The computer monitor bathed the room in a pale light. It was mid-morning, but the seasons had finally caught up with the rest of the country—the days were dark and gloomy. Six months back, a
The computer monitor bathed the room in a pale light. It was mid-morning, but the seasons had finally caught up with the rest of the country—the days were dark and gloomy. Six months back, a viral pandemic had swept the nation and the whole country went to hell because of it. With no end in sight, hardworking people had to choose: risk getting sick or going hungry.
And no one needed a private investigator.
Since no one was going anywhere, fewer items were misplaced, people were better kept track of, and even suspected cheating spouses—my normal bread and butter—were on the decline. Or more likely, easier to catch.
I sat and stared at the growing pile of bills. My last job, “The Great Toilet Paper Hunt” had been almost four months ago. At the time, I’d worried that taking the job would set a bad precedent, but in retrospect I should’ve taken more like it.
I considered going out for a drink to drown my sorrows until some femme fatale wandered in needing my assistance. That’s how it worked in the old detective movies. But Haskin’s Bar was closed and I couldn’t have afforded anything anyway. Besides, the detectives in those movies were always men.
Instead, I settled for an extra ration of coffee. Not that coffee was generally hard to come by; I just couldn’t afford it anymore. While it brewed, I busied myself by trying to straighten up the office. It was a tough job, nothing was out of place.
No better cure for a messy workspace than three months out of work.
The office phone startled me out of my tidying. I waited for the second ring before I answered. No need to seem too desperate.
“Angola LaGrange, private investigator.”
The voice that answered was male, with the dying traces of an Eastern European accent. “You are a woman.”
In a normal year, I would have hung up then and there but desperate times and all that. Instead, I crumpled a piece of paper in my left hand and tried to keep my voice even. “That a problem?”
“No, no problem. Just…unexpected. In the movies, you private-eyes are played by men like Bogart. Heh.” His voice trailed off.
“Look, unless there’s something I can help you with Mr….?”
“Malcovich, Gregori Malcovich. And I do need your help.”
Well, not an obviously fake name, that’s a good sign. “All right, Mr. Malcovich, let me explain how this works. First, I never accept new clients over the phone, too much risk of prank calls. Normally, at this point I would arrange to meet you in person, either at my office or somewhere else that is mutually acceptable.”
He started to object, but I cut him off.
“However, given the current…difficulties with face to face meetings, I am willing to conduct the meeting via video conference instead.”
“That would be preferable.”
“Of course.” Doesn’t want to meet in person. Not an immediate red flag in this climate, but definitely something to keep in mind. “Second, there is a consulting fee before I accept any new client. Again, this serves as an insurance against fake requests.”
“How soon can we arrange this meeting?”
Didn’t ask about consulting fee. I glanced over at my empty calendar. “I think I can squeeze you in early this afternoon. Is there an email I can use to set up your appointment?”
He gave me one. It was generic but could easily belong with the name Gregori Malcovich. Or any other name with the initials GM.
“Excellent, I’ll speak with you again at about 1:15 this afternoon.”
I hung up on him and checked the clock. I had about two hours to set the stage. He wanted Bogart, I could give him Bogart.
I pulled a sealed bag out of an otherwise empty drawer. Inside was an old ashtray that stank of cigarette smoke. I opened a window behind my desk and set the ashtray on the sill. I fished a battered pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of another drawer. The box had three left in it.
It’ll have to do.
I lit two and placed them in the ashtray. As the smell began to rise, I fired up my desk fan to blow the smoke out the window. I wanted the appearance of smoking; I didn’t need the real thing.
While the cigarettes burned low, I scattered my neatly arranged folders and papers. There wasn’t anything important among them, but the mess was more in keeping with the classic private-eye. The fan helped with that part too.
I pressed out one cigarette so that the butt stood up awkwardly, and let the other burn itself out.
Once I was comfortable with my backdrop, I ducked downstairs to my apartment and brought back a long coat and old-style fedora. I draped the coat over my chair, and set the hat down on the desk, where my webcam could see it.
I turned off the fan and checked the clock—just after one. Barely enough time to scarf down a sandwich. I hope he appreciates the work I put into this getup. I lit the last cigarette and set it in the ashtray so the smoke rose behind me.
I sent the video conference invitation to the email Gregori had given me at 1:16. He answered promptly.
The man on the screen was almost too stereotypically Eastern European. His dark hair was well groomed, right down to his overly bushy beard. His skin was rough and wrinkled around his eyes, but his suit—at least what I could see of it—was immaculate.
I studied his face for signs of deception, particularly details that seemed out of place—like if he was wearing a fake beard. If he was it was the best I’d ever seen. “So, Mr. Malcovich, why do you need to hire a private detective?”
“It’s my niece, Anya; she’s gone missing.”
“How old is she?” I grabbed a notepad and jotted down his answers.
“Nineteen. She was in this country for university.”
“When was the last you heard from her?”
“Four days ago.”
“Have you gone to the police?”
He shifted and his arms moved like he was gesturing, but his hands never entered the camera’s view. “I’m afraid my visa expired a few months ago, and I’m not certain about Anya’s. If I go to the police, I may be arrested before I can help my niece.”
“I see.” That could complicate things. “All right, tell me Anya’s full name, which university she was attending, and where you last saw her.”
“Anya Koslov, she was going to John Quincy Adams State University. That’s where I last saw her, but when I called the university, they told me she’s no longer living on campus.”
“And her parents?”
“My sister, her mother, is beside herself with worry. She barely rises from her bed. Her father abandoned them years ago. Last I heard, he was drinking his way through the back alleys of Belgrade.”
He took a moment to compose himself. “Please, you must help us.”
“Can you send me a recent picture of her?”
He did. I gave it a quick glance—nothing fancy but it was in focus and had a clear view of her face. She looked happy.
“All right, Mr. Malcovich, that just leaves the unfortunate matter of price.”
“Anything, please just find her.”
I shook my head. “That’s easy to say now, but I need you to agree to specific terms. For a case like this, the pay is one hundred an hour, and the consulting fee I mentioned on the phone is the first three hours in advance.”
“Of course, anything.”
I pulled up the appropriate form and sent it to him. “Sign this, and wire the first payment to the account listed. Once that clears, I’m on the job.”
He beamed through his thick beard. “Thank you; I’ll do this right away.”
With a nod I ended the call. Then I grabbed the phone and dialed my assistant. “Get dressed, Lucky. We’ve got a case.”
To Be Continued…
Don’t forget to brush up on Angola LaGrange’s last case, tracking down the serial killer known as the Brain Teaser, here.