Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (14 page)

“It wasn’t a death,” she replied. “It was a suicide. I don’t see what there is to investigate.”

“For starters, why did she do it?”

“Only she knows.”

“Can you live with that? Mr. Parkus can’t. He needs to understand. She didn’t leave a note and, as far as he knew, your daughter was very happy.”

“Lauren wasn’t my daughter,” she said, looking away from me, “though I certainly loved her as if she was. Even so, I think Cyril has engaged you in a hopeless pursuit that will only prolong his pain. And mine.”

Mrs. Harper wasn’t her mother. That explained why I couldn’t see a trace of Lauren in her face. I marveled at my rapidly-developing detective instincts. I would have to learn to pay more attention to my first impressions.

“What was your relationship with her?” I asked.

Mrs. Harper looked at me suspiciously. “Didn’t Cyril tell you?”

“I’d rather hear it from you,” I stalled, scrambling to come up with a bullshit explanation. “When I get the story secondhand, all I’m told are the broad strokes and none of the important details.”

“It’s irrelevant,” Mrs. Harper said. “Whatever tormented her was part of her life in Los Angeles.”

I could see that she still needed more convincing and time was ticking away. I took a deep breath and leaned towards her, resting my elbows on my knees. I had to show her how serious and competent I was.

“Suicide investigation is my specialty, Mrs. Harper. It’s been my experience that it isn’t any one thing that makes someone take her own life, but rather an accumulation of events over a long period of time. They eventually build into one, overwhelming presence that permeates every moment of their lives until there seems to be only one escape.
Death
.”

That last word hit her like a slap, which is what I intended. I gave it my best James Earl Jones delivery, as heavy and throaty as I could, then I let the word hang in the air between us, to reinforce the gravity of the situation.

“My job is to track down those scattered events and try to determine how they became something the person could no longer live with.”

It sounded like the intro to a TV series:
The Suicide Sleuth.
It might be hard to squeeze in enough sex and action to distract people from the morbid subject matter, but the exciting main titles were already playing in my head.

I looked her in the eye.

“I think we both know that whatever haunted Lauren didn’t start in Los Angeles,” I added. “It started a long time ago.”

Mrs. Harper nodded, tears rolling down her cheeks. I’d gotten to her.

“I thought we’d saved her, that she’d put those horrible years behind her,” she said. “But I see now that I was fooling myself. I see that no matter how much joy or love comes into your life, you can never erase the past.”

I tried to hide my excitement. I tried to look caring, concerned, and patient. I tried to look like a guy who wasn’t afraid that Cyril Parkus might call at any moment and ruin everything.

“Tell me all about it,” I said.

And so she did.

Chapter Sixteen

I
t took her about twenty minutes to lay out the whole story, fighting tears as she remembered it all again, the hope and the happiness and then the pain.

And while she spoke, I wanted to pull out one of the pictures I had of Lauren, to see if the expression on her face, the look in her eye, would slowly reveal their meanings to me as I learned more about her.

The story began about twenty years ago.

Mona and Brock Harper lived in a big house in Bellevue, across the lake from Seattle. He was a lawyer in the shipping industry and frequently entertained clients in his home, from private dinners with a few individuals to large banquets and garden parties.

The Harpers were always looking for dependable domestic help, but they went through maids almost as fast as they went through cocktail napkins. One day, a young woman answered their advertisement for a cleaning lady. She was conscientious, worked fast and efficiently, and clearly had experience. Her name was Lauren, and although she said she was eighteen, Mrs. Harper wasn’t fooled.

Still, good cleaning women were hard to find, and not only that, but Lauren was polite, well-mannered, and a perfect hostess when called upon to serve guests at the Harpers’ many social gatherings.

Lauren was also bright and inquisitive. More than once Mr. Harper found her in the library, after her work was done, reading from his leather-bound collection of classic literature, something he’d never done. The books were bought by their decorator, strictly for show. But it pleased Mrs. Harper that Lauren was finding the décor useful. It revealed the maid had intelligence and a desire to better herself.

Mrs. Harper decided to save her.

One night, on his wife’s orders, Mr. Harper followed Lauren after she finished work and discovered that Lauren was an orphan, living in a squalid Seattle tenement with a bunch of “runaways, junkies, whores, and radicals.” As far as I know, he didn’t become a private eye after that. I guess he didn’t get the same thrill out of surveillance that I did.

They immediately brought Lauren back to their home, offering her a job as a live-in housekeeper. Lauren settled into the maid’s quarters off the laundry room and continued her exemplary work. Meanwhile, Mr. Harper tried to try and find out something about their secretive, but dependable, housekeeper, but to no avail. After a month or two, the Harpers sat Lauren down and told her if she was going to live in their home, she would have to trust them as they had trusted her. She had to tell them the truth about herself.

So, she did.

Lauren admitted that she was only fifteen, and that she was a runaway, but that no one was, or ever would be, looking for her. She said her mother was a junkie who “sold her body,” as Mrs. Harper put it, for drugs and money. Lauren didn’t know who her father was. The man her mother lived with for years was a drug dealer who sexually molested Lauren whenever her mother wasn’t available for him, and sometimes even when she was. Her mother knew about it and didn’t care.

Lauren figured her only way out was to either kill them, or run away. She chose to run, because she wasn’t about to throw away her life for those two shitheads.

I had a hard time believing the entire hard luck story. To me, the only part that rang true was the drug stuff, because it connected her to Arlo Pelz, whom I’d just learned from Jolene was a seller and a user.

I was very pleased with myself. Through shrewd and dogged detective work, I’d just landed a big clue about where Lauren and Arlo’s lives intersected. What I didn’t know yet was exactly how. The story Mrs. Harper was telling me certainly wasn’t blackmail material, at least not that version. Lauren had risen from a tragic childhood and bettered herself.

Hell, if that story had come out, it would probably have raised Lauren’s stature among her fundraising-for-charity social set.

No, the truth had to be something much worse. Maybe Lauren wasn’t as clean and wholesome as she’d portrayed herself to the Harpers. What if she’d been an addict and a whore, and Arlo knew it? Worse, what if Arlo could prove it? That might have been something so shameful that Lauren couldn’t live with it.

That theory worked, except for one thing. It didn’t explain how Cyril Parkus knew who Arlo was, or if he didn’t exactly know Arlo, how he recognized his face.

While I was mulling the possibilities, Mrs. Harper went on with her story. I have to confess I was only half-listening at that point, and probably missed some important details.

The upshot was that the Harpers virtually adopted Lauren. They hired a new maid and Lauren was promoted to surrogate daughter. Somehow, Mr. Harper pulled off some legal magic and enrolled her in the local high school under their name. They told their friends she was a “tragically orphaned” niece they’d adopted. I don’t know what lie they told their family, but whatever it was, it worked. No one questioned anything then and hadn’t since.

“She blossomed in school,” Mrs. Harper said. “She made us so proud. Straight As.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said, eager to go now that I’d found what I needed. There was just one, last thing. “Did she ever mention Arlo Pelz?”

“No,” she replied.

I showed her a picture of Arlo, a close-up I took that day on the pier.

“Ever seen him before?” I asked.

She shook her head. “Who is he?”

“A drug dealer.”

“Haven’t you been listening?” Mrs. Harper stood up, clearly angry. “Lauren escaped from that world. From the day she stepped into our home, that life ended and her new one began.”

“Apparently not,” I replied.

Mrs. Harper marched over to the wall of family photos and pointed at one of them. “Here she is getting the honor roll. Here she is on the swim team. The debate team. The school newspaper.”

She pointed at photo after photo to prove her point. “Does this look like a woman who has anything to do with drugs?”

I looked at the picture. Six teenage girls standing around a printing press, their aprons covered with ink. Not one of them was Lauren.

In fact, Lauren wasn’t in a single one of the photos on that wall. I turned to Mrs. Harper and studied her. This crazy woman had created an entirely false, perfect world and inserted her vision of Lauren into it. She’d even gone so far as to put up fake childhood photos on the wall. I could only imagine what Lauren’s teenage years had really been like.

“Mrs. Harper, I don’t know who that girl is, but she isn’t Lauren,” I said. “Why don’t we start over, with the real story?”

Mrs. Harper looked at the photo, then back at me, then started to speak again, stammering, talking so fast, the words tripped over themselves. “Oh, no! You’ve got it wrong. You didn’t know. This is her. This is Lauren. It’s her before.”

“Before?”

She grabbed my arm and dragged me over to another photo, of herself, a man I presumed was Mr. Harper, and a teenage girl, taken in front of an old Ford Mustang. I looked into the girl’s eyes and I shivered.

“This is a picture of us, a few weeks after Lauren graduated from high school,” she said. “Brock bought that car for her as a graduation gift, but it was really more for himself. He’d always wanted a sports car.”

She sat down on the couch again. I stayed where I was, looking at the photo again. The same girl was in all of them. I’d never see her before. But I knew her.

“Brock used any excuse to drive that damn car. He was always going on a quick trip to the grocery store for things we didn’t really need and asking Lauren if he could borrow her car. Lauren always went with him,” Mrs. Harper wiped away fresh tears and struggled to continue. “The police say he was driving fifteen miles over the speed limit when a station wagon pulled out in front of him. He swerved, lost control of the car. It rolled over a dozen times. Brock was killed. Lauren was thrown clear, but she broke her arm, her ribs, and smashed up her face pretty bad.”

I stared at the family portrait. Lauren’s eyes stared back at me from another person’s face, the girl in all those photos.

I took out my picture of Lauren and held it beside the framed photo. It was the same person, only one of them was wearing a mask. I looked Lauren’s picture, her face finally revealing its meaning to me.

No wonder I thought Lauren’s beauty looked sculpted. No wonder Carol looked at the pictures and saw a woman who’d had a lot of work done.

We both saw through one of Lauren’s secrets and blew it off. How many other secrets had been revealed to me that I’d ignored?

Suddenly, a strange thought occurred to me.

My hand started to shake. To hide it, I put my picture of Lauren back in my pocket and left my hand there.

“Mrs. Harper,” I asked, hearing a tremble in my voice, “You wouldn’t happen to remember which high school Lauren went to?”

“Of course I do,” she said. “Marcus Whitman.”

The same school Jolene went to. The school that had a reunion the day Arlo suddenly disappeared.

People, places, and events were colliding in ways I could never have imagined and had an even harder time trying to understand. But all I could do was my part, to connect the obvious dots as they appeared, even if I couldn’t see the shape I was creating.

“Do you know if Lauren ever went to one of their reunions?” I asked.

“She got an invitation, but wasn’t able to make it,” Mrs. Harper said. “Since she wasn’t going to attend, the reunion people asked me for a recent picture of Lauren and some news about her life to put in a newsletter they were going to give out at the party.”

“Did you give them a picture?”

“No, that wouldn’t have been right. I just told them how well she’d done, and how she’d raised so much money for charity in Los Angeles,” she replied. “What does this have to do with Lauren’s suicide?”

Everything—I just didn’t know how yet. A few more questions might have helped me, but I didn’t get a chance to ask.

The phone rang.

I immediately headed for the door. “I better be going now, Mrs. Harper; you’ve been a tremendous help.”

“Wait, that could be Cyril,” she said, rising from the couch.

“Tell him I’m on the case.”

I was out the door and running down the hall by the time she answered the phone.

Chapter Seventeen

I
went to dinner at a Home Town Buffet off the freeway between Seattle and Snohomish. I piled my plate high with fried chicken, macaroni, chow mein, tater tots, and corn on the cob and took it back to my booth.

While I ate, I looked at the people around me. They all looked suspicious. They all looked like people with secrets.

And when they looked at me, they probably thought I was one of them. Just another average person trying to eat as much as he could for six dollars and ninety-nine cents.

They didn’t know that I was a private detective. They didn’t know it was my job to see through them, to find out what they didn’t want anyone else to discover.

I wondered what they would do if they knew.

I felt like the hero of one of those old World War II movies where a rugged soldier, like Jose Ferrer or Alan Ladd, parachutes into occupied France to carry out a deadly mission. I wasn’t sitting in Home Town Buffet, I was in a small café in Bordeaux, and all the other tables were filled with German soldiers. When I talked to the waitress, would subtle mistakes in my French reveal me? Would I die at the table, doomed by a flawed past participle, before I even began my mission?

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