Benji Golden works in his family's struggling mom-and-pop business above a twenty-four-hour diner on Broadway and West 103rd Street. Golden Legal Services, a private detective agency, was started by Benji's hero-cop father. The business is now run by Benji's mother, who used to be the only Jewish pole dancer in New York City, and is staffed by Lovely Rita, an eye-popping computer wizard and a former lap dancer.
Baby-faced Benji—who is exactly one-quarter inch shy of five-foot-six, weighs a buck thirty-seven, and answers to the nickname "Bunny"—specializes in tracking down teen runaways. One day, when a lawyer in fancy shoes arrives from Park Avenue's classiest law firm offering a job and lots of money, Benji and his mother can't say no.
Bruce Weiner is a senior at prestigious Canterbury College. A client of the firm has bestowed a considerable inheritance on Bruce, but Bruce has gone missing, and it's up to Benji to find him. One murder later, Benji finds himself on a dangerous investigation that will take him to the highly secretive core of the most powerful city on earth.
Runaway Man delivers all that a David Handler novel promises: smart humor, a thrilling and sexy story, and characters you won't soon forget.
About the Author
David Handler's first book in the Berger and Mitry series, The Cold Blue Blood, was a Dilys Award finalist and BookSense Top Ten pick. David is also the author of several novels about the witty and dapper celebrity ghostwriter Stewart Hoag and his faithful, neurotic basset hound, Lulu, including Edgar and American Mystery Award winner The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald. David lives in a two-hundred-year-old carriage house in Old Lyme, Connecticut.
Read an Excerpt
By David Handler
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 David Handler
All rights reserved.
I COULDN'T STOP STARING AT MR. CLASSY GUY'S SHOES.
These were no ordinary shoes. They were gleaming cordovan wingtips that were lined with, I swear to you, mink. What's more, they were totally spotless. Even their leather soles were unscuffed. Virtually no sign of pavement wear anywhere on them. How had Mr. Classy Guy and his mink-lined shoes navigated the New York City sidewalks on a slushy, sooty January day without scuffing the soles one bit? Hell, how had he made it inside our second-floor office from his chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car parked at the curb outside our not-so-elegant building on our not-so-elegant corner of Broadway and West 103rd Street?
Mind you, the man was spotless all over. Polished, manicured and buffed to a rosy glow. His crinkly salt-and-pepper hair was crisply parted. His rimless spectacles gleamed. He was about sixty. No office drone either. A squash player, was my guess. He looked extremely wiry and fit inside his custom-tailored pinstriped suit. Carried his long, straight blade of a nose up, up in the air. Definitely had an aristocratic air about him. After all, he was Peter Seymour of Bates, Winslow and Seymour, the Park Avenue law firm that handled the private legal affairs of the city's A-list patrician families. The kind who've lived on Fifth Avenue for generations. The kind whose daughters come out at debutante balls. The kind who seldom come in direct personal contact with our sort. Make that never.
Yet here he was, this trusted advisor to the silk stocking district's uber-rich, seated in a straight-backed wooden chair before the boss's battered desk soaking up the full ambiance of Golden Legal Services. An experience that, on this blustery winter afternoon, meant inhaling a rich mix of No. 2 fuel oil from the ancient furnace in the basement, fried onions wafting up from Scotty's twenty-four-hour diner and the bracing aroma of acetone from Pearl's nail salon.
The boss's private office has a homey air. There's a comfortably worn leather sofa. An old Persian rug on the floor. An enormous pre-World War II Wells Fargo safe where we store our firearms, surveillance equipment and good liquor. The outer office is just two desks and some filing cabinets. We don't get many visitors. When clients want to retain us, we go to them. Peter Seymour had insisted on coming to us.
And Mr. Classy Guy was not impressed. His haughty silence told us so. He got up from his chair and strode over to the wraparound windows behind the boss's desk, staring bleakly out at our ragtag little stretch of upper Broadway. The narrow center divider with its spindly trees. The array of less-than-prosperous shops. An icy rain was falling. The forecasters thought it might turn to snow later. Pedestrians were walking extra fast, their heads down, shoulders hunched against the wind.
With a discreet snuffle of disapproval he sat back down in his chair and straightened the crease in his trousers, not that it needed it. We watched him. We waited. He'd declined coffee from Lovely Rita — and hadn't ogled her. Which is highly unusual. Rita is forty-two but still the same eye-popping redhead who'd worked nights as a lap dancer to put herself through the Rutgers computer science program. And she still does wonders filling out a turtleneck sweater and tight slacks. Hell, even gay guys check out Rita.
Not Peter Seymour. He was too busy being huffy. Apparently, he'd gotten trapped inside of our elevator for several minutes. It has a somewhat moody door.
"You should demand that your landlord fix that elevator, Mrs. Golden," he lectured the boss in his rich, burgundy baritone.
She smiled at him warmly. "Call me Abby, will you?" Pretty much everyone does, except for me. I call her Mom. "And it's no use. Our landlord is a cheap so-and-so."
Our landlord being, in fact, she. Mom took over the business and the five-story, circa 1890s building when my dad died of stomach cancer two years ago. It was my dad who'd founded Golden Legal Services. He'd always thought "legal services" sounded more professional than "private investigators." There are two rental apartments up on the third floor. Mom lives in a floor-through apartment on the fourth floor. My own floor-through is on the top floor. On a clear day I can see Amsterdam Avenue.
"I'd still be trapped in that elevator if your upstairs neighbor hadn't coaxed it into operation. An elderly lady? ..."
Mom nodded. "That would be Mrs. Felcher."
Mrs. Felcher has lived in 3A for thirty-seven years. Mr. Felcher has lived in 3B for the exact same number of years. They're in their eighties and don't speak to each other. Long story.
"Are you aware that she goes out in public in her bathrobe and slippers, Mrs. Golden?"
"Just down to the newsstand to get the paper. And, like I said, it's Abby. If we're going to be in bed together we can use our first names, can't we, Pete?"
"It's Peter," he said stiffly.
"Now we're getting somewhere." Mom showed him her most inviting smile. "How may we help you today, Peter?"
If there's one thing Mom knows, it's how to handle men. Rita isn't the only one-time exotic dancer in the office. The two are gal pals from back when Mom enjoyed the distinction of being the only Jewish pole dancer in New York City. She danced under the name Abraxas in the highest end midtown Manhattan topless clubs. Her dream had been to dance in Broadway musicals, but she had trouble keeping her weight down. Plus her abundant assets were hard to hide. Certainly hard to hide from Meyer Golden, an NYPD homicide detective who took one look at Abraxas and it was love. When he found out Abraxas was actually Abby Kaminsky from Sheepshead Bay it was marriage. My dad started the business after he retired from the job. Mom ran the office and eventually became a licensed PI the same way I did — by amassing three years of experience as an employee and passing the New York State PI exam. She's pushing fifty but still gets honked at whenever she walks down the street. In modern day parlance she's a MILF — and if you don't know what those initials stand for I'm not going to tell you. I'll just say she's a strikingly attractive woman with a sculpted mass of black hair, huge dark eyes and major league curves. Today, she wore a two-piece garbardine suit with a white silk blouse that was artfully unbuttoned, so as to invite Seymour's eyes toward her cleavage.
Instead, his eyes were trained on the wall where my dad's framed commendations were on display. Dad became a genuine hero cop after he caught Briefcase Bob, the subway serial killer who terrorized New York City back in the early nineties. Quite a celebrity, too, after they made a movie about the case. Al Pacino played my dad, who never sought out the limelight. It found him because he was good at his job. He taught me most of what I know about it, and about people. Not a day goes by when I don't miss him. I can't imagine how Mom keeps going. But she does.
Now Seymour was peering at me as I slouched there on the sofa. I'm twenty-five but I look younger. In the world of casting agents I'm what's known as a juvenile type. I'm exactly one-quarter inch shy of five-feet-six, weigh a buck thirty-seven and am exceedingly baby faced. But I'm plenty feisty. You'll just have to take my word for that.
"I understand that you specialize in finding young people who've gone missing," he said to me dubiously.
"You understand right," Mom spoke up. "When it comes to tracking down runaways, there is no one in this city who's better than my Benji. Who are you looking for?"
"We, which is to say Bates, Winslow and Seymour, are endeavoring to settle the estate of one of our clients. An individual of considerable wealth who has passed away."
Mom reached for a yellow legal pad and a pen. "Your client's name?"
"That," he responded, "is not something you need to know."
Mom put down her pen. "So it's going to be like that, is it?"
"This case demands a great deal of discretion. Will that present a problem?"
"I don't know yet, hon. Keep talking. Not that you've said much yet."
Seymour opened his black leather briefcase, removed a manila file folder and set it before him on the desk. "Our late client has bestowed a considerable inheritance on a certain young man. He's a senior at Canterbury College." Canterbury is a small, distinguished liberal arts college in upper Manhattan. Just as hard to get into as the Ivy League. "He's an exemplary young man of twenty-one with a very promising future."
"And do we get to know his name?"
Mom glanced over at me with a faint smile on her lips. Now we knew why Mr. Classy Guy had shlepped his WASP ass all the way uptown to the offices of Golden Legal Services.
"We're anxious to carry out our client's wishes," he continued. "But we wish to do so without involving the campus police or the NYPD. The private firm that we normally employ is not noted for its delicacy. They're liable to flood the campus with a dozen jarheads in dark glasses. Such a turn of events would not be desirable."
"Who do you usually use?"
"The Leetes Group."
Mom wrinkled her nose. The Leetes Group was the evil empire of the PI business. They'd engulfed and devoured most of the small independent operations like ours over the past decade. Had high-tech offices in practically every major city in America. And zero scruples. They would resort to honey traps, coercion, even outright blackmail. The owner, Jake Leetes, was a former NYPD chief of detectives turned high-profile entrepreneur and cable news talking head. The man was a total pub slut.
"How long has Bruce Weiner been missing?" I asked.
"He's not," Seymour answered curtly. "No missing person report has been filed. He's simply been, let us say, difficult to connect with. We've attempted to contact him at school by phone numerous times over the past two weeks. He hasn't returned our phone calls. Or responded to our letters. We sent him the last one by certified mail. He refused to sign for it. And now his roommate is claiming that Bruce left campus three days ago even though classes are in session. He has no idea where Bruce is. Or, if he does, he won't tell us. Perhaps you'll have better luck."
"What about Bruce's parents?"
"They live up near Scarsdale in a town called Willoughby. The father works on Wall Street, for Farrell and Company. The mother does volunteer work of some sort. Their particulars are in the file."
"Have you spoken to them?"
"Not directly, no. That's where you come in. We'd like you to take over from here. And when you contact them the name of Bates, Winslow and Seymour must never come up. I want to be very clear about that point. Do you understand?"
"Not really," I replied. "But yes."
Gus, our grizzled black office cat, sauntered in and jumped up onto Mom's desk. Since we work directly over a twenty-four-hour diner we have twenty-four-hour mice. Gus keeps the population in check. He walked across her papers toward Seymour, gazing at the lawyer with his urine-colored eyes. Seymour refused to acknowledge his presence there. Gus doesn't like to be ignored — so he leapt from the desk into Seymour's custom-tailored lap, hung out there for a second, then vaulted from the man's groin onto the sofa. Seymour let out a less than classy "oof" before he got busy brushing off his trousers. Gus curled up next to me, immensely pleased with himself.
"What's your client's relationship with Bruce Weiner?" Mom wanted to know. "Are we talking about a grandparent?"
"Our client is not a grandparent," Seymour replied, glaring at Gus.
"Then why has he left this young man something of considerable value?"
"I didn't say our client was a 'he.' And, again, there is no need for you to know that."
"Are his parents aware of this bequest?"
"No, they are not."
"Do they stand to gain from it?"
"Only in the sense that that their son will now be financially independent."
"Do they realize he's missing?" I asked.
"I said he left campus three days ago. I did not say he was missing."
Mom puffed out her cheeks with exasperation. "How about we cut the crap, Peter? Do you have reason to believe that something has happened to him?"
"No reason whatsoever. We're simply anxious to clear this matter up quickly and discreetly. As far as we know the young man has not been the victim of a crime. Or had cause to visit the campus health center. Nor has he returned home to Willoughby. He has simply disappeared." Seymour gazed down his long nose at me. "Can you find him?"
"Oh, I can find him. And when I do?"
"Have him contact us so we that can fulfill our legal obligation to our client."
"What if he's not interested?"
"He's always free to donate the money to a worthy cause."
"No, I mean what if he doesn't want to talk to you? Because it sounds to me like he's purposely avoiding you. Any reason why he'd want to do that?"
"None. We're attempting to bestow a considerable fortune on him." Seymour raised his chin at me. "Just find him, all right? Feel free to contact me directly day or night as soon as you have news. This is a priority matter for us. We are highly motivated." He removed a slim envelope from his briefcase and handed it across the desk to Mom. "A down payment for your services. I believe you'll find it quite generous."
Mom opened the envelope and had a look, her eyes widening slightly. "It's quite generous times two."
"You'll receive an equal amount upon successful completion of the assignment — plus a bonus of twenty-five thousand dollars. As I said, this is a priority matter."
She squinted at the check. "What's the Aurora Group?"
"A holding company."
"Meaning, what, we're off the books?"
"Not at all. Aurora's merely an entity that we set up for occasions when we find it necessary to retain outside contractors."
Mom sat back in her chair, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Okay, what's really going on here?"
"Just find Bruce Weiner." Peter Seymour's face revealed nothing. The man was impenetrable. He closed his briefcase, fetched his dark gray overcoat from the coat rack and put it on. It looked like cashmere, probably because it was. "I shall take the stairs down," he announced. And with that he was gone.
I headed straight for the window, gazing down at his town car at the curb.
"What are you doing, Bunny?"
"I want to see how he gets out to the car without getting his shoes dirty."
"Simple. He'll change them before he leaves the building."
"How do you know that?"
"Because that's what women do."
Sure enough, Peter Seymour was wearing an old pair of black brogans when he strode across the slushy sidewalk to his car and got in. Must have had them stashed in his briefcase.
"What do you think?" I asked her as the Town Car pulled away.
"I think he's a rat and we're the mice. You?"
"It's a fool's errand of some kind. I just can't figure out what kind."
"If we weren't flat broke I'd have told him to take his snippy attitude and get the hell out. Unfortunately, we can't exactly be choosy right now," she confessed as she endorsed Seymour's check. "Rita, we're rich!"
Rita let out a whoop and rushed in, snatching the check from her. "Does this mean I can deposit my last two paychecks?"
"Go for it," Mom said to her.
Rita hurried back out, her wondrous rear end wiggling.
"We wouldn't be so broke if you collected the rent from our tenants," I pointed out. "Pearl is at least three months behind. So is Scotty."
"Times are hard, Bunny. They're suffering."
"How about the Felchers? They're living here rent free."
"It's a sin to dun the elderly."
"Mom, you're a sweet person but as a landlady, you suck."
She brooded in silence for a moment, her lower lip stuck out. "Who knows, maybe Seymour's on the level. Maybe this is exactly what it appears to be — send a nice Jewish boy to find a nice Jewish boy. You've got to like the symmetry, right?"
"Actually, I'm not a big fan of symmetry."
* * *
BUT MOM KNOWS BEST.
The part about us being in no position to turn down a lucrative gig, I mean. It's a tough time to be running a small agency. When the economy turns sour people don't hire a private investigator to catch a two-timing spouse in the act. They just cheat on each other in sullen defiance.
An agency can't operate on the cheap. You need state-of-the-art computers, software and surveillance equipment. And you need someone like Rita. Give her ten minutes and she can hack into anybody's most personal records. Mom befriended her way back when Rita was working the clubs as Natural Born — out of respect for not only her boobies, but her flaming red hair. Rita used to babysit me. She was also the object of my earliest, most tumid adolescent yearnings. These days, she's married to Clarence, who used to play outside linebacker for the Jets and is currently serving ten to fifteen at Sing Sing for aggravated assault. Rita spends sixteen hours a day at her desk, consumed by loneliness and raging hormones. But she's true blue to Clarence. Never, ever considers stepping out with another man.
Excerpted from Runaway Man by David Handler. Copyright © 2013 David Handler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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