I’d been in the office no more than twenty minutes that morning. I’d opened the French doors out onto the second-floor balcony to let in some fresh air and I’d put on the coffee pot. It was June in Santa Teresa, which means chill morning fog and hazy afternoons. It wasn’t nine o’clock yet. I was just sorting through the mail from the day before when I heard a tap at the door and a woman breezed in.
"Oh good. You’re here," she said. "You must be Kinsey Millhone. I’m Beverly Danziger."
We shook hands and she promptly sat down and started rooting through her bag. She found a pack of filter-tipped cigarettes and shook one out.
"I hope you don’t mind if I smoke," she said, lighting up without waiting for a response. She inhaled and then extinguished the match with a mouthful of smoke, idly searching about for an ashtray. I took one from the top of my file cabinet, dusted it off, and passed it over to her, offering her coffee at the same time.
"Oh sure, why not?" she said with a laugh, "I’m al-ready hyper this morning so I might as well. I just drove up from Los Angeles, right through the rush-hour traffic. Gawd!"
I poured her a mug of coffee, doing a quick visual survey. She was in her late thirties by my guess; petite, energetic, well groomed. Her hair was a glossy black and quite straight. The cut was angular and perfectly layered so that it framed her small face like a bathing cap. She had bright blue eyes, black lashes, a clear complexion with just a hint of blusher high on each cheekbone. She wore a boat-necked sweater in a pale blue cotton knit, and a pale blue poplin skirt. The bag she carried was quality leather, soft and supple, with a number of zippered compartments containing God knows what. Her nails were long and tapered, painted a rosy pink and she wore a wedding ring studded with rubies. She projected self-confidence and a certain careless attention to style, conservatively packaged like the complimentary gift wrap in a classy department store.
She shook her head to the offer of cream and sugar so I added half-and-half to my own mug and got down to business.
"What can I help you with?"
"I’m hoping you can locate my sister for me," she said.
She was searching through her handbag again. She took out her address book, a rosewood pen-and-pencil set, and a long white envelope, which she placed on the edge of my desk. I’d never seen anyone so self-absorbed, but it wasn’t unattractive stuff. She gave me a quick smile then, as though she knew that. She opened the address book and turned it so that it faced me, pointing to one of the entries with a rosy fingertip.
"You’ll want to make a note of the address and telephone number," she said. "Her name is Elaine Boldt. She has a condo on Via Madrina and that second one is her address in Florida. She spends several months a year down in Boca."
I was feeling somewhat puzzled, but I noted the addresses while she took a legal-looking document out of the long white envelope. She studied it briefly, as though the contents might have changed since she’d last seen it.
"How long has she been missing?" I asked.
Beverly Danziger gave me an uncomfortable look. "Well, I don’t know if she’s ‘missing’ exactly. I just don’t know where she is and I’ve got to get these papers signed. I know it sounds dumb. She’s only entitled to a ninth interest and it probably won’t come to more than two or three thousand dollars, but the money can’t be distributed until we have her notarized signature. Here, you can see for yourself."
I took the document and read through the contents. It had been drawn up by a firm of attorneys in Columbus, Ohio, and it was full of whereases, adjudgeds, ordereds, and whatnots, which added up to the fact that a man named Sidney Rowan had died and the various people listed were entitled to portions of his estate. Beverly Danziger was the third party listed, with a Los Angeles address, and Elaine Boldt was fourth, with an address here in Santa Teresa.
"Sidney Rowan was some kind of cousin," she went on garrulously. "I don’t believe I ever met the man, but I got this notice and I assume Elaine got one too. I signed the form and got it notarized and sent off and then didn’t think any more about it. You can see from the cover letter that this all took place six months ago. Then, lo and behold I got a call last week from the attorney . . . what’s his name again?"
I glanced at the document. "Wender," I said.
"Oh, that’s right. I don’t know why I keep blocking that. Anyway, Mr. Wender’s office called to say they’d never heard from Elaine. Naturally, I assumed she’d gone off to Florida as usual and just hadn’t bothered to have her mail sent, so I got in touch with the manager of her condominium here. She hasn’t heard from Elaine in months. Well, she did at first, but not recently."
"Have you tried calling the Florida number?"
"From what I understand, the attorney tried several times. Apparently, she had a friend staying with her and Mr. Wender left his name and number, but Elaine never called back. Tillie had about the same luck."
"The woman who manages the building here where Elaine has her permanent residence. Tillie’s been forwarding the mail and she says Elaine usually drops her a little note every other week or so, but she hasn’t heard anything since March. Frankly, it’s a nuisance more than anything else, but I don’t have time to track her down myself." Beverly took a final drag of the cigarette and stubbed it out with a series of pecking motions.
I was still taking notes, but I suppose the skepticism was showing in my face.
"What’s the matter? Isn’t this the sort of work you do?"
"Sure, but I charge thirty dollars an hour, plus expenses. If there’s only two or three thousand dollars involved, I wonder if it’s going to be worth it to you."
"Oh, I fully intend to have the estate reimburse me out of Elaine’s share since she caused all this trouble to begin with. I mean, everything’s come to a screeching halt until her signature can be obtained. I must say it’s typical of the way she’s behaved all her life."
"Suppose I end up flying down to Florida to look for her? Even if I only charge you half my usual hourly rate for travel time, it’ll cost a fortune. Look, Mrs. Danziger—"
"All right, Beverly. I don’t want to discourage your business, but in all honesty it sounds like something you could handle yourself. I’d even be happy to suggest some ways to go about it."
Beverly gave me a smile then, but it had a hard edge to it and I realized, at long last, that she was used to getting her way. Her eyes had widened to a china glaze, as blue and unyielding as glass. The black lashes blinked mechanically.
"Elaine and I are not on the best of terms," she said smoothly. "I feel I’ve already devoted quite enough time to this, but I promised Mr. Wender I’d find her so the estate can be settled. He’s under pressure from the other heirs and he’s putting pressure on me. I can give you an advance if you like."
She was back in her bag again, coming up with a checkbook this time. She uncapped the rosewood pen
and stared at me.
"Will seven hundred and fifty dollars suffice?"
I reached into my bottom drawer. "I’ll draw up a contract."
I walked the check over to the bank and then I retrieved my car from the lot behind the office and drove over to Elaine Boldt’s address on Via Madrina. It wasn’t far from the down-town area.
I figured this was a routine matter I could settle in a day or two and I was thinking with regret that I’d probably end up refunding half the money I’d just deposited. Not that I was doing much else anyway—things were slow.
The neighborhood Elaine Boldt lived in was composed of modest 1930s bungalows mixed with occasional apartment complexes. So far, the little frame and stucco cottages were predominant but the properties were being converted to commercial use one by one. Chiropractors were moving in, and cut-rate dentists who were willing to give you twilight sleep so you could have your teeth cleaned without cringing. ONE-DAY DENTURES—CREDIT. It was worrisome. What did they do to you if you missed a payment on your upper plate? The area was still largely intact—old-age pensioners stubbornly propping up their hydrangea bushes—but real-estate syndicates would eventually mow them all down. There’s a lot of money in Santa Teresa and much of it is devoted to maintaining a certain "look" to the town. There are no flashing neon signs, no slums, no fume-spewing manufacturing complexes to blight the landscape. Everything is stucco, red tile roofs, bougainvillea, distressed beams, adobe brick walls, arched windows, palm trees, balconies, ferns, fountains, paseos, and flowers in bloom. Historical restorations abound. It’s all oddly unsettling—so lush and refined that it ruins you for anyplace else.
When I reached Mrs. Boldt’s address, I parked my car out front and locked it, taking a few minutes then to survey the premises. The condominium was a curiosity. The building itself was shaped like a horseshoe with broad arms opening onto the street; three stories high, parking level underneath, a strange combination of modern and mock-Spanish. There were arches and balconies along the front, with tall wrought-iron gates sweeping inward to a palm-planted courtyard, but the sides and back of the building were flat and unadorned, as though the architect had applied a Mediterranean veneer to a plain plywood box, adding a lip of red tile at the top to suggest an entire roof when there was none. Even the palms looked like cardboard cutouts, propped up with sticks.
I passed through the courtyard and found myself in a glass-enclosed lobby with a row of mailboxes and door buzzers on the right. On my left, through another set of glass doors, apparently kept locked, I could see a set of elevator doors and an exit leading to a set of fire stairs. Huge potted plants had been artfully arranged throughout the entranceway. Straight ahead, a door led out into a patio where I caught sight of a pool surrounded by bright yellow canvas deck chairs. I checked the tenants’ names, which were punched out on strips of plastic tape and pasted alongside each apartment buzzer. There were twenty-four units. The manager, Tillie Ahlberg, occupied apartment 1. An "E. Boldt" was listed at apartment 9, which I guessed was on the second floor.
"I gave "E. Boldt" a buzz first. For all I knew, she’d answer on the intercom and then my job would be done. Stranger things had happened and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself looking high and low for a lady who might well by now be at home. There was no response so I tried Tillie Ahlberg.
After ten seconds, her voice crackled into the intercom as though the sound were being transmitted from outer space.
I placed my mouth near the box, raising my voice slightly.
"Mrs. Ahlberg, my name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private detective here in town. Elaine Boldt’s sister asked me to see if I could locate her and I wondered if I might talk to you."
There was a moment of white noise and then a reluctant reply.
"Well, I suppose. I was on my way out, but I guess ten minutes won’t hurt. I’m on the ground floor. Come through the door to the right of the elevator and it’s down at the end of the hall to the left." The buzzer sounded and I pushed through the glass doors.
Tillie Ahlberg had left her front door ajar while she collected a lightweight jacket, her purse, and a collapsible shopping cart that rested against the hall table. I tapped on the doorframe and she appeared from my left. I caught a glimpse of a refrigerator and a portion of kitchen counter.
Tillie Ahlberg was probably in her sixties, with apricot-tinted hair in a permanent wave that looked as if it had just been done. The curl must have been a little frizzier than she liked because she was pulling on a crocheted cotton cap. An unruly fringe of apricot hair was still peeking out, like Ronald McDonald’s, and she was in the process of tucking it away. Her eyes were hazel and there was a powdery patina of pale ginger freckles on her face. She wore a shapeless skirt, hose, and running shoes, and she looked like she was capable of covering ground when she wanted to.
"I hope I didn’t seem unsociable," she said comfortably. "But if I don’t get to the market first thing in the morning, I lose heart."
"It shouldn’t take long anyway," I said. "Can you tell me when you last heard from Mrs. Boldt? Is she Miss or Mrs.?"
"Mrs. She’s a widow, though she’s only forty-three years old. She was married to a man who had a string of manufacturing plants down south. As I understand it, he dropped dead of a heart attack three years ago and left her a bundle. That’s when she bought this place. Here, have a seat if you like."
Tillie moved off to the right, leading the way into a living room furnished with antique reproductions. A gauzy golden light came through the pale yellow sheers and I could still smell the remnants of breakfast: bacon and coffee and something laced with cinnamon.
Having established that she was in a hurry, she seemed ready to give me as much time as I wanted. She sat down on an ottoman and I took a wooden rocking chair.
"I understand she’s usually in Florida this time of year," I said.
"Well, yes. She’s got another condominium down there. In Boca Raton, wherever that is. Near Fort Lauderdale, I guess. I’ve never been to Florida myself, so these towns are all just names to me. Anyhow, she usually goes down around the first of February and comes back to California late July or early August. She likes the heat, she says."
"And you forward mail to her while she’s gone?"
Tillie nodded. "I do that about once a week in batches, depending on how much has accumulated. Then she sends me back a note every couple of weeks. A postcard, you know, just to say hi and how the weather is and if she needs someone let in to clean the drapes or something of that nature. This year she wrote me through the first of March and since then I haven’t heard a word. Now, that’s not like her a bit."
"Do you still have the postcards by any chance?"
"No, I just threw ’em out like I always do. I’m not much for collecting things like that. There’s too much paper piling up in the world if you ask me. I read ’em and tossed ’em and never thought a thing of it."
"She didn’t mention taking a side trip or anything like that?"
"Not a word. Of course, it’s none of my business in the first place."
"Did she seem distressed?"
Tillie smiled ruefully. "Well, it’s hard to seem upset on the message side of a postcard, you know. There isn’t but that much room. She sounded fine to me."
"Do you have any guesses about where she might be?"
"Not a one. All I know is it’s not like her not to write. I tried calling four or five times. Once some woman friend of hers answered but she was real abrupt and after that, there wasn’t anything at all."
"Who was the friend? Anyone you knew?"
"No, but now I don’t know who she knows in Boca. It could have been anyone. I didn’t make a note of the name and wouldn’t know it if you said it to me right this minute."
"What about the mail she’s been getting? Are her bills still coming in?"
She shrugged at that. "It looks that way to me. I haven’t paid much attention. I just shipped on whatever came in. I do have a few I was about to forward if you’d like to see them." She got up and crossed to an oak secretary, opening one of the glass doors by turning the key in the lock. She took out a short stack of envelopes and sorted through them, then handed them to me. "This is the kind of thing she usually gets."
I did the same quick sorting job. Visa, MasterCard, Saks Fifth Avenue. A furrier named Jacques with an ad-dress in Boca Raton. A bill from a John Pickett, D.D.S., Inc., right around the corner on Arbol. No personal letters at all.
"Does she pay utility bills from here too?" I asked.
"I already sent those this month."
"Could she have been arrested?"
That sparked a laugh. "Oh no. Not her. She wasn’t anything like that. She didn’t drive a car, you know, but she wasn’t the type to get so much as a jaywalking ticket."
"Accident? Illness? Drink? Drugs?" I felt like a doctor interviewing a patient for an annual physical.
Tillie’s expression was skeptical. "She could be in the hospital I suppose, but surely she would have let us know. I find it very peculiar to tell you the truth. If that sister of hers hadn’t come along, I might have gotten in touch with the police myself. There’s just something not right."
"But there are lots of explanations for where she might be," I said. "She’s an adult. Apparently she’s got money and no pressing business. She really doesn’t have to notify anybody of her whereabouts if she doesn’t want to. She might be on a cruise. Or maybe she’s taken a lover and absconded with him. Maybe she and this girl friend of hers took off on a toot. It might never occur to her that anyone was trying to get in touch."
"That’s why I haven’t really done anything so far, but it doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t think she’d leave without a word to anyone."
"Well, let me look into it. I don’t want to hold you up right now, but I’ll want to see her apartment at some point," I said. I got up and Tillie rose automatically. I shook her hand and thanked her for her help.
"Hang on to the mail for the time being, if you would," I said. "I’m going to chase down some other possibilities, but I’ll get back to you in a day or two and let you know what I’ve come up with. I don’t think there’s any reason to worry."
"I hope not," Tillie said. "She’s a wonderful person."
I gave Tillie my card before we parted company. I wasn’t worried yet myself, but my curiosity had been aroused and I was eager to get on with it.
Excerpted from B is For Burglar by Sue Grafton.
Copyright © 1985 by Sue Grafton.
Published in December 2005 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.