Some things a private investigator learns the hard way: Never blow your retainer on a hot e-mail tip. Never forget your cell phone can be monitored or tracked. And never, ever take a case involving a dead writer.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against writers. They’re a little flighty sometimes, but otherwise okay. It’s when they start spouting off about universal truths or other similar crap that I tune them right out. Maybe Shakespeare or Hemingway found those rare combinations of words that struck a timeless chord; but when you got right down to it, they were just peddling their wares. And except for Salman Rushdie or Papa’s self-inflicted cranial pizza recipe, no one ever held a gun to their heads for what they wrote.
Just try explaining that to the grieving relatives. No matter how much you tell them otherwise, every single one is convinced there was a conspiracy over something their loved ones wrote. You end up wasting time reading all their boring stories, searching for hidden truths that got them in a jam—when all along the evidence points straight to a drunken argument or the fact that he’d been boning the neighbor’s wife, just like the cops had said.
So when Melissa LaVoie called my cell phone and asked me to take the case involving her dead brother, the famous local writer, I did what I always do: I jumped at the chance. After all, I’m only peddling my own wares.
But if I’d known I’d be sleeping with a gun for the rest of my life, I might have done otherwise.
The morning after she called, we met Melissa LaVoie inside the dusty oven her brother used to call home. It had been three weeks since Robert Caldwell’s murder in his single story, blue-gray-sided suburban ranch home, and with the AC off and the windows locked, the August heat and humidity had made the air inside stale and oppressive. My assistant, Juan “Heartbeat” Taborda, and I helped her open the windows to the early morning breeze, and the house seemed to exhale as if it had been holding its breath, waiting for our arrival.
Melissa finished her Diet Coke and perched her hip on the living room windowsill. She wore a pink, sleeveless blouse already damp with perspiration, cut-off jeans, and sneakers smeared with grass stains. At first glance I’d placed her age around fifty, but on closer examination, though her fingertips were chapped from biting her nails to the quick, her hands were smooth and I realized she was at least ten years younger. The dark circles under her pale blue eyes and the hard lines around mouth suggested she was more acquainted with setting her jaw in preparation for receiving bad news than with smiling, and it had aged her prematurely. She brushed a wisp of strawberry-blonde hair away from her face, lit a cigarette, and used the empty can as her ashtray. “Thanks for coming, Mr. Stearne.”
“Jason, please.” I glanced around the tiny house. “Is everything how …?”
“I haven’t touched anything since the night he died.”
Caldwell’s living area was converted into a giant office, L-shaping around the kitchen. Melissa had already told me that the cops had taken his computer, monitor, keyboard, DVD and Blue-ray players, printer, and everything else that was attached to the computer, along with a plastic disc holder of CD-ROMs and flash drives he kept on his desk. Dust-shaped outlines of all the confiscated items covered his huge desk and surrounding shelves in what had once been the home’s dining room, while software manuals, a massive collection of CDs, DVDs, and Blue-rays, and his stereo system filled shelves no bigger than shoulder-height in the living room. The only items higher were the thick window drapes, now open, and a framed, poster-sized rendition of the dust jacket to Caldwell’s famous novel And the Outermost Stars Flowed Somber.
I thought I knew all there was to know about our local celebrity. A private man whose first novel skyrocketed him to fame, who then disappeared off the radar screen for five years after Hollywood converted his masterpiece into one of the worst turkeys of all time, only to resurface as the headline in his obituary. So the wheelchair in the hallway came as a surprise.
“Car accident. It paralyzed Rob from the waist down. When the manufacturing firm where he worked as a software designer let him go because they didn’t have the facilities to accommodate him, Rob sued and won a settlement big enough to take care of him for the rest of his life.”