I returned to the office to find that Jill and Ida Ruth had left a note on my door: “Kinsey-Below is an itemized record of Jeniffer’s tardy days, screwups, and unexplained absences. Please add any other incidents you know of, sign this, and leave it on my desk. We think it’s best if we present a unified front. We mean business! Ida Ruth.”
I dropped the list in my trash and put a call through to Crystal Purcell at the house in Horton Ravine. The housekeeper informed me she’d left for the beach house, where she’d be spending the weekend, one gave me the number, which I dialed as soon as we’d hung up. I hoped the woman who answered would be Crystal, but when I asked or her by name, I was put on hold until a second woman picked up. “This is Crystal,” she said.
A identified myself by name and occupation, hoping she wouldn’t be annoyed by the idea of yet another detective. According to the newspapers, she’d already talked to investigators from the Santa Teresa Police Department. I told her I’d met with Fiona that morning and that she’d asked me to look into Dr. Purcell’s disappearance. “I know you’ve gone over the subject repeatedly, but I’d appreciate hearing the story from you, if you can bear telling it again.”
There was a momentary pause wherein I could have sworn she was practicing her Zen deep breathing. “This is very hard.”
“I’m aware of that and I’m sorry.”
“That’s entirely up to you. The sooner the better.”
There was another pause. “How much are you charging?”
“Fiona? Fifty an hour, which is on the low end of the scale. A big-city private eye is paid twice that.” Briefly I wondered why I sounded so apologetic. Maybe she’d prefer to chat with someone whose services were worth more.
“Stop by at five. I’m on Paloma Lane.” She gave me the number. “Do you know where that is?”
“I can find it. I’ll try not to take too much of your time.”
“Take all you want. Fiona’s the one paying.”
I left the office at four o’clock, stopping by my apartment on my way to Crystal’s beach house. The accumulating cloud cover had generated an artificial twilight, and the smell of gathering rain had infused the air. I’d left windows open in the loft and I wanted to get the place buttoned down properly against the coming storm. I parked the car out in front and pushed through the gate with its reassuring whine and squeak. I followed the narrow concrete walk around the side of the building to the backyard.
My apartment was formerly a single-car garage converted into living quarters. My studio consists of a small living room, with a sofa bed for guests tucked into a bay window, a built-in desk, a kitchenette, a stacking washer-dryer combination, and a bathroom downstairs.
Above, accessible by a tiny spiral staircase, I have a sleeping loft with a platform bed and a second bathroom. The interior resembles a sturdy little seagoing vessel, complete with a porthole in the front door, teak-paneled walls, and sufficient nooks and crannies, cubbyholes, and niches to accommodate my small store of possessions. The best part of all is the good soul who makes this possible, my landlord, Henry Pitts. He’s eighty-six years old, handsome, thrifty, energetic, and competent. He worked as a commercial baker for most of his professional life and even in retirement, can’t quite give up his addiction to breads, pies, and cakes. He not only produces a steady stream of baked goods, but he caters luncheons and high teas for all the old ladies in the neighborhood. In addition, he trades his fresh breads and dinner rolls for meals at the corner tavern, where he eats three to four nights a week.
At the head of the driveway, I could see Henry’s garage door standing open, though both vehicles were in place. As I turned left onto the patio, I spotted him on a ladder outside his bedroom, putting up the last of his storm windows. He wore shorts and a tank top, his long legs looking knotty, his tan all but faded now that “winter” was here. The Santa Teresa temperatures never drop much below fifty, but he’s originally from Michigan, and despite the fact he’s been in Southern California more than forty years, his lingering attachment to the seasons dictates the installation of window screens in late spring and storm windows in late fall. The weather itself is immaterial to him.
The patio was still littered with cleaning supplies: the garden hose, wads of crumpled newspaper, a wire brush, a bucket of water mixed with vinegar, and numerous sponges gray with soot. Henry waved from his perch and then eased carefully down the ladder, whistling tunelessly to himself. I paused to help him clean up, tossing dingy water in the bushes while he rewound the hose into a terra-cotta pot. “You’re home early,” he remarked.
I thought I better close my windows before the rain, assuming we’ll actually have some,” I said. Henry’d often complained that the rain in California lacked the bluster and theatrics of a good Midwestern storm. Many times the promised rain failed to materialize at all or arrived in a form barely sufficient to wet the pavement. We’re seldom treated to the displays of thunder and lightning he remembers with such enthusiasm from his Michigan youth.
Henry said, “Why didn’t you call? I could have saved you a trip. Stick the brush in that bucket. I’ll take it in with me when I go.”
“This was right on my way. I have an appointment at five o’clock down on Paloma Lane so I was heading in this direction. Any excuse to avoid the office. Too much nonsense for my taste.”
“How’s the search for new space?”
I waggled my hand back and forth, indicating not so good. “Something will come up. Meanwhile, I have a new client. At least I’m ninety-nine percent sure.”
“Why the hesitation?”
“Might be the aggravation at the office, spilling over into this. I am interested in the case, but I’m not convinced I can be effective. This is the doctor who’s been missing.”
“I remember reading about that. Still no sign of him?”
“Nope. His ex-wife thinks the cops aren’t showing the proper initiative. Frankly, she strikes me as the type who likes to make people jump through hoops.”
“You’ll do fine.” With that, he returned to the ladder, which he collapsed and carried back across the patio to the garage. I watched him ease around his 1932 Chevy coup and hang the ladder on the wall. His garage is lined with pegboard, with the location for each item neatly silhouetted in paint. “You have time for some tea?” he asked, coming back across the yard.
I glanced at my watch. “Better not. I’ll see you later up at Rosie’s.”
“I’ll be there closer to seven than to six. She’s actually on her way over so I better get washed up. She’s asked me for help, but she won’t say with what.”
I said, “Uh-oh.”
He waved dismissively. “It’s probably something simple. I don’t mind a bit. If she shows while I’m gone, tell her I’ll be back in a flash, as soon as I’ve cleaned up.”
Henry crossed to his backdoor and went into the kitchen, where I could see him through the window, scrubbing up at the sink. He smiled when he caught my eye and started whistling to himself again.
I turned when I heard the gate squeak. Rosie appeared moments later, toting a brown paper bag. She owns the Hungarian tavern where Henry’s older brother, William, now functions as the manager. William and Rosie were married Thanksgiving Day the year before, and they live in an apartment above her restaurant, which is half a block away. William is eighty-seven years old, and where Rosie once swore she was in her sixties, she now admits to being in her seventies, though she won’t specify where. She’s short and top-heavy with a coquettish cap of red hair dyed the color of Florida oranges. As usual, she was wearing a muu-muu, this one a gaudy jungle of orange and gold, the skirt lifting, sail-like, against the rising wind. She brightened when she saw me. “Kinsey, is good. Here’s for Henry,” she said, opening the bag for me.
I peered at the contents, half-expecting to see kittens. “What is that? Is that trash?”
Rosie shifted her weight from one foot to the other, refusing to make eye contact, a strategy she employs when she’s guilty, ill at ease, or maneuvering like crazy. “Is my sister Klotilde’s medical bills for hospital and after she died. Henry’s going to explain. I can’t make into heads or tails with this.” Rosie’s perfectly capable of speaking grammatically. She only butchers vocabulary and syntax when she’s trying to seem helpless, thus conning you into doing her some outrageous favor. This is especially true when she’s dealing with her state and federal taxes, which Henry’s done without a murmur for the past six years. Now slyly, she said, “You gonna help I hope. He shouldn’t do by himself. Is not fair.”
“Why can’t William pitch in?”
“Klotilde preferred Henry.”
“But she’s deceased,” I said.
“Before she deceased herself, she preferred,” she said, smiling coyly, as though that cinched it.
I dropped the argument. It was really up to Henry, though it irritated me intensely that she’d take advantage of him. The Klotilde in question was Rosie’s cranky older sister. I’d never been able to pronounce her Hungarian surname, which abounded in consonants and strange punctuation marks. She’d suffered for years from an unspecified degenerative disease. She’d used a wheelchair since she was in her fifties, plagued by a variety of other ailments that necessitated copious medications and numerous hospital stays. Finally, in her seventies, she’d been advised to undergo hip-replacement surgery. This was in April, some seven months back. Though the surgery had been successful, Klotilde had been outraged by the rigors of convalescence. She’d resisted all attempts to get her on her feet, balked at nourishment, refused to use a bedpan, pulled out catheters and feeding tubes, flung her pills at the nurses, and sabotaged her physical therapy. After the customary five days in the hospital, she was moved to a nursing home where, over the course of the next several weeks, she began to decline. She’d finally succumbed to pneumonia, dysphagia, malnutrition, and kidney failure. Rosie had not been exactly stricken when she “passed.”
“She should have passed along time ago,” said she. “She’s a pain in the patooty. That’s what happens when you don’t behave. She should have done what doctor say. She shouldn’t never resist help when he know best. Now I got this and I don’t know what to do with. Here you take.”
Judging from the weight and heft of the bag, she’d gotten into some resistance of her own, letting all the paperwork pile up. It’d take Henry weeks to get everything sorted out. He emerged from the backdoor and crossed the patio to us. He’d changed out of his tank top and shorts into a flannel shirt and long pants.
“I gotta scoot,” I said, and set the bag on the ground. Henry peered in. “Is this trash?”
By the time I let myself into my apartment, he was already hauling the bag toward his kitchen door, nodding sympathetically while Rosie lurched through an tortured explanation of her plight.
I dropped my shoulder bag on a kitchen stool while I circled the apartment, closing windows and locking them. I turned on lamps as I went so the place would look cheerful when I got home. Upstairs, pulled on a clean white turtleneck, which I wore with my jeans. I shrugged back into my gray tweed blazer, traded my Sauconys for black boots, and studied myself in the bathroom mirror. The effect was just what you’d expect: a tweed blazer with jeans. Works for me, I thought.
Paloma Lane is a shady two-lane road that runs between Highway 101 land the Pacific Ocean, sharing the irregular strip of land with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Despite the proximity to the freight and passenger trains thundering past twice daily, many houses along Paloma sell in the millions, depending on the number of linear feet of beachfront a property claims. The houses vary in style from |Pseudo-Cape Cod to Mock Tudor to Faux Mediterranean to Contemporary. All are situated as far away from the railroad tracks as possible and as close to the sand as county setbacks permit. Crystal Purcell’s lot was one of the few without electronic gates. The house next door, to the left of hers, bore a discreet For Sale sign with a PRICE REDUCED banner across the center.
Crystal’s house filled the narrow lot. The glass-and-cedar structure was probably forty feet wide and three stories high, each floor angled strategically to keep the neighboring houses out of sight. To the left, an open carport sheltered a silver Audi convertible and a new white Volvo, with a vanity license plate that read CRYSTAL. The end slot was free; probably where Dow Purcell had parked his Mercedes. To the right, there was room for an additional three cars on the gravel stretch where I parked my slightly dinged 1974 VW.
The rear facade of the house was austere, a windowless wall of weathering wood. On either side of the door, a row of thirty-foot fan palms had been planted in enormous black jars. I trudged across the gravel to the entrance and rang the bell. The woman who answered the door carried a wide martini glass by the rim. She said, “You must be Kinsey. I’m Anica Blackburn. Nica’s the name most people use. Why don’t you come in? Crystal’s just finished her run. She’ll be down in a bit. I told her I’d let you in before I headed home.” Her dark auburn hair was slicked back, strands looking wet as though she was fresh from the shower. A faint, damp heat seemed to rise from her skin, which smelled of French milled soap. Her body was slim and straight. She wore a black silk shirt, crisply pressed jeans, and no shoes. Her bare feet were long and elegant.
I stepped into the foyer. The lower level widened from the entry, expanding into a great room that utilized the entire width of the house. Tall windows looked out onto a weathered wooden deck with worn canvas chairs bleached to a hue somewhere between putty and dun. The floors were a pale wood, covered with pale sisal carpeting, probably selected for its ability to disguise sand tracked in from the beach. Everything else within view, from the walls to woodwork to the plump upholstered furniture dressed in wrinkled linen slipcovers, was as white as whole milk.
Beyond the deck, there was an apron of scruffy grass about ten yards wide. Beyond the grass, the ocean looked cold and unforgiving in the late-afternoon light. The sea was a pearly gray, dark at the horizon where the water and cloud cover met and melded into one somber mass. The surf tumbled monotonously against the shoreline. Waves relaxed and fanned out, reached, hesitated, and then withdrew again. Inside, somewhere above, I could hear voices raised in heat.
“SHUT UP! That’s bullshit. You are such a bitch. I HATE you!…”
The reply was low and firm, but apparently ineffective.
A shrieking invective was hurled in response. A door slammed once and then slammed again so hard it made the windows shake.
I glanced at Nica, who had her face upturned, regarding the ceiling with an air of bemusement. “Leila’s home for the weekend-Crystal’s only daughter, age fourteen. That’s skirmish number one. Trust me, the fights will escalate as the hours wear on. By Sunday, it’s all-out war, but then it’s back to school for her. Next weekend they start in again, and so it goes.” She gestured for me to follow and then moved into the great room and took a seat on the couch.
“She’s in boarding school?” I asked.
“Fitch Academy. Malibu. I’m the school guidance counselor and I provide personal transportation to and from. Not part of my duties. As it happens, I rent a house two doors down.” She had strong, arched brows over dark eyes, high cheekbones with a smattering of freckles, and a pale wide mouth, showing perfect white teeth. “This particular Donnybrook is about whether Leila’s going to spend the night with her dad. Four months ago she was fanatical about him. If she couldn’t spend the weekend with him, she’d regale everyone in ear range with loud, shrieking fits. Now they’re on the outs and she refuses to go. Up to this point, she was winning the battle. Once she slams the door, it’s over. She loses big points for that, giving Crystal a tactical advantage.”
“I’d find it difficult.”
“Who doesn’t? Girls her age are melodramatic by nature and Leila’s high-strung. She’s one of the brightest kids we have, but she’s a handful. They all are-except for a few Goody Two-shoes. You never know where you stand with them. Personally, I prefer this, though it does get tedious.”
“Fitch is all girls?”
“Thank God. I’d hate to imagine having to deal with boys that age, too. Can I fix you a drink?”
“I better not, but thanks.”
She finished the last of her martini and then leaned forward and set her empty glass with a click on the light wood coffee table. “I understand you’re here about Dowan.”
“Yes, and I’m sorry to intrude. I’m sure she’s been through a lot since this ordeal began.”
“It can’t be helped.”
“How’s she doing?”
“I’d say fair. Of course, the strain’s been enormous. The days drag on and on, some worse than others. She keeps waiting for the phone to ring, looking for his car. The rumors keep flying, but that’s about all. No real sign of him yet.”
“I’m sure it’s hard.”
“Impossible. It really gets to her. If it weren’t for Griff, I don’t know how she’d manage to keep sane.”
“Where was she that night, this house or the other one, in Horton Ravine?”
Nica pointed at the floor. “They’re usually here on weekends. Crystal’s a Pisces-a water baby. This is more her style than that pretentious pile of shit Fiona built in town. Have you been there?”
“No offense,” she added mildly. “I know she’s your client.” You poor thing went unsaid.
“What about you? When did you hear Dow was missing?”
“Well, I knew something was going on that first night. I’d driven Leila up from Malibu as usual-we arrived about five o’clock-and she went off to her dad’s. He’s her stepfather, really, but he’s helped raise her from infancy. At any rate, Crystal had already talked to Dow when we pulled in from school. He knew he wasn’t going to be free in time for supper, so it was just Crystal and Rand and me.”
“Griff’s nanny. He’s great. He’s been with the baby ever since Griff was born. You’ll meet both in a bit. Rand’ll bring Griff in for his goodnight kiss right after his bath. By then he’s had his supper and he’s ready for bed. On the twelfth, we put together a cold picnic and ate it out on the deck. It was gorgeous-quite clear and very balmy for that time of year; warm enough to linger without sweaters, which is unusual out here. We chatted about nothing in particular while we worked our way through a couple bottles of red wine. At seven forty-five, Rand took Griff and went over to the other house. He’s got a couple of TV shows he likes and he wanted to be there in time to settle in for those.”
“Rand and the baby stay at the house in Horton Ravine?”
“Ordinarily, no. I think Crystal and Dow were looking forward to some time alone. I was probably here until ten o’clock. It wasn’t late, but I was bushed, finally winding down for the week.”
“What time did she expect Dow?”
“Any time after nine. That was usually his pattern when he had to work late. I guess if you’re married to a doctor, you don’t pay much attention to the clock. Crystal fell asleep on the couch. She called me at three in the morning after she woke and saw that he wasn’t here. She thought he might’ve come in late and gone into the guest room to avoid disturbing her. She checked and when she realized he wasn’t there, she came back down and flicked on the outside lights. His car wasn’t there. She put a call through to the clinic and they said he’d been gone for hours. That’s when she called me and I told her to call the cops. She couldn’t file a report until at least seventy-two hours had passed.”
“What was she thinking? Do you remember what she said?”
“The usual. Car accident, heart attack. She thought he might’ve been picked up by the cops.”
“Driving under the influence.”
“Some. Dow always has a couple glasses of whiskey at the clinic when he works late. It’s his reward for putting in the hours above and beyond the call of duty. She’s warned him about driving home afterward, but he always swears he’s fine. She was worried he might’ve run off the road.”
“Was he on medication?”
“Hey, at his age, who isn’t? He’s sixty-nine years old.”
“What went through your mind?”
A brief smile nickered. “Odd you should ask. I thought about Fiona. I’d almost forgotten, but it’s really what popped into my mind the moment I heard.”
“What about Fiona?”
“That she’d finally won. That’s all she’s angled for since the day he left, maneuvering to get him back, using any means she could.” I thought Nica might say more, but she reached for her glass and tilted it to her lips, realizing belatedly she’d finished her drink. She sat forward on the couch. “I should be on my way. Tell Crystal I’ll be at my place whenever she’s done with this.”
She got up and padded as far as the wide French doors.
I watched her cross the deck and disappear, striding down the path and into the sand. From the rear of the house, I could hear the sound of bathwater running, a man murmuring, and then a squeal of childish laughter rebounding against tile walls: two-year-old Griffith with his nanny, Rand.