The Big Keep: Chapter 1

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Chapter 1

I think we can all agree that there’s something truly insidious about pregnancy tests.

As I stared at mine, which was the really expensive digital kind that just says “Pregnant” or “Not Pregnant” –in my case, the former– I felt certain that the stupid things were part of some kind of evil machinations to screw up women’s lives. They’re like tiny little sticks of destiny, but instead of putting in a quarter or saying some magic words, the only way to activate them is to pee all over them.

Come to think of it, I’d probably be evil, too, if my sole purpose in life was to get peed on.

I sighed and tossed the test onto the desk in front of me, with the vague sensation that I should be doing something—jumping around or crying or at least calling my husband, Toby. People in this situation are definitely supposed to react, at least according to my admittedly television-based research.

Instead of any of that, I spun my chair around in circles, thinking and trying not to think. Blank, I told myself. The word that you’re feeling now is blank. I stared out the window behind my desk. Dane Investigations, my one-woman PI firm, is located in one of the in-between neighborhoods of Chicago, not quite the suburbs and far enough from the Loop to be considered out of downtown. It’s a decent enough office, sharing the building with only one other company, a small custom book binding plant, but the view from my office window isn’t exactly breathtaking. My window faces busy Division Street, with center stage occupied by a McDonald’s and two dingy gas stations.

But I just sat there for a solid three minutes, empty, except for maybe a little bit of embarrassment. I am a frickin’ private investigator. How had I missed being pregnant? I gave the pregnancy test an experimental wiggle, like maybe I could shake the baby hormones out of the thing, but the little window refused to change. This was actually happening.

“Lena? We got a walk-in.”

I jumped, startled into perfect posture. I slid the pregnancy test off my desk and into the trashcan by my legs, looking up to see my assistant framed in the doorway.

“Jumpy much?” Bryce said, grinning at me and gliding into the room with a manila file folder in hand. Bryce was Asian, a little portly, and gay as the springtime. Today he was wearing a button-down shirt, sweater vest, and his trademark pink Chuck Taylor sneakers.

I stuck my tongue out at him. “Who’s the client?”

He passed me the file, which contained only my usual new client intake form. The handwriting on the page was wild and uneven, not unlike my own. “Actually,” Bryce remarked, “it’s a kid. Fourteen years old, looking for his dad. It’s kind of a strange case, for being so typical.”

“Very poetic.” I slid my legs back to the floor and leaned forward to read the form. “Nathaniel Christianti, that’s a mouthful.” He was indeed fourteen, and was looking for his biological father, who dropped off the grid a decade earlier.

“He goes by Nate.”

I glanced up. “You did a pre-interview, right?” Bryce nodded. We don’t get many walk-ins, and a number of the ones we do get are cranks –people who want me to find Jimmy Hoffa, or prove that a state senator was out to get them personally, that kind of thing. Bryce, who is just naturally chatty, can weed out the crazies faster than I can. “Okay, so why is the kid just going after the biological father now? And why isn’t he here with a parent?”

Bryce shrugged. “His mom’s dead. He seems to genuinely like the stepfather; maybe he just doesn’t want to hurt his feelings.”

“Hmm.” There wasn’t much else on the intake form, but I trusted Bryce’s assessment that this was a case we should take. “Go ahead and send him in.”

Bryce nodded briskly, and then his face turned hesitant.

“Something else?” I asked, eyebrows raised. It was rare for Bryce to look unsure of himself. It generally only happened when there was a problem with his kid sister, or when–

“You got another package,” he said, echoing my thoughts.

I sighed. “Did you open it?” Wincing, he nodded. We both knew he wasn’t supposed to open the suspicious packages that I received every year right around now, but we also both knew he was going to do it anyway. I’d given up warning him off it. “Did they at least get a little creative this time?”

Bryce shook his head again. “They’re back to the Barbie dolls.”

“Put it in the file cabinet with the others. I’ll call CPD tomorrow morning.” Not that it would do any good.

“As you wish, my liege.” Before he left the room Bryce gave me a low, theatrical curtsy, complete with imaginary skirts. I smiled after him.

A moment later there was a knock on the door and a reddish-brown head poked in, trailed by a lanky, uncertain-looking body. Nate Christianti stepped into my office, hesitant green eyes flicking around at my massive writing desk, the two chairs, the Oriental rug, and the framed still photo of Bogie in The Maltese Falcon that hangs on the wall behind my desk. He wore a polo shirt and jeans, probably from the Gap or Old Navy or one of the other mass-produce mall stores, and just generally looked…completely unremarkable. High school is supposed to be all about labels, but with the right accessories and enough practice this boy could end up being the second string quarterback, the star of the chess club, or the lead in the school play. Right now, though, he looked like a paper doll that had not yet been granted a personality.

I smiled warmly, rising to lean across my overworked desk to shake his hand and motion to the open chair. “Hi, Mr. Christianti, I’m Selena Dane. Is it okay if I call you Nate?”

“Um, yeah, that’s cool.” His voice was low and unsure, as though he doubted his control of it.

“Great. And I’m Lena.” I sat back in my desk, picking up my pen and a pad of paper to jot down notes. “I saw the intake form you filled out, but maybe you could just walk me through what’s going on.”

He bobbed his head like a bird. “Well, I’m trying to find my—my biological father, I guess. He sort of disappeared off the earth when I was five.” One hand rose to twist itself into the hem of the polo shirt.

He didn’t seem to know how to continue, so I prompted him gently, “And you were living with your mom and stepfather?”

“Yeah. Yes. My mom died when I was nine, she was in a car accident. She left me with my stepfather, and he’s been my dad pretty much all my life.” As tactfully as possible, I gave him a questioning look, and he caught the meaning. Blushing, he added lamely, “I’m getting older, and I’d just like to know about where I came from.”

There was more to that story, or I was the Duchess of Cook County, but he wasn’t ready to tell me, so I didn’t press yet. “Does your stepfather know you’re here?” I asked, watching him closely for signs of a lie. The last thing I needed was to get in trouble for taking money from a minor.

But Nate’s nod was firm, his eyes never leaving mine. “Yes. He’s very supportive of trying to find Jason – Jason Anderson, that’s my birth father. I got some money from insurance when my mom died, and Tom and I agreed we should use it to try to find him.”

“Okay…” I said, nodding. “What can you tell me about Jason Anderson?”

Nate leaned forward so he could pull a small notepad out of his back pocket. With his eager expression and tiny notebook, he looked like Jimmy Olsen. I tried not to smile.

“Okay. I’m just gonna use first names, so it’s easier to understand,” he began. “My mom, Sarah, and my father, Jason, were married sixteen years ago, here in Chicago. They had me fourteen years ago, obviously. They were divorced four years later, and Jason didn’t have much contact with us. Sarah married Tom when I was seven, and we both had our last names legally changed to his, Christianti. Her accident happened when I was nine. Before she died, Sarah told Tom a little bit about Jason, but not that much. Tom knows he was a writer, and that he wrote under a pen name. I have a picture of him.” Flipping through his notebook pages, he pulled out a battered wallet photo and handed it over. It was a studio shot of a 30ish man holding a tiny baby – Nate, I assumed. The guy was the epitome of average: medium height, medium build, neither handsome nor ugly.

“My mom’s folks and Jason’s parents are dead– I mean, deceased, and Jason was an only child like my mom.”

I blinked. “Okay. I’m impressed with what you’ve got so far, Nate. I don’t suppose you have his social security number, though?” The boy shook his head.

“Do you know where Jason grew up?” I asked. “Was he from Chicago?”

“I don’t know. My mom never mentioned it to me when I was a kid, and we didn’t really talk about Jason much once she married Tom. It was like, okay, I have a dad now, so I don’t need to worry about that other guy.”

I nodded. “I get that.”

“Oh, there’s one more thing.” Nate leaned forward again, reaching into his other back pocket. He pulled out an old, warped paperback and set it carefully on my desk next to the photo. I peered at the cover: Sunset Dies, by J.P. Hashly. “I, um, think my father wrote this book.”

“Okay…” Not what I was expecting to hear. I picked it up, thumbing through the pages.

“I don’t have any proof or anything, but the book is about a guy who gets married pretty young to a woman named Sarah, and they live in Chicago and have a baby. Some of the details” – he blushed – “match some of what my mom told me about her and my dad and why they split.”

I flipped to the cover page. Published by a company called Savvy Publishing here in Chicago, two years after the divorce. That fit with Nate’s timeline.

I looked up at the kid. “How did you get this?”

“One of my mom’s friends gave it to her. Tom and I found a copy with her stuff after she died.” He shrugged. “I think maybe she was saving it for me, for when I got older. Or in case I wanted to find him.”

I leaned back in my chair. “Nate, if your father really did write this book, I’m not sure you need me at all. You can probably just call the publishing company and track Jason down through them.”

He was already shaking his head. “I tried that already. The company went out of business five years ago, and I haven’t been able to find any sort of contact information for any of the employees. And there are no other books by J.P. Hashly.” He smiled, for the first time since he’d entered my office. “I called the Library of Congress.”

I thought for a moment, while Nate waited patiently. Sometimes I wish I had a mustache to twirl for moments just like these. Bryce was right – this was a strange case, for being so typical. I’ve tracked down parents who didn’t want to be found before, but it was usually the other parent who wanted to find them, or maybe an adult child. Working for a teenager felt…off.

“Okay, Nate,” I said finally. “I’m happy to take the case, if you’re sure you want to hire me.” He nodded eagerly. “However,” I cautioned, “The first thing I’d need to do is talk to your stepfather.” Nate opened his mouth to protest, but I held up a hand. “Please don’t take offense, but I want to make sure he knows that you’ve hired me and we’ll be working together. I’m guessing I may need to talk to him about the financial arrangement. It’s pretty unusual for a minor to hire a private investigator. Not illegal, but unusual.”

Nate shook his head, and his voice was firm when he said, “He’s not available.”

“Then we can wait until he is,” I said easily.

“I want to find Jason now,” Nate said, desperation bleeding into his voice. An imaginary red flag popped up above his head. “It’s important.”

“I’m sure it is,” I said. “But I need to speak to your guardian before I take this case.” I saw the kid’s eyes swipe toward the door, and I added, “Any other investigator is going to say the same thing.”

Nate’s fingers drifted up to push his lower lip between his teeth, and he chewed it for a long minute, looking uncertain. I studied him. Was he lying about the stepfather’s knowledge? Or was he just afraid of finding out something embarrassing, or criminal, and that I’d report it back to Tom? “Nate,” I said, more gently, “Checking in with Tom first is vital. But you’ll be my client. As long as nothing illegal’s going on, and you’re not in danger, you’re my client. You can trust me.”

I saw the boy take a deep breath and make a decision. “Okay,” he said reluctantly. “I’ll ask him.”

“Okay.” I leaned back. Jeez, why did that have to be so hard? “Can you call me tomorrow and let me know when we can meet? I’ll start to dig into the publishing angle right away, so tomorrow I can update you both. How does that sound?”

“It sounds good.” The kid looked unburdened and resolved, like now the die was cast, one way or another. It was a little weird.

“Can I borrow this book and the photo? I’ll return them to you.”

He bobbed his head. “Yeah, I figured you would.”

“All right, then.” I stood up and Nate took my cue, shaking my hand over the desk. Now that we were both standing I realized the kid was as tall as my 5’8,” although I had no idea if that was average for a fourteen-year-old boy. I circled my desk so I could walk him out.

Alone again, I sat back down at the desk and spun the chair around in circles for a while as I thought about Nate and his case. Toby said once that spinning in circles at work is the most childish thing he’s ever seen, but I maintain that it’s my best thinking aid. Besides, I do plenty of things that are way more childish. Toby doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Toby. Holy shit, I’m pregnant, I remembered. I leaned forward and started rummaging through the trash bin under my desk for the pregnancy test. Maybe in the last forty minutes it had changed its evil little mind. Years earlier, I’d had a false-positive on a pregnancy test. Could that still happen with the electronic kind?

“You know, if I were a detective, I might find this behavior kind of suspicious.”

Crap. I looked up, narrowly avoiding smacking my head on the desk, to see Bryce leaning in my doorway, watching me dig through the garbage. “That’s it. I’m gonna put a cowbell on you,” I declared.

“Well, we can always use more cowbell. You lose something?” Bryce strolled across the room to plop in the chair that Nate Christianti had just vacated. I sat up.

“Don’t you have things to do?” I said pointedly. “If you’re looking for work you could always start cataloging all the archived intake files.”

“That’s not funny,” Bryce intoned, wrinkling his nose. “I wanted to tell you about the photos Ruby just emailed.” He paused, mostly just for dramatic emphasis. Ruby was Bryce’s misanthropic little sister, who did some freelance surveillance work for me. She was the opposite of Bryce in almost every way, but a damn good photographer all the same. “But I would be happy to go back to my desk if you can give me a good reason for going through your own office trash with such” –he widened his eyes dramatically –”urgency.”

I’m a great liar when I have time to plan my story in advance, but I’m absolute crap at on-the-spot lies, which Bryce enjoys terribly. “I accidentally threw away my credit card,” I tried.

“Uh-huh. Not buying it.”

“I dropped a piece of gum in here this morning, and I thought there might be a little chew left in it.”

Bryce raised a single, perfect eyebrow, probably because he knows how that makes me jealous. “That’s just stupid.”

I sighed. “Fine.” I retrieved the pregnancy test from the bin and tossed it unceremoniously on the desk in front of Bryce. He leaned forward to see, not touching it, and looked up at me immediately, shocked.

“Whoa.” Bryce blinked rapidly a few times, looking staggered. I was right there with him. “So? What’s the deal? Were you and Toby trying?”

I blinked. “You’re awfully nosy for an employee.”

“But I’m just nosy enough to work for a PI,” he reasoned. “You know you raised me to be inquisitive.”

I sighed “I guess that’s fair. No, we weren’t particularly trying. Toby does not know yet. I didn’t even know until about half an hour ago.”

“Oh.” He paused for a moment, and I could see him mentally sorting his questions out into appropriate and inappropriate categories. Finally, he settled on, “Are you excited?”

“Yes. I mean, I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it too much. I had the pregnancy thought, took the test right away, got into this meeting right away, and now here I am.”

“Is…is Toby going to be happy?”

“Will he be happy that I’m pregnant?” I repeated. “Yes. Definitely.” Bryce looked at me inquiringly, but I just shook my head.

 

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