Dead Friends of the Library by Bill Capron
I have this Friday routine; I rise early, tinker around my other house inWashington, then drive into Ridgefield for a mocha and a scone while I read the Wall Street Journal. I finish the morning at the Public Library talking up my favorite girl, Marion, a seventy year-old volunteer who re-stacks the shelves and what not. She is cute as only old women who were once very beautiful can be; they never lose that air of confidence acquired moving through a less than pretty world. She still stands straight despite the gray of age; old people gray I call it, like a painting where it’s mixed into the normal hues of black, white and gray.
Marion took on the library after her husband died. Thursdays and Fridays, nights and weekends, Marion works the books. She carries the burden of the mundane, stacking and filing, packing and unpacking, but what she enjoys most is organizing the Friends of the Library annual book sale.
Every Thursday she arrives early and rummages through boxes of donated books in the workroom next to the librarian’s office. Marion shelves the books, sorting out the usual of Turows and Kings and the like which she stores by category in a closet in the community room. Books that might be valuable are set aside for the Librarian (she says it with a capital L). Before filing, she flips through the pages looking for the non-literary gems.
Bookmarks; readers use an extraordinary variety of bookmarks. Money is common, and when there is a name in the book, she returns it. Other popular bookmarks include pictures and letters and documents. She is adept at getting half of these back to the owners. The un-homed flotsam and jetsam is tacked on the cork bulletin board in the lobby. Marion is a bit anal, so each item has a tracking number attached with a yellow sticky. A note at the top says, ‘Friends of Library – Items Found in Donated Books – Please Check With The Librarian Before Claiming.’ Most of the items disappear without notice.
As soon as I walk in, Marion rushes over. She takes my elbow – which she has to reach up for – and guides me to her workroom. She waits for me to sit before she takes her chair. She flattens a newspaper clipping from the local weekly. It is an obituary for a local man who died in a running accident, slipping on a jogging trail and falling into a ravine.
“So who’s Jeff Jacobs? Is he someone you know?”
Marion bends close and whispers, as if anyone could hear, “No, he came in three weeks ago last Thursday –” She pauses; “– but I’ve seen him before. He was thirty-eight, owns an electronics company in Kelso.” She lowers her voice another notch; I turn my head to hear her. “He saw one of the pictures on the bulletin board.” She reads the confusion in my face. “You know, the bookmarks.”
I nod. “And?”
She covers my large left hand with her two tiny ones. “He asked me where I got the picture. I told him about the books. He said he knew the men in the picture. He asked if he could have it, that he’d get it to one of them. I said, fine. Then I see this in the paper. I recognized him right away, but I checked the computer because he took out a book that day. It was him.”
“People die all the time, Marion.”
“No,” she says a little too loudly, then lowers her voice again, “No, he was scared by the picture.”
I let her lead me on. “So what was the picture?”
“You know those picture booths, four for a dollar, like at the beach?”
“It was one of those. These four college kids were crammed in the booth, and they all had Wilton sweatshirts on. They were holding this dog with a beanie on its head.”
“So, I still have the book.”
I motion her on.
She pulls out a hardcover or Rex Stout’s Alphabet Hicks in its original book jacket, a book I would like. She turns the dust jacket inside out. The name on the inside left edge is Carter Logan.
“Carter Logan died three months ago.”
Marion is playing me, but I let her have her way; “And?”
“And …” With a note of triumph, “… he died in a fire that burned down his house.”
I don’t see it yet. “So? Coincidence?”
As she shakes her head, her lips purse at my credulity. “No, I found Carter Logan’s obituary. They were the same age. They both went to Wilton University.” She pulls more newsprint from her pocket and flattens it. The good-looking man appears to be in his late thirties. “He was one of the people in that picture.”
~ ~ ~
Jeff Jacobs house is on the outskirts of the small town and overlooks the wilderness preserve on the Columbia. The property surfaces a recollection from my youth in upstate New York, of how the houses of the recently dead looked sad, back when you knew your neighbors, and the dead were made visible by their absence. This is a dead man’s house; the grass a little long, the shades drawn tight.
I pull around the looping driveway to a garage facing away from the front of the house. On the back deck I see a woman in a black dress buttoned high up under her chin, swaying softly in a rocking chair.
She turns her head when she hears my car. She is in her late thirties, and very attractive. She returns her gaze to the marshland below. Six black and gray elk move silently through the tall grass.
When I knock on the upright column, she brings tear-darkened eyes to mine. She doesn’t say anything, so I fill the vacuum, “Mrs. Jacobs, I’m sorry to hear about your husband. I was wondering if I could talk to you.”
She nods to the rocker across from her. I take the seat. It seems like the right thing to do, to rock and say nothing. I wait for her.
She seems to be talking to herself, “Jeff worked really hard to get here. Fifteen years building up the company, living on credit, cajoling workers to keep at it while we waited for the checks we were told were in the mail. Fifteen years.” She turns pleading eyes to me. “It wasn’t worth it. Was it?”
“I don’t know,” is all I can muster.
Suddenly a smile changes her pretty face, like she is laughing at the person she thinks I am looking at. “Don’t mind me, I’m just a new widow.”
“I think it takes time to get used to it.”
She shakes her head; “I’ll never get used to it, I’m just going to have to get by it.”
I repeat myself, “It takes time.”
She nods. “I’m taking that time, in bits and pieces, I’m putting Jeff in the grave in my mind. I’ll know when it’s done, then I’ll stop.” As if recognizing for the first time that she doesn’t know me, she says, “I’m sorry, a bit too public with my widow’s weaves.” She reaches out a hand. “I’m Jessica Jacobs.”
I shake the firm grip. “CB Green,” I say. “Mrs. Jacobs …” She tries to correct me but I persist; “Mrs. Jacobs, I’m a private investigator, and I’ve been hired to investigate the death of your husband.”
She leans forward, the expression on her face hardening. “My husband died in an accident?” Her voice makes it a question.
I am guarded, “There was an incident a couple of weeks ago that a third party felt may have been connected with his death.” I hold up a hand. “It’s very likely a coincidence, but she was quite adamant.”
“Who is she?” Fearful jealousy? No.
“An old woman who saw something. She did some research and came up with loose ends.”
“The death of Carter Logan three months ago.”
A look of distaste marks her face. “He died smoking in bed, and, as far as I know, friendless except for Jeff.”
“This woman thinks the deaths are connected.”
A look of wonder crosses her face. “Who is she? Why should she care?”
I wait for her sky-gray eyes to refocus on me. “I can’t tell you who she is, but she cares because she’s that kind of person, the same kind of person you’d be.”
She shakes her head and the dark gray flyaway hair fluffs in the breeze. “Don’t count on that.” She doesn’t mean it.
“I need to ask some questions. Are you up to it?”
I see her decision in her eyes before she nods. She doesn’t know about the picture, but Jeff seemed excited a few weeks earlier. Then, out of the blue, he visited two fraternity brothers he didn’t like; Bob Brandle and Canby Morton. He also had breakfast with her sister, Marsha. When he returned he said he had an important decision to make, and once he made it, he would tell her about it. It wasn’t unusual because he was a deliberate man. That time never came.
She has no nice things to say about Carter Logan. He was born in Ridgefield and inherited his parents’ house. They’d see him in town, talk about old times, then part unchanged by his presence. Logan had never worked for a living. She figures he made his money being mean.
I leave her swaying on the deck. My head says the Jacobs are good people. If Marion is right, someone is going to pay.
~ ~ ~
I call Bob Brandle and say Jeff Jacobs wanted me to show him some pictures. He hems and haws before telling me to come to the company. I say it’s confidential, that I’ll see him at his house.
The large home is in the exclusive West Hills overlooking Portland. I get there an hour early and sit in my car a half block away to watch the front door. When the garage opens, a pretty gray-haired woman, young gray hair, backs out a full-sized two-tone gray Mercedes. Ten minutes later a tall man in a gray suit parks in Brandle’s driveway and opens the front door without ringing the bell. He hasn’t left when I ring the bell.
Brandle lets me in. No smile. No handshake. He leads me to the living room. “So, how can I help you.”
I get to it, “Mr. Brandle, I’ve got a copy of a picture that might interest you?”
His laugh is tight. “What could you have of interest to me.”
I give him a wide smile.
He makes a threat, “Do you know who I am? I can make your life miserable.”
I straighten my smile. “Mr. Brandle, you’re going to have to go some to scare me. You talk to Mr. Morton there in the other room, then call me at this number.” I give him my card. “Up to you.” I close the door and don’t look back.
~ ~ ~
Marsha Aldus lives in an upscale gentrified area seven blocks from my Northwest Portland office and home. Her name is on the third bell. She buzzes me in. She is a short woman in her early thirties with a thin boyish build, bobbed coal-black hair, transparent gray eyes, pretty features; an attractive package.
She reads my face, or maybe my mind. “I was fourteen when I started at Wilton. A bit of a child prodigy.” She frowns. “Never was much of a prodigy with my private life though.” She pours me a coffee and points me to the couch.
I discount it for her, “Everybody makes mistakes.”
She shrugs. “Yeah, well I’ve made some doozies. The only good choice I ever made was Jeff Jacobs, but I was too young, so I set him up with my older sister to keep him in the family.” She blushes a little as she talks into her cup, “Jeff was a good man.”
She waves her hand. “But then that’s not why you’re here.” She sits catty-corner from me. “You have some questions about Jeff’s visit.”
I say yes, and she goes into her story without preamble. Jacobs spent the morning discussing their two overlapping years at Wilton, picking her brain about Bob Brandle, Canby Morton and Carter Logan.
“He asked me if I remembered when Jack Arnold died.”
A new name. “Who was he?”
“Jack was another fraternity brother, a sophomore while the others were seniors. He was a go-fer kind of guy, but sort of sweet. He had a crush on me, but he was too shy to say anything. Bob Brandle used to pick on him unmercifully, but Bob was always a real ass.”
“What happened to Jack?” I ask.
The recollection makes her sad. “There was a football game coming up, I don’t remember which college, but the fraternity wanted to steal the school’s mascot. Jack was picked to do the dirty deed. The next morning he was found dead by the railroad tracks, the damn mutt still leashed to his hand. His neck had been broken.”
~ ~ ~
I call Marion to drive to the city. At the main Library I find the fiche for the right period and spool the Oregonian into the machine. I print the page with a picture of the dead Arnold.
I get to my office and check my messages. The first one is Brandle’s voice; “Hello.” There is a muffled sound, “We have to talk.” He leaves a number.
The second message is from Marsha; “Hi, it was nice meeting you. When you find what you’re looking for, come and tell me.” There was a long pause; “You’ve got my number.”
The next morning I rise early, run three-and-a-half miles uphill to Washington Park, then coast home again. When I get back, there are two more messages from Brandle.
Marion arrives looking bright and chipper, like she is on a field trip. We drive to the West Hills and we wait in the car. I show her the photograph of Jack Arnold and she says he was one of the four boys in the picture. While I am considering how to prod Brandle to make an appearance, he exits the house dressed in running shorts.
Marion says, “He’s one of them.” She turns her head and points at an approaching runner. “And him, he’s one. He still looks the same.” Canby Morton stops at the bottom step to wait for Brandle.
I drop Marion at her car and contemplate my next move. We have no proof, and the memory of a seventy-year-old woman isn’t going to send anyone to jail. Sure, maybe there are clues to be found regarding the blackmailing Logan, but that’s pretty risky to me. I want justice to be certain. In my black and white world the guilty don’t run free.
I call Brandle; I want a hundred thousand in cash delivered to my office the next day. I finished with, “Brandle, don’t you ever call me. When I need more money, I’ll call you.”
~ ~ ~
I call my good friend, Dennis Doyle, a homicide cop. A lot of people might not describe it as a friendship, but it is probably as close as two loners get. I don’t know him as well as a hundred other acquaintances, but if I am killed, he’ll find the killer, and I’d do the same for him.
Doyle says if I am a cop, this is entrapment, or worse. I say, lucky me, lucky him. He says he has to clear it with the captain. He is waiting at my office door with two large suitcases. He has a squirrelly little electronics technician with him. They follow me in.
Doyle shakes his big gray-freckled head, the thick, two-shades-of-gray hair a half-beat behind. “Know, the captain is still burning up from that trick on the mayor. Said in big trouble if comes out saved your life.” The man has never figured out how to use pronouns, but I’ve gotten good at filling in the blanks.
“Such are the quandaries of serving and protecting.” I laugh.
Doyle, all six-five, two-sixty of him, chuckles; “Yeah, but shouldn’t act so happy. The brass really has a soft spot, too bad lining the bottom of a coffin somewhere.”
The tech installs three pencil thin wireless cameras in my walls, plus two mikes, another camera in the hallway, and a fifth camera to watch my car in the parking area that came with my lot. I own the building which is divided into an office and a two-level apartment.
We play cutthroat euchre for a dollar a point. The tech is taking us to the cleaners when, at three in the morning, Canby Morton saves us from further embarrassment. Doyle sees him first. The BMW pulls behind my car, then backs away. Ten minutes later Morton is walking to the car, purposefully, like it’s his. From a black and white shopping sack he lays out a blanket next to my car. He has a pistol in his belt. He carefully lifts a eighteen-inch-long, two-inch-thick pipe bomb with two long wires sticking out from one end. He attaches a thick magnet under the driver’s side and sticks the steel bomb to it.
Morton is folding the blanket when Doyle says, “Police, hold it right there.”
Morton reaches for his gun and Doyle says in his best John Wayne imitation, “Don’t even think about it, pilgrim.”
~ ~ ~
Canby Morton sings slowly, but completely. By seven a.m. Brandle is in custody. It was a nasty story: Eighteen years ago the four fraternity brothers stole the opposing team’s mascot, all good clean fun. They’d used the picture booth to record the event for posterity. They were taking the mascot to a hiding place when Brandle and Arnold got into an argument. Morton didn’t know about what, but Brandle killed Arnold. And Logan kept the picture.
So Logan blackmails Brandle, a couple grand a month. Then Brandle’s company gets really hot, and when the company goes public in December, he puts a big move on, five million dollars. Now Brandle can afford it, but he’s not willing to pay, so he kills Logan. Then Jacobs finds out about Arnold. He confronts Brandle and Morton, gives them a week to turn themselves in, else he goes to the cops. If he knows they killed Logan, he’d have been more careful. By the time I make my appearance, killing is getting easier.
Marion frowns sadly as the story came to an end. She looks at me with wet eyes. “I knew he was a good man, that Mr. Jacobs.”
“It cost him his life.”
“Being good is worth dying for, don’t you think?”
I’m not sure. I said, “Yes.”
She twists Logan’s first edition Alphabet Hicks in her thin hands, then pushes it at me. “The Librarian agreed we could give this to you.” She is searching for words. I wait. “Jacob’s widow brought in his books this morning.” Another pause; “You know, I see these books come in, from the living and the dead, they’re like markers to a changing world, and I have trouble seeing a bright future for the next generation. You know people through their books, what they read, what they save, what they read over and over. Jeff Jacobs read good books.” She points to the boxes by the door. “I’m going to take them home, read them. Maybe I can find the man within.”
I say I hoped she could too. She says she’d like to read my books when I die, as if she’s were going to outlive me. I say I’d like that.
~ ~ ~
Marsha waves as I make my way through the lunch crowd. She wears a smile, an enigmatic, fearful smile, wondering about me. But I know she believes I am a good man.
She’s right. I am.