Things are always as they seem. Black is black. White is white. Happiness is a chili cheeseburger. These are the facts, and they won’t change.
Want proof? Allow me to present my current situation. It’s just gone five on a sodden Thursday afternoon. My trusty SLR camera and I are tucked into the all but bare bleachers that line the sportsfield of Black Sand High. Afternoon training was coming to an end. But my job was just about to start.
My co-workers, of which there were two, are necessarily unaware of their role in my latest assignment. The first was Sneaker Johnson, a kid suckled on steroids to become a Hulk-esque quarterback who physically resembled the phrase ‘Party!’ The second was Cut Price Kelly; tall, blonde and a stacked rack attack: classic stork.
It all played out with such familiarity, I felt like I was watching a live rerun.
Sneaker bumped fists with his bros, loitering towards the back of the herd as they lumbered towards the showers. Enter stage left, Cut Price Kelly. Our heroine was clearly recognizable, despite – or, given the weather, because of – enormous sunglasses turning her a shade of alien. Few words were exchanged before the pair disappeared into the small sports equipment shed. Their lack of a vivacious verbal interplay was hardly surprising. They’re not swapping socks for the scintillating conversation.
Having snapped their entrance, it’s now just a seven point five minute wait of give and take until their exit, and then I’m done. I don’t need to bother with documenting the deed itself. This is Case Number Nine at Black Sand High, the only high school in the medium-sized beach town that lazed a few hours north of San Fran. We all know what’s unfolding alongside those stacks of chipped helmets and training nets. And yes, that’s despite the fact that Cut Price Kelly is on the same cheerleading squad as Sneaker’s girlfriend of two years, and my employer, Double D Debra. Despite the fact that Debra and Kelly are friends, so much so that Debra hired me in a deluded attempt to prove her troubled gut instinct about her ‘friend’ wrong. No, this morality tale only requires an opening and a closing; the acts in the middle can be reliably left to the imagination.
Because things are always exactly as they seem.
“Can I get you ladies anything? Scout?”
“The usual, thanks,” I told Pete, the oversized owner of Hideout Cafe. Hideout was the only joint in town that refused to embrace Black Sand’s light ‘n’ airy café culture, and instead wallow in a permanent sense of dingy after-dark. Ancient ceiling fans circled slowly through the dim, muggy air and the brown walls were crammed with faded pictures of black-and-white movie stars. It was sandwiched between a two-bit tattoo parlor and tiny television repair shop in the scuffed up Downtown area. It also doubled as my place of business.
“And for your friend?”
Double D Debra’s face was set to stone while she flipped through the dozen black-and-white stolen moments stolen by yours truly. I gave Pete the ‘not now’ signal. He got it, backing away from our table before the proverbial hit the fan. Tough ol’ Pete’s the size of shed with a voice as rough as a New York winter, but deep down he probably loves synchronized swimming and lolcats.
“I’m really sorry Debra,” I said sincerely.
Silently she pushed the photos away from her, face still expressionless. Shock mode. Stage One.
“He was my best friend,” she said softly, more to herself than me. “And Kelly. I mean, we grew up together. How could she do this to me?”
“Sneaker’s as low as his namesake. You’re lucky to be rid of him.”
Her eyes met mine, hardening. “Do you have a boyfriend, Scout?”
“Me?” I asked, surprised. “Ah – my line of work doesn’t exactly endear me to the concept.” Or to the male population of Black Sand. I’d only moved here six months ago in May, and ‘wildly popular’ would not be an expression most people would think of when they think of Scout Lyons. Admittedly, the population of Black Sand High was more diverse than the haves and the have nots, the gorgeous and the geeks. Take Debra. She was pin-up pretty but was also vice president of the Science Club and in the Gay-Straight Alliance. Despite being a West Coast beach town, Black Sand wasn’t just all about surf kids catching curls. But none of them seemed that keen on being BFFs with yours truly. Maybe it’s cuz I’m just not that keen on sun. I freckle.
“Then don’t tell me I’d be better off without him!” she snapped. “You don’t know anything about us, about what we had, about how we feels about me!” Ah, my old friend, Stage Two. Anger. Experience had taught me not to take the bait.
“You’re right, Debra. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“We were supposed to be going to prom together! I was waiting for him!” She was starting to fall apart. A few of the other patrons in the dimly lit cafe craned their necks over at the commotion. The regulars didn’t even bother looking up.
“Debra!” I said firmly. I took her hand across the table and squeezed it. “What Sneaker did to you totally sucked. It’s disrespectful and lame-ass. Now, the following is true. Are you listening?”
She wasn’t, so I squeezed her hand even harder.
“Hey, I said, are you listening?”
Her eyes met mine, wide and wild.
“One. He will not change. Get back with him and you’ll just be forking over another fifty bucks in a few months time. Two. You are better off without him. You’re a smart girl with awesome hair. You deserve so much more than a two-timing halfbake named after footwear. Comprehendo?”
“Whatever,” she replied numbly. She fumbled to open her handbag and with trembling fingers, pushed fifty bones my way. The waterworks were about to set in. Stage Three: grief.
Without another word, she headed for the exit.
“I really am sorry!” I called after her. The cafe door slammed hard behind her.
Alone again, I slumped back into my chair and exhaled loudly.
“Another one bites the dust, huh kid?” Pete put my chili cheeseburger down in front of me, and gave me a sympathetic smile. “Don’t know how you do it – can’t stand seeing a lady cry myself.”
“Goes with territory,” I replied stoically, fighting the urge to sigh again. Sunday was not my fun day, and hadn’t been for a long time.
It’d been six months since Tigerskins Incorporated opened for business, right after Mom remarried, and I got stuck in Black Sand with a brand new step family. Six months of manning the back table of Hideout on Sunday afternoons with my trusty Open For Enquiries sign and a steady supply of chili cheeseburgers. Six months of getting paid a pittance to bust a dumb dude catching some strange of the sly. Six months of trying to get graffiti naming me a ‘Rat’, ‘Snitch’ or worse out of my locker door. It was hardly the stuff of an aspiring PI’s dreams.
As the empty hours crawled by, I glumly watched the beach-going babes and their buff boyfriends heading for the surf, sun and sand. Brown arms slung easily around shoulders, bags full of cold sugary drinks swinging from their hands. I’d been swimming once since we moved here and gotten stung by a jellyfish.
When I first started my little detective caper, I thought I’d be getting into adventures so hairy I’d need scissors, and not just regular round-the-house scissors, but professional, shiny haircutting scissors. But right now I was feeling limbo low. Admitting defeat was not in my nature. But sometimes life goes ahead and admits it for you. Thanks a lot, life.
At 5pm, I plucked the sign from my table and dropped it into my bag. I should be throwing it in the trash. It was time to face facts. I was no more a detective than Pete was a lolcat.
I counting out my change at the counter when the following passed my ears.
“Excuse me – I’m here about an ad in the Black Sand Daily…”
My head snapped up like a spring. A client!
The voice belonged to a woman burning thirty-something candles, pretty in an understated sort of way. Long blonde hair the color of ripe wheat fell around her face. She was dressed in a fitted green t-shirt and jeans, with a large tote slung over one shoulder. Just a hint of blush colored her cheeks, but that might have just been nerves.
“You’re after Scout.” Pete nodded in my direction.
As soon as her eyes met mine, her expression changed altogether. I knew it was coming before she did. “But… you’re a…”
A smile flashed across her mouth. “A child.”
“Scout Lyons, at your service.” I stuck my hand out. “What can I do for you? Better half got Pretty in Pink on his collar?”
“Pretty in Pink?”
“Lipstick. Your fella, he’s fooling around right? I’m doing a deal on surveillance right now, $20 dollars an hour for -”
“No,” She shook her head with a confused smile. “Nothing like that. I’m sorry – I don’t know what I’m doing here. I shouldn’t have – I’m sorry.”
“Hey,” I ducked quickly between the blonde and the door, trying not to sound as desperate as I felt. “Look, we both know you’re here for a damn good reason. What’s the harm in a no-strings-attached chat? I’m pretty handy when it comes to sticky situations.”
Minutes later I found myself sitting down in the familiar haunt of my back table, but this time with a client: Miss Nicky Mason. As it turns out, Miss Mason was not a jilted girlfriend but a documentary film-maker. Her initial hesitancy was replaced with a growing sense of passion as she explained her latest project: an ongoing study of a third-world orphanage. She’d been documenting the kids’ progress for the past five years, and had just received the news the orphanage was about to go bankrupt and close forever, leaving the poor kids in limbo.
“I need to get back there – now. Right now,” she said intently, her fingers pulling nervously at a lace-edged handkerchief. “This film could really make a difference. It might mean the orphanage could stay open, it really could. If I don’t get back there in time, I won’t have an ending for my film, which could save all of these kids from ending up on the street.”
“That’s great,” I said slowly. “But where do I come in?”
“I know this isn’t what you typically do but – well, to be honest, I’m desperate. I want you to get me a meeting.”
“Yes,” she replied intently. “A meeting with Rex Hoffman.” Then, off my stare of non-comprehension. “Rex Hoffman. The film producer.”
“I’m not really one for the silver screen. Prefer my adventures in real-life Technicolor, if you catch my drift.”
She explained he was one the industry’s leading film producers, based in LA, natch. Able to get anything green lit, best friends with Spielberg, that sort of thing. He was in town tomorrow for ten days to oversee post-production on a new blockbuster before heading back to LA. Apparently we had one of the country’s best post-production facilities right here in Black Sand, run by eggheads who prefer small town surfing to five million freeways. Who knew? “Hoffman’s made docos before,” she explained excitedly, “He could easily fund my film, and what’s more -”
I cut her off. She’d sent my hopes skywards, completely unnecessarily. “I’m sorry Nicky, but you must’ve been misinformed. I’m a private detective. It sounds like you need an agent or a manager or something. I can’t help you,” I got up to leave.
“No,” she said urgently. “No, wait. I don’t mean for you to book me a meeting, Scout. I mean, for you to, well -”
“Steal you a meeting?”
I sat back down again. At least we were back in my area of expertise. Sort of.
“Wouldn’t this kind of thing, I don’t know, make him mad?”
She shook her head no, “Hoffman’s a character – he likes dramatic gestures, particularly from women. Last year he funded a film school student’s first feature after she got a job at his favorite restaurant, just to get the chance to pitch to him. Crazy huh?”
“Why don’t you just make an appointment and see him in LA when he gets back there?” I asked.
“He’d never take a meeting with someone like me, and besides, I don’t have time or money for that,” she exclaimed. “I have to get myself on a plane to Cambodia, like, now.”
“Cambodia?” I repeated in surprise. “Wait, really?”
“Yes. The orphanage is in a town called Kampot -”
I let out a short, incredulous laugh. “I’ve been to Kampot. My mother and I spent six months there when I was twelve.”
“That must have been quite a holiday.”
“It was work, actually,” I explained. “My Mom’s a photo-journalist – we used to live on the road.” I didn’t feel like explaining it all ended in the pale arms of a tax lawyer named Brain Fogarty. “She did a whole series on Cambodian children!”
Eyes the color of rain softened, locking into mine. “Then you know how special it is.”
I sat back in my chair, letting my brain chew over all that was being laid out for me. A case with a cause was seriously cool – Black Sand was seriously lacking in gigs that had real meaning. “But I just don’t understand why it has to be Hoffman,” I said, thinking aloud.
She shrugged. “He’s the best. And he’s about to arrive in Black Sand. I think it’s fate.” We stared at each other. Suddenly she shook her head. “Actually, you know what – I must be crazy. I’m sorry. This was really a dumb idea.” She picked up her tote and slung it across her shoulder. “I’m wasting your time – you can’t steal me a meeting, that’s just not possible-”
“Wait.” I got up, pacing. She had definitely roused my PI curiosity. I wanted this case. “Where’s his office?”
“He’ll be working from a hotel. I’m not sure which one.”
“Five star, I assume. Security will be tight. From what you’ve said, he’s an important man.”
“Can you really do this?” Nicky asked doubtfully.
“Get creative with security systems? Find out confidential information? Yes and you bet.”
“So you’ll do it? You’ll help me meet Rex Hoffman?” The urgency in her voice was unmistakable. This was someone ready to put everything on the line for their beliefs Turning your back on that was not the way this snoop dog was raised.
“It would be my honor.” I stuck my hand out. “Welcome to Tigerskins Inc.”