Blue Plate Special: A Serial Novel

Introduction: This is chapter one of a novel I started ten years ago. It was done as a contribution to National Novel Writing Month (November). Written for fun, I tried not to take it too seriously. It has now been resurrected and is being re-edited and posted here, one chapter at a time, as a serialized novel.

CHAPTER ONE: Just Another Saturday

It was a cold, clear Saturday morning in early November. I stood on the front porch and savored the peace and quiet. A few stars sparkled in the brisk, brightening air. The sun was still a golden-red promise behind the dark blue hills to the east. The crusty old ceramic lawn gnome outside my rental was coated in frost. I kept hoping the cold would crack it or somebody would run over it, but so far the little guy had shown remarkable powers of survival. My landlord lived in the other half of the duplex and he had a fondness for the ugly thing, so I left it alone, hoping that nature would take care of it. I’ll keep hoping.

I was wearing blue fleece jogging sweats, running shoes and a fanny pack with water and wallet inside. After some stretching and some deep breaths, I started down the road toward town, feet slapping a slow rhythm on the county road’s gravel shoulder. The pastures on either side were frosted. Two horses looked up from their grazing to eye me as I went by, steam puffing from their flared nostrils.

I started slow, then accelerated the pace, breath bursting out in clouds of vapor, shoes slapping out a faster beat. It felt good to be moving; to feel the blood flow and warm up. I heard cattle bellowing in the distance and saw a rooster pheasant quick-walking across the road ahead. Far away to the south, a freight train’s whistle echoed off the prairie hills.

Every Saturday morning I jogged the two miles into town to have breakfast with some old comrades of mine, something we’d been doing for several years. It’s a tradition that means a lot to all of us. The route takes me through much of Wild River, including the campus of Paradox University, eerily quiet this early on a Saturday. Except for the crows that cawed and flapped around the bare maples and cottonwoods. I paused on a high knoll near the university stadium. Standing on the crunchy grass and gazing west toward the Cascades, I could see, forty miles away amid the jumble of lesser mountains, the snowy summit of Mt. Rainier, glowing with the first red sunlight.

From the campus it was a gentle downhill slope toward town on quiet, tree-lined streets, past weathered old homes and small businesses. I pounded past a barbershop, a chiropractor’s office, several latte places, a laundromat.

By the time I reached the downtown area, I was warmed up and starting to feel hungry. Jogging past the square brick edifice of Albertsons and catching good odors from the bakery always does that. I only had two blocks to go from there. A minute later, I walked into the steamy warmth of McCuff’s Cafe for the weekly breakfast and coffee gab session with my buddies. As always, the place was packed with groups of people enjoying a convivial, if overly greasy, Saturday morning breakfast. I saw my friends in the usual place; a big corner booth to the right, at a picture window overlooking Larch Boulevard.

Abner Spinola, George “Scooter” Hedly, Pierre Robert. What a bunch. They’re pretty much the only real friends I have these days. A private investigator doesn’t have many after a few years of practice in a small town like Wild River. Divorces, drugs, theft, embezzlement, cheating, and all manner of chicanery. I feel like I know too much about too many people. Some are grateful, many are embarrassed and avoid me and a few have it in for me. But I can’t think of moving. Wild River is special, a quiet backwater as yet unsullied by rampant development.

And my comrades live here. Those guys are friends for life. Over the years, we shared some pretty hair-raising adventures in the service of our country, in places far away and often far from the public view. We’ve been places and witnessed things few others have. Special Operations can be a crucible that forges life-long bonds of brotherhood. I know that sounds corny, but that’s the best way to put it.

I took my usual seat and ordered the usual coffee, with honey and cream. Scooter was already into a huge omelet and making it disappear. “Jesus, Scooter,” I said, “Why don’t you and that omelet get a room!” Scooter just grinned and mumbled something unintelligible as bits of egg tumbled out of his mouth.

Scooter was a big, burly man with a round, clean-shaven face and wide open, innocent eyes. As usual, the mop of brown hair that capped his round head was in total disarray, like a wheat field after a hurricane. Scooter really liked to eat. A lot. The guy should’ve been a food writer for a major magazine, the way he rhapsodizes about food. Instead, he owns a small chain of coin-operated car washes in the county. Nobody knows how he got into that line of work after getting out of the service, but it seems to suit him just fine.

“Ees okay, Dirk”, said Pierre in his faint French accent, “Scooter is just having a fling with it. He doesn’t want to make the pancakes too jealous.” He grinned and dug into his biscuits and gravy. Pierre was a card, always trying for the joke and usually getting some laughs. A tall, thin man who looked like a youngish Abe Lincoln, Pierre was originally from the backwoods of Quebec. He wound up in Special Operations via a tour with the French Foreign Legion. He doesn’t talk much about that, so the rest of us know very little other than it was pretty brutal. These days, Pierre teaches martial arts at his own dojo in town and makes a decent living at it. His wife Cosette, a breathtaking blonde from France, teaches music at the university, so they do fairly well.

Abner smiled, shook his head and sipped his morning tea. Abner, or Abs, as we call him, is a lawyer. He’s my lawyer, matter of fact, and a damn good one at that. He often throws work my way, so I do investigations, research and inquiries for him as needed. I’m not surprised that he became a lawyer. Abs is a small man, but built like a Sherman tank and pretty aggressive. He was often the reckless one on our missions together, sometimes endangering the rest of us and sometimes saving us with his gung-ho, full speed ahead attitude. He’s mellowed a lot over the last few years, and now only goes at ‘em in the courtroom or on the racquetball court. He’s been going through a rough time since his wife of ten years recently left him with their two young boys and went to shack up with a sheriff’s deputy in Ellensburg. I was the one that found out that piece of bad news and delivering it to him was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Personally, I think he’s better off without her, but that’s just my take.

As I said, what a bunch. We meet and talk about what we’ve done that week, what our families, if we have them, are up to, what was happening in the town, what was happening in the world at large. Very rarely do we talk of the past. We know each other’s stories already and have helped each other through the pain until it was time to move on. Soldiers look out for their comrades forever. Again, corny but true.

After I ordered an omelet and flirted a little with Melanie, the plump but very attractive waitress, Pierre smiled slyly and said it looked like I was finally getting over Janet. Until recently, that was a sore point, but the guys got tired of my mooning around over love lost and started ribbing me about it, and somehow it helped put things into perspective. She’d been gone for over a year now and I think I was finally getting over the breakup.

“Yeah, I guess the time to move on has arrived at last,” I said.

“Do you ever hear from her?” asked Abs.

“We email each other every couple of months. She’s doing pretty well, teaching in Asheville and says she met some guy at the University, another professor who teaches literature. French literature, as a matter of fact.”

Pierre said, “I guess you were too stupid for her, eh? Special Ops guys, they got lots goin’ for them, but brains? I don’t know about that…I guess if I had brains, I would!”

Scooter snorted and spewed scone crumbs across the table and Pierre hollered, “Incoming!”

A few of the other customers stared while the rest of us chuckled. Scooter was a sucker for any kind of humor and normally had a laugh that would start avalanches, unless he was eating.

Abs asked me, “So, Dirk, anything interesting this week in the private eye business?”.

“Abs, you know I can’t talk about my cases. So, when do you guys think it’s going to start snowing in earnest here? I’m ready for some cross country skiing.”

“No no”, said Pierre. “You CAN talk about your fascinating work as long as you don’t mention any names, eh? So tell us. Give us the steamy details of the latest affairs at the Skookum Motel . . .except for the names, of course. Feel free to mention Scooter’s, though.”

“Yeah, right. Not difficult to figure out who’s doing who in a town this size. You guys probably know more about that stuff than I do. I’m just a working stiff, trying to make ends meet in a rough town. Just trying to survive in a hard world where a fella can never get a square deal and the assholes always get the dames.” Pierre rolled his eyes. Everyone had heard my PI shtick before.

“Okay, guys, there is one case I can kind of talk about because I wanted to see what you might know about it. It’s the missing Roundey boy. The cops have more or less dropped it for now and Emilia Roundey has hired me to find her son. I’m just getting started and don’t even know where to go with this. Ted loaned me the case files, but so far I’m just as stymied as he was with this investigation. You guys heard anything or know anyone who has since the kid disappeared?”

Scooter took his face out of his plate and looked around with wide eyes. “All I know is what I read in the papers, Dirk. That kid’s been missing for what, three months now? No clues, right? Wasn’t the uncle a suspect?”

“Yeah, for awhile. Unfortunately for him, the papers forgot to mention that he had a solid alibi and was elsewhere at the time of the disappearance. No way is he the guy. There are literally no other suspects. Everyone has an alibi, according to the police report.”

Abs pondered that and said, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t bother worrying about the “who” right now and focus on the “how”. How did the kid get kidnapped, or napped? How was it done and where did he go? As far as I can remember, nobody knows. I bet the MO will point toward your suspect if there is one.”

“What do you mean if there is one?”

“Dirk, kids get into all kinds of weird-ass situations. They seek ‘em out. Christ, my kids are always doing something stupid. Last summer they climbed into a grain car on a siding at the train station and couldn’t get out because the inside was worn so smooth by the grain. Thank god someone heard them yelling and came to get me. Stupid kids coulda wound up frozen in North Dakota. Maybe little Keith is in a grain car somewhere in Minnesota, off on a sidetrack. You never know.”

I chewed on that awhile, along with a mouthful of omelet. Abs could be right and the poor kid’s body is down an abandoned well, stuck in a railroad car, or caught up in a logjam on the river. It didn’t really fit though. File interviews painted a portrait of a portly little kid into video games, going to the mall with his friends, eating lots of pizza and sitting around watching TV. Not exactly the athletic type or liable to get too far from electronic entertainment or a fast food joint.

I gulped some lukewarm coffee and said, “Well, I’ll ask around, maybe look around any likely haunts the kid might’ve been into. Tell the truth, I’m not sure I’ll find out much more than the cops. Ted was pretty thorough in his investigation.”

“How is Ted about you looking into this?” asked Scooter. “You know, sometimes he’s kind of tetchy about his work.” Ted Kendall was the local whiz kid detective that worked for both the county and the city, depending on where he was needed most. He was also another comrade from the old days who often joined us on Saturdays. Sometimes he couldn’t make it due to the demands of work and a large and lively family.

“I don’t think he really cares. He knocked himself out trying to solve it and seems to be glad to wash his hands of it for the time being. I get the impression that he’s hoping I’ll come up with something. I don’t think Teddy and I will have any trouble over it.”

We talked some more of other things. Scooter was building a wooden boat in his garage and having some problems shaping the parts. Abs was having that family trouble, as in his wife might not come back. Pierre was still complaining about catching flak for being French, and as usual launched himself into a tirade about it.

“I’m not French, goddamnit! I’m a fucking Canadian. Why can’t people get that through their heads? Even if I was French, what the hell’s the matter with that? Whatsa matter with this country these days?” That launched us into a general rant of what IS wrong with this country, followed by an almost apologetic recounting of how good it is to live in this country, followed by finishing up our coffees and going our separate ways.

Full and happy, I briskly walked the three blocks to my office on Foreman Street and took the long staircase up to the second floor. I rented a roomy space over the old Edison Cinema Theater, which was closed now and had been refurbished to provide office space above and a variety of shops below. I padded down the carpeted hallway, past glass doors that read “Abner Spinola, Attorney at Law”, “Osbourne Pointe, CPA” and “Dusti’s Massage Therapy”. Basically, I had some valuable services right next door, though I had to avoid Pointe’s business due to rumors of his involvement with the Spinola family business dealings. This was also a sore point with Abs, who as far as I know, has little to do with his extended family and their shady activities.

I unlocked the door and flicked on the lights. After getting the coffee maker started, I turned on the heat and checked for phone messages. My office has a good view to the west through three old vertical windows that look out over the busy street below. If I was working late at night or on weekends, I often got treated to a free concert from the beer garden at the The Happy Camper tavern across the street. There were fights too, but not as fun to watch or listen to.

I went into the small bathroom and showered, then wiped the mirror clear and shaved. The face that looked back at me seemed older than I’d wish. Older than I felt, for that matter, and older than my chronological age of 41. It was a long, lean face with a prominent lumpy nose, blocky chin and blue eyes. Some people said I looked kind of like Bruce Springsteen . . . after he’s been beat up bad. I kept my graying black hair short these days, but that exposed a variety of small scars, nicks and blemishes acquired, some would say earned, doing hazardous duty. A lot of adventures had left their marks, and I guess I didn’t mind them, but they made me wonder what ever happened to the lively, energetic and blissfully ignorant kid I’d once been.

I shrugged off the pointless ruminations. They’d been coming more and more often lately and I really didn’t have time for them. The Midlife Crisis shit could wait, as far as I was concerned. I finished shaving, brushed and flossed the chompers, and dressed in the civvies I kept at work. My morning ablutions done, I sat down at the desk ready to work. Saturday mornings were a good time to get caught up on paperwork. By afternoon, I’d have to be out in my generic surveillance car, trying to get photos of suspected disability insurance fraud John Geibel lifting heavy objects and working hard in his yard. He was collecting on a large insurance claim for disability and there were some serious doubts about that disability.

In the meantime, I went over some billings, made a work list for the following week, notes to call attorneys, cops, clients and suspects. I was the only show in town, so had plenty of work to do. I could be on the job seven days and nights a week if I wanted, but I tried to keep it down to six. Not much time for a social life since Janet left, so what the hell. Might as well work.