In this part of the state, the soil is rich and dark and loamy. I helped dig the grave for Katherine Louise Payne, so I know about the soil firsthand. We went down six feet, as mandated by law.
We dug on a hot August morning, deep into earth cool with moisture and entangled with plant roots. It took two hours, even with their ravenous machinery; and when we were done, I went over to the wide oak and sat under its leafy awning and looked out at the land she'd loved so much—river and forest and limestone cliffs—and thought all the way back to First Communion in 1957, the day we'd first met, all the way up to two years ago when, standing in our kitchen, she had complained of a headache and then had fallen suddenly into my arms.
Aneurysm, the doctor explained later.
She was dead by the time I got her to the hospital, my friend for twenty-four years, my wife for eight.
On the way back to my house, I passed the graveyard, looking through the black iron fence to the hill where the oak waited. Sometimes I sat up there and smoked my pipe and talked to Kathy—not in the awkward and imprecise words of the tongue but rather the simple poetry of the heart. I wanted to stop there now, see her gravestone and say a prayer and tell her I loved her, but there wasn't time.
I needed to find out who wanted to give me ten thousand dollars and why.
The house, in case you're interested, is what they call a "Colonial farmhouse," meaning a one-and-a-half-story Colonial with a porch running the length of the main section and a group of narrow gabled dormers and four floor-to-ceiling bays lending the place a feel of old Williamsburg in George Washington's time. It sits on five fertile acres, three of which are farmed by a CPA from Cedar Rapids who secretly fancies himself a pioneer, and the remaining two make a nice island of grass and hardwoods and privacy for the house. It had been a wet spring so the forsythias were especially vivid gold, and the daffodils weren't doing so badly either. Kathy had taught me patience first, and then gardening.
Our kids were going to be raised out here but given the nature of my work for the government, we never quite got around to kids. We had to settle for three cats who were still with me, fortunately, their names being Tasha, Crystal and Tess, tiny Eloise having died at six months following a freak reaction to one of her booster shots.
The inside is just as Kathy had left it, an eclectic mix of Colonial, suburban shopping mall, and what I call post-hippie. You know, water pipes that have been converted into flowerpots, and authentic fake Indian wall coverings that look great in the basement covering up cracks in the plaster.
In the kitchen is a framed blowup of a segment of a 1901 teacher's contract that Kathy, a teacher once herself, had found in a dusty box in an antique shop. The blowup lists five rules that the undersigned teacher had to obey absolutely:
The teacher shall not go out with any man except her brothers or father.
The teacher shall not dress in bright colors.
The teacher shall not use face powder or paint her lips.
The teacher shall not loiter in an ice cream parlor.
The teacher shall wear at least three petticoats under her skirts.
Dusk was gray and grainy in the den window as I stoked up my pipe. The beer I poured—nothing special, whatever brand I'd found on sale—tasted cold and clean and good. The cats were lined up on the couch next to me, sleeping.
The heavy envelope was on my lap.
Who would want to give me ten thousand dollars? Nobody who had anything legal in mind, certainly.
With the remote, I snapped on the local TV news. The lead story was about a May Day celebration at a nearby mall. A slow news day, apparently. This was followed by a thirty-second commercial for hog raisers whose animals suffered from diarrhea. I was glad I didn't happen to be eating supper at the moment.
A few moments later, me instantly clicking off the TV set, I heard a heavy car crunch up the gravel driveway. I kept picturing the big Caddy that Harold Peterson had told me about. The engine was shut off. Just dusk birds loud and frantic on the fading day—then a car door opening and chunking shut. Footsteps on the porch. Knock on the door. My mother having raised no idiots, I picked up my trusty Ruger Speed Six .357 Magnum and went to the door.
The mysteries of the envelope were about to be revealed.
I saw what Peterson had meant about his looking like an FBI agent. He managed to look tough even in an expensive suit, which was the first requirement; and you could feel the contempt of his gaze even through the mirror sunglasses, which was the second. He was probably forty and bulky in the strong way of somebody who religiously works off the gin at the gym. He could probably afford to buy a little better shoulder rig, though. His weapon was obvious. But then maybe he wanted it obvious.
"I'm here about the envelope."
I smiled. "I figured somebody would show up to take it back."
But men who wear mirror sunglasses after dark rarely smile. Ruins their image.
"My employer's name is Nora Conners. She'd like to come in and talk to you. Is that all right?"
I shrugged. "Why not?"
"She'll be in momentarily."
That's another thing guys who wear mirror shades after sundown never do. Never say good-bye.
He just turned, went down the stairs and out to the Caddy, which was every inch as impressive as Harold Peterson had said. And, at least in the faint porch light, it did look as if it had just rolled off the dealer floor.
I went inside, picked up some newspapers from the past two days, folded them neatly by the firewood to the right of the fireplace, and when I stood up and turned around, there she was.
I had been expecting a young woman—for some reason I'd imagined she would be in her late twenties—but Nora Conners was at least forty. And quite lovely, her quietly beautiful face suggesting vulnerability, intelligence and a very private but exciting sensuality. She wore a gray designer suit that flattered the lines of her tall, slender body and lent her blonde chignon a prim but erotic quality that most chignons don't convey. She clutched a tiny black purse with a kind of endearing desperation. Perhaps she had another envelope containing ten thousand dollars in there.
"I know you prefer to be called Robert rather than Bob," she said, as I took her extended hand. "May I call you Robert?"
"And this is Vic Baker. He rarely introduces himself." She smiled like a mother introducing a mischievous son. "He flunked out of finishing school."
Not even their little private joke evoked a smile on the stone face of Mr. Vic Baker.
"Listen," I said, "why don't we all get comfortable and take off our sunglasses?"
She laughed. "Vic gets kidded a lot about his glasses at night, but actually he suffers from an eye inflammation called uveitis. Supposedly the medication he's taking will clear it up in the next sixty days or so."
"If you say so," I said.
We all sat down. She took the couch, sitting in the center of it and on the very edge where her nice knees went white behind her hose, while Vic the Vampire took the austere straight-back chair by the fireplace. I took the overstuffed chair beneath our best Chagall print.
"Well," I said, "you certainly leave memorable calling cards."
"I wanted to convince you that I'm serious," Nora Conners said.
"About tracking down the man who murdered my daughter." She paused, giving me a moment to deal with what she'd said. "Three weeks ago, a friend of yours, Mike Peary, was killed in a hit-and-run accident. I believe you worked with him sometimes."
I nodded. "They just arrested a teenager for killing him."
"Very bad detective work, Robert. They arrested the wrong man. Mike Peary had been working for me for the past seven months. He had tracked the man who killed Maryanne—my daughter; she was twelve years old—to a small town up near the Minnesota border. The man killed him before Mike could get to me. Fortunately, Mike had mailed me a long letter before being killed. I have it in the car."
"Why not take it to the police?"
"Because they wouldn't listen to me." The pause again. "Do you know who Richard Tolliver is?"
"Sure. Guy who lives in Des Moines. One of the richest men in the state."
"He's my father."
"No, you don't. He's not only my father, he's my jailer. I've been married twice, and both times he managed to put me in mental hospitals."
"You can't just put people in mental hospitals. There's a whole legal process you have to follow. It's not all that easy."
"It is if you're my father and three of your best friends happen to be on the state supreme court." She sighed. "My father has convinced most people that I'm not a very stable woman, never have been, and that, since the death of my daughter, I'm even crazier than before. If I took Mike's material to the police, the first thing they'd do is smile patronizingly at me and then turn all the material over to my father."
She looked at Vic. "Mike said some very flattering things about you and convinced me you could help us if anything ever happened to him. He said the two of you had helped the police on three cases involving missing children and that you found two of them. He talked about you both being in the FBI together—and said you were probably going into business together—helping small-town police departments. He said you'd both obtained private-investigator licenses."
I grinned. "You make me sound like one hell of a guy."
"You are one hell of a guy, Robert. That's why I want you to pick up where Mike Peary left off. You're not the old gumshoe sort, but you
a detective. A very modern one. Mike told us all about 'profiling' and how you both use it."
"That still doesn't make me a wizard." Whenever anybody turns her life—and all her hopes—over to me, I get nervous. I looked at her, which wasn't a real unpleasant task. "You really think Mike was murdered?"
She nodded. "I'm sure of it. So's Vic. He was just about to start the second part of his investigation. Then he was killed." She paused. "If I can be blunt, I know you need some work. I happen to know that your finances aren't in terribly good shape," she said. "You're three payments behind on your mortgage, and you haven't paid your hangar fee for your biplane in six months."
"Vic's been a busy boy, checking me out that way."
She opened her small black purse and did a circus trick, took from it another manila envelope that looked far too big to be held inside.
She stood up, walked over to me and set it on the arm of my chair. She went back and sat down, smoothing her skirt primly before she did so.
"I'd cry and plead with you if I thought it would do any good, Robert, but I don't think it will. But I would like to say that I loved my daughter just as much as you loved your wife, and I want her killer found."
"The police don't have any leads?"
"No leads at all."
"And it's been how long?"
"Where was she killed?"
"The parking lot of a shopping mall. I was living in a town in Illinois. It was Christmastime. She'd gone to the mall with one of her friends and the friend's mother. One minute Maryanne was with them; then she was gone, just vanished. They found her much later that night, in a Dumpster. He'd cut her up with a butcher knife. I don't want to tell you any more than that. It's not good for me to talk about."
I looked at the envelope she'd just given me. "Another ten thousand?"
"Making twenty-five altogether. One-half down. Even if you aren't able to catch him, you'll make twenty-five thousand dollars for trying. Your banker would be very happy to hear about that."
"You have Mike's letter?"
"Vic can get it."
"How about if I read it tonight and call you in the morning?"
"I'd appreciate your doing that."
"I'm not making any promises, understand."
"Of course." She looked to Vic. "Would you get the letter, please?"
"That guy could get on my nerves," I said. "Doesn't he ever shut up?"
"Everybody's curious about Vic. Especially my father. Actually, it's very simple. We had a pretty mediocre affair several years ago, but in the course of it I found out how good Vic was at managing my life. I came into some money when I was twenty-one, so I hired Vic as my personal assistant. I pay him a lot of money, and he's well worth it."
He sure was. He was back before she could say another word.
He walked over to me and handed me a plain white envelope. The letter seemed sizable. FBI agents are very good at writing coherent, detailed reports. That would have come in handy if we'd ever gotten around to starting that private-investigations outfit we'd talked about so many times.