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Lake St. Clair lay fallow at mid-morning, with no bright sail in sight. It was too early in the spring for the old Auto Money to expose its arthritis to the chill, and the New Rich were too busy trading in Japan before the stock exchange closed in Tokyo. The place was the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, and I belonged there like a dead carp on Irish linen.
I was dressed as well as the budget would stand, cleaned, pressed, and polished; but the kind of trade the place encouraged could pass without challenge in sweats and sneakers. If you weren’t born with that quality you had to practice six hours a day for years, like a bodybuilder. My work didn’t take me into such circles often enough to justify the time.
“Walker? I’m Lawes.”
I turned from the window and grasped the hand that was lent me. It was smooth but by no means soft, and gave the impression that the man who owned it was keeping some power in reserve. Francis Xavier Lawes wasn’t as tall as he looked on television, but he was by no means short: a tightly packed five-nine and 160 in a charcoal suit, white-on-white cotton shirt, and sky-blue silk necktie, a combination so well coordinated it might have come all of a piece, to slough off at the end of the day and stand in a corner. He had sandy hair that would never go gray and plenty of it, a tan, clean-shaven face, and a youthful voice for a man of fifty.
“You can call me X. Almost everyone does.”
“Thanks. I’d like to test-drive it first.”
The corners of his mouth stretched a centimeter, showing teeth that weren’t too white or too even: Baby Bear teeth, likely by design. “They told me you were slow to commit.”
“She, actually. Lieutenant Stonesmith. She inherited the investigation when Inspector Alderdyce retired.”
“She recommended me?”
“Along with some others. I landed on you because you were the only one who specializes in finding missing persons.”
“Looking for them, anyway.”
“Have you had breakfast?”
I didn’t say I didn’t eat it under normal circumstances. Accepting a prospective client’s offer to break bread is an important part of establishing a relationship; also I’d gotten in too late the night before to bother with supper. “No.”
We strolled along the loggia, a cloisterlike passage open to the air that like the rest of the building was some dead architect’s notion of life in Venice under the doge, passed through a couple of arches, and were shown by a headwaiter in livery to a white-cloaked table next to a window. There was a boat on the water now, square on the horizon, like a tin target being tugged along on pulleys in a shooting gallery. It was far enough across the water to have set sail from Canada.
At that hour we shared the room with a snowy-bearded gent in a blue blazer with a gold anchor on the handkerchief pocket and his dining companion, a black TV newsman I recognized from a local station. Blue Blazer was doing all the talking, gesturing with his fork, while his friend watched him without blinking.
“The Commodore’s still looking to unload that World War Two minesweeper he’s had since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Lawes said. “He started with the Fords; now he’s worked his way down to the minor local celebrities. It’s revealing how democratic the fatcats become when the bills pile up.”
“I’m guessing you don’t consider yourself a fatcat.”
The muscles tugged again at his mouth. “Just a tabby who found his way to a sill in the sun.”
Lawes paid tribute to the eggs Benedict. I said that would be fine. He checked two boxes on a menu card.
“Coffee, of course,” he said. “And would you object to a mimosa?”
“That would be even better.”
A server who looked like the maitre d’s understudy collected the card. While we were waiting we watched the sail skimming across the top of the window. I asked Lawes if he kept a boat there.
“No, I’m what they call a Corinthian. Do you know what that is?”
“A Greek, isn’t it?”
“At one time. Now it defines a man who enjoys sailing but doesn’t own a boat. He has friends who do.”
“That must simplify things.”
“Well, you know what they say about the two happiest days in a fellow’s life. My business affairs are complicated enough without cluttering up my private life with fees and maintenance.”
“I know you’re a public figure of some kind, but I’m not clear on what your business is.”
I gave him the same unblinking look the newsman gave the Commodore. He might have blushed a little; it’s difficult to suppress it when you use words like liaise in regular conversation.
“When a contractor wants to do business with the city, it’s my job to check him out and if he passes the test, to introduce him to the right bureaucrat.”
“It seems to me someone went to jail for that not long ago.”
“Well, that’s how the position came to be. The reformers wanted someone legit who could count the horse’s teeth, and if they add up, cut through the red tape without making a buck on the side. If the bidder turns out to be a phony or a chiseler or mobbed up, he never gets to see the inside of the municipal center. If I’m seen gobbling shrimp in the London Chop House with Vinny the Rhino Gotchabalzinmypocket, it’s all in the line of duty. If it’s anyone who buys time on Channel Two at election season, he retires from public service to spend more time with his family.”
“What’s it pay, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Enough to keep me from being tempted. Not enough to buy an island.”
Our breakfast arrived. You could boil a lobster in the coffee and stand a spoon straight up in the cup. The eggs were good, for someone who is never hungry at that time of day. The champagne would be a premium label, but I couldn’t tell it from hard cider. The orange juice they’d cut it with was fresh-squeezed and as perky as a puppy. I don’t care for either any morning.
We ate and drank and told the Tigers how to take the pennant. Lawes was buying, so I let him direct the conversation. Finally he touched his napkin to his lips and said, “I need you to find my wife.”
“I’ll find her.”
“You’re that sure of yourself?”
“I never got a job being any other way.”
“Is that a guarantee?”
I grinned. “No, sir. I’m not a plumber. But if I don’t, no one else will. They’ll just feed you vague leads and drain you till you decide to slip the hook.”
“By God.” He sat back. “By God, that’s just what they’ve all done, starting with the gold standard boys with the fancy web sites and receptionists who talk like they fart tea and crumpets. I fell into the old trap, expecting Ferrari efficiency for Ferrari prices. I should’ve started at the end of the alphabet and worked my way back.”
“You missed me, then. I list the place as A. Walker Investigations to appeal to short attention spans.”
“I don’t know how I could have missed you.”
“You could. I only advertise in the Yellow Pages.”
“Does that still exist?”
“On the beach. You can’t impress girls by tearing a laptop in half.” I pushed aside my plate. “Your wife can be found, assuming she didn’t go someplace like Mars or Hollywood. If you don’t get famous in the second place you might as well be in the first for all anyone ever hears of you. If she doesn’t want to come back I can’t fetch her.”
“She won’t give you any trouble there. She’s dead.”
“Oh. You’re that Lawes.”
He nodded. “I thought you’d make the connection sooner or later. The details remain more vivid than the names.”
“What’s it been, five years?”
“Six last month.”
Lawes’s wife, a professional woman, had missed an appointment northwest of Detroit. Her car was found abandoned an hour or so later in a seedy neighborhood clear on the other side of the city. She hadn’t been seen since and an intense police investigation had turned up nothing. Unexplained disappearances, particularly involving people of some prominence, was red meat for reporters weary of covering routine murders. The story blazed for a week, then sputtered out, to flare up on slow days and in Sunday supplements whenever an anniversary of the event came up.
“I withdraw my pitch,” I said. “Six years or six hundred amount to the same thing. A cadaver-sniffing dog couldn’t dig her up now.”
A nerve in his left cheek jumped. “Stonesmith said you were blunt. She might have added brutally.”
“Don’t be; that I can still react after all this time might surprise some of the people I meet in the course of my profession. Anyway, sympathetic platitudes waste time. I’m resolved to the loss, and I’m ready to move on. That requires evidence that Paula’s deceased.”
“Why not just wait another year? I’m shaky on precedent, but I seem to recall that seven years with no proof to the contrary is standard for a legal declaration of death.”
“It’s not that clear-cut; but then neither is the exception. If you can prove in court that a missing person is dead, the seven-year rule is waived. After seven years, if you want to have a missing person declared alive, you must prove the party is not dead.”
“What’s that mean?” His voice had bark on it.
“Aristotle.” I rolled a shoulder. “Another Greek. He said you can’t prove something isn’t; only that it is.”
“I can’t do either. That’s why I invited you here.”
“So wait it out.”
He shook his head. “This pitch is going the exact opposite of what I’m used to. You’re supposed to convince me you’re the one for the job, and I’m supposed to be the one who’s reluctant.”
“Believe me, it’s not a habit I want to get into. I’m not against getting my hands dirty, but when I do I like to know the reason. What’s another eleven months after all this time?”
“I want to remarry. Does that satisfy you, or are you still so young you need me to spell it out?”
“I’m older than you are. Who’s the impatient one, you or the lady?”
“That’s our concern.”
A pair of eyes narrowed. “Then why did you ask?”
I drained my flute. The champagne had gone flat. “I’m curious by nature, Mr. Lawes. It’s a requirement on the application form for spooks, spies, and private eyes.”
Our waiter made the usual polite inquiries, then handed Lawes a piece of paper, which he signed slashingly. The man cleared the table and excused himself from my life.
“So are you hired?”
I told Lawes what I needed, beginning with a check. When it snuggled up against my chest, he drew an oyster-colored phone from an inside pocket and scrolled until he found several shots of Paula Lawes taken within the past ten years. She was a tall slim redhead with an angular jaw who if she were alive would still be several years younger than her husband. The first thing I decided about her was she didn’t enjoy smiling for cameras. “I’ll send these to your cell,” he said. “What’s the number?”
I gave it to him. “It’s only good for calls. You’d better print them out. I’ll drop by your office later.”
A gold watch got consulted. “I have appointments. I won’t be in before two.”
“That’s fine. I need to brush up on the official record first: Shine the seat of my pants before I start burning shoe leather.”
We stood and I shook the strong dry hand again.
* * *
WDIV, the call letters for Channel 4, worked out of a limestone pile on West Lafayette, between the old Detroit News and Free Press buildings; which back when newspapers mattered must have made for some lively conversation in the Anchor Bar where the employees of all three institutions hung out. Rusty Donovan met me on the soundstage, skipping over and around coils of thick cable on the polished concrete floor. Lights blazed near the far wall, where a meteorologist in a sharp suit rehearsed his pantomime in front of a blue screen.
“Been a spell,” he said when he had his hand back. “I thought by now you’d joined the mass migration to Florida.”
Everything about Rusty looked washed out except his eyes, which were the intense blue of marbles: His hair, lashes, and what skin showed between his freckles were a kind of faded pink, with a sickly green cast from the light coming through his eyeshade. His flannel sleeves were rolled up tight past muscular forearms with a U.S. Marines eagle tattooed on the right.
I grinned. “The gas alone would use up my retirement stake. You free?”
“I’m the shop steward for Local two-nine-nine. What do you think?”
“I think they’ll fire you when we go to war with Nebraska.”
“If then. Let’s see what’s on the tube.”
I’d called to tell him what I needed. He got another technician’s attention and jerked his thumb toward the talent practicing his gestures in front of the screen. The tech nodded, grabbed a pole on wheels with a bank of lights on top, and rolled it that direction. I followed Rusty out of the room, down a hallway lined with unpainted drywall, and through a door into a cramped space made even tighter by a control panel and rows of monitors. On all of them something was going on: a police dashboard cam chasing an erratic SUV on what looked like I-696; a real-time tower shot of downtown; a female reporter in a car coat and beret reading from a notepad in front of the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice; three sheet-covered bodies being wheeled on gurneys out of a house on Any Street, Detroit; the meteorologist on the soundstage making wide swooping movements in front of what was now a map of Southeastern Michigan.
Rusty pointed his chin at a male reporter standing just clear of a gushing broken water main. “There’s Roddy, picking his nose again. Next time let’s go live.”
“Sure,” said the man seated at the panel. “Me they’ll can.”
“I’ll get you back in a week, Sid, with a raise. Cue it up.”
Sid was black, with a bald dome that gleamed like an eggplant in a mist of gray hair scraped close to the temples. He flipped a switch and the weatherman disappeared. Another switch and something fluttered on the monitor, then assumed shape, first as a still shot, then a picture in motion. A time- and date-stamp in the lower left corner belonged to another year. I looked at a different female reporter holding a microphone for a thick-built white-haired cop in uniform with a cap bearing the scrambled eggs of a precinct commander. Other men and women, some in uniform also, passed back and forth between where they stood and a low-slung sedan parked on a paved street near the top of a hill. It was night, but arc lights turned the scene bright as noon.
The questions and answers were strictly boilerplate: An unnamed witness, what the first responders found at the scene, unspecified leads, pleas for anyone with information to come forward.
Paula Lawes, the wife of prominent local businessman Francis X. and a consultant with the Detroit-based public relations firm of Baylor, Schneider, Baylor, and Baylor, had missed an appointment with a client in Farmington Hills, one of the city’s more prosperous suburbs, and had not been seen since leaving the office. Her car had been discovered in much-less prosperous Allen Park, clear on the other side of the city from where she’d been expected, with the driver’s door wide open and her purse open on the front seat. Among the usual stuff inside were her credit cards, a couple of hundred in cash, and her cell phone. That shot all to hell the theory that her car was stolen on the way to the meeting and driven there by the thief, if plain robbery was the motive.
Presumably an editor or someone had spliced footage of the entire investigation onto one reel (or whatever unit of technology had replaced film and videotape since the century turned) for a retrospective, because the scene shifted to reporters camped out in front of the Lawes house in Birmingham waiting for the husband to appear and be interviewed, then to a press conference during which the Detroit Chief of Police announced that he’d assigned the city Homicide detail to assist Allen Park in the investigation, then a talking-head panel of criminalists, psychiatrists, and palmists offering their opinions. When Lawes came on finally, hastening with his lawyer from the old Third Precinct, for several years the home of Homicide, through a crowd of journalists after he’d been cleared as a suspect, I asked Sid to switch off.
No blood, no unexplained DNA, none of the obligatory signs of struggle; just the sudden and complete non-existence of a fellow carbon-based creature, with nothing to fill the space she’d left for days, then weeks, then months, then more annihilation yet when the media shifted their attention to other events.
We stared at the blank screen for a moment. Then the bald technician worked a switch and the meteorologist sprang back into view, pushing a big yellow H across Lake Huron with both hands.
Rusty said, “Man, that’s one ice-cold potato. They must be paying you by the hour.”
I thanked Sid and slapped Local 299 on the back. “Miami Beach, here I come.”
Copyright © 2019 by Loren D. Estleman