I was sitting in my small office in downtown Brooklyn on Court Street when the buzzer buzzed. It didn’t annoy me, as the solitary fly had been for the past hour, buzzing by my ears, nose, and eyes. It was the first time since I had set up shop as a P.I. that it had buzzed. I hit the Esc key on my keyboard and the game of Klondike Solitaire I was playing disappeared from the screen and on it was the image of a middle-aged Black couple standing in front of my door. So much for the typical P.I. novel. No sole sexy lady of mystery and intrigue in distress at my office door. I stood, put my pin-striped blue jacket on, part of the suit, Perry Ellis America, walked to the door and let them in.
“Good afternoon,” I said. “Alexander Jones, P.I.” It was the first time I had said this out loud to a potential client. It sounded good. It was good being your own boss.
The woman extended her hand. “Erma Black,” she said, looking up at me, directly in my eyes. A no-nonsense woman, I presumed. Looking back at her, I thought how people are sometimes their names. She was very dark, with chiseled features, like an African statute. Her hair was short and tightly curly, and she seemed to wear it proudly. She had on a blue business skirt suit, slightly worn, but well-maintained. We shook hands quickly. Hers were soft and warm. She turned to the man at her side. “And my husband, Cornelius.” He extended his hand after a brief pause. He had a very hard calloused hand and a firm handshake. He wasn’t as tall as I, but had a laborer’s physique. As if making this statement, he had on jeans, pressed, and a soft white collared shirt smartly starched, rolled up on forearms that gave Popeye a run for his spinach.
“Come,” I said, my arm extended, guiding them to the two royal purple chairs in front of my desk, courtesy of Miko, my current lady love and self-styled interior decorator, who watched too many of those design shows on TLC. After they were seated I sat down behind my secondhand mahogany desk. “How may I help you?”
“My granddaughter, Capri, was placed in foster care. She ran away from the foster home, a month later was arrested for…soliciting. She was returned, placed in another foster home and ran away again. It’s been a month.” Erma Black spoke quickly, needing to get this story out of her, as if that would expedite finding her granddaughter.
I looked from Mrs. Black to the Mister. He was on the edge of the seat, facing and leaning toward her, hanging on her every word.
“I see,” I said, like a psychologist.
Cornelius turned to me, was looking directly at me, perhaps for answers, but then I realized that he was poised to read my lips. He was deaf, partially deaf, or hard of hearing.
As if reading my mind, or my body language, Mrs. Black said, “Cornelius is hard of hearing. All those years working construction.”
“What foster care agency was Capri placed with?” I asked.
“Children Are Our Future,” Mrs. Black said.
Children Are Our Future is one of the biggest foster care agencies in New York City, had one of its many offices in downtown Brooklyn on Fulton Street, not too far from where I had set up shop. A couple of months ago, in the New York Nonprofit Press, it was featured as “Agency of the Month.” One of my first cousins, my late mother’s sister’s daughter, Khandi Johnson, worked for the Administration for Children’s Services. We got together for lunch or dinner once a month, and she often talked about her work. She has been working for ACS for about fifteen years, had started as a Child Protective Specialist, one of the hardest jobs in ACS, one of the hardest in the world, if you asked Khandi. CPS’ went to the homes and were responsible for “taking” children away from their parents.
“I hated doing that!” Khandi once told me over lunch. “Mostly Black kids are taken away from their birth parents. Don’t get me wrong, when you look at the best interests of the children, many had to be taken away, even if just to give parents a ‘time out.’”
Khandi had told me about Children Are Our Future, had said that it was not only one of the biggest foster care agencies in the City, but also one of the best, so I had Googled it and come across the NYNPP article. I was always interested in how people and entities got something right. There were some very bad foster care agencies, which I knew of not only from Khandi’s stories, but from far too many cases that had made the news, and also from my years in the NYPD, the last couple with SVU in Brooklyn. There was never a shortage of runaway cases where teenage girls ended up “dancing” in strip clubs and selling sex on the streets, and inevitably becoming victims of every sex crime imaginable.
“Why was Capri taken into care?” I asked.
“Excessive corporal punishment,” Mrs. Black said softly.
I detected guilt in her voice. “And the case was brought against?”
“Her father and her father’s girlfriend.”
“What are their names?”
“My son – Carlton. Carlton Black. And his girlfriend – Shaquanda Smith.”
“And the girls’ mother? What’s her name?”
“Pat – Patricia Alston.”
“Where is she?”
“In jail in California.”
“She left the girls years ago, when they was babies.”
“Capri has a sister, Caymani.”
“And she was taken into care, too?”
“Yes. After her sister ran away from the first foster home they were in, she was placed with my daughter, in kinship foster care.”
“I see. How old is Caymani?”
“Twelve. Two years younger than her sister.” Mrs. Black opened her black Coach bag – looked like the real McCoy to me, but then again, I wouldn’t be able to identify a knockoff in a lineup, meaning that some were almost as good as the original, which was evidenced by the hordes of shoppers on Canal Street buying knockoffs – fished around in it, brought out a black clutch – Coach again, I presumed – opened it, found a small picture and handed it to me.
The girls were unmistakably sisters, though Capri was shades darker than Caymani, as dark as her grandmother. Cute girls. They still looked like girls, their hair in braids, but they were both on the brink, not quite women, but no longer girls, getting ready to morph into very young women, probably before their time, as far too many of these girls seem to be doing, or should I say becoming. “How old are they in this picture?”
“It was taken about a year ago.”
I looked at the picture again. That’d make them 11 and 13. They were both smiling, though Capri’s looked forced, like, give me a reason to smile. I detected a mischievous look in her eyes.
“Who took this picture?”
“Do you have a more recent one?”
“So both the father and the girlfriend used excessive corporal punishment against the girls.”
“Well, Capri told the school’s guidance counselor that…”
“The school called this in to ACS.”
“She had bruises.”
“Well, yes. Old bruises.”
“Well, Capri got into some trouble in school and she probably thought once her father and her girlfriend was notified, that they would…”
“…beat her,” I finished.
“So she informed the guidance counselor.”
“Capri’s always been a handful.”
What teenage girl isn’t, I thought. How critical these years, the make or break years. One false step could alter one’s life, forever. The fly buzzed by my nose, bringing me back to the Blacks.
Mrs. Black was sliding a white business envelope across the mahogany desk toward me. “A retainer,” she said uncertainly, “to work with us to find my granddaughter?”
“Of course,” I said, grabbing the envelope and placing it inside the top right corner desk drawer. On a virgin sheet of lined white paper I wrote Erma Black. “A number where I can reach you,” I said.
She reached into her bag again, withdrew a business card, handed it to me. “You can reach me at the number listed, anytime.”
I quickly studied the card. “How did you find me?” I asked Mrs. Black. I had a website and was listed in the Yellow Pages.
“My uncle has a friend, a poker buddy, who has a son who works for the po-lice. He asked around and your name came up.”
When I was a police officer I worked out of the Ninetieth Precinct.
I stood up and the Blacks joined me. I walked them the short distance to the door, handed both of them my business card.
“I’ll be in contact shortly,” I said, shaking their hands as they exited.
After the Blacks left I took off my jacket and sat back down, began to write a to do list. I start out with a list, and then circle and box items on the list, draw arrows to and from the circles and boxes, place question marks above the circles and boxes. During this process it turns into what resembles a flow chart. When I’m further into the process, it begins to resemble hieroglyphics. If I don’t revisit my notes shortly after I have written them, even I can’t understand them. Probably an Egyptologist wouldn’t understand them either.
I hit the Esc key on the computer, clicked on the Internet icon, looked up a few things.
The fly buzzed by my nose again, disrupting my flow. “Catch fly,” I added to my list, circled the two words. For the next couple of minutes I sat still, breathing slowly, as Miko had instructed me. It was amazing how controlling the breath is essential to so much, even well-being. It was also amazing how slowing one’s breathing seemingly slowed everything happening around one.
I saw the fly, its flight path at the level of my eyes. If this was a movie, it would all happen in slow motion. I raised my left hand like an air traffic controller signaling a plane, put it across the fly’s flight path, swiped my hand across my eyes and closed it. The buzzing went silent, but I knew it was in my hand. I crossed out “catch fly” on my list. I grabbed my jacket and headed for the door, opened it and exited. I opened my hand and released the fly. “Strike one,” I said to it as it buzzed off.