I drew myself up to full height, what their was of it, to make a more imposing first impression.
“Afternoon, ma’am.” I said, touching the brim of my hat. Realising my hat was, in fact, still on the coat stand in the office I smoothly turned it into a casual head scratch, as the dame turned around.
“Mr Able?” she asked. “Mr Charles Able?”
That caught me.
“Er, Chuck is fine,” I said. “The only person who calls me Charles is my Mother. And that’s only if she’s cross about something.”
The woman looked at the floor and smiled. As she did, I gave her the once over. Five two, maybe ninety pounds. Mousy brown hair, pale complexion, kinda nervous. As she looked back up at me I clocked her eyes.
Green. And worried.
“Please. Come in,” I said, unlocking the door and ushering her through. I cast an eye around the office - for the past two weeks the only people in here had been me and Ella, and the cat wasn’t noted for her housekeeping. Fortunately there didn’t appear to be anything either disgusting or incriminating lying about, so I pointed the woman to the chair in front of my desk as I took my coat off.
“Now. How can I help you, Miss…?”
“Newberry. Jenny Newberry. It’s Mrs actually, although Mr Newberry’s not around anymore.”
Her eyes darted to mine.
“He’s not dead or anything!” she blurted. ‘We’re divorced, but I’ve never got around to changing my name back. It would be Tremont. Jenny Tremont. Miss. If. You know, I’d…”
Her shoulders dropped and she slumped in the chair as I sat down.
“Sorry. I’m babbling, aren’t I?” she said, looking up at me. “Sorry, sorry.”
I smiled at her.
“Ok, I think we just reached the statute of limitations on apologies in this office.” I said. “So why don’t you tell me what brought you to my door? Wait. Where are my manners? Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee?”
“No. Thank you, but no.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, as I’d realised while I was asking the question that the only beverages in the office were Ella’s milk and my whisky. And neither of us were inclined to share.
She took a deep breath.
“It’s my brother, Stephen.” she said. “He’s missing.”
“Well you’ve come to the right place,” I said, pulling a legal pad from the drawer and a pen from one of those plastic desk organiser things. Nancy, another waitress from the Cup ‘O’ Joe had bought it for me, and while I didn’t particularly like it, I couldn’t deny it was useful, which is why it hadn’t met a strange and unfortunate accident, which is the fate of most gifts I receive that I don’t like, but haven’t got the heart to admit to the person who gave it to me.
“Let’s start at the beginning. Stephen’s full name?”
“Stephen John Tremont.”
“Apartment 15, 1266 Lawton Street, New York.”
As I was scribbling this down, Ella had woken up and, as seeing someone other than me was presumably a bit of a novelty, she jumped down off the couch and walked over to Jenny.
Without looking up, I made the introductions.
“Mrs Newberry, meet Lady Ella. Lady Ella, Mrs Newberry.”
The Newberry dame reached down to tickle Ella, who rolled over and lapped it up.
“Does she live here?” asked the hopefully very rich and generous Mrs Newberry.
“She does,” I said. “Belonged to a client. I kept taking her home, and she kept turning up here. Eventually the three of us decided she may as well stay.”
“But,” said my newest client, “is she alright just cooped up in an office? Doesn’t she want to go out at all?”
I pointed to a window.
“She can get out there, then it’s up the fire escape and on to a flat roof. I’ve taken her downstairs now and again, but as soon as she hits the ground, she’s back up here. I guess she suffers from whatever the opposite of vertigo is, because she likes heights and doesn’t do ground level.”
“Oh, I see.” She carried on tickling the cat, who carried on enjoying it.
I finished taking notes and looked up.
“So. Your brother, Mr Tremont. What makes you think he’s missing?”
“What makes me think…” She frowned, and wrinkled her forehead. “I don’t understand. He’s missing. Surely missing is... missing?”
“Well, sometimes people choose to go missing, sometimes they go missing by accident, and sometimes bad people make ‘em go missing. Question is, has your brother chosen to make himself scarce, or has he had some unwanted help.” I smiled my most trustworthy smile, designed to put my customers at ease and their wallets at open. “Give me a bit of background and let’s see where we get to.”
She sat back up, much to the cat’s disappointment, and gathered her thoughts.
“First, off,” she said “you may actually remember Stephen. We were at school together. At least, if you’re the Charles - sorry, Chuck - that I think you are. You and he graduated together, and I was in the same year as your brother George.”
“Well I do have a kid brother called George,” I said. “Lowell High School?”
“That’s the one.” she confirmed.
I cast my mind back two or three decades. They say school days are the best days of your life. Strange saying. You might as well slap a kid on the shoulder as they walk out of the school gates for the last time and say ‘Kid. It’s all downhill from now on.’ Mine had been average at best, and I’d had better times since. My mind wandered to one or two ladies in particular.
Definitely better times.
I struggled to remember the people from my classes. I wasn’t really the ‘keeping in touch, let’s have a reunion type’, so it was probably twenty years since I’d seen any of them. And I had a nagging feeling that the last one I had seen was only because I brought him in for scamming old ladies out of their savings with some miracle drug that turned out to be cod liver oil tablets.
But Stephen Tremont? I was drawing a blank.
“Yeah, I think I remember him.” I said brightly.
I do, on occasion, play fast and loose with the truth.
“Well we stay in touch,” said Jenny. “I suppose we speak about once a week, either on the phone, or we meet for a coffee. I phoned about ten days ago, but didn’t get an answer, so I guess I called back a couple more times over the next few days, but still got no answer. I wasn’t too worried. I assumed he was busy, or maybe out of town for a while. We’d agreed to go for a pizza last Friday night, so I thought I’d see him then.”
She paused for a moment.
“But he didn’t show. I waited and waited, then phoned. In the end I went to his apartment, but there was no answer. I phoned our Mother on Saturday - she’s in Kansas City - to see if she’d heard anything, or maybe seen him. I didn’t want to worry her - she’s in her eighties, and quite frail, but from our conversation, it was obvious that she hadn’t had any contact with him for more than three weeks.”
“Ok,” I said. “Any friends? Girlfriend? Boyfriend?” I don’t like to make too many assumptions, and Jenny blushed a little.
“Um, no, no girlfriend that I know of. He was seeing a girl, Angela, but they broke up a few months ago I think.”
“On good terms, or was it a messy breakup?” I asked. Dumped and vengeful is a bad combination. Unless you’re a Private Eye, in which case it can be a very good thing indeed.
“No, it was alright.” said Jenny. “Well, I think so. He seemed ok about it at the time.”
“Do you have...” I looked at my pad. “Angela’s details? Surname? Address?”
“Not on me,” she said. “I’ll have a look when I get home.
For about fifteen minutes we talked some more, and I built up a picture of the recently elusive Mr Tremont. He’d lived in the same apartment for about nine years and worked for NBC in a backroom, admin sort of role. Had a number of girlfriends over the years, none of them going anywhere serious. Seemed to live fairly modestly and there didn’t seem to be anything unusual to suggest problems. Then again, when people had skeletons, they tended to keep them in closets, rather than make them the focal point of their living room. I took some details from Jenny, and got the names and addresses of a few friends.
I stood up.
“First thing to say, Mrs Newberry,”
“Please. Call me Jenny.”
“Jenny. Well the first thing to say Jenny, is try not to worry. In my experience, most missing persons cases end well. You’d be surprised at the reasons people have for disappearing for a while, and plenty of them turn up safe and sound. A lot of them get off a flight from Las Vegas with a ring on their finger.”
Her eyes bulged.
“Somehow I don’t think that’s where Stephen’s been,” I said, “but let’s wait and see. Maybe you’ve gained a Sister-In-Law!”
She smiled a weak sort of smile that suggested she didn’t think I was very funny. Crazy dame - everybody knows I’m hilarious.
A few minutes later, I saw Mrs Newberry - sorry, Jenny - out of the door. A gentle ‘ping’ sounded from the computer on my desk and a small window opened up on the screen. I walked back behind my desk and looked at the monotor which showed me a camera feed of the outside of my office. I watched Jenny as she walked along the corridor and down the stairs.
It was all part of an unnecessarily complicated security system that had been installed by the most annoying man I knew. I hadn’t spoken to English for a month, which made it a good month in my book.
I closed the window down and looked at the cat. The cat looked at me.
“Well, Lady,” I said, cracking my knuckles.
“Looks like we’re back in business.”