After I left Ramona Westfall, I stopped by my apartment and changed into pantyhose, low heels, and my all-purpose dress. This garment, which I’ve owned for five years, is made of some magic fabric that doesn’t wilt, wrinkle, or show dirt. It can be squashed down to the size of a rain hat and shoved in the bottom of my handbag without harm. It can also be rinsed out in any bathroom sink and hung to dry overnight. It’s black, lightweight, has long sleeves, zips up the back, and should probably be “accessorized,” a women’s clothing concept I’ve never understood. I wear the dress “as is” and it always looks okay to me. Once in a while I see this look of recognition in someone’s eye, but maybe it’s just a moment of surprise at seeing me in something other than jeans and boots.
The Wynington-Blake Mortuary-Burials, Cremation, and Shipping, Serving All Faiths-is located on the east side of town on a shady side street with ample parking. It was originally built as a residence and retains the feeling of a substantial single-family dwelling. Now, of course, the entire first floor has been converted into the equivalent of six spacious living rooms, each furnished with metal folding chairs and labeled with some serene-sounding word.
The gentleman who greeted me, a Mr. Sharonson, wore a subdued navy blue suit, a neutral expression, and used a public library voice. John Daggett was laid out in “Meditation,” which was just down the corridor and to my left. The family, he murmured, was in the Sunrise Chapel if I cared to wait. I signed in. Mr. Sharonson removed himself discreetly and I was left to do as I pleased. The room was rimmed with chairs, the casket at the apex. There were two sprays of white gladioli that looked somehow like pristine fakes provided by the mortuary, instead of wreaths sent by those who mourned Daggett’s passing. Organ music was being piped in, a nearly subliminal auditory cue meant to trigger thoughts about the brevity of life.
I tiptoed across the room to have a peek at him. The color and texture of Daggett’s skin looked about like a Betsy-Wetsy doll I’d had as a kid. His features had a flattened appearance, which I suspected was a side effect of the autopsy process. Peel somebody’s face back and it’s hard to line it all up again. Daggett’s nose looked crooked, like a pillowcase put on with the seam slightly skewed.
I was aware of a rustling behind me and Barbara Daggett appeared on my right. We stood together for a moment without a word. I don’t know why people stand and study the dead that way. It makes about as much sense as paying homage to the cardboard box your favorite shoes once came in. Finally, she murmured something and turned away, moving toward the entrance where Eugene Nickerson and Essie Daggett were just coming in through the archway.
Essie was wearing a dark navy dress of rayon jersey, her massive arms dimpled with pale flesh. Her hair looked freshly “done,” puffed and thick, sprayed into a turban of undulating gray. Eugene, in a dark suit, steered her by the elbow, working her arm as if it were the rudder on a ship. She took one look at the casket and her wide knees buckled. Barbara and Eugene caught her before she actually hit the floor. They guided her to an upholstered chair and lowered her into the seat. She fumbled for a handkerchief, which she pressed to her mouth as if she meant to chloroform herself.
“Sweet Jesus Lord,” she mewed, her eyes turned up piteously. “Lamb of God…” Eugene began to pat at her hand and Barbara sat down beside her, putting one arm around her protectively.
“You want me to bring her some water?” I asked.
Barbara nodded and I moved toward the doorway. – Mr. Sharonson had sensed the disturbance and had appeared, his face forming a question. I passed the request along and he nodded. He left the room and I returned to Mrs. Daggett’s side. She was having a pretty good time by now, rolling her head back and forth, reciting scriptures in a high-pitched voice. Barbara and Eugene were working to restrain her and I gathered that Essie had expressed a strong desire to fling herself into the coffin with her beloved. I might have given her a boost myself.
Mr. Sharonson returned with a paper envelope full of water, which Barbara took, holding it to Essie’s lips. She jerked her head back, unwilling to accept even this small measure of solace. “By night on my bed, I sought him whom my soul loveth,” she warbled. “I sought him, but I found him not. I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth. The watchmen that go about the city found me… Lord in Heaven… O God…”
With surprise, I realized she was quoting fragments from the Song of Solomon, which I recognized from my old Methodist Sunday School days. Little kids were never allowed to read that part of the Bible as it was considered too smutty, but I was real interested in the idea of a man with legs like pillars of marble set upon sockets of fine gold. There was some talk of swords and thighs that caught my attention too. I believe I lasted three Sundays before my aunt was asked to take me down the street to the Presbyterians.
Essie was rapidly losing control, whipping herself into such an agitated state that Eugene and Mr. Sharonson had to assist her to her feet and help her out of the room. I could hear her cries becoming feebler as she was moved down the hall. Barbara rubbed her face wearily. “Oh God. Count on Mother,” she said. “How has your day been?”
I sat down beside her. “This doesn’t seem like the best time to talk,” I said.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. She’ll calm down. This is the first she’s seen of him. There’s some kind of lounge upstairs. She can rest for a while and she’ll be fine. What about Ramona Westfall? Did you talk to her?”
I filled her in on my brief interview, bringing the subject around to my real question at this point, which had to do with the two other victims in the accident. Barbara closed her eyes, the matter clearly causing her pain.
“One was a little friend of Hilary Gahan’s. Her name was Megan Smith. I’m sure her parents are still in the area. I’ll check the address and telephone number when I get home. Her father’s name is Wayne. I forget the name of the street, but it’s probably listed.”
I took my notebook out and jotted the name down. “And the fifth?”
“Some kid who’d bummed a ride with them. They picked him up at the on-ramp to the freeway to give him a lift into town.”
“What was his name?”
I stared at her. “You’re kidding.”
“Why? Do you know him?”
“Polokowski is Billy Polo’s real last name. It’s on his rap sheet.”
“You think they’re related?”
“They’d almost have to be. There’s only one Polokowski family in town. It’s got to be a cousin or a brother, something.”
“But I thought Billy Polo was supposed to be Daddy’s best friend. That doesn’t make sense.”
Mr. Sharonson returned to the room and caught her eye. “Your mother is asking for you, Miss Daggett.”
“You go ahead,” I said. “I’ve got plenty to work on at this point. I’ll call you later at home.”
Barbara followed Mr. Sharonson while I headed out to the foyer and hustled up a telephone book. Wayne and Marilyn Smith were listed on Tupelo Drive out in Colgate, right around the corner from Stanley Place, if my memory served me correctly. I considered calling first, but I was curious what the reaction would be to the fact of Daggett’s death, if the news hadn’t already reached them. I stopped to get gas in the VW and then headed out to the freeway.
The Smiths’ house was the single odd one in a twelve-block radius of identical tract homes and I guessed that theirs was the original farmhouse at the heart of what had once been a citrus grove. I could still spot orange trees in irregular rows, broken up now by winding roads, fenced lots, and an elementary school. The Smiths’ mailbox was a small replica of the house and the street number was gouged out of a thick plank of pine, stained dark and hung above the porch steps. The house itself was a two-story white frame with tall, narrow windows and a slate roof. A sprawling vegetable garden stretched out behind the house, with the garage beyond that. A tire swing hung by a rope from a sycamore that grew in the yard. Orange trees extended on all sides, looking twisted and barren, their producing years long past. It was probably cheaper to leave them there than to tear them out. An assortment of boys’ bicycles in a rack on the porch suggested the presence of male offspring or an in-progress meeting of a cycling club.
The bell consisted of a metal twist in the middle of the door. I cranked it once and it trilled harshly. As with the Christopher house, the upper portion of the door was glass, allowing me a glimpse of the interior-high ceilings, waxed pine floors, a scattering of rag rugs, and Early American antiques that looked authentic to my untrained eye. The walls were covered with patchwork quilts, the colors washed out to pale shades of mauve and blue. Numerous children’s jackets hung from a row of pegs to the left, rainboots lined up underneath.
A woman in jeans and an oversized white shirt trotted down the stairs, trailing one hand along the banister. She gave me a quick smile and opened the front door.
“Oh hi. Are you Larry’s mom?” She read instantly from my expression that I hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about. She gave a quick laugh. “I guess not. The boys got back from the movie half an hour ago and we’ve been waiting for Larry’s mother to pick him up. Sorry.”
“That’s all right. I’m Kinsey Millhone,” I said. “I’m a private investigator here in town.” I handed her my card.
“Can I help you with something?” She was in her mid-thirties, her blonde hair pulled straight back from her face in a clumsy knot. She was dark-eyed, with the tanned good looks of someone who works outdoors. I imagined her to be the kind of mother who forbade her children to eat refined sugar and supervised the television shows they watched. Whether such vigilance pays off or not, I’m never sure. I tend to place kids in a class with dogs, preferring the quiet, the smart, and the well trained.
“John Daggett was killed here in town Friday night,” I said.
Something flickered across her face, but maybe it was just the realization that a painful subject was coming up again. “I hadn’t heard about that. What happened?”
“He fell out of a boat and drowned.”
She thought about that briefly. “Well, that’s not too bad. Browning’s supposed to be fairly easy, isn’t it?” Her tone of voice was light, her expression pleasant. It took me a minute to realize the savagery of the sentiment. I wondered what kind of torture she’d wished on him.
“Most of us don’t get to choose our death,” I said.
“My daughter certainly didn’t,” she said tartly. “Was it an accident or did someone give him a nice push?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” I said. “I heard he came up from L.A. on Monday, but nobody seems to know where he spent the week.”
“Not here, I can assure you. If Wayne so much as set eyes on him, he’d have…” The words tapered off to a faint smile and her tone became almost bantering. “I was going to say, he’d have killed him, but I didn’t mean that literally. Or maybe I did. I guess I shouldn’t speak for Wayne.”
“What about you? When did you see him last?”
“I have no idea. Two years ago at least.”
“At the trial?”
She shook her head. “I wasn’t there. Wayne sat in for a day, but he couldn’t take it after that. He talked to Barbara Daggett once, I think, but I’m sure there’s been nothing since. I’m assuming somehow that the man was murdered. Is that what you’re getting at?”
“It’s possible. The police don’t seem to think so, but
I’m hoping they’ll revise their opinion if I can come up with some evidence. I get the impression a lot of people wanted Daggett dead.”
“Well, I sure did. I’m thrilled to hear the news. Somebody should have killed him at birth,” she said. “Would you like to come in? I don’t know what I can tell you, but we might as well be comfortable.” She glanced at my business card again, double-checking the name and then tucking it in her shirt pocket.
She held the door and I passed over the threshold, pausing to see where she meant for us to go. She led me into the living room.
“You and your husband were home Friday night?”
“Why? Are we suspects?”
“There isn’t even a formal investigation yet,” I said.
“I was here. Wayne was working late. He’s a C.P.A.”
She indicated a chair and I sat down. She took a seat on the couch, her manner relaxed. She was wearing a thin gold bracelet on her right wrist and she began to turn that, straightening a kink in the chain. “Did you ever meet John Daggett yourself?” she asked.
“Once. He came to my office a week ago Saturday.”
“Ah. Out on parole, no doubt. He must have served his ten minutes.”
I made no comment, so she went on.
“What was he doing in Santa Teresa? Returning to the scene of the slaughter?”
“He was trying to locate Tony Gahan.”
This seemed to amuse her. “To what end? It’s probably none of my business, but I’m curious.”
I was discomfited by her attitude, which seemed an odd mix of the wrathful and the jocular. “I’m not really sure what his intentions were,” I said carefully. “The story he told me wasn’t true anyway, so it’s probably not worth repeating. I gathered he wanted to make restitution.”
Her smile faded, dark eyes boring into mine with a look that chilled me. “There’s no such thing as ‘restitution’ for what that man did. Megan died horribly. Five-and-a-half years old. Has anyone given you the details?”
“I have the newspaper clippings in the car. I talked to Ramona Westfall too, and she filled me in,” I said, lying through my teeth. I didn’t want to hear about Megan’s death. 1 didn’t think I could bear it, whatever it was. “Have you kept in touch with the other families?”
For a moment, I didn’t think I could distract her. She was going to sit there and tell me some bloodcurdling tale that I was never going to forget. Cruel images seemed to play across her face. She faltered and her expression underwent that transformation that precedes tears-her nose reddening, mouth changing shape, lines drawing down on either side. Then her self-control descended and she looked at me with clouded eyes. “I’m sorry. What?”
“I was wondering if you’d talked to the others recently. Mrs. Westfall or the Polokowskis.”
“I’ve hardly even talked to Wayne. Megan’s death has just about done us in.”
“What about your other children? How are they handling it?”
“Better than we are, certainly. People always say, ‘Well, you still have the boys.’ But it doesn’t work that way. It’s not like you can substitute one child for another.” Belatedly, she took out a Kleenex and blew her nose.
“I’m sorry I had to bring it all up again,” I said. “I’ve never had children, but I can’t imagine anything more painful than losing one.”
Her smile returned, fleeting and bitter. “I’ll tell you what’s worse. Knowing there’s a man out there doing a few months in jail for ‘vehicular manslaughter’ when he murdered five people. Do you know how many times he got picked up for drunk driving before that accident? Fifteen. He paid a few fines. He got his hand smacked. Once he did thirty days, but most of the time…” She broke off, then changed her tone. “Oh hell. What difference does it make? Nothing changes anyway and it never ends. I’ll tell Wayne you stopped by. Maybe he knows where Daggett was.”