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The Ocean Street Motel in Floral Beach, California, is located, oddly enough, on Ocean Street, a stone's throw from the sea wall that slants ten feet down toward the Pacific. The beach is a wide band of beige trampled with footprints that are smoothed away by the high tide every day. Public access is afforded by a set of concrete stairs with a metal rail. A wooden fishing pier, built out into the water, is anchored at the near end by the office of the Port Harbor Authority, which is painted a virulent blue.
Seventeen years ago, Jean Timberlake's body had been found at the foot of the sea wall, but the spot wasn't visible from where I stood. At the time, Bailey Fowler, an ex-boyfriend of hers, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Now he'd changed his tune. Every violent death represents the climax of one story and an introduction to its sequel. My job was to figure out how to write the proper ending to the tale, not easy after so much time had elapsed.
Floral Beach has a population so modest the number isn't even posted on a sign anywhere. The town is six streets long and three streets deep, all bunched up against a steep hill largely covered with weeds. There may be as many as ten businesses along Ocean: three restaurants, a gift shop, a pool hall, a grocery store, a T-shirt shop that rents boogie boards, a Frostee-Freeze, and an art gallery. Around the corner on Palm, there's a pizza parlor and a Laundromat. Everything closes down after five o'clock except the restaurants. Most of the cottages are one-story board-and-batten, painted pale green or white, built in the thirties by the look of them. The lots are small and fenced, many with power boats moored in the side yards. Sometimes the boats are in better condition than the properties on which they sit. There are several boxy stucco apartment buildings with names like the Sea View, the Tides, and the Surf 'n' Sand. The whole town resembles the backside of some other town, but it has a vaguely familiar feel to it, like a shabby resort where you might have spent a summer as a kid.
The motel itself is three stories high, painted lime green, with a length of sidewalk in front that peters out into patchy grass. I'd been given a room on the second floor with a balcony that allowed me to look left as far as the oil refinery (surrounded by chain-link fence and posted with warning signs) and to my right as far as Port Harbor Road, a quarter of a mile away. A big resort hotel with a golf course is tucked up along the hill, but the kind of people who stay there would never come down here, despite the cheaper rates.
It was late afternoon and the February sun was setting so rapidly it appeared to be defying the laws of nature. The surf thundered dully, waves washing toward the sea wall like successive buckets of soapy water being sloshed up on the sand. The wind was picking up, but it made no sound, probably because Floral Beach has so few trees. The sea gulls had assembled for supper, settling on the curb to peck at foodstuffs spilling out of the trashcans. Since it was a Tuesday, there weren't many tourists, and the few hardy souls who had walked the beach earlier had fled when the temperature began to drop.
I left the sliding glass door ajar and went back to the table where I was typing up a preliminary report.
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator, licensed by the state of California, operating ordinarily in the town of Santa Teresa, ninety-five miles north of Los Angeles. Floral Beach is another hour and a half farther up the coast. I'm thirty-two years old, twice married, no kids, currently unattached and likely to remain so given my disposition, which is cautious at best. At the moment, I didn't even have a legitimate address. I'd been living with my landlord, Henry Pitts, while my garage apartment was being rebuilt. My stay at the Ocean Street Motel was being underwritten by Bailey Fowler's father, who had hired me the day before.
I had just moved back into my office, newly refurbished by California Fidelity, the insurance company that accords me space in exchange for my services. The walls had been painted a fresh white. The carpeting was slate blue, a short-pile wool shag that cost twenty-five bucks a yard (exclusive of padding and installation, folks). I know this because I peeked at the invoice the day the carpet was laid. My file cabinet was in place, my desk arranged near the French doors as usual, a new Sparklett's water cooler plugged in and ready to provide both hot and cold trickling water, depending on which button I pushed. This was classy stuff and I was feeling pretty good, almost recovered from the injuries I'd sustained on the last case I worked. Since I'm self-employed, I pay my disability insurance before I even pay my rent.
My first impression of Royce Fowler was of a oncerobust man whose aging processes had accelerated suddenly. I guessed him to be in his seventies, somewhat shrunken from an impressive six foot four. It was clear from the way his clothing hung that he'd recently dropped maybe thirty pounds. He looked like a farmer, a cowboy, or a roustabout, someone accustomed to grappling with the elements. His white hair was thinning, combed straight back, with ginger strands still visible along his ears. His eyes were ice blue, brows and lashes sparse, his pale skin mottled with broken capillaries. He used a cane, but the big hands he kept folded together on the crook of it were as steady as stone and speckled with liver spots. He'd been helped into the chair by a woman I thought might be a nurse or a paid companion. He didn't see well enough to drive himself around.
"I'm Royce Fowler," he said. His voice was gravelly and strong. "This is my daughter, Ann. My wife would have driven down with us, but she's a sick woman and I told her to stay at home. We live in Floral Beach."
I introduced myself and shook hands with them both. There was no family resemblance that I could see. His facial features were oversized—big nose, high cheekbones, strong chin—while hers were apologetic. She had dark hair and a slight overbite that should have been corrected when she was a kid.
The quick mental flash I had of Floral Beach was of summer cottages gone to seed and wide, empty streets lined with pickup trucks. "You drove down for the day?"
"I had an appointment at the clinic," he rumbled. "What I got, they can't treat, but they take my money anyway. I thought we should talk to you, as long as we're in town."
His daughter stirred, but said nothing. I pegged her at forty-some and wondered if she still lived at home. So far, she'd avoided making eye contact with me.
I don't do well at small talk, so I shifted down a gear into business mode. "What can I do for you, Mr. Fowler?"
His smile was bitter. "I take it the name doesn't mean much to you."
"Rings a dim bell," I said. "Can you fill me in?"
"My son, Bailey, was arrested in Downey three weeks ago by mistake. They figured out pretty quick they had the wrong man, so they released him within a day. Then I guess they turned around and ran a check on him, and his prints came up a match. He was rearrested night before last."
I nearly said, "A match with what?" but then my memory gave a lurch. I'd seen an article in the local paper. "Ah, yes," I said. "He escaped from San Luis sixteen years ago, didn't he?"
"That's right. I never heard from him after the escape and finally decided he was dead. The boy nearly broke my heart and I guess he's not done yet."
The California Men's Colony near San Luis Obispo is a two-part institution; a minimum-security unit for old men, and a medium-security facility divided into four six-hundred-man sections. Bailey Fowler had apparently walked away from a work detail and hopped on the freight train that rumbled past the prison twice a day back then.
"How'd he get tripped up?"
"There was a warrant out on a fellow named Peter Lambert, the name he was using. He says he was booked, fingerprinted, and in the can before they realized they had the wrong man. As I understand it, some hot-shoe detective got a bug up his butt and ran Bailey's prints through some fancy-pants new computer system they got down there. That's how they picked up on the fugitive warrant. By a damn fluke."
"Bum deal for him," I said. "What's he going to do?"
"I hired him a lawyer. Now he's back, I want him cleared."
"You're appealing the conviction?"
Ann seemed on the verge of a response, but the old man plowed right over her.
"Bailey never went to trial. He made a deal. Pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter on the advice of this court-appointed PD, the worthless son of a bitch."
"Really," I said, wondering why Mr. Fowler hadn't hired a lawyer for him at the time. I also wondered what kind of evidence the prosecution had. Usually, the DA won't make a deal unless he knows his case is weak. "What's the new attorney telling you so far?"
"He won't commit himself until he sees the files, but I want to make sure he has all the help he can get. There's no such thing as a private detective up in Floral Beach, which is why we came to you. We need someone to go to work, dig in and see if there's anything left. Couple witnesses died and some have moved away. The whole thing's a damn mess and I want it straightened out."
"How soon would you need me?"
Royce shifted in his chair. "Let's talk money first."
"Fine with me," I said. I pulled out a standard contract and passed it across the desk to him. "Thirty dollars an hour, plus expenses. I'd want an advance."
"I bet you would," he said tartly, but the look in his eyes indicated no offense. "What do I get?"
"I don't know yet. I can't work miracles. I guess it depends on how cooperative the county sheriff's department is."
"I wouldn't count on them. Sheriff's department doesn't like Bailey. They never liked him much, and his escape didn't warm any hearts. Made all those people look like idiots."
"Where's he being held?"
"L.A. County Jail. He's being moved up to San Luis tomorrow is what we heard."
"Have you talked to him?"
"Just briefly yesterday."
"Must have been a shock."
"I thought I was hearing things. Thought I'd had a stroke."
Ann spoke up. "Bailey always told Pop he was innocent."
"Well, he is!" Royce snapped. "I said that from the first. He never would have killed Jean under any circumstance."
"I'm not arguing, Pop. I'm just telling her."
Royce didn't bother to apologize, but his tone underwent a change. "I don't have long," he went on. "I want this squared away before I go. You find out who killed her and I'll see there's a bonus."
"That's not necessary," I said. "You'll get a written report once a week and we can talk as often as you like."
"All right, then. I own a motel up in Floral Beach. You can stay free of charge for as long as you need. Take your meals with us. Ann here cooks."
She flashed a look at him. "She might not want to take her meals with us."
"Let her say so, if that's the case. Nobody's forcing her to do anything."
She colored up at that but said nothing more.
Nice family, I thought. I couldn't wait to meet the rest. Ordinarily, I don't take on clients sight unseen, but I was intrigued by the situation and I needed the work, not for the money so much as my mental health. "What's the timetable here?"
"You can drive up tomorrow. The attorney's in San Luis. He'll tell you what he wants."
I filled out the contract and watched Royce Fowler sign. I added my signature, gave him one copy, and kept the other for my files. The check he took from his wallet was already made out to me in the amount of two grand. The man had confidence, I had to give him that. I glanced at the clock as the two of them left. The entire transaction hadn't taken more than twenty minutes.
I closed the office early and dropped my car off at the mechanic's for a tune-up. I drive a fifteen-year-old VW, one of those homely beige models with assorted dents. It rattles and it's rusty, but it's paid for, it runs fine, and it's cheap on gas. I walked home from the garage through a perfect February afternoon—sunny and clear, with the temperature hovering in the sixties. Winter storms had been blowing through at intervals since Christmas and the mountains were dark green, the fire danger laid to rest until summer rolled around again.
I live near the beach on a narrow side street that parallels Cabana Boulevard. My garage apartment, flattened by a bomb during the Christmas holidays, had now been reframed, though Henry was being coy about the plans he'd drawn up. He and the contractor had had their heads bent together for weeks, but so far he'd declined to let me see the blueprints.
I don't spend a lot of time at home, so I didn't much care what the place looked like. My real worry was that Henry would make it too large or too opulent and I'd feel obliged to pay him accordingly. My current rent is only two hundred bucks a month, unheard-of these days. With my car paid for and my office space underwritten by California Fidelity, I can live very well on a modest monthly sum. I don't want an apartment too fancy for my pocketbook. Still, the property is his and he can do with it as he pleases. Altogether, I thought it best to mind my own business and let him do what suited him.
Excerpted from Is for Fugitive by SUE GRAFTONCopyright © 1989 by Sue GraftonPublished in December 2005 by St. Martin's Press
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