Unexpected

The dimness of dusk and a decade’s worth of grime made the rundown apartment block’s orange bricks appear a shadowy brown. Double checking the glossy business card in his hands, Francis made sure that every door of his Corolla was locked. Muttering about calm seas and sunny beaches, Francis looked back at his car, nervous. The northern suburbs were known for carjackers.

He left the safety of the streetlights, following a concrete path covered in cracks and invading weeds, to an exterior stairwell. Peering up into the darkness, Francis started climbing. Near the top, Francis froze as the light from the street reflected off the wide eyes of a brushtail possum. With blood-red irises and dark patches of bristling pelt, it resembled a vampiric rat. A low guttural cough hissed out from the creature’s throat. Francis crept backwards. If that creature attacked him, he’d become one of the living dead, or at best contract rabies. A voice, sounding like it was scarred from too many coffees and late nights, echoed from beyond the top of the staircase.

‘Piss off, Larry. I’ve a mate arriving soon, and I don’t need you causing any heart attacks.’

A stout man, wearing a cheap dress shirt covered in ashy stains, appeared—brandishing a plastic broom like a sword. As he moved to strike, the possum, along with its aggressive façade, bolted over the side of the stairs. The stout man flipped it off and turned to leave. Loosening his grip on the railing, Francis cleared his throat.

‘Thank you for that.’

The stout man spun around readying his weapon to strike again. Francis flinched and held up his hands. After a pause, the man chuckled.

‘I see now why Larry was all fired up. Sorry that we scared you.’

‘That’s alright,’ said Francis with an awkward smile. ‘You wouldn’t happen to know where apartment twelve is, would you?’

‘Of course,’ said the man, groaning as he scratched his back with the broom, ‘I live there.’

‘Mr. Leeds?’ Francis moved to the top of the stairs, ‘the private detective?’

‘Sharp as a whistle, you are. Mr. Fowler, I presume?’

Francis nodded. ‘Nice to meet you.’

Mr. Leeds reached out and shook Francis’ hand with the firm grip reserved for tradies, thugs and fathers-in-law. The detective led Francis to a nearby door and opened it with a solid shove.

‘Welcome to casa de Leeds.’

Cracks decorated the plaster walls of the austere apartment. A small desk and couch occupied the lounge room, while an adjoining kitchenette was so small that Francis couldn’t imagine how the portly detective opened its bar fridge.

‘Take a seat, Mr. Fowler.’ Mr. Leeds squeezed his way to the edge of the kitchenette and used the broom to open the fridge.

‘You want a beer?’

‘No, thank you,’ said Francis as he sat, ‘I don’t partake. It can cause bowel cancer.’

Mr. Leeds patted his planetary stomach and chortled. ‘Hasn’t done me any harm.’

The detective returned with two beers, having managed to reach them by balancing on one leg, and sat behind the desk before cracking one open.         

Francis’ stomach fluttered. ‘I take it you found something?’           

Mr. Leeds put down his beer and opened a desk drawer. ‘I did. All the answers.’           

Francis stared in anticipation as Mr. Leeds pulled out two sealed envelopes, one bulging from the shape of its contents. The detective hefted their weight.         

‘Are you sure you want to know?’

Heartbeat accelerating, Francis was unable to pull his eyes away from the envelope.  ‘Yes,’ he whispered. Mr. Leeds passed them over with a shrug.

‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’           

Francis held the envelopes as if they were a new-born. Swallowing his hesitation, he opened the slimmer one first. It was filled with photos.           

Francis’s wife, Melissa and his best friend, Charles appeared in each photo. One was of them dining at a café, another of them exiting a shopping centre. There was even one of them entering his home.           

‘I was right then, they’ve-,’ Francis’s voice cracked.           

‘Look at the rest,’ said Mr. Leeds.           

Francis continued through the pile. There was a photo of Melissa and Charles entering a function hall, followed by one at a party supply store, and then one of them leaving a photographer. Tears stung Francis’ eyes. Not only were his wife and best friend cheating behind his back, but they looked to be planning their wedding already.          

‘Jesus, it isn’t that bad,’ said Mr. Leeds in between swigs. The callous words caused an uncontrollable sobbing to wrack Francis’ body.

Mr. Leeds gave him a pitying look. ‘Open the other envelope, mate.’           

‘Why?’ Francis muttered.           

‘Trust me, it answers everything.’           

With sweaty hands, Francis struggled to rip open the second envelope. When he did, he felt as if the floor had given out beneath him, and all the blood in his face had drained with it.            

Inside was a positive pregnancy test.           

Francis struggled to form words, ‘Are they …’           

‘No,’ Mr. Leeds walked over and put the other beer in Francis’s hand. ‘You and she are.’           

‘What?’ Francis blinked the tears out of his eyes.           

The detective sighed, ‘I found that test in the bin out the back of your house and I found no proof whatsoever of cheating. So, what might one gather from that?’           

Francis picked up the pile of photos and examined them again. His brow furrowed, ‘They’re organising a party?’           

Mr. Leeds nodded, ‘And?’           

Staring at the pregnancy test, the realisation flattened Francis against the couch. Wide-eyed, he opened his beer, took a long hard swig and said, ‘I’m having a baby.’           

‘Bingo!’ Mr. Leeds clinked his can to Francis’. ‘Congratulations, Mr. Fowler, you’re going to be a father.’           

‘A father?’ repeated Francis with growing joy.           

‘Right you are, mate.’           

Francis looked down at the envelopes, smiling. But then his brow furrowed, and his cheer melted.           

‘Why not just tell me all this in the first place?’           

Mr. Leeds grin softened as he resettled into his seat. ‘To be honest mate, after all the emails you sent me—worrying on and on about your missus, I thought you needed a wake-up call.’           

‘And what do you mean by that?’           

‘I mean, did you ever once stop to think you could ask your wife?’           

Francis went to speak but closed his mouth. Turning away from the detective’s gaze, he looked down at his shoes, toes pointing together.

‘No, but I could tell she was hiding something.’           

‘And that’s an excuse to hire a detective?’ Mr. Leeds downed the rest of his beer. ‘Take it from a man four times divorced, whose closest friend is a deranged possum. The moment you lose trust in a loved one, it’s game over.’           

Francis bit his lip, the detective’s words causing his chest to ache.               

Mr Leeds pointed a greasy finger, emphasising his words. ‘Take this little show as the wake-up call it is. Have a little faith in your wife. You’ve got a kid on the way.’           

What a fool he had been. Here Francis was in a shady apartment with a man he’d met on the internet, suspecting his loyal wife of adultery. The silliness of it all brought an honest smile to his face.

‘Thank you, Mr. Leeds. I think I really needed to hear that.’           

A jolly grin grew on Mr. Leeds’s face as he reached for the broom, using it to scratch his feet. ‘Oh, no trouble. Now, if my detective skills are as good as I know they are, you may want to check your phone.’           

Francis pulled his phone out of his pocket and realised he had several missed calls from Melissa.

‘I think I’d better go.’           

‘I imagine so,’ Mr. Leeds said with a wry chuckle, ‘But before you go, mind giving a five-star rating on Google?’

Francis bounded out of Mr. Leeds’s apartment. Each step felt electric as the dour anxiety he had felt for weeks melted away. Not even Larry, who hissed from his new perch at the bottom of the stairs, could ruin his joy.           

He dialled his wife.           

‘Hello, Francis?’ Melissa sounded worried, ‘Where are you? You haven’t forgotten our dinner reservation, have you?’           

‘No, my love,’ he said, barely able to mask his excitement. ‘I’ll be home soon. Just got caught up is all.’           

Pulling out his keys, he unlocked the Corolla, startling a shadowy figure hunched by its door.  Watching the stranger bolt into the night, Francis shrugged.           

‘Listen, honey. I just want you to know I’m sorry if I have been distant lately. I’ve had a lot on my mind. But I’m going to make it up to you, okay?’           

Melissa’s voice hesitated. Then she said warmly. ‘Good.’ There was a pause. ‘Are you sure you’re alright? You sound different.’           

Francis felt his chest warm and his smile beam. ‘You know what Melissa? I think I am.’

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