CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

The old mansion was too quiet. I paced my room, knowing that this was my last chance to figure out what was really happening in the house. I’d placed a call to Tor and left a message, and Tinkie was in her room with the dogs, packing her four suitcases.

With my one bag ready to go, I paused for a moment and stared at the portrait of Carlita Gonzalez Marquez. Why in the world hadn’t she been happy with her beauty? I could look at her and see what she never could-she was stunning-and I was left with a sense of the total waste of it all. She’d never seen herself as she really was, and it was a shame.

From behind me an emotionally choked voice spoke. “You’re on your own, Cat. You’re better off being independent. You don’t need me or anyone else.”

I whirled to find Jitty, rain-sodden, wearing a tightly belted raincoat and sobbing. Instantly I recognized the scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s that had deviled me as a child. Holly Golightly has just released the yellow tabby, Cat, into an alley, thinking that independence in trash cans was better than the disappointment of needing someone and being rejected.

“Jitty.” I stepped toward her. She was distraught. And dripping. Water had pooled around her on the floor.

She twirled, and in an instant the raincoat was gone and she was wearing a black Chanel dress, her hair swept up in a bun, a fringe of bangs emphasizing her gamine eyes. She was the glamorous Audrey Hepburn, albeit in a shade of mocha.

“Do you prefer this image?” she asked. “I’m certainly more comfortable. I never cared for the soppin’ wet look. Works for blondes much better, doncha think?”

“How did you do that?” Jitty was always dashing about in some new wardrobe, but I’d never seen a quick-change like that one.

“Exterior don’t count, Sarah Booth. Beauty’s not always a ticket to anything except heartbreak and disappointment. Your mama knew this. As beautiful as she was, she never traded on her looks. She taught you better, too.”

“I’ve never traded on my looks.” I was indignant.

“No, you never have. And you’ve never seen yourself clearly, either. You’re standin’ here wonderin’ how Carlita couldn’t see herself, and you’re floatin’ in the same boat.”

“That’s just not true. I’ve always been clearheaded about my talents… and my…” Jitty had hammered me. “When I was in New York, I never felt beautiful.” It was true.

“And now?” Jitty asked.

The realization that dawned on me was interesting. “And now, I don’t think about it.”

That was obviously the right answer, because she did another twirl, and the black dress was replaced by a beautiful white gown that made her look both vulnerable and elegant. She was still Audrey, but she was a happier version.

“This conversation is fascinating, but it doesn’t help me solve the case. Have you seen Carlita’s ghost?” I asked her.

“I can’t do nothin’ to help Carlita. You and your partner did what she needed. You found her daughter and got an ambulance.”

“Maybe too late.” I hated to think about what might be happening to Estelle. “Is Carlita gone now? Is she at peace?”

“I don’t know.” Jitty sat on the edge of the bed. “I’m here because you need me. I don’t know why Carlita’s in this house.” She shrugged. “I don’t know everything.”

The rules of the Great Beyond were not any clearer to me, either. The more that happened, the less I understood. “Tinkie and I have to go, and I don’t have a clue what really went on here. Was Carlita involved in the attacks on me and Tinkie and Jovan?”

Jitty put on a pair of round sunglasses that almost hid her face. “There’s really only one person who can answer that question.”

“The ghost doesn’t answer questions.” I gave her a sharp look. “She’s a lot like you in that regard. She does pretty damn much what she wants.” I put on a pout. “This will be our first unsolved case. A sterling record broken.”

Jitty crossed the room, her silver bracelets tinkling. “I doubt that.”

I was about to ask what she meant when my cell phone rang. I looked down to check the number, and when I looked up, there was no sign of Jitty. The hospital was calling, and I answered.

“This is Dr. Valdez. Estelle Marquez asked me to call. She wants to speak with you and Mrs. Richmond.”

“We’re on the way,” I said. “How is she?”

“She’s stabilized.”

“And her hands and feet?” I didn’t want to ask but I had to know.

“We’re working to save them. It’s touch and go, but she is improving.”

“Thank you,” I said, feeling a weight lift that I hadn’t been aware I carried. “Thank you, Doctor. We’re on the way. Is Mr. Martinez there?”

“Yes. He gave me your number.”

In a matter of minutes, I had Tinkie’s and my bags in the trunk of the car, the dogs in the backseat, and we were on the way to the hospital. We stopped at a lovely old hotel and took a room, failing to disclose that we had hounds with us. They could charge us double, or even triple, but we couldn’t leave Chablis and Sweetie Pie alone in that house, and we couldn’t take them to the hospital.

We arrived breathless from our sprint across the parking lot. Estelle was in a private room, and Daniel sat at her bedside. She had tubes running into veins and an oxygen line in her nose. The bank of machines behind her blinked and beeped in a steady, rhythmic way that I associated with recovery.

When we entered, Estelle opened her eyes.

“Thank you,” she said. “Daniel told me you found me.” Her voice was dry, whispery-and very much like Carlita’s.

“Thanks aren’t necessary. I’m just sorry we didn’t find you sooner.” Tinkie was the epitome of graciousness. She put a hand on Estelle’s blanket-covered shin.

“Who did this to you, Estelle?” I asked.

She looked at Daniel, who nodded.

“I don’t understand why this happened,” she said.

I could tell that she was having a hard time, but I honestly wanted to shake her. She’d been creeping around the house, putting all of us in danger. She might not be responsible for what happened to Tinkie and Chablis, but she was to blame for part of it. Had she not been playing hide-and-seek, Tinkie wouldn’t have been hunting her.

“Who hit you, tied you up, and left you to die?” I asked.

She started to cry. The machines that beeped and pulsed behind her began to light up.

“Calm down, Estelle,” Daniel said. He looked at me. “Give her a minute. She’s been through hell.”

I started to say something sharp, but before I could get the words out, my cell phone rang. Again. Phonus interruptus was getting to be a regular-and annoying-habit. I knew when Tinkie made me get the cell phone I was going to regret the thing.

I checked the ID and it was Tor. “I have to take the call,” I said.

“I’ll handle this,” Tinkie whispered as she leaned toward me. “We’ll do good cop, bad cop. You’ve already proven that you’re the bad one.”

I stepped into the hall to answer my phone. Tor still retained a soft Southern drawl beneath his California accent. “Millie said I should help you,” he said.

“Where is Vincent Day?” I asked.

“Millie also said that you could be rude. She was right.”

“Sorry, but it’s a time thing. I do apologize but we have only a few hours. If Vincent Day is in this area, I have to find him before my flight leaves.” It was logical to me, and I hoped Tor understood.

“I haven’t seen Vincent since he came back from Canada. I’d heard he stopped over in Sweden to look up his ex.”

“Ivana?” I struggled to remember. The cast of characters in the infidelity quadrangles of the Marquezes and Days was a bit confusing.

“Yes, she lives in Stockholm. I think Vincent was trying to make atonement.”

“What makes you think that?”

“He said something about how he’d walked away from the one person who gave him real joy.”

“Ivana?” The story I’d gotten from Millie was that Ivana had left him and returned to her native country because of the romantic intrigues and domestic violence.

“I got the sense it wasn’t Ivana. Hey, I knew her and she was a bitch extraordinaire. She left no stone uncast when she got riled up, which was about every twenty minutes. I think she hated Vincent.”

“So why would he go and see her?”

There was a pause. “Technically, he didn’t say he was going to see Ivana.”

“Then who else could it be?” He didn’t even have to answer. A dozen little balls tumbled into place in my brain. “Did he have a child?”

“Not a word was ever spoken about a child.”

But I could hear it in Tor’s voice. He was making the same connections. “What happened to Ivana after she left Day and went home?”

“She was a beautiful woman, but she wasn’t part of the Hollywood royalty.”

“She dropped out of sight.”

“Exactly.”

“So she could have had a child?”

“Possibly.” There was another pause. “Damn. Day could have a son or daughter.”

“Thanks, Tor.” I had to get off the phone and fast. There were calls to be made. Calls of life and death. “I’ll give Millie your regards.” I’d already proven I was rude so I hung up.

As I pushed against the hospital door, it opened. Estelle was weeping silently in the bed. She looked at me. “I only meant to mess up the movie. I never meant for anyone to be hurt.”

“Who hit you and put you in that closet to die?” I asked, even though I knew the answer. Jovan.

Her response was an echo of the name in my own brain. I looked at Tinkie. “We’ve got to get to Hollywood. Federico is missing.”

Estelle was crying in earnest now. There were only a few other questions that needed an answer in Petaluma. “What role does your grandfather play in all of this?”

“He paid off Daniel’s security men to allow me to slip around the premises. Daniel didn’t know. He wouldn’t have helped me.”

“You could have died, Estelle. Had Sarah Booth and Tinkie not searched the house, you’d be dead now.” Daniel was hurt and angry, and I didn’t blame him.

“Grandfather didn’t know I was injured and in the house. Like everyone else, he thought I’d gone back to the States. He truly didn’t know.” She reached for Daniel’s hand, and I could see that her dexterity was clumsy. The price she might pay for this would be far higher than any a judge could mete out to her.

“And Suzy Dutton?” I asked.

“I had nothing to do with that. Nothing.”

“We have to call Sheriff King,” Tinkie said.

I handed her my cell phone. I had another question for Estelle. “Why did Jovan turn on you?”

“I realized she meant to kill someone if she had to. We argued. I told her it had gone far enough. That I’d come to realize that my mother loved my father, and that it was her own illness that killed her, not his infidelity.”

Tinkie was waiting for the secretary to find King and ring her through.

“How did you discover that?” I asked.

Estelle never faltered. She never even blinked. “Mama told me. When I was in the house one night and everyone else was gone, I saw her. She told me to stop, that Father wasn’t to blame. She said she’d never rest in peace until I knew the truth.”

Chill bumps danced along my arms.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” she asked. “I’m headed to a mental institution anyway.”

“The problem, Estelle, is that I do believe you,” I said. It was cold comfort, but it was all I had to give.

With the cell phone still pressed to Tinkie’s ear, we hurried out of the hospital and into the night. If there was a flight to LAX tonight, we were going to be on it.

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