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       Death and Taxes: An Urban Fantasy Mystery, p.1
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           J. Zachary Pike
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Death and Taxes: An Urban Fantasy Mystery

  Death and Taxes


  J. Zachary Pike

  Copyright © 2015 J. Zachary Pike

  All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  Gnomish Press, LLC

  P.O. Box 64

  Greenland, NH 03840

  Table of Contents

  Death and Taxes

  If You Enjoyed This Book


  About The Author


  Death and Taxes

  Arthur C. Torr met Buford Lafont when Arthur was still a young man. One might think the pair had known each other forever, given the length of Arthur’s gray beard and the wrinkles that spiderwebbed across his leathery skin, but unfortunately for Arthur that was not the case. Remarkably, only a few days passed between his first encounter with Lafont on the narrow streets of Portsmouth and the withering onset of old age.

  Arthur had recently graduated from the local branch of the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in philosophy and anthropology, which was useful for reinforcing his budding atheism but not good for much else. For several months, he did little but live as he wanted and enjoy the freedom of youthful ambivalence. But when the grace period on his student loans expired, Arthur was forced to seek out gainful employment. Failing in that, he decided to get a minimum-wage job to pay his debts while living in a friend’s basement.

  The job market, however, proved distressingly uncooperative. All of the local barista positions had been filled by more enterprising philosophy majors, and Arthur lacked the skills to do much beyond make a cup of coffee. The fast-food managers didn’t like his attitude, the retailers found his style lacking and his personal manner a bad fit, and the owner of the local hardware store just laughed him off the premises. By the time he took the bus to Portsmouth, Arthur had exhausted the Internet job listings and was on the last ad in the Help Wanted section of the paper, so his mood was both dour and desperate as he hiked through the crusty slush covering the treacherous sidewalks.

  Blue’s Doughnuts sat on the corner of Islington and Cunner, in a decrepit New England saltbox that had been repurposed as a simple storefront. The door was locked and the windows were dark when Arthur arrived, which struck him as odd given that it was just after seven in the morning—presumably the best time for doughnut shops. His mouth slowly twisted into a grimace as he waited outside, and he was about to trundle back to the bus station when an old, navy Crown Victoria came roaring around the corner, tires squealing in protest, and pulled into the driveway beside the shop.

  The man who struggled to emerge from the car put Arthur in mind of a walrus; he was enormously fat, clad in a rumpled brown suit with a green necktie, and sported a thick, salt-and-pepper mustache that obscured his lips. Cursing, the man pulled himself from the Crown Victoria and brushed past Arthur with a muttered apology.

  “Sorry. Sorry. Damn traffic,” grunted the fat man, fumbling with his keys at the door. “It’ll take a half hour for the doughnuts, but the coffee should be ready in ten minutes.”

  “That’s okay,” said Arthur, stepping into the shop. It was an old living room, with elaborately antiquated wallpaper and a painted tin ceiling. The landlord had installed a glass counter along the back wall, and a few mismatched tables dotted the worn hardwood floors. An ancient woodstove sat in one corner, flanked by a pair of faded, comfortable-looking armchairs. “I’m here about the job,” Arthur added.

  “What? Oh, good! You can see why I need help.” The big man extended a meaty hand. “Buford Lafont.”

  “Arthur To—”

  “Arthur! Good. Tell you what. There’s a box of stuff in the back of my car. Bring it in.”

  “Uh, I thought there would be an interview,” said Arthur.

  Lafont turned and looked Arthur in the eye for the first time. “There is. It starts with a competency test. Let’s see if you can manage to get the box from the back of my car.”

  It was a testament to Arthur’s desperation for employment that he returned a few minutes later, box in hand. When he did, he was dismayed to find that Lafont had locked himself in the back room, and left a list of tasks and a recipe for doughnuts on the front counter. With a burdened sigh, Arthur set to work. He mixed and fried and scrubbed and swept for well over two hours before Lafont finally emerged, carrying a wooden sign and some tools.

  “See you found the list,” Lafont said as he grabbed some nails from the box that Arthur had retrieved. “Good man.”

  “Am I going to get paid for this?” asked Arthur.

  “We’ll do questions later,” said Lafont brusquely. He pulled a plain doughnut from the tray beneath the counter and sampled it. “Not bad, Art. Not bad.”

  “Arthur. And I couldn’t find a recipe for anything but plain and glazed.”

  “Right. That’s all there is,” said Lafont. “Come on. Grab the small ladder there.”

  Arthur took the step stool from behind the counter and followed Lafont out into the cold. “But what about chocolate? Or coconut?”

  “Look, there’s two types of doughnuts. Doughnuts, and glazed doughnuts if you’re feeling fancy.” Lafont set up the step stool beneath the signpost. The aluminum ladder squealed in protest as he climbed it. “Everything else is just a cake with a hole in it.”

  “People seem to like other flavors,” said Arthur.

  “Then they can go somewhere else,” said Lafont, nailing the new sign to the post.

  Arthur looked back into the empty shop but decided to drop the subject. “About my interview?” he asked, shivering in the bracing March air.

  “Right, right,” said Lafont during a break in his furious hammering. “Can you work mornings? I mean be here at four, that kind of thing.”

  It pained Arthur incredibly to say that he could.

  “Good. And do you mind doing work outside the shop?”

  Arthur looked at the forlorn counter through the dusty window. “I think I’d prefer it, actually.”

  “Right.” Lafont stepped back down and examined his handiwork. Beneath the Blue’s Doughnuts sign he had added a smaller sign that read, “Private Detective Available.”

  “This is a detective agency?” asked Arthur.

  “It wasn’t supposed to be, but these yokels up here can’t appreciate a good doughnut,” grumbled Lafont. “Now I gotta pick up a side gig to stay open, and I used to be a private detective back before I joined the NYPD. Anyway, last question: anything strange ever happen to you?”

  “You mean besides this interview?”

  “I mean like weird things. Shadows that whisper or odd lights outside, that sort of stuff. You ever seen any of that?”

  “No. Should I have?”

  Lafont scratched his mustache as he scrutinized Arthur for a long moment. “Yeah, all right. You’re good, kid. Job’s yours if you want it.”

  Against every instinct, Arthur accepted the position.

  It was Arthur’s fourth day on the job when she walked into the shop.

  The woman wasn’t like most of the customers Arthur had seen, and not only because she was walking into Blue’s Doughnuts. She moved like a panther, her raven hair flowing, her green eyes sparkling with life. She wore a long black coat to guard against the cold, but it also served to accentuate her figure. It took considerable effort for Arthur not to stare as she looked over the doughnuts displayed in the glass counter.

  “Looks like we got a case,” whispered Lafont when he emerged from the bac
k room a short time later.

  “How can you be sure?” asked Arthur, never taking his eyes off the woman.

  “Well, for starters, look at how nervous she is,” observed Lafont. “The furrow in her brow, the worry lines by her mouth, she’s under a lot of stress. She needs help.”

  “She was probably hoping for a chocolate—”

  “Plus, nobody takes that long to decide between glazed or plain,” said Lafont, blithely ignoring Arthur. He waved to the woman. “How can we help you, miss?”

  The woman stopped pretending to examine the available doughnuts and turned to Arthur and Lafont with a demure smile. “Oh, hello,” she said. “I’m here to see the detective. Is he in?”

  “That’s me,” said Lafont, jabbing a thumb at his chest. “Buford Lafont, at your service.”

  “Oh thank God,” cried the woman, rushing to the counter. “Please, you have to help me! Is there somewhere we could discuss things privately?”

  Lafont looked around the room, which was typically empty of customers. “I’d say here is private enough, unfortunately. This is my assistant, Arthur.”

  “I just started here,” babbled Arthur. “I have a degree.”

  “Good for you, kid,” said Lafont. “What do you need, miss?”

  “Well, you see, it’s my Nicky. My boyfriend.”

  “Has he done something wrong?” asked Lafont.

  “Oh no. Nothing like that. It’s just that he…he’s gone missing.” The woman pulled a crimson handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed her eyes.

  “And how long has he been gone?”

  “Four days now.”

  “And you’re sure he didn’t just run off? Maybe another woman?”

  “Of course not!” interjected Arthur, earning himself an elbow to the ribs.

  “Oh, no, Detective,” said the woman. “Nicky and I…well, it’s the real thing, you know?”

  “I’ll take your word for it,” said Lafont. “And have you noticed anything strange about him lately? Anything weird happening around you guys?”

  “He’s been sick lately, but it’s not that serious. One day we were happy, and the next he was…he was gone. Oh please, Detective, say you’ll take the case. I’m so scared. What if he had an accident? What if someone took him?”

  “Yeah,” grunted Lafont. “All right, seems pretty straightforward. We’ll take the case, Miss…”

  “Miss Green. But you can call me Lillian.”

  “Great. Nice to meet you, Lillian.” Lafont wrapped her delicate hand in his meaty paw and shook it firmly. “All we need to get started is your address and a deposit.”

  “Oh wonderful,” said Lillian, pulling out her checkbook. “When can you start?”

  “No time like the present,” said Lafont. “Get ready, Arthur.”

  “What, really?” asked Arthur, finally peeling his eyes off Lillian.

  “I said you’d do off-site work in the interview.”

  “But what about the customers?” asked Arthur.

  “Way ahead of you,” said Lafont. He pulled an old coffee can from behind the counter, set it on top of the doughnut case, and propped a small paper sign next to it that read, “TAKE DOUGHNUTS—LEAVE CASH.”

  “You’re replacing me with a coffee can,” said Arthur, staring at the smug little Colombian man on the label. “I have a degree, and a metal cylinder can do my job.”

  “Don’t worry. It can’t sweep,” said Lafont. “Come on. We need to get to Miss Green’s place.”

  They arrived at the apartment just before noon. The space that Lillian had shared with Nicky until recently was a small unit in a decrepit colonial off Middle Street. The old building creaked mournfully as Lafont stomped around the living room, but the apartment itself was clean and decorated tastefully.

  “No sign of forced entry around the doors and windows,” Lafont muttered to Arthur, stepping away from the windowsill. “Write that down.”

  Arthur heaved a sigh and made a note in the small leather book Lafont had given him. He’d been hoping he would be asked to do an in-depth interview with Miss Green or at least investigate a crime scene. Instead, he mostly sat and watched the fat man roam around the room, writing down whatever trivial observations Lafont dictated. Lillian, for her part, seemed to appreciate Lafont’s efforts. She followed the detective closely, watching his progress and purring compliments as he worked.

  Buford stepped up to a wall of photographs, all of them set in simple, black frames. Arthur shuffled over and joined him. The photos depicted Lillian posing for the camera with men in dark glasses, button-up shirts, and wide grins. The men in the photos ranged from heavyset and hairy to thin and frail, so it took Lafont and Arthur a few moments to realize they were all the same person. “These are of you and Nick?” Lafont asked.

  “Yeah,” said Lillian, looking over Lafont’s shoulder wistfully.

  “He lost a lot of weight,” Lafont said.

  “Oh yes,” said Lillian sadly. “At first we thought he was just doing great on his diet, but then he got so skinny so fast. The doctors can’t figure it out.”

  “How long have you two been together?” Lafont asked.

  “Almost a year.”

  “Interesting. Write that down,” Lafont added.

  “Already did,” said Arthur to anybody who was listening. Nobody was.

  They moved through the apartment with brisk efficiency, Lafont’s experienced eyes scanning each room. The contents of the kitchen cupboard indicated that Nick’s diet was at odds with his recent weight loss, a noxious blend of snack foods coated in orange cheese dust and baked goods coated in powdered sugar. The bedroom was neat and sparse. Nick lived out of two drawers in a dresser—one for his T-shirts, socks, and underwear, and the other for several pairs of jeans. The bathroom was cramped but serviceable, with a medicine cabinet overflowing with painkillers and strange pills.

  As they investigated the rooms, Lafont asked Lillian questions one by one. Her story was straightforward enough: On the previous Monday, Nick Morgan told his girlfriend he had a couple of meetings to attend after breakfast, which was common given his occupation as a programming consultant. He left the apartment sometime before Lillian woke up Tuesday, which was also common given her habit of sleeping until well after noon. He didn’t meet her for a late lunch, as was their daily routine, and by evening he hadn’t called to check in. She contacted the police immediately, but their investigation had proven fruitless and Lillian was convinced it would end up lost in the bureaucratic shuffle.

  “That’s why I brought you here,” Lillian said, placing a hand on Lafont’s expansive shoulder.

  The last room they searched was Nick’s home office, an orderly cube furnished in glass and steel. Shining silver computers hummed and whirred on almost every surface. The shelves were mostly dedicated to books about software engineering and coding language, with more photo frames interspersed among them. Lafont quickly focused on a black folio placed neatly on the desk. It was crammed with receipts. “He keeps a lot of paperwork.”

  “He’s a consultant,” said Lillian. “But he was probably going to throw those out soon. He digitizes all his receipts every few months or so. I think he finished that batch recently.”

  “Fair enough,” said Lafont. “Arthur—”

  “I’m writing it down!”

  “Don’t bother. We’ll just take the receipts.” Lafont handed the folio to a sputtering Arthur and turned back to Lillian. “Now, did Mr. Morgan keep a calendar or a schedule? Journals, that sort of thing?”

  “Only on his computers,” said Lillian, bobbing her head toward a silver laptop.

  Lafont gave the machine a distrustful glare and snorted. “You got his passwords at least?” When Lillian shook her head, Lafont closed the laptop and handed it to Arthur. “Okay. I know someone who can get us in.”

  “Do you think that’s necessary?” asked Lillian. “Nicky hates it when people touch his computers.”

  “Desperate times, Miss Green,” said
Lafont. “Right now I know just about everything about your boyfriend except the one thing I really need to know: where was he going last Tuesday morning?”

  Their first stop after leaving Lillian’s apartment was The Cat’s Curios. “I know the woman who owns the place. She can get us the info from Nick’s computer,” Lafont explained as they trudged through the slush that covered the sidewalks of Portsmouth’s downtown. Every building packed along the streets of the historic district was either original colonial red brick or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The ground floors were now occupied by trendy shops and tourist traps baited with small nautical trinkets of the sort that seaside vacationers cannot resist.

  Though the city at large had mostly left its colonial roots behind, its snow removal methodology had lagged regrettably. “Doesn’t the city ever plow here?” said Arthur, stepping over a large puddle of slush and ice.

  “I’m sure it’s happened before,” said Lafont as he turned to wade through a slurry of ice and salt down Commercial Alley, Nick’s laptop and receipts tucked firmly under one arm. The detective’s plodding trudge through the snow reminded Arthur of Hannibal’s elephants marching through the Alps.

  “So, Lillian seems nice,” said Lafont, a broad smile twisting his mustache.

  “She does,” said Arthur warily. “But why do you say it like that?”

  “I dunno. I’m not saying anything,” said Lafont. “But she was being very helpful.”

  “Yeah, because she’s looking for her missing boyfriend.”

  “I’m just sayin’,” said Lafont, unfazed.

  “Well you shouldn’t,” said Arthur as they arrived at The Cat’s Curios. It was the lone shop on Side Street, which was little more than a narrow walkway off Commercial Alley. Arthur ducked quickly through the front door, mindful of the menacing stalactites of ice hanging from the eaves above.

  Once inside, however, Arthur decided the deadly looking icicles were likely the least menacing thing about the shop. “This doesn’t seem like a place where a hacker would hang out,” he said, staring at shelves laden with animal skulls, ancient tomes, and strange devices bristling with runes and crystals. He peered into a murky, green aquarium, then jumped back as something inside opened a single red eye and retreated deeper into the tank. “This is just about the last place I’d go if I wanted to get at computer files.”

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