Authors: Sara Paretsky
With the lights on my office looked Spartan but not
unpleasant and I cheered up slightly. Unlike my apartment, which is always in mild disarray, my office is usually tidy. I’d bought the big wooden desk at a police auction. The little Olivetti portable had been my mother’s, as well as a reproduction of the Ufizzi hanging over my green filing cabinet. That was supposed to make visitors realize that mine was a high-class operation. Two straight-backed chairs for clients completed the furniture. I didn’t spend much time here and didn’t need any other amenities.
I hadn’t been in for several days and had a stack of bills and circulars to sort through. A computer firm wanted to arrange a demonstration of what computers could do to help my business. I wondered if a nice little desktop IBM could find me paying customers.
The room was stuffy. I looked through the bills to see which ones were urgent. Car insurance—I’d better pay that. The others I threw out—most were first-time bills, a few second-time. I usually only pay bills the third time they come around. If they want the money badly, they won’t forget you. I stuffed the insurance into my shoulder bag, then turned to the window and switched the air conditioner onto “high.” The room went dark. I’d blown a fuse in the Pulteney’s uncertain electrical system. Stupid. You can’t turn an air conditioner right onto “high” in a building like this. I cursed myself and the building management equally and wondered whether the storeroom with the fuse boxes was open at night. During the years I’d spent in the building, I’d learned how to repair most of what
could go wrong with it, including the bathroom on the seventh floor, whose toilet backed up about once a month.
I made my way back down the hall and down the stairs to the basement. A single naked bulb lit the bottom of the stairs. It showed a padlock on the supply-room door. Tom Czarnik, the building’s crusty superintendent, didn’t trust anyone. I can open some locks, but I didn’t have time now for an American padlock. One of those days. I counted to ten in Italian, and started back upstairs with even less enthusiasm than before.
I could hear a heavy tread ahead of me and guessed it was my anonymous visitor. When I got to the top, I quietly opened the stairwell door and watched him in the dim light. He was knocking at my office door. I couldn’t see him very well, but got the impression of a short stocky man. He held himself aggressively, and when he got no answer to his knocking, he opened the door without hesitation and went inside. I walked down the hallway and went in after him.
A five-foot-high sign from Arnie’s Steak Joynt flashed red and yellow across the street, providing spasms of light to my office. I saw my visitor whirl as I opened the door. “I’m looking for V. I. Warshawski,” he said, his voice husky but confident—the voice of a man used to having his own way.
“Yes,” I said, going past him to sit behind my desk.
“Yes, what?” he demanded.
“Yes, I’m V.I. Warshawski. You call my answering service for an appointment?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t know it would mean walking up four flights of stairs to a dark office. Why the hell doesn’t the elevator work?”
“The tenants in this building are physical fitness nuts. We agreed to get rid of the elevator—climbing stairs is well known as a precaution against heart attacks.”
In one of the flashes from Arnie’s I saw him make an angry gesture. “I didn’t come here to listen to a comedienne,” he said, his husky voice straining. “When I ask questions I expect to hear them answered.”
“In that case, ask reasonable questions. Now, do you want to tell me why you need a private investigator?”
“I don’t know. I need help all right, but this place—Jesus—and why is it so dark in here?”
“The lights are out,” I said, my temper riding me. “You don’t like my looks, leave. I don’t like anonymous callers, either.”
“All right, all right,” he said placatingly. “Simmer down. But do we have to sit in the dark?”
I laughed. “A fuse blew a few minutes before you showed up. We can go over to Arnie’s Steak Joynt if you want some light.” I wouldn’t have minded getting a good look at him myself.
He shook his head. “No, we can stay here.” He fidgeted around some, then sat in one of the visitors’ chairs.
“You got a name?” I asked, to fill in the pause while he collected his thoughts.
“Oh, yeah, sorry,” he said, fumbling in his wallet.
He pulled out a card and passed it across the desk. I held it up to read in a flash from Arnie’s. “John L. Thayer, Executive Vice-President, Trust, Ft. Dearborn Bank and Trust.” I pursed my lips. I didn’t make it over to La Salle Street very often, but John Thayer was a very big name indeed at Chicago’s biggest bank. Hot diggity, I thought. Play this fish right, Vic, I urged myself. Here come de rent!
I put the card in my jeans pocket. “Yes, Mr. Thayer. Now what seems to be the problem?”
“Well, it’s about my son. That is, it’s about his girl friend. At least she’s the one who—” He stopped. A lot of people, especially men, aren’t used to sharing their problems, and it takes them a while to get going. “You know, I don’t mean any offense, but I’m not sure I should talk to you after all. Not unless you’ve got a partner or something.”
I didn’t say anything.
“You got a partner?” he persisted.
“No, Mr. Thayer,” I said evenly. “I don’t have a partner.”
“Well, this really isn’t a job for a girl to take on alone.”
A pulse started throbbing in my right temple. “I skipped dinner after a long day in the heat to meet you down here.” My voice was husky with anger. I cleared my throat and tried to steady myself. “You wouldn’t even identify yourself until I pushed you to it. You pick at my office, at me, but you can’t come out and ask anything directly. Are you trying to find out whether I’m honest, rich, tough, or what? You want
some references, ask for them. But don’t waste my time like this. I don’t need to argue you into hiring my services—it was you who insisted on making an appointment for the middle of the night.”
“I’m not questioning your honesty,” he said quickly. “Look, I’m not trying to get your goat. But you are a girl, and things may get heavy.”
“I’m a woman, Mr. Thayer, and I can look out for myself. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t be in this kind of business. If things get heavy, I’ll figure out a way to handle them—or go down trying. That’s my problem, not yours. Now, you want to tell me about your son, or can I go home where I can turn on an air conditioner?”
He thought some more, and I took some deep breaths to calm myself, ease the tension in my throat.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I hate to, but I’m running out of options.” He looked up, but I couldn’t see his face. “Anything I tell you has to be strictly in confidence.”
“Righto, Mr. Thayer,” I said wearily. “Just you, me, and Arnie’s Steak Joynt.”
He caught his breath but remembered he was trying to be conciliatory. “It’s really Anita, my son’s girl friend. Not that Pete—my son, that is—hasn’t been a bit of a problem, too.”
Dope, I thought morosely. All these North Shore types think about is dope. If it was a pregnancy, they’d just pay for an abortion and be done with it. However, mine was not to pick and choose, so I grunted encouragingly.
“Well, this Anita is not really a very desirable type,
and ever since Pete got mixed up with her he’s been having some peculiar ideas.” The language sounded strangely formal in his husky voice.
“I’m afraid I only detect things, Mr. Thayer. I can’t do too much about what the boy thinks.”
“No, no, I know that. It’s just that—they’ve been living together in some disgusting commune or other—did I tell you they’re students at the University of Chicago? Anyway, he, Pete, he’s taken to talking about becoming a union organizer and not going to business school, so I went down to talk to the girl. Make her see reason, kind of.”
“What’s her last name, Mr. Thayer?”
“Hill. Anita Hill. Well, as I said, I went down to try to make her see reason. And—right after that she disappeared.”
“It sounds to me like your problem’s solved.”
“I wish it was. The thing is, now Pete’s saying I bought her off, paid her to disappear. And he’s threatening to change his name and drop out of sight unless she turns up again.”
Now I’ve heard everything, I thought. Hired to find a person so her boyfriend would go to business school.
“And were you responsible for her disappearance, Mr. Thayer?”
“Me? If I was, I’d be able to get her back.”
“Not necessarily. She could have squeezed fifty grand out of you and gone off on her own so you couldn’t get it back. Or you could have paid her to disappear completely. Or you may have killed her or
caused her to he killed and want someone else to take the rap for you. A guy like you has a lot of resources.”
He seemed to laugh a little at that. “Yeah, I suppose all that could be true. Anyway, I want you to find her—to find Anita.”
“Mr. Thayer, I don’t like to turn down work, but why not get the police—they’re much better equipped than I for this sort of thing.”
“The police and I—” he started, then broke off. “I don’t feel like advertising my family problems to the police,” he said heavily.
That had the ring of truth—but what had he started to say? “And why were you so worried about things getting heavy?” I wondered aloud.
He shifted in his chair a bit. “Some of those students can get pretty wild,” he muttered. I raised my eyebrows skeptically, but he couldn’t see that in the dark.
“How did you get my name?” I asked. Like an advertising survey—did you hear about us in
or through a friend?
“I found your name in the Yellow Pages. And I wanted someone in the Loop and someone who didn’t know—my business associates.”
“Mr. Thayer, I charge a hundred and a quarter a day, plus expenses. And I need a five-hundred-dollar deposit. I make progress reports, but clients don’t tell me how to do the job—any more than your widows and orphans tell you how to run the Fort Dearborn’s Trust Department.”
“Then you will take the job?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said shortly. Unless the girl was dead, it shouldn’t be too hard to find her. “I’ll need your son’s address at the university,” I added. “And a picture of the girl if you have one.”
He hesitated over that, seemed about to say something, but then gave it to me: 5462 South Harper. I hoped it was the right place. He also produced a picture of Anita Hill. I couldn’t make it out in the spasmodic light, but it looked like a yearbook snap. My client asked me to call him at home to report progress, rather than at the office. I jotted his home number on the business card and put it back in my pocket.
“How soon do you think you’ll know something?” he asked.
“I can’t tell you until I’ve looked at it, Mr. Thayer. But I’ll get on the case first thing tomorrow.”
“Why can’t you go down there tonight?” he persisted.
“Because I have other things to do,” I answered shortly. Like dinner and a drink.
He argued for a bit, not so much because he thought I’d change my mind as because he was used to getting his own way. He finally gave up on it and handed me five hundred-dollar bills.
I squinted at them in the light from Arnie’s. “I take checks, Mr. Thayer.”
“I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.”
I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that.
My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.
He got up to go and I walked out with him. By the time I’d locked the door, he had started down the stairs. I wanted to get a better look at him, and hurried after him. I didn’t want to have to see every man in Chicago under a flashing neon sign to recognize my client again. The stairwell lighting wasn’t that good, but under it his face appeared square and rugged. Irish-looking, I would have said, not what I would have thought of as second-in-command at the Fort Dearborn. His suit was expensive and well cut, but he looked more as if he’d stepped from an Edward G. Robinson movie than the nation’s eighth largest bank. But then, did I look like a detective? Come to think of it, most people don’t try to guess what women do for a living by the way they look—but they are usually astounded to find out what I do.
My client turned east, toward Michigan Avenue. I shrugged and crossed the street to Arnie’s. The owner gave me a double Johnnie Walker Black and a sirloin from his private collection.
Dropping Out of School
I woke up early to a day that promised to be as hot and steamy as the one before. Four days out of seven, I try to force myself to get some kind of exercise. I’d missed the previous two days, hoping that the heat would break, but I knew I’d better get out this morning. When thirty is a fond memory, the more days that pass without exercise, the worse you feel going back to it. Then, too, I’m undisciplined in a way that makes it easier to exercise than to diet, and the running helps keep my weight down. It doesn’t mean I love it, though, especially on mornings like this.
The five hundred dollars John Thayer had given me last night cheered me up considerably, and I felt good as I put on cutoffs and a T-shirt. The money helped take my mind off the thick air when I got outside. I did five easy miles—over to the lake and around Belmont Harbor and back to my large, cheap apartment on Halsted. It was only 8:30, but I was sweating freely from running in the heat. I drank a tall glass of orange juice and made coffee before taking a shower. I left my
running clothes on a chair and didn’t bother with the bed. After all, I was on a job and didn’t have time—besides, who was going to see it?