MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
It was cold, dark, and slightly breezy, causing a few dry snowflakes to scurry the length of Sally Kravitz’s windshield. Across the street from her parked car was an example of some urban set designer’s fantasy. Soaked in muted, indirect mood lighting and displayed, as on a theater stage, behind two enormous plate-glass windows was an awkwardly arranged tableau of British pub, Old West watering hole, and yuppie fern brew bar. The building housing it had been built long ago as a car dealership, however, and its windows intended not for picturesque intimacy, but to allow a full view of chrome-glazed behemoths within.
Sally shifted in her seat and adjusted her wool scarf, at once envying the contented patrons enjoying the warmth of a movie-prop-perfect cast-iron stove, while sensitive to how it must feel to have those two huge sheets of black glass reflecting back at them, ironically forbidding any view of the outdoors or, indeed, of her looking in.
She wasn’t watching all of them, of course. Only Tom Morris, suspected of philandering by his wife—who’d hired Sally to “catch him in the act,” as she’d quaintly put it.
That wasn’t happening right now, however. Tom Morris was eating nuts at the bar, chatting with a male neighbor, and drinking a craft beer.
Sally gently let out a puff of air, away from the windshield, so as not to fog it up. There were private investigators who liked surveillance jobs—preferred them, in fact. She wasn’t among them. But the wife in this situation was the mother of a friend, and from what Sally had been told, Tom—already an interloper because of being the stepfather—also wasn’t deemed very smart, and therefore was expected to misstep sooner than later, thereby ending Sally’s obligation.
She leveled her long-lens camera and took a picture of Tom and his companion, to have the latter on record. She’d been a PI for a few years only, but she already knew the value of keeping an open mind and collecting more than she might need. It was often the small, unexpected details that shifted the scales in a case’s favor.
While it didn’t apply to her, a large number of private eyes were retired police, given by their training to closing cases quickly, and with a prosecutorial outlook. Sally didn’t fault their past training under demanding bosses, in dangerous work environments, and at low wages for creating a certain narrow-minded efficiency.
But she’d developed a different style. To be fair, she’d never routinely been in harm’s way as had so many ex-cops. When things got dangerous for her, as they did occasionally, she could always take off. The freedom accompanying that option had encouraged a corresponding ability to frequently reflect and weigh her choices before acting.
Like now, watching Tom. He’d told his wife he’d be late getting home, as he’d be tied up in meetings. That much was a lie, although seemingly an innocent one, but where, to another investigator, the reason behind it might have suggested a quick drink before heading home, Sally held off jumping to that conclusion and stayed put, biding her time. Life had taught her early and often to be skeptical, if not cynical—a lesson too often refreshed by reality.
As if on cue, the source of her interest let out one last silent burst of laughter, drained his glass, and stood. He gave his drinking buddy a half-dismissive wave, laid his money on the bar, and headed for the door, donning his coat as he went.
Sally pursed her lips, her meditations interrupted by a sudden, if elusive notion, like a tune just beyond memory’s recall. On the strength of it, the benign appearance of Mr. Morris’s chosen activity—and that he’d lied about it—expanded in Sally’s mind to something beyond a simple desire for some moments out on the town alone.
In the best of fictional private eye scenarios, given the hour, the snow, and the darkness, here is when some bit of action would have kicked in as Tom stepped outside—perhaps a kidnapping, a drive-by, or a long-anticipated clandestine meeting.
But this was Wilmington, Vermont, a tourist crossroads west of Brattleboro, south of several nearby ski resorts. It was a cluster of shops, restaurants, bars, and stores, heavily catering to flatlander travelers driving hormonal SUVs with sticker prices equaling those of many outlying local homes.
It was no place to encourage visions of The Third Man or an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
Suitably, therefore, Tom Morris buttoned his designer-labeled coat across an increasingly expanding belly, pulled up his collar, and strolled along the sidewalk to the parking lot on Sally’s side of the street. It was located behind her, which now made her position unwieldy, possibly requiring a U-turn. But she waited, studying her rearview mirror, trusting in her initial choice. Tom lived and worked in Brattleboro, and the shortest route there lay directly ahead, under the glaring red traffic light.
Sure enough, he fired up a BMW X5, ignited its blinding xenon headlights, and pulled past Sally’s purposefully nondescript old Subaru to stop at the intersection, his blinker indicating an intended left-hand turn.
Sally waited until she knew he’d be checking both directions as he pulled forward, before mimicking his motions unnoticed and pulling into the road behind him.
From then on, it was smooth going, traveling Route 9 east, toward Bratt, as most locals called it, just two cars among a smattering of others.
Sally was happier being in motion. She was, if not a restless sort, certainly more given to action than to comforting predictability—or sitting for hours in a car. From youth, she’d been honed to this by a deeply eccentric single father, whom she only ever called Dan, and who had a habit of breaking into high-end homes so he could absorb the illicit high, eat a small stolen snack, and slip away—after also tapping their electronic devices. Like a mountain climber leaving only footprints behind, he was happy to have met and conquered another challenge.
The fact that it was illegal, dangerous, and fundamentally weird had never seemed to weigh on him.
During daylight hours, Dan held off-the-radar, menial jobs, not for the negligible money, but to study the world around him, like a field anthropologist. His break-ins supplied him with access to information, rather than three-dimensional goods. He’d told Sally that her blue-blood education had been funded this way—investing in stocks using insider knowledge—but she suspected something a little less harmless might have also played a role. He’d certainly built a very sophisticated computerized data bank, filled with personal details far beyond a few good stock tips. And all of it was dynamic and self-perpetuating, since the “ears and eyes” viruses he’d installed on all those phones and computers allowed him to see and hear what was going on within them, as well as inside every device they subsequently contacted. If one of his victims texted or emailed somebody, the virus accompanied it, creating a new listening post for Dan. Over time, he had become a small-town, one-man National Security Agency.
It stood to reason that Dan had eventually begun training Sally in his tradecraft, if not his use of its results, bringing her along on some of his break-ins. And she’d enjoyed it, until the inevitable, near-lethal mishap, involving the wrong sort of people.
Everyone had survived that historic near miss, but Sally had taken its lesson to heart, and, to his credit, Dan had respected her decision to leave him to his own activities—to the point where they never even discussed them anymore. Dan, in fact, had helped in this self-effacement by stopping a peculiar trademark habit he’d practiced: In addition to eating something at every home he entered, he would leave a Post-it note greeting beside one of its sleeping occupants, a signature that had quickly earned him the nickname “Tag Man.”
This he had stopped, either because he no longer practiced his “entries,” as he called them—which Sally doubted—or out of respect for her.
Nevertheless, some of his inner drive must have worked its way into her soul. Which was in part why she’d ended up as a PI. It had been seductive, dropping into other people’s lives. In an unusual mirroring of an actor’s thirst for the identity of others, Sally had opted to observe people almost invisibly—to watch, listen, document, and learn from them. Either supportively, as when employed by a defense attorney to mitigate the prosecution’s slanted portrait of an accused, or in opposition, as now, when a betrayed wife needed to cut her losses without sacrificing her rights to the silverware and a decent alimony.
And it was all legal.
That was Sally’s particular code, as opposed to her father’s more flexible outlook. Her brand of privacy intrusion had to be conducted by the book.
She could have become a cop. She had good and trusted friends in law enforcement, and no argument with their core mission. The structure of their world, however, was too constraining in its uniformity and single-mindedness. She liked the option of working on either side of an ethical debate, where she could choose to support either accuser or accused, based not on a prosecutor’s appetite, but on her own interpretation of right and wrong. It appealed to her inner moral compass, constructed during a motherless, vagabond life spent trailing a taciturn, if loving, father.
It made for occasionally uncertain ground, however, prone to shifts and error. She understood that. Take what she was doing tonight. Was Tom just trashing his vows out of lust and self-indulgence? Or was he a man seeking temporary harbor away from a demanding, unfair harridan?
Sally’s internal jury was still out, waiting to find out if the first option had value, or if they both might.
To her surprise, the driver of the fancy car ahead of her suddenly hit his blinker again, now just a couple of miles shy of West Brattleboro.
“What’re you up to, Tommy-Boy?” she said to herself, making sure to pass the motel’s entrance before turning around and doubling back with her headlights off.
She waited by a plowed-up berm of old snow, and slumped in her seat to better steady her camera. Morris got out of his silver X5, registered at the desk, and then drove to a room halfway down a long row of doors. The motel was a battered-enough reminder of hopes long dashed to make his particular vehicle a standout.
As if it had been awaiting a stage manager’s cue, a second car almost immediately swung off the road behind Sally and slowly entered the lot, like the tentative newcomer to a party of strangers.
With a small burst of energy, it seemingly recognized the Bimmer and scurried over to nestle beside it.
A heavily covered figure emerged into the camera’s range finder, hat pulled low, crossed to the door of Morris’s just-rented room, knocked, and briefly waited.
In the sudden pie-shaped light from the opening door, Sally saw Morris, in his T-shirt, smile, reach out, and remove the driver’s hat.
Sally took a last photograph of Morris pulling his drinking buddy of twenty minutes earlier into the room and closing the door.
Copyright © 2019 by Archer Mayor