Magician, page 1
The Roland Longville Mystery Series #2
Written by Timothy C. Phillips
©2012 by Timothy C. Phillips
Published 2012 by The Fiction Works
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission, except for brief quotations to books and critical reviews. This story is a work of fiction. Characters and events are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Table of Contents
About the Author
The weather had been gravely ill for weeks. Today it had wrapped itself in a gloomy gray shroud and the icy rain seemed to have no end. Wind howled through the dead avenues like a wounded thing, and the rain whipped relentlessly against black clouds that wheeled above like carrion birds, waiting for the inevitable.
This was summer’s wretched ruin, and the first taste of a hard and premature winter. The winter weather had come howling into Birmingham the week before. Fall had been displaced, the leaves on the trees that were only just beginning to turn color encased with ice. It was only September, but the city’s tired inhabitants already found themselves missing the swelter of the summer that had just ended.
All down the windswept interstates and through the slimy back streets, motorists struggled across Birmingham’s broad back, trying desperately to get to work, to home, to the restaurant, to the bowling alley. Some might not live to see the gray day’s end, some might break a leg or find true love, and some might disappear into the premature birth of winter and never be seen again.
I turned up the collar on my long wool coat and considered these and other mysteries, as I stepped into the lobby of the ancient brownstone Brooks building, of which I was the only remaining tenant. It was nine stories of once resplendent brick, a hulking leftover from another time. My office was located on the third floor of this noble relic. Except for an aging janitor and the occasional client, I was the only human being that troubled its quiet halls.
The Brooks Building presided over the now mostly vacant Brooks Plaza; whatever bustle of business it had once housed was long past. Only one business in the plaza was still open besides my own; Sally’s Diner, across the street. The other buildings were vacant, sliding slowly into ruin. The cold wind raged and howled past their aging sides. A relentless blast of sleet slithered down the city streets, as it had for the last ten days. It was hard to believe that it was just early September.
“Is going to be long, cold winter, comrade,” I joked to myself in my best fake Russian accent as I mounted the steps to my office. The vacancy of the other suites made the venerable building seem somehow even colder.
I entered my dark, silent office. The cold from outside had permeated the old Brooks Building, but what else was new, I mused. In the outer office, the receptionist’s empty desk silently reproached me.
I glanced at the desk and winced. I supposed I should get rid of it; I was always promising myself that I would, but I just never seemed to get around to it. Denise, my former secretary, had married and moved away a long time ago. She had been a good secretary, but she had also been a friend. We had known each other from my days as a cop. She was also one of the few who had stuck by me in the dark days that had come afterwards. Those were bad times indeed, when I had stuck my head in a bottle to hide from life’s unpleasantness.
The desk was in some ways a reminder of those former times. But getting rid of it would make the place seem quieter and even more devoid of life, I reasoned. Hiring another secretary was out of the question, just now. I put the question from my mind, and rubbed my hands together to ward off the chill.
I turned on the heat and went into the inner office to make coffee while the temperature built up to a more acceptable level. The aging radiator squealed as the steam expanded inside and tried to escape. Outside, the weather answered with its own angry voices.
I walked to the window and looked down. A couple of cars toiled through the dark and rainy street.
I turned away from the window and pushed the button on the coffee maker, then sat down and rubbed my hands some more. I placed my pager and cell phone on the desk, then pushed the button on the answering machine; no beeps answered. No messages today. I was almost glad, not that I couldn’t use the dough. You always could in my line of work. But a brief respite was welcome. I had run myself ragged the last couple of weeks looking for a deadbeat dad who didn’t want to be found. Deadbeat dads never do, or deadbeat moms, for that matter.
I had finally found him, however, and the man had reluctantly coughed up the money he owed, rather than face jail. They usually did that, too, if they could. All in all, it had been an annoying waste of time. Cases like that usually were, and they sometimes left one drained and feeling no great love for the majority of humankind.
I rubbed my face and dismissed the whole tawdry business from my mind. I got up, stretched, and wandered back toward the coffee maker. I was breaking one of my own cardinal rules. There was no use dwelling on a case after it was a done deal, and I had long since forbidden myself from doing so. The coffee maker bubbled its last, and I was just about to pour myself a cup when I heard a cautious footstep in the outer office. I looked at the time. 8:45 a.m.
Somebody’s sure busting a gut to see me, this fine morning, I thought. Outside, the wind moaned as if in agreement with my ironic observation.
After a few seconds, the office door pushed timidly open. Through it came a big man, about six foot three, just a tad shorter than me. But I could still call myself rather dense and muscled, whereas my visitor was flabby, and sad. He was a bit older than me, too. His face was pale, and a great drooping mustache swooned from either side of a long, pallid nose.
He looked a little like some ancient Cossack, straight from his manor on the Steppes. He was dressed in a long leather coat with a fur collar, and on his head sat a large bear fur hat. His long white fingers wore several gold rings. In his right hand was a silver-tipped cane. His appearance imparted two things equally—wealth, and something else, a deep sorrow. He seemed to have a disturbing aura, a bit like madness. The expression on the man’s face was one of infinite sadness, mixed with a deadly earnest.
While his presence was somehow larger than life, it was, at the same time, somewhat comical. There was a surreal quality in his appearance, too many strong ideas that did not mesh well. A soft, cultured voice issued forth from his great, impressive bulk.
“Mr. Roland Longville?”
“That’s me,” I said, still a little taken aback by his eccentric looks.
“Mr. Longville, My name is Horace Champion.” He said his own name with some significance.
“Nice to meet you.” We shook hands. The pale man’s hand was warm and sweaty, despite the cold outside.
“The pleasure is all mine, I assure you.”
Not quite sure what to make of the man yet, I nodded toward the coffee maker. “Would you like some coffee, Mr. Champion? I was just about to pour myself a cup.”
“Oh, that would be nice.” The other man looked grateful and slightly embarrassed.
“I’m sorry to barge in. Your secretary wasn’t in yet.” Champion gestured back to the outer office.
I smiled to myself and turned my back to the man. I poured us both a cup. “Do you take sugar, Mr. Champion?” I called over my shoulder.
“Oh, yes, three. And lots of cream.”
When I turned back, Champion had removed the big fur hat and placed it on his lap. This revealed a head of bushy brown hair. The hair was rather like the hat. The man’s eyes were shiny. There were deep circles under Champion’s eyes, as though he cried often.
I sat down, and slid Champion his coffee. He sipped experimentally on his own. “Ah, that’s good,” he said. “Thank you.”
I nodded. The big man produced a monogrammed handkerchief with a cursive HC and wiped at the corners of his eyes. I thought again of the Walrus.
Holding his pocket-handkerchief before his streaming eyes.
“Mr. Longville, I have a problem. I have nowhere else to turn; you are my last hope.” He paused dramatically, as if searching for a reaction. I sat motionless, giving him nothing. I like to let them talk, and they usually prefer that, anyway.
“It’s my daughter, Mr. Longville.” He paused to sob, and in a rather practiced manner, I thought. “. . . Georgia LeCroix Champion.”
I sat back and regarded the ceiling for a moment. I realized now why Champion’s name had seemed familiar. He was a member of Birmingham’s smallest club, a billionaire who made his money by inheriting tens of millions and having enough business sense to make it grow larger still. The source of his immense wealth was a huge construction firm, which he had also inherited. And now the source of Horace Champion’s sadness dawned on me. Little Georgia Champion had gone missing two years before. Or had it been three?
The lurid story came rushing back to me. It had been the proverbial tabloid circus that everyone in the world heard about, whether they wanted to or not. The yellow journalists had stoked the flames of public interest, and the story had run the circuit, as such sad stories do. Then one day it had become an old topic. The public got bored with the lack of new developments, and so the jackals had run away to focus their lurid attentions on some other human tragedy. In the end, it had become a joke, and finally it had been all but forgotten.
Georgia Champion, the poor little rich girl. I was sure there were still old tabloids in the outer office with her picture emblazoned across their fading covers. Most of them featured crazed headlines, blaming the girl’s disappearance on everything from Satanist death cults, to aliens from outer space. The headlines had grown increasingly bizarre as time had gone by. No real suspects had ever been announced, and Georgia was never found, dead or alive.
Georgia Champion’s disappearance would never have attracted so much attention, of course, had her parents not been so wealthy. They were the Mountain Brook Champions, after all. Her father was a well-known construction magnate. That fact alone had kept the story in the news for a year. It had lingered in the tabloids six months more.
For all the media hoopla, though, the crime itself had been a genuine conundrum. The girl had disappeared from her parent’s estate, an opulent 19th Century manor with a ten-foot privacy fence, and its own security force. She had been just nine years old. A lot of good minds had tried to crack the mechanics of just how the girl had been abducted, with no success.
These thoughts swirled through my mind. Champion sat there, his great sad face patiently awaiting my pronouncement. His lower lip trembled, as though he was fearful of what I might say.
“Mr. Champion, I am familiar with your case. I don’t remember all the details, but I believe you are wrong about one thing—I’m not your last hope. The Birmingham Police are still actively pursuing this case—”
Champion held up a pale palm, and I fell silent so he could speak. Champion spoke in his cultured, measured tone. But there was more than a little spite in his voice: “Nothing. The Birmingham Police are doing nothing. I’ve been to them many times, believe me. Even recently, I have consulted them. Their answer is always the same. I have also been to private agencies. I am referring to some of the largest firms, some of them the most reputable in the country, the world. The police I might say, are the same as these agencies—they want to placate me by sending me empty reports, or dash my hopes with repetitive and pointless interviews.” He paused for a moment, checked his manicure, gave me a quick glance, and went on.
“I am no fool, Mr. Longville. What has happened here is easy to see. The police have given up on this case—on my case. As for the large private agencies, the situation is laughable. They simply want to take my money. No, I am done with them, done with them all. What is called for here is a goal-oriented person, an individual who will report to me personally. Someone who gets results. Someone like you.”
I ignored the patronizing remark. “Mr. Champion. Despite what you may think, some of the larger detective agencies have some very highly trained personnel. I might also mention that they have considerable resources at their disposal.” I made a sweeping gesture with my hand, encompassing my office, and the mostly vacant Brooks Building.
There was a slight pause while Champion appeared to consider this. The wind slammed against the panes, and the sleet made a nervous tic tic tic on the rattling glass.
“Mr. Longville, I am a very wealthy man.”
“Yes, Mr. Champion. I know you are.”
“It so happens that you come very highly recommended. Very highly indeed. That is all the assurance that I require. As for resources, I will place at your disposal whatever you require to get results. I am also prepared to reward success handsomely—very handsomely, Mr. Longville. For me, you see, this entire affair has gone beyond hiring someone and simply waiting for results. I’m looking for someone who is honest and knows, if you will excuse me, what the hell they are about, and the cost be damned.” Again, Champion delivered his words with great drama, and paused as if to search my face for some reaction.
I was unwilling to play Champion’s game.
“It doesn’t work that way, Mr. Champion. I work for set rates, not on a reward basis. I’m not a bounty hunter. Extra expense money would help any investigation, but let me be honest with you. The Birmingham Police still have someone assigned to this case, probably some of their best people. The police don’t give up. If you haven’t heard anything from them, it’s because there are simply no new developments in the case. As for the private agencies you’ve been to, well, they probably weren’t able to find anything either.”
I stopped suddenly; Champion was counting out money, laying it on the desk. There was already a considerable stack of hundreds.
“Mr. Champion . . . sir, stop that. Put your money away. I can’t accept this.”
“This is just for your time, Mr. Longville. Please, let me talk, let me explain.”
“You are talking to me, Mr. Champion. You can, all you want. That’s free. Now please get your money off my desk.” Champion flushed. Then, hesitantly, he scraped up the bills and secreted them away in his coat. His manner immediately became apologetic again.
“Forgive me, Mr. Longville.” Champion’s voice immediately became a placating whine, as he took on an artless change of tack. “I know that I am in no position to demand anything. I am not trying to insult you, but I am at wit’s end. You must try to understand. All I ask is that you try. I’ll pay well, and, I’d like you to know that I trust you. Please, please, I implore you, help us if you are able.”
I drew a heavy sigh, and let my fingers trace the scar that makes a long comma from the corner of my left eye to the corner of my mouth. I do that compulsively, when I figure I am close to making a big mistake, like the one that had gotten me the scar.
I felt a stab of pain from that old wound. I am no superhero. I’m just a man, with a man’s frailties, a man’s mortality. I know all too well that Champion, however pointless his case might seem, might mean my destruction. A number of “piece of cake” assignments had almost been the death of me. Any case I take might be the one that ends me.
“If I agreed to do this, Mr. Champion, I’d need your cooperation, Mr. Champion. Your unqualified cooperation.”
“Rest assured, Mr. Longville, about our cooperation. I assure you, you will have it. My wife and I—regrettably, Diana couldn’t be here—will agree to almost anything. Something has to be done!” His last words were in a high, keening tone, and I had the sense of Champion saying them on a talk show, and the remark drawing a round of obligatory applause from the half-attentive audience.
I gritted my teeth. The man had obviously rehearsed his routine, but still, he seemed in earnest about his lack of confidence in the police and other agencies. I could guess whom the man had been to see—my ex-partner, Detective Lieutenant Lester Broom, of the North Precinct. Such unqualified praise for an ex-alcoholic, solo private eye, seldom came from other quarters.
“I have to say, Mr. Champion, I’m flattered by your apparent faith in me. But let me say something. I don’t think I would be doing anyone any good for me to simply rehash this case. I don’t think that you’re facing the facts here. The reason that the police and the other private firms haven’t found anything new is probably because there is nothing new to find.”
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