The house was in a ritzy area of McLean, Virginia. It was a townhouse, but that word doesn't begin to describe a place that costs ten times or more than mine. Toss in the wall around the place, the gate with an armed guard, and the private police patrols; you have a place that might be called "Money!" instead of the pseudo-French name that it carried. The guard didn't jump to attention when I drove up, but he didn't open fire, either. Being invited has its advantages.
The invitation was delivered by a uniformed messenger, but he didn't refuse the tip I offered. The invitation itself rode in a buff-colored envelope. It read: Mrs. Frederick Soweby respectfully requests your presence at eleven AM tomorrow. Keeping the invitation company was a set of directions and ten one hundred dollar bills that looked as if they had come directly from the presses. I wasn't overly thrilled to see the messenger, he came damn early and I had a hangover. The sight of all that green cheered me right up.
I had breakfast, got dressed, and drove to a branch of the county library. Soweby was a new name to me, but anybody who can throw that kind of cash around probably got their name into the papers from time to time.
Frederick Soweby was a name that appeared in all the papers and news magazines. He was a financier, a word for someone who makes a lot of money without making anything else. Soweby had become involved in some major-league misconduct. The case involved laundering money at casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City for starters. Then it spread into illegal weapons shipment to a North African nation known for oil and terrorism, insider trading, and hints at political assassination abroad. Soweby had seen the light and cooperated with the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Some of Soweby's associates had lost their cushy jobs and paid huge fines, some were fugitives living in the oil nation's capital, others were checked into the Federal graybar hotels. Soweby got off for being the star witness.
Mrs. Soweby's first name was Elizabeth. She was wealthy in her own right, in her mid-thirties with one son. Her family were long-term residents of Washington. The pictures of her didn't look half-bad. Most of the family details were in the Post. It was a local case and they like juicy stuff. The wedding and birth announcements, plus the coverage of Mrs. Soweby's "coming out" at a debutante ball were all in the Post.
The townhouse was on a side street. I parked my Mazda in front. The old RX-2 looked out of place amid the Porsches, Audis, Mercedes, and the odd Cadillac. They had grounds to worry if rust was contagious.
I rang the doorbell. A slender blonde in a maid's uniform opened the door. She eyed me and my suit and said: "Yes?"
"I'm Samuel Hawkins. Mrs. Soweby's expecting me. The use of "Mrs." didn't win me any points.
"Come in, sir." She opened the door wider and I went in. I had an urge to take my shoes off, the rug was white shag. The maid led me into a room and said that Ms. Soweby would be with me in a few moments. The room had a bookshelf that held hardcover books, a mixture of classics and bestsellers. The sofa and chairs were covered in a dark brown leather. A large cabinet stood in the corner across the room, I bet it contained a pop-up big-screen TV with all the accompanying hardware.
A pleasant voice said: "Mr. Hawkins, I'm Elizabeth Soweby, thanks for coming." Mrs. Soweby stood about five foot seven, if you adjusted for the heels. Her skirt and blouse didn't come off the rack at Marshall's. Three thin gold chains hung around her neck, setting off her shortish brown hair. Her watch said the grand she sent me wouldn't be missed.
"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Soweby.
"Please sit down. Would you like something?"
"Coffee would be fine, thanks." I sat in the chair she indicated and listened to the leather adjust to my weight. Mrs. Soweby used an intercom to have someone named "Lila" bring two coffees.
Mrs. Soweby sat on the couch next to the chair and said: "You don't look like a private eye."
"You mean like Humphrey Bogart or Tom Sellick?" It was a question I've reluctantly become used to.
She raised a hand. "No offense, but are you good at your job?"
"Mrs. Soweby, I don't believe you just picked my name at random from the Yellow Pages." I was starting to get irritated, but I thought of the grand and calmed down.
She opened a box on the coffee table and picked out a cigarette. "Do you carry a gun," she asked as she lit up. I ignored the question. The maid came in and served the coffee. Mrs. Soweby said: "Thank you, Betty" as the maid poured the coffee. I tried mine, it was excellent.
"What do you want me to do, Mrs. Soweby?"
She put her cup down. "I want my son back."
Mrs. Soweby was not dumb. "If you know his name, then you probably know of the troubles my family has had over the last few years." I nodded my head and had some more coffee. "The scandal destroyed my marriage. Stupid idiot. He was not involved with good men."
"None of them were members of the Little Sisters of the Poor. But what does this have to do with your son?"
"Frederick cooperated with the prosecution. Some of the men he testified against are vengeful men, with the power to have their vengeance. The government installed him in the Witness Protection Program."
"And he took your son with him." I didn't say it as a question.
"Yes, he did. We are divorced, now." Mrs. Soweby shook her head, I couldn't tell if it was from anger or regret.
"I didn't know that. I'd guess that you have custody of your son."
"I have the legal right to him, but he has him; he has had Eric since he went away. I've not had a letter or a phone call from my son in two years."
She was fighting for control of herself.
I sipped some more coffee. Excellent stuff, it didn't come out of a can at the local Bi-Lo. "You haven't waited for two years before doing something."
"No, of course not." She dragged on her cigarette, put it out and lit another. "I obtained legal custody of Eric. I then got a court order and had it served on the prosecutor in charge of the case and on the chief of the witness program. They both deny any knowledge of Frederick's or Eric's whereabouts. I've filed kidnapping charges against Frederick, but the FBI shows no interest in the case.. I'm told that the FBI is rarely interested in custody battles." She looked at me with a question in her eyes.
"I'm afraid that that's true."
"There is also a bench warrant out for Frederick on contempt-of-court charges. The judge is trying to get an explanation from the prosecutor. They are dragging their feet."
Her voice became very emphatic. "The wheels of justice turn very slowly, Mr. Hawkins. I am missing out on my son's childhood. I don't want this to drag on forever and one day meet an adult man who claims to be my long-lost son. My father left me a great deal of money, which I intend to use. I want Eric back." Mrs. Soweby had taken only a couple of puffs on her latest cigarette, she stabbed it into the ashtray with enough force to crumple the butt.
"I'll look into it, Mrs. Soweby, and see what I can do. I'll need pictures of both Eric and your ex, as recent as possible. I'm going to need whatever financial records you have on any purchases your ex made over the last several years; did he use cash, checks or plastic?"
"He usually paid by credit card, the trust department at Sovran Bank handled the bills."
Good. "Then I'll need an introduction to your trust officer and access to all the records from the credit cards and checking accounts. Any information you have on your husband's dealings might help."
"A lot of what you want is at my lawyer's office. I took a chance and set up an appointment for you at one." She handed me a slip of paper. "This is their address, the lawyer's name is Coleridge. They have been instructed to retain you, so you will be legally working for them. I'm told that you are protected by lawyer-client privilege laws that way."
And they make a bundle in the process, I thought. "Then I'll go over there. But let me make this plain from the start. What you are asking for may be impossible. The government might get very unhappy with anyone who tries to crack their protected witnesses. It could conceivably cause you a lot of trouble."
"I'll never know if I don't try. My father used to say 'Who dares,
We both stood up, Mrs. Soweby showed me to the door. She shook my hand and wished me luck. 250 million Americans. After taking out the women, minorities, children and elderly, that left a fairly small group of people. Say fifteen to forty million. I'd need a trainload of luck.