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Greenwich Village is a place full of secrets, back cottages hidden from view behind wrought-iron gates and down long brick passageways and little Edens way up high, secret gardens growing not on the ground but on the roof, retreats concealed from the prying eyes of strangers.
There are other secrets here as well, sexual secrets, passages across the gender lines that I thought, once upon a time, were immutable facts of life. But in this neighborhood of writers and artists, the facts of life were long ago rewritten, familiar images redesigned.
And more and more of late, the secrets indigenous to this place, once visible only to willing participants, are coming out, out of the closet, out of the clubs, out in the open for all to see. Even those who'd rather not.
Still, it's usually a case of live and let live.
But not always.
We have our ordinary secrets, too, the kind every neighborhood has, envy, jealousy, greed, lust, anger, all seething unseen under the surface. And like the other secrets lying doggo among the twisty, tree-lined streets between Washington Square Park and the Hudson River, these too are invisible, until one day they fester up to the surface.
Secrets are what interest me, particularly the ones that eventually compel seemingly normal people to start obsessing about murder.
My name is Rachel Alexander. I'm the Alexander in Alexander and Dash, private investigation. I get first billing, but Dash, my partner, is the real teeth in the operation. He's a pit bull.
Before I got Dashiell, I worked as a sneaky, lying, low-life, underhanded undercover agent,betraying the confidences of people who befriended me in order to get the information I needed to solve cases. The work suited me, and I liked the odd hours, but after a couple of years I decided I was no longer willing to split the client's check with an agency. That's when I started my own business, doing all of the above and worse, but exploiting myself instead of having it done for me by strangers.
I don't know how to explain my occupation any more than I can explain anything else about my life. I just have always been more interested in what's in the hamper than what's neatly folded in the dresser drawer. It's not that I don't ask myself, particularly when Dash and I are out on an especially seedy stakeout, what's a nice Jewish girl like you doing in a place like this? But I tend to think it wouldn't be all that different had I gone to medical school. Only then I'd be asking it while delicately sticking a gloved finger up some poor guy's ass.
That's one of the few places I haven't had to look for evidence. So far.
It had finally stopped snowing, and I was getting ready to take my dog out for his afternoon constitutional. I had one of my Timberlands half on when the phone rang.
"Get that, will you?" I told him, hopping in the direction of the phone.
Dash took the phone off the receiver and walked toward me with it in his mouth.
"For me?" I asked.
He dropped it on my unlaced boot. Thank God for reinforced toe boxes.
I cradled the phone in my neck, barked "Hello," and kept struggling with my boot until I figured out the good news. It was work.
The caller identified himself as Dennis Keaton. He was a pretty unhappy-sounding guy, which isn't unusual: Happy people don't usually hire detectives. He asked if he could see me right away about an urgent matter.
I told him he could.
I had an urgent matter myself. I was dead broke.
I could never see the sense in wasting money on an office when most of the work I have to do is done elsewhere. In winter I meet new clients at James J. Walker Park, on Hudson Street. There's a ball field there where the neighborhood dogs gather to play when it's off-season. It seems to me the proper ambiance for my work, even when people do scoop.
Dashiell was dancing impatiently at the door, so I told this Keaton fellow where to meet me, grabbed my coat, my camera, and a notepad, and headed downtown.
Dennis Keaton entered the park, carefully adjusted the gate so that a garbage can would keep it from blowing open, and looked around for a second, then, with a walk that announced his sexual orientation, headed in my direction.
He was tall and reedy, but not your typical what-a-waste, gorgeous gay guy. First of all, his nose was much too big. His skin was okay, but pale, even for midwinter in New York. His eyes, which according to the rest of his coloring should have been a to-die-for blue, were an unrevealing steely gray. His uncombed mop of curls reminded me of an apricot-colored standard poodle I had trained for a lady rabbi, the Reverend Janet, back when I was the Kaminsky of Kaminsky and Son Dog Academy. Bernie, the Golden I had then, was the son. That was before I got married, before I got divorced, and before I decided to go from getting growled at to getting shot at, escalating what my shrink called my rabid counterphobia.
As soon as he opened his mouth, I saw that his teeth were crooked, too.
I was leaning against the back fence and patted the spot next to me in response.
He wore a brown leather bomber jacket, a small loop of red ribbon, carelessly attached with a safety pin, a long white aviator scarf around his skinny neck, and, despite a temperature in the low thirties, no hat. The rest of his ensemble deviated from codeshapeless corduroy overalls and ancient brown oxfords, both dappled with spots of black paint.
He took a deep breath and let it go. "A friend of mine, Clifford Cole, has been murdered," he said. "I was told you might be able to help me find out who did it."
He looked to be in his mid-thirties, but who knows. In this neighborhood, there's more illusion than reality. For all I knew, I was looking at the aftermath of a face-lift, a dye job, a perm, and liposuction.
"That's police business," I said. "Why would you want to pay for something you can get done free?"
I glanced at Dash, who was doing the doggy two-step with a flirtatious husky bitch.
"It's been two weeks since Cliff was killedperhaps you saw it in the paper, if you had a magnifying glass. There's been virtually no interest and no progress."
I nodded. Most people talk more freely if they have evidence that someone's actually listening. The more information I can get before I start asking a lot of questions, the more revealing it tends to be, though it could take a while to figure out precisely what has been revealed.
"Since...the body was found on the Christopher Street pier, the police are treating it as a gay bashing."
"And you say?"
"Cliffie never cruised the waterfront. He has, God, I'm still having a lot of trouble with tense, he had a lover, but even before Louie, he didn't. It just wasn't his style. Besides, there are other things that signal it wasn't a random killing. The hour, for one thing. The estimated time of death was between four and six in the morning. Cliff was a painter. He has the loft above mine. He was a day person, up with the sun and right to work. It always floored me, because I'm up early trying my best to avoid working for as long as possible. And I quit as soon as I can manage to without excessive guilt. But Cliff was one of those people who could go on and on. His stamina was phenomenal. The energy in his work was just enormous, but well controlled. After he worked, he'd get cleaned up and then he'd go out with Magritte, they'd go out for hours. That's the other thing," he said, his voice suddenly sounding as if he were in a movie on television from which off-color words had been bleeped. "Magritte is missing. He wasn't at the loft, and he wasn't with Cliff when he was found."
He took out a handkerchief and blew his big nose.
"Magritte? The train coming out of the fireplace? And the pipe? Ceci n'est pas un pipe, right?"
"Yes, but this Magritte is a basenji. The barkless dog?"
I nodded. Anyone who'd worked as a dog trainer would know basenjis, one of the two quintessential brat dog breeds. Until rottweilers got so popular, basenjis and fox terriers were two of the mainstays of the industry.
"I've been at the loft, of course. We had each other's keys since Magritte was a puppy. I had him a lot of the time. You couldn't leave him alone for more than an hour or two. He'd get really destructive, and he'd make an awful racket."
Tell me about it, I thought. But I let him keep on talking.
"Louie couldn't stand him. So Cliff never took him to Louie's. And Louie never stayed at the loft. He was so pissed when Cliff began talking about getting a dog, and it only got worse. I think he was jealous. So Magritte stayed with me whenever Cliff stayed over at Louie's. He's always been sort of my dog, too. Anyway, it was only natural, when the police camethey spoke to everyone in the buildingto go upstairs and get Magritte. That's when I saw he was gone, and his collar and leash weren't hanging on the hook where Cliff and I always put them. I thought maybe Cliff had taken him with him. Maybe he ran away after Cliff was hit. Maybe he was stolen. He's an immensely valuable dog, a champion and a son of the top-winning basenji in the country."
I nodded, careful not to interrupt.
"It was never an issue for Cliff, the money, I mean. He kept turning down requests to use the dog at stud. He always talked about it ruining his temperament, you know, making him aggressive with other males. But honestly, I think he just didn't want the dog to love anyone but him. He got a gigantic kick about Magritte winning in the ring, so he'd let Gil handle him at the shows. Morgan Gilmore, he's the handler who's always shown Magritte, he's fabulous with the breed. But that was it. I mean, I don't think he thought about the dog loving me, because he had to have someone to take care of him when he couldn't. So I think he just accepted that. But no one else could get in there, could get between them. God, he just loved that little dog to death."
He began to talk faster, as if he needed to relieve himself of the burden of carrying this information all by himself.
"He didn't care about making money hiring him out at stud. He used to fight with his handler about it all the time, because he, Gil, said he'd take care of it, and Cliff wouldn't have to mess with it or worry about it. He said it wouldn't change him, Magritte, that he'd be the same. But Cliff was adamant. What I'm trying to say is that if someone stole the dog on purpose, like if that were the point, that would mean whoever killed Cliff knew about Magritte. Gay bashing, you live in this neighborhood, you know a lot about gay bashing, it's random. The event may be plannedafter all, you have to remember to put the baseball bats in the car before you leave Jerseybut the victim isn't preselected. Anyway, if the dog were with Cliff, wouldn't he have been hit, too?"
"You mean beaten to death?"
"I'm sorry. I'm doing this ass backwards. I didn't tell you one of the most important things. Clifford wasn't beaten. This was vehicular homicide."
"He was run over?"
"Hit at high speed from behind about two-thirds of the way out onto the pier. At least, that's where he was found."
"Do the police think he was actually hit there or that the body was dumped there?"
"Oh, no, they found enough evidence, they said, at the scene to be sure it happened there."
"Well, I guess we can rule out your garden-variety hit-and-run. Cars aren't allowed on the pier or, for that matter, except for official vehicles, in that whole waterfront area. Did he have any enemies, that you know of? More apropos, do you know of anyone who might stand to gain from his death?"
"I don't know of any specific enemies, not someone who'd want to kill him. Are we talking sane or crazy here? As for money, he plain didn't have much, not that I know of. His art was barely selling. He would trade pieces sometimes, you know, with artist friends. But he didn't actually sell much, and when he did, the prices were really low, a thousand or fifteen hundred at most. Ironically, his first break was about to happen. I guess you'd have to say, maybe about to happen. He had just signed his first contract with a gallery weeks before, not a great contract, but still a contract. He was getting his work ready to be in his first group show when he was killed. As far as I know, the loft is mortgaged to the hilt. It's not as if he owned anything worth killing for. Except Magritte, I guess. But now he's gone, too."
I took the notepad out of my pocket and began to write down the things he was telling me. When I finished writing, I looked up at the dogs. Dashiell was humping a little Jack Russell who kept turning around and snarling at him. It wasn't a pretty picture.
"Look," Dennis finally said, "the case is open, but I'm as sure as I can be that nothing much is being done, because of the location of the crime, the hour, and the sexual orientation of the victim. But this just doesn't fit the pattern of a bias crime. Well, perhaps there was bias involvedwhen isn't there?but I can't accept the conclusion that it was a random crime. Even the money in his pocket was peculiar. A thousand dollars, separate from the rest of his money. And left on the body. Not taken. The bottom line is, I need to know who did this. And I need to find Magritte," he said.
He looked away. Maybe to watch the Jack Russell trying to get even.
"The longer he's missing, the less chance there is we'll find him alive."
"Hadn't we better get moving?"
He turned around, looking like a deer caught in the headlights.
"You'll take the case?"
"Oh, shit. I didn't ask what you charge."
"It's five hundred a day plus expenses for me and a straight fifty for the dog."
"Fifty a day extra for finding Magritte?"
"No. Fifty a day extra for Dashiell. And I absorb his expenses."
A line appeared between Dennis's gray eyes.
"You mean if I hire you without the dog it's only five, plus expenses, of course?"
"Right. But I don't work without him. It's a jungle out there, and I need to know at least one of the animals is on my side. Do you know what I mean?"
"I do," he said, making a sound with his nose that would have gotten a tsk-tsk from my mother, the late but, if possible, still perfect Beatrice Markowitz Kaminsky. "Precisely. Okaylet's do this. When do we begin?"
"How about now?" I slipped off a glove, put two fingers in my mouth, and blew hard, making the sound of air coming out of a balloon.
"Needs work," he said. He whistled loud enough to wake the dead.
It must be a sex-linked trait. And, Lord knows, I haven't had any of that in a while.
"Thanks. Anyway, I'll need access to Cliff's studio, if possible. I'd like to spend some time there with Dashiell. I have lots more to ask you, but we can do that on the way."
"Does Dashiell actually...do things, I mean, besides protecting you?"
I looked down at my dog. The top of his head had been slimed by one of the other dogs. His big meaty mouth was agape and p