It was close to five o’clock as I traveled north on the 101. The afternoon light was already gone. Drizzle swirled through the moving traffic like a vapor and the action of the windshield wipers formed a fan-shaped smear where the mist settled on the glass and was waved away. Dave Levine is a one-way street heading toward town, so I was forced to take the Missile off-ramp and turn left onto Chapel. I swung up and around, catching the street at a higher point and following it down again. I passed Pacific Meadows on my right and began to scrutinize descending house numbers. The building I was looking for was only a block away. I found parking on the street and approached on foot, hunched against the misting rain.
The structure was a plain stucco box, four units in all, two up and two down, with an open stairwell up the middle leading to the second floor. Apartment 1 was on my right, with Apartment 2 just across from it. The name Bart had been written in black marker pen and attached to the mailbox for Apartment 3. I backed up ten steps and checked the second-story windows. Lights were on in several rooms on the front right-hand side. I climbed the stairs, knocked on the door, and waited. Behind me, through the open space between the halves of the building, I could see the rainfall like gauze swaddling the streetlights. A draft of air was being funneled through the gap and it was cold.
“Who is it?”
I heard her secure the chain and then she opened the door a crack.
“Sorry to disturb you at home. I’m Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, working for Dr. Purcell’s ex-wife. Could I talk to you?”
“I don’t know anything. I haven’t seen him in months.”
“I’m assuming you heard his body was found up at Brunswick Lake?”
“I read that. What happened? The paper didn’t really say.”
“Would it make a difference to you?”
“Well, I don’t believe he killed himself, if that’s what they’re trying to prove.”
“I tend to agree, but we may never know. Meanwhile, I’m trying to reconstruct events that led up to his death. Can you remember when the two of you last spoke?”
She made no response, but there was information in her eyes.
A shift in the breeze blew a breath of fine rain against the side of my face. Impulsively, I said, “Could I come in? It’s really getting chilly out here.”
“How do I know you’re who you say you are?” I reached in my handbag and took out my wallet. I pulled my license from the windowed slot and pushed it through the crack to her.
She studied it briefly and then handed it back. She closed the door long enough to undo the chain. She opened the door again.
As soon as I stepped inside, she went through the whole process in reverse. I removed my slicker and hung it on a hat rack near the door. I paused to look around. The interior was a curious mix of old charm and annoyances: arches and hardwood floors, narrow windows with yellowing wooden Venetian blinds, a clunky-looking wall heater near the bedroom door. The living room boasted a fireplace with a grate that supported a partially charred log resting on an avalanche of ash. The air in the apartment wasn’t much warmer than the air outside, but at least there wasn’t any breeze. Through an arch on the far wall, I caught a glimpse of the bathroom tile, a retro maroon-and-beige mix, probably installed when the place was built. Without even seeing it, I knew the kitchen was bereft of modern conveniences: no dishwasher, no compactor, no garbage disposal. The stove would be original, a vintage O’Keefe and Merritt with two glass-fronted ovens and a set of matching salt and pepper shakers in a box on top. Rechromed and fully reconditioned, the stove would cost a fortune, though one oven would never work right and the hip young thing who bought it would unwittingly underbake her bread.
Tina indicated that I could take a seat in a gray upholstered chair while she returned to her place on the couch. She was younger than I’d expected, in her forties and so lacking in animation I thought she might be tranquilized. Her hair was the color of oak in old hardwood floors. She wore a sweat suit: gray drawstring pants and a matching jacket with a white T-shirt visible where the front was unzipped. She had her shoes off. The shape of her foot was outlined in dust on the soles of her white cotton crew socks. She seemed undecided what to do with her hands. She finally crossed her arms and tucked her fingers out of sight, as though protecting them from frostbite. “Why come to me?”
“Last Monday, I went over to St. Terry’s and talked with Penelope Delacorte. Your name came up so I thought maybe you could fill in some blanks. May I call you Tina?” I asked, interrupting myself.
She lifted one shoulder in a careless shrug, which I took as assent. “I know you and Ms. Delacorte left Pacific Meadows at about the same time. She said the choices here were pretty limited in the health care field. Have you found another job?” I hoped to give the impression of a long, friendly chat between Ms. Delacorte and me instead of the one we’d actually had.
“I’m still looking. I’m collecting unemployment checks until my benefits run out.” Her eyes were a pale gray, her manner flat.
“How long did you work for them?”
“Front office. I was hired as a file clerk and worked my way up. Nights, I put myself through school and finally got my degree.”
“Hospital Administration and Finance, which sounds more impressive than it is. I’ve always been more attracted to the accounting end of the business than to management, so I was happy where I was… more or less.”
“Could I ask you some questions about Pacific Meadows?”
“Sure. I don’t work there anymore and I have nothing to hide.”
“Who owned the building before Glazer and Broadus?”
“A company called Silver Age Enterprises. I never knew the owner’s name. There might have been more than one. Before that, there was another company called the Endeavor Group.”
I reached into my handbag and took out a little spiral-bound notebook with a pencil tucked in the coil. I made a note of the two names. “With Silver Age, was the place owned and operated by the same people or were those two functions kept separate?”
“They were separate. The Medicare and Medicaid programs were enacted in the ’60s and neither had much provision for fraud prevention. The regulations about arm’s-length ownership and operations probably didn’t come until the late ’70s, when Congress passed legislation establishing fraud control units… for all the good that did. You have no idea how many different agencies go after these guys: the Office of Inspector General, the civil and criminal divisions of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI, HHS, HCFA, and MFCU-the Medicare Fraud Control Units. Doesn’t deter the fraudsters. Cheaters love rules and regulations. Every time you put up a barrier, they figure out a way around it. One of the many challenges of the entrepreneurial spirit,” she added drily. “I saw Pacific Meadows change hands three times and the price came close to doubling with each of those transactions.”
I made another note, thinking about ways to check out the dollar figures on those deals. “Did you work for Endeavor or Silver Age?”
“Actually, I think Silver Age was a subsidiary of Endeavor. The head of Endeavor was a woman named Peabody. She used to run all her personal expenses through our accounts payable. She’d renovate her house and write it off to Pacific Meadows as ‘maintenance and repairs.’ Or she’d put in new draperies at home and claim she’d had them installed in all the patients’ rooms. Groceries, utility bills, travel and entertainment-she never missed a trick.”
“Isn’t that illegal?”
“Mostly. Some of it was probably legitimate, but a lot was fraudulent. I called a few items to the administrator’s attention, but he told me, in effect, I’d better mind my own business. He said the company accountant routinely reviewed the books and everything was okay. I knew if I pressed the point, I’d have been out the door right then. It seemed easier to shut my mouth. When Silver Age came in, someone else handled the books for a while. Then he got fired and I took over again. There was probably some tinkering going on at that point, but I never figured out what it was.”
“Why didn’t you quit and find another job?”
“I loved the work.”
“You could have loved the same work somewhere else, couldn’t you?”
“True, but I got stubborn. I figured one day they’d crash and burn and I’d be there to watch, maybe throw additional fuel on the fire.”
“Did anything change when Dr. Purcell arrived on the scene?”
“Not the first couple of months. Then I noticed an increase in the number of charge slips for things like ambulance service and physical therapy, portable X-ray equipment, wheelchairs. I started keeping notes and then I wrote a memo to Mr. Harrington, the head of the billing department at Genesis. That was a mistake as it turned out, but I didn’t care. He never said as much, but I’m sure he didn’t appreciate the effort because it put him on the spot.”
“You were a regular troublemaker.”
“I sincerely hope so.”
“So even before the audit, they were unhappy with you.”
She nodded and said, “Very. They let some time pass and then they fired me. Dr. Purcell tried to intervene, but he had no power and he was overruled. Penelope got upset and she quit in a huff, which really worked in their favor. It made it look like we were guilty of wrongdoing and Genesis was cleaning house. That still gave them Dr. Purcell as a fire wall if the MFCU investigation proceeded…”
“Which it did.”
“Oh, yes. They’re not going to give up until they nail this one down.”
“As I remember it, Joel told me Genesis was part of a group called Millennium Health Care.”
“It is, but my guess is that some, if not all, of those companies are shell corporations, set up to conceal the real ownership.”
“As in what?”
“Company A, owned by Mr. Smith, buys a residential nursing home. Smith sets up a phony company with a slate of officers who appear to be unconnected to him. His company, A, sells the facility to this second company-also his-at a greatly inflated price, effectively converting the profits into capital gains…”
“Which are taxed at a lower rate,” I said.
“Right. The second company can use the trumped-up value of the newly purchased facility as collateral for new loans. Meanwhile, bogus company C comes along and leases the building and grounds from the ‘new’ owner with a substantial boost in rents.”
I held a hand up. “Hang on a minute.” I ran the chronology back through my mind, trying to figure out what had caught my attention while she was laying it out to me. It wasn’t anything she said; it was something I’d been wondering since I’d arrived at her door. “The night he disappeared, Dr. Purcell left Pacific Meadows at nine o’clock. Did he, by any chance, stop by to talk to you?”
She paused so long I didn’t think she’d answer me. “Yes.”
“He told me he had a meeting scheduled with the FBI. He thought he knew what was going on and who was behind it, namely Harvey and Joel.”
“But those two wouldn’t have been in any jeopardy, would they? I mean, from what I was told, they had nothing to do with the day-to-day running of Pacific Meadows. The real fiddle must have come from Genesis, since the Medicare checks were sent to them.”
“There may be more of a connection than you think. Dr. Purcell must have gotten greedy because he began to sign off on charges he knew were fraudulent: X-ray and ambulance services among them. He probably took kickbacks for those. The FBI put the squeeze on him and that’s why he agreed to help.”
“But what would be the point of silencing him? There must be plenty of other people who know about the scam. You, for one.”
“I never had any real authority. Now that he’s gone, they can blame it all on him.”
“Did he tell anyone else what he knew?”
“He never said so if he did.”
“But why come to you? I gather you didn’t even know him that well.”
“He wanted my help. He figured I had nothing to lose.”
“Do you think he told Joel and Harvey what he was up to?”
“Not if he was smart. I know he had lunch with Joel that day, but he didn’t say anything else about it to me.”
“I don’t get it. With all these agencies at work, how come they haven’t been caught?”
She shrugged. “Most of what they submit is legitimate and where the figures are false, everything else looks good. They use standard diagnoses and standard treatments. They’re careful not to cross the line in any obvious way. It’s like playing the float. They know how far they can push the system before the flags go up.”
“But the flags did go up. Any idea why?”
“Someone must have phoned in a complaint because I talked to the fraud investigator last week and most of what I told him he already had in his files.”
The phony bills for Klotilde had to be part of the scheme. “I’ve got some information that should be of help and I’d be happy to do a paper search early in the week if there’s time.”
“That’d be great. I’ll be talking to him again and I can pass it on.”
“Something else I’m unclear on. Why take the chance on billing items out to someone deceased?”
“Listen, you’re dealing with the local, state, and federal governments. You get caught, you say ‘Oops’ and give the money back. You think the government would prosecute for a couple hundred dollars’ worth of ‘errors’?”
“Yeah, right. What’s the story on Harvey Broadus and nurse what’s-her-name… Pepper Gray?”
“He left his wife, Celine, for her and then I heard he went back.”
I studied her carefully, wondering if she’d answer the question that had just come to mind. “Were you the one who phoned in the complaint to Medicare?”
“Someone else did that.”
“I’m not sure, but I suspect she did.”
“Pepper was the one who dimed them out?”
“Well, think about it. When Harvey broke off their relationship, she was in the perfect position to blow the whistle on them. I noticed her name or initials showed up most frequently on charges for questionable goods or services. She probably dummied up the slips from the floor. Why should she go on protecting him once he dumped her?”
“Well, they’re certainly tight now.”
“Really. That surprises me. Imagine the bind that puts her in if he finds out what she’s done…” She let the thought trail, punctuated by a nearly imperceptible smile.
On my way home, I stopped by the office to pick up some index cards. I had two fresh packs in my desk drawer and I wanted to transfer the notes I’d managed to scribble in my spiral-bound notebook. I drove down Dave Levine as far as Capillo, where I made a left. Passing State Street, I could see that downtown Santa Teresa was deserted in the rain. It was after six P.M. on a Saturday and most retail stores had closed. Their windows were lighted, but the interiors were dim, sporting just enough wattage to foil the roving bands of burglars. I turned into the driveway running under Lonnie’s building and parked in the narrow lot beyond.
I got out and locked my car door. Over the back wall, I could see lights coming from the cottage across the alleyway. I was unable to resist looking at the office space I’d leased one short week ago. The parking lot was empty: no sign of Tommy’s pickup truck or his little red Porsche. The upper shutters along the right side of the one-story building were open, but the lowers had been closed. I saw a shadow intersect the light. Maybe Richard was showing the office to someone new.
I turned away from the sight, knowing I was well out of it. What was done was done and there was no point entertaining regrets. I counted myself lucky Mariah Talbot had showed up when she did. Otherwise, I’d be renting from a couple of stone-cold killers. I crossed Lonnie’s lot and trotted up the stairs to the third floor. I let myself into the law offices, which were lighted but empty. I went down the silent inner corridor and unlocked my office door.
I crossed to my desk, opened the bottom drawer, and picked up the two packs of blank index cards still in their cellophane wrap. I opened one and began to make notes. For the next hour, I felt safe, absorbed in my work. At 7:15 I put a rubber band around my note cards and tucked them in my handbag along with the extra pack of blank cards.
I locked the office and let myself out again, trotting down the outside stairs. At the first turn, I glanced out through the opening in the stairwell. It’s not a window in any true sense of the word, just a slot, one foot wide and maybe two feet high, intended to help with ventilation. From the second floor, I had a clear view across the alleyway to the rear of the Heveners’ cottage. The back door now stood wide open. In the office to the right (which I still thought of as mine) the shutters stood open. The light was on, but the window now had the blank look of unoccupied space. Something seemed off, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Maybe someone had gone out for a moment, leaving the backdoor open for convenience. Whatever it was, I had no intention of going over there to snoop around.
I continued down the stairs and crossed the small parking lot to my car. I drove home by way of the supermarket, stopping long enough to pick up toilet paper, wine, milk, bread, eggs, Kleenex, and a tall stack of frozen entrees. Once in my neighborhood, I was forced to park a block and a half away, which annoyed me no end. With my bag and two loads of groceries, I had to struggle to let myself in the gate. Halfway across the patio, I caught a flash of movement to my right and someone stepped out of the dark. I jumped half a foot, barely managing to suppress a scream as I dropped one grocery bag and clutched at the other one. Tommy Hevener stood there, hands in his raincoat pockets. “Hey.”
“Goddamn it! Don’t do that! What are you doing here?”
“I don’t want to talk. Now get out of my way.” I hunkered to pick up my keys. One bag had ripped. I began to toss items back into the other bag. Half the carton of eggs were broken and the bread was mashed flat where I’d grabbed it in haste. I had no idea how I’d get into the apartment, lugging the few items that were still intact. “Oh, forget it,” I said. I found my keys and crossed to my door, aware that Tommy had moved to intercept my path. He stretched out an arm, hand flat on the door, his body crowding against mine.
I turned my face to one side, trying to avoid contact. “Get away from me.” I thought about my gun.
“Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“If you don’t get off me, I’m going to scream.”
“You won’t scream,” he murmured.
Henry’s back light went on. I saw his face appear in the door.
“Bitch,” Tommy said.
Henry came out the back door with a baseball bat. Tommy glanced at him, turned, and walked away at a leisurely pace, showing his contempt, showing he wasn’t intimidated. Henry came across the patio at a quick clip, bat raised, looking as angry as I’ve ever seen him. I could hear Tommy’s heels clatter down the sidewalk, sound diminishing. “What was that about? Should I call the police?”
“Don’t bother. By the time they get here, he’ll be gone.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“No, but he scared the shit out of me.”
“I think you should file a police report. That way they’ll have something on record in case he does this again.”
“I’ll talk to Jonah on Monday.”
“Do more than talk. That guy’s dangerous. You need to get a restraining order out against him.”
“For all the good it will do. Really, I’m fine. Would you help me get this stuff in?”
“Of course. Open the door and we’ll get this picked up in no time.”
Sunday was full of hard rain and gloom. I spent the day in my sweats, stretched out on the couch under a quilt in my sock feet. I went through one paperback novel and picked up the next. I had another two for backup, so I was in good shape. At five o’clock, the phone rang. I listened to the message, waiting to hear who it was before I picked up. Fiona. I felt such relief I almost warmed to her. She said, “Sorry I didn’t have a chance to speak to you after the service yesterday. Blanche had her baby late in the afternoon.”
“She did? Congratulations. What’d she have?”
“A little girl. Seven pounds, eight ounces. They named her Chloe. Blanche was actually in labor at Dow’s memorial. She and Andrew skipped the reception at the country club and went straight to St. Terry’s. There wasn’t even time to get her into the delivery room. She gave birth on a gurney in the corridor.”
“Wow. That was close. How’s she doing?”
“She’s fine. The baby had to stay an extra day because of jaundice, but the doctor seems to think she’s fine now. We’ll bring her home this afternoon. I told Blanche I’d keep the children tomorrow so she can get some rest. I wish she’d have her tubes tied and put an end to this. She can’t keep churning out infants. It’s ridiculous.”
“Well, I’m sure you’re relieved everything’s okay.”
“Actually, I’m calling about something else. Last night when I went to the hospital to visit Blanche, I saw Crystal’s white Volvo parked in the driveway of a house on Bay. You know that neighborhood. Parking’s always at a premium. The hospital lot was full so I had to circle the block to find a space or I wouldn’t have seen the car. Naturally, I was curious, so I went over again this morning and there it was. I’m assuming there’s a way you can find out whose house it is.”
“Sure, I can do that. Why don’t you give me the address?” I made a note as she recited it and then said, “What’s your concern?”
“I think she’s finally showing her true colors. You know the rumor about Crystal’s affair with that trainer of hers, Clint Augustine. I put it out of my mind until I spotted her car and then I began to wonder. Whatever she’s up to, I think it’s worth pursuing, don’t you?”
“Assuming it was her.”
“The license plate said ‘Crystal,’ big as life.”
“How do you know she was driving? It could have been anyone.”
“I doubt that. Like who?”
“I don’t know, Rand or Nica, one of the household help.”
“Melanie suggested that as well, though I don’t know why either one of you would stoop to defending her. I called Detective Paglia and told him you’d be looking into it. As I said to him, this is exactly the sort of thing they should have been doing from day one.” I was certain Detective Paglia appreciated her input. After we hung up, I dialed the gym and Keith answered the phone. I could hear weights clanging in the background. The Sunday faithful. “Hi, Keith. Kinsey Millhone. When I was in there last week, I asked you about Clint Augustine. Do you happen to have an address and home phone number for him? I’ve been thinking a personal trainer might be fun for a change.”
“Let me see what I got. Hang on.” I could hear him open the desk drawer and then flip through the tattered three-hole binder I’d seen on other occasions. “I know I got it somewhere. Here we go.”
I jotted down the information, noting that the address he gave me was a match for the Glazer’s house in Horton Ravine. “How recent is this? Someone told me he had a place near St. Terry’s on Bay.”
“Don’t think so. Least it’s the first I’ve heard.”
“When did you last talk to him? He might have moved.”
“It’s been months. Might have been February, March, back around then. He used to come in here regular, maybe eight, ten times a week, although he might have moved his clients to another gym. Let me know if he’s out of business and I’ll take his name off the books. I got other good trainers if he can’t help.”
“Great. I appreciate that.”
I pulled the crisscross from my bookcase and leafed through the pages until I found Bay Street. I ran a finger down the house numbers until I came to the relevant address. I’d hoped Fiona was wrong, but the listed occupant was J. Augustine, though the phone number was different from the one Keith had given me. I dialed the number Keith had and got a disconnect; no surprise there. That must have been Clint’s phone number while he was in the guest cottage on the Glazer property. Clearly, Keith’s information was out of date. I returned the crisscross to my shelf. I couldn’t believe Crystal had gone looking for Clint the very day of Dow’s memorial service. I picked up the phone and dialed the house on Bay.
The man who answered had a phone manner that bordered on the rude. “Yes?” His voice was harsh and full of impatience.
“May I speak to Clint?”
“He can’t come to the phone. Who’s this?”
“Never mind. I’ll try later.”
The house on Bay Street was an old Victorian, probably built in the late 1800s: two stories of white frame with a wide porch that stretched across the front. This was a neighborhood where many of the single-family dwellings had been converted to medical offices servicing the hospital half a block away. There was no sign of Crystal’s Volvo in the drive. A white picket fence surrounded the yard, which was small and bare of grass, thickly planted with rosebushes, pruned now to clusters of thorny stems. I could imagine, in full bloom, the blossoms would smell as dense and sweet as a potpourri. The soil was darkly saturated from the rain, which was falling now in a soft haze.
I cruised past the house, did a turnaround at the corner, and came back. I parked across the street and settled in to wait. Visiting hours at St. Terry’s wouldn’t begin in earnest for an hour so the streets were close to deserted. Even protected by a gauzy curtain of rain, I felt conspicuous sitting in the car by myself. This wasn’t a surveillance- more like a sortie in the battle between Dow’s wives. I didn’t want to think about Crystal, whose history with men had been a series of disasters. She’d gotten pregnant by one guy and apparently been left to raise the child on her own. She’d had one husband who abused her and another who looked oh-so respectable on the surface, but, in fact, drank too much and had a peculiar bent in bed. Clint was in his early forties, a good-looking guy, big and well built. He didn’t seem that bright, but he had enormous patience with his clients, whose struggles with fitness were both diligent and short-lived. The last time I remembered seeing him was just after New Year’s when a new batch of converts arrived at the gym, whipped into a frenzy of repentance after the holiday indulgences. His clientele was literally always heaviest around that time. Crystal had way too much class to dally with the likes of him. On the other hand, she was only one marriage away from life as a stripper, and as slick as she seemed, she probably wasn’t a whole lot smarter than he. In love, as in other matters, people end up seeking their own level. I adjusted my rearview mirror, ever mindful of Tommy Hevener. Just because I didn’t see him didn’t mean he wasn’t there. I could feel my bowels squeeze down every time I thought of him.
By 6:25 I decided Crystal wasn’t going to show. I’d already started my car when a white Volvo turned the corner off Missile and headed in my direction. She was at the wheel.