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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


Nameless Detective Novels (Volume 38)

Bill Pronzini

Forge Books



I said, "You want us to do what?"
David Virden showed me his teeth in a lopsided smile. "Find one of my ex-wives," he said again. "The first one."
"Divorced eight years, you said."
"That's right."
"And you want her located for what reason again?"
"The same reason I had to track down the other two. So I can have the marriage annulled."
Virden looked, sounded, and acted normal enough. Executive with a manufacturing firm in the South Bay; his business card confirmed it. Forty or so, fair-haired, gray-eyed, handsome in a sleek, metrosexual way. Sitting comfortably in one of the clients' chairs across my desk, legs crossed and one foot jiggling a little so that his expensive polished loafer threw off little glints of light from the overhead fluorescents. But if there's one absolute truism in the detective business, it's that people's exteriors don't always reflect their interiors. Some of the most attractive ones are like buildings full of dark rooms and the kinds of things that hide in them.
"I haven't seen her since the divorce," he said, "and nobody else seems to have seen her in about seven years. Of course she could be dead by now. If that's the case, there won't be any problem."
"Oh, there won't."
"No. Anyhow, we didn't have any trouble finding the other two. They were both pretty cooperative."
"In giving you annulments."
"That's right. I need the third before I can go ahead. Or proof that she's no longer aboveground."
"Go ahead with what?"
"Marrying my fiancée, Judith LoPresti. My fourth and I hope last wife."
I'd gotten it by this time. A little slow on the uptake these days, but prospective clients who walk in off the street and smack you with a job request you've never encountered before are relatively rare. At least Virden wasn't a head case, the kind with no method to their apparent madness.
I said, "Are you Catholic, Mr. Virden?"
"No. Well, not yet."
"But Judith is."
"Devout. Mass every Sunday and the Pope can do no wrong."
"And she won't marry you unless you convert, is that it?"
"That's it. Convert and then have a Church-sanctioned wedding. Only I can't convert without the annulments from my ex-wives because the Catholic Church doesn't recognize civil divorce laws."
"You know about that, right? I mean, your name … I figure you must be Catholic. Most Italians are."
"Born and baptized," I said. I didn't add that I was lapsed, for reasons of my own that were none of his business. I happen to believe that religion, like sex between consenting adults, ought to be—and too often isn't these days—strictly a private matter. I also believe in separation of church and state, the Golden Rule, the true definition of family values, that anybody ought to be able to get married regardless of gender, that no one has the right to distort the truth for any reason, and that people ought to quit trying to shove their beliefs and opinions down the throats of other people. Just another crazy old radical thinker, that's me.
"I've never been religious myself," Virden said, as if he was proud of the fact, "but I'd do anything for Judith. She's a real prize." He showed me his lopsided smile again and added a wink to it. "Her father happens to be loaded. I'll be set for life once we're married."
Nice guy, Virden. Full of compassion and the milk of human kindness. I wondered if he was as up-front about his motives with his devout intended. If not, I hoped for her sake that she knew what kind of man she was taking into her faith and her bed.
He said, "Here's the stuff from the Church," and passed a small manila envelope across the desk.
Inside, paper-clipped together, were a two-page letter from the Judicial Vicar of the Diocese of San Jose addressed to Roxanne L. McManus, at an address in Blodgett, California; a Church brochure; a form to be filled out by Ms. McManus and returned to the Diocese; and an SASE. The letter stated that David Paul Virden had petitioned the Diocesan Tribunal to execute a Decree of Nullity, an official document declaring that his marriage to Ms. McManus did not create a permanent sacramental bond and therefore was not an obstacle to future marriage in the Church. There was a list of twelve points informing Ms. McManus of her rights in the matter, among them the right to appoint a Procurator-Advocate and the right to review copies of the ACTA, the First Instance decision, and the Second Instance decision in the office of the local Tribunal. The brochure, which I skimmed through, provided a lengthy overview of the annulment process.
I returned the material to the envelope. When I started to slide it back to Virden, he said, "No, you keep it. Give it to Roxanne when you find her."
"Why not just deliver it yourself?"
"I don't like dealing directly with my ex-wives. You know how it is."
No, I didn't. But I said, "Well, we can make the delivery if she's living in Northern California, but it'll cost you extra."
"I don't care about that. I'd just have to hire somebody else to do it."
Right—with Judith LoPresti's money, no doubt. Not that it was any of my business who paid his bills. "Is McManus your ex-wife's maiden name?"
"Yes. She took it back after the divorce."
"What does the middle initial stand for?"
"Roxanne Lorraine McManus." I made a note on the pad I use for client interviews. "You said the last time you saw her was eight years ago?"
"That's right."
"In San Jose, right after the divorce."
"The Diocese letter is addressed to her in Blodgett."
"Her hometown. She moved back there."
"But she's not there now."
"No. I checked and my lawyer checked. She moved away again about seven years ago and nobody's heard from her since."
"Then where did the Diocese get the address?"
"It's her aunt Alma's. I gave it to them—they had to have one for the form."
"But the aunt doesn't have any idea where Roxanne is?"
"No idea. Complete silence since she sold her pet shop and left Blodgett again."
"Does the aunt know why she moved?"
"Told Alma she was going into business with a friend."
"Friend's name?"
"Didn't say, or if she did, Alma forgot it. Somebody she'd just met."
"Male or female?"
"Couldn't remember that, either. Alma's memory's not what it used to be." Virden chuckled wryly to himself. "But she's still a crusty old girl, cusses like a teenager. She had a few choice words for Roxie."
"Pissed because of all the years of silence. Thought Roxie cared more than to blow her off that way."
"Could she remember what kind of business deal it was?"
"No. But it probably had something to do with animals. Roxie owned the pet shop when I met her." Virden cast his eyes upward. "The Warm and Fuzzy Shop, she called it. Terminal goddamn cute."
"Where is Blodgett exactly? I've never heard of it."
"No reason you should have. It's a nowhere little town up near the Oregon border."
"Is that where you were living while you were married to her?"
"God, no," Virden said. "It's where she lived when we met. I was a salesman working the Highway Five corridor in those days, on the road most of the time. She was eating alone in a restaurant I stopped at one night, we struck up a conversation, hit it off, and the next thing I knew we were married. But there was no way I was going to live in a craphole like Blodgett. Roxie leased her cute little shop—she wouldn't sell it back then—and I moved her into my apartment in San Jose."
"How long did the marriage last?"
"Two years. Then I met Elaine, my second wife, and that was the end of Roxie."
The end of Roxie. Some turn of phrase.
"She have any other living relatives?" I asked.
"No. Both parents were dead before we were married, no brothers or sisters."
"What else can you tell me about her? Hobbies, special interests?"
"Animals, like I said. Always yapping at me about getting a dog or a cat or some damn thing. I didn't want any part of that, so she started volunteering at one of the animal shelters. Spent more time there than she did at home with me."
I didn't blame her.
"Any other interests?"
"None that'll help you find her." Virden punctuated the sentence with a leer.
"Would you happen to have a photograph of her?"
"Sure. I figured you might need one." He produced it from the inside pocket of his suit coat. "It's more than eight years old," he said as he handed it over. "I haven't changed much since, but she might've. You know how it is with women as they get older."
Keep it up, Virden, I thought. One or two more glimpses into what goes on inside that head of yours and I'll toss you right out of here. I don't have to like the agency's clients, but on the other hand, we don't need business badly enough so I have to put up with greedy self-centered sexists who insist on red-flagging their shortcomings.
I looked at the photograph. Five-by-seven color snapshot of Virden and a slender brunette taken on a beach somewhere, him in swim trunks and her in a two-piece suit. She had nice features—prominent cheekbones, luminous brown eyes, a generous smiling mouth. The swimsuit accentuated her other physical assets, no doubt the primary ones that had attracted Virden.
"How old was she when this was taken?"
"Let's see. Thirty-one, thirty-two … yeah, thirty-two."
"Do you remember her birth date?"
"Birth date." His face screwed up in thought, smoothed out again. "I'm not very good with dates."
"The month, at least."
"June? No, July. That's right; I remember now because it was a few days after the Fourth. Sixth, seventh, eighth, one of those."
I asked him a few more questions, and he managed not to annoy me with his answers. So then I told him how much the investigation would cost, resisting an impulse to juice the charges a little. He didn't bat an eye. Hell, why should he? It was small change compared to what he expected to be privy to once he joined the LoPresti family.
He signed the standard agency contract, wrote out a check for the retainer. "So," he said then, "how long do you think it'll take to find her?"
Roxanne Lorraine McManus. Not a common name, and he'd provided a reasonable amount of personal information. "I can't give you an exact time line, but it shouldn't take too long. This is Friday … possibly Monday."
"The quicker the better. For Judith's sake."
"Yeah," I said.
"Alive or dead, doesn't matter which."
No, not to him it didn't. As far as David Virden was concerned, Roxanne Lorraine McManus had ceased to exist the day he'd divorced her eight years ago.
* * *
After Virden left, I took my notes and the photograph into Tamara's office. Skip-traces and missing-person cases are her meat. I've learned some computer skills from her and from Kerry, and Jake Runyon is proficient enough when the need arises, but she's the resident expert. If there's any information on any subject or person living or deceased available in cyberspace, she can find it as quickly as any professional hacker working today.
She was busy, as always, but she didn't seem to mind the interruption or being handed additional work. There were a number of different Tamaras living inside her slightly plump young body; there were Grumpy Tamara, Professional Tamara, Tough Tamara, Streetwise Tamara, Philosophical Tamara, Playful Tamara, Sex-Starved Tamara, and a handful of others. But what we'd had for the past ten days or so was a brand-new member of the team: Unflappable Tamara. Or maybe Seriously Adult Tamara. Not exactly serene or cheerful, but exhibiting signs of both, and neither bothered nor shaken by anyone or anything. I liked most of the other personas, but I was developing a particular fondness for this one. No surprises, no put-ons or detailed commentaries on her sex life or lack thereof, and no need for me to shift into one of my own multiple personalities—boss, mentor, father confessor, pacifier—in dealing with her.
The reason for the appearance of this welcome new Tamara had to do with her involvement, both personally and professionally, with a con man calling himself Lucas Zeller. The secretive professional part had been a mistake, one that had nearly cost her her life, and the experience seemed to have had a profound effect on her. She was smart as a whip, but in the six years I'd known and worked with her she'd been unpredictable, not completely grounded, and just a little immature. I had the feeling that none of those applied any longer, that now, at age twenty-seven, she'd learned the lessons that come with full maturity. Seriously Adult Tamara.
She glanced at the photo, read through my notes. "Weird," she said. "Bet you never had a case like this before."
"Not even close. At first I thought I'd caught another cutey."
"The oddball cases I seem to get stuck with. Pretty straightforward, once Virden explained his motives."
"Uh-huh. I didn't know the Catholic Church could annul marriages that'd already ended in divorce."
"It's not common knowledge outside the faith."
"Three exes and now the dude's looking to marry number four. This one must have money."
"Good guess."
"Greed beats love every time for some guys."
"He was up-front about it; I'll give him that," I said. "I wouldn't've taken him on if it wasn't a simple trace job."
"Simple as long as his checks don't bounce."
"I'll run his retainer check down to the bank on my lunch break."
"Low-priority case, right?"
"Right. Fit it in when you can."
She gave me a patient little smile, my cue to go away and let her get back to work. I liked that, too. It was a much more pleasant cue than some of those her other personalities indulged in.
* * *
Jake Runyon rolled into the agency a little past four thirty, just as I was about to leave for the day. I had my overcoat and hat and muffler on; the weather lately had been fog ridden and blustery, the kind—even though it was only April—that had inspired Mark Twain to write that the coldest winter he'd ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Runyon, on the other hand, was coatless in a rumpled suit and tie. He seemed impervious to weather conditions of any kind, maybe because he was a native of Seattle. The fact that he was twenty years younger than me might also have had something to do with it; I hadn't been nearly so aware of weather extremes when I was his age.
He'd been out on a hunt for a witness to a near-fatal hit-and-run auto accident. The agency doesn't usually handle personal injury cases, but the injured party involved in this one was a local politician whose attorney knew a criminal lawyer I'd done some work for in the past. So we'd taken it on as a favor. Quid pro quo is a necessity in any successful detective business.
"Find the witness yet?" I asked Runyon.
"Name and address, but he's out of town for the weekend. Back on Monday—I'll brace him then. Anything new for me?"
"Nope. One new client today, but it's a minor trace job and Tamara and I are handling it."
He ran a hand over his slablike face. Something on his mind; I could see it in his eyes. "You in a hurry to get home?"
"Not really. Why?"
"I can use your input on a problem."
That was a surprise. Runyon was usually reticent when it came to his personal life; he'd offer up snippets now and then if you asked him a direct question, but he seldom volunteered any information.
"Sure thing," I said. "How about we go across the square? I can use a beer."
"I'll buy," he said.

Copyright © 2011 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust