A man always takes full responsibility for his actions. That’s what Uncle Buddy used to say to us boys who hung around him all the time. Uncle Buddy was something of an enigma. He never told us where he came from, but from the way he talked we knew he wasn’t from East Texas. He didn’t have that slow, sugary drawl that everyone else had, and he spoke at a faster clip. But, he knew how to bait a hook, could shoot hickory nuts out of the tree from fifty yards, and knew more stories than an adolescent boy from a small farm town ever knew existed. My buddies and I hung around him, and our parents didn’t mind, because they knew he always taught us to be responsible, and would conk or thump our noggins with his calloused index finger whenever he caught us misbehaving. This was in the 1950s before corporal punishment became taboo, and when any adult was considered responsible for any child within his or her reach.
Uncle Buddy wasn’t really my uncle, and his name wasn’t Buddy. I didn’t know that, of course, until just before I graduated from high school. He died that year. Just went to bed in the little two room shack that he’d built himself, and never woke up. One of his neighbors found the body when the place started to stink.
They had a big funeral for him. Every black person in town came, and even a few of the white farmers for whom he occasionally did odd jobs came and sat in the back of the little white frame church that was filled to capacity.
I remember it vividly because it was in early April, and it had already started to get hot – not hot like it gets in the summer, but hot enough that sitting in a packed building with nothing but little paper fans flapping ineffectually and moving the warm around that you’re soaking wet pretty quick. I also remember it because that was the day I discovered who Uncle Buddy really was.
His real name was Oscar Perlmutter. They had it printed in real fancy letters on the mimeographed program that was handed out to everyone as they entered the church. That day, sitting in a middle pew in that hot church, I finally learned his name. The program also had a blurry picture of him as a much younger man wearing a military uniform. Back home after the service, when I asked my dad about it, he told me what he knew. Oscar had originally come from St. Louis, Missouri, where he’d lived since coming home from World War II. He’d originally come from a little town in Oregon, but while in a military hospital recovering from wounds he’d sustained driving supplies across Germany for Patton’s Third Army, he’d met a black nurse, one of the few in England at the time, and when he was demobilized, he followed her to St. Louis. My dad didn’t know her name. He said Oscar would never speak it, and looked pained whenever he talked about her, which was seldom. I know he never told us kids.
He’d planned to marry her, though. That much he did tell my dad. He also told him why they never wed. A week before the wedding, his fiancée was coming home from the black hospital where she worked. She’d had the night shift in the ER. As she was crossing the street a block from the apartment they shared, a driver came careening around the corner in a pickup truck. She was knocked twenty feet. The paramedics pronounced her dead at the scene. The pickup driver drove away, but not before Oscar, who had been attracted by the sound of screaming - the other pedestrians who had witnessed the accident – came out of the apartment just as the truck was speeding away. He got a good look at the driver, a middle aged white man in a plaid shirt and overalls, with a frightened look on his sunburned face. He also got a good look at the vehicle’s plate number.
It took him a week, but he eventually found a janitor who worked nights in the Department of Motor Vehicles. The man let him in one night, and he broke into the records section and spent half the night going through filing cabinets until he found the man’s name and address. The next night he paid the man a visit. He was a farmer who lived alone on a small farm just outside the city, so it was an easy matter for Oscar to break a window in the kitchen of the run down frame house, enter and catch the man unawares in his bed. At first, he tried to put up a fight, but Oscar had thirty pounds and a lot of anger on him. He beat the man until he wasn’t moving, and left him lying still and bleeding on his bedroom floor.
Knowing it would just be a matter of time until the police identified him, and thinking he’d killed the man, Oscar went back to his apartment, packed what he could carry in his old army duffel bag, and hit the road. He hitchhiked and walked until he crossed the Red River and entered the back country of East Texas, an area of small towns, farms and oil derricks, crisscrossed by two lane blacktop roads and red clay dirt roads, with more dogs and wildlife than people, where people would nod and say hello, but wouldn’t engage a stranger in conversation if he didn’t want.
That was all I knew about Uncle Buddy aka Oscar Perlmutter. But, for reasons I could never explain, in April sometimes memories of him would pop into my mind. Maybe it was the heat. Warm weather had come early to Washington, DC, and the air conditioner in my office was straining to cool the lukewarm air. My shirt had dark half-moon stains at the armpits from sweat. It wasn’t exactly uncomfortable to me, but I knew that Heather Bunche, my assistant and partner, was sitting at her desk flapping a paper fan for all it was worth. The woman hates to sweat.
I suppose you’re wondering who the heck I am, right? My name is Al Pennyback – actually Alfred Einstein Pennyback, thanks to a mother who was a great fan of the German scientist, and who lived in a culture where giving your kids wacky names was all too common. By the time I was in junior high, though, no one called me Alfred Einstein. I’d become pretty good with my fists, and was big for my age, so from eighth grade, I was just Al Pennyback.
I’m a private investigator. Have been for more than a decade, ever since I retired from the army after my wife, Sarah, and my son, Ethan, were killed, along with the members of Ethan’s elementary school soccer team, by a truck driver who ran a stop sign and T-boned the van Sarah was driving, bringing them back from an evening soccer match in Arlington.
That put me in a funk for a while, but my friend Quincy Chang, a former army JAG lawyer, now a partner in a DC law firm, talked me into getting my PI license and set me up with a ten thousand buck a month retainer from his firm. The work for the firm is easy – chasing clients who fail to pay their fees, or locating lost heirs to obscure fortunes – leaving me time to take the occasional over the transom case.
Many of these cases are brought in by Heather. She collects people with problems the way a black dress collects lint. We charge a variable rate depending on the client’s ability to pay – and from time to time even take a case pro bono. The main criteria for me to accept the case, besides the person really needing help, is that it has to involve a puzzle. The harder the better. I can never resist a puzzle. Like some people who can’t ignore a ringing phone, I can’t ignore an unsolved puzzle.
My mind was moving on from Uncle Buddy to my plans for the weekend when Heather walked into my office.
“Hey, honey bunch,” I said, using the pet name she wouldn’t let anyone else but me use. “What’s up? Tired of sweating out there, and want to join me in here where it’s cooler?”
That was meant to be a joke. My office is on the west side of the building, and it was three in the afternoon, so even with the blinds almost closed, it resembled a sauna or a steam bath – I could never decide which. She didn’t laugh. She hardly ever laughs at my jokes.
“There’s someone here who needs to talk to you,” she said. “She wants to hire you.”
I gave her one of my ‘right eyebrow’ lifted looks – the one meant to convey skepticism. She ignored that just like she ignores my jokes. She was being unreadable.
“Heather, you know we don’t do divorce cases.”
“Did I say it was a divorce case?” Now, her eyebrows were arched upward. “No one said anything about a divorce case.”
Methinks she did protest too much. There had to be something fishy about it. I have a sense about such things. On the other hand, I had made an assumption and jumped to a conclusion with no evidence to support it, something I’d often told Heather a good investigator never does.
“Okay, I stand chastised,” I said. “Who is she, and what does she want to hire me for?”
“I think I should let her tell you that,” Heather said. She stepped aside, pushing the door open wider.
A woman who was almost my six-one in height, with close-cropped, jet black hair framing a cocoa-colored oval face which was dominated by a pair of the largest, darkest, and most soulful eyes I’d ever seen glided in. She was wearing a shimmery blue blouse that clung to a pair of perfect breasts that from the sway weren’t encumbered by a bra, and a matching blue skirt that stopped midway down a pair of smooth brown thighs that would cause the temperature in a meat locker to rise.
I stood and moved to the side of my desk, extending my hand. She grasped it with a grip that was smooth, dry, warm, and firm. Her eyes locked with mine.
“Mr. Pennyback, I have a problem, and Heather says you’re the man to help me solve it,” she said in a voice that was smoky and husky like an aged scotch whiskey.
“I have been known to solve problems,” I said. “Why don’t you have a seat and tell me what it is.”
I motioned for Heather to leave. Not that I needed – or wanted – to be alone with such a beautiful woman. I have all the woman I need in Sandra Winter, who has been living with me for a few years now. But, three people in my tiny office would raise the temperature to an uncomfortable level until the building air conditioning system resumed working. Besides, I only have two chairs – a scuffed leather executive chair I got at a military surplus auction that I sit in, and a wooden chair that I keep beside the desk, which I mostly use to keep files off the desk itself. It was empty. We hadn’t had much to work on for a while.
Heather gave me a smirk and withdrew to the outer office, closing the door as she left.
“I suppose I should start by telling you my name,” she said. “Candace, Candace Kaine. I work as a sales clerk at Marshalls, downtown in the National Press Building.”
“A pleasure meeting you, Ms. Kaine. Now, tell me your problem.”
“Call me Candy,” she said.
I held back a laugh. Candy Kaine! She did look sweet, though. “Okay, Candy,” I said. “How can I help you?”
“I want you to find someone for me.”
A missing person. That was what I did for Holcombe, Stein and Chang. Unless the person had left the country, it didn’t sound too complicated.
“Who is this missing person, and how long has he . . . or she . . . been missing?”
“He has been gone for three weeks now,” she said. “His name is Christopher Cross, and he’s my baby’s father.”