Chapter: 1

Monday, November 29th
Swedesboro, New Jersey

It was snowing.

The space between earth and sky was full of ice, a maelstrom hanging in limbo. The blizzard had been growing continually worse with the passing hours, showing no signs of letting up – much less stopping. As a matter of fact, the storm had begun the previous night as little more than gentle flurries; it had grown in intensity as it continued into late afternoon the following day.

The houses lining Crescent Street, which was actually a perfectly straight block, contrary to what the name suggested, appeared to have been taken straight out of an oil–on–canvas depiction of Christmas Eve. They must have been warm and cozy inside to look so homey, like gingerbread houses thrust up out of sugar snow.

Yet, beyond these romantics, one quality of the evening pronounced itself with equal fervency: the cold. The biting, freezing cold. The unstoppable, penetrating, biting, freezing cold. The unstoppable, penetrating, freezing, biting, chilling, relentless cold. The terrible, bone–gnawing cold of winter.

I freely confess I've always been a complainer, and I've never harbored much love for winter. I suppose I should have been used to such weather, having lived in Jersey practically my entire life, but there you have it. During my lifetime I've been called a lot of things, but never a "fast learner".

So there I was, and that's where I begin: outside my office on the corner of Union and Crescent, shoveling the snow off my walkway, longing for summer. Of course, in summer I'd have to mow the grass, and that wasn't much fun either. Autumn meant raking, because the neighboring houses were bordered by oak trees, and spring would just mean more mowing. You just can't win when you're lazy, and I suppose that's been one of my greatest vices.

It was my sincerest desire to abandon my task and hurry over to one of those little cottages and thaw out by the fire. I longed for a cup of coffee or some hot chocolate, if only to drive out the ice that had surely taken up residence in my belly. I swore under my breath as I stubbed my toe on the uneven sidewalk. The pavement was hidden beneath nearly a foot and a half of snow, and my boots were old and worn through in several places. Needless to say, my feet were soaked, and I couldn't feel my toes at all.

Did I still have toes?

God, it's cold, I thought furiously, as though blaming the Almighty would make Him rescind the storm.

Due to the weather, there was a minimum of traffic on the road. The roads were steadily becoming impassable, a fact pronounced by the frequent sound of revving engines and the squeal of tires on ice. The occasional passing vehicle was evidenced only by its headlights, visible only as indistinct yellow orbs through the curtains of falling snow.

Across the street, two young boys where having the time of their lives, packing snowballs and hurling them at each other mercilessly. A big black dog barked loudly as he chased them back and forth around the yard, wagging his tail happily. His booming barks echoed in the still evening air.

I rubbed my gloved hands together vigorously, and then slapped my face and nose to restore at least a trace of circulation. That was easier said than done, of course, so I gave up almost immediately and hefted the shovel. The blade scraped as it met resistance on the hidden sidewalk, a sound I hated almost as much as I hated the cold. But by now, I had hit that point of optimism (or maybe apathy) that comes near the completion of a difficult task, and – quite honestly – I no longer gave a shit. Once I had cleared some vague semblance of a path, I could go inside and watch it fill again.

I really needed to get a TV in the office.

It was at that moment, when I was less than four feet from the main sidewalk that I made the mistake of glancing back at my handiwork. Immediately, I felt my heart sink, not necessarily with disappointment, but there was definitely a sense of loss there. It was like losing an old friend.

The path over which I'd agonized was already filling with snow, fast enough that by the time I "finished", the walkway behind me would have disappeared again.

Before I could even begin swearing, divinity intervened, and the front door to my office burst open. Artificial golden light spilled forth over the snowy front yard, and a lone figure stood framed in the doorway, her body silhouetted by the light within the office.

"Mr. Stikup!" The voice was like a shot in the stillness – a rifle crack, but warmer and much more pleasant. "You've been out here for an hour! Come inside before you get sick."

Yes, ma'am, I thought, shouldering the shovel and wading back through the snow toward the front door. It didn't really matter that no one could get up the front walk. It wasn't like I'd be doing any business any time soon. Especially not at this time of year.

After propping the shovel against the side of the building, I stamped the snow off my boots and stepped into the warmth of the office, closing the door against the cold. Jill Fereday was instantly there, helping me pull off my snow–stained overcoat. She hung it on the coat rack and then bent over to help me take off my soaked boots.

I laughed as I kicked them free and stamped my bare feet on the wood floor to restore circulation. "I don't pay you to be a butler, y'know."

"Huh, that's funny," Jill said, pausing to consider. "You don't pay me much for being a secretary either."

"Touché," I returned. "You don't have to do this all. Seriously."

She filled my eyes with a sweet smile, veiling mockery. "I know – I'm just looking for a raise."

More sarcasm. Was it sarcasm?

She unwound the red scarf from around my neck, literally cutting off any reply I might have made. "I'll go make some coffee," she announced, draping the scarf overtop of the coat and kicking the dripping boots up against the wall.

"Don't you want a tip?" I called after her as she headed down the hall to her office space.

"Are you offering?" she asked over her shoulder as she disappeared through the first door on the right. "Didn't know you carried spare change."

"I just don't have any ones," I shot back, still standing in the doorway. "I know you collect those at your other job."

"Oh, don't worry about that," she called, and I could tell she was smiling. "I'm still loaded up with what you gave me last night."

The comeback was on my tongue, and then… It wasn't.

"Dammit," I said, and then she was laughing for real.

Despite our close relationship, Jill didn't have any nicknames for me. My name is indeed Stikup. Chance Stikup, as a matter of fact. Like that dog from that book. And yes, it is pronounced "stick–up". It was sort of an oxymoron (or an irony, whichever it is; who the hell really cares?) with which I amused myself whenever I got bored: a detective involved in a heist? Never. God forbid.

At any rate, I'd always considered "Stikup" a fairly suitable name for a fairly decent private eye, and that was indeed my profession. Obviously, I would prefer to go by gallant or daring, but that would just be presumptuous and fantastical. Stikup suited me fine. At least, it would have to until my dear mother – bless her heart – passed away. Then I could change it without hurting her feelings.

Jill was my secretary. She was the complete opposite of me in nearly every respect. She had warm green eyes, a petite and perfectly centered nose, and the type of smile that could make a man's insides melt. Most importantly, however, she made a killer cup of java, and that was primarily why I kept her around.

How a girl like her had ended up as a lowly secretary for a fool of a PI was a mystery even to me. The only recollection I still retained from her early employment was her showing up for an interview, if it could be called such, dressed to the nines and looking distinctly out of place standing in the undeniably crooked doorframe, surrounded by the water–damaged walls of my office. She'd made some offhanded joke about the relative informality of our meeting, and I'd hired her on the spot. Then, abruptly, it was two years later and she was making coffee while I dripped all over the hallway floor.

Either she's got a hell of a lot of patience, or she's a glutton for punishment.

From experience, I knew it was the former. Jill was one of the most sweet–tempered women I had ever met. God would bless her liberally for putting up with me. Maybe she'd get a condo next to Moses.

I removed my dripping fedora and hung it on the rung next to my coat. Swiping at my running nose with a sleeve, I padded down the hall toward my office, wishing I had a dry pair of socks somewhere on the premises. My mother would have fussed. Jill would too, but I wasn't about to let her know.

I stopped in my doorway for a moment, just to let my eyes adjust to the dim lighting. The bulb in the overhead had gone out and I didn't have a spare, so I was making due by exercising my night vision.

Needless to say, the the room was a mess. Papers, papers, and more papers cluttered everything, stacked twelve inches and higher, and the dust cushioning the desk beneath them had to be an additional inch thick. The wastebin next to my desk was overflowing; paper wads were piling up on the floor around it, and several tortured envelopes had made a valiant attempt at freedom during my outdoor excursion. As a matter of fact, the clutter was getting so bad that it was starting to migrate from my desk to the dusty coffee table, which stood in front of the threadbare sofa. Here was where the empty coffee mugs resided. Jill usually came in to get them after I started building pyramids with them.

An old–fashioned dial phone sat on the corner of the cluttered desk, the least–used object in the room. Maybe that had something to do with why I had never gotten around to replacing it with something more modern. But then again, maybe I just liked the rustic look – like something out of the old cop movies. Jill often yelled at me for entertaining such melodramatic fantasies, like I could really curb them. Maybe if I took a steady dosage of Ritalin and kept myself distracted by whatever reality set before me. Problem being that reality is oftentimes more boring than anything, and I hate boring almost as much as I hate the cold.

Jill did her best to keep me sane, though. Aside from humoring me, she ran my errands and made me coffee every other hour. On occasion, she bought me lunch too.

Now, weren't we the epitome of stereotypes? Sloppy male boss looked after by his neat, mother–like secretary. See also: every detective flick set in the 80's. I definitely got the better end of the bargain, but Jill would have just directed that benevolence in someone else's direction if I hadn't been the recipient, because that was just who she was: a sweetheart. And I was a mooch, so our relationship was perfect, if somewhat symbiotic.

Isn't that a beautiful image?

Loosening my tie, I crossed to the big oak desk, which kept its back to the big bay window. The blinds were open to allow the maximum amount of light, and through the wooden slats I had a clear view of the winter wonderland that was Crescent Street. I dropped heavily into the swivel chair behind the desk, brushing aside several Tastycake wrappers to make room on the desk surface as I did so. Jill had brought in the mail and had dumped it in the "in" tray on my desk. Reluctantly, I scooped up the pile and rifled through it in disgust.

Bills, bills, bills.

Stupid bills. Nasty, disgusting, stupid bills.

Jill came in a moment later with the afore–promised mug of coffee, blowing on her fingers to keep from burning them. She smiled at me as she set the mug on my desk – right in front of me in the space I'd just cleared, like a fresh airstrip.

Like the Berlin Airlift.

"Here you are," she said, somehow managing to remain cheerful despite the dragging afternoon hours. Optimism was a neat little talent of hers.

"Thanks, Jill."

"Anytime," she replied with a mock curtsy.

She knew just how to make me smile. Women are funny creatures, you know? Perceptive when it comes to the emotions of others, but dense when it comes to their own. But what do I know? I don't have a woman. I'd never been able to keep one.

As Jill left the room, I reached for the nearest stack of bills, and – screwing up my face in preparation for the worst – slit open the one from General Electric. A quick scan told me all that I needed to know, so I offered my best wince and dropped the envelope and its contents onto the desktop.

Most people would be skeptical if I were to divulge the details of my financial crises. After all, people in my line of work get paid big time for their services. But I was no Sherlock Holmes. What I was was average. And in a quaint little 1800's town like Swedesboro, part of a South Jersey county called Gloucester, where relatively nothing happened, there wasn't much demand for a man of my profession. As a matter of fact, there isn't much demand for an average PI anywhere in the modern era. You've got to be the best of the best of the best when you do the kind of stuff I do, or you get glossed over for the bigger guns. Besides, I wasn't even part of the local police force – I ran my own agency which consisted of two people: Jilly and me.

On the plus side, it was nice to be able to randomly take days off, show up late without fear of retribution, and sometimes even shirk the nice dress. So long as I had money to pay the bills, doing what I did was easy and relatively painless. The Swedesboro police would call me to assist with cases on occasion – either ones too small for the local sheriff to concern himself, or cold cases upon which SPD didn't feel like wasting any more time. The district was selective, though: resorting to the assistance of a PI was a last–ditch attempt. It was the final, most desperate measure.

Sure, I resented it. But hell, I'd chosen this line of work, and I'd known well ahead of time that it would mean living on the back burner. The majority of my "cases" came from the random citizen down the avenue who wanted me to find his debtors or creditors, dig up old friends years removed, keep an eye on his spouse while he was at work, or even search for records on his ancestors. Unfortunately, those jobs couldn't be counted as under–the–table and therefore non–taxable (even though they were paid for with personal checks and sometimes cash). And on top of that, they didn't really make me all that much to begin with.

Running a private agency, I collected a minimal amount of money from Self–Employment. However, the big, bad government only gave me money if I was earning money with which to pay them back, and I hadn't had a real client for nearly a full year. Bottom line, if I didn't start getting hired for more and bigger jobs, my self–employment funding was going to be slashed. If I didn't keep getting that check every month, then I wouldn't be able to pay my bills would lose my office – not to mention my job. If I lost my office and my job, then I would lose the shack–o'–crap in which I lived and be forced to move in with my mother. If I had to move in with my mother, well…

Aside from the devastating toll the utter humiliation would take on both Ego and Id, let's just say that things wouldn't work out. My mother, while far from intolerable, was a strict old lady of the generation past which had strongly believed in their men winning the bread for the family, working from the time they were young until the time their arthritic limbs ceased to function. Considering I'd just hit thirty-two months prior, I would put money on her booting me out within a week. She'd bought me a new tie, button–up shirt, and wallet, after all, and she wasn't likely to forget it. Gifts in my family always had practical incentives tied to them. Like double entendres without the fun.

"Use them to find a job," she'd say in that incredulous tone of voice she always exercised when she was wondering where she'd gone wrong raising me. Because obviously she'd possessed the foresight to buy me interviewin' tools before my business had gone belly–up, and I should see her gifts as my saving grace and lavish thanks upon her for her wisdom.

"Should I plop them on the interviewer's desk and use them as bargaining tools?" I'd ask instead, determined as usual to be difficult. "Me trade tie and wallet for job. You get shirt too if I get window office."

"They make you look sharp," she'd say irritably. But she'd be trying hard not to smile. "Employers hire sharp–looking young men."

"Yeah!" I'd agree facetiously, throwing the tie around my bathrobe collar and tying it sloppily. "'Nevermind his resumé! Hire Stikup because he knows better than to tuck his shirt into his underwear.' Can you buy me a clip–on next year, by the way?"

And so–on and so–forth.

I'd received my three–month notice from the pencil–pushers at the self–employment office a month ago, which meant that I'd already procrastinated long enough at finding a second job. Contrary to what it may have seemed, I was desperate to remain a PI, because it was what I loved doing. Plus, I didn't have the credentials to do much else.

I felt like standing out on the front porch with a bullhorn and shouting down the street, "Doesn't anybody kill or steal around here anymore?" Jill had assured me – twice – that that course of action would be unprofessional.

"Yeah," I'd agreed. "But, it'd be pretty goddamn funny."

And so that Monday, the 29th of November, found me ankle–deep in the halfhearted search. The classifieds were all calling for nannies, petsitters, census takers, and the occasional custodian. Aside from the fact that none of those jobs interested me in the slightest, it didn't help my situation that I was a terrible procrastinator.

And your ridiculous delusions of grandeur make it impossible for you to keep your feet on the ground.

I sighed, twirling my pen between my fingers. Thinking optimistically, I still had those two months of cushioning – plenty of time for some bigwig to come waltzing into the office, seeking help in finding the devious perp who'd stolen his Lamborghini.

And he'll pay up front and tip generously when I track down the car within a day.

"Ahh, who am I kidding?" I asked aloud, slumping forward on my elbows, glaring at the bills, those dastardly saboteurs of my poorly fortified career. "I'll be wallowing in my little house soaking up unemployment until the bitter end."

Making a face, I swiveled around in my chair and stood to look out the window. The snow was still falling, unsurprisingly. No one would be able to tell that a certain individual had wasted nearly an hour of his life shoveling the front walk.

For a long while, I just stood there, what some might call wallowing in self–pity. Not for the first time, I found myself wishing that the universe had taken a different spin all those years ago when I'd first aspired to catch badguys and peer over neighbor's hedges.

Finally – about the time my back started aching from slouching so badly – I checked my watch with another sigh and concluded that it was 7:30 already. Also known as "time to close the office and head home for a late dinner after another boring, uneventful day".

I stretched, still deep in thought. It made me feel bad for Jill. At least I didn't mind the lifestyle. If only she hadn't fallen into this pit with me, she could actually have had a decent life. Unfortunately for her, commitment could also be a curse. She would never quit, not while I still had work for her to do and the money with which to pay her. Maybe I would fire her and do her a favor.

Now, would that be considered benevolent or cruel? I sought the answer in the drab Kansas landscape, which hung above the sofa. It would certainly save me the trouble of finding her a Christmas gift.

In my head, I envisioned her crying in front of me, like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.

"Jill, you're fired," I said in my head. Maybe I said it aloud too. "It'll be better this way, babe, just trust me on this one. No, no – no need to thank me, I'm just doing a service to humanity."

Shaking my head, I turned away. God, do I need sleep that badly?

I locked my desk out of habit, extinguished the fire out of common sense, and exited into the hallway, locking the door behind me out of an obsessive–compulsive need for security. Chewing the inside of my cheek, I strolled down the hall to Jill's office, wishing that I had actually done some serious work that day – if only to justify the feeling of utter exhaustion that was creeping upon me.

And the icing on the cake? It was only Monday.

"Time to go home," I announced, poking my head in Jill's door.

She glanced at the clock on the wall behind her for confirmation, as though I'd make up something like that.

"Time flies when you're having fun, sweetheart," I said, downing the last dregs from my mug. The coffee was now lukewarm, borderline stone–cold, and it made me grimace.

"Fun?" she questioned skeptically, taking the now–empty mug out of my hands and placing it in the bathroom sink (adjacent to her workspace) to be washed later. I kept telling myself that if I ever got some extra money, I would someday add another larger bathroom onto the office.

Yeah, well that hasn't happened yet, has it?

I grinned at her. "Every day is a new adventure when living your working life with the one and only Chance Stikup."

Jill paused to place a folder in the top drawer of her cabinet – probably something to do with my finances. They were a complicated mess, something only she could have organized. "Episode 27: The Continuing Adventures of His Caffeine Addiction," she said, framing the subtitle with a sweeping motion of her hand, reminiscent of a rainbow.

"I hear this show has terrible ratings," I returned sadly.

We bundled up in the hall, piling on the coats, gloves, and hats, and then stumbled outside into the snowstorm. It took about fifteen minutes to clean the snow off our cars, but scraping windows was one of my specialties. And it was a marketable skill. Now if only I could find someone gullible enough to pay me by the hour and leave me alone while I worked...

"See you tomorrow, Mr. Stikup," Jill called as she climbed into her vehicle. Despite the fact that I constantly pleaded with her not to call me that, she still insisted. She waved as she pulled away from the curb, leaving me smiling in the cold.

Jill was only 25. She was fresh out of college and had somehow stumbled across my ad for an assistant about two years ago. No one else had wanted to play secretary for a third–rate detective, but Jill had taken the job. I suppose I paid her well enough, despite her teasing to the contrary. On several occasions, I'd encouraged her to quit and pursue a better career. Each time, she'd always insisted that she was happy with the work and wasn't ready to move on yet. She certainly was a sweetheart, as I've already stated: polite as one could get, a modest dresser, and not profane in any sense of the word. She arrived at the office early every morning, always wore the same perfume – something that reminded me pleasantly of crisp autumn days – and was forever smiling.

She's a gem.

Wrenching myself from my thoughts, I fumbled with my keys to unlock the battered Ford Anglia. Daydreaming, fantasizing, complaining, and my mother still makes me PB&J when I visited. I was a goddamn kid in an adult's body, masquerading as someone who knew what he's doing.

By the time I reached my house, the snow was nearly up to my thighs. The plows had come through at least twice, stacking the snow against the telephone poles. The cars parked on either side of the streets were spattered with muddy slush, most almost buried.

Cursing, I fought my way through the drifts to the front door and unlocked it. The house was small and disorderly, and I never had any company. It was probably too small to fit anyone else in there beside myself anyway, and come to think of it, I really didn't have any friends to entertain.

I turned up the heat the moment I was inside and threw my coat and gloves haphazardly over the coat rack. The smell of the furnace quickly filled the little cottage, comforting in its homey familiarity. Warming my hands in my armpits, I headed to the kitchen, where I fished leftover Chinese out of the back of the refrigerator. I ate my pitiful meal of cold broccoli and rice over yesterday's newspaper, and turned in for the night sometime around 11:00, sighing as I thought about the prospect of another boring day already rising to greet me.

It was just another typical day in the life of an indebted, third–rate PI.

And yet, I loved it.