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If you leaned way back in the chair and cranked your neck hard over, you could see the sky from my office window, delft-blue and cloudless and so bright it looked solid. It was September after Labor Day, and somewhere the corn was probably as high as an elephant’s eye, the kind of weather when a wino could sleep warm in a doorway.
“Mr. Spenser, are you listening to us?”
I straightened my head up and looked back at Roger and Margery Bartlett.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “You were just saying about how you never dealt with a private detective before, but this was an extreme case and there seemed no other avenue. Everybody who comes in here tends to say about that same thing to me.
“Well it’s true.” She was probably older than she looked and not as heavy. Her legs were very slim, the kind women admire and men don’t. They made her plumpish upper body look heavier. Her face had a bland, spoiled, pretty look, carefully made up with eye shadow and pancake makeup and false eyelashes. She looked as though if she cried she’d erode. Her hair, freshly blond, was cut close around her face. Gaminelike, I bet her hairdresser said. Mia Farrow, I bet he said. She was wearing a paisley caftan slit up the side and black, ankle-strapped platform shoes with three-inch soles and heels. Sitting opposite me, she had crossed her legs carefully so that the caftan fell away above the knee. I wanted to say, don’t, your legs are too thin. But I knew she wouldn’t believe me. She thought they were wonderful.
Just below her rib cage I could see the little bulge where her girdle stopped and the compressed flesh spilled over the top. She was wearing huge lavender sunglasses and lavender-dyed wooden beads on a leather thong. Authentic folk art, picked them up in Morocco on our last long weekend, the naiveté is charming, don’t you think?
“We want you to find our son,” she said.
“He’s been gone a week. He ran away.”
“Do you know where he might have run?” I asked.
“No,” her husband answered. “I looked everywhere I could think of—friends, relatives, places he might hang out. I’ve asked everyone I know that knows him. He’s gone.”
“Have you notified the police?”
They both nodded. Mr. Bartlett said, “I talked to the chief myself. He says they’ll do what they can, but of course it’s a small force and there isn’t much …”
He let his voice trail off and sat still and uncomfortable looking at me. He looked ill at ease in a shirt and tie. He was dressed in what must have been his wife’s idea of the contemporary look. You can usually tell when a guy’s wife buys his clothes. He had on baggy white cuffed flares, a solid scarlet shirt with long collar points, a wide pink tie, and a red-and-white-plaid seersucker jacket with wide lapels and the waist nipped. A prefolded handkerchief in his breast pocket matched the tie. He had on black and white saddle shoes and looked as happy as a hound in a doggie sweater. He should have been wearing coveralls and steel-toed work shoes. His hands looked strong and calloused, the nails were broken, and there was grime imbedded that the shower wouldn’t touch.
“Why did he run away?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Bartlett answered. “He isn’t a happy boy; he’s going through some adolescent phase, I guess. Stays in his room most of the time. His grades are falling off. He used to get very good grades. He’s very bright, you know.”
“Why are you sure he ran away?” I didn’t like asking the question.
Mr. Bartlett answered, “He took his guinea pig with him. Apparently he came home from school to get it and left.”
“Did anyone see him leave?”
“Was anyone home when he came home?”
“No. I was at work and she was at her acting lessons.”
“I take my acting lessons twice a week. In the afternoons. It’s the only time I can get them. I’m a very creative person, you know, and I have to express myself.”
Her husband said something that sounded like “umph.”
“Besides,” she said, “what has that got to do with anything? Are you saying if I’d been home he wouldn’t have run off? Because that simply isn’t so. Roger is hardly perfect, you know.”
“I was asking because I was trying to find out if he snuck in and out or not. It might suggest whether he intended to run off when he came home.”
“If I didn’t express myself, I couldn’t be as good a mother and wife. I do it for my family, mainly.”
Roger looked like he’d just bitten his tongue.
“Okay,” I said.
“Creative people simply must create. If you’re not a creative person, you wouldn’t understand.”
“I know,” I said. “I have the same damned problem. Right now for instance, I’m trying to create some information, and, for heaven’s sake, I’m not getting anywhere at all.”
Her husband said, “Yeah, will you for crissake, Marge, stop talking about yourself?”
She looked a little puzzled, but she shut up.
“Did the boy take anything besides the guinea pig?” I asked.
“Has he ever run away before?”
There was a long pause while they looked at each other Then, like the punch line in a Frick-and-Frack routine, she said yes and he said no.
“That covers most of the possibilities,” I said.
“He didn’t really run away,” Bartlett said. “He just slept over a friend’s house without telling us. Any kid’ll do that.”
“He did not; he ran away,” his wife said. She was intense and forgot about displaying her legs—the skirt slid over as she leaned forward and covered them entirely. “We called everywhere the next day, and Jimmy Houser’s mother told us he’d been there. If you hadn’t gone and got him at school, I don’t think he’d have come back.”
“Aw Marge, you make everything sound like a goddamned drama.”
“Roger, there’s something wrong with that kid, and you won’t admit it. If you’d gone along with it when I wanted him looked at—but no, you were so worried about the money. ‘Where am I going to get the money, Marge, do you think I’ve got a money tree in back, Marge?’ If you’d let me take him someplace, he’d be home now.”
The mimicry sounded true. Bartlett’s tan face got darker.
“You bitch,” he said. “I told you, take the money out of your goddamned acting lessons and your goddamned pottery classes and your goddamned sculpturing supplies and your goddamned clothes. You got twenty years psychology payments hanging in your goddamned closet.…”
I was going to get a chance to check my erosion theory. Tears began to well up in her eyes, and I found I didn’t want to check my theory nor did I want to see her erode. I put my fingers in my ears and waited.
“Good,” I said. “Now, let us establish some ground rules. One, I am not on the Parent-of-the-Year committee. I am not interested in assessing your performance. Yell at each other when I’m not around. Second, I am a simple person. If I’m looking for a lost kid, that’s what I do. I don’t referee marriages; I don’t act as creative consultant to the Rog and Margie show. I just keep looking for the kid until I find him. Third, I charge one hundred dollars a day plus whatever expenses I incur. Fourth, I need five hundred dollars as a retainer.”
They were silent, embarrassed at the spillover I’d witnessed.
Bartlett said, “Yeah, sure, that’s okay, I mean hey, it’s only money, right? I’ll give you a check now; I brought one with me, in case, you know?”
He hunched the chair forward and wrote a check on the edge of my desk with a translucent ballpoint pen. Bartlett Construction was imprinted in the upper left corner of the check—I was going to be a business expense. Deductible. One keg of 8d nails, 500 feet of 2 × 4 utility grade, one gumshoe, 100 gallons of creosote stain. I took the check without looking at it and slipped it folded into my shirt pocket, casual, like I got them all the time and it was just something to pass along to my broker. Or maybe I’d buy some orchids with it.
“What is your first step?” Mrs. Bartlett said.
“I’ll drive up to Smithfield after lunch and look at your house and look at his room and talk to teachers and the local fuzz and like that.”
“But the police have done that. What can you do that they can’t?” I wondered if I was cutting into her modern dance lessons.
“I can’t do anything they can’t, but I can do it full time. They have to arrest drunks and flag down speeders and break up fights at the high school and keep the kids from planting pot in the village watering trough. I don’t. All I have to do is look for your kid. Also, maybe I’m smarter than they are.”
“But can you find him?”
“I can find him; he’s somewhere. I’ll keep looking till I do.”
They didn’t look reassured. Maybe it was my office. If I was so good at finding things, how come I couldn’t find a better office? Maybe I wasn’t all that good? Maybe nobody is. I stood up.
“I’ll see you this afternoon,” I said. They agreed and left. I watched them from my window as they left the building and headed up Stuart Street toward the parking lot next to Jake Wirth’s. An old drunk man with a long overcoat buttoned to his chin said something to them. They stared rigidly past him without answering and disappeared into the parking lot. Well, I thought, the rents are low. The old man stumbled on toward the corner of Tremont. He stopped and spoke to two hookers in hot pants and fancy hats. One of them gave him something, and he shuffled along. A blue Dodge Club van pulled out of the parking lot and headed down Stuart toward Kneeland Street and the expressway. On the side it said Bartlett Construction. I could see one arm in the sleeve of a paisley caftan on the window as it went by.