Chapter 17

Much of Wednesday I was occupied tidying up odds and ends. At 6:00 that morning, I’d managed to squeeze in a three-mile jog between cloud bursts, after which I’d gone to the gym. I’d come home, cleaned up, eaten breakfast, and arrived at the office at 9:15. I spent the bulk of the day catching up on paperwork, including my personal bills, which I paid with the usual sense of triumph. I love keeping all the wolves at bay.

Twice, I sat down at the typewriter to frame my final report to Fiona, thinking I might as well go ahead and drop it in the mail to her. However, having delivered both a report and an invoice just the day before, I was a tiny bit short on bullshit and tiny bit short on cash. I thought it could be bad form to charge for the time I’d spent waiting for the cops to pull Dow out of the lake. Since I’d forked over her $1,500 to the infamous Hevener brothers, the $1,075 I owed her would have to come out of my checking account, which currently showed a balance of $422. I had plenty of money in savings, but I didn’t much feel like dipping into it. Besides, I was still entertaining the fantasy that Fiona would write off the balance out of appreciation for the speed and efficiency with which I’d concluded her business. She’d hired me to find Dow and I’d found him sooner than either one of us expected, though not in quite the condition one would have wished. I couldn’t help but hope for a $1,075 pat on the back. Ha, ha, ha, she thought.

I considered calling Crystal to offer my condolences but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wasn’t a family friend, and I was afraid my motivation would be interpreted as ghoulish curiosity, which of course it was.

Just after lunch, I went back to the file Mariah Talbot had left. I glanced at both wills, picking my way through sufficient legalese to confirm that the Atcheson jewelry had been left to Brenda’s sister, Karen. I then went back and reread the news clips. Hatchet, Texas, was located roughly sixty miles from Houston and had a population of twenty-eight hundred souls. There’d only been one other murder in the town’s entire history, and that was back in 1906 when a woman took a piece of firewood to her husband’s skull while he was sleeping. She’d killed him with six blows after he got drunk once too often, knocked her teeth out, blackened her eyes, and broke her nose. Satisfied he was dead, she’d tossed the log on the fire and brewed herself a pot of tea.

The death of Jared and Brenda Hevener made headlines as far away as Amarillo, where Brenda had been born and raised. According to the paper, the bodies were discovered in the rubble the day after the fire. The blaze had been fierce and fast, fueled by accelerants, fanned by dry winds. The volunteer fire department was called at 1:06 A.M., arriving on the scene within seventeen minutes. By then the house was completely engulfed in flames and their efforts were largely focused on preventing the fire’s spread to adjacent properties. Neighbors quickly realized the Heveners were unaccounted for. At first, the fear was expressed that all four family members had been taken unawares and had perished in the conflagration. As it turned out, Tommy Hevener had been visiting friends in San Antonio. He managed to track down his brother, Richard, who was traveling in the south of France.

The initial newspaper accounts were filled with shock at the deaths and sympathy for the sons whose loss everyone assumed must be devastating. There were long biographical pieces about Brenda and Jared: her community service, his rise in the business world. The turnout for the funeral was impressive. Newspaper photos showed the cortege stretching out for blocks. Pictures at the cemetery showed the two coffins surrounded by flowers, Richard with his head bowed, while Tommy stared bleakly at the grave site with an expression of despair. Mariah hadn’t been impressed with their acting skills, but I could see how easily their grief could have been interpreted as heartfelt.

Within days, the time-delay device and accelerants were identified and traced to Casey Stonehart, twenty-three years old and clearly not that bright, as he’d purchased the materials in a town only sixteen miles away. With his troubled criminal history and his questionable IQ, it wasn’t hard to conclude he was acting in concert with somebody else. He clearly wasn’t smart enough to plan and execute the job by himself. Over the next six months, the tone of the story changed as public skepticism grew and the ongoing investigation shifted to the possibility that the two sons had been involved. On their part, there were many outraged denials and vigorous protestations of their innocence. Law-enforcement authorities and the fire marshall responded with a number of carefully worded statements, hoping to avoid a lawsuit if their suspicions turned out to be groundless. The story played for weeks and then died away. There were periodic updates, but most of the later coverage seemed to be an endless rehash of the original account. Casey Stonehart warranted very little in the way of column space beyond the occasional query as to his whereabouts.

Reading between the lines, I could see the bureaucratic tensions begin to accumulate. The D.A. was accused of bungling. Pressure was brought to bear and he was forced to resign. Despite the launching of a second, even more extensive investigation, no new evidence came to light. Formal charges were filed against Casey Stonehart in absentia, but Richard and Tommy Hevener managed to evade official blame. A year later, two short clippings referred to the lawsuit they’d filed against Guardian Casualty, trying to collect various insurance benefits. Six months after that, there was a brief mention of the close of probate and the settling of the estate. What a depressing chain of events. I shuffled through the articles again just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.

The story made me restless. I could feel the Masked Avenger aspect of my personality girding her loins, prepared to seek justice and to right old wrongs. At the same time, Henry’s accusations had hit perilously close to home. I’ll admit I’m (occasionally) foolhardy and impetuous, impatient with the system, vexed by the necessity for playing by the rules. It’s not that I don’t applaud law and order, because I do. I’m simply indignant that the bad guys are accorded so many rights when their victims have so few. Pursuing scoundrels through the courts not only costs a fortune, but it offers no guarantee of legal remedy. Even assuming success, a hard-won conviction doesn’t bring the dead back to life. In this matter, though I hated to be practical, I’d come around to Henry’s point of view. I intended to mind my own business for once.

I left the office just before three o’clock and walked over to the bank. Fortunately for me, the check I’d written to Hevener Properties hadn’t yet cleared. Maybe he accumulated rent checks and made a deposit on a regular basis instead of one by one. I put a stop payment on it, returned to the office, and wrote Richard a brief, apologetic note, indicating that circumstances had changed and I wouldn’t be renting space from him after all. Given my signature on the lease, he might well take me to small claims court. I didn’t think he’d do it. Surely, in his position, he’d prefer to avoid legal wrangles. At five-thirty I locked up. On my way home, I drove by the main post office and dropped the letter in the outside box. I reached my apartment twelve minutes later, feeling lighter than I had all day.

Before I unlocked my front door, I crossed the patio to Henry’s place. I wanted to tell him I’d heeded his words. In declining involvement, I’d offer him full credit for motivating this rare evidence of common sense on my part. His kitchen light was on. I tapped on the glass, expecting to see him come into the kitchen from the hall. No sign of him, no sound of his piano, no hint of activity. I picked up the tantalizing scent of one of his oven-baked stews so I didn’t think he’d gone far.

I returned to my apartment and let myself in. I turned on the desk lamp and set my shoulder bag on a kitchen stool. I gathered up the mail that had been pushed through the slot and was splayed out across the floor. All of it was junk and I tossed it in the trash. The message light on the answering machine was blinking merrily. I pushed the Play button.

Tommy Hevener.

“Hey. It’s me. I’ve been thinking about you. Maybe I’ll catch you later. Give me a call when you get in.”

I pressed Erase, wishing I could do the same with him.

I went into the kitchen. Saturday’s can of tomato soup was the last I had so I already knew there was nothing in the house to eat. Dutifully, I checked my cupboards and my refrigerator shelves. I’ve never actually seen a recipe that calls for two plastic packets of soy sauce, half a cup of olive oil, Cheerios, anchovy paste, maple syrup, and six rubber carrots asprout with something that looks like hair. A clever home economist could have whipped up a nourishing dish out of just such ingredients, but I confess I was stumped. I picked up my bag again and headed out the door. Dinner at Rosie’s-what a pleasant change of pace.

The night air was misty and smelled of basements. It had been raining, off and on now for six full days. The novelty had worn off and those who’d rejoiced in its arrival were now cursing the rain’s persistence. The ground was saturated and the creek-beds ran high, a noisy rush of water pushing debris in its path. Unless we had a few dry days, the torrents would jump the banks and flood the low-lying areas. There were already county roads awash with mud and stones, covered with creeping sheets of water that made driving perilous.

Given the ebb and flow of business at Rosie’s, the bar area was teeming. The Happy Hour crowd would be gone by seven P.M. as soon as the drink prices went up. The noise level had risen to a harsh, edgy pitch that seemed to reflect the mounting irritability levels. People were tired of raincoats, wet shoes, and mold spores that made their allergies flare up in a rush of sneezes and clogged sinuses.

I left my umbrella propped against the wall by the front door, shed my slicker, and shook off some of the accumulated water before I hung it up. I made a useless display of wiping my feet just to be polite. As I stepped through the inner door, I spotted Tommy Hevener sitting by himself at a table near the front. I felt a flash of irritation, feeling cornered. How was I going to get him out of my life? He was drinking a martini, the wide-rimmed glass at his lips when he caught sight of me. I halted in my tracks-a split second of indecision-because the second person I saw was Mariah Talbot sitting in a booth at the rear. Adrenaline blew through my system like a hit of speed. Her telltale silver hair had been concealed beneath a dark, shag-cut wig, her blue eyes masked by glasses with plastic and rhinestone frames. The raincoat she wore made her body appear bulky. Unless you saw past the facade to the elegant bones of her face, she appeared frumpy and drab, not someone you’d notice in a crowd of this size. Tommy couldn’t be expecting to see her, but he might make the same leap of recognition if he glanced in her direction. Looks as classic as hers are nearly impossible to hide. The minute Mariah and I made eye contact, she rose from the booth and slipped into the seat on the opposite side of the table with her back to us. I hoped the shock of discovery hadn’t registered on my face, but I wasn’t sure how I’d manage to hide my astonishment. My gaze flicked to Tommy’s. His expression was quizzical, as though he’d sensed my surprise. He turned in his chair and scanned the rear of the bar. Abruptly, I crossed and sat down at his table. I touched his hand. “I’m sorry I was such a bitch last night.” His gaze returned to mine and he smiled. “Don’t worry about it. The fault was mine.” The mild Texas accent I’d found so attractive a day or two before now seemed to be an affectation. He was wearing a cashmere sweater, a soft downy gray that played up his florid hair color and the green of his eyes. He was making intense eye contact, enclosing my hand in his. He lifted my fingers and placed a kiss in my right palm. I wanted to shiver-not from arousal, but from dread. What had once seemed seductive was only cheap display. He knew he was handsome and he affected the shy country boy to enhance his appeal. I knew too much about him, and the force of his sexuality struck me as pure manipulation. In a quick recap, I realized that from the moment we’d met, he’d worked to dominate, beginning with my declining to drink a beer with him. He’d proposed a Diet Pepsi instead, popping it open before I could refuse. I’d taken the path of least resistance and he’d established his control. After that the transitions were smooth and well rehearsed. He’d enlisted my sympathies by rolling out the reference to his parents’ death and then he’d offered up his comment about California women being so stuck up. Immediately, I’d worked to prove him wrong. His final move was adroit. “Which do you prefer? Guys way too young for you or guys way too old?” I couldn’t believe I’d been so easily taken in.

Peripherally, I saw Mariah leave the booth and head for the ladies’ restroom. I rested my chin on my hand. “Are you free for dinner? We could go back to Emile’s or try somewhere else.”

“Buy me a drink first and we can talk about that.”

I pointed to his glass. “What are you having?”

“Vodka martini.” He lifted his glass and tumbled the green olive onto his waiting tongue.

I took his glass and got up. “I’ll be right back.” As I moved by him, he reached out an arm to halt my passage. I stared down at his face, which he’d tilted up to mine. I could smell his aftershave. I could feel his hot, proprietary hand on my ass. I shifted out of his grasp and leaned closer, keeping my tone light. “Don’t be a bad boy.”

His voice was low and laced with confidence. “I am a bad boy. I thought you liked that about me.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” I said.

I crossed to the bar where William was at work, pulling beers and mixing drinks. I ordered two vodka martinis and we exchanged inane remarks while I watched him pour a stream of vodka into a silver shaker and add a stingy dash of vermouth. William set two chilled martini glasses on the bar.

“Could you do me a favor? When you’re done, will you take those over to that guy in the gray sweater? Tell him I’m in the loo and I’ll be there in a second. He can go ahead if he wants. I’ll have mine when I get back.”

“Happy to be of help,” William said. He put two doilies on a tray, set a martini on each, and came out from behind the bar.

I proceeded to the ladies’ room and pushed through the door. The room smelled of bleach and had only one stall. I knew from sad experience the wooden toilet seat was cracked and pinched when you sat. Mariah was standing at the basin making an adjustment to her wig. Aside from the sink, there was only a big plastic-lined waste bin and a grille-covered window that opened onto a narrow backyard. Up close, I could see that under the raincoat, she’d pulled on a bulky knit sweater and a pair of flabby blue print slacks with some form of waist-thickening padding underneath. The Birkenstocks and white socks were a nice touch. Very chic.

She said, “What do you think?”

“That disguise is lame. I’ve seen you once in my life and spotted you straight off the minute I walked in.”

She took a hair fork from her purse and lifted the top layers to increase the height. “Shit. This cost me a fortune and it’s not even real hair.”

“What are you doing here? Do you know how close you’ve come to blowing it?”

“Tell me about it. Me and my big ideas,” she said. “I tried to call, but all I got was your answering machine. I didn’t want to leave a message. It’s not cool. You never know who’s going to be there when those things are played back. I didn’t want to take the chance Tommy’d hear my voice. I figured it’d be easier to find you here. I walk in, thinking I’m safe, and there he sits. I nearly had heart failure.”

“You and me both. How’d he miss seeing you?”

“Don’t even ask. It was dumb luck, I guess. He was fussing with his raincoat so I pretended to spot a friend and headed for a back booth. I sat there for fifteen minutes, planning an exit through the kitchen. Then I happened to look up and saw you come in. What are the chances you can get him out of here?”

“I’m doing what I can, but I don’t like it. Last night he stopped by my apartment. I managed to avoid a visit, but he’s persistent. I’m trying to turn him off and now I have to turn around and suck up to him to cover for you.”

“Life’s tough.” She rearranged a few strands of artificial hair and then smiled to herself. “Here’s a piece of good news. All their credit cards are maxed out. Six to eight cards each, eighteen percent interest on the unpaid balance. They’re making minimum payments, just trying to keep afloat. Fancy watches, fancy cars. The mortgage is fifteen grand a month on that monstrosity they call home. They’ve got their nuts in a vise and they’re feeling the squeeze.”

“They’re completely broke?”

“They will be if they don’t act fast.” Her eyes met mine in the mirror. The combination of the wig and the outfit made her seem coarse, not the cool professional she’d been in my office when she’d laid out her credentials. Maybe she was more of a chameleon than I’d given her credit for. “I don’t suppose you’ve had time to tell Tommy about the fence.”

“I’m not going to do that. I really can’t help you there. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t sweat it.” She tucked the hair fork away and then turned and leaned against the sink so she could study me. “I’ll get the fuckers with or without your help.”

“How’d this become so personal?”

“Murder’s always personal. I take offense when I see guys like them getting off scot-free. Aside from that, Guardian’s promised me a big fat bonus if I can bring this one in.” Behind the glasses, her eyes were a clear blue and very cold. She nodded at the door. “You better get out there. Prince Charming awaits.”

I left the restroom and stepped into the blast of noise unleashed by all the alcohol. Smoke was adrift in the cavernous room. I felt as though I’d been gone an hour, but a glance at my watch showed less than ten minutes had passed. I pushed my way through the crowd, returning to the table where Tommy waited. Henry had joined him and he was sipping his usual glass of Black Jack over ice. His elbows rested on the surface of a manila envelope and I wondered if he was planning to do some work later on. I experienced a momentary surge of hope. His presence would at least spare me any intimacies.

I sat down. “Hi, Henry. I knocked on your door earlier, but I couldn’t seem to rouse you.” I was sounding way too perky, but I couldn’t help myself.

“I popped over to the market. I needed some fresh parsley to finish off my stew.”

“Henry’s stews are legendary,” I said in Tommy’s direction, though I couldn’t meet his eyes. I lifted the martini glass and took a sip, then steadied the wobbling glass as I set it down again. I licked at my hand where the vodka had slopped over the rim.

Henry glanced over at me and we exchanged a brief look. I knew what he was up to. He was feeling protective. He had no intention of letting me consort with the enemy unchaperoned. His gaze settled thoughtfully on his drink. He said, “By the way, I looked into that business you were asking me about.”

I said, “Ah.” Thinking, business? What business?

“The guy you want to try is Cyril Lambrou in the Klinger Building, off Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles. The woman I talked to sold him an assortment of her mother’s antique jewelry. This was stuff she hardly ever wore and she was tired of paying the exorbitant insurance premiums.”

I felt myself separating from my body. I couldn’t believe he was doing it. I’d backed away from Mariah’s scheme and here he was laying out the bait. Henry had launched himself on his maiden lie, which he’d offered in my behalf. I knew why he was doing it. If the jeweler’s name came from him, how could I be blamed for it later when the deal went sour? Henry and Tommy had spent the previous evening together. Tommy would trust him. Everybody trusted Henry because he told the truth and he was straight as an arrow.

I said, “I can sympathize. I pay a fortune for insurance and I could use the cash.” My voice sounded hollow. I moved my hand out from under Tommy’s with the intention of lifting my glass for another sip of my martini, but I realized I was shaking too much to get the glass to my lips. I tucked my fingers under my thigh. I could feel how cold they were even through my jeans.

Meanwhile, Henry went on as smoothly as a con artist with an easy mark. “I called the fellow myself and described the diamond to him. He wouldn’t make a commitment on the phone, but he seemed interested. I know you don’t want to give the ring away, but you’re going to have to be realistic. You’ll never recoup the actual value, but he sounds a lot more generous than some. I think this would be for his personal collection, so it might be worth a shot.”

I tried to reconstruct from his comments the phony tale he must have had in mind. The implication was that I had my mother’s pricey diamond ring and was in the market for some cash. Apparently, I’d consulted him about selling it and he’d asked around. So far so good, but the trick with a good lie is not to push. I thought we might go another round or two, but then we’d have to move on. String a lie out for too long and it can trip you up.

My mouth was dry. How much? I cleared my throat and tried it again. “How much? Did he give you any idea?”

“Between eight and ten thousand. He says it depends on the stone and whether he thinks there’s any secondary market, but he swore he’d be fair.”

“The ring’s worth five times that,” I said, indignantly. I knew the ring was imaginary, but it still had sentimental value. Under the circumstance, eight to ten thousand sounded like chickenshit to me.

Henry shrugged. “Check around if you want. There are other jewelers in the building, but as he says, better the devil you know.”

“Maybe. We’ll see about that.”

Tommy’s expression hadn’t changed. He seemed to listen politely, no more and no less interested than any ordinary guy would be.

I felt a trickle of sweat inch down my spine to the small of my back. I pointed and said, “What’s in the envelope?”

“Oh. I’m glad you reminded me. I have a present for you.” He passed me the envelope, watching expectantly as I undid the clasp and folded back the flap. Inside, neatly secured with a paper clip, was a handful of bills, presumably Klotilde’s.

“Okay, I’ll bite. What is this?”

“See for yourself. Go on and open one.”

I slid off the paper clip and picked up the first bill, which appeared to be a lengthy itemized list of charges, most of them for medical supplies:

brush, hair $1.00

Steri-strips, 3m V4 X 3 $1.22

Steri-strips, 3m V4 X 3 $1.22

underpads, polymer 23 X 36 $3.35

syringe, monoject ins. $0.14

syringe, monoject ins. $0.14

syringe, monoject ins. $0.14

catheter, all-purp Davol $1.59

baby lotion $1.62

tray, bard irrigation $2.69

cups, denture $0.14

There were roughly thirty items in all. The total was $99.10. None of the charges seemed out of line to me. I glanced at the next statement, a record of therapeutic exercises and physical therapy sessions, totaling 130 minutes over the last few days of July. The box for each day bore the initials pg, the therapist who rendered the treatment.

I looked at Henry with puzzlement.

He said, “That whole batch is hers. I came across them this morning and thought you’d be interested. Take another look.”

I picked up the next invoice. This was a claim for portable X-ray equipment, the transport for the portable X-ray, and two X-ray exams, one of the wrist and one of the hand. The total was $108.50.1 glanced at the top of the form and then shuffled back through the first two. All three were generated by Pacific Meadows. “I didn’t realize she’d been a patient at Pacific Meadows.”

“Neither did I. I showed them to Rosie and she said Klotilde was admitted last spring. Pacific Meadows was one of several facilities where she’d been a patient in the last few years. I don’t know if you ever paid much attention, but she’d be hospitalized for something-a fall, pneumonia, that staph infection she picked up. With Medicare, she was only allowed X number of days-I think, a hundred per illness. She was so cranky and disagreeable, a couple of places refused to take her. They just claimed there wasn’t room. Are you following this?”

“So far.”

“Check the date services were rendered.”

“July and August.”

Henry leaned closer. “She passed away in April. She’d been gone for months by then.”

For a moment, I let the information sink in. This was the first tangible evidence of financial shenanigans that I’d seen. But how had they managed it? Klotilde must have died at just about the same time the paper audit was being conducted at Pacific Meadows. According to Merry, a substantial number of charts had been ordered for review. Maybe hers wasn’t one. I tried to recall the sequence of events whereby deaths were reported to Social Security. As nearly as I remembered, the mortuary filled out the death certificate and sent it to the local office of vital statistics, which in turn forwarded the original to the county recorder’s office. The death certificate was then sent to Sacramento, where it was archived and the information sent on to Social Security.

“Henry, this is great. I wonder if there’s any way to check it out?” I was of course pondering the notion of persuading Merry to do some snooping for me. I’d have to wait until the coming weekend, which was when she filled in. I didn’t think it’d be politic to approach her during regular weekday hours with Mrs. Stegler standing by. Plan B was maybe doing a little search of my own if I could figure out what to look for. I glanced up to find both Tommy and Henry watching me. “Sorry. I was trying to figure out what to do with this.”

Tommy must have decided he’d been polite long enough. His hand settled over mine. His grip was firm and prevented my pulling free without being conspicuous about it. “Hey, Henry. I hate to butt in here, but this lady’s promised to buy me dinner. We’re just having a quick drink before we walk over to Emile’s.”

Henry said, “Well, I better get back to my stew before it starts sticking to the pan.” He flicked a look at me as he rose to his feet. I knew he didn’t want to leave me, but he didn’t dare persist. At the prospect of his departure, I felt the same desperation I’d felt when I was five and my aunt walked me over for my first day of elementary school. I’d been fine while she lingered, chatting with the other parents, but the minute she left I had a panic attack. Now, I could feel the same roar of anxiety that dulled everything but my longing for her. Henry and Tommy exchanged chitchat and next thing I knew, Henry was gone. I had to get out of there. I tried to withdraw my hand, but Tommy tightened his grip.

I tapped the manila envelope. “You know what? I really need to look into these. I’ll have to take a rain check on dinner. I hope you don’t mind.”

Tommy minded. I watched his smile fade. “You’re reneging on a promise.”

“Maybe tomorrow night. I’ve got work to do.” I knew it wasn’t smart to go up against this man, but the notion of an evening alone with him was intolerable. Mariah had to be gone by now and if not, that was her problem.

He began to rub my fingers, the contact slightly rougher than was strictly necessary. The friction became uncomfortable, but he seemed unaware. “Why the sudden change of heart?”

“Please let go of my hand.”

He was staring at me. “Has someone told you something about me?”

I could feel my jaw set. “What’s there to tell, Tommy? You have something to hide?”

“No. Of course not, but people make things up.”

“Well, I don’t. If I say I’ve got work to do, you can take my word for it.”

He gave my fingers a squeeze and then released my hand. “I guess I better let you go, then. Why don’t I call you tomorrow? Or better yet, you call me.”

“Right.”

We stood at the same time. I waited while Tommy shrugged into his raincoat, picked up his umbrella, and adjusted the clasp. When we reached the entrance, I retrieved my slicker and umbrella. Tommy held the door. I made short work of the fare-thee-wells, trying to control my desire to flee. I turned toward my apartment while he walked off in the opposite direction on his way to his car. I forced myself to stroll though my impulse was to scurry, putting as much distance as possible between him and me.

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