That's the answer (in the form of a question) facing investigator Jane da Silva, who can collect on her eccentric uncle's vast legacy only when she solves a mystery that's stumped everyone else. When Jane places a large "Have you seen this woman?" ad in the Seattle paper, she gets intriguing responses from a rodeo queen, a dying child, and a disgraced church deacon... leads that send Jane east of the Cascades.
By the time she gets to Electric City, the site of more violence, she realizes that Irene March's placid exterior shielded a cunning, even ruthless soul. And a deadly dangerous game that could have people asking, "Who killed Jane da Silva?"
Read an Excerpt
By K.K. Beck
Mysterious PressK.K. Beck
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen Jane da Silva opened the door one day around noon two strangers stood there, staring at her with interest. The Greenpeace solicitors, who came around Seattle neighborhoods regularly, often looking like white Rastafarians, usually came singly. These two didn't look like Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses either.
Whoever they were, Jane smiled nicely and prepared to come up with one of her canned rebuffs. A fanatical gleam in her eye and the phrase "I am very strong in my own faith" or "My political convictions are cast in cement" delivered with eager breathlessness ordinarily sent them packing. They usually seemed afraid that she would try and convert them to something, and scrambled off her porch. If they were selling something, a simple and sober "I just got laid off" killed any pitch.
The woman was young and pale. Her neat little face, with an upturned nose and big hazel eyes with orange bursts around the pupils, was dwarfed by a large squashy felt toque hat in bottle green, something a turn-of-the-century suffragette might have worn before she threw herself in front of a horse. She also wore a long wrinkled rayon print dress, the uneven hem of which grazed the tops of her logging boots. That season, similar outfits had recently emerged from the streets of Seattle to make it onto runways in New York, but this woman wore the real thing.
Her smooth white arms were bare and lightly freckled in orange. Jane imagined the hat hid red hair. Her face looked intelligent and slightly nervous. She shifted a bag on her shoulder. The bag was made out of old Oriental carpeting, and Jane wondered what it contained. Clipboards with some cranky petition? Household products? Magazine subscription forms?
The man had a round face and body, and seemed somewhere in middle age, with salt-and-pepper hair parted neatly and held down by some old-fashioned hair preparation. Jane rather suspected the creamy, drugstore smell that hung around them came from whatever he plastered it down with, rather than any scent the woman was wearing. He had on a striped bow tie, a white shirt, gray slacks and a pair of red suspenders - a practical necessity for any man with such a large stomach. The whole impression was of a cheery toy shop proprietor from a children's picture book.
"Are you Jane da Silva?" said the woman in a fluty, dramatic voice.
"Yes," said Jane, trying to sound wary. Whoever they were, she doubted very much they were selling aluminum siding or anything predictable. Always drawn to eccentricity, Jane tried to resist the impulse to invite them right in and demand their life stories.
The two strangers exchanged nervous glances.
"We think maybe you can help us," said the woman.
"We think," said the man, "that we know who you are." He held up a blue file folder. "We have a file on you."
"Oh stop it, Clark," said the woman. "You sound too weird."
"Do you keep files on a lot of people?" said Jane.
Clark giggled. "Tons," he said.
The woman gave him an I-can't-take-you-anywhere look and said to Jane, "We work for a newspaper clipping service. Don't pay too much attention to Clark. He's very bright but he has a strange sense of humor. Sometimes he alarms people."
Clark just giggled again at this description of himself.
"Anyway," said the woman, shifting her weight from one boot to the other and jutting out her hip in a kind of nervous, fake-casual way, "I hope we're not bothering you, but Clark has a theory you're sort of a detective who handles strange stuff."
"Don't you want to see your file?" said Clark, looking smug and crafty.
"Why don't you come in?" said Jane. There was a chance, just a chance, that these two had something Jane needed.
She sat them down on Uncle Harold's old sofa, and eyed the blue folder in Clark's plump hands.
The young woman introduced herself "I'm Monica Padgett," she said. "And this is Clark Rafferty." She arranged her wrinkled dress around her knees like an old lady. "I'm sorry we just burst in on you like this."
"Don't apologize," said Jane. She held out a hand to Clark, who gave her the folder.
Inside, were three documents. Two were newspaper clippings. The first clipping was a lengthy account of a murder trial in which Jane was mentioned once as a witness, and described as "the woman who had a business appointment with the victim, and who found the body." The second clipping mentioned her briefly in an interview with an apartment house owner, who'd found the body of another murder victim. Here, she was described as a horrified innocent bystander who happened to enter the apartment with him when he found the body.
"I don't like being in the paper," said Jane.
The third document was a Xeroxed copy of her uncle Harold's will. Jane didn't bother to read it. Its peculiar provisions were well known to her. It explained that she could live here in this house and receive funds administered by a crotchety board of trustees while she did the work of the Foundation for Righting Wrongs. Uncle Harold had been decidedly odd, but very rich too.
"Let me get this straight," said Jane. "You work for a clipping service. Presumably, you read newspapers all day. And you saw my name twice and started a file on me?"
"No," said Clark holding up a thick forefinger. "I started the file first. You see, I knew about your uncle Harold Mortensen. He made the papers occasionally, always at the edge of some case or other. I kept my eye out for him. Then, when I saw his obit, I went downtown and got a copy of his will. It's a public document. I figured you'd be carrying on his work, so I started to look for your name." He looked very pleased with himself.
"When Clark told me you ran some sort of freelance avenger thing, I thought he was nuts," said Monica, looking at Clark with apparently newfound respect.
Clark giggled again. He seemed to enjoy being thought a loon, so Jane decided to buy into it.
"Well even if he is nuts," said Jane in a bantering way she thought he'd like, "he's right on the money when it comes to Uncle Harold's foundation."
More self-satisfied chortling from Clark. "We got your address from the property description in the will," he said.
"I do continue my uncle's work," said Jane. "But I'm afraid I'm not allowed to talk about it. It's supposed to be kept very quiet." She was dying to know what kind of files Clark had on her uncle. His career as a pro bono, nonprofit busybody for people who couldn't afford good investigative help was very mysterious. All she knew was that the board felt her cases were messier than his, and acted as if this were due to some moral failing on her part.
Monica leaned forward. "So you do take on unsolved cases," she said. "We've talked to a private eye, but he wouldn't help us without a lot of money."
"I help people for free," said Jane. "People who need it. But in return, I ask for their absolute discretion about me and my activities." This pronouncement had the expected effect on Monica, whom Jane had pegged as the dramatic type.
Monica's big eyes opened wider in joy. "It sounds wonderful," she said. "Like something out of Chesterton or Robert Louis Stevenson." She exhaled lavishly.
Jane smiled. It was nice to have someone appreciate what she did and imbue it with some glamour, even if it was the faded glamour of another age. Anyone else who knew about her work tended to advise her to get herself a real job and stop acting silly.
"Tell me," she said, "about your problem. And would you like some coffee?"
"We only get a half hour for lunch," said Monica, looking nervous. "We were able to leave early, but we have to get back on time. Our boss keeps us on a short leash."
"Have you eaten?" said Jane.
"We were going to eat our sandwiches on the bus back," said Clark.
Monica looked faintly embarrassed by this revelation and indicated her large bag. It looked as if it needed vacuuming.
"For heaven's sake," said Jane. "Come into the kitchen and eat them here while I make coffee and we can talk while you're eating."
God, I hope they have something I can use with that damn board, thought Jane. She was only as good as her last case, or the funds dried up.
Jane put on some water and sat down at the table. Her guests rustled with paper bags. Clark had peanut butter and jelly on white bread, a banana, and an Oreo. Monica's lunch was more grown-up - tuna fish on whole wheat and an old yogurt container with something in it that looked like mung beans and smelled of cilantro.
Monica did the talking.
"Well," she said, "as we told you, we work at the Columbia Clipping Service. We read newspapers all day, and mark the items our clients want clipped and then the cutters clip them out."
"We're sort of close, in a strange way, even though we're all very different." She glanced over at Clark. "The readers are close, anyway. So when one of us vanished, we were naturally concerned."
"Who has vanished?" said Jane. The phrase had conjured up the image of a clerk with a green eyeshade, hunched over a newspaper down at the clipping service, all of a sudden dissolving into a puff of smoke, leaving behind an empty tall stool.
"It's Irene March," said Monica. "One of the readers. She's been gone a week, and we're worried about her."
"Eight days," said Clark, opening the Oreo and looking at the white filling before screwing it back together. "Didn't come in last Monday." He brushed some dark crumbs away from his mouth.
"And does that seem unlike her?" said Jane.
"Irene's worked at the clipping service for thirteen years," said Monica. "Outside of a little sick leave and her annual vacation, she's been there every day, like clockwork."
"In our business," explained Clark, "you never want to get too far behind. The papers just pile up, and you've got to get through them."
The kettle whistled, and Jane poured the hot water through the coffee filter. Would the board go for this? Was it a hopeless case, an injustice that needed righting? Something that couldn't be taken care of any other way?
"What about the police?" she said. "What do they say?"
"Not much," said Monica. "I don't think they know where to look. But we're worried, because Irene seemed frightened about something."
"What makes you say that?" said Jane.
"I can't quite put my finger on it. Irene was hard to read. Not an emotional person. But she seemed kind of stressed. Something was up, I just know it. And then she got that personal phone call." Monica stirred up her bean concoction in an agitated manner.
"We're not allowed to have personal phone calls," explained Clark. "Our boss, Mrs. Webber, doesn't allow it." He was peeling his banana, and seemed to be scrutinizing it as carefully as if it were the first banana he'd ever encountered.
"Irene was all nervous about it," said Monica. "It was on a Friday, and then Monday she disappeared."
"It was probably someone who saw her on television," said Clark. "Someone who knew her from before or something."
"She was on television?" said Jane.
Monica put down her mung beans and dug around in her carpetbag. She produced a videotape cassette. "She was on Jeopardy! You know. The game show. It aired a few days before she disappeared. I've brought you a tape so you can see what she looks like."
Jane took the cassette, realizing that in accepting it she was somehow accepting the case. And why shouldn't she? If it didn't amount to anything, God would know she was trying and send something decent her way. Besides, she was pleased they'd found her and thought she could help. After years of skittering around from job to job, someone was finally consulting her like a real professional. It gave her a solid feeling of responsibility.
"I could use a still picture of her too," she said.
"I thought you might," said Monica. "I'm afraid this is all we have." She handed over a Polaroid snapshot. It featured a handful of people lined up against a wall as if they were waiting for a firing squad. Jane recognized Monica and Clark. In front of the group was a large cake, and an older woman was beaming down on it happily. "This was at a retirement party," explained Monica. "There's Irene." She pointed to a woman looking out of the corner of her eye at the cake and the retiree.
Irene seemed to be about fifty, with a square, solid body. Her mouth was thin and straight, her eyes slightly hooded beneath absolutely straight, thick brows. She had dark gray hair, parted on one side and held away from her smooth brow with a single bobby pin. Jane decided if she ever did find Irene she should try and get her a good haircut.
"I'll see what I can find out," said Jane. "But you know, you sound like pretty good investigators yourselves. You found me, after all. Maybe you can find her yourselves."
"We can't really get away," said Monica. "Mrs. Webber is a real slavedriver."
Clark leaned over to the photograph. "There's Mrs. Webber, at the end," he said. Jane had imagined the boss as a harsh schoolmistressy type with a fierce jaw, ready to whack her employees with a ruler if they took personal phone calls. Instead, she was dressed and groomed like someone who'd graduated from the Junior League to a prestigious charity board - well-coiffed honey blonde hair, silk blouse and pearls. She hadn't bothered to smile for the picture, and wore the resentful expression of someone who knew she was at a tacky party.
Jane poured coffee into three white china mugs. She really had no idea how to proceed, but she didn't want Clark and Monica to know that. "When she didn't come to work, did someone go over to her place and check it out?"
"I wanted to go that first day," said Monica. "But Mrs. Webber wouldn't let me. Later, the police said they went inside and she wasn't there."
"Mrs. Webber doesn't sound like a lot of fun," said Jane.
"We all hate her," said Monica in a tone of breathless urgency. "She's basically a controlling, demeaning Cruella De Vil sort of person who treats the employees like dirt, and other than being mean-spirited and gratuitously nasty, there's nothing wrong with her."
Clark nodded. "And she's not even that smart." He seemed puzzled that someone like that was supervising him. "I don't get it."
"I'm not surprised. Jerks run lots of things," said Jane, who felt that in many enterprises scum rose to the top, and that loyalty and the ability to pretend the world revolved around widgets counted for more than competence when it came to promotions.
"Anyway," continued Monica, "Clark did find Irene's next of kin."
"City records. Piece of cake," said Clark.
Monica continued. "We called them. Some cousins in the suburbs. They didn't seem too cut up. Irene had told me about them once. They'd had some family feud years ago."
Excerpted from Electric City by K.K. Beck Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents