailbreak" model. It can be made to work with any cell provider. But that's not the important part. On the phone is the only existing copy of the Pinocchio app. A courier dropped it off, no one has even had a chance to open it yet."
Short thought for a moment, "so, people of means who don't care to be caught lying…."
Justine smiled nervously, "most politicians, salesmen, televangelists, …"
Amy laughed, "heck, plenty of spouses. There are any number of people who would pay to avoid being caught in a lie."
Short started to reply to that but let it go.
Justine rubbed her temples. "That was Uncle Trevor's plan. To see how many people he could find who would pay to have it destroyed. That's why I took it. It just seemed really wrong. Amy helped me, but basically I just walked out with it a couple of days ago. I was taking it to show a TV journalist when I lost it."
Amy playfully swatted her on the hand, "you left it in the cafe, you mean!"
"There were deputies, I thought they were following me."
Short thought for a moment. "How does it work?"
"Only the developer really knew. However, when it's running on the phone no one can tell. You can program it to use a ring tone or vibrate if you want. You set it so that you won't confuse it for a call or a text message and you're the only one who will know. In demo mode it vibrates a long and a short signal, like "buzzzzzzzzz—-buzz." Just another text message if anyone hears it, but only you know the truth."
Amy said, "Literally!"
Short made a decision, he went to the other room and retrieved the box. He returned with it to the kitchen.
Both Amy and Justine reached for it eagerly, Short held on to it for a moment.
"I sympathize with what you want to do, but I have a dilemma."
The other two looked at him, puzzled.
"I do have a commitment to return the device, along with the thief. And, Atkinson knows that I have it."
Justine looked at Amy, then spoke hesitatingly. "I'll be in trouble, but I can't believe Uncle Trevor will press charges. I’ve been feeling bad about it anyway."
Amy said, "I think you’re being silly. I think I have an idea about the phone though. Can I have it?"
Short reluctantly handed over the box. Amy took it and carefully began to peel off the tape.
"What are you doing?"
"You'll see." She removed the tape easily enough, opened the box and removed the phone. She glanced at it and dropped it into her purse. Then she pulled out another cell and put it into the box. "This one is clean. I took it from a recycling center." Then, she re-taped the box and dropped it onto the floor, pulled a skillet off the rack and whacked it hard three times. The box was crushed, with the new phone inside. Amy laughed, “There now, it was accidentally dropped and run over by a car!”
Justine turned white as a ghost, "What have you done?"
"Think about it, honey. As far as they know the phone is destroyed like it was going to be anyway. If Short takes you to Trevor with it, what are they going to do about it? Meanwhile, I'll take the phone to the press and after a few days the story will be out! Atkinson's contributors will be pissed, but what can they do? I'll give you the credit; you'll be a hero! Trust me!"
Before anyone else could move, Amy picked up her purse and bustled out the door leaving a quick peck on each of their cheeks. Short let her go.
Justine shook her head, "what just happened?"
"We've been Amy’d. No doubt she plans to pull the same scam Atkinson was going to. Within an hour she'll be contacting congressmen, and so on."
"She wouldn't do that, she said she's going to the press."
“Are you two, umm, a couple?”
Justine looked down, then shook her head. “Amy’s been very sweet to me.”
"You don't know her like I do, kid. I doubt either of us will see her again.”
“How could you let her do it then?”
“Experience, she’s sort of a force of nature. Forget it, let's call your uncle and see if we can convince him."
As he dialed the phone Short sighed. He really wasn't surprised. It was probably better this way.
Short entered Otheros United with Justine in tow. Cheryl was not at the reception desk. The uniformed security guard met them. His nameplate said "Bruno".
Short raised an eyebrow. "Bruno? Really?"
Bruno shrugged and led them down an empty hallway to another conference room. Ty Bonnet was inside. Bruno entered with them, closed the door and put his back against it.
Ty spoke first, "Where's the box?"
Short and Justine spoke at the same time, "Where's Atkinson?" "Where's Uncle Trevor?"
"He called a company meeting in the cafeteria. He didn't want anyone to know you were involved. I repeat, where's the box?"
Short pulled a plastic bag with the crushed box from his pocket and laid it on the table. Mangled and disintegrated plastic and electronics were visible through the tears in the cardboard. Ty poked at it a bit then carefully placed it into a drawer.
"That's unfortunate, Short. Still, it was likely going to be destroyed anyway. You've failed all around, it seems. The device is gone and you failed to bring in the thief!"
Justine spoke, "That’s not true! He brought me in, I'm the thief!"
"Nonsense, Miss Atkinson. You just showed poor judgment."
Short stepped forward. "Stop the runaround. My arrangement was with Atkinson. I insist that we see him."
Ty smiled a shark's smile. "You're not in any position to make demands, Short. In fact, Mr. Atkinson may see fit to charge you with stealing the device and kidnapping poor Justine here!"
Justine started to interrupt but Short grabbed her arm. "You'll never make that stick."
"I guess it all depends on who has the most expensive lawyer. Even now I'm watching as you physically threaten her. Guard, restrain Mr. Short!"
Bruno stepped forward. Short stepped back, his hands up. "It's okay, Bruno. I'll go peaceably." He turned back to Ty. “Nothing had better happen to the girl.”
“It won’t. She’s a valuable family member. Now, escort Mr. Short from the premises, guard. His services are no longer required!”
Bruno stood to one side and indicated the door.
Ty had to have another last word. “By the way, Short; Mr. Atkinson stopped payment on the check!"
The guard held the door as Short walked through. The hall was still empty of life as Bruno walked him to the exit and ushered him out.
Short turned and saluted. "See you soon Bruno, it's been a pleasure!" Bruno merely shook his head and took his station beside the door as Short crossed the parking lot, his new cell phone vibrating in his pocket. One long buzz, one short.