System of the Dead Excerpt #2

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Chapter 1

     "He's cheating on me."
     I wish she had said, “He’s cheating on me and he’s going to die.” In retrospect, it would have made the decision to take the case easier than a Red Sox fan hating the New York Yankees. I wouldn’t have taken it.
     "Are you sure?"
     She glared at me like I had forced her to clench a lemon with her teeth. "Of course I'm sure, Mr. DeBarlo."
     Roberta Rivers, her long, dark hair tangled and obscuring half of her tanned face, drooped in the black armchair, arms crossed. Darkness clouded her eyes and gravity pulled at the corners of her mouth, but I was not surprised given the circumstances.
     Chase Michael DeBarlo is the name I was given at birth and I'm a private investigator in Fallsbury, Massachusetts. After spending time in the Office of Special Investigations in the US Air Force and a couple years for a private firm in Springfield, I was striking out on my own in my old home town. Work was sporadic and cases were small, but I was trying to build a positive reputation to grow my business. This was one such case.
     What remained of Roberta Rivers that sultry summer day was hoping to hire me so I could photograph her husband, Matthew, in the midst of an illicit affair. Then she could turn around and divorce the bastard.
     I was merely testing the waters with her. I’d had the pleasure, once, of taking on a case in which the husband wanted me to prove his homemaker wife was sleeping around while he was at work. I spent numerous hours of my life observing her taking the kids to school, going grocery shopping, and buying her husband new shirts at Nordstrom’s. In the end, it was revealed that he was the one having the affair and was just hoping that she, too, was screwing about so that he could have some leverage in court. Being used pisses me off.
     This situation, however, seemed a bit different. Roberta Rivers was 37 years old and held a part-time job as a waitress while raising two pre-teen children. She was approaching middle age and, “the lines were beginning to show,” as she had said, and she didn't, “want to be left alone, unattractive, a few years down the road.” I didn't have the heart to tell her that the state she was in at that moment already had her in the unattractive category. I’m not cruel, but her hair was a nappy gnarl, her green eyes swollen and dark, and her lips were pine needle thin. She had dressed in a pair of jeans she must have worn every other day for five years and the maroon blouse she donned was heavily wrinkled, perhaps snatched from the hamper at the last minute. When this disheveled woman had entered my office she had skulked to the chair
     "I apologize, Mrs. Rivers. It's just that I've had cases in the past where one partner accused the other of infidelity and it just simply wasn't true. I waste my time and my client is usually left unsatisfied. Although I still get paid, cases like that are not very enticing."
     That seemed to resonate like a wet noodle. "I'm not making this up. I saw the son-of-a-bitch waltz out of the Flamingo Club with some floozy blonde on his arm."
     "What else do you have?"
     "He regularly comes home late at night."
     "Ok." I dead-panned the response, still hesitant at the prospect of a domestic dispute case, and we sat in suspended animation for what seemed like a half an hour, but the clock near the door told me we only sat there in silence for a minute. Still, I had enough time to notice the frayed corner of the city map on the wall, the books out of place in the bookcase next to the steel file cabinet, and the stain on the small table that held the coffee maker. Another few moments meditating about the little messes in my office and I’d have shown Roberta what Mr. Clean looked like at 5’11” with a full head of dark brown hair. I didn’t have the same musculature as the brawny bald man, but I was fit and could mop with the best of them.
     Finally, Roberta moved. "Well?"
     "Well, what?"
     "Are you going to take the case, or do I need to take this to some other private investigator or detective or whatever you guys call yourselves?"
     My gut told me she was being honest and, at that time, I certainly needed the business. "I was just waiting for you to pop the question. Are you sure you can afford me?"
     She gave me the lemon-sucking glare again. "Do you know who my husband is?"
     I thought the name Matthew Rivers sounded faintly familiar but I didn't play it that way. "No. I have no idea."
     "He's the lead software developer for Virtusys. He's been in the newspapers and on TV quite a lot lately."
     "Oh, yes." The recollection was blurry but I did seem to remember something about a new computer operating system that his company was designing. Advanced technology meant money and money meant she could afford me. "Well, then, I charge fifty dollars an hour but, of course, I'll need an advance to start. Have you thought
     Roberta’s cheeks burned crimson; her voice was cold and bitter. "I take care of the bills. I make sure everything is paid on time." She sat up and pounded a fist into her palm. "He has a $500 allotment set up from his paycheck into a separate account every two weeks -- his play money. I know at least that much about his finances because his pay statement reflects it. All I ever see is what's left of the direct deposit into our shared checking account. I don't think he's even bought the kids anything with that extra money."
     Classy. I can't stand guys that play the money game on their wives. Although I hadn't grown up in the ideal family situation, my understanding of the husband/wife relationship was that it was supposed to be a team. It would have settled better with me if, perhaps, they had agreed to this $500 allotment. It also didn't settle well with me that she had been letting him do this for some time. She should have set a boundary with him about that, but what did I know? I’d never been married.
     She sighed and slumped back into her previous position in the chair. "To answer your question, he has no idea what's going on with our account and I've managed to save up quite a sum."
     I smiled. "My empty coffers are quite happy to hear that."
     "I'm not in the mood for jokes. I just want you to do the job and do it quickly."
     "Yes, ma'am." I drew up a standard contract and she cut me a check for a thousand dollars. In exchange, I gave her one of my business cards. Good deal. "Do you have access to Matthew's financial records? I'm curious about the transactions he's been making with his ‘play money,’ as you called it."
     "I've been curious about that for a long time, Mr. DeBarlo, but, no, I haven't seen those records. He probably has them mailed to his address at work."
     "Of course. But perhaps the bank, and maybe even the account number that this money is allotted to, are listed on his pay statement."
     She mulled it over for a moment and frowned. "Maybe. But even if that information is there, what good will it do?"
     "You're his wife. Depending on the financial institution and their policies they may let you take a look at the records."
     "Oh."
     I was surprised that she hadn't at least given something like that a shot before now. "Will you do that? And will you let me take a look at the records if you're able to get a copy of them?"
     "Sure. Of course."
   nbsp;  "What about phone records? Maybe he's called his little girlfriend from the house. Have you looked there?"
     Roberta glared at me yet again and I figured she hadn’t liked the “little girlfriend” comment. My sarcasm sometimes rubbed people the wrong way and was probably something that some guy with a PhD could tell me I should work on while I paid him $100 per hour to lay on his couch. She brushed it away and sighed, "I have and I didn't really find anything out of the ordinary. She's probably local, anyway, and the phone bill only lists the long distance calls."
     "You can call the phone company and get a complete listing of every call made from your house. Do that and we'll see what we find in the records."
     My new client stirred in her chair and somehow looked even more uncomfortable than she had already been. "You want me to do that? I just gave you a thousand dollars. I thought it was your job to do all of this."
     I leaned forward. The check lay on the desk before me and I pushed it in her direction. "There's a lot I can do on my own but some things require help from you. I can't get your phone records from the phone company all by myself since I’m not authorized on the account, but it's something you can certainly take care of. We'll also have to go through them together because I'm not going to recognize the phone numbers of your lady friends that you gab with. I could mistake those for his mistress. How would I know? And I'm also going to be tailing him and watching where he goes. There's a lot of time burned doing that, but it's a necessity. Do you understand these things?"
     She nodded and sank back into the chair, tired. The lines on her face grew deep like wide canyons in an ancient world. She was too young to be this old.
     Before we exchanged the usual goodbye formalities I acquired her husband's work address and phone number as well as the make and model of his car, a silver Lexus LS. When she left I placed the check in an envelope that I would later take to her bank to cash and stepped up to the window that overlooked the street.
     Roberta Rivers had parked along the curb just outside Blondie's, a diner below my office. I spotted her slinking into a blue mid-90's Dodge Neon and watched her pull it out into the street when traffic had subsided. In a moment, she was gone.
     I continued to stare out the window without a care about the action down on the street. Various cars and trucks continued to roll by in the summer heat and at some point a red pickup almost nailed a jaywalking man in a blue polo shirt. I didn't even flinch. I was too busy contemplating my role in changing the lives of a family forever.