This story takes place in October of 2010
"It's not exactly the sort of thing I do," I told the woman who wanted to be my client ... our client, actually, now that Cecelia's actively pursuing her own PI license and works for me in what's become an actual, real live, gen-you-wine detective agency. "But let me call in my associate," I said. "She's my wife, and I'm training her, and I think she'll want to hear about this one even if I turn it down flat."
I reached out with my right hand to the phone, and hit the intercom button twice. Cecelia and I have fallen into that method of summoning each other – our offices are across the hall, but even I agree that it's a bit uncouth to holler through open doors when company's in the place.
It was about 15 seconds before Cecelia came in. She clearly hadn't been occupied with anything vital, or she'd have buzzed me back to let me know. I saw what I always see when I look at her – a woman about as big around as a stick, with a narrow face like the blade of a hatchet, tilted black eyes, lips even thinner than most white women's, kinky hair just barely starting to go gray and pulled back into a tight short ponytail at the base of her skull. Objectively she wasn't all that much to look at, but again I saw what I always do when I look at her – the most beautiful woman in history.
"Yes, Darvin," she said as she came through the door. She was wearing a white cowboy shirt two or three sizes too big, so that her muscles didn't show although that's not why she likes her shirts too big, and a black denim skirt that reached the floor. Though the skirt hid them, I knew that she had on a pair of scuffed up brown cowboy boots with rundown heels. I could catch just a glint of gold at the open collar of the shirt – she never takes off the necklace, with its suspended ruby, that I got her as my way of proposing. Even if I'd known she was going to beat me to the propose I'd have still bought her the necklace.
"Have a sit," I said, waving at the other chair. The one on my right held the woman I'd been talking to. She'd told me her name, and that she lived in the High Desert development in the Far Heights where it takes money to live, she had a husband who billed incredible amounts of money every hour as a lawyer, and an outside lover was now extorting money from her. She was wearing clothes that clearly cost more than Cecelia's – the blouse looked like silk to me, the jeans had the careful deliberate fading that you pay for through the nose, and the bracelets and earrings looked like real silver and real turquoise. But next to Cecelia she looked like a pale imitation of class and elegance.
"Cecelia," I said, "this is Carrie Sutherland. She's got a case she wants us to take, and before she gets too far into the details I wanted you in on things."
"Very well," Cecelia said. She'd brought her pad with her, and she wrote on it – Carrie's name, no doubt, though Cecelia would be able to repeat the entire conversation almost verbatim for an hour or so after it ended. After that her memory would begin to let go, but she never actually needs to take notes.
I flipped my hand at Carrie. "Why don't you start at the beginning?"
She nodded. "There isn't much to tell, really. My husband is older than I am – 15 years – and, well, I have needs." I bit my tongue at that one – everyone has needs, but that doesn't mean that everyone makes a blithering idiot out of himself. "Robert isn't as ... virile ... as he might be, and I ... I took a lover."
"Have you had multiple affairs, or just one?" asked Cecelia.
"Is that relevant?"
Cecelia looked at me, and I nodded at her. She looked back at Carrie. "It might be, or it might not be. In this field of endeavor, any piece of information, no matter how apparently inconsequential, may prove to be the key to the matter in hand. It may prove that we never need to know the frequency with which you stray, but it may also prove to be a crucial point." Only I would have noticed Cecelia's slight hesitation as she talked around the bald word adultery – she loves big words and knows and uses them more than Bill Buckley ever dreamed of doing, but she also values calling things by their right names.
Carrie took a breath. "It was just the one time..."
"Please continue," said Cecelia.
"Well, my lover – call him Stephen – has now come to me with a polished attempt at blackmail. He hasn't been so crass as to demand money explicitly, but that's what he's doing nevertheless. The threat is, of course, that if I don't pay he'll tell my husband."
"Leave us not call him Stephen," I said, "unless that's his actual name. If we take the case, we'll need to know not only his right name, but his address and all sorts of other things about him."
"Well," I asked, "what was it you wanted us to do?"
"Make him leave me alone?"
I extended my hand toward Cecelia, and she ran with it. "Ms. Sutherland, I desire you to explain precisely how we are to persuade him to omit his extortionary activities, if we do not even know his name."
Carrie looked blank. Cecelia's English can baffle an English professor, but here it was, I thought, just as much the fact that she hadn't thought it through, and was only now coming face to face with reality.
"It's just that simple," I said into the silence. "If we don't know this chump, we can't wave 'im off. If you want us to make him go away, we've got to know who we're supposed to make go away."
"But," said Cecelia into that little silence, "what you're asking us to do is outside our usual sphere. To dissuade a blackmailer, without at the same time revealing the secret he possesses, is possible only if one can apply to him a threat sufficient to overcome his greed for money. I can conceive of only one reliable tool to apply to such a person – physical harm. Either the threat of harm, or the actual infliction of harm, would cause a blackmailer to seek less afflictive pastures in which to graze; anything short of that, I conceive, would merely move him to 'publish and be damned.'"
I raised my eyebrows at that one – Cecelia was merely quoting the Duke of Wellington, but even in a quotation for her to use a cuss word was an extreme rarity. She sanitizes other people's words as much as I do. But I didn't worry about the swearing just now, but instead took a practical tack. "In fact, Ms. Sutherland," I said, "you could tell this character exactly that – to do his worst. You could tell him that you're not a-gonna pay him nan thing, and dare him to make good on his threat."
She went white at that thought. "I can't. My husband can't know. Robert would cut me off without a dime – divorce me, and leave me penniless – if he knew."
"Bein' poor ain't no shame," I said, thinking of how literally penniless Cecelia's childhood had been. "You could get a job, earn your own money, be independent of any man's wallet."
"No! No, I can't."
I shrugged. The rich are different from the rest of us – they would rather suffer untold agonies than let loose of their money ... although at that Cecelia and I probably had as much money as the Sutherlands, though we live like any ordinary middle class couple and like it that way.
"Well," I said to Cecelia, "what do you think? Do we send her out the door, or take the case?"
She surprised me. "Though I find the notion of dealing with a blackmailer repulsive, I find such a creature's existence yet more offensive. I do not believe we can promise Ms. Sutherland success, but I wish to make the attempt."
I contemplated for a few seconds. "All right, here's how we'll do it. Ms. Sutherland, Cecelia will take the lead on the case, since she's the one wants it. You'll deal with her – she'll get the necessary information, she'll make reports, she'll track the time and expenses. And she'll direct me in my work on the case. I know I run this joint, but one of the perks of being the boss is delegating stuff I don't wanna do, so I'm delegating. Is that agreeable?"
"A trainee?" Carrie said, the sneer clear in her voice if not on her face.
"Yeah, but I let her come in the front door anyway instead o' makin' 'er go to the servants' entrance." My irritation was sending my always sloppy English into extra casualness. "You deal wif her, or you march on out the door an' don't come back. I know Cecelia's abilities and knowledge, an' if I say she's competent to take this case, you ain't got nan right to question my judgement."
Cecelia glanced at me, and then spoke to Carrie. "The one thing you must never do, Ms. Sutherland, is question my sufficiency in front of my husband; he takes it poorly. I have thus far been unable to persuade him that I did not create the sun and the moon and the myriad stars of all the galaxies; he persists in that belief, erroneous though it is." Only Cecelia, of all the people I've ever met, talks in semicolons. "Let's repair to my office. I do need to obtain information from you which I will use in pursuing this matter. Though I am indeed still, in your word, a trainee, I am neither a dullard nor a ninny, and where my experience and knowledge are wanting, my husband's expertise will readily supply the lack."
Perhaps it was just the fact that Cecelia talks like the college graduate she is – though a lot of college graduates don't sound much more educated than I do – but Carrie gave me a glare and got up, following Cecelia across the hall. "Well," I said, "I guess I didn't sound extremely intelligent that time." And I shrugged before I picked up the report I'd gotten from a Chicago PI regarding someone who seemed to be defrauding old people in Albuquerque.
.... There is more of this story ...