Nicoli Hunter Mysteries
Abetha Mimbo sat across the desk from me, ensconced in one of my comfortable visitor’s chairs. She wore a flowing Hawaiian print sundress in startling shades of orange, royal blue, and yellow and was clutching a black and tan straw hat in her lap. She didn’t look like an Abetha to me, or a Mimbo for that matter. Instead, her name conjured a vivid image in my mind of a voodoo priestess wearing a fruit basket on top of her head. The woman in front of me looked more like she was of Italian descent. She appeared to be in her early sixties, about five foot six and maybe a hundred and fifty pounds, with shoulder length dark hair and an olive complexion. She smelled like my favorite Victoria’s Secret perfume counter, a fusion of sandalwood and vanilla.
Abetha had shown up at my office without an appointment, but I thought I should hear what she had to say, and she’d said plenty. Evidently she believed someone was planning to kill her son.
My name is Nicoli Hunter. I’m a PI, licensed in the State of California. I’m five foot seven and a hundred and thirty-five pounds. My hair is chestnut brown, long, and curly. My eyes are a stormy shade of blue with black rims around the irises, which I inherited from my father. I’m fit from my daily workouts, and well-endowed from my paternal grandmother’s Russian and Greek heritage. Today I was dressed in cargo shorts, a red tank top, and New Balance cross-trainers. It was late June and almost eighty degrees outside, plus I wasn’t expecting company.
“What makes you think your son’s life is in danger?” I asked.
“Well, Nicole. May I call you Nicole?”
“No,” I said. “My name is Nicoli. Rhymes with private eye.” I tried to smile when I said it, but the truth is I’m sick to death of people mispronouncing my name, so the smile probably looked more like a grimace. Abetha didn’t seem to notice.
“Because he’s scared, and my Tony doesn’t get scared. He came to my house for dinner last night, and the whole time he was there he kept looking out the windows and watching the street. He double-checked the alarm system three times!” She held up three fingers to emphasize her point.
“Has Tony asked you to hire someone to protect him?”
“Oh, goodness no! He doesn’t even know I’m here. He wouldn’t approve. He can’t know anything about this.”
“So, you want someone to watch over your son without his knowledge?”
“Exactly.” She seemed pleased that I understood. “Tony won’t talk to me about what’s going on, but I think a crazy woman he went out with a couple of times is stalking him. She’s tall and athletic-looking with blue eyes and short brown hair. She’s beautiful, but she’s a complete psycho. I wouldn’t put anything past her.”
“What makes you think she’s psychotic?” I asked.
“You can see it in her eyes,” Abetha declared, her own eyes bugging-out a little. “She has crazy eyes.”
“Has Tony reported any of this to the police?”
Abetha laughed until there were tears rolling down her cheeks and her mascara was smudged. She had a lovely tinkling laugh that sounded like wind chimes. I didn’t want to take her case, but I kind of liked her.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, as she dabbed at her eyes with a Kleenex from the box on my desk.
“Well, let’s just say my son’s relationship with the police might be a bit strained.” She smiled happily.
“Why is that?”
“I can’t say. So, will you protect him?”
“I’m afraid my schedule is full right now, Ms. Mimbo.”
“Please, call me Abetha.”
“Abetha. I’m sorry, but I simply don’t have time for a case that would require this kind of commitment. Perhaps your son should hire a bodyguard.”
“I’m sure Tony wouldn’t accept a bodyguard,” she said. “He likes his privacy. Please, Nicole. Can’t your other clients wait? My son’s life is in danger.”
I felt a little guilty about turning her away, but I’d only been back at work for a week since returning from a lengthy cruise to D.C., where I almost lost my life protecting a client. I just wasn’t ready for another dangerous case. All I wanted to do right now was take care of my regulars.
There are seventeen restaurants and bars in the San Francisco Bay Area for which I routinely conduct covert surveillance. I monitor employee performance, evaluate quality of cuisine, observe ambience, and assess customer satisfaction. I occasionally install hidden video cameras and assist with employee terminations when necessary. What do I get out of this? Apart from making a good living, I take comfort in the knowledge that my clients, many of whom have become friends, are being protected from unscrupulous employees. The people I care about, and their business interests, are kept safe because I’m on the job. I had enough on my plate without adding Abetha’s son to the mix.
“I might be able to recommend someone,” I said. “If you’ll give me your son’s name and your contact information I’ll be happy to make inquiries for you.”
I slid a blank notepad across my desk and offered Abetha a pen, which she accepted with a scowl. Her reaction to my refusal seemed a bit over the top to me. I certainly wasn’t the only PI on the Peninsula. Besides, what she really needed was a bodyguard who was adept at keeping a low profile. Not the type of work I normally do.
My plan was to call my friend, Jim Sutherland, who owns a PI firm in Menlo Park called Superior Investigations. Since Jim has a whole stable of agents working for him, he might be able to spare one or two for Tony’s protection.
Abetha scribbled something on the pad and handed it back to me. Anthony Salvatici. I wondered why their last names were different. She had also written down two phone numbers, indicating that one was her home number and the other her cell. When I looked up she was studying me with a great deal of intensity, though I had no idea why.
“I’ll contact an associate of mine and ask him to give you a call,” I said, standing up to indicate that our meeting was at an end.
I held out my hand and she grasped it firmly. That’s when I felt it. A little zing of fear that shot up my arm, past my shoulder, and straight to my brain. Something about this adorable woman was dangerous, and not just generically dangerous, but dangerous to me.
I have what some people call intuition, and it kicks in when I make physical contact. Since Abetha and I had just touched for the first time, I’d had no previous indication that she was anything other than what she appeared to be—a sixty-something woman with an eccentric sense of fashion who was concerned about the well-being of her son. Apparently there was more to her than that.
“Thank you, Nicole,” she said. “I’ll look forward to hearing from your friend.”
She sashayed out the front door in her painfully-bright floral sundress, situated her black-and-tan straw hat atop her head, and disappeared from view.
“Well that was weird,” I said to Buddy.
Buddy is my dog. He’s a beautiful mix of Golden Retriever and Rhodesian Ridgeback. A lean ninety-five pounds of muscle and luminous short red hair with big brown eyes and a heart the size of Alaska. He was presently napping at my side. The fact that he hadn’t perceived Abetha as a threat was reassuring.
I picked up the phone to give Jim a call and it rang in my hand. It was an 831 area code. Must be Michael. My friend since kindergarten, Michael Burke, is a white hat hacker, and I’d recently asked him to do me a little favor.
“Hunter Investigations,” I answered.
“It’s me,” said Michael.
“How many phones do you have? I don’t recognize this number.”
“Probably fifteen or twenty,” he said, casually. “I’ve got that list you asked for, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to e-mail it to you. Might raise a few red flags, if you know what I mean.”
I’d asked Michael to see if he could hack into the FBI database and get access to a list of known associates and clients of Alfredo Giordano. Giordano was dead, but he had been a purveyor to wealthy pedophiles and in business with international child traffickers. Though not a child molester himself, he had been a major dirtbag. He’d been murdered by Nina Jezek, a vigilante killer who targets sexual predators.
Try as I might, I couldn’t find fault with Nina’s mission. Unfortunately, she’d also killed the mother of a nine-year-old boy, who subsequently hired me to find his mom’s killer, but that’s another story. Nina and I have what you might call a strained relationship. We’ve had three confrontations in the last year, two of them life-threatening, and she always seems to be lurking in the back of my mind.
“You want to get together for dinner?” I asked Michael.
“I’d love to, but I’m working around the clock at the moment. Big project. I’ll be in Santa Clara on Monday, though. How about I meet you at your office when I’m done with my presentation. I should be finished late morning. We can have lunch together.”
“That sounds great. Call my cell when you hit the road and I’ll make sure I’m in the office by the time you arrive.”
Most likely Michael’s presentation would involve telling the CEO of some Fortune 500 company that he’d made it past their firewall in thirty seconds flat and they needed to beef up security.
We ended the call, and I dialed Jim’s office number.
Heather, Jim’s receptionist, picked up after the third ring. “Superior Investigations.”
“Hi, Heather. It’s Nikki. Is he in the office?”
“Nope, but I can patch you through to his cell.”
“No need,” I said. “I have the number, but I don’t want to interrupt anything important. What’s he up to today?”
“A work comp surveillance. He’s probably bored out of his mind, sitting in his car waiting for the guy to do cartwheels past his picture window. Call him. He’ll be grateful.”
I was laughing when I hung up. Heather has been with Jim for almost a year, and she is very good at her job. She charms the clients and never hesitates to make fun of Jim.
I punched in his cell number and listened to it ring only once before he picked up.
“Tell me you need me,” he said.
“If I have to spend one more minute watching this guy in the cervical collar I’m going to shoot someone. Tell me you need my help on a case rife with mystery and intrigue.”
“Um, it might be. There’s definitely something weird going on, but I’m not sure what, exactly. The client’s name is Abetha Mimbo.”
When Jim finally stopped laughing he said, “I’m in.”
“You don’t even know what the case is yet. And what about your work comp guy?”
“I just got a couple shots of him carrying two full, thirty-six-gallon garbage cans to the curb, one in each hand. There’s nothing wrong with his neck, and now I can prove it. I’ll e-mail these photos to the insurance company and call you back in five minutes.”
While I was waiting for Jim’s call I finished my report on a restaurant at San Francisco International Airport and sent it into cyberspace along with an invoice. During my surveillance I’d been able to observe first-hand what the chef was up to—or not up to, actually. Food was being contaminated due to general laziness, which confirmed the owner’s suspicions. It was a miracle someone hadn’t gotten salmonella or, if they had, that they hadn’t linked it to the SFO restaurant. There’s a reason Jim and I refer to the Veranda as the Ptomaine Palace.
It’s a little-known fact that most bars and restaurants don’t run pre-employment background checks or drug test their employees. That’s where I come in. I encourage my clients to let me check out potential new hires. Some of them are wise enough to listen, but most are not, so I get to catch the occasional drug-addled, thieving scum in the act. It’s a living.
Within a minute of e-mailing my report to Leo Bender, the owner of the Veranda, I received his response in the form of a text message to my smartphone, which read, “Must have proof. Come install camera after midnight.”
Leo is computer literate, but he’s also a man of few words. He’s a six foot five, rail-thin black man with a raunchy sense of humor and a fondness for Cajun spices. He runs the Veranda kitchen alone after midnight, hence the request that the camera be installed at that time.
“I’ll be there,” I texted back.
When Jim called I gave him the rundown on Abetha Mimbo’s case, then read him her son’s name and her two phone numbers before tossing the note paper into the trash. I mentioned, again, that I had a hunch something more than concern for her son was in play, but couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
“Are you having one of your famous feelings?” Jim asked. He knows me well.
“Kind of. When I shook her hand I got an adrenaline rush. And after she wrote down her son’s name and her phone numbers she scrutinized me like a mad scientist analyzing a new species of slime mold. It was odd.”
“Huh. Well, I’ll give her a call, maybe meet with her in person. I’ll let you know what I decide to do.”
“Thanks, Jim. If you get a weird vibe from her please feel free to decline the job. I don’t know anything about this woman, and she implied that her son operates outside the law. Since she doesn’t want Tony to know he’s being protected, whoever you assign would need to be invisible and very cautious. Maybe you should send a team, if you decide to take the case.”
Jim agreed that keeping Tony in the dark would seriously complicate the situation, and we ended the call.
I looked at my schedule and realized I would have time for a couple of dinner surveys before meeting Leo at the airport.