Two dead men changed the course of my life that fall. One of them I knew and the other I’d never laid eyes on until I saw him in the morgue. The first was Pete Wolinsky, an unscrupulous private detective I’d met years before through Byrd-Shine Investigations, where I’d served my apprenticeship. I worked for Ben Byrd and Morley Shine for three years, amassing the six thousand hours I needed for my license. The two were old-school private eyes, hard-working, tireless, and inventive. While Ben and Morley did business with Pete on occasion, they didn’t think much of him. He was morally shabby, disorganized, and irresponsible with money. In addition, he was constantly pestering them for work, since his marketing skills were minimal and his reputation too dubious to recommend him without an outside push. Byrd-Shine might subcontract the odd stretch of surveillance to him or assign him a routine records search, but his name never appeared on a client report. This didn’t prevent him from stopping by the office without invitation or dropping their names in casual conversations with attorneys, implying a close professional relationship. Pete was a man who cut corners and he assumed his colleagues did likewise. More problematic was the fact that he’d rationalized his bad behavior for so long it had become standard operating procedure.
Pete Wolinsky was gunned down the night of August 25 on a dark stretch of pavement just off the parking lot at the Santa Teresa Bird Refuge. The site was right across the street from the Caliente Café, a popular hangout for off-duty cops. It might seem odd that no one in the bar was aware that shots were fired, but the volume on the jukebox exceeds 117 dB, roughly the equivalent of a gas-powered chainsaw at a distance of three feet. The rare moments of quiet are masked by the high-pitched rattle of ice cubes in dueling blenders where margaritas are whipped up at a rate of one every four and a half minutes.
Pete’s body might not have been discovered until daylight if it hadn’t been for an inebriated bar patron who stepped into the shadows to take a leak. I heard about Pete’s death on the morning news while I was eating my Cheerios. The TV set was on in the living room behind me, more for the company than the content. I caught his name and turned to catch a night shot of the crime scene blocked off by yellow tape. By the time the news crew had arrived, his body had been loaded into the ambulance in preparation for transport to the coroner’s office, so there was really nothing to see. In the harsh glare of artificial light, a somber female reporter recited the bare facts. Pete’s immediate family must have been notified by then or she wouldn’t have mentioned him by name. Pete’s death was a surprise, but I can’t say it was a shock. He’d often complained of sleeping poorly and had taken to wandering the streets at all hours. According to the reporter, his wallet had been stolen along with his watch, a knock-off Rolex with a faux-platinum band. I guess robbers these days can’t distinguish the genuine article from the fake, which meant that Pete’s death wound up being more about impulse or cheap thrills than profit. He was a man with a propensity for risk, and it was only a matter of time before Lady Luck caught up with him and pushed him off the cliff.
The story about the second dead man is more complex and takes longer to articulate, especially since the facts emerged slowly over a matter of weeks. The coroner’s office called me on a Friday afternoon, asking if I could ID a John Doe who had my name and phone number on a slip of paper in his pocket. How could I resist? Every good mystery takes place on three planes—what really happened; what appears to have happened; and how the sleuth, amateur or professional (yours truly in this case), figures out which is which. I suppose I could put everything in perspective if I explained how it all turned out and then doubled back to that phone call, but it’s better if you experience it just as I did, one strange step at a time.
This was October 7, 1988, and it looked like things were as bad as they were going to get. On the national front, congressional spending was a whopping $1,064.14 billion and the federal debt was topping out at $2,601.3 billion. Unemployment hovered at 5.5 percent and the price of a first-class postage stamp had jumped from twenty-two cents to twenty-five. I tend to disregard issues over which I have no control. Like it or not, the politicians don’t consult me about economic policies, budget cuts, or the gross national product, whatever that is. I might voice an opinion (if I had one), but as nearly as I can tell, nobody pays the slightest attention, so what’s the point? My only hope is to be the master of my own small universe, which is centered in a Southern California town ninety-six miles north of Los Angeles.
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, female, age thirty-eight. I rent office space in a two-room bungalow with a kitchenette and a bathroom on a narrow side street in the heart of Santa Teresa, population 85,810, minus the two dead guys. Since I’m the sole proprietor and lone employee, I operate on a modest scale, supporting myself by doing missing-persons searches, background checks, witness location, and the occasional service of process. From time to time I’m hired to establish paper trails in legal, financial, or property disputes. On a more personal note, let me say that I believe in law and order, loyalty, and patriotism—old-fashioned values that might seem woefully out of date. I also believe in earning an honest living so I can pay my taxes, cover my monthly bills, and tuck any surplus into my retirement account.
When I reached the coroner’s office, I was ushered into a bay with the curtain discreetly pulled around the ceiling track. Though curious, I wasn’t apprehensive. I’d done a quick survey and could account for the people I knew and loved. There were those who orbited my world in a wider gyre, but I couldn’t think of one whose death would have had a significant impact.
The dead man was stretched out on a gurney with a sheet pulled up to his chin, so there was nothing of an intimate nature in evidence. He was not someone I recognized. His skin tones were gray, underlined with a pale gold that suggested liver issues of a profound and possibly fatal nature. His features had been softened and flattened in death, angles worn as smooth as stone over which water has poured for thousands of years. The human spirit does more than animate the face; it lends character and definition. Here, there was none.
The decedent (to use the official term) appeared to be in his early seventies, white, and overweight in the manner of those who forgo their nine servings of fresh fruits and vegetables per day. Judging by the bulbous nose and broken veins across his weather-darkened face, he’d enjoyed alcohol in sufficient quantities to pickle the average adult. Sometimes the dead seem to sleep. This man did not. I studied him at length, and there was not even the faintest suggestion that he was breathing. Whatever spell had been cast over him, the effects were permanent.
His body had been discovered that morning in a sleeping bag on the beach where he’d hollowed out a place for himself in the sand. His campsite was just below a bank of ice plant that flourished between the bike path and the beach itself, a spot not immediately visible to passersby. During the day, the area is popular with the homeless. At night, the fortunate among them secure bed space at one of the local shelters. The unlucky ones are left to flop where they can.
The beachside park closes thirty minutes after sunset and doesn’t open again until 6:00 A.M. According to Municipal Code 15.16.085, it’s unlawful to sleep in any public park, public street, public parking lot, or any public beach, which doesn’t leave much in the way of open-air habitats available free of charge. The ordinance is designed to discourage transients from sacking out on the doorsteps of area businesses, thus forcing them to set up makeshift quarters under bridges, freeway overpasses, bushes, and other places of concealment. Sometimes the police roust them out and sometimes they look the other way. Much of this depends on whether the local citizens are feeling righteous about the poor or indifferent, as is usually the case.
Preliminary examination suggested the man had been dead for close to eighteen hours by the time the coroner’s investigator got in touch with me. Aaron Blumberg had been hired by the Santa Teresa County Coroner’s Office in the mid-’70s, just about the time I left the Santa Teresa Police Department and went to work for Ben Byrd and Morley Shine. The year I opened my office, Aaron was recruited by the Kern County Sheriff’s Department, from which he’d recently retired. Like many law-enforcement junkies, he was ill suited for a life of leisure, and he’d returned to the local coroner’s office some six months before.
He was a man in his sixties with a softly receding hairline. The top of his head was covered with gray fluff, like the first feathering out of a baby bird. His ears were prominent, his cheekbones pronounced, and his smile created long creases that bracketed his mouth like a marionette’s. We stood in silence for a moment and then he checked my reaction. “You know him?”
“I don’t. I take it he was homeless.”
Aaron shrugged. “That’s my guess. A group of them have been congregating in that grassy patch across the street from the Santa Teresa Inn. Before that, they camped in the park adjacent to the municipal swimming pool.”
“Who called it in?”
He took off his glasses and polished one lens with the end of his tie. “Fellow named Cross. Seven o’clock this morning, he was out on the beach with a metal detector sweeping for coins. He had his eye on the sleeping bag, thinking it had been dumped. Something about it bothered him, so he went out to the street and flagged down the first black-and-white that came by.”
“Was anyone else around?”
“The usual posse of bums, but by the time the paramedics arrived, they’d all drifted away.” He checked his lenses for smears and then resettled the glasses on his nose, tucking a wire stem carefully behind each ear.
“Any signs of foul play?”
“Nothing obvious. Dr. Palchek’s on her way out. She has two autopsies on the books, which puts this guy at the end of the line, pending her assessment. Since Medicare went into effect, she doesn’t do a post on every body brought in.”
“What do you think he died of? He looks jaundiced.”
“Not to be flip about it, but what do any of these guys die of? It’s a hard life. We have one just like this every couple of months. Guy goes to sleep and he never wakes up. Could be hepatitis C, anemia, heart attack, alcohol poisoning. If we can ID the guy, I’ll canvas the local clinics in hopes he’s seen a doc sometime in the last twenty days.”
“No ID at all?”
Aaron shook his head. “Note with your name and phone number and that was it. I inked his fingers and faxed the ten-print card to the DOJ in Sacramento. Weekend’s coming up and those requests are going to sit there until somebody gets around to ’em. Might be the middle of next week.”
“I’ll check his description against missing-persons reports and see if there’s a match. With the homeless, their families sometimes don’t care enough to fill out the paperwork. Of course, it works the other way as well. Street people don’t always want to be located by their so-called loved ones.”
“Anything else? Moles, tattoos?”
He lifted the sheet to expose the man’s left leg, which was shorter than his right. The knee cap was misshapen, raised in a thick knot like a burl. The flesh along the fibula was laced with red ropes of scar tissue. At some point in the past, he’d suffered a devastating injury.
“What happens if you never find out who he is?”
“We’ll hold him for a time and then we’ll bury him.”
“What about his effects?”
“Clothes on his back, sleeping bag, and that’s it. If he had anything else, it’s gone now.”
“That’s possible. In my experience, the beach bums are protective of one another, which is not to say they might not confiscate the stuff he had no further use for.”
“What about the note he carried? Can I see it?”
He reached for the clipboard at the bottom of the gurney and freed the clear plastic evidence bag in which the slip had been placed. There was a picket fence of torn paper along the top, the leaf apparently ripped from a spiral-bound pad. The note was written in ballpoint pen, the letters uniform and clean: MILLHONE INVESTIGATIONS with the address and phone. It was the sort of printing I’d emulated in the fourth grade, inspired by a teacher who used a mechanical pencil and the same neat hand.
“That’s my office,” I remarked. “He must have looked me up in the yellow pages. My home number’s unlisted. Wonder what a homeless guy wanted with a PI?”
“I guess they’ve got problems just like everyone else.”
“Maybe he thought I’d come cheap since I’m a girl.”
“How would he know that? Millhone Investigations is gender neutral.”
“Good point,” I said.
“At any rate, I’m sorry for the wasted trip, but I thought it was worth a shot.”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Do you mind if I ask around? Somebody must know who he was. If the guy needed help, he might have confided in his cronies.”
“Do anything you want as long as you keep us in the loop. Maybe you’ll find out who he is before we do.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice?”
• • •
I sat for a moment in the parking lot, jotting notes on a succession of index cards that I keep in my bag. There was a time when I trusted more to memory. I was raised by a maiden aunt who believed in rote learning: multiplication tables, state capitals, the kings and queens of England and their reigns, religions of the world, and the periodic table of elements, which she taught me by the judicious arrangement of cookies decorated with blue, pink, yellow, and green frosting, numbers piped onto each in a contrasting color. Oddly enough, I’d forgotten that particular exercise in child abuse until the previous April, when I walked into a bakery and saw a display of Easter cookies. In a flash, like a series of photographs, I saw hydrogen, atomic number 1; helium, atomic number 2; lithium, atomic number 3, working my way as far as neon, atomic number 10, before my mind went blank. I am still able to recite long portions of Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” at the slightest provocation. In my experience, this is not a useful skill.
When I was young, such pointless mental gymnastics were the perfect training for a game played at various birthday parties I attended. We were briefly shown a tray of objects, and a prize was given to the little girl who remembered the most. I was a whiz at this. In fourth grade, I won a pocket comb, a ChapStick, a small bag of marbles, a box of crayons, a nicely wrapped bar of motel soap, and a pair of plastic barrettes . . . really not worth the effort in my opinion. Eventually, mothers became annoyed and hinted broadly that I should share the bounty or cede the floor. Having a keen sense of justice even at that age, I refused, which pared down the number of invitations to zero. I’ve learned in the years since that the simple expedient of written notes relieves the beleaguered child in me from burdening my brain. I’m still resistant to sharing bounty I’ve acquired by fair means.
Pulling out of the parking lot, I thought about the oddities of life, that something as insignificant as a slip of paper could have a ripple effect. For reasons unknown, the dead man had made a note of my name and phone number, and because of that, my path had touched his. While it was too late for conversation, I wasn’t quite prepared to shrug and move on. Maybe he’d meant to make the call the day he died and his mortality caught up with him before he could act. Maybe he’d thought about calling and changed his mind. I wasn’t looking for answers, but it couldn’t hurt to inquire. I didn’t anticipate long-term consequences. I pictured myself asking a few questions, making little or no progress, and then letting the matter drop. Sometimes the import of a minor moment makes all the difference.
On my way back into town, I stopped at the car wash. For years I owned VW Bugs, which were cheap to run and possessed a certain quirky charm. A full tank of gas would get you almost anywhere in the state, and if you suffered a fender bender, you could replace a bumper for pennies on the dollar. This more than made up for the minimal horsepower and the smirks from other drivers. I’m a jeans-and-boots kind of gal myself, so the lack of glamour suited me just fine.
My first VW, a beige 1968 sedan, ended up in a ditch after a fellow in a truck ran me off the road. This was out by the Salton Sea, where I was conducting a missing-persons search. The guy was intent on killing me but managed to inflict only modest damage to my person while the car was a total loss. My second VW sedan was a 1974, pale blue, with only one minor ding in the left rear fender. That car went to an early grave, shoved into a big hole after a slow-speed chase on an isolated stretch of road up in San Luis Obispo County. I’ve heard that most traffic fatalities occur within a two-mile radius of home, but my experience would suggest otherwise. I don’t mean to imply that the life of a private eye is all that dangerous. The big threat is my being bored half to death doing title searches at the county courthouse.
My current vehicle is a 1970 Ford Mustang, a two-door coupe with manual transmission, a front spoiler, and wide track tires. This car had served me well, but the color was an eye-popping Grabber Blue, much too conspicuous for someone in my line of work. Occasionally I’m hired to run surveillance on an unsuspecting spouse, and the persistent sight of a Boss 429 in close range will blow a tail every time. I’d owned the Mustang for a year, and while I was no longer smitten with it, I was reconciled to Mustang ownership until the next kick-ass miscreant had a go at me. I figured I was just about due.
In the meantime, I tried to be conscientious about maintenance, with frequent servicing at the local repair shop and a weekly hosing down. At the car wash for $9.99, the “deluxe package” includes a thorough interior vacuuming, a foam wash, a rinse, a hot wax, and a blow dry with 60-horsepower fans. Ticket in hand, I watched the attendant ease the Mustang into a line of cars awaiting the conveyor track, which would ferry it from view. I went inside the station and paid the cashier, declining the offer of a vanilla-scented doohickey to hang on my rearview mirror. I moved over to the waiting area’s long spectator window and peered to my right, watching as the attendant steered the Mustang forward until it was caught on the flat mechanical tramway. A white hatchback of unknown manufacture followed right behind.
Four panels of trailing cloth bands wagged soap and water back and forth across the top surfaces of the car while whirling cloth skirts pirouetted along the sides. A separate cylinder of soft brushes caught the front grille, merrily scrubbing and polishing. There was something hypnotic about the methodical lather and rinse processes that enveloped the Mustang in a blanket of sudsy water, soap, and wax. That I considered the process enthralling is a fair gauge of how easily entertained I was at the time.
I was so engrossed that I scarcely noticed the guy standing at the window next to me until he spoke.
“That your Mustang?”
“Yep,” I said and looked over at him. I placed him in his early forties, dark hair, good jawline, slender frame. Not so good-looking as to annoy or intimidate. He wore boots, faded jeans, and a blue denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His smile revealed a row of white teeth with one crooked bicuspid.
“Are you a fan?” I asked.
“Oh, god yes. My older brother had a 429 when he was in high school. Man, you floored that thing and it tore the blacktop off the road. Is that a 1969?”
“Close, a 1970. The intake ports are the size of sewer pipes.”
“They’d have to be. What’s the airflow rate?”
“Eight,” I said, like I knew what I was talking about. I walked the length of the station’s window, keeping pace with my car as it inched down the line. “Is that your hatchback?”
“I’m afraid so,” he said. “I liked the car when I bought it, but it’s one thing after another. I’ve taken it back to the dealer three times and they claim there’s nothing they can do.”
Both cars disappeared from view, and as we moved toward the exit, he stepped ahead of me and pushed open the glass door, holding it for me as I passed in front of him. One car jockey slid into the front seat of the Mustang while another took the wheel of his car, which I could see now was a Nissan. Both cars were driven out onto the tarmac, where two sets of workers swarmed forward with terry-cloth towels, wiping away stray traces of water and squirting shiner on the sides of the tires. A minute later, one of the workers raised a towel, looking over at us.
As I headed for my car, the Nissan owner said, “You ever decide to sell, post a notice on the board in there.”
I turned and walked backward for a few steps. “I’ve actually been thinking about dumping it.”
He laughed, glancing over as a second worker nodded to indicate that his car was ready.
I said, “I’m serious. It’s the wrong car for me.”
“I bought it on a whim and I’ve regretted it ever since. I have all the service records and the tires are brand new. And no, it’s not stolen. I own it outright.”
“I paid five grand and I’d be willing to let it go for that.”
By then he’d caught up with me and we’d stopped to finish the conversation. “You mean it?”
“Let’s just say I’m open to the idea.” I reached into one of the outer flaps of my shoulder bag and took out a business card. I scribbled my home phone number on the back and offered it to him.
He glanced at the information. “Well, okay. This is good. I don’t have the money now, but I might one day soon.”
“I’d have to line up a replacement. I need wheels or I’m out of business.”
“Why don’t you think about it and I will, too. A friend of mine owes me money and he swears he’ll pay.”
“You have a name?”
“Drew Unser. Actually, it’s Andrew, but Drew’s easier.”
“I know.” He held the card up. “It says so right here.”
“Have a good one,” I said. I continued to my car and then waved as I got in. The last I saw of him, he was heading left out of the lot while I took a right.
I returned to the office and spent a satisfying half hour at my Smith-Corona typing a report. The job I’d just wrapped up was a work-related disability claim through California Fidelity Insurance, where I’d been accorded office space for many years. Since CFI and I had parted on bad terms, I appreciated the opportunity to ingratiate myself, a reversal made possible because the executive who fired me had himself been fired. This was a gloat-worthy turn of events and the news had lifted my spirits for days. The recent job had been gratifying for more reasons than the hefty paycheck. The responsibility of an employer for the health and safety of employees is governed by state law, and the follow-up to a workplace accident usually falls to the insurance company. Not all private insurance companies write worker-comp policies, which requires a property and casualty license. In this case, the injured man was married to a CFI executive, which was why I was brought in. Being skeptical by nature, I suspected the fellow was malingering, coached by a spouse well acquainted with the means and methods for milking the situation. As it turned out, I was able to document the man’s incapacitation, and his employer made sure he was afforded the benefits he was entitled to. Cynicism aside, it makes me happy when two parties, whose relationship could turn adversarial, resolve their differences to the satisfaction of both.
When I finished typing the report, I made two copies on my newly acquired secondhand copy machine, kept one for my files, and put the original and one copy in an envelope that I addressed to CFI, which I dropped into the nearest mailbox as I headed for home. I was caught up on work, and for the moment I had no new clients clamoring for my services, so I’d awarded myself some time off. I wasn’t thinking in terms of a bona fide vacation. I’m too tight with a buck to spend money on a trip and there wasn’t any place else I longed to be in any event. As a rule, if I don’t work, I don’t eat, but my checking account was full, I had three months’ worth of expenses covered, and I was looking forward to a stretch of time in which to do as I pleased.
Once I’d reached Cabana, I followed the wide boulevard that ran parallel to the Pacific Ocean. We’d had fog and drizzle the day before and the skies were sufficiently overcast to generate a fine mist. As it happened, rainfall total for the month would later register a touch over 0.00 inches, but for all I knew, the sprinkle heralded an epic tropical storm that would soak us properly. The lingering damp suggested a change of seasons, Santa Teresa’s version of summer giving way to fall.
A mile farther on, at the intersection of Milagro and Cabana, I turned into one of the public lots and nosed into a parking spot that faced the Santa Teresa Inn. I figured as long as I was out and about, I’d try to make contact with those who might be acquainted with the man in the morgue. This was a neighborhood I knew well, the halfway point in my usual three-mile morning jog. It was now late afternoon and the beach path was populated by a cross-flow of walkers and cyclists, tourists peddling foot-powered surreys, and kids maneuvering their skateboards as though surfing the pipeline.
The homeless I saw in the early morning hours were often still huddled under a deadweight of blankets, sheltered by shopping carts piled high with their belongings. Even for nomads, the urge toward ownership is apparently irresistible. Regardless of social status, we derive comfort from our stuff; the familiar warp and weft of our lives. My pillow, my blanket, my small plot of earth. It’s not that the homeless are any less invested in their possessions. The dimensions of what they own are simply more compact and more easily carted from place to place.
The sun was making its slow descent and the air was getting chillier by the minute. I set my sights on a trio lounging on sleeping bags under a cluster of palms. As I watched, they passed a cigarette from hand to hand and took turns sipping from a soda can that had probably been emptied and refilled with a high-test substitute. In addition to the censure against snoozing in public, consumption of alcohol is also prohibited by municipal code. Clearly, the homeless can’t do much of anything without risking arrest.
It didn’t take much sleuthing to locate the spot where the John Doe had been found. Just beyond a shelf of ice plant, someone had constructed a tower of carefully balanced rocks, six by my count, each stone settled on the one below it in an artful arrangement that appeared both stable and precarious. I knew the sculpture hadn’t been there the day before because I’d have spotted it. At the base, a motley collection of glass jars had been placed, each containing a bouquet of wildflowers or blooms confiscated from the yards of homeowners in the area. While jogging, the only way I have to keep my mind occupied is by a free-form internal commentary about external events.
I focused on the three transients, two of whom were regarding me without expression. They didn’t seem overtly threatening, but I’m an undersize female—five foot six, one hundred eighteen pounds—and while capable of defending myself, I’d been taught to keep my distance from any assemblage of idlers. There’s something edgy and unpredictable about those who loiter with no clear purpose, especially when alcohol is folded into the mix. I’m a person of order and regulation, discipline and routine. That’s what makes me feel safe. The anarchy of the disenfranchised is worrisome. In this case, my wariness was superseded by my quest for information.
I approached the threesome, taking a mental photograph of each in turn. A white kid somewhere in his twenties sat with his back against a palm. He sported dreadlocks. The sparse shadow of facial hair suggested he’d shaved maybe once in the past two weeks. I could see a sharp angle of bare chest visible in the V of his short-sleeve shirt. The sight of his bare arms made me cross my own for warmth. His shorts seemed light for the season. The only items of substance he wore were heavy-duty wool socks and a pair of hiking boots. His legs were cute, but that was about it.
The second fellow was African American, with a full head of springy gray hair, frosted with white. His beard and mustache were carefully trimmed, and he wore glasses with metal rims. He was probably in his seventies, decked out in a pale blue dress shirt under a herringbone sport coat with frayed cuffs. The third fellow sat cross-legged in the grass with his back to me, as round-shouldered and squat as a statue of Buddha. He wore an imitation leather jacket with a rip under one arm and a black knit watch cap pulled down to his brows.
I said, “Hi, guys. I don’t mean to intrude, but did any of you know the dead man who was found out there this morning in his sleeping bag?”
As I gestured toward the beach, it occurred to me that the detail about the sleeping bag was superfluous. How many dead men in any guise had been discovered at the beach in the past twenty-four hours?
The fellow with his back to me rotated to get a good look at me and I realized my mistake. It was a woman, who said, “What business is it of yours?”
“Sorry. I should have introduced myself. Kinsey Millhone. What’s your name?”
She turned away, murmuring a four-letter word, which was audible, owing to my keen appreciation of bad language. I’m occasionally rebuked for my salty tongue, but who gives a shit?
The white kid spoke up in an effort to present a friendlier point of view. Without quite meeting my gaze, he said, “That’s Pearl. This here’s Dandy and I’m Felix.”
“Nice meeting you,” I said.
In a gesture that I hoped would convey both goodwill and trust, I held out my hand. There was an awkward moment and then Felix got the message. He shook hands with me, smiling sheepishly, his gaze fixed on the grass. I could see grungy metal braces on his teeth. Was the welfare system in the business of correcting malocclusions these days? That was hard to believe. Maybe he’d been fitted as a teen and had run away from home before his dentist finished his work. His teeth did look straight, but I questioned the wisdom of sporting orthodontia for life.
Dandy, the older gentleman, spoke up, his tone mild. “Don’t mind Pearl. It’s almost supper time and she’s hypoglycemic. Brings out a side of her we’d just as soon not see. What’s your interest in our friend?”
“He had my name and phone number in his pocket. The coroner’s office asked me to ID the guy, but I’d never seen him before. Were you aware that he’d passed away?”
Pearl snorted. “We look like fools? Of course he’s dead. Why else would the coroner send a van? He was laying out there still as stone an hour and a half after sunup. Down here, come daybreak, you better be on the move or the cops will bust you for loitering.” Her lower teeth were dark and widely spaced as though every other one had been yanked out.
“Can you tell me his name?”
She measured me, sizing up my capacity to pay. “How much is it worth to you?”
Dandy said, “Come on now, Pearl. Why don’t you answer the lady? She asked all polite and look how you’re doing her.”
“Would you butt out? I can handle this myself if it’s all the same to you.”
“Fellow passed on. She wants to know who he is. No reason to be rude.”
“I asked why it’s any of her concern? She ain’t answer me, so why should I answer her?”
I said, “There’s nothing complicated going on. The coroner’s office wants to contact his next of kin so his family can decide what to do with his remains. I’d hate to see him buried in a pauper’s grave.”
“What difference does it make as long as it don’t cost us anything?”
Her hostility was getting on my nerves, but I didn’t think this was the time to introduce the notion of sensitivity training when she was already “sharing” her feelings. She went on. “What’s it to you? You a social worker? Is that it? You work for St. Terry’s or that clinic at the university?”
I was doing an admirable job of keeping my temper in check. Nothing sets me off quicker than belligerence, warranted or otherwise. “I’m a private investigator. Your friend must have found my name in the yellow pages. I wondered if he’d had a problem he needed help with.”
“We all need help,” Pearl said. She held out a hand to Dandy. “Gimme up.”
He stood and pulled her to her feet. I watched while she dusted imaginary blades of grass from the back of her pants.
“Nice making your acquaintance,” Dandy said.
The white kid took his cue from his companions and stubbed out the last half inch of the cigarette. He stood and took one last sip from the soda can before he crushed it underfoot. He might have left it in the grass, but since I was standing right there watching him, he tucked it in his backpack like a good Boy Scout. He gathered his sleeping bag, bundled it carelessly, and secured it to his backpack with a length of rope.
Clearly, our chummy conversation was coming to an end. I said, “Anybody know where he was from?”
“Can’t you even give me a hint?”
The white kid said, “Terrence.”
Pearl hissed, trying to shut him up.
Meanwhile, I was drawing a blank. “Which is where?”
Felix was staring off to one side. “You ast his first name.”
“Got it. Terrence. I appreciate the information. What about his last name?”
“Hey! Enough. We don’t have to tell you nothing,” Pearl said.
I was about to choke the woman to death with my bare hands when Dandy spoke up.
“You have a business card? I’m not saying we’ll get back to you, but just in case.”
I reached into my shoulder bag and took one out, which I handed to him. “I jog most weekday mornings, so you can always look for me on the bike path. I’m usually here by six fifteen.”
He examined the card. “What kind of name’s Kinsey?”
“My mother’s maiden name.”
He looked up. “You happen to have any spare smokes on you?”
“I don’t,” I said, patting my jacket as though to verify the fact. I was about to add that I didn’t have any spare change either, but it seemed insulting as he hadn’t inquired about my financial state. Pearl had lost interest. She grabbed her shopping cart and began hauling it toward the bike path, wheels digging into the soft grass.
When it was clear the three were moving on, I said, “I appreciate your help. If you think of anything useful, you can let me know.”
Dandy paused. “You know that minimart a block down?”
“You pick up a couple packs of cigarettes and it might put Miss Pearly White in a mood to chat.”
“She can bite my big fat ass,” Pearl said.
“Thanks a bunch. Really fun,” I sang as they ambled away.
I retraced my route, this time hanging a right onto Bay and then a left onto Albanil. I found a parking place two doors down from my studio and let myself in through the squeaking gate. I continued around to the backyard and skirted the flagstone patio. I unlocked my door and tossed my shoulder bag on a kitchen stool.
My studio was created when my eighty-eight-year-old landlord, Henry Pitts, built a spacious new two-car garage and converted his former one-car garage into a rental unit. At the time I was looking for a place near the beach. I’d been scouting the area on foot in hopes of spotting a For Rent sign when I came across the notice he’d posted in the neighborhood laundromat. We met, chatted briefly, and agreed to a three-month trial period during which we could decide if the arrangement suited us.
From the first, I thought he was adorable—tall and lean, with bright blue eyes, a healthy head of white hair, and a wicked smile. As it turned out, Henry and I were perfect for one another, not in any romantic sense, but as good friends living close to each other. Not infrequently I’m on the road for work purposes, and during the periods when I’m home I tend to keep to myself. Henry is similarly self-sufficient and as committed to independence as I am. I’m tidy and quiet. He’s tidy and gregarious, with a strong sense of decorum, which means he minds his own business unless I’m in need of a dressing-down, as is sometimes the case. He’s a retired commercial baker and he was happy to have someone on whom to lavish his freshly made cinnamon rolls and chocolate-chunk brownies. Soon we were making the trek to the neighborhood tavern for dinner a couple of nights a week. He would also issue an impromptu dinner invitation when he’d made a beef stew or a big pot of vegetable soup.
When I first moved in, I was thirty-two years old and he was eighty-two, an age gap I considered negligible. What’s fifty years’ difference between friends? I’ve been his tenant now for going on seven years and can’t imagine living anywhere else. The only blip on the radar screen was an unfortunate incident when a bomb exploded and blew the roof off my place. Henry assumed the role of general contractor during the reconstruction, redesigning and furnishing the whole of it as though he’d been doing it all his life. He fashioned the remodel after a ship’s interior, complete with a porthole in the front door.
Given the plunging late-afternoon temperatures, I was happy to be back in my cozy little place. The space is compact. Numerous built-in cabinets and cubbyholes provide more storage space than you’d think possible. Though a mere fifteen feet on a side, the downstairs comprises a living room, a makeshift corner office, a full bath, and a five-foot bump-out to accommodate a galley-style kitchen. A small spiral staircase leads up to a sleeping loft with a Plexiglas skylight above the bed and a bathroom with a window at tub level that looks out into the trees.
By way of modern conveniences, I have a stacking washer and dryer, a microwave oven, and a lightweight vacuum cleaner for my few square yards of cotton shag wall-to-wall carpet. I don’t often cook, unless you want to count heating a can of tomato soup as a culinary accomplishment. Those of us who don’t cook seldom have to worry about a sink full of dirty dishes, so a dishwasher would have been beside the point. After breakfast, I wash my cereal bowl and spoon, juice glass, and coffee mug, and leave them in the dish rack to air-dry until I need them again. Lunches I eat out, except for days when I take a sandwich, an apple, and cookies to munch while I’m sitting at my desk. On the rare nights when I have dinner at home, I put together one of my favorite sandwiches and serve it on a folded paper towel that I can then toss in the trash. This, by the way, is yet another argument for being single. Whatever I choose to do, there’s no one to complain.
Henry was tied up that night, catering a small dinner party for Moza Lowenstein down the street. Rosie’s Tavern was closed for the week because Rosie and William had flown to Flint, Michigan, the day before to help care for Henry and William’s sister, Nell, who had undergone a second surgery on the hip she’d broken in the spring. She was just getting out of rehab, and Rosie and William had agreed to be on hand until the following Friday, offering assistance when she was discharged. William is Henry’s brother, older by one year. Their sister, Nell, at ninety-nine, is the oldest of the five Pitts “kids,” with Charlie and Lewis, ages ninety-one and ninety-six respectively, filling in the gap.
An addendum to the plan was that Rosie was having her building fumigated while they were out of town. In anticipation of the process, the restaurant kitchen and storage areas had been emptied, and Henry’s second and third bedrooms were now jammed with all manner of foodstuffs. I didn’t inquire too closely what had motivated the purge. Rosie’s devil-may-care Hungarian dishes often feature animal organs, finely minced and sauced with a slurry of alarming black specks and chewy bits. I didn’t want to think about mice, weevils, and cigarette beetles.
I knew Henry would report on the family drama at the first opportunity, which I anticipated in the next few days. In the meantime, I was on my own, a happy circumstance for someone of my sometimes prickly disposition. I changed into my sweats and put together a deluxe hot hard-boiled-egg sandwich and poured myself a glass of Chardonnay. After supper, I curled up on the sofa with a mystery novel until I put myself to bed.
• • •
The next day, Saturday, I cruised the beach area hoping to see my homeless pals. I didn’t intend to make this my life’s work. I thought the coroner’s office had a better chance than I did of picking up a proper ID on Terrence Last-Name-Unknown. However, since I’d scored the dead man’s first name the day before, my modest success was now spurring me on. Pearl’s antagonism was a motivating factor as well. If she’d known me better—or at all—she’d have realized that her surliness was more of a challenge than an insult.
I was still debating the purchase of the cigarettes Dandy had implied might open the floodgates where Terrence was concerned. I questioned the ethics of supplying the trio with tobacco products as a means to an end. Given current scientific research, I think it’s fair to point out that smoking’s not a healthy practice, and I was reluctant to foster the habit among those who could ill afford it. On the other hand, as Pearl had so tartly observed in our first conversation, what business was it of mine?
Having sacrificed my principles, I was left with the burning question (as it were) of which brand to buy. I had no way to evaluate the virtues of filtered cigarettes versus nonfiltered, or mentholated versus nonmentholated, so I was forced to throw myself on the mercy of the minimart clerk, who appeared to be fourteen years old—too young to buy cigarettes let alone to sell them to me.
I said, “I could use some help here. What’s the cheapest brand of cigarettes you have?”
He turned and picked up a pack of Carlton’s, which he placed in front of me.
“Is this what the homeless smoke?”
Without a change of expression he reached under the counter and pulled out a generic brand I’d never heard of.
“I need two more.” I’d already decided I’d better provide a pack for each so no feelings would be hurt.
He put two additional packs on top of the first.
“A buck nine.”
“That’s not bad,” I said. I don’t smoke myself, so I didn’t know what to expect.
“Each? Are you kidding me?”
He was not. I paid for the three packs and tossed them into my shoulder bag. Three dollars plus change seemed like a lot to pay, but maybe I could claim the deduction on my Schedule A when tax season rolled around.
There was no sign of the threesome as I drove along Cabana Boulevard on my way home.
• • •
Sunday, I made another trip to the beach, my Grabber Blue Mustang attracting the usual curious stares. If my homeless friends wanted to duck me, it wouldn’t be hard to do. I drove at a speed so slow it made other drivers honk. I passed the recreation center and followed the wide curve that skirted the lagoon that served as a bird refuge. I knew Pete Wolinsky had been shot to death somewhere along here, but it seemed ghoulish to park and search out the spot.
I rolled through the small parking lot along the water’s edge and drove back the way I’d come, scanning both sides of the road. This was clearly unproductive, so I shifted to Plan B. At Milagro, I turned right and drove to the homeless shelter. Harbor House was situated in the middle of the block. The lot is narrow, the building itself set back from the street. There were eight parking spaces in front, all of them in use. A metal accordion gate had been pulled across the front door and secured with a padlock. A hand-lettered sign pasted on a side window said NA SUPPORT GROUP MEETS MONDAY AT 2:00.
While Narcotics Anonymous might not meet on weekends, surely the shelter itself was open. I backed up six steps and peered in both directions. To the right of the building, a heavy-duty fence prevented passage. To the left, a double-wide drive ran between Harbor House and the service station next door. I followed the asphalt path. Tucked between the building and the drive, a stucco arch opened onto a courtyard where a small group of men and women had gathered to smoke. Landscaping was an afterthought: two palms, a few shrubs, and random patches of grass. Sand-filled coffee cans did double duty as receptacles for cigarette butts and freshly hawked-up goobers. Though I felt out of place, what worked to my advantage was that in turtleneck, jeans, and scuffed boots I looked like everyone else.
A metal folding chair was planted in the archway, but no one manned the entrance and no one took notice as I crossed the patio to a door that stood open to the air. I went in, wondering if I’d be asked about my reasons for being on the premises. Being rule governed, I operate in a world filled with imaginary restraints. I’m happiest when signs are posted—NO SPITTING, NO PUBLIC URINATION, NO WALKING ON THE GRASS. I might not obey but at least I knew where I stood.
For the record, I should say this: I don’t romanticize the plight of the homeless or project sentiment where none is required. My take on the indigent is that some are there because of temporary setbacks, some by default, and some for lack of an alternative. Some are needy, some are off their meds, some have opted out, some have been ousted from facilities where they might be better served. Many are there for life and not always by personal choice. Alcoholic, addicted, aimless, illiterate, unmotivated, unskilled, or otherwise unable to prosper, they sink to the bottom, and if they’re down for any length of time, they lose the capacity to climb back out of the hole into which they’ve fallen. If there’s a remedy, I don’t know what it is. From what I’ve seen of the problem, most solutions perpetuate the status quo.
The room I entered was large, furnished with an assortment of couches and chairs, many occupied. The foot traffic in and out was constant. A handsome gentleman in his midsixties was perched on a rolling chair behind the counter to my right. There was a woman ahead of me in this two-person line and I waited my turn. She removed a laminated card from her jeans pocket. By shifting slightly, I saw that it bore her name, an ID number, and a photo likeness.
She pushed the card across the counter. “Hi, Ken. Could you check to see if I have mail?”
She leaned on the counter and peered over the edge. On the desktop below there was a ceramic mug full of toothbrushes, still sealed in cellophane packaging. “Can I have one of those?”
By way of reply, he held up the mug and watched as she selected a red toothbrush and put it in her fanny pack. He said, “I heard you were sick. Feeling better?”
She made a face. “I was in the hospital two days. I passed a kidney stone—little bitty thing about the size of a grain of sand—and I’m puking my guts out and shrieking like a banshee. The ER doc thinks I’m faking to score a few Vicodin and that pissed me off. I raised a stink until the other doc signed an order to have me admitted. I finally got a shot of Demerol, no thanks to the asshole who turned me down.”
“But you’re okay now?”
“I’d feel better if my check came in. I got two bucks left to my name.”
He took her ID card and turned away, using his feet to scoot himself from the counter to a metal file cabinet behind him. He put the ID on top and began a finger stroll through the files. After a moment he said, “Nope. Not today.”
“Can you go through the bin? Might be a big manila envelope with some other paperwork. They said it went out Tuesday, so it should be here.”
He leaned down to a large white plastic United States Postal Service bin, where oversize and bulky packages were lined up. He took his time, looking at the name on each piece.
“Sorry.” He rolled himself back to the counter and returned her ID. “Did you talk to Lucy? She was looking for you.”
“I saw her Thursday, but not since. What’d she want?”
“No idea. You might take a look at the board and see if she left you a note.”
She stepped away from the counter and disappeared around the corner at the far end where the bulletin board was apparently mounted on the wall.
Ken turned his attention to me. “What can I do for you?”
I toyed with the notion of a ruse, but I couldn’t see the point. “I’m looking for information about a fellow named Terrence. I don’t have his last name, but I’m hoping you’ll know who I mean. He died a couple of days ago.”
“We can’t give out information about our clients. The social worker might help, but she’s not here today.”
“What about Dandy or Pearl?”
His expression remained neutral, as though even acknowledging the existence of a client would violate protocol. “Can’t help. You’re welcome to come in and take a look.”
Surprised, I said, “Really? You don’t mind if I walk around?”
“This isn’t a private club. Anyone can join,” he said.
I circled the common room, which was spacious enough to accommodate the twenty-five people present without any suggestion of crowding. There was a big television set in one corner, but the screen was dark. There was a lone bookcase in evidence, the shelves lined side to side with an ancient-looking set of encyclopedias. One fellow had commandeered a couch for napping purposes, and he was curled up with a jacket over him. There were a few ongoing conversations, but in the main people weren’t doing much. An exception was the two women who sat at either end of a Naugahyde couch with knitting projects. One unraveled row after row of a pink sweater, which shrank in her hands, reduced to a lap full of kinked yarn. The other woman struggled with size-19 needles and a ball of thick green wool. The article she was knitting was impossible to identify, something with bumps and irregular edges and holes where stitches had gotten away from her. I don’t knit often these days, but I’m acquainted with the perils. The same aunt who browbeat me into memorizing the rivers of the world by length (the Nile, the Amazon, the Yangtze, the Mississippi-Missouri, the Yenisey, the Yellow, on and on) also taught me to knit and crochet—not for the pleasure of it, but with the intent to promote patience. This for me at age six when no child is content to sit for more than a minute at a time.
More to the point here: no Pearl, no Dandy, no Felix, and I’d gone as far as I could go. The dead man was dead. If he’d needed my help, it was already too late to be of service. First thing in the morning I’d call Aaron Blumberg and pass along what I’d learned. Armed with a first name and a description of the deceased, he might track down a doctor who could fill in the blanks. “A bum named Terrence with a bad limp” was hardly definitive, but it was a step in the right direction. Meanwhile, my participation was at an end.
Monday, I tried three times with no luck to reach Aaron Blumberg at the coroner’s office. I left messages, asking him to call me when he had a minute. I could have taken the opportunity to detail the scanty facts I’d picked up, but I was hoping for a pat on the head for my resourcefulness. I spent most of the day puttering around the office, feeling distracted and oddly out of sorts. I left early, arriving home at 4:15 instead of the usual 5:00 P.M. I passed Rosie’s twice in my search for a parking place and noted the building was now draped in enormous rectangular tarpaulins that were clipped together along the edges. The red, white, and turquoise stripes gave the place the look of a circus big top. I parked the car around the corner on Bay in the only semi-legal spot I could find.
When I reached the backyard, Henry was hard at work in shorts, a T-shirt, and bare feet, his flip-flops tossed aside on the flagstone walk. His face was smudged with dirt, his white hair dampened by sweat, and his shins flecked with mud. His nose and cheeks were rosy from the autumn sunshine. He’d apparently spent the past couple of hours aerating the lawn in preparation for overseeding the grass. Some sections he’d attacked with a rototiller, then leveled the ground with a weighted roller he’d rented for the occasion. A scoop of fine lawn mulch had been piled to one side with a shovel resting against the wall.
He’d recently acquired a cypress potting bench that was now attached to the garage. The unit boasted a zinc top and two drawers where he kept his gardening gloves and the smaller of his gardening tools. On the shelf below he’d placed his galvanized watering cans and a big bag of sphagnum moss. The adjacent wall was designated for the larger tools—his wood-handled garden forks, trowels, cultivators, and graduating sizes of pruning shears. Painted outlines assured that each piece would be returned to its proper place.
Along with his other fall projects, he was transplanting three dozen marigolds from the original plastic commercial nursery containers to terra-cotta pots. He’d already lined my modest porchlet with half a dozen of these rust-and-gold arrangements, which I thought quite festive.
“You’ve been busy,” I remarked.
“Getting the jump on winter. Another couple of weeks we’ll lose daylight savings time and it’ll be close to dark by this hour. How about you? What are you up to?”
“Nothing much. I was asked to ID a guy at the morgue, but I’d never seen him before.”
“He had my name and number on a slip of paper in his pocket. Blumberg, the coroner’s investigator, assumed we were acquainted.”
“What was that about?”
“Who knows? He was a homeless fellow, found dead in his sleeping bag on the beach. This was Friday morning. I’ve been trying to get a line on him but haven’t picked up much. Business is down so at least it gives me something to do. You need help?”
“I’m just about done with this phase, but I’d love the company. I haven’t seen you since, what, Thursday?”
“Yep. After Rosie and William left,” I said. I set my shoulder bag on the porch and I settled on the step where he’d laid his three-ring binder for ready reference. While Henry returned two pieces of lawn equipment to the garage, I spread the binder open on my lap and studied the list of items he’d checked off. He’d emptied, scoured, and refilled the bird feeders; harvested the last of the summer herbs for drying; pulled faded annuals from flower beds; and transplanted his perennials. He’d also scrubbed and hosed off the outdoor furniture, which was currently air-drying before he stacked it in the storage shed until spring.
When he reappeared, he detached a sprinkler head from the hose and began to round up the length of it in a neat coil.
“What’s next?” he asked.
I put a tick mark by the job he’d just completed. “Once you finish the lawn, all you have left is to air the wool blankets and comforters before you remake the beds. How’s Nell?”
“She’s doing well, but William’s turned into a royal pain in the butt, and I mean, literally. She’d been home from rehab less than an hour before he started complaining his sciatica was acting up.”
“He has a problem with sciatica? Since when?”
Henry waved off the idea. “You know him—highly suggestible and just a tiny bit competitive. I talked to him Friday and heard the whole tale, symptom by symptom. He said it was fortunate he’d taken his cane along though it was barely adequate given the extent of his disability. He’s had to borrow Nell’s walker so he can hobble from place to place. He thought Rosie should rush him to the nearest emergency room, but she was busy fixing dinner, so she made Charlie take him instead. The good news—or the bad, depending on your point of view—is the doctor suggested an MRI and William’s decided to have it done here. He says he’s in dire need of a nerve specialist and asked me to set up an appointment.”
I said, “Wow. He’s not due back until the end of the week. I’m surprised he’d put up with the delay.”
“Well, here’s how it went. I started calling around, assuming it would be weeks before a slot opened up, but Dr. Metzger had a cancellation for tomorrow morning at nine. William’s booked the first flight home.”
“What about Rosie?”
“She’ll stay until the end of the week as planned. I’m sure she’s happy to have him off her hands, and I gather the other sibs are equally relieved. They plan to teach Rosie to play bridge, which William never got the hang of anyway. He gets in at five, which means once I pick him up at the airport, I’ll be at his beck and call. He claims he can barely bend over to tie his shoes.”
“Five o’clock? Great. As in thirty minutes from now?”
He straightened up. “What time is it? It can’t be that late.”
“Four thirty-five by my watch.”
Henry said a word that was so out of character, I had to laugh.
“I can pick him up,” I said, getting to my feet. “It’ll give you a chance to finish your chores and take a quick shower.”
“I hate to ask you to do that in the thick of rush-hour traffic. I’ll go as I am. I don’t smell that bad.” He gave his T-shirt a whiff and made a show of crossing his eyes while he held his nose.
“The airport’s a twenty-minute drive. It’s no big deal. You can pour me a glass of Chardonnay as soon as I get home.”
“I’ll do better than that. I’ll buy you both supper at Emile’s-at-the Beach, assuming William can sit that long.”
“You got a deal.”
• • •
Construction of the Santa Teresa Municipal Airport was begun in the early 1940s and the terminal opened for business with six gates that served two national airlines and three puddle jumpers. The pint-size structure was done in the usual Spanish style—a stucco exterior, a red tile roof, and a blaze of magenta bougainvillea artfully draped across the entranceway. Boarding and deplaning were accomplished on foot by way of a rolling set of stairs. Baggage claim was located outside the building in what looked like an extensive temporary carport.
I pulled into the parking lot at 4:59 P.M. just as a United flight was trundling along the runway toward Gate 4. It was a small commuter craft, one of the no-frills short hops where the best one could hope for in the way of food-and-beverage service is a box containing two small pieces of Chiclets chewing gum. The flight attendant would offer the gum in a wicker basket and you were welcome to help yourself as long as you took only one. I was in no particular rush, thinking William would be last off the plane, hampered by his painful, possibly life-threatening condition.
I passed through the ticketing area and out the French doors into the small grassy courtyard. I took my place near the chest-high stucco wall and watched through the length of window glass along the top as a uniformed gate agent pushed a wheelchair toward the prop jet. The engines shut down. Stairs were rolled into place. After a brief delay, the door was wrenched open, and William appeared, his cane hooked over his arm. The natural eddies of air along the runway ruffled his white hair and tugged at his suit coat. A stewardess followed in his wake, supporting him gently by the elbow as he came down the stairs. He didn’t actually smack her hand, but he was visibly offended by the gesture, and he jerked his arm free. He was properly attired for travel in the same dark three-piece suit he wore for funerals and visitations. He took his time, descending the portable stairs like a toddler, first one foot down and joined by the other before he undertook the next. The remaining passengers crowded against the doorway, trying to determine what the traffic jam was about. William was not to be hurried. He was an elegant gentleman, with the same lean frame Henry had been graced with. When he reached the tarmac, he turned and waited at the foot of the stairs, leaning on his cane while the other passengers pushed past him, giving him cross looks.
The pilot appeared next, carrying a bulky red canvas duffel bag with a mesh panel on each end. Behind the pilot, the copilot, or possibly the flight engineer, stepped out of the plane toting William’s black rolling suitcase. Somehow he’d not only claimed the right to deplane first, but he’d enlisted the assistance of the entire crew. They’d probably jumped at the chance to be shed of him. Whatever the motivation, William seemed to take the personal ministrations for granted.
As far as I could tell, he was fine—ambulatory at any rate. He had the pilot place the canvas duffel in the wheelchair, which he manned himself, pushing it toward the terminal. When he caught sight of me, he winced and placed a hand at the small of his back as though stricken with sharp pain. The copilot/flight engineer extended the handle on William’s suitcase and tagged after him dutifully, pulling it along behind. As William and his merry band approached the terminal, I moved out to meet them and took over responsibility for the suitcase, murmuring my thanks to the crew.
William paused and leaned his weight on the handles of the wheelchair. “Let me catch my breath,” he said. “It’s been a rough trip. Three stops and just as many changes of aircraft.”
I suspected he was hoping to generate a touch of sympathy, which I offered obligingly before he could up the ante. “You must be exhausted,” I said.
“Not to worry. I just need a moment.”
“Why don’t you take advantage of the wheelchair and let me push you? It’ll save you a few steps.”
“No, no. I like to do for myself . . . while I’m able,” he added. “You might bring the car around. I doubt I can make it as far as the parking lot. I’ll rest on one of the benches out front.”
“What about checked bags?”
“This is it.”
I decided I might as well take the duffel as long as I was heading for the car. I could put it in the trunk and then swing around and pick him up. I grabbed the satchel by the handle and lifted it from the seat of the wheelchair. It was heavier than I’d anticipated and the contents shifted as though he’d packed a bowling ball without securing it properly. I said, “Whoa! What have you got in here?”
I set it down and leaned over so I could peer through the mesh. A hissing white cat, topped with patches of caramel and black, put its ears back and spat. I jerked away, my heart hammering. This cat was the equivalent of the one in horror movies, jumping out when you’re expecting the guy with the bloody butcher knife. “Where did that come from?” I asked, patting my chest.
“I brought the cat,” he said complacently. “I couldn’t bear to leave it behind. Lewis was going to take it to the pound.”
“I’m not surprised. Talk about a cranky beast.”
“Not as cranky as it would have been if I hadn’t prevailed. I wanted to have the cat with me in the cabin, but the ticket agent refused. I knew there’d be room under the seat in front of me, but she said it was the cargo hold or nothing. Her supervisor was just as argumentative until I mentioned my attorney.”
“Why do you have a cat at all?”
“This is the stray Charlie took in months ago. Lewis has been opposed all along, which just goes to show what a heartless fellow he is.”
I said, “Ah. This is the cat Nell toppled over when she broke her hip.”
“Well, yes, but it wasn’t the cat’s fault. Even Nell admitted she should have watched where she was stepping.”
William scratched affectionately on the top of the canvas duffel, which caused the cat to rocket around the interior and then ricochet from end to end. “Very playful,” he remarked.
The cat began to claw at the side of the carrier so vigorously, the zipper inched down a hair. I’d have tugged it back into place but I didn’t dare put my hand anywhere near the carrier. I didn’t think the cat could reach me with its claws, but I wasn’t sure the cat knew that.
I returned the carrier to the wheelchair and pushed it as far as the entrance. In no way was I going to tote the cat through the parking lot to the car. I left William on a bench outside, the duffel at his feet, while I retrieved the Mustang, paid the parking fee, and brought it around to the front. William leaned over and said something to the cat, then jumped back as I had. He was apparently so caught up in the cat’s playful antics that he’d forgotten about his infirmity. I put his rolling bag in the trunk and wedged the cat carrier into the space behind the driver’s seat while William took his place in the front, wincing in pain.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Don’t mind me.”
I put the car in gear and eased away from the curb. I hadn’t driven ten feet before the cat let out a long continuous howl, its tone moving up and down the scale as though yodeling. “Does it always do that?”
“Oh no. Just in the car on the way to the airport and all three flights. Airline passengers can be very unpleasant when things don’t go their way. The woman in front of me had a horrid little girl who screamed and cried the whole time, but did anyone complain about that? No, sir.”
“Is it male or female?”
“I’m not sure. I think you’re supposed to peek at something underneath, but the cat doesn’t care for the idea. Charlie would know. He took it to the vet.”
“Does it have a name? Joe? Sally? That might be a clue.”
“We referred to the cat as ‘the cat.’ I’m sure Nell or Charlie would have come up with a name, but Lewis kept threatening to toss it out and neither of them wanted to get attached. If you think about it, I saved its life, a selfless act on my part.”
“Good for you,” I said. “I must say I’m surprised Rosie agreed to go along with the plan. Where are you going to keep it?”
William and Rosie occupied a two-bedroom apartment above the tavern. I’d never actually seen the place, but Henry assures me the rooms are small and dark and crowded with oversize furniture.
William said, “Oh, it’s not for me. I thought Henry would enjoy the companionship.”
“Does Henry know about this?”
“You think that’s a problem?”
“Far be it from me to say.”
We drove for a while in silence except for the cat, which was now growling and making relentless work of canvas scratching in between thumps and flinging itself from side to side. I was trying to visualize Henry’s reaction, which I knew would be genuine and heartfelt and probably high pitched. I’ve never lived with a cat myself, but I’d always assumed there was paraphernalia involved. I looked over at William, saying, “What about a litter box? Isn’t that where cats do their business?”
He blinked. “That’s not necessary, do you think? Nell let it out in the backyard.”
“But we live on a busy street. The cat will get hit by a car. Henry’s going to have enough adjustments to make without the cat doing caca on his couch.”
“You may have a point. We better stop at the market. You can go in while I mind the cat.”
I think it was occurring to William that his plan was ill advised because his back problem seemed to take a sudden turn for the worse. He emitted a short yelp and sucked air through his teeth.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to drop you at the house and come back?” The minute I suggested it I knew William would be too smart to introduce the cat without someone else close at hand. Henry would tone down his response if I was present.
“The pain comes and goes. Sometimes it’s no more than a mild tingling or dull ache. Sometimes a burning sensation. The urgent-care doctor said it could be due to a slipped disc or spinal stenosis. I’ll have to have tests.”
“You poor thing,” I said. To William, a “test” was the prelude to a terminal diagnosis.
I left the 101 at Capillo and took surface streets in a zigzag detour to the nearest market. I left the howling cat in the car while William limped to and fro in the parking lot, flicking pitiful looks in my direction.
I went into the store and wandered up and down the aisle devoted to pets, throwing items in my cart. The litter box was an easy choice, but there were five or six kinds of litter, and I had no idea what cats preferred in the way of toilet soil. I finally picked the one with the four cute kittens on the package. I threw in a bag of dry food with only the briefest of debates about chicken versus tuna flavors. Then I bought ten small cans of wet food, choosing items I thought I’d like if I were in the cat’s place, only not as hostile. I nearly stopped at the pay phone to call Henry, but he’d probably assume I was playing a practical joke.
Thus it was that I searched out a parking space for the second time that afternoon, this one three doors down from my studio. I put myself in charge of William’s rolling bag and I even went so far as to remove the cat carrier from the backseat, lugging it in one hand as I maneuvered the rolling suitcase with the other. William held open the gate and then trailed along behind me most reluctantly, I thought. I carried the duffel as far as Henry’s back door and set it down.
“You can do the honors,” I said. When I looked back at William, he was bent double, staring at the walk as though searching for a lost dime.
“Back’s out,” he said.
Henry opened the kitchen door. “Good heavens,” he said as he moved to William’s side. Between us, we helped him up the few shallow steps and into the kitchen. Moaning, William sank into Henry’s rocking chair. I went back for the suitcase and that’s when I saw the cat’s paw appear through a gap where it had worked the zipper down.
I’ve never been present in a delivery room in the tender moment when a child is born, but I picture it much like this. The slit was no more than an inch long when the cat began to push through the opening. After the first paw, its head emerged and shortly after that, one shoulder, followed by a second white paw with a very long front leg attached. Cats are amazingly agile, as was plain to see. I watched, hypnotized, as though witnessing a miracle. “Hey, William?” I said, but by then, the cat had wiggled free and streaked off toward the shrubs.
Henry snapped to attention. “What the hell was that?”
Weakly, William said, “Surprise!”
Tuesday morning I rolled out of bed at 6:00, brushed my teeth, and pulled on my sweats and running shoes. A baseball cap eliminated the need to deal with my hair, which was flat on one side and standing straight out on the other. When I left the house, the only hint that the cat was still in the vicinity was a pair of mouse feet and a long gray tail on my welcome mat. I tied my key into the laces of one shoe and set out at a slow clip, hoping to warm up before I began to jog in earnest.
Henry’s dinner invitation from the night before had been superseded by our efforts to persuade the cat to come out of the bushes. Since William was incapacitated, it fell to Henry and me to crawl around on the newly aerated lawn, coaxing the cat with kitty treats and threats, all to no avail. Once it got dark, we’d been forced to abandon the attempt and hope that the cat would at least remain where it was until morning.
The day promised to be warm. In typical California fashion, the damp and chill of the week before had been replaced by temperatures slated to reach the low eighties. A lingering marine layer hovered like thick white batting, but that would burn off by midday. As though in proof of this, a column of bright yellow sunshine illuminated the ocean just offshore, looking as though a monster hole had been punched in the clouds.
I completed the three-mile loop and slowed to a walk. I hadn’t seen my homeless pals and I wondered how many times the notion of their whereabouts would cross my mind. It was like having a tune lodged in my head, endless replays of a melody I couldn’t seem to block. The week before I’d known nothing of the dead man and nothing of his friends. Now I was troubled by their absence. In deciding to dismiss the matter, I’d succeeded only in tempering its effect. Terrence still hovered on the periphery while I waited for someone to step forward with a few concrete facts. I suppose I’d assumed that once I knew what his story was, I could forget about him entirely and his cronies along with him.
Home again, I showered, dressed, ate my cereal, and read the paper. When I left the studio, there was still no sign of Henry, William, or the cat. Either Henry had lured it inside or it had remained stubbornly out of reach. I left the mouse parts where they were in case the cat was looking forward to a snack later in the day. I hadn’t even known we had mice on the property and now the population was down by one.
Driving to the office, I spotted a pedestrian in a familiar herringbone sport coat poised to cross the street half a block ahead. He gave a quick look in each direction and then fixed his gaze on the sidewalk as he stepped up on the curb, heading in the same direction I was. I slowed and peered closely. Apparently, Fate wasn’t done with me because sure enough, it was Dandy in baggy black trousers and a pair of bright white running shoes. I pulled over to the curb and rolled down the car window on the passenger side. “Dandy? It’s Kinsey. You want a ride?”
He smiled when he caught sight of me. “That’d be nice. I was on my way to your office.”
“Hop in and I’ll deliver you to my door.”
I flipped the locks. Dandy opened the car door and slid into the passenger seat, bringing with him the cloudy smell of old cigarettes, which seemed to cling to his clothes. His pale pink dress shirt was freshly ironed and had the stiffness and sheen of spray starch. I had to guess he’d spiffed himself up in anticipation of the visit. I could smell soap and shampoo and the saturated scent of alcohol wafting through his skin. It was an odd combination; his efforts at personal hygiene undercut by his habitual intake of whiskey and nicotine. I experienced a piercing sense of protectiveness because he seemed so unaware of his effect.
He held up my business card. “I never met a private eye, so I thought I better see for myself.”
“The office isn’t much, but you can be the judge. I take it Pearl wasn’t panting to see me again.”
“She doesn’t like to walk. Me, I hoof it all over town. I apologize for her being rude the other day.”
“Is she always that hostile?”
“I wouldn’t fret if I were you. It’s nothing personal. Terrence was a good friend and his death was a blow. She hasn’t been handling it well.”
“Why take it out on me? I didn’t even know the man.”
“She’s disputatious, though she’s not as tough as she’d have us believe. She may give you a hard time, but she’s a pussycat at heart.”
I took a right turn off Santa Teresa Street onto Caballero Lane, which was one block long. My office was the center one in a line of three small stucco cottages. In addition to the cheap rent, the location was close to the heart of downtown, in walking distance of the public library, the courthouse, and the police station. I pulled up in front. There were ample parking spots available because the bungalows on either side of me were empty and had been since I moved in. Dandy got out and waited while I locked the car and joined him on the walk. He had a courtly air about him. Maybe it was the dress shirt or the hint of humor in his eyes. I thought he seemed surprisingly intelligent, and then I had to stop and correct myself. Being homeless and being smart aren’t mutually exclusive states. There might be any number of reasons he was on the street.
I led the way up the front steps. I unlocked the door and opened it for him. “I’m putting on a pot of coffee if you’re interested.”
“I’d like that,” he said as he followed me in.
“Make yourself at home. I’ll be right back.”
I rinsed out the coffeepot and slotted it onto the machine, putting a fresh filter in the holder, which I popped into place. Over my shoulder, I could see Dandy in the outer office, where he browsed the various law books and texts in my collection, everything from California Criminal Law to a 1980 edition of the Shooter’s Bible. There were also the technical tomes about burglary and theft, Scott’s Fingerprint Mechanics, arson investigation, the criminal mind-set, and Adelson’s Pathology of Homicide.
When he drifted into the inner office, I left the coffee brewing in the kitchenette and joined him. It crossed my mind, just briefly, that he might try pilfering an item, but then I remembered I didn’t have anything of value. No cash, no dope, no prescription medication, and no bottle of booze in my bottom drawer. If he wanted a ballpoint pen, I’d be happy to gift him with one.
He’d taken a seat in one of the two guest chairs, clearly curious about my domain. I took my place on the other side of the desk and tried seeing the place through his eyes. As it happens, my office is devoid of personal touches. I have an artificial ficus tree that I think lends the room a hint of class, but the fake plant is about it. There are no family photographs, no travel posters, no bric-a-brac, and no paperweight advertising “Bail Bonds, Quick Response.” For the most part, my desktop was clear, all of the paperwork consigned to folders tucked away in the file cabinets lining one wall.
He smiled. “Cozy.”
“That’s one word for it,” I said. “Can I ask a personal question?”
“As long as I’m not under oath.”
“I was wondering what brought you to Santa Teresa.”
“This is my hometown. I grew up three blocks from here. My father taught math at Santa Teresa High back in the forties and fifties.”
I made a face. “Math’s not my strong suit.”
“Nor mine,” he replied. His smile activated dimples I hadn’t noticed before. His teeth were charmingly buckled and flashed white against the dark of his complexion.
“Did you go to Santa Teresa High by any chance?” I asked.
“Yes, ma’am. I graduated class of nineteen and thirty-three, long before you were born. I attended City College for two years, but I couldn’t see the point.”
“Really? Same here. I went two semesters and then quit. Now I wish I’d stuck it out, but I sure don’t want to go back.”
“Better to get an education while you’re young. My age, it’s too late.”
“Hey, mine, too. Did you like school? I hated it. High school, at any rate. I was a low-waller, smokin’ dope half the time.” Low-wallers were the kids who loitered before and after classes on a low wall that ran along the backside of the school grounds.
“I was straight A’s. Then life came along and I guess while you went up in the world, I went down.”
“I wouldn’t call this up.”
“Up from where I stand.”
I didn’t know if he viewed himself as a victim or a realist. I could hear the coffee machine gurgle to a halt and I got to my feet. “What do you take in your coffee?”
“Milk and two sugars, please.”
“Sugar for sure. Milk could be a problem. Let me see what I can do.”
I left the office and went down the hall to the kitchenette, where I opened my pint-size refrigerator and gave the milk carton a sniff. Slightly off, I thought, but I’ve heard that sometimes the residue of milk on the pour spout sours before the rest. I filled two mugs with coffee and added milk to mine, checking for the telltale curdling that suggests beaucoup bacteria at work. No evidence of spoilage, so I added a big dollop to his coffee and returned the carton to the fridge.
I handed him his mug and two paper packets of sugar and resettled myself in my swivel chair. I held up a finger. “Before I forget . . .” I leaned down and extracted the three packs of cigarettes from the shoulder bag at my feet and pushed them across the desk. “Consider this a bribe.”
“Much appreciated. I’ll pass along a pack each to Felix and Pearl.”
“Pearl, in particular. I was hoping to elevate myself in her opinion.”
There was a dip in the conversation. My usual practice is to let the silence lengthen until the other fellow gets squirmy enough to speak his mind. This time, I took the lead. “I’m assuming you didn’t walk all this way to pay a social call.”
“Not entirely. Don’t take this wrong, but your asking about Terrence really set Pearl off.”
“As I’m keenly aware. What’s the big deal?”
“She says you smell like a cop.”
“That’s because I was a cop, once upon a time. I was with the STPD two years and then I got out. I like playing by the rules when it suits, but I don’t like answering to anyone.”
“Understandable,” he said. “Then again, Terrence hadn’t been dead a full day when you came sniffing around. Her words, not mine.”
“‘Sniffing’ seems an odd choice. I told you I was hoping to locate his family, which is not a federal offense. Right now, he’s a John Doe. His name might be Terrence, but that’s the extent of what we have. The coroner’s office is swamped this week, so I said I’d see what I could find out. What’s she think I’m up to?”
“She’s suspicious by nature while I’m the opposite. I believe most folks are honest until proven otherwise.”
“My policy as well,” I said. “What else is bugging her? We might as well put all our cards on the table as long as you’re here.”
“She thinks you’re not being honest about who you’re working for.”
“What, like I’m an undercover agent? I’m self-employed. None of my work has anything to do with Terrence, dead or alive. You don’t believe me, you can search my files.”
“You don’t work for St. Terry’s?”
“You’re not associated with the hospital or the university in any capacity at all?”
“No way. I’m freelance. I’ll swear to it,” I said. “I don’t have clients in the medical profession or any related field. And that includes dentists and podiatrists. I don’t know how else to assure you of my sincerity.”
“I’ll pass that on to her.”
“Are we square?”
“As far as I’m concerned.”
“Good. Then it’s my turn. Why did Terrence need the services of a PI? I asked before and I didn’t get an answer.”
“He didn’t spell out the particulars, but I know what was on his mind. He believed he had kin in the area. Growing up, he had an uncle he very much admired. The two were close when he was a kid, but he hadn’t seen the man for years. Said he came to visit his uncle here shortly after the man moved to Santa Teresa. Later he heard the fellow died. He hoped to connect with family members, assuming there were any left.”
“He never mentioned his uncle’s name?”
“No. I happened to overhear him talking about it to someone else.”
“Why pick me when there are half a dozen private eyes in town?”
“You know a fellow named Pinky Ford?”
“Of course. How do you know him?”
“He’s a man about town, in some sense of the word. I haven’t seen him in weeks, but he lives in a big yellow Cadillac he parks here and there. Terrence was asking around and Pinky told him you were a decent sort.”
“I’d like to think so.”
Dandy cocked his head. “How do you know Pinky? He doesn’t seem like your type.”
“Long story I’ll save for another time.”
“I may take you up on it,” he said. “Meantime, what else can I tell you about Terrence?”
“Do you know where he was from?”
“Bakersfield. I don’t know if he was born there, but the way he told it, that’s where he lived most of his life.”
“You met him at Harbor House?”
“That’s right. He arrived here in January on a Greyhound bus. He’d been in prison up at Soledad. He said it was a life sentence, but that’s all I know. He didn’t like to talk about it. He slept a couple of nights under a freeway overpass and figured out it was a bad idea. The panhandlers with cardboard signs aren’t as nice as the rest of us. You stand by the road begging, that’s a different work ethic. Terrence tried the Rescue Mission, but they wouldn’t take him unless he swore off alcohol, which he wasn’t about to do. He heard about the shelter and when he showed up, the first person he met was Pearl. She introduced him to Felix and me. Harbor House, you don’t have to be sober, but you’d better not be obstreperous. Make trouble and you’re out.”
“It seems like a cool place,” I said. “I stopped by the day before yesterday looking for you.”
“Sunday, we throw darts. Sports bar down the block has a weekly tournament.”
“Are you any good?”
“Depends on what day it is and how much I’ve had to drink.”
“I noticed the woman in line ahead of me had a shelter ID card. At least I think that’s what it was. I wondered if Terrence had one. I ask because he didn’t have any identification on him when the coroner brought him in.”
“Oh, he had a card. I’m sure of it. Harbor House issued one so he could take his meals with us. Someone walked off with all his stuff, so maybe it was in his cart.”
“He wasn’t a Harbor House resident?”
“Not him. He didn’t want a bed. Nights, he didn’t like to be around other folks. He spent most his time drunk and he hung out with another fellow in the same sorry shape. Now and then he tried cleaning up his act without much success.”
“So he was in Santa Teresa, what, eight or nine months?”
“Sounds about right. He loved it here. He said he was never going anyplace else. March, the other fellow died and Terrence went on a bender that landed him in jail. After that he sobered up for a couple weeks. Then he started in again and one day collapsed in the street. He was lucky he didn’t die that round. Pain meds and alcohol are a bad mix.”
“No fooling. Pain pills? What was that about?”
Excerpted from W Is for Wasted by Sue Grafton
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.