I hate retirees. It’s not politically correct to say that, but they’re everywhere these days, with nothing better to do than stick their noses into your business. Their importance to the world waned after the party, the card signed by everyone at the office, and the gift certificate for dinner for two at Applebee’s. Now they’re way too interested in what other people are doing, and that’s a real pain if you’re the object of attention.
Tuesday was damp. It wasn’t raining when I got out of my car, but the pavement was puddled and the air felt soggy, like walking through a sponge. As I started up the steps of the impressive building where Carmon Verillon lived, a man in a wheelchair exited the building, taking a sharp right and heading for the federally required handicap accessible ramp. He stopped and turned rather bulgy eyes to me, a scowl letting me know that if I intended to pity him, there was no need to. I’d had no such intention.
After a few seconds he said in a bossy tone, “Don’t trust her. She’s incapable of telling the truth, and she won’t unless you trick her into it.” One doesn’t discuss business such as mine on the sidewalk, no matter how much one might want to know how this guy knew my purpose there. With no sign that I’d heard him, I walked on. The chair whirred down the ramp, trailing behind it a tall man and a pretty young woman, probably relatives. Stopping inside the entryway, I watched them cross the street and disappear around a corner, wondering what that had all been about.
It had to be mistaken identity, but it was odd that his comment could apply to my meeting with Carmon Verillon. Maybe she had lied to Farnman and Becker, but I had no way of knowing that. Yet.
“You’re the detective?” The woman’s face was incredulous as she stared through the two inch gap she’d opened the door. I’m used to being dismissed on first sight. Who pictures a private investigator almost as wide as she is tall with pale red hair that refuses anything like style and a face downright forgettable? Actually, that quick dismissal of my unassuming exterior causes people to underestimate me, which is good.
“You retained Farnman and Becker Investigations to look into your husband’s disappearance?” I could see little except her doubtful expression as she thought about it.
Okay, to repeat: I’m not impressive to look at. My idea of a balanced diet is what I call Fifty-Fifty. At times I live on celery and bottled water for days, even weeks. The other fifty percent of my life is devoted to candy bars, caramel corn, and Blizzards. The operating theory is that the days of celery will at some point balance the days of hedonism, and I’ll reach an ideal weight. So far the theory is still being tested, but when it works, I’ll make a gazillion dollars on the paperback sales.
The woman did that vertical mine-sweep thing with her eyes. “The agency sent a man out this morning.”
“Right. Mr. Becker sent me to do the follow up.” I waited while she chewed that over. I doubted very much that Bernie Becker would feel the need to inform his client of the specifics of his day-to-day operations. I went on in an encouraging tone, tossing in my best self-effacing smile. “I need some details for my part, which is the records search. The partners do the interesting stuff while I go through tons of records, but it’s necessary if we’re going to find out what happened to your husband.”
Mrs. Verillon made a decision and opened the door, revealing a well-kept forty-something woman who spent her days matching her clothes to her toe polish. The place could have been used to stage a revival of Hello, Dolly. The staircase was perfect for the star’s big entrance in the final scene and the room at the bottom big enough for plenty of boy dancers. Mrs. Verillon led me to a posh arrangement set off in a corner where I didn’t feel quite so overwhelmed, and we sat on matching white sofas that made me hope I hadn’t carried in remnants of the two candy bars I’d eaten in the car on the way over.
I refused her perfunctory offer of something to drink and got down to business, hoping to learn what I needed to know quickly and get out of there. Verillon had gone away on a business trip, saying he’d return on Tuesday the sixth. On the seventh she’d been mildly worried when he hadn’t called. Contact with his hotel in Atlanta had revealed that he’d checked out on schedule. From there he simply vanished from sight. He’d failed to make his return flight to Tampa, failed to contact his work, his home, or any of his friends. It had now been two weeks.
“The police down there made inquiries, of course,” she told me, running a slim hand along the couch back nervously as she spoke. “They found nothing. No cab or limo driver remembers picking him up at the hotel. The clerk noticed nothing unusual, and he was alone. It’s as if he walked out of the Marriott and into a black hole.”
“Interesting.” I watched the lady twist and untwist an honest-to-goodness cloth hanky. She was nervous, and it wasn’t simply worry about her husband. Remembering the man in the wheelchair on the street, I wondered if he’d made me paranoid or alerted me to a real attempt on Mrs. Verillon’s part to hide something. “Has your husband ever been missing before, maybe come back late with a fishy explanation?”
“Never. I have always been kept informed of Martin’s whereabouts. Always.” Her tone indicated that subject was not open for further discussion. After clearing up a few last points I rose to leave, noting that whereas my khaki, elastic-waist pants were hopelessly pleated in the front from sitting, Carmon looked fresh out of the bandbox. How do women like her do that?
“Thanks for your time, Mrs. Verillon,” I said, wondering whether to shake hands. I decided not. “We’ll contact you if there’s anything else we need.”
As I left the house and headed for my car, a man approached who was even more rumpled than I. His overcoat must have been stuffed in the trunk of his vehicle for a week to get it into that shape and condition. He waved an unlit cigar to hail me as I unlocked the door of my ‘96 Grand Am. “I really like your car.”
I snorted in disbelief. It’s been a while since anyone admired The Blue Beast, which has had a few altercations with lampposts and parking lot pillars. “Thanks.”
“You lookin’ into Mr. V’s disappearance?” He managed to insinuate himself between me and my car so that I would have had to shove him out of the way to get in. The guy was shorter than me, which is to say he was short, with a goofy-looking face. Not unfriendly, not homely, just different.
“And your right to know my business would come from where?” I said grumpily. I’d used up today’s ration of politeness on Carmon Verillon.
My new friend was instantaneously apologetic. “Sorry, sorry. I didn’t mean to interfere.” He shuffled back, bowing politely toward my car. I got in and reached for the handle, but suddenly the little geek was in the way again, between me and the door.
“Do you mind? I’ve got things to do.”
“Oh, right, right. You have to start looking for Mr. Verillon. I suppose you’ll be talking to Anita Botelli.”
“Who?” I immediately regretted it, because he smiled knowingly. “The mistress. Isn’t that what detectives do, cherchez la femme?” He chuckled, sending a gush of stale breath into my face. “Didn’t know about her, huh?”
“Look, who are you and what is your connection with this?” The man irritated me for no reason that I could pin down.
Once again he backed away, palms raised. “I’m sorry. It’s really none of my business. I should just go and let you get on with your work. I’m sure you’re a very busy person.”
I stopped for a moment. “Anita Botelli?”
“Right,” he said, nodding like a bobble-head doll. “She lives in Plant City, but you probably already knew that. I’ll just get out of your way.” He made exaggerated movements that took him out of the path my car would take to exit the parking spot. Starting the engine with only two tries, I backed out.
Suddenly he was behind me, and I hit the brakes sharply. Opening the door (the window doesn’t roll down since I sideswiped the telephone pole), I glared at him. “Just one more thing,” he said, holding up a finger to reinforce his words. “Anita will say she never heard of Martin Verillon. Try the name Mark Vernon. Of course you would have found that out on your own. I’ll stop bothering you now.” This time he really did.
Anita Botelli was much less suspicious than Mrs. Verillon, opening her door before I even knocked. “I’m so glad to see you!” she gushed, pulling me inside like I might run the other way if she let go. I followed her inside an apartment decorated in I-have-money-but-no-taste style. She was very, very cute, and so was the dog on the couch that wagged pretty much all of itself to let her know he’d missed her for the last thirty seconds. “Please, sit.” She did as she indicated, and I’ve seldom seen someone do it better.
“Now, you do speak English, don’t you?”
Her smile vanished. “Oh, damn. I specifically asked the agency to send someone with good English skills. When I saw that you aren’t Hispanic, I was hopeful.”
I got it. “Look, I’m not applying to be your maid, housekeeper, or nanny. I’m looking into the disappearance of Martin Verillon. You may know him as Mark Vernon.”
The woman bubbled like an uncapped soda for a few seconds. “What do you mean, Martin Whatever? Mark is Mark. He’s out of the country on business right now and unable to contact me, but when he’s saved up enough money we’re going to be married. He got this place, let me decorate it, and–” Anita ran out of carbonation as the enormity of my information penetrated. I handed her a photocopy of Verillon’s driver’s license, which she frowned at myopically. Too vain to wear glasses.
“I’m sorry, Miss Botelli, but you’ve been operating under a misapprehension.” Actually, I wasn’t that sorry for a bimbo who didn’t know enough to check up on a guy who had to have been absent for long, unexplained stretches. That should have sent up all sorts of warning flags, unless you couldn’t see the flags for the cash. I explained that Mark Vernon was really Martin Verillon, who’d gone missing.
She didn’t know whether to be worried or angry, but she settled on the latter. “That snake!” Chewing a fingernail savagely she asked, “So his wife hired you to find Mark, I mean Martin?”
“She hired my firm.”
Anita leaned toward me in a conspirator’s pose. “Tell you what. If you find him, I’ll give you a thousand dollars to call me first. All I need is an address.”
It was an interesting proposition, but I made no promises. I could see that Miss Botelli was angry enough to kill Martin/Mark. Was she aware of her man’s double life and acting surprised to appear innocent? I asked a few more questions and left a number to call if she remembered anything helpful.
I rode down in the elevator with a sweet-faced older woman, stylishly dressed with short, gray-blonde hair. She was apparently quite a traveler, mentioning New York, Lisbon, and Khartoum to the bespectacled young man beside her almost before the doors closed. As the car descended she turned to me and asked pointedly, “Was your visit successful?”
That seemed pretty nosy to me. “I guess so,” I muttered, gazing at the numbers as they lit up over the doorway. It’s how people in elevators avoid talking to other people in elevators, but it didn’t work this time.
“You really are wasting your time with Anita. She’s a dead end. You should speak with Martin’s business partner, Albert O’Reilly.”
Was “Looking for Martin Verillon” painted on my forehead? The woman smiled and patted my arm. “I’m sure you’ll figure things out. I was telling Gordie here only a few minutes ago that you seem like a very capable young woman.” As she exited the elevator I got a gentle but firm reminder. “Don’t forget, Albert O’Reilly!”
A little research located Verillon’s business partner at a sidewalk café in the trendy part of the city. O’Reilly sat with several other Garfield look-alikes, and eyebrows rose when I parked my rust-bucket across the street and approached their table. I couldn’t hold their reaction against them: probably involuntary for men wearing suits worth more than the car.
When I asked if I could speak to him about his partner’s disappearance, O’Reilly chuckled. “Disappearance is a bit strong to describe a couple weeks’ vacation, isn’t it?”
“You believe Mr. Verillon is just taking some time off?” O’Reilly exchanged knowing grins with his companions. “I don’t want to be harsh, but Mrs. Verillon can be a bit…wearing on a man’s nerves, if you get my drift.”
“He’s done this before?”
The guy considered how much truth to tell. “Not for this long, but he has done some little side-trips after business was completed, if you see where I’m going.”
“So his wife might think a trip was a week when it was really three days.”
O’Reilly chortled into his martini. “What the little lady doesn’t know can’t hurt him, if you see where I’m going.”
“But you always knew about it before this time?”
“I knew the generalities of the situation. Now Carmon is concerned, but she isn’t a patient woman, if you take my–”
“I take your meaning.” In fact I was sick to death of him, his meaning, his drift, et cetera, et cetera. I left the four men looking parched enough to expire if the waiter didn’t bring more martinis ASAP.
A man slouched casually against the building wall as I passed. “Not much help, huh?” Seldom addressed by good-looking strangers, even old ones, I gave the guy a once-over. Wearing dark slacks, a tie-less dark shirt, and a tweed blazer, he was just above medium height and slim with dark, slightly curly hair and a slightly fatigued but still impudent expression, as if everything bad that could happen to him had already. Like other old folks I’d met today, this one had advice. “Talk to Verillon’s secretary.”
“Why should I?” I couldn’t help the sarcasm in my tone.
His look said he was determined to try even if he was getting nowhere. “She knows more than she’s telling.”
“The secretary. Is she having an affair with Verillon too?”
His brown eyes turned humorous and his mouth twitched with a tiny smile. “She’s Martin’s illegitimate daughter. But he doesn’t know that.”
Emily Cummings was one of those girls with a face that screams wholesomeness: scrubbed, shiny, and pert–all the things I’m not. When confronted with the facts of her parentage, she tearfully told me the whole story: how she’d discovered her identity when her mother died, how she’d taken a job in her father’s office to find out what kind of a man he was, and how she’d finagled her way to Verillon’s personal assistant. She’d used surprisingly sneaky maneuvers for a Sandra Dee look-alike, including bribing the former P.A. to take a job elsewhere.
“She wasn’t that hard to convince. Mr. Verillon is difficult to work for.”
“Mr. Verillon?” I asked skeptically.
Emily blushed. “I make myself think of him that way so I don’t slip up and say, ‘Dad’ or ‘my father’ by accident.” She sniffed. “I was going to tell him soon.”
“Does that mean you had decided he’s worthy?”
The sarcasm escaped her, and Emily considered the question seriously. “It has nothing to do with worthiness.” Neatly plucked eyebrows almost met in the frown that formed. “He has faults, lots of them, but he is my father. I wanted to be certain, and now I am.”
“You checked his DNA.”
She shrugged. “It’s the modern way. I couldn’t just approach him with the letter my mother left behind. I had to have proof.”
I saw where she was going. “He has no other heirs.”
“Well, no.” She had the grace to blush.
“So you’d inherit everything.”
“That wasn’t it, at least not all of it.” The girl was honest, even with herself. “He left my mother alone to raise me, and I never had the advantages I would have had if he’d taken responsibility. But I didn’t do it to punish him. I thought if he got to know me, he’d be happy to have a daughter. It’s not likely he’ll have another.”
I didn’t voice my thought that men like Verillon scatter their seed like blue jays at a bird feeder. “And now he’s gone missing.”
Emily looked frightened. “I wouldn’t do anything to him. If I were the type to plot, I’d have waited until it was out in the open that I’m his child, wouldn’t I?”
She was right that it would have been best if Verillon had acknowledged her, maybe even written her into his will. But what if she’d revealed her identity and he told her to get lost? The man was the type who might disinherit his own daughter, and if that had happened, she’d be better off with a dead Daddy and her DNA evidence to get her a share of the estate.
Just then an obvious throat-clearing made us turn, and in the doorway stood a man in the kind of white cotton suit you usually only see in ads for chicken franchises. He had soft, snowy-white hair, a stoop that minimized his lanky height, and a grin as wide as my–well, he was grinning.
“Ladies, I’m really sorry to horn in. I can see you’re having a good old heart-to-heart talk, but I wonder could you tell me where the men’s room is on this floor.”
Emily, one of those innately polite people who jump at the chance to be useful to strangers, said, “It’s down the hall and to the right.”
The old guy looked inordinately pleased to hear it, bringing to my mind commercials for enlarged prostate medications. With effusive thanks he shuffled off, white pants bagging in the rear in true old-man style.
I finished with Emily, whom I judged incapable of murder, physically or emotionally. She never said she’d loved her father, but she hadn’t done away with him.
As I left the office, the old guy came out of the rest room, an apparent coincidence that I didn’t believe for a minute. “Miss Cummings is innocent,” he said without preamble. “Now the police checked out the car rental agencies in Atlanta, and no one has a record of Verillon renting a car. But what if someone else did?”
I rolled my eyes in disgust. “I’m sure someone else rented a car at some point in the city of Atlanta over that three-day period, Genius.”
He took no offense, becoming breathless in his eagerness to explain and pointing an arthritic finger at me. “Yes, but what if you show pictures of the major suspects to the worker out in the car lot? It’s possible he saw Verillon get into a car with that person. I bet the killer hoped no one would ever do that. Wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah,” I admitted. The clerk at the desk had not seen Verillon, but the worker on the lot might have seen him getting into the car and recall who’d been driving. A call would have to be made to explore that possibility.
The old coot was still grinning maniacally, waiting for me to applaud his cleverness. I left him standing there, not about to admit he’d been helpful.
Outside the building was one of those lunch wagons that serve the greatest hot dogs in the world. I was hungry, having not eaten for two hours. Lunch first, then the call. I got my dog (with onions-believe me, nobody cares) and a large soda and located a bench where I could enjoy the experience.
Because I was focused, I failed to notice the woman until she stopped before me. The first thing I saw of her was the ridiculously high spike heels she wore, the sassiest red imaginable in a shoe. Still chewing the latest bite, I looked up and took in the rest. She was past her prime, but her slim frame could still turn a few heads. Blonde hair pouffed around her face in artful informality, and the red skirt and blazer she wore fit perfectly, although the skirt was too tight and too short for a grandmother.
“He left Atlanta with a woman,” she said without preamble. “Ask about women between twenty and thirty-five who paid cash and traveled south with a handsome older man.”
I’d had it with interference from the geriatric gallery. “Listen, lady. Move your ancient bones on down the street.” The look she threw me was meant to be steely, but she didn’t have the eyes for it. She did leave, though, and I finished lunch with a slurp. I’ve never liked skinny women much, and skinny old women are just too much to take.
My car had warmed in the hot sun, making it agony to touch anything plastic or metal, which was everything. I called the car rental desk at Atlanta’s William B. Hartsfield International Airport. A young woman recalled renting a late model Pontiac Bonneville SSE on the sixth of June to a youngish woman who paid in cash. I asked to speak to the person who would have actually handed the car over to her.
The guy was young judging from his voice and the slangy way he answered with “Yep” and “Nope”. He said the woman had driven off with a man who was either her father or her uncle. “Maybe they were lovers,” I suggested.
“I don’t think so,” he replied. “I mean, not to be harsh, but she wasn’t in his league at all. If a guy like that wanted to run around, he could have done a lot better.”
“Thanks for the information and the commentary.” As I replaced the phone, a couple came toward the car, peering in to see if it was inhabited. They were obviously man and wife of long standing, but physically they struck an odd note. He was very tall, and she fairly short, giving them a Mutt and Jeff look. They were both attractive, though. He stood straight despite his advanced age. She was much younger but still had forty years on me. Her eyes were large and luminous, and she gestured extravagantly as she spoke to her husband, who was much more serene: calm face, calm eyes under straight hair heavily salted with white.
The woman lunged toward me like a guided missile, reaching into the car, grabbing my hand, and leaning in earnestly. “I’m so glad we caught you before you left.” Her voice was clear and commanding. “We need to talk.”
“I don’t think so,” I sneered. If the window hadn’t been broken, I would have rolled it up in her face. More antique advice? Forget it.
“Listen,” the husband tried. “We can help you if you’ll just–”
“No, you listen,” I said, keeping my voice low but giving him no chance to finish. “I have things to do, and I don’t want help. So beat it, okay?” Pushing the woman’s hand away, I started the car and drove off, leaving her looking up at Hubby questioningly as he scowled after me.
I drove around for a while, wondering what to do next. My heart had started to pound in that way that tells you things aren’t right. The evidence was piling up, and although it was unlikely that Martin’s body would ever be found in that Florida swamp, what had happened to him would be reconstructed.
An hour later I parked my car in the long-term lot at Tampa International and took a small case out of the trunk. Walking quickly toward the terminal with my head down, I didn’t see them until it was too late. They stood before me like a bad remake: The Retired Magnificent Seven. The man in the wheelchair, the Sexy Senior in the red heels, the scruffy guy in the trench coat, the woman from the elevator, the cuddly husband and wife, and the Southern Fried Fogey. As I might have guessed, the old lady acted as spokesman. With a school-teacherish tightness to her lips she asked, “Did you really think you’d get away with it?” At least we were getting right to the point.
“He was dirt.”
“Doesn’t give you the right to kill him.” This was the guy with the Firebird, a real do-gooder, all black and white.
“He cheated on his wife. He cheated on all his women, including my mother. She died waiting for “Marty” to come back to her, to acknowledge me and make things right. She was so sure that it would happen. But I did my research and knew he was a louse. All I wanted was a start, a little money to help me with the debts Mom left. But when I told him I was his daughter, he couldn’t hide his disgust.”
“He rejected you.” This was Wifey, whose brown eyes showed pity that made me want to slap her. She was old, she was useless, and she felt sorry for me?
“Did he know about Emily, his other daughter?” Hubby asked.
“No. He didn’t want me,” I said bitterly, “but I figured he would feel differently about cute little Emily.”
“And she was about to reveal who she was.” The Southern Gentleman drawled. “You couldn’t afford to let him return from Atlanta.”
“So you killed him,” Trench Coat Man might have been looking at me; it was hard to tell.
“He was easy. I talked him into driving me to Tallahassee, told him I’d never bother him again if he did.”
“And he bought it?”
“People tend to underestimate me,” I said, defensive and yet proud, too.
“We almost did,” Red Suit admitted. “Only by putting everything we knew together did we figure it out. You weren’t investigating Verillon’s disappearance, you were making sure nobody knew anything that could trip you up.”
“And nobody important was,” I snarled. “Just an over-the-hill group of Centrum Psychics.”
Trench Coat gave me a crooked smile. “I can’t speak for the rest, and I’m kinda slow sometimes, but one thing I learned in my lifetime: you can’t stop exercising your brain, gotta keep it sharp.” He indicated the group with a wave of the still-unlit cigar. “We’re not spring chickens any more, but personally, I think we did okay.”
Evidently the presiding officer at my trial agreed with them. A curly-haired giant who should have retired years ago, Judge Hardcore (or something like that) showed no sign of mellowing with age when he declared me guilty and sentenced me to life in prison.
Like I said before, I hate retirees.