The Root of the Matter
by Bob Liter
I sat at the bar in Otto's Tavern reading the Central City Press sports page. Otto lowered his old bones to the worn, cushioned chair behind the bar. He commented occasionally on the news in the front section of the newspaper. I was trying not to listen.
It was around 10 o'clock in the morning. A woman wearing a floppy hat opened the front door, hesitated, allowing sunlight to actually enter the place, and said in a voice that soothed and caressed, "Is Nick Bancroft here?"
That's me. I'm a freelance reporter and sometimes private investigator. I noted the curve of her hips, the classy cut of a well-fitted sky-blue suit jacket and long, shapely legs extending from a short dark blue skirt. She carried a small blue purse.
Still, I hesitated to answer in case she was a bill collector. She said, "Well, surely the question is not that difficult for you two . . . gentlemen."
"I'm Nick Bancroft," I said.
"Could I tear you away from all this and back to your office long enough to discuss business?"
The woman turned and left. I followed in the wake of her strides as we crossed the street, went up the creaking wooden stairs, past the Ballard Inc. office on the second floor and up to my third floor office.
The notice informing potential customers I could be found at Otto's had been taped to the door. Now it lay crumpled on the floor.
My office housed a worn, oversized wooden desk with drawers that stuck, a swivel chair that didn't always swivel, and some battered filing cabinets. In front of the desk was a wooden chair for the occasional visitor. A radio with a cracked plastic case sat on the window ledge beside an ancient air-conditioner. The window overlooked the back parking lot. My one-room living quarters adjoined the office. The rest of the third floor housed cobwebs and dust.
I settled behind the desk. The woman rejected my offer to sit after looking at the "guest" chair. She removed the hat. I stared at her sensuous lips, her green eyes and her abundant red hair.
I'm Cynthia Crawford," she announced. "My mother is Mrs. Norville Mortin. She's missing. For six weeks. Her husband claims he doesn't know where she is. I think he murdered her for her money. All I have is six-hundred dollars. I'll pay you that if you find out what happened to her."
Norville Mortin. He lived in the spacious house he built at the south edge of Central City's extended boundaries on rolling prairie that resembled, if you looked at it from a certain angle, the form of a voluptuous woman lying on her back.
Mortin, I learned when I did a story on him for the Chicago Times, was a retired Springfield stock broker.
"Have you reported this to police?"
"Of course. They haven't found out a thing. Mortin claims she just left. Says she didn't tell him where she was going. I've checked with her sister in Florida, everyone else I can think of. No one has heard from her."
I studied her face. She turned away from my gaze.
"Is Mister Mortin your father?"
"No, stepfather. I hate him."
"First of all, he married my mother for her money. She inherited a bundle when my father died. And the bastard tried to get in my pants more than once."
"Are you married?"
"Was once," she said. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"If I'm going to take the case I'll have to have a retainer."
She removed her gloves one slim finger at a time.
"I'll write you a check for three hundred dollars for now," she said.
"That'll be fine," I said. She wrote the check and handed it to me.
"Do you have a photo of your mother?"
She riffled through her purse and produced a billfold photo of an older woman who had red hair similar to hers.
"I'll give it a try," I said, "but I'm not sure I can do much of anything. Missing persons. Sometimes we never find out if it's because of foul play or the person just wanted to get away from it all."
She stood, adjusted her skirt, and said, "My mother wasn't happy in her marriage to that rat. But she would never leave without letting me know where she was."
At the police station Detective Andrew Brown, my main source of information there, was puffing on his ever present cigar when I entered his office in the ancient city hall building.
"We never found a trace of her," he said. "Her Mercedes is missing. We never found that either. She's got money. Could have just taken off. Maybe we'll never know."
"I've been hired to find her. Her daughter thinks Mortin killed her for her money."
"Yeah, I know. Talked to her several times. Really wanted to help her but couldn't get anywhere. Nice looker."
I left Brown puffing on his cigar and admired the rolling hills of the Mortin estate as I drove my Escort up the winding drive to the parking area in front of the house. As I climbed out of the Escort a large black dog galloped toward me. Its bark sent shivers down my spine in spite of the warm summer weather.
"Nice doggy," I said a couple of times without conviction. A man ran from behind the house and shouted, "Sit, Alexander, sit."
The dog skidded to a stop and sat in front of me like a wet-tongued statue.
"He probably won't bite you, but he jumps on people, scares the shit out of 'em."
"He didn't have to jump on me to do that," I said, still eyeing the dog as it eyed me.
"I'm busy out back mowing the grass. What do you want?"
Mortin hadn't changed much since I interview him a couple of years earlier. His forehead had receded a little more, perhaps. The beginning of a full beard covered part of his thin face. He was wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt and running shoes. The last time I'd seen him he wore an elegant suit.
"I'm here to ask some questions about your missing wife," I said.
"She's missing all right. Just up and left. I suppose her daughter hired you. Is that it?"
He turned and walked toward the side of the house where he had first appeared.
"Don't worry about the dog. He won't bother you now. Come on Alexander."
The dog bounded away. I followed without bounding.
The half-acre yard behind the house was edged with flower beds. Roses, and a multitude of other flowers I couldn't identify bloomed in profusion even though weeds grew vigorously among them. A riding mower was parked near the left edge of the yard.
"I've got nothing more to say. You'll have to excuse me, I want to get this grass mowed before it gets too hot."
"Your wife must have taken care of the flower beds," I said.
He seated himself on the mower and started it. He drove it to the end of the yard where a corn field bordered it, turned and headed back toward me.
I noticed the weeds and roses in one section of the beds were taller than the others. I wondered why.
"Just one more question," I shouted as he approached.
He shut off the mower and said, "One more. That's all."
"Why is that section of the flower beds growing so much taller than the rest." I pointed to the lush roses and the competing weeds.
His face turned red. He pulled a handkerchief from his hip pocket and wiped his brow. He stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket, stared at me with menace in his eyes, and said, "That's your question. You stopped me for that?"
He started the mower again, turned it near my feet and headed to the far end of the yard.
I returned to the police station and Brown's office. He concentrated on papers from a file folder on his desk and ignored me. I sat and waited patiently. I was thinking of leaving, not so sure by then that I wanted to say what I had planned. It would make me look like a fool if I was wrong.
He pushed the papers aside, lit a half-smoked cigar he pulled from his top desk drawer and said, "So?"
"I got an idea where maybe you can find the body of Mrs. Mortin."
"That didn't take long. What's your idea?"
"Don't laugh. I think he buried her in a flower bed."
He moved his swivel chair back a bit, put his feet on the desk, stretched his arms and said, "And how did you deduce this, Sherlock?"
I squirmed in the chair. "The roses and weeds in a particular spot are lusher, taller than any of the others."
He smiled at me like a parent amused at a small child.
"You think, then, that the rotting body under those plants is supplying fertilizer, thus causing the plants to excel. Is that right?"
"Yeah, that's what I thought. Maybe it's a dumb idea."
"That big dog he's got. Maybe that's where it shits."
"That could be it," I said.
"Well, it was just an idea." I stood and left.
A week later Cynthia Crawford came into my office. It was about an hour before noon and I didn't manage to get my feet off the desk before she saw them. I wondered if she realized I had been asleep.
She said, "You being the only private investigator in town, well, I didn't really expect much."
I figured she was going to ask for her retainer back. Maybe I should return it. I really hadn't done much. She sat on the chair in front of my desk, pulled her check book from a monster purse and filled out a check. She handed it to me. It was for three-hundred dollars."
"What's this for?" I asked.
"It's what I promised you. I was hoping you'd find my mother alive, but at least you found her."
"That policeman, Brown, told me how you figured out where Mortin buried the body. They told me this morning. You mean they haven't told you. I had my cry on the way here. At least this brings the thing to closure and the cop assured me Mortin will stand trial."
"I'm sorry it had to end this way," I said after I regained my ability to speak.
Bob Liter is a retired journalist who has seven novels published by Renaissance E. Books. For information about his novels or to contact him go to his web site: www.mtco.com/~bobliter