MCCALL & COMPANY: SWOLLEN IDENTITY

A NOVEL BY RICH LEDER

 

CHAPTER 1

SPLENDIFEROUS FLAME OF PERFECTION

 

There were two things about Brooke Barrington that bothered me: she was too beautiful, and she was too rich. Plus she had too much style and too much class, and she was too intelligent and too worldly and too totally together, and she was too calm and too calculating and too practiced and too poised. She had the kind of confidence that came from privilege. Hers was a life without limits—no boundaries whatsoever. Anything she wanted, the best of everything, was her birthright, hers for the asking or the demanding or the buying or the taking.

Okay, so there were more than two things.

I could have let the case go for any one of those reasons, and I should have, but I couldn’t stop staring at her. Brooke Barrington was the splendiferous flame of perfection, and I was the doomed, mesmerized moth.

Story of my life.

I told myself to look away, to look out my barred living room window onto East 83rd Street where her four-hundred-thousand-dollar, chauffer-driven Rolls Royce Phantom was double parked, or down at the books and scripts and magazines on my coffee table, or over at the framed photograph of my son, Matthew, now an assistant Manhattan District Attorney, when he was six years old, exploding out of the cold Atlantic at Long Beach Island in the early spring in the arms of my father, New York private investigator Jimmy McCall, before he was murdered. But I couldn’t look away.

Someone, Brooke said, had stolen her identity, and she wanted to know who and why, and she wanted them to stop. She wanted me to stop them.

“It’s not really about the money, not to me or to the person pretending to be me,” she said. “It’s about assaulting and stealing my soul, deconstructing my life, and rebuilding it with lies and distortions. I look in the mirror, and I don’t see myself. I’m bloodied and bruised and bloated beyond recognition.”

“Swollen identity,” I said.

“Exactly,” she said.

I sat on my sofa, taking notes and watching her move around my living room. She was thirty years old, five nine, with long and lustrous black hair, jade-green eyes, flawless skin, cheekbones for days, and soft sensual features. Years of yoga had made her limber and lean. She was graceful without effort, regal in her bearing. She could have been a European princess. She could have been a Hollywood movie star. She could have been a cover girl for any cover in the world.

It wasn’t really about the money, she said. Yeah, well, maybe not to her. Brooke’s Saturday-morning ensemble included four-thousand-dollar jeans (with solid-silver rivets and silk-lined pockets), a two-thousand-dollar, Giorgio Armani, black cashmere t-shirt, silver Manolo Blahnik flats for a grand, a fifteen-thousand-dollar diamond tennis bracelet on her right wrist and a forty-five-thousand-dollar Breitling on her left wrist. Five-thousand-dollar Moss Lipow sunglasses, classic and bold, were pushed up on the top of her forehead. It was seventy-two thousand dollars worth of weekend casual. Forget the Rolls parked outside.

“I don’t want anyone to know about this,” she said.

“That’s why they call it a private investigation,” I said.

“Mr. Shavelson told me you would understand,” she said.

Mel Shavelson, Jimmy’s chain-smoking, scotch-swigging, disheveled mess of an attorney, had handed me my father’s PI business in a cardboard box at the reading of his will five whole weeks ago. While I was burying the box in the backyard of the Upper East Side, five-story brownstone that I live in and manage, in front of which Brooke Barrington's chauffeur had doubled parked her Phantom—the House of Emotional Tics, I call it—a contactor named Barkowski had showed up (Shavelson sent him too) expecting me to take his workman’s compensation case and run with it, as if I were a private investigator and not an actor, as if I wasn’t just then burying the very idea of being a private investigator in the dirt, along with my father’s ashes, his case files, his PI license, his cellphone, his camera, and his gun.

Yes, I had my PI license. Jimmy made me get one—and keep it current—so I could help him with surveillance and paperwork and other investigative particulars when he was swamped. Over the years, I worked for him when I was between jobs, when I had no income, no prospects, and no choice. But the last thing on Earth I was ever going to be was a private investigator because I was an actor. End of story. Not happening.

Except it happened. My day job at the time Barkowski arrived was walking dogs in Central Park—crap money, literally—and I was short on cash. I took the case.

It was supposed to be a one-off—do the work, earn the fee, bury the box. And it might have been, except while I was investigating Barkowski’s case, I was also trying to find the man who murdered Jimmy, who had been digging into a ten-million-dollar life insurance scam before he was found dead in a Monument Life Insurance Company elevator, rope-tied to a chair, eyes shot out the back of his head. There’s no such thing as a one-off when you’re investigating your father’s murder.

“How much money are we talking about, Brooke?” I said. “Identity theft really is about the money, at least when it starts, and I’d like to know what I’m walking into before I walk into it.”

“Four billion dollars.”

I wrote four and nine zeros in my notepad and stared at it. There’s not much else you can do with a number like that at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning.

“My financial manager, Arthur Adelson, can confirm the accounts. You have his contact information already,” she said. “You have all my information.”

“Yes,” I said, gesturing at my notes, “I have everything I need.”

“Then I’ll write you a retainer,” she said, crossing the room and sitting beside me on the sofa, “and you can get started.” She opened her Hermes tote, took out her checkbook, and wrote me a check for three grand.

“This should be enough to get you going,” she said, handing me the money. “I would like there to be constant communication between us. We can meet for coffee or drinks or dinner, you can text me or call me. I want to know where you are in your investigation every day. We’re going to be seeing a lot of each other, Ms. McCall.”

“Kate.”

“Kate.”

“That’s fine, Brooke. I’ll keep you in the loop.”

She smiled at me and then reached out and put her hand on mine. She had an exquisite French manicure that made me jealous, it’s true, but I wasn’t thinking too much about that. I was instead thinking about the way she put her hand on mine. It was an intimate gesture, and it took me by surprise.

“Mr. Shavelson told me about your father. I’m sorry for your loss. And I’m very grateful to you for taking my case. It means a lot to me.”

And then she leaned in and kissed me on the lips.

It wasn’t a peck that mistakenly found my mouth, and it wasn’t a sisters-in-this-together-through-thick-and-thin kind of kiss either. It was a lover’s kiss, soft and tender. It was a romantic kiss, warm and sweet. It was a beautiful kiss, lips gently parted, eyes closed, her right hand holding my hand, her left hand reaching up and lightly touching my cheek. And I have to admit it was a sexual kiss too—with considerable heat.

I hadn’t kissed a girl since Victoria Marks and I had practiced kissing each other in fifth grade because no boys would kiss us, so Brooke Barrington kissing me on the lips paralyzed me, meaning I didn’t pull away or push away or scream out or stop the kiss. In fact, in the exact micro-moment she kissed me, every nerve ending in my body sent urgent and panic-stricken messages to every brain cell in my skull. The messages said: What the hell are you doing? What the hell are you thinking? What the hell is happening?

What was happening was that I was kissing her back, which was every bit as big a surprise as her kissing me. Even during the kiss, I wasn’t sure which part of that equation blew my mind more.

And then it was over.

“I don’t kiss women,” I said, holding onto my case notes, trying to sound like I still had some control of the situation. “I kiss men.”

“I kiss both,” she said, and she stood up, moved gracefully to the door and unlocked it. She put her Moss Lipows in place, turned to me before she left and smiled, a trace of sadness at the corners of her mouth. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life. “I need you, Kate. You’re my private eye. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

I sat on the sofa, unable to process a single thought but this: Brooke Barrington was perfect, and in New York City—maybe more than anywhere else—perfect is trouble.

 

READ CHAPTER 2  //  READ CHAPTER 3