It was Monday, December 27, and I was sitting in my office, trying to get a fix on the mood I was in, which was bad, bad, bad, comprised of equal parts irritation and uneasiness. The irritation was generated by a bank notice I’d just received, one of those windowed numbers with a yellow carbon showing through. At first, I assumed I was overdrawn, but what I pulled out was a slip, dated Friday, December 24, showing a five-thousand-dollar deposit to my checking account.
"What the hell is this?" I said.
The account number was correct, but the deposit wasn’t mine. In my experience, banks are the least helpful institutions on earth, and the notion of having to stop what I was doing to straighten out an error was nearly more than I could bear. I tossed the notice aside, trying to reclaim my concentration. I was getting ready to write up the preliminary report on an insurance case I’d been asked to look into, and Darcy, the secretary at California Fidelity, had just buzzed to say that Mac wanted the file on his desk right away. Mentally, I’d come up with a tart suggestion about what she could do with herself, but I’d kept my mouth shut, showing (I thought) admirable restraint.
I turned back to my portable Smith-Corona, inserting the proper form for a property-insurance-loss register. My nimble fingers were poised to type while I reviewed my notes. That’s where I was stuck. Something was off and I couldn’t figure out what it was. I glanced at the bank notice again.
Almost with an eye toward the comic relief, I called the bank, hoping the diversion would help me focus on what was bothering me about the situation at Wood/Warren, a local company manufacturing hydrogen furnaces for industrial use. They’d had a fire out there on December 19 that had destroyed a warehouse.
"Mrs. Brunswick, Customer Service. May I help you?"
"Well, I hope so," I said. "I just received a notice saying I put five thousand dollars in my checking account last Friday and I didn’t do that. Is there any way you can straighten it out?"
"May I have your name and account number, please?"
"Kinsey Millhone," I said, supplying my account number in slow, measured tones.
She put me on hold briefly while she called up the records on her computer terminal. Meanwhile, I listened to the bank’s rendition of "Good King Wenceslas," which I’ve personally never understood. What’s the Feast of Stephen?
Mrs. Brunswick clicked back in. "Miss Millhone, I’m not certain what the problem is, but we do show a cash deposit to this account number. Apparently, it was left in the night-deposit slot and posted over the weekend."
"You still have one of those night-deposit slots?" I asked with amazement.
"At our downtown branch, yes," she said.
"Well, there’s some kind of mistake here. I’ve never even seen the night-deposit slot. I use my twenty-four-hour instant teller card if I need to transact bank business after hours. What do we do now?"
"I can track down a copy of the deposit slip," she said skeptically.
"Would you do that, please? Because I didn’t make a deposit of any kind last Friday and certainly not five thousand dollars’ worth. Maybe somebody transposed some numbers on the deposit slip or something, but the money sure doesn’t belong to me."
She took my telephone number and said she’d get back to me. I could tell I was in for countless phone calls before the correction could be made. Suppose somebody was merrily writing checks against that five grand?
I went back to the task at hand, wishing I felt more enlightened than I did. My mind kept jumping around. The file on the fire claim at Wood/ Warren had actually come into my hands four days before, late Thursday, the 23rd. I’d been scheduled to have a farewell drink with my landlord, Henry Pitts, at four, and then take him out to the airport and put him on a plane. He was flying back to Michigan to spend the holidays with his family, some of whom are edging into their nineties with their vigor and good spirits still in evidence. Henry’s pushing eighty-two, a mere kid, and he was about as excited as one at the prospect of the trip.
I was still at the office that afternoon with my paperwork caught up and some time to kill. I went out onto my second-floor balcony, peering off to my right at the V of Pacific Ocean visible at the foot of State Street, ten blocks down. This is Santa Teresa, California, ninety-five miles north of Los Angeles. Winter here is a grand affair, full of sunshine and mild temperatures, vibrant magenta bougainvillea, gentle winds, and palm trees waving fronds at the sea gulls as they wheel overhead.
The only signs of Christmas, two days away, were the garlands of tinsel strung along the main streets.
The stores, of course, were packed with shoppers, and there was a trio of Salvation Army horn players tooting away at "Deck the Halls." In the interests of feeling jolly, I thought I’d better work out my strategy for the next two days.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I cherish my unmarried state. I’m female, twice divorced, no kids, and no close family ties. I’m a private detective by trade. Usually I’m perfectly content to do what I do. There are times when I work long hours on a case and times when I’m on the road and times when I hole up in my tiny apartment and read books for days. When the holidays come around, however, I find that I have to exercise a certain cunning lest the absence of loved ones generate unruly depression. Thanksgiving had been a breeze. I spent the day with Henry and some pals of his, who’d cooked and sipped champagne and laughed and told tales about days long past, making me wish I were their age instead of my own, which is thirty-two.
Now Henry was leaving town, and even Rosie, who runs the dingy neighborhood tavern where I often eat, was closing down until January 2, refusing to tell a soul what she meant to do with herself. Rosie is sixty-six, Hungarian, short, top-heavy, bossy, and often rude, so it wasn’t as though I was worried I’d miss any touching heart-to-heart chats. The fact that she was closing her eatery was simply one more uncomfortable reminder that I was out there in the world all by myself and had best find a way to look after me.
At any rate, I’d glanced at my watch and decided I might as well head on home. I switched on the answering machine, grabbed my jacket and handbag, and was just locking up when Darcy Pascoe, the receptionist from the insurance company next door, popped her head in. I had worked for California Fidelity full time at one point, doing investigations on fire and wrongful death claims. Now the arrangement is informal. I’m more or less on call, doing a certain number of investigations for them, as needed, in exchange for downtown office space I couldn’t otherwise afford.
"Oh, wow. I’m glad I caught you," Darcy said. "Mac told me to give you this."
She handed me a file, which I glanced at automatically. The blank form inside indicated that I was being asked to do a fire-scene inspection, the first in months.
"Mac did?" Mac is the CFI vice-president. I couldn’t imagine him handling routine paperwork.
"Well, actually, Mac gave it to Andy and Andy said I should give it to you."
There was a memo attached to the file cover, dated three days before and marked rush. Darcy caught my look and her cheeks tinted faintly.
"It was stuck under a big pile of stuff on my desk or I’d have gotten it to you sooner," she said. Darcy’s in her late twenties and something of a flake. I crossed to my desk, tossing the file on top of some others I was working on. I’d catch it first thing in the morning. Darcy lingered in the doorway, guessing my intent.
"Is there any way you can get to that today? I know he’s anxious to get somebody out there. Jewel was supposed to handle it, but she’s taking two weeks off, so Mac said maybe you could do it instead."
"What’s the claim?"
"A big warehouse fire out in Colgate. You probably heard it on the news."
I shook my head. "I’ve been down in L.A."
"Well, the newspaper clippings are in there, too. I guess they want someone out there superquick."
I was annoyed at the pressure, but I opened the manila folder again and checked the property-loss notice, which was posted on top. "Wood/Warren?" I said.
"You know the company?"
"I know the Woods. I went to high school with the youngest girl. We were in the same homeroom."
She looked relieved, as if I’d just solved a problem for her. "That’s great. I’ll tell Mac maybe you can get out there this afternoon."
"Darcy, would you knock that off? I’ve got to take somebody to the airport," I said. "Trust me. I’ll make an appointment for the earliest possible moment."
"Oh. Well, I’ll make a note then so they’ll know you’re taking care of it," she said. "I have to get back to the phones. Let me know when you have the report and I’ll come pick it up."
"Terrific," I said. She must have decided she had pushed me far enough because she excused herself and disappeared in haste.
As soon as she left, just to get it over with, I put a call through to Wood/Warren and arranged to meet with the company president, Lance Wood, at 9:00 the next morning, Christmas Eve day.
Meanwhile, as it was 3:45, I tucked the file in my handbag, locked up, and headed down the back stairs to the lot where my VW was parked. I was home ten minutes later.
During our little pre-Christmas celebration, Henry gave me a new Len Deighton novel and I gave him a periwinkle-blue mohair muffler, which I had crocheted myself—a little-known talent of mine. We sat in his kitchen and ate half a pan of his homemade cinnamon rolls, drinking champagne out of the matching crystal flutes I’d given him the year before.
He took out his plane ticket and checked the departure time again, his cheeks flushed with anticipation. "I wish you’d come with me," he said. He had the muffler wrapped around his neck, the color setting off his eyes. His white hair was soft and brushed to one side, his lean face tanned from California sun.
"I wish I could, but I just picked up some work that’ll get my rent paid," I said. "You can take lots of pictures and show ’em to me when you get back."
"What about Christmas Day? You’re not going to be by yourself, I hope."
"Henry, would you quit worrying? I’ve got lots of friends." I’d probably spend the day alone, but I didn’t want him to fret.
He raised a finger. "Hold on. I almost forgot. I have another little present for you." He crossed to the counter by the kitchen sink and picked up a clump of greenery in a little pot. He set it down in front of me, laughing when he saw the expression on my face. It looked like a fern and smelled like feet.
"It’s an air fern," he said. "It just lives on air. You don’t even have to water it."
I stared at the lacy fronds, which were a nearly luminous green and looked like something that might thrive in outer space. "No plant food?"
He shook his head. "Just let it sit."
"I don’t have to worry about diffuse sunlight or pinching back?" I asked, tossing around some plant terms as if I knew what they meant. I’m notoriously bad with plants, and for years I’ve resisted any urge whatever to own one.
"Nothing. It’s to keep you company. Put it on your desk. It’ll jazz the place up a bit."
I held the little pot up and inspected the fern from all sides, experiencing this worrisome spark of possessiveness. I must be in worse shape than I thought, I thought.
Henry fished a set of keys out of his pocket and passed them over to me. "In case you need to get into my place," he said.
"Great. I’ll bring in your mail and the papers. Is there anything else you need done while you’re gone? I can mow the grass."
"You don’t need to do that. I’ve left you the number where I can be reached if the Big One hits. I can’t think of anything else." The Big One he referred to was the major earthquake we’d all been expecting any day now since the last one in 1925.
He checked his watch. "We better get a move on. The airport is mobbed this time of year." His plane wasn’t leaving until 7:00, which left us only an hour and a half to make the twenty-minute trip to the airport, but there wasn’t any point in arguing. Sweet man. If he had to wait, he might as well do it out there, happily chatting with his fellow travelers.
I put on my jacket while Henry made a circuit of the house, taking a few seconds to turn the heat down, making sure the windows and doors were secured. He picked up his coat and his suitcase and we were on our way.
I was home again by 6:15, still feeling a bit of a lump in my throat. I hate to say goodbye to folks and I hate being left behind. It was getting dark by then and the air had a bite to it. I let myself into my place. My studio apartment was formerly Henry’s single-car garage. It’s approximately fifteen feet on a side, with a narrow extension on the right that serves as my kitchenette. I have laundry facilities and a compact bathroom. The space has been cleverly designed and apportioned to suggest the illusion of living room, dining room, and bedroom once I open my sofa bed. I have more than adequate storage space for the few things I possess.
Surveying my tiny kingdom usually fills me with satisfaction, but I was still battling a whisper of Yuletide depression, and the place seemed claustrophobic and bleak. I turned on some lights. I put the air fern on my desk. Ever hopeful, I checked my answering machine for messages, but there were none. The quiet was making me feel restless. I turned on the radio—Bing Crosby singing about a white Christmas just like the ones he used to know. I’ve never actually seen a white Christmas, but I got the gist. I turned the radio off.
I sat on a kitchen stool and monitored my vital signs. I was hungry. One thing about living alone . . . you can eat any time you want. For dinner that night I made myself a sandwich of olive-pimento cheese on whole-wheat bread. It’s a source of comfort to me that the brand of olive-pimento cheese I buy has tasted exactly the same since the first time I remembered eating it at the age of three and a half. Resolutely I veered off that subject, since it connected to my parents, who were killed when I was five. I cut the sandwich into four fingers, as I always did, poured myself a glass of white wine, and took my plate over to the couch, where I opened the book Henry had given me for Christmas. I checked the clock.
It was 7:00 p.m. This was going to be a very long two weeks.
Excerpted from E is for Evidence by Sue Grafton.Copyright © 1988 by Sue Grafton.Published in December 2005 by St Martin’s Press.
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