The next morning Salem strolled into her office building in Pilsen just before noon. She was carrying two bags of tacos from one of the last remaining Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood, stalwart holdouts against the gastropubs and yoga studios that had started moving in a couple of decades earlier. In the elevator a pair of young professionals eyed her lunch with clear envy, looking despondently at the salads in their hands. She got off on the third floor, walked to suite 360, and opened the door.
“I hope to god some of that is for me,” a flat, sardonic voice greeted her. Her assistant was (describe an old Sam Spade.) William Club had been around the block in the private investigator game. He had his own outfit ages ago, but had gotten out after years took their toll on his knees and nerves. He’d overheard Salem talking in a bar and basically hired himself to work as her partner, convinced that, “Someone so young and pretty can’t handle this rough game alone.” Salem let him work the front desk.
“Good morning to you, too, Billy,” she said as she walked by, placing one of the bags on his desk.
“Everything work out last night?” he asked, not fully paying attention to her and tearing the paper bag to pieces.
“There was a little trouble, but we got paid.”
“Seems like everything worked out fine, then,” he said around a mouthful of chorizo.
She opened the inner door and stepped into her office. It was cluttered and shabby, just the way she’d left it. Scuffed wooden shelves lined the walls holding an assortment of charging cables, outdated handsets and glasses, and stacks of external hard drives. Salem was a stickler for record keeping, but didn’t trust the security of cloud storage at all, preferring to keep these, the only meticulously ordered and organized things in the room.
She sat down and powered on her desk and screen, transferring over last night’s recording. She rewatched, fast forwarding through some parts, watching others at real-time, seemingly at random, munching slowly on tacos al pastor. The scuffle in the alley was nearly invisible until she’d drawn her weapon, though the scoring on the underside of her jacket’s collar would probably corroborate her self-defense story.
As the video ended she leaned back, opened a drawer and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. She realized she was on her last pack, and hoped her local connection would have some ready to sell. The local bootleg stuff was much better than the imports from Columbia. She lit her cigarette, took a drag, and exhaled slowly, watching the smoke curl up towards the ceiling. Salem only smoked when working, either when trying to work through a problem, or celebrating the end of a job.
A chat box popped up on her screen with a ping, Billy messaging that Detective O’Connor was here and wanted to see her. She stubbed the cigarette out in an ash tray in her drawer and closed it, then instructed Billy to let O’Connor in.
The door opened and an aggravated looking middle-aged man shuffled in, his dark grey suit hanging loosely on his slight frame, his face drawn and showing a steady, consistent lack of sleep. He scowled at Salem, and exhaled deeply as he dropped into the chair opposite her desk.
“Just one of these times I wish you’d stick around after you plug one of these chumps.”
“That’s a tough neighborhood Phil. You can’t expect a lady like me to just hang around in a place like that.”
He snorted. “The scumbags in that neighborhood are lucky you don’t spend more time there.” He pulled out a handset and a stylus. “So, who is this guy. I asked him at the hospital this morning, but he claimed selective amnesia and checked himself out as soon as the hospital cleared him. His prints are somehow not in our database.”
Salem raised an eyebrow at that. “You know, he never mentioned his name.”
The detective stared at her for a moment, waiting for her to continue. She met his gaze, letting the silence hang.
“And what were you doing there?” he said finally.
“I was tailing him. Cheating boyfriend. He made me and things got out of hand.”
“Cheating boyfriend?” O’Connor repeated incredulously. “You seem to get a lot of cases of cheating boyfriends here, Song. Are you some cheating boyfriend expert now?”
“Why, Phil? Trouble with Jim? I’ll give you a discount if you want, seeing as we have such a good working relationship.”
He exhaled in loud frustration. “Goddammit, that’s enough. You’ve given us good leads in the past, but not enough to keep masking all these weapon discharges. License or no, you’re popping up in the system too often, Song. Not to mention that, unless they’ve started growing strains of pot that smell like tobacco, I could probably run you in for whatever you were smoking before I walked in. And I could probably put you away for whatever you’re carrying in that shoulder holster right now. It’s sure as hell not hanging like any street legal weapon I know. I want the guy’s name, your client’s name, and your recording of last night.”
“You know I can’t give you any of that.”
“I have enough on you to pull your license right now. You owe me something more than bland non-answers.”
Salem sat in quiet surprise. “Why all this heat, Phil? Why now? This can’t just be over another nobody walking around with bad memories of me. Was this guy into something?” She was starting to reconsider her no questions asked business model.
Phil actually smiled, and leaned back. It was his turn to let the silence stretch on.
“Good nose, Song,” he said at last. And you’re going to need it. No, this isn’t about whatever business you got into last night. I don’t give a shit about that. The CPD has a case, and we need it to be investigated quietly, and unofficially. You’re going to take it.”
“Am I?” she said, her damned curiosity nudging her on.
“Yes. Because we have such a good working relationship, and because your continued ability to run your business is one big continual favor from me. And favors aren’t free.”
Part of her wanted to keep putting up a fight because it rankled her that O’Connor thought he could just waltz in and put the screws to her like this. But another part of her, the part that was tired of not getting answers, the part that couldn’t turn its back on a good puzzle, really wanted to know what the case was. As far as she knew the police were not in the habit of farming cases out to private investigators anymore, so it had to be something interesting. Besides, she didn’t seem to have a choice.
“OK, Phil. What’s the investigation?”
“You’ve heard of Ann Wind?”
“Of course. I’m conscious, after all.”
Everyone in the city had heard of Ann Wind. Her company, GaleWind Transportation, owned the midwest regional high-speed rail lines. She was always being spotted at this or that charity gala, restaurant opening, or high-profile community press event. The rail lines in the northeast, southeast, southwest, and west coast were all run by fairly faceless corporations, but Wind was always making sure her face was front and center. The latest buzz in the news was her company was working on a contract to run a line from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, connecting those two train systems.
“Seems like something the police would want to devote all of their resources to. Why come to me?
“Her partner, Jon Gale, has some pull at city hall, and wants this handled as quietly as possible - and as quickly. She hasn’t been missing for very long yet, and he thinks a long, public investigation would have an effect on the deal they’ve been working on.”
“He’s all heart.”
Phil shrugged. “I’m not his shrink. It’s not my job to figure out his reasons. It’s just my job to find his partner. Well, I guess that’s your job now.” He put his handset and stylus away and pulled out a piece of paper, laying it on her desk. A physical piece of paper. Salem stared at it without making a move to pick it up. “This is my personal number. If you need anything, call that. Don’t call the department. If it’s something I can handle without kicking up too much fuss it’s yours. I’ll check on you in a few days for an update. Probably not here.”
He rose out of his chair and moved to the door, as Salem sat, staring at her desk, gears moving quickly in her head. As he reached to grab the handle a thought occurred to her.
“O’Connor. If I would have let the fat man go last night, and skipped the fireworks in the alley, where would you have been this morning.”
He shot her a grin. “You’re not the only P.I. in this city that owes me favors, and you’re not the only one of them that popped up in the system last night. You’re just the best of them. Take this as a lesson to keep off of my radar,” he said as he pulled the door open and left the room. He blew by Billy without comment and exited the office.
Billy rolled his chair to Salem door and popped his head in.
“How bad was it? Read you the riot act about caution and restraint and the public good?”
“Not bad at all, Billy,” Salem said, lighting another cigarette. “He gave us a job.”