It was late in the afternoon on one of those chilly New York City days where the clouds couldn’t decide whether to spritz or pour rain. I was in my office, trying to ignore the past dues and termination notices. I didn’t have any appointments scheduled, so I was surprised when the office door was pushed open with authority. In came an older woman. Before I could stand up from my chair to make introductions, she popped a question.
“Are you Nic Knuckles?”
“That’s me, sissy, Nic Knuckles, Private Investigator.”
“I understand you find people.”
“I’ve been known to locate a few lost souls, you could say.”
The woman wore a black raincoat with a knee-length brown skirt peeking out from underneath. Her shoes were the comfortable kind that came in black or if you were racy, brown. Yeah, I doubted she’d ever stepped foot in the Fashion District. But it was her face that held my attention. She looked as if she’d been seasoned by bad experiences and cruel men.
“I need your services.”
“Maybe I can help,” I said, my left eye throwing her a wink. “But I’m not a charity.”
She slipped a sealed envelope across the table. It was a fat little bundle that spoke volumes, and I liked what I was hearing.
“I’m her mother. She’s troubled. Her children need her back. It’s chaos without her.”
I snorted. If the woman wanted to talk about neglectful parents, take mine for example. My old man sold life insurance. He’d practiced his sales pitch on us kids, night after night. Nothing she’d say could horrify me.
“It happened last Tuesday. I came home to find her huddled in a closet, her eyes wild with fear. I tried soothing her, but she grew more agitated, claiming demons were out to get her.”
The woman bent her head, slowly shaking it. “You must get her back. Our life is desperate without her.”
My visitor didn’t offer any more details. Not that I was blind to her situation. I mean I’d just had my eyes checked last week. My optometrist said my eyesight was pretty good for a guy who sat around all day in a semi-dark, smoke-filled office.
“What did you think was behind her behavior?” I asked.
The woman raised her face, locking her steel blue gaze onto mine.
“She made choices that she regretted. I think she realized there’s no way out for her. You know life is like that, am I right Mr. Knuckles.”
“You sure are. You make your bed, and you not only have to sleep in it, but you also have to struggle to put on the damn fitted sheet.”
She seemed confused by my comment. Maybe she came from money and had people making her beds. Who knows? I didn’t particularly care for the rich. Sure, I’d happily take their money, but most of them were born with silver spoons in their mouths. Not me. I was born with a fork in my mouth. I worked every day, just like all the other bums out there making a buck.
“You have any idea where she might have gone?”
The woman looked down at the floor and shuddered. Maybe she was filled with dread knowing her daughter was in danger. Perhaps she was fearful, thinking of the evil roaming the streets, preying on the innocent. Then again, it could be she was chilled, and I needed to turn on the heat. I wasn’t sure.
“All I know is she’s headed for the wrong side of the tracks,” the woman said.
That wasn’t much of a clue, but good private investigators go with the cards dealt. I probed. “Would those be the subway tracks or the Amtrak rails over on the east side?”
She scrunched her face as if a putrid smell passed her nose. “I’m speaking metaphorically,” she said. “That’s why I’m hiring you. You know where people go who want to get lost, am I right?”
“Damn right, you’re right. What’s her name?”
“Mary, Mary Maria.”
The woman reached into her purse, pulled out a photo and dropped it on my desk. “Here’s the only picture I have of her.”
I lifted the image to my face and stared at it, trying to decipher the girl’s personality and tendencies based on her facial features. You can tell a lot about a person by looking at their mug. Their eyes, how they wear their hair, whether they smile, those are all clues. After five minutes, I realized I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. So I drew upon the one skill refined over decades of dealing with unsavory human behavior. I took a guess.
“I think I might know where to find her.”
I thought the woman would be happy, but she looked even more anxious.
“I have to tell you something,” she said. “It’s not going to be as easy as you might think.”
I slumped back in my chair. I hated those last-minute warnings. They usually brought the kind of information that would make me regret taking the job.
“Mary Maria can be very seductive. She’s like a siren. Don’t be fooled.”
Her comment made me laugh. Did she think Nic Knuckles was born yesterday? Hey, sister, I’d been to more than a few rodeos in my life. My heart was impenetrable when it came to the wily charms of women. My cardiologist thought it more a plaque buildup but what do doctors know about love? But the idea of saving a beautiful temptress did have an appeal
“Thanks for the tip,” I said. “Now let me find your lost girl.”
Smokey’s was the kind of dive that catered to people who favored whiskey over décor and preferred drinking it in dank darkness. When it opened at noon, it was already swarming with petty criminals, pimps, and smooth talking grifters. If that wasn’t bad enough, the clientele grew more felonious after sunset. I only went into that dump when I had to chat with someone who didn’t want to talk. After I left, I’d go to my apartment and run a hot shower over my buck-nakedness until the water went cold.
Man, I hated that joint.
My thinking was simple. If you wanted to disappear, you’d hang out at a stinking dump. That would be the last place decent folks would look for you. In my experience, Smokey’s was the only hellhole worthy of that designation. It would qualify as a Michelin four-star joint if cockroaches were in charge of the scoring.
I walked through the front door, stepping over some ugly looking stuff on the floor. It could’ve been an unconscious patron or maybe something less human. I didn’t care. I wasn’t working for the health department. I was being paid to find a girl who’d been overwhelmed by her choices. Edging up to the bar, I flagged down the barkeep.
“What ya want?” he asked.
“I’ll take a cold, long neck. Doesn’t matter who brewed it, just make it cold.”
He reached into a cooler, pulled out a brown bottle of beer, and bit off the cap with his teeth. He slammed the bottle in front of me with enough force to send a geyser of foam into the air.
“Three bucks,” he said.
I dropped three singles on the bar. As he laid his big, beefy mitt on the cash, I grabbed his wrist with my right hand.
“There’s an extra dollar for you if you can tell me if you’ve seen this girl.”
I used my left hand to pull the photo of Mary Maria from my coat pocket. I held it to his face. He ignored it. Instead, his angry eyes were burning into me.
“My memory doesn’t work for anything less than a twenty.”
That was another reason why I hated that joint. You couldn’t get good value for your entertainment dollar. I made a mental note to downgrade my Yelp score.
I puffed my cheeks and blew a stream of frustration through my lips.
“How about ten,” I said. “You know, Hamilton is very popular nowadays.”
The barkeep pulled away. “Get lost.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll give you a Jackson.”
I slowly dropped my last twenty on the bar. The barkeep swept it up, like a starving alley cat attacking a prime cut of tuna. His face twitched, his nose pointing me toward the back of the tavern. “She’s over against the wall.”
I muscled my way through the crowd, grimacing at the thought of all the cooties I was picking up I ignored the evil eye given to me by one of the bouncers, a mudslide of a man with tattooed forearms each the size of my waist. I finally broke through the pack to the back tables lining a cinder block wall.
There sat my girl throwing down shots.
“Hello, Mary Maria.”
Her eyes were tiny red dots, but she saw well enough to know I wasn’t there to take her to the prom.
“What do you want?” she said, her voice husky from the smoke. Then again, I could be wrong. There’s a nasty bug going around — nasal drip, raspy cough, and a sore throat. Good Lord, I hope she wasn’t contagious. Whatever, I had a job to do.
“People want you to come home,” I said.
“I don’t care.”
I made myself welcome by dropping into a chair across from her.
“Listen to me, doll, you got a family that needs you.”
She ignored me, concentrating on a broken fingernail.
“I know raising kids is tough, but you can’t run away.”
She let out a belch followed by her finger wiping a slime rivulet off her nostril. I thought back to my client warning me that the girl was a seductress. I didn’t know what planet she was from, but here on Earth, Mary Maria was a slob.
“A family needs their momma,” I said.
A tear formed in the corner of my eye as I thought about mothers and babies. I don’t think I could’ve survived as a kid if my mother had abandoned me. My emotions got the upper hand, and that tear snaked down my face. Thank God the joint was dark. Acting the crybaby would be a mistake. Only tough guys walked out of Smokey’s without a broken bone.
“I’m telling you, girl, you have to return to your family.”
Mary Maria looked at me, her right eyebrow inching up her forehead. I think I finally broke through her boozy indifference.
“What do you mean by family?”
“I’m talking about your kids.”
“I don’t have children.”
“Yeah, you do. Your mother told me the whole story.”
The young woman’s face transformed into an angry red knot.
“You idiot, that’s my Mother Superior. I’m Sister Mary Maria. I teach at St Aloysius.”
I had to push my chin up off the table. Dang, a nun had just bamboozled me.
“So tell me, why the story about demons? Why’d you run away?”
Mary Maria leaned across the table, grabbed my coat sleeves, and pulled me close. Her breath was a volatile mix of alcohol and rage. I knew I was about to gain some nasty insight into the state of the local parochial schools.
“You try teaching thirty-seven third-graders,” she yelled. “They have mouths like sailors and the hygiene of monkeys.”
Mary Maria released her grip on me and fell back into her chair. She scanned the half dozen shot glasses on the tabletop before finding the one that was still full of whiskey. In one swift motion, she snatched it up and threw the shot down her throat.
“I don’t care what she paid you. I’m not going back.”
I shook my head, regretting what I’d have to do to finish the job. Usually, I could sweet-talk a woman into going along, not making trouble. I hated the idea of using my martial arts skills against Mary Maria, but she wasn’t responding to my charisma.
“You’re messing with the wrong guy, sissy,” I said. “I’m Nic Knuckles, Private Investigator.
Her eyes suddenly bulged, two orbs of fear against a bleached-out face. Wow, I’d never before gotten that kind of reaction. Most women giggled when I used the line. Maybe I finally hit the right tone and pacing. I had to remember how I said it.
Mary Maria let out a scream. In a place like Smokey’s, no one noticed. But I did.
“Keep it cool, honey. I’m not going to hurt you.”
The woman raised her hands, cowering in horror. Now I was feeling bad. I mean, I could be a pretty imposing physical specimen, I supposed. But I hated scaring women. My mother didn’t raise me that way.
“No, no,” she said in a voice pinched with dread. “I’m not going.”
“Oh yes, you are.”
What the heck? That wasn’t me speaking. Before I could turn around to check out the source, a cloud of black cloth stormed over the table. It was the Mother Superior. With a speed of hand that a ninja would envy, she grabbed Mary Maria by her earlobe.
“How dare you skip out on your obligations!” she bellowed. “You had the nerve sticking me with your third-grade class.”
I jumped from my seat and blocked Mother Superior ‘s escape. Her eyes narrowed, and she balled her free hand into a fist. I figured I had time for only one question.
“I gotta know why you told me, Mary Maria was a seductress. She’s anything but that.”
The nun snorted. “I knew you’d lead me to her if you thought she was the kind of woman who devoured men. I taught high school for fifteen years. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a boy or a man; you’re all weak and stupid.”
“Wow,” I said. “That hurts my feelings.”
She gave me a look of disgust and then they were gone.
I flopped back into my chair. I didn’t know what felt worse, my failure to rescue Mary Maria or being snookered by a nun. I let my disappointment soak in for a minute before gathering the strength to get up. But a well-muscled waitress halted my ascent. She wasn’t there to compliment me on my tie.
“Those drinks need to be paid for, buddy.”
I gave her a thin smile. Isn’t that the way it goes— a gal walks out on Nic Knuckles and he still has to pay? I reached into my inside coat pocket and grabbed that fat little envelope Mother Superior had slipped me. I might as well let the client cover this expense.
“What the hell?”
Inside the envelope was an inch-thick stack of prayer cards. That wasn’t good. I knew if Smokey’s didn’t honor credit cards or checks, they wouldn’t take prayer cards. The realization came like a kick to the stomach. I wouldn’t be leaving Smokey’s with all my fingers in working order.
Man, I hated that joint.
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