A Luminations Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
This is less than ideal.
This is business.
You have plenty of money. I saw to that. The only business you need to do is…
I know. You keep reminding me. Be patient. I'm working on it.
I've been patient.
No, you've been a royal pain in the ass. And you had your chance in December. You could have blown her head off right there, and I could have fixed it so that no one ever would've known.
That isn't the way it has to happen.
Well, funny thing, that. What's happening right now, this little bit of business - It has to happen. I owe this woman and you do, too.
You're wanted by the police.
No. I am a person of interest. I'm sure the DA in Boston would like to have a chat, but there's no warrant out for my arrest. Besides, I'm not planning on doing anything illegal. How about you?
I've gained a new appreciation for cell phones since I started having conversations with a voice in my head. A phone can save you a lot of grief, but I still prefer to talk in my car. It's a nice enclosed space, it's relatively difficult to bug, relatively easy to sweep for bugs, and it keeps the noise inside when a conversation gets heated.
That happens sometimes.
My client would be arriving in fifteen minutes. I got out and locked the car. The two vacant store fronts in the strip mall were now three. The cell phone place had gone out of business. A generic "available" sign hung in the window with a phone number and an email address scribbled in with a sharpie. It wasn't my landlord's number. Rental broker, maybe?
Mighty Comics was still there. So was the storefront gym. It didn't look like business was booming at either place.
In the grass alongside the parking lot, the New Hampshire primary was in full swing with a cluster of signs facing the road. I recognized most of the names.
Upstairs I tore down the note that had been left on my office door.
Ungrateful little wench, isn't she?
Touched a nerve?
I jiggled the key in the lock for half a minute before I remembered that I'd had the locks changed. I hadn't put the new key onto my keychain yet. I dug around in my pocket. Trinkets and necessities slipped through my fingers. A flash drive, a d20, a hard candy mint, dimes, pennies.
I worked the correct key loose and opened the door to my office. The sign says "Lumination Agency," and below that: "Chester Hall, Licensed Private Investigator." Half-truths at best. The license expired sometime during the lost year. And Chester Hall is only half of me these days.
The client showed up ten minutes early. I hadn't been sure I'd recognize her. We only met once, very briefly, about three years ago. But I caught a glance out the window to the parking lot and I knew it was her even before she spotted my little sign on the building directory and headed in.
Lynn Connor had come all the way here from Buffalo, New York, because she had a job for me. And I'd agreed to meet with her because three years ago I almost did something terrible to someone close to her. Didn't matter that the man was already a week or two in his grave at the time.
I greeted her in the reception area and showed her back to my office. That felt awkward. Maybe I was just out of practice.
"Thank you for agreeing to see me, Mr. Hall." Lynn Connor was young and pretty, dressed business casual with style. She'd worked an IT job in New York City until the company went bust a few years back. That was around the time her uncle in Buffalo had passed on and she'd inherited his collectibles shop, along with its own rogue's gallery of friends and enemies.
We made small talk. I was surprised to hear she'd stayed in Buffalo. It didn't seem her style. I was more surprised to hear she'd held onto the store.
"Oh, it's not my main source of income. I get enough freelance tech support and consulting work to pay the bills, just barely, and the shop can usually be counted on to break even. The manager who worked for my Uncle Randy still runs the place, but I stop by a couple times a week when they're playing games there."
"That's right. They were playing D&D last time I visited."
"Boardgames are more my speed, Mr. Hall. Maybe you can find time to join us for a game of Carcassonne when you come to Buffalo."
I smiled. "You haven't explained what you need me to come to Buffalo for, Ms. Connor."
"Oh, yes. It's this." She handed me a sheaf of documents in a binder clip.
I looked them over.
Zero down payment refinancing. Adjustable rate. Balloon payment. And about a truckload of bullshit, all in very fine print.
"I don't need to come out to Buffalo to tell you this is a scam, Ms. Connor. I'll do that right here for free."
She took the papers back.
"I know it's a scam. I turned down their offer. They were unusually persistent about it."
There was more. I could tell. I leaned back in my chair.
"Now someone is threatening me, trying to intimidate me into selling. I suspect it's these same scammers. I want to hire you to find out who they are."
I was already feeling like I knew the answer to that.
Any objections now?
Just silence in the back of my skull, so I shook Lynn Connor's hand and agreed to take the case.
Somewhere past Albany I slipped into the back spaces and let her do the driving.
There are advantages. It's not quite like having a second driver in the car. Only one set of eyes, after all, and the eye muscles can still get tired. But it takes some of the edge off the mental fatigue when I get a chance to fade off and daydream knowing that she's watching the road. We can do sixteen hours, just stopping to pee. Drive-through fast food, and we just keep making distance.
I didn't think I'd be back on the road so soon. When I came back to New Hampshire I thought that it would be time to settle affairs. We were ready to kick ass and take names. Save the girl, take down the bad guys. All that crap.
The girl is still pissed off at me and the bad guys are still out there. And I'm back in the P.I. business and back on the highway.
Why are we stopping?
I nudged the wheel and pulled up to a stop sign at the end of an exit ramp. Best I could tell we were somewhere between Albany and… I had no idea. Cooperstown, maybe. There was snow on the ground and in the branches of the pine trees along the road.
We're not tourists.
Stop worrying. You'll get to Buffalo.
Two minutes later, I was pulling into the parking lot of Howe Caverns, one of the most advertised roadside attractions in upstate New York. This, apparently, was what I got for not paying attention.
So I handed over my money and took the tour of the caverns along with a group of four senior citizens who were on their way from Allentown, Pennsylvania to spend a week in Montreal.
Halfway through I realized that I was paying more attention to the stalactites and stalagmites than she was.
What's going on here?
Nothing. Enjoy the show. It's pretty, isn't it? Indians found it first, you know. We knew about it for a long time. Longer than the story they tell you.
The guide had mentioned the Indian name. Otsgaragee. "Cave of the Great Galleries." The official date of discovery was 1842 by Lester Howe, although Lester himself credited his cow with the find.
The tour, on foot and by boat, lasted about an hour and a half.
I found myself in the gift shop sifting through a display box of arrowheads.
Those aren't real. They're made in China.
Not this one.
I ran my thumb along the edge of the obsidian. It slid into my skin without resistance, drawing blood that oozed out before I felt the sting of the cut.
It cost me two dollars and fifty cents. I pulled three ones out of my wallet with my left hand while I squeezed a handkerchief in my pocket to stop the cut, and I told the cashier to keep the change.
Mattie had what she wanted. I dug some band-aids out of the first aid kit in the trunk and taped up my thumb and she let me drive the rest of the way to Buffalo.
There were posters on every telephone pole.
We Buy Fixer-Uppers. Dot Com. In over your head? Call us toll free, sign the papers, and we'll handle everything.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Desperate times can also make people do dumb things. Like sign their house over as collateral on a scheme that's supposed to reduce their mortgage payment. And then, when the payments go up anyway it's not their nice neighborhood bank that's holding the lien on the house. It's not even some big corporation that might be talked into negotiating because they realize that the expense of foreclosure is a loss for them. No, the ones left holding the deed to the house are the scumbags who came riding in pretending they were going to save the poor sap, and who are now getting exactly what they'd wanted all along. They don't even care if you trash the place because they're planning to bulldoze the whole block once they own every piece of property on it.
I wondered if it could be that simple. I parked a couple doors down from Ford's Collectibles. The shop itself was upstairs above a payday loan operation that hadn't been there the last time I'd visited. Not much else had changed. Same Chinese takeout a couple of blocks up the street. Same scattering of vacant storefronts.
A few of the buildings had retail or office space upstairs, mostly vacant. The rest were apartments. I started knocking on doors.
"Every first of the month I pay my rent! Eight years! And now I am to be evicted? Sixty-five years old! Where do I go? You tell me that! Where?"
Most people didn't want to talk to me. I expected as much. But I also knew that sooner or later, I'd find someone who was eager to share their troubles. And I did. Victor Ciamba had done everything right. He'd held a job, stayed out of trouble, never gambled or run up credit card balances.
Too bad the same things couldn't be said about his landlord. Ciamba lived on the same block as Lynn's shop. Different property. Lynn owned her building outright. She'd emailed me a summary of her finances. Her mortgage wasn't one of these subprime ripoffs. That was one of the reasons she'd been so quick to turn down the scammers.
If someone wanted to redevelop the whole block or maybe the neighborhood, then whoever had foreclosed on Ciamba's landlord would probably be the same operation that was putting the pressure on Lynn.
"You know, in Sicily nobody would get away with this bullshit. You know what I mean? We look out for each other."
I nodded. Ciamba kept talking.
"My son, he's no good, you know? A bum. Can't help me find no place to live. But he comes here the other day, tells me I might as well burn the place down if they're throwing me out. You know, just to make a point. Well, I told him that's not right, you know?"
"I know. Look, Mr. Ciamba, I'm not sure if I can help you or not. But if you can get me some information about your landlord's creditors, I can at least investigate whether they've broken the law."
He pulled out some paperwork. Different letterhead than what Lynn had shown me. Same zip code, though. I got the feeling that I was going to discover a mailbox shop somewhere in that zipcode where these guys had staked out a nice neat row of boxes, all under the names of different dummy corporations. Scammers are deceptively difficult to track down. They need to operate out in the open, which makes it easier to get a lead on a con-man compared to a bank robber or a burglar. But they're also aware that they are operating out in the open. So they take more precautions than a burglar might. They plant false trails, operate under aliases and stolen identities, and they pay attention to signs that they are being watched.
I looked more closely at the paperwork. The address was different, but enough of the phrasing was the same. So someone wanted the whole block. And Lynn wasn't selling. Something that Ciamba said suddenly took hold of my attention.
If someone wanted the whole block, they were probably in the urban renewal business. And if they weren't able to buy Lynn out, they might just try burning her out.
What are you going to do? Sneak around and wait for someone to show up and start a fire?
No. I'm going to hire someone to start one.
I chatted Ciamba up about the subprime mortgage mess and the economy, and at the end I turned the conversation back to his deadbeat son, the one who was suggesting Ciamba torch the place.
The nice thing about deadbeats: They're usually set in their routines. Mick Ciamba spent his evenings in a little bar where Bills and Sabres team pictures were lit by old neon beer signs. Twenty bucks to the bartender got Ciamba pointed out to me. A hundred got Ciamba talking, that and a steady supply of whiskey shots. It took another hundred to arrange the meeting. Ciamba was almost too eager. Maybe he'd already promised these people a job burning down his old man's apartment unit.
I had money I was willing to part with, and that made me something worth holding onto. Mick didn't look happy when I told him that I'd better do the driving, but he wasn't about to lose his meal ticket. We drove back downtown. Right back to the same block.
They were gangsta wannabees, barely old enough to get tried as adults. But they were smarter than Mick Ciamba on his best day.
"Who's the job for?"
"Bull. You're in here from out of state for your own business. I don't think so." The tall one with the Yankees cap did most of the talking.
We were in a basement two doors down from the elder Ciamba's apartment and four doors from Ford's Collectibles where the weekly D&D campaign was probably in full swing, complete with pizza and Mountain Dew. I was sitting in a folding chair staring down the two firebugs across a card table while Mick Ciamba sat on the floor in a corner, probably waiting for a chance to puke his guts out.
"I want the name. Who's the job for?" He was insistent.
So I tried a bit of name dropping.
"Craig Putnam. From Massachusetts."
I guess in some sense I could say it worked perfectly. They were all smiles and handshakes right up to the instant I got pistol-whipped.
Saw it coming. Didn't matter. The punk was fast as hell. I went down and stayed down.
I wasn't carrying. They got my phone and my wallet, and a fake ID I'd picked up in New Mexico.
I know. I got this.
I smelled smoke. Gasoline. They'd decided a demonstration was in order, apparently.
I'd scoped out the basement window. I hadn't counted on them leaving Mick Ciamba to die with me.
"Shit. Come on, Mick. We gotta go!" I dragged him up to his feet and slapped him once to get him awake and then again to get him under control when he realized the room was on fire. I grabbed one of the chairs and stood on it and pulled my steel-toe boot off to smash the window with.
Then the hard part. I dragged Mick up with me. The place was filling with smoke, and he was trying to cooperate, but he was so far gone he could barely manage it, and I wasn't sure I could get him through that window if he was dead weight. He was coughing and shaking, and I was trying to hold my breath.
Don't even start.
He managed to get a grip on the window frame and I got one hand under his knee and one on his belt and I lifted from my legs. He was up and out. I pulled myself through the window about two seconds before the firefighters kicked the door in.
I left Mick in the alley and went around to see how good my timing had been.
Perfect. Yankees fan and his buddy were getting shoved into a squad car and the BFD had the fire under control.
I walked up the block to Ford's where Lynn Connor was waiting in the stairwell.
"Got 'em," I told her, grinning.
I've gained a new appreciation for cell phones in the last year or two, so I keep up with the latest technology. The one that Yankees Fan took from me was texting its GPS position to Lynn Connor's phone every five minutes. And she was set to call the police with my position if I failed to check in. We'd practiced the script. I've spent a lot of time dealing with cops and dispatchers, so I know what to say to get their attention.
"Were those the men who were trying to force me out?" Lynn asked.
I shook my head. "Sorry. This is the bottom of the food chain. At the top, unfortunately, we may find some people I've had dealings with in the past. You know Craig Putnam?"
"No. Sorry. But people warned me that my uncle had enemies. Is he one of them?"
"Yeah, I think so. But if it is him, then this is gonna be a setback. The cops will talk to people on this block. And the ones who were being ripped off are gonna hear that their buildings almost got burned down and they're gonna talk to the cops. It wouldn't surprise me if the phone records from those two thugs lead the police in some interesting directions too."
There was a burst of laughter from the shop upstairs. The regulars, having a good time.
Lynn smiled. "Thank you for your help, Mr. Hall."
"Case is still open, Ms. Connor. I'll keep you up to date on how it goes, and call me direct if anyone makes any trouble for you."
"I will. They took your phone?"
"Yeah," I said. "I'll report it as a mugging and it'll find its way back to me. The trail leads back to New England. I've got a lot of driving to do tomorrow."
She squeezed my hand in hers and I walked out into the flashing lights from the fire trucks.
I didn't know.
That it was all connected?
I didn't either. I owed her. I take care of my obligations.
So do I.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2009