The red ember of the cigarette intensified while he dragged on a nearly finished cigarette. With his exhalation the smoke threaded through the stale air of the dark, shuttered room. No more than five minutes ago he had lifted his head off his paper-filled desk, neck aching from his impromptu slumber. He looked at his watch, peering past the broken face. The clock read 7:45 and he had no idea what time he had made it in from the previous night. His consciousness somewhat improving and his headache somewhat pounding, he pulled his wallet from his worn dress pants. He was greeted by plentiful space within, and an absence of green.
This was not the first time he had come to consciousness within the confines of his office. He got up to make his way to the restroom and as he did he inadvertently kicked a plastic bottle across the floor of the office. He read its familiar label and knew the source of his near-migraine.
In the bathroom, the mirror beckoned him to inspect the damage. His hair, balding, was unkempt and out of sorts. His white dress shirt, a size too small, was stained brown and his tie loosened to the side. His black dress pants featured a rust colored stain and a pungent smell to go with it. “Great work Pete”, he said to himself.
Years come and go, some kinder than others. The last two for Peter had been very, very unkind.
He relieved himself, changed his pants the back-up pair, also a size too small, put the familiar labeled bottle in the bottom drawer of his desk beside his pistol, and sat down. He opened the top drawer of his desk to retrieve his schedule for the day. Beside the schedule was a heart-shaped locket, his hands moved to pull it out of the drawer. He held it up and opened it.
Within the locket was a picture of Peter, almost a different man, and a woman with sharp features and blonde hair, blue eyes peering through the picture at him. His gaze lingered for a second on the shape of her face and made its way to the bottom half of the picture, in which a girl no more than a child resided. Her hair was in pigtails with ribbons and she wore a smile lacking from the two adults in the picture. He could feel the pull of regret and he closed the locket. With his head pulsating he thought he was in no shape to linger with those memories. He grasped the planner and opened it up upon his desk.
In addition to the toll on his physicality, the last 2 years had spent him mentally too. While a famous stereotype, hard drink does not lend itself to success in the private eye business. P. Cross, Private Eye had not been a profitable business venture for some time. And Pete didn’t
But today, for the first time in a long time, Pete had a client coming to see him. Something different from the standard fare he’d been seeing, the suspicious spouse, runaway teen, or his favorite, the missing animal. All he had was the appointment with a Mr. Johnston, and he had no idea the content of the meeting to come. 8:30 was written beside Johnston in red pen, and his broken faced watch no read 8:25. Pete brushed his teeth and combed his hair to the side and sat down in with his best P.I. posture.
A knock rang three times at exactly 8:30. He could see the silhouette of a figure through the opaque glass of the office door. In gold letters he read the mirror of P. Cross, Private Eye. The P in private was chipped. He was far behind in rent, and his last concern was the lettering.
“Come in!” Pete said. The knob turned, and the figure came through the door.
He was tall, his fedora lending to his height. His face was angular and clean shaven, suit pressed. His fitted grey suit jacket contrasted his white shirt and red tie. He wore a high-priced time piece. He wasn’t Pete’s standard fare for a client.
Okay Pete, game face.” He said to himself. Maybe this was a chance to score some real dough and pay the rent off. At least a fraction of it.
“Mr. Cross, I presume?” His baritone cut through the smoke and staleness of the office. The light, coming in through the shutters, darkened his forehead and his mouth. His eyes, illuminated, rested on Pete.
“At your service, sir. May I ask your name?”
“Jonah Johnston. Pleased to meet you.”
“My pleasure, Mr. Johnston. Please have a seat.”
Pete pulled the chair out from under the other end of his cluttered desk. Mr. Johnston’s long frame took a seat. He removed his hat and put it on his lap. The light reflected off his bald head, freshly shaven. His angular chin jutted out and his solemn expression rested on Pete. Pete shifted in his chair uneasily.
Pete broke the silence. “Well if you’ve come to me, you have a problem. I won’t waste your time. What do you have going on?”
“My daughter. She’s missing.”
“Have you filed a police report?”
“Well sir I’m going to have to sugg-“
He was cut off by the baritone voice.
“I come from a, how would you say it” he sat in thought for a second, “a very private, old family. We like to keep things in house if possible. I’m coming to you because they say you’re discrete, you’re quick, reliable, and affordable.”
The “affordable” stung Pete. At least a little bit.
“With that being said”, Johnston continued, “I plan to make this worth your while. This is my only child and she must be found.”
Pete pushed back. “Well, sir, it’s protocol we take this through the police for a missing person. I could get in a lot of hot water if-“
“20,000 dollars. 5 now, 15 when she is returned. No questions, no funny business, no third parties. This is a one-time offer, if you won’t take this then I will find another.”
Pete looked the man in the eyes. His face betrayed nothing. His thin lips pressed together, and his long nose separated his small eyes. It wasn’t his place to say, but his client wasn’t winning any beauty pageants.
Pete breathed in deeply. What did he really have to lose?
“Okay. You have a deal Mr. Johnston. But in addition to the 20,000, I want all my expenses paid. I will keep receipts for food and travel and any inconveniences I might encounter.”
“You have a deal Mr. Cross.”
Pete pulled his thick legal pad out of the desk and flipped to a fresh page. He brought out his red pen from his coat pocket and clicked it.
“Let’s start with your daughter. Name?”
“Do you have a picture?”
Mr. Johnston handed a photo across the desk. In it, he saw a girl, no more than 17. Her wavy hair hung to her shoulders, brunette color contrasting against her pale skin. She had a kind face, bright eyes. A radiant smile defined the photo. It seemed she had, luckily, taken after her mother with the looks.
“Good lookin kid” Pete said, holding the picture in one hand, knocking the ash off a fresh cigarette in the other. Johnston stared ahead.
“How long has she been missing?”
“And you haven’t gone to the cops yet?”
“Like I said”, Johnston droned, “We keep things in house.”
Pete sighed. “Where did you see her last?”
“We attended church together that Sunday. We came back to the estate as a family and she went to her room, no different than any other Sunday. When we came to knock and ask her down for dinner, the window was open in her room, and a bed sheet tied down to lower her out of the house.”
“Kids, I’ll tell ya” Pete said. Johnston emitted no emotion.
“Have you spoken to her friends? Asked any questions? Had she been acting different? Lashing out?”
Johnston paused in thought. “Anna does not have, how should I say this, many friends. She is quiet. Keeps to herself. Is active in her studies and in her faith, not much time for petty socializing and gossiping.”
This guy has got to be a hit at parties, Pete thought. I might have run away too.
“Any boys in her life? Maybe something she wouldn’t share with dear old dad? You know how they are. Maybe she told mom something.”
“My wife is just as shocked and lost as I am. She has nothing to offer either. Anna wasn’t allowed to date until she was 18. We hadn’t provided her a phone either to pursue such vices.”
This keeps making more and more sense, Pete thought. Repressed teenager, stuffy family, finally had enough and made a break for it. It adds up, and if they haven’t heard from her in 3 weeks, she must want to be off the grid. Maybe something else was going on in the "estate.."
“Did you guys check her room? Any journals, diaries, stuff she wouldn’t want you seeing?”
Johnston reached in his pocket. “These.” His deep voice shifted. He pulled a folded piece of paper and a solid plastic piece from his pocket. He handed the folded paper and plastic across the table to Pete. Pete, looking at Johnston whose eyes were now fixed on the floor, took the items and directed his gaze to them.
The plastic item was a postcard. It had a quaint, old timey wooden Church on the front beside a pristine river. “Come visit Cenacle and the Oldest Church in the State, built in 1730!” The postcard was worn a little on the edges.
I’ve never heard of Cenacle, Pete thought to himself.
His eyes made their way to the folded piece of paper. It was a newspaper, worn a little yellow from time. The name of the paper was the Cenacle Times. This page was designated “2A Local”. He scanned the front. The side column was about the paving of roads around Cenacle. The bottom was a schedule for services at the Cenacle church. The focus of the page was an article about the new choir director, and it was complete with a picture of the
choir and its new instructor.
The smiling choir members beamed at Pete. He looked at their eager eyes and they looked back at him. Until he saw a pair of blue eyes.
“Jesus what the..”
The sheen of her blonde hair was visible to him through the black and white of the newspaper photo. It was unmistakable. It was her. He hadn’t seen her or heard from her in nearly two years. Pete’s voice, panicked, rose an octave. “Okay pal, what’s the game here? Where in the hell did you get this?”
“I have no idea, Mr. Cross. It was in my daughter’s room. However, through mutual acquaintances, I thought you would be interested to see that.”
He hadn’t seen her since the funeral. “If you’re trying to run a game on me Jack, we’re going to have a problem. Who do you think you are-“
“Look, Mr. Cross. This can be a mutually beneficial arrangement. I want to find my daughter just as much as you want to find your wife. Let’s help each other here.”
Pete looked down again at his smiling wife. There was something about her eyes. They never smiled at him like that, even in the good times.
“I’ll leave for Cenacle tomorrow. For your sake, you better not be pulling my leg.”
“This is all in good faith sir, I just want my daughter back. There is, however, one thing you should see. Turn the post card around."
Pete picked up the post card again with the quaint church and turned it around. Written in what seemed to be a smudged red substance, in an urgent font and all capitals, read a message
HEBREWS 2 14
“Is this blood, Johnston?”
“I believe so, sir.”
“Christ. What’s the verse say. If you’re a man of faith, I figure you would have it.”
“You figure correct. ‘Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil’’’
“Sometimes you wonder if someone could have put a second set of eyes on it. The word choice I mean.”
“Every word has meaning.” Johnston added. He stood up, put on his hat,
“I'll leave first thing tomorrow.” Pete said, holding the post card.
“Do be careful Mr. Cross. Bring my daughter back in one piece.”
The door shut, and Johnston was gone.
On his way back to his apartment, Pete stopped by the service station to put gas in black sedan. It paid, if he had to follow someone, to blend in. He noticed an old timer sitting by the pump next to him. He seemed to have few teeth, and the ones he did were stained brown by years of chewing tobacco. We all have our vices, Pete thought. He thought of the gold embroidery on the letters of the familiar bottle label.
“Where are ye headed son?” The old timers voice wobbled in the air.
Pete looked at him. One eye wondered towards Pete, and the other, a glass one, was opaque and he could vaguely make himself out in the old man’s eye.
“Cenacle. You heard of it?” Pete looked back at the gas pump and towards the street, away from the old man.
“Repent, ye sinner, if ye head to Cenacle. Repent from a life of violence ye lived. Ye will find judgment there.”
Pete looked back, the gas pump clicked off. The tank was full. “Excuse me?”
“Repent sinner, judgment awaits ye on the floor of the church.”
“Excuse me, do you know me? What are you talking about?” Pete looked down to place the gas pump back in the receptacle. He looked back up.
The old timer was gone, and he was alone.