‘…And that’s what happened to me. I swear.’
The little guy fumbled in his jacket pocket again, took out the stained rag that those generous of spirit would call a handkerchief and mopped at his forehead one more time. He reminded me of Edison, in particular the part about 99% perspiration. A guy I had a passing acquaintanceship with down at Louie’s Gym on Galveston could have squeezed him out into a plastic vat for safe-keeping. Wouldn’t know what he’d be kept for, but at least it would have saved on air filtration. And he wouldn’t be bothered about what had happened to his wife any more.
‘So, in summation, you claim someone stepped out of a darkened alley, slugged you but didn’t take your wallet, your watch or your wedding ring. So what then? You ended up in a trunk of a car heading out of town, right? Maybe tied up as well. Was it cold? Comfortable? Did you maybe enjoy it a little? I happen to know a little kitten a few blocks over that will offer you similar kinds of services in slightly more cosseted surroundings. And she includes a happy ending at the end of your hour.’
‘You said you wouldn’t mock me,’ he muttered. ‘I don’t like being mocked.’
I raised my eyebrows in mock salute at his reproach. ‘I doubt I ever made any such promise, Mr Johnson. I said I’d listen. That maybe I might even be able to help you with your little marital problem. The mockery? That comes for free.’
‘So you don’t believe me then.’
‘I never said any such thing. Just that nowadays a kidnappers need to either have a strong reason or be of the desperate variety – it being a capital offence and all – so most snatches stopped happening around the time Senator Wahlberg stopped making shitty movies . Plus we have you as the victim here; kidnappers even back in the bad enough old days didn’t make a habit of whisking unhappily married men off the streets.’ Someone a few storeys below was screaming about her bag being snatched. I let out a sigh designed to signal a put-upon willingness to help. It never paid to let a client think you were desperate. That in reality your last case had been for an old lady who thought her dead husband was leaving messages in the grains in her ersatz coffee pot over in Section Nine. I lifted my feet off the table, pushed the hat back a little further, and flicked open a small wooden box on the table. ‘Cancer stick?’
‘You smoke those things!’ That half-sneer was the first thing to make me half-respect him since he’d shambled in. ‘Those things will kill you.’
‘It’s all in the name, Mr Johnson. They don’t call the air outside something similar but it all amounts to the same kind of vapor if you run out of filtration cartridges.’ I considered lighting up, but figured a little P.I. bravado shouldn’t cost me a pay-day. As with dating women, there had to be a balance in how you treated some clients. I flicked the cover down, stood up and stretched. Strolled over to the faux-mahogany chest of drawers and fumbled through the cassettes. ‘You like music, Mr Johnson?’ I picked up one of the cartridges, slid it into the machine and pressed play. The opening strains of a Georg Tellemens opera filled the room. ‘German baroque. It helps me think.’
‘I didn’t see you as an opera man.’
‘Don’t let the shabby furnishings and addiction to a slow painful death drowning in phlegm fool you. I am a man steeped in variety and culture.’ I watched the wheels spin in the cassette player’s window a few more cycles before turning round. Thought I caught a look bordering on disgust flicker like a snuffed out candle at the end of a failed romantic dinner. It was extinguished quickly enough. What was left was the obsequious hang-dog hope typical of the husband hoping for a quick lay at anniversary time. I had been that type of husband once. Before she upped sticks with my ex-partner and headed down Mexico way. That was just after the visitors had arrived with their polite but clear instructions on how we could and could not continue to live. Just before they separated the good and bad little boys and girls. And before the borders had been closed to keep all the dead-beat Yankees out of the Central States.
‘So you got kidnapped by persons unknown,’ I continued. They probably spun you around town a bit but ultimately just made you late home by a few hours. You get there to a dark and empty house. No food in the microwave. Wardrobe half-emptied. Wife vanished. No ‘Dear John’ letter or any indication that she’d be sending for the remainder of her stuff. Just you, a refrigerator full of unrealised culinary potential and a hanger of men’s work suits. The obvious conclusion here – joyride aside – is that she’s decided to trade you in, Mr Johnson. Either for a higher-end model or just whatever cash she can get. Wait a couple of days and some smuck that looks a lot like me will show up shoving serving documents in your face.’
‘She wouldn’t do that, Mr Harte. My Gladys loved me. We had our problems, but every marriage does. She wouldn’t just run out like that. So…’
‘So the guys who grabbed you did so to allow for enough time for the kidnapping.’ I hijacked the half-formed thought for him. Let it sit between us like one of those pot-roasts his Gladys had probably dumped in front of him night after night once the shine of wedded bliss had dulled. I wondered if the Gladyses or Myrtles of this world ever blamed their mothers for a name that trumpeted lowered expectations; advertised a willingness to accept skinny, sweat-stained suitors with a hidden but still palpable mean streak as a consolation prize in the town fair of life. I flopped back into my chair, ignoring the squeak of protest and how the wheels rolled back a few inches. ‘Squired your unconscious form around town for a few hours maybe, left you trussed up in the trunk while they had a couple of beers or caught a show, and that gave whoever wanted to make Gladys their latest trophy enough time to roll her up, and grab a few things to make it look like she was running out on you. But your neighbors saw nothing.’
‘That’s it, you see! That nosey old bag Miriam Grossmann from across the hall sees everything. Every floorboard creek, every whisper she’s up at the peephole. Nosing around for who is coming and going. If she misses anything, she’s more than happy to swing open her front door and stick her scrawny neck out to gawp. And she says she saw nothing!’ He finished with the enunciated self-satisfaction of a neophyte defense attorney surmising how his client’s cast-iron alibi was that he wasn’t even in town that day. The type of criminal who paid attention to a man like Herbert Johnson were the type that stabbed first and asked questions never. I let the idea that a woman slipping away with a suitcase at dusk was a lot less likely to make noise than a kidnap victim. I was also enjoying the lack of self-awareness that a man like Johnson showed when labeling someone else as scrawny. But the money would pay the rent and a bar tab that was reaching that point where one had to drink at home. Tellemens’s chorus was aiming for the home stretch. Time to get to business.
‘I told you my fee over the phone. Plus any expenses. I’ll keep receipts but understand that not every service in my line comes from a person who works with accountants and considers tax deductibles. Especially in a situation where kidnapping and other capital offences might be involved.’
‘I understand. Of course. Whatever you need.’ He flipped out a checkbook and fumbled for a pen. I let him pat himself down a few times before I offered him one of my own. He nodded a thanks, licked the nib, and started to scribble numbers and letters. I half-turned towards the cassette player and Tellemens. Money matters have always made me feel uncomfortable. And cheap.
‘Say, will you need to see my place?’
‘I’ll be along later today.’ I reached across for the check. Noticed he pocketed the pen. I could bill him for it if I felt grudging enough later. My experience so far of Herbert Johnson told me I probably would. ‘Just so we are clear, I’m looking for your wife. Not to get into any punch-ups or shoot-outs with the people who might have took her. You got that clear, buddy.’
‘I’m aware of the parameters, Mr Harte.’ Johnson shifted slightly, a slight frown forming where the sheen of worry and consternation had earlier resided. Maybe he didn’t like the insinuation that he didn’t know the obvious. Maybe he just didn’t like the note of familiarity. Either suited me fine as long as the check was legit. ‘You investigate the task in hand. Anything more is extra. I’ve read your advert. You aren’t the only one capable of investigating you know.’
‘Just as long as we are clear about our working relationship. You hired a private detective, not a knight in shining armor or someone from a Mother Theresa convent. Now you have any information on family for me? She got a mother who never talks to you or something?’
‘She has a sister. But I only met her once. She didn’t seem too thrilled with us.’ Herbert Johnson used a put-upon sniff as a substitution for saying anything further. I got it though. Didn’t seem too thrilled seeing Gladys shacking up with one of the Herberts of this world. It made a whole lot of sense. ‘You got a name for her? How about an address?’
‘We met Miriam in a coffee shop. She’s somewhere in the city. That’s all I can say. I already told you though. Gladys didn’t leave me. She hasn’t run off to her sisters. Not unless her sister knew someone willing to knock me over the head.’
I tried to avoid his look in case my face let on that I was seriously considering the possibility. Instead I focused on the small wooden box again. That nagging desire was close to being upgraded to a craving. A glass of whiskey alongside wouldn’t hurt either. ‘Write down her sister’s name and anything else you can think of. As you’ve said, she’s been gone two days. Another few hours won’t make a whole lot of difference. Besides… there are a few enquiries to make first. The peeps I know might need a little financial persuasion, but they are always good for a lead.’ I stood up, buttoned my sports jacket, and glanced at the door. The little man finished his scribbling, pushed the paper with sister Miriam’s details, and followed the hint, his hat crumpled between wringing fingers, enthusiastic nods of agreement threatening to dislocate something in his neck. The story about shadowy sources gave me time to transfer the check over to my account, accessing the liquidity needed to get a little drink on. I didn’t wince at the sweaty sheen that his handshake left on my palm, and saw him to the door. I listened to the distancing footsteps all the way back on my own retreat behind my desk. The choir were having a thoughtful moment. Perhaps they were embarrassed at my willingness to take candy from a baby. Or perhaps they were giving me mental space for a few thoughts of my own. High in my thoughts was the hope that this case would turn out to be less repugnant than the last one.
That little old lady with the haunted coffee residue in Section Nine had the misfortune of a son who needed to cough up plenty down at the race course; a blue-eyed perfect boy who had grown up to think conning his own mother out of her savings was justifiable if it meant digging himself out of a hole at the track. I knew the bookies he owed though, and figured a lack of broken limbs was enough of a salve for any guilt at cheating the woman who had raised him out of her retirement fund. I could still hear him claiming that the false hope of an unearthly reconciliation with her dear departed Frederick was exactly what his dear old Ma needed. I tried relegating the idea that he was still putting the squeeze on her to the same drawer where I kept memories about failed police detective exams, recriminations over being a forty-something failure, and that girl that had hot-footed it down to Tijuana.
Tijuana. I opened the bottom drawer in my desk, clocked an eye-full of my own Gladys smiling cheerfully from the framed wedding photo – me grinning beside her like Joker’s stunt double on crack. There was no regret in her wide hopeful eyes or perfect smile yet. That day had been seamed with hope but not even one simple wedding ceremony could go right for yours truly. Her folks had refused to attend a ceremony not conducted before God and the few remaining good Episcopalians of this Earth, while my father had got drunk at the hotel bar and button-holed me at the end of the night, bawling reminders of what my mother had done to him wafting out on cancer-sodden breaths between whiskey burps. But that girl had been mine to come home to for a few years at least. Our home had been a relatively happy one until disillusionment and a shifty shoulder to cry on had appeared. I felt the tears prick energetically at the back of my eyes before bouncing the drawer shut. Travelers from beyond the stars or not, another man’s missing wife meant a payday. Mine could stay smiling from the photo frame in the drawer, or waiting tables down in Tijuana.