Every dead thing, p.7
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       Every Dead Thing, p.7

           John Connolly
 

  “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t authorize any such agreement but Caroline can be overprotective of me at times. Can we offer you coffee, or would you prefer a drink?”

  “Neither, thank you. Before you go any further, Mrs. Barton, I should tell you that I don’t really do missing persons work.” In my experience, searching for missing persons was best left to specialist agencies with the manpower to chase up leads and possible sightings. Some solo investigators who took on that kind of work were at best ill equipped and at worst little better than parasites who preyed on the hopes of those who remained to keep funding minimal efforts for even smaller returns.

  “Mr. Loomax said you might say that, but only out of modesty. He told me to say he would regard it as a personal favor.”

  I smiled, despite myself. The only favor I would give Tony Loo-Loo would be not to piss on his grave when he died.

  According to Mrs. Barton, she had met Catherine Demeter through her son, who had seen the girl working at DeVries’s department store and had pestered her for a date. Mrs. Barton and her son—her stepson, to be accurate, since Jack Barton had been married once before, to a Southern woman who had divorced him after eight years and moved to Hawaii with a singer—were not close. She was aware that her son was engaged in activities that were, as she put it, “unsavory,” and had tried to get him to change his ways, “both for his own sake and the sake of the trust.” I nodded sympathetically. Sympathy was the only possible emotion to feel for anyone involved with Stephen Barton.

  When she heard he was seeing a new girlfriend she asked if they could all meet together, she said, and a date had been arranged. In the end her son had failed to appear but Catherine had turned up, and after an initial awkwardness, the two quickly struck up a friendship far more amicable than the relationship that existed between the girl and Stephen Barton. The two had continued to meet occasionally for coffee and lunch. Despite invitations, the girl had politely refused offers from Mrs. Barton to come out to the house, and Stephen Barton had never brought her.

  Then Catherine Demeter had simply dropped out of sight. She had left work early on Saturday and had failed to keep an early dinner appointment on Sunday with Mrs. Barton. That was the last anyone had heard of Catherine Demeter, said Mrs. Barton. Two days had now passed and she had heard nothing from her.

  “Because of, well, the publicity that the trust has received recently over the disappearance of that poor child, I was reluctant to cause a fuss or draw any further adverse attention down on us,” she said. “I called Mr. Loomax and he seemed to think that Catherine may simply have drifted on somewhere else. It happens a lot, I believe.”

  “Do you think there’s something more to it than that?”

  “I really don’t know, but she was so happy with her job and she appeared to be getting on well with Stephen.” She stopped for a moment at this mention of her son’s name, as if considering whether or not to proceed. Then: “Stephen has been running wild for some time—since before his father’s death, in fact. Do you know the Ferrera family, Mr. Parker?”

  “I’m aware of them.”

  “Stephen fell in with their youngest son, despite all of our efforts. I know he keeps bad company and I know he’s involved with drugs. I’m afraid he may have dragged Catherine into something. And…” She paused again, briefly. “I enjoyed her company. There was something gentle about her and she seemed so sad sometimes. She said that she was anxious to settle down here, after moving around for so long.”

  “Did she say where she had been?”

  “All over. I gather that she had worked in a number of states.”

  “Did she say anything about her past, give any indication that something might be troubling her?”

  “I think something may have happened to her family when she was young. She told me that she had a sister who died. She didn’t say any more. She said she couldn’t talk about it and I didn’t press her on it.”

  “Mr. Loomax may be right. She may simply have moved on again.”

  Mrs. Barton shook her head insistently. “No, she would have told me, I’m sure of it. Stephen hasn’t heard from her and neither have I. I’m afraid for her and I want to know that she is safe. That’s all. She doesn’t even have to know that I hired you, or that I was concerned for her. Will you take the case?”

  I was still reluctant to do Walter Cole’s dirty work and to take advantage of Isobel Barton, but I had little else on my plate except an appearance in court the following day on behalf of an insurance firm, another case I had taken for the money and to pass the time.

  If there was a connection between the disappearance of Catherine Demeter and Sonny Ferrera, then she was almost certainly in trouble. If Sonny had been involved in the killing of Fat Ollie Watts, it was clear that he was going off the rails.

  “I’ll give it a few days,” I said. “As a favor,” I added. “Do you want to know my rates?”

  She was already writing a check, drawn on her private account and not that of the trust. “Here’s three thousand dollars in advance and this is my card. My private number is on the back.”

  She moved her chair forward. “Now, what else do you need to know?”

  That evening, I had dinner at River on Amsterdam Avenue, close to Seventieth Street, where the classic beef made it the best Vietnamese in town and where the staff moved by so softly that it was like being waited on by shadows or passing breezes. I watched a young couple at a nearby table intertwining their hands, running their fingers over each other’s knuckles and fingertips, tracing delicate circles in their palms, then gripping their hands together and pressing the heel of each hand forcefully against the other. And as they simulated their lovemaking, a waitress drifted by and smiled knowingly at me as I watched.

  6

  T HE DAY AFTER I visited Isobel Barton, I made a brief visit to court in connection with the insurance case. A claim had been made against a phone company by a contracted electrician, who said he had fallen down a hole in the road while examining underground cables and was no longer able to work as a result.

  He may not have been able to work, but he had still been able to power lift five hundred pounds in a cash contest in a Boston gymnasium. I had used a palm-size Panasonic video camera to capture his moment of glory. The insurance company presented the evidence to a judge, who suspended any further decision on the matter for one week. I didn’t even have to give evidence. Afterward I had coffee in a diner and read the paper before heading over to Pete Hayes’s old gym in Tribeca.

  I knew Stephen Barton worked out there sometimes. If his girlfriend had disappeared, then there was a strong possibility that Barton might know where she had gone or, equally important, why. I remembered him vaguely as a strong, Nordic-looking type, his body obscenely pumped from steroid use. He was in his late twenties but the combination of training and tanning salons had worn his face to the consistency of old leather, adding at least ten years to his age.

  As artists and Wall Street lawyers had started moving into the Tribeca area, attracted by loft space in the cast iron and masonry buildings, Pete’s gym had moved upmarket, filling what used to be a spit and sawdust place with mirrors and potted palms and, sacrilege upon sacrilege, a juice bar. Now heavyweight boneheads and serious power lifters worked out alongside accountants with paunches and female executives with power-dress business suits and cell phones. The bulletin board at the door advertised something called “spinning,” which involved sitting on a bike for an hour and sweating yourself into a red agony. Ten years ago, even the suggestion that the gym might be used for such a purpose would have caused Pete’s regular clientele to bust the place up.

  A wholesome-looking blonde in a gray leotard buzzed me into Pete’s office, the last bastion of what the gym had once been. Old posters advertising power lifting competitions and Mr. Universe shows shared wall space with pictures of Pete alongside Steve Reeves, Joe Weider, and, oddly, the wrestler Hulk Hogan. Bodybuilding trophies sat in a glass-fronted cabinet wh
ile behind a battered pine desk sat Pete himself, his muscles slackening in old age but still a powerful, impressive figure, his salt-and-pepper hair cut in a short military style. I had trained in the gym for almost six years, until I was promoted to detective and started to destroy myself.

  Pete stood and nodded, his hands in his pockets and his loose-fitting top doing nothing to conceal the size of his shoulders and arms.

  “Long time,” he said. “Sorry about what happened to…” He trailed off and moved his chin and shoulders in a kind of combination shrug, a gesture to the past and what it contained.

  I nodded back and leaned against an old gunmetal gray filing cabinet adorned with decals advertising health supplements and lifting magazines.

  “Spinning, Pete?”

  He grimaced. “Yeah, I know. Still, spinning makes me two hundred dollars an hour. I got forty exercise bikes on the floor above us and I couldn’t make more money with a printing press and green ink.”

  “Stephen Barton around?”

  Pete kicked at some imaginary obstacle on the worn wooden floor. “Not for a week or so. He in trouble?”

  “I don’t know,” I replied. “Is he?”

  Pete sat down slowly and, wincing, stretched his legs out in front of him. Years of squatting had taken their toll on his knees, leaving them weak and arthritic. “You’re not the first person to come here asking about him this week. Couple of guys in cheap suits were in here yesterday trying to find him. Recognized one of them as Sal Inzerillo. Used to be a good light-middleweight until he started taking falls.”

  “I remember him.” I paused. “Works for old man Ferrera now, I hear.”

  “Might do,” nodded Pete. “Might do. Might have worked for the old man in the ring too, if you believe the stories. This about drugs?”

  “I don’t know,” I replied. Pete glanced at me quickly to see if I was lying, decided I wasn’t, and went back to examining the tops of his sneakers. “You hear of any trouble between Sonny and the old man, anything that might have involved Stephen Barton?”

  “There’s trouble between them, sure, otherwise what’s Inzerillo doing damaging my floor with his black rubber soles? Don’t know that it involves Barton, though.”

  I moved on to the subject of Catherine Demeter.

  “Do you remember a girl with Barton recently? She may have been around here sometimes. Short, dark hair, slight overbite, maybe in her early thirties.”

  “Barton has lots of girls but I don’t remember that one. Don’t notice, mostly, unless they’re smarter than Barton, which makes me wonder.”

  “Not difficult,” I said. “This one probably was smarter. Is Barton a hitter?”

  “He’s mean, sure. Popping pills frazzled his brain, gave him bad ’roid rage. It’s fight or fuck with him. Fuck, mainly. My old lady could take him in a fight.” He looked at me intently. “I know what he was into, but he didn’t sell here. I’d have force-fed his shit to him till he burst if he tried it.” I didn’t believe Pete but I let it go. Steroids were part of the game now and there was nothing Pete could do except bluster.

  He pursed his lips and pulled his legs slowly in. “A lot of women were attracted to him by his size. Barton was a big guy and he sure talked big. Some women just want the protection someone like him seems to offer. They believe if they give the guy what he wants he’ll look out for them.

  “Pity she chose Stephen Barton, then,” I said.

  “Yeah,” agreed Pete. “Maybe she wasn’t so smart after all.”

  I had brought my training gear with me and did ninety minutes in the gym, the mirrored walls reflecting my efforts back at me from every angle. It had been some time since I trained properly. To avoid embarrassment I skipped the bench and stuck to shoulders, back, and light arm work, enjoying the sensation of strength and movement in the bent-over rows and the pressure on my biceps during the curls.

  I still looked pretty good, I thought, although the assessment was a result of insecurity instead of vanity. At just under six feet, I still retained some of my lifter’s build—the wide shoulders, definition in the biceps and triceps, and a chest that was at least bigger than two eggs frying on the sidewalk—and I hadn’t regained much of the fat I had lost during the year. I still had my hair, although there was gray creeping back from the temples and sprinkling the fringe. My eyes were clear enough to be recognizably gray-blue, set in a slightly long face now deeply etched at the eyes and mouth with the marks of remembered grief. Clean shaven, with a decent haircut, a good suit, and some flattering light, I could look almost respectable. In the right light, I could even have claimed to be thirty-two without making people snigger too loudly. It was only two years less than my age on my driver’s license, but these little things become more important as you get older.

  When I was finished, I packed my gear, declined Pete’s offer of a protein shake—it smelled like rotten bananas— and stopped off for a coffee instead. I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks, the endorphins pumping through my system and a pleasant tightness developing across my shoulders and back.

  The next call I made was to DeVries’s department store on Fifth Avenue. The personnel manager called himself a human resources manager and, like personnel managers the world over, was one of the least personable people one could meet. Sitting opposite him, it was difficult not to feel that anyone who could happily reduce individuals to resources, to the same level as oil, bricks, and canaries in coal mines, probably shouldn’t be allowed to have any human relations that didn’t involve locks and prison bars. In other words, Timothy Cary was a first-degree prick from the tip of his close-cropped dyed hair to the toes of his patent leather shoes.

  I had contacted his secretary earlier that afternoon to make the appointment, telling her that I was acting for an attorney in the matter of an inheritance coming to Ms. Demeter. Cary and his secretary deserved each other. A wild dog on a chain would have been more helpful than Cary’s secretary, and easier to get past.

  “My client is anxious that Ms. Demeter be contacted as soon as possible,” I told him as we sat in his small, prissy office. “The will is extremely detailed and there are a lot of forms to be filled out.”

  “And your client would be… ?”

  “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. I’m sure you understand.”

  Cary looked like he understood but didn’t want to. He leaned back in his chair and gently rubbed his expensive silk tie between his fingers. It had to be expensive. It was too tasteless to be anything else. Crisp lines showed along his shirt as if it had just been removed from its packaging, assuming Timothy Cary would have anything to do with something so plebeian as a plastic wrapper. If he ever visited the shop floor it must have been like an angel descending, albeit an angel who looked like he’d just encountered a bad smell.

  “Miss Demeter was due in work yesterday.” Cary glanced down at a file on his desk. “She had Monday off, so we haven’t seen her since Saturday.”

  “Is that usual, to have Monday off?” I wasn’t anxious to know, but the question distracted Cary from the file. Isobel Barton didn’t have Catherine Demeter’s new address. Catherine would usually contact her, or Mrs. Barton would have her assistant leave a message at DeVries’s. As Cary brightened slightly at the opportunity to discuss a subject close to his heart and started mouthing off about work schedules, I memorized her address and SSN. I eventually managed to interrupt him for long enough to ask if Catherine Demeter had been ill on her last day at work or had complained of being disturbed in any way.

  “I’m not aware of any such communication. Miss Demeter’s position with DeVries is currently under review as a result of her absence,” he concluded smugly. “I hope, for her sake, that her inheritance is considerable.” I don’t think he meant it.

  After some routine delaying tactics, Cary gave me permission to speak with the woman who had worked with Catherine on her last shift in the store. I met her in a supervisor’s office off the shop floor. Martha Friedman was in her
early sixties. She was plump, with dyed red hair and a face so caked with cosmetics that the floor of the Amazon jungle probably saw more natural light, but she tried to be helpful. She had been working with Catherine Demeter in the china department on Saturday. It was her first time to work with her, since Mrs. Friedman’s usual assistant had been taken ill and someone was needed to cover for her.

  “Did you notice anything unusual about her behavior?” I asked, as Mrs. Friedman took the opportunity afforded by some time in the supervisor’s office to discreetly examine the papers on his desk. “Did she seem distressed or anxious in any way?”

  Mrs. Friedman furrowed her brow slightly. “She broke a piece of china, an Aynsley vase. She had just arrived and was showing it to a customer when she dropped it. Then, when I looked around, she was running across the shop floor, heading for the escalators. Most unprofessional, I thought, even if she was sick.”

  “And was she sick?”

  “She said she felt sick, but why run for the escalators? We have a staff washroom on each floor.”

  I got the feeling that Mrs. Friedman knew more than she was saying. She was enjoying the attention and wanted to draw it out. I leaned toward her confidentially.

  “But what do you think, Mrs. Friedman?”

  She preened a little and leaned forward in turn, touching my hand lightly to emphasize her point.

  “She saw someone, someone she was trying to reach before they left the store. Tom, the security guard on the east door, told me she ran out by him and stood looking around the street. We’re supposed to get permission to leave the store when on duty. He should have reported her, but he just told me instead. Tom’s a schvartze, but he’s okay.”

  “Do you have any idea who she might have seen?”

  “No. She just refused to discuss it. She doesn’t have any friends among the staff, far as I can tell, and now I can see why.”

 

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