Mine is the finely textured world of black and white, where grays take on meanings inexpressible in color, much as silent flicks portrayed emotion before the age of talkies; and like those color-blind World War II bombardiers, I see through the camouflage to the expressions behind the blush and the mean truth behind the bright tints. I’m a private investigator, and I make my living parsing truth from lies, and searching the grays for the black and white. You can see into my world in the final winkling of light when the blue and red are drained of obscuring nuance; the world as it really is. So keep your world of colors, and I’ll keep my simple world of lies and truth, and the strange justice it demands.
Hard truth enters my Portland office on a warm Saturday afternoon. She is dressed in a dark gray jacket and a light gray skirt with a shear white blouse; the top three buttons are undone. Her shiny gray ring and bracelet match the necklace that hangs in the vee of her blouse, each dominated by a dark black onyx. There is an indentation on her left ring finger, like a remembered event. She has long flowing hair, that gray the young have, even when it’s not real; a fine line of black roots makes her look a little mean and dangerous.
She introduces herself as Jane Wye. I guide her to the visitor’s chair and pour coffee. She is a very pretty girl, no, woman; they all look so young to me these days. She is about twenty-eight, five-nine, well built; an upturned nose offsets nicely spaced features, and neatly plucked brows top eyes of a nearly transparent gray.
Jane Wye arches those brows as she makes a quick furtive look around my office; her comment is succinct; “You could use a decorator. Don’t think much of color, do you?”
I place the mug in front of her. “This is your chance to see what I see, Mrs. Wye.”
I don’t know if she gets it, but she parts with a pleasant throaty sound and points at the wall. “I see; Ansel Adams.” She finds my eyes. “The truth in black and white.” She gets it.
I lever myself into the swivel chair. “Speaking of seeing, I saw your picture in the paper this morning. Seems you got problems, Mrs. Wye. How can I help?”
“Don’t call me Mrs. I hate that word.” She tugs at a puffy collagen-filled upper lip with her teeth as she again scans the room; she talks at the window while her eyes search for a real world mooring. “The police think I murdered my husband.” She fixes me with a stare. “I didn’t, and sooner or later they’re going to prove that for themselves.”
“So what do you need me for?”
Jane Wye puts her palms on my table and leans towards me; another two inches and I’ll be looking at her gray tipped breasts; but she stops short, lifts one hand and jabs a finger at me. “My husband was a thief; not some small time crook, but the real thing. He was the bagman for some heavy hitters in the cocaine trade. I figure he put away twenty million in the last two years alone, and I want it.”
The truth with no semblance of a mitigating gray. “You know where it is?”
I concentrate on her black painted lips, keeping my eyes from the knobbied gray of her nipples; the lips move, “His girlfriend. She stole the safe deposit key. He kept it in his wallet. When I found him, it wasn’t there.” Right, no soft edges; I feel vulnerable, but not in a wishy-washy way; the lady scares me. The lips move again to reveal the pale gray where her teeth have scraped away the lipstick. “His girlfriend killed him and stole the key. I want it back.”
I wince inside. I hate recovery cases. Most people, but especially criminals, think possession is nine-tenths of the law; no grays there; and they fight real hard for what they’ve snatched through guile and risk. Twenty million is a lot of possession, the kind of possession that can earn me an early obituary.
She reads the indecision on my face. “Twenty thousand if you get me that key. We’ve got until the banks open on Monday, I hope.” She stares hard at me. “You in?”
~ ~ ~
Lola May Carter has a first story flat in the gentrified Northwest; the dirty gray stone doesn’t look like much from the outside, but all three flats are spendy; she has done a lot for the inside, just by being there. Lola May is knock-down beautiful – I might see three like her in a year, and not this close up – with dark gray lips, black hair, dark black clear skin, surprisingly soft gray eyes, and a tall, not too thin body with right-sized curves. Her unchipped fingernails and toenails are painted blood black. The veins in the bright whites of her eyes stand out like black rivers, maybe the last remnants of a vicious hangover.
It’s three in the afternoon and her hair is in disarray; I’ve gotten her out of bed. She wraps the egg-gray terrycloth robe tight around her for protection, though I don’t scare her any.
She looks like a girl who can take the truth; I introduce myself and take the direct route, “Jane Wye wants her money back.”
Lola May is no less direct, “Yeah, well I want John Wye back. That bitch killed him and I hope she rots in Hell for it.” I start to like her when she spoils it, “Who’s going to pay for this apartment? Is Jane Wye going to pay for it?”
“She might, and then some?” I make it a question.
She chips away at the lovely facade to the darker schemer within, “How much?”
I spread Jane Wye’s future wealth around. “If she gets the money, you’ll get a reward. It’ll be enough, trust me. You got nothing to lose, Lola May. I want the key?”
A pale gray of confusion suffuses her eyes. “The key?”
“He was killed for his safe deposit key. I need that key.”
She is quick to counter, “Hey, I didn’t kill him. Check with his girlfriend.” She answers the question on my face, “I was his weekday girl. He had a weekender.” A look of distasteful embarrassment crosses her face. “He paid them by the hour.”
Lola May describes a world darker than her own, darker than my imagination, and that’s pretty dark, “Yes, Mona Martin and that fag brother of hers, Jack. John, poor John, swung both ways, but he exercised his perversions only on weekends. Said it proved he was in control.” I motion her on. “He met Jack first, at a party we attended. Jack was a dead ringer for John. John said they’d pretend they were a family, a sister and two brothers. Said it was like watching himself with Mona. It was as close as he could get to incest. It really got him off, if you know what I mean.”
Lola May tells me where to find the Martins’ world. I never get past her door jamb.
~ ~ ~
The pale complexioned Mona Martin is not as pretty as Lola May, or for that matter Jane, but she has an exotic attractiveness that, like many shades of gray, can’t be captured by words. Bold grays erotically highlight her decorating, weaving a strong undertow of sex throughout the house; or is it more the smell of sex that clings like a ghost to her body? Her brother Jack was backing out of the garage as I arrived; Lola May is right, a dead ringer.
I say I am a detective and I want to talk to her about John Wye. I don’t mention I am private heat, and she doesn’t ask for identification. The look on her face is cold and uninviting; and surprise or drugs dilate her black pupils. I read fear in the whitened skin around her eyes and lips. She leads me to the pale wool gray couch and waits for me to speak.
“Miss Martin?” She nods. “We’re following up on the known contacts of John Wye. He was seen with you and your brother last weekend.”
She raises pretty shoulders and the dark spaghetti straps lift firm breasts supported by a white bra beneath the translucent patterned silk blouse. She doesn’t make it easy. “So?”
But I already know enough; the outline of the steel gray key shows against the lighter grays of her blouse; I doggy-paddle to safety. “We want to know if you or your brother saw him this weekend. We’re trying to track his last movements.”
Mona believes the easiest lies are the shortest, “No.”
I thank her on the way out the door.
~ ~ ~
I return on Sunday night in time to see Jack Martin pull into the garage before entering by the front door. I call; Mona picks up; I say, sorry, wrong number. When it gets dark, I stick a motion detector to the bottom corner of the front door, and another to the garage door. A block down I sleep until the alarm chirps; it’s five-thirty and the sunrise is infusing a gray substance to the empty black of night.
I put the receiver in my pocket and walk a hundred yards to the Starbucks where I wash my face, and then order a mocha and a scone. I position myself at an outdoor table from which I can see the Martins’ building. It is eight-fifty when they make their grand exit; I am in my car as they pull the old Honda out of the garage and turn north for the twelve block drive to twenty-third.
The Martins park in front of the chalk gray facade of the Bank of America branch; they are in the bank twenty minutes. When they exit, Mona has a large manila gray envelope in her hand; she turns to Jack and they jump into the air, slapping their hands in a joyful high five; she opens the trunk and tosses in the envelope. They cross to the Grounds Zero coffee shop.
I have the short handled screwdriver in my hand as they enter one of the bathrooms, maybe to celebrate as only this brother and sister can.
I stroll up to the car like I own it, push the screwdriver into the lock, twist, and pop the trunk. I pull out the envelope, shut the trunk and make my way unnoticed through the sparse sidewalk traffic of tourists.
I pull the pages from the slit envelope; a bank statement from Suisse National for thirty-three million dollars; a typed sheet with internet transfer instructions has the password highlighted in pale gray; and a stapled four page tally of payments by shipment date.
Thirty-three million, and it can all be mine, but it is dirty money, real dirty. I live in a world of black and white, and I don’t believe in the moral grays of situational ethics; so I don’t need to make that decision, and, I have more than that already.
~ ~ ~
Jane Wye turns the pages over in her hands and eyes me with an open respect; because I got the money, and I didn’t steal it; but she is worried. “What if the Martins go to the cops?”
“To do what, say their stolen booty was stolen? Admit they killed John Wye?”
She pulls out a wad of hundred dollar bills; she thinks I share her moral turpitude; “You can skip the taxes.”
I give her a chance to edge her hard mean truth with soft gray good. “I told Lola May you’d reward her.” Jane shakes her head. “The Martins would be transferring this money to their account right now if it wasn’t for her, Ms. Wye.”
Her face goes ash gray. “That’s not my problem. She was my husband’s mistress, and I’m not giving that slut anything. Understood?”
I push her money to the corner of my desk and concentrate on her angry gray eyes. “Have a good day, Ms. Wye.”
I walk the two miles to Lola May’s flat; it’s a bright summer day in Portland.
She opens the door with a black smile framing even white teeth. I hand her the wad of bills. “Ms. Wye was appreciative.”
Back on the sidewalk I reflected that I’d given Jane Wye a chance to dodge the bullet, but she opted to extract a last ounce of unnecessary cruelty; I fold a copy of John Wye’s documents with a note of my own into the envelope addressed to the cops and drop it into the black mailbox on the corner.
~ ~ ~
It was wrong of me not to warn her, but she should have guessed at the viciousness of the Martins – it’s not like I’d described them in glowing terms – but her blind anger hid her own shadow of meanness from herself; a dark gray shadow of death; it followed her out of my office.
The evening news gives the story more than twenty minutes; Jane Wye, the politically connected wife of the slain financier, John Wye, is dead, and two lights of the local glitterati set are in jail. And justice won a couple rounds that day.