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Bertha Marks was puffy.
Her rosy face was puffy. Her grey hair was puffy. Even her personality was puffy, blusterous and prideful.
“I raised them girls up from pups,” Bertha recounted for what could have been the third time. “And then, they abandoned me. Abandoned me! They were just starting to pull their own weight, too.”
Private detective Al Widenbutt slouched on Bertha’s plastic-covered, plush-gold couch. The fabric was immaculate. The stuffing was not.
Plants filled the rest of the living room in Bertha’s 1970s split-level. Dark wood paneling covered one wall. Alternating pink and yellow stripes flowed past groovy flowers over off-white wallpaper on the rest. It hadn’t been touched since the home’s construction.
“No good, them girls.”
“Them girls” were The Moonlight Twinses, aka Elsa and Melissa Andress. Formerly cute young ladies who sang sappy country tunes at local bars. Currently beautiful grown women who sang sappy country tunes at ice arenas.
Bertha was their manager—or was their manager, until the Andresses skipped town. She only cared for their safety, as she told it.
“So, if I find them, just give ‘em a hug for you?” Al asked.
“Well!” Bertha huffed. “To tell you the truth, there is the matter of their debts.”
“You don’t say?”
“They lived here, rent-free, for years. Do you know what a burden it was, having to take care of them girls? I could have gone anywhere! Instead, I stayed here. For them.”
“How much we talkin’?”
“Well, I don’t see how that is any of your business! That’s between me and my girls!”
Bertha shot a glare Al’s way. Her brows furrowed. Her rosy face turned red.
Al’s brows lifted above his sunglasses. His head cocked a degree.
“Let’s say I track them down. I might not get so lucky twice. If I can get them to come and talk with you, well great. But if not, which is fairly likely, I need to give them a figure to buy you off with.”
Bertha did her best to look disgusted. Then she grabbed a notepad and a pen.
— — —
Al walked to his car. It was a 1997 Chevy Cavalier. Teal. Small engine. Broken air conditioner. Manual locks and windows. But it sipped gas, and it was a stickshift, so it was deceptively zippy in a pinch.
He unlocked the door, lifted the plastic handle and plopped into a bucket seat.
Al lobbed his notebook into the back. No need to review. He’d start with their last venue. Yes, this is their manager. The Twinses still are awaiting payment. Where did you send that last check?
He pushed the clutch and the brake and turned the ignition. That was one special feature about the car; no need for a key. He pulled away.
This case was almost too easy, Al thought to himself. He could have coached Bertha through the process with little difficulty. But he had a business to run, and she appeared to be of sound mind. She also was a jerk. He would have no problem taking her cash.
Two blocks down the quiet street, his rear-view mirror caught his eye. A pair of headlights had materialized in the darkness.