The downstairs doorbuzzer buzzed.
I didn’t answer it.
It was too early to be the mail lady, only half-past nine in the morning the first Thursday after Labor Day. Couldn’t think who else’d be ringing my bell, not for a second it might be a client.
I never had walk-in trade before, and gone were the days when I lived in anticipation of any. Most of my work came from referrals, and all of it began with at least a phone call first. With no appointments on the calendar that morning, I was at my desk drinking coffee and smoking, fresh from the daybed, dressed only in t-shirt and jeans, and barefooted.
The buzzer I figured was just some drunk again, leaning against the doorframe buttons, getting back his bearings before another uncertain stagger forth.
Couple minutes later, the phone rang. I let the machine pick up.
And heard my voice from seven years ago give the outgoing message: "Hello, this is Sherwood Investigations. After the tone, please leave your name, number, and the time. I will return your call."
An outgoing outgoing message. My voice back then held in it a clear quality of confidence and conviction. I didn’t dare record a new one.
After the beep, an old man’s voice and a name I didn’t recognize. "Hello, Payton. This is George Rowell." Out of breath and speaking over the radio-static sound of random street traffic. "We met some years ago, don’t know if you’ll remember the occasion—" The dry squeak of a truck axle. The roar of a revving Harley over the line. They sounded in stereo, coming in simultaneously through my open window. "—it was in Matt Chadinsky’s office over at Metro. I’m calling to see if you’re available today to hel—"
I picked up the phone. I was nothing if not available.
"Good morning, Mr. Rowell. Sorry, had my hands full," I said, a little embarrassed by how long it’d taken me to fill in his blank: Owl.
I’d only met him once before, over a decade ago, back when I was just starting out in the business, working at Metro Security, Inc. But I knew of him; everyone did. George Rowell was something of a legend in the trade: one of the most successful P.I.’s on the East Coast, he’d operated a one-man agency for over fifty years. People—well, other private investigators—swapped stories about him going back half a century and extending around the globe. He’d tracked down the Chelsea slasher in 1976. In 2000, he’d been instrumental in the rescue of an abducted American girl from a child pornography ring operating in the Ukraine. And when anyone talked about him, they only ever called him by his nickname, Owl. A drunken slurring of his last name that had stuck, I supposed. He didn’t look owlish the time I met him; too tall and thin, he’d looked more like a hawk-nosed heron.
He’d been old then, had to be in his eighties now. I’d heard he retired to a small town in New Hampshire. Also a rumor that he’d gotten Alzheimer’s and died. Sounded alive enough.
"Glad I caught you in, first wasn’t sure..." He sought to catch his breath. "I rang your bell, but I guess I should’ve called first. I’m not...interrupting anything, am I?"
I looked around the office. A bare cement floor. A couch with a pillow and a rumpled quilt. Two leather-backed club chairs. My desk. All gathering dust, a dust partly made up of my dry, dead skin gradually shedding.
"No, not really."
"I was saying, I don’t know if you, if you remember our meeting. It was some time ago that Matt introduced us."
"Of course, Mr. Rowell."
No surprise that I did. For me, shaking his hand had been like touching history. At the time, I thought my meeting him would prove a good omen.
He chuckled softly. "Please, call me Owl. How’s Matt doing these days?"
"Fine," I said. Only Matt and I hadn’t spoken to each other in over five years.
"I hear he’s a father now."
About a year ago, I’d run into a mutual friend who told me Jeanne was pregnant, so I agreed.
"Boy or a girl?" he asked. He had me there.
"Probably," I said.
I heard metal clank, both over the receiver and through my window. I went over, looked out.
Owl said, "Boy, did you say? Sorry, this isn’t a very good connection."
Across Second Avenue on the southeast corner of Twelfth, a delivery truck driver had just dropped his handtruck to the sidewalk. On the same corner, a pair of payphones, Janus-faced, with only one in use. A dome of sparse white hair and stooped shoulders in a light brown suit were all I saw of him.
"So, Owl, what can I do for you?"
"Matt gave me your card a while ago, said you’d opened your own office in the Village, and that you were the guy to call if ever I found myself in need here."
"That must’ve been some while ago," I said. Matt hadn’t referred any work to me in years and that loss stung as much as the loss of our friendship.
Maybe Owl detected it in my voice, because he asked, "Did Metro bring you in on that Law Addison business? That had an East Village connection."
The name rang a bell—something earlier in the year, May maybe. Then I had it: Lawrence Addison. "Law" to his friends, and to his victims/clients.
"Grand larceny case," I said, pulling it up from my memory. "Securities fraud. Independent money manager, ran an outfit called Isolde Enterprises, lot of high-profile clients. Turned out to be just a big Ponzi-go-round, only Addison didn’t step off the ride soon enough."
Just showing I knew my onions, but no great feat; it’d been front-page news for a couple days this past spring before the next young starlet’s D.W.I.
Owl said, "But he did manage to step off eventually. Addison was granted bail. And then he skipped. Ran off with the wife of one of his ex-clients. The bail bond agency hired Metro to track him down. I’d have thought Matt would’ve brought you in on that. Addison had a place in the Village."
"Huh. Probably why no one’s tagged him yet, right? Ha." He chuckled softly, letting me know it was a joke. "Still, odd that—"
I decided to come clean, weary of the square dance. "Metro stopped dealing me in several years ago, Owl. It’s a long time since I’ve talked to Matt about anything."
I listened to the city traffic over his end of the line. A young woman laughed broadly. An angry dog with a peanut-sized bark yapped itself hoarse. A bus surged by in a whoosh, its loose side panels and windows rattling like a haunted house on wheels.
"These things happen," Owl finally said.
"Yeh, well, I only bring it up so you know, any recommendation Matt gave you no longer stands up. I doubt he’d say the same today if you called and asked him."
"I don’t think that’ll be necessary," Owl said. "Cards on the table, I had heard something like that already, but wanted your side of it."
"No side," I said. "Just a professional disagreement."
"Oh, my being a professional. Matt disagreed."
Owl snorted. "Guys like Matt, they don’t understand freelancers like you and me, Payton. That’s the trouble. He doesn’t...doesn’t get why we do it."
I cleared my throat. "Why do we do it?" I asked. I didn’t even know myself. "But then again what I do, Mr. Rowell, and what you’ve achieved over your—"
"Oh fuck that," he said, and it shut me up, but to my credit I didn’t sputter like my Aunt Fannie. "I mean going out on your own, Payton, starting your own business! Most people don’t know what that means. It takes guts."
"Guts, yeh, but not brains," I said. "Like spelunking with my dick out."
"Something like that. But I made it. And it looks like you’re making it, too."
"Maybe," I said. "I don’t know how you managed it for fifty years, Owl."
"Tell you one trick. You don’t think about the last fifty years. You don’t think about the last year. You think about tomorrow, you move with the times. Y’know how old I am?"
"How old?" I said.
"Eighty-four last month. But I still stay current with all the new technology. Just to keep my hand in. Lotsa guys my age, all they do is bitch about young people always talking on their cell phones, and meanwhile they’ve all got one, too, only none of them knows how to use it. Me, I don’t have a cell phone—but I’ve got a device that listens in on other people’s cell phones from up to twenty yards away, and you better believe I know how to use it."
I heard a click on the line then, followed a moment later by the sound of a coin dropping into the phone’s metal guts.
When his voice came back, he got right down to business. "Listen, Payton. The reason I called. I need your help to flush a tail out into the open. There’s a meeting later today and one of the people leaving the meeting, I think, is going to be followed. I need to know who is doing the following. It’s not much, just daywork, maybe into early evening. But you’ll be covered for the whole day. What’s your rate, Payton?"
I heard a sharp crack, like a distant rifle report or a wood plank slapping the ground, over the phone and out my window. I looked out, but didn’t see what made it, then heard it again, just out of view directly below my window, sounding more clearly like a flat wooden board smacking pavement.
Something about Owl’s call was bothering me, something off. My normal rate was $50-an-hour plus expenses, but I told him, "Hundred a day."
"Please, not your professional rate, Payton. What’s your regular? C’mon, I’m retired, just a private citizen now, not a private eye."
"Doesn’t sound like it."
"Oh, this? It’s a personal matter. Client is someone I owe a favor to. Old time’s sake. You live long enough, it’s actually a pleasure to still be around to repay your debts."
Long as you don’t chalk up more along the way, I thought. But didn’t voice it.
"I should be comping you, Owl, professional courtesy. If it gets around to the other agencies that I’m not, I’d never get another referral throughout the five boroughs."
That was it, the not-quite-right-something bugging me. George Rowell was connected, had friends in all the top agencies in Manhattan. Hell, he was tight with Moe Fedel. He only had to ring up Fedel Associates and have a half-dozen ops at his disposal, with probably a groovy spy-van thrown in, and all on the house. Even Matt Chadinsky—perennial tightwad—would have only billed him pro rate, and then torn up his check. Before he’d been recruited into the upper echelon at Metro, Matt had learned the ropes as Owl’s apprentice.
So with all that at Owl’s fingertips, why was he calling me? I’d be the first to say it: he could do better.
"Okay, a hundred," he said. "But I buy you dinner later."
I agreed. I’d never intended to comp him anyway. It was just bluff. I wouldn’t even comp my own mom these days. But I couldn’t just lap it up either. I asked him, "Why you bringing this to me, Owl? It can’t be my mad skills."
Maybe the slang threw him, he didn’t respond right away, if not for the background noises and my looking down at him, I would’ve thought he’d hung up.
Instead, he gave me a jolt. Turned and tilted his head up and looked right at me framed in my second-floor window. Knew I’d been watching him, sensed it; he was a canny old bird. He smiled, a big toothy grin. Tall and bony as he was, for a second he did resemble an owl, an old white owl like on the cigar boxes. He shrugged his stooped shoulders.
"It’s short notice. And it’s right here, just a couple blocks away. Thought about who could cover it and you came to mind."
"We talking hard cover? If it’s muscle you nee—"
"Nah," Owl said. "Soft cover. Simple. Nothing rough. It’s just legwork, but I haven’t got the legs for it anymore. You do. And the Lower East Side is your neck of the woods. You’ve got the natural coloring."
I nodded my head, but wasn’t completely convinced.
"And how’s this job tied in with Law Addison?" I asked. "Don’t tell me you’ve turned him up?"
Owl laughed, no mirth in it though.
"No, no...haven’t found him. But I may have stumbled—"
Another click on the line. When no more coins dropped, an automated voice interrupted saying, "Please deposit twenty-five cents more for another three minutes."
I told Owl to save his quarter and come on over. He waved in agreement and hung up the phone. He put a slip of paper in his jacket pocket, then, squaring his shoulders, he walked to the corner. I got my first good look at him.
He was ancient and not too steady on his pins. Rickety. Yeh, he needed a legman, all right. Hell, he could’ve used a registered nurse; every day I saw geezers younger than him wheeled around the city by their vacant-eyed assistants.
What was a guy his age doing still mixing in the business? If that’s what this was. That something-not-quite-right was still niggling at me. Possibly the rumor I’d heard that Owl had died from Alzheimer’s, maybe a kernel of truth in it? Going off on tangents. Strong emotion in his voice a couple times, anger, agitation. Was I about to be enmeshed in some sad senior moment? Dementia might account for his approaching me rather than one of his old friends if they were already alert to such episodes of Owl imagining himself back in harness.
The light changed and he started across. He looked frail, but had sounded solid enough over the phone.
Well, solid enough for me because, fact or fantasy, I could use his hundred bucks, even if I only spent the rest of the day tramping after heffalumps and woozles.
Waiting for him to buzz, I tried to make myself and the office more presentable, but there wasn’t much to work with. The floor was littered with debris, spent matches, scratched lottery tickets, splayed newspapers, and balled-up socks. I definitely didn’t put on much of a front. Trouble was there wasn’t much back of it either.
Two-thirds of the year gone by and I’d only had four paying clients, all small gigs lasting no longer than a week. In some ways, satisfying jobs. But I couldn’t live on satisfaction.
It was demoralizing, doing the only thing I was ever good at and still I sucked. I wasn’t bringing in enough business to pay my rent. I’d borrowed a grand from my folks last month and all of it went to pay overdue bills that had matured into final cut-off notices. The letter with my parents’ check said for me to have a big dinner on them. I had to make up a hearty-sounding meal to describe before calling to thank them for the loan.
I was barely hanging on. The bulk of my possessions had been fenced on eBay. Most of my furniture sold off on Craigslist. Soon I’d be down to only a chair, the desk, and my gun tucked away in the floor safe. I was devolving, dissolving. I’d spent the last fifteen years forging a career for myself, and what did I have to show for it? A forgery.
Owl’s words ricocheted in my mind, "Why we do it."
I shook my head. Some things we do are beyond our control, especially those things that take years to do, not just spur-of-the-moment lapses in judgment, but decisions we don’t make as much as they make us.
My problem was I never found a niche, instead playing jack-of-all-trades. Should’ve specialized, trained to become an expert in some particular field: computer forensics, document verification, corporate security, biological detection, identity-theft protection, cellular counter-surveillance, handwriting analysis, something specific, anything instead of this master-of-none shit.
Knew a guy, little younger than me, who used to work at Metro around the same time. A nerdy-looking guy—thick glasses, pockmarked complexion, ink-stained pocket protector, the works. Looked like a disguise, but he never was an op, just the office’s technical support, which when I started there only meant clearing the copier’s paper jams and connecting fax machines. But the position blossomed. Suddenly he was in charge of finding the best firewall for their computer network and establishing their website, etc. The others at Metro—like at most agencies, a collection of hard-ass ex-cops—treated him brusquely, balking his attempts to join in on conversations. I sort of took him under my featherless wing, taking pity on him, always thinking, "There but for the grace of God go I."
Not long after I left Metro, he followed suit and formed his own computer security and risk management company. Couple years later, he had expanded into nineteen international markets. Last year, he was featured in a Time magazine cover story, "Faces of the New Detective." I still had the issue in my bathroom stack. Whenever I flipped across it now, I still thought, "There but for the grace of God go I."
I tidied the office, ditching the gunked-up ashtrays, collecting empty soda cans, and hunting for shoes. Managed to find a pair, but one was black, one was brown, and both were lefts. I kept looking. I needed to make a good impression on Owl.
His call couldn’t have come at a better time. The money was sweet, but so was the opportunity to learn some secrets from an old master, maybe turn my life around. And, if things went well—at least didn’t go sour—possibly get some future work from the agencies where Owl had friends. I’d been waiting for this, for a break to fall my way. If only I didn’t blow it.
I kept up the search for footwear. Minute later, still hadn’t located a matching pair, but it was okay because the buzzer hadn’t rung yet either. But that wasn’t okay.
He couldn’t have gotten lost, only a few dozen feet from the corner. I went to the intercom and pushed the button to unlatch the downstairs door and heard the latch buzz and clack.
I opened my office door and poked my head out, calling his name, but the only sound in the stairwell was my own voice.
Just furrowing my forehead over that when the morning’s white-noise blackened to pitch with a sudden thick-sick meat-thud sound and a mangled-pig squeal of swerving tires. Brakes screeched and...then nothing. The city struck dumb.
Without even thinking about it, I was out of my office and going barefoot down the steps three at a time, not caring as my office door swung shut behind me, as if I knew in advance what it was, what I would see before I saw.
Nothing paranormal about it though, only me naturally imagining the worst that could happen. Because had it truly been a premonition, I would have at least known beforehand to grab my keys on the way, instead of locking myself out.
Copyright © 2009 by Russell Atwood.