We were on the cusp of something huge and we both knew it.
The excitement in the air was palpable as Alex drove the car through the nearly-empty streets.
"It could be nothing," I warned her. "Hell, he might not even tell us anything. We don't have any official right to order him to give us the negatives."
"Maybe not, but we can get a read on him. And if we have to, maybe Maas can get a warrant."
"On what grounds?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "I guess we'd better finesse the information from him then, huh? I mean, at least he called us back. He's willing to talk to some extent."
She had a point. So I kept my hopes high and my expectations low as we drove up to the Bronx.
"Is this it?" she asked me dubiously. The place was fairly dilapidated and I could see why she had her doubts.
"It's the address that he gave me," I confirmed.
"I wonder where Stahl got his name," she remarked as she reached in the glove box for her weapon.
I didn't blame her.
I got mine out, too.
This place looked like a living advertisement for where not to visit when in New York.
"You think he's in the yellow pages?"
"It's more likely that he's on the FBI's most wanted list," she retorted.
"She probably figured that she wouldn't have to worry about running into him in a social situation."
Together we cautiously crossed the sidewalk and went up to the main entrance of the apartment building. The writing next to the buzzers was barely legible, but I managed to make out the letters B-s—r.
"Yeah?" a voice shouted when I pushed the button.
"It's Agents Goren and Eames," I announced. A high pitched squeal began to emit from the intercom and then the front door latch clicked open. I quickly grabbed the door handle and opened it up, letting Alex into the lobby in front of me.
But let me clarify.
When I say lobby, I mean the closet-sized space just inside the front door that smelled of urine and smoke. The floor was concrete and the walls were covered in x-rated graffiti.
"Huh," Alex muttered with feigned thoughtfulness as she leaned closer to read one of the pornographic suggestions that had been tagged on the wall. "Is that even possible?"
"Come on," I said on a chuckle. I tipped my head towards the stairwell door and we went into an even smaller and smellier space.
It's not easy to climb six flights of stairs while holding your breath, but we both managed because not breathing was preferable to smelling the stench. I had a feeling that our clothes were going to be a total loss. There were some odors that just never came out.
The sixth floor hallway had a hint of fresh air and I noticed that a small window at the end of the hall was broken, allowing the cool night air inside.
I was tempted to go stand in front of it and just breathe for a minute, but at that moment, the door across the hall opened up and a man poked his head out, looking both ways quickly before settling his gaze on Alex.
"Are you the agents?"
"Yes," she responded.
"Get in here before you start a riot."
He stood back, holding his door open for us, so together we went inside.
"And why exactly would we start a riot?" I asked after he closed the door behind us.
I was slightly leery, but mostly just because the situation was so strange. I mean, we were both armed, and this guy was actually a licensed private investigator, so it's not like I expected that we were in serious danger.
But it was just…odd.
The place was dark and there was incense burning on a table in the middle of the room.
Music was playing on an old Victrola, an unusual slow, stirring mix of brass instruments.
The man himself was dressed in jeans with no shirt. He had several gold chains around his neck, some of them hanging all the way down to his belt buckle.
"Most of the people who live around here don't much care for cops," he replied in answer to my question.
"And you do?"
"I'm a live and let live kind of guy. Are you?" he asked pointedly.
"What division are you with?" he asked as he stared at me, seemingly sizing me up.
"You mean, do we care if you're in possession of a controlled substance?" Alex clarified.
He turned to her and flashed a broad, toothy grin.
"Oh, come on now, honey. Who said anything about drugs?"
As far as I was concerned, this guy could be growing dyroxia plants in his bathroom. It's not like I was going to arrest him for anything.
I just really wanted to know what he knew.
As usual, Alex was right there with me. She held his gaze for a minute and then shook her head.
"Your message said that you have negatives," she stated, getting down to business.
She suddenly seemed in a hurry, and I didn't blame her.
Because I'd decided that it wasn't incense that was burning on the table and if we hung around in here much longer, we were both going to get high.
I might not have been too far off with the idea of dyroxia in the bathroom.
Although maybe it was more like cannabis.
"I do, honey, but I don't see a warrant in your hand," he answered coyly.
"Lucky for you," I told him. "Because the warrant might mention something about possession, right? Didn't we already establish that? Just tell us about that job. You were hired by Wendy Stahl, right?"
"I guess. I mean, that's the name that she gave me, but it's not like she offered up any proof. See, it was all done over the phone."
"And you remember this just off the top of your head?" I questioned. "It was last February, right?"
"I did a little work for her in February," he agreed. "March, too. And I remember her because I don't get me too many FBI agents for clients, if you know what I'm saying."
"I can't imagine," Alex retorted. "So…Dick. What specifically did she ask you to do?"
"Specifically? She said to follow this chick and take some pictures."
"This chick. Which chick?"
"She didn't give me a name. But she said that she worked in the federal building. And she sent me a picture of the chick so that I'd know who to follow. She told me that she suspected this broad of cheating with her husband."
"Wait," I said quickly. "Stahl wanted you to follow a woman who she thought was sleeping with her husband? Are you sure that's what she said?"
"Yeah, man," he said with a nod. "She was pretty sure about it."
Which had me more confused than ever.
Stahl didn't have a husband. McHale had a husband.
But both were gay so if there was any cheating going on, wouldn't it have been with a woman?
"Why did it take two months?" I asked him.
"I couldn't catch the two of them together, you know what I'm saying?"
"You couldn't catch them together at all, or you couldn't catch them doing something incriminating?" Alex clarified.
"I saw them talking a few times. But that was it. So I told the chick, lady your man ain't stepping out. Or if he is, it ain't with this broad. I offered to follow the dude instead, and see if maybe he was banging somebody else, but she got real pissy with me and said to just take the fucking pictures."
"So up to that point, you hadn't taken any?"
"Nah, man. Like I said, they weren't doing anything."
"So then you took pictures of them talking," Alex stated.
"Right. And I sent them to her. She sent me a check and we was done."
"She paid you with a check?"
"A cashier's check," he stated.
"Where did you mail the pictures?"
"To a post office box in Manhattan."
"But you didn't send her the negatives?"
"She didn't ask for them. She asked for pictures. I guess she wanted to confront the old man or something, I don't know. If you ask me, she probably just pissed him off by showing him photos of him and some chick chatting each other up. I tried to tell her to wait til she had something good, but..."
"Does she know that you kept the negatives?" I interrupted.
"Hey, yo, she didn't ask and I didn't say, but that's my practice, man. Because you just never know, you know what I'm saying?"
"Yeah, I think I do."
My mind was running with possibilities and I didn't want to rush Buster into giving us the negatives because I didn't want him to buck up on us but I was also starting to feel a tingly sensation in my head.
I took a few steps farther away from the smoky coffee table.
"We really need to see those negatives," Alex said quietly. "You don't have to give them to us. Just let us take a look."
"You know what, honey?" Buster said, once again grinning broadly enough to show his gold tooth. "I like you. Wait here."
He left us in the living room and went down a hall. I glanced at Alex and her eyes looked a little glassy.
"We need to get out of here," I told her. "We're both going to be high."
"At least it smells better than the stairwell," she replied, but she took a few steps away from the table, too.
"So what do you think?" I whispered. "Stahl hired him to follow…who? McHale, to watch her with her own husband? Maybe she'd promised Stahl that they weren't romantic anymore and she was suspicious."
"I don't know. That sounds pretty farfetched, don't you think?"
"Okay. How about this? What if it wasn't Stahl who hired him?"
"Someone used her name?"
"Maybe. Buster never saw her, so it could have been anybody."
"Who do you think it was?"
"Well, Banta knew about it, didn't he?"
"Wait a minute," Alex said, shaking her head. "That doesn't make any sense. Why would Banta hire a PI to follow McHale?"
"This might not have anything to do with anything," I declared in frustration.
"Here you go, honey," Buster said when he came back in the room. He had a strip of negatives with him and a flashlight.
"You're pretty high tech, huh?" she quipped.
"Don't knock it, pretty lady."
And yeah, he was harmless with his flirtatious chatter which was the only reason why he was still standing.
Alex turned on the flashlight and then held the strip up in front of it so that we could make out the black and white images on the negative.
"Oh my God," she muttered. "Bobby…"
"I have no idea."