Authors: Dave Stanton
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Hard-Boiled, #Private Investigators
“I’m Sheila Majorie.” She took my card from my fingers, studied it for a moment, then set it on the table and moved it aside with a red fingernail.
“Miss,” she said, looking at me so directly I felt she was challenging me to look away. I did, and watched her pull a pack of Virginia Slims from her black leather purse.
“Residence in San Jose?”
“Yes. That’s where I live.”
“Okay. So your son is missing.”
“Right. When was your last contact with him?”
“Oh, about five years ago.”
“He’s been missing for five years?”
“No, he hasn’t been missing that long. Actually, it’s only recently I’ve tried to get a hold of him. But I can’t find him. The last I heard, he was here in Tahoe, gambling at Harrah’s.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Must have been five, six weeks ago.”
“All right. His name?”
“Jim Homestead,” she said, and her mouth tightened.
“Yes. People used to call him Jimmy.”
“I remember him,” I said, then raised my eyebrows. “You’re Sheila Homestead?”
She tapped her cigarette in the ashtray and slowly twirled the burning end against the glass rim, until the cherry was barely glowing.
“I used to be Sheila Homestead.”
I remembered her too.
• • •
I had known the Homesteads back in high school, fifteen some odd years ago. They were a blue-collar family, not poor but definitely a rung below middle class. Jimmy Homestead and his brother Marty were both popular, seemingly happy kids, but it was general knowledge among my crowd that their father, John, was a heavy drinker and a less than ideal parent. Some years later I heard John Homestead had been conned by his younger brother into a bogus investment scheme, resulting in the Homesteads going bankrupt, and forcing them to sell their house and move into a low-rent apartment. I also recalled a high school rumor that circulated regarding John Homestead’s wife, Sheila, a sexy-as-hell brunette who looked far too young to be the maternal parent of the two teenage Homestead boys. She showed up on campus one day, for some reason, smoking and wearing a tight leopard-pattern outfit, showing off a body that made the hottest girls at our school stare in wonder. Soon after that, it was rumored that for a hundred dollars, she would take you to a hotel room, and when you left an hour later, you would understand things about love and sex that would change your life.
Later, while I was going to junior college, I came to know the Homestead brothers a little better. Jimmy was a year older than me, and Marty a year younger, and both were tall, handsome men, with wavy blond hair and intensely blue eyes. During a series of seemingly endless summer keg parties, their popularity among the local teenage girls was admired and envied by the rest of us.
Eventually, Marty Homestead enlisted in the Marines and went off to boot camp, leaving Jimmy behind to entertain the gaggles of local females seeking transitory pleasure before settling into the predictable monotony of adult life awaiting most of them. It was around then I saw that Jimmy had a petty selfish streak and was also a compulsive liar. I overheard him boasting about his sexual conquests and going into detail about the particulars of his various partners. His tone suggested he felt he was an expert on the subject. But he started getting caught in so many lies it was impossible to know if there was any truth to his stories.
It was only on odd occasions I saw Jimmy Homestead after that summer, but over the next couple of years I heard he’d been caught stealing an expensive stereo system from a close friend, and later did thirty days at Elmwood when he couldn’t pay the fine for a drunk driving conviction. When he was released from jail, he found the pink slip to his brother’s car, sold it, then went into business selling pot, coke, crank—whatever there was demand for in his social circle. The last I heard of him was a few years ago. I was told he couldn’t hold a job, had given a teenage girl a venereal disease, and was on the run from a drug dealer he’d burned for an ounce of coke.
• • •
“Why don’t you start by telling me what Jimmy’s been up to since high school,” I said.
“Mostly taking after his father, I suppose.”
“Can you be more specific, Miss Homestead?”
“Miss Majorie,” she corrected, and her eyes flickered darkly. “I go by my maiden name. Can we get a drink in this damn casino?”
I looked around for a waitress, then went to the bar and brought her back a martini, and a bottle of beer for myself.
She sipped her martini and made a face. “This is terrible.”
“It’s a casino drink, ma’am. They’re made with the cheapest bulk ingredients available. They serve them free to gamblers, who think they’re getting a great deal. Drink it quick,” I advised. “Don’t prolong the agony.”
“I got a better idea,” she said. “Let’s go where we can get a real drink. And if you call me ma’am again, I’ll slap you silly. Call me Sheila.”
“All right, Sheila,” I said, but her name felt odd on my lips. “I know a bar you’ll like.”
Ten minutes later we pulled up to the Mountain Side Mine restaurant and took a table in the adjoining bar, the old Rosewood Lounge. She had sat quietly in my truck during the short drive up the grade, and she wasn’t saying much now, as if she were perhaps reconsidering her agendas. She sipped her drink and gazed out the floor-to-ceiling windows, over the dark silhouettes of the pines, to where the lights of the casinos glittered. Beyond the casinos, the black expanse of Lake Tahoe stretched into the night.
“Nice joint,” she said.
“It’s a good place to relax,” I said. The Rosewood was a venerable, elegant bar. The room was shaded in tones of dull green and rich timber, and the seating was private and shadowy. An antique chandelier cast a smattering of faint gold light over the cocktail tables.
“You were about to give me the background on your stepson,” I said.
She turned toward me, and the edge to her eyes softened a bit.
“Jimmy was a kid that could have had anything he wanted,” she said. “He had brains, he was charming and good looking, very athletic, and very popular. But at some point—it must have been when he was nineteen or twenty—it became clear to me he wasn’t interested in making much of himself.”
“That’s a pretty young age for a parent to draw that kind of conclusion. Maybe he was still sowing his wild oats.”
“Yeah, if sowing his wild oats meant ripping off his friends and dealing drugs. He also refused to get a job or go to college. Then he was arrested for DUI, and later for possession of a controlled substance. After that, he started drifting, moving from one town to another. I think he became a heavy drinker, like his father, and also I suspect he was hooked on drugs.”
“Did you or Mr. Homestead try to help him?”
“I thought we should have intervened in his life. But John didn’t have any interest.”
“Didn’t want to bother with his own son?”
“That about sums it up,” she said, then her brow creased and she took a long breath. “I made a huge mistake in my life when I was a very young woman. I think I must have been looking for a father figure when I married John Homestead. I was seventeen and he was twenty-eight, and he had two sons from a previous marriage. At the time, I’m sure I thought he was very mature and dashing.”
“But you found out otherwise,” I said, sipping my bourbon rocks.
“Yes, I did, and then some,” she sighed. “He was a violent drunk, and a stupid, gullible man.”
“When did you leave him?”
“After ten years, ten really lousy years, I divorced him. I’ve spent the last twelve years rebuilding my life. It hasn’t been easy.”
I did the math in my head, trying to figure her age. Almost forty, if she was telling the truth. She didn’t look it.
“My ex-husband caused me a lot of grief, both during our marriage and during the divorce. At one point I feared for my safety. But there’s something else…” Her lips became a tight line, and she turned toward the windows. I studied her profile, thinking how perfect her features were, and then I saw her eyes were wet.
She dabbed at her nose with a cocktail napkin and didn’t look at me when she spoke.
“Before he left home for good, Jimmy raped me.”
I looked out the window behind her, into the black sky. I became aware of sounds I hadn’t noticed before: the clinking of glasses, muted tones of conversation, piano music, and occasional laughter.
“Did you report it to the police?” I asked.
“No,” she whispered.
“Did you tell your husband?”
She wouldn’t look at me, and I sat and waited while she stared out over the forest at Lake Tahoe. Her eyes looked as dark and liquid as the surface of the lake.
“I never told anyone. Until now,” she said, a network of tiny wrinkles emerging around her eyes. I picked up her martini glass and went to the bar for another round. I took my time, and saw her reapplying her lipstick when I looked in the bar mirror.
When I sat back down across from her, her face was cool and distant.
“It was a terrible time in my life. Do you really need to know any more about it?” she said.
“Not right now.”
“But I’ll need you to tell me as much as you know about Jimmy’s recent history. Where he’s worked, girlfriends, running buddies, where he’s lived.”
“Hmph,” she said. “He’d spent some time as a house painter—on and off, I suppose, but that was at least ten years back. I heard he’s done some restaurant work too—washing dishes, and he’s been a cook at times. I don’t think he held any restaurant job for very long, though.
“What’s the most recent job he’s had, that you know of?”
“Well, he was working at a diner down in Barstow. That was within the last six months.”
“I thought you said he was here in South Lake a month ago.”
“Yes, that’s what I heard. But I don’t think he lived or worked here. I assume he was passing through.”
“Where else has he lived?”
“After he left San Jose, he floated around California. He was in Sacramento years ago, and I heard he lived in LA and Fresno at some point. I also heard he worked at a lumberyard in Redding.”
“Why do you think he’s moved around so much?”
“Let’s put it this way,” she said, clicking her fingernails on the table. “I suspect he wore out his welcome pretty quick, wherever he was.”
She looked at me impatiently, as if I should have known, then she leaned forward.
“Jimmy always felt he was special,” she began, her eyes boring into mine. “He figured the world owed him some kind of special, glorious treatment. He was a smart kid, and had talent too, but he never figured out all that is meaningless unless you do something with it. He never applied himself to anything, never worked at anything, but just expected a good life would be his reward. He thought he’d be a professional golfer, or maybe a great musician, or some kind of superstar. The truth is, he’d always been a spoiled, lazy brat, and I don’t think he’s ever changed.”
“Did you love him?” I said.
“He was my stepson.”
“I see,” I said, although I didn’t. I wondered if she felt she was obliged to love him, a stepson who raped her. And then I wondered if she’d ever actually given birth herself.
I rubbed my temple. “Why do you want to find him?”
Sheila Majorie blinked and touched her chin with her finger. Her eyes shifted to the side, and when she looked back at me, I knew I wouldn’t believe what she was about to say.
“Despite the past, he’s my stepson, and I want to make sure he’s okay, that he’s not in trouble.”
It was such an obvious lie I chuckled. Then I sighed.
“Searching for a missing person isn’t cheap, Sheila. But if you’ve got the means, I’ll find Jimmy Homestead, and it doesn’t matter to me what your motivation is.”
She looked relieved for a moment. Then her eyes became wider and her lower lip dropped.
“What is your fee?” she asked.
“Three hundred a day. Plus expenses. And I’ll need two grand up front as a retainer.”
“That’s…that’s a lot of money. I don’t have that kind of money now.”
“I mean, all you have to do is make a few phone calls, and you can track him down, right?”
“Sometimes it’s that easy. But I assume you already tried that.”
“Yes, I did,” she said, her voice small. “How about we talk about a payment plan, then?”
“I’d consider it if you’d be upfront about your reason for wanting to find Jimmy.”
“I…I mean, he’s my son. What more reason would I have than that?”
son. A drunk, a drug addict, who’s done nothing but leave a trail of grief in his wake. That’s what you said, isn’t it? A no-morals loser who raped you, right? And you want to pay an investigator to find him? Seems to me you’d be better off if you never heard from him again.”
She became very still, and I could see her expression turn resolute. The contours of her face looked cut from stone.
“I can offer you ten grand total,” she said. “Payable once you find him and arrange a face-to-face meeting for me. Nothing up front.”
We stared each other down. “You can’t afford two grand now, but you’ll pay me ten grand once I find him?”
“That’s right,” she said.
I took the bowtie out of my shirt pocket and studied it, then carefully set it on the table. “How do I know you’ll be able to pay me?”
“You’re going to have to take my word on that.”
“Shit,” I muttered. I didn’t trust her. But I wanted to because I needed the goddamned money. I knew that was a problem. There’s nothing like a chump who wants to believe. That’s the human dynamic that keeps con artists and sham companies in business. People throw away millions every year on weight loss remedies, baldness cures, exercise programs that promise the perfect body, and various get-rich-quick schemes. All because they’re desperate and want to believe. So why, I asked myself, was I seriously considering Sheila’s unlikely offer? I paused for a long moment, until I could answer the question in a way I thought was truthful:
Because I had no better prospects, and not much to lose.
That didn’t make me feel particularly good, but at least I was being honest.