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LOCKE-OBER’S RESTAURANT is on Winter Place, which is an alley off Winter Street just down from the Common. It is Old Boston the way the Custom House tower is Old Boston. The decor is plain. The waiters wear tuxedos. There are private dining rooms. Downstairs is a room which used to be the Men’s Bar until it was liberated one lunchtime by a group of humorless women who got into a shouting match with a priest. Now anybody can go in there and do what they want. They take Master Charge.
I didn’t need Master Charge. I wasn’t paying, John Ticknor was paying. And he didn’t need Master Charge, because he was paying with the company’s money. I ordered lobster Savannah. The company was Hamilton Black Publishing, and they had ten million dollars. Ticknor ordered scrod.
“And two more drinks, please.”
“Very good.” The waiter took our menus and hurried off. He had a hearing aid in each ear.
Ticknor finished his Negroni. “You drink only beer, Mr. Spenser?”
The waiter returned with a draft Heineken for me and another Negroni for Ticknor.
“No. I’ll drink wine sometimes.”
“But no hard liquor?”
“Not often. I don’t like it. I like beer.”
“And you always do what you like.”
“Almost always. Sometimes I can’t.”
He sipped some more Negroni. Sipping didn’t look easy for him.
“What might prevent you?” he said.
“I might have to do something I don’t like in order to get to do something I like a lot.”
Ticknor smiled a little. “Metaphysical,” he said.
I waited. I knew he was trying to size me up. That was okay, I was used to that. People didn’t know anything about hiring someone like me, and they almost always vamped around for a while.
“I like milk, too,” I said. “Sometimes I drink that.”
Ticknor nodded. “Do you carry a gun?” he said.
The waiter brought our salad.
“How tall are you?”
“Six one and something.”
“How much do you weigh?”
“Two-oh-one and a half, this morning, after running.”
“How far do you run?”
The salad was made with Boston lettuce and was quite fresh.
“I do about five miles a day,” I said. “Every once in a while I’ll do ten to sort of stretch out.”
“How did your nose get broken?”
“I fought Joe Walcott once when he was past his prime.”
“And he broke your nose?”
“If he’d been in his prime, he’d have killed me,” I said.
“You were a fighter then.”
I nodded. Ticknor was washing down a bite of salad with the rest of his Negroni.
“And you’ve been on the police?”
“And you were dismissed?”
“They said I was intractable.”
“Were they right?”
The waiter brought our entrée.
“I am told that you are quite tough.”
“You betcha,” I said. “I was debating here today whether to have lobster Savannah or just eat one of the chairs.”
Ticknor smiled again, but not like he wanted me to marry his sister.
“I was also told that you were—I believe the phrase was, and I’m quoting—‘a smart-mouthed bastard’—though it was not said without affection.”
I said, “Whew.”
Ticknor ate a couple of green peas from the side dish. He was maybe fifty and athletic-looking. Squash probably, tennis. Maybe he rode. He wore rimless glasses, which you don’t see all that often anymore, and had a square-jawed Harvardy face, and an unkempt gray crew cut like Archibald Cox. Not a patsy even with the Bryn Mawr accent Not soft.
“Were you thinking of commissioning a biography of me, or do you want to hire me to break someone’s arm?”
“I know some book reviewers,” he said, “but … no, neither of those.” He ate five more peas. “Do you know very much about Rachel Wallace?”
“Sisterhood,” I said.
I have an intellectual friend. Sometimes she reads to me.”
“What did you think of it?”
“I thought Simone de Beauvoir already said most of it.”
“Have you read The Second Sex?”
“Don’t tell the guys down the gym,” I said. “They’ll think I’m a fairy.”
“We published Sisterhood.”
“Nobody ever notices the publisher. But yes, we did. And we’re publishing her new book.”
“What is that called?”
“It is an unusual book,” Ticknor said. “The tyrants are people in high places who discriminate against gay women.”
“Catchy idea,” I said.
Ticknor frowned for a moment. “The people in high places are named. Ms. Wallace has already had threats against her if the book is published.”
“Ah-hah,” I said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“My role in this is beginning to take on definition.”
“Oh, yes, the threats. Well, yes. That’s it essentially. We want you to protect her.”
“Two hundred dollars a day,” I said. “And expenses.”
“Yeah, you know. Sometimes I run out of ammunition and have to buy more. Expenses.”
“There are people I can get for half that.”
The waiter cleared the lunch dishes and poured coffee.
“I’m not authorized to go that high.”
I sipped my coffee.
“I can offer one hundred thirty-five dollars a day.”
I shook my head.
Ticknor laughed. “Have you ever been a literary agent?” he said.
“I told you, I don’t do things I don’t like to do if I can avoid it.”
“And you don’t like to work for a hundred and thirty-five a day.”
“Can you protect her?”
“Sure. But you know as well as I do that it depends on what I protect her from. I can’t prevent a psychopath from sacrificing himself to kill her. I can’t prevent a horde of hate-crazed sexists from descending on her. I can make her harder to hurt, I can up the cost to the hurter. But if she wishes to live anything like a normal life, I can’t make her completely safe.”
“I understand that,” Ticknor said. He didn’t look happy about it, though.
“What about the cops?” I said.
“Ms. Wallace doesn’t trust them. She sees them as, quote, ‘agents of repression.’ ”
“She has also said she refuses to have, and once again I quote, ‘a rabble of armed thugs following me about day and night.’ She has agreed to a single bodyguard. At first she insisted on a woman.”
“But if there were to be but one, we felt a man might be better. I mean if you had to wrestle with an assassin, or whatever. A man would be stronger, we felt.”
“And she agreed?”
“She gay?” I said.
“Yes,” Ticknor said.
“And out of the closet?”
“Aggressively out of the closet,” Ticknor said. “Does that bother you?”
“Gay, no. Aggressive, yes. We’re going to spend a lot of time together. I don’t want to fight with her all day.”
“I can’t say it will be pleasant, Spenser. She’s not an easy person. She has a splendid mind, and she has forced the world to listen to her. It has been difficult. She’s tough and cynical and sensitive to every slight.”
“Well, I’ll soften her up,” I said. “I’ll bring some candy and flowers, sweet-talk her a little …”
Ticknor looked like he’d swallowed a bottle cap.
“My God, man, don’t joke with her. She’ll simply explode.”
Ticknor poured some more coffee for me and for himself from the small silver pot. There was only one other table occupied now. It made no difference to our waiter. He sprang forward when Ticknor put the coffeepot down, took it away, and returned almost at once with a fresh pot.
“The only reservation I have,” Ticknor said when the waiter had retreated, “is the potential for a personality clash.”
I leaned back in my chair and folded my arms.
“You look good in most ways,” Ticknor said. “You’ve got the build for it. People who should know say you are as tough as you look. And they say you’re honest. But you work awfully hard sometimes at being a wise guy. And you look like everything Rachel hates.”
“It’s not hard work,” I said.
“Being a wise guy. It’s a gift.”
“Perhaps,” Ticknor said. “But it is not a gift that will endear you to Rachel Wallace. Neither will the muscles and the machismo.”
“I know a guy would lend me a lavender suit,” I said.
“Don’t you want this work?” Ticknor said.
I shook my head. “What you want, Mr. Ticknor, is someone feisty enough to get in the line of someone else’s fire, and tough enough to get away with it. And you want him to look like Winnie-the-Pooh and act like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. I’m not sure Rebecca’s even got a gun permit.”
He was silent for a moment. The other table cleared, and now we were alone in the upstairs dining room, except for several waiters and the maître d’.
“God damn it,” Ticknor said. “You are right. If you’ll take the job, it’s yours. Two hundred dollars a day and expenses. And God help me, I hope I’m right.”
“Okay,” I said. “When do I meet Ms. Wallace?”