Try this for a deep, dark secret. My boss, head of the famed Ballarat Detective Agency, he doesn't exist. I invented him. Follow. I always loved excitement. So I studied, and apprenticed, and put my name on an office. But absolutely no one knocked down my door. A female private investigator seemed so feminine. So I invented a superior. A decidedly masculine superior. Suddenly there were cases around the block. It was working like a charm. Until the day he walked in.
Jean looked expectantly towards the door.
Until the day he walked in...
Jean looked at the door again. In the hallway, a leaf from a plant gently fluttered to the ground. Otherwise there was silence.
"Oh well," Jean sighed, "I guess I'd better place an ad in the Courier."
A few days later there was a knock on the door.
The man on the other side was maybe fifty and handsome enough for his age, with broad shoulders, a close-trimmed beard, and piercing blue eyes. His suit had been neatly tailored but it was now fraying at the cuffs. He had an air of desperation about him, glowering down at Jean from the front porch. Jean stepped back a little. He looked nervously over his shoulder.
"Can I help you?"
"I saw your advertisement, looking for some sort of account manager? It looked intriguing so I thought I'd inquire."
Jean smiled and shook his hand.
"How do you do, I'm Jean Beazley. And you are?"
Jean quickly withdrew her hand.
"I wondered if that advert might attract the wrong sort. How stupid do you think I am? Lucien Blake died in the war. This is his father's house."
"Er, sorry. Thought it was worth a try. Should I leave?"
"Well you're already here so you might as well come in. I was about to make a cup of tea."
The man walked into the hallway and stopped short, taking in his surroundings. Dark wood panels ran along a yellow wall that opened up into a cheerful kitchen. The man muttered to himself in amazement before Jean reappeared in the hall.
"The kitchen is in here."
Jean poured him tea and pushed a plate of biscuits in front of him, which he accepted gratefully. For a long while they regarded each other in silence. It was Jean who spoke first.
"So tell me about yourself."
"Well, I left Australia when I was 17, went to medical school, and joined the army. Since the war I have been working for the British intelligence service in Hong Kong."
Jean looked unimpressed.
"Your first story was more convincing. So why do you want the job?"
"Well, you haven't told me what the job is yet. But I am looking to settle in the area and frankly I the need work. So, could you explain the position?"
"I need a man. Any man will do."
The man grinned and got up from his chair. He placed both his hands on Jean's shoulders and leaned in close.
"I would be more than happy to help."
Jean rolled her eyes.
"Sit down Mr...what did you say your name was?"
He slumped back into his chair. "Apparently I didn't."
"No matter, it's probably best I don't know. I have been running the Ballarat Detective Agency for the last five years. It started as small jobs - background checks, unfaithful spouses, the usual. But I've been making a name for myself, or at least a name for the business, and have a chance at bigger work. And bigger money! The problem is, bigger work comes with bigger people, and those people expect to see a man at the helm. Everyone who walks through the door wants to meet the boss. If they find out that's me, my goose is cooked. It's getting harder and harder to explain away the absence. And now there is talk if giving my boss an award. Services to the community or Ballarat commerce or some such nonsense. So I need a figurehead. Take meetings, shake hands, give the odd press interview. Give the agency some credibility so I can get on with the real work."
Lucien knitted his eyebrows.
"That doesn't seen very fair. You doing all work, and not getting any credit. Why shouldn't a woman be in charge of a detective agency?"
"Clearly you don't know Ballarat. That's just how things are. It's the cost of doing business. But that isn't really your concern. I don't think you're the right man for the role. The head of the Ballarat Detective Agency is young and debonair. He's intelligent and kind, well travelled, and very brave. Mysterious, yet approachable."
"You've given this a lot of thought. Does he have a name?"
"Sounds like a character in an American western. Too fancy."
"Too common. How about Lucien Steele? Lucien really is my name, and the best lies always contain an element of truth."
"Know a bit about lying, do you? Besides I just said I wasn't going to hire you."
Jean stood up and poured him a another cup of tea.
"Well for starters, you hardly look the part. You're much too old. And I don't think I can trust you."
Lucien appeared taken aback.
"Based on what?"
"Well you trying to pass yourself off as a dead man for starters. You're a con artist, and not a very good one."
"I'm not the one running a business under an assumed name and trying to hire an actor to cover for me."
"Fair point. I just don't see it working out."
Lucien leaned forward.
"Look. You can't hire someone you know. I'm a stranger in town, no one will recognize me. I need the work. And who better to play a successful business executive that an older man? I will be the voice of experience."
Jean appeared unconvinced.
"If it doesn't work out, I'll be in a bad spot. It's not like I can replace you with someone else."
"Jean...may I call you that? Look, Jean, if it doesn't work out, I'll make a big announcement that I am retiring to Tasmania and I've left the business in your capable hands. You'll get the recognition you deserve and I'll be out of your hair."
"I can't afford to pay you much."
The man smiled.
"I'm sure we can work something out."
"Don't even think of it, Mr. Steele."
The man feigned shock.
"See, you are thinking of me as Lucien Steele already. Actually I was thinking of something else. The thing is, I'm rather short on cash at the moment. I'm staying in a rooming house just outside of town. Not a very nice place I'm afraid but still, the cost does add up."
"I could ask around, see if someone needs a lodger."
"Yes, well you could, but that would look suspicious, wouldn't it? The great Lucien Steele as a lodger? I was thinking I might stay here."
"Well it's not like you don't have room. The house has five bedrooms, plus the studio, and you're here all alone..."
Jean leaped up and grabbed a pot off the counter.
"How do you know how many rooms I have? Have you been casing the house?"
Lucien backed away from the table, putting his hands out in front of him.
"Now calm down. I could tell from the outside. The house is big, it must have many rooms. I'm very observant."
Jean crossed her arms.
"Not as observant as you think. I don't live here alone."
Jean sat back down, keeping the pot defensively in front of her.
"No. Mattie, a young nursing student, lives here. She works part time as the receptionist for the business. And Danny, my nephew. He's a police constable."
"Well it sounds like I'll be in good company then. I'll bet a policeman in the house is a great benefit to a detective agency."
"As a matter of fact it is. You can have the small room at the front of the house. I expect you to answer the phone for the business and help with your share of the washing up. And I will be deducting room and board from your paycheck. No smoking in the house. And you will move into your own place as soon as you can afford it."
"Mrs. Beazley you drive a hard bargain. I promise you won't regret it."
"Somehow I think I will. Go get your things and I will show you your room. Your first job starts tomorrow at nine o'clock."
"What is it? Stolen gems from the bank? A murder investigation?"
"No, Mr. Steele. I'm sending you to buy a new suit."