A Strong Woman - Cover

A Strong Woman

Copyright© 2012 by Robert McKay

Chapter 15

It went that way for days. On Saturday the artist called, saying that the second sketch was ready. I called Cecelia and told her she was in charge while I went to get it, and recorded a voice mail message on my cell phone so that anyone who called me for instructions would find out, and call her instead. Getting the sketch, going back to the office, pulling up the file Cecelia had saved the poster as, revising it with the scanned-in second sketch, and printing a master copy took a while, since I wasn't as familiar with the software as she was. Then I had to run out and make a stack of copies for the next days. The afternoon was shot when I got done, and I didn't return to the office for the evening debriefing until Cecelia had it underway. I sat in back and listened, and found no reason to interrupt or correct her.

Sunday, and Monday, and so on were the same – tedious, knocking on doors, finding people not home, finding people who didn't want to talk, getting tons of useless information, hearing all sorts of complaints, wondering whether batting our heads against the wall was doing any good. I got all sorts of responses.

From an old lady in a trailer park: "The cops was already here. Don't you communicate between yourselves?"

From a young black woman pushing a stroller along the sidewalk: "Why you be askin' me? You the detective – go out an' fin' him yo'se'f."

From some sort of executive at a business of indeterminate purpose: "You come around her bothering my people again, and I'll put my fist through your face."

From a man who was swaying in a non-existent wind at 10 AM on a weekday: "I never ... I didn't ... no, I never saw..."

From a hard-faced young woman who I suspected of being a part-time prostitute: "Men are pigs. Whether you let 'em or you fight 'em, they got just one thing on their minds and they take it any way they can."

From an old man who smelled like unwashed sweat socks: A slamming door that nearly bashed in my nose.

I wanted to scream at many of the people I talked to. The lady with the stroller especially irritated me. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and tell her, I'm trying to find him, you idiot! But that wouldn't be very nice, and it would be thoroughly unproductive. I bit my tongue and let her go her way in peace.

Every evening, back at the office, I took reports from my people – operatives, as Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe called the free lance investigators they hired from time to time. And while they were experienced at what they were doing and boiled things down, I knew that they were dealing with the same kind of unhelpful responses I was. In fact, to relieve the boredom and stress – and yes, those two can co-exist, at least to an extent – they would tell me about some of their more irritating or hilarious responses. Rudy once had a lady come to the door wearing nothing but a very diaphanous and very short nightgown, or whatever it might be – from the description of both woman and clothing the purpose wasn't so much sleeping as seduction. We all laughed as Rudy described how he'd cut that interview just as short as he possibly could.

Or there was the scene Beth walked into – a screaming fight between a pair of women, who both gave out concise negative answers, at the same volume they were using on each other. Beth said it looked like a lovers' quarrel between a pair who were smart enough to try to be helpful but not smart enough to find a way to calm down.

And Kim giggled her way through a story about a woman whose Chihuahua kept yapping and nipping at anything that wasn't higher than a foot or so above the floor. Kim shares my dislike for what I call "rat dogs" – you know, dogs about the size and shape of a medium rat – but this particular critter's insistence on being a pest to anything at the level of its nose, and nowhere else, struck her as the funniest thing since Jack Benny ... although I had to explain to her who Jack Benny was.

That's how an investigation of this sort goes. You spend hours and hours, and a pound or two of shoe soles, getting all the information you can from everyone you can, and when you add it all up you've got pretty much zilch. It was easier and quicker with the people I'd hired, but it still wasn't quick or easy.

And that's not even counting the horde of people who, every day, went out and put up posters in an ever-expanding area. They were plastering the things everywhere, first with just the first sketch and then with both of them, and they got responses too. There were the bums who put the tap on them for a cigarette or "change for the bus" – these days bums aren't after a buck, though usually if they get anything at all it'll be a bill, since few people are going to fork over a quarter or whatever might be the supposedly necessary amount to add up to bus fare.

There were the punks, gangbangers or banger wannabes, who'd drive by, lean out the car window, and shout something stupid and usually vulgar. There were the clerks in stores who couldn't seem to get it through their heads that this was important. There were the occasional male chauvinist idiots who thought that any woman "wanted it" at all times and crying rape was just a case of wishing she'd chosen another man. There was one I heard about who, when he found out Burque was black, concluded that there couldn't have been a crime – the volunteer who talked to him insisted he hadn't hit the guy, and I found myself wishing for someone with a little less restraint, since my own wife is a black woman ... and besides, no matter what color she is no woman deserves rape and it's a crime whether she's white or black or pink with orange stripes.

And there were the phone calls. Anytime you ask people to call you, you're going to get mostly junk. There are the professional confessors, who'll swear they did any crime you care to name just so they can get the attention. There are people who sincerely think they saw the guy – when nothing about him matches the suspect's description. There are people who read the poster carefully, three times, and then call to ask what it's all about. There are prank calls. There are crank calls. There are people who try very sincerely to be helpful, and provide nothing worthwhile at all. There are people who have nothing better to do than spend all day on the phone, and can't understand why they need to get off the line after 30 minutes of saying nothing useful.

And so it went. I'd been on the case for nearly three weeks, we'd been doing it with my little "army" almost as long, and I had a fund of information that added up to something less than absolutely nothing. The case file was now in three manila folders, and it was almost time for a fourth – for we were documenting every day's reports, a page from each person, even if the only thing on that page was the name, date, area covered, and the word NOTHING in great big neon letters. I was beginning to regret hiring Cecelia to be my secretary – we were generating more paperwork in one day than I'd produced in a year before that decision. Of course it wasn't her fault that we needed so many people or that the case was one of those that by its nature generated lots of zip, but I still mentally griped at her – I managed not to gripe at her out loud, for however irritated I might be, I knew my emotions were nonsense.

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