Title: Trigger Snappy
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When private investigator Lexi Graves quit her job she never thought working freelance would be so hard. Struggling to make a name for herself as a solo investigator, she’s intrigued when her wealthy new client claims she’s being stalked and Lexi is her last hope for help.
Without any evidence the police don’t believe Juliet is being victimized, and both her boyfriend and best friend are skeptical. Yet, Juliet is convinced she is being watched and that someone is playing tricks on her. Is she simply paranoid or is something more sinister at play?
Initially the case appears easy: simply watch the client and find out if someone else is watching her too. Yet before Lexi can make serious headway, her client is arrested for a crime she claims she didn’t commit and Lexi’s case collides shockingly with that of her boyfriend and ex-boss Solomon putting them on opposite teams.
The more evidence Lexi finds, the more she is convinced her client’s stalker is not only very real but has sinister motives. Way in over her head, and with her parents and best friend helping out, Lexi must make find out why her client is being targeted, and by whom, before it costs Juliet not only her freedom but everything she holds dear.
"Well done! Another case successfully closed!" Lily raised her glass and clinked it against mine. Hers was a mocktini because she was six months pregnant. Mine was a cosmopolitan, the rim dusted with sugar. That was one of the perks for working in the back room of Lily's bar. As my best friend, sister-in-law, and most recently, landlord to my fledgling private investigations business, she had good reason to beam at my announcement that I closed a case.
"I wouldn't call it successful," I said, trying not to sound as low as I felt while sipping the cosmo.
"Did you close it?"
"Did you get paid?"
I looked at the check for three hundred dollars and my mood dropped even lower. "Yes."
"Then I call it successful!"
I closed the manila file on my desk and slid it into the card box that I nicknamed "the filing cabinet". The check was safely ensconced in my purse, ready to take to the bank, leaving my desk clear of everything, but our drinks. Sure, Lily was correct in all respects; I solved the case, I got paid, and my clients went away happy. The problem was: I wasn't satisfied. After successfully learning my trade at the Solomon Detective Agency, and working on cases that nabbed serial killers, fraudsters, and murderers, it was a huge step down for me. Now, I was just working the Mom-and-Pop cases, ever since starting up alone as Lexi Graves, Private Investigator. I missed my old job. I missed my colleagues, and I missed access to all the databases and technology I once had at my disposal. I probably could have asked to retain some access to those databases, but pride stood in my way. After insisting I could make it alone, that was what I was doing... albeit slowly. I probably could have even asked my old boss for my job back, but I wanted to see what our relationship was like when he was simply my boyfriend, and not my boss. Fact was, despite my job sucking, my relationship with him was great.
"You just had a thought about Solomon, didn't you?"
I blinked. "How did..."
"You smiled. Lexi, if you're not happy working solo, why don't you ask Solomon to hire you back? You know he would in a heartbeat."
"Uh-uh." I shook my head. "No way. I knew it would be tough starting up as a solo PI, but I can make it work. It's just going to take time. More time."
"Maybe you should advertise. You could get one of those big pictures on a bench!"
"So everyone can draw mustaches on my face?"
"C'mon! We don't do that stuff anymore!" Lily dropped her ink-stained fingers into her hand and looked up at the ceiling like it was the most fascinating thing ever.
"No," I replied firmly as I thought about the unnecessary drain advertising would inflict on my bank account. When I quit my job, I received a good severance package that I wasn't too proud to refuse; and I fattened my bank balance with a check from a freelance job I'd taken. I had to clear the name of a pretty popstar who got caught up in a blackmail and murder plot. Thanks to those two breaks, rather than my solo career, I managed to pay all my bills over the past few months, whereas my small cases merely helped out. "Plus, those kind of adverts are really expensive. I need a big case before I can go expensive."
"How are you going to get a big case?"
"That's the million dollar question."
Lily glanced towards the door. "Maybe one will just walk through the door." A knock sounded at the door and her mouth dropped open. "Wow! That was quick!"
I raised my eyebrows and gave her an incredulous look as I got up and walked over to answer the door. It was a small office so it didn't take long, about as long as my hope of earning a million bucks lasted.
A woman my height stood in the doorway, her hand raised, and ready to knock again. She was dressed in a navy, wrap dress with black pumps, and a trenchcoat was folded over her arm. Her bag was in the thousand dollar range and her manicure, like her haircut, looked new. Maybe, I was wrong, however. Maybe she wanted to fund my new life with a complex and pricey case.
"Hi. I'm looking for Lexi Graves. Uh, the PI," she added, dropping her voice like she couldn't quite believe what she saying.
"That's me," I replied, sticking out my hand. She took it, shook it gently, and smiled shyly. "Come in to the office. This is Lily, the owner of the bar."
The young woman shook Lily's hand too. "This is a lovely bar," she said politely.
"I know. Thank you!" Lily beamed as she got to her feet, patting her expanding belly. The belly caught the woman's eye more than my sad office did. I eyed my cocktail glass. I had no hope of sliding it out of sight.
"Oh! You're pregnant!" she exclaimed.
Lily patted the bump again. "Three months to go, and then it's cocktail hour! What can we help you with?"
"Oh, yes, see..." the woman started, looking flustered. She stopped, took a deep breath and started again as she fixed me with a firm look. I'd seen that kind of look before. The mixture of worry and fear told me she needed help and I was her final hope. This woman had clearly exhausted her other options. "My name is Juliet Hart and I think I need your help."
"Take a seat and tell me about it."
Juliet glanced at Lily. "Can we speak privately?"
"Absolutely," said Lily without moving.
"She means privately with me," I said.
Lily's mouth pursed into a disappointed pout. "Can I get you a drink?" she offered.
Juliet shook her head quickly. "No, thank you."
"Okay. Well, Lexi is a great investigator and I’m sure she can solve your problem," Lily said, collecting our glasses, stepping around Juliet, and crossing to the door. There, she paused and turned back to me. As I waved Juliet into the seat Lily just vacated, Lily pointed to the expensive purse Juliet deposited on the floor and gave me a thumbs-up before shutting the door.
"What can I help you with?" I asked as I took my seat on the other side of the desk.
Juliet glanced around, taking in the sights of my office. She was spending much more time than necessary to look over my ancient desk, new IKEA chair, and the bookshelf of scant paperwork. Behind me was a window, the iron security bars barely concealed behind the wooden blinds. With my desk clear, I wondered if I should reach into my purse and extract my laptop and notepad in an effort to look like I actually did work, and did not just drink cocktails during the day. Juliet's face was so impassive that I wondered what she deduced from the room.
When her eyes finally resettled on me, she took another deep breath and closed them, making funny little movements with her mouth like she wanted to talk, but couldn't decide how to start. So I waited patiently for her to begin. She was trying to be poised, I deduced, but her hand wringing, just visible if I sat a little straighter, said a different story. I also checked out her jewelry: a slim, elegant watch, and a fat, diamond engagement ring. Nice.
"I think I'm being stalked," she said, her eyes still closed like she couldn't quite believe what she was saying. "I think someone has it in for me, but I don't know why. I swear I have never done anything to hurt anyone… ever. I'm a nice person. I have a nice, quiet life. I'm not the kind of person to attract a stalker, but I think I've got one."
"And what kind of person does attract a stalker?" I asked.
She paused, her eyes flicking open as her forehead wrinkled. My question surprised her. "I don't know. Someone vivacious, maybe. Someone flirty. Someone that people want to get close to, but can't... you know, like a celebrity!"
I leaned forward, clasping my hands together as the chair's wheels skidded. I had to scramble to stay put. Some first impression! "Anyone, and I mean anyone, can acquire a stalker," I told her, my feet planted firmly on the ground. "You could be anyone or anything. It doesn't matter to a person who fails to respect boundaries."
"Don't guess. It's true. Why do you think you have a stalker?"
"I don't think. I know."
"Then tell me how you know."
"It's little stuff mostly, but no one believes me," said Juliet before resuming her hand wringing.
"What was the first thing you remember that made you think one hundred percent that someone was stalking you?"
"On the day my car moved four spaces from where I parked it."
"That's awfully specific."
"I was wondering about things before then; so I started being more careful. I mean, I was extra careful to remember stuff. That day, just last week, I was driving to pick up my friend from the coffee shop, and I parked in front of a fire hydrant. It was a hot day and I kind of laughed, thinking if someone shears that thing off, my car would get a free wash."
"What happened when you parked?"
"I got out of the car and locked it. I'm always very methodical about that. I went inside the coffee shop and found my friend already there waiting. We drank half our coffees before the table got knocked and my cup spilled. Coffee splashed all over my skirt. My friend had some wipes in her purse so she gave them to me to clean up in the restroom. I did that, came back, and we got another coffee before leaving to go home and that’s when I realized my car was moved."
"Did you notice the change right away?"
"No, I just started walking over to the car until I realized it wasn't my car next to the fire hydrant, but someone else's. My car was four spaces over. I was sure I did not park it there and I can't work out how it was moved."
"Does anyone else have access to your keys?"
"Yes, my fiancé has a key, but he was out of town that day, and didn't get home until nine that night."
"Okay. What made you feel you had to be so careful by that point? Did something happen before that?" I guessed, knowing I was correct when Juliet nodded.
"All kinds of little things, but I just brushed them off. I work long hours so I was tired. I wasn't thinking... I forgot... but... back then, I never thought I was being stalked; but now, I think it must’ve started long before my car mysteriously moved."
"But you didn't believe what you told yourself before," I finished. It was a familiar story. After handling a few stalking cases, from what I learned, the stalking starts long before the victim becomes aware of it. I wasn't surprised Juliet tried to explain away her own bad feelings.
"No, I didn't. I've always been a careful, organized person. Like, I know when I have sixty dollars in my purse, and I haven't spent it, but forty is missing. I know when I put my gloves in my coat pocket, I expect them to be there when I need them again. Except they're gone. I know I have my debit card in my bag, but when I go to pay at the restaurant, it's gone; and I find it at home later, sitting on the kitchen counter where I couldn't possibly have left it."
"How many things have happened like that? Ballpark figure?"
"I don't know. Thirty, I guess."
Thirty incidences were a lot. Unless she was super harebrained, and I didn't think Juliet was, she had good cause to be in my office; but I didn't plan on telling her that just yet though. First I needed more information. "Has anyone ever approached you?" I asked.
"I'm not sure what you mean?"
"Have you seen anyone watching you? Like at the store, or near your home, or at work? Or has someone gotten a little too friendly? Or made you feel uncomfortable?"
"I get the feeling occasionally that someone is watching me, but I never see anyone."
"It's just a feeling?"
"Yes, but... I don't know how to describe it. I never used to be a paranoid person!"
"Are you a paranoid person?"
"No... yes..." Juliet threw her hands in the air and laughed nervously. "I don't know!"
"Gut feeling. Yes, or no?"
"What do your family and friends think about you being stalked?"
"They think I'm making it up..."
"That you're a liar?"
"No, it's not that. My fiancé trusts me, and I can tell he wants to believe me, but I have nothing to show him. No one tried to attack me. No one tried to break into our house. It's just little stuff. He thinks I need to take some time off work. He even suggested we postpone our wedding if it's that stressful, especially after..." Juliet stopped and sighed, her shoulders dropping.
"After?" I prompted.
"It's stupid. We had a cake tasting for our wedding, and a week later, we got a huge bill. A ten thousand dollar cake! My name and signature was on the receipt, but I never ordered it. Then we got all these other bills for dresses and a venue and thousands of dollars in cut flowers. Thirty chairs turned up with chiffon bows! Rob thought I turned into Bridezilla! I had to cancel my credit card and they're trying to work out whether it was fraud, or if I can be held responsible. But who would order all that stuff, thirty thousand dollars worth, and just send it to me? Lexi, I don't know what to do! After that happened, I knew I had to talk to someone."
I wanted to know how someone could have thirty thousand dollars of credit on their card, but I was too polite to inquire. Plus, I could see my mother's face if I asked such a question. "You didn't go to the police?" I guessed.
"I did and they looked into it, and told me the IP address used on those orders came from my house! They didn't say as much, but they implied that I was obviously trying to wriggle out of the charges after regretting a wild, spending spree. I told them about the stalking and the other weird things, but they... they politely said I was paranoid. If I don't find out who's doing this, I could be liable for tens of thousands of dollars, but it's not just that... whoever is doing this is ruining my life! What if it escalates? I have my fiancé to think about and my stepson. What if someone hurt them to get to me?" Juliet stopped abruptly, her voice rushing to the point where she was barely breathing in her hurry to state her case. She drew a deep breath, reached for her purse, pulled out a tissue and dabbed her eyes. When she looked up again, she seemed more drawn, and not like the confident, curious woman who knocked at my door only minutes ago. "Do you believe me? Do you think I could be a stalking victim?"
I didn't need to take long to make my decision. "Yes, I think it's possible you're being stalked."
"Possible isn't definite," pointed out Juliet.
"I need to take a closer look at your life before I can give you a more definitive answer. And I also need to accept your case in order to prove you are being stalked."
"Please, I'm so afraid. I need you to prove it, find them, and stop them. Just tell me what you need me to pay and I'll pay."
Before I answered, I had another question. "How do you know I can help you? I don't advertise."
"I was referred to you. You helped a friend's friend. I remembered your name and looked for you. Her name is Elisabeth Fong."
I remembered Elisabeth, but it had been a long time since I helped her locate a missing close friend whom everyone else had given up on. It wasn't a case that I ever advertised, and rarely spoke about, so I figured Juliet's answer had to be legitimate. "Okay. You'll need to pay a retainer," I told her. "We can agree on the fees and a cap figure so you won't be overcharged. I'll only take instruction from you so you don't have to worry about anyone else interfering."
Juliet nodded quickly, not even curious as to what my fee might be as she pulled a checkbook from her bag and uncapped a small, silver pen. She wrote the check and handed it to me. I left it lying between us on the desk, although I snuck a glimpse at the number. It was more than I would have asked for. "When can you start?" she asked.