Miriam Baxter lived life on the periphery, or so she told anyone who might ask.
Really, she lived at 55 Snowflake Drive in a skinny building wedged between tall pines and a railway, and made from ten little apartments neatly stuffed inside a dark brick frame. With prim type – Didot italic for those who know their lettering – the business card of Miriam H. Baxter announced her as Premier Private Detective and to prove the title right, she spent most hours of the day detecting what that could mean.
She had no formal training in the art of investigation but an Official Premier Private Detective Certificate fastened to the wall above herdesk served as written proof of her dedication to the craft:
The residents of 55 Snowflake Drive upon recommendation of someone unnamed have conferred upon Miriam H. Baxter the title of Premier Private Detective upon honorable completion of The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Vols. I and II) and upon honorable completion of several popular Agatha Christie novels starring Hercule Poirot and not starring Miss. Marple because Miriam does not like those as much. Also, in the name of honorable completion we should mention that Miriam once read half of a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe, the name of which we honorably cannot remember right now.
In the three years since Miriam began her Premier Private Detective career, she had solved but one crime and it had happened last week: A parking ticket, recovered with scrupulous flair from the downstairs garage of 55 Snowflake Drive, was found after the Premier Private Detective almost slipped on the piece of paper as it sat abandoned atop the concrete floor near her car. The ticket was addressed to Mr. Sandoval Jorgi of Apartment 3, who admitted at Miriam’s stern door-knocking request that he had lost the ticket two days before and thanked her very much for returning it so he wouldn’t have to pay a late fine. Furthermore, was she baking her famous shortbread cookies tonight? He thought he had earlier smelled them from the vents in his living room. No, she was not baking a thing tonight because in fact she was too busy working as Premier Private Detective, so he must have mistaken her kitchen with that of Mrs. Jeanette Windthrip, Apartment 1. Well, in that case, good night. Yes, Mr. Jorgi, good night all the same. Case closed.
It wasn’t too much of a wonder why Miriam had few – or perhaps no – clients. Her business card was held exclusively by each resident of 55 Snowflake Drive but nothing of any import ever transpired within those thin walls besides a lot of cooking from Mrs. Windthrip and the occasional piano playing of Mr. Sandoval Jorgi. Not even the railway made any stops close to Snowflake. The nearest station was a seven-hour drive away. How could she be expected to run a serious detective business with such difficulties?
Then, it just so happened that on this very day, at the windblown precipice of August and September, a man walked into her office – the same office with the Premier Private Detective Certificate on the wall – and turned her luck ‘round on its solitary ticketed face.
“Are you Miriam H. Baxter?” Asked the man who stood just inside her unlocked front door. Already, Miriam could tell he was of the vinegary but jovial sort. He wore a bowler hat one size too large for his head, hiding most of his face and revealing a faint lack of confidence Miriam found promising.
“Yes, I am she,” answered Miriam, with all the seriousness she could muster at the pajama-ripe time of six in the morning.
“Well then, are you the very Premier Private Detective whose business card I hold in my hand?” The man waved her own cream-colored card close to her face with sweat-glistening fingers overgrown into a mess of long nails and yellowing callouses at the tips of each thumb. A guitar player, no doubt, jotted Miriam on the first page of her notepad, which had already made its way into her hand.
“Indeed, I am one and the same,” she said, rubbing at the daybreak crud by her right eye.
“Thank goodness!” The man exclaimed, settling into the folds of a small, brown recliner by Miriam’s desk. He was just over six feet tall, Miriam guessed, and had to hunch to fit his back squarely against the chair.
“I had seen a Secondary Private Detective the day before this,” the man said. “But he was all nonsense and Secondary spectacle. What luck that late last night I should receive your business card from my dear friend, Mr. Sandoval Jorgi, who knows a great deal about my predicament and understands the futility of Secondary Private Detectives when grave outcomes are roasting on the stake!”
“I agree,” said Miriam, warming to the thought that she might have a client in this tallish man sitting before her. He had tipped his hat and she could see the bottom half of his face, which was filled with the kind of features you’d associate with a passionate, determined man, made mostly from a rounded nose with curled mustache below, hairs spooned thicker across the top lip than Mrs. Windthrip’s asparagus cream soup.
“Secondary Private Detectives aren’t worth a penny of your time,” Miriam added. She straightened her lavender pajama shirt to let the man know she meant business. “How can I help you today?”
“You can start by finding my prized Veuvian Colpetta,” cheered the man. His face – or at least the lower part of it – filled with the same exuberance Miriam now came to recognize as his facade. A facade, she recalled from some library book on investigation, is the stuff that characterizes every person. It is made from all the details and peculiarities that later become useful when solving a serious mystery. Or something like that.
“Veuvian Colpetta,” Miriam repeated, unsure but increasingly confident she would soon have a job.
“Yes, exactly,” the man said, setting his hat on the chair, top down. The label read Delly’s Lids, a popular hat shop in town.
Now hatless, the man stared at Miriam with the strangest colored eyes, close to a burnt yellow made duller beneath the shadow of his woolly eyebrows. Without warning, he rose and began to pace the office in lopsided, frantic strides. Miriam watched as the long tails of his sandy trench coat flapped in feverish whirls behind him. She waited patiently for his return to the seat.
When he sat down several minutes later, he spoke quickly and with purpose. “I am Mr. Marcus Dupoil, if anyone should ask, which someone probably will,” said the man named Marcus Dupoil. “And Veuvian Colpetta is an artist of severe fame among all circles of the ACTCPA.”
“What is the ACTCPA?” Miriam reached for the notebook on her desk and balanced it on both knees while she wrote as Mr. Dupoil explained.
“Oh, but surely you know?” His moustached face looked horrified, even as something else glinted in his yellow eyes. “It’s the Art Critics who Throw Cheese Parties Association. Veuvians make a very nice accompaniment to several varieties of aged French brie.”
“Yes, look it up if you ever have the time. It’s a fascinating organization and I’m proud to be its latest vice president. There’s a fairly small chapter here and that’s how I came to know Mr. Sandoval Jorgi, president of our local branch and a man with quite the impressive palate for drunken goats and triple creams.”
“I wasn’t aware,” Miriam said, only recalling Mr. Jorgi’s taste for shortbread snacks.
“Anyway, the story …”
“Of course, Mr Dupoil.”
“Twenty three years ago, at the start of my cheese partying, I had commissioned Colpetta to recreate my likeness while I sat very still for some time, inches away from the lush beauty who was my late wife, Georgia. And what a picture we made! Colpetta turned us into careful brush strokes and blushed cheeks happily coming together for a vivid oil-on-canvas painting worth six hundred thousand dollars today!”
“The painting. Was it a nude?” Miriam asked the question as any Premier Private Detective would but Mr. Dupoil held his breath in horror even as his eyes lit with excitement.
“Of course not!” He let out a sigh. “Any man destined to become the vice president of the Snowflake Chapter of the ACTCPA knows not to do that sort of thing. The painting was of Georgia and I in our evening clothes. I even had this hat on.” He tipped the rim of the bowler beside him.
This latest piece of information sent the Premier Private Detective into a swirl of confusion. She was far from a woman of the latest fashions but she did know something about time. Mr. Dupoil’s bowler from Delly’s Lids couldn’t have been purchased more than half a decade before; the hat shop opened its doors with a small balloon display and one poorly made firework five years ago this December. Either Mr. Dupoil was mistaken or, he was sprinkling this story with bits of rotten cheese.
“Did I mention the message?” Mr. Dupoil asked.
“Good. Then let me tell you now.” He paused, curling the left side of his mustache twice, then continued. “This painting contains a secret message that I had Colpetta place inside the glorious golden curls of my wife’s hair. If revealed, these words would surely lead to the immediate destruction of Mr. Marcus Dupoil! And now do you see the terrible problem I face?”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what does the message say, Mr. Dupoil?”
“Oh, I don’t mind at all. I just won’t be able to tell you. If you find the painting, you’ll know.”
Miriam listened with due chin scratches and the intermittent nods such as one would expect any Premier Private Detective to expertly include in conversation with an excitable and unreliably truthful client. She, a three-year professional, only needed the scant facts – missing painting, $600,000 in worth, secret and dangerous message – and then could continue gathering more information about Mr. Dupoil’s facade (or perhaps the technical investigative term was persona?)
As he spoke at present, she did so, noticing how the top button of his coat was unfastened, the rest buttoned to one hole higher than their proper spot. The jacket, without question, had been put on in tremendous haste.
“So will you help?”
“Help find the Veuvian Colpetta?”
“And help save my life! Really, Ms. Baxter, are you a Secondary traipsing around in the purple pajamas of a Premier?”
“No, Mr. Dupoil, I am most certainly a Premier.” Miriam pointed toward the Certificate above her desk.
“Ah, I see,” he said, satisfied. “Well then, we must meet our first suspect, a man who lives right below you in Apartment 3!”
“Mr. Jorgi?” Miriam asked with a memory of last week’s ticket-minded exchange.
“Yes, my dear Premier, one and the same with the man who brought me to your office today. We must speak with him right away if he is the one we seek! And I hope and pray it isn’t my closest friend in business and in cheese. But we must hurry. I’m afraid that once the message inside Georgia’s hair is discovered, the vile creature who stole this painting will be quite motivated to release to the world exactly what my painting has to say!”
Miriam understood none of it – not the secret message, not the questioning of Mr. Sandoval Jorgi, not the happiness of Mr. Dupoil, a man whose life seemed to hang in the balance of this investigation – but she was now absolutely certain that on this very day, in her Premier Private Detective office on 55 Snowflake Drive, she would solve her first mystery yet and live on the periphery no more.