illian took her pencil from behind her ear and her pad from the pocket of her apron.
“the usual, mister jones?” she asked jonathon.
“yes, thank you, lillian.”
“we got some nice corn in, nice and fresh, if you’d rather have that than greens.”
“yes, that sounds good. i’ll have that.”
lillian eyed maria. she didn’t know what to make of her. jonathon often came in with young women but they were better groomed, or at least more expensively dressed . maybe she is his sister, lillian thought, ran away with the hired man and just came home.
“how about you, miss? will you have what mister jones is having?”
“i don’t know what he is having. i’ll have a steak, with a baked potato and green peas.”
“we got some nice corn, just in.”
“i’ll have the peas, thank you.”
“how do you want your steak?”
“burnt to a crisp. i want to see the ashes fly when i cut into it.”
“anything to drink?”
“do you have chocolate milk?”
“just milk from a cow.”
“i’ll have that.”
lillian made a few scribbles and departed. jonathon and maria were left alone at a table on one side of the large dining room.
there were a few other diners, all on the other side of the room.
jonathon picked up where he had left off, in the saga of buck shaw and jonah james.
no arrests were ever made in connection with jonah’s murder.
jonah never made any special provision for taffy in his will, and most of the estate went to raymond, his oldest and most worthless son.
an account of the convolutions and permutations of jonah’s fortune through the years to the present might fill many pages.
what little was left of it was until yesterday understood to be in the control of louise james, a granddaughter of the unlamented raymond. the estate at present is burdened with many lawsuits.
louise has left town and renounced her interest in the estate. control, for what it is worth, has passed to sarah james, the daughter of taffeta, who has been waiting her chance for many years.
sarah has inherited taffy’s misgiving about buck gray, and is convinced that buck gray had jonah murdered. needless to say, no evidence of any such thing ever surfaced.
however sarah is determined to pursue the case, with such resources as she has.
one more detail might be considered relevant, or at least interesting, before we proceed further.
ted tenner, who had been hired by taffy to investigate buck gray, and who disappeared shortly after, has never been heard from since.
with that, jonathon jones concluded his preliminary account of the case, as it stood, to maria mandragore.
“there’s a pair to draw to,” said smitty. as he looked through the peephole out into the dining room.
“what might that be?” asked rafe. he did not sound too interested, and did not look up from his copy of look magazine.
“it’s that lawyer jones, from the town.”
“so? he’s a rich folks lawyer, he don’t concern himself with the likes of us. except to buy himself a steak from us.”
“it’s who he’s got with him.”
“it’s that foolish girl who got herself mixed up wth poor wiley’s troubles - calls herself a private investigator or some such.”
rafe laughed. “oh yeah, i remember.”
“that oughtn’t to be allowed,” said smitty. “her setting herself up like that.”
“why not? this ain’t russia. folks can set themselves up to sell what they like, or sell themselves, if anybody wants to buy.”
“i just don’t think it’s right.”
rafe put his magazine down and got up and nudged smitty aside and looked through the peephole himself.
“yeah, it comes back to me now,” said rafe. he laughed. “she can set herself up - like a fortune teller. like a gypsy fortune teller. that’s all she is - a damn gypsy fortune teller. with that foolish flower in her hair.”
“maybe mister lawyer jones ought to watch his back,” said smitty. “she might tell him a fortune he don’t want to hear.”
maria’s car was parked under the shade of an elm tree on a street full of overgrown lots.
it was a 1940 studebaker and it was hard to tell what color it was supposed to be.
maria noticed the way lawyer jones looked at it. “i know it needs a paint job,” she told him. “but it runs good.”
“i am sure,” jonathon smiled. maria unlocked the passenger door for him and he got in.
“just head north on 53,” jonathon said as they pulled out. “i’ll let you know when we are getting there.”
“does this place have a name?” maria asked.
“smitty’s. smitty’s steak house.”
“oh, yeah, i know where that is, i’ve passed by it. that’s pretty well out there.”
“not so much. you aren’t worried about gas, are you?”
“oh no, i got gas. i always make sure i got gas. a car can’t run without gas, you know.”
“a car can run without paint, but it can’t run without gas. i always keep it filled up, and i got some cans in the back.”
“good, good, it’s always good to look ahead, and to be prepared.”
they left the town behind, and the well tended farms. they passed scrubby woods, and overgrown and untended fields.
they saw a few other cars , all headed into town, none headed in their direction.
the sun started to go down.
“you know what else this car doesn’t have, besides a new paint job?” maria asked.
“a radio. the radio’s busted, and i never got it fixed.”
“i don’t mind, “ said jonathon. “i can sit back and enjoy the scenery.”
“what i meant was,” said maria, “since we can’t listen to the radio, maybe you could start telling me about what i am going to be investigating.”
“well,” jonathon replied, “i thought we should settle on terms first.”
“terms? how about twenty-five dollars a week? and like i said, that’s flat, no expenses. you can’t get much cheaper than that.”
“how about four dollars a day, and you can stop at any time? stop cold.”
“three fifty a day.” jonathon countered.
“my, you drive a hard bargain, mister. your old pappy must have been a mule dealer. three fifty it is, but four days up front, that’s fourteen dollars. no refund on the fourteen dollars, even if you call me off tomorrow. how’s that?“
“that sounds reasonable,” said jonathon. “it’s a deal.”
“and you are still buying me that steak dinner. “
“of course, of course.” jonathon smiled. “there is no turning back now.”
“all right, then what is the story?”
what have i gotten myself into, jonathon wondered.
and as they passed empty fields, and the sun continued to go down in front of them, jonathon began to tell maria the story of jonah james and buck gray.
“before we begin,” jonathon smiled at m mandragore, “ do you mind if i ask what your qualifications are - or if you have any?”
m mandragore seemed to take no offense at jonathon’s blunt question. “i have some experience working for investigators in the city - doing what you what you might call legwork. i don’t have any kind of license, if that’s what you mean.”
“i don’t advertise myself as a detective or as having any police experience. i just try to find things out for people.”
“yes, that seems perfectly legal. in this state, anyway, maybe not in new york or chicago or paris.”
“we are not in new york or chicago or paris.”
“no, well, as i indicated earlier, my name is jonathon jones and i am in fact an accredited attorney, a member of the bar. do you have a first name, miss mandragore?”
“maria.” jonathon was comfortable addressing all women by their first names, whether they were young or old, good-looking or otherwise, white or colored, or rich or poor. he had never, praise the lord, had occasion to come before a female judge, but if he ever did, he would be prepared to call her by her first name.
“well, maria,” jonathon continued, “is there any reason a body should hire you, rather than - than somebody else?”
“i work cheap.”
jonathon almost laughed out loud. “that’s very good. it just so happens that my client is very specifically looking for someone who will work cheap.”
“then maybe we can do business.”
“maybe.” jonathon leaned back in the chair, in no hurry now. “tell me, do you have any assistants?”
“no, there is just me. that’s one reason i am so cheap. and i don’t charge expenses, mr jones, just a flat fee once we agree on it.”
jonathon nodded. “”but you must have a car?”
“oh, sure. and i feed it better than i feed myself. how else am i going to get around and find anything out? out here in the country.”
“do you work long hours, maria? you look a little peaked, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“nothing a good steak dinner wouldn’t cure, if you want to buy me one.”
“ha, ha, very good.” jonathon looked around the little office. “yes, i’ll buy you a steak dinner, maria, that sounds like an excellent idea. and we can see if we can get down to business while we feed our pretty faces. i know just the place, out on 53. nothing too fancy, just good hearty fare.”
“that sounds good to me, mr jones.”
“i walked over here, so i propose we go over in your well fed car, if that suits you.”
“just let me get my hat and coat.”
maria got up and took a shabby coat and a beret from a rack beside the door. jonathon was relieved to see she was wearing shoes.
“this investigation,” jonathon told maria as they went down the stairs, “involves an old murder case. ever worked on a murder case before?”
after sarah left, lawyer jones took a bottle out of his desk drawer and poured himself a good stiff drink and knocked it back.
the papers relating to “the case”, which he had taken out of his safe, were still on top of his desk. he picked them up and started to head back to the safe. but then he thought that the detective, or investigator, or whoever or whatever he hired to look into “the case” might want to look at them, so he just put them into the top drawer of the desk. he told himself to remember to lock the desk when he left.
he looked at the bottle, resisted temptation with a sigh, and put the bottle back into the desk.
he wondered if he still had time to get in some fishing. but since he had to wonder, he probably did not. he would just get out to the lake and get comfortable, and the sun would start going down.
he turned his mind back to “the case”. so sarah wanted him to find “the cheapest son of a bitch he could find”. all right , he would make an honest attempt to do so. suddenly it occurred to him - “the cheapest son of a bitch he could find” might be himself.
but maybe not.
and as for finding something new to reopen the case, there probably was no such thing in the world.
what new thing could there be, after all this time?
jonathon took the yellow pages for the state capital out of the bottom drawer of his desk. the bottle of whiskey was in the top drawer so he did not have to look at it and resist temptation..
he opened the yellow pages to “detectives”. he had hired detectives before - usually for clients who were willing to pay for them. he immediately noticed familiar names in the listings and in the advertisements which took up most of the space on the pages.
but these familiar names - including that of his old buddy rich talworth - would not meet sarah’s criteria of “the cheapest son of a bitch he could find’”.
then he noticed something that had never really registered before - under the heading “detectives” there appeared in smaller print - “see also investigators”.
investigators! who would not even call themselves detectives - those must be the cheap sons of bitches!
there were only four “investigators” listed. two of them had small advertisements assuring the potential client of their value. the other two only had their numbers and addresses listed, though one of them - peter fox , had “private investigations” after his name.
the fourth one was just “m mandragore”. no description , just a number and address. that had to be the cheapest one of all.
then jonathon noticed something else - m mandragore’s address was not in the city but right here in jamestown!
the address - 450 rogers st - that would be right over by dave richard’s car lot. jonathon could walk over.
he decided to walk over, get a little fresh air - since he couldn’t go fishing - stop by first at cassie’s diner for a cup of coffee.
but first he better call and make sure m mandragore was available.
he gave the operator the number and she put him through and the call was answered on the second ring.
“m mandragore investigations” said a sleepy female voice. sounded young, jonathon could not be sure.
“this is attorney jonathon jones, over on main street. would it be convenient for me to come over right now?”
“sure, come on over, ” the sleepy voice answered.
sure, come on over. not the bright polite answer jonathon would expect his own secretary to give. and she did not even check with the mysterious m mandragore. but what could you expect from the cheapest son of a bitch you could find?
“i’ll be back before five,” jonathon told his secretary betty as he took his hat from the rack and opened the door.
betty nodded, without looking up from her copy of the american mercury magazine.
45 rogers st was a two story wooden building directly across from dave richard’s back lot. the first floor was occupied by a tire dealer. what looked like offices were on the second floor, with small signs in the windows jonathon didn’t bother trying to read. he figured m mandragore must be one of them.
when he entered he saw a small sign beside the stairs - “mandragore investigations - number 4.”
jonathon was in a good mood after fortifying himself with a cup of coffee and a slice of lemon pie at cassie’s and getting some fresh air on his walk over. this might be amusing, he thought.
he went up the stairs. there were three doors with small windows labeled 2, 3, and 4 and he rapped on number 4 and the voice from the phone called “it’s open.”
a skinny blonde girl sat behind a big desk, with a big fat old book opened in front of her. as jonathon got closer to the desk he saw she was not as young as he first thought - and she looked kind of tired. she was wearing a cheap print dress - not at all smart or professional looking - and she wore a little blue flower behind her left ear, which jonathon thought looked very low class indeed. he wondered if she was wearing shoes.
“you must be mister attorney jones,” the not so young girl said. she made no move to get up. or to open the unmarked door behind her. “have a seat.”
jonathon looked down at the chair she had indicated. the truth dawned on him, but he asked anyway, just to be sure.
sarah was always on time, and she showed up at lawyer jones’s office just before he opened it in the morning, the morning after louise james had left town.
after the enquiries about each other’s wellbeing, and other courteous preliminaries, they took their seats on opposite sides of lawyer jones’s desk and got down to business.
they were alone. a thick door separated them from the lawyer’s secretary.
“i think you know what i want, jonathon, now that louise is out of the picture. do i have to spell it out for you?”
“you want me to try to get the investigation into old jasper james’s mysterious death reopened.”
“there was nothing mysterious about it. and i don’t want you to try to get the case reopened, i want you to get it reopened.”
lawyer jones smiled. “i am only a lawyer, sarah, not the law. i am not the state supreme court, or the county prosecutor. all i can do is try to persuade them.”
“as far as i am concerned,” sarah replied, “that is just a technicality. and i don’t care for technicalities. just get the case reopened.”
“how do we know that louise might not change her mind and return?”
“do you take me for a complete novice in these matters?” sarah snapped. “she has signed her rights away - or waived them or whatever you want to call it. if - if - she were suddenly to change her mind, she would need to find a lawyer - “. sarah stared intently at jones - “some lawyer not employed by the family - to change things back, but by that time i trust it will be too late. way, way too late if we act expeditiously.”
lawyer jones cleared his throat. “just wanted to get that straight, sarah.” he picked a piece of paper up off his desk. “now, anticipating your instructions, i have had compiled a list of persons we might employ to find something to get the case reopened. do you follow me?”
“now, in this sort of matter, as in most things in this world, we find a range of prices - a surprisingly large one in this case, i must say - and i have ranked them as best i could, from top to bottom, as far as how much they might cost. is there any way you want me to proceed? should i start at the top and work down?”
“what a question! i want you to do things the good old james family way. find the cheapest son of a bitch you can, and see if he can do the job. and then go from there.”
“i thought as much,” lawyer jones smiled. “just wanted to make sure. well, that really should be all, sarah, unless you want to get into the minutiae of the ramifications of louise’s departure, which i think we understand well enough generally.”
“i very much want to get into what you choose to call the min-u-ti-ae of my holdings, jonathon. i always like to know exactly where i stand. exactly where i stand.”
“of course, sarah, of course.” lawyer jones stood up. “just let me get a few things out of my safe.”
jonathon got up and crossed the room. with his back to sarah he allowed himself a small sigh, as it was a nice day, and he had hoped to get some fishing in.
the bus was late, so lawyer jones made one final plea to louise not to leave town.
without taking her eyes off the clock on the bus station wall, louise politely declined once again.
“why would anything you say change my mind now, after trying a hundred times before?”
“well,” lawyer jones replied half-heartedly, “i thought you might take the bus being late as a sign.”
louise laughed. “these buses are always late. if it was on time, that would be more of a sign.”
the lawyer - his name was jonathon jones, but everyone called him lawyer jones because he was the only left one in town and he answered to the name “lawyer” - sighed and looked out the bus station window at jenny’s diner across the street.
“it doesn’t bother you that sarah is sitting over there watching you like a - “. lawyer jones started to say “like a vulture” but thought better of it, because nothing, not the quietest whisper, went unheard or unreported in jamestown - and finished up with “like she’s wondering if you are really leaving?”
“what do i care if she is watching or where she is ?” louise answered. “if she is across the street or home or sitting in a tree? how does that change anything?”
lawyer jones had no answer for this. he looked around the station. there were no strangers - jamestown was not a connecting stop - and the few faces were familiar.
although he had spoken in low tones himself, he was sure that every word that passed between himself and louise had been heard and would be broadcast.
they waited in silence. after a while the bus came. louise’s one suitcase was not that heavy, but jonathon carried it to the bus for her .
there were no other passengers getting on the bus - an express to the city - and none getting off, and the driver took louise’s suitcase and stored it in the luggage compartment.
“good luck.” jonathon wanted to add, “you’ll need it”, but he was afraid that, too, might be overheard and invested with all sorts of meanings,
jonathon watched as the bus puled out onto the street and headed for the interstate.
then he walked over to jenny’s diner.
sarah did not look surprised to see jonathon and he joined her in the booth by the window.
sarah did not look particularly triumphant - but then, unlike jonathon, she probably never doubted that louise would really leave town.
“well,” said sarah, “we now have a great deal to discuss, don’t we?”
“yes,” jonathon answered, “but we can do it in my office, in the morning.”
“i quite agree,” said sarah, taking a sip of her tea. “there is a time and place for everything.”
jenny came over to the booth and jonathon ordered a glass of milk and a slice of jenny’s famous chocolate cream pie.
at the time of jonah james’s untimely and violent death at the hands of a person or persons unknown, the town of jamestown had prospered to the extent that it had two lawyers.
jedediah bartholomew jones, familiarly known to the townsfolk as “j b” or “old j b” was the more respectable of the two and handled much of the james family business - i e, such of it that did not require the resources and connections of a big city practitioner.
after the proper condolences as to her loss, j b sat back in his chair and solemnly listened as miss taffeta james explained her reason for calling on him.
it was the same story she had told ted tenner, except that now she had the “evidence” of jonah’s murder and ted’s disappearance, to add to her conviction of buck gray’s guilt in robbing jonah of the patent that would have made him fabulously wealthy.
j b did not know what to reply. his brain did not work very fast, and this was all news to him. like the rest of the townsfolk, he had assumed that jonah, and probably ted too, had been murdered by a passing hobo. and that jonah, an old man who had liked to go for long walks out beyond the outskirts of town, was lucky he had not been killed before. no matter how stout his stick was, or how big his dog was.
“have you spoken to the sheriff about - your concerns?” he managed to ask.
“i have, for all the good it would do me.” j b did not like the look in taffeta’s eyes when she said this.
“and his response was - ?”
“that as far as he was concerned, the murder was committed by a hobo, and ted tenner’s disappearance was purely coincidental. and that if it was otherwise, it was out of his depth and he suggested i contact the state attorney general. which i have done, but have not heard from him yet.”
“well, in that case - “ j b tried to smile. “perhaps you should wait to hear what the attorney general has to say.”
“no, i don’t think i will. i don’t like waiting on people. especially - “ taffeta looked j b in the eye - “people who might not produce anything anyway. so i want you to go ahead and file a suit against buck gray for stealing the patent for the thingummy from father.”
“but - but - be that as it may, we have no case - i mean - have you spoken to the chicago attorneys, the ones who handle the - who handle the firm’s business? they might be more equipped - “ j b stammered, and hoped his face was not getting red.
“i wrote to them, and got no satisfaction. so i thought i would give you a chance, j b, a chance to show what you can do.”
“and i appreciate it,” j b recovered himself enough to say.
“after all, j b, when you think about it, there is really no reason why the chicago attorneys should not handle all the family business, is there? it might simplify matters. father was always one for being a good neighbor and good townsman by giving local folks business, including law business. but this is the modern age, isn’t it, and maybe those old ways don’t apply any more.”
“well, i would hope the good old ways will be with us for some time to come. but look here - this tenner fellow, whom you hired to look into this whole business - did he come up with anything before he disappeared?”
“i am afraid he did not.”
“ah. so do you plan on hiring someone else in his place - or waiting to see if he shows up?”
“i thought i would leave that up to you, j b. at least for now. if you want to get some other investigator, that is up to you.”
“i see. and - suppose i did want to hire somebody - would price be an object?”
“it most certainly would.” taffeta smiled. “i would expect you to pay him yourself, out of the handsome retainer you receive for handling the family’s local business. for now, i am considering this local business.”
j b wondered, but not out loud, how much “i”, i e taffeta, had to say about the “family business”, and how much jonah’s good-for-nothing son had.
“well, that is very forthright, taffeta, very straightforward indeed. we attorneys always appreciate it when a client puts all their cards on the table.”
“i am sure.”
when taffeta had left, j b felt some relief at not having made , he thought, a complete fool of himself.
but then the futility of what she was asking hit him, and he wanted to put his head on his desk and cry.
there was no case! he would be laughed out of any courtroom - if he could even get the case into a courtroom.
investigate? investigate what?
and the previous “investigator”, this tenner fellow - who sounded like a complete rascal and fraud, using oily charm on silly women - had in fact disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
not that there was likely much to it. but still…
at times like this j b wished anew that he had not followed his father into the law but had followed his dream of opening a bait and tackle shop and spending most of his too brief life going fishing.