Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
“Have you seen the two of them together before?”
Rhoda did a double take and leaned toward me. “Lots of times. When he comes around, she gets him outa here as fast as she can. She goes all white and rushes him out of the place.”
I asked her why they let him in.
That stopped her for a while, and I could tell she was punting, rubbing her brow and flouncing her hair. She must be the doorkeeper. “Well, you can’t screen everyone, now, can you? Besides, that’s not my problem. I mean, Liam’s the one who’s supposed to tell me who shouldn’t be let in. But to answer your question, he kind of sneaks in, you know, rides in on the coattails, so to speak. We get messengers, lots of them, and he sneaks in while I’m busy signing for letters and such.
“But getting back to me and Whiskey. Isn’t that who you asked me about? You’re trying to see if I’m a suspect, aren’t you? They always do that in the movies. Well, okay.”
Rhoda cracked her gum and was a tad reflective before continuing. “You can sense it when a boss likes you and when she doesn’t, can’t you? And make no mistake, the partners strut like roosters with golden cocks, but Liam’s the one who runs this place.
“When I first came, there were certain things I needed to learn, like how to walk and how to dress and talk. Liam sent me to elocution school—that’s when the office was in Manhattan. Liam had this friend, Mortie, he came from someplace in Brooklyn. Gave us a demo once of how he talked before he learned how to speak. Anyways, he had to work on our vowel sounds and the ends of words. Don’t drop them off, he’d say. And, pronounce the last r. I’m still bad at that. Got to move my lips. Too hard. Years, he said, before it would come natural. He said it took him thirty years. Liam had a standard, you see. We all know it when we hire on.”
Rhoda droned on. I didn’t see how I’d get anywhere with this woman.
“Anyways, when she first got here, I took Whiskey to Mortie’s. We’d go together, me for maintenance but she had to stay later and learn the ropes, you know how it is. I sort of got to know her then.”
Finally the receptionist was getting around to Whiskey.
“Do you have any idea why she hasn’t showed up for work?”
The receptionist licked her lips. Her eyes looked blank. She hesitated and slowly shook her head.
“Besides Mortie’s, did you ever spend time with her, like, at lunch maybe or after work?”
She shook her head. “This is a law office, not a social club, and like I say, I keep myself to my own self.”
Rhoda was close to being useless, I decided.
She examined her nails. “But I don’t know why she hasn’t showed this week. Not like her.”
I watched her as she straightened her keyboard and began tapping it while staring into the screen. Video haven.
“Was she friendly with anyone else in the office?” I waited while she demurred. “Did she have any other friends meet her here, other than the brewery?”
The receptionist stopped midway through a shrug.
“There was one other guy used to call on her, but that was a while ago. He used to come by often, but he hasn’t been around, not since we moved to Brooklyn.”
“Do you remember his name or what he looked like?”
“Like someone who’d just swallowed a dream and was walking in it.” She beamed. “Sure of himself. Mr. Gorgeous. I coulda gone for him, but he was a short-termer.”
“Tall? Short? Did he have a name?”
This time she shrugged a big one, sticking her wad of green gum between her front teeth and grinning. She was Brooklyn’s version of a gypsy lady, I tell you. But I waited. “Well?”
“Not short, not tall.”
“Good-looking?” I asked.
“Definitely. Well, sort of.” Her eyes grew wistful. “He kinda liked me, I could tell. Had one wet curl kept falling in the middle of his forehead.”
“What was his name?”
“Hair was what color?”
“Dark. Cute, but between you and me, he looked like trouble. He smelled like an old rag been used to swipe up the wax off a car or something. Wore white shirts with spots all over them.”
“What kind of spots? Grease? Food?”
“And when was the last time you saw him?”
“Like I say, it was a while ago. Not like the brewery. Whenever he comes around, Whiskey gets all flustered and takes him into the visitors’ parlor. She doesn’t come out for a while, and when she comes back in, her face is all red.
“Have you ever talked to her about her friends?”
The receptionist shook her head and got a little huffy. She half-stood, like she was through with me. “Like I said, we’re not friends. We don’t talk, you know what I mean, like, confide.” That last word was a big one for Rhoda and she stretched it out good. She leaned toward me when she said it, drawing out the syllables and lingering on the D, her face close to mine, spearmint gum almost masking this afternoon’s garlic sandwich.
The rest of the staff were even less helpful. Figures, they were newcomers, according to Rhoda. Just out of high school. Trisha Liam confessed she paid just over minimum wage. They admired Whiskey, they all said that and hoped she’d turn up soon, but they weren’t close. They expressed concern, at least wrinkled their brows. Or was it me projecting my own fear onto them? Because by this time I’d lost all hope that Whiskey would show up. Three of them told me they went out together once a week after work, lift a glass of wine or two, find a restaurant and over dinner “shoot the shit,” as one guy put it. One time they asked Whiskey to come along, “but she has a kid.” She was tied down and in a sense their boss. They told me she kind of ran the office and gave them their performance reviews. On this they agreed: they considered her their boss and told me she’d never not show up. “Her take-home is humungous; I saw her paycheck once.” That was a remark I wasn’t going to share with Trisha Liam.
One woman remembered seeing Arthur across the street once just staring at the front door shortly after they’d moved from Wall Street. She kept her eye on him, saw him during her break. He’d stuck around for a morning, she said, but when she went out for lunch, he was gone. “Gave me the creeps, I tell you. I think Whiskey’s been trying to lose him for a long time.”
But I had to ask Rhoda one more thing and returned to the front of the office in time to catch her about to leave with a tall, muscular-looking guy. Not as young as Rhoda—already he had a paunch and a large mole on the left side of his face. Must have been her Huey.
“Hey, Red Curls, what’s doin’?” he asked after Rhoda introduced me to him and I flashed him my ID.
We shook hands and I said a few words about looking for Whiskey and, at Rhoda’s suggestion, escorted them both across the hall to the clients’ reception area.
“This won’t take long.”
“Better not or we’ll miss the show—right, Huey?” Rhoda said.
“What show?” Huey asked and she elbowed him.
After we were seated, I began. “I hear you know Arthur.”
Huey did this thing with his mouth like he’d just sucked a lemon. He squirmed on the seat. “You might say so, but you’d be wrong. I don’t know him, not really. He’s a drinker. Has that smell about him, hard to describe, like old rags, but not from around here, from a different neighborhood. Hey, wait, that’s right, I remember seeing him in the Coney Island area, remember, Rhoda?”
She cracked her gum.
“At first I thought we could do business together, you know, he could recommend me, I could recommend him, that kind of thing.”
When I didn’t say anything, he stopped talking and canted his head back and forth. Finally he gave me a grin with a couple of missing teeth.
“I told you not to smile with your mouth open, Huey, not until you get your new bridge. People might get the wrong idea.”
“Not this angel, would you, Red Curls? You’re from around here, aren’t you? I can tell.”
Thanks a lot.
“Like I was saying, I got the lowdown pretty quick on that guy. Had him over to my place, showed him the truck, shredders, but I could tell he was a drinker and I steer clear from guys like that. Don’t get me wrong, he knows a lot of people.”
“What kind of people?”
That stopped him and Huey looked into a distant corner, almost like he was thinking. He flicked his eyes to the right and darted them back to Rhoda while I waited, beginning to wonder about him.
Rhoda pursed her lips. “He’s a little slow sometimes. Let’s hear it, Huey. I told you not to get involved with him.”
Huey’s face reddened and beads of sweat formed on his forehead. “Like in the bars around here and stuff. He’s fun in a bar situation, but I’m just getting started in my business, I don’t have a lot of time.”
“I told you, Huey, not to mess around with guys like him.”
“But I like to schmooze with the guys after a hard day, can’t hurt.”
He stopped talking and I asked him how he knew Arthur wasn’t from around here.
“Like I say, I can tell by the smell a person gives off. See, we all have distinctive smells. Not from around here—Brighton Beach, Coney Island, the fringe, sort of.”
“Huey ought to know, he’s from Brighton Beach, aren’t you, Huey?”
Huey looked uncomfortable. “Long time ago.”
“What’s wrong with being from Brighton Beach? Anyways, Huey’s in waste management. Tell her about it, Huey.”
He shrugged and I asked him to tell me more about Arthur.
“Not much to say. People in Cody’s know him and that’s how I do.”
I let the remark pass. Huey was all over the place with how he ‘knew’ Arthur.
“Lately he’s been buying beers for the regulars, and I guess that’s me.” Huey stole a glance at Rhoda and clammed up. When I didn’t say anything for a while, he continued. “Wanted me to get involved in something to do with paint and selling it wholesale.”
“You didn’t tell me that,” Rhoda said, squeezing his thigh.
There’s a set of pincers on that broad.
Huey shook his head. “Nothing you need to be concerned with, doll. I told him no. Flat out no. Just getting started with my business and I want to keep it legit. I bought a truck and shredders with my own money, rent a garage in Dumbo.” He turned to Rhoda. “Me? Get involved with that guy? You got to be kidding, doll. Got to get me more customers.” He turned to me. “You know anyone who needs waste management? I pick up for free, do a mean shred.”
“I’d need a referral,” I said.
Rhoda looked at me like she was ready to attack.
“Do you have names and phone numbers of two or three customers who’d be willing to vouch for your services?” I asked.
He swiped a look at Rhoda before thrusting out his chin at me. “That’s confidential information.” He crossed his arms, and when he did, I saw a small tattoo on one of his wrists, almost like a red and yellow butterfly, but not quite.
He saw me staring at it, so he flexed his muscles. Huey narrowed his eyes. “What’s up with you?”
“Nice tattoo,” I said. “Where’d you get it?”
“None of your business.”
“Huey was in the army, weren’t you, Huey?” Rhoda said, her mouth busy with gum.
“Long time ago.”
The moment passed. But I wondered how he expected to grow his business if he wouldn’t give me customer recommendations. I felt like asking him. Instead, I shook my head, telling him I was sorry, but without references, I couldn’t recommend his company. I noticed a look of venom on Rhoda’s face. I gave him my card and asked him for his. Reluctantly he gave it to me.
* * *
By the time I’d finished with Rhoda and Huey, it was hugging the cocktail hour and no one was making a move to leave. Overworked, underpaid, I figured. I had a sinking feeling I was getting nowhere, but I plunged on, meeting a few others in the office who only had nice things to say about Whiskey but little information. They weren’t a chummy office, I decided. So I peeked in to ask Trisha Liam where I could find her Trueblood partner.
She did this thing with her eyes. They slid to the right and up, almost into a half a roll.
“I’d better go with you. He can be tricky.” Once again she led the way, this time up three flights on the circular stairs to the top floor, opened a door to an office with a dizzying view of the water and the lights of Manhattan complete with the lady holding the torch. The sun was doing its late fall burning across his mahogany desk as she introduced me to a lanky man in a pinstripe suit, Finn Trueblood. Born to intimidate a jury, I’d say.
Trisha Liam did the talking. She told him why I was there.
He shrugged and invited us to sit. “Isn’t this a waste of time? So she didn’t show up for one day, so I’d say Whiskey’s playing hooky.” His eyes moved up and down my frame, his look designed to frighten me, no doubt.
“We’ve been through this,” Trisha Liam said. “Whiskey wouldn’t no-show. Not like her. There’s something wrong.”
He waved away her objections and squinted purple eyes at me while he slicked back his thinning black hair. “You might be a crack investigator, able to distill what I’m about to tell you into information you can use, but I doubt it. I have little contact with Whiskey Parnell. I want little contact with her. I’m self-sufficient and I don’t know where the hell she is, nor do I care. Not only that, but somebody’s got to earn money around here. Our upkeep is staggering. We’ve spent close to a million moving from Wall Street to Brooklyn Heights and renovating this dump, and I’ve got a case to prepare that has a good chance of paying the bill and our keep for the next ten years. So the sooner you finish with me, the better.”
“Shut up, Finn, and let the woman ask her questions.”
I gave him my battery, asked for his impression of Whiskey, when had he last seen her, what kind of work did she do for him, his opinion of her, where he was last night, you know the drill. He answered me with grunts, monosyllables, or simple sentences. He last saw her late Friday afternoon when she took a letter. He’s self-sufficient, he told me, except when it came to doing the drone stuff.
“Whiskey’s a crack at dictation and takes a letter and types it, traffics it around the office, then files it. Not a big deal. Can be replaced like that”—he snapped bony fingers in the air. Looking at Trisha Liam, he continued. “And if you’re so worried about losing one small cog in the wheel, I suggest you replace her and be done with it.”