The King of Mirth — excerpt

Chapter 1

Tuesday, October 31, 2017, McGill Investigations International — Washington, DC

Jim McGill and Margaret “Sweetie” Sweeney made Skype contact with Yves Pruet and Gabbi Casale of McGill’s Paris office at nine a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Paris was six hours ahead of Washington. So was Munich, Germany, where the last member of the video conversation, Marlon Janeway, lived.

Pruet and Gabbi looked to be in fine health. The same couldn’t be said of Janeway. He looked pale even allowing for the fluorescent lighting he had at his location and the transmission of his image across thousands of miles. Beyond that, he wore a surgical mask over his nose and mouth. His eyes looked watery and were such a pale blue as to be almost colorless.

Janeway recognized the shock and concern evident on the faces of McGill and Sweetie. He managed a raspy laugh. “Not a pretty picture, am I?”

The idiom was pure American. But his voice had a hint of a German accent. McGill and Sweetie had been told by Gabbi that the man had been born and raised in North Carolina. So Janeway must have been overseas a long time.

Sweetie found her footing first. “What kind of illness are you suffering, Mr. Janeway?”

“Dengue fever. Made a business trip to Africa. Seems my bug spray wasn’t up to the job. Got a mosquito bite from a malignant critter.”

Okay, McGill thought, there was a hint of a Southern accent.

Poor guy.

Almost seeming to read McGill’s mind or at least the look in his eyes, Janeway said, “The doctors have told me not to give up hope yet. They have some very good medical people over here. On the other hand, I don’t feel I should start reading a long book. What I’d dearly like to do, however, is talk to my sister, Alice, one more time. Only I can’t find her.”

Pruet told McGill, “That is why M’sieur Janeway contacted us. I felt it would be more productive if he spoke to you directly.”

Let me get a good look at the man myself, McGill thought. Make it a whole lot tougher to turn down the case or say, “Maybe I can get to it a couple weeks from now.”

“Absolutely,” McGill said. “We’ll make time for you, Mr. Janeway. Call in staff investigators from other offices here in the States, if necessary.”

With just a hint of humor in his washed-out eyes, Janeway asked, “You’re not even going to  ask if I can afford your services?”

McGill said, “I assume my colleagues in Paris already took care of that detail, but my partner, Ms. Sweeney, here, is our chief ethics officer. She’s already raised the subject of taking on some cases at compassionate rates or even gratis. You know, every so often.”

Janeway produced a dry chuckle. “I was just joking. I can pay your fees, which M’sieur Pruet and I did, in fact, discuss. I do approve of Ms. Sweeney’s idea, though.”

Sweetie offered a smile in reply.

“What can you tell us about your sister, Mr. Janeway?” McGill asked.

“She’s 12 years my junior, 28 years old, and my only sibling. Our parents are dead. I moved overseas 14 years ago. I’ve always felt a bit guilty about that.”

The man’s pale eyes filmed over with a sheen of tears, and he was silent for a moment.

“I kept in regular touch the first few years, at least once a month. Then my two children came along, and my contacts with Alice became more irregular and widely spaced. I never actually forgot about her. To the contrary, I think about her with a guilty conscience almost every day, but I never got around to writing or calling one-tenth of the times I thought I should.”

Sweetie asked, “Was it hard for you to take your overseas job in the first place?”

Janeway coughed up another dry laugh. “Staying in Germany wasn’t part of the plan when I left home. I was supposed to be gone only two weeks. Only, I did a terrific job, and I was offered a permanent position at almost double my pay back home. On top of that, I also met the woman who became my wife. Even so, I did my due diligence. I called my boss back home and asked what he thought. He said if I didn’t take the job over here, he’d apply for it.”

“Did you also check in with Alice?” McGill asked.

Now, the tears fell freely from Janeway’s eyes. “I did. She said whatever made me happy would make her happy, too. Fourteen years old, and talking like that. So, I stayed, and one misbegotten trip to Africa many years later, here I am.”

Janeway looked for a moment as if his summary had stirred up another memory, but it must have skipped on by because he didn’t offer anything else just then.

“Tell us what you know about Alice’s present situation,” McGill said. “Where she lives, where she works, who some of her friends might be if you know that.”

“She has a small house in Durham, North Carolina. I gave her the down-payment money, out of both generosity and guilt. She said she was going to repay me. I told her if she did that it would hurt my feelings. So she said she would make contributions to charity in my honor.”

Janeway began to cry silently once more.

The others gave him a moment to collect himself.

Then McGill asked in a gentle voice, “Where does Alice work?”

Janeway blotted his eyes with a tissue that was handed to him by someone off-camera. To McGill, it looked like a woman’s hand. The nails were trimmed closely. A nurse, maybe.

“Alice travels all over the country. The States, I mean. She’s what I’d guess you’d call a Jill-of-all-trades for a performer named Teagan Tobias. Have you heard of him?”

“Sorry, no,” McGill said. He turned to Sweetie.

She only shrugged in ignorance.

McGill asked his colleagues in Paris. Pruet was unfamiliar with the name.

Gabbi, an artist, knew more.

“I’ve read about him in the New York Times International Edition. He calls himself a performance artist. He does social satire with emphasis on his low opinion of most of humanity.”

Janeway picked up that thread. “I’ve never seen any of the guy’s work, but Alice tells me he gives voice to the legitimate gripes everyone encounters daily.”

“Is Alice a hard-edged person?” McGill asked.

That drew a short, hoarse laugh from Janeway. “Anything but. My little sister is sweet, cheerful, generous.” He caught himself before he started to weep again. “You know, thinking about it, though, she has a lot of legitimate complaints she could make if she felt like it.”

“What kind of complaints, Mr. Janeway?” Sweetie asked.

“Well, basically, losing her whole family in a brief period. I left for Germany when she’d just started high school. She was a freshman at UNC when our parents died in a train derailment. Being isolated like that could make a person bitter.”

“Didn’t you come home for the funeral?” McGill asked.

Now, it was pain that filled Janeway’s eyes as he gave a slight shake of his head.

“My parents died on the same day my first child, my son, was born. It was a horribly difficult delivery for both him and my wife. Things were touch and go for both of them whether they’d survive for a week. I couldn’t go. I told Alice what had happened, and she said I should be with my family. Alice has had way more than her share of grief.”

It certainly seemed to McGill that Marlon Janeway also hadn’t gotten off easy.

“Did you try to contact Mr. Tobias regarding Alice’s whereabouts?” he asked.

For the first time, the man showed signs of anger. A good thing, McGill thought. You needed at least a bit of energy to produce hard feelings. Apathy would have been much worse.

“We spoke briefly. He acted as if his time was too valuable to give me more than the most clipped and concise answers. As if I was bothering him. He said he didn’t know where Alice was. She was with the show for their last performance in Atlanta, but she didn’t appear before the opening of the next stop in Washington, DC.” Janeway pressed his eyes closed for a moment. Then he said, “The man told me if Alice called me, I should tell her if she didn’t get back to work within the next few days she was fired. Then he hung up.”

Sweetie shook her head. McGill remained stoic.

“I think that’s all I can tell you,” Janeway said. “I’m probably forgetting something. Not quite as sharp as I used to be.”

McGill asked, “Do you know if Alice had any close friends in Durham? Someone she might have visited on the way to DC. A kindred spirit with whom she might share a confidence or a gripe about work?”

Janeway’s head bobbed. “There must be someone like that. Alice is so easy to get along with; she has to have friends. Only I can’t think of any names right now. I feel half-dead already.”

“Mr. Janeway,” McGill said in a curt, almost martial tone.

The man responded by blinking rapidly and saying, “Yes?”

“You have a lot to live for: your sister, your wife, your children. You fight just as hard as you can. Any doctor in the world will tell you that an indomitable spirit makes their treatments a lot more effective.”

“I will, I will.”

“You make sure you’re still around when we find Alice for you.”

A look of hope filled the man’s eyes. “I will. Thank you.”

Janeway nodded to the unseen person in his room, and he was disconnected from the group link-up.

At that point, Yves Pruet asked McGill, “Are you sure you will be able to make good on your promise, mon ami?

McGill responded by making the Sign of the Cross.