I squinted at the woman sitting across the desk from me. I could have sworn she’d just told me there was a dead man in her daughter’s bed, which seemed like a strange thing to say, accompanied, as it was, by a pleasant smile and carefully modulated tone. Maybe I’d misunderstood.
It was nine o’clock in the morning, some ordinary day of the week. I was, I confess, hungover — a rare occurrence in my life. I do not drink often or much, but the night before I’d been at a birthday party for my landlord, Henry Pitts, who’d just turned eighty-two. Apparently the celebration had gotten out of hand because here I was, feeling fuzzy-headed and faintly nauseated, trying to look like an especially smart and capable private investigator, which is what I am when I’m in good form.
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m thirty-two years old, divorced, a licensed P.I., running my own small agency in a town ninety-five miles north of Los Angeles. The woman had told me her name was Emily Culpepper and that much made sense. She was very small, one of those women who at any age will be thought “cute,” God forbid. She had short dark hair and a sweet face and she looked like a perfect suburban housewife. She was wearing a pale blue blouse with a Peter Pan collar, a heather-colored Shetland sweater with grosgrain ribbon down the front, a heather tweed skirt, hose, and Capezios with a dainty heel. I guessed her to be roughly my age.
I reached for my legal pad and a pencil as though prepared to take important notes. “Excuse me, Mrs. Culpepper, but could I ask you to repeat that?”
The pleasant smile became fixed. She leaned forward. “Are you recording this?” she said with alarm. “I mean, can this be used against me in court?”
“I’m just trying to understand what you’re talking about,” I replied. “I thought you just told me there was a dead man in your daughter’s bed. Is that correct?”
She nodded solemnly, her eyes huge.
I wrote down, Dead man in daughter’s bed, but I wasn’t really sure what to ask next. So many questions crowd about when someone says something like that. “Do you know the man?”
“Oh, yes. It’s Gerald,” she said.
I noted the name. “Your husband?”
“My lover,” she said. “I’m divorced.”
“And where is your daughter at this point?”
“She’s with him. My husband. But she’s probably on her way home. He really isn’t supposed to take her on weekdays. It says so in my decree, but he’s been out of town and I thought it was all right. Just this once.”
“I’m sure it is,” I said, hoping to reassure her on this one small point. “And when did you notice” — I checked my notes — “Gerald?”
“This morning at about six. Well, closer to ten of, actually.”
“What kind of dead is he?”
“I’m wondering if you noticed the cause of death.”
“Oh. Yes, I did. He was shot.”
I waited for her to go on, but she didn’t. “Where?”
She pointed to her heart.
I made another brief note. This was like pulling teeth. “And you’re sure he was dead?”
“I’m not positive,” she replied uneasily. “But he was cold. And stiff. And he didn’t breathe at all.”
“That should cover it,” I said. “What about the weapon?”
“You saw it?”
“It was right on the bed beside him.”
“Do you happen to know the make?” I thought the technicalities would throw her, but she perked right up.
“Well, it’s a little High Standard two-shot derringer, a .22, with dual barrels and double action, so it’s safety-engineered. I mean, it can’t fire accidentally, even if it’s dropped. And let’s see. It’s polished nickel with black grips and it’s just about that wide,” she said, holding her thumb and index finger about an inch apart.
I was staring at her. “The gun is yours?”
“Of course. I just bought it last week. That’s why I was so upset when I realized he’d been shot with it. And right in Althea’s bed. She’s only four, but she’s big for her age. She takes after my ex-husband’s side of the family.”
I really didn’t think we’d exhausted the matter of Gerald quite yet. “Why did you buy a gun?”
“It was on sale. Half off.”
“Is that what you told the police?” She paled and I didn’t like this new expression on her face. “You did call the police, didn’t you? I mean, when you discovered that Gerald was dead?”
“Actually, I didn’t. I know I should have, but I didn’t think anyone would believe me because we quarreled last night and I walked out. I never lose my temper, but I just blew my stack. I stood there and screamed at him. It was awful. I told him I’d kill him. I actually said that. Then I burst into tears and ran out the door and drove around all night.”
“Did anyone hear you make this threat?”
“Just the neighbors on both sides.”
I had a strong desire to groan, but I repressed the impulse. “I see. And what did you do besides drive around all night? Did you talk to anyone? Can anyone verify your whereabouts for the time you were gone?”
“I don’t think so. I just drove. I was trying to work up the nerve to kick him out. We’ve been living together for about six months, and it’s been heaven. Just wonderful. I can’t think when I’ve been happier.”
“Usually people don’t get killed when things are that good,” I pointed out.
“I know, then I found out he’d been cheating on me with a woman right in the same apartment building, which is what made me see red. I was a basket case. I really was. Can you believe it? The man has borrowed thousands of dollars from me and then to find out he was f— Well, doing you-know-what with Caroline.”
“And you knew nothing about it until last night?”
“No, no. I found out about Caroline weeks ago. I won’t even tell you about the scene I had with her. It was horrible. She was so hysterical, she moved out. I don’t know where she went, but good riddance.”
“Had Gerald ever done this before?”
“Cheat? I’m not sure. I suppose so. Actually, he has. I know he’s been involved with dozens of women. Gerald was a bit of a Don Juan. He cheated incessantly from what he said, but I never thought he’d do it to me.”
“What was the attraction?” I asked. I’m always curious about women who fall in love with bounders and cads.
“Gerald is —”
“Was,” I reminded her.
“Yes. Well, he was very good-looking and so ... I don’t know ... tenderhearted. It’s hard to explain, but he was very loving and sentimental. Such a romantic. I adored him. Really.”
She seemed on the verge of tears and I allowed her a few moments to compose herself.
“What did you quarrel about last night?”
“I don’t even remember,” she said. “We went out to have a drink and one thing led to another. We got into some silly argument at the bar and next thing you know, the whole subject of his past came up — this woman Lorraine he was crazy about years ago, Ann-Marie, Trish, Lynn. He kept talking about how wonderful they were. He got ugly and so did I. We came back to the apartment and things just went from bad to worse. I had to get out of there so I left. When I came back this morning, I thought he was gone. Then I noticed Althea’s bedroom door was ajar and there he was. Right in her bed, like Goldilocks.”
“What was he doing in her room?”
“Well, I’d locked him out of mine. He kept banging on the bedroom door, insisting that I let him in, but I refused. I told him if he so much as set foot in there again, I’d blow his ba— I indicated I’d injure him where it counts. Anyway, it looks like he took a glass and a bottle of bourbon into her room and drank ’til he passed out. I waited until I could hear him snoring and then I unlocked my bedroom door and slipped out the front. When I came back this morning, I could see he was still stretched out on Althea’s bed. I stood in the doorway and told him he’d have to move out. I thought he was listening to me, of course, just pretending to be asleep, but when I finished and he didn’t say a word, I got furious and started shaking him. That’s when I realized he was dead, when I pulled the covers down and saw all the blood.”
I was taking notes as fast as I could and I didn’t realize she’d stopped. When the silence stretched, I glanced up at her. She was beginning to dissolve, her mouth trembling, eyes brimming with tears. “Take your time,” I murmured.
“Well,” she said. She fumbled in her handbag for a tissue and dabbed at her eyes. She blew her nose and took a deep breath. “Anyway, when I saw the gun on the bed, I just did the first thing that occurred to me.”
I could feel my heart sink. “What was that?”
“I picked it up.”
“Mrs. Culpepper, you shouldn’t have done that. Now your fingerprints are on the gun.”
“I know. That’s why I put it right back down and left. My goodness, I was so upset.”
“I can imagine,” I said. “What next?”
“Well, I got in my car and drove around some more and then I stopped and looked up your number in the phone book and came here.”
“Why me?” I said, trying not to sound plaintive.
“You’re a woman. I thought you’d understand. I’ll pay you anything if you’ll help me straighten this out. I mean, if you could explain it all to the police ...” She twisted the tissue, looking at me helplessly.
My eyeballs were starting to bulge with pain. I wanted an Alka-Seltzer in the worst kind of way. I slid my desk drawer open a crack and spied a packet. I wondered what would happen if I opened the foil and slipped an Alka-Seltzer onto my tongue like a Necco wafer. I’ve heard it kills you to do that, but I’m not sure it’s true. The rumor circulated through my grade school one year, along with the yarn about the mouse tail that showed up in a bottle of soda pop. I’ve been uneasy about pop bottles ever since, but who knows how stories like that get started.
I tried to bring my battered intelligence back to the matter at hand. I knew I was secretly hoping to avoid dealing with Emily Culpepper’s problem, which was a whopper.
“Emily ... May I call you Emily?”
“Please do. And I’ll call you Kinsey, if that’s all right.”
“Perfect,” I said. “I think what we should do at this point is deposit you in the offices of a friend of mine, an attorney right here in the building. While you’re bringing her up to date, I’ll take your keys and go over to your place and check this out and then I’ll call the cops. They’ll want to talk to you, of course, but at least they’ll be forced to do it in the presence of legal counsel.”
I made a quick call to Hermione, apprising her of the situation, and then I walked Emily Culpepper across the hall and left her there, taking her house keys with me as I headed down the back stairs to the municipal lot where my VW was parked.
It was “winter” in Santa Teresa, which is to say California at its best. The day was sunny, the town lush and green, the ocean churning away like a washing machine on the gentle cycle. While most of the country endured rain, sleet, hail, and snow, we were in shirtsleeves and shorts playing volleyball at the beach. At least, some people were. I was on my way out to Emily Culpepper’s apartment building, reciting to myself a litany of the troubles she had brought down on herself. Not only had Gerald been shot with her little derringer, but she’d picked the damn thing up, thus (probably) smudging any latent prints and superimposing a clear set of her own. And then, instead of calling the cops right away, which at least would have made her look like a conscientious citizen, she’d run! The whole situation was so damning, I wondered if she was setting me up, providing herself with an elaborate (though preposterous) alibi of sorts. Maybe she’d actually killed him and had cooked up this bizarre tale to cover her tracks. Her behavior throughout had been so dumb, it might almost pass for smart.
The address she’d given me was on a shady side street not far from downtown Santa Teresa. There were twenty apartments altogether, ten down, ten up, arranged in a square. The building was done in that mock Spanish style so prevalent out here: red tile roof, whitewashed stucco walls, arches, and a central courtyard with a fountain in the center. Emily’s apartment was number two, on the ground floor, right next to the manager’s. I scanned the premises. There wasn’t a soul in sight, so I took out the keys she’d given me and unlocked her front door, feeling guilty somehow and very tense. Dead bodies aren’t fun and I wasn’t sure quite what was in store.
My heart was thudding and I could feel a drop of sweat trickle down the small of my back. She’d described the layout for me, but I still took a few moments to orient myself. The room I’d stepped into was a combination living room and dining room, with a kitchen counter jutting out to my right and the kitchen beyond. Everything was done in greens and golds, with comfortable-looking upholstered furniture. There were a few toys scattered through the room, but for the most part the apartment was clean and orderly.
I crossed the living room. To the left, there was a short hallway with a bathroom visible at the end and a bedroom on either side. Emily had indicated that her bedroom was on the left, Althea’s on the right. Both doors were closed. I found myself tiptoeing down the hall and then I stood for a moment outside Althea’s room. I placed a tissue over the knob to preserve any prints, and then I opened the door.
I peered around the frame, being careful not to touch anything. A quick glimpse showed pale pink walls, toy shelves, stuffed animals on the window ledge, a child-sized flouncy white canopied bed.
And no body.
I pulled my head back into the hallway and stared at the door with puzzlement. Was this the right room?
I opened the other bedroom door and stuck my head in briefly. Everything looked fine. No evidence of a body anywhere. Emily’s room was just as tidy as her daughter’s. Maybe Emily Culpepper had flipped her tiny lid. I went back into Althea’s room, feeling utterly perplexed. What was going on? The bed looked absolutely untouched, the coverlet a pristine white, the pillows plump. Cautiously, I pulled the spread down and examined the linens under it. No sign of blood. Under the fitted sheet, there was a rubber sheet, apparently to protect the mattress from any bedwetting misdemeanors on Althea’s part. I peeled the rubber sheet back. The mattress itself showed no evidence of blood or bullet holes. I remade the bed, smoothing the coverlet back into place, rearranging the ruffled throw pillows on top.
I backed out of the bedroom, mentally scratching my head. I found the telephone, which I’d seen on the kitchen wall. Emily had written a phone number in pencil beside the phone. I covered the receiver with a tissue and picked it up. The line was dead.
“May I help you?”
I jumped a foot. The woman was standing just to my right, her expression dark with suspicion. She was in her forties, with a faded prettiness, spoiled now by the deep lines that pulled at her mouth and tugged at the corners of her eyes.
“Oh God, you scared me to death!” I gasped.
“So I see.”
“Hey, I know how it looks, but honestly, Emily Culpepper gave me her house keys and asked me to come over here to check on something for her.”
“And what might that be?” she asked.
“I’m a private investigator. I’ve got identification right here.”
I opened my handbag and took out the photostat of my license with that awful picture of me. “I’m Kinsey Millhone,” I said. I pointed to the name on my ID and then gave her a chance to study it for a moment. I was hoping she’d remark that the picture didn’t look a thing like me, but she never said a word. She returned the ID grudgingly. “You still haven’t said what you’re doing.”
“Are you a neighbor of Emily’s?”
“I’m the building manager. Pat Norman.”
“Do you know Emily’s friend Gerald?”
“Gerry? Well, yes. I know him.” She still seemed suspicious, as though I might, at any minute, pull out a rubber snake and toss it at her as a joke.
“Maybe you know what’s going on then,” I said. “Emily says she quarreled with him last night and left in a snit. When she came home this morning, she found him in her daughter’s room, shot to death.”
“Dead!” she said, startled. “Good heavens, why would she do that? I can’t believe it. That’s not like Emily at all.”
“Well, it seems to be a little more complicated than that,” I went on. “I can’t find the body and her phone is dead. Do you mind if I borrow yours?”
I followed Pat Norman into her apartment. She showed me the phone and I called Hermione, uncomfortably aware that Pat was eavesdropping shamelessly as I reported the details. Hermione said she’d collect Emily and the two of them would be over in ten minutes.
While I waited, Pat offered me some coffee. I accepted, looking around idly while she got out the cups and saucers. Her apartment was done up in much the same manner as Emily’s. The layout was different, but the carpet was the same and the wallpaper in the kitchen was identical, right down to the telephone number penciled on the wall by the phone. Pat’s taste ran to framed photographs of herself with celebrities, signed with various extravagant sentiments. I didn’t recognize any of the signatures, but I supposed I should be impressed. “Quite a collection,” I remarked. I never said of what.
“I was on the LPGA tour when I was younger,” she said.
“How long have you managed this place?”
“What about Emily? How long has she lived here?”
“Ever since she and that husband of hers broke up. Ten months, I’d guess. Gerald moved in soon afterwards.” She hesitated. “I have to be honest and tell you that I did hear them quarrel last night. I could hardly help it with her place right next to mine. I don’t for a minute believe she’d hurt him, but she did make threats — not that she meant them. Given his behavior, who could blame her if she did?”
“Do you know what they quarreled about?”
“Women, I’m sure. I heard he was quite a philanderer. He was the sort who borrowed money and then disappeared,” she confided.
“Did you hear anything unusual once she left?”
“I can’t say that I did.”
“What about Caroline? The one he was supposedly having an affair with?”
“‘Supposedly’ my behind. He fooled around with her for months before Emily found out. I knew the two of them were going at it hot and heavy, but I kept my mouth shut. It was none of my business and I kept out of it.”
“Did he borrow money from Caroline?”
“I have no idea. She had the apartment two doors down from Emily’s. She only left last week. Short notice, too. Very inconsiderate.” She glanced down at her watch. “Fortunately, I’m showing the place this afternoon. I hope to have it rented before the month is out.”
There was a knock at the door and she went out to answer it. I half expected to see Hermione and Emily, but it was a short person, who said, “Is my mommy here?”
Pat shot me a look, suddenly taking on that special, silly tone adults use with kids. “No, she’s not, Althea. Why don’t you come on in. Is your daddy with you?”
“He’s in the car.”
Ordinarily, I don’t take to children. I’m an only child myself, raised by a maiden aunt who thought most kids were a nuisance, sometimes including me. But Althea had a strange appeal. Her sturdy four-year-old body was topped by an ancient face. I knew exactly what she’d look like as an adult. Her cheeks were plump and she wore plastic glasses with pink frames, the lenses so thick they made her gray eyes seem huge. She had mild brown hair, straight as a stick, caught up in pink barrettes that were already sliding off. She wore a Polly Flinders dress, smocked across the front, with short puffed sleeves biting into her plump upper arms. She seemed poised and humorless and I could imagine her, later in life, evolving into one of those mysterious women to whom men gravitate. In some terribly bossy, mundane way, she would break all their hearts and never quite understand their pain.
“I suppose I should go get him,” Pat said to me in a lowered tone. I watched Althea’s gaze shift from Pat to me.
“Hi, I’m Kinsey,” I said to Althea.
She said, “Hello.”
Pat hurried off to the parking lot to tell Mr. Culpepper what was going on.
Althea regarded me with the solemnity of a cat. She sat herself on an upholstered chair, scooting way back until her legs stuck straight out. “Who are you?”
“I’m a private investigator,” I said. “Do you know what that is?”
She nodded, pushing her glasses back on her nose.
I assumed her knowledge of private investigators came from TV and I was reasonably sure I didn’t look like one, which might explain why she was staring.
“I didn’t wet the bed,” she announced.
“I’m sure you didn’t.”
She studied me until she was satisfied that she was no longer a suspect. “Where do you live?”
“Over by the beach,” I said.
“Why did you come here?”
“Your mom asked me to.”
“Just to look around and talk to Pat, things like that.”
She looked at her shoes, which were patent leather with a T-strap. “Know what?”
“Chicken butt,” she said, and then a small, shy smile played across her face.
I laughed, as much at the look on her face as the joke, which I’d told myself when I was her age. “What’s your daddy’s name?”
“David. He’s nicer than Gerald.”
She had to lean forward then and pick at her shoe. She sat back, wagging her feet back and forth. “Where’s my mother?”
“On her way home, I expect,” I said.
Silence. Althea made some mouth noises like horses clopping. Then she sighed, resting her head on one hand. “Do you wet your bed?”
“Me neither because only babies wet the bed and I’m big.”
She fell silent. Apparently, we’d exhausted the subject.
I could hear the murmur of voices and Pat returned in the company of a man who introduced himself as David Culpepper. He was big, with a mustache, beard, and bushy head of hair. Wide shoulders, narrow hips, and biceps that suggested he lifted weights. He wore boots, blue jeans, and a flannel shirt that made him look like he should be accompanied by Babe the Blue Ox. “Pat filled me in,” he said. “Is Emily here yet?”
“She’s on her way,” I said.
Without even thinking about it, we all looked at Althea, aware of the fact that whatever was happening, she should be spared any tacky revelations.
Pat, talking now like Minnie Mouse, said, “Althea, sweetheart, do you want to go outside and play on the swings?”
“I already did that.”
“Althea,” her father said warningly.
Althea sighed and got up, moving toward the front door with an injured air. As soon as she’d disappeared, David Culpepper turned to me.
“What is this?”
“You know as much as we do, at this point,” I said. “Your wife swears that at six this morning, Gerald was dead as a doornail in Althea’s bed. I can’t find a trace of him.”
“But my God,” he said, “why would Emily say such a thing if it weren’t true?”
“Uh, I hope you’ll excuse me,” Pat said. “I’ve got an apartment to show and I’d just as soon wait outside. Let me know if you need anything.” She took a set of keys from the counter and moved out into the courtyard.
“Maybe you should see Althea’s room yourself,” I said to David.
“I’d like that.”
Emily’s apartment was still open and we moved through the living room to Althea’s bedroom, which was just as bare of bodies as it had been when I first checked. David went through the same procedure I had, pulling back the counterpane and the top sheet to the bedding underneath.
“Was Gerald responsible for the breakup of your marriage?” I asked, watching as he remade the bed.
“I guess you could say that.”
“What else could you say?”
“I don’t know that it’s any of your business.”
“Wait and tell the cops, then,” I said.
He sighed. “Emily had worked before Althea was born, but she stayed home after that. Apparently, she was getting restless. Or that’s what she claims now. Once Althea started preschool, Emily had too much time on her hands. She started spending her afternoons at the country club. I thought she was having a ball. Hell, I wouldn’t mind a schedule like that myself. She played tennis, golf, bridge. She met Gerald.”
He left the rest unsaid, but the implications were clear. Her relationship with Gerald must have started out as recreational sex, developing into an affair with more serious overtones.
“What sort of work do you do?” I asked.
“I’m a building contractor. It’s pretty basic stuff,” he said, almost apologetically. “I guess I didn’t come across as romantic — a man of the world. I sure never had any leisure time. I busted my nuts just trying to get the bills paid.”
“From what Emily says, he was a skunk. He cheated, he borrowed money. Why would she put up with that?”
“Ask her,” he said. “The guy was a jerk. Try paying alimony and child support when you know the money’s goin’ to the guy who’s diddling your wife.”
“David, how dare you!”
Both of us turned. Emily Culpepper was standing in the doorway, her color high. Behind her, I saw Hermione Santoni, the criminal attorney whose office is just across the hall from mine. Hermione is almost six feet tall, with black curly hair and violet eyes — all of which David Culpepper took in at a glance. I made introductions all around and went through the whole explanation again.
“But he was right there!” Emily was saying. “I swear to God he was.”
“What about your room? Maybe we should take another look,” I said.
Uneasily, the four of us edged into the room like cartoon characters, bumping into each other, exchanging wary looks. There was still no body. David checked the closet and Emily got down on her hands and knees to look under the bed.
She opened the bed table drawer. “Well, here’s my gun,” she said, reaching for it.
“Don’t pick it up!” I snapped at her. “Just leave the damn thing where it is.”
Startled, Emily withdrew her hand. “Sorry,” she murmured.
“Let’s just find Gerald.”
Hermione peeked in the clothes hamper. In the interests of thoroughness, I backtracked, checking Althea’s room and the hall linen closet, noting with interest how tidy it was. I can’t ever make my sheets lie flat and I usually have the towels all shoved together in a bunch. Emily’s towels were color coded and her sheets were starched and pressed flat. She even had a nice empty space left over for the set coming back from the laundry. I wondered if she ironed men’s underwear for them. She seemed like the type.
I was just returning to the bedroom when we heard Pat scream. It was a doozy, like something out of a butcher-knife movie only more prolonged. I was out of the apartment like a shot. I spotted her standing in the courtyard, two doors away, face white, mouth working helplessly. She pointed and I pushed past her into the empty apartment, which apparently had belonged to Caroline. Pat followed on my heels.
There was a body sprawled on the floor in the living room. I hoped it was Gerald and not someone else.
“It’s him,” Pat said. “Oh my God and he’s dead just like she said he was. I thought I’d open the apartment to let it air before the people showed up to have a look. The door was unlocked so I walked right in and there he was.” She burst into tears.
I couldn’t figure out how he’d gotten here. Was it possible that he was still alive when Emily had seen him this morning? Could he have crawled all this way? That couldn’t be the case or he’d have left a trail of blood. Emily had said when she found his body, he was already cold. I bent over the body briefly, puzzled by what appeared to be a soft pile of white powder near the dead man’s right hand. It looked like soap powder and the granules adhering to his right index finger suggested that he’d tried to leave a message of some kind. A word had been spelled out almost invisibly on the surface of the spilled soap.
“What is that?” David said, coming up behind me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It looks like M-A-F-I-A.”
“Jesus, a Mafia hit?” he said, anxiously.
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous!” Pat murmured, blowing her nose. “What would they want with him?”
I moved into the kitchenette. The detergent box itself was on the floor near the sink, empty by the look of it. It was one of those one-load sizes, dispensed from machines in commercial laundromats. I left it where it was, figuring the crime scene fellows would want to dust it for prints.
By now, of course, Emily Culpepper had joined us, along with Hermione and a couple I’d never seen before. The four of them clustered just outside the door and I saw the woman lean over and whisper to Hermione.
“Is this the one for rent?”
Hermione nodded, putting a finger to her lips. I guess she hoped to discourage conversation so she could hear what was going on inside.
The woman’s voice dropped. “The ad said there were built-ins. Do you know if the refrigerator is frost-free?” Maybe she thought Hermione was agenting the place.
Hermione shook her head. “I just got here,” she whispered. “There’s a body in the living room.”
“The former occupant?” the woman asked.
“Someone else,” Hermione said.
The woman nodded, as if this were not an unusual occurrence in the course of a housing search. She conveyed the news to hubby and he lifted up on tiptoe, trying to get a better view.
“Look,” David said, “I’m going back to Pat’s to call the police. Don’t touch a thing.” We all stared at him. The place was empty except for Gerald and none of us wanted to touch him.
Pat began to sob again quietly. Emily put a comforting arm around her and drew her out into the courtyard, where she helped her sit down on the edge of the fountain. The prospective tenants decided to have a little look around and I saw them disappear into the apartment. I perched on the fountain rim on the other side of Pat, patting at her ineffectually. Hermione paced up and down the courtyard, smoking a cigarette.
Emily leaned forward and caught my eye. “Well, at least now you know I’m not nuts,” she said. “I did find him this morning. I just can’t understand how he ended up down here.”
“You’re sure he was dead when you saw him,” I said, quizzing her on the point for the second time.
“Well, I couldn’t swear to it.”
“What about this Mafia business? Do you have any reason to believe he was tied to the Mob?” I couldn’t believe I was saying shit like this — the Mob — like Gerald had been “fingered” for betraying some crime boss. Ludicrous. The whole business felt like bad TV.
Pat clutched my arm, digging her nails in painfully. “I just remembered. Caroline called two days ago and said she’d be dropping by. She wanted to pick up the refund on her cleaning deposit because she didn’t leave a forwarding address.”
“Wow,” I said. “Uh, so what?”
“What if she came back?”
“Last night?” I said.
Pat nodded vigorously. “Maybe she overheard Emily threaten him. She could have waited ’til Emily drove off and then gone in there herself.”
“Did she know about the gun?”
“Everybody knew about that,” Pat said.
Emily seemed skeptical. “I did leave my front door unlocked, but it still doesn’t make any sense. If she killed him, why move the body to her own apartment? Why not leave it in mine?”
“And why cut your telephone line?” I said. “The thing is, we really don’t know what the scheme consisted of. Maybe you interrupted the killer.”
Emily spoke up. “Wait a minute. Suppose what he wrote are the first few letters of the murderer’s name.”
I could see us all mouthing “Mafia,” trying to imagine what the name might be.
David came striding back across the courtyard. “The police are on their way,” he said.
“Uh, me too, gang,” Hermione interjected. “I’ve got a meeting in ten minutes. I have to get back to the office.”
“But what am I supposed to do?” Emily said. “What if I’m grilled and carted off to jail?”
“I’ll be back in an hour. Just keep your mouth shut. Tell them I’m your attorney and I’ve told you not to say a word unless I’m present.”
“Can I do that?” Emily asked. “I mean, is that legitimate?”
“That’s what the Miranda decision was about, dear,” Hermione said with more patience than I might have mustered at that point.
I gave her a quick word of thanks and watched her head off toward the street where her car was parked.
There was something about this setup that nudged at me. It was one of those situations I was sure had a simple explanation if I could only make the mental leap. I felt a tug and looked down to find Althea standing next to me, slipping her hand into mine. She was apparently attracted to me in the same way cats unerringly select the lap of someone who’s ailurophobic. (That’s a fear of cats, folks.) I was flattered, I’ll admit, but uncertain what I’d done to warrant such trust.
Pat became aware of her at just about the same time I did.
“Oh look, everybody. Here’s Althea,” Pat chirped, sounding like she’d just had a hit of helium.
“We’ll go for a walk,” I said in a normal tone. I was afraid if I hung around, I’d start talking like her.
Althea and I headed out to the alley and strolled up and down, passing the rear entrance to the courtyard now and then. I could see that two uniformed policemen had arrived and once I spotted the prospective tenants checking out the laundry room. The crime scene investigators must have been delayed because for thirty minutes, everybody just stood around. One officer took a report and the second secured the area with tape, posting signs that said Crime Scene — No Admittance. Althea, meanwhile, was entirely too quiet for my taste.
“Aren’t you curious about all this?” I asked, finally.
She shook her head solemnly. “Because we didn’t come here before, when I played.”
“What’d you do?”
“That sounds boring,” I said. “Wonder why you did that.”
“Just because,” she said.
“That’s your story and you’re sticking to it, right?” I said in jest. I looked down at that earnest little face, the fat cheeks, the glasses, the huge gray eyes. This was no laughing matter to the child and I knew I shouldn’t make light.
“Gerald’s dead,” she remarked.
“Looks that way,” I said, wishing I knew what the hell was going on.
I thought about the man shot to death in her room, the empty apartment two doors away. Emily must have stumbled onto the murder scene before the body could be moved. But why kill him there? And why move him somewhere else? And why weren’t there any traces of him in Althea’s bed? I thought about the detergent on the rug with the letters spelling ... What? It was all so perplexing. The answer seemed to tease, the solution hovering just out of sight. I stood still for a moment, questions stirring at the back of my brain.
“Let’s go see if we can use Pat’s phone,” I said to Althea. She trotted beside me obediently. We walked back toward the courtyard, past the laundry room.
“Hang on,” I said. I popped my head in the door. Sure enough, there was a machine on the wall, dispensing small detergent boxes like the one on Caroline’s floor. Well, at least I was pretty sure where that came from.
We approached the fountain, where Pat and Emily still sat, waiting for a homicide detective to arrive, along with the medical examiner, photographers, and assorted crime scene specialists.
“Can I use your phone?” I said casually to Pat. She nodded.
What I was suddenly curious about was the telephone number I’d seen penciled on the wall by both Emily’s phone and Pat’s. Why both places? Aside from their living in the same building, what did those two have in common? I wondered if the answer to this whole puzzle was hidden somewhere in that seven-digit code.
I went into Pat’s apartment, crossing to the phone. I checked the number and then dialed. The line rang twice and then someone picked up. A singsong voice said, “At the sound of the tone, General Telephone time will be twelve o’clock, exactly.” I burst out laughing and Althea looked at me.
“What’s so funny?” she said.
“Skip it. I just made a fool of myself,” I said.
As I started toward the door, I caught sight of Pat’s photographs and experienced one of those remarkable mental earthquakes that jolt all the pieces into place. Maybe the right question here wasn’t why but who. “Althea, was Gerald a golf pro?”
“Hey, kiddo,” I said, “we just cracked this case.”
Althea looked more worried than thrilled.
By the time we reached the courtyard, Lieutenant Dolan had arrived and was consulting with the uniformed police officers while David, Emily, and Pat looked on. He seemed startled to see me, but not necessarily displeased. Dolan is assistant division commander for Crimes Against Persons, handling the homicide detail for the STPD. He’s in his fifties, a baggy-faced man with a keen intellect. While he finds himself annoyed with me much of the time, he knows I respect him and he knows I won’t tread on his turf. Having spent two years as a cop myself, I know better than to withhold information or tamper with evidence.
“How did you get involved in this?” he asked.
I gave him a condensed version of the entire sequence of events, starting with Emily’s appearance in my office. When I finished, he shoved his hands down in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “I suppose you have the whole thing wrapped up,” he said, facetiously.
“Actually, I do,” I said. “Want me to demonstrate?”
“It’s your show.”
I took Althea by the hand and returned to Emily’s apartment, the whole group trooping after us into Althea’s room. I was beginning to feel a bit like Hercule Poirot, but I had to talk my way through this one. I waited until everyone was assembled, including the apartment hunters, who lurked at the rear, peering around surreptitiously. Maybe she’d be arrested and they could have dibs on this place.
“Let’s go back to the beginning,” I said. “Emily was convinced that Gerald was killed in Althea’s bed, but when I got here, the body was gone and there wasn’t any sign that a murder had been committed.
“I went to Pat’s apartment to use the phone and that’s when Althea showed up with her father. Emily had let David take her overnight and she was just being returned. Or so they led us to believe. The truth is, David had brought her back earlier. He found Gerald’s body and realized how bad things looked for Emily —”
“Wait a minute,” Dolan said. “What makes you so sure the body was here in the first place? You only have Mrs. Culpepper’s word for it, right?”
“Well, yes, but it turns out to be true.”
“Where’s your proof?” Dolan asked. I could see that he was interested, but unconvinced.
My heart did a flip-flop, but I proceeded as if I were sure of myself. Secretly, I thought, Shit, why didn’t I verify this first? I didn’t need to make a fool of myself publicly.
I stripped the bed. As before, the sheets were clean as a whistle and the mattress looked like it had never been touched, let alone used as target practice by someone with a grudge. David flexed his fingers nervously. Emily reached down protectively and pulled Althea close.
I said, “Now, let’s turn the mattress over.”
The two uniformed officers gave the mattress a tug, lifting and turning it in one smooth motion. On the flip side, down in the lower right quadrant was a puncture in the ticking and a smear of dark red. “I think if you dig down in there, you’ll find the .22 slug that killed him.”
“But what about the soap powder and the cut in the telephone line?” Pat asked.
“That was all embellishment,” I said. “David was doing what he could to divert suspicion from his ex-wife, so he went through the whole routine. Moved the body, turned the mattress, changed the sheets.”
“Him?” Emily said with surprise, as if she’d never known him to change a sheet in his life.
“Oh sure. I noticed a set was missing from the linen closet and I also knew that Althea was feeling anxious about something. He’d sent her next door to play, but she’d seen him stripping off the sheets. She was worried she’d be accused of wetting the bed.”
Althea was looking from face to face. She must have sensed her daddy was still in trouble somehow.
I went on. “David cautioned her not to tell anyone they’d been here and that’s just what she did. She told me they hadn’t been here. I thought it was an odd thing to say until I realized she’d taken him literally.” I paused, looking at her. “You tried to do what your daddy told you, didn’t you?”
Althea nodded, her mouth beginning to pucker, eyes filling with tears. David swooped her up in his arms and hugged her. “You did fine, sweetie. It’s all right.”
“I’d like to hear the rest of this,” Dolan said.
“Well, after he moved the body, he started setting up false clues. He bought detergent and spilled it on the rug. He took Gerald’s finger and wrote in the soap, all of this because he hoped to persuade us the man was killed by someone else. David must have borrowed all those corny devices from old 'Hawaii Five-O' reruns.”
“Up yours!” he snapped. “You can’t prove a word of this.”
“I think I can,” I said equably.
“David killed Gerald?” Emily said, blinking those big innocent eyes.
I shook my head. “It was Pat,” I replied. “Patricia.”
Everyone turned simultaneously and stared, except for the couple in the rear.
“Who?” the hubby asked the wife.
“Me?!” Pat said. “Well, that’s ridiculous. Why would I do such a thing?”
“You’ll have to tell us that yourself,” I said. “I suspect you fell in love with him years ago when you played the Haig and Haig Mixed Team Tournament back in ’sixty-six. You told me yourself you were on the LPGA circuit back then. You still have the photograph of the two of you taken at the tournament, which he inscribed ‘To My Darling Trish, with All the Love in My Heart, Gerry.’ I spotted it the first time I used your phone, but of course at that point I hadn’t seen Gerald yet. When I went back again, I recognized him and I also remembered what Emily had said about an ex-girlfriend of his named Trish.”
Dolan looked over at her. “You want an attorney present before you make a response?”
“Oh, what difference does it make,” she said impatiently. “The son of a bitch is dead and that’s all I care about. I’d hoped to push the blame off on someone else, but then David came along and made a mess of it. ‘Mafia!’ I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
“Serves you right,” David said. “You tried to frame Emily.”
“Oh, poo. She could have pleaded temporary insanity. No jury’s going to want to hang a little thing like her,” she said.
“But why did you kill him?” Emily said, aghast. “I don’t understand.”
“To save fools like you, if nothing else,” Pat said. “You have no idea what he did to me. I was twenty-two and as green as they come. That bastard took me for every dime I had and then ran off with some tart with a lower handicap. He broke my heart, ruined my backswing, and wrecked my career. And then, to have him come waltzing into my life again after all these years! It was too much! The worst of it was that he didn’t even recognize me! Hadn’t the faintest idea who I was. After everything I’d suffered, I was nothing to him. Not even a fond memory. I knew right then I’d get even with him if it was the last thing I ever did.”
The hubby in the back said, “Hear! Hear!” and clapped until his wife gave him a nudge.
The party broke up after that. Pat was handcuffed and taken away and everybody else spent a good fifteen minutes reliving events. Emily asked David to stay for a while, touched that he’d tried to save her. Belatedly, I noticed that my head was starting to pound all over again, so I excused myself. Althea trailed after me, watching every move I made. She planted herself on the sidewalk while I got in my car and then rolled the window down on the passenger side, beckoning to her. She sidled over to the car.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She nodded and then spoke up, her tone shy. “When I grow up, I want to be like you.”
“Good plan,” I said. “I’ll tell you what. You come around to my office twenty years from now and we’ll form a partnership.”
“Okay,” she said gravely and we sealed it with a handshake.
Reprinted from KINSEY AND ME: STORIES, by Sue Grafton, with permission of Marian Wood Books/Putnam, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2013 by Sue Grafton.