O is for Outlaw Page 28

I turned in at the gate. The buildings were identical: cinder block and blank doors, with wide freight elevators and a loading ramp at each end. The units were marked alphabetically and numerically in a system I couldn't quite decipher. The doors in each section appeared to be color-coded, but maybe that was simply an architectural flourish. It couldn't be much fun designing a facility that looked like cracker boxes arranged end to end. I passed a number of broad alleyways. Arrows directed me to the main office, where I parked and got out.

I pushed through the glass door to a serviceable space, maybe twenty feet by twenty with a counter running across the center. The area on the far side of the counter was taken up by rental-quality file cabinets and a plain wooden desk. This was not a multi-layered company with the administration assuming any lofty position. The sole individual on duty apparently functioned as receptionist, secretary, and plant manager, sitting at a typewriter with a pencil in his mouth while he hunt-and-pecked his way through a memorandum of some sort. I guessed he was in his late seventies, round-faced and balding, with a pair of reading glasses worn low on his nose. I could see his belly bulging out like an infant monkey clinging closely to its mother's chest. "Be with you in just a second," he said, typing on.

"Take your time.

"How do you spell 'mischeevious'?

"M-i-s-c-h-i-e-v-o-u-s. "

"You sure? Doesn't look right."

"Pretty sure," I said.

When he'd finished, he stood up, separated the carbons, and tucked both the original and the copies in matching blue folders. He came over to the counter, hitching up his pants. "Didn't mean to keep you waiting, but I was on a tear," he said. "When business is slow, I write stories for my great-grandson. Kid's barely two and reads like a champ. Loves his pappaw's little booklets written just for him. This one's about a worm name of Wiggles and his escapades. Lot of fun for me, and you should see Dickie's little face light up. I figure one day I'll get 'em published and have 'em done up proper. I have a lady friend offered to do the illustrations, but somebody told me that's a bad idea. I guess these New York types like to hire their own artists.

"News to me," I said.

His cheeks tinted faintly and his tone of voice became shy. "I don't suppose you know an agent might take a look at this."

"I don't, but if I hear of one, I'll let you know."

"That'd be good. Meantime, what can I do for you?"

I showed him my California Fidelity Insurance identification, which bore an old photograph of me and the company seal of approval.

His gaze shifted from the photo to my face. "You oughta get you a new photo. This doesn't do you justice. You're a lot better looking."

"You really think so? Thanks. By the way, I'm Kinsey Millhone. And you're, ?"

"George Wedding."

"Nice to meet you."

"I hope you're not selling policies. I'd hate to disappoint, but I'm insured to the hilt."

"I'm not selling anything, but I could use some help." I hesitated. I had a story all ready. I intended to show him a homeowner's claim listing several items lost to flooding when some water pipes broke. Of course, this was all completely false, but I was hoping he'd react with sufficient moral indignation to set the record straight. What I wanted was the address and phone number Mickey'd used when he'd rented the space. I could then compare the information to facts already in my possession and thus (perhaps) figure out where the hell Mickey was. In my mind, on the way down, I'd spun the story out to a convincing degree, but now that I was here I couldn't bring myself to tell it. This is the truth about lying: You're putting one over on some poor gullible dunce, which makes him appear stupid for not spotting the deception. Lying contains the same hostile elements as a practical joke in that the "victim" ends up looking foolish in his own eyes and laughable in everyone else's. I'm willing to lie to pompous bureaucrats, when thwarted by knaves, or when all else falls, but I was having trouble lying to a man who wrote worm adventure stories for his greatgrandson. George was patiently waiting for me to go on. I folded the bogus claim in half until the bottom of the page rested a couple of inches from the top and the only lines showing were those containing the name, address, and telephone number of "John Russell." "You want to know the truth?"

"That'd be nice," he said blandly.

"Ah. Well, the truth is I was fired by CFI about three years ago. I'm actually a private investigator, looking for a man I was once married to." I pointed to John Russell's name. "That's not his real name, but I suspect the address may be roughly correct. My ex scrambles numbers as a way of protecting himself."

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