November 6, 2007

NaNoWriMo 2007, Day 6

Posted in Books, National Novel Writing Month, Writing at 6:58 pm by Calico Jack

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I got off of the elevator at the fourth floor and headed down the Davy’s gray-colored corridor to my office at the end of the hallway. I would have taken the stairs, but I didn’t want my client to see her potential future employee not using the elevator. Some people are insanely weird about trivial things like that. They view everything in terms of power, and my walking up the stairs could signify that I was a non-person, a grunt of no consequence who was fit only for carrying bags and parking cars. Like I said, it’s absolutely ridiculous, but I had learned my lesson over the past year or so. Those with the fame, power, or money to spare tend to view everything around them in terms of themselves. And if you’re not careful in presenting exactly the right kind of image, one false step could mean the end of your contract or even your career.

The woman standing in front of my doorway turned her head as I approached. I slowed my pace a half-step or so to give me a few extra seconds to analyze her-the more information you have when dealing with a potential client, the better you’ll be able to play to her strengths and weaknesses, such as using tonal adjustment to subtly alter your client’s emotions and get her to agree with you. Sometimes it means playing a foil to whatever kind of impressionistic persona they’re giving off, or even (depending on the circumstances) doing a ridiculously valiant attempt at sucking up. These are well-used forms of manipulation, and although I had a quiet distaste for underhanded persuasion, I wasn’t about to let my feelings get in the way of a good job.

It’s odd how much information you can gather just by viewing someone’s appearance. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but I was trained in the art (that sounds awfully pretentious, doesn’t it?) of collecting and analyzing personal details, and this woman was sending me quite a few. Not quite middle-aged, probably in her late-30s or so, with artfully dyed brunette hair piled up in a messy concoction and the kind of preternaturally smooth skin around her eyelines that suggested more than a few injections of Botox. Wealthy, then, although she made no effort to be flashy, with unassuming jeans and a lightweight viridian coat that was at most a year out of style. She had a wedding band on her finger, and an engagement ring with a diamond large enough to let me live quite comfortably for several months. Perhaps she married into money and never quite embraced it? A small designer purse was at her side, and her sunglasses were perched just above her forehead, even though there wasn’t a hint of sun outside. As I came closer she started rubbing her purse strap, most likely a nervous tic that had never been eliminated. Put all of that together, and I had a pretty good idea of what she was going to say.

I reached her and held out my hand, giving her a confident smile. “Hi, I’m Tyler McKinley. My apologies on your wait; shall we come inside?” One of the important things to avoid was any sort of excuse for waiting clients, even if they arrived twenty minutes before their appointment. Just apologize briefly and move on; if you need to do some fawning the time for that will come later.

She shook my hand, not timidly but not firmly either, and had to consciously force herself to meet my eyes. I slid my key card through the door lock (if I ever lose that I’m going to be in big trouble), and pushed open the heavy wooden door with my nameplate affixed to the front. Instead of the usual black letters on faux gold look that were ubiquitous in corporate America, I had spent a fair amount getting my name and title laser-etched into an acrylic block. It was quite impressive to look at, although most likely a bit too flashy for what I needed. Still, every time I opened the door and saw “Tyler McKinley, Private Investigator” I felt a little rush of pride.

She followed me inside and received her first look at my office: a mere two rooms (three if you include the half-bathroom). The one she entered was my main office, a relatively sparse room with a large glass desk facing away from the window. I usually tried to keep my desk clean and orderly, although I had lost that battle a long time ago and was now merely fighting a delaying action. I had several plush chairs for my clients to sit on to give them a sense of relaxation, and a five-door cabinet against the far wall. Most of my files are kept online, with data backups in several offsite locations, but for some reason clients expect private investigators to have a filing cabinet where they store all of their sensitive data. It’s another one of those quirks you have to deal with in this line of work. The back room wasn’t for clients to enter, and it was actually where I did most of my office work. There was a mini-fridge stocked with both soda and alcohol, and a microwave and Foreman grill where I could do a slapdash bit of cooking if I were staying late-o r early, depending on the assignment. I had a 42-inch plasma TV hanging from the wall opposite the fridge; it was a gift from a client after I found out which of his employees was embezzling over a hundred thousand dollars from the company. That job hadn’t been difficult; after eliminating most of the obvious suspects (including my client himself), all I was left with were a few employees who, with a little bit of skill and luck, could put themselves in a position to misappropriate funds. One person I tracked had recently gotten a new girlfriend; and as the old clichĂ© says, “Follow the money.” She wasn’t wealthy, but she was sporting a rather expensive purse and had just leased a BMW 3-series, neither of which she could afford on her own. Put that together with a few other odd things, and I had my suspect. Actually, my client could most likely have pieced all of that together on his own, but those with enough cash to burn to hire my services usually prefer to have someone else do their legwork. So I received my usual fee for the job, and the plasma arrived at my door a week later. I’m not complaining.

My new client only sat down in one of the chairs after I had done the same behind my desk. Like all potential clients, I never ask for their names over the phone when they are making appointments. It is more of a convenience to them than anyone else; if they decide not to use my services, there is no possibility that I could go to the press with a story like “Famous actor X seen talking with private investigator; what possible secrets could he be hiding?” Of course, what I don’t mention is that even with email and phone anonymizers, it wouldn’t be too time-consuming to find out who is really on the other end of the line. But I don’t get paid for that, and there is usually another client waiting to take the first one’s place, so I almost never bother to do any digging.

The woman took a deep breath and, pasting a not-very-convincing smile on her face, asked “Tyler McKinley-are you by any chanced related to President McKinley?”

With a surname like that, I’d had long practice at giving people an answer of just the right length. It was time for me to simulate cheeriness, and pretend that I had never been asked that particular question before. “As a matter of fact, I am-but not directly. My great-great grandfather married his sister and took her name. McKinley himself had two daughters, but they both died in early childhood.”

She smiled and nodded, but her attention clearly wasn’t on my oft-rehearsed explanation. So I decided to press the issue a little bit. “Is there something I may help you with, Ms…?”

Ms…? looked a bit startled, then regained her composure and faced me directly. “Jackson, sorry. Emma Jackson .”

“You don’t happen to be related to our third president, do you?” I suggested with a smile. She mutely shook her head no, and lapsed back into her pseudo-funk.

I’d learned not to be irritated by clients’ unwillingness to divulge whatever it was they were in my office for. Sometimes you just had to be patient and let them reveal slowly. Other times, however, you could sense that they were just waiting to explode all over you, leaving a sticky verbal mess. Emma Jackson was the latter. So I slightly leaned forward in my chair to give her a sense of intimacy, like she could feel comfortable telling me whatever it was that was troubling her, and quietly suggested, “Ma’am, I can’t start to help you until I know what your situation is.”

That obviously did the trick, as the words started torrenting from her as if she felt she would never again get the chance to recount her story. “I’ve been married for seven years, and I think my husband is cheating on me. He works for Health Net as a clinical accounts executive in Woodland Hills, and he’s normally traveling all over the country for his job. But the past several months he’s been gone on more trips than normal. He kept making excuses, saying that work was keeping him busy and he was being considered for a promotion. But something about it doesn’t feel right, and I want to know what is going on.”

Bingo. Now I had to figure out exactly what Emma Jackson knew or didn’t know about her husband’s possible infidelities. “Have you already talked to your husband about this?”

“No, I can’t afford to. If he’s cheating on me, then I need to be sure before I file for divorce. Our pre-nup has a clause in it that a false accusation of cheating forfeits the accusing party’s rights to our assets, and knowing Mark, that’s exactly what he’ll do to me.”

“Okay; next question. Have you ever suspected him of infidelity before? Or has he ever given you any reason to question?”

Emma shook her head resolutely. “No, this is the first time something like this has come up. He’s just acting so different than normal. He’s grouchy when he’s home, and he isn’t even being nice to Madison. That isn’t like him at all.”

“Madison’s your daughter, I take it?” Emma nodded. “How old is she?”

“She’s four.”

Too young to know what might be going on, thankfully. If Mark was cheating on his wife, at least his daughter would be spared some of the pain of knowing exactly what he was doing. Now came the tough question: “How’s your sex life? Is there anything different about that than normal?”

Emma glared at me as if she would refuse to respond, but I pressed forward. “I’m sorry, but this is an important question to ask. I need to be able to see as much of the big picture as I can in order to help you best figure out what’s going on. I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t essential, trust me.”

She hesitated, then nodded acquiescence. “If by normal you mean once or twice a month, then yes.” Emma paused, her eyes unfocusing slightly as she internally debated what to say next, then plunged ahead. “Look, Mr. McKinley, I didn’t exactly marry Mark because I was passionately in love with him. He had money and a certain amount of charm, and for a twenty-eight-year-old girl from Milwaukee, that was enough. He’s always been a good father to Madison-before the last several months, at least. And I have enough money to work at a job I really love without worrying about how much I’m making. It’s been a good arrangement so far, but if he’s cheating on me then I deserve every single penny I can get from him.” She had a certain calculating look in her eyes that belied the sorrowful expression on her face. She was good, this one. It had taken a while, but we’d finally narrowed down the reason for her discomfiture: not because of passionate love or even simple jealousy, but because she was hoping to strip her husband of his likely-considerable assets. And I was going to help her do it.

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