A Not So Noir New Year
By Tim Wintermute
I was sitting in my office at the dead end of a hallway on the last day of 2022 playing Solitaire on my desktop computer, which could have easily been in a museum instead of on my desk. My office is on the third floor of a building on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan several blocks west of Times Square where in a few hours tens of thousands of people would be up close and personal as they crammed together to celebrate the New Year. I wouldn’t be one of them. I had a half empty bottle of bourbon that I kept in the top drawer of my desk and my plans for beginning the new year were to drink myself under the table. It was my second office party. The first was Christmas Eve when I drank the first half of the bottle and woke up where only my shoes should have been. I didn’t have to worry what the other employees of the Discreet Detective Agency thought since I was the owner and, besides, nobody worked for me. Nor did I have to worry that a client would come by and find me passed out beneath my desk since I didn’t have any at the moment. I stopped making new year’s resolutions years ago, but I always made a new year’s prediction based on my own private investigation of the facts I was pretty confident in predicting the Discreet Detective Agency would go out of business in 2023.
I turned off the computer, opened the desk drawer, took out the bottle and a paper coffee cup I’d lifted from Starbucks. As I started to pour myself a Venti of booze my phone rang. It wasn’t my cellphone, but a real telephone that had lights for different lines although the only one still connected to the outside world was the one blinking. I was sort of hoping it would be someone with a thick wad of cash who was calling to find out if his wife was cheating on him so he could get a divorce before she found out about his girlfriends and took him to the cleaners, but it was Larry Mackay, the Manager of the Luxor Hotel a couple of blocks from my office.
Before I could even say hello, Discreet Detective Agency like I was the receptionist and not the owner and sole employee, Larry blurted, “I found a dead man in one of my rooms, you got to help me, Frank.”
I knew Larry and the Luxor from back when it was a flea bag that no self-respecting pharaoh would be caught dead in. That was before the newest new owners slapped some paint on the walls, replaced the cheap carpets with slightly less cheap carpet and jammed a toilet, sink and shower stall into the closets and called them, what else, water closets. They kept the name but added a tag line that proclaimed it a luxury boutique hotel. “I guess he didn’t enjoy his stay,” I said.
Ignoring my comment, Larry continued, “The thing is this guy never checked in.”
“This wouldn’t be the first guy that checked out permanently at the Luxor.”
“Yeah, but I looked in his wallet and the name on his credit cards isn’t some nobody and if it gets in the papers that he died here…”. I could almost hear the sweat on Larry’s forehead. “Let’s say it’s not the kind of publicity the hotel wants. The owners will be so pissed they might fire me.”
“I can see that it might have a negative effect on your performance review.” I said, although I knew that Larry’s real concern wasn’t so much losing his paycheck as it was all the payoffs he got for renting rooms by the hour to hookers.
No doubt noticing my lack of sympathy, Larry said, “Look, I’ll pay you if you just come over and have a look.” When I didn’t answer, he added, “In cash.” When I still didn’t respond, he said. “Two hundred up front.”
“I’ll be right there,” I replied, not even bothering to ask Larry who the stiff was.
They say that the rich are different than the rest of us, but when they’re dead they’re just like you and me only much better dressed. Take for example the middle aged guy I’m looking at. He’s wearing a black Burberry coat over an Armani suit with a Rolex on his left wrist and Gucci loafers on his feet. He’ll look pretty stylish in his coffin, I noted. Not that he had that particular occasion in mind when he’d dressed that morning. Judging by the look on his face with his eyes wide open death had come as quite a surprise.
“What do you think?” Larry asked as I stood over the body.
“I think he had other plans for how he was going to spend the New Years,” I replied. “You say he never checked in?”
“Nope. I know who he is so I’d sure know If I’d ever met him before, although now that he’s dead I’m not sure this counts as meeting. Anyway, I was checking the room to make sure it was ready for occupancy since it’s been vacant for a couple of days…at least that’s what I thought. I unlocked the door, stepped inside and it was like I walked into a freezer. Then I saw that the window was wide open and it’s, colder than the North Pole out there, so I went to close it and nearly tripped over this, it, the body or whatever you call a dead guy.”
“You could call him by his name since you told me on the phone that you know who he is.”
“Here, see for yourself,” Larry said, handing me a wallet.
Inside the wallet was the royal flush of credit cards. There was no cash. Maybe he was so rich he could afford to leave home without it. I pulled out a platinum card and read the name, Eben Richmonde, one of the top real estate developers in Manhattan. A guy who built rooms with a view for the very rich in buildings that blocked out everyone else’s view, including mine. I slipped the wallet back into the man’s coat pocket and said to Larry, “You’re right, he’s not some nobody.”
“How do you think he died?’ Larry asked.
“I’m just a gumshoe not CSI, but I can tell you that the good news is I don’t see anything that looks like he was shot, stabbed, strangled or bludgeoned.”
“You think he died naturally,” Larry said, hope springing eternal from even a puny chest like his.
“Naturally?” I snorted. “With that look on his face I’d say it was anything but natural.”
Larry nodded his head and said, “Yeah, like he’d seen a ghost.”
“It sure wasn’t Santa Claus.”
“So, what do we do now?”
“What you do is pay me the two hundred you promised or I do nothing,” I replied.
Larry pulled some cash from the front pocket of his pants and started peeling off a couple of hundred, when I stopped him and said, “Don’t tell me you’re paying me with money you lifted from his wallet.”
Larry shrugged, “He’s not going to need it anymore. Besides he owes me for the room.”
“Well, stealing from the dead is against my religion so pay me out of your own wallet.”
Larry took out his wallet and handed me the two hundred then replaced it with the bills he’d lifted from the stiff.
I took the two hundred and was bending down to close the man’s eyes when suddenly he blinked.
“He just blinked!” Larry shouted.
“I know, I’m not blind,” I said and placed the index and middle finger of my right hand on the guy’s carotid artery. “And he’s not dead.”
“I was sure he was dead,” Larry said. “When I took his pulse I couldn’t feel a thing.”
“Maybe the cold slowed it down and….”
“Where am I?” Eben Richmonde asked.
“The good news is that you’re not in hell,” I replied calmly. “But we’re obviously not angels so you’re not in the other place either.”
Eben struggled to get up. “Hey take it easy,” I said. “We thought you were dead a minute ago.”
“I was dead.”
“Yeah, right”, Larry said. “You probably just had a concussion and were having a hallucination.”
“It was no hallucination. I was walking across 52nd Street at Sixth Avenue when I slipped on some ice and then hit my head hard as I landed in the gutter,” he said, rubbing the back of his head and wincing. “There’s a bump but it doesn’t feel like my skull is cracked.”
“Man,” Larry said, shaking his head. “We didn’t turn you over so no wonder we didn’t know what knocked you out…”
“Killed me,” Eben insisted.
“Whatever you were, you’re alive now,” I said. “So how did you end up here if you slipped on the ice on 52nd and Sixth? That’s almost ten blocks from here.”
“He was dead, so how would he know?” Larry said.
“A woman brought me here,” Eben replied, “And you still haven’t told me where we are?”
“This is the Luxor Hotel, “I said.
Eben seemed surprised. “What room?”
“Room 503,” Larry said.
“And you are?” Eben asked Larry.
“Larry Mackey. I’m the Hotel Manager and I found you. I thought you were dead, but now that you’re alive it’s quite a relief. We charge two hundred a night for this room, by the way, under the circumstances I’m not going to charge you, Mister Richmonde.”
“How do you know my name?”
“It was on your credit cards. We didn’t know who you were so we looked in your wallet,” Larry explained then added. “We put them back.”
“You’re saying that after you slipped on the ice and hit your head a woman found you lying in the street and brought you here,” I said trying to summarize what I’d heard.
“Only I was lying in the gutter not the street,” Eben said, as if the distinction was important for some reason.
“Okay, the gutter, but if you were dead how could this woman bring you here?”
“Because she’s dead as well,” he replied matter of factly. “She took me by the hand and we flew here, right through that window.” Eben pointed at the window. “Which is still wide open, I see.”
“But you’re not dead,” Larry shouted and then stomped over to the window and slammed it shut.
“Not anymore, obviously,” Eben answered calmly.
“How do you know?” I asked. “Maybe Larry and I are dead as well.”
He shook his head and smiled, “Nice try, but you’re both alive. Believe me, once you’ve been dead you can tell the difference.”
“And we’re supposed to believe you when you say you slipped on the ice, died, and were picked up by a woman …in the gutter, who then flew you here?”
Eben nodded his head.
“Maybe you had one of those near death experience things,” Larry offered. “Did you see a bright light at the end of a tunnel?”
“I was dead not near dead,” Eben replied. “But I did see a bright light, only it wasn’t at the end of a tunnel.”
“If you’d taken the subway here instead of flying you would have,” I said.
“Anyway, I wasn’t near death, I was dead. Can you give me a hand so I can stand up?”
I took his right hand and pulled him to his feet. He was a bit wobbly. “Thanks,” he said. “And who are you, by the way? Do you work for the hotel as well?”
“Do I look like I’m a bellhop or something?” i replied like it was an insult.
“We don’t have any bell hops,” Larry said.
“The name is Frank Mitchell with the Discreet Detective Agency,” I told Eben.
“And why is a private detective here?”
“I was hired to investigate a death, but since you’re not dead…anymore, I guess my services are no longer needed,” I said, shaking my head at Larry to make it clear that there wasn’t going to be any refund.
“Right,” Larry nodded back to me then said to Eben. “And it doesn’t matter to me how you got here, Mr. Richmonde, because we’re just honored to have you as a guest.”
Eben turned to me and said with a weak smile, “Then I’d like to hire you.”
In less than a half hour Eben and I were in his living room, which was large enough for a whole lot of living. The floor to ceiling windows of his apartment on the top floor of one of his buildings looked down over Central Park at Columbus Circle, which was still covered with the snow we’d gotten on Christmas Day. I wasn’t one of those who had been dreaming of a white Christmas since as far as I was concerned, all that the snow did was create a nightmare of snarled traffic and slippery slush. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have Eben as my new and, truth be told, only client if he hadn’t slipped on the sidewalk and knocked himself out or, as he insists, knocked himself dead. We had finished negotiating my fee although, it was more of a non-negotiation because when I told him my usual fee was five hundred a day plus expenses, which was more what I thought I was worth than what I was usually paid, when I did get paid, Eben told me that was too little and he’d pay me a thousand instead as well as a retainer.
After he wrote out a check and handed it to me I put it in the breast pocket of my tweed sport coat without looking at it, I asked Eben how I could help him?”
“You know what they say that when you think you’re going to die your whole life flashes in front of you?” Eben asked.
“Is that what happened to you?”
“I didn’t have time to think before I was dead, but I did see my whole life. It was sort of like watching a movie only in 3 D. No, more like 4 D.”
The fourth D standing for the dead dimension, I was tempted to say. “You mean it was like you were wearing one of those virtual reality headsets they have?” I suggested and sipped from the cup of Espresso that Eben had made on an Espresso machine that looked like a metal sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art.
“There was nothing virtual about it,” he replied. “This was more real than real.”
“That’s a lot of reality,” I said, nodding my head, as if I knew what the hell he was talking about.
“I saw that this,” he waved toward the windows and the skyline lit up brighter than the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center now that the sun had set beyond the Hudson River. “This isn’t real. I mean really, real. It’s an illusion made from concrete and steel and glass. And I’m responsible for more than my fair share of it, not that fairness has anything to do with it. Wherever I I saw a piece of land without a building I saw a place to build and wherever there was already a building I saw an opportunity to replace it with a bigger one with higher rents and the people living in those buildings who had to move, well,” Eben sighed. “I didn’t see them.” He looked at me. “I wasn’t always this way. I didn’t come from money, but I turned out to be good at making it. You know, Hemingway had one of his characters in a novel say that he went bankrupt gradually, then all of a sudden. Well, I got rich gradually then all of a sudden. Real estate development is sort of like playing Poker. It’s one deal after another and gradually you play hand after hand until you get the one you’ve been waiting for and then you bet it all and win the jackpot. I won the jackpot, and suddenly I was rich, but the thing is that then I wanted to be even richer.”
“That’s it, exactly, Frank. Why? What was the reason? That’s what she was telling me.”
“The woman who brought me back to the room in the Luxor Hotel where you found me. She told me that in the same room twenty years before on New Year’s Eve.”
“Wait, you told me the woman who brought you there was dead.”
“She is, but she was alive twenty years ago.”
“So, she was alive then, but she’s dead now,” I said, trying to put two and two together and not come up with five.
“And I died, but now I’m alive. You see it all makes sense.”
I wanted to say that I see that you’ve more than likely had your sense knocked out of you from hitting your head, but since I’d hit my own jackpot with Eben as a client and, even though the payout would be more like what you get from a nickel slot machine than a high stakes poker game, I lied. “Yeah, I can see that it makes sense.” A private detective shouldn’t lie to a client, but I could have told myself if I didn’t lie he would think that I thought he was nuts and he’d fire me and then I wouldn’t be able to help him. Now that would make sense, but the fact is I lied because I needed the money. “Maybe now that you’ve hired me you can tell me exactly what it is you want me to do for you?” I asked.
“Right,” he said. “The clock is ticking.”
“Actually, you’re paying me by the day.”
“It starts with this woman, Julie Katowicz. I met her in college, NYU, our first year. She was studying social work and I was a business major. After we graduated she went to work for a social service organization in Manhattan and I went to work for a guy named Dick Marley who would buy old tenements then raise the rents and evict everyone who couldn’t pay, which was most of the tenants. In real estate it’s called a turn around.”
A turn around for the people who lived there was more of a being turned out of your home, I thought. Based on my own personal experience when rents and you had to move, each new living space was smaller until you were lucky if you could even find a place that you could afford that would fit inside one of Eben’s closets and not the big one where he kept his collection of Armani’s and Guccis.
“It bothered me,” Eben continued. “But I told myself that we were repositioning the buildings into their highest and best use. Anyway, the first New Year after graduation I decided to ask Julie to move in with me. Marley let me have an apartment in a building he’d bought. He gave me a discount on the rent, telling me it was better than a raise because I wouldn’t have to pay any income tax. Of course, the discount just brought the rent back to where it had been before he bought the place.” He shook his head and then continued. “Anyway, I got us a room that night in the Luxor. You saw it now so you can imagine what it was like then…”
“I don’t have to imagine, I know what it was like,” I said.
“But as soon as we checked into the room we had an argument. Julie told me that some people had come into the social service organization where she worked, which was in a storefront on Ninth Avenue in Hells Kitchen, and said that their new landlord had raised the rents by an astronomical amount and they were all being evicted because they couldn’t pay it. Since the new landlord was Dick Marley she pleaded with me to do something to stop it.”
“I didn’t do anything, and the people were evicted and I moved into the apartment alone. Then after several years when I threatened to leave for another real estate company, Marley made me his partner and just a couple of years after that he dropped dead. I bought out his ex-wife and kids who were his heirs at way below what they were worth because they didn’t want to have anything to do with the business. In addition to the turn arounds, I developed new luxury apartment buildings and expanded into hotels and office buildings. I even bought controlling interest in a bank.”
“And you and Julie?”
“She refused to see me again. I’ve never been married. I’ve had lots of…well you know…, but nothing really serious after Julie.”
“And you’re hiring me to find her, is that it?” I asked, thinking that would make sense.
“No, I saw her again after I died.”
“You mean you were having one of those out of body experiences that Larry mentioned and saw her?”
“Like I said before I had something like that, but I didn’t see her right away,” Eben replied. “First I was sort of hovering over my body lying there in the gutter, then I saw my entire life pass before me and I saw how my life impacted other people. Then there was this bright light, brighter than any light I’d ever seen only it didn’t blind me and then Julie appeared out of the light.”
I almost dropped my cup of espresso when he said that. “You’re telling me that Julie is the same woman that you flew through the window of the hotel with?”
He looked at me like I was the crazy person and said, “Why else would I be telling you about her? She told me she died a year ago.”
“Of course, why else, “I said, “But how can you be sure? Julie’s appearance had to have changed since you saw her twenty years ago.”
Eben shook his head. “Julie looked just the same as when I last saw her in that hotel room, even though she told me she had died last year after being hit by a car. She was crossing the street at Columbus Circle. Why that’s just…” He suddenly stopped talking and walked over to the floor to ceiling windows. “My god, I can see the very spot where she died.” He stood there silently for a minute or so, his back to me, his shoulders heaving. Then he turned and walked back to where I was sitting. “She told me that she was there to return me to the living. To tell you the truth, I didn’t want to come back and I asked her why I couldn’t stay with her? She said there was a reason why I had to come back. When I asked her what the reason was Julie said it wasn’t for her to tell me. Then, suddenly, I was back in my body lying in the gutter on West 52nd Street. Julie took my hand and we flew over to the Luxor Hotel and through the open window of the room. The next thing I knew she was gone and I was looking up at you.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “People would have noticed your body lying in the gutter at 52nd and Sixth Avenue, so why didn’t anyone call an ambulance?”
“Because there was no time to. When I was back in my body just before we flew off to the hotel I looked at my watch,” Eben said, holding up the gleaming gold Rolex on his wrist, “Even though it seemed like I’d been dead for hours it was only a couple of minutes.”
“It's hard to argue with a Rolex,” I admitted.
He took the Rolex off and tossed it on the floor. “I don’t need this piece of bling anymore. In fact, I never needed it.”
“Well, you’ve always got your cellphone if you need to know what time it is,” I suggested.
“Right, my cellphone.” He reached into the pocket of his suit coat and pulled out an iPhone. “I used to be on this all the time – calls, texts, emails, tweets, checking the markets, whatever.” He looked at the screen, shrugged and said, “I see that I’ve got a ton of messages,” then tossed the iPhone on the floor next to the Rolex. He looked at me and said, “To get back to your question as to what I’d like you to do for me. You know, the old Jimmy Stewart movie, It's A Wonderful Life where he sees all the bad things that would have happened to the people in the town he lived in if he’d never been born?”
“Sure, I just saw it again on Christmas,” I said. By myself with my Charlie Brown Christmas Tree and egg nog, but without the egg and nog and just the rum. “The guy Jimmy Stewart plays, George Bailey, is about to jump off a bridge and kill himself because money is missing from the bank he runs…”
“Actually, it was a building and loan not a bank. It makes low interest mortgages and Bailey was planning to finance the construction of a subdivision of affordable housing.”
Whatever kind of bank it was I doubted it would loan anything to a person with a below zero credit score like me. “Right,” I said. “A building and loan kind of bank. But it turns out that this creep named Potter who owns the bank in town and also a lot of run down housing that he rents to low income people has gotten his hands on the missing money but he’s keeping it so there will be a run on the building and loan and force it out of business. That way not only will the affordable housing that was going to be financed by Bailey’s building and loan never be built, but as the owner of both the only bank in town and a lot of the housing, Potter will control the town. Even the name of the town will be changed from Bedford Falls to Potterville.”
“But,” Eben said, hardly containing his excitement. “After an Angel…”
“Clarence is the angel’s name,” I blurted as if giving the angel a name somehow made a difference.
“Yes, the angel Clarence helps George see the positive impact his life has made on the people and Bedford Falls he decides not to commit suicide and there’s a happy ending with the building and loan avoiding bankruptcy, the affordable housing being built, Potter getting his comeuppance and George Bailey having, well,” Eben paused, smiled broadly, and then pronounced, “A wonderful life.”
“Are you saying that when you died and saw your life pass in front of you that you realized the impact you’ve had on a lot of people just like George Bailey did?”
Eben nodded. “Only I saw that I was Potter not George Bailey. Why I need a private detective like you is to help me find people like George Bailey: People who are truly committed to helping others, like Julie was. The only way to do that is to know something about who they are, the life they lead and what they believe in. And I’m not talking about the CEO’s of the big charitable organizations that everyone knows about, but the small ones, the ones that operate out of storefronts like Julie’s did and not only the leaders but the staff and volunteers. I’m not asking you to do any illegal snooping and that kind of stuff, just find out what you can by asking questions and observing without arousing suspicion and then reporting back to me.”
“Okay, so I find these George Baileys or Georgia Baileys, or whatever, for you,” I said, wishing the epressohad Baileys Irish Cream in it. “Then what?”
“Then I give my money to them and their organization.”
“So this is all about deciding where to donate some of your money?”
“No, this is about giving away all of my money,” he said. I was about to state the obvious, that while I knew a lot about losing money I didn’t know anything about giving it away, when Eben added. “And absolutely nobody can know that I’m the donor.”
“In other words, this is like an undercover operation,” I said, nodding my head.
“Yeah, undercover,” Eben replied, enthusiastically. “And that’s another reason why I should hire a private detective like you to help me.”
“Okay,” I said. “But before I get started on this, you’re sure that the reason you’ve been returned to life is to give away all of your money?”
“All I can say is that it’s the one I can live with,” Eben said with a wry smile.
I returned to my office and sat down behind my desk I took from my pocket the check for the retainer and a printout with names of charities that Eben and I came up with after doing a quick search of the Internet. It’s not like you can type in George Bailey charities and a list pops up, but it was a start. I unfolded the check and looked at it. It was for ten thousand dollars. My new year’s prediction was dead wrong and the Discreet Detective Agency wasn’t going out of business after all. I looked at the bottle of bourbon that was still on my desk. It now looked half full rather than half empty. My life felt the same way. I glanced at my watch. It may not be a Rolex but it kept on ticking and I could see that it was a few seconds to midnight. I got up and opened my office window and heard fireworks going off and thousands of people cheering and knew the ball had dropped in Times Square. I left the window open a crack and sat down at my desk again and put the bottle of Bourbon back in the drawer. I had to admit as I spread the sheet with the list of charities in front of me and booted up my old computer to start work that even for an old gumshoe like me the new year looked less noir and more wonderful.