Flim Flam

A Mystery Novel, written by Carl Schmidt

First Chapter of Flim Flam

If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you’re headed.

~  Lao Tsu
   Orange billows on turquoise lit the evening sky, followed by crimson haze on lapis, then gray, fading gradually to inky black. Sunsets from the porch of my Augusta farm home often inspire wonder and awe. This one didn’t. Instead, it sent an unfamiliar chill through my spine. It was the second of March. Just hours away, my thirtieth birthday lay in waiting, as nightfall foreshadowed an uncertain future. Maine was between seasons, our band was between drummers, and I was between mortgage payments, professions and decades.

   Generally speaking, I’m an optimistic guy. Put some coffee in my cup and a little sun on my face, and I step into the morning without hesitation or dread. But now, alone in the dark, the silence was disquieting. Several hours earlier, just as dawn was breaking, that sunny outlook took a beating.

   Randy Combs and I had been hired to add a greenhouse to the back of a hundred-year-old home on Winthrop Street. We had completed the footings and slab the day before; an early spring thaw provided a narrow window to dig a trench and pour the concrete. But, with a nor’easter bearing down on the coast, we figured to have little more than a day—two at the most—to mortar a stem wall, frame the addition and top it with a roof. Randy commandeered the forklift laden with building materials, while I held aside a series of tree limbs to give him enough room to slip between the east side of the building and a row of pines. As he rounded the southeast corner, the pallet—already listing almost fifteen degrees on the grade away from the house—clipped the edge of the gutter downspout and jostled the load. A single 28-pound block of concrete bounced a few inches, paused briefly on its edge, and finally decided to go all the way over, landing on my left Timberland, which was temporarily suctioned into some mud. The boot cushioned the blow somewhat, just not quite enough. I heard the metatarsal pop and felt a shot of pain through my foot.

   A couple hours later in the emergency room at Maine General, Dr. Wilson Abbott told me I’d be right as rain in four to six weeks. In the meantime, I’d have to hobble around on a semi-rigid post-op shoe, and carpentry work was out of the question for at least a fortnight. That’s exactly what he said. “Carpentry work is out of the question for at least a fortnight.”

   I knew how long that would be, but it was only the second time I’d ever heard that particular word spoken aloud in a sentence. The first came two years earlier during Vanessa Stephens’ animated recitation as Lady Capulet, while rehearsing for the Bangor production of Romeo and Juliet. I recall the reading distinctly.

   She had been practicing her lines night and day, concurrent with our plunging recklessly into passion and romance. She uttered the celebrated remark, quite unexpectedly, in the middle of a climactic bedroom moment. “A fortnight and odd days,” she wailed.
I remember thinking at the time that there was very little chance that I could keep at it that long. Instinctively, I remained silent, in part to suggest that I might have the required stamina, but mostly to not sound foolish in the event that I had misinterpreted her exclamation.

   To the doctor’s instructions, I responded ruefully, “No carpentry for two weeks?”
“Rawight,” he replied, in his thick British accent. “An’ keep it elevated an’ iced till the swelling goes down.”

•    •    •

   Shortly after six-thirty that evening, as I was limping back into the house for another shot of Jack Daniels, my cell phone rang. Before I had a chance to say hello, Eric Cochrane was peppering me with questions.

   “Jesse! Hey! How are you doing, buddy? Are you in pain? Will you be able to play on Saturday night? Randy called and told me what happened. Bummer.”

   Eric and I formed our first rock band in high school. He’s the lead guitar player for Ocean Noises, our current ensemble—or what’s left of it. I play bass and Billy Mosher plays the keyboards. Justin Thyme, our drummer for the previous six months, left us in the lurch the week before. None of us actually knew his real name, and at this point, we no longer cared.

   “The lidocaine has worn off, Eric, but I’m coping with ice, whiskey and ibuprofen. As for Saturday, I should be able to make it, but who’s going to play the drums?”
“I’m workin’ on it, Jesse,” he replied, in a weary and slightly discouraged tone. “I’ve been talkin’ to Willie Franklin. He says that he might be able to fill in for us…if we pay him enough.”

   “How about Amanda? Are they still a couple?”

   “It’s a revolving door, of course. But at the moment, he’s beggin’ to get back in. Naturally, I asked him about her, but he said he hadn’t seen her for a couple of weeks, and she wasn’t returning his calls.”

   “If we could get her to join us, Willie would come along for sure,” I said. “Why don’t you give her a ring?”

   “I did already and left a message,” he replied, not sounding particularly hopeful. “We’ll need a little luck.”

   “I could use some of that myself,” I muttered.

   “Keep your chin up, Jesse. It can’t be that bad.”

   “For starters, I’m out of work and my mortgage payment is due on the tenth. I needed the greenhouse job to cover it. I’m behind on my phone, electric and propane bills. Even the wood pile is thinning out.”

   “You could ask your mom for a loan.”

   “I don’t want to do that again. She helped me out last winter, and I still owe her almost a grand.”

   “Getting any calls for detective work?” he asked.

   “I got one call last week from a lady who said she needed protection from her ex. After listening to me for a minute or so, she asked me my age. When I told her, she took a pass. She said she was looking for ‘a more responsible man.’ Incidentally, that’s why I took my photo down from the website. It might inspire interest among the younger crowd, but they’re not the ones hiring private investigators.”

   “You know I’d help you out if I could, but I’m tapped.”

   “No worries,” I said. “Something will turn up.”

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