The kitchen was empty when Frank opened his eyes, the rain had stopped and the morning sun was beginning to emerge from its hiding place beyond the horizon; dim shafts of grey-blue light bounced off of the white paint of the brickwork outside and penetrated the windows, bringing with them a soft, comforting glow. He was sat in one of the chairs at the dining table, facing the sink with his back to the wall, and was feeling lightheaded an groggy, like he’d just woken up after a night of heavy drinking. He remembered sneaking through his apartment with his revolver, trying to avoid detection by a horrifying apparition, but couldn’t remember how he’d come to be sitting in this chair. His memories were hazy and he began to believe he’d been dreaming; it wasn’t unusual for him to suffer nightmares, usually they related to the constant fear of losing his daughter, or those gruesome murders in Arizona. He glanced down to his right at the table’s surface, his gun nowhere to be seen, and paused when his eyes settled on the radio. He stared at the machine for a full minute, brow furrowed, expecting it to spring to life and greet the onrushing daybreak with a chart-topping serenade. The dials on the radio looked like black, circular eyes flanking a grated silver mouth, staring unwaveringly forward despite his attention, and when nothing happened Frank moved his gaze over to Lenny, who was happily swimming around in circles inside his bowl.
Frank’s voice was gruff, more hoarse than usual due to the early hour, but his words always left his mouth in gravelly tones; the product of thirty years of smoking cheap cigarettes, the kind that stain the tips of your fingers in a dirty mustard colour. He began to stand, leaning forward to reach for the pot of fish food next to Lenny’s tank, when his stomach gurgled loudly, cramping as it did so, causing him to wince in pain. He sat back down heavily into his chair, the spindly wooden legs creaking in protestation to their re-acquaintance with his bulk. Something didn’t feel right, he was sure he’d dreamed the events that his memory claimed had occurred last night, but he felt slow, lethargic like he’d gorged on carbohydrate-rich foods and his body was consuming all of his energy in an effort to digest a huge gastric load. He didn’t remember eating anything last night – he hadn’t wanted to risk vomiting while tackling the filthy dishes – yet his stomach churned and sloshed as if it was full to the brim; it felt like something moving inside of him, wriggling around trying to find a comfortable position. Frank placed his palms on his knees and pushed, forcing himself to stand despite the tiny explosions of pain littering his abdomen. He placed a hand on his stomach and could feel writhing, presumably the pulsation of his tumescent digestive organ, and pursed his down-curved lips in disgust at the thought of his own innards. The pain in his abdomen slowly abated and so he again leant forward reaching for the fish food, which he opened and sprinkled onto the surface of the water in Lenny’s bowl, the goldfish reflexively darting upwards to meet the coloured flakes and consume them one by one.
“There you go, pal. I think your dad might be starting to finally lose it y’know.”
The early morning hoarseness had cleared and his voice now resumed its usual better-enunciated, gruff phonics. Frank smiled to himself; if he was ever going to lose it he would have gone nuts years ago, seeing the outcome of Aaron Stokes’ torturous attacks. He regarded Lenny, who had ignored his words and continued dragging his food from the surface of the water flake by flake, and his smile widened as he strolled to the far side of the kitchen to make coffee.
Frank was in the bathroom brushing his teeth when he heard his cell phone ringing in the bedroom, he hurriedly spat minty foam into the basin and wiped his mouth and beard with a towel as he strode down the hall. On entering his bedroom he threw the used towel onto the bed and grabbed his still ringing phone from atop the dresser; the display read ‘unknown caller ID’. This was a familiar sight in Frank’s line of work, people needed his help but apparently didn’t want him to know their contact details. The phone buzzed and vibrated insistently in his hand, tickling his calloused palm. He cleared his throat, fresh peppermint breath stinging his nostrils, as he slid the green emblem on the screen to the right to answer the call.
“Is this Detective Ward?”
The voice on the other end of the line was female and very well spoken. Frank imagined an overweight, middle-aged hag with steel-rimmed glasses that clung for their life to the end of her nose, and who had more money than she had sense. Still, if it wasn’t for these senseless rich morons he’d be out of a job, so he tolerated their eccentricities reluctantly.
“Former detective, I’m no longer with the NYPD.”
“But you do still work in the field of detection?”
Frank had taken to calling these rich ladies ma’am, it was something he’d started one day unintentionally but it seemed to give them the air of superiority that they enjoyed, and happy customers tip better, so he had kept it up.
“Good! My name is Stephanie van der Linden, my daughter is missing and I’d like you to find her.”
Despite Frank affording his more wealthy clients his best manners, they rarely did the same for him; he couldn’t remember ever hearing one of them say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. This was just another thing he disliked about the well-to-do, but for all their flaws the cases they brought to him paid well, and they never haunted him like the ones he’d investigated for the police department. Through slightly gritted teeth he replied.
“OK Ms van der Linden, have you reported this to your local police?”
“It’s Mrs, and yes I have but we live in Nassau, and since she was last seen in New York they referred me to the NYPD but, frankly Mr Ward, trying to get through to those people is a thankless task. So I found your details on the internet instead, your credentials are far superior to most private investigators.”
Great, Frank thought, another person who thinks police work gets done faster the more money you wave in its face! Still through gritted teeth, his voice now growing weary upon the realisation that the NYPD had probably found this girl already and cost him a decent payday,
“I assure you Mrs van der Linden, every case put to the NYPD is rapidly and effectively prioritised and will be dealt with in a timely manner. I used to work over there myself, and I happen to know some of the guys in their missing persons unit; they’re very good.”
“I don’t doubt that they’re good at what they do, but they’re just too slow. My Alice has been missing for five days now and I’ve not heard a peep from them, so I called the department and was told in no uncertain terms to ‘sit tight’ and let them do their job. I do want my daughter to still be alive when she’s found, Mr Ward, and I’m willing to pay for the privilege; twelve hundred dollars a day, plus expenses, until she is found.”
Frank had wandered back into the kitchen to fetch a cup of coffee while Stephanie had been ranting, and on hearing her offer he inhaled sharply, drawing hot coffee into his voice box which caused him to sputter and cough, comically spraying the brown fluid in an arc over the countertop. He held the phone away from his head and covered the receiver with his hand as he cleared his throat, a burning sensation spread down behind his sternum and up into his sinuses as droplets off coffee meandered down through his beard. When he had finished choking he returned the phone to his ear,
“That’s a very enticing offer Mrs van der Linden, but I must warn you that despite your expense I may not be able to find your daughter, and cannot vouch for her safety while she remains missing.”
“I understand, so you’ll take the case?”
“Give me your address and I’ll come over immediately for more details.”
Frank rummaged in a nearby drawer until he found a pen hidden amongst the old crime scene photos and witness statements, and hurried to keep pace with Stephanie, scribbling her address on the back of his hand as she recited it to him. When she was finished they said their goodbyes and Frank pulled on his thick grey woollen overcoat on his way out of the door, the writhing in his abdomen all but forgotten.