Excerpt from Red House

ONE

Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.    –Anonymous Fortune Cookie

Sometimes I feel like my work is never done. Like the two weeks of madness that started when the elder Mrs. María Muñoz walked into the office one November morning, plunked herself in front of me and said,

“No sabemos de Pablito.”

“Excuse me, do you have an appointment?” asks Katwona.

“I’ll handle this,” I tell her, and switch into Spanish.

“¿Qué estaba diciendo?”

The other trainees look up, because it’s always a sign of something. Trouble, usually, and no money. Somehow, none of the cases with Spanish-speaking clients ever lead to money.

Well, I’m here to change that.

Supposedly.

“Pablito is missing,” says Mrs. Muñoz, her earthy roundness supporting an old, gray cardigan.

“For how long?”

“Three days.”

I close the file I was reading and open a pale green steno pad to a clean sheet.

“Where’d you last see him?”

“He was working in West Cove, on Long Island? There’s a train station near there–”

“I know where it is.”

There’s a faint tremor below her blotchy skin as Mrs. Muñoz reacts to the slight harshness in my voice.

I don’t want to go out to L.I. It costs too much, and it’s a pain in the ass. And I hate how working for money forces you, to be ruthless.

“Sorry,” I say. Wednesday of a rough week. Dead-end cases dragging me down into the cold, black heart of next Monday’s performance review.

“But you know that I don’t have the time or the authority to do it for free, and I doubt that you have the money to pay us,” I explain in Spanish, as politely as possible. “Did you try calling the police?”

“No police,” she says. “He doesn’t have papers.”

Of course not. So she’s scared to call the police. Scared the Suffolk County cops will kick his ass instead of asking if he’s getting enough hot meals. Scared the money will dry up and there won’t be enough blankets to get through the long winter– gray, endless and cruel to a family that once embraced the rich girdle of sunny, volcanic soil that carries The Savior’s name. Scared the unforgiving, icy Nordic sky will fall on her head.

And that the West Cove cops don’t have the manpower to investigate a simple disappearance without evidence of a crime– like, say, a body.

“I’m not my own boss,” I say. “I can’t get to it for a couple of days, and I can’t do it for free.”

Eventually she accepts. “How much?”

Try seventy-five dollars an hour.

“A hundred dollars a day,” I say. “Two days for a hundredand- fifty.”

“Oh. So much.”

“It’s the best I can do.”

And the boss’ll skin me for cutting his price by 90 percent.

I get the details, sign the contracts and lead Señora María Muñoz to the door. She grips my arms, confirming the bond

between my flesh and hers, and thanks me for my offer of help, to which I am now committed. Now I’ve got to tell the man in the corner office.

“Davis and Brown, please hold,” says Katwona three times in rapid succession, patching each caller in with quick flicks of her two-inch, bright green nails dancing with abstract black squiggles that, when observed closely from the correct angle, represent ten different sexual positions.

“Ms. Brown is on another line, would you like to leave a message with her voicemail?”

Flick.

“Yes, sir. We are located at 147-02 Hillside Avenue and Sutphin Boulevard in Jamaica. Our office hours are eight A.M. to six P.M., Mondays through Fridays, and nine A.M. to five P.M. on Saturdays. No, you don’t need an appointment, but it would probably go quicker if you made one.” To me: “What precinct are we?”

“One-oh-seven,” I say.

Katwona relays the info.

Flick.

“This is Miss Williams. One moment, I’ll see if he’s available.” Flick. “Chip, Bobby Kane on line one.”

“Put him through,” says the boss.

Flick.

“We’re on the dividing line between the One-oh-three to the south and the One-oh-seven to the north,” I tell Katwona.

“‘Kay.” Flick. “Davis and Brown Investigations. One moment, please.” No intercom this time: “Karen, got a Mrs. DiNapoli asking for you.”

“Send it over,” says Karen.

“Please hold while I transfer you to Ms. Ricci.”

Len Hrabowski looks up from his screen. “What? No phone calls for me or Filomena?” He says it with a long “e.” Fil-o-meen-a. Wrong.

“Hey, I get your name right, Mr. Hrabowski. It’s Fil-omen- a. Men. Got it? Tell me what’s so hard about ‘men’?”

I regret that as soon as it’s out.

“Well, let me tell you–” he begins half-rising out of his seat like he’s about to strip down and strut around with the big hand on his Viagra-fueled clock pointing to 11:35. Possibly 11:40.

“It’s a short ‘e,’ like in demented,” I say directly into his leering eyes.

“Oh, I get it. Filomena. Short ‘e,’ like in semen.”

“Right, Len. Like in semen.”

“So what was all that Spanish about?”

I look over to see if Chip Davis is off the phone yet. Len gets the hint–another charity case–and sits back down, shaking his head, and continues cruising the infobanks.

“Don’t undersell, Filomena! It pisses off the competition,” Chip admonishes me, hanging up the phone.

“What competition? There’s only a dozen Spanish-speaking P.I.’s in the whole borough.”

“That’s because the latino cases don’t make any money.”

“They will. Cases like this buy a lot of good will.”

“You ever try to put ‘good will’ between two slices of bread? It tastes like bread.”

“I’m building rapport with the community,” I say. “Give me the rest of today and tomorrow afternoon off. I’ll hit the biggest latino businesses in the area and give ‘em my best pitch. If I don’t bring back a solid-gold case within two weeks you can go ahead and can me.”

That changes the energy. Chip leans back in his highbacked leather chair, glides his thumbs under his suspenders and stretches them into a nice pair of Vs away from his chest. I think this actually increases the blood flow to his brain.

“Look, Fil, you know I ain’t gonna can you. You were,collaring mopes before Morgan Stanley had their own Web page.”

“Thanks for reminding me.”

“I mean you’ve got street smarts,” he says, pointing a finger at me while his thumbs stay hooked under the suspender straps. “You’ve hunted ‘em down the old-fashioned way, plus you know your way around a database.”

He snaps the straps back and sits up facing me. “But we’re supposed to be charging six hundred dollars a day, not fifteen dollars an hour.”

“The last defense attorney you tossed at me only paid twenty an hour.”

“We’ll get more next time. Lawyers have money. And big mouths. That means repeat business, Fil, with clients who actually pay money.”

I glance past his shoulder out the window at the dirty, light-blue diesels and the gleaming metal elevated trains pulling into Jamaica station above the block-long piss-filled underpass. Two worlds of darkness and light, of crime and money, with a dreary stairway running between them. It’s my job to know the face of every janitor who sweeps those stairs.

“I need time away from this case, anyway,” I say.

“What case? It’s just a background check.”

“Yeah, but the guy’s coming up clean, and I’ve got a feeling he’s dirty.”

“A feeling? How the fuck do we bill the client for a feeling?”

I lean in closer. “You better learn to start trusting my instincts.”

Not the way a first-year trainee usually talks to the top half of Davis & Brown, Private Investigations, but I’ve got fifteen years of back street bloodhounding to his three under a civil investigator at a white shoe and powder-puff law firm.

“I’ve re-read the reports several times, and I need to come at them from a fresh angle.”

“Okay,” he says, checking his watch. “Give me an hour of courthouse duty and I’ll think about it. Fair?”

“Fair enough.”

Ms. Abigail Brown calls to me as I walk past her door.

“Filomena? Are you going to the courthouse?”

“Yes.”

I lean in. Abby’s a trained professional with two decades of experience as a black woman who has to dress sharply at all times or else she’ll be followed by store security on suspicion of shoplifting. Abby does forensic accounting and she’s good on the phone, and she doesn’t know the street stuff from a tub of

Shinola.

“Could you take this over to Tim Gallagher for me?” she says, holding up a thick manila envelope.

“Sure. Tell him to meet me on the steps.”

She looks at me a moment, then acknowledges my request.

When going to the courthouse to troll for business, one tries to look professional. I pull one of the in-house trenchcoats off the hook, so I won’t get followed by security.

Karen stops me with her arm. “Fil, my client has some underwear that she wants tested for DNA and, uh, I guess you’d call it ‘substance ID.’”

Len makes a face and says, “Eeeww.”

“So send it to a freaking lab. How much does she want to spend?”

“Oh. I’ll check.”

“You do that.”

“I knew that dame was trouble the minute she walked in,” says Len, giving his tight-lipped imitation of a doomed B-movie detective.

Enough of this. I step out too soon into the cool, bright air of a brisk November day and cross the street while buttoning up the trenchcoat. Halloween came and went, but I really didn’t have much stomach for it this year.

No TV crews outside the courthouse today, just the usual convoy of lawyers casting their driftnets upon the waters, dredging for human silt. One guy’s got a live one, face to the wind in his crisp blue suit and attaché case hauling in a whopper in a tan vinyl jacket and a green-and-white New York Jets cap who’s saying: “–sue them for false advertising. I wrote to the company to complain and demand my money back because my toothpaste did not come out red, white, and green and then magically mix together with sparkles like in their ad, and my carton of laundry detergent did not cause trees and flowers to sprout in my laundry room as shown in their advertisement on TV.”

“I think we got a case here–”

I walk up the steps and spend ten minutes losing body heat in my extremities before Tim Gallagher comes barreling out the door, looking around for me. Big, burly guy with a pasty but genial face, curly thinning hair and the don’t-make-me-hurt-you body of a former Gaelic football player.

“Oh man, if this jury gets any dumber,” he begins. “We’re arguing that the defendant acted with ‘a depraved indifference to human life,’ and they keep sending out notes asking,

‘Whatdoes “depraved” mean again?’”

“People–”

“–are idiots. So whadaya got for me?”

I give him the envelope. He flips through it, nodding and naying and uh-ohing and generally tuning me out.

“What?” I ask.

“Huh? Oh, another sucky case. Cracked fire extinguisher at P.S. 112 blows up two weeks after it was inspected. The federal I.D. stamp leads to Henderson Fire Equipment over in Hollis, who say they never did P.S. 112, and the principal of the school corroborates by showing us contracts and invoices from some place called Armor Point Fire Equipment in Glendale, who we find out don’t even have proper inspection equipment– although they claim they had it at the time they made the tests.

The paperwork suggests Armor Point faked a couple hundred inspections, mostly in public schools–”

“Scumbags.”

“–but there’s no proof. So we got over a hundred clients who want us to get their money back and we can’t find the guy who actually went around to the schools. Armor Point says he quit three months ago.”

“And you can’t find him?”

“Three freakin’ weeks we’ve been trying to dig him up.”

“I’ll find him for you.”

“Say what?”

“You heard me.”

He gives me that what’s-it-gonna-cost-me look.

“Two hundred dollars.”

“That’s eight hours at my rate.”

“Right.”

“Okay,” he says, handing me the papers. “You got a name,

Freddy Lopez, a three-month-old address and a bogus social security number. Good luck.”

Back inside, I kick Len off the computer, dive bomb into Macrohard’s Plexus™ database. Needless to say, there’s no “Freddy Lopez,” but there’s fourteen Freds, seventy-eight Fredericks and fifteen hundred and twelve Fredericos. Screw that. I narrow my search to “Fred[not whole word] Lopez”matches with anything in Queens, and get three guys who I could have found in two seconds by opening up the phone book. Not the right profiles, either. Hmm.

“You want some coffee?” asks Len.

“No thanks. Too much coffee makes me crazy.”

“Me too. That’s why I drink it.”

I try the rarer variant, “Federico,” and get a hit, a very palpable hit, which proves that he was born, anyway. Did he get married in New York State? No. Does he vote? No. Bastard.

Does he drive? Yes. Full name, address and social security number. The address is dead but the number looks good, starting with a “9,” which means it’s not an SSN, but an ITIN, an individual taxpayer identification number issued to a resident alien who plans to work here and pay taxes, which means he just might be the honest type who would quit a place like Armor Point to avoid trouble and maybe even take the stand to testify against them, especially if it bought him some relief.

Gallagher’s going to like this, if I can close it for him. A guy who left a job and skipped on two months’ back rent could lie low for about forty years without being pinched in this town, but he has to eat, and if he’s a resident alien with a valid ITIN, he could have applied for food stamps and job placement assistance. And he’d have to use his real name somewhere. It takes me an hour. Abby’s happy. Davis?

“Damn it, Buscarsela, Gallagher only pays twenty-five dollars an hour! Plexus charges forty! That’s a net loss!”

“Yes, but it was quicker and I need the spare time. Bill it to the client.”

“Thanks, I’ll do that. Spare time for what?”

“I need to pick up my daughter from school because there’s no one at home to meet her today.”

If you can call it “home”: $500 a month for a six-by-ninefoot room in an overcrowded apartment because I wanted to be near my job.

“So charge him for two hours. Repeat business,” I say.

“How about four? Can’t make it look too easy now, can we?”

“Fine.”

“All right, Fil. I’ve decided to let you go and do Friday and Saturday on Long Island. And when you come back you bring me a goddamn paying case.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fil, call me Chip.”

“Just a reflex, I guess.”

“Okay. Now get out of here.”

“Chip.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m going to need a company car.”

“That’s just great. And happy fucking holidays to you,too.”

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