It was four days until Christmas Eve, and the soft, continuous knocking at the bottom of the door finally woke Hurts up. As he lay terribly hung-over on the old, long, black leather couch, with his aching head only a foot away from the door, he first thought that it might be leprechauns coming after him again. He had had some trouble with leprechauns two years ago, in 2009, for trying to steal their gold. Then he realized that he hadn’t tried to steal any of their gold again, so he dismissed it.
Not even raising his head off the couch, the empty bottle of whiskey lying on the dusty, wooden floor beside him, Hurts yelled: “Go away. I’m closed.”
The knocking continued.
The sign painted across the glass of the top-half of the wooden door, in black block letters, read: JAMES HURTS, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR, as it did across the tall, narrow, four windows directly across the room from where Hurts lay, only in larger Letters. The windows faced east and onto the street below, above a long-shuddered dentist office.
When Amanda opened the door and stepped in, she saw a tall man in his late sixties lying on his somewhat large stomach on the couch. He was fully-clothed, and had salt-and-pepper hair, cut short, with a long scar on the left side of his aged, wrinkled face.
She turned and faced him and said: “Are you James Hurts, the private investigator?”
Now Hurts was really confused. The voice sounded like a leprechaun’s voice, tiny, and it seemed to be coming from just over the edge of the couch. “Who wants to know?” Hurts mumbled.
“My name is Amanda Warner, she replied. “On Monday my mother was arrested for stealing money from her place of employment. I want to hire you to prove she didn’t do it.”
Whenever Hurts heard the name Amanda, it never failed to send pangs of sorrow to his gut. Hurts had been a cop for the city of St. Louis for thirty years. Hurts ended his career there as a detective, Homicide. One of his last cases was that of hunting for a serial killer. It took Hurts two years to crack the case, but he did it. He got the SOB. Over the two-year period, the serial killer had sexually abused and slit the throats of six women. His third victim had been Hurts’ only sibling’s youngest daughter, Amanda Hurts. Paul, Hurts’ younger brother, and he had never been close, and the catching of that guy made Hurts feel that in some measure he had repaid Paul for not ever having been close to him. The catching of that son-of-a-bitch had also made Hurts feel he had in some measure repaid his own two daughters as well for not having been a better father. Hurts’ wife had divorced him when they were young children, and they wanted nothing to do with him. They didn’t even invite him to their weddings.
“Fine,” Hurts mumbled from the couch, his voice sounding more rough and gravelly than it usually did. “I get three hundred dollars a day plus expenses.”
“But I only have twelve dollars and sixty-seven cents,” Amanda replied.
“Don’t let the door hit you in the ass going out,” Hurts stated.
“Are you presently working a case?” Amanda said.
“No,” Hurts replied.
“Then it behooves you to take my case for twelve dollars and sixty-seven cents.”
Curious to see what type of person uses such words as behoove, Hurts lifted his head up and looked at Amanda. What he saw shocked him.
Amanda couldn’t have been much taller than three feet. She was wearing a puffy, beige coat, with matching gloves and stocking cap. She had earmuffs over her curly dark-brown hair, which matched the color of her eyebrows and eyes. Slung over one shoulder, Amanda had a camouflage bedroll, and on the other shoulder, she had a black backpack, which matched the color of her pants and the color of the frame of the glasses upon her button nose. A knit, grey scarf was wrapped around her small neck, the long ends of it hanging down to her tiny waist like two neckties. Hurts couldn’t make up his mind if she were pretty or ugly.
“How old are you, kid?” Hurts asked.
“Eleven,” she replied.
“And you use words like behoove?”
“My father died two years ago from colon cancer,” Amanda said. “When I grow-up, I’m going to be a doctor. Doctors need a large vocabulary.”
“Sorry about your mother, Kid,” Hurts said, dropping his head back down on the couch. “Police don’t make mistakes,” Hurts continued, lying. “Go home, Kid.”
“Yes, they did!” Amanda shouted. “Yes, they did! I want my mother out of jail! I want her out of jail! I want—“
“Stop screaming,” Hurts shouted at her, getting up and sitting on the edge of the couch. He wiped his sagging face with his large right hand, feeling the salt-and-pepper stubbles of his beard, and then said to Amanda: “You see that coffeepot there,” pointing to the top of an old cider dresser that was against the north wall, about a foot away from the narrow wooden door that was the door to the small bathroom. “Turn it on,” Hurts continued, “and then get my cigarettes, lighter and ashtray off of my desk,” he said, pointing to the large, old, wooden desk near the middle of the south wall, both of which were about five feet away from where Hurts was sitting.
Amanda did as she was told.
Hurts set the ashtray down on the floor between his long legs and his much-need-of-polishing black dress-shoes. After taking a long drag from his cigarette, Hurts said: “I’m not waiting any more. Take one of the coffee-mugs off the dresser and pour me a cup of coffee.”
Once again, Amanda did as she was told. As she poured the coffee into one of the mugs from on top of the dresser, she spotted the hotplate that was also on top of the dresser and she wondered why he had one there.
“Here’s your coffee, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said, standing in front of him and handing him the mug.
The robust smell of the steaming coffee smelt wonderful to Hurts. He took two sips from the mug, and then said: “Okay, tell me your story.”
Amanda told Hurts that she was in the sixth grade at St. Mary’s Elementary, a Catholic school which was about five miles southeast from Hurts’ office. Two days ago, on Monday at noon, while Amanda was in the school’s cafeteria eating lunch, her cell-phone rang. It was her mother.
Amanda said that her mother was trying to sound calm, but she could tell that her mother was very upset. She told Amanda that she had been arrested at work for stealing twenty million dollars. Eight million had been recovered from a Swiss bank account, but twelve million was still missing.
She told Amanda not to worry about it, that it was all a mistake, and she was sure that it would be corrected quickly. She also told Amanda that she would be taken care of, that someone from Family Services was coming to the school for her and she would stay with Family Services until this matter was resolved. Amanda told Hurts that there was no way in the world that she was staying with someone from Family Services while her mom was in jail. She ran.
She ran to their home, which was only four blocks north from the school. At home, Amanda quickly undressed out of her school uniform, changed into some everyday clothes, and then she packed some clothes into her backpack and a book. Fearing that Family Services, or the police, would trace her movements, Amanda left her cell-phone on her bed. From the bathroom, Amanda packed a toothbrush and toothpaste into the backpack. In the kitchen, Amanda took the seventy-two dollars from the cookie jar that was on one of the top shelves. Amanda’s father had always told Amanda to be prepared in life, so Amanda took the bedroll which he had always used when camping. She then left.
Amanda told Hurts that she walked the streets for hours, trying to figure out what she could do to get her mother out of jail. Her walking brought her to the outskirts of downtown St. Louis. She could see the St. Louis Gateway Arch in the not too far distance, and the rolling Mississippi River beyond it.
It was getting dark, so Amanda rented a room at a cheap hotel. It had cost her forty dollars. Knowing that she didn’t have enough money for another night there, at eleven o’clock, checkout time at that hotel, she left and began roaming the streets again.
She found the City Library, and stayed there most of the day, reading. It was there that she read in the newspaper all about what her mother had been accused of and was arrested for.
When the library closed, at nine p.m., Amanda walked around the block, then returned and slept in the deep, concrete well of the entrance to the library, at the bottom of the two, tall, wooden, Grecian-style doors. Nestled in her father’s bedroll, Amanda shivered throughout the night from the cold and from fear, holding in her tiny, gloved hand the whole time the small canister of pepper-spray that her mother had told her to always carry on her person or in her backpack.
The next morning, before the library reopened, Amanda packed up her bedroll and began roaming the streets again. She was hungry and looking for a restaurant to buy some oatmeal and milk when she passed under Hurts’ office, looked up, and saw on the windows: JAMES HURTS, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR.
“So what did you do with the rest of the money?” Hurts said.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“You just told me that you only have twelve dollars and sixty-seven cents,” Hurts replied. “You should have thirty-two dollars left of that seventy-two dollars. So what did you do with it?”
“Well, I had to eat, didn’t I,” Amanda replied.
“Oh,” Hurts said.
“You know, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda began, “twelve million of that twenty million is still missing. If you take the case and recover that money, surely, they’ll give you a reward. Why, you might make a couple of million dollars.”
“Here’s what I’ll do, Kid,” Hurts said, rising from the couch. “I’ll speak with your mother.”
“Woo-who!” Amanda shouted, raising her arms and hands above her head.
“Don’t get too excited, Kid,” Hurts said and pushed Amanda to one side of him. “I said that I’d just talk to her.”
He walked to the old wooden desk that was directly in front on the four windows. That desk had been his partner’s desk, Tom Mayor. Tom had quit several months ago. He just didn’t want to do it anymore. A old 17” colored TV sat in the middle of the desk, and his gun in its black leather shoulder holster which he strapped on to his left shoulder.
“You carry a gun?” Amanda said.
“This,” Hurts replied touching the handle of his weapon, “is a .9mm semi-automatic pistol. It’s not a gun.”
“Do you always wear it?” she asked.
“It’s like that old credit card commercial,” Hurts said. “I never leave home without it.”
“This is your home?!” Amanda cried, shocked, and looked around. “This is an office.”
“Let’s just say this place is where I hang my hat,” Hurts replied as he brought the knot of the red tie he was wearing to the collar of the wrinkled white shirt he had on.
“Are you poor, Mr. Hurts?” Amanda asked. “Momma says that it’s—“
“I got more money than you,” Hurts barked at her. “You’re an aggravating little girl.”
“I’m sorry,” Amanda replied, lowering her head.
A charcoal-colored suit-coat, that matched the pants that Hurts was wearing, hung upon the back of one of the wooden chairs that lined the wooden table.
As Hurts put it on, he said: “I sold my house a few months ago and pocketed the money. I figured that since I was paying rent on this place, why do I need a house. I brought everything that I need. I got a table and chairs; got a hotplate; got a small refrigerator,” he said, pointing to the portable refrigerator on top of the dresser.
“But where do you sleep, Mr. Hurts?” Amanda asked.
Walking to the northwest corner of the room, Hurts said: “Right where you found me. On the couch.”
A wooden coat rack stood in the corner by the door to the bathroom. Hurts removed a dark-brown topcoat from one of the pegs and slipped it on. He then checked to see if his cell-phone was in one of the pockets. It was.
“Why don’t you put your stuff on the couch and we’ll get out of here. Get my cigarettes and lighter.”
They descended the narrow wooden steps — painted black, as was the wooden railing and its thin spindles — and reached the glass door that led out onto the sidewalk. Hurts always parked his 1997, grey, Nissan Pathfinder in front of the building.
Once inside the car, Amanda buckled herself in the front seat with the shoulder seatbelt. When Hurts started the car and shifted it into Drive, Amanda said: “Aren’t you going to put a seatbelt on, Mr. Hurts?”
“No,” Hurts replied.
“That’s against the law, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda stated.
“Some laws just beg to be broken,” Hurts replied and pulled away from the curb.
A few second later, Amanda said: “You didn’t take my money, Mr. Hurts.”
“That’s because I didn’t say I was taking your case,” Hurts replied.
“Well, let’s say you are, Mr. Hurts,” she said. “Are you hungry, Mr. Hurts? Mamma says that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. We could take that twelve dollars and sixty-seven cents and buy breakfast. I could sure go for some milk and oatmeal.”
“You’re an aggravating little girl,” Hurts replied. “You’re the most aggravating…”
After they had had breakfast, Hurts started driving towards the police headquarters downtown. As he drove, Amanda switched on the radio and began switching stations.
“Stop playing around with that,” Hurts barked at her. “You turned it off my country music station.”
“Its Christmas time, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda replied. “I want to listen to Christmas music.”
“Aggravating,” Hurts said. “You are just plain aggravating.”
“I’m sorry,” Amanda said.
“Well, keep the volume down,” Hurts said. “I don’t like that Christmas music crap.”
It was a grey, cold day. It had snowed three days ago, and there were still mounds of dirty snow here and there.
Hurts pulled into the parking lot of the police station that was to the back of the fortress-like, old cement building of the police station. Hurts opened the door of his car and stepped out. He was about to shut the door when he realized that Amanda wasn’t moving. “Do you need an invitation or something?” Hurts said. “C’mon, let’s go.”
“I can’t go in there, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda replied. “Family Services is looking for me — and probably the police are, too.”
“Do you think that they would think that you would be so stupid as to walk into a police station?” Hurts said. “Just take your glasses off and put them into a pocket. C’mon.” Amanda did as she was told and got out of the car.
As Hurts and Amanda approached the almost chest-high, mahogany front-desk of the station, - crowds of police and people going here and there — Sergeant Joe Peterson shouted from behind the desk: “What’s the matter, Hurts? Are you finally missing us? … Who’s the little girl?”
“This is my granddaughter, Sally,” Hurts replied, placing his arm and hand around Amanda’s back and bringing her to him.
Peterson leaned way over the desk and looked down hard at Amanda. “She doesn’t look a thing like you, Hurts,” he said. “Lucky kid.”
“You go sit over there,” Hurts said to Amanda and pointed to a bench against the south wall. Amanda did as she was told.
“I wanna see Jennifer Warner,” Hurts said.
“Is she your client, Hurts?” Peterson asked.
“Something like that,” Hurts replied. “Let me see her file, too.”
“I can’t let you see her file, Hurts,” Peterson said. “You’re not a cop anymore.”
“You can’t, can’t you?” Hurts stated. “Remember when your kid got arrested for cocaine and I--“
“OK, OK,” Peterson replied. “You sure know how to take advantage of a guy, Hurts.”
Before Hurts had Peterson have another officer escort Amanda’s mother into one of the several interrogations rooms that he was sitting in, Hurts sat at the metallic desk and read the police report on Amanda’s mother. The room was poorly lit and was bare except for the desk and three metal-framed chairs with a thin, green hard padding, and it was cold in the room.
Amanda’s mother had been arrested at ten-thirty Monday morning for embezzlement. She was thirty-four-years-old, and had worked as a secretary in the accounting department of International Investment, Inc. for the past seven years. On Monday, Ms. Diana Cogwell, head of the accounting department there, had discovered discrepancies in fourteen different accounts. It was frustrating, and time consuming, but she was able to determine that twenty million dollars had been diverted from these accounts. She was also able to trace eight million of that twenty million. It had been transferred into a Swiss bank account. What shocked her was that all of the transactions and the transfer of that money into the Swiss bank account had not only been done on her computer, but someone had used her name to authorize it all.
All of this had happened between the hours of nine and eleven p.m. Sunday night. In order to gain access to the office after business hours, employees must use their personal magnetic-employment-card, swiping it into a strip that is attached to the door-frame of the office midway up. They must also sign-in with the night guard stationed at the entrance of the building. Ms. Cogwell checked employees’ records. The only card used that night was Jennifer Warner’s. She checked the guard’s sign-in sheet for Sunday night — someone had used her own name to sign-in.
All employees in the accounting department have a personal password to obtain access to files and accounts of clients on the computer system. Ms. Cogwell obtained authorization from a Mr. Thomas Campbell, a board-member of International Investment, Inc., to obtain the password that was used that night. It was Jennifer Warner’s.
Ms. Cogwell then called Mr. Theodore Williams, senior board-member of International Investment, Inc., and informed him of all of this. He in turned called the police.
The police had a copy of the video footage of the woman signing-in that night. Hurts viewed it. It was of a woman about five-feet-seven-inches tall. She was dressed in a full-length black coat and a wide-brimmed black hat. She was wearing black gloves and sunglass. She had a red scarf that hid the sides of her face. The guard said that he had never seen the woman before. In a line-up, he couldn’t say with certainty that it was Amanda’s Mom, but he did think that it was her. Ms. Cogwell had told the police that recently Jennifer had been complaining about having financial difficulties, and one day she had even caught Jennifer sobbing at her desk, telling her that she didn’t know how she was going to make it anymore.
After Hurts had finished viewing the video footage, he told Peterson to send in Amanda’s mom. He went back to the same interrogation room he had been sitting in before, and sat down in a chair behind the desk so that he faced the door when Amanda’s mother came in. About ten minutes later, the door opened and a female police officer escorted Amanda’s mother into the room. The female officer left, shutting the door behind her.
Hurts immediately saw Amanda in the angular adult face of the woman who stood before him in an orange-colored jumpsuit. She had the same color of hair, eyes and eyebrows of Amanda, dark-brown, and her shape was slender. Hurts found her attractive, and what his gut told him most about her was that she was an honest, sincere person. She looked worried, nervous and scared.
Standing up, Hurts said: “Please, sit down, Mrs. Warner.” He pointed to the chair in front of him, across the table.
She gingerly sat down, placing her hands into her lap.
“I’m James Hurts, Mrs. Warner,” he said. “I’m a private investigator.”
“Oh, heaven must have sent you, Mr. Hurts,” she cried, much relief flooding into her face. “My daughter, Amanda, is missing. She’s only eleven-years—“
“Amanda is with me, Mrs. Warner,” Hurts replied, interrupting her. “She wants me to look into your case.”
“Where is she?” Jennifer asked hurriedly, leaning in and placing her arms and hands on top of the desk. “Is she OK? … Why did she run away?”
“She’s in the lobby,” Hurts replied. “She’s fine, and she ran away because she didn’t want to be in Family Services while you were in jail.”
“Well, where is she staying?” Mrs. Warner then asked.
“With me, for now,” Hurts replied.
Mrs. Warner was silent. Hurts could tell that she was trying to process it all in her mind. Hurts then said: “Let’s talk about your situation here.” Hurts looked her straight in the eye and said: “Did you steal that money?”
“No, Mr. Hurts,” she said. “I didn’t steal any money.”
“You claim to have been at home with Amanda Sunday night when this happened, sleeping. Is this correct?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“I read your finances,” Hurts stated. “You have some debt. A house mortgage; a car loan; some credit card debt. But nothing screamed out at me that you’re drowning in debt.”
“No, I’m not, Mr. Hurts,” she replied.
“What’s your relationship like with this Ms. Diana Cogwell?” Hurts then asked.
“Its fine,” Jennifer replied. “We have a wonderful relationship.”
“She stated that recently you have been complaining of having financial difficulties; that once she even caught you sobbing at your desk because of money problems.”
“I keep myself on a tight budget, Mr. Hurts,” she said. “A few times, in casual conversation, I had told her that I was so tired of living on a budget. As for Diana catching me crying at my desk, I had had an accident that morning coming into work. An elderly man had rear-ended my car. I was upset. I didn’t know if my car could be repaired or if it was totaled.”
“So she was lying?” Hurts said.
“I wouldn’t say that, Mr. Hurts,” Mrs. Warner replied. “Diana is a wonderful person. She’s a bit too much of a company person for me, but she’s a wonderful person.”
“What do you mean by that?” Hurts asked.
“She lives for the company,” Mrs. Warner replied. “She lives and breathes it.”
“What about your boss, Mr. Williams,” Hurts then said. “What’s your relationship like with him?”
“Again, fine,” Mrs. Warner replied. “I have a wonderful relationship with him.”
“Is there anyone there who may have a grievance with you?”
“No,” she replied. “I mean, no one there would do something like this to me.”
“Ok, then,” Hurts said, rising from the chair. “I think that will be all for now.”
Mrs. Warner stood up, too. Hurts walked her to the door. Before he opened the door, Mrs. Warner said: “Mr. Hurts, are you sure you’re OK with Amanda staying with you? I love my daughter dearly, but she can be a handful at times.”
“I’ve already found that out about her,” Hurts replied. “For now, let’s let her have her way.”
“Would you tell her that I love her?” Mrs. Warner then asked.
“Sure,” Hurts replied.
When Amanda saw Hurts coming, Hurts knew that she wanted to jump off of that bench and begin peppering him with questions about her mother. She didn’t, though; she stayed seated on the bench until Hurts came abreast of her and said: “Let’s go, Kid.”
“Did you see my mom, Mr. Hurts?” she said anxiously. “What did she say, Mr. Hurts? Is she OK?”
“Enough with the questions,” Hurts said. “I’ll tell you in the car … Oh, your mother told me to tell you that she loves you. She also told me to tell you that you are to obey me and not be so aggravating.”
“Oh, now you’re telling fibs, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said, looking up at him and laughing. “She didn’t tell you to say that.”
“She didn’t?” Hurts replied. “OK, then.” Hurts turned around, and pointing down to Amanda with his right hand, he shouted: “Hey, Peterson. See this kid here? She’s—“
“OK, OK, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda pleaded, tugging at his left hand. “I’ll be good. I’ll be…”