* * *
After high school, Chase had gone to State because it was just forty miles from home, so he could see his mom and dad more often, still get back to visit old friends from high school and to see a girl who had mattered to him then, before Vietnam changed everything.
Now, as he parked in front of the administration building, the campus seemed to be a strange place, as if he had not spent nearly four years in these classrooms, on these flagstone paths, under these canopies of willows and elms. This part of his life was all but lost to him because it was from the far side of the war. To recapture the mood and feeling of that time, to connect emotionally with these old haunts, he would have to cross through the river of war memories to the shores of the past—and that was a journey that he chose not to make.
In the Student Records Office, as the manager approached him, Chase decided that this time the simple truth would get the best response. "I'm curious to know who may have been here, asking about me, within the past week. I'm having some problems with a researcher who's ... well, been more or less harassing me."
The manager was a small, pale, nervous man with a neatly clipped mustache. He ceaselessly picked up items around him, put them down, picked them up again: pencils, pens, a notepad, a pamphlet about the university's tuition schedules and scholarship programs. He said that his name was Franklin Brown and that he was pleased to meet such a distinguished alumnus. "But there must've been dozens of inquiries about you in recent months, Mr. Chase, ever since the Medal of Honor was announced."
"Do you have the names and addresses of everyone requesting records?"
"Oh, yes, of course. And as you may know, we provide those records only to prospective employers—and even then, only if you signed an automatic authorization when you graduated."
"This man may have passed himself off as a prospective employer. He's very convincing. Could you check your records and tell me who might have stopped in last Tuesday?"
"He could have requested the records by mail. Most of the inquiries we receive are by mail. Few people actually come in."
"No. He didn't have time to do it by mail."
"Just a moment then," Brown said. He brought a ledger to the counter and thumbed through it. "There was just the one gentleman that day."
"Who was he?"
As he read it, Brown showed the entry to Chase. "Eric Blentz, Gateway Mall Tavern. It's in the city."
"I know exactly where it's at," Chase said.
Picking up a fountain pen, twisting it in his fingers, putting it down again, Brown asked, "Is he legitimate? Is he someone you're seeking a position with?"
"No. It's probably this reporter I mentioned, and he just made up the name Blentz. Do you remember what he looked like?"
"Certainly," Brown said. "Nearly your height, though not robust at all, very thin, in fact, and with a stoop to his shoulders."
"His face? Do you remember that?"
"Very ascetic features," Brown said. "Very quick eyes. He kept looking from one of my girls here to the other, then at me, as if he didn't trust us. His cheeks were drawn, an unhealthy complexion. A large thin nose, so thin the nostrils were very elliptical."
"Blond. He was quite sharp with me, impatient, self-important. Dressed very neatly, a high polish to his shoes. I don't think there was a hair out of place on his head. And when I asked for his name and business address, he took the pen right out of my hand, turned the ledger around, and wrote it down himself because, as he said, everyone always spelled his name wrong, and he wanted it right this time."
Chase said, "How is it that you remember him in such detail?"
Brown smiled, picked up the pen, put it down, and toyed with the ledger as he said, "Evenings and weekends during the summer, my wife and I run The Footlight. It's a legitimate theater in town—you might even have attended a play there when you were in school. Anyway, I take a role in most of our productions, so I'm always studying people to pick up expressions, mannerisms."
"You must be very good on stage by now," Chase said.
Brown blushed. "Not particularly. But that kind of thing gets in your blood. We don't make much money on the theater, but as long as it breaks even, I can indulge myself."
Returning to his car, Chase tried to picture Franklin Brown on stage, before an audience, his hands trembling, his face paler than ever; his compulsion to handle things might be exacerbated by being in the spotlight. Perhaps it was no mystery why The Footlight didn't show much profit.
In the Mustang, Chase opened his notebook and looked over the list that he'd made earlier, trying to find something that indicated that Judge might actually be Eric Blentz, a saloon owner. No good. Didn't anyone who applied for a liquor license have to be fingerprinted as a matter of routine? And a man who owned a thriving business like the Gateway Mall Tavern probably wouldn't drive a Volkswagen.
There was one way to find out for sure. He started the car and drove back toward the city, wondering what sort of reception he would get at the Gateway Mall Tavern.
THE TAVERN DECOR WAS SUPPOSED TO BE REMINISCENT OF AN ALPINE INN: low beamed ceilings, rough white plaster walls, a brick floor, heavy darkpine furniture. The six windows that faced onto the mall promenade were leaded glass the color of burgundy, only slightly translucent. Around the walls were upholstered booths. Chase sat in one of the smaller booths toward the rear of the place, facing the bar and the front entrance.
A cheerful apple-cheeked blonde in a short brown skirt and lowcut white peasant blouse lit the lantern on his table, then took his order for a whiskey sour.
The bar was not especially busy at six o'clock; only seven other patrons shared the place, three couples and a lone woman who sat at the bar. None of the customers fit the description that Brown had given Chase, and he disregarded them. The bartender was the only other man in the place, aging and bald, with a potbelly, but quick and expert with the bottles and obviously a favorite with barmaids.
Blentz might not frequent his own tavern, of course, though he would be an exception to the rule if that was the case. This was largely a cash business, and most saloon owners liked to keep a watch on the till.
Chase realized that he was tense, leaning away from the back of the booth, his hands curled into fists on the table. He settled back and forced himself to relax, since he might have to wait hours for Blentz.
After the second whiskey sour, he asked for a menu and ordered a veal chop and a baked potato, surprised to be hungry after the meal that he'd had at the drive-in joint earlier.
After dinner, shortly after nine o'clock, Chase finally asked the waitress if Mr. Blentz would be in this evening.
She looked across the now-crowded room and pointed at a heavyset man on a stool at the bar. "That's him."
The guy was about fifty, weighed well over two hundred and fifty pounds, and was four or five inches shorter than the man in Franklin Brown's description.
"Blentz?" Chase asked. "You're sure?"
"I've worked for him two years," the waitress said.
"I was told he was tall, thin. Blond hair, sharp dresser."
"Maybe twenty years ago he was thin and a sharp dresser," she said. "But he couldn't ever have been tall or blond."
"I guess not," Chase said. "I guess I must be looking for another Blentz. Could I have the bill, please?"
He felt like Nancy Drew again, rather than Sam Spade. Of course, Nancy Drew did solve every case—and generally, if not always, before anyone was killed.
When he went outside, the mall parking lot was deserted but for the cars in front of the tavern. The stores had closed twenty minutes before.
The night air was sultry after the air-conditioned tavern. It seemed to press Chase to the blacktop, so each step that he took was flatfooted, loud, as though he were walking on a planet with greater gravity than that of earth.
As he was wiping sweat from his forehead, stepping around the front of the Mustang, he heard an engine roar behind him and was pinned by headlights. He didn't turn to look, but vaulted out of the way and onto the hood of his car.
An instant later a Pontiac scraped noisily along the side of the Mustang. Showers of sparks briefly brightened the night, leaving behind a faint smell of hot metal and scorched paint. Although the car rocked hard when it was struck, Chase held fast by curling his fingers into the trough that housed the recessed windshield wipers. If he fell off, the Pontiac sure as hell would swing around or back up to run him down before he could scramble away again.
Chase stood on the hood of the Mustang and stared after the retreating Pontiac, trying to see the license number. Even if he had been close enough to read the dark numerals, he couldn't have done so, because Judge had twisted a large piece of burlap sacking over the plate.
The Pontiac reached the exit lane from the mall lot, took the turn too hard, and appeared in danger of shooting across the sidewalk and striking one of the mercury arc lights. But then Judge regained control, accelerated, went through the amber traffic light at the intersection, and swung right onto the main highway toward the heart of the city. In seconds, the Pontiac passed over the brow of a hill and was out of sight.
Chase looked around to see if anyone had witnessed the short, violent confrontation. He was alone.
He got down from the hood and walked the length of the Mustang, examining the damage. The front fender was jammed back toward the driver's door, though it hadn't been crushed against the tire and wouldn't prevent the car from being driven. The entire flank of the vehicle was scraped and crumpled. He doubted that there was any serious structural or mechanical damage—although the body work would cost several hundred bucks to repair.
He didn't care. Money was the least of his worries.
He opened the driver's door, which protested with only a thin shriek, sat behind the wheel, closed the door, opened his notebook, and reread his list. His hand trembled when he added the ninth, tenth, and eleventh items:
Third alias—Eric Blentz
Given to rash action in the face of previous failures
Pontiac, second car (stolen just to make the hit?)
He sat in the car, staring at the empty lot, until his hands stopped shaking. Weary, he drove home, wondering where Judge would be waiting for him the next time.
* * *
The telephone woke him Saturday morning.
Rising from a darkness full of accusatory corpses, Chase put a hand on the receiver—then realized who might be calling. Judge hadn't phoned since early Wednesday night. He was overdue.
"Dr. Fauvel here."
It was the first time that Chase had ever heard the psychiatrist on the phone. Except during their office sessions, all communications were through Miss Pringle.
"What do you want?" Chase asked. The name had fully awakened him and chased off his lingering nightmares.
"I wondered why you hadn't kept your Friday appointment."
"Didn't need it."
Fauvel hesitated. Then: "Listen, if it was because I talked to the police so frankly, you must understand that I wasn't violating a doctor-patient relationship. They weren't accusing you of any crime, and I thought it was in your best interest to tell them the truth before they wasted more time on this Judge."
Chase said nothing.
Fauvel said, "Should we get together this afternoon and talk about it, all of it?"
"I think you would benefit from a session right now, Ben."
"I'm not coming in again."
"That would be unwise," Fauvel said.
"Psychiatric care was not a condition of my hospital discharge, only a benefit I could avail myself of."
"And you still can avail yourself of it, Ben. I'm here, waiting to see you"
"It's no longer a benefit," Chase said. He was beginning to enjoy this. For the first time, he had Fauvel on the defensive for more than a brief moment; the new balance of power was gratifying.
"Ben, you are angry about what I said to the police. That is the whole thing, isn't it?"
"Partly," Chase said. "But there are other reasons."
Chase said, "Let's play the word-association game."
"Word association? Ben, don't be—"
"Ben, I'm ready to see you anytime that—"
"Publish," Chase interrupted.
"This doesn't help—"
"Publish," Chase insisted.
Fauvel was silent. Then he sighed, decided to play along, and said, "I guess ... books."
"I don't know where you want me to go, Ben."
"Magazines." "Well ... newspapers."
"New word, please," Fauvel said.
Puzzled, Fauvel said, "You're not managing this correctly. Word association has to be—"
Fauvel was stunned into silence.
"Patient C," Chase repeated.
"How did you get hold of—"
"Ben, we can't discuss this in one-word exchanges. I'm sure you're upset; but—"
"Play the game with me, Doctor, and maybe—just maybe—I won't make a public response to your five articles and won't subject you to professional ridicule."
The silence on the other end of the line was as deep as any Chase had ever heard.
"Patient C," Chase said.
"Valued," Fauvel insisted.
"Mistake," Fauvel admitted.
"Please don't repeat your answers," Chase admonished. "New word. Psychiatrist."
"That's childish, Ben."
Fauvel only sighed.
"Asshole," Ben said, and he hung up.