"As a husband, he was a lying, selfish prick," Nina Sachs said, and lit yet another cigarette. Her silver lighter caught the late-April sun as it came through the big windows. She flicked a strand of auburn hair away from her face and blew a plume of smoke at the high ceiling. "And as a father, he's no better. But he's our meal ticket, Billy's and mine, and if something's happened to him--if the cash is going to stop--I want to know about it sooner, not later."
Nina Sachs was a few inches over five feet tall, and wiry. Her short straight hair was pulled into a blunt ponytail, away from a pale elfin face that was full of motion. Grins and frowns and ironic twists flickered by, and I saw a lot of her teeth, which were uneven but not unattractive. Her hands were quick and so were her hazel eyes. Nina Sachs was close to forty, but despite the chain-smoking she looked ten years younger.
"What makes you think something's happened to him?" I asked.
She crossed her legs and uncrossed them and regarded her small bare feet and her toenails, which were painted apple green. She crossed her legs once more and finally tucked them beneath her. She fiddled with one of her silver earrings and picked with a thumbnail at a fleck of paint on her black yoga pants. She took another hit off the Benson & Hedges.
"I've got a picture of him somewhere," she said, and uncurled herself from the green leather sofa. She crossed the loft with quick steps, opened the center drawer of an ebony desk, and began rummaging.
I didn't need a photograph to recognize her ex-husband. Though he hadn't been on television much lately, anyone who watched the cable business channels over the past few years had seen plenty of Gregory Danes. Still, I let her go on searching. I was happy for the distance. Between the smoking and the fidgeting, she was making me edgy.
"What makes you think something's happened?" I asked again. She pulled the desk drawer out and dumped its contents on the desktop. She sifted through the pile, her back to me as she spoke.
"Five weeks ago--right before he was supposed to pick up Billy for the weekend--he called to say he couldn't make it. He was all pissy about something and said he was taking time off--going away someplace--and had to postpone." A box of paper clips slid off the heap and scattered on the floor. Nina cursed and kept searching.
"He's canceled last-minute plenty of times, so I wasn't shocked. I said Fine, whatever, and we rescheduled for three weeks later. So three weeks comes, and we're here waiting for him to get Billy, and he's a no-show. No call, no message--no word at all. I tried his place, but there was no answer. I left messages on his machine and got nothing back." She turned to look at me and took another long drag on her cigarette. "That was nearly two weeks ago. Since then, I've tried his cell phone, his office, left more messages . . . and heard nothing." She ran her fingers across the base of her throat. "Maybe he just doesn't want to come back, or maybe . . . I don't know what. That's why I'm talking to you."
"What did they say at his office?" I asked.
Nina snorted. "At Pace-Loyette? They didn't say shit. All they gave me was a runaround and a weird vibe." Some envelopes and matchbooks joined the paper clips on the floor. She stared at them.
Nina turned back to the desk and started picking through the heap again. "My lawyer told me you were a cop before this PI thing," she said.
"I was a sheriff's deputy--an investigator--upstate. What kind of weird vibe did you get from Pace-Loyette?"
Nina Sachs laughed. "Deputy John March, huh? Get out of Dodge by sundown and all that?"
"Just like that. Weird how, Nina?"
"It was . . . I don't know . . . weird. I called his direct number--figuring I'd get his voice mail or his secretary--and instead I get bounced to some woman named Mayhew, in Corporate Communications, she says, who tells me Mr. Danes is away and I can leave a message with her. When she found out who I was, she got all freaked and transferred me to some legal guy. He started asking questions and finally it dawned on me: They don't know where Greg is either." Her cigarette was down nearly to the filter. She squinted at it and stubbed it out in a small metal bowl on the desk.
"He didn't say anything to you about where he was going?"
Nina shook her head and fished her cigarettes and lighter from a pants pocket. "He doesn't tell me shit like that."
"He ever do anything like this before--just take off?"
Nina shrugged. "I guess so."
I waited for more but it didn't come. "Care to elaborate?"
"There were a couple of times. Once, right after we were separated, he split for maybe ten days. And after the divorce was final he did it again, for two weeks. And I guess there was a third time a few years back--not long after the SEC people first called him in--he took off for a week or so."
"And each of those times he just up and left--with no notice and no word to anyone?"
"He didn't say jackshit to me, I know that, and he didn't call either. He just went away for a while, and then he came back."
"So what's different about this?"
She shrugged once more. "Maybe nothing, but . . . he's never been away this long before. And before, he called to cancel with the kid--he's never just been a no-show." Nina turned to the desk again and started pushing the mess around. "How'd you get from upstate to down here?" she asked.
I sighed. I'd been through all this two days ago, when her lawyer, Maggie Lind, had phoned me to set up this meet. But what the hell.
"I'm from down here. I came back when I was done with being a cop."
"How come you're not a cop anymore?" she asked. "You get into trouble?"
"I knew it was around here," she said. She padded across the floor, trailing smoke, and handed me a photograph. She perched again at the end of the sofa.
It was a Polaroid, ridged and faded, and it showed Nina and Danes side by side at a glass-topped table, under a big striped umbrella. There were palm trees and leafy plantings and part of a swimming pool in the background. Danes was dressed in canvas pants and a guayabera, and Nina wore a gauzy caftan over a wet tank suit. Her hair was longer and her face was fuller and less interesting--more conventionally and forgettably pretty.
Danes looked much as he did on television, the same wayward straw-colored hair, the same regular, somehow unfinished features, the same shadowed eyes and thin lips and vaguely mocking smile: the same overall impression of precocity and arrogance. His hand was on Nina's shoulder and she didn't seem to mind, and I figured the photo was at least ten years old--taken before the divorce, before Danes had become the head of equity research at Pace-Loyette and ubiquitous on the business channels, before his long slide down. I looked at Nina.
"How about his friends or family?" I asked. "Have you been in touch with them?"
"I wouldn't know who to try," she said. "He didn't have a lot of friends back when we were married, and I bet he has less now. And I sure as hell don't know any of them.
"And as far as family goes, Billy and me are pretty much it. Greg's old man died when he was five. His mother remarried, but she and the stepfather died just after Greg got out of B school. He's got a creepy half brother somewhere in Jersey, but I don't know when Greg last spoke to him." She smiled and blew out some smoke. "Pathetic, isn't it?"
"You said he sounded pissy the last time you spoke. Any idea what about?"
She shook her head again. "We don't exactly confide in each other, you know? We don't have that kind of relationship."
"What kind of relationship do you have?" I asked.
Nina got no farther than a smirk when a cell phone chirped. She cursed and tracked the sound to the kitchen, beneath some sections of the Times that were spread on the counter. She bent her head and spoke in low tones. I got up and stretched.
Windows covered one wall of the loft, from floor to ceiling. The metal-framed glass was thick and clouded, and some of the panes opened on a pivot. I pushed on one, and a small breeze came in. Sachs's place was in Brooklyn, on the third floor of an old factory building off Water Street, tucked between the Brooklyn and the Manhattan bridges and near enough to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that I could hear the rush and rumble of traffic. The outside air was warm, tinged with exhaust and soot and the sour, salty smell of the harbor and the East River. Even so, it was better than the heavy cloud of cigarette smoke and paint and old food that hung inside. I took a deep breath and looked down at the cobbled streets. They were quiet on a Monday morning. The loading docks across the way were empty.
Once upon a time, I'd roamed this neighborhood on a regular basis. It was twenty years ago, and I was in the eighth grade and hanging with a kid named Jimmy Farrelly. Jimmy lived in Brooklyn Heights, in a brownstone near the Promenade, and we'd ride the subway from Manhattan after school and walk to the river from the Clark Street stop. If the neighborhood had a name back then we didn't know it, and if any artists lived there we didn't care. We were drawn by the derelict factories and abandoned warehouses, by the rotting piers and the lattice of stone and ironwork overhead, and by a consuming interest in smoking dope, drinking beer, and learning, from Jimmy's neighbor Rita and her friend Angela, the finer points of French-kissing.
A lot of artists had moved to the area since those days, looking to homestead after being priced out of places like SoHo and TriBeCa and the East Village. The developers had followed them, and then came the realtors--who bestowed a name on our old playground: dumbo, for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. With the name had come immaculate art galleries, like the one downstairs, sleek coffee bars, like the one across the street, and designer grocery stores, like the one around the corner. The march of progress.
If she hadn't been an early homesteader, then Nina had paid a fortune for her place. She had an entire floor--an easy 4,000 square feet--with good light and a swatch of downtown Manhattan skyline in sight, if you craned your neck. The walls were unadorned brick, faded to a warm rose color, and the floors were cement, finished and sealed so that they were smooth and wet-looking. The high ceilings were hung with new ductwork.
The loft was divided into four distinct areas. At one end, behind white Sheetrock walls, were bedrooms and a bath. Next to these was an open kitchen, with pale wood cabinets, steel counters, and an armor-clad oven. Tatami mats defined the living area, which was dominated by a sleek L-shaped leather sofa, some matching chairs, a green glass coffee table, and tall freestanding shelves. The other end of the loft, walled off by unpainted Sheetrock and a white fabric scrim, was Nina's studio.
The space was impressive and also a mess. Besides the small havoc Nina had created around the desk, there was a collapsed stack of dog-eared art journals near the sofa and another on one of the chairs. There was an empty bottle of merlot on the coffee table, with two sticky-looking glasses beside it. Two more bottles were on the kitchen counter, along with the remains of several meals. The sink was full of dirty dishes, and everywhere the ashtrays were brimming. A mess--but a grown-up one.
I walked slowly around the living room, and nowhere did I see traces of Billy. There were no schoolbooks or comic books, no video games or backpacks, no sneakers or skateboards. And while there was clothing strewn about, on the backs of chairs, on countertops, and crumpled at the base of an overloaded coatrack, none of it seemed to belong to a twelve-year-old boy.
Nina was still muttering into the phone, and I drew back the white curtain and stepped into her studio. It was a larger space than the living room, and more sparsely equipped. A big drafting table and two elaborate easels stood in the center of the room. Three metal trolleys were parked nearby, laden with brushes, tubes of paint, solvents, palettes, and other tools of her trade. There was a steel utility sink along the opposite wall, and to one side of it some metal shelves and more supplies. A gilt-framed mirror--eight feet high at least--leaned against the wall on the other side. A commercial fan and two reflecting lights stood in one corner, near a scruffy armchair and a pint-sized stereo.
By comparison with the rest of the place, Nina's studio was immaculate. The supplies on the shelves and trolleys were organized and tidy. The floor was bare and clean. The sink was empty but for a half-dozen brushes drying in a precise row at its edge.
Some pencil sketches were taped to the Sheetrock on my right: two of a female nude draped in an armchair, a third of the same figure kneeling, with head inclined, and two more of something that looked like the Flatiron Building, set on a bluff over a churning sea. They were nicely done, with a sure delicate touch. There was a canvas on one of the easels, and I walked around to take a look.
I'd done a little online homework before my meeting with Nina and knew she had enjoyed some success as an artist. She'd had exhibitions in New York and Boston and London that were--insofar as I could decrypt the reviews--well received. Her work had been acquired by some notable private and corporate collections, and recently she'd been picked up by museums in Chicago and Dallas and LA. But I'd not actually seen any of her paintings, and I didn't know what to expect.
It was striking. The canvas was about three feet high by two feet wide, and the painting was in oil, with blues and grays predominant. I recognized the subjects from the sketches on the wall. The triangular building was at the right of the picture, set back, and the angry sea swirled in the foreground and to the left. The bowed kneeling figure appeared in a window, halfway up the side of the building.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Death's Little Helpers by Peter Spiegelman. Copyright © 2005 by Peter Spiegelman. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.