Helen Hawthorne wished Eric Clapton would shut up. She didn’t want to listen to him croon about cocaine.
“She don’t lie, she don’t lie . . .” Eric sang.
Enough, Helen thought. She sat up in bed and pulled the black satin
sheet up to prepare for the first fight of her marriage. She didn’t want to be totally naked.
Phil, her husband of thirty-three days, looked lean and white against the dark sheets. She admired his young face, a startling contrast to his silver-white hair. His eyes were closed as he listened to the music.
Here goes, Helen thought. As soon as I open my mouth, our honeymoon is over. But she couldn’t stop herself.
“I hate that song,” she said. “Clapton sounds bored.”
Helen waited for Phil to defend his guitar hero. He gave a lazy stretch, sat up and said, “You’re right.”
“I am?” Helen raised one eyebrow in surprise. Her husband worshiped Clapton. He even had a “Clapton Is God” T-shirt. Helen expected Phil to be stuck by lightning every time he wore it.
They’d spent the sizzling September afternoon in his bedroom, listening to Clapton sing about hopeful love, hopeless love, and shameful, sinful love while they indulged in legal, married love. The cool music and green palm fronds shading the window turned Phil’s bedroom into an oasis at the Coronado Tropic Apartments.
Phil reached for the CD clicker and switched to an old favorite, “White Room,” with the howling guitar sound. “There. Is that better?”
“Much,” Helen said.
“You have to admit the guitar riffs in ‘Cocaine’ are elegant,” he said. “In his defense, Clapton thought he was singing an antidrug song.”
“Not to me,” Helen said. “Sounds like he’s in love with the white lady.”
“A lot of people think that,” Phil said. “You heard the audience cheering in that live recording. That’s why he quit singing it for a while. Coke was the evil lady of the Eighties, and ‘Cocaine’ was her anthem. When Clapton brought the song back for his North American tour, he added ‘that dirty cocaine’ line for his backup singers. It’s my least favorite Clapton song. He sounds depressed.”
“Did you ever use coke?” Helen asked.
“Did I what? I. Hate. Coke.” Each word was a separate sentence. Phil threw back the sheet, slipped into his white robe and paced up and down. With his silver hair, he looked like an agitated ghost.
“I hate the whole cocaine culture: the destruction, the corruption, the killings. I worked a case here in South Florida in the mid-eighties, in the days of the cocaine cowboys.”
“Sounds very Miami Vice,” Helen said. “I loved that TV show.”
“Miami Vice was a Disney movie compared to Miami in the eighties,” Phil said. “Coke isn’t romantic pink sunsets, throbbing sound tracks and drug dealers’ yachts.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Helen said. “I was in high school then. Our wild St. Louis drug scene was kids smoking pot under the bleachers.”
“I’m only five years older,” Phil said. “I was a PI trainee on my first major case. I was only twenty-one and my hair was blond. They thought I’d be good at finding a sixteen-year-old runaway because I looked young. Her name was Marcie. I was supposed to bring her back to Little Rock.”
Phil was still pacing the terrazzo floor in his bedroom, avoiding their scattered clothes.
“I tracked Marcie to some clone of Studio 54, then bribed the doorman with a hundred bucks. Put the bribe on my expense account. Thought I was quite the stud.”
“You are,” Helen said. She tried to put her arms around him, but Phil shook her away. He seemed anxious to tell this story, maybe for the first time.
“I followed Marcie into a club packed with half-naked people. It looked like every club then: tropical neon and a shiny black bar with mirrors. Behind the bar, Tom Cruise wannabes mixed flashy cocktails.”
“Sounds interesting,” Helen said.
“It wasn’t,” Phil said. “The crowd was mostly fat, balding men or Don Johnson look-alikes with designer stubble, and very young women. Couples were having sex everywhere: behind the curtains, in bathroom stalls, even right on the tables.”
“Ew,” Helen said. “I want to wash my mind out after that image.”
“Well, I can’t. I also can’t forget the black bowls of coke. They sat around like party favors.”
“What happened to Marcie?” Helen said.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Did you find her?”
“Yeah,” Phil said. “I found her. I sent her home – in a box. I’d like to forget her. I’d like to forget the whole ugly decade.”
Phil seemed to shut down. He stopped pacing and sat down on the bed next to her.
“It must have been horrible for you,” she said.
“It was no fun for Marcie, either. She didn’t deserve what happened to her.”
Helen traced the outline of his thin, slightly crooked nose with her finger and kissed the bump where it had been broken years ago. “Let’s talk about something pleasant: Our new detective agency. Do you still like the name Coronado Investigations?”
“It’s perfect,” Phil said. “Classy with a retro feel, like the Coronado Tropic Apartments. Our office could be the set for an old private eye movie: the rattling window air conditioner, the monster gunmetal gray desks, the battered file cabinets. I can see Bogart sitting behind my desk in a wifebeater undershirt, drinking cheap whiskey.”
“I’d rather see clients,” Helen said. “Our savings will run out soon. We have to find some. How do we start looking for work?”
“That’s what I asked Ed, my PI friend. I had breakfast with him this morning. I was working while you slept in. He’s a retired cop who’s with a big agency now.”
“You were supposed to tell me what he said when you came back,” Helen said.
“It’s not my fault. I was distracted by this tall brunette with great legs.”
Helen tucked her legs under her. “There. The distraction is gone. Why should he help us? Aren’t we competition?”
“Not really. He works for a huge agency that specializes in private security. It started as a small shop run by two friends and grew. Ed says we need a PI license and a computer. I already have both. We need insurance, and we have the money for that.”
“What about me?” Helen said.
“The state laws on private eyes are changing. We can get you in under the wire as my trainee, but you’ll have to take classes. So will I, if we want the business to succeed.
“Ed says we have another important asset – our reputation. I’m glad we went back to St. Louis and cleared up your troubles with the court. That’s out of the way.”
Troubles with the court. Helen felt like a boulder had been lobbed at her gut. She’d divorced her lying, cheating ex more than two years ago. That’s how she wound up in south Florida. She was on the run, avoiding an outrageous divorce settlement. A St. Louis judge had given her greedy ex-husband Rob half of Helen’s future income.
Helen had hidden in Fort Lauderdale, working jobs for cash under the table. Rob had tracked her down, demanding thirty thousand dollars. With the help of a St. Louis lawyer, Helen had just recently cleared her name with the court.
“Has Rob shown up in court to contest the new divorce settlement?” Phil asked.
Helen felt her mouth go dry as Death Valley. Alkaline dust seemed to coat her tongue. “Uh, no. The process server can’t find him. My lawyer published all the legal notices. Rob never appeared.”
“He disappeared at the wrong time,” Phil said. “Your legal troubles are over.”
“Almost over,” Helen said. “I didn’t file any taxes while I was on the run. My St. Louis tax attorney is working on that problem.”
“We’ll soon be free,” Phil said.
Helen felt a second boulder land on her back. She’d have to carry that crushing burden the rest of her life. She hated keeping a secret from her husband, but if she told Phil what had really happened to Rob, she’d ruin an innocent young life.
“What’s the matter, sweetheart?” Phil asked. “You look pale.”
“Nothing,” Helen said, adding yet another lie to the layers of deceit. “What else did your PI friend tell you?”
“Lots. Maybe too much. I’ll tell you more as I remember it. Ed suggested I hang around the courthouse and watch for new case filings. He says I should find a small, hungry law firm and do its investigative work. Our business will grow with the firm’s.”
“What do we do in the meantime? Live on love?”
“Find our local niche,” Phil said. “Florida has more private eyes than any other state except California.”
“Because this is such a rootless society?” Helen asked.
“Partly. Also, a lot of old cops retire down here. They live on their pensions while they start up their own agencies.”
“Makes it tough for us,” Helen said. “We don’t have their investigative skills.”
“We have our own advantages,” Phil said. “Old cops can be set in their ways. They’re used to getting what they want through the power of the badge and don’t learn how to coax information out of people. And you’re a genius at getting dead-end jobs.”
“Thanks, I think,” Helen said.
“Low-paying jobs are good ways to observe subjects. The people who do the work see things the bigwigs never do. They’re more likely to talk. You’ve worked as everything from a hotel maid to a bookseller. You’re a good listener. ”
“You’re good at disguises,” Helen said. “I’ve seen you look like an outlaw biker, a homeless man and a businessman. A cop looks like a cop no matter what he puts on.”
“Ed says we could try to specialize in background checks or insurance-agency work.”
“So we follow some guy suing someone because he hurt his back and catch him mowing the lawn?”
“Something like that,” Phil said.
“Sounds boring,” Helen said.
“Could be,” Phil said. “Is it any duller than standing at a shop counter?”
“I guess not,” Helen said. “Maybe Margery has some ideas to make a more lively living. Our landlady has a stake in our future, too. Our office is in her apartment complex. Is it time for the nightly poolside gathering?”
“It’s seven ten,” Phil said, checking the bedside clock. He pulled on his jeans. “Should be just starting.”
“Wait. We haven’t fed the cat yet,” Helen said, buttoning her blouse. “Thumbs is at my place.”
“Are you sure it’s a good idea to keep two apartments?” Phil asked.
“My tax attorney said no major lifestyle changes until I settle my IRS problem,” Helen said.
“Getting married isn’t a lifestyle change?”
“He meant we shouldn’t throw money around buying luxury cars and mansions. Besides, keeping my own apartment and sneaking into yours makes marriage seem illicit.”
A furious cat greeted Helen at her apartment door with loud yowls of protest. Thumbs was mostly white with gray-brown patches. His giant six-toed front paws gave him his name. Thumbs followed Helen into the kitchen. He flipped over his food bowl with one huge paw.
“Hey! That’s not nice,” Helen said.
Thumbs stared at her with angry green eyes.
“I should know better than to lecture a cat,” she said, flipping his bowl back over and pouring his dinner. Thumbs edged her hand out of the way and buried his face in his food.
Helen found a box of white wine in her fridge, rummaged for a can of cashews and headed outside.
The Coronado Tropic Apartments, built in 1949, looked like a white ocean liner. A hot breeze stirred the palm trees in the courtyard and small waves rippled the pool’s tepid water. Margery Flax and their neighbor Peggy were stretched out on the poolside chaise longues like Victorian maidens.
The real maidens would have fainted if they’d seen Margery. Helen’s seventy-six-year-old landlady was wearing a purple romper. Her long tanned legs ended in eggplant espadrilles. Marlboro smoke veiled her face. Her sunset orange fingernails glowed through the cigarette smoke.
Margery’s face was wrinkled, but she wore her age like an exotic accessory. Her steel gray hair ended at a necklace of charms. Helen saw martini glasses, wine bottles, olives, lemons, wineglasses, drink stirrers and a small corkscrew, each about the size of a beer cap.
“Cool necklace,” Phil said.
“It’s called a statement necklace,” Margery said.
“Looks like yours says it’s time for a drink,” Phil said.
“Drink!” came a raucous voice. “Drink!”
“Pete’s learned a new word,” Peggy said. Her Quaker parrot was perched on her shoulder like a corsage. Pete was the same bright green as Peggy’s long gauzy dress.
“And a useful word it is,” Margery said. She raised her wineglass in a salute to the gray-headed parrot. “Let’s drink.”
“Good boy,” Peggy said. “Here’s your reward.” She gave the bird a bit of broccoli. The parrot dropped it on the pool deck.
“Poor Pete,” Helen said. “That’s some celebration when all you get is broccoli. Can he have a cashew?”
“Sorry. That’s on his no-fly list,” Peggy said. “He’s still two ounces overweight.”
Helen closed the lid on the can of nuts and stuck them under her chair.
“Bye,” Pete said, sadly.
“We came here for help,” Phil said dragging a chair over to the group. “Coronado Investigations needs to specialize to succeed. Any suggestions?”
Peggy said, “Based on my past experience with men, you should investigate potential spouses and lovers. Right now, I’m dating a good guy, but my friend Shelby at work is looking for a detective. She’s having problems with her husband, Bryan. About a year ago, she bought him a gym membership. Bryan has lost twenty-five pounds. He works out seven days a week. He’s got a killer body.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Helen asked.
“Shelby hasn’t had sex with him since he started looking good. She’s convinced he has buffed himself up for another woman.”
“Or man,” Phil said. “Fort Lauderdale may have more gays than San Francisco.”
“Whoever it is, Shelby needs an answer,” Peggy said.
“Sounds promising,” Phil said.
“I think you should help families,” Margery said. “The average person can afford you better than they can a big agency. You can investigate situations when the family can’t – or won’t – go to the police.”
“Like finding runaways and deadbeat dads?” Phil said.
“Partly,” Margery said. “My mechanic has a problem. Gus thinks his brother’s suicide was a murder. He wants to hire an investigator to prove his brother was killed. He died in the eighties.”
“Opening a cold case can cost a lot of money,” Phil said.
“He’s got it,” Margery said. “Gus charges me eighty bucks an hour to work on my car. He specializes in vintage restorations.”
“I thought your Lincoln Town Car was fairly new.”
“Then I’m the vintage restoration,” Margery said. “You want the job or not?”
“What’s his number?” Phil asked.
“I have him on speed dial.” Margery opened her cell phone and hit a number.
“Gus?” she asked. “You still want that detective? I’ve found a good agency – Coronado Investigations.” She listened a moment, then asked, “Can you meet him at his repair shop?”
She looked at Phil. He nodded. So did Helen.
“It’s they, Gus,” Margery said. “You’re hiring the best team of shamuses in South Florida. They don’t come cheap, but you can afford it after my car bills. What did you do last time on my Lincoln – a heart transplant? Coronado Investigations will see you at seven tomorrow night.”
Peggy had had her own cell phone out. She snapped it shut and said, “My friend Shelby really wants you to start, too. She’ll stop by at seven tomorrow morning before she goes into work.”
“Amazing,” Helen said. “We got two jobs sitting by the pool.”
“Enjoy the honeymoon,” Margery said. “It won’t ever be this easy again.”