The day Rush Gemelli came into my office, I hadn’t had a job in weeks.
Back then I worked out of the second floor of a two-story building on F Street. The first floor held a wig and corset shop. The rent was cheap because the building would be gone inside a year. Just about every building on the block was making way for more Gap stores and Starbucks. Looking out across Ninth Street toward the Smithsonian American Art Museum, I wondered if they would also have to move. You could fit a pretty big Starbucks there.
The museum had a sculpture out front that was nine feet tall—a mustachioed vaquero riding a big blue bronco. The bronco had its front feet planted while the rear feet kicked high in the air. The vaquero gripped the bronco’s reins in one hand and waved his gun above his head with the other, his face split with a crazy smile. At least he was having fun.
Me, not so much. I own a small copy of the vaquero, and I’d spent a chunk of that morning squatting with my eyes at desktop level, lining up my miniature with the original outside. Since getting my PI license, I’ve discovered that it does no good to worry when your phone stops ringing. Work will pick up, you tell yourself. Still, after a couple of weeks of no calls, I was ready for anything. If King James had called me for a new translation of the Bible, I’d have taken a whack at it.
I set the vaquero aside and pulled out the plastic baby doll from the bottom of my desk drawer, along with a fresh diaper. Good time to practice.
The hard part is getting the little sticky tabs that hold the diaper in place without trapping your thumbs. I had just managed to tape my right thumb to the doll’s left cheek when I heard feet pound up the stairs.
I shoved the baby—with my thumb still attached—into the top desk drawer, then grabbed a yellow legal pad and leaned back in my chair. A pose of casual elegance—my feet on the blotter, the pad in my lap, jotting notes to a nonexistent case with my left hand while I tried to free my right.
A bald head peered inside and said, “You the detective?”
“I’m the detective.” I was trying to work my thumb loose from the diaper.
“Oh man.” He sighed. “I’m Rush Gemelli.”
I waved him in. “Have a seat, Mr. Gemelli.”
He gave another quick glance around my office, then approached my client chair the way Dannemora inmates had approached the electric one. After taking a deep breath, he forced himself to sit. Then, with no prompting from me, he launched into his story.
Which was strange. That he needed no prompting, I mean. Most clients would rather skip in front of a train than tell you why they trudged up the stairs. His story was strange, too—about a warehouse in Alexandria, Virginia, that needed breaking into.
“I don’t do that kind of work.” I felt disappointed. You go weeks without a client, it really hurts to turn anyone down.
“You’re kinda choosy about your business.” He swept his hand, taking in yellowed walls that had been white around the time of Clinton’s inaugural—his first one. Woodwork that had been enameled over so many times, none of the windows closed completely. The wall opposite my desk was bulging toward us, as though some giant insect were burrowing through from the other side. Whatever it was, it seemed to have plenty of patience. “Besides, from what I’ve heard, busting into places is up your alley.”
“These days, I’m staying out of alleys.”
“Look, Gidney, this warehouse is a Mid-Atlantic hub for pirate films and software.” He pulled blueprints and diagrams from an ancient briefcase, then spread them out on my desk. “I got everything you need to know—about their security, alarm systems, everything.” For a moment he grew excited and forgot to sneer. “It’s safe, I guarantee it. And if you nailed these sleazes, you’d not only be helping me but also the FBI.” He added quickly, “Job pays a thousand.”
My normal fee is $350 a day, plus expenses. Gemelli was offering more than he should have, and I think he knew it. “Money’s not the problem,” I said. “But let’s suppose that your information is wrong, and the warehouse is legit. In which case, I’m breaking the law and hurting the FBI’s feelings.” I liberated my thumb and shut the desk drawer.
“The FBI would say you’re a hero.” He wrinkled his nose. “Do you smell talcum powder?”
“No. The point is, I’m not doing it.”
The sneer returned. “Would it ease your conscience to know why I’m asking?”
“Sure, tell me why I should commit a felony for you.”
“Not for me, for my father. He’s head of MPAC, the Motion Picture Alliance Council.”
“How nice for him.”
“Yeah, well, not lately. You read the papers, everyone thinks Hollywood’s to blame for anything bad that happens. He’s got congressmen blaming the industry for every wacko with an Uzi who takes out a preschool.”
“Gosh, that sounds just awful for your dad.”
Gemelli nodded. “The religious right—he’s getting heat from them, too. Over sex and nudity and adulterous flings.”
“Those are a few of my favorite things,” I said.
Gemelli acted as though I hadn’t spoken. “Now he’s under fire because of pirated movies. The industry is losing over two billion a year, they figure. And he’s gonna lose his job unless he shows he has a handle on things. So, you get the evidence of the pirate ring, and he takes the credit. It’d buy him some time.”
“So he asked you to see me?”
Gemelli looked pained. “Christ no. He can’t ever know I was here. My dad’s a great guy, Gidney, but he keeps his own counsel. Always has, even at the White House.”
That’s where I knew the name. “He was adviser to the president, a few administrations back?”
Rush looked pleased. “Senior adviser. They call him ‘the Elephant’ because he never forgets a favor.” Here he paused and tried to look intense. “Or a slight.”
I clutched my chest and fell back in my chair. “Call an ambulance,” I gasped.
He shook his head. “Look, I need help. And word is, you’re good.”
“Sorry, I’m keeping my life straight.” I succeeded in looking modest. I had to keep my life straight so I could adopt Sarah, the baby I had found. And while I could be wrong about this, I suspected that committing felonies would not endear me to D.C. Adoptive Services.
I held out my hand. “Good luck to you and your father.”
Gemelli fished out a business card. “You change your mind, call me.”
Tapping his card on the blueprints, I said, “Don’t you want these?”
Gemelli shrugged into his topcoat, which could’ve been carbon dated back to the Bronze Age. “Copies, keep ’em, you might change your mind.” Then he clumped down the stairs. From my window I saw his bald noggin come out of the building, glance skyward even though it wasn’t raining, then head for the Gallery Place Metro. I stuffed the card with the blueprints inside my desk. I could have saved myself a hell of a lot of trouble if I’d shredded everything and given Rush Gemelli a tiny confetti shower.
Copyright © 2011 by Thomas Kaufman