This is a first draft of a first chapter so, if you please, be kind.
The room was smoke. It smelled like it primarily due to the haze that floated just over a sitting man’s head. It saturated the old dark wood paneling, the time-flattened navy-black carpet, the big mahogany desk, the strewn papers, the threadbare couch. The only other smell was bourbon, primarily due to the office’s only resident, now and usually.
Harland Church sat, if you could call it that, in the reclined leather wingback, his feet kicked up onto the desk. His feet had disarranged some papers and some had fluttered to the floor. His right arm rested on the lip of the desk and ran along it before terminating in a big rough hand wrapped around a glass tumbler that contained a shallow pool of bourbon and melted ice that was now vaguely the color of piss. He snored and gently turned his head under the gray fedora he had let fall over his face. His dirty shirt with it’s vertical stripes looked like a checkerboard in the light that meandered through the dirty window between the ancient wooden blinds.
A shadow came into focus through the frosted glass of the door that read “Church and Tackett Private Investigators”. The knob turned and a middle aged brown face emerged from the crack that opened up.
“Harland,” the face said.
“Effie, get the hell out,” said Church without moving.
“I told you not to call me that,” said the face.
Church chuckled softly and it sounded like dry gravel. His left hand came up and removed the fedora from his face, and his bright blue eyes rolled toward the door.
“Church, you got company,” said the face.
“Alright, Efrain,” said Church. “Give me a second and then send ‘em in.”
Efrain’s face disappeared again behind the door and it clicked shut. There were voices outside, Efrain’s and a woman’s, but it was impossible to make out the words. Church buttoned his top button, straightened his black tie and sat up, righting his feet beneath the desk. He looked at the mess of papers, the ash tray, and the glass on the desk as if considering straightening it and then realizing it wouldn’t do much good. He reached for the pack of Camels on the desk and lit one, breathing deep and letting the smoke out of his lungs to join the haze in the room. His meaty hand shook slightly as it reached up to scratch his chin beneath the unkempt gray and black stubble.
A moment later, the knob turned again and this time the door swung wide into the room sending the haze running and rolling above Church’s head. Efrain stood in the doorway for a second before flattening himself out to show the woman in.
“Miss Violet Dufresne to see you,” said Efrain.
The woman took a step forward and paused, putting a hand to her mouth lightly in futile defense against the smoke and the smell. She gathered herself and took another two steps in. She was about five and a half feet tall, placing her face in perfect level with the haze, and her curves were accentuated by a form-fitting blue dress that ended near her ankles. There was a split part-way up her left leg. Her lips were bright red and her eyes were dark like polished coal. All in all, the effect was patriotic.
“Mr. Church,” she said.
“Miss Dufresne,” said Church, “That French?” When she didn’t respond, he said,”Please have a seat.”
Efrain quietly shut the door and Miss Dufresne looked over her shoulder at it with longing for only a moment before proceeding with hesitant steps to the green padded chair in front of Church’s desk. Church’s hand was outstretched, palm up, indicating the chair. When she sat, crossed her legs, and adjusted her purse onto her lap, clutching it with both hands, Church said, “What can I do for you?”
“Mr. Church, you come recommended,” she said, then paused and looked around the room as if unsure.
“I’m glad to hear it, miss,” said Church. He let the silence hang in the air around him. He put both of his hands together in front of his face and tented them, elbows on the desk. He pressed his thin lips together and resisted the urge to say something else.
“Yes, well,” said the woman. “That is to say that, I have a job that I need done and I had hoped you might be able to assist.”
“Odd jobs are my specialty, miss,” said Church.
“Yes, quite,” said Miss Dufresne. “Out with it, I suppose.” She wrung her hands together and looked at her lap. “You see, my grandfather died recently.”
Church fixed his eyes on her face as she talked, and he took a drag of the Camel. Violet Dufresne’s breath caught in her throat and Church wondered if it was emotion or the smoke until he saw a tear glitter and fall to her cheek.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Her voice wavered. “He was all the family I had. Both of my parents are passed, and I’m an only child.”
Church took a ragged handkerchief out of his shirt pocket and offered it to her over the desk. She waved it away.
“No, no thank you,” she said and pulled a tissue from her purse and dabbed her cheeks, careful not to upset her makeup. She raised her gaze and locked eyes with Church. “He left me his house.”
“How nice for you, Miss Dufresne,” said Church.
“Yes, thank you,” she said. Her voice was more solid now. “However, if you knew the house, you may not think so.”
Church raised an eyebrow. Both sat in silence for a few moments without breaking eye contact.
“Well, Miss Dufresne,” said Church, “if you don’t mind, I’d like to get to the part where you walked in here looking for help. Sounds to me like things are fairly well tied up.”
“Indeed,” said Violet Dufresne. “It would seem so. However, I do not intend to go into the house. Not for all the money in the world. You see, it’s, well, it’s dangerous.”
“I’m not sure I quite understand,” said Church.
“When I say,” she said, “that I wouldn’t go in for all the money in the world, that is not terribly off base. You see, my grandfather was Arnold Dufresne.”
Church’s eyes widened with recognition.
“You know of him, Mr. Church?”
“You must think I’m soft if you have to ask,” said Church.
“Indeed,” said Violet Dufresne. “All these years and I still forget. To me he was just Papa. Anyway, if you know who he was, you know the house. It is a large place, and Papa kept quite a few objects worth their weight in there with him.”
“I know the place,” said Church.
“Good,” said Miss Dufresne. “Good, because I need someone to go in and find a few things. These are things of immense value, and I intend to sell them at auction and then let the damned house rot.”
“Pretty specific plan,” said Church.
For the first time since she entered the office, Violet Dufresne’s red lips curved up into a smirk that gave Church a chill. Though it was a smile, there was malice in it.
“If it wasn’t so large and surrounded by lovely green belt, I’d set the place on fire myself,” she said.
Church looked at her like she was a bug in a jar. Miss Dufresne blushed, but her eyes stayed locked to his.
“You and I both know what you’re talking about,” said Church.
“Yes,” he said. “And we both know it’s bullshit.”
“I know nothing of the sort, Mr. Church,” said Violet.
“Look. I was ready for you to come in here and dance around it,” said Church, turning a little red. “I was ready for it because that’s a part of the job. I don’t remember the last time someone sat in that chair and shot me straight. Except for maybe Efrain out there. And that’s a maybe.” Church gestured at the office door with his hand. “I was even going to keep my mouth shut about it. By the rules of the game, I’m throwing way too many of my cards on the table by calling you out on your bull in the early rounds. But for you to actually come in here and try to feed me a ghost story is too damned much.”
Violet Dufresne’s lips pursed and her eyes moved down to her hands folded in her lap. Her shoulders rose and fell once in an exaggerated sigh. “Mr. Church, if I need to find someone else, I’ll be more than happy to open the phonebook again.”
“No reason to get nasty, sweetheart,” Church said. Violet’s top lip snarled slightly at the euphemism. “I just needed you to know where we stood. I’ll find what you’re looking for. What difference is it to me whether you’re trying to feed me a line or not? You ain’t paying for my spiritual beliefs, as it were.”
“Indeed.” Violet stood. Her knuckles were white where she gripped her bag. “Indeed I am not. You’ll find the items in question detailed in here.” She reached into her bag and pulled out an envelope that was thick with folded paper and tossed it onto the desk. “There are eight items I am looking for – one in particular. You’ll know it when you see it. The envelope also contains three hundred dollars. That is a retainer. I will pay you another seven hundred upon successful collection of the items.”
“Fair enough,” said Church. He reached across the desk and retrieved the envelope, kicked his feet up on the corner of his desk and popped the seal. “One, two, three,” he said under his breath, then: “Everything seems to be in order.” He looked up and met Violet’s gaze. “Miss Dufresne, I’ll head out there in a couple of hours.”
“Mr. Church, I thank you for taking my case, as crass as the process was. I must warn you, though. For what it’s worth, I must warn you against entering the house after dark.”
“Sweetheart,” Church said, the word delivered to make her grimace. “I ain’t sure what sort of interest you got in making sure I go in there spooked, but I wanna promise you it ain’t working.”
“Mr. Church, my only interest is liability, I assure you. I would not like to have to explain your body laying in the foyer come the morning.”
“You really believe this load, don’t you?” Church smirked.
“What I do or do not believe is irrelevant. I have warned you, and so my conscience is clear.” Violet turned to walk out.
“Wait, Miss Dufresne,” said Church. “Shouldn’t you give me a key to the place so as I don’t have to bust a window?”
“It is unlocked, Mr. Church. The front door hasn’t been locked in years. The house has never needed much in the way of security.”
“A bit sloppy, ain’t it?” Church replied.
“The house appears to be able to take care of itself, Mr. Church,” Violet said while pulling the office door open. “Good day.”
She stepped out, and Church listened to her high heeled shoes double clicking to the outer door, through it, and down the stairs, disappearing gradually until the clock on the shelf ticked louder.
Church looked down at the forgotten Camel in the tray on his desk. He picked it up and took a long drag. “Effie, you keeping tabs?” He said.
“Yeah, boss,” Efrain said, his voice crackling over the intercom on his desk. “And don’t call me that.”
“Fine, kid,” Church said, smirking. “Wanna get in here?”
Efrain once again emerged through the office door, this time body and all. He was short, dressed in a crisp white shirt, thin black tie, and gray slacks. He looked smart except for his black shoes which had seen better days. He walked across the room and took the same seat Violet Dufresne had been in just a minute ago.
“What do you make of it?” Church asked.
“Seems simple enough,” said Efrain.
“They always do,” said Church.
“Don’t know nothing about that house,” Efrain said. “Sounds like you do, though.”
Church chuckled dryly. “Bunch of campfire stories,” he said.
Efrain was silent, but grabbed the pack of Camels off Church’s desk and lit one with a flick of his Zippo.
“She don’t seem like the type to put a lot of stock in those kinds of stories,” said Church.
“Then why does she?” Efrain asked, kicking his feet up on the great mahogany desk in front of him.
“Wrong question,” said Church.
Efrain raised an eyebrow and took a drag from the cigarette.
“Question is,” said Church, “why does she want us to think she does?”