I COULDN’T STOP STARING AT MR. CLASSY GUY’S SHOES.
These were no ordinary shoes. They were gleaming cordovan wingtips that were lined with, I swear to you, mink. What’s more, they were totally spotless. Even their leather soles were unscuffed. Virtually no sign of pavement wear anywhere on them. How had Mr. Classy Guy and his mink-lined shoes navigated the New York City sidewalks on a slushy, sooty January day without scuffing the soles one bit? Hell, how had he made it inside our second-floor office from his chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car parked at the curb outside our not-so-elegant building on our not-so-elegant corner of Broadway and West 103rd Street?
Mind you, the man was spotless all over. Polished, manicured and buffed to a rosy glow. His crinkly salt-and-pepper hair was crisply parted. His rimless spectacles gleamed. He was about sixty. No office drone either. A squash player, was my guess. He looked extremely wiry and fit inside his custom-tailored pinstriped suit. Carried his long, straight blade of a nose up, up in the air. Definitely had an aristocratic air about him. After all, he was Peter Seymour of Bates, Winslow and Seymour, the Park Avenue law firm that handled the private legal affairs of the city’s A-list patrician families. The kind who’ve lived on Fifth Avenue for generations. The kind whose daughters come out at debutante balls. The kind who seldom come in direct personal contact with our sort. Make that never.
Yet here he was, this trusted advisor to the silk stocking district’s uber-rich, seated in a straight-backed wooden chair before the boss’s battered desk soaking up the full ambiance of Golden Legal Services. An experience that, on this blustery winter afternoon, meant inhaling a rich mix of No. 2 fuel oil from the ancient furnace in the basement, fried onions wafting up from Scotty’s twenty-four-hour diner and the bracing aroma of acetone from Pearl’s nail salon.
The boss’s private office has a homey air. There’s a comfortably worn leather sofa. An old Persian rug on the floor. An enormous pre-World War II Wells Fargo safe where we store our firearms, surveillance equipment and good liquor. The outer office is just two desks and some filing cabinets. We don’t get many visitors. When clients want to retain us, we go to them. Peter Seymour had insisted on coming to us.
And Mr. Classy Guy was not impressed. His haughty silence told us so. He got up from his chair and strode over to the wraparound windows behind the boss’s desk, staring bleakly out at our ragtag little stretch of upper Broadway. The narrow center divider with its spindly trees. The array of less-than-prosperous shops. An icy rain was falling. The forecasters thought it might turn to snow later. Pedestrians were walking extra fast, their heads down, shoulders hunched against the wind.
With a discreet snuffle of disapproval he sat back down in his chair and straightened the crease in his trousers, not that it needed it. We watched him. We waited. He’d declined coffee from Lovely Rita—and hadn’t ogled her. Which is highly unusual. Rita is forty-two but still the same eye-popping redhead who’d worked nights as a lap dancer to put herself through the Rutgers computer science program. And she still does wonders filling out a turtleneck sweater and tight slacks. Hell, even gay guys check out Rita.
Not Peter Seymour. He was too busy being huffy. Apparently, he’d gotten trapped inside of our elevator for several minutes. It has a somewhat moody door.
“You should demand that your landlord fix that elevator, Mrs. Golden,” he lectured the boss in his rich, burgundy baritone.
She smiled at him warmly. “Call me Abby, will you?” Pretty much everyone does, except for me. I call her Mom. “And it’s no use. Our landlord is a cheap so-and-so.”
Our landlord being, in fact, she. Mom took over the business and the five-story, circa 1890s building when my dad died of stomach cancer two years ago. It was my dad who’d founded Golden Legal Services. He’d always thought “legal services” sounded more professional than “private investigators.” There are two rental apartments up on the third floor. Mom lives in a floor-through apartment on the fourth floor. My own floor-through is on the top floor. On a clear day I can see Amsterdam Avenue.
“I’d still be trapped in that elevator if your upstairs neighbor hadn’t coaxed it into operation. An elderly lady?…”
Mom nodded. “That would be Mrs. Felcher.”
Mrs. Felcher has lived in 3A for thirty-seven years. Mr. Felcher has lived in 3B for the exact same number of years. They’re in their eighties and don’t speak to each other. Long story.
“Are you aware that she goes out in public in her bathrobe and slippers, Mrs. Golden?”
“Just down to the newsstand to get the paper. And, like I said, it’s Abby. If we’re going to be in bed together we can use our first names, can’t we, Pete?”
“It’s Peter,” he said stiffly.
“Now we’re getting somewhere.” Mom showed him her most inviting smile. “How may we help you today, Peter?”
If there’s one thing Mom knows, it’s how to handle men. Rita isn’t the only one-time exotic dancer in the office. The two are gal pals from back when Mom enjoyed the distinction of being the only Jewish pole dancer in New York City. She danced under the name Abraxas in the highest end midtown Manhattan topless clubs. Her dream had been to dance in Broadway musicals, but she had trouble keeping her weight down. Plus her abundant assets were hard to hide. Certainly hard to hide from Meyer Golden, an NYPD homicide detective who took one look at Abraxas and it was love. When he found out Abraxas was actually Abby Kaminsky from Sheepshead Bay it was marriage. My dad started the business after he retired from the job. Mom ran the office and eventually became a licensed PI the same way I did—by amassing three years of experience as an employee and passing the New York State PI exam. She’s pushing fifty but still gets honked at whenever she walks down the street. In modern day parlance she’s a MILF—and if you don’t know what those initials stand for I’m not going to tell you. I’ll just say she’s a strikingly attractive woman with a sculpted mass of black hair, huge dark eyes and major league curves. Today, she wore a two-piece garbardine suit with a white silk blouse that was artfully unbuttoned, so as to invite Seymour’s eyes toward her cleavage.
Instead, his eyes were trained on the wall where my dad’s framed commendations were on display. Dad became a genuine hero cop after he caught Briefcase Bob, the subway serial killer who terrorized New York City back in the early nineties. Quite a celebrity, too, after they made a movie about the case. Al Pacino played my dad, who never sought out the limelight. It found him because he was good at his job. He taught me most of what I know about it, and about people. Not a day goes by when I don’t miss him. I can’t imagine how Mom keeps going. But she does.
Now Seymour was peering at me as I slouched there on the sofa. I’m twenty-five but I look younger. In the world of casting agents I’m what’s known as a juvenile type. I’m exactly one-quarter inch shy of five-feet-six, weigh a buck thirty-seven and am exceedingly baby faced. But I’m plenty feisty. You’ll just have to take my word for that.
“I understand that you specialize in finding young people who’ve gone missing,” he said to me dubiously.
“You understand right,” Mom spoke up. “When it comes to tracking down runaways, there is no one in this city who’s better than my Benji. Who are you looking for?”
“We, which is to say Bates, Winslow and Seymour, are endeavoring to settle the estate of one of our clients. An individual of considerable wealth who has passed away.”
Mom reached for a yellow legal pad and a pen. “Your client’s name?”
“That,” he responded, “is not something you need to know.”
Mom put down her pen. “So it’s going to be like that, is it?”
“This case demands a great deal of discretion. Will that present a problem?”
“I don’t know yet, hon. Keep talking. Not that you’ve said much yet.”
Seymour opened his black leather briefcase, removed a manila file folder and set it before him on the desk. “Our late client has bestowed a considerable inheritance on a certain young man. He’s a senior at Canterbury College.” Canterbury is a small, distinguished liberal arts college in upper Manhattan. Just as hard to get into as the Ivy League. “He’s an exemplary young man of twenty-one with a very promising future.”
“And do we get to know his name?”
Mom glanced over at me with a faint smile on her lips. Now we knew why Mr. Classy Guy had shlepped his WASP ass all the way uptown to the offices of Golden Legal Services.
“We’re anxious to carry out our client’s wishes,” he continued. “But we wish to do so without involving the campus police or the NYPD. The private firm that we normally employ is not noted for its delicacy. They’re liable to flood the campus with a dozen jarheads in dark glasses. Such a turn of events would not be desirable.”
“Who do you usually use?”
“The Leetes Group.”
Mom wrinkled her nose. The Leetes Group was the evil empire of the PI business. They’d engulfed and devoured most of the small independent operations like ours over the past decade. Had high-tech offices in practically every major city in America. And zero scruples. They would resort to honey traps, coercion, even outright blackmail. The owner, Jake Leetes, was a former NYPD chief of detectives turned high-profile entrepreneur and cable news talking head. The man was a total pub slut.
“How long has Bruce Weiner been missing?” I asked.
“He’s not,” Seymour answered curtly. “No missing person report has been filed. He’s simply been, let us say, difficult to connect with. We’ve attempted to contact him at school by phone numerous times over the past two weeks. He hasn’t returned our phone calls. Or responded to our letters. We sent him the last one by certified mail. He refused to sign for it. And now his roommate is claiming that Bruce left campus three days ago even though classes are in session. He has no idea where Bruce is. Or, if he does, he won’t tell us. Perhaps you’ll have better luck.”
“What about Bruce’s parents?”
“They live up near Scarsdale in a town called Willoughby. The father works on Wall Street, for Farrell and Company. The mother does volunteer work of some sort. Their particulars are in the file.”
“Have you spoken to them?”
“Not directly, no. That’s where you come in. We’d like you to take over from here. And when you contact them the name of Bates, Winslow and Seymour must never come up. I want to be very clear about that point. Do you understand?”
“Not really,” I replied. “But yes.”
Gus, our grizzled black office cat, sauntered in and jumped up onto Mom’s desk. Since we work directly over a twenty-four-hour diner we have twenty-four-hour mice. Gus keeps the population in check. He walked across her papers toward Seymour, gazing at the lawyer with his urine-colored eyes. Seymour refused to acknowledge his presence there. Gus doesn’t like to be ignored—so he leapt from the desk into Seymour’s custom-tailored lap, hung out there for a second, then vaulted from the man’s groin onto the sofa. Seymour let out a less than classy “oof” before he got busy brushing off his trousers. Gus curled up next to me, immensely pleased with himself.
“What’s your client’s relationship with Bruce Weiner?” Mom wanted to know. “Are we talking about a grandparent?”
“Our client is not a grandparent,” Seymour replied, glaring at Gus.
“Then why has he left this young man something of considerable value?”
“I didn’t say our client was a ‘he.’ And, again, there is no need for you to know that.”
“Are his parents aware of this bequest?”
“No, they are not.”
“Do they stand to gain from it?”
“Only in the sense that that their son will now be financially independent.”
“Do they realize he’s missing?” I asked.
“I said he left campus three days ago. I did not say he was missing.”
Mom puffed out her cheeks with exasperation. “How about we cut the crap, Peter? Do you have reason to believe that something has happened to him?”
“No reason whatsoever. We’re simply anxious to clear this matter up quickly and discreetly. As far as we know the young man has not been the victim of a crime. Or had cause to visit the campus health center. Nor has he returned home to Willoughby. He has simply disappeared.” Seymour gazed down his long nose at me. “Can you find him?”
“Oh, I can find him. And when I do?”
“Have him contact us so we that can fulfill our legal obligation to our client.”
“What if he’s not interested?”
“He’s always free to donate the money to a worthy cause.”
“No, I mean what if he doesn’t want to talk to you? Because it sounds to me like he’s purposely avoiding you. Any reason why he’d want to do that?”
“None. We’re attempting to bestow a considerable fortune on him.” Seymour raised his chin at me. “Just find him, all right? Feel free to contact me directly day or night as soon as you have news. This is a priority matter for us. We are highly motivated.” He removed a slim envelope from his briefcase and handed it across the desk to Mom. “A down payment for your services. I believe you’ll find it quite generous.”
Mom opened the envelope and had a look, her eyes widening slightly. “It’s quite generous times two.”
“You’ll receive an equal amount upon successful completion of the assignment—plus a bonus of twenty-five thousand dollars. As I said, this is a priority matter.”
She squinted at the check. “What’s the Aurora Group?”
“A holding company.”
“Meaning, what, we’re off the books?”
“Not at all. Aurora’s merely an entity that we set up for occasions when we find it necessary to retain outside contractors.”
Mom sat back in her chair, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Okay, what’s really going on here?”
“Just find Bruce Weiner.” Peter Seymour’s face revealed nothing. The man was impenetrable. He closed his briefcase, fetched his dark gray overcoat from the coat rack and put it on. It looked like cashmere, probably because it was. “I shall take the stairs down,” he announced. And with that he was gone.
I headed straight for the window, gazing down at his town car at the curb.
“What are you doing, Bunny?”
“I want to see how he gets out to the car without getting his shoes dirty.”
“Simple. He’ll change them before he leaves the building.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because that’s what women do.”
Sure enough, Peter Seymour was wearing an old pair of black brogans when he strode across the slushy sidewalk to his car and got in. Must have had them stashed in his briefcase.
“What do you think?” I asked her as the Town Car pulled away.
“I think he’s a rat and we’re the mice. You?”
“It’s a fool’s errand of some kind. I just can’t figure out what kind.”
“If we weren’t flat broke I’d have told him to take his snippy attitude and get the hell out. Unfortunately, we can’t exactly be choosy right now,” she confessed as she endorsed Seymour’s check. “Rita, we’re rich!”
Rita let out a whoop and rushed in, snatching the check from her. “Does this mean I can deposit my last two paychecks?”
“Go for it,” Mom said to her.
Rita hurried back out, her wondrous rear end wiggling.
“We wouldn’t be so broke if you collected the rent from our tenants,” I pointed out. “Pearl is at least three months behind. So is Scotty.”
“Times are hard, Bunny. They’re suffering.”
“How about the Felchers? They’re living here rent free.”
“It’s a sin to dun the elderly.”
“Mom, you’re a sweet person but as a landlady, you suck.”
She brooded in silence for a moment, her lower lip stuck out. “Who knows, maybe Seymour’s on the level. Maybe this is exactly what it appears to be—send a nice Jewish boy to find a nice Jewish boy. You’ve got to like the symmetry, right?”
“Actually, I’m not a big fan of symmetry.”
* * *
BUT MOM KNOWS BEST.
The part about us being in no position to turn down a lucrative gig, I mean. It’s a tough time to be running a small agency. When the economy turns sour people don’t hire a private investigator to catch a two-timing spouse in the act. They just cheat on each other in sullen defiance.
An agency can’t operate on the cheap. You need state-of-the-art computers, software and surveillance equipment. And you need someone like Rita. Give her ten minutes and she can hack into anybody’s most personal records. Mom befriended her way back when Rita was working the clubs as Natural Born—out of respect for not only her boobies, but her flaming red hair. Rita used to babysit me. She was also the object of my earliest, most tumid adolescent yearnings. These days, she’s married to Clarence, who used to play outside linebacker for the Jets and is currently serving ten to fifteen at Sing Sing for aggravated assault. Rita spends sixteen hours a day at her desk, consumed by loneliness and raging hormones. But she’s true blue to Clarence. Never, ever considers stepping out with another man.
After I graduated from NYU drama school, the folks decided to sell our raised ranch in Mineola and move in over the office. By then I had my own place in the East Village and was trying to scratch out a living as an actor. I caught the show business bug from Mom. Desperately wanted to act. I got two weeks on a soap. A few commercials that went national. Speaking roles on a couple of different Law & Order episodes. Given my slight stature and boyish features, they continued to cast me as a high school kid even after I got out of drama school. Until the day they stopped casting me altogether. There isn’t much demand for a twenty-five-year-old juvenile type. Make that zero.
So I joined the family business. I have a genuine gift for tailing people. Partly it’s my dramatic training. Partly it’s what my dad taught me. I can tail anyone through the streets and subways of New York City and they never know I’m there. But my specialty is finding runaways. Thousands of high school and college-age kids from all over the country disappear into the Big Apple maw every year. Some are fleeing an abusive home life. Some are chasing the Broadway or catwalk dream. Some are just running and have no idea why.
I know all about that. Three weeks before I graduated from high school I gathered up my life savings of $238, packed an overnight bag and caught a Greyhound bus for Hollywood. Didn’t tell my folks. Didn’t tell anyone. I told myself I wanted to be a movie star. Mostly, I was just desperate to escape. If I didn’t get away I was positive I’d explode all over the Derek Jeter posters on my bedroom wall. After ten days out there, I was shuffling along Hollywood Boulevard with twenty-three cents in my pocket, starved and homesick. A real nice young guy named Stan took pity on me and bought me a meal. Stan even offered me a chance to appear in adult films if I was willing to go down on his extremely large friend Larry. I politely said I’d rather not. He not-so-politely pointed out that it wasn’t exactly a request. My dad found me in a cheap motel room three days later, drugged, dehydrated and dazed. When I was cleared to leave the hospital, we got on a plane for home and the matter was never discussed again. Except for the occasional nightmare that awakened me, screaming, my Project Runaway episode was history.
But I’ve been there, okay? I know what they’re going through. I know what can happen to them. It’s not my job to choreograph happy endings. I’m a private investigator. It’s not the career that I dreamt of, but given my upbringing I suppose it was inevitable that I’d end up where I am. Actually, it all seems pretty normal to me. Mind you, I go to work every day with two gorgeous women who used to get naked for a living—one of whom is my mom. So one man’s idea of normal is another’s oedipal fantasy a trois.
After Peter Seymour drove off, I went up to my book-lined apartment. Reading is one of my passions. Mostly showbiz memoirs and biographies, the juicier the better. My apartment has good light, thanks to the wraparound windows. A wood-burning fireplace. Comfy, overstuffed furniture that I inherited from my grandmother’s apartment in Flatbush. On muggy August afternoons I swear it still smells like kasha knishes. I built a fire in the fireplace and put some music on the stereo. Broadway musicals are my other passion. None of that Andrew Lloyd Webber crap either. Real stuff, like the digitally remastered original cast recording of Gypsy starring the great Miss Ethel Merman.
I stretched out in front of the fire with Seymour’s file on the Weiner family. Bruce’s parents, Paul and Laurie, were both forty-eight years old. Paul was a bond trader with Farrell and Company, as Seymour had mentioned. Laurie, who’d taught school before she and Paul started their family, volunteered at the local elementary school as a teacher’s aide. In addition to Bruce, the Weiners had a daughter, Sara, age seventeen, a senior at Willoughby High School who had applied to Columbia, Tufts, UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago. Sara was a straight-A student, a flautist and an all-conference soccer player. Both of the Weiner kids were athletic. Bruce had been the starting center on the Willoughby High basketball team. He did not play for the team at Canterbury. He appeared to be a model student. Had a 3.76 GPA. No record of drug or alcohol-related activity. No citations from the campus police for excessive partying. The kid seemed clean. But it also seemed obvious that the Leetes people hadn’t put boots on the ground at Canterbury. All they had were the fruits of a computer search. No dirt.
Although they sure had a lot of it on Bruce’s parents. Paul Weiner was a Gold Card member of the Gladiator’s Club, a high-end online escort service. The man had engaged in twelve assignations in midtown Manhattan hotel rooms over the past eighteen months at a cost of fifteen hundred dollars each. His preference was for Asian women who were young, petite and took excellent care of their feet. He also belonged to an online dating service and had been romantically involved with three different women in the past year. All three were Asian. Four years ago, he’d an affair with an unmarried coworker named Michelle Chen. It had ended when Michelle transferred to the San Diego office. She was presently married and had a small child.
Laurie Weiner had met with two different divorce attorneys in the past six months but had not retained either of them. Instead, she’d embarked on an affair with the married principal of the elementary school where she volunteered. The affair was ongoing. He had rented an apartment in Scarsdale for their trysts, which occurred three times a week between the hours of four and six P.M.
It’s like my dad used to say: It’s amazing what you find out about people when you find out about people.
There was more. Paul Weiner, who was accustomed to earning a six-figure annual Christmas bonus, hadn’t received one last month due to the sucky economy. Their home, which had slid 40 percent in market value since they bought it in 2004, was mortgaged to the rafters. Bruce’s tuition and room and board at Canterbury came to about forty thousand dollars a year. Laurie’s eighty-two-year-old mother, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, was in an assisted living facility in Armonk that cost even more than that. Between them, Paul and Laurie were presently carrying over sixty thousand dollars in credit card debt. They had a daughter who’d be starting college next year. Almost no savings. They were staring at real trouble.
I set the file aside, wondering once again why Seymour wasn’t using the Leetes Group to find Bruce. They had a gazillion operatives on their payroll. If anyone had the resources to track him down it was the Leetes Group. So why us?
It was 6:20 P.M. Paul Weiner probably wouldn’t be home yet from the city, but Laurie ought to be rolling in right about now from getting sweaty with her married boyfriend. She answered the phone on the third ring, sounding rushed and harried.
“Good evening, Mrs. Weiner. I’m Benjamin Golden of Golden Legal Services. We’ve been retained by a law firm to carry out a confidential legal matter concerning your son Bruce.”
Her first response was wary silence. Totally normal. I would have reacted the same way. “I … don’t understand. Is Bruce is in some kind of trouble?”
“Nothing of the sort, ma’am. A certain party has bequeathed something to Bruce. We’ve been retained to contact you and expedite the inheritance.”
“You’d better talk to my husband about it. I can give you his office number.”
“Already have it, thanks. And I’d rather discuss it with both of you.”
“And who did you say you’re with?”
I ran through it for her again. This time she was writing it down. “We prefer to handle these matters in person, Mrs. Weiner. I’d like to swing by your home this evening if you don’t mind. It won’t take long.”
Most wives would have put me off with a simple, “I’ll have my husband call you.” But I had the advantage of knowing that the Weiners weren’t getting along. And that she’d just been out shtupping her boyfriend and was anxious to jump in the shower before Paul got home.
Which was why she reluctantly said, “I guess that’ll be okay. We should be done with dinner by 8:30.”
I phoned my own dinner order down to Scotty’s. Diego brought it up to me on a covered tray. Room service is one of the perks of being the landlord. Tonight’s special was Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, string beans and tapioca pudding. I watched Jeopardy while I ate, washing it down with a glass of milk.
I dressed in my Sincere Young Man ensemble: Oxford button-down shirt, V-neck sweater, Harris Tweed sports jacket, corduroy slacks and the hooded navy blue duffel coat that I got at the Brooks Brothers winter sale for 60 percent off. Then I coaxed the elevator downstairs and took off into the wet, chilly New York night.
We keep our company car in a twenty-four-hour garage around the corner on Amsterdam. Our wheels had been my dad’s pride and joy—a somewhat gaudy burgundy 1992 Cadillac Brougham with a white vinyl top and matching burgundy leather interior. He loved that damned boat. Babied the hell out of it. And would have been infuriated that I was taking it out in the slush of a January night. But we can’t afford to maintain a car that we don’t use.
The evening traffic was heavy and slow. I inched my way up the Henry Hudson to the Cross Bronx, then took that to the Hutchinson River Parkway, an icy rain tap-tap-tapping on my windshield. As I headed into the northern burbs, the rain changed over to snowflakes. And I began to get the feeling that I was not alone. I couldn’t make anyone out in my rearview mirror. But I also couldn’t shake the feeling that I had a tail.
Willoughby is one exit past Scarsdale. When I arrived there I found myself in an entirely different world. Instead of sooty slush there was a blanket of pure white snow. Instead of the hustle-bustle of today I encountered a sleepy, charming village where time had stopped in about 1936. There was a town green complete with an honest-to-gosh gazebo. A steepled white church. Tidy little shops with parking on the diagonal out front. It was positively eerie. The snow was coming down pretty hard as I made my way through town, past dignified homes set back behind white picket fences. The snowplows were out. Hardly anyone else was.
I still had the feeling I was being followed. I didn’t see anyone behind me on the deserted road. But I felt it.
The Weiners lived at the end of Powder Horn Hill Road, a relatively new cul-de-sac of immense center-chimney colonials filled with prosperous, happy people leading prosperous, happy lives—as long as you didn’t read their files and know better. As I drew closer to the Weiners’ place, I met up with a family of deer standing in the middle of the road. They didn’t run away from the Caddy. Just stood there. I had to steer around them.
Paul Weiner answered the doorbell. Bruce’s father was a balding, moon-faced man with a pillowy body and soft, round shoulders. He had a cautious, serious air about him. The air of a man you could trust with your money. He wore a cardigan over a plaid flannel shirt, worn khakis and moccasins.
“Good evening, Mr. Weiner, I’m Ben Golden of Golden Legal Services. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.”
“I didn’t exactly have a choice,” he responded with chilly disapproval. “I just found out you were coming five minutes ago.”
Laurie appeared behind him the doorway, wearing designer sweats and sneakers. She was a thin, tepid looking woman with limp brown hair, horsy features and a complexion the color of wet newspaper. It never fails: Whenever I study up on a married couple who are cheats, I always picture the wife as a shmokin’ hot cougar and the husband as the spitting image of George Clooney. Reality? The Weiners were painfully plain.
“My wife,” he said tightly, “was a bit unclear about what it is you do, son. Are you an intern at a law firm?”
“Actually, I’m a licensed private investigator.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I am not.”
“I suppose you have a license and so forth?”
I took out my wallet and showed it to him.
He looked it over carefully, shaking his head. “And who has hired you?”
Peter Seymour had explicitly warned me not to share that information with them. I wanted to know why that was. It’s my natural instinct to be curious about such things. “The law firm of Bates, Winslow and Seymour,” I replied.
Laurie Weiner drew in her breath, her eyes widening.
Her husband was a cooler customer. He just said, “You may as well come in out of the snow. But I’m warning you—I won’t agree to act on Bruce’s behalf until I see something in writing and review it with my own attorney.”
The entry hall smelled of potpourri and teriyaki sauce. There was a cavernous department store showroom of a living room that looked as if it was never, ever used. And a brightly lit den directly across the hall, where the Knicks were playing the Bucks on a sixty-inch flat-screen TV.
As I unbuttoned my coat, a teenaged girl came bounding eagerly down the stairs. Sara Weiner was a small-boned, bright-eyed girl with a long, shiny mane of honey-colored hair.
“Are you a friend of Brucie’s?” she asked, gazing at me probingly.
“No, he’s not,” her father said abruptly. “Mr. Ben Golden is here about a legal matter, Sara. And you have a history paper to write.”
Sara curled her lip at him and started back upstairs, looking at me curiously over her shoulder. I treated her to my best smile. I got zero back.
Laurie offered me coffee. I accepted. Paul and I went in the den. He flicked off the TV while I checked out the shrine that had been erected in there. A huge glass case was filled with athletic trophies. And one entire wall was lined with framed, laminated newspaper stories and photos.
Paul said, “Bruce’s basketball team won the state championship his senior year. Bruce was the starting center and captain. That’s my boy, right there.…” He pointed to a newspaper photo of a big, dark-haired kid with broad shoulders and a square jaw. A real bruiser. Neither of his parents was particularly large. Nor was his sister. But there must have been some size in the Weiner family tree somewhere. “He’s a ferocious rebounder. He wanted to play at the college level but he’s only six-foot-three. To play under the basket in college you’ve got to be at least four inches taller. We talked about him switching to football. They projected Bruce as a tight end. He decided to focus on academics instead. It was a tough adjustment for him. Basketball was his first love. But I told him, hey, sometimes you just have to face up to reality and move on.”
“Yes, you do.”
“He wants to teach English abroad for a year after he graduates. Has shown no interest in business school, which had been our plan.”
“And how do you feel about that?”
“We just want him to be happy,” Laurie said as she showed up with my coffee.
I took it from her and sat on the leather sofa. She sat next to me. Paul settled into an oversized recliner.
I sipped my coffee. It was weaker than I like it. “And is he? Happy, I mean.”
Paul let out a laugh. “Why wouldn’t he be? He’s twenty-one years old. He’s got his whole great big beautiful life ahead of him.” The man’s voice was upbeat but there was wistfulness in his eyes. He sounded as if he wanted to live his own life all over again. Perhaps in Asia this time, with a rotating bevy of petite young women who take excellent care of their feet.
“When did you last speak to Bruce?”
Paul shrugged. “Over the weekend, I guess. Why?”
“Bates, Winslow and Seymour have made numerous attempts to contact him at Canterbury. He hasn’t responded to any of their phone calls or letters. According to his roommate, Bruce left school three days ago.”
The Weiners exchanged a look of surprise.
“Chris told them Bruce took off?” Laurie’s voice quavered slightly.
Paul stroked his chin thoughtfully. “So that’s why they sent you here.”
“Yes, sir. My initial thought was that perhaps he’d come home for a few days. Which I gather he hasn’t.”
“You gather correctly.”
“Do you have any idea where he can be reached?”
He peered at me, puzzled. “We’re Bruce’s parents. Why didn’t they just come to us in the first place?”
“Because he’s twenty-one. The bequest is in his name.”
“Bequest,” he repeated. “Somebody’s left Bruce money? How much money?”
“I’m not privy to that information.”
“Well, do you know who left it to him?”
“I’m afraid not. I’ve simply been retained to locate Bruce. Do you have any relatives who’ve passed away recently?”
“My folks are long gone,” Paul replied with a shake of his head. “So is Laurie’s father. And her mother was still kicking the last time I looked.”
“She’s kicking all right,” Laurie said glumly.
I kept staring at Laurie, trying to imagine her in the throes of passion with her married lover. Or anyone. I couldn’t. “How about a family friend or business associate?”
They looked at each other blankly.
“Perhaps an elderly neighbor? Someone who took an interest in Bruce when he was a boy?”
“Maybe old man Kershaw,” Paul offered. “He retired to Phoenix a few years back. Bruce used to shovel his driveway for him. The old fellow took a shine to him, remember, Laurie?”
“What I remember is the way he used to stare at Sara when she played in the front yard. That man made my skin crawl.”
“Do either of you know why Bruce might have left school?”
“No idea,” he said.
“Has he ever taken off before?”
“He and his friends go off on little unscheduled ski trips to Bear Mountain,” Laurie said. “He is a kid, after all.”
“But a responsible kid,” Paul said, getting testy. “He’s no partier.”
“I didn’t say he was,” she said, getting testy right back.
“Does he have a girlfriend?”
“No one steady,” he said.
“That we know of,” she said.
Which Paul didn’t like. “Laurie, if he had a girlfriend we’d know.”
“Not necessarily,” she shot back.
As the two of them bickered I heard a floorboard creak in the hallway. Someone was eavesdropping on our conversation.
Paul heaved a sigh of annoyance. “You know what? There’s a simple way to get to the bottom of this.” He grabbed his cell phone from the coffee table and speed dialed a number. Waited as it rang, then shook his head at us. “Voice mail.” He left Bruce a message: “Hi Beefer, I was just watching the Knicks get killed and thought I’d check in. Talk to you soon.” He rang off, scrolled his directory and tried another number. “Hi, Chris, sorry if I’m interrupting anything. It’s Paul Weiner … I’m fine, son. Just fine. Been trying to get in touch with Bruce and he’s not … Oh, he is? Uh-huh.… Sure, I understand. Glad to hear it. Okay, thanks.” Paul rang off, gazing at me with amusement. “Somebody gave you a bum steer, young fellow. His roommate just told me that Bruce has been pulling long hours at the library every night this week. He couldn’t answer my call just now because they make the kids turn their cell phones off.”
And yet this very same roommate had told Peter Seymour’s office he hadn’t seen Bruce in three days. Who was Chris Warfield lying to? And why?
“If you hear from him please let me know.” I left my business card on the coffee table and stood up. “Excuse me for asking, but have you folks had any prior dealings with Bates, Winslow and Seymour?”
Laurie lowered her eyes, coloring slightly.
Paul looked me right in the eye and said, “Never heard of them.” He was a good liar.
It was still snowing lightly. There was a thin coating on the windshield of the Caddy. Nothing the wipers couldn’t take care of. I was just about to back out of the driveway when someone came darting out of a door next to the garage, jumped in next to me and dove under the dashboard.
“Just keep going,” Sara blurted out, crouching there. “Drive around.”
“Drive around where?”
“Park down the block or something. Just go, will you?”
I backed out of the driveway and started up the street. As soon as I’d gone around a bend, Sara sat up on the seat next to me, tossing her long, shiny hair. She wore an oversized fleece top, a pair of tights and Ugg boots. She was a cute little thing with big brown eyes, a soft, plump mouth and glowing skin. A real doll. A nervous doll. She was wringing her hands.
“I was listening to what my parents were just telling you in there,” she said with great urgency. “And they are, like, totally full of shit, okay? They don’t know anything.”
“And you do?”
“Well, yeah. So does Chris. He was lying his ass off to my dad.”
I pulled over to the curb and idled there with the heater cranked up high. We had Powder Horn Hill Lane all to ourselves, unless you count the deer.
Sara was studying me from across the seat with those big brown eyes. “You don’t look like a Ben.”
“My friends call me Benji.”
“I like that much better. Tell me why you’re looking for Brucie.”
“It’s my job. A law firm hired me.”
“Some big fancy law firm in the city?”
“That totally figures.” She glanced around at the interior of the Caddy. “This is your ride?”
“So what do you drive?”
“I don’t. I live in the city.”
“God, I can’t wait to. It bites out here. There’s nothing to do, nowhere to go. A lot of my friends are applying to these small, elitist colleges in the New England countryside. Not me. I want to be in a city where shit happens.” She pulled a hand-rolled joint out of the pocket of her fleece top. “Does your lighter work?”
“I imagine so.”
She pushed it in and waited, gazing at me curiously. “So you’re a real dick.”
“Isn’t that what they call a guy who does what you do?”
“Generally, they call me a private investigator.”
The lighter popped up. She yanked it out and lit her joint, toking deeply on it. “Want some?” she asked, opening her window a crack to let the smoke out.
“It helps me relax. I’m hardwired to excel—academics, music, sports. I’m a little tightly wound.” Sara flashed a smile at me. She had a sweet smile. A set of dimples you could go spelunking in. “Trevor? This guy who I’m sort of boning? He’s really into old Bogie movies. That’s why I asked you about the dick thing. Trevor likes to wear this old gray fodera just like Sam Spade.”
“It’s like a hat? He said it was called a fodera.”
“Are you sure?”
“I couldn’t be more sure. What does ‘sort of boning’ mean?”
“We’re fuck buddies but it’s not serious.”
“You don’t consider fucking serious?”
“Not really. Why, do you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“That’s so sweet.” She toked on her joint. “Do you carry a roscoe?”
“No one has used that term for at least seventy years. But, yes, I’m licensed to carry a firearm.”
“Have you ever shot anyone?”
“But you know how to use it?”
“I go shooting regularly at the Westside Pistol Range in Chelsea.”
“Are you carrying it with you right now?”
“It’s locked in the glove compartment.”
“Can I see it?”
“Well, what kind is it?”
“A Smith and Wesson Chief’s Special. It has a short, two-inch barrel. Is easy to conceal. I find it easy to handle, too. I don’t have very big hands.”
“That’s too bad.” She arched an eyebrow at me. “I’ve heard what they say about guys who have small hands.”
I let that one slide on by. She was too young to get frisky with. A straight-A student, according to her file. An adorable little hottie, according to me. Too bad she wasn’t five years older. Hell, even three. I gazed back out at the deserted road. Once again I was sensing a shadow out there somewhere. I saw no one. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling. “Sara, you said your parents don’t know anything. Did you mean in regards to Bruce’s unnamed benefactor?”
“Wait, you’re the one who’s looking for him, right?”
“And you don’t know who his benefactor is?”
She smoked her joint some more. “That’s fairly weird, isn’t it?”
“Yes and no. I’m only told what clients choose to tell me. Do you have an idea who it is?”
“Some giant, sleazoid sneaker company, obviously. They’re trying to buy him off. I wonder how much they’re offering Brucie. I bet it’s a million. A million means nothing to those people.”
“Sara, I think we’d better hit rewind,” I said, not following one word she was saying. “Tell me about Bruce, will you?”
She leaned her head back against the headrest. The joint was calming her down. “He’s a great brother. Just a real sweet guy. Smart, but not one of those ego kings who’s always trying to chump you. In high school he was a major, major baller. But not anymore, except for pick-up games. I think that’s how he and Charles met.”
“And Charles is?…”
Sara rolled her eyes at me like a suffering teenager. God’s subtle way of reminding me that she was one. “Charles,” she said, louder this time. “The Charles.”
“Do you mean Charles Willingham?”
“Your brother and Charles ‘In Charge’ Willingham are friends?”
“Benji, they’re more than friends. They’re lovers.”
I looked at her in shock. “Charles Willingham is gay?”
“The two of them mean everything to each other.”
“Charles Willingham is gay?”
She glared at me. “Yes, Charles Willingham is gay. And, by the way, so is my brother. Get over it, will you?”
Easier said than done. There had been no mention of this particular mother lode in the Leetes Group file. How come? Was it possible they hadn’t uncovered it? Or was their report redacted because they didn’t want me in the loop? I had no idea. I only knew that our case had just taken a sharp swerve toward weird.
I looked back out at the falling snow, soaking in the enormity of it. Canterbury College was by no means a hotbed for intercollegiate athletics. It didn’t even offer athletic scholarships. But for the past two seasons the tiny Division II school had produced one of the top men’s basketball teams in the entire country, right up there with powerhouses like North Carolina and Kansas. Canterbury’s Athenians had been the Cinderella story of last year’s NCAA tournament, toppling the mighty UCLA Bruins and Pitt Panthers on their way to the Elite Eight before they were finally eliminated by Duke in a nationally televised prime time game. The Canterbury Tale, the media had dubbed this improbable run of upsets engineered by John Seckla, the team’s dynamic young head coach. And it was no fluke. Coach Seckla’s Athenians had kept right on winning this season. They were even favored to make it into the Final Four. And the overwhelming reason why was six-foot-five-inch Charles “In Charge” Willingham, their incandescent All-American shooting guard. Charles Willingham was a consensus top three pick in the next NBA draft who’d chosen tiny Canterbury over the traditional hoops schools because he was also a 4.0 brainiac who planned to go to law school someday. Charles was the ultimate feel-good story. A black hometown hero out of Harlem’s Martin Luther King housing projects who never made a false move on or off the court. He was modest in victory, gracious in defeat, polite, well-spoken and movie star handsome. The media adored him. Everyone did. Charles Willingham was a once-in-a-generation talent. The black Bill Bradley, old-timers called him.
“Sara, how long have Bruce and Charles been together?”
“More than a year. Brucie hasn’t told our folks because they’ll freak.”
“About him being gay, you mean?”
She nodded. “Their values are totally outmoded.”
“But you’re cool with it?”
“Of course. We are who we are. We can’t let … Oh, shit!” She narrowed her gaze at me. “Did you just scam me?”
“Scam you how?”
“You’re not going to go blab this to, like, TMZ or Gawker are you?”
“Of course not. You can trust me.”
“How do I know that?”
“Because I just gave you my word.”
She studied me carefully for a moment. “Benji, how old are you?”
“Because you don’t look like someone who’d do this kind of work.”
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“So that means you’re not?”
“A total bunny.”
I smiled at her. “My mom calls me Bunny.”
“I would kill for your eyelashes. Are you married?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Are you gay? It’s okay if you are.”
“I’m not gay.”
“Good, I’m glad,” she said, showing me those dimples of hers again.
“You were saying something about sneakers?…”
“Well, yeah. Charles is going to pull down huge endorsement deals this spring after the NBA draft. Sneakers, power drinks, all of that. He is such a golden boy. Except he won’t be if the public finds out that the great love of his life is a guy named Bruce Weiner. So somebody wants to pay Brucie to go bye-bye. It’s got to be that, don’t you think?”
I didn’t know. A sneaker manufacturer didn’t exactly sound like Bates, Winslow and Seymour’s usual sort of clientele. Then again, we were all working a bit harder these days. “Sara, I’m still wondering something. Why did you jump in my car?”
She lowered her eyes. “Because I’m really worried about Brucie. The last time we talked he sounded incredibly down. Which is not a good thing. When nobody offered him a basketball scholarship he got super depressed and tried t-to hang himself in the basement. I’m the one who cut him down. The ambulance guy told me, like, one more minute and he’d have been a goner.” Sara took a ragged breath that was almost but not quite a sob. “I’ve left him ten messages on his cell. He hasn’t called me back or answered my e-mails. He didn’t tell me where he was going. Or what’s bothering him. Although it has to be about Charles. Having to sneak around and be invisible. It’s hard on Brucie. And so hard on Charles. That poor guy is under constant pressure to make every shot, ace every test, smile for every camera, be nice to everyone all day long. He’s on stage twenty-four/seven and he’s been hiding his sexual identity this whole time. Bruce wishes he’d come out. So do I. Charles would be such a trailblazer—the sports world’s first openly gay male superstar. But he’s afraid to. And the whole situation’s really getting to him. He had to be hospitalized overnight a couple of weeks ago.”
“I read about it. They said he had food poisoning.”
“Benji, it wasn’t anything Charles ate. His blood pressure spiked so high during practice that he passed out. He’s carrying around too much stress. It’s not healthy.”
“Do his teammates know about Bruce?”
“No way. No one connected with the team knows. Just a few people who they really trust. Charles trusts his mom, Velma, who’s a nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital. She raised Charles all by herself and is his best friend. She knows. So does Brucie’s roommate, Chris. He’s good people.”
“Me. I know the real deal. And now so do you.”
“Why me, Sara?”
“I’m not stupid, Benji. If that law firm hired you to find him then that means somebody else must know. Which totally bites. But when I saw you at the bottom of the stairs just now, I was positive you were sent here to help him. I have good instincts that way. I’m very empathetic.”
“Do you have any idea where Bruce might be?”
“No, but Chris might. Although he’ll never tell you. Not if Brucie swore him to secrecy. I’m worried about my brother, Benji. He’s all alone somewhere and I’m afraid he might go into another downward spiral a-and…” She was fighting back tears. “He just sounded so down. He’s been that way ever since Christmas vacation.”
“You mean because of Charles?”
“Well, yeah. And no.”
“Is something else bothering him?”
“Maybe. There was this lady…”
“What lady, Sara?”
“Just some really strange lady. She came up to him at the mall when we were shopping for presents together. Asked if she could talk to him for a minute. The two of them walked away from me and started talking. Or she talked. Brucie hardly said a word. She was real freaky-deaky. Wild-eyed, waving her arms around in the air. Plus she was a total mess, you know? Like a homeless person. Had this stringy blond hair that I swear she hadn’t washed in weeks. And her clothes were all ratty. Brucie couldn’t get away from her fast enough. After she left I said, ‘What was that about?’”
“And what did he say?”
“Not a word. He got real quiet.”
“Do you think he knew her?”
“He definitely knew her.”
“How old was this woman?”
“Thirty. Maybe thirty-five. Whoever she was, she upset him. And he wouldn’t tell me why.”
“Does he usually shut you out that way?”
“We’re incredibly close. But, yeah, he can be pretty private sometimes.” Her half-smoked joint had gone cold. She stuffed it back in her pocket. “Benji, I’ll take the train into the city tomorrow morning instead of going to school. I’m going to help you find him.”
“I don’t think so, Sara.”
“But I have to help him.”
“You already have.”
“I want to do more. Please? I’ll do anything.”
“Will you back my play with Chris? I may have to come at him a little sideways.”
“Okay, I don’t know what that means.”
“It means don’t narc me out. Go with it. Are you up for that?”
“Totally. I won’t let you down.”
I took out a pen and two of my business cards. Gave her one card in case she needed to reach me. Had her write her cell number on the other for me.
“You can take me back to the house of horrors now, Benji.”
“Can you sneak back inside without your folks knowing?”
“I do it all of the time,” she said with a toss of her long, shiny mane. “My parents are so clueless. I mean, they actually think they still belong together. How pathetic is that?”
Copyright © 2013 by David Handler