My phone jangled once, twice in the pitch black. And Rick didn’t pick it up.
It took me two beats to remember that he’d stormed out of the house on Sunday. So no Rick snoozing next to me.
Blinking in the dark, wrestling with flannel sheets that stuck like glue, I managed to roll over to the far side of the bed and grab the phone.
“Yeah,” I croaked like a frog, “whozat? Rick? I’m really—”
“Marta Hjelm?” a man’s voice purred. “Is that you, Marta?”
My heart skidded to a stop and I woke up real fast.
“Is this,” I said with a little, embarrassing quaver, “who I think it is?”
He laughed—a chuckle like pricey champagne—and I knew. The bastard.
“Depends who you think it is, Marty.”
“Terry,” I said dully.
“The one and only.”
Suddenly the charming voice—it had always been charming, right up to the end—came oozing over the airwaves. “It’s so fantastic to—”
“Why the hell,” I growled, “are you calling me in the middle of the fucking night? After seven years? You fucking asshole!”
“Just fine, thank you,” my ex-husband burbled with annoying equanimity, “and how are you?” Then he glittered another intoxicating laugh at me.
You notice here that I didn’t hang up.
Still don’t understand why.
“Always the smooth character,” I said, feeling like a mouse suffering the attentions of a “friendly” cat. I sat up in the dark cross-legged, where Rick should have been sleeping.
“Too smooth for my own good sometimes,” my ex confessed.
“No shit,” I agreed. “Where are you?”
“Right here in Minneapolis.”
I pronounced a little, inaudible “Oh crap,” then forged ahead. “Why Minneapolis? You hate Minneapolis. Snow in the winter, mosquitoes in the summer.”
“Yeah, I do. Hate it. Too God-damned cold. I’m on a big project.”
“What kind of project?”
“I’m still in advertising, Marty, with a major consumer goods company. In the Fortune 200, in fact.”
“Hurray for you. Who?”
“So you work with Happy Pops Cereal, then, Terry?”
“No, Marty, the tobacco subsidiary. Bertram Tobacco, Cigarette Division.”
Perfect, just perfect, I thought to myself. He couldn’t be doing something wholesome? Like rotting out little kiddies’ teeth? Adding inches to America’s waistline? Something a little less noxious?
“Anyway,” he continued, totally missing my mood of disapprobation, “I’m here in town trying to finalize a contract with a local agency. I have corporate approval to do a test market with them, if we can iron out some stuff. A new cigarette brand. Hemo. Great moniker, huh? And there’ve been, uh, problems that need looking into.”
“So?” I said. “Everyone has problems.”
“Yeah, but not these kind.”
Suddenly a light went on in my sleep-soddened head. “You need an investigator? Is that why you called?”
For some reason—another mysterious neurological occurrence inside my thick skull—I didn’t tell him I was planning to quit the business. I could have. But didn’t.
“Uh-huh. I stay in touch with Chuck and Clarice and I heard through them that you were a licensed PI. Didn’t see that one coming, I can tell you. And they said you’re supposed to be pretty good. I mean, what’s wrong with throwing a few bucks your way? Thought it might be fun to see you, too.”
I know I ought to have told him to go to hell, and shut the manhole cover after himself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve daydreamed about telling the guy to go screw himself if he ever came crawling back. But I remembered what an old blues singer sternly told me once when I bitched about a tough investigation: “Honey, a gig’s a gig, so long’s the check don’t bounce.”
“So what’s going on?” I said “What’s the problem?”
“I’d like you to meet this morning with the agency VP, at your office. Downtown St. Paul, right? He’ll fill you in, then you can decide if you want the job.”
I stewed for a half minute, and figured it wouldn’t hurt to listen to the man.
“Okay,” I said. “What time is it now?”
I moaned, grieving for the lost hour of shut-eye.
“This morning, you said?”
“Yup, I did,” he chuckled. “By the way, the VP said he knew you from way back.”
“Is that so? What’s his name?”
Now didn’t that just round out the perfect morning?
Good old Denny Ryan. The only person who’d ever fired me.
Rick and I share digs on the third floor of the old Amalgamated Manufacturing Building in downtown St. Paul. World headquarters for Hjelm Investigations LLC and Mueller Images Inc. His and her companies. Sometimes he helps me with legwork, sometimes I haul gear and shoot for him.
I got there about seven that Tuesday morning and only had to wait ten minutes for the knock on the door.
Denny Ryan still had that barracuda look, out there under the sickly fluorescent hallway lights.
The same sharp, narrow features. Sharp, narrow canines. Sharp, narrow body wrapped in a sharp, narrow Italian suit and a gorgeous slate-blue trench coat. But he had a green tint around the gills, a sallowness in his cheeks, a worrisome vibration in the well-manicured hands. Raccoon circles half-surrounded the washed-out baby blues. Even the Shelby knot in his pricey silk regimental looked cockeyed, sloppy. There was a large, unmarked manilla envelope in his left hand.
He didn’t look all that different. Pretty much the same, except he’d had a very bad night.
I wasn’t self-deluding enough to think I looked the same. I was a little thicker through the waist and thighs, a little slower on the jog. My Norwegian grandma used to tell me that I was “handsome.” Rick says I’m “gorgeous,” but I don’t believe him. “Handsome” just about does the job. As my dear old Dad used to say, it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Beyond that, I’m five-ten, a little overweight. Not in bad shape, but not as good as I’d like. I have short, layered dark blonde hair—no gray yet, knock wood—and brown eyes.
My old boss stuck his hand out with salesman conviviality. “Hi, Marty, y’ look great.” Really sincere.
“Marta,” I said evenly. “Only relatives and friends call me ‘Marty.’”
He blinked, and the bags under his eyes quivered. “Sorry, forgot. Been a while.”
I took the smooth millionaire hand and shook it once, eyeing the Rolex Oyster. “Understand you’ve done well.”
“Yeah, I guess so. We had some good luck with those new publications after you left.”
“Maybe you did yourself a favor sacking me.”
He followed me into the office, took a quick look around—dismissive, distinctly unimpressed. He blinked at the gray linoleum floor, the light table, the fire-proof cabinets where we keep old slides, negatives and camera gear. Rick’s images covered the walls—wildlife, kids playing, scenics—and they didn’t seem to impress him. He actually sniffed at our long-in-the-tooth Macs and hulking CRT monitors.
I sat at my work station and swiveled around as my old nemesis from newspaper days plopped onto the Naugahyde sofa. Without his jabber, he suddenly looked all shriveled up and frightened, like a tiny old man imprisoned inside a ridiculously chi-chi trenchcoat.
“Like some coffee, some donuts?” I said. “I can go down to the Ace Cafe—”
Denny shook his head. “Been up all night. All coffeed out.”
No kidding. I could smell his rank, sour breath from several feet away.
“So why are we here, Denny? Why’d Terry call me? I do retail loss prevention work now, mostly. Silent shopping, checking up on clerks and cashiers and such. Frankly, I’m kind of phasing out of the private investigator routine.”
“Then it’s a good thing I got here in time, isn’t it?” Denny said brightly. “You went to California after you left the Bugle. Right?”
I nodded and sat down behind my desk. “Yeah, that’s where I met Terry.”
“Do you know what happened with the company?”
“I did, but refresh my memory.”
“I sold the Bugle and the magazines.” Denny dallied with the big diamond ring on his right pinkie. It made him look like a two-bit gangster from central casting. “Got close to nine million for them. I thought I was going to take the money, play golf and sail the rest of my life. Had a timeshare in Vail, bought a condo on Sanibel.”
“Nice,” I said, and meant it. I adore Sanibel—even after the big hurricane stripped out a lot of the trees. I was jealous.
“But after six months I was going nuts, absolutely crazy. I didn’t exactly make it easy for Jessie. She said I’d damned well better find something to get me out of the house or she’d have to think about taking the kids and four-point-five million off my hands.”
“No, seriously, she was this close.” He held up thumb and forefinger, holding them a fraction of an inch apart. “I coulda started a new publishing venture. But shit, Marty— ’Scuse me, Marta. I didn’t want to do the same thing all over again. Then the phone rang. Christ, the timing was incredible. It was Herb Gottwaldt.”
I riffled through the chaotic Rolodex I keep in my head. “The advertising guy?”
“Yeah, the advertising guy. At least around this town. Awards up to here, one of the savviest, most creative ad men outside of New York and L.A. Like a dynamo.”
“You always were an ad man,” I said. “I mean, you could hustle the ad lineage. Drove me nuts with all those late ads, redoing the layouts all the time. It took me a while to figure out you weren’t really in the newspaper business.”
“I never could understand why anyone’d want to write instead of make money.” Denny cracked his first, lopsided smile, as if savoring that thought. “Writers are saps. They give it away. Always have, always will. Look at all those millions giving it away on the internet. But it worked out good for me. There were always plenty of writers and editors, and they were happy to take peanuts.”
“They’re useful, too, when the publisher’s illiterate,” I observed.
Denny laughed and jabbed a finger at me. “Hey, I read a book last year.”
“Naw,” Denny replied with a perfectly straight face, “don’t know about him. Harvey MacKay.” Then he grinned at me: Gotcha!
The last time I’d seen him had been more than a decade earlier, on an August evening that resembled a steam bath. I remember it because I’d just put to bed what turned out to be my last issue of the Bugle, a free weekly. I was the managing editor—a great job for a music nerd a few years out of college. Unfortunately, Denny Ryan was the owner and publisher.
The writer and I had sweated bullets, doing a cover investigation on a guy who owned a regional media empire, with a reputation for suing the bejesus out of any detractor. We had some brave folks go on record about the shit this guy pulled, but Denny got cold, cold feet. He and the copy editor spent a couple of hours hunched over the monitor, snipping out everything but the least controversial sections.
I chewed him out in the main office, with half a dozen witnesses, addressing him as “you yellow, fucking asshole troglodyte.” Or words to that effect. After I stormed out I had my supper—the famous chicken special at Peter’s Grill at Eighth and Marquette in downtown Minneapolis. When the place closed at eight, I wandered down to the bus stop. A few minutes later a bistro up the street disgorged three young men in suits, all roaring drunk. One of them was Denny Ryan. He saw me and zigzagged over.
“Hey there, Marta,” he slurred, peering at me for a moment with goggle eyes. “Whadja call me that shit for, front of everybody, y’ stupid bitch?” He came right up to me, nose to nose. “You’re gonna haveta ’pologize in front of the staff.”
“You tore the guts out of a great story,” I growled, backing away from the fumes. “You don’t even have the balls to pretend you’re in the newspaper business. So fuck you!”
He stared at me for a couple of beats. Then he hooted. Literally hooted. “EEE-EEE-EEE!” Like Cheetah the Chimp in the old Tarzan movies. He ran a circle around me and scampered three feet up a lamp post, screeching away. I’m not making this up.
I turned and walked.
“You’re fired!” he shouted after me from the lamp post. “You’re fucking FIRED!”
I hadn’t seen or talked to the little Irish shit since then. That was a dozen years ago and Niagaras of water had passed under many bridges.
He’d become a millionaire ad man. I’d bounced through a series of careers—including private investigator. Lately I’d been trying to help my boyfriend build up his business, a photo agency. We needed fifty grand for computers, photo gear and operating budget, and we couldn’t find a bank that would float a loan to a funky business like ours during the “Great Recession.” A nice payday would be welcome.
That was my rationalization for seeing Denny and not telling my ex-husband to take a flying leap. Besides, I have to admit I was plenty curious to see both these prize specimens from my ancient past.
“Anyway,” I said, blinking at my old boss in the early morning gloom, “you got connected with Herb Gottwaldt—”
“Herb owns a substantial majority of the agency. I have about 10 percent and the rest belongs to some of his relatives and investors. We have a dozen, give or take, regional accounts. There are three national accounts—Hamburger Shack, Chippewa Motorcycles, and Honeymoon Cruises. Minneapolis Mutual Insurance is a kind of super-regional. Major player in the car insurance business in the Midwest and Mountain states. Some smaller regional accounts. Until a year ago we had Trans National Airlines and Big Mart discount stores. They’re gone. We’re doing in the neighborhood of about 90 million a year in revenues.”
I was impressed. “Nice neighborhood.”
“Terry Rosen’s the product marketing manager for Hemo, which Bertram wants to start test marketing here in the spring. He’s picked Herb to do the campaign, and his bosses think it’s a great idea. Not just anybody in our shop, mind you. Herb himself. We just have some extra details to iron out before it’s official. It’s a fantastic opportunity.”
“Hemo? That’s a weird name. What’s it mean?”
He grinned broadly. “’Hemo’ means blood. It’s the new, gotta-have cigarette for all the young adults who are into those vampire books and movies. Incredibly hot these days. Black cigarette, red filter, lots of potential for fun creative stuff. Huge potential market. You should see some of the concepts we’ve come up with.”
“You’re going after kids? I thought you couldn’t do that anymore.”
“No, Marta,” he said, waving me off. “We’re targeting young adults 21 and older. Not kids.”
I didn’t really believe him—they’d be happy to hook all the kids they could—but nodded tiredly. “Okay, whatever. So tell me why you’re here at 7 o’clock on a sub-zero morning.”
“Some really dangerous shit is happening relating to Hemo,” Denny said hoarsely, “and we need to find out who’s doing it. Last night our Hemo team—” He shook his head, as if the thing he had to recall made him queasy.
“I better begin at the beginning. The test market involves five upper-Midwestern states. Print, point-of-purchase, promotions, events. Basically, everything that the big tobacco settlement of ’98, ’99 allows us to do. We’ve actually started working on it, even though it’s not a done deal. If it goes well—and Herb has some fantastic ideas—we have a very strong chance to do the national rollout next year. That would be unprecedented.”
“What do you mean?”
“Usually tobacco companies go to New York or Chicago when they pick ad agencies. So an agency like ours has to provide added value. And ours is our creativity. Herb comes at you out of left field, when you least expect it. Bam! That’s why Bertram wants to take a chance with us.”
“Sounds hunky-dory to me,” I opined.
“It was, until about a month ago.”
I raised my eyebrows in the interlocutory manner.
“Someone must’ve seen in the trade press that we were in the hunt for Hemo. We started getting threatening letters, saying Herb—Herb personally—would be a murderer with blood on his hands if we actually got the contract. Then they started getting really nasty.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“These letters said if we didn’t drop it, Herb might have an accident.”
“Extortion, Denny. You don’t need a PI. Call the cops.”
He held up one of those well-maintained paws of his: Whoa, girl!
“Our initial Hemo team— Herb had something else to do. Meg LaGrange was there, the copywriter. Harry Litzky, art director. Sue Hewlett, traffic. Archie Gottwaldt, Herb’s son, who’s working with Sue. And me, I’m account exec. An intern was there, too. Sue’s little sister Michelle.
“We were working last night about eleven, on point-of-purchase and contest concepts that’ll kick off the test market.” Denny rubbed his eyes and ran a hand through his unsettled coiffure. “We sent out for pizza. Chez Pizza, a real good place on 394, west of Ridgedale. Not the usual crap. The owner’s a friend. Sue went down to the lobby about midnight for the food. Couple of pizzas some cola in paper cartons. We had some wine, too. Pinot Grigio, I think. But that came out of the fridge downstairs. We spread the stuff out on the table, grabbed a few paper plates.
“I took mine back to my office. Had to call Tokyo. Before I had a chance to dial, all hell broke loose. Someone started screaming. I ran out. Sue Hewlett had spit her cola out all over the floor, and she was running for the water fountain. She looked like she’d just eaten shit.”
“Something in the cola?” I twisted from side to side, to loosen the knot between my shoulders.
“Do you know what it was?”
Denny made a fist with his right hand and gently punched his left palm. “Yeah.”
“How’d you get it analyzed so quickly?”
“We didn’t. Someone informed us.”
“Do tell,” I said, suddenly quite curious.
Denny opened his manilla envelope and fished out a sheet of paper folded in quarters. He carefully unfolded it and heaved himself upright. “Here,” he said, walking over and handing it to me. “Anonymous e-mail.”
The printout, from firstname.lastname@example.org, read: You people all deserve to die, Herb Gottwalt, and this is a warning that you should stop working for Bertram. Next time it’s real nicotine in your soda, a real poison. Or bullet or knife or bomb. The product you plan to sell contains nicotine that adicts others and is responsible for millions of deaths. Stop now or you all die.
I stood up, and went over to the old warehouse-style window wall. The moonless night was just giving way to the crystalline light of the early-February coldsnap, the sky midway between black and Nordic blue. Stars still twinkled. Feathers of steam wisped off the tops of downtown St. Paul’s office towers and condo highrises. I could just barely catch the enticing, sausagey perfume of the Ace Cafe down below. It called to me, as always. A newspaper, a cup of dense java with cream and honey, a short stack of sourdoughs, and a couple of Cajun sausage patties. Yessir.
“What do you say, Marta? Do you think these, uh, people are really trying to kill Herb? Is this some kinda hoax, maybe?”
I turned around and looked at my old boss. “Herb wasn’t there, was he? So they couldn’t have gotten to him. And they imply the stuff in the cola isn’t really nicotine, isn’t poisonous. We’ll need to test it. So no, I don’t think they want to off anyone. Not yet, anyway. This was a demonstration.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The woman who sipped the cola spit it out, didn’t she? They wanted someone to taste it. Unless I’m mistaken, nicotine doesn’t have much flavor at all and in sufficient quantity it shuts down the nervous system, or something like that. They just wanted to scare the sap out of you guys with some goop that tastes bad. Symbolic, too. You know, extort nicotine peddlers with faux nicotine.”
Denny squirmed at my description of his “team.” “Yeah, that makes sense.”
“You want me to look into it, right?”
Denny nodded, and hunched forward, elbows on knees.
“Yeah. I want you to document what’s happened, interview our people, help with their security, just in case someone tries something again.”
“So you don’t want the police involved?”
“No, we don’t want any publicity. Zero. Nada. Nothing that could embarrass Bertram. We could lose the account. That’s what Herb wants, what Terry wants, what I want.”
“Are you going to do what they say?” I asked.
He shook his head energetically. “Herb says fuck ’em. He’s rarin’ to go with the project.”
“But why me? Hell, I don’t even—”
I almost gave him my spiel about how tired I was of interviews and tails and surveillances. How sick I was of bad, bad shit hitting the fan. How I was almost ready to “retire.” But it never does to tell a potential client that you dislike the thing that he’s prepared to pay you good money to do. Would you hire a surgeon who confided that she hated the sight of blood? An accountant who couldn’t stand numbers?
Still, it sure sounded like a job worth keeping the shingle out for. I figured there were three reasons to do it. One, 75 bucks an hour for maybe a hundred hours. Two, I still had my license. Three, plain old nosy-parker curiosity to see Terry and Denny in action again.
He peered at me, waiting for the end of the sentence. “Sorry,” I said. “Why me?”
“It’s a small-world thing, for sure. But Terry brought your name up, and I sure remembered you. I mean, we got along pretty well before that last blowup, right?”
No we hadn’t. Not even close. Because I’d thought he was a greedy asshole and he thought I was a snotty socialist bitch. But I nodded just the same.
“So anyway, Marta, Herb knew that you’d worked for me and I always thought you were a sharp gal. Besides, he wants someone off the radar, someone discreet. Why not you?”
I shrugged. He was definitely bullshitting me. I’d never heard him compliment anyone. So why now? A change of personality?
“So will you do it, Marta?”
“Two conditions,” I said, returning to my chair.
“First, you owe me eight-hundred bucks plus interest.”
He almost snarled, but caught the lip-curl just in time. “What the hell do you mean, I owe you?”
“When you fired me,” I grinned, “I had two weeks vacation pay coming. And you wouldn’t cough it up. Your letter said, more or less, ‘I’m not paying vacation money to anybody who doesn’t work for me anymore. So sue me.’”
Denny’s expression of perturbation softened and shifted toward amusement. “Okay, Marta, I’m in a short-hair situation here. I owe you eight-hundred plus interest. What’s the second condition?”
“I gotta clear a couple of things off my calendar before I can accept. I’ll call you this afternoon. Just hang onto the evidence, okay? Letters, e-mail, pizza, cola. Make sure your people keep their traps shut, even with the other office staff. If it’s a go,” I concluded, “it’s 75 bucks an hour plus expenses.”
“Right,” Denny said without blinking. I grabbed my calculator, did some figuring, and he wrote me a check for my old vacation pay plus interest—a good deal over $1500.
* * *
I slathered the last crescent of pancake with faux maple syrup.
The Ace was noisy, crowded, a haven from the windchill outside. Young to middle-aged waitresses, squeezed into tight jeans and tighter tops, scurried around good-naturedly, dispensing humongous sticky rolls and seasoned comebacks to tired, old joking come-ons. There were at least a half-dozen cops scattered around the booths and tables, mostly big, heavy men in big, heavy blue jackets. Police headquarters was around the corner. Some of them I knew from retail work downtown, and we nodded companionably at one another when we made eye contact.
Back upstairs, I saw a message in my voicemail. Maybe another big job. Maybe a good excuse to not go to work for shills for a tobacco company.
I rewound the tape. It was Terry again.
“Hi, Marty,” Terry told the machine. “I hope the meeting with Denny went okay. Maybe I’ll see you out at the agency later.” The creamy timbre of his voice still tugged at me, still evoked some memories. Dammit.
“Anyway, Herb here got some court-side seats for the Timberwolves game tonight, and he couldn’t use ’em, and I wondered if you’d like to go. Freebies, kiddo! I’ll even pop for dinner, okay? Call me whenever.” Then he gave the number.
“Shit, Terry,” I said under my breath. “What the hell are you up to?”