The first thing I learned about Tommy is that he didn’t like strangers using that name. Or as he put it to me over the phone: “That name is reserved for family.”
Starting off on the wrong foot made it a hard sell to get him to meet me. I would be giving myself too much credit to say I was able to persuade him with my charming personality. No, it was the fact that I said I needed him to do a favor for Mage.
He insisted on a public place and then suggested a bar in the early afternoon. I’m not much of a drinker, preferring to spend my money on the finer things in life like second-hand books, but I was lost on the point of meeting in a nearly empty establishment.
I entered Skipper’s, a dive bar that had the appeal of a dimly lit closet. There were two people seated at the bar who had no intention of sharing anything other than oxygen, while all but one of the five tables were empty. That was occupied by a middle-aged man wearing a sweater-vest over a collared shirt.
“Thomas?” I asked, still standing.
“Yes,” he said as he rose awkwardly and extended an unsteady hand.
“Come here often?”
“First time, actually,” he said as he sat back down.
“Can I buy you a drink?” I offered.
“Sorry, I don’t drink.”
I made no effort to hide the suspicions in my stare as I pulled out a chair across the table from him. My coat stayed on, as I wasn’t planning on staying long. I remained silent, forcing him to break the tension.
“So, you mentioned something about Mage?”
His voice cracked, and he took a sip from the shakiest glass of water I’d ever seen.
“Is there something you want to tell me first?” I asked, still staring at him. Not that he noticed—his gaze was everywhere but in my direction.
He leaned in and whispered, “I’m wearing a wire.”
I mirrored his more intimate posture and asked, “Why?”
He leaned back and pulled out a personal recording device, complete with a blinking red light.
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “I thought you might be connected to her disappearance.”
“Anyone listening on the other end of that thing?”
“No, the police weren’t going to help me. They said Henry got a Dear John letter, and there was nothing they could do. Besides, they said Henry hired you as a PI.”
I was sure Henry did not elaborate on what the letters PI stood for. A common habit among my clientele.
“Well, the thing about the letter is partially right. But I don’t think she wrote it, and I think you know who did.”
His eyes popped. “The other one.”
I nodded. Thomas was a delicate individual, and this was a delicate task. God, I wished someone else could have this conversation with him.
He knew there was something weird going on, and he was probably trying to sort out if it was paranormal or extraterrestrial. Telling him the truth in his state of mind could lead to a mental breakdown.
“Thomas, I… well, Mage… like I said over the phone, needs you to do a favor.”
He steeled himself as if I were about to charge him with a holy quest. Which was absurd, since this man clearly had a time he needed to be home by.
“I’m ready,” he said.
It took everything within me not to roll my eyes, and I failed.
“Look, I just… Mage needs… you to hold on to something.”
I pulled out a package the size of a small shoe from the inside pocket of my jacket. Underneath the multiple layers of transparent packaging tape, written in large black letters were the words “DO NOT OPEN UNDER PENALTY OF LAW.”
“What law?” he asked.
“There isn’t one. I was originally going to write under penalty of death, but it sounded over-the-top.” I lied. I actually had run out of space.
“Well, law isn’t any better.”
“Look, I don’t have all day.” In truth I really didn’t have anything going on, but I needed to drive home my point. “If I leave this with you, are you going to open it?”
“Depends on what’s inside.”
“What do you want me to say? I don’t do this stuff on a regular basis. Strangers don’t just call me up and ask me to hold on to something for a friend.”
I wasn’t a fan of leaving someone in the dark on these matters, but the less he knew the better. Knowing usually leads to asking questions, and if he was going to hold on to the jewelry box, the last thing he should be doing was trying to learn more about the paranormal.
Plus, the red light on the recording device was still blinking. Telling the truth could get me committed.
I put my hand on the package. “Then, I guess I’ll find someone else.”
“No.” He grabbed my hand. “If it will help Mage, I won’t open it.”
“And you won’t tell anyone?”
He jerked his head a bit. “I don’t think I’ll be talking with him any time soon.”
He released his grip from my wrist, and I slid the package over to him.
“You’ve spoken to him?” I asked.
“Tried to. The man disgusts me. Wasn’t always that way, but he knows something is up. Something weird. I think he might be in on it.”
In the kindest light, Henry was struggling with his new reality. I don’t think he was in on anything, but he was unpredictable. Which is why I contacted Tommy. I couldn’t give Henry the jewelry box, not without understanding the consequences of its power.
“Thomas, that’s fine that you are uncomfortable around him so long as he doesn’t learn you have this package. Mage’s life depends on it.”
He nodded and accepted the package.
I stood up as he asked, “When is she… I mean you… going to ask for it back?”
“I don’t know, I’m off the case.”
“But I could hire you?”
The idea had crossed my mind. I could bill him for years, and he would pay. It would do wonders for my life. But he’d become impatient at some point. Suspect a con and start asking questions. Maybe even open the package.
“I’m not giving up, but I have other clients.” I considered that a half-truth. I wasn’t giving up, but I needed to find new clients.
“I understand,” he said.
I doubt he did, but I was confident enough that he wouldn’t make trouble.