- Amateur sleuth
His ergonomically-correct desk chair, inherited from his predecessor, creaked under his lean six-foot-one frame when he reached sideways for the ringing phone. Indexing his place in his report with his finger, John Quinn made a mental note to order a new chair. "University police. Chief Quinn speaking."
"Quinn, it's me."
Good thing his office door was closed. He could feel a sappy grin spreading across his face. "Hi, me," he said.
"Do you have a moment?" she said.
He raised his gaze from her silver-framed photograph on his desk to the clock on the wall.
9:23 a.m. His meeting wasn't until 10. "Several," he said. "I'm glad you called, Lizabeth. Did I happen to mention how much I enjoyed last night?"
"I'm glad you enjoyed our evening," Lizzie Stuart said, with that sexy little catch in her voice. "And, yes, you did mention that as you were leaving this morning. But I'm calling about something else, Quinn."
Quinn came to attention with her last sentence. He knew that tone. He was either going to be amused. Or he was going to be exasperated and/or worried.
When Lizzie had that tone in her voice it meant that she had fastened onto something with her notable tenacity.
Great on occasions like last night. Last night she had confirmed his suspicion that all the seemingly pointless questions she had been asking him for the past two weeks were from one of those relationship books she kept buying. The woman was determined to unlock the secrets of his psyche. And last night she'd hit pay dirt. She had surprised him with a romantic evening that was straight out of one of his fantasies.
"Quinn, are you still there?" she said.
"I'm here, Lizabeth." Where else would he be when she was on the other end of the line? His sweet Kentucky woman with her Ph.D. and her Emily Post manners. . .and those eyes that she must have inherited from the Queen of Sheba.
He swiveled his chair toward the view outside his window. He concentrated better when he wasn't staring at her photograph. "What's up?"
"I'm not sure," she said. "Do you happen to remember that movie, Sorry, Wrong Number? Barbara Stanwyck is a bedridden hypochondriac whose father owns a pharmaceutical company. And one evening, when her husband is away and she's all alone in their apartment, the telephone rings and she overhears a murder being planned--"
Quinn felt his stomach muscles tighten, but he injected amusement into his voice. "But what Babs doesn't realize until it's too late is that the murder being planned is her own. That was way too easy for a round of movie trivia, Professor Stuart, so I assume you're leading up to something."
"To a telephone call I received about ten minutes ago. Or rather the telephone was ringing, but before I could get to it, my answering machine came on. And someone started to leave a message. . . and then she was cut off --"
"And you think it was Babs on the other end?"
"I'm serious, Quinn."
"Sorry, Lizabeth, I'm in a good mood. Last night was. . .unforgettable."
"It did go rather well, didn't it?" She sounded like a scientist, pleased with her experiment. Quinn pictured her in a white lab coat, glasses perched on her nose, clipboard in hand as she recorded the responses of her subject, human male, John Quinn.
"Even better than I anticipated from reading the book."
The book was the ridiculously titled How to Keep the HomeFires Sizzling.
The fires had sizzled all right. Any more sizzle and they would have had spontaneous combustion.
He heard her sigh. "And, actually, Quinn, I thought it was unforgettable too."
"Did you?" he said, resisting the temptation to treat her to a bad imitation of Nat King Cole crooning the song that had been on the radio when he was driving into campus.
"Yes," she said. "But Chief Quinn, would you please focus on the matter at hand?"
"What is the matter at hand, Professor Stuart?" He eased his mug, filled to the brim with strong black coffee, toward him. He had the feeling he was about to need it.
"The telephone call that I--"
"But since you dialed me instead of 911, I assume your caller didn't appear to be in immediate danger. Not about to become the victim of foul play."
"I didn't say the call was about a murder, Quinn. I sincerely hope it wasn't. I was simply using the Barbara Stanwyck movie as an example of a troubling call being intercepted by the wrong person."
"What was troubling about the call? What did your caller say exactly?"
"She said she had been told that I -- or rather whoever it was she thought she had reached -- could help her."
"Help her with what?"
"That's the part I'm not sure I heard right," Lizzie said. "The truth is I was just waking up. I fell asleep again after you left, and I was in the bathroom washing my face when the phone rang. I heard what she was saying and realized she had the wrong number. But before I could pick up and tell her that, she was cut off -- or maybe someone came in and she hung up. I tried to play the message back, but I accidentally pressed the 'delete' button instead of 'replay'."
Quinn said, "But you did hear the message the first time. Close your eyes and try to replay it in your head."
Or, even better, Lizabeth, we could forget the message and try verbally replaying a few highlights from last night.
"I've already tried that," Lizzie said.
"Which part?" he said, amusing himself with the fancy that she'd heard his thought.
"Which part? Everything she said. Quinn, could you hold on for half a second? The water's boiling for my tea. Maybe a few sips will get my brain functioning."
Quinn reached for his own mug and glanced at the clock. He would need to leave for his meeting soon. But if he didn't hear the rest of this now, he would undoubtedly regret it later. By the time he got back to her in two or three hours, Lizzie would be wide-awake and in pursuit of whatever she imagined was going on.
To say that she had a lively imagination was an understatement.
But she also had an innate talent -- a talent that even some otherwise adequate street cops never developed -- for recognizing off-kilter situations. She had a first-rate instinct for "mischief afoot". The problem with that -- as he had tried to explain to her on a number of occasions -- was that she was a criminal justice professor, a crime historian, not a trained police investigator. She had no badge, no gun, nothing but her sense of caution -- which she did sometimes remember to exercise -- but caution didn't help a lot when a situation turned. . .
And if there was a situation, Lizzie would find it.
Trouble should be the woman's middle name.
Quinn set his mug down beside her photograph and grasped the back of his neck with his free hand, twisting his head to ease the tight muscles.
That was his Lizabeth. Last night she had given him a massage that had left him boneless. This morning she was giving him a pain in the neck.
Of course, maybe his creaky desk chair deserved some of the blame for his neck.
And just maybe -- if he asked nicely -- Lizabeth might be persuaded to give him another massage tonight. The things the woman learned from books. . .
Quinn dropped his hand from his neck. The telephone receiver was still pressed to his ear, and he could hear Lizzie mumbling to herself.
He slanted a glance at her picture in the silver frame.
It was way past too late when even the things about a woman that drove a man crazy got twisted around in his head and became . . became endearing. . .
He should have run for his life the first time he saw her. One glance into those brown eyes and he should have known that any woman who could manage to look intelligent and determined and vulnerable all at the same time was going to be. . . .
"Sorry I took so long," she said in his ear. "The top came off the honey, and I had to throw paper towels over the mess. I'm ready now."
"Okay," Quinn said, focusing on the matter at hand. "Let's start at the top. Describe your caller's voice. Then tell me what she said."
"Her voice. . .not young, not old. Maybe around my age, in her late '30s or early '40s. She sounded tense, nervous. She had a British accent--"
"A British accent?" Quinn said.
"Yes, and she sounded well-educated. I'm not even going to hazard a guess about race/ethnicity or national origin. In a university town, she might as easily be a native of Nairobi or Bombay who studied in England, as someone born and bred there."
Quinn nodded his silent agreement. Gallagher, Virginia was a Southern town in the heart of the Piedmont. It was also the home of a large and bustling university that attracted faculty, staff, students, and visitors from all over the United States and diverse areas of the rest of the world.
"How do you know it was a local call?" Quinn asked as the thought occurred to him.
"I'm assuming that because of what she said. . .which I will now attempt to repeat verbatim, Chief Quinn. . ."
Quinn reached for his pen and the yellow legal pad on his desk. "I'm listening, Professor Stuart. Go ahead."
To Be Continued - in part 2
Note: This short story is the property of the author. It is a violation of the author's copyright to publish, transmit, and/or distribute this story in any form without the express written permission of the author. This story is intended solely for the individual reader who visits this web site. By Frankie Y. Bailey ©2006