Slowing the car to a stop butted up against the curb, a quaint green patch with even quainter bench and garden close enough to provide an alibi, Russell Sampson took a hearty swig of his caramel macchiatto and smacked his lips in satisfaction.
“Not frozen, but not bad,” he muttered to no one but himself.
Marion was at yoga, and didn’t like these types of cases anyway. Sampson was on his own, and in this instance, he preferred it that way. Gravel crunched and crackled between his sneaker and the asphalt underneath as he stepped out of the car, bending back inside last minute for one final drag of the foamy, caramelly, all-powerful concoction that cost him damn near seven dollars after the extra shots and almond milk substitution.
Fucking White Pine Village and their high sales tax, Sampson thought as he surveyed his target—an oppressive Victorian estate looming on the corner opposite the tiny park, ensconced in brown brick and draped in English ivy. Within its seven-foot-wrought-iron-gated perimeter and old stone walls lay the object he sought—or, more accurately, the object his client sought.
Two p.m. on a Wednesday. A week of surveillance led Sampson to believe that both Mr. and Mrs. Turnbull would be out of the house, their son still in school, the dog at the groomer, and no maids or gardeners on the premises.
Just the cat. A behemoth butterscotch tabby who Sampson was a hundred percent positive had not just seen him but watched him like a hawk every day he had monitored the comings and goings of the house, or put on some disguise—a dog walker, a city employee measuring the sidewalk, a shouldn’t-be-shirtless jogger—to get a lay of the land. But, he was a fucking cat. What the fuck was he going to do about it? Sampson chuckled to himself as he walked down the alley toward the property’s back gate.
Being the staff entrance, a camera craned its surveying lens down at the back gate and garage. However, its angle was so narrow, and it was the only one for this side of the house , the entire length of fence leading up to the gate was a blind spot. Normally, Sampson wouldn’t be able to scale a seven-foot wrought iron fence, but it just so happened that the maids placed the recycling bins around the corner from the gate…along the blind spot section.
Sampson hopped lightly onto the lid of the large recycling bin, which put him in a better position to lodge his foot left foot against the decorative swirl of dark, cool iron, then propelling himself up high enough to position his right foot on the straight rail along the top of the fence. All he had to do was swing his left leg up and around, minding the foot or so of ornamental arcs and spears. His right hip twinged with a flicker of pain at the quick movement in the joint as he pulled his right leg over once his left was secure atop an iron fleur-de-lis. He allowed the briefest of winces and the slightest of grunts before steeling himself against it and jumping down to the soft grassy lawn below.
“Moment of truth,” he mumbled, waiting to see if the grounds had any sort of perimeter motion security, or cameras on the lawn. After standing stock still for a solid minute, all the while his eyes scanning the lush, emerald yard and the exterior of the house, Sampson made his move toward his entry point.
The butterscotch tabby eyed him from his large screened enclosure, an aesthetic abomination tacked onto the side of otherwise immaculate architecture. Sampson groaned when he first laid eyes on it days prior, simultaneously disgusted at what an eye sore it was and realizing there was a very good chance it was his way into the house. A low, rumbling warning mew oozed from the giant cat and his whiskers and tail twitched, but that seemed to be about all the energy he chose to expend on the matter of a stranger making a beeline toward him.
Feeling a bit like he were breaking into a bobcat exhibit at a zoo and not some rich asshole’s mansion, Sampson pried a section of screen panel off the cat enclosure. The other sections were soldered together and reinforced with bars, but this panel—the smallest one—was the one the maids removed to clean out the bottom of the enclosure, so it came off fairly easily. All Sampson had to do was pop the bottom out and jiggle it out of the interior hook latches on the sides.
Butterscotch cat hissed as Sampson crawled in through the narrow opening but still didn’t move his blob of a body from the carpeted perch in the shade of a Chinese maple tree. His neon eyes narrowed on the intruder to his home, and Sampson shuddered at the thought of how badly the gargantuan feline could fuck him up if he chose to attack. Not fond of turning his back, but finally breaking gaze with the tabby and doing just that, he carefully waddled toward the even narrower cat door from the outdoor enclosure into the house.
It wasn’t his first time through a smallish doggy door, and that appeared to be the size this one actually was, which made sense given it accommodated the passage of a twenty-five-pound beast that Sampson figured could devour a Shih Tzu in a single sitting. The wall jabbed at his sides as he wriggled through like an eel, finally emerging into what appeared to be a library on his hands and knees, deftly quiet.
Still, nothing triggered as far as a security system, and Sampson silently rejoiced. Two birds with one stone, he thought.
Just off the library was an office, a solid mahogany desk sitting in its middle, polished to a gleam and bedecked with various nick-knacks. A whole cabinet full of plaques and trophies sat at the side of the room opposite the entrance. Sampson rounded on the desk, noticing it had very few drawers and not a single lock. He whipped around to face the cabinet, which looked as if it were actually meant to house a china set and not the world’s silliest sounding awards.
But it did have two drawers with locks. And what he was looking for would likely be found behind a lock—even one as easy to pick as an antique china cabinet.
Drawing his lock pick set from the interior pocket of his leather jacket as if it were Excalibur, Sampson crouched to one knee and went to work, needing only about ten seconds to unlatch the simple lock. The antique hinges didn’t creak, which further reinforced Sampson’s notion that what he was looking for lay inside this cabinet—the doors were used recently and frequently enough that it had occurred to someone to have them oiled.
A plain white photo box with the label More Awards sat on the cabinet shelf, and Sampson chuckled at the pomposity as he slid it out and pulled the lid off. Rifling through the stack of certificates within, his fingers brushed against something stiffer, more rigid than the rest of the congratulatory papers. An index card. Quickly pinching it between his thumb and index finger, he whipped it out of the stack and laid it on top of the awards, then grabbed his phone from his back pocket and starting snapping picture after picture of the card and the box and the cabinet and the entire room.
A beep-beep-beep sounded from the opposite side of the house and Sampson’s heart jumped—it was a security system, like the kind people have on just their doors that didn’t do much to stop burglars from entering through cat enclosures but definitely signaled that someone with a key was entering the house. As swiftly and silently as possible, he placed the card back into the middle of the stack and put the box away, closing the cabinet door with only the faintest click of the antique latch, which luckily coincided with the heavy thud of a closing door to drown it out.
Shoving his lock pick and his phone back in their respective pockets, Sampson stood and prepared to meet whomever had just entered the Turnbull residence. A lanky, thirty-something man with a black beard sauntered into the office with his head down, flipping through a stack of mail.
“Good afternoon Mr. Turnbull,” Sampson said.
“Holy fuck!” the man yelled, the stack of mail flying from his hands and into the air, falling around him with little card stock clatters while he stared at Sampson and clutched his heaving chest. “Who the hell—what the fuck?!”
“No need for alarm,” Sampson replied. “Or, in fact, yes need for alarm. Are you aware how incredibly easy it was for me to break into your home, Mr. Turnbull?”
“Just tell me who the fuck you are!” Turnbull barked.
Sampson fished in his front jacket pocket for a business card.
“Russell Sampson,” he said, extending the card to Turnbull with a charming grin.
“Ah, shit—wrong one!” Sampson laughed. “Here, hold on, lemme…never mind that one.” He snatched the first card away, then produced a different one from his pocket, checking it for before handing it off to the bewildered man. “Here.”
“Sampson Specialized Security Solutions,” Turnbull read aloud, then shifted his eyes up to Sampson’s face. “Did you…are you…?”
“Break into your house to show you the deficits in your home security? Yes. Fucking serious? Also yes.”
“Get out,” Turnbull growled, rubbing his temples in apparent aggravation.
“Of course,” Sampson said with a nod and a smile. “This is your incredibly easy to burglarize property, after all, and I am definitely trespassing. And soliciting. Ha! Okay, I’ll be going now. But you have my card!”
“Go! Now! Before I call the police!”
“Oh, you don’t want to do that,” Sampson chuckled and shook his head.
“Why the fuck not?” Turnbull snapped.
“Because I take maple donuts to their weekly status meeting and I’m kind of a fucking hero for almost getting my dick shot off by a stripper,” Sampson explained.
Mr. Turnbull’s lips pursed as if he’d eaten something sour, jutting them out past their oil-black frame. “In White Pine Village?” he asked.
“Oh yeah,” Sampson nodded enthusiastically. “The crime rate here is on the way up. I mean, as long as new money keeps moving in, it’s only going to get worse. I left the police department because all of the burglary and theft cases were getting tedious. Also because of the almost getting my dick shot off thing.”
“I can imagine…” Turnbull replied, the squint in his eyes suggesting deep contemplation.
“Anyway, I won’t take up any more of your time,” Sampson announced. “But don’t hesitate to call if you want your home to be an impenetrable fortress. And, uh…have a good day!”
He turned on his heels and headed toward the library, then quickly spun back around after only half a dozen steps. “Actually, can I go out the front door?”
“Jesus Christ,” Turnbull groaned, shaking his head.
“Sorry,” Sampson whispered, his face pulled into a mock grimace as he followed Turnbull toward the front of the house. “Thank you. You have a very lovely home.”
When Sampson arrived back at his office, Marion Vickery, his partner in work and life for the past year, sat cross-legged on top of her desk in her yoga attire, spooning yogurt into her mouth.
“Hey, babe!” she uttered excitedly as he tossed his keys into the little key dish on the filing cabinet by the door with a series of noisy tings and clanks.
“Hello, my yogurt-covered-pretzel,” he responded.
“Did you Magnum today?” she asked, cocking her head and grinning.
He fell back into his desk chair and sighed, a smile spreading across his entire face. “Baby, I Magnummed so hard.”
“Ooh, swim trunks and all, hm?” she teased.
“We’ve been over this. Colorado is land-locked so beach scenes don’t count,” Sampson retorted.
“Were there Dobermans though? Or some form of guard dog?”
“So not really like Magnum at all?” she razzed, cocking her head at him playfully.
“I got to use my lock pick!” Sampson defended. “And there was a very large cat.”
Marion threw her head back and laughed, a sound that never ceased to immediately arouse him.
“So you got it?” she asked after regaining her composure.
“The world’s stupidest thing ever?” Sampson joked. “Yeah, I got it. And I will let you do the honors of calling Mr. Greenwood, because I don’t think I can bring myself to say the words ‘I have acquired proof that Jericho Turnbull is indeed in possession of your patent-pending organic ridged avocado chip recipe. He keeps it among his many awards from the underground syndicate of healthy snacks, not all of which were garnered from the recipe he stole from you, but more or less all for foods that sound like utter crap’. Okay, I do wanna say the last part,” he added.
“I figured as much,” Marion tittered, a spoonful of yogurt stuffed in her cheeks. “I will get back to him before the end of business today.”
“How was yoga?”
“I was the only one in class who could hold the crane for a minute!” Marion announced excitedly.
“This sounds like Karate Kid, not yoga,” Sampson remarked.
“Well, if that yoga class is the Karate Kid, then I am definitely Daniel Larusso,” she replied with a wiry smirk.
“Oh my god—are you telling me I’m sleeping with Daniel Larusso?”
“Court will be so jealous…” Sampson drawled. “Okay, show me this crane thing.”
“It’s not a sex thing, Russ,” Marion stated plainly.
“I don’t care! I want to see the thing that my girlfriend Ralph Macchio can do that nobody else in the class can do!” he rebutted playfully.
“Alright,” she agreed and started to slide off her desk.
“No, you should do it on the desk,” he protested in a throaty purr.
“Russ! It’s not sexy—stop making it seem sexy! It’s a weird crouchy handstand that looks like a dog trying to shit on a wall,” Marion laughed as she started to get in position.
“Warning appreciated but ultimately disregarded, Mare. Everything you do is sexy.”
Her hands flat against the surface of her desk, she shifted all her weight forward onto her arms and pulled her legs up, toes touching, resting her knees above her elbows.
“God, you’re such a fucking liar,” he remarked.
“What are you talking about, Russ?” she snapped in a breathy laugh.
“That is definitely a sex thing.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“How long did you say you can you hold that?”
The office phone chirped and trilled and Marion jumped out of her yoga pose and snatched the receiver from the base.
“Vixen Investigation,” she sang.
Sampson watched as her face screwed up, her soft lips puckering and sliding almost completely to the left side of her face while her nose crinkled and her eyebrows inched downward toward it. He stood and walked to her desk, punching the speaker button on the phone once he got there.
“I saw him,” came a raspy female voice. “I…I know what you’re thinking. Every police station and private investigator in the state has hung up on me but—but I saw my husband. Here, in Denver.”
“I don’t know what I’m thinking, ma’am, because you haven’t told me what you’d like us to do yet. Do you want us to find him?” Marion asked.
“I just want you to prove he’s back—prove that I’m not crazy!” the woman rebutted.
Marion and Sampson exchanged cautious glances.
“What’s his name?” Marion interrogated.
“Marco Canton,” the woman answered.
Sampson sat in Marion’s chair and pecked the name into the keyboard until a page of Google results came up. His own brow furrowed to match hers as he swiveled the laptop to show Marion the screen. After her eyes flickered over the page, they locked with his and she bit her lip in concern.
According to the entire first page of search results, Marco Canton, Colorado resident, was dead.