A ‘Sam Spade’ PI helps a client discover why he lost his best friend…or why writers need boundaries
I finish counting the paper clips for the third time and stare at the lettering on my glass door.
The letters are cracking. More expense.
Then a shadow pauses outside. A big man. I slide the paper clips into the drawer and grab a file folder.
He stands in the doorway for a second, scoping me out, my faded green file cabinet, gnarly captain’s chairs, industrial-gray desk. Then he nods to himself¾I’m what he’s looking for. His gray hair sweeps back and over the worn collar of his plaid flannel shirt¾probably poor enough to barely afford me.
“Have a seat,” I say. “Get you some coffee?”
Oh man, I got a real talker here. I’m gonna have to play dentist and yank every word outta this guy.
He folds into a chair and studies me like I was a car he was deciding to buy. I go, “Mike Slade,” and offer my hand. He doesn’t squeeze hard but I could have been grabbing a steel post. He has probably been a carpenter or a mechanic all his life.
“Mike Slade,” he repeats, then grins wryly. “Are you a genre fiction junkie? PI murder mysteries?”
I give him a ‘count one-two’ stare, flat affect. “No. I’m more into Regency novels. Georgette Heyer. Like that.” He holds back a grin. Me too. Then we both start laughing.
“Jim Mercer,” he says, half rising from the chair to fist bump.
So, he’s a lumberjack who reads. “What brings you here?” I ask.
“All right, this is kind of strange, not a typical request.”
I raise an eyebrow¾yes, go on.
“I need you to investigate why an old buddy of mine murdered our friendship.”
I drum a pencil on the desk, read the bright green imprint, Ticonderoga No. 2. “Look, I never like to turn a client away.”
The guy scans my office. “I can see why.”
Blank stare from me.
“No offense,” he says.
“None taken. But shouldn’t you be looking for a counselor or a psychiatrist or even a god-blessed life-coach or something?”
Hard, ice-blue, eye contact. “I’m here.”
“Okay. My rates are $800 a day. $100 an hour.” The guy nods. I grab a legal pad. “What’s your buddy’s¾or rather¾ex-buddy’s name?”
“Ray. Raymond Lazzeri. Lives in Chicago.” He hands me a folded piece of paper. “Contact information.”
I lean forward, assume my PI game-face. “How long have you known Raymond?”
“Since grade school. Second grade. He lived down the block. We shot marbles till we wore holes in our thumbnails. Rode bikes to the river to fish. Wore the covers off baseballs hitting grounders on the school playground.”
“Got it,” I mumble. Don’t need a trip down nostalgia lane with this guy.
“We went different ways. Lost track of each other till sophomore year, college. Over Christmas we decided to do Europe on $5.00 a day, back when you could still do that. It was great¾Eurail pass, Switzerland, Germany, Italy.”
The guy gets this smarmy grin going. “And then?” I ask, very back-to-business like.
“Then he got married. Then I did too, a few years later. He came to our wedding. Later we took our kids to Chicago, stayed with him and Karen. Our girls loved the big city. Both of them live there now. I’d call him every now and then. He seemed glad to hear from me. But then, it slowly dawned on me¾I’m always the one calling him. As though I’m some little kid starved for attention.”
I drop my chin¾so?
“I mean, why always me? He should reach out too.”
What am I, a marriage counselor, here?
“Look,” he goes on, “I don’t need him to connect with me. It’s just that I’ll be doing something fun, like sail boarding, fly fishing, watching a ball game and I’ll think, Ray would enjoy this too. And I want to invite him, include him. Like when we were kids.”
“So, you want me to contact him and ask him to call you?” The guy sits back and gives me a look that says maybe he hired the wrong person for his ‘whodunit.’ I’m scrambling fast for anything to keep this meter running. “Not everybody likes to keep in touch by phone, or twitter or whatever. Maybe it’s not their thing. Like I never remember birthdays…my wife’s, my kid’s. My wife has a rolodex in her brain. I should buy stock in Hallmark…all the cards she sends. Doesn’t mean I don’t like those folks. It’s just not on my radar.”
The guy looks at his hands, his voice is low. “He didn’t call me when his mother died. I loved that lady. She loved me. Not a word from him.”
“You know, Jim, sometimes people just outgrow each other. Friendships die of natural causes.”
“Hey, if I wanted Chicken Soup for the Soul I’d have gone to a priest or a shrink.”
Now I’m getting hot. Fee or no fee, what the hell does this guy want from me? I don’t need this attitude. I go to the coffee pot. Hold out a cup to him. He shakes his head. I pour, take a deep breath. Try again. “You know, it’s possible you could have set things off…said something, done something. You say you were like brothers…brothers fight all the time.”
“Yeah, we fought sometimes. But nothing serious…permanent.”
“Dig deeper, man. I got nothin’ here. Gimme some clues.”
His face goes blank studying the brick wall four feet past my window. “Okay, here’s something. Once I went to his house when he was first married…remember when you had to use a church-key to open beer and pop cans? Well I forgot I had the damn thing sticking out of my back pocket and I scratched the hell out of their brand-new rocking chair.”
“That’s it?” I ask. “Scratches, forty years ago?” I write in the note pad.
“Oh, okay, and then there was the time we were all camping. Karen, his wife, and I went on a hike. Got lost. Didn’t get back till way late.”
“So…Ray…jealousy. That shit can build up over the years, screw up a lot of things.”
“Naw. It wasn’t like that. We weren’t like that.”
This guy is like grabbing a pound of liver with plastic gloves. I close my eyes. When in doubt, give the client what they ask for. “Okay, tell you what, I’ll find your Mr. Lazzeri and ask him why he stomped on your bromance. And then, if he tells me. Then what? You want to kiss and make up?” Again I get the look.
“No,” he says, back to the thousand yard stare out my room with a view. He finally shakes his head, hard. “No, I’ve written him off. Me and him. I just want to know why he caused the breakdown between us.”
“What if he tells me to get lost? That it’s none of my business?”
“But that is your business isn’t it¾finding out what other people don’t want others to know? If he doesn’t want to talk, call his friends. Wait. Try Tony Adamo. Last I heard they were still hanging around together. Or his wife. Or his kids. Or guys in his favorite bar. Do I have to tell you how to do your job?”
“No, you don’t have to tell me how to do my job. It’s just that I’ve never had a job like this, all touchy-feely. Adultery, skip tracing, missing persons…I know what I’m looking for. I mean, what if your guy starts crying on me? What do I do then?”
Jim snorts. “No, Ray won’t start crying. He might try to take a swing at you if you’re not subtler with him than you are with me.”
Now he’s getting on my last nerve. I look down. See a paper clip I missed. I twirl it with my finger. Rent is due. Suck it up, man. “Okay. I’m on the case. I see what you want. I just don’t know why you want it. But I guess I don’t need to.” I plaster a grin. But damn it, I still need to know. “Look, why is this so important to you? People get together. People break up. Happens all the time. I should know, with all the surveillance work I do. You’re not a little kid who needs people to like him. So, there’s one more person in the world who doesn’t want anything to do with you. So, what? There’s tons of people got no use for me. I mean, it’s not like he’s your brother-in-law or your boss or your golf partner or something. Write him off. Good riddance.”
“Are you done using my time and my money to satisfy your curiosity when I’m paying you to satisfy mine?”
Zing. Okay. He got me. While I scratch a fake note on my legal pad, he keeps going.
“Just for the record, I write novels and I need some background for a character who deliberately kills a friendship.”
So, he’s a writer who works out.
“Oh, and as long as I still have five minutes left on my first hour, let me share something I read recently that said, as we get older we should make friends with people younger than ourselves. Makes a lot of sense don’t you think?”
“Hmm,” I respond. “Don’t look at me. My friendship runs $100 an hour.”
It feels good to have a paying gig. Seems like it’s been a month since I earned anything. Online, I find a site for Lazzeri Remodeling. Ray leans against a hulking red Silverado with a built-in box in the bed and a fourteen-foot trailer, bright red, too. Arms folded, his square chin held high says, ‘I’m good and I know it.’ I decide to pass on a direct interview with him—for now. I’ll start with the ex-wife.
Karen Lazzeri lives in a walk-up in Lakeview near Wrigley Field. Lucky there’s not a day game or I’d have to pay for parking. As it is, I spend twenty minutes circling the neighborhood before I shoehorn into a space just big enough for my Corolla.
“Hello?” she goes, half-question, half-greeting, one blue eye filling the safety-chained door crack. I hand her my card. “Mrs. Lazzeri, my name’s Mike Slade. I’m a private investigator. Jim Mercer gave me your name and wants me to talk to you.” I clock the blue pirate sash around her head as she checks me out—top-down, down-up. I wonder what women think they can tell by a guy’s appearance. I straighten my tie and try to look sincere while the door shuts and the chain rattles loose.
A gangly woman, body free to roam in a red and orange-flowered sack dress, Karen tucks a strand of silver-blond hair over her ear while we stand belly to belly in the narrow landing. She squints at me through a palpable fog of rum. What’s next, a gravelly ‘aargh’?
“Private investigator,” she says in a delicate, lilting voice. “Ha! I love a mystery.” Apparently, I pass her inspection. She turns and lurches slightly against the handrail before climbing the stairs. She calls over her shoulder, “Jim. Dear, Jim. I haven’t thought about him in years…since around the time of my divorce. How is he? Sweet man.”
From the doorway, her entire living room and dining room is a jumble of woven wall hangings, and dream catchers and jos sticks, and perfumed candles that make my sinuses ache. Haven’t seen macrame, raw wool and stick hangings since the 70s. She sees me notice the half-full glass of what must be Coca Cola.
“Would you like a rum and Coke?” she asks.
“Sure. But easy on the rum. I’ve got a long day ahead.” I watch her exit through the dining room. A table, work bench and sewing machine are covered with balls of twine, boxes of fabric, piles and jars of sticks and stones.
When she returns with two frosty glasses, she has freshened up a bit¾sash around her waist now, fresh-brushed hair framing high cheekbones above the crimson slash of a generous, mobile mouth. Nice. She perches on the edge of her chair, knees together, legs canted, head cocked like a 50s model. What a dame she must’ve been. “So, tell me,” she croons, like Lauren Bacall, “what are you investigating…kidnapping, murder, cheating spouse?”
“No nothing like that. Jim Mercer wants…”
She pops her hand in front of her mouth, giggles as though she’s embarrassed but really isn’t. “Omigod. The last time I saw him we were camping.”
I sit back. This is going to be an easy, well-oiled interview.
“And Jim wanted to show me this waterfall only he got lost and we walked and walked and it was getting dark. I had to go. So, I ducked behind a bush right in a patch of poison ivy.” She stares at me, wide-eyed, half grinning. “Can you imagine?”
I’d just as soon not and instead intently study the condensation running down my glass. I shake the image, shift the focus. “What did Ray think of all that?”
Her face droops in disappointment at my lack of interest in the state of her ‘down there’ back then. “Oh, he was pissed that he couldn’t get any for three weeks. Not that I minded the break.”
“No, I meant, was he mad at Jim” You know…jealous or something?”
Her eyes narrow. Her voice takes an edge. “Ray? Jealous? I wasn’t one of his precious tools, was I? Those were the only things he cared about. Stacked just so in his tool bins. He could have designed the inside of a space shuttle. A place for every tiny thing and he knew just where they went. His stuff.”
“But you weren’t part of that…”
“No,” I watch her worry the fleecy fringe of the throw draped over the arm of her sofa. Her fingers are rough with washed out blue stains on the thumb and forefinger of her right hand. Artist hands. “Neat,” she finally says. “Ray is all about neat.” She began, shaping boxes and shelves with her hands. “I didn’t fit into his world.” As if cued, we both cut a glance at her chaotic studio/dining room.
I cleared my throat. “Well, I was thinking of the more common variety of jealous…a man out alone with your wife…”
She laughs so hard that she splashes the drink on herself, catches her breath long enough to spout, “And she shows up with a rash on her backside…talk about a scarlet A.” She guffaws again. “No. Obviously you don’t know Jim Mercer. The one and only time he kissed me, and that on the cheek, was at our wedding and he was the best man. Ray knew Jim. He wouldn’t have been jealous.”
Dead end. Now what? Move on to the next lead. “I understand Ray hangs around with a guy,” I look at my notes, “Tony Adamo.”
“Tony Adamo. Now there’s someone Ray could have been jealous of. Mr. gold-chain-on-a-hairy-chest was always giving me the eye, playing footsies under the table, looking for chances to get me alone.”
“Where might I find him?”
“How should I know? Haven’t seen him since the divorce.” She snorts derisively, “Now that I’m available, he’s nowhere to be seen.”
“Any idea where he hangs out?”
Karen sets her empty glass down on the coffee table, eyes askance, “Brody’s” she says, “Ashland and Pierce.” My drink is done and so is this interview.
Brody’s. A neighborhood dive marinated for years in spilled beer and well-whiskey. None of the three guys slouched over the bar were smoking. Like they needed to. The walls and ceiling reeked enough to satisfy a nicotine fit.
The bartender slides a neat shot of bourbon in front of me. I nod, drop a Lincoln next to it. Tony Adamo come around here?” I ask. The bartender scopes me.
“I look like the missing person bureau?”
Time to leave. I’ll come back later.
I grab a slice at Lou Malnati’s, swing by a park and settle in for a quiet afternoon and a nice nap. But first, I Google Tony Adamo. Real estate agent. No gold chain. Crisp white shirt, regimental tie. I’ll know him when I see him this evening.
There’s a new bartender. A woman. I like the smile she gives me when I walk in. Tony is at the bar, Polo golf shirt, grayer than his real estate photo, watching the Sox. “Who the hell is this guy? Every time you turn around they got another pitcher you never heard of.”
“Obregon,” I say. “Carlos Obregon. The Tigers traded him last week.” Perfect entre. I was wondering how to break the ice.
“You a Tiger’s fan?” Tony asks, challenging.
Might as well hit him straight on. “Naw. I’m looking for you.” He sits back. His right hand drops to his side. Probably carrying. “Mike Slade,” I offer, along with my open hand.
“Tony Adamo,” he reluctantly replies. “But, then, you already know that.” He half-heartedly sticks out his hand and raises his chin in a ‘what’s your deal?’ gesture.
“I’m a private investigator. Karen Lazzeri told me where I might find you.”
“Karen Lazzeri,” he muses, a vague smile floating up and out. “What? She got more troubles with Ray?”
“No. This involves Jim Mercer.”
“Jimmy? Christ, I ain’t thought about him in…I don’t know how long. What kinda trouble is he in?”
“No trouble. He just wants me to find out why he and Ray no longer get along.”
After a count-five, open-mouth stare, Tony says, “You gotta be shittin’ me. Jimmy Mercer. Writes all kindsa stories about people’s lives and he can’t figure out why Ray, and me too, for that matter, ain’t goin’ outta our way to connect wit him?”
I hold my hands open—give.
“First off, he’s the one that moved away. Not us. Then when we do see him, he makes book on everything we tell him. Here you go. You remember that pitcher for the Yankees, wrote the tell-all book about baseball players?”
“You talking about Jim Bouton and Ball Four?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Him. How would you like to be in the clubhouse with him after he wrote that book? Be friends with him?”
Wish I could have written a book like that—a private eye tell-all. But then no one would trust me. Hmm. “So, you’re saying that Jim Mercer did that to you guys?”
“Well, yeah. He used to alla time say, ‘don’t tell me nothin’ you don’t want to see in one of my stories.’ So, we stopped. Who wants to feed some guy’s habit? Know what I’m sayin?”
Facts. Time, place, incident. That’s what I need. “So, you and Ray backed off at some point?”
“I’ll tell you the point. Him and Karen and Jim and Julie went campin’ down to Starving Rock. And Jim and Karen got lost. Came back way late in the night. Julie was outta her mind worried. Turns out Karen got into some poison ivy. And damned if there wasn’t a story in the Sunday magazine a month later about a couple going camping and the one guy and his buddy’s wife get lost after gettin’ it on in the weeds. And they both get a bad case of poison ivy. And get this, the story’s called, The Seven Year Itch.”
“Well, hell. I heard of dying of exposure in the woods…but in print?”
“Yeah. That’s what I’m tryin’ to tell you. Ray was pissed. He doesn’t hate the guy. But who wants to be around him? It’s like having a burglar over the house and havin’ him case the place for somethin’ he’s gonna come back and boost.”
“Hmm. Did Karen read the story?”
“How should I know? Ray an her split a while after that. Oh, and another thing, don’t get in a car with Jim. Don’t let him drive. He’s wild on the freeway. He tailgates like crazy then when you complain, he goes, I’m driving through the other car’s windshield. See what I mean, he’s looking through, living through, other people’s lives.”
“You should be a writer,” I said, “that’s a great analogy.”
“You’re not the only one tellin’ me what I should be. Thanks for nothin’.”
I bought Tony another beer, or rather, Jim did. And I said, “Look, I appreciate your helping me out here.” The friendly bartender gave me another look and for some reason I thought of Karen. As I got up to leave, I checked out Tony’s bare ring finger. “You know, you might want to give Karen a call.”
“Hey, who died and put you in charge of eHarmony?”
Two days later, Mercer is sitting in front of me. He’s pissed. “What? You’re telling me, that I’m the guy who killed our friendship? By observing people’s lives. That’s what I do. I’m a writer, for godsake. I pay attention to what folks are doing, how they look, how they talk and then I write about it.
“Here. You talked to Tony, right? Tony the real estate agent. One time we asked him what he thought we could get for our house. First thing, he says we’d have to update it—paint this room, remodel the bathroom, replace the carpet. That felt like a slap in the face. All the times we had him over, eating our food, drinking our wine he’s noticing how rundown our house is. But then I got to thinking…that’s his job. He was just doing his job. And I’m just doing my job when I write. I write about what I notice.”
I don’t know what kind of affirmation or forgiveness or understanding he wants from me. But he’s the paying customer and I can listen for as long as he wants to rant. All right, so I finally relent. “Look,” I go, “you’re talking about professional discretion, here. Doctors don’t talk about their patients. Lawyers don’t talk about their clients. I mean, how long would I be in business if I blabbed about my investigations?”
Mercer pins me with his eyes. “Hey, there are only four people who would know who the lady with the itchy ass was—me, my wife, Ray and Karen. Names were changed to protect the innocent. Tony Adamo wouldn’t have known if Ray hadn’t told him. Hell, Tony doesn’t read anyway. I mean, gimme a break.”
Well, you never know how a client is going to take the news he or she wants you to find out. I just have to listen and nod and add up the minutes. Before long, he’s in the chair, quiet, thinking. He jumps up, says, “Hey, you just gave me a great idea for a story about a private investigator who ends up finding that his client is the murderer.” Now his eyes are intense, eager. “But he is afraid if he tells the client, he might be the next victim.”
“Occupational hazard,” I allow. “Anyway, it’s been done before.”
“Oh,” he says. “But not the way I’m going to do it.”
I wonder if he’s going to include my name in the acknowledgements.