Nicoli Hunter Mysteries
My name is Nicoli Hunter. I’m a private investigator licensed in the state of California. My office is in a marina complex in Redwood City, where I also live aboard a forty-six foot Cheoy Lee sailboat. When I was in my twenties I worked for a department store; first in cosmetics, and later in security management, but at the age of thirty-one I went looking for a career change. I chose to become a PI because I’m naturally inquisitive and analytical, because I have a compulsion to see that justice is done, and because I wanted to be my own boss.
Prior to obtaining my license I spent twenty-four grueling months as an apprentice to a crusty old PI named Sam Pettigrew. Sam was ornery as hell, but he had integrity and he was obsessive about details, which made him an excellent teacher. Also, he was local. I’d done an internet search and called all the PIs within a 25-mile radius. Sam was the only one who agreed to meet with me. After a lengthy conversation that amounted to an in-depth interview he said I could come to work for him on a trial basis. He never actually committed to taking me on as a trainee, but he paid me a fair wage, and two years later I’d put in enough hours to take the exam and apply for my license.
The majority of my work as a PI involves bar and restaurant surveys. I’m paid by the owners or managers of these establishments to observe employee behavior, sample and rate cuisine, watch for multiple types of theft, and participate in termination interviews when I catch someone in the act and they need to be let go. The work is regular and keeps the wheels turning, but doesn’t really address my desire for justice. I also accept an occasional domestic surveillance or insurance fraud investigation, and once in a great while I get a case that challenges me.
Tonight I was doing a bar survey in downtown Palo Alto, cozying up to an obnoxious bartender who was known to hit on attractive female customers, and suspected of occasionally assaulting his less willing victims after hours. The bartender in question was over six feet tall, lean but muscular, with dark hair and eyes, and sported a mustache and goatee. He was dressed in a nice pair of black wool gabardine slacks and a white silk short-sleeved shirt. His appearance did nothing to obscure his character, however, which was sleazy to the core.
I was wearing a low-cut red V-neck sweater, black stretchy jeans that fit like a second skin, and my black cowboy boots with the silver toe guards. I was, in effect, setting myself up as bait, and it was working exceptionally well. The letch in question had given me two free drinks and stroked my wrist when he served me the last one. I was totally creeped out by the guy, but this is part of my job.
I was covertly emptying the contents of my glass into the gallon-size zip lock bag tucked in my purse when I felt goose bumps erupt on my arms and the back of my neck in spite of the warm weather. I have a finely tuned internal alarm system. I glanced to my right and discovered a man seated on the stool next to mine. The stool had been empty a moment ago.
The man wasn’t tall, maybe five-ten, but there was an energy about him that gave him an undeniable presence and made him seem larger. He was about thirty, his compact muscular frame clothed in a neatly pressed pair of Dockers and a forest green polo shirt. He wore mirrored sunglasses over a slightly upturned nose. I’m always suspicious of people who wear sunglasses indoors, especially at night. They’re generally hiding something. His jaw was strong and clean-shaven, and the whole package was topped with wavy red hair sun-streaked with gold.
I reflexively sat up a little straighter. The goose bumps warned me that this guy might be dangerous. What type of danger he represented was yet to be determined.
The skanky bartender approached and nodded at my new companion. “What can I get you?” he asked.
“Guinness draft, please.”
His voice was mid-range tenor and there was a lilt to his diction. Maybe Irish? He took off his sunglasses and I leaned forward to get a better look. His eyes were green and slanted up at the corners. The bartender turned away to fill his drink order, and the newcomer met my gaze, a sad half-smile on his surprisingly feline face.
“My name is Jack,” he said, extending his hand.
I clasped his hand, and offered a half-smile of my own. His grip was firm, but not aggressive, and his hand was warm and dry. I always shake hands with people I’m evaluating. Something about making physical contact causes my intuition to kick in. What I felt shaking this guy’s hand was akin to a mild electric shock that extended all the way from my palm to more private parts of my anatomy. I released his hand quickly.
“I hope you don’t mind me joining you,” Jack continued. “It’s been a hell of a week. I really need a drink, and perhaps someone objective who’ll listen to my troubles.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked, more than a little intrigued, in spite of the fact that I was supposed to be working.
“A friend of mine was someplace he shouldn’t have been,” he said, lowering his voice and leaning closer, “and the idiot stumbled on evidence of murder.”
“What?” I hissed quietly, scooting back on my stool. “Hold on a minute. Are we talking about a crime scene?”
“No. Nothing like that. Just evidence that murder had been committed at some time in the past.”
“What kind of evidence?” I asked. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
In spite of the ordinance against smoking in bars and restaurants in California, this establishment was willing to allow its patrons to indulge unless someone complained.
“No, go ahead. Videotapes,” he said, answering my question and taking a pack of Turkish Ovals from his breast pocket.
I held out my lighter and lit his cigarette and then mine.
“Videotapes that show what, exactly?”
“The murders,” he said, exhaling smoke.
“Holy shit,” I muttered. “Sorry.”
I reached into my purse and rested my hand on the Ruger nestled in a Velcro holster next to the baggie of booze.
“Is your friend sure about this? I mean, videotape can be altered. Did you say murders? As in, more than one?”
“Yes. There are five tapes. My friend watched two of them. And they were home movies. They didn’t appear to have been edited.”
I needed a minute to collect myself.
“Would you like another Guinness?” I asked.
I motioned to the bartender, who was more than happy to comply. He winked at me as he set fresh drinks in front of us. I placed a twenty on the bar and turned back to Jack.
I took a sip of my drink, watching him over the rim of the glass, and when he looked back at me I experienced the full impact of those cat’s eyes.
“Thank you,” he said.
Sitting this close to him I caught an almost imperceptible scent. Something citrusy and a little grassy, barely strong enough to be noticed.
“I like your cologne,” I said. “So what does your friend intend to do about these movies?”
“I don’t know exactly. I’m sure he’d be open to suggestions, if you have any.”
I thought about that for a moment. I’d only recently recovered from my first homicide investigation and, while I treasured my regular clients, bar and restaurant surveillance didn’t give me the rush, or the reward, of taking down a really bad guy. Should I offer to help Jack’s friend apprehend this killer? Do ducks copulate in the water?
“I might be able to help,” I said, and handed him one of my business cards below the level of the bar. “Tell your friend to meet me at my office in the morning.”
Jack glanced down at the card, apparently unsurprised to realize I was a PI. He locked eyes with me again, nodded, and finished his second Guinness in three large swallows.
“Thank you, Nicoli. It was lovely meeting you, but I’d best be on my way.”
He smiled slightly as he turned to leave. His eyes were still troubled, but perhaps with a glimmer of hope behind the worry now.
I spent the rest of the survey feigning moderate interest in the advances of the skeazy bartender. I stayed until closing, and allowed him to walk me to my car. Before I could get it unlocked he backed me up against the driver’s side door and made the expected pass, forcing his tongue into my mouth when I opened it to protest. Gross. I put a hand on his chest, pushing him away, and told him I wasn’t interested.
He smirked and shoved my hand aside, stepped back into my personal space, and grabbed me roughly around the waist. One hand slid down to my ass, and the other grabbed hold of my left breast. I closed my fist and punched him in the throat, not too hard, just enough to leave him immobilized and gasping for air long enough for me to flexi-cuff his hands behind his back. Then I called 911, reporting the assault and staying on the line until the uniforms arrived. This was the plan the bar owner and I had devised, and the only way I could keep my identity as a PI from being known by the other employees in the establishment. I’d had a taser in my back pocket just in case, but as it turned out I didn’t need it.
I went down to the station to file a formal complaint, and then headed back to my office where I typed up a full report for my client. I emailed him at home, attaching both the report and an invoice, then shuffled down to my boat feeling satisfied with a good night’s work, and more than a little keyed up about tomorrow’s appointment with Jack’s friend.