Posted the first chapter of this novel a couple months back, before all the news about pandemic. Yesterday I read a suggestion that story-telling is a good antidote for grim reality, and ordering e-books online a good way to find new entertainment while quarantined. Maybe a Seattle tale from days before the kung flu got loose? Anyway, here’s another chapter.
Ronald Filmore found me looking at a shadowy wall full of family photos, and turned on some lights. He was almost as tall as me, say six feet. His thinning hair was carefully combed and feathered. A slight paunch put a gentle curve in the bright silk tie that accentuated his crisp white shirt. His handshake was practiced and firm, as befitted a career civil servant with the Utilities and Transportation Commission.
I pointed to one of the photos. “Is this your daughter?” He nodded. It looked like a high school graduation photo. Her face was still youthfully round, but hinted at her mother’s bone structure and her dad’s determined brow. Her hair shone in the studio lights, and her eyes were laughing.
“And this, and this,” Filmore said. Soccer uniforms, bright faces smiling or squinting at the lens. Mrs. Filmore hadn’t always been hip-heavy; in her younger days she was stacked. Two kids, a boy and a girl, both with copper hair. Pigtails for the girl and a Beatle cut for the boy in their grade-school pictures. There was one of Jennifer in a baseball uniform, bat at the ready, peering through big-framed glasses with the concentration of an Alvin Davis. Later she was pudgy and cute in a swimsuit.
“As I told you on the phone, Bob Woodford recommended you.”
Woodford was a retired state trooper. He did insurance investigations for a loose consortium of ex-lawmen who had gone private upon retirement. Their firm crowded up the field, and they had the unfair advantage of the old-school tie when working with local cops, but they occasionally handed me crumbs when they were disinterested.
“How old is your daughter now, Mr. Filmore?”
Well, that cleared up why Woodford had passed the case along to me. Grown-up missing women are a dime a dozen. A lot of times they’re not that hard to find, for a professional. Almost as often, they don’t want to be found. The client is never happy to hear that. Contrary to popular belief, a lot of cops respect privacy more than the average citizen. When they were cops, Woodward’s colleagues would just tell the aggrieved party that their interest was unwanted, and go back to their case load. Accepting a client in search of a grown woman, now they were private, might conflict with their old code.
If the client was a useful contact in the state’s power structure, they could avoid the issue by passing him on to me. Lower rates, and the client could get mad at me if a gone woman’s disinclination to be found awoke my scruples. On the other hand, if it worked out to the client’s satisfaction, they both saved him some money and had a favor to call in.
Filmore was a quick student of facial language.
“I know it seems mundane. Bob told me there are thousands of young women between the ages of eighteen and thirty listed as missing in one of those police computers. I never imagined there were so many.”
“Most of them probably aren’t missing, in the sense you mean,” I told him. “They know where they are. They just went there without telling somebody who thinks they also have a right to know. Jealous boyfriend, nosy parent, people like that. Do you have any reason to suspect something might have happened to Jennifer?”
He’d winced when I said nosy parent. “God, I hope not! This is all so — alien — to us. We’ve been married over twenty-five years, a house in the country, two kids and a cat, as Jennifer used to say. I think ours were the only kids in their school who still have the same mother and father they started with. We’ve had a pretty good life. No drugs or teen pregnancies, nothing like that. We thought it was a disaster when our son Brett got so many speeding tickets our insurance company dropped him.”
“Jennifer lives in Auburn?”
“She’s enrolled at Green River Community College. We moved our travel trailer to a mobile home court up there, so she could have her own place. It was cheaper than an apartment, and we weren’t using it since the kids grew up.”
“Did the college report her missing?”
“They won’t even tell us if she’s coming to school! They said it was irrelevant that we were paying the tuition. That’s the word that prissy bitch used.” His voice wasn’t even anymore. “Said they had to protect students’ privacy!”
“Do you know what classes she was taking? Who her teachers were?”
He shook his head. “She was going for her AA, so the usual thing, I suppose. Oh, she talked about the classes, and about the teachers, most of whom she considered terminally dumb, to use her phrase. But no specifics, no.”
“I’m pretty sure not. I’m afraid she considered most boys she encountered dumber than her teachers. She has a kind of overall disdain for boys at this stage of her life. She was always shy, and always a top student, and a bit of a bookworm. She seemed happiest forted up in her room with a book. Her room is lined with book shelves, and not a spare inch. Everything from Jacques Cousteau to those fat romance novels.”
I thought for a minute. “Very close girl friends?”
“You’re not suggesting…”
I raised a hand. “The kind of girl you’re describing usually has very close chums she’s known all her life. Sleep over at each other’s house, spend a lot of time giggling over things, stuff like that. By this age, they’d be swapping boyfriend war stories. Details about each other’s lives they’re unlikely to tell their parents.”
He nodded slowly. “Of course we’ve asked Andrea. She lives down the street with her mother. Andrea hasn’t heard from her for about as long as us. I’m afraid we’ve lost touch with Michelle, her other best friend. Her father took a transfer to the DSHS office in Everett. That’s Department of Social and Health Services.”
“You said on the phone it’s been a month since you’ve heard from your daughter.”
A look of fear flitted across his face. “Over a month as near as we can tell. She usually came home for a weekend at least once a month. Usually she’d check in, maybe once a week, or we’d call her. She has a phone at the trailer.”
“Who pays the bill?”
“The bill goes to the trailer. She pays it out of her college money we give her. And the space rent, and other things.”
“You still are the registered owner of the trailer? You have duplicate keys?”
“Yes, of course. Why…?”
“I’ll need written permission from you to get into the trailer, or the park manager’s liable to call the police.”
“Did you file an official missing persons report with the Auburn police?”
“But she’s from Olympia!”
“Not for these purposes. It’d be Auburn’s jurisdiction. I’m surprised Woodford didn’t tell you.”
“Maybe he did. I’m not tracking very well on this. Will you look for her for us?”
We agreed to a retainer, and he wrote me a check. He gave me a key for the trailer and wrote me a permission slip.
“Did you get a chance to go over your home phone bills?”
“I still don’t understand.”
“If she left voluntarily, it’s unlikely she just took off. Something changed in her life, and it probably involved people. She may have called someone long-distance.”
He grimaced. “This really is going to invade her privacy, isn’t it?”
“It’s that, or sit tight and hope everything is all right. I know of families still waiting after years.”
“Mildred did look at the bills.” He led me into the kitchen; another great view of the water. The phone records were neatly laid out in the breakfast nook. “Mildred highlighted several numbers on this one. This 448 prefix, for instance, doesn’t ring any bells with me. You?”
“Downtown Seattle.” I looked at the number. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
He caught my tone. “You recognize the number?” He couldn’t believe it. I was pretty surprised myself.
“Yeah, the city desk of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.” The call had been made in February.
“We don’t even subscribe to the P-I.”
“Okay.” I entered the number in my notebook, together with the others his wife had marked. “I’ll need full names and phone numbers or addresses for Andrea and Michelle, too.”
Mildred Filmore came into the room. Her eyes were reddened and puffy. “Has Brett come in yet? I didn’t hear the boat.”
Filmore shook his head. “He’s out fishing for blackmouth,” he told me.
Both their gazes were drawn to the twilit bay. I didn’t have to ask to know they were “worrying” him home, as my grandmother used to say. With their daughter missing, they would be doubly fearful every time he went out of their sight. Judged by Filmore’s comment about car insurance, and the fact Brett chased resident Chinook salmon out on the big salt in weather like this, he probably kept them on edge in the best of times.
“Mr. Hummel wants to talk to Andrea,” Filmore told his wife. “But her mother is such a busybody…”
“Oh, go ahead!” She sighed heavily. “We wouldn’t want to deprive Phyllis of meeting a detective who quotes poetry, would we?”
“All right, honey.” Then he cocked his head as if he suspected me of trying to put a move on his wife. “Poetry? I thought that kind of thing only happened on TV.”
“It’s where I got all my training,” I said.