Authors: Bill Pronzini
Books by Bill Pronzini
“Nameless Detective” Novels:
Twospot (with Collin Wilcox)
Double (with Marcia Muller)
SPEAKING VOLUMES, LLC
Copyright © 1973 by Bill Pronzini
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the author.
This One Is for (and for the Memory of):
Francis K. Allan
W. T. Ballard
John K. Butler
Frederick C. Davis
Robert C. Dennis
William Campbell Gault
G. T. Fleming-Roberts
John D. MacDonald
And All the Thousands of Other Writers
Who Made the Pulps Such a Joy—Yesterday and Today
Table of Contents
It was one of those jobs you take on when things are very lean. You want to turn it down—it's an old story, and a sordid one, and a sad one—but you know you can't afford to. The rent falls due in a few days and the savings account is all but depleted; you haven't worked in almost three weeks, and the boredom and the emptiness are beginning to take their toll. So you look into tear-filmed gray eyes, and you sigh, and you say yes . . .
Judith Paige was the kind of girl they used to call "sweet" and "wholesome" without sniggering about it. In her middle twenties, maybe, she had a shy, quiet way of moving and of talking that put you on her side the minute you saw her. She was innocence with character, sugar with a little spice; if you were my age, and a bachelor too, she made you think about and ache a little for the daughter you never had, the love you never had that could have conceived someone like her.
She had a slender, supple body, outfitted in a lace-bodice white blouse and one of those fold-over suede skirts that button at the side and are supposed to be popular in Europe these days. Over narrow shoulders was a suede jacket, of the same beige color as the skirt; the two did not quite match, however, and so I knew that she was something less than monetarily well-set-up. But I also knew that she cared, that she was willing to make an effort in her own behalf. Too many of them have long since stopped caring, for too many reasons.
You could not really call her beautiful, but she had that aura of youth and sweetness that was like a magnetic attraction. And pale-blond hair, cropped short on a small round head; those glistening gray eyes, like misty circles in a window through which you can see the glow and warmth of a soft inner fire; a small, expressive mouth and a nose that was hardly even there. When she smiled, even forcing it as she did, it was like being caressed by a little girl; and when she cried, it was like hearing that same little girl lamenting the death of a puppy. I felt uncomfortable with her from the moment she stepped into my office, because she stirred my emotions, and the last thing I needed just then was to have my emotions stirred.
She sat nervously in the chair across from my desk, and looked at the desk and at the window and at the floor as she told her story in a soft voice filled with embarrassment. Until the previous year she had lived in a small town in Idaho; at that time she had decided to move to San Francisco to "search for some meaning in life"— which meant, of course, that she had come looking for a husband. The Idaho town, although she did not say it, had obviously and not surprisingly failed to yield any man worthy of her. The way it looked, so had San Francisco.
But she had found one here, a guy named Walter Paige. They had been married three months now, and it was something far less than the idyllic union she had expected. It was not that Paige abused her in any way, or was a drinker or a gambler—like that; it was simply that in the past five weeks he had taken to leaving her alone on the weekends. He told her it was business—he worked for some industrial supply house—and when she pressed him for details, he grew reticent. He was working on a couple of large prospects, he said, that would set them both up nicely in the future.
She figured he was working on another woman.
Like I said, an old story, and a sordid one, and a sad one.
She wanted me to follow him for a few days, to either confirm or deny her suspicions. That was all. You don't need to prove adultery, or much of anything else, to obtain a divorce in California these days, so I would not be required to testify in any civil proceedings. It was just that she had to know, one way or the other—the tears starting then—and if she was right she wanted to dissolve the marriage and maybe go back to Idaho, she just didn't know at this point. She had a little money saved and she could pay my standard rates, and she had heard that I was honest and capable and that I would not take advantage of her in any way . . .
I sat there behind my desk, feeling old and tired and cynical. It was a nice day outside, as days in San Francisco go, and I had the window open a little. The breeze off the bay was cool and fresh on the back of my neck. Late April sunshine put a liquid gold veneer across one corner of the desk. Nice spring day, all right. A day for sailing languidly on the bay, or taking in a baseball game at Candlestick, or driving through fragrant woods and fields. A day for looking at somebody else's soiled linen, laid out to air in your office.
I got a cigarette out of the pack on the frayed blotter and lighted it and blew smoke at the beam of sunlight. It drifted and curled in the soft glow, like half-remembered dreams in the light of dawn. I looked away from there and put my eyes on Judith Paige and thought that she was too young and too nice to have the kind of problem that would bring her to a man in my profession. She should have been happy and carefree, her laughter should have rung loud and clear in the sunshine. But then, pragmatically, there were things I could not know about. She might have been frigid, or a poor cook and a lousy housekeeper, or unable to adapt to living with a man. She might have picked a guy who was a chaser by nature, a bastard by nature. Or she might only be jumping at shadows. It would be nice if that was the way it turned out—only it seldom does, not nearly often enough to make you optimistic about it.
I took one of the contract forms out of the bottom drawer and slid it over for her to examine. When she had, I drew it back and filled it out accordingly; her answers to my questions were simple and direct. I gave the contract over to her again for her signature, and then I said, "All right, Mrs. Paige. What can you tell me about these weekend trips of your husband's?"
"Not . . . very much, I'm afraid," looking at the single metal file cabinet with the hot plate and the coffee pot resting on its top.
"Have you any idea at all where he goes?"
"Only that it doesn't seem to be in this immediate area."
"What makes you say that?"
"Well, I checked the . . . mileage thing on the car last week," she said. "Before Walter left and after he came back. There was more than two hundred miles' difference in the two figures."
"I see. Is there anything else?"
"No. No, nothing."
"He hasn't given you any hint?"
"No. Whenever I ask, he smiles and tells me it's a very private sort of business deal and he's not supposed to talk to anyone about it, even his wife."
I worked on my cigarette and pretended to examine the contract form. "I don't mean to be blunt, Mrs. Paige, but do you have any tangible reason for your suspicions?"
Her eyes touched me briefly, and then flicked away again. "Tangible reason?"
I knew the words would sound harsh and cruel before I said them, but I said them anyway. "Letter, lipstick marks, unexplained items or photographs of any kind?"
She seemed to shudder slightly and a faint pink suffused the silken whiteness of her cheeks. "No," she said in a small, soft voice. "Nothing like that. It's just that Walter . . . isn't . . . well, he isn't very . . . attentive to me after he . . . For the first day or two after he returns, he . . ." She could not get the rest of it out. Her eyes were on her hands now, watching the long and slender fingers pluck nervously at the buttons on her suede jacket.
I felt like a kind of mental voyeur, and I got off that tack for both our sakes. I said, "Your husband's gone away each of the past four Saturdays, is that right?"
"Yes, that's right."
"Do you know for certain he'll go again tomorrow?"
"Oh yes," she said. "He told me last night. He said he would be staying until late Monday this time, but not . . . not why."
"Was that when you decided to come to me?"
Her throat worked. "Yes."
"What time does he usually leave?"
"Around nine or so."
"And when has he been coming back?"
"Late Sunday afternoon."
"Any particular time?"
"No. Between five and eight, about"
"Does he drive?"
"What kind of car?"
"A dark-blue Cutlass."
"Do you know the license number?"
"Well, I wrote that down. I thought you'd need to have it." She opened a suede purse and looked at a piece of paper from inside. "It's TTD-six-seven-nine."
I wrote the number on the contract margin. I could not think of anything more to ask her. What was there to ask in a case like this? They give you the barest details, because that's all they know themselves; you get an idea of what time he leaves her, and then you go out to where they live and camp on the street and follow him until you're sure one way or the other. Usually you don't have to drive more than ten miles; maybe I would have to drive two hundred, and maybe I would not have to. If Paige had another woman, she could live right here in San Francisco, and they could have gone to the beach last weekend to play their games—or to the mountains or any damned place at all. It had always seemed rather pointless to me that they would go
, even though they sometimes do; the beds in San Francisco motels or apartments are no different from those at the beach or in the mountains.