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Intrigue at the Cuckoo Clock Café
About the Author: John H. Dromey was born in northeast Missouri. He enjoys reading—mysteries in particular—and writing in a variety of genres. He’s had short fiction published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Crimson Streets, Flame Tree Fiction Newsletter, Gumshoe Review, Mystery Magazine, Thriller Magazine, Woman’s World, and elsewhere.

Even a lone wolf has to eat. Because of an economic turndown (personal, not global), I was working—temporarily, I hoped—part time at a private detective agency.

I was not there by accident. Recently, in a remarkably short period of time, my pool of potential clients went from superfluously abundant to woefully inadequate. Through it all, the validity of my private investigator’s license was never in any doubt. When I made a series of discreet inquiries, I determined a number of good prospects were lured away by offers of superior investigative services at a reduced price. Others stuck with me until enticement turned to intimidation.

I could only conclude somebody, somewhere, wanted to put me out of business. I didn’t know who, I didn’t know why, and I didn’t know for how long.

Then, out of the blue, I received an offer of lucrative employment with a bigshot agency. The timing was sufficiently fishy to make me deduce someone high up in that firm was the mysterious who directly responsible for my loss of income. Maybe—if I took the job—I could figure out the why.

In exchange for surrendering a major portion of my independence, I acquired some perks of questionable value.

Without fanfare, I was assigned a cubbyhole office and a taciturn female assistant. For all I knew, my new associate was likewise a temp. If so, that minor detail did not prevent her from taking full advantage of whatever seniority she had, or thought she had. Whether from previous work experience or beginner’s luck, she figured out a way to employ a combination of stern facial expressions and aggressive body language to establish her territory within the office. Effectively, she set herself up to be a source of endless aggravation.

That first day on the job I found myself in uncharted waters. Was I up a tiny creek without a paddle or perhaps cast adrift on a vast ocean sans sextant, GPS, or even an antiquated astrolabe? I had no way of knowing the extent of the challenges I’d be facing. Rather than consider it a sink or swim situation, I opted to tread water. That is, I took a wait and see attitude.

I did not have to wait long.

Hilda—according to the photo ID dangling from the pink lanyard around her scrawny neck—handed me a skinny file folder. She didn’t say a word. Inside was a single sheet of paper with a cryptic notation “Client X” and a phone number.

Silence may be golden, but I felt like a 24-carat fool waiting for my mute minion to break the ice. She could very well have been a potential font of important information, but she dried up in my presence.

Rather than sit idly by like a gilded jackass while the office clock digitally blinked its way to quitting time, I explored the contents of my desk.

In the upper left-hand drawer was a booklet with rules, regulations, and suggestions for agency employees. The middle drawer contained a handgun in a shoulder holster, a box of .38-caliber cartridges, and a cleaning kit. I looked no further.

The revolver was clean as a whistle, and loaded, by the time Hilda left for her coffee break. While she wasn’t looking, I slipped a few of the cartridges into my pocket. I also took advantage of her absence to try the phone number in the file. My call went straight to voice mail. I did not leave a message. What was the point?

Except for a long lunch break, I spent the remainder of the workday studying the agency’s operating manual.

I managed to get a decent night’s rest. Any worries I had were too vague to keep me awake.

What, if anything, should I anticipate for my second day in my new workplace? My expectations were low. I was still completely in the dark. Early on, however, a ray of light came from an unexpected source.

“Your wacky client wants to meet you at the Cuckoo Clock Café,” Hilda told me.

I decided it was time to put up a smokescreen, muddy the water, or otherwise obfuscate the details of my investigation. I was convinced the agency had an agenda. Well, so did I.

“Which one?” I asked.

“There’s only one café in town with that name. The Cuckoo Clock is not part of a franchise. You should know that.”

“I meant which client.”

“Duh! At the moment, you have only one of those, also.”

This story appears in our MAR 2023 Issue
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