When I was seven, my second grade class made papier-mâché bunnies for Easter. Mine had big floppy ears and a white cotton tail. I gave Flopps two coats of purple pizzazz paint. When school closed for the Easter holiday, Sister Kathryn let us take our bunnies home. The thing is, I forgot.
I raced home to color Easter eggs with my brother Rocco. It wasn’t until my feet hit the porch that I remembered Flopps. I threw my books on the grass and tore back to school.
I pushed the giant school doors open and ran headlong down the dark, scary hallway. The soft slap-slap of my footsteps echoed hollowly on the concrete floor. I crashed through my classroom door sucking air.
There was Flopps. Alone on my desk.
And there was Sister Kathryn. Not so alone on hers. Our music teacher, Mr. Herbald, was making her sing.
You don’t know a whole lot when you’re seven. But I knew Mr. Herbald was married to Mrs. Herbald. And I knew Sister Kathryn, in good Catholic tradition, was married to—well, God. Sister Kathryn gasped and her feet slid to the floor. I seized Flopps in my arms. Her eyes had widened since I painted them.
I raced home to Mama.
Mama was at the ironing board pressing Papa’s blue police uniform. I told her what I saw, she made clicking noises with her mouth and pushed the other kids outside.
Mama shook her head sorrowfully. “Poor Harriet Herbald.” I shook my head like Mama. “I hope God doesn’t know.”
Mama cut two fat wedges of honey cake and a small slice for the bunny. We carried our plates outside to the porch swing. Flopps sat between us.
“Mr. Herbald is a vampire,” I said. “I saw him biting Sister Kathryn’s neck.”
“What other people do is none of your business, Caterina.
You must never tell anyone what you saw.” “But…”
Mama cut me off with a look and a finger.
“OK.” I stared down at my cake. “Mama, do nuns hide secrets under their habits?”
“What do you mean?”
“Mr. Herbald was looking for something under Sister Kathryn’s skirt.”
Mama made that sound with her mouth again.
“That is not something a good Catholic girl needs to think about.”
I thought about that for a moment. “Is Sister Kathryn a good Catholic?”
Mama silenced me with a look. “Just eat your cake.”
I’ll never forget what Mama said about minding my own business. Maybe because she reminds me every day. When I became a private investigator and launched the Pants On Fire Detective Agency, it became her mantra.
My name is Cat DeLuca. I catch cheaters. Despite what Mama says, I’m not a snoop or a hootchie stalker. My clients come to me because they suspect their partners are cheating.
There are tell-tale signs of a cheater. Cheaters suddenly smell better. They dress better. They wear designer underwear. They groom their nose hairs.
I know these things because it was two short months into my marriage when the tweezers came out. My unholy union with run-around Johnnie Rizzo was a crash course in infidelity. But I have to tell you, it was good training for what I do best. I scale balconies and teeter outside hotel windows to capture the perfect snapshot. One 8×10 glossy can speak a thousand words. And it could be worth thousands in a divorce settlement. My client, Brenda Greger, was a timid, soft spoken woman who would apologize for sucking oxygen off the planet. Her husband, Steve, is the poster child for Mr. McCheater. Early fifties, six-two, all teeth, cocky as hell and so buffed and groomed I don’t need to see his Calvin Klein undies to know he’s wearing them. At the moment I was tooling up the Stevenson Expressway with Inga, my beagle, riding shotgun. I’d been staked out at Steve Greger’s office since noon. My gut told me this was going to be a good day for Cat DeLuca, P.I.
At one forty-five, Greger walked out of his office, looked both ways. The perm-a-grin expression on his face screamed booty call. He turned north on Halsted, moving with the traffic. About a block before the on-ramp, Greger’s car slowed and allowed a side-parked car to slip in front of him. He followed the car onto the Stevenson and I took caboose.
We jumped onto South Lake Shore Drive and ended up at Monroe Harbor Marina. I knew from doing background on Greger that he had a slip there. I gave the happy couple plenty of room to park and watched as a leggy, twenty-something blonde in eight-inch platforms and white hot-pants wobbled out of car number one with picnic basket in hand. Typical.
It wasn’t hard following them to their dock. The marina is big enough and busy enough this time of year to keep me invisible. I just acted like a car looking for a parking spot and watched as they boarded a yacht. Not the biggest yacht in the marina but not the smallest either; just a nice, sleek vessel big enough for a galley and comfy V berth. Game on.
Once aboard, Greger and Legs scooted below deck. I guessed he was a wee bit impatient after his week of good-boy behavior and he was the greedy type. I’d have to move fast if I was going to be in position for the photo op. I doubted this would take long.
I parked illegally at the end of the pier. I tossed the binoculars on the seat, grabbed the camera, told Inga to stay, and dashed down the dock to the yacht moored next to Greger’s. I took the chance that it would be empty, climbed aboard like I belonged there, and made a bee-line for the bow.
I had to trust my mark would already be preoccupied as I leaned over the side to peer into those cute little round windows through the magnified lens of my camera.
Whoa! When you’re a P.I. you sometimes see things you wish you hadn’t. A picture will turn in your mind and you just know it’s gonna keep you up at night.
I was having such a moment.
I looked through the camera lens and a nightmare germinated deep in my brain. It was Greger’s hairy, pimpled butt. And the hairiest backside I had ever seen. And in this business, I’ve seen a lot.
The man was a grizzly bear. Only his head was bald. He was Kojak in an ape suit. I blinked and steeled my eyes back to the camera.
There in the lens were two eight-inch platforms stuck straight up in the air. Damn. I’d have to get up higher to get a gander at Greger’s hairy butt, but how?
Refusing to think, I kicked off my Converses, swung the camera strap around my neck, and climbed onto the edge of the boat. I gripped the boat’s side with my toes, lifted the camera and…
Suddenly, two arms were around my waist, and a voice boomed. “Hey, hey, sweet darlin’. You here to pay me a little visit, you cute thing?”
I smelled Jim Beam and my face wasn’t even turned his way. Inside the Love Boat, McCheater jerked his head and glanced behind him. It was a Kodak moment. The sweaty, flushed face filled my lens, framed by two smooth white thighs. For one glorious moment, Steve Greger was mine.
The hands around my waist tightened and pulled. “No!”
I was dragged off the edge and my feet planted firmly on the deck.
“Didn’t want you to fall in, sugar plum.”
Hastily I reviewed my shot. Crap. No hairy butt, no eight-inch platforms saluting the sun. Just an unfocused pic of the stern and her name: Steve’s Obsession.
I glared at the guy who ruined my 8×10 glossy. He was drunk off his bum, butterballish in size, and a scream for Viagra. And he was still holding me. I smacked him with my camera.
A cabin door closed and clomping footsteps hurried along on the pier. McCheater and Legs were making their escape.
Jim Beam shot a bloodshot eye on McCheater’s window and back on me. It took a moment to connect the dots.
When he did, his jaw tightened. “I’m calling security.” “Already here.” I waved a library card before his unfocused eyes. “Put the phone down, Jim.”
He grabbed my arm. “I know the marina’s security team.
You’re not one of them.”
“I’m a little higher up on the food chain.” “The Port of Chicago?”
“The National Yacht Association?” “Keep climbing.”
His eyes popped and he swallowed hard. His voice lowered to a hoarse whisper. “You don’t mean—”
I made one of Mama’s clicking sounds with my mouth. “I’m afraid I do. Steve Gregor is the leader of a terrorist organization.”
He dropped my arm and just like that, I was gone.
I raced to my car. A sparkling bottle of champagne was propped on my seat next to my binoculars. In the back, my faithful beagle slurped up McCheater’s romantic lunch. I suspected the goose pate would give her farts.
Steve Gregor honked as he drove by flashing a toothy smile.
Not so fast, Kojak.
I bumped the bottle over and scooted behind the wheel.
Pumped the gas, turned the key. I got nothing.
Steve Gregor may have left his lunch, but he took a piece of my engine with him.
I beat my head on the steering wheel. And then I called Jack. Jack is the best mechanic in Bridgeport, maybe South Chicago. He’s missing a few fingers and a few more marbles. He’s like a member of my family. My crazy, dysfunctional family. “Jack. This is Cat.”
“Caterina.” His voice was cool as Italian Ice. I winced. He was still steamed about Dorothy.
Dorothy, a 1967 Ford Mustang, was Jack’s pride and joy. He let me drive her the last time my car was in his shop. Somebody blew her to tiny bits of shrapnel and glass. It was not entirely my fault.
“I’m at the marina and I need a tow. My Honda’s missing a part.”
“What? You drop a tranny?”
“Nope. Definitely something smaller. Someone screwed with my car.”
Jack exaggerated a sigh. “You have a gift at pissing people off.” “Hey, I was minding my own business.”
“Ha! You were taking dirty pictures.”
“That is my business, Jack. You gonna help me out here or what?”
He snorted. “I’m doing this for your mama. You know you break her heart, Caterina. She’s a nice lady.”
Yep. Nice and crazy.
“How long will it take to replace the part?”
“It’ll be a few days before I get a chance to look at it. I’m shorthanded. Devin’s still in rehab.”
Devin is Jack’s nephew. We went to school together. He used to steal lunch boxes. Now he’s graduated to stealing cars. We all grow in our own special way.
“How’s Devin doing?”
“He’s changed. I think he found Jesus.”
“Or maybe it’s the twelve steps. Anyway he’s sober.”
“Of course he’s sober, Jack. There’s no dope in treatment.” “He’s sober enough. I need him at the shop.”
“And I need a loaner. You gonna fix me up?” “Fugeddaboudit. You blew up my Dorothy!” “Hey, I sent flowers.”
“I’m not givin’ you a car.”
“C’mon, Jack. I’ll take an old klunker.”
He gasped. “You’re not blowin’ up my Doris!”
“Doris? Seriously Jack, what kind of guy names his car Doris?” “Hey, here’s a name for you, Cat. Hertz.”
I stared at the cell in my hand and mumbled something worth ten Hail Mary’s and a mouthful of soap. Then I jabbed in Cleo’s number. I needed a ride.
Cleo’s a former client. She hired me a few months ago to identify the lipstick smudge on her husband’s silk boxers. I followed Walter’s canary-yellow Corvette around Chi-town for six grueling days of business meetings and seminars. On the seventh day, he rested. I found him at the Marriott resting on Cleo’s sister, Hotlip –Ho for short. I shot some steamy 8x10s. Cleo shot Walter’s bum full of buckshot. He slunk under the radar, taking Cleo’s money, dog, and sister with him.
Losing Walter was a small loss. I’m not talking about his beer belly. I have pictures. He was an unimaginative and bumbling lover. It took Cleo one week, three pitchers of margaritas, and a traveling salesman from Toledo to get over him. I gave her a job at Pants On Fire and struck a deal. I’d help her get the money and her dog back on one condition. She had to quit shooting Walter. I gathered my bag and basic supplies of the trade out of my Accord—camera, binoculars, this month’s Marie Claire magazine, and my cooler jammed with cold pizza and Mama’s cannoli. My box of wigs, glasses and wrinkle-free clothes. Everything I needed for a stakeout. I chucked the keys under the seat for Jack and hoped he’d return my car soon. The Silver Bullet is perfect for stalking cheaters; it’s small, fast, and it blends.
I set the cooler on the curb and plopped down beside Inga. We watched for Cleo’s Camry to scream around the corner. Cleo drives at her one speed through life: full throttle. She doesn’t blend.
A screech of tires whipped my attention to a canary-yellow Corvette boring down toward us. I grabbed Inga and bolted to my feet. I did a double take. I knew that car well. But it wasn’t Walter driving. The top was down and Cleo waved from behind the wheel. Her spiked pink-tipped black hair, a recent reinvention of herself from her break-up with Walter, was unruffled. It didn’t even bend in the wind. Cleo was a free bird expressing her new identity.
The sports car wrenched to a stop. I groaned. “Omigod, Cleo. You killed Walter and stole his car.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Cleo squawked in her grating voice. “The coward wouldn’t come to the door. And don’t think he didn’t hear me. The neighbors were staring through their blinds.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Uh huh. Well, if you didn’t see Walter, how do you have his car?”
She winked. “Well, technically you were half right.” “You stole his car?”
“Hey, I’m just getting started. Jump in.”
I loaded my stash and buckled up. Inga hopped on my lap.
Cleo hit the gas and I hit the back of the seat.
She flashed a grin. “What d’ya think? Do I look smokin’ hot in this car or what?”
“How does your hair stand up at this speed? I have to admit, it’s impressive. But more importantly, how’d you find him?”
“This morning I was at the firing range—”
“Ah yes, your daily fantasy about shooting Walter.”
“Of course,” she grinned. “Anyway, I got hungry and was thinkin’ pizza sounded pretty good. Then I thought about how much Walter and I loved Gino’s Pizzeria. Ding! Ding! Ding! I knew Walter couldn’t live without his emergency ballgame pizza pie.”
“Wow. It’s amazing how your mind works.”
“I schmoozed Gino’s delivery boy. It only cost me twenty bucks and a case of beer.”
“That delivery kid is seventeen.” “Sixteen.”
“Promise me you’ll never have children.”
Cleo cranked the volume up on the radio and jammed to Memphis Minnie. Here’s the thing about Cleo. Her painful, nails-on-blackboard squawk transforms to a rich, sultry vibrato when she sings.
We powered down the Dan Ryan to Bridgeport, feeding every car on the road our dust. Cleo’s shoulders shimmied and her hands drummed the wheel.
“I’m a bad luck woman, I can’t see a reason why,” her voice purred.
I watched the rearview mirror for flashing lights. “You stole a car, babe. You might want to chill a bit, or you’ll be singing those blues from a cell.”
“Good point.” Cleo eased the gas and sighed. “I just don’t get why Walter’s avoiding me.”
“Hmm. It might have something to do with the last time you saw him. You shot him in the bum. It could make him a little touchy.”
“Pansy-ass. You should have seen him running away screaming like a little girl.”
“Or maybe Walter didn’t answer the door because he wasn’t home.”
“His car was there.” Cleo’s lip pouted out a little farther.
Was being the operative word.
Cleo slammed on the gas. “Okay, fine. Maybe he caught a ride with my sister, the Ho.”
A low hiss issued from between clenched teeth.
“You do realize everyone in Walter’s neighborhood now thinks you’re dangerously unbalanced.”
“I hate to shock you Cat, but people thinking I am ‘unbal- anced’ is no newsflash. Besides, what else could I do? I had to call out his lying, cheating, sneaking around, dog-stealing ass.” I flicked open a mirror from my purse and began slathering my lips with Dr. Pepper Lip Smacker. “Not when you work for me, you don’t. The Pants On Fire Detective Agency is a first-class organization. We have an image to uphold.”
“What image? You say ‘Pants On Fire’ and I see tighty-whities and a whole lot of flames.”
“Discretion, Cleo. Our clients need to know we keep their secrets. We don’t scream in the street and we don’t draw attention to ourselves. We discreetly let ourselves through the door.”
“What if I don’t know how to pick a lock?” “Then shut up and learn.”
Cleo drove in sulky silence almost a block.
“You of all people should know how I feel. Your husband cheated with half of Bridgeport right under your nose. He played you like a violin. Can you honestly say you never wanted to choke the life out of him?”
My head whipped right, then left. “Not even once…in front of witnesses.”