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      THE OPERATOR said it was a person-to-person long-distance call for John Rand. The connection wasn't so good, but to Rand it sounded like the woman who came on the line had taken a hard punch and it hadn't worn off yet.

      "My name is Noreen Hood," she said. "I need some help, Mr. Rand."

      She sounded as if she might have been crying, and that made Rand nervous, so he used his most gentle, non-threatening, client-tailored voice. "How can I help you, Mrs. Hood?"

      "M-my lawyer knows Sid Longstreet, there in El Paso, and he said you were smart, and you got things done when nobody — nobody . . ." but by now she was crying in earnest, and it took her a minute.

      Rand listened to her sobs for what seem a long time, standing shirtless before the open window of the little house, trying to catch what little breeze came in. The phone's ear-piece was slick with sweat, and the air that wafted in smelled of melting tar from the asphalt road. At mid-afternoon in August, El Paso was 110 degrees in the shade and the evaporative cooler couldn't keep up with the heat. The air was already hot again by the time it reached the kitchen. Dogs were too hot to bark, and downtown somebody from the Chamber of Commerce was frying eggs on the sidewalk, competing for space in the newspapers with F.D.R.'s latest depression cure.

      While he waited, Rand wet a rag at the sink and wiped the sweat off his face and chest with it. And sure enough, before long Noreen Hood regained control of herself.

      "My husband was murdered this morning," she said in a flat voice.

      When Rand still didn't say anything, she went on. "I know who killed him and I want you to bring him to justice."

      "You've told this to the police? About who you think killed him?"

      "Yes. The sheriff's investigating Nick's death, but he says I have no real proof about his killer. I want you to get that proof.

      "And - and the killer also took something from Nick, and I want you to get it back. I'm willing to pay you."

      "I charge ten dollars a day, plus expenses."

      Her voice hardened. "My husband was a college professor, not a banker, Mr. Rand. Do you guarantee results?"


      She paused. "Sid Longstreet said you were an — honest man. Are you honest Mr. Rand?"

      Rand was a little put off by the question and momentarily fumbled for a truthful answer. "Yeah . . . I can be honest. . ."

      "I need someone honest - and discreet Are you discreet?"

      "I'm discreet."

      She muffled the mouthpiece and spoke to somebody in the room. Then she said, "All right, but you better be worth it. Do you know your way around Las Cruces?"

      "I go up there sometimes." Rand was surprised. Las Cruces was only forty-three miles due north, in southern New Mexico. Because of the connection, he had thought she was calling from someplace like Dallas or Houston.

      "You can start today," she said. "I live in the white adobe house with the red tile roof, a half mile beyond the cemetery on East Griggs Street. It shouldn't take you more than an hour to drive up here. Can you ride a horse?"


      "Good. Dress like a cowboy. In old clothes. The rancher who killed my husband is always looking for cowboys. You can go up there and get a job with him. Tell him you're a drifter or something."

      "Mrs. Hood, if I could ask you a few questions before I agree to . . . "

      ". . . But come over to the house first. I want a look at you. Be here in - say an hour and a half. And remember, old clothes." She hung up.

      Rand didn't like the way she just assumed he'd come up immediately, as though he didn't have important things to finish up first.

      But then, he thought, there were no important things. Nothing to finish. He had been between jobs for a month and would have taken almost anything. Roosevelt kept saying things would pick up soon, but it took more than words and government projects.

      Honest - discreet - the killer took something — what precisely was up? Rand felt a vague, tense thrill. It was a familiar feeling that he got at the start of a good case. A familiar feeling - but it had been a long time since he had felt this. It had been before Hannah had packed up and moved out . . . and perhaps if he had truly been honest and discrete, perhaps she would have. . .

      He called Hannah and told her he'd be out of town for a couple of days. Her voice turned icy when she realized who was calling. "And what do I care where you are!"

      He said, "I was hoping you might move back in."

      "Whatever for!"

      "At least come over and water the lawn. You still own half of the place."

      "I'll get it all, before I'm done with you," she said angrily. "And what's more - you can go to hell!" From the way she banged the receiver down into the cradle, he guessed she was still mad at him.

      He went into the kitchen and got a cold beer out of the Frigidaire and drank it while he found his battered suitcase. In it, he packed a faded old shirt and jeans, underwear, socks and a couple of changes of decent clothes. At the back of the closet he found a badly worn pair of boots he had planned to give to the Salvation Army.

      He threw in his favorite hat, an old Three-X Beaver Stetson that was greasy on the brim and rimmed around the crown with sweat salt. It was not what he usually wore when visiting clients, but it was perfect for the work he'd be doing, and so worn it didn't matter if it was smashed flat in the suitcase. He also packed a snubnosed .32 S&W revolver without a holster.

      Ignoring Noreen Hood's instructions, he dressed in a freshly-ironed short-sleeved shirt and pressed chino pants. He put on his lizard boots and his dress Stetson. When he looked in the mirror on the bedroom door, he thought he looked pretty spiffy. In his business, it paid to look prosperous.

      Then he phoned Sid Longstreet and thanked him for the reference. "Who was the lawyer who called you?"

      "Leonard Pritchard," Longstreet said. "He told me he wanted somebody discreet to do a job for a friend."

      "How well do you know him?"

      "Not very well. He beat me in a case one time. The guy's probably the best lawyer in Las Cruces. A sneaky little grandpa type who can turn into a shark. What kind of a job he want you for?"

      "A sort of domestic problem," Rand said. "I'm going up there. If I come over, will you give me some of that two hundred you owe me?"

      Longstreet got indignant. "Hell no. Isn't it enough I gave you a good recommendation?"

      "No, not near enough," Rand said. But he guessed for now it would have to do.

      He went out into the front yard and squirted the dry grass with the sprinkler for a couple of minutes, but the hose had been in the sun and the water came out hot. He decided most of it would probably evaporate before it sank into the ground, so he turned it off. Around back he checked the evaporative cooler that hung in the kitchen window. The copper line that carried water to the tray that dripped on the shaved-wood excelsior pads was plugged with calcium carbonate. He cleaned it out with his pocketknife and got the cooler working again, so if Hannah did come home she wouldn't fry, or accuse him of letting things run down.

      He threw the suitcase into the Chevy and headed up Mesa Street toward Highway 80 and Las Cruces. Driving along past the ASARCO smelter, he identified what had bothered him about the call.

      Mrs Hood had quit crying too suddenly.

      She didn't give a damn about her husband. She was hiring him to steal back whatever the killer had taken.


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