hit the eye first, dating her puberty, like the vintage year on a wine bottle, to when Plymouths had tail fins and gas was a whole lot cheaper. I wondered if it was a wig; probably not. Some people change with the fashion; others freeze in an era they last considered themselves young and fashionable. Mrs. Crain was a freezer. The lipstick, the eye-shadow, the blatant, curvy body in a short, clinging green wool dress — good, really good, legs — gave her a fifties-television look. ”Edward Hummel?” she said briskly.
“Mrs. Crain,” I said politely.
She scanned the office. “I like it. Your office, I mean. As far from elegant as you can get without being seedy. But with humble dignity. I like it.”
“The thin edge of seed I call it.” I decided I liked her, too. I once had a car with tail fins myself. “Come in. Sit down.”
She arranged the body in the client’s chair to its best advantage, gave me cool green eyes, dead-level. I’m a sucker for green eyes. It occurred to me to wonder why I gave up on tail fins. She asked if I had a smoke. I offered her a pack of Virginia Slims — Marlboros in the drawer were for male clients — and lit her up. She blew smoke. “I want you to follow a man for me.” She said follow like she meant shoot.
Sounded like a rare spousal-surveillance bit. “Husband?”
“Nor even a boyfriend.” The very idea made her lip curl. “Just a creep whose activities I want a record of.”
“Okay, not husband, nor even a boyfriend. Business associate?”
“The chief of police of White River.”
A foothill town across the eponymous river from Pierce County. Population about 3,500. Industries: logging and dairy farming. Which exhausted my fund of facts about White River. Follow a cop? I tried to play it without overt astonishment. “Tailing the law is tough business. Especially small-town types. They’ve got a state association. Lobby in Olympia. Good contacts in the legislature. Detective licensing screwed up as it is, they could run me out of town if something went funny.”
She listened to it all. “That’s a sales pitch, isn’t it? How much?”
“I’d have to know more before I consider taking the case.”
“How much more?”
“Everything there is to know.”
She stubbed her cigarette in the ashtray and looked at the carpet. I waited for the usual line about how confidential this was, but she still was dealing surprises. “Does your secretary take shorthand?”
She had me by the seeds. I’d never seen the temp until she showed up at 1:45 and wanted to know where the ladies’ john was. “You want a transcript of this interview?”
“It might get the spooked look off your face.” A cool smile.
I keyed the com. “Can you come in with a steno pad, please?”
“Certainly,” came the chipper reply. “Where do you keep them?”
“Somewhere in the desk out there.” I turned to Mrs. Crain. “You have no personal involvement at all with this man?”
“I’m not that hard up!” Her eyes slanted to the rain outside. I had the feeling more was coming. But the Kelly girl came in to perch on the couch beneath rain-opaqued windows. It pulled her back from wherever she went.
To the temp I said, “Date, time, interview with Mrs. Eugene Crain. She’ll give you her address. Subject: requested surveillance of — “ I looked at my prospective client.
“Karnes,” she inserted smoothly. “Ronald J. Karnes, police chief of the booming metropolis of White River.”
“All right. What’s the story?”
“He is playing little tin god to the morals of the community.” The Kelly girl flashed her a look. I played it inscrutable. “The one movie house in town was going broke showing Disney movies,” Mrs. Crain went on. “You can get the wonderful world on TV now. So the owner brought in an X-rated movie. Actually, just a strong R. Boy-meets-girl, with some nakedness and thrashing around. No big deal these days. But quite an event in White River. It sold out.”
“The loggers loved it, huh?”
Thin smile. “Karnes raided it. Said local bluenoses insisted. Became their big hero. He handcuffed old Mr. Simplovomich! The theater owner. Said the city council should revoke his business license! City attorney said they had no authority to do it, no city ordinance. Mr. Simp should have sued! Those Christian fundamentalists got in on it, demanding an ordinance. The language they dreamed up was like something out of old Comstock laws. . .” Her voice quivered with some emotion. I supposed it was righteous indignation.
The Kelly girl’s arched eyebrows were almost up in her Afro hairdo. “Okay,” I said. “What happened next?”
“The community divided. The high-school P.A.D. teacher — “
“The what teacher?”
“Problems in American Democracy teacher.”
“Okay. What did she do?”
“He. Tim. Tim lectured about if there’s a difference between seeing it on-screen and reading it in a novel. Where does free speech leave off. Does it?” Out of the corner of my eye I saw the Kelly girl concentrate on her tablet. “Tim,” Mrs. Crain went on, “assigned students to find sex descriptions in library books similar to the scenes. He described them, since students weren’t allowed into the movie.”
“I bet the born-again Christians loved that,” I said.
Anger flushed her pale skin. “Karnes went after Tim! Said the school board should fire him! Made cracks about the librarian, for knowing which books to read! The ‘Christians’ wanted to yank any library book students cited.” When she paused for breath, the Kelly girl found rain patterns on the windows fascinating.
“I don’t see why you need anybody to follow this guy,” I said. “He seems to make no secret of his whereabouts.”
“Most of the time that’s true,” she said. “But there’s a little more to Ronald Karnes than the public knows.”
“Okay.” I drew the word out.
“I — that is the committee — believe he frequents massage parlors and adult movie houses. Far from White River, of course. There’s no such thing there! If it’s true, well! Well, his crazy crusade is sick! If he were sincere, we could face him on the issue. If he secretly does these other things, he’s — twisted, a hypocrite!”
“Because he takes in an occasional skin flick? Or likes his sauna attendants to be female?”
The green eyes flashed fire. “I’m not against sex!” The lithe body moved under clinging wool, angry rejection of such an idea. “I am — the committee is— against hypocrisy.”
“That’s the second mention of a committee. What committee?”
“The Committee to Protect Free Speech in White River!” Her eyes dared me to laugh. I wasn’t about to laugh. Never laugh at crusaders.
“So would you be hiring me, or this committee?”
“My sisters and me, on the committee’s behalf. We’re not asking you to break any laws. We simply want this man followed, and reports about his activities. Now, how much do you charge, or must we look elsewhere?”
It sounded nutty as a shipload of Georgia pecans bound for Brazil. But it would be walking-around money, and it was too wet outside for husbands to be straying. I gave her the old infidelity rate, minimum of five days’ worth payable up front. She flinched, but didn’t waver. Wrote a down-payment check, saying her sisters needed to raid savings. As noted, Little Nickel clients were not the carriage trade.
We closed the deal. I went through the usual: his haunts, car model and tag number, known associates, their addresses; anything she knew. She had a tattered Tacoma news clipping with his mug shot, published when he was appointed chief. The rest was pretty thin. She either didn’t know the guy well, something you never trust when a woman says it, or was wasting money to prove she didn’t. She added her sisters’ details for me to mail a copy of the dictation to them both.
“I’ll begin tomorrow,” I said. “If you see me in White River, you don’t know me.”
“Never saw you before in my life.” Luminous eyes full force, bright smile. Crusader or not, it was enough to make me consider trading my VW Bug in on something big, gas-guzzling, and out-of-date. With tail fins.