The frosted glass on the door read R. Farkas Investigations. Few people beyond the business owner’s immediate family knew the R stood for Rebecca. Her second-floor space looked as much like a film noir director’s notion of a detective’s office as she had been able to make it. The furniture was vintage 1940s except for her desk, and the desk was custom built to appear a comparable age even as it hid basic 21st century tech. The desk blotter was hinged to swing open thereby revealing a monitor and recessed keyboard. Atop the desk was an intercom disguised as a wooden cased radio.
Farkas had chosen the building in part for its hundred year age. On the second floor, at least, it exuded the right aura – also the right aroma, which was suitably musty. The pine floors had never seen a coat of polyurethane and wouldn’t for as long as she rented the space. The ancient plumbing was a minor inconvenience she was willing to tolerate. The noir similitude wasn’t perfect. Muffled pop music filtered up from below. She could feel the percussion beat with her feet. The music came from a strip club of a very non-upscale variety. Yet, the presence of the club was far from a negative. It gave her clients plausible deniability should they be spotted in the parking lot. Most of them would rather explain being at a strip club than employing a detective – even (perhaps especially) to their spouses. Another advantage to the building was a location that was effectively isolated despite fronting on a highway. The lot, surrounded by used car lots and industrial sites, was far away from residences and the eyes of their inhabitants. She had no sign announcing her agency’s presence either freestanding or on the outside of the building. Except for the name of the municipality, her address was not even listed on her website. Anyone who came to her office did so by appointment made online or by phone. Her office was accessed by a staircase leading up from a solid locked outer door around the corner from the strip club entrance. The door contained no markings other than “2A.”
The radio/intercom bleated.
“Yes?” she said into the speaker.
“It’s Muller. I’m here for our appointment.”
She opened the desk blotter on its hinges and checked the security camera image on the monitor.
“So you are,” she answered. She buzzed the outer door to unlock.
As Muller climbed the stairs, Farkas pulled an attaché case from under her desk and thumbed the six small wheels of its combination lock. The latch snapped open. She removed a sealed oversized envelope large enough to contain a legal-size folder. She dropped the hefty envelope on her desk on her desk, replaced the case beneath her desk, closed the blotter/monitor, and waited. She always preferred to deliver hard copy to clients for security reasons. If clients later scanned them into digital format, that was their decision and, in her opinion, their mistake. Muller knocked on the office door and entered. He was a pudgy middle-age man wearing a fedora hat. Farkas assumed the hat was to disguise his baldness. Her father, not otherwise a vain man, had hidden his glabrous scalp in the same way; when he removed his headgear, her father sometimes would say in false deprecation, “You don’t need a roof on an empty barn.” She never passed this wisdom along to hatted customers.
Muller sat in the wooden chair across from Farkas and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
He smiled weakly and said, “Something about this is backwards.”
“In the movies isn’t it a gruff middle-aged detective who sits behind the desk when the slinky customer walks in?” he asked.
“I don’t think of myself as gruff, Mr. Muller, and I’d take it as a favor if you didn’t slink.”
“Uh, right. You know, this is a strange location with that club and all. It’s a good thing I’m not married.”
“Yes you are, though I’m aware your divorce will be finalized soon. Even after the property settlement you still will be a wealthy man who can pay my fee – thanks to your inheritance rather than your own business prowess, which might explain a certain lack of hardheadedness. Don’t frown, Mr. Muller. I always investigate my clients. But do you really want to talk to me about this? Because it’s a separate job from the one you hired me for, and I’ll have to start charging you.”
“No, no. What do you have for me on the other matter?”
“By the ‘other matter,’ you mean Gladys. Before we proceed, I want you to recall what I said when you first walked into the office and told me what you wanted,” said Farkas. “This is not 50 years ago when searching for a person typically required real legwork. Today, it is hard not to be visible to simple online searches. The usual search engines and social media were the first things you tried, weren’t they? You came to me only when you failed. Most often, when a client fails, I can succeed without ever leaving my desk. I and other professionals have the tools to sniff out even the most obscure digital footprints. Old-fashioned in-person investigation comes into play only when online traces vanish. But if someone’s digital footprint vanishes completely after a particular date, there are only three possibilities. One, the person is dead but the body is as yet unidentified. Two, records have been systematically scrubbed by one of the handful of organizations with the ability to do it. Three, the person has assumed a completely new identity, often by taking over someone else’s. You should consider the implications of each.
“What if they just left the country for someplace less wired?”
“Then there would be a digital record of hem having done that.”
“It sounds like you turned up nothing. Couldn’t you have told me that over the phone?”
“I have said no such thing.”
“Then you have turned up something.” His eyes focused on the envelope.
“I haven’t said that either. I simply want you carefully to consider consequences before we proceed any further. Believe me when I say I understand your motives and on some level respect them.”
“On some level?”
“Yes. We live in pseudo-cynical times. Mr. Muller. I know it is chic to dismiss romantic love as a fantasy. It isn’t. Of course it exists. People ruin their lives over it. It generates at least fifty percent of my business, for well or ill – usually the latter. So, I don’t doubt that your desire to find your lost Gladys seems ever so romantic to you, especially in light your recently failed marriage. She is the one who got away. She is the star of your youth. The ‘if only.’ Your true love, even if you didn’t treat her that way at the time. You thought of her even as you married your soon-to-be ex-wife, didn’t you? Of course you did. Don’t look so offended. You know what I say is true. I’m not being derisive or mocking. I believe you to be sincere. But this personal myth you’ve created for yourself about the lost Gladys has given your life a bittersweet quality that you enjoy. Can it survive an actual meeting? Are you sure you want to give it up?”
“Thanks for the insight, but you’re a detective, not my therapist.”
“Perhaps you should have consulted one before hiring me. Look Muller, it’s been more than 20 years since you last saw this person. Where is the upside to finding her now? Can she possibly live up to your fantasy? And how do you think she might react to you? Would she be flattered by your interest or consider it a threat? Sometimes ‘tis better to have loved and lost than loved and found.”
“Catchy. You should put that on a bumper sticker.”
“Mr. Muller, I never have made this offer before to any of my clients but I’ll make it now. I’ve put a lot of time, investment, and effort in this case, but I’m willing to forgo taking your final payment if you promise to give up this search now and forever. Just promise, get up, turn around, and walk out the door.”
“Do you always try to talk your clients out of paying you?”
“No. You aren’t listening. I already told you this is a first. Remember what I said about a person who doesn’t want to be found. Think real hard about what sort of reasons she might have: creditors, police, a stalker… I’m sure you can think of others more extreme.”
“Why all the drama? I’m simply looking up an old flame. People do it all the time. Did you find her or not?”
Farkas shook her head and sighed. “I did,” she said.
“Are you refusing to tell me?”
“No, Mr. Muller. I have a personal and professional code that I take very seriously. I do my job and fulfill my contracts. I’m simply urging you to release me from this one.”
“OK, Farkas. Are you concerned for your safety for some strange reason?”
“No, I know how to protect myself. I’m concerned for yours, and I’m stretching the limits of confidentiality by saying so. If you walk away and don’t pursue the matter further, this matter ends here – and keep in mind that a renewed search by you or another professional will be visible to those who wish to look for it.
“Then I want to see what you have.”
“I require the remainder of my fee in cash, money order, or cashier’s check,” said Farkas.
Muller removed a bulging letter-size envelope from his pocket held it out to her across the desk. She took and dropped it into a desk drawer.
“You’re not going to count it?” he asked.
“I’m sure that’s not necessary.” She slid the sealed envelope containing the folder across her desk to within his reach. “Everything you want to know about Gladys – which is not her current name as you might have guessed – is in there including all contact information. Please don’t open it until you have left the property. This concludes our business.”
“You want me simply to trust you about the contents?” he said.
“Yes, I suppose I do.”
“In that case, best of luck, Mr. Muller.”
“Thank you for your help.”
“No need for thanks.”
Muller tucked the oversized envelope under his arm, walked out of the office and closed the office door behind him.
As he descended the stairs, Farkas reached to the window-treatment strings and blinked the Venetian blinds. Almost instantly her desk phone rang. The caller ID blocked the number. She picked up.
“I’m sorry,” said Farkas, “but he was persistent, and is now in possession of the information…‘Why?’ Because he paid for it. I fulfill my contracts as I’ve already explained. He is on his way downstairs at this moment and will be the next person exiting the outer door. Yes, your bitcoin transfer satisfies everything. This concludes our business.” She hung up the phone.
“Goodbye, Mr. Muller,” she said to herself.
She felt sad for Muller but business was business. She always fulfilled her contracts.