Thicker Than Blood
By Penny Rudolph
Poisoned Pen Press Copyright © 2005 Penny Rudolph
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-59058-148-2
Rachel could recall the last time she saw Jason as if she were watching it on a movie screen. Jason was always larger than life.
The weather was warm, the air heavy, the metallic odor of old motor oil permeated everything-a perfectly ordinary morning, except for the flat tire.
Nothing about Jason Karl was ordinary.
The offending flat was on his company Cadillac and he had summoned her to change it. She remembered his tapping a shiny wing-tipped toe and generally implying she was taking too long. He didn't seem to mind relegating the tire changing to a woman. Perhaps he hadn't noticed. Rachel both appreciated that and was offended by it.
Jason jerked his wrist forward to stare again at his watch, and something thwanked into the upturned hubcap at her elbow. Los Angeles road sludge had turned the concrete garage floor the color of old mud.
Flicking a glance upward, she saw him frowning across the roofs of the cars left by the people who paid her for the privilege of parking. InterUrban Water District leased space for its employees and for its fleet of company vehicles. Jason was InterUrban's general manager.
"Lose something?" She deftly fitted the spare tire in place and fumbled for a lug nut.
He glareddown at her. "Don't tell me something is missing. I have to get on the road."
Brushing a damp strand of straight dark hair from her face, leaving a sooty streak on her cheek, she poked a smudged index finger among the bolts in the hubcap and fished the interloper out.
"Cuff link," she announced, glimpsing the etched image of a turtle before holding it out on the palm of her hand. No, not a turtle. The remnant of a tale from her childhood stirred in some dusty corner of her mind. A tortoise.
"Damn." Jason took the cuff link gingerly, not thanking her, careful not to soil his hands. "Goddamn thing is always falling out."
"Nice design. Unusual." Rachel's arm began to ache from holding the wheel; she went back to work replacing the nuts.
He jabbed the silver stem at the neat openings in his shirt sleeve. "Indian. The prices they charge, you'd think they'd at least make things right, so they stay put. Indians don't give a damn. They could daub paint on a rat turd and everyone would rush to buy it."
She tapped the hubcap into place, stood, stretched her legs in grease-speckled designer jeans.
Without a word, Jason got into the Caddy, backed out of the parking space, and disappeared into the hot Los Angeles smog.
* * *
Across the street, in one of InterUrban's two executive suites, Charlotte Emerson was watching four scrub jays raucously claiming rights to the bird feeder outside her office window. As one bird dive-bombed another, she was thinking that human behavior made the jays look sweet and courteous.
Her six decades in the water business had been a series of wars. Not mere quarrels, not disputes. Wars.
Before her time, Los Angeles had drained the Owens Valley, but that hadn't been enough. So Charlotte had been in on tapping the Colorado River, had watched hundreds of miles of aqueducts built. She turned back to the stack of reports on her desk. Now the Colorado wasn't enough.
The gleaming teak desk top reflected her perfectly, the royal blue suit that set off her pale complexion, the sublimely casual grooming that gave her an appearance at least fifteen years short of her age.
Dan Emerson had been a thundering force of the thirties and forties, one of the giants who had pruned and shaped the state and given Southern California the water that made anything possible. Charlotte had worked at his side, had helped him bring forth from a desert the world's eighth largest economy. And the largest water agency in the world. InterUrban.
Until now, at seventy-six, she had hardly given a thought to retiring. But she couldn't go on forever. She would just win this last battle. And when this term as chairman of the board was done, she would ... what? Maybe take up the piano again, read all the great books.
Morning sun glittering in her pale hair, Charlotte leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. She wasn't as sure of herself this time. But it had to be done. This one would be her legacy.
With a small dry laugh, she opened her eyes and reached for the phone. She should call to be sure the car was ready. Imagine, a woman running a parking garage. Well, more power to her, Charlotte thought, and began to dial.
* * *
On the garage's street level Rachel sat on a stool in the glass cubicle watching a thinning stream of cars depart. It was nearly six and most of the regulars had collected their cars like pets from a kennel. She perched there in the late afternoon in case someone had locked keys in a car or discovered a dead battery.
Rachel aimed to keep her customers happy. This parking garage was her last chance.
The few remaining cars belonged to the workaholics. She waved at the driver of a Pontiac and began her rounds of the gates, pushing buttons to lower metal doors across five. People who worked late in the nearby offices knew the sixth exit would be open until ten.
Back in the booth, she drew out the middle phone book from a neat stack in the corner, opened it, and eyeballed the old thirty-eight lying neatly in the space she had carved from the center of the thick mass of yellow pages. She just wanted to be sure it was still there.
The revolver's short barrel made for terrible aim, but she could shoot well enough to make someone bent on trouble reconsider his plans. The gun wasn't registered. Marty, her father, had won it in a poker game.
She put the phone book back and left the booth to trudge through the fifth-level parking area to the apartment she'd had converted from a storeroom. Empty, the garage echoed like the disturbed tomb of some forgotten pharaoh.
An orange tabby with the face of a prizefighter and the demeanor of a duke came stretching and yawning to greet her when she stepped inside her living room.
"Evening, Clancy," she said, and went straight to the kitchen area to scrub her hands with something from a plastic container labeled Gunk. Leveling an appraising gaze at the small mirror above the sink, she scoured the grime from her cheeks until they reddened.
After a frozen dinner of fettuccine Alfredo so flavorless that even Clancy gave the noodle she offered him just one desultory lick, Rachel dumped the plastic dinner tray in the trash and made her way back down the five levels of the garage. Not sure where she would go, but feeling she must go somewhere, she stepped onto the sidewalk.
"There you are, dear girl." Wheels on the supermarket cart rasped and squeaked as the old woman pushed it toward Rachel. The cart held neat stacks of clothing, a rose-colored blanket that looked nearly new, and a couple of aluminum pie pans.
"You were looking for me?"
"Indeed I was, dear girl. Indeed, I was." The woman was short and so round she might have been made of sofa cushions. Her salt-and-pepper hair was cropped short as a Marine's, but it still managed to stick up here and there, giving a bizarre hint of punk.
"Found something." Gleefully, the woman waved a deck of cards. "Know what this is?"
"Sorry. I don't gamble. Besides, I'll bet the deck is marked."
"No, no, dear girl. These are fortune cards. They see the future. And then they tell Irene." She tapped her ample chest and chirped, "Yes-yes."
Irene sat down on the sidewalk with amazing agility, settled the rough cotton skirt around her, patted her knees, and eyed Rachel with delight. "Sit, dear girl. Sit with Irene." She shuffled, then held out the cards to the still standing Rachel. "Cut."
* * *
On the third floor of InterUrban headquarters, Hank Sullivan glanced up from his desk and was startled to find the window dark. Lately he always seemed to be working late.
Something was happening in the water industry, some shift in the wind. And this morning Jason had called to say he was sending down yet another rush project.
Hank took off the glasses he needed now for close work, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. A shock of pale brown hair tumbled across his forehead. At forty-two, threads of grey were creeping in. Eyes closed, his face had the look of a boy's. Open, the eyes were blue and sharp.
If his rangy limbs were clad in denim instead of the Nordstrom suit, he might have looked like a rancher. He had little love for suits. Three minutes after he picked one up at the cleaners, it sprouted wrinkles. But as the senior water resources engineer, he was spending more and more time attending meetings.
His eyes lit on the face of the miniature desk clock and the time jolted him out of his chair. Nine fifty-five. The garage would be closing. Not pausing to put on his suit jacket, he threw it over his shoulder. The wrinkles be damned.
* * *
Rachel frowned at the round little fortune teller with the spiky hair.
Irene was still holding out the cards. She cocked her head like a plump brown hen. "Come-come, dear girl. Lots of tomorrows ahead. Don't it make sense to know what they hold? Cut," she said again.
Rachel drew a small wad of dollars from her pocket. "I have to get the garage locked up. But thanks anyway."
The woman unfolded the bills with gnarled, bird-like hands. "Thanks be for this. I owe you a telling." She wheeled her market basket and pushed it up the sidewalk.
Rachel strode through the almost empty garage. It wasn't part of the contract, but the water agency's cars were the only ones that regularly overnighted there and she liked to count noses, or back bumpers as it were, to be sure no one had left a door open or lights on.
On level C, she scanned the small fleet. All twenty-six were in their places like roosting hens.
The trunk lid of the car in space C-18 was slightly ajar. Pausing a moment to close it, she noticed a long scratch along the side of the vehicle in the adjacent space-a DeVille, one of the five kept for top executives. The rank and file drove stripped-down Chevys. Had some jerk been scratching fenders with a key? She'd lose customers if that happened too often.
Rachel ran her finger along where the mark crossed the door. When she reached the front of the car, she realized that the scratch had not come from a key. The car had hit something.
Dim light bounced from the front fender, which bore a dent so broad and deep she thought the metal must be rubbing on the tire. Part of the bumper had torn away and one headlight was gone.
At the upper right of the dished-in fender were small irregular splotches of dull brown. She bent over to study the smudges. Blood? Little prickles raced up the back of her neck. Of course not.
She was still peering at the stains when the lights went out.
The ocean of blackness that swallowed her came so swiftly, Rachel froze where she was, barely breathing.
No glimmer, no glow of light showed anywhere.
Disoriented, she swayed a little. A sound welled in her throat, but her mouth was too dry, her jaw too rigid to let it out.
Something rasped against the pavement. Feet?
Yes, moving slowly toward her. She crouched, crawled under the car.
The ripe smell of oil made her dizzy. Her arm struck the muffler and she jerked it back. The metal was still warm. The car had not been sitting there long.
The rasping came again, but the pulse of her own blood in her ears was so loud she couldn't fix its location.
A man's voice split the quiet. "Anybody here?"
The car's chassis creaked as someone touched the back of it. The steps went on, then faded.
Rachel's mind spun. Even if the spots on the fender were blood, and she was suddenly certain they were, they had nothing to do with her. And no ordinary mugger would bother tampering with the electric lines.
Something in a saner part of her brain suggested that lying there all night breathing oil fumes would only make her queasier.
Ducking her head, she crept out from under the Cadillac and followed its cool metal body to the bumper. Now she must be in the driving aisle. The elevator was near, and just beyond that the stairs.
Hugging the wall, hands feeling the way, she had reached the door to the stairwell when something grazed her elbow.
A grunt. A hand grasped at her arm.
The legs would be slightly to the right. She shifted her weight, brought her knee up, hard.
A whoosh issued from a mouth she couldn't see. He was just beginning to moan when the light flooded back as quickly as it had departed.
Sprawled on the pavement was the doubled-up shape of a man, eyes shocked, mouth contorted. No gun was in sight, no knife, no brass knuckles, just a suit jacket under his right shoulder.
She bent over him. "You okay?"
The growled response was not flattering.
"Sorry. I thought you were a prowler, a stalker, maybe a serial killer."
He struggled to his feet, planted them wide apart, gingerly shook out the suit jacket and brushed off his clothes.
She held out a hand. "Rachel Chavez."
He folded his arms over his chest, the hardness only beginning to fade from his eyes. "Hank Sullivan. You want my rank and serial number?"
"I said I was sorry. I panicked." She dropped her hand. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for violets. Isn't this the flower market?"
She tossed her hands in the air and turned to the stairway exit.
"The gate is probably closed by now," he snorted irritably.
"It's still open," she called over her shoulder.
"Hope you're right." He moved toward the ramp.
"I'd better be. I haven't locked it yet."
He turned, shot her a frown.
"I own the garage."
He stared a moment, shrugged, and stiffly marched off.
At the gate, Rachel fiddled impatiently with her keys waiting for him to drive out so she could lock up. Streetlights threw a purplish veil over the office buildings. A breeze chased a piece of litter along the curb. The power failure had swept the dented fender from her mind, but now it loomed again. Should she get a flashlight and have a better look?
Rachel jumped as a hand touched her elbow.
"Sorry," he said loudly, stepping back so quickly she couldn't stop a laugh.
"Me, too. Really, I am." She looked up the ramp into the garage. "So where's your car?"
He hung his head like a small boy. "I can't open it. I seem to have locked the keys inside."
"That," she said, "I can fix."
He followed her to the glass booth and waited while she reached inside for the slim-jim, but the hook where it usually hung was empty. Then she remembered. "I had it in my hand when I went home."
He pounded a fist lightly against the glass wall. "End of a perfect day. Guess I need to find a phone. I'll call a cab."
"I assume you can wait two minutes. I live right here."
"In the garage?" His voice cracked a little.
She started toward the elevator. "Better come along. You'll have to show me where the car is."
In her apartment, the television was still on, the news report winding down.
Clancy rose from the sofa, stretched, yawned, and eyed Hank as if appraising his ability to scratch ears and work a can opener.
Behind Rachel, Hank took in the collection of plants and books. "Never would have guessed someone lived here."
"You gotta admit it's a great commute."
Seeing him in clear light, she decided the face was nice, but the straight sandy hair had a mind of its own.
She crossed the room to the kitchen counter where she had tossed the jimmying tool. When she turned back, he was looking faintly amused or surprised, she wasn't sure which.
"How on earth do you happen to own a parking garage?" "My grandfather built it. The hours aren't great, but anyone can run a car park. Think what I save on the Saks' bills."
The blond anchorwoman on the television screen was rearranging her fluid features to a look appropriate for unpleasant news. "This just in from the newsroom. Jason Karl, the general manager of InterUrban Water District, was found dead late this afternoon, on a country road about a hundred and forty miles east of Los Angeles. The sheriff 's department is investigating what they say appears to be a hit-and-run accident."
"Jesus, that's my boss." Hank's words rushed out and stopped.
Rachel's mouth opened twice before the sound came. "Jason Karl? I just saw him. I just changed his tire."
Excerpted from Thicker Than Blood by Penny Rudolph Copyright © 2005 by Penny Rudolph. Excerpted by permission.
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