(Note: What follows is the opening for a novel I’ve “finished.” The reason I’m posting it is to get some feedback. The genre is literary action/adventure (is there such a thing?). The basic question I’m trying to answer is: would this compel you to turn the page to start the next chapter?–jrs)
The sun was shining in Portland and the rain was brilliantly backlit, looking like quicksilver as it swept in from the southwest. It was a Friday in the middle of October. I’d left Bucket, the stalwart dog, asleep on the covered patio of the houseboat I call home, so I stood alone on the circular corner where SW Capitol Highway crosses 35th in Multnomah Village, squinting from both the sun and the rain, trying to decide if I should have breakfast before going up to my office or after. I was enjoying the sensation of sun and rain sharing the moment when a voice next to me pulled me back to the corner.
“Are you okay?” it asked.
I turned to a woman, maybe a few years younger, looking at me with amused concern on her smooth, oval face. Freckles dusted her nose beneath eyes of colleen green. As usual, when I’m lucky enough to meet a pretty woman, my natural instinct is to say something clever and erudite. I attempted something, probably designed to invoke laughter and show off my command of the language, but whatever passed from my mouth was obscure, at best.
“What?” She looked puzzled inside her grey rain hood.
So much for clever and erudite. I tried again because the longer I looked at her, the farther the pit of my stomach fell into itself and it was all I could do to muster something vaguely simian.
Her eyes narrowed as she looked at me. “Really, are you okay?”
I took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes,” I stammered. “I was just admiring the juxtaposition of sun and rain and…wow, you’re pretty.”
It was her turn to pause. Her generous mouth turned downward as she processed what I’d just said. Her lips were slightly chapped and showed just a hint of gloss. The green eyes clouded briefly and then snapped back to clear and swift, reminding me of a Montana trout stream. They wrinkled at their corners.
“You’re sure,” she said.
“Oh yeah. You are really pretty.”
“No. That you’re all right, I mean. Your face looked like you were in some kind of pain.”
I was fairly certain that a response was indicated, but I was having difficulty getting past those eyes and the playful curve of her cheek. I wanted to shake myself like a wet dog.
“Yes. Really. I’m fine. Can I help you?”
“Yes you can.” She looked quizzically at me. “I’m looking for this address.”
She held up a business card for me to see. I brightened. “Sure,” I said. “The address scheme can be a little confusing here, but it’s right across the street and up the stairs. Follow me.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” she said. “I can find my own way.”
“I’m sure you can, but I’m going up there anyway. It’s really no problem.”
We got to the top of the stairs and I unlocked my office door. She stood in the hallway dripping and looking concerned.
“Aren’t you coming in?” I asked.
“But…” Now it was her turn to stammer.
“You see,” I said, “that’s my business card in your hand and this is my office. Your natural instinct down on the corner after seeing me in such a guileless state was to inquire about my well-being. I think that’s rare.”
She watched me with furrows in her brow, her broad mouth held in a straight line.
“Anyway,” I continued, “you’re almost standing in my doorway about to ask me for help because that’s what I do and you wouldn’t have come over here with my card if you didn’t need it.”
“You’re Mike Ironwood?”
I looked at her eyes again, if for no other reason than to prevent myself from clumsily staring at the rest of her. “At your service.”
The corners of her eyes crinkled again and she cocked her head slightly to the right. She swept past me into the office, unbuttoning her coat. As she passed, I breathed in a hint of damp meadow and juniper. I closed the door and took her coat, which I hung on the free-standing rack in the corner. My battered wet leather and soggy Mariners cap soon joined it.
Smoothing what’s left of my hair, I went around the solitary, plain desk and stood behind it. I switched on the short lamp, which cast a warm amber glow to the room.
“Please sit down,” I said.
We sat at the same time. Beneath her coat she was wearing a ribbed sea-colored sweater and a pair of faded blue jeans tucked into tooled cowboy boots that looked worn but well cared for. The jeans were snug enough to show me that she was in shape, but not too tight to look uncomfortable. Her legs were long and disappeared up under the sweater where her hips began to flair. Her shoulders were wide for a woman her size and strong-looking. She wore no jewelry except for small green earring studs and I caught just a glimpse of a narrow gold chain at her neck. But it was her hair that captured most of my attention. It fell to her shoulders in natural waves, deeply and darkly red with highlights of gold. As I sat there dumbfounded, I realized all at once that I was going to have to be very, very careful, as if my entire life had lifted itself onto a precarious fulcrum.
I smiled. It wasn’t my most dazzling smile. I usually saved that one for when fees were discussed. It was more of a calm, professional smile, designed to put potential clients at ease.
She chuckled. “You have the goofiest smile. I like it.”
I looked over her shoulder and sighed. I think my smile thinned a little.
“Okay,” I said. “I guess I can stop pretending. Please allow me to call up my best professional decorum and ask you why you’re here. Yes, I’m Mike Ironwood and I really am a freelance investigator. But right now, Miss…”
“Call me Willy.”
I paused. “Willy…?”
“Short for Willimina. Willimina Hayes.”
I nodded. We both sat and regarded one another. I was unsure if I could be trusted, should she decide to trust me with whatever she’d come to ask. I think she was wondering much the same thing. Finally, I watched her make a decision. I’m not certain how I knew it. Maybe it was the subtle set her jaw took on. Maybe it was how her eyes widened and seemed to dwarf the dichotomous sky outside.
“Somebody is watching me,” she said. “I don’t know who and I don’t know why. There have also been several calls asking me if I want to sell my ranch. I do not. I can’t help but think these two things are related.”
Her hopeful look showed me the fear that had been lurking in her heart, something my instincts would have normally registered, but due to my own preoccupation with her, had not. A warning bell went off in my head. What else was I missing? My familiar edge was getting duller by the minute.
“Who gave you my card?” I asked.
Her mouth offered a wistful twist. “Nobody,” she said. “I found it in a phone book in a café I frequent in Prineville. It was stuck, as a bookmark I assume, between the pages labeled ‘Attorneys.’”
I’d been in Prineville last month on a motorcycle ride and had heard that an old acquaintance of mine had hung out his shingle there. I’d been in the café savoring a decent cup of coffee to get some of the road hypnosis out of my head and had asked to look at their phone book. I’d just found his information when the power in half the town went out. Apparently, somebody out east on Highway 26 had driven off the road and into a power pole. The transformer blew and things had died to a dull grey. I guess I’d just stuck the card in there to hold the place and had completely forgotten about it.
“Okay. You found my card and just came to see me? All the way from Prineville? I mean, it’s a nice card and all, but you could’ve just called.”
Willy sighed. “I wasn’t sure until about thirty seconds ago that I wanted to get anybody else involved. I had to come to Portland anyway, so I just figured I’d look you up and see if you’d consider helping the proverbial damsel in distress.”
Her smile this time was an odd mix of angry and rueful. She wasn’t used to this. I was surprised at my own reaction. For whatever reason, it was apparent to me that there was very little that I would not do to help. As strange as it was, I felt like I‘d been born for it.
“Okay,” I said. “Tell me about it.”
Nice photo from helle.deviantart.com: