Chapter 16

By the time I returned to my apartment, it was after ten o’clock. The crime scene technicians were still busy at the reservoir, though I couldn’t imagine what remained to be done. I’d hung around for a while and then decided to head home. I’d never eaten dinner. In fact, as nearly as I remembered, I hadn’t eaten lunch. Hunger had asserted itself and then faded at least twice during the evening, and now had dissipated altogether, leaving a nagging headache in its wake. I was both wired and exhausted, a curious mix.

Mercifully, the rain had moved on and the temperature had warmed. The streets seemed to smoke, vapor rising in drifts. The sidewalks were still wet, water dripping from the tree limbs as silently as snow. The gutters gurgled merrily, miniature rivers diverted by debris as the runoff traveled downstream into sewers to the sea. A fog began to accumulate, making the world seem hushed and dense. My neighborhood looked unfamiliar, a landscape made alien by mist. Depths were flattened to two dimensions, bare branches no more than ink lines bleeding onto a page. My apartment was dark. I’d left home at ten A.M., nearly twelve hours earlier, and it hadn’t occurred to me to leave lights on for myself. I paused in the process of unlocking my door. Henry’s kitchen window was aglow, a small square of yellow in the hovering mist. I tucked the keys in my pocket and crossed the flagstone patio.

I peered into the upper portion of his backdoor. He was seated at the table, which was littered with paperwork: stacks of medical statements, canceled checks, and receipts, all sorted into piles. He was wearing his bathrobe, a ratty blue-flannel number with blue-and-white striped pyjamas visible under it, cuffs drooping over his battered leather slippers. On the floor near his feet, he’d placed a wastebasket and the brown accordion file he was using to organize Klotilde’s bills. The grocery bag of bills Rosie’d given him was sitting on a chair and still appeared to be half-full. As I looked on, he ran a hand through his hair, leaving strands sticking out in three directions. He reached for his glass of Jack Daniel’s and took a swallow, then frowned when he realized the ice had long since melted. He got up and moved to the sink, where he tossed the watery contents.

I called, “Henry,” and then tapped on the glass. He looked over, unperturbed by the interruption, and gestured for me to enter. I tried the knob and pointed. “Door’s locked.”

Henry let me in. While I doffed my slicker and hung it over the back of the chair, he opened the freezer door and removed a handful of ice cubes, which he plunked in his glass, pouring a fresh round of whiskey over them. I picked up the scent of his afternoon baking- something with cinnamon, almond extract, butter, and yeast.

The litter on the table looked even worse at close range. “This is cute. How’s it coming? I’m almost afraid to ask.”

“Terrible. Just awful. The codes are gibberish. I can’t figure out who owes what or which of these is paid. I had ’em sorted by date, but that turned out to be pointless. Now I’m filing them by doctor, hospital, and procedure, and I seem to be getting somewhere. I don’t know how people ever make sense of these things. It’s ridiculous.”

“I told you not to do it.”

“I know, but I said I’d help and I hate to go back on my word.”

“Oh, quit being such a wuss and give the damn things back to her.”

“What’s she going to do with them?”

“She’ll figure it out or she can have William do it. Klotilde was his sister-in-law. Why should you get stuck?”

“I feel sorry for her. Klotilde was her only sister and it’s bound to be tough.”

“She didn’t even like Klotilde. They barely spoke to each other and when they did, they fought.”

“Don’t be so hard on her. Rosie has a good heart,” he said. Having bitched, he now felt guilty for complaining behind her back. I could see that arguing with the man was only going to make things worse.

Mentally, I rolled my eyes. “I’ll let you off the hook temporarily, but I won’t give up.”

Henry took a seat at the table. “So what’s up with you? You look beat.”

“I am.” I lifted a stack of medical statements from the seat of the chair and stood there, puzzled about what to do with them.

Henry jumped up. “Here, let me take care of those.” He handed me his drink while he shoved the papers to one side and cleared a space at the table. He scooped up the grocery bag and the accordion file and put both on the floor, then took the papers from my hand and put them on the floor as well.

I said, “Thanks” and took a swallow of Jack Daniel’s, which flamed through my system like a sudden case of heartburn. I could feel my tension ease and realized, belatedly, how very tired I was. My head had begun to pound in a rhythm with my pulse. Ka-thong, ka-thong. I passed the glass back to him and sank into the chair he’d just cleared.

“What’s going on?”

“We found Dr. Purcell’s car and his body-assuming it’s him. I can’t really talk about it yet. Give me a few minutes to collect myself.”

“Can I fix you a drink?”

“Don’t think so, but if you have any Tylenol, I could use about forty, preferably extra-strength.”

“I have something better. You just stay where you are.”

“No problem. I’m incapable of moving. I’ll fill you in momentarily unless I pass out first.”

I crossed my arms on the table in front of me and laid my head down, feeling my body go limp. This was the pre-nap posture we adopted in “kinneygarden” and it still represents the ultimate in personal relief. At the age of five, I learned to drop into a deep sleep the minute my head hit my arms. I’d wake ten minutes later, the nerve endings in my fingers all sparkly for lack of circulation, my cheek hot with dreams.

I heard Henry cross to the refrigerator and transfer containers to the counter. I listened to the restful clink of jars and cutlery. It was like being in a sickbed, hearing homely sounds emanating from a nearby room. I must have dozed for a moment, the same fleeting lapse of awareness that’ll send you careening off the highway when it happens at the wheel. Sound faded and returned, a brief slip into unconsciousness. “What are you doing?” I murmured, without lifting my head.

“Making you a sandwich.” His voice seemed to come from very far away. “Roast beef with red onion that I’ve sliced paper thin.”

I propped my head on one fist and watched him place two thick slices of homemade bread side-by-side. He spread them liberally with mayonnaise, spicy brown mustard, and horseradish. “This is virulent, but you need something fierce. Pep you up.” He cut the sandwich in half and laid it on a plate with a sprig of parsley; pickles, olives, and pepperoncini clustered to one side.

He set the plate in front of me and returned to the refrigerator, where he opened the freezer and removed a beer mug so cold that a white frost formed instantly on the glass when it hit the air. He opened a bottle of beer and poured it gently down the side of the mug to avoid the foam. He picked up his whiskey glass and sat down across from me.

I took a bite of the sandwich. The horseradish was so ferocious it brought tears to my eyes. Pungent fumes licked through my sinuses making my nose run as well. “Mph. This is great. I can’t believe how good it is. You’re a genius.” I paused, using my paper napkin as a nostril mop. The roast beef was succulent, its chill tenderness the perfect foil to the heat, salt, and sour of the condiments. Now and then I’d suck down a mouthful of cold beer, all tingle and bubbles tasting of hops. Life was reduced to its four basic elements: air, food, drink, and a good friend. I shoved in the last bite of sandwich, licked the mustard from my fingers, and moaned in gratitude. I took a long, slow breath, noting the fact that my headache was gone. “Better.”

“I thought that might help. Now tell me about the doctor.”

I gave Henry a summary of events leading up to my discovery. He knows how my mind works so I didn’t have to fill in all the nitty-gritty details. Most intuition is the sudden leap the mind makes when two elements fuse. Sometimes the connection is made through trial and error; sometimes the underlying question butts up against observation and the answer pops into view. “I didn’t spot the car so much as I spotted the traces it left in its journey down the hill.”

“So that is the end of that job.”

“I’m assuming as much, though I haven’t spoken with Fiona.”

“What now?”

“The usual. Dr. Yee will do the autopsy in the morning. Don’t know how much they’ll learn, given the shape the body’s in. The vehicle’s probably been submerged since the night he dropped from view. As soon as the post is done, I’m guessing they’ll cremate the remains.”

“I’m sorry to hear this. It’s too bad.”

“It has to be worse when the questions are unresolved. At least now his family knows and they can get on with life.”

We chatted on in this vein, exploring our reactions and speculations until the subject petered out. Henry picked up my plate and took it to the sink.

“I can do that,” I said.

“Stay where you are.” He ran hot water in the sink and picked up a dish sponge with liquid detergent in the handle. He soaped the plate, rinsed it, and set it in the rack. “By the way, I saw a friend of yours tonight.”

“Really. Who?”

He put the cutting board in the sink and began to put the condiments away. “Tommy Hevener came into Rosie’s. He was looking for you, of course, but we ended up having quite a chat. He seems like a nice fellow and he’s clearly smitten. He asked a lot of questions about you.”

“I have a lot of questions about him, too. That’s the part of my day I haven’t told you about yet.”

He paused with his hand on the refrigerator door. “I don’t like the tone of this.”

“You won’t like the rest of it, either.” I waited until he returned to the table and took a seat.

He said, “What?” with apprehension, like he really didn’t want to hear.

“Turns out Tommy Hevener and his brother hired a punk down in Texas to break into the family home and steal the valuables, including close to a million in jewels. The burglar did as instructed and then set fire to the house to cover his tracks. What the boys failed to mention to him was that Mom and Dad were stashed in the closet, bound and gagged. They died of smoke inhalation while the place burned down around them.”

Henry blinked. “No.”

“Yes.”

“But that can’t be true.”

“It is,” I said. “The insurance investigator-this is a woman named Mariah Talbot-came to the office this morning and showed me the clippings from the Hatchet Daily News Gazette or whatever the hell it’s called. I left the file at the office or you could see for yourself.”

“But if that’s the case, why aren’t they in jail?”

“There was never enough evidence, and since the ‘boys’ were never charged, they managed to collect on the fire loss, life insurance, and the inheritance. All told, they walked off with a couple million bucks. Their aunt and the insurance company are preparing a civil suit, hoping to recover whatever assets remain.”

“But how do they know the burglar wasn’t the one responsible? He might have surprised the parents, thinking they were gone when he broke into the house. Maybe he was the one who tied them up and gagged them.”

“Unfortunately, the burglar hasn’t been heard from since. Speculation has it they killed him, too.”

“But they can’t be sure,” he said.

“That’s why they’ve reopened the investigation. Recently, an informant stepped forward and Guardian Casualty is prepared to go forward on the basis of this new information.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“I had the same reaction until I saw the articles. I mean, here’s what gets me. The first time I met Tommy? He told me his parents died in an accident. He didn’t want me to mention it to Richard because he said his brother was still ‘touchy’ about the subject. I thought, well, those poor dear fellows. Here I am, thinking about my parents and feeling sorry for these guys. It really galls me to think how easily I got sucked in. Such bullshit. According to the paper, they even offered a big reward-a hundred thousand dollars-for ‘information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer or killers of Jared and Brenda Hevener.’ Why not offer millions? They’re in no danger of paying unless one rats the other out.”

“How can you do business with them?”

“That’s what I’m getting to. I signed a year’s lease and paid six months in advance, plus a cleaning deposit. We don’t want to forget that little item. Now I can’t figure how to get out of it. I’m willing to forfeit the money, but it pisses me off.”

“Let Lonnie handle it. He’ll know what to do.”

“Good thought,” I said. “Not that it ends there.”

“Why not?”

“Mariah thinks the jewelry’s still somewhere in that big fancy house of theirs. She’s hoping I can locate the safe so the cops can get a search warrant. She says the Heveners’ funds are just about depleted. They’ve been traveling in the fast lane and now they’re close to broke. She’s hoping they’ll try to sell at least a portion of the jewelry. Since they filed a claim for the loss and since they’ve steadfastly denied any knowledge of the stash, it’s not going to look good. If she can get them to tip their hand, the cops will step in with a warrant for their arrest.”

“Why would they risk selling? They’re not dumb.”

“Not so far, but they’re getting desperate.”

“How’s she going to persuade them? I can’t imagine such a thing.”

“Ah. She’s not. She wants me to do it.” I fished the piece of paper from my handbag. “She gave me the name of a fence in Los Angeles and asked me to pass the information on to them.”

Henry took the scrap of paper on which she’d written the jeweler’s name. “Cyril Lambrou’s a pawnbroker?”

“A jeweler. She says he runs a legitimate business, as far as it goes. He also deals in stolen property when the goods warrant it. In this case, no sweat. She showed me the Polaroids-rings, bracelets, necklaces. Gorgeous. Really beautiful.”

“Why can’t she give them the information?”

“Because they know who she is and they’d never fall for it.”

“But why you?”

Henry’s tone was becoming belligerent and I could feel my face heat. “Because Tommy’s interested in me.”

“So what?”

“Marian’s shrewd. She ran a background on me and she knows I’m not above bending the rules.”

“Aren’t you talking about entrapment?”

“Why would it be entrapment? I mention a guy who buys jewelry. If they’re not guilty, they won’t have anything to sell. Entrapment’s where the cops entice someone to break the law. I’m not encouraging them to steal. They’ve already done that.”

“But they’re going to smell a rat. You mention a jeweler. They pawn the stuff and shortly afterwards they’re arrested and thrown in jail? You can’t be serious.”

“By then it’s too late. They’re already behind bars.”

“Suppose they post bail? The minute they hit the street, they’re going to come looking for you.”

“Come on, Henry. Give me credit here. I won’t come right out and say, ‘Gee, anybody have any stolen jewels to lay off on this guy?’ I’ll think of a story to tell, something plausible.”

“Such as what?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t made that part up yet.”

Exasperated, Henry leaned back in his chair and stared at me. “How many times have we had a conversation like this? You come up with some stupid scheme. I urge you not to do it, but you go right ahead and do it. You always find some way to rationalize your behavior.”

“So does everyone else.”

“More’s the pity,” he said. “I’ll tell you this once and then I swear I won’t mention it again. Don’t do this. Don’t get involved. It’s none of your business.”

“I didn’t say I would.”

“How’re you going to find the safe? You’ll have to get into the house.”

“Tommy’s taken me up there once. All I have to do is talk him into taking me again.”

“Which he’d do in hopes of getting in your pants.”

“I can handle that.”

“But why take the risk? I don’t think you should be alone with either one of them.”

“Not to make light of it, but I’ve done a lot worse with a lot less justification.”

“I’ll say.”

“Henry, I promise you I won’t act in haste. I haven’t even figured out what I’ll say… you know, assuming I decide to take the job.”

“Why do this to yourself? Surely, you don’t need the money.”

“Money isn’t the issue here. I just don’t think people should get away with murder.”

“It isn’t up to you. If the police had had sufficient evidence, the Heveners would’ve been arrested and convicted back then. There wasn’t any proof. That’s the way the law works. You stay out of it. Please.”

“You know what? I’m tempted to do this for exactly the same reason you’re tempted to help Rosie. Because you can’t resist. So here’s the deal. You want me to butt out of this? You butt out of Rosie’s business and we’ll call it a wash.”

“It’s not illegal or dangerous to help a little old lady pay her sister’s medical bills.”

He had a point, but I refused to acknowledge it. “Skip it. Enough. Let’s quit arguing. You take care of your life and I’ll take care of mine.”

“You’re right. It’s not my concern. Do anything you want.”

“Don’t play injured. It’s not that. I think you worry too much.”

“And you don’t worry enough!”

It was 11:03 when I left Henry’s place and headed to my apartment. We’d made a superficial effort to patch up our differences, but nothing had been resolved. I was feeling anxious and out of sorts and so, I suspect, was he. I let myself in and set my bag aside. I turned on the television set and turned to KEST. I’d missed the lead-in to the story but caught the report in progress: “… the silver Mercedes-Benz recovered this evening from Brunswick Lake has been positively identified as the vehicle belonging to prominent local physician Dowan Purcell, missing since September 12. Detective Paglia of the Santa Teresa Police Department would not confirm…” Over her commentary there was a series of clips: a shot of the hillside near the reservoir, a shot of Crystal arriving by car, a photograph insert of Dr. Purcell, followed by a shot of the family home in Horton Ravine. The anchor moved on to a story about a cat stuck in a length of pipe. Nine and a half weeks of agony reduced to less than a minute. Folks would probably have more sympathy for the cat.

There was a tap at my door. I figured it was Henry coming over to apologize. Instead, I found Tommy Hevener standing on my porch. “Hey. Where you been? I called you earlier, but your machine was on. I thought I’d see you at Rosie’s.”

“Henry told me he saw you.”

“Yeah, we had a nice chat. He’s a great old guy.”

“Look. I’ve had a hard day. Something’s come up on a case I’ve been working.”

“You want to talk about it? I’m a good listener.”

“I don’t think so. I appreciate the offer, but I’m bushed and I think I better go to bed.”

“I hear you. No problem. Call me tomorrow. I want to see you again.”

“Okay, I’ll do that.”

“You take care.”

“Yeah, you, too,” I said. As soon as I closed the door, my heart began knocking rapidly in my throat. I threw the deadbolt home and leaned against the wall to wait until I heard his departing steps. Outside, a car started up and I listened as the sound of the engine diminished down the street.

I don’t know how I managed to get to sleep that night. I had no emotional attachment to Dow Purcell, but the sight of that body in the front seat of the car had left me unsettled. I’d seen death many times, but I couldn’t seem to block the image of that four-wheeled silver coffin and its hoary contents. I replayed the moment… floodlights hissing in the rain, the sound of water gushing from the underbelly of the car, the smell of mud and crushed grass, followed by the quick flash of the body in its formless repose, eyes turned toward the window, mouth open with amazement. I didn’t think it would take long to identify the body… half a day at best. It would take longer to examine the car and come up with a theory about how it had ended up in the lake. There was also the question of whether Purcell was dead or alive when he went into the water. Again, I flashed on that face, the wide grin, the sightless eyes…

I made a conscious effort to divert my attention, fixing on the problem of Tommy and Richard Hevener. Despite my obstinate and disputatious stance, I had seen Henry’s point, which I knew was correct. I’m forever sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong, often with consequences more serious (and potentially deadly) than I care to admit. I was under no obligation to assist Mariah Talbot or Guardian Casualty Insurance, so why put myself in the line of fire? The “boys” were not my problem. Mariah had even hinted she had an alternative if I decided not to help. I still had to find a way to break the lease and recover my deposit, but maybe Lonnie could write the brothers such a blistering letter they’d be begging to get me out. As for the murder of their parents, I had to believe the law would catch up with them eventually. As much as it grieved me to admit it, retribution wasn’t mine. Oh, darn.

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