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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dirty Little Secrets

From the Slush Pile Dept.: An unpublished short story of mine from many years ago, the technical details drawn from my brief own experience as assistant to a private investigator.

                                                                         

“YOUR WIFE IS killing me!”

Ken Sherwood gestured toward Camille with one hand, the hand with which he held a drink, and toward me with the other, cigarette-holding hand. “Where does she find these things to say?”

Camille lowered her head and smiled. She had short, dark hair that framed her plump face in a page-boy cut, setting off her high, ivory forehead. She wrinkled her nose and set her mouth in a moue. “I haven’t said anything — ”

“No, listen to this!” Ken drained his drink and dropped the glass on a nearby table. “I was telling her about that little shit we followed to the mall the other day, the kid with the pickup, looking to see what kind of trouble he’d get himself into.”

I’d mentioned the case in passing to Camille, who showed no interest.

“She says, ‘I don’t understand going to the mall to get in trouble. Isn’t that like having sex with your sister? I mean, you can do it, but why bother?’” Sherwood shook his head and laughed, shoulders heaving, while Camille allowed herself another smile.

Sharing a laugh is a quick, effective way to gain intimacy with another, especially when there’s a sexual attraction involved. Especially when a gorgeous, exotic-looking woman is firing off the jokes. I know: when I met her, I was captivated first by Camille’s looks, second by her sense of humor. She tended toward wryness, a characteristic I enjoy. Soon after we met, I took her to a party given by a classmate then rocketing up the ladder in an investment firm that was cleaning up on Reagan-era thievery. Jed and his wife, Rory, were ardent social climbers who often invited me to tag along like a mongrel pet. I was at bottom-of-the-barrel employment (security guard) at the time, a fact they never failed to work into the conversation with an “oh, the poor man!” tone of voice. Bringing sloe-eyed Camille would change my image. What reflects more flatteringly upon a man than the company of a beautiful woman?

Which I explained to Camille, who then shocked me by showing up at the party in a homemade jumper with an unmistakable pattern-of-the-month appearance. Flowery fabric, A-line cut, sleeveless. Rory took special pains to notice this dress, herself tricked up in some Claiborne or Perry Ellis ensemble, hair swept back against a fabulously costly barrette. “I mean, that outfit!” Rory gushed sardonically. “It’s so different! What do you call it?”

Camille smiled easily and said, “It’s the start of a new simplicity. I call it a paradigm shift.”

I proposed to her later that night, in the office where I worked the dusk-to-dawn shift. I was guarding what was supposed to be a small electronics firm but which everyone knew was a government research center with defense department ties. What did it matter? Nobody in this city showed a hoot of interest, and, as Camille observed during one of our trysts there, “This is all a horrifying tribute to the right of the Right to bear arms — and I think they’re always in labor.”

Which meant that by now I knew and loved the laughter she provoked and didn’t relish sharing it with a boor like Ken. Trouble was, I worked for the guy. Which meant I was supposed to be indulgent, deferential. As long as I wanted to stay at this job.

Ken was a private investigator who did process service and polygraph tests on the side. I was hired at first to serve papers, part time. Piece work. Soon he took me on as an investigative assistant, putting me on boring stakeout duty or sending me to county courthouses where I spent hot afternoons flipping through mildewed deeds and divorce papers.

I was good at this stuff. PI work requires acting skill, which came easily to me. I made fake phone calls posing as a credit card rep or pollster to determine a subject’s whereabouts; I drank at dangerous-looking bars to chummy up to a suspected co-respondent. Ken threw me one sleazy job after another and I did them well, making good money off people who could afford to pay to satisfy their suspicions. It was morally reprehensible, of course. I watched through a telephoto lens as soon-to-be-divorc├ęs met their mistresses. I worked at assembly lines to see who was slacking off. I delivered a potted palm to a man who was supposed to be paralyzed from an auto accident, and felt no emotion as he carried the heavy plant into his apartment while Ken videotaped the scene through a hole in the side of his surveillance van. I learned to switch off the ethics button while I worked, and I forgot about the job, or tried to, when I went home.

Home was escape, a sanctuary where my wife and I could live simply and honestly. Having Ken stop by — it was his idea, but how could I refuse? — soiled the place. And if a fraction of his braggadocio was to be believed, I shouldn’t trust him with women.

Was Ken’s philandering a sign of his own ethical erosion? He was at least ten years older than I am, which meant close to 40, and his one try at marriage ended quickly in divorce. When he boasted about his sexual conquests he vowed never to let another woman “get close enough to get her knife in.” I worried that his career offered too much pleasure in witnessing the collapse of other people’s marriages. And was he envious of mine, envious enough to try his own hand at its ruination?

He was more caddish than crafty, and probably just enjoyed drinking in attention with the same vigor with which he attacked my Scotch. “I like to get to know people,” he told Camille. “That’s what makes this business so interesting.”

“Can you really get to know someone by spying on her?” she asked, a flirty bubble in her voice.

“You’d be surprised. I could make a couple of phone calls, punch in a few numbers on the computer, and know all your dirty little secrets.”

“But there’s more than that to a person!” she said, laughing. “I’m surprised at you, a detective. You may find out all you want about the private me, but you’ll never get to know the private I.”

No doubt Ken’s ego was swelling from this repartee, but it got on my nerves. I feigned a yawn, prompting real ones from Camille and Ken and he got the idea and staggered off. She and I said nothing about it — what, really, was there to say that wouldn’t make me seem foolish? — and I let the recollection of his behavior wriggle into one of those fertile mind-corners in which it can quietly fester and grow. Like mold.

And there certainly was nothing I could say to Ken the next morning, especially when he tossed in a couple of too-flattering compliments about my wife. I retreated into a fantasy image I ran in my mind’s movie theater in which I fatally wounded the bastard in an old-fashioned duel. But I restrained myself from showing any outward hint of anger. My revenge was simply to do my work well.

We had two major cases in progress. The one I was working was a juicy divorce with each side trying to catch the other in the arms (and bed) of a paramour. The husband had hired us to watch his wife, Marie, who, he assured us, was about to get the lay of her life during a weekend trip to Lake George. Ken, meanwhile, was investigating a prostitution racket, a project that would ultimately be his downfall. The D.A.’s office had called him in on this one, trying to chase down a rumor that someone was putting girls on the street in this city to train them for the (evidently) more lucrative work of turning tricks in Manhattan, a couple of hours downstate. Posing as a john, Ken was trying to get these kids to talk. Few were out of their teens, and all were too frightened to tell him anything so far. He boasted that he could coax them into conversation without actually doing business with them, which I doubted. What with the county bankrolling him on this one, I couldn’t imagine he wouldn’t simply tack a vigorous turn or two onto the bill.

This evening he planned to go out for another session of streetwalking while I faced the boring job of following Marie to Lake George, an overrated, overcrowded resort a couple of hours up the Northway. Camille summed the place up nicely during our first and only visit a couple of years earlier. She judged tourist towns by the number of wax museums in evidence. “It’s a two-wax-museum town,” she decided, “but I give it an honorary three for displaying chainsaw sculptures on the street.”

Whatever Marie’s intentions might have been, her weekend was loveless and brief. I tailed her car to a large resort hotel halfway up the lake, watched her check in, watched her make a call from a lobby phone, redden, check out, and leave. Right back home, where she (and, presumably, the investigator she hired) found her husband with his alternate squeeze. I left once she began hurling his suits and shoes from an upstairs window.

Back to the office to prepare a report. The usual method was to record a spoken description of each project. Ken’s secretary later transcribed them for the files. But I smelled a fast finish to this case. In all likelihood the client would try to stiff us for the fee, entitling him to still another trip to court, so it was important to have the billing laid out as accurately as possible. I’d done a lot of driving and could have headed straight home, leaving the office tasks until morning. Call it a sixth sense, then. I had a burnt-upholstery-in-the-nostrils foreboding of disaster.

The office was in a dingy building downtown, on a side street that put it near a magazine store that did most of its business in a numbers racket, and a pizza joint where cocaine was peddled. No sign of Ken’s car. The rooms were dark and empty. Out of habit, I went to my desk and flipped on the computer. And that started me thinking.

What the hell was Ken up to? I had access to an answer, access I rarely allowed myself. The four computers in the office were on a network with all kinds of password protection, but I’d long ago discovered out the words Ken used to protect his private files. It was a matter, one dull night, of entering every filthy word I could think of. I struck gold with PUSSY and TWAT.

I called up his appointment calendar and studied the day’s entries. The last one, at 8 PM, was simply noted as “C.” That’s what sent me home in a hurry. On foot. Carrying a camera.

*

A ten-minute walk toward the river took you away from the urban decay of downtown and into a residential area that still sported many 19th-century buildings. We lived in a turn-of-the-century brownstone at the end of a street that terminated near the water.

I followed the sidewalk until I was two houselengths away, then strode across my neighbors’ lawns. From the house next door I cut a diagonal path across my driveway and stood with my back to the house, ear near the dining room window.

The night was warm; the window was open and a breeze stirred the curtains. The only sound I heard was music playing faintly. Upstairs. As my ears adjusted, filtering away the outdoor noises, I became aware of voices.

Directly above was a bedroom window, open. And lighted. But I could see nothing but a small patch of ceiling. I slid back into the shadows of the adjacent house, which was completely dark. Of course — the couple who lived there was away for the weekend. A two-story screened-in porch hung from the back of their place, and the outside door was unlocked. I slipped up the steps to the creaky upper deck, sank to a level with the wainscoting and adjusted my camera’s telephoto lens.

I wish I could describe the scene in anything but these heartless, graphic terms. Because there they were, Camille and Ken, and he was naked, pasty, matted with hair, spreadeagled on the bed. She was wearing a shiny teddy, a garment I’d purchased after a tumescent hour with a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, and she moved to bend over his body.

Some men confess a guilty sexual desire upon seeing their wives couple with other men. I’m not among them. All I saw, felt, heard, was betrayal, and it set off a monstrous, silent roar of rage. Were the camera a weapon I would have shot them both.

As it happened, I didn’t have to. I saw now that Camille was tying him down, securing his ankles and wrists with scarves to the columns at each corner of the bed. We, too, had done this. Once. I’d grown more uncomfortable than aroused. Ken, evidently, had no such problem.

When she was satisfied that the bonds were tight, she stooped to retrieve his necktie from the muddle of clothing on the floor. With a laugh I could only see from my distance, she twisted the ends around her hands and approached him. She kneeled on the bed near his chest and displayed the tie as if to threaten him. He frowned. Her eyebrows went up and she said something to him. He started to shake his head, then froze with an expression of alarm. She climbed off the bed, walked around to the head of it, to his head, and brought the tie violently against his throat, crossing her hands behind his neck as the muscles in her forearms bulged.

One of the skills an investigator learns is to collect the correct information about an unexpected scene. Describing, for example, a smash-and-grab robbery isn’t as easy as you may think because of the coloring added by your own emotions. Although I prided myself on the ability to give objective evidence, the sight that followed was so astonishing that I mistrust what remains in my memory. I’m sure his body wriggled as he attempted to save himself; I believe he actually managed to get a foot free before he finally collapsed. But Camille is just a faceless blur. I have no recollection of her subsequent actions.

My throat was dry, tight; my heart, jackhammering furiously, pulsed near my mouth. Nausea poked its insistent fingers. I lay on the hard porch floor to calm myself, get my breath. I saw the picture, over and over, of Camille wrapping that necktie around her hands, advancing on the imprisoned Ken. I either passed out or fell asleep while fighting off the nightmare; I awakened a couple of hours later and the night was chilly and quiet.

No lights were on in my house. I crept down to the street and walked back to town, confident, at that moment, that I would never return.

*

The office looked different. Abandoned. Nothing physically had changed during the past few hours, but the knowledge that Ken would never return gave it a dusty stillness. I snapped on the lights in the outer rooms and paced the hallway, humming to myself for company. Then I began what I guess I secretly knew was my real mission: I drew on a pair of cotton gloves and jimmied the door to Ken’s private office and began to search it for . . . who knows? Clues to his life, to his death. He had few keepsakes. No photos on desk or walls; a framed license and some certificates from training seminars were all that decorated the shabby room. I opened the frames, checked the backs. Nothing. The police would be here at some point, I reasoned, and would duplicate my efforts, so I took care to disturb little of the dust and leave no prints.

My search was a spiral that wound around the room toward Ken’s computer. That’s where I expected to find what I wanted to know, and that’s why I wasn’t as thorough as I might have been the first time through. Also, I was fighting the effects of haze after haze of shock, each layer unpredictably and contrastingly opaque. Disbelief dominated: Ken would amble into the office any minute now and I’d make up an embarrassing excuse about my intrusion. There was also, God help me, a sense of loss. As much as I disliked the man I had never wished him dead, and I believe that we secretly depend upon our enemies for a sense of emotional stability.

Camille, or whomever I’d seen astride the man recently strangled, evaded such scrutiny. What could I think? How could I judge her? I reminded myself that I couldn’t even be sure that Ken was dead — there are plenty of sex games I’ve never played that require frisky bouts of brutality — but the alternative was probably even more horrible to consider. Simple murder is much easier to rationalize than a complicated collusion in violent sex.

But I was confident that Ken had hidden the answer to this mystery in his machine, scattered, perhaps, through seemingly unrelated files in an appointment book program, a spreadsheet, a current report. It would be like him to have fussily squirreled it all away without even realizing that with sharper eyes he could have forecast and prevented his doom.

I found no clue I could recognize. There were plenty of obscure references — “MEET J LAMPPOST ALPHA 7 SE,” “TUNING 43 STEADY HELL,” and the like — but nothing that easily fed into some kind of conspiracy. What was not there, and this possibly was significant, was any reference to his prostitution surveillance. Presumably the DA knew about it, though, and there may have been a dossier stored elsewhere.

I longed for a literary mystery, clues cobbed together by a sharp-eyed Sherlock. Everything here seemed extraneous. I wandered back to my own office — desk, really, in a far corner of the outer rooms — and sat, stupefied, until a few noisy chirps outside brought me back to what was left of my senses. The window glowed with the luminescent blue of a pre-dawn sky. I walked out to the street and tried to put my unreal-seeming confusion into a context that included birds and morning. It didn’t work: the concepts were laughably exclusive. Of course there had been no strangling, and certainly not as performed by my wife. The eerie emptiness of the office was due not to the supposed demise of Ken but to the stillness of the hour.

Making my discomfort all the sharper, stabbing me . . . but such hyperbole is hardly necessary. Understand only that I wanted, badly, to be home, in my own bed, soothed by my former wife — that is, the Camille I’d known up until a few hours ago. Did a clue to her behavior lurk in our unremarkable past? We met five years earlier in a restaurant in the city. I was out with friends, fifth wheel with two couples, and saw Camille during my second or third trip to the salad bar. She was pale, vulnerable-looking, heaping her plate with romaine and garbanzos. She watched as I spooned shredded cheddar onto a tower of three-bean salad, then placed a hand on my arm.

“Don’t,” she said. “That’s bad for you.”

“Cheese?”

She nodded.

I sallied with a weak defense, to prolong the conversation, of course. “Just trying to get my money’s worth.”

Another admonishing shake of the head. “If you’re worried about paying, pay attention to the food your body naturally desires. Worship at the body’s temple, but don’t let ‘What a Friend We Have in Cheeses’ be your refrain.”

And she strolled away, leaving me too stunned to realize I’d just been kidded. The encounter broke the ice, as Camille intended. Although she was in the company of another man, she greeted me warmly when I later passed her table. She introduced me to her friend in such a way that it seemed natural for me to pronounce my own name, while still failing to provide me with hers. But: “You should call me some time,” she implored, “and I’m going to make sure you do.” She wrote her name and number on a napkin — I still have it, tucked in a shoebox of memorabilia — and I phoned her the following day. Clever stuff, but hardly the pickup technique of a murderer.

I could run her name through the Department of Motor Vehicles database and learn the truth about her driving record, as if I needed to know it; I could run a credit check and review the various bills we’d run up together. I could also, and this was a thought that had been annoying me for the past several hours, simply look her up in the old-fashioned cabinet of people files that Ken maintained.

Back in his office I drew out the drawer, riffled through the folders until I found STOVER, the maiden name she maintained, and determined that it was, in fact, a dossier on my wife. The son of a bitch kept a dossier on my wife. Everything I needed to know about his demise probably was anticipated therein. How long had he been compiling this thing? Why did he put it together in the first place? And, most compellingly, did I really want to know the answers to those questions? I let the damn thing drop onto his desk. While the entries in that folder might allow me to surmise fairly intelligently about the encounter I saw (“And never photographed!” a voice screamed in the back of my brain. “Even though you watched it through a fucking camera!”), it would tell me concrete things about Camille. Perhaps the folder only reflected Ken’s pursuit of an infatuation — but what if my wife had a criminal record he was looking into? He might even, God help him, have been doing me a favor. Would knowing about it change anything for me?

Another eventuality to consider: Once his disappearance was noted, the police would look around the office. They would find this folder. My most intelligent move, then, would be to read the contents and destroy the thing. But whatever I learned might destroy a marriage that, God help me now, I needed more than ever.

I straightened up the office and took the unread folder to my car, where I locked it in the trunk. I drove back up to Lake George, parked on a side street and fell asleep. A policeman awakened me, not too politely, but backed off when I showed him my identification. “Surveillance,” I explained, “but I’m not doing too well at it. I’ve been up all night.”

“They get away from me all the time,” he said sympathetically, and asked nothing more. He suggested a nearby diner for breakfast and drove away, my alibi tucked firmly in his pocket. After a reasonably decent meal I walked the village streets, discovering in spite of myself that the crowds and activity were distractingly fun. I bought a straw hat and a souvenir T-shirt. I sat in a park by the lake and drifted to sleep, slouched on a shady bench. Finally I made the rounds of motels, discovering that most had long since been sold out. There was a vacancy at the resort where Marie didn’t stay, and I booked a room for the price of week’s vacation. Never mind. I’d charge it to the business, right? I slept until six, then dined downstairs. Camille should have been sitting beside me, trading wisecracks about the place.

Evenings in Lake George are crazy. The sidewalk is jammed with tourists. In any given block you’ll find a pizza place, an ice cream shop, a psychic, a souvenir store, a sidewalk artist, and some fancy women’s fashions. I bought a cone and sat on a bench. A policeman — the fellow from the night before — plopped down beside me.

“Getting wamer,” he said, lifting his cap and slicking back his hair. “Still on the job?”

I shook my head. “Subject went home,” I told him. “So I thought I’d relax for a day.”

“Yeah. Might as well. What do you do, divorces, stuff like that?”

I nodded.

“Tough racket. Some things about people, you just don’t want to know. If people could see everything we did — nobody’d have any friends, you know what I mean?” He dropped his hands to his lap. “I caught my wife once. Couldn’t believe it. Friend of mine, too. And you know what? I wasn’t even angry. Just hurt. I turned around and left and went on a bender for five days. They couldn’t find me. Thought I’d done the dirty. When I came back, though, that’s when I was ready to start punching people. Went to counseling, she said she wanted me to catch her, just so I’d know how unhappy she was. All I could think was, I wish I’d never known.”

He made his confession without looking at me. He studied the street, saying nothing. “Are you still with her?” I asked.

He nodded. “Yeah. You get over it. You do get over it.”

I left the following morning, just as if I’d been on the case. On the way home, I
stopped by a wooded area alongside Route 9. I made a small bonfire of Camille’s dossier, burning it without scanning any of the pages, and kicked the ashes under the ground cover of wet leaves.

*

“See any sin?” This was Camille’s standard greeting upon my return from a stakeout. I shook my head — my standard response, and my standard experience — and dropped my overnight bag on a chair, the better to receive her welcome-home embrace. “Missed you,” she said. “Didn’t know exactly when you’d be back — you didn’t call me! — so I made a cold supper. It’s in the fridge. It’s pasta, so you can nuke it if you want.” I followed her into the kitchen. Might as well get to the heart of my problem, or at least dance around its ventricles, right away.

“Can’t get hold of Ken,” I said casually. “He was supposed to be in the area all weekend. No answer at home or in his car, no sign of him in the office.”

Camille said nothing. She moved containers from refrigerator to counter, then paused, her back to me, and made a melodramatic sigh. “I thought you knew.”

“Knew what?”

She turned. Her lips were a straight line. “He’s dead.”

“You’re kidding!”

“They found his body in the river last night. Story’s in this morning’s paper. They think he was messing with the mob on this last case, and someone got rid of him. It’s horrible. I mean, he was a schmuck and all, but he didn’t deserve to die like that.” She paused, then asked, softly, “Do you still want to eat?”

The newspaper account reported that Ken’s body had been sighted in the dusky water by a pair of fishermen adrift in a canoe. The body was fully dressed, although the necktie had been moved from collar to throat. His hands and feet were trussed and the pockets of his suit had been weighted, albeit weakly, with stones.

We were questioned, of course, individually and together. My Lake George policeman vouched for my whereabouts on the murder night, and I allowed the department detectives free access to the office, offering no help, however, in cracking Ken’s computer passwords. “Don’t matter much,” one of the officers told me. “We know who did it. We’re gonna nail his ass anyway on the prostitution thing. Gives us some plea-bargain leverage.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen of the only jury that will hear my case, was pretty much the end of it. Although the suspected killer, a nondescript hood with a long record of racket-related arrests, denied his guilt, enough circumstantial evidence was amassed to satisfy the court. He was convicted and jailed.

Leaving little point in trying to get the truth from Camille. She would deny it sweetly and suggest a jealous imagination. And perhaps she’d be correct. I still can’t be certain that I saw the incident as I described it. Each attempt to mentally replay the scene has left it a little more movie-like, unreal, until now it has the cloudy quality of a dimly-remembered dream. And if Ken were blackmailing Camille — or vice-versa — the problem no longer exists.

As the weeks and months go by, I find myself letting go of the pain as one releases the heartache of any grievous experience. Whole days pass without a thought of the incident. My relationship with Camille has never been better. Of course, I find myself according her an entirely new level of respect. I celebrate her strength, and am eager to satisfy her wishes. I allow myself to be dominated by her in ways that would have seemed unthinkable before my boss’s death. From time to time a quiet note of rebellion sounds somewhere in my soul and I think about leaving the woman once and for all, but I know I haven’t the strength of character to do such a thing. My secret, and I’ll keep it to my grave, is that I’m frightened to death of her.

– Feb. 1997

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