George Chesbro: Shadow of a Broken Man

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George Chesbro Shadow of a Broken Man
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    Shadow of a Broken Man
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George C. Chesbro

Shadow of a Broken Man


In another five minutes I'd have been gone. It was five fifteen on a Thursday afternoon at the end of the merry month of May; which meant I was tired of lectures, tired of grading papers, and especially tired of students. In addition to carrying a full teaching load, I'd spent the last three months on a case that hadn't turned out well; which meant too many bodies, a lot of filth, and a few innocent people whose lives had been permanently twisted out of shape. I was ready for a long vacation.

The man who clumped through the open door of my office was big and wore his muscles well. He obviously spent a lot of time out of doors; the sun had bleached his hair and seared a permanent tan into skin the color of cordovan leather. He was dressed in workman's clothes; laced boots, green cotton shirt and pants. Pencils, pens, and a piece of paper that looked like a business form stuck out of his shirt pocket. His blue artist's eyes, sensitive and quick-moving, belied his hayseed appearance; he looked like the kind of man you wouldn't mind buying a used car from. I put his age at around forty.

He glanced at the peeling nameplate on my desk, then at me. He did that twice; the implication seemed to be that I was sitting in someone else's chair.

"I'm looking for Dr. Robert Frederickson." His voice was a rich, rumbling baritone that was used to giving orders in large, open places, probably over the roar and cough of heavy machinery.

I considered sending him over to the next building, then sneaking down the back stairs. Instead, I admitted to being Frederickson and asked what I could do for him. I expected him to turn around and walk out. Shadows, gray ripples of doubt and discomfort, suddenly appeared and moved just beneath the surface of his pale eyes. The shadows were familiar to me; I'd watched them cloud people's eyes all my life. Dwarfs who aren't safely ensconced in some circus sideshow tend to embarrass people.

He surprised me. "Frank Manning tells me you're a licensed private investigator."

"That's right."

"Frank also says you're good." His tone was distant, the sound of an afterthought.

I nodded my head in a halfhearted invitation to sit down, and he disappointed me by accepting it. Whatever he had on his mind, it looked as if he wanted to go with the dwarf sitting in front of him. I'd already decided that I was going to find a delicate way of brushing him off, as opposed to the blunter numbers in my repertoire. Frank Manning was Dean of the College of Architecture at the university. He also happened to be a good friend of mine; I didn't want to offend him by proxy.

"How can I help you, Mr.-?"

"Foster," he said, quickly leaning forward in his chair and extending his hand. The chair groaned. "Mike Foster. Sorry."

The hand I shook was matted with calluses. "I assume you want to hire a private investigator, Mr. Foster-"


"Okay, Mike. Why do you need a detective?"

He hesitated a moment. "I'd like you to investigate a man who's supposed to be dead."

"Sounds intriguing," I said in my most neutral tone of voice.

"Have you ever heard of Victor Rafferty?"

Indeed I had, and I was beginning to see the connection with Frank Manning. Anyone who appreciated beauty in functional design had to be familiar with the work of Victor Rafferty. Rafferty had been as exceptional-and controversial-in his field as Picasso had been in his; like Picasso, Rafferty would have been at home talking shop with Michelangelo and Leonardo. His architectural genius was represented by structures in every major city of the world.

Rafferty had, in effect, died twice. About five years earlier, he'd been involved in an automobile accident that had killed all the occupants of the other car. It had taken three firemen half a day to pry Rafferty out of the crushed- metal puzzlework. He'd been pronounced dead at the scene, but someone had detected a sign of life just as they were about to plastic-bag him. They rushed him off to a hospital and he survived, thanks to what were modestly referred to as a series of medical miracles and a steel plate to replace the portion of his skull that had been pulverized.

The effort had been largely wasted. Five or six months later he'd fallen off a catwalk into an open smelting furnace in a metallurgical laboratory he maintained in New York City. That kind of dead is permanent, I told Foster.

The big man squirmed like a witness who's been tripped up on cross-examination. "You're very well informed."

"I'm a building freak," I said with a half-smile.

"Of course he couldn't have survived that," Foster said, swallowing hard. "But they never found any trace of his body."

"There wouldn't be any body to recover-not after it dropped into a vat of molten steel. Wasn't there someone who actually saw him go in?"

"The only witness was a watchman at the laboratory. It was a Sunday."

"What's your connection with Rafferty, Mike?"

His hands were resting on the edge of my desk. The giant fingers of the right hand found the fingers of the left, interlocked, and squeezed; a knuckle popped. I was glad I wasn't in the middle.

"I'm married to his widow," he said quietly. "I mean, I hope she was really a widow. Maybe I'm not so sure anymore,"

I studied his face. Foster didn't look like the type to be jealous of a dead man, even if that man had been light-years ahead of him intellectually, and more than a few light-hours socially.

Foster seemed to be reading my thoughts; he reached into his back pocket and took out a thin, glossy magazine. I caught a glimpse of the title as he unfolded it: MODERN ARCHITECTURE. He flipped it open to a marked page and laid it on the desk in front of me. There was a full-page photograph of a building; on the facing page was the beginning of what looked like a long, scholarly article. It was an impressive building, simple yet amazingly complex to the practiced eye; it had a grandeur that, even on the flat page, thrilled and swept up the viewer.

The caption identified the building as the Nately Museum. The architectural credits went to a Richard Patern of the firm of Fielding, Fielding and Gross.

I glanced up and found Foster watching me, or looking through me; I wasn't sure which. "My wife hasn't been the same since she saw that picture," he said, tension creeping into his voice. "She's convinced it's Rafferty's."

"She thinks he built it?"

"She says he planned it. Elizabeth knows every line of that building; she told me all about it just from looking at the photo. I read the article and she's right. She says the building is Victor's."

"How can she be that sure?"

"Apparently he discussed it with her a number of times, showed her some of the preliminary sketches. That was seven or eight years ago."

"Maybe he showed the sketches to someone else."

Foster shook his head; a lock of hair fell across his eyes and he brushed it away impatiently. "Rafferty never discussed or showed his preliminary work to anyone, except Elizabeth. Of course he had his own firm and assistants, but when he was working on one of his own projects he never shared the idea until it was ready for final blueprinting. In fact, he kept all his papers in a locked file."

"Is that what your wife told you?"

"Yes, and it's what I know from my own experience."

"What experience is that?"

"I'm a builder. I knew Victor Rafferty casually. That's about as well as anyone knew him, except for Elizabeth." He paused and held out his hands; his veins sprang up and writhed like snakes trying to escape from their fleshy prison. "That's where my brains are. Rafferty liked my work and I was prime contractor on a number of his buildings. After his death Elizabeth became executrix of his estate, which meant she was supervising a lot of his unfinished projects. We met and… we fell in love." He suddenly, self-consciously, placed his hands in his lap. "The point is that I know there's no way Rafferty would have told anyone about that building until the final drafting was ready to be done, and Elizabeth says he never got beyond the preliminary sketches he showed her. All his personal effects like that were locked in a safe after his death. I checked, and they're still there."

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