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.
Later on, when presumably Carrie Sutherland had left, Cecelia came into my office and sat down on the other side of the desk. "You are aware, Darvin, that I am perfectly capable of defending myself, and from far more fearsome attackers than that little baggage."
I shrugged, and laid down the pen I'd been making notes with. "Yeah, I know – but I can't let people put their mouth on you any more than I can jump to Pluto."
"Your similes are always outrageous, your love for me is perpetually reassuring, and your tendency to rush in where angels have no need to tread is frequently amusing."
"Amusing, that's my middle name."
"Your middle name is Franklin, my love, though I would never have known it had I not had the opportunity to peruse your birth certificate."
"An' that's why I didn't give Darlia no middle name."
"The reason we did not give her a middle name was that it never seemed necessary or desirable."
I could see that I was going to lose yet another battle of wits, so I quit while I wasn't too far behind. "To get back to the point, yeah, I know you can handle yourself. I've seen you do it. You've sliced up some pretty sharp tongues in your time. But when that twit thought she could be superior to you, and her in my office because she doesn't have the brains or the integrity or something to keep her pants zipped, it sort of made me mad."
"Though your ire was unnecessary, it did have valid reasons – and I must confess that I would prefer you to be too protective, over against being apathetic. The last thing I desire in a husband is a lack of concern for my well-being."
"Then you can keep me – I ain't got no lack of concern." I shifted gears. "So what's the summary of the case?"
"One Dwayne Jackson, or so he called himself, dallied with our client on multiple occasions over the span of eight months. The venues were various hotel – not motel – rooms, and on three occasions an apartment in the Heights. From Ms. Sutherland's descriptions, and correcting for her snootiness, I gather that the hotels and the apartment were in the comfortable range, but not outlandishly expensive. He has photographs, which she has seen, or she has seen some of them at any rate, and claims to have at least one video of a complete encounter. He is demanding $100,000, in the stereotypical small denominations – nothing larger than a 50 – no later than the end of the month."
I glanced at the calendar on the wall – it was just then the 18th of October. "I suppose his threat is to send proof to the husband."
"Precisely. Darvin, I surmise that this case could have come from one of the mysteries you read, and probably from the lower end of the spectrum, as regards originality."
"You surmise right, but sometimes mystery writers do get stuff right. Cliches – even, sometimes, cliches in books – are cliches 'cause there's truth behind 'em."
"Sometimes, yes – but you and I both know that of the several Jews of our acquaintance, not one has a conspicuously hooked nose, nor is even one of them demonstrably parsimonious."
"An' you ain't nothin' like the stereotypical black woman neither," I said with a grin. "But you're dodgin' my point."
"Not so – I acknowledged the partial truth of your statement."
"Okay, you're right. Big fat hairy deal."
"Are you glad that the desk is between us?"
I laughed. "Oh, yeah! Was you where you could reach me, I'm sure I'd have a finger in the ribs."
"And that sentence would earn you another finger – sometimes I despair of ever breaking you of your habit of deliberately mangling your grammar just to arouse my distaste for such speech."
"It sure is fun," I said. "So what's your plan for dealing with this critter?"
"Ms. Sutherland has a photograph of the man – not of high quality, but sufficiently clear for our purposes – and has given me a copy thereof. With that, and knowledge of the hotels and the apartment in the case, I will proceed to inquire of staff, guests, and residents to see what further information I can develop. Since time presses upon us, and it may be difficult to obtain correct information quickly, I shall begin directly after lunch."
"Sounds like a plan. Take some bucks outta the company account – don't bribe anyone if you can avoid it and don't go overboard if you've gotta hand out cash, but sometimes it'll prod memories, especially with the hotel staff. Unless things have changed since that job I did for the hotel in Dallas, the people who work there don't necessarily make a lot of money, especially in the back of the house."
"I have already written the check, and shall cash it on my way. Meanwhile, I propose, since I must get underway forthwith, that we dispense with my cooking and eat at Subway."
"You could make a better grinder in your sleep – and that's sayin' something, since Subway does good stuff. But yeah," I said, looking at my watch, "we'd better do it quick, which means saving your cooking for supper ... assuming you're back in time. The one thing I don't like about you doin' this is you don't always manage to cook."
Cecelia smiled, and ships launched in universes that don't even exist. "I recall a time when you stoutly resisted me serving even as your part-time secretary because of the low company a private detective necessarily keeps. And now you regret my activities as an investigator only because they adversely affect your stomach. My, how things have changed!"
"Ain't they, though?" I said as I got to my feet and reached for my hat. "I recollect the time when in years of marriage you'd only asked about a handful of my cases, and only superficially. An' now you're fixin' to become a better detective than I ever been."
"I must do something in lieu of civilizing you," Cecelia said, still smiling. "At least you don't eat like a barbarian." And with that she turned and went, leaving me no choice but to either follow or sit back down.
It was a week later when Cecelia came into my office. This time I was doing a background check – if you're willing to pay the fee, you can have an online service dig up all sorts of public records that you used to have to physically go to various offices and have someone look up for you in a book or on microfilm. I nodded at her to let her know I knew she was there, finished what I was doing, made some notes, and closed the Web browser.
I swiveled in my leather "judge's chair" that she'd bought for me years ago and looked at her. She was sitting in one of the chairs on the other side of the desk, so I only saw her from the waist up, or a bit higher than the waist. But any bit of her, from any angle, is the best thing I've ever seen. "What you got, C?" I asked her.
"'Whachoo got'? If I didn't already know you, and know that you do in fact possess a capable intellect, I would be prepared to swear that you have the mental faculties of a pebble."
I grinned. "I sometimes feel like I'm about that smart. So what you got?"