What the Shadow Knew
(Chapter One only)
A Deacon Bishop Mystery
Copyright 2016 by Michael Paulson, all rights reserved. Cover design by Rob Preece. Cover artwork copyright by Daily Sunny offered under Creative Commons License. All aspects of this license and copyright apply to any use of this cover. No portion of this work may be copied or duplicated in any form without express written permission from the publisher.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people or events is strictly coincidental.
It was a bright morning, in Austin. I went outside, lit a cigarette, and smiled at the shining sun. A day full of promise as my mother used to say when trying to motivate my childhood pursuits. Then I noticed the old lady, in the window of the flat next to mine, flashing me. Certain promises, clearly, were never intended for fulfillment. I waved her goodbye and climbed into the Buick. Then, I headed for Eggie’s Diner.
Tuesday’s breakfast special was steak and eggs. My favorite way to overload my arteries with cholesterol. I parked in the back, went inside and settled onto a stool in front of the service counter. Surprisingly, the waitress gave me more coffee than her usual outpouring of smart remarks. Some people have no understanding, when it comes to tipping frugality.
After finishing my meal, I drove to the Portland Building, and found a spot in the visitor’s lot. In spite of the old lady’s terrifying dance routine, my optimism was at an all-time high. Nothing could go wrong, today. Absolutely nothing.
Little did I know how quickly my prospects could change.
Dr. Paisley Firth was an optometrist with an office on the third floor. Two weeks before, give or take, Firth had hired me to spend an evening documenting his wife’s extracurricular sexual activities. That was not my typical professional pursuit. But, at the time, my bank balance had been sucking air. So it was put telephoto lens to use, or go out of business. Unfortunately, my photographic safari had stretched from dusk until dawn. At which time, Mrs. Firth finally came up for air.
My delivery of the snapshots, to Dr. Firth, had closed the case. Or so I thought until his cell-phone call, on my drive to work this morning.
I caught the elevator up to Firth’s offices, practicing my public relations smile. Follow-up calls, in my business, usually meant drawn-out haggles over my invoice. In Firth’s case, I had been liberal with my expenses and somewhat excessive in the charges for equipment. But, after a night of filming Mrs. Firth’s debaucheries, my strained eyes deserved extra compensation.
Firth’s office was flashy. The amenities included the receptive smile from a marvelously proportioned redhead wearing the nametag ‘Roxy’. There was also what could only be described as luxurious seating, by way of armchairs upholstered in suede leather. Moosic droned in the background, reminiscent of leisurely elevator rides, to provide a calming influence. Framed comic book covers decorated the walls, showing super heroes saving damsels in distress. These, I assumed, were for the benefit of the optometrist’s younger patients rather than motivational materials for the easily influenced.
When I identified myself, Roxy said there was no need to fill out patient forms. The doctor had seen to that. I asked if he had seen to anything else. She ignored my sexual dig and said I’d be in Paisley’s chair within a few.
I was not sure how to take that.
“Business good?” I asked, making conversation.
“Depends on what you mean by business?” she returned.
Roxy was lean and tanned. Her painted hair flowed away from a lovely face like dogwood bending in a summer breeze. She looked to be about thirty years of age. There were no rings on her fingers, so I assumed she was single.
“There’s business and then there’s business?” I asked.
“You might say Paisley’s in the business of putting his hands in a lot of pies,” she said, with a wink.
“Sounds like something in which I should invest.”
I settled into one of the chairs not mentioning her boss’ recent use of my investigative expertise. For some reason, Firth had insisted I not divulge our professional relationship during this visit. It was no skin off me. Firth had paid his bill.
“If I was a betting man, Roxy,” I said. “I’d wager your boss relies upon your special talents.”
The tip of her pink tongue traced the outline of her upper lip in a stirring manner.
“Cutie can’t get enough,” she cooed.
I crossed my legs, fighting earthy desires.
“Cutie?” I echoed.
“Dr. Firth. Cutie’s his nickname.”
I was about to press for the source of the moniker when the telephone rang. Roxy answered. From the instant flush to her cheeks, Roxy had focused her entire being upon the other end of the connection, and my presence was now part of her colorful history.
Twenty minutes later, I was in nicotine withdrawal and she was on her fifth telephone interaction. This time, Roxy was expounding the virtues of a vibrator with a g-spot attachment to someone named Rembrandt. I could not imagine anyone naming their daughter Rembrandt. But stranger things had happened. Apparently Rembrandt, based upon Roxy’s side of their conversation, was keenly interested in pulsing oscillations. Something, according to Roxy, impossible to achieve without excessive battery wear.
A door labelled ‘Examinations’ opened.
From behind it, a squat, florid-faced man appeared. He was about forty-five years of age, with a light brown toupee balanced atop an egg-shaped head. Although he might be Cutie to those in his intimate circle, I knew the fellow as Dr. Paisley Firth.
He waved me over.
I got to my feet. After tossing the receptionist a wink, I did a quick-stride to the wig-adorned chubby. My nicotine cravings had put me past the point of mellow negotiations. In fact, armed retaliation to his as yet unstated demands fit my mood.
“Let’s get down to brass tacks,” I told him. “No refunds.”
Dr. Firth leaned forward, his voice barely audible.
“Have you ever had a day when everything went wrong?” he asked.
“I was in Chicago last week, doing an in-depth investigative exploration concerning a multifaceted mystery, which became a non-discussable nightmare. So, stop whining about having a bad morning.”
“How can you compare my writhing despair and suffocating anguish to you conning some broad into taking a trip to the Windy City?”
He was beginning to irritate me.
“As much as I would like to sympathize, Dr. Firth,” I said, “my bleeding heart does not extend to discounts.”
“It’s not that, Mr. Bishop. Your check is in the mail.” He took a ragged breath. “It’s my wife: Connie.”
As much as I appreciated his prompt handling of my bill, I gave Firth a determined head-shake.
“No way am I going down that bushy road again,” I told him. “I’ve seen more of your wife exploring her own sexuality than any man should have to.”
“Mr. Bishop, I’m scared.”
“Trust me. It’s normal to feel fear when viewing telephoto shots of your wife’s mouth gobbling male genitalia.”
That came as an unpleasant surprise. Mrs. Firth on the loose put every red-blooded American penis at risk. Perhaps, even the center for disease control.
“I think my wife’s been murdered,” he added.
Mrs. Firth dead could mean I had photographed her killer. Something I would not enjoy explaining in open court, what with the implications cast by her activities. But, what bothered me even more than professional humiliation, if such a thing was possible, was her husband’s assumption his wife was dead. Most men with missing wives live in hope their loved one is still alive.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” I told him.
“Connie hasn’t called,” he whispered. “She always calls.”
“I know. I heard. At the top of her lungs, I heard her.”
“To give me details on her latest — engorgement.” He tilted closer. “Connie likes something she can really grip.”
“I can appreciate your concerns.” I glanced at the ceiling. “But, your wife being gone can’t be unusual — considering her hobby.”
“Gone is normal.” He sniffed audibly. “Not telephoning, isn’t.”
That gave me pause.
“She telephones you after each — outing?” I asked.
“There’s nothing so fulfilling as open communication.”
Most marital advisors would concur.
“Dr. Firth, your wife probably lost track of time,” I suggested. “That night I followed her, she went for hours… a full twelve hours working up a sweat. If the guy she was with hadn’t begged off, I think she’d have gone another twelve.”
“Connie’s been gone for nine days?”
That put an exhaustive spin on things.
“You’ve tried her cell-phone?” I said.
“Of course. Hundreds of times.” His lower lip trembled. “It always goes to voice mail.” He paused, amidst a forlorn whimper. “Between Connie and me, voice mail is a big no-no.”
“I’m glad something is.” I looked at my watch. Ten minutes to nine. “Let’s go someplace private. Then, we’ll discuss your options.” I didn’t speak for a moment, and when I did my voice was a little desperate. “I assume you have ashtrays?”
“It’s a nonsmoking building.”
Dr. Firth turned and waddled off down a short hallway. I shut the door and with my tongue slathering for the taste of burning tobacco, I followed.
A few strides later, we stopped in a room the size of a walk-in closet. It had been furnished with a tiny desk, a stool on wheels, an examination chair, a phoroptor mounted to a wheeled support, and a mirror on the wall opposite. He pointed to the chair. I went over and sat down.
“Let’s start with who was she with,” I said, taking out notebook and pen.
“Cutie,” Firth whimpered.
“I get, from Roxy, that’s your nickname. But, I prefer to keep our relationship on a business basis.”
“No. His name’s Cutie.”
That was an unexpected. Two guys named Cutie in Texas? What happened to the machismo rednecks named Bill-Bob?
“What were Cutie’s given and surname?” I asked.
“I knew him only as Cutie.”
“I guy goes out with your wife and you don’t ask for more than his moniker?”
“It’s more exciting that way.” He scratched his groin. “If it helps, Cutie’s the man in your photographs.”
At least I had a visual start. But, Texas was a big place.
“How many times did your wife date Cutie?” I asked.
“Four.” Dr. Paisley Firth let go a whimpering sigh. “Sometimes, when she hooks a good one, she doesn’t like to let go.”
“So, I noticed.” I silently mouthed a four-letter word. “Why do you think she’s dead?”
“If your wife was gone nine days, what would you think?”
“Isn’t it far more likely she’s shopping for lubricants?”
A sob burst from his throat.
“How can you make jokes when I’m dying inside?” he moaned.
Everyone needed to love and be loved. Even the Firth’s. So, I put on my sympathy face.
“Get hold of yourself,” I said. “Had Cutie given you reason for concern, before your wife’s disappearance?”
“It’s just that I photographed your wife cracking braided leather across his ass while he was screamed bloody murder about being a bad boy.”
Firth offered a weak smile.
“Connie loves her whips,” he sniveled.
“When was the last time your wife took money from an ATM?” I asked.
He weighed my question for a long moment.
“Not since the night you followed her.” He sniffed wetly. “Not at all like Connie. ATM’s, to her, are second only to sex.”
“How long have you been married?”
“Twenty-seven blissful years.”
“No serious disagreements?”
“Did your wife sign a prenuptial agreement?”
“Just considering possibilities.”
“You think she’d dead, too?”
“Calm down,” I told him. “No need to panic. Cutie’s probably at home, right now, thanking God he’s still alive and applying salve.” I inhaled deeply, trying to grab a little Austin smog to tide me over, but my lungs came up empty. “You’re wife’s probably sitting on an icepack, shoving blue pills down his throat and praying for a rise in fortunes.”
“I really want to believe that.”
“Did Connie take any clothes on this last outing?”
“Just the usual lingerie in her overnight bag.” Firth gave me a flash of teeth. “Sometimes a little mystery helps start the engine.”
I raised a finger to focus his attention.
“Does she take along credit cards?” I asked
His head nodded beneath a stationary toupee.
“That’s how Connie pays for the motel,” Firth explained. Then, he croaked out a sob. “I’m worried I’ll never again see another room charge.”
“Have you notified the police?” I asked.
That warning bell in my head started clanging suspicions like there was no tomorrow. When a man truly thinks his wife is dead, he notifies the police. Unless, of course, he was her killer.
“Why not?” I asked.
“That would mean explaining where Connie’d gone, with who and why.” He wetted his lips. “She’d be totally embarrassed.”
“If you don’t notify the authorities, I will.”
His eyes bugged, as he chewed the air for many seconds.
“Your investigations are supposed to be private,” Firth eventually blurted.
“My investigations are. But, if your wife’s absence is the result of foul play, the authorities will wonder why you didn’t report it.”
He dragged his hands across his face.
“All right,” Firth said. “I’ll do as you say. But, before we go any further, we should keep this visit official.”
“How does one have an unofficial visit?” I asked.
“I didn’t tell Roxy why you were coming.”
“Neither did I.”
“I told her you were a patient.”
“The significance being?”
“I didn’t want to shock her with Connie’s disappearance.”
“I’ve chatted with your receptionist,” I said. “I’ve heard her on the phone. Nothing would shock Roxy, except a battery shortage.” I raised my eyebrows. “Now, let’s get back to your wife before my nicotine addiction sends me up a wall.”
“Those cigarettes’ll kill you one day.”
Firth had death on the brain.
“So, people keep telling me,” I said. “How’d your wife first hook up with Cutie?”
Firth plopped his ample backside onto the stool and skidded over.
“Roxy introduced us.” He smiled. “I chalk that up to my personal hands-on employee training program.”
It was easy to picture Paisley Firth instructing Roxy — hands-on. Her sprawled across the reception desk. He frantically pressing his point. But, as pleasant as that fantasy was, I had difficulty explaining Roxy’s interest in furthering Connie Firth’s sexual pursuits. Most women jealously guard their lovers; at least the good ones.
“Will Roxy have Cutie’s particulars?” I asked.
“I’m afraid not.” He let out a disappointed sigh. “These days, relationships are so casual.”
“What else can you tell me about him?”
“That’s it.” Firth abruptly positioned the phoroptor in front of my peepers. “Now, try to relax.”
“What in hell are you doing?”
“We have to keep your cover.”
“There’s no cover.”
The exam-room door abruptly opened and the receptionist stuck her head in.
“Paisley?” Roxy cooed. “Charlene Holland’s here.”
“Now...let’s try these, Mr. Bishop,” Firth said, abruptly spinning the dials on the phoroptor. “Thank you, Roxy.”
The door closed on her exit.
Why had Roxy announced the arrival of that particular patient? She had not done so when I made my entrance.
“What’s so special about Charlene Holland?” I asked.
“Certain people require special handling.”
“They’re such delicate creatures, aren’t they?”
“I know this Sicilian number, by the name of Rita Portello, who’ll kick that idea out of your head.”
Dr. Paisley Firth reached up and switched on the chart projector. Rows of letters appeared as reflections in the mirror, drawing my attention. Each was clearly legible. As far as I could tell, my eyes were functioning perfectly.
“When I find your wife,” I said, “assuming Connie’s no worse for wear, she may be reluctant to return.”
“In view of what I saw in the pictures, understandably so.”
“My point is, I can’t force her to come back.”
“She’s dead, Mr. Bishop. Which means your concerns are moot.”
Once more, he was directing me in a particularly unpleasant direction. Had he killed her? Was this all window dressing to underscore his innocence?
“Out loud, Mr. Bishop,” he cut into my thoughts. “The lowest line you can read clearly.”
“I don’t need an eye exam.”
“The letters, please?”
Rather than persist in arguing, I submitted to his request.
“A, R, N, D, O, H, T,” I said.
“Perfect,” he said. Firth screwed up his round face. “Was Connie screaming?”
“You know when Cutie was ringing her bells six ways from Sunday.”
“Either that or she was coughing up a lung.” I pushed the phoroptor off to one side and stood up. “Look, Dr. Firth, the sooner I get going the sooner I find Connie.”
“What about orgasms?” Firth said, scrambling to his feet.
“Never before lunch.” I held out one hand, palm open and up. “I’ll need a grand up front.”
He pulled out an overstuffed money-clip and peeled off ten hundred dollar bills.
“When you need more, let me know,” he asked. “I’d spend my last dime searching for Connie.”
A guy wanting to know if his wife was chipping around, I could understand. But, to mourn her assumed demise in one breath and revel in her indiscretions in the next? Either Firth was insane, or he was playing me.
On my way across the reception area I caught sight of a nicely built blonde, of the female variety. She was coiled up on one of the chairs. Her pink sweater covered the largest pair of mammaries I had ever seen. A gray skirt barely came down to her thighs. She smiled at me. I smiled back. Since the only other woman in the room was Roxy, it was safe to assume the current object of my lust was Charlene Holland.
“Paisley mentioned a guy named Cutie,” I said to Roxy, when I reached her desk. “What can you tell me about him?”
“He’s enormous,” Roxy said.
“It’s important I get in touch with him.”
Roxy’s shoulder’s bobbed.
“I don’t know how,” she replied.
“Then, how do you and Cutie keep in contact?” I asked.
“Cutie gives me a ring when he’s in the mood.”
And people wonder why I love my job.
“When you and he do meet, where do you go?” I asked.
“No place special.” Roxy gave off a natural scent that, if bottled, could garner a fortune. “But, if it helps, we always end up at my place.”
“Where did you first meet Cutie?” I asked.
“Comic Con,” Roxy said.
Comic Con was an annual event, in Austin. It was a venue to unite fans who love comics with comic artists. Part of this gathering featured masquerade contests. This allowed participants to become their favorite comic book hero, or heroine. It was usually attended by teens and preteens. But, comic book lovers of all ages would be present.
“Cutie dressed like the Phantom Vampire,” she continued. “I wore my Vampirella costume.” Her eyes widened and then Roxy laughed, as if tickled by memories. “It was mutual lust at first bite.”
“What prompted you to introduce him to Mrs. Firth?”
“Connie and I were at a comic book collector’s archive, looking for her favorite comic character’s magazine.”
“And that would be?”
“The Wanton Woman.”
“Silly me for not realizing.”
“Connie spotted Cutie and commented on his looks.” Roxy pulled at an earring, self-consciously. “I told her I’d dated him a few times, and could recommend every inch.” She cocked a telling eyebrow. “Connie said she was interested. But, didn’t want to cut in on my fun.” She traced her tongue along her lips. “I told her there was enough to go around.”
I handed her one of my business cards.
“Next time Cutie calls,” I said, “give me a ring.”
When I got out to the Buick my cellular phone rang. Immediately my imagination went into overdrive as I pondered where to take Roxy on our first date. But, instead of her, the caller was Walter Osgood Kemp.
“What’s shaking, Ozzie?” I asked.
“I need a P. I.,” he said.
Kemp was an ex-con from my days as a police officer. I had lost track of him after my forced retirement. Not that we had been friends. Our relationship was more along corrupt financial lines.
“What for?” I asked.
According to Kemp, he had a problem only I could resolve. That sounded surprisingly profitable. When he paused for breath, I suggested a prompt consultation at my office culminating in a large cash advance. Kemp countered with a meeting at his place of business, tomorrow morning. Sundays, I reminded him, were meant for sleeping late, leisurely baths and uninhibited romps with wanton women. Kemp, however, said Sunday was the only day he could provide a witness to corroborate his situation. My schedule, for the next two weeks, was open. But, Walter Osgood Kemp was a notorious character lacking in every scruple. A lot like me, if the truth be told. So, I asked for details before making a commitment. He said it was too delicate to discuss, over the telephone.
Mentally, I formulated several excuses. But, in the end, greed prompted me to accept the appointment. Kemp provided an address, and then rang off.
Why would a loathsome scammer like Kemp insist upon meeting a Private Investigator, of questionable repute, on a Sunday morning? It was like Satan seeking salvation from a warlock.
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