In 'Electric Dreams' our recurring character, the private investigator Karin Roland, recently moved with her family from New York to Oregon where she's started back up after a two-year long sabbatical. We've given Karin another mystery to solve. There's no sex in this one; but if you're into a short tale, which we're certain some of you will solve before Karin, we hope you'll enjoy our latest submission to Loving Wives.
This is a work of fiction. All characters and incidents portrayed and names within are fictitious and any similarity to the name, character or history of any person is entirely coincidental.
Karin Roland sat at her desk in her home office, finalizing a personnel background check for a new client when the phone rang.
"Roland Investigations, Karin Roland speaking."
It was a woman's voice that responded, she sounded young. "Hello, Ms. Roland. I was given your name by my neighbor, Mrs. Coppolini. She said you're the detective that solved the Miller murder for the police. I have a strange situation and Mrs. Coppolini thought you'd be the best person to talk to."
"First, can you give me your name?"
"Oh right, I'm sorry; I've never spoken to a detective before; I'm nervous. My name is Nadine French."
"Well, Ms. French. What do you mean by 'strange situation'?"
"Actually, it's two situations. Is there any way we could meet in person? It's rather personal and I need to show you a couple of photographs."
Karin double-checked her calendar before answering. "I'm available at two this afternoon. We can meet at the coffee shop around the corner. It's never crowded at that time and we won't be disturbed. Would that time work for you?"
"Yes, I'm free all day; thank you."
Karin gave Nadine the address and hung up. She went back to writing up the report and didn't give Ms. French or her 'situations' another thought until one-thirty when her alarm went off.
Karin walked into the coffee shop five minutes early and noticed a young red headed beauty sitting at a corner table, a look of anticipation on her pretty face.
"Are you Nadine?"
The young woman stood up immediately, holding out her hand. "Ms. Roland?"
"Please call me Karin. Have you ordered?"
"Stay here and save this table. What will you have?"
As Karin walked to the service counter she observed Nadine fidgeting. The young woman was dressed tastefully, probably Nordstrom's, wore her hair in a professional cut, no visible tattoos or piercings. Athletically slim and modest makeup. The most striking feature was the deep red hair. Karin walked back to the table with their coffees and began.
"Now, how can I help you?"
Nadine could barely get the words out, in a voice just above a whisper, she stuttered, "My huhusbband wants a dididivorce." Then fell quiet.
Karin reached across the table to hold the young woman's hand. "Start from the beginning, you said there were two situations."
Nadine used a napkin to wipe away the tears; then began to tell a strange tale.
"Six months ago I lost my job working as a waitress when the restaurant I worked for closed due to the Covid lockdowns. I was only out of work a week when I received a call from a headhunter, offering me a job that paid more than I was making at the restaurant, including the substantial tips I used to make. Unfortunately, I'd have to travel three days a week. I talked it over with my husband and we both agreed the money was good and the job would most likely be temporary, until this whole Covid thing passed.
"My job was going throughout the Western States, mostly into upscale restaurants, but also some chains, as well as Mom and Pops - seeing how they handled the restrictions due to the crisis. I'd go in each restaurant once or twice, order a meal, evaluate their protocols and service; then try to interview the management. I had a form that I filled out after each evaluation that I emailed to the office."
Nadine's paused, her eyes started to water, her shoulders began to shudder.
"I came home Wednesday evening after two days in Phoenix. My husband, Peter, was waiting for me. He handed me an envelope with a copy of the separation papers and three photographs. He said I'll be officially served Monday."
"Was this unexpected? Were you two having issues?"
"No. I mean, there was some tension with my traveling. Peter was using the time to concentrate on his job; he's been spending more time in L.A. at his company's home office. But we've spent every weekend together and things were OK, I thought. Then this."
"So, what happened? Did he give you a reason?"
Nadine pulled the envelope out of her purse and looked around the café before sliding three photos out of the envelope. Two of the photos were of a man and woman having sex in what appeared to be a hotel room. The third was a photo of Nadine and the same man in front of a closed hotel room door, this one taken from across the atrium. As Karin looked at each photo, the woman in the photo had bright red hair and an athletic build; but neither of the two photos in the bed showed the woman's face.
Nadine explained. "That's not me in bed with the man. I mean it looks like me, but it's not me. That is me at the door, but that man was never in my room."
Karin looked at the photos again. The first thing she noticed was the two photos couldn't possibly be taken without the subjects' knowledge. "This woman has a small tattoo of a bird on her shoulder."
"That's the worst part, I do, too. A parrot. Even the woman's earrings are identical to the pair Peter gave me last Christmas. My favorite pair that I wear whenever I'm dressed up."
Karin had to ask. "And this isn't you?"
"NO" Nadine had raised her voice a bit, then looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry; of course you have every reason to doubt me. Even my husband didn't believe me when I denied it."
"What about this photo in the hallway?"
"That's another strange thing. Tuesday morning I walked out of my room to start my day. As I closed the door, this man stopped me. He said I dropped something. There on the floor was a pen, an expensive one. He picked it up, and showed it to me, asking if it was mine. I said 'no' and he walked away with it. I didn't think twice about it until I saw this photo that makes it look as if we're walking out of a room together."
Karin had worked many divorce cases during the years she owned a detective agency in New York, she had to ask the next question. "Is there a reason why your husband would set you up and make it appear as if you committed adultery?"
"I thought about that, but I don't think that's the case. Peter was absolutely destroyed as he shared the photos with me. He said the photos were sent to him by the guy's wife." Nadine pulled out another note and showed it to Karin. It was printed text. "KEEP YOUR WHORE OF A WIFE AWAY FROM MY HUSBAND!!"
"Peter was practically in tears. He said he wanted to hand me an unofficial copy of the divorce papers so I wouldn't be surprised; but most of all he had to ask me why I cheated on him. The papers he gave me state he's divorcing me for 'irreconcilable differences' and he's only asking for a fifty-fifty split of our assets. We don't have children, don't own a house. I can't see anything he'd gain by setting me up."
"But someone went through a lot of trouble to set you up. Look again at the photo; I know it's hard. But do you see anything that would confirm it's not you in this photo -- look carefully."
Nadine forced herself to stare at both photos for a few minutes; then looked up. "There's no mace canister on the nightstand!"
"Yes, when I took this job and began traveling, Peter bought me a mace canister and made me promise to always keep it with me, even made me promise to keep it next to the bed. I told him it would force me to always check my bag when I fly. He said he didn't care, that unless I had it with me, he wouldn't be able to sleep when I was out of town. The canister isn't there."
"Well it's a little thing, but sometimes little things add up. Nothing else?"
"You said on the phone there were two strange situations. What's the second?"
Nadine looked emotionally exhausted but took a deep breath and continued. "Well, I told you about my new job. I've been doing it for a little over three months now and I thought everything was going OK. Yesterday morning I called into the office to ask for next week off. I didn't think I could function with my marriage breaking up. Ms. Sims, the lady who works in the office, didn't answer the phone and didn't return my call. About eleven a.m. I went to the office and it was closed. I asked the Super to let me in and when he did, the place was empty. No Ms. Sims or her desk, no chairs, nothing."
"Why did you have the Super let you in? Didn't you have a key?"
"No, I've only been to the office three of four times. First when I filled out my employment papers and a couple times since then. Everything I did, I did via email and phone calls. I know it sounds strange, but nothing I was doing was illegal or unethical. My payroll went into my account via direct deposit every two weeks. Ms. Sims would email my assignments two weeks in advance with my travel arrangements; after each trip I would submit my report and expenses. My reimbursements were never questioned. I was told the information collected would be used to develop a data base of best practices that the company would sell to restaurant consultants in case of future pandemics."
"What's the name of this company?"
"Service Industry Consulting, SIC; here's the cards they gave me." Nadine handed one of her cards to Karin.
"What's this phone number?"
"Any time someone called that number, Ms. Sims would answer or would return a message within an hour or two. I didn't question that either, I figured since Ms. Sims was the only person in the office, that it made sense she wouldn't always answer. Ms. Sims told me the Portland satellite office was new, that more employees would be based out of there next year."
"Have you gotten any emails from them since yesterday?"
"Nothing, and no replies to my emails."
Karin spent a half-minute jotting notes before asking another question.
"Was the headhunter someone you contacted?"
"No, I hadn't even considered a headhunter; they said they were given my name from one of my old managers; but didn't say who."
"You say 'they'; was it a man or woman?"
"I couldn't tell."
"And the name?"
"The person I talked to gave their name as 'Erin Smith', I never was given the name of the company; 'Erin Smith' said the hiring company paid all the expenses and, silly me, I was so excited, I never pursued it."
"And your only contact at SIC was this Sims."
"Yes, Dori Sims. I think she's English, maybe Australian. She has an accent."
"And every week you went out of town, visited a few restaurants, made your reports, got paid, and that was all? Nothing unusual on the road or at home until Wednesday when your husband gave you the photos and yesterday when you found the office empty?"
"I've racked my brain since yesterday and I can't think of a thing. I feel like such a fool, never investigating, never asking any questions."
"Don't blame yourself too much. Like you said, you weren't doing anything illegal or unethical, you needed money and you were getting paid. The old saying goes, 'don't look a gift horse in the mouth'. Your husband obviously thought it was OK, otherwise he would have raised alarms."
"It still hurts to be such a chump. Will you look into this?"
"It will cost you some money. I don't work for free."
"The money Peter and I were saving to buy our first house is sitting in our account. I'd rather spend my half trying to get to the bottom of all this than wonder for the rest of my life."
Karin pulled a contract out of her folio; the two of them discussed the terms and what could be expected before Nadine signed.
As they stood up to leave, Karin thought of one more thing.
"Your husband said you can expect getting served Monday; is there anywhere you can stay to avoid that?"
"I have a girlfriend in Vancouver. She could put me up for a while. Why?"
"I don't want this to reach the legal stage until we know more. We don't know why you've been set up or by who. I'd like those questions answered before we talk to Peter and it will be easier to talk to him if you haven't been served."
Just the words, 'talk to Peter' brought a lightness to Nadine's face. Could there be hope for their marriage? "Thank you, Karin."
Karin watched the young woman walk out the door and down the street; hoping she hadn't overstepped when she threw Nadine that lifeline.
Karin's phone had been set to 'silent' during the meeting; checking it, she saw one missed call from her husband Bill and one voice message.
"Hey babe. Another late night again tonight. Hopefully, this is the last one. We're going to order in here and push through. I'll call you if I'm going to be past nine. Love you."
The last three weeks have been hell. Bill took this position as CFO a little over a year ago and this was the first year the responsibility of producing year-end reports was totally on his shoulders. Bill bragged about the great team of accountants working in his department, but even with those four sharp wiz-kids, Bill felt the weight of it all. It had been three weeks of late nights and long weekends, but it had to end this weekend, the report went to his Board next Wednesday.
Karin poured a glass of wine before heading back into her home office and firing up the laptop. Anthony was out on a date and Bill was at work -- might as well get to work.
She did a quick Google search for 'Service Industry Consultants' and came up empty. She searched every state's Secretary of State websites for a registered company under that name -- empty. A LinkedIn search for 'Dori Sims', 'Erin Smith' and 'Aaron Smith' produced the same negative results. Everywhere Karin turned, she encountered a brick wall. Everywhere until she searched for 'Peter French'; it came back with a short bio of a young tech up-and-comer who was second in charge of development at Hippolyta Enterprises. By now it was eight and she was still at the terminal when her phone beeped with an incoming text. "FINISHED! Home in twenty minutes -- pour me an ale, please!"
Twenty minutes later, Bill walked into the house, laid a sloppy kiss and a giant hug on Karin, then took two gulps of the Bridgeport IPA Karin had poured for him. "Remind me why I took this job."
"Because you love it, at least you loved it for the other fifty weeks of the year. Are you really finished with year-end?"
"Yes, Danielle and Larry are spending tomorrow collating and binding, but it's all done. I don't want to hear an accounting term until Monday morning." Bill looked in Karin's office, saw the display glowing and all the notes scattered across her desk. "What are you working on so late?"
"Sit down. Damn Bill, you've already finished that ale. Give me your glass." Karin went into the kitchen; poured Bill a second ale and another glass of wine for herself. Then told Bill about Nadine French's strange case.
Bill listened to the first half before interrupting. "I thought you were through with the marital, cheating cases."
"You should have seen her, Bill"
Bill smiled; it was just like his wife. Hard as nails on the outside, soft as pudding inside; always ready to help someone with a problem.
"Besides, wait until you hear the rest of this girl's tale."
Bill was attentive as always. Karin could count on Bill's input; he possessed a sharp, analytical mind and read at least two mystery novels every month. Bill looked at the photos and immediately shot up from the chair and headed into the den. He returned with a thick volume. Karin watched as he read down the list of contents, then handed the book to her.
"The Complete Sherlock Holmes?"
Bill smiled, "Read this story."
Karin spent the next half-hour reading the story. When she finished, she looked up to see Bill smiling at her. "When I saw the photo, the woman's red hair, it jogged my memory. There's not much new under the sun when it comes to these things. Whether in fact or fiction, it's all been done before."
"So, someone developed this elaborate scheme to get Nadine French out of the way? Who would do this?"
"Who benefits? The husband?"
"Not from what Nadine said. She told me the husband is crushed. He's taking his half and moving to L.A.; his company offered him a promotion at the head office."
"Someone thought it would be worth the time and the considerable money to separate the two. It had to be the goal; just like in the story, the job didn't end until the desired effect was achieved, in this case, when Mr. French told his wife they were through."
This gave Karin an idea. She spent ten minutes online, then picked up her phone and called Nadine.
"Nadine, sorry to call so late, but this is important. I want you to go online and search through the photos you'll see of the actresses on a website, I'm emailing you the link as we speak. Take your time, let me know if you see anyone you recognize. Call me first thing in the morning; whether you find anything or not."
Bill watched and listened as Karin's phone call end. "So much for me ravaging my wife's body tonight. Can I get you anything?"
"Sorry, babe. Dump this wine and bring me a Diet Coke, OK? I need to follow up on a couple things before I go to bed. You're a doll; thanks for giving me a direction." Before Bill even crossed the threshold, Karin was searching through the Phoenix actors' union website.
Bill went to bed; he'd seen Karin wound up like this before and knew she had a long night ahead of herself.
Karin was still at it when Anthony came home from his date, it was just after midnight. They spent few minutes chatting; Anthony even asked if his mom needed help. She said 'no' and he left her at the terminal. By two she found what she was looking for. She booked a flight to Phoenix for Monday, shut everything down and went to bed. Bill rolled over and gave her a kiss good-night.
The phone rang at eight Saturday morning. Karin barely gotten a soft 'hello' out before Nadine interrupted.
"Dori Sims is Tori Brown. I found her photo on the actors' union website you had me check. She's right there listed as available for plays, movies, TV. I stayed up last night until I found her photo but waited until this morning to call you. I hope it's not too early. Sorry."
"Don't be sorry. That's great news. I found our mystery man as well. He's an actor down in Phoenix. I'll be flying down there Monday to talk to Mr. Jason Holland."
"What's going on? Why is this happening?"
"I'm still sorting this all out, Nadine. Be patient. In the meantime, could you give me your husband's contact information?"
Nadine gave Karin Peter's number and where he worked. She didn't know where he was staying the last four days.
"One more thing, and this is important; don't hold anything back from me. If you do and I find out, I'll quit. Sorry if I offend you but -- are there any men, or women for that matter, in your life who would want to break up your marriage? That your marriage is the only reason for not having a relationship with them?"
Nadine couldn't understand the question. "I don't know what you mean."
"I want you to think, Nadine. Is there anyone waiting around the corner? Someone who thinks they have a chance to pick up the pieces if you and Peter divorce?"
The question made Nadine pause; pause long enough to give Karin the impression that she may have struck a nerve. She hadn't realized how bad her question shocked the young woman, who was wondering to herself, 'Do I know anyone that evil?'. Finally, Nadine answered. "No, I honestly can't think of anyone who would do such a thing."