I have always had sensitive feet. My mother used to argue with the shoe salesmen at J.C. Penney’s about my high arches and long toes, but their only response was to cram my protesting metatarsals into penny loafers and sneakers mass produced for kids with ordinary feet. Those shoes pinched and rubbed the joy out of my boyhood. I was nearly thirty before I discovered the Scribe, a handmade shoe by Bally. For a time my feet were happy.
Massaging the aching arch of my left foot and cursing the corn that was threatening to erupt on my little toe, I glared at the shoes on the floor beside Eric Henderson’s desk. Henderson was a man without taste or distinction. His shoes with their worn synthetic soles and imitation leather uppers were to the Scribe what Hershey is to Comptoir du Cacao of France. I hated Henderson’s shoes. I hated Henderson.
At that moment I thought I heard a familiar squeak. If someone was turning the handle of the office door, I would know soon enough. I bent down and put on Henderson’s shoes, waiting for the inevitable “thunk” as the caller tried to push the door open. It wouldn’t open unless I unlocked it, and I wouldn’t do that until I had a look at who wanted in.
I got up and quietly retreated through the adjoining door to the empty neighboring office which I lease but don’t use. That office opened onto the corridor around the corner from the official entrance to Henderson’s place of business. I had looked a long time before finding this exact setup.
As I peeked around the corner, I saw a man delivering a controlled rap just below the sign that said, “Eric Henderson, Private Investigations.” His appearance was as moderate as his three knuckle knock, gray and neat, inexpensive tweed jacket that almost, but not quite, matched his polyester slacks, hair trimmed but not stylish, sloping heels on his highly polished oxfords. In his left hand he had a faux leather vinyl briefcase with plastic initials under the brown plastic handle. It probably wasn’t filled with hundred dollar bills.
If he didn’t look rich, he didn’t look dangerous either. Henderson drew himself up to his full height and came out of hiding, pretending to be just coming down the hall.
“May I help you?” he asked.
The man turned around, startled. Then he pointed a narrow thumb at the door. “Do you know if this guy’s around?”
“Yeah. He’s around.” Henderson took out his keys and moved forward, keeping an eye on the stranger’s hands.
When he stopped in front of the door, the man asked, “Are you Henderson?”
“Last time I looked.”
“There ought to be a sign on the door stating your hours.”
“You’re right. Maybe one of those cardboard clock things that says ‘out to lunch’ on the back side.” Henderson swung the door open and stepped aside for the man to enter first.
Even after two years I was still self-conscious about Henderson’s office. With its battered desk, gray metal filing cabinet, patched Naugahyde couch, linoleum floor, and dirty Venetian blinds, it looked like the set for a Sam Spade movie. Admittedly, that’s what Henderson had in mind. There was even an ash tray with the name of a hotel in block print on the bottom. It was the kind of room that was supposed to conjure up the image of a tough, determined private eye, barely making ends meet, but ready and willing to take on the roughest assignment. Used to more aesthetic surroundings, to me the place was just depressing.
Henderson went around behind his desk, careful not to turn his back on his visitor who was trying to make himself comfortable in Henderson’s Edwardian client chair. It was a high-backed monstrosity made when rear ends were smaller and people more formal. Henderson hadn’t picked the chair, I had. I didn’t like his office and saw no reason why anyone else should either. With a sign of resignation, Henderson’s visitor settled in, posture erect, knees straight, briefcase in his lap.
“So, you’re Eric Henderson,” he said heartily.
“Well, Mr. Henderson, we’re in the same business.”
“So…you want career counseling?” Henderson was a snide bastard.
“No, I want to hire you.” The man took a card from his simulated leather wallet and handed it across the desk. I noted it was a computer generated card. All Henderson saw was the name: Stephen Foster. Henderson’s lips puckered in anticipation of a flip remark, but Foster interrupted before he could follow through.
“I’m with Langdon, Fennerman, and Wetzel, Investigative and Security Consultants,” he announced with pride, even though he apparently wasn’t a name partner.
Henderson realigned his lips over his teeth and waited for him to continue.
“We’ve been asked to locate a husband who deserted his wife. I’ve traced him to this city. That’s where you come in. It’s your town, your turf. You know where to look.”
My “turf”? “You pick my name out of the Racing news?” Clever, Henderson, clever.
“You do specialize in missing persons, don’t you?”
“You’ve been reading the small print.”
“What we need is someone who can devote his full time to this matter, er, right away.”
“The landlord let it slip that I’m behind on my rent?”
“Please don’t misunderstand. I’m here because Captain Castaldo spoke highly of you.”
“Money can buy anything, even a good reputation.” Easy, Henderson, you don’t want to libel the good captain.
“You are interested in the job?” He was starting to sound doubtful.
“Do I look like the kind of guy that would turn down good money?”
Judging from the deepening creases in Foster’s forehead, Henderson’s banter was beginning to get to him. Henderson decided to ease off. He didn’t think much of an investigator who couldn’t appreciate a good wisecrack now and then, but he needed the money.
“I have the file right here.” Foster flipped open his briefcase in his no-nonsense manner that was beginning to grate on Henderson. Inside were several files, all neatly marked, a row of pens on the left tucked in their little pockets. “Here it is.” He extracted a manila folder and handed it to Henderson. His fingernails were chewed to the quick. What did someone like him have to worry about, I wondered, losing money in a football pool?
Henderson made a show of slumping down and propping his feet on the edge of the open bottom drawer of his desk, laid back, self-confident, the man to go with the setting. Then he opened the folder and looked down at the glossy photograph of the man Foster wanted found. His self-confidence vanished as quickly as a wallet on a park bench.
My eyes involuntarily went to Foster’s face, but he wasn’t even looking in my direction. He was leering at the girlie calendar on the wall. It was yellowed with age and the wrong month was on display. But it had come with the place, and Henderson hadn’t bothered to take it down.
My breathing had become noticeably audible and one foot had slipped off the edge of the drawer. Trying to cover, I straightened up, blew my nose, and flipped through the remaining pages in the file without really seeing anything.
When I had myself under control, Henderson commented on the file. “Seems straightforward.”
Foster turned toward Henderson with a condescending smile. “Straightforward, perhaps, but certainly not your run-of-the-mill missing person’s case.”
Was he testing me? “Runaway husband, a wife who wants him back–it happens all the time.”
“You don’t recognize the name?”
Henderson hesitated as I racked my mind to decide if it was a trick question. “Sounds vaguely familiar.”
“Warren Stevick,” Foster said, favoring Henderson with another patronizing look. “He made the headlines a few years back. Prominent tax and corporate attorney who wasn’t too careful about his clientele. That is, he didn’t care how they made their money as long as they had lots of it and he got his share. His job was to ‘clothe their incomes in legitimacy.’ Like putting a whore in a white wedding dress.”
His eyes darted to the calendar, then back to Henderson. “That’s how most of those fancy lawyers earn their keep, you know, helping the fat cats stay fat.”
What a creep! With his personality he had to be for real.
“Then one day Stevick testifies against a couple of minor crime figures. Not clients but probably connected to some of his clients. It was part of a crackdown on gambling. They were convicted on his testimony. The affair made quite a splash. The police were happy, the public was happy, but Stevick, well, he disappeared. The press couldn’t decide whether he went into witness protection, took out on his own to avoid having to testify against bigger fish or was put away by one or more dissatisfied customers.”
“The mafia remedy for malpractice,” Henderson quipped.
“Hmmm. Yes.” Foster didn’t smile.
“His wife thinks he left on his own?”
“Maybe witness protection, but she’s convinced he absconded with some of their money, so she suspects he went off on his own.”
“He sends money to the kids. Warren Jr. and Tamara.” Foster rolled his eyes and leered. A bead of spittle appeared at the corner of his mouth. “You should see her, little Tammy. Sixteen and just begging to be laid.”
I kept Henderson’s face expressionless, but it wasn’t easy. After an awkward pause, Foster took the hint.
“Stevick has been sending his kids money and presents off and on since he disappeared. That’s how I traced him.”
“To this city . . . .”
“Right. He was smart, but not smart enough. He’s got mail drops in different cities to cover his real address. One in New York, one in Minneapolis . . . .” He hesitated. “I guess you know how that sort of thing works.”
“And he’s figured out ways to cover his tracks when he orders gifts for the kids online. We, er, I think he has help with the technology bit. Still, he wasn’t as clever as he thought he was.”
Are any of us?
“I tried to buy the information, but that didn’t, ah, pan out. You’ve got to have an ‘in’ to get anything out of these techie nerds.” He shook his head in disgust; everyone ought to have their price. “And private postal box service employees have high turnover and short memories.”
“But you got onto him anyway.”
Foster grinned, displaying crooked but well cared for teeth. “Perseverance,” he said. “Perseverance and a little luck. That’s what it takes in this business, right?”
Why did the room suddenly seem cold? It must have been that damned linoleum. Floors need rugs.
“Anyway, last month was Warren Jr.’s birthday. Right on schedule Papa sent him a present. A backpack. Top of the line. Sent it through the usual channels, but forgot to remove the label. Only one company makes that particular backpack. And that one company sells it at their one and only retail store right here in this city.” He paused for dramatic effect.
It had been a stupid move on Stevick’s part, stupid and perhaps dangerous. If Foster knew enough to look up the brand and discover it had a sole retail distributor, the mob wouldn’t be far behind.
“He could have been passing through,” Henderson observed. “Or he could have ordered it online from another state.”
Foster impatiently tapped the sides of his briefcase with his manicured fingertips. “He might have been passing through,” he conceded, “but it wasn’t an online sale. Those come with different paperwork. This pack was bought right here, in this city, and I think it’s the mistake that’s going to finally nail him. All we, that is, all you have to do is follow up on this lead.”
He made it sound easy. But if there wasn’t a snag somewhere, Foster wouldn’t be sitting there. He was right about one thing though: Henderson stood a better chance of success than he would.
Henderson rifled through the file again. Without looking up, he asked, “Kid like the backpack?”
“The kid like the backpack?”
“He never saw it.”
“Why? You have it?”
“Nah. The wife got rid of it as soon as I had a chance to look it over. Like she always does with the stuff he sends. She doesn’t want the kids thinking about their old man anymore.”
“Bitter as hell.” He leaned forward. “I can tell you one thing. I wouldn’t want her after me. No way. She’s a cold bitch. Once she catches up with him she’s going to squeeze him dry, then chew up what’s left and spit out the pieces.” He smiled, either at the thought of all that squeezing and chewing, or at his own ability to turn a cliché.
“Not that I blame her, you understand. I mean, after all, the guy ran out on his own kids.”
“What makes her think there is anything to ‘squeeze’ out of him?”
“Be serious. Do you honestly think he would leave without taking a stash with him? Besides, his wife says she always suspected he was putting a little something aside for a rainy day. Probably has two or three Swiss bank accounts.”
“Is she guessing, or does she have some evidence?”
“Hey, this was a hotshot lawyer with big-time clients. Connected clients. His job was to hide their ‘incomes.’ That doesn’t come cheap. And someone like that had to know his future was shaky, if you know what I mean. There’s no way he didn’t plan an exit strategy for himself. Use your head.”
“I’m just trying to get a clear picture of what happened. You say he planned the whole thing in advance and absconded with a bundle of money that rightfully belongs to the wife and kiddies. What I want to know is whether it’s possible he left with empty pockets and his former clients breathing down his neck. If so, there may not be any more to squeeze out of him than the proverbial turnip.” Henderson threw in the bit about the turnip because he thought it would appeal to Foster, soften him up a little.
“He testified before a grand jury, for Christ’s sake. He had plenty of time to make plans.” Foster snapped his briefcase shut with an air of finality. “He brought the whole thing on himself. You eventually become like the company you keep.”
Had Foster learned to speak from greeting cards? Or was this some kind of innuendo intended to put Henderson on the defensive?
“What do you care for, anyway?” Foster said. “Stevick isn’t your client. Mrs. Stevick is the one paying the fee. Once we find her husband, our job is over.”
Yeah. If Foster was on the up and up, what the hell did I care? Henderson could certainly use the money.
“This will cost you,” Henderson warned.
Foster raised his eyebrows and both hands simultaneously, as if they were connected by invisible threads. “Hey, I bring you a nice straightforward job—that’s your own word, ‘straightforward’—and you start acting like you’re the only P.I. on the block. You get the going rate. Take it or leave it.”
“That was before you mentioned his ‘connections.’ That puts the case on a different footing. I’m entitled to hazardous duty pay, up front.” Henderson held out his hand, palm up. It was a crass gesture, the kind Henderson thought of as ‘tough.”
They argued back and forth awhile. Henderson wanted to see how far he could push Foster. He didn’t back off until he was certain Foster had reached his approved limit. In the end, Henderson settled for a little less than he’d wanted, but Foster ended up giving him a little more than he’d probably intended. Life was like that. At least Henderson’s life always seemed to be.
After Foster had gone and I was once again locked in the office, I opened the Stevick file and went through it page by page. Did Foster really have the jump on the mob? Or was he working for them? Maybe the Mrs. Stevick client bit was a ruse.
I took out the enlarged photo of Warren Stevick and propped it against an ashtray that had Harrah’s printed around the rim. There he was, deserter, fink and loser. A man on the run, his ex and his former clients snapping at his heels. And worse yet, if Foster was to be believed, with a bitter wife leading the pack, hell bent on revenge.
The setup made me nervous, real nervous. Automatically I reached into my jacket pocket. Damn. Only a pack of cigarettes. That’s right, Henderson didn’t eat gourmet hard candies when he got upset, he smoked. Tobacco and cheap liquor. To Henderson they were synonymous with the private detection business. When he ordered a drink, he didn’t ask to see the label.
I was becoming more adept at inhaling like someone who craved smoke-filled lungs, but I still hated the taste of cheap tobacco. It was a disgusting habit. A good cigar with a glass of aged Armagnac brandy –now that was different. If only Henderson could afford genuine Cuban cigars, the ones smuggled into the country in the past for those willing to pay for the best. But he couldn’t. Not even when they became legal would he be able to afford them. Just like he couldn’t afford Scribe shoes. Henderson would always have blackened lungs and sore feet.
For the most part I tried not to think about what might have been, but sometimes when I looked around Henderson’s sleazy office, I couldn’t control my thoughts. Instead of a dingy room and three squares a day, I could have had a plush carpeted suite with a view of the city from glass walls cleaned weekly by somebody else. Then there was troll caught king salmon flown in fresh from Alaska, black truffles from Périgord, French wines from private collections, the best of whatever I wanted from anywhere in the world.
Damn you, Warren Stevick. I turned the photograph face down on the desk. With the money Henderson made from the case, he could have a mechanic work on the rattle in his car. It had been getting worse of late, about time he got it fixed. Dammit. I should have been driving a new car, not a junker with rust spots, poor shocks, and rattles.
I picked up the enlargement and stuffed it back in the file. In spite of what Henderson had said to Foster about the case, it was, in a sense, straightforward. He could lay his hands on Stevick any time he wanted. There was, however, on tiny snag, one teensy obstacle that took the farce out of being between a rock and a hard spot.
Unless Foster had already guessed and I was being set up, my continued existence depended on the tenuous deception of cosmetic surgery. The picture in the Stevick file was a photograph of me. I had just been hired to find myself.