I am writing the last couple chapters of Tallow Jones: Wizard Detective. We are just days away from the release and I wanted to give you all a little taste of what is to come.
I posted the first two chapters of the book several weeks back. You can read those here:
Now, without further ado, Chapter 3
Chapter 3: Uncle Tallow
“I’m telling you! Asher did not run away!” Douglas said. On the surface, he looked clean cut and professional. His suit was neatly pressed. His face, clean shaven. But his eyes were bloodshot and weary. His skin had a pale, unhealthy pallor. One didn’t need years of detective experience to know that he wasn’t eating or sleeping right.
Sitting behind her large desk covered in stacks of papers, the chief stared at him with weary eyes. There was no sympathy in that gaze. “Detective Jones, yelling isn’t going to change my mind.”
When Douglas had first come to the Atlanta Police Department ten years ago, he had liked the chief. Susan Johnson was new in office then. A lithe and energetic woman, she had been driven to make real positive changes in the department. She was always fair and cared about her junior officers.
Since then a change of mayor and the resulting tide of bureaucracy had stifled her enthusiasm. The years of losing political battles and long hours at the desk had taken their toll. Chief Johnson had become a squat brick of a woman. She was now as stubborn and as immovable as the bureaucracy she so often railed against.
The one remnant of her former glory was the fact that she kept their one group of detectives and forensics under her direct supervision instead of passing them off to other department heads. She had named it the FIU, or Frontline Investigative Unit. They were located next to her office on the eighth floor of the Atlanta Metropolitan Police Headquarters and they took care of cases hand-picked by the chief.
“Chief, I just need time to find more evidence,” Douglas said.
“He has been missing for a month,” she said for perhaps the fifth time in this meeting. “No ransom demands. No leads. I’m sorry, but we have to be realistic here. Your son is seventeen. Either he ran away, or . . . Well you know what the odds are.”
Douglas did know. With a month gone by, the most likely result would be that they would find a dead body. He had seen it too many times before with other teens. Asher was too old to be preyed upon by a pedophile, but just the right age to be a victim of gangs or other violent crime. Still, he refused to accept it.
“But Asher was too smart to get mixed up with-.”
“Enough, Jones.” A frown had appeared on her wide brow. “We have a heavy caseload. I cannot continue to allocate department resources to this case. The FBI will have to take it from here. I need you working on other cases.”
“Susan, please,” he pleaded. He locked onto her gaze with reddened eyes and swallowed back tears. “He is my son. I can’t just let this go.”
She sighed and looked down for a moment. She tapped a pencil a few times on a sheet of paper in front of her. When she looked up at him again there was a slight softening in her visage. He felt a stirring of hope.
“Okay, Doug. Listen, I need you here and focused on our current case load,” she said. “But, I will not keep you from pursuing this on the side. Just make sure it doesn’t detract from your other cases. Unless you find new evidence, I don’t want to hear about this again.”
“Thank you, Susan,” Douglas said with sincere gratitude.
“You can go now. Your new cases have been placed on your desk,” she said. He got up to leave, but as he reached the door, she spoke again, “Oh, and Detective Jones.”
“When we are in the office, you are always to call me Chief Johnson. Is that clear?” The previous softness in her tone was gone.
“Yes, Chief,” he said.
He shut the door behind him and headed towards his desk. He made it only a few steps before Detective Ross was at his side.
“So how did your talk with Johnson the Hutt go?” the big man asked.
“One of these days she’s going to hear you. You know that, right?” Douglas said.
“She’d have to leave her office to do that wouldn’t she?” Detective Ross replied, a smirk on his face. “Seriously though, what did she say?”
“She has declared Asher’s disappearance to be a standard runaway case. Department resources are to be shifted to more urgent cases.” Douglas reached his desk and plopped down into the chair. He gestured at the stack of case files with a frown. “She wants me to focus on these.”
“That’s what I thought she’d say.” Ross spat. “The heartless witch.”
Ross was part of a growing contingent of senior officers that belittled the chief behind her back. They were all pretty open about it and no one was sure how much the chief knew about the problem. In Douglas’ opinion, there were enough brown-nosers among the junior officers that she had to know everything. Either she just didn’t care or one day soon she was going to come down hard on all of them.
“Actually it went better than I expected,” Douglas said. “She has given me permission to pursue Asher’s disappearance on my own time.”
Ross smirked. “Like she could have stopped you anyway?”
“No, but if she had forbid me to work the case, I would have been risking my job by doing it,” Douglas said. “Now I can continue on the case without worrying.”
“As long as no one complains to her about it,” Ross added.
“If anyone does, I’ll kick their a-.” Douglas sighed and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his eyes. “Butts. I’ll kick their butts.”
“You know it sounds ridiculous when you do that,” Ross said. “When are you going to give this up? She’s not gonna know if you curse now and then.”
“No, Bob. A promise is a promise.” Douglas grabbed the top file on the stack and opened it up. “Besides, Aggie asks me about it every night. I can’t just lie to her.”
Ross laughed. “C’mon, Doug. You’re a dad. Lying to the kids is part of your job.”
He shook his head. “I don’t have that luxury. Not with Aggie. I’m all she’s got now. She needs to be able to depend on me.” He began to read the case file over.
Detective Ross gave up the argument and settled into his desk opposite Doug’s. They had been partners for four years. Though they weren’t too much alike, they had become good friends. Bob had been his biggest supporter since Asher had gone missing.
“Hey Bob,” Doug leaned forward, his eyes widening in disbelief at the file in his hands. He grinned as he handed it over to his partner. “Maybe you should cut the chief some slack. Look at the first case she gave us. It’s about the travel agency.”
Ross opened the file and slowly shook his head. He looked back up at Douglas and grinned. “Well I’ll be . . . darned.”
Douglas snorted at his joke and picked up the next file. Things were looking up.
The month since Asher’s disappearance had been the most stressful of Douglas’ life. During that first night waiting for his son to come home, he had been filled with rage. The anger had soon turned to anxiety and fear as the search for Asher was in full stride. Then the remaining days as hope faded had been as dismal as the weeks following his wife’s death.
On the ride home from work this day, Douglas felt more optimistic than he had in weeks. He wasn’t fooling himself. The likelihood that he would find his son was still slim. But he could at least keep looking.
As Douglas approached his driveway, he saw a beat-up 80’s Oldsmobile parked in front of his house. There was a man sitting on his porch steps. He felt a stab of anger. It was probably a reporter. He had been chasing them off of the lawn with regularity for a while now.
At first the local media had been a welcome tool in the search. They had led with the story of Asher’s disappearance just two days after he had gone missing. The tone of the reports had been sincere and supportive for the first few days. Then as the case had dragged on, they found different angles to report on.
Evidently a neighbor had overheard Douglas’ occasional arguments with his son and reporters had filled in the gaps with eager pens. The fact that Douglas was a respected law officer made for a juicy story and the reports soon lapsed into insinuations of parental abuse. Now on top of dealing with the loss of his son, Douglas had to bear the suspicious looks of those who had once respected him.
Douglas got out of the car and slammed the door behind him. The stranger stood as he approached. Douglas readied himself for a confrontation. He let his instincts honed from years of experience take over as he strode towards the man.
The man looked to be in his late forties. He was tall and slender and had brown hair streaked with gray that was slightly curly. Despite the raging heat, he had on a brown corduroy jacket. Under the jacket, he wore a blue and white striped button-up shirt with wide lapels that was open at the collar and left untucked over his weathered jeans.
The man stared at Douglas, his mouth agape in a wide grin. Douglas opened his mouth, ready for a quick “no comment”. But before Douglas could say anything, the stranger rushed in. He barely had time to raise his arms in protest before the stranger caught him up in a fierce embrace.
“It’s you! It’s really you!” the stranger said.
“What? Hey!” Douglas quickly gathered himself and pushed the man away. It wasn’t easy, the stranger had quite a grip.
“Oh gosh! Wow, it’s good to see you!” The man had tears in his eyes. The grin was still plastered on his face.
“Am I supposed to know you?” Doug asked.
“Oh!” The man slapped the side of his head with his palm and laughed. “I can understand why you wouldn’t remember me, Douglas! It’s been such a long time. It’s-it’s me, your Uncle Tallow!”
Douglas took another step back. He grabbed his holster to make sure the man hadn’t palmed his gun. “I don’t have an Uncle Tallow.”
“Right!” He shook his head. “You would know me as your Uncle Errand. I’m your dad’s younger brother. I had my name changed to Tallow a few months back,” the man explained, the grin never leaving his face. He kept looking Douglas up and down as if drinking him in. “Wow! Last time I saw you, you had to be . . .”
“Six years old,” Douglas finished, his memory kicking in. “The year my father left us.”
“Ohhh. That’s probably right,” the man said, his smile faltering for the first time.
Douglas’ father had run off with a woman that year and other than a single letter on his sixteenth birthday, Douglas hadn’t heard from him since. His father’s side of the family hadn’t contacted them much after that. Douglas had always resented them for that.
“Look . . . Douglas, about that. I wanted to visit,” the man said earnestly. “Several times I tried, but your mother wouldn’t let me-.”
“So. Uncle Errand,” Douglas interrupted.
“Tallow,” his uncle said, the smile returning to his face.
“Tallow, then,” Doug said. “What brings you here now, thirty-four years after our last visit?”
“Well.” Tallow swallowed. “Douglas, I am here to offer my services.”
“Services?” What was this? A sales pitch? “Is this one of those multi-level marketing things?”
“No-no.” Tallow laughed. He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a card, and handed it to Douglas. “You see, I am a private detective.”
The statement was so unexpected Douglas didn’t know what to think. He examined the card. On the left corner was the seal of the state of Idaho and on the right was a photo of Tallow giving a wink and a thumbs up.
“Tallow Jones, Private Detective?” Douglas read.
“I’m here about Asher,” Tallow said. “I believe I can help you find him.”
“I see.” Douglas felt a surge of irritation. He handed back the detective’s license. ”I appreciate you coming all the way out here, but I won’t be needing your help. I am a real detective. I have an entire police department at my disposal.”
“Yes I know. I keep track of my family.” He cleared his throat. “Douglas Jones, working for the Atlanta PD ten years now, recently promoted to detective. Son, Asher Watson Jones, age seventeen, missing for the last month. Daughter Agatha Anne Jones, age eight, and . . . mean.”
Tallow gestured towards the front porch. “I met her when I knocked at the door. You know she threatened to knit me to death? I have been sitting on the porch for the last hour, trying to figure out how such a gruesome feat could be attempted.” Tallow paused for a breath and his expression changed to a more serious tone. “And Douglas, I am truly sorry about your wife. If I had known at the time, I . . .”
“Uncle Tallow.” Douglas stared at the ground, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. As he spoke, he raised his piercing gaze to meet the eyes of his uncle. “The last thing I want right now is the help of a private detective. Especially when it is offered by the long absent brother of my deadbeat dad.”
Tallow met his glare unflinching. “I understand your feelings. And I deserve your anger. I know it. Please let me at least partially atone for the past by helping you find your son. I know more about his disappearance than you think. You see, before he disappeared, Asher and I had been in contact for some time.”
“You what?” Douglas’ anger evaporated instantly. “How?”
Tallow shrugged. “He looked me up online.”
Douglas’ eyebrows rose. Why would Asher seek out a distant relative like that, especially an estranged one? He took a notepad out of his pocket. “When was this?”
“That is what I am here to discuss. But can we continue the discussion inside?” Tallow wiped his brow, though he really didn’t seem to be sweating at all. “It is hot as blazes out here and I am wearing a jacket.”
“Right. Sure. Just a minute.” Douglas was still wearing his suit coat and realized that sweat was pouring down his face. He stepped past Tallow and walked across the porch. He unlocked the door and took a step inside. “Aggie!”
“Hey, Daddy!” She walked into the hallway from the kitchen smiling, her cheek stained with chocolate from a cookie she had been eating. Her black curls were frizzed out on either side of her face and she was wearing a short green dress over black leggings. Her hands were busy knitting away on some strange tangled pink pattern.
She ran up and kissed him on the cheek, then gave him an accusatory look. “Did you do any swearing today?”
“No. I was good,” he promised.
Her eyes moved to the man behind him and her nose crinkled. She gestured at the man with her chin. “Who’s that guy? He knocked on the door earlier.”
Douglas turned to Tallow who was smiling at Aggie with the same wide grin he had given Douglas earlier. “Uncle Tallow, this is my daughter Agatha. Aggie, this is my Uncle Tallow.”
“You have an uncle, Daddy?” she said suspiciously, her eyes narrowed. “He looks too young to be your uncle.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Tallow said, taking a step towards her.
“Hey! He looks like he wants to hug me.” Agatha frowned and held out her needles menacingly. “You better not hug me.”
Tallow held up his hands, his smile disarming. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“What’s that on your hand?” Agatha asked.
Douglas noticed it for the first time. A large square tattoo covered the palm of Tallow’s left hand. It was filled with multicolored symbols. The one in the center looked somewhat like a lit candle.
“This is called a naming rune.” Tallow stuck out his hand so that she could see it better. The square patch of skin with the tattoo on it looked thicker than the skin on the rest of his palm. “It says my name in an ancient language.”
“Why do you need a tattoo like that?” Agatha asked, a shrewd look in her eye. “So you don’t forget your name?”
“See, Douglas? She’s mean.” Tallow chuckled. “If you must know, Aggie, I burned my hand badly many years ago and this tattoo covers the scar.”
“Agatha?” Douglas said. “Why aren’t you at Jenny’s? How long have you been here by yourself?”
Agatha shrugged. “About an hour. Jenny had to go to swim lessons and I wanted to make cookies.”
With Asher gone and school out, Douglas had arranged for someone to be with Agatha during the day. On odd days, she stayed at her friend Jenny’s house. On even days she stayed at the Rutnicks, the neighbors across the street. They were a nice old couple, though there wasn’t much for Agatha to do over there.
“Why didn’t you go with her to her lessons?” Douglas pressed. “You know you aren’t to be left alone.”
“Yeah, I know. Sorry.” Agatha still had her eyes on Tallow, her eyes narrowed in distrust. “How come I don’t know your uncle?”
Douglas glanced at Tallow, not sure he liked how comfortable the smiling man looked in his home. “Well, he’s from my father’s side. We haven’t really kept in touch.”
“And I plan to remedy that,” added Tallow. “I am here to help find your brother.”
Her look of distrust softened a bit. “Oh.”
“Shall we sit down?” Douglas asked. “Why don’t you come into the living room and we can discuss it further?”
Tallow followed Douglas and Agatha into the living room and sat down on the couch. He looked all around the room as if absorbing every detail, the smile still plastered to his face. Douglas and Aggie sat down in the love seat opposite him. Douglas pulled the pad of paper and a pen back out from the jacket of his suitcoat.
“Now when did Asher first contact you?”
“About a year ago,” Tallow replied. “Hey, what’re you knitting there, Aggie?”
“A squid,” she remarked.
“A woolen cephalopod,” Tallow said with an impressed nod. “That’s a rare creature.”
She frowned. “It’s acrylic, not wool. I hate the way it squeaks on the needles, but I ran out of fingering weight wool yarn in pink and Daddy won’t take me to the yarn store.”
“It’s too expensive and you have plenty of other yarn to work with,” Douglas reminded her. “Now, let’s get back on track here. Tallow, you said Asher contacted you a year ago?”
“Yes,” said Tallow. “I believe it was shortly after your wife passed away.
Douglas swallowed and jotted down notes, wondering if Anne’s death had anything to do with Asher reaching out to a stranger like that. “What caused him to seek you out?”
“I wasn’t quite sure at first and to tell you the truth I’m still not certain what started it,” Tallow replied. “I received an email out of the blue one day asking if I was the same Errand that was the brother of Bernie Jones. I said yes, and he introduced himself as my great nephew. I was quite surprised.”
Douglas cocked his head. “And how did he find your email?”
Tallow leaned back and crossed his narrow legs. “I suppose that he found my website. You see, I run my detective agency online and my site lists all my services. It was the contact email on the site that he used.”
Douglas paused his writing for a moment. “I don’t get it. What did he ask you about? Did he want to know more about my side of the family?”
“It came up eventually, but Asher didn’t start off asking questions like that. He told me he wanted to become a detective,” Tallow replied, interlacing his fingers and placing them over his knee. “It’s all he talked about. He wanted to know techniques, rules and regulations, everything.”
“Dang it!” said Agatha. She looked up from her knitting and noticed that Tallow and Douglas were looking at her. “Sorry. Dropped a stitch.”
“But why did he come to you, a relative he didn’t even know? Why not just ask me?” Douglas wondered.
“I asked him the same question,” Tallow agreed. “He said that you wouldn’t tell him the things he wanted to know. He also thought you would be upset that he only wanted to be a private detective.”
“Yeah, Daddy wouldn’t like that,” Agatha said, then noticed her father’s glare and looked back at her knitting.
“No offense, Tallow. I don’t really like P.I.s,” Douglas explained.
Tallow smiled. “None taken. I don’t like many of them myself. By and large it can be a rather sordid profession. Especially if you don’t have a reputation for the right kinds of jobs.”
“So . . .” Douglas tapped his pen on the notepad digesting what Tallow had said. He had known that Asher was interested in mysteries. He read mystery novels obsessively and watched those horrible forensics shows on TV. But becoming a P.I.? “How often did he email you?”
“We spoke regularly, nearly every day over the last year,” Tallow said. Douglas’ eyebrows rose and Tallow raised a pre-emptive hand. “It sounds like quite a lot, I understand. I talked to him several times about telling you we were conversing, but he wanted to keep our messages quiet. He talked mainly about little mysteries he was pursuing. Asking my opinions on things.”
The thought of a year of daily emails made Douglas’ blood run cold. Looking for investigative advice was one thing, but to have that an online relationship that personal with someone who was a relative stranger? His detective instincts told him that this made Tallow a suspect in Asher’s disappearance.
Nevertheless, he couldn’t bring himself to distrust his uncle. He couldn’t explain it, but there was something about the man . . . Perhaps it was Tallow’s easygoing personality that was so disarming.
Douglas made himself focus on the facts. “Did you ever speak on the phone? Instant message?”
“No. He didn’t even text. Said he wasn’t allowed a cell phone,” Tallow said. “It was all just emails.”
Douglas frowned. It had occurred to him more than once that if he had allowed Asher a cell phone, things might have ended up different. “But we searched his computer. Our tech guys combed that thing over looking for any clue to his disappearance.”
“Kids these days are smart,” Tallow said. He leaned back in the chair, putting his hands behind his head “Especially when they know their parents are watching. Did you monitor his computer usage?”
“Every once in a while,” Douglas admitted. “Asher was a good kid for the most part. But seeing what I see every day on the job makes me paranoid.”
Tallow nodded. “Asher was smarter than most kids, Douglas. He knew how to hide things. He used a proxy and all his emails to me came from a remote site that offered email service. The address he used was firstname.lastname@example.org. All he had to do was delete his browser history. There are free programs out there that you can download to erase your history from even the most proficient computer search.”
Douglas jotted down notes furiously. He wished that he was more surprised by this information, but it explained a lot. “Did he talk to you about anything that can help us know where he went?”
“Perhaps,” said Tallow. “I kept all of his emails to me. They are on my laptop in my car. But the most telling email may be the last one he sent.”
“When was this?”
“May sixteenth,” Tallow replied.
Douglas underlined the date. “The day before he went missing.”
“He said he was working on a case,” Tallow said. “He asked if he could call me and talk about it on the phone. I was quite surprised.”
Douglas’ heart beat faster. This was the first time in a great while that he felt he was getting closer to discovering the reason for Asher’s disappearance. “So what did you say?”
Tallow scratched his head and gave him an embarrassed look. “I was busy with work and put off responding for a few days. Quite honestly, I did not know whether talking on the phone was a good idea,” he admitted with a sigh. “Finally, I sent him my phone number. He didn’t send a reply and after a while without contact I began to worry. It was a couple weeks after that before I found out he had gone missing.”
“Why didn’t you call us?” Agatha asked. It was the first time since they had sat down that she had stopped knitting.
“I . . . it’s hard to explain.” Tallow sighed again. “I didn’t feel comfortable just calling you out of the blue. So many awkward questions and it seemed so . . . impersonal. So I just packed up my things and came out here.”
Something about that explanation didn’t sit right with Douglas, but he held onto that thought for later. “Okay, so Asher said he had a case.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe I didn’t even know my son wanted to be a detective.”
“I knew!” Agatha said. “It’s all he talked about.”
“Not to me,” Douglas said. “Tallow, do you have any idea what he was working on?”
“I never got the details, but perhaps he kept them in his detective journal. It was one of the first things I told him to do when we started talking. A good journal gives a detective a way to go back and learn from his mistakes. Also, sometimes your first impressions on a case are the most correct ones. It’s easy to forget those early thoughts later on once you’re mired in the details.” Tallow said. He cocked his head at Douglas’ bewildered look. “You did find it, didn’t you?”
“I . . . didn’t know he had one,” Douglas said, the frown on his face deepening.
“I did!” said Agatha. “He got mad at me for drawing in it once.”
“Great! So it’s likely still here.” Tallow smiled and stood up, rubbing his hands together. “If we find the book, we may just find a new starting place for our investigation. How about we start by searching his room?”
END CHAPTER 3 PREVIEW