By Melissa Marni
It was early morning in early fall. The world was dark, as it tended to be on autumn days such as this, newly unfolded and still smudgy from whatever was left of the night. A hum, low but gentle, rumbled not far behind Peter Luck, who was speedily making his way down a brick-paved road just as a garbage truck clunked past, leaving a sharp stench of old garlic and egg yolk in its wake. The smells followed Peter through every twist and turn of the street, all the way to 65 Tumbleweed Drive, where he entered an unlocked door without knocking and walked right into the office of Private Investigator Damien Moonshine. He should’ve known by the odor that followed him, he was stepping into something of an unusual affair.
“Hello? Mr. Moonshine?”
Peter’s voice was the only noise inside the quiet space decorated with dusty, mission-style furniture upon which books had been stacked eleven or twelve high. His muddled-brown eyes scanned the strange titles haphazardly piled atop wooden side tables and armchairs—Psychology in the Art of Murder; Witchcraft and Magical Realism: How Today’s Tech Boom Really Began; A Surfer’s Guide to Unemployment and on and on. Peter weaved his way around the lopsided towers of hardcovers and paperbacks, hoping the famous Mr. Moonshine might be hiding behind these books, though it was more than possible he wasn’t there.
A tiny part of Peter was relieved the room was free of the private investigator; it felt un-neighborly, intrusive even, for Peter to be standing without explanation in the office of a bibliophilic man he hadn’t ever met before.
Dire circumstances called for dire deeds, Peter said to himself. So here he was.
Peter hadn’t made an appointment, although there was no time for an appointment to be made and from what he had heard of the elusive Mr. Moonshine, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Everyone who lived in Scotinocia understood that the private investigator’s schedule was merely a list of suggestions he might uphold. The residents of Scotinocia—a hilly splotch of beachside land that collected itself exactly halfway between the coast of San Francisco and L.A.—didn’t mind Mr. Moonshine’s methods. For the town’s greatest (and only) private investigator, they could always wait. Except for today and except for Peter because he was fast running out of time. She’d be on a plane to Sicily by sundown and if he didn’t find Mr. Moonshine soon, he might also never find her again.
“Mr. Moonshine? Hello? My name is Peter and I could really use some help.”
Peter was about to let out an exasperated sigh and turn his brand-new Italian leather dress shoes toward the door when a turret of books stacked on the desk by the window fell to the ground and Peter was, without warning, looking directly into the blue, blue eyes of Mr. Damien Moonshine. (Or, if not Damien Moonshine, a young, blondish-haired, tan-skinned someone who had taken up residence at his desk chair.)
“Sorry, dude. Moonshine is here!” The private investigator jumped around his desk and ran to where Peter stood.
“Welcome, welcome,” Mr. Moonshine said with a hard slap on Peter’s back. “I apologize that I didn’t hear you the first time, Pete. Had one hell of a night out with the fellas. You know how that goes.” He laughed, a perfectly timed chuckle, and Peter thought how easy the dance of life must be for a man like Damien Moonshine.
“Dude, you are ta-aaaall! What are you, Pete, six five? Six six?”
“I’m uh, six five,” Peter replied, taking a step back.
“Mmm, five-foot-six, huh? That’s so rad!”
Then Mr. Moonshine whistled. Not a gentle flute kind of whistle but a loud windstorm kind of whistle that flew, as any well-whistled sound might, straight into the patch of skin at the very center of Peter’s eyebrows.
“Before you say anything, Pete, we need you on our basketball team. The next game is Tuesday at the court by the 18th Street lifeguard tower. Seven o’clock. Although we usually don’t start until eight so it’s fine if you can’t make it on time. I never do.”
Mr. Moonshine laughed again, and again Peter thought about what it would be like to be as extraordinarily carefree as the private investigator. Peter was, in every possible way, so unlike this happy-go-lucky man. Even Peter’s features were bogged down by the weight of his own seriousness; at the top of his six-foot-five frame was a too-long nose and dripping cheekbones and flat hair that collapsed in black wisps from a forehead that sunk toward two seriously thin brows.
“What size t-shirt do you wear, dude?” Asked Mr. Moonshine. “Large? Extra-large? Large is probably best so it’s a little tight. Show off those muscles for the ladies who come by.”
“I actually sort of have a girl …”
“Hey, Pete, no worries. I’ve got a guy and he can order you a jersey for cheap. It’s my buddy Matt and he’s the best. You’ll have your shirt by tomorrow. Maybe the day after if he’s got a lot going on this week.”
“Alright,” said Peter, unsure what else to say and even more unsure Mr. Moonshine was the right person to solve his mystery after all. But there was no time to find someone else. Soon the early morning would turn to late night and he’d lose his chance …
“Awesome! You’re officially on the team! And don’t forget to bring your board.”
“Yeah. Bring your surfboard. If the waves aren’t lame and glassy like they’ve been the past few nights, we’ll get in some swee-eeeet sunset surfing after we play.”
“Oh, sure,” said Peter in the same voice reserved for his Aunt Gladys when she asked if he liked her rhubarb-and-olive-oil pie. Peter didn’t own a surfboard and had never been surfing in his life. He had only moved to Scotinocia last year from Wickford Hills, Iowa. There Peter was a respected art historian of Post-Impressionism, and here he certainly couldn’t be a California wave-chaser with a penchant for basketball and sunset surfing; Peter knew saying any part of the truth would play badly for what he was about to ask.
The private investigator, for his part, had returned to his desk, cleared it of all books and was now staring directly at Peter, a green beer bottle in hand.
“So, Pete how can I help you?”
Peter wasn’t quite ready to tell him, so he spoke the first thing that came to mind. “Are you really drinking?”
“No,” answered Mr. Moonshine.
“I’m drinking and smoking.”
“Pete, my dude, it’s the most underrated hangover cure out there. Seriously you’ve got to try it if you’re feeling like your head’s been pummeled by bricks made from tequila and cinnamon whiskey. And mine totally was … until now. But enough about me. I’m all good! How can I help you?”
This was it, the moment Peter had anticipated all morning, when he would explain the real reason why it was so terrible that his wallet had been stolen last night. It wasn’t because of the money he had lost, he would say, or the credit cards he’d have to replace. No, everything in the entire world revolved on its worldly axis around the missing pair of earrings he had kept in the coin pocket of that very same missing wallet. These were the earrings he had been planning to give her today, the ones she’d wanted for months, the beautiful, lovely, irridescent earrings that would convince her to stay with him and not fly off to Italy with the dusk because what good was air to breathe or sun to shine without her as his own …
“Hey Pete, is your last name by any chance ‘Luck’?”
“Yes, that’s me, Peter Luck.”
“Well ha! You’re also in luck,” Mr. Moonshine said. “Guess what, Pete Luck?”
“I have your wallet!”
“Yes! Over the years, I’ve become the town’s unofficial lost and found guy, so of course Travis dropped your wallet off with me early last night. It was some time before we hit the town but after he found it on the sidewalk outside the movie theater. Maybe around nine? You should be more careful, dude. Wallets are expensive!”
“But the earrings …”
“Oh yeah, I’ve also got some earrings. Trav saw them next to the wallet and brought them with him, too. Kind of sparkly, dangly things with strings of jewels or something hanging off ’em?”
“Yup. They’re definitely pretty enough to belong to a chick with special ears. Or lobes. Special earlobes.”
And with an outstretched hand that contained Peter’s wallet and the earrings, Mr. Moonshine, the finest and possibly drunkest private investigator in Scotinocia, solved his first case of the day.
Peter took back what he’d thought was lost, thanked Mr. Moonshine for a job well done and ran to the door. “I’ve got to go,” he said. “But order that jersey when you can and know that I very much look forward to our game of basketball!”
As Peter left 65 Tumbleweed Drive and its books and private investigator behind, he couldn’t help but think how very bright and possible the autumn day had suddenly become, even if the air still smelled of rotten garbage.