Chapter 1 – Saturday, 10 am, early June
Hard truth entered my Portland office on a cold and rainy Saturday morning. She tapped her umbrella, shaking the water onto the black and white tile floor, and hung her dark raincoat on the gray metal coat rack. Her eyes traveled around the room before settling on me. When they stopped she smiled; it wasn’t a kind smile; it was one of those ‘yeah, this’ll do’ smiles.
She was wearin a dark gray jacket and a light gray skirt;the sheer white silk blouse had the top three buttons undone. A white silver necklace that hung in the vee of her blouse held a black onyx cameo with a face cut in the surface, her face. Fine ears sported matching studs. A white indentation marked her left ring finger. Her light gray hair shone; she was a blond; the thin line of black roots against her pale complexion made her look mean and dangerous.
She took a chair and reached to the corner of my desk for the box of Kleenex. She dried her shoes, thoroughly, as if I weren’t there. She tossed the Kleenex towards a waste basket and missed. She gave me her attention. “I’m Jane Wye. Maybe you’ve heard of me.”
I shook my head. “C.B. Green,” I said.
She pointed her chin at the pot on the edge of my credenza. “How about some coffee?”
I poured a cup; she said black was fine. I looked her over as she sipped. Jane Wye was an almost beautiful woman, late twenties, a thin five-five, but shapely. An upturned nose offset well spaced features on china smooth skin. Neatly plucked brows topped nearly transparent gray eyes, the irises fading into the whites without an apparent edge; the whites were perfectly clear, like a child’s. There was a hollow in her throat above the necklace.
Most people entering my office are nervous, for a lot of good reasons. It is the naure of the business. Not Jane Wye. She arched her brows and re-scanned my office. “You could use a decorator,” she said. “Don’t think much of color, do you?”
I shrugged; a decorator did it for me, to make sure it had no color, only black, and white, and gray. I didn’t explain.
She laughted; it was a pleasant throaty sound. “Even the photographs, Ansel Adams.” She proved more discerning than I would have guessed. “The truth in black and white, eh, Mr. Green?” Was I too obvious?
“What you see is what I see.” I levered myself into my black swivel chair. “How can I help you, Ms. Wye?”
“Maybe you’ve heard of my husband, Jack Wye?”
Him I knew. “Sure. Big shot lawyer for pond scum. Didn’t I read in the paper he was being investigated for money laundering?” She didn’t move. My next words came out reluctantly. “What’s he done that you need me?” Peeping into Jack Wye’s life was no way to make a living.
She said, “He has got himself dead.”
“When?” I asked.
She pulled on her right ear and kept her eyes on mine. “The cops found him eight hours ago. Shot in the head. I saw his body in the morgue.”
My words were a reflex. “Couldn’t happen to a meaner guy.” I am not usually that callous, and I know meaner guys.
She got by it. “Hey, he knew how to treat a girl.” Her look was between wistful and angry.
“I’m sure he left you well fixed?” Keep out of it, I told myself. I heard the words again, as if from someone else. “What’s he done that you need me?”
She waved her hand dismissively annd answered my first question. “Well fixed, my ass. I have to split it with four ex-wives and seven ex-kids. That’s what his will says.” She responded to the question on my face. “I got a copy with the pre-nupt. Twelve ways. It is barely six digits.” She leaned into the desk. “I can’t live a year on that.”
“How can I help, Mrs. Wye?”
She made an ugly face. “Don’t call me Missus. I hate that word.”
“Okay, Jane, how can I help?”
The woman tugged a a puffy collagen filled upper lip with her teeth and scanned the room again. She stared out the window looking for a real world mooring, but the dark rain didn’t inspire her. She said without feeling, “The police think I murdered my husband.”
She appeared lost in thought, then she blinked and was back again. “I didn’t . I have an alibi. They probably already know it wasn’t me.”
I wondered if she would tell me what she wanted. “So what do you need me for?”
Jane Wye put her palms on my table and leaned forward until her face was a foot from mine. She jabbed a manicured black nail at me. “My husband was a thief; he worked for the top end of the pond scum, as you call them. Jack Wye wasn’t some small time crook, he was the real thing. He moved a lot of money for the heavy hitters in the northwest drug trade. I was watching real close, you know what I mean?”
She slapped her palm on my desk. “I figure he put away twenty million. I want it.”
I was right, hard truth. “You know where it is?”
I concentrated on her black painted lips as her facial musscles flattened out and hardened her smile. The meanness took my breath sway. A picture of the handsome Jack Wye formed in my mind. I had seen hm a couple times, actually met him once at a party. They must have been a stunning couple, carnivorous and sleek. He had met his match in her.
The lips moved. “His girlfriend.” She made it a dirty word. “The bitch stole his safe deposit key. It was on a chain around his neck.” As it it had nothing to do with her, she added, “He liked to tell the girls how much he was worth while that key dangled in their faces. He liked them to suck on that key.” She slid back into the chair. “When I saw his body, the key was gone.”
“Could be the cops got it?”
She parted with a gotcha smile. “No. I asked.”
No wasted sentimentality; I wouldn’t want to be on Jane Wye’s enemies list. The dark lips moved again, and I saw the pale gray where the teeth had scraped away the lipstick. It was one of those ‘don’t look at the man behind the screen’ moments as I realized she might be even meaner one level down. She finally got to what she wanted. “She killed him and stole the key. I want it back.”
My stomach heaved; it was a recovery case. Some people, especially criminals, think possession is nine-tenths of the law; no grays there. Twenty million was a lot of possession; it could earn an erstwhile public servant an early obiturary.
She read my doubt. “Twenty thousand if you get me the key.” She pushed to close the sale. “I’m thinking we have until Monday.”
I rubbed my upper lip. Money had little to do with my decision; Jack Wye being dead helped.
Here transparent grays held my eyes. She spread her ams as if all of her were available. “You in?” she asked.
She shrugged thin shoulders. “Don’t know. If I did, I wouldn’t need you.”
“What if she has already been to the bank?”
“I gotta hope not. A lot of downtown banks aren’t open on Saturdays. And the cops said his license wasn’t in his wallet. I figure she has to doctor that up. I expect that might take a day.”
I said, “Two grand up front for expenses.”
She counted out the cash, then gave me the particulars.
When she stood to leave, I asked, “So what makes me the lucky guy, Ms. Wye?” Jane was more familiar than I wanted to be.
She smiled that first smile again. “I talked to a district attorney friend of mine this morning. He said you never lie, you never cheat, and you never steal. He lies and cheats and steals all the time. I figured he would know.”
A minute after the door closed behind the shapely Jane Wye, it opened to a more familiar curves. She wore a quizzical look on her face, her hip against the frame. “You in?” she asked.
Denise Roberts is the queen secretary for the lawyers of Whitman, Howard, Ormand, Masters, and Edmonds, or, as we in the know affectionately call them, WHO-ME?, with the question makr in the pronunciation. Denise was of a kind; if the firm had a choice between an ugly applicant, and a cute one, they took the cute one; they always had a choice. Denise is real pretty, but in a ‘rode hard put away wet’ way. She has been married two times in the four years she’s worked for the firm; everything before that is rumor. The woman oozes sexual come-on; she has put the moves on me, once hard, for kicks ever since. I like Denise, but even our minimal contact showed she could wear on a guy.
I ignored her, hoping she would go away. It was Saturday, and I could have been anywhere. She waited me out. I emptied a box of white and gray elk hair caddis on my desk and put a note of irritation in my voice. “Yes. Why?”
She strolled to my credenza and put my phone on the hook. “Walter wants to see you.”
I shuffled an index finger through the files, slowly. “I’ll be over in a couple minutes.”
She scooped up the files and dropped them in the box. “Don’t be too long, okay?”
Denise looked back the way she had come. “You working for the mob these days?”
I broke the news. “She isn’t part of the underworld any longer. Jack Wye is dead.”
She displayed a credulous skepticism. “Since when?”
I looked at my watch. “Since about eight-and-a-half hours ago.”
Disdain tinged her voice. “You don’t have anything going with that, do you?”
I shrugged. “Why?”
I wasn’t confused. “The question why.”
She frowned inwardly, as if at a recalled slight. “She is trouble on two legs looking for a place to land, that’s why.”
Information is everywhere. “How do you know that?”
She spat out the words. “Went to high schoool with her.” A pause. “They could have named it blow-job central after her. Later we were both freshmen at Portland State. She screwed teachers for grades. Girl has no morals at all, like an alley cat.”
Her anger was intriguing; it was something between women I don’t understand. “You following her career?”
She waved it off. “Some people you can’t escape. We’re in the same business, loosely speaking. If Jack Wye is dead, then justice won one.”
I was feeling contrary. “I thought about that. My guess, it wasn’t justice. Jack got done in by someone jmore evil than he was.”
She shook her head. “There isn’t anybody more evil.”
I knew better. “You gotta get out more, Denise.”
She took that as a segue from the Wyes. “If I get out any more, I’ll be arrested…
I cut off the soft move. “So tell me how pretty Jane ended up with handsome Jack.”
She screwed up her face. “You make it sound like a ‘made for the movies’ thing.” I held my tongue. Pretty soon she took a chair, crossing fine legs which rode her short skirt up high; she tugged the hem with an unexpected modesty. “Jane Andrews was her maiden name. God, what a poor choice of words. Her unmarried name. She married some up and comer in Wye’s law firm, nice kid, Andy Ryan, naive guy, thought he was in criminal law to protect the rights of the downtrodden from the jack-booted thugs in the police. You know the type?”
I nodded. That idealism doesn’t last, unless they have an agenda that blinds them to what is going on, but that wouldn’t happen in Jack Wye’s firm.
“Well, she marries him, but…” Denise paused, lowered her voice, turned her head to talk at my shoulder, but kept her eyes on me. “This is all scuttlebutt, you know, gossip.
If I worked only with facts, I would never know anything. I waved her on. Lo and behold, two years ago at the Christmas party, she gets boob Andy drunk and finesses him into humping poor Jack’s wife, in Jack’s office.” Feigned disbelief marks her face. “Then the two of them, Jack and Jane, walk in on it. You know an accident, and Andy is gone, in more ways than one. Rumor had them doing the nasty right after the doors closed. My guess, it was a setup.”
Though she stopped talking, I could see she wasn’t done. “So? What else?”
Denise acted put upon. “You want more? Let me think.” She pursed her lips and spoke through steepled fingers. “Jack has got a new squeeze, but that’s almost redundant. He is always working on a new one.”
I should have mined that vein then and there, but I thought I knew who it was.
She returned her attention to Jane. “So she is doing the wife bit, joining a few organizations, getting involved in the arts, spreading Jack’s money around. She wants to move up in the world, but most people see right through her.”
They typical movers and shakers have few qualms about dirty money and pretentiousness. “Yeah, right.”
She shrugged. “Okay, so she is making a big splash among the glitterati. I am jealous even.”
The moralist in me broke through. “Don’t be. You wouldn’t want it.
Easy for you to say, you got more money than Midas.”
My voice had more of an edge than I had intended. “Don’t you go spreading that crap, Denise.”
She took that as her cue and stood. “You coming, or what?”
I waved her out the door. “I told you I would be right there. Run along now and be a good girl.”
She couldn’t help herself. “I am always a good girl.”
I clicked on my phone messsages; the voice was blurred by the years, but it was the same. What had I seen in the woman? Eighteen years hadn’t dulled my anger at myself. She was the wrong person, for the wrong reason, wrong, wrong, wrong.
“C.B., it’s Danielle.” There was a long pause. “You know, your ex-wife.”
We hadn’t talked in sixteen years, and I seldom thought about her except once in a while when talking to my son, Robin. Last I heard, she had left her husband, a very rich stockbroker, for a carpenter as she searched for her repressed inner sexual self. It was an old story line.
She continued, “I’ve fallen on hard times and I was hoping you could find your way to send me a little money to get me out of this scrape I’m in. Could you call me at 203-555-4321. When you call, tell the front desk you’re looking for Sun Flower. They’ll find me. Thanks ahead of time.” I didn’t hear any sincerity; thinking back, I never had.
I wasn’t ready to talk to Danielle, or for that matter, Sun Flower. After eighteen years, what did I owe her? Per Robin, she had gotten a big settlement from her husband; I know him, he is a nice guy. She blew a good gig exercising some sexual fantasy she claimed she inherited from her dead father. It had to be phantom genes, since the girl was adopted, but that is a story too long for the telling.
I called Denise to say I was on the way; she is anal retentive and needs to be on top of everything. I asked her to find me a detective agency in Hartford. She got her curiosity up; I told her it was private. She said, so what? I said it was personal. Unlike Jane Wye, I am never going to end up in the legal system rumor mill.
Hearing from Danielle brought back sadder memories of Rhonda, and how private detecting found me. I’ve learned that nothing fades quicker than the past, from the vivid black and white of today to the muted, indistinguishable grays of yesterday. Sometimes I remember all the facts but none of the reasons; other times it is only the reasons that survive. Rhonda’s memory isn’t like that; it has been more than five years, and the facts are etched in my brain, and the reasons drive everything I have done since.
Rhonda was murdered, by accident. She was at the street corner; her day-timer was on the sidewalk, so she was checking her schedule. When the alarm at the jewelry store sounded, she probably turned her head to see what was going on. The policeman was approaching from behind her with his gun drawn. A witness in the building across the way said the hooded robber turned, shot at the cop, missed, and killed the love of my life. His second shot killed the cop. Since he plugged the patrolman at sixty feet with a handgun, I figured he meant to kill Rhonda too, even if there wasn’t a reason.
As expected when a cop is murdered, the police turn over Heaven and Earth to find the killer, but after three months the case was dead. They had a palm print and two partial fingerprints because the witness saw the killer touch a metal lamppost, but there was no match in the system. It was my introduction to justice; no, it was my introduction to justice delayed.
When the cops deep sixed the case, I took it on, but I didn’t know the first thing about the cop business. So I taught myself the hows and the whats, and I looked deeper than my previous world view. I thought I would see the tracks of her killer, but didn’t. So, like the cops, I put her on the back burner. Sometimes I hope the man is dead, but then not; death is not enough justice for me.
Serendipity works in strange ways; I was born to be a private investigator. I feel like Superman, able to see through the walls people construct to hide their most evil secrets. They think they can lie, cheat, steal, rape, pillage and kill, and the system will let them off. Too often they are right, but when I am the shadow dogging their steps, justice isn’t far behind. I make justice happen; it is what I do; it is why I do it.
Justice can happen, but it is hard work. It is my work. If a man steals a fortune, I create a situation where he loses it. If a man rapes a woman, I find a way to destoy his life. Am I acting out the job of judge and jury and executioner? No, because I don’t do anything. I set the scene, bait a trap, and let the bad guy cook his own goose. It might not be absolutely legal, but it is justice.
So, my life is Rhonda’s fault. I don’t think of her more than five times a day, but not by name. It is more putting a face on justice, the woman with the scales. Rhonda is waiting for justice. She is the first picture on my screen saver, where every case goes until justice happens.