Authors: Robert B. Parker
She would wear linen dresses and pearls and flattering heels.
Standing in the parking lot, in the summer place night, she studied herself reflected in the dark window of the club. Her red hair was pulled back and tied with a blue ribbon. She wore a pair of white shorts, and a blue sleeveless tee, and dark loafers with no socks. She had on bright lipstick and a lot of dark eye shadow, and her blusher, carefully applied, hid her freckles and almost hid the bruise where her father had hit her. She took a cigarette from her purse and lit it and put it in her mouth and looked again to see how she looked with the smoke curling up in front of her face. There were mercury vapor security lights just under the eaves of the club and their light gave the rows of parked cars an otherworldly gleam.
When the club door opened she could hear the dense racket of the band and the crowd, and smell the booze and the sweet pungent marijuana smoke. She unwrapped a stick of Blackjack chewing gum and folded it into her mouth and chewed it soft. She loved the way she looked chewing gum while the cigarette bobbed in her lips and the plume of its vapor made little figures in the air.
He might be in there tonight, and He'd find her, and force His way through the crowd, moving easily as strong men do where others struggle. There would be no need to speak, she'd know Him when she saw Him and He would be the rock on which she would inarticulately found her life. He would be her strength and her joy and her life and her safety.
The door opened again and people crowded out through it.
"Here I come," she thought, and slipped into the loud and reeking room and the door closed behind her.
I had just collected a very large fee from a very large insurance company, which could easily afford it, for solving a very large insurance scam. I was sitting in my office on a warm fall afternoon with the window open behind me, looking at my checkbook, admiring my bank balance, and thinking about whether I should retire or buy a new gun, when an important thug named Julius Ventura came in with a sullen-looking young blonde woman.
"How you doing," Ventura said.
"I'm bucks up," I said.
Ventura was one of those guys who paid so much attention to how tough he was that he didn't pay much attention to anything else.
He said, "I gotta talk to you."
He was a strong guy gone fat, with thick black hair that he combed straight back, and a big nose that came straight down from the bridge with no curvature at all. He had on a double-breasted black suit and a gray shirt with a bolero string tie knotted up tight.
The sullen woman was much younger than Ventura. She had big hair and a lot of eye makeup, and a pouty lower lip that she was aware of and emphasized by moistening it often. She was wearing one of those silly-looking single-piece top and shorts outfits where the shorts look kind of like a skirt. The outfit was red. With it she wore red heels.
I waved Ventura toward a client chair. Ever the optimist, I had five of them in the office. Ventura sat on one and took a big breath as if the effort had been telling. The young woman sat beside him.
She was wearing a wedding ring and a huge diamond solitaire. I put my checkbook away in the left-hand drawer of my desk, and leaned back in my chair and smiled in a friendly way.
"How much you charge?" Ventura said.
He sat with his feet flat on the ground, his knees apart, his stomach resting on his thighs.
"Depends on what I'm doing," I said.
"And who I'm doing it for."
"You got an hourly rate?"
"Sure," I said.
I smiled at the young woman. She didn't smile back. She was busy with her lower lip.
"Well, what is it?" Ventura said.
I told him.
"That for an eight-hour day?" Ventura said.
"That's for every hour I work," I said.
"Might be more than eight. I don't charge you for sleeping."
The young woman had sucked in her lower lip a little and caught it gently in her upper front teeth.
"Who keeps track of your hours?" Ventura said.
"Well, that's a pretty soft deal for you now, ain't it."
"Pretty soft," I said.
We were quiet. The late September air moved gently through the window and fluttered some papers on my desk. The young woman pursed her lower lip for a moment as if she were going to whistle "Evelina." But she didn't, she just let it purse there for a moment and then went back to holding it in her upper teeth. It was sort of interesting.
"I heard about you," Ventura said.
I nodded modestly.
"Talked to some people about you."
"Like your man Hawk, for instance."
"Hawk is some people," I said.
"Says you're a big pain in the ass."
"He's jealous," I said. "
"Cause girls like me better."
"Fact is I asked him to take this thing on for me."
"Oh," I said.
"That kind of work."
"Maybe," Ventura said.
"Hawk says he'll do it, if you do it."
"When I can," I said, "I like to be legal."
"Nothing illegal about this job," Ventura said.
"You want it? Pay your fee, no argument; expenses, no problem; cash if you want; maybe two, maybe three weeks' work."
"So how come Hawk won't do it unless I do it too?"
"He didn't say."
"He often doesn't," I said.
Ventura glanced at the blonde beside him.
"My daughter's husband took off on her," he said.
"Daddy," the blonde said.
"You don't know that. Something coulda maybe happened."
"This your daughter?" I said.
I stood and leaned over the desk and put out a hand.
"How do you do," I said.
"Yeah," she said.
"How you doing."
She took my hand and shook it.
"You know my name," I said.
She licked her lower lip again, quite fast back and forth.
"Her name's Shirley," Ventura said.
"Lovely name," I said.
The lower lip went under the teeth again. I let go of her hand and sat back down.
"So you want me to find your son-in-law?"
"Don't call him that," Ventura said.
"My daughter married him.
I got nothing to do with it."
"How long's he been missing?" I said.
"That's all, and you're coming to me?"
"My daughter misses him."
"You said he took off on her. She says maybe not. Anyone want to amplify that?"
Shirley looked at her father. Her father shrugged.
"He's a bum," Ventura said.
"I give him odd jobs here and there, keep him off welfare. But he's a bum. I figure he took off with some bimbo will work him for what he's got and leave him when he's empty."
"That's not true, Daddy. Anthony loves me."
Ventura didn't say anything.
"No problems in the marriage?" I said.
"Oh, no. He woulda stood on his head for me."
"So what might have happened?" I said.
She looked at me blankly. She showed her top teeth. They were shiny and even, like they'd been bonded. The tip of her tongue poked out under her teeth and moved along her lower lip. Her eyes looked a little random.
"I don't know. Maybe there was an accident, you know. Hit and run, or something."
"Cops?" I said.
"No cops," he said.
"Simple missing person? Why not?"
"You know better," he said.
"You got people," I said.
"Why on family business, a wandering husband, only three days gone, would you go to Hawk?"
"We're talking about my kid here, you know? I want the best."
"For a missing hubby? Hawk? And he won't do it without me?"
"You want the job or not. Most people be happy to get it."
I stood up and turned my back on them and looked out my window, down at Berkeley Street where it crosses Boylston. I like the view. You could see up Boylston a good way, and down Berkeley, toward the river. Lot of attractive women worked in the Back Bay, many of them walking about this very corner, and I was trying to stay abreast of this year's fall fashions. I didn't like Ventura. His daughter appeared to be a nitwit. I didn't believe either one of them. I didn't need the money. There was no reason to take the job… except that it was the kind of work I did. And there was no one waiting in the hall for the next appointment.
"You got a picture of him?" I said, still looking down at the street life below me.
"Yes," Shirley said.
I turned around and sat back down at my desk. Shirley took a wedding photo out of her purse. There she was in the white gown and veil and elaborate tiara. There he was in his pearl gray tux with the black satin shawl collar. He had a sharp narrow face, with a sharp nose and narrow eyes. His black hair was longish and smooth and thick with mousse, brushed back on the sides, and falling in a darling curl on his forehead.
"Adorable," I said.
"When did you see him last?"
"Monday morning when he left the house," Shirley said.
"Same time as usual?" I said.
"Yes. Anthony was very responsible about his work. He felt the responsibility of being Daddy's son-in-law."
I looked at Ventura. He didn't say anything.
"And you didn't have a fight before he left?"
"What's the address?" I said.
"Address?" Shirley looked at her father.
"Why you need to know where she lives?" he said.
"Just thought it might be a nice place to start."
"I don't like people knowing any of our addresses."
"Sure," I said.
"I understand. No need to tell me anything. I'll just stick my head out the window and yell "Hey, Anthony." That'll probably work."
"I'm in a sensitive business," Ventura said.
"I don't like people poking around in it."
I held the picture out to Shirley.
"Then take back your picture, and take a walk. You hire me to look for Anthony I'm going to be poking around in your business."
Shirley didn't take the picture.
"I'm going to look through his belongings. I'm going to ask around the neighborhood. I'm going to talk to people who knew him."
"The hell you will," Ventura said.
"We have a condo," Shirley said.
"In Point of Pines."
She gave me the address. Ventura stood up and took the picture that I was still holding out toward Shirley.
"Come on, Shirley. Deal's off," he said.
"This is family business."
Shirley's face got red and squeezed up and tears began to roll down her cheeks. She clasped both hands together in her lap and lowered her head as if she were studying the grip and began to sob. I sat back in my chair and watched.
"Come on," Ventura said again.
Shirley kept right on sobbing at her lap.
"Goddamn it, Shirley…"
Shirley sobbed resolutely. I sat, with my chair tilted back, and waited.
"Oh, fuck!" Ventura said and tossed the picture back on my desk and sat down.
I got a box of Kleenex out of my bottom drawer and placed them on the desk where Shirley could reach them. She plucked one out and dabbed at her eyes with it.
"We're in business?" I said to Ventura.
Shirley looked up and smiled, and said, "Thank you, Daddy."
Ventura nodded without looking at her. He was looking at me. A hard look. So I'd know how dangerous he was. He was wasting his time. I already knew how dangerous he was.
"You know my occupation, right?" Ventura said.
Ventura looked an even harder look at me. I managed to keep my poise.
"You learn anything, might be, ah, some kind of problem, you know, you keep it to your fucking self, right?"
"Anyone ever actually faint when you were giving them the hard stare?" I said.
Ventura didn't answer. He kept looking at me.
"You know, sort of gasp with terror," I said, "and slide down in the chair and let their head fall sideways with their tongue hanging out? Like this?"
I demonstrated what I meant. Shirley giggled into the Kleenex she was still using.
"Shut up, Shirley, he ain't funny," Ventura said, without easing up on his hard look.
"You know that, Spenser?" he said.
"You ain't funny. You think you are. You think you're a fucking riot, you know? Well, you ain't.
My kid wants you to find her husband. Okay, you find him, and I pay you, and you go your way. No problem. But you dick around with me at all, and something will happen that won't be so fucking funny."
Still playing dead, slumped in my chair with my head tilted, and my tongue out, I opened one eye and looked at Shirley. She giggled again. Then I slurped my tongue in and sat up.
"Okay," I said.
"Now it's my turn. There's a lot about this deal that doesn't make any sense, because there's a lot you're not telling me. That's all right, I'm used to it. I'll take the case. But when I find out what you're not telling me, I reserve the right, if I don't like it, to quit."
Ventura didn't have a big repertoire. He was back to his hard look again.
"What did Anthony do for you?" I said to Ventura.
"He worked for me."
"Doing what I told him."
I looked at Shirley. Her eyes were dry now, though she still held the Kleenex in both fists, clenched in her lap, just in case.
"Anthony was in the financial part," she said as helpfully as she could.
I looked at Ventura. He stared back at me.
I said, "Un huh."
"He chase women?" I said.
"Oh no," Shirley said.
"Never. He wasn't like that at all."
Shirley's eyes flicked almost invisibly toward her father and then back at me. It was so quick I wasn't entirely sure it happened.
"No," she said firmly.
"I mean he'd play cards for pennies with the guys and drink a few beers, and stuff once in like a blue moon, but gamble, no way."
"Any vices at all?" I said.
"Booze, coke, too much coffee?"
"Oh no. You have the wrong picture of him. Anthony was very nice, and he was crazy about me."
It went like that for maybe forty minutes more. Me asking questions. Shirley answering, and Ventura sitting like a mean toad giving me the stone stare. At the end of the forty minutes it was clear that Anthony had no reason to take off, and every reason to stay home and drink champagne from Shirley's slipper. Except that Anthony was gone.
Being a trained investigator, I smelled a rat.