Note: I’ve been juggling a few too many things lately to work on my alchemy story, so I thought I’d post a story I wrote a few years back that was published in the now-defunct Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine and is almost never anthologized–I hope you’ll find it new to you.
When he came into my office that July afternoon I thought I’d met him before. It was something about his smile, sweet but aloof, as if inviting and withholding at the same time. Now that I’m in the computer age I check databases before my first meeting with a new client, but whatever Hunter Davenport did hadn’t made Lexis-Nexis yet. If I’d seen him before, it wasn’t on the evening news.
“I’m glad you could meet me on short notice, Ms. Warshawski: I’m only in town a few days and these Chicago hotel bills mount up.” He had a trace of that southern drawl we northerners secretly find appealing. “They warned me summer in Chicago could make Charleston feel cool, but I could hardly believe them until I got off that plane.”
I shook his hand and offered him the armchair. Outside, the heat was turning sidewalks into reflecting pools, but in my windowless office all seasons and hours are alike; with air-conditioning and floor lamps it might have been midwinter.
“Charleston, South Carolina? Is that your home, Mr. Davenport?”
“I lived there when I was a teenager, but most of my adult life has been spent in Europe. I can’t quite shake the accent, or a secret longing for long summer afternoons where time stops and all we do is lie in the long grass waiting for fish to rise and drinking lemonade.”
I smiled: I feel nostalgia for those same endless summers, when my friends and I kept our ears cocked for the Good Humor truck while we jumped rope.
“So what brings you to Chicago when you could be in Charleston getting just as hot, and visiting your old haunts in the bargain?”
He smiled again. “Since the grandmother who raised me died, there hasn’t been anything to take me back. I’m looking for my father. Someone told me he’d retired to Chicago, but I didn’t see him in any of the phone books. So I thought I’d better get an investigator. The folks at the Herald-Star said you were good.”
That was enterprising, an out-of-towner going straight to the dailies for advice. “When did you last see him?”
“When I was eleven. When my mother died I guess he couldn’t stand it. He left me at my grandmother’s — my mother’s mother — and took off. I never even got a postcard from him after that.”
“And why do you want to find him now? After what, fifteen years?”
“A pretty good guess, Ms. Warshawski. I’m twenty-four. When my grandmother died I started thinking I wanted more family. Also, well,” he played with his fingers as if embarrassed, “I wondered if he didn’t have a side to his story I ought to hear. I grew up listening to my granny and my aunt — her unmarried daughter who lived with her — repeat what a bad old bag of bones my old man was. They blamed him for my mama’s death. But I began to see that was impossible, so I started wondering about all the rest of what they had to say about my folks. I guess every man likes to know what kind of person his own old man was — what he’s got to measure himself against, so to speak.”
I’m no less human than the next woman — I couldn’t resist the self-deprecating smile, or the wistful yearning in his blue-grey eyes. I printed out a contract for him and told him I needed a five hundred-dollar advance. Under the floor lamp his helmet of ash-blond hair looked like spun gold; as he leaned forward to hand me five hundreds in cash I could almost imagine the money to be some conjuror’s trick.
“I do accept checks and the usual credit cards,” I said.
“I don’t have a permanent address these days. Cash is easier for me.”
It was odd, but not that odd: plenty of people who visit detectives don’t want a paper trail. It just made me wonder.
His story boiled down to this: his father, also named Hunter Davenport, was a photographer, at least, he had been a photographer when young Hunter’s mother died. Hunter, senior had been a freelance journalist in Vietnam, where my client’s mother was an army nurse. The two met, married, produced young Hunter.
“That’s why I lived in Europe as a child: after the war my father covered hot spots in Africa and Asia. My mother and I lived in Paris during the school year and joined him on assignment during the summer. Then she died, in a car wreck in South Africa. It had nothing to do with whatever conflict he was covering. I don’t even know where he was working — when you’re a kid, you don’t pay attention to that kind of thing. It was just the ordinary dumb kind of wreck she could have had in Paris or Charleston. He wasn’t with her, in the car with her, I mean, but my grandmother always blamed him, said if he hadn’t kept her half a world away it never would have happened.”
He stumbled through the words so quickly I had to lean forward to make out what he was saying. He stopped abruptly. When he spoke again it was in a slow flat voice, but his knuckles showed white where he gripped his hands against his crossed legs.
“I was with her when she died. My mother was so beautiful. You never will see a woman as beautiful as her. And when she was covered with blood — it was hard. I still see her in my dreams, that way.” He took a deep breath. “It must have been hard for him, for Hunter — my — my dad — because the next thing I knew I was at school in Charleston, living with my grandmother, and I never saw him again.”
“What was your mother’s name? Birth name, I mean.”
He’d gone away to some private world; my question startled him back to my office. “Oh. Helen. Helen — Alder.”
“And why do you think your father’s in Chicago?”
“The agency. The agency where he used to sell his pictures, they told me they’d last heard from him here.”
I had to pry more information from him: the agency was a French bureau. First he claimed not to remember the name, but when I handed the hundreds back across the table he came up with it: Sur Place, on Boulevard St. Germaine in Paris. No, he didn’t know his father’s social security number. Or his date of birth: he and his mother spent so much time apart from his father that ordinary holidays and birthdays weren’t times they had in common. As for where his father came from, young Hunter was similarly ignorant.
“My dad never talked to me about his childhood that I can remember. And my mother’s family declared him hors la loi, so that –”
“Declared him ooh-la-la?”
“What? Oh, Hors la loi — an outlaw, you know. They never talked about him.”
The client was staying at the Hotel Trefoil, a tiny place on Scott Street where they unpack your luggage and hand you a hot towel when you walk in so you can wipe the day’s sweat from your brow. If he could afford the Trefoil my fee wouldn’t make a dent in his loose change. I told him I’d do what I could and that I’d get back to him in a few days. He thanked me with that tantalizing familiar smile.
“What do you do yourself, Mr. Davenport? I feel I should recognize you.”
He looked startled. In fact, I thought he looked almost frightened, but in the pools of lamplight I couldn’t be certain. Anyway, a second later he was laughing.
“I don’t do anything worth recording. I’m not an actor or an internet genius that you should know me.”
He left on that note, making me wonder how he afforded the Trefoil. Perhaps his Charleston grandmother had left him money. I laid the five hundreds in a circle on my desktop and ran a marking pen over them. They weren’t counterfeit, but of course fairy’s gold vanishes overnight. Just in case I’d drop them at the bank on my way home.
The international operator got me the number of Sur Place, which cheered me: young Davenport had given me information so unwillingly that I’d been afraid he’d manufactured the agency’s name. It was nine at night in Paris; the night operator at the photo agency didn’t speak English. I think he was telling me to call tomorrow, when Monsieur Duval would be in, but I wasn’t a hundred percent sure.
It was only two in Chicago, and Sherman Tucker, the photo editor at the Herald-Star, was at his desk taking calls. “Vic, darling, you’ve found a corpse and I get the first look at it.”
“Not even close.” Sherman has a passion for the old noir private eyes. He keeps hoping I’ll behave like Race Williams or the Continental Op and start stumbling over bodies every time I walk out the front door. “Ever use a stringer named Hunter Davenport, or heard anything about him? He used to freelance in Africa but someone thinks he might have moved to Chicago.”
“Hunter Davenport? I never heard of the guy but he gets more popular by the hour. You’re the second person today asking for him.”
“Did you refer an extremely beautiful young man to me?” I asked.
Sherman laughed. “I don’t look at guys’ legs, V. I. But, yeah, there was a kid in here earlier. I told him if he didn’t want to take a missing person to the cops to go to you.”
Sherman promised to call me if any of his staff recognized Davenport’s name. I felt as though I was trailing after my own client, but I checked the city and suburban directories just to be sure. There were a lot of Davenports, but no Hunters. I frowned at my desk, then dug out the phone directory disk for the Southeast from a service I subscribe to and looked up “Alder” in Charleston, South Carolina. There weren’t any. A whole bunch of Aldermans and Aldershots were listed, but no plain Alders. The client had said his granny was dead. She didn’t seem to have any relatives besides young Hunter. No wonder he wanted to find his father.
I checked with the department of motor vehicles, but Hunter, Senior, didn’t have a driver’s license. For almost any other search I’d need a social security number or a place and date of birth or some such thing. Of course, if the guy really had retired to Chicago, it was possible he’d been born here. I looked with distaste at the hundred or so Davenports in the city, and the two hundred more scattered through the suburbs. As a last resort I’d start calling them to see if a cousin or brother were mooching from them, but first I’d see what I could learn from the County.
They know me in that mausoleum on Washington, but the warmth of my greeting still depends on who’s working the counter that day. I was lucky this afternoon. A middle-aged clerk who was marking time until he could take early retirement and devote himself to his homemade pie shop was on duty. I’ve bought desserts from him from time to time; he was willing to give a fifteen-year stack of registers at one go.
Twenty minutes before closing, when even my friendly clerk was snarling at citizens to hurry up and finish, I found Hunter Davenport. He had been born in 1942 at Chicago Lying-In, to Mildred and Wayland Davenport (race: white, no previous live births, home address on Cottage Grove, age of parents, twenty-seven and thirty-five respectively). If Mildred and Wayland were still alive they were ancient, and they probably had long since moved from Cottage Grove, but at least it was a place to start.
I detoured to my bank to deposit the five hundreds. As I was boarding the L at Lake Street, I thought I saw my client’s gold halo in the crowd. I jumped off the train, but by the time I’d fought past the rush hour crowd behind me I couldn’t see him. I finally decided it must have been a trick of light.