Kinsey Millhone's elderly neighbor, Gus Vronsky, may have been the original inspiration for the term “Grumpy Gus.” A miser and a hoarder, Gus is so crotchety that after he takes a bad fall, his only living relative is anxious to find someone to take care of him and get back home as soon as she can.
To help, Kinsey runs a check on the applicant, Solana Rojas. Social security, driver's license, nursing certification: It all checks out. And it sounds like she did a good job for her former employers. So Kinsey gives her the thumbs-up, figuring Gus will be the ideal assignment for this diligent, experienced caregiver.
And the real Solana Rojas was indeed an excellent caregiver. But the woman who has stolen her identity is not, and for her, Gus will be the ideal victim...
“The best and strongest book in the series...Solana is one of the most evil, calculating characters Grafton has created.”—*USA Today
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Hometown:Montecito, California and Louisville, Kentucky
Date of Birth:April 24, 1940
Place of Birth:Louisville, Kentucky
Education:B.A. in English, University of Louisville, 1961
Read an Excerpt
She had a real name, of course-the one she'd been given at birth and had used for much of her life-but now she had a new name. She was Solana Rojas, whose personhood she'd usurped. Gone was her former self, eradicated in the wake of her new identity. This was as easy as breathing for her. She was the youngest of nine children. Her mother, Marie Terese, had borne her first child, a son, when she was seventeen and a second son when she was nineteen. Both were the product of a relationship never sanctified by marriage, and while the two boys had taken their father's name, they'd never known him. He'd been sent to prison on a drug charge and he'd died there, killed by another inmate in a dispute over a pack of cigarettes.
At the age of twenty-one, Marie Terese had married a man named Panos Agillar. She'd borne him six children in a period of eight years before he left her and ran off with someone else. At the age of thirty, she found herself alone and broke, with eight children ranging in age from thirteen years to three months. She'd married again, this time to a hardworking, responsible man in his fifties. He fathered Solana-his first child, her mother's last, and their only offspring.
During the years when Solana was growing up, her siblings had laid claim to all the obvious family roles: the athlete, the soldier, the cut-up, the achiever, the drama queen, the hustler, the saint, and the jack-of-all-trades. What fell to her lot was to play the ne'er-do-well. Like her mother, she'd gotten pregnant out of wedlock and had given birth to a son when she was barely eighteen. From that time forward, her progress through life had been hapless. Nothing had ever gone right for her. She lived paycheck to paycheck with nothing set aside and no way to get ahead. Or so her siblings assumed. Her sisters counseled and advised her, lectured and cajoled, and finally threw up their hands, knowing she was never going to change. Her brothers expressed exasperation, but usually came up with money to bail her out of a jam. None of them understood how wily she was.
She was a chameleon. Playing the loser was her disguise. She was not like them, not like anyone else, but it had taken her years to fully appreciate her differences. At first she thought her oddity was a function of the family dynamic, but early in elementary school, the truth dawned on her. The emotional connections that bound others to one another were absent in her. She operated as a creature apart, without empathy. She pretended to be like the little girls and boys in her grade, with their bickering and tears, their tattling, their giggles, and their efforts to excel. She observed their behavior and imitated them, blending into their world until she seemed much the same. She chimed in on conversations, but only to feign amusement at a joke, or to echo what had already been said. She didn't disagree. She didn't offer an opinion because she had none. She expressed no wishes or wants of her own. She was largely unseen-a mirage or a ghost-watching for little ways to take advantage of them. While her classmates were self-absorbed and oblivious, she was hyperaware. She saw everything and cared for nothing. By the age of ten, she knew it was only a matter of time before she found a use for her talent for camouflage.
By the age of twenty, her disappearing act was so quick and so automatic that she was often unaware she'd absented herself from the room. One second she was there, the next she was gone. She was a perfect companion because she mirrored the person she was with, becoming whatever they were. She was a mime and a mimic. Naturally, people liked and trusted her. She was also the ideal employee-responsible, uncomplaining, tireless, willing to do whatever was asked of her. She came to work early. She stayed late. This made her appear selfless when, in fact, she was utterly indifferent, except when it was a matter of furthering her own aims.
In some ways, the subterfuge had been forced on her. Most of her siblings had managed to put themselves through school, and at this stage in their lives they appeared more successful than she. It made them feel good to help their baby sister, whose prospects were pathetic compared with their own. While she was happy to accept their largesse, she didn't like being subordinate to them. She'd found a way to make herself their equal, having acquired quite a bit of money that she kept in a secret bank account. It was better they didn't know how much her lot in life had improved. Her next older brother, the one with the law degree, was the only sibling she had any use for. He didn't want to work any harder than she did and he didn't mind bending the rules if the payoff was worthwhile.
She'd borrowed an identity, becoming someone else on two previous occasions. She thought fondly of her other personas, as one would of old friends who'd moved to another state. Like a Method actor, she had a new part to play. She was now Solana Rojas and that's where her focus lay. She kept her new identity wrapped around her like a cloak, feeling safe and protected in the person she'd become.
The original Solana-the one whose life she'd borrowed-was a woman she'd worked with for months in the convalescent wing of a home for seniors. The real Solana, whom she now thought of as "the Other," was an LVN. She, too, had studied to become a licensed vocational nurse. The only difference between them was that the Other was certified, while she'd had to drop out of school before she'd finished the course work. That was her father's fault. He'd died and no one had stepped forward to pay for her education. After the funeral, her mother asked her to quit school and get a job, so that was what she'd done. She found work first cleaning houses, and later as a nurse's aide, pretending to herself that she was a real LVN, which she would have been if she'd finished the program at City College. She knew how to do everything the Other did, but she wasn't as well paid because she lacked the proper credentials. Why was that fair?
She'd chosen the real Solana Rojas the same way she'd chosen the others. There was a twelve-year difference in their ages, the Other being sixty-four years old to her fifty-two. Their features weren't really similar, but they were close enough for the average observer. She and the Other were roughly the same height and weight, though she knew weight was of little consequence. Women gained and lost pounds all the time, so if someone noticed the discrepancy, it was easily explained. Hair color was another insignificant trait. Hair could be any hue or shade found in a drugstore box. She'd gone from a brunette to a blonde to a redhead on previous occasions, all of which were in stark contrast to the natural gray hair she'd had since she was thirty.
Over the past year, she'd darkened her hair little by little until the match with the Other was approximate. Once, a new hire at the convalescent home had mistaken the two for sisters, which had thrilled her to no end. The Other was Hispanic, which she herself was not. She could pass if she chose. Her ethnic forebears were Mediterranean; Italians and Greeks with a few Turks thrown in-olive-skinned and dark-haired, with large dark eyes. When she was in the company of Anglos, if she was quiet and went about her business, the assumption was that she didn't speak much English. This meant many conversations were conducted in her presence as though she couldn't understand a word. In truth, it was Spanish she couldn't speak.
Her preparations for lifting the Other's identity had taken an abrupt turn on Tuesday of the week before. On Monday, the Other told the nursing staff she'd given two weeks' notice. Soon her classes were starting and she wanted a break before she devoted herself to school full-time. This was the signal that it was time to put her plan into operation. She needed to lift the Other's wallet because a driver's license was crucial to her scheme. Almost as soon as she thought of it, the opportunity arose. That's what life was like for her, one possibility after another presenting itself for her personal edification and advancement. She hadn't been given many advantages in life and those she had, she'd been forced to create for herself.
She was in the staff lounge when the Other returned from a doctor's appointment. She'd been ill sometime before, and while her disease was in remission, she'd had frequent checkups. She told everyone her cancer was a blessing. She was more appreciative of life. Her illness had motivated her to reorder her priorities. She'd been accepted to graduate school, where she would study for an MBA in health care management.
The Other hung her handbag in her locker and draped her sweater over it. There was only the one hook, as a second hook had a screw missing and dangled uselessly. The Other closed her locker and snapped shut the combination lock without turning the dial. She did this so it would be quicker and easier to pop the lock open at the end of the day.
She'd waited, and when the Other had gone out to the nurse's station, she'd pulled on a pair of disposable latex gloves and given the lock a tug. It hadn't taken any time at all to open the locker, reach into the Other's bag, and remove her wallet. She'd slipped the Other's driver's license from its windowed compartment and put the wallet back, reversing herself as neatly as a strip of film. She peeled off the gloves and tucked them into the pocket of her uniform. The license she placed under the Dr. Scholl's pad in the sole of her right shoe. Not that anyone would suspect. When the Other noticed her license was gone, she'd assume she'd left it somewhere. It was always this way. People blamed themselves for being careless and absentminded. It seldom occurred to them to accuse anyone else. In this case, no one would think to point a finger at her, because she made such a point of being scrupulous in the company of others.
To execute the remaining aspect of the plan, she'd waited until the Other's shift was over and the administrative staff were gone for the day. All the front offices were empty. As was usual on Tuesday nights, the office doors were left unlocked so a cleaning crew could come in. While they were hard at work, it was easy to enter and find the keys to the locked file cabinets. The keys were kept in the secretary's desk and needed only to be plucked up and put to use. No one questioned her presence, and she doubted anyone would remember later that she'd come and gone. The cleaning crew was supplied by an outside agency. Their job was to vacuum, dust, and empty the trash. What did they know about the inner workings of the convalescent wing in a senior citizens' home? As far as they were concerned-given her uniform-she was a bona fide RN, a person of status and respect, entitled to do as she pleased.
She removed the application the Other had filled out when she applied for the job. This two-page form contained all the data she would need to assume her new life: date of birth, place of birth, which was Santa Teresa, Social Security number, education, the number of her nursing license, and her prior employment. She made a photocopy of the document along with the two letters of recommendation attached to the Other's file. She made copies of the Other's job evaluations and her salary reviews, feeling a flash of fury when she saw the humiliating gap between what the two of them were paid. No sense fuming about that now. She returned the paperwork to the folder and replaced the file in the drawer, which she then locked. She put the keys in the secretary's desk drawer again and left the office.
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator in the small Southern California town of Santa Teresa, ninety-five miles north of Los Angeles. We were nearing the end of 1987, a year in which the Santa Teresa Police Department crime analyst logged 5 homicides, 10 bank robberies, 98 residential burglaries, 309 arrests for motor vehicle theft and 514 for shoplifting, all of this in a population of approximately 85,102, excluding Colgate on the north side of town and Montebello to the south.
It was winter in California, which meant the dark began its descent at five o'clock in the afternoon. By then, house lights were popping on all over town. Gas fireplaces had been switched on and jet blue flames were curling up around the stacks of fake logs. Somewhere in town, you might've caught the faint scent of real wood burning. Santa Teresa doesn't have many deciduous trees, so we aren't subjected to the sorry sight of bare branches against the gray December skies. Lawns, leaves, and shrubberies were still green. Days were gloomy, but there were splashes of color in the landscape-the salmon and magenta bougainvillea that flourished through December and into February. The Pacific Ocean was frigid-a dark, restless gray-and the beaches fronting it were deserted. The daytime temperatures had dropped into the fifties. We all wore heavy sweaters and complained about the cold.
For me, business had been slow despite the number of felonies in play. Something about the season seemed to discourage white-collar criminals. Embezzlers were probably busy Christmas shopping with the money they'd liberated from their respective company tills. Bank and mortgage frauds were down, and the telemarketing scamsters were listless and uninterested. Even divorcing spouses didn't seem to be in a battling mood, sensing perhaps that hostilities could just as easily carry over into spring. I continued to do the usual paper searches at the hall of records, but I wasn't being called upon to do much else. However, since lawsuits are always a popular form of indoor sport, I was kept busy working as a process server, for which I was registered and bonded in Santa Teresa County. The job put a lot of miles on my car, but the work wasn't taxing and netted me sufficient money to pay my bills. The lull wouldn't last long, but there was no way I could have seen what was coming.