A Continuing Adventure of the Color-Blind Detective

By Bill Capron

I read an article recently that stated the average man by age forty-five has no male friends, just acquaintances. In our politically-correct world, this stereotype of course plays out negatively against the backdrop of women who have plenty of same-sex friends. To my thinking, that just makes women the dogs of the world and men the cats.

Well, Iím still ahead of the game, but not by much. One male friend, Walter Wallace, was having his usual end-of-month card game, and I stopped at his house on the off chance that heíd be in. I figured to pick up snacks for the game while I was out running errands. I rang the bell, no answer. I nudged the unlatched door and the wind took it the rest of the way open. I walked through the living-room into his white and black Formica kitchen. Walter was on his stomach, on the floor, in a pool of black. There were one wide arc of splattered blood against the wall where his spinning bodyís heart had pumped, looking for a resistance that was no longer there. The coppery smell clogged my throat. One less friend, one step closer to average. I returned to the living-room and pushed the front door shut with my toe. A giant screen television dominated the corner. Iíd seen the last Super Bowl from his couch.

Even though the message count displayed zero, I hit the play button on the answer machine. The nasal voice of his secretary blared, "Wally, pick up, itís me, Miranda. You there, honey?" The triple beep signified the end.

There didnít seem to be anything else to find, but then I had no idea what to look for. I wiped my prints off the answering machine and door knobs on the way out. Wally, I thought. No one calls him Wally. And honey? Miranda had a loser voice, but a winner body and an above-average face. Walter was a loser everything. My, how our friends can surprise us.

The normal private detective might call the cops, but of late my name wasnít worth squat to them. Not so long ago, I caught the cops suppressing evidence for the cityís powers that be, and by methods unknown, that evidence ended up with the media. Understand, no proof it was me, but theyíre not stupid.

So I was keeping a low profile, hoping everyone would forget, but not really caring so much either way. In their gray world, cops want you to follow their rules, even against common sense, or worse, against justice. They know me, Mr. Black & White, they know I donít work that way. Still, I like cops. Itís only copdom I donít particularly care for - copdom, and the self-serving, self-protecting bureaucracy and politicians. As I pulled out of Walterís street onto the main drag, a patrol car made the turn with its lights flashing, just missing my rear bumper. I knew the cop at the wheel, but his attention was on the road. Just as well for me.

* * * *

I ate a late lunch and spent some quality time thinking about Walter. We were friends based on a single chance encounter. I met Wally at the local minor league baseball game, he had the seat next to mine. We got to talking about the game, and he pointed to someone in a green dress. I told him I was color-blind. He said that was great, that Iíd feel right at home in his house, decorated in all black and white and gray since those were the only colors he could match. He could see colors, but he had no sense of them. He invited me to the poker game the next night. Later he decorated my office and the apartment above it, same basic color-less scheme.

Yes, Walterís a friend, for five years, and I didnít even know he was called Wally. What kind of friend is that? Well, itís the kind of friendships men make, not too deep, no commitments, no really personal stuff, none of that let-me-share-your-pain girl talk. Still, if it was your friend, youíd probably let someone else deal with the inconvenience of his death. I mean, friendship only goes so deep, right? Not me. I might not know everything there was to know about Walter Wallace, but he was enough of a friend that I wasnít going to let anyone get away with his murder.

So what was it Walter did for a living? I knew he shipped stuff. He called them gray goods once. Iíd joked, "Colors even I can see, right?" He said it had nothing to do with colors, but he didnít expand further. Iím a guy, so I didnít press.

I pulled up to his office in the Northwest, one of those converted railroad properties near the old train station. I knocked and that voice called, "The doorís open."

When I entered, she said, "Oh, itís you. Walterís not here right now." Weíd met once when she brought some papers to the poker game for Walter to sign. She sat in on four hands and won three.

"When do you expect him back?" I asked.

She took on a confidential tone, "Well, to tell you the truth, I donít know. I thought maybe I should call his house, you know, because itís month-end, but hey, Iím only the secretary."

I debated on telling her Walter was dead, but decided against it. Sheíd told me a lie, and I didnít know why. "Iíll wait here. All right with you, Miranda?"

She nodded, "Say, hey, no skin off my nose." She started tapping the keys of her computer.

I interrupted her, "I thought you guys had a warehouse or something?"

She gave me a I-donít-like-being-interrupted smile through the chewed-up dark lipstick which gave her mouth an uneven look around the edges as it bled into the cracks. "Thatís what Walter wants everybody to think, but itís all gas. Heís a middle man. We move things from sellers to buyers. Never get anything shipped here."

I kept up the friendly patter we were developing, "So what are gray goods?"

"Gray? Oh," she smiled, "Thatís what Walter tells everyone. Gray stands for mysterious."

Before I knew it, weíd be friends. "So what were these mysterious goods?"

"Donít know," she said returning her eyes to the keyboard. "We ship stuff with numbers. People call and order quantities of specific numbers. Walter checks out the availability, then calls the shippers in China."

I tinged my voice with skepticism, "And you donít know what youíre selling?"

She turned angry eyes to me, "Hey, whatís with the cross-examination? Walter told me the less I knew the better. I trusted Walter to look out for my interests, so when he said butt out, I butted out. You got a problem with that?"

I noted the past tense. I told her Iíd stop back later. The door shut behind me with a light whoosh from the automatic closer as I exited.

"Look whoís here," the six-five, two-fifty, gray-headed cop, Dennis Doyle, said to his short black partner when I returned. "Yeah, city hallís favorite PI. Maybe we should take him in and score a few points. What do you think?"

"Nah," the big guy smiled, and even winked a transparent gray eye at me, "heíd chew them up, spit them out sideways, and weíd be the ones in hot water." To me he said, "What the hell are you doing here?"

I put on my game face, "Iím waiting for Walter Wallace. We got a poker game and I wanted to know what I should bring. You got a problem with that, detective?"

He pointed a thick finger at me. "You can forget the poker. Wallace is dead." He studied my face for a reaction. "Youíre one dangerous guy to be around." He held the door open for me.

We all made our way back into the Walterís office. The detectives put on their game faces, and Miranda broke out in tears right there at the keyboard. Seemed a bit forced to me, but whoís to say?

"Itís Walter?"

They nodded.

"Oh, poor Walter," she wailed.

The black cop stayed to question the tearful Miranda, and the big cop took me to Walterís office. We could see Miranda through the windowed wall. It had all the reality of a television show.

Doyle opened with a threat, but with nothing behind it, "I could take you downtown, and maybe youíd fall down, get some bruises. If the Board finds out we had you and you just went walking, itíll be hell to pay."

I was feeling a bit testy, but controlled it. "So? Iíve been bruised before."

He opened the back door to the alley and motioned me out, then let the door close but not latch. "Yeah, well Iím not into bruising." He gave me a look I interpreted as respect. "We all had some great laughs at the station. You really pinned the ears back on the brass. For the first time I can remember, the pols couldnít blame everyone else."

Wrong and right, black and white, lies and truth, the currency of my profession. I answered, "Too many years of getting off without the consequences, you know, like what goes up sometimes comes down. Guess they found out they canít stop physics."

The cop laughed, "I donít know about physics, but I do know about pain, and theyíre still smarting at City Hall. Some of us guys," he winked again, "we watch out for you, on our own. Running a little interference, if you know what I mean."

The detective led me farther from the building. "But now, what have you got to do with Wallace?"

"I told you the truth. We got our end-of-month poker game. Iím in charge of the snacks. Miranda can probably verify that."

Doyle looked skeptical, "Donít know anything else, like how Wallace made a living?"

I shrugged my shoulders, "Havenít the slightest. Sold gray goods. You know what that means, detective?"

I was almost overcome, "Thanks."

Doyle was thoughtful. I saw his decision before he verbalized it, "Wallace was a gun runner. The Feds been monitoring him for years, keeping track of terrorists and the like. Want to know what theyíre buying, someone like Wallace is good to watch. Got this from the FBI guy who got to the scene right after the blue & white. He didnít say it," he paused, then took the big dive, "and you didnít hear it from me, but I think Wallace may have been FBI himself, deep cover. This much I know, the phones in his house were bugged. Probably the same for the office. We ainít ever going to hear those tapes."

* * * *

The guard had already made his rounds through the various office complexes. I was parked two hundred yards down the street, next to the railway tracks. The two bums who were eyeing the car after I disappeared into the scenery, they knew Iíd seen them, decided maybe I didnít look like someone to tangle with, ever.

It took about three minutes to pick the lock. It was a new style Schlage, so it was slow going, but it wasnít like there was anyone watching. I guessed the surveillance equipment had been pulled, but once inside, I opted for a minimum of noise. I left the lights off, just in case the guard came by again. For most people, the world lit by flashlight looks eerie, devoid of color, for me, it was just a dim version of the normal thing, except the grays tend to fade to black at the edges.

I started with Mirandaís desk, then moved to Walterís, but there was nothing. I moved to the files and looked through the order forms, some with only Mirandaís handwriting on them. So much for it all being a mystery to her. The lowest drawer was for receivables, payables, contracts and leases. I looked for the phone company. I took the last six months billing statements and vacated the premises for less risky environs.

In my office, I scanned the reports into my computer, then pared away the extraneous lines and pulled the phone numbers, dates and durations into a simple spreadsheet, sorted by phone number. One number was called every week, in Salem.

I blocked my Caller ID, then dialed. An answer machine came on, a secretaryís soft Irish lilt. "Youíve reached Michael Murphy Enterprises. We are unable to take your call at this time. Please leave a message."

I called for Dennis Doyle and got his voice mail. I pushed the buttons to activate his beeper, hung up and waited. It took less than thirty minutes.

Doyle was brusque, "Hello. You called my beeper. Who is this?"

"Itís your favorite private investigator."

I read irritation in his voice, "Hey, I complimented you. That doesnít make us friends. Okay?"

"Sure, detective. Just wanted to know if you made any progress on Wallaceís murder."

"What are you, a comedian? No, nothing." He paused, then, "But you know that already. What do you want, shamus?" He laughed at the long out-of-use moniker.

I laughed with him, like we were friends. "I want to know about a man named Michael Murphy, lives in Salem."

There was a meaningful silence over the line. Would he tell me? "Iím on your side, Doyle. I could use a little help here."

Another five seconds of dead line, then, "You ask a lot."

"Itís my job, detective."

"Yeah, like mineís telephone operator." But there was no anger in it. "If itís the guy Iím thinking of, Murphy is an IRA operative, big deal lobbyist. Back and forth to Washington, DC every week. Heís got some sort of diplomatic immunity. This is more than I should be telling you."

"Hey, Iím almost done. You got anything on the secretary, Miranda?"

"What, I do all the work, you take all the glory?"

In my own way, I made a promise, "Detective, Iíve got no client, I want no glory. Anything I learn, you learn. I just want to stop Walterís murderer."

"Okay, Iím a big boy, Iíll take my chances." I heard the rustle of paper. "Sheís got a record. Real nameís Moira OíDaly, told people she was related to the Chicago politicians. She was born in Ulster, but came to the states at three. Parents settled in the Bronx. Thatís where she got the grinder of an accent."

"So, whatís on the rap sheet?"

More rustling. "She was picked up twice for transporting cash to Ireland, forty thousand the first time, two hundred the next time. Whoa!" The silence was total, then, "Guess who posted bail both times?"

"Michael Murphy."


* * * *

The road to Salem was packed with travelers getting an early jump on the weekend, if you can call Wednesday an early jump. I got into town around four and found Murphyís offices just outside the Capitol complex. It seemed a long way from the business of the IRA.

The light was on in the office, and the front door was open. The secretaryís desk was unoccupied, so I called out, "Anyone home?" An Irish looking head peered out from the only office. "You Michael Murphy?" I asked.

He came out and stood in front of me, six-four, eyes dead even with mine. He had graying hair, probably mostly red in the colored world, thick bushy eyebrows, same gray, deep-set light gray eyes, lined but mottled skin of a drinker, and thick, mud-gray lips. His hands were large and hairy, with cigarette stains between two fingers of the right hand. Their rancid odor hung on him like an overcoat.

He didnít like me on first sight. "Yeah, Iím Murphy. Who the hell are you?"

Not in the mood for intimidation, I leaned aggressively towards him, "You ever hear about saying hi, how are you, maybe shaking hands?"

Nothing, no reaction. I was left having to fill the void between us. "Iím a detective looking into the murder of Walter Wallace."

"Got nothing to do with me," he turned and headed back into the office. I followed him in. Cracking him with my incisive questioning seemed like a losing proposition, so, "Howís the gun running business these days?"

There was only a brief hitch in his step as he circled his desk and flopped into the big black chair. "Guns? Iím just a lobbyist for business interests in Ireland, Mr.?"

I ignored it. "Look, I donít really care what you do for a living. Iím just trying to find the killer of my friend. He was a gun runner. You were the guy he called the most. I know you got your problems in Ireland, donít mean a thing to me. Arm them all for all I care. Just have the last one standing turn out the lights."

His face clouded. "Last year, my wife and son died in a bombing, from some really disagreeable people on my own side. Means something to me."

I was pitiless. "Sounds like the cost of doing business to me."

He said nothing, but he was getting angrier.

"So, revenge time?" I asked.

He shook his bushy head, then said with regret, "No, he had too many uses."

I believed him, "What about Miranda slash Moira?"

He eyed me with a bit more respect, but still thought some before answering, "Moira was a hoodlum."

I dug a little deeper. "And your friends are the tooth fairies?"

He laughed out loud. "I live in a world you canít even imagine, smart-ass. Nothing is the way it seems, but who knows, maybe weíre just fooling ourselves."

I nodded, but said nothing.

"No, she was just crooked. When the Feds caught her with the two-hundred grand, she had a ticket for the Caribbean as well as Ireland. She was going to skip, but I think she realized it wasnít enough money. She changed her mind."

"And ..."

He waved a hand dismissively as he reached for his jacket. "And nothing. I got a plane to catch. Been great knowing you."

He pushed me out the door in front of him. Without turning to face him, I said, "You know, Wallace was FBI?"

He pulled on the corner of my shirt, turning me, real concern marked his face. I went on, making him sweat made me feel better. "Maybe your friends already know. If I were you, Iíd get my house in order." I made for the parking lot.

* * * *

I ignored the crime scene tape and picked the lock to Walterís house. The smell of blood hung heavy in the air, but someone had washed it off the floor and walls. I knew the cops had looked in all the obvious places, so I just ambled around the rooms, thinking about where I would hide something I wanted no one else to find, especially my handlers at the FBI.

I could see little impressions on the wall where theyíd been tapped with a hammer, and of course theyíd used a metal detector. I got nowhere for an hour, ending up down in the basement in a large laundry room with a washer and dryer, a galvanized metal sink and a toilet. The wall behind the toilet was painted two shades of white ... a thin gray line, invisible to the normal sighted. I opened the top of the water tank. There were the two standard bolts into the wall, just above the water line. I got a wrench from Walterís pantry, turned the water off to the toilet, flushed it, then worked on the bolts. As soon as the second one was a little loose, I felt the play in the toilet. Once it was out, the toilet turned on ball bearings where the beeswax ring would normally be. The tank swung away from the wall to expose a six inch deep wooden shelf. I took the computer printout and an envelope labeled 3369. I put the toilet back in place and secured it to the wall.

The print was gibberish, but I knew Walter had a computer in his bedroom. I turned it on and got comfortable. Using all the skills of my pre-detective life, I was unable to find anything. I got into the Windows Explorer, then located a string of normal letters in the printout. I did a search for those and the machine slowly chugged along. Fifteen minutes later, the file was found. I tried to start it, and nothing. I copied it to an EXE file name and tried again. This time, it started, and I had a blank white screen. None of the keys seemed to work until I entered 3369 and the spreadsheet filled the screen.

It was all there, and I donít mean Walterís poker winnings. Heíd been skimming from his handlers, buying bearer bonds and stashing them in a safe deposit box at The Third Bank of Portland. He had over three million. I made some notes. I exited. First the program closed itself, then copied itself over the file I originally found, erased itself, and formatted the section of disk where it had resided. I probably should have used the password before I exited.

* * * *

The next morning I was at the bank when it opened. I showed my credentials and asked if anyone had been in Walter Wallaceís safe deposit box lately. The pretty young thing with the vice president title wouldnít tell me anything at first. I told her Walter was dead and the box would have to be sealed, that I just wanted to know if anyone had been in it. She looked around, then whispered that, yes, yesterday Walter had come with a woman. The description fit Miranda. When the cops opened the box, theyíd find it empty.

I was back at Willieís office. I started with the vendors again, this time looking for a travel agency. I found it, Been There, Done That, located downtown.

A woman with a perky little-girl voice answered the phone, "Been There, Done That, how can we help you."

I said, "This is Walter Wallace. Were you people going to deliver my tickets?"

I heard her shuffling paper. "No, Mr. Wallace. In fact, Miranda just left with the tickets. Iím sure sheíll be there soon."

I ad-libbed, "I canít wait. Iíve had a minor emergency and wonít be in the office. Can you fax me the itinerary?"

I waited for the document.

* * * *

Miranda was sitting pert as could be while she waited for the plane. She was dressed in a white and gray flower-patterned summer dress with white pumps and bare legs. She had her hair pulled back into a ponytail, and her makeup took her past the point of ordinary pretty. She must have had poor dear Wally wrapped around her little finger, the two of them skipping away for a new life in the tropics, although Iím sure the Bahamas wasnít her final destination. Sheíd have another passport, and she wouldnít be on the island more than a day. Then Miranda, nťe Moira, would be no more. The carry-on suitcase rested in the seat next to her.

A man in a suit approached the line at the counter. He pushed to the front and a man at the back yelled, "Hey Buster, get to the end of the line."

The suit said, a little too loud, "What are you, the line cop? Butt out, if you know whatís good for you."

The man in line looked like a fullback, and he got belligerent. "Yeah." He puffed out his chest. "You just get the hell out of here."

"Make me."

The big man stepped forward, grabbed the suit and threw him rolling across the floor right in front of Miranda. As the fullback passed in front of Miranda, grabbing for the suit, her eyes followed. I lifted the suitcase and made my way to the exit. The commotion erupted into a full scale fight as I turned the corner. Two security men passed me on a run, but I was home free.

* * * *

I like cops, and if Iíd gotten into this business at a younger age, Iíd have gone for the official side of the law, but thatís another story too long for the telling. Cops are generally good people with the thankless job of picking up after society, shoveling the crap the world shuts its collective eyes to. They work in the bowels, societyís proctologists without gloves, and sometimes the shit sticks.

Maybe worst of all, after dealing with a justice system stacked against them, they start doing bad things for what they think are good reasons, shoring up evidence that doesnít exist as they take on the mantle of judge and jury. Itís not intentional, but then we all know about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. So I donít condone it, but I understand it. Sometimes I think the only solution is to make everyone be a cop for five years, like the Israeli military commitment. Long enough to learn what the worldís really about, but not long enough to get dirtied.

So, like I said, I like cops. I put the bonds in a package and mailed it to the policemanís widows and orphans fund. It was my second contribution. It would get impounded for a while, then released. I sent an anonymous note to the Doyle, and the next day Miranda was pulled in for Walterís murder.

* * * *

Dennis Doyle was hunched over what looked like a whisky at the bar. I pulled up a stool next to him. "How are you doing, detective?"

His smile was thin, "Okay. Howíre you, shamus?"

I liked the title, it was a term of respect between us. "Been doing all right. Iíve had a couple quiet weeks. Sort of like it that way."

"That was a nice touch, really appreciated."

I put a question on my face.

"Yeah, okay, it was still nice." I shrugged my shoulders, "Have it your way."

Doyle turned his attention from his drink, "So, what do you think of your friend, Walter, now that you know what you know?"

I ordered a beer. "I donít have a lot of friends, detective, and itís too late in life to be vetting them ahead of time."

He focused on his drink, "Well, you got one more. Iím off to a card game right now. Maybe you can buy the snacks."