I usually get to my office around 7:45 a.m., giving me enough time to sort through emails from the lawyers in my firm asking for legal research from my team of legal beagles or occasionally investigatory support from myself and my two field personnel, before any meetings that might be scheduled starting at 9:00 a.m. As the head of Research and Investigations, I don’t generate revenue for the firm, so I’m exempt from most of the law firm’s business meetings. But we have enough case meetings to attend throughout the week that my team of eight — five researchers, two investigators and myself — are kept hopping. For all eight of us, it is feast or famine. We’re either swamped and trying to keep our heads above water or we’re having daily “in-house team meetings” where we play trivia at lunch.
August is usually famine time. Most of the lawyers take vacation in August, the courthouse is a virtual ghost town, and the number of requests coming to my team slow to a trickle. Three of my researchers were off for annual vacations with family, recharging their batteries. Two were still around to hold the fort, but they had already taken their leave in July.
The investigatory team was in a different boat. We were down to just me. My lead field agent, Marilyn, was off on maternity leave, having given birth back in June to a healthy baby boy, 9 lbs, 2 ounces, and I didn’t have a replacement for her yet. My second agent, Phil, had been travelling overseas when his appendix ruptured. If they had been able to remove it before the rupture, he likely would have been off for a week and then back in the office. Instead, the rupture had him laid up likely for 2-3 months.
When work overloads either team, I’m the backup. I’m a full lawyer and have my private investigator’s license, so I can cover off either team’s workload if something comes up, but I was hoping we didn’t get too many investigations before I found replacements for Marilyn and Phil. I could farm some of their work out to outside consultants, but our law firm preferred not to do that, which is why my team exists in the first place. We are a full-service law firm.
But that first Monday, my quiet August disappeared with a instant message. Instead of arriving at 7:45 a.m., I had had a dentist appointment first thing and didn’t hit the office until almost 8:45 a.m. I had barely logged in to our internal email system when an instant message from Lila Matthews popped up ensuring I had seen the invite to a 9:00 a.m. meeting with her boss, the senior partner, Harrison Matthew James III. I hadn’t seen the invite yet, as it hadn’t been there at 7:30 a.m. when I checked my phone schedule while on the way from the gym to the dentist, so whatever it was about, it was new.
Which if it was anyone else would seem normal. But Harrison James does not do anything impromptu, and a sudden meeting meant that Lila would have had to rearrange quite a few things for the day to fit him in. James is my boss, and we mostly meet through Lila…she sends me questions from him, I send the answers back, she prints them out, and he reads them at his leisure. Occasionally, I meet with him in person, but it is rarely unplanned. He is 74 years old, and has the body of a 50-year-old tennis pro (even though he plays racquetball) and a mind like a lightning-fast steel trap. I confess he intimidates the hell out of me, not because he’s physically intimidating in person or in speech, just that he is so quick mentally and extremely formal in his manners.
I had just enough time to grab a jacket and tie. Lila’s invite had a WC notation on it, short for “with clients”, but I would never go to see James without business armor. He was always dressed in a classic three piece suit, complete with a pocket watch and a pearl-handled cane. He once drafted an email to all personnel that even on Saturday, when we were closed officially, we should always dress as if we might have to meet with clients. Shorts and t-shirts were never appropriate for the office, in his view.
The invite had no agenda with it, which was unheard of for James. He always invites people for coffee one month after their arrival in the firm and it comes with an agenda with a single item that says “Item 1. Coffee”. The clients weren’t listed either. Very odd. James rarely saw clients these days, except for glad-handing and to reassure them he was still running things. Most day-to-day business with clients was handled by others. If that sounds like he is stepping away or slowing down, he isn’t. There isn’t anything that happens in this law firm that he doesn’t know about, sometimes before it happens. Rumour has it that he bought a wedding gift for two associates after he saw them meet for the first time in a client conference. James is a planner and he is rarely wrong.
I headed upstairs from my fourth floor back office facing an alley to James’ sixth-floor office facing the town square. Our law firm is a six-floor heritage building just three blocks from the lakeshore and overlooks Bayport’s town square on the most expensive land in the business district. We are also just three blocks from City Hall and the Courthouse buildings. The law firm of Haggerty, McCleod, and James has been around since the city was founded, with our founding member William Henry James as the first lawyer in the area. Harrison James is his great-great-great-great grandson (although there may be more greats in there) and occupies the same office as his ancestor. A McCleod joined the firm back in the 1950s and Haggerty in the 1960s. But there has always been a James. McCleod and Haggerty share the fifth floor space with most of the senior lawyers in the firm but the sixth floor is just a large conference room plus James’ office.
I took the back stairs two at a time, arriving at 8:59 a.m. When James says 9:00, he means on the dot. You don’t arrive early, you don’t arrive late. But his door was already open, and Lila was serving coffee to a couple sitting inside on the couch. Except for the coffee meetings one month after you start, James never serves anything. It encourages people to linger rather than get to the point. I’m serious, he wrote us all a memo about how to run an efficient meeting with a client and one of the points was to refrain from serving unless necessary. What was going on?
James saw me outside the door and waved me in. “Carleton, please join us.”
Lila offered me some coffee as I entered, with a raise of her eyebrows and a look that dared me to say yes. I declined. As she picked up a few things to leave, I had a chance to look at the couple opposite me. The man was in his late 40s, maybe early 50s, and his wife was about the same age I thought. Both had red, puffy eyes, and the wife had a handkerchief in her hands that she was twisting around one hand, clenching and unclenching. I doubt she was even aware she was doing it. I noticed neither were wearing wedding rings, so corrected my initial impression. Probably not husband and wife, but they were still both quite aware of the other if their body language was accurate.
James interrupted my train of thought just as the clock on his deck gave a soft chime for the hour. 9:00 a.m. on the dot. Time to get to business.
“Carleton, I would like to introduce you to two of my oldest friends. This is Maxwell and Maria Jennings. Maxwell and Maria, this is Carleton Clarke, our chief investigator here at the law firm.”
We exchanged quick acknowledgements, and I turned to James to launch us into the meeting. But he took a sip of his coffee, almost like he was stalling for a minute, and Maxwell looked at me with a small puzzled look. “Carleton Clarke, you said? Are you any relation to William Clarke?”
I was surprised. Very few people knew my father, he tended to keep a low profile during his thirty years as a police officer in Bayport, choosing to spend almost all of in patrol. He died about ten years ago, an undetected aneurysm that just exploded in his sleep, so it is even rarer for people to draw a connection now. “Yes, William was my father.” I left it at that…it’s always dangerous to ask the natural follow-up question if they knew him or the next one as to how. Not everyone is ready to tell me that he arrested them back in college or that he had to visit their house from time to time for domestic calls.
Maxwell turned to Maria. “Isn’t that strange…another Clarke to help us with a missing child. You kind of look like him too, around the eyes. Maybe it’s a sign, Maria…”. His voice trailed off and he seemed lost in his own memories. Maria , had looked up at me when I said William Clarke was my father and there was a small glimmer of something in her eyes. Even her hands had stilled.
Maria stared at me for a second and then jerked back to the present. “I’m sorry, Mr. Clarke, you don’t even know what we’re talking about. Max and I, when we were married,”, she said with a sideways glance at Maxwell, “we had two children you see. Melanie was the oldest, and then Michael. We were the M family. Max, Maria, Melanie and Michael. All Ms.” She smiled a small but sad smile for a moment.
“About eighteen years ago, when Melanie was 4, she wandered off at the campground above the Bluffs. I was pregnant with Michael at the time, and we were just frantic. We had no idea where she had gone. Everybody in the campground combed all over the area for three hours…down at the bottom of the cliffs, in the lake, everywhere. Eventually someone called the police. Then your father showed up, wandered around the campsite for about 10 minutes, noticed another camping trailer like ours that was sitting open, went inside and there she was, asleep on the bed. She had wandered off and found what she thought was home and just went to sleep. And your father brought her back to us, safe and sound. We almost named Michael after him, we were so grateful, but he said he didn’t really do anything. But he had. He ended our nightmare. At the time, it was the worst 3 hours of my life.” Maria stopped, and something dark seemed to cross her face.
Maxwell squeezed her shoulder, and took over the narrative. “Maybe it’s a sign that you’re here. We’re hoping you can find our son Michael.”
James leaned forward. “If anyone can find him, it’s Carleton. He’s one of the best investigators I’ve ever employed. Perhaps you can start at the beginning though and tell us the story of his disappearance. Just the highlights, we can go into more detail later.”
Maxwell frowned. “There aren’t many highlights. Two years ago, he was just about to turn 16 and was working at the McDonald’s over on the Boulevard. One night, he took his break at midnight and never came back. Nobody saw him go, and we’ve never heard from him since. The police found nothing and said he just ran away. But we never believed it.”
I asked as gently as I could. “Maxwell, was there a reason they thought he might have run away?”
Maxwell frowned. “Sorry, call me Max. Only my mother and old friends like Harrison call me Maxwell. A reason to believe he ran away? Not to us, but I guess it did to them. Michael had saved up some money from working plus some money he got from his grandmother passing away. Most of it was tied up in savings for college someday, but we let him keep some to spend on something fun. But he didn’t, he was always good at saving. At the time, he had $3700 in cash in his bank account that he had saved up. The day before he disappeared, he withdrew $3600. The police say that shows he was planning to run away, and that he needed the cash to do it. But it doesn’t make sense. There was no reason for him to go anywhere. He seemed happy.”
Maria reached down to the floor and picked up a small tote bag. She reached in, pulled out a brown wallet, and placed it on the table. “Tell them about the wallet.” The wallet seemed a little worn, but was quite thick.
“Right, the wallet. That’s new. Last week, the McDonald’s where he worked was having some work done out by their dumpster, putting in a new fence or something, and they tore down the old fence around the garbage area. Next to the back of the garbage area, partly under the edge of the slab, they found Michael’s wallet. Almost all of the money is there. It was kind of protected from the elements so it’s in pretty good shape. It’s definitely his wallet. It even has his student I.D. in it. We tried to turn it over to the police, but Detective Moorcroft wouldn’t even take it. He said it wasn’t evidence of anything, the case was closed, nothing more to do on it. He said Michael was 18 now and if he didn’t want to come home, the police wouldn’t force him to return.”
I tried not to let my dismay show. “Detective Moorcroft was the lead detective on your son’s disappearance?” I could see James’ eyes narrowing a bit. He knew what I knew…Moorcroft was one of the laziest detectives in the Bayport’s Police Department, and routinely closed cases by taking the simplest explanation, twisting facts to fit it, and declaring it done. My father had hated him and thought he was a complete waste of skin. Harsh words from a man who generally believed in the inherent goodness of anyone wearing blue.
Max grimaced. “Yes, he was the lead. Although he didn’t seem to do much. He…” He paused, searching for words.
Maria jumped in. “He was an asshole!” Max held out his hands like he was trying to calm her down, but she was having none of him. “Don’t you argue with me Maxwell Jennings, he was a complete asshole. The very first thing he asked us was what did we fight with Michael about? How many times had he had run away before? Who did he know in other cities? Did he have a long-distance girlfriend? Was he gay? Into drugs? He decided before he even got to our house that Mikey had run away, and you know it! He didn’t investigate ANYTHING!”. She glared at Max to deny it. Her hands were wringing the handkerchief almost like it was someone’s neck.
Max nodded as Maria was speaking, and turned towards James. “That’s all true, she’s right, I shouldn’t sugar coat it. She’s right. Last week, when Moorcroft wouldn’t even take the wallet to investigate, we didn’t know what to do. If Michael took the money to run away, but didn’t have the money, how did he run away? And if he did run away, we still don’t know why. Where is he? Sorry, Harrison, I didn’t mean to seem so pushy when we spoke on the weekend, I didn’t expect to meet with you and Mr. Clarke. To be honest, we probably can’t afford your firm. The garage hasn’t been doing so well lately. I just thought maybe you could point us to a private detective or someone who specializes in missing persons cases. Because that’s what Michael is. Missing. We don’t care what Detective Moorcroft says.” Maria took his hand and squeezed it.
“Nonsense, of course I won’t refer you elsewhere, Maxwell.” James sounded like a calm, reassuring grandfather. “Carleton can help you, of that I am quite certain. We’ll reach out to the Bayport Police Department and review their files. And don’t worry about the cost. I may only have been Melanie’s godfather, but I consider all of you family. We will find out what happened. I promise you that much.”
Max and Maria left, and James asked me to remain behind.
“Carleton, I know this will appear highly irregular to you, and for that I apologize.” He didn’t need to apologize. Once he said they were like family, it had all started to make sense.
“Not at all, sir, I am honoured to help. I am, however, a bit concerned about their expectations. And perhaps your own. May I speak freely, sir?” I had never asked that of him before, but I felt this situation demanded it. And I noticed that I had started to talk like him. He has that effect on me.
James looked a bit uncomfortable. “This isn’t the military, Carleton. I pay you to write and speak clearly. This is no different.”
I disagreed with him about it not being different, but that wasn’t a battle I needed to fight. “Thank you, sir. You know that we never start out with assumptions when doing our investigations as it can cloud our judgement in gathering facts. It was the first rule my father used as a cop, and it is the first rule I teach our investigators. But I do want to caution you. If his parents are correct that Michael had no reason to run away, and it appears now that he had no resources available to him to facilitate a departure, it is unlikely that this search will end well. As much as they think it is a sign that I am William Clarke’s son, we are not likely to find Michael in a camping trailer, sleeping quietly after two years of being missing.”
James sighed, and sat back in his chair. “I know, Carleton, I know. I suspect, as you do, that he is dead. We have been involved in the law too long to believe otherwise in situations like these. I agree that we cannot assume that is the case, but it is the most likely outcome. Yet those two people deserve some closure. Even if it is just knowing what happened to their son.” He paused for a moment, and pursed his lips as if he had tasted something sour.
“Carleton, I am going to share some more information with you as I don’t want you to start completely blind. I don’t know if it will become relevant at any point in your investigation, but I need to inform you that Max and Maria have not had a happy time these last ten years.” James paused for a moment, and then continued. “I am no longer close to the family, and I regret that development. I was a close friend of Maria’s mother, and she passed away a year or two before Melanie was born. I made a toast at Maria and Maxwell’s marriage in her honour. Her father was long gone, and I watched out for her with some of the estate, so when Melanie was born, Maria asked me to be her godfather.”
“Over time, we drifted apart. Life happens, I think your generation says. Your father may have saved Melanie as a child, but nobody could save her from a drunk boyfriend about eight years ago. He crashed the car they were in, killing Melanie and two friends in the backseat. The boyfriend walked away with barely a scratch. All three of the family were devastated, as was I, to be honest. I wasn’t there for them, a decision I regret.” James seemed to drift back in his thoughts for a moment.
I suspected I knew what he was thinking about, but I didn’t pry. His wife had died of pancreatic cancer about that time and she had apparently not gone gently into the night. I had just been an associate then, had barely known him, but everyone could see the strain he was under, and the spark that disappeared from his eyes. We all thought he would retire. Instead, one month to the day after her funeral, he was in the office and back to work full-time. He hasn’t taken a vacation day since.
James continued his briefing as if he hadn’t paused. “When they lost Melanie, they both coped in different ways. I understand Maria became angry and distant, but threw herself into awareness campaigns about the dangers of drinking and driving. I believe Maxwell started to spend more time at work. He runs a small auto-body shop off the Boulevard. The marriage became strained as it so often does after the loss of a child. The two of them managed to stay together, but when Michael disappeared, I believe the marriage couldn’t withstand the strain any longer. They divorced a year ago. I don’t know if any of this is relevant, but I wanted you to know the history in case it becomes relevant or if it helps you avoid traumatising them with too many unnecessary background questions.”
“Thank you, sir. I will keep it in mind.” I hesitated, but I was already speaking candidly anyway. “I will also have to find a way to deal with Moorcroft.”
“Ah, yes. Mr. Moorcroft. I have dealt with him before. If he thinks you are questioning his conclusion, he will give you no assistance at all, he just digs in his heels. I leave the investigations to you, as always, but in this instance, may I be so bold as to make a suggestion?”
Did my boss just ask permission to tell me what to do? Seriously, what was in that coffee? “Absolutely sir, I would welcome any of your suggestions.”
“It occurs to me that if Mr. Moorcroft was somehow led to believe that we were looking for evidence to come to the same conclusion as he did, as opposed to an alternative solution, he might revel in the attention. Particularly if he thought his assistance would somehow benefit him with his superiors. It might take some finesse, but I also caution you that it would definitely not work coming from you. Daniel Moorcroft and William Clarke were practically mortal enemies. Moorcroft would never knowingly or willingly assist you under any circumstances. You may have to work through an intermediary.”
“Thank you, sir, an interesting strategy. And I think I know a guy.”
James smiled. “I’m sure you do. Keep me apprised of developments. Lila has been instructed to clear my schedule for you for this case at your discretion.” It was clear that the meeting was done. As I left, I noticed the clock on his desk was chiming for the quarter hour. Right on time.
Lila spoke softly to me as I left the office. “Cal?” I don’t think Lila has ever called me anything but Carleton before, even though I tell everyone to do so. I’m sure James never will. “Don’t let him down on this one, please.” I nodded solemnly and headed downstairs.
Lila was extremely protective of James, but she made me wonder if there was even more to the story than I realized. James often seems to keep a lot of secrets…some by choice, some by nature, some simply by his formal personality. I would love to know how he knew about my father’s contentious relationship with Moorcroft, but asking would lead nowhere. Over the last five years of working for him, I have learned only that he apparently knew my father quite well, but nothing more, not even the circumstances. My mother claims to know nothing about it, and any attempts to draw out James has been met with a polite but firm change of subject. And now Lila was asking me to not to let him down on this case, in a way that seemed stronger than just guilt that he didn’t stay in touch with the family over the years.
But those secrets could wait. I needed to make some calls. I had told James that I knew a guy, a phrase my father used often, but it isn’t quite true in this case. Technically, I should have said that I know a gal.