Authors: Robert B. Parker
"Look," Virgie said, "you may be a big tough guy . . ." She shook her head.
"Valdez stayed here," I said. "He probably drank at the bar. He was, ah, flirtatious. He'd have talked with you."
"Lotta people talk with me. I'm friendly. Part of my job."
"Sure," I said. "And you don't remember anything about any of them. Any more than you'd notice that my nose has been broken."
"You a state cop?" she said.
"Nope," I said. "Private."
"A private detective?"
"And you're out here alone asking questions about Eric Valdez?"
"Chief Rogers know you're here?"
"He said I was a wiseass and he didn't need me," I said. Virgie almost smiled.
"You know any of the women Valdez was dating?"
"No. Or anything else. Get it? I don't know anything about Valdez. He came in here, had a few drinks, made small talk, left. That's what I know."
"Where's the action in town," I said.
"What kind of action?"
"Booze, music, women, good times," I said.
"Here," Virgie said.
I looked around. "People come flocking in here evenings to feast on salmon loaf?" I said.
Virgie shrugged. "Nothing else around, for singles stuff," she said.
I drank some beer.
"You a private cop, who you working for?" Virgie said.
"Central Argus," I said.
She nodded. "Figures," she said.
"Because Valdez worked for them?" I said.
"They been stirring up trouble down here for a long time," Virgie said.
"Or maybe there has been trouble down here for a long time and they've just been reporting it."
Virgie shrugged again. "They're paying you," she said.
"Much coke around here?" I said.
"You got me," Virgie said. "You looking to score some?"
Virgie shook her head. "No, you're not. You do coke like I do caviar. You aren't the type."
"It's my clear blue eyes and square jaw," I said. "They're always giving me away."
"Sure," Virgie said. "You got any clues about Valdez?"
"No," I said. "I was hoping you might."
"See you're not listening to me," Virgie said. "Watch my lips. I don't know anything about Valdez."
"Or Chief Rogers."
"Or anything that isn't small talk."
Virgie nodded. "Hey," she said. "Man's quick learner."
"If you were me," I said, "who would you talk with."
"If I were you, I'd go home," she said.
"And if you didn't do that, what would you do?" I said.
"Nothing," Virgie said. "I wouldn't do nothing."
The specials didn't bode well for the Reservoir Court dining room so I went out to a supermarket and bought some fixings and a six-pack of beer and went back to the motel to dine alone. I got some ice from the ice machine in the corridor and cooled the beer in a wastebasket. I had tuna salad and coleslaw and whole wheat bread and some paper plates and plastic cutlery, and a jar of bread and butter pickles. Green vegetables are important.
I made supper and marveled at the progress I had made in only a day. The police chief had told me to get lost, after careful probing and a liberal application of the old rough-hewn Spenser sex appeal the woman tending bar had told me to get lost. So far my only success was not getting carded at the Wheaton Liquor Store. I sipped from my bottle of Samuel Adams beer. I was an an American-beer binge. Working on the assumption that locally brewed is fresher and hence tastier. The Sam Adams seemed fresh and tasty, thus confirming my suspicions. Who said I couldn't detect. Who said I couldn't find a whale in a fishbowl. Who had said that Valdez was fooling around with Colombian women?
I hadn't mentioned that. Bailey Rogers had said that. It was after all the suggestion of a clue. If Valdez had been having an affair with a Colombian woman, that cut the suspects from 15,734 to fewer than 5,000.
I drank some more Sam Adams and let it seep down my throat and admired the label. Nice picture of old Sam. That's pretty good detective work, eliminate more than ten thousand suspects with one master stroke. Actually probably only half the remaining five thousand were female, and many of them would be too old or too young. Hell, I practically had the she-devil cornered.
Sam Adams was so fresh and tasty that I was on my third before I got to making supper. The options for an entertaining evening in Wheaton were fairly limited and I was exercising one of the most likely. I carefully spread the tuna salad on the whole wheat bread, and added a dab of coleslaw and made two sandwiches. I cut each one into four triangles and arranged them on a paper plate, the expensive glazed kind, and added a colorful garnish of pickle. I got a hand towel from the bathroom to serve as a napkin, and the water glass to hold beer. For predinner cocktails drinking from the bottle was fine, in fact preferable. But with dinner one needed to decant it. i sat at the little round table by the window and looked out onto the parking lot and had supper.
Talking to Virgie had tended to reinforce what I'd gotten from Chief Rogers. The subject of Valdez's death was not an open subject. Virgie's reaction had been fear of involvement and amazement that I'd even broach the subject let alone broach it without police authority or backup.
I ate a triangle of sandwich. The commercial coleslaw tasted like commercial coleslaw but it wasn't bad, and Sam Adams made it better.
One would hate to generalize, but the first two people I'd talked with wanted the Valdez killing to go away and never be discussed again. As they say on the cop shows, I smelled a cover-up. Spenser, Private Nose.
I ate another triangle, and a bite of pickle. Have nose will travel.
I drank some more beer. In the water glass it had a pleasant amber tone. Like Anchor Steam beer.
Cyrano de Spenser.
I finished the sandwiches and the beer. It was almost seven. I called Susan.
"Hello," she said. "Have you found the culprit yet?"
"Only the nose knows," I said.
"Have a little beer with our supper?" Susan said.
"I'd have had more," I said, "but I didn't want to sound drunk when I called you."
"Restraint," she said.
"Restraint is my middle name," I said.
"I'd always wondered," Susan said.
"So far," I said, "I have found out that people don't want me to find out anything."
"Not a new treat for you," she said.
"No, I'm getting kind of used to it. You want to come out Friday night when you're through seeing patients?"
"Yes, "we could share a Polish Platter at the Reservoir Motel Hunt Room, and afterwards stroll down Route Thirty-two and look at the automobile salvage yards."
"That's enticing," Susan said,"but maybe you'd rather come home and have some of my legendary takeout from Rudi's and go see the Renoir exhibit at the MFA."
"You city kids are like that," I said, "always putting down the country. Out here is what America used to be."
"Mmm," Susan said.
"Besides," I said, "I can't come home-unlike you slugabed shrinks I work weekends."
"Okay, you honey-tongued spellbinder, you've talked me into it," Susan said. "Everything except the Polish Platter."
"There must be an alternative," I said.
"I should hope so," Susan said. "I don't want to be corny, but how far will people go to keep from talking to you about the Valdez thing?"
"They might try to kill me," I said.
"How comforting," Susan said.
"Easier said than done," I said.
"I know," Susan said. "I count on that."
"I'll be there by eight Friday," Susan said.
"I'll be there," I said. "Tell me one thing; though, before we hang. Do you admire my restraint even more than you admire my sinewy body?"
"Yes," Susan said.
"Let me rephrase the question," I said.
Susan's laugh bubbled. "Ask me if I love you," she said.
"Do you love me?"
"Yes, I do."
"Do I love you?"
"Yes, you do."
"What a happy coincidence," I said.
It is hilly country around Wheaton. No mountains but a steady up and downness to the terrain that makes a five-mile run in the morning a significant workout. Susan had given me one of those satiny-looking warmup outfits for Christmas and I was wearing it, with a .32 S&W zipped up in the right-hand jacket pocket. I'd brought two guns with me. The .32 and, in case the culprit turned out to be a polar bear, a Colt Python .357 Magnum that weighed about as much as a bowling ball and was best left in the bureau drawer when jogging.
My new jogging suit was a shiny black with red trim. I felt like Little Lord Fauntleroy chugging along. I had on brand-new Avia running shoes, oyster white with a touch of charcoal that understated the black jogging suit. I didn't have crimson leg warmers. Maybe for my birthday.
Back at the motel, loose, warm, full of oxygen, I did some push-ups and sit-ups in my room and took a shower. At quarter of ten I was in my car heading into downtown Wheaton. I had my Colt Python in a shoulder holster under my leather jacket. Since I'm a size 48 and so is the Python, I'd had to shop extensively to find a leather jacket that fit over both of us.
I stopped at a Friendly's restaurant on the corner of Main and North streets in Wheaton for breakfast, listened to the other diners talking about weather and children and what they saw on the Today show, picked up no clues, paid the tab, got a coffee to go, and sat in my car to drink it.
The cops were no help. Valdez had filed no story and whatever notes he'd kept were missing. I needed someone to talk with, anyone who would mention someone else and lead me to talk with them and they would mention someone else and so on. I put the car in gear and cruised up Main Street. Kyanize paints, the District Court of Wheaton, the Wheatoxi Fire Department, the Acropolis Pizza, the Wheaton Cooperative Bank, the Olympic Theatre Two Dollars at all times. At the head of town, clustered around a narrow-gorged, deep-cut river, were four or five red brick nineteenth-century textile mills. Now they were factory clothing-outlets, and woolen and yarn shops. An attempt had been made to gentrify the mills, by painting windows and doors with contemporary pastel trim, and putting some green plants around. But the attempt was feeble. The riverbed was strewn with boulders, jumbled by the centuries of white water that had surged through the channel. There was low water in the river now, frozen perhaps, or dammed off upstream. Like the town.
I went around a rotary under some railroad tracks and headed back down Main Street, past a True Value hardware store, and Wally's Lunch, and turned right onto North Street. A block uphill on North Street was the Wheaton Free Library in a big old red-brick building that looked like the town hall and had probably been done by the same architect and built at the same time. I parked on the street in front and went in.
There was an old man using the Xerox machine, two men past retirement were reading newspapers in the periodical area, and a strong-featured woman with short black hair was behind the desk. Her nose was straight and considerable, her back was straight, she was wearing a fuzzy pink sweater, her breasts were high and prominent, her waist was small, and the rest was hidden behind the counter. If the bottom matched the top, she was an excellent candidate for trained investigative surveillance. I strolled over to the side of the desk and read one of the posters advertising a production by the Wheaton Spotlighters of Oklahoma. Then I glanced casually back. She was wearing light gray slacks. The bottom matched. My instincts are rarely wrong.
"Excuse me," I said. "I'm looking for a history of Wheaton. Is there such?"
She looked up from her card file. There were light smile lines at the corners of her mouth, and gentle crow's-feet at her eyes. Her mouth was very wide.
"Not yet," she said. "In fact, we're in the process of compiling one."
"Really," I said. "Who is the we?"
"The Historical Commission, myself, two others."
"Well, I'll be damned," I said. "Talk about luck. How far along are you?"
"We've been compiling data on index cards," she said. "I'm afraid we're a long way from finished."
"Too bad," I said. "I guess it's too early to help me much."
"Yes, I'm afraid so," she said. "But perhaps if you had specific questions I might be able to help you."
A teenage girl came in with her hair combed over to one side and pulled back. She wore heavy eye makeup and brilliant lipstick and very high heels and very tight tapered pants that ended at the anklebone. She was chewing gum and looked like a horse's ass to me, but not probably to the senior boys at Wheaton High. She checked out two books, a collection of essays on The Scarlet Letter and a picture book about Ricky Nelson.
"Well," I said, "in fact, I'm interested mostly in the history of the Colombian migration to Wheaton."
Her smile lines deepened. "That's a larger question than I can answer right here," she said. "The connection exists in a man named Abner Norton, who ran the largest textile mill here in Wheaton and also had business interests in the town of Tajo in Colombia. He was having trouble getting people to work in the mills so he imported labor here from Tajo and the connection formed. It was Mr. Norton's grandfather who donated the money for this library."
"And is Mr. Norton living around here?"
"No, the mills failed, as you may know. Much of the industry moved south and Mr. Norton moved with it. The Colombians remained, largely impoverished."
"Un huh. What about the impact of so substantial a group of very different people on a small city?"
"And so insular an area," she said. "The impact has been substantial."
The elderly man operating the Xerox machine came over and complained that it was out of paper. The librarian went to fix it.
When she came back, I said, "What kind of impact?"