Excerpt from the first book in the Persephone Cole holiday mystery series.
(Formerly titled Persephone Cole and the Halloween Curse)
Persephone Cole’s hand hovered over the ringing telephone. Waiting for the third ring was almost too much effort, like everything else in this heat, but Percy had a thing about answering a phone on the first ring. Sucking in a hot, sticky breath, she was ever aware of the oppressive temperature. She dripped with it. Eight-thirty-five a.m., eighty-three degrees, and climbing. Humidity high enough to wash your socks in. Welcome to Indian summer on the lower east side, one of the hottest ever recorded.
Percy reached over and turned off her only source of moving air, a small, beat-up oscillating fan that sounded like her eight-year old son’s bike the time he put a clothespin on the spokes of the back wheel. Looking up at the wall, her gaze focused on her newly framed private investigator’s license, barely a week old.
New York State Department of Licensing,
Private Investigator, Persephone Cole
Effective Date: October 15, 1942
Pride filled her at being one of New York City’s first female P.I.s, instead of merely a secretary. Of course, technically she was both now, but a little extra work never scared Percy. She took a slug of tepid water—no ice to spare in weather like this—and picked up the receiver. She pushed back in her chair, lifted and crossed her legs, resting them on a corner of the desk. She’d relax if it killed her.
“Good morning,” she said, going into professional work mode. “Cole Investigations, Persephone Cole, private investigator speaking.”
There was a beat, where both parties were silent. Then a male voice asked on the other end of the line, “Is this Cole Investigations?”
That’s what I said, bub. “Yes sir, it is.”
“Who’s this?” The voice was gruff, almost rude.
What are you, deaf? “This is Persephone Cole, private investigator.”
“You sound like a woman.” He barely disguised his astonishment.
And you sound like an ass. “That’s right. This is Persephone Cole, private investigator for Cole Investigations.”
She pulled her crossed legs off the desk, and leaned forward, her large, five foot-eleven inch frame causing the chair to creak in protest. Strands of long, flaming red hair broke free of the rubber band atop her head, damp locks sticking to her forehead and neck. Everything stuck to everything in weather like this.
“How may I help you?” She tried to keep her voice sweet. It was an effort.
“You can help me by handing the phone over to a man. Who’s there? Give me Gil or Pop Cole.”
“Gilleathain is deceased and Pop is out of the office on a long-term assignment.”
“Uh-huh. So can I do something for you or not?” If you hang up, you might just be turning down the best ‘man’ for the job. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
He let out a long hissing sigh, as if parceling out his breath in accordance with his thought processes. Percy blew down the front of her blouse waiting for him to either hang up or tell her what the hell he wanted. The cast iron phone felt like it weighed a ton, and if this was a big venture into ‘no thanks’ land, she’d just as soon end it now and get it over with. There was some grub in the kitchen with her name on it.
I’m starving. Oatmeal and canned peaches with diluted condensed milk ain’t doing it for me. Maybe there’s something else. Even Spam sounds pretty good right now.
While he thought, she pulled out the ever present sack of pistachios from the pocket of her trousers and threw it on the table. Still holding the earpiece with one hand, she rooted around inside the bag with the other. She popped a nut into her mouth and separated the meat from the shell with her teeth.
“Very well,” he finally said. “I don’t have time to try to find another agency, if there is one. Besides, from what I understand, every available man seems to be tied up or drafted. It’s such a nuisance.”
“The war’s a hassle, but don’t let it get you down.” She picked the shells out of her mouth, continuing to chew the nut as silently as possible.
If he heard what she said, he ignored her comment. “I knew the Cole Brothers from when I was starting out years ago. The boys helped me once before and they were honest. Are you honest?”
“I can be.”
“I guess it’ll have to be you, God help me. My name is Dexter Wainwright. You know who I am, little lady?”
“I do. You’re a hotshot Broadway producer and you can call me Miss Cole. Now we got the introductions out of the way, what can I do for you?”
“Last night one of my actors fell from the overhead catwalk and broke his neck. He’s dead.”
“That’s too bad. I hope he had an understudy,” Percy added.
Clearly taken aback, Dexter Wainwright gurgled. “No. Yes. What? Yes, of course, but that’s not why I’m calling.”
“Then get to it.” She popped another pistachio into her mouth.
“The police don’t believe it was an accident. They want to close my whole show down. It’s the…ah…Scottish play. Maybe you’ve seen it? We’ve been in previews for the last four weeks.”
Like I have a buck-fifty to throw away on your show. “No, I haven’t, but I’ve read about it in the papers. Macbeth, right?”
“Uh-huh.” He grunted. “It happened sometime around midnight. I don’t know what the hell Carlisle was doing in the theatre at that time of night.”
“Getting himself killed, for one thing.”
“I have until eight o’clock tonight to find some answers or the police are threatening to lock the doors.” He paused for a moment. “You know, I think you might be a wiseacre.”
Percy let out a chuckle. “Could be, but like you say, everybody else is drafted or tied up. If you want me, it’s the going rate, fifteen bucks a day plus expenses. You got that?”
“Good. You’re at the Royal Theatre, right?”
“I’ll be there in an hour. And Mr. Wainwright…”
“When I get there, you’re going to tell me the truth. All of it.”
Percy hung up on a stuttering Broadway producer.
Buy: The Dagger Before Me