Langdon, Fennerman, and Wetzel had a web page with a Chicago address and telephone number that matched the information on the card Foster had given Henderson. But then, I’d expected it would. Business cards were a cheap prop. What I had to find out was whether the firm had a Stephen Foster on their staff, and, if they did, if their Stephen Foster was my Stephen Foster. Since there were no names or pictures of non-partner employees on the site, I dialed their number and waited for someone to answer.
“Landonfennermanandwet-zel,” a pleasant, feminine voice intoned.
“May I speak with Stephen Foster.”
“He’s unavailable at the moment. May I have him return your call?”
The name was apparently legit, but I still didn’t know if I had the right man. “He’s unavailable” can mean anything from “he’s in the john” to “he’s out of town” to “he’s picky about answering phone calls.” I had to find out which.
“Can you tell me when I can best reach him?”
She put me on hold and Muzak was piped over the line. Classy. At long distance day rates I figured I was paying the equivalent of a concert ticket for that medley of near music. She didn’t come back on the line until intermission.
“He won’t be in until tomorrow, I’m afraid.”
That left out the john.
“I’m hoping I have the right Stephen Foster. Stephen G. Foster—tall, athletic fellow, snappy dresser, witty.”
“Well, er, I wouldn’t quite describe him like that.”
“I think his middle initial is ‘G,” but he isn’t very tall. Average height, I would say.”
If we were talking about the same man, she was the type of person I hoped would some day write my epitaph. We made a few more guarded comparisons. Then I thanked her and hung up. Even without asked whether their Stephen Foster wore oxfords with sloping heels, it was a safe bet that the investigator at “Landonfennermanandwet-zel” was my guy.
The next thing I knew I was working on a list. Making lists is a lawyer’s habit, but for some reason, if Henderson didn’t make a list, he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to do next. Stevick had used little boxes in the left-hand margin to check off each item as it was completed. Henderson omitted these. In addition, Henderson made sloppy lists, sometimes even failing to cross of completed assignments. Stevick despised Henderson’s untidy approach to list making, but I was slowly becoming accustomed to them. Any list is better than no list at all.
Henderson actually needed two lists for this case, one for checking out Foster, the other for finding himself. Using a dull number two pencil, I made a faint checkmark by the first item on the Foster list: I needed a sense of accomplishment this morning. Then, impulsively, I made a square around the checkmark, a thick, smudged line. Sharpened pencils were for tidy people. Henderson wasn’t a tidy person. He was just someone irritated as hell by a dull pencil.
A glance at Henderson’s calendar told me that at least two other files needed immediate attention. They weren’t big moneymakers, none of his cases were, but he had accepted the jobs and therefore had an obligation to complete them. Follow-through was part of the poor-but-honest image. Besides, Henderson needed every dime they would bring in to pay the rent and keep himself in pencils.
The first thing Henderson always did when settling down to work was to call his telephone answering service for messages, just as Stevick used to check with his secretary at the start of each working day. Surely that didn’t constitute a traceable habit. He could have used an automated answering service, but he liked having a real voice to talk to about messages, and he assumed his clients felt the same. He had chosen the service partly because they were local. But they were also efficient, and his message taker was Coral.
I dialed the number and Coral answered, her voice as delicate and pink as her name.
“Sorry, Mr. Henderson. No messages today.”
There was something sensual about the way she said Henderson’s name. Since he supposedly viewed all women as objects, he considered it his duty to think like an animal. He had a number of secret nicknames he imagined whispering to her in a moment of passion. What I often wondered was whether Coral – assuming her name really was “Coral” – had any secret names for him.
“Thanks, Coral.” Sometimes Henderson kidded around with her awhile, reaching back to Stevick’s early college years for something to say, often provoking an incredulous, “Why, Mis-ter Henderson!” No time for that today though.
After organizing and reorganizing Henderson’s assignments, making two fruitless calls and pacing back and forth for almost five minutes, I finally managed to convince Henderson that spending more time on the Stevick case was essential, to both of us. I couldn’t rely on a single telephone call to verify Foster’s identity. And if he wasn’t who he claimed to be, our double life was over.
I gathered up Henderson’s lists, took one last look around, and left through the front door. If anyone wanted to follow Henderson today, I intended to make it easy for them. Foster had passed the first test, but Henderson was a cautious man. No, that wasn’t accurate. Henderson was a thorough man, thorough but reckless, a good detective. I kept forgetting.
Without looking over his shoulder once, Henderson went directly to his car. He took plenty of time to warm up the engine, listening with displeasure to the loud rattle. Then he pulled out of the parking space and proceeded slowly enough to allow anyone who wanted plenty of opportunity to fall into line.
Several honks from impatient drivers failed to ruffle Henderson. Signaling well in advance of each turn, he continued at a snail’s pace, keeping one eye on the road, the other on the rearview mirror.
A red Honda followed for two blocks before turning off. Other cars came and went, but none seemed to stay in sight for very long. Once Henderson stopped and ran into a drugstore. No one seemed to care. By the time he arrived at police headquarters, I was fairly certain he wasn’t being followed.
Al Castaldo was behind his desk looking out of sorts, like a man suffering from low back pain should. He’d had the pains ever since he’d been promoted to captain. Probably from too much sitting around. Crease lines had formed along his nose from frowning at the stacks of forms that seemed to multiply faster than crime statistics. He was always thwacking the piles with a ballpoint pen, like a cop on the beat brandishing a nightstick. If it hadn’t been for a wife and five kids, there was no doubt he would have asked for his old job back.
‘Morning, Alph . . . .” Henderson let his voice trail off. It was an old joke, and not a very funny one.
Al tipped his nameplate on its side so Henderson couldn’t read “Captain Alphonso Castaldo” and thrust a yellow piece of paper at him. “Read this,” he said.
ORDER FILLED PREVIOUSLY was stamped sideways across the form. “You mean they actually have a rubber stamp that says ‘order filled previously’?”
“They told me to fill out a requisition form, so I did, and this is what they sent me back. What the hell do they think I went to all that trouble for?”
“You could put a piece of masking tape over the ‘phonso.’ Or get another desk.”
“My father, he had to have an Uncle Alphonso. Uncle Alphonso, lots of money and no heir. Not until after I got stuck with his damn name. Then he remarries and has a kid.”
Henderson had heard it all before, but he liked Al, so he listened patiently.
After Al ran out of complaints, he asked, “So, what do you want?”
“I could ask why you think I want something.” Henderson grinned. “But I won’t. I’ll tell you what I want instead.”
Al put the yellow copy of the requisition form on top of the pile in his IN box and got up to pour two cups of coffee. Henderson waited until the ritual was completed before asking about Foster.
“What is this?” Al said. “He asks about you, you ask about him – why don’t you two save yourself time and skip the middleman?”
“What do you know about him?”
“You see his business card?”
“Then you know everything I know.” Al sat down, shifting in his chair as if trying to find a comfortable position. The requisition form had obviously upset him.
“Did he come in here specifically to ask about me?”
“You think your name is on everyone’s lips, like some movie star or something?”
“I once ran an ad in the New Yorker –‘Henderson, Private Dick for Hire.’”
“So? So he asked for the name of a good investigator specializing in missing persons.”
“And you gave him my name.”
“It was an off day.”
“Did he seem to know who I was?”
“Maybe he doesn’t read the New Yorker.”
Al was sitting up a little straighter. There had to be some reason for Henderson’s interest in Foster.
“The job seems legit,” Henderson said, “but the mob may be involved. I’m not sure I like that.”
“Any particular mob, or are you using the generic term?”
Al reached out to straighten his nameplate. “You going to tell me who you’re supposed to be looking for?”
“Ever hear of Warren Stevick?”
“Stevick. Stevick. Not the lawyer from Chicago who ratted on some criminal friends of his a few years back.”
“That’s the one.” He had the right Stevick, but I couldn’t say I cared much for his characterization of events.
“That’s what I’m supposed to find out.”
“Is it a possibility?”
“Anything’s possible. I’ll let you know what I come up with.”
“If I remember right, he disappeared, didn’t he?”
“I’d have disappeared too if I’d been in his shoes,” I said with feeling. Actually, it was his Scribes I missed the most.
* * *
As I left Al’s office I mentally checked off another item on the Foster list: It had been a stroke of luck that Foster had been referred to Henderson, not a coincidence Sherlock Holmes would have questioned. It was beginning to look as though I was worried over nothing, well, not exactly over nothing, but at least things weren’t as bad as I’d feared. Stevick had made a stupid move, but Henderson could cover for him. He could go through the motions and reassure Foster that if Stevick had indeed been in the city, he was no longer around. That would even be the truth – there was no such person as Warren Stevick in this city, or anywhere else for that matter. Not Warren Stevick as he used to be at any rate. The old personality and tastes occasionally surfaced, although that was happening less and less of late. I wasn’t entirely certain I was pleased about some of the changes, but I had little choice in the matter. If Henderson was to exist as a believable and whole person, I had to forget I was an actor playing a part. I had to become the character. And at times I feared that I had.
I stopped for a quick lunch at one of the dives Henderson frequents, then ran two quick errands on other files to ease my conscience and to placate Henderson’s clients. Afterwards I went to the recreational equipment store where Norton had purchased the backpack for Warren Jr. It was a logical starting point for Henderson, and it would allow me to assess just how much Foster actually knew.
The manager was an attractive middle-aged woman, attractive in an efficient, professional way, not at all like the bouncy young clerks Henderson had ogled on the way in. Had she ever been like them, I wondered, or had she emerged from puberty wearing a tailored suit with stodgy tortoiseshell glasses? Henderson resisted an urge to rip off her glasses and fluff out her hair. Instead he asked about the backpack.
“Another man made similar inquiries just last Friday,” she replied, her tone critical.
“Don’t tell me we’re duplicating assignments.” Henderson shook his head in disgust. “Fellow about medium height, short brown hair, polished shoes, vinyl briefcase?”
I knew by the look in her eye that she had noticed Henderson’s own scuffed shoes and generally tacky appearance, but all she said was, “Yes, that describes him.”
“Could I trouble you to go over the information again? I’m afraid it may be impossible to catch up with Mr. Foster today, and it would speed things up considerably.” Henderson was being nauseatingly polite. Not that she would know that wasn’t his usual approach.
She hesitated a moment, then acquiesced. It only took a few minutes to locate the information. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you much,” she said. “We don’t have a Warren Stevick on our preferred customers’ list. Nor does the name appear in any of our other records. He apparently didn’t request a catalog, give us a bad check . . .” she smiled apologetically “. . . or get caught shoplifting. I can, however, tell you that we got those particular backpacks in only two months ago. They’re a new line developed for greater durability and carrying capacity. The style is very popular with our younger customers.”
Damn Sharon. Warren Jr. would have liked that backpack.
“But you’re certain someone purchased it here?”
“I can assure you that no one else would be selling anything with our label.”
“But you advertise nationally.”
“In some select magazines.”
She seemed to imply Henderson wouldn’t be familiar with those particular publications.
‘You do have online sales.”
“Yes, but our records would show if it had been an online purchase. We track store and online purchases separately as part of our stocking and distribution plan. And, if it had been purchased online, we would have a record of his name and address from his credit information.”
“One last thing, do you have security camera coverage from a month ago?” Ordinarily Henderson would have been anxious to look at any camera footage, but under the circumstances, he was hoping the answer was “no.”
“I’m sorry. We only keep videos for thirty days. They’re recorded over after that.” She paused. “Your Mr. Foster asked the same thing.” The tone of disapproval was back. “Sorry I can’t be of more help.” Definitely a dismissal statement.
I stood up. “I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. Especially since you already went over the information with Mr. Foster.” See, Ms. Manager, Henderson doesn’t call all women broads and slap them on the butt for an exit gesture.
We shook hands. Her skin was cool and her grip firm. Stevick appreciated her professionalism, but Henderson labeled her cold and asexual. Although he was still speculating about whether she had a kinky streak under the pinstripes and buttoned up silk blouse.
As I left she gave me a penetrating look as if trying to see the inner man, or so I fantasized. To her I was probably just a tacky, but polite, private investigator. Her cooperative attentiveness had undoubtedly been her customer service training kicking in.
Feeling out of sorts, I headed uptown. Although Norton did all of his own paperwork, Henderson always went to the same small office supplies and services store for his printing and copying needs as well as for getting the occasional report typed. That was his next stop. They were efficient, and they had Angie. I had a rule against forming attachments, but panting and patting didn’t constitute forming an attachment.
When Henderson said he only needed a few minutes of her time in one of the back rooms, the other employees snickered. Angie pretended she didn’t get the joke, but winked at Henderson as she said to come along. Henderson wiggled his eyebrows at the others and gave a fair imitation of undisguised masculine lust. Then he turned and followed Angie’s well-rounded figure down the hall, admiring the way her skirt followed the line of her buttocks down to the top of her thighs.
Although Angie was a flirt and seemed to enjoy Henderson’s inane banter, she never seemed surprised or disappointed when he didn’t follow through. After their usual exchange of double entendres, he told her what he wanted and she quickly settled down to business.
One of the things I had done when bringing Henderson into the world was to take some drama and voice lessons, ostensibly to improve my speaking voice. What I had secretly tried to accomplish was to learn how to alter my voice sufficiently so it would not give me away if I ran into anyone from Stevick’s past. Even though I considered the lessons a success, I didn’t relish testing them now. There was too much at stake.
After just a few minutes of practice, Angie was ready. I dialed the still familiar number and the telephone started to ring. Angie nodded at Henderson to let him know someone had answered. “Mrs. Stevick?” Angie said.
“I’m calling for Mr. Foster to see if you’ve received anything else in the mail from your husband that might be helpful in the investigation.” The implicit message was that the area code for the call indicated Foster was still in the city and wanted the information before he headed back for Chicago. “Oh, you talked with him this morning? I’m sorry, I must have misunderstood. I didn’t realize he was going to take care of this directly.”
“Fine. Sorry to have bothered you. Goodbye.”
She put down the phone and twirled the chair around, her skirt stretched taut and hitched upward to reveal the shapely length of her long legs.
“Sounds like she definitely hired this Mr. Foster. And she thinks he’s still here in the city. That’s what you wanted to know, isn’t it?”
“Exactly. Thanks, Angie. You’re a doll.” Did calling her a “doll” make him sound like someone who read too many Raymond Chandler mysteries?
Angie dropped her businesslike demeanor and crossed her legs to give Henderson a better view. Her smile reminded him of a line from Farewell My Lovely: “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.” He lingered just long enough to make a fool of himself.
As I left the building I pulled out the list and made a nice, neat checkmark right in the middle of a perfect square. Foster was legit.