The Witchfinder (Amos Walker Series #12)by Loren D. Estleman
Jay has never forgotten the photo once sent to him of his young fiancee - naked in the arms of another man. Now on his deathbed and convinced the photo was a fake, the hunt is on for a modern-day witchfinder. And Amos Walker is the man for the job. See more details below
Jay has never forgotten the photo once sent to him of his young fiancee - naked in the arms of another man. Now on his deathbed and convinced the photo was a fake, the hunt is on for a modern-day witchfinder. And Amos Walker is the man for the job.
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THERE ARE MORNINGS, just after dawn on unseasonably hot June days when every breath you draw is filtered through forty pounds of wet laundry, that you welcome the clear cold icicle of the telephone bell ringing.
You sit on the edge of your bed for a while waiting for the overcast to clear, uncertain whether you were preparing to rise or retire, then the ringing comes again, an hour behind the first, and you get up and squish out into the living room where the air from the open window chills you in your damp underwear, and the second ring is just ending. Everything you hear and see and do is at quarter-speed. It's a kind of brownout of the brain.
"Is that Amos Walker?"
Aman's voice, ageless and tweedy, with Big Ben chiming on the consonants. I'd tapped into an episode of Upstairs, Downstairs.
"It was last night. I can't answer for it now." I sounded like a low-revolution drill even to myself. "What time is it on my side of the Atlantic?"
"Shortly after six. Did I wake you?"
"Hold the line, please."
Hearing the birds now they were singing at normal speed, which in my present condition sounded like a chorus of slipping fan belts I found a box of matches and a butt longer than an inch in the ashtray on the telephone stand and lit up. The smoke chased the bees out of my head. "Okay, I checked the bed and I'm not still in it. Who am I speaking to?"
"My name is Stuart Lund. I'm an attorney."
"Not a barrister or a solicitor?"
One of those screwy computer scales you hear on the telephone played in the pause on his end. "No, I'm a naturalized American citizen and have been for fifteen years.I'm prepared to offer you a retainer in the amount of one thousand dollars if you'll agree to meet me this morning here in my suite at the Airport Marriott."
"Detroit Metropolitan, of course. Did you think I was calling from England?"
"The accent threw me off."
"Indeed. I wasn't aware I still had one."
"You don't need one if you're going to use words like indeed ," I said. "Okay, make the offer"
"I believe I just made it."
"You said you were prepared to. I thought you people were more careful with the language than us born Yankees." The filter ignited. I punched out the butt. The stench of scorched rubber hung on the stagnant air. "Pardon the impertinence, Mr. Lund. Also the effrontery. I'm experiencing a power surge. My standard retainer is fifteen hundred."
There will be a substantially larger sum involved if I decide to employ your services as an enquiry agent. The thousand is merely for coming out. It's yours whether or not we agree to do business."
"Are you acting on behalf of a client?"
"More accurately, in compliance with a client's wishes. I'm representing the estate of Jay Bell Furlong."
"Jay Bell Furlong the architect?"
"The same. Can I expect you?"
"I haven't read or seen the news since last night. Has he died?"
"As of my last call to Los Angeles five minutes ago, no. Although my use of the term estate is technically premature, as his executor I'm under instructions to waste no time. Which is precisely what I seem to be doing." His tone acquired a measured amount of impatience, as if he'd raised one of a series of internal floodgates an inch.
"I'll be there in less than an hour, Mr. Lund."
He gave me the number of the suite and broke the connection. I showered, toweled off, and shaved, feeling fresh sweat prickling out of the open pores as I stood in the cross-draft between the window and the bathroom doorway. Dressing, I selected a blue shirt, dark blue knitted tie, the tan summer weight, and brown mesh shoes, on the theory that if I looked cool I might at least make someone else feel cool and maybe he'd return the favor. I combed my hair and reconnoitered the gray. The beard beneath the skin was as blue-black as ever, but my temples were beginning to resemble the Comstock Lode.
There was no time for breakfast, even if I were in the habit. I swigged orange juice straight from the carton, overcame the urge to climb into the refrigerator with it when I put it back, and went out to the garage. I drove with all the windows down and the wind lifting my combed hair, which the hell with it. When that model of Cutlass roared off the line, air conditioning was for Rolls Royce.
My clientele had taken a stylish turn. At eighty and change, Jay Bell Furlong was the last of the legendary school of American architects who had cast away the posts and lintels and marble scrollwork of the Old World. They had substituted horizontal lines for vertical, invented the concept of harmony with the environment, and fought a desperate and ultimately losing battle against the Xeroxed glass, girder, and reinforced-concrete designs rolling out of the cost- effective East. Theirs was the last dying bellow of art in a field seized by accountants and the low bid. For a heartbeat their bold innovations had swept a continent. Now Louis Sullivan was forgotten, Frank Lloyd Wright was dead, and Furlong was about to be, rigged as he was with tubes and insulated wire in the cancer ward at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, the elephants' graveyard of forgotten movie stars, one-hit rockers, and disgraced presidents. The media deathwatch had been going on for a week. Furiong's rallies and relapses made the Eleven O'Clock Report as regularly as the box scores.
What his attorney was doing in Detroit, where impressive architecture was looked upon as an empty lot in the making, was foggy.
As I swung into the short-term lot at the airport, a leviathan of a 757 shrieked overhead at a steep angle, sucking its wheels into its belly and dragging its shadow over the tar like a coronation train. The sky the jet was headed for didn't look any more inviting than the ground. A low dirty cloudbank had been stalled over the metropolitan area for days, trapping the kind of temperatures and humidity normally associated with the Philippines. Old people die like goldfish in that weather, also high school juniors at fast-food restaurants with hundred-dollar sneakers and short tempers.
The lobby air hit me like a bucket of ice water after the convector of the pavement. That particular Marriott may be the only hotel in the world built directly onto an airport terminal. Certainly it's the only one this side of Beirut where you have to pass through a metal detector to check in or visit. I said something on that order to the guard at the gate, who scowled and tipped his head toward a sign that informed me my First Amendrnent rights were suspended on the premises. I told him what I thought of that, but by then I was two floors up in the elevator.
Stuart Lund came in at six-two and three hundred pounds in gray silk tailoring with a large head of wavy yellow hair, blue eyes like wax drippings, and a black chevron-shaped moustache he hadn't bothered to bleach. He was about fifty. After opening the door to his suite, he shifted a mahogany cane with a cast-silver crook to his left hand and offered me his right. "You're punctual. Very admirable."
I stepped past him into a large room that would have been cheerful if the drapes weren't drawn, with fat armchairs and a free-standing refrigerator under lock and key. A television on a swivel was tuned in to CNN with the sound very low. Lund asked me to sit and approached the refrigerator, leaning a little on the cane.
"I never shall get over the way they see to one's creature comforts in this country's hotels. I'm sinfully well stocked. It's early, but I understand all you detectives are seasoned imbibers."
"That's fiction," I said. "Make mine a Bloody Mary."
"One of the more fascinating queens." He used the key, married the contents of a toy vodka bottle and a miniature can of tomato juice in a barrel glass, and brought it over. 'I apologize for not joining you. The lag," he explained, lowering himself into a chair that for anyone else would have been a loveseat.
"Did you fall off the ramp?"
He lifted his eyebrows, then glanced down at the cane. "Gout I'm afraid. The complaint of colonial governors and certain kings of France. I'm under physician's instructions to lose a hundred pounds, but I'm in revolt. People who have been fat all their lives and suddenly become thin are pathetic to see, like polar bears wasting away in the wrong climate. The stick belonged to an ancestor: Sir Hudson Lowe, Governor of St. Helena and Bonaparte's gazer for the last six years of the Corsican's life." He pronounced the word the same as jailer , but he wouldn't have spelled it that way.
"My grandfather rode shotgun on a beer truck."
He wiggled his moustache, then hooked the cane on the arm of the loveseat and produced a fold of paper from an inside breast pocket.
The check bore Jay Bell Furlong's name and address in the upper left corner. Lund had signed his own name. I pocketed it. "Power of attorney?"
"The privilege did not come cheap. I've been Jay's legal adviser, secretary, business manager, confidant, and frequently his whipping post ever since he brought me here from Gloucester. He disengaged me from a firm of solicitors that represented William Pitt, and which another ancestor of mine helped establish. It was quite the family scandal at the time; although I dare say dear old Uncle Nigel's decision to attend a meeting of the House of Lords in a chiffon evening dress and diamonds has supplanted it."
"Was it before or after six?"
He worried his moustache with a row of small perfect teeth. No English dentist was responsible for those. "Do yell know, I never asked. I hope the old boy hadn't cast off all his breeding."
Now that I was there his impatience seemed to have ebbed. I picked up the pace. "Who gave you my name?"
"A colleague, Arthur Rooney. He hadn't many flattering things to. say, but what wasn't good was irrelevant. I'm chiefly interested in your ability to maintain a confidence."
"I've been to jail over it four times." I spelled it jail . "That's public record. No sense telling you how much it's cost me in ace bandages. That isn't."
He weighed me. The waxy eyes looked as if they would retain thumbprints. "Do you know the historical definition of the term witchfinder? "
"I do if it's anything like witch hunter. "
"They're not the same. Not quite. The Puritans of your excuse me, our New England colonies employed hunters to rid them of witches. The hunters in their turn engaged witchfinders to gather evidence against them, or rather to manufacture it. I'm not at all convinced that there weren't such things as witches, but I do question the statistics of the time."
He rested a hand on the crook of his cane, clouding the shiny silver with his personal humidity. "In the country of my birth we were quick to condemn the Pilgrims for fleeing England in search of religious freedom only to impose a far more repressive creed upon themselves. But they behaved as they did out of a sincere belief in the forces of good and evil, Christ the Redeemer and Lucifer the Tempter. The witchfinders did not share that belief. They were paid commissions on the witches they managed to expose; not an incomprehensible arrangement when you consider the state of colonial finances, but it was scarcely fertile ground for verdicts of innocence. The tests these finders conducted upon the wretches who stood before them accused were barbaric. Those who survived were judged guilty and hanged."
"Burned. I thought."
He shook a finger at me.
"You really should know at least as much about your native country's past as a newcomer. They burned werewolves. They hanged witches."
I looked down at the glass in my hand. He looked too comfortable to get up and fix me another, and at the rate he was going I would touch bottom long before he reached his point. But he'd hired the audience along with the hall. Behind him on CNN, a brief tape biography of Jay Bell Furlong ended and the camera cut to a reporter standing on the sidewalk in front of Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. You know it s a slow news week when builders log more air time than destroyers.
"When witches passed out of fashion," Lund went ton, the finders lost their comfortable posts, but not forever. In a culpable society there will always be employment for the bearers of false witness. They're less flamboyant now, more difficult to identify. They no longer hang out shingles and they've burned their black cowls. That's why I called you. Your assignment is to find the witchfinder."
"Speak American, Windy. You're wearing the man out."
This was a new voice in the auditorium. The door to the suite's adjoining bedroom had opened. The famous Furlong bone structure was on the screen, and as I craned my head around I thought at first those Lincolnesque features had burned into my retinas, moving with my eyes. The man the nation's press waited to photograph on his horizontal way to the Los Angeles County Morgue was standing in a hotel doorway in Detroit with a drink in his hand.
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Some say that the hard-boiled detective genre has had its day ... that it is an uncomfortable anachronism. Boy, I'm glad that Loren D. Estleman doesn't believe this, or we would be deprived of his sparkling Amos Walker series. 'The Witchfinder' is a tour de force of good writing, good characterization, and good plotting. The climactic scene is cinematic prose at its best. And the bittersweet kicker that Estleman / Walker lays on us on the last page is the kind of thing that leaves the reader numbly staring at the page. Note to Estleman's publishers: let's get on the stick and release more of his back titles (including the westerns) in Rocket eBook format!