by Robb White.
She looked sane. Sometimes you just never know. In private investigation work, you tend to get people at the ends of their tethers. But I also had fifteen years in homicide and that taught me to control my face, so she had no idea what I was thinking. Besides that, she must have been used to it, used to telling her story all around, and seeing all the reactions on the faces of the people she told her story to before me.
“He’ll be coming through here today or tomorrow,” she said. “The postcards always show the route. I just–I don’t know where else to go, Mister Haftmann.”
This apparently made her realize she was implying something uncomplimentary about my one-man operation. I nodded as if to acknowledge the obvious.
She was no referral, certainly no local. I’ve been living in this resort town and drinking in the bars around here long enough to know that much. Not stunning, but a presence to her, the sort that made your eyes cut away from the person you were talking to if she were to come into a room. The navy blue fabric of her blouse was bunched at the neck, and there seemed to be a lot of cloth straining behind her crossed arms. Not the coarse types this burgh is used to. Her perfume was Obsession. I loathed it because it used to be Micah’s, my ex-wife’s.
She got the story out, but I knew long before she ceased talking why none of the big outfits would touch it with a barge pole. And why I knew I would. I’ve become an existentialist in my old age. I expect the world to be absurd. I’ve seen my share of lunacy and mayhem in and out of a cop’s uniform. One of my rules is Don’t make simple things complicated and vice versa. And one of these days, I intend to follow it.
“Who is the father?” I asked her.
It had started strange. He was thirty-five, a wheeler-dealer just hitting his stride, and he happened to be driving in a chauffeured limousine through Reynoldsville, West Virginia of all places, returning to Detroit, when he told the driver to pull over at a roadside cafe. She was seventeen, the local beauty. He must have been feeling like one of those men, those princes or feudal barons of commerce spawned in the wake of the greed of the last decade, who feel they can do anything. He scooped her up. In a week they were married. Practically bought her right out from under her family and the boyfriend with whom she would later have her only child.
The Riding Boy. A child driven from one end of the United States to the other in vehicles hired exclusively for the purpose. The boy grew up in automobiles. She showed me a fistful of postcards from her purse, all addressed to her in her mother’s home in West Virginia in different handwriting styles, all showing various towns, big and little, across the United States. Bangor, Utica, New York, Ocalala, San Diego, Beaumont–his entire world was a blurred landscape of people, like him, all in cars or trucks or highway vehicles moving down freeways that flicked images onto his retinas but left no impression, no deep images of life lived or experienced. No concept of home, of family, of love. His father paid the drivers so well and gave them such meticulous instructions that they had to check in at various points in their cross-country trek. The boy never had the same driver twice. No one ever suspected that his rich, powerful father was having him driven back and forth across the major highways of the nation for the pure, sadistic pleasure of tormenting the child’s mother. Punishing her for adultery. The postcards had been coming for years, she said, before she awoke one night back home in Reynoldsville in an icy sweat with the full knowledge the boy was never going to experience anything of the world except what he could see from a moving automobile.
She could never prove it, of course. How could you? As the boy’s mind caved in from the numbing sameness of a world seen from the backseat of a car, his deteriorating physical and mental condition would be explained a dozen different ways. The doctors in various towns would prescribe medicine, and his life on the road would resume. She would know, however. The postcards would arrive at intervals like expected beatings. She would know he knew that she was powerless to stop it.
So she put the postcards together; she saw the itinerary and the hundreds of thousands of miles logged every year. Then she saw it: Route 90, our nearby interstate, deadheads in Seattle; it was the single common denominator, no matter how many towns or miles were consumed. This driver, she reasoned, grew sloppy and more predictable than most: the postcards were laying a route that would bring her son through town. She had tried for years to interest someone, anyone, to save her son, but her ex-husband’s money and connections ensured that no district attorney’s office or law-enforcement agency could come near him legally. Even if he weren’t one of the richest men in the Midwest, the court had already awarded the boy to the father before it was known that he was not the child’s natural father. Chance put me at the other end of her tether, a long shot, divorced, ex-alcoholic private eye with an existentialist Weltschmerz.
Calculating the boy’s travel time on the basis of the postcard’s delivery date, she saw the pattern: her husband must be using the same driver as four years ago. She believed the route was identical and that would mean they would be pass by, at the earliest, midafternoon today or tomorrow afternoon. Not only that, the boy would have to come right through here because State Route 531 bisected the Strip at Jefferson-on-the-Lake, and a section of Route 90 just south of us was closed off for expansion so that the detour would have to take in this one-mile strip along 531. An extra bit of luck was Chief Millimaki’s greed and the windfall of travelers accustomed to fast speeds; his men were picking them off like barnyard flies for flouting the posted maximum speed of 25 m.p.h.
The Windjammer was cater-corner to the Strip so that every window looked out onto the 531 turnoff. She left the office with my Zeisse field glasses and Tico stood his watch at Lake and Erieview with a walkie-talkie. Eight hours crawled by. Every few minutes Tico would call me just to break the monotony.
At eight o’clock, as the traffic picked up for the night life, the walkie-talkie squawked once, then her voice screaming, “That’s him! That’s him! Oh my God!” I heard Tico calmly ask her what car, lady, what car? He kept repeating it because she had become hysterical. Finally, she told him: blue Datsun, California plates.
I had a few minutes more than I planned because the traffic directly outside my office was bottlenecked. I looked down the shiny column of cars, already a patina of neon glitter reflecting from hoods and tops. Then I saw it.
When the Datsun was directly opposite me, I walked up to the window and saw the boy sitting in the back, then cut my eyes back to the driver who was staring straight ahead as if bored. Tourists were routinely jaywalking between the stalled traffic, so nobody took notice of me. I took the large crescent wrench from where I had it tucked alongside my forearm and slowly keyed the side of the Datsun. The screee of metal was loud enough for the driver to hear it, and his eyes bugged. He flung open his door in a second, and by the time he had cleared the door, I was bringing the wrench around in a short arcing chop that caught him flush behind his left ear. I had the boy out of the car and by the hand and we were walking fast down the Strip just as the first blaring of horns erupted. We passed several cars and I could see drivers leaning on their horns, upset at the stalled vehicle ahead.
At the Windjammer inside her motel room, I gave the boy to his mother. Her eyes were already red, but when she saw her child, she burst into loud sobs and hugged him to her. Tico shifted from one foot to the other, not out of nervousness (he had no nerves) but because he was eager to get back to his bar. I pieced him off, added a little extra, and told him thanks. Then I waited a little longer for her crying to subside. The boy was quiet except for some guttural noises that I could not understand as speech. She kept kissing his face. Maybe it was the first time he had been held by another human being since he was an infant. I called a taxi that would take them back to town, where her car was waiting for her. “Stay away from your usual places,” I said. “Change your name and habits for a while. Get out of state before you write any more checks.”
Before she left, she wrote me the check for a thousand dollars. Then the taxi pulled up and we shook hands at the door. The boy, docile but eyes moving every which way, clambered into the back, as if he knew his part without having to be told. The mother looked at me once and waved.
Nothing’s really simple. I’ve been known to screw up a two-car funeral in my time too. The driver I had attacked had been taken to the local hospital; it was feared that he had suffered a heart attack. Then I heard from one of the dispatchers at the station house, one of my best sources, and she said the guy was treated and released, but left a different name at the desk from the one he carried on a license in his wallet. The cop who showed up to do the incident report ran it through NCIC, and they discovered he was an ex-con from Nevada with a long rap sheet, mostly B & E and car theft. He had a couple warrants on him, and they brought him in. He talked to them. Then he talked to the FBI.
Yesterday I was eating my usual breakfast at the Log Cabin, and I noticed an item on one of the back pages: Millionaire Detroit Entrepreneur Commits Suicide. It began: “A multimillionaire businessman and stockbroker was found dead in his West Virginia mountain retreat called Hawk’s Talon, police learned yesterday. . .” I skimmed the rest of the article. My stomach felt it before my eyes saw it. Near the end of the piece, I came to this part: “. . . in what looks to be a double homicide and suicide, his former wife and son were found bludgeoned to death in a room below the master bedroom. She was a forty-one-year-old native of nearby Reynoldsville . . .”
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve ever done anybody any good in my life. My grandmother was from West Virginia. She used to say, “If you think you’re important, try sticking your finger in a bucket of water and pulling it out. That’s how much you matter.” I went to Tico’s when I thought I couldn’t stand it anymore, wanted to get good and drunk, but I saw him talking to his boy Enrique, a welterweight just like Tico used to be, and I saw how much he really loved his kid, and I knew I wouldn’t get drunk that day. Tomorrow’s another day, though, and probably another rock waiting to be pushed up a hill.
“The Riding Boy” was first published in Thrillling Detective, in 1999.
Robb White is the author of two hardboiled private-eye novels featuring his existentialist detective Thomas Haftmann, both published by Grand Mal Press: Haftmann’s Rules (2011) and Saraband for a Runaway (2013). His third crime novel is When You Run with Wolves published by Number Thirteen Press last month. His second crime novel Special Collections was the winner of the 2014 Electronic Book Series Competition by New Rivers Press. His short-story collection “Out of Breath” and Other Stories was published in 2013.