speak to our desires


Epigraph

It was of erotic love that the Roman poet said, “I love and I hate,” but other kinds of love admit the same mixture. They carry in them the seeds of hatred.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Chapter 1

When I say I’m a private investigator, you might think James Bond or Sherlock Holmes. You shouldn’t.

But sometimes life insists on imitating art. That June day, during lunch hour, the office door banged open. In the doorway stood a beautiful blonde, very young but perfect. Her skin was like roses, and her hair hung down in back like pale heavy silk. Her clothes had that sheen of high fashion that means money. Just like in a movie, two big tears rolled down her flawless cheeks. “I need help,” she whispered. I almost looked around for the TV cameras. It was a perfect setup for Allen Funt.

Instead I tossed my newspaper on top of a filing cabinet and stood up. “Sit down, miss. Can I get you a cup of coffee? Here’s a Kleenex. Did you want Mr. Depford?”

“I don’t care,” she sniffled. “I just need a detective.”

That was good. Ernie Depford, my partner, was in the hospital for gallstones, so if she wanted him she’d be disappointed. I didn’t want her to be disappointed. I shut the door and sat down in my chair again. She sat on the edge of the plaid office sofa. A lot of excellent leg showed under the hem of her skirt. The mini is the best development in fashion since the bikini.

“What’s your name? Tell me about it. How can I help?”

She blew her nose. An hour ago I would have said it’s not possible to blow your nose and look great doing it. She looked wonderful. “I need to find my mom,” she said.

My heart sank. “How old are you?”

“I’m seventeen,” she said defensively. “And I can pay. Look!”

She dipped into her handbag and passed me a manila envelope. Inside was a thousand dollars in fifties, still held by the paper band. I riffled the edge of the wad and passed it back. “A girl like you, you shouldn’t walk around with cash like this. Someone snatches your purse, and where are you?”

“I can handle myself.” For a second she looked tough as nails.

Like it says on the radio, you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. “Tell me your name,” I said, wary. “Where’d you get this cash? How’d you mislay your folks?”

She sat back on the plaid sofa, cool and calm. A chilly pride flowed out from her, like Queen Victoria being not amused. “I earned it,” she said. “And not the way you’re thinking, either. My name is Eléonore Quartern. Perhaps you’ve heard of me.”

“No,” I had to admit. “But let me guess. You’re — an actress. TV — no, Broadway. Your family, let me see, an aging but honest mom, two kid brothers, and a baby sister. They were kidnapped by feuding hillbillies in rural Kentucky. Or was it Mormon schismatics in the mountains of Utah? And you’ve come to New York to hire Tim Coates, the best investigator in the Western hemisphere, to find them.”

That made her smile a little. “Are you really the best investigator in the hemisphere, Mr. Coates?”

“You bet. How’d you hear about me?”

“I used the Yellow Pages.”

I clapped a hand to my forehead and slouched onto the inky desk blotter. “Sic transit gloria! What do you do, really?”

“Here.” She took a glossy magazine out. It was a last winter’s Harper’s Bazaar. Roberta our secretary prefers LaMode — the clothes are cheaper. I began to flick through it but she said, “No, look at the cover.”

The woman on the cover looked like a clown in the heavy makeup they favor these days. You could have polished a shoe with her eyeliner. She wore an ugly dress, what they call OpArt, very mini. I had to look twice at the face. “That’s you!”

She nodded. “It’s a living.”

I don’t read these things, so I was horrified. “But — but you’re so beautiful! Why do you let ’em do that to you?”

She smiled again, a fleeting half-smile like the Mona Lisa. “It’s a living,” she repeated. “Now tell me about your firm, Mr. Coates. Can you find my mother for me?”

“You bet. Or,” I added, “we can find out what happened to her, I mean if she’s deceased or moved to Brazil or something. When did you see her last?”

“Three years ago.”

“It’ll be a snap, that short a time frame.”

“Good. It’s like, I really want to see her again.” She blinked hard to keep the tears back.

“What I’ll need from you ...” I scribbled on a scratch pad. “... Names. Her family, your father’s family. Where she’s lived, and on what. What she does with her time. Friends, church, Junior League —”

“None of that,” she said. “She has none. No family, except me. No friends. Not what you’d call friends.”

I could see already it wasn’t going to be a usual investigation, but I could sort it out. “Well, list whoever you want. Here, take this. Write down everything, bring it back when you’re done, and we’re off to the races.”

She frowned at the paper. “Is there — well, any way to find her without all these questions?”

I banged my hand on the desk. “Look, I’m an investigator. I ask questions. You want answers and no questions, get an astrologer.”

“I’m sorry,” she said right away. “I didn’t think.” She must have seen I really meant it. Her eyes were very bright, gazing straight into mine. They were brown, an unusual color for a blonde. Who knows what would have happened, if the office door hadn’t banged open again. It was Roberta back from lunch. She summed up the situation in one needle glance. Ernie started out with Roberta back in the Eisenhower administration, and she knows the business inside out. “I’m back, Mr. Coates,” she announced unnecessarily. “Let me switch the phones back to my desk.” She marched over to my phone and flipped the switch, taking in Eléonore’s paper while she was at it. “Perhaps you’d prefer that typed, miss. Mr. Coates’s writing is impossible.”

Meekly Eléonore handed over my notes. Roberta took it to her own desk near the door and ran some paper into the black manual typewriter. Over the clatter of the keys I said, “Where can I reach you, Miss Quartern?”

The formal name didn’t taste very good. I was glad when she said, “Please, call me Ellie.”

“Ellie. Is that what they really call you?”

“Sure.” She didn’t seem surprised. “Eléonore, that’s my professional name. I’m really Ellie.”

Triumph glowed in my chest, as if I’d actually advanced in intimacy. “Are you staying in town, Ellie?”

“Right now I’m at the Plaza.” She took out a checkbook, just like in a Nero Wolfe novel. “Shall I give you a retainer? And you can give me your expense account later.”

But it didn’t feel right, money exchanging hands now. “No. Roberta will send you a bill.”

She smiled again, and I felt my knees weaken. She stood up. Roberta brought over the typed notes. And she was gone.

I leaned back in my chair with a sigh of happiness. “I’m in love.”

“You and who else.” Roberta glared down at me from her five foot two, hennaed curls bristling. “A bill, hah! You didn’t even give me a chance to call the Plaza, to see if she’s registered there.”

“What the diff, we haven’t done any work on it yet. If she doesn’t return with that list we haven’t lost a dime.” I retrieved my paper and unfolded it at the sports page. Roberta snorted and tripped back to her desk. After a while she went out again to the ladies. Quickly I dialed the Plaza Hotel. “Is there a Miss Eléonore Quartern registered there? Yes? There is? No, no message just yet. I’m just checking for a floral delivery.” I scooped up my paper again before Roberta came back.

oOo

There’s a spectrum of PIs, and Depford & Coates is on the boring end of it. We mostly do divorce work. People go somewhere else to solve gruesome murders, recover stolen plans for atomic submarines, or thwart criminal organizations on the verge of conquering the world. We don’t even have pebbly glass in the office door, or a transom — it’s just a plain wooden door. But divorce segues into missing person work fairly well. Sometimes we have to find that spouse to get him or her divorced.

That was Friday June 6th. On Monday I went to the main branch of the New York Public Library and checked the magazine files. I found there’s no reference collection of Vogue, or Harper’s either. And naturally all the circulating issues were checked out. But Women’s Wear Daily was on file. I paged through about nine months’ worth, working back from the present, before I hit the jackpot.

The issue was dated September 1968 but all the articles and pictures were about winter clothes. And there she was, in a silly short fur coat that would let your knees freeze. The caption read, “Eléonore in Verrnice’s dyed Russian Fox, with a raccoon collar.” It was a bad picture, all fur and not much of the girl wearing it. I took a photocopy, as clear and large as I could, of that page. I wanted her picture.

Then I did what I should have done first off — let my fingers do the walking. I phoned a modeling agency, picked at random from the phone book, and said, “We need to hire Eléonore Quartern. I saw her on the cover of Harper’s.”

“Oh, she’s with the Rogier agency,” the girl on the other end said right away. So Ellie really was a famous face. “But Tangerine Cream practically owns her. You better get on to them.”

I got Tangerine Cream’s phone number, thanked her, and hung up. “Roberta, let me guess: who or what is Tangerine Cream? A lipstick color. A popsicle flavor. Or no, a coloring agent for Jello.”

Roberta didn’t stop typing, but the corners of her mouth turned down. “I think it’s from one of those folk-rock hippy-dippy songs.” For Roberta popular music peaked with Frank Sinatra. “You hear from that Quartern girl yet?”

“No, I’m just clearing the ground a bit.” There are ways to find out about businesses, but a concern that calls itself Tangerine Cream probably isn’t a Chamber of Commerce member. Finally I just phoned them. So they practically owned Ellie Quartern, huh? Tell me more!

I got bad vibrations right off. “Eléonore? You’re looking for Eléonore?”

“Not exactly. I’m doing a credit check. For a consumer loan.” It becomes second nature, these cover stories.

“She isn’t working here now,” the woman said. “Hold on.” A muffled sound, as she covered the mouthpiece, then a mutter of talk as she consulted someone.

Then a new voice, a man’s, demanded, “Where is she? Is she in New York?”

“Look, I’m not her dad,” I said, very grouchy, getting into the skin of the part. “I’m just doing a job, y’know?”

“You must have her address. She has filled out forms, yes? What for, a charge card, a mortgage?”

“That information is confidential, sir,” I said coldly. “If you don’t employ her now, did you use to employ her? And in what capacity?”

With my free ear I heard Roberta say, “Oh boy. You know there are rules for PIs in this town.”

I ignored her. The man on the other end was howling, “Just tell her to come back, all right? Tell her I have all her clothes, her luggage!”

Her clothes? I ground my teeth together but before I could comment the female voice said in the background, “Francisco, cool it! This isn’t where it’s at!”

More thumps and noise. I imagined Francisco wrestling for the receiver. Then the woman said, “Eléonore modeled for us for a little more than a year, from winter of ’67 to this spring. Is that, like, all you need to know?”

It would strike the wrong note but I had to ask, “Who is Francisco?”

“Oh, wow. Everyone knows Francisco Bohalt.” Her voice was suddenly sharp with suspicion.

“Well I don’t,” I said snippily. “Thank you for your time, miss.” And I hung up.

“Francisco Bohalt,” I said, writing it on my pad. “Roberta, who is Francisco Bohalt?”

“The name’s familiar,” she said. “He lives in the city, I know — a designer or something. Look in Who’s Who.”

I got the book off Ernie’s bookcase. “Good for you, Roberta. Here he is. Bohalt, Francisco, photographer. 1916 - present.” My spirits soared. Fifty-three years old, this Francisco was practically geriatric. But there was no picture of him. How can you be a photographer in Who’s Who and not have your photo in? Was it going to be necessary to page through yet more Women’s Wear Daily?

Suddenly I realized Roberta had quit typing and had been talking for some time. “ — always setting yourself up for trouble. I mean, talk about unsuitable. Like that Anne floozy, for instance. Or if it’s a nice gal, someone who’s possible, if you take my meaning, you’re like leftover oatmeal.”

I took a stab at it. “You’re planning to clean out your fridge.”

She slammed the typewriter carriage back hard. “Why do I bother?” she asked the ceiling. “He doesn’t listen. Now if Ernie were here —”

“How’s he doing?” I interrupted. “Did you smuggle that pizza in to him like you promised?”

“You could visit the hospital yourself, big shot, and find out.”

“Ernie’ll understand.” Ernie probably would, being a veteran. His war was Normandy and mine was Korea, but we both know about ducking hospitals. He never would have had the gallstones seen to if Roberta hadn’t bullied him into it.

She was going to bully me too. I could see it gleaming behind her bifocals. But through the open office door, from far down the hallway, came the creak of the elevator door. Then high heels clicked down the hallway, closer and closer. Roberta, whose desk is angled so she can see out, pressed her lips tightly together and began to type again. I shuffled my notes under the newspaper, opened another folder at random and frowned at it.

“Good morning, Miss Happ,” Ellie said shyly. “Is Mr. Coates busy just now?”

“I’ll ask,” Roberta said with a straight face.

I slapped the folder shut again. “I wish you’d call me Tim, Ellie. Have a sit. What do you have for me?”

She looked scrumptious. It was a humid hot June day, the first scorcher of the year. Our building is nominally air conditioned but it was installed so inefficiently that the hallways are always cooler than the offices — hence the open doors. Ellie looked like the kind of girl who never breaks a sweat. She wore a light blue linen dress and a summer hat. Just looking at her was refreshing, like holding a cold can of beer. She sat down and gazed sadly across the desk at me. “Oh, Mr. Coates — Tim, I mean. I don’t know if this is going to work out.”

I clutched my folders. “You don’t?”

She shook her head. “It’s just too complicated. I can’t get it down on paper.”

Enlightenment hit me. So she was a dumb blonde, probably found “Peanuts” too highbrow. I was so smitten it didn’t faze me at all. “Perfectly understandable,” I said rapidly. “Some people just aren’t the writing type. I’ll bet you watch the evening news, instead of reading the paper. It just shows what a good move you made getting me on board. I’m a words-on-paper person myself. Like when JFK was shot, it wasn’t real for me until I read it in the Times the next day. Suppose you tell me about your mom out loud, and we’ll take it from there.”

“I’ve never told anybody before,” she said. “Well — one person.”

“Who?” I couldn’t help asking.

“Oh, he was a priest.”

“Doesn’t count.” I made wiping motions with my hand and mentally noted, Catholic. God, my family’ll kill me — they’re all Baptists. “Tell you what. It’s too hot in here. Let’s go have some lunch, and you can take your time about it.”

I levered myself out of my chair and ushered her out. Roberta’s rigid back showed me what she thought, but I dropped her a wink anyway as we passed.

I took her to Pico’s. It’s the nearest restaurant, the sort of little Italian place that has candles stuck in straw-covered wine bottles on the red-checkered tablecloths. “It’s not in your league, but I know the owner. We can sit here all afternoon in the a.c. if we want.” I steered her to a red leather booth in the corner.

She smiled up at me, with her mysterious little half-smile. “What do you think is my league?”

“Elaine’s? the Waldorf?”

That made her laugh. “You must think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Ruby will disappoint you.”

“Ruby. Is that your mom’s name?”

She nodded. “Ruby Quartern.”

I took out my notebook and scribbled. “Middle name? Maiden name? Aliases?”

“No. At least, none that I know about.”

The waiter came with the mimeographed menus. I knew what I was going to order, but I stared at it while the questions whizzed around in my head. Did I dare to ask about her father now? He was important, I could feel it. At some point, prying around like this, I was going to hit a nerve, and he might be it. Or should I play it safe with a more neutral line of inquiry for the moment?

I demanded spaghetti and a beer. Ellie surprised me by asking the waiter something in Italian. The waiter murmured respectfully back in the same language, and went off. “Do you eat Italian often? What did he say?”

“He’s going to find out about the antipasti. I’ve traveled in Italy.” She nodded at the map of Florence framed on the wall.

“Really? When?”

“Oh, last year.” The waiter came back, and while he told her about antipasti I scribbled, “Italy. Francisco?” A big mistake, to start unraveling two problems at once.

“So tell me about your mom,” I said after she ordered the calamari. “Where does she live? Or used to live — you went home, I suppose, and she wasn’t there.”

“That’s right.” Her lower lip, perfectly lipsticked, quivered like a little girl’s. “In Norfolk, Virginia. I’ll give you the street address. It was a little white shack of a house. I hated it when I was there, and I ran away. But I had to go back.”

“It’s a cliché, but nobody steps into the same river twice,” I said. She took a deep breath, fighting for control, and I slipped in a few more questions. “Were you in touch after you left? Letters, phone calls, messages with friends? No? Where might she have gone? Where does she come from, her family and so on?”

“I don’t know.” She took a roll from the basket and began to tear it into crumbs. “I was born in Philadelphia, but that’s not her home.”

“Do you have your birth certificate? Where did your father live?”

“I don’t know. The place for his name was blank. I know it sounds weird. But I just don’t know. She never told me.”

“I can see why you need professional help,” I said. “She sounds like an unusual person.”

“You don’t know the half of it. She and I — we’re different. Not just a little different, but way out.”

“You’re absolutely unique.” It just slipped out, because her bent golden head was about six inches from mine, smelling very faintly of some expensive shampoo. I yearned to lean forward and sniff it like a bunch of flowers. Quickly I added, “Let me guess. She’s even lovelier than you. Blonde as the day. When the two of you walk down the sidewalk marriages flounder and strong men put on sunglasses to cut the glare. Am I right?”

Her smile was a little crooked. “She’s blonde all right.”

I snapped my fingers. “Darn. Well, do you have a photo of her?”

“Mom never let anyone take her picture. She didn’t approve of them. She didn’t like bank accounts, the tax system, or the Man.”

That description rang a bell. “And you moved around a lot as a kid, am I right? Don’t get mad — but was she hiding from something or somebody?”

She looked up. “Gosh, you are smart! I was sort of working up to that.”

“Don’t be ashamed of it. Was it your father? A custody dispute? Or was she really on the lam, hiding from the police?”

“Yes.” It was coming, the secret, and I waited patiently for her to force it out. “She’s — there’s no polite way to say it, she’s a prostitute. And she’s murdered at least one man.”

“You’re sure of that,” I said, startled.

“I saw it.”

I sipped some beer and thought hard. It flashed through my mind that I didn’t know anything about Ellie really. You can fall in love with a girl, but she doesn’t necessarily have a balanced outlook on life. For instance, who knows what hallucinogens the fashion crowd is doing this year? She might be nutty as my mother’s pecan pie, freaked out on LSD or something.

She put her hand on mine and all the questions evaporated. “I’ll tell you about it, dates and names and places. You can check it with the police in that town.”

“You do that,” I said weakly. I watched as my free hand crept over the tablecloth and climbed aboard, so that I had hers in both of mine. On the wall opposite hung a mirror with “Cinzano Bianca” painted on it. Through the gilt lettering I could see myself, Tim Coates, almost forty and going to seed fast, holding hands with an under-aged angel in a summer hat. A glorious crazy joy squeezed and jumped in my chest, as if my heart was doing back-flips. If I were ten years older and a little flabbier it might really be possible to die of happiness.

Her dark eyes were distant, gazing through me into the past. “Vanport, Pennsylvania. It’s near the Ohio line. His name was Richie something, I think it was Pavel. He was a cousin of my best friend, Betty Reniecke.”

I had to let go then, to pick up my pen. “Can you spell that?”

She did. “Mom ran him over with our car. It was July 1961. We left town that night, and settled down in Norfolk by the time fourth grade started for me.”

I could imagine an innocent explanation for all this. A single mom, with a few boyfriends now and then. An accidental hit and run, then perpetual paranoia about it. But it chilled me. It wasn’t going to be innocent. My exaltation was gone, as fast as it had come. The waiter set the plate of spaghetti in front of me and I looked at it without appetite.

Ellie ground some pepper onto her calamari and began to wolf it down, neatly but fast. I wondered if she got enough to eat, but then realized I was stupid. A cover girl makes enough money to buy her meals. “Is this all?” I asked. “I mean, is this the only reason your mother’s on the run?”

She put her fork down and looked at me. “It’s creepy, how you know to ask these things.”

“Then it isn’t. There’s something else.”

“It must be because you’re a detective.” She began eating again. Obviously she wasn’t going to tell any more secrets today. That was okay, my plate was full enough.

oOo

The question was, could I persuade Roberta that a trip to Vanport was necessary? She made a good case against it. Cash flow wasn’t doing so good with half the firm (Ernie) in hospital. It was preposterous to believe that a murderess would return to the scene of the crime after all these years. And lastly, the murder, even if I could show it was murder, would shed no light on the problem we were hired to solve: Ruby Quartern’s whereabouts.

“There’s something else,” I said. “Something she hasn’t told me yet. The real reason why the Quarterns have been on the run. Sooner or later I’ll untangle it, and the place to begin is Vanport.” A very large map of the United States hung on the wall above the sofa, and I could pick out the town, in miniscule type, at the edge of the pink rectangle that was Pennsylvania.

“Try the Plaza Hotel instead,” Roberta snapped. “All you have to do is get little Miss Mystery to tell you.”

“She may not be able to. When prostitution and murder are easier to explain ...”

“Then get her a shrink. Oh, and shall I send her a bill?”

“If I don’t go to Vanport there’s nothing to put on a bill.”

But I was only putting it on. The basic stuff was perfectly easy to handle by phone. I know how to talk to librarians. I sweet-talked the one at the Vanport public library into checking the newspaper files for the summer of 1961. A Richard Pavel had indeed been a hit-and-run on Friday July 21st. The body was found at four p.m. by a diaper delivery service driver. No clues, no suspects, investigation continuing.

My crosscheck with the police department found the investigation still continuing, nine years later. The crime was unsolved, shuffled into the stack of unpleasant enigmas no one can get a handle on. I was very careful to offer no openings myself. I told them I was a distant Reniecke cousin just back from the ’Nam, trying to catch up on family history. The police sergeant I spoke to had been a Marine too so we were able to make the right noises at each other. The Quartern name never passed my lips.

But then I was in a bind. Without asking about the Quarterns I would never find out if they had been in Vanport at all. It was time to take Roberta’s advice and quiz Ellie some more.

It was cooler that day, a perfect June afternoon in the city. I always need exercise. So I walked uptown on Sixth past Rockefeller Center and across to the Plaza. For the first time in a long time the city looked good to me. Until Ellie came to fill it I somehow hadn’t noticed the gaping hole in my life. I bought a hot pretzel from a pushcart, had my shoes shined near Radio City, and opened a door for an old lady. She even smiled at me, instead of clutching her purse and rushing off. It must have been love.

I breezed into the hotel lobby like I owned the place, and said to the desk clerk, “Ring Miss Quartern for me, will you?”

“Sorry sir, she’s out.”

I don’t know what I expected. Should she be waiting in her room for me, a Sleeping Beauty in her castle? I dawdled in the regal lobby, trying to decide whether to hang on. It was past four — she might come in any time. Unless she was meeting friends after work. I didn’t know the first thing about her personal life. A beauty like Ellie must have a million friends, male and female. Why hadn’t I asked about them when I had a chance?

A tremendous fever suddenly possessed me, to know all about her. I thirsted for details, every bit. I sat down on a sofa and pulled out my notebook, to rough out the lines of the campaign. School, work, health — could I dredge up that priest? I’m good at finding things out, I enjoy it. But it’s always stayed on the professional side of my life.

A hand touched me lightly on the shoulder, and there she was, smiling at my surprise. “It’s nice of you to come,” Ellie said. “Have you been waiting long?”

“No, no.” I flipped the notebook shut and got a grip on myself. “Look, I’m going to Norfolk to scout around. I’ll need more stuff.”

“Sure. Come on up.”

She led the way to the elevators. Raging curiosity forced me to remark, “So how was your day? What’ve you been doing?”

She shrugged. “Work.”

I noticed her duffel bag. “What, modeling?”

“Just making the rounds. I might have something solid on Monday.”

“With Tangerine Cream?” Then I wanted to bite my tongue. She hadn’t told me that, and now she’d know I’d been prying.

But apparently it was public knowledge, at least in the industry. She said, “No, it’ll be for makeup.”

We were in the elevator going up before I thought how it would look, a man my age going to a girl’s hotel room. I could feel the elevator boy’s speculative glance as we stepped out and moved down the corridor. But Ellie herself seemed unaware of appearances. Seventeen years old — she must be as innocent as a daisy on a lawn.

Her room was small but plush. The furnishings were white and gold, with a deep gold carpet to match, a very female room. Clothes were everywhere, piled on the furniture and bulging from the closet. I chose a straight chair in the corner well away from the bed. She rummaged in the cluttered vanity table and handed me a sheet of hotel stationery. On it was a street address in Norfolk and a phone number — in a perfectly respectable schoolgirl cursive, I noticed. Another fun theory gone west.

“Your old address and phone number, good. Tell me more. What schools did you attend? Did Ruby have a checking account? Gas station card? Did she attend a church, use the library?”

“Wait, wait!” she said laughing. “I’ll do my best. No library, church or checks. Cash for everything. I attended Madison Junior High and Glenbrook Elementary.”

I wrote it down. “Now we’re getting to the tough stuff. Tell me about her work.” She hesitated, and I said, “Prostitution is a rough profession. It’s entirely possible that your mom had bad trouble with a client or something. She might have just skedaddled, or —” I fumbled for a euphemism — “been put out of the way.”

“No, that wouldn’t have happened.”

“How do you know?”

She was silent a long time, and then said quietly, “I’m sure of it.”

I let it drop for the moment. “In any case this’ll be the most likely area to snoop in. Can you point me at any clients?”

“Only one. We never discussed it, you know. Talk to the owner of the Sunoco station, on Coliseum Avenue near the school.”

I noted it down. Then, deliberately, I asked, “Is there anything else you could tell me, to help the search?”

She sat, the pale blonde head bent, staring at her hands in her lap. The curtains, white striped with gold, were open. Faintly through the glass came the mutter of the city. We were as alone in this ritzy little eyrie as two people on a desert island. I was torn between my lust to know and a desire to spare her pain. I almost told her to forget the question. But I didn’t. I needed to know the central secret to do the job right.

She sighed. “I don’t know how to say it ... Have you ever wanted something really bad?”

She was gazing out the window now at the sun, low over Manhattan. So I could say fervently, “Oh yes. You bet I have.”

“What if someone knew about it?”

My chair had started out right and tight in the corner. How had it edged so close to hers? “It would depend on who the someone was.”

She turned, and her dark gaze pierced me through. “If it were me?”

“I’m falling off the sled here,” I confessed. “Are you asking me to tell you what I want?”

“No. I’m telling you I know.”

The blood roared in my ears. Scarcely believing my luck I reached for her hand. But it was still clenched in her lap. With a shock I realized she was telling me something entirely different from what I thought. “Say that again,” I said, breathing deep and hitching my chair back.

“Ruby can do it too. I guess I inherited from her. We always called it the gift, or ‘looking.’ We can see it, she and I. Look at a person, and see what they really want. And sometimes we can give it to them.”

“I’m not so sharp today,” I said. “I don’t understand you.” All these tempests of emotion were clouding my thinking.

“Maybe I should demonstrate.”

“Wait a sec!” If I hadn’t been in a corner I would have retreated. “I’m a man of many parts,” I almost gabbled. “Twice your age, you know, gone around the block a few times. Maybe I want a lot of things, unreasonable mixed-up wishes that a girl like you shouldn’t know about.”

She laughed, bitter and harsh. “You think I don’t know about desire? There’s nothing you could tell me about it. I know everything you want, Mister Timothy Coates. It’s the gift.”

“Latimer,” I mumbled. “Tim is short for Latimer.”

She stared for a second, thrown off course. Then she laughed again, and it sounded much better. “I think I should tell you. Then you’ll believe me.”

“I believe everything you say,” I said quickly. “You don’t have to do any tricks for me.”

She was still seated but leaning very close now, her eyes wide. She put a hand on my knee as she leaned closer, and I could feel an erection beginning. It was damnable. She said, “No, I have a better idea. I can actually give you what you want. That isn’t always possible.”

I clutched the notebook in front of me like a shield. “No. Don’t,” I blurted.

“Will you listen to me? I’ll give you what you really want. I’ll tell you everything you want to know about me. The story of my life.”

I was so surprised my mouth fell open. “You will? Really?”

“Sure.”

“All the details?”

“As many as you like.” She smiled. “Now tell the truth. Isn’t that your deepest desire?”

“Well, yes — at the moment.” I could hardly believe I would get it so easily. Sex is cheap, but knowledge is power. I thought I’d have to dig the facts out with a teaspoon. “But — how do you do it? Is it, what, mind-reading?”

“I tell you, I can see it,” she said with a touch of impatience. “For me everyone wears their heart on their sleeve.” I could have sunk through the floor. She knew everything then, about my budding passion. “I wish it was always so easy.”

The implications emerged slowly. “Your mom — wait. Is this how ...”

She nodded. “Mom’s never been a streetwalker. She specializes.”

“I’ll just bet she does,” I said grimly. With enough money you can find a whore somewhere to participate in just about anything. But that assumes you can let it all hang out, as the kids say these days — ask up front for what you want. If you’re shy, or respectable, or square, and still kinky, then Ruby Quartern might be your only outlet. You would never have to tell her. She would know.

“Where do you want me to start?”

“At the beginning,” I said. “A to Z.”

She laughed. “Tim, I have to go to work tomorrow, and so do you.”

“And you need your beauty sleep. How about telling me about your life in Norfolk — that’ll come in useful. Come on, let’s go.”

“Where are we going?” she said, surprised.

“To the office.” That was what I needed — nice businesslike linoleum and mundane fluorescent lights. “I can’t interview a girl like you in a hotel room. It’d be unprofessional. Besides, I have a tape recorder there. Would you mind being recorded and transcribed?”

“I guess not.” She sighed. “I’ll see it in True Detective next.”

In the doorway I turned and took her hand. “No you won’t. I know what you’re giving me. And it’s nearer to the bone than just your body, am I right? Well, I won’t abuse your trust.”

I was close enough to see her swallow hard. “You’re such a nice person, Tim,” she said softly.

With a supreme effort of will I pulled the room door shut behind us, so that we were safe in the hall. “We can pick up some sandwiches for supper on the way,” I said breathlessly. I didn’t let go of her hand.

 
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