Al Colby, an American expatriate working as a private investigator in Mexico City, is contacted by an old acquaintance in Los Angeles who hands him a cold case involving a missing person. Robert Parker’s mysterious disappearance is tying up a family fortune and is enraging his abandoned wife who can’t tap the family coffers without proof of death. The case sounded routine enough, right up his alley, but the trail for the missing Mr. Parker leads Colby down a rabbit hole winding through a number of South American countries, each one a dead end. Running out of funds and clean shirts, Colby is ready to throw in the towel, but the stakes are too high and his client fuels the search with additional cash.
The deeper Colby digs the more entangled he becomes in a decades old mystery of misplaced loyalties, family secrets, and riches in nitrate ore. In between tequila shots and beautiful women, Al Colby has a case that drags him in deeper with each step. But can he piece it all together before the quicksand swallows him whole?
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It started out like any other job. I was in Mexico City, getting ready to drive down to Cuernavaca for a week-end with friends who had a house there, when the letter reached me. It came registered air mail, so I took it along for the weekend instead of sticking it in a drawer until Monday.
When I got around to opening it, the envelope held a fuzzy snapshot of a middle-aged Joe Doakes squinting into the sun, a photostat of an Examining Physician's Report on an insurance-company form, another photostat of a note addressed to Dear Helen, and a long letter from a lawyer I knew in Los Angeles named Adams. Adams' letter said:
Here is a chance for you to earn an honest penny.
Robert R. (for nothing, as far as I have been able to learn) Parker disappeared from Pasadena, California, five years and some months ago, leaving behind him a wife, no children and substantial valuable real estate. All the other information I have been able to assemble about him is contained in the enclosed documents.
Parker appears to have been something of a man of mystery. He was married for fifteen years to the same wife and spent his entire married life in Southern California, yet neither his wife nor his friends know anything definite about his early life, i.e., where he came from, or where he got his stake, or what the score was in any respect. He is said to have stated that he was born in San Francisco. I can find no record of him there. You may be aware that all San Francisco birth records were destroyed in the 1906 fire, a convenient fact for anybody who is old enough and who requires a native birthplace to keep from being deported or for other reasons. Of course many were born in San Francisco prior to 1906. He may or may not be one of them.
On the surface, Parker seems to have been just another man who parlayed a modest sum of money into a respectable fortune on the increase in Southern California land values. This is the reason for my interest in him. Knowing your ignorance of legal matters, I will simply state in words of one syllable that much of the real property which he acquired during his married life qualifies as community property under California law, and a wife cannot transfer clear title to community property while her husband is living, unless he joins in the transfer. Inasmuch as the wife, my client, has been offered approximately a quarter of a million dollars for clear title to a piece of said community property, I am very anxious either to get in touch with Mr Parker or to obtain sound evidence that he has departed this vale of tears. Personally I would prefer to learn that he is dead, as this would simplify matters, but I do not suggest that you take any steps to help him from this life to a better one.
For your further information, I will state confidentially that my client, the wife, is a first-class bitch, and I do not blame Parker for running out on her. How he stood it for fifteen years is more than I can understand, after a rather brief business relationship with her. I inject this apparently irrelevant note as a possible explanation for her complete lack of any information about her husband's background, as she spends so much time talking about herself that she probably never listened to anything he had to say. On the other hand, it seems strange that she would not have learned a few things about him during the course of fifteen years of marriage, unless he was being careful that she should not, and it occurs to me that he may have had something to conceal: e.g., a criminal record or some such thing. This is only conjecture on my part, of course, but it might explain why he was so shy about being photographed. I have been able to discover only the one poor snapshot which is enclosed.
Parker's last note to his wife, a copy of which is also enclosed, was mailed from Mexico City, which is the reason I am turning the job over to you. Please do your utmost to get a line on him. If he is dead, send me a death certificate or its equivalent, plus whatever affidavits you can obtain from people familiar with the circumstances of his death. If he is alive, persuade him to get in touch with me. You can promise that no attempt will be made to interfere with his personal life, as Mrs P., who is considerably younger than her husband, has plenty of other boy friends and refers to Mr Parker as 'that old bastard.' Her only interest is in the money. I think she might also enjoy making him squirm if there were any way she could do so — she seems to resent the fact that he left her before she could leave him — but as far as I know he has committed no offence worse than simple desertion, which is not a crime in this state when you leave the desertee as well-fixed as she will be if she gets the money from the sale of the properties. Note the 'if,' which will be an important arguing point in case he is non-co-operative. You can promise him the moon if he will sign the necessary papers. His note to her, copy enclosed, clearly shows his intent to relinquish interest in the properties but does not constitute sufficient evidence of the relinquishment for our purposes. It will be approximately another two years before we can have him declared legally dead, and the two hundred and fifty thousand dollars will not wait that long.
It may be of help to you to know that Parker left here in a brand-new (five years ago) Buick sedan, California licence 5C-71-25, engine number 2032245, serial number 6JA11- 4548. I have been unable to trace this car, and I think he may have driven it into Mexico. At least it is an angle to work on.
I have persuaded my client to guarantee expenses and a reasonable fee for your services up to a maximum of 2,500 dollars in toto. I will add unofficially that if you deliver the goods, a small bonus may be in order as well. Please give me action, as time is of the essence.
Regards and best wishes. How is your golf?
I didn't feel much like working just then, but a chance at twenty-five hundred dollars is always interesting. I looked over the rest of the stuff that had come in the envelope.
The snapshot wouldn't be any help. Parker had a hat on, and either because of the sun or because he knew what he was doing, he had screwed his face up until you couldn't tell whether he looked like Clark Gable or Jo Jo the trained chimp. His physical condition, according to the insurance company report, was so-so for a man of thirty-five, which he had been when the examination was made. No scars or other peculiar marks of identification. He had a lot of fillings in his teeth, according to a chart that accompanied the medical report. I worked the dates around to make him fifty when he pulled his freight from Pasadena and fifty-five or fifty-six when I started looking for him.
The 'Dear Helen' note told me that he had a conscience. All it told Dear Helen was that Robert was taking a powder for reasons which she would understand without his going into unpleasant detail, that he was going where she would be unable to trace him, that all the property was hers to do with as she saw fit, and that she could obtain a divorce or not as she liked, goodbye. Most men who run out on a wife after fifteen years either leave a long alibi pinned to the pillow, because they are in the wrong and know it, or simply duck blindly out of a bad situation and the hell with farewell letters. My guess was that Parker had been in the second class. But in the time it had taken him to get from California to Mexico City, his sense of duty had eaten at him until he had to tell Dear Helen what was what, so there would be no tag-ends. Otherwise he was a chump to have written at all.
The brand-new Buick was my biggest help. I figured he would have to sell it if he really wanted to drop out of sight. You need an export permit to sell a United States car in Mexico unless you have owned it for six months. The U.S. Consul will give you an export permit if your story is good.
I went down to the consulate. A fellow I knew there nosed through a bunch of old records and came up with the information that an export permit for one new Buick had been issued to Mr Robert R. Parker on the day before the date on the 'Dear Helen' note. My man didn't know the details of the transaction.
It took me a while to run the Buick down. It would have been a hopeless task before the war, when everybody in Mexico City bought a new car every year and the old ones turned into libres which ended up on the junk-heap after about six months in the hands of the average libre jockey. But not many new cars had come into Mexico for a long time, so the Buick was still doing business. I found it registered in the name of Señora Molly Jean Mendoza.
Señora Molly Jean Mendoza lived in a pretty good apartment house out toward Lomas de Chapultepec. A frowsy maid let me in without asking my name or business, then went to call the Señora while I parked my hat on a pile of American movie magazines.
Molly Jean turned out to be a rubia, a brassy blonde of the type a lot of Mexicans go nuts about. She was any age you want to guess, with a sulky mouth. She greeted strange gentlemen visitors in a form-fitting house-coat with a zipper running from neck to hem in front that practically said Pull me, kid. The handle of the zipper was a little bell that tinkled when she walked.
I gave her a card I had had printed a couple of years before, when I was on a job for an insurance company. It had the company's seal on it, my name down in one corner, and 'special representative' in the other corner. She thought I was an insurance salesman. Before she could dust me off, I said, 'I won't take much of your time, Mrs Mendoza. My company is interested in a man named Robert R. Parker, who sold a Buick here in Mexico City five years ago. I understand that the car is now registered in your name.'
Just like that, she was going to give me information for nothing. In a pig's eye.
I said, 'My company is offering a reward of two hundred and fifty pesos for information.'
That was more like it. She said, 'Sit down. Have a cigarette.'
We sat down and had a cigarette.
'Is the car hot?' she asked, with girlish innocence.
'Not that I know of. I'm just interested in Parker.'
'What do you want to know about him?'
'Whatever you know.'
'I don't know anything about him. My husband — my ex-husband — bought the car for me. I never laid eyes on the guy.'
'Perhaps your ex-husband could tell me ...'
'My ex-husband wouldn't tell you the time.' She stuck out her lower lip, pink inside, darker outside where she had slapped on fresh lipstick over the old after the maid told her that a señor was calling. 'Anyway, why should I send you to him with two hundred and fifty pesos?'
'No reason. Could you get the information from him for me?'
'I can try.'
She stood up and tinkled over to the telephone, giving me a play with her rear end. I said, 'Ask him where he met Parker, and if he has any idea where Parker was going, if he was going anywhere, or if he ever heard of him again, and what else does he know?'
'Leave it to me, sweetheart.'
Molly Jean dialled a number on the phone.
She dialled the number three more times before she got a connexion, because that's the way Mexican telephone systems work, and each time she said something different about Mexico and the Mexicans generally, nothing favourable. She must have been a great little help to her husband during their marriage. I guess he thought so, too, because when she finally got him on the line he said something that, from the rattle of the receiver, was more or less an invitation for her to go drown herself and stop bothering him.
She said, 'Oh, shut up,' and switched over to Spanish with a Muscatoon, Iowa, accent, giving me a quick peek out of the corner of her eye. 'Did you know that Buick was stolen when you bought it?'
I looked at my fingernails.
He said something loud and short. She said, 'What Buick do you think I mean? The one you bought from the American. A detective is here looking for him.'
He said something else, not so loud and not so short. She said, 'It doesn't matter to me if you spend the rest of your life in jail, but I want to keep the car. Tell me all you know about Parker and I'll see if I can ...'
He talked for five minutes. When he ran out of words, she put her hand over the receiver.
'He says he met Parker at the bar in the Hotel Reforma. He doesn't know where he came from or where he was going, or anything else about him. He bought the car because Parker was anxious to sell it and gave him a good price, but he didn't know — he didn't think there was anything wrong, because Parker had the ownership certificate and a passport to prove his identity. My husband gave him a cheque and got a bill of sale. It was all on the level.'
There wasn't anything else I wanted to ask. Anybody who could dream up a stolen car as fast as she had could probably dream up answers for me regardless of what her ex-husband told her. I said, 'Thanks.'
She hung up the phone, without saying good-bye, and tinkled back to her chair. I took two hundred and fifty pesos out of my wallet and held the bills in my hand.
'I'd like your ex-husband's full name and address, please.'
She didn't want to give it to me, but I was still holding the money. After she had written the address for me on a card, I said 'You haven't supplied me with much information, Mrs Mendoza. I'd like to pay you the reward, but I don't feel that I can conscientiously do it — yet. Is there anything else — anything at all — that you can tell me which might help me to find Mr Parker?'
She looked at the money in my hand like a fish squaring off at a worm.
'I don't know. I don't think — wait a minute.'
She tinkled into her bedroom. I heard her slamming drawers. Pretty soon she came back and handed me a little photograph, not much more than passport-photo size.
'They found it under the front cushion in the Buick when I had the seat covers changed. I don't know who it is or what it means, but you can have it if you want it.'
It was a picture of a little boy, seven or eight years old, a good-looking kid with his hair slicked down, big eyes, and a solemn expression. There wasn't anything to indicate where it had been taken or when or by whom, except that the kid's clothes looked old-fashioned and the paper on which the print had been made was that brownish stuff most photographers gave up using years ago. It had the flat scuffed look that a piece of paper gets when you carry it in a wallet or a notebook for a long time.
It wasn't worth two hundred and fifty pesos, but I gave Molly Jean the money. She tucked it down behind the little bell at the top of her zipper. She already bulged the housecoat enough so that there wasn't much room for the wad of bills, but she made it.
'Thanks,' she said, 'Any time I can do something else for you, let me know. I'm in the telephone book. Any time.'
I said, Sure, I'd let her know, and picked up my hat.
She went to the door to let me out, hipping along ahead of me so I could see there was plenty she could do for me any time I was really interested. I never heard a bell tinkle afterward without seeing that tart's behind bouncing down the hall.CHAPTER 2
Molly Jean's ex-husband, whom I went to see that afternoon, was about what his taste in women would lead you to expect. He was an importer, with an office on Avenida Madero. I didn't let him know that the Buick wasn't really hot until after we had finished talking, because I figured he'd tell me all he knew if he thought he was in trouble. But he didn't know anything more than what I had already learned.
Parker, whom he had met over a highball, had asked him if he knew of an English-speaking car dealer. Parker's Spanish had been pretty weak for business. Mendoza spoke English and was in the market for a car himself. They had made a deal. The price had been a little too good, from Mendoza's viewpoint, so he had been careful to compare Parker's passport and ownership certificate.
I said, 'What kind of a passport was he carrying?'
Mendoza looked blank. I said, 'What nationality?'
'Did he look like this picture?'
Mendoza studied the fuzzy snapshot and then spread his hands.
'Anyone could look like that picture. He looked like any other — estadounidense.'
He had been going to say gringo, but changed it because he didn't know how I would take it. I said, 'He didn't speak Spanish?'
'He spoke Spanish, yes. But it was poor. Not like a turista, you understand. More as if he had known the language well at one time and had forgotten it.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Long Escape"
Copyright © 1950 David Dodge.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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