THE ROOT OF THE MATTER
By Bob Liter
I sat at the bar in Otto's Tavern on Waters Street reading the Peoria Journal Star sports page. Otto lowered his old bones to the worn, cushioned chair behind the bar. He commented occasionally on the news in the front section of the newspaper. I ignored him.
A woman wearing a floppy hat opened the front door, hesitated, allowed the morning sunlight to actually enter the place, and said in a voice that soothed and caressed, "Is Nick Bancroft here?"
That's me. I'm Central City’s only freelance reporter and private investigator. I noted the curve of her hips, the classy cut of a well-fitted sky-blue suit jacket and long, shapely legs extending from a short dark blue skirt. She carried a small blue purse.
Still, I hesitated to answer in case she was a bill collector. She said, "Well, surely the question is not that difficult for you two . . . gentlemen."
"I'm Nick Bancroft," I said.
"Could I tear you away from all this and back to your office long enough to discuss business?"
The woman turned and left. I followed in the wake of her strides as we crossed Elmore street, went up the creaking wooden stairs, past the Ballard Inc. office on the second floor and up to my third floor place.
The notice informing potential customers I could be found at Otto's had been taped to the door. Now it lay crumpled on the floor.
My office housed a worn, oversized wooden desk with drawers that stuck, a swivel chair that didn't always swivel and some battered filing cabinets. In front of the desk was a wooden chair for the occasional visitor. A radio with a cracked plastic case sat on the window ledge beside an ancient air-conditioner. The window, when it was clean, overlooked the back parking lot. My one-room living quarters adjoined the office. The rest of the third floor housed cobwebs and dust.
I settled behind the desk. The woman rejected my offer to sit after looking at the "guest" chair. She removed the hat. I stared at her sensuous lips, her green eyes and her abundant red hair.
I'm Cynthia Crawford," she announced. "My mother is Mrs. Norville Mortin. She's missing. For six weeks. Her husband claims he doesn't know where she is. I think he murdered her for her money. All I have is six-hundred dollars. I'll pay you that if you find out what happened to her."
Norville Mortin. He lived in the spacious house at the north edge of Peoria’s extended boundaries.
Mortin, I learned when I did a story on him for the Chicago Times, was a retired Springfield stock broker.
"Have you reported this to police?"
"Of course. They haven't found out a thing. Mortin claims she just left. Says she didn't tell him where she was going. I've checked with her sister in Florida, everyone else I can think of. No one has heard from her."
I studied her face. She turned away from my gaze.
"Is Mister Mortin your father?"
"No, stepfather. I hate him."
"First of all, he married my mother for her money. She inherited a bundle when my father died. And the bastard tried to get in my pants more than once."
"Are you married?"
"Was once," she said. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"If I'm going to take the case I'll have to have a retainer."
She removed her gloves one slim finger at a time.
"I'll write you a check for three hundred dollars for now," she said.
"That'll be fine," I said. She wrote the check and handed it to me.
"Do you have a photo of your mother?"
She riffled through her purse and produced a billfold photo of an older woman who didn’t look like her at all.
"I'll give it a try," I said, "but I'm not sure I can do much of anything. Missing persons. Sometimes we never find out if it's because of foul play or the person just wanted to get away from it all."
She stood, adjusted her skirt, and said, "My mother wasn't happy in her marriage to that rat. But she would never leave without letting me know where she was."
At the police station Detective Andrew Brown, my main information source there, said, "We never found a trace of her. Her Mercedes is missing. Could have just taken off. Maybe we'll never know."
"I've been hired to find her. Her daughter thinks Mortin killed her for her money."
"Yeah, I know. Talked to her several times. Really wanted to help but couldn't get anywhere. Nice looker."
I left Brown and admired the rolling hills of the Mortin estate as I drove my ’95 Escort up the winding drive to the parking area in front of the house. As I climbed out of the car a large black dog galloped toward me. Its bark sent shivers down my spine in spite of the warm summer weather.
"Nice doggy," I said a couple of times without conviction. A man ran from behind the house and shouted, "Sit, Alexander, sit."
The dog skidded to a stop and sat in front of me like a wet-tongued statue.
"He probably won't bite you, but he jumps on people, scares the shit out of 'em."
"He didn't have to jump on me to do that," I said, still eyeing the dog as it eyed me.
"I'm busy out back mowing the grass. What do you want?"
Mortin hadn't changed much since I interview him a couple of years earlier. His forehead had receded a little more, perhaps. The beginning of a full beard covered part of his thin face. He wore blue jeans, a T-shirt and running shoes. The last time I'd seen him he was elegant in a silk suit.
"I'm here to ask some questions about your missing wife," I said.
"She's missing all right. Just up and left. I suppose her daughter hired you. Is that it?"
He turned and walked toward the side of the house where he had first appeared.
"Don't worry about the dog. He won't bother you now. Come Alexander."
The dog bounded away. I followed without bounding.
The half-acre yard behind the house was edged with flower beds. A multitude of flowers I couldn't identify bloomed in profusion even though weeds grew among them. Red and pink roses, the largest and most colorful I’d ever seen, dominated one area. A riding mower was parked near the left edge of the yard.
"I've got nothing more to say. You'll have to excuse me, I want to get this grass mowed before the sun gets too hot."
"Your wife must have taken care of the flower beds," I said.
He seated himself on the mower and started it. He drove it to the end of the grass where a cornfield bordered the yard, turned and headed back toward me.
"Just one more question," I shouted as he approached.
He shut off the mower and said, "One more. That's all."
"Why are the roses it that one bed growing so much taller than those in the other beds."
I pointed to the lush roses and the competing weeds. His face turned red. He pulled a handkerchief from his hip pocket and wiped his brow. He stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket, stared at me with menace in his eyes, and said, "That's your question? You stopped me for that? I don’t know anything about the damned flowers. That was my wife’s business."
He started the mower again, turned it near my feet and headed to the far end of the yard.
I returned to the police station and Brown's office. He concentrated on papers from a file folder on his desk and ignored me. I sat and waited patiently. I was thinking of leaving, not so sure by then that I wanted to say what I had planned. It would make me look like a fool if I was wrong.
He pushed the papers aside, lit a half-smoked cigar he pulled from his top desk drawer and said, "So?"
"I got an idea where maybe you can find the body of Mrs. Mortin."
"Don't laugh. I think he buried her in a flower bed."
He moved his swivel chair back a bit, put his feet on the desk, stretched his arms and said, "And how did you deduce this, Sherlock?"
I squirmed in the chair. "The roses and weeds in a particular spot are lusher, taller than any of the others."
He smiled at me like a parent amused at a small child.
"You think, then, that the rotting body under those plants is supplying fertilizer, thus causing the plants to excel. Is that right?"
"Yeah, that's what I thought. Maybe it's a dumb idea."
"That big dog he's got. Maybe that's where it shits."
"That could be it," I said.
“Well, as dumb as cops are, sometimes we do look around. We examined the yard. Didn’t see any suspicious dirt. The flowers were pretty well through for the season. I remember there was a compost pile. On the left side of the yard. We had no reason to dig up his yard.”
"Well, it was just an idea. The roses are on the left side of the yard. I didn’t see any compost pile," I said.
A week later Cynthia Crawford came into my office about an hour before noon. I didn't manage to get my feet off the desk before she saw them. I wondered if she realized I had been asleep.
She glanced at me, at the splendor of my office, and said, "I didn't really expect results, but you were all I could afford."
I figured she was going to ask for her retainer back. Maybe I should have returned it. I really hadn't done much. Missing persons cases are tough. She sat on the chair in front of my desk, pulled her check book from a monster purse and filled out a check. She handed it to me. It was for three-hundred dollars."
"What's this for?"
"It's what I promised. I was hoping you'd find my mother alive, but at least you found her."
"That policeman, Mister Brown, told me how they managed to get a search warrant after you told them where to find the remains of her body.”
She wiped a tear from her eye and said, “I had my cry on the way here. At least this brings the thing to closure and the cop assured me Mortin will stand trial."
"I'm sorry it had to end this way," I said after I regained my ability to speak.
I deposited the two checks in my depleted bank account the next day and left the bank feeling lousy. I’d read about the arrest of Norville Mortin and the filing of murder charges against him. I was surprised, of course, when he found me at Otto’s a few days later.
“You dirty bastard,” he said as he plowed up to the bar like a ship in a wind storm.
“I thought they arrested you,” I managed to say.
“I’m out on bail. They’re going to hang my ass because of you. Did that damned bitch tell you where she buried the body? Are you in on this with her? Gonna get your cut?”
“Now wait a minute. Are you saying Cynthia killed her mother? And buried her in the flower bed?”
“That’s what I’m saying and I want to hire you to prove it.”
“I’m not sure I believe you.”
“You will take the money, won’t you and look into it?”
He offered a sum of money I didn’t resist, but I never could find any evidence that Cynthia did it. He told me to keep the money after they convicted him of murdering his wife. I still sometimes wonder if what he said was true . And I almost feel guilty about keeping Mortin’s money.
I hope you enjoyed this Nick Bancroft story and the others included here. If you want to experience more of Nick’s exciting life I have written four novels involving the ambitious detective. They are: Murder By the Book, August Is Murder, Death Sting, And the Band Played On.
They are available on the Internet from Fictionwise.com and Renebooks.com, Kindle and many other Internet book stores.