Appearances can, and will, be deceiving.
In the year 2012, hiring a PI was a luxury purchase, the kind most people had cut back on, an unintentional deferral for cheating husbands and insurance fraudsters. So on that gloomy November day, I welcomed new client Catherine Sigerman to my dimly lit New Brunswick office. A paying gig would give me a break from my own case and cash to probe the shadows.
As soon as Catherine caught sight of me, her green eyes flickered, her shoulders tensed, the hand on her black shoulder bag tightened. I knew the pattern well. When her gaze dropped to my wheelchair, I used the moment to examine her in turn. A redhead with freckles powdered over, in her mid-thirties, a devotee of step aerobics. When she looked at me again, her smile lifted one corner of her mouth. Now polite, blank eyes assured me they had not noticed anything out of the ordinary, or if perchance they had, it was of no consequence; it simply didn’t exist. It would never be mentioned; she would swear she had never even looked.
“Mr. McLean?” she asked. A half-grimace replaced the half-smile. Her next words couldn’t get past her lips.
I leaned on my elbows and swung my body closer to the desk. “Did you bring the letter?” I asked, motioning her to a chair. Working as a PI had taught me that jumping right into clients’ problems interrupted their cogitation of mine. I extracted my pen from between the yellow pages of a legal pad and flipped past the list of names I had painstakingly accumulated over the years.
“I . . . I . . . ” Her gaze darted to the window where a fall shower drilled the poor souls in line at the check cashing store across the street from my office, and then back to an inch above my head. Catherine sighed, slid a white envelope from the side pocket of her purse, and tapped it against her wrist. “It isn’t so much the letter. It’s what’s inside.”
With one hand, I slid open my side drawer and pulled out a pair of latex gloves from an open box. After I snapped them on, I said, “Please sit, while I have a look.”
She handed me the envelope and finally lowered herself onto one of the faded gray chairs that flanked my desk.
The New Brunswick, New Jersey Post Office had cancelled the stamp and postmarked the letter October 24. Both the send to and return addresses were the same, and indicated the location of the house in an area where million dollar homes sprang up faster than the brush they’d replaced. The addresses were on preprinted labels, the kind charities sent petitioning a substantial contribution for your name and address next to a stuffed teddy bear or some other innocuous symbol. The letter itself contained a bit of melodramatic dialogue that could easily have come from a reality show that purported to reveal an investigation’s inside story. Stay away from Dornish or you’ll be sorry was printed in Arial font on pink paper, sans punctuation.
I glanced at Catherine. “Dornish?”
“One of my boyfriends.” She blushed. “You may have heard of him. The diet guru? The Mineral Diet. Nutrition and Chelation. He’s a doctor.”
“Tell me about your relationship with him.”
That brought her dimples out of hiding. “We’ve been dating for about eight months. I’m divorced. Three years. First time I’ve been serious with anyone since then.”
“Who would have a problem with that?”
She hesitated. “He’s also got an ex. Mine’s in California and he left me, so probably not him. The other guy I’m dating, Robert Prince, isn’t very happy about the competition.” She shrugged like she had a lot of practice not caring if guys were happy.
“Anybody else you’re close to?”
“My mother, but she’s in Florida. Not too understanding, I don’t tell her much. My daughter, seventeen, but going on twelve.” She shook her head.
“I’ll fingerprint the envelope and letter, of course. Anyone else beside you handle them?”
“I don’t think so. What about the contents?”
I peered inside the envelope at a brownish powdery substance containing small metal bits. “Hard to say. I’ll drop it at the lab. They’ll direct bill you.”
“Just like a pap smear.” Catherine made a face, then shuddered. “I always hate waiting to find out if I’ve got another year.” She bowed her head and came up dabbing at the outer corner of her eye. A tear glistened down one cheek. “Do you think I’m in danger?”
I trotted out the platitudes my aunt had used on me when I was six and the doctors said I would never walk again. They still didn’t work.
Doctor Dornish’s office wasn’t too far from, mine just a mile, but on the good side of the tracks. My office nestled among a bevy of pawnbroker shops, not massive Robert Wood Johnson Hospital buildings.
I watched patients come and go as I waited until ten minutes before the appointment I’d arranged. I flung my car door open, dragged the wheelchair from behind my seat. With one hand, I snapped it open. After setting the brake and plopping the cushion on, I gripped one arm of the chair, pulled myself closer, and grabbed the other side. Powering myself up, as if on parallel bars, I jungle-gymed into the chair. I locked the car, which produced a beep, and spun my way through the parking garage and finally to the Center’s entrance and the right floor. When I reached his office, I stopped at the desk to announce myself.
Five minutes later, the receptionist showed me into Doctor Dornish’s office. The place was empty save for blue carpeting and custom office furniture; the most prominent piece, a large cherry desk. Medical articles lay pressed under the glass that covered its surface. Several plastic stands held brochures touting the values of minerals in the diet, cleansing the colon, and specialized nutrition for the aging body. While waiting, I flipped through these, noting the lack of copper sources in my diet and deciding my colon was doing just fine on its own.
After I replaced the last brochure, Dornish breezed in with long, fast strides and a patient’s file, playing busy doctor to the hilt. He wore his white lab coat unbuttoned to show off his tall, lean body; more likely the result of good genes than mineral supplements. I figured the nurse had mentioned me in detail as he already had blank eyes beneath his heavy brows and kept his gaze on my shoulders and above, a feat managed even while seating himself. “Ms. Sigerman told me about the letter,” he said. “Jealous acts like these are quite beyond my understanding.”
“Have you received a similar communication?” I asked.
“Me? They wouldn’t dare.” He twirled a pen between his fingers as we spoke.
“Any idea who they are?”
“My compliments on your brevity. Most people don’t bother getting to the point. You’re an unusual man.” His gaze drifted downward slightly, but he caught himself and stared back into my eyes.
“So you don’t take the threat seriously?”
“I’m not sure what to make of it. Perhaps my rival . . . or someone is acting childishly, almost adolescent, if you get my drift. Anyway, Ms. Sigerman has you to do the investigating. We’re meeting for dinner. I’ll be sure to tell her how thorough you are.” He stood, then lifted a brow toward my barely-filled trousers. “I work wonders with marginal chronic deficiencies and connective tissue. Stop at the desk to make an appointment on your way out.” The doctor hurried away, sliding his pen into his lab coat pocket.
What’d you know? The bullet lodged in my spine was good for something after all, my daily quota of metals. The hell with supplements. I rolled out of the office without a backward glance.
Kim Sigerman, the daughter, looked nothing like Catherine. A long ponytail gathered black strands of hair high on her head. She wore low-rise black jeans with a pink tee that skimmed her waist. She carried an overfilled book bag in front of her as she stepped off the school bus. If anyone had cautioned her to beware of strangers, the warning must not have included those in wheelchairs because she came straight over. I had parked my car around the corner and sat under a maple that had rained its leaves into the gutter and planned on clogging the sewer.
“You’re Raymond McLean, the P.I., right?” she asked, not bothering with polite eyes.
“Mom is so freaked out.”
“That creepy letter.” Kim’s forehead wrinkled as if doubts crept in about my intelligence.
“That’s why I’m here,” I reassured her.
“What can you tell me?”
She dropped her book bag to the ground. “I got home first on Friday and brought the mail in. I thought the letter looked a little strange with those labels, you know, but then who knows with junk mail. Ninety percent of what we get. No spam filters on snailmail.” She laughed and her star earrings fluttered. “Mom didn’t open it until the weekend.”
“When did she tell you about it?”
Her forehead wrinkled again, this time in thought. “Saturday evening. I thought she should call the cops. That would have been way cool, but she said no.”
“Any idea who sent it?”
“Boring-nish. That’s what I call him. Mr. Nutrition!”
“Why would he warn against himself?”
“Reverse psychology. You know you always want what you’re not supposed to have. I think he’s trying to get Momsy to settle down to one man.”
“So put one over on Robert Prince.”
She nodded. “Exactly and Mom too.”
“There’s got to be more to it.”
“You are pretty smart. You know my dad died, right?”
“I thought your parents were divorced.”
“Widowed the first time.” Kim looked at the time on her cell phone. “Hey, can we grab a burger, and I’ll tell you all about my trust fund and the so-called investment opportunity of a lifetime? We’re probably having sprouts for dinner, and I’m starving.”
“Let me guess, The Cheesecake Factory at the mall?”
She smiled and swung the book bag back on her shoulder. “There’s hope for you yet.”
They were waiting for me outside my apartment building. Two men, one bulky, one thin, dressed in suits in spite of the unusually warm evening air. The badge holders on their belts gave them away. They approached me when I started up the ramp by the entrance. The thin one smelled like peppermint, as if he’d just sucked on a couple of Tic Tacs before getting in my face.
“You seem to like trouble,” he said, positioning himself right in front of me.
My hands gripped the handrims hard, turning my knuckles white and flexing the biceps I spent hours working out every night.
“Oh, look. Ray’s got muscles,” the bulky guy said, leaning on the rail, his size double-e’s stretched out. “You need some help there, Benny?”
Benny held his face inches from mine. “You want to strut your stuff, wise guy? You think you could take an able-bodied man?”
“I don’t think,” the bulky man said, “that he could take another gimp.”
I stared into his eyes, holding myself back from launching the first punch. If they could get me to hit them, they would retaliate more than in kind, and the law was on their side.
Benny retreated a few inches. “Scott, he breathed on me. His breath smells like shit.”
“Now, why’d you want to go and do something like that?” Scott asked. “You son of a bitch.”
“You guys own the air?” I asked. “Oh, right. That’s where you get your brains.”
Benny’s hand snapped out to slap me, but I caught it by the wrist. “Let me hypothesize. You came all the way out of your jurisdiction to give me a message from the Councilor, right?”
Scott laughed. “Don’t answer that.”
“Stop bothering his partners.” Benny said.
“And?” I asked.
“No and,” Scott said and yawned. “Just stop it.”
I released Benny’s hand. “Wiley’s the one who should stop it.”
“Take the warning,” he said, then glared at me and walked away.
Before Scott could move, I pushed hard on the handrims, steering a bit to the right.
“Oww! Geez. You ran over my toe,” he cried.
I raced up the ramp, stopped at the door, and twirled around. “Don’t come back,” I said. “Or I’ll have to call the Home News and give them an exclusive on corrupt cops.”
“We’re giving you a pass on account of you being of the cloth yourself, your father and all,” Scott called, as he limped to the dark sedan.
“Get smart, wise guy.” Benny called, rubbing his wrist.
As I locked the door behind me, I heard the car doors slam and the motor start.
I woke the next morning to my phone playing the eerie tones of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My shoulders, elbows, and wrists ached so I knew I was still alive.
Catherine waited for me to say hello and ask what she wanted before she burst into tears.
“It’s another letter,” she said between sobs. “And I think I know who sent it.”
Despite my demands, I couldn’t get anything more from her. I decided to drop by after I picked up the lab results.
In her neighborhood, the homes were the kind you could get lost in, single families the size of apartment buildings, big enough for three generations to share quarters, but most likely inhabited by a solitary couple with one-point-five children, every one of them with their own private ballroom-sized bathroom. Crystal chandeliers sparkled through massive windows above the front doors. White was a popular color for the siding and the people inside.
I used my hand controls to park in front of a creamy vanilla mansion, my tan Ford, a wart blemishing its outline. I pulled out my wheelchair, set it up, and then spun my way to the massive front door.
Catherine answered it and burst into fresh tears at the sight of me. She bent over and buried her face into my shoulder. Her coppery curls tickled my face and smelled of jasmine like she’d bathed in a rainforest. Lost in her scent and touch, I gripped the handrims of my chair to keep my arms from wrapping themselves around her. “Come into my parlor,” she finally said.
I did my best fly imitation, tough going because my wheels kept sinking into the thick beige carpet. She dropped onto a silk-covered chaise and leaned back on a half dozen accent pillows that cost more than I earned in a week.
“Do you have the lab results?” she asked.
“Right here.” I pulled out the large envelope at my side and fanned out the report pages. “Okay, chili powder, cinnamon, black pepper, vetivert, galangal, and iron filings. Mean anything to you?”
“I think so,” she whispered. “You can stop investigating.” She pointed to a table positioned behind her sofa where a pack of pink paper lay.
I pushed closer for a look and rubbed a sheet between two fingers. “Right weight and color. Where did you find it?”
“By Kim’s computer.” She grimaced. “There’s more. The labels, too.”
“Hmmm, how about the recipe ingredients?”
“I wasn’t completely honest with you detective.” Catherine held her head high and met my eyes. “My daughter is a practicing Wiccan.”
“So you’re saying the recipe is associated with witchcraft.”
“I have no doubt it’s one of her spells. She’s confused and possibly suicidal.”
“What brings you to that conclusion?”
She retrieved an envelope from under one of the silk cushions. “Read it.”
In addition to the letter, the envelope held a melted mass of blue and black wax. Words on the letter spelled out “Dump Dornish or someone will die.”
“Are you sure it’s your daughter, Ms. Sigerman? Surely, Robert Prince or Dr. Dornish have had access to your home and the labels.”
She sighed. “Of course, but they don’t practice witchcraft.”
“I had a good rapport with Kim. Let me talk to her and see what’s going on.”
Eyes teary, she nodded and attempted a smile. “I don’t want to charge her.”
“Of course not. I’m going to take this.” I held up the new letter. “I’ll see myself out.”
I rode to East Brunswick library. Access was a charm. The front door jerked open after I pressed the handicap panel. Bookcases lined wide aisles that held pine-veneered tables and computers with Internet access. I could get to the periodicals, references, and movies fine. The stacks were tight, but a friendly librarian would help. Problem was, I wasn’t feeling too friendly. I leaned on my hands and shifted on my cushion. No sense getting a pressure sore.
I pushed my chair to the computer reserved for catalog searches and typed in “Wicca.” The answer was in the stacks, of course. I squeezed into the proper aisle and reached with the tips of my fingers to pull down a book. Two more fell with it and crashed onto my lap, one of the few times not having feeling was a boon.
Within an hour, I had the information I needed, but decided to check the newspaper archives to see what I could find about Kim’s father, Gary Kewes. The owner of a local pharmacy and a proponent of homeopathic medicine, he had succumbed to a heart attack. From the obituary, I gleaned he had waited to marry until he established his business. Catherine had formerly owned a herbarium, growing and drying herbs for therapeutic purposes, and that was how they met.
As I put back the archive, I let my hand rest on the fiche file dated twenty years earlier and considered rereading the newspaper’s rendition of my past. A librarian stared at me, looking as if she wanted to be helpful. I pulled away, wheeling my chair out of the building and back to my car.
Once back in New Brunswick, I called Kim and left a message for her to meet me at Menlo Park Mall after school. I dusted both letters and envelopes for prints. The envelopes were hopeless, the letters less so. I matched prints from the first and second letters, but found only one set on the second.
Before Catherine pulled me off the case, I wanted to talk to Robert Prince. He worked at one of the local drug firms in their IT department, one that hadn’t been outsourced to India yet. He agreed to take an afternoon coffee break with me in the cafeteria of his building.
To kill time before heading there, I called more people who had business dealings with Wiley from the list I’d made. I was up to the K’s: Kaan, Kaplan, Kerry . . . One said Wiley had given him a scholarship, another that he had helped him with a case before the school board. Neither had any information about political corruption. The third had signed a nondisclosure agreement and said he did not want to get involved in politics. I dated and noted their responses more as a way to stay sane than in support of my investigation. At two o’clock, I headed over to meet Mr. Prince, arriving at the building exactly on time.
I endured the polite eyes of the receptionist and security guard until Robert appeared. Based on the effusive welcome the receptionist gave him, women found him attractive, even though his hair had receded slightly. I guessed the thickness of his mustache made up for it. He obviously dressed to match his eyes as he wore a pale green jacket the same exact shade. Coffee was free to employees and Robert served me, mixing in the two sugars I requested and insisting on carrying both cups to a table near a window. The view was of the parking lot and red brick buildings, but it gave him somewhere else to look.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything about the letters,” he said, staring into his cup, then out the window.
“How about Dr. Dornish?” I asked.
“A quack, a popular quack.” Robert rolled his eyes. “Catherine’s overly impressed with his theories.”
“Do you think he would send the letters as a kind of reverse psychology?”
Robert shrugged. “I think he’s capable of it.”
“What do you think of Kim?”
“As culprit or daughter? I don’t know. She’s in a bit of a dream world, but basically a good kid.” Robert took a slug of coffee.
“She mentioned a trust fund?”
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
“What about Catherine? Your relationship with her.”
“We’ve been dating ever since her ex left. Did she tell you he used to work here in accounting?” He shot a glance at me. “I guess not. Could never understand why he’d leave her.”
“Why did he quit the company?” I asked.
“Didn’t want to go along with the corporate program.”
Odds on that meant tweaking financial reports before they went to the shareholders. “You’re still dating Catherine?”
“We’re on for Saturday, a banquet at Charter Oak.”
“Can I ask you what you do in IT?”
“VP and Chief Information Officer.”
That explained why he hadn’t been outsourced.
Shoppers crowded Menlo Park Mall. A short woman with large shopping bags in both hands bounced one into me as she passed. When she realized what she’d done, her mouth flew open and her face paled. I backed out of the stream of people heading toward the Macy’s pre-holiday sale.
Kim showed up twenty minutes late, dressed all in black.
“McLean, my man, don’t you know enough not to go to the mall on a sale day?”
“Burger?” I asked.
She shook her head slowly, a Ray Charles kind of shake. Her eyes were too bright. “I’m on a diet.”
“What else are you on?”
She giggled. “Are you detecting on me now?”
“Do you write anonymous letters, Kim? Do you think that’s funny?”
“No! I’m not like that.”
“What are you like? Are you a witch?”
She leaned close to my ear and whispered, “I can do magick.”
Her earrings swung in my face, not stars as I had thought, their five points formed pentagrams. She smelled of lavender and liquor.
I drove her home.
“That’s a cool car,” she said. “It’s almost like magic how it drives.”
“Thanks for not giving me a lecture,” Kim said and paused at the door of that oversized house. “What’s your mother like?”
“Thoughtful and quiet.” I didn’t mention the dead part.
“Mine’s mixed up.” She opened the door. “Mom, I’m home!”
Catherine came running into the foyer, breathless, but elegantly dressed and made up like an actress playing a mother. She glanced at me. “You see why I need your help.” She grabbed her daughter’s hand. “Darling, I was so worried.”
Kim pulled her hand away. “I’m late, no big deal.”
“We need to talk, Kimmie. You don’t like Dr. Dornish, do you?”
“No. He’s a phony.”
“And you have magical powers. You can cast spells. Make me fall out of love with him.” Catherine sounded like an attorney leading a hostile witness. “Didn’t you tell me that?”
“Mom, he just wants my trust fund. I can help you.”
“With a spell?”
Catherine threw me a triumphant glance. “My poor darling,” she said, drawing Kim close. “I understand what you did. You can tell us.”
“I swear, I didn’t write those letters.” Tears streaked down Kim’s face.
“Your mother knows exactly who wrote those letters,” I said and stared at Catherine.
She gazed at me warily, forgetting all about polite eyes. “I’m afraid my daughter is having a breakdown as you’ve just witnessed. I’ll need to call the doctor. You’ll excuse us, I’m sure.”
“Then I’ll have to call the police.”
“Do as you like, but you’re not declaring this child incompetent so you can take over her trust fund.”
Kim’s eyes widened and she broke away from her mother’s grip.
“Your mother wrote those letters, Kim.”
“Darling, don’t listen to this poor excuse for a man.”
“Think about it. She looked at your Book of Shadows, that’s your spell book, isn’t it?”
“She found a spell for falling out of love, brewed it up and put it in a letter. Then she looked for a private eye, one she thought would be so hungry for some cash, she could lead him by the nose through her little plan. That’s why she came to my office on the seedy side of New Brunswick. She tells me she found the stationary by your computer, gets you to handle the letter before she gives it to me except she messed up and didn’t get your prints on the second one.”
Catherine dove straight at me. She slapped my face and tried to claw my eyes. “Shut up!” she screamed.
I grabbed her wrists and held her.
Squirming, Catherine appealed to her daughter. “Kim, my money’s gone, honey, paying for this house. Buying you the best of everything,” she cried. “Our only chance was Dr. Dornish.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Kim asked. “Why did you have to try and trick me? You’re as bad as Dornish. No, worse.” Her cheeks turned red.
Catherine sagged against me. Tears flowed down her face. “You don’t understand. Nobody understands.”
I pushed her away.
I understood treachery too well. My father had put his oar in with Peter Wiley and when it went bad, came home and killed me. That’s what I told 9-1-1 when I called, “My daddy shot my mommy, then he killed me too.”
But all that was history, and I had shadows to probe.
Elaine Togneri is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. She has sold over 30 short stories, most recently to Woman’s World and the MWA Anthology The Rich and the Dead.