The last time John Weston saw his son alive, it was a frigid after-noon in the first week of March, and John's granddaughter was build-ing a snowman as the two men stood in the driveway and talked. Before he left, John gave his son a fatherly pat on the shoulder and promised to see him again soon. He saw him soon-stretched out in a morgue less than forty-eight hours later, dead of a small-caliber gun-shot wound to the head. John was saved the horror of viewing his granddaughter in a similar state, but the reason for that was a hollow consolation: Five-year-old Betsy Weston and her mother were missing.
John Weston told me this as we sat in his house in North Olmsted, a suburb on Cleveland's west side, five days later. Weston's living room was clean and well arranged but dark, with the window shades pulled, and smelled heavily of cigarette smoke. While he spoke, the old man stared at me with a scowl that betrayed no trace of grief but plenty of determination.
"Listen to me, Mr. Perry," he said, blowing a cloud of cigarette smoke in my direction, I know my son. He did not kill himself, and he damn sure didn't hurt his family. Have you watched the news? You hear what those bastards are saying? They're saying my son killed his own wife and baby daughter, then killed himself." He slapped the coffee table with his hand hard enough to make some of my coffee splash over the rim of the Mug. "I will not tolerate that. I want to know what happened, and I want YOU and your partner to help me."
Weston sat on an enormous leather couch across from me, and I was in a bizarre chair with a curved wooden frame and a large, rip-pled plastic cushion. When I leaned back in it I immediately slid down until my head was parallel to the armrests. Feeling pretty ridiculous in that position, I'd tried an assortment of others before, surrendering to gravity and the slick cushion, I leaned forward, sitting on the edge of the chair, my elbows resting on my knees. Now I looked more intense than I felt, but it beat the alternatives.
"I've heard the television reports," I said. "But the police haven't said the murder/suicide angle is a legitimate theory, Mr. Weston. That's just some talking head in a newsroom trying to hold an audience with sen-sationalism."
Weston kept the scowl. He was in his upper seventies but still a large man; when he was younger he must have been massive. His legs were skinny now and his belly soft, but his broad chest and shoulders were a testament to his former size. He still had nearly a full head of gray hair, a nose that seemed too small for his face, and calculating, edgy eyes that took everything in as if he were looking for an excuse to shout. The pinky finger of his right hand was missing, and the ring finger ended in a stump just past the middle knuckle. While I sipped my coffee, he turned and pointed at two framed paintings on the wall behind him.
"You see those paintings?" he said.
They appeared to be World War II military scenes, and they were well done. Nothing fancy, just a talented artist's precise rendition of what he had seen. My type of painting-something you could appre-ciate without a master's degree in art.
"A buddy of mine did those," he said, and then coughed loudly, a wet, rasping hack like a shovel scraping snow off rough pavement. "Pretty good, aren't they?"
"Very nice." I finished my coffee and set the mug on the coffee table beside the business card I had given Weston. PERRY AND PRITCHARD INVESTIGATIONS it read. I was Lincoln Perry, and Joe Pritchard was my partner. We were just six months into the business now, but we'd already managed to accumulate a significant amount of debt. We tried not to boast about that accomplishment too often, though, especially to clients. Before going into private work, Joe and I had been partners in the Cleveland Police Department's narcotics division. I'd been forced into resignation, and he'd retired about a year later. Somehow, Joe had con-vinced me to meet with John Weston alone while he handled what would probably be a routine interview. I was regretting that arrangement now.
'What you see there in the paintings are a CG-4A glider and a tow plane," Weston said, looking back at the paintings again. "I flew the gliders."
"That was a one-of-a-kind experience, I imagine."
"You've got that right. There was never anything like it before, and there hasn't been since. By the time 'Nam rolled around they had heli-copters to do that job. In my war, though, it was gliders."
I thought about it, the experience of drifting down onto a battle-field in silence with no motor to power you.
"What'd it feel like, flying the thing?"
He smiled. "Like sitting on the front porch and flying the house. I flew two combat missions and a handful of supply missions. Had a rough landing in the second combat mission and lost some fingers, but I still had to fight on the ground all that night. We had the same weapons training as the commando soldiers, and it was the job of us glider pilots to hold whatever territory we landed on. I fought Nazis all night without taking any medicine to help with the pain in my hand. But it was better than it could have been. A couple of the other gliders cracked up badly on landing, and a few were shot down. Hell, I had bul-let holes through the canvas."
"Close call, eh?" I didn't know where he was going with this conver-sation, but I was content to ride it out.
"Close enough. The closest call I ever had was a mission I didn't fly, though. I was slated to fly into what was basically a German fortress in France, and the probability of survival was so low it was damn near a suicide mission. We were all set to fly out, saying our goodbyes to the world, you know, because we were pretty convinced this was a one-way trip. Just before we went up, they told us the mission had been can-celed, because Patton took the Nazi fortress." He lit a cigarette with a steel Zippo and took a long drag. "People badmouth Patton all the time these days, but I'll tell you this-that son of a bitch is a friend of mine for as long as I live."
I've always been a bit of a Patton fan myself, at least in terms of re-specting the man's battlefield genius and efficiency, but 1 guessed Weston would scorn such appreciation from a man who'd never served, so I kept quiet. He smoked the cigarette for a minute, staring over his shoulder at the paintings, lost in his memories. Then he turned back to me, and his eyes narrowed in a way that suggested fo-cus and determination.
"I appreciate you meeting with me," he said. "After our first phone conversation, I thought you were turning me down."
"I'm here," I said, "but that doesn't mean I'm going to take the job, Mr. Weston. You've got some of the finest cops in the city working on this, and from what I hear, even the FBI is helping."
"Helping to dick around and waste time!" he roared.
"I don't think they're wasting any time, sir."
"No? Then where the hell are some results? Those damn cops come over here every damn day and tell me what they've produced. You know what they've produced? Jack shit, boy. In five days, they've done nothing." He stuck out his lower lip and exhaled a cloud of smoke forcefully over his face.
"It takes some time to make headway in an investigation of this magnitude, sir."
"Look," he said, trying to contain his anger, "this is my son we're talking about. My son and his family. I've got to do something, but I'm smart enough to realize I can't do it alone. I need someone working for me. Someone who can pursue this as aggressively as it needs to be pursued."
I sighed. John Weston was convinced his son had been murdered, although none of the police investigators seemed to agree. The prevailing media theory, courtesy of an "unnamed police source," was that Wayne Weston had killed his family before offing himself. No bodies had been found, and there was little evidence to explain their disap-pearance. There had been no signs of violent intruders at the house; everything appeared normal except for Wayne Weston's corpse.
"Why us, Mr. Weston?" I asked. "Why do you think we need to be involved, when you have the police doing everything they can?"
"You knew my son."
I held up a cautioning hand. "I'd met your son."
"Whatever. You knew him, and he knew you and respected you. He told me he thought you and your partner were going to be very good when you started your business."
I'd met Wayne Weston at a private investigators conference in Day-ton two months before. It was one of those two-day events featuring seminars on various business issues during the day and sessions of too much food, drink, and loud laughter in the hotel restaurant at night. Joe had decided we should go because it offered a chance to network with other local investigators, making contacts, and possibly attracting some business.
Wayne Weston had sat at the same table as me for dinner one night. He was a flashy guy, wearing expensive suits and driving a fancy car, but he was friendly and charismatic. And, from what I'd heard, a hell of an investigator. He'd been with the Pinkertons for a few years be-fore returning to Cleveland to open his own firm, and he was appar-ently making good money at it. I hadn't talked to him individually for more than an exchange of names, and I was surprised to hear he'd said anything about Joe and me to his father.
"My son didn't kill himself or hurt his family," Weston said. "That's the most absurd and offensive bullshit I've ever heard. They came on the news talking about that yesterday, and I damn near drove down there and kicked some ass. I want to know what did happen to my daughter-in-law and granddaughter, so I can quit this damn worrying, and so those television people can shut their mouths."
His eyes flashed with anger as he spoke, and he tried to extinguish it with a tremendous drag on the cigarette. For a minute I thought he'd polish the whole thing off in that one ferocious inhalation.
"What exactly is it that you want Joe and me to do?" I asked. "Deter-mine whether your son was murdered, or find his wife and daughter?"
"Both," he said, blowing out a cloud of smoke that made my eyes sting. "It seems to me one would be pretty well intertwined with the other."
That was a fair point. I still didn't like it, though. The cops would resent our presence, and I definitely didn't want to get caught up in the media frenzy.
"Look, I've got plenty of money," Weston said. "I've got a good re-tirement plan, I've got a savings account. I can afford to pay whatever it is you want."
"It's not about the money, Mr. Weston," I said.
"No? Then what the hell is it?"
"The police have a lot of investigators working on this case," I said. "They have resources and access that we don't, and they've also got a week's head start on it. I'd advise you to wait on the police, and see what they can do with it. If they haven't made any progress in a few weeks, give us a call again, and maybe we'll reconsider." I had no plans to reconsider, but I hoped the offer would placate the old man.
"You know why I showed you those paintings?" he asked. "Why I told you what happened to my hand?"
He ground his cigarette out in an ashtray on the table and stared at me with contempt. Then he shook his head.
"Wayne was one of your own," he said. "Same city, same business, and that's a business without many people involved. That used to mean something to people. When I was in the war, we fought for the men with us. Before battle, during the preparation, it was all about patriotism saving he world and protecting the freedom of our families back home. But you know what? When it came down to the firefight, that wasn't in your mind anymore. You were fighting for the boys next to you, fighting for your buddies, protecting your own." He looked at me sadly. "Maybe my generation was the last one that had that kind of loy-alty, that kind of brotherhood."
It was a hell of a pitch. I didn't answer right away, but it resonated with me as he had hoped it would. I hadn't known Wayne Weston well, and we were in the same business, not in the same war, but some-how, sitting here in front of this man with his World War II paintings, gnarled hand, dead son, and missing family members, that line of rea-soning seemed hollow.
I "Why do you do it?" he asked. "Why are you even in this business? You want to get rich chasing cheating husbands? You think it impresses women to say you're a PI? Huh?"
I looked at the floor, trying not to snap at him. "Nope," I said evenly. "None of those, sir."
"Really? Then what the hell do you do it for?"
I didn't say anything.
"Well?" he said. "You gonna give me an answer, son?"
I raised my head and looked at him. "I do it," I said, "because I'm awfully damn good at it."
"You think you're awfully damn good at it, eh?"
"I don't think I am, sir. I am. And so is my partner."
He smiled without amusement or pleasure. "Then prove it."
I met his eyes and held his gaze for a while, then gave one, short nod.
"All right," I said. "We will."
Copyright 2004 by Michael Koryta