Livingsky – Chapter One
“Do you remember me?”
Nathan Sharpe inspected the unexpected visitor closely, looking for any clue that might tell him why the woman had shown up at his front door at a time of night far beyond what anyone would consider polite. “You’re Merry’s friend.”
She nodded. “Her roommate. Julia.”
“Julia, yes,” he said, his tongue still thick with sleep. He’d met her a couple of times at the office when she’d picked Merry up for lunch, back when Merry was still working. He’d thought Merry lived alone. “How can I help you?”
“May I come in?”
He looked at his watch. Almost midnight. On a Saturday night. “It’s quite late, Julia.”
“I know, I’m sorry, I just don’t know who else to turn to,” she responded, her face pleading.
As a private investigator, Sharpe was not unaccustomed to late night visitations. They were often accompanied by uneasy revelations, followed by desperate pleas for help. In fact, some of his best work was done after hours, when people were less inhibited, their guards down from fatigue or having had a drink or two, feeling falsely protected, as if what was talked about in the dark couldn’t possibly bite them in the ass come daylight. Still, he hesitated to let the woman into his apartment. Ms. Turner was quite attractive and, as he stood there in pajama bottoms and unbuttoned top, he processed vague memories of flirtatious banter, the kind that might be fun in public but trouble in private. On this occasion, he was the one who’d been drinking. Could he trust himself? “What’s this about?”
“It’s about Merry. I think she’s in trouble.”
That was all it took. Sharpe stepped aside and motioned the woman to come inside. It was a move he’d regret.
Up until about a year ago, Merry Bell had been his employee, one of his top investigators. But their relationship went beyond that. They’d been through a lot together and, like one of those unlikely animal friendships you see on You Tube (cat and duck, rhinoceros and chicken), a bond had formed. If there was anyone Nathan Sharpe, self-proclaimed lone wolf, would ever come close to describing as family, it was Merry Bell. He wasn’t sure if she felt the same, but that didn’t really matter.
Sharpe switched on lights as he followed the woman into the living room where he invited her to take a seat on the couch. “Can I get you something to drink? Water? Beer?”
“Thank you, no. I won’t stay long.”
Sharpe lowered himself into an armchair across from the couch, the firm and slightly uncomfortable one he used when he wanted to read without risk of falling asleep. Dispensing with polite niceties, he jumped right in. “You said Merry is in trouble. What’s happened?”
“Did you hear about the murder in Yaletown?”
Yaletown was an upmarket neighbourhood running along the south side of Vancouver’s peninsula where decrepit CPR warehouses had been converted into chic residential lofts, high-end boutiques, trendy restaurants, and chill lounges promoting cocktail culture. Not exactly the part of town anyone associated with violent death.
“No, I didn’t.” After running errands in the morning, he’d played soccer with his regular troupe of Saturday buddies followed by dinner and drinks. Lots of drinks. There’d been no time for local news.
Julia looked surprised. “It was all over the TV and internet. Elliott Vanstone was killed, Dr. Elliott Vanstone, in his apartment.”
The name sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place it and said so.
“Vanstone,” she repeated, as if that should somehow jog his memory. “Merry’s doctor.”
Sharpe’s ears perked up. “Merry’s doctor? He was murdered?”
“In his apartment. They think it happened a couple of nights ago, Thursday, but no one found him until, like, yesterday.”
“I’m sorry to hear it.” He stared harder at the woman. Was he missing something? “But I don’t see what makes you think Merry might be in trouble.”
“Mr. Sharpe,” she said slowly, eyes wide. “Merry killed him.”
Nathan spent a torturous Sunday mulling over how best to approach his former employee and friend about what he’d learned from Julia Turner. The woman had made him promise not to tell Merry about her visit, afraid of how it might affect their own friendship. Nathan was freed from part of his decision when he received a text from Merry at the end of the day asking for a meeting at Sharpe Investigations Monday morning. Merry hadn’t been in the office for almost a full year. This could only mean one thing: she was going to take him into her confidence. Which led him to contemplate an entirely different set of worries: How much of what happened would she tell him? Would she tell him the truth, or a redacted version of it? How should he respond?
If it was anyone else, he’d know exactly what to do, without question. But this was Merry. She knew his reputation as a gruff, lantern-jawed, tough-as-nails, granite-hearted detective was nothing but a cover for a gruff, lantern-jawed, tough-as-nails, teddy-bear who, against all odds, had developed father-like affection for his former employee.
Merry arrived at Sharpe Investigations at 8:00 a.m. sharp, looking…not great. Still, the moment they saw each other their faces cracked into matching ear-to-ear smiles. They weren’t huggers, instead Merry handed him the Starbucks she’d brought for him.
He took a sip of the extra-dry, triple-shot, tall cappuccino. “You remembered.”
“Of course. I haven’t been gone that long.”
Actually, you have, Nathan thought to himself as he led her into his office and closed the door. They sat, he behind the desk, she in front, as they had so many times in the past; ready to discuss cases, solved or to-be-solved, or just shoot the shit. Today’s conversation would be much different.
“I was surprised to get your text last night.”
“I know,” Merry said, taking a careful sip of her own multi-titled coffee.
Sharpe noticed Merry couldn’t quite look him in the eye. That bothered him.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been better about staying in touch,” she said. “I’ve had a lot going on, but you know that, and it’s no excuse.”
“No excuses or apologies necessary for me.” That was the truth.
Nathan studied Merry more closely. She looked exactly the way she described herself, like someone who had a lot going on. It wasn’t that she looked unwell, actually quite the opposite—her skin glowed, her eyes were bright—it was more how she’d pulled herself together, there was something…off…like she’d tried too hard to look good and missed the mark. None of this, however, was surprising. After the monumental changes she’d been through this past year, and now this mess with Vanstone, he was surprised she was standing upright.
“Merry,” he began carefully, “I want you to know I’m here to help you in whatever way I can.”
She let out a nervous laugh and added, “You may be sorry you said that.”
“Nathan, I’ve made a decision.”
He pulled in a deep breath, knowing that whatever came next was probably going to change things forever.
And then she said the last thing he expected.
“I’m leaving Vancouver.”
“What?” he responded, a choking sound escaping his throat. She’s making a run for it. “You’re leaving? Why? Where are you going?” As a detective he knew better than to ask several open-ended questions in a row, but she’d taken him by surprise. He was expecting her to spill the beans about what happened the night of Elliott Vanstone’s death. He was certain she’d set up this meeting to come clean about her part in it and ask for his help in figuring out what to do next.
“I know it’s not what you were expecting to hear.”
Was she reading his mind? “No, it’s not.”
“I know I promised you I would come back to work, but, well, I’ve decided to go home.” She let out another mirthless laugh. “Back to where I came from.”
Nathan’s eyes, the colour of a cool lake, grew wary with concern.
“Merry, you don’t have to go. I can help you. I will help you.”
She’d never know how much he already had. His visit with Julia Turner had ended in a way he could have never expected. His only hope was that he did the right thing. Was hiding out on the prairies Merry’s version of doing the right thing?
Merry gave him a wry look halfway between a smile and nervous frown. “There you go again, making an offer you might regret.” She stopped to lick her lips. A look flitted across her face as if the taste of lipstick surprised her. “Actually, I do need your help.”
“I can’t stay in Vancouver.”
He gave her a hard look. This was becoming one of those frustrating conversations where he was left wondering if she knew that he knew but wanted to pretend she didn’t and wanted him to do the same. Or, did she think he knew nothing about Vanstone’s murder and wanted to skip town before he and the rest of the world found out?
“Why not?” he asked, watching her face carefully for any telltale sign that she was about to lie to him.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought. I can’t do this anymore. Not in Vancouver.”
More double talk? “Can’t do what?”
“Everything. Live here. Work here. Pay my bills.”
“Like I told you before, whenever you’re ready to come back to work, your job is waiting for you.”
“I know. I can’t tell you how much that’s meant to me. But it’s not just that.”
Here it comes.
“This has been a long, hard road for me. It’s taken a toll in every way imaginable, not the least of which is financially.”
“If this is about money,” he knew it wasn’t, “I’ll advance you whatever you need until you…work things out.” As Nathan said the words, he wondered what he was really suggesting. If Merry never admitted what happened with Vanstone, if the police failed in their jobs and the truth never came out, was he willing, given what he knew, to bankroll her living with a lie? A huge one.
This was happening so fast his head was spinning. On the one hand, Merry was his trusted colleague and long-time friend who, in her own screwed up way, was asking him to support her, no questions asked. On the other hand, this was a person who was very likely responsible for the death of another human being. How could he possibly ignore that? How could she ask him to?
Thanks to its founder, Sharpe Investigations enjoyed a sterling reputation. Nathan Sharpe looked like the kind of guy you’d trust with your problems. He was tall, robust, handsome in a Liam Neeson way, not a Liam Hemsworth way, with thick dark hair turning grey in all the right places, perfectly befitting his sixty-one years. He relied on a well-earned status as a charming tough guy who got the job done for a fair price. People immediately liked him, unless they were on the wrong side of his investigation, in which case they feared him. Nathan Sharpe rarely failed in his professional pursuits. Admittedly, there were times when he’d had to skirt the edges of honesty and integrity to get the results he was after, but in the end, he could always hold his head high. What about now? Had he gone too far?
“Of course it’s about money.” Merry’s smile was more of a mask than anything else. “But I refuse to take charity, from you or anyone else. Besides, you need all the money you can get to buy a replacement for that pug-ugly suit.”
Nathan grinned. It was an ugly suit and only Merry would tell him so. He was about to return the volley but hesitated. A banter of light insults was nothing new between them, it was a staple of their former relationship. It worked because they both knew that whatever was said was cushioned by an abundance of respect and affection. Normally he would have disparaged her right back, but the fact of the matter was that Merry did not look great and saying so would only hurt her feelings. He wasn’t sure she could take another blow. Instead, he asked, “Are you ready to come back to work?”
Merry sighed. “It’s time for me to put on my big girl pants and face facts. I am ready to work, but I can’t do it here. I can’t afford this city anymore, Nathan. With all the expenses I’ve racked up the past couple of years, I’ve had to move three times, each time into someplace smaller and crappier than the place before, and now I can’t even afford that. I’ve been sleeping on Julia’s couch for the past six months. I can’t do it anymore. I have to go somewhere where I can start over again. I have to go somewhere where it’s cheaper to live. I have to go home.” She leaned forward in her seat. “Nathan, I need a favor.”
Nathan hesitated, but only for a fraction of a second. “Name it.”
“You took a chance on me all those years ago when I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Your Help Wanted ad was the only one I’d seen in months that didn’t require years of education or experience I didn’t have.”
Nathan grunted by way of a laugh. “You came in here with a one-page resume with nothing on it but spelling mistakes. But you had a whole lot of confidence and sheer guts. It was the guts I needed. It was the guts I hired. You’ve never proved my instincts wrong.”
“Investigating is the only thing I know how to do. It’s the only way I can think of to make money. I need to make money so I can come back here one day.”
“You’ll come back?”
“Of course I’m coming back.” She said it like she believed it. Nathan wasn’t so sure. “My life is here. I just can’t afford to live it. I need to start over, earn my way back.”
Nathan searched Merry’s face without knowing what he was looking for. This was it. He was either with her or against her. The answer wasn’t hard. He’d made the decision the night Julia Turner showed up at his door. “What do you need?”
“I don’t get it. You want to get hitched?” he asked with a tinge of the familiar playful tone they’d often used with one another. It felt good. “Just so you know, I only take out the garbage when I feel like it, and weekends are reserved for drinking beer and watching sports, no antiquing or visiting museums.”
“Misogynistic much?” she shot back in the same teasing tone. “I’ll take a beer over a museum any day. But no, I don’t want your last name. I want your business name. I want Sharpe Investigations.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“I want to open a satellite office of Sharpe Investigations. In Livingsky.”
“Livingsky? Saskatchewan? Your hometown? You want to open a PI office in the boonies?”
Merry rolled her eyes. “It’s not like I’m moving to Antarctica. Saskatchewan is not the boonies. Livingsky is not some sleepy village with nothing but a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker. Livingsky has a population of over three hundred thousand people. Several investigation firms already operate there. Most focus on security work, but,” she admitted, “there are a couple that offer personal investigative services.”
He nodded, appreciating the research she’d done—probably most of it from Google—but he was doubtful. He decided to say nothing for the moment. A good detective always encouraged the other party to do all the talking.
“I can’t afford to go into the market cold,” Merry told him. “I need clients and I need them fast. Associating myself with a recognizable name and good reputation can do that for me. ‘Merry Bell, PI’, with paint still drying on her shingle, isn’t going to get a second look, but people will hire an experienced Sharpe Investigations agent. I don’t have the time or money to come up with a professional-looking website or an advertising campaign, but I can pull together a web page, and if that web page is linked to the Sharpe Investigations website with all its bells and whistles and testimonials and whatnot, I can hit the ground running.”
Nathan regarded Merry with a practiced eye. It was Merry who’d convinced him to invest in a website in the first place, a decision that had proven fruitful. Regardless of what was going on in his brain, his heart was telling him one thing: Sharpe, if you’re in for a penny, you’re in for pound. He may as well admit it, he was fully prepared to help Merry any way he could, for whatever reason. Lending his name, his firm’s credibility, was a no brainer. He only hoped she wasn’t overestimating the clientele-generating power of the Sharpe Investigations brand in an untested market. His answer was yes. Still, he waited. Was there something more she needed to tell him? According to her friend Julia, there was plenty.
“You know I do good work. You’ve always said so. I promise I won’t do anything to harm the reputation of Sharpe. Who knows, maybe I’ll add to it. And just think, once I open my doors, you can officially refer to the business as a national firm.”
Nathan didn’t think he’d be amending his business cards and logo to include the phrase “With offices in Vancouver and Livingsky” just yet.
“I promise not to ask for help on cases…unless I really need it.”
Nathan sipped his coffee slowly to give himself time to form a response. It was obvious Merry had made up her mind. Without her giving him anything to either refute or support Julia’s version of what happened the night of Elliott Vanstone’s death, and with his hands tied on bringing it up himself, all he could do was rely on Merry’s instinct on what was the right thing to do.
Nathan leaned forward, resting his forearms on his desk, and smiled. “You know you can always ask me for help, whether it’s with a case, or anything else. Actually, I insist on it.”
Merry’s mouth opened. Then closed. Opened again. She stood up, Sat down. Stood up again. “You mean…is that a yes? You’ll do it? I can open my office under the name Sharpe Investigations?”
Nathan pushed back and reached down for something. Keeping a bottle of hard liquor in the bottom drawer of his desk was a stereotype of an old-timey private eye that he enjoyed perpetuating. “This calls for a celebration. You still drink scotch?”
Merry fell into her seat, looking elated. “Only if the glass is dirty.”