Savannah, Georgia, 1948
Harold tore off a corner of his eviction notice, smoothed it on the edge of his desk, folded it along the length, and filled the crease with loose tobacco. He rolled it tight, licked the seam and twisted the end. The lighter he used to torch it stripped a smiling blonde down to her red swimsuit when tilted. He knew the hand-rolled stick would burn too quickly, but he was out of end papers and he was desperate for a smoke. Even with his window closed, he could hear the frenetic activity on the docks serving the Savannah River traffic. Crates being loaded, men swearing, machines groaning, boats coming and going. Life in 1948 was far from the peaceful image of Savannah as a center of Southern gentility that the city fathers promoted.
For every azalea-laden square, ringed by gracious homes, was a stretch of waterfront commerce that was less than beautiful. Deep pockets of poverty remained on the fringe of town, while the ugliest aspects of segregation were everywhere. Not so different than it was when Harold left to go to war six years ago. He was the one who changed, not Savannah. His experiences as a soldier altered everything about him, and that was a fact. People said Harold was lucky. They said he survived heavy fighting to return a decorated war hero, the one time in his life when he truly shined. Harold knew better about luck. The war had finished him as surely as a Nazi bullet to the brain. It was just taking him longer to die.
Behind the frosted glass that framed the top half of his door, the silhouette of a man threw a dark shadow across the pane. Judging by the hat, the height, the v- shape of the body, he was tall and slim. Was it the sheriff coming to toss him out? No, he still had forty-eight hours to pull his back rent out of his ass and thus avoid eviction. Harold didn’t budge from behind his scarred oak desk, but he did crack open a drawer to reveal his revolver. He hated guns. The lure of that metal had been shot out of him during the war.
A man couldn’t be too careful, especially if he made his living following the slime trails of cheating husbands, errant wives and timid little fellows who cooked books for their own profit. Being a private dick was a life spent among the bottom feeders. Sometimes that cheating husband came around later to get even. The fact that he hadn’t been following cheating husbands or working any case, lately, made him think this was an unlikely day for danger.
Finally the door opened, bringing in the stench of blood, offal, raw meat and death. Harold’s office squatted above a warehouse that loaded freshly butchered carcasses onto barges to be transported to dinner tables further north. His visitor held a crisp linen handkerchief over the lower portion of his face to filter the stink. The stench didn’t bother Harold, much, proof that one can get used to almost anything. He evaluated the weight of his visitor’s wallet with one long stare. Expensive double-breasted suit, pin striped and navy blue. Dandified gold cufflinks and a fedora that began life at an exclusive haberdashery in New York City. Money.
When the man lowered his handkerchief and closed the door, Harold tensed. Without the harem dancer’s veil over his face, Harold recognized him from newspaper photos showing local bigwigs in action. He didn’t like his uninvited visitor very much, and trusted him even less. The older son of the Arlen family, his clan could trace the roots of their fortune to their ancestors’ success as slave traders, when Savannah was once a center for that sort of commerce. Harold never understood how rich people overlooked those less than fragrant facts when deciding who was worthy of social merit.
Arlen Jr. was perfect casting as the rogue who tries to steal Van Johnson’s girl. His pencil-thin moustache, slicked back hair, and equally slick manner oozed villainy. Ten years ago, Harold’s public high school played football against Arlen’s prep school. Harold remembered opposing him because Arlen not only hit him with a late tackle, causing him to fumble the ball, but he also broke two of Harold’s ribs with that cheap shot. So Harold sat out much of the final season of his senior year because of that injury. Arlen went on to Princeton after graduation. Harold went to work as a gofer for a private detective, eventually moving up to be a junior league investigator before Uncle Sam tapped his shoulder. He didn’t know whether Arlen was ever in the military, and it didn’t really matter. If so, his influence would’ve landed him a cushy desk job in Washington, rather than a battlefield of blood.
“How does one work amid this stench?” Arlen asked, fanning his face with his hand, as if to whisk away the scent.
Harold shrugged, and smoked. “You get used to it.”
“I never would.”
“What do you want?”
“I’m George Arlen, Junior,” he extended his hand. That gesture meant Harold had to stand, so he reluctantly did so. He was taller than his visitor by one or two inches, but at over six-feet, Harold was taller than most. Lean, some might say thin, Harold hadn’t gained back all of the weight he lost when he was hospitalized at the end of the war. Gaining weight was even more difficult when there wasn’t a lot of extra money to spend on food. Pain radiated up the back of Harold’s right calf, encircled his knee, and throbbed with its usual persistence. He sucked in his lower lip as he shook the man’s hand, refusing to acknowledge his misery.
“I know who you are,” he said.
“Then you have the advantage over me, sir.”
“My name’s Harold.”
“First or last?”
”Does it matter?” Harold sat down again. Obviously Arlen had no memory of him. Late tackles were the way this man led his privileged life. Expecting to be invited to sit, Arlen remained standing until Harold waved at the metal chair facing his desk. Arlen glanced at the torn vinyl seat as if waiting for Harold to drag a throne out of hiding. When no throne materialized, he reluctantly sat down.
“Are you a private investigator?”
“What does the door say?”
“Part of it appears to be scratched off, but the remaining word says ‘Investigations’.”
“There ya’ go.” The scratched off part included the name of Harold’s mentor and former partner in the business. When the man left, he took along most of their clients, all of their money, and Harold’s wife. Good riddance to all but the clients and the money. Harold couldn’t complain much. They had him dead to rights. They could’ve made it much worse for him, but they didn’t, probably due to his war hero status.
Arlen Jr. looked around at the shabby office. Grime shaded the windows and a cobweb draped the single light fixture. He raised a fastidious brow as he said, “I need your help.”
Harold nodded. His cigarette burned out, so he stubbed the end in a metal ashtray weighted with sand. Arlen brought a silver cigarette case from his breast pocket. He extended it open to Harold. Harold took a couple of the beautiful white smokes, putting one behind his ear before lighting the other. Arlen’s lighter was also silver, also engraved, and it gleamed as he lit his own cigarette. Later, Harold would find out the metal in question wasn’t silver, at all. It was platinum, a luxury about which he had little knowledge. So what was this guy’s beef? Cheating wife? Embezzling accountant? Money owed mobsters over gambling debts? Or was he the cheater and some dame’s husband was after him? “Go on,” Harold said.
“I need you to find a missing person.”
“No,” Arlen looked nervous. He had a shifty way about him, or maybe it was that villain’s moustache that made anything he did seem suspicious. “Not my wife. It’s…he’s a young man.”
Harold said nothing. Arlen continued.
“I guess you might call him my ward.”
“My ward. Not officially. There was no court action naming me his conservator, but I feel responsible for him. Now he’s missing and I’m concerned.”
Arlen shifted his position on his chair. As he re-crossed his legs, he corrected himself. “We’re concerned. My wife and I both are. Concerned, that is.”
“I get it,” Harold said with a brief smile. “You’re concerned. You and the wife, that is.”
“Shouldn’t you be talking to the police?”
“This is a private matter. I want it handled quietly.”
Every instinct was twisting in on Harold. Something didn’t add up. “A snatched kid is a police matter.”
“He wasn’t kidnapped. There’s been no ransom demand. And he’s not a child.”
“How old is he?”
“He turned twenty last week.”
“Twenty?” Harold leaned back, resting his feet on the edge of his desk, showing his visitor the hole in the sole of his left shoe that he had patched with a thin layer of cardboard. “Twenty is no kid. Twenty is a man. A man has the right to leave home.”
“Johnny’s not…well, he’s not a worldly person.”
“Something wrong with him? Is he touched in the head?”
“No!” Arlen looked as if Harold had insulted his family’s honor. “He’s a very bright boy. Brilliant, in fact. Gifted in many ways.”
“Okay, so this ‘brilliant, gifted in many ways’ twenty year old man decides the time is right to blow out of here and make his own way in the world. I’m not seeing the problem.”
“The circumstances of his leaving aren’t quite so benign, Harold.”
“That means what, ‘benign’? You two had a row?”
“No. Johnny and I never had harsh words, not ever.”
“There was a misunderstanding with my wife. She said some things she later regretted, but by then Johnny was gone.”
“What kind of things did she say? What was the misunderstanding?”
“Are you taking this case?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“I assume everything we say is confidential?”
Harold shrugged. “You haven’t said much, have you?”
Arlen reached in his pocket and this time he pulled out a photograph. The young man in the picture was leaning against the flashy chrome grill of a new red Dodge. He wore a white sweater, like a tennis player. His brush of honey blond hair and smile were as bright and alluring as the automobile’s shiny trim. He may be twenty, but he looked all of sixteen. “Is this recent?” Harold asked.
“I gave him that car for his birthday last week.”
“Nice business, this ‘ward’ gig,” Harold said with a cynical smile.
“What are you implying?”
“Nothing. Just making an observation. Did he take the car with him?”
“That ought to make him easy to find. Not that many brand new cherry red Dodges around here.”
“He could have sold it.”
“Does he have money?”
Arlen looked uneasy. “I… I can’t say.”
“Look, Harold, I need an answer. Are you taking this case?”
“Did this kid work somewhere?” Harold needed a starting point before he committed.
“He was a student at SCAD.”
The Savannah College of Art and Design was a well-known training ground for artistic types from all over America. “I suppose you looked for him there.”
“He hasn’t been to class since last week.”
The burnt remains of Harold’s hand-rolled cigarette still bore a letter or two from his eviction notice, evident from where it lay amid the ashes. This seemed like bogus work, but Arlen was good for the dough. Harold couldn’t afford to be choosy. “I want two hundred up front and two hundred a week. I get paid for the whole week, even if I find him tomorrow.”
Arlen opened his wallet and withdrew two crisp c-notes, extending them towards Harold who deliberately took his time before accepting them. “Now I want something from you, Harold.”
“Your word that this will remain strictly confidential, no matter what you find out. And that you won’t hurt him in any way.”
“Why would I hurt him?”
“Just see that you don’t.”
“What if he doesn’t want to come home?”
“Then just get me a meeting with him.”
“What if he doesn’t want a meeting?”
“Then tell me where he is and I’ll do the rest. When will you get started?”
“Soon,” Harold said, refusing to be crowded. “You aren’t my only case, you know.”
Arlen looked around at the hovel of an office as if to silently challenge that boast. “I’m paying you more than you’re worth, not because I’m a patsy, but because I want this matter to have priority. Do you understand?”
Harold nodded. “How do I get in touch with you?”
Arlen handed him an engraved card. “Call on me here, at my office, never at my home. For God’s sake, leave my wife out of it entirely. She’s been sick with worry. Her health is delicate.”
“Don’t worry. I’m used to working with one spouse only. Does Johnny have your last name?” Harold wasn’t sure how this “ward” business worked under the law.
“No, his last name is Randolph.”
“Like Randolph Scott?” Harold liked Randolph Scott. He also liked Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart. The tall, lean, taciturn types reminded him of his father, and in a way, of himself.
“Yes, I suppose so. He’s not from these parts. You won’t find family here for him, other than my wife and myself.”
“Where is he from?”
“Does it matter?”
“My expenses are separate from the retainer,” Harold told him.
“I’ll want an accounting. Receipts. I’m not a money tree.”
“Right,” Harold’s long fingers smoothed over the boy’s photograph. “I want to keep this.”
Arlen hesitated, but finally agreed. “I should go. I have a meeting at the bank. Please contact me soon with what news you have.”
Harold nodded as Arlen headed for the door. He paused when Harold called out to him. “Yes?”
“Is your wife balling this kid?”
“How dare you! Don’t be absurd. Johnny is like her son!”
“And you? Is he like a son to you, too?”
“I won’t dignify that with a response,” Arlen left, slamming the door behind him, hard enough to rattle the glass. Harold laughed at that gesture, then put the photograph in his pocket, along with the money. He reached for his straw fedora, and left his dingy office to seek out his landlord and make good on the rent. Something about this set-up still bothered him. But the money was prime and the work didn’t seem too hard, so he ignored his worries, which was almost always a big mistake.