As far as John Marshall Tanner can tell, everyone in San Francisco is lonely, and few are lonelier than him. He’s lost too many friends, either to death or distance, and there’s no one he misses more than Peggy Nettleton, his beloved former secretary, who left his detective agency six years ago, and broke his heart on her way out the door. When she calls out of the blue, Tanner can tell she’s in trouble—and that means he’s in trouble too.
Peggy is due to get married in three weeks, and her soon-to-be stepdaughter, Nina Evans, has disappeared. Nina worked as a model, and it doesn’t take long for Tanner to discover that she was in over her head. As he combs the unfamiliar city in search of the vanished girl, he finds that his old feelings for Peggy are stronger than ever—strong enough to get him killed.
Flesh Wounds is the 11th book in the John Marshall Tanner Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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A John Marshall Tanner Mystery
By Stephen Greenleaf
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1996 Stephen Greenleaf
All rights reserved.
The routine is so familiar she completes it without thinking: the crusty stick of pancake dabbed onto the offending bruise, then powder brushed across the base to meld with the pink of her depilated flesh. Four moles and one scar are similarly obliterated — shoulder, chest, knee, and forearm — plus two minor bulbs of acne dispensed with in the way she dispensed with them in junior high school. For the physiography below her neck, the process takes five minutes. It is one of the reasons he uses her, she knows, the comparatively unflecked ocean of her skin. It is as though God had foreseen her calling and airbrushed her out of the box.
The only mirror leans against the wall of the closet that serves as a dressing, or rather undressing, room; the only light is a naked bulb activated by a dingy pull cord. Ten years from now such an environment will produce a jarring reflection that will confirm her mortality by highlighting her erosions, but for now the pitiless glare reveals no hint of the withering that lies in store. She has, she concludes for the hundredth time because it is crucial for her to do so, the best body she has ever seen. It is her triumph that she is at long last using it for a worthy purpose.
To make certain her lips and hair and eyes are edged and curled and greased the way he likes them, she must get on her knees like a charwoman for inspection in the makeshift mirror. A month ago, she submitted to such indignities without objection, as a necessary prelude to her art. Now she is as insulted by them as she is by the ego and ethics of the man whose personal and professional impulses she is about to indulge for the last time, unbeknownst to him.
She adds one last smear of gloss to her lips, makes a final shove at her hair, runs a comb through the wiry tuft at her pubis, blots away the drop of sweat that tarries between her breasts, and walks into the studio, which is in reality the dreary apartment of the photographer. More confident now that she is out of her clothes than when in them, she takes her place in front of the gray sheet he has tacked to a hideously paneled wall to form the proverbial neutral backdrop and waits for him to finish with the floodlights. Her feet hurt already, and she is cold enough to shiver, but only the latter sensation will be of interest to him, since it causes her nipples to elongate and that might not be what he has in mind this afternoon although he has certainly had it in mind before, to the point of applying ice.
Finally, he looks up. His appraisal is quick and clinical and suddenly mean. "You've gained weight."
"No, I haven't."
"If your belly gets any bigger, I can't use you."
She resists the urge to tell him, then and there, that she is finished with both his ego and his talent, that tomorrow she will resume her search for someone who can more fully realize what has become her only dream. But she promised him another shoot after he begged forgiveness for the last one, and his gear is set up and her afternoon is free, so she stays because she owes him, both for introducing her to the ecstasy of figure modeling and for buying her a new CD player when her old one got ripped off.
It seems impossible that it was a whole year ago that Gary made his move. It had taken weeks of pleading and begging and bribing, plus a lecture on the history of artists and models and the symbiosis implicit in such relationships, before he persuaded her to pose for him, first for a series of sullen head shots for use on alternative rock posters, then in some low-end fashion layouts featuring leather mini-dresses and studded bustiers. Only then did they move to figure work.
She can still marvel at the moment she slipped out of her robe as he bent over his viewfinder, and there was no obstruction between her and the omnivorous lens that inspected her so piteously. She was nervous, and scared, and ashamed, and on the brink of flight until she realized that the one-eyed God perched atop its tripod passed no judgment on what it saw, offered no warnings, issued no advice. With realization came transformation: her mind encompassed only her topology; the experience of oneness with her flesh was a revelation as intoxicating as her first forays into sex. When she is naked, and the shutter lurks in readiness to suck her image off her self and onto the emulsion to its rear, she is empty of all but the desire to let the camera have its way with her, the desire to inform and impress and astound, the desire to make what the world will ultimately acknowledge as the truth and magic of pure art.
I don't know anyone who isn't lonely. Charley Sleet, my cop friend, has been lonely in every hour of his life since his wife died ten years ago; ditto Ruthie Spring, the detective, since her husband Harry was found murdered out in the valley. Clay Oerter, my stockbroker buddy, has a wife and two kids, but he seems eager nonetheless, and on occasion even desperate, to join our poker group on Friday nights and urges us to convene on Sunday afternoons as well. My former girlfriend, Betty Fontaine, is both pregnant and newly married, but she calls me twice a month at midnight to talk about Barbara Kingsolver or Jane Campion or Hillary Clinton or whatever else is on her mind because her husband doesn't read novels or like movies or find humor in the nation's madcap political machinery. Before he was killed, my friend Tom Crandall read history at Guido's bar six nights a week while his wife did her turn as a big band chanteuse so he could keep loneliness from fostering an addiction to TV.
And me. Whenever I stop to think about it, I conclude that loneliness is to blame for most of my afflictions. I eat out a lot, because a waitress at Zorba's is often the only being I converse with in the course of a day, and as a result I'm twenty pounds overweight. I end far too many evenings at Guido's, because the chilly cheerlessness of my apartment is a destination I increasingly defer, and as a result I spend too many mornings sparring with a hangover. I date too many women who neither interest nor excite me while allowing them to believe otherwise, just to have something to do and someone to touch. As a result, I cause too much pain to too many good people.
Paradoxically, I'm often loneliest when I'm with someone: a colleague who reminds me how much I miss Harry Spring; a woman who reminds me how much I miss Peggy, my former secretary; a new client who reminds me how many former clients are long dead. I shed a tear for them, sometimes, the real people who are no longer around and the fantasy people who have never been other than yearned for, and on such occasions I'm overcome by the thought that my life is as empty as space and has brought me little I treasure. I think such things, then hurry to employ an antidote. Luckily, one was close at hand.
It was Thursday night. My shoes were off and my feet were up and I had a bag of Oreos and a bottle of Ballantine's within arm's reach, all in prelude to a ninety-minute lifting of the load, courtesy of NBC. Eighteen minutes later, as I was imagining what an affair with a woman like Helen Hunt could do for my state of mind, I realized I'd omitted an essential element of my preparations — I'd forgotten to turn off the phone.
I could have ignored it, of course, but that's a pledge I made when I first took up detecting — when the phone rings, I answer it. So I pressed a button to silence the set, then picked up the receiver and uttered my name with such peevishness as the intrusion warranted.
The name alone was enough to erase all thought of cookies or booze or even Helen Hunt. It was, to synthesize a bit, the voice I had hoped to hear every time I'd answered the phone over the past six years.
"Peggy?" I repeated dumbly. "Peggy Nettleton?"
Her laugh was quick and constricted. "You remember. I was afraid maybe you wouldn't."
"No, you weren't."
"Well, I was afraid you'd hang up. And I wouldn't blame you if you did."
I considered it for a nanosecond. "Then I'd wonder why you called and it would be another six years before I got an answer."
"Yes, well, I'm sorry for that. And for everything else, as far as that goes." Her tone tried to make it as light as a Thursday sitcom, a one-size-fits-all apology, but beneath the banter was a ledge of purpose and a plea for understanding.
"There's no need to apologize," I said, even though I didn't mean it. Even though I meant an apology wasn't nearly an adequate eraser.
"Yes there is. There was no reason for me to stay out of touch for so long. I should have done this years ago."
"Well, I'm glad you did it now."
"So am I. You sound good, Marsh."
I put the phone in the other hand and sneaked a sip of Ballantine's. "Thanks. So do you."
It wasn't true, quite. She sounded pressed and edgy and uncertain of her objectives, much the way she had sounded when she was under the spell of the predator in the office down the hall from mine, the man who had turned her life inside out and made everything she did and was seem seamy.
I struggled to mount a strategy that would both prolong the conversation and intensify it. "Where are you? Here in the city?"
"No. I'm home."
"Seattle." She paused. "I thought you knew."
"I don't know anything. I haven't known a single thing about you since the day you left town."
"How odd. I just assumed you've been out of touch on purpose."
"I was out of touch because there was no other place to be."
She paused again. "I'm sorry. I assumed Ruthie told you where I —"
Sweat traveled my brow like a spider. "Ruthie Spring knows where you are?"
"For how long?"
"I don't ... several years. I called her to ... She didn't tell you, I take it."
"No. She didn't."
Peggy chuckled with a bitter curl. "Well, I'm sure she had her reasons. Figured it was for your own good, I expect. And who knows? Maybe it was."
"She didn't have the right to make that decision."
Her ire leached toward compassion. "Don't be hard on her, Marsh. She loves you like a mother and a sister and a lover all in one. It would crush her if you got mad at her."
I didn't say anything because I couldn't think of anything except the thousand nights I'd sat brooding in a dark apartment, wondering where Peggy was, wondering if she regretted leaving me, wondering if she would ever ask to reenter my life and what I would do if she did, wondering why I still seemed to be in love with her even after so many vacant years.
"This must be quite a shock to you, then, me calling out of the blue like this," Peggy was saying with forced levity. "Do you want me to hang up and try again later?"
"Of course not."
The ensuing silence was both comforting and terrifying. Comforting because she had returned to me in one sense; terrifying because it wasn't anything like I had dreamed it would be.
"I take it you're not calling to get your old job back," I said with as much savoir faire as I could muster. All of a sudden it seemed important to define our terms and keep most of my emotions out of earshot.
"Sorry, I'm not in the job market at the moment. I've got a pretty good one, as a matter of fact."
"I'm the executive assistant to the Dean of Students at the law school."
"What law school?"
"University of Washington."
"Do you like your work?"
"Most of the time. The dean is nice and he delegates a lot of responsibility so I feel like I'm contributing. The building is a nightmare, but you can't have everything, I guess."
"That's certainly been my experience."
Peggy forced a laugh that sounded like the one that had issued from the woman I'd hired some fifteen years before when I'd made a similarly inane observation in response to a question about the ethical predelictions of my clientele.
"So how's Seattle?" I asked lamely, now that the stakes were less immediate, now that a major portion of my hopes seemed doomed to lapse unnourished.
"Seattle's nice. It reminds me of San Francisco in the seventies — lots of music; lots of coffeehouse philosophizing; lots of smirky talk about the quality of life. And lots of traffic," she added with a burst of balance.
"So you're staying put."
"For now, at least. How about you? Still in the same apartment?"
"Still eating Oreos for dinner?"
I glanced to my left. "Yep."
"You've got some right beside you, am I right?"
"You need a personal chef, you know that? I'll bet your cholesterol count is a thousand."
"Two-fifteen, as a matter of fact."
"At least you got it checked. Congratulations. Is Charley still working eighteen-hour shifts?"
"On his light days."
"Are Ruthie and Caldwell still happy?"
"Except when Ruthie quits drinking."
"So not much has changed is what you're telling me."
"Not for the better, at least. How about with you?"
She countered my question with a question. "Are you getting gray yet, Marsh? I am."
"I'm speckled on top but my beard would be white if I let it sprout."
"Maybe you should. You'd look formidable in a beard."
"I think you mean venerable."
Peggy laughed and then fell silent, as though she'd breached some sort of promise to herself. I didn't want the conversation to end, but I didn't want her to know how disappointed I was, either. She was keeping us at arm's length, when what I wanted was a warm embrace.
It was a while before she spoke. When she did, her voice dropped to a cautious buzz. "The reason I called is, I think I need your help."
"What kind of help?"
"The kind you get paid for."
My stomach knotted and my tongue thickened. "What's wrong? Are you all right? What's happened?"
"I'm fine," she assured me quickly. "And it's not me who needs the help, actually, it's someone close to me. I'm not sure you can improve the situation, but I didn't know what else to do so I thought ... anyway, I was hoping maybe you could come up here, so we could talk about it."
"As soon as you can. There's no rush, I don't think; another week or two won't matter. Probably."
"You sound upset."
"I am upset."
"Then maybe we should discuss it now. It's cheaper than a plane ticket if I decide there's nothing I can —"
"But I'd like to see you, regardless. I'd like us to have time to catch up. I've missed you, Marsh; I really have."
"I've missed you, too."
Soaring on lust and implication, my mind took a tour of my calendar. "I could fly up the end of next week, I think. I'll have to double-check at the office, but I think that's clear for me."
"That would be great."
"Is there a hotel that's convenient?" I asked, expecting she would ask me to stay with her.
"There's a bed-and-breakfast that —"
"Oh. Right. Well, there's a motel not too far away. It's centrally located, but I don't know how plush it is."
"I don't do plush. Book me for a week from Sunday."
I mustered some good cheer. "This will be fun. I've never been to Seattle before."
"I'll be interested to hear what you think. After we go over our business, I'll give you the grand tour."
"And Marsh?" Her voice dropped an octave and doubled in density.
"There's something you need to know before you get here."
My stomach churned again and the phone became hot and wet and evil. "What's that?"
She waited so long I thought she'd forgotten the point. "I don't know how to ... oh hell, I might as well just say it. I'm getting married."
"I'm getting married. In three weeks if our plans work out. To a man named Ted."
I should have expected it, of course, should have steeled myself appropriately, should have accepted the fact that my time with Peggy had fallen into history and that it didn't matter what she was doing now or who she was doing it with. But I hadn't done any of those things because I couldn't.
I grasped for a word and a posture. "Congratulations."
"Thank you. He's a great guy."
"Good. Great. I'm happy for you."
"I ... it's relevant, sort of, me getting married, I mean. Because of the person in trouble."
"Why? What about him?"
"Her. She's my stepdaughter. Or will be. Ted's daughter by a former marriage."
Excerpted from Flesh Wounds by Stephen Greenleaf. Copyright © 1996 Stephen Greenleaf. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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