Authors: Robert B. Parker
Robert B. Parker
I had been urban-renewed right out of my office and had to move uptown. My new place was on the second floor of a two-story round turret that stuck out over the corner of Mass Ave and Boylston Street above a cigar store. The previous tenant had been a fortuneteller and I was standing in the window scraping her patchy gilt lettering off the pane with a razor blade when I saw him. He had on a pale green leisure suit and a yellow shirt with long pointed collar, open at the neck and spilling onto the lapels of the suit. He was checking the address on a scrap of paper and looking unhappily at the building.
“I’ve either got my first client in the new office,” I said, “or the last of Madam Sosostris‘.”
Behind me Susan Silverman, in cut-off jeans and a blue-and-white-striped tank top, was working on the frosted glass of the office door with Windex and a paper towel. She stepped to the window and looked down.
“He doesn’t look happy with the neighborhood,” she said.
“If I were in a neighborhood that would make him happy, he couldn’t afford me.”
The man disappeared into the small door beside the tobacco store and a minute later I heard his footsteps on the stairs. He paused, then a knock. Susan opened the door. He looked uncertainly in. There were files on the floor in cardboard boxes that said FALSTAFF on them, the walls still smelled of rubber-based paint and brushes and cans of paint clustered on newspaper to the left of the door. It was hot in the office and I was wearing only a pair of paint-stained jeans and worse sneakers.
“I’m looking for a man named Spenser,” he said.
“Me,” I said. “Come on in.” I laid the razor blade on the windowsill and came around the desk to shake his hand. I needed a client. I bet Philo Vance never painted his own office.
“This is Mrs. Silverman,” I said. “She’s helping me to move in. The city knocked down my old office.” I was conscious of the trickle of sweat that was running down my chest as I talked. Susan smiled and said hello.
“My name is Shepard,” he said. “Harvey Shepard. I need to talk.”
Susan said, “I’ll go out and get a sandwich. It’s close to lunchtime. Want me to bring you back something?”
I shook my head. “Just grab a Coke or something. When Mr. Shepard and I are finished I’ll take you to lunch somewhere good.”
“We’ll see,” she said. “Nice to have met you, Mr. Shepard.”
When she was gone, Shepard said, “Your secretary?”
“No,” I said. “Just a friend.”
“Hey, I wish I had a friend like that.”
“Guy with your kind of threads,” I said, “shouldn’t have any trouble.”
“Yeah, well, I’m married. And I work all the time.”
There was silence. He had a high-colored square face with crisp black hair. He was a little soft around the jowls and his features seemed a bit blurred, but he was a goodlooking guy. Black Irish. He seemed like a guy who was used to talking and his failure to do so now was making him uncomfortable. I primed the pump. “Who sent you to me, Mr. Shepard?”
“Harv,” he said. “Call me Harv, everyone does.”
“I know a reporter on the New Bedford Standard Times. He got your name for me.”
“You from New Bedford, Harv?”
“You’re gonna run for President and you want me for an advance man.”
“No.” He did a weak uncertain smile. “Oh, I get it, Hyannis, hah.”
“Okay,” I said, “you’re not going to run for President. You don’t want me as an advance man. What is your plan?”
“I want you to find my wife.”
“She’s run away, I think.”
“They do that sometimes.”
“I want her back.”
“That I can’t guarantee. I’ll find her. But I don’t do kidnapping. If she comes back is between you and her.”
“She just left. Me and three kids. Just walked out on us.”
“You been to the cops?” He nodded.
“They don’t suspect, if you’ll pardon the expression, foul play?”
He shook his head. “No, she packed up her things in a suitcase and left. I know Deke Slade personally and he is convinced she’s run off.”
“Slade a cop?”
“Yes, Barnstable police.”
“Okay. A hundred a day and expenses. The expenses are going to include a motel room and a lot of meals. I don’t want to commute back and forth from Boston every day.”
“Whatever it costs, I’ll pay. You want something up front?”
“Harv, if you do run for President I will be your advance man.”
He smiled his weak smile again. I wasn’t taking his mind off his troubles.
“How much you want?”
He took a long wallet from his inside coat pocket and took five hundred-dollar bills out of it and gave them to me. I couldn’t see how much was left in the wallet. I folded them up and stuck them in my pants pocket and tried to look like they were joining others.
“I’ll come down in the morning. You be home?”
“Yeah. I’m on Ocean Street, eighteen Ocean Street. When do you think you’ll get there? I got just a ton of work to do. Jesus, what a time for her to walk out on us.”
“I’ll be there at nine o’clock. If you got pictures of her, get them ready, I’ll have copies made. If you have any letters, phone bills, charge-card receipts, that sort of thing, dig them out, I’ll want to see them. Check stubs? List of friends or family she might go to? How about another man?”
“Pam? Naw. She’s not interested much in sex.”
“She might be interested in love.”
“I give her that, Spenser. All she could ever use.”
“Well, whatever. How about the kids? Can I talk in front of them?”
“Yeah, we don’t hide things. They know she took off. They’re old enough anyway, the youngest is twelve.”
“They have any thoughts on their mother’s whereabouts?”
“I don’t think so. They say they don’t.”
“But you’re not certain?”
“It’s just, I’m not sure they’d tell me. I mean I haven’t talked with them much lately as much as I should. I don’t know for sure that they’re leveling with me. Especially the girls.”
“I have that feeling all the time about everybody. Don’t feel bad.”
“Easy for you.”
“Yeah, you’re right. You have anything else to tell me?”
He shook his head.
“Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow at nine.”
We shook hands.
“You know how to get there?”
“Yes,” I said. “I know Hyannis pretty well. I’ll find you.”
“Will you find her, Spenser?”
When Susan Silverman came back from her Coke I was sitting at the desk with the five one-hundred-dollar bills spread out in front of me.
“Whose picture is on a one-hundred-dollar bill?” I said.
“Where would you like to go to lunch?”
“You shouldn’t have shown me the money. I was ready to settle for Ugi’s steak and onion subs. Now I’m thinking about Pier 4.”
“Pier 4 it is. Think I’ll have to change?”
“At least wipe the sweat off your chest.”
“Come on, we’ll go back to my place and suit up.”
“When you get a client,” Susan said, “you really galvanize into action, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am. I move immediately for the nearest restaurant.”
I clipped my gun on my right hip, put on my shirt and left the shirttail out to hide the gun and we left. It was a ten-minute walk to my apartment, most of it down the mall on Commonwealth Ave. When we got there, Susan took the first shower and I had a bottle of Amstel while I called for reservations. In fact I had three.
Pier 4 looms up on the waterfront like a kind of Colonial Stonehenge. Used brick, old beams and a Hudson River excursion boat docked alongside for cocktails. A monument to the expense account, a temple of business lunches. One of the costumed kids at the door parked my convertible with an embarrassed look. Most of the cars in the lot were newer and almost none that I could see had as much gray tape patching the upholstery.
“That young man seemed disdainful of your car,” Susan said.
“One of the troubles with the culture,” I said. “No respect for age.”
There’d be a wait for our table. Would we care for a cocktail in the lounge? We would. We walked across the enclosed gangplank to the excursion boat and sat and looked at Boston Harbor. Susan had a Margarita, I had some Heinekens. Nobody has Amstel. Not even Pier 4.
“What does your client want you to do?”
“Find his wife.”
“Does it sound difficult?”
“No. Sounds like she’s simply run off. If she has she’ll be easy to find. Most wives who run off don’t run very far. The majority of them, in fact, want to be found and want to come home.”
“That doesn’t sound particularly liberated.”
“It isn’t particularly liberated but it’s the way it is. For the first time the number of runaway wives exceeds the number of runaway husbands. They read two issues of Ms. Magazine, see Mario Thomas on a talk show and decide they can’t go on. So they take off. Then they find out that they have no marketable skills. That ten or fifteen years of housewifing has prepared them for nothing else and they end up washing dishes or waiting table or pushing a mop and they want out. Also lots of them get lonesome.”
“And they can’t just go home,” Susan said, “because they are embarrassed and they can’t just go crawling back.”
“Right. So they hang around and hope someone looks for them.”
“And if someone does look for them it’s a kind of communicative act. That is, the husband cared enough about them to try to find them. It’s a gesture, in it’s odd way, of affection.”
“Right again. But the guilt, particularly if they have kids, the guilt is killing them. And when they get home things are usually worse than they were when they left.”
Susan sipped at her Margarita. “The husband has a new club to beat her with.”
I nodded. “Yep. And partly he’s right. Partly he’s saying, hey, you son of a bitch. You ducked out on us. You left me and the kids in the goddamned lurch and you ran. That’s no reason for pride, sweetheart. You owe us,”
“But,” Susan said.
“Of course, but. Always but. But she’s lived her life in terms of them and she needs a chance to live it in terms of her. Natch.” I shrugged and drank the rest of my beer.
“You make it sound so routine.”
“It is routine in a way,” I said. “I’ve seen it enough. In the sixties I spent most of my time looking for runaway kids. Now I spend it looking for runaway mommas. The mommas don’t vary the story too much.”
“You also make it sound, oh I don’t know, trivial. Or, commonplace. As if you didn’t care. As if they were only items in your work. Things to look for.”
“I don’t see much point to talking with a tremor in my voice. I care enough about them to look for them. I do it for the money too, but money’s not hard to make. The thing, in my line of work at least, is not to get too wrapped up in caring. It tends to be bad for you.” I gestured to the waitress for another beer. I looked at Susan’s drink. She shook her head.
Across the harbor a 747 lifted improbably off the runway at Logan and swung slowly upward in a lumbering circle before heading west. L.A.? San Francisco?
“Suze,” I said. “You and I ought to be on that.”
“The plane, heading west. Loosing the surly bonds of earth.”
“I don’t like flying.”
“Whoops,” I said, “I have trod on a toe.”
“Why do you think so?”
“Tone, babe, tone of voice. Length of sentence, attitude of head. I am, remember, a trained investigator. Clues are my game. What are you mad at?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s a start.”
“Don’t make fun of me, Spenser. I don’t exactly know. I’m mad at you, or at least in that area. Maybe I’ve read Ms. Magazine, maybe I spend too much time seeing Mario Thomas on talk shows. I was married and divorced and maybe I know better than you do what this man’s wife might be going through.”
“Maybe you do,” I said. The maitre d‘ had our table and we were silent as we followed him to it. The menus were large and done in a stylish typeface. The price of lobster was discreetly omitted.
“But say you do,” I picked up. “Say you understand her problem better than I do. What’s making you mad?”
She looked at her menu. “Smug,” she said. “That’s the word I was looking for, a kind of smugness about that woman’s silly little fling.”
The waitress appeared. I looked at Susan. “Escargots,” she said to the waitress. “And the cold crab.” I ordered assorted hot hors d’oeuvres and a steak. The waitress went away.
“I don’t buy smug,” I said. “Flip, maybe, but not smug.”
“Condescending,” Susan said.
“No,” I said. “Annoyed, maybe, if you push me. But not at her, at all the silliness in the world. I’m sick of movements. I’m sick of people who think that a new system will take care of everything. I’m sick of people who put the cause ahead of the person. And I am sick of people, whatever sex, who dump the kids and run off: to work, to booze, to sex, to success. It’s irresponsible.”