Authors: William Campbell Gault
Death in Donegal Bay
Open Road Integrated Media
For Bill Pronzini
good writer, avid collector, stalwart friend
LAN ARTHUR BAKER HAD
never hit it big in the field he chose for his lifetime career. The field was larceny. He had made his first appearance in court at the innocent age of seventeen. The charge was selling bogus location maps of the homes of movie stars in Hollywood and adjacent areas.
Selling these maps was not in itself unlawful. But Alan’s maps were several decades old; he had inherited them from an uncle who had been in the same business as a youth. Most of the stars had moved by the time Alan hit the streets. Quite a few of them had died.
The complainants—a vindictive and elderly couple visiting from Illinois—must have hoped for punitive rather than compensatory damages from Alan. They appeared in small-claims court without an attorney.
The case was dismissed without penalty. Alan had taken the precautionary step of buying a rubber stamp to update his avuncular inheritance. The stamp bore the single word
in print small enough to fit between
of the original title. The couple from Illinois might have had sight too dimmed by time to read it. The original title had been “The Fabulous Homes of All the Famous Cinema Stars.” Alan had made them historic.
He had gone on from there to other small con scams and had become a minor local celebrity. I had grown up in Long Beach, so I was not aware of his reputation when we first met.
I was in my second season with the Rams and being paid more than I was worth. Four years at Stanford had not made me as sophisticated as I imagined myself to be.
It was over drinks at Heinie’s that Alan explained to me how short the life of the professional athlete was, how bleak the years of retirement were—unless he prepared for them. Two days later, I gave him a check for five thousand dollars to be invested in Stadium Mutual Funds, of which Alan claimed to be the financial adviser.
He was more than the adviser; he was the total organization. When it was forced into bankruptcy, Alan escaped with two years of probation on his promise to a tolerant and gullible judge that he would make complete restitution to the investors.
Considering the history of our relationship, I was surprised when he phoned me in San Valdesto on an unseasonably hot June morning.
“Remember me?” he asked.
“Too well. Where are you calling from?”
“In town. I live here now.”
“I’m sorry to hear it. What’s your latest con?”
“What a thing to say! Jesus, Brock, you were the very first investor to get his money back!”
“And why was that?”
“What do you mean, why? I promised and I paid.”
“You don’t remember the scene in your office?”
“Dimly. That was a long time ago. I remember you said something about my back.”
“That’s right. I told you to come up with five thousand dollars in twenty-four hours or learn to live with a broken back.”
“Dear God! Mr. Macho. Big man, now, aren’t you? You inherited a wad from your uncle. My uncle left me a trunk full of maps. At least I made it on my own.”
“Alan!” I said sternly, and started to laugh.
“That’s better,” he said. “Look, I’m not working a pitch on you. I want to hire you. I need a detective.”
“Sorry. I’m retired.”
“Sure you are! You have worked on three cases up here since you claimed you were retired.”
“For free,” I said. “For emotional reasons. I don’t do it for pay anymore.”
“That figures. You always were an economic idiot. Well, could you recommend any other agency in town?”
“Wouldn’t I be doing them a disservice? How could I be sure they would get their money?”
“They could check my credit or they could get it up front. You’re not a forgiving man, are you?”
“I guess not. What kind of work—divorce?”
“No. But … checking on my wife. I think she’s in trouble, not messing around. I don’t want to divorce her. I love her.”
“Would that be the former Joan Allingham?”
“Hell, no! That was my restitution to her old man. He had a quarter of a million in the fund. Where was I going to come up with that kind of money in those days?”
“He settled for you marrying his daughter?”
“He did. You never met Joan, or you would realize he got the better part of the deal. We were divorced two years ago. I tell you, Callahan, I had a lot of miserable years before she would agree to the divorce.”
“How much did it cost her?” I asked.
Silence on the line. That had been a low blow.
And then I remembered that Corey Raleigh, the boy detective, had not been doing well lately. I said, “There’s a young investigator I know in town who might be interested. He’s really sharp. Give me your phone number and I’ll have him call you.”
“I could go to his office.”
Corey’s office was in the garage of his parents’ home. I didn’t want Baker to discover that and chintz Corey out of his honest day’s wages. I said, “He’s hardly ever in his office. He’s been very busy lately. I’ll have him phone you.”
“Okay.” He gave me his phone number and added, “Believe me, Brock, I never meant to cheat you.”
“Forget it,” I told him. “I got my money back. I’ve been hurt worse by honest men since my uncle died.”
I had. By stockbrokers. I should have used my broken-back approach with them. I phoned Corey and gave him Baker’s number.
“Is he rich?” Corey asked.
“I don’t know. Why do you ask?”
“So I can charge him accordingly.”
“Corey,” I warned him, “honest investigators have a standard fee for all of their clients.”
“That’s their problem,” he said. “What part of town does he live in?”
“I don’t know, but I’m sure he will tell you. Now, you be careful, damn it! This Baker used to be a con man.”
“Okay, okay! Don’t get all steamed up. This isn’t the weather for it.”
The Santana wind from the desert had been blowing for two days, setting new June heat records for both days. The forecast was for more of the same. Corey’s nine-year-old Plymouth was not air-conditioned. No matter what he charged, he would be earning his pay, sitting and watching, waiting and sweating.
I put on my trunks and went out into the pool to soak. Where had Baker learned about my inheritance and about the three cases I had worked on since moving to San Valdesto? Had he been keeping a book on me? Was he trying to trap me into some kind of revenge con with his call?
From the edge of the pool, a familiar voice asked, “What are you mumbling about?”
It was Jan, my wife. It was the same Jan, except for her hair. I stared at her. “What are you doing home?”
“You know I wasn’t going to work today. It’s too hot. Audrey closed the shop, I told you this morning I was going to the hairdresser,”
“You didn’t tell me you were going to do that.”
“You don’t like it?”
That lustrous black hair of hers that she had worn so tightly coiffed, with a part in the middle and a bun at the back, was now a hemisphere of tightly curled ringlets, Little Orphan Annie style.
She seemed happy with it; what could I say? “I think I’m going to,” I said. “It was the change that threw me. Put on your suit and come soak with me.”
She smiled. “Do I need a suit?”
“Unfortunately, you do. Mrs. Casey told me she would be back by eleven o’clock.”
Mrs. Casey was our housekeeper, a morally rigid woman. “I’ll put on my suit,” Jan decided.
Mrs. Casey ate lunch with us in the shade of the overhang next to the pool. I told them about Baker’s phone call and my suspicions.
“So that’s what you were mumbling about,” Jan said. “Are you turning paranoiac?”
“Realistic would be a more accurate word. Don’t forget I once threatened the man. And where did he learn my recent history—and why?”
“I don’t know. You should have asked
Mrs. Casey nodded. “That’s right.”
“Aagh, you two!” I said, having no better reply.
They stayed in the shade after lunch, playing gin rummy and drinking iced coffee. I stayed in the pool. Mrs. Casey’s moral code is not as strict as the Baptists’ when it comes to gambling. She is a devoted bingo-playing Roman Catholic.
Corey and Alan—there was a pair that deserved each other. But Corey couldn’t bat in Alan’s league, not yet. I soaked and thought and began to worry. If Alan needed a private investigator, I was certainly an unlikely first choice—for him.
The weatherman had called it wrong. The Santana died at two-thirty; the cooling breeze from the ocean replaced it. I dressed, and looked up the address of Alan A. Baker in the phone book. He lived in our area, in Montevista, but in a more expensive section of it.
“Where are you going?” Jan asked.
“Over to Baker’s house. I want to talk with him.”
“The phone is still connected.”
I stared at her. “What is this, an inquisition? I thought we had this question of my working my way settled some time ago.”
“Don’t be angry,” she said. “We did. It’s only that Alan Baker seems to be too tricky for—” She shook her head. “I mean, I don’t think he’s worth your time, Brock.”
I grinned at her. “That’s not it. You think he’s too sharp for me. You’re afraid he’s going to con me again.”
“No,” she said.
“I want to talk with him face to face,” I explained. “I want to watch his shifty eyes. Mostly, I just want to be sure that Corey won’t be getting into trouble.”
She studied me doubtfully and then looked at Mrs. Casey. Mrs. Casey shrugged. They don’t always understand me, those two. They love me, but they don’t understand me.
Baker’s house was on Reservoir Road, on a hummock overlooking the Pine Valley Country Club. It was a big place, of fieldstone, with a brown tile roof, set well back from the road. The Mustang snickered as we drove up the long green concrete driveway. The Mustang shares my inverse middle-class snobbery.
A maid in basic black with a rounded white collar answered my ring. I gave her my name and told her that Mr. Baker had phoned me that morning.
“One moment, please,” she said, and left me standing there in front of the open door.
She didn’t come back. Half a minute later, Alan stood there. “What a welcome surprise!” he said genially. “Come in.”
He was tall, he was slim. He had the perfect eyes for his former trade, a candid baby blue. As we walked down the hall, he said, “Thank God that Santana has left us. Why do the locals up here insist on calling it a Santa Ana?”
“A lot of them are new to California.”
“But not us, huh, Brock? We’re natives.”
He was setting me up early, establishing a common bond. We turned from the hall into a study paneled in light mahogany at the rear of the house. “You must have sold a lot of maps lately,” I said.
“Same old Callahan,” he said. “You are one sarcastic bastard, aren’t you? Drink?”
“Not unless you have Einlicher.”
“I not only have it—I have it on draft. You were the man who introduced it to me, at Heinie’s.”
Bond number two. He went to a barrel front set into the paneled wall and poured us two beakers from the spigot. He handed me one and asked, “Is this a social visit?”
“Not exactly. Did Corey get in touch with you?”
“He did. And I hired him. Now sit down and tell me what’s on your mind.”
I sat in a deep leather chair and said, “I am sure you will admit that I have a right to be suspicious about your phone call. We certainly didn’t part as friends the last time we met.”
“That’s true. But everybody isn’t as vindictive as you are, Brock.”
“Not as openly, perhaps. And then I got to wondering where you had learned about my inheritance and the three cases I worked on up here.”
“I learned that at a poker game, from a police officer.”
“A local police officer?”
“Does he have a name?” I asked.
“I knew it, but it’s slipped my mind. Sort of a Lincolnesque type of guy, with a craggy face. I don’t think he was as tall as Abe was. A Jewish guy, I think.”
“Bernie Vogel?” I asked.
“That’s the name.”
I said, “Bernie knows I’m retired. What was it, a gag?”