The Big Bluff: An Amatuer Bluffs His Way into P.I.dom

Posted: April 27, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Following is Chapter One of my first finished, alas unpublished novel. I thought I would offer it here for the people who have been supportive of my writing endeavors. If you comment and ask for more, I’ll continue posting chapters (yes the entire book) –otherwise you’ll have to wait until I get around to self publishing it.

Here is the elevator pitch: (AKA The Dust Jacket write up)

Max Starr enters an empty detective agency by mistake, instead of an employment office, and meets a beautiful redhead  with freckles in just the right places. Maxine Andrews asks if he is John Steadman, the private investigator?  Jeez, he hopes he is. He bluffs his way into taking her case and hopefully her heart.

Before Max catches his breath, the FBI threatens him with jail for impersonating a P.I., Maxine’s father is kidnapped, and the evil Kay Lu has her seductive claws into his best friend.

Max unravels clues to a fringe group of cloning experts, who plan to sell cloned embryos of top U.S. scientists to the China. Before he can act, an FBI agent is murdered, and Max is the prime suspect.

The rookie private investigator is beaten up, kidnapped, drugged, shot, and kissed by Maxine. Not a bad job when you factor in the kiss, he reasons.

But how can he tell Maxine he isn’t really a private investigator, thwart the criminals, elude jail time for impersonating a P.I., solve a murder, and get the girl in the end? None of this was in his job description.

If he can win Maxine’s heart and rely on her martial art skills, he might live long enough to solve this case.


The Big Bluff

Chapter 1


 It was just past eleven o’clock on a brisk windy March morning as I pulled my ‘67 Mustang convertible alongside the curb in front of one of the last vintage Old Portland brick buildings.

 The vinyl top shuddered while the east wind frisked it for leaks. Another gust tried to toss my pockets as I jumped from the Mustang and made a dash for the lobby of the McLoughlin Building.

I played tug-of-war against the wind with one of the building’s formidable entry door and lost. The wind clamored against the door and released its grip just as I played Hercules.

Two women stepped over me, opened the door, smirked, and walked into the lobby. I got up, dusted myself off, and followed them to the elevators. They were still smirking. A door across from the elevators led to a stairwell. Climbing stairs seemed a logical alternative to watching instant replays in their heads.

On the fourth floor, wheezing and weaving in a rumpled and stained suit, I opened the stairwell door and staggered down the walnut-framed hallway in search of Suite four-thirty four.

The rooms to my right had even numbers and odd numbers hung over the doors on the left side of the hall. “Let’s see,” I recited. “Four twenty-eight, four-thirty, four thirty-two, the next door should be the employment agency.”

My watch seemed fast. “Eleven-ten. Damn!”

Looking at the time, instead of the door number, I stumbled into my new profession. The thick door stuck, so I applied some subtle pressure with my shoulder, and it sprung open.

The brilliant sunlight from an expansive window nearly blinded me as I stepped in from the gloomy hallway. When my eyes became accustomed to the brightness, I noticed it was a small office. The décor featured rich walnut paneling, a cherry-wood desk in front of the window, and a turn-of-the century loveseat that at one time probably looked nice.

The desk was clean, except for an open calendar, a phone, a computer monitor and a picture of some guy shaking the mayor’s hand.

Whoever worked here was an organized person.  I hate organized people. My ex-wife organized everything, including her affair. I looked at the picture and surmised it must belong to the guy with the desk. He was thin with a big nose, brown hair and a cock-sure smile. He seemed proud to have his picture taken with Hizzoner, The Mayor.

“Hello?” I cried. The empty room beckoned to me. “You’re late,” it said. “They couldn’t wait around for you forever. They had other things to do. Other jobs to find for their clients who show up on time.”

 Had I struck out again? I looked around for another door that might admit me to a desk with a counselor, and I realized this was the only office.  Maybe I’d wandered into the wrong place.

I was in mid-turn toward the door, when it swung open again, and the most beautiful redhead I’d ever seen appeared before me. She was tall and thin with shoulder-length hair and the cutest freckles in just the right places. She wore a midnight blue business outfit with a dress that revealed long legs, and her fresh strawberry scent grappled with sensuous ruby-red lips for my attention.

I was going to ask her if she was an employment counselor when I realized I still hadn’t recovered from the stairs. Or maybe she knocked the wind out of me. I paused to nonchalantly gasp for a breath while she spoke.

“Are you Mr. Steadman, the private investigator?”

Jeez, I hoped I was. I gazed past her to the inscription on the lead-glazed window. It was backwards, but I could see it read: John Steadman, Private Investigator.  It seems I was.

 “Just a minute.” A smile appeared on my face. I strolled toward my desk to look at the calendar, and my luck was holding. I was across town meeting a Mr. Weatherby for lunch, and I was due for another appointment afterwards. I smiled at my new client.

But in the end, I couldn’t lie to this angel. It’s one of my rules: Be credible, be on time and don’t lie to pretty young women. My confidence was healthy at this point. Pretty women bring that out in me for some reason. 

 “Mr. Steadman is across town on a case. My name is Max Starr. I’ve been with this office for some, ah, period of time. Can I be of assistance?” I motioned for her to sit in one of two sterile oak chairs in front of the desk as I sat behind the stately piece of antiquity.

“My name is Maxine Andrews,” she said. “Some people call me Max, too. Well, nobody’s called me that since I was a tomboy with a ponytail. Only a few of my close friends call me Max now.”

I conjured an image of her as a tomboy with the ponytail and a dozen boys chasing after her.

 “We’ll have to be careful when we’re together in public. We’ll both be answering to our names at the same time.”  Did I say that? What an idiot!

 “I’m rather desperate, Mr. Starr.” She managed a slight smile. “I need some help. Are you any good at making drops?”

“I’m an expert.” I was recalling the fall outside the building steps a few minutes earlier. “What kind of drop are we talking about?”

“Well, there’s this man, and he sort of got his hands on something of mine. He’s offered to let me have it back, but he says he wants something for his trouble.”

“Could you be a little more specific? I’ll need to know as much as possible before I can decide if I’ll take the case.” As if there would be any doubt. “What does he have, how did he get it, and how much does he want?”

 “Well it’s a little embarrassing.” She tugged demurely at a strand of her crimson hair, wrapping it around a finger. “I’m engaged to be married next month, and this man … he’s an old boyfriend … I haven’t seen him for five years. Well, my engagement announcement was reported in The Oregonian last week, and he saw it.”

Strike one. How could I take this case? She had a fiancée.

“The man I’m marrying has money.”

Strike two.

“He also has a family that is rather old-fashioned. They wouldn’t think much of the pictures Scott took of me.”

“So it’s that kind of shakedown is it? The pictures are of a compromising nature?”  There was hope for this case yet.

“They aren’t pornographic. I was his model for some artistic pictures he took when we dated. He was a struggling professional photographer. Some of the photos were a bit risqué, but not explicit. He’s threatened to publish them on the Internet if I don’t come up with $20,000.”

 “A tough spot.” My eyebrows sank in sympathy. “But why do you need me?  Why don’t you just pay him off?”

 “I’d prefer not to see the slimy jerk again.” She frowned. “Besides, I figure he’d be less likely to pull something against a man, especially against someone of your size.”

 “What do you mean try something?” My internal warning alarm hit the high decibels. “I can be brave to a point, but I’m not stupid.

“Nothing. It’s just that being a woman, he might try to stiff me or hold me up for more money. Knowing him, he’d try to get fresh. Will you take the case?”

I was trying to figure out what P.I.s charged. On an old television series, James Rockford charged two hundred dollars a day, plus expenses. But that was back in the seventies. Allowing for inflation that would be between a couple grand a day. P.I.s couldn’t make that much.  Still, this had the potential to be dangerous work.

“I get five hundred a day, plus expenses.”

She gave me a long, hard look. I squirmed a little and tried not to show it.

“That’s more than I thought.” She reached into a black purse and withdrew a matching wallet. From the wallet she retrieved a wad of crisp new bills, counted out five of them and placed the cash in my sweaty hand.

I stared stupidly at my good fortune. Good work if you can get it.  I shoved the twist into my shirt pocket and re-buttoned my sports jacket. As I gazed into her lush green eyes I wondered why I was fooling this charming lady. It’s one of my faults. I tend to be impulsive. Still, this new job paid well.

She sized up my rumpled jacket, stained pants and spotted tie, apparently speculating whether I was legit. I probably looked like one of those hard-boiled P.I.s from the old detective movie noir.

“Here’s the address where I’m supposed to meet him at the Buddhist temple. His name is Scott Hess. Here’s a picture of him. The meeting is set for 11 o’clock tonight. My friend Jon is the monk at the temple. He’ll be there to let you in.”

I looked at the picture. The guy looked to be in his early thirties. He had oily black hair, a thin frame and a crooked smile. The girl in the picture with him was the doll standing in front of me.

 “This picture was taken a few years ago.” She laughed awkwardly. “He looks about the same, but thinner if you can believe it.” She pulled a sealed manila envelope from her purse and tucked it into my outstretched hand.  

“This is the money for the payoff. There’s also a note inside the envelope. Please don’t open it. He’ll give you another envelope with pictures and negatives.” She gave me a desperate look. “I’m counting on you; don’t let me down.”

“I hope you don’t expect me to be physical with him. To scare him off, I mean.”

“Oh no. He’s really not a bad guy. He’s just in trouble financially and his morals sink a little bit every now and then. I don’t think he’ll be any trouble.”

 She clutched my empty hand in both of hers, squeezed it gently and warmly and drew herself to me, gazing into my unintelligent blue eyes. We floated together briefly on a cloud of air until the shrill ringing of a telephone interrupted the spell.

She looked at me like a lost little girl. “Aren’t you going to get it?”

I debated. Finally, on the fifth ring I picked up the phone.

“John Steadman Detective Agency. What? No, he’s not here right now. This is Max Starr, his, ah, associate. Well, I’m on my way out the door.” I was peeking at Steadman’s calendar. “He’ll be back at about two o’clock. I’d rather you call him back. What? Well, okay Mr. Sealy. Have him call you at your office? Sure.” I scrawled a message on a Post-it note, signed it “Max” for Maxine’s benefit, and hung up.

We arranged for me to call her after my meeting with Hess and exchanged information. She gave me the number at the motel where she was staying, and I gave her my cell phone number, explaining investigators are never in the office.

I watched as she walked out the door. Her shapely long legs waved goodbye and I waved back.

After she left, I went to Steadman’s desk and found the Yellow Pages in his lower drawer. I looked for a heading under Private. Nothing. I flipped the pages back to Detective. A one-line headline suggested, See Investigators.

Under that listing, I made a selection and dialed the phone number.

A gruff voice answered. “A and C Investigations.”

“Yeah, hey, I’m writing a story on speculation for a detective magazine. Can you tell me how much P.I.s charge a day?”

The gruff voice gave me a lot of trouble, as if he didn’t want the word to get out about his rates. But in the end he broke down.

I jotted it down on a note pad. “Between fifty and seventy-five dollars an hour? A minimum of three hundred dollars per day? Got it. How much for a drop?”

“A what?” he asked.

 “A drop. How much to pay off a blackmailer and get crucial information back?” It sounded dumb saying it out loud, even to me.

“Look pal . . .” The voice took on a fatherly tone. “In a story, that’s one thing. But in real life I wouldn’t get near a scenario like that wearing Kevlar Body Armor. You’d be better off to have your hero refer a client like this to the police. In real-life, that kind of a job can get you killed. Even in a story it’s kind of corny, don’t you think?”

I did think. I thanked Mr. “A” for his advice and hung up. What had I gotten myself into? Still, the vision had paid me and paid me nicely.

I put the phone book back into Steadman’s drawer, tidied his desk and looked around the office trying to leave no evidence of my visit. I did leave the phone message from Mr. Sealy. He was a detective. Let him figure it out.

On the way out I looked above Steadman’s door. The numbers four-thirty-five were stenciled over it. Was this somebody’s idea of a joke? Putting an odd number on same side of the hall with all even numbers?

On the door across the hall, Suite four-thirty-four stared me in the face. I walked through the door and approached a mousey girl with gold-rimmed glass frames and brown hair in a bun and announced myself.

She rose from her desk with a clipboard in her hands. “Mr. Starr? You’re twenty-five minutes late. Mr. Olsen won’t be able to see you now. He has an eleven-thirty.”

“Tell Mr. Olsen to take me off his books. I found employment.”

“Oh good. Was it through one of our job referrals?”

“No, I found it on my own.”

“Oh?” She looked worried, probably about their commission. “What job did you find?” Now she was looking at the resume I had faxed her the day before.

“I’m a Private Investigator.”

“I don’t recall seeing that job title on your resume.” She was looking down the voluminous list of my employment history. “Locksmith, insurance claims adjuster, news reporter, public relations, sales . . .”

“It’s not on there,” I said.

“But you don’t have any experience in that field.”

She was right. The only experience I had was bouncing from job to job and losing my wife. But I had a lot of life experience, didn’t I? Yes, a lot of it turned out badly for me, but my luck had to change sometime. At least that was what I was telling myself at the moment.  I had something to prove to the world and to myself. If I didn’t take a chance once in a while . . . 

“My dear, if you look closely at that resume, you will see I have worked at seven different jobs in the past four years. I have plenty of experience. My life’s work thus far has been in training for this job. I’m just a bit of a late bloomer.”

As I left the puzzled secretary, my thoughts went to other matters.  In the hallway I withdrew the envelope from my inside jacket pocket and rapped it absently across my knuckles.

I hadn’t entirely believed her “get back the negatives at any cost” story. It would be too easy to scan the pictures and save them to a computer. But when she held my hand, my mind clouded. As I stepped outside into the wind and gazed dreamily at the ugly green Hawthorne Bridge spanning the Willamette River, I realized Maxine could have sold it to me on the spot.

 She had been emphatic about me not opening the envelope. I wrestled with my conscience for a while–three or four seconds at least.  Then, I inserted a car key into the corner of the flap, created a jagged opening, reached inside with deft fingers and withdrew the contents. What I found was the kind of stuff of which cheap detective novels are made. The envelope revealed a single page of folded stationary wrapped around a stack of scrap paper cut up from a Chinese newspaper in dollar bill sized increments.  Inside the stack of funny money was a silver business card-shaped CD disk–the kind that stores computer data.

Was she setting me up? It was either something too dangerous for her or she was using me as bait for a trap. Maybe she wanted to rid herself of this ex-boyfriend. Was she using me as a pretense to get close enough to shoot him?  If so, why would she want a potential witness along for the ride?  Perhaps I was the target. Or more likely, maybe someone was setting up Steadman. He must have made a lot of enemies in his line of work.

Thirty minutes into the new job and my head was spinning. What had I gotten myself into? I let a pretty girl and my ego talk me into believing I could be a private investigator. There must be licensing and training I would need to do this kind of work, and I wasn’t off to a very good start ethically.

Also, I found myself thinking and talking in clichés, gleaned from years of reading hard-boiled crime novels. I was an educated former journalist using terms like dames and dolls and other tough talk to express myself in my new career. I figured I’d best be careful or this pulp dialogue would expose me as a hackneyed wanna be. But, you know, no one seemed to tumble.

I considered quitting the private eye business. Still, opening the envelope against my client’s wishes proved I had good instincts for the job. The memory of the lovely redhead holding my hand in Steadman’s office clouded my judgment again. Perhaps I could pull it off after all.

I walked briskly toward my car, the wind still laughing at me. Another one of my faults: I’m overly optimistic.

Would You Like another Chapter?  Say so in the comment section.
  1. Amy Cochran says:

    Definitely like it! Keep it coming and don’t give up on publishing …

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