Ajay was a big man and built solid. He spent time at the gym, and it showed in the roll of his broad shoulders under his long black coat, and in the solid stride of his muscled legs as he ran. That size worked against him now, though, as he tangled with pedestrians. Struggling to avoid a hotdog vendor, Ajay barely missed running into a homeless man, who was pushing a shopping cart full of aluminum cans.
“Stop, Pokestas!” Ajay shouted in anger and frustration.
“Like hell!” the man that Ajay was pursuing shouted back, punctuating his words by making a crude sign over one shoulder.
With a cardboard box clutched possessively under one arm, and his seedy jacket and filthy scarf flapping like demented pigeon wings around his narrow frame, Pokestas negotiated the crowded city sidewalk with the boneless agility of an eel. The row on row of old store fronts and turn of the century apartment buildings made a wall on one side, though, and the rush hour traffic, bumper to bumper, made yet another kind of barrier blocking his escape.
“You’ve got nowhere to go!” Ajay shouted over the heads of the crowd, hoping that was true.
“I do so!” Pokestas shouted back as he vaulted a low bench covered in snow, slithered along a car hood and tried to breech the wall of cars and trucks at a standstill in traffic.
“I know where you live!” Ajay snarled as he dared to try and follow him.
“I know where you live, too!” Pokestas laughed.
Ajay wove in and out of the cars, risking crushing injuries, as he climbed, slid, and sidestepped, as fast as he could manage between bumpers.
“Ajay!” That familiar voice brought his head around, but only for long enough to identify his foster Father behind the wheel of his old yellow cab.
“Hi, Da!” Ajay called back, but didn’t slow his steps as he explained, “Working, now! Talk, later.”
Ajay slipped on a patch of snow and splashed into a puddle of freezing water as he reached the opposite side of the street. Almost going headlong into a street sign, he caught at the post with black gloved hands, used it to regain his balance, and then pushed off as he propelled himself forward.
“Pokestas!” Ajay shouted between panting breaths that smoked in the cold air. “Stop... or... I’ll.... I’ll...”
“What’re you gonna do, No Badge Kavanagh?” the man shouted back with a wild laugh of derision.
The man turned as he ran, to waggle empty, bony fingers at Ajay, his narrow face split with a wide grin.
“Damn it!” Ajay swore. He stopped dead in his tracks, turned on his heel, and looked frantically back the way that they had come.
An overfull garbage can, a too narrow steam vent, and a covered sewer grate, were all discarded as possibilities, in a split-second of logical consideration. The garbage truck, with the open rear, parked at the curb, was a more chilling prospect. As it began crushing its contents, with loud grating and popping noises, Ajay eliminated it, with relief, as having been too far away from the fleeing man.
In a swirl of black coat and flying snowflakes, Ajay turned and began running after the man again, certain that he had been tricked, somehow. “Pokestas! Stop!”
Pokestas threw a startled look over his narrow shoulder and began running at top speed once more. He had gained ground, though, in Ajay’s confusion, and he didn’t look as if he was tiring. Ajay, on the other hand, felt the burn that told him that he was nearing his limit. It was only fury keeping his legs moving, at that point, and a determination not to let Pokestas get away with his box.
It was a crack in the sidewalk that made Pokestas stumble and almost go down. The time that it took for him to recover, was time enough for Ajay to catch him hard by one arm, and propel him into an ally, and up against a stinking garbage dumpster.
“Ajay!” Pokestas exclaimed as he tried on a confused, good natured smile. His body was a coiled spring under Ajay’s hands, though, and the box, tucked into his jacket, was clutched possessively. Strangely, almost every one of the man’s fingers was bandaged.
“Pokestas!” Ajay almost purred, leaning over the skinny man threateningly. “I‘ve heard that you’ve been making some illegal sales again. That true?”
“Me? Ajay! I gave all that up for religion, remember?” Pokestas insisted with an attempt at an innocence expression.
Ajay grinned without any humor, his dark, blue eyes hard under his wind blown black hair. “Funny, but I don’t remember seeing you at mass, lately.”
“Wouldn’t you have to be there to see me?” Pokestas retorted, dropping innocence for a sneer of contempt.
“Keep it coming, Pokestas!” Ajay growled as he held the man’s ragged coat lapel in one fist, while he ripped open the box. “Your cell mates will think you’re a riot. Maybe they won’t -”
Needle sharp teeth sank through leather into the flesh of Kavanagh’s hand. He howled in pain as a white toy poodle, covered in pink ribbons, and painted with pink nail polish, snarled, as if it were a dog ten times its size, and fearlessly defended itself.
“You can have the damned monster!” Pokestas exclaimed, as he suddenly flipped the box out of his coat at Ajay.
Ajay released him, in pain and surprise, as he frantically tried to catch the box before it, and the dog, hit the pavement. Pokestas took advantage of that opportunity and bolted for the street.
“God dammit! Stop!” Ajay shouted, meaning both Pokestas and the dog, as he held the box close to his chest and tried to get hold of the biting poodle. “It’s okay pooch! I’m the good guy! Son of a-! Look, you, little-! I’m trying to save you!”
Finally, Ajay resorted to stuffing the dog back into the box, shutting the lid, and wrapping his arms around it to hold it closed. He leaned against the old brick wall, then, feeling the throb of bitten hands, the cold from his wet pants and shoes, and the burn of over worked lungs, as he tried to catch his breath from his pursuit of Pokestas.
‘What’re you gonna do, No Badge Kavanagh?’ Pokestas’s words still rang in Ajay’s ear, the inescapable truth in them giving Ajay’s triumph a bitter after taste.
Ajay’s badge had been gone for months, now, taken away by a police department that had lost too many cases due to Ajay’s failure to follow procedures. He hadn’t faulted them. A court of law needed proper evidence, not Ajay’s good intentions. Those good intentions hadn’t been enough to convict criminals.
Despite that failure, Ajay hadn’t been able to forget his dream of being a good detective. He was limited, now, though, to gathering evidence as a civilian, and presenting that evidence to the police, or to a client, for further action. He wasn’t supposed to chase suspects through dangerous traffic, or to confront them, nose to nose, without a gun or police authority, to back him up. Pokestas had known that, and would have been within his rights to have Ajay arrested for assault. That is, if he hadn’t been holding onto a stolen dog at the time.
The camera, recorder and notepad in Ajay’s coat pockets had all been brought along to catch Pokestas in the act and to make a case to put him behind bars. With the image of a grief stricken Mrs. Anthony in his mind, though, and confronted by the man taking the elderly woman’s most cherished pet, Ajay had thrown all procedure to the wind, in an instant. Just like in the past, it had become all about a criminal and stopping him from hurting an innocent.
Ajay cursed at his own lack of discipline as he, finally, pushed away from the wall and carried his box, filled with the still snarling poodle, back to his client. Maybe he hadn’t put a criminal behind bars, he thought, but he could still feel good about closing his case and saving the dog from being sold illegally.
Ajay found it hard to hold onto that good feeling, a little while later, though. After returning Mrs. Anthony’s beloved poodle, she tearfully thanked him for rescuing her dog, and then paid him with a cookie, a cup of milk, and a long story about her grandchildren. When she saw him to the door, afterward, and said, reaching up to pat his cheeks, as if he were four years old, “You are such a good, boy, Ajay. I can see why your father is so proud of you.” He couldn’t find it within himself to insist on something more monetary.
In a part of the city, where everyone had lived in the same homes, for generations, it wasn’t a surprise to Ajay that his father managed to know so many people. If his cab stopped long enough, people gathered and talked through his window. If he was done for the day, his seat at the local bar was sacrosanct, and surrounded by friends. At church, he and his family had their place on the pews, that had sat generations of Kavanaghs before them. Ajay could imagine his father saying, to the many people that he knew, ‘I am so proud of my boy.’ It was harder to understand why.
When most of his father’s children had taken up regular day jobs, Ajay had, after his failure as a police detective, taken on crime, by protecting their little community, single handedly, with all the unrealistic, and unofficial, determination of a super hero. If he had managed that well, he might have agreed with his father. Unfortunately, Ajay was still more likely to end up without a conviction in most of his cases. That was a failure rate that he was finding it impossible to be proud of or to accept.
His bank account was also finding it hard to accept. Ajay didn’t get paid for failures. On the long walk back to his office, hunched into his long coat against a light snowfall, Ajay considered his lack of finances. He wasn’t certain whether he was going to be able to pay the rent on his office or his apartment. It was a safe bet that neither landlord would accept milk and cookies as payment.
His father wouldn’t stay proud of him if he lost his agency, Ajay thought with mounting depression. Nor would he stay proud of him, if Ajay moved back home, and couldn’t manage his life. Whatever noble aspirations the man attributed to Ajay’s choice in careers, would surely be lost under the glare of harsh reality and failure. Still, when Ajay pushed aside those worries about what his father might think of him, he could still find that strong desire to succeed, to really make a difference. Imagining another line of work, another direction in his life, just wasn’t a choice that Ajay wanted to make. Stay on course, he told himself. Man up and make it work, somehow.
As Ajay joined a group of people waiting for a street light to change at a busy intersection, and considered the humiliating prospect of begging his landlords for more time, his thoughts were interrupted by an unusual tinkling noise. It cut through the noise of traffic and pedestrians by the very nature of its oddness and the fact that it seemed to be coming from the very spot where he was standing.
Ajay looked down and discovered that a man was standing very close to him in the press of pedestrians. Ajay was used to towering over people, but this young man was far shorter than most. The top of his head barely reached Ajay’s collarbone, and, though wrapped in a thick white coat and overlarge, cream colored scarf, he still didn’t appear to weigh much more than a hundred pounds.
The man’s long blonde braid, his small gold earrings, snug cream-colored pants, and his ankle boots, might have made some people mistake the man for a woman, but his arching gold eyebrows, his intelligent, blue eyes, and his high boned face, were definitely masculine. He had a firm chin, as well, and a stance that was almost challenging, telling Ajay that he was well aware of Ajay, but pointedly ignoring his scrutiny. His frigid expression spoke of someone who was used to comments of the rude kind, and expected one at any moment.
The signal changed and they began crossing the street, the young man walking quickly ahead of Ajay, as if he were eager to put distance between them. Ajay’s eyes followed him, reflexively noting details as if he might be called to testify about the young man later. It was a reflex that made him a good investigator, but tended to make people nervous.
The young man was well off, if the leather and costly jewelry that he was wearing was any indication, and definitely not from that part of the city. As Ajay kept making mental notes, he passed over the exact spot where he had been born, without the slightest tingle of recognition, his entire attention on the handsome young man in front of him.
Warrenburg and Devoe Streets were the veritable ‘x marks the spot’ at the center of Ajay Kavanagh’s life. He had been born at that crossroads, in a cab stuck in rush hour traffic, to a free spirit mother and an unknown father. His midwife had been the cab driver, a ham-handed, over worked, father of eleven children, who had been saddled with the newborn as soon as the mother had caught her breath enough to pay for the cab ride and to, incredibly, walk away, never to be heard from again.
Adding a newborn to his clan had been as perfunctory as taking in a stray puppy. Handing the newborn into his harried wife’s arms, the cab driver had only announced, ‘Another one,’ and sat down to a beer and the evening news. A more official adoption, and twenty-three years later, Ajay was still treated no differently than any of his foster brothers and sisters, by his foster parents, or the people in their tight knit community.
Ajay was known as Michael Kavanagh’s son, and his face, and family, were well known to all. Ajay had learned, though, to make that familiarity work for him. He knew the people. He knew every sag, stain, and warped roof line of the long line of Victorian era apartment buildings, single family homes, old business’s, and decrepit office buildings in his small part of the city. When he realized that the young man, walking ahead of him, was obviously lost, and looking for an address, it was easy to use his knowledge to consider which address the man might be looking for.
Turning down Caraway Street, the choices became fewer. The man didn’t look in need of a used book, a bail bondsman, or to have a watch repaired. The only other buildings were small time businesses like his own; walk ups, with magnetic signs, stuck to dirty windows, the only advertisement of their existence.
The young man stared hard at a note in his hand, studied several magnetic signs, and then looked frustrated as he passed them by. He stopped at the next building, looked even more frustrated, and then turned back around. Returning to the previous sign, he studied it, and then his note, in obvious confusion.
“Uh, that’s actually a six,” Ajay said quietly from behind him and reached over the smaller man’s shoulder to turn the errant magnetic number around. “Eighteen twenty-six, not nine.”
The man’s blue eyes were startled as he turned warily and looked up at Ajay. He regained his composure, almost instantly though, and stood straighter as he gave Ajay a firm nod and a curt, “Thank you.”
Ajay didn’t blame him. The young man was definitely not used to such a rundown area, and a man, much bigger than himself, had, to all appearances, followed him. It wasn’t a good time to look like an easy mark. Ajay had to struggle not to smile in amusement. The man reminded him of Mrs. Anthony’s poodle: tiny, and all done up in ribbons and bows, but still as fierce as any Doberman.
“I have an office here,” Ajay told him, trying to reassure the man.
“Oh, I see. Well, thank you.”
The tinkling sound came from a small golden ball, hanging among the many golden necklaces, on the man’s neck. Something inside the ball chimed, like tiny bells, with every motion the man made, as he cautiously edged out of Ajay’s shadow.
Opening the dirty glass front door, the man entered the building and then paused in the narrow lobby to check door numbers. Not finding the number that he was looking for, he then began climbing up the stairs to the second floor. Ajay knew that he wasn’t putting the man’s fears to rest, when he followed him upstairs to a long hallway leading to more offices.
There were three offices there; a women’s clinic, a divorce lawyer, and Ajay’s own office. The lawyer had an actual plaque on his door, the women’s services had a sign written by hand, and his own office door was unmarked. Ajay relied on his phone for business, and leaving business cards all over the city. He almost always met his clients at their home, or place of business, not his own. Because of that, a door sign was not only something that he didn’t need, as yet, but it was also an expense that he hadn’t been able to afford.
Ajay’s office door was open, at the moment, and he could hear someone complaining inside. The young man looked in and asked the occupant, “Is this the Ajay Kavanagh Investigations Agency?”
There was a familiar snort of laughter and a feminine voice replied, “This is it, handsome. He’s not in, right now, though. Any female services that I can do for you?”
“Katie!” Ajay exclaimed in annoyance.
“Shit! Well, looks like Ajay is here, after all. Just my bad luck, I guess.”
The young man looked from the office interior and then to Ajay with an expression of disappointment. His next words were said in the tone of a man who suspected that he had wasted his time. “I’m sorry. I seem to have been misled.”
“I’ll say!” Katie snickered as she came out of the office with a box of paperclips. She was a short woman, with black hair cut in a severe buzz cut. Her loose shirt and old jeans did nothing to reveal that she was a medical doctor, with eight years experience under her belt. Her dark eyes were as sharp as her tongue as she raked Ajay with them and said, “You could do a lot better at the local day labor pool.”
“Ha, ha,” Ajay growled, irritably. He was used to her sharp tongue, and mercenary ways, but the last thing that Ajay needed, just then, in front of a prospective new client, was her joking put downs. Partly, because he wasn’t so sure that she was joking.
“Are you going to pay for those paper clips, Dr. Malevona?” Ajay wondered acidly.
She sniffed as she waved the box at him and began walking to her office. “It’s charity, Kavanagh. You just gave to the cause. Accept it graciously.”
She donated her medical services to the poor, and supported herself in ways that Ajay had never been able to discover. She did often run low on supplies. Small filches from his office were common. More so, after the lock on the door had been broken.
The young man was beginning to leave, but Ajay stepped sideways into his path and tried not to look threatening, as he quickly said, “I hope that you understand that she’s joking? I assure you, that I am a competent investigator. I have one year on the police force, and several solved cases to my credit. If you need references, I can provide them.” Ajay hoped that he wouldn’t ask for them. They had all been very small cases.
The man looked uncertain, the address clutched tightly in his hand. Ajay couldn’t help holding his breath, and offering up a silent prayer. It was answered, when the man suddenly made up his mind, and held out his hand to shake Ajay’s. His golden bracelets chimed together as he introduced himself. “My name is Devon Temple.”
“Detective Ajay Kavanagh,” Ajay replied with relief. He returned the man’s hand shake, firmly, and then used his grip to lead the man into his office.
Motioning Temple to take a seat in a chair with a taped up seat positioned before his old desk, Ajay moved around the desk and sat himself in a chair that wasn’t in much better shape. As he sat, he swept his dust-covered laptop off of the desk, and into a drawer. He wished that he could do the same for the dead plants that had failed to get enough light from a filthy window, and the obvious places, where the plaques of previous tenants had once graced the wall. It made Ajay’s one diploma, from the police academy, look inadequate.
Taking out a notepad and a well used pencil, Ajay felt the need to say defensively, “I assure you that I am a complete professional, and that my rates are very reasonable. May I ask who recommended me?”
“Samantha Engles,” Temple told him as he looked around the room with the air of someone ready to leave again at the slightest provocation. “She told me that you were an excellent investigator, the best, actually, and that she was certain that you could help us.”
“Us?” Ajay wrote the woman’s name down. He had never heard her name before and he didn’t know anyone who would use ‘the best’, and his name, in the same sentence.
“Ms. Engles, and I, share a common need to know where a certain man has gone,” Temple explained. “He disappeared a week ago, and no one has heard word from him since. While it isn’t unusual behavior for him, I’m afraid that he left at a very bad time. He’s on the verge of becoming a famous artist, you see. His debut is in several weeks. Many important people were to appear. If he doesn’t attend, I’m not sure that he will get another chance any time soon. He’s rather eccentric and his art is controversial.”
“So, a crime hasn’t been committed?” Ajay affirmed, “He’s just missing?”
“Is he likely to be in the city?” Ajay wondered as he made notes quickly.
“I’m not sure,” Temple replied as he fiddled nervously with his golden braid. “He has a habit of disappearing for days, but he never tells me where he’s been when he returns.”
“What is your concern in this?” Ajay wondered.
Temple frowned. “Does that matter?”
“It does if this person doesn’t want you to find him. It could make my job more difficult,” Ajay explained as he made a note that Temple had appeared confused rather than defensive about the question.
The young man looked uncomfortable and then he replied, tentatively, as if he expected a negative response from Ajay, “I’m his model. He paints me.”
“Interesting line of work,” Ajay replied, keeping his voice neutral, even though his interest was peaked. “Does it pay well?”
Temple’s lips thinned, disapproving, perhaps, of being questioned about personal things. He replied, with a small shrug, “It can, sometimes.”
“I suppose that not having works of art, with you as the subject, make an appearance at an important art show, might hurt your career and your finances?” Ajay asked.
“It’s not about money, Mr. Kavanagh, and I’m not worried about my career as a model,” Temple retorted with sudden temper. “David Ridder is important to me.”
“Is that the artist’s name?”
Ajay made more notes. “What about Ms. Engles? What’s her concern in all of this?”
“She’s David’s agent,” Temple replied. “She manages his appearances.”
“You mean, his one appearance?”
“Well, yes. This is the only one, so far,” Temple replied impatiently. “It’s his debut.” He placed a flyer on Ajay’s desk showing a brooding young man with dark, curling hair, and information about the art show listed below it.
“She’s worried about her commission?” Ajay wondered as he took the flyer and studied it.
“I suppose,” Temple replied, “Though I’m sure she’s worried about David as well. She’s worked hard to get him ready for this show. She wants him to be, finally, acknowledged for the great artist that he is.”
“This Ridder doesn’t seem very appreciative,” Ajay pointed out, looking up from the flyer to watch Temple’s expression. “Why would he run out on his big chance at fame?”
“He’s...” Temple frowned, searching for words, and then settled on, “Special. He’s a man of the moment. I don’t think that material things concern him at all. He only cares about his painting. It is possible that he simply wanted a place to paint, without interruption, and left without thought for the consequences.”
“Sounds like a hard man to deal with,” Ajay commented as he put down the flyer, finished his notes, and then flipped his notebook closed. “It makes it easier for me.”
“How is that?” Temple wondered.
“He won’t have covered his tracks if he simply hopped a plane, or a bus, and took off for parts unknown.”
“You’re right,” Temple agreed, looking hopeful. “I can’t imagine him caring about subterfuge.”
“I’ll need access to his home,” Ajay said as he stood up. “That is, if you’re hiring me?”
Temple frowned, looking Ajay up and down thoughtfully. “You do seem professional.” His eyes swept the rundown office, though, with distaste, and he asked, “If you are that good, though, I fail to see why you are working in these conditions. To be honest, it doesn’t inspire confidence.”
“I only take certain cases,” Ajay told him truthfully, “and that limits my financial portfolio, unfortunately.”
“Certain cases?” Temple wondered, arching a golden eyebrow.
“You would be surprised at how many people want an investigator to get the dirt on someone for a court case, or revenge, or simply misplaced curiosity. I like to take cases for good reasons. It’s a sign of the times, I suppose, that many of those kinds of cases don’t come my way often enough.”
“You’re altruistic,” Temple said with a pleased smile. “That is very rare.”
Temple stood, as well, and shook Ajay’s hand, “You’re hired, Detective Kavanagh, but I warn you, if you don’t have any results for me in a very limited time I will terminate our association, and hire someone else.”
“Understood. When can I see Ridder’s home?”
“Tomorrow morning,” Temple replied. He plucked Ajay’s worn pencil out of his hand and wrote the address on the reverse side of his note. He handed pencil and note to Ajay and said, “Eight sharp.”
“Eight sharp, it is.”
Ajay traded the address for one of his business cards. He then watched the handsome man go, leaving behind the slight scent of his cologne. Ajay found himself, unconsciously, breathing it in deeply.
Katie stuck her head into his office, soon after, and found Ajay still standing there, looking thoughtful. “Well?” she asked gruffly. “Who the hell was good looking?”
“A client,” Ajay told her, coming back to himself and sitting down.
She grinned. “Good. That means that you can afford to ‘donate’ some copy paper.”
“I don’t have a copier,” Ajay pointed out.
“Then get one and donate,” Katie retorted. “Look, if I can’t rely on you to.... Jeez! Kavanagh!”
Ajay blinked at her dumbly, his thoughts having wandered back to his new client again. “What?”
“Here, I thought you were asexual, all of this time, and now I find out that you’re gay.”
Ajay scowled in confusion. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Katie snickered at him and said, as she ducked back out of his office, “You’re gay and clueless. What a moron!”
Temple was a good looking man, Ajay told himself, but his interest in him was only limited to how he might fit into the mystery of Ridder’s disappearance. Katie was crazy to read anything else into it. Besides, he thought sourly, he had never swung that way in his preference, even though his few relationships with women had been rather unmitigated disasters.
“I think that I would know if I were gay,” Kavanagh grumbled to the empty office.
“Clueless!” Katie shouted, as if she had heard him. He doubted that she had.
Ajay decided to ignore her. He had a big case to solve, now. He needed to focus, not get distracted by ridiculous supposition on his sexual orientation, or the uncommonly handsome appearance of his client.
Two cases required paperwork. Ajay scribbled names on the tabs of two manila folders. Tossing his old notes into the one marked Mrs. Anthony, he then put it, along with Devon Temple’s empty folder, into a drawer. There were only three other folders there starting to gather dust. Not enough to warrant a filing cabinet, yet, but Ajay held out for the hope of a ‘some day soon’. There also hadn’t been enough cases, even remotely serious enough, to warrant the use of his laptop.
Closing the file drawer, Ajay opened the one where he had stashed the laptop. Wiping the dust off with a sleeve, he recalled his father giving it to him as a gift on the day that he had started his detective agency. He hadn’t admitted to his father, then, that he had never really used a computer. Paper and pencil always seemed to order his thoughts much more effectively.
He would take the computer with him and use it on this case, Ajay decided, as he tucked it under one arm and decided to call it a day. It was time to take his professionalism up a notch with this case, a case that might make or break his career.
© 2010 Della Boynton