Nicoli Hunter Mysteries
A plucky PI, an adolescent client, and a vicious vigilante …
My name is Nicoli Hunter. I’m a private investigator working out of a marina complex in Redwood City, California. I became a PI because I need to be in control of my own destiny, because I’m compelled to see that justice is done, and because I’m very good at spotting dishonesty in others. I developed this skill early in life.
I’m thirty-six years old, divorced three times, childless but not dogless, and living aboard a 46-foot Cheoy Lee Motorsailer. I lease a ground floor office in the marina where my boat is docked.
Most of my business comes from the restaurant and bar industry. I evaluate cuisine, ambiance and, above all, employee performance and honesty. I also participate in exit interviews when I catch an employee stealing from one of my clients and they need to be terminated. I do some insurance fraud investigation, occasionally monitor the activities of an unfaithful spouse, and in the last six months I’ve solved three cases of multiple murder.
I recently located a missing cat for my neighbor, Sarah, but that was a one-time thing. Larry, her prize-winning Persian, had been relieving himself on a neighbor’s sailboat, and the boat owner had finally had enough. He’d put out several large rattraps and Larry had been snared in one of them, breaking his leg. The guy had felt guilty enough to take Larry to a local vet, but not guilty enough to tell Sarah or go back to pick him up. Once I’d scoured the marina and checked with the local shelters, I called around to the local vets until I found the right one. Animal control had a long talk with the perturbed boat owner about his traps, and he has since removed them, but I don’t think Larry will be visiting his boat again any time soon.
In the years since I got my PI license I’ve accepted only a handful of cases that made the hair on the back of my neck bristle. I could tell the boy standing in my office doorway was going to be one of them. He appeared to be seven or eight years old. His hair was mousy-brown and falling into his eyes. He was slim, but his face was round and had a scattering of freckles. He wore a pair of tired-looking blue jeans, dirty sneakers, and a blue and red striped sweatshirt.
As he stood staring at me, he looked frightened. Most people don’t find my appearance intimidating. I’m five-seven and a hundred and thirty-six pounds. I have long, curly, chestnut brown hair, and sea-blue eyes with black rims around the irises, which I inherited from my dad. Today I was dressed in jeans, a navy quarter zip sweatshirt, and New Balance cross trainers. Just like him. See, not intimidating.
I am not good with kids. I had a miserable childhood and I don’t like to be reminded of it. Spending time in the company of children takes me back, particularly if the child in question is unhappy. The boy in the doorway continued staring at me for about a minute, and I reluctantly returned his gaze. Eye contact of this type is almost preternatural. Eventually I felt something between the two of us clunk into place.
After the clunk thing happened, he said, “Are you Hunter?”
The sign on my office door, and in all my ads, reads ‘Hunter Investigations’.
“I am,” I said. “What can I do for you?”
I may be uncomfortable with kids, but I always try to treat them with respect. It’s been my experience that children behave in a more civilized manner when you treat them like adults.
“I want you to find out who killed my mom,” he said.
He stuck out his chin when he said this, as though daring me to turn him away. I rarely turn anyone away before at least having a conversation with them.
“You want to sit down?” I asked.
He remained in the doorway, surveying the office. I had the impression he was checking to make sure it was safe to come inside. When his eyes reached my desk they lowered, landing on Buddy, my dog, who was watching complacently from his spot on the floor next to my chair. Buddy is an eighty-five pound cross between a Rhodesian Ridgeback and a Golden Retriever. He’s about seven months old and is steadily gaining height, weight, and muscle.
As the boy approached my desk Buddy took more of an interest. This was a small intruder, but Buddy tends to put himself between me and any stranger who gets too close. He drew himself up from his resting place and stretched slowly, then moved around the side of the desk and inserted himself between me and my guest.
“I hope you’re not afraid of dogs,” I said. He looked at Buddy apprehensively. “He’s friendly,” I added.
He never took his eyes off Buddy, but appeared to have heard me, because he reached out a tentative hand. Buddy stepped closer, sniffed the proffered hand, licked it once, and allowed the boy to pet him. After this little ritual had been observed the boy sat down in one of my visitor’s chairs with Buddy at his feet. I opened a drawer to take out a legal pad and saw him flinch at the movement. He was exhibiting symptoms of hypervigilance. He’d probably either been beaten or verbally abused at some point in his life. I held up the legal pad so he could see it wasn’t a weapon, set it on my blotter, and picked up a ballpoint pen.
We looked at each other some more and eventually he spoke. “She was murdered.” I wrote that down, assuming he was still talking about his mom. “What are you writing?” he asked.
“I’m taking notes,” I said. “Sometimes I forget things, so I write everything down.” I tried a smile, but he wasn’t having any.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Why do you need to know that?”
“If you want me to work for you I need to know your name.”
“So, you’ll take the case?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet. I need more information about what happened, and you have to be completely honest with me. No hiding stuff because you don’t think I need to know.”
He appeared to be mulling that over. “I’ll tell you what happened,” he said.
It was a short story. He and his mother had been shopping at Mervyn’s in Redwood City on a Saturday, two weeks ago. He’d outgrown his jeans. His mom was in the fitting room with him, which he found totally embarrassing. He didn’t actually say that. I guessed it by the way his face colored when he told that part of the story. His mom had gone to get him another size and she’d never come back. He’d waited a long time, then put his own clothes back on and went looking for her.
When he came out of the fitting room several people were gathered by the wall of boys’ jeans. He’d pushed his way through, knowing something was wrong. When he reached the center of the crowd he saw his mom lying on the floor. She was on her back, he said, and her eyes were open. He could tell she was dead. He’d knelt beside her and felt for a pulse like he’d seen people do on TV. One of the adults had tried to pull him away and he’d punched the guy in the chest and shouted, “Get off me. She’s my mom.”
Interesting choice of words, I thought. “Then what happened?” I asked.
“The paramedics came and tried to help her, but it was too late. They covered her up and the police made everybody move back. Some people wearing uniforms came and did things to her, and took some pictures. Then they took her away. The police said I had to go with them. They took me to the station and put me in a room. A man came in and asked me what happened. He was nice, so I told him. Then a lady came and talked to me about my family. She wanted to know about my dad. I told her I didn’t have a dad and she left me alone for a long time. Then my aunt came and got me. I live with her now, but she doesn’t like me. My mom and her didn’t get along.”
The whole time he was talking to me he was petting Buddy. Dogs are first-rate tranquilizers.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in school today?” I asked. He looked startled, like I might be trying to trap him. “It’s okay,” I said, holding up my hands in a gesture of surrender. “I used to cut school all the time. I was just wondering.”
“Yeah, I’m supposed to be in school. The thing is, the police won’t tell me what happened to my mom, and it’s not right. It’s just not right,” he whispered.
I wondered what wasn’t right. That the police wouldn’t talk to a child about his mother’s murder, that she had been murdered in the first place, or the fact that he had to live with his aunt who didn’t like him. I was feeling sorry for the kid and that usually spells trouble for me.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
“I want you to find out who did it,” he said. “I can pay you. At least I think I can. My mom had life insurance. I’m supposed to get some money.”
He was too young to know how life insurance worked. If the aunt was his legal guardian, she would probably have control of any inheritance.
I put down my pen and folded my hands over the legal pad. “If you want me to investigate your mom’s death, you have to answer a few more questions for me. You and I will sign a contract, and then I’ll talk to the police and see what I can find out. Okay?”
“Let’s start with your name and date of birth.”
Date of birth would probably be easier for him to respond to than age. Age might imply that he was too young to be doing what he was doing. Of course he was too young to be doing this, but I wasn’t going to be the one to tell him that.
“Scott Freedman,” he said. “October twenty-first.” He hesitated a moment and then told me the year.
I wrote down the information. My new client was nine years old. That meant he was in the third grade. He was small for his age.
“What was your mom’s name?” I asked.
“Gloria Freedman,” he said.
“What’s not right?” I asked, looking him in the eye.
“Before, you said ‘it’s just not right.’ What did you mean?”
His eyes fogged over for an instant and then cleared as he evidently remembered what he had said. “What happened to my mom. It’s not right for people to kill each other like animals.”
I wondered where he’d heard that phrase.
“How do you know your mom was killed? Maybe she had a heart attack or something.”
“I saw the blood,” he said.
“What’s your phone number, Scott?” I asked.
He thought about that some and then picked up a business card from the dish on my desk. “Can I call you?”
“Sure. You can do that. But what if I have more questions?”
“My aunt’s weird about the telephone,” he said.
“Okay. No problem. You can call me collect if you want.”
I turned to my computer and pulled up my standard contract, entered Scott’s name and the date, and the sum of $5.00 as a deposit against services to be rendered. Of course, as a legal technicality contracts with minors are invalid, but I’d honor it just the same.
“Do you have five dollars?” I asked, as I printed the form.
Scott reached into his jeans pocket and came up with some change.
“Close enough,” I said.
We both signed the contract and I asked Scott if he wanted a copy.
“Yes, please,” he said.
Considering all he had been through, Scott was extremely composed. I may not know much about children, but I study psychology in my spare time and I could tell that something in Scott’s life had caused him to mature beyond his years.
“Call me before school tomorrow,” I said.
He rose from his chair and walked toward the door, studying his copy of the contract as he went. When he reached the door he turned back to me. “Thank you, Hunter,” he said. There were tears in his eyes. He turned away quickly and I resisted the urge to follow and make sure he got where he was going safely. It was chillier than usual for December on the California coast, but at least it wasn’t raining. He’d probably be fine.