Night SecretsThomas H. Cook
Thomas H. Cook
Open Road Integrated Media ebook
For Neil Nyren
“Long is the night to him who is awake.”
—DHAMMAPALA, The Commentaries
Frank stared at the photograph the man had just handed him. The woman was posed against a high stone wall, and just over it, Frank could make out the gray-white tumble of a windswept sea.
“I took it at our house on Cape Cod,” the man said. He smiled quietly. “We’ve always had such good times up there. We’d just gotten back from sailing when I took that picture.”
Frank nodded silently, his eyes still on the photograph. Just behind it, he could see the camera he’d used on his last job, its parts spilled out over the desk. He would have to get another one when he took another case. “How old’s the picture?” he asked.
“Just a few weeks. It’s the most recent photograph I have.”
Frank fingered the edges of the photograph. “I’ll need to keep it,” he said.
The man nodded. “Yes, I know.”
Frank glanced back down at the picture, noted the way the woman’s eyes looked somewhat distant, as if, at the moment the picture had been taken, she’d been thinking of another world. It was the sort of look he’d seen in other women: It always meant there was about to be a change.
“You won’t have any trouble recognizing her from that picture,” the man assured him. His eyes darted toward the photograph, then shot back up to Frank. “She’s a very beautiful woman, don’t you think?”
Frank concentrated on her face, the long blond hair, the light-blue eyes. It was a beautiful face, but not the kind that looked unreal, unlived-in. The blushing innocence was gone, and the eyes looked as if they’d seen a few things along the way.
“What you have to understand,” the man went on, “is how very concerned I am about her. That’s why I would like for you to get on it right away.”
The man’s name was Phillips, and he’d come into Frank’s office only a few minutes earlier. He looked to be in his late forties, but well preserved, with sleek grayish hair and just enough lines around his eyes to give him an air of indisputable dignity. He was dressed with the typical Wall Street reserve, even down to the acceptable flair of paisley suspenders, but when he talked about the woman, his manner seemed less secure. His hands fidgeted, and there was a line of perspiration just above his upper lip.
“Her name is Virginia,” he said, almost wistfully, as if something about her had already been lost. “She’s from the South, actually, like you. I mean, I assume that … from the accent.”
Frank nodded slowly as his eyes drifted over to the window. In his mind, he saw granite canyons, winding creeks and lonely stands of pine, the raw South of his raw youth. Then the South dissolved like powder in a dense gray liquid, leaving only the cement stairs that led up to Forty-ninth Street.
“The thing is, I think she’s going through some sort of personal crisis,” Phillips said emphatically. Then he shrugged. “It happened to my first wife,” he added reluctantly.
“What happened to your first wife?”
“She had a nervous breakdown,” Phillips said. “It came on slowly, then it just got worse. She ended up in a sanitarium. I don’t want that to happen to Virginia.”
“How long have you been married, Mr. Phillips?” Frank asked.
“Nearly a year.”
Frank noted the silvery hair that lay perfectly in place on Phillips’s head and compared it to the shimmering blond of his wife’s. “How old is your wife?”
“Where did you meet?” he asked.
“At a party,” Phillips said. He looked at Frank sheepishly. “I never expected to marry again, not after what I went through with Clarissa. And, of course, Virginia’s young enough to be my daughter.”
Frank thought of his own daughter, Sarah. She seemed to be dissolving slowly, like his pictures of the South. He never saw her face anymore. Only what the animals had done to her hands after she’d walked into the woods, stretched out by the river and taken a handful of pills she’d brought with her from his house.
“I’m sure that Clarissa … her condition,” Phillips went on, “I’m sure that’s why I’m so worried about Virginia.”
Frank drew his eyes over to him. “When did you get worried about her?”
Phillips looked slightly unnerved. “Well, there are really two things. The first is just the way she seems, distant, preoccupied. That’s the way it’s been the last few months. As if all the time she’s with me, she’s really someplace else entirely. She won’t talk about it. I’ll ask her if there’s something wrong, and she’ll say no, she’s fine. But it’s like she’s a million miles away.”
“Has anyone else noticed that? Her friends?”
“She doesn’t really have any friends,” Phillips said. “She’d just come to New York when I met her, and I’m not much of a social person.”
“How about relatives?”
“There are no relatives,” Phillips said. “Virginia was an only child, and her parents were killed in a car accident only a year or so before she came to the city.” He smiled softly. “I think that’s part of what made her so attractive to me. That she was all alone, vulnerable. That she needed to be protected. That’s how she seemed when we met.”
Frank took a deep breath and pulled out one of his little green notebooks. “And you said that this was about a year ago?”
Phillips nodded. “Just over a year.”
Frank wrote it down, giving in reluctantly to the idea that he would take the case. It didn’t sound that exciting, but he did need the job.
“As I said,” Phillips added, “we’ve been married for almost a year now.”
Frank sat back slightly. “You said there were two things. What’s the second one?”
Phillips glanced away, his face somewhat stricken. “I’ve noticed that a few things are missing. Things that she should have cared about.”
Frank leaned into the pencil, pressing its lead point against the plain white paper. “What things?”
Phillips returned his eyes to Frank. “Jewelry. Brooches and pendants. Pieces that I’ve given her over the last year or so.”
“How much are they worth?” Frank asked.
“Several thousand dollars, I’d say,” Phillips answered. “I haven’t really kept track of what’s disappeared.”
“When did you first notice it?”
“Probably last October was the first time.”
“Tell me about it.”
Phillips ticked off the vanishing items one by one, and as Frank listened, his eyes wandered back toward the window. The old woman who slept at the bottom of the steps had left an empty bottle of Wild Rose behind. Its metal cap rested beside it, faintly blue in the half-light of late afternoon. A few feet away, a crumpled potato-chip bag fluttered briefly, then came to rest. Barbecue-flavored, the old woman’s favorite.
“So, it comes to almost a dozen pieces,” Phillips concluded. Then he leaned back in his chair, and the sound of its squeaking hinges drew Frank’s attention back to him.
“Worth several thousand dollars,” Frank said. “And you have no idea what she’s done with them?”
Phillips shook his head.
“Do you have a safe in the house?”
“Yes,” Phillips said. “That’s the first place I looked. But none of it was there.”
“How about a safety deposit box? Does she have access to one of those?”
“She has access to several,” Phillips told him. “I checked them all.” He shook his head. “But it’s not the jewelry,” he said worriedly. “It’s Virginia, the way she seems to have gone offtrack.”
Frank glanced at the picture again, this time noting the intensity of her light-blue eyes, the way her lips formed a thin, red line across her mouth, the radiance of her hair in the light. Then there was the way one gloved hand squeezed determinedly at the other. She didn’t look like the sort of person who went offtrack very easily.
“What about drugs?” Frank asked. “Could she be feeding a habit?”
Phillips looked offended. “Absolutely not.”
“Gambling,” Frank suggested. “People can get squeezed.”
Phillips shook his head.
Frank let the most ominous possibility drop last. “When people have suddenly come into money, there’s always the chance of blackmail.”
Phillips looked astonished. “Blackmail? For what?”
“Well, that would be the whole point,” Frank said. “That you would never find out.”
Phillips shook his head determinedly. “That would be absurd.”
“Maybe not,” Frank said. “Did you ever have a background search done on her?”
“No,” Phillips blurted. “And I don’t want you to do one, either. I’m not hiring you to dig into my wife’s past. I want to know what’s happening to her now.”
“Well, they’re often related. It has to be something,” Frank said bluntly. “And you’re ruling the most likely things out.”
Phillips started to speak, then hesitated.
Frank looked at him sternly. “I need to know what you’re thinking.”
“Well, my worst thought is that she wants to … run away or something,” Phillips told him.
“Do you know of any reason she might want to do that?”
“Before you,” Frank asked cautiously, “was there someone else?”
“No one she’s ever mentioned.”
“And as far as you and her, it’s …”
“A happy marriage,” Phillips said firmly.
Frank looked at him doubtfully. Sheila, his ex-wife, had always claimed that happy marriages existed, and he still thought that it was possible. It was just that he’d never seen one. “I have to ask these questions,” he said.
“I know,” Phillips said. “I don’t mean to take offense, but it’s just that I know things are fine—were fine—between us, and that’s why I think that she just wants to get some point across, and, perhaps because she’s young, she doesn’t know how to do it.”
“That she’s unhappy,” Phillips said, “that she wants to leave New York.”
“Where does she want to go?”
“Back to the South,” Phillips said. “She’s mentioned that several times, about moving away from New York. But I can’t do that. All my work is here.” His voice tightened. He fought to control himself. “And then, there are times when I think she might just want to get away from life in general.” He looked at Frank intently. “People get like that, too, don’t they?”
Frank nodded. “Yeah, they do.” Instantly, he did an inventory of all the things he’d gotten tired of during the last few years. He remembered the times he’d wanted to get away from Karen, from remembering her sister’s murder in Atlanta, from the whole story of how he’d finally fallen in love with her while he’d worked on the case, then followed her to New York and fallen out of love as quickly and decisively as he’d fallen into it in the first place. After that, it was only a matter of time before he’d moved out of her Park Avenue apartment, and into the dank little office where Phillips sat now, eerily backlit by the grayish light which shone through its single dusty window, and where the inventory now abruptly ended.
Phillips’s face suddenly grew hard and tense. “I need a solution,” he said emphatically. “I need to find out what’s happening to my wife.” His eyes glistened slightly. “If she wants something, I’ll try to provide it. But first I have to know what it is she wants.”
“Why not ask her directly?”
Phillips shook his head. “I’m afraid … that it might precipitate a crisis. Push her over the edge, into whatever she’s thinking of doing. I—I just don’t want to confront her yet.”
Frank glanced down at the small stack of mail which rested on his desk. “What do you want me to do, exactly?” he asked.
“Find out what she’s up to,” Phillips said. “But, of course, discreetly.”
“I wouldn’t want you to confront her yourself, if that’s what you mean,” Phillips said. “Just find out what you can, and let me know. I can handle the rest.”
Frank looked back up at him. “It’s two hundred dollars a day, plus expenses. Five hundred in advance.”
Phillips watched him expressionlessly. “Money is not a problem,” he said. He immediately took a wallet from his jacket pocket and placed ten crisp hundred-dollar bills on Frank’s desk. “I’d like to up the advance a little, if you don’t mind. It’s just to encourage you. And I’d also like to make it nonrefundable.”
Frank didn’t reach for the money. Instead, he pressed the tip of the pencil down on the paper. “What’s her address?”
“Thirty-two East Sixty-fourth Street.”
“Is she there most of the time?”
“As far as I know. I’m at my office a great deal. I travel.”
“What about a job?”
“She has a few charity connections, that’s all,” Phillips said. “It’s social clubbing, nothing more. The committee to do this, the women’s auxiliary to do that. You know the kind of thing I mean.”
“So, she doesn’t work?” Frank asked, a little impatiently.
“Not at an actual job, no.”
“How does she spend her day?”
“I really don’t know,” Phillips admitted. “As I said, I’m very busy. I’m not home all that much.”
Frank drew in a deep breath, wondering at this man who knew so little about his wife of one year. “I’ll need a few numbers,” he said.
Phillips didn’t seem to understand. “Numbers?”
“Bank account numbers,” Frank explained. “Commercial and telephone credit card numbers. Things like that.”
Phillips looked at him suspiciously. “Why would you need all that?”
“To find out if there’s anything suspicious going on with her private accounts,” Frank explained. “Money going in or out in strange amounts.”
“And the phone credit card?”
“It wouldn’t hurt to know who she’s been talking to.”
“You really need all that?”
“If you want it done right.”
“Very well,” Phillips said reluctantly. “I have everything here.” He drew his wallet from his jacket pocket and ticked them off methodically.
Frank recorded them in his notebook, then shoved it back into his pocket. “Okay, I guess I have enough to work with for now,” he said. Then he stood up and offered Phillips his hand. “I’ll be in touch.”
Phillips looked slightly offended, as if he’d been peremptorily dismissed. “So you’ll be able to get to work right away then?” he asked as he got slowly to his feet.
“Yeah,” Frank said. He offered a quick, reassuring nod. “I’ll report to you as soon as I find something.”
Phillips looked at him pointedly. “Just keep in mind that time is very important in this situation,” he said. “For Virginia, I mean.”
Frank smiled quietly. “It may not be that serious,” he said, trying to ease him slightly. “It usually isn’t.”
“No, it is very serious,” Phillips said emphatically. “Virginia would not be stealing from me if it weren’t very serious.”
“If she’s stealing at all,” Frank reminded him, “she’s stealing from herself.”
“It’s the same thing when you’re married,” Phillips told him, his face almost brutally severe. “That’s why I really believe something very serious is wrong. It could be a matter of life and death, Mr. Clemons.”
Frank smiled again, though his eyes didn�
��t. Isn’t everything, he thought.
Once Phillips had gone, Frank returned to his desk, pocketed the money, then began going through the afternoon mail. He could tell that one of the letters was from Sheila, his ex-wife. The rose-colored paper alerted him. She wrote him only once or twice a year now, always when she was thinking about their daughter’s suicide, picking at the wound. Still, a letter was better than the melancholy phone calls, the low moan of her voice as she went through it all again, how good Sarah was, how kind, smart, full of possibility. She never failed to recite the entire litany, all the “hows” but one: how lost.
He slid the letter from under the rest, swept it over the edge of his desk, into the open drawer, then went on to the next one, hoping that it might be something interesting, perhaps something that would move him onto a different path because it had that “something extra” which most cases didn’t. But it was only a thank-you note from a client, along with a check for six hundred dollars, full payment for the time he’d spent trailing a retired security guard whom an armored car firm had come to suspect of plotting an inside job. He read the note quickly, then threw it in the garbage. The check went into his jacket pocket.
The rest were bills, except for a single letter in a light-blue envelope. He was beginning to open it when he glanced up and saw Farouk’s enormous legs move ponderously down the cement stairs, then heard him lumber along the littered corridor and open the office door.
“Hello, my friend,” Farouk said.
“Forgive me for the intrusion,” Farouk added as he walked to the chair opposite Frank’s desk and eased himself down into it. He glanced at the letter. “You are in the middle of something?”
“Nothing important,” Frank told him, the last letter still unopened in his hand. “Why, you feeling lonesome?”
“No,” Farouk said lightly. “I am my own companion.” There was no pride in the way he said it, only the brief acknowledgment that such was the way things had turned out for him.
“Well, I noticed that Toby wasn’t at the bar last night,” Frank said.
Farouk scratched the side of his face absently. “And because of that, I am supposed to be lost?”