Nicolette stood looking through a triangle of broken glass. Positioned at a T where Furrow St. met Timmins St., this building, which had once been the office of a successful newspaper, had a good view of the entire street below. The grey cloud cover that blanketed the city almost all winter matched the dirty grey of the aged concrete buildings.
Old snow gathered in corners and leftover flakes from that morning blew about like the white dust in an abandoned house. A beggar, wrapped in layers of rags, made his or her slow way down one of the sidewalks. Other than that, the street was empty. The beggar reminded Nicolette of the mummies she had seen pictures of in a book she had when she was a child. And this city was his tomb. It was a tomb for many people. She thought of the Graveyard Sector and shuddered a little. You didn’t go there unless you were dying and had no one to care for you.
A shiny red car turned onto the street at the far end and drove towards her. That was a surprise. Few people nowadays were wealthy enough to own, let alone drive, a car like that. And it looked in good condition too. Maybe it was someone from the Burbs? The car stopped in front of 121 Furrow St. and a tall, well dressed man with a briefcase got out.
Nicolette abandoned her position and ran back through the abandoned office and down three flights of stairs. She pushed out of the glass doors and pounded down Timmins St., dodging into an alley that led her up to the back entrance of 121 Furrow St. It felt good to run. It always did. Stefan had once asked her why she ran everywhere, even when there was no hurry. The answer to his question had popped into her mind when she responded, “It’s because I’m lazy. Yeah, that’s it. I run because I’m lazy. The faster I get to wherever I’m going, the longer I’ll have to loiter there.” That had made Stefan laugh—his long, unhindered laugh that Nicolette could not resist joining.
She unlatched the metal door and entered the dimly lit hallway. She left her hat on a hook but didn’t bother taking her coat off. It was almost as cold inside as out. She threaded her way quietly through the storage room. Even in the almost dark, she didn’t trip on anything because it was so familiar. She remembered for a fleeting moment the first time she had been in this dark storage room. Everything had seemed so terrifying then.
Men’s voices came from the front room. The visitor had a nice, medium level voice, with a slightly refined accent. Yup, definitely from the Burbs.
She tiptoed up to the door and listened through it for a moment while she quickly combed her cold fingers through her hair and attempted to pat down some of the frizzle that unavoidable sprung from her dirty-blonde curls.
“…I had to come to you,” the stranger was saying “because whoever killed my cousin has been sending my sister these notes.” There was the click of a briefcase opening, and the rustle of paper.
Nicolette could picture the scene perfectly in her mind: the stranger, sitting in one of the antique wooden chairs, his brief case on his lap, his gloved hands sorting through the papers. Stefan St. Juste would be sitting across the low counter from the stranger, his elbows on the table and his hands folded under his chin. He would have that pleasant listening look on his face and would nod, and ‘mmm’ helpfully as the customer told his tale. If the customer ever ran out of things to say, or needed prompting to go on, Stefan would always ask the perfect question that gently directed the customer to the important information. This was one of the things that made him such a great detective. Nicolette, on the other hand, would get excited and breathless, and ask so many questions that she would end up talking more than the customer, often even trying to finish their thoughts for them. Which is why she had learnt early on to let Stefan do the questioning whenever possible.
There was silence on the other side of the door while Stefan examined the notes. Nicolette pushed the door open quietly on its well-oiled hinges. The scene was exactly as she had imagined it. She saw Mister Whiskers look up at her in the reflection in one of the glass cases containing a lot of fancy keys. The detective agency doubled as a lock and key store. Mister Whiskers was a big grey tabby that Nicolette had adopted when she had found the little stray kitten some years ago. Stefan always complained about the cat and claimed that he didn’t like cats, but Nicolette knew that Stefan was really quite attached to the feline.
The stranger also looked up when Nicolette came in. He had a narrow, but not unkind, clean-shaven face. His dark brown eyes were framed by thick lashes and he had short thick, straight dark hair. He looked to be about twenty five, maybe younger. Worry creased his forehead.
Nicolette smiled and made her entrance. She was ever the awkward one, with her lanky limbs. She offered him her hand, partly hidden in a well-worn hobo glove, and said, “Hi, I’m Nicolette. I’m his assistant.” She gestured to Stefan with her elbow, then found herself a stool to sit on.
Once he had adjusted to her presence, the stranger turned back to Stefan and asked, “what do you make of the notes?”
Stefan spread them out on the table. Newspaper cuttings were glued in careful lines on a piece of white printer paper.
“Times New Romans typeset, font: size ten. Could be almost any old newspaper. Whoever put this together cares about neatness. This one reads, ‘Your cousin didn’t have to die. You don’t either.’ The second one,” he shuffled the papers. Nicolette knew that Stefan was reading them aloud for her sake. The customer clearly had the notes memorized, as proven by the slight movements of his lips as Stefan read. “…reads: ‘They say that freezing to death is a pleasant way to die. Once you get over the cold part, you feel warm and sleepy.’” Stefan stopped and looked up at the customer. “There are only two notes.”
“I will not let whoever sent these messages kill my sister,” the young man seemed grimly determined.
“Jeffrey, does your sister…” Stefan paused for a name.
“Janet,” the stranger, Jeffrey, supplied.
“Does your sister Janet have any idea why she is being targeted?”
“I would like to meet her and talk with her.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“You say your cousin died almost two weeks ago and has already been buried?”
“You tell me that he was poisoned, but was his body ever examined?”
“Then how do you know it was poison?”
“He was in the best of health, and the doctor did not think it was a heart attack or anything. Actually, we didn’t expect anything until the first note arrived.”
Stefan nodded slowly. “Well, I’d like to see the place where he was found.”
“Of course. I can give you directions to the house. Or you could follow me. Or I could give you a ride…” he was clearly aware that his ownership of a vehicle was a rare thing.
“Directions will do just fine.”
Jeffrey sighed slightly and asked, “how soon can you come?”
“Right now, if you like?”
“Oh good. That would be perfect. I can put you up for as long as you need,” Jeffrey glanced at Nicolette, “and your assistant too, if you need her there.”
“Yes, that would be good, thank you,” said Stefan, rising to his feet. “Nicolette, go ask Mrs. Tall if she can look after the cat until we get back, then gather your things.”
Nicolette got up and headed for the door.
Stefan had turned back to Jeffrey and was saying, “once you give me the directions, I’ll only need fifteen minutes or so to get ready.”
Nicolette paused to rub Mister Whiskers between the ears. “See you in a couple days, big fella,” she whispered. “We’re going on an away-mission!”