That's the thing about this city, everybody's got a story to tell and a problem to sell. I've been in this business for six years but I was a cop for 10 years before I got my PI license, so I've seen a thing or two. This city has a sunny side and a dark side. I've never seen anything but the dark. Though it's been a financial pleasure, it has impacted me emotionally. It has cost me a wife or two. But, like any other cheater, I keep coming back to my first mistress, the city that feeds me, clothes me, keeps me warm.
I operate out of a suite on the fifth floor of the Lafayette Building, which is nearly old enough for inclusion on the National Register. My office window looks out on the River Market. From my vantage, I can see young urban professionals eating lunch and rock barges and bass boats slicing up and downstream. I have a small staff, including a receptionist/bookkeeper and two associates whose offices are directly adjacent to mine. Staff changes coincide with the economy; in good times, I keep a full payroll. When times are tight, it's usually just me.
There are five other PI firms in this city and I have moments when I am convinced we cannot all stay afloat. Yet customers keep pouring in. The first rule of business is to know your competition; the second is to slit the competition's throat. Well, that's a tall order when your competitors have national reach, employ dozens of slick, highly-trained professionals, and get all the high-dollar cases. But my mistress is both promiscuous and unscrupulous. She never lets me down.
We handle all kinds of cases, though I'm the first to admit, they are of the seamier, more sordid variety than my competitors. I get mostly divorces, which require tons of surveillance and fuck pix. (Sorry to be crude, but that's how we refer to them. The offended spouse wants the transgressor caught in flagrante delicto, especially if there is a big settlement in the offing.) We're also asked to track down missing or stolen personal property; Aunt Betty's jewels often turn up in the wrong hands, or down at the local pawn shop. We handle pre-employment screenings, missing persons, embezzlement, and other odd jobs our customers would prefer to keep quiet. I have a perfect record of discretion. It's my bread and butter.
Ten years of police work made me an ideal candidate for this line. I walked the beat for five years before earning a promotion to Narcotics and, ultimately, Homicide. I learned how to conduct interrogations and build cases as a detective. It wears you down. I changed wives twice in 10 years before finally swearing off marriage. You can't come home and make happy talk with the wife after busting heads and intimidating punks all day. Certain lines of business don't allow it. Mine is one.
You see things as a cop that make you question your career choice. Muggings, beatings, domestic violence, child abuse, and addictions are bad enough, but the bureaucracy finally forced me to hand in my badge. Politics and the sad fact that money runs everything will change you. Along the way, I picked up a drinking problem. Things first went sideways, then downhill.
I got out, cleaned up, took the necessary exams, and obtained my PI license. Now I see things from the other side, the one that's too dirty for the cops. My clients often can't go to the police. They don't want a report filed and they don't want to end up on the 6:00 news. I don't ask questions. I get paid.
The city sends me clients. I can sit in my office and smell a case from a mile away. I accept walk-ins. I mean, you have to. People usually find me in the phone book (those who still use them) or online. I run a small ad in the local paper, and I run outdoor advertisements. For the most part, I rely on referrals. Private dicks live on word of mouth. I suppose in that way, we are not unlike prostitutes. If my reputation ever took a hit, I'd be dead on my ass, case closed.
I spend the majority of my time in courthouses tracking down relevant files (deeds, marriage licenses, divorce filings, tax records), the boring stuff they never glamorize in movies. For the more tedious fieldwork, I'll dispatch my associates. I can do that part of the job myself, but hard labor goes to the grunts.
It can be dangerous out there. I once trailed a philandering husband, getting good divorce pix. He plied his little honey with booze and cocaine, keeping his hand in her bra, smooching her ears and throat. Hot stuff. All of a sudden, my car door swings open, and I'm getting hauled out by a guy who, I later learned, was a former welterweight boxer. Dope and too many slugs to the head forced him to sell his services as a bodyguard. Well, this boxer and I had it out on the street, and we found out just how good I was. I put the bastard in the hospital, phoned up the philanderer's wife, and turned over the pix right then and there. Easiest thousand bucks I ever earned.
Speaking of which, we have a reasonable rate structure. I get a thousand bucks a day (to stay competitive), plus a bonus if I deliver results. My associates work on a sliding scale. Contracts are iron-clad, drawn up by one of the best lawyers in town. I bill for all expenses, including travel and doctor visits (you'd be surprised). People pay without hesitation. They figure it's a good deal. We have very few aging accounts. Those we do have, we settle on our own -- "unofficially."
Do I sleep with my clients? Yeah, on occasion. I try and keep things on a moral basis, but this is a shadowy business. Some cases go easier if I give my client something extra, always on the QT. A lonely woman angry with her husband will agree to a quiet drink in a low-lit bar. It's one of those things. After you've dealt as much dirt as I have, you'll find your morals on a sliding scale, as well.
I try and work with my former colleagues in blue, but some cases put us at cross-purposes. Their job is to solve crime, mine is to get paid. I don't "resolve" anything; I merely provide a temporary fix. Most cops are understanding of this arrangement, though I do occasionally catch grief from the "real" detectives who don't yet know that it's all a game.
I sit at my desk with my feet up, fingers laced behind my neck, gazing out at the neighboring high rises. My stomach rumbles; it'll soon be time for a crawfish po'boy, or some Mexican food to have with my noon-time martini. That's the thing about this city, there are hundreds of places to eat and drink. Who knows, I might even meet my next client over lunch. It's happened before. No telling what the day will bring.
I reach into my cabinet for the bottle of Johnny Walker Red. I steal a sip, basking in the glow that rises in my chest. I like to think no one can smell it on me; just to make sure, I pop a breath mint.
I hear the outer door open and voices in the anteroom. My receptionist, Susan, has a sweet voice capable of charming the socks off anyone. A stranger inquires about our services, an equally melodious tone. The two women chat softly; I give my chair a convivial squeak. My phone buzzes and Susan asks whether I "have a moment." Sure, I answer, I'm here all day.
The door swings open to admit a tall woman in a lemon-yellow business suit, with raven-black hair and probing green eyes. Her gaze pins me to the spot, making me feel like a cheap dick in a cheap suit. I drag my hand over my unshaven cheek, snap to attention, and straighten my tie. (The whole ensemble is a mess, reeking of whiskey and Marlboros.) I fix my bloodshot eyes on her, taking in her razor-sharp cheekbones, arched brows, and bejeweled ears. I'm looking at a high-dollar client, the kind that can make (or break) a dick. She tilts her head with a small, man-eating smile.
"Mr. Fleming," she purrs, "I'm Kate McDonald. I have a case for you." Her voice is oil on glass.
I clear my throat and come around to shake her proffered hand. I can't help but notice the rock on her finger and wonder how much longer it will sit there.
"Mrs. McDonald," I reply, grasping her hand. "At your service."