Lloyd lived on a street called Gramercy Lane, which looped along the foothills, one of those roads that proceeded by fits and starts. I checked my street map of Santa Teresa, looking up the coordinates. I’d have to intercept Gramercy at some point and then check house numbers to see where I was in relation to Lloyd’s address. I left the map open on the passenger seat while I turned the key in the ignition. The rain was picking up again, oversized drops that popped on my hood like gravel being flung up from a roadbed. I flipped on my windshield wipers and glanced at my watch. It was currently 3:15. Between the short November days and the gloom of the rain, twilight seemed to start gathering by 4:00 in the afternoon. At the moment, I felt more like heading for home than cruising the town in search of a runaway teen.
I sailed through the stone gate that marked the front entrance to Horton Ravine and followed the road as it curved around to the right. At the first red light, I glanced at the map again, tilting my head.
Gramercy Lane, or parts of it at any rate, were within a two-mile radius of the Purcell house in the Ravine. If Leila had thumbed a ride from Malibu traveling north on the 101, she’d probably have asked to be let off at Little Pony Road, which was one off-ramp south. The light changed and I eased into the stream of southbound traffic, hugging the outside lane. Little Pony Road was less than a mile away.
The notion of Leila thumbing a ride made my stomach churn. Odds were some decent citizen would offer her a lift, but there was also that freakish chance that she’d miscalculate. Not every soul on the road had her best interests at heart. At fourteen, she still felt invincible. For her, assault, rape, mayhem, and murder were events she read about in the papers, if she read them at all. Perversion and deviance were words on a high school vocabulary list, not vicious behaviors with any relevance to her. I hoped her guardian angels were hovering.
I took the Little Pony off-ramp. At the top, I turned left and headed toward the mountains, scanning both sides of the four-lane road. My windshield wipers were thunking merrily, smearing a swipe of dirt back and forth across the glass. I passed a couple huddled under an umbrella. They were walking on my side of the road with their backs to me. I was looking for Leila on her own so I dismissed them at first. I could tell the two were young. It wasn’t until I passed them, catching a second glimpse in my sideview mirror, that I identified Leila’s cottony white-blond hair and her long, coltish legs. The boy at her side was tall and lean, toting a backpack with the straps arranged awkwardly across the shoulders of his black leather jacket. Both of them wore tight jeans and hiking boots, and their heads were bowed against the rain. I could have sworn the two were sharing a joint. I slowed and pulled in at the curb just ahead of them. In the sideview mirror, I saw Leila hesitate, then drop something on the ground and step on it. As they walked by my car, I leaned over and rolled down the window on the passenger side.
“Can I give you a ride?”
Leila leaned forward, looking across her companion. When she saw me, her expression registered a look of confusion that signaled recognition without context. She knew she knew me, but she didn’t remember how. The kid with her leveled a gaze at me filled with hostility and disdain. I took in the smooth complexion, the rain-bedraggled lank brown hair, the plain white T-shirt visible under the open leather jacket. I was startled by the boobs, since I’d assumed the kid was a male. This had to be Paulie. I could see she was destined to be beautiful even though, at the moment, she was unkempt and had defiance written into every inch of her slender frame. She wasn’t conventionally pretty, but she had a fierce, worldly air: big dark eyes, cheekbones sharpened by poor nutrition. A photographer with the right instincts could make a fortune from the image of belligerent sexuality she projected.
I focused on Leila. “Hi. I’m Kinsey Millhone. We met last Friday at the beach house. I just came from your mom’s. She’s worried about you. You should have let her know you were leaving school.”
“I’m fine, but tell her thanks for her concern.” Leila’s tone was sarcastic. Her flippancy was intended to impress her friend, but the insolence was hard to sustain with rainwater dripping down her face. Two strands of hair were plastered to her cheek and the mascara on her lashes had turned to a watery ink.
“I think you should tell her yourself. She needs to know you’re okay.”
Leila and Paulie exchanged a look. Paulie said something to Leila under her breath; co-conspirators, trying to make the best of the fact they’d been caught. Paulie eased the backpack from her shoulders and passed it to Leila. After a few murmured words, Paulie took off toward the highway at a pace meant to convey nonchalance.
Leila leaned closer to the half-opened window. Her eyes were heavily lined, the lids shadowed with turquoise blue. Her lipstick was dark brown, too harsh a shade for her fragile blond coloring. “You can’t make me go home.”
“I’m not here to make you do anything,” I said. “You might consider getting out of the rain.”
“I will if you promise not to tell Mom who was with me.”
“I’m assuming that’s Paulie.” Leila said nothing, which I took as assent. “Come on. Get in. I’ll drop you off at your dad’s.”, She thought about it briefly, then opened the car door and slid into the passenger seat, shoving her backpack into the cramped space at her feet. Her hair had been bleached so many times it looked synthetic, still arranged in the odd mix of dreadlocks and tufts that must have made the boarding school authorities wring their hands in dismay. Or maybe Fitch was progressive, a school where students were allowed to “express themselves” through outlandish appearances and oddball behaviors. In the body-heated confines of the car, I could smell eau-de-marijuana and the feminine musk of undergarments worn several days too long.
I glanced over my shoulder, checking the flow of traffic behind me, and pulled onto the road once the passing cars had cleared. In my rearview mirror, I could see Paulie’s departing figure, reduced by now to the size of a toy soldier. “How old is Paulie?”
“I take it your mom’s not that fond of her. What’s the problem?”
“Mom doesn’t like anything I do.”
“Why’d you leave school without permission?”
“How’d you know where I was going?” she asked, bypassing the issue of truancy.
“Your mother figured it out. When we get to a phone, I want you to call and tell her where you are. She’s been worried sick.” I didn’t mention royally pissed off as well.
“Why don’t you do it? You’ll turn around and talk to her, anyway.”
“Of course I will. You’re a minor. I’m not going to contribute to your bad behavior.” We drove for a block in silence. Then I said, “I don’t get what’s bugging you.”
“I hate Fitch. That’s what’s bugging me, if it’s any of your business.”
“I thought you got sent to Fitch because you screwed up in public school.”
“I hated it up here, too. Bunch of goof-offs and retards. Everybody was so dumb-I was bored to death. Classes were a joke. I’ve got better things to do.”
We crossed State at the intersection and headed into a residential area called South Rockingham. “What’s wrong with Fitch?”
“The girls are such snobs. All they care about is how much money their fat-ass daddies make.”
“I thought you had friends.”
“Well, I don’t.”
“What about Sherry?”
Leila stole a look at me. “What about her?”
“I’m just wondering how you enjoyed yourself in Malibu.”
“Fine. It was fun.”
“What about Emily?”
“Why are you asking me all these questions?”
“Your mom said you liked riding horses at her place.”
“Emily’s okay. She’s not as bad as some.”
“What else did you do?”
“Nothing. We made grilled cheese sandwiches.”
The arrow on my bullshit meter zinged up into the red zone. I was much better at lying when I was Leila’s age. “Here’s my best guess. I’ll bet you skipped both those visits and spent the weekend with Paulie.”
She said, “Ha ha ha.”
“Come on. ‘Fess up. What difference does it make?”
“I don’t have to respond if I don’t want to.”
“Leila, you asked me to keep my mouth shut. The least you could do is tell me the truth.”
“So what if I saw Paulie? What’s the big deal about that?”
“What about all the other weekends you were supposed to be off visiting classmates?”
Another sullen silence. I tried another tack. “How’d you two meet?”
“You were in Juvenile Hall? When was this?”
“A year ago July. Bunch of us got picked up.”
“The cops said loitering and trespass, which is crap. We weren’t doing anything, just hanging around.”
“Where was this?”
“I don’t know,” she said, crossly. “Just some boarded-up old house.”
“What time of day?”
“What are you, a district attorney? It was late, like two o’clock in the morning. Half the kids ran. Cops were all bent out of shape and took the rest of us in. Mom and Dow came and picked me up and they were pissed.”
“What about Paulie? Was she in trouble with the law?”
Leila said, “You just missed my dad’s street.”
I slowed and pulled into the next driveway, then backed out. I retraced the half block to Gramercy and turned left. This section was only a block and a half long, a jumble of cheap cottages that might have once served as housing for itinerant pickers in the nearby avocado groves. The road here was unpaved and there were no sidewalks. I spotted one streetlight along the entire block. Leila pointed at a weathered A-frame sitting on a small dirt rise. It was the only structure of its kind-a funky wooden chalet among shacks. I pulled into the driveway and killed the engine. “You want to see if he’s there? I’d like to talk to him.”
“Dr. Purcell, if it’s all the same to you,” I said.
Leila snatched open the door and reached for her backpack, which I snagged with one hand. “Leave that with me. I’ll be happy to bring it in if he’s home.”
“Why can’t I have it?”
“Insurance. I don’t want to see you taking off on me. You’re in enough trouble as it is.”
She sighed, exasperated, but did as she was told. I decided to ignore the vigor with which she slammed the car door. I watched her hurry to the house along a gravel path. Rainwater streamed down the hillside, flattening the long strands of uncut grass. She reached the porch, which was protected by no more than a narrow inverted V of wood. She knocked on the door and then huddled with folded arms, staring back at me while she waited for him to respond. The place looked dark to me. She knocked again. She moved over to a front window, cupped her hands, and peered in. She knocked one more time and then splashed her way back to the car and let herself in. “He’s probably coming right back. I know where he keeps the key so I can wait for him here.”
“Good. I’ll wait with you. The two of us can visit here in the car until he gets home.”
The suggestion didn’t seem to fill the child with joy. She kicked at the backpack with her muddy hiking boots. “I want to go in. I have to pee.”
“Good suggestion. Me, too.”
We got out of the car. I locked the car doors and followed her along the path. Once we reached the house, Leila shifted a pot of dead geraniums and removed the house key from its terribly original hiding place. I waited while she unlocked the door and let us in.
“Does he rent this?”
“Nuhn-uhn. He’s house-sitting for a friend. Some guy went off to Florida, but he’s coming back next week.”
The interior was basically one big room. The ceiling soared to a peak. To the right, a narrow staircase led to a sleeping loft. In the living area below, the wood furniture was clumsily constructed, covered with imitation Indian rugs. The wood floors were bare. I could hear grit popping under the soles of my shoes. There was an old black pot-bellied stove exuding the scent of cold ash. At the rear, a counter separated the kitchen, which looked dirty even at this distance.
I spotted the phone sitting on a small side table. “You want to call your mom or should I?”
“You do it. I’m going to the bathroom and don’t worry-I’m not going to run away.”
While she availed herself of the facilities, I put in the requisite call to Crystal. Temporarily honor-bound, I omitted any mention of Paulie. “I’m going to stay here until Lloyd gets home. If it gets too late, I’ll try to talk Leila into coming back to your place.”
“Honestly, I’m so mad at her I really don’t want to see her. I’ll be better in a bit, as soon as I have a drink. Anica’s calling the school. I have no idea what she’ll tell them. It would serve Leila right if she were suspended or expelled.”
“I hear you,” I said. “I’ll keep you posted on our progress. Wish me luck.”
I heard the toilet flush and Leila emerged from the tiny bathroom located under the stairs.
“What’d she say?”
“Nothing much. She’s not real happy with you.”
Leila moved over to the lumpy sofa. Ignoring me, she opened her backpack and removed a zippered pouch filled with her makeup. She took out a compact and opened it so she could study her face. She cleaned up the smeared mascara and then peered closer at herself. “Crap. A fuckin’ zit,” she said. She put the compact away. She picked up the remote control and turned on the television set, muting the sound with a glance at me.
I said, “I used to be just like you when I was your age.”
“Great. Can I smoke?”
“Why? They’re only clove cigarettes.”
“Don’t push me, Leila. The place smells bad enough without throwing in clove smoke. Tell me about Dow. And don’t get all huffy. I’m bored with that shit.”
“Like what do you want to know?”
“When did you see him last?”
“I don’t remember stuff like that.”
“Here, I’ll help. September 12 was a Friday. Emily was sick and she canceled so you must have been home. Were you at the beach house?”
“Nuhn-uhn. I was here.”
“Do you remember what you did that night?”
“Probably watched a video. That’s what I usually do. Why?”
“I’m wondering when you last talked to Dow.”
“How should I know? I try not to talk to him at all if I can help it.”
“You must talk occasionally. After all, he’s your stepdad.”
“I know who he is,” she said. “I thought you weren’t allowed to question a kid without a parent present.”
“That’s only true if you’re detained by the police.”
“What are you?”
“A private eye. Phillip Marlowe in drag.” From her expression, I could tell she thought Phillip Marlowe was a rock band, but she was smart enough not to commit herself on that score. I said, “How old were you when Dow and your mom got married?”
“You like him?”
“He’s all right.”
“You two get along?”
“About as well as you’d expect. He’s old. He wears dentures. His breath smells all moldy and he has a bunch of really stupid rules: ‘I want you home and in bed by ten. I don’t want you sleeping late. Help your mother with your brother,'” she said, mimicking him. “I told him, ‘Hey, that’s what Rand’s for. I’m not her fucking maid.’ My grades have to be perfect or I’m grounded for weeks. He won’t even let me have my own phone.”
“The bastard,” I said. “Where do you think he is?”
“Interesting. What makes you say that?”
She stared at the television screen, flipping from channel to channel.
“I asked why you thought he was in Canada?”
“Because he’s a shit,” she said. “All he ever cared about was looking good. I heard him talking to some woman on the phone. I guess six months ago these people came into the clinic and picked up financial records and a lot of patient files. He was shitting bricks. Whatever it was, I guess he could have gone to jail for it, so I think he skipped.”
“Who was he talking to?”
“I don’t know. He never said her name and I didn’t recognize her voice. Just about then, he figured out I was on the line so he waited ’til I got off before he said anything else.”
“You were listening in?”
“I was up in my room. I wanted to make a phone call. How was I supposed to know he was on the line?”
“When was this?”
“Couple weeks before he went.”
“Did you tell the police?”
“Nobody asked and besides, it’s just a guess. Can I watch this now?”
She hit the mute button again and the sound came blasting back. MTV.
I went into the bathroom, which wasn’t as tacky as I thought it’d be. I closed the door. It looked like Lloyd had made a modest effort to keep the sink and the bathtub clean. The toilet water was rendered a permanent blue from a pungent smelling cake of something hung in the tank. Once I peed and flushed, I checked the medicine cabinet and sorted through his dirty clothes basket.
When I got back to the main room, Leila had sunk into that hypnotic state television generates. The A-frame was getting dark. I turned on some lights. Since she was paying absolutely no attention, I took advantage of the moment to search the desktop and the contents of the drawers. Most seemed to be filled with the other fellow’s junk. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. I simply couldn’t resist the urge to stick my nose in where it didn’t belong. I sifted through a handful of Lloyd’s bills, all overdue. Restlessly, I moved into the kitchen. The refrigerator didn’t yield much, but the pantry turned out to be better stocked than mine. Dried pasta, jars of sauce, canned soups, condiments, peanut butter, the strange orange macaroni and cheese in a box that only kids and dogs will eat. I was bored and getting hungry.
I moved across the great room and climbed the stairs to the loft, peering over the rail. Below I could see Leila, still engrossed in the flickering images on the screen. I couldn’t believe she was leaving me to snoop at will. Lloyd’s bed was unmade. On the bed table there was a framed eight-by-ten photograph of Lloyd and Leila. I picked it up and studied it. The picture must have been taken at a birthday celebration. The two were sitting at a kitchen table, a wobbly-looking chocolate cake festooned with candles in front of them. Lloyd and Leila had leaned their heads close together, grinning and clowning for the photographer. Lloyd’s right ear was pierced. A newly opened package was visible and Lloyd was holding one of a pair of earrings to his ear-a tiny dangling gold skull and crossbones-apparently a gift from her. Hard to tell how long ago this was; sometime within the past year, judging from her hair.
A check of the dresser drawers revealed nothing except a wide array of flashy-looking boxer shorts. I turned and surveyed the area. There was a telescope on a tripod standing by the window and that interested me. I crossed and studied the view with my naked eye at first, orienting myself to my surroundings. This was not a neighborhood I knew and I had no idea what Lloyd could see from here. Startled, I realized his current digs were located just across the reservoir from Fiona Purcell. Through the haze of mist and rain, I could see the barren outline of her house, jutting out from the far hill like a fortress. Lloyd’s view was toward the mountains while Fiona’s view stretched in the opposite direction taking in the ocean and the islands twenty-six miles out. I bent to the eyepiece on the telescope and squinted through the lens. Everything was black. I removed the lens cap, which improved the visibility, though at first, all I saw was the surface of my own eye. The landscape was reduced to a big yawning blur: objects distorted by the magnification.
I lifted my face and found the focus mechanism, then peered through the lens again and adjusted the knob. Abruptly, the far shore came into sharp relief. I could see the scarring on a boulder standing out in such sharp contrast it looked as if it rested just a foot away from me. The water in the reservoir was ragged where the raindrops hit. The sky was reflected in hammered silver on its surface. I caught movement to the right and shifted my view a hair.
There was Trudy, the German shepherd, barking at a stick-one of those brainless behaviors dogs seem to thrive on. I could see her mouth open and shut like a doggie hand puppet. The enthusiasm of her barking caused her whole body to shake, but the sound was reduced by the window glass to the faintest report. Her legs and feet were muddy and I could clearly see the raindrops beading on her coat. Behind her, a wide path through the undergrowth had been flattened and I could see white where a line of saplings had been snapped off at ground level. Maybe a boat trailer had been backed down close to the water’s edge to launch an outboard. Faintly, I heard Trudy’s owner whistle and then her barely audible call. “Trudy! Truuudy!”
Trudy looked over her shoulder with regret, torn between her current obsession and her need to obey. Obedience won out. She went bounding up the hillside and disappeared over the crest. I lifted my sights to Fiona’s house, where the lights were winking on in sequence, probably on timers. I zoomed in on her bedroom window, but there was no sign of movement. Odd that she appeared to be living so close that I nearly reached a hand out to touch a windowpane. Traveling by car, her place was actually a mile and a half away, the long way around. Her side of the reservoir was peppered with expensive homes, where this side was shabby: board-and-batten rentals without much market value. I wondered if Lloyd realized whose house he had in his sights. I wondered if he stared in her bedroom window, watching her undress at night.
I shifted my view again, feeling like a bird skimming across the surface of the lake. I let my gaze come to rest on the narrow end of the reservoir where the vegetation grew densely all the way to the point at which the water met the hill. A sign was posted on a fence post and I could read the larger of the lines. Swimming and boating were forbidden. The light was fading rapidly and I could feel myself strain. I lifted my eyes and stared at the gathering dark. What had I seen?
I closed my eyes and when I opened them again, I felt my perception shift. The alteration was abrupt, like the test to determine which eye is dominant. Cover your left eye with your palm and stare at your right index finger, held out at arm’s length. Then remove your palm from your left eye and cover your right eye instead. Looking through the dominant eye, the alignment of your finger against the background remains constant. Using the nondominant eye, the finger will appear to jump to one side. In reality, nothing changes. The finger remains where it is, but the brain registers a difference. I felt a spurt of anxiety and my heart began to thump.
I turned and trotted down the stairs. Leila emerged from her trance long enough to look up at me. She was stretched out full-length, her sock feet resting on the arm of the sofa, her hiking boots on the floor.
I said, “I have to go out for a few minutes. Will you be all right by yourself?”
“I’m here alone all the time,” she said, insulted.
“Great. I shouldn’t be long, but I’d appreciate your staying put until I get back. Okay?”
“Yeah.” She turned her attention to the set again and switched through several channels, finally settling on an old Tom and Jerry cartoon.
I closed the front door behind me and picked my way down the muddy path to my car. The light was draining from the sky and the air temperature was dropping. The rain wasn’t falling hard, but it was annoying, nonetheless. I unlocked my car and slid under the wheel. I reached over and popped open the glove compartment. I took out my flashlight and I pushed the button, gratified to see that the battery was still strong. I turned off the flashlight, laid it on the passenger seat while I started the car, and backed out of Lloyd’s short drive. I swung around and headed back to the main road. At the intersection, I turned right, drove half a mile, turned right again on Old Reservoir Road, and began the winding ascent. The curves were familiar and I drove with a thumping heart, wishing I had stopped to pee again before I left. Fear is a powerful diuretic.
Ahead, Fiona’s house came into view and I pulled over on the berm. I grabbed my flashlight, got out, and set off on foot. Out here, there was still enough ambient light that I could see my way. I climbed the wet grassy hill, my feet slipping out from under me when I least expected it. I paused at the crest of the hill, looking out across the reservoir to the A-frame where Lloyd was living. The lights glowing in the house made it look like a chapel perched on the opposite hill. I hoped Leila wouldn’t disappear while I was scrambling through the dark.
Traversing the downside of the hill was even trickier, and I found myself losing purchase, half-slipping, half-sliding as I maneuvered my way along. At the bottom, I turned on my flashlight. The area was cold and silent and the air smelled dank. The water was black near the shoreline and showed no evidence of a current. In places, I could see Trudy’s paw prints. I shone the beam of my flashlight along the hill behind me, locating the boulder I’d seen and the path of broken saplings. I stood where I was, following the line of the hill to the top. From where I stood the road wasn’t visible. I turned my beam on the silty water, tracing the shallows. The lake bottom apparently dropped off abruptly, but I could see the curve of a chrome bumper glowing dully, like buried treasure. I couldn’t read the name on the vanity plate, but I knew I was looking at the trunk of Dow Purcell’s silver Mercedes submerged in the depths.