This time when the lamp flickered I thought it was going to be the last glimmer of light. I had not paid the bill in sixty days. The notice for its discontinuance had come twice. If only the electric company would understand that I would pay them as soon as there was work. No one had called the office in almost a month. At least it was summer and I did not have to worry about the heat.
I rattled my fingers against the too-fine shined desktop, staring at the reverse lettering on the door. The fan in the window oscillated, buzzing endlessly. I willed for someone to walk through and save me from financial decay. At the very minimum, they could save me from the cramped office.
I jumped when the phone rang. Scrambling to pick up the receiver, I looked to my own door to remember my name. “Jon Cole, Private Investigations.”
“The Jon Cole?”
The question was delivered softly. “I suppose.”
Do you catch bad guys?” The voice was meek, barely audible through the receiver.
“I – I do.” I swallowed, thinking of how long it had been since I had talked about my own business. There was something I usually said about supporting the clients, having integrity, and upholding justice. I cleared my dry throat while trying to remember my spiel.
“Can you help me? I am at the food court in the Berksley Shopping Center and there is a bad guy here somewhere.” The voice had a bit more confidence.
“What is your name?”
“Jackson … Holster.”
“Okay, Jackson,” I said, “what exactly is the issue?”
There was a pause on the phone, and then Jackson said, “Somebody took the sandwich I got from Hoagie Heaven and I want to know who did it.”
I sighed. The first phone call in forever and it was somebody prank calling me. I was firm. “This is a serious busine-”
Jackson continued, “It is more than that. They also took my chips and soda. The entire combo was just snatched away when I was getting napkins.”
“Jesus,” I muttered. “Listen, I only take serious cases. This is the office of a private investigator.”
“But you are Jon Cole?”
“I am,” I grimaced. “Thanks for calling and have a nice day.”
“No wait!” Jackson shouted. “This is serious. I have money. I will pay you. I need you.”
“My retainer is $250. For that amount of money, you can go buy a whole slew of combos from Hoagie Heaven. You don’t need me; you need to go get another sandwich and keep a closer eye on it. Goodbye.” I slammed the phone down and cursed my luck.
Crime rates were supposed to be elevated in the summer. I could not believe that the only case offered to me had to do with a stolen sandwich.
The phone rang again. I hesitated before picking it up.
I did not even get any words out of my mouth before Jackson’s familiar tone was heard. “I will pay you. It is not about the cost, but this is the third sandwich I have had taken this week. Money is not a concern.”
“You have had three sandwiches stolen in a week,” I swallowed hard.
“Please, call me Mr. Cole.”
“Mr. Cole, you have to help me.”
“You are going to pay me two-hundred and fifty dollars to find your missing sandwich? That sounds a bit unbelievable.”
Jackson breathed heavy, “Believe it. It was a cold cut combo on whole wheat. No condiments except for a spot of vinegar. Tomatoes, spinach, and olives. Six inches and unheated.”
I was speechless. This guy was either serious or prepared for the scam of the century. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
The phone clicked on the other side. I took a moment to process what I was doing before gently laying the phone against the base. In the grand scheme of things, it would not hurt to get some fresh air. I grabbed my keys and headed for the Berksley Shopping Center.
The food court was bustling when I walked up. In seconds, a young kid with a lip ring and raggedy hair, hanging over his eyes, strolled up. His red skater shoes matched his bouncing backpack with the shimmering skateboard strung across its back. In his hand was a bulging yellow envelope. “Mr. Cole. Here is your retainer fee.”
“Jackson,” I said, tensing my jaw. My stomach churned and turned, still thinking this was too good to be true. “How did you get this money so quickly?”
I popped open the top of the yellow envelope and sure enough, the top was lined with green.
My detective mind was going nuts. How did he get the yellow envelope? How did he immediately know who I was? Where are his parents?
“Alright, so I was sitting over there against the fence and had my sandwich on the far table, then I walked over there and was getting a napkin when it was snatched.”
I followed Jackson’s finger with my eyes as he explained the scenario. “I guess we can go look at the table any clues.”
I led the way to the table, weaving in and out between tables and other people enjoying their meals. Older couples, young families, and loners munching on their lunch caught my eye. Anyone could be a suspect, but no one had the specified sandwich in their hands. The culprit was likely long gone.
“Jackson,” I asked, “this is where you were sitting?”
I turned around but the kid was gone. Instead, standing in his place were three men in fancy suits with matching ties. I stepped back, nearly falling onto the table.
The tallest of the three had a scratchy voice, “Mr. Cole, I am Agent Johnson of the FBI. You are under arrest for racketeering, including extortion, bribery, and obstruction of justice.” He continued with the reading of his rights that I knew all too well.
“What?” I twisted to look for Jackson. “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t be coy, Mr. Cole,” another said. “You are holding the very monies that were borrowed from Valdez this morning out of the gambling ring in Terrance Junction. Your son passed it off to you before he high-tailed it out of here, but we have you now.”
“I don’t have a son!”
“Sure, you don’t.” The first agent snickered. “We will all be interested in when you two reunited.”
“It was probably after Nancy’s death,” said the third.
“Nancy?” I raised my eyebrows. “Nancy McCleer. That was fifteen years ago.”
The first nodded his head, knowing more about my life than I did. “The real question is how long your business has been a front, but we will talk about that when you get down to the station. You better be thinking of a lawyer.”
“What?” I shouted. The entire food court was staring at me. “I was paid this money for a job. This is just a retainer fee.”
The words sounded stupid coming out of my mouth, but I said them anyway. “I was investigating a stolen sandwich!”