The Picture Ranch 10
We were half-way to Carlsbad before she answered, so I’d almost forgotten asking the question.
‘Mulvaney. It’s a name conjure with. It opens doors. It makes money. Why not for a kidnapper?’
‘You better hope it ain’t that.’
‘Why, what do you mean?’
‘Any kidnap victim who’s been -’
‘ Oh! I see...’
I glanced over at her. Maybe her eyes shone a little, but behind her cheaters I couldn’t really tell.
‘You know Mulvaney would have had it all over the LA Times if there had been a ransom demand, doncha?’
Her sigh sounded like the whole world had disappointed her for the umpteenth time in a day.
‘Mr Fisher, that is why I am most concerned. It is beyond belief that Mr Mulvaney Sr.’s newspaper has not printed one word on the disappearance of his adopted son.’
‘Miss Grafenburg, how long you been in California? Ain’t nothin’ beyond belief.’
By the time we left California Rte. 72 and turned onto 101 my passenger had been asleep for a quarter hour. There was a little drool at the corner of her mouth and I resisted the temptation to wipe it away. I wound down the window. I could smell the sweet and honeyed scent of manzanita coming off the hillsides. Schultz’s Buick didn’t run to a radio, so there was nothing much to do but drive. Miss Grafenburg said something indistinct
‘Speak up, Miss G, this engine sure is noisy.’
She talked in her sleep, but I doubted she gave away many secrets.
In Carlsbad, I pulled the Buick over to the side-walk so I had a view of the cab rank, or at least any approaches to it. The boy was right, we were out of sight of the Military Academy entrance. A pawn-shop, a liquor store and a coffee-shop were scattered amongst the blocks of walk-up apartments. I figured the rank was just somewhere for taxi-drivers to loaf on a slow shift. Miss Grafenburg awoke with a start as soon as I cut the engine.
‘Golly, did I sleep that long?’
‘Like a baby.’
‘I could use a drink. Go on over and get me some rum, if they have it.’
While she was out I got my roscoe out of my duffel and put both of our bags back on the back seat. It was a half three. Miss G came back with a measly half-pint. I hoped the boy would be on time.
At five to the hour I got out of the car. Miss G threaded her arm through mine,
‘It’s nothing, Fisher. We’ll look less conspicuous like this.’
It wasn’t true. Anyone who saw us would be wondering “what’s with the sweet patooty on that deadbeat’s arm?” I’d be wondering too.
The kid turned up at Four on the nose. Alone. He had on a blazer and ducks, off-duty uniform for the Academy, no doubt. He looked like Mickey Rooney in his dad’s clothes. I felt Miss Grafenburg’s arm detach from mine. She stiffened a little. Maybe she’d expected her half-brother to tag along with his friend.
‘Mister Fisher,’ I swear the boy held out his hand for a shake. I shook it. He looked at me and waited.
‘Uh, yeah. This is Miss Eleanor Grafenburg. Mulvaney’s sister.’
‘Half-sister.’ Miss G held out a gloved hand. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
The skinny boy took her hand. I’d have blushed to the earlobes if I’d been as close to a woman like Miss Grafenburg at the boy Schultz’s age. He didn’t change colour at all, just said,
‘As am I,’ as though people outside of Buckingham Palace did that every day.
We quadrupled the number of customers in the coffee-shop. It was no diner, but ran to doughnuts or apple pie without ice-cream, if you really had to eat something. We took one of the only two booths. The old guy in a battered hat took up most of the counter. The lady in the gingham carrying a coffee pot took up the rest of the space available inside.
‘What’ll it be?’
Miss G interrupted before I could be a smart-ass,
‘I’ll have a soda, please.’
‘The same for me, ma’am’
‘I’ll have a coffee.’
‘You want cream and sugar?’ She sniffed, ‘Guess not.’
She turned slower than an ocean liner and went off to get the drinks. The place was so small it didn’t take her long to return with our order.
Miss G and I both started to speak. I waved a hand and told her to go ahead.
‘Di… do you know him well?’
‘I do. We shared a dorm-room until a year ago.’
‘What is he like?’
I could have thought of better questions to ask.
The boy smiled and I saw that he would break hearts even if he never pulled on a football jersey for an all-state team.
‘William is the most intelligent and warm person I have ever met. I miss him terribly.’
Miss Grafenburg opened her mouth and I held up a hand, which got me an old-fashioned look, but I got a chance to ask a useful question.
‘Do you know where he is?’
He looked towards Miss G and she gave him the same stone face.
‘Now look...’ This time Eleanor held up her hand,
‘I suppose I don’t look much like him,’ she took off her glasses.
I saw the boy gulp, even if she didn’t. She put her glasses back on, reached into her purse and showed him the creased envelope.
‘But you recognise this writing, don’t you?’
‘Where is he?’ I leaned towards him, feeling like a two-bit hoodlum in a bad movie.
‘I don’t know, I don’t. He’s been writing to me. The letters stopped, a month ago.’
Miss Grafenburg turned the envelope around,
‘Did you write to this Box Number?’
The nod was slower this time.
I asked him if he’d been to the mail-box recently. His nod lasted all the way through saying ‘Yesterday.’
‘We’ll go anyway,’ I said to Miss G.
‘I was followed yesterday.’
‘Didya get a good look at ‘em?’
‘Not really. His hat was pulled low and his collar was up. A tall thin fellow.’
‘And he just followed you? Did he speak?’
‘No. When I came out of the Post Office he dropped his cigarette and walked off.’
The boy put a hand in his blazer pocket and drew out a pocket square wrapped round something small. He unrolled the white cotton and the stub of a black-papered cigarette.
We finished our drinks. The boy went on ahead to the taxi rank. His parents vehicle was no jalopy. His father's face looked familiar somehow, but I couldn’t place it, not at all.
Miss G looked at me,
‘I was sure you were going to ask if your friend Schultz was any relation.’
Maybe I was a dim-bulb, but Miss Grafenburg could have stood in for the Old Point Loma Lighthouse any night of the year.