“I’m sorry, Mr. Um?...” the skinny receptionist said.
Her baby-blue-on-white nameplate merely read JULIET.
She had short blond hair that was longer in the front than in the back and wore a violet T-shirt that I was sure would expose a pierced navel if she were to stand up. Behind her was a mostly open-air-boutique-like office space with ten or twelve brightly colored plastic desks that were interspersed by big, leafy, green plants. The eastern wall, to my right, was a series of ceiling-to-floor segmented windowpanes that were not intended to open.
I didn’t mind sending an innocent man, or woman, to prison because I didn’t believe in innocence—and virtue didn’t pay the bills.
All the secretaries and gofers that worked for Berg, Lewis & Takayama were young and pretty, regardless of their gender. All except one.
There was a chubby woman who sat in a far corner to the left, under an exit sign. She had bad skin and a utilitarian fashion sense. She was looking down, working hard. I immediately identified with her.
I imagined sitting in that corner, hating everyone else in the room.
“Mr. Brown isn’t in?” I asked, ignoring Juliet’s request for a name.
“He can’t be disturbed.”
“Couldn’t you just give him a note from me?”
Juliet, who hadn’t smiled once, not even when I first walked in, actually sneered, looking at me as if I were a city trash collector walking right from my garbage truck into the White House and asking for an audience with the president.
I was wearing a suit and tie. Maybe my shoe leather was dull, but there weren’t any scuffs. There were no spots on my navy lapels, but, like that woman in the corner, I was obviously out of my depth: a vacuum-cleaner salesman among high-paid lawyers, a hausfrau thrown in with a bevy of Playboy bunnies.
“What is your business with Mr. Brown?” the snotty child asked.
“He gives financial advice, right?”
She almost answered but then decided it was beneath her.
“I’m a friend of a friend of his,” I said. “Jumper told me that Roger might show me what to do with my money.”
Juliet was getting bored. She took in a deep breath, letting her head tilt to the side as she exhaled.
It wasn’t my skin color that bothered her. People on Madison Avenue didn’t mind dark skins in 2008. This woman might have considered voting for Obama, if she voted. She might have flirted with a rap star at some chic nightclub that only served imported Champagne and caviar.
Roger Brown was black. So were two of the denizens of the airy workspace. No. Juliet didn’t like me because of my big calloused hands and no-frills suit. She didn’t like me because I was two inches shorter and 40 pounds heavier than a man should be.
“If I leave you my card, will you make sure that he gets it?”
After another sigh she held out a hand, palm up. My fat red-brown wallet was older than the child, no doubt. I opened it and rooted among the fake business cards that were the hallmark of my trade. I decided on one that I hadn’t brought out since a woman I hardly knew had died at my feet.
ARNOLD DUBOIS Van Der Zee Domestics and In-home Service Aides
I went down on one knee, taking a pen from the red plastic desktop.
“Excuse me,” Juliet said in protest.
I scrawled f or Roger (aka B-Brain) Brown across the bottom. Beneath that I added a number from a lost, or maybe stolen, cellphone that I had purchased specifically for this job. I stood up easily, without grunting, because, unknown to Juliet, most of my extra weight was muscle. I handed her the card and she took it gingerly by a corner. “Is that all?” she said.
The chubby woman in the corner looked up at just that moment. I grinned at her and waved. She returned the gesture with a slightly puzzled smile.
“Thank you for your time,” I said, pretending I was talking to the woman under the exit sign. “This means a lot to me.”
Juliet sucked a tooth and pulled in her chin.
I remember a time when only black women did that.
Stomping down the two flights to the street, I was thinking about when I would have pushed harder to get past that girl. All I had to do was get a look at Roger Brown. I had never even seen a photograph of the man but I knew he was black and in his thirties with a small crescent scar under his right eye. All I needed was one look.
At an earlier point in my career I would have probably done something extreme to achieve that simple goal. I might have raised my voice and demanded to see her supervisor, or just walked past her, looking into offices until Roger Brown showed his face, or not. I could have pulled the fire alarm in the hallway or even put a smoke bomb in a trash can. But those days were pretty much over for me. I hadn’t given up on being a private detective; that was all I knew. I still took incriminating photographs and located people who didn’t necessarily want to be found. I exposed frauds and cheats without feeling much guilt.
In other words, I still plied my trade but now I worried about things. In the years before, I had no problem bringing people down, even framing them with false evidence if that’s what the client paid for. I didn’t mind sending an innocent man, or woman, to prison because I didn’t believe in innocence—and virtue didn’t pay the bills. That was before my past caught up with me and died, spitting blood and curses on the rug.
I still had a family that looked to me for their sustenance. My wife didn’t love me and two out of three grown and nearly grown children were not of my blood. But none of that mattered. I had a job to do, and more than one debt to pay.
So I had contracted to find four men. I’d already located three of them. One was dead, one in prison, and the third was awaiting trial. Of the four, only Roger Brown, if this was indeed the Roger Brown I was looking for, had made some kind of life for himself, the kind of life where a pretty young white girl protected his privacy and called him Mister in an office of first names. Maybe I went easy on Juliet because I was worried about Roger. The job was presented as a straightforward case, with no criminal prosecution involved. But if you find three bad apples, you know there’s got to be something rotten somewhere.
I walked down Madison in the bright summer sunshine, hoping that this Roger wasn’t the Roger I was looking for; and even if he was, I would have been happy if he never called.
Excerpted from THE LONG FALL by Walter Mosley by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2009 by Walter Mosley.
Walter Mosley’s mystery novels, including the now-classic Easy Rawlins series, are routinely on the New York Times best seller list. He has won numerous awards, including an O. Henry, a Grammy, and the PEN American Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Mosley served on the board of the National Book Awards and is past-president of the Mystery Writers of America.