Suffering is a fact of life; suffering is caused by attachment. –The First and Second Noble Truths of Buddhism
I felt the father’s eyes watching me as I read. He said his name was John O’Reilly.
It was hard to concentrate. Twenty minutes earlier I was staring at the hand-drawn lettering of my name, Thomas Haftmann, Private Investigator, across the plate glass of my office window and trying hard not to reach for the gun in my drawer. The man I hired to paint it was one of the Strip’s local characters. He always gave the impression of having a mild buzz on. We were sitting at the bar in Tico’s Place reminiscing about last year’s riot, the one when two motorcycle gangs had decided to fight for ownership of our crappy little resort town. Downing the last of however many boilermakers before I got there, he drew my name in handsome letters with a few lavish strokes across a bar napkin. I was so impressed I hired him on the spot. Now I wondered what happened to those impressive curlicues and bold dagger-like stems of letters in the smeared scrawl I was literally faced with every time I looked up from my desk. He had smudged the last two n’s of my surname so that it looked like a child’s attempt with a fat crayon.
I didn’t know what to make of the clipping Mr. O’Reilly handed me after introducing himself so I read it again. Below the photo of a dark-eyed, attractive girl I read this:
Cruel Court, you are the enemy of truth, justice, of innocent life. You are the enemy of God. Cruel Court, your morality is that of the abortion provider who rips and tears head and heart from the innocent to comfort the powerful and selfish. Cruel Court, for years you have inched us, child and father, toward the precipice as you worked to guarantee our slavery. Cruel Court, you have killed . . .
I could hear the rumbling of suppressed sobs in his throat, waiting for me to finish so that he could talk, but I kept my eyes fixed to the clipping.
. . . Annaliese, already, haven’t you? To protect your dishonestly contrived, official evidence from truth; to protect your paper excuse for your slaving operation.
I heard him blowing his nose loudly into a Kleenex. There was even more maudlin whining in bad prose after this, so I cut my eyes to the end to see if it was going to make any sense.
. . . the daughter who knew too much and was too honest and unselfish had to disappear, didn’t she? You sent Annaliese reeling toward the precipice. She fell over the edge, didn’t she? Or was she pushed? Her sad and lonely grave is another one of your client’s dark secrets, isn’t it? Annaliese—the infant with haunting eyes, knowing eyes; the child with quick hand and mind and kind and generous spirit; the young woman full of promise. The Human Sacrificeto Corruption. Loved, and at last, mourned by her father.
The paper had appended his name, John O’Reilly, in italic script at the bottom. Fuckola, I thought, just another kiddie hunt.
I looked across my desk and tried to appear sympathetic. His eyes, brown and moist with sorrow, looked into mine—at least, the only one that’s capable of reflecting much light to a damaged optic nerve in my left eye. He reminded me of a whippet I used to own. I scolded him once for wetting the couch and it took six months for me to get him to stop looking at me that way. The daughter’s eyes in the photo were standard newspaper eyes: flat and black. Micah, my ex-wife, had those eyes too. Haunting eyes, knowing eyes.
I asked questions about the newspaper item he had taken back from me and refolded carefully like a valuable medieval manuscript.
He spoke slowly, each word dropping like acid as I pried the facts loose from the scrambled text of his pain. What smoldered beneath the rant of a simple man’s appeal to an unjust earthly tribunal was simple, if not exactly eloquent. My cop years had taught me that real grief is always numbingly simple. In the pauses of his narrative, the skin around his moist eyes would tighten or he would suddenly turn his head to look out my window at the passersby and the cars trolling the Strip. I watched him blink away tears. When I was a boy, I had come upon a snake sunning itself along the roadway. It was irresistible. I had to touch its tail. It whipped off into the tall grass. For a long time my finger held the electricity where the reptile had been touched. O’Reilly was filling up my office with that kind of unease. But there was nothing to put my finger to—just a father lamenting grief for his missing child.
The next part was obvious, so I asked: “What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to find her and bring her home.”
“I have to ask this, you understand. What if she’s dead?”
“Then tell me where she’s buried so I can bring her home.”
I asked him several more questions about the Cruel Court’s “client”—his ex-wife, not surprisingly, and the “slaving operation,” simply his own poetic coinage for the judgment that went against him. He wasn’t the first man to come through my office door shaking his fist at the system. Being in Cleveland homicide for as many years as I’d been, I had acquired the cop’s distaste for the law’s minions very easily, especially trial lawyers. Either they’re too chickenshit to go after the bad guys for fear of damaging that all-important win record or they want to plea bargain it right out from under you. And always the incessant clamoring for more evidence, more witnesses, despite the fact that you’ve spent every moment of your fifteen-hour working day putting together a brilliant circumstantial case against a suspect. They’ll give you all the reasons in the world too, lawyers. Sometimes I wish I had gone to law school like my buddy Reggie, now the judge of the Western Court district. That way, life is simpler: everybody who walks through your door wants only one of two things: either that person wants you to help them keep their money or they want you to take it away from somebody else.
I said, “Let me explain my business to you, Mister O’Reilly.”
What followed was my tried and true pitch for services to be rendered and costs thereof. I had heard myself say the same thing to dozens of people over the years—bland and dry as rice cake—and I was never good enough a forecaster to tell whether this client would be better or worse for the answers I might find. He listened, nodding his head several times as I mentioned per diem costs, extra expenses the client must reimburse me for. I told him I expected a bonus if I found her.
He let that hang in the air and then we talked about him. He was self-employed, had a small furniture business in town, a small inheritance from an older brother. We agreed on a payment schedule; he signed, and left my office. The sob rose once again in his throat, and he couldn’t speak, but he nodded his head vigorously once as if I understood what he meant. Then he was gone, back into the daylight world of his own grief. I envied him. It takes a life worth living to feel that much pain. Even suicides have to muster some commitment. I read the news article on the disappearance of Annaliese O’Reilly one more time, but it told me nothing more.
I looked down at my notes and stared at the plain block letters of my handwriting; it looked eerily similar to the nondescript style across my window. One thing I did know: nothing told me why Annaliese O’Reilly had disappeared from her own life.
My cell phone trilled its familiar ring tones. Micah had chosen it for me. I forget what she said it was because it reminded me of a track on an old Black Sabbath album I found when we were dividing up our earthly goods after the split. The caller was Judge Reginald Stevens. He said his hit-and-run trial was going to last another day so he couldn’t meet me for drinks at Buster’s.
I checked the messages. Very promising. I knew I had no time to kill for this now, and I needed every client’s fee now that I was mired in—but I did it anyway. I went online and checked my usual website for cheating wives to confirm that my hook had been nibbled by a lurking fish. The particular fish in this case was Sandra. No last name because there never is.
I had been in several chats with another woman—this one a “Mary”—who was trying to embolden herself for the dive off the deep end. But Sandra seemed ready for the jump. She said she was late thirties, “voluptuous,” which could mean full-figured or obese, depending. I was sure in a couple days we’d be meeting in some no-tell motel along the Strip. Her husband, she added, “doesn’t know,” and wouldn’t “approve.” It sounded like swingers’ code from the last decade. My life didn’t bear much scrutiny. My phone service was on the verge of being shut off for failure to make payment and my cell phone was abuzz with the prospects of sordid rendezvous with various bored wives. Micah used to say I was “morally confused.” But it was straight-arrow Micah who had the messy affair that scuttled our marriage.
I went online to check an Ohio swingers’ website. I scrolled through the ads to an attractive, forties-something couple down in Warren, an hour’s ride south of my office. I sent a message asking for a safe motel meeting for a first-time, get-acquainted session, and if all seemed “compatible,” we could go from there.
Meeting at a motel is a pretty sure sign that we were ninety-percent there already. Her photos showed a woman with a sleek, tight body from tennis and aerobics. Hubby had a bit of a paunch. She was the more assertive of the two clearly, and proud of her sexuality. One photo faxed two days back showed her looking over her shoulder at the camera, one dark-tipped breast exposed. The crease of her firm buttocks led down to the unshaved cleft, and I found myself aroused looking at it. They say you shouldn’t write a letter in anger and something similar goes for online correspondence in a state of arousal. It affects diction and dick both. Maybe there’s an art to everything.
Some switch had already been flipped in my head, though, and I was going to begin the investigation for the missing Annaliese O’Reilly, whose birthday on December 22 coincided with the end of Sagittarius and the beginning of Capricorn. There was no other reason except that I was bored with my life and the only means of enlivening it had been to run up my tab at Tico’s Place across the street—or else put a Federal Special in the chamber for an interesting game of Russian roulette.
A major city’s worth of people disappears every day in this country. Go missing but don’t expect some tumult in the heavens to signify anything important happened. We’re just cosmic dust. I make most of my living catching runaways. All I had for Annaliese’s young life was that on a specific day in June three years ago she disappeared from the face of the earth. If she were still alive, a possibility not belied by the badly written declamation to the Cruel Court, she was an adult who, by all legal definitions, should be making her own way in the world somewhere. Even if I had never been a cop, or seen what people can do to one another even in this two-bit resort town, I still knew better than to believe that. My first rule is an obvious one: brainwork precedes footwork. Probate Court is six miles away in the city of Jefferson, right off the main drag. I found Common Pleas upstairs and then I found a deputy clerk. I had no case number for her, but she knew me and took a vicarious pleasure in helping me on my cases. In jest I had once given her a Junior P.I. badge I had picked up somewhere, and she thanked me with genuine pleasure.
Annaliese Marie O’Reilly, albeit seventeen years old and almost an adult, had been awarded to her mother Ingrid (the father told me that much) but I wanted to see what conditions applied to the divorce and whether Mr. O’Reilly’s overwrought keening in print had been stipulated in the Probate Court in Jefferson in traditional lawyer’s English.
It wasn’t. It took less than an hour to confirm that and the fact that it was a simple divorce. She got the house; he kept the business but had to make token payments of $350 per month until Annaliese turned 18, thereby reducing the payments to $300. I knew the judge vaguely, a tedious curmudgeon with mediocre credentials and intellect. I knew Annaliese’s mother’s lawyer, though, because he had represented me in my own divorce. Reggie Stevens, in the days before he was elected to the Western Circuit, was an occasional imbiber of spirits at Tico’s like me. We met the year Micah and I moved from Cleveland. Our marriage was already headed for collapse, even though I quit my job as a homicide detective and relocated to this godforsaken resort town in the foolish hope I could salvage it. Stupid me: you take your troubles with you. This place might be named for one of the few great presidents in that long history of mediocrity but it’s been a long time since Tommy Dorsey and his swing band were booked at the Majestic Lounge. Today it’s outlaw bikers, meth cooks, and runaways. I have a bird’s-eye view of the action on Little Minnesota, the intersection where teen whores ply their trade in high summer while their pimps and boyfriends lurk in the shadows.
Before he assumed the moniker of Judge, Reg liked to put on cowboy boots and hat and knock back his Bailey’s neat at a gin mill on cement blocks just off the Strip known in paint-flecked letters as Buster’s Tavern. We used to shoot pool and rub elbows with the same class of clients, the only difference being Reg no longer represents them; now he mostly puts them away. My slide from a cop to gumshoe was all but complete by then. Micah was lost to me. She was having an affair with another lawyer, a local sharpie with a Mercedes Benz and a taste for married women. He also handled her divorce. They were living in one of those suburban estates where your house is picked from a catalog in one of three styles. I last heard she was organizing a tennis club set. I drank hard for a long time, lost clients, friends, and everybody’s respect. At my lowest point, I put the barrel of a Charter Arms Bulldog to my head and dry-fired it. I got as far as composing a letter to Micah and putting in a cartridge and putting a little more pressure on the trigger each time until I knew I was a hair from oblivion. Call me old-fashioned. I find the idea of a suicide tweet offensive to my esthetic tastes. I set the gun down on the scarred coffee table and decided to become the sole existentialist private investigator in Northern Ohio. I vowed I would try to be a good one.
The judge who divorced the O’Reillys ruled in favor of Ingrid née Pokriefke in granting custody rights of the daughter Annaliese. It was clear that the judge was merely following Annaliese’s own preference “until she reaches majority.” What precipice had she been inched toward? It made no sense, but all cops know everyone lies, which cynical observation has not troubled me since I rode patrol as a rookie with an old veteran in Cleveland PD. Jack used to quote Latin poets, believe it or not. Homo homini lupus est was one of his favorite lines. He loved to spout the line as we rolled up on crime scenes. “Man is a wolf to man.”
So it was back to the office and time for more phone calls from the usual investigator’s directories. Then I was speeding through spring countryside shabby with daffodils poking their heads through lawns seared by the coldest winter I can recall in a life that had seen forty-four of them.
I reached Annaliese’s mother in Pittsburgh on the fourth attempt. She told me about Annaliese in five minutes and seemed disinclined to talk.
“She was eighteen. What was I supposed to do? Tie her up in the backyard like a dog?”
I asked her if I could visit her as I had other business in the area, a fat lie she dismissed with a snort of contempt down the wire. After some stalling, she agreed and gave me directions from the airport. I made an appointment for the day after tomorrow, and we agreed on a time.
I reached into my drawer for the letter from the Warren couple I met online two weeks ago. I tore it up and then I ripped the photo they had sent with it in quarters and tossed the scraps into the wastebasket next to my desk. An upturned fragment of the snapshot showed where I had bisected the wife across the torso; near it lay another piece of the photograph: she had her head buried in a man’s lap (his face was out of range of the camera) and there was a starburst of light from the camera’s flash in the mirror. She must have sensed her husband withdrawing from her to take the photo because she stopped what she was doing and opened her eyes and smiled. Brown eyes with tawny flecks like Micah’s.