She came ready to put on a show and was giving it her all; of that much I was certain. I suppose I should have been flattered she thought I was worth the trouble.
She wasn’t quite dressed for a funeral, but near enough: a dark blue, almost black, blouse under an overly formal, white, shoulder-padded coat and a matching knee-length skirt over the darkest tights I’d care to sneak a peek at. Black heels that clicked too loudly on the wooden floor outside my office finished the fetching, if severe, ensemble.
Accessories included distractingly large earrings, a sensible handbag, a discreet, dark red lipstick, and all the tissues from the box on my desk she could make use of. She had wisely neglected eye shadow for the sake of all the crocodile tears she planned to shed.
Were it my place, I would have been happy to admit she was quite attractive without it. She had an almost American look, not unlike a film star of old. Frankly, I thought she was gorgeous, and in a different life, under a more sultry light, with glasses of something sweet on the table between us, might have been so bold as to ask what her plans were for the evening. But that was fantasy. Presenting a patrician-like steeliness to clothe her softer nature may be good for business, but had less of an effect on me.
I don’t mention all this to show-off how highly observant I am, but to point out I’d seen it all before, many times, very nearly too many times. I knew she was a fraud. She knew I knew she was a fraud. But it was all a necessary part of the arrangement. We were both giving a performance and appearances had to be maintained. Either that or she was doing it for the benefit of my secretary, Gina, who she’d met a month before when first she came to avail herself of my services. Women do funny things for the attention of other women.
Eckersley was her name, Mrs – although, perhaps not for much longer. She ran a gentle finger over the surface of one of the photographs I had presented her, stroking it – wistfully, sorrowfully, or admiringly? I couldn't be sure. In any case, she reached once again for the tissue box, plucked one more and used it to dab one corner of her eye. I know it was awfully cynical of me to presume the emotion a forgery, but it would have been cruel to hope it was genuine. I don’t know if she was listening as I recounted of my activities two nights before, so rapt was she in the indulgence.
Two nights before…
I had followed her husband from his place of business. He drove his car with a passenger, a woman with whom he worked all day. She was not at all as striking as the wife he was betraying, but pretty enough and, perhaps most important of all, significantly younger. I guess it takes all sorts. Besides, I could tell by the way she draped herself upon him, she clearly liked to enjoy herself, and perhaps a hell of a lot more than his spouse did. Perhaps that was enough.
It was a Friday night. It was always a Friday night that Mr Eckersley 'worked late', for whatever reason he professed sounded most plausible to Mrs Eckersley. I never thought to ask what that was. It didn't matter, because Mr Eckersley never worked late. He wasn’t the sort – too thorough and fastidious, I judged by the tidiness of his groom and the sharpness of his suit, to fail to get everything done that needed doing by closing time. Unless he worked from home, of course, which, judging by the regard he held for his wife and his marriage, would not have surprised me to learn.
I followed the pair to a motel. It was always the same motel, or had been at least, for three Fridays running – an honest but cheap kind of place that offered no frills and asked no questions. He would leave the car and check in. She would wait out of sight. It must have been a regular arrangement with the desk clerk because they never stayed longer than an hour. Eckersley would come out of the office with the key and they would wrestle each other all the way to the door of their room – number thirteen, lucky for some. They’d be at least partly undressed before he stuck his key in the lock – no metaphor intended.
All these elements are integral to my purpose.
First, the regularity of time and location, I had catalogued over the course of three weeks, spoke of an habitual deception rather than a momentary temptation – an age of infidelity, not a single night’s frivolity – what might customarily be called a one-night stand. Such minor infractions on the marital contract have been known to be forgiven – and not just these days – even in the courts.
Second, the devious nature of his arrangement with the motel gave away his guilty conscience. If he knew he was doing something his wife did not know about or approve of, that was further evidence against his character. Believe it or not, some couples are much more understanding of each other's weaknesses, although, of course, they pretend otherwise.
Third, the girl’s inability to keep her hands off him spoke of her own culpability. Only illicit love remains so eager in the face of such mundane constancy and declining luxury, normally not conducive to romance. I guess that isn't really important, or attestable on the witness stand, just something I happen to notice, because, in case I neglected to mention it, I am highly observant.
The point is that all these factors combined to make one thoroughly sound case against the unfortunate philanderer, who was about to pay a much higher price for his indiscretions than ever he had feared. For never once had he suspected the most cut-price private detective in Adelaide was on his tail.
A week prior I’d made sure to survey the best vantage points the location afforded a clear line of sight, the darkest niches to conceal myself within, and so my trade to ply. I’d got some great shots with the zoom lens from across the car park, but now it was time to earn my fee proper.
It was dark. The street was quiet. My tread is soft. Stalking out from behind a row of dustbins, cautiously side-stepping a discarded contraceptive, I stole my way across the car park and up to the window of the motel room. It had been about three minutes since the pair had entered, stumbling over the threshold as they had, unable to contain themselves. I figured that was enough time.
In their haste they’d neglected to draw the drapes entirely shut. Only the thin inner curtain stood between us. With the light from the bathroom shining through the crack in the door beyond the bed, it was not nearly enough to afford them privacy.
This might sound like a stroke of luck but, in fact, I felt ambivalent. If I could not attain the proof I was being paid for tonight, then I would just have to come back next week, or the week after, for however long it took until I did, accruing an ever larger bill to present Mrs Eckersley. On the other hand, now I was being given the chance to earn my contract's contingency all the sooner – a sizeable lump sum. It sounds obvious that I should prefer the latter, but it's hard to know in this business when your next client will come knocking.
I’m not an expert photographer but I know a good angle when I see one. I took about two dozen useful shots of the activities at play in the motel room, not including any that failed to explicitly identify Mr Eckersley as one of the key participants. I don’t think I intended to be anything other than completely objective, but the end result was almost inexcusably lurid. One in particular caught the girl’s face in a flicker of ecstatic glory any man would have been proud to elicit.
… That was then.
It was this photograph that Mrs Eckersley now held in her hands as I completed my verbal report, from which I subtracted only the most graphic detail. I couldn’t help but wonder how long it had been since the man had made her feel that way. A rotten thing to think, but there you are. She was the one dwelling on it with a face like a fit.
She turned over to the next image. It was the corresponding close-up of her husband this time, in profile, overcome by a similar rapture. Her sorrow turned instantly to a scowl. In fact, she’d forgotten to cry for several minutes. She still knew what I was thinking, that underneath it all she was more than a little pleased, but there must have been something else, something lingering and pitiable, either anger or jealousy. She was human after all, just struggling to admit it. Don't we all?
Finally, she managed to squeeze out a few simple words. They were: “You are very thorough, Mr Blunt.” It was not a compliment.
“That’s what I’m well paid for, Mrs Eckersley,” I responded.
“Yes…” She took the hint well. Her perfect disguise was resumed without a glimmer of real feeling. Her every movement was so deliberate, from unzipping a compartment of her bag, to reaching inside it for her cheque book. It was like watching a choreographed scene. I must have been in a cheeky mood, because before she could reach for her pen, I interrupted the performance by offering a ball-point of my own.
“Thank you,” she very nearly snarled at me.
Don't strain yourself, dear.
I’ve never understood the natural stinginess of my clients. On the verge of one of the larger financial windfalls of their lives, after a short spell of prosperous marriage, they suddenly develop distaste for forking out their agent's share of it. I used to think it was all part of the act: they must convince me they’re not glad I’ve come through with the goods – they care less about money than the emotional distress – like they hired me to prove their husbands were pure. But after three years and dozens of cases, I'm certain it's all true.
Unless it's actually me they hate. I probably shouldn't rule that out.
She signed the receipt for my expenses form, and then the cheque she had already filled out while I reached into the top drawer of my desk and retrieved a memory stick. It had all the juicy pics downloaded to it from my digital camera – her evidence.
I ventured: “You’ll be launching proceedings, presumably.” Not that it was any of my business.
The question caught her unprepared. She stammered a moment before replying: “I don’t know. I didn’t want to confront him without evidence. I was afraid I’d make a fool of myself.”
“Now you won’t have to.”
We exchanged items cordially.
“That’s what we agreed to,” she confirmed.
I didn’t look at the cheque – bad form – just left it on my desk while I re-pocketed my pen.
“I can recommend a good solicitor," I said. "He rarely sees a court room and always gets his man.”
“That won’t be necessary”
“I didn’t think so.” I was sure she had already lined up all the representation she would need.
Again, she paused before returning as flatly as she could: “I don’t think I like what you’re implying, Mr Blunt.”
“What makes you think I like it?” A stupid thing to say, I admit. I think I was just getting fed up with her. That often happens once I've got their money in my hand.
She picked up the photographs from the desk, glanced at their sensational detail once more and answered me truthfully. “It seems to me you’re very enthusiastic.”
What was I supposed to do? Deny it? Divorce was a dirty business but it paid the bills. And I was overworked. Who the hell was I to judge when I was the one who hid amidst piles of garbage, snooping on extra-marital sex to earn my reward? I guess if I'm brutally honest, that’s the real reason I was needling her, nothing personal. Disgust with oneself must always outrank that which might be found in anyone else, and is infinitely more difficult to confront. This was a momentary depression, a single exceptionally sour mood buried beneath my usual mix of apathy and pessimism. To Mrs Eckersley, I just waved my hand in a non-committal gesture of acknowledgement.
She responded by resuming the victim act, with a farewell line I could picture her rehearsing in front of the mirror. “Thank you again. You’ve taken a great weight off my mind. I believe that, not knowing was really the most awful thing.”
I smiled as she stood and headed for the door.
What I really wanted was the last word – something punchy and unanswerable, to deny her the satisfaction of being right about me. Like, maybe she should put more practice into her expression before she tried it out on the family court. Failing that, she was better off with the tissues. Hide her face altogether. But I didn't say anything of the kind. I did not stoop to such childishness, but kept my mouth firmly shut.
Mrs Eckersley remained silent, too, now that the time had come for us to part ways. In so doing she proved, perhaps, we were both bigger people than I had credited.
She stepped out of my office. I heard her say "good morning" to Gina, followed by the sharp click of her heels again on my floorboards. Still, I waited until I heard the main door swing shut with a long, gasping squeal, signifying her exit, before I eased back in my office chair and propped my feet upon the desk.
I ought to do something about that door, I thought. Was it just my imagination or did the noise get louder every day? That could be a job for tomorrow.
Now, I picked up and examined Mrs Eckersley's cheque. It was a very pleasing round figure. When added to the advance I charged the woman weeks ago, it would pay a number of my immediate bills, and a few more that hadn't arrived yet. Most people in my profession wouldn’t accept such a manner of payment but I wasn’t worried about it not being honoured. It’s the lawyers who have to deal with criminal classes. My end of the market is more dependable, not to mention a lot safer to backchat. Some clients have been known to raise a dispute over the bill, or go just plain delinquent, but Mrs Eckersley wasn't the type, no matter how she felt about me, which was one reason at least to think well of her.
I got up and sauntered to the door, opened it and leaned against the frame. Gina sat at her desk, behind her computer. She had been busy typing up some forms and now looked at me. With a gentle sigh, I told her she could take lunch while I slipped home for a shower. I needed to scrub some of the stink of the job off me. I still felt depressed.
She stopped me short and I realised we weren’t alone.
“Um, actually, your afternoon appointment is here early,” she explained. “Mr and Mrs Burrowes…”
Burrowes…? Yes. My one o'clock. It wasn't yet midday. I recalled feeling I should have recognised the name when first I'd heard it – when Gina made the appointment on Friday – but even now was drawing a blank.
The pair certainly didn't look familiar. They were an older couple, though come to think of it they weren’t nearly as old as they looked. He was thinning on top and thickening in the middle, from too many beers in front of the football game, I guessed. Nevertheless, he was powerfully built and his skin bore the deep tan of the summer sun that had baked into it for at least a couple of decades. He’d spent a good part of his life working hard for little effect as the lines on his face and the age of his suit showed all too plainly. She was of the same ilk, old fashioned, conservative, of a kind the modern world liked to sneer at. The kind who still goes to church every Sunday in their best clothes (I had a feeling she was wearing them now) and actually mean every word of the goodness they pray for. She looked like she could do with a good prayer right now. An air of sorrow travelled with her, one that would wash over me as well before she left later that afternoon. It was in the way he held her hand, though, out of comfort rather than love that struck me immediately. Any fool could tell they were not my typical clients.
I introduced myself, offered an optimistic handshake, and showed them into my office. Before I followed them there, I gave Mrs Eckersley’s cheque to Gina with instructions to go to the bank in her lunch break. It was as I sat down again opposite the Burrowes, that I suddenly remembered where I had heard their name before. I'm afraid to admit the revelation did not strike me kindly. Suddenly I realised what kind of a day awaited me.
It was a case of a missing girl, and all the intrigue that goes along with such a thing; a salacious novelty that always occupies the tabloids, especially in a city as small as Adelaide where the talk is cheap and the news media cheaper. I can’t remember exactly how many months back it had hit the press. I had only taken note because an old acquaintance of mine (for his sake, I hesitate to use the word 'friend') from the force was in charge of the investigation. I couldn’t recall any of the significant details, because there were precious few to begin with: a young woman, returning home, was never seen or heard from again. Police were baffled, as the saying goes.
It must have been an all too true cliché if her poor parents were now desperate enough to come to me, and all too outrageous. It wouldn’t be right for me to take them on as clients. I’d have to turn them down.
They introduced themselves and I offered them refreshment, which they declined. He did most of the talking while I listened politely and decided how best to let them down. Mrs Eckersley's cheque aside, God, what a shitty day! And I hadn’t even had lunch yet.
Mr Burrowes showed me what I took to be the most recent picture taken of his daughter and identified her as such, one Lucile Burrowes. She was a delightful looking young girl: early twenties with short, light brown hair, brown eyes and a smile that could light up the darkest of nights. In the picture, she wore a bright blue dress and a thin crucifix necklace. She was facing shot and smiling, holding an arm around a singular friend's shoulders, having an equally good time – a girls’ night out. From the angle, I think Lucile was the one holding the phone camera.
Mr Burrowes stopped to ask me: “Are you to any extent familiar with the case?”
“Only what I read in the papers,” I confirmed.
“Then you know almost as much as we do,” he said. “Tomorrow, it will be three months since she disappeared. Next week is her twenty-third birthday.”
I had to put a stop to this right now. “Mr Burrowes, I’m sorry, but I’m not the one to help you,” I began, before pausing to choose my words carefully. “The police handle these kinds of missing person’s cases all the time and do so very professionally. They’re the only ones who can find your daughter.”
“We know that," Mr Burrowes countered quickly. "We’ve been told that before. But it’s been long enough without a sign, not a word. Not a trace for three months, Mr Blunt. So we’ve got to try something different. We’ve just got to.” He leaned across the desk. “The police told us early on, that every day she’s still missing, the more likely it is that she’s dead.” He reached out to take his wife’s hand again as these words came out and looked at her now as he resumed. “It’s been enough days. We both think there must be some other way.”
I refused to let my voice dip into sympathy. “How many other agencies did you call before you knocked on my door?” I asked.
“Two,” he said, and seemed reluctant to admit it, like I’d be surprised or offended that I wasn’t his first choice. “They both told us the same thing you just did: 'Let the police handle it,' they said. They wouldn’t take the case.”
“They were the bigger partnerships, I take it?”
“I don’t blame them. They have more to lose than I do, should they step on a policeman’s toes. They’re perfectly correct in any case. There’s really nothing I can do the authorities can’t. You’d be wasting your money.”
“We don’t care about that.”
“Everyone cares about money, Mr Burrowes. Honestly, I’d hate to see you two get screwed by the next guy on your list.”
He tried to interrupt me but I wouldn’t let him.
“I can see it all right now. Sooner or later, you’ll walk into some slicker outfit than this and they’ll tell you they can help you out, maybe even tell you they're better than the cops. They’ll tell you they’ve got the connections, that there’s no one they can’t find and you’ll pay them because you’ll be getting more desperate by the day. You’ll pay them whatever they ask because you love your daughter and you want her back. But it won’t bring her back, Mr Burrowes, I promise you.”
The plea came from Mrs Burrowes, who just couldn’t take any more of my lecture and started to cry. By fortune, the tissue box was still on my desk where Mrs Eckersley had made far less genuine use of it. I tried to smile comfortingly and pushed it in Mrs Burrowes’ direction. She took one gratefully while her husband put his comforting arm around her. It was no more than a customary gesture. He let his head down and couldn’t look at her beside him, knowing there was nothing he could really do to make her feel any better. The defeated way in which he accepted his helplessness only added to her next words. They were meant to get to me and they did.
“Please, Mr Blunt," she began anew. "We know there’s not much chance. We’ve known for a while, even if we haven’t said it. But we can’t do nothing. Do you understand that? We can’t sit around and wait any more. We can't get on with our lives until we've done all that can possibly be done. You don’t know what it’s like, Mr Blunt. What it’s like to sit in silence, imagining what might have happened, not knowing if there’s something you might have done, some way you could have changed it. We have to do something, now.”
God, am I a sucker? If there really was one born every minute, my mother must have been in labour the whole damned day. I didn't want to show what I was thinking. The only place I could find to look to avoid looking at the Burrowes was the photo of Lucile I still held in my hand. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting picture of innocence in a world barrelling so swiftly towards hell than this.
“Who’s the other girl?” I asked to change the subject.
Mr Burrowes saw me looking at the picture. “That’s Lauren Piper. She's her best friend since school. They share a flat together. She said it’s the most recent photo she had, about a month before she went missing.”
I asked him to write down for me the address and phone number and continued the questioning: “Did she have any boyfriends, anyone she might run away with?”
“She would never do that without telling us.”
On principle, I never believe lines like that one. “Did she?” I insisted.
“Not that she ever told us about. She’d had boyfriends, but no one special.”
“Did the police ever have any suspects they didn’t release to the public?”
“If they did, they didn’t tell us, either.”
I could sense I was raising their hopes with every question I asked. I wanted them out of my office.
"Can I keep this picture?" I asked.
Mrs Burrowes replied: “Of course. Does that mean you’ll take the case?”
I refused to sound in any way reassuring: “I don’t know. I won’t promise you I'll do anything at all until I've made some inquiries.”
“We can pay you–”
I cut her off before she could reach into her handbag. “I won’t take a cent of your money till I’m sure I’m not wasting it. Till I do some actual work for you, I mean. I tell you what, Mrs Burrowes, I’ll give you a call in a couple of days, by which time I will have an answer for you one way or the other. As it happens you’ve picked a good time for me. My ship just came in, and I can afford to do favours. I’ll make some calls and see what I can find out, and then, if I’ve found something to go on, I’ll draw you up a contract. If not, I won’t string you along any further.”
She nodded weakly and said thank you. Mr Burrowes shook my hand again.
As I showed them out I noted that Gina was typing away feverishly at the keyboard like she wanted to strangle it, or strangle someone with its cord. Obviously, she couldn’t possibly have got back from the bank already and was just trying to look busy. Clearly she’d been listening in the whole time through the wall that was so thin it was practically pointless. Still, it suited her to smile efficiently at the Burrowes as I said goodbye, and only have a go at me once she was sure they were out of earshot.
“You bloody idiot. You’re gonna take their case, aren’t you?” was how the complaint burst out of her.
She was a darling, mostly, but sometimes just too serious. I often used her to protect me from clients I had no particular desire to speak to in person. If you asked me, the role had gone to her head. She saw herself as my first line of defence, and quite a formidable one at that.
I ignored her outrage and stepped noncommittally back into my own office. “Get on that internet thingy," I said, "and make a file of all the reports about the Lucy Burrowes case.” I can’t take staring at computers, and I can't use computers, and I don't like computers, which are the three main reasons I need a secretary before I even think about contracts and accounts.
Gina also does my accounts.
“You won’t get rich off sob stories like theirs,” came back her token of protest.
I turned and offered her my first honest smile for the day. “Sometimes, Angel," I said, "a man’s got to work for the soul instead of the wallet. Do you know what I mean?”
“Not me, I’m a working girl,” she shot back at me as I departed. I heard her resume the keyboard bashing, even more furiously than before.
She was right, of course, I conceded as I resumed my desk.
And yet, I yelled further instructions through the flimsy wall: “And get Henry on the line. Tell him if it’s not convenient, I’ll come down there and talk to him in person.”
It was intended as a threat. Henry, I had read was the lead investigator on the Burrowes case, that occasional acquaintance of mine. There was no way in hell he would appreciate my putting in an appearance at police headquarters, smeared in my cheap suit and sleazy habits. Private investigators are persona non grata at the best of times, and I’ve never known the best of times.
While I waited for Gina, I pulled a fresh spiral notebook out of my bottom drawer and headed the first page: BURROWES, Lucile. I underlined it and jotted down underneath the list of players. I started with the parents; underneath them came ‘PIPER, Lauren’ and ‘Boyfriends’, to which I added a question mark. I suppose that was it for the moment.
The first suspects in a missing child case, though Lucile was no child, are always the parents. I didn’t really believe that, but it’s a funny old world. The flatmate, I’d have to judge for myself later on. One could guarantee a girl like that had guys hanging round her, whether she encouraged them or not, and I didn’t for one second believe that innocent Christian-girl story. Her parents probably thought she was still a virgin.
I realised I’d already started thinking of Lucile in the past tense, and decided it was wrong. Since they had been so frank with me, the Burrowes deserved an open-minded approach.
In that vein, where to begin was an easy enough decision to make. One thing I knew for sure, nobody can go missing all by themselves, by design or misadventure, and the most likely person to know something secret was the best friend with whom the subject lived. So my first line of inquiry was set.
Gina called out to me: “Line one.”
She thought it sounded impressive to let the clients believe we were a larger operation, and yet it was always line one. Why not two or three? I picked up the receiver and found I’d been lucky enough to catch Detective Henry Holden in the office. We started with some small talk which I knew he didn’t care for. Finally he asked me gruffly what I wanted.
“I need to see you.”
“That’s fine. Tomorrow will do.”
I heard him grumbling, something inaudible, then: “All right, make it early.” He went on to suggest a restaurant in town a few blocks from the police station that I knew to serve up the most gargantuan breakfasts.
“That’s fine,” I agreed, “And I need you to bring something with you.” I paused, allowing him a moment to prepare. “I need you to bring everything you’ve got on the Burrowes girl.”
He took it the way I thought he would. He started yelling before realising he could be overheard. Certain words four letters long were mentioned to which I didn’t even bother listening.
I waited for him to calm down, knowing he would end up giving in as long as I acceded to certain conditions, discretion being first and foremost, like I was born yesterday.
“Come on, mate, who the hell am I gonna talk to?” It was a reasonable question.
He finally cooled down sufficiently to be reasonable. I think he wasn’t alone or he’d have interrogated me further. Either that or there were so few leads in the case he actually secretly welcomed my involvement. No, on second thoughts, that was too much wishful thinking. In any case, he agreed and hung up the phone.
Next, I debated whether to phone Lauren Piper now or later. As I was dialling I decided it was a bad idea altogether. And yet I didn't hang up, but waited for someone to pick up the receiver. As it happened I got a recording. I chose not to leave a message. After a moment pondering how rare it was for a member of the younger generation to even have a landline, I decided it would be a much better stratagem to surprise her in person later tonight.