Claire Fontaine Crime Fighter

A novel of life and death....and shoes

Tracey Enright

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One

On a rather balmy October day, I had an interview that changed my life.

My father had the right connections and scored me a brief meeting with a notorious homicide detective named Henry Bennett. When I arrived at his office, situated in the Miracle Mile district along Wilshire Boulevard, I was faced with the worst possible working environment. The lobby of the building smelled like dirty dishes and sweaty bodies, and the floor was stained with dark fluids and a lifetime of heel marks. The air felt thick and moist. My pores were already getting clogged and I hadn’t even gotten the job yet.

The second floor offered even less decor and smelled more of neglect and mildew than the foyer. It was a poorly lit, narrow corridor surrounded by walls of gray. (Not the new Ralph Lauren gray, but lifeless, peeling, and antiquated gray). I walked down the hallway in dismay, absorbing the dull environment. Four of the offices belonged to various medical associations, three were law offices, and two were film-production companies. Henry Bennett’s office was the last one on the right, at the end of the corridor. The door facing me was dark wood with simple, gold lettering that read: Henry Bennett, Private Detective.

I adjusted my silk Armani suit and touched up my lipgloss.

The waiting area was small and dank. Absolutely no decor. Not even a faux Monet. An empty, baby-shit yellow desk was strangely aligned with the east wall, and there was a single, foldout metal chair against the opposite wall.

And the obligatory neglected dead plant in the corner.

I heard heavy footsteps approaching, reminded me of a dinosaur clumping across old wood. And then a large shapeless man stepped out of his office. He was in his late forties, about six-foot-two, with brownish-gray hair and weary green eyes, and badly dressed. And I mean badly dressed. Beige shirt that fit his girth like a stretched glove. Pants that had seen better days in 1980. Shoes that no longer had a definite shape.

He stopped abruptly in the doorway of his office, looking me up and down rudely. “Who are you?”

“I’m Claire Fontaine,” I said cheerfully. “I’m here about the job.”

“Oh,” he said, looking me over again. “Really?”

“Yes.”

A cruel smirk danced across his face as he snorted the words, “This is a joke, right?”

“No.”

“My friend Bud from Vice sent you, right? You’re the stripper for my birthday?”

“I know no one called Bud, and the only way you’d ever see me naked is by witnessing my autopsy.”

When it finally hit him who I was, his face collapsed into a frown. “Oh, yeah. Your daddy knows the mayor.” He exhaled like an asthmatic. “Come on in. I forgot all about this. I’m not exactly a team player. But, you know, when the mayor calls, I like to, uh, pacify him. It’s important to stay in good graces with the city officials. Makes my job easier.”

Sighing and moaning and cursing beneath his breath, he took me into his office and offered me a chair. “So,” he grunted. “Why on earth would you want to work for me? In this business of death?”

He really put me on the spot. It was one of those deep, introspective questions, and I felt paralyzed by him, the office, the fluorescent lighting. I wanted to speak, but nothing came out. He waved an impatient hand in front of my face.

“Hello. Anybody awake in there? You a deaf-mute?”

I shook my head, squeezed my Cartier.

“This is what’s called an interview,” he said sarcastically. “It’s part of the hiring process. I ask you a bunch of silly questions, and then I pretend like I’m listening to you when you answer them.”

“I have an interest in police work.” I finally breathed. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a bit of a sleuth. But nobody in your line of work is interested in giving someone like me a chance. They take one look at me and think I’m silly and ridiculous and stupid. And that all I know how to do is shop. But really, Detective, I’d put half these bureaucrats to shame. It’s difficult for a girl like me to get one foot in the door.”

He snorted. “Hardly, babe. Remember I’m the one doing this ‘cause the mayor asked nicely. And that’s the only reason. I don’t like much company, much fuss. I’m not exactly a thrill to be around, got my moods. My bowel issues. My language is pretty tough and I’m hesitant about clouding your pink mind with such filth. All of this makes me nervous.”

I had to say something. “I’m clever. Intelligent. Loyal. Punctual. Diligent.”

He started laughing. “Those are just adjectives.” His hands were in the air. “Do you have any experience? Anything?”

The dreaded question. “Experience?”

“Yes. Experience is the collective knowledge gained from past training that would aid in your ability to bring something to this job.”

“I know what experience is,” I said, flushed with anger.

“I need proof that you have a brain.”

Henry Bennett reached his fleshy hand into a McDonald’s bag and started devouring greasy hash browns. I could see tiny bits of white potato in his mouth.

“I have a college education,” I said.

“I don’t.” He belched. “This job isn’t about being educated, in the scholarly sense. It’s about instinct, which is what I got going for me. I can read people, pick out the liars from the loonies. Don’t mind getting my hands dirty with someone else’s blood. Spend most of my time alone, which is the way I like it. I’m a solitary person and never really enjoyed having a partner when I was on the force.”

“How do you feel about having one now?”

“A partner?” His head tilted, confused.

“Yeah.”

“You can’t be talking about yourself.”

“Yes, I am.”

He tumbled forward with laughter. “Listen, honey, you’re here to answer phones, do some filing, and stay out of my way. I’m not even sure you could handle the pictures that come across my desk. We’re not exactly talking about the spring layout in Vogue.”

“Listen, Detective, I know you’re bitter about this, some absolute stranger sitting across from you, wearing the best outfit you’ve probably ever seen---but could you just lighten up for one week?”

“That’s a long time to put up with bullshit and Burberry.”

“You might be surprised,” I said.

“Shocked would be more like it.” He looked at my suit, shook his head. “You might want to consider dressing a bit more casual for the job. This isn’t the cleanest place on earth.”

“I noticed.”

“Feel free to wear jeans or sweatpants, if you want. I applaud comfort. My clients might be put off by all your...sparkles.”

“If they can handle death,” I said, “they can handle a woman who knows how to accessorize.”

“Whatever.” He tossed the McDonald’s bag into an already overflowing trashcan. “You’ll be on call, by the way. Hope that won’t interfere with manicures and pedicures and the annual Barney’s sale.”

“I’ll manage.”

“We’ll see. And always keep your phone turned on.”

“You mean, in case there’s an emergency and you need me right away?”

“No, in case I’m hungry and want you to stop by Fromin’s and pick up my breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. I love food, it’s the American way. So don’t be bringing me any hoity-toity crap. If it’s raw, I ain’t eating it. If it’s green, I won’t like it. If it’s fat-free, I’m allergic.”

“Morbidly obese looks good on you,” I said. “So be it, I won’t try to change that.”

“Good.” He pulled himself from the chair with a sigh. “How ‘bout we start with you running an errand for me.”

“Okay.” My first official duty.

He removed a small plastic bag from the top drawer of his desk. A smile grew across his face when he said, “Take this finger to the Anatomical Pound at the Los Angeles County Morgue.”

“What?”

“You heard me.” He shook the plastic in my face. “This finger. To the Anatomical Pound. The assistant coroner, Ralph Manning, is expecting it.”

I took the bag, glanced down at the bone, slender and charred. “Who did it belong to?”

“Buck Cooper.”

“Where’s the rest of him?”

“Scattered across the Angeles National Forest. Hikers and outdoorsy types are still finding parts of his body. Course everything was burned up in the fire. It was your basic dismember-and-torch routine. But what people don’t understand is that human bone is incredibly fire-resistant. So, now, we’re putting the bastard back together. And it’s a real bitch.”

“That’s so lovely.”

“You can start tomorrow, nine o’clock sharp. I hate tardiness, gives me gas. So be on time and be dressed for work, in fabric that will actually allow you to move. To file. To clean.”

“Yes, sir. I look forward to the challenge.”

He started to close the door in my face. “Yeah, bet you do.”

The plastic could not prevent the odor from seeping into my nostrils like overcooked pork that had been left in a frying pan for three days. I knew that it was bound to stink up my Mercedes, and no amount of Chanel No. 5 would be able to eradicate the stench.

Copyright © 2006 by Tracey Enright