Read an Excerpt
Wall of Glass
By Walter Satterthwait
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1987 Walter Satterthwait
All rights reserved.
It was a Friday in mid-April, warm and clear and spectacularly sunny, and a blizzard was due by midnight. Weather like this happens every spring in the New Mexico mountains, and it produces one of our famous annual events, the Death of the Apple Blossoms. Tomorrow all the pink-white petals in the courtyard would be buried beneath a foot of snow. In another few days, the snow would be gone and the petals would be littering the ground in sodden drifts, like fans of debris left behind by a storm tide. And in another few months, when fall rolled around, there would be no apples on the trees. If the Garden of Eden had been planted here, Adam and Eve might still be working things out.
I was sitting with the chair swiveled toward the window, my feet hooked on the sill, watching the clouds pile up black and bloated above the ski basin and wondering what the weather was doing in Tahiti, or Sri Lanka, or Bali. Wondering if I could ever persuade Rita to share a week or two, or a year or two, on a soft warm beach somewhere, listening to the waves curl and slap against the sand.
When I heard the door open, I swung my legs down off the sill and wheeled the chair around. The man in the doorway looked at me and frowned. "Sign on the door says Mondragón Agency."
A point in his favor. Some of our clients can't read. "That's right," I told him. "I'm Joshua Croft."
He nodded. "Reckoned you didn't look like no Mondragón."
He was short and muscular, and he moved across the office with a quick alert strut, a bantam swagger, like someone who might take offense at the word "Napoleon." He wore dusty Western boots, faded jeans, a tight-fitting denim shirt, and a gray Stetson with the sides of its brim curled up. His face was sun-reddened and his eyes had the prairie squint. This being Santa Fe, he could've been exactly what he looked like. A real live cowboy.
On the other hand, this being Santa Fe, he could've been a stockbroker.
He didn't introduce himself or offer his hand or take off his hat. Which probably eliminated stockbroker. He plopped down into the client's chair, stretched out his legs, and crossed them at the ankles. Lacing his fingers together atop his chest, he said, "I got what you call a hypothetical situation." Which probably eliminated cowboy.
"And what might that be?"
"Well now. Let's say I got this friend who's got a friend."
I nodded. "A friend of a friend." Wonderful.
He grinned, as though to congratulate me for catching on so quickly. "Exactly right, bro. And let's say this friend of a friend, he knows where he can put his hands on a piece of hot property. Some jewelry, let's say."
"Let's not say."
He frowned. "How's that again?"
"I'm licensed by the state. In exchange for the license, they want me to report any little peccadilloes I run across. They'd be real pleased to hear about grand theft."
He grinned. "Peccadilloes," he said, and nodded appreciatively. "Good one, bro." He made his face go serious. "But now, s'pose this guy'd be willin' to make it worth your while?"
"He might be willing, but he wouldn't be able."
"What's that mean?"
"It means farewell. Adios."
"We're talkin' some good money here, bro."
"We're talking goodbye."
"Now listen here, bro," he said amiably, sitting forward, drawing in his legs, and tucking his feet under the chair. "Won't take but a minute for me to lay the whole thing out for you. You decide you don't want a piece, you just say so and I'm gone, I'm history, and no hard feelings. And you wanna report anything, you go right ahead and do it. I wasn't even in town when the thing was lifted. And this friend of a friend wasn't neither."
I glanced at the clock. Four-thirty. I could afford to kill half an hour. I'd been killing them, one by one, all day. "What was it we were saying was lifted?"
"Piece of jewelry. And let's say the insurance company already paid out on it. A hundred thousand bucks. One hundred large ones, bro. Now don't you reckon they'd come up with a few thousand more to get the thing back?"
"A finder's fee."
"Exactly right," he grinned, opening up his hands to show me his palms. He sat back, stretching out his legs again and crossing them. "A finder's fee. A simple little business proposition. You reckon they'd go for a dealy like that?"
His face remained friendly, but his eyes narrowed. "Depends on what, bro?"
"On the company, for one thing. Some of them don't do it."
The tightness left his eyes and he nodded. "But some do, you're sayin'."
"Some do," I admitted. The police aren't too fond of the idea, but the police don't have profit and loss statements to worry about.
"And what you reckon they'd pay for somethin' worth a hundred thousand?"
I shook my head. "It's not worth a hundred thousand. Not unless whoever received the claim on it, the former owner, wants it back badly enough to return the money. If he doesn't, the company has to offer the thing on the open market, as salvage, and take whatever it can get. They might be able to make a third of its insured value. A half, maybe, if they're lucky. When was it stolen?"
He smiled. "While ago."
"One year? Two years? Seven?"
The smile became a grin. "You're thinkin' statute of limitations, ain't you, bro?"
I had been, but I said, "Inflation. The real value of the thing could've gone up against its insured value."
He shook his head. "Nope. Not that long a while."
"What kind of jewels are involved? What kind of stones?"
He grinned. "Now how come you wanna know a thing like that?"
I shrugged. "Some stones would be easier for the company to move," I said. Improvising.
"That right?" he said, and grinned again. "Sounds to me like you're tryin' to shit a shitter. No wisdom in that, bro. No profit, neither."
"Let me just get a pen," I said, "and jot that down."
Another grin. "Hey there, bro. No need to get riled. Just givin' you a little free advice is all. The benefit of my experience, you might say."
"I'm not riled. As a matter of fact, I'm delighted to get the benefit of your experience. But what is it, exactly, you want from me?"
Languidly he uncrossed his legs, then languidly re-crossed them. "Well now, this friend of a friend, he's a shy kinda guy. Likes his privacy, you know what I mean? What he wants is to be a sorta silent partner-type. And we figured, the two of us did, that maybe you'd like to be the one who went to the insurance company with the deal. Handled all the details, if you follow me."
"Acted as middleman."
Smiling, he nodded his head in a quick cocking movement that signaled admiration. "I could tell, bro, soon's I walked in the door, that you were one sharp dude. So what would you say to maybe ten percent, right off the top?"
"I'd say no."
He nodded, nonplussed. "Uh-huh. You got a counteroffer?"
He nodded again. "And that don't strike you as maybe a little bit excessive?"
"I'd be the one doing the negotiating. I'd be the one with my head on the line."
"Just how much you plan to be negotiating for?"
"On the stuff you said before."
"On the stuff I said before."
"You got a ballpark figure?"
"As little as five thousand, as much as thirty."
"Meanin' your share could be ten grand."
"If we're lucky."
"Ten grand just for doin' some talkin'."
I shrugged. "I don't remember putting an ad in the paper asking you to drop by."
He grinned again, slapped his thigh, and pointed his index finger at my forehead. His cocked thumb came down against the finger like the hammer on a pistol. Pow. "Awright, bro, you got it. I like your style. I gotta talk to the other guy, o'course, and square it with him. But my money's on you." He stood, hitched up his belt, adjusted his Stetson. "I'll be in touch directly."
I said, "I don't suppose you want to leave a name."
He grinned again. "You got that one right, bro. See you." And he turned and swaggered from the room. For a moment I imagined I could hear spurs go jingle jangle jingle.
After I finished swimming my mile at the municipal pool, I drove up the Ski Basin Road to Rita's house. Maria told me that Mrs. Mondragón was out back on the patio.
Rita had rolled the wheelchair up to the balustrade overlooking the Douglas firs that swept down the mountainside till they met the piñon and juniper growing outside the town. From where she sat she could see all of Santa Fe, mostly brown adobe buildings in a sprawl that made it seem larger, and more important, than it was. Directly overhead, the sky was black now; but it was still bright blue off to the east, beyond the town, past the rolling hills and the invisible Rio Grande, over there where the sun was sliding slowly toward the crouching purple slopes of the Jemez range.
On Rita's right was the easel, on her left was a small table holding a cordless telephone receiver, three or four tubes of oil paint, a pitcher of what looked like lemonade, and two drinking glasses, one full and one empty.
She turned to me and smiled. "Hello." Palette in her left hand, paint brush in her right.
"Hi," I said. The air always seemed clearer around her; and yet, at the same time, somehow seemed to be gathering density and substance, as though it were crystallizing. "How's it going?"
She looked at the canvas and frowned. "I can't get the light," she said. "The light is everything."
"It looks fine to me, Rita." It did, a view of the mountains, spare and uncluttered; but I would've said the same thing if it had been a yellow Happy Face, and she knew it.
She smiled again. "So speaks the Northrop Frye of Santa Fe."
Her hair was thick and black, exactly the color and sheen of ravens' wings, and it tumbled down below her shoulders. She had high cheekbones and very dark brown eyes so large they were sometimes difficult to meet. Her mouth was broad and full, set between finely drawn smile lines, ironic parentheses. She was wearing a heavy white wool cardigan sweater over a white silk blouse and a white skirt sashed at the waist with a band of red. The skirt, like all the skirts she wore since the bullet had smashed her spine, reached to her ankles.
"Lemonade?" she asked me, and set palette and brush down on the table.
"No thanks," I told her. I sat down against the balustrade. "It's a little early for me."
She smiled. "For lemonade?"
"A little early in the year. I'll wait for the Fourth of July. By then the temperature may be up into the fifties."
Some exasperation crept into the corners of her smile; I had complained before about the weather. "It's not that cold, Joshua."
I blew a puff of air from my mouth and pointed to the plume of white vapor. Up here we were at least a thousand feet higher than the town, and the approaching storm was adding its chill to air that was already cool.
"You could've gone to Los Angeles this week," she said. "You had the chance."
"No tan," I said. "You don't have a tan that reaches under your eyelids, they won't let you in. They make you go to Anaheim and hang out with Mickey Mouse."
She smiled. "I should think that'd be right up your alley."
I ignored that. "But speaking of L.A., Norman called this morning. He has a line on the Sherman girl." We sometimes got work that required a. warm body in L.A., and usually we subcontracted it to Ed Norman's agency in Burbank.
"Is she all right?"
"Probably not, Rita. Norman thinks she's running with some bad people out there."
She frowned. "Drugs."
"And maybe prostitution."
"She's only fourteen, Joshua."
"In some circles, that's considered over the hill."
"Will he be able to get her out?"
She sensed the reservation behind the word. "But?"
I shrugged. "You know what the but is. Even if he does, even if he gets her back here, there's nothing to stop her running away again."
She nodded. "We'll worry about that later, if we have to. I'll call him tonight. Did anything else come up?"
"As a matter of fact, something did. We got an offer to fence some stolen jewelry."
"Oh?" Smiling, she sat back in the chair. "Tell me about it."
I did. When I was finished, she said, "And what do you think?"
I said, "I think he was fishing. Trying to find out what his options were. I don't think we'll ever see him again."
She nodded. I could never tell, from the way she nodded, whether she was agreeing with or merely placating me. She said, "Do you think he actually has access to the jewelry?"
"I think so, yeah."
"He claims he had nothing to do with the theft?" She lifted her glass of lemonade, took a sip.
"He said he was out of town when the thing was stolen. Even if that's the truth, it doesn't mean he didn't know about it."
"You feel he was involved."
"Sure. He's real short, Rita. And short people are capable of anything."
She made a face. "Joshua."
"And this is a guy who knows about the statute of limitations."
"So does everyone who's ever watched a 'Perry Mason' rerun."
"Yeah, but they don't all show up at the office offering a hundred thousand dollars worth of hot jewelry."
"He didn't say what kind of jewelry it was?"
"No. On the whole, he wasn't very forthcoming."
"But you were, apparently." Another sip of lemonade. "He knows enough now to contact the insurance company by himself."
"It was all part of this clever ploy, see. Cunningly designed to make him spill the beans."
"Ah," she said, and sipped at her lemonade.
I shrugged. "Sometimes these clever ploys don't work so well. Maybe I should've picked him up and put his head through the ceiling. Forget the subtlety shit, right?"
She smiled. "I'm not sure that the physical approach would have been any more fruitful."
"Yeah. He probably would've punched me in the kneecap."
"Or shot you."
"You know me, Rita. Nothing bothers me but kryptonite."
"Be still my heart."
I laughed. "Do you think we should go to the cops about this guy?"
She considered this. I considered, in the meantime, the curve of her throat. After a moment she said, "We can give Hector a call." Hector Ramirez was a friend on the Santa Fe P.D. "But I don't think the police'll be able to do anything productive. He doesn't sound, from what you've said, like someone who'd go to pieces if they turned up on his doorstep." She smiled. "Assuming they could find his doorstep. And after all, it's only your word against his." She frowned. "But I wonder why no one's tried to move that jewelry before this. If the claim's been paid, the jewelry was stolen some time ago. Insurance companies don't hand over a hundred thousand dollars without an investigation, and that takes time."
"Maybe he couldn't find a fence who'd take an item that big."
"Then why steal it in the first place?"
"Maybe he was waiting for things to cool down."
"And why is he willing to deal with the insurance company now, instead of a fence?"
"Maybe he saw it on a 'Perry Mason' rerun."
"Listen," I said. "There's a new Rohmer movie playing downtown."
Her smile was affectionate but weary. "You don't give up, do you, Joshua?"
"I think of it as a selling point."
"I think of it as stubbornness."
"And that's something you'd know about, Rita."
"It's not stubbornness."
"If you like. Joshua, we've been over this a hundred times. I'll go downtown when I can walk downtown."
The doctors had said she would probably never walk again. Rita said she would, no probably about it. I tended to put my faith in Rita, but it had been almost two years.
"How's the therapy?" I asked.
I didn't ask if there was any improvement. She would've told me if there had.
"Why don't you ask Clair?" she said. "To the Rohmer movie. Are you still seeing her?"
"Clair thinks a Rohmer is a guy who never goes home."
"I thought you liked her."
"I like her. She's a peach. She's not you, though, Rita."
"Neither am I, Joshua." The words crisp, her face blank and unreadable.
"You won't forget to call Hector?"
I sighed. "I'll call him tomorrow morning. Am I being sent home?"
"It's time for the pool. I'll see you on Monday."
As it turned out, I saw her before Monday. The next day, Saturday, there was an article in the morning paper about the man who'd come to the office. It gave his name, Frank Biddle, and said that he was a former rodeo star. It had a nice picture of Frank, beaming and holding up a big bronze trophy. He wasn't wearing his cowboy hat; maybe he'd lost it riding the bull. The article said that his body had been found late on Friday night, with four bullet holes in it and two bullets.
Excerpted from Wall of Glass by Walter Satterthwait. Copyright © 1987 Walter Satterthwait. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.