A NOVEL BY
Praise for Pretty Girl Lost
"I can tell you that it held me. It is... a shocking book.... [I]t us a strong book."
Paul Theroux, the worlds most famous travel writer, author of 16 nonfiction books including The Great Railway Bazaar and Dark Star Safari, and 29 novels including Mosquito Coast (Harrison Ford film) and The Lower River.
"Draws us into a complex world of obsessive male idolaters driven to abuse and betraythe female objects of their passion. A series of acute psychological studies… elements of a mystery story plot… engaging and rich… Hayes is at his best in dialogue… deserves a wide and discerning audience.”
Thomas H. Blackburn, Professor Emeritus of English, Swarthmore College
“Extraordinary… The build-up of dramatic tension is constant…. The writing is very strong, and the sense of purpose underlying every word… gives the narrative an extra thrust…. The narrative tone… is steady, confident, intelligent. The characters… are very well delineated and consistently idiosyncratic…. This book is powerful… [a] tour de force… There’s never a moment when we don’t feel the urgent need to find out what happens next.”
Melody Lawrence, Editor, New York City
Copyright 2013 by Shane Hayes
All rights reserved.
1. The Crisis
2. The Enemy
3. The Rape
4. The Walk
5. The Mystery
6. Beautiful People
7. The Condom
8. Neptune's Daughter
9. The Surveillance
10. Unhappy Harry
11. A Man of Many Faces
14. David and Goliath
15. Second Chance
16. Tug of War
18. The Homecoming
19. Doors of Death
21. Legal Minds
23. Who's Jake?
25. The Truth
A few excerpts of the novel appear below. An elipsis (******) indicates that material -- often a number of pages -- has been deleted from this sampling
The characters and events are products of my imagination and not based on actual persons or occurrences. Any resemblance to actual persons or their lives is accidental and unintended.
Sandra was in her room after dinner, sitting at her desk facing the window, senior history book in hand, starting her homework. The bedroom door behind her had an old lock but no existing key. It opened though no one had knocked. She knew without turning that he had come into the room. Since he had not announced himself she did not acknowledge his presence. The disadvantage of that strategy, she dimly realized, was that the first contact might then be physical rather than verbal.
She stiffened, closed her eyes, gripped the book tightly, held her breath, uttered a silent prayer. The moment stretched with tension. He had crossed the room and she knew he stood within inches of her. She sensed that he was contemplating her lustfully and had bent over her, inhaling the scent of her hair. As his hand lightly stroked her right shoulder, she threw her arms up with a startled cry, recoiling at his touch and shattering whatever mood of tenderness he had induced in himself and might imagine he could induce in her.
“Uncle Hal!” she cried reproachfully, half turning to him. “Why do you scare me like that!"
Holding up his hands in a calming gesture, Hal said, “Relax. Sorry. Don’t get so huffy. I thought you knew I was there.”
He disliked her calling him Uncle Hal. When he began wooing her three years ago he had asked her several times to call him Hal, yet she persisted in using “Uncle,” to remind him of their blood relationship and the taboo he was transgressing. But since “Uncle Hal” also implied a respect she did not feel, she called him nothing most of the time.
She looked at him over her shoulder, deliberately leaving her legs under the desk and not turning toward him. He was a good-looking man, she had to admit, though she hated the sight of him. He had a beautiful head of thick wavy hair, sandy colored, which always seemed to shine and be combed back perfectly in place, unparted and framing his face in a highly flattering way. Though it gave the effect of being professionally coiffured, she knew it was a pure gift of nature and he had only to run a quick comb through it when he got out of bed to make it that way.
His hairline with its slight widow’s peak had a fine symmetry that seemed destined never to change; at thirty-nine it had not receded a millimeter and there was not a strand of gray. His blue eyes and fine features had a genial openness that reflected the outer layer of his duplex personality. The decidedly strong jaw suggested firm character but, to those who knew him, betrayed his dark inner layer and a ruthless determination to get his way.
“I’d know you were there if you knocked before coming in,” Sandra rejoined.
“I missed you today,” Hal said, ignoring the reproof and getting on with business. “You were on my mind – a lot.” Putting his left hand firmly on her right shoulder he tried to turn her around to face him, but she kept her legs under the desk, so her torso couldn’t turn much. He knelt beside her, his right elbow on the desk and his left arm around her. “You’re always on my mind,” he said in his low sensuous voice. “No one knows how beautiful you are naked, but I know.”
He put his right hand beside her cheek and leaned forward to kiss her, but she drew her head away, still clinging to the textbook. “You always play so damned hard to get,” he whispered, his desire piqued rather than chilled. “Maybe that’s why I never get tired of you.” Her averted head exposed her neck; he leaned forward, kissed it, and the kiss became a long wet lick.
Sandra, wincing, raised her elbow and shouldered him away. “I don’t feel good tonight.” She looked sideways at him, her head still averted, her legs still inaccessibly in front of her, away from him.
“I’ll make you feel good.” His tone was patient but determined. She knew the rebuff had worn his patience at least halfway through and not much remained. She dreaded exhausting it and the angry Hal who then appeared.
“Really, I feel nauseous. I have a history test Friday and a bio test first thing tomorrow and I’m way behind.”
Hal paused, then faintly smiled: “Some bio lab work is what I have in mind. We’ll review anatomy together. I’ll be your tutor.” Then in a low tone of command: “Turn your chair around and face me.”
As her resistance had increased these last two months so had Hal’s imperviousness to excuses that he had once accorded some deference. Sandra slowly, deliberately put a bookmark in the textbook and closed it – a delaying tactic that gave an air of compliance yet allowed seconds more to ponder rebellion. She thought of clinging to the desk and screaming for help. That seemed like madness. It was cold, windy, and dark out. Windows were closed. No one would hear her – except maybe her mother… and there was no help there. The deep-rooted habit of accepting her fate stoically and bearing the intolerable, was hard to break. She moved the chair back five inches but left her legs still under the desk.
“Turn the chair toward me,” Hal said with strained patience.
“My feelings don’t matter to you at all?” she said in mild reproach as she shifted the chair and exposed her bare feet and legs, tugging her skirt down modestly to her knees, in a comically futile gesture.
“Everything about you matters to me,” he said, kneeling in front of her and pressing his lips to her cheek, then to her lips, between which he forcefully inserted his tongue. Sandra felt like her mouth was being raped. A great lover of foreplay, Hal was disposed to prolong each phase of the process.
Sandra capitulated with a plea. “Could you at least make it quick tonight? I really do feel bad and I really do have to study for a test.”
Hal showed his magnanimous nature by obliging. He omitted the initial ten minutes of passionate, mostly French kissing and licking her neck. He also skipped the next fifteen minutes or so of petting while clothed, accompanied by loud panting and even more voracious kissing. He directed her at once to stand up and take her clothes off.
She complied with too little alacrity so he helped her, removing her skirt and panties while she unbuttoned her blouse and unhooked her bra. When she began crying, not audibly but with tears streaming down her cheeks and stifled sobs, Hal was moved – not to compassion and mercy but by a wave of tenderness that intensified his passion and feeling of love.
The fact that he was truly in love with her seemed to justify what would otherwise – if he had done it “just for kicks” – have been reprehensible. He thought his occasional concession to her moods, by leaving her alone when he wanted her or “making it quick,” proof of sensitivity and unselfish devotion. On the other hand his manhood required that he set limits and not let himself be pushed around. Tonight he was satisfied that he had struck a balance between callousness and weakness.
He viewed her crying as tears of gratitude. Making it quick, when he was bursting with affection and racked with sensual tremors, was no diminishment – as it would normally have been – of the total erotic thrill, but a heightening of it. Even her stony unresponsiveness, a constant he was powerless to change, detracted less than usual from his gratification. He lay over her, perspiring, exhausted, expended and flaccid but still inside her and reluctant to withdraw.
Sandra, on the other hand, had been less successful than usual in inducing physical and emotional anesthesia. She abhorred sexual contact and found no pleasure in any of it -- even clitoral stimulation or intercourse. She had read enough about sex in novels and heard enough talk by female classmates to know this was grossly abnormal, and her proclivity for introspection had led her to analyze it.
She had thought of four distinct factors that accounted for – and justified -- her singular unresponsiveness and aversion to sexual contact. Once when she should have been doing homework she had listed them on a scrap of paper that she later crumpled up and threw away. She remembered them because they were important to her self-understanding and self-respect.
First, she might have been naturally frigid, as some women are; she admitted the possibility and suspected it to be the case. Yet other factors made it not quite certain. The second was her aversion to incest, a term her father had defined for her and characterized as unnatural and depraved. Third, her first experience of intercourse was by rape and therefore traumatic – the more so since she was fourteen at the time. And fourth, the only mode of resistance that was open to her was subtle and passive: She could not keep Hal from molesting her, but she could keep herself from enjoying it, thereby limiting his pleasure, smiting his male ego, and absolving herself of complicity.
Sometimes (alas, not always) she could manage to be mentally elsewhere, in a haven of tranquil privacy, or retreat into icy darkness that numbed her senses and her soul. Tonight she had been so unreconciled to submission, so hopeful of escape, that her protective inner resources had failed. She had felt everything he did and her flesh crawled, her spirit writhed, as he did it.
PAVONE FAMILY ALBUM (1)
THE PAVONE BROTHERS – recently arrived at manhood – became closer friends in spring of 1962 than they had been since childhood. With the maturing process, courtesy and consideration had begun to replace the friendly insults and one-upsmanship that had dominated, often marred, their adolescent interactions. They were two-years-eight-months apart in age, but only two years apart in school.
` Though heredity and environment gave them a lot in common, they were in some ways opposites, each strong where the other was weak. Ron, twenty-four, had won the heart of a goddess and married her. Pete, twenty-one, had never had a girlfriend, though he wanted one badly. He often dated, but kept striking out with the girls he found attractive. Some girls liked him, which kept his ego intact if not robust, but they were never the ones he was proud to be dating and had strong feelings for.
Pete did not judge others harshly but imposed strict standards on himself. He didn’t drink. In fact, he had never had a drink in his life. This reflected their mother’s abstemiousness, a reaction to their father’s borderline alcoholism. She had ten years before renounced her own pattern of moderate drinking to give an example of total abstinence to her children, who were twelve and fourteen at the time. Pete was duly inspired. Ron was not.
Pete was a Catholic, as their parents were. Their mother went to daily Mass and communion. Their father never went to church but regarded himself as Catholic, which he saw as part of being Italian. (He was born in Naples.) Pete was trying hard to remain Catholic despite his study of secular philosophy. “I’m not sure there’s any philosophical underpinning for my faith,” he said, “but the faith is still there.” And there in force, which helped explain his lack of success with women and the embarrassment of his virginity.
SANDRA MOORE WAS DETERMINED that this was the day that would change her life. God knows, she thought, it needed changing in more ways than she could count – and at seventeen it could hardly be too late. History class, her last on Wednesday, was droning to a close. Concentration was impossible, but she was coasting with an “A,” the next test was two days away, and she would have time to catch up by then. She could, in good conscience, let her mind focus on herself, the abusive environment at home, and the revolution she was plotting.
She would begin by declaring her independence. A good history student, she remembered that America’s Declaration of Independence was only a brave theory, a bold announcement, and it took a five-year war to make it a fact. She knew that hers too would be a declaration of war – perhaps a rash one, since power was on the other side.
The question was what form hostilities would take. Would the weapons be psychological or physical? If the former, she could cope; make a spirited defense. If the latter – she shuddered. She was a physical coward; had a horror of violence; lived in mortal terror of being raped. That brutal violation – experienced only once – had cowed her into slavish submission these three years. If it recurred her rebellion could be crushed in minutes, and she might never rise again.
Her dark reflections were shattered by the bell ending class and marking the close of the school day. There was an instant low clamor of books slamming shut, creaking desks, shuffling feet, and the eruption of a dozen conversations. They baffled her, as always. How, she wondered wistfully, did all these people know effortlessly and without a moment’s thought exactly what to say, how to say it, and whom to say it to? For her, small talk and how to make it were among the greatest mysteries of life.
Her peers were not brighter than she. She was certifiably the brightest of them if her 4.0 grade-point average meant anything. The deficiency could hardly be mental, she thought. She felt more like an animal born without an instinct crucial to its survival. A homing pigeon born without the homing instinct. All she could do was follow her fellows with a frantic sense of inadequacy and dependence, flapping ungracefully and unwelcomely behind, awed by their coping skills, which were for her the unattainable norm.
She got her things together slowly to let her classmates form their friendly clusters and precede her through the door. She walked to the rear and at the edge of the group that was least inhospitable to her presence. Since nobody spoke to her she was really alone; yet the group was large enough – eight or ten of them – to provide camouflage. No one seemed to notice her or object to her ambling on their fringe. This spared her the shame of being visibly alone and the insults that unconcealed vulnerability invited. As she knew they would, her group turned left on Birch Lane, the main street of their Philadelphia suburb.
When they reached the business section two blocks away she slipped unobtrusively into a drug store. If anyone saw her leave, no one commented or said goodbye. She browsed at the magazine rack long enough for them to move well ahead. Two news magazines had President Kennedy on their cover and his photo appeared on the front page of that day’s Philadelphia Inquirer. She picked up a woman’s magazine with first lady Jackie Kennedy on its cover and pretended to thumb through it. Then she put it back on the rack, exited the drug store and retraced her steps a half block to the town library, which they had passed moments before.
Sandra did not want to be seen entering the library. Her reputation as a bookworm was supported copiously enough by her constant reading of unassigned fiction and nonfiction, which she always carried with her. The librarian was a plump middle-aged man with thick rimless glasses who greeted her with a pleasant nod he generally reserved for the most frequent visitors. Sandra went to the counter beside his desk, reached in her canvas bag and fumbled for a book at the bottom.
FAMILY ALBUM (2)
PETE PAVONE'S SEX DRIVE was in conflict with his Catholic moral convictions. This was when the Church was at the apex of its power, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, a watershed that would bring modernization and, though doctrines didn’t change, a de-emphasized concept of sin. Even the word began to vanish from sermons, which – perhaps to acknowledge their increased blandness – are now called “homilies.” In 1962 fear of mortal sin and its damning consequences was in its heyday. Twelve years of training by nuns and Christian Brothers had implanted in Pete’s psyche a dread of “the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.”
He gave in to temptation sometimes when necking ("batting it out") at a drive-in movie, or when parked in a lovers’ lane. But from childhood the sight of a used “rubber,” sticky looking and discolored, lying under a tree in the woods where he strolled, had disgusted him. It tarnished the natural beauty of the scene and became in his mind a symbol of dirty-sex (as opposed to pure marital sex) and moral depravity.
When he reached the dating age he heard stories about the scandal and disgrace of getting a girl pregnant out of wedlock and how it could ruin your life and hers. The need for the ugly rubber became comprehensible, yet his aversion to it remained. Ron carried two with him at all times and urged Pete to do the same.
Pete shook his head, amused but unpersuaded, and changed the subject. He thought Ron’s logic was the specious kind the Church condemned as “casuistry.” Pete had never planned his sins and never would. But since he could not be so coldly premeditated as to buy a condom, he was never prepared at a passionate moment to have intercourse, even if the girl was willing.
Faith and youth impaled him on the horns of a dilemma: If his conscience was clear, sexual frustration gnawed at him. If he released sexual tension by heavy petting at a drive-in, often on a Saturday night, he staggered under the millstone of mortal sin and fear of perdition till the next Saturday afternoon, when priests heard confession. So he could never be happy as a bachelor, but thought he would be very happy when married.
“Yeah,” Ron said, “you, her, and your fourteen kids.”
“Look,” Pete rejoined, “I don’t mind having a big family. I love kids, and we can practice rhythm to control the number of them. I just want to find a wife. Not a hot date, or a one-night stand, or a mistress. A wife. I won’t be happy till I have one.”
“Hell,” Ron said, “a lot of girls are looking for a guy like you.”
“They’re not looking very hard.” Pete paused, then revised the thought. “Well, yes, they are looking hard, and they’re finding good men. They’re going steady, and getting engaged, and getting married. There’s a lot of competition. You can talk about playboys, and say most guys are just out for what they can get from a girl. But when a really appealing chick falls for a guy, he’s likely to get serious. Or there’s a guy right behind him that will. Desirable chicks never go wanting. Never! That’s a law of nature – as sure as gravity.”
Ron nodded. “Make them feel your gravitational pull. That’s the trick.”
“That is the trick. I haven’t learned it yet. But I’m working on it.” Then Pete ventured a proposal he had never made when they had been always snipping at each other, but which seemed appropriate now that they were for each other. “You can be my mentor.”
Ron shrugged, a little hopelessly.
Pete looked at him with vexation. “Why not?”
Ron shrugged again.
“Don’t tell me you’re being humble.”
“Au contraire,” Ron said.
“Ahh,” Pete sighed, comprehending. “You’re thinking it can’t be taught.”
“Maybe it can. But not by me.”
“And yet you’re the greatest exemplar. You made them all want you. You made even her want you.”
Ron tossed his hands as if to say, what does that prove?
Pete nodded in further comprehension. In kindness his brother would not state the obvious. Ron was incredibly handsome. Pete wasn’t even good-looking. Ron had always been able to talk to girls more humorously and effortlessly than he could to his male friends. For Pete the reverse was true. So growing up Ron had had pretty, sometimes beautiful, girlfriends, but solid lasting male friendships had been elusive. Pete had lots of male friends but couldn’t get a girl. For Ron the technique of getting a girl was simply to be Ron: handsome, funny, self-assured, a good dancer, a glib talker, a suave wooer, a torrid lover.
“Okay,” Pete said, “but even a natural develops some techniques that can be taught to the less gifted. Ted Williams helped teammates with their hitting.”
Ron liked that analogy. “I’ll pay closer attention to your stance, your grip, and your swing. If I can suggest adjustments I will.”
“Good. That’ll help me get to first base.”
“And bat it out,” Ron said. “And maybe score.”
“Fearful thought,” Pete murmured. He had never scored. Ron knew that at twenty-one, despite Catholic piety, little brother was mortified to be a virgin. Ron had homered at fifteen, so the stigma had not vexed him for long.
THE LIBRARIAN EYED SANDRA CLOSELY. Covert appreciative glances at young female patrons were the most diverting part of his day, and he had individualized memories of dozens of them. He was glad to renew his impression of Sandra at close range. In an instant he took her measure and rather liked what he saw.
Granted, there was nothing striking about her. Brown hair, on the light side, short and conservatively styled. A fair smooth complexion. Blue eyes, not large or striking. An almost straight nose that could have been just slightly smaller. A neatly drawn mouth whose lips were too thin to be alluring but not too thin to imagine kissing. A well-formed chin defining the lower boundary of a face that a sculptor working in clay would have compressed a little at the cheekbones where it was slightly wider than seemed ideal.
“Mildly attractive” was the impression you got of her face and hair, he thought, if you took the time to look away from her more arresting classmates and fix your eye on her, as he was doing then. And to the extent demeanor gives a clue to personality, she had an air of compliant sweetness. But if you failed to look a second time, you probably wouldn’t notice it.
“I think these are a couple of days late,” Sandra said, fishing two hardcover books out of her bag and placing them on the counter, titles toward the librarian. One was “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl.” The other was Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”
“Fine books,” he commented, turning to the back covers and noting the return due dates. “Did you like Hemingway?”
“I loved it,” Sandra said with feeling.
“One of my favorites too,” he said. “Two days, twenty cents each. Forty cents.” While Sandra drew the change out of her wallet he made a quick survey of her figure. That wasn’t noticeable either, but like her face it rewarded contemplation. Large-breasted she was not, and modestly attired she always was. Tallish, maybe five-seven, and slender, she had wide shoulders, a trim waistline – oops, a dime dropped on the floor and rolled ten feet away.
Sandra retrieved it and returned, blushing a little at her clumsiness. Watching her every step and movement, he noted a compact but slightly flat bottom, long well-shaped legs, slim ankles and small narrow feet. Not much bust but (keep looking) definitely some. Her carriage was graceful though demure and unassertive.
As she closed the change purse of her wallet he focused on her hands, which he regarded in men as a remarkable index of native intelligence and refinement; less reliably so in women but still revealing. Sandra’s hands were uncommonly small and fragile-looking for a girl of her height, with delicate tapering fingers. The hands of a lady, a patrician, the kind he’d enjoy pressing to his lips. She rolled three coins into his cupped hand. “Have you read any of his short stories?” he asked, reluctant to let their contact end.
“No. Two other novels, but no short stories.”
“You might try a little volume of them called ‘In Our Time.’ Early work, when he was young and uncelebrated. I think it’s even better than his novels. We have it in paperback.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep it in mind.”
Drumming his long manicured fingers on the counter, he watched her cross the room and vanish behind bookshelves. Then he tossed the returned book into a basket on the floor and went back to his desk.
FAMILY ALBUM (3)
"ONE CAN LEARN MORE from observing a happy man than from listening to a wise one.” Ron read the sentence to Pete from a very small pad, called a Buddy Pad, which he kept always in his shirt pocket, ready for note making.
“Hymmm,” Pete mused. “Interesting thought. Probably true. Who said it?”
“Guess,” Ron said.
“Read it again.” Ron did. Pete mulled it over. They played this informal guess-who-said-it game frequently, both omnivorous readers of serious literature. Pete blew a thoughtful sigh. Unless you recognized the quote, identifying its author with certainty was nearly impossible. The best clue for each guesser was a knowledge of what the asker was currently reading or had read recently, though sometimes the character of the thought or the style of expression did bring an author to mind.
“It could be Samuel Johnson,” Pete said. “It could even be Oscar Wilde.”
“Which is your first guess? You get three,” Ron reminded him.
“No,” Ron said,seeming pleased.
Ron shook his head.
Pete grimaced and narrowed his eyes. “’One can learn more from observing a happy man than from listening to a wise one,’” he repeated, hoping the spoken words would suggest an author. “Hell, it could be anyone from Norman Vincent Peale to Erich Fromm, but I don’t think you’ve read them lately.”
“Last guess,” Ron demanded.
“Ohh,” Pete sighed. “William James.”
Ron shook his head in smug delight.
“Come on,” Pete chided. “You know these are almost impossible to get when you haven’t heard them before.”
“You lost,” Ron said, “three’s all you get, but I’ll give you one more guess that won’t count, with a heavy clue. The author is an American from the East Coast.”
“Great. That narrows it down to a few hundred names.”
“Last clue – he was born in Philadelphia.”
Pete looked surprised. “That does narrow it down,” he conceded. “Benjamin Franklin?”
“Close, but no cigar. He’s modern, he’s alive, and… he’s in this room.”
Pete frowned and looked around the restaurant. No one but waiters and nondescript patrons, eating sandwiches and drinking beer. He looked back at his brother – then it dawned on him. “Ronald Pavone?”
Ron pointed a triumphant finger at him and his face glowed. “You got it,” he proclaimed.
SANDRA SETTLED AT HER FAVORITE TABLE in a remote corner of the library, which she was glad to find unoccupied. She positioned herself facing a wall with a large window covered by a Venetian blind tilted to admit light but block the view. Sandra stared at it abstractedly, as if hoping its light would penetrate the darkness of her thoughts. Her uncle had left her alone last night, but the night before…
She remembered with sickening vividness how he had materialized behind her in the bedroom, invading first her privacy, then her thought and volition, then her body. She felt her whole life was occupied territory and Hal the invading tyrant, the oppressor, the violator. “Involuntary servitude” was a phrase from her history book that described what Hal had reduced her to. Involuntary sexual servitude. Three years of it and no end in sight. A leprous blight on the landscape of her teens, making past and future a wasteland. Unless…
A loud plopping of books on a hard surface jarred Sandra out of her brooding reverie. A girl wearing a Penn State sweatshirt had flung her things on a nearby table and was grumpily flipping through a notebook. Sandra wondered if the girl had noticed her sitting alone staring into space and thought her eccentric. She opened her textbook and turned to Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance. She had read it twice and underscored several passages. The one that pointedly challenged her was, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
To be liberated from bondage to Hal she would have to trust herself, since there was no one to help her. Her mother was too possessed and corrupted by her inner demons to care much about her daughter’s external one. She had from the start adopted a policy of nonintervention in the relationship between her brother and Sandra, as if meddling in their affairs was bad form and minding her own business a virtue.
Sandra sensed that her mother had impulses of protectiveness; they contended with other impulses that submerged them. The woman’s psyche was like a battleground on the ocean floor, conflicting desires, fears, and loyalties swirling in darkness, impossible to comprehend. Her brother had emerged as Poseidon, god of that strange nocturnal sea.
APRIL 13, 1962. THE THIRTEENTH ANNIVERSARY of one of the most momentous steps of his life, the founding of his own business. Fred Wright surveyed his craggy features, penetrating blue eyes, and florid complexion in the mirror as he lathered his face for the morning shave. His skin was firm and unwrinkled. He didn’t think he’d look forty if his hair had still been red. But it was a pure almost luminous white, and made him at forty-eight look more like sixty.
He could have dyed it, of course, as his family and friends often suggested. That would have seemed phony to Fred, not only because it was something men generally didn’t do but because it would have meant he couldn’t accept himself as he was and had to pretend to be something he wasn’t.
Pretense, even outright disguise or impersonation, were acceptable at times in his role as a private investigator. Then the wig, the glue-on mustache, the beard, the sunglasses were tools of the trade; devices that made him more effective in his profession and helped get a job done for a client. As such they did not reflect negatively on his character. He looked back on the entrepreneurial phase of his life.
WRIGHT FINISHED SHAVING, dressed, drove to the downtown parking garage where he left his car, stopped at a restaurant on Broad Street for breakfast and arrived at his office at 8:30, though it didn’t open till 9:00. In that half hour of solitude he would clean off his desk, organize his files, and set the day’s priorities. At about 9:05 his secretary brought in his cup of coffee and they chatted for a few minutes. As she was leaving he said, “Please tell Harry I’d like to talk to him.”
Fred selected from an upright file on his desk a folder captioned “Moore, Arthur” and under that name: “Missing Person.” He opened the folder and read the notes he had made during a phone conversation the previous afternoon. Like most missing-person cases it was ambiguous. A seventeen-year-old girl left her house to go for a walk one evening and never returned. Chances were ten-to-one she had run away from home. There was no evidence that a crime had been committed except for the girl’s sudden disappearance, which could be otherwise explained.
No witness saw her accosted by anyone, heard her scream, found any article of her clothing, saw bloodstains or any sign of a scuffle on the sidewalks or the streets of the neighborhood where she walked – or anywhere else in her suburb that evening. Yet the client, her grandfather, was convinced that the girl was the victim of some kind of violent act, whether rape and murder or abduction. He naturally hoped it was the latter and that she could be found alive, but if she had been killed he wanted her body found and the murderer apprehended. He would not have a peaceful hour or a sound night’s sleep till the mystery was solved.
The questions before Fred were how to approach the investigation and whom to assign to it. The client seemed willing and able to pay a substantial fee, if necessary, but he demanded that the matter be given top priority. If he were willing to accept a back-burner approach he would leave it with the police.
“Come in,” Fred said in response to a knock on the door. Harry Ashby entered the room with a confident air and sat down on one of the two chairs in front of Fred’s desk. He had a thick head of dirty-blond hair, a trace of gray in the temples, combed and parted neatly. His ruddy face and scaly parched skin showed he was in his early sixties, but his hair looked twenty years younger. His eyes were blue, narrow and a little bloodshot, his nose thin, irregular, bladelike, his lips thick but sharp at the edges, his lower lip jutting aggressively.
In repose his face was grumpy and ill-tempered, but his droll wit kept cutting through and flashing joviality like bursts of sunshine through breaks in the clouds. Of medium height and build, he didn’t look strong and though basically lean he had a round protruding belly, maybe distended from overloads (off duty) of beer and pretzels. He was a tough old guy but his toughness was mental not physical.
“Marian tells me I should sing happy birthday to the business, but I’m not in very good voice this morning,” he said in a gravelly baritone.
“Spare me that,” Fred smiled. “All I want from you today is a gift.”
“Ahh, my stately presence isn’t gift enough?”
“It is if you wrap it in a spirit of friendliness and cooperation.”
“Boss,” he said reproachfully, “don’t I always?” The appellation “Boss” was uttered in a tone of irony, to remind Fred of the reversal of their roles. Harry had been Chief of Detectives and Fred’s boss for a couple of years on the force. He had hired on with the Wright Agency years later after retirement at fifty-three, when four months of vacuous leisure had caused him terminal boredom.
“Of course you do,” Fred said. “And I can count on that, right?” Harry flicked his right hand as if to say, who could doubt it? “So I have my gift. And I have an assignment for you. For you and Ronald Pavone.”
“Friendliness and cooperation, Harry…” Fred taunted. “Friday the 13 is your lucky day. It’s a missing-person case. The client’s a man named Arthur Moore from Ocean City, New Jersey. Referred to us by his Atlantic City lawyer, who’s a friend of my lawyer, who recommended us. When I called to thank my lawyer for the referral he told me his Atlantic City colleague is one of the top attorneys in that town. He owns a firm that has business and municipal clients from Cape May to Barnegat Light. He’s not real happy with the investigators he’s been using down there. It’s a chance for us to break into the south Jersey market, which I’d love to do. Moore’s seventeen-year-old granddaughter Sandra left her home in Pennview and went for a walk…”
Fred paused to look at his notes, “... on April 4th, just nine days ago, around 9 P.M. No one’s seen her since. Sounds like a standard teenage runaway but Mr. Moore is convinced there was foul play. Very attached to the kid and willing to spend money to get her back, dead or alive. Preferably the latter. He’s due here at ten this morning. I’ll meet with him briefly, then pass him on to you and Ron. I want you to take the lead on it because you’re my senior criminal man and Moore thinks a crime was committed. Unless he tells us something I haven’t heard yet, you and I know the odds are against that.
"The kid probably took off on her own and we’ll have to track her down. So I’m putting my domestic relations guy on it, too. First, because I don’t want you to waste too much time on it if you don’t smell a crime. Second, because I don’t want the client to think we’re taking the crime theory too lightly. Having two men assigned to it looks like high priority, which I want it to be. Third, because I want Pavone to know he can be assigned to criminal matters if I need him on them, despite his emphasis on family stuff. Fourth, because I want him to get the benefit of your experience, your analysis, your seasoned judgment. Fifth, because older clients like this one tend to resent Ron’s youth when he’s their only operative. And sixth, because I want the two of you to put your personal antagonisms aside and work as a team whenever that will help the business. You’re professionals and I expect that of you.”
Fred paused and smiled. “That’s more reasons than I thought I had when I began.”
“You’d need every damn one of them and more to make Pavone palatable,” Harry said with a look of pained resignation.
“Come on, Harry. What’ve you got against the kid?”
“You really want to know? All right…. Smart-ass college grad. Prettyboy. Thinks he’s God’s gift to women. They’re so dumb, they do too. Teenage Sherlock Holmes. Chameleon with an identity crisis. He’s not sure if he’s a detective, a hound dog, or a rock star. That enough?”
Fred listened with an air of amused disapprobation. “He’s not a teenager any more, Harry. He’s been with us for six years. He’s probably the savviest twenty-four-year-old in the business.”
“Sure, because he’s the only twenty-four-year-old in the business. And there shouldn’t be any. This is a man’s profession. We move in a man’s world. I don’t like sending a boy on a man’s job.”
“He’s proven he can do a man’s job. He’s been proving it to me for years.”
“He’d do it a lot better if he’d put in his time on the beat, and worked his way up to detective the way most of us did, including you and me.”
“That’s a good way, Harry, but it’s not the only way.” Then pointing an emphatic finger at his employee: “As for the Moore case, we’re going to do it my way. The two of you are a team. Okay?” Fred’s tone and body language signaled the end of the debate.
“Okay, Boss. You call the plays. What next?”
“We brief Pavone.” Fred picked up the phone and pushed the intercom. The secretary answered. “Send in Ron, please, Carol.”
A minute later there was a light knock on the door. “Come in,” Fred called. A slender young man with a very full head of black hair, parted on the side and combed back severely, entered holding a notepad in one hand and a book in the other. Fred never ceased to marvel at and envy his stunning good looks. The oval face, the tight strong jaw line, the full sensuous lower lip, the nose that seemed to have been lifted from a Greek statue, the large dark eyes with long lashes under straight thin brows. He could look so strikingly like rock star Elvis Presley as to draw several comments a day from strangers on the street, if he combed his hair like “the king.”
As a rule he made a conscious effort to avoid that sensational image. He was too occupied with cultivating Ronald Pavone – and figuring out who that was -- to aspire to even a dazzling imitation of someone else. Especially someone as lightminded as the rock singer, whom he admired as a performer and Lothario but disdained as a redneck. And an eye-catching image was inconvenient for a private investigator that needed to blend in with the surroundings and be the unnoticed observer, not the observed. So Ron had become a master of disguise and had several different “looks” that he could affect on short notice, a little like Clark Kent popping in and out of phone booths. Today he was Pavone the businessman, conservative in attire – gray suit, dark tie, black oxfords – and even a bit staid in hairstyle. Registering slight surprise at Ashby’s presence, he walked with an easy grace to the empty chair and sat down, saying “Morning, Mr. Wright. Harry.”