This story takes place in October and November of 2007
I was just getting ready to go home when the intercom buzzed. I was on my feet, having just grabbed my bullrider hat from the little end table I keep in the corner behind my desk to put the hat on, and I reached out a long arm and pushed the button. "I'm headin' out, Marla," I said.
"I'm sorry, Darv. If you want I'll have him come back, but I think you'll want to talk to him."
I looked at my watch – it wasn't quite three, and though I keep my own hours and leave whenever I take the notion, it wouldn't be quite right to tell a potential client to come back because I was closing that early. I pushed the button again and said, "Okay, send him in."
I put my hat down, and took a step, and was ready to sit down when the man walked in. He was older, gray and worn, or perhaps more aged than worn, for the lines in his face didn't seem to be the result of hard work or weather. He had a noticeable spare tire, and jowls, and a dewlap, and though he was tanned it wasn't a heavy tan – more the kind you get from walking once in a while than the heavy tan of someone who's worked outside most of his life. I know about that kind of tan – mine's permanent, and doesn't fade completely even in winter when the only part of me that shows when I'm outside is my face.
I reached a hand across the desk. "I'm Darvin Carpenter," I said. "I'm on my way out the door, but my secretary tells me that I'll want to at least talk to you, though I can't promise I'll take your case."
"I'm Vern," he said, and I didn't ask for any more name, since I'd ask if I took the case, and if I didn't take it I didn't need to know.
"Have a sit," I said, gesturing to the straight-backed wooden chairs on his side of the desk. I sat down in my chair – a leather job with a high back and brass studs, a gift from Cecelia a few years back. I'd had an ordinary office chair before then, and then one day I'd walked in and found the surprise. I knew that on the wall behind me Cecelia's face looked down from a family portrait, along with me and Darlia, and there, beside the phone and the intercom, was my favorite picture of her, a gift from her just before our wedding. I gave it a glance as I sat, noting the tilted black "cat eyes," the thin lips, skin the exact color you see when you break a bar of milk chocolate, kinky hair drawn back into a severe and short ponytail at the base of her skull.
I relaxed into my luxurious chair, about the only true luxury I own. Actually that's not true anymore. We got back from our August vacation this year and I got hit over the head with a brand new study where the garage used to be, with a similar high-backed leather chair behind a desk that had to be oak or teak or ebony or some such exotic wood ... though to me anything that's not cholla wood is exotic. I've got two luxuries now, both of 'em gifts from my wife.
I looked across this desk, wooden and nice but merely functional, and with scars on the corner where I habitually rest my boots. "What can I do for you, Vern?" I liked the first name basis – I'm about as stiff and rigid as a piece of wet spaghetti.
"I'm looking for my daughter," he said.
"From your looks, I'd guess she's grown." It wasn't till it was out of my mouth that I realized I'd been sort of ambiguous. What I meant was that I imagined she was now an adult.
"Yes, she was born in 68." That was just three years after I was born. "She ran away when she was 15. I drove her away ... I don't want to get into how or why, but she ran from me. And I want to tell her I'm sorry."
"Apologizing is a good thing. I've learned that being married – I've had to apologize to my wife and my daughter umpteen times." I leaned back in my chair. "She ran in, what, 83? I was just out of high school then. Where did y'all live back then?"
"Seattle. That's where she ran from."
"Then you'd do best to start huntin' there."
"I did." He leaned forward, elbows on knees, and looked at me across the desk. "I've been looking for five years now. I started there. The trail was cold, but I – well, the detective I hired – was able to find a couple of people who remembered her. She'd become a prostitute." He looked down for a moment, shaking his head. "It's my fault..." I gave him a half minute or so to compose himself, and he did, and continued. "She'd become a prostitute, and worked there in Seattle for a while ... you know, maybe, that there's where the term 'Skid Row' comes from?"
"I hadn't known that," I said, deciding not to add that it was one of the few pieces of useless trivia that I didn't know. "About your daughter..."
"Yes, well, she worked there for a while, and then the trail led to Portland. The same PI followed the trail there, and it started getting expensive, before I decided to retain a Portland detective and cut out the middleman. She worked there for a while, and then moved on..."
"That's Portland, Oregon, right?" I didn't see how it could be the one in Maine, but I'd rather be too careful than not careful enough.
"Oregon, right. Then she went to Boise ... Idaho. Then Spokane, back in Washington, then back to Idaho, Pocatello this time. It took a long time to get there, three years, but after that either the trail wasn't as cold ... I don't see how, it was so long ago she ran..." He fell silent, still looking at the floor.
I let him sit. This couldn't have been easy for him. Whatever he'd done to drive his daughter away, the search for her had to have been expensive not just in money, but in emotional energy. And it must have been especially bad having her become a prostitute. I tried to imagine what it would do to me if Darlia, just five years from now, ran off and became a prostitute. All I could be sure of was that it would hurt terribly.
"Anyway," Vern resumed, "from there she went to Reno, and then Vegas. Then Flagstaff – that's Arizona, but you probably know that, living in Albuquerque. She was moving south and east, slowly. From Flagstaff she went to Santa Fe, and then here. And that's why I'm here. I want to find the next piece of the trail."
"And if I understand you correctly, from what you said about Portland, you're hiring local PIs in each city?"
"Yes. I can't see working through the guy in Seattle. He'd have to work through local detectives anyway, wouldn't he, because they know the area. So why should I pay him to pay you when I can pay you direct?"
"Makes sense to me." I glanced at my watch. "I'll tell you what. This is going to be a long expensive process. It's a cold trail, as you said. By the way, when did she get here, as best as you can tell?"
"Around 1991, 1992. At any rate that's when she disappeared from Santa Fe, and the next time she showed up was here."
"And you've probably found out she's worked under several different names."
"Yes. Sometimes half a dozen in just one city, though some of them repeat."
"Okay," I said, "it's a cold trail. Assuming she's still here – which isn't likely, given the pattern we've got – she could have completely changed everything about herself by now. If she got here in 92, that was 15 years ago. It's a warmer trail than it was when you started, but the difference between 50 below and 40 below doesn't usually interest the guy who's freezing to death. Lemme do this. I won't promise to take the case, but it's Friday anyway, and I wouldn't be able to do a lot over the weekend anyway. Let me think on it over the weekend, and let you know Monday."
He looked like he wasn't pleased with the notion, but as much as I felt for the guy, my family comes first and if I don't want to take a case, then I just don't. And if I want to think about it first, then that's what I do. "If you want someone who'll take the case right away," I said, "I can recommend some good PIs here in town. In fact, there's one who's really, really good, and since this doesn't look like a shooting deal I got no qualms about recommending her." I felt a mental grin at what Cecelia would say about me saying "I got no" and "qualms" in the same sentence – in the same phrase, in fact. Her notions of English are just a tad bit more correct than mine usually are.
He thought about that. I could almost read his mind from the expressions running across his face; he'd never make much of a poker player, not that I had much experience that way myself. I'd tried poker, and other forms of gambling, years ago, and concluded that there are better ways to lose money. Finally he decided something, and looked right at me. "I really want to tell you to take your thinking about it and stuff it ... well, stuff it somewhere. Sorry, I used to have a pretty dirty mouth and I still almost say things sometimes. But I have this feeling about you. It's not just that I think you're a good detective – I can't judge that anyway. But I've got this feeling that you're the guy I'm supposed to hire, so I'll wait. And we'll see if you come to the same conclusion."
I raised my eyebrows at that. Most people who want to hire me want to do it then and there, and when I sometimes want to think on it they tend to get irritated. But this guy acted like he had a confidence that came from either somewhere very deep within, or from somewhere outside him. It was unique in my experience with clients, and I've been a private detective since 1988. I stood up and stuck out my hand. "If that's the way you see it, Vern, I ain't a-gonna argue with you. Here, lemme give you a card..." I reached down and fished one out of the center drawer of my desk, and handed it to him. "I'll contrive to be here at 9 Monday morning, and you can either come by, or call that number, and I'll have my decision by then."
"Fair enough, once I accept that I've got to wait. And I guess, even though waiting till Monday is hard, I've waited all these years and a couple of days won't make a difference. So ... you'll hear from me Monday. And thank you, Mr. Carpenter."
"I'm Darvin, and you're welcome."
After Vern was gone, I grabbed my hat – again – and got my gun out of the drawer where I keep it when I'm in the office, and went out to Marla's desk. I hired her right out of high school in 2003, and come spring she'll graduate from UNM with a degree in criminal justice, or whatever they call it. My own law enforcement experience was far enough back that I knew a couple of old "street monsters," to use a Joseph Wambaugh term – big tough old cops who enforced the law with a glare and a baton. Cops like that are obsolete now – but there was a time when they walked their beats and children could safely do likewise. Anyway, Marla's going to graduate, and apply with the Albuquerque Police Department, and she'll make a good cop, I think. I've let her work her own hours to fit around her school schedule, and while she's been my part-time secretary my office has been as organized as it's ever been.
I held my gun, in its holster, in my right hand, and put on my bullrider with my left. "I'd do this if I weren't headed out," I told Marla, "but if you could print off a bare bones missing person contract I'd appreciate it. If I decide to take the guy's case I'll fill in the info by hand – name and address and all that jazz."
She grinned up at me from her chair. "You realize that it's going to be just a few clicks, right?" Without waiting for an answer she turned to her computer and, true to her word, in just a few clicks the printer was disgorging paper. "I'm printing two copies, Darv – one for him and one for me."
"One for you? Who runs this place anyway?"
"Well, you sign the checks and investigate, and I run this place."
"Remind me," I said, pulling papers from the printer, "to fire you the day after you quit. I can't tolerate that kind of reality hitting me in the face." I flipped quickly through the papers, and handed them to Marla. "Since you're so special, put that on my desk before you go home."
She looked up at me, and I could almost believe that she did run the place. "I ought to make you carry that in yourself. But you've got a Cecelia look on your face, and I know better than to get between you and her. You'd be sorry afterward, but at the time you'd walk right over me."
"Probably," I said, and batted her on the shoulder with the back of my hand. "Remind me, before you graduate, to tell you how much I appreciate your work, and your friendship." And then, before I could blush so furiously that it would show through my tan, I turned and went.