Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
So. You might as well hear the full catastrophe. As it turned out, Whiskey moved down the block from me as soon as she could afford it. A convenience, that’s the best way to describe our relationship. I just slid into it and so did she, one hot summer night when the goddamned tension in the office flooded the streets and lit the lamps. Brooklyn was pulsating. One thing led to another—you know how it is—skirts billowing, tits bouncing. Christ, she was right there for the plucking, so what do you expect? I found a corner in the park and we made our own explosion.
Afterward she wouldn’t look at me.
I offered to help her and the kid, maybe find them a larger apartment. She wouldn’t hear of it, kept shaking her head. Am I that much of a loser? I look in the mirror and wonder if there’s a mole, some other kind of malformation I’ve missed.
For months after our little encounter, I wished she’d just disappear. And now she has. It’s early days yet, but I have a bad feeling about Whiskey Parnell. She’s met a no-good scum, and he’s done her in.
Who knows if that fancy-looking piece with the red curls and a dick’s card will ever find her? But she’ll try, by God, she will. Got to earn her keep like the rest of us. I can see venom pouring from Liam’s eyes if she fails. Liam is nothing if not resolved.
Lorraine, who tapped into the lifeblood of Carroll Gardens, was almost sure to know the address of Whiskey Parnell’s apartment, so I decided to stop at Lucy’s, my cleaning service and detective agency on Henry Street, where I was hoping to find her.
When I opened the door, Minnie waved from the back desk, where she was munching on potato chips as she yapped on the phone. She’s Lucy’s office manager. Most days she wears one of two dresses. Today it was the orange print. Judging by the smile on her face and the thumbs-up she gave me, Minnie was schmoozing with a customer.
Lorraine popped her head out from behind a computer screen, probably deep into research. Better her than me. Last month, Trisha Liam hired us to investigate her husband’s sudden death two years ago, prompted by hearsay of hit man involvement. So far, nothing concrete, but the other day, Lorraine told me she’d dug up information on some seedy Brooklyn types surrounding Mitch Liam’s last cases.
She raked a hand through gray hair. “I’ve been trying to reach you all morning. Our new tenant is missing. I was hoping you’d help me find her.”
“Let me guess. Her name is Whiskey Parnell?”
While Lorraine closed her mouth, I gave her a brief rundown of my meeting with Trisha Liam and showed her the retainer. “So finding your tenant is business.”
“A neighbor rang our bell about nine. She said Maddie showed up on her stoop right before school saying she couldn’t find her mother.”
I must have given her a blank look because Lorraine explained the neighbor’s little girl and Maddie are best friends. They walk to school together; they’re in the same homeroom.
Lorraine pushed up her glasses. “Long story short, the neighbor said she’ll watch Maddie after school and bring her back to me about dinnertime. By then, maybe Whiskey will have shown up.”
From Lorraine’s lips to God’s ears.
“After the woman left, I told Robbie about it. Seems he’d missed the neighbor’s visit, even though he’d been sitting in the same room with us the whole time, engrossed in something on TV, probably the replay of a tennis match.”
I pictured Denny’s father sitting in his overstuffed chair, swiveling his head from side to side watching a yellow ball fly through the air.
“‘This is what comes from having a tenant with a name like Whiskey.’ That was his take on it. Robbie never wanted me to rent the upstairs apartment. And of course he didn’t lift a finger to help, even though when it comes down to it, he’s crazy about Maddie.”
Why was I not surprised? Before he retired, Robert McDuffy rose to sergeant or lieutenant or something big in his precinct. I’m sure he was a great policeman and provider, but in retirement he seemed like a doormat.
“What exactly did the neighbor say about the girl?”
“When Maddie appeared on her doorstep, her hair was uncombed. She hadn’t had a bath, her outfit was unmatched, and she was looking for her mom. She said when she woke up, her mom wasn’t in the apartment. There was no note, no nothing.”
“Horrible! You mean the girl stayed the whole night in the apartment all by herself?”
Lorraine shrugged. “Well, we don’t know, do we? Whiskey must have left after Maddie was asleep. Maybe she realized in the middle of the night, she’d run out of bread and went to the store and had an accident.”
“Where is Maddie now?”
Lorraine looked at her watch. “In school.” She placed a hand over her heart while she told me the rest of the story—how she’d gotten the key to Whiskey Parnell’s apartment and together she and the neighbor entered. “But I didn’t need the key, did I—the door was ajar, a child’s doll wedged between it and the jamb.”
Smart kid. Despite my working veneer, my eyes started to water, so I blinked hard, waiting for Lorraine to finish.
“‘Whiskey?’ I called out. The silence was eerie. I don’t mind telling you a shiver went up and down my spine. No movement behind the door. No sign that anyone was there. I waited as long as I could, but my heart was pounding. This was our first experience with a tenant. As I say, Robbie didn’t want to rent out the fourth floor, but he doesn’t do any of the cleaning, now, does he? It’s getting to be too much for me, what with working for you and all. He won’t hire cleaners.” She swung a glance at Minnie. “No offense. It wouldn’t be so bad if he’d help with the housework, but that’s not Robbie.”
I tried hard to imagine Robert in an apron, holding a duster.
“Says I’m the best cleaner he’s ever met, and if we let strangers into the house, that’s when the thieving begins.”
My turn to look at Minnie, who was creasing her bag of potato chips. Saving the dregs for lunch, I reckoned.
Lorraine rolled on. “The apartment was neat and clean, not a dish in the sink. Well, neat except for the bedroom, but you’d expect that, wouldn’t you?”
My turn to shrug.
“Quite frankly I was afraid to look too hard. I don’t like to barge into other people’s homes, but I did notice both beds were unmade.”
“It’s a one-bedroom, and it looks like Maddie sleeps on a cot in a corner of her mother’s room.”
I looked out the window, distracted by blaring horns. The usual Brooklyn struggle for parking—an altercation was becoming heated across the street. As I watched, I considered Lorraine’s theory. It sounded plausible. After the girl was asleep, Whiskey discovered there was no food for breakfast, went to the store, and on the way had an accident. But wouldn’t the hospital notify next of kin? My mind segued to the county morgue. I pictured Whiskey’s body gray and stiff lying on a slab, her eyes sightless, her face fixed in a grimace.
Lorraine went on. “Well, after a few minutes, we knew Whiskey wasn’t there, so on the off chance she wouldn’t return until tomorrow, the neighbor packed some clothes for Maddie and we left. Maybe it was wrong, but we decided to wait until this evening before reporting Whiskey’s absence. You never know, maybe something happened to her, like I say, maybe she had an accident and it’s taking the hospital a while to find out where she lives.”
Minnie chimed in. “Besides, you know what they say about a person not being missing until twenty-four hours has elapsed.”
A popular misconception. At the moment I did nothing to dispel it. Lorraine shot me a knowing look. I shook my head. The thought of Jane Templeton and her merry band of CSU techs traipsing through the McDuffys’ four-flat made my heart race.
I returned to Lorraine’s hopefulness. “Like you say, she might be in some hospital. Maybe she was hit over the head and has a temporary case of amnesia—who knows?”
Lorraine pushed up her glasses. “She wouldn’t just leave. She hasn’t been my tenant all that long, but I know people. I’m going to call the hospitals in the area, all of them in South Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, ask them if anyone matching her description was admitted last night or early this morning. Don’t worry, I know how to handle them without giving names.”
As if I’d ever worry about Denny’s mom wheedling information. “Great idea.” I sent her my picture of Whiskey Parnell.
Lorraine’s glasses were beginning to steam. “Whiskey has a responsible job. She’s a responsible mother, and she dotes on her girl. She’s all right, I know she is.” She gazed at a photo of my mom and gran I’d hung on the wall. “Maddie is such a beautiful child. That’s why I’ve hesitated calling the police because they’ll call Family Services and that child—”
“Not necessarily. Whiskey has a brother.” I told her I’d left a message for him. “Grab your coat. We’ve got work to do.”
Before we climbed into my Beretta, I texted Cookie and asked her to meet us in front of Lorraine’s house.
Cookie’s my best friend. We’ve known each other since forever. She’s a whiz with words, got degrees from Columbia and gives lectures. But whatever she’s doing, she drops it when I need her, and her surveillance skills shine.
If you’re not familiar with the neighborhood, let me introduce you to Carroll Gardens, where the McDuffys live. It’s a beauty of a place. Starting to fill up with yuppies now, but when I was growing up, Carroll Gardens was the beating heart of South Brooklyn, the home of “can I aks yah somethin” and “fuggedaboudit.” The natives wear their baseball caps backwards. They started it. Their grandfathers fought in World War II or the Korean War and came back and worked on the waterfront or got a job in one of the grocery stores or funeral parlors and never left the neighborhood. What am I saying, their great-grandchildren haven’t lifted one toe out of the area. But there are great stores and restaurants in Carroll Gardens, lots of churches, and a pride that outsiders mistake for attitude. Ride with us to where I hope we’ll find Whiskey, or at least the start of her trail. I’m taking Lorraine’s lead. It’s her world.
It took us a while to drive—traffic on Court Street was its usual snarl—and while we were stopped behind a bus, I asked Lorraine how she’d found Whiskey.
Coughing through the fumes, she explained a friend of a friend wondered if she had space to rent, saying a single mom and her daughter were desperate for digs. Lorraine, who’d had it with cleaning a whole four-flat by herself for forty-eight years, jumped at the chance.
“I don’t mind saying I was skeptical at first. Whiskey Parnell was polished and energetic and all, but she struck me as a woman with her own agenda even though she had great references from her last landlady.”
“Her last apartment?”
She nodded. “In Cobble Hill. Of course, I had to buck Robbie’s objections. He told me to give up my job and go back to waiting on him dawn to dusk, saving the fourth floor just in case Denny wanted to …”
She stopped talking. Lorraine had gotten herself stuck, and judging by the creep of red up her neck, she realized it. “Oh, I didn’t mean …”
“Skip it. I know Robert’s deal.” I patted her hand.
“As I say, he was against renting out, but I’ve learned to get around him—live free or die—so I invited Whiskey to tea. It was Maddie who charmed me. And she’s wrapped Robbie around her little finger. You’ll see when you meet her.”
“But about Whiskey, you didn’t like her at first?”
She didn’t answer the question.
We pulled into a space that opened up in front of the McDuffys’ as if by magic. That’s Lorraine for you, there’s an aura of good karma about her. As I paralleled, I told her the gods seemed to open the way for her.
She shook her head. “Not really, I just say the Irish Hail Mary. It works every time.”
I wasn’t about to ask.
Getting back to her reluctance to warm toward Whiskey, I had it all figured. Lorraine comes from an era where women were ever-ready bunnies who poured themselves into a few acceptable molds, and it took Lorraine a while to shed her preconceptions. But eventually she did. So I asked why she didn’t like Whiskey.
“I didn’t mean I didn’t like her, not at all. In fact, I warmed to her right away.”
“Then what made you hold back?”
She thought for a while. “Whiskey is a lovely woman, responsible, a great mom. She lives for her daughter. You should see the two of them together. They’re inseparable on the weekends. That’s why I can’t figure out why she’d leave her daughter alone like this. You’ll see when you meet her.”
I hoped I would—meet Whiskey, that is. I was beginning to get a feel for the office manager’s fate, and the feeling wasn’t good. But that’s me, convinced there’s a black cloud around every corner.
I locked the car. “So what did you mean about her own agenda?”
“She seemed, I don’t know, a little too sure of herself.”
“She had an edge?”
“Whatever that means. She knew where she was headed, and it was up. She wouldn’t be with us all that long. I think that’s what I meant.”
Cookie was waiting for us in front of the stoop, and while Lorraine drew out a massive set of keys, I filled Cookie in on the disappearance of Whiskey Parnell.
After we climbed the steps to the stoop, I saw a shiny new bell beside a worn one, which had a Robert McDuffy label written in boring, classical script. It made no mention of Lorraine.
“You clean this whole place by yourself?” Cookie asked, looking up.
Lorraine unlocked the building’s door. “Used to, before we rented out the top floor.”
Robert was behind the front drapes, I could tell by the twitch of the fabric, but he didn’t show his face.
As we climbed to the top floor, I kept myself busy handing out latex gloves and squeezing my fingers into a pair. I checked around for dirt and found none, and believe me, cleaning is how I’ve made a living for lots of years, so I know how to spot a clean house. I couldn’t see a crumb, not a mote of dust anywhere. A housekeeper like Lorraine? If she’d hire cleaners, she’d clean before they came.
Cookie and I were out of breath. Not Lorraine. We crowded the small landing in front of Whiskey’s apartment, waiting for her to turn the key.