Authors: Ron Base
Tags: #Mystsery: Thriller - P.I. - Florida
Tree handed the card back to Marcello who carefully replaced it in his backpack. Tree took his glasses off and put them back in his shirt pocket. “When did you get this?” he asked.
The boy looked uneasy. “Can you find my mom or not?”
“Okay, Marcello, it doesn’t seem as though she’s missing since she recently sent you a letter. She says she’s coming to get you and you should be patient.”
So what does that mean? You won’t find her?”
“If your mom really is missing, you should go to the police.”
“I don’t like the police.”
“Nonetheless, they are the people best equipped to find your mom—if she really is missing.”
“What’s the use you being a detective and everything if all you do is tell people to call the police?”
“I don’t tell that to everyone,” Tree said. “Only twelve-year-old boys.”
“Well, I’m twenty-one.”
“Nonetheless, I think you should go to the police.”
The kid got up from the chair. Even then he didn’t rise up that much above the desk, Tree noted. A small twelve. Maybe he wasn’t even twelve. The boy re-slung the backpack on his shoulders.
“You’re old and I don’t think I like you,” he said.
“Detectives aren’t supposed to be liked,” said Tree.
“Then you must be a great detective.”
Tree couldn’t help but smile. He decided to try to be helpful. “Your mother sounds like a nice person, Marcello.”
“That’s why I want to be with her.”
“Would you like me to call the police for you?”
Marcello shook his head. “I told you already. I don’t like the police.”
“That’s right. I forgot.”
Marcello went out. Tree put his glasses back on, wondering if he should let the boy go. He heard him clomp back down the stairs. Tree swiveled around to stare out the window into the parking lot, still wondering what he should do. Marcello swept past astride a red bicycle. Then he was gone. The kid was from around here, no doubt. He’d be all right. Probably mom and dad were divorced. The boy lived with his father and maybe a stepmother. He missed his real mom, that was all, and then he got that letter, and maybe his mom should have showed up by now and hadn’t.
That was it. No more to it than that.
The boy’s comments about age irritated him. He wasn’t that old, was he? He still had most of his hair and that was a plus, and it had remained mostly black, albeit shot through with grey streaks. He liked to think that just made him more distinguished. He had put on some weight in the last few years, but he worked out three or four times a week and being tall like Rex, six feet, two inches, he was, he believed, able to carry a few extra pounds. Or was he deluding himself? It was the age of delusion. He told himself he did not feel sixty. However sixty was supposed to feel.
In addition to telling himself he did not feel sixty, he also repeated to himself how lucky he was—lucky to have met his wife, Freddie, lucky to have experienced the last great days of Chicago newspapers. He had started out at the
and when that folded, a victim of the world’s lack of interest in an afternoon newspaper, he had gone over to the
where he toiled away happily. He knew Mike Royko, the legendary Chicago columnist, well, he didn’t
Royko, could anyone? But he would nod at Tree when they encountered each other in the city room, and Mike would say, “Hi, there, Tree.” A cub of a reporter, barely out of his teens, Tree was thrilled.
—and they were mostly men—wore ties, never fully tied, and white shirts with the collar button undone. They punched at Underwood typewriters with two fingers, and editors yelled “Copy!” and everyone smoked incessantly so that a pall of grey smoke hung constantly over the battlefield that was the city room.
They drank draught beer for lunch at Riccardo’s, the watering hole of choice, bitching about the corruption of the Daley political machine that ran Chicago forever—Richard
. Daley, that is, not the son, Richard
. Daley, who, when he was mayor, gentrified the city to the point where Tree barely recognized it. Tree loved all of it, loved it too much, at the expense of things like family.
He loved it so much he hung around long enough to see it all change, which is to say he hung around too long.
His mind drifted to another popular topic lately, the mediocrity of his misspent life. He had a lot of time to ponder that subject. He thought about it in the dispassionate way a man who has recently turned sixty must consider these things. After all, no matter how you cut it, the bulk of a lifetime, its essential weight, already had been mounted on the scale and weighed. The weight in his case was light. The future did not promise much more heft. How could it? There was not, he had to admit, a whole lot of future left to consider. A curious thing to realize that there was more behind you than there was ahead.
He did not think like this out of any sense of depression—Tree could not honestly say he was depressed—more of resignation. This was the way it had turned out, and there was not much he could do about it.
Well, there was one thing. You could open your very own detective agency. Not a universal response to the aging process, but his response. So far it had been pretty quiet. Not unexpected since he had no experience as a detective. Someone asked him how many operatives the Sanibel Sunset Detective Agency employed. Operatives? There was only one operative. W. Tremain Callister—Tree—he was
Sanibel Sunset Detective.
One detective, then, and zero clients. Tree shifted his gaze away from the window.
You could hardly count the kid. Marcello? Probably home by now. Hopefully, someone was giving him a hug and pouring him a glass of milk and he was okay. Probably forgotten all about his visit to a real live private detective.
Except he wasn’t much of a detective. Maybe he handled the boy the wrong way. Certainly he was capable of mishandling kids. All you had to do was ask his. Suppose Marcello wasn’t home getting a hug and a glass of milk? Suppose someone was knocking him around and his lost mom and that letter were all he had to hang on to? Could his mother really be missing? A lot of kids’ parents were missing in action, he supposed. Maybe he should have taken him home and made sure he was all right. He would be fine. Maybe it wasn’t even serious. Maybe the kid was playing some sort of weird joke.
Who would be crazy enough to hire Tree Callister, anyway? Paul Newman, sure. He could find your mom and solve your problems because he was Paul Newman. But Tree Callister? What could he ever do for you?
ree left the office late in the afternoon and got into his battered yellow Volkswagen Beetle convertible. His wife Freddie’s red Mercedes was at the garage for a tune-up. Tree’s job today was to pick her up and drive her home. He was a private investigator. He could handle that.
The traffic heading off the island on Causeway Boulevard was already heavy. He turned on to Periwinkle Way and came along to Dayton’s, the late afternoon sun glinting off his windshield, Elvis on the radio singing “Jailhouse Rock.” Lately, he had begun listening to one of the local classic rock radio stations for whom time stopped at the end of 1969. He tried to tell himself this had nothing to do with nostalgia for his fading past, but of course it did. “Jailhouse Rock” made him think of the Elvis Presley concert at Cobo Hall in Detroit in 1970, the excitement of seeing a legend who had not performed for ten years, of witnessing a comeback that people still talked about.
Well, people of a certain age still talked about.
Tree supposed his increasing reliance on pop standards also had something to do with his lack of identification with what was happening on contemporary radio. He hated that, hated that the world appeared to be drifting, that what was noise to him was the music of the day to a generation. He was beginning to feel like his parents, the people he swore he would never emulate.
Dayton’s Supermarkets had been part of the Fort Myers-Naples-Tampa area since Ray Dayton took over the company after he came back from Vietnam in 1974. Ray’s grandfather had started the business on Sanibel in the 1940s. Ray looked more like his granddad every day .
Mr. Ray, as he liked to be called, had served his country fighting in Vietnam. Everyone knew that. A sentence containing Mr. Ray’s name invariably also carried the information that he was a brave veteran who had been to Nam. That’s what everyone said. He had not been to Vietnam. He had been to Nam.
Mr. Ray was talking to Sam Mercer as Tree drove into the parking lot. Sam owned a small resort on Tarpon Bay. He was also president of the Kiwanis Club. Sam and Mr. Ray watched Tree park the Volkswagen. Conversation ceased as he got out of the car and started toward them. Sam removed his sunglasses to get a better look at the interloper. Mr. Ray’s short-cropped white hair glistened in the sunlight. His face was like a slab of stone carved out of a windstorm.
“How are you, Ray?”
Sam said, “How’s the detective business, Tree?”
“Busy, busy,” Tree said with a smile.
Neither man smiled back. Ray Dayton said, “Freddie’s inside, Tree.”
“You should drop around to Kiwanis, Tree.” Sam Mercer spoke slowly, as though addressing someone with learning disabilities. “We could use a detective. Might be good for your business.”
“Thanks Sam, I appreciate that.”
He could feel their eyes on him as he headed toward Dayton’s:
the guy’s an idiot
Tree stepped into the supermarket’s air conditioned coolness. Freddie appeared in a blur of summer linen hurrying along aisle one (pretzels, chips, beer). Tree tried to imagine her with a pretzel or a beer and couldn’t do it. She was on her Blackberry.
“Yes, but Terry any way you look at it, our shrink is too high. We’ve got to do better. I want a meeting with him. How about tomorrow? Ten o’clock. See you then, Terry.”
She got off her phone and her smile brightened. “There you are.”
She kissed him quickly on the mouth, a wifely peck, acceptable in public. Tree liked the way she did it. He liked everything about Fredericka Stayner, known to everyone as Freddie—the way she walked, the sweep of her honey-colored hair, the deep green of her eyes, her elegance, the effortless intelligence. Every time he thought of her, it made him smile. After ten years of marriage, he was still smiling.
“The Mercedes isn’t going to be ready until tomorrow.”
“Then it looks like I’m going to have to drive you home.”
“I hate driving in that car,” she said. “I wish you’d let me buy a new one.”
“It’s my pride and joy,” Tree said. “The only thing I have in this world.”
“You have me,” Freddie said.
“Better even than the Beetle,” he said, taking her hand.
“I don’t rattle, and I’m not constantly blaring old rock and roll tunes.”
“I don’t listen to old rock all the time,” Tree maintained.
“Yes, you do. The next thing you’ll try to make me watch
The Guns of Navarone
“What a lovely way to spend an evening,” he said.
She rolled her eyes and squeezed his hand.
Freddie was Tree’s fourth wife. He could hardly believe it. Four wives? Impossible. Movie stars married four times. Rock musicians. Not Tree Callister. Years ago, a callow young Chicago reporter, he had interviewed Henry Fonda. As afternoon shadows lengthened across Fonda’s still youthfully iconic face, the face of Tom Joad in autumn, the actor expressed anguish over his four marriages. He was ashamed of the divorces. Tree wondered how it was possible to deal with all the emotional and financial complications that many breakups must have entailed.
Now he knew.
He married the first time in his early twenties. What the hell had he been thinking, marrying that young? He wanted the hard-drinking Hemingwayesque newspaper reporter, not a happily married family man. His first wife, Judy, young, dutiful, naïve, desiring all the traditional trappings of marriage, including a husband who came home at night. They produced two children, Raymond and Christopher, before everything fell apart—the bad husband exiting the bad marriage, leaving behind crying children and an angry wife.
Rex Baxter had introduced him to his second wife, Kelly Fleming, a Chicago newscaster who lit up any room she entered. Tree was mesmerized. He remained mesmerized; Kelly less so. A recipe for disaster that ended after three years. Then came Patricia Laine, the entertainment editor at the
. She threw him out a little over a year after they married and went off with the editor of the paper, an upgrade.
After Patricia, he was more or less single for the next five years, except for the live-in law student twenty years his junior. The less said about that, the better.
His marriages, he decided, were rites of passage, necessary journeys on the way to destiny in the form of Fredericka Stayner. Not that he believed in destiny—except where Freddie was concerned. That had to be destiny. It could be nothing else.