Authors: Sue Grafton
Tags: #thriller, #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Suspense, #Mystery fiction, #Private investigators, #Hard-Boiled, #Large type books, #Detective and mystery stories, #California, #Women Sleuths, #Women private investigators, #Millhone; Kinsey (Fictitious character), #Women detectives, #Women private investigators - California
I could hear him shrug. He said, "Maybe we need to talk about that then. Get it out in the open and deal with it."
"It's out in the open. Those three aren't shy about anything. The conflicts are all right out there in front of God and everyone and believe me, you don't want their venom directed at you."
"Donovan doesn't seem to bear me any ill will and from what he says, Bennet and Jack don't either. The truth is, I've changed and they need to see that. How else can I persuade 'em if it isn't face-to-face?"
I could feel my eyes cross while I tried controlling my impatience. I knew I'd be smarter to keep my mouth shut, but I've never been good at keeping my opinions to myself. "Look, Guy, I don't want to stand here and try to tell you your business, but this isn't about you. This is about their relationship to each other. It's about your, father and whatever's been going on in the years since you left. You'll end up being the target for all the anger they've stored up. And why put yourself through that?"
"Because I want to be connected again. I screwed up. I admit that and I want to make it up to them. Peter says there can't be any healing unless we sit down together."
"That's all well and good, but there's a lot more at stake. What if the subject of the money comes up?"
"I don't care about the money."
"Bullshit. That's bull. Do you have any idea how much money we're talking about?"
"Doesn't make any difference. The money doesn't matter to me. I don't need money. I'm happy as I am."
"That's what you say now, but how do you know that won't change? Why create problems for yourself later on? Have you talked to Tasha? What's she say about this?"
"I never talked to her. I called the office in Lompoc, but she'd already left for San Francisco and after that, the secretary said she was taking off for Utah on a ten-day, ski trip."
"So call her in Utah. They have phones up there."
"I tried that. They wouldn't give me her number. They said if she called in, they'd give her my name and number and she'd call if she could."
"Then try someone else. Call another attorney. I don't want, you talking to your brothers without legal advice."
"It's not about legalities. It's about mending the breach."
"Which is exactly what's going to make you a sitting duck. Your agenda has nothing to do with theirs. They don't give a shit about forgiveness, if you'll pardon my French."
"I don't see it that way."
"I know you don't. That's why we're having this argument," I shrieked. "Suppose they try to pressure you into making a decision?"
"About anything! You don't even know what's in your best interest. If your sole aim is to make peace, you're only going to get screwed."
"How can I get screwed if I don't want anything? They can keep the money if that's the only thing standing between us."
"Well, if you don't want the money, why not give it to the church?" The minute I said it, I wanted to bite my tongue. His motives were clean. Why introduce the complication?
He was silent for a moment. "I hadn't thought about that. That's a good point."
"Forget it. Just skip that. All I'm saying is don't go in there alone. Get help so you don't do something you'll regret."
"Why don't you go?"
I groaned and he laughed in response. Going with him was the last thing I wanted to do. He needed protection, but I didn't think it was appropriate for me to step in. What did I have to offer in the way of assistance? "Because it's not my place. I'm not objective. I don't know the law and I don't have any idea what your legal position is. You'd be foolish to come down here and have a conversation with them. Just wait for ten days until Tasha gets back. Don't do anything yet. There's no reason you have to hop-to the minute Donovan whistles. You should be doing this on your terms, not his."
I could hear his reluctance to accept what I was saying. Like most of us, he'd made up his mind before he asked. "You know something? This, is the truth," he said. "I prayed about this. I asked God for guidance and this was the answer I got."
"Well, try Him again. Maybe you misunderstood the message."
He laughed. "I did that in a way. I opened my Bible and put my finger on the page. Know what the passage was?"
"I can't imagine," I said dryly.
" 'Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.' " Like many of the faithful, he could recite Bible verses like song lyrics.
This time the silence was mine. "I can't argue that. I don't even know what it means. Look, if you're determined to do this, you'll do it, I'm sure. I'm just urging you to take someone with you."
"I just did. I asked you."
"I'm not talking about me! What about Peter and Winnie? I'm sure they'd be willing to help if you asked and they'd do a much better job. I don't know the first thing about counseling or mediation or anything else. Aside from that, all this family-related stuff gives me the willies."
I could hear Guy smile and his tone was affectionate. "Strange you should say that because somehow it feels like you're part of this. I don't know how, but it sure seems like that to me. Don't you have some kind of issue around family yourself?"
I held the phone away from me and squinted at the handset. "Who, me? Absolutely not. Why would you say that?"
Guy laughed. "I don't know. It just came to me in a flash. Maybe I'm wrong, but it feels like you're connected."
"My only connection is professional. I was hired to do a job. That's the only link I see." I kept my tone casual to demonstrate my nonchalance, but I was forced to put a hand against the small of my back, where an inexplicable drop of sweat was trickling down into my underpants. "Why don't you have a talk with Peter again? I know you're eager to make amends, but I don't want you walking into the lions' den. We all know how the lions and the Christians came out."
He was silent for a moment and then seemed to change the subject. "Where's your apartment?"
"What makes you ask?" I was unwilling to be specific until I knew where he was headed.
"How about this? Maybe we can do this another way. Donovan says everyone's gone tomorrow until five o'clock. Peter'll give me a lift into town, but his schedule's too tight to do much more than that. If he drops me off at your place, could you give me a ride the rest of the way? You don't have to stay. I understand you don't want to be involved and that's fine with me."
"I don't really see how that addresses the point."
"It doesn't. I'm just asking for a ride. I can handle everything else if you can get me over there."
"You're not going to listen to me, are you?" I said.
"I did listen. The problem is I disagree."
I hesitated, but really couldn't see any reason to refuse. I was already feeling churlish because I'd put up such resistance. "That sounds all right. Sure. I can do that," I said. "What time would you get here?"
"Three? Somewhere around then. I don't mean to be a bother. Peter's meeting is downtown, at that church on the corner of State and Michaelson. Is that anywhere close? Because I could walk over to your place and we could go from there."
"Close enough," I said, feeling crabby and resigned. "Look, why don't you give me a call when you get in. I'll swing by the church and pick you up."
"That'd be good. That's great. Are you sure this is okay?"
"No, but don't press your luck. I'm willing to do this much, but don't go asking for reassurance on top of it.
He laughed. "I'm sorry. You're right. I'll see you then," he said. He disconnected on his end.
As I hung up the phone, I was already having doubts. Amazing how quickly someone else's problems become yours. Trouble creates a vacuum into which the rest of us get sucked.
I found myself pacing the living room, inwardly refuting his ridiculous claim about the relevance of his situation to mine. His conflict about family had nothing to do with me. I sat down at my desk and made some notes to myself. In case Tasha asked, I thought it might be wise to keep a record of the discussion we'd just had. I hoped he wasn't going to get a bug up his butt about giving all his money to the church. That was really going to cause a problem if he got greedy on behalf of jubilee Evangelical. I omitted any reference to a charitable donation, thinking if I didn't write it down, the subject wouldn't exist.
I picked up the phone again and put a call through to the Maleks. Myrna picked up and I asked to speak to Christie. I waited, listening as Myrna crossed the foyer and bellowed up the stairs to Christie. When Christie finally picked up the phone on her end, I filled her in briefly on my conversation with Guy. "Will you keep me informed about what's going on?" I asked. "I'll drop him off, but after that he's on his own. I think he needs protection, but I don't want to get into my rescue costume. He's a big boy and this is really none of my business. I'd feel better if I knew there was someone in your camp keeping an eye on him."
"Oh, right. And leave the rescue to me," she said, her tone of voice wry.
I laughed. "Not to get trivial, but he is cute," I said.
"Really? Well, that's good. I'm a big fan of cute. In fact, that's how I vote for a presidential candidate," she said. "Personally, I don't think you have anything to worry about. After you left last night, the three of them talked long and hard. Once they got done ripping each other apart, they settled down into some meaningful conversation."
"I'm glad to hear that. I was actually a bit puzzled why Donovan had called him. What's their inclination? Do you mind if I ask?"
"I guess it depends on what he says to them. Ultimately, of course, this is probably something for the lawyers to discuss. I think they want to be honorable. On the other hand, five million dollars might distort anyone's sense of what's fair."
"Ain't that the truth."
I pulled over to the curb in fron of the Faith Evangelical Church the next afternoon at three. Guy had called me at 2:45 and I'd left the apartment shortly thereafter, taking a few minutes to put gas in my car. The sun was out again and the day felt like summer. I wore the usual jeans and a T-shirt, but I'd traded my Reeboks and sweat socks for a pair of openwork sandals in honor of the sudden heat. The grass on the church lawn had been recently cut and the sidewalk was littered with fine green at the edge. The turf itself featured a pale dun-colored haze where the cut blades had browned in the sun. A number of gullible daffodils had taken these balmy temperatures as an invitation to pop their green shafts into view.
There was no sign of Peter, but Guy was standing on the corner with a backpack at his feet. He spotted my car and pretended to hitchhike, holding his thumb out with a smile on his face. I confess when I saw him I could feel my heart break. He'd had his hair cut and his face was so freshly shaved he still sported a dot of toilet paper where he'd nicked himself. He wore a navy blue suit that didn't fit well. The pants were baggy in the butt and slightly too long, the backs of his trouser cuffs brushing the sidewalk. The jacket was wide across the chest, which made the shoulder pads look as exaggerated as a 1940's zoot suit. The garment had probably been donated to a church rummage sale or maybe he'd bought it from someone weighing forty pounds more. Whatever the explanation, he wore his finery with a self-conscious air, clearly unaccustomed to the dress shirt and tie. I wondered if my own vulnerability had been as apparent during my lunch with Tasha. I'd approached my personal grooming with the same insecurity, perhaps netting myself the same sorry results.
Guy reached for his canvas backpack, clearly happy to see me. He seemed as innocent as a pup. There was a softness about him, something guileless and unformed, as if his association with jubilee Evangelical had isolated him from worldly influences all these years. The reckless element in his nature was now tamed to a gentleness I'd rarely seen in a man.
He slid into the front seat. "Hey, Kinsey. How are you?" He held his backpack on his lap like a kid on his way to day camp.
I smiled in his direction. "You're all spiffed up."
"I didn't want my brothers to think I'd forgotten how to dress. What do you think of the suit?"
"The color's good on you."
"Thanks," he said, smiling with pleasure. "Oh. By the way, Winnie says hi."
"Hi to her'" I said. "What's the deal on your return? When are you planning to go back to Marcella?"
Guy looked away from me out the car window on his side, the casualness of his tone belying its content. "Depends on what happens at the house. Donovan invited me to stay for a couple of days and I wouldn't mind that if everything works out all right. I guess if it doesn't work, it won't make any difference. I got money in my pocket. When I'm ready to leave, someone can give me a ride to the bus."
I was on the verge of volunteering my services and then thought better of it. I glanced over at him, making a covert study of his face in profile. In some lights, he looked every one of his forty-three years. In other moments his boyishness seemed a permanent part of his character. It was as if his development had been arrested at the age of sixteen, maybe twenty at the outside. He was scanning the streets, taking in the sights as if he were in a foreign country.
"I take it you don't get down here that often," I said.
He shook his head. "I don't have much occasion. When you live in Marcella, Santa Teresa seems too big and too far away. We go to Santa Maria or San Luis if we need anything." He looked over at me. "Can we do a quick tour? I'd like to see what's going on."
"I can do that. Why not? We have time."
I circled the block, coming back out onto State Street. I turned left, heading downtown, a short three blocks away. The business district wasn't much more than twenty blocks long and three or four blocks wide, terminating at Cabana Boulevard, which parallels the beach. For many years, the stores along upper State attracted the bulk of the downtown shoppers. Lower State was considered the less desirable end of town, the street lined with thrift stores, third-rate eateries, a movie theater that smelled of urine, and half a dozen noisy bars and run-down transient hotels. Lately, the area had undergone a resurrection, and the classy businesses had begun to migrate southward along the thoroughfare. Now it was upper State that featured deserted storefronts while lower State had captured all the tourist trade. In warm weather, pedestrians drifted up from the beach, a ragtag parade of sightseers in shorts, licking ice-cream cones.
"It's grown," he remarked.
With a population of eighty-five thousand, Santa Teresa wasn't big, but the town had been flourishing. I tried to see it as he did, cataloging in my mind all the changes that had taken place in the last twenty years. Time-lapse photography would have shown tree trunks elongating, branches stretching out like rubber, some buildings erected while others vanished in a puff of smoke. Storefronts would flicker through a hundred variations: awnings, signs, and window displays, the liquidation sales of one business flashing across the plate glass before the next enterprise took its place. New structures would appear like apparitions, filling in the empty spaces until no gaps remained. I could remember when the downtown sidewalks were made wider, State Street narrowing to accommodate the planting of trees imported from Bolivia. Spanish-style benches and telephone booths had been added. Decorative fountains had appeared, looking like they'd been there for years. A fire had taken out two commercial establishments while an earthquake had-rendered others unfit for use. Santa Teresa was one of the few towns that looked more elegant as time passed. The strict regulations of the Architectural Board of Review imposed an air of refinement that in other towns was wiped out by gaudy neon, oversized signage, and a hodgepodge of building styles and materials. As much as the local residents complained about the lengthy approval process, the result was a mix of simplicity and grace.
At Cabana, I drove out along the wharf, wheels thumping along the length. I turned at the end until we were headed back toward town. I motored north on State, seeing the same sights again from the reverse perspective. At Olive Grove, I turned right, driving past the Santa Teresa Mission and from there into the foothills where the Malek estate was tucked. I could sense Guy's interest quicken as the road angled upward. Much of the terrain in this area was undeveloped, the landscape littered with enormous sandstone boulders and prickly cactus with leaves as large as fleshy Ping-Pong paddles.
The Malek estate sat close to the borders of the backcountry, an oasis of dark green in a region dense with pale chaparral. At irregular intervals, fires had swept across the foothills in spectacular conflagrations, the blaze advancing from peak to peak, sucking up houses and trees, consuming every shred of vegetation. In the wake of these burns, species of native plants known as fire followers appeared, dainty beauties emerging from the ashes of the charred and the dead. I could still see the occasional black, twisted branches of the manzanitas, though it had been five or six years since the last big fire.
Once again, the iron gates at the entrance stood open, the long driveway disappearing around a shaded curve ahead. Somehow the Maleks' evergreens and palms looked alien set against the backdrop of raw mountains. Entering the estate, I sensed how the years of careful cultivation and the introduction of exotic plants had altered the very air that permeated the grounds.
"You nervous?" I asked.
"Scared to death."
"You can still back out."
"It's too late for that. Feels like a wedding where the invitations have gone out-you know, it's still possible to cancel, but it's easier to go through with it than make a fuss for everyone else."
"Don't turn all noble on me."
"It's not about 'noble.' I guess I'm curious."
I pulled into the courtyard and eased the VW around to the left. The garages at the end of the drive were all closed. The house itself looked deserted. All the windows were dark and most of the draperies were drawn. The visage was scarcely welcoming. The silence was broken only by the idling of my engine. "Well. This is it, I guess. Call if you need me. I wish you luck."
Guy glanced at me uneasily. "You have to leave already?"
"I really should," I said, though the truth was I had nothing else to do that afternoon.
"Don't you want to see the place? Why don't you stay a few minutes and let me show you around?"
"I was just here for drinks. It hasn't changed since Friday night."
"I don't want to go inside. I have to work up my nerve. Why don't I show you the place? We could walk around outside. It's really beautiful," he said. He reached out impulsively and touched my bare arm. "Please?"
His fingers were cold and his apprehension was contagious. I didn't have the heart to leave him. "All right," I said reluctantly, "but I can't stay long."
"Great. That's great. I really appreciate this."
I turned off the engine. Guy left his backpack on the front seat and the two of us got out. We slammed the car doors in two quick, overlapping reports, like guns going off. At the last moment, I opened my door again and tossed my handbag in the back before I locked the car. As we crossed the courtyard, Myrna opened the front door and came out on the porch. She was wearing a semblance of uniform; a shapeless white polyester skirt with a matching over blouse, some vague cross between nursiness and household help.
I said, "Hi, Myrna. How are you? I didn't think anyone was here. This is Guy. I'm sorry. I don't remember anyone ever mentioning your last name."
"Sweetzer," she said.
Guy extended his hand, which flustered her to some extent. She allowed him one of those handshakes without cartilage or bone. His good looks probably had the same effect on her that they had on me. "Nice to meet you," he said.
"Nice to meet you, too," she replied by rote. "The family's back around five. You're to have the run of the house. I imagine you remember where your room is if you want to take your things on up."
"Thanks. I'll do that in a bit. I thought I'd show her the grounds first if that's okay with you."
"Suit yourself," she said. "The front door will be open if you want to come in that way. Dinner's at seven." She turned to me. "Will you be staying on as well?"
"I appreciate the invitation, but I don't think I should. The family needs time to get reacquainted. Maybe another time," I said. "I do have a question. Guy was asking about his father and it just occurred to me that you might know as much as anyone else. Weren't you his nurse?"
"One of them," she said. "I was his primary caregiver the last eight months. I stayed on as housekeeper at your brothers' request," she said, looking at Guy. Her delivery was staunch, as if we'd challenged her right to remain on the premises. From what I'd seen of her, she tended to be humorless, but with Guy she'd now added a grace note of resentment, reflecting the family's general attitude.
Guy's smile was sweet. "I'd like to talk to you about my dad sometime."
"Yes sir. He was a good man and I was fond of him."
There was an awkward moment, none of us knowing how to terminate the conversation. Myrna was the one who finally managed, saying, "Well, now. I'll let you go on about your business. I'll be in the kitchen if you should need anything. The cook's name is Enid, if you can't find me."
"I remember Enid," he said. "Thanks."
As soon as the door closed behind her, Guy touched my elbow and steered me off to the right. We crossed the courtyard together, heat drifting up from the sun baked cobblestones. "Thanks for staying," he said.
"You're full of thanks," I remarked.
"I am. I feel blessed. I never expected to see the house again. Come on. We'll go this way."
We cut around the south side of the house, moving from hot, patchy sunlight into shade. To me, it felt like another sudden shift in seasons. In the space of fifty feet, we'd left summer behind. In the gloom of heavy shadow, the drop in air temperature was distinct and unwelcome, as if the months were rolling backward into winter again. Vestiges of the hot dry winds blew down the mountainside behind us, tossing restlessly across the treetops above our heads. We rambled beneath a canopy of shaggy-smelling juniper and pine. A carpet of fallen needles dampened our footsteps to a silence.
Near the house, I could see evidence of the gardeners-raked paths, the trimmed shape of bushes, a profusion of ferns ringed with small perfect stones but the larger portion of the property was close to wilderness. Many of the plants had been allowed to grow unchecked. A violet-colored lantana tumbled along the terrace wall. A salmon-pink bougainvillea climbed across a tangled stretch of brush. To our right, a solid wash of nasturtiums blanketed the banks of an empty creek bed. In the areas of bright sun, where the dry breezes riffled across the blossoms, several scents arose and mingled in an earthy cologne.
Guy seemed to scrutinize every square foot we traversed. "Everything looks so much bigger. I remember when some of these trees were just planted. Saplings were this tall and now look at them."
"Your memories sound happy. That surprises me somehow."
"This was a great spot to grow up. Mom and Dad bought the place when I was three years old. Donovan was five and the two of us thought we'd died and gone to heaven. It was like one great big playground. We could go anywhere we wanted and no one ever had to worry. We made forts and tree houses. We had sword fights with sticks. We played cowboys and Indians and went on jungle expeditions in the wilds of the sticker bushes. When Bennet was a little guy, we used to tie him to a stake and he'd wail like a banshee. We'd tell him we were going to burn him if he didn't shut up. He was younger than us and he was fair game."
"Boy-type fun," he said. "I guess girls don't do that."
"How could your parents afford a place like this? I thought your father made his money later, in the years since you left."