Getting a job out of town seemed counter-interuitive for me, because I had to keep the day job. But when the offer came in with more zeroes than I expected, I couldn’t turn it down. I found myself driving down to New Orleans to see a man about his daughter’s husband. Apparently the man was a cad, and left the pregnant young woman in the lurch. The man himself was the type who I half expected to ask me to call him Colonel. He was older, without the easy use of his legs because of polio.
The man explained to me that he wanted to track the husband down and either force him to come back, if his daughter would have him, or at least attain a reasonable settlement of money for his daughter. While the man didn’t need the money — he clearly had enough to pay for her — it was the principle of the matter. I agreed. That was his baby growing in her belly and this clown shouldn’t get to skip out on that.
The Colonel never asked me to call him that, but in my head I did anyway. Behind his massive oak desk was a set of shelves teeming with leather-bound law books. Apparently the Colonel had been something of a well to do attorney and a part of the corrupt cogs that ran the city for many years. At the center, and right behind him, was a glassed in cabinet with more spirits than a haunted mansion. Bourbon, Scotch, Vodka, and everything between, of all the colors they came in. One of them even appeared to be Absinthe. Obviously the good Colonel wasn’t a fan of or believer in the Volstead Act.
He offered me a cigar, and I took him up on it. His taste was for the dark Cuban variety, full of the flavor of tobacco. I liked them and would almost have agreed to do the job for a handful of them.
“You appreciate a good cigar, sir,” he said. His voice was swayed by his deep Southern accent, more than most people I heard speak. It was also marred by the damages done by a lifetime of smoking daily.
“I do indeed,” I said. “They’re one of life’s joys.”
“Indeed they are. I prepared a file on my daughter’s scoundrel of a husband and the father to my next grandchild. It contains his name, an old photograph, and everything else of relevance that may help you find him. I assure you that he is quite a sneaky one and we’ve been unable to find him on our own, or with the services of the best private detective in town.”
“I will require some money in advance,” I said.
“That is understandable, sir. I will pay handsomely for a resolution to this issue without it becoming… a public matter.”
I wrote a figure down. “My rate is thirty dollars a day for this, plus expenses. I’m charging more because I’ll be without normal income while I’m out of town. This should cover everything for the first week; I’ll return anything unused.”
He looked at it, and extended his hand. I took it, and he reached into the draw to pull out a wallet. It was packed full of twenty dollar bills. Once the money exchanged hands, I was on the job. The man I was looking for had the given name of Herbert Ashwood, and went by Bert to his friends. He came from money, just like his wife, one Elaine Ashwood (her birth name was Brousard). But suddenly, he decided to disappear, leaving the wife and baby-on-the-way.
My first stop after talking to the Colonel was to find the daughter. She was the last person to see Bert, as far as I knew. And I needed something to start with. Sure, I had the file from the Colonel, but that wasn’t a direction. It was like trying to write an essay with only a dictionary as a source. Sure, I had all the words. But it wasn’t getting me a thesis statement.
Elaine Ashwood was an attractive young woman. Not the kind of woman I pictured when I thought about a jilted bride. She was in her early twenties, with a great figure interrupted by her pregnancy. But that wasn’t a negative. Her stomach only added to her beauty. She was a natural, a movie star, and had until her pregnancy been a flapper. I could tell by the hair — recently cropped, short, over the ears. Not a style I cared for, personally, but there were worse things out there.
Something about Elaine was off, and I couldn’t quite get an idea of what it was. She kept looking at the floor and didn’t make eye contact, she occasionally stuttered. It wasn’t just normal nervousness. The dame had something on her mind, too. Just on the edge of her tongue.
“Where do you think your husband went?” I asked, emphasizing the word husband. I wanted to induce a sense of closeness to him, to make her remember she was married so that she didn’t come back with the normal spiel of a jilted lady that he could rot in hell. Frankly, I’d have agreed with it, but that wasn’t why I was being paid.
I was being paid to find the man.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I told the last detective the same thing. I just don’t know wh-where he could be.”
“Right, I just want to hear it from you. Did you fight? Have a falling out?”
She glanced down again. “No, sir.”
She shook her head.
“A man maybe?” Give me something!
“No, never. He wasn’t bent, he just left me…”
“Did he owe anyone money?”
“No, no, we have plenty of money.”
I scratched my chin. “But maybe he had some gambling debts. Maybe he ran afoul of some moonshiners.”
“No, no, he never drank.”
I clicked my tongue. “What did he like to do with his time?”
“I don’t know,” Elaine said.
“You don’t know what your husband did with himself when he wasn’t at work?”
I clicked my tongue again and decided it might be time to ask someone who wasn’t related to the Colonel what was going on. But I knew she wasn’t going to tell me where I should look next, so I excused myself and went about reading the entirety of the Colonel’s file. Maybe somewhere in that dictionary I’d find the words I needed to write this essay.