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Tonight I Said Goodbye (St. Martin's Minotaur Mystery)by Michael Koryta
The last time John Weston saw his son alive, it was a frigid afternoon in the first week of March, and Johns granddaughter was building a snowman as the two men stood in the driveway and talked. Before he left, John gave his son a fatherly pat on the shoulder and promised to see him again soon. He saw him soon—stretched out in a morgue less than forty-eight hours later, dead of a small-caliber gunshot wound to the head. John was saved the horror of viewing his granddaughter in a similar state, but the reason for that was a hollow consolation: Five-year-old Betsy Weston and her mother were missing.
John Weston told me this as we sat in his house in North Olmsted, a suburb on Clevelands west side, five days later. Westons living room was clean and well arranged but dark, with the window shades pulled, and smelled heavily of cigarette smoke. While he spoke, the old man stared at me with a scowl that betrayed no trace of grief but plenty of determination.
“Listen to me, Mr. Perry,” he said, blowing a cloud of cigarette smoke in my direction, “I know my son. He did not kill himself, and he damn sure didnt hurt his family. Have you watched the news? You hear what those bastards are saying? Theyre saying my son killed his own wife and baby daughter, then killed himself.” He slapped the coffee table with his hand hard enough to make some of my coffee splash over the rim of the mug. “I will not tolerate that. I want to know what happened, and I want you and your partner to help me.”
Weston sat on an enormous leather couch across from me, and I was in a bizarre chair with a curved wooden frame and a large, rippled plastic cushion. When I leaned back in it I immediately slid down until my head was parallel to the armrests. Feeling pretty ridiculous in that position, Id tried an assortment of others before, surrendering to gravity and the slick cushion, I leaned forward, sitting on the edge of the chair, my elbows resting on my knees. Now I looked more intense than I felt, but it beat the alternatives.
“Ive heard the television reports,” I said. “But the police havent said the murder/suicide angle is a legitimate theory, Mr. Weston. Thats just some talking head in a newsroom trying to hold an audience with sensationalism.”
Weston kept the scowl. He was in his upper seventies but still a large man; when he was younger he must have been massive. His legs were skinny now and his belly soft, but his broad chest and shoulders were a testament to his former size. He still had nearly a full head of gray hair, a nose that seemed too small for his face, and calculating, edgy eyes that took everything in as if he were looking for an excuse to shout. The pinky finger of his right hand was missing, and the ring finger ended in a stump just past the middle knuckle. While I sipped my coffee, he turned and pointed at two framed paintings on the wall behind him.
“You see those paintings?” he said.
They appeared to be World War II military scenes, and they were well done. Nothing fancy, just a talented artists precise rendition of what he had seen. My type of painting—something you could appreciate without a masters degree in art.
“A buddy of mine did those,” he said, and then coughed loudly, a wet, rasping hack like a shovel scraping snow off rough pavement. “Pretty good, arent they?”
“Very nice.” I finished my coffee and set the mug on the coffee table beside the business card I had given Weston. PERRY AND PRITCHARD INVESTIGATIONS it read. I was Lincoln Perry, and Joe Pritchard was my partner. We were just six months into the business now, but wed already managed to accumulate a significant amount of debt. We tried not to boast about that accomplishment too often, though, especially to clients. Before going into private work, Joe and I had been partners in the Cleveland Police Departments narcotics division. Id been forced into resignation, and hed retired about a year later. Somehow, Joe had convinced me to meet with John Weston alone while he handled what would probably be a routine interview. I was regretting that arrangement now.
“What you see there in the paintings are a CG-4A glider and a tow plane,” Weston said, looking back at the paintings again. “I flew the gliders.”
“That was a one-of-a-kind experience, I imagine.”
“Youve got that right. There was never anything like it before, and there hasnt been since. By the time Nam rolled around they had helicopters to do that job. In my war, though, it was gliders.”
I thought about it, the experience of drifting down onto a battlefield in silence with no motor to power you.
“Whatd it feel like, flying the thing?”
He smiled. “Like sitting on the front porch and flying the house. I flew two combat missions and a handful of supply missions. Had a rough landing in the second combat mission and lost some fingers, but I still had to fight on the ground all that night. We had the same weapons training as the commando soldiers, and it was the job of us glider pilots to hold whatever territory we landed on. I fought Nazis all night without taking any medicine to help with the pain in my hand. But it was better than it could have been. A couple of the other gliders cracked up badly on landing, and a few were shot down. Hell, I had bullet holes through the canvas.”
“Close call, eh?” I didnt know where he was going with this conversation, but I was content to ride it out.
“Close enough. The closest call I ever had was a mission I didnt fly, though. I was slated to fly into what was basically a German fortress in France, and the probability of survival was so low it was damn near a suicide mission. We were all set to fly out, saying our goodbyes to the world, you know, because we were pretty convinced this was a one-way trip. Just before we went up, they told us the mission had been canceled, because Patton took the Nazi fortress.” He lit a cigarette with a steel Zippo and took a long drag. “People badmouth Patton all the time these days, but Ill tell you this—that son of a bitch is a friend of mine for as long as I live.”
Ive always been a bit of a Patton fan myself, at least in terms of respecting the mans battlefield genius and efficiency, but I guessed Weston would scorn such appreciation from a man whod never served, so I kept quiet. He smoked the cigarette for a minute, staring over his shoulder at the paintings, lost in his memories. Then he turned back to me, and his eyes narrowed in a way that suggested focus and determination.
“I appreciate you meeting with me,” he said. “After our first phone conversation, I thought you were turning me down.”
“Im here,” I said, “but that doesnt mean Im going to take the job, Mr. Weston. Youve got some of the finest cops in the city working on this, and from what I hear, even the FBI is helping.”
“Helping to dick around and waste time!” he roared.
“I dont think theyre wasting any time, sir.”
“No? Then where the hell are some results? Those damn cops come over here every damn day and tell me what theyve produced. You know what theyve produced? Jack shit, boy. In five days, theyve done nothing.” He stuck out his lower lip and exhaled a cloud of smoke forcefully over his face.
“It takes some time to make headway in an investigation of this magnitude, sir.”
“Look,” he said, trying to contain his anger, “this is my son were talking about. My son and his family. Ive got to do something, but Im smart enough to realize I cant do it alone. I need someone working for me. Someone who can pursue this as aggressively as it needs to be pursued.”
I sighed. John Weston was convinced his son had been murdered, although none of the police investigators seemed to agree. The prevailing media theory, courtesy of an “un-named police source,” was that Wayne Weston had killed his family before offing himself. No bodies had been found, and there was little evidence to explain their disappearance. There had been no signs of violent intruders at the house; everything appeared normal except for Wayne Westons corpse.
“Why us, Mr. Weston?” I asked. “Why do you think we need to be involved, when you have the police doing everything they can?”
“You knew my son.”
I held up a cautioning hand. “Id met your son.”
“Whatever. You knew him, and he knew you and respected you. He told me he thought you and your partner were going to be very good when you started your business.”
Id met Wayne Weston at a private investigators conference in Dayton two months before. It was one of those two-day events featuring seminars on various business issues during the day and sessions of too much food, drink, and loud laughter in the hotel restaurant at night. Joe had decided we should go because it offered a chance to network with other local investigators, making contacts, and possibly attracting some business.
Wayne Weston had sat at the same table as me for dinner one night. He was a flashy guy, wearing expensive suits and driving a fancy car, but he was friendly and charismatic. And, from what Id heard, a hell of an investigator. Hed been with the Pinkertons for a few years before returning to Cleveland to open his own firm, and he was apparently making good money at it. I hadnt talked to him individually for more than an exchange of names, and I was surprised to hear hed said anything about Joe and me to his father.
“My son didnt kill himself or hurt his family,” Weston said. “Thats the most absurd and offensive bullshit Ive ever heard. They came on the news talking about that yesterday, and I damn near drove down there and kicked some ass. I want to know what did happen to my daughter-in-law and granddaughter, so I can quit this damn worrying, and so those television people can shut their mouths.”
His eyes flashed with anger as he spoke, and he tried to extinguish it with a tremendous drag on the cigarette. For a minute I thought hed polish the whole thing off in that one ferocious inhalation.
“What exactly is it that you want Joe and me to do?” I asked. “Determine whether your son was murdered, or find his wife and daughter?”
“Both,” he said, blowing out a cloud of smoke that made my eyes sting. “It seems to me one would be pretty well intertwined with the other.”
That was a fair point. I still didnt like it, though. The cops would resent our presence, and I definitely didnt want to get caught up in the media frenzy.
“Look, Ive got plenty of money,” Weston said. “Ive got a good retirement plan, Ive got a savings account. I can afford to pay whatever it is you want.”
“Its not about the money, Mr. Weston,” I said.
“No? Then what the hell is it?”
“The police have a lot of investigators working on this case,” I said. “They have resources and access that we dont, and theyve also got a weeks head start on it. Id advise you to wait on the police, and see what they can do with it. If they havent made any progress in a few weeks, give us a call again, and maybe well reconsider.” I had no plans to reconsider, but I hoped the offer would placate the old man.
“You know why I showed you those paintings?” he asked. “Why I told you what happened to my hand?”
He ground his cigarette out in an ashtray on the table and stared at me with contempt. Then he shook his head.
“Wayne was one of your own,” he said. “Same city, same business, and thats a business without many people involved. That used to mean something to people. When I was in the war, we fought for the men with us. Before battle, during the preparation, it was all about patriotism and saving the world and protecting the freedom of our families back home. But you know what? When it came down to the firefight, that wasnt in your mind anymore. You were fighting for the boys next to you, fighting for your buddies, protecting your own.” He looked at me sadly. “Maybe my generation was the last one that had that kind of loyalty, that kind of brotherhood.”
It was a hell of a pitch. I didnt answer right away, but it resonated with me as he had hoped it would. I hadnt known Wayne Weston well, and we were in the same business, not in the same war, but somehow, sitting here in front of this man with his World War II paintings, gnarled hand, dead son, and missing family members, that line of reasoning seemed hollow.
“Why do you do it?” he asked. “Why are you even in this business? You want to get rich chasing cheating husbands? You think it impresses women to say youre a PI? Huh?”
I looked at the floor, trying not to snap at him. “Nope,” I said evenly. “None of those, sir.”
“Really? Then what the hell do you do it for?”
I didnt say anything.
“Well?” he said. “You gonna give me an answer, son?”
I raised my head and looked at him. “I do it,” I said, “because Im awfully damn good at it.”
“You think youre awfully damn good at it, eh?”
“I dont think I am, sir. I am. And so is my partner.”
He smiled without amusement or pleasure. “Then prove it.”
I met his eyes and held his gaze for a while, then gave one, short nod.
“All right,” I said. “We will.”
“Well, thats the last time I let you meet a prospective client unattended,” Joe Pritchard said. “I thought wed agreed not to get involved in this mess.”
We were sitting in the office the next morning. Joe had just finished a five-mile run, and he was still breathing heavily, soaked with sweat. I thought that was the best time to break the news to him, hoping hed be too tired to care. No luck, though; it took a lot more than a five-mile run in the cold to fatigue Joe.
“Why not give it a shot, Joe? Were not making much money, so why turn down the offers we do get?”
“Because the cash isnt worth the hassle.” He sighed and wiped his face with a towel. He was wearing running shoes, sweatpants, and a nylon jacket, and if youd asked ten strangers to guess his age, all of them would have undershot it by a decade. “I just dont like the idea of having to tag along with CPD, Lincoln.”
I understood that. Joe had retired only six months earlier, and I knew working on an active police investigation from the outside would feel strange to him. It was too late now; Id made the agreement with Weston, and I had a two-thousand-dollar retainer check in my pocket to seal the deal.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “You know the case interests you, and our plate isnt exactly full of other projects.”
He grunted but didnt say anything, gazing around the office as if seeking support from the furniture. Our little office is on the citys west side, on the second floor of an old stone bank building. It has hardwood floors badly in need of a polish, two desks, a small bathroom and secondary office, and freshly painted walls that look frighteningly bright in the old building. My contribution to the office furniture sits across from our desks: a set of four wooden seats from the old Cleveland Stadium. The stadium had been torn down in the early nineties, and theyd auctioned off some of the memorabilia. Id purchased the chairs and had them refinished, and I thought they looked pretty decent, if slightly out of place. Joe referred to the seats by various vulgar names and refused to sit in them. It was hard to believe he was an Indians fan. No sense of nostalgia.
“Well, I told Weston were in it now,” I said, “so lets not hassle over whether we should have taken the case. Lets figure out how were going to get started.”
“We could get started by grabbing a sandwich,” Joe said. “Im starving.” Joe eats with a ravenous appetite, but he also drinks almost nothing but water and runs several miles each day, so hes still trim and fit even in his fifties.
“I havent paid very close attention to the case,” I said, ignoring him, “so we probably ought to review the newspaper articles before we make any calls down to CPD. Hate to look uninformed, you know.”
“Youre looking for an excuse to drag Lois Lane into it,” he said with a sigh. “Just when I thought things couldnt get any worse.”
I grinned. “Im sure Amy will be happy to assist in any way possible.”
“Fabulous,” he said. “Ill tell you what: How about you track down the background information while I go get something to eat? Then, when I come back, you can give me a concise briefing and Ill be able to focus without being distracted by my growling stomach.” He pushed away from the desk.
“Thats fine,” I said as he opened the door to leave. “Im expecting to do most of the work around here. You old guys dont have the stamina to keep up.”
Amy Ambrose agreed to come by on her lunch hour with all the relevant articles. Around noon she stepped through the door, wrinkling her nose.
“Your stairwell reeks. The winos taken to sleeping there again?”
“Hello to you, too.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She shrugged off her coat and flopped onto one of the stadium seats. She looked good, as she always did. Her hair was a little longer than it had been when we first met in the summer, but it was the same dark blond and had the same soft curl. Amy was a reporter for the Cleveland Daily Journal and in the summer shed been assigned to cover a murder investigation. The murder victim had been a patron at my gym, and Amy showed up at my door looking for information. With my usual charm, Id told her to go to hell. A day later she was back, with more information about the case and about me than most reporters could turn up overnight. Shed won my respect, my assistance, and, soon, my friendship. She was outspoken and brazen and cocky, but she was also completely her own person, and she was genuine. We were drawn together because of that—two self-reliant loners who trusted only our own judgment and ability when under pressure. Outside of Joe, she was my closest friend, and while I told people I thought of her as a sister, a small part of my mind recognized that my breath didnt catch in my chest when I saw my real sister the way it could when I saw Amy.
“So you and Pritchard think you can accomplish what dozens of cops and a few FBI agents havent been able to, eh?” Amy said.
“Were not that cocky,” I said. “I figure it may take us two, maybe three days.”
She smiled. “Sure. Well, it looks like youve got your hands full. I read through most of this stuff before I came over, and if the cops have any worthwhile leads they arent sharing them with the media, thats for sure.”
Excerpted from Tonight I Said Goodbye by Michael Koryta.
Copyright © 2005 by Michael Koryta.
Published in 2005 by St. Martins Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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