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By John Lutz
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 John Lutz
All rights reserved.
Outside the window the sun bore down with the brilliance and blanching effect of a cosmic tanning lamp. It made the eyes ache. Magellan Avenue was a wide, pale ribbon of pavement. The white stucco combination courthouse and jail across the street looked as if it were constructed of meringue skimmed from the richest of pies. Beyond it, the sun-sparked sea undulated with a shallow glitter that suggested sequins suspended just below the surface like mischievous half-formed thoughts.
Inside the office, Carver sat quietly in his new chair, leaning back with his lame leg propped up on his gleaming new desk. Through the silence in the office he could barely hear the surf breaking on the narrow white beach beyond the buildings on the other side of Magellan. The fetid fish scent of the sea seeped into the cool office with the sound of the waves.
He'd been content working out of his home—Edwina's home actually—a few miles north on the coast highway, but Edwina was in real estate and had mentioned a possible good deal in a building in downtown Del Moray. At first he had resisted the suggestion. Discussion ensued. Positions wavered. Some dangerous situations had developed in the recent past, and Carver thought it might be a good idea to separate his business from Edwina as much as possible, to protect her. So in the end it was Carver who'd insisted, and who now sat in the quiet office with nothing to do except organize paper clips and rubber bands, though they were already pretty well whipped into shape.
He'd had one client during the month he'd been located here, in this cream stucco building that also housed an insurance broker and a car rental agency. The client had been a wronged husband. A Volkswagen dealer named Wayne Garnett, who, as it turned out, was dealing in murder, as well as drugs smuggled into the country in new cars. Options not mentioned on the sticker.
Carver was getting a headache sitting here staring into the searing clear light beyond the window. He dropped his leg from the desk with a solid thump!, levered himself to his feet with his walnut cane, and limped across the carpet to close the drapes.
He was about to yank on the cord when he saw the dark blue Cadillac pull into the gravel lot. It was a sedan De Ville, one of the last of the block-long models, and was waxed and buffed to a deep shine that gave back the sunlight and danced with the reflected images of palm trees and pale buildings. The driver, obscure behind the dark-tinted side window, looked like a man, but that was all Carver could determine.
Guy must need insurance, he told himself. Or wants to rent a car to carry as a spare in the trunk of that one.
But something kept him from pulling the drapes closed. He stood motionless instead, leaning on his cane, his free hand on the cord, watching while the dinosaur on wheels maneuvered through a wide turn and parked halfway between his office entrance and the entrance to Golden Future Insurance next door.
A man in his sixties climbed out. He was about six feet tall, well built except for a large stomach paunch, and was wearing lime-green pants with a white belt, a pastel green shirt. He had a full head of white hair combed to the side and down low on his forehead, as if he might be disguising a receding hairline.
Before slamming and locking the car door, he slipped a pair of tinted glasses on and adjusted them with a tap to the bridge of his nose. Even from the office window they didn't look like sunglasses, but light pink prescription lenses. White shoes flashed beneath green pants cuffs as he veered only momentarily toward Golden Future, then set a course straight for Carver's office, plodding in the puddle of his dark shadow.
He glimpsed Carver standing at the window. Gave a slight nod to acknowledge his presence but didn't smile or wave. Sunlight shot rays off the round lenses of his glasses as he passed from sight.
Carver heard the door to the small anteroom open and close. The door to his office was open, but the man didn't barge in. Carver waited a few seconds, then said, "C'mon in," and limped back toward the desk.
He was taller than six feet, Carver saw when the man stepped into the office. Maybe six-three. He was also closer to seventy than sixty. Once he'd been a powerful specimen, and he still had the wide frame, but age had sapped his body of sureness and power. He moved with the kind of tentative slowness indicative of arthritis. His eyes flicked to the cane and Carver's stiff left knee that was bent at a thirty-degree angle for life. Souvenir from a shooting when he was on the Orlando police force.
The man said, "You Fred Carver?" The remnants of a Southern accent lingered in his voice. Maybe long-ago Tennessee.
Carver nodded, edging up to stand behind the desk. He noticed that the white shoes were soft patent leather and had ornate silver-tipped tassels.
"I'm Bert Renway." A thick arm dusted with white hair was extended. Carver shook hands with the man, surprised by the coolness of flesh and strength of grip. "Phone directory says you're a private investigator."
Carver motioned for Renway to sit in the chair near the desk. Sat down himself. Said, smiling, "The yellow pages wouldn't lie."
"Hard to get a recommendation for somebody in your line of work," Renway said. "Don't know anyone who ever hired a private detective. Coulda gone to the police and asked them to recommend somebody, but I didn't wanna do that."
"Usually the people who hire me have already been to the police," Carver said, "and came away dissatisfied. How can I help you, Mr. Renway?"
"By figurin' out what the hell's goin' on. I promised I wouldn't get too nosy about it, but, dammit, I just gotta know!" He leaned forward and parted his white hair with his fingertips. Surprised Carver by tugging at the hair and removing most of it to reveal a large bald spot. Held the toupee out as if it were a small animal he'd just slain. Said, "This ain't my real hair."
Carver said, "Hope not."
Renway tapped one of the lenses of his glasses with a broad fingernail. "One thing never went bad on me's my eyes. I don't wear specs; these are ordinary tinted glass, though they don't look it. Wouldn't wear these floppy white shoes, either, 'cept they made me. They're not even my shoes. Givin' me blisters. Walkin' around in the damn things is part of the deal, though."
"To be somebody else."
"Got no idea, other than a name don't mean a thing to me."
Carver leaned forward and placed his elbows on the desk. The wood felt cool on his bare arms. A hint of vulnerability.
He said, "Mr. Renway, we better start you-know-where."CHAPTER 2
Renway absently drew a pack of Winstons from his shirt pocket, then looked down at them as if seeing them for the first time. He peeled off the tinted glasses and raised his gray eyebrows inquisitively at Carver. "Okay if I smoke?"
"Sure." Carver was guilty of an occasional cigar, so who was he to object? He stretched out an arm and handed Renway the seashell ashtray from the corner of the desk. Its occupant was long gone and wouldn't complain.
Renway placed the ashtray in his lap, then got out one of those cheap disposable lighters that encased a fishing fly as if it were an insect in a kill bottle. Touched flame to cigarette and inhaled deeply. He said, "I guess the beginning's back when I retired from the railroad up north and moved down here to Florida with my wife, Ella, to live on my pension. It was gonna be the beginnin' of the good years." He picked a shred of tobacco from his lower lip and flicked it away. "Things didn't work out. Pension money didn't go as far as we thought, then six months ago cancer took Ella. After she died, I kept livin' in the mobile home we'd bought east of town, Beach Cove Court. You know the place?"
"Been past it."
"I didn't see any reason to move away from Del Moray. Didn't see any reason to do much of anything. Kinda went on automatic pilot, if you know what I mean."
Carver said, "I know. I've been in the same flight pattern."
A long blue-and-silver tour bus rumbled past outside. Exhaust fumes wended their way into the office, maybe through the air-conditioning system, and competed with the scent of tobacco smoke.
"'Bout a month ago," Renway went on, "I was invited down to Fort Lauderdale to visit another old railroad man retired and moved to Florida. Fella I used to work with in the Alton and Southern switchyards. He lives in this little one-bedroom apartment with his wife, so I stayed the night at a motel. We had a nice visit, and when I went back to the motel, this fancy-dressed guy stopped me in the parkin' lot. Called me by name. Said he had a business proposition that was perfectly legal and would earn me a lotta money. I figured I didn't wanna see a condominium or time-share project, so I politely told him I wasn't interested. That's when he peeled off five one-hundred-dollar bills and handed them to me. Said all I had to do was listen and I could keep the money."
"What'd you do?" Carver asked, knowing it was a silly question. He wanted to keep Renway rolling so everything would come out and his words wouldn't be so carefully chosen.
"I invited him for a drink in the motel bar. We had some daiquiris, and he laid out the plan for me."
"Well, too simple to be called a plan, really. I was supposed to stay in Fort Lauderdale and live in this condominium unit on Ocean Boulevard. Call myself Frank Wesley, if anybody was to ask. Drive this guy Wesley's car and even wear some of his clothes. As for my other duties, all I was supposed to do was leave every morning before noon and drive around a while. Stop off for lunch. Drive around some more. Go to the movies if I wanted. Spend some of the money I was gettin' paid."
"How much money?"
"Two thousand dollars a week."
Carver studied a bluebottle fly crawling straight up the edge of the window. It reached the top, made a sharp right turn, and began moving horizontally, as if there might be some purpose to what it was doing. "You didn't think there might be something off-center about the deal? Impersonating this man Wesley?"
"I said two thousand a week, Carver. And, sure, I figured somethin' wasn't right, so I asked Palmer—"
"Sorry. Ralph Palmer, the fella who hired me. I asked him to sign a paper I drew up proclaimin' that what I was doin' was perfectly legal. A contract. We both signed it." Renway drew a sweat-damp, folded sheet of white paper from his hip pocket and handed it across the desk to Carver. "Bear in mind I ain't a lawyer," he said apologetically. No need to apologize for that.
The "contract" was typewritten, with a lot of whited-out mistakes. What it said, basically, was that Palmer had hired Renway to live in Wesley's condo as Frank Wesley for three months or until his services were no longer needed. It also stated that nothing illegal was occurring and that the real Wesley was aware of the impersonation and approved of it. The financial terms were also spelled out. Renway's clumsily scrawled signature was at the bottom alongside Palmer's tight neat one.
Carver handed the paper back to Renway. "This probably doesn't mean much legally," he said.
Renway carefully refolded the paper and slid it back in his hip pocket. "I know, but it gives me some measure of protection."
"Well, yeah. That's why I'm here. Why I wanna hire you to find out what's goin' on. I drove back up to Del Moray to get some of my stuff outa the mobile home, and I figured I oughta hire an investigator here, seeing as Palmer and his friends must have been watchin' me before I went to Fort Lauderdale."
"Why do you say that?"
"Palmer knew a lot about me the first time we talked in the motel lounge. Even knew about Ella. That it was cancer took her."
"You said 'Palmer and his friends.'"
"Yeah. I never met anybody but Palmer, but he says 'we' now and then and talks like there's others involved."
Carver toyed with the crook of his walnut cane for a moment, then propped it against the desk. "What's happened to you while you've been wandering around being Frank Wesley?"
"Nothin' outa the ordinary, I might as well be Bert Renway, same as always, only I wouldn't be gettin' a couple thousand a week." He leaned forward. "Whole thing, Carver, it makes me uneasy."
"Know anything about Wesley?"
"Nope. Palmer wouldn't tell me nothin' about him. Lives in a nice place though. Man's for sure got money. That's his car out there, the big Caddie. Me, I usually drive an Escort."
Carver said, "They give you any idea where Wesley is while you're being him?"
"Not a hint. That's why my feelin' is that part of this two thousand a week oughta go to findin' out why I'm collectin' it."
"Could be money well spent," Carver agreed. He told Renway his fee. Got an advance in cash. The way to do business. He said, "What's this Palmer look like?"
"Man about forty," Renway said, "kinda handsome. Got straight black hair, dark eyes. Maybe part Cuban."
"Just a trace, I'd say. Dresses like a million; always got on an expensive suit and tie. Drives a little gray car—don't know what kind. Somethin' foreign, maybe. I been livin' as Frank Wesley for a little more'n three weeks now, and I only seen Palmer four times: when he hired me, and when we met the next three Friday nights and he paid me."
"Where'd you meet?"
"We got an appointment every Friday evening at seven at a spot on the public beach. A bench near where Sunrise Boulevard meets Ocean."
"Pay you in cash?"
"Yep. All in fifties or smaller bills. Money looks real enough. That's some of it there on your desk. Him to me to you."
Carver lifted the top two bills from the stack of fifties in front of him: Renway's retainer. He snapped the bills through his fingers, rubbed the ink, held them up to the light, compared serial numbers. "Real stuff, all right." He replaced the bills. "Can you give me your—Wesley's—address and an extra key? I think I oughta look the place over while you're out driving around. That way whoever might be watching you wouldn't be near the condo."
"I don't think anybody's watchin' or followin' me; I checked on that. Doubled back a few times. Kept a careful eye on my rearview mirror."
"There are people who are very good at following," Carver said. "Better write down Wesley's phone number, too. I probably won't use it, and it'd be best if you didn't call here. For that matter, don't make any call from the condo you might not want overheard."
"Huh? You think the phone's tapped?"
"I think we need to find out. If the people who hired you are pros, they might be doing all sorts of things without you being aware."
Renway didn't argue. He wrote down Wesley's address and said he'd have an extra key cut that afternoon and drop it by Carver's office. As if to emphasize his intention, he fished a key ring from his pocket. A bulky gold letter W was attached to it by a chain. He worked a brass door key from it and dropped the key into his shirt pocket. Sat clutching the gold ring with its car keys in his right hand.
Carver told him he'd type up a contract and trade it to him for the duplicate key when he came back. Gave him a receipt for the money. All aboveboard and businesslike. Unlike the Wesley deal.
Renway tucked the receipt in his pocket and raised himself out of his chair. "I feel better after talkin' to you, Carver. I couldn't go on not knowin' and not doin' a thing about this." He snubbed out his cigarette in the seashell ashtray he'd been holding, then placed the pink-and-blue-tinged shell on a corner of the desk. A thin wisp of gray smoke continued to curl from it. Caught the draft from the air conditioner and dissipated.
He said, "Thanks, Carver. See you about two o'clock, okay?"
Carver said two was fine. Watched Renway walk from the office in his stiff, slow gait that said he was a senior citizen and taking it easy. No rush to be anywhere or do anything. Time was running out and he was going to be selfish and enjoy what was left. Only trouble was, he needed money and had to bend a little to get it. Like getting involved in something he didn't understand.
Life kept demanding compromises, Carver mused. Never stopped.
He heard the Cadillac's powerful engine turn over and roar.
His ears popped, as if he were in a plane climbing through changing air pressure. That was odd, but he didn't have time to think about it.
Excerpted from Flame by John Lutz. Copyright © 1990 John Lutz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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