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Seattle in the Seventies, a Rainy City Mystery


Seattle in the seventies? Sure, I could tell you stories about Seattle in the seventies. It still had a kind of innocence then you didn’t usually see in cities its size, but that didn’t make it boring.

The Nixon Justice Department waged some of its losing battle against the antiwar crowd in Seattle, after an estimated two thousand of them besieged the federal building in February of 1970. Trial of the alleged ringleaders was moved to Tacoma, in front of a U.S. District Judge who liked to be photographed wearing Indian war bonnets.

He would be far-better remembered, and reviled by locals, for his decision four years later that Indian tribes were entitled to fifty percent of the salmon and steelhead catch. Emotions ran so high it damned near turned into a shooting war. Some Indians were carrying AK-47s and some state fisheries patrol officers were wearing helmets and flak jackets.

Well before the term “hippie” became common usage for unwashed and disaffected college-age activists, Seattle named them “fringies” because they always seemed to hang out on the fringes of the Udub district.

In the seventies, the stock market went through one of its incomprehensible paroxysms. The other Washington, the one on the Potomac, reacted by indulging in one of its periodic spasms of parsimony that politicians pass off for fiscal responsibility, slashing and cutting. What would become known as the ‘73-’74 Recession was in full swing in Seattle, because Boeing relied on federal largesse, and Seattle relied on Boeing.

Boeing had shed 60,000 jobs by 1971, and all the pilot-fish industries and businesses — like mine — that swam in the great whale’s shadow were in serious trouble. Unemployment hovered at 13 to 17 percent, depending who you asked. A couple of clever real-estate guys immortalized themselves — and the era — with a sardonic billboard in front of a cemetery: “Will the last person leaving Seattle — turn out the lights.” Local boosters came out of the woodwork to rant against their billboard, led by a company that made peanut butter.

You just had to love Seattle in the seventies.

I did, even though the economic slump hit my little private-detective business hard, and I was scratching for clients. Background checks on Boeing engineers involved in aerospace and defense projects had got Buchinksky and me out here from Pennsylvania, and paid the bills quite handsomely. But with 60,000 on the bricks and the SST project canceled by Congress, nobody needed their backgrounds checked anymore. Buchinsky went back to Pennsylvania in disgust. I had the Seattle habit by then and told him I was sticking around to turn out the lights.

One guy in Seattle made his separate financial peace with the Great Boeing Bust. He called himself D.B. Cooper, extorted $200,000, and parachuted (from a commandeered Boeing jet of course) into legend. In January 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, a very big deal. But the Washington Legislature had legalized abortions two years ahead of them; the Evergreen State liked to be on the cutting edge of things.

When Egypt and its cronies invaded Israel in October of 1973, and the Arab Oil Embargo was announced to punish the U.S. for backing Israel, Seattle had the same long gas-station lines and weird “odd and even” rules for buying gas as every place else. But by the time the federal government mandated 55 mph as the national speed limit, Washington was the only state that had to raise its freeway limit; the State Legislature had already slapped on a 50-mph limit in reaction to the gas lines. Cutting edge, as I said.

After Henry Kissinger negotiated an end to the embargo in the spring of ’74, the pump price of gasoline settled at around sixty cents a gallon in Seattle, almost double the pre-embargo price, but you could fill your tank again — if your could afford it. It was just three years since Clint Eastwood had forsaken spaghetti Westerns to give the world Dirty Harry Callahan and his .44 Magnum. But in Seattle the ACLU was harassing the city about cops who wanted to carry .357s, or load hollow-points in their service .38s.

The cops had other things to worry about: 1974 was the year attractive co-eds started vanishing, one after another, from in and near Seattle. By the time autumn came they were unsuccessfully hunting a tan Volkswagen and a young man who had been heard to introduce himself to victims as “Ted.” Every time you opened the newspaper, you half-expected to see that another good-looking girl was missing. I observed my chosen city with a kind of bemused acceptance of its quirks while I tried to keep my little one-man shop afloat. Absent the recession, I never would have been looking for cases like the one that came through my door this particular day in November.

It began mundanely, the way most of those off-the-wall cases did back then. I was sitting in my office, reading over again Edna Ferber’s big public relations job for the city of Seattle — the first chapter of her novel, Great Son — waiting for a prospective client. When I heard the elevator stop at my floor, I looked at my wristwatch. Quarter until three. There wasn’t all that much traffic on my floor that time of the afternoon, so the odds were it was my client. She had told me on the phone she had to drive into the city from the Cascade foothills on the southeast King County line, about 50 miles. When they have that far to come they are always early: elementary.

I went on reading the Ferber and ignored the steady rain out past the windows. The rain usually settled in for the winter the week after the Puyallup State Fair ended, and 1974 was no exception. It always rains in Seattle. Okay, not always, but enough to suit me. I like rain. I like Seattle, too, especially in the rain. It sure isn’t for everybody, but I liked this town long before I ever saw it, reading about it when I was a kid as the backdrop for lumberjacks or fur trappers or Klondikers, or for setting sail to the Asian mysteries of the Pacific Rim. They called it the Queen City back then.

I’d been settled for a while and Seattle was a city of queens, all right, and a lot of other things Ferber never got around to mentioning in her lovely first chapter. But the lights were still on, and I was still here.

Buchinsky had been back in Pennsylvania for two years but he still was on our firm’s paperwork, operating as an absentee partner, prepared to infuse small amounts of cash if I went too long without a client. I was down to regular gumshoeing by then, insurance and custody work or worse, and dodging my bill collectors. Divorce work had all but dried up when Washington passed a no-fault divorce law, which had deepened my personal recession. But even bill collectors didn’t believe the local recession would last forever, and hadn’t panicked. I managed to work out some debts in trade by skip-tracing and the like, recessions are good for that kind of work, and somehow I stuck. I’d been sticking long enough to worry too many newcomers might come in and spoil things if the economy ever recovered. Instant native, that was me.

When things were really slow I placed one of my 25-word classifieds in the Little Nickel Want Ads, sandwiched in the personal-services column somewhere between Amos the Dry-waller and Madame Zulu, Palmist Extraordinaire. Out in the bedroom suburbs, or way out in the logging or dairy or coastal fishing towns I usually got a few nibbles, most of them nervous about making a long-distance call clear to Seattle; working people still worried about things like that in the seventies. The Little Nickel did not exactly attract the carriage trade. About once every other ad, I got someone who actually showed up for an appointment. The suspense about whether they were going to get cold feet in the hall had long since worn off. I just waited and read through the Ferber, or one of the other books about the Northwest I displayed in the office to show I was locally cultured, and hoped there was a week’s worth of work dawdling around out there.

The outer door opened finally, and there was a muffled exchange between my caller and the Kelly girl I’d had sent over an hour ago. My regular girl had gone back to the unemployment lines months ago. The Kelly girl announced the caller on the intercom and had a name to go with it: Mrs. Eugene Crain.

“Okay, give me a couple of minutes,” I said.

My unpaid bills stared back at me unwinkingly from the blotter. The refinanced car, the office rent, and a couple of credit cards I lived on instead of cash through the thin spots. Both card companies were making strained noises in their collection departments. I shoved them in the desk drawer. You gotta have front. A thin veneer anyway. The office had been freshly dusted this morning for the first time in a couple of weeks, an arrangement I had with management to trim costs. I stood up to slip on my suit jacket and told the agency girl to send Mrs. Crain in.

Her hairdo hit you first, a towering blonde beehive you would swear was a wig, but probably wasn’t. It dated the puberty of Mrs. Crain, like the vintage year on a wine bottle, to the time when Plymouths had tail fins and gas was a whole lot cheaper. Some people change with the fashion; others freeze in time where fashion was when they last considered themselves young and free. Mrs. Eugene Crain was a freezer: the lipstick, the eye-shadow, the blatant, curvy body in a clinging wool dress — the good, really good, legs — gave her the aspect of an escapee from black-and-white television.

“Edward Hummel?” she said.

“Mrs. Crain,” I said politely.

“I like it,” she said, looking around the room. “Your office, I mean. About as far from elegant as you can get, without actually being seedy. But with humble dignity. I like it.”

I decided I liked her, too. I had a car with tail fins once myself. “The thin edge of seed, I call it,” I told her. “Come in. Sit down.”

She brought the body through the door, arranged it in the client’s chair to its best advantage, and finally gave me the cool green eyes, dead-level. I’m a sucker for green eyes. It occurred to me to wonder why I ever gave up on those tail fins. She asked if I had a smoke. I offered her a pack of Benson&Hedges from the desk drawer; I had Marlboros for male clients. They probably were stale but she didn’t complain.

“I want you to follow a man for me,” she said through the smoke. She said “follow” like she meant “shoot.”

I nodded. “Husband?”

“Nor even a boyfriend.” The very idea made her lip curl. “Just a creep whose activities I want a record of.”

“If he’s not your husband, nor even a boyfriend, who is he?” I asked. “Business associate?”

“He’s the chief of police of White River.”

White River is a town right on the southeastern border of the county, across the river for which it is named from Pierce County. Population about 3,500. Industries: logging, dairy farming, and tourism. Which exhausted my fund of knowledge about White River. This wasn’t following the Little Nickel script. I tried to play it without any overt astonishment.

“Tailing the law is tough business, as a rule. Especially these small-town types. They’ve got a state association and things. A big lobby in Olympia, good contacts with the state legislature, state patrol, and so on. With private-detective licensing as screwed up as it is in the state, they could just about run me back to Pennsylvania if something went funny.”

She listened to it all. Then: “That’s a sales pitch, isn’t it? How much?”

“I’d have to know more about this before I could even consider taking the case.”

“How much more?”

“Everything there is to know.”

She hesitated, stubbing the cigarette in the ashtray by the chair and looking at the carpet. I waited for the usual line about how confidential all this must be kept, but she still was dealing the surprises. “Okay,” she said. “Does your secretary take shorthand?”

She had me by the seeds again. I had never seen the temp until she showed up precisely at 1:45 p.m. and wanted to know where the ladies’ john was. “You want a transcript of this?”

“It might be better. It might get that spooked look off your face, too.” It went with a cool smile.

I punched the com stud, “Can you come in here with a steno pad, please?”

“Certainly,” came the chipper response. “Where do you keep them?”

“Somewhere in the desk out there.” I turned back to Mrs. Crain. “You have no personal involvement at all with this man?”

“I’m not that hard up!” She paused, and her eyes slanted away from me to the rain outside. I had the feeling more was coming, but the Kelly girl came in, distracting her, and brought her back from wherever she had been. The Kelly girl perched on the couch beneath rain-opaqued windows, and Mrs. Crain turned her attention back to me.

“Okay.” I looked at the Kelly girl. “Date, time, interview with Mrs. Eugene Crain. She’ll give you her address. Subject: requested surveillance of — “ I looked at Mrs. Crain.

“Karnes,” she said. “Ronald J. Karnes, police chief of the booming metropolis of White River.”

“All right, what’s the story?”

“Karnes is playing little tin god to the morals of the community.” I saw the Kelly girl flash her a look but I was playing it inscrutable.

“Go on.”

“The one movie house in town was going broke showing Disney movies,” she said. “You can get plenty of the wonderful world on television now. Cheaper, too. So the owner brought in an X-rated movie. Actually, it probably was just a little stronger R. It was just a boy-meets-girl story, with some nakedness and some thrashing around. No big deal for the 1970s. But in White River, it was quite an event, and it sold out.”

“The loggers loved it, huh?”

She ignored that. “Karnes raided it after the local bluenoses insisted. He became their big hero, of course. And he just loved that. Karnes actually handcuffed old Mr. Simplovomich — the theater owner! The city council held an emergency session to revoke Mr. Simplovomich’s business license, but the city attorney told them they had no authority to do it. They had no city ordinance. They started debating whether to pass one. Some of those Christian fundamentalists showed up, and the language they began to dream up was really frightening. They had to let Mr. Simplovomich go, of course. He should have sued, that’s what he should have done. . .”

Her voice quivered slightly under the force of some emotion. I supposed it was righteous indignation. I looked at the Kelly girl. The Kelly girl looked at me. She had very high arched eyebrows, and they were by now almost up to her frizzy Afro haircut.

“Then what?” I said.

“The community divided over the issue. The P.A.D. teacher at the high school. . .”

“The what teacher?”

“The Problems in American Democracy teacher.”

“Okay. The P.A.D. teacher. What did she do?”

“He. Tim gave a lecture about what’s the difference between actually seeing it on the screen and reading a description of it in a novel. Especially when the story has what the judges call socially redeeming value. Where does free speech leave off — and does it?”

I couldn’t bear to look at the Kelly girl directly. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her concentrating on her tablet, writing like crazy.

“The teacher assigned the students to find written descriptions of graphic sex similar to that in the film in books in the school library. He described the scenes, since the teenagers weren’t allowed into the movie.”

“I just bet the civic leaders of White River loved that,” I said.

Her face set in grim lines. “Karnes went after Tim — after the teacher! He actually asked the school board to try to fire Tim! The fundamentalists wanted them to yank any book out of the library students found on their assignment! Karnes sided with them, and actually made some cracks about the librarian for being able to tell them which books to look for!”

The injustice of it had her words jamming together as they tumbled out. When she paused for breath, the Kelly girl found the patterns of rain on the windows fascinating. I wondered if she was getting it all down. “I don’t see why you need to hire 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.

“Well, then?”

“There’s a little more to Mr. Karnes than the public knows. I — that is, we, my sisters and me — have heard he frequents massage parlors and adult movie houses. Always well away from White River, of course, because there’s no such thing there. If that’s true, well! Well, then this crazy crusade of his is sick in some horrid way. If he were sincere, our committee could meet him openly, on the issues. But if he’s secretly doing those other things at the same time, then he’s — twisted — somehow, and needs to be exposed for what he is.”

“What, because he takes in an occasional skin flick or likes his sauna attendants to be female?”

Her eyes flashed. “I’m not against sex!” The big body moved under the clinging wool in angry rejection of any such idea. “We — the committee — are against hypocrisy.”

“That’s the second time you’ve mentioned your 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. “This committee is you and your sisters’?”

“No — there are more than just us. But I — we — think we need to establish once and for all just what kind of phony Karnes is.”

“So you and your sisters would be hiring me, but not the committee?”

“On the committee’s behalf. We’re not asking you to break any laws. We simply want this man followed, and reports made concerning his activities. Now, how much would 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 infidelity rate with a minimum of five days’ worth, payable all up front. She flinched, but didn’t waver. She said she could only write a check to cover half because her sisters would need to raid their savings accounts. As I said, Little Nickel clients are not the carriage trade.

We closed the deal, and I went through the usual with her: his haunts, car-model and tag number, known associates and their addresses, anything she knew. She gave me a tattered Tacoma News Tribune news clipping and mug shot published when he was appointed chief. The rest was pretty thin. Either she really didn’t know the guy well, which is something you never trust when a woman tells you, or she was going to waste front-end money to prove she didn’t. I got the names of her sisters and their addresses, and promised to send a copy of the dictation to each. “Okay. I’ll begin tomorrow. If you see me in White River, you don’t know me.”

“I never saw you before in my life,” she said and gave me those luminous eyes, full force, and a smile to go with it.

Crusader or not, it was enough to make me want to trade my VW back in on something big and gas-guzzling and out-of-date. With tail fins.