Investigator and Writer

John Powers is a writer and investigator in New York.His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Salon and Wired, as well as a number of literary journals, including Brink, Rust & Moth and Cimarron Review.He is a licensed private investigator and president of Hudson Intelligence. His firm specializes in the investigation of financial crimes and complex frauds.He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife and sons.

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Select PublicationsThe Permanent Collection
Full Bleed
Dumb as a Painter
I Was Jeff Koons’s Studio Serf
The New York Times Magazine
Two Boys, Hunting for Bones
On the Run
Kissing Disease
Rust & Moth
Selections from the Sackler Galleries
Cimarron Review
Lost Again in the Ghosted Wilds
The Errand
The Comstock Review
Proof of Service
Made of Rain
The Cortland Review
ERB Prep with Po Chu-i
The Adirondack Review
The Department of Puberty is Not Closed for Quarantine
Fatherly / Yahoo!
Failure and the Five O’Clock Shadow
Dark Deals in the Global Art Market
The Business Times
The True Cost of Online Crime
Confessions of a Private Investigator
AOL Finance
Fakes, Forgeries and Dirty Deals
Fraud Magazine
Trump's Taxes Have Probably Already Been Hacked

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“Tutoring for admissions is a disservice to a young child because the distorted scores may contribute to an inappropriate placement in a school where he or she will be under undue pressure to perform.”
Educational Records Bureau

She disregards the triangulation
of bishops.  No patience, either,
for the stubborn passage of pawns.
Her life, and the few true lessons
which compose it, come quickly to light.
Losing, she locks her door to cry.
“Mummy dreams of Dalton."
And Daddy? "Horace Mann.”
This is how fear is taught.
The giving, and the taking away.
After dinner, we practice
motor skills and mazes.
She stares out the penthouse window
as her pencil rattles to the floor.
Abandoned in the labyrinth,
holding the wrong end of a frayed rope―
Futile tutor! Here I am, splashing
in the same river, again.
She seems to find comfort in the rain,
the puddles slowly gathering
on the sill. Perhaps every drop
will find the drain in good time.

Published in The Adirondack Review, Summer 2006Return to List of Selected Works


In purple slacks of an ex-seminarian
Felipe turns and without wincing
walks toward the ‘83 Olds, a rusted
cube of rheumatoid combustion
in the shade of southern cypress.
Pond frogs croak like killbots.
He sets out again. Uncertain, again.
Dusk, eastern blue, a thumbprint of moon.
His eyes gleam dark as a reflection
in the chamois-shined lacquer of a hearse.
He drives with his left hand. His other lies
blunt and idle, like a hammer in a drawer.
Damp bandages peel back from scarred
knuckles, recalling the reddened slough of a
milksnake his cousin once caught with a stick.
Mindful of speed limits, monitoring the rearview.
A thousand miles from Lee County to Little Rock.
He watches the world going out, flickering black,
before it sputters blue and blooms again.
Pale dawn crawls like late-nite television
across the walls of an empty motel room,
luminous and strange as an alien visitation.

Published in The Comstock Review, Winter 2020Return to List of Selected Works


I drive my wife's Subaru
through the cloudburst, windows down,
music low. Between flashflood advisories,
teenpop starlets rule the radio.
From behind, a towtruck climbs the bridge, red bulbs
flashing like lamps on a hill that wink at disaster...
I pull to the side, let him pass,
and wonder what troubles await
on the far side of the swollen river—
family of four, freshly dead;
or a spark plug that failed to fire?
It happened six,
six or seven years ago.
On a night like this.
The roads washed out.
Slick cliff, sundered tires,
the gape of a black lake below.
Within the wreckage she waited,
the car sinking, and soon submerged.
For several more minutes she remained
sweetly winsome, age nineteen. How fickle
her savior must have seemed. How slow.
across the windshield,
a reflection of hands.
The glass distends in rainblown shoals.
I follow the lights
as far as the causeway,
before turning, once more,
for home.
If teenaged, tonight, and still
confined to Ridgefield, Conn.,
perhaps we could better conceive
the drowsy ache of asphyxiation.
But the wrecker's long gone.
The children are in bed,
quiet as a drowning.

Published in The Cortland Review, February 2008Return to List of Selected Works


I am a private investigator. Which means if we met at a party you'd immediately ask: So do you, like, follow people around? Are you an ex-cop? Where'd you park the Ferrari?Then you'd confess: Wow, I've never met a real P.I. Which partly explains your misconceptions, though in my experience the most popular delusions about this business can be blamed on Sam Spade, Tom Selleck and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.For starters, yes, we follow people. It's called surveillance. And – sorry – it's typically less sordid and less adventurous than it sounds. The subject of my first solo surveillance was a woman in New York City who allegedly suffered from agoraphobia and panic disorder. She claimed that her boss was a jerk and her stressful job aggravated her condition, so she stopped showing up for work. Then she sued her employer. The company thought she was faking and retained my firm to capture her on film. I spent a long weekend parked outside her high-rise in Hell's Kitchen. A very long weekend. Hundreds of people came and went, but she never once left the building. By the third day, I became so desperately bored that I followed the wrong woman for several blocks as she walked to the bagel store, convinced the subject had dyed her hair and donned a disguise. Needless to say, this little excursion wasn't mentioned in my final report to the client.These days, as director of a national investigative firm, I have the benefit of not being the guy parked at the end of your driveway with a video camera. We have field investigators in 45 states who specialize in that stuff, including worker's comp, insurance, and child custody cases. Sometimes they catch a more exciting case. Earlier this month, one drug-addled subject in the Bible Belt managed to get arrested three times during the course of a seven-day domestic surveillance. His soon-to-be-ex-wife wanted to prove that he had a girlfriend and was acting erratically. Mission accomplished! Our investigator chased him around town at 90 mph – between police stops for drug possession and violating a restraining order. The investigation ended soon after the guy's girlfriend skipped town in the married couple's Cadillac.Most people assume all private investigators are retired police. I entered the field in my early 20s with an Ivy League liberal arts education, beginning as an entry-level trainee at an agency with offices on Union Square, a firm so discreet that there was no company name on the office door and we only accepted new clients by referral. After several years as a rookie, I became comfortable digging for dirt in databases, making funny phone calls, spying on strangers, diving into dumpsters, and asking all kinds of awkward questions.Over the course of my career, I've had the pleasure of working with many well-qualified professionals from law enforcement, conducting cases with former homicide detectives and retired FBI special agents. Yet two of the best investigators I've ever met were a couple of ex-actors in Manhattan. They were masters of pretext, which is industry-speak for telling lies in order to determine the truth. If they called you on the telephone, you'd believe whatever they told you – and you'd tell them whatever they wanted. This isn't to say Shakespeare is necessarily more important than the skills they teach you at Quantico, but being a capable investigator in the private sector frequently requires creative thinking and the ability to improvise. Which, of course, you already know from watching "Burn Notice."Chief among the career tips I picked up from "Magnum P.I.," as an impressionable middle-schooler in the mid-1980s, was the lesson that sports cars are the best part of being a private investigator. Quite recently, as it happens, I was admiring the Ferrari 360 Spider, Ferrari 430 F1 Spider and Lamborghini Murcielago roadster owned by the target of a multimillion-dollar fraud investigation. All convertibles, naturally. And all seized by his creditors.Fraud investigations – and post-litigation searches for recoverable assets – are among the most complex, and most satisfying, areas of private investigation. It's a focus of professional specialization that also happens to be recession-proof. The past few years have been a boom time for securities fraud, bank fraud, mortgage fraud, oil-and-gas industry fraud and healthcare fraud. Basically anywhere there's still money to be made in this mess of an economy, you're going to find chiselers, cheats, swindlers and sharks.Within the past year, for example, I've supervised and conducted investigations of major fraud in a $110 million military procurement contract and a $200 million hedge fund, and identified upward of $30 million in undisclosed assets for post-judgment relief. Such cases typically require several simultaneous avenues of investigation – surveillance, confidential sources, forensic document examination, and many long hours of due diligence, connecting disparate dots through thousands of pages of public records, financial histories and witness transcripts. We also conduct extensive background investigations for investors, corporations and small business owners to minimize their risks when dealing with potential new partners -- providing peace of mind before any contracts are signed.None of this means you'll catch me behind the wheel of a flashy red Italian roadster. Personally, I drive a Civic. It's ubiquitous and anonymous. If I happen to appear in your rearview mirror, you won't think twice. You won't even blink. Until I appear to testify at your trial.

Return to List of Selected Works


At a well in the woods
with its cracked aperture
of schist, your hand, made of straw,
reaches mine. Your touch is alive
with weevils, with millipedes,
writhing with impossible warmth.
This is where you leave me. Later, I crawl
alone into the softest bed of willow buds
and when I turn over
it is a mattress on the floor,
Portland, Oregon. I’ve dropped
out of school again. Two pillows,
slabs of industrial foam reclaimed
from the curb on trash day, cradle
the face of somebody else’s mother.
Friends arrive with bottles of beer
and careful questions. They kindly
avoid comment on the over-age
companion holed up in the bathroom,
or the half-written letter on the desk,
apologia to an outraged girl in California.
The dark constellation of moles across
my chest phosphoresces like a dim string
of precancerous party lights. I cover myself
with the nearest t-shirt and a few blue excuses.
After a winter of necrotic slumber, vacant
as a new moon, I have begun dreaming at night,
lost again in the ghosted wilds. I have found myself,
as you were fond of saying. A full grown scarecrow
fleeing a forest fire, unlit cigarette falling from my lips.
When I was a child you pledged the dead
would rise uncorrupted, yet it is the dumbstruck
survivors who discover themselves so easily defiled.
Where are you now, pure heart, that you could not
be the one to waken me, to bring me home?

Published in SLAB, Issue 16, February 2022Return to List of Selected Works


“…agreed to allow any institution or organization in the United States to remove the Sackler name.”
In re: Purdue Pharma L.P., et al., March 2022

Recite those rote strophes of trauma, unseen injuries recounted
with a wince until some doc-in-a-box signs off, strain of soft tissue
        script zipped
        to a corporate chain
across town. Paying cash, you fumble a ring of keys for the loyalty
fob, presenting its scarred barcode marked rewards so the clerk can
        scan you
        into the system.
She wears a bright deflated vest like that flight attendant
pantomiming in the aisle, flying home from the funeral.
        She came
        for your tissues
trash bag extended between her hands in a gesture of pleading.
Place mask firmly over face. Two every twelve hours. Refusing
        to be controlled
        by pictograms,
you dry-swallow four pills in the parking lot, but the last
gets stuck in your throat like a dirty fingernail. Orbiting
        right back
        into Rite Aid
for bottled water, you begin itemizing the secure inventory
locked behind the counter, failing to act casual. Cold medicine,
        Plan B,
        nicotine gum and naloxone,
labels you recognize in the fluorescent light of addiction,
precious knowledge acquired by pain, the sort of stuff
        people like us
        are supposed to steal.
The opioid kick is an act of erasure. Your own good name,
letter by letter, slowly chiseled free from a clean white wall.

Published in The Cimarron ReviewReturn to List of Selected Works

DUMB AS A PAINTERPublished in Brink, Fall 2023

He picked up a record from the stack on the floor and slid it from its paper sleeve. The albums were on loan from the library. This was his favorite and forty-three days overdue, unlikely to return to the public collection.He watched her walk to her suitcase and choose something to wear.“How you feeling?” he asked.“Hmm. Much better.”“Late night,” he said.“Early morning.”He had found the portable turntable at a thrift store across town. When he carried it to the cash register and asked combien? the saleswoman shook her head and laughed, thinking he had come to sell it. He blinked, said all right, and walked it home. It didn’t sound the greatest but it worked. You could hear a piano playing now, alone and defiant, crackling with static like a long-distance transmission.She squinted in the light, adjusted her towel as she neared the open window.“Heard of curtains?” she teased.He shrugged. “Window treatments were pretty low on the list.”She had barely recognized him at the airport. He had warned her, in his letters, about the beard. She hated it instantly. She could not understand why he had hidden his face. In the back of the shuttle bus, she tried to be honest without sounding superficial. After they arrived at his apartment, and opened a second bottle of wine, she suggested they do something about it. He seemed to realize this was important to her, that it might stand in the way of other things he wanted. They walked to a convenience store, strangely empty for that time of night. He bought a razor, cream, and a small pair of scissors. The clerk gave her a grin. He wore a white skullcap and spoke quickly, too fast for her to comprehend. A moment of laughter, an exchange of money.“What did he say?”“He said I was a lucky man.”She washed his face with warm water. His shirt got soaked so he took it off. He sat down on the lid of the toilet. The scissors had blunted tips, the kind used by schoolchildren. She ran her fingers through his black curls, snugging the blade’s edge against his skin.“Do you feel that?”He looked up into her eyes as she began cutting.“Tell me if it hurts.”She told him of her father, standing before the bathroom mirror every morning in his boxers, electric shaver humming in his hand. She and her little sister liked to hide behind the clothes hamper. When he was finished, their father would rub his face against theirs, proving the smoothness, then chase them downstairs to breakfast, his coffee and keys.She dragged the blade through the foam. She began with the tender skin of his throat. Soon his chin emerged like the bow of a ship. Every few seconds she leaned to the sink and rinsed in running water. When he laughed, dimples pitted his cheeks like dents in a door.“We need more wine!”“Stop moving.”“This is taking forever.”“Hold still.”She was pleased with her work. She had taken a full-bearded stranger and turned him back into the boy she had known in school. Together in the shower afterward, half drunk, he told her it was her turn. “Trust me,” he said. By then the blade had dulled and he nicked her almost immediately. Apologetic, he tried to staunch the trickle of blood, kneeling at her feet, pressing his tongue against the small persistent injury.

His place was a room on the second floor facing the street. He had his own bathroom and a kitchenette in the corner. Two metal cabinets hung above the gas range, discolored with burn marks from a grease fire, brown and orange, a gift from the former tenant. He didn’t know how to cook and couldn’t afford a surplus of groceries, so the pantry shelves were mostly stocked with linseed and solvents.She laid her hand against his side. “You’ve lost a lot of weight.”“Part of the cycle,” he replied. “Feast or famine.”“You look good,” she said.He laughed. “Only if you’re into skinny.”“You always look good. You’re lucky.”He’d cleaned up for her visit, but other than his paints, brushes, and stretcher bars there wasn’t much to put away. He had taken down his last unfinished canvas and taped a map to the wall in its place. He had been studying the map all summer like a survival guide, learning neighborhoods, rivers, bridges, the local syntax of its streets.“One of these days I’ll get big again,” he told her. “Big as a blimp. Next month, maybe. Soon as the work starts moving.”“Blimp, huh? That’s what success looks like?”“Not hefty, not husky, not broad in the beam,” he said. “Morbidly obese.”“Somehow I can’t imagine it.”“Fat and religious,” he insisted.She laughed. “Better all the time.”“You’re gonna need a crane. And a stack of bibles. Just to get me out of bed.”She reached inside her suitcase for a pack of American Spirits. She shook one loose, pinching it between her lips. She got her phone and texted her roommate. She had forgotten to do that when she landed. Seeing her passport, she tucked it out of sight. She resented its inventory of personal details, her young age, her hometown, her inexperience in crossing borders.“You know, last night,” she said.“Yeah?” He waited for her to finish.“It’s sort of funny. Don’t you think? How easily we fall back into it.”He watched her eyes skate across the floor. “That’s a good thing, right?”She had been working up to something, but changed her mind, wanting to wait for a better time. She smiled at him instead. She lifted a yellow dress over her head and slipped inside, letting the towel drop to the floor. Her hair spilled in wet curls to her shoulders. The dress was a sentimental choice she had packed at the last minute, short and sleeveless with a floral print. She had not worn it since last spring.“I always liked that dress,” he told her. “Reminds me of the night Addison tried to steal his stepfather’s boat. He was so wasted, remember? He fell off the dock. Twice.”She gazed past him, out the window.“He kept reciting that poem. Even after the police showed up.” He tried to recall the lines. Sunflower, something. She had looked radiant, laughing and running in her yellow dress. Addison wouldn’t leave her alone. “Ah, Sunflower! Weary of time…”She lit her cigarette. “Are you still in touch with him? Tommy Addison?”He shook his head. “Not really.”“That’s a shame,” she said.He shrugged. “He went into finance.”That was the end of the subject as far as he was concerned.She shut her eyes, dismayed by his styptic remark. Was that really how he felt about his friend? She allowed herself a moment, wishing things were different. She should not have been surprised. He had told her everything, nearly everything, in his letters, in longhand, stamped and sealed. She knew the story behind the record player, and the desk made from a closet door, propped across a pair of sawhorses he’d lifted after-hours from a construction site. She knew the landlord made a pass every time he paid the rent. He was very good about describing objects, and other people, while keeping parts of himself obscured.“I’m glad you decided to come,” he told her.“Hmm,” she smiled. “It seemed like the right time.”She had been living in New York since graduation. A series of internships finally led to a salary and several new friends. She met an illustrator who moved from Tennessee on grant money, and a playwright freelancing as a fact-checker who had done a winter residency in Taos. She was no longer distrustful of every person her own age who claimed to be an artist. The most successful among them had sought connections and community, not some kind of self-imposed exile.Normal life, she thought, was hard enough. Why try to make it more difficult? This cheap room, this secondhand existence? What once sounded romantic now seemed misguided, a plot borrowed from some outdated novel.She wondered if he could sense, at all, how much she had changed. Her life had not ended when he declared a leave of absence, swearing his great intentions in her dorm room. She did not still believe a lingering look, a hopeful word, was all it took to break someone into blossom.She opened her eyes as he touched her leg. His fingertips climbed a winding path to the hemline of her dress. He had trouble reading her expression. She took his hand in her own and held it, not allowing him to continue the caress or retreat from it.“How about breakfast?” she suggested.“Sure,” he said. “I just need to get some cash.”“I changed money at the airport,” she said. “Enough, for a few days.”“You didn’t need to do that,” he said.“I know,” she said.She yawned without covering her mouth and sighed a little when she stopped. He pulled the cord on the record player. The last warbling notes of piano turned tentative and slow like footsteps into a cold ocean.

She had surprised him last night with some of the things she suggested. Going back to school, going home, facing the music. She did not seem to quite understand what had happened to him. She knew the history, of course, but seemed to miss the meaning. He had left several schools, each more stultifying than the last, before moving across the sea to unlearn everything. He had put himself in this box, on purpose, knowing there would only be one way to work himself out of the situation. In his mind it made perfect sense. He had sentenced himself to years of solitary labor. Yet in trying to explain himself, he had only succeeded in sounding preposterous. He should have known better. The same shit happened every time he opened his mouth. Upon contact with outside air, his truest thoughts crisped into brittle flakes of piffle.He wasn’t alone in his condition. There was even a phrase for it in French.Bête comme un peintre.An old saying that had once driven Marcel Duchamp to despair. It made him want to draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa.Perhaps he would have done better as a poet, like Tommy Addison.With a degree in creative writing and a six-figure salary in distressed debt.He took her hand, leading the way as they crossed the avenue. He glanced back over his shoulder, wondering if it was really her, or someone else with the same face, the same name. Perhaps she had been sent here on a mission by his mother.“Let’s slow down,” she said, after a minute.She stopped at a sidewalk cafe with a red awning. She scanned the tables, couples at brunch, signs of civilization. Her eyes paused at a man seated alone. She’d caught him staring. He was an older man and even while seated he looked very tall. He was drinking an espresso and between his long fingers the demitasse cup looked like something taken from a child.“How about this place?” she asked.“It’s expensive,” he said.“It smells really good,” she said.“A crowd of pretenders. Croissants and cafe au lait.”“I would kill for a coffee,” she said.“You don’t want to drink it with those robots.”He knew a better place, down by the docks. It was a secret he wanted to share, something he had discovered after wandering these streets for months. He resumed walking, still holding her hand. His pace was eager and insistent. He pulled her toward the street corner.The man at the cafe met her gaze with a curious look. Her toe caught on the raised curb. She stumbled. She grasped for her purse as its strap slipped from her shoulder.He felt her weight shift with a sudden torque. Half a step ahead, he couldn’t keep her upright. He lost his grip. Her hand wrested loose, too late to break her fall. Before he fully realized what had happened, she was lying face-down in the street.“Are you hurt?” He knelt beside her.“I’m fine,” she said, quiet and sharp.“Vous avez besoin d’aide?” The tall man had risen to his feet. His voice was deep and resonant and seemed to invite a greater spectacle.“She says she’s fine,” he told the man.“Une ambulance?”The man had been joined by a waiter, nodding, holding an empty tray.“There’s some traffic,” he told her. He raised his hand, palm out, at an approaching truck. He managed to remain calm. “Can you try to stand?”“Give me a fucking second.”He felt the skin tighten across his face.The other man and the waiter looked at him and said nothing.“We’re all right,” he said. “Ça va. It’s under control.”The waiter nodded gravely and entered the restaurant. The other man shrugged and returned to his table.She began to move, slowly at first. He squared his feet on the pavement and prepared to lift her, sliding a hand under each arm.“I’ve got you,” he said.“Let go of me.”“Here, I can help.”“Let go!”She rose, shaking, onto her hands and knees. Her purse lay open beside her, its contents scattered in the crosswalk. He retrieved her cigarettes, lipstick, passport. He stared at the back of her pretty dress, studying the palette of pale cotton. He would later search for those colors in the years before his first exhibition. He looked for them in tubes of lemon cadmium. Titanium with a touch of sienna. Yellow ochre and bismuth...She stood, finally. He tried to think of what to say as she made her way across the street.

Published in Brink, Fall 2023Return to List of Selected Works