Chapter 21

As soon as they left, I set my glass down and found the nearest bathroom. The door was shut. I tried the handle and found it locked. I waited, leaning against the wall, making sure I was first in the one-person line. I heard the toilet flush, water running in the sink. Moments later, the door opened and the man with the mustache and silver hair emerged. He smiled at me politely and went into the den. I shut myself in the bathroom and availed myself of the facilities. Having hoisted my pantyhose up the pole like a flag, I went out and found a perch on the stairs, three steps down from the top, the perfect vantage point from which to view the gathering. Rand was making the rounds with Griffith affixed to his hip. Griff was outfitted in a sky blue sailor suit, and Rand mouthed Griff’s imaginary monologue as though the child were a ventriloquist’s sidekick. I hadn’t seen Leila but figured she was in the house somewhere. Crystal would never tolerate her boycotting the event.

The caterers had finished setting out a cold buffet of boneless chicken breasts, three kinds of salad, marinated asparagus, deviled eggs, and baskets of fresh rolls. People loitered near the table in clusters, everyone trying to avoid going first. Ordinarily, I’d have left Crystal’s long before now, but I was curious about the man with the silver hair. I saw him return to the great room, this time in the company of a gaunt brunette, who had a wineglass in one hand, the other hand hooked through his arm. She wore a black long-sleeved leotard under skin-tight black leather pants, cinched by a wide silver belt. The stiletto heels on her boots looked like five-inch toothpicks. This was an outfit more appropriate to soliciting on street corners than attending a wake. Her body wasn’t quite slick enough to bear up under such pitiless revelations. Her liposuctionist should have slurped another pint of fat from the top of each thigh.

She seemed watchful, her gaze flitting uneasily around the room. Her smile, when it appeared, was self-conscious and never quite reached her eyes. I’m not sure I buy into talk like this, but her “aura” was dark; I could almost see the magnetic force field surrounding her. She was bristling, battle-ready. What was the deal here? The guy seemed to know quite a few people. Relaxed and at ease, he chatted first with one group and then another while she clung to his arm. In contrast to her tartlike ensemble, his suit was well cut, a conservative dark blue that he wore with a pale blue shirt and a tone-on-tone pale blue tie. I pegged him in his late fifties, one of those men who’d aged well: trim and fit-looking. He had to be a doctor. I couldn’t think what else he’d have been doing at Pacific Meadows at midnight, aside from the impromptu game with Pepper Gray.

He murmured to the woman and then took his place in the supper line, picking up his plate and a napkin-wrapped bundle of silverware. Though she moved into line behind him, they didn’t speak to each other. I watched him fill his plate to capacity while she helped herself to a demitasse of salad and four asparagus spears. He settled on the couch in the only remaining space. He rested his wineglass and his plate on the pale wood coffee table and began to eat. When she tried to join him, there was no seat left. She stood there for a moment, clearly hoping he’d scoot over and make room for her. He seemed intent on his meal, and she was forced to take a chair by herself at a distance. She busied herself with her plate to cover her discomfiture, though no one else present seemed to notice. The server walked by with a bottle of Chardonnay. She looked up at him sharply and held out her glass, which he filled generously.

I sensed motion behind me and glanced up to find Anica coming down the stairs. She paused for a moment to peer over the rail. She was, as usual, dressed in understated good taste: a long-sleeved white silk shirt; wide-legged, pleated black wool slacks; and black leather loafers as soft as slippers. Her auburn hair had been moussed, a pompadour in front with the sides combed back into sweeping ducktails. “Good place to sit. Have you had something to eat?”

“I will in a minute when the line goes down. I’ve been doing some people watching. Who’s that silver-haired fellow on the couch in the dark blue suit?”

She followed my gaze. “That’s Harvey Broadus. He and Joel must be dividing the honors. Joel and Dana went off to the country club where Fiona’s holding court. Harvey came here. That way, they can’t be accused of playing favorites.”

“Who’s the woman in the leather pants?”

“Celine, Harvey’s wife of twenty-ump years. He walked out on her eight months ago and now he’s come crawling back.”

“Oh, right. Crystal mentioned he was in the middle of a nasty divorce.”

“‘Was’ is correct. I guess the tab got too steep. He decided he was better off living with her than being stripped of his assets. He’s a jerk, but I sometimes feel sorry for him. She drinks like a fish. Most of the year she’s either checking into Betty Ford or checking herself out again. The rest of the time, she’s goes off to some luxury spa-La Costa or the Golden Door. Nothing but the best for our girl.”

“Aren’t married people ever happy?”

“Oh sure. They’re just not often happy with the person they’re married to.” I saw her gaze shift. “Uh-oh. I better go down. Talk to you later.”

Anica slipped by me and headed down the stairs. I glanced over at the front door, where Pepper Gray had appeared. Anica spotted her and made her way over to the door. The two exchanged polite busses. Anica took her coat and then signaled the waiter, who veered in their direction with a tray of champagne glasses. Shorn of her white cap and white uniform, she seemed softer and prettier, less like a woman who’d perform extramarital first aid. I looked down at my silver-haired friend, wondering if he’d noticed her at the same time I had. Pepper moved into the great room. They had to be aware of each other, but neither paid the slightest attention-no nod of recognition, no greeting of any kind.

Celine looked up and her body grew still, a forkful of food poised over her plate. Anica took Pepper by the arm, guiding her through the French doors and out onto the deck. Celine’s head seemed to swivel, her gaze glassy and fixed. She watched Pepper with all the caution of a rabbit when a fox is in range. Either she knew for a fact that her husband was philandering or her radar was superb, probably a little bit of both. It didn’t take much to guess how the dynamic played out. He screwed around on her as compensation for the fact that she drank too much, and she drank too much to console herself for his screwing around. As I watched, she got up and left the room.

I waited on the stairs until the desserts had been arranged at one end of the table and then joined the buffet line, which had shrunk considerably. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but a seat near Harvey Broadus had opened up and I wanted to take advantage. I filled my plate in haste and then crossed to the couch. He looked up as I approached. Nice blue eyes.

“Anybody sitting here?”

“No, go right ahead. I’m ready for dessert so you can save my place.”

“Sure, no problem.”

While he was gone, a woman in uniform came by picking up abandoned plates. I focused on the food, which turned out to be terrific, ate with the usual animal enthusiasm, trying not to snuffle, belch, o spill down my front. Broadus returned with his dessert plate and a fresh glass of wine. “Thought you might need this,” he said, setting the wineglass on the coffee table next to me.

“Thanks. I was about to go in search of the fellow with the Chardon nay.”

Broadus held out his hand. “Harry Broadus.”

“Kinsey Millhone,” I said, shaking hands with him. I surveyed his dessert plate: a brownie, a wedge of fresh fruit tart, and a chunk of coconut sheet cake. “That looks good.”

“My sweet tooth.” He sat down again and balanced his plate on one knee. He chose the sheet cake first. “I caught sight of you earlier, sitting on the stairs.”

“I’m not one for crowds and I don’t know a soul. What about you? Are you a friend of Crystal’s or Dow’s?”

“Both. I was in business with Dow.”

“Pacific Meadows?”

“That’s right. What sort of work do you do?” He moved on to the brownie, making short work of it.

“Mostly research,” I said. I took a big bite of roll so I wouldn’t have to elucidate.

“Sad day,” he said. “I feel terrible about Dow, though I wasn’t surprised. He was unbelievably anxious and depressed in the weeks before he disappeared.”

Oh good. Gossiping at a wake about the dead. How fun. I said, “The poor guy. About what?”

“I don’t want to go into it… let’s just say he left the clinic in a mess.”

“Someone was telling me about that. Something to do with Medicare, wasn’t it?” I took a bite of salad while he tackled the fruit tart.

“You heard about that?”

I nodded. “From a couple of different sources.”

“I guess word must be out. That’s too bad.”

“What’s the story?”

“We think it was probably an honest mistake, but we may never know.”

“Doctors can sometimes be real dopes about business,” I said, aping Penelope Delacorte.

“Tell me about it. We were shocked.”

“I don’t get what went on. I mean, as I understand it, the clinic doesn’t actually do the billing. I thought there was an operating company to handle that.”

He nodded. “Genesis Financial Management Services. They have offices downtown. Joel and I… you know Joel?”

“Met him once. I know his wife.”

“Dana’s great. I’m really crazy about her. Joel and I own the property through a company called Century Comprehensive, mostly real estate development, though we do other things as well. Genesis leases the physical plant from us. They also handle all the billing: accounts payable and receivable, Medicare, Medicaid-that sort of thing.”

“So how’d Dow screw up?”

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

“Because I thought, you know… by law your company and the operating company had to be completely separate.”

“True. But Genesis has to rely on the information they receive from Pacific Meadows. No one from the operating company’s on site. If Dow reviewed and forwarded billing charges, Genesis took his word for it.”

“So he could have told ’em anything he wanted.”

“Could and did.”

“How’d he get caught?”

“We’re not sure. It might have been a guardian or relative of a patient who noticed the discrepancies and phoned in a complaint.”

“What, to you guys?”

“To Medicare.”

“A whistle-blower. Bad luck for him. So the fraud busters jump in and followed up.”

“That’s our guess. At this point, we don’t know what they have.”

“What if it turns out it wasn’t him?”

“His reputation’s still ruined. A town this size, once you’ve be tainted by rumor, it’s almost impossible to recover your good name. People will be polite, but it’s the kiss of death.”

“I guess from Dow’s perspective, the whole thing looked hopeless no matter what.”

“More or less.”

“What if it turns out he’s innocent?” I said.

“Either way, we’re left holding the bag.” He glanced at his watch, set his plate aside, and got up. “Well. I better go find my wife. Nice talking to you, Kinsey. I hope our paths cross again in happier times.”

“I hope so, too,” I said. I lifted my wineglass. “Thanks for this.”

“Glad to be a service.”

I watched him cross the room, scouting for Celine.

What a bullshitter. Joel Glazer had been on the phone with Broadus the day I talked to him. I wasn’t out of his office door before the information was passed on. What Broadus had told me about their business troubles was almost word for word the story I’d heard from Joel.

When I got back to my apartment, the phone was ringing. Two rings. Three. I let myself in and snatched up the phone before the machine kicked in. Tommy Hevener. The moment I heard his voice, I realize I should have been screening my calls.

He said, “Hey, babe. It’s me.” His tone was both intimate and as assured, like I’d been waiting all day in hopes of hearing from him. The sound of his voice gave me a jolt sufficient to make me salivate like dog. I had to remind myself that while I didn’t want to see him, I might need his help in getting Richard calmed down.

I ignored his seductive manner and said, “Hi. How are you?” All breezy and matter-of-fact.

“What’d you do to Richard? He’s pissed as hell at you.”

My stomach did a flip. “I know and I’m sorry. I feel terrible about that.”

“What happened?”

“Ah. What happened. Well.” Think, think, think, think, think. The lie lurched from my lips. “Lonnie wanted me to stay in the office, so he offered me a fifty percent discount on the rent.”

“Why didn’t you just say so? Richard would’ve understood that.”

“I never had a chance. He was in such a rage I couldn’t deal with him.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? We could have worked something out. Christ, and then on top of that he found out you went and put a stop on the check? You should have seen him. He was screaming at the top of his lungs. You don’t know what he’s capable of once he gets like this.”

I thought I knew Richard’s capabilities. “Can’t you talk to him for me?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to do. I thought if I heard your version of the story I could reason with him. You blew this one bad.”

“You’re right. I know that, but it’s like I explained to him… I thought writing him a note would be less awkward than telling him in person.”

“Big mistake. That’s what set him off.”

“I got that already. What do you think will happen next?”

“Hard to say with him. Maybe the whole thing will blow over. We can hope,” he said. “Anyway, enough about him. When can we get together? I’ve missed you.” His tone was playful, but it was all a front. I could either yield to him now or he’d go right on working on me until I did. I could feel a slow, stubborn anger begin to rise in my gut. I tried to keep my tone mild, but I knew the message wasn’t one he’d accept. “Look, I don’t think this relationship is going to work for me. It’s time to let go.”

There was dead silence. I could hear breathing on his end. I let the silence extend. Finally, he said, “This is your pattern, isn’t it? Distancing yourself. You can’t let anyone get close.”

“Maybe so. Fair enough. I can see how you’d think that.”

“I know you’ve been hurt and I’m sorry about that, but give me a chance. Don’t shut me out. I deserve better than that.”

“I agree. You do deserve better. Truly, I wish you well and I’m sorry things didn’t work out.”

“Can’t we even talk about this?”

“I don’t see the point.”

“You don’t see the point? What the hell is this?”

“I’m not going to argue. I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression-“

“Who the hell are you, thinking you can talk to me like this? You were the one came on to me.”

“I’m hanging up now. Good-bye.”

“Just a fuckin’ minute. You stick it to my brother and I come to your defense and you think you can turn around and pull this kind of shit with me? You’re out of your mind.”

“Great. Perfect. Let’s let it go at that.” I set the phone down in the cradle. Belatedly, my heart began to bang like someone dribbling a basketball. I stood there waiting.

The phone rang and even though I was expecting it, I jumped. Two. Three. Four. The machine picked up. I heard my outgoing message and then he hung up. Thirty seconds passed. The phone rang again. I lifted the handset and depressed the plunger, terminating the call. I turned off the ringer and then, for good measure, I unplugged the phone.

I sat at my desk and took a few deep breaths. I was not going to let the guy get to me. If I had to, I’d talk to Lonnie about getting a restraining order. In the meantime, I had to find a way to get him out of my head.

I took out my index cards and scribbled down numerous new notes, filling in a few blanks. Like a Tarot reading, I laid out a spread of cards for review. Joel Glazer, Harvey Broadus, and Pacific Meadows formed an arc. Attached to those cards, there were two more: Penelope Delacorte, the associate administrator, and Tina Bart, the bookkeeper, who’d been fired. Joel Glazer and Harvey Broadus had gone to great lengths to suggest that Dow was at fault in the Medicare scandal brewing under the surface. The one item that didn’t fit was the note I’d made about the liaison between Broadus and the frisky charge nurse who serviced him.

I returned to the card for Tina Bart. Where had she gone? No doubt Penelope Delacorte knew, but she wasn’t about to tell me. On impulse, I leaned over and opened my bottom drawer. I hauled out the phone book and turned to the B’s. When in doubt, says I, why not start with the obvious? Five Barts were listed, none of them Tina or T. There was a C. Bart, no address, conceivably short for Christine or Christina. Single women do this abbreviation bit to avoid all the heavy breathers out there who dial numbers at random while pinching their pants. I plugged in the phone again and tried the number for C. Bart. After two rings, a machine cut in. The voice on the other end was one of those mechanical butlers, some computer-generated robot who talked like he was living in a tin can. “Please leave a message.” Use of this proto-male was another device used by single women, who like to create the illusion of a guy on the scene. I reached for the Polk Directory and looked for the telephone number listed for C. Bart. The Polk Directory, also known as “the crisscross,” lists addresses and phone numbers in two different ways. Unlike the usual phone book, which orders its information alphabetically by name, the crisscross arranges the listings by the street address in one section and by the telephone number in the second section. If you have only a phone number without a street address, you can look up the number in the Polk and find the corresponding street and house number, plus the name of the person living there. Similarly, if you have only an address, you can track down the name of the occupant, along with the phone number, providing the number’s published. In this case, I found C. Bart at an address on Dave Levine Street, not far from Pacific Meadows. Penelope Delacorte had told me that Tina Bart was already working at Pacific Meadows when she arrived on the scene. Not too much of a leap to assume she was working nearby. Time to find out how much she knew.

Before I left the apartment, I searched out my old gun and tucked it in my shoulder bag. The gun is a Davis.32 semiautomatic with a five-and-a-quarter-inch barrel, loaded with Winchester Silvertips. During the past three years, I’ve taken a raft of shit about my use of this firearm, which I’m told is cheap and unreliable-a judgment that hasn’t altered my lingering affection for the piece. It’s small and tidy, weighing a nifty twenty-two ounces, and it feels good in my hand. I didn’t believe Richard or Tommy would actually come after me, but I couldn’t be sure. And that, of course, was the nature of the game they played.

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