Tony Atti rummaged through the pyramid of soiled dishes piled high in his sink. Two tumblers passed inspection, and he poured a healthy slug of bourbon into each. One tumbler was for Marlow, the other for himself. The fact that Marlow was a cat did not deter Tony from being generous. Whatever liquid Marlow left behind Tony would gladly consume on his behalf.
Drinking with a cat was better than drinking alone.
He carried the drinks into the living room, where the orange tabby lay curled on the sofa, and set them on the coffee table. Before he could plunk himself next to the cat the phone rang.
“Is this Mr. Atti, the private detective?”
“How’d you get my home number?”
“It’s in the phone book.”
“Yeah, I keep forgetting. Most people call me at my office.”
“I tried doing that, Mr. Atti. Several times. Nobody answered.”
“That’s because nobody was there. What can I do for you, Miss …?”
“Not Miss. Mrs. I’d rather not reveal my full name until I’m sure I want to hire you.”
“Fair enough. And I won’t let you know whether I’ll take the job until I’ve heard what it is you want me to do.”
“I want you to find my husband.”
“Are you gonna give me his name, or is that a secret, too?”
“Mr. Atti, does your automobile bear a logo on its side?”
“The only thing on the side of my car, ma’am, is rust.”
“So there’s nothing on it to identify you as a private detective.”
“If there were, I wouldn’t be very private, would I?”
“Excellent. When you call on me I don’t want busybodies wondering why.”
“It usually works the other way around, ma’am. People call on me. At my office.”
“I prefer not to.”
“Suit yourself. My fee is one hundred dollars a day plus expenses. Five hundred in advance, non-refundable.”
“That’s rather steep. But I suppose I have no choice.” There was a pause. “Can you come over now? I’ll have a check for five hundred dollars waiting for you.”
“I don’t know, Mrs. …”
“Colbert. Beatrice Colbert.”
“I’m kinda busy right now, Mrs. Colbert.” He glanced at the tumblers on the coffee table. “Actually, I’m having a drink with a friend.”
“Isn’t it rather early in the day to be drinking, Mr. Atti?”
“My friend’s an early riser. But okay, I’ll come right over.”
The directions Mrs. Colbert provided led to a development where box-like houses squatted on two-acre lots devoid of trees. The developer had found it cheaper to strip the forest bare than to leave any trees standing. Several homeowners attempted to compensate by planting ornamental shrubs. For some reason Tony found this depressing.
The Colbert residence lay at the end of a cul-de-sac. It was a box like the others: no porticos or gables or dormers or other architectural frills. The lawn, green and healthy, needed mowing. A paved drive led to a two-car garage. The doors were closed. Tony parked on the street. He stepped out of the car and looked around. Where were the busybody neighbors?
He followed a flagstone walkway to the front door and pressed the buzzer. It chimed. He waited, but no one came. He was about to press it again when he noticed the door was ajar. In his experience: not a good sign.
Maybe Mrs. Colbert was confined to a wheelchair and couldn’t come to greet him. That would explain her reluctance to meet at his office, and why she’d left her door ajar. The absence of a ramp leading up to the door made that scenario unlikely. Maybe she was careless. But was she also deaf? He pressed the buzzer again before pushing the door open and stepping into the hallway.
As befitting a big-box, it was spacious. To the left a flight of stairs ran up to the second floor. Directly ahead lay the living room, and off that the dining room, kitchen, and what looked like a den or study. “Mrs. Colbert? It’s me, Tony Atti.”
The house appeared empty. That made no sense. Maybe she was testing his investigative skills. If you can’t find me in my own home, how can you possibly find my husband?