A woman stands in the door frame, her eyes the only movement. She sees me and I hear her draw a breath. The eyes move around the room and then back to me like a pendulum. She furrows her brow slightly hooding the soft brown orbs. She’s dressed in her finest, it’s clear from the felt hat covering her close cropped dark hair and the way the dress hangs. Church clothes. She’s out to impress someone, probably got lost on her way to sell a bible.
We give each other a stare down while my heart rate slows. I keep sliding glances at the couch until she takes it for a sign and cocks her head at the empty seat. The cat had her tongue, but the whiskey let mine wander.
“You lost or something?” I speak through a fat lip and watch her eyes crawl over the covered record player in the corner, the puddle on the floor, my old desk, anywhere but my face. “You can stare." I tell her "I know I look beat up.” She surprises me by staring me dead on. When she speaks her voice is even, which I give her credit for. “Can I sit?” she asks looking at the empty sofa.
I feel like I've seen this picture before; a lifetime ago in Nancy’s diner. The thought of it makes my heart twist.
“Hit the bricks doll. You wanna sit somewhere? try the bus station.” It takes her two strides to reach the sofa and sit down. She lifts her chin and squares her shoulders at me. I stand, this has gone far enough. I try to rub my eyes and wince at the patchwork of cuts and bruises. “Listen here lady, I don’t know if you’re dumb of just deaf.” I start in on her even as a tiny shred inside of me, the love left by Louise, chastises me for it. I walk to the couch rolling up my sleeves, unsure how I’m going to continue. I’ve never had to give a skirt the bum’s rush before, but hell, there was a first time for everything. I make it half way to her before her resolve breaks and she stands. Her fists are balled at her sides and my face radiates pain at the thought of going another 10 rounds. “Ernie Feltzer.” she says. The name take a minute to cut through the whiskey buzz but it stops me in my tracks when it registers.
“What about him?” I said
“Ernie Feltzer told me to come here, said to use his name if you got uppity.”
My mind conjures the image of a heavy set Ojibway in suspenders. Knew his way around a Ross rifle, smoked hand rolled cigars. Ernie was a good man, the last person I’d expect to vouch my name. Knowing this woman went to Ernie gives me pause and I actually stop to look at her for longer than a second. Her make up’s been applied fast, the rouge a bit too thick, faint tracks through the foundation starting from her eyes and rolling to her cheeks. I sit down heavy on the sofa into a cloud of dust and mouse shit.
“Ernie huh? you been to talk to him means you got a problem. He send you over to me means you got a big problem. That about the size of it?”
“I suppose that is the- size of it, as you say. My husband, he’s ah. well he’s gone.”
She spits the last of it out like stale milk and tries hard to control her lip. Her eyes swim with possibilities she doesn’t want to face. Her eyes make good on barricading the tears but if she isn’t careful they’re going to spill down the tracks she’s worked so hard to cover.
I’m not moved.
“Buzz off lady. If this is what you brought to Ernie and he turned you down cold then I ain’t buying. He probably told you nine times out of ten when a man walks out on his woman there’s another one on the side. Well I'm done looking for things that don't want to be found. And I hate to break it to you, but if he's shacked up with some dame then you don't want him back anyway. Best to cut your losses now and move on.”
The dam breaks and tears roll through the cosmetics plastered to her face. A small part of me, a part I’ve gotten used to since my wife died, smiles just a little.
“Show some compassion you lout. My husband has never so much as courted another woman let alone run off with her! And as it so happens Mr. Feltzer wouldn’t help me because he said I could save money if I came to you. He said you were probably on the dole and needed cash, and from the looks of you I’d say he's right as rain!”
Ernie must be doing pretty well for himself if he can turn his nose up at work. Her ill aimed barb got me to thinking. Harry won’t find me if I don’t even know where I’m going. If I can keep Harry off my tail and make a quick buck at the same time, then hell I guess Ernie's trash would be my treasure after all. I walk to my desk and lean against it trying to ignore the longing in my throat that comes from the whiskey puddle reek.
"Got a name?" I ask.
“Violet Carruthers. My Husband Michael has a contract with the university to teach night courses three times a week. Sometimes he takes a few pupils after class to go over lessons, but he always calls so I know to expect him late.”
I imagine some of those university students might be of the female persuasion but keep these thoughts to myself, already picturing the fresh bottle of bourbon this dame’s cash will bring in.
“Three nights ago he didn’t come home. I called around to our friends to see if he'd gone to visit. But all the while a fear was growing in my gut. I finally called the university and they said he wasn’t in Friday night. A no call no show the woman on the telephone called it.”
“And this was unusual?” My mind kept returning to the professor leaving town with a pretty young thing in tow.
“no call no show? not Michael. As I said he's always been good to call.”
“You went to the cops?”
“Naturally. Friday morning when it was light enough to walk.”
“And they told me, ‘they’d look into it.'" She muttered a gruff imitation of what I assumed was the cop she spoke to.
“I’ve called back twice daily since. They have changed their story to ‘it’s an active investigation and they can’t give me anything further.’ But I know they aren’t taking me seriously, they probably think I'm some hysterical woman who's husband ran out on her.” She slides into the leather crossing her arms across the deep green of her coat. "seems to be common practice when a woman is worried about her husband. If it were the other way around I'm sure the police would have every available man at Michael's disposal."
I yawn, overtaken by a sudden lethargy. Something in the futility she's spouting has connected and I suddenly wonder why I should try to help at all. I swore this job off for a reason. I push myself away from my desk.
“Dropping Ernie’s name bought you my time sweetheart, but if I were you I'd let the cops do their job. Forget what I said, maybe Your husband will be come in a few days nursing a big head from trying to keep up with the kids he teaches.”
Her jaw hangs. Her eyes rage with silent fury. "You- why you haven't listened to a word I've said, have you?"
If only that were true, truth is I heard the whole thing. Who am I kidding trying to solve a case? The last one I solved put me in the hole and Louise in the ground. I'd have better chances on the street getting away from Harry.
She rises and leaves. Her heels echoing off the wood floor like thunderclaps. Her shoulders sag when she hits the door frame. I hear her sniffle and something in me breaks. Maybe it’s being in the old office, maybe it’s the hinky shit that’s been going on, but I feel something in me twist and then the words are out before I can take them back.
“Do you love him?”
“Your husband. Do you love him?”
She pauses, blinking once slowly.
“There isn’t a day that passes where I don’t think of how much I love that man.”
Damn it to hell. What did I have to lose except my life.
“Fifty dollars, plus incidentals. Fee up front.”
“Half.” She squares up and the woman who stormed over to my sofa is back. “And you stay sober.”
“Fifty bucks up front or no deal.” She surprises me by smiling, her cheeks shiny from where the fresh tears coursed down them.
“I recognize desperation Mr. Slate. Kind recognizes kind, and you reek of it. That and cheap liquor. Twenty five dollars now and twenty five after you bring my husband home alive. Don’t bargain Mr. Slate, you can’t afford to.”
It was my turn to shoot daggers. when I opened my fist; she started counting tens.