Read Dead Letter Online

Authors: Jonathan Valin

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Hard-Boiled

Dead Letter

Dead Letter
Jonathan
Valin
1981

For Katherine

1

The first time I saw Sarah
B(ernice) Lovingwell she was sitting on the stoop of her father’s
home on Middleton Avenue. From where I was parked in front of the
house she looked to be a pale, sober young lady with a sweet, demure
face. She certainly didn’t look like the sort of girl who would
cause trouble. At least, not the kind of trouble I’d been hired to
investigate.

***

Her father, Professor Daryl Lovingwell of the
University of Cincinnati and Sloane National Laboratory, wasn’t
sure whether his daughter had caused the trouble, either. That’s
why he’d stopped at my office in the Riorley Building on a cold
Monday morning in the heart of December. A dapper little man in his
late fifties, he looked, I thought, like a polite, pallid George
Bernard Shaw—high forehead, bald speckled flesh, trim white
imperial cut to a satanic point, and white moustaches that exuded a
faint odor of wax and of pipe tobacco. From the fine tailoring of his
Harris tweeds and the trace of English accent that toned his speech
like a silvery tarnish, he seemed to be a very proper gentleman,
indeed. He seemed to be Lord Chesterfield in woolen bunting. But
there was a wry gleam in his gray eye that suggested he wasn’t
blind to the slightly eccentric impression he made. And after we
began to talk, I got the feeling that, like most eccentrics, the
Professor only used his quirks and oddities of speech and of dress in
the right company—which appeared to include me.

I’d pegged him for "family troubles" the
moment I’d seen him come through the door. Maybe a wayward wife
who, after twenty-odd years, no longer found Lovingwell’s
eccentricities all that winning. But I’d been wrong. The wife was
dead—seven years. It was his daughter he had come to talk about.
His daughter and the theft of a document.

"It would appear," he said almost
apologetically, "that my daughter may be a thief, as she was the
only person I can think of with access to my study and my safe. I
mean, of course, the only person with reason to steal the damn
thing."

He looked around my office with such a sweet,
unstudied air of astonishment that I began to feel sorry for him.
After a moment he swallowed that astonishment hard and eyed me
candidly. "You understand I should have gone to the authorities
as soon as I discovered the document was missing. I should have gone
to my good friend Louis Bidwell at Sloane or to the FBI. But if I’d
done that . . . I mean if Sarah should, in fact, be implicated."
He shook his head and said, "I’m in a very difficult
position."

There was no question about the legal bind he’d
gotten himself into by concealing the theft. Under the National
Security Act he was already liable to criminal charges. And, of
course, that would mean the end of his career. To say nothing of the
scandal it would create or the possible jail term he might face. And
why had this odd little man done this I asked myself. Why had he
jeopardized a life-time’s work? For love, Harry. What they will do
for love.
Only, deep down, I didn’t think
it was all that funny.

So, as I usually do when I’m not amused by the
inequities of this unequal world, I tried to change the odds and the
Professor’s mind by suggesting that Sarah needn’t be involved.
But he wasn’t having it. He smiled tolerantly, told me it was a
"very decent" thing to say, and proceeded to explain the
hard, unequal truth about his only daughter. "She’s a Marxist,
Mr. Stoner. An ardent, intelligent Marxist. And she’s an
environmentalist, to boot. An odd combination, perhaps—like an ivy
wreath on a statue of Lenin. But potent, believe me. Sarah believes
strongly enough in her principles to risk jail on their behalf.
Indeed, she has risked going to jail for them in the past. I wouldn’t
have come to you at all if I weren’t certain of this and of the
fact that she would lie to me if I were to ask her whether she was
involved in the theft. You see Marxists are a little like the Papists
of the seventeenth century. They firmly believe that equivocation, as
it used to be called, is a legitimate political tactic. Don’t
misunderstand—I love my daughter dearly and she loves me. But my
work has become a political issue to her. And to her way of thinking,
politics takes precedence over individuals."

"Even fatherly individuals?"

"Especially them, if they’re scientists at
work on breeder reactors that may pollute the environment and disrupt
ecological balances. Good Lord, since Three Mile Island, she’s
barely spoken to me."

So much, I thought, for sentimental solutions. "The
missing document," I said. "Why would she have wanted to
take it?"

"I’m afraid I can’t tell you that," he
said with a pained look. "I know I sound ridiculous—rather
like that dreadful little man, Nixon—but the document is a matter
of national security. You’ll simply have to take my word that Sarah
would have found the contents interesting.

Moreover, I’ll have to insist for the same reason
that, if you do recover the document or find out what Sarah’s done
with it, you neither examine it nor tell anyone else about this
case."

I laughed out loud. "How the hell will I know if
I’ve found the damn thing?"

"I might be able to describe the papers for
you," he said after thinking it over for a second with that same
touching air of perplexity. "I think that much would be safe."

"All right, Professor," I said. "What
does this document look like?"

Lovingwell closed his eyes and pressed his hands to
his face as if he weren’t quite sure it was still his face. "It
was thirty pages long. Typed in elite script on white, onionskin
paper, with the imprint Top-Secret Sensitive at the top of each page.
I stored it in a yellow manila envelope, at home in my office safe."

"Why there?" I said. "Top-secret stuff
generally doesn’t leave the premises, does it?"

Lovingwell dropped one hand from his cheek and opened
a single, unhappy eye. "I was revising it. It was my work
originally.

"Then you must have a top-secret clearance."

"I did have," he said mordantly. "Look,
I’m afraid I’m setting you an impossible task."

I rubbed the nape of my neck and admitted, "It’s
a doozie, all right. I take it that all you want to know is whether
your daughter’s involved in the theft. If she is, I’m to recover
the goods or find out how she’s disposed of them. If not . . ."

Lovingwell lowered his other hand and smiled for the
first time since he’d entered the office. "Then I can assure
you that I’ll turn this matter over to the FBI as quickly as I can.
Of course, I’ll pay you the going rate and any additional expense.
If you find the document, I’ll pay you a two-thousand-dollar
bonus." He looked at me nervously. "Do we have a deal,
then?"

It really wasn’t my kind of case—espionage. It
was too complicated from the start and it carried with it all sorts
of unsavory possibilities. But staring at that proper, earnest little
man with Shaw’s face and the voice of a Cambridge don, I decided to
make an exception. After all, Harry, I said to myself, if you leave
the top-secret part out of it, it’s just another domestic theft,
just another kind of family trouble. And the going-rate was two-fifty
a day. And, anyway, after hearing him out, I liked Daryl Lovingwell
enough to want to help him.

"How long would I have to find this thing?"
I asked him.

"Two weeks. I can get by for that long. Maybe
for a week longer. But no more than that."

"All right, Professor," I said. "I’ll
take your case."

He smiled with relief and held out his hand. "I’m
so very glad. You know I got your name from a colleague in the
University who thinks you’re a most trustworthy fellow. If you had
refused me, I don’t know where I should have gone."

"No need to worry about that, now. I’d like to
take a look at your safe this afternoon, if you’re free."

He pulled a worn leather pocket calendar from his
coat. It was stuffed with loose papers and wrapped in rubber bands.
He managed to open it without dropping an envelope and, after
glancing briefly at one of the pages, said, "I teach at the
University this afternoon and have an appointment at Sloane this
evening. However, I do have some free time around three."

He looked back up at me and immediately caught what I
was thinking. "She won’t be home after three," he said
with a slight blush. "She’s going on an excursion at
two-thirty this afternoon."

"Then I’ll see you at three," I told him.
 

2

Sarah Lovingwell was sitting on the front stoop when
I parked across from Lovingwell’s house on Middleton at 2:30 that
afternoon. It was a big, red-brick colonial on a winding street full
of red-brick colonials, in that part of Clifton that could serve as
the poster-child to suburban America. Its best season is late summer
and early fall, when the maple trees that line the sidewalks begin to
turn and the gray-haired householders go shirtless on their Lawn-Boys
while their wives brown themselves on chaises in the backyard patios.
In that dreamy season, Middleton and the other streets north of
Wolper smell, night and day, of grass halps and of charcoal fires, of
coconut oil and of the pungent chlorine salts that the children wear
home from community pools. In that season you’d have to be mad to
dream of anything other than those lazy, S-shaped streets, full of
tree-filtered sunlight and of the men on their power mowers and of a
kind of middle-American grandeur that is, itself, a piece of modern
mythology.

But the street wasn’t in season that Monday
afternoon. And like something peculiarly disarrayed—like a familiar
face seen in the wrong light or in an unflattering attitude—it
looked its age in the winter sun and the glare of the snow chunked
like thick white sod on the lawns and rooftops. The age, that is, of
the American dream of which it was the most visible part. A dream
that may be dying if the Arabs and the Iranians and the oil companies
and those other dreary conspirators of the dollar have their ways.

Sitting there, across from Sarah Lovingwell and the
big, snow-capped house behind her, I had a vision of all the
householders, standing shirtless on their summer lawns and staring
aghast at the sheiks on their camels, who were bobbing slowly up
Middleton-like some incredible Shriner’s pageant—and turning all
of that lawn green back into the unbleached flour of desert sand.
What a world, the householders were whispering. What a loveless
world.

What Sarah might be saying, I couldn’t tell. From
what her father had told me, she might have cheered. But, then,
politics isn’t something you can read in a face alone. To be
perfectly honest, I thought that she looked like the last person on
Middleton Avenue who would have applauded the decline of middle
America. Sitting on the stoop, with her chin on her fists and her
elbows on her knees, she looked perfectly innocent—not only of
seditious thought, but of any thought at all. Now and then she
stretched her arms in front of her, twisting her fists outward like
she was stretching in bed. And her fists did stay clenched while I
was watching her, but I figured that was because of the cold. Her
face was long, pleasant-looking, and shy. A very English face, I
thought. Small, sharp nose; small, very white teeth; thin lips; her
father’s high forehead; active blue eyes; and the sort of fine,
straight auburn hair that looks lovely blowing free across a pale
face. She smiled often while she waited and talked to herself
constantly, a habit I find endearing since I do it myself.

Ten minutes passed and a blue Dodge van stopped in
front of the Lovingwell home. The driver—black hair, full beard,
checked tam pulled down to his eyes—honked once; and Sarah lifted
one of those fists in salute, then jogged to the street. She got in
the side door of the truck and off they went down Middleton. When
they were out of sight, I took a fingerprint kit from the backseat,
got out of the Pinto, and walked up to the front stoop.

Lovingwell arrived about a quarter of an hour later,
in a powder-blue Jaguar sedan. It didn’t look like the sort of car
a physics professor could afford, even a celebrated physics
professor. Daryl Lovingwell apparently had some money of his own. The
Professor walked briskly up to the door, took a ring of keys out of
his pocket, and fumbled with the lock. His face was pallid and
nervous and, from the way his hands were trembling, I figured he
wasn’t at all happy about what he and I were about to do.

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