The Latin term pro bono, as most attorneys will attest, roughly translated
means for boneheads and applies to work done without charge. Not that I
practice law, but I am usually smart enough to avoid having to donate my services. In this case, my client was in a coma, which made billing a trick. Of course, you might look at the situation from another point of view. Once in a while a piece of old business surfaces, some item on life's agenda you thought you'd dealt with years ago. Suddenly, it's there again at the top of the page, competing for your attention despite the fact that you're completely unprepared for it.
First, there was a phone call from a stranger; then a letter showed up fourteen years after it was sent. That's how I learned I'd made a serious error in judgment and ended up risking my life in my attempt to correct for it.
I'd just finished a big job, and I was not only exhausted but my bank account was fat and I wasn't in the mood to take on additional work. I'd pictured a bit of time off, maybe a trip some place cheap, where I could lounge in the sun and read the latest Elmore Leonard novel while sipping on a rum drink with a paper umbrella stuck in a piece of fruit. This is about the range and complexity of my fantasies these days.
The call came at 8 A.M. Monday, May 19th, while I was off at the gym. I'd started lifting weights again: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings after my 6 A.M. run. I'm not sure where the motivation came from after a two year lay-off, but it was probably related to thoughts of mortality, primarily my own. In the spring, I'd sustained damage to my right hand when a fellow dislocated two fingers trying to persuade me to his point of view. I'd been hurt once before when a bullet nicked my right arm and my impulse in both instances had been to hit the weight machines. Lest you imagine I'm a masochist or accident-prone, I should state that I make a living as a private investigator. Truth be told, the average P.I. seldom carries a gun, isn't often pursued, and rarely sustains an injury more substantial than a paper cut. My own professional life tends to be as dull anyone else's. I simply report the exceptions in the interest of spiritual enlightenment. Processing events helps me keep my head on straight.
Those of you acquainted with my personal data can skip this paragraph. For the uninitiated, I'm female, thirty-six years old, twice divorced, and living in Santa Teresa, California, which is ninety-five miles north of Los Angeles. Currently, I occupy one small office in the larger suite of offices of Kingman and Ives, attorneys at law. Lonnie Kingman is my attorney when the occasion arises, so my association with his firm seemed to make sense when I was looking for space. I'd been rendered a migrant after I was unceremoniously shit-canned from the last job I had: investigating arson and wrongful death claims for California Fidelity Insurance. I've been with Lonnie now for over two years, but I'm not above harboring a petty desire for revenge on CFI.
During the months I'd been lifting weights, my muscle tone had improved and my strength had increased. That particular morning, I'd worked my way through the customary body parts; two sets, fifteen reps each, of leg extensions, leg curls, ab crunches, lower back, lat rows, the chest press and pec deck, along with the shoulder press, and various exercises for the biceps and triceps. Thus pumped up and euphoric, I let myself into my apartment with the usual glance at my answering machine. The message light was blinking. I dropped my gym bag on the floor, tossed my keys on the desk, and pressed the PLAY button, reaching for a pen and a pad of paper in case I needed to take notes. Before I leave the office each day, I have Lonnie's service shunt calls over to my apartment. That way, in a pinch, I can lie abed all day, dealing with the public without putting on my clothes.
The voice was male, somewhat gravelly, and the message sounded like this: "Miss Millhone, this is Teddy Rich. I'm calling from Olvidado about something might innerest you. This is eight A.M. Monday. Hope it's not too early. Gimme a call when you can. Thanks." He recited a telephone number in the 805 area code, and I dutifully jotted it down. It was only 8:23 so I hadn't missed him by much. Olvidado is a town of 157,000, 30 miles south of Santa Teresa on Highway 101. Always one to be interested in something that might "innerest" me, I dialed the number he'd left. The ringing went on so long I thought his machine would kick in, but the line was finally picked up by Mr. Rich, whose distinctive voice I recognized.
"Hi, Mr. Rich. This is Kinsey Millhone up in Santa Teresa. I'm returning your call."
"Hey, Miss Millhone. Nice to hear from you. How are you today?"
"Fine. How are you?"
"I'm fine. Thanks for asking, and thanks for being so prompt. I appreciate that."
"Sure, no problem. What can I do for you?"
"Well, I'm hoping this is something I can do for you," he said. "I'm a storage space scavenger. Are you familiar with the term?"
"I'm afraid not." I pulled the chair out and sat down, realizing Ted Rich was going to take his sweet time about this. I'd already pegged him as a salesman or a huckster, someone thoroughly enamored of whatever minor charms he possessed. I didn't want what he was selling, but I decided I might as well hear him out. This business of storage space scavenging was a new one on me, and I gave him points for novelty.
He said, "I won't bore you with details. Basically, I bid on the contents of self-storage lockers when the monthly payment's in arrears."
"I didn't know they did that on delinquent accounts. Sounds reasonable, I suppose." I took the towel from my gym bag and ruffed it across my head. My hair was still damp from the workout and I was getting chillier by the minute, longing to hit the shower before my muscles stiffened up.
"Oh, sure. Storage unit's been abandoned by its owner for more'n sixty days, the contents go up for auction. How else can the company recoup its losses? Guys like me show up and blind bid on the contents, paying anywheres from two hundred to fifteen hundred bucks, hoping for a hit."
"As in what?" I reached down, untied my Sauconys, and slipped them off my feet. My gym socks smelled atrocious and I'd only worn them a week.
"Well, most times you get junk, but once in a while you get lucky and come across something good. Tools, furniture -- stuff you can convert to hard cash. I'm sure you're pro'bly curious what this has to do with you."
"It crossed my mind," I said mildly, anticipating his pitch. For mere pennies a day, you, too, can acquire abandoned bric-a-brac with which to clutter up your premises.
"Yeah, right. Anyways, this past Saturday, I bid on a couple storage bins. Neither of 'em netted much, but in the process, I picked up a bunch of cardboard boxes. I was sorting through the contents and I came across your name on some personal documents. I'm wondering what it's worth to you to get 'em back."
"What kind of documents?"
"Lemme see here. Hold on. Frankly, I didn't expect to hear so soon or I'd have had 'em on the desk in front of me." I could hear him rattling papers in the background. "Okay now. We got a pink-bead baby bracelet and there's quite a collection of school-type memorabilia: drawings, class pictures, report cards from Woodrow Wilson Elementary. This ringin' any bells with you?"
"My name's on these papers?
"Kinsey Millhone, right? Millhone with two l's. Here's a history report, entitled 'San Juan Capistrano Mission,' with a model of the mission made of egg cartons. Mrs. Rosen's class, fourth grade. She gave you a D plus. 'Report is not bad, but project is poorly presented,' she says. I had a teacher like her once. What a bitch," he said, idly. "Oh, and here's something else. Diploma says you graduated Santa Teresa High School June tenth, 1967? How'm I doin' so far?"
"Well, there you go," he said.
"Not that it matters, but how'd you track me down?"
"Piece of cake. All I did was call Directory Assistance. The name Millhone's unusual, so I figure it's like the old saying goes; apples don't fall far from the tree and so forth. I proceeded on the assumption you were somewheres close. You could've got married and changed your name, of course. I took a flier on that score. Anyways, the point is, how'd you feel about gettin' these things back?"
"I don't understand how the stuff ended up in Olvidado. I've never rented storage space down there."
I could hear him begin to hedge. "I never said Olvidado. Did I say that? I go to these auctions all over the state. Lookit, I don't mean to sound crass, but if you're willing to pony up a few bucks, we can maybe make arrangements for you to get this box back."
I hesitated, annoyed by the clumsiness of his maneuvering. I remembered my struggle in Mrs. Rosen's class, how crushed I'd been with the grade after I'd worked so hard. The fact was, I had so little in the way of personal keepsakes that any addition would be treasured. I didn't want to pay much, but neither was I willing to relinquish the items sight unseen.
I said, "The papers can't be worth much since I wasn't aware they were missing." Already, I didn't like him and I hadn't even met him yet.
"Hey, I'm not here to argue. I don't intend to hose you or nothin' like that. You want to talk value, we talk value. Up to you," he said.
"Why don't I think about it and call you back?"
"Well, that's just it. If we could find time to get together, you could take a look at these items and then come to a decision. How else you going to know if it's worth anything to you? It'd mean a drive down here, but I'm assuming you got wheels."
"I could do that, I suppose."
"Excellent," he said. "So what's your schedule like today?"
"No time like the present is my attitude."
"What's the big hurry?"
"No hurry in particular except I got appointments set up for the rest of the week. I make money turnin' stuff over and my garage is already packed. You have time today or not?"
"I could probably manage it."
"Good, then let's meet as soon as possible and see if we can work somethin' out. There's a coffee shop down the street from me. I'm on my way over now and I'll be there for about an hour. Let's say 9:30, quarter to ten. You don't show? I gotta make a run to the dump anyways so it's no skin off my nose."
"What'd you have in mind?"
"Moneywise? Let's say thirty bucks. How's that sound?"
"Exorbitant," I said. I asked him for directions. What a hairball.
I showered and flung on the usual blue jeans and T-shirt, then gassed up my VW and headed south on 101. The drive to Olvidado took 25 minutes. Following Ted Rich's instructions, I took the Olvidado Avenue exit and turned right at the bottom of the off-ramp. Half a block from the freeway, there was a large shopping mall. The surrounding land, originally given over to agricultural use, was gradually being converted to a crop of new and used cars. Lines of snapping plastic flags defined tent shapes above the asphalt lot where rows of vehicles glinted in the mild May sun. I could see a shark-shaped mini-blimp tethered and hovering thirty feet in the air. The significance escaped me, but what do I know about these things?
Across from the mall, the business establishments seemed to be equally divided among fast food joints, liquor stores, and instant copy shops that offered passport photos. There was even a facility devoted to walk-in legal services; litigate while you wait. BANKRUPTCY $99. DIVORCE $99...DIVORCE W/ KIDS $99 + FILING FEE. Se habla español. The coffee shop he'd specified appeared to be the only mom-and-pop operation in the area.
I parked my car in the lot and pushed into the place, scanning the few patrons for someone who fit his description. He'd indicated he was six foot two and movie-star handsome, but then he'd snorted with laughter, which led me to believe otherwise. He'd said he'd watch the door for my arrival. I spotted a guy, who raised a hand in greeting and beckoned me to his booth. His face was a big, ruddy square, his sunburn extending into the V of his open-collared denim work shirt. He wore his dark hair combed straight back and I could see the indentation at his temples where he'd removed the baseball cap now sitting on the table next to him. He had a wide nose, drooping upper lids and bags under his eyes. I could see the scattering of whiskers he'd missed during his morning shave. His shoulders were beefy and his forearms looked thick where he had his sleeves rolled up. He'd removed a dark brown wind breaker that now lay neatly folded over the back of the booth.
"Mr. Rich? Kinsey Millhone. How are you?" We shook hands across the table and I could tell he was sizing me up with the same attention to detail I'd just lavished on him.
"Make it Teddy. Not bad. I appreciate your coming." He glanced at his watch as I slid in across from him. "Unfortunately I only got maybe fifteen, twenty minutes before I have to take off. I apologize for the squeeze, but right after we spoke, I hadda call from some guy down in Thousand Oaks needs an estimate on his roof."
"You're a roofer?"
"By trade." He reached in his pants pocket. "Lemme pass you my card in case you need somethin' done." He took out a slim Naugahyde case and removed a stack of business cards. "My speciality is new roofs and repairs."
"What else is there?"
"Hey, I can do anything you need. Hot mops, tear offs, torch downs, all types of shake, composition, slate, clay tile, you name it. Corrective and preventative is my area of expertise. I could give you a deal...let's say, ten percent off if you call this month. What kind of house you in?"
"So maybe you got a landlord needs some roof work done. Go ahead and keep that. Take as many as you want." He offered me a handful of cards, fanned out face down like he was about to do a magic trick.
I took one and examined it. The card bore his name, telephone number, and a post office box. His company was called Overhead Roofing, the letters forming a wide inverted V like ridge line of a roof. His company motto was: We do all types of roofing.
"Catchy," I remarked.
He'd been watching for my reaction, his expression serious. "I just had those made. Came up with the name myself. Used to be Ted's Roofs. You know, simple, basic, something of a personal touch. I could have said 'Rich Roofs,' but that might have gave the wrong impression. I was in business ten years, but then the drought came along and the market dried up -- "
"So to speak," I put in.
He smiled, showing a small gap between his two front lower teeth. "Hey, that's good. I like your sense of humor. You'll appreciate this one. Couple years without rain and people start to take a roof for granite. Get it? Granite...like the rock?"
I said, "That's funny."
"Anyways, I've had a hell of a time. I hadda shut down altogether and file bankruptcy. My wife up and left me, the dog died, and then my truck got sideswiped. I was screwed big time. Now we got some bad weather coming in, I figured I'd start fresh. Overhead Roofing is a kind of play on words."
"Really," I said. "What about the storage space business? Where did that come from?"
"I figured I hadda do something when the roofing trade fell in. 'As it were,'" he added with a wink at me. "I decided to try salvage. I had some cash tucked away the wife and the creditors didn't know about so I used that to get started. Takes five or six thousand if you want to do it right. I got hosed once or twice, but otherwise I been doing pretty good, even if I do say so myself" He caught the waitress's attention and held his coffee cup in the air with a glance back at me. "Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"
"That sounds good. How long have you been at it?"
"About a year," he said. "We're called 'pickers,' or storage room gamblers, sometimes resellers, treasure hunters. How it works is I check the papers for auction listings. I also subscribe to a couple newsletters. You never know what you'll find. Couple of weeks ago, I paid two-fifty and found a painting worth more than fifteen hundred bucks. I was jazzed."
"I can imagine."
"Of course, there's rules to the practice, like anything else in life. You can't touch the rooms' contents, can't go inside before the bidding starts, and there's no refunds. You pay six hundred dollars and all you come up with is a stack of old magazines, then it's too bad for you. Such is life and all that."'
"Can you make a living at it?"
He shifted in his seat. "Not so's you'd notice. This is strictly a hobby in between roofing engagements. Nice thing about it is it doesn't look good on paper so the wife can't hit me up for alimony. She was the one who walked out so up hers is what I say."
The waitress appeared at the table with a coffee pot in hand, refilling his cup and pouring one for me. Teddy and the waitress exchanged pleasantries. I took the moment to add milk to my coffee and then tore the corner off a pack of sugar, which I don't ordinarily take. Anything to fill time till they finished their conversation. Frankly, I thought he had the hots for her.
Once she departed, Teddy turned his attention to me. I could see the box on the seat beside him. He noticed my glance. "I can see you're curious. Wanna peek?"
I said, "Sure."
I made a move toward the box and Teddy put a hand out, saying, "Gimme five bucks first." Then he laughed. "You shoulda seen the look on your face. Come on. I'm teasing. Help yourself." He hefted the box and passed it across the table. It was maybe 36 inches square, awkward, but not heavy, the cardboard powdery with dust. The top had been sealed, but I could see where the packing tape had been cut and the flaps folded back together. I set the box on the seat beside me and pulled the flaps apart. The contents seemed hastily thrown together with no particular thought paid to the organization. It was rather like the last of the cartons packed in the moving process; stuff you don't dare throw out, but don't really know what else to do with. A box like this could probably sit unopened in your basement for the next ten years, and nothing would ever stimulate a search for even one of the items. On the other hand, if you felt the need to inventory the contents, you'd still feel too attached to the items to toss the assortment in the trash. The next time you moved, you'd end up adding the box to the other boxes on the van, gradually accumulating sufficient junk to fill a...well, a storage bin.
I could tell at a glance these were articles I wanted. In addition to the grade school souvenirs, I spotted the high school diploma he'd mentioned, my year book, some textbooks, and more importantly, file after file of mimeographed pages from my classes at the police academy. Thirty bucks was nothing for this treasury of remembrances.
Teddy was watching my face, trying to gauge the dollar signs in my reaction. I found myself avoiding eye contact lest he sense the extent of my interest. Stalling, I said, "Whose storage space was it? I don't believe you mentioned that."
"Guy named John Russell. He a friend of yours?"
"I wouldn't call him a friend, but I know him," I said. "Actually, that's an in-joke, like an alias. 'John Russell' is a character in an Elmore Leonard novel called Hombre."
"Well I tried to get ahold of him, but I didn't have much luck. Way too many Russells in this part of the state. Couple of dozen Johns, ten or fifteen Jacks, but none were him because I checked it out."
"You put some time in."
You bet. Took me couple hours before I gave it up and said nuts. I tried this whole area: Perdido, LA County, Orange, San Bernardino, Santa Teresa County, as far up as San Luis. There's no sign of the guy, so I figure he's dead or moved out of state."
I took a sip of my coffee, avoiding comment. The addition of milk and sugar made the coffee taste like a piece of hard candy.
Teddy tilted his head at me with an air of bemusement. "So you're a private detective? I notice you're listed as Millhone Investigations."
"That's right. I was a cop for two years, which is how I knew John."
"The guy's a cop?"
"Not now, but he was in those days."
"I wouldn't have guessed that...I mean, judging from the crap he had jammed in that space. I'dda said some kind of bum. That's the impression I got."
"Some people would agree."
"But you're not one of 'em, I take it."
I shrugged, saying nothing.
Teddy studied, me shrewdly. "Who's this guy to you?"
"What makes you ask?"
"Come on. What's his real name? Maybe I can track him down for you, like a missing persons case."
"Why bother? We haven't spoken in years so he's nothing to me."
"But now you got me curious. Why the alias?"
"He was a vice cop in the late sixties and early seventies. Big dope busts back then. John worked undercover so he was always paranoid about his real name."
"Sounds like a nut."
"Maybe so," I said. "What else was in the bin?"
He waved a hand dismissively. "Most of it was useless. Lawnmower, broken-down vacuum cleaner. There was a big box of kitchen stuff; wooden rolling pin, big wooden salad bowl must have been three feet across the top, set of crockery bowls...what do you call it? That Fiesta Ware shit. I picked up a fair chunk of change for that. Ski equipment, tennis racquets; none of it in prime condition. There was an old bicycle, motorcycle engine, wheel cover, and some car parts. I figure Russell was a pack rat, couldn't let go of stuff. I sold most of it at the local swap meet, this was yesterday."
I felt my heart sink. The big wooden bowl had belonged to my Aunt Gin. I didn't care about the Fiesta Ware, though that was hers as well. I was wishing I'd had the option to buy the wooden rolling pin. Aunt Gin had used it to make sticky buns...one of her few domestic skills...rolling out the dough before she sprinkled on the cinnamon and sugar. I had to let that one go; no point in longing for what had already been disposed of. Odd to think an item would suddenly have such appeal when I hadn't thought of it in years.
He nodded at the box. "Thirty bucks and it's yours."
"Twenty bucks. It's barely worth that. It's all junk."
"Twenty-five. Come on. For the trip down memory lane. Things like that you're never going to see again. Sentimental journey and so forth. Might as well snap it up while you have the chance."
I removed a twenty from my handbag and laid it on the table.
"Nobody else is going to pay you a dime."
Teddy, shrugged. "So I toss it. Who cares? Twenty-five and that's firm."
"Teddy, a dump run would cost you fifteen so this puts you five bucks ahead."
He stared at the money, flicked a look to my face, and then took the bill with an exaggerated sigh of disgust with himself. "Lucky I like you or I'd be pissed as hell." He folded the twenty lengthwise and tucked it in his pocket. "You never answered my question."
"Who's this guy to you."
"No one in particular. A friend once upon a time...not that it's any of your business."
"Oh, I see. I get it. Now, he's 'a friend.' Inneresting development. You musta been close to the guy if he ended up with your things."
"What makes you say that?"
He tapped his temple. "I got a logical mind. Analytical, right? I bet I could be a peeper just like you."
"Gee, Teddy, sure. I don't see why not. The truth is I stored some boxes at John's while I was in the middle of a move. My stuff must have gotten mixed up with his when he left Santa Teresa. By the way, which storage company?"
His expression turned crafty. "What makes you ask?" He said, in a slightly mocking tone.
"Because I'm wondering if he's still in the area somewhere."
Teddy shook his head, way ahead of me. "No go. Forget it. You'd be wasting your time. I mean, look at this way. If the guy used a phony name, he prob'bly also faked his phone number and his home address. Why contact the company? They won't tell you nothin'."
"I'll bet I could get the information. That's what I do for a living these days."
"You and Dick Tracy."
"All I'm asking is the name."
Teddy smiled. "How much's it worth?"
"How much is it worth?"
"Yeah, let's do a little business. Twenty bucks."
"Don't be silly. I'm not going to pay you. That's ridiculous."
"So make me an offer. I'm a reasonable guy."
"All I'm saying is you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours."
"There can't be that many storage companies in the area."
"Fifteen hundred and eleven, if you take in the neighboring counties. For ten bucks, I'll tell you which little town it's in."
"Come on. How else you going to find out?"
"I'm sure I can think of something."
"Wanna bet? Five says you can't."
I glanced at my watch and slid out of the seat. "I wish I could chat, Teddy, but you have that appointment and I have to get to work."
"Whyn't you call me if you change your mind? We could find him together. We could form us a partnership. I bet you could use a guy with my connections."
I picked up the cardboard box, made a few more polite mouth noises, and returned to my car. I placed the box in the passenger seat and then slid in on the driver's side. I locked both doors instinctively and blew out a big breath. My heart was thumping and I could feel the damp of perspiration in the small of my back." John Russell" was the alias for a former Santa Teresa vice detective named Mickey Magruder...my first ex-husband. What the hell was going on?
Copyright © 1999 by Sue Grafton