In A Bind
D. D. VanDyke
September, 2005: San Francisco
“Oh, California! If you want to attract a man, you have to pull your lower chakra in, not push it out.” My mother, Starlight Corwin – she’d had it legally changed from “Sandra” in 1970 – sat lotus on her overstuffed ancient sofa, the one I had never been able to convince her to get rid of. Her hands pressed against her belly and back as she breathed deliberately in and out, looking like nothing so much as a serene Yoko Ono clone.
Chloe and Kira, my mother’s fawn Pekingese dogs, watched with calm interest while their nemesis Snowflake, my Russian White, leaped into my arms. I rubbed his head and he purred contentedly.
“Who said I wanted to attract a man? And aren’t you a Buddhist, Mom? Chakras are Hindu,” I said archly, as if I hadn’t had to put up with my mother’s eclectic amalgam of every mystical and New Age belief imaginable for my entire life.
“I’m a Buddhist, I’m a Hindu, I’m a Taoist…” Starlight sang airily to the tune of Berlin’s Sex (I’m a…). “Buddhists know about chakras too. And call me Starlight. ‘Mom’ is a label that I eschew.”
“Eschew, huh? To paraphrase Sun Tzu: she who believes everything, believes nothing. Mommy Starlight, I gotta go.” I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead, placing Snowflake in her lap. As I did, my blazer fell open, revealing the holstered automatic on my hip.
Tsk tsk. You know I don’t like guns in the house.” Mother Starlight closed her eyes and tilted her head back, rolling it side to side.
I sighed. “Guns go with my job now and my profession before. You know, the one that I lost to buy the house? And I’m not leaving them in my office safe.”
“You’re not a pig anymore honey, praise the God and Goddess,” my mother replied. “You could get rid of them. All that negative energy and you put it right next to your body.”
With a pained laugh I said, “It’s not radioactive. It’s just a tool to protect myself and the only negative energy comes from the jerks this hardworking P.I. has to deal with.”
“Don’t come to me for healing when you get hip cancer.”
“Bye, Mom. And there’s no such thing as hip cancer.”
“You’ll see. I’ll try to ward you again.” She curled her hands into circles with each middle finger and thumb touching and began to chant. “Om…om mani padme hum…”
I carefully locked the front door behind me. If I left it up to my mother it would not only stay unlocked but would probably stand open for every bum, doper and junkie who happened to wander by. Starlight believed the best of everyone. Except me, it seemed.
I call that selective memory, or maybe Mom just killed off all those brain cells before she gave up the hard drugs. Might have been the only good thing about Dad dying. Without him to provide the rudder of her life and with me and my younger brother to take care of, she’d been forced to straighten herself out a little.
Turning to face the sloping San Francisco street, I descended the steps of our Victorian’s front porch and turned left. The several-block walk to my office was hardly enough to get my blood pumping, so I circled left again at the end of the block and took a zigzag path to eventually approach the building from the rear. Despite leaving the force two years ago, the cop in me whispered in my ear: keep your eyes open, vary your route and take nothing for granted.
Another Monday morning. Monday was usually an interesting day, a day for cases to show up unexpectedly, I’d found. Though they could hardly be unexpected if I expected them on Monday.
I should toss that noodle-baker to Mom. She loved all things philosophical and metaphysical. It would keep her entertained for hours.
September had brought sunshine even as it sent the girls and boys of summer back to school and I breathed deep of the fresh air, smelling wet concrete and the stubborn grass growing in the verges. I never understood why anyone would live down in smoggy L.A. if they could choose the City by theBay and the fresh sea air of its setting. Sure it stayed chilly, but if warm weather were the goal, an hour’s drive over the coast range and into the sunny San Joaquin Valley to the east would do it. Me, I’ll take the dense cold fog and vibrant life of the Mission District any day.
Walking through the courtyard that formed a private parking lot in back of my office, I ran my hand along Molly’s flank. The azure Subaru called to me and I patted her fender in affection. “Be patient, girl. Next Saturday we have a rally up in Hollister.”
Shadows from the surrounding three-story buildings chopped the tarmac into slices of light and dark and the breeze brought the intermittent scent of java and pastries from Ritual Coffee Roasters. The aroma convinced me to turn away from my office and exit the courtyard to the east onto Valencia. A short walk brought me to the café where I picked up two tall lattes and six pastries – two for me, four for Mickey. Normally I only got him three, but for some reason today felt like four. I’d learned to yield to these flashes of insight, the ones that popped up every now and again ever since the bomb blast rattled my noggin and ended my career as a cop.
Just for a moment I caught sight of a half-familiar figure in the glass of the display case, and then it was gone. I racked my brain as I juggled the cup caddy, bag and door handle, scowling at the bum – sorry, homeless man – half-blocking the entrance.
On a whim I stopped, pulled out Mickey’s fourth apple turnover and dropped it into his grimy hands. He didn’t even thank me before he stuffed it in his face.
What a bum.
There, Mom. That ought to buy me some good karma, or maybe a little blessing from Saint Francis, all for under two bucks. Funny how Mother believes in every god except Dad’s, the Big Guy Upstairs. She’d say the Catholic Church is The System and the Pope is The Man anyway, and it’s her duty to Fight the Power or something.
No wonder I have a hard time with religion. Not that I’m an atheist. Just a skeptic.
This time I approached my office from the front, climbing the steps to a door not so different from the house where Mother and I lived, though this had less gingerbread and sported a front balcony overlooking the street.
CALIFORNIA INVESTIGATIONS read the first line of engraving on the brass plaque and beneath it, Cal Corwin, Licensed and Bonded. It looked impressive. In this business, reputation and image can be important.
Slamming the door with my foot to make sure it locked bestowed the side benefit of waking myresearch assistant Mickey – if he was here. He often gamed all weekend on the computer gear I’d bought for his work as it was better than anything he had at home, and he usually fell asleep in the wee hours of the morning. The loud bang gave him fair warning and sometimes saved me the trouble of investigating noises in the lower level, weapon drawn.
The Wizard is IN read the sign at the top of the stairs, so I extracted my turnovers from the bag and set them gingerly on my desk along with my latte before taking the rest to the basement door. “You down there, Mickey? I got coffee and pastries, but you better not be working naked again.”
“Just a minute, boss,” came the muffled reply, and I heard water run in the bathroom and the toilet flush.
Once I was sure I wasn’t going to walk in on something no rational human being should ever see, I descended the stairs and set the nectar of life and the baked goods on the table next to the setup’s big monitors and retreated. No point in trying to deal with Mickey before he woke up unless something urgent was in the offing. As far as I knew, nothing qualified.
That was the trouble, actually. I hadn’t had a real case in two months, not since I’d earned ten thousand dollars for recovering a kidnapped girl. I supported Mom, and Mickey couldn’t seem to keep any other job. With the cost of living so high in San Francisco – not to mention California’s sky-high taxes – if I’d had mortgages to pay we’d all be eating instant ramen three meals a day by now.
Fortunately the lawsuit against the City for the fiasco with the bomb, the blast that had cost me an eardrum, a bunch of skin on the right side of my head and some feeling in my right hand, had paid for the house and bought the office, all free and clear. Unfortunately there were still taxes, utilities, groceries, insurance, gas…and did I mention taxes? I love California, but I detest its dysfunctional bureaucracy.
To keep busy I’d done some skip tracing of bail jumpers, but that barely kept me and my unofficial employees – Mickey and the freelance muscle team that called themselves M&M – in coffee and pastries. I needed real work even if I had to scare it up somehow. I still had a few friends on the force that would throw me a bone now and again. If I didn’t get something soon, I’d reach out even if I had to eat some humble pie.
Back on the main level of my office I scooped up the contents of the drop box, which was also my mail slot, and then punched the button on my desktop computer. While it booted I browsed the mail. Sometimes a case showed up there, sometimes in email. Most common, though, was a phone call. In my experience, people bringing cases often had things to hide and were leery of committing details to paper, virtual or real.
This time, though, the case walked in the door. Knocked first, of course. Two sharp sounds, rap – rap. Maybe I need to put a Come On In sign on the door, but if I did, I couldn’t leave it locked.
Okay, I’m a woman of contradictions.
I buzzed the release and settled for yelling. “Come on in!” My hand rested on the weapon on my hidden hip. I’d made a few enemies and it paid to be careful.
The green painted door opened and I stood, but I needn’t have. I mean, when a dwarf walks through your door…or do we call them little people now? In any case, this person was undertall by quite a bit. I’m only five-six but I towered over her. Or him?
Trying to see past his stature, I sized him up. Pretty sure it was a him, despite the gold lamé dress, heels, wig and makeup. You’d think with my own scars I could look beneath the surface, but I admit I hadn’t had much experience with little people.
Anyway he was black, African-American if you prefer, which was neither here nor there, though it did add to the oddity of the whole picture for me. The entire presentation was definitely outré, at least outside of Castro. Especially for broad daylight. Most of the drag queens came out at night.
“What can I do for you, sir?” I asked, dropping my hand and putting on my best customer-service face. That was difficult, as I still hadn’t had my coffee or even a bite of the sugar bomb on my desk.
He looked tired, as if he’d been up all night.
“What…” we both started in unison.
I sat down, waving him forward. “Close the door please. Have a seat.” Solving two problems at once, I shoved the corner of a turnover into my watering mouth. Damn, that pastry chef was good. Chewing created time and opportunity to break out of the awkward little spell that had seized us.
The small man shut the door and clomped across my floor in his heels to sit in a chair. I masticated a moment more, sipped my coffee and waited.
“Is Cal Corwin in?” he finally said in a clear falsetto.
“That’s me. California Corwin, California Investigations,” I said brightly.
“I thought you’d be…”
He smiled and winked. “I was going to say taller.”
Oh, a charmer. I decided to like him for the moment. “Buddy, there are so many ripostes to that I can’t even count.”
Lamé guy shrugged and took off his wig, dropping it on the corner of my desk. When he spoke he had let go of the falsetto in favor of a deep Barry White voice. “When you’re unusual, you need a sense of humor. You got one about that?” He pointed at the damaged right side of my face.
Surprised he had noticed. My straight dark hair usually hid the scars and makeup did the rest. I turned away slightly and then cursed myself for doing so.
“On my better days, I guess. Now,” I took out a pad and pen, “you are?”
“It’s a performance name. Franklin Jackson.”
“Two presidents at once.”
“Franklin wasn’t a President.”
I scrunched up my nose. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt?”
Franklin laughed. “Got me there.”
“And what kind of performance?” I asked.
“Song and dance. Drag revue. Duh?” He pointed with both hands at his outfit.
“That’s it? Nothing more, like stripping or turning tricks? Better to lay it out now if I’m going to help you with whatever you want.”
A hint of irritation flickered across his face. “Lay it out. Funny. But no, that’s all. When I hook up I don’t take money. I just like dressing up and performing – and before you ask, I’m straight as the Golden Gate.”
Skepticism must have showed on my face. “Look, Frank, I used to be a cop, which played hell with my sense of patience. Can we get to whatever brought you in here?”
“Yeah, let me tell it.” He ran his hand over his close-cropped hair. “Anyway, that’s what I do in the evenings at the shows around town. Aunt Charlie’s, Divas, Esta Noche, the Cinch, places like that. It’s a blast and pays a little, though putting up with the short jokes is a pain in the ass. The sex is good.”
I raised my better eyebrow.
“I mean, I meet a lot of women and some of them are open-minded. Even ti-curious.”
“Yeah, like, tiny. Height-wise, anyway. You know, not everything on us little people is small.” He sent me a flirtatious smile.
“TMI, Frank. Let’s stick to the case. If there is one?” I stared at him over my coffee cup.
“Sorry. Bad habit of letting my mouth run away with me. These shows and the parties after, you know…I can say almost anything and they think it’s funny instead of rude. It’s one of the perks of being in character. They expect it.”
“Speaking of parties…why are you dressed for one early on a Monday morning?”
He stage-coughed as if embarrassed and showing it. “Had a gig last night, at Lookout. Things got late, a little out of hand, and one of the ladies…you know.”
“She was open-minded.”
“Yeah. I didn’t make it home yet. My car got stolen.”
“And you like to shock people so you put that outfit back on.”
“Just a little, sure. It’s the showman in me.” He chuckled.
“So why are you here, Frank? Why didn’t you report the car to the cops?”
“Because of this.” Sighing, he took out his phone and punched up something, and then laid it on the desk in front of me. It was one of those new ones with a full-color screen that could display digital pictures.
“Ew. Is there actually a case here or do you get your jollies walking into random P.I. offices and showing people your porn?” I couldn’t call the photo anything else.
“So you get the picture? Okay, okay,” he said, holding up his hands as I stood with mounting irritation to throw him out. “It’s blackmail, all right? Here’s the text that came with it.”
Send $1000 in cash every week or the pictures go viral, it read, and listed a box address in Chicago.
“So…pardon me,” I said, “but with the lifestyle you’re living anyway, how can this hurt you? Might even get you more business. They say all publicity is good publicity.”
“Look, Cal…can I call you Cal?” His dimples appeared and I saw how a certain segment of the female nighttime drag-queen-show-viewing populace would find him attractive. “I have to keep my day joband my side job separate.”
“I should think so. I can’t figure out why you’re engaging in all this risky behavior.”
“What, you’ve never taken risks for fun?”
He had me there. I guess I could understand his thrill-seeking, even if his kinds of thrills weren’t mine. I nodded in sympathy. “All right. I get it. Go on.”
“This picture was taken last night and when I left the hotel around five a.m., my car was gone. When I went back to her room the woman in the picture had checked out. I killed time with breakfast at the hotel, looked you up and here I am.”
“Okay, Frank,” I said around another bite of pastry, “what’s your day job that this would be worth fifty Gs a year to keep quiet? You a priest or something?”
“No, special education teacher out in Granger’s Ford.”
That stopped me in my tracks. I mean, technically he hadn’t done anything wrong, or at least not illegal, though there might be some kind of morals or community standards clause in his contract, but I got it. Perfectly rational, live-and-let-live adults turn into slavering, out-for-blood Puritans when they sense a risk to their kids, real or imagined. “That’s in the Sierra foothills across the valley, right? Small town?”
“Very small, at least in mind. I’d lose my job and probably never work again this side of Denver, but I love my kids. I really make a difference. Even if I found the guy who has the pics and got a lawyer and an injunction, he could ruin me overnight. It would take years suing him to recoup the costs.”
“Look, Frank…my best advice to you is to get out ahead of the story. Go to the school board and come clean right now. Make it perfectly clear everything you do is consensual and doesn’t involve underage girls or anything illegal.”
“I wouldn’t mention that. It’s the only real weak spot in your defense. But the drag and the sex…if you’re up front and explain it to them, and maybe do a similar, less detailed mea culpa at a town meeting, you’ll get through this. Especially if you get a lawyer and show you’ll fight.”
“No way. My job is everything.”
“Should have thought about that before you got in too deep.”
“I didn’t come here for you to judge me,” Frank said angrily.
“Sorry. I still think you should fight through it.”
“No. This all has to go away.”
I sighed, my best advice defeated. “Okay. Why do you think it is a he? I mean, that is a woman’s derriere, right? She had to be complicit.”
“You’re right. Could easily be a woman, though the one I was with didn’t seem the type.”
“The smart ones never do. Are there more pictures? No, don’t show me.”
“Yeah,” Frank replied. “A couple more of the, uh, encounter, and some of me on stage that night.”
“Are the bedroom shots all from the same angle? Like it was an automatic camera rather than someone taking them?”
Frank flipped through the pictures on the screen. “Yeah, looks like it.”
“Hmm. Still no confirmed accomplice.”
“What about the car?”
I scratched my head with both hands, trying to stimulate my brain through the hair follicles. “Yeah, that would argue for someone else. What kind of car?”
“Ugh. Among the most stolen cars in America. Could it be a coincidence?”
“I dunno. Little people like me don’t have many choices. It was modified for my size and there are affordable kits for only a limited number of models.”
“You sure it wasn’t towed?”
Frank shook his head wearily. “Don’t think so. It was on a side street in front of a meter, but the sign on it said you can park there free on weekends. I called a few of the nearest towing yards anyway, but no dice.”
I pushed over a pad of paper and a pen. “Write down everything about it – tag number, year, make, model, details of the short people kit, exact location you left it, anything else. And your phone number. Take my card. I’ll need two thousand up front as a retainer and it’s fifty an hour plus expenses.” My rates were flexible, depending on what I thought clients could afford. For a schoolteacher I’d charge less.
The number seemed not to faze him. “Sure. I’ll go by the bank and have it for you today.”
“Good. One more thing…why Chicago?”
He shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“None at all? Seems like an odd place to have the money sent. Are you from there? Got contacts there?”
“Nope.” Frank shook his head. “Born and raised in San Jose, got my degree from State…maybe it’s just a long way away and they don’t figure I’ll go there to check it out.”
“Maybe. Probably some kind of reposting drop anyway. If I have to fly out there it’s going to cost you.”
“Better than paying blackmail. As you said, a thousand a week is over fifty a year. I’d rather pay you.”
I grunted. “Good for both of us. Just remember, I’ll probably burn through the two grand pretty quick. I cap at ten hours a day so that’s four days worth of work, plus expenses, which can add up fast. I have a research assistant to pay and if I need muscle I have to lay out for them too. I’m assuming you want the pictures back and a guarantee they won’t be publicized, but I’m not sure that’s possible as they’re digital. I’ll do the best I can, but it will depend on what kind of leverage I can find on whoever did this. We can’t go to the cops right away, because eventually this will get on the police blotter and those are public records. Even if I manage to clean everything up, you don’t want official paperwork lurking in some file if you can help it, I’m thinking.”
Frank put his head in his hands. “Look, Miss Corwin, I’m just a guy in a bind here. I’ve never been involved with anything more than a misdemeanor, never had anything like this happen. I have no idea what to do except trust you to fix the situation.”
Oh, boy. That hit me in a soft spot, the part of everyone who ever wanted to be a cop and help people get justice. I had an idea how violated he felt right now, wanting a professional to make it all better. Well, I guess that was how I earned my living so I opened my mouth and did what I always do. I promised a little too much.
“Frank, you get me the cash and I’ll get you some answers. At least we’ll have something to hand to the police if it comes to that, or if I get lucky we might be able to make the situation go away.”
“Thanks, Cal. You’re a real lifesaver. Any chance you and me…”
“No,” I retorted automatically. “I make it a firm policy never to get involved with clients. You know, like with teachers and students,” I went on with sudden inspiration. “Ethics, and all that.”
“Oh, sure.” Frank blinked and swayed in the chair. “Hey, is there anywhere around I can get a room? Cheap, clean hotel or something? I’m really tired.”
“You don’t want a ride back home? I’m going over to Granger’s Ford to poke around anyway.”
“No, I’m wiped out and I already called in sick. Just what I need, old Annie the snoop to look out her window and see me sneak into my own house after getting out of a gorgeous and desirable woman’s car on a weekday when I’m supposed to be hanging out at home.”
“Give it a rest, Frank.”
Frank shrugged and smirked as if he knew that the compliment felt good to me no matter how cheesy. “If my car doesn’t turn up maybe you can run me out tomorrow morning?”
“I’m not a morning kind of gal, Frank, but we’ll see.” I almost asked him why he couldn’t rent a car, and then remembered his stature and the special equipment he needed.
I gave him the address of the misnamed Five Star Hotel a few blocks away and told him to call Mickey if he needed any local help.
Once he’d trudged out I went down to the lower level where my assistant made his abode. One side of the large room, the less disgusting side, sported a semicircular arrangement of screens and computer gear. The other held an old sofa and loveseat, a couple of chairs and a blizzard of junk food wrappers, empty soda bottles and cans and some pillows that clearly needed a Maytag introduction. Once every month or two I had to threaten to pull the graphics chips out of his computers – I mean, my computers, as I had bought them, after all – to get him to clean the place up.
Mickey squatted like a frog in a rolling office chair, shaggy and overweight. Yeah, he was a nerd’s nerd and had his foibles, but boy, could he find things out when he was motivated.
“Wazzup, boss?” he asked, not taking his eyes off the frenetic game action on the screen.
“I have a case, I think. Need you to start with this.” I handed him a sheet of paper with pertinent facts copied from Frank’s notes plus some I’d added. “See if that Camry has shown up anywhere – towing yards, police blotters, anything. Then a quick rundown on the client. Franklin Jackson, special-ed teacher out of Granger’s Ford. Try to find the physical location of this box address in Chicago. Let me know when you run out of dirt to dig in.”
Holding out his free left hand, Mickey kept mousing around the screen with the right, firing frantically at his pixilated enemies. I put the paper into his palm and left. No point in micromanaging him. He’d be useless until he finished his current quest or whatever it was, but after that he’d do good work as long as there was food, cash and coffee.
Something caught my eye out the window that faced the courtyard behind my office. A woman, tall, redheaded and slim, in slacks and a windbreaker, lit a cigarette near Molly. She seemed to glance my way before turning to stalk off between buildings. Something about the way she walked bothered me, like her feet hurt perhaps. Fairly sure I had never laid eyes on her, but still…
Short of chasing her down there wasn’t much I could do. It might mean nothing or she might be trying to work up the gumption to walk into my office with a case. It was Monday after all. For now, I had to get started on Frank and his minor problem.
And it was minor. Not to him, I was sure, but in comparison to a kidnapped girl, a murdered ex-cop or a bomb the situation was tame. Stuff like this happened every day when I was on the force. Usually the information got out no matter how hard you tried to lock it down. I’d given Frank the benefit of my wisdom, but like most blackmail victims, he didn’t want to listen. So, I’d have to try it his way.
As a cop I’d had my ways of taking care of things and of course the Thin Blue Line still did. Policing was often a lot easier and more effective than law enforcement, and by that I meant that some things are better taken care of unofficially, off the books.
Now that I was even farther from those books, I could engage in my own version of policing now and again. A twisted arm, a payoff, a word in the right ear…when the goal was to suppress information, methods like these might work. If it came to law enforcement…well, at some point I could just dump it in the lap of SFPD and forget about it.
Closure? That was a luxury in this business.