Daggett’s death was ruled accidental. Jonah called me at home at 4:00 to give me the news. I’d spent the afternoon again wrapped up in a quilt, hoping to finish the book. I’d just put on a fresh pot of coffee and I was scurrying back under the covers as the phone rang. When he told me, I was puzzled, but I wasn’t convinced. I kept waiting for the punchline, but there wasn’t one.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Does Yee know the background on this?”
“Babe, Daggett’s blood alcohol was point three-five. You’re talking acute ethanol intoxication, almost coma stage.”
“And that was the cause of death?”
“Well no, he drowned, but Yee says there’s no evidence of foul play. None. Daggett went out in a boat, got tangled up in a fishing net, and fell overboard, too drunk to save himself.”
“Kinsey, some people die accidentally. It’s a fact.”
“I don’t believe it. Not this one.”
“The crime scene investigation unit didn’t find a thing. Not even a hint. What can I say? You know these guys. They’re as good as they come. If you think it’s murder, come up with some evidence. In the meantime, we’re calling it an accident. As far as we’re concerned, the case is closed.”
“What was he doing dead drunk in a boat?” I asked. “The man was broke and it was raining cats and dogs. Who’d he rent the boat from?”
I could hear Jonah sigh. “He didn’t. Apparently, he took a little ten-foot skiff from its mooring off the dock at Marina One. The harbor master identified the boat and you can see where the line was cut.”
“Where’d they find it?”
“On the beach near the pier. There weren’t any usable prints.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Look, I know what you’re saying and you’ve got a point. I tend to agree, if that makes you feel any better, but who’s asking us? Look at it as a gift. If the death is ruled a homicide, you can’t get near it. This way, you’ve got carte blanche… within limits, of course.”
“Does Dolan know I’m interested?” Lieutenant Dolan was an assistant division commander and an old antagonist of mine. He hated private investigators getting involved in police business.
“The case is Feldman’s. He won’t give a shit. You want me to talk to him?”
“Yeah, do that,” I said. “And clear it with Dolan, while you’re at it. I’m tired of getting my hand smacked.”
“Okay. I’ll get back to you first thing Monday then,” Jonah said. “In the meantime, let me know if anything turns up.”
I put a call through to Barbara Daggett, repeating the information I’d just received. When I finished, she was silent.
“What do you think?” she asked, finally.
“Let’s put it this way. I’m not satisfied, but it’s your money. If you like, I can nose around for a couple of days and if nothing turns up, we’ll dump the whole business and you’ll just have to live with it.”
“What are the odds?”
“I have no idea. All I know to do is pick up a thread and see where it leads. We may come up with six dead ends, but at least you’ll know we gave it a shot.”
“Let’s do it.”
“Great. I’ll be in touch.”
I pushed the quilt aside and got up. I hoped Billy Polo was still around. I didn’t know where else to start.
I unplugged the coffeepot, poured the balance of the coffee into a thermos, and then made myself a peanut butter and dill pickle sandwich, which I put in a brown paper bag like a school kid. I had just about that same feeling in my gut too… the dull dread I’d experienced when I was eight, trudging off to Woodrow Wilson Elementary. I didn’t want to go out in the rain. I didn’t want to connect up with Billy Polo, who was probably a creep. He sounded like one of the sixth-grade boys I’d been so fearful of… lawless, out of control, and mean.
I searched through my closet until I found my slicker and an umbrella. I left my warm apartment behind and drove over to Billy Polo’s old address on Merced. It was 4:15 and getting prematurely dark. The neighborhood had probably been charming once, but it was gradually being overtaken by apartment buildings and was now no more than a hapless mix of the down-at-the-heel and the bland. The little gingerbread structures were wedged between three-story stucco boxes with tenant parking underneath and everywhere there was evidence of the same tasteless disregard for history.
I parked under a pepper tree, using the overhanging branches as brief shelter while I put up my umbrella. I checked the names and house numbers of the two former neighbors, hoping one of them could give me a lead on Polo’s current whereabouts.
The first door I knocked on was answered by an elderly woman in a wheelchair, her legs wrapped in Ace bandages and stuffed into lace-up shoes with slices cut out of the sides to accommodate her bunions. I stood on her leaky front porch, talking to her through the screen door, which she kept latched. She had a vague recollection of Billy, but had no idea what had happened to him or where he’d gone. She did direct me to a little rental unit at the rear of the property next door. This was not one of the addresses I’d picked up from the city directory. She said Billy’s family had lived in the front house, while the rear was still occupied by an old gent named Talbot, who had been there for the last thirty years. I thanked her and picked my way down the rain-slicked stairs and back along the driveway.
The front unit must have been one of the early houses in the area-a story and a half of white frame, with a peaked roof, two dormers, and a front porch that was screened in now and furnished with junk. I could see the coils on the backside of an old refrigerator and beside it, what looked like a pillar of milk cartons, filled with paperback books. Hydrangeas and bougainvillea grew together in a tangle along the side of the house and the runoff from the rain gutter threw a gush of water out on the drive, forcing me to cut wide to the right.
The rear unit looked like it was originally a tool shed, with a lean-to attached to the left side and a tiny carport on the right. There was no car visible and most of the sheltered space was taken up by a cord of firewood, stacked against the wall. There was room left for a bicycle maybe, but not much else.
The structure was white frame, propped up on cinderblocks, with a window on either side of a central door, and a tiny chimney poking up through the roof. It looked like the drawing we all did in grade school, even to the smoke curling up from the chimney pipe.
I knocked and the door was opened by a wizened old man with no teeth. His mouth was a wide line barely separating the tip of his nose from the upward thrust of his chin. When he caught sight of me and realized that I was no one he knew, he left the doorway briefly and returned with his dentures, smiling slightly as he shifted them into place. His false teeth made a crunching sound like a horse chewing on a bit. He looked to be in his seventies, frail, his pale skin speckled with red and blue. His white hair was brushed into a pompadour in front, shaggy over his ears and touching his collar in the back. He wore a shirt that looked soft from years of washing and a cardigan sweater that probably belonged to a woman at some point. The buttons were rhinestone and the buttonholes were on the wrong side. He smoothed his hair back with a trembling hand and waited to see what I could possibly want.
“Are you Mr. Talbot?”
“Depends on who’s asking,” he said.
“I’m Kinsey Millhone. The woman next door suggested that I talk to you. I’m looking for Billy Polo. His family lived in that front house about five years ago.”
“I know Billy quite well. Why are you looking for him?”
“I need some information about a friend of his,” I said and then gave him a brief explanation. I couldn’t see any reason to prevaricate so I simply stated my purpose and left it at that.
He blinked at me. “Billy Polo’s a very bad fella. I wonder if you’re aware of that.” His voice was powdery and I noticed that he had a tremor, his head oscillating as he spoke. I guessed that he suffered from some form of parkinsonism.
“Yeah, I am. I heard he was up at the California Men’s Colony until recently. I think that’s where he met the man I’m referring to. Do you have any idea how I might reach him?”
“Well, you know, his mother is the one who owned that place,” he said, nodding toward the front house. “She sold it about two years ago when she remarried.”
“Is she still here in town?”
“Yes, and I believe she’s living on Tranvia. Her married name is Christopher. Just a minute and I’ll give you the address.” He shuffled away and a few moments later was back with a small address book in hand. “She’s a lovely woman. Sends me a card every year at Christmastime. Yes, here it is. Bertha Christopher. Goes by the nickname of Betty. If you chance to see her, I wish you’d give her my best.”
“I’ll do that, Mr. Talbot. Thanks so much.”
Tranvia turned out to be a wide, treeless street off Milagro on the east side of town, a neighborhood of one-story frame houses on small lots, with chicken wire fences, unruly head-high poinsettia bushes pelted by the rain, and soggy children’s toys abandoned in driveways paved with parallel strips of concrete. The level of maintenance here seemed erratic, but the address I now had for Bertha Christopher showed one of the better-kept houses on the block, mustard-colored with dark brown trim. I parked my VW on the opposite side of the street, about fifty yards away, so I could sit and watch the place inconspicuously. Most of the parked cars were crummy so mine fit right in.
It was now after 5:00 and the light was fading fast, the chill in the air more pronounced. The rain had eased somewhat so I left my umbrella where it was. I grabbed my yellow slicker and slipped into it, pulling up the hood. I locked the car and crossed the street, splashing through puddles that darkened the leather of my boots. The rain drummed against the fabric of the slicker with a pocking sound that made me feel like I was in a pup tent.
The Christopher property was surrounded by a low rock wall, constructed with sandstone boulders the size of cantaloupes, held together with concrete. A row of hanging planters screened the front windows from the street and a set of glass windchimes, suspended in one corner of the porch, tinkled with the wind. There were two lightweight aluminum lawn chairs arranged on either side of a metal table. Everything was soggy and smelled of wet grass.
There was no doorbell, but I tapped on the pane of glass in the front door, cupping a hand so I could peer in. The interior was in shadow, no lights showing from the rear of the house. I moved to the porch rail and checked the adjacent houses, both of which were dark. My guess was that many of these people were off at work. After a few minutes, I went back to my car.
I started the engine and ran the heater for a while, fogging up the windows until I could barely see. I rubbed a clear spot in the middle of the windshield and then sat and stared. Streetlights came on. At 5:45, I ate my sandwich just for something to do. At 6:15, I drank some coffee and flipped on my car radio, listening to a talk-show host interview a psychic. Fifteen minutes later, right after the 6:30 news, a car approached and slowed, turning into the Christophers’ driveway.
A woman got out, dimly illuminated by the street light. She paused as if to raise her umbrella and then apparently decided to make a dash for it. I watched her scuttle up the driveway and around toward the back of the house. Moments later, the lights went on in sequence… first the rear left room, probably a kitchen, then the living room, and finally the front porch light. I gave her a few minutes to get her coat hung up and then I returned to her front door.
I knocked again. I could see her peer into the hallway from the rear of the house and then approach the front door. She stared at me blankly, then leaned her head close to the glass for a better look.
She appeared to be in her fifties, with a sallow complexion and a deeply creased face. Her hair was too uniform a shade to be a natural brown. She wore it parted on the side with big puffy bangs across her lined forehead. Her eyes were the size and color of old pennies and her makeup looked like it needed renewing at this hour of the day. She wore a uniform I’d seen before, brown pants and a brown-and-yellow-checked tunic. I couldn’t place the outfit offhand.
“Yes?” she called through the glass.
I raised my voice against the sound of the rain. “I’m looking for Billy. Is he back yet?”
“He don’t live here, hon, but he said he’d be by at eight o’clock. Who are you?”
I picked a name at random. “Charlene. Are you his mother?”
“A friend of his said I should look him up if I was ever in Santa Teresa. Is he at work?”
She gave me an odd look, as if the notion of Billy working had never crossed her mind. “He’s out checking the used car lots for an automobile.”
She had one of those faces that seemed tantalizingly familiar and it dawned on me, belatedly, that she was a checker at the supermarket where I shop now and then. We’d even chatted idly about the fact that I was a P.I. I eased back out of the porch light, hoping she hadn’t recognized me at the same time I recognized her. I held the corner of the slicker up as though to shield my face from the wind.
She seemed to pick up on the fact that something odd was going on. “What’d you want him for?”
I ignored that, pretending I couldn’t hear. “Why don’t I come back when he gets home?” I hollered. “Just tell him Charlene stopped by and I’ll catch up with him when I can.”
“Well, all right,” she said reluctantly. I gave her a casual wave as I turned. I went down the porch steps and into the dark, aware that she was peering after me suspiciously. I must have disappeared from her field of vision then because she turned the porch light off.
I got back in my car with one of those quick, involuntary shudders that racks you from head to toe. When I caught up with Billy, I might well admit who I was and what I wanted with him, but for the moment, I didn’t want to tip my hand. I checked my watch and settled in, prepared to wait. Already, it was feeling like a long night.