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Secret Triplets

By:Holly Rayner

Chapter One

I had never been unhappier.

At this point, I would have taken just about any job. Another long, dejected look around my room didn’t do me any favors. The fluorescent light overhead was flickering, another corner of hideous green and orange wallpaper had come free, and, as I turned, my office chair almost toppled over. In the black of the humming computer screen in front of me, my reflection wasn’t even angry, just sad.

There was no point in asking myself how I’d gotten here, because I knew all too well. The date was marked on the calendar that was dangling precariously from a nail in the wall. It was back in January, on the page with Sherlock Holmes on his feet and ready for action, his iconic hat set on his head and his pipe at the ready. Below him, on the first square for January 1st, there it was: move-in day.

It had been a symbolic move-in day for a symbolic feat.

After six years in the business, I had finally gotten my own office, my own place. I was no longer going to work from home anymore; I’d made it. Sure, the only place I had been able to afford had been a crappy second-floor bathroom of a room, but I had just been starting out, just building my business; it had just been a stepping stone. Who would’ve thought it would have come to this? A stepping stone to bankruptcy? A few months’ worth of no jobs?

I cast my glare toward the foggy, spider-webbed window, past which, across the street, busy men in nice, clear windows worked unceasingly. “Private Investigations Boulder,” the sign below them read. Maybe in a few months I’d be there in one of those windows, working for the very company whose job offer I had refused a month ago. I took another look around my office and sighed. Sure, working for a company would mean a loss of freedom and independence, but at least I’d have something to do.

Checking my email on my computer only confirmed what I knew already: no emails, no jobs, nothing. It had been like this since Private Investigations Boulder had set up shop across the street—even getting a sit-down with a potential client didn’t mean much these days.

My computer screen reflection tucked a piece of hair behind its ear self-consciously.

Maybe I just needed a haircut, some glasses, something. A blue-eyed blonde wasn’t exactly what anyone would call promising detective material. And yet, I had proven myself, hadn’t I?

My gaze went to my corkboard, where my previous successes hung proud: the Donatti family shaking my hand, their olive faces bright with smiles after I found their missing inheritance; Jenna Baker’s surly frown, a nice contrast to the Baker family’s faces when I showed up with their missing daughter in tow; then, near the bottom, with a pin stabbed through its tail, Miss Murple’s unimpressed-looking fat tabby, Oscar, my proudest achievement of all. Nabbing Oscar’s burglar had been no small feat. The bent-over, gangly man had run, tabby blob in hands, for blocks before he finally gave up and handed the poor yowling thing over.

And yet, what difference had that made? My gaze fell to my phone, the ugly old taupe thing that I couldn’t remember hearing ring in the past week, or even month for that matter.

The difference all my past accomplishments had made was not much. No, not much difference now that I was stuck here in this cramped box with nothing to do but regret not accepting the job offer from the very company that was putting me out of business.

In fact, my previous successes were proving to be more useless than I had even thought. In the beginning, I’d taken the difficulties in stride, assuming my lack of experience and being a woman were obstacles that would be overcome with time. This, however, proved not to be the case. Despite my experience, no one took me seriously as a private investigator. It was one thing to be a woman, but it was another thing to be a blond, blue-eyed, young-looking one who smiled too much and had a high, uncertain voice.

Yes, my appearance certainly wasn’t helping, as my two latest interviews had shown. In the first one last week, the shawled old woman and suited old man had taken one look at me as I’d opened the door before flying off, mumbling some unlikely story about a detective mix-up. In the second one a few days ago, a sour-faced pair of sisters had only pretended to give me a chance, drilling me with such ridiculous questions that when they marched out there, high and mighty with their rejection of my suitability, I was actually relieved.

My gaze rose to the smiley-faced clock on the wall beside me, which was grinning mockery at me. Five p.m.

I threw my pen at it, though the cheap blue thing just bounced off the glass and then onto the carpet below.

If Mom had known how that stupid, cartoon, black-and-white, smiling thing would mock me, reminding me of every new day that passed with fewer and fewer clients and less hope for a better future, she would’ve never bought it for me.

But she’d had no idea how badly this would all go. Hell, I’d had no idea either.

And yet now here I was, once again staring at the ironic reminder of my failure. Another day gone, and I’d done nothing but lost some rounds of chess to a computer, reread Critical Mass for the fifth time, and prayed, hoped, longed for a client, for anything.

The sound of knocking on the door surprised me so much that I almost fell off my chair.

And yet, even as I rose, the three sharp knocks were repeated, one after another, perfectly in time. When I opened the door, the man had his pale, skeletal hand crumpled into another knock position, prepared for three more knocks, presumably.

“Are you Alex Combs?” his high-pitched voice asked.

I stared at him. My mind was so busy processing what it was seeing that it couldn’t come up with anything to say yet. White hair, yellow teeth, aquiline nose, hollowed-out face—this man looked more like a movie villain than anything. Hi