I was finally going to see the inside of the Farthington place, not to mention Mrs. Farthington.
The mansion stands out even on the toniest street in town. That’s on the other side of town for me. As I sat in traffic while driving through the center, I thought of a line in the novel I’d been reading. That story’s set in Los Angeles, which the narrator describes as having “no more personality than a paper cup.” This burg has personality to spare, I thought. It’s changing though. Once you might have likened it to a pewter beer mug, hand-crafted and engraved. Now it’s more a mass-produced replica, plastered with logos.
I cleared the traffic. A right and a quick left put me on the posh street, easing my way over the speed bumps as I approached the brown stone mansion. Whoever built the place didn’t give a hoot for the town’s Colonial heritage. It looks like it belongs on an Italian villa. There’s a wide square tower on the right end, a wing to the left, and high, narrow windows that come in sets of three. Front and center, a stout arched portico guards a pair of dark wooden doors tall enough for a giraffe to pass through without ducking its head.
Crushed red rock flowed from the street to the house. It was more a parking lot than a driveway, so I turned in and pulled up in the near corner. Song birds chirped and honeysuckle scented the air as I stepped out and followed a walk of bricks laid out in zigzags leading to the portico. I was greeted there by an alert but composed-looking face. It belonged to the door knocker — a woman of the Renaissance, I reckoned. Her hair, braided in front, fell over her shoulders, but a sturdy-looking headband and a big “F” emblazoned on her chest lent her the look of a warrior. The ring came to rest below the “F.” I picked it up, discreetly, and rapped three times. I wondered how I looked to her.
After half a minute a maid answered. “Bill Martin to see Mrs. Farthington,” I said.
“Come in,” she replied. I followed her to the back of the entrance hall, then right and right again into a room in the front corner of the house. Its walls were lined with books. “I will get her. You can sit,” the maid said. She reversed course. I heard her padding up a stairway.
The room was impressive. In the middle, a pair of maroon leather chairs and a matching sofa surrounded a glass-covered coffee table whose top was a faded painting of an Oriental scene. The plastered ceiling was ornamented and edged with cornices. From a paneled wall, above a roomy fireplace, a stout, distinguished-looking gentleman of the Gilded Age stared down at me. He wasn’t making me feel at home.
Looking around, I noticed some photographs on a bookshelf. There was Henry Farthington giving a speech, Henry Farthington with a senator holding a pen, Henry Farthington and two other men standing in front of a yacht, all smiles. I wondered who the other two were, what the conversation had been. Without a sound to tip me off that anyone was there, I heard a woman’s voice, soft and low.
“Mr. Martin. Thank you for coming to see me.” Rebecca Farthington, I presumed, was striding gracefully toward me, extending a hand. She had a delicate face but a confident gaze. She seemed to be in her 30s; quite a bit younger than her husband, anyway. She was tall, slender in the waist, less so elsewhere, with flowing hair like the knocker, dark tinged with red. She wore a longish suede skirt and a black cashmere sweater that fit her as snugly as the skin on a grape.
“My pleasure,” I said. Her hand felt a bit tentative. “I’ve passed by the house a hundred times and wondered about it. Getting to see it is worth my while.”
“Yes, it’s a landmark, I suppose, although that’s of more interest to my husband than to me. I’d be happier with a smaller place. In the city.”
“It’s a lot to look after, I’m sure. I’d love to have a library like this though.”
“I do feel a certain warmth in here. That’s a comfort to me.”
“I’m feeling it too.”
“Please sit down. Would you like something to drink?”
“I suppose I’m working. I’m fine, thanks.”
“Well then.” She sat at the end of the sofa, leaning on the arm, crossed legs extending in the other direction. “I do appreciate your coming to see me, especially with little idea of what it’s about.”
“Spud Pollard said you thought I might be able to help, though you didn’t want to go into details. I’m always interested when my services might be of value.”
“The sun’s in your eyes,” she said, getting up.
“I’m all right,” I replied, but she went to the window.
“Yes, I met Mr. Pollard at that restaurant … the one that keeps changing its name, as I imagine he told you. People had said it was the place to go for a nightcap.” She was still working the shade. “He said you’d been there but you’d left.”
“I know when it’s my bed time.”
“Unfortunately, not everyone is as wise.” She was trying to leave the shade perfectly square. “Your friend provided me with a little help, dealing with some unwanted attention at the bar.”
“Yeah. Spud said someone had something to say about your neckline.”
She looked at me, then back at the window shade. She let it go. “What more did Mr. Pollard tell you about that evening?”
“He said he managed to lighten the mood. Spud’s always quick with a joke. He told me the whole story, to answer your question.”
“I suppose I should be a little more discreet, now that I’m … on my own.” She sat down again, facing me more squarely, her hands in her lap.
“I gather that’s what you wanted to see me about. Spud said you asked him if he knew of a good investigator, one who can keep things … low key.”
“Yes, and he said you know detective work as well as anyone in the area.”
“I make it my business to.”
“As you know, as most people around here seem to know, my husband hasn’t been seen for a month. At least as far as I know.” She turned her head momentarily and gazed out the window. “The police haven’t turned up anything. I’m wondering if someone his former associates found less … intimidating … might have more luck.”
“That’s a good angle. Anyone who knows where he is might be mixed up with those ill-gotten gains.”
“Ill-gotten gains, Mr. Martin? What do you mean by that?” She sounded like she really didn’t know. She folded her arms across her chest.
“Let’s just say I overheard some conversations about him, so after Spud said you were interested in seeing me, I poked around a little. There’s a lot of talk that his firm’s investment returns haven’t been for real for a long time.”
“Oh. And what did you hear about Henry’s role in all that?” She combed her hair with her hand, holding it back.
“I heard he’s in it up to his ears. Somebody told me he’s so crooked he could he could hide behind a spiral staircase.”
She let go of her hair. Her hands fell to her knees. “Mr. Pollard didn’t prepare me for your blunt manner.”
“That’s what I heard. I know the truth can be unpleasant. In my business I can’t worry about who likes it. Nobody likes all the truth, all the time.”
“Your friend said I could think of you as a ‘private dick.’ I thought that was odd. It sounded antiquated. I think I’m starting to see what he meant.”
“Call me traditional. Like I said, I know it’s not always popular.”
“Did your poking around include any conversations about me?”
“Hear anything interesting?” She sat back and crowded the arm rest again, eyeing me like a pointer sighting a pheasant.
“I think so, though it would depend on what I was after. I learned you might be concerned about getting caught up in this mess yourself, especially with your husband missing. It seems you were his assistant before becoming his bride.”
“Is there anything wrong with an office romance leading to marriage? Why would anyone think an assistant would be to blame?”
“Word on the street is he proposed that the two of you tie the knot so you wouldn’t have to testify against him.”
“You seem to have waded into this pretty deeply, Mr. Martin. Aren’t you afraid of getting in over your head? Don’t you think that could be dangerous, for someone out there on his own? There’s a lot at stake.”
“I like your metaphor. But that’s part of my business too. In my line, you learn to follow your instincts, even when they’re taking you someplace you might not want to go.”
“You know I really don’t care anymore about your business. I think I’ve gotten everything I need to out of this conversation. In fact, I don’t mind telling you I don’t have any intention of hiring you. I asked you to come here after I heard you’d been talking to the state securities people, so I could find out what they told you.”
“That’s fine, Mrs. Farthington. You see, I’m not really a detective. I just write stories about them. I guess I’ve accomplished everything I’m going to here too. I’ll be on my way.”
I let myself out, strolled to the car and eased back onto the tony street. Driving through town, I noticed a new place had opened. It’s as gaudy as any that have come before, beckoning customers with a look as fabricated as a TV dinner. I guess it’s to be expected, I told myself. It’s not so different from the Farthingtons, or from me, for that matter. Most of us are peddling fictions of one kind or another.
David Ludlum lives in Princeton where he works on his writing at Lauren Davis’s Sharpening the Quill workshops and with a spin-off writers group.