Seven-thirty in the morning on a February Sunday in Boston and you can believe the streets were cold. The wind roared out of the canyon between the Copley Mall and the Westin Hotel, whipping the tails and upturned collar of my coat hard against me, cutting right through the wool to remind me where I lived. Why, I wondered, biting on my lower lip, did I have to open my mouth and throw the job and its nice car away in the middle of the winter? Couldn't I have waited for summer?
From inside a Boston College car traveling down the middle of Commonwealth Ave, it was nice to see the cold. Comm Ave was empty, except for swirling news sheets and other scraps, and an old man with his coat tightly wrapped about his red face. The cars and the train tracks glittered, frozen bright in the white sunlight.
Go on, I thought, you can't see the weather in the metal; it could be ninety degrees out there. Yeah, I can too, I told myself back.
The house, a large, run-down three-family, was gratefully only two blocks down Washington from the train stop. Paolo Guerrera's black Caprice was in the driveway, a one-car wide and two-car long alley between the tightly packed houses. The door key didn't work, the damned GM keys never worked.
I shivered in the cold. Well, at least Paolo was home. It would have sucked to have come out for nothing. I untwisted the jimmy, a long, two-inch wide, flat and flexible piece of steel, from the side loop of my jeans under my coat and was just getting it down alongside the window, inside the door, when a guy came out of the house. I stopped moving and for a moment I thought he was going to stroll right past the end of the drive without noticing, but then his glance fell full on me and he stopped.
"What are you doing?" he said, already starting to move up the narrow passage between the Caprice and the neighboring house. I pulled the jimmy out of the door and turned to him, backing a step.
"Who are you?" I said.
He was young, in his twenties, and a very big boy, maybe six four. Columbian, I guessed from his complexion, the thick black hair, and the accent. Plus, Guerrera was Columbian.
"What are you doing?"
He'd stopped, three feet from me, and was looking frowningly at me and the long piece of metal pointing down from my right hand.
"I'm a private detective," I said, and with my left hand pulled my ID out of my coat pocket and held it up near his eyes.
At these words his eyes narrowed. He looked at me sharply.
"What do you want?"
"I'm taking the car. For the bank."
He puzzled that one out for a moment, and as he began to speak, I said, "Paolo Guerrera? Get Paolo."
He looked at me.
"Not home. Come back."
I put my ID back in my pocket. I smiled, feeling cold, leaning back a bit.
"No." I smiled again, lifting and making a pushing gesture with my left hand, getting my elbow well up over my shoulder, fingers out, thumb up, palm pointed at the youth's chin. All unconsciously, I flexed and let go my muscles, without thinking shaking my body loose at the hips, knees suddenly imperceptibly bent, rolling a bit forward so that I was light on the heels of my motorcycles boots, my right hand loose on the jimmy, on the off chance the big youth was left-handed. I spoke softly and smiled mockingly.
Bingo. A contemptuous amusement at the white man--who despite his hard face and buzz cut stood not even six feet and must have seemed laughably slender and light in his elegant, long-skirted, winter coat--sprang into the big youth's glowering dark eyes. Smiling, he took a step toward me, his right hand sweeping up and around toward my throat.
I leaned back and to the side over the hood, and pushed hard with my open left hand against his upper arm as it went by, surprising him with the force of it, which sent him lurching a twisting half-step off balance. His left came up automatically, saving his face from the next door concrete, and with an angry grunt he pushed away from the wall, viciously swinging the back of his right hand at my cheek. I'd dropped the jimmy at his first move, and now it was nothing to crouch under it, drop my right shoulder and hit him twisting up with all of the power of the right side of my body, shoulder, hip and thigh perfectly in line, pumping my fist dead center up into his breadbasket. I blew out the weight lifter's healthy gust with the blow, drawing it in again as I danced back into the three feet of clear space in front of the car, automatically coming into stance, my left arm and fist up and forward, ready to jab, my right cocked behind it. Suddenly, I felt marvelous, light and alive.
All of the wind had come out of the dark-haired youth in a long grunting moan; he shrunk down on himself, his elbows pulling into his gut, his wrists crossing over his sternum as he fell against the Caprice to keep from falling. He stayed like that a moment, and then straightened into something like standing up, still leaning forward a bit with his arms over his stomach, dragging in long, painfully wracking and coughing breaths as he watched me with a snarling mixture of pained fear, humiliation and hatred smoldering in his dark eyes.
I straightened up, dropped my guard and pulled my cell phone out.
"Amateur," I said contemptuously. I waved the phone at him. "Policia. Yeah," I nodded, as his angry, fearful glance followed my motions toward calling, "Policia. Jail. Yeah, you're going to jail."
The front door of the house banged again and a white guy with a ponytail yawned his way around toward the drive.
"Hey," I called. He stopped and stared at us in sleepy surprise. "Who owns this house?"
"My uncle," he said.
"Who's this guy?"
"Carlos, or something. He's lives here with his father, or maybe it's his grandfather, I dunno."
I looked at Carlos, who had managed to stand all the way up. Seeing ponytail looking at him, he self-consciously lowered his arms from his stomach.
"You don't own the house?" I snarled at him. "You don't own the car. Why are you bothering me?"
The youth's dark eyes burned bitterly, tinged with the deep hurt of a humiliated child. He took in another deep, wracking breath so as to be able to spit, and walked away. He went back into the house. The white kid watched him, looked at me, shrugged, and ambled off toward Washington Street.
I sighed. The adrenaline elation was suddenly gone, leaving me with nothing but the reproachful memory of the youth's darkly humiliated eyes. I picked up the jimmy and went back to work on the door of the sedan. God, I thought, please let the ignition key work. My hands were nearly numb with the cold by the time I got the door opened, and it took nearly a full minute for my fumbling, uncooperative and white fingers to get the key in the ignition. Of course it didn't work. Hell, it would take the tow an hour to get there on a Sunday, all of it spent with me guarding the damned metal in the cold.
As I was dialing the tow, Paolo Guerrera came over to where I was sitting behind the wheel of his car. Paolo was a very pleasant sixty-four-year-old, who spoke English fairly well. He apologized for his grandson Carlos, and explained that he had four children, seventeen grandchildren, thirty-four great-grandchildren, all depending on him to go to work at midnight in the Caprice. I pointed out to Paolo that he'd made only three payments, had paid nothing for four months, and that the bank had needed to hire me to find him. He was on the point of naming the children, when I gently made him understand that I was now responsible for the car, and could not leave it. He looked into my eyes, shook his head, and nodded soberly.
"All right," he said.
The Caprice got warm quick, and by the time I made Storrow Drive my hands were beginning to tingle to life. Paolo had given me his keys, and I'd let him take his things out of the car. I reached into my right boot, pulled a joint out of my sock, and lit it as I slid onto the roadway. Stoned by the time I made it onto the Charles River Bridge, I found myself staring at the little turrets capping the towers, and driving about twenty miles an hour. I picked it up, and turned the radio up as one of the great Jackson Browne tunes came on. I'd finished the joint, the song was winding down, and I was beginning to feel a little empty myself, when I noticed from the pulsing red light that my cell phone was ringing.
It was Edward Kane, uncertain in the face of my cautious hello and the seven years since we'd spoken.
"Hello, Edward. Whatcha up to?"
I pulled over and parked on Second Street in Cambridge and fumbled with a cigarette. What had it been? January just ended would make it six--no, this was 2001 already--seven years since we'd last spoken, and that hadn't been pretty. Sunday morning with Paolo, and now Edward? The whole thing was beginning to have an unreal edge to it and I felt a desperate need for a smoke.
"Good, good. Things are going very well, actually. How are you?"
"Wonderful. My life is nothing but adventure and success."
Edward laughed. "I'm glad to hear nothing's changed."
"I'm older and I have less hair."
I wondered when Edward would get to the point. We'd been close, but that, as they say, had been a long time ago, in a place that, fifteen miles from where I sat smoking in the repossessed Caprice, was still very far away.
After some more chat about his family and his old friend my ex-wife, and about my kid and all that, he did finally get to the point.
"Someone stole our accountant's laptop Friday night or yesterday out of her office inside our locked corporate suite."
I asked about cleaners, which there were, and other traffic in the building, of which there was a fair amount, and could his accountant have some reason to make the laptop disappear?
"Karina? Oh, no, I mean, Karina Miller is like star junior executive these days."
I told him to notify everyone whose personal or professional information had been stolen, file a claim with his insurer, and forget about it. But there was more. I listened and then said, "Let me get this, exactly. Thirty months ago, a check--what? Okay, two checks were stolen from your corporate headquarters, you got hit with fraudulent copies and they got away with nearly two hundred and twenty-five thousand out of two different trustee accounts. And no one was charged, or suspected. Ten months ago, the Millbury office was broken into, and the manager and assistant manager's computers were taken, still no suspects. Now someone has taken your accountant's laptop with all of the company's financials on it?"
"Actually, it's even better. Not only are there sales and profit figures for every client, neatly laid out in spreadsheets, not only a couple very expensive data files of cold leads, but every employee's social and bank account information is also on that laptop."
"Direct Deposit. It's the only way to fly. You should see the cost savings."
I lit another cigarette, parked on Second Street in the Caprice. I'd been right. Unreal was not the word for it.
"I think you should prepare to pony up a five grand retainer, and I should interview everyone who was anywhere near the laptop. I mean, if this is number three, where will it stop?"
Edward said that was what he and his wife Lisa, the company's Operating Partner, thought, and when and where could we meet? I thought of the small office I sublet from another detective and we agreed on lunch at one at Angelo's. I always have potential clients buy me a meal if possible, because that's as often as not all I get out of it. I keep thinking I'm getting better at the sales thing, but it never seems to result in more sales.
My office is a single room in a corner brownstone apartment house in East Cambridge, the whole thing converted to commercial and let by an enterprising shark named Joe Ricci. Say hey for Sunday, I thought, unlocking the door to my single room, throwing my coat on a spare chair and cranking up Steppenwolf on my scarred stereo. In the kitchen I kicked the old coffee maker into doing its thing while I used nearly steaming water to wash the cold out of my hands and face. The coffee was heavenly, especially when spiced with a joint. I blew it mostly outside while sitting on the sill in the wide old window that looked out beyond its wrought iron fire escape to the brick and concrete high-rise of the county courthouse. By the time Steven Luntz walked in they were both nearly gone.
"For god's sake," he exclaimed, switching off my stereo, "this is a law office!"
"And a very good one, too," I said. "If a bit low class. You shouldn't let people hang around listening to loud music and smoking dope."
"What if Joe were to come in? He'd throw us both out."
"Mr. Ricci is in New York. I saw him as he left Friday. Look at it out there, it's ghost town. Want a puff?"
Pained exasperation showed cutting sharp in Steven's clear blue eyes, so I put out the joint and lit a cigarette.
Steven stamped his foot and flung his head and red shock of hair violently forward as he spoke,
"You're not supposed to be smoking in here!"
"You know," I said, dropping the butt into my coffee cup, standing up and flipping his bronze barred yellow tie free of his tweed blazer as I went by, "I think this dressing like a college professor is really working for you. And it's really soooooo right when you throw a tantrum. But," I continued, slipping into my coat, "I can't chat, I actually have a client to meet."
"Oh, that makes sense," said Steven. "Smoke a nice fat one just before meeting the client."
"That's okay," I said, grinning. "You're my biggest client and I just smoked it right in front of you."
"You're an asshole,' said Steven. "A real asshole. And you better have that background investigation on Anastasios in by Tuesday, or it's both of our asses."
"I love you too," I said, and escaped from the heat of his irritated stare into the piercing cold lying in wait outside on Third Street.
Things were much friendlier three blocks East, at Angelo's. Sunshine washed over the red leather upholstery of the chairs and booths, and sparkled in the silver and the crystal atop the white-clothed tables. Outside the plate windows people crossed Memorial Drive from the Riverview Grand Hotel, the cold showing in their wrapped-up coats and in the hard gleam of the blacktop. A very pretty twenty-something with her auburn hair pulled back and spectacles over the regulation white shirt and black skirt came over and asked me if I wanted a drink.
"Only desperately," I said, winning a smile.
The martini when it came was everything it should have been, and after I'd had a third of it and one of the three olives, I lit a cigarette, and everything was perfect. Lisa and Edward came in, she in a camel-hair and he in a gorgeous soft black thing, saw me and came over. I stood up and shook their hands and motioned for them to sit down.
"Drink?" I said, blowing out smoke.
Edward studied me with his dark eyes a moment, leaning his six two frame back in the armchair. He grinned.
"Glenlivet, neat. And a cup of coffee."
I nodded. Pretty Celeste came back and Lisa said she'd have just the coffee. I said I'd have the same as Kane. Lisa was eyeing me with amusement. We waited until the drinks came back and then we ordered the food, and then Edward looked at me.
"It's good to see how a person can grow and change over the years."
"Fuck you," I said. "You seem to have grown a little wider, anyway."
Lisa was staring at us. Edward drank his Glenlivet and then sipped his coffee, grinning widely.
"And how are you?" I said politely, finishing my martini. Lisa was a standard variety, intelligent blond, her very white, not quite Irish features a bit thin to my taste. But at a guess, sixty-eight percent of male America would call her beautiful, and, I reminded myself, automatically leap to do her biddings. Kingsley, my friend, I thought, you were right; your face is your fate. Lisa looked to be Edward's age, who, having ten years on me, I remembered, would now be nearing fifty. Great shape for a woman her age, I thought abstractly. Nice eyes, too. Edward was still grinning. She looked back at me; she shook her head and laughed.
"How long, exactly, have you known each other?"
"Almost twenty years. Since the early eighties. It was a beautiful relationship."
She glanced at her husband. "But you haven't seen each other for years. Since not long after our wedding. What happened?"
I lit a cigarette, and she waited me out. Not a stupid lady, certainly, I thought. But what else could you expect from a million or six in heels? I shrugged.
"Nothing. Everything. Life, children, different places and things. You know."
Lisa looked at me, then she looked at her husband. Edward shrugged. "Shit happens."
He drank his coffee, and looked away, as if he was barely listening. I saw Lisa blink, and was drinking my Glenlivet as her glance fell back on me. I lifted my head, finished my cigarette, and brought up the job. The moment passed, but I knew from the way she glanced at me and Edward that she knew we hadn't told her everything. That was all right with me.
"How much money is in these accounts?"
Half an hour later, I was still trying to grasp it.
"At any time, thirty to fifty to tops seventy million, but that's not the important part."
I blinked. Maybe the Glenlivet had been the one over the line.
"Right. It's the turnover."
"Exactly. We're the escrow agents for the mortgage companies, as well as the title insurer's agent. Our cut on the whole is usually less than a point--our legal charges and insurance commissions often exceed our origination fee on the smaller loans--but all of the funds pass through our hands. After the consumer closes on the property, we send the title premiums, the capital funds, the fees, to everyone, and take ours of course. Every month, an average of thirty million dollars comes in and goes out."
"As a result, you don't know how much you should have at any given moment."
Edward was triumphant, like a high school teacher who finally communicates a concept to one of his slower charges. If he says "exactly" again, I'll have to give up the case, I thought despairingly. He'll never hire me after I hit him.
"We cannot balance our books. It would take four accountants a month to do anything like an audit. Of course the books get balanced eventually, but that's a year behind. And even then you'd have to account for transactions still going on, so you could easily miss something. One way or another, a half of a million could be missing and we'd never notice for at least a year. We wouldn't have known about the two hundred and twenty-five K, and if we hadn't realized that the first check was missing."
"You get used to it," said Lisa, with a touch of weariness. "At first I couldn't live with the risk, and I still have nightmares about embezzlement--I swear, I dream that old movie, except I'm the innocent banker, whose absent-minded brother loses the bank's money--but I'm insured, and there's really no other way to proceed on a large scale. In a funny way, the stolen check almost made me feel better, like I'd survived my worst fear. The bank covered three-quarters of it, thankfully, so I guess it could have been a lot worse."
I looked at her curiously. We were nearly finished with the meal, and she hadn't said much, allowing Edward his usual position at center stage.
The then Lisa Macomber had taken a small law office with a one-note real estate transfer service, revamped and standardized the product, hired and marketed aggressively during the Reagan boom, and wound up with one of the largest firms in the Commonwealth. Now New World Mortgage worked with real estate agents throughout eastern and central Massachusetts, writing and closing mortgages that were packaged and sold to a variety of investment banks worldwide. Along the way they sold loan, disability, flood, act of God policies, using their market volume to get their customers slightly better prices without lowering their commissions a single penny.
I glanced at Edward, the thick black locks hanging off his wide forehead as he ravaged the remains of his linguini. Certainly he'd been a big help to New World, but he had his own successful Beacon Hill practice, and had in any case only been involved in the last part of New World's growth. No, by any measure, Lisa Macomber Kane was a very shrewd woman indeed.
"You've got a lot of balls," I said. 'The pressure would drive me nuts. Uh, no pun intended."
"So what do we do?" said Edward.
"The usual. I check out the scene of the crime, as they call it, tonight. After that I'll stay up very, very late, doing background checks on everyone around the corporate headquarters. Assuming we don't find something startling from the past, I want to start interviewing all of the employees tomorrow morning, as soon as possible. Later I'll find out why the Feds never found out who stole the two hundred and fifteen K, and take a look at that. And take a look at the other burglary in Millbury. But the interrogation of witnesses, as we say, should start immediately. Someone knows something, if not about the laptop or the checks or the other stolen desktops, about things, maybe, going wrong in someone other employee's life. There are other things we can check on your network and such, but unless we get very lucky, our best bet will be to get an idea of who might have wanted to do it, or had a reason to do it, or simply is acting different these days than they did."
"What makes you think anyone will talk to you?" asked Edward.
"Everyone talks to me. Besides, I'm not telling you what they say. So why not talk to me? People like to talk."
Edward looked at me, Lisa looked at me. I looked at them. Shit, I thought. Well they had to know how I did it. I took a deep breath and tried to explain.
"Look, I don't work that way. You guys want to hire someone who'll report every word they hear, I'm not it. I need these people to recreate your office, your, uh, New World for me. I need them to tell me what they might not even know they know, what their friends and colleagues are like, which ones are content, which not, which one is miserable. If they've changed recently. Who's screwing whom? Who wants to or used to? Who does drugs? Maybe even who works hard and who sloughs, sure, but I'm not telling you guys those things. You only get to hear facts bearing on real crime. I'm not reporting every little employee delinquency I hear about, or they'll never talk to me."
I stopped and lit a cigarette while they looked at each other. Well, the ten grand had felt nice while I'd almost had it. I tried once more.
"Look, when I talk to your employees, the first people I'm going to ask about are you two."
"Us?" said Lisa, frowning. Edward was impassive, watching me.
"Yeah, you two. For that matter, who had more opportunity and has, for all I know, more reason to steal from your clients? I'm going to ask your people who's been weird lately, starting with you two."
"Did either of you having anything to do with any of these crimes?" Jesus, Kurt, I thought. You call that selling the job?
Lisa gazed at me with her cool green gaze, and then, making a sudden decision, laughed.
"You ask them about me. I don't want to hear a thing, trust me."
"Okay?" I looked at Edward. "Okay?"
His black eyes were inscrutable. He nodded.
He got up and started donning his beautiful, soft coat. "Oh, but--"
"I did do it."
I rolled my eyes and he grinned, and Lisa laughed briefly. They were out the door before I realized they'd left me with the check, but then I relaxed into my chair and signaled Celeste for another martini. With a five thousand dollar retainer check from New World Mortgage in my pocket I could afford it. Even after my two girlfriends, ex-wife, and credit card companies got their shares, there'd be a chunk left. I smiled as Celeste came over, the cold winter light glimmering in the martini on the tray. I downed a third, and lit a cigarette. Hell, I even had a car for the rest of the day. I smiled at Celeste over at the bar and lifted my glass. Say hey to Sunday. I drank some of the cold vodka.
Celeste smiled back.