Aiela caught me on my way out, falling in step next to me and linking her arm with mine. “Leaving so soon?” She asked me, obviously knowing the answer.
“Afraid so.” I told her. “I’ve got a big day tomorrow, and it’s probably best to get some sleep now.”
She nodded thoughtfully and opened the front door, strangely hesitant. “Jake?” She said quietly.
“Be careful with this one.” She shut the door slowly behind her, and the click of the door closing was oddly loud in the quiet evening.
‘What the hell was that about?’ I asked myself. I wasn’t likely to get any answers standing where I was though, so I simply shrugged and headed down the driveway. On the street I got lucky. I managed to flag down a taxi passing by before curfew began. The driver grumbled a bit about taking me all the way across the city at this late hour, but twenty minutes, and twenty dollars, later, I exited the cab in front of my modest home.
My house is just a single story, with three bedrooms and one bathroom. It is in the middle of a slow residential street on the outskirts of the city. The suburbs were where my wife and I were going to raise a family, and our son, Ben, had spent the first year of his life here. She always said the city was too dangerous for children. She died two blocks away. A group of Crimson Mako gang members had chased one of their targets all the way to the suburbs, and lit up the neighborhood with gunfire in broad daylight, catching Mary and Ben in the crossfire. They hadn’t even made it to the hospital.
The house had been empty of anyone but myself ever since. I don’t even invite Jimmy over. I guess that way, no one will know what my life has been like for the last few years. The yard was brown and yellow, instead of the green of every other yard in the neighborhood, and it desperately needed to be mowed. A small path, that was quickly being overgrown, led straight to the door. A paint job would do wonders for the place, but I can’t find it in me to care that much. I’m pretty sure it was originally either a white or a light blue, but there’s no way to tell now. Bare wood pokes out through the dirty paint job in so many patches that it looks like the house is dying from the pox.
Inside, however, the house is immaculate. As I shut the door behind me I took a look around, as always holding a small shred of hope that my family will be there waiting for me. I removed my fedora and jacket and tossed them onto the gun rack by the front door, where I kept my two rifles and spare hand gun, before heading into the kitchen. The spotless counters were bare of any utensils or decorations, almost as if no one lived there. A small ice box on the floor was filled with beer, of which I grabbed one, and little else. I popped the top off the bottle and headed into the living room. A couch, old and worn, but comfortable, sat in the middle of the room, with a coffee table in front of it. A radio sat on the table, the station tuned to the news. Other than a couple of blankets, a pad of paper and pencil, a phone, and a clock on the wall, the room was empty.
I set the bottle top on the table before picking up the pad of paper. For the next twenty minutes or so I jotted down notes to myself about the night’s events, skipping over the ever present pain of the loss of my father.
Detective life is like this a lot. Find a lead, follow it until you find another, then rinse and repeat. My next step was clear. Visit the Natural History Museum. After that… well, I’d deal with that tomorrow. I finished off the beer, turned off the radio, and pulled the blankets over me. Within minutes I was asleep.
I woke early the next morning, just as the sun began to rise in the east. I shuffled off to the bathroom before grabbing a change of clothes from the dresser in the otherwise empty bedroom. Workout clothes, a little worn around the edges, helped settle me into my morning routine. I ran around the neighborhood in the early dawn light, pausing every few steps to mock punch the air around me, like an old boxer in training, complete with dodges and counters.
Five miles, and almost an hour, later I was back home and in the showers. According to the phone book the museum didn’t open until ten in the morning, but I knew that the people I needed to talk to would be there much earlier than that. They were probably getting there now, setting up paperwork for the day. I called a cab, then went outside to wait after grabbing my jacket, hat, and spare hand gun, just in case. I don’t usually carry a gun, but it’s comforting sometimes to have with me.
The street was starting to wake up as the taxi pulled out in front of my house. My neighbors were beginning to mill out of their houses to climb into their cars, or onto their horses, before heading into town to start the day. I idly wondered where they all worked, but the truth was that I never talked to any of them. Most wouldn’t even look towards my house, as if it was a disease they could ignore.
I told the cab driver where to go, then spent the twenty minute drive working through what I knew already. It wasn’t much. All I could do was hope that I found something more solid when I talked to the curator.
The cab dropped me off at the front doors of the museum, then drove away quickly. The museum looked more like a gothic church than an institute for scientific history. Its gray stone was unpainted, and rose three and a half stories where small spires dotted the morning sky. The large wooden double doors were still locked, of course, but there were a few vehicles parked in the lot, indicating that I was right about the fact that administrators were already here.
I made my way around to the side of the museum and found an employee entrance that was unlocked. I walked inside as if I was supposed to be there. It’s a secret I learned as a detective. As long as you look like you’re supposed to be somewhere, people will often ignore your presence. The interior hallways of the office spaces of the museum felt like a giant hamster maze. The halls crisscrossed each other at regular intervals, but they all looked the same. A stroke of luck showed me an employee roster on a pegboard at one of the intersections, which told me that the head curator was a woman named Martha Crow.
The sound of voices led me to a small break room where a couple of employees were having a cigarette and coffee break. “Morning.” I said to them through the smoke.
“Morning.” One of the men replied. He looked at me closely and asked, with his eyes squinted, “Don’t think I’ve seen you around.”
“I’d be surprised if you had.” I said with a laugh. “I’m supposed to be having an interview with Mrs. Crow, but can’t figure out where to go.”
The second man laughed and replied easily, “Let me guess, you figured you’d just walk in the employee entrance and find her?”
I rubbed the back of my neck in apparent embarrassment and shrugged. “Pretty much.” I replied.
Both men laughed casually, easily accepting the lie. “You almost made it.” The first man said, his voice taking on a more friendly tone. “Go right in the hallway there, then go two rows down. Another right, then all the way to the end of the hallway.”
I glanced at the clock on the wall and back and slumped saying, “Thanks. You guys are life savers.”
They waved me off as I headed out and returned back to their conversation, completely forgetting about me. Like I said, act like you’re supposed to be somewhere, and no one pays attention. I followed the employee’s directions and found myself outside a door no different from any other in the maze of offices, except this one had a small plaque that read: “Martha Crow, Head Curator”.
I knocked on the door and waited for a muffled “Come in.” before opening the door. A small blonde woman sat behind a desk so large that it made her look like a child. She was five foot nothing, and maybe a hundred pounds when soaking wet. Her petite frame looked mildly ridiculous in the expensive blue business suit she wore, and there was too much makeup on her face. Almost as if she was going out of her way to prove she wasn’t some teenager. A single look into her green eyes, however, could have told me that. They carried a weight of years that belied the youngness of her face and body.
The room itself was clean and well organized, filled with bookshelves of file folders, each clearly marked, and file cabinets. It felt a little too sterile to me. Almost like a doctor’s office. “Mrs. Crow?” I asked politely as I shut the door behind me.
“Miss.” She replied shortly. “And you are?”
“My name is Jake Malone.” I told her, “I’m a private detective, and I was hoping for a few moments of your time.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly and she waved at the chair in front of her. “Sit. I have about two minutes.”
I nodded my thanks and took a seat. “I’ve been hired to find the Moonstone.” I told her without preamble. If she wanted a quick visit, I could give her one.
Her eyes widened and she sat back against her chair as if I’d slapped her. “Maybe I have more than two minutes.” She mused. Her eyes squinted back down and she asked, “Who hired you? I certainly didn’t.”
“My clients tend to wish to remain anonymous.” I told her. “But I was hoping there might be something you could tell me about its disappearance.”
“Are you aware, Mr. Malone, that the museum paid a hefty price for the Moonstone?”
“No?” I replied. “But its value isn’t something I was really concerned about.”
“Of course you weren’t.” She snapped at me. “But it is an important point.”
“The Moonstone, wherever it is, belongs to the museum, Mr. Malone. You tell me you’ve been hired to find it for a client. But since the stone belongs to the museum, I’m confused as to why you’d be looking for it for someone else.”
My eyebrows raised in surprise. I hadn’t thought of the fact that the Moonstone would need to come here. ‘Shit.’ I thought. ‘This complicates things.’ I opened my arms in a half shrug and replied, “The actual ownership of the stone doesn’t really concern me. I wasn’t paid to deliver it, just to find it.”
“I see.” She said, tapping a long nailed finger against her lips. “And what would it cost to have it delivered here, instead?”
Hello moral dilemma. The just under a thousand dollars burned in my pocket. It was money I desperately needed. And I never turn my back on a client. But I obviously couldn’t take two clients who were looking for the same object. At the same time, I needed any information Miss Crow could give me, or it would all be a moot point anyway. “As I said, I’m just the guy that was hired to look for it.”
Martha Crow laughed, sitting back in her chair again. It was a pretty laugh, but it sounded forced. “A man of honor.” She said. “How rare.” She pursed her lips. “Perhaps when you have found the Moonstone, and thus fulfilled your obligation to your client, you might come back and have a chat with me about delivering a certain object to its rightful owners.” She raised an eyebrow at the end, and studied me with her too old eyes.
“I can’t see any reason why that might not happen.” I replied with a straight face. “But I’ll have to find it first.”
“Of course.” She told me dryly. The clock on her wall chimed eight o’clock and she glanced at it as if annoyed. “Very well. In the interests of recovering the artifact, I find I have no choice but to help you. Lord knows the police haven’t been a help.”
I carefully kept my expression neutral. While there was no love lost between myself and John Rider, I still felt a sense of brotherhood with my former coworkers. They had a lot on their plates recently with all the new laws, but they were, in general, good men and women who just wanted to help the public. “So,” I asked, “What can you tell me? I already know that the Moonstone was shipped out of the rainforest and sent here, and that you collected a team of specialists to study it before putting it on display, including a Dr. Johann, the assistant of Professor Rafkin. I also know it never arrived. What I don’t know, is when it disappeared, or where.”
“My, you are informed, aren’t you?” She smiled. “That makes this much easier.” She stood up and walked over to one of the bookshelves, running her finger down the row of file folders as she spoke. “The truck was last seen entering the city itself from the south. Ah, here it is.” She grabbed a green folder and brought it over to me. “This is the police report.”
“They gave you the report of an ongoing investigation?” I asked, surprised.
“Let’s just say I’m very interested in finding my property Mr. Malone, and that I have the resources necessary to get what I need from whoever I need it from.”
That scared me a little. Okay, that scared me a lot. The idea that anyone on the force would exchange confidential information for money was a disconcerting piece of information. On the other hand, it wasn’t as if this was a murder, or rape, case, but it was still unprofessional. I scanned the report as I thought. Nothing too important. The truck was last seen coming into town on June 5th. The report said that the truck had been hijacked, and that the people inside were found dead. It wasn’t, however, a full police report, just a summery. And something about it felt… off, somehow. I’m not sure why, but after seeing it I began to feel like someone had pulled one over on Miss Crow.
“Southside.” I muttered to myself, going over all the recent gang territories. “Great.”
“Is there something important in that fact?” Miss Crow asked, her voice clipped.
“Yeah.” I told her, closing the folder and handing it back to her. “It means Crimson Mako territory. And that means, I have to go find a man named Lenny.”