Private Investigator Hera Hunter scrambled up the wooded hillside, her strong tall frame deftly maneuvering the steep rock outcroppings and the dry gullies. Her chestnut hair, hanging well below her shoulders, swung with the rhythm of her gait. She placed the soft soles of her boots with caution to avoid crushing the occasional tufts of wild grasses and the rambling mats of blue violets. In this way, she left behind no trace of her passing.
She climbed through tall red pines and white spruces, whose gently lowering branches trembled in the evening breeze. A brown squirrel, perched upon a pine’s sturdy limb, froze at the snapping of a twig. The squirrel flattened itself against the trunk, almost invisible now against the pattern of the tree’s bark. Then it inched around the back while Hera passed by.
At the edge of a small clearing, she stopped and admired the valley below. Before her stretched the city of Centreville’s western section, with its large lots and big sprawling houses and narrow winding roads that were shaded by high canopies of mature maples and oaks. The homes were owned by men and women with exalted titles before their names, like Senator or Doctor or Chief Financial Officer. But the valley’s floral tapestry, woven by trees of various textures and shades of green and by lush flower gardens just coming into bloom, most drew Hera’s attention.
She pushed her hair off her face and shoulders so that it did not obstruct her sight. Then she rested the barrel of her rifle upon a low branch and trained the scope at 731 Lookout Lane. The impeccable pale yellow house with white trim sat upon its grassy lot like a queen upon her throne. The neatly manicured lawn and abundant flower gardens, whose lush plants sparkled with blossoms of every hue, seemed like testimonies to the home’s lofty station.
Hera moved the scope’s view across the front windows of the house but saw no activity within. The time was just before six o’clock on a cool spring evening, and the master of the house would not arrive home from work for another ten minutes or so.
While she waited, she found it curious that no one on Lookout Lane emerged from their residence to retrieve the mail; or bicycled along the road for the sheer joy of fresh air and exercise; or backed out of a garage on the way to dinner at one of the city’s overpriced restaurants that specialized in fussy foods like truffled sweet potato fries and foie gras prepared tableside. The area was as quiet as a deserted movie theater.
A red car, low to the road and sleek in length, appeared in the distance. It negotiated the twists and turns of Lookout Lane through dense stands of trees and rock outcroppings, moving in and out of Hera’s view. The car slowed as it approached the yellow and white house. When it turned into the driveway, Hera readied her finger against the rifle’s trigger and watched the car’s progress through the scope.
The car stopped beneath the portico at the home’s entrance, and Clyde Pettipher, a slender man of average height, emerged from the driver’s side. He wore his graying hair combed back from a high forehead and tied in a ponytail at the nape. The evening light reflected off his gray suit with a sheen that suggested an expensive fabric.
The home’s front door opened and out stepped Ruby Walker, a flawless beauty who was having a long and blatant affair with Clyde. The young woman’s blonde hair fell in thick ringlets upon her shoulders. Her bright red dress clung to her substantial breasts as only a knitted fabric can do. The dress followed the curve of her narrow waist and stretched across her wide hips, then stopped several inches above her knees, showing off a pair of shapely legs that even the Almighty couldn’t improve upon.
Clyde greeted her with a wave of his hand. They exchanged a few words, which Hera couldn’t make out, then Ruby retreated into the house, leaving the door wide open for her man to enter.
Clyde bent and grabbed a tan briefcase from behind the driver’s seat. As he straightened, Hera’s finger moved lightly against the rifle’s trigger. The weapon slammed into her shoulder as it recoiled, but she stood her ground and watched as the owner of every strip joint along Second Avenue within the city’s red-light district slumped to the pavement.
She ejected the shell from the rifle’s chamber. As she retrieved it from the ground, she felt no regret or guilt, since the facts had been clearly established during Clyde Pettipher’s trial. He had murdered his wife to gain access to her fortune. He’d cut off her head with a saber, part of his treasured collection of antique weapons. But his bloodied clothing, the saber, and other items that linked him to the crime had disappeared from the police department’s property room, and the case was thrown out of court for lack of credible evidence against him.
Clyde’s release surprised no one since the rich and influential rarely paid for their crimes. Not in Centreville. Outraged by the lack of justice for victims of brutal crimes, Hera had decided some months ago that if the courts failed to punish people proven guilty of brutal crimes, then she would.
Early the next morning, Hera crouched beneath a willow tree in the corner of Gwendolyn Oates’s backyard. She’d been under the tree long enough to watch the dark of night lighten into a hazy shade of gray and the eastern skyline turn a deep pink.
She was waiting for Gwen to start her usual morning walk to Beginnings, a popular restaurant that catered to the breakfast and lunch crowds. It was twenty minutes past Gwen’s normal departure time, and Hera feared that the woman had decided to forgo the ritual for some more pressing engagement.
While the minutes passed, Hera’s frown deepened, for she lacked the virtue of patience. Besides, the morning chill had soaked into her bones, and the cold ground was numbing her toes. As Hera began to think about abandoning her quest and coming back another time, Gwen, a petite woman, stepped onto the porch and into the light of the lamp above the backdoor. She wore a green woolen coat with black leather lapels and pocket trim. The coat’s hue accentuated her cropped copper hair and her milky complexion.
She descended the porch steps, stopping once to wrap a black woolen scarf about her neck. Then she turned onto a flagstone path that led toward the street and disappeared around the side of the house.
Hera wouldn’t call Gwen her closest friend. They were drinking buddies. Gwen put away shots of bourbon faster than the barkeep could keep them coming. She preferred four-letter words to more polite expressions. And her voice was always the loudest in the room.
Gwen was a cat burglar. She specialized in relieving penthouses of their precious art. She’d recently been a suspect in the theft of Woman in a Black Hat, a small portrait by the renowned oil painter Angus Devoy. But the cops never found hard evidence linking Gwen to the crime, so she’d been dropped as a person of interest.
Discouraged with the police department’s lack of progress on the case, the insurance company hired Hera to retrieve the painting. The specifics of the crime screamed Gwen’s M.O.; who else possessed the strength and agility to climb twelve stories up the outside of a building? Hera believed the painting now resided in her friend’s home. She planned to grab the portrait while Gwen dined at Beginnings, which would leave the house empty for about an hour and fifteen minutes.
She headed toward the steps, staying in the shadow of a tall fence along the edge of the property. Halfway there the backdoor opened, and she froze. A man stepped onto the porch. Hera didn’t recognize him so she supposed Gwen had picked him up in some bar the night before. He was roughly six feet tall, dark haired, and ruggedly handsome. And he was naked. He possessed the broad shoulders and long taut muscles of a competitive swimmer. His appealing physique so held Hera’s attention that she barely noticed when he threw a garbage bag over the porch railing and into a trash can. Her fixation on his body stopped only when he retreated into the house.
“Darn it,” Hera whispered. She didn’t like anyone derailing her carefully laid plans, not even a handsome stranger with a sexy body.
But she never quit before a job was done, and she wouldn’t start doing so now. She ran up the porch steps to the side of the backdoor. When she peaked through the window, she found the kitchen empty.
She tried the doorknob. It turned easily. Gwen’s guest had left the door unlocked, inviting trouble. He must not have read the recent article in the Centreville Times warning that most residential thefts in the city occurred around this hour of the morning.
She stepped into the house, closing the door quietly behind her. Then she glanced around to get her bearings.
The room looked like any other kitchen, only bigger and with more appliances and cabinets. Used wine glasses and beer mugs sat in each bowl of a double sink. A bottle of orange juice and a pastry box holding half a dozen cupcakes lay upon one of the counters. Hera thought the many copper pots and pans that hung from hooks above a range in a center island were an interesting touch, considering Gwen had never cooked a meal in her life.
Hera listened for a clue to the man’s whereabouts. Hearing nothing, she moved across the kitchen and entered a hallway that led to the front rooms.
She’d been in the house only once before since Gwen preferred to meet at taverns and restaurants, places with lots of people and noise. About three months ago, they stopped by the Pickled Pub, a favorite watering hole. Halfway through the evening, they started a poker game with two likable men who’d approached their table. Hera didn’t usually gamble, but that night they played with toothpicks as currency, making the game fun and lighthearted. Gwen was into her second bottle of bourbon when she passed out, toppling from her chair. Hera had imbibed a bit too much herself and might not have noticed her friend’s sudden disappearance if she hadn’t been distracted by the loud thud of Gwen’s body striking the floor.
The game now over, one of the men carried Gwen to Hera’s Jeep. When Hera reached Gwen’s home, she dragged her friend into the house and dropped her onto the living room sofa. Being naturally curious and since her friend was dead to the world, she helped herself to a tour of the two-story home.
So Hera knew where she was going when she crossed the hall to the library. She found it curious that the door was locked. She pulled a pick and tension wrench from a hidden pocket in her coat and opened the lock. Once inside, she again secured the door to avoid being surprised by an intruder.
Bookcases lined the wall to her right. Gwen collected first editions. To the left, three tall niches occupied the wall at the back of the house. Each displayed one of Gwen’s metal sculptures. Locks, keys, small wheels, springs, and metal tubing were her media. She welded them into chaotic, but strangely pleasing, compositions. Thin strips of whitewashed wood paneled the whole wall, including the niches. They provided a stark contrast to the sculptures’ dark patina.
A huge wooden desk with wide legs stood a short distance from the wall across from the door. A brown leather chair accompanied the desk.
When Hera previously toured the house, she noticed that the library’s back wall didn’t line up with the rear wall of the hallway. She couldn’t explain how she had caught it since the niches camouflaged the difference. She suspected that behind the wall was a secret room where Gwen kept her stolen treasures.
Hera began looking for a way into the room. She heard an upstairs shower go on. She glanced at her watch and noted that the minutes were fast ticking away.
She examined the corners and edges of the back wall for seams that suggested a doorway. Finding nothing of interest, she inspected the joints between the wooden strips for a wider gap. She checked the carpet for tracks that a moving section had left behind. And she studied the plastered ceiling for abrasion marks. She didn’t rush, instead taking enough time to be thorough. Still, she found no sign of a hidden entrance.
She heard banging at the door. Someone was shaking it, trying to gain entrance. It had to be the handsome stranger since she hadn’t heard sounds of anyone else in the house. Then came the familiar sound of a pick scraping against the lock’s cylinder.
The room had no closets. Only the desk’s kneehole offered a place to hide. Hera rushed to it. Laying upon the desk next to a rosewood pen box was a personal check for fifty thousand dollars. It was made out to the Bond Street Alliance and signed by Gwen.
The amount of the check caught Hera’s attention because Gwen never paid more than a few thousand dollars for anything, except for this house and her Porsche convertible. She stole the few things she wanted that had a price tag dearer than that.
Hera picked up the check, to study it closer. What was the Bond Street Alliance? She had never heard of the association.
The door started to open. She shouldn’t have let the check distract her. She didn’t have enough time now to pull the chair away from the kneehole. She dropped the check. Then she sunk to the floor and kneeled low behind the desk.
Footsteps entered the room, scuffing against the carpet. The footsteps stopped. Then she heard a slow walk toward the niches along the back wall.
To avoid being seen, she crawled around to the far side of the desk, fearing the soft rustling of the carpet would draw attention to herself. But the handsome stranger was either too hung over to notice the sound or too stupid to pay it any mind.
She peeked around the corner of the desk and saw him staring at the wall. He was still naked, a fact that didn’t displease her. The smell of peppermint soap filled the room, suggesting he’d just stepped out of the shower.
He stared at the sculptures, his head slowly moving left and right. Hera glanced at her watch and noted the time passing away.
When he headed toward the desk, she scrambled to the back of it, hugging the desk as she traveled. The man had to be blind not to notice her.
She heard drawers open and shut. Papers rustled on the desk’s surface. Then came banging. He was taking apart the rosewood pen box. Gwen would have a fit at the ruin of a precious gift from her father. She frequently mentioned the box in conversations about him because he died shortly after giving it to her.
“Found it!” the handsome stranger cried out in triumph.
He walked over to the rightmost niche and pushed a key that was now in his hand into one of the locks on the sculpture. The narrow section of wall between the niche and the adjoining wall swung backward, making no sound as it moved. Hera would have been thrilled at the discovery of the secret room if her mind hadn’t been so busy wondering how he knew where to find the key, and which sculpture and lock the key belonged to. Gwen would never share her security measures with anyone, not even Hera.
The stranger disappeared through the entrance. Hera heard footsteps descending a set of stairs. She waited for the sounds to stop, then she followed.
She slipped through the entrance into a tight space at the top of a stairwell. She climbed down, putting her weight slowly on the carpeted treads to muffle any noise. She reached a landing where the steps turned in the opposite direction and descended into a small gallery. She bent down to get a clear view of the space below.
The compact room was unfurnished except for a small bar that rested against one wall. Above the bar bottles of various alcoholic beverages lined two glass shelves. Paintings of different sizes decorated the remaining walls. Hera guessed all were stolen.
But only one interested her. The stranger stood before the Woman in a Black Hat, his arms crossed before him while he inspected the portrait. Minutes passed by. When he lifted the painting off the wall, Hera realized that they were after the same thing.
She hastened up the steps as quietly as time allowed, knowing he’d soon be right behind her. When she reached the library, she dropped down behind the desk. She didn’t hear him on the stairs. But she caught his rapid breathing inside the room. And she heard him return to the gallery below.
She suspected that he intended to clean Gwen out of all her stolen art. His treachery annoyed her, even though she was engaged in a similar activity. But she was here to return one painting to its rightful owner, not to rob Gwen blind.
She peeked from behind the desk and saw the Woman in a Black Hat resting on the carpet against the wall. She moved fast and grabbed the painting. Then she turned the key in the sculpture.
While the section of wall silently swung back into its proper place, she studied the small portrait. It depicted a young woman with braided golden hair. The woman wore a black hat with green feathers. An elaborate white ruffle surrounded her neck. Every detail of the woman was expertly rendered, providing much to admire. But Hera’s gaze kept returning to the intense sadness in the woman’s eyes.
She had little time to appreciate the picture. She removed a black garbage bag from her coat pocket and pulled it over the painting to protect it.
“Mac, I’m home,” came the loud, joyful sound of Gwen’s voice from the front of the house.
“Uh-oh,” Hera whispered. She listened intently for what her friend would do next.
Gwen raced up the stairs to the second floor. “Mac, are you up here?” she called.
Hera had only minutes before Gwen returned to the first floor looking for Mac. She hurried from the room, leaving the door ajar. She ran through the kitchen, grabbing a cupcake with chocolate icing along the way. Once outside, she retraced her steps within the shadow of the fence. When she reached the alley behind the house, she turned south toward the street where she’d parked her Jeep. Her pace was quick and her body tense, reflecting her anxiety to get the portrait to a secure place, for the small painting within her grasp was worth twenty three million dollars.
Hera’s office resided on the second floor of Brandt Plaza, an aging four-story building located on Central Avenue in the heart of downtown. A bank occupied the ground floor. The other three floors were divided into rented office spaces. The higher the floor the more cramped the unit, but the rents didn’t get any cheaper.
When Hera arrived there later that morning, she found Toby Isles, her man friday, cleaning the inside of the two front windows with a ball of wadded newspaper. The day hadn’t reached 8:00am, and already three empty Coca-Cola cans lay on his desk beside the keyboard. The room smelled of freshly brewed coffee.
“Morning,” she said softly as she shut the door.
Toby didn’t look up or respond. His hand swept across the window pane.
“Morning,” she said, raising her voice.
He swung toward her. “Hey,” he said. “You’re in early.”
“I just came from Gwen’s place, where I retrieved the Woman in a Black Hat. It’s now downstairs in the vault.”
She never kept anything of value in the office or in her apartment since she enjoyed the benefit of having a bank on the floor below. Small items were placed in a safety deposit box. Items too large to fit in the box, like the retrieved portrait, were stored in the bank’s vault.
“So Gwen had the painting, just as you suspected,” Toby said.
“Tucked away in a secret gallery beneath her house.”
“Nice work. I’ll call the insurance company and have them pick it up.”
“Thanks,” Hera said.
Toby walked to his desk and began tossing the empty soda cans into a wastebasket across the room. The cans arced gracefully through the air and landed squarely in the bin.
Hera suspected he had played basketball in high school. His six foot three inch height and strong, slender body suggested the sport. But she knew little of his private life except that he was 27 years old, two years her junior. He never talked about himself. He refused to fill out any forms that required personal information, especially forms whose headings indicated a government body. He didn’t drive a car. He didn’t vote. He didn’t even own a credit card. And he insisted on being paid in cash for his work.
Hera never questioned his quirks since she respected his privacy and saw no reason to antagonize him. He was the most gifted computer hacker she’d ever met. She stumbled upon him three years ago while investigating a breach into a client’s computer network. She traced the breach to Toby. But instead of turning him over to the police, she gave him a job. She paid him a mediocre salary and bought him every piece of computer hardware that made his heart race. The only condition of his employment was that he cease hacking into any computer but those she requested.
The arrangement had turned out well for both of them. Toby proved to be smart, hard working, and dependable. Hera’s one complaint was his style of dress. He insisted on wearing blue jeans and t-shirts. She didn’t mind the jeans, but the t-shirts carried slogans meant to offend and provoke. Today’s little gem, drawn in stark white letters on black fabric, was “Let’s face it, you bore me”.
“Have you seen this morning’s paper?” he said.
His eyes searched the surface of his desk, which had to be the neatest workspace in Centreville. Every item sat perfectly aligned in its proper place. He glanced down and grabbed the folded newspaper from the floor by his feet.
“Hot off the press,” he said as he handed her the Centreville Times, the city’s leading daily.
Hera tucked the paper under her arm and headed to the file cabinet squeezed between the two front windows. The surface of the cabinet held an assortment of mugs on a ceramic tray and a stainless steel coffee maker. Toby kept the pot full during the day. He insisted on making the coffee himself because he liked it strong enough to send sparks up his spine. Fortunately, so did Hera. She filled a large mug with the brew, then settled into her desk chair and spread out the newspaper.
She expected to read about Clyde Pettipher’s murder the night before. Instead, she found a similar story stretched across the entire front page. Ace Crowder, senior columnist for the Centreville Times, had been shot in the head at his home the previous evening. His wife found him slumped in the swing on their front porch. She had not heard any disturbance around the time of the shooting.
Ace used his column to rant about corruption in the mayor’s office, the inept police force, and the indifference of the courts in dispensing justice. He’d made a lot of enemies with his articles. That he’d been murdered didn’t surprise Hera. Not in a city known for solving its disputes with violence.
But what disturbed Hera most about the report was the place and time of the murder and the manner in which the crime was committed. Ace Crowder lived on Lookout Lane a mile west of Clyde Pettipher’s home. He’d been sitting on his porch drinking a cocktail around six o’clock the previous evening when someone shot him with a rifle from the wooded hillside across the street.
The similarities of Ace’s murder to her own activity at the same time and roughly the same place unnerved her. She hadn’t seen anyone on the street except her quarry. And even though she’d exercised caution in approaching and leaving the area, Ace’s shooter could have seen her. And when the shooter realized that, she might be in grave danger of blackmail, or worse, arrest.
She decided not to dwell on the matter since it involved too many assumptions. She flipped through the paper in search of news about Clyde Pettipher’s fate. But she found no mention of his death. She did, however, find an article on the criminal suit against Frank Patel, who had been arrested for the abduction, sexual assault, and killing of an eight-year-old girl. She’d been following the story since the parents reported the child missing.
Hera knew little about Frank Patel except that he owned a drugstore over on Dexter Avenue. His girlfriend, Ginny Bowles, claimed in written testimony that she had seen the child tied to a cot in the basement of their home just days before the girl’s body was found floating in Chandler Lake a mile outside the city. But the police never found the cot, a key piece of evidence. Forensics matched a bullet lodged in the girl’s body with a gun they’d retrieved from Patel’s home. The gun was registered to Ginny, who swore she’d given the weapon to Frank. According to this morning’s paper, Ginny Bowles was now missing.
Hera suspected that the woman had been killed to shut her up. Either Patel had silenced her or he’d paid someone else to do the job. Her murder could be bought for less than ten thousand dollars from any number of sources listed in mercenary magazines.
“That’s too bad,” Hera murmured. She harbored a particular distaste for men murdering their wives or girlfriends.
“What’s wrong?” Toby asked.
“The newspaper article says nothing about the leads being followed to find Ace Crowder’s killer.” She was skilled at the quick lie, using one now to hide her interest in Patel since he was a potential candidate for her personal form of retribution.
She took care to protect her secret life of vigilante justice. It was safer that way. For her. And for Toby, too. One slip of his tongue, and she’d be facing a lethal injection.
The phone rang. Toby opened a side drawer of his desk and lifted the handset. “Hunter Investigations,” he announced into the mouthpiece.
Hera watched the silence that commenced, curious about the sudden unease in her colleague’s face.
“Just a minute,” Toby said. He pushed a button on the phone then turned to Hera. “It’s some woman who’s been calling every ten minutes. She wouldn’t tell me her name or leave a message. She insists on speaking with you.”
“I’ll talk to her,” Hera said. She picked up her phone. “This is Hera Hunter.”
“Ms. Hunter, my name is Ida Bunce. I’m private secretary to Mayor Early Hodge.”
Ida Bunce spoke with such a shaking voice that Hera had difficulty distinguishing her words. Sensing trouble, she signaled with her hand to Toby, and he switched on the machine to tape the conversation, just in case a need to recall it arose.
“What can I do for you, Ms. Bunce?” Hera said.
“I must see you as soon as possible. Sometime today if you can.” She spoke the words rapidly, barely in control of her voice.
“Are you in immediate danger?”
“No. No.” Followed by silence. Then she spoke more calmly, “I think I’m safe at the moment.”
“Why don’t I come to your office right now and we can talk?” Hera said.
“I’m not at the office today.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m at a rail station.” She was referring to a hub of the city’s High Speed Rail System. “I don’t want anyone to know that I’m talking to a private investigator.”
“I’m afraid they’ll kill me.”
“I don’t know who they are.”
“Have you called the police?”
“What would I tell them? I have no evidence that someone wants me dead.”
“What makes you think anyone does?”
The shaking in Ida’s voice returned. “I can’t talk over the phone. I’m certain I’m being followed. And I think my home and office phones are tapped. Can you come to my house this evening when it’s dark and you won’t be seen? Say, around ten o’clock.”
“Yes. What’s your address?”
“9264 Sylvan Street.”
Hera jotted the address on a notepad. “I’ll be there promptly at ten,” she said.
“One more thing. If anything happens to me, I’ve left information for you to find.” And Ida hung up the phone before Hera could ask where to look for it.
“What was that all about?” Toby said.
“I’m not sure.”
“What did the woman say?”
“She wants me to come to her home at ten this evening. She thinks someone’s trying to kill her.”
“She doesn’t know who.”
“Did she give you her name?”
“Ida Bunce, the mayor’s private secretary.”
Toby screwed up his face. He often did that while deep in thought. “She must have information about the mayor that could destroy his career.”
“She said she didn’t know who was trying to kill her. I think it must be someone else she’s afraid of.”
“Maybe. But they say the mayor’s last election was rigged. If that’s true and she has something on him, this case could be dangerous. There are people who’ll want to keep him in office regardless of the cost.”
“Who says his election was rigged?”
“Ace Crowder. He’s written several columns about it.”
“That’s interesting. And now Ace is dead.”
“You think their deaths are connected?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think I should accompany you this evening. It could be dangerous.”
“I’ll be all right.”
“Okay,” Toby said. He frowned in disagreement. Then he turned his attention to the computer screen on his desk.
Hera couldn’t shake off a dreadful feeling. She should have insisted that Ida come at once to her office, where she and Toby could protect her. The fear in the woman’s voice had raised an alarm. Now, Hera couldn’t dispel the thought that Ida Bunce might not survive until ten o’clock that evening.
female sleuth; former military sniper; vigilante; strong and dangerous
small black and tan dog; Hera’s faithful sidekick
Hera’s man friday; skilled computer hacker; hostile to conventional mores
Hera’s foster sister; madam of a high-class brothel; educated and well read
Hera’s drinking buddy; cat burglar; flirtatious and fun loving
police detective; former military sniper; tough but honest
Hera’s oldest friend; lead investigative journalist for the Centreville Times
Alistair MacDuff (Mac):
private investigator; Hera’s love interest; an awkward sleuth