Yarrow House

Return to Sender

"The book was propped against the office door. I managed to stumble over it when I opened in the morning. Just a worn paperback. Maybe someone had borrowed it from Raine and dropped it off overnight. I tossed it onto her desk and settled down at mine. It was my month to deal with the bills, and I’d been putting it off until everything was overdue.  Bad habits die a slow and painful death.

It seemed like all the jobs we’d had lately involved sifting through old records looking for proof of inheritance, or finding missing cash or lost bank records. How did “Search and Research” end up so heavy on finances? Where were the odd and quirky jobs these days? The lost keys, the missing house, the ceramic dog, even?

I didn’t sign up for an office job and just because I was better on the computer than Raine didn’t mean I should be hardwired to one. I was so busy grumbling to myself I didn’t notice her come in—not unusual really—and also didn’t pick up on her question about the book until she thumped it down beside me. "Not mine,” I snapped and shoved it back at her.

“Not mine, either,” she said and settled back at her desk, transcribing notes from her little black Moleskine notebook. I couldn’t remember what job she was working. Something to do with expensive wine missing from a yacht moored in Shilshole. Why would anyone store expensive wine on a boat? Isn’t it supposed to be kept motionless at a stable temperature? Of course, what would I know. I only buy wine with one digit in their prices.

“How’s the wine job coming?” I asked. She ignored me and just kept hunting and pecking away in an annoyingly irregular rhythm.

I idly riffled the pages of the book. Love in the Time of Cholera. Not my kind of reading material. It flopped open at an envelope between pages 234 and 235. It’s surprising how often it pays to note pointless details like that. I flipped the envelope over. Postmarked in August 1989. Addressed to a Capitol Hill address. Return address was someplace on Whidbey Island.

I found a pair of latex gloves in my desk drawer and examined the contents of the envelope. One sheet of onionskin stationery. Date matched the postmark. Faded blue ink, kind of messy cursive handwriting. Evidence of a heartbreak, it sounded like—“We can’t go on like this. Better not to see each other again,” and so on. The sender’s signature matched the inscription on the book’s flyleaf: “To Ginger, my sugar and spice. Always, Willow.” Always hadn’t lasted for long, it looked like.

“Do you know a Ginger or a Willow?” I asked and over-handed the book across the room to Raine. She picked it out of the air and examined the cover. Read the inscription. Stared off into space. I was getting the idea that the appearance of the book at our office door wasn’t a random event.  “There’s a letter, too.” I waved the envelop in the air. “A Dear Jane letter. Want to read it?”

She dropped the book onto her desk and went over to the window. Leaned against it, staring out at whatever. It’s no use asking her questions when she gets into a mood like this, so I finished with the bill paying. “See you later,” she finally said and disappeared out the door.

I wandered around the office, pausing at Raine’s desk to pick up the book. I gave it another once over. Nothing special about it.

Willow had sent the letter. Ginger hadn’t returned the book, but had saved the letter. And now, my finely honed detective intuition assumed, Ginger wanted to give it back to Willow, via a mutual acquaintance. What was Raine’s connection to all this? Time for a little Search and Research. My fingers were rattling the computer keys all by themselves. I started with the return address.

My better angel, so often ignored, wondered if Raine was going to have problems with my poking into her private affairs. She didn’t like it. She’d made that clear on numerous, best forgotten occasions.  Still, I just can’t put something down, once my curiosity is piqued and, after all, she might want to know the current whereabouts of the two women. If she doesn’t already, my better angel whispered.

The address on Whidbey looked, thanks to Google satellite view, like a farm of some kind, house, outbuildings, extensive vegetable garden, orchard. A search of the county property tax records turned up the owners, two women, one with the name Willow.

The Capitol Hill address was for an apartment building, still standing, amazingly enough. The past few years have seen such an explosion of  development, you never know what low-rent place has become a high-rise condo.  It would take some more digging to find out where Ginger was. Long gone from the apartment, probably, after all these years.

So there I was with partially successful, but not all that useful, searches on my hands and faced with the usual detective question, “where to go next?” I opened the book and checked out pages 234 and 235 again. Tipping the book back and forth in the light, I could see that some penciled underlining had been erased: “...years went by before either one could find a way back that was not mined with pride.”

Well, that sounded like some kind of message, I supposed. I was deep into speculation, when Raine returned. She can see guilt on my face whenever there’s any there to see. Her eyes drifted to the book in my hands, then to the computer, and back to my canary-eating grin. “I just noticed something in the book that might be relevant,”  I said, making the best of the situation. She looked over the sentence in question.

“I thought as much,”  she muttered to herself.

I waited for more, but waiting for her to elaborate is a mug’s game, as they say in old detective novels. I fiddled with my computer keys, wished the phone would ring. Bit my tongue. But finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. “So, are we talking old friends, former clients, lovers?”

She ignored me.

“I can find them for you, you know. I can track them down in the databases. Search archives. Ask around. I could...”

“Leave well enough alone,” she interrupted me. “If Ginger wants the book returned, she can do it herself.”

“That’s cold. I think, it’s a message. She wants your help reconnecting, some way ‘not mined with pride,’ as the book says.” I’m not usually all that insightful when it comes to relationships, but this one seemed obvious to me.

“That’s a pretty faint clue,” Raine said and started pretending to work at her desk.

“Pride’s a two-way barrier,” I said to the corner of the ceiling. “Twenty plus years is a long time to keep hope alive, if Ginger’s sending a message to Willow. Of course, maybe she’s sending the message to you.”

“When did you get so philosophical?”

“Since I started reading my fortune cookies.”

Raine opened a desk drawer, looked inside, shut it. Shuffled a file folder on her desk. Picked up the phone receiver, tapped the key pad a couple of times. Hung up. Aligned a couple of pens. I’d never seen her this fidgety. I started placing bets with myself about whether she’d call one of the women or go out after one of them. She glared at me, and left the office again.

Going out had won. This time I was ready for her. I speed dialed our sometimes helpful shadow, Devon, who usually hung out at the Starbucks down the street. “Listen, dude, can you pick up a tail right now?”

The conversation stalled over his fee, which went up when he heard the words right now. I didn’t have time to bargain. “I want you to follow Raine. Just see where she’s going. Call me when she gets there. Don’t use your own car. She’ll recognize it.” More discussion of whose car to use. Time was ticking. “Act or lose the job, dude.” 

“Just saw her car go by. Gotta go.” The thing I do like about Devon is his instant action, once he does decide to act. I didn’t think following Raine was going to come to anything. But at least it was something to do. In the meantime, I could find out a little more about Ginger and Willow.

One of my first jobs for Raine, way back when I was fresh off the street, was searching through databases only police and PIs have access to. She didn’t like dealing with them, and I discovered I had a perverse taste for snooping through other people’s lives.

Of course, I snooped through hers, too, but I never mentioned that. She wasn’t so naive to think I wouldn’t, but she never mentioned it either. Consequently I can tell you the dates of her birth, very short marriage, induction into and discharge from the air force (with a high rating in special vehicle maintenance), and  PI licensing, plus where she’d lived, all the vehicles she’d ever owned, and a variety of other details she’d probably prefer I didn’t know.

I was deep into the databases collecting info on Willow and searching for info on Ginger when Raine pushed through the office door.

There are days when a little more privacy in our office would be helpful. I shifted the computer screen to my latest Tetris game. Better that she complain about my wasting time with computer games than about poking around in her business.

“So how much did you pay Devon to follow me? You’re not billing that to the company account.”

Dang, that woman was good. I hemmed and hawed. The truth was, after all these years, I was still trying to unravel the mystery of Raine’s personal life. You’d think by now I’d have figured her out: who she was when she wasn’t being the cool, detached detective; where she went when she took one of her rare vacations; who her friends were, if she had friends. I’d followed her myself over the years, just to hone my shadowing skills, I’ve said when she more than once caught me at it. Sad as it was to admit, Ginger and Willow were a major advance on filling in the details of her life.

“Here you are with a,” I paused, “friend,” I guessed, “who wants your help in mending a friendship. I’m just trying to help.”

No you’re not. You’re just being nosy. So cut it out.”

She snatched the book off my desk and headed back to the door.

“Where are you going?” Since she’d called me nosy, I might as well ask more questions.

“I’ve got a ferry to catch.”

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2014