"I'LL BE ON YOUR PATIO AT FOUR O'CLOCK. IF YOU AREN'T THERE, I'LL UNDERSTAND...."
This is the gist of the mysterious plea for help that Conan Flagg finds lying on the counter of his Holliday Beach Book Shop. The writer is beautiful Isadora Canfield, a concert pianist and daughter of the late Oregon Senator John Canfield, in whose will she would become a millionairess.
Isadora wants Conan to find out who is keeping her under twenty-four-hour surveillance, but she becomes strangely quiet when asked for details of her father's death and of how she had spent the weeks following. In fact she is disinclined to talk about the family at all--not her blind stepmother or her irrepressible stepbrother or her sadly altered stepsister, Jenny, who had once been a promising artist.
Conan soon realizes that he and his gifted client are sitting on dynamite. He thinks he knows who has the matches, but he can't be sure. And proving it, is dangerous work, even for a pro like Flagg.
Her breath came out in a long sigh of relief.
“Well, as far as I know, there are only two men. One I call the day man, the other the night man.”
“They seem to maintain regular shifts?”
“Yes. The day man must be staying out at Shanaway somewhere. I’m living there now; we have a cottage up on the ridge. Anyway, every time I drive into town that red Ford shows up before I reach the highway. From then on, he follows me everywhere I go.”
He tensed at the words “red Ford,” but didn’t comment on that, asking, “Does he leave his car to follow you?”
“Yes, I’m sure of that, but I’ve never had a really close look at him. He seems to prefer staying in his car as long as he can keep me in sight.”
Careless, Conan thought; but he’d seen the man in the red Ford, and that in itself was indicative. A good operative wouldn’t be seen without an intentional search. Certainly his mark shouldn’t be so aware of him.
“Can you describe the car?”
“Oh, yes. Dark red Ford; a new model, two-door sedan. Oregon license plate AMK510.”
That cool and competent observation definitely took her “problem” out of the realm of the imaginary.
“What can you tell me about the night man?”
“Well, I know him by sight, but I’m not sure of his car, although I thought I saw him getting into a light blue Ford one night.”
“How is it you know him by sight?”
“I see him where I work.” Then she explained with a crooked half smile: “I’m playing evenings at the Surf House bar, much to Catharine’s consternation.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. She’s Dad’s—I mean, my stepmother.”
“And she disapproves of your job?”
“Oh, my, yes! A Canfield performing in a bar? It’s a blot on the family escutcheon.” There was a nearly ferocious undercurrent in her sarcasm that surprised him.
“I gather you aren’t too fond of your stepmother.”
“Not very subtle, am I? No, I’m not fond of her, and the feeling is mutual, although we both kept it under wraps for Dad’s sake. But that’s only family in-fighting.” And obviously, she thought it of no interest to him. “The job at the Surf House is just cocktail piano, but I…I needed something to do.”
He nodded. “Tell me more about your night man.”
“He was the first one I noticed. He’d come to the bar every evening about eight when I began playing and nurse a few drinks along until closing time. He didn’t talk to anyone, or dance, or even drink enough to show it. I couldn’t believe my music glued him to that bar stool for six hours every night. Max—that’s the bartender, Max Heinz—didn’t know anything about him, and if anyone comes into the bar more than twice, Max can usually give you their life history. Anyway, I ran a few tests. Once, on my night off I drove to Westport for dinner, and another time I took in a movie at the local theater, and the night man showed up both times. I even went down to the Surf House on my night off once, and he wasn’t there, but he arrived within ten minutes.
“When did you first notice him—and the day man?”
“I started working at the Surf House on March first, and I noticed the night man three or four days later, then after another couple of days, I spotted the day man. I ran my tests during that first week, but when I was sure I wasn’t—I mean, I was sure they were following me, I stopped that. I didn’t want them to know I’d caught on to their little game.”
He smiled at that. “Amazing.”
“Most people would panic in a situation like that.”
“I don’t—well, I don’t usually panic easily.”
There was something hidden in her eyes. He remembered the glimpse he’d had of the scar on her wrist.
“And your next step was to find a handy private eye?”
“Yes. Mr. Flagg, do you believe me?”
Both the question and the intense plea reflected in her eyes caught him off guard, and he realized that again he’d made a choice without being fully aware of it; the decision made when he first saw her—or rather, first heard her. Anyone possessed of talent of that magnitude should be spared the natural shocks to which lesser flesh is heir.
“Believe you? Is there any reason I should doubt you?”
Her cheeks went red, and the question seemed to have deeper meaning for her than he intended. He didn’t wait for a response, but rose and went to the cabinet by the fireplace and took out a Polaroid camera.
“Miss Canfield, come into the kitchen a moment.”
She hesitated, nonplussed, then followed him into the kitchen. He crossed to the high windows on the north wall and looked out into the beach access. The red Ford was still there, its driver still waiting.
Conan motioned her to the window.
“I think you’ll find the view interesting.”