Return to Ramble House Page

Return to Other Loons Page






IT WAS A MORNING like every other morning. I was a little cranky, and Myrna was more than a little annoying.

Myrna, I should explain, is my secretary. Such as she is. Anyway, that morning her voice came at me in the same way it always did; like the whine of a 75 mm. shell heading in my direction. Only not as warm.

“A Jessica Burden on One for the Master.” Any other secretary would have hit me with that on the intercom. Myrna Donovan shrilled it out at the top of her voice from the next room. Through a closed door. No wonder the newsdealer thirteen stories down and halfway up the corner knows all my business.

“Pack here,” I said, after punching down on One. I’ve seen an English movie or two in my time.

“Mr. Pack, this is Jessica Burden. Stanley Burden’s wife.”

“Uh huh,” I uh huhed. From the way I read her voice, I gathered I should have known who Stanley Burden was. Christ, I don’t even know who the Secretary of Agriculture is. But private detective types are supposed to know everything, so I played it tight to the—whatever the fashionistas call vests these days.

“Mr. Pack, I’d very much like to see you. I feel I require the services of someone like yourself.”

I checked my appointment book. It looked like a maiden’s diary. “You wanna come in this morning?”

She hesitated a little, and then told me, “I’d really rather you came here.”

“Where’s here?” I’m not too crazy about visiting potential clients. I figure I get the psychological edge if they come to me. Also, I’m probably a little lazy.

“Upper Montclair. New Jersey.”

Oh, Christ, I thought. New Jersey.

You have to understand, I was born and raised in New York City. To me, New Jersey is the country. Hell, to me Queens is the country. “I don’t know,” I more or less mumbled. I had no idea who Stanley Burden was, I had no idea who Jessica Burden was, and at that point I didn’t have the slightest feeling that it amounted to a lack.

“Please,” she told me. “I’ll pay you for your time.”

Like I said, I was a little cranky that morning. “I come high,” I told her, only it was more like a grumble.

“Whatever you wish. I’d feel safer if—if you came here.”

Safer. I perked up a little at that. How long had it been since I’d had a client who hadn’t felt safe? Could it be, I found myself thinking, that this might be a reprieve from the phonebooks and the city directories? From hour upon hour of tiny print and even tinier satisfactions? I tossed an hourly fee at her, the one from the “slightly intrigued but mainly reluctant” slot, and she didn’t toss it back.

She gave me her address. “Would eleven be all right?” she asked.

Well, I figured even if I had only the fuzziest idea of where Upper Montclair was, she must know where Manhattan was, so the timing was probably okay. “See you then,” I told her, hung up, and grabbed for my map of New Jersey.

As it turns out, Upper Montclair is about a twenty-five minute drive from Manhattan. To put it another way, it’s twelve or so miles northwest of the Empire State Building. Since that morning, I’ve also learned a few other things about Upper Montclair.

It’s not really what you’d call a burg of its own; it’s part of the town of Montclair. The only things that separate it from Montclair are its name, a one-digit difference in its zip code, and a street, Watchung Avenue. Well, and maybe one other thing. When you’re in a place called Upper Montclair, you’ve got to feel, right or wrong, that you’re in a pretty classy sort of spot.

Population for all of Montclair in 1980 was 44,173, but most of it doesn’t seem that people-packed; it’s full of great big one-family houses, widish lots, and enough huge, healthy trees to make even the most fanatic member of the Sierra Club relax. There’s money there, too, plenty of it, and its biggest concentration runs in a straight line from one end of Upper Montclair through to the other end of Montclair. It’s a line near the top of a mountain, the mountain that gives Montclair its name.

I’ll never forget that first drive to Jessica Burden’s house. It was a warm April morning, I had the windows down, and I was driving like a tourist, gawking at all the trees, which were just beginning to turn green, and gawking even more at the mansions that lined each side of Upper Mountain Avenue. Huge. Those mothers were huge, and what made them even more impressive was that they were way up on the side of the mountain, looking down at you, kind of like row after row of Margaret Dumonts. You know, the snooty dowager in the Marx Brothers movies.

What’s an even ritzier version of Margaret Dumont? Because that’s what Jessica Burden’s house was. It knocked me out the second I saw it, my lower jaw drooping the furthest it has since adolescence. Like the others, it was perched smack on the side of that very green and very expensive hunk of rock that overlooks the rest of the town. But it looked more like a castle than a house; it was enormous, and it positively crawled with brickwork towers, crenels, merlons, bartizans and oriels, although at the time I didn’t know three-fifths of those words. All it’s missing, I told myself as I headed my rented Chevvy up the nearly perpendicular driveway, is a moat.

I could have added a butler. It also lacked a butler. And a maid. I found that out after I pulled through a huge Tudor arch that ran along the right side of the building, and parked on what looked like a giant wooden turntable, because when I rang the bell on an oak door that must have been nine feet high and four inches thick, surprise! The door was pulled open, and it wasn’t Jeeves on the other side, or even Mrs. Danvers.

“Mr. Pack?”

I nodded. Then to confirm what I already suspected, I asked, “Mrs. Burden?”

“Yes. Please do come in.”

As I’ve already more or less subtly informed you, at the time I was no student of architecture, but I was an appreciator, and so I was more than happy to step inside and continue my gawking.

The entrance hall was so huge, I half-expected to see a flag on the ceiling, planted by the first plasterer who’d reached it. The walls, from the floor up, were all dark, paneled wood. Mahogany, acres and acres of it, beautifully worked. It made me feel a bit—although I decided not to mention this to Mrs. Burden—as if I were standing in God’s humidor. There were two thronelike chairs, some kind of giant hat rack that put you in mind of earls, and barons and kings, the kind of table people used to leave calling cards on, and an enormous mirror, huge enough and heavy enough to tear down every wall in my apartment.

But as impressive as it all was, I was only giving it half an eye. Jessica Burden was getting the rest. As she preceded me into the next room, I more than dutifully charted her terrain. It took only a glance to see that her legs, hips, waist and shoulders followed all the instructions in the kit. But I didn’t exactly restrict myself to a glance. I noticed also that her hair was a reddish sort of blonde, straight and pulled back. Ordinarily not my kind of hair, but on her it looked fine. In fact, just right.

Not that I’d expected anything different. From the instant she’d opened the door, from the second she’d first faced me, I’d found myself checking out something that did even more for the eyes than an edibles commercial on color tv. I mean, she was nice. This Jessica Burden was nice.

The living room was the perfect frame for her, too. It made the entrance hall I’d just left look like a poor cousin. In here the walls were also all mahogany, but the panels on them were even more intricately carved. The windows, all of which looked out on a hazily shimmering Manhattan, were about as wide as my shoulders, but went up more than twice my height, and the glass in them was plate. Not only was the furniture the kind I’d only seen in museums, it was the kind I’d only expected to see in museums.

She indicated a chair, and I fitted myself into it, trying to look comfortable in something that was probably worth twenty times more than my suit. And it was a Brooks Brothers two-piecer.

Immediately, I learned something about Jessica Burden. Introductory pleasantries weren’t her style. Ignoring the weather and not bothering to ask about how my trip here had gone, she said, “I suppose you know the circumstances of my husband’s death.”

My brain automatically kicked into the memory mode, just as it had when she’d called, but again it came up empty, “I’d rather hear it from you,” I told her, in what I hoped was a noncommittal tone. The trouble with prospective clients is that they expect you to be hipped on every last crime that’s ever been committed, from Cain up. If you let them discover that you’re not, they figure you for the kind of dude whose tie lights up in the dark.

So I played it cool. Sure, she’d guaranteed to pay for my time on this interview, but I was looking for more than just a couple of hundred. I glanced around the room again. Obviously there was money here, money to be made. Besides, you couldn’t possibly know just how good a murder sounded to me after months—no, years— of plodding through phone books and ringing doorbells, searching for missing husbands, wives, lovers and miscellaneous relatives. If it was a murder. Who the hell was her husband, anyway? I’d have asked my partner before I left the office, if I’d had a partner. God and I knew there’d have been no point in my asking Myrna.

“Stanley was found dead two weeks ago in the Coachman Motor Lodge.”

I knew the place. It’s a fairly good motel smack in the middle of midtown Manhattan. High-priced, naturally, and busy, very busy, just like that whole section of the city.

“He’d been shot in the head.” She paused, then continued, “And that’s all we know. All anyone knows.”

“Shot just once,” I said, making it sound more like a statement than the question it was.


“I don’t remember hearing anything about the weapon.” You can bet your sweet life I didn’t.

“It wasn’t found. It was some kind of small bore pistol, I think. It had an odd name. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten it. When they told me, I was in no state to—”

“No biggie,” I shrugged. I could always check that out with the police. Things were beginning to come back to me. I must have half-caught something about Burden on tv, or more likely had scanned a “The City” paragraph in the Times; the way they report a crime, your head doesn’t exactly get pumped full of luridly memorable details. Anyway, I hit her with what I’d just recalled. “The room wasn’t registered under his name, was it?”

Almost imperceptibly she shook her head. “No.”

“But the desk clerk said he was sure it was your husband who’d signed in. . .who’d used that name.”

“That’s what he said, yes. He seemed quite positive.”

Well, it sounded to me like it sounds to you. An assignation. A clandestine meeting with some bimbo; a happy hour quickie.

I was all set to get into that when something stopped me. Just like in that old commercial, for a detergent, I think, or maybe a toothpaste. Some kind of invisible shield. Damn. She was sitting there, expectant, and I couldn’t ask her, even though it was a question I’d tossed at more than a few women in the course of my career. I’d had no trouble asking them if their husbands played around. Why her? It puzzled me, but it also intrigued me, a little. Why her?

So instead I asked, “Do you have any suspicions?”

She shook her head again, just a bit more this time. “None at all, I’m afraid.” Her voice was composed, her body upright, and still. No nervous motions.

I shifted in my chair, and straightened a bit. Damned if, for some reason, I wasn’t feeling a little self-conscious about the way I’d been sitting. “No one you knew had anything against him?”

“Not really, no. Oh, there were some problems with the family, but—”

Family. Okay, first mental note. I’d come back to that later. “Anyone who’d stand to profit from his death?”

She hesitated for a moment, and then answered, “Yes. I would. I will.”


Return to Ramble House Page

Return to Other Loons Page