Chapter 5

 

Melody Krol turned to pass the customer’s order on to Jeff. He waved his hand, still working on a previous order. She turned the other way to look for Janine, but she was mopping up a spill. Melody apologized to the customer for the delay and began making the order herself.

Stan’s Coffee House was a small shop with a small staff, and that made it difficult to handle busy days. As Melody prepared the double espresso, she grumbled, wondering for the thirtieth time where Ravenswood was. He was supposed to be working that morning but never showed up, or even called. If Jeff hadn’t popped in unexpectedly, they never would have been able to handle the crowd.

As she finished making the drink, she paused to compose herself. It wouldn’t be good to just yell, “Here!” and slam the cup down in front of the customer, so she forced herself to speak pleasantly. “Here you are, sir.”

The customer smiled. “Thank you.”

Melody turned back to the register. For the first time that morning, there was no one waiting. Jeff gathered some of the dirty utensils and brought them into the kitchen to wash, and Janine began cleaning some of the tables in the sitting area. Melody took advantage of the lull to try to call her fiancé again, but there was no answer. She stamped her foot in anger.

“What’s wrong?” asked Janine, carrying a tray of dirty cups back to the counter.

“Ravenswood. He’s not answering his home phone, and his cell phone is dead.”

“Have you tried his private eye office?”

“He had that phone disconnected months ago. He doesn’t do much P. I. work any more.”

Melody looked around the shop. It was crowded, but not too busy. The clock on the wall said 9:05. “Do you think you and Jeff could handle things if I leave for a little bit? I’ll get back before the lunch crowd.”

“Yeah, sure. No problem.”

Melody gathered her purse and headed out of the shop. She was worried about the detective. The fight at the warehouse hadn’t lasted long and the heroes all appeared to be all right afterwards. But there was still a chance he could have suffered an injury that seemed minor, but was actually more serious. Those were the kinds of things the team had to be aware of, and one of the reasons it was important to keep tabs on each other.

Still, her worry was far eclipsed by thoughts that perhaps he had stayed up all night reading trivia on the internet. Or, worse yet, simply forgot about going into work... because he was drunk.

The building which held Ravenswood’s office was a few doors down from the coffee shop. Melody had first met the private eye three years earlier, when he stopped by the internet cafe because his computer had died. At first, their relationship was professional; he became a regular of the establishment, preferring the cafe’s high-speed internet to his dial-up. As time went on, they began to talk, realizing they had much in common. Soon the two were socializing outside of the coffee house. Considering that Ravenswood was fifteen years older than her, neither of them expected their friendship to grow much deeper. They certainly didn’t expect it to turn into love.

Glancing at her engagement ring, Melody exited the elevator on the fifth floor and headed to the private eye’s office. She pounded hard, her anger getting the best of her. The peephole went dark. A moment later, the private eye opened the door. He looked like he hadn’t slept all night.

Internet, Melody concluded.

“Did you forget to come in to work?” she demanded, pushing her way in. “You know, my father is your boss now. This doesn’t make you look good.”

“I called Jeff and asked him to fill-in for me,” Ravenswood said, defensively.

This threw Melody off-guard. “Wait. What? He didn’t say anything. I thought—” Melody was suddenly embarrassed. The young man had tried to tell her something after arriving, but they had been interrupted by a customer and she had forgotten to ask him again later. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I figured you didn’t set your alarm or something.” She purposely left out the part where she thought he might have started drinking again.

“That’s okay. I probably would have thought the same thing, too.”

Melody looked around the tiny office. File folders were everywhere: on the chair, on the desk, on the photocopier, all over the floor, and a few on top of the filing cabinet. The only spot that didn’t have any files was the filing cabinet drawer itself. “What happened in here?”

“I was up all night thinking about that name, Sara Wolff. I know I’ve heard it before. I’m pretty sure it was during one of my old cases.”

“So, you’re looking through all your files?”

“Yeah.”

Melody felt the last of her anger subside. “Have you been up all night?”

“Almost. I woke up at three. What time is it now?”

“A little after nine. You’ve been searching that long?”

“Yeah, but I haven’t found it. I’m about to give up, to be honest.”

“I’ll help you look.” Melody pulled her long blonde hair back into a ponytail and opened one of the cabinet drawers. It was empty, except for a single thick file. “You’ve got a file on Michael Bruce?” she asked, surprise in her voice.

“No, I was hired by Michael Bruce. That’s everything I’ve done for him.”

“Have you looked in here?”

“No, it wouldn’t be in there.”

Melody cocked her head and put the file aside. “Okay. I’ll start with those others.”

“Thanks.” Ravenswood went back to his desk and picked up the file he had been looking through. Soon his head slumped back and he began snoring.

“Poor baby. Up since 3 a.m. You sleep, okay? I’ll look through this stuff.”

Melody looked through the files which were scattered around and soon grew interested in the stories they contained. Even though they were supposed to be dry reports of the facts, they were still fascinating. There were employees with faked injuries, cheating husbands and wives, people trying to hide their sordid past. Some were boring, of course—not everybody had secrets to hide. And some were very strange. The majority, however, were not only worth the read, but allowed her to see inside her fiancé’s other life.

“How long was I asleep?” Ravenswood finally asked, rubbing his eyes.

“About an hour.”

“Sorry about that. How many files have you looked through?”

“I don’t know. A couple dozen. Some of these are pretty wild. Hey, did this guy actually think that his wife was having an affair with a yeti?”

“Yeah. It turned out she wasn’t, though.” He picked up a file. “I think this is the one I was looking in...”

“Oh, I already found it.”

“What?” Ravenswood jumped out of his chair. “When did you find it?”

“About ten minutes after you fell asleep.”

“Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“You looked like you needed the rest.” Melody picked up the Michael Bruce file.

“Hey, I said it wouldn’t be in there.”

“You were wrong.” Melody opened the file and flipped through some of the papers. “There it is.”

It was a single sheet with notes on it. Scribbled in the margin, there was the name, Sara Wolff. “Well, there it is,” said Ravenswood. “This is incredible.”

“But what does it mean? It’s just her name with a question mark at the end.”

“Right. That’s because... Hey, have I ever told you about how I met Michael?”

“I don’t think so.”

Ravenswood sat down and got comfortable. “When I was in college—”

“You met him in college?”

“No. I failed accounting class in college.”

“What does that have to do with meeting Michael?”

“Nothing, really. It just makes the story more dramatic.”

Melody rolled her eyes.

“When I was in college, I majored in accounting.”

“Why?”

“My father pushed me into it. He said accountants make good money.”

“No, I mean, why are you telling me this?”

“I told you. Drama.” Leaning forward, he linked his hands on the desk. “Now, the thing was, I did terribly in accounting class, because I kept wanting to do things my way instead of the accounting way. I would read the book, and think, ‘This is ridiculous. It should be done this other way.’ And then I would get it wrong on the test. Well, the end of the semester was approaching. My grades were terrible. I figured out that if I got a really good grade on the final exam, I could just barely manage to pass. With only two weeks to go, I began studying like crazy. I stopped going to parties, stopped hanging out with my friends. I stopped everything except reading and re-reading my accounting book. Those two weeks, I worked harder than I’d ever worked before.”

“Did you pass the test?”

“I ended up with a semi-decent grade, but it was too low to bring my final grade up. So I failed the class.”

“What went wrong?”

“I don’t know. Too little, too late, I guess. I thought I knew the material, but it was just too much to learn in such a short span of time, even cramming the way I was.” Ravenswood looked away from Melody, his face flushing red. “I had always been a heavy drinker. But this... pushed me over the edge.” He sighed, glancing around the office. “Yeah. Big stereotype. Heavy-drinking private eye. I lost more than a few cases because of that.”

Melody waited for him to continue.

“So one day, I’m sitting here, just a little bit sloshed, you know? Just enough to make my brain fuzzy. And the door opens, and Michael Bruce comes in. He looked around the place as if he expected to see a dead rat. Then he looked at me, and looked like he had just found a dead rat.”

Melody giggled.

“Yeah, I looked pretty hideous back then. So he comes in, and suddenly all the fuzz disappears from my brain. I feel like electricity is running through my body. Michael Bruce... Michael freaking Bruce is standing in my crappy office because he wanted me to do something. I had no idea what he could have possibly wanted, but I knew one thing: This was my absolute last chance. It was accounting class all over again, and if I failed this time... I don’t know what would happen. Let’s just say that I didn’t want to find out.”

 

<<< Ravenswood had recognized him the moment he had come in. It took him a while to believe that the man could actually be standing in front of him. “You’re Michael Bruce,” the private eye said. “I’ve seen you in the newspaper and in magazines.”

Michael nodded. He still looked as if he felt that coming there may have been a mistake, but he sat down anyway. “Do you know about my family?”

“From what I’ve read, um, when you were a kid, there was some kind of accident.” Ravenswood wasn’t sure how to be tactful with the next part so he just forged ahead. “Everybody died except you, right?”

“Yes, even my father.”

Ravenswood thought that was a strange thing to say, but nodded politely.

Bruce continued, “I’ve met a man who goes by the name of Ulysses David. He claims to be my father, though he doesn’t look or sound like him. He says it’s because his face was burned in the explosion and they did plastic surgery that made him look different. The thing is, he knows things about my childhood that only my real father would know. I need someone to find out who he really is.”

“Do you think he could be your father?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even know if it’s possible.”

Ravenswood thought about that for a moment, then said, “Why did you come to me? A nobody private eye in a tiny office? There’s a half-dozen big investigation firms between here and your penthouse. You could have gone to any of them.”

Michael shook his head. “No. They’re too high-profile. Someone would find out. This has to be low-key. The man who claims to be my father says that the reason he had to stay away all these years was because the accident was orchestrated by the government. Many of them don’t know he’s still alive. If he is my father, I can’t allow word of his existence to leak out. Problem is, those big detective agencies usually have high-level connections. Someone is bound to get wind of it.”

“How do you know I don’t have connections?”

Michael looked around the room with a skeptical eye. “Do you?”

“No,” Ravenswood admitted. “I wish I did. Not having them makes it difficult to get information sometimes.”

“But not impossible?”

“Nothing’s impossible. Not if you bribe the right people.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that.” His voice was sincere enough that Ravenswood believed him.

After that, the men discussed the details of the assignment, what Michael’s expectations were, a retainer for costs, and Ravenswood’s fees. The one thing Bruce was insistent on, however, was that it couldn’t be a prolonged investigation—he had to know something soon. Though he never specified why, Ravenswood figured it had something to do with money and business. With that in mind, the private eye suggested they meet once a week to discuss what he had found so far.

When the billionaire left, Ravenswood glanced at his calendar. They had decided to get together on Tuesday. That was six days. He hoped he’d be able to find something by then.

 

Ravenswood’s first stop was Gale City’s main library. It was located in the heart of the city and was seven floors of books, periodicals, and other historical documents. He decided it would be best to read up on everything he could find about the incident in which Michael’s family had been killed. Michael’s father, Matthew Bruce, had been one of the richest people in Gale at the time, so when he and his family died, it made headline news.

Bit by bit, Ravenswood was able to piece together what happened. The family had been on vacation in a chateau in Switzerland, near the German border. Michael was six years old at the time, and was there with his older brother, parents, aunt and uncle, and maternal grandparents. An explosion had occurred, destroying the home and killing most of the inhabitants. No cause was ever officially determined for the blast, but authorities suspected a gas leak. Only Michael and his grandfather survived.

After the initial blitz of articles shortly after the blast, there wasn’t much follow-up. In fact, the news coverage just stopped cold after a couple of days. Gathering his notes, Ravenswood moved on to the next step.

With permission from Michael, he subcontracted a detective in Switzerland. He didn’t know anybody, but he managed to get a few names from fellow private eyes. He chose a woman who appeared to be both competent and cheap. She managed to provide him with copies of the local newspaper reports in Switzerland and Germany from that time, but they didn’t tell anything more than what he had already found. He then set the woman about digging for other information.

While he was waiting to hear back from the Swiss investigator, Ravenswood visited the Porter County Registrar’s office. He looked through everything they had on the Bruce family. Not coming up with much, the people who worked there suggested he could also try some local genealogical societies. In a matter of four days, he visited ten such places, as well as a handful of libraries.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Ravenswood walked into his favorite pizzeria and approached the counter. This was his second meeting with Michael to discuss his progress on the investigation. The billionaire had suggested they meet at a local restaurant. He claimed it was in order to have a more relaxed atmosphere, but Ravenswood realized that his office made the man uncomfortable. The first time, Michael picked where they had gone. He insisted Ravenswood pick the second time.

When he told the woman behind the counter he was meeting an associate, she surprised him by saying that Mr. Bruce was already there. She led him to his table.

“I’m sorry,” apologized Ravenswood. “Am I late?”

“Not at all. I got here kind of early, actually. I had a meeting that ended up running shorter than I expected.”

“Oh. Well, I hope this is all right. I mean, I’m sure you’re used to fancy places...”

“Don’t be silly. It’s great. It reminds me of a pizza place I used to hang out at in college.”

One of the waitresses approached to take their order. They decided on a pepperoni pizza, which the woman informed would take twenty minutes to prepare. Michael assured that was fine, noting they would discuss business while they waited.

“Would either of you gentlemen like a drink?”

“Just a Coke,” said Ravenswood.

Michael closed the menu and handed it to the brunette. “Coke for me, too.” As the waitress left, he turned to the detective. “When was the last time you had a drink?”

“The day you hired me. About two minutes before you came in the door, actually.”

“You stopped drinking to work on this case?”

Ravenswood shrugged. “You ain’t paying me to drink.” Even though he was acting casual about it, the line of questioning was making him uncomfortable. He changed the subject. “So, I need to ask you something.”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

“Your grandfather, General Frank. I was re-reading the newspapers and they made it sound like he was there at the time of the explosion. But my contact in Switzerland said there was a military crisis that cropped up that he needed to take care of. So he wasn’t around when the incident happened.”

“That’s right.”

“He’s still alive, isn’t he?”

“Yes. He’s still in the military, too.”

The fact impressed Ravenswood as he realized the man must now be in his early seventies. “Have you ever asked him about what happened that day?”

Michael sighed and leaned back in his chair. His eyes turned towards the ceiling, but they were focused past it, as if it were glass and he was looking through. “I’ve asked him many times. He always gets upset and either doesn’t answer at all, or he tells me stuff I already know. He lost his wife and daughter... his whole family that day, so I can understand why he’d have so many issues about it.”

“Have you asked him about Yule? Does he think he could be your father?”

Michael turned back to face the detective. “No. I don’t talk to Rick that often, and I wouldn’t ask him about this anyway. Yule came to me. I would assume that if he wanted my grandfather to know, he would have gone to him first.”

Ravenswood felt a bit of disappointment as his lead seemed to be fading again, but he tried to keep his expression level. He opened the envelope of documents and pulled out a single piece of paper. “I did manage to find one thing which I think may be of some importance. My contact in Switzerland hasn’t had any luck in getting any of the medical records from when you were treated after the accident. Privacy issues. However, she was able to track down a report from the emergency service that was called to the scene.” He handed the page to his client. “You were injured so severely that they sent a medical helicopter. There’s a lot of technical jargon, but the main thing is that you were scheduled to be brought to the Fliehen Army Base hospital. Apparently during the transport, your condition became so unstable, the medics made the decision to bring you to an area children’s hospital instead.”

“What do you think it means?”

The private eye wasn’t sure and told the man so. “But it’s a new piece of information,” Ravenswood added. “In the end, I think this whole investigation is gonna come down to these kinds of small details.” He shoved the folder of other papers towards the man. “The rest of this pretty much confirms what we already know. I will tell you this, though, I still haven’t been able to locate a death certificate for your father.”

 

Over the next several days, Ravenswood attempted to dig further into the story, but things were getting difficult. The investigator he hired in Switzerland quit abruptly with no explanation, not even asking for the remainder of her fee. He’d already slogged through the available public records, which hadn’t told him anything he didn’t already know. The private records were just that: Private. No-one would let him have a peek at them, and even bribes didn’t help. The fact that he was following a trail nearly two decades old only complicated the matter. He needed a drink. He needed a drink badly, but he forced himself to remain sober.

It was not easy.

Out of desperation, he re-read the article in the Gale City News for the millionth time. “Matthew Bruce Dead” was the simple title, with “Real estate developer and family killed on vacation” in bold underneath it. Next to that, in smaller print: “Leighton Cavanaugh, staff writer.”

A thought struck Ravenswood. He fished around in the garbage can for the current day’s paper and opened it to page two. In the staff listing he found, “Leighton Cavanaugh, Senior Staff Writer.”

He knew what his next step was going to be.

 

Ravenswood went to the Gale City News offices and brought a photocopy of the article with him. He had called Cavanaugh ahead of time and the reporter had agreed to meet him. When he got to the building, the receptionist had a security guard lead him to the reporter’s office; the guard stood just outside the door as Ravenswood stepped in.

“Mr. Cadavre.” Cavanaugh was in his fifties, a black man with streaks of white in his hair. “What can I help you with?”

Ravenswood held up the photocopy. “I wanted to ask you about this article. I know you wrote it nearly twenty years ago, but I was hoping you could remember some of the details.”

Leighton laughed. “I won’t have to think hard. I remember that story like it was yesterday. Something that big, you don’t forget.”

“Why wasn’t there a follow-up story?” Ravenswood asked. “This was big news. I’m sure you learned more about the tragedy in the following days.”

Leighton nodded. “Yes, I did.”

Ravenswood waited for him to say more, but he didn’t. “So why didn’t you write a follow-up story?” he asked again.

“Because I was told not to, and I listened.” The man scooted forward in his chair. “I’ve been a journalist for over thirty years. I’ve learned that there’s some stories you go after like a dog after a bone. And there’s some you drop like a hot potato. This one was a hot potato.”

Meeting his gaze hard, Ravenswood’s eyes narrowed. “Who told you to drop the story?”

“I think our meeting is over, Mr. Cadavre. Good day.”

“No, don’t do this. This all happened over twenty years ago, why are you still scared?”

“I’m not scared, I’m smart. And if you’re smart, you’ll drop this, before you get hurt.”

“Who’s going to hurt me? You?”

“No, me.” A hand clamped onto the detective’s shoulder. It was the security guard. “He said you’re done talking. That means you leave now.”

Ravenswood felt helpless. He didn’t want to report to Michael that he didn’t learn anything at all. Breaking free of the guard’s hold, he ran back to Cavanaugh’s desk and lowered his voice to a harsh whisper. “Please, you have to tell me what you found out.”

The reporter looked at him, a pained expression in his eyes. At that moment, he realized that it wasn’t a matter of him not wanting to, Cavanaugh couldn’t tell him.

The security guard grabbed Ravenswood again, throwing him to the ground. “We have a way of dealing with people like you.”

 

Ravenswood sat in his office, rubbing the dark bruise over his eye. He tried to get up the nerve to call Michael. He wanted to cancel their meeting, since he really didn’t have anything new to report. He could hear his father’s voice in his head, telling him how much of a failure he was.

You’re not trying hard enough. You never try hard enough.

When the phone rang, the detective grabbed it quickly, thankful for the distraction. “Cadavre Investigations.”

“Hi. It’s Michael.”

“Oh! Ah—”

“Hey, I know we were going to discuss the case tonight, but I kind of double-booked myself. I have season tickets to the Buckets and forgot there was a game tonight. Can we do this another time?”

“Oh, yeah, sure. That’s fine,” said Ravenswood, relieved. “I didn’t have anything to report anyway. I’ve been hitting a lot of brick walls lately.”

Michael sounded sympathetic. “I thought this might happen. My father was involved in a lot of top-secret stuff. I figured we’d reach a point where it might be hard-going.”

“So you’re not upset?”

“No. Not as long as you’re trying. You are trying, right?”

“Yes, I am. It’s tough-going, but I’m forcing myself to keep on it.”

“Well, I appreciate it. Listen, why don’t you come to the basketball game tonight? My date cancelled on me, so I’ve got an extra ticket.”

The offer caught the private eye by surprise. “Oh, um... Yeah, sure. That’d be great.”

“All right. Game starts at seven. When you get to the entrance, tell them I’ve got your ticket. They’ll have someone bring you to me. See you then.”

Ravenswood set the phone down. He wasn’t sure if he was excited or nervous about going to the game. He wasn’t much into sports, but he did play baseball in high school and enjoyed watching basketball on t.v. The thing that bothered him, though, was that he was fraternizing with clients, something he tried to avoid. But Michael had been understanding so far, he didn’t want to do anything to upset him. And, who knows, maybe he would end up having a good time.

Taking a deep breath, he grabbed his coat and headed out the door.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Ravenswood sat in the waiting area outside Michael’s office, his grip tight on the manila envelope. The secretary had told him that the CEO was on a phone call but would be with him in a few minutes. While he waited, he mentally rehearsed what he was going to say.

This envelope contains a ton of circumstantial evidence. None of it technically proves anything. I mean, when you get down to it, there’s really no solid proof...

Shaking his head, he tried a different approach. I’ve found death certificates for everyone who died that day. They were all issued by the U.S. State Department. There’s nothing unusual, except the cause of death on your father’s is listed as “Unknown.”

He didn’t hear Michael open his office door. “Ravenswood, sorry to keep you waiting. Did we have an appointment?”

“No. I came over because I felt I should give this to you now instead of waiting another week.”

“Okay, come into my office.” Michael turned to his secretary. “Grace, when’s my next appointment?”

“Not until two.”

Michael returned to his office. Ravenswood shut the door and set the manila envelope on the large oak desk. Although he had practiced what to say, he had never come up with a good lead-in, so he just started without any preamble. “I’ve been working on this case for about a month now. In that time, there have been some good periods where I’ve been able to find a lot, and some slow periods where I found... well, not so much. The last few days I’ve been able to find nothing.” Ravenswood patted the manila folder. “There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence in here. I’ll admit that none of it technically proves anything. I mean...” He sighed, realizing that everything he was saying, Michael already knew. “Listen, I’ll jump to the end. The bottom line is, I think I’ve found everything I’m ever going to find. I’m just spinning my wheels now. There isn’t any more, and, well, I can’t justify spending any more time on this and not producing any results.”

Michael’s expression was serious, but not angered. “So what do you think? What’s your professional opinion?”

“I don’t know. I can’t prove he’s your father. Yet, I can’t prove he isn’t. I think there’s enough in there to verify some of the things he’s claiming.” Ravenswood leaned forward, his voice serious. “I’ve worked on difficult cases before, but nothing like this. The only conclusion I can come to is that someone high-level doesn’t want the details getting out. I don’t believe the explosion in Switzerland was an accident. And frankly, if I’d been in that explosion, knowing the government was behind it, I would have disappeared for twenty years, too.”

His client looked down, his forehead creasing. When he spoke, his voice was just above a whisper. “I had to make sure I wasn’t just fooling myself, you know? I had to make sure he was real.”

Ravenswood shifted. The intense emotion Michael was showing was starting to make him uncomfortable. “So, ah, if the case is over, it’s time for... Well, here’s my bill.”

Michael sat back, taking a deep breath. He opened it and stared at the total. “I expected this to be at least three times higher.”

“That’s my normal rate,” Ravenswood said with a shrug.

“Most people would have tried to pad the bill.”

“I figured you were too smart for that.”

Michael pulled out his checkbook, writing a draft on the spot. “Consider the rest a tip.”

Ravenswood stared at the check. It was two and a half times what he’d asked for. Before he could thank the man, Michael rose and walked over to a filing cabinet.

“In your work, I assume you do more than chase cheating husbands and look for missing fathers, right?”

“Sure.”

Michael grabbed a file and returned to his seat. “My HR department regularly runs background checks on my employees, but it ends up taking a lot of time. I’ve been meaning to outsource the work for a while, but I wasn’t sure who to go with. Would your company be interested in handling that?”

It made Ravenswood smile that Bruce would talk all official, as if he didn’t know the company was just him. “I think my staff could handle it.”

“Good. I’ll have my lawyer draft up a retention agreement and then we can work out the payment details.” Michael stood up, extending his hand. “I appreciate everything you’ve done with this, Ravenswood. I really look forward to continuing working with you.”

The private eye stood and shook the man’s hand. “So I guess our meeting is still on for next Thursday?”

“I rather liked that pizza place,” he said, handing him the envelope. “I’ll expect those background checks by then.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Okay, today is the day,” said Ravenswood. He had finished shaving, but he lingered by the mirror, talking to his refection. He was trying to give himself a pep-talk. “I really need to get to work now. Michael Bruce is very patient. He won’t be mad at me if this job is a week late. More than a week will be a problem, but today marks one week. If I can just get this done today, everything will be all right.”

He took a few deep breaths, then gave his reflection a weak thumbs-up and a fake smile. He got dressed and headed out the door.

When he arrived at his office, the file he was supposed to be working on was sitting on his desk. He needed to do a background check on a company Michael wanted to hire to do landscaping for some properties in Wisconsin. Before this, he had done about a dozen background checks on potential employees and always turned in the results within a few days. But then he had started drinking again and spent his days convincing himself that he’d get to work after just one more drink. Today, however, he was determined to get the work done first, and then get drunk.

He sat down and stared at the file. All he could think about was drinking.

He opened the file and read it, but nothing on the page made any sense. He tried re-reading it, but the words kept shifting away from his eyes.

I need a drink.

“Okay, this time it’ll be one drink, just one drink, then I’ll work, and then I can get drunk afterwards.”

Heading to the small cabinet in the corner of the office, he poured himself a glass of bourbon.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Ravenswood sat at the barstool, staring at the drink in front of him. He grabbed a handful of peanuts from the nearby bowl and dropped them down in front of him. Poking the nuts, he managed to arrange them into a little pyramid. Admiring his handiwork, he pulled two off the top and popped them into his mouth. He glanced up at the t.v. on the wall. A re-run of Columbo was playing. He normally liked the show, but now it just reminded him of how inadequate he was as a detective.

You’re nothing more than a bum, Woody.

There was a small tap on his shoulder and Ravenswood yelped, nearly jumping out of his skin. He turned and was shocked to see Michael Bruce standing behind him. The man was dressed in a suit, which meant he must have come straight from the office.

A dozen different things came to Ravenswood’s mind to say, but the one he blurted out was, “How did you find me?”

“This bar is next door to your office. It was the first place I looked.”

The detective turned and faced the wall.

“Have you started drinking again?”

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s polite to ask, even if the answer is obvious.”

The private eye growled, his gaze returning to the pile of peanuts. “I suppose you got my message about quitting.”

Michael nodded. “I had hoped you would have come to me first, to talk it over.”

“There’s nothing to talk about. I couldn’t do the job and it’s only fair you find someone who can.” Tossing a dollar on the bar, Ravenswood pushed past the man and staggered out the door.

The younger man followed him. “What are you doing?”

“Going for a walk.”

“You can’t even stand.” Michael grabbed his arm. “Ravenswood, I can help you.”

“I don’t need your help,” he growled. Then he corrected himself. “I don’t want your help.”

“Ray, seriously. I don’t want to see you like this. I want to help you.” Ravenswood’s legs sagged and Michael pulled him back to his feet. “We can get you into a rehab program. I’ll pay for everything.”

“Why would you do that?” the detective slurred.

“That’s what friends do.”

Ravenswood wrenched away from the CEO and started down the street. “I’m not your friend! You don’t need any drunks for friends! They’ll just drag you down!”

“Ray—”

“GO AWAY!” he shouted, the force of fifteen years of self-loathing behind the words.

Stunned, Michael watched as the private eye staggered back to his office.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Ravenswood woke up with a pounding headache. His eyeballs felt swollen. He looked around and realized he was on the floor in the living room of his apartment, although he didn’t remember coming home. He wasn’t sure if it had been three or four days since he had met Michael at the bar, but he knew he had been binge drinking ever since.

His cat meowed at him, demanding food. He tried to get up to feed him, but his body refused to budge. He took a deep breath, then tried lifting his arms. Nothing. The cat meowed again and it sounded as loud as an air-raid siren. It took a few minutes, but the private-eye finally got his hand to cooperate. It was painful, but he managed to push the cat aside and reached into his pocket. He hunted around for a moment before he found his cell phone. Bringing it up to his face, he pressed the last number called button.

“Bruce Development. How may I direct your call?”

Good, it was the number I’d hoped it was. “Gurk,” said Ravenswood.

“Excuse me?”

His throat was dry and painful and felt as if it was full of sand. “Michael Bruce,” he managed to whisper.

The woman at the other end seemed puzzled, but simply asked, “May I ask who’s calling?”

“Gurk.”

There was a long pause before the woman replied, “Hold on a moment, please.”

While he waited, Ravenswood tried to swallow a few times so that his throat wouldn’t be so dry. He wasn’t very successful, but at least he could manage a raspy sound rather than a whisper.

“This is Michael.”

“What day is it?” he asked.

“Thursday. Ravenswood, is that you? You sound terrible.”

“Good, I feel terrible... Is your offer still open?”

“The offer to get you to detox?”

“Yeah.”

“Of course it is.”

Ravenswood was silent for a long time. He thought he had made up his mind, but suddenly he wasn’t sure. Even though his head pounded, a thousand scenarios ran through it.

You’ll never amount to anything.

“Ray, are you still there?”

“I’ll do it,” he finally managed.

Even though he couldn’t see the man through the phone, Ravenswood knew Michael was smiling. “I’ll make the arrangements.”

“Good. Michael, listen, I have something very important to tell you.”

“Yes?”

“Thank you.” >>>

 

“Wow,” said Melody. “I never knew any of that. Well, I knew some of it, of course, but... wow.”

“Michael saved my life,” said Ravenswood. “I would have drunk myself to death. I know it.”

“Wait a minute. What does any of this have to do with Sara Wolff?”

“Oh, crap, I forgot to mention that part. Well—”

The alarm beeped on Melody’s watch. “Nuts. I don’t have time for another story. I have to get back to the shop.”

“It’s probably just as well. I need to find a few other things before I can be sure of my theory.” He started pawing through the file, pulling papers out. “Thanks for helping me with this.”

“No problem.” Melody looked around the office. “Who’s going to clean all this up?”

“The maid.”

“You haven’t got a maid.”

“Sure I do. She’s invisible... and never does any work.”

Melody smiled. “I have to go.”

Ravenswood kissed her good-bye. “I’ll see you later.”