It was almost twelve thirty when I passed the busy Presidio toll plaza and drove onto the Golden Gate Bridge. I’d made decent time from the Covington, despite the noontime drive-through stop at not-so-Speedy Grill. It was worth the wait, though, because there was no better cheeseburger in the world. Theirs was made with Niman Ranch beef, slices of heirloom tomato and sweet Walla Walla onion, a fluffy homemade bun and an aioli-based secret sauce worthy of a Cordon Bleu chef. Critics insisted and I concurred, it was the best in the City.
Sadly, I was so hungry that by the time I hit the bridge, the burger was a vague, happy memory. Luckily, I still had some fries and most of my milk shake left for the rest of the trip north.
My hands clutched the steering wheel a little too tightly as I played back my latest run-in with Derek Stone before leaving the library. I’d tried to track down Ian, but he’d left his office and I wasn’t willing to trust the Winslow
But did he appreciate my concern? No. He demanded to know where the hell I was going and when I told him I needed to visit my mother, he snatched the book away and made an annoying crack about my lackadaisical working hours. My sad comeback was something along the lines of “bite me.”
I forced him out of my head and tried to enjoy the drive. The Golden Gate Bridge and the view of the bay never failed to impress me. The sky was still a gorgeous blue, but it was colder and the crosswinds were gusty.
Stop-and-go traffic plagued the southbound drivers, but I was able to zip along at the forty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit after carefully dodging an ancient pop-top minivan that appeared to be readying for liftoff. Two little boys in the back were sticking out their tongues and making naughty finger gestures that the harried, white-knuckled driver-their mother, I presumed-wouldn’t have approved of. But Mom seemed oblivious of the little monsters, too busy fighting to keep the car grounded against the buffeting winds.
Two minutes later, I was off the bridge and safely back on terra firma in Marin County. I drove through the rainbow tunnel and as I whizzed past the first San Rafael turnoff, my cell phone bleated out a generic sound, meaning I had no clue who was calling. I grabbed the phone anyway and fumbled for the button. “Hello?”
“You left without signing the papers.” It was Ian.
Damn. The Covington employment contract.
“Sorry, but I tried to find you,” I said. Then I went rigid. “You got the
I let out a breath. “Good.”
“But I wish you’d stuck around,” he said. “The Winslows were here. They wanted to meet you.”
“Something wrong?” he asked, unexpectedly attuned to my dripping sarcasm.
“No, everything’s great,” I said, pumping up my enthusiasm. “I’m sorry I missed them but my mother called.”
“Is she okay?”
“Oh yeah. But she needed me to, um, pick something up for her.”
Not too clever as excuses went, but I wasn’t ready to tell him what I’d discovered inside the
I frowned. Even I was confused.
“Well, say hi to your mom for me,” Ian said.
“Ah,” I said, remembering where I was and who I was talking to. “I will. Hey, you should come up for dinner one of these days. Austin thinks this year’s pinot is bordering on world class. He’s forcing everyone to taste it.”
I laughed. Since Ian had been Austin’s college buddy as well as my short-term fianc?, he was no stranger to my family and the commune.
“I know my parents would love to see you,” I said, steering around an idiot in red spandex riding a ten-speed. On the freeway? But it was Marin, after all.
“I’d love to see everyone,” he said, sounding wistful. “I’ll give them a call soon.”
“Great.” I slammed on my brakes to avoid sideswiping a vintage copper Mustang whose driver thought he owned the road. Cool car. Dumb driver. “I’ll try to get back there later today,” I added, knowing it was a lie.
“Don’t bother,” he said. “You can sign everything tomorrow. You’ll be here tomorrow, right?”
“Of course,” I said, feeling the pressure of employment all of a sudden. This was why I owned my own business. I didn’t work well in captivity. “I’ll be there every day until the book’s done, I promise. This was just, you know, an extenuating circumstance.”
“No problem, kiddo. I’ll call the Winslows and let them know to come by tomorrow.”
“Dandy,” I lied. Again. “See you tomorrow.”
“Good-o,” he said, and signed off.
I hung up. The good news about Ian’s call was that it had helped me ignore the cheesy condo-clogged hill-sides of Sausalito and all the minimalls and car lots that lined the freeway through San Rafael.
The bad news was that I’d have to deal with the Winslows tomorrow. I wondered again whether the conversation I’d overheard the night of Abraham’s murder had something to do with his death. I tried to recall their words.
“Son of a bitch.” “Problem with a book.” “I took care of it.”
It all sounded suspicious. Without thinking, I checked my rearview mirror. I had the abrupt and uncomfortable feeling that someone was following me.
I took the turnoff to Route 37 and for the next few miles there was little but wide-open marshland that spread clear to the eastern side of the bay. I could see no sinister cars behind me. And no black Bentley, either.
Miles later, grassy hills melded into vineyards. I finally made it through Glen Ellen, the southern boundary of the region known locally as the Valley of the Moon. Three miles beyond town, I turned onto Montana Ridge Road and headed for Dharma.
The day we moved here so many years ago, Montana Ridge Road had been a pitted, one-lane gravel road bordered by rickety wood fences and rusted chain link. We’d driven past broken-down barns, funky farmhouses and tarnished trailers. Most front lawns featured the requisite bullet-riddled washing machine. Lots of tarnished RVs were parked on the driveways as extra housing for the in-laws.
After spending my first seven years in the quiet elegance of the St. Francis Woods neighborhood of San Francisco, I was shell-shocked by these stark surroundings and so were my siblings. As the family car bucked and bounced and we got our first depressing view of this dismal, rural neighborhood that was to be our new home, my older brother, Austin, began to quietly hum the first four bars of “Dueling Banjos.”
At the time, I was too young to get the reference. But my dad got it and told Austin to pipe down.
Despite first impressions, we’d done pretty well for ourselves. For the first two years we lived up here, all eight of us were squeezed into an Airstream camper while the Fellowship members built a community and planted vineyards. Over the years, more property was acquired, more artists’ studios were constructed, a restaurant was built onto the town hall and a schoolhouse was added for the kids who seemed to multiply with every season.
Within a few years, the commune had grown to almost nine hundred and Guru Bob incorporated. Now the little town of Dharma was a thriving community of chic shops and art galleries, restaurants, artisanal farms, an excellent winery, three stylish B and Bs and a world-class health and beauty spa. Not bad for a gaggle of Deadheads and freaks, as Dad always said.
Montana Ridge turned into Shakespeare Lane, signaling the beginning of the quaint, two-blocks-long Dharma shopping district. I drove past the darling shops and caf?s and small storefront businesses, including Warped, my sister China’s yarn and weavings shop.
Past the wide central square and town hall, I swung onto Vivaldi Way, the narrow private road that wound up the hill overlooking Dharma. I pulled into Abraham’s circular drive and parked, then climbed out of the car and stretched my arms out to unkink my back and shoulders. The air up here was cooler and the sky was beginning to cloud up. I hoped it wouldn’t rain before I got back to the City.
I stared at Abraham’s house, an imposing two-story Spanish colonial with a great view of the town and rolling hills beyond. Not exactly the picture that leapt to mind when you heard the word commune, but years ago, once the commune had started making money, Guru Bob had been adamant about raising the level of impressions and lifestyle.
Abraham’s patio and pool circled the back of the house and his bookbinding studio was at the far end of the property.
I grabbed my keys and bag and headed for the studio. A banner of yellow crime scene ribbon was strewn across the door, so the police had been here, too. Had they found anything incriminating?
I had a moment of indecision, then resolutely pulled the tape off and opened the door. I walked inside and was assailed by the smells of rich leather, musty parchment, inks and oils and peppermint. Almost instantly, bittersweet memories flooded my consciousness.
I could picture Abraham standing in his leather apron, his shirtsleeves shoved up his dark, muscular arms, his leather-stained hands gold-flecked as he painstakingly gilded an intricate design on the spine of a book held tightly in place by one of his antique book presses.
I’d grown up in this room, apprenticing for the man. It hadn’t been easy. He’d enjoyed being a strict task-master and I made a lot of mistakes. But I loved the work, loved the books, loved the feeling of accomplishment that came with completing a project. I knew from the beginning I had a gift for both the art and the craft of bookbinding, even though Abraham never said so. It didn’t matter. I’d overheard him telling my parents on more than one occasion that I’d done good work and it never failed to warm my heart to hear him say so.
As I rounded the room, I caught a whiff of sawdust mixed with sweat and glue and I almost lost it right there. He should’ve been here, working and laughing and ordering me around. I gulped, trying to ease the lump in my throat.
I dabbed away tears with my jacket sleeve as I ambled around the studio looking for anything that might tell me what had been hidden behind the endpapers of the Winslow
Abraham’s studio was arranged in typical workshop fashion with three wide counters running along the walls and a high worktable in the center. The side counters were jammed with book presses and punches and other equipment. Shelves lined the walls and held hundreds of spools of threads, tools, brushes, more paper, rolls of leather and stacks of heavy cardboard.
“You were always such a mess.” I straightened tools as I went, clumped loose brushes together in an empty jar, neatly restacked an unruly pile of endpapers.
I distracted myself by picking up the cordless phone from its base at the edge of the worktable. Absently, I checked the phone numbers on speed dial and recognized my own as well as my parents’. I put the phone down on the napkin it was resting on, then noticed that it was a cocktail napkin from a restaurant I recognized, the Buena Vista near Fisherman’s Wharf.
I picked it up and saw a note scrawled on the back.
You missed our appt. Are you bullshitting me? You’ve got one more chance. Meet me at the BV this Friday night or all bets are off.
It was signed
Anandalla? What kind of a name was Anandalla? More important, who was she? A date? A client? The note sounded ominous. Was it written by Abraham’s killer?
I was familiar with the Buena Vista, a venerable bar and restaurant near Fisherman’s Wharf, down the street from Ghirardelli Square. I hadn’t been there in months but it might be worth a visit this Friday night. Not that I had a clue who this Anandalla might be, but maybe she knew something about Abraham that would help me put the pieces of the puzzle together.
I stuck the cocktail napkin in my pocket and moved to the long counter against the back wall. Here, Abraham had stacked a number of newly sanded, thin birch wood panels for use as book covers, I guessed. Big chunks of bone and seashells lay in a pile next to the wood.
Months ago, Abraham had mentioned teaching a class on Zen and the art of Japanese bookbinding. I’d thought it sounded like great fun. I sifted through the bones and shells, picking out the most solid shapes, thinking they would make beautiful closure clasps. I stuck a few in my bag, neatly lined up the shells and bones, straightened the stack of birch covers, then moved to Abraham’s bookshelf at the end of the counter. This was where he’d always kept his finished projects and samples, along with some of my earliest attempts at bookbinding. I leaned in to see the titles.
“Hey,” I whispered, and pulled out the aged, leather-bound copy of
I ran my hand over the soft blue leather and simple gilding that bordered the edges of the front cover. Abraham had allowed me to use this ratty old book as my very first restoration project. I’d chosen sky blue leather because it was so pretty.
I smiled at the memory of Abraham laughing about the book’s title since he’d claimed most of the so-called flowers in the book looked like scrawny weeds. The gilded title along the spine was slightly wobbly and I remembered I’d struggled with it so desperately. It was still one of the most difficult parts of the job for me.
As I opened the book, my tears spotted the flyleaf.
“Moisture destroys books.”
“I know, I know.” I shivered. It was as if Abraham were here in the room, giving me grief. I blotted my eyes, then stuck the Weeds book back on the shelf.
I jolted, then turned and saw my mother standing in the doorway.
“Jeez, Mom, scare me half to death, why don’t you?”
“Sorry,” Mom said with a grin. “I figured you heard me clomping across the patio.”
I exhaled shakily. “I guess I zoned out.”
She smiled indulgently. “You do that.”
I bent to pick up a brush that had fallen on the floor. “What are you doing here?”
She wandered into the room. “I saw you driving up Vivaldi, but your car never made it to the house, so I figured you stopped here.”
I glanced around, unsure how to explain what I was doing here. There was no need to feel guilty, but this was my mother, after all. Guilt was a mandatory response.
“Ian asked me to take over Abraham’s Covington work, so I thought I’d try to find some of his notes on the books.”
“Wonderful.” She pulled her sweater snug around her waist and folded her arms. “Chilly in here.”
I hadn’t noticed until now. We were both circling around the five-hundred-pound elephant in the room, but I wasn’t going to go there right now. When she was ready, she’d tell me what she was doing at the Covington the night Abraham was killed.
“Come on, Mom, I’ll walk you back home.”
I locked the door and left my car in Abraham’s drive and we started up the hill.
“So, how is Ian?”
“Fine,” I said. “I told him to come out for dinner sometime.”
“That would be lovely,” she said. “It’s such a shame you two couldn’t make a go of it.”
“Oh, please.” I laughed. “You know we’re both better off as friends than we ever were as lovers.”
She smiled. “I suppose so. It’s just that Ian’s alchemy and body type matched yours so perfectly.”
“Yeah.” I rolled my eyes. “That was the problem.”
Mom placed her small hand against my sternum and closed her eyes. “Your fourth chakra was always so highly developed, even as a little girl. You need someone extremely sexual to stir your heart and passions into action.”
“Oh, thanks for that.” Just the conversation I wanted to have with my mother.
She took her hand away and opened her eyes. “Try adding more back bends to your exercise regime. It’s a powerful way to energize the Anahata within to attract the correct sexual mate.”
“I’ll get right on it,” I said. Nice to know she assumed I had an exercise regime.
“Good. Maybe you’ll meet someone nice while you’re at the Covington.”
Unbidden, a picture of Derek Stone flashed through my mind and I anxiously shook the image away.
“Doubtful, Mom, but I’ll keep you posted.”
She patted my arm. “I’m just so proud that you’re there, and you’re able to make a life for yourself doing this work. I hope Abraham didn’t… Well, I know he was hard on you.”
“He taught me everything I know.”
“I know.” She wound her arm through mine. “And if I never loved Abraham for any other reason, I would have loved him for giving you that world.”
I glanced at her. Were those tears in her eyes? She loved him? Did she mean love, as a friend? Studying Mom’s face, I found it hard to read what she was feeling, thinking. And honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. I felt my stomach churn and doubted it had anything to do with the Speedy burger.
I lasted forty-five minutes at my parents’ house. While Austin coerced me into trying short tastes of the pinot he was so psyched about along with the newest cabernet they’d just barreled, Dad filled me in on plans for Abraham’s memorial service that would be held this Saturday at the town hall.
Mom insisted on regaling me with forty or fifty new photos of my sister London’s infant twins. I didn’t say anything to Mom, but for God’s sake, those babies were barely three months old and this made something like six thousand pictures London had sent Mom to ogle and giggle over. Could infants be blinded by overexposure? Could they develop flashbulb dependency?
I endured the picture show grudgingly. London had always been the competitive one, always trying to one-up me with Mom. You didn’t see me foisting shots of my moldy old books onto my mother, did you? Figures London would give birth to twins. I wasn’t about to compete with that.
I finally managed to say good-bye without succumbing to the pot roast dinner my mother tried to tempt me with. The fact that I would turn down my mom’s incredible cooking said something about my desperate need to get back to the City before it rained. I really hated driving in the rain.
I hiked down the hill to Abraham’s where I’d left my car. On a whim, I detoured back to his studio, thinking I’d grab some more of those shells for my own use. Abraham wouldn’t miss them and I wanted to experiment with an Asian-influenced accordion-style album I was designing for a client.
There was just enough moonlight that I didn’t turn the studio light on, just zipped inside and headed straight for the shells. I stumbled over something hard but caught myself, barely.
“Nice going, Your Grace,” I berated myself. I moved forward slowly in the dark and found the back worktable. I fumbled around, grabbed a handful of shells and carefully placed them in the side pocket of my bag.
As I started back toward the door, I realized that what I really wanted was my
I headed for the bookshelf and my foot crunched over something. It was probably another shell. I thought I’d picked them all up off the floor, but I guess I missed one.
I made it to the darkened bookshelf and looked closely for a moment before distinguishing the blue leather cover from the others. I pulled the book off the shelf and slipped it into my bag, just as the studio light flipped on and the world lit up.