Rating/Warnings: PG-13 for mild profanity, mentions of torture, and violence
Word Count: ~4,500
Disclaimer: Community and the related characters are © 2010 Sony Pictures Television Inc. and Universal Media Studios.
Notes: Based (somewhat loosely) on moeexyz's Ficcy Friday prompt "Jeff Winger is a private detective asked by Troy Barnes to investigate the murder of his lover Britta in the Turkish district. He enlists the help of PI in training Annie Edison as they discover the mastermind behind the murder of Britta Perry." Thanks as always to dearygirl for her willingness to be my beta reader and her keen eye for and intolerance of typos and sloppy writing.
1947 was shaping up to be a good year. The war was over, the economy was booming, and I was on the fast track to become a partner at Hamish, Hamish & Hamlin, the most prestigious law firm in town. There was just one tiny little problem: I didn't have a law degree. It wasn't a problem for me, mind you--I was damn good at my job--but it was for the firm I worked for, so they fired me. Which is ridiculous. It's my fault they hired me without checking my credentials? It's called due diligence, idiots.
My old bosses made it clear when they gave me the ax that they would make sure I never worked in the legal profession again. They spread the word to the other lawyers in town that I was off-limits, and since half the judges in Colorado were former partners, they had the muscle to make it happen. Jerks. But I had a backup plan: I would drink. And heavily.
But then I read this thing in Life about Eliot Ness running for mayor of Cleveland, and it gave me an idea. Ness was famous as the guy who brought down Al Capone, but really it was an accountant who found the evidence that sent Big Al to the slammer. And I thought, I could be that guy! That's what got noticed by the senior partners; no matter how much paper got dumped on us during discovery, I could find exactly the evidence needed to help our case. I knew my old bosses could stop me from doing that kind of work for another law firm, but I knew another line of work that relied on digging through piles of paper looking for evidence: private investigation.
I talked to all the big detective agencies in town, but it turns out they all did business with Hamish, Hamish & Hamlin and were afraid of what might happen if they took me on. I looked into going into the business myself, but it turns out the PI licensing board is a lot more suspicious of its applicants than the bar association. So I grabbed the phone book, made a list of all the independent ops in town, and started making the rounds. Joe Aaron wasn't interested. Neither was Otis Amber, nor any other investigator whose name started with A, B, C, or D. Either they didn't want or couldn't afford to hire someone, or they'd heard through the grapevine about the threats my old bosses were making. I was getting pretty tired by this point, and since the next name was on my way home, I decided to make A. Edison my last stop for the day.
Edison's office was in a run-down building in a crummy neighborhood. Back when I was a lawyer I wouldn't have been caught dead in this part of town, but now I was just another schmuck, and I literally couldn't afford to be too choosy. There was no building directory, so I wandered the place floor by floor until I found the office. It was almost perfectly nondescript: a simple wooden door, with "A. EDISON Private Investigator" spelled out in plain block letters on the pebbled-glass window. I could see a vague form moving around inside, so I steeled myself, put on my most winning smile, and opened the door.
The someone turned out to be a stunning young woman, probably no more than 20 years old. She was a tiny little thing, the top of her head barely level with my shoulders, but brother, what a looker. She wore a simple flowered dress that gently hugged her generous curves, and her shapely calves had me drooling. And her eyes! Big, blue ones, with long lashes. She was gorgeous, and I instinctively turned up the wattage of my smile as I spoke. "Evening, sweetheart. Gotta business proposition to discuss with your boss. He in?"
The girl's eyes flashed angrily. "No one sees the boss without seeing me first. What is it you want? And make it fast, I'm a busy woman."
I held up my hands in surrender. "Take it easy, doll! I just--"
"Could you stop with the dolls and the sweethearts?" she snapped. "I may be young, but you'll treat me like an adult or you'll turn around and walk out of this office!"
Gorgeous and feisty! My favorite combination. This was where I wanted to work, no doubt about it. So I made nice, and explained what I had to offer. Once I finished my pitch, she didn't say anything at first, just stood there looking at me appraisingly for what seemed like hours. Finally she said, "have a seat, Mr. Winger," gesturing toward a chair in front of a large desk on the opposite side of the room. I did, and she sat down opposite me on the other side of the desk. "You make a persuasive case. But it would've been even more persuasive," she said, opening a drawer and pulling out a small leather wallet, "if you'd bothered to do any research before you came here." She flung the wallet in my direction.
I threw up my hands to keep it from hitting me in the face. "Hey, watch it!" I picked up the wallet off the floor and flipped it open to reveal a private investigator's license bearing the girl's picture and the name "Annie Edison." I looked up to find the girl smirking at me. "You're A. Edison," I said flatly.
"In the flesh!" she said cheerfully.
"But you're just--"
"Careful what you say next, Winger," Edison said coolly. "There's a firearms permit in that wallet, too."
I was starting to have second thoughts about working here.
"My father started training me as an investigator when I was a little girl," she said, oblivious or indifferent to my discomfort. "I got my license on my 19th birthday. I got a perfect score on the licensing exam, by the way. And I was the youngest woman ever to become a licensed PI in Colorado."
"Your dad must've been proud."
"I suppose he would've been," she said, sadness creeping into her voice. "When I came here to share the good news, I found him slumped over his desk in the back office there. Heart attack."
"I'm sorry." And I was. It was weird; I'd heard countless sob stories from my clients, and could tell those stories to juries quite movingly, but they'd never had any effect on me personally. But the deep sadness in Edison's eyes as she talked about her father was getting to me. Now I was definitely having second thoughts. This dame was trouble. I needed to think of a tactful way to get out of this office before I did something I would regret.
"Word on the street is that you're a marked man, Winger." I eyed her warily, not quite sure what she meant. I knew the firm was mad at me, but they weren't actually trying to kill me, were they? As if reading my mind, she continued, "Not literally, of course. But your old bosses are making it clear that anyone who does business with you will be considered persona non grata."
Well, no need to come up with an excuse after all. "Ah," I said, rising from my seat. "I understand. I'll just--"
"Sit down," Edison said firmly. "Lucky for you, I hate your old bosses more than they hate you."
Nuts. "Look, you don't have to do me any favors. They do a lot of business with private eyes, and--"
"And they made it clear when I talked to them after I took over the agency that they wouldn't be continuing the relationship they had with my father," she said bitterly. "Because I was 'just a little girl.' And because--" She broke off suddenly and blushed.
I thought about who she probably would've talked to. "And because you wouldn't spread your legs for Alan Connor?"
Her lips pursed in disgust. "Don't be vulgar!"
I took that as a yes. "So I'm an instrument of revenge. Flattering."
"Not just, though that does make you that much more attractive. As a candidate, I mean," she added hastily, catching sight of the small smirk on my face. "Not that you aren't--" My smirk grew wider as she stopped to collect herself. "What I need, Winger, is a leg man."
"In that case, I'm definitely the guy you're looking for."
"You must have fit right in at your old firm," she said with distaste. "Look, I'm good at what I do, but I'm not unaware that I'm at a disadvantage in certain situations. Case in point ..." She opened a drawer and retrieved a file folder, which she tossed onto the desktop. I glanced through it while she talked. "The couple in the photo is Troy Barnes and Britta Perry. Troy came to see me yesterday. It seems Miss Perry has gone missing. The police aren't showing any interest in her disappearance--"
"Probably just as well," I said. "Black man, white woman? The investigation would start and end with him."
"True enough. That's one of the reasons he came to me. Plus, we knew each other in school. Sort of. I kind of had a thing for him, but he didn't pay much attention to me back then."
"Not too bright, then."
That got a smile from her. "Not really, no, but I've changed a lot since those days."
"So he thinks there's something more to his girl's disappearance than her just wanting to get out of the relationship?"
"He does. And she's not just 'his girl.' She's his wife."
"That's illegal," I said.
"Not in New Mexico. That's where they met. They moved up here after they got married."
"OK, but why leave New Mexico to come to a state that doesn't recognize their marriage? I mean, New Mexico is no prize pig as states go, but still."
Edison smiled. "You've got the mind of a good investigator, Winger." I felt my face grow warm. Was I blushing? For God's sake, what was I, twelve years old? This was not how Jeff Winger reacted to compliments from pretty girls. "I'll be looking into that over the phone while you're down in the Turkish district."
I nodded. Then what she said registered on me. "Wait, what?"
"It's there in the file you're holding," Edison said. "The last time Troy saw Miss Perry, she was heading to the Turkish district to meet and collect some back wages from her old boss from Santa Fe." She snatched the file from my hand and rifled through it. "Troy just called him, 'the doctor.' She was meeting him at a place called Shisha."
"Why there? And why me?"
"Look at me, Winger, do I look like I'd fit in at a place like that?"
"Not unless you'd been kidnapped and were being sold into white slavery, no," I admitted.
"Whereas you'll fit right in," she continued, "especially since you didn't bother to shave or comb your hair when you got out of bed this morning."
That stung a little. "I like to think it gives me a certain rakish charm," I said.
She snorted a little--this broad really knew how to hurt a guy!--and then proceeded to ignore me while she made a phone call. When she hung up, she resumed speaking to me as if we'd never been interrupted. "I need you to go down to Shisha and start asking questions."
"Asking questions," I said flatly, still not quite believing what I was hearing.
"You were a lawyer of sorts, you must have taken depositions."
"Not in hookah bars!" I spat out.
"Well, if you're not up to it ..." she said with a sly smile.
I stood up so forcefully that the chair I'd been sitting in toppled over. "The hell I'm not!" I said angrily. I was angry not just because she was implying I couldn't do it, but also because I knew she was baiting me into doing something I really didn't want to do. And because it was working, damn it. "Try and stop me, lit--"
I was interrupted by a knock on the door. "It's open!" Edison called out. Looking at me, she said, "I've told him a hundred times he can just come in without knocking, but he says he doesn't want to be a drop-in character."
"What does that even mean?"
"Like on Fibber McGee and Molly." I turned my head to find a gangly dark-skinned kid standing next to me. "Every week, Fibber's latest wacky scheme is interrupted by Gildersleeve or one of his other neighbors. I don't want to be that guy."
"This is Abed," Edison said, gesturing at the newcomer. "One of my street ops. He's got a photographic memory, so he'll be going with you to the Turkish district."
"Why send both of us?" I asked.
"Because he has trouble figuring out how to react to things if he can't relate it to something he heard on a radio show," she explained. That sounded like an insult to me, but the kid just nodded with an affectless expression on his face. "Your experience in the courtroom tells me you can think on your feet, so you'll ask the questions while Abed listens."
With that, she shooed the both of us out of her office. In the cab on the way to the Turkish district, Abed filled me in on radio shows that had featured stories about missing women, and compared me to Archie Goodwin. That was troubling on a couple of levels. "First of all, I'm a lot better looking than Archie Goodwin," I said, thinking of the guy who played him in the movies. "Second, does that make Miss Edison Nero Wolfe? Because I doubt she weighs much more than a third of what he does."
"It's not a perfect analogy," he admitted.
I put my hands behind my head and gazed up at the ceiling of the cab. "Do you remember any radio shows that might explain why this doctor wanted to meet Miss Perry in such a sketchy part of town?"
Abed cocked his head to one side in thought. "There was an I Love a Mystery serial where they traveled to Whamperjaw, Texas. Doc said you couldn't get authentic Texas chili anywhere in San Francisco."
I nodded thoughtfully. "So maybe the doctor has a taste for Turkish food and can't get it in Santa Fe. Good thinking, Abed."
Once we got to the hookah bar, I found out Edison had been right: questioning people wasn't that different from taking a deposition. It was kind of a snap, frankly; a lot of the people there were pretty lubed and plenty anxious to talk. Of course, being drunk, they weren't necessarily the most reliable witnesses--I could've demolished the credibility of each and every single one of them if I was facing them in court without even breaking a sweat--and there some inconsistencies, but before long I had established some basic facts.
Britta Perry had been there that night, but hadn't been seen since. The man she had been sitting with that evening, on the other hand, had been back every night since then for a glass of raki and a smoke. And thanks to the bartender who had taken down his information when he had asked to open a tab that first night, I knew the guy's name and where he was staying: Dr. Richard Stevenson of Santa Fe, New Mexico, currently in residence at the Hotel Nezih. Abed said he knew where the hotel was, so we left the bar and headed in that direction. A fin got us Stevenson's room number, and a couple of minutes later we were in the hallway outside his room, our ears pressed against the door, trying in vain to hear what was going on inside.
I had an idea. But it probably wouldn't work if Stevenson saw Abed, so I asked him to stand out of sight. He scurried down the hall as I knocked on the door. After several long moments of silence, I heard the deadbolt turn and the door cracked open. I tried to see into the room, but the guy inside was so standing so close to the door that all I could see was him. "Hi," he said in a mild, cheery voice. "Can I help you with something?"
"Gideons International!" I said, trying to sound as earnest as possible. "We're starting a Bible study in the lobby in five minutes. We'd love for you to join us."
"Gosh, that's really jake of you, but I'm Jewish."
He was so genial that for a moment I was a little disappointed he wouldn't be joining us. "Well, we could confine our study tonight to the Old Testament ..."
"Sorry, pal. Maybe another time," he said tightly. "I'm pretty tired."
I didn't buy it for a second. He was hiding something. I gave a moment's thought to trying to force my way in, but decided now wasn't the time. According to the bartender at the hookah bar, Stevenson would be in town all week. "Sorry to hear it, doc. Next time, then."
I was walking down the hall, wondering where Abed had secreted himself and whether we'd be able to see into the room from the fire escape, when I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned, and had only enough time to register Stevenson's fist flying toward my face before everything went dark.
When I came to, I found myself tied to a chair. I pulled on the ropes, but they didn't budge. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Stevenson was standing at the side of the bed, taking the pulse of a blonde woman, Britta Perry presumably, who was handcuffed to the frame. She didn't look very healthy, but at least she was alive. I wondered if I'd be able to say the same for much longer. Time to stall. "Hey, what's the big idea, buddy?" I said. "You don't wanna come to Bible study, that's your business. No need to cold-cock me."
Stevenson looked over at me. "You can drop the act, whoever you are," he said coldly. "I know there's no Bible study. I checked with the front desk."
Damn. Shoulda given the clerk a sawbuck. Well, I used to talk for a living. Time to see if I could talk my way out of this. "OK, you got me. I was trying to lure you out of the room so my partner could knock it over. But I don't see how that justifies knocking me out and tying me up."
"Interesting. I suppose your accomplice is going to come to your rescue any minute though. Unless," he added, "it's true what they say about honor among thieves."
"That's right!" I said with false confidence. Abed probably had gone to get help, but who knew how long it would take to find a police officer who would take a slightly addled Middle Eastern kid seriously? "And just for the record, it's not true. In a scam like this, if you can't trust your partner, you're dead." Stevenson's eyes glittered at that, and I cursed myself for putting the idea in his head.
"You know, the other interesting thing about all this is how you called me 'doc' earlier." I had? Nuts. "Tell me, how did you know I was a doctor?"
"I call everyone doc," I said. "I'm like Bugs Bunny that way. That, and I love carrots."
Stevenson crossed the room and pulled a dagger with a long curved blade out of the dresser drawer. "Well, bad news, Bugs, it's rabbit season."
"Whoa, buddy, let's not fly off the handle here," I said, eyeing the dagger warily. "Look, no harm done, right? I didn't rob you, and whatever kind of kinky game you and your girl are up to--"
"She's not my girl!" he said angrily. "She's a traitorous, backstabbing bitch!"
"OK. Either way, it's none of my business. Come on, let's go down to Shisha, I'll buy you a glass of raki."
"My favorite! I wonder how you happened to know that?"
Damn it! "Lucky guess?"
"You're the one, aren't you?" he said with a crazy gleam in his eyes. "You're the one she told!"
"Buddy, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Just what I'd expect you to say! Oh, I'm going to enjoy this." He advanced toward me brandishing the knife.
A glimmer of hope appeared as someone started pounding on the door. "Veronica? Veronica!" I didn't recognize the voice. Sounded like an old man.
"There's no Veronica here!" Stevenson yelled, still walking toward me.
"Veronica! Where are you! Where am I?" The pounding resumed.
Stevenson stopped and turned toward the door. "Beat it!"
Just then a metal garbage can came crashing through the window. Stevenson spun around, just in time to see Edison jump into the room from the fire escape and level a revolver at him. "Drop the knife, psycho!" she growled.
Stevenson took a giant step forward, jerked back my head, and brought the dagger to my throat. "You drop it, girlie, or this guy gets it!" I won't lie, I about wet myself.
Behind him, the door flew open, striking the wall with enough force to dent the plaster. Stevenson took his attention off me for just second, and that's when Edison fired, striking him in the shoulder and sending him staggering across the room. A young man I recognized as Troy Barnes and a broad-shouldered older man with white hair burst into the room and sat on Stevenson. Literally. Weird, but effective. A matronly black woman followed them in and went over to check on the condition of Miss Perry.
I turned my head toward the other side of the room. Abed was stepping gingerly through the window frame; he must've carried the garbage can up the fire escape and thrown it through the glass. Edison was scanning the room, her gun held loosely at her side, ready to be used again if Stevenson or a heretofore unseen accomplice made a move. She had changed out of the flowered dress, and was now wearing a white button-down shirt, khaki trousers, and a shoulder holster. It was the sexiest damn thing I'd ever seen.
When she was satisfied the situation was under control, she returned the gun to the holster, and walked over to me. "I don't know if I should give you a raise for finding Miss Perry," she said as she fiddled with the ropes holding me to the chair, "or fire you for being such an idiot." She picked up the dagger Stevenson had dropped and cut through the ropes.
I stood and rubbed my wrists, partly because they were sore but mostly to hide how badly my hands were shaking. "You can't give me a raise, we never discussed a salary in the first place."
She smiled at that. "We can talk about it tomorrow morning." The police chose that moment to show up, and Edison approached them to fill them in on what had happened. I sat back down, still badly shaken by everything that had happened. She made sure they took my statement first, then sent me home. Which I was only too happy to do.
The next morning, Edison filled me in on what she'd learned after I left. Stevenson had been performing illegal medical experiments on indigents, and when Miss Perry quit suddenly, he became convinced that she had somehow found out and was planning to expose him. He had tracked her down in Colorado--her parents had disowned her after she married Troy Barnes, so they had come here to live with his family temporarily--and kidnapped her to find out who she'd told about his illegal experiments. She hadn't told anyone, because she hadn't known about them, but he was too crazy and too paranoid to take her at her word, and had spent the next few days torturing her in his hotel room. But according to the matronly woman I'd seen in the hotel room the day before--a nurse who was part of Edison's network of informal operatives--Stevenson hadn't done any permanent physical damage.
"So are you still interested, Winger?" Edison asked. "I can't promise you it'll always be this exciting, but ..."
"I don't think I could take that kind of excitement everyday," I admitted.
"Good," she said firmly. "Planning rescue missions is a hassle, and I prefer my operatives alive."
"Thanks for that, by the way," I said. "For rescuing me. I thought I was a goner for sure."
She nodded. "I'll be honest, you almost were. You're lucky Abed is a fast runner. And that Stevenson hit you hard enough to knock you out for so long."
"Easy for you say," I said sullenly, gingerly touching the ugly bruise that had formed under my eye. "You're not the one with the shiner."
Edison looked at me sympathetically. "Bad things happen in this business. That was one of the first things my father taught me." She looked over her shoulder at her father's old office and sighed. "Sometimes I think I'm lucky. The worst thing I could imagine happening happened on my first day on the job. Nowhere to go but up."
She looked back at me. "Getting caught in a fraud like you did would've driven a lot of men to the bottle, but you landed on your feet. And considering how badly you were shaking last time I saw you," she added, dashing my hopes that I'd managed to hide that from her, "I wouldn't've been surprised if you never came back."
It was probably my imagination, but she looked a little disappointed at the idea of never seeing me again. "Not a chance, Edison. No one gets a free day's work out of me."
She laughed. "I think you've got what it takes for this line of work, Winger." I glowed at the praise. What the hell was wrong with me? This woman made me feel like a kid with a crush on his teacher.
She looked back at her dad's office again. "I hate the idea of moving into Daddy's old office," she said wistfully. "But I think it's a little early to give you your own office. Besides," she added brightly, "someone needs to be out here to greet the clients!"
I frowned at that. "So I'm the receptionist now? I hope you don't expect me to take dictation."
"Don't worry your pretty little head about it, Winger," she said with a smirk. "You didn't think I hired you because you can type, did you?"