Authors: Robert B. Parker
"Obviously tensions between the Yankees and the Colombians."
"Give me your huddled masses," I said, "yearning to breathe free."
"We're no better than anyone else, here," she said. "A sudden ethnic influx creates problems for everyone."
"By now they've become, how should I say it, institutionalized. The Yankee kids don't go into the Hispanic neighborhoods, and vice versa. The Hispanics stick with one another. There are fights at the school occasionally. Graffiti, wild rumors about the sexuality of Hispanic women."
"Gee," I said, "the American dream falls short again."
"Not just here, Mr. . .?" she said.
"Spenser," I said.
"Caroline Rogers," We shook hands.
"How about drugs?" I said. "I don't wish to perpetuate a stereotype, but . . ." I let it trail off, trying to look a little languid, like a scholar.
"The young people use drugs, Mr. Spenser, Colombian or not."
"Sadly true," I said. "But I was wondering more about drug business. Cocaine and Colombians are often associated, at least in the popular press."
She looked at me a bit more sharply. "Have you been reading the Argus?" she said.
"Well, sure, it's the local paper."
"It is not local," she said. "It's published in Worcester, it is an out-of-town paper."
"Any truth to that stuff about the cocaine trade?" I said.
"I'm afraid that's more than the town librarian can know," she said. "It is not part of the Historical Commission research."
"But just informally," I said. "As a private citizen?"
"Why do you ask?" she said.
"Honesty is the best policy," I said. "I'm a detective. I'm looking into the death of Eric Valdez."
She tilted her jaw up, and took in a breath, slowly.
"Ah," she said.
"Yeah," I said, "ah."
She looked at me steadily for a long minute, her head still tipped slightly back.
"Do you know," she said, "that my husband is the chief of police in Wheaton."
"Oh," I said, "that Rogers."
"Have you spoken with him?"
"He did not encourage me."
"Nor will I, and I surely don't appreciate your snooping around here under false pretenses."
"What other kinds of pretenses are there?" I said.
Outside the library a bright blue Wheaton cruiser was parked behind my car and two uniformed Wheaton caps were leaning on my car with their arms folded and their hats tipped forward on their foreheads like drill instructors. One had captain's insignia on his collar, the other wore sergeant's stripes. The captain had a round hard-looking potbelly and a long neck. He wore reflecting sunglasses. The sergeant was tall and square with a moustache that curved down around the corners of his mouth. He had on reflecting sunglasses too.
"Excuse me," I said. "Are you Tonton Macoutes?"
The captain aimed his reflectors at me. "That supposed to be funny, jack?" he said.
"Yes," I said.
"You think he's funny, J.D.?" the captain said.
The sergeant shook his head. He had a wad of chewing tobacco in one cheek and after he shook his head, he spit some tobacco juice onto the street.
"I think he's a fucking creep, Henry," the sergeant said.
"You got tobacco juice on your moustache," I said.
"How'd you like to spend a little time down at the station in the back room where it's quiet," the captain said.
"Thanks for thinking of me," I said, "but I'm kind of busy."
Both pairs of reflectors pointed at me. I could see myself in all four lenses. I put my face a little closer to J.D. so I could see my reflection better and pulled my lips back and examined my teeth.
"You think you're a real jokester, don't you," J.D. said.
"Yes," I said. "Good teeth, too. It's the flossing mostly I think that accounts for it. If you do it after every meal . . ." I used a forefinger to pull my upper lip back to examine the left molars.
J.D. pulled his head to the side. "Cut it out," he said.
"You can scoff," I said, "at oral hygiene if you want to . . ."
Captain Henry interrupted me. "We're not here to play games with you, jack. We're here to tell you that you don't belong around here and that if you're smart you'll haul ass out of here before you get in big trouble."
Sergeant J.D. took a short nightstick out of the long pocket of his uniform pants and began to slap it against his right thigh.
"Look," I said. "I'm a licensed private detective conducting a legal and legitimate investigation. If I am assaulted by the police I have the right to defend myself and if I defend myself you two clucks are going to need a lot more backup than each other."
"How about we just run you in for resisting arrest," Henry said.
"If you think this is resisting arrest, Trout Breath, try rousting me and see what real resistance is like," I said.
"Thinks he's tough," Henry said to J.D. "Thinks he's a big deal 'cause he's got that fucking paper backing him up," J.D. said to Henry.
"I am tough, I am a big deal, and I am sick of talking to you," I said.
I walked past them, letting my left shoulder brush J.D. as I went by. I walked around behind my car and opened the door.
Henry said, "We'll be watching you close, smart guy."
"I hope so," I said. "You might learn something."
Then I got in the car and started up and pulled away from the curb. In the rearview mirror I could see them standing looking after me. I resisted the impulse to floor it. No sense being immature about it. A dignified departure was much more adult.
I spent the rest of the day getting the lay of Wheaton. The good-income section up the hill from the library, the shabby middle-income ranches along Route 9 toward Quabbin, and the Hispanic section in the southeast part of town across the Wheaton River and below the mills.
I stood at the bar in a small saloon in a converted storefront on the corner of a threestory flat-topped apartment house with warped clapboard siding. There were a couple of 1950s pinball machines and a jukebox that played Spanish music. I was drinking an authentic native Budweiser from the longnecked bottle. I had nothing against glasses but no one had offered me one. On the bar near me was a jar of pickled eggs, and past that, one of pickled sausage. There were maybe eight men, all Hispanic, sitting around two tables in the middle of the room. The bartender was at the other end watching McHale's Navy on a small black-and-white television. He looked my way. I gestured with my beer bottle. He nodded and brought me another one.
"Excuse me," I said. "Do you know a guy named Eric Valdez?"
"No," he said, and picked up my empty bottle.
"Reporter for the Central Argus," I said. The bartender shook his head. His wide flat face had no expression.
"How 'bout the woman he was dating," I said.
The bartender shook his head again. "Don't know nothing," he said, and walked away with my empty bottle.
I put a five-dollar bill on the bar and picked up my beer and walked over to the men sitting at the near table.
"Any of you guys know Eric Valdez?" I said. The four men looked at me. The oldest, a dark man with graying hair and a white shirt unbuttoned over his bony chest, shook his head.
"How about the woman he was dating?" I said.
Same head shake from the gray head. The others sat silent.
I looked over at the other table. Two of the men shook their heads.
"Know where I can score any coke?" I said.
One of the men at the other table made a short laugh. Then there was silence.
The grayhaired guy said, "No. Don't know nothing about that stuff, mister."
I took a handful of cards out of my pocket and offered them around. Nobody took one so I dropped some on each table.
"I'm at the Reservoir Court," I said. "There's a lot of reward money available." Nobody said anything. Nobody moved. Nobody read my card. Nobody flinched before my implacable. gaze.
"No strangers, here," I said. "Just friends you haven't met."
I leaned back in the bench-press machine at the Wheaton Nautilus Center and inhaled and pressed up 280 pounds while I exhaled. The machine only went to 280. I did that eleven more times and then got off and set the weight at 230 and did twelve more reps and got off and set the weight at 200 and did twelve more. I got off the machine and took in some air and shrugged my shoulders a little.
There was a guy next to me doing the same thing.
He had blond curly hair cut close to his skull. He wore a gray sweatshirt and gray sweatpants and a blue headband. His medium-sized body was thickened around the chest the way bodies get when they've done a lot of weights.
"Doesn't get any easier, does it," he said.
"Sure doesn't," I said. "Ever run into a guy named Eric Valdez working out here?"
"The guy got killed?" he said.
"Nope, never met him," he said. "You know him?"
"How about his girlfriend," I said.
"I don't know the guy," he said. "How come you're asking about him?"
"There's a lot of reward money," I said.
The blond man put his hands up, palms out. "Hold it," he said. "I'm just here working out. I don't know anything about Valdez or rewards or anything else. You know?"
I took one of my cards out of the zipper back pocket of my shiny sweats. "I'm at the Reservoir Court," I said.
The blond man automatically took my card and looked at it and at me, and carefully laid the card on a bleached-oak bench next to the door.
"I told you, I don't know anything about it," he said and walked out of the room.
I sat at the counter in Wally's Lunch drinking coffee and eating a grilled cheese sandwich. Wally was working the counter in a white T-shirt, wearing a black baseball cap that said Jack Daniel's above the bill. It was four in the afternoon and I was the only customer.
"Hey, Wally," I said, "you wouldn't know where I might score a little coke in town here, would you?"
A new approach.
"Do I look like Frosty the fucking snowman?" Wally said.
Actually, Wally looked considerably like a toad, but I didn't think it would help matters to tell him that.
"You look like a guy who knows what's happening," I said. "Just asking."
Wally was scraping the grill clean with his spatula.
"I ain't Frosty the snowman," he said.
"I know it," I said. "Don't look like him either."
I finished the first half of my sandwich.
"Anyplace where it would make sense to ask about coke?" I said.
"I ain't Information Please neither," Wally said. He scraped the grill some more, pushing the scraps off the back and into a trap.
"I hear some reporter got murdered around here," I said.
Wally didn't say anything. He finished scraping off the grill and wiped the spatula on the towel he had tied around his waist.
"Hear he was messing with somebody's wife."
"Spics take care of their own business," Wally said. "Without no help from me. You want to know about spic business go ask the spics."
"Valdez was killed by a Hispanic?" I said.
"I don't know nothing about Valdez," Wally said. "He's a spic, it's spic business. Spics don't come in here."
"I can't imagine why," I said. "Good food, good conversation, keen wit." I shook my head.
"That'll be two and a quarter," Wally said. I left two singles and a quarter on the counter. No tip. Back at ya, Wally.
I bought a copy of the Globe in a little store next to the Beal & Church insurance agency.
The woman behind the counter didn't know anything about Eric Valdez. Neither did the bald guy who ran Mahoney's Barber Shop, nor the fat kid who drove the Wheaton Taxi, nor the waitress in Devon Coffee Tyme, nor the gaunt woman with the tight gray chignon in the Wheaton Deli-ette. Neither did anyone else I talked with that day or the next. By Thursday afternoon everybody knew who I was. Kids looked at me on the street. The private eye from Boston. Everybody knew me. Nobody liked me. Nobody talked to me. Everybody avoided me. I'd been unpopular before in my life, but never with this kind of heady pervasiveness. People who'd never met me disliked me. Beyond that I hadn't accomplished much. I knew that something bad was happening in Wheaton. People were afraid to talk about Eric Valdez. And I knew that what happened to Valdez was generally perceived to have happened in the Colombian community. And I figured my notoriety wasn't necessarily bad. If I kept hanging around asking questions, maybe someone would get annoyed enough with me to do something hostile. And maybe I'd thwart them and then maybe I'd have a name or a face or something clue-like for my efforts.
Right now all I had was tiredness. I missed Susan. Friday afternoon. She'd be here in five hours.
I drove back over to the Wheaton Library. Caroline Rogers was on duty behind the counter along with a young woman who looked like a college kid working part-time. "Hello," I said.
"Do you wish to borrow a book, Mr. Spenser?" she said.
"No, I want to know where to eat in the greater Wheaton area."
"Eat?" she said.
"Yes, the love of my life will be coming out here to spend the weekend with me and. I was wondering if there was someplace that didn't serve salmon loaf."
Caroline stared at me for a moment. "Funny, it never occurred to me that there might be a love of your life."
"A guy with this profile," I said. "Surely you jest."
She smiled. "I mean I never thought of you as anything but an intrusion. I never thought of you as a person, someone who would love or want to dine well."
"Or do both," I said. "Where can I do that?"
"Well, this is not an area of haute cuisine."
"I sensed that," I said. "That's why I came to you."
"And once again," she said, "I'll fail you. The restaurant at Reservoir Court is all there is really, unless you wish to drive to Springfield, or Amherst."
"Well," I said, "I'll improvise. Thanks anyway."