Jack Mercier's gaze shifted. When he looked at me again, something had cloaked itself in the darkness of his pupils.
"He came to visit me a few days ago. We discussed it, and he told me what he believed. He doesn't have enough money to pay for a private investigator, Mr. Parker, but thankfully, I do. I don't think Curtis will have any difficulty in talking this over with you, or allowing you to look into it further. I will be paying your bill, but officially you will be working for Curtis. I would ask you to keep my name out of this affair."
I finished my coffee and laid the cup down on the saucer. I didn't speak until I had marshaled my thoughts a little.
"Mr. Mercier, I didn't mind coming out here but I don't do that kind of work anymore."
Mercier's brow furrowed. "But you are a private investigator?"
"Yes, sir, I am, but I've made a decision to deal only with certain matters: white-collar crime, corporate intelligence. I don't take on cases involving death or violence."
"Do you carry a gun?"
"No. Loud noises scare me."
"But you used to carry a gun?"
"That's right, I used to. Now, if I want to disarm a white-collar criminal, I just take away his pen."
"As I told you, Mr. Parker, I know a great deal about you. Investigating fraud and petty theft doesn't appear to be your style. In the past you have involved yourself in more...colorful matters."
"Those kinds of investigations cost me too much."
"I'll cover any costs you may incur, and more than adequately."
"I don't mean financial cost, Mr. Mercier."
He nodded to himself, as if he suddenly understood. "You're talking moral, physical cost, maybe? I understand you were injured in the course of some of your work."
I didn't reply. I'd been hurt, and in response I had acted violently, destroying a little of myself each time I did so, but that wasn't the worst of it. It seemed to me that as soon as I became involved in such matters, they caused a fissure in my world. I saw things: lost things, dead things. It was as if my intervention drew them to me, those who had been wrenched painfully, violently from this life. Once I thought it was a product of my own incipient guilt, or an empathy I felt that passed beyond feeling and into hallucination.
But now I believed that they really did know, and they really did come.
Jack Mercier leaned against his desk, opened his drawer, and drew a black, leather-bound folder from within. He wrote for a few seconds, then tore the check from the folder.
"This is a check for ten thousand dollars, Mr. Parker. All I want you to do is talk to Curtis. If you think that there's nothing you can do for him, then the money is yours to keep and there'll be no hard feelings between us. If you do agree to look into this matter, we can negotiate further remuneration."
I shook my head. "Once again, it's not the money, Mr. Mercier -- " I began.
He raised a hand to stop me. "I know that. I didn't mean to offend you."
"No offense taken."
"I have friends in the police force, in Scarborough and Portland and farther afield. Those friends tell me that you are a very fine investigator, with very particular talents. I want you to utilize those talents to find out what really happened to Grace, for my sake and for that of Curtis."
I noticed that he had placed himself above Grace's father in his appeal and once again I was conscious of a disparity between what he was telling me and what he knew. I thought too of his wife's unveiled hostility, my sense that she had known exactly who I was and why I was in her house, and that she bitterly resented my presence there. Mercier proffered the check and in his eyes I saw something that I couldn't quite identify: grief maybe, or even guilt.
Copyright © 2001 by John Connolly
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