Chapter 10

When I got back to the office, I picked up a message slip on which Jeniffer had written, “Richard Heaven called. Pleas return his call.” I could actually feel my heart begin to thump as I moved down the corridor to my office and unlocked the door. I hadn’t expected to hear from him until Wednesday at the earliest. I dumped my shoulder bag on the desk and snatched up the telephone. I got a wrong number twice before I realized that Jeniffer had inverted the last two digits in the number she’d so laboriously copied. I reached Richard on the third try, saying, “Richard. Kinsey Millhone returning your call.”

“Oh sure. Thanks for calling me back. How’re you?”

“Fine. What can I do for you?”

“Uh, well, listen, I’ve been through the rest of these applicants and none of them panned out. Bunch of bums out there. The place is yours if you want it.”

“Really? That’s great. I’m really happy about that. When can I take possession?”

“I’m heading over there now. If you have a few minutes, maybe you could give me a check. That’s $1,675 with the cleaning deposit, made out to Hevener Properties.”

“Sure, I could do that. I’m just across the alley. The building I’m in now looks right down on yours.”

“I didn’t realize that. Why don’t you join me in a bit and as soon as the lease is signed, I’ll give you the key.” Like many people, he seemed to be uncomfortable discussing money, and I wondered how much experience he had in landlord-tenant relationships.

“What time?”

“Ten, fifteen minutes?”

“I’ll see you shortly. And thanks.”

As soon as I hung up I did a little dance of joy, my attention already darting forward to the practicalities of moving. Fortunately, I’d never completely unpacked in the three years since I’d landed at Kingman and Ives, so that would save time. Desk, chair, daybed, phony ficus plant. This was going to be a snap. I could park in my own spot a mere fifteen steps from my office door. I could eat lunches at the table on the redwood deck…

I opened my closet door and hauled out the top two boxes, looking for my tape measure, which I found at the bottom of the second box. The tape was one of those heavy-duty metal suckers with a reel-back so fast it would slice off your little finger if you didn’t watch yourself. I tucked it in my shoulder bag, grabbed a yellow legal pad and pencil, made sure my message machine was on, then shrugged into my slicker and walked to my brand-new digs. I felt like skipping and then I wondered if kids ever did that these days.

I was already feeling extraordinarily possessive as I trotted along the driveway from the rear of the lot. While I could see the bungalow from Lonnie’s office, I had to go halfway around the block and cut down the alleyway to reach the place. There were lights on throughout the bungalow and by hopping up just once, I caught a glimpse of the CPA who occupied the front office. I’d have to take a moment to introduce myself when time allowed. I rounded the corner, noting a sedate-looking dark blue sedan that I assumed belonged to the CPA. Tommy’s black pickup was parked two slots down.

Once inside the backdoor, I was careful to wipe my feet on the shaggy cotton door mat provided for that purpose. The door to the back office was standing open and I could smell fresh paint. I peered in and found Tommy on his hands and knees, touching up the baseboards with a brush and a can of white latex paint. He flashed me a quick smile and continued with his work. He was wearing a khaki green coverall, and I was struck again by the vibrancy of the picture he presented. By day, his red hair carried glints of copper and a sheen of pale freckles seemed to make his skin ruddy.

I said, “Hi. How are you?”

“Doing good. Thought I’d get this finished while I had the chance. I hear you’re the new tenant.”

“Well, it looks that way. Richard said he’d meet me over here to do the paperwork.” There was something nice about the fact that his attention was fixed on the job in front of him. It allowed me to study his shoulders and the soft reddish hair on his forearms where his sleeves were rolled up. I could see the lines in his knuckles where a fine bleed of white paint still clung to his skin. The hair along the back of his neck was in need of cutting and curled haphazardly.

He glanced over his shoulder at me. “Thought maybe you left, you’re so quiet back there.”

“I’m here.” I moved over to the window just to have something to do. “The deck’s great.” Really, I was wondering if he had a girlfriend.

“I built that myself. I was thinking to add some trellising, but it seemed like overkill.”

“Looks nice as it is. Is that redwood?”

“Yes ma’am. Clear heart. I don’t like cheap materials. Richard bitches about that, but I figure in the end it’ll save us money. Anything cheap, you end up doing twice.”

I couldn’t think of anything to add to that. I cranked the window open and cranked it shut again. Idly, I lifted the telephone handset. I could hear a dial tone.

“You got a call to make?”

“I just wondered if it worked. I guess I’ll have to talk to the phone company and have the service switched.”

“How’s the boyfriend?”

“He’s fine.”

Another pause while Tommy dipped the brush in the can. “Hope he’s treating you good.”

“Actually, he’s out of town.” I winced when I said it because it sounded like a come-on.

“What’s he do for a living? He some fancy-pants attorney?”

“He’s a P.I. like me. Semiretired. He was laid up for a while with a knee replacement.” Mentally, I crossed my eyes. The way I was describing Dietz made him sound like some an old geezer who could barely walk. In truth, Dietz had been gone so long that my claiming him as a boyfriend was patently ridiculous.

“Sounds old.”

“He’s not. He’s only fifty-three.”

Tommy smiled to himself. “Now see? I knew you’d be the type to go for somebody old. What are you, thirty-five?”

“Thirty-six.”

“I’m twenty-eight myself, which I figure is prime for a guy,” he remarked. He lifted his head slightly. “Here comes Richard.”

“How do you do that? I didn’t hear him pull in.”

“Radar,” he said. He got to his feet and stood there for a moment, running a critical eye along the baseboard. “I miss any spots?”

“Not as far as I can see.”

Tommy found the lid for the can of paint and tapped along the edges to effect a seal.

Richard appeared in the doorway wearing a long black raincoat with the ends of the belt tied together in the back. He wasn’t nearly as appealing as his brother and certainly not as friendly, meeting my gaze with only an occasional flicker of his eyes. “I thought you had something else to do today,” he said to Tommy.

“Yeah, well I wanted to finish this. I don’t like leaving a job until I know it’s done right.” Tommy delivered his lines without looking at his brother.

There was something edgy going on between them, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. They seemed chilly with each other, as though their current conversation were part of an ongoing argument. Tommy went into the bathroom where I could hear him running water to clean his paintbrush. He came out moments later and began to gather up his tools. It felt like a replay of the night I’d first seen the place, except that neither of them spoke.

“Let me write you that check,” I said, trying to inject a warmer note. I reached for my bag and took out the checkbook and a pen, leaning against the wall while I filled in the date. “Hevener Properties, Inc.?”

“That’s right.” Richard stood with his hands in his raincoat pockets, watching me idly as I wrote in the amount. Meanwhile, as Tommy headed for the door, I saw the two exchange a glance. His gaze moved to mine and he smiled at me fleetingly before he disappeared through the door.

I ripped the check from the book and handed it to Richard, who removed the lease from the inner pocket of his raincoat. He’d already filled in the relevant blanks. I began to read through the lines of minuscule print while Richard studied me.

“I hope he’s not bothering you.”

“Who, Tommy? Not at all. We were chatting about the deck. I stopped by to take some measurements. I’d like to put in some shelves.”

“Of course. Everything look okay to you?”

“Fine. He did a great job.”

“When are you moving?”

“I’m hoping the early part of next week.”

“Good. Here’s my card. I’m the one you should call if you need anything.”

I turned my attention to the lease agreement, reading it line by line. Seemed like standard fare; no tricks, no hidden clauses, no unusual restrictions.

Richard was watching me read. “What kind of cases do you handle?”

“Just about anything. It varies. Right now, I’m looking into the disappearance of a doctor who’s been gone for nearly ten weeks. January, I did a search for a missing heir.”

“Mostly local?”

“For the most part, yes. Occasionally I go out of state, but it’s usually cheaper for a client to hire a P.I. in their own geographic area. That way they don’t have to pay travel, which can really add up.” I scribbled my name at the bottom of the lease, handed him one copy, and kept the other for my files. “I’m always saying this, but the job’s a lot duller than it sounds. Background checks and paper searches at the Hall of Records. I used to be associated with an insurance company, handling arson and wrongful death claims, but I prefer being out on my own.” I didn’t want to appear shiftless so I omitted the fact that CF had fired my sorry butt. I hoped he wouldn’t press the point because I didn’t want to lie to him this early in the game.

He said, “Well. I better give you a key.” He dug in his raincoat pocket and pulled out a ring, sorting through ten to fifteen keys until he found the one he wanted. He freed it and dropped it in the palm of my hand. “You might want to get a second one made in case you lose this.”

“I’ll do that. Thanks.” I took out my key ring and added it to my modest collection.

After he departed, I pulled out my tape measure and began to lay out the dimensions of the room: the spaces between windows, depth of the closet, distance to the door. I made a crude drawing on my legal pad and then I sat in the middle of the carpet, tapping on my lip with my pencil while I studied the room. Between the smell of new carpet and the scent of fresh paint, the office seemed as clean and as slick as a brand-new car. Outside the window, the day was dreary, but inside, where I was, there was a sense of new beginnings.

I was just about to pack up when the phone rang. I must have jumped a foot and then I stared at the instrument. Someone looking for Richard or Tommy; couldn’t be for me. I picked up on the fifth ring, feeling hesitant. “Hello?”

The drawl again. “Hey, it’s me. My brother still there?”

“He just left.”

“I thought maybe the two of us might go out for a drink.” His voice on the phone was low and flirtatious. I could tell he was smiling, holding the handset close to his lips.

“Why?”

“Why?” His laugh bubbled up. “Why do you think?”

“Is there a problem between you and Richard?”

“Such as what?”

“I don’t know. I got the feeling he didn’t like the fact that you were talking to me. So, you know, you ask me out for a drink and I’m not sure it’s wise.”

“You’re a tenant. He’s strict. That still doesn’t make it any of his damn business.”

“I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

He laughed. “Don’t worry about it. I can take care of myself.”

“I didn’t mean it that way. I don’t want to cause problems.”

“I told you. It’s not a problem. Quit trying to duck the question and let me buy you a glass of wine.”

“It’s only four o’clock.”

“So?”

“I have work to do yet.”

“When will you finish?”

“Probably closer to six.”

“Good. We’ll make it dinner instead.”

“Not dinner. A drink. And only one,” I said.

“You’re callin’ the shots. Name the place and I’ll be there.”

I thought for a moment, tempted by the idea of Rosie’s, which was off the beaten path. This all felt faintly sneaky, like it wouldn’t be good for Richard to see us together. Still, I couldn’t see the harm in having one drink. “There’s a place near the beach,” I said, and gave him Rosie’s address. “You know where that is?”

“I’ll find it.”

“I may be late.”

“I’ll wait.”

After I hung up, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. It’s not a smart move to mix the professional with the personal. He was my landlord now and if anything went wrong, I’d be looking for new digs. On the other hand, I was friendly with Lonnie Kingman and that hadn’t presented any problems. It did cheer me up, the notion of seeing him again. With luck, he’d turn out to be a jerk and I’d politely decline any further contact.

In the meantime, I knew I had to get down to the business of Dow Purcell. I’d go back to square one, starting at Pacific Meadows and the night he vanished from the face of the earth.

This time the parking lot at Pacific Meadows was full. I tucked my VW in the very last slot on the left, squeezing up against the hedge. I locked my car and slopped through shallow puddles to the front door. The wind was blowing at my back and my leather boots were water-stained by the time I reached shelter. I leaned my umbrella against the wall and hung my slicker on a peg. Today the air smelled of tomato sauce, carnations, damp wool socks, potting soil, baby powder. I checked the dinner menu posted on the wall near the double dining room doors. Barbecued riblet, baked beans, broccoli-and-cauliflower medley (now there was a winner), and for dessert, gelatin with fruit cocktail. I hoped it was cherry, clearly the superior flavor for any age group. As this was a weekday, there seemed to be more residents moving about in the hall.

The dayroom was nearly full. The drapes had been closed and the room felt cozier. One group watched a television news show, while another group watched a black-and-white movie with Ida Lupino and George Raft. In the far corner, a middle-aged woman was leading six elderly female residents in an exercise program, which consisted of lifting their arms and marching their feet while they remained seated in folding chairs. The human body was meant for motion, and this small group of women was still doing what they could to keep fit. Hooray for them.

I nodded at the woman at the front desk, behaving as though I were an old hand at this. Unchallenged, I proceeded to Administration, where I found Merry laying out a hand of solitaire. She looked up with guilt, pulled the cards together, and quickly slid them into her pencil drawer. She said, “Hi. How are you?” I could tell she’d recognized my face but was drawing a blank on the name.

“Kinsey Millhone,” I said. “I thought I’d stop by and see if Mrs. Stegler was here. I hope she hasn’t left for the day.”

Merry pointed to her right just as a woman emerged from the inner office with a pair of gardening clippers and a cluster of bald and brownish ivy vines. She was saying, “That looks much better. Dr. P. would never allow me to tend to his plants when he was here.” She was slightly disconcerted to see me, but she continued on to the waste-basket, where she deposited her prunings.

Her hair was bushy on top and cut quite short around the ears. She wore an oversized brown blazer, a shirt, a tie, and a pair of mannish pants. She had a gold silk cravat bunched in the breast pocket of her jacket. The toes of her brown oxfords peered from beneath her shapeless trouser legs, she could have used another two inches in the length.

“Mrs. Stegler? My name’s Kinsey Millhone. I’m hoping you can give me some information about Dr. Purcell.”

She plucked a tissue from the box on Merry’s desk and wiped her hands carefully before she finally offered to shake hands. “Merry said you stopped by on Saturday. I’m not certain I can be of help. I make it a policy not to discuss my employer without his express permission.”

“I understand that,” I said. “I’m not asking you to violate a confidence. You know Fiona Purcell?”

“Of course. Dr. Purcell’s first wife.”

“She hired me in hopes I could get a line on him. I’m actually here at her suggestion. She felt a conversation with you was the logical place to begin.”

Mrs. Stegler shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I was gone by the time the doctor left the building that night,” she said, almost stubbornly. I could tell she was happy she had nothing to contribute on the subject.

“Did you talk to him that day?”

Mrs. Stegler gave me a significant look and signaled with her eyes that Merry was listening to every word we said. “Perhaps you’d like to step into his office. We can talk in there.”

She held open the hinged section of the counter and I passed inside. Her eyes were as small and as round as a parakeet’s, a pale watery blue with a ring of black around the iris. As we entered the inner office, she turned to Merry. “Please see that we’re not disturbed.”

Merry said, “Yes ma’am,” rolling her eyes at no one in particular.

For my part, I was intrigued by the opportunity to see Dr. Purcell’s office, which was small and neat. Desk, swivel chair, two upholstered guest chairs, and a bookcase filled with medical textbooks and assorted health care manuals. On the edge of his desk sat the newly shorn ivy, looking like a cocker spaniel with a summer clip. I’d have given a lot for the chance to go through his desk drawers, but the chances of that looked dim.

It was clear Mrs. Stegler thought it inappropriate to sit at his desk. She perched on one of his guest chairs and I took the other, which put us nearly knee to knee. She scooted her chair back and crossed her legs, exposing a band of narrow, white hairless shin above the rim of her wool sock.

I said, “I hope this doesn’t seem out of line, but I have to tell you I can’t stand gossip. Even in my line of work, I never encourage anyone to talk out of turn or breach a trust, especially in a matter like this.” She looked at me with a hint of suspicion, perhaps sensing the bullshit, perhaps not. “We’re in accord on that.”

“I’d appreciate your telling me about his last day at work.”

“I explained all that to the police. More than once, I might add.”

“I’m hoping you’ll explain it again to me. Detective Odessa told me you were very helpful.”

She peered uneasily at my shoulder bag resting on the floor by my chair. “You’re not recording this.”

I leaned over, grabbed the bag, and held it open so she could inspect the contents. The only thing that looked even vaguely like a recorder was my government-issue, secret, plastic tampon container with its high-powered directional mike.

“And you won’t quote me out of context?”

“I won’t quote you at all.”

She was silent, staring down at her lap. Finally, she said, “I’ve been divorced for years.”

She was silent again and I allowed the subject to sit there between us without comment on my part or elucidation on hers. I could see that she was struggling to speak. Her face twisted suddenly, her lips pulling together as though controlled by invisible strings. She spoke, but her voice was so tight and so raspy I could hardly understand what she said. “Dr. Purcell… was the closest… thing to a… friend I had. I can’t believe he’s gone. I came into work the following Monday morning and by then everyone was whispering that he was… missing. I was shocked. He was… such a sweet man… I so adored him… If I’d known that was the last time I was going to see him, I would have expressed… my heartfelt thanks… for all his many, many… kindnesses to me.” She took another deep breath, humming with the kind of sorrow that didn’t lend itself to words. After half a minute, she seemed to regain her composure, though her grip was clearly fragile. She removed the cravat from her breast pocket and blew her nose noisily. The silk didn’t seem absorbent. She folded her hands together in her lap, the wadded cloth between her fingers where she twisted it. I could see a tear plop into her lap and then a second, like a slow drip from a shower handle that hasn’t been properly turned off.

I realized she was the first person, aside from Blanche, who’d shown any real emotional reaction to his vanishing. I leaned forward and clutched her cold hands. “I know this is hard. Take your time.”

She took a deep breath. “Forgive me. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t burden you this way. I just hope he’s safe. I don’t care what he’s done.” She paused, pressing the cravat against her lips. She took another deep breath. “I’m fine now. I’m fine. I don’t know what came over me. My apologies.”

“I understand. From everything I’ve heard, he was a wonderful man. My only purpose here is to help. You have to trust me on that. I’m not here to make trouble.”

“What do you want?”

“Just tell me what you know.”

She hesitated, her no-gossip policy too deeply ingrained to give up all at once. She must have decided to trust me because she took a deep breath and opened up. “That last day, he seemed preoccupied. I think he was worried… I mean, why wouldn’t he be? Mrs. Purcell… excuse me, the first one, Fiona… stopped by to see him, but he’d gone out to lunch. She waited for a while, thinking he might return, and then she left him a note. When he came back, he worked in his office for the rest of the day. I remember he had a glass of whiskey sitting at his desk. This was late in the day.”

“Did he go out for dinner?”

“I don’t believe so. He usually ate quite late or skipped supper altogether. Many evenings, he had a little something at his desk… crackers or fruit… this was if his wife was going out and wouldn’t be cooking. When I tapped on his door to say good-night, he was just sitting there.”

“Did he have papers in front of him? Files or charts?”

“He must have. I didn’t pay attention. It wasn’t in his nature to be idle. I do know that.”

“You had a conversation?”

“The usual pleasantries. Nothing significant.”

“Any phone calls or visitors that you know of?” She shook her head. “Not that I remember. When I came in the following Monday, his office was empty, highly unusual for him. He was always here at seven o’clock, before anyone else. By then, the rumors were beginning to circulate. Someone… I forget who… said he’d never gone home at all on Friday night. At first we didn’t attach much to it. Then, people got worried he’d been in an accident or taken ill. When the police came, we were frightened, but we still expected him to be found within a day or two. I’ve thought and thought about this, but there’s absolutely nothing else.”

“Didn’t I read in the paper he had a brief chat that night with an elderly woman sitting in the lobby?”

“That would be Mrs. Curtsinger. Ruby. She’s been a resident here since 1975. I’ll have Merry take you over to her room. I don’t want you upsetting her.”

“I promise I won’t.”

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