Mental illness runs in the Purcell family.
I’d diligently typed this conclusion at the top of the report written on my word-processing program. I’d been so full of myself, so pleased with my thorough research and keen detecting skills that I’d smiled a Cheshire Cat smile for weeks on end. That smug grin hung around just like the cat’s. It was on my face when I woke in the morning and it was there on my lips as I closed my eyes at night.
I spent hours in self-congratulation:
Oh, Jane Kelly, private investigator extraordinaire. How easy it is for you to be a detective. How good you are at your job. How exceptional you are in your field!
I wasn’t smiling now.
Directly in front of me was a knife-wielding, delusional, growling, schizophrenic– the situation a direct result of my investigation into the Purcells. In disbelief I danced left and right, frantic to avoid serious injury. I looked into the rolling eyes of my attacker and felt doomed. Doomed and downright FURIOUS at Dwayne Durbin. It was his fault I was here! It was his ridiculous belief in my abilities that had put me in harm’s way! Hadn’t I told him I’m no good at confrontation? Hadn’t I made it clear that I’m damn near a chicken-heart? Doesn’t he ever listen to me?
His fervent belief in me was going to get me killed!
Gritting my teeth, I thought: I hope I live long enough to kill Dwayne first…..
ONE MONTH EARLIER
I was deep into the grunt work necessary to earn my license as a private investigator. Dwayne Durbin, my mentor, had finally convinced me I would be good at the job. His cheerleading on my behalf was not entirely altruistic: he wanted me to come and work for him.
I’d resisted for a while but circumstances had arisen over the summer that had persuaded me Dwayne just might be right. So, in September I became Dwayne Durbin’s apprentice – and then I became his slave, spending my time putting in the hours, digging through records, doing all his dog work – which really irritates me, more at myself than him, because I’d known this was going to happen.
And though I resented all the crap-work thrown my way, Dwayne wasn’t really around enough for me to work up a head of steam and vent my feelings. He was embroiled in a messy divorce case for Camellia “Cammie” Purcell Denton. His association with the Purcell family was why I’d delved into the Purcell family history in the first place. I admit this was more for my own edification than any true need on Dwayne’s part, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.
That particular September afternoon – the afternoon I wrote my conclusion on the report – was sunny and warm and lazy. It was a pleasure to sit on Dwayne’s couch, a piece of furniture I’d angled toward his sliding glass door for a shining view of the waters of Lake Chinook. I could look over the top of my laptop as I wirelessly searched databases and historical archives and catch a glimpse of sunlight bouncing like diamonds against green waters.
Resentment faded. Contentment returned. After all, it’s difficult to hold a grudge when, apart from some tedium, life was pretty darn good. My rent was paid, my mother’s impending visit had yet to materialize, my brother was too involved with his fiancee to pay me much attention, and I had a dog who thought I was….well….the cat’s meow.
I finished the report and typed my name on the first page, mentally patting myself on the back for a job well done. Reluctantly, I climbed to my feet and checked out Dwayne’s refrigerator. If Dwayne possessed anything besides beer and a suspect jar of half-eaten, orange-colored chili con queso dip, life would pass from pretty darn good to sublime. My gaze settled on a lone can of diet A&W root beer. Not bad. Popping the top, I returned to the couch and my laptop.
Intending to concentrate, my eyes kept wandering to the scene outside the sliding glass door. Dwayne, who’d been lounging in a deck chair, was now making desultory calls on his cell phone. He stepped in and out of my line of vision as I hit the print button, wirelessly sending information to Dwayne’s printer. Nirvana. I’m technologically challenged, but Dwayne has a knack for keeping things running smoothly and efficiently despite my best efforts. Since I’d acquired my laptop – a gift from an ex-boyfriend – I’d slowly weaned myself from my old grinder of a desktop. This new, eager slimmed-down version had leap-frogged me into a new era of computers. It fired up and slammed me onto the Internet faster than you can say, “Olly olly Oxenfree.” (I have no idea what this means but it was a favorite taunt from my brother Booth who was always crowing this when we were kids, gloating and laughing and skipping away, delighted that he’d somehow “got” me. Which, when I think about it, still has the power to piss me off.)
The laptop untethered me from my old computer’s roosting spot on the desk in my bedroom. Now, I’m mobile. I bring my work over to Dwayne’s, which he highly encourages. I’m fairly certain Dwayne hopes I’ll suddenly whirl into a female frenzy of cleaning and make his place spotlessly clean. Like, oh, sure, that’s going to happen.
Still, I enjoy my newfound freedom and so Dwayne’s cabana has become a sort-of office for me. I claimed my spot on his well-used but extremely comfortable one-time blue, now dusty gray, sofa early. Being more of a phone guy, Dwayne spends his time on his back deck/dock and conducts business outdoors as long as it isn’t raining or hailing and sometimes even if it is.
Feeling absurdly content (always a bad sign for me, one I choose to ignore ) I checked my e-mail. Nothing besides a note from someone named Trixie which I instantly deleted. One day I made the mistake of opening one of those spam emails about super hot sex and ever since I’ve been blessed with a barrage of Viagra, Cialis and penis enlargement ads and/or promises. If I didn’t have penis envy before, I sure as hell do now. Eighteen inches? Where would you park that thing on a daily basis? There are a lot of hours when it’s not in use…..unless you count the fact that it functions as some guys’ brains. I have met these sorts, but I try not to date them. Makes for uncomfortable dinners out where I talk and they just stare at my breasts. If I had serious cleavage I could almost understand, but my fear is that it simply means my conversation is really boring.
My cell phone interrupted this inner monolog with a whiny, persistent ring. I am going to have to figure out how to change it. A James Bond theme would be nice. I snatched it up without looking at Caller ID. An error. Marta Cornell, one of Portland’s most voracious divorce lawyers, was on the line.
“Jane!” Marta voice shouted into my ear. Her voice lies at sonic-boom level. I feared this time she may have shot one of my inner ear bones – the hammer, the anvil or the stirrup – into the center of my brain. Who names those things, anyway?
“You know Dwayne’s working for Cammie Purcell,” Marta charged ahead without waiting for my response. “Jane? Are you there?”
“Yes.” I was cautious. Marta was Cammie’s divorce lawyer and Dwayne had been following her husband Chris around for several weeks, intent on obtaining proof that Chris possessed a second family. Said family was apparently sucking up some Purcell money. Chris Denton wasn’t exactly a bigamist. He’d never actually married his other “wife”. But he had a children with her and he divided his time between them and Cammie. Stunted as he was maturity-wise, I was impressed he could juggle two relationships. Sometimes I find it difficult just taking care of my dog.
“Is he still working for her?”
“I think it’s finished,” I answered, though I wasn’t completely sure. Cases like Cammie’s seemed to undulate: sometimes the work lasted days on end; other times it nearly died. When Dwayne had first discovered the dirt on Chris, he’d disclosed it to Cammie and Marta. With divorce in the offing, Marta must have seen greenbacks floating around her head, but weirdly, Cammie’s only remark had been a question: “What are the childrens’ names?”
Later I’d learned this query had some merit after all: Chris’s two girls – with his almost wife – were Jasmine and Blossom. When Dwayne told Cammie their names her face crumpled as if she were going to cry. But then she fought off the tears and went into a quiet rage instead.
“Her eyes looked like they were going to bug out of her head,” Dwayne told me later. “I took a step backward. Her hands were clenching and unclenching. She wanted to kill me for telling her. A part of my brain was searching the room for a weapon. But then she kinda pulled herself together.” Dwayne gave me a long look. “I don’t ever want to be in a room alone with her again. No wonder the bastard left her.”
Camellia’s strange behavior was explained when it surfaced that many of the female members of the Purcell family were named after flowers. Apparently Chris’s non-Purcell “wife” has fallen for this weird obsession as well, and since it was a decidedly Purcell quirk, Cammie was seemingly ready to kill over it.
This was about the time I decided to indulge in some Purcell family history. Hence, my report.
“Jasper Purcell would like to meet with you,” Marta said, bringing me back to the present with a bang. “He needs a p.i.”
“You mean, meet with Dwayne?” I asked, puzzled. I was the research person, not the A-list investigator.
“Nope.” Her voice sounded as if she were trying to tamp down her excitement. Must be more money involved. “He called this morning and asked me for the name of a private investigator. It’s something of a personal nature, to do with his family.”
“This is Dwayne’s case,” I reminded her. I didn’t add that Dwayne wanted to wash his hands of the whole thing.
“Jasper wants someone else to tackle this one. Says it’s sensitive.”
I glanced through the sliding glass door to where Dwayne, who’d removed his shirt in the unseasonably hot, late September sunshine, was standing on the dock. His back was hard, tan, and smooth. Someone who knew him drove by in a speedboat and shouted good-natured obscenities. Dwayne turned his head, grinned and gave the guy the finger.
“How sensitive?” I asked.
“He said he wants a woman.”
I wasn’t sure what I thought of that. Just how many private investigators did the Purcell family need? “I’ll have to make sure this is okay with Dwayne.”
“I talked to Dwayne this morning,” Marta revealed. “He said he’s had his fill of the Purcells but if you wanted to step in, he was all for it.”
I knew Dwayne’s feelings about Cammie, but this sounded suspicious. Dwayne likes to cherry-pick assignments. That’s why I’d been relegated to grinding research and drudge work. I narrowed my eyes at his back until he glanced around. His brows lifted at my dark look and he stuck his head inside the gap in the sliding glass door. “What?”
“I’m talking to Marta Cornell about the Purcells.”
“They pay well, darlin’, and that’s the only goddamn good thing about ‘em.” He went back to the sunshine, turning his face skyward like a sybarite.
Marta persisted, “Our client wants you to meet him at Foster’s around four. Get a table. He’ll buy dinner.”
Free food. I’m a sucker for it and Marta knows my weakness.
And Foster’s-On-The-Lake is just about my favorite restaurant in the whole world. How bad could the Purcells be?
Two hours later I parked my Volvo wagon and walked into Foster’s-On-The-Lake, snagging a patio table beneath one of the clear-plastic, faux-grass umbrellas which sported a commanding view of Lake Chinook. Most of the umbrellas are green canvas, but sometimes Jeff Foster, owner and manager of Foster’s-On-The-Lake adds a bit of fun to the mix, hence the fun plastic-party-ones. He didn’t notice my arrival or he would have steered me toward a less well-placed table. He knows how cheap I am and tries to give the paying customers the best seats. I was all ready to explain that I was being treated by one of the Purcells but a member of the wait staff I didn’t know let me choose my table. Maybe it was because I’d taken a little extra care with my appearance. I’d unsnapped my pony-tail, brushed and briefly hot-curled my hair, tossed on a tan, loosely flowing skirt and black tank top. I’d even done the mascara/eyeliner bit, topping the whole look off with some frosted lip gloss.
The Binkster, my pug, had cocked her head at me and slowly wagged her tail. I took this to mean I looked hot.
I’d forgotten to ask Marta what Jasper looked like. He was a Purcell and the Purcells were wealthy and notorious, so apparently that was supposed to be enough. I ordered a Sparkling Cyanide, my new favorite drink, an electric blue martini that draws envious eyes from the people who’ve ordered your basic rum and Cokes.
I was sipping away when a man in his mid-thirties strode onto the patio. He stopped short to look around. I nearly dropped my cocktail. I say nearly, because I’d paid a whopping eight bucks for it and I wasn’t going to lose one drop unless Mt. St. Helen’s erupted again and spewed ash and lava to rain down on Foster’s patio, sending us all diving for cover. Even then I might be able to balance it.
I felt my lips part. Marta must have guessed what my reaction would be when I clapped eyes on him. She probably was fighting back a huge hardy-har-har all the while we were on the phone. This guy was flat-out gorgeous. Women seated around me took notice: smoothing their hair, sitting up straighter, looking interested and attentive. His gaze settled on me. I gulped against a dry throat. He had it all. Movie star good looks. Brilliant blue eyes and thick lashes. Chiseled jaw. Smooth, naturally dark skin and blinding white teeth. Strong physique, taut and muscular with that kind of sinewy grace that belongs to jungle cats. I should have known this was going to turn out badly. I should have heard the ‘too handsome’ alarm clang in my brain. But, honestly, I just stared.
He flashed me a smile, then scraped back the chair opposite me. The sun’s rays sent a shaft of gold light over his left arm. His gray shirt was one of those suede-ish fabrics that moved like a second skin.
“Jane Kelly?” he asked.
Great voice. Warm and mellow. He smelled good, too. Musky and citrus-y at the same time. And his dark hair had the faintest, and I mean faintest, of an auburn tint, the shade of color women pay big, big, HUGE, bucks for.
I nodded, wondering if I should check for drool on my chin. You can never be too careful.
“I’m Jasper Purcell.”
“Thanks for meeting me. I know I didn’t give you a lot of time.”
I cleared my throat. “No problem. Marta Cornell said you wanted to see me aboutyour family. She wasn’t specific.”
“I wasn’t specific with her.” He hesitated, his eyes squinting a bit as if he were wrestling with confiding in me. After a moment, he said, “It’s about my grandmother, Orchid Purcell.”
I looked interested, waiting for him to continue.
“She named all her girls after flowers. But it’s the only crazy thing she’s done until now.”
Mental illness runs in the Purcell family….. “What’s happened?” I asked cautiously, but Jasper Purcell didn’t answer me. He appeared to be lost to some inner world.
Eventually he surfaced, glancing around, seeming to notice his surroundings for the first time. “Nice place. I’ve never been here.”
Since Foster’s was a Lake Chinook institution I was kind of surprised. The Dunthorpe area – where the Purcell mansion had been for the last century – was just north of the lake. If Jasper Purcell grew up there, the restaurant seemed like a natural.
“How can I help you, Mr. Purcell?”
That seemed to jolt him back. “Sorry.” He leaned across the table and clasped my hand. The heat of his fingers ran right up my arm. I was dazzled by that incredible face so close to mine. “Call me Jazz.”
“Short for Jasper. My cousin Cammie could never pronounce it.”
Nowhere in my research had anything been said about this man’s extraordinary good looks. Was Cammie as beautiful as Jasper – Jazz – was handsome? I made a mental note to ask Dwayne.
Instinctively, I knew I should stay out of whatever he had in store for me. But I really wanted to help him. Really, really wanted to help him. Call it temporary insanity. But every cell in my body seemed to be magnetically attracted to him.
Jazz said, “I’d like you to meet my grandmother and tell me what you think. See if you believe she’s still got it together upstairs. Just get an overall impression. That’s all I’m looking for.” He turned toward the lake. A sleek, black-and-white Master Craft pulled up to the dock outside Foster’s patio.
I didn’t talk about my rates. I didn’t mention that I was barely an apprentice. I didn’t explain that I wasn’t the person for the job. I didn’t say anything to jeopardize the moment. Under Jasper Purcell’s spell I could only give one answer: “Yes.”
That brought a brilliant smile to his lips. He gave me his full attention again and clasped my hands between his own. My knuckles tingled. “Thank you,” he said, his gaze so warm my internal temperature shot skyward. Whew. I was going to have to order another drink….and pour it over my head to cool off.
Marry in haste, repent in leisure. One of my mother’s favorite axioms slipped across my mind. So, okay, I wasn’t marrying the guy. It wasn’t like he was even interested. But I sure ended up with a lot of time wishing I hadn’t been so hasty.
Every time I say “yes” it gets me in a shitload of trouble.