It was early morning in the middle of fall. The world was dark, as it tended to be on autumn mornings such as this, when the day was newly unfolded and still smudgy from whatever was left of the night. A hum, low but gentle, rumbled not far behind Peter Luck, who was speedily making his way down a concrete road just as a garbage truck clunked past, leaving a stench of old garlic and egg yolk in its wake. The smells followed Peter through every twist and turn of the street, all the way to 65 Tumbleweed Drive, where he entered an unlocked door without knocking and walked right into the office of Private Investigator Damien Moonshine. He should’ve known by the odor that followed him, he was stepping into something of an unusual affair.
“Hello? Mr. Moonshine?”
Peter’s voice was the only noise inside the quiet space decorated with dusty, mission-style furniture and books stacked eleven or twelve high. His muddled-brown eyes scanned the titles piled on wooden side tables and armchairs—Psychology in the Art of Murder; Witchcraft and Magical Realism: How Today’s Tech Boom Really Began; A Surfer’s Guide to Unemployment.
Peter weaved his way around the lopsided towers of hardcovers and paperbacks, hoping the famous Mr. Moonshine might be hiding behind the books, though with every step in silence, it was becoming more and more evident he wasn’t there.
A tiny part of Peter was relieved the room was free of the private investigator; it felt un-neighborly, intrusive even, for Peter to be standing without explanation in the office of a bibliophilic surfer man he hadn’t ever met before. He’d heard the stories, sure, but he’d never looked into the brown (or blue?) eyes of Mr. Moonshine.
Dire circumstances called for dire deeds, Peter said to himself. So here he was.
Peter hadn’t made an appointment, although there was no time anyway and from what he had heard of the elusive Mr. Moonshine, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Everyone who lived in this small, nosy community understood the private investigator’s schedule was merely a list of suggestions he might uphold. The residents of the town—a hilly splotch of beachside land that collected itself exactly halfway between the coast of San Francisco and L.A.—didn’t mind Mr. Moonshine’s methods. For the town’s greatest (and only) private investigator, they could always wait. Plus, it added some drama to the endless cycle of sunrise, sunset and waves in between. Time here lulled on like lazy water during a small swell. And nobody ever cared.
Except for today. Because today, Peter was running out of time. She’d be on a plane to Sicily by sundown and if he didn’t find Mr. Moonshine soon, he might never see her again.
“Mr. Moonshine? Hello? Are you here? My name is Peter and I could really use some help.”
Peter was about to sigh and turn his brand-new Italian leather dress shoes toward the door when a turret of books stacked on the desk by the window fell to the ground and Peter was, without warning, looking directly into the blue, blue eyes of Mr. Damien Moonshine. (Or, if not Damien Moonshine, a young, blondish-haired, tan-skinned someone who had taken up residence at his desk chair.)
So, his eyes were blue after all.
“Sorry, dude. Moonshine is here!” The private investigator jumped around his desk and ran to where Peter stood. “Welcome, welcome,” Mr. Moonshine said with a hard slap on Peter’s back. “I apologize that I didn’t hear you the first time, Pete. Had one hell of a night out with the guys. You know how that goes.” He laughed, a perfectly timed chuckle, and Peter thought how easy the dance of life must be for a man like Damien Moonshine.
“Dude, you are ta-aaaall! What are you, Pete, six five? Six six?”
“I’m uh, six five,” Peter replied, taking a step back.
“No way! That’s so rad!”
Then Mr. Moonshine whistled. Not a gentle flute kind of whistle but a loud windstorm kind of whistle that flew, as any well-whistled sound might, straight into the patch of skin at the very center of Peter’s eyebrows.
“Before you say anything, Pete, we need you on our basketball team. The next game is Tuesday at the court by the 18th Street lifeguard tower. Seven o’clock. Although we usually don’t start until eight so it’s fine if you can’t make it on time. I never do.”
Mr. Moonshine laughed again, and again Peter thought about what it would be like to be as extraordinarily carefree as the private investigator. Peter was, in every possible way, so unlike him. Even Peter’s features were bogged down by the weight of his own seriousness; at the top of his six-foot-five frame was a too-long nose and sharp, hard cheekbones and flat hair that collapsed in black wisps from a forehead that bowed above the weight of two thick, wild brows.
“What size t-shirt do you wear, dude?” Asked Mr. Moonshine. “Large? Extra-large? Large is probably best so it’s a little tight. Show off those muscles for the ladies who come by. You know?”
“I actually sort of have a girl …”
“Hey, Pete, no worries. I’ve got a guy and he can order you a jersey for cheap. It’s my buddy Matt and he’s the best. You’ll have your shirt by tomorrow. Maybe the day after if he’s got a lot going on this week.”
“Alright,” said Peter, unsure what else to say and even more unsure Mr. Moonshine was the right person to solve his mystery. But the couldn’t start looking for someone else now. Soon the early morning would turn to late night and he’d lose his chance … all his chances … he’d lose his life if he lost her.
“Awesome, Pete! You’re officially on the team! And don’t forget to bring your board.”
“Yeah. Bring your surfboard. If the waves aren’t lame like they’ve been the past few nights, we’ll get in some swee-eeeet sunset surfing after we play.”
“Oh, sure,” said Peter in the same voice reserved for his Aunt Gladys when she asked if he liked her rhubarb-and-olive-oil pie. Peter didn’t own a surfboard and had never surfed in his life. He only came to town last year from Wickford Hills, Iowa. There Peter was a respected art historian of Post-Impressionism, and here, as he studied for his PhD, he wasn’t interested in transforming into a California wave-chaser who played basketball and surfed at sunset. Peter played along though. He knew revealing any part of the truth would play badly for what he was about to ask next.
The private investigator returned to his desk, cleared it of all books and stared directly at Peter, a green, glass bottle near his left hand.
“So, Pete how can I help you?”
Peter wasn’t quite ready to tell him, so he spoke the first thing that came to mind. “Are you really drinking at seven in the morning?”
“No,” answered Mr. Moonshine.
“I’m drinking and smoking.”
“Pete, my dude, it’s the most underrated hangover cure out there. Seriously you’ve got to try it if you’re feeling like your head’s been hit by bricks made of tequila, limes and gin. And mine totally was … until now. But enough about me. I’m all good! How can I help you?”
This was it, the moment Peter had anticipated all morning, when he would explain the real reason why it was so terrible that his wallet had been stolen last night. It wasn’t because of the money he lost, he would say, or the credit cards he’d have to replace. No, everything in the entire world revolved on its worldly axis around the missing pair of earrings he kept in the coin pocket of that very same missing wallet. These were the earrings he was planning to give her today, the ones she’d wanted for months, the beautiful, lovely, iridescent purple earrings that would convince her to stay with him and not to fly off to Italy with the dusk. Because what good was air to breathe or sun to shine without her as his own? What good was anything good without her to make it even better?
“Hey Pete, is your last name by any chance ‘Luck’?”
“Yes. I’m Peter Luck.”
“Well ha! You’re also IN luck,” Mr. Moonshine said, stressing the “in” and laughing easily at his own joke. “Guess what, Pete Luck?”
“I have your wallet!”
“Yes! I’ve got it! Over the years, I’ve become the town’s sort of unofficial lost and found guy, you know? So of course Travis dropped this lost wallet off with me early last night. It was maybe right before we hit the bars. He found it on the sidewalk outside the movie theater. Maybe around nine? Ten? Who knows. You should be more careful, dude. Wallets are expensive! And this one looks leather.”
“But the earrings …”
“Oh yeah, I’ve also got some earrings. Trav saw them next to the wallet and brought them with him, too. Kind of sparkly, dangly things with purple stuff hanging off the ends?”
“Yes, they’re purple …”
“Cool. They’re definitely pretty enough to belong to a chick with special ears. Or lobes. Special earlobes, I guess would be the best way to say that.”
And with an outstretched hand containing Peter’s wallet and the earrings, Mr. Moonshine solved his first case of the day.
Peter took back what he’d thought was lost, thanked Mr. Moonshine for a job well done and ran to the door. “I’ve got to go,” he said. “But order that jersey and know that I’m excited for our game of basketball and surfing!”
“Surfing isn’t a game …”
Peter heard Mr. Moonshine yell out, a sound fading into nothingness as he turned the corner, leaving 65 Tumbleweed Drive and its books and private investigator behind. Back on the concrete road twisting down the hill, Peter thought how very bright and possible the autumn day had suddenly become, even if the air still smelled of rotten garbage.