The address Tamara had given him for Verity Daniels’s condo was one of the big, new SoMa high-rises on Harrison, just off the Embarcadero. Which meant that Ms. Daniels had money and plenty of it, one of the reasons, if not the main reason, that Tamara had agreed to an after–business hours appointment to accommodate a prospective client. You couldn’t buy into a place like Bayfront Towers unless you had a minimum of a quarter of a million to spend on lodging.
Runyon didn’t have to try to find street parking, which would’ve been next to impossible in South Beach at 5:30 on a weekday: too many restaurants and clubs, and the Giants playing a late-afternoon game at AT&T Park down at China Basin. Bayfront Towers had an underground garage with visitor parking. But you couldn’t just leave your car and take an elevator up to the residents’ units unannounced; you had to go through security protocol first.
A uniformed security man in the garage had Runyon’s name and the fact that he was expected by Ms. Daniels—that was the first step. Then he was directed to take an elevator that only went up as far as the lobby; the other garage elevator was for residents only, operated either by key or keycard. In the lobby there was a glassed-in cubicle full of monitoring equipment and another uniformed guard presiding over it. Runyon had to sign a logbook before he was allowed access to the visitor’s elevator. Modern urban living in steel-and-glass luxury. All well and good for those who could afford it and felt comfortable with it. For him it would have been like living inside a fortified watchtower—living scared.
The high-speed elevator whisked him up to the twelfth floor, deposited him in a carpeted hallway with indirect lighting and pieces of decorative furniture that no one would ever sit in. Muted chimes sounded inside condo 1206 when he pressed an inlaid pearl button. There was a peephole in the door; he felt himself being scrutinized even though he’d been announced by the desk guard, had opened the leather case containing his license photostat, and held it up to the glass eye. Even so, it was half a minute before chain and bolt locks were released and the door opened.
“I’m Verity Daniels, Mr. Runyon. Thank you for being so prompt. Please come in.”
Thirty or so, large-boned and on the voluptuous side. Dark hair cut in a short, feathery, in-curling style, mild blue eyes under artfully plucked and arched brows, a wide mouth painted with too much lipstick, a beauty mark just above the angle of her chin. Runyon was no expert when it came to women’s clothes, but he knew expensive silk when he saw it: the silvery gray jacket and skirt and darker colored blouse with gold buttons must have had a four-figure price tag. Likewise the diamond-chip earrings, the blood-ruby ring on the little finger of her right hand, the thin platinum gold watch on her left wrist. An expensive packaging job, and yet the effect didn’t seem quite natural. As if she weren’t used to all the rich woman’s trappings, wasn’t completely comfortable with the image she presented.
The place, a large studio rather than a full-sized apartment, gave him the same impression. Richly furnished in blond wood, modern art on a couple of the walls, thick, pale blue carpeting, matching blue drapes drawn back over picture windows that provided an off-angle view of the bay, the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island, the East Bay hills. The only thing that didn’t quite fit the decor was a huge flat-screen TV mounted on another wall. The rest carried the carefully planned, formalized stamp of an interior decorator, and all of it looked brand new, unlived in: no personal touches, nothing out of place. He wondered if Ms. Daniels was afraid of disturbing its showroom perfection. If she wasn’t at home in surroundings like these, why choose to live in them?
She seemed to think his casual inspection was centered on the flat-screen. “I watch a lot of TV,” she said, but not as if embarrassed by the fact. “It’s really too big for the room, isn’t it? The television?”
To be polite he said, “Looks okay to me.”
She invited him to sit on one of a pair of streamlined chairs, claimed the other across a kidney-shaped, glass-topped table. She sat primly, knees together, hands folded in her lap. Runyon set his briefcase on the floor and readied his notebook while he waited for her to open the conversation. Took her close to a minute, but not because she was having difficulty finding words, he thought. She spent the silent period studying him, her eyes unblinking, a faint half smile appearing and disappearing on her too-red mouth. Measuring him, trying to decide how competent and trustworthy he was, maybe. He’d been subjected to that kind of client scrutiny before.
But that wasn’t quite it, because when she finally spoke it was to say, “You know, I’ve seen your name in the newspaper. You must be a very good detective.”
There was nothing for him to say to that. He shrugged, smiled a little, waited.
“Have you been one long? A detective?”
“Fourteen years with the Seattle police. Nearly eight as a private investigator.”
“It must be exciting work.”
“Sometimes. Mostly it’s routine.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’re just being modest.”
He let that pass, too. Get to the point, he was thinking, but he kept waiting in attentive silence. You had to let these interviews develop in their own way. She figured to be nervous, a little on edge in spite of her outward show of calm.
Pretty soon she gave herself a little shake and said, “Well. Would you like something to drink? Coffee? Tea? A soda? I’m afraid I can’t offer you anything stronger. I don’t drink alcohol, so I don’t keep any on hand.”
“Well,” she said again. “It really is good of you to come at this hour. Ms. Corbin said you wouldn’t mind, given my busy schedule, but I know it must be an imposition.…”
“Not at all.”
She seemed to feel the need to explain further, in more detail than was necessary. “You see, I inherited quite a large sum of money six months ago from my aunt—she was an actress who lived in Paris, famous on the European stage. I had no idea she was so wealthy or that she’d leave me as much as she did. Well, anyway, I no longer need to work for a living, so I’ve become rather heavily involved in charity work. Fund-raising for Lighthouse for the Blind, Foundation for AIDS Research, the Breast Cancer Fund. The problems they deal with are so much more important than mine and I hate to take time away from my work for them.”
Runyon nodded. The recent inheritance explained the newness of the studio and her lack of ease in dress and surroundings. Nouveau riche. Brand-new lifestyle.
“Well.” She cleared her throat. “Did Ms. Corbin tell you why I’m in need of your services?”
“Just what you told her. Someone is trying to extort money from you.”
“Yes. A lot of money.”
“And you have no idea who it is.”
“None. I can’t imagine anyone who would do such a thing.”
“How did this person contact you?”
“By telephone. Two calls so far, the first two nights ago, the second last night … in the middle of the night. The voice had a funny muffled sound, as if he was talking through some kind of … I don’t know, a filter or something.”
“You said ‘he.’ You’re sure it was a man?”
“Well … no, not positive. I just had that impression.”
“We’ll leave it at that for now, then. What exactly did he say?”
“That he … had proof of something in my past that would put me in prison if he took it to the police. But that’s just crazy. I’ve never done anything wrong in my life.”
“Did he indicate what he thought you’d done?”
“No. He laughed when I told him he had no grounds for blackmail.”
“So he wouldn’t say the kind of alleged proof he had?”
“He wouldn’t, no. Just that I’d find out when I paid him.”
“How much is he demanding?”
“Five thousand dollars, the first time. Last night … he said he changed his mind and he wanted double that amount. In small bills, nothing larger than a twenty.”
A lot of money without any specifics to back up the demand. But extortionists were an unpredictable breed. “Did he say when or where he expects you to deliver the money?”
“No. He said he’d tell me next time he called. And I’d better pay him or else he’d make me sorry, very sorry.”
“Did you threaten him with the police?”
“I … no. Should I have?”
“Sometimes it scares them off,” Runyon said. “Have you been in touch with the police?”
“No. No, I haven’t. He warned me not to.”
“It’s still your best option. Extortionists are as afraid of the law as their potential victims.”
“But I’m not afraid of the law. I have nothing to hide.”
“Then why not go to the police? They have resources that private agencies don’t in cases like this. For one thing, they can arrange to monitor future calls, trace the man that way if you can get him to stay on the line long enough.”
“Can’t you do that?”
“Not through the phone company, no.”
“But there are other things you can do to find out who he is?”
“Before we get into that, please answer my question. Why not the police?”
Verity Daniels fussed with her hair, nibbled some of the paint off her lower lip. “I … had a bad experience with them once. The authorities.”
“What sort of bad experience?”
“Over an accident, a terrible accident. But it couldn’t have anything to do with this.…”
“Tell me about it anyway.”
“Must I? The memories … they’re still painful.”
“You can leave out any details that aren’t relevant.”
“Yes, all right. The accident happened to a man I was engaged to … Jason, Jason Avery. We were on a weekend camping trip in the Delta. He went for an early-morning walk while I was still sleeping, and … I don’t know, something happened, he fell into the water. He must have panicked because he couldn’t swim and he … drowned.” Ms. Daniels shuddered. “I found him after I woke up. He was lying facedown in mud and tule grass. I dragged him out on shore and tried giving him mouth-to-mouth, but it was too late, he was already dead.”
“When was this?”
“Two and a half years ago. Do you have to write everything down?”
“It’s customary, yes. You have no objection?”
“No. No, of course not.”
“I take it there were no witnesses? Other campers, fishermen?”
“No. We were alone. That’s why the police … sheriff’s people, I mean … at first they didn’t believe it was an accident, that we’d had some sort of fight and I’d done something to Jason, hit him with something and then dragged him into the water.…” She shuddered again. “An awful time in my life. Awful.”
“But you were finally absolved of any wrongdoing.”
“Finally, yes. They had to leave me alone in the end because I told the truth and they couldn’t prove otherwise. If you’re thinking that’s what this person on the phone was referring to, you’re wrong. I had nothing to do with poor Jason’s death.”
“Were there any problems with members of his family?”
“Problems? I don’t … you mean a relative who didn’t believe what happened?”
“Oh, no, his people were very supportive.”
“Do you know of any enemies you might have, Ms. Daniels? Someone with a grudge against you for any reason?”
“No. You think this man could be somebody I know?”
“It’s possible. Is there anyone who might resent the fact that you inherited a large sum of money? Family members, acquaintances?”
“I don’t have any family, now that my aunt is gone. Or new friends since I moved to San Francisco. I … don’t make friends easily.” Pause for some more lip nibbling. “There’s Scott, I suppose, if he knows about it, but I don’t think he’s capable of a vicious thing like this.”
“Who would Scott be?”
“Well … Ostrander. I took back my maiden name when we divorced five years ago.”
“Where does he live? Work?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen or talked to him since the divorce. The last I heard he was still in Orinda. That’s where we lived while we were married. After the divorce I moved to Martinez, where my job was. I worked for an insurance company there, but after the inheritance … well, there wasn’t any need to keep the job and I’d always wanted to live here in the city.”
“What does your ex-husband do for a living?”
“He was a landscape engineer. That’s what he called himself, but it’s just a glorified name for gardener.”
“Was the divorce amicable?”
“No divorce is ever completely amicable, is it? But it wasn’t bitter, either, not really. We were married for two years and we just didn’t have a lot in common. I finally made up my mind to end it.”
“No resentment on his part?”
“There didn’t seem to be.”
Runyon asked, “What about people you knew and worked with in Martinez? Anyone you didn’t get along with?”
“I can’t think of anyone, no.”
“In Orinda while you lived there?”
“Well, Scott’s sister. Grace never did like me.” A curled lip indicated the feeling was mutual. “She could be a bitch sometimes, pardon my language, but I haven’t seen or talked to her since the divorce, either.”
“Any serious trouble between the two of you?”
“Not really. It was just that I couldn’t do anything right and Scott couldn’t do anything wrong. She always took his side.”
“What’s her full name?”
“Grace Lyman. L-y-m-a-n. She’s married to a doctor, or was then—a pee doctor.” Ms. Daniels blinked and made a little embarrassed tittering sound. “Urologist, I mean. Sorry about that.”
“Anyone else I should know about?”
“I can’t think of anyone.” Ms. Daniels shifted position in the chair. “You are going to help me, aren’t you?”
“If you’re certain that’s how you want to proceed. A police investigation is still your best option.”
“After what happened when Jason was killed, the way I was treated … no. There’s my charity work to consider, too. Any kind of publicity might be harmful to my fund-raising efforts.”
“The authorities can be discreet.”
“Can they? Not as discreet as you and your agency. You have a reputation for honesty and discretion, that’s what the newspapers said. You’re not trying to talk me out of hiring you, are you?”
“Just being frank. What is it you expect of us?”
The question seemed to puzzle her. “Find out who’s doing this awful thing to me. And why.”
“And then what? Scare him off? Have him arrested?”
“Whatever you think is necessary. Just so he never bothers me again.”
Reasonable enough. If Verity Daniels was being truthful about her past, it looked as though she was the victim of an extortion ploy rather than a blackmail attempt. The “proof of something in the past” and the veiled threats smacked of a come-on, the kind that would be followed by direct threats of bodily harm unless she met his demands. If that was the case and the perp wanted money badly enough, she was potentially in danger.
“One more thing, Ms. Daniels. For the record, you should know that in the investigation of extortion cases, we’re bound by law to notify the proper authorities if we uncover evidence of a felony involving the victim, and to turn over any physical evidence that might come into our possession.”
“That doesn’t apply to me. I told you that.”
Runyon opened his briefcase, took out the standard contract the agency used for individual clients. While she looked it over, he outlined their fees. No questions. She signed the contract with a flourish.
While she was writing a check to cover the retainer, she asked, “What if he calls again tonight?”
“If he does, try to stall him for at least eighteen hours. Tell him you need time to get the money, or use any other excuse you can think of.”
“So I can make what might be a necessary arrangement. I’ll explain when and if the time comes.”
“Well … all right. But I should contact you right away and let you know, shouldn’t I? Whenever he calls?”
“Yes.” He gave her one of his business cards with agency, cell, and home numbers on it. “You should be able to reach me any time, day or night.” He asked her for her contact info—phone numbers, e-mail address—and added the information to his notes. Then he said, “There’s one thing I can do now, if the extortion calls come in on your landline.”
“They do, yes. I can’t imagine how he got the number.”
“Do you own a pocket tape recorder?”
“Why would you ask— Oh! To record the next call?”
“That’s right. It’s not admissible as evidence in court, but any record of a blackmail attempt is to your benefit.”
“I don’t own one, no. I’ve never needed to use one.”
“Not a problem.” From his briefcase Runyon removed the spare Olympus digital voice recorder and the telephone recording interface he’d brought with him. “You can borrow this one.”
“Well, you come prepared, don’t you.”
“As much as possible. Where’s your phone?”
It was on a table next to an archway into a kitchen alcove. Runyon hooked the adapter to the phone and plugged the other end of the wire into the recorder, while she stood watching in a fascinated way. “This allows both ends of the conversation to be recorded,” he said.
“And I don’t have to do anything?”
“Just turn the recorder on—this switch here—when you know it’s him. It’s voice activated.”
She nodded, staring at the recorder and the interface as if they were curious artifacts. Not much into technology, Ms. Daniels.
“One more thing,” he said. “When he calls, threaten him with the police this time. See what kind of reaction you get. But don’t carry it too far—be careful not to antagonize him.”
“Oh, I’ll be careful. I’m always on my guard these days.” She tittered again. Nerves, probably.
Runyon asked if she had any more questions. She took her time thinking about it, but not as though she were searching her mind; he had the impression she was reluctant for him to leave. But he’d been there long enough. When she said, no, no questions, he got immediately to his feet.
At the door she gave him her hand, smiling. Let it remain clasped in his a little longer than he thought was necessary. “Thank you so much, Mr. Runyon. Or may I call you Jake?”
“If you like.”
“You don’t know how much I appreciate this, Jake. You make me feel safe for the first time since those calls started.”
Runyon rode the elevator down with the image of her smile lingering in his mind. It hadn’t been one of relief, nor had it been impersonal. Bright, like in a dental ad on TV. Bright eyes, too. A smile and a look that were almost flirtatious. And that in retrospect struck him as oddly secretive.
Copyright © 2013 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust