When we decided to open our own fire investigation company, Charlie and I thought we could just as easily run it out of the third bedroom in our very large Brooklyn apartment, and save money on transportation and rent. After all, it was roomy enough for all our needs, and even had its own bathroom.
But when, on our second day in business, I found the president of Charles G. King Associates sitting happily in his bathrobe on a swivel chair, smoking his pipe, with his slipper-clad feet propped on top of his desk, I turned abruptly, got on the phone, and started to search for a rental in Manhattan.
A “home office” for my good-natured, easy-going husband simply would not do.
After a few weeks of poking our noses into this property or that, we finally came upon an art deco building at 401 Broadway, half a block from Canal Street and just a blink away from Chinatown.
It had a small ante office which contained my desk and two comfortable reception room chairs. There was a larger office beyond that, with a huge window and enough space for Charlie’s desk, his Papa Bear chair behind the desk, and a couple of smaller chairs in front for me and the occasional client.
We installed a rug the exact color of coffee, so that we could spill on it with impunity, and hung paintings on the walls of scenes from moody noir movies. There were enough file cabinets and bookshelves to provide surfaces for a fax machine, a photocopier, a typewriter, and a printer. Charlie put most of his tomes about ignition temperatures, evidence gathering, and building codes on the wide window shelf behind his desk, and sitting prominently atop the desk was a red telephone. It had to be red, because I’d insisted on it. Red equals fire.
Corny, I get it. But I’m nothing if not obvious.
The best thing about our office, though, was the door. It was exactly like the one that a sinuous blonde would slink through in a Mickey Spillaine movie. It had a dark wood frame and a brass doorknob. Charlie and I were standing not six-feet away from it when a troll-like man with hair growing out of his ears painted our company name and logo in black-trimmed gold letters on the frosted-glass panel.
CHARLES G. KING ASSOCIATES.
FIRE AND ARSON INVESTIGATIONS
It was such a thrill.
After two years of saving, nickel by nickel and dime by dime, we were real P.I.s. We had accumulated all of the trappings, including Private Detective licenses for New York and New Jersey.
Charlie had retained his old Smith & Wesson .38 revolver from the years that he “rode the range” as a Supervising Fire Marshal, and he bought me a Lady Smith & Wesson – a slightly smaller and prettier version of his .38 – which I proudly carried (ahem) in the drawer of my night table back home.
We both had carry permits, but as time went by (I found this was true of many wives of many law enforcement officers), I landed up carrying Charlie’s gun in my purse, since he could never find a holster comfortable enough to wear.
The best things about working at 401 Broadway (other than the door) was our neighbors on the 7th floor. All these years later, I am still friends with Tom Huang and his family. Tom was the attorney in the office at the end of the hall. Most of his clients were Chinese, and when he could no longer stand their screaming at him in Mandarin, he would sneak into our office and hide. There was a delicatessen off the lobby in our building, so I’d rush down, get three cups of coffee, and then take the elevator back up for a caffeine-fueled gossip around my desk.
Charlie would tell war stories.
Tom would tell war stories.
And I would listen, agog, as if in the Robert Burn’s poem about, “A chield's amang you takin notes, And, faith, he'll prent it...”
I wasn’t a child, and I wasn’t a “he,” but I was listening and taking notes ... and I’m still printing them.
We got to know most of the tenants on our floor, usually meeting in the hall while waiting for an elevator or during one of the building’s innumerable fire drills. Other than ourselves, the 7th floor was home to a several lawyers (two family law, one immigration law, and one social security law), an importer, and someone we never saw entering or leaving, with no name on the door to tell us who was paying the rent.
One lawyer in the building, Robert Knightly, had gotten his law degree studying nights as a patrolman in the New York City Police Department. When I met him, he was a trial attorney for the Legal Aid Society. He was also writing crime fiction. I hadn’t known that Bob and I were both authors until I met him at a Mystery Writers of America dinner. Nor did I realized that he and Charlie had already become friends during their occasional chats riding up or down on the elevator.
Another lawyer on our floor, Octavius Smith, changed my life forever. He was a small framed, trim man, always friendly, perfectly dressed, and dignified. Once, after I received a jury duty summons, I was complaining to him in the hallway about the time it would take away from my office, and all of the “more important” things I had to do.
This gentle, wise man just turned his eyes upon mine, and asked, “If you were on trial for a crime that you hadn’t committed, who would you want judging you? Someone like yourself, or someone else?”
Since then, I have never tried to get out of jury duty, and I have come to realize what it means to be judged by a “jury of one’s peers.”
For two people launching a new business and not really knowing what they were doing, everything about 401 Broadway was ideal … from the beautiful marble floors in the lobby, to the rattling of the ancient plumbing in the restrooms, to our office windows, which probably hadn’t been washed in 40 years. When Charlie and I had time, we lunched in the deli on the ground floor. Always with a pickle. And when we were rushed, I’d dash off to one of the takeout restaurants in Chinatown.
During our first month in business and after we had signed a rather expensive two-year lease, Charlie turned to me and asked, “If we don’t get any clients right away, can we afford to live on my pension?”
All smiles and bristling with confidence, I said, “Absolutely. We can.”
I was lying, of course. We never could have lived on Charlie’s pension, and we never could have paid our rent. But ... nothing ventured, nothing gained.
And after I got Charlie out of his bathrobe and onto the 7th floor at 401 Broadway, it was the perfect place to be.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com