When a wealthy and gorgeous woman asks P.I. Frank Orpheus to find her missing identity, he just can't say no—even if the case leads him into a criminal underworld more horrific than anything he ever imagined. . .
Private detective Frank Orpheus, searching for a mysterious woman's missing identity, finds himself entangled in a web of underworld characters far nastier than any he's ever met, all of them puppets of a crime boss known only as Mr. Menace, a dark figure who traffics not just in drugs and booze, but—possibly—in souls.
"Mr. Menace is a masterpiece of atmosphere and suspense that will leave readers second-guessing their own realities."– Bret R. Wright author of the Nate Jepson mystery series
The Stranger in Gray
I never truly understood the word "haunted" until I looked into the bottomless black eyes gazing at me from that ghost-white face.
I should have turned her away. I should have trusted my intuition, made some polite excuse, and ushered her out the door. I could read the calamity written in her expression the way a fortune teller reads tea leaves — promises of mean times ahead, and hard endings. But I'm a sap for lost souls, especially soft-featured ones with nice curves and hair the color of bedded embers, so I ignored my professional instinct and let the stranger in gray slip into my life, sly as a phantom.
I had no idea then how much a mistake like that could cost a man.
It seemed like such a small thing when the intercom buzzed and the voice of Cass O'Clare, my secretary and all-around go-to girl, crackled through. "Mister Orpheus, there's a lady here to see you. She doesn't have an appointment."
I glanced at the clock ticking away on the wall. Quitting time was coming fast and I didn't like to keep Cass late if I didn't have to. But my curiosity was up, so I tapped the reply button and said, "I can spare a few minutes. Send her in."
"Yes, Mister Orpheus," Cass's voice rattled. The formality gave me a chuckle — she only ever called me that when we had clients in the office.
A moment later the frosted glass door to my office opened on the woman who started me along the road into darkness of a kind I'd never imagined existed.
She hesitated a moment, lingered at the threshold as if she didn't quite trust the office, or the tall, gaunt figure seated behind the heavy oak desk.
"C'mon in," I prompted. "Tell me what I can do for you."
She drifted closer, smooth and silent as a specter. Her shadowed gaze took in the chair across the desk from me, but dismissed it. The lady remained standing.
"I ... need you to find someone for me."
I settled back in my stiff wooden chair and nodded at her, letting one hand wander lazily over the intercom box next to the phone. I wanted to look casual, like this was just any other day for me, but something about the slouch of her shoulders and the quiet resignation in her voice, the way the shadows wouldn't leave her eyes even when the light hit them, cooled me some. She had the look of someone who'd seen all the worst of life and didn't expect the rough patch to end anytime soon. Maybe never.
When she didn't continue, I spoke.
"Fair enough," I said, my fingers meandering over the desktop, playing the left-hand part of a favorite concerto of mine. "I do that from time to time, find people. Anyone special you had in mind, or do I get my pick?"
The woman standing across the desk from me stayed silent for a moment. She drifted to the window, gazed out past the dust-gathering blinds and the night-shrouded city. The neon sign on the hotel across the street splashed crimson light over her pale features, but the illumination never seemed to reach those eyes. I started to wonder if the she planned to say anything at all. Then at last she spoke, without turning to face me, her voice so soft I scarcely heard it over the grumble of the traffic in the streets below.
"Me," she said.
That neon glow made her hair positively blaze, but her features, in profile, didn't warm up a bit.
Now she turned, but slowly.
"I need you to find me."
I folded my hands under my chin and studied her face. Tired, pale, grave as a cemetery. Looking into those eyes was like staring into the windows of a house so full of restless ghosts the neighborhood kids would be too scared to even tell stories about it. But for all that, I didn't see any hint of crazy in her — and it doesn't take too many years in the sleuthing business to get pretty good at spotting the likely straight-jacket candidates. If you don't, you're bound to find yourself in the hospital, or worse.
The fact that her fancy duds suggested a healthy bank account didn't especially hurt my interest either.
"Okay," I said. "You're here in my office. Cain Building, suite five-thirteen. You can pay my secretary Miss O'Clare on the way out."
"Please don't take this for a joke, Mister Orpheus," my would-be client said. "I'm quite serious."
"Mmm," I agreed, nodding. "I can see that. But I can't say I understand exactly what you want me to do. Why don't you have a seat and tell me all about it?" I gestured at the padded-leather chair cocked in front of the desk.
She turned back to the window, watched the Hotel Moira sign wink on and off at her over the brick chasm between buildings.
"I don't know who I am," she said to the gloom outside the window. "I don't remember my name, or where I live, or where I've been lately. This morning I found myself in a dingy little diner in midtown with ... with no idea of my name, or how I'd come to be there."
I could imagine her, dressed to the nines, sitting at a chipped Formica countertop alongside disheveled Hooverville dwellers who had to beg change to buy bad coffee. The picture in my head struck me as equal parts funny and tragic.
"I wandered around all day looking for anything or anyone familiar," my would-be client went on, "trying to somehow find my way back to myself. To find my way home or ... to my job, perhaps, if I have one... I seemed to know my way around well enough, but couldn't remember ever having been to any of the places I saw today." She paused a second, two, as if questioning whether or not everything she'd told me was right. Then, still undecided, she went on. "I happened past this building by chance — or without any real idea where I was going, in any case. I saw your agency listed on the directory, and ... I came up. On a whim, I suppose. Or maybe it was fate."
"Maybe it was," I allowed. "But I have to ask — why not go to the police, let them handle this?"
Something flickered across her face then, and it wasn't the neon from the flophouse across the street. I could see she was hiding things from me — maybe hiding them from herself, too.
"I … don't trust the police," she whispered.
"You and me both," I said, then sat up a bit straighter, businesslike, and waited for her to say what needed saying.
She was sharp enough to take the cue. "I don't know where else to turn."
It crossed my mind, then, to tell her I couldn't help her, maybe make up an excuse or just leave it at that. I didn't have any good reason for that impulse, but there it was.
In any case, I bit the words back.
More the fool me.
Instead, I hedged.
"I feel for you, sincerely. That's about as tough a story as I've ever heard, and I've heard some dandies. But I don't do this for a hobby, you understand? I expect to be paid for my services in these matters. Times are tough, and I have rent to make."
My nameless guest dipped a dainty hand into her jacket and withdrew a wad of cash that would've choked a horse. Large bills, well-circulated. I think my eyes went a bit wide despite my best effort to play it cool.
"I'm quite sure I can cover the expense," she said.
I raised an eyebrow. "So it seems."
"Can you help me?"
The question might've sounded strange coming from pretty much anyone else — after all, why bother telling her story and flashing her cash if she didn't already think I was up to the job? But she didn't mean just me — she was asking if anyone could help her, could make sense of such a cockeyed tale. Her voice held so little hope, so much loss, I couldn't help hurting for her. That alone should've told me the whole case would be trouble — any detective worth his license will tell you he never gets personally involved in a job. Too many angry husbands and jealous girlfriends, too many double-dealers and hidden agendas. Too many ways to get suckered. And emotions muddy the water, keep a man from seeing clearly and doing the job right.
But dammit — that voice, those eyes... What the hell else could I do?
From that moment, I was hung. And some part of me knew it.
I looked her up and down, slowly. Smart suit, gray woolen skirt and matched jacket over a white silk blouse. Red silk handkerchief in her breast pocket, stylish slouch hat atop those elegant auburn waves. Polished leather pumps that must've cost what I make in a good week. The pearls around her neck were the real deal, as best I could tell in the light from the banker's lamp on my desk. I'd seen enough fakes in my work to have a pretty good idea. No wedding ring, and no hint she'd been wearing one.
"Well, you didn't spend the night on the street or in any greasy spoon, not looking like that. Anyone who can afford that get-up and carries that kinda cash doesn't live in midtown, either. You're an uptown girl, sure as I'm sitting here. Well brought up, too, by the way you talk. All of which means likely as not you'll be missed, and in short order — if you haven't been already. Someone will find you and once they do you'll get your name back. Then the trick'll be figuring out where you've been lately and where exactly you left your memory — and why you left it there."
My anonymous client stood statue-still, saying nothing, so I went on.
"Whoever's hunting for you, we know it's not a husband because you've got no ring and don't look like you've been wearing one. A father, maybe, or a high-class beau. Maybe someone you work with — you're certainly dressed for business. Society friends, brother, sister, personal secretary ... someone'll come looking soon enough. I'd bet your money on it."
The line didn't draw so much as a slim smile.
"I wish I could share your confidence," she said, looking out the window again as if there might be answers chalked on the sidewalks below. "Everything's blank. Like a diary with nothing written in it. As if I were no one. No one at all."
"You have anything else in your pockets, apart from that stack of cabbage?"
Again, she hesitated, the way a bad poker player does when he's thinking of bluffing, and I could see a shadow of fear in her eyes — fear of me, and what she might find out by hiring me. I wouldn't be surprised if she gave a second's thought to walking out my door right then and disappearing into the anonymity of the night.
Instead, she sighed, and slipped something from the hip pocket of that smart linen jacket.
"Only this," she said, and showed it to me.
I frowned at the thing resting in the smooth white palm of her dainty hand. It had the shape of a simple wedding band, but cut from jet-black obsidian, with a bright red vein running around it, just beneath the polished surface. Something about the way that crimson line flowed through it made it look almost liquid. The effect was weirdly hypnotic, made me feel giddy in a way liquor hadn't in a long time. It was the damnedest thing I'd ever seen, and I've seen plenty. Then I noticed a little jag poking out from one side of the thing, a kind of glass thorn, nasty-sharp. If it was meant to be jewelry, it was of a particularly mean sort.
"Any idea what it is?" I asked.
My client shook her head slowly, but something in those pretty black eyes of hers suggested that way down in the darkest parts of herself, she knew.
She slipped the black-and-red band back into the pocket it'd come out of.
"Well," I said, after a moment's pause, "there certainly are a lot of questions here. But I'm pretty sure we can tie all this up in a few days. Meantime, maybe you oughtta think about getting yourself to a doctor, see if — "
"No," she said, cutting me off clean as a razor. "No doctors."
"Don't trust them either, huh?" I asked, raising an eyebrow at her.
"No, I don't."
"Seems you're not a very trusting lady. Well, I suppose I can't blame you. It does make me wonder why you trust me, though."
My would-be client looked at me for what seemed a long time. "I don't know," she said after a moment. "Woman's intuition."
"Fair enough," I said. "Still, you might be hurt — a blow to the head, something like that — "
"Do I look hurt?"
She looked damn fine is how she looked.
"No," I admitted, "but — "
"I don't feel hurt, either. In fact, I feel just fine." Her words had taken on a sharp edge that set my nerves tingling once more. When she spoke again it was with a different voice, distant and toneless. "No doctor can help me."
I felt tempted to press the point but knew it wouldn't buy me anything — I'd only talk her and her cash right out the door.
"Then I guess it's up to me," I offered.
She turned that lovely, haunted gaze on me full-force then, and the tiny flicker of hope I saw in those eyes made my heart ache. "Yes," she said, oh-so-soft, "it is."
I took a moment to digest that. My line of work is mostly husbands wanting proof their wives are cheating on them — or more often, hoping for proof that their wives aren't cheating. I get the occasional low-life politician with a problem he doesn't want to take to the cops, and once in a while an insurance group'll hire me to check up on someone they think is ripping them off. Mostly it's pretty tame stuff. A few broken hearts, sure, but none of those fellas is ever counting on me to put his whole world back together.
This case wasn't ten minutes old and already I knew I'd never had another one like it.
"Tell you what," I said, picking up the stub of a pencil and jotting notes in a leather-bound pad I kept handy, "I have business tonight, so I can't start the leg-work on your case until tomorrow. If that's acceptable to you, you can arrange things with Miss O'Clare out there in the front office, and we can start filling in those blank pages in your diary. Meantime, I'll have Miss O'Clare set you up with a hotel for the night. It'll be on your dime, of course, but I'd say you can afford it. Unless you have somewhere else to go."
"I — " she began, then stopped. Something passed over her face then, and I saw the first hint of light in her eyes. But it was gone before it could catch fire there. "No," she said. "No place at all. None that I remember."
She started toward the door, then stopped, lingering a moment on the threshold, as she had when she'd first come in, and turned back to face me.
"What happens if ... if I have another blackout or ... or whatever, and can't remember you, or my coming here?"
I plucked a card from my breast pocket, rose to hand it to her.
Licensed Private Investigator
it said, in raised black letters that had cost a pretty penny. My office address and phone number followed beneath.
"Keep this with you, maybe it'll trigger your memory if you do forget. In any case, I'll have Miss O'Clare give you a call first thing in the morning. We'll make sure you get back here. After all, I'm not likely to make any money on this case if you up and vanish on me."
She nodded, slowly, and slipped the card into her inner jacket pocket — close to her heart, I couldn't help thinking.
What a sap.
I gave her nod back to her and our eyes met for an instant, really met, and I felt something stir between us, like the air just before a major crack of lightning when the sky is dangerous with electricity. I turned away and dropped back into the chair behind my desk before the thunder had a chance to crash.
I tapped the intercom. "Cass, set Miss — "
I hesitated, groping for any convenient name to stick on the case file, something more imaginative than Jane Doe.
"— Set Miss Gray up with the standard contract."
I glanced at my client to see if the name I'd picked out for her met with her approval. She nodded slightly and I thought I saw the tiniest hint of a smile pluck at her full red lips.
"Yes, Mister Orpheus," I heard Cass reply. Maybe it was the intercom, but her voice right then seemed to be ... missing something.
"And get her a decent hotel for the night, will you?" I added. "And not that dump across the street. Someplace where the bellboys outnumber the roaches."
"Right away, Mister Orpheus," Cass answered.
I clicked off. "You're all set," I told the erstwhile Miss Gray.
"Thank you, Mister Orpheus," she said, and slipped out of my office, drawing the door closed behind her.
As soon as she was gone, I tugged open my top desk drawer and pulled out the
nice little government-issue spy camera I'd picked up from a G-man pal of mine a couple years back. Small enough to slip in a pack of cigarettes, and not the kind of toy John Q. Public was likely to see at his local department store anytime soon. I tucked the gadget away in my front pocket.
Then for a while I sat with my feet up on the desk blotter and stared vacantly at the door with the word PRIVATE painted in efficient gold letters across the frosted glass, as if some traces of her silhouette might linger there, while soft female voices exchanged words I couldn't quite make out.
Less than a minute after I heard my strange client leave the outer office, I got up and opened my door. Cass regarded me with her big hazel eyes. She was the sort of girl some guys might've called a Plain Jane, I suppose, with her dishwater blond hair up in a spinster's bun and her stodgy office clothes that looked like they could belong to a woman twice her age. But she was smart, and damn good at her job, and willing to do it for what a lug like me could pay. Plucking her straight out of secretarial school had been better luck than I had any right to hope for.
"Where'd you put her up, Cass?" I asked.
She didn't smile as she answered. "Uptown a few blocks, at the Chandler."
I nodded. I knew the place — one of the few decent hotels in midtown, but easy walking distance, which was good because it meant maybe my client wouldn't take a cab. She'd be a hell of a lot easier to follow on foot. If I had to deal with the midtown traffic, I'd be in poor shape in a taxi.
"You gave her good directions?" I asked Cass as I pulled my overcoat from the rack near the door to the hall and tugged it on.
"Sure, of course," Cass said, nodding, one hand subtly adjusting the position of the framed picture of her smiling mother. She did that sometimes, when she had something on her mind but wasn't sure she wanted to share it.
I waited a second or two, but she stayed clammed up, so I plucked my gray felt fedora off the rack and settled it on my combed-back brown hair, tugging the brim down over my eyes. I'd lied about having business that night, of course. I wanted to follow my mystery lady around a bit without her knowing, see if I could catch her keeping more secrets from me — or from herself, for that matter. It was fifty-fifty she'd figure out my ruse, but worth the shot.
"I'm gonna play shadow for our new client," I told Cass, though I'm sure she'd already gathered as much. "I'll probably be out all night, so go ahead and lock up early if you want."
"Sure, Frank," Cass agreed, her voice distant. She shifted Mom's frame again.
"Something on your mind, Cass?"
Cass shrugged, making the gesture elegant in her simple way. "There's something about that woman," she said, staring off through the hallway door, the one with my name on the glass. The one our newest client had disappeared through about ninety seconds ago. Miss Gray would still be waiting for the elevator, I guessed. Thinking again of that smoldering hair and those tragic eyes, I almost lost track of what Cass was saying. "I don't trust her, Frank. She's bad news. I can tell these things — you know I got a little gift like that. Just like how I knew my father was gonna walk out on mom 'n me even before he knew. Just like when I warned you about that crazy girl with the nails... Maybe you ought to give this case back."
I touched the scar, the one the crazy girl with the nails had given me — no more than an inch from my left eye. It itched some.
"Miss Gray's money's as good as anyone's," I said.
"We've got money coming in," Cass said. "That check from Hughes, McDonald and Crumley finally got here, so we're set for a while."
"You got something against bringing in a little more?" I asked, raising an eyebrow at her. "Tough times like these, you don't say no to a case. Even an odd one."
Cass sighed. "We both know it wasn't her money you were looking at when you decided to take her case."
That stung a bit, not least because of the thorn of truth in it. Still, I liked to think I ran a bit deeper than that.
"Sure, she's a looker," I agreed. "But she's also got an interesting story. And cheating spouse cases get dull fast. I could do with some variety."
"She spooks me, Frank," Cass said, with a little shake of her head. "I really think — "
I cut her off, something I almost never do.
"We can talk about your woman's intuition later," I told her, hearing those words come from Miss Gray's lips even as I repeated them. "But I'm gonna lose her if I stand around here gabbing any longer. So – good night, Cass." With that, I headed out the door.