Death's Little Helpers
“As a husband, he was a lying, selfish prick,” Nina Sachs said, and lit yet another cigarette. Her silver lighter caught the late-April sun as it came through the big windows. She flicked a strand of auburn hair away from her face and blew a plume of smoke at the high ceiling. “And as a father, he’s no better. But he’s our meal ticket, Billy’s and mine, and if something’s happened to him- if the cash is going to stop- I want to know about it sooner, not later.”
Nina Sachs was a few inches over five feet tall, and wiry. Her short straight hair was pulled into a blunt ponytail, away from a pale elfin face that was full of motion. Grins and frowns and ironic twists flickered by, and I saw a lot of her teeth, which were uneven but not unattractive. Her hands were quick and so were her hazel eyes. Nina Sachs was close to forty, but despite the chain-smoking she looked ten years younger.
“What makes you think something’s happened to him?” I asked.
She crossed her legs and uncrossed them and regarded her small bare feet and her toenails, which were painted apple green. She crossed her legs once more and finally tucked them beneath her. She fiddled with one of her silver earrings and picked with a thumbnail at a fleck of paint on her black yoga pants. She took another hit off the Benson amp; Hedges.
“I’ve got a picture of him somewhere,” she said, and uncurled herself from the green leather sofa. She crossed the loft with quick steps, opened the center drawer of an ebony desk, and began rummaging.
I didn’t need a photograph to recognize her ex-husband. Though he hadn’t been on television much lately, anyone who watched the cable business channels over the past few years had seen plenty of Gregory Danes. Still, I let her go on searching. I was happy for the distance. Between the smoking and the fidgeting, she was making me edgy.
“What makes you think something’s happened?” I asked again. She pulled the desk drawer out and dumped its contents on the desktop. She sifted through the pile, her back to me as she spoke.
“Five weeks ago- right before he was supposed to pick up Billy for the weekend- he called to say he couldn’t make it. He was all pissy about something and said he was taking time off- going away someplaceand had to postpone.” A box of paper clips slid off the heap and scattered on the floor. Nina cursed and kept searching.
“He’s canceled last-minute plenty of times, so I wasn’t shocked. I said Fine, whatever, and we rescheduled for three weeks later. So three weeks comes, and we’re here waiting for him to get Billy, and he’s a no-show. No call, no message- no word at all. I tried his place, but there was no answer. I left messages on his machine and got nothing back.” She turned to look at me and took another long drag on her cigarette. “That was nearly two weeks ago. Since then, I’ve tried his cell phone, his office, left more messages… and heard nothing.” She ran her fingers across the base of her throat. “Maybe he just doesn’t want to come back, or maybe… I don’t know what. That’s why I’m talking to you.”
“What did they say at his office?” I asked.
Nina snorted. “At Pace-Loyette? They didn’t say shit. All they gave me was a runaround and a weird vibe.” Some envelopes and matchbooks joined the paper clips on the floor. She stared at them.
Nina turned back to the desk and started picking through the heap again. “My lawyer told me you were a cop before this PI thing,” she said.
“I was a sheriff’s deputy- an investigator- upstate. What kind of weird vibe did you get from Pace- Loyette?”
Nina Sachs laughed. “Deputy John March, huh? Get out of Dodge by sundown and all that?”
“Just like that. Weird how, Nina?”
“It was… I don’t know… weird. I called his direct numberfiguring I’d get his voice mail or his secretary- and instead I get bounced to some woman named Mayhew, in Corporate Communications, she says, who tells me Mr. Danes is away and I can leave a message with her. When she found out who I was, she got all freaked and transferred me to some legal guy. He started asking questions and finally it dawned on me: They don’t know where Greg is either.” Her cigarette was down nearly to the filter. She squinted at it and stubbed it out in a small metal bowl on the desk.
“He didn’t say anything to you about where he was going?”
Nina shook her head and fished her cigarettes and lighter from a pants pocket. “He doesn’t tell me shit like that.”
“He ever do anything like this before- just take off?”
Nina shrugged. “I guess so.”
I waited for more but it didn’t come. “Care to elaborate?”
“There were a couple of times. Once, right after we were separated, he split for maybe ten days. And after the divorce was final he did it again, for two weeks. And I guess there was a third time a few years back- not long after the SEC people first called him in- he took off for a week or so.”
“And each of those times he just up and left- with no notice and no word to anyone?”
“He didn’t say jackshit to me, I know that, and he didn’t call either. He just went away for a while, and then he came back.”
“So what’s different about this?”
She shrugged once more. “Maybe nothing, but… he’s never been away this long before. And before, he called to cancel with the kid- he’s never just been a no-show.” Nina turned to the desk again and started pushing the mess around. “How’d you get from upstate to down here?” she asked.
I sighed. I’d been through all this two days ago, when her lawyer, Maggie Lind, had phoned me to set up this meet. But what the hell.
“I’m from down here. I came back when I was done with being a cop.”
“How come you’re not a cop anymore?” she asked. “You get into trouble?”
“I knew it was around here,” she said. She padded across the floor, trailing smoke, and handed me a photograph. She perched again at the end of the sofa.
It was a Polaroid, ridged and faded, and it showed Nina and Danes side by side at a glass-topped table, under a big striped umbrella. There were palm trees and leafy plantings and part of a swimming pool in the background. Danes was dressed in canvas pants and a guayabera, and Nina wore a gauzy caftan over a wet tank suit. Her hair was longer and her face was fuller and less interesting- more conventionally and forgettably pretty.
Danes looked much as he did on television, the same wayward straw-colored hair, the same regular, somehow unfinished features, the same shadowed eyes and thin lips and vaguely mocking smile: the same overall impression of precocity and arrogance. His hand was on Nina’s shoulder and she didn’t seem to mind, and I figured the photo was at least ten years old- taken before the divorce, before Danes had become the head of equity research at Pace-Loyette and ubiquitous on the business channels, before his long slide down. I looked at Nina.
“How about his friends or family?” I asked. “Have you been in touch with them?”
“I wouldn’t know who to try,” she said. “He didn’t have a lot of friends back when we were married, and I bet he has less now. And I sure as hell don’t know any of them.
“And as far as family goes, Billy and me are pretty much it. Greg’s old man died when he was five. His mother remarried, but she and the stepfather died just after Greg got out of B-school. He’s got a creepy half brother somewhere in Jersey, but I don’t know when Greg last spoke to him.” She smiled and blew out some smoke. “Pathetic, isn’t it?”
“You said he sounded pissy the last time you spoke. Any idea what about?”