Besides being a novelist in the romance, mystery and nonfiction genres, I’m also a private investigator. This is a story about one of my P.I. cases that challenged my investigative skills, was littered with clues and red herrings like a mystery, and ended as a star-crossed lovers’ tale.
Hired to Find a Long-Ago High School Sweetheart
A young woman (I’ll call her Sara, which isn’t her real name) called one day, said she wanted to hire a P.I. to find a woman who had been her uncle’s high school sweetheart, whom he had married the summer after their graduation in 1956. The marriage didn’t last long, maybe seven years (Sara wasn’t sure), and after that they never spoke again. Over the years, her uncle had looked for his former sweetheart-bride, but never found her. Sadly, he had recently died. In his will, he had left some items for this woman, and his niece wanted to fulfill his final wishes.
The niece knew the woman’s first name (a very common one — for this story, I’ll call her Nancy, although that is not her real name), but she didn’t know Nancy’s maiden name. Sara guessed the woman had taken her uncle’s last name when they married, but she hadn’t been able to find anyone named Nancy-uncle’s-surname. She’d paid money to different online people search sites, conducted her own Internet searches, made random calls…but she couldn’t find a single clue to Nancy’s current name or whereabouts.
Sara was ready to hire a private investigator, and someone had recommended she contact me. Her uncle had never remarried, and Sara believed he “loved her to his dying day.”
I Accepted the Case
How could I not? This man had loved Nancy for over 50 years, hoping to find her again. I wanted to try and close the circle.
First, I conducted a background check on Sara. Any qualified P.I. does this to ensure a new client doesn’t have a darker reason to find someone. We see and read this in private eye movies and stories all the time — a woman hires a private eye to find her philandering husband or a father hires a private eye to find his daughter, when really they’re hiring a P.I. for more sinister reasons. Great stuff for fiction. Unfortunately, similar things happen in real life, too.
After verifying Sara’s history, I started working the case, first by tracking down a group of 1956 alumni from that high school. Fortunately, a few remembered the uncle, but none could recall his high school sweetheart Nancy being in their class.
Then one of the alumni looked at a yearbook from a later year…and she found Nancy. Finally, I had Nancy’s maiden name. Also, this put Nancy and the uncle’s marriage in the summer of 1957, not 1956.
Found New Information…and More Dead Ends
I found a cousin, a middle-aged woman, who remembered Nancy, mostly from stories her mother, Nancy’s aunt, had told her. But the mother-aunt had died many years ago. The cousin recalled Nancy living with their family when the cousin was a small child, but she didn’t recall the circumstances or why Nancy had been there.
The cousin recalled Nancy getting married very young, and that she and her husband had “moved back east somewhere” and “lived overseas for a while, too” although she knew little beyond that.
Couldn’t Get Beyond an Address in Virginia in early 1970s
I kept following trails of information, eventually found a residential address for Nancy in Virginia, from the early 1970s. But it was like hitting a wall. Couldn’t seem to find anything beyond that single address.
Frustrated, I started working other information…hoping for a lead to someone else who might have known Nancy. Day after day, in-between other cases, I’d pick up the threads for Nancy again and continue the search.
More than once I wanted to give up. Call Sara, admit I couldn’t find much, certainly not enough to track Nancy, and maybe she should try another P.I. — but I knew the next person would likely run into the same dead ends I had. And if I wanted to give up, maybe the next guy/gal would, too. What if we all gave up?
Not an option.
Anyway, I couldn’t let go of the case. Wanted to do it for the uncle, wanted to close the circle. I was charging for my time every now and then…but mostly not. I know other P.I.s who’ve done the same thing. We’re drawn into a case, we care about the people, care about the outcome, and we start doing the work on our own time. Oh, there’s some nominal fee the client is paying, but we’re not charging for the hours and hours above that. People often think P.I.s are a tough-hearted breed, that we skulk around bars and seedy back alleys, tossing off droll one-liners about the depravity of life, but the truth is, we can be a schmaltzy lot.
Found a New Lead
The name of a priest. Didn’t know why he was connected to Nancy, but apparently they had known each other well. Perhaps she was active in a church? Perhaps he was a family friend or member? Through that single connection, I started unearthing other leads, names…made phone calls to people who also seemed connected to Nancy in some way, left them voice messages.
One called me back. “I’m Nancy’s son — how can I help you?”
I was elated. I explained I was a P.I. hired to find her by a family she had known back when she was in high school. “Would you mind giving my phone number to your mother? It would mean a lot to this family if she would call me back.”
He said he’d forward my number. No promises, though, that she’d call me.
Nancy called me, surprised. “How did you find me?”
There’s something surreal, and astonishing, about a moment like this. I had spent months trying to find her. Had studied everything I could about the uncle, learned bits and pieces about this mysterious Nancy, this young woman who had never left his heart. Had stayed up many nights discussing the case with my husband, at the time my P.I. partner as well, the two of us going over and over the clues, the leads.
And now I was on the phone with Nancy, hearing her voice for the first time.
I told her it hadn’t been easy finding her. That in fact, it had taken several months. I explained how I had kept hitting a dead end after an old residential address in Virginia in the early 1970s.
I nearly fell off my chair. Virginia. The Pentagon. She had lived overseas. Now it all made sense.
“My son said a family from my high school days wanted to find me?” she asked.
I hadn’t mentioned the first husband to her son…it was a long time ago, over 50 years, and I didn’t know what Nancy had shared, or not shared, with the children from her second marriage.
I explained to Nancy that the niece of her first husband, who had recently died, wanted to find her because he had apparently left some things for her.
Nancy began crying. Through her tears, she said the uncle had been her high school sweetheart. They were each other’s first loves. “We moved overseas for a while, but we had trouble getting along, and I left him after we returned to the States…still, I loved him…”
She told me she’d lost her second husband a few years back, and was now living alone. I gave her the niece’s phone number.
The circle was finally closed.
Colleen Collins is a P.I. and writer. Below are some of her recent books — click on a cover to go to its Amazon page.
Praise for The Zen Man
"Great humor. Great dialogue. Author did a great job of establishing the relationship between Rick and Laura. It never overshadowed the mystery, but it made the book truly multi-dimensional."
~New York Times best-selling author Dorien Kelly
"A real page turner. I enjoyed this book full of suspense and surprises. I have never read this author before but will look for her next surprise."
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