Black Mask

Hidden in Shadow

by Alaric Hunt

Miriam Weitz stopped at the open door, staring into the familiar office as Clayton Guthrie hung his coat on the wall rack and walked to his desk. Less than a year before, the little detective had fired her for busting a trap operation. She shot Jackson Carmichael, the overpriced socialite tax attorney Guthrie wanted for wife-beating and stalking. Weitz had laughed in the little detective’s face on her way out the door; she killed Carmichael because he tried to rape her. The little detective claimed she could’ve found another way out; his standards were impossible. Those sour grapes covered her pang of regret when she walked out. But Weitz hesitated at the door because she had to swallow the bitter truth of wanting to come back. The private detective’s ratty office looked so much like home that seeing it felt like a kick in the guts.

“You’ll like this college boy, Justin Peiper,” Guthrie said. “He’s pure dirt.” He turned his computer on and settled at his desk before he noticed her standing at the door. A frown bent his dull, brick face. “You’re gonna hear better if you come inside.”

Weitz stepped inside and threw a question to distract him. “Peiper connected to the soldier?”

The same two mismatched couches faced the same two desks in the same square around a cluttered coffee table. The tall windows still looked down onto Thirty-Fourth Street. Guthrie was unchanged, but an unfamiliar coffeecup on her old desk provoked the eerie tremble of nails scraping a blackboard.

“No,” he answered. “I told you that already. Are you gonna listen, or am I flushing some time down the crapper?”

She scowled. The angry expression suited her looks. The young Jewish detective had dark hair cropped boy-short, olive skin, and bright green eyes. She wore a black vest and a white button-down shirt with a long green skirt and running boots, a mismatch that suited the office furniture—classic mahogany, plaster, and antique oxblood leather, with one homely brown faux-fur couch added—and Guthrie, a short, slim, middle-aged man in a dark, timeworn suit and a faded brown fedora.

“You said, in not so many words,” she answered, “that your college boy had toys that didn’t belong to him, and that he needed to be taught a lesson. Beyond that, more of your usual nothing. This sounds familiar already.”

The little man’s hard face softened. “You could be right,” he said. “Have a seat. I’ll fill in some blanks.”

Weitz circled the office, pausing for a look from the windows, three stories above the street. A crowd of shoppers marched along to Macy’s down the block. She collected a cup of coffee in Styrofoam, then settled on the soft brown couch to stare at him. The little man looked tired.

“The more I look at this problem, the sicker I get,” he said. His fingers steepled to press against his mouth, blurring his matter-of-fact tone. “For a week or so, I thought Peiper was mixed into the Camille Bowman murder—with the soldier, sure—because he connected to Bowman in some sex games at Columbia. Anyway, Peiper burglarized her apartment in the Village and took a collection of videos, and now he’s neck deep in a blackmail scheme aimed at Amanda Hearst, one of these young women at the college.”

“Hearst is connected?” Weitz asked.

“Loosely,” the little man said. “My concern here is H.P.’s niece, Michelle Tompkins—coincidentally another one of the involved sorority women.”

The puzzle locked suddenly together for Weitz. H.P. Whitridge, a heavyweight city aristocrat, paid Guthrie an oversized retainer to fix Whitridge family business in the city. When she worked for the little detective, she had helped solve the same problems. He had fired her—but when he needed someone who knew the players and how to keep her mouth shut, he reached for the discard pile.

“You’re a cold-hearted momzer,” she muttered. “But then I don’t have to sit for more.” She bounced to her feet and started for the door.

“Not so fast!” Guthrie barked. He tugged open his desk drawer, pulled out a thick envelope, and opened it to reveal a banded stack of crisp bills. “Ten thousand here. Take the time to look it over. You’ll get this again if you close it.” He dropped the cash onto the corner of his desk.

Weitz paused with her hand on the knob of the frosted-glass door and a knot in her throat. Her relationship with Guthrie had been a lot more love than hate—he had taught her the how and why of being a detective with one hand, while pulling her back from the edge of some disasters with the other—but she’d broken on the bricks of his indifference. Money? she thought. I want my job back. She glanced again at her old desk, marred with a flag-of-Puerto-Rico coffee cup that belonged to the operative Guthrie had hired to replace her after she screwed up.

“I showed my face around Columbia too much this summer,” he continued. “This needs a fresh face, Miriam. Just look it over, will you?”

After being fired, Weitz had filed for her own license. She made good money, even with low-budget security and surveillance, but Guthrie played for high stakes on the city’s aristocratic tables. Late at night, when she spent time thinking about the difference, the young detective admitted that the thrill, not the money, was the standard.

She walked to his desk and folded the cash into her vest pocket. The roll of cash carried its own comfort, even if it didn’t provide a seat at the big table. He pointed at the other desk. She settled there hollowly, staring at the pictures of the new girl’s family as he served up his summary report onto the connected desktop computer. The Puerto Rican girl had three good-looking brothers and a father shaped like the side of a mountain.

Slow rain speckled the office windows as Weitz read. The afternoon slid past. The little detective’s report traced the blackmail as it grew from a single exchange erasing Peiper’s credit-card debts into a furnished condo on Ninety-Third Street and a steady stream of designer clothes. Peiper’s appetite grew to match Amanda Hearst’s submission to his whims. He came from upstate New York, leaving behind two hell-raising older brothers and a stain of assault charges. He found new brothers in the Alpha Mu fraternity at Columbia and led them in a sex game that produced a seemingly endless collection of party pictures and candid porn. Guthrie drank a pot of coffee while he waited, but kept comments to himself as he watched her face clamp with anger.

“What about the rest of them?” Weitz asked.

“What about them?” he said. “This was all fun and games.”

She shook her head. “He’s hurting those girls.”

“They keep coming back. He’s a pretty boy.” Guthrie shrugged with the incomprehension of a man born with a dull face.

“True enough,” she muttered. Justin Peiper had a slim, muscular build and an A-list face, hair one shade short of black, and bright blue-green eyes. A faint smile rounded his angular features and made him seem cocky even when he sat quietly, but he drifted into the background of many of the videos and party pictures. He emerged with carefully staged performances, like a man baiting a hook.

“He has a grudge against the world,” she said. “And I think he loved Bowman. His eyes said a lot when he watched her.”

Guthrie nodded. “He figured that too late.”

“I don’t think he’ll hand it over for a beating, Clay. That trouble with his brothers toughened him up,” she said.

He shrugged. “He could switch up if I pick his nose with a pistol, but I’ll save that for my last step. I want him to feel violated, Miriam. Taking it away from him ain’t gonna hurt his feelings. I want him to end up with a bad taste in his mouth. You understand?”

Weitz nodded. The video collection attached to the little detective’s summary report outlined the sex games at Columbia. Camille Bowman and Peiper had reigned as king and queen in a Greek court where sovereign power paired other couples by decree.

When Bowman matched him with plain girls, Peiper played rough with the overnight consorts. His dissatisfaction exposed a rough edge that he kept hidden at Columbia; he managed his schoolboy performances just as carefully as he did the cameras at parties, while his bad-boy exploits centered around Utica, including assaults that had been reduced from ABHANs.

But after Bowman abandoned him, his mood turned dark and angry. Amanda Hearst, a beautiful young woman with red hair like fox fur, ascended as the new queen, but he revenged himself on the Greek court, taking payment from the pain of Columbia’s elite. The new queen’s pale skin often wore marks added by his hands. Weitz understood that too well.

“If I’m satisfied with the ending, that’s an extra ten thousand.” Guthrie watched her as she scanned a section of the report again. “Take a copy. Call me when you have an angle that doesn’t need a hearse to carry it away after it lands.” His brick face was hard and unreadable. “You got me, Miriam?”

She transferred his report onto her flash drive. “Some of the videos won’t copy,” she muttered.

“A neat trick, ain’t it? Keeps you from wasting time looking at pretty boy’s porn.”

She shrugged. She had seen enough. “He’s scratching at glass because he can’t stop thinking about the chance he lost with Camille Bowman.”

The little man nodded agreement as she walked out. This time Weitz wasn’t laughing. Peiper was trapped in a small circle with a single thought; she saw it in his eyes in the videos she watched. He was so focused on having lost Camille Bowman that he had no attention for anything else. Weitz had made that mistake already, and paid for it. Wishing for what was gone led nowhere.

She did laugh as she stepped into the soft rain falling on Thirty-Fourth Street below the office. Wishing for what was gone never stopped—she still wanted the job. That was gone, just like the more important parts of herself. Nothing was left but bad luck. But the lingering pain had taught her to look in the right direction to see trouble coming; even regret could be a valuable possession when you had nothing else.

*   *   *

The Long Morning After kept a crowd of Columbia University students in an endless party; the bar/dance club was designed to display them. Lights glowed above an old wooden bar and brightened a narrow dance floor divided by rough piers. Painted windows excluded the outside world.

“What’s her name?” Justin Peiper asked quietly, but he kept his eyes on Miriam Weitz. The detective wore a coed disguise—skinny jeans and sandal flats, a gold choker, and a sleeveless vest with an upturned collar that showed too much bronze skin. Her short hair was slicked with a neat part. She stood in the bright light at the old wooden bar talking with Michelle Tompkins, a plain Jane Epsilon Rho graduate sister who happened to be a billionaire. When Tompkins knew someone, they were worth knowing.

“Should be ‘bitch,’” Holton growled. The tall blond man looked like a sunbleached surfer, but he was the middle son of a state senator. He had caught a slap in the crotch for grinding against Weitz on a trip for information.

“Do you need to go back over and hit on her again?” Peiper asked.

Holton shook his head. “Tansu—Tansu Ozal. She’s some Turkish princess. She’s Epsilon. She’s transferring from the West Coast. She flies on a level with Tompkins.”

The men watched Weitz spin conversation with Tompkins. She flaunted a brilliant, beautiful smile that overshadowed the other women at the bar. Beautiful young women were campus commonplace—cosmopolitan transfers were even commonplace—but money and political power added strong afterthoughts.

“Turkish?” Peiper muttered. “She’s hot.”

“She just saw you,” Holton said, and shook his head.

Peiper nodded. The startled look on the Turkish girl’s face was a replay of an everyday occurrence for him. He watched her trade sudden whispers with Tompkins. “That’s where it goes south,” he said.

Holton laughed. “Tompkins always liked you when you were taking your pants off for her. You should have kept her in the rotation.”

“The Epsilons wanted her out,” the small man said.

“Dude, I seriously hate you sometimes,” Holton said. The Turkish girl didn’t bother to hide her interest, despite a frown and more whispers from Tompkins. “You got a shot—if the queen unsnaps your leash tonight. Alas, the duties of our king.”

Peiper glanced into the corner of the club, where Amanda Hearst sat in a circle of Epsilon pledges—fresh players in the complicated Greek game that was equal parts sex, politics, and exploitation. “I’ll put her up on the block tonight,” he said.

Holton laughed again. “Dude!”

“I see I have a volunteer,” Peiper said softly.

“Dude! Hell yes!”

Michelle Tompkins disappeared into the crowd when Peiper slipped down the bar and stopped beside Weitz. They traded smiles. He stood as close as he could without touching her, and she lounged against the bartop like his shadow.

“I like the Tequila Sunrise,” she said.

He signaled for the hovering bartender. “Two.”

*   *   *

Playing deceptive games was new business for Weitz. The young Jewish detective was a daredevil and inquisitor, not an actress. But Tansu Ozal came naturally to her imagination, an alter-ego created from the memory of her Sephardic grandmother, a second-generation descendant of Ottoman refugees. Two hours a day spent listening to Turkish radio quickly polished her rusty accent to fluency. Michelle Tompkins provided her wardrobe and stayed on her phone to identify the people she met. H.P. Whitridge leveraged her into the school as a Turkish heiress, complete with a genuine billionaire real-estate tycoon business associate to pose as Tansu’s “father” from Antalya, on Turkey’s Turquoise Coast. A few days of dedicated hacking before the debut created the identity on the Net.

Tansu Ozal was amused and hard to get, the opposite of every other coed surrounding Justin Peiper. He was smitten by the difference. A whispered goodbye and a chaste kiss on the cheek at the end of the first night reddened his face with a blush.

The Jewish detective kept Amanda Hearst out of the trap. She could see that the red-haired heiress was obsessed with Peiper. Even after he “lent” her to a fraternity brother for an extended sexual performance, she rushed immediately back to his Ninety-Third Street apartment the same night. Hearst was a victim, but she was also a potential traitor. She was intensely jealous of her pretty blackmailer. From tidbits of sorority gossip, Weitz realized that Hearst was determined to claim him, dark side included. She fought with Peiper about the endless hours he spent with his computer, and stormed with fury each time she caught him with someone else outside the game. Peiper answered her complaints with bruises and rough conciliatory sex.

Peiper’s apartment was the primary obstacle. That had been outlined carefully in Guthrie’s summary report. The little detective spent hours in observation and aborted two intended burglaries because of unexpected occupants. Alpha Mu brothers crashed randomly in the apartment, usually with a coed attached, and Amanda Hearst kept a key to come and go at every opportunity.

After a lunch date in the park, Weitz found Peiper’s hidden garbage can on a stop at his Ninety-Third Street apartment to collect a notebook for class. She drifted through the small, neat rooms, questioning with glances and pauses while he explained his hockey trophies and snapshots from Canada. He encouraged her with a magnetic smile that had already broken a thousand hearts. She felt a pull as elemental as gravity each time she looked at him. After three days spent in a continual blur of rehearsing conversations to have with him, lolling in his determined attention, and teasing to spur him, Weitz was shivering with thrills, and at odd moments she spiked certainty that he was falling in love with her. They traded a few long kisses before they left his apartment to return to class—the last moment before the curtain fell away. Happy thoughts about Peiper had been a wishful, suicidal delusion.

She carried an old chrome-cased palmtop computer that had been regeared by a Korean supergenius in Brooklyn. He built custom electronics and ran a shadow service as a sideline while working at a junk store. Her palmtop included enough sensors and programming to make a Star Trek tricorder jealous. In the apartment, it intercepted a crosscurrent of short-range IR traffic between hidden cameras and recorders on a network confined inside by the walls of the apartment. The palmtop sampled the recorded images as a routine reaction to the intercepts, because the Korean liked to snoop data. The download was heavy with porn.

After the first look, Weitz switched her palmtop from casual snooping to high-speed collection each time she visited the Ninety-Third Street viper’s nest. She paid in kisses for filling in the blanks about Peiper’s hidden nightlife. She decided that he might have caught the video-record virus from discovering his amateur stardom in the Epsilon heiress’s porn collection, but he contracted an illness that transformed into his blackmail scheme.

Weitz watched, on video intercepts, as Peiper abused Hearst to release his nighttime frustrations from days spent courting Tansu Ozal. He seemed indifferent to the young woman’s screams, though he made efforts to wring pleasure from her. The cameras recorded without blinking as he “lent” her, already tired and panting, to waiting fraternity brothers and then sated himself with other women.

The Jewish detective didn’t forget that the heiresses had done the same, while Camille Bowman still ruled the court. She had watched many of those videos in Guthrie’s office. Bowman’s flight, and Tompkins’s exile, changed the tone of the games. Peiper turned sick and angry as he realized that he had lost what he wanted—Bowman—and decided that Hearst wasn’t enough.

A whirlpool developed within a week. Peiper’s smile took a bitter edge each time Weitz turned away, and his questions sometimes held a plaintive tone. He sounded like a man who knew he wasn’t good enough for what he wanted; the fiction of Tansu Ozal had grown with telling into a luminous dream. Tompkins gleefully fed gossip to the hungry sorority sisters, giving Ozal six violent brothers and a demanding mother with a collection of diamonds larger than Elizabeth Taylor’s. The Epsilons passed the stories until the couple was surrounded with eyes.

Despite days spent trying, the circus at the Ninety-Third Street apartment kept Weitz from any chance of hacking Peiper’s computer. She couldn’t risk dropping a transmitter inside the apartment, because she didn’t know what sort of countermeasures Peiper used—except for one. When his computer was offline, it was disconnected from the Net. He used an air gap, just like Clayton Guthrie, the ultraparanoid little detective. Seducing Peiper with an illusion was useless if she couldn’t get his blackmail files. Guthrie had balked at the same hurdle, though his summary report contained only one terse statement: “This subject’s domicile remains inaccessible despite varied efforts.”

 

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Copyright © 2018. Hidden in Shadow by Alaric Hunt