Whisper Island, Ireland
My descent to the Seventh Circle of Hell began with a lawn chair. Lenny, my newly promoted partner in Movie Reel Investigations, wasn’t known for his smart business investments. Heck, he’d been crazy enough to team up with me, Maggie Doyle, a just-turned-thirty divorcée, ex-police officer, and Whisper Island’s unofficial dead-body magnet. Who else would start a private investigation agency on a remote Irish island with a maverick like me?
So, when Lenny had offloaded a puke-green pinstriped lawn chair in front of my cottage, I should’ve known it spelled disaster. The Garden Gamerzz deluxe model looked like an office chair and a dental chair had mated, then mutated into the atrocity now parked on my front lawn. This chair and nine of its weird-looking friends were the spoils of a crowd fundraiser Lenny had supported and then promptly forgotten—until he’d found himself the recipient of ten lawn chairs geared toward the serious outdoor gamer, each one uglier than the next.
The fact that it was still outside my cottage two days later was due to me having food poisoning and being too weak to insist Lenny get rid of it. The fact that I was currently sitting on said chair was due to desperation and a drained bank account.
I was determined to get our P.I. agency on a more solid financial footing. Since I had no time to borrow a more attractive alternative, the lawn chair formed part of a staged outdoor scene intended to impress a prospective client. And I hoped to score us a lucrative contract, a contract we’d never sign if Lenny didn’t get his butt in gear and arrive on time. If he didn’t, I’d—
The sound of an engine backfiring cut through my uncharitable chain of thought. Lenny’s purple VW van chugged up the winding driveway that led from the coast road to Shamrock Cottages, belching dark fumes in its wake. The van wheezed to a stop outside my cottage in a whirl of noxious smoke. A moment later, Lenny emerged. In honor of our interview, he’d gelled back his hair and trimmed his goatee. He’d also followed my directive to wear a suit—at least from the waist up. From the waist down was a whole other story. A pair of baggy gold lamé pants flapped around his legs.
“Jeez, dude. MC Hammer called. He wants his pants back.”
Lenny limped, bow-legged, to the back of the van, wincing as though in pain. “Have a heart. I just had an ingrown hair removed from my backside. I’m in agony.”
“I’ll need a mind-bleach to process that information. How does an ingrown butt hair account for you rolling up to an important interview looking like a nineties rapper?”
“My top half is snazzy.” He jerked a thumb at his tie. “See? I made an effort.”
“That still doesn’t explain those pants.”
He had the grace to look sheepish. “Dr. Reilly told me to go commando and wear baggy trousers for the next couple of days. I couldn’t find any in my wardrobe, so I raided my costume collection for my Aladdin trousers.”
“Your costume collection is as legendary as it is appalling. I guess I should be glad you didn’t show up in your Santa suit.”
“Too sweaty. Besides, I never wear my holiday costumes this side of November.” Lenny dragged a second ugly lawn chair out of the back of his van and dumped it beside mine. This one was a lilac-and-chartreuse tartan with a bright yellow trim.
I performed a full-body shudder. “Oh, no way. One of these crimes against taste is bad enough. I don’t want a second.”
“We need it for the video. Gotta set the scene, you know? I’ve got it all planned. If we position these awesome chairs facing your cottage, the webcam will film us against the backdrop of the ocean. Those lawyer dudes will think we’re total pros.”
“We are pros. We solve the cases we get. We just need more clients.”
“After the interview,” Lenny continued, “Liam can keep the chair.”
My objection came out as a strangled squawk. I doubted my boyfriend would be pleased to find himself the owner of a chair even uglier than mine.
Lenny motioned for me to get up. He got the chairs in position, and then set up his laptop on my garden table. After fiddling with cables, he stood back with an expression of supreme satisfaction. “The internet connection’s looking good. I’ll just get the webcam positioned on its tripod. Are you ready for our call?”
“I hope so.” We needed this contract. I needed this contract. If I couldn’t prove I had a stable income, the bank wouldn’t approve Liam and me for a mortgage.
“Chill, Maggieee.” Lenny stretched out my name in his easygoing drawl. “We’ve totally got this.”
“I’m having doubts about taking the call out here.” I pulled a strand of hair out of my mouth. “There’s quite a breeze.” The weather was unseasonably sunny for mid-October, but a brisk wind blew up the hill from the ocean, reversing my efforts to tame my curly mane.
“It’ll be fine. People expect a breeze on an island. Besides, anywhere’s better than our dump of an office.”
This, alas, was true. Movie Reel Investigation’s one and only room was badly in need of fresh paint, not to mention furniture that didn’t scream garage sale.
Lenny finished fiddling with cables. He stepped back, gave me a quick once-over, and nodded. “You look healthier today. Less like an extra from The Walking Dead.”
“I still feel blah, but my makeup and the light out here help me look more human.”
“And I love the dress. I’d almost forgotten you had legs.”
I tugged on the skirt of my cornflower-blue wrap dress, self-conscious in its subtle elegance. “I borrowed it from Jennifer.”
Jennifer Pearce, a lawyer living on Whisper Island, had recommended us to the firm of Galway lawyers who were due to call us today. They needed a P.I. on their payroll, and we needed the paycheck.
“Only five minutes to wait.” I took my seat next to Lenny. I had that sick-giddy sensation in my stomach that I associated with exams, job interviews, and baking. “I hope Cora Fallon is friendlier in person than she is in her emails.”
“She’s one of the lawyers, right?”
“Yeah. Cora’s the senior partner at Fallon Solicitors. Her emails were brusque, to the point of being flat-out rude. But I wasn’t in a position to tell her to take a hike off a high cliff.”
“Fair enough. Work is work. Oh, before I forget…” Lenny pulled a newspaper from the depths of his pants pocket and tossed it on the table. “I picked up this week’s issue of the Whisper Island Gazette in case you and Liam want to check the property listings. Look who made the front page.”
A slit-eyed photograph of Quibbles, my nemesis, stared up at me from the crumpled paper, and my claws came out. Thanks to our last investigation, the objectionable show cat was now a national celebrity. Quibbles had been credited with catching the killer, and he, not me, had shot to fame. He’d been on talk shows, won a bravery award, and even starred in a freakin’ TV commercial. He had millions of social media followers and an equally impressive bank account.
“There’s no justice in this world. I caught the killer. I risked my life. Heck, I saved Quibbles’s life.” I slammed the paper on the garden table. The violent movement did not agree with the crazy chair. It shifted and creaked ominously.
“Easy there. No point in being jealous of a cat.”
“A cat who can line his litter box with five-hundred-euro banknotes, all thanks to me.”
“Speaking of Quibbles, I had a call from Trudy Nelson earlier. She wants to hire us again.”
A visceral hell no hit me between the shoulder blades. I swung around in my chair, making it creak again. “No way. Not if it involves her hellcat.”
He cocked his head to the side, and a gotcha smirk spread across his face. “What was that you were saying about work being work?”
“Work involving Quibbles counts as torture.” I held up my left hand. “I still have scars from wrestling him into our car after the cat show.”
A couple of months ago, Trudy had hired us to escort Quibbles to a cat show and act as his bodyguards. It had gone swimmingly—for Quibbles. He’d won first place in the show. I’d won a trip to the ER to repair the damage he’d wrought on my hand.
Lenny’s low chuckle chafed on my already frayed nerves. “I figured you’d say that. But I’m still—”
The laptop chimed with an incoming call. “The lawyers.” My heart danced and my stomach flipped and my brain went whiteboard blank. I wiped my palms on the front of my dress and took a deep, find-my-mind breath. “Ready?”
Lenny leaned forward and adjusted the tripod. “Yeah. We’ve got this interview in the bag.”
“I hope you’re right.” I clicked connect.
Five faces appeared on the screen in a neat row, ranging from stern to rigid. A crisply neat blonde in her late forties took charge. “Hello, Ms. Doyle, Mr. Logan. I’m Cora Fallon. Thanks for agreeing to talk to us today.”
“Hi, Ms. Fallon. Thanks for the invitation.”
She briefly introduced us to her coworkers, none of whom seemed capable of cracking a smile. In the middle of these social niceties, my lawn chair gave a groan worthy of a horror movie.
Cora Fallon paused mid-introduction. “Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, I’m absolutely—”
An awful noise of plastic cracking heralded disaster. One moment, I was sitting upright. The next, I was sandwiched between the back and the seat of the lawn chair, legs straight up in the air. The chair wobbled but thankfully didn’t fall…yet.
My heart beat an uneven rhythm, and the tangy taste of panic coated my tongue. I had to take this call. Maybe I could angle the webcam so they could see just my face. Yeah, I’d do that.
I grabbed the edge of the table to prevent myself from toppling over, fighting to extricate myself from the chair and reach the webcam.
“You okay, Maggie?” Lenny reached out to steady me. The movement proved too much for his lawn chair. The now-familiar cracking, and the chair folded in on itself, trapping Lenny in the middle.
In an unconscious imitation of my action a moment ago, Lenny hung on to the garden table, making it tip. We both let go, and our chairs teetered, wobbled, plunged sideways. I landed on the lawn, facedown, still stuck. An instant later, Lenny crashed beside me, equally trapped. As a final middle finger to our chances of salvaging the call, the table toppled over, spilling its contents onto the lawn.
Cora Fallon’s voice crackled through the laptop speakers. “Hello? Are you there, Ms. Doyle? Mr. Logan? What’s happening?”
“Oh, fu—dge. Just a minute.” My voice sounded muffled, strangled. As well it should, given that I was still facedown on the grass. I wriggled sideways and eased up one of the chair arms. Jennifer’s dress was caught between the grooves. Try as I might, I couldn’t get free.
“Ms. Doyle?” The lawyer again, more impatient this time. “What is going on?”
“Sorry, Ms. Fallon. We’re having technical difficulties.”
“I can see that.” Her tone could grate concrete. “Or should I say, I can see the sky—and what I believe is your thigh.”
I clamped my legs together. “A slight mishap. We’ll be with you in a sec.” I gave a monumental shove, pried the seat and back of the chair apart, and stumbled out of the Maggie-sized trap. Free at last. With a torn dress. Now to salvage my professional reputation and nail this job.
Lenny was almost out of his chair too. “I got this,” he said with a grunt. “Just. One. More. Push.”
A vicious rip, and Lenny was catapulted from his chair. He landed on the lawn with a grunt of pain.
My jaw descended in slo-mo, like a sluggish elevator descending. Lenny was no longer in his chair, but his gold lamé pants were. Which meant…
Lenny staggered to his feet, clutching his head. His hairy, bandaged butt faced the camera.
A collective gasp from the lawyers indicated our interview had plummeted to a new low.
“Did he strip?” Cora Fallon demanded.
“What happened to his left buttock?” one of the other lawyers asked.
“An ingrown butt hair.” I turned to Lenny. “Move out of view of the camera, dude. I’ll find you something to put around your waist.”
He rubbed his head. “I’m seeing stars.”
“I’m seeing a lot more than stars,” Cora snapped, “and I’m seconds away from ending this interview. Get your act together, or we’re done.”
Lenny shuffled out of the camera’s range.
I picked up the table and put the laptop and webcam back in place. “So sorry about this. We’ll be with you in a sec.”
“You’d better be,” Cora snapped. “If Jennifer Pearce hadn’t recommended your agency, I’d have terminated this interview the moment your chairs collapsed.”
“Technical difficulties,” I repeated, the words sounding hollow even to my ears. Sweat trickled down my back. I cast around for something, anything, to throw around Lenny’s waist but came up blank. In desperation, I tugged at the pants still trapped in the chair, but they wouldn’t budge.
He staggered sideways. “I’m dizzy. I’m going to face-plant on the lawn.”
“Hang in there, bud. I’ve nearly got your pants free.” I eased the pants out of their prison. They were ripped beyond repair, but at least there was enough material left for Lenny to cover himself. “Here you go.”
I tossed him the fabric. He missed. In an awkward stagger-strut, he lurched to the side to retrieve them from the lawn, bringing him perilously close to the table and webcam.
A jolt of panic hit me in the solar plexus. “Nooo. Don’t move.”
“Huh?” Still clutching his head, Lenny turned around, giving the lawyers an X-rated full-frontal view.
Cora Fallon’s screech told me all I needed to know about our chances of inking that contract.
With sluggish movements, I moved to the laptop. “Apologies, ladies and gentlemen.”
Cora, purple with rage, began an outraged rant.
Feeling my gut twist, I closed the laptop, severing the internet connection and the last vestiges of my pride. I turned to my half-naked partner. “That went well.”
Lenny stared at the gold lamé pants in his hands as if seeing them for the first time. “Pretty.”
“Probable concussion. Looks like you’ll be making your second visit of the day to the Whisper Island Medical Centre.” I grabbed Lenny’s car key and phone from the lawn. He had a missed call from Trudy Nelson. I released a long sigh. “You know what this means, right? We’ll have to work with that obnoxious hellcat, Quibbles.”
From Apocalypse Meow by Zara Keane, Copyright 2021