The forceful knock on the door woke me up from my daydreams. The business was slow nowadays, to put it mildly. It seems no one needed old-school private detectives anymore, not with those hotshots, young cyberpunks around. They could solve any case by hacking into phones and social media accounts, without ever leaving their stylized modern office, with their twenty-year-old Instagram model secretary and cappuccino machine.
Most people don’t realize that nothing beats good old fashion leg work and stakeouts. Do you want to know if your wife is cheating on you? Why settle for a dick-pic and a GPS report if I can get you a photo book of her with your best friend doing a Kama Sutra marathon in a cheap motel room?
It was two PM, and I was already through half a whiskey bottle, fantasizing about retirement as I did for the past six months. But then a surprising knock! A new client!
He was young but tall and confident. He sat quickly in front of my desk and looked me straight in the eyes, ignoring the whiskey bottle between us.
“Detective Brown?” He asked.
“That’s me, kid.” I shook his hand. “What can I do for you?”
He wanted me to find his biological father. He was adopted from an orphanage in Brooklyn when he was two years old, and his foster parents knew nothing about his past.
“After all these years, why are you looking for your parents now? What makes you think they are still alive?” I asked. I wasn’t trying to dismiss the case. Actually, I was evaluating how eager he was to pay.
“Two months ago, when I turned eighteen, I received this card in the mail.”
He slid a birthday card across the desk. It said: “Happy eighteenth birthday, son. Your dad”
He didn’t have any more documents besides the birthday card. He didn’t even know his birth-given name, and suddenly he wants to discover his past and find his lost parents because of a birthday card which was probably a prank. But it was easy money, and it required actual detective work.
“Do you have any recognizable features? Something that would make people remember you?” I asked.
“I have a birthmark on my shoulder,” he said.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, “it’s not much to work with.”
“It is the shape of the devil.” He stretched his shirt collar and revealed part of his left shoulder. It was clearly a reddish devil marked on his pale skin.
The following day I was at the orphanage. The old house was white from the outside but dark and eerie inside. It has seen better days, though those days might not have been happier.
I asked for help with the records archive, and the office administrator was happy to assist. She was as old as the establishment and certainly was around when they brought my client here. She took the adoption date and disappeared into the archive. About three minutes later, she came out empty-handed.
“I am sorry, Mr. Brown,” she said, “I remember the poor child with the devil birthmark, but I’m afraid we lost his records. I couldn’t find anything in the archive.”
I asked for the name of the social worker who handled the adoption. I needed a new lead, but she could not tell without the missing papers.
“Can you look up the social worker’s name who handled the adoption of a different kid around the time of my boy?” I suggested.
She scratched her head and disappeared again into the archives, but this time came out with a name.
“The social worker you are looking for might be George Stevens.”
“Where can I find Mr. Stevens?”
“I am afraid Mr. Stevens retired a long time ago,” she said, and her sad eyes became misty. “He had a stroke and lost his eyesight. I am not sure he would be able to help you in his condition.”
A blind lead is still a lead.
I arrived at Mr. Stevens’s apartment and knocked on his door. It took him a while to answer. I apologized for disturbing his rest, but he seemed rather glad to have an unexpected company. He looked much older than his actual age. His hair was white as snow, his back was bent forward, and he strolled using a cane. I followed him slowly into the darkness and had to light a flashlight. Blind men don’t use electricity.
The living room was empty except for a wooden rocking chair and an old stained sofa. I sat on the couch, and Stevens dropped slowly onto the rocking chair. He gazed at an empty spot in the ceiling and rocked the chair.
I told him about my client. Despite his old look, his mind was sharp, and his memory was intact.
“Oh yes, I remember the poor devil,” he said. “They brought him to me after the fire.”
“Oh, yes. The fire,” Stevens murmured and looked fixedly at that empty spot in the ceiling as if he was looking at the burning house. “He was living with his parents in a house in Brooklyn. One night a fire broke out. The fire department could barely pull the baby out of the flames before the house collapsed. He lost both his parents.”
“Are you sure both his parents had died in the fire?”
“You will have to ask Lieutenant John Powell from the fire department. He was the firefighter who rescued the boy and delivered him to me at the hospital. As far as I know, the boy was an orphan.”
I got up and thanked the old man for his time.
“The boy deserves the truth,” he said sorrowfully and stood up slowly using his cane. “Now, if you excuse me, I would like to rest.”
I put my arm behind his shoulder and offered my support, but he pushed me away. I watched him limping towards his bedroom as he disappeared into the dark hallway.
I took out a cigarette, leaned against the apartment door, and lit it. As I took a deep smoky breath, I heard a loud crash coming from down the hallway. I rushed inside, straight to the bedroom. Mr. Stevens’ body was swinging on a rope that dangled down from the ceiling. His neck was as broken as the wooden chair that laid beneath him.
After calling 911, I hurried to meet Battalion Chief John Powell from the New York Fire Department. He was too busy to see me, but he called me into his office after hearing about my devil birthmark client.
“What can you tell me about that fire sixteen years ago?” I asked straight away, knowing how busy Chief Powell was.
“It was a very tragic event,” Chief Powell said and gazed at the window. “When we arrived, the apartment was full of black smoke, and we could hardly see anything. The kitchen and living room were up in flames. We stumbled on Mrs. Carter in the kitchen. She was already dead and was half burnt.”
“What about the boy?”
“I’ve explored the other rooms. The child was sleeping in his bed. He was suffocating from the smoke and lost his conscience. Luckily I have found him just in time, as his bed started to catch fire that left him with a burn scar.”
“The devil birthmark?”
“Yes, the devil shape. But it was actually a scar.”
“What about the father, Mr. Carter? Was he alive?” I asked, hoping I could deliver some good news to my client.
“Hmm, the father…” the Chief sighed. “He is dead, but the fire did not kill him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was assigned to investigate the fire with the NYPD. We found out that the mother suffered from head trauma and was unconscious before the fire hit her. There were broken dishes around her and bottles of alcohol. According to the investigation, there was a struggle between the woman and her husband. He hit her and left the apartment after she had passed out. The fire was caused by a burning cigarette butt that was dropped in the kitchen and caught fire with a table cloth.”
“So the husband killed her?”
“It wasn’t intentional. The husband hit her, but he didn’t mean to start the fire. He left before he knew what was going on.”
“You said he was dead. What happened to him?”
“The NYPD found his body two days later. He had heard about his wife’s death and couldn’t live with that. So he hung himself in the bathtub of a cheap hotel room and left a note saying that he was sorry and forgave his wife for cheating.”
“That’s a shame,” I said and thought about all the husbands who were so eager to pay me to prove their wives were cheaters and surprised when they received the incriminating photos.
“What about the boy?” I asked, “Weren’t there any other relatives?”
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any, so after he was released from the hospital, the social services put him in an orphanage.”
Chief Powell stood up and walked to the door. “I think you have found what you were looking for, “he said and opened the door. “Now, you will have to excuse me.”
I thanked him and started to plan my revelation to my client. I usually make a dramatic moment that ends with a presentation of juicy photos, but in this case, all I had was a sad story and death certificates from the NYC Municipal Archives.
It didn’t take long to find the hotel and room number where Mr. Carter tied a noose around his neck and took his life. Conveniently, it was kind of a hotel that lets you book the room for an hour, so I scheduled a meeting there with my young client.
He walked back and forth across the small room and looked down at the old worn-out carpet as I told him the tragic story about his parents. He looked sad but not surprised.
“So, who sent me the birthday card?” He asked.
I didn’t have an answer for that. “It was probably just a prank, kid. Your old man is dead. He hung himself right here sixteen years ago.”
After a long silence, he asked, “Are you sure my mother was having an affair?”
“Well, kid,” I uttered, “I cannot know for sure. I did not investigate that, but I know that what your father believed. He probably had some evidence, but that is not important now.”
“Well, I think it is important,” he insisted. “If my mother didn’t cheat, then my parents just died for nothing because of someone’s lies, don’t you think?”
“Well, “I said and thought of the new job opportunity, “if you want me to investigate your mother’s affair, I could probably do that, but I have to tell you that it won’t be easy because all the parties involved are dead, and by not easy I mean not cheap.”
“Perhaps you can start with that,” he pulled an old envelope from his back pocket and put it in my hands.
“What is it?” I asked.
“The birthday card wasn’t the only thing my father left me for my eighteenth birthday. Besides his suicide note, they found this envelope with instructions asking whoever finds the letter to mail it to me when I turn eighteen.”
I sat down on the bed and slowly opened the envelope with my shaking hands. The kid already knew about his parents. Inside the envelope were some black and white photos of a young couple involved in an intimate relationship.
“Do you recognize the photos?” He asked calmly.
I stared at the young lady in the photos. I recognized her immediately.
“Well, I…I…am not sure… Should I know them?” I stammered.
He disregarded my question. “Today, when we manipulate photos, we call it Photoshopping,” he continued with his calm voice and stared into my eyes. “But I guess photos manipulation existed long before Photoshop. You took those pictures, didn’t you?”
I looked away. I remembered Mrs. Carter. I followed her day and night, trying to get the proof that her suspicious, insecure husband was so eager to find. But I couldn’t find any. Her life was quite dull. She spent a lot of time outside the apartment, usually with her female friends, or strolling around the parks with her baby. Her husband demanded proof of infidelity, so I gave him one. After doing some photo manipulation for other clients, I became pretty good at it. At least, that is what I thought before the young generation came with their keen eye for digital photoshopping.
“Was my mother having an affair?” He shouted. This time his voice was furious. I looked up and saw a gun pointed at my forehead. His eyes were as mean and red as the devil.
“No, she wasn’t,” I said in despair and heard the gunshot that sent me to hell.