Chapter 18

Barbara Daggett invited me back to her mother’s house after the funeral, but I declined. I couldn’t handle another emotional circus act. After I’ve spent a certain amount of time in the company of others, I need an intermission anyway. I retreated to my office and sat there with the lights out. It was only 4:00, but dark clouds were massing again as though for attack. I slipped my shoes off and put my feet up, clutching my jacket around me for warmth. John Daggett was in the ground now and the world was moving on. I wondered what would happen if we left it at that. I didn’t think Barbara Daggett gave a damn about seeing justice done, whatever that consisted of. I hadn’t come up with much. I thought I was on the right track, but I wasn’t sure I really wanted an answer to the question Daggett’s death had posed. Maybe it was better to forget this one, turn it under again like top soil, worms and all. The cops didn’t consider it a homicide anyway and I knew I could talk Barbara Daggett out of pursuing the point. What was there to be gained? I wasn’t in the business of avenging Daggett’s death. Then what was I uneasy about? It was the only time in recent memory that I’d wanted to drop a case. Usually I’m dogged, but this time I wanted out. I think I could have talked myself into it if nothing else had occurred. As it happened, my phone rang about ten minutes later, nudging me into action again. I took my feet off the desk for form’s sake and picked up on the first ring. “Millhone.”

A young-sounding man said hesitantly: “Is this the office or an answering service?”

“The office.”

“Is this Kinsey Millhone?”

“Yes. Can I help you?”

“Yeah, well my boss gave me this number. Mr. Donagle at the Spindrift Motel? He said you had some questions about Friday night. I think maybe I saw that guy you were asking about.”

I reached for a lined yellow pad and a pen. “Great. I appreciate your getting in touch. Could you tell me your name first?”

“Paul Fisk,” he said. “I read in the paper some guy drowned and it just sure seemed like an odd coincidence, but I didn’t know if I should say anything or not.”

“You saw him Friday night?”

“Well, I think it was him. This was about quarter of two, something like that. I’m on night desk and sometimes I step outside for some air, just to keep myself awake.” He paused and I could hear him shift gears. “This is confidential, isn’t it?”

“Of course. Strictly between us. Why? Did your girlfriend stop by or something like that?”

His laugh was nervous. “Naw, sometimes I smoke a little weed is all. Place gets boring at two A.M., so that’s how I get through. Get loaded and watch old black-and-white movies on this little TV I got. I hope you don’t have a problem with that.”

“Hey, it’s your business, not mine. How long have you worked at the Spindrift?”

“Just since March. It’s not a great job, but I don’t want to get fired. I’m trying to get myself out of debt and I need the bucks.”

“I hear you,” I said. “Tell me about Friday night.”

“Well, I was on the porch and this drunk went by. It was raining pretty hard so I didn’t get a real good look at him at the time, but when I saw the news, the age and stuff seemed pretty close.”

“Did you see the picture of him by any chance?” “Just a glimpse on TV, but I wasn’t paying much attention so I couldn’t say for sure it was him. I guess I should have called the cops, but I didn’t have anything much to report and I was afraid it’d come out about the… about that other stuff.”

“What was he doing, the drunk?” “Nothing much. It was him and this girl. She had him by the arm. You know, kind of propped up. They were laughing like crazy, wandering all over the place on account of his being so screwed up. Alcohol’11 do that, you know. Bad stuff. Not like weed,” he said.

I bypassed the sales pitch. “What about the woman? Did you get a good look at her?” “Not really. Not to describe.” “What about hair, clothing, things like that?” “I noticed some. She had these real spiky heels and a raincoat, a skirt, and let’s see… a shirt with this sweater over it. Like, what do you call ’em, preppies wear.”

“A crewneck?”

“Yeah. Same color green as the skirt.” “You saw all that in the dark?” “It’s not that dark there,” he said. “There’s a streetlight right out front. The two of them fell down in a heap they were laughing so hard. She got up first and kind of looked down to see if her stockings were torn. He just lay there in a puddle on his back till she helped’ him up.”

“Did they see you?”

“I don’t think so. I was standing in the shadows of this overhang, keeping out of the wet. I never saw “em look my way.”

“What happened after the fall?”

“They just went on toward the marina.”

“Did you hear them say anything?”

“Not really. It sounded like she was teasing him about falling down, but other than that nothing in particular.”

“Could they have had a car?”

“I don’t think so. Anyway, not that I saw.”

“What if they’d parked it in that municipal lot across the street?”

“I guess they could have, but I don’t know why they’d walk to the marina in weather like that. Seems like if they had a car it’d be easier to drive and then park it down there.”

“Unless he was too drunk. He’d had his driver’s license yanked too.”

“She could have driven. She was half sober at least.”

“You’ve got a point there,” I said. “What about public transportation? Could they have come by bus or cab?”

“I guess, except the buses don’t run that late. A cab maybe. That’d make sense.”

I was jotting down information as he gave it to me. “This is great. What’s your home phone in case I need to get in touch?”

He gave me the number and then said, “I usually work eleven to seven on weekdays.”

I made a quick note. “Do you think you’d recognize the girl if you saw her again?”

“I don’t know. Probably. Do you know who she is?”

“Not yet. I’m working on that.”

“Well, I wish you luck. You think this’ll help?”

“I hope so. Thanks for calling. I really appreciate it.”

“Sure thing, and if you catch up with her, let me know. Maybe you can do like a police lineup or something like that.”

“Great and thanks.”

He clicked off and I finished making notes, adding this information to what I had. Dinah had spotted Daggett and the girl at 2:15 and Paul Fisk’s sighting placed them right on Cabana thirty minutes before. I wondered where they’d been before that. If they’d arrived by cab, had she taken one home from the marina afterward? I didn’t get it. Most killers don’t take taxis to and from. It isn’t good criminal etiquette.

I hauled out the telephone book and turned to the Yellow Pages to look up cab companies. Fortunately, Santa Teresa is a small town and there aren’t that many. Aside from a couple of airport and touring services, there were six listed. I dialed each in turn, patiently explaining who I was and inquiring about a 2:00 A.M. Saturday fare with a Cabana Boulevard drop off. I was also asking about a pickup anywhere in that vicinity sometime between 3:00 and 6:00 A.M. According to the morgue attendant, the watch Daggett had been wearing was frozen at 2:37, but anybody could have jimmied that, breaking the watch to pinpoint the time, then attaching it to his wrist before he was dumped. If she’d left the boat and swum ashore or rowed to the wharf and abandoned it there, it was still going to take her a little time to organize herself for the cab ride home.

All the previous week’s trip sheets, of course, had been filed and there were some heavy sighs and grumblings all around at the notion of having to look them up. Ron Coachella, the dispatcher for Tip Top, was the only cheerful soul in the lot, primarily because he’d done a records search for me once before with good results. I couldn’t talk anyone into doing the file check right then, so I left my name and number and a promise that I’d call again. “Whoopee-do,” said one.

While I was talking, I’d been doodling on the legal pad, running my pencil around idly so that the line formed a maze. I circled the note about the green skirt.

Hadn’t that old bum pulled a pair of spike heels and a green skirt out of a trash bin at the beach? I remembered his shoving discarded clothing into one of the plastic bags he kept in his shopping cart. Hers? Surely she hadn’t made her way home in the buff. She did have the raincoat, but I wondered if she might have had a change of clothes stashed somewhere too. She’d sure gone to a lot of trouble if she were setting Daggett up. This didn’t look like an impulsive act, done in the heat of the moment. Had she had help? Someone who picked her up afterward? If the cab companies didn’t come up with a record of a fare, I’d have to consider the possibility of an accomplice.

In the meantime, I thought I’d better head down to the beach and look for my scruffy drifter friend. I’d seen him that morning near the public restrooms when I did my run. I tore the sheet off the legal pad and folded it, shoving it in my pocket as I grabbed up my handbag, locked the office, and headed down the back stairs to my car.

It was now nearly quarter to five, getting chillier by the minute, but at least it was dry temporarily. I cruised along Cabana, peering from my car window. There weren’t many people at the beach. A couple of power walkers. A guy with a dog. The boulevard seemed deserted. I doubled back, heading toward my place, passing the wharf on the left and the string of motels across the street. Just beyond the boat launch and kiddie pool, I pulled up at a stoplight, scanning the park on the opposite corner. I could see the band shell where bums sometimes took refuge, but I didn’t see any squatters. Where were all the transients?

I circled back, passing the train station. It occurred to me that this was probably the bums’ dinner hour. I cut over another block and a half and sure enough, there they were-fifty or so on a quick count, lined up outside the Redemption Mission. The fellow I was looking for was near the end of the line, along with his pal. There was no sign of their shopping carts, which I thought of as a matched set of movable metal luggage, the derelict’s Louis Vuitton. I slowed, looking for a place to park.

The neighborhood is characterized by light industry, factory outlets, welding shops, and quonset huts where auto body repair work is done. I found a parking spot in front of a place that made custom surfboards. I pulled in, watching in my rearview mirror until the group outside the mission had shuffled in. I locked the car then and crossed the street.

The Redemption Mission looks like it’s made out of papier-mache, a two-story oblong of fakey-looking field-stone, with ivy clinging to one end. The roofline is as crenellated as a castle’s, the “moat” a wide band of asphalt paving. City fire codes apparently necessitated the addition of fire escapes that angle down the building now on all sides, looking somehow more perilous than the possibility of fire. The property is considered prime real estate and I wondered who would house the poor if the bed space were bought out from under them. For most of the year, the climate in this part of California is mild enough to allow the drifters to sleep outdoors, which they seem to prefer. Seasonally, however, there are weeks of rain… even occasionally someone with a butcher knife intent on slitting their throats. The mission offers safe sleeping for the night, three hot meals a day, and a place to roll cigarettes out of the wind.

I picked up cooking odors as I approached-bulk hamburger with chili seasoning. As usual, I couldn’t remember eating lunch and here it was nearly dinnertime again. The sign outside indicated prayer services at 7:00 every night and Hot Showers amp; Shaves on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. I stepped inside. The walls were painted glossy beige on top and shoe brown below. Hand-lettered signs pointed me to the dining room and chapel on the left. I followed the low murmur of conversation and the clatter of silverware. On the right, through a doorway, I spotted the dining room-long metal folding tables covered with paper, metal folding chairs filled with men. Nobody paid any attention to me. I could see serving plates stacked high with soft white bread, bowls of applesauce sprinkled with cinnamon, salads of iceberg lettuce that glistened with bottled dressing. The table seated twenty, already bent to their evening meal of chili served over elbow macaroni. Another fifteen or twenty men sat obediently in the “chapel” to my left, which consisted of a lectern, an old upright piano, orange molded plastic chairs, and an imposing cross on the wall.

The scruffy drifter I was looking for sat in the back row with his friend. Slogans everywhere assured me that Jesus cared, and that certainly seemed true here. What impressed me most was the fact that Redemption Mission (according to the wall signs) was supported by private donations, with little or no connection to the government.

“May I help you?”

The man who’d approached me was in his sixties, heavyset, clean-shaven, wearing a red short-sleeved cotton shirt and baggy pants. He had one normal arm and one that ended at the elbow in a twist of flesh like the curled top of a Mr. Softee ice cream cone. I wanted to introduce myself, shaking hands, but the stump was on the right and I didn’t have the nerve. I took out a, business card instead, handing it to him.

“I wonder if I might have a word with one of your clients?”

His beefy brow furrowed. “What’s this about?” “Well, I think he retrieved some articles I’m looking for from a trash can at the beach. I want to find out if he still has them in his cart. It will only take a minute.” “You see him in here?”

I indicated the one who interested me.

“You’ll have to talk to the both of them,” the man said. “Delphi’s the fellow you want, but he don’t talk. His buddy does all the talking. His name is Clare. I’ll bring them out if you’ll wait out there in the corridor. They got their shopping carts on the back patio. I’d go easy about them carts. They get a might possessive of their treasures sometimes.”

I thanked him and retraced my steps, lingering in the entranceway until Delphi and Clare appeared. Delphi had shed some of his overcoats, but he wore the same dark watch cap and his skin had the same dusky red tone. His friend Clare was tall and gaunt with a very pink tongue that crept out of his mouth through the gap left by his missing front teeth. His hair was a silky white, rather sparse, his arms long and stringy, hands huge. Delphi made no eye contact at all, but Clare turned out to have some residual charm, left over perhaps from the days before he started to drink.

I explained who I was and what I was looking for. I saw Delphi look at Clare with the haunted subservience of a dog accustomed to being hit. Clare may have been the only human being in the world who didn’t frighten or abuse him and he evidently depended on Clare to handle interactions of this kind.

“Yep. I know the ones. High heels in black suede. Green wool skirt. Delphi here was pleased. Usually it’s slim pickin’s around that bin. Aluminum cans is about the best you can hope for, but he got lucky, I guess.”

“Does he still have the items?”

The tongue crept out with a crafty life of its own, so pink it looked like Clare had been sucking red hots. “I can ask,” he said.

“Would you do that?”

Clare turned to Delphi. “What do you think, Delphi? Shall we give this little gal what she wants? Up to you.”

Delphi gave no evidence whatever of hearing, absorbing, or assenting. Clare waited a decent interval.

“Now that’s tough,” Clare said to me. “That was his best day and he likes that green skirt.”

“I could reimburse him,” I said tentatively. I didn’t want to insult these guys.

Out came the tongue, like some shy creature peering from its lair. Delphi’s hearing seemed to improve. He shifted slightly. I left Clare to translate this movement into dollars and cents.

“A twenty might cover it,” Clare said at length.

I only had a twenty on me, but I took it out of the zippered compartment in my black handbag. I offered it to Delphi. Clare interceded. “Hold that until we’ve done our business. Let’s step outside.”

I filed after them along a short corridor to a back exit that opened on a small concrete patio surrounded on three sides by an openwork fence made of lathing. Someone had “landscaped” the entire area in annuals planted in coffee cans and big industrial-sized containers that had held green beans and applesauce. Delphi stood by, looking on anxiously, while Clare pawed through one of the shopping carts. He seemed to know exactly where the shoes and skirt were located, whisking them out in no time flat. He passed them over to me and I handed him the twenty. It felt somehow like an illicit drug sale and I had visions of them buying a jug of Mad Dog 20-20 after I’d left. Clare held the bill up for Delphi to inspect, then he glanced at me.

“Don’t you worry. We’ll put this in the collection plate,” Clare said. “Delphi and me have give up drink.” I thought Clare seemed happier about it than Delphi did.

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