Trusted By The Highlander – Rebecca Preston

Melanie fought back a yawn, reaching blearily for the glovebox of her car where she hoped there’d be a fresh can of energy drink among all the clattering empties. She winced a little at the sound they made, out of habit more than anything — she was parked far enough away from the hotel room in question that she knew any sound she made wouldn’t carry, even if the people inside were remotely interested in the goings on in the parking lot. They’d probably just assume she was a drug dealer or a sex worker or someone else whose business they didn’t want to get involved in. Not this late at night, anyway… or when they were busy with each other. Sure enough, there was a can of energy drink left, and she gripped it gratefully, shifting the camera in her lap onto the empty passenger seat just in case. She wasn’t in the habit of spilling her drinks, but you never knew what could happen — and she didn’t want to have to deliver that particular expense report to her boss. The agency was doing just fine and could more than afford a new camera for her, but she didn’t want to get scolded for clumsiness. That was the problem when your boss was also your dad, she supposed with a grin. Her tenure with him stretched back a lot further than the start of her job at the agency… When had her job technically started, anyway? If you went from the first time she’d stepped through the doors of the run-down little office in downtown LA, then… well, she’d been working there since she was a toddler. Dad had often had to take her into work back in those days, the fraught years after they’d lost her mother. Melanie didn’t remember her at all — something that kept her up at night, sometimes. Should she remember her? She was only six months old when she’d died, completely unexpectedly. A brain aneurysm, her father had explained to her much later, when she was old enough. Impossible to predict — and impossible to do anything about. She’d been dead before she hit the floor, and though her distraught husband had called an ambulance immediately, there’d been nothing the apologetic paramedics could do.

It was a story he’d only told her a few times — it still hurt him, she knew that, and even now, twenty-eight years later, she was careful to only bring up her mother occasionally, and only in a positive way. Usually with comments about how proud she’d be of her husband and her daughter, now, running the family business with such success. Orwell Private Investigation; that was the name. She supposed he probably would have gone with Orwell and Son, if she’d been a boy, but Orwell and Daughter had a strange ring to it that neither of them had liked. They’d been the only employees for a long time — but in the last few years, they’d gained enough momentum and enough referrals from happy clients to justify the expense of a second employee. Mark was only part-time, at the moment, but they both liked him, though Brendan had already warned him half a dozen times not to get any ideas about his daughter. Melanie had only rolled her eyes. She was eighty percent sure she had nothing to worry about from Mark… and when he made casual but meaningful reference to his husband in conversation, she revised that number to one hundred. At least her father’s paranoia was limited to her romantic life. When it came to doing her job, he never stood in the way — he’d always trusted her to be smart, to keep herself safe while still chasing results.

In return for his trust, she took good care of herself. The thing about being a private detective was that you saw a great deal of the more awful things that human beings were capable of, and it absolutely made sense to take every precaution. As a result, the belt she always wore when she was on duty held pepper spray, a taser, and a gun that she was fully licensed to carry. She’d done several firearms courses with it and knew how to use it very well — though she’d never had cause to fire it in the line of duty. Still, better safe than sorry. The line of duty, after all, was generally a lot of waiting around. Take right now, for example. Camped out outside a seedy hotel in the nondescript car that her father had bought for just such stakeouts, her camera in her lap and a glovebox full of energy drinks. This hotel housed a particular woman who had been known to the agency for some time — she had a certain predilection for seducing married men. Nothing illegal, no money changing hands, exactly… but her marks did tend to bring her lots and lots of glamorous presents, and she’d run through more than a few helpless marks’ bank accounts before moving on to the next one.

Though outwardly, Melanie condemned her actions, she privately found a fair bit to be admired in such a ruthless business model. She was a gorgeous woman, and the world had kicked her around plenty — why not get what she could with the gifts she’d been given? Melanie often thought that if she was five eleven with legs up to her eyeballs, she might consider a few well-paying dalliances with married men, too. Not that she was unpleasant to look at, she reminded herself, eyes straying to the rear-view mirror. She had a cute face, that’s what they’d always told her — from when she was a kid, through to high school, and even into adulthood. She kept waiting to grow out of ‘cute’ and into ‘beautiful’, but it didn’t seem like it was going to happen. Still, nothing wrong with cute. Cute was easy to underestimate… and that was very handy in her line of work. Besides, she loved her bright green eyes. Her mother’s eyes, her father had told her once, with a waver in his voice. She’d held onto that — a nice little souvenir of a woman who’d given her life, and whose face she couldn’t remember except for old photographs.

The mane of thick, dark brown hair that was currently pinned on top of her head, though, that was all her father’s. Shame she hadn’t inherited his height. Brendan cleared six feet when he wasn’t stooping, but Melanie barely scraped five and a half. The curves made up for it a little, though she did tend to get self-conscious in tight clothing… still, that was another weapon in her line of work. Maybe one day she’d meet a man who made her feel like using her beauty for something other than her professional goals, she thought with a roll of her eyes in the mirror. But today was not that day. Today was all about spying on the glamorous Amazon who was holed up in this seedy hotel room. She was definitely expecting a visitor — Melanie had watched her through the window as she applied perfume, moisturized her legs, even practiced a sultry smile in the mirror. It felt a little creepy, spying like this, and she did her best not to invade the woman’s privacy too much. It was her impending visitor that Melanie was here for, not his lover.

These cases were their bread and butter as an agency. This one was, unfortunately, a repeat client — a woman who had seen them half a dozen times over the last decade. She’d been one of Melanie’s first clients, actually, after she’d gotten officially certified, cleared to go out on jobs by herself — fresh-faced and eighteen-years-old, just out of high school and desperate to prove herself. So, her dad had thrown her this case. Cheating husband, the absolute basics — follow the guy, take photos of anyone he meets up with. No contact required, just surveillance. That time, it turned out, the husband hadn’t been cheating… or, if he had, he hadn’t done so in the four-week block that Melanie spent stalking him. It had been disappointing, for a first case… and their client hadn’t been happy, either. “I just know there’s someone,” she’d said, shaking her head bitterly. “He’s a sly dog — he must have known you were following him.

” “Gina,” Melanie had said, biting her lip. “Why stay with him, if you know he’s cheating?” “I want proof. I want proof that I can shove in his lying, cheating face,” Gina had said, shaking her head. Still, she’d paid them. And when she came back two years later with a lipstick-stained shirt clutched in her trembling hands, Melanie and Brendan had taken the case again. This time they’d been successful — shots of the husband getting very over-friendly with a woman at a bar — and Gina had reacted with such a potent mix of joy and fury that the two of them had almost feared for their lives. “Let me pay you double,” she’d insisted, her eyes shining with grim delight. “You’ve ensured I’ll be doing very, very well in the divorce — it’s the least I can do to share the cheating scum’s wealth around a little.” They’d tried to refuse, but Gina was a very forceful woman, and difficult to say no to at the best of times. And besides, back then the agency had just been starting out, and they needed every spare dollar they could get hold of.

The extra income took the strain off the fledgling business, and though her father had been keeping money stress away from her, mostly, sometimes Melanie looked back on those days and wondered if Gina’s generous payment had been the difference between success and failure for Orwell Private Investigation. They assumed they wouldn’t hear from her again after that, her satisfaction having been achieved… but a few years later, back she’d come, that same bitter look on her face as she unfolded the full story to the bemused father and daughter pair. It seemed that the husband hadn’t been divorced, after all. He’d begged her to stay, taken her on a whirlwind romantic trip all over the world the man kept getting money from somewhere, and Melanie had a grim and unrelated suspicion that he was some kind of criminal, or at least crime-adjacent. The trip had been enough, at the time, to convince her to give him another chance… he swore he’d cut ties completely with the woman he’d been seeing, that it was all just a mistake, a misunderstanding, a weakness on his part, Gina was the only woman he’d ever loved… “All bullshit, obviously,” Gina said now, shaking her head with a frank look on her face. “It always is. How old are you, sweetie?” “Twenty-two,” Melanie had said, blinking over at her father, who’d been carefully schooling his expression. Gina clicked her tongue. “You married? You seeing anyone?” “No,” she answered honestly. Her father had always warned her not to disclose too many personal details with clients, but being single wasn’t exactly a personal detail… more a lack of a personal detail, right? “Good,” Gina said firmly, reaching over to squeeze her hand.

“You stay that way, baby. Men are trash. Present company excepted,” she added, glancing over to Melanie’s father, who raised his hands to indicate he didn’t feel insulted. “They’ll just lie and cheat and steal your best years…” Sure enough, the husband was cheating again. To his credit, he hadn’t been lying when he said he’d cut off contact with the woman he’d been seeing years ago — this was a brand new woman, and the only thing she had in common with the first was her hair color. The photos Melanie got were even more damning than the first set, unfortunately… the crafty husband seemed to have learned his lesson, and instead of meeting his date at a public place like a bar, he’d gone straight for a seedy hotel. Unfortunately, he’d left the windows open a crack, and the two of them had been too… busy… to hear the click of Melanie’s camera shutter. She’d slipped away into the night, gotten the pictures printed, and brought them regretfully to Gina. They’d thought that that would be the end of the marriage. But there was something about this husband — some kind of master manipulation streak — that just kept his hapless wife coming back to him.

At least, that was what Melanie thought at first. She watched as Gina came back several more times, and she kept on catching the guy with a parade of always-changing women mostly blondes, though one memorable occasion involved a pair of redheads. Every time, Gina was distraught… tears would well up in her bright eyes, and she’d insist on paying extra as she squeezed Melanie’s hand. But she never left him. Not strong enough, Melanie had thought, shaking her head. But she’d had a lot more time to think during this stakeout, watching the woman who she suspected was Gina’s husband’s next affair. And the more she thought about it, the more it seemed that Gina knew exactly what she was doing. Her husband was rich, that was obvious from the company he kept — a man who looked like him simply wouldn’t be attractive to the kinds of women he was sleeping with if he didn’t have something other than his appearance going for him. Women were generally less shallow than men, but absolutely nobody was this deep. And Gina, though she dressed conservatively, was clearly making good use of her husband’s money.

Could that be it? Did she stay with him for his money, was it really that mercenary? She did seem genuinely upset when she caught him cheating… but she never did leave. Melanie was working on a theory that this routine was simply an accepted part of their marriage. She thought back to the trip around the world that Gina’s husband had taken her on that first time, all those years ago, when he’d been caught cheating the first time. How had he made it up to her the second time, the third, the fourth? With ever more extravagant gifts? Was this simply the way of their marriage — he cheated, she caught him and confronted him, and enjoyed a few months of pampering and crawling for forgiveness before the whole routine started again? It didn’t seem like any way to live, to Melanie. But then again, Melanie had never been married. Never really been in a relationship at all, for that matter. She had zero frame of reference for what Gina was going through. And for all that it seemed chaotic… she couldn’t deny that Gina seemed to be one of their happiest clients. So, she shrugged a little, leaning back in her chair as she sipped on her energy drink. In the end, it didn’t matter why Gina was hiring them… only that she was paying them to get information, and she was paying well enough that Melanie was going to do everything she could to get that information.

It helped to know that it was the husband’s money they were taking — Gina proudly informed them she hadn’t needed to work since she’d been married, and with no children in the house to take care of and all the household duties taken care of by staff she lived rather a luxurious life. That kind of free time was enviable. Maybe Melanie ought to look into getting herself a very rich and chronically unfaithful husband… she grinned to herself, shaking her head. She could never pull something like that off. Besides, she’d get bored without her work. Sure, stakeouts were tedious, but the adrenaline of successfully getting the information you were after made up for it tenfold. Speaking of which… she tensed and lowered her head automatically, slinking down in her seat, as she heard the sound of a car engine and the flash of headlights illuminated the wall in front of her. Was this it? Sure enough, a familiar SUV was pulling into the lot, sleek and black… it was the husband’s work car, the one he used when he didn’t want to be recognized. Joke was on him, there — Melanie had a file with photos of all the vehicles he used, courtesy of Gina, who was quite the detective’s assistant. She grabbed her binoculars from the passenger seat and rose up just enough to peer over the edge of the window.

Sure enough, a familiar shape was hastening across the car park toward the hotel — he was quite some distance, but she recognized him before he disappeared around the building, headed she assumed for reception to pick up a key. That was Gina’s husband, alright. Melanie grinned to herself, reaching for her camera and double-checking her angle on the hotel room’s window. It was time to earn her paycheck.

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