A Faceful of Lies
I went to the office, not knowing what else to do. It was that or stay glued to the TV, watching explosions and buildings folding like accordions and cough remedy commercials, like most of my fellow New Yorkers on this September day. I tried to work on a few cases, could see I was getting nowhere. I stared through the window and realized I was staring at the window, covered as it was with a gray powder. I didn't want to think about what it was composed of.
I was about to take my troubles for a walk down to McSorley's, dodging the barricades and emergency vehicles, still swarming like hornets around lower Manhattan. The knock at the door surprised me so much I could only stare silently at its 1920s frosted glass that reminded me, in mirror-image writing, that I was DAVID PFLUG, PRIVATE DETECTIVE.
The oval bronze handle turned, most likely by a burglar taking advantage of the chaos that had reigned since the Towers came down a couple of days ago. I opened the desk drawer, pushed aside the dog-eared copy of Paleoastronomy Review, and checked that the .45 automatic was still there. After September 11, the pistol's caged violence seemed like a puny joke. Nevertheless, I shoved the clip in. You never know.
Her well-tailored puce slacks, port wine silk blouse, and psychedelic-paramecium Paisley scarf loosely but carefully tied were incongruous in the sickly pall of downtown. Then I saw her eyes. Then I saw nothing else until I could catch my breath, which took an aeon or so. You could swim an Olympic lap in each of those green pools.
There was only time to register that the rest of her might have stepped out of a movie poster when she said, "I want you to find out who killed my husband."
I groped for words, finally managing, "Won't you sit down, Mrs. ... ?" as though I were reading the lines from an eye chart and my contact lenses were hand-me-downs from Aunt Ellen.
"Cato," she said. "Anne-Lisa Cato. I expect you've heard of my ... my late ... husband, Sigismondo Cato. President and CEO of Holdroyd, Plath, Teaman & Dwight. Seventy-third floor, North Tower."
I tossed her words around mentally like a juggler in an earthquake. Did she mean ... had her husband ...
"Yes. Killed in the North Tower, September 11."
We shared another long silence like an uneaten cheesecake. For the first time that beautiful visage showed a trace of emotion. The lids of those jewel eyes drooped a little, like a final curtain stuck in its tracks. There was a trace of challenge in her simmering contralto voice, or was it some kind of invitation? "What's the matter with you, Mr., uh, what, Pflug? Your sign says you're a detective, or do you just launder money for a DVD piracy ring?"
I found my voice at last, but it had metamorphosed during the past two days into something between a squeaky car suspension and a the bark of a dog overdue for his dinner. "Er, you have my deepest sympathy, Mrs. Cato. A lot of people are grieving right now."
"I want you to find out who killed my husband," she repeated, as though the phrase was a comet whose orbit intersected my office every few minutes.
The woman was obviously demented. How to strike the right note between empathy and reality enforcement? "But you said he was ... he died when the North Tower collapsed, or possibly when the plane hit -- uh, I mean, it was a terrible -- "
"He died in the World Trade Center on September 11. Not when the tower collapsed. Not when the plane hit."
Unwilling to allow another silence to grow like a fungus, I asked, "Are you saying ... " But I didn't know what to wonder about what she was saying.
An edge entered her voice. "Murdered. He was murdered."
Grieving. What did I know about grieving? I knew about vicious killers and con men and unfaithful wives and unfaithful husbands and vanished accountants. I had hardened myself to the woes of others, the better to do my job without the distraction of feelings. But this woman needed to grieve.
"Yes, Mrs. Cato, you're right. Those, those, monsters who flew the planes into the towers and the Pentagon and might have put a hole in the Capitol were murderers."
A glare like a headwaiter returning a diner's refused credit card. "Do I have to spell it out for you? You came highly recommended, Mr. Pflug, but I'm starting to wonder about you. My husband was murdered in his office five minutes before the attack, stabbed with a 19th century French letter opener he kept on his desk. I know because he managed to phone me before he died. Just as he was about to reveal the name of his killer, the phone line went dead. I tried to call the police, but couldn't get through. Then I went out on the balcony of our penthouse and looked downtown and saw the smoke ...
"They say you're one hell of a detective, Mr. Pflug, when you're not hung over and you wiggle your ears till you get your mind in gear. Well, you'd better be. That terrorist attack concealed all the evidence ... "