The blare of car horns from Thirty-fourth Street in midtown Manhattan leaked through two tall windows on the far end of the rectangular office. Rachel Vasquez was annoyed, but she only glanced across her jumbled desk at her boss, Clayton Guthrie, before turning back to her computer monitor. In the three months that the young Puerto Rican woman had worked for the little detective, he hadn’t done much detecting. The job that started the spring as a godsend was becoming a curse. Clayton Guthrie was crazy. Three days before, Vasquez had gone home intending to quit, but intention was as close as she came.
That morning had started easily. Vasquez drove Guthrie’s old blue Ford while they followed a couple around downtown Manhattan. The man was a short, muscular Italian, with gold chains glinting on his dark, hairy neck. He had a prize-winning glare that moved people around him like chess pieces. Vasquez found him easy to dislike. The woman was taller, with light brown hair that glowed like butter when the morning sunshine touched it. She dangled her rounded curves before the Italian like presents, gift-wrapped in a short white skirt and a clinging blue top, but her pinched expression changed to a smile only when he was looking.
Vasquez thought the couple was gangster-movie comic, but Guthrie watched and filmed with the soberness of a government employee. The detectives wore walkie-talkie earpieces like Secret Service agents, and Vasquez had a second camera tucked into her jacket pocket while she drove.
After a morning spent slowly shopping boutiques in SoHo and TriBeCa, the couple stopped for lunch at an upscale grill on a corner of Broome Street. Their table was on the outside corner, and visible through front windows on both streets. Guthrie left Vasquez to film from the front of a shoe store on Broome, and he hurried around the corner to shoot from the other side. The angry Italian and his simpering mistress settled at their table and ordered. Vasquez filmed. Her view was so clear, she could see every gold tooth in the man’s busy mouth.
Partway through lunch, the Italian made a phone call. The street traffic was light, mostly Yuppies taking their cell phones for a walk. Vasquez filled her time by guessing whether passersby would enter the grill, and counting the number of taxis that passed without a fare. She despised surveillance. Guthrie tired of her monologue, and reminded her she was on a mike by asking if she would rather be driving a taxi. Several more minutes passed before Vasquez understood that the Italian in the restaurant had spotted her. He started laughing and pointed at her. His mistress turned around to look; the last thing Vasquez caught on video was the woman’s terrified smile.
A heavyset young Italian gripped Vasquez’s right arm and whipped her around. “Hey there!” he exclaimed, a happy note in his voice. “Whatcha doing?” A drooping mustache concealed most of his mouth. His face was rough like a concrete block, and his shoulders had layers like a vault door. Another young Italian in a jogging suit stood beside him. He wasn’t as big, but he looked equally amused.
“Let me go!” Vasquez demanded. After a moment, she emphasized with a knee aimed at his crotch, but he turned it aside with his thigh.
“We got a fighter here,” he rumbled. As always, some pedestrians hunched their shoulders and hurried away, while the others craned for a better view. The scuffle was brief. A skinny teenaged Puerto Rican girl with a long black ponytail didn’t burn much time on the fight cards of two Italian heavyweights. They wanted the camera; they took it. Vasquez’s ears were ringing before Guthrie arrived, but she held a grip on the bigger thug’s wrist, trying to reach past his long arm with a punch.
The big Italian with the mustache tossed Vasquez against the window of the shoe store, but he stumbled as he rushed Guthrie. Vasquez watched as the little detective drew back an open hand. After a thunderclap, the big Italian slid to his hands and knees.
“Yo, Dave, what happened?” he muttered.
Guthrie stepped over to the other thug and snatched Vasquez’s camera from his hand before bending to pluck his crumpled brown fedora from the man’s face. Vasquez pushed herself away from the storefront window as the Italians struggled to their feet. She could hear the sounds of traffic again. She aimed a few cheap kicks at them as they scrambled down the sidewalk. Bystanders hooted and catcalled, and a clerk rushed out of the shoe store.
Across the street, the couple was watching from the window of the grill. The Italian was livid, pointing at them while he shouted into his phone. Standing on the sidewalk, just inside the edge of shade from the strong July sunshine running down the middle of Broome Street, Guthrie dusted off his fedora and punched it back into shape. His face twisted in disgust when he glanced inside—fresh speckles of blood decorated the silk. He flapped it against his leg instead of putting it on his head.
Once they were back in the old Ford, the little man caught Vasquez’s chin and held it while he scowled and inspected her face. “You ain’t too bad,” he said.
She shook him off and started the car, pulling out just before a patrol car turned into the intersection at the corner of Broome Street. She wiped her stinging nose with the back of her hand and checked for blood.
“How in hell did they sneak up on you anyway?” Guthrie asked. “I thought you grew up on the Lower East.”
“You’re loco, viejo,” Vasquez barked. “They got up on me since you didn’t warn me I should be looking! Who the hell was that?”
“Or maybe you were too busy counting taxis?”
“Screw that. You should’ve told me he was connected. Why are you watching him anyway?”
“We were watching her.”
Vasquez pounded the steering wheel and poured out some rapid curses in Spanish. The detective laughed at her, and fired some more that she hadn’t used. Discovering that he spoke Spanish startled her into quiet.
“Maybe I should have warned you about my suspicions,” he said after a minute. The old Ford rolled past Washington Square. “And maybe you should’ve just paid attention. He spotted you, so you blew it—hugs and kisses won’t make it sound better. You gotta see that, Rachel. This’s a tough job, but I got faith in you. You’re a smart girl. You’ll figure it out.”
Vasquez went home angry, intending to quit after her next check, but she had forgotten about the marks on her face. Billboard advertisements would’ve drawn less attention in her parents’ tenement apartment that night. Even her brothers kept quiet, staring at her face with shocked and angry looks. Papì recounted his top twenty-seven reasons she should be applying for college, finishing with a final silent finger gesture at her face. At that point, she discovered she was determined to keep working for Clayton Guthrie. Late that night, after the apartment was quiet, Vasquez’s mother came to the open door of her bedroom. She stood silently, as if thinking of something to say, but only sighed and walked quietly away.
So Rachel Vasquez didn’t quit, and her immediate reward was returning to the study of video-surveillance tapes. After which the little man grilled her like a sandwich to see if she had noticed everything he wanted her to notice—without telling her in advance what he meant her to notice. Clayton Guthrie was crazy. The quiet in his office was driving Vasquez crazy. At least the blare of horns on Thirty-fourth Street below them meant something was happening—kids were pushing racks of clothes on the street and slowing the traffic. That was an everyday occurrence in the Garment District. She glanced across the jumbled desk at Guthrie again. Then someone knocked on the office door.
Beyond a square of mismatched furniture, a shape behind the frosted glass window filled it almost completely. The door swung open after one brief knock. A tall silver-haired man in an ash gray suit stepped inside, followed by a young woman in a navy dress. Guthrie dropped his magazine onto his desk blotter. “Good afternoon, Mr. Whitridge,” he said.
The office was well-lit. The desks each faced a couch, squared across a low coffee table littered with books and magazines. Vasquez’s desk faced a wall of green paint over plasterwork, split by the frosted outer door, and an oxblood leather couch that belonged to a bygone era, when the entire room had been better dressed. The other couch, overlooked by the tall windows, was ratty brown faux fur. Another remnant of the previous aristocratic era was dark wooden wainscoting on the walls, interrupted by the outer door, and a pair of dark wooden doors behind Guthrie’s desk—a supply closet and a bathroom.
The tall silver-haired man, Mr. Whitridge, seemed about the same age as Clayton Guthrie—in his middle years—but he was tailored and distinguished. His gray suit fit him as neatly as a general’s dress uniform. A similar number of years left Guthrie rumpled. He was short and slight, and though his soldier-length hair was mostly dark, a dusting of gray seemed to load him down. A dark brown fedora rested on his desktop, and he wore a long-sleeved white shirt tucked into dark trousers. Whitridge stepped around and sat down on the oxblood couch. Moving and seated, the tall man had the perfect carriage of an aristocrat; Guthrie was his workingman opposite, down to the final detail of a relaxed slouch.
Vasquez wore a Yankees cap set crooked on her head, blue jeans, and a red windbreaker with the cuffs pushed up to her elbows. Her ears jutted like open car doors, because her long black hair was tied in a ponytail. The young woman with Whitridge was wearing a loose navy tea dress that couldn’t hide rolling curves that had gone out of fashion after Marilyn Monroe. She was pale and blue-eyed, with chocolate brown hair pulled into a short tail with a navy ribbon, like a bloom behind her ear. Despite the curves and clothes, she was plain. Vasquez was dressed like a boy, and slim as a whip, but her dark eyebrows and sharp jaw took her long steps past merely pretty, into the realm of beautiful. The fading marks on her face only made her seem determined, not breakable. The young woman hesitated, then sat down on the brown faux-fur couch.
“Where’s Weitz?” the tall man asked after glancing around the office.
“She had enough, I reckon,” Guthrie said. “This’s Rachel Vasquez, my new operative.”
Whitridge measured the young Puerto Rican with a glance, then tipped her a diplomat’s smile. “I think Michelle may explain this situation better than I would,” he said.
“You’re a private detective, right?” the young woman demanded.
“Sort of,” Guthrie replied.
Michelle frowned, thinking about it. Her face came to life and she suddenly became more than ordinary, while deciding that “sort of” was good enough. “I need you to find out who killed my cousin,” she said. “The police think they know who did it, but they’re wrong.”
The videotape on Vasquez’s monitor continued running, but she paid no attention. She was listening hard. The job she had taken that spring started with her expecting something serious. Clayton Guthrie was a private detective, and somewhere he found enough power to break laws—enough to buy a teenager a gun and supply her with a carry permit. The first month, she spent six hours a day at an indoor pistol range. The little detective drank coffee, loaded bullets into clips, and timed her with a stopwatch as he flipped targets and shouted “Draw!” Vasquez fired the Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special until both of her wrists ached, because he made her switch hands. The practice suggested something serious in the future, with the same kind of unspoken language as the revolver Guthrie kept hidden in the bottom drawer of his desk.
Then more months passed watching surveillance videos, or sitting in a park or on the street watching passersby do nothing. They ran background checks, which meant finding people and asking them what they thought of someone else, investigating references on résumés to see if they were real people and real companies, and determining whether people paid taxes or had criminal records. Vasquez supposed that was detective work. Maybe people could earn a living doing that. But that wasn’t the job she’d expected when Guthrie had handed her the pistol and said, “Hitting what you fire at should be as easy as drawing breath.” Now two office visitors and one asked-aloud question were enough to erase Vasquez’s boredom and awaken her expectation.
Guthrie gave the young brunette a surprised look. He glanced at Whitridge, then asked, “You mean the Bowman murder?”
“That’s right! No way did Greg kill her, but they arrested him last night.…” She trailed to a stop, puzzled.
Before she could ask another question, Guthrie said, “It’s a society murder—you’re society.” The detective threw another incredulous glance at Whitridge.
“Oh. I asked Uncle Harry for help, and you’re the help. I suppose you’d better be good.” She gave Guthrie the once-over, measuring the small man against his advance billing. “Well?”
Guthrie nodded. “I hear you, miss,” he said, “but I wonder if you’re reading the papers. This guy, they took him in on the Bowman murder, but I shouldn’t need to say they’re looking at him for all of it.”
“But he didn’t!” she insisted.
Camille Bowman’s murder had been the lead headline in every city paper for a week, the latest in a dead cast of characters. She was eye-catchingly blond and beautiful, another young woman murdered and dumped, without an obvious suspect. The newshounds called them “Barbie doll murders,” because the victims had been beautiful. For the media, the killings were a carnival, complete with lurking villain, the smell of sex, and a paper chase. New developments were impossible to miss.
“I have sent the young man a lawyer,” Whitridge volunteered.
“The lawyer doesn’t have a guy? What about him?”
Whitridge smiled. “The law firm doesn’t specialize in criminal matters, I’m afraid. That isn’t ordinarily useful to me. Then the police found a gun.”
“A gun?” Guthrie asked, settling back into his chair.
“See, you think he’s guilty,” the young woman said. “The police are wrong, too! Greg didn’t do it! He loved her!” She dropped back onto the furry brown couch when Whitridge patted her shoulder a few times.
The silver-haired man’s face was grim, his thoughts unvoiced. “Can you take care of this?” he asked.
Guthrie nodded. “I’ll be all over it.”
“Thank you,” Whitridge said.
Vasquez went to the office window and looked down at Thirty-fourth Street in time to see Whitridge and his niece climb into a chauffeured Town Car. For once, the street hadn’t been blocked by kids trucking racks of clothes. The horns stopped blaring when the Town Car pulled away. “Who the hell is he?” she asked.
“HP Whitridge,” Guthrie said. “Harry Payne Edward Whitridge.”
* * *
While Guthrie made phone calls to the lawyer and some police detectives, Vasquez paced the office impatiently. She didn’t know what to do, but she wanted to be doing something. Camille Bowman’s murder was the leading item on the television news, in a city already burdened with a string of similar killings. For seven days video clips of a filthy shoreline ran together with sequences of an ambulance, a gurney, and head shots of a beautiful blond Columbia coed. Like the other murders, there had been no witnesses to Bowman’s murder. An army of reporters with no facts at hand manufactured a story from Bowman’s shiny would-be future and screamed about tragedy.
Between his phone calls, Guthrie explained that a recovered gun, followed by an arrest by the NYPD, might mean a finished case. HP Whitridge wanted him to backtrack the police detectives’ trail to reassure his niece, but he hadn’t seemed to possess her faith in the suspect.
“We’re smoothing over hurt feelings?” Vasquez demanded.
Guthrie shrugged. “Maybe. The Ds at Major Case aren’t idiots, but they can make a mistake. I reckon they were careful with this one, and they want a slam dunk with the lawyers watching. So we walk up to it carefully. This time, it’s about the client.”
“That’s right. He manages a fair-size piece of the Whitney fortune. Some of it’s even his. He’s the family fixer, and he don’t like anything less than he likes pictures in the paper, unless they’re in the style or society columns, right?”
“Screw that,” Vasquez muttered. “My first case is a loser.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Guthrie said. “You’re gonna see how this is done. Before, that’s all been playing. This time will be for real.”
She gave Guthrie an ugly look. “Playing?”
“Why do you think I hired you?” he countered.
“To do detective work, right?”
“No, not what. Why you?”
Vasquez’s face twisted with a scowl. “I know?” she asked. Papì was right, she thought. This blanco is crazy. Everyone in her family had a different answer to that question—but they all had one. Who hires a Puerto Rican girl fresh out of high school and gives her a pistol? Papì didn’t care about the job. He wanted her to go to school, school, and more school, so she could be a doctor. His eldest son had an education and a white-collar job in New Haven. His daughter could have that, too. Forget his two useless middle sons, Indio and Miguel. They had darker things to say. Indio suggested, maybe joking, that the little detective wanted a pretty young Puerto Rican girlfriend. A few weeks of watching damped that suspicion. Guthrie didn’t seem to notice her. The question kept her wound up, fueled by Papì’s continual suspicion and disappointment.
“I don’t know,” Vasquez said, leaning against the outer door of the office. CLAYTON GUTHRIE, DETECTIVE AGENCY showed faintly through the frosted glass, reversed in gold lettering.
Guthrie grinned. “You’re a smart girl,” he said. “You’ll figure it out.” That was his favorite reply to any question he wouldn’t answer straight. “Come on, we gotta go downtown to the Manhattan House. That’s where they’re holding Greg Olsen.”
* * *
Vasquez drove south on Broadway. The sky reappeared after they left the shadows of the big buildings in midtown, but it was soon blotted out again when they reached the downtown tip of Manhattan. Traffic was light. Bright afternoon sunshine at the end of July left the gray marble buildings looking dreary and grim. They parked on Canal and walked to the Criminal Courts Building, moving against the crowds that were flowing out of the area in the afternoon.
The lawyer’s investigator, Henry Dallen, was waiting for them outside the bull pens. He was a heavyset white man with a mustache, wearing a dark gray suit. While they waited for Olsen to come out, he outlined the facts in the case. Major Case had served a search warrant the previous day for a registered .44, and left officers to baby-sit Olsen in case he tried to run. Two hours after they had the pistol, they made the arrest. Olsen was the dead woman’s fiancé; they were attending Columbia together. Once the police started making accusations, he had lawyered up, but in an initial interrogation, he had admitted ownership of the pistol and claimed innocence. Major Case wasn’t suggesting motive. The arrest sprang from the pistol.
Olsen shuffled into the interview room, escorted by two guards. The big blond man seemed stunned. Being arrested had turned his world upside down and he was suddenly unsure of what he was seeing. The guards watched him cautiously; he was shaped like a lumberjack, broad in the shoulders and narrow-waisted. Even with an unsteady gait, his size was menacing. He slid down into a chair and sat forward, cupping his chin with one hand, but the other one stayed below the steel table.
“I didn’t do this,” he whispered. He glanced at each of them, his eyes full of questions. “I didn’t kill Cammie. I couldn’t.”
“What’d the detectives say to you?” Guthrie asked. “They said things meaning to rattle you. What were they?”
Olsen frowned. “They showed me pictures,” he said softly. “They asked how I could bring myself to mess her up like that. Someone beat her.” He had a slow, measured way of speaking, taking care to make himself understood. Everything about the big man was handsome, without being pretty. Even his frown and his pauses were handsome, and the way he rubbed at his chin while he thought earnestly. He didn’t seem calculating. He just wasn’t moving at the speed of the city. Olsen was slow, from someplace slower than the city, where clear was more important than quick.
Guthrie nodded as if he were hearing it all for the first time, but pictures were a standard police tactic. The police often flashed pictures of bloody messes, trying to dig up a reaction. Olsen was wound tight, but he wasn’t frightened.
“So they kept asking why I killed her, even though I told them I hadn’t. They said a reason would help me, like if she’d been sleeping around and I was jealous. They could see that, as if I had had a fit then.” His big hand rubbed at the tabletop slowly, or at his chin during pauses, and sometimes it seemed that he was applying tremendous force to wipe something away.
“They said my gun killed her, that little gun I bought her in case of a burglar, and they could prove it was fired. And they said they had a bullet to match it, but those were lies. She was the only one who fired the gun after I zeroed for her. I didn’t need to practice like she did, and the other was a lie, because I didn’t kill her.”
“Easy, Mr. Olsen, easy,” Guthrie said. The big man was tense in his seat, red-faced as he spoke about the pistol. He looked down at the tabletop while he recounted the detective’s accusations, then up at Guthrie as he explained.
“You do own a forty-four?” the little detective asked.
Olsen nodded mutely and looked down.
“Do you know who Camille Bowman was, Mr. Olsen?”
“I know she was rich.” He stopped, reddening again. His hand crushed slowly on the tabletop. “That never bothered me, that she had money, though. I had enough to do for all that I needed. She didn’t make much of it.”
“Who would kill Camille?”
“Nobody! Everyone liked her!”
Guthrie nodded grimly. He handed Olsen his card before the guards knocked and came to take the big man out. The way Olsen tensed when they drew near made the guards hesitate about touching him. He tucked a hand in his waistband as he walked out. Henry Dallen shrugged once Olsen was gone. The lawyer’s man had heard the same story twice, and he had no opinion.
Copyright © 2013 by Alaric Hunt
Alaric Hunt won the Minotaur Books/PWA Best First Private Eye Novel Competition for his debut novel Cuts Through Bone. Alaric was born in Kentucky. He received a life sentence in 1988, which he is currently serving out in South Carolina.