- About the Book
- About the Author
- Title Page
- Copyright Page
- Suburban Chicago
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About the Book
For the sake of a peculiar corpse, Harvey ventures into suburbia.
During a long-overdue phone call with his beloved older brother, Norm, Harvey Blissberg learns of a mysterious homicide in a Chicago suburb. A friend of Norm’s was found shot in the face, but with no sign of struggle and no clues left behind. The local police are dumbfounded, so as a favor to his brother, Blissberg tries to untangle a bitter tale of real estate, bad taste, and sexual abuse.
While struggling with his own fears of marriage and mortality, Blissberg soon finds himself up to his neck in overheated housewives, predatory parents, toxic psychotherapists, and the seamier side of a sleepy suburb. He’ll have to retrace the dead man’s steps, all the way to the scene of the crime: a luxury housing development, with a Colt .45 aimed at his own head.
About the Author
R. D. Rosen’s career as a writer has spanned mystery novels, narrative nonfiction, humor books, and television. Strike Three You’re Dead, the first in Rosen’s series featuring major league baseball player Harvey Blissberg, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel in 1985. Blissberg’s adventures continued in four sequels, including Fadeaway and Saturday Night Dead, which drew on Rosen’s stint as a writer for “Saturday Night Live.”
TALL ROADSIDE SIGNS ADVERTISING everything from formal wear to Vienna Red Hots couldn’t contradict the great flatness of what the local disc jockey on the radio in the Lincoln Town Car rental referred to as “the Chicagoland area.”
It had been farmland forty years before, but now the litter of American culture lined the old county road parallel to the expressway that took Harvey Blissberg toward Garden Hills: German car dealerships, windowless surf ’n’ turf restaurants, spanking new strip malls, low glassy corporate headquarters. Here and there among the new structures, like destitute relatives lurking at a family picnic, was a seedy bowling alley with defunct neon or a Soft-Serve drive-in with tattered photographs of huge sundaes taped in the canted windows.
Harvey stifled a yawn—with unnecessary politeness, since he was alone in the car—and tried to imagine the hotel room that lay ahead in the midwestern dusk. It was after eight and still not dark enough for headlights. He glanced at the directions he had scrawled on a Post-it stuck to his dash—“11/2 mi past Scrub-A-Dub car wash on right”—and rubbed his temples.
The pain in his brain was due mostly to this plain. He had come here, he was convinced, against his better judgment. It was now only three days since he had picked up the phone in Cambridge to hear a voice say: “There are four Golden State Warrior jerseys hanging in the Oakland Coliseum. Whose are they?”
“Hello, Norm,” he had said wearily, “how are you?” When Harvey was still in the majors, his brother, Norman, professor of English at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, tormented him with late-night calls relating one obscure baseball statistic or another he had computed in his spare moments. Norm knew more about Harvey’s numbers than Harvey did. Now that Harvey had retired to become an investigator—no jersey hanging in the rafters, just the pension—Norm liked to punish him with sports trivia.
“C’mon. You’ll never get all four.”
“Rick Barry,” Harvey said.
“That one’s obvious.” Norm sniffed.
“Two,” Norm said. “But that’s all you’re going to get.”
“I was wrong. I’m impressed. But you’ll never get the fourth. Even Harold Nash over in sociology couldn’t cough up the fourth.”
His brother was silent for a moment. “I’m stunned.”
“Norm, you forget you’re dealing with a professional.”
“Yeah, well, anyway, listen, speaking of professional status, I’ve got a problem here that could use your, uh, attention. Is there any chance you can drop what you’re doing and come out here?”
“Something happened about six weeks ago. A friend of mine”—he cleared his throat—“was, uh, murdered. Up in Garden Hills. You know, that’s a suburb north of here.”
The abrupt transition from sports trivia to homicide left Harvey disoriented. “A friend of yours? Murdered? My God, Norm. Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”
“I guess we haven’t talked in that long.”
“Can’t be.” But it was. They had never gone this long without a phone call. Harvey felt a stab of abandonment. For the past year he had felt himself drifting quietly away from the world he once knew. One college friend of his was dead at thirty-eight from a virus that ate his heart; another was gone with cancer. The elements were dispersing. “I’m sorry, Norm,” he said. “Who was it?”
“A fellow who was part of my regular basketball game at the Y in Winnetka for the last three years. His name was Larry Peplow. A real estate agent.”
“He was shot once in the head near some luxury housing development in Garden Hills. But look—I think the local cops are in way over their heads. It’s the first homicide there in something like a decade. These North Shore cops—you know, they do a lot better when it comes to parade routes.”
“You know something the cops don’t?”
“Not really. Larry and I were buddies on the court. I rarely saw him outside the Y. But, listen, he was this charming, bright guy.” As if murder victims who were charming and bright deserved a higher-quality investigation. “You know what it’s like, Harv, these locker-room relationships.”
“There was a bond. Besides, Larry was the only guy who’d look for me on the fast break.”
“He must’ve been a good friend, Norm, to pass you the ball on the fast break.” Harvey couldn’t pass up the cheap joke at his older brother’s expense, but Norm wasn’t listening.
“It’s weird, Harv, that you can see a guy two, three times a week for years and, you know, not even know if he was married. Which it turns out he wasn’t.”
“I assume you’ve talked to the cops—”
“Women have to know every damn thing about you, but all guys have to do is share a few dirty jokes in the locker room and we’re blood brothers.”
“Norm, did you talk to the cops?”
“Yeah, sure, a few of us went up there for questioning. But they told us stuff. Not much, though. He was pretty reclusive. He was forty-four, lived alone in a rented house in Coleridge, one of those fat suburbs up on Lake Michigan, just east of Garden Hills. Where he was killed. He’s got a mother living in upstate New York somewhere. Let’s see, he came to the Midwest from Maine four years ago and worked at a real estate agency in Coleridge.”
“That’s it. I called the detective a few days ago to see how the investigation was going. Fellow named Walter Dombrowski. He said not to get our hopes up.”
“Meaning what? That it was a senseless, random murder?”
“I don’t think so. Anyway, robbery wasn’t the motive. His wallet wasn’t touched. Apparently, the only thing missing was the back of his head.”
“He was shot from the front?”
“In the face. Can you imagine? What a fucking way to go.”
“No sign of struggle.”
“I don’t think so, but I don’t know for a fact.”
“So it was someone he knew?”
“I don’t know. You’d have to ask Dombrowski about it.”
“Ask Dombrowski? Wait a second. I didn’t say yes to this.”
“Well, you’re asking all these questions, Harv.”
“You want me to drop everything and fly out there and look into this? Some guy, it turns out, you didn’t know all that well?”
“For chrissakes, Harv, I played ball with him for three years! You can’t just let a guy take a bullet between the eyes in a wheat field somewhere and say, ‘Okay, that’s done, got to get on with my life.’ Besides, we took up a collection for you.”
“Some of the guys who played with Larry.”
“I can’t take money from my own brother.”
“Don’t worry, I didn’t kick in any dough. I’m offering you free room and board for as long as you’re out here. Linda redid the attic into a guest room. Of course, I don’t know how you feel about tartan bedspreads.”
“Look, Norm, I’m not saying yes, but if I did this, I couldn’t stay with you and Linda. I’d need a place of my own. Some crummy motel in the area.”
“You and your nostalgie de la boue. There are no crummy motels up there. You’re talking about a string of suburbs where a BMW’s an impulse purchase. Look, Harv, as to the actual numbers we’re talking about—I don’t know what your rates are—”
“Don’t worry about that.”
There was a pause during which Harvey knew that the deed had been done.
“Thanks, Harv. It means a lot. Maybe you could bring Mickey.”
“Can’t. She’s busy producing a documentary for public television about gender and competition.”
“She does like to tackle the big projects, doesn’t she?”
“None bigger than me.”
“‘I,’ Harv. It’s ‘I,’ not ‘me.’”
“Thank you, Norm.”
“Don’t mention it. Are you guys ever going to get married or what?”
“And let matrimony ruin a good relationship? When the passion’s gone, Norm, that’s when we’ll make it official by getting hitched.”
“It’s still that good, huh?”
“That good? Are you kidding? At night sometimes we just sit around looking deeply into each other’s adoring eyes and wondering if two people ever felt this kind of love before.” It was a relief to be joking.
“You’re a lying sack of shit.”
“Well, at least the part about sitting around at night is true.” In the last year he and Mickey had landed somehow in adulthood. And all they had to show for it, he thought at times, was a couple of aging Siamese cats.
“Anyway,” Norm said, “you know what Kierkegaard said. He said that marriage marks the passage from the aesthetic stage to the ethical. Of course, that’s not an exact quote.”
“No problem, it’s close enough,” Harvey said. At moments like this, Harvey liked to recall that he had once been able to hit ninety-five-mile-per-hour fastballs over four hundred feet.
Now, in the fading June light, he passed another mall and resisted the urge to pull in. His dazed, aimless, compulsive wandering in discount stores had been one of the symptoms that drove him three months before to Dr. Ellyn Walker in Lexington, Massachusetts. It was as if he would suddenly wake up and find himself going through the men’s clearance racks at T.J. Maxx with the distinct impression that he was avoiding his life. He rarely bought anything. Once Dr. Walker had asked him what he was looking for; when he conceded that Caldor or Kmart probably didn’t stock it, she had said, “But whatever it is, you’d like to get it at a discount.” He drove on, grimly; the mere thought of him, an ex-jock, in therapy still shamed him a little.
The empty lobby of the North Shore Suites Hotel was covered with new periwinkle carpeting and sprinkled with scalloped tub chairs in pale peach. It was not crummy at all, yet its very newness was pleasantly tawdry. The desk clerk, a young blond woman in a French braid and identified as Shari by a plastic plate pinned to her breast, called up his reservation on the screen and spoke without raising her eyes from the humming terminal. Harvey took advantage of this to study her soft, wide Scandinavian features.
“I see you have an open-ended reservation. Do you know yet how long you’ll be with us?” “Long” came out “lawng.”
“I’ll put you in room four-thirty-four for four nights, but I’ll have to move you if you’re staying longer.”
She looked up with a smile. “Whom are you with?”
Harvey recited the address of the stucco house in Cambridge that he and Mickey shared and where he lived, he sometimes felt, like an undereducated interloper among all the glib professors, management consultants, and public television producers.
“Sign here.” She slid the registration card under his nose, adding, “Nice shirt.”
Harvey glanced down at his Hawaiian shirt covered with palm fronds and repetitious purple sunsets. “Thank you.” In the time it took him to scrawl his name, he experienced a detailed sexual fantasy involving himself, Shari, and a complimentary bottle of shampoo. Lately he had been suffering not just the usual reflexive urges but desires as specific as the taste for a delicacy.
Without the slightest indication of having participated in Harvey’s reverie, she held up a coded white card and explained to him how it worked. “Welcome to the North Shore,” she said.
“North Shore?” he said, returning the desk pen to its plastic base. “This implies water.”
“Lake Michigan’s about two miles east of here.”
“Let me ask you a question.”
He could see her tense a little. “Sure,” she said. It sounded like “Shar.”
“Are you familiar with a housing development around here called Rimwood Estates?”
“No, I haven’t heard of it.”
“It’s right here in Garden Hills.”
“There’ve got to be a thousand new developments around here. I live in one myself. Lakeview Acres.”
“You can see Lake Michigan from it?”
“No, but there’s a small man-made lake on the property.”
“That’s the lake that inspired the name Lakeview Acres?”
“Are you making fun of where I live?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t dream of it. I was just curious.”
“You’re very inquisitive.”
Was this a rebuke or a come-on? “Well, you seem like a friendly person.”
“I hope you’re not confusing my midwestern openness with something more.”
Rebuke, he thought, and backpedaled. “You misunderstand my intentions.”
“Anyway”—she held up her left hand—“I’m wearing a wedding band.”
In truth, he was relieved. A few months of psychotherapy had shortened his leash, not that he had strayed in years. “I have,” he said, leaning down for his bags, “a high regard for the sanctity of marriage.”
“So you don’t need, like, an ulterior motive to ask this many questions?”
“It’s part of my job.”
“What are you, a market researcher?”
“In a manner of speaking. I’m researching who might’ve murdered a man a few weeks ago at Rimwood Estates.”
Her green eyes widened. “Oh, I read about that. What does that make you, a detective?”
“Yeah, but that’s our little secret, Shari. Anonymity is essential to my work.”
“In that case, I hope you’ve brought another shirt to wear. Room four-thirty-four. Enjoy your stay.”
In his room he pulled the heavy curtains aside and looked out over Edens Expressway. It was almost dark now, but the identical rooftops of a residential development were visible through breaks in the lush trees. He unpacked, marked his new territory by taking a leak in the faux marble bathroom, and admired the complimentary bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and hand lotion arranged on the glass shelf. Then he went to the bed to call Lieutenant Walter Dombrowski, chief of homicide for the Garden Hills Police Department.
“Lieutenant, this is Harvey Blissberg.”
“I spoke to you from Cambridge yesterday.”
“I’m in Garden Hills right now.”
“Any breakthroughs in the Peplow case since we talked?” Maybe they’d collared someone and he could turn right around and fly back to Boston.
“Well, as I said to you yesterday, Lieutenant, I’ll do my best not to get in your way.”
“That would be appreciated.”
“Are we still on for tomorrow morning?”
“I’ve had to rearrange my schedule a little. I can’t see you till noon.”
“I see. All right. And I can take a peek at the case file?”
“It can be arranged.”
Harvey reached for the hotel notepad and cocked his pen. “Lieutenant, maybe you can give me the name of Peplow’s former employer. Now that I’ve got some free time in the morning, I thought I might start with him.”
“Her. Virginia Schmauss. Schmauss and Weevens Realty in Coleridge.”
“And that’s where Peplow worked the last four years?”
“Thank you. I have one more question.”
“I’m over here at the North Shore Suites Hotel.”
“And I was wondering if you could recommend a good place for a late dinner.”
“What do you like to eat?”
“I’m partial to seafood.”
“Then here’s what you want to do, son. Get on Edens Expressway going north, get off at Sky View Road and go west about four miles—you got that?—and just past the light at Sawyer you’ll see a restaurant on the left. Clarence’s, it’s called. Go in there and order yourself a piece of Lake Superior whitefish.”
Harvey wondered why he had been demoted from “sir” to “son.” It made the cop’s earlier deference suspect. “What if I ordered something else?”
“You’re not going to order something else, son. You’re going to order the whitefish. Lake Superior whitefish. With a nice baked potato. You tell Clarence that Walter sent you.”
“And the bread pudding is excellent. I’ll call Clarence and make a reservation for you. And another thing, son.”
Harvey was sure he was going to recommend an appetizer.
“When you’re on Sky View going west, you’re going to pass Behnke’s Nursery on the left. Just a few hundred feet past it, on the right, you’ll see a brick gate. That’s the entrance to Rimwood Estates. In the field west of the houses, that’s where Laurence Peplow was killed.”
“But I don’t want you to stop in there tonight, son.”
“Why’s that? Because Clarence’s closes its doors at nine. It’s now eight-thirty-five. If you don’t drag butt you’ve got just about enough time to make it.”
THE NEXT MORNING, HARVEY could see the money in Coleridge’s business district. It was parked in the diagonal spaces in front of the two-story Tudor-style storefronts: Mercedes, BMWs, Jaguars, Porsches, Olds Cutlasses, Buick Regals, Saabs, Infinitis. Harvey wondered if they impounded lesser vehicles at the town line. Schmauss & Weevens Realty occupied its own prime one-story brick building two blocks off the main thoroughfare. Harvey had to wait in the fern-cluttered vestibule only a moment before Virginia Schmauss appeared before him, moving silently in a shirtwaist silk dress, shaking a dozen bracelets down her wrist to announce her presence. It was obvious she had made a profession out of being formidable.
“Mr. Blissberg,” she said.
“How do you do?” he said, rising to take her well-kept hand with its red fingernails as thick and curved as pistachio shells. Her frosted hair gave the impression of being freshly polyurethaned. She was sixty going on immortal.
“Come in, come in, come in.” With a game show hostess’s gesture, she swept Harvey ahead of her through an office filled with desks at which middle-aged women were already, at nine in the morning, working the phones.
When they were seated in her private office she said, “So you’re a private detective.”
“Well, I suppose those jokers over in Garden Hills need all the help they can get. Who brought you into this thing?”
“My brother. He played basketball with Peplow.” “My brother” made it sound so trivial—not an actual job but a family favor. He changed the subject by gesturing toward the agents through the office’s interior window and saying, “Doesn’t look like the recession’s hurt your business one bit.”
She sighed elaborately. “Mr. Blissberg, you’re a detective. People must lie to you all the time, so you’ll understand. There’s a phrase in this business: ‘Buyers are liars.’ The vast majority of people looking for a house simply don’t know what it is that they want. Haven’t a clue. They tell you they’re looking for a three-bedroom Tudor, and after you’ve shown them a few, they decide it’s really a colonial they want, as long as there’s a powder room. You show them a colonial with a powder room, but now they say the most important thing is a kitchen with a sight line to the living area so Mom can keep an eye on the children while she’s cooking dinner. That’s when it occurs to them that a more open split-level would better serve their needs. And some couples, it turns out, don’t really want a new house at all. They’re just looking for one as a substitute for a new and improved marital relationship. Do you understand the psychology of that?”
“Yes,” Harvey said. He often wondered if there was a sign on his forehead that read: “Talk as long as you want. Don’t feel any pressure to get to the point.”
“So the fact is that we look a lot busier than we are. Now,” she continued in an impressive, throaty voice, “when they start out, most agents are frustrated by this behavior. Looking at it from a cost-benefit point of view, agents waste an enormous amount of time with clients. But when you understand that this is a service business—you’re catering to the complex psychological needs of the client, and only incidentally sometimes to actual real estate needs—then you are ready to be an effective agent. People don’t just buy houses. They buy feelings. And they buy the agent as well. Understand, I’m not saying a good agent can sell someone a house they don’t want. I’m saying that a bad agent can prevent someone from buying a house they do want.”
Schmauss paused to feel her dome of hair. “Now Larry wasn’t in the least bit surprised to discover to what extent clients, especially in affluent suburbs, use the house-buying process to act out deeper issues.” Harvey relaxed at the mention, finally, of Peplow. “He understood intuitively he was selling people, not property. He loved the phrase ‘Buyers are liars’ because he understood human nature. Why? Because he had a terrific advantage over most people in this business. What was that? He had been a psychotherapist. You knew that, of course.”
“No, I didn’t.” Had Norm forgotten this detail or had he, incredibly, not known it? Harvey suddenly felt the weight of all he didn’t know.
“Oh, yes. Larry had been a shrink of some sort back east. I remember quite clearly Larry sitting in the chair where you are now. It was maybe a year after he started here and he was doing very well. We were just talking and I told him how pleased I was with his performance, and he told me, he said, ‘I was a psychotherapist for many years’—I hadn’t known this before—‘which means,’ he said, ‘that I was in the business of dealing with people’s masks. I was in the business of gingerly removing some of the veils that conceal people from themselves.’ ‘Gingerly removing the veils’—that’s the phrase he used. He said, ‘Of course, I was also in the business of leaving some of the masks right where they were, since some of them are tragically necessary for survival and shouldn’t be touched because they have become part of the face.’ Isn’t that a remarkable way to look at it?”
“This does not sound like your ordinary real estate agent.”
“He then said something that left no doubt in my mind that he would be very successful in this business. He said, ‘A person’s home is the biggest and most public mask of all.’ And I have to tell you that I had never heard it put quite that way. He said, ‘When I sell someone a house, I’m not selling them some true expression of themselves. I’m selling them a new mask to more effectively contain and conceal the dirty details of living.’”
“Wow,” Harvey said.
“And, of course,” Virginia added, “he wasn’t simply referring to the objects people put in their houses. And I don’t think he was just referring to all the dirty little secrets that families have, the nasty little things that people in families do to one another behind closed doors. I believe he was talking about the purpose of a beautiful home being, at the deepest level, a way to make up for the fact that we’re all gradually falling apart. Physically crumbling. Losing our beauty and our youth and our dreams. That’s what he meant by ‘the dirty details of living.’ That a lovely home, if you can afford it, takes the sting out of mortality. You’re taking notes.”
Harvey looked up from his notebook. “Just in case there’s a midterm. Did he fit in all right?”
“Everyone adored him. He was one of my best horses. A terrific salesman. He had a particular knack with transferees. You know, every year three hundred thousand families are moved by corporations, and our market gets more than its share of them with so many businesses moving up here to the Tri-State Corridor. All these beleaguered pawns of the corporate chess game. But unlike most buyers, at least these men and their wives know what they want and they want it right away. To them, it’s just another in a long line of temporary housing. It’s virtually a science. They fly in for a couple days, you pack them into your car, and head for the subdivisions. Middle managers are looking for twenty-five hundred square feet minimum, upper management for three thousand. Master bedroom on the first floor, especially if the guy’s older and has already hauled his ass around the country a few times. I tell you, Harvey, when the residential market goes soft, they’re our meal ticket. There I go again.”
“But I’m beginning to enjoy it.”
“Maybe I’ve been conducting too many real estate seminars,” she said with a rich, snorting laugh.
Harvey leaned forward, elbows on the edge of her desk. “Virginia, when you say he liked the phrase ‘Buyers are liars,’ are you trying to tell me something?”
“Like what? All I meant was, Larry was very smart about selling.”
“Are you saying he was good at manipulating people’s emotions?”
“That would be the least charitable way of describing his abilities in this area. As I mentioned, Harvey”—his name suddenly sounded impersonal, like a telemarketer’s stilted technique—“an agent can’t make someone buy a house they don’t want. If that’s what you’re driving at.”
“Is there something you know about Larry Peplow that you’re afraid to tell me?”
“Virginia, surely you must’ve devoted some thought to how Peplow might’ve put himself in a position to be murdered.”
“Oh, I have, Harvey.”
“Well, then, did any of his clients have a reason to be upset with him?”
Schmauss swiveled in her chair to gaze out the window, past the ficus in the corner, into a bank parking lot.
“Hello,” Harvey said, “are you there, Virginia?”
“There was one—oh, I don’t know—impropriety,” she said, her back to him.
She rotated back to face him, saying with theatrical chagrin, “Look, I want you to know I absolutely don’t approve of this sort of thing, and I let Larry know it in no uncertain terms. But the damage had already been done.”
She shook her many bracelets down her wrist again. “This was about three months ago. Larry had been showing a house that we were the listing broker for to… let’s call them couple A. They offered the asking price. The market’s softened now, but this was just at the end of the boom and we were still getting asking-price offers. Now”—she flattened both palms against her desk blotter—“that very same day, another couple, couple B, who had been shown the house by an agent at another firm, also made an asking-price offer, on paper, with a thousand-dollar escrow check, which was conveyed to Larry by the other broker, which is customary. No problem, right? Larry simply conveys both offers to the seller. Except—and forgive me if you already know this—if you’re an agent for the listing broker and you sell a house to one of your own prospects, you get a six percent commission—on the first hundred thousand, at least. If you sell to a buyer who’s been brought to you by another agent, you split the commission with that broker and take three percent. This was a high-end house and the difference in the commission would be substantial. Of course, the agent splits his share with the agency, but we’re still talking about a significant chunk of change for the agent himself. You follow?”
“Right behind you.”
“So Larry did something unacceptable. They were both qualified buyers, but he didn’t present both offers to the seller. He presented only his own client’s offer, and they got the house. He told the other agent the seller was away for a couple of days. He closed his eyes, did the wrong thing, and doubled his payday. It’s not the first time something like this has happened, I can assure you.”
“And couple B discovered they’d been stiffed?”
“Ah.” She held up a forefinger. “Couple A and couple B belong to the same country club. Need I say more? Mrs. A mentions to Mrs. B that they recently bought such-and-such a house and, this being the competitive North Shore, the purchase price is mentioned. So Mrs. B hits the roof, because she and her husband had made the exact same offer. No small thing. There’s a saying around here, Harvey. ‘In New York, it’s what you do. In L.A., it’s what you drive. In Chicago, it’s where you live.’ Suddenly I’ve got couple B in my office screaming at me. ‘How come we didn’t get the house? How come we didn’t get the house?’ I promised couple B I’d look into it. I went to Larry, who admitted what he’d done, and not without remorse. He’d pretended not to have received couple B’s offer.” She sighed. “I can’t believe I’m telling you all this.”
“Let me ask you something. Did couple B suspect Peplow of getting their offer first, then calling couple A, his own client, in order to elicit a bid from them—and a higher commission for himself?”
“No. And neither did I. I don’t believe he would’ve been capable of that degree of treachery. In fact, I asked him that. He said he hadn’t.”
“So let me get this straight,” Harvey said. “Larry’s crime was limited to not conveying B’s offer, so he could get the higher commission by selling the house to couple A?”
“He didn’t use B’s offer as leverage to get a higher bid from A, therefore even more commission money for himself?”
“A crime of omission, not commission?” Harvey suggested. “Did you tell the Garden Hills police about this?”
“No. No, I didn’t.”
“But why not?”
She cleared her throat. “Well, I didn’t bring it up with the cops because—”
“Did you want to protect Larry? Even though he’s dead?”
“No. Because I was protecting myself. If this thing had ever gotten out and gone before the North Shore Board of Ethics, or ended up on someone’s desk down in Springfield at the Department of Education and Registration, Larry might’ve lost his sales license, and Schmauss and Weevens could’ve ended up on the rack. So I called couple B back on the phone and told them I’d discussed their situation with Larry, and that the seller had considered both offers and made his choice, based on financing. There was nothing more I could do.”
“I fell short of telling the whole truth.”
“Couldn’t couple B just call the seller to verify what you’d told them, and found out you were lying.”
“Because I personally called the seller, explained this unfortunate oversight, and the seller graciously agreed to corroborate my story. So whether couple B called the seller or not, and I don’t know if they did, there was no one left to tell them the truth.”
“You really went to bat for the guy.”
“I valued him as an agent. I didn’t want to lose him. I don’t mind telling you that. Not that I’m proud for a moment that I lied to save his butt. But let me tell you, Cookie, this couldn’t possibly have anything to do with his murder.”
“Because, while buyers may die a thousand deaths over the purchase of a new house, they just don’t kill agents. Because if this couple—”
“What’s their name, by the way?”
“Upchurch. Look, Harvey, if the Upchurches had continued to suspect Larry of unethical conduct, surely they would’ve gone ahead and reported it, and it would’ve been investigated. Which they didn’t and it wasn’t. And that’s why I neglected to inform the police. But since you asked.” She let out a breath she seemed to have been holding inside for weeks. “You think it’s possible that people would kill over something like this? Without first going through other channels?”
“You’d know a lot better than me.”
“You’d be wasting our time to make anything out of it, but be my guest.” She produced a phone book from her desk drawer and found their address and phone number with a loud turning of pages that involved much licking of her index finger. While Harvey wrote down the information, she said, “You’ll keep me out of it, of course.”
“Of course. Now, speaking of improprieties, Virginia, and I’ll be very blunt, do you know if Larry was sleeping with anyone’s wife?”
“Wife? No, that never occurred to me.”
“Well, you know, single guy, all these women.”
“Well, they don’t call suburbs ‘bedroom communities’ for nothing, do they? Anyway, he dated. That much I know. The only girlfriend I know for a fact he had was someone named Lynn. A child. A lovely child, but a child. The word ‘willowy,’ it was invented to describe her. Have you spoken with her?”
“You’re the first person I’ve talked to, outside of my brother. And he doesn’t seem to know anything.”
“There were a couple of women who came to pick him up here at work. No one I recognized. And I wasn’t looking for wedding rings.”
“He get along all right with the others in the office?”
“I never had any complaints.”
“All right. I’m staying at something called the North Shore Suites Hotel, if any other ideas occur to you.” Harvey looked at his notes. “This house the Upchurches wanted to buy. What development was it in?”
“That’s the thing,” Virginia Schmauss said. “An unfortunate coincidence.”
“What? What’s the thing?”
“It’s in Rimwood Estates.”
“Where Peplow was found murdered?”
“You were going to let me walk out of here today without volunteering that information?”
“Cookie, you don’t think that this sweet couple had it in them to kill Larry, that they’d be stupid enough to do it within a few hundred feet of the house they wanted so badly?”
“Virginia,” he said, closing his notebook and getting to his feet, “I just want to be sure you’re on my side of the street here.”
“I’m with you, Cookie,” she said, rising as well with a shifting of silk and a clatter of bracelets. “Because there’s nothing worse for the real estate market than a high unsolved crime rate.”
LARRY PEPLOW, IT TURNED out, had rented a house just six blocks away from Virginia Schmauss’s office on Tander Avenue, the main thoroughfare, as it led out of the business district, and Harvey walked there under a blue June sky with high cirrus clouds like drops of cream in a glass of tinted water.
Once, in a moment of presumptuous self-reflection, he had told a Boston Magazine reporter doing a feature on local private detectives that he was in the “information business.” But it was true. Information was his capital. As he walked east on Tander he felt better than he had an hour ago for the simple reason that Virginia Schmauss had volunteered under no particular pressure that Larry Peplow had stiffed some people named Upchurch. However, there were three kinds of information: good information, bad information, good information that was useless. The last was like Monopoly money. And this information—the aggrieved Upchurches—was that kind. Virginia Schmauss, of course, was no dummy. Even if the Upchurches just happened to be capable of murdering Peplow, or capable of hiring someone to do it for them, in the real world why on earth would they have him killed so close to the object of their frustration? The thing had a cheap feel to it. Yet the field next to Rimwood Estates could not have been a random choice. It was a place where Peplow had business; it was simply too much of a coincidence for him to be blown away by someone with no connection at all to real estate.
The house Peplow had rented sat just beyond town, where only a little of the sunlight sifted through the big maples and copper beeches overhead. It was an old white clapboard cottage from Coleridge’s first generation of housing stock, past its prime, with a pitched roof, a porch that wrapped around one side, and some gingerbread. There was ample evidence of a rental’s neglect. As he climbed the porch stairs, he almost lost his balance on a spongy, rotting step. The clapboard paint had flaked off in spots, disclosing an earlier powder blue. A beveled glass pane in the front door was badly cracked.
The police seal had been removed—a piece of the yellow tape was still stuck on a bush—and so had most of the contents of the house. He peered in from the porch and saw a dark living room, empty except for a slipcovered sofa and a dull green set of armchairs. In a community of opulent homes, some of which it was his job to sell, Larry Peplow had lived with someone else’s furniture. Harvey would never know how Peplow had improved it, what touches he had added to make it, even for a while, his own.
“I don’t like it one bit.”
Harvey turned. The tiny voice behind him belonged to an elderly woman in a magenta jogging suit standing on the sidewalk with her arms folded defiantly in front of her. Perfect white bangs framed her cheery, crumpled face.
“I have to tell you, young man, I don’t like it one little bit,” she said.
Harvey came to the porch railing. “Excuse me, ma’am, but I’m working with the police. I’m an investigator.”
“I wasn’t talking about you, young man. I was talking about him.” She jerked her chin up toward the house, as if indicating Peplow somewhere inside.
“You didn’t like Mr. Peplow one bit? Is that what you mean?”
She danced up the walk toward him on her Reeboks. “I suppose he was all right,” she said, stopping at the bottom of the steps. “But I don’t like this murder business one bit. That’s what I meant. We’re not used to that sort of thing here. And to have that poor man—well, to have known him, and then have him be the one.”
“You knew Mr. Peplow?”
“Young man, I’ve lived next door for fifty-three years”—she jerked her head toward the Victorian on Harvey’s left—“and I’ve seen a lot of tenants come and go. I watched the Hibbard kids grow up here, before they all went off to school and the parents moved and started renting it out. When I moved to Coleridge, there was no expressway and it took an hour and a half to drive into the city along the lake.”
“You certainly don’t look old enough to’ve been here that long.”
“Young man, even in this stupid jogging suit I look old enough to be your grandmother, and don’t you think I don’t know it, but thank you anyway for that nice compliment.”
“My husband and I jog every day and we used to see Larry from time to time. I made him a pie once. Now, that’s something people don’t do enough of for each other anymore.”
“I couldn’t agree more, Mrs. Chernoff. More pies would make this world a better place to live. Did you talk to him much?”
“Oh, we said hello often enough, but he wasn’t a talkative fellow. Nice enough. Courteous man. Like you.”
“Do you know why someone would want to kill him?”
“Heavens, no! Young man, I pride myself on being the kind of person who doesn’t know people whom anyone would want to kill.”
“You didn’t know him to be in any kind of trouble?”
“Oh, he was in trouble, that’s for sure.”
“Any man who’s got that many women coming and going is in some kind of trouble. My husband, Abe, used to say it made him wish he was young again. And I told him, ‘Abe, that boy Larry isn’t young anymore, and you were never young enough for those sorts of goings-on, anyway.’”
“Carrying on like that. That man should’ve been married and suffering like the rest of us.” Her laugh sounded like birds twittering.
“What was he doing?”
“Sometimes they wouldn’t come out till the next morning.”
“Did you meet any of them?”
“No, I most certainly didn’t.”
“Well, that wasn’t very nice of him, was it? Not to introduce you to his girlfriends. How many different girlfriends would you say he had in the—how long did he live here?”
“Almost four years, and there must’ve been three or four different ones.”
“Three or four? For a minute, you made it sound like a revolving door.”
“It’s a lot of young women in my book.”
“Do you know any of their names?”
“I may’ve been his neighbor, but I’m not nosy.”
“Did you ever hear any loud noises or arguments coming from the house?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Do you remember anything unusual happening in the weeks or months before he was killed?”
“Did he keep a regular schedule?”
“I’d be hard-pressed to say. You know these real estate people.”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Well, my Lord, they’re out showing houses at all hours. Not like my husband, Abe. For forty-five years, he came home from work on the six-forty-one and walked home from the station and I’d have a martini and a big bowl of cashews waiting for him.” She started jogging spryly in place. “Got to keep the calf muscles warm.”
“I’ll leave you to your running.”
“Abe’s home with a summer cold, so I’m jogging all by my lonesome today.”
“Good luck,” Harvey said. “I’m sure we’ll be speaking again.”
“Watch out, young man, or I might make you a pie,” she said as she turned and flapped down the walk.
When Harvey was back in his car, he picked up the cellular phone and called the Upchurch residence in nearby Dancedale. A man with bigger fish to fry would be busy frying them, but he was a man with only one very small fish. He listened to the rings, envisioning a white wall phone jangling in a curtained kitchen, until Mrs. Upchurch herself answered.
He told her who he was and that he had information that Larry Peplow had sold to someone else a house that she felt should have been hers. She told him to come by around six, when her husband, Harry, would be home.
As he idled at a red light under a banner stretched overhead advertising the Coleridge Arts Fair, Harvey watched two attractive middle-aged women in long linen shorts pass in front of his car, shopping bags dangling from their tan hands. When one of them paused in the crosswalk and bent to scratch her thigh, a gold ladies’ Rolex flashed sharply in the sun. In a camera store window to Harvey’s left were two drastically enlarged color portraits of families. In one, a nuclear grouping of four in matching argyle sweaters posed against a Mercedes fender. In the other, a family of five with perfect teeth stood in front of blazing autumn trees with the family rottweiler, all in order of descending height. Next to the camera store was a sporting goods outfit. A headless mannequin in the window wore a black-and-orange athletic jacket with its back turned toward the street. The jacket said “Coleridge Collies.”
The light turned green and he gave the Town Car a little gas. Behind the wheel of a Jaguar passing in the opposite direction was a kid of about twenty, a gawky bird with a spiky purple plume of hair. Behind him was a teenage girl with ash blond hair driving a huge Olds Cutlass, talking into a cellular phone. College kids home for the summer, Harvey realized, enjoying the last days of sheltering wealth, a level of prosperity few would ever be able to duplicate themselves. He was surprised that people were still fighting over eight-hundred-thousand-dollar houses. America was bottoming out. How strange, he thought, to live in an America that suddenly had to prove itself to everyone; we’re like a team that has blown a big lead at home. A town like Coleridge might be a theme park in a few years where, for the price of admission, angry Americans could experience the suburban wealth of a bygone era. The guided tour would wheel by a group of mechanical Mexican gardeners endlessly raking the yard of a Tudor house. Please keep your hands inside the bus; those rakes are real!
As he drove, the neighborhoods told the story of westward suburban expansion. Coleridge’s business district gave way to leafy neighborhoods of bungalows and frame houses from the twenties and thirties, and after a mile to newer brick ranch houses and split-levels with scrollwork aluminum screen doors, and then the housing stock thinned out and Harvey saw, to his left and right, recent residential developments rising out of the farmland, looking naked with their inadequate foliage.
His car floated across the freight tracks connecting Chicago and Milwaukee, then passed a small strip mall with a brown mansard roof. Lodged between a Quik-Copy and a video store was an establishment with rice paper screens in the window called the Sunny Day Sushi Bar. An unlikely spot to find fresh sea urchin, but it was a world where farmers wore Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and gas stations sold Danish chewing gum. On the gravel shoulder, just before a road sign reading “Welcome to Garden Hills, Population 28,700,” a woman in a straw sun hat was selling early corn and tomatoes out of the back of a pickup. She sat in a beach chair beside the brimming bushels, her ear pressed to a transistor radio.
Unlike Coleridge, the Garden Hills business district was lined with no-nonsense retail stores—a florist with graduation corsages piled high in the window in their clear plastic cubes, a luncheonette, and a dusty hardware store with a row of bright red lawn mowers, rototillers, and seeders parked in front.
He found the police station, a squat granite building on a balding patch of grass, and parked in one of the visitors’ spaces. As he straightened his tie in the rearview mirror—if he had to impress anyone, it was Dombrowski, on whose good graces his own investigation would in some measure rely—he considered Larry Peplow, about whom so many seemed to know so little. He thought of what Virginia Schmauss said Peplow had told her: “I’m selling them a new mask to more effectively contain and conceal the dirty details of living.” Well, talk about presumptuous self-reflection. He and Peplow had that in common, as well as an overdeveloped sense of privacy, and Harvey suddenly felt that he might have liked the guy.
“SIT DOWN, SON,” SAID Lieutenant Walter Dombrowski, chief of detectives for the Garden Hills Police Department’s Homicide Unit. He pointed to a wooden chair in his hot office and kept Harvey waiting while he pecked out another word at his hulking IBM Selectric. When he finally turned, his face was bubbled with perspiration; the old Fedder grumbling in the window seemed to be doing more harm than good.
Above his broad, creased, comforting face and strip of tan forehead, his silver blond hair rose stoutly in a brush cut. Behind gold-frame glasses his pale eyes appraised Harvey. He was somewhere in his fifties and looked more like a feed salesman than one of the suburbanites whom he served and protected.
“I’ve had as many as ten men on it and we’re not netting out anything. First damn homicide in seven years, son, and it won’t go down.” He tapped the files on his desk labeled PEPLOW, LAWRENCE. “What do you need to know?”
“I’m not fussy, Lieutenant.” He realized that Dombrowski was looking at him with an expression of intense scrutiny. “Is something the matter?” Harvey asked. “Do I have something on my face?”