It was 12:30 when I let myself into my apartment for the second time that night. I’d returned the keys to the front desk and walked straight out the front door, the stolen chart pages pressed against me like a paper truss. When I reached the parking lot, the vintage automobile was gone. I continued across the asphalt to the shadowy corner where I’d left my VW. Before I slid behind the wheel, I removed the stolen file copies and shoved them under the front seat. The pages looked battered, dog-eared by careless association with my thighs and ribs. I started the engine and put the car in reverse.
Once back in my apartment, I made a thorough tour of the place, assuring myself that all the doors and windows were locked as I’d left them. Tommy Hevener was never far from my thoughts. I was itching to work my way through Klotilde’s medical chart, but for the moment I refrained. Instead, I sat at my desk and consigned a few new nuggets of information to my index cards. It was odd reviewing the assumptions about Purcell now that I knew the end of his sad tale. There wasn’t any doubt in my mind that the body in the vehicle was his. In theory, I could imagine him substituting someone else’s body. In reality, this was not so easily accomplished, especially in a drowning, where critical features remain. It wouldn’t take long for the forensic pathologist to compare his dental records and his fingerprints and make a positive ID.
I laid the cards out in a line, arranging them first in chronological order, then in the sequence in which I’d actually done the interviews. I wasn’t being paid for this, but then again, I hadn’t been officially fired. Idly, I shuffled the cards together just to witness the effect. The story always came out the same. Whether by his own hand or another’s, Dow Purcell was dead and the life he’d left behind was a mess. Three questions nagged. Where was his passport and where had the thirty thousand dollars gone? There was also the minor but troubling matter of the post-office box. If Dow had paid to keep it open for his personal use, why ask Crystal if she was still renting it?
At nine A.M, I put a call through to Fiona. Naturally, I didn’t reach her. In the message I left, I told her I was hoping to track down the missing thirty thousand dollars and I implied, perhaps truthfully, that someone in Crystal’s household might be responsible for the theft. I proposed putting in a couple more hours’ work if she’d approve the expense. I was hoping she’d take advantage of the possibility of incriminating Crystal or someone dear to her. If not, I’d probably pursue it anyway just to satisfy myself. Not everything in this business is about the bucks.
It was not quite noon by the time I cleared my office calendar and dealt with phone messages from the day before. Jeniffer had called in sick, which meant she and her pals were off to Los Angeles to hear their favorite band in concert. She’d told Jill she’d dropped the outgoing mail at the post office on her way home from work the day before. It’s not that I doubted her. I was simply curious as I settled in her chair and began to go through her desk. I found what looked like a week’s worth of letters piled together in the bottom drawer, among them my newly paid bills, all stamped and ready to go. I promptly ratted her out to Ida Ruth, who swore up and down she’d tell Lonnie and John and get her booted out the door.
Meanwhile, I put the batch of mail in a box and dumped it off at the post office myself. I wondered how soon Richard Hevener would get my letter and what he’d do when he figured out he couldn’t cash my check. Too bad for him. He should have made the deposit the day I gave it to him. I walked from the post office to the police station hoping to catch Detective Odessa before he went out to lunch. Apparently, he and another detective had left on foot five or ten minutes before I arrived. I asked the desk officer if he had any idea where they’d gone. “Probably the Del Mar. They’ve been doing that a lot. If not, try the take-out window at the Arcade. Sometimes they bring back sandwiches and eat at their desks.”
I put a business card on the desk. “Thanks. If I miss him, would you have him call me?”
I zipped up my windbreaker and trotted down the outside steps to the street. When I’d checked the weather report in the morning paper, the satellite photo showed a thick, white whirly-gig where yet another storm system spiraled toward the coast. The forecast was for morning low clouds and fog, with a 40 percent chance of rain in the afternoon. Temperatures were hovering in the mid-50s. Soon the local citizens would turn all cranky and mean-spirited, depressed by the bitter cold and the partly cloudy skies.
There was no sign of Odessa in the Del Mar so I hoofed it the half block to the Arcade, a sandwich shop with a pint-sized interior consisting of a counter, three marble-topped tables, and assorted bent-wire chairs. The take-out window was located around the side of the building, where two picnic tables and four wooden benches had been added in the shelter of a black-and-white striped awning. Detective Odessa was hunched over a red plastic basket that contained a massive paper-wrapped burger and a load of fries. The detective sitting across the table from him was Jonah Robb. This was better than I’d hoped.
I’d met Jonah initially about four years before when he was working Missing Persons and I was looking for one. He’d since been transferred to Homicide, promoted to lieutenant, and made unit supervisor-Paglia’s boss, in effect. At the time we became acquainted, Jonah’s on-again, off-again marriage was in one of its off-again phases, and we’d dallied for a season on my Wonder Woman sheets. Subsequently, his wife, Camilla, returned with their two girls in tow. The next time I ran into him, he told me she’d taken a job as a court clerk, a career move cut short when she left him again. This time, she’d returned pregnant with someone else’s child. The purported father took off, leaving poor Camilla to fend for herself. Of course, Jonah’d taken her in and the last I heard he was busy parenting his patched-together brood. From the onset of our relationship, there’d been entirely too much melodrama to suit me. I’d finally bowed out, but I hadn’t yet reached the point where I could see him without feeling a flicker of embarrassment.
Vince Odessa spotted me and waved.
I said, “Hi, guys.”
Jonah turned on the bench and we both made a point of greeting each other with a pleasant distance in our voices, eyes not quite meeting. We shook hands as you would with the pastor of your church. He said, “How are you?”
“Fine. How’s the baby?” I said. “He must be what, four months old by now?”
“He’s great. He was born July 4, right on schedule; weighed in at eleven pounds, eight ounces. What a brute.”
“Wow. What’d you call him?”
“Ah. As in ‘star-spangled.’ “
Jonah hesitated. “How’d you know? Camilla came up with the name, but you’re the first to get it.”
“Just a raggedy-ass guess.”
Odessa gestured. “Sit down. Are you having lunch?”
Jonah promptly held out his plastic basket. “Here. You can have half of mine. Camilla’s bugging me to diet. I bet I picked up fifteen pounds in the last few months of her pregnancy. Hers came right off, but I can’t seem to get rid of mine.” The hunk of flesh he pinched on his side formed a considerable sausage between his thumb and index finger.
I was standing closest to him and thought it’d be too conspicuous if I circled the table and settled beside Odessa, so I sat down on the bench beside him. I checked Jonah’s sandwich, which was cut on the diagonal: bacon, lettuce, and tomato, with a gruel of guacamole in between the layers of mayonnaise. I added a snow flurry of salt to the mix. I hate to pass up a chance to give my kidneys a thrill.
“What are you up to?” Odessa asked. He’d caught me with a mouthful of sandwich, and while I struggled to clear my palette, he went back to their conversation. “We were just talking about Purcell. Jonah attended the post.”
“Such as it was. Condition of the body, Dr. Yee says he can’t run biochemical or biophysical tests. From the gross, it looks like he died from a single contact shot to the head. We found the gun on the front seat. A Colt Python.357 with one shot fired. The cartridge casing was still in the cylinder. Yee says there’s a 99.9 percent probability he was dead when he went into the water.”
“The gun was his?” I asked.
Jonah wiped his mouth and then crumpled the paper napkin in his hand. “He bought it before he and Fiona split. Crystal wouldn’t let him keep it in the house on account of the kid. She thinks he either kept it in his desk drawer at work or in the glove compartment of his car.”
Odessa said, “We’re trying to figure out how he got up to the reservoir in the first place.”
I raised my hand. “He was supposed to go see Fiona. She says he never showed, but she could be lying.”
Odessa nodded happily, his mouth full. “Don’t think it’s escaped our attention that the guy turns up dead practically in her front yard.”
“And catch this. She’s the sole beneficiary on a life insurance policy. Part of the divorce settlement. We checked it out,” Jonah said.
“That would do it for me,” Odessa said.
“Risky to kill the guy so close to home,” I remarked.
“Maybe that’s the beauty of it,” Jonah said. “Could have been someone else. Lure him up there on some pretext and put a bullet in his head.”
Odessa made a face. “How’re you going to get him up there?”
Jonah said, “Ride in the same car. You call and arrange a meeting, say you want to go some place quiet and talk about a situation, but you need a lift.”
“What’s the pretext?”
I said, “Who needs a pretext? You hide in the backseat and pull the gun on him.”
“Then what? How do you get back down the road in the dark?”
Jonah said, “You hike. It’s not that far.”
I said, “What if you’re seen? Now you’ve got someone who can place you at the scene.”
Odessa said, “Could have been two of them. One meets him up there and does the job while the other one waits in a car parked somewhere down the road.”
“But doesn’t adding a coconspirator increase the risk?”
“Depends on who it is.”
Jonah sipped his Coke. He offered me the cup and I took a sip as well. We were silent for a moment, contemplating the images before us.
I said, “On the other hand, Purcell was in trouble with the feds and facing social disgrace. He must have considered suicide. Wouldn’t you in his shoes?”
Jonah said, “I guess.” He sounded glum at the prospect. “The guys are still working on the Mercedes. He had this mohair blanket over his lap, empty whiskey bottle on the floor of the passenger side. Headlights off. Key in the ignition, which was turned to the On position. Radio’s off. ID, his wallet, all of that was on the body, including his watch, which is still running by the way. Damn thing didn’t lose a second after all those weeks.”
Odessa perked up at that. “What make? Hell of an endorsement. We should get in touch with the company.”
“Breitling, watertight down to four hundred feet.”
Odessa said, “Remember that ad with the fountain pen?”
“That was a ballpoint.”
“It was? I’m talking about the one that writes underwater. What was it called?”
“Who the hell cares?”
Odessa smiled sheepishly and said, “Sorry. What else?”
“Not much. The tempered glass in the driver’s-side window was crazed-some glass missing, but most of it intact-where the bullet exited. I sent two guys back over there with a metal detector, hoping they can pick it up. The passenger-side window and the two in the backseat were opened, ostensibly to speed the water pouring in.”
Odessa wadded up his paper napkin and made an overhead shot, aiming at the wastebin where it bounced on the rim and tumbled out. “I’m not sold on suicide. It makes no sense.”
Jonah said, “I’m eighty-twenty against based on a couple of things.”
“Like what?” I asked.
Jonah crossed his arms. “Let’s assume he shot himself, just for the sake of argument. How did he manage to sink the car? But why even bother?”
“Maybe he was embarrassed,” Odessa said. “Ashamed to kill himself so he hopes he can disappear.”
“To spare his family the mess,” Jonah said.
“Sure, why not?”
“Maybe the insurance policy has a suicide exclusion,” Odessa said.
“So what? Fiona can’t collect anyway until the body’s been found. The minute that happens, the cause of death is going to be obvious. Bullet to the head and the gun’s sitting there on the seat?”
“Might have a point there. Nobody’s going to believe the guy shot himself in the temple by accident.”
Jonah made a face. “Sorry to burst your bubble, but there isn’t any suicide clause in the policy. I checked.”
“Let’s get back to the window on the driver’s side. Why leave that up when all the others are open?”
“To muffle the sound of the shot,” I said.
“Yeah, but why does he care? I mean, what’s it to him if someone hears the gun go off? He’s knows he’s a dead man, so what difference does it make?”
“Wouldn’t muffle much anyway if the other three windows were wide open,” Odessa pointed out.
Jonah said, “Exactly. Something about it doesn’t sit right. I don’t like the redundancy. Shoot yourself before you drown? Seems like a bit much.”
Odessa said, “Most suicides don’t go in for drowning. It’s too tough. Even if you want to die, your overwhelming impulse is to come up for air. Too hard to control.”
“Virginia Woolf did it that way,” I said. “She put stones in her pockets and walked into the water.”
“But why double up the effort? That’s what bugs me.” Odessa said, “People do it all the time. Take an overdose of pills and put your head in a plastic bag. Mix vodka and Valium before you slit your wrists. One doesn’t work, you have the other to fall back on.” Jonah shook his head. “I’m just trying to picture it. What’s the order of business here? He opens three windows, puts a blanket over his lap, takes out his gun, puts it to his temple, and pulls the trigger. Meanwhile, the engine’s running, he’s got the car in gear, and his foot on the brake. Blam. Foot slides off the brake pedal, car rolls down the hill and into the lake. It’s too elaborate. Seems like overkill.”
“As it were,” Odessa said.
“Another thing. I don’t like the whiskey bottle. It’s melodramatic. Guy wants to off himself, why’s he need to take a drink?”
“To calm his nerves?” I suggested.
“Nah, you don’t need an excuse to drink,” Odessa said. “You drink because you love it and what better occasion? Toast yourself before you go. Bon voyage and all that.”
“Yeah, but everything I heard about him, he’s a straight-ahead kind of guy. Doesn’t seem like his style, this whole complicated setup.”
I said, “He did drink. A friend of his told me when he disappeared before, he was off at rehab getting dried out. I guess he fell off the wagon the last six months or so.”
Odessa said, “I’d been him, I’d have put together a nice little cocktail of really fine drugs. He must’ve had access to anything he wanted. Vicodin, Codeine, Percocet, Halcion…”
“I’d be worried about constipation,” I said to no one in particular. Jonah was still feeling argumentative. “Drugs take too long. He knows enough about human anatomy to do the job right. Path the bullet took, I’m telling you that was the end of that.”
“Pretty messy, though, for a guy that conservative,” I said. “The quick glimpse I got, he died in his suit, wearing a dress shirt and tie.”
“And his seat belt,” Jonah added.
“Nothing conservative about his marriage. A Las Vegas show tart? That’s a walk on the wild side,” Odessa said.
“Maybe that’s not as much of a stretch as you think. Fiona claims he was having problems with impotency, getting into sex toys and pornography, that sort of thing. She thought it was disgusting. She says she refused to have anything to do with him and that’s when he went out and found Crystal.” I popped the rest of the sandwich in my mouth and reached for one of Odessa’s fries.
Jonah said, “It bugs me there’s no note. The guy might’ve been desperate, but he’s not mean-spirited. Suppose the car’s never found. Why leave everyone hanging? Guy wants to kill himself, all he has to say, ‘Sorry, folks, but that’s it. I can’t take any more and I’m out of here.’ And why put the car at the bottom of the lake? What’s the point of that move?”
“Right,” Jonah said. “What if we take the opposite tack. Let’s say somebody did it for him. You shoot him with the windows up to muffle the sound. Then you open three of ’em to make sure the car sinks fast. You don’t want an air bubble caught against the roof because the whole thing might float. The deal wouldn’t be that hard to pull off. You do the guy, get out, release the emergency brake, give the car a quick shove, and send it on its merry way.”
Odessa said, “Which brings us right back around to where we started. Look at it as murder, then the sinking of the car makes a lot more sense.”
“The killer assumes the car’s twenty feet down and won’t be found,”
“Exactly. Now the scenario heats up. You find the car, and now he’s forced to cope with something he never counted on.”
I said, “If you’re looking for a motive. I heard a rumor that Crystal was having an affair.”
“A personal trainer of hers. Some guy she worked with eight or ten months ago.”
Odessa glanced at his watch. “Hey, I gotta get a move on. I promised Sherry I’d run an errand.” He stood and picked up his plastic basket, picking up Jonah’s as well. Jonah offered to help, but he was already at the take-out window. He left the baskets on the counter. “I’ll see you back at the place.”
“I better be going myself. You walking in that direction?” I said, “Sure, if you don’t mind.” I picked up my shoulder bag and we walked for a beat in silence. “So how are things really?”
“Better than you’d think,” he said. “Good. I’m glad to hear it. I hope it works out for you.”
“Something I never said. That time we spent together, I appreciate what you did. You helped me keep my head on straight or I’d have never made it through.”
“I didn’t see you as a charity,” I said. “That’s how I feel, though; fucking grateful.”
“Well, I am, too.” I took his arm for a moment and then thought better of it. I moved my hand, pretending to adjust my bag higher on my shoulder. “You know, I’m still on Fiona’s payroll and I owe her some hours.”
“I was going to clear this with Odessa, but it’s probably better if I talk to you. I went through my notes last night and I’m curious about Dow’s passport and the missing thirty thousand bucks. If I can get Fiona to underwrite it, do you care if I pursue that?”
“Depends. What are you proposing?”
“I’m not sure. For starters, Crystal mentioned a post-office box. It was hers at one time, but she claims she let the rental on it lapse. She assumed Dow kept it so he could divert bank statements, but I’m wondering if that’s true.”
He studied me for a moment. “I can’t stop you.”
“I know, but I don’t want to step on any toes.”
“Then don’t fuck it up. You find out anything, I want you coming straight to me. And no tampering with evidence.”
“I wouldn’t tamper with evidence,” I said, offended.
“Uh-hun. You wouldn’t lie about it, either.”
“Well, I wouldn’t lie to you.”
We paused at the corner, waiting for the light to change. I stole a glance at his face, which was looking weary in repose. “You really believe he was murdered?”
“I think we’ll operate on that assumption until we hear otherwise.”
I went back to the office. Fiona had left me a message, authorizing two hours, but no more. I sat in my swivel chair, feet on the desk, and swiveled for a bit while I stared at the phone. I was reluctant to call Crystal in the midst of the current crisis, but I had no alternative. If Crystal was upset about Dow, I’d just have to muddle through. I picked up the handset before I lost my nerve. I tried the number at the beach house, picturing her retreating to the place she loved best. An-ica answered after two rings.
“Anica, it’s Kinsey. I thought you went back to Fitch.”
“I did, but then Detective Paglia called this morning to tell Crystal the body’d been identified as Dow’s. She called me and I turned around and drove right up. I told them I’d take vacation days through the end of next week. This takes priority. We’ll be here until Sunday and then we’re going to the other house so we can sort through Dow’s things.”
“How’s she doing?” I could hear murmuring in the background and I got the impression Crystal might have been nearby.
Anica lowered her voice. “She’s a mess. I think it’s the finality that’s getting to her. Rand says she just lost it the minute she heard. She always swore something happened to him, but the whole time she must have been praying she was wrong.”
“What about Leila? How’s she taking it?”
“Oh, you know her. She was up in her room listening to music at top volume, driving everyone nuts. She and Crystal got into it, so I finally called Lloyd and asked him to pick her up and take her for the day. The quiet is heavenly.”
“What about the funeral? Is she planning to have a service?”
“She’s talking about Saturday if she can pull it together. She’ll have to get the notice in the paper and an officiant lined up. Dow wasn’t religious, so this is really more in the way of a memorial to him. I just called the mortuary and they said they’d make arrangements to pick him up. She’s having him cremated… not that she has a lot of choice in the matter.”
“I guess not.”
“What happened? Detective Paglia never said, but I’m assuming he drowned.”
I could feel my heart lurch. “Ah. I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything definitive. They’re probably still working to determine that. In the meantime, is there anything I can do to help?” The question seemed false even to my lie-corrupted ear, but I had to get her off the subject.
“Not at the moment, but thanks, anyway. I should probably get back, but I’ll tell Crystal you called.”
“While I have you on the line, I wondered if I could get some information. Crystal mentioned a post-office box she used to keep here in town. I need the number and location.”
“Hang on for a second.” Anica placed a palm across the mouthpiece and I heard her muffled conversation with someone in the background. It reminded me of days spent at the public pool as a kid. I’d emerge from the water to find my hearing blocked, with much the same effect. It sometimes took hours before the tiny trickle of hot water cleared my ear canal.
Anica removed her hand. “P.O. Box 505. She says it’s the Mail More over in Laguna Plaza. Be sure and let her know what you find.”
“I’ll do that.”
I’d no more put the phone down than it rang.
Mariah Talbot said, “Hi. Are you free to talk or do you want to meet somewhere?”
“This is fine. The phone’s secure. All this cloak-and-dagger stuff feels dumb, but I can’t help myself. Thanks for returning my call.” I picked up a pen and began to doodle on a scratch pad… a dagger with blood dripping off the tip and a hangman’s noose, one of my specialties. Sometimes, focusing on a doodle helps me articulate my thoughts.
“Well, here’s the situation.” I went on to describe the conversation at Rosie’s the previous night when Henry had laid out the bait about the jeweler in L.A.
“You think Tommy bought it?”
“I have no idea. I thought I’d report it because the last time we spoke I told you I wasn’t going to help. Now the deed’s been done, but only because Henry stepped in and did it.”
“What a cool move on his part. If it’s coming from him, it’ll never occur to Tommy he’s being conned.”
“It’s still a long shot.”
“Not so. They’re hard up for cash and their property is mortgaged to the hilt. The jewelry’s their only asset. They have to sell to survive,” she said. “By the way, where did you and Prince Charming end up? Not in the bedroom, I hope.”
“Absolutely not,” I said. “I canceled our dinner plans, which he didn’t like. He pretended it was okay, but he was pissed. I wish I knew how to dump the guy without setting him off.”
“Oh, good luck. He’s never going to let you get away with that. Tommy’s an egomaniac. He dumps you. You don’t dump him.”
“He’s like a spider. He lurks. Every time I go somewhere, he crawls out. He’s really getting on my nerves.”
“Well, what do you expect? These boys are both wacko. You ever want to see Richard lose it, ask him about Buddy and the bike.”
“Why? What’s that about?”
“This is a story I heard when I did the background work. This guy, Buddy, swears by the time those kids were ten, they were already competitive little shits, always at each other’s throats. Jared thought it was time they learned to share, so he gave ’em a bike and said they had to take turns. Richard wasn’t into taking turns so he stashed it somewhere and told his dad the bike got stolen. For weeks, he kept it hidden so he could ride it anytime he wanted.”
“Didn’t their father figure it out?”
“No, but Tommy did. They had a mutual friend-Buddy-who’d seen Richard do it. Buddy says Richard was always pounding on him, broke his nose once, so Buddy tattled to Tommy just to get even. Tommy waited until Richard was off somewhere. He stole the bike back and pushed it off the side of a bridge.”
“He got away with that?”
“Richard guessed right away, but what could he do? It still pisses him off. The thing about those two is both would rather forfeit everything than see the other enjoy his half. Happened with a girl once and she ended up dead.”
“You’re really cheering me up here.” I wrote THE END on the scratch pad and gave the letters a look of three-dimensions in the manner of gang graffiti. “Happily, I’m hanging up my spurs. I called to fill you in in case one of ’em makes a move.”
“Come on. You can’t leave me now with the job half done. What about the safe? You have to hang in until you locate that.”
“Find it yourself. I’m bowing out of this.”
“Just think how good it’ll feel when we finally nail those guys.”
“What’s this ‘we’ shit? The problem isn’t mine. It belongs to you.”
Mariah laughed. “I know, but I keep hoping I can talk you into it.”
“No, thanks. Nice doing business with you. It was fun,” I said, and hung up. I lifted my eyes from my drawing to find Richard Hevener standing at my door, wearing a black raincoat and black cowboy boots.
I felt the icy-hot sensation of a bad sunburn, a stinging heat on my skin that chilled me to the bone. I had no idea how long he’d been there and I couldn’t remember for the life of me if I’d mentioned his name or Tommy’s in the final moments of my conversation. I didn’t think I’d used hers.
I said, “Hello,” trying to sound unconcerned.
“What’s this?” He pulled an envelope from his pocket and tossed it toward the desk. My letter whicked through the air and landed in front of me.
I could feel my heart begin to thump. “I feel bad about that. I probably should have called, but it seemed so awkward somehow.”
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing. It’s just not going to work.”
“‘It’s not going to work.’ Just like that.”
“I don’t know what else to say. I don’t want the space. I thought I did, but now I don’t.”
“You signed a lease.”
“I know and I apologize for the inconvenience-“
“It’s not a matter of inconvenience. We have an agreement.” His tone was light but unrelenting.
“What do you want from me?”
“I want you to honor the terms of the lease you signed.”
“You know what? Why don’t you talk to my attorney about that. His name is Lonnie Kingman. He’s right down the hall.”
Ida Ruth appeared in the hall behind him. “Everything okay?”
Richard flicked a look at her and then looked back at me. He said, “Everything’s fine. I’m sure we’ll find the perfect solution to the little problem we have.”
He backed out of the room. I watched him turn in her direction, careful not to touch her as he passed. He moved out of my line of sight, but Ida Ruth continued to stare. “What’s with him? Is he nuts or what? He seems off.”
“You don’t know the half of it. If he shows up again, call the cops.”
I locked my office door and placed a call to Mariah’s Texas number, leaving another message on her answering machine. I wasn’t sure how soon she’d check back, but I really didn’t like the direction this was starting to take.