Shaina Sinclair looked around the room with equal parts excitement and terror.
Boxes lay haphazardly on the floor, the largest of which was now empty. It had held a desk. One that needed assembly. The instructions tucked inside among all the pieces and parts had apparently been translated from Chinese by someone with one year of high school English.
“What now, boss?”
Shaina turned to take in the eager smile of Kaylee Jennings—former college roommate and lifelong best friend. And now receptionist for the newly formed Sinclair Detective Agency. Bold and fearless. That was Kaylee.
Of course, Shaina had more at stake than Kaylee did. And now that she had signed a six-month lease and was ready to occupy her new digs, the full import of what she’d done was finally sinking in. She had to make a go of it, partly because she needed to eat, but mostly because her ex-boss Hank had predicted her failure.
She nodded toward the bags lined against the wall. “How about organizing office supplies? Keep out what you need for your work area, then store the rest in the closets in the back.”
Kaylee gave her a salute and, after looping some bags over her arms, disappeared into the hall. Shaina picked up one of two identical boxes. One would be her phone, the other Kaylee’s.
Thursday and Friday, they’d painted the place, then shampooed the carpet. After years of being used as extra storage for the taxidermist downstairs, it had needed some deep cleaning. Today, it was ready for furnishings.
Shaina laid the box on the newly-assembled desk and removed its contents. After plugging in the power cord and inserting the line into the jack, she picked up the receiver. Dial tone. One step closer to ready for business.
Kaylee plopped a message pad and a holder for pens, paper clips and other supplies on the desk. “Woohoo, I have a phone.”
Yes, they had a phone. Now if it would just ring.
Kaylee disappeared again, and Shaina picked up the phone’s manual. Ads would be hitting the local papers Monday morning, so she’d best get a message recorded.
“Step one, press the menu key.”
A few button pushes later, she leaned toward the phone. “This is Shaina Sinclair of the Sinclair Detective Agency. Your call is very important to me…us.” She pressed Stop.
Us would be better than me. She didn’t want people to think the Sinclair Agency was a rinky-dink, one-woman operation. She had Kaylee, so technically it was a two-woman operation.
She went through the steps and began again. Once finished, she played back what she’d recorded. And frowned. All the pertinent details were there, but she sounded like a constipated librarian. She needed to inject some Sinclair personality into her message. Maybe even use her slogan.
“This is the Sinclair Detective Agency, where we put stealth and technology to work for you.”
She pursed her lips. Now she sounded like a high school cheerleader. She needed to find a happy medium between plugged up and adolescent.
She tried a third time. A sentence and a half in, a blood-curdling scream interrupted her monologue, followed by the slamming of a door. Her pulse jumped to double time for a half second. Then she remembered the source. Kaylee probably saw a bug.
She angled her head toward the hall. “I’m trying to record our outgoing message. I don’t need your scream in the background.”
Kaylee appeared, gasping in breaths as if she’d just finished the Micanopy Run for Life. Her eyes were wide, and her face was three shades lighter than normal.
Shaina shook her head. “That must be one heck of a bug.”
“It’s not…a bug.” Kaylee looked to be on the verge of hyperventilating. Without explaining further, she spun and stalked down the hall, waving at Shaina to follow, then stopped at a closed door.
“Something in the closet?”
Shaina reached for the knob, then hesitated. A body? No, if there was a body in there, it would smell.
She gripped the knob, turned it, and swung open the door. Wide-set eyes stared back at her from beneath little ears. Okay, she was sort of right.
She cast a sideways glance at Kaylee. “It’s a wombat.”
“A what?” Kaylee’s voice rose several pitches higher than normal.
“An Australian marsupial.”
“What’s it doing in our closet?”
“It apparently belongs to Charlie downstairs. He must have missed it when he was clearing out his stuff.”
The air whooshed out of Kaylee’s lungs and her shoulders slumped. “Why did we have to do this over a taxidermy shop?”
“Because it was cheap. If you want a paycheck at the end of the month, I have to have low rent. This fits the bill, wombat and all.” Maybe someday she’d be able to afford something on 441, the only four-lane highway in all of Micanopy. For now, right here on Cholokka was where she’d stay.
Shaina reached into the closet and lifted the stuffed and preserved animal from the shelf. A good two and a half feet long, it was heavier than it looked. “I’m taking this down to Charlie.”
“That sounds good.” Kaylee flattened herself against the wall as Shaina passed. She probably would have melted into the plaster if she could have. Kaylee didn’t do dead animals. She didn’t even eat them.
Before Shaina reached the end of the hall, a female voice called from the front. “Hello?”
Kaylee slid past her. “I’ve got it. This is what you’re paying me for. I’ll take care of our visitor. You take care of the wombat.”
Shaina followed Kaylee into the front room where a woman stood just inside the door, brows raised. Her gaze darted around the room as if she feared something would jump out and eat her. “Wombat?”
Kaylee waved away her concern. “Don’t worry. It’s dead. How can I help you?”
The woman took in the disarray and the two representatives of Sinclair Detective Agency, both dressed in jeans and T-shirts, looking anything but professional. Her brows went up even further, disappearing under her perfectly coifed bangs. Her pumps matched the lavender of her designer skirt and jacket, and everything about her screamed money.
She stepped forward, letting the glass door swing closed behind her. “Shaina Sinclair?”
Shaina shifted the wombat to her left hip and stuck out her hand. “I’m Shaina Sinclair.”
“Priscilla Barrington.” The woman slid an uneasy glance sideways, then accepted the handshake. “You come highly recommended, Ms. Sinclair. I would like to obtain your services.”
Shaina stifled the squeal trying to make its way up her throat. Her agency’s first job. And the ads weren’t even out yet. This was a sign. She was going to make it. Thank you, Lord. She squashed the other thought that popped into her head—Take that, Hank!
“We don’t officially open till Monday, but I’m happy to talk with you now.” She placed the stuffed wombat on the floor. “You’ll just have to excuse the mess. We’re still moving in, so we’re not set up yet.”
Besides the clutter and lack of furniture, an odor hung in the air, an interesting mix of latex paint and musty blankets. But she didn’t point that out. Now that the carpets were cleaned, the mustiness should fade. In the meantime, she’d pick up some Glade Plug-Ins.
Mrs. Barrington waved away her concerns. “Think nothing of it. I’m just glad you’re willing to talk with me without an appointment. I’m sorry to barge in on you like this, but it’s of utmost importance that I see you this afternoon.”
Shaina nodded. Whatever was going on with her first client, it sounded serious. But she was up for it. “Follow me.” She grasped the back of Kaylee’s swivel desk chair and led Mrs. Barrington into what was to be her office. “I’ve got a large desk chair and four captain’s chairs being delivered this afternoon. Until then we’ll have to be creative.”
Shaina motioned for her to sit. “Kaylee, can you—”
Before she could finish the thought, Kaylee pushed a case of paper into the room. A legal pad and pen were lying on top. Kaylee was going to make a great assistant, which wasn’t any surprise. For most of their twenty-six years, they’d been best friends. Both only children, they were each the sister the other never had.
At least in closeness. There wasn’t a speck of resemblance. Shaina wore her blond hair straight and unstyled, usually pulled back in a ponytail. Wash and go.
Kaylee seemed to always be making some kind of a statement with hers. The natural color was a medium shade of brown, but Shaina hadn’t seen it since ninth grade. In the intervening years, Kaylee’s hair had been black, blond, red and some colors not part of the natural palette. It was currently black with streaks of pink and was moosed into a spiky do.
After Kaylee slipped out, Shaina picked up the pad and pen and sank onto the box’s firm top. She would have to use her lap as a desk. Another delivery arriving in the next few hours would be her grandmother’s antique library table and her grandfather’s old wooden four-drawer file cabinet. Nonna had insisted she take them, that she deck out her space in style. She’d even lined up delivery people—the guy that took care of her and her three lady friends’ lawns and a new neighbor. Nonna had always been her biggest fan, cheering her on and making her feel special when those who should have cared the most didn’t.
She put the pen to the pad and scrawled Priscilla Barrington across the top. When she left Hank Waterford to strike out on her own, she never envisioned conducting her first conference sitting on a box. But her new offices had character. As was common in many older buildings, the ceilings were higher—nine or ten feet rather than the traditional eight. Six-inch-tall baseboards lined the bottom of the newly painted walls, and crown molding framed the top. The large window in the side wall faced the building next door, a restaurant, but the crepe myrtle just outside blocked a good portion of it. Now, in September, it held nothing except green leaves, but come early summer, it would be full of colorful blooms.
She forced a confident smile. “So tell me what brings you here today.”
Mrs. Barrington crossed one nylon-clad leg over the other. “I’m Jennifer Garmon’s sister. You did an outstanding job for her, discreet yet thorough.”
Shaina nodded. She remembered Ms. Garmon. Ocala socialite and wife to successful Arabian horse breeder Dennis Garmon, she had given up an illegitimate child eighteen years earlier. Discreet was right. She was keeping her past indiscretions from even her husband. Shaina had found the girl, and as far as she knew, Mr. Garmon was still none the wiser.
Mrs. Barrington removed a five-by-seven photo from her Gucci bag and handed it to Shaina. “This is my husband, Garrett Barrington, III. I believe he’s having an affair. I need you to prove it.”
O-kay. Not what she’d expected, given the urgency the woman had shown. But it wouldn’t be the first time she’d set out with binoculars and camera to expose a cheating scoundrel.
“All right. I’ll need you to tell me everything you can about his habits, where he works, the places he frequents.”
“He owns Barrington Luxury Automobiles. It’s a boutique dealership. He acquires and resells high-end cars, ships to Barbados, Curacao, several places around Europe. He does some traveling, but not as much as you would think. Darren is his right-hand guy and handles most of the dealings with their overseas contacts.”
She picked up the amethyst pendant resting against her chest and slid it back and forth on its platinum chain. “Lately he’s been acting suspicious.”
Shaina looked up from her notes. “In what way?”
“Sneaking around. Coming home late. Leaving without saying where he’s going. Recently he got a second cell phone, one of the throwaway kind.”
She dropped the pendant and folded her hands in her lap. “I met a friend for lunch today and stopped by his place of business on my way home. While I was there, he got called away for a few minutes. The phone was sitting face down on his desk and a text came in. No one was watching, so I picked it up and looked at it.”
“What did it say?”
“No, oui. French.”
“It was a response to a text Garrett had sent a few minutes before I arrived: Let’s meet at Louigi’s at seven.” Mrs. Barrington arched one delicate brow. “It’s in Ocala. Do you know the place?”
“Yes, I’m familiar with it.” At least, she knew where it was. It looked like little more than a hole in the wall. But she’d never eaten there. From what she’d heard, the prices were well out of her range.
“Anyway, she ended the text with smooches. Who ends a text with smooches?”
The woman had a point. It definitely didn’t sound like a business meeting.
Shaina glanced at her watch. It was already four o’clock. And she still had the chairs and library table coming. And stuff to unpack.
But this was paying work. As long as Kaylee was there to receive the deliveries, anything else that didn’t get done could wait. Or Kaylee could do it. That was why she’d hired her.
“I’ll be parked nearby at a quarter till, camera with zoom lens at the ready.”
Shaina jotted down some more information, including the addresses of Barrington Luxury Automobiles and their residence, and the name of a gentleman’s club Mr. Barrington often frequented. The older woman provided each detail with a cool calmness. For someone who’d recently learned of her husband’s infidelity, she didn’t seem very broken up.
Finally Shaina laid the pen across the pad. It looked like her first job was going to be easy. Men could be quite stupid sometimes. People with secrets shouldn’t leave evidence of their illicit activities in plain sight.
“Anything else you want to tell me?”
Mrs. Barrington smoothed the lapels of her jacket with one manicured hand. “You’ve developed quite a reputation for helping women, Ms. Sinclair.”
Shaina smiled. She hadn’t set out to become a ladies’ PI. But over the past year and a half with Waterford Agency, she had fallen into that role. Women seemed comfortable with her, even looked on her as their advocate. In recent months, several of the clients who walked into Waterford had refused to work with anyone else, something that had annoyed Hank to no end.
Mrs. Barrington pulled a checkbook from her purse. “Our tenth anniversary is November 25th. I want to be well on my way out of this marriage by the time that date rolls around. I believe you can make that happen.” Her jewel-studded pen slid silently over the check. “I’m going to give you a retainer that I believe you’ll be quite happy with.”
Soft thuds sounded from down the hall, Kaylee plopping items onto closet shelves. Maybe by the time Sinclair Agency’s first client left, the reception area would look more like an office than a warehouse. Except for the wombat.
Mrs. Barrington capped the pen and dropped it into her purse, then handed Shaina the check. “I can’t stress enough how important this is. Mr. Barrington and I have a prenuptial agreement. But in cases of marital infidelity, the agreement is null and void.”
Aha. That explained the lack of emotion. As long as the divorce didn’t affect her opulent lifestyle, the woman likely wouldn’t shed any tears.
Mrs. Barrington’s left hand shot out to grasp Shaina’s arm. A rock the size of Texas glittered on her ring finger. “Whatever it takes, I need you to find something.”
Whatever it takes? Shaina had no intention of trying to frame the man, no matter what kind of money she was offered.
She rose from the box and swallowed hard. “I assure you, if your husband is having an affair, I will provide you with all the proof you need.”
Mrs. Barrington also rose, then extended her hand. “Thank you, Ms. Sinclair. I’m confident I will be more than satisfied with your services.”
Shaina led her out, with a promise to be in touch. It wasn’t until the woman was halfway down the stairs and the door was closed that Shaina decided to look at the check in her hand. Her mouth fell open, and she snapped it shut again.
Mrs. Barrington wasn’t exaggerating. Shaina was quite happy with her retainer. It wasn’t enough to make her consider doing anything illegal or unethical. The riches of the Queen of Sheba wouldn’t be enough to do that.
But twenty thousand dollars would pay a lot of electric bills.
And keep her and Kaylee fed for a long time.