“You have a call from Fidelity Mutual,” my answering service said when I called for messages. Forty bucks a month and an actual human being answers the phone. Hey, you can’t beat that. Besides, people don’t like leaving messages on a machine, especially when they want to talk to a private investigator.
I grunted, and took down the number. Inside I was tap dancing. Fidelity was one of a dozen insurance firms I’d approached, looking for a little business. Sure, they had their own investigators, but sometimes a little gravy spilled out of the boat. If I waited in my office for business from beautiful blondes and men looking for a ‘black bird’ I’d starve to death, or have to work the midnight shift in a burger palace.
A few minutes later, I had an appointment with Mr. Winters at Fidelity that afternoon. I had time to change into a suit, shine my shoes, and pick up my briefcase. Those were all items I’d need to visit their office, but didn’t need anywhere else in the world. Well, I guess the suit would do for weddings, funerals or working as a waiter.
The Fidelity receptionist buzzed Mr. Winters. He took me to his office where we exchanged the usual pleasantries. No coffee offered, or requested. On his desk lay his file on me, and it held a solitary sheet of paper, the letter I’d written three months ago. When he asked for details of my experience, I passed him a copy of my resumé. When he asked for references, I passed him a copy of my references. He sat there looking at the paper, not at me, and I waited. He was a corporate fussbudget and paper impressed him more than people. Finally he cleared his throat, added the new paper to the file, and looked at me. I was in.
“Do you remember the Brooker case?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“It was about five years ago. Brooker was a high flier in the construction business, a local Donald Trump type, without the hair. He put up buildings, starting with the financing syndicate, and finishing with the ribbon cutting ceremony. Five years ago he ran into some trouble. Zoning problems, construction problems. One day he drove out to the beach, left his clothes and a note in the car and swam out to sea. Then his house of cards collapsed.”
I nodded intelligently. Mr. Winters would tell me what he wanted, when he wanted to.
“We had an insurance policy on Brooker for three million dollars,” Mr. Winters continued. “Since no body was recovered, we stalled payment. However, the wife and beneficiary is taking the issue to court.”
“Now you want me to find this Mr. Brooker.”
“Not exactly. We just need some proof that he’s still alive. Our full time investigator is working on something else so I thought I’d give you a chance. If this works out, there could be other opportunities.”
I nodded again. “Any suggestions where I should look for this proof?”
“As it happens, one of our guys, Jack Chalmers was down in Key West on vacation. He swears that he saw Mr. Brooker in one of the joints on Duval. Jack should know Brooker. He sold him the insurance.”
“And you need a second sighting, a picture, an address, something like that?”
“There any paper out on Brooker? Should I arrest him if I get close enough?”
“Oh, no,” Winters replied, as if surprised by the suggestion. “No charges were ever laid. You can’t put a dead man in jail. Just proof that he’s still alive is all we need.”
He gave me a copy of the Brooker file, wrote me a check for expenses, didn’t quibble about my hourly rate, and hustled me out of his office. I booked a flight down to Miami, and a car rental. I could have picked up a puddle jumper from Miami to Key West, and saved myself a four-hour drive, but I like US 1, and the seven-mile bridge. Besides, I’d need a car, even in Key West.
Having packed sunscreen, swimsuit, and a couple changes of underwear into a carry-on bag, I was ready. I flipped through the file, and stopped at a picture of Mr. and Mrs. Brooker. I recognized her. Billy-Dee Saunders had been her name back in high school. She hadn’t been a cheerleader or a home coming queen, but then I hadn’t been a star quarterback either. I’d been the pimple monster.
I always remembered how kindly she had turned me down when I asked her to the prom, explaining she wouldn’t be going. Her parents wouldn’t allow it. I went by myself, and she wasn’t there. I remembered a puppy love that had potential if her parents had been less controlling or I’d been less shy.
Instead I went off to serve my country and she became a nurse. When I came back, I bummed around, and she married Brooker. She was his second wife, twenty years younger, and inherited an instant family of three teenage children. Now that couldn’t have been easy.
Since I had a couple of hours before my flight, I looked up her address, and visited. It was an apartment on the edge of the wrong part of town, and she was home until 6:00. Then she had a twelve-hour shift in the hospital.
I arrived at just about the dinner hour. The three kids were helping in the food preparation, and it looked like an episode of ‘Party of Five’.
She didn’t remember me, or she didn’t recognize me. I wasn’t sure which. Perhaps I should have been glad of that. Perhaps there was salvation for all pimple monsters.
“What’s this about?” she asked, sitting in the parlor portion of the apartment. Her kids, his kids, were finishing cooking and setting the dishes with the noise and exuberance that they do everything at that age.
“I’m looking into your husband’s death for Fidelity Mutual,” I replied.
She sighed. “I guess I should have expected something like that. They’ve dragged their feet on the settlement for five years. Well you tell them, I’m not stopping. I need that money for these kids’ education right now, not in another five years.”
“I don’t tell anyone anything, except in a report,” I explained. “I just investigate. Was Mr. Brooker’s death unexpected?”
“In hindsight, I guess not,” she said. “Ben Brooker knew he was going under, and he couldn’t face people. I told him we could start over. After all he stood to lose everything too. But he couldn’t face the shame. He was a man who couldn’t deal with failure. I was too young then to realize what a flaw that was.”
“There have been reports that Mr. Brooker is still alive and has been spotted.”
“Sure. Show me some proof,” she said cynically.
“That’s what I’m going off to do,” I replied evenly.
“Well then, come back with something. Bring him back. Ben was a man who loved his children more than anything else. If he were alive anywhere in the world, he would have sent them something, even just a postcard. No, he’s dead. If you’re going to tell me he’s back from the grave, you better bring me something more than a blurry photograph.”
I didn’t stay any longer. I wasn’t invited to supper. As I drove to the airport, I thought that I still liked her. She’d grown into a woman worth knowing, a woman worth holding onto. I didn’t want to hurt her.
That evening in Key West, I booked into the same hotel as Jack Chalmers, and he met me in the lobby when I arrived. We moved to the bar, where I ordered nachos and a beer, and listened to Chalmers talk.
“I can’t believe it,” he began. “I can’t. I mean. It was like seeing a ghost, a man back from the grave. There I was, walking along Duval Street, coming from the Sunset Celebration, and thinking about having a beer at the Hog’s Breath, when I saw him. He was just sitting on a stool by the bar.”
“So you recognized him immediately?”
“Yes. Oh he’s older, less hair, and a bit more paunch, but I recognized him in an instant.”
“They say everyone has a doppelganger. A body double,” I said.
“Couldn’t be that. Ben Brooker had the most recognizable laugh in the world. In fact, it’s his laugh that made me look. When he laughed, it sounded like as if he was going to choke. People used to rib him about it. He sounded like a horse choking on a hairball. Maybe he’ll be back again tonight.”
I nodded and let Chalmers order another round and directed the conversation to other topics. Idly I asked him how he came to be down here, and he explained that a couple of executives had arranged a fishing trip, but one had dropped out at the last minute. He’d won the tickets in a draw at the office.
By the time I had packed things away in my room and made certain that my digital camera was ready as well as my film one, it was close to ten at night. I like digital, but I’m always worried that it won’t stand up in court. There’s simply too much they can do with the new technology.
I found a parking spot three streets away from Duval, and Chalmers and I wandered back to the center of life in Key West. Bars, restaurants, strip clubs, happy tourists and free bands in every third place.
“There,” Jack pointed at a figure, climbing the stairs toward the neon lights that promised scantily clad women who wound themselves around poles. The bouncer wasn’t going to let me in with my camera. I sent Jack in and stayed waiting outside.
Instead of just standing there, I jogged around the block. There had to be a back exit, one that led to an alley and then to the street just south of Duval. That’s where I waited. I had a hunch, and if my hunch was right, I’d be seeing that face walk right past me in the next ten minutes.
Sure enough, I saw him. I let him pass and stayed behind him. He slipped onto one of those scooters they rent all over the Key West, and sped away. My digital caught a picture of him from the back.
When I walked around to the front, I found Chalmers looking a bit out of sorts. I guess paying a ten-dollar cover for five minutes will do that to you. My picture didn’t cheer him up. It could have been anyone.
Chalmers had to go home, but I stayed on. I rented one of those scooters too, and cruised up and down the roads and streets of Key West throughout the next day. You wouldn’t think a man could hide in that small town, but he managed. That night I attended the Sunset Celebration, and checked the bars on Duval, without luck.
Winters called, unhappy with my lack of success. I listened, nodded and shrugged my shoulders. Fortunately Winters couldn’t see the last two over the phone.
That evening, as I watched the tour boats sailing out to watch the sunset from the water, I saw Brooker again, on the deck of one of the boats, only about twenty yards away. It was a piece of cake to get half a dozen shots. The boat sailed away and I couldn’t find its berth although I spent the next four hours searching. I wanted to meet this guy, maybe thump his nose for Billy-Dee. It was midnight before I gave up the hunt.
Winters was happy with the photos. He approved my expenses and cut me a check for my time on the spot. I took the money and shook his hand and smiled at him as he told me that we would have other opportunities to work together. I could understand why he was happy. Those photos were probably worth three million dollars to his firm. A nice bit of change.
The trouble was I couldn’t forget Billy-Dee. A mickey of scotch later, I still couldn’t forget her. Disgusted with myself, I went to bed.
The next afternoon, I turned up at her apartment. She let me in, no friendship on her face. I told her about Key West and she didn’t believe it. I showed her the prints and she got very silent.
“I loved him,” she said after a second. “I loved him, and I cared for him and I believed in him. When he died… When he went away, I held onto his kids. They were the only part of him I had left. They didn’t think of me as their mom, and I wasn’t back then. Instead, we became a mutual support group, and they helped me get through things just as much as I helped them. Now you come and bring this to me.”
“I wanted you to see the pictures before you saw them in court,” I said, lamely.
“Well, I guess you can tell Fidelity Mutual, that you’ve done your job,” she replied leadenly.
“They paid me off yesterday, I’m here for you. I expect that they won’t show these until the case gets to court. That way they can get a court order to rule in their favor and finish the case once and for all.”
“So,” I replied with a grim smile. “Go along with it. First sign this, hiring me to investigate rumors of your husband’s reappearance.”
“So that’s it, money.”
“Pay me a dollar. This gives me standing in court. You can call me as a witness.”
“What good does that do?”
“Wait and see.”
It took a couple of months to come to court, giving me time to tie up a few loose ends. In the mean time I chased skips, set up security cameras to keep an eye on the till in a couple of clothing stores, and subcontracted for agencies that didn’t have a man on the local scene. I kept body and soul together, barely.
Billy-Dee got herself a lawyer, a harried fellow that worked out of a storefront and was better at writing up wills and checking titles than handling insurance company high-priced help. I simply told him to put me on the witness list in case Fidelity Mutual didn’t.
The high-priced help opened. They recounted the missing body. Then they put Chalmers on the hot seat, and presented the pictures. Since Chalmers didn’t take the pictures, I was called. I explained how I took the pictures.
Billy-Dee’s lawyer stood up and asked the crucial question, as I had prompted. “So you never met the person in the picture then.”
“Not that night,” I replied.
“You did at another time?”
The high-priced lawyers objected and were overruled.
“Yes. I had snapped a picture of the same man the night before speeding away on a scooter. I could read the license number so I traced it back to the rental agent and obtained his driver’s license information, including his address.”
I paused for a second. “After I delivered the picture to Fidelity Mutual, I tracked the man down, and met with him. Mr. Haskins is an actor who had been hired to spend time in Key West for one week.”
After that, Mr. Haskins was subpoenaed and appeared the next day. He told his tale and demonstrated how he used makeup to enhance his resemblance to a photograph. No, he couldn’t supply the name of the client. Everything had been done through the mail, for cash.
Billy-Dee won. Her kids, for that’s who they are, are either in college or making plans, and I get invited to dinner at least once a week. Best payday I ever had.
Edward McDermott asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work