Looking solemn, Michael Sutton arrives in Kinsey Millhone's office with a story to tell. When he was six, he says, he wandered into the woods and saw two men digging a hole. They claimed they were pirates, looking for buried treasure. Now, all these years later, the long-forgotten events have come back to him—and he has pieced them together with news reports from the time, becoming convinced that he witnesses the burial of a kidnapped child.
Kinsey has nearly nothing to go on. Sutton doesn't even know where he was that day—and, she soon discovers, he has a history of what might generously be called an active imagination. Despite her doubts, Kinsey sets out to track down the so-called burial site. And what's found there pulls her into a hidden current of deceit stretching back more than twenty years...
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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
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - Wednesday afternoon, April 6, 1988
Chapter 3 - DEBORAH UNRUH
Chapter 4 - Thursday morning, April 7, 1988
Chapter 6 - DEBORAH UNRUH
Chapter 7 - Thursday afternoon, April 7, 1988
Chapter 9 - WALKER MCNALLY
Chapter 10 - Friday, April 8, 1988
Chapter 12 - WALKER MCNALLY
Chapter 13 - Monday, April 11, 1988
Chapter 15 - JON CORSO
Chapter 16 - Wednesday, April 13, 1988
Chapter 18 - JON CORSO
Chapter 19 - Wednesday afternoon, April 13, 1988
Chapter 21 - DEBORAH UNRUH
Chapter 22 - Thursday night, April 14, 1988
Chapter 23 - Friday afternoon, April 15, 1988
Chapter 24 - WALKER MCNALLY
Chapter 25 - Monday, April 18, 1988
Chapter 27 - JON CORSO
Chapter 28 - Wednesday afternoon, April 20, 1988
Chapter 29 - WALKER MCNALLY
Chapter 30 - Wednesday evening, April 20, 1988
Chapter 31 - JON CORSO
Chapter 32 - Thursday, April 21, 1988
Chapter 33 - Thursday, April 21, 1988
ALSO BY SUE GRAFTON
Kinsey Millhone mysteries
A is for Alibi
B is for Burglar
C is for Corpse
D is for Deadbeat
E is for Evidence
F is for Fugitive
G is for Gumshoe
H is for Homicide
I is for Innocent
J is for Judgment
K is for Killer
L is for Lawless
M is for Malice
N is for Noose
O is for Outlaw
P is for Peril
Q is for Quarry
R is for Ricochet
S is for Silence
T is for Trespass
A MARIAN WOOD BOOK
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
U is for undertow / Sue Grafton.
eISBN : 978-1-101-15161-7
1. Millhone, Kinsey (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Women private investigators—California—Fiction. 3. Girls—Crimes against—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
For Larry Welch, who left us,
steering a course for ports unknown,
and for Pam, who sails on,
navigating her journey over high seas.
Safe passage to you both.
The author wishes to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of the following people: Steven Humphrey; Sam Eaton, Eaton and Jones, Attorneys at Law; John Mackall, Attorney at Law, Seed Mackall LLP; Bill Turner, Detective Sergeant (retired), Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department; Deborah Linden, Chief of Police, San Luis Obispo; Mary Ellen Tiffany, Vice President Business Development, Montecito Bank & Trust; Penny Braniff and Krys Jackson, Hope Ranch Park Homes Association; Special Agent Leane Blevins, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ventura field office; Lisa Lowseth, DVM; Amy Taylor, Veterinary Technician, Cat Doctors; Susan Burke, Librarian, Laguna Blanca School; Diane Miller, Assistant Dean, Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; Kevin Frantz; Sally Giloth; Tracy Kanowsky; Suzanne Perkins; Steve Tipton; Kim Showalter; Jamie Clark; Susan Gulbransen; Joanna Barnes; and Sue Parks; along with a special thank-you to Margie and Keith Kirkendall, Patricia L. Erbe, M.D., and Jeffrey Grill, M.D., for the use of their names.
Wednesday afternoon, April 6, 1988
What fascinates me about life is that now and then the past rises up and declares itself. Afterward, the sequence of events seems inevitable, but only because cause and effect have been aligned in advance. It’s like a pattern of dominoes arranged upright on a tabletop. With the flick of your finger, the first tile topples into the second, which in turn tips into the third, setting in motion a tumbling that goes on and on, each tile knocking over its neighbor until all of them fall down. Sometimes the impetus is pure chance, though I discount the notion of accidents. Fate stitches together elements that seem unrelated on the surface. It’s only when the truth emerges you see how the bones are joined and everything connects.
Here’s the odd part. In my ten years as a private eye, this was the first case I ever managed to resolve without crossing paths with the bad guys. Except at the end, of course.
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private detective, female, age thirty-seven, with my thirty-eighth birthday coming up in a month. Having been married and divorced twice, I’m now happily single and expect to remain so for life. I have no children thus far and I don’t anticipate bearing any. Not only are my eggs getting old, but my biological clock wound down a long time ago. I suppose there’s always room for one of life’s little surprises, but that’s not the way to bet.
I work solo out of a rented bungalow in Santa Teresa, California, a town of roughly 85,000 souls who generate sufficient crime to occupy the Santa Teresa Police Department, the County Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol, and the twenty-five or so local private investigators like me. Movies and television shows would have you believe a PI’s job is dangerous, but nothing could be farther from the truth . . . except, of course, on the rare occasions when someone tries to kill me. Then I’m ever so happy my health insurance premiums are paid up. Threat of death aside, the job is largely research, requiring intuition, tenacity, and ingenuity. Most of my clients reach me by referral and their business ranges from background checks to process serving, with countless other matters in between. My office is off the beaten path and I seldom have a client appear unannounced, so when I heard a tapping at the door to my outer office, I got up and peered around the corner to see who it was.
Through the glass I saw a young man pointing at the knob. I’d apparently turned the dead bolt to the locked position when I’d come back from lunch. I let him in, saying, “Sorry about that. I must have locked up after myself without being aware of it.”
“You’re Ms. Millhone?”
“Michael Sutton,” he said, extending his hand. “Do you have time to talk?”
We shook hands. “Sure. Can I offer you a cup of coffee?”
“No, thanks. I’m fine.”
I ushered him into my office while I registered his appearance in a series of quick takes. Slim. Lank brown hair with a sheen to it, worn long on top and cut short over his ears. Solemn brown eyes, complexion as clear as a baby’s. There was a prep school air about him: deck shoes without socks, sharply creased chinos, and a short-sleeve white dress shirt he wore with a tie. He had the body of a boy: narrow shoulders, narrow hips, and long, smooth arms. He looked young enough to be carded if he tried to buy booze. I couldn’t imagine what sort of problem he’d have that would require my services.
I returned to my swivel chair and he settled in the chair on the other side of the desk. I glanced at my calendar, wondering if I’d set up an appointment and promptly forgotten it.
He noticed the visual reference and said, “Detective Phillips at the police department gave me your name and address. I should have called first, but your office was close by. I hope this isn’t an inconvenience.”
“Not at all,” I said. “My first name’s Kinsey, which you’re welcome to use. You prefer Michael or Mike?”
“Most people call me Sutton. In my kindergarten class, there were two other Michaels so the teacher used our last names to distinguish us. Boorman, Sutton, and Trautwein—like a law firm. We’re still friends.”
“Where was this?”
I said, “Ah.” I should have guessed as much. Climping Academy is the private school in Horton Ravine, K through 12. Tuition starts at twelve grand for the little tykes and rises incrementally through the upper grades. I don’t know where it tops out, but you could probably pick up a respectable college education for the same price. All the students enrolled there referred to it as “Climp,” as though the proper appellation was just, like, sooo beside the point. Watching him, I wondered if my blue-collar roots were as obvious to him as his upper-class status was to me.
We exchanged pleasantries while I waited for him to unload. The advantage of a prearranged appointment is that I begin the first meeting with at least some idea what a prospective client has in mind. People skittish about revealing their personal problems to a stranger often find it easier to do by phone. With this kid, I figured we’d have to dance around some before he got down to his business, whatever it was.
He asked how long I’d been a private investigator. This is a question I’m sometimes asked at cocktail parties (on the rare occasion when I’m invited to one). It’s the sort of blah-blah-blah conversational gambit I don’t much care for. I gave him a rundown of my employment history. I skipped over the two lackluster semesters at the local junior college and started with my graduation from the police academy. I then covered the two years I’d worked for the Santa Teresa PD before I realized how ill suited I was to a life in uniform. I proceeded with a brief account of my subsequent apprenticeship with a local agency, run by Ben Byrd and Morley Shine, two private investigators, who’d trained me in preparation for licensing. I’d had my ups and downs over the years, but I spared him the details since he’d only inquired as a stalling technique. “What about you? Are you a California native?”
“Yes, ma’am. I grew up in Horton Ravine. My family lived on Via Ynez until I went off to college. I lived a couple of other places, but now I’m back.”
“You still have family here?”
His hesitation was one of those nearly imperceptible blips that indicates internal editing. “My parents are gone. I have two older brothers, both married with two kids each, and an older sister who’s divorced. We’re not on good terms. We haven’t been for years.”
I let that pass without comment, being better acquainted with family estrangement than I cared to admit. “How do you know Cheney Phillips?”
“I don’t. I went into the police department, asking to speak to a detective, and he happened to be free. When I told him my situation, he said you might be able to help.”
“Well, let’s hope so,” I said. “Cheney’s a good guy. I’ve known him for years.” I shut my mouth then and let a silence descend, a stratagem with remarkable powers to make the other guy talk.
Sutton touched the knot in his tie. “I know you’re busy, so I’ll get to the point. I hope you’ll bear with me. The story might sound weird.”
“Weird stories are the best kind, so fire away,” I said.
He looked at the floor as he spoke, making eye contact now and then to see if I was following. “I don’t know if you saw this, but a couple of weeks ago, there was an article in the newspaper about famous kidnappings: Marion Parker, the twelve-year-old girl who was abducted in 1927; the Lindbergh baby in ’thirty-two; another kid, named Etan Patz. Ordinarily, I don’t read things like that, but what caught my attention was the case here in town . . .”
“You’re talking about Mary Claire Fitzhugh—1967.”
“You remember her?”
“Sure. I’d just graduated from high school. Little four-year-old girl taken from her parents’ home in Horton Ravine. The Fitzhughs agreed to pay the ransom, but the money was never picked up and the child was never seen again.”
“Exactly. The thing is, when I saw the name Mary Claire Fitzhugh, I had this flash—something I hadn’t thought about for years.” He clasped his hands together and squeezed them between his knees. “When I was a little kid, I was playing in the woods and I came across these two guys digging a hole. I remember seeing a bundle on the ground a few feet away. At the time, I didn’t understand what I was looking at, but now I believe it was Mary Claire’s body and they were burying her.”
I said, “You actually saw the child?”
He shook his head. “She was wrapped in a blanket, so I couldn’t see her face or anything else.”
I studied him with interest. “What makes you think it was Mary Claire? That’s a big leap.”
“Because I went back and checked the old newspaper accounts and the dates line up.”
“Oh, sorry. I should have mentioned this before. She was kidnapped on July 19, which was a Wednesday. I saw the guys on Friday, July 21, 1967 . . . my birthday, the year I turned six. That’s how I made the association. I think she was already dead by then and they were getting rid of the body.”
“And this was where?”
“Horton Ravine. I don’t know the exact location. My mother had errands to run that day so she dropped me off at some kid’s house. I don’t remember his name. I guess his mom had agreed to look after me while she was gone. Turns out the other kid woke up with a fever and sore throat. Chicken pox was going around and his mom didn’t want me exposed in case that’s what it was, so she made him stay in his room while I hung around downstairs. I got bored and asked if I could go outside. She said I could as long as I didn’t leave the property. I remember finding this tree with branches that hung down to make a little room, so I played there for a while, pretending I was a bandit in a cool hideout. I heard voices and when I peeped through the leaves, I saw the two guys walk by with shovels and stuff and I followed them.”
“What time of day?”
“Must have been late morning because after I came in again, the kid’s mother fed me lunch—a plain lettuce and tomato sandwich, no bacon, and it was made with Miracle Whip. Our family didn’t eat Miracle Whip. My mother wouldn’t have it in the house. She said it was disgusting compared to real homemade mayonnaise.”
“Your mother made mayonnaise?”
“The cook did.”
“Anyway, Mom always said it was rude to complain, so I ate what I could and left the rest on my plate. The kid’s mom hadn’t even cut the crusts off the bread.”
“There’s a shock,” I said. “I’m impressed your memory’s so clear.”
“Not clear enough or I wouldn’t be here. I’m pretty sure the two guys I saw were the ones who abducted Mary Claire, but I have no idea where I was. I know I’d never been to the house before and I never went there again.”
“Any chance one of your siblings would remember who the kid was?”
“I guess it’s possible. Unfortunately, we don’t get along. We haven’t spoken in years.”
“So you said.”
“Sorry. I don’t mean to repeat myself. The point is, I can’t call them up out of a clear blue sky. Even if I did, I doubt they’d talk to me.”
“But I could ask, couldn’t I? That would be the obvious first move if you’re serious about this.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want them involved, especially my sister, Dee. She’s difficult. You don’t want to mess with her.”
“All right. We’ll scratch that for now. Maybe the kid’s mother was being paid to babysit.”
“That wasn’t my impression. More like she was doing Mom a favor.”
“What about your classmates? Maybe she left you with one of the other moms, like a playdate.”
Sutton blinked twice. “That’s a possibility I hadn’t thought of. I’ve kept in touch with the other two Michaels, Boorman and Trautwein, but that’s the extent of it. I didn’t like anybody else in my kindergarten class and they didn’t like me.”
“It doesn’t matter if you liked them or not. We’re trying to identify the boy.”
“I don’t remember anyone else.”
“It should be easy enough to come up with a list. You must have had class photos. You could go back to the school library and check the ’67 yearbook.”
“I don’t want to go back to Climp. I hate the idea.”
“It’s just a suggestion. So far, we’re brainstorming,” I said. “Tell me about the two guys. How old would you say?”
“I’m not sure. Older than my brothers, who were ten and twelve at the time, but not as old as my dad.”
“Did they see you?”
“Not then. I decided to spy on them, but where they ended up was too far away and I couldn’t see what they were doing. I sneaked up on them, crawling through the bushes and crouching behind a big oak. It was hot and they were sweating so they’d taken off their shirts. I guess I wasn’t as quiet as I thought because one of them spotted me and they both jumped. They stopped what they were doing and asked what I wanted.”
“You actually talked to them?”
“Oh, sure. Absolutely. We had this whole conversation. I thought they were pirates and I was all excited about meeting them.”
“My mother was reading me Peter Pan at bedtime, and I loved the illustrations. The pirates wore bandanas tied around their heads, which is what the two guys had done.”
“Beards? Earrings? Eye patches?”
That netted me a smile, but not much of one. He shook his head. “It was the bandanas that reminded me of pirates. I told them I knew that because of Peter Pan.”
“What’d you talk about?”
“First, I asked ’em if they were pirates for real and they told me they were. The one guy talked more than the other and when I asked what they were doing, he said they were digging for buried treasure . . .”
As Sutton spoke, I could see him regressing to the little boy he’d been, earnest and easily impressed. He leaned forward in his chair. “I asked if the treasure was gold doubloons, but they said they didn’t know because they hadn’t found it yet. I asked to see the treasure map and they said they couldn’t show me because they were sworn to secrecy. I’d seen the bundle on the ground, over by this tree, and when I asked about it, the first guy said it was a bedroll in case they got tired. I offered to help dig, but he told me the job was only for grown-ups and little kids weren’t allowed. And then the other one spoke up and asked where I lived. I told them I lived in a white house, but not on this street, that I was visiting. The first guy asked what my name was. I told him and the other one spoke up again and said he thought he heard someone calling me so I better go, which is what I did. The whole exchange couldn’t have taken more than three minutes.”
“I don’t suppose either of them mentioned their names?”
“No. I probably should have asked, but it didn’t occur to me.”
“Your recall impresses me. Much of my life at that age is a total blank.”
“I hadn’t thought about the incident for years, but once the memory was triggered, I was right there again. Just like, boom.”
I reran the story in my mind, trying to digest the whole of it. “Tell me again why you think there’s a connection to Mary Claire. That still seems like a stretch.”
“I don’t know what else to say. Intuition, I guess.”
“What about the kidnapping. How did that go down? I remember the broad strokes, but not the particulars.”
“The whole thing was horrible. Those poor people. The ransom note said not to contact the police or the FBI, but Mr. Fitzhugh did it anyway. He thought it was the only way to save her, but he was wrong.”
“The first contact was the note?”
Sutton nodded. “Later they phoned and said he had one day to get the money together or else. Mr. Fitzhugh had already called the police and they were the ones who contacted the FBI. The special agent in charge convinced him they’d have a better chance of nabbing the guys if he and his wife appeared to cooperate, so they advised him to do as he was told . . .”
“Twenty-five thousand dollars, wasn’t it? Somehow the number sticks in my head.”
“Exactly. The kidnappers wanted it in small bills, packed in a gym bag. They called again and told him where he was supposed to leave the money. He stalled. They must have thought there was a trap on the line because they cut the call short.”
“So he dropped off the ransom money and the kidnappers didn’t show.”
“Right. After a day passed, it was clear the FBI had bungled it. They still thought they had a chance, but Mr. Fitzhugh said to hell with them and took matters into his own hands. He notified the newspapers and the radio and TV stations. After the story broke, Mary Claire was all anybody talked about—my parents and everyone else.”
“What day was it by then?”
“Sunday. Like I said before, she was kidnapped on Wednesday and I saw them on Friday. The paper didn’t carry the story until Sunday.”
“Why didn’t you speak up?”
“I did. I’d already done that. When my mother came to get me, I told her about the pirates. I felt guilty. Like I’d done something wrong.”
“I don’t know how to pin it down. I believed what they said about digging for treasure. When you’re six, things like that make perfect sense, but on some level I was anxious and I wanted reassurance. Instead, Mom got mad. She said I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers and she made me promise I’d never do it again. When we got home, she sent me straight to my room. On Sunday we heard the news about Mary Claire.”
“And your mother didn’t see the relevance?”
“I guess not. She never mentioned it and I was too scared to bring it up again. She’d already punished me once. I kept my mouth shut so she wouldn’t punish me again.”
“But it worried you.”
“For a while, sure. After that, I put the incident out of my mind. Then I saw Mary Claire’s name and it all came back.”
“Did you ever see either guy again?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe one of them. I’m not sure.”
“And where would that have been?”
“I don’t remember. I might have made a mistake.”
I picked up a pencil and made a mark on the yellow pad lying on my desk. “When you explained this to Cheney, what was his response?”
His shoulder went up in a half-shrug. “He said he’d check the old case notes, but he couldn’t do much more because the information I’d given him was too vague. That’s when he mentioned you.”
“Sounds like he was passing the buck.”
“Actually, what he said was you were like a little terrier when it came to flushing out rats.”
“Sucking up,” I said. Mentally, I was rolling my eyes because Cheney wasn’t far off the mark. I liked picking at problems and this was a doozy. “What about the house itself? Think you’d recognize it if you saw it again?”
“I doubt it. Right after I read the article, I drove around the old neighborhood, and even the areas I knew well had changed. Trees were gone, shrubs were overgrown, new houses had gone up. Of course, I didn’t cover the whole of Horton Ravine, but I’m not sure it would have made any difference since I don’t have a clear image. I think I’d recognize the place in the woods. The house is a blur.”
“So twenty-one years later, you’re clueless and hoping I can figure out where you were.”
“You want me to find an unmarked grave, basically a hole.”
“Can you do it?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried before.”
I studied him, chasing the idea around to see where it might go. “It’s an interesting proposition. I’ll give you that.”
I rocked in my swivel chair, listening to the squeak, while I sifted through the story, wondering what I’d missed. There was something more going on, but I couldn’t imagine what. Finally, I said, “What’s your stake in the situation? I know it bothers you, but why to this extent?”
“I don’t know. I mean, the article talked about how the kidnapping ruined Mrs. Fitzhugh’s life. She and her husband divorced and he ended up leaving town. She still has no idea what happened to her little girl. She doesn’t even know for sure she’s dead. If I can help, it seems like the right thing to do.”
“It’s going to cost you,” I said.
“I figured as much.”
“What sort of work do you do?”
“Nothing right now. I lost my job so I’m on unemployment.”
“What was the job?”
“I sold advertising for KSPL.”
KSPL was the local AM station I sometimes tuned in on my car radio when I was tooling around town. “How long were you there?”
“About a year, maybe a little less.”
“What’s it mean when you say you ‘lost’ your job? Were you laid off, downsized, fired, what?”
He hesitated. “The last one.”
I waited and when it was clear he had no intention of continuing, I gave him a nudge. “Uh, Sutton, I’d consider it a courtesy if you’d be a bit more forthcoming. Would you care to fill me in?”
He rubbed his palms on his pants. “I said I had a BA from Stanford, but it wasn’t really true. I was enrolled and attended classes for a couple of years, but I didn’t graduate.”
“So you lied on the application?”
“Look, I know I made a mistake . . .”
“That would cover it,” I said.
“But I can’t do anything about it now. What’s done is done and I just have to move on.”
I’d heard a host of criminals make the same remark, like boosting cars, robbing banks, and killing folks could be brushed aside, a minor stumble on the path of life. “Have you given any thought to how you’re going to pay me out of your unemployment benefits? We’re talking about five hundred bucks a day, plus expenses. Assuming I agree to help, which I haven’t.”
“I have some money set aside. I thought I’d write a check for one day’s work and we’d see how it goes from there.”
A flush tinted his cheeks. “I guess that’s not such a hot idea.”
“You got that right. What’s plan B?”
“If you’re going to be here for a while, I could make a quick run to the bank and bring you cash.”
I considered the notion. The prime item on my Thursday To Do list was to make a bank deposit and pay bills. I had two reports to write and a few calls to make, but I could shift those to Friday. The job itself might end in folly, but at least when he mentioned “the right thing to do,” he didn’t turn around and ask me to work for free. I wasn’t convinced he was right about what he’d seen, but Cheney must have considered the story credible or he wouldn’t have sent him over to me.
“Okay. One day, but that’s it. And only if you pay me cash in advance. I’ll be here until five o’clock. That should give you plenty of time.”
“Great. That’s great.”
“I don’t know how great it is, but it’s the best I can do. When you get back, if I happen to be out, you can stick the money through the mail slot. In the meantime, give me a contact number so I’ll know how to reach you.”
I handed him my yellow pad and watched while he scribbled down his address and telephone number. In return I handed him my business card with my office number and address.
He said, “I really appreciate this. I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t agreed.”
“I’ll probably regret it, but what the hell? It’s only one day,” I said. If I’d been listening closely, I’d have caught the sound of the gods having a great big old tee-hee at my expense.
I said, “You’re sure you don’t want to make the trip up to Climp? It would save you a few bucks.”
“I don’t want to. They probably wouldn’t talk to me in any event.”
“I see.” I studied him. “You want to tell me what’s going on here? You can’t talk to your siblings and now you can’t talk to your prep school pals?”
“I already told you I didn’t have pals. It has more to do with the administration.”
“There were some difficulties. I had a problem.”
“Like what, you were expelled?” I love stories about flunking and expulsions. With my history of screwups, those are like fairy tales.
“It’s not something I want to get into. It has nothing to do with this.” A stubborn note had crept into his voice. “You go up there. They’ll let you see yearbooks as easily as me.”
“I doubt it. Educational institutions hate handing over information about their students. Especially with the words ‘private investigator’ thrown into the mix.”
“Don’t tell ’em you’re a PI. Think of something else.”
“I didn’t even attend Climping Academy so why would I want to see a yearbook? It makes no sense.”
He shook his head. “I won’t do it. I have my reasons.”
“Which you’re not about to share.”
“Okay, fine. It’s no skin off my nose. If that’s how you want to spend your five hundred bucks, I can live with it. I love driving through Horton Ravine.”
I got up, and as we shook hands again, I realized what was bothering me. “One more question.”
“The article came out two weeks ago. Why’d you wait so long before you went to the police?”
He hesitated. “I was nervous. All I have is a hunch. I didn’t want the police to write me off as a crank.”
“Nuh-uh. That’s not all of it. What else?”
He was silent for a moment, color rising in his cheeks again. “What if the guys find out I remembered them? I might have been the only witness and I told them my name. If they’re the ones who killed Mary Claire, why wouldn’t they kill me?”
While Sutton and I were chatting, the mail had been delivered. Walking him to the door, I paused to collect the scattering of envelopes the postman had pushed through the slot. Once he’d gone off to the bank, I moved into my office, sorting and separating the stack as I sat down at my desk. Junk, bill, another bill, junk, junk, bill. I came to a square vellum envelope with my name and address written in calligraphy: Ms. Kinsey Millhone, with lots of down strokes and flourishes, very lah-di-dah. The postmark was Lompoc, California, and the return address was printed in the center of the back flap. Even without the sender’s name in evidence, I knew it was a Kinsey family member, one of numerous kin whose existence I’d first learned about four years before. Until that strange turn of events, I’d prided myself on my loner status. There was a benefit to my being an orphan in the world, explaining as it did (at least to my way of thinking) my difficulties in forming close bonds with others of my species.
Looking at the envelope, I could guess what was coming up—a christening, a wedding, or a cocktail party—some formal affair heralded by expensive embossing on heavy card stock. Whatever the occasion, I was either being informed of, or invited to, an event I didn’t give a rat’s ass about. At times, I’m a sentimental little thing, but this wasn’t one. I tossed the envelope on my desk, then thought better of it, and threw it in the wastebasket, which was already brimming with trash.
I picked up the phone and punched in the number for Cheney Phillips at the STPD. When he picked up, I said, “Guess who?”
“Hey, Kinsey. What’s up?”
“I just had a chat with Michael Sutton and thought I better touch base with you before I did anything else. What’s the deal with him?”
“Beats me. That story sounded just screwy enough to be true. What was your impression?”
“I’m not sure. I’m willing to believe he saw two guys digging a hole. What I’m skeptical about is the relevance to Mary Claire Fitzhugh. He says the dates line up because he went back and checked his recollections against the articles in the paper, but that doesn’t prove anything. Even if the two events happened at the same time, that doesn’t mean they’re related.”
“Agreed, but his recollections were so specific he pretty much talked me into it.”
“Me, too. At least in part,” I said. “Did you have a chance to look at the old files?”
“Can’t be done. I talked to the chief and he says the case notes are sealed. Once the FBI stepped in, they put everything under lock and key.”
“Even after all this time? It’s been twenty years.”
“Twenty-one to be precise, and the answer is, definitely. You know how it goes. The case is federal and the file’s still active. If the details are leaked then any clown off his meds can walk into the department and claim responsibility.”
I caught a familiar racket out on the street. “Hang on a sec.”
I put my hand over the mouthpiece and listened, picking up the hydraulic grinding, wheeze, and hiss of a garbage truck approaching from down the block. Shit! Garbage day. The week before, I’d forgotten to take out my trash and my wastebaskets were maxed out.
“I gotta go. I’ll call you later.”
“Vaya con Dios.”
I hung up in haste and headed down the hall to the kitchenette, where I grabbed a plastic bag from a carton under the sink. I did a quick round of the wastebaskets—kitchen, bathroom, and office—shaking trash into the plastic bag until it sagged from the weight. I scurried out the back door, tossed the bag in my trash bin, and rolled it down the walkway on one side of the bungalow. By the time I reached the street, the garbage truck was idling at the curb and I just managed to catch the guy before he hopped back on. He paused long enough to add my contribution to the day’s haul. As the truck pulled away, I blew him a kiss and was rewarded with a wave.
I returned to my desk, congratulating myself on a job well done. Nothing makes a room look messier than a wastebasket full of trash. As I settled in my swivel chair, I glanced down and spotted the vellum envelope, which had apparently missed the plastic bag and now lay on the floor. I leaned over, picked it up, and stared at it. What was going on? Instead of happily winging its way to the county dump, the damn thing was back. I’m not superstitious by nature, but the envelope, coupled with Michael Sutton’s reference to his family estrangement, had set an old train of thought in motion.
I knew how treacherous and frail family bonds could be. My mother had been the eldest of five daughters born to my grandparents Burton Kinsey and Cornelia Straith LaGrand, known since as Grand. My parents had been jettisoned from the bosom of the family when my mother met my father and eloped with him four months later. She was eighteen at the time and came from money, albeit of the small-town sort. My father, Randy Millhone, was thirty-three years old and a mail carrier. In retrospect, it’s difficult to say which was worse in Grand’s eyes, his advanced age or his occupation. Apparently, she viewed civil servants right up there with career criminals as undesirable mates for her precious firstborn girl. Rita Cynthia Kinsey first clapped eyes on my father at her coming-out party, where my father was filling in as a waiter for a friend who owned the catering company. Their marriage created a rift in the family that had never healed. My Aunt Gin was the only one of her four sisters who sided with her, and she ended up raising me after my parents were killed in a car wreck when I was five.
You’d think I’d have been pleased to discover the existence of close kin. Instead, I was pissed off, convinced they’d known about me for years and hadn’t cared enough to seek me out. I was thirty-four when the first family overtures were made, and I counted their twenty-nine years’ silence as evidence of crass indifference for which I blamed Grand. I really didn’t have a quarrel with my aunts and cousins. I’d tossed them into the pit with Grand because it was simpler that way. I’ll admit it wasn’t fair, but I took a certain righteous satisfaction in my wholesale condemnation. For the past two or three years, I’d made a halfhearted attempt to modify my attitude, but it hadn’t really worked. I’m a Taurus. I’m stubborn by nature and I had my heels dug in. I shoved the invitation in my shoulder bag. I’d deal with it later.
Sutton returned after twenty minutes with five crisp one-hundred-dollar bills, for which I wrote him a receipt. Once he was gone again, I locked the cash in my office safe. Since I’d be devoting Thursday to Sutton’s business, I sat down and did a rough draft of one of the client reports on my To Do list, figuring I might as well get one chore out of the way. By the time I’d finished, it was close to 4:00 and I decided to shut down for the day. One reason I’m self-employed is so I can do as I please without consulting anyone else.
I rescued my car from the semilegal parking spot I’d found earlier. My office is on a narrow side street barely one block long. For the most part, the surrounding blocks are posted No Parking, which means I have to be inventive in finding ways to squeeze my Mustang into any available space. I was due for a parking ticket, but I hadn’t gotten one yet.
I drove home along the beach, and within minutes my spirits lifted. Spring in Santa Teresa is marked by early-morning sunshine, which is eradicated almost immediately by dense cloud cover. The marine layer, known as the June Gloom, usually stretches from late May until early August, but that’s been changing of late. Here we’d scarcely made it into April and low clouds had already erased the offshore islands. Seabirds wheeled through the fog while sailboats, tacking out of the harbor, disappeared in the mist. In the absence of sunlight, the surf was the color of burnished pewter. Long strands of kelp had washed up on shore. I inhaled the salty essence of damp sand and sea grass. Cars rumbled along the wooden wharf with a sound like distant thunder. It was not quite tourist season, so traffic was light and many of the beach hotels still sported vacancy signs.
I turned left from Cabana onto Bay and left again onto Albanil. I found a length of empty curb across from my apartment and paralleled my way into it. I shut the engine down, locked my car, and crossed the street, passing through the squeaking gate that serves the dual purpose of doorbell and burglar alarm.
Henry Pitts, my landlord, was in the backyard in a T-shirt, shorts, and bare feet. He’d set up a ladder near the house and he was hosing out the rain gutters where a thick, nasty mat of wet leaves had collected over the winter. During the last big rain, small gushers had poured down on the porch outside the kitchen door, drenching anyone who dared to enter or leave.
I crossed the patio and stood there for a while, watching him work. The day was getting chilly and I marveled at his determination to cavort about in so few clothes. “Aren’t you going to catch your death of cold?”
Henry had turned eighty-eight on Valentine’s Day, and while he’s sturdy as a fence post, the fact remains he’s getting on in years. “Nope. Cold preserves most things, so why not me?”
The spray from the hose was creating an area of artificial rain so I stepped back out of range. He turned his hose in the opposite direction, inadvertently watering his neighbor’s shrubs. “You’re home early,” he remarked.
“I gave myself the afternoon off, or what’s left of it.”
I waggled my hand, indicating so-so. “I had a guy walk in and hire me for a day’s work. As soon as I said yes, I knew it was dumb.”
“More pointless than tough. He gave me five hundred dollars in cash and what can I say? I was seduced.”
“What’s the assignment?”
“Oh, good. I like it when you’re challenged. I’m just about done with this. Why don’t you stop by for a glass of wine and you can bring me up to speed?”
“I’d like that. There’s another issue up for grabs and we can talk about that, too.”
“Maybe you should stay for supper so we won’t feel rushed. I made corn bread and a pot of beef stew. If you come at five-thirty, I’ll have time enough to shower and change clothes.”
“Perfect. See you shortly.”
Henry is the only person alive I’d talk to about a client, with the possible addition of his sister, Nell, who’d be turning ninety-nine in December. His brothers, Charlie, Lewis, and William, were ninety-six, ninety-one, and ninety respectively, and all were going strong. Any talk about the frailties of the elderly has no bearing on them.
I let myself into the studio and dropped my shoulder bag on a kitchen stool. I moved to the sitting area, turning on a couple of lamps to brighten the room. I went up the spiral staircase to the sleeping loft, where I perched on the edge of the platform bed and pulled off my boots. Most days, my work attire is casual—jeans, a turtleneck, and boots or tennis shoes. I can add a tweed blazer if I feel the need to dress up. Though I’m capable of skirts and panty hose, they’re not my first choice. I do own one dress that I’m happy to say is suitable for most occasions. It’s black, made of a fabric so wrinkle-resistant, if I rolled it up and stored it in my shoulder bag, you’d never know the difference.
At the end of the day, my clothes hurt and I’m eager to be shed of the restraints. I stripped off my jeans and hung them on a peg. I pulled off my shirt and tossed it over the rail. Once I was downstairs again, I’d retrieve it and add it to the garments waiting in the washing machine. In the meantime, I found a set of clean sweats and my slippers, rejoicing, as I always do, that Henry and I are beyond the need to impress each other. As far as I’m concerned, he’s perfect and I suspect he’d say much the same thing about me.
I’ve been his tenant for the past eight years. At one time, my studio was Henry’s single-car garage. He decided he needed a larger one to accommodate his station wagon and his pristine 1932 five-window coupe, so he converted the original garage to a rental unit, which I’d moved into. An unfortunate explosion had flattened my apartment six years before, so Henry had redesigned the floor plan, adding a half-story above the kitchen. On the ground floor I have a living room with a desk and a sofa bed that can accommodate overnight guests. The kitchen is small, a galley-style bump-out off the living room. There’s also a bathroom and a combination washer-dryer tucked under the spiral stairs. The whole of it resembles the interior of a small boat, lots of highly polished teak and oak, with a porthole in the front door and nautical blue captain’s chairs. The new loft, in addition to a double bed, boasts built-in cubbyholes, as well as a second bathroom with a view that includes a small slice of the Pacific Ocean visible through the trees. Henry had installed a Plexiglas skylight above my bed, so I wake to whatever weather’s drifted in during the night.
Between the studio and Henry’s house there’s a glassed-in passageway where he proofs batches of bread, using a Shaker cradle like an enormous buttered bowl. In his working days, he made his living as a commercial baker, and he still can’t resist the satiny feel of newly kneaded dough.
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