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Hildegarde Makes the Scene
A Hildegarde Withers Mystery
By Stuart Palmer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved.
In the office at centre Street Headquarters where Inspector Oscar Piper kept his desk and hung his hat, the phone began to ring. The inspector, suffocating in a welter of the administrative chores that he still considered an unreasonable imposition, came up for air and grabbed the noisy instrument with the reprieved feeling that it was at least something different to do. His bark was answered by the suave voice of the commissioner himself.
"Oscar? How's everything in Homicide?"
The inspector, taking this question as rhetorical, raked the fingers of his free hand through grizzled hair and responded cautiously, with a touch of Black Irish humor, that things in Homicide were pretty dead. He was rewarded with a polite chuckle at the other end of the wire.
"I'm sending someone over to see you, Oscar," the commissioner said. "He's on his way."
"What does he want?"
"I'll let him tell you that. Frankly, more than anything else, I think he needs to have his hand held."
"Wrong sex. I'm only holding hands with females this week."
"Seriously, Oscar, I wish you'd do whatever you can for him. As a favor to me, if you need a reason. His name's Bernard Gregory. Corporation lawyer. Substantial citizen. To tell the truth, I know him quite well, although I wouldn't exactly call him a personal friend."
"Why hand him to me?"
"Because it occurred to me while I was talking with him that you might be the one person in a peculiar position to do him some good. You'll understand, I think, when you listen to his problem."
"My peculiar position is running Homicide. Is homicide his problem?"
"Nothing like it. Consider this a diversion, Oscar. Something for a change. Look out for him, will you, Oscar? There's a good fellow. I've got to run now."
The commissioner hung up and, presumably, ran. Inspector Oscar Piper, immobilized by a plethora of paperwork, remained anchored at his desk. Again he raked his grizzled head, cursing soft Irish curses. For no specific reason, directed at no selected thing or person. It was just that he had been inclined by experience as well as nature to an uneasy and profane reaction when commissioners came bearing gifts or asking favors.
It was about half an hour later when Bernard Gregory was ushered through the door by the uniformed watchdog on the other side. Inspector Piper, mindful of the commissioner's artfully implied request for kid-glove treatment, got his short, wiry body to its feet and offered a greeting with a bony hand. He resumed his seat behind his desk after Gregory had, on invitation, occupied one in front of it. Inspector Piper, without appearing to do so, inspected his visitor with a sharp eye. The commissioner had said that Bernard Gregory was a substantial citizen, and he looked it. Broad shoulders, thick bole, sturdy legs with some spring left in them. Gray hair, sharply parted and smoothly brushed. Clipped gray mustache between a bold nose and thin lips. Wide forehead and direct eyes, now slightly clouded by whatever problem had brought him where he was. He was groomed and polished and tailored, but he wasn't soft. Why is it, the little Irish inspector wondered, that all corporation lawyers look like variations of an old Calvert ad and all criminal lawyers look somehow disheveled and slightly soiled, as if they were wearing dirty underwear. Well, that wasn't true, of course. It was a libel on the latter, at any rate, a tenacious image invulnerable to all contrary examples, probably established by Clarence Darrow and carried on by John J. Malone.
"I suppose," said Bernard Gregory, "that the commissioner has warned you of my coming."
"He has informed me," Inspector Piper amended. "What can I do for you?"
Bernard Gregory leaned forward, clutching his knees as if to underscore by his position the bluntness of his words. "I'll come directly to the point, Inspector. My daughter is missing. I want her found."
Inspector Piper wondered with a touch of weary asperity, which he dissembled, how many other distraught parents in this city, to say nothing of all the other cities of all the world, could say the same thing. But he must not, he reminded himself, let his childless bachelorhood make him impatient with the problems of those less fortunate.
"We have a Bureau of Missing Persons," he said. "This is Homicide. Why have you come to me?"
"I didn't come. I was sent."
"Of course. By the commissioner. It's just that the Bureau of Missing Persons is organized and equipped for this kind of work."
"I've been to Missing Persons, as a matter of fact. I got the feeling that my problem wasn't taken very seriously. I wasn't satisfied. That's why I exploited my acquaintance with the commissioner and went to see him."
"I see. Well, you shouldn't make any hasty judgment about Missing Persons. Believe me, it wasn't that they didn't take your problem seriously. It's merely that they can't get emotional about a problem that constantly repeats itself. You can't expect them to. It happens every day, Mr. Gregory. People disappear. Nowadays, because of the uncertainty and unrest of the world, an alarming percentage of those who disappear are, like your daughter, very young. I assume, at least, that your daughter is very young."
"She's twenty-one. Just barely. I can no longer exercise authority over her if she chooses to disregard it. That's not the point. The point is, I'm worried about her. I don't know where she is, and I want to know. If she's in trouble, I want to help her. Besides, there is another and very pressing reason why she must be found. Her mother is on the verge of a nervous breakdown."
There it was, Inspector Piper reflected with genuine compassion. There was the inevitable effect of every thoughtless, rash, aberrant act. Someone else, usually innocent, was always hurt, destroyed or otherwise affected by it. No man is an island. Especially is a parent not an island. Why couldn't the loved children of loving parents understand that? Why were they deliberately most cruel to the ones most vulnerable? Why? Because the best of them, when you stopped to consider it, were creatures of fierce conviction and total commitment. Because they became involved in something that was more intensely important than any other thing or any person. Does Mother suffer? Well, that's too bad, but it can't be helped. Woman, what have I to do with you?
"How long," said Inspector Piper, "has your daughter been missing?"
"About two weeks. Possibly a little longer. I can't be exact because I've been unable to discover just when she was last seen, or by whom."
Inspector Piper's bushy eyebrows had climbed a fraction of an inch up his forehead. "That long ago? Have you done anything before this to try to locate her?"
"Certainly. When she didn't report back to school on time, I drove up immediately to see if I could get any lead as to where she might be. First, however, I made inquiries at the office of the Committee of Artists for Peace here in New York."
Inspector Piper lifted a hand in a truncated halt sign. He shook his grizzled head as if to clear it. "Wait a minute. You're losing me. Maybe you'd better back up and fill me in."
"Of course. Sorry. My daughter Lenore is, or was, a senior at Bennington. As you may know, they have what they call a non-resident term there. It begins about the middle of December and ends about the middle of March. In this term the girls are turned loose to rub elbows with the rest of us. They're required to work at something or other, of course.
It's supposed to give them experience with reality, a taste of the world as it is. I don't know. Maybe it's a good thing. They seem to live, otherwise, a rather cloistered life up there. Not that they aren't allowed extraordinary liberties. Apparently the girls impose a rather severe discipline upon themselves.
"Anyhow, they have this non-resident term, and Lenore chose to work this year for the Committee of Artists for Peace. Her mother and I saw her infrequently during the term. She didn't live at home, and she seemed to want to be left alone. She completed the term, all right. I discovered that much at the office of the Committee. But she didn't return to school afterward. Wherever she has gone, she apparently went directly from New York."
"And no one at the office of the Committee could give you a clue?"
"If they could, they wouldn't. They assumed there that she had returned to school."
"Who did you talk with there?"
"The director. Several people in and out of the office. Particularly with a young man named Bud Hoffman. I was told that he and Lenore had been seeing a great deal of each other after hours, and that he might be expected to know more about her personal affairs than her other associates. But apparently he didn't."
"He couldn't help you?"
"No. As a matter of fact, he gave me the impression of being rather stunned and embittered by Lenore's action. He seemed to look on it as a personal injury, or something of the sort. He hadn't been with the Committee as long as Lenore. He was taken on afterward, and was leaving immediately. To be exact, he had already left it. I got his address at the Committee office and found him in his rented room nearby."
"He had no idea at all where your daughter might have gone?"
"He said not. He said she just vanished without a word of explanation or good-bye or anything else. I felt sorry for him. He seemed like a substantial sort of young man. Older than Lenore. About thirty, I'd say. Stocky. Blond. Considerably neater and more clipped than most of the others I talked with. Somehow he didn't strike me as the sort who would be working for a Committee of that nature. He was obviously hurt and angry. Lenore is an attractive girl, and she has always treated her young men rather badly. I suppose it's simply because she has never been able to take any of them seriously."
"And no one at your daughter's school could throw any light on her disappearance?"
"None. I talked at length with her counselor and her roommate, without results. It was strange. I had the uncomfortable feeling that they considered me a meddlesome old fuddy-duddy who had his wind up for nothing."
"That was, as you say, about two weeks ago. What action, if any, have you taken since then?"
"I hired private detectives to try to trace her. Lenore's mother and I discussed it, and we decided that that would be best. At least in the beginning. We wanted to be discreet, you see. To avoid publicity if we could. Not that I would have been withered by a little publicity, however unpleasant, but we had Lenore to consider. She's a very intense and sensitive girl. If she's gone off on some kind of mission or crusade or something, something she feels is vital, God knows what it would do to her pride to be publicized and possibly ridiculed. Most important, God knows what it would do to her relationship with us. With her mother and me."
"The police, Mr. Gregory," said Inspector Piper drily, if not caustically, "are also capable of discretion. Never mind that, though. I take it that your private detectives were unsuccessful, or you wouldn't be here."
"That's true. The agency was recommended to me highly, but it's little enough that they've turned up. Indeed, the one bit of pertinent information I've acquired came to me quite independently through the United States mail."
"Oh? What's that?"
"A bill from a major oil company. Lenore apparently needed repairs done on her car that she was able to have done at a service station. The bill came to slightly less than a hundred dollars. The repairs were done at a station in Gallup, New Mexico. I don't quite understand why Lenore used her credit card, for I have reason to know that she left New York with plenty of money. Perhaps she wanted to hang onto her cash for another purpose. However that may be, I'm glad she used the card. The address on it is our address in Manhattan. Her bill, therefore, came here, and I, of course, opened it."
Inspector Oscar Piper was silent. The Black Irish blood in his moderately sclerotic veins was beginning to seethe, and an unholy suspicion was slowly achieving the stature of a certainty in his brain. A whole new prospect had been opened unto him by the simple intelligence that Lenore Gregory had been located, however briefly and indirectly, in Gallup, New Mexico. Surely no one went to Gallup, New Mexico, except people who lived there, unless they went there on their way to somewhere else. And Gallup, New Mexico, as all informed folk knew, was on the way to Los Angeles, California. The intelligence also opened a crack through which Inspector Oscar Piper was privileged to peek once more into the malodorous, devious mind of a police commissioner. At last he was beginning to understand why Bernard Gregory, who had a missing daughter, had been steered by a conniving buck-passer to the domain of Homicide, which should ordinarily have no concern in the matter. Now he understood what the commissioner had meant by saying that he, Oscar Piper, was in a peculiar position. It was not, in fact, that he was in a peculiar position. It was that he had a peculiar friend. A peculiar friend in a strategic place. Inspector Piper breathed deeply and tried to speak calmly.
"You say she had plenty of money," he said. "How much is plenty?"
"Something over a thousand dollars, I'm afraid."
The inspector's eyebrows climbed again. "That seems like a very large sum, especially for a girl off on her own somewhere. Was it in cash?"
"I assume so. Unless she bought traveler's checks."
"How did she get hold of that much cash? Was she well paid by the Committee she was working for?"
"She wasn't paid at all. She was donating her time and work. I made her an allowance for expenses. When her nonresident term was near an end, in anticipation of her return to campus, I deposited a thousand dollars in her personal checking account. I had no hesitation about it, because Lenore has always been sagacious in her expenditures. However, when she didn't show up at her school, I checked with the bank and found that her account had been cleaned out, except for a nominal amount to cover outstanding checks."
"When did she withdraw the money?"
"March fifteenth. The final day of her term."
"She must have left soon after. Probably the same day or the next. You say she had her car repaired at a station in Gallup, New Mexico. What kind of car was she driving?"
"A Volkswagen. About a year old. Anyone who saw it should easily remember it."
"Oh? I was under the impression that Volkswagens make a virtue of looking like each other."
"Not this one. Lenore had one of the girls at school, an art student, give it a paint job of daffodils."
The inspector closed his eyes briefly, imploring the succor of Judas Priest with all the nagging despair that many an oldster feels when he stares in dismay across the generation gap. One of those! He might have known it. A blooming flower child. A tender dispenser of sweetness and light. A prolific mutant of the standard cuckoo, multiplying like rabbits to harass parents, confuse sociologists, and complicate the lives of honest cops. In Washington, D.C., and probably in other cities across the country, there was an organization called the National Society for Parents of Flower Children. Patterned somewhat after Alcoholics Anonymous, it provided a therapeutic symposium where desperate parents of incomprehensible children could share their miseries and cry for strength. In the inspector's opinion, it was appropriate that the NSPFC had taken AA as a pattern, inasmuch as the former was likely to be the precursor of the latter.
He was certain now, in view of the Gallup clue and the decorated Volkswagen, that Lenore Gregory had fled to the City of Angels or its environs, seeking the company of soul brothers and sisters along the Sunset Strip or at Laguna Beach or wherever the brothers and sisters were gathered for spiritual and sometimes carnal communion. Why, he wondered bitterly, couldn't she have been content with the selection in the Village?
"We'll assume," he said, "that she's gone to Los Angeles. It seems indicated."
"I agree," Bernard Gregory said, "but Los Angeles is a large city. How do you hope to find her?"
"The police have ways of finding people, whether they're in Los Angeles, California, or in Blue Eye, Missouri. However, this is a delicate matter which requires extraordinary methods. Maybe we'd better proceed unofficially." Here he paused, before capitulating, to curse once more the black perfidy of the commissioner. "It happens that I have a ... er ... contact in the Los Angeles area who may be able to help us. A maiden lady who was for years a gad ... er ... that is to say, a sort of unofficial member of this police force. I can assure you that she is"—and here he crossed his fingers below his desk—"the soul of discretion."
"Whatever you say." Bernard Gregory stood up. "I'll leave it in your hands, Inspector. I can expect to hear from you?"
"Just as soon as I have anything to report."
"Good. Thank you very much for your time."
Inspector Piper came around his desk and shook hands. "You'd better send me a picture of your daughter," he said. "I'll send it along to my contact."
Excerpted from Hildegarde Makes the Scene by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 1969 Random House, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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