Joe Surkiewicz

The Maltese Chickadee

Private eye setup: A seedy office, a dozen stubbed-out cigarettes in the brass ashtray stand, a bottle in the bottom desk drawer. The usual. 

How did I get here? Early retirement from the police? Thrown off the force for graft? Maybe an ex-military cop? 

Ha, none of the above. My path toward becoming a shamus on the wrong side of town was, to put it mildly, a little unusual.

I made enough to retire, a real bundle, after selling a crime-solving app to police forces across the country. Not that I developed it. No, I’m not that smart. But I went to high school with an IT genius who is. 

The guy’s a real computer geek. A certified neurotic with no people skills. And selling to cops is tough. Way too tough for a guy who routinely gets into shouting matches with store clerks and waitresses.

That’s where I came in. With my years as a cops-and-courts reporter, then later flakking for a medium-sized police department, I knew the lingo. It got me a fifty-fifty deal with my abrasive high school buddy with a multi-million-dollar idea.

See, I knew how to tap dance my way into the hearts of cops who have seen it all. I knew how to break through the stoic, tough-guy veneer. I knew how to pull rank as a last resort, and I had learned enough about crime solving to show how the damned app worked–yes, iPhone or Android, take your pick. 

And the app does work. Plug in the crime scene info, snap some pics, fill in as many blanks as you can, and it instantly coughs up a list of probable perps. 

That’s not all. It lists jurisdictional problems–say, theft under five grand is a misdemeanor unless you make the pinch in the next county where it’s a felony. Or it tells you it’s a civil, not a criminal matter, stop wasting your time. 

The big breakthrough was when the IT genius added voice recognition. Cops with clumsy fingers can just bark into the phone. With that problem licked, it doubled the solve rate, which really got the brass’ attention. 

Ker-ching

I sold packages to big city police forces, rode shotgun to show cops on patrol how it worked, solved a few robberies and the odd murder. I learned a few things about crime detection while getting rich.

Never heard of the crime-solving smartphone app for cops, you say? 

Damn right you haven’t. Cops don’t want civilians to know that their success rate in solving big-city crimes is due to a smartphone app developed by a dope-smoking college drop-out and a cops reporter who sold out early and went to work for The Man. It might give the wrong impression.

Once a few big city police forces signed on, the damn thing sold itself by word of mouth. It was like writing a bestseller. The royalties kept flowing in. I sat back and watched my bank account get fat.

Then boredom set in. Ennui, which is French for boredom with money. Financial security, I was learning, isn’t enough. How many sixty-inch flat screens can you own? I got restless. 

Then it hit me. With my recently honed crime-detection skills, I could serve a niche that I had unwittingly created: Solving the crimes that don’t interest cops and the app doesn’t work for–low-level outrages against humanity that don’t rise to the level of state prosecution. Outrages, I might add, that bore cops silly. 

A lot of it is typical private eye stuff: Is my wife really going to yoga three times a week and why is she always too tired for sex? 

Why is hubby coming home tanned from twice-monthly business trips to Seattle and is always too tired for sex? 

What happened to my silver dollar collection? Was it swiped by that worthless ex-boyfriend who only comes around when he’s broke? And is never too tired for sex.

Then there’s not-so-typical private eye stuff. Cyber crime. Identity theft. Blackmail resulting from phone sex. Not sex with a phone, exactly, but the hormonal rush of sending a picture of yourself in a compromised position to someone who may not ultimately have your best interests at heart. 

You know, a man.

I’m in my office. The phone hasn’t rung in a week. The afternoon sun had descended far enough that I had to either get up and pull down the shade or swing my feet over to the other side of the desk. That’s when the door opened. 

A swish. A dame. Va-va-voom.

She stepped into my office, a hand on one hip as she took it all in.

“What a dump.”

I put down my smartphone, tilted my fedora back, and swung my legs off the desk. I pulled open the bottom drawer. 

“It’s the maid’s week off,” I said, pulling out a bottle and two shot glasses. “Actually, she’s been off since 2010.”

She parked a curvaceous haunch on the corner of my desk and watched as I poured. Mid-thirties, the hem of her skirt hiked up her thighs, a tendril of straw blonde hair dangling over one eye. Not big-boned, exactly, but shoulders like a swimmer. And breasts like…

“Here’s mud in your eye,” she said. Then sipped, smiled, and sipped again. “Single malt. I was expecting something a little less smooth.”

I drenched my tonsils with the entire shot, got up and went to the window overlooking, well, not the San Francisco Bay Bridge. It was a scene about 3,000 miles to the east, the alley behind a Thai carryout on the wrong side of a beat-to-shit East Coast city. 

With my back to the gash, I looked down at a collection of dumpsters and wind-blown trash. Sometimes I could spot a rat. 

“What brings a class act like you to a place like this?” I said, surveying the squalor. “Don’t they have private dicks uptown?”

I heard the rustle of fabric as she stood. 

“I deserved that,” she said. I heard her smoothing her skirt. In my mind’s eye I saw her brushing the tendril out of her eye. “I’ve watched The Maltese Falcon too many times, I guess,” she confessed.

“Sorry, lady, but you can’t watch that movie too much,” I snapped. I opened the lap drawer and pulled out a fresh yellow legal pad and one of the better disposable ballpoints I save for paying clients. 

“In the detecting business, when your partner is killed, you’re supposed to do something about it,” I said. “It’s Existentialism 101. How can I help you?”

She parked her curvy behind on a chair and leaned forward. “It’s my boyfriend. I think he’s cheating on me.”

It took a conscious effort not to roll my eyes. “What makes you think…?”

“It’s the little things that only a woman would notice,” she said. “The phone rings and when I pick it up, no one is there…”

“You have a phone? Like, connected to a landline?”

“Uh, no, you’re right. I think I saw that in an old movie.” She stiffened, drawing a little clutch purse to her midriff with both hands. “But if you don’t believe me, how can I earn your trust? What else do I have to give?”

I picked up my empty shot glass and flung it across the room. It shattered against a small figurine of a black bird.

“You’ve done nothing but lie to me since you got here,” I snarled, pointing to the window. “Out there, a pack of assistant district attorneys are combing the city, their noses to the ground, ready to swarm all over me. How much money have you got?”

“Just under five thousand…”

“Give it to me.”

“I’ve got to have a little to live on.”

“Sorry, lady, you’ll have to hock something.”

The fat wad looked to be all fifties. She snapped the bills like a bank teller as she counted them out. 

A light went on in my head. “You work in a bank?”

She pushed the pile of cash into my hand. “Not exactly.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Either you work in a bank or you don’t.”

“It’s the family business.”

A first. I’ve never met someone who owned a bank. 

Another hunch: “Does the boyfriend work there?”

She nodded. “Until Daddy fired him. He wouldn’t tell me why.”

“Does the boyfriend have pictures?”

Her brow furrowed. “Pictures of what?”

“Look, doll, I’m low on shot glasses to throw for dramatic effect. Does he have pictures of you in states of undress? Or of you and him doing the nasty?”

She extended her lower lip and blew the tendril out of her eye. 

“Get serious. We’ve got a website. Ever since Paris Hilton went viral with her doing it doggy style…”

“Is that how the upper classes amuse themselves these days?”

She ignored my uncouth comment. “What’ll be your first move?”

“The usual.”

“You mean…?”

“It comes complete with diagrams on page 47 of How to be a Detective in Ten Easy Lessons, correspondence school textbook.”

“You’d think there’d be an app for that,” she murmured.

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