One of the great things about being a private dick---aside from saying those words and presuming to lay ownership to something possessed only by men---is that it gets you out of going to Sunday mass. Well, okay. It's not so much the mass I have a problem with. Rather, it's the prospect of having to attend with my mother, Thalia Metropolis, that makes me cringe. Aside from her smooshing my face into various Greek Orthodox religious icons propped up just inside the door of St. Constantine's, I'd have to sit next to her. And thus would endure much fussing and pulling and poking to make sure my rarely worn blouse was unwrinkled and that my hot pink thong wasn't showing through my miniskirt. And forget all the gossip I'd have to catch up on. Frankly, I didn't care whether Mrs. Stefanou was suing her hairdresser because he turned her hair orange or that Mr. Zervas had "personal" problems and had gotten a free trial of Viagra. (Trust me, if you knew Mr. Zervas you wouldn't want to think of him in that regard either. Especially not in church.)
I have more important things to do with my time. Like serve papers.
My name is Sofie Metropolis, PI. Okay, so I wasn't born with the title, but I liked tacking it on if only because it detracts from the obvious Greekness of my name. Are you Greek American? Then that means you or one of your family members owns acafé, a restaurant, a diner, or a club, sometimes all of the above (in my case my family members fell into the former two categories). Especially in Astoria, a one-time predominantly Greek neighborhood in Queens, one of the five boroughs of New York City.
I became a PI five months ago (really a PI-in-training because I can't become a certified private investigator in New York for another two and a half years). That's when I caught my would-be groom Thomas-the-Toad with his tux pants around his ankles on the day of our wedding . . . and it hadn't been my thighs he'd been wedged between. The moment was life changing in many ways, the biggest change being my new vocation. And while my current assignment proved that even the job of private investigator wasn't all it was cracked up to be, it was better than dividing up the contents of the tip jar any day.
And besides, it got me out of learning that Mr. Zervas was taking Viagra and chasing his seventy-year-old wife around the dining room table with his pants down around his ankles.
My professional philosophy was pretty simple: Screw with me, get a bullet in the knee. That's what happened to one of my recent clients when it turned out he had set me up as an alibi to his murderous intents on his wife then switched his aim to me when I figured it all out. Word had it Bud Suleski would have a limp for life, which meant he couldn't run away and was quite the popular guy at Rikers as a result.
My personal philosophy . . . well, I was still working on that. And that wasn't an easy position to be in when you're Greek. Greeks seemed to know exactly where they are, how they feel, what opinions they hold every moment of every day, no matter if they're later proved wrong. Look up "Greek" in the dictionary and you'll find that "conviction" is part of their heritage, along with much spitting and shouting and interesting hand gestures.
"Live and let live." Maybe I'd go with that for now until I figured out something better. Then again, no. Because I wouldn't mind if my ex turned up dead. "Live and let one person die?" Doesn't have the same ring to it somehow.
Anyway, on this sweltering Sunday morning in August, at just after ten, I sat in my classic Mustang convertible (read: Bondo Special) outside an apartment complex in Jackson Heights, wishing for air-conditioning and hoping to spot one very wily Mr. Eugene Waters.
Serving court papers made up a nice percentage of my Uncle Spyros' agency's profits. And while I normally didn't serve, the success rate of our top two servers dropped when it came to Mr. Waters. Over the past week, neither of them had been able to get the guy to accept landlord dispute papers, and the deadline was fast approaching. Yes, after two failed attempts, the agency could go the nail and mail route, meaning I could nail the papers to his door (or slip them under it), then mail two additional copies, one regular and one certified, to Mr. Waters. But the reason why Uncle Spyros and his agency were popular in the serving business was because he didn't like to do that. The client wanted the papers served in hand? Then in hand was how they would be served.
So I'd rolled my eyes and told everyone I'd do it myself. I mean, how difficult could it be?
Rule number 565: Never underestimate the potential of any case to turn dangerous or complicated, or both.
My uncle Spyros---the certified PI, my mentor, and owner of the agency where I work---was fond of rules. And while I was exaggerating the number of this one, the rule itself stuck in my mind. Which would make my uncle happy. Me, I made a face and determined I should come up with my own list of rules. The first of which would be to ignore Uncle Spyros' rules.
Muffy barked from the backseat as if putting an exclamation point on my ruminations.
I stared at the scruffy Jack Russell terrier. It had been two months since my mother's neighbor and best friend Mrs. K had gone on to the Big Hindu Heaven in the sky, and Muffy the Mutt had been promoted from rescued pet to my pet. And I had the bite marks to prove it.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that Muffy and I had become friends. But we had reached a truce of sorts. An "I won't mess with you if you don't mess with me" attitude that was working out so far. Except when I was leaving the apartment. Somehow he---yes, Muffy is a he---sensed when what I was about to do might be marginally exciting, and he found a way to follow me out and jump in the back of my car.
He rarely followed me when I went to my parents' house up the block from my place, however. Then again, I didn't much like how my paternal grandmother eyed him while she diced vegetables either. I mean, dog meat couldn't be that far from goat meat, could it? And seeing as Yiayia had lived through some difficult times back in the homeland, like World War II, communist guerillas, and two military juntas . . . well, I decided I didn't want to pursue that particular line of thought.
I switched my attention from the dog to first-floor apartment number sixty-nine. A short, thin black man had stepped outside---was that a pink satin bathrobe with feather cuffs he was wearing?---looked around, then bent over to get the Sunday Times
I'd put out there. (I knew few people who could resist a paper put right outside their door, especially on a Sunday, although I suspected Mr. Waters was the type who would probably steal his neighbor's paper.)
My brand-spanking-new pair of K-Swiss hit the pavement as I got out of the car, capturing my attention where they contrasted against my jeans so that I nearly closed the door on Muffy when he followed after me. I growled at the dog then hurried the fifty or so feet to apartment number sixty-nine.
"Excuse me," I said. "I was hoping you could help me . . ."
Mr. Waters eyed me warily, then Muffy.
"I'm lost and need some directions."
He went inside the apartment with the newspaper then slammed the door.
Humph. Maybe Pamela had tried the "plant the newspaper then pretend to need directions" angle already.
I left the map around the sealed documents and sighed, Muffy panting at my feet as if waiting to see what I would do next.
I knocked on the door.
"Please . . . I've been driving around in circles for an hour. If you could at least let me use your phone to call my aunt . . ."
A muffled, high-pitched male voice came from the other side of the door. "We ain't got no phone. Go away."
"Maybe you could take a look at my map . . . tell me where I'm going wrong?"
"I ain't from around here."
"Me neither," I said in my best defeated-tourist voice, hoping my Queens accent wasn't too strong. "I just drove all night from Ohio, and I'm tired and I'm lost and I could really use some help right now."
A spark of hope. "Yes."
I searched my mind for a city name. "Toledo," I said, remembering M*A*S*H reruns. Clinger's favorite oath had something to do with a Holy Toledo, and he was always talking about the city as home. (Okay, I'm a TV-rerun fanatic. So sue me.)
I heard the lock give and the door opened on the chain. "I got people in Cleveland."
I smiled. "Nice city, Cleveland."
He slammed the door again.
Okay, maybe Cleveland wasn't nice. But I'd bet the people were a hell of a lot more hospitable.
"Please," I said again, employing a politeness that might not be natural for most native New Yorkers, but would be for an Ohioan. "My aunt was expecting me four hours ago and is probably worried sick. She's got this heart condition . . ."
"Call her on a pay phone."
"I'll pay you for your trouble."
Silence, then, "How much?"
"How much you want?"
The agency got seventy-five dollars for each set of papers we delivered in hand, so I figured it wasn't worth my time to offer him more than say twenty.
Figured. "I can give you five. I don't have much money. You see, I lost my job in Ohio and used the last of my savings to come here to live with my aunt until I get back on my feet."
Where did I get this stuff? It might worry me that I was so adept at lying except that I was enjoying the rush too much. Especially since I didn't lie well when it came to items of a personal nature.
Although I kind of wished I made up a Vegas showgirl story instead. It would have been much more interesting.
I looked down at my tennis shoes, jeans, and fitted black tank. Then again, it also probably would have been less believable.
"Ten," he said.
The door opened again on the chain. I thrust the map at him.
"You see, I'm supposed to get here . . ." I said, pointing to a spot near Forest Hills.
He wasn't taking the map.
"And the best I can figure is, I'm here."
I pointed at a spot near Astoria.
"Naw, you're not there. You're here," he said, poking at the map with his index finger but otherwise not touching it or the papers it was wrapped around. "Where's the ten?"
I resisted an eye roll and dug in my pocket for the promised money. It was the principle of the thing.
He took the ten and stuffed it into the front of his pink robe. A robe that was gaping a little too widely for my liking. And he smelled suspiciously like marijuana. Which might explain the pink robe.
"So that must be my first mistake," I said, referring to the map again. "The directions my aunt gave me take me this way," I indicated an area around Flushing Meadows in Corona.
"No, no. Don't go that way. You'll only circle back. Here, let me show you . . ."
He took the map and the papers within.
I resisted the urge to squeal in delight---at least I think I did---as I jumped away from the door.
"You've been served," I said.
He dropped the map and the papers and slammed the door.
Officially I had served the papers. All I needed to do was place them in his hands and say the words. But with the papers lying at my feet and the door closed on my face, I didn't feel like I'd accomplished the job somehow.
I could go back to the car and sit and wait to see if he picked them up. But I got the distinct impression that even if Waters opened the door, the last thing on his agenda would be picking up those papers.
So I picked them up instead.
Waters shouted from inside the apartment. "You know, you ain't supposed to be serving no papers on a Sunday anyhow. If I had half a mind, I'd take those stinkin' papers and get the whole thing thrown out of court on account of your serving on a Sunday."
Was he right? Was I not supposed to be serving on a Sunday? Well, that didn't make much sense. Sunday seemed like the perfect time to serve papers. Then again, Eugene Waters probably knew a whole hell of a lot more when it came to this stuff than I did.
Probably I should have gone to mass . . .
Home. Although I'd been living on my own for the past five months, I still referred to my parents' place as home. And had basically accepted that I probably always would.
One of the nice things about "home" was that I could always tell what my mother was cooking the instant I walked into the house. Today it was fricassee. Or at least the Greek version of it. When I was ten I went to Jenny Tanner's house for dinner once and her mother had served a completely different fricassee, something involving chicken in a brown sauce and rice. The Greek version included a large cut of lamb, greens, and dill with an egg and lemon sauce all over the top that made your mouth water when you smelled it.
Now was no exception.
One of the downsides of "home" was facing my feuding father and grandfather.
I walked through the living room where my father and my maternal grandfather both sat---I stopped to kiss each on the cheek---reading different sections of the Times in different recliners while simultaneously ignoring each other. On the tension scale, silence was good.
I moved into the kitchen and greeted my mother and my paternal, eternally black-clad grandmother, then I put Muffy in the back yard (it was the size of a postage stamp and enclosed by other houses), where he seemed to let out a sigh of relief that he'd passed Yiayia without incident, no matter how hot it was outside.
"You missed church," my mother said, shoving a platter full of fresh, cut bread and feta cheese into my hands.
"I told you I had to work."
She made a disapproving sound and pushed me through the door into the dining room, her own hands full of food. "What you do is not work. What you do is dangerous."
I didn't think my mother would ever get over the fact that I had shot someone. Up until that point she hadn't known I owned a gun, or that I was licensed to carry (which means carry concealed). Now every time I see her or talk to her on the phone, she brings it up as if I'll offer to get rid of it if she asks just one more time. And since the incident was something I didn't particularly like to remember either---I hated guns---I hadn't liked talking to my mother much lately.
"Did I miss anything?" I asked, following her back into the kitchen where Yiayia was putting her contraband bottle of rye back into her deep dress pocket after having knocked back a hefty swallow.
"You missed taking in a bit of God," my mother snapped.
What was it with mothers and guilt?
"And you missed seeing the Protopsaltis' new daughter-in-law."
"Ah." Actually, that I would have liked to see. If only because Yanni Protopsaltis had had the guts to actually marry outside Greek bloodlines. Not only that, but he'd been married in a civil ceremony without his parents' knowledge and his new wife was of Vietnamese extraction.
I could imagine the entire congregation turning when the family entered, openly staring at the young couple, some of them probably crossing themselves three times to ward off the evil that had befallen the Protopsaltis'.
Only a Greek could understand the power of a Greek family when it came to matters of marriage. Take me, for example. One of the reasons I'd become engaged to marry Thomas-the-Toad Chalikis was that my family had made my life an unbearable hell until I agreed to marry somebody. And Thomas-the-Toad emerged as as likely a candidate as any.
Too bad he'd forgotten that getting married usually would mean he'd have to withdrawal his candidacy as lover material for other women, more specifically my maid of honor and best friend at the time.
At any rate, I would have liked to have gone to church if only to invite the newlyweds over to my place for dinner or a drink or something. Or at least give them a huge thumbs-up sign right there in front of God and everyone.
"Oh, and Apostolis Pappas is missing."
Thalia said this just as she disappeared through the kitchen door with the last of the platters and called everyone for dinner.
She couldn't have surprised me more if she'd told me Muffy was on the menu.
Apostolis Pappas owned the neighborhood dry cleaners. Only I called him Uncle Tolly, along with pretty much the rest of the neighborhood, mostly because of the pieces of ouzo candy he always gave out to the kids, along with a lot of hair ruffling.
I looked over Yiayia's shoulder where she stirred something on the stove. "What does she mean by missing?"
My paternal grandmother was as old as Methuselah and looked it. She merely slid a glance at me then reached for the bottle in her pocket again. She shook it, indicating she needed to be replenished.
"I'll bring something by tomorrow," I told her, following my mother out into the dining room.
My father and grandfather were now seated at the table, as were my sister Efi and her many piercings and tattoos, and my brother Kosmos, both younger than me by a few years---Efi a few more than Kosmos---and as different from me as a spoon and a fork.
"What do you mean by missing?" I asked my mother.
Yiayia wandered in and took her seat and the family began loading their plates with food.
My grandfather crossed himself, offering up a silent prayer, and everyone else followed suit. I sank into my chair and did the same.
"Just what I said."
Trust my mother to bring up the Protopsaltis' Vietnamese daughter-in-law over a missing Uncle Tolly.
Efi, who sat next to me, leaned closer. "They think it's the mob."
My eyebrows shot up. The mob and Uncle Tolly?
"The mob had nothing to do with it. If you ask me, he finally wised up and left that old battle-ax he's married to," my grandfather said, getting the plate of fricassee before my father and nearly emptying it. My father looked at my mother and my mother automatically began forking half the food from my grandfather's plate back onto the platter, then onto my father's plate.
"For all we know, he's laying in a ditch somewhere waiting to be discovered," my brother said.
We all stared at him.
"What? He's not exactly a spring chicken anymore."
My grandfather narrowed his eyes at him. "He's two years younger than me."
We all cleared our throats and concentrated on our plates.
"It's probably the heat," my father said. "The heat makes people do strange things."
The heat. I could relate to that.
This August had to be one of the hottest on record, and no matter how high the air-conditioning was set, I couldn't seem to cool off. My skin seemed forever covered with a thin sheen of sweat, and I showered and changed clothes no fewer than three times a day: I just wanted to be sure I didn't smell like a good many of the Greeks in the neighborhood, mostly older, who'd been raised during a period in the old country when clean water was at a premium and you were lucky to get one shower a week.
Of course, the futile activity did absolutely nothing to alleviate the itchiness I felt right there, just below my skin. It made me fidget when I sat, and I caught myself scratching more times than I cared to count. I was pretty sure I knew what was responsible for the itch. Something aggravated by the high temperatures and not treatable by imbibing massive quantities of water, applying lotion, or a trip to the doctor.
I caught myself scratching my arm and stopped.
"Anyway," Thalia said, pouring red boutari wine into small juice glasses and nudging me to pass them down until everyone had one. "I told Aglaia that you'd stop by after dinner and see if there's anything you can do."
I grimaced. And it wasn't because of the lemony sauce I'd just filled my mouth with.
Just call me Sofie Metropolis, personal private investigator to my mother.
Copyright 2006 by Lori and Tony Karayianni